Review: The Herods

The Herods: Murder, Politics, and the Art of Succession. Bruce Chilton. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2021.

Summary: A history of this dynasty, tracing its rise from Antipater, the rule of Herod the Great, and his descendants who struggled to recover control over the territories he ruled amid Roman power and rising Jewish discontent.

Any reader of the New Testament recognizes that one or another of the Herods plays a significant part in the birth of Jesus, the ministry and crucifixion of Jesus, and the beginnings of the Christian movement, and the trial of and appeal by Paul to Rome. What is often not considered is the rise of this family from Idumea amid the power struggles of the Jews to maintain independence amid, first the Seleucids and then the Roman power that came to assert control over the lands that once constituted ancient Israel.

Bruce Chilton traces the history of this family and their shrewdness in maintaining Jewish support and pleasing their Roman masters. It begins with Antipater, who modestly never claimed the title “king” of Idumea but allied with Hyrcanus II as high priest of the Jerusalem temple and leader of Judea and allying himself with Pompey against the Seleucids, securing both Hyrcanus in Jerusalem and securing Roman favor for his own family.

Herod, known as “The Great,” was his son. He married Mariamne, the granddaughter of Hyrcanus, gaining legitimacy with the Maccabees, and works first with Mark Antony and then Octavian, securing kingship over Jerusalem, Samaria, Galilee, and Idumea. Chilton traces his ruthlessness, executing first Mariamne’s brother, then Mariamne, and her sons but leaving his kingship in disarray at his death.

Chilton situates the birth of Jesus and the massacre of the innocents during the brief reign of Herod’s son Archelaus over Judea. while Philip ruled in Gaulanitis and Antipas in Galilee and Samaria. Antipas was the shrewdest, stealing his brother Philip’s wife Herodias and working throughout his reign to regain control of Judea and Jerusalem, only to lose it all to his nephew, Agrippa I, who had cultivated Caligula, who succeeded Tiberius, who had favored Antipas. Antipas was the one Jesus called “the fox” and Chilton has some interesting insights into gospel passages alluding to Antipas, who concurred in the execution of Jesus, as well as the beheading of John.

Agrippa I recovered the realm of Herod the great, persecuted restive minorities, including the followers of Jesus, and, as recorded in Acts, died an early and grisly death just days after being proclaimed as a god. He was succeeded by Agrippa II over parts of Agrippa I’s realm under tight control of Rome, aided by his sister Berenike, perhaps the more ambitious of the two. But affairs among the Jews were spiraling into open rebellion that they could not stop, resulting in brutal Roman suppression and the fall of Jerusalem. It was Agrippa II and Berenike who consult with Felix and hear Paul’s defense and appeal to Rome.

Chilton offers a narrative that underscores the shrewdness and ambition and ruthlessness, when necessary, of the Herods. He also shows the significant roles played by women in this dynasty: Mariamne, Herodias, Salome, and Berenike among them. We learn of other competent, but lesser lights, like Philip, who appears to have led well in Gaulanitis, and Phasael, Herod the Great’s more restrained older brother who administered Jerusalem until Herod took control.

While Chilton provides both a timeline and a Dramatis personae of important figures, it would have been helpful to provide a family tree or genealogy to make clear the relations among the various figures, and the offspring of multiple marriages. It is also evident that Chilton credits other sources like Josephus above the New Testament writers at points of conflict.

That said, Chilton’s account of this dynasty enriches our understanding of the figures who intersect with the New Testament narratives and played a vital role in second Temple Israel during the decisive century before the fall of the temple.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: The Children of Ash and Elm

Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings, Neil Price. New York: Basic Books, 2020.

Summary: A history based in archaeological research of the rise of the Vikings, their ways and beliefs, and their development as a trading, raiding, and invading power.

The story is that the gods, as they were creating, found two pieces of wood, out of which they fashioned the first man and first woman. The man was of Ash, the woman of Elm, and from these the people that became known to us as the “Vikings” sprang. Or so the Norse legends say.

