Review: A Prophet with Honor

a prophet with honor

A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham StoryWilliam Martin. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018 (Updated edition, originally published in 1991).

Summary: An in-depth biography of the life of Billy Graham, chronicling his evangelistic crusades, shaping influence on evangelicalism, his pivotal role in organizing consultations and training to mobilize world evangelism, and his relationships with presidents and international leaders, as well as his associates, and family members.

It may have begun at a prayer meeting for revival during a Billy Sunday campaign that took place in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1924. The leader of the group, Vernon Patterson, prayed at one point that “out of Charlotte the Lord would raise up someone to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth.” At the time, “Billy Frank” Graham was six years home. Converted as a teenager during a Mordecai Ham revival along with Grady and T.W. Wilson, who would be part of his inner circle, this marked the beginning, first of a fascination with preachers, then his early fumbling efforts, and continued growth, marked particularly by his ability to invite people to come and follow Christ. Vernon Patterson probably never would have imagined how God would answer his audacious prayer

William Martin traces the life of Billy Graham from his beginnings to his last years, ending shortly before his passing in 2018 in his 99th year. One fears, in reading a book like this, encountering either a hatchet job or a hagiography. Martin offers neither, although his deep regard for his subject is evident. He offers us an account of one who was flawed but not false–a prophet worthy of honor. He narrates the theatrics and relentless style of his early years, the gender stereotypes that shaped both his own marriage and those of his daughters, softened only in late life, and his early tendencies to over-reach with publicity, such as his kneeling in prayer for reporters in front of the White House after a meeting with Harry Truman, an unforgivable offense to Truman. We learn of his loving but distant relationship with his children, who were mostly raised by Ruth while Graham was involved in nearly endless travel.

Martin traces his relationships with presidents, from Eisenhower to Trump, and the fine line between being “America’s pastor” to being used, or sometimes intentionally giving political support to political figures, most notably Richard Nixon. Many have suggested Graham learned his lesson with Nixon to, in Nixon’s own words, “stay out of politics.” At times his presence was admirable, such as when he led the nation in prayer after 9/11 or counseled with the Clintons after the Monica Lewinsky affair. Other times were more questionable such as when he all but explicitly endorsed John McCain and Mitt Romney in their respective campaigns and was captured in a photo-op with candidate Trump, while maintaining that he was non-partisan. Graham was not without awareness of the ways he was being used, but also saw these relationships as a platform for gospel ministry–whether with U.S. or foreign heads of state, including those in the Soviet Union. He established, in constrained terms, a precedent expanded by evangelical pastors, including his son, in the current era, a precedent receiving both approbation and intense criticism within an evangelical community divided by politics.

Yet for Martin, these flaws are over-shone by the honorable accomplishments and character of this man clearly gifted by God. Martin helps us see the deep commitment Graham had to integrity in all his financial dealings and his irreproachability in matters of marital fidelity, modesty of means, and checks to his ego. It was integrity which led to the integration of his crusades, and growing awareness of the need to extend this to crusade planning (although many black leaders would also criticize him for not going further in his criticism of racial injustices). He advocated with, and then for Lyndon Johnson, in the expansion of social programs. Above all, there was his confidence in the Bible as the Word of God (“the Bible says”) that led to his spiritual authority in calling people to publicly “come forward” to follow Christ.

Of course there were his crusades, his systematic methods of preparation, counselor training, and follow-up, his use of technology, his recruitment of an ethnically diverse team of associates and partnership with other evangelists like Korea’s Billy Kim–all multiplying the impact of his own ministry. He helped lead an evangelical movement out of the backwaters of fundamentalism, parting ways with Bob Jones and allying with Carl  Henry to launch Christianity Today. Though not a theologian, he played important roles in the founding of Fuller and Gordon-Conwell seminaries, as well as serving for a time as a Bible school president.

It might be that the crowning achievement of his life were the consultations at Berlin and Lausanne that propelled the cause of world evangelism forward, and his training conferences for evangelists from around the world, culminating in Amsterdam 2000. Many wondered who would succeed him. Although formally, his son Franklin did, Martin’s inference was that in reality it was the tens of thousands of evangelists his organization helped train from every part of the world.

This is an updated work, with an additional section chronicling the last years–the passing of those in Graham’s circle, including Ruth, the consolidation of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association under Franklin, the lives, struggles, and ministries of his other children, and Graham’s declining health. One of the high points in this section is Graham’s final crusade in New York City in 2005, marked as were others with many who responded to his message.

This work, while not an “authorized” biography, does reflect the unprecedented access Martin was given to Graham, his family and associates and archives. I appreciate Martin’s willingness to narrate the flaws as well as the remarkable accomplishments of Graham. He reminded me of the ways my own life was marked by Graham’s ministry and the evangelicalism he helped shape.

Martin’s account also leaves me with deep sadness that Graham never quite escaped a partisan engagement with political figures, and one wonders if evangelicalism might have plotted a different course had he given more decisive and principled leadership in this respect. Most prophets in scripture were outsiders to the courts of king, rather than from the assemblage of “court prophets” who typically told kings what they wanted to hear. Nathan, with David, seems one of the few exceptions. Micaiah is another. It is hard to be a prophet with honor within the halls of power, and while in other respects Graham truly was a prophet with honor, in this regard, his life may be a prophecy of warning to others.

Review: Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass.jpg

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of FreedomDavid W. Blight. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018.

Summary: Perhaps the definitive biography of this escaped slave who became one of the most distinguished orators and writers in nineteenth century America as he for abolition and Reconstruction and civil rights for Blacks.

