Review: J. I. Packer: His Life and Thought

J. I. Packer: His Life and Thought, Alister McGrath. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: An account of the theologian’s faith, life, and theological engagement.

J. I. Packer was one of my personal theological heroes. His impact on my life came primarily through the book Knowing God, which I read during my student days. As a young Christian, I discovered that the chief end of our lives as well as the work of theology is that we know, love, and glorify God, and not just know about him. The first time through, I read a few pages at a time, stopped, reflected, and prayed in wonder at the greatness, majesty, holiness, and love of God. It is one of those books I’ve re-read several times. I only heard Packer speak once, giving a series of lectures on revival in Ann Arbor, contrasting Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney, along with an exposition of Psalm 85 as a prayer for revival. The talks were marked by precision of thought and warmth of devotion.

Reading this account of the life and thought of Packer by Alister McGrath, I came to understand that the qualities I appreciated in his lectures and his books reflected his central passion for theological education and catechesis for the good of the church. McGrath traces this thread through his books and thought and his career first in Bristol, then Oxford, then briefly again at Bristol, and finally at Regent in Canada. In fact, McGrath alternates chapters on his life with ones on aspects of his theological work.

He recounts Packer’s early life, his spiritual awakening and early embrace of the theology of the fathers and their ancient wisdom. He describes the relationship with D. Martyn Lloyd Jones and the development of the Puritan Studies Conferences, and their later falling out. At Tyndale Hall in Bristol, Packer comes into his own as a “theological educationalist.” This period marked Packer’s early efforts in publishing, centered around the editorial work on the first edition of The New Bible Dictionary and his first book on Fundamentalism and the Word of God. McGrath includes marvelous material here on how Packer’s devotional life fed both his pastoral and theological work.

Packer’s return to Oxford in the 1960’s as Warden of Latimer House came at a time of ferment within Anglican evangelicalism. McGrath features Packer’s marvelous reply to Bishop Robinson’s Honest to God, the crisis in 1966 with Lloyd Jones leading to the cooling of their relationship and the Keele conference of 1967 defining an evangelical presence within Anglicanism. A key focus in Packer’s thought is theology for the life of the church. After this conference, Packer became convinced that it was time to move on from Latimer. He returned to take up the leadership of Tyndale Hall in a time of crisis leading to a merger creating Trinity College, with him no longer as principal. Time for writing led to a series of articles that became Knowing God.

One of the personal highlights of McGrath’s account was reading about James Sire’s visit with Packer and offer to acquire the U.S. rights of the book for InterVarsity Press, through which the book came into the hands of this young college student and many others becoming one of IVP’s all-time best selling works. By the 1977 Nottingham Conference, however, it became apparent that Packer was increasingly out of step with the younger evangelicals in England. This opened the door to Canada, and Regent College, and the opportunities for Packer to more fully pursue his ideas of theological education for the church, which he did as faculty and in retirement until his death in 2020.

One of the fascinating aspects developed by McGrath is Packer’s conservatism with an irenic streak. Packer was committed to the idea “test everything; hold onto the good.” He believe the good traditions of the past could deliver us from the idiosyncrasies of the present, all under the authority of the Bible. Hence his emphasis on the Reformers and Puritan studies. This put him at variance with others, particularly at two points: the ministry of women and his views of eternal punishment. Yet he also join the Evangelicals and Catholics Together initiative, finding the places of common ground while delineating theological difference with clarity. It strikes me you needed someone like Packer to do this to avoid making a theological hash of the whole affair.

McGrath has given us a wonderful summary of the life and thought of Packer. Indeed, we see how what Packer thought shaped how he lived. Packer believed in theological education as not merely an academic exercise but as existing for the strengthening of the church in the knowledge of God. McGrath helps us see how the whole trajectory of Packer’s life was shaped by these commitments. It also leaves me two questions to ponder. One is, amid a changing world, what must be conserved? The second is, amid the powerful and competing influences of our culture, how might we carry forward Packer’s commitment to catechesis, the formation of Christians in thought, word, and deed?


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

Review: Finding the Dragon Lady

Finding the Dragon Lady, Monique Brinson Demery. New York: Public Affair, 2013.