Beginning with this story, Neil Price renders a history of the people known to us as Vikings. It is a story of a people who emerge from the fjords of Norway and the fastnesses of Sweden, from a collection of locally powerful lords of halls to invade and settle as far as Uzbekistan, Kabul, and Baghdad in the east and Iceland, Greenland, and the eastern shores of North America to the west. They contributed to the founding of Russia and their blood runs through William the Conqueror.

Price draws deeply on archaeological research to reconstruct the rise of these peoples in a time of volcanically-induced extended winter. The first part of this work traces their roots amid a Europe reconstituting itself after the fall of the Roman empire and the spread of Christianity, including to isolated monasteries in England that fell to early raids. Price uses archaeology to reconstruct their life, their beliefs (the Norse gods were a violent and promiscuous bunch) their burial customs (a most fascinating part of the book, including the boat burials, the rites and sacrifices, and what they were interred with), their social organization, including the employment of slaves, and their gender and sexuality.

The second part of the book traces the rise of the Vikings as a maritime culture from trading to raiding (“why trade for it when we can just take it.”) to their full scale invasions. What drives all of this is growing economic power and the needs to sustain and expand it. Price is unsparing in his accounts of the violence of these raids and invasions, and especially the consequences for women.

The third part of the book then builds upon this expansion to trace the extent of their dispersion throughout northern and eastern Europe, Russia, Constantinople and the trade routes to the east. We also learn of their dispersion from Scandinavian countries to Iceland and the attempts to settle in Greenland and North America (Vinland). Price traces the wars in England, the back and forth struggles of alternating Anglo-Saxon and Viking kings until the death of Knut in 1035 and the invasion of William, who as mentioned, was a Viking descendent.

In addition to this sweeping history, Price offers us a glimpse of the avalanche of data coming from archaeological work, from excavations, to artifacts, to DNA samples. We learn of the excavation of a warrior burial site that the warrior was a woman, from DNA evidence. Price offers evidence of fluidity in both gender roles and sexuality which might be explored further in terms of whether contemporary constructs are being read into the record, or whether the record bears out the existence of gender and sexual expression that parallel contemporary experience.

The work helps the reader enter into the worldview of these people, their maritime and military prowess, the sheer breadth of their advances and influences, and, in the end, their assimilation into Christendom. We see both the glories of the hall and the ugliness of their violence and some of their rites. The work offers maps that should be referenced to track the movements of the Vikings and a variety of illustrations of sites and artifacts referenced in the text. The references also offer extensive additional readings, as well as references for each chapter in the text.

All of this comes in a highly readable account, seasoned with Price’s wit from time to time. While there may be matters for continued scholarly debate in Price’s account, he offers an account that separates myth from fact in our understanding of these people–for example, there were no horned helmets but rather head pieces of armor and mail! This is a “go to” resource for those interested in the current research on the Vikings and their history and ways.

Review: A Short History of Christian Zionism

A Short History of Christian Zionism, Donald M. Lewis. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: An account of the understanding of the Jewish people’s claim to their ancient homeland throughout history, and particularly since the Reformation, focusing on Great Britain and the United States.

The idea of the claim of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland has not always been held (at least prior to return of the Messiah), either among the Jews or among Christians. This work traces the history of this idea and the various movements, both Jewish and Christian, and both theological and political that have given rise to Christian Zionism in its modern expressions.

Donald M. Lewis begins with offering his definition of the contentious term, “Christian Zionism”:

[A] Christian movement which holds to the belief that the Jewish people have a biblically mandated claim to their ancient homeland in the Middle East.

He notes that for many in history, this has implied a Jewish return but not necessarily a Jewish state.

With that he traces that history, beginning briefly with the period of the early church to the Reformation. For much of this period, the church was characterized by anti-Jewish attitudes, even blaming the loss of the land on the crucifixion of Jesus. While Jerusalem and the Holy Land was an object of the Crusades, it was not for the purpose of restoring the Jewish people to this land.