There is no simple way to summarize this magnificent biography of Frederick Douglass. Douglass lived an amazingly full life captured admirably in these 764 pages from his birth, likely conceived by a white plantation owner, to the attempts to break him on Covey’s plantation, his quest to learn to read, and discovery of the power of words, his escape, and rise as an orator and writer, advocating first for abolition using the narrative of his own slavery, and later for full rights of blacks, even after the failed promise of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow. He traveled relentlessly on speaking tours throughout his life, and was walking out the door of his home to speak when he collapsed and died of a heart attack. He wrote prodigiously, editing two newspapers and authoring his autobiography in three successive versions.

We could explore his oratorical greatness. Blight liberally quotes excerpts of his most famous speeches giving us a sense of the power of his rhetoric. We could trace the growing fault line between William Lloyd Garrison and Douglass, who differed on whether abolition would come through moral suasion or violence. We could explore his efforts to launch his own newspaper, struggling along for many years until closure. Blight uncovered editions of previously lost copies that enabled him to render a fuller account of the paper than previous biographers.

His later career reflected the tensions of trying to support Republican efforts at Reconstruction, only to condemn the eventual compromises and erosion of protections under the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments that exposed Blacks to lynching, suppression of voting rights. It exposed him to criticism from younger activists. At one point late in his life, he serves as an honorary representative of Haiti, a country in which Africans had thrown off the yoke of their white French oppressors.

Blight also traces the familial struggles Douglass faced. Wanting a family when he had been stripped of one in childhood, he married Anna, a free woman, who did not share his love of words and the public limelight. She made a household in Rochester that sheltered fugitive slaves, radicals like John Brown, and eventually, her children’s families, as well as Frederick’s sophisticated white women friends Julia Griffiths Crofts, and later Ottilie Assing, who may have been something more to than that to Douglass. Assing even stayed for months at a time. Awkward? Perhaps, but we hear nothing of it from Anna, Awkward and distressing as well were the failures of their children, including his daughter’s husband. Part of the reason for Frederick Douglass’s unremitting lecture tours was the necessity to support this growing brood unable to be self supporting. This was an irony for one who prided himself on his self-sufficiency.

Frederick Douglass was a fighter, from the plantation to the Baltimore docks to the lecture and convention circuit. No one fought more passionately for Black civil rights. He fought until the day he died. The fact that the fight has had to be picked up by Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Dubois, Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama, and still endures makes the case that it is not for lack of fighting and arduous effort that we still seek King’s dream. Rather we need to pay attention to a larger American story of a country that has continued to struggle and fail to live up to its ideal of “liberty and justice for all.” To read this biography of Douglass is both to marvel at the vision and drive and relentless fight for freedom of this man, and to grieve for the generations of compromises and lost opportunities that are the story of this country. It suggests that progress can only occur when Black prophets of freedom like Douglass are joined, generation after generation, by Whites who advocate for the nation’s ideals with the relentlessness of Douglass. Douglass never gave up on the possibility of liberty and justice for all, including his own people. And neither should we.

Review: Jean Vanier

jean vanier

Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man Anne-Sophie Constant. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2019.

Summary: A biography of Jean Vanier, the founder and guide of the L’Arche homes where assistants and cognitively disabled live together in community. 

On May 7, 2019, one of the most remarkable saints of our era went to his eternal rest and reward. Anne-Sophie Constant, who enjoyed extraordinary access to this man, completed earlier in the year her biography of Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche houses for the disabled. She describes a man who lived at peace, and as a truly free man during his life. She writes in introduction:

The story of Jean Vanier is the story of a free man – a man who knew how to become himself, who knew how to free himself from restraints and prejudices; from intellectual, religious, or moral habits; from his epoch; from popular opinion (p. x).

The biography traces his life from childhood. Raised in a devout Catholic home, he learned a life of service from a distinguished father, an amputee survivor of World War I who eventually became the Secretary General of Canada. Vanier enlisted in the Navy after World War II was declared, serving on the H.M.S Vanguard on a royal trip to South Africa, meeting the future Queen Elizabeth. A rising officer, he later experiences a near death experience falling overboard, and loses his fear of death. After the war, he leaves the service, and while living with his parents, when his father was ambassador to France, he meets the future Pope John XXIII and the philosopher Jacques Maritain.

His travels take him to the hospitality houses of Dorothy Day and Friendship House in Harlem, places practicing radical hospitality toward those on society’s margins. Studying philosophy and theology preparing for the priesthood, he joins the Eau Vive (Living Water) community for meditation and prayer, only to find himself in leadership of the community during a conflict-fraught period, then later to a Cistercian abbey. Father Thomas, a professor and friend accepted the chaplaincy of Val Fleuri in Trosley, a facility for cognitively disabled men.

Vanier joined him in Trosley, first helping in the work at Val Fleuri, and then in July of 1964, when he decides to buy a home and invite some intellectually disabled men to live with him. The home was named L’Arche, (The Ark). Knowing little what should be done, he discovers that the greatest need of these men is to know they are loved. Constant writes:

   Jean has a profound intuition of human beings and of their beauty. “They don’t realize that they are so beautiful!” he says. “They are so crushed with guilt and feel very dirty. They don’t have any self-confidence. They do not realize that they are loved. They don’t know how valuable and how precious they are” (p. 75).

They live as a spiritual community and Vanier and his assistants discover that these men minister to them as they form a spiritual community. And so a movement begins.

Constant describes the spread of this movement from one house to an international movement of 150 houses in 80 countries. She also describes a process where Vanier moves from a leader to a guide to a messenger of the gospel for the disabled. As he ages, Constant chronicles Vanier’s ability to let go, to relinquish leadership, even as he represents this movement in the highest circles of the Catholic church.