Summary: A biography of Madame Nhu, part of the ruling family in Vietnam (1954-1963) based on the author’s personal interactions with Madame Nhu before her death, allowing her to obtain memoirs and a diary of her life.

She grew up in a distinguished Vietnamese family in Hanoi under the French, receiving the typical French education, with the expectation of being married off into another distinguished family. At nineteen Tran Le Xuan married Ngo Dinh Nhu, in the middle of World War 2 as the Vichy French enjoyed an uneasy relationship with the Japanese. At the end of the war, the French assumption that they could resume control of the colony was upset by nationalist forces under Ho Chi Min and the Viet Minh. Madame Nhu engages in a harrowing flight with her children, only reunited with her husband later. They take refuge in the mountain retreat of Dalat while war goes on between France and the Viet Minh. The French lose a decisive battle at Dien Bien Phu, resulting in a division of the country into north and south with Madame Nhu’s brother-in-law Ngo Dinh Diem heading the government with her husband as his right hand man.

At first it seems the model family, buttressed by Diem’s austere integrity. Madame Nhu raises children and leads efforts to help women while the men run the country. Increasingly as dissatisfaction arises and Communist insurgency by the Viet Cong grows, Madame Nhu asserts herself increasingly at points where the two men waver, sometimes courageously against opposition. She becomes known as the Dragon Lady, not to be crossed. When Buddhists use self-immolation to protest government restrictions on their religious freedom, she tells those threatening to go ahead and she would bring the matches. Her efforts to strengthen the government lead to the disaffection of the people, and confounds the US Kennedy administration, now committed to the success of the Republic of South Vietnam. Increasingly the conviction is that the Diem government must go, and the Kennedys and ambassador Lodge conspire for a coup to bring down the government, succeeding at the end of October 1963 when Nhu and Diem both are killed. Madame Nhu, touring the US to drum up support for the government escapes death to live in exile for the rest of her life.

One may find much of this in any history. The unusual element of this book is Monique Brinson Demery’s narrative of her attempts, beginning in 2005, to connect with Madame Nhu to hear her side of the story. After numerous efforts received no response, she got a call one day laying down strict conditions. Then more calls in which Madame Nhu tested her to see if she could be trusted. There were invitations to meet. Madame Nhu never showed up. Meanwhile the author obtained a diary in Madame Nhu’s hand from a serviceman, filling in more of her personal narrative and leading to more questions. Madame Nhu dangled a manuscript of a memoir in front of her in exchange for more favors and more strict conditions. Finally she obtains it, a manuscript in very unfinished form that she must publish as is.

In 2011 Madame Nhu died. The author didn’t publish the manuscript but instead this book of her search for and interactions with Madame Nhu, interleaved with a biography of her life, informed by research and the new materials in Madame Nhu’s hand she received. What emerges is a portrait of a woman in an unhappy marriage longing for so much more who eventually finds it in the cause of the Diem government. We see a mother who loves her children, who acts with courage, but also with ruthlessness, and who pushes the boundaries of what women could do in her society. One also has the sense of a family increasingly isolated from the aspirations of the people, confounding American support, and yet also the first step into the developing American tragedy that was Vietnam. Like Iraq, they were eliminated with no replacement in sight, resulting in a series of weak governments, a growing American involvement propping up that government and the fall of the south to the Communists in 1975.

Demery offers a concise retelling of this tragic history through Madame Nhu’s eyes while remaining objective and able to see her faults, faults that contributed to her family’s downfall and the unraveling of the country. Even in her old age, in her interactions with Demery, we see a woman who uses manipulation to try to tell her story her way, against the grain of reality. She tells the story of a woman alone, fighting to the end to validate her life as meaningful.

Review: Bavinck: A Critical Biography

Bavinck: A Critical Biography, James Eglinton. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020.

Summary: A biography tracing the origins, significant life events and theological scholarship of Dutch neo-Calvinist theologian Herman Bavinck.

Interest has grown in recent years in the life and work of Herman Bavinck. In 2008, the four volumes of his Reformed Dogmatics, published in Dutch in 1905 was finally published in English translation. It became more widely apparent that Bavinck was one of the most significant theological minds of the 20th century. The arrival of James Eglinton’s Bavinck: A Critical Biography only enhances our understanding of this key theological figure.