The change began with the Reformation and the bulk of this book treats the history from the Reformation to the present, particularly beginning with Calvin’s Geneva. It was here that the idea of the Restoration began among the theologians that followed Calvin, distinguishing the Protestants from Catholics, first with the idea of spiritual restoration of the Jews, a mass conversion at some future point, and second of a return to their homeland, seeing in this the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. As the Calvinist movement spread to England, so did these ideas, particularly in the form of seeing England as a chosen nation tasked with protecting and restoring the Jewish people. Meanwhile, German pietism under Philip Spener emphasized Jewish evangelism. These movements would shape the future of Christian Zionism in both Great Britain and America. In America, here as in so many things Jonathan Edwards played a major role, not only in anticipating a great future conversion of the Jews but in the restoration of the people to the land, aided by American political agency.

Subsequent chapters trace the turns these efforts to convert, protect and restore the Jews took in both England and the US, culminating in the Balfour Declaration, British control of Palestine following World War 1 and the migration of Jews to the land and parallel movements in the U.S. and the shifts that occurred from postmillenial to premillenial to charismatic theological support over the years. Lewis describes the various organizations supporting the return of Jews to the land, and later on, support of the Jewish state. He traces these organizations and movements down to the present day and the growth of these into a global movement.

There were several things I appreciated about this work, beginning with the fact that it was highly readable, even as Lewis negotiates the various theological positions, Christian Zionist efforts, and figures on both sides of the Atlantic. Second, I appreciated the fact that this was a descriptive work and not a piece of advocacy. No matter where one stands on the question of Jews and the land, this is a work that may be read with profit.

In addition, Lewis gives the lie to the exclusive association of Christian Zionism with premillenial dispensationalism. In fact, J.N. Darby rejected the idea of the return of the Jews to the land prior to Christ’s coming. He shows how Christian Zionism was adapted to postmillenialism, historic premillenialism, and eventually with pre-millenial dispensationalism theological persuasions, and even to pentecostalism.

He also chronicles the realization of secular leaders of the state of Israel of how important Christian Zionist support was to the Jewish state and Lewis traces how they made the most of Christian tourism to strengthen that support. Lewis draws the arc from Christian ministry efforts to political advocacy.

The book ends on an important question being faced at the present time of the place of conversionist efforts as part of seeking the blessing of the Jews. He notes the growth of a dual covenant theology that turns away from evangelistic efforts and Paul’s efforts to offer the gospel “to the Jews first.” Instead, it advocates love, esteem, and blessing that respects Jews distinctive covenant relationship with God. The dilemma for some is one of cultural insensitivity and offensiveness versus biblical faithfulness. True to the intent of the book, Lewis does not offer an answer but notes the trends that raise the question.

This history is valuable in understanding how we’ve gotten to where we are with Christian Zionism, from the justice issues relating to displaced Palestinians, to ways theology contributes to Christian Zionism as well as how historical events have shaped theology, and how religious and political efforts have intermingled, particularly in both Great Britain and the United States.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: To Build a Better World

To Build a Better World, Philip Zelikow and Condoleeza Rice. New York: Twelve, 2019.

Summary: An account of the period from 1988-1992 and the transition of states, economic systems, and military alliances, reflecting an emerging post-cold war world.

When I bought this book, there was not a war in eastern Europe. All the world was thinking about a few months ago was get past a two-year pandemic. Life has changed and once again we live under the shadow of a potential global war.

Perhaps that sets in relief those few heady years at the end of the 1980’s when we thought we had entered a new world of global peace with the fall of physical and political walls between eastern and western Europe, when the major powers talked about reducing nuclear arms stockpiles and conventional forces, when Germany was unified, when former Warsaw pact countries gained their independence (including Ukraine in 1990) and more peaceable and mutually economically beneficial relations became a possibility with Russia.

This book traces the series of events that unfolded during those years, the issues that the U.S. and other powers faced, and the decisions made that have shaped Europe over the last thirty years, as well as the course of Russia. Rice and Zelikow were insiders during this era, working in both Bush adminstrations, Rice serving as an NSC adviser and eventually, as secretary of state.

The account begins with the increasing globalization of economic systems, the growing strains on the economic systems of the USSR and its satellites in eastern Europe. Amid this comes the bold attempt of Perestroika with not enough economic reforms with too many raised expectations. At first, the effort was to try to figure out how to prop up the system, as it became increasingly apparent that Gorbachev could fail.