The biography captures the genius of Vanier’s work:

Jean Vanier does not “take care of” people with intellectual disabilities. He lives with them. He lives with L’Arch members Eric, Doudou, Pauline, and Rene. (p. 111).

Vanier’s freedom is of the man who listens to the voice of Jesus, the voice speaking within him rather than hewing to the pressures and expectations of society. He does not fear making mistakes, and he does make them. He does not fear being with those of seeming low status on the margins. He is one who has died “to the ‘false me’ of our social constructs and fears” (p. 117).

The biography describes the life of someone who first came away to listen to God, and thus was able to hear the call of God to community of the intellectually disabled who were precious to God, and fellow members of Christ’s body, people to be lived with. While not all will be called to the kind of work Vanier did, Constant’s biography offers the hope of the radical freedom that comes as we yield ourselves to the God who bids us to listen to his voice, to walk in his ways, and to extend his love in the world.

________________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Rush

rush.jpg

Rush: Revolution, Madness, and the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding FatherStephen Fried. New York: Crown, 2018.

Summary: A full-length biography of this doctor-founder of the American republic covering his personal life and beliefs, advocacy, war service, and friendships with the Founders, and estrangement from Washington.

He turns up in almost every biography of an American founder or account of the American War of Independence. He played a pivotal role in battle field hygiene, the training of American doctors, and in the field of mental illness. His profile adorns the logo of the American Psychiatric Association. But one has to look hard for accounts of the life of Dr. Benjamin Rush until recently. Even John Adams expressed displeasure that Ben Franklin received far more notice although he believed Benjamin Rush the better man. In the past year, this balance has begun to be redressed. Harlow Giles Unger, who has written on most of the Founders has published a biography on Rush.

A fellow Philadelphian, journalist Stephen Fried, has completed what may be the definitive account of Rush’s life, using a growing archive of Rush’s correspondence and other documents, to give us a many-faceted portrait of one of America’s most distinctive Founders.

He begins with a spirited young boy who lost his father before turning six, lived with an aunt and uncle while attending Reverend Samuel Finley’s school. He graduated from Princeton at fourteen, apprenticed under Dr. John Redman for the next five years, and then went to Edinburgh for medical studies.

On his return, he is offered a chair in Chemistry at the College of Philadelphia, while alienating two of his mentors, John Morgan and William Shippen over credits on publications. With Shippen, this is just the beginning.

He is friends with nearly all the Founders, particularly as their paths crossed in Philadelphia. His welcome and advice to John Adams was critical in winning the support of the other colonies to the resistance that began in Massachusetts. He was highly esteemed by Franklin and succeeded Franklin as chair of the Philosophical Society of which they were both a part. He was a sounding board to Thomas Paine as he composed Common Sense. He is one of the youngest signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Like others, he sets aside personal interests to head a surgical department for the war effort, and confronts horrible battlefield conditions and Dr. Shippen’s mishandling of funds and resources as Surgeon General. His efforts to protest this ultimately fail, but here, as elsewhere, his pen achieves what he otherwise could not in his manual for battle field hygiene, implemented over the next hundred years and saving many lives. The other, and more profound controversy of the war concerned an unsigned letter he sent to Patrick Henry expressing reservations about Washington’s leadership. Henry passed the letter along to Washington, who recognized Rush’s handwriting. Relations were never warm, thereafter. In later years, he expressed both regret for the letter, and admiration for Washington.

The same passion that got him into trouble also made him an effective advocate with many causes. He was a devout believer, but participated in both Presbyterian and Anglican congregations and was an early proponent of religious tolerance. He loved conversation with skeptics like Jefferson while remaining orthodox in his own beliefs (even reciting an Anglican prayer book prayer on his deathbed). He advocated for the rights of blacks and the abolition of slavery (although he owned a slave that he only eventually and quietly emancipated) and helped start the first African church in Philadelphia. He was a proponent of education, founding Dickinson College, and advocated for the education of women. Perhaps most significant, with his appointment to the Philadelphia Hospital, he noticed the poor conditions of those suffering from mental illness, campaigning for separate and more humane treatment facilities. One of the most poignant aspects of this focus was that his eldest son John was one of his patients. He pioneered occupational therapies and treatments for addiction.

As a doctor, Fried’s portrait is of a dedicated, even heroic figure, tragically wedded to the dubious or even harmful methods of his day, notably the bleeding and purging of patients, which may have hastened mortality in a number of cases. His medical treatises often are extended defenses of these measures. Still, he remained in Philadelphia through a horrendous yellow fever epidemic, contracting (and surviving) the disease himself. He was considered one of the leading medical figures of the day, consulting with Lewis and Clark, provisioning them with medicines, including what they reported to be a very effective laxative! His greatest medical contribution may have been the hygiene and sanitation measures he recommended for the military that no doubt reduced the number of deaths from conditions in military camps.

While Rush’s correspondence got him in trouble in the early part of his life, at another point, he was responsible for a reconciliation that led to a most amazing exchange of letters. For a dozen years, Adams and Jefferson had been estranged from each other since the election of 1800. Rush was friends with both. He began by sharing a “dream” with Adams (a common device in their letters) about Adams and Jefferson resuming their friendship. Slowly, he helped the two of them resume correspondence, which eventually swelled to over 280 letters before both died July 4, 1826, fifty years after signing the Declaration of Independence with Rush. Both would outlive Rush, who died either of typhus or tuberculosis in 1813.