Eglinton begins with Bavinck’s family of origin, so significant in the shape of his career and thought. His father, Jan, was part of the group of those who seceded from the Dutch Reformed Church in 1834, pastoring a seceding churches, facing the opprobrium of the first generation, and preceding Herman in teaching at the Theological School at Kampen.

Yet in the education of Herman, his parents avoided the parochial bubble, a temptation with a group seceding to affirm doctrinal orthodoxy. It began in sending Herman to the gymnasium at Zwolle. Then after a year at Kampen, Herman got permission to study at the much more “modern” Leiden. It reflected an early sense on the part of Herman of wanting to preach and teach a neo-Calvinism at once orthodox and engaging the modern and scientific currents in the wider society. He completed in 1880 his thesis under two of Leiden’s leading lights, Scholten and Kuenen, although still formally recognized as a student at Kampen. Many cast aspersions on Bavinck’s bona fides yet he passed his ordination exams and received a call to a large congregation in Franeker that grew during his year as pastor.

A year later, in 1882 he joined the faculty at Kampen, along with his rival Lucas Lindeboom. Lindeboom challenged his efforts to do reformed theology in a modern context, and his increasing efforts with Abraham Kuyper to realize a Reformed vision in Dutch society. During this period, Bavinck refuses several attempts to recruit him to Kuyper’s Free University. Eglinton explores the tension between Bavinck’s loyalty to the Christian Reformed Church and his scholarly ambitions. Eventually, as Lindeboom’s forces pushed him and a colleague out, he was able to complete his migration to the Free University, succeeding Abraham Kuyper in the chair of theology at the Free University of Amsterdam in 1902.

Even before this, with diminished teaching loads, Bavinck was able to realize his scholarly work of a theological work that reflected his vision, the Reformed Dogmatics, as well as scholarly articles, and an unfinished Reformed Ethics (currently being translated into English). Eglinton also digs into his view of scripture. One one hand he affirmed a high commitment to the divine inspiration and authority of scripture. At the same time, his understanding of this fully divine and fully human document also raised doubts for him that two of his students took further to the detriment of their careers.

The Amsterdam period reflected a broadening out of his influence as he brought theological principles to bear in the spheres of education, psychology, and politics. He served briefly as party leader during Kuyper’s absence and was elected to the first chamber of the Dutch government. In 1908, he is honored in America with a meeting with Teddy Roosevelt and the invitation to give the Stone Lectures. His insights on America both during this and his earlier visits make interesting reading. The text of his account of his first visit is included as an appendix.

One of the interesting aspects of Bavinck’s life was his marriage to Johanna. She was a strong partner who probably both encouraged and extended Bavinck’s efforts to recognize the rights and roles of women in society. Most of her children engaged in resistance against Hitler, a number at the cost of their lives. She wasn’t his first choice. He kept a flame for a number of years for Amelia den Dekker but was refused by her father and rebuffed by her. My sense is that Johanna was the better partner.

This is an outstanding biography. Having read a bit of Bavinck, I wondered about the readability of this work. My wonderings were unfounded. One encounters at once both an extensively researched and flowing narrative of Bavinck’s life. If you are interested in exploring the work of this theologian, Eglinton’s Bavinck is a great place to begin.


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

Review: Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved The Monarchy

Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy, A. N. Wilson. New York: Harper Collins, 2019.

Summary: A full length biography, Prince Consort of Queen Victoria, stressing his contributions to cultural and political life in Victorian England, published on the two hundredth anniversary of his birth.

Most of us, at least on “this side of the pond” mostly know of Prince Albert as the subject of a prank beginning with the line “do you have Prince Albert in a can?” Actually, in reading this biography, the prank has added irony both in that its subject was a very serious man, and that for one who died so young, he accomplished so much. A. N. Wilson’s biography, published on the two hundredth anniversary of Albert’s birth goes far to redress that unfamiliarity.

Wilson presents Albert as the son of a Coburg Duke (Ernst I), who failed at marriage but was determined to prepare his sons for dynastic greatness. Albert learned not only the lessons that prepared him for this station, but also shaped the strong sense of rectitude he brought to his eventual marriage with Victoria, a Coburg cousin who was in most direct succession to William IV. He also develops the influence of Stockmar, Albert’s mentor from his early teen years through the first decade of his marriage.