As satellites broke away, the question became what would Europe become. Would the European Union expand to include these countries. And what would become of East Germany? The book takes us inside the delicate balance that had to be struck to not humiliate or antagonize the USSR, and to not arouse fears of a united Germany. And how might Russia be integrated into the new Europe.

And what would become of NATO, forged as a post-war threat by the Soviet Union and paralleled by the Warsaw Pact countries. At first, it was even considered to maintain these alignments with a de-escalation of the military presence. When this was unacceptable to the Warsaw Pact countries and interest was expressed in expanding the NATO alliance, the question became, how would Russia react. At one point, the door was even opened for Russia to also be a part of NATO.

What did happen was the expansion of the number of countries in the alliance, but a military de-escalation and recalibration of the mission of NATO, eventually joining the US in both peace-keeping and military missions in the Balkans and the Middle East. Nuclear stockpiles were destroyed without nukes proliferating to former Soviet satellites. Interlocking European and global trade agreements fostered trade. There was a period where US, Europe, and Russia even stood together against Iraq in Kuwait, and later in the fight against Al-Qaeda in the early 2000’s.

At the beginning of the book, we are introduced to a young East German physical chemist who became interested in the changing politics of her country and a young mid-level KGB colonel in Dresden who was increasingly disturbed with the course of events in his home country. The first was Angela Merkel, the second Vladimir Putin. She represented the culmination of the many positive decisions made in those heady years, leading a German renaissance in a new Europe. He represented the lingering humiliation and resentments (despite George H. W. Bush’s understated diplomatic efforts) at the eviscerating of Russian greatness. Putin resented the effort of the second Bush administration to define the world as those for and against freedom. Russia had been at its best under autocrats which he increasingly became. Ukraine, which Putin stated in 2008 was not even a country, resented efforts to incorporate Ukraine into the EU and NATO, blocked by Germany in 2008. Even then, Putin saw this as a US attempt to push an integrated Europe right up to Russia’s doorstep, or underbelly.

This work was published in 2019, which was after the Russian annexation of the Crimea. Even then, the tensions in Ukraine’s eastern provinces were evident. None of this justifies the brutal invasion of Ukraine. Rather it makes evident that the storm clouds were gathering that would unravel the European peace established in the 1990’s. This book casts light on the developments of those years. One gets a sense of what it was like to face issues with multiple choices without a roadmap to show to where these would lead. The thing that stood out was the failure of finding a way to integrate Russia into the integrated Europe without diminishing its sense of national greatness or compromising the independence of other countries. It was the flaw in an otherwise fruitful approach to the opportunities of a new Europe. This was a fascinating, inside account of the opportunities and uncertainties latent in global diplomacy.

Review: American Diplomacy

American Diplomacy, Expanded Edition, George Kennan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. (Link is to in-print 60th anniversary edition, 2012).

Summary: A compilation of Kennan’s six Charles R. Walgreen lectures, two articles on US-Soviet relations originally from Foreign Affairs, and two Grinnell lectures.

George F. Kennan (1904-2005) was one of the foremost thinkers, and at times, shapers of American foreign policy. He is perhaps most famous for the “long telegram” in 1946 from Moscow to the American Secretary of State, on how the U.S. should relate to post-war Stalinist Soviet Union. This telegram and two subsequent articles in Foreign Affairs which appear in this volume, served as the intellectual basis of the American policy of containment which prevailed until the end of the former Soviet Union in 1989.

This work actually consist of three parts. The first reviews American diplomacy from the Spanish-American War through World War 2 in six lectures sponsored by the Charles R. Walgreen Foundation. The second part reprints the two Foreign Affairs articles, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” and “America and the Russian Future.” The third part consists of two Grinnell lectures given in 1984, one a retrospective of the Walgreen lectures, and the other a review of American foreign policy in Korea and Vietnam and our present military-industrial complex.