Altogether Rush and his wife Julia had thirteen children, a number dying in infancy or youth (not uncommon at this time). Richard, the second born served in both the Madison and Monroe administrations in cabinet positions while James followed in his steps as a physician and became a prominent figure, marrying into wealth.

Fried’s portrayal drew me in by exploring this distinctive man in his greatness and flaws. His youthful ambition and sense of rectitude overpowers his judgment of what is both appropriate and possible. He could be quite prickly in defending his own reputation, especially during the yellow fever epidemic, where his methods, if not his dedication, could be questioned. He shines in his friendships, his advocacy, and his love for his wife. He also seems something of a tragic figure as he watches the dissolution of his eldest son’s sanity, and the hopes that he would follow in his steps. I suspect he wasn’t an easy man to have as a father.

Fried has done us a great service. He has chronicled in full the life of one of the Founders who obviously deserves far more attention than he has received. Instead of being a bit player in the stories of others, we are introduced to Rush on his own terms, and begin to understand why he was in all the other stories. Were it not for him, we would not have the sparkling correspondence between Adams and Jefferson and the humane treatment of the mentally ill. You might say, he was the doctor who assisted at the birth of a nation.

_____________________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this an advanced review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own

Review: The Good Neighbor

the good neighbor

The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred RogersMaxwell King. New York: Abrams Press, 2018.

Summary: The biography of this pioneer in children’s television, the good neighbor in life as well as on screen.

I grew up before Mr. Rogers. My son grew up with him, and I remember coming in when Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was on and I could feel the tensions of the day drain away, and my racing thoughts slow down as I listened to him talk calmly and slowly, feeding his fish, and telling me that “I like you just the way you are.” The only thing I found myself wondering sometimes was “is this guy for real.”

Maxwell King, who knew Rogers for many years through his leadership in several philanthropic organizations in Pittsburgh, makes the point that the Rogers we saw on screen was the Rogers everyone who worked with him or met him encountered. In this first full-length biography on Roger’s life, King traces the course of his life from his privileged childhood in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, to the generous way he ended his life, dying of stomach cancer.

We meet a boy who was overly protected by loving parents until grandparents helped him to begin to spread his wings. His love of music is encouraged, and when he is allowed to choose a piano, he selects a Steinway concert grand that his grandmother purchases, and that followed him through life. The gift of a puppet leads to setting up a puppet theater in the attic of his home. He doesn’t fit in with the athletic culture of his school, but his kindness to the star athlete, who he helps with studies while the athlete was hospitalized, won the attention of his classmates. The morally serious student just doesn’t fit in at Dartmouth, and transfers to the music school at Rollins in Florida. He meets Joanne, the love of his life.

While Joanne completes her studies, Rogers goes to New York, getting a job as an apprentice on NBC, eventually becoming a floor manager under Pat Weaver, working with some of the landmark productions of the early era of television, including the live broadcast of Amahl and the Night Visitors. Along the way, Fred and Joanne marry and buy “The Crooked House” on Nantucket.

What looked like an east coast life was interrupted by an invitation to return to Pittsburgh to work with an educational television station being launched, WQED, to work on a children’s television program. Teaming up with vivacious Josie Carey, The Children’s Corner launches in 1954. King describes the growing distance between spontaneous Carey, the entertainer, and Rogers, already thinking about the development of children and the care needed with every word. They part, the show ends, and Rogers life takes another startling turn.

Fred Rogers enrolls as a student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and as a candidate for Presbyterian ministry. His vision just didn’t fit the mold. He wanted to be a minister to children, on television. Dr. Bill Orr, who claimed that his most important theological word was forgiveness, was Roger’s most significant mentor. It was at this time that he also met child development psychologist, Margaret McFarland, a consultant to Rogers who shaped much of the philosophy of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

After working for a time with the CBC in Toronto, creating Misterogers, where The Neighbor of Make Believe was created, he returned to Pittsburgh in 1968, to launch a half hour version that got Rogers in front of the camera for the first time, and not simply doing puppet segments. The remainder of the book traces the show’s development, it’s path-breaking work dealing with issues like divorce. There is the memorable episode on racial differences  with Francois Clemons, where the two of them, a black man and a white man, cool their feet on a hot summer afternoon, with Rogers drying Clemons feet at the end. Clemons was not only black but also gay, and the two of them reprised this episode in 1993. Clemons describes Rogers standard closing: “You make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are.” As he says this he looks at Francois Clemons, who asks, “Fred were you talking to me?” Rogers replied, “Yes, I have been talking to you for years. But you heard me today.”

There were moments like this throughout the book that caught me up, encountering the power of Rogers’ kindness and care for those he encountered. While he did not talk about his faith on the show, his daily practices of reading scripture and other religious books and praying were a wellspring of his life–along with his daily swims. These reflected the disciplined life he led, maintaining his weight at 143 pounds. King helps us see the perfectionist side of Rogers, who was always so concerned to get it just right for the children. It seems he was blessed with people who accepted that and rose to it, talented musicians, singers like Clemons, and so many more.

Yet we also see how the show centered around Rogers, who wrote nearly all the scripts and all the songs, as well as composing thirteen operas for children. King contrasts the approach of Rogers measured speech with the pace and cognitive focus of Sesame Street, begun about the same time. Rogers clearly differed, but never criticized them publicly.

This is not all hagiography. Rogers struggled with his own sons, particular the younger John, who rebelled, and estranged himself for a time from the family. As the show took off, Rogers found it difficult to be always present with them. Yet both sons also spoke of the fun they had as a family, of a father who was just a normal guy, who perhaps could have been tougher on them. Jim, the elder son concludes, “I think all Dad really ever wanted for John or me was to be happy and pleased with who we are.”