Wilson portrays the genuine love affair between Albert and Victoria, initially cool to him but warming to great passion, and the lukewarm reception of Commons, reducing his proposed annual grant. At the same time, Wilson teases out the complicated character of that marriage, of Albert’s quest for control, even influence over royal matters, and how Victoria’s nine pregnancies played into all of that. At very least, the two contributed to the great influence of the House of Coburg in dynastic affairs across Europe through their progeny!

Much of the account explores the struggle Albert had with his position–for most of the time, merely husband of the Queen, and only at the end of his life Prince Consort. His own son was ahead of him in precedence. He aspired to so much more, trying to shape foreign affairs through long missives to foreign secretaries, as well as weighing in on political matters. Over time, he helped shape Victoria’s approach to constitutional monarchy that sustained her popularity, and that of the monarchy long after her death. He shrewdly managed royal finances, allowing for the purchase of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

One of his distinctive contributions was as Chancellor of Cambridge University, overseeing the modernization of the curriculum stressing modern history and the sciences. Another was the Exhibition of 1851 and the develop of the complex of museums in Kensington known as “Albertopolis,” later complimented by Royal Albert Hall, a premier concert venue. Wilson portrays the intensity of Albert’s work ethic for his adopted country, recognized only late in his short life when, finally, he was designated “Prince Consort.”

There is an air of sadness that hovers over this hard-working man of rectitude. He found himself worn by the moods of Victoria, the troubles of Europe, and the evidence of profligacy on the part of his own son Bertie. Sadly, he was a seriously ill man, possibly dying of stomach cancer. Perhaps he pushed himself so hard, knowing his time was so short. It was sad that he could not bask in his considerable contributions to the monarchy and England.

Wilson not only portrays the man, but the various key figures like Peel and Palmerston, and the transformation occurring in England, to which Albert had contributed. Of course, all of this was in the backdrop of Victoria, who went on to reign for four decades after Albert’s death at age 42, in the end showing herself stronger even than Albert. This is an important account of a figure whose impact is still felt two hundred years after his birth.

Review: His Truth is Marching On

His Truth is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope, Jon Meacham (Afterword by John Lewis). New York: Random House, 2020.

Summary: An account of the life of Congressman John Lewis, focusing on the years of his leadership in the civil rights movement and the faith, hope, commitment to non-violence and the Beloved Community that sustained him.

We lost a hero this summer in the death of Congressman John Lewis. We may remember the last photos of him, days before his death on Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, DC, one more expression of the arc of a life spent in the hope that the nation would recognize the gift that his people are and that one day, his hope of Dr. King’s Beloved Community would be realized. We might also remember the image of him being clubbed to the ground on the approaches to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, a day he nearly lost his life. There is so much that came before, and between these images. In this new work, historian Jon Meacham offers a historical account coupled with Lewis’s recollections, that helps us understand not only the heroic work of this civil rights icon, but the wellsprings of motivation that spurred his long march.

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Meacham begins with his ancestry, great-grandchild of a slave, child of sharecroppers in Troy, Alabama, growing up deep in the Jim Crow South in segregated schools, where a look, an inappropriate word might cost one’s life if you were black. Lewis was a child of the black church who knew he wanted to be a preacher, and practiced on the chickens on his parents farm. His faith, and early uneasiness with the inequities that did not measure up to the American dream meant “that the Lord had to be concerned with the ways we lived our lives right here on earth, that everything we did, or didn’t do in our lives had to be more than just a means of making our way to heaven.” Then he heard the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio and heard someone who gave voice to his growing calling and conviction., leading to pursuing seminary studies at the American Baptist Seminary in Nashville.

Meacham accounts how this led to sit-ins at restaurants, the Freedom Rides, the Children’s Crusade and the March on Washington, where he gave one of the most impassioned speeches as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), refusing to back away from criticism of the Kennedy administration. Meacham describes the death of Kennedy, the civil rights leadership of Johnson, and Lewis’s growing exile from SNCC, from those like Stokely Carmichael who had tired of the slow progress of non-violent protest, that left him to go to Selma alone rather than with the SNCC. Again and again his principles led him to get into “good trouble.”