One of the basic threads that runs through the Walgreen lectures is that our diplomacy flowed out of “legalistic-moralistic” foundations or situational, politically shaped responses that lacked “any accepted, enduring doctrine for relating military strength to political policy, and a persistent tendency to fashion our policy toward others with a view to feeding a pleasing image of ourselves rather than to achieving real, and desperately needed results in our relations with others. The lectures start with our war with Spain launched without any clear policy but shaped by popular mood. The second focuses on the “Open Door” policy with China where what appeared to be noble foreign policy poorly apprehended the material interests of the other powers involved. The third lecture looked at our pre-Maoist diplomacy with China and Japan, over-sentimentalizing China, over-vilifying Japan, and failing to work toward a balance of powers between Russia, China, and Japan that may have averted war, and possibly the rise of Communist China (I doubt this, given the corruption of the Chiang Kai-shek government).

In the fourth lecture, he observes the irony of our entering World War 1 because of the violation of our neutrality, and then rationalizing it as a great fight for the values of civilization when in fact we acceded to the gutting of Germany which led to the second war. With the second war, we allowed ourselves to begin at a place of weakness that created the necessity of dependency on Russia and then adopted an idealized vision of the post war future that failed to realistically face the price Russia would exact for its alliance. He concludes for a diplomacy of professionalism and realism rather than a moralistic-legalistic effort to project American ideals.

Part two reflects the working out of Kennan’s ideas in relation to the Soviet Union. He argues that it is vitally important to understand the ideology of the communist conflict with capitalism, the infallibility of the Kremlin and the concordant concentration of power in what amount to a dictatorship. It is here, that recognizing the difficulties of relating to Soviet power, that he contends for a policy of disciplined “containment.” He writes:

“In these circumstances it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies. It is important to note, however, that such a policy has nothing to do with outward histrionics: with threats or blustering or superfluous gestures of outward ‘toughness’ ” (p. 119).

The second article he argues that America should not directly challenge the Soviet Union, but allow it to decay from within, a consequence we watched unfold in the 1980’s.

The first of the Grinnell lectures basically reprises the Walgreen lectures and then considers Korea and Vietnam. He contends that our assessment of Communist global expansionist ambitions to be flawed, especially in Vietnam where he assessed Ho to first of all be a nationalist. In Korea, we failed to reckon with how our military presence in Japan, shutting out the Soviet Union, would be perceived as a threat warranting “consolidation of its military-political position in Korea, with all our efforts costing 54,000 casualties to achieve merely the status quo ante. I find this a bit troubling as he seems to infer that it would be fine if all of the Korean peninsula were communist. I don’t suspect today’s South Koreans, as much as they would like to see the reunification of Korea, would prefer communist rule. But there is an interesting question of whether a different settlement was possible if we had settled things differently with Japan, a historic enemy of Russia.

The second lecture argues that the large scale militarization of the U.S. in the post war reflected mistaken notions of Soviet global conquest and the folly of the nuclear arms race. He argues that having made these dispositions we cannot walk back commitments either to Japan or to NATO. His call is simply for a greater humility in our diplomacy, and that example is more powerful than demand. He hoped a budget of over $250 billion for our military would not be necessary. (Now it is over $750 billion).

I am writing this on the eve of what may be a massive Russian invasion of Ukraine, once part of the former Soviet Union. I cannot help but think of Kennan’s observations about both the communist mindset in Russia, humiliated in 1989, but hardly extinguished, and our lack of steady, professional diplomacy in the years since while the Putin government has been an implacable constant. I’m troubled by the corrosion from within, not of Russia but our own country, and the danger that this could further undermine a steady realism in our foreign policy.

A larger issue that Kennan raises is whether it is possible to have a “moral” diplomacy. One the one hand we may often be deceived by our own claims to morality or blind to other factors in international situations. Yet humility is a moral virtue. The recognition of human dignity inherent in our commitments to democracy is moral. Perhaps this compact volume was not the place to unpack whether a moral, if not moralistic diplomacy is possible. Perhaps we need to turn to his spiritual mentor, Reinhold Niebuhr, to explore these arguments, elaborated in Moral Man and Immoral Society and other works. Whatever we might conclude, Kennan’s call for a professional, unpoliticized and unmilitarized diplomacy that takes develops a long term approach to American diplomacy is worth considering.