One of the gifts of this book is that King interviewed most of the people still living, who interacted with Rogers. Perhaps one of the most striking was Tom Junod’s account of meeting Rogers. Junod, a hard-hitting writer for Esquire wanted to write a piece on Rogers and contacted him. It turns out, Rogers was in Manhattan, and without vetting, invites Junod to his apartment, meeting him in a flimsy old bathrobe. Rogers was wealthy, through his family, but utterly unpretentious.

Most of all we see how children loved him. He totally sidetracked an Oprah show talking to children. A letter from one wheelchair-bound Wisconsin boy from Madison, Jeff Erlanger, whose “make a wish” was to meet Rogers, led to a breakfast in Milwaukee, continuing correspondence and an eventual appearance on the show. But not only children loved him.

“One of Fred Rogers’s most loyal fans was Koko, a famously communicative gorilla who appeared on the Neighborhood in 1998. Since Koko had been a faithful viewer of Rogers’s program for years, Fred visited her at the Gorilla Foundation in Redwood City, California, in his sweater and sneakers. When she saw him, Koko immediately folded him in her long, black arms, as though he were a child, and took off his shoes. Then they conversed in American Sign Language, shared a hug, and took pictures of each other.”

King’s book, and this story in particular, suggests to me that Rogers was a modern St. Francis. He came from wealth, and yet lived simply. He pursued a calling, a ministry with a singleness of vision that seemed strange to some at times, and yet had its own peculiar power to form the character and self-worth of children. He sang and spoke through puppets, fed fish, and met us on screen in homely cardigans. To read about him is to be elevated, and to ask oneself, “am I a good neighbor?”

Review: Paul

Paul

Paul: A Biography, N. T. Wright. New York: Harper One, 2018.

Summary: Wright translates his scholarship that gives a “new account” of Paul’s life into a popular biography, tracing the life and thought of the apostle through the letters he wrote and narrative of his journeys.

Over the last thirty years, perhaps no one has written more on the life and thought of the Apostle Paul than N. T. Wright, most notably his two volume Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Wright is associated with what is called “the New Perspective” on Paul. What he has done in this volume is distill his scholarship into a highly readable account of the life and thought of this apostle. Reading this, you will see some of the ways Wright casts the life of Paul in new perspective.

We see this in his portrayal of Paul’s Damascus road experience. He imagines Paul possibly reflecting on the vision of Ezekiel, perhaps praying the Shema, when suddenly he gazes upward…into the face of Jesus, whose followers he has been persecuting. Wright challenges us to see that this was not a conversion to a new religion, but the shattering and transforming realization that Jesus was the fulfillment of the scriptures Paul had studied so long–that he “had been absolutely right in his devotion to Israel and the Torah, but absolutely wrong in his view of Israel’s vocation and identity and even in the meaning of the Torah.”

He then traces the travels of Paul from the formative years in the wilderness and Tarsus where he rethought everything in the light of Christ, and then his successive journeys taking the message of Christ into Asia Minor, then later into Europe in Philippi, Athens, and Corinth. In the Galatian controversy with Peter and his subsequent letter, we catch the first glimpse of Paul’s transformed vision, where he sees both Jew and Gentile incorporated and included into a new people enjoying the blessing of Abraham’s faith. It is this that explains his methodology of teaching in synagogues, and then to Gentiles who will hear him and seeking to form new communities made up of those who give allegiance to Christ, and share table fellowship.

The biography offers some of Wright’s distinctive judgments on matters scholars have debated, southern versus northern theories of Galatians (he opts for south), and the origin of the prison letters, neither from Caesarea or Rome, but during an imprisonment in the latter part of his time in Ephesus. Wright explores this as a nadir of Paul’s ministry, both in the experience of prison, but also in the receipt of disturbing news from Corinth from those questioning his reputation. He proposes that this accounts for the somewhat disjointed style of 2 Corinthians, written after his release. He also believes that after writing this, he penned his magnum opus to the Romans, spelling out to a church where tensions existed separating Jew and Gentile, the purpose of God to include Gentiles with Jews as heirs of the promise of the covenant to make one new people.

Throughout, Wright explores the character of this apostle, who he describes as “bossy” on the voyage to Rome, and often troublesome in jumping into the fray. Paul did not let sleeping dogs lie. But Wright also argues, that like many “angular” entrepreneurs, it was these very qualities that, on a human level accounted for the success of this apostle in establishing these new communities across the Roman empire.

The work was a delight to read on many levels, as a reflection on the career of Paul and as an exploration of the relationship of Jesus and the hope of Israel revealed in Torah and the prophets. I savored his insights into each of Paul’s letters, and the vision of the church Paul articulated, that would sustain a movement long after his martyrdom, even as it continues to do so to this day.

Paul has often been maligned as a misogynist, as a heretic from his Jewish origins, and more. For others, we read him through Reformation glasses. Wright may or may not convince you otherwise, but this marvelous distillation of his scholarship will make you both think about, and hopefully rejoice in, what this apostle accomplished. And perhaps it will help you read his letters with new eyes.

Review: Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth WarrenAntonia Felix. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2018

Summary: A biography of the Democrat U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, from the financial struggles of her family, her academic life and the research that changed her life, and her work protecting consumers that led to her Senate run.

“She persisted.” These words became a rallying cry when Elizabeth Warren attempted to read a letter from Coretta Scott King during the confirmation hearings of Jeff Session to the cabinet office of Attorney General. The letter spoke to Mrs. King’s contention that Sessions, as a federal judge had taken actions that chilled the exercise of voting rights by black citizens. She was interrupted once, warned of impugning the character of a fellow senator. The second time, Mitch McConnell stopped her, and she was forced to take her seat after the Republican dominated Senate voted to silence her. He said, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” And she did. Banned from speaking in the Senate, she read the letter on a live Facebook video.