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Through it all, including the deaths of King and Bobby Kennedy, he persisted, through multiple beatings and arrests. Much of this work chronicles his years in the civil rights movement, leaving the final chapter to summarize his years in Congress and legacy. What Meacham focuses on throughout are the theological convictions, rooted in Lewis’s belief in the Spirit of History, his faith in a loving God, and his belief that America’s ideals would prevail over America’s failings. Second is a focus on Lewis’s bedrock conviction of pursuing non-violent resistance rooted in a belief of the dignity of all people in the image of God, even one’s enemies, developed from the Bible, Dr. King, James Lawson and the Highlander Workshops, and the principles of Gandhi. The narrative is one of how Lewis “walked the talk” bearing numerous beatings without retaliation, sacrificing his leadership for his principles. Finally, Lewis lived toward a vision of America as Dr. King’s “Beloved Community.” From marches and activism to his years in politics, Meacham shows how he strove for the peace with justice that would overcome divisions between black and white. Meacham gives John Lewis the last word in his afterword:

We won the battles of the 1960’s. But the war for justice, the war to make America both great and good, goes on. We the People are not a united people right now. We rarely are, but our divisions and our tribalism are especially acute. Many Americans have lost faith in the idea that what binds us together is more important than what separates us. Now as before, we have to choose, as Dr. King once put it, between community and chaos.

John Lewis never lost faith that what binds us together matters most and never stopped pursuing community rather than chaos. Meacham’s book leaves us the question of what will we believe and pursue in the days ahead. How we answer that may be decisive not only for our lives but also for our country.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Influence of Soros

influence of soros

The Influence of SorosEmily Tamkin. New York: Harper, 2020

Summary: More than a biography, an exploration of George Soros’ origins, how he made his money, and the motives behind his use of it in his Open Society Foundation, and the resulting contradictions.

If one were to believe some of my conservative friends, George Soros is the devil incarnate, masterminding a left wing plot for world domination and the undoing of American and global institutions, whether through currency markets or through an invasion of immigrants. I’ve found myself wondering, who is this figure–a noble capitalist, or the devil incarnate, or someone else. The chance to read Emily Tamkin’s investigative reporting on the life of Soros offered a chance to dig a bit deeper.

What Tamkin does in this book is draw the profile of a man of noble aspirations caught in the dissonance between how he acquires and wields his wealth, and the causes he supports through it. She describes his rise from a holocaust survivor from Budapest Hungary, a Jew whose lawyer father secured for the family and a number in their circles false identity documents that allowed them to pass as Christians. Some conspiracy theories have them betraying others, but the truth appears simpler, they did what they had to to survive, helping some others along the way. After the war, Soros goes to the London School of Economics, where he encountered the work of Karl Popper including Open Society and Its Enemies. Not only does Popper draw parallels between communism and fascism, but he argues that since nothing can be known with certainty, the best society is one open to diversity, allowing a striving toward understanding. These ideas are crucial to understanding Soros.

Tamkin traces  Soros rise in the financial world of international arbitrage, the buying and selling of securities in different markets, making profits off of price differences. After working for other investment firms, he finally set up his own firm, the Soros Fund, later Quantum. He made, lost, and made more money, even breaking the British bank at one point, as well as the currencies of several other countries.

That was until 1979, when he set up the Open Society Fund. His first efforts toward his vision of open society was scholarships for black South Africans. He then turned to dissident movements in Eastern Europe, including his native Hungary, supporting Viktor Orban, who later became opposed Soros efforts when he came to power. Eventually, he established Central Europe University in Budapest, attracting scholars from throughout the world–his vision of open society in microcosm. In subsequent years, his attention would turn to the Balkans, later to Baltimore, where he funded approaches to addiction focused around harm reduction rather than incarceration. In 2004, he turned to elections, funding the opposition to George W. Bush in his concerns about the Iraq invasion and the suspensions of civil liberties in the Patriot Act. He also intervened with funding in the elections in the Republic of Georgia.

