Review: His Truth is Marching On

His Truth is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope, John 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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.