Review: The Black Church

The Black Church, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Penguin Press, 2021.

Summary: A companion to the PBS series on the Black church, surveying the history of the Black church in America focusing on why the church has been central to the life of the Black community.

It is practically a truism that the church is a central reality in the Black experience, and in many local Black communities. But why is this? That is the question Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explores in this companion book to the PBS series, “The Black Church.”

Gates contends that the church provided a place, first of all, for refuge that they could control and find hope in, when they were brutally subjugated, whether under slavery or Jim Crow. It was fascinating to learn that Spanish Catholics were responsible for the conversions of African-Americans in the early year. Gates also traces the elements of Muslim and traditional religion back to the earliest periods of slavery. White slave owners often were resistant to the conversion of slaves, recognizing the liberating messages to be found in the Bible, Anglican missionaries persuaded slave owners that it could be taught in ways that supported their control. What they couldn’t control was the introduction of music and dance that reflected African heritage, including the “ring shout.” and the unofficial gatherings in “praise houses.”

Many more were converted during the Methodist revivals, but when they were segregated, Richard Allen led the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Gates traces how the church increasingly becomes a force for abolition (and in the case of Nat Turner, for uprising) as well as renewal. Then with Emancipation, Gates traces the further growth of the churches of the south, the Bible women who helped spread the gospel message, and the “frenzy” that presaged Pentecostalism, which can trace its roots to William Joseph Seymour, who led the Azusa Street Revival, leading to the formation of the Church of God in Christ, the largest Pentecostal body in the country.

With the Great Migration, Gates traces the growth of Black megachurches in northern cities like Chicago and New York, and with this the growth of Gospel music from the Fisk Jubilee Singers to Shirley Caesar, and from this, the development of blues and jazz. This led to a growing tension between the music of the clubs on Saturday night and the music of the service on Sunday. The music and the preaching connected, nowhere more so than at the March on Washington when Mahalia Jackson urged King to “Tell them about the dream.” The gospel songs morphed into the freedom songs and sustained the movement.

Gates describes the period after King as a “crisis of faith.” He describes the development of Black theology, including the thought of James Cone and Jeremiah Wright, the pastor who married the Obamas. He observes the tensions around sexuality, the patriarchy of churches, and the conservatism around LGBT sexuality as well as the ascent of Blacks into the middle class, the ministries of pastors like T.D. Jakes, and how Obama revealed different sides of the church to white America. The chapter concludes with the resurgent white nationalism and Black Lives Matter.

An epilogue traces Gates own religious journey, his decision to join the church, his fear of “the Frenzy” and speaking in tongues and the irony that DuBois “Talented Tenth” were less the missionaries of culture than the Pentecostals, whose experience did more to uplift the marginalized. Gates observes that the experiential connected back to the African religious roots of the Black church.

Gates gives us an account of the Black church that both traces history, and enriches it with interviews with contemporary Black leaders and celebrities, drawing out the experienced significance of the Black church. The church that emerges is one of refuge and uplift, of resistance and abolition, of music and ecstasy. It is also an account of Black pulpiteers and the development of Black preaching from Richard Allen to Raphael Warnock. The appendix includes an alphabetical list of the great preachers of the Black church. Here as throughout this history, Gates does not confine his account to Christians, including figures like Malcolm X.

As history, this is more popular survey than an in-depth, scholarly account. Gates use of contemporary interviews interlaced with his history creates a much richer sense of the ethos of the Black church than one might get from a historical narrative alone. He captures the various ways the church epitomizes and sustains the identity of Black people. He concludes:

“It’s that cultural space in which we can bathe freely in the comfort of our cultural heritage, and where everyone knows their part, and where everyone can judge everyone else’s performance of their part, often out loud with amens, with laughter, with clapping, or with silence. It’s the space that we created to find rest in the gathering storm. It’s the place where we made a way out of no way. It’s the place to which, after a long and wearisome journey, we can return and find rest before we cross the river. It’s the place we call, simply, the Black Church” (p. 219).

Fall 2021 Book Preview — Fiction and Non-fiction

I don’t only read academic theology. I enjoy history, essays, discussions of current affairs, and