Perhaps here was where the narrative of George Soros as the arch-nemesis funding a liberal, far left conspiracy gained traction. While Tamkin dismisses the conspiratorial elements, she highlights to dissonance between Soros use of monetary manipulations and his wielding of vast wealth with the idea of an “open society” where all, and not just the wealthy get to play. He would argue that his own efforts gave lots of operating room to the NGO’s he funded to determine their own best course. He was not the mastermind pulling all the strings. Tamkin notes that this is the inherent conflict of wielding of wealth, whether done by Soros, or the Koch brothers, or Bill Gates, or the Ford or Rockefeller Foundations. None were utterly virtuous, albeit perhaps legal, in how they earned their wealth, and none without agenda. But the question is, is it possible to create the open society Soros envisions, when it is controlled by such powerful entities.

It is a question left unresolved by this book. Yet Tamkin on the whole appears grateful that Soros has tried to do what he has done–despite failures and opposition, with all the inherent contradictions. She helps us understand both why he is vilified, and why it is not quite that simple, and that it might be his enemies motivations that are being projected onto Soros. She comments less on this, but it also seemed to me that unlike some who invest in philanthropy, Soros took political sides and made political enemies. What is sad is that his vision of an open society gets lost, one where those with diverse backgrounds and ideas may meet, where all forms of totalitarian society are opposed.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Cromwell: The Lord Protector

Crowmwell the Lord Protector

Cromwell: The Lord ProtectorAntonia Fraser. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973.

Summary: A biography of Oliver Cromwell, a military and parliamentary leader during the English Civil Wars, rising after the death of Charles I to Lord Protector.

Oliver Cromwell, not unlike his ancestor Thomas Cromwell is a tragic figure. Both men had great strengths, and great flaws. Antonia Fraser’s classic biography of Oliver Cromwell draws a highly detailed portrait of the man in all his actions that reveals both his greatness and his flaws, and the tragedies, both in and beyond his lifetime to which these led.

Fraser traces this life from its beginning as a child of landed gentry from Huntingdon, elected to Parliament in 1628. During this time period he underwent a religious conversion to Puritanism that shaped his thought and life profoundly. After Parliament’s recess for eleven years, he became the member for Cambridge in 1640, sitting in the Short and Long Parliaments, and during this period became the outstanding military leader that led the Parliamentarians to victory over the king in the first English Civil War.

Fraser characterizes the greatness of his military ability as a combination of battlefield discipline instilled through training, and the ability to “seize the moment” when enemy weakness gave the opportunity for victory. The victories at Marston Moor and Naseby hinged on his decisive actions leading to the end of the first Civil War. This was followed by inconclusive efforts to establish a constitutional monarchy.

It was only when the Second Civil War was concluded with the fall of Pembroke castle and the Royalist Scottish Army’s defeat at Preston at the hands of Cromwell, that things turned decisively against Charles I. His stubbornness was met by Cromwell’s beliefs in providence, justified by his military victories and justifying the death of Charles, by whom so much blood had been shed. Charles I went to his death January 30, 1649.

Fraser follows all the deliberations of how to compose a government, beginning with the Commonwealth in 1649, of which Cromwell was one of the Parliamentary leaders. This was interrupted for Cromwell by a military expedition to Ireland, where he presided angrily over the slaughters at the Catholic strongholds of Drogheda and Wexford, a taint on his career. His victories there opened the door to a Protestant land grab. In the following year, Charles II, crowned king in Scotland, threatened the Commonwealth. Again, suffering in precarious health, Cromwell meets the threat at Dunbar and Worcester (further acts of God’s providence) resulting in Charles II’s flight to France.

His return to what was known as the “Rump” Parliament ended with another angry speech, resulting in dissolution of the Parliament and Cromwell becoming Lord Protector–royalty in plain clothes. We see his struggle over five years to form a government shaped by religious principle, and respected among the powers. His own failing health and the government’s financial struggles doomed his efforts. Dying, he loses a beloved daughter and bequeaths the Protectorate to his son Richard, who had none of his strengths. This last less than a year until Richard fled England as the King was recalled. He lived abroad and under an assumed name most of his life.

There was good reason for his flight. Although not widespread, the King did avenge his father’s death, executing the lead figures, and exhuming Cromwell’s corpse, first hanging it, and then beheading it, the head remaining on a stake for decades. Fraser devotes significant attention the the exhumation and eventual disposition of the body and the head.