This was just the latest instance of a persistence born of a commitment to advocate for those our system often overlooks. It began, according to Antonia Felix, in Oklahoma, and her own family’s struggles to make ends meet. She watched her mother go to work save their home when her father had a heart attack. She had a passion to teach when becoming a homemaker was society’s vision for women and struggled in her early years between these two visions. A love of debate led to a scholarship to George Washington University. Her love for Jim Warren, high school sweetheart, led to a move to Texas, and completion of her degree at the University of Houston in speech pathology. A teaching job ended when she became pregnant. Struggling with the life of a stay at home mom after a move to New Jersey following her husband’s job, she enrolled in Rutgers Law School, which she described as “an advanced degree in thinking.” Completing law school, she and Jim moved back to Houston, with a second child, a son.

An offer to teach the legal writing at the University of Houston Law Center launched her career–and led to the end of her first marriage, as conflicts between her and Jim made it clear they had different marriage and life visions. She met her current husband, Bruce, at Houston. The biography goes on to trace her legal career as she moved to Texas, Penn, and eventually Harvard.

More significant, and especially for someone like myself who works with academics, Warren was transformed by her research. When she began her legal career, she was influenced by a law and economics course taught by Henry Manne in a program funded by the conservative John M. Olin Foundation, essentially a right wing group. One of her research interests was bankruptcy, particularly in a period when bankruptcy laws had made debt relief more accessible to financially troubled families. There were many advocating for tougher laws, contending that people were gaming the system and irresponsible. She ended up studying thousands of bankruptcy cases and came to a very different conclusion that contradicted her right wing leanings. She discovered lending and credit card practices that created debt loads that pressed families to limits at which a job loss or illness would push them over the edge. Terms buried in credit card agreements and sub-prime loans for those qualifying for better terms were the most outstanding examples.

It transformed her into an advocate for consumers and led to her helping set up, under the Obama administration, the Consumer Financial Protection Agency. In a landmark journal article (reprinted in the book) Warren argued,

“It is impossible to buy a toaster that has a one-in-five chance of bursting into flames and burning down your house. But it is possible to refinance an existing home with a mortgage that has the same one-in-five chance of putting the family out on the street–and the mortgage won’t even carry a disclosure of that fact to the homeowner. Similarly, it’s impossible to change the price on a toaster once it has been purchased. But long after the papers have been signed, it is possible to triple the price of the credit used to finance the purchase of that appliance, even if the customer meets all the credit terms, in full and on time.”

Bank failures and the sins of Wall Street in 2008 made her a fierce advocate for regulatory reform and finally convinced her to run for the Senate seat in Massachusetts in 2012. Opposition to efforts to roll back reforms made during the Obama years has made her a visible object for attack, including her claims of Indian heritage. The book includes the transcript of an address to Native Americans where she addresses this.

Warren is up for re-election this year, and has acknowledged that she is giving serious consideration to a run for the presidency in 2020. This book does have something of the feel of a campaign piece, introducing the wider public to Warren, addressing criticisms without making new ones. But it also did reveal something extraordinary that impressed me. Here was an academic whose research changed her mind and compelled her to act on what she found. She didn’t remain a “one dimensional scholar” remaining detached from her findings. She moved to work in government to apply those findings in ways that made life better for the people she studied. She cared more about truth than ideology, and allowed evidence to change her mind, and then showed the courage of her convictions over and over in advocacy. She persisted.

____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advance reader copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo

Leonardo da Vinci, Walter Isaacson. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018.

Summary: A biography of da Vinci, from his illegitimate birth, his life long quest for patrons, his insatiable curiosity, his various artworks, and the notebooks, in which are revealed so much of the genius of da Vinci.

This is a magnificent biography in every way. Isaacson delves deeply into the life, the notebooks, the travels, and the works of art of da Vinci and renders an account of the peculiar, dazzling, and flawed genius of Leonardo. This is a book you need to read in print. It is a heavy book because it is printed on high quality paper with ample, full-color Figures rendering the notebooks and artworks of Leonardo. A full-color timeline at the front of the book highlights the works of Leonardo, and the key events of and during his life.

A theme that runs through this book is the insatiable and child-like curiosity of Leonardo, who wonders why the sky is blue (and arrived at a basically accurate explanation of this phenomenon) and wanted to describe the tongue of the woodpecker. He was fascinated with optics, from how the eye works to how light was refracted, and why distant objects appear different in color and distinctness from those closer up. He was an innovator in applying these insights in his use of perspective of his paintings. He did pioneering studies of human anatomy that, if published, would have advanced the understanding of anatomy a hundred years earlier. His fascination with hydraulics resulted in an accurate explanation of the closure of the heart’s aortic valve. His notebooks contain speculations questioning a geocentric universe in advance of Copernicus.

Leonardo was an observer. He not only was curious about everything, but he closely studied the objects of his interest, whether it was the play of light on his subjects, the proportions of the human body, consummately illustrated in his Vitruvian Man, the movements of the wings of a dragonfly, the contractions of the leg muscles of a horse, or the way water flowed in a river. Isaacson notes: “Here’s a test. All of us have looked at birds in flight, but have you ever stopped to look closely enough to see whether a bird moves its wing upward at the same speed as it flaps it down? Leonardo did….”

Leonardo had the ability to draw upon everything he knew with anything he did. This was one of the things that made him such a fascinating subject for Isaacson, who writes, “I embarked on this book because Leonardo da Vinci is the ultimate example of the main theme of my previous biographies: how the ability to make connections across disciplines-arts and sciences, humanities and technology-is a key to innovation, imagination, and genius.” His study of light and optics shows up in his use of sfumato in painting, where objects are not defined by hard lines, but gradual shadings of tones into one another. He sees analogs between root and branch systems in plants and the human circulatory system. His anatomical studies culminate in the mysterious smile of Mona Lisa and his anatomical drawings are themselves works of art.

Isaacson also traces the peculiar genius of Leonardo, who conceives of giant cross bows, flying machines, and engineering projects, all of which are never executed. He was a path-breaking scientist who never published the results of his studies. Thankfully, even after 500 years, we still have 7200 pages of his notebooks. A number of his paintings were never “finished” and even Mona Lisa was still in his studio when he died. He abandoned commissions that he never finished. He experimented with techniques of mural painting that were spectacular failures and have challenged preservation efforts ever since.

Isaacson candidly discusses Leonardo’s personal life without becoming lurid. He covers his illegitimacy, his ambivalent relationship with his father, and his homosexuality, including his relationship with his apprentice, Salai. He traces his lifelong quest for patrons, courting the various powerful families of Florence and Milan, and ending with King Francis I of France, who, legend has it, cradled the head of Leonardo in his death throes (a legend that has been questioned).

The author concludes with lessons from Leonardo’s life, some that run through this review. Even if you don’t buy this book, I would encourage you to peruse these. The front cover jacket copy refers to Leonardo as “history’s most creative genius.” Isaacson’s biography makes that case, and does so with exquisite writing, typography and graphic design. This one’s a keeper!

The Billy Graham Century

Duisburg, Veranstaltung mit Billy Graham

Billy Graham in Duisburg, Germany, 1954.  Bundesarchiv, Bild 194-0798-29/Lachmann, Hans/CC-BY_SA 3.0

Publishers Weekly story called to my attention that this is Billy Graham’s centennial year. If his health holds, he will turn 100 on November 7, 2018. The article noted that there are new or updated books that will be released this year by scholars William Martin and Grant Wacker and more popular books by his grandson William and former Graham associate Lon Allison. Edit Blumhofer is working on a book on Graham’s use of gospel music at his crusades, and Ann Blue Wills will publish a work on the life of Ruth Bell Graham titled An Odd Cross to Bear. Martin’s book apparently will also explore the impact of Graham’s son Franklin on his legacy.

At a time when many are questioning whether evangelicalism has a future, or whether to identify as an evangelical, it is oddly fitting and paradoxical that this attention is being given to the figure who as much as anyone defined American evangelicalism. His educational journey traced his journey from fundamentalism to the beginnings of evangelicalism, leaving Bob Jones University after a year because of its legalism to attend Florida Bible Institute and then finishing his education at Wheaton College. He started out as an evangelist with high school ministry Youth for Christ and launched his first “crusade” in Los Angeles, gaining national attention due to William Randolph Hearst’s decision to “puff Graham.”

His crusades reached across denominational lines, drawing criticism from fundamentalists. He pioneered use of media with his Hour of Decision radio broadcasts (to which I listened growing up) and with his television broadcasts of crusades. He helped found Christianity Today, the flagship publication of evangelicalism. He de-segregated seating at his crusades and included black leadership in his crusades as early as 1957. Joining with British preacher John R. W. Stott, they worked together to host the 1974 International Conference on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland, propelling global efforts from every nation to every nation to advance the Christian message, making evangelicalism a global movement.

For better or worse, his close relationship with American presidents also established a pattern of engagement between evangelicals and politicians. It was clear in later years that he felt betrayed by Richard Nixon’s behavior in Watergate, including his profanity. They reconciled in later years. He spent extended times in Lyndon Johnson’s White House and prayed with every president from Truman to Obama. This was remarkable in a way after the rise of the Religious Right. It will be interesting to see the judgment of history on his involvement with Presidents.

Graham’s ministry had a shaping influence on my own life. His Hour of Decision broadcasts that we listened to every Sunday night during my childhood made it clear that there was a decision to be made about Christ, and that this was the most consequential decision in one’s life. While I did not “go forward” at one of his crusades, having made my “decision” at a Vacation Bible School at age 10, I saw him speak on seven occasions. The first was at the 1970 crusade in Cleveland at the old Cleveland Stadium, with a busload of kids from our church. On five occasions I heard him speak at InterVarsity’s Urbana Missions Conventions in 1976, 1979, 1981, 1984, and 1987. (Altogether, he spoke here on nine occasions. Here is a short video clip from his 1961 message). The last time I heard him speak was at the old Cooper Stadium in Columbus in 1993. I still have a poster from that in my office. When his associate evangelist Leighton Ford spoke in Youngstown, in the 1970’s, I was a counselor and the training they offered helped me in leading others to faith.

He continued to minister to my family even in retirement. My mother passed in 2010. My father was struggling with the loss and how to make sense of what was left of his life. In 2011, Graham published Nearing Home: Life, Faith, and Finishing Well. My dad always had deeply respected Graham and he read the book over and over again and spoke of how much it helped him. My dad finished his own race in 2012 and Graham’s book helped him in his last couple years to finish well.