This is a long book and I found that Fraser’s accounts of the military leadership seemed to have far more energy than the political accounts, that seemed rather tedious at times, albeit exhaustively complete. What she gives us is a complex and complete account of Cromwell, from the warmth of his family relations and those with many friends, the brilliance of his military leadership, punctuated with episodes of anger and precarious health, and the religious certitude, that was both a comfort to his soul, and a contributing factor in the execution of a king, and an attempt at a radical government. One wonders if he would have been better to leave political leadership to others, nearly always a good idea for military figures. To me, Cromwell came off as one you might admire but never like, and maybe not trust, for fear of coming up on the wrong side of providence.

[Note on editions: My review is of an out of print edition published by Knopf. The link to this title is an ABE Books link to used editions. In the U.K., the book is still in publication as Cromwell: Our Chief of Men published by Orion Publishing]

Review: The Big Fella

the big fella

The Big FellaJane Leavy. New York: HarperCollins, 2018.

Summary: A biography of Babe Ruth, with the narrative of his life connected with a day by day account of a barnstorming tour of the country after his home run record-breaking 1927 season.

He was big in so many ways. He could probably have been a Hall of Fame pitcher. He not only held one season and lifetime home run records for decades, but his day in, day out hitting and slugging percentages and many other statistics place him at the very top of all time hitters. He was physically big, in height and girth, in hands. He not only hit a lot of home runs, but hit with a much heavier bat than most players used, and with a swing studied for its efficiency. He had huge appetites, for food, for women, for clothes, for adulation. He not only negotiated record salaries (and Leavy suggests he could have received more) but earned record amounts on appearances and endorsements.

Leavy tells this whole story from the loveless marriage of his parents that ended in divorce, with George, Jr. at St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, and later St. James home, where he met Brother Matthias, who was probably the closest thing he really had to a father, and who taught him baseball. It is even thought that Babe modeled his swing on Brother Matthias. Leavy traces his career from the minors, his time in Boston and transformation from a pitcher to a hitter who played every day, his trade to New York.

She shows us a Ruth who tried to have a different life in his first marriage to Helen, yet whose appetites led to carousing and many women, and an increasingly distant relationship with Helen, who spent more and more time hospitalized or as an invalid, while Babe developed an extra-marital relationship with Claire who he married after Helen’s death.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book was the role Christy Walsh played in making Ruth “big.” Long before agents became commonplace, Walsh worked tirelessly with Ruth to get him to amend his ways enough to stay out of trouble, play the game, endorse products, and make a fortune on post-season appearances. Walsh was the one who understood, in a way Ruth never quite grasped, how much Ruth was worth to the Yankees, and the limited time he had to capitalize on it.

Ruth, having not found love in his family, seems to never have been content with a family. He tried to keep playing when his body no longer could sustain it. Traded by the Yankees back to Boston, he hoped to manage a team, but was never given a chance. He got involved in a movie project that produced an inferior “B” movie. Then the cancer came. Ruth’s last years were hard and the “big fella” was reduced to 150 pounds by his tottering farewell appearance at an Old-Timers game at Yankee Stadium. A few months later, he was dead.

Leavy uses the device of a 21 day barnstorming tour across the country with Lou Gehrig following his 1927 season, the peak of his career. Each chapter covers one day of the tour and advances Leavy’s narrative of his life. The tour captures in miniature the story of his life from the game to the crowds including the kids, the after hours, and the adulation.

This was the one aspect of the book about which I was ambivalent. It captured an aspect of Babe’s life often overlooked in the accounts. But it also seemed distracting and one had to pay attention to when Leavy was writing about the tour, or moving forward the larger narrative of his life. It was an interesting device, but I’m not sure it worked for me.

However, Leavy gives us a portrait of both the power and pathos that were part of the Babe’s story. She helped me realize how extensive his accomplishments were long before today’s technology enhanced game, and how his presence changed the game. Christy Walsh anticipated the role agents would have in looking out for players’ interests, changing a game where the owners held all the power. It also raises the fascinating question of whether any of this would happen without the mentoring of Brother Matthias. One thing was sure. Ruth never forgot. And perhaps neither should we.

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.