It remains to be seen the course the movement he nurtured will take in coming years. Historians and religious scholars will no doubt have differing opinions on his personal influence on that movement, and I suspect not all will be favorable. It’s the lot of the best of us to both hit our limits and prove our fallibility. Perhaps all any of us can do is to be found faithful in our callings. By this standard, Graham is finishing out his century well. Not too long ago, commenting on his Parkinson’s disease, he said,

“Someone asked me recently if I didn’t think God was unfair, allowing me to have Parkinson’s and other medical problems when I have tried to serve him faithfully. I replied that I did not see it that way at all. Suffering is part of the human condition, and it comes to us all. The key is how we react to it, either turning away from God in anger and bitterness or growing closer to him in trust and confidence.” (Source: 40 Courageous Quotes From Billy Graham)

Personally, while recognizing aspects of his life that might be criticized, at the end of the day, I find myself saying, “thanks be to God for Billy Graham.” I suspect for him, though, the only praise that matters is the Master’s “well done, good and faithful servant.”

Update 2/21/2018: Little did I think five days ago when I published this post that we would be saying farewell to Billy Graham so soon. This morning, Billy Graham discovered the truth of the hope he preached for over 50 years and heard his Master’s “well done” as he passed through death to life everlasting.

 

 

 

Review: Hero of the Empire

Hero of the Empire

Hero of the Empire, Candice Millard. New York: Doubleday, 2016.

Summary: The history of Winston Churchill’s involvement in the Boer War as a correspondent, his capture, imprisonment and dangerous escape–events that brought Churchill to national attention.

“Crouching in darkness outside the prison fence in wartime southern Africa, Winston Churchill could still hear the voices of the guards on the other side. Seizing his chance an hour earlier, the twenty-five-year-old had scaled the high, corrugated-iron paling that enclosed the prison yard. But now he was trapped in a new dilemma. He could not remain where he was. At any moment, he could be discov­ered and shot by the guards or by the soldiers who patrolled the dark, surrounding streets of Pretoria, the capital of the enemy Boer repub­lic. Yet neither could he run. His hopes for survival depended on two other prisoners, who were still inside the wall. In the long minutes since he had dropped down into the darkness, they had not appeared” (p. 1).

Candice Millard opens her narrative of Churchill’s Boer War experience with this vivid account of Churchill’s escape from the Boer prison at the Staats Model School. The two other prisoners were unable to follow. With nothing more than a biscuit and a few pieces of chocolate and unarmed, Churchill had to elude capture on a nearly 300 mile journey to Lourenco Marques, Portuguese territory.

Even today, Churchill is known as the Prime Minister who led Britain resolutely through World War 2. We know him as a prolific writer, a gifted amateur painter, and for his sobering speech in Fulton, Missouri about the iron curtain that had descended across Europe. Lesser known were the early events in the life of an ambitious Churchill that propelled him into national awareness and a seat as a member of the House of Commons, setting him on a long, winding course, with many setbacks, to his pivotal role in World War 2.

Millard traces the life of this young man, son of Randolph Churchill, who was a meteor across the political firmament that burned out quickly. He was also the son of Jennie Jerome, a “panther” who would remarry to a man Churchill’s age, but also able to exercise formidable influence to advance her son’s cause, though not formidable enough in his first run for office. He concludes only war experience, with honors, could do that. Previous tours in India and the Sudan resulted only in a memoir, The River War, that served to infuriate some members of the militarily establishment. Conveniently the Boers had declared their independence from their British overlords, and the mighty empire set about to put down this rebellion. Churchill, unable to get a military appointment, goes as a highly compensated member of the press.

Arriving in South Africa, he learns that the war will be no cakewalk. The Boers, eventually led by Louis Botha, are formidable fighters who could strike swiftly, ruthlessly, and then vanish into thin air. Churchill, always willing to risk himself to get the story finds himself on an armored train that was part of efforts to relieve the British defenders of Ladysmith. Instead, the train is attacked. On his own initiative, Churchill led the effort to rescue the train, including directing efforts to move derailed cars so the engine was able to make it back to friendly lines. Churchill was left behind and taken prisoner.

The remainder of the work recounts Churchill’s seizure and imprisonment, and subsequent escape. Plotting with several officers, he is first over the iron paling, impatient to launch the escape. Incredibly, a combination of hopping a train and hiking on foot and hiding in the veld brings him at last to the one man in that whole area who could help, unbeknownst to him when he approached the house of mine manager John Howard, one of the few British allowed to remain because of his indispensable role of running the mine at Delago Bay. After hiding him for a time in the mine, and in a secret part of his office, he secrets him into a shipment of wool to Lourenco Marques, Portuguese territory with a British embassy. Despite searches combing the country, Churchill makes it, becomes a hero, and then gains a military appointment and is among the troops liberating his former fellow prisoners.

Any who follow my reviews know I’m a fan of Churchill, and also the work of Candice Millard, whose previous works Destiny of the Republic (review) and The River of Doubt (review), I thoroughly loved. Millard has a way of ferreting out lesser known events in the lives of great personages, whether it was the medical malpractice and the crazed assassin behind the death of James A. Garfield, or Teddy Roosevelt’s perilous journey down an unexplored South American river, from which he nearly died. Those focused on events toward the end of her subject’s lives. This book reveals the rise of a young man, through an improbable escape and subsequent military exploits, and his reports of them that set him on the path of greatness.

This was a book that made me wonder about a word Millard has used elsewhere — destiny. Yes, we have Churchill himself, never in doubt that he was destined for great things but merely impatient to get there. But the other side of destiny is that he survived at all. In one battle, he rides into the middle of the fray on a white horse, men dying all around him, as well as the horse under him. Again and again, in the train attack, and subsequently in battle, he emerged unscathed, and not for the last time. That Churchill made it to freedom, even that he sought help in the one place that would give it to him makes one wonder at the Providence that watched over this man and brought him to prominence in Britain’s darkest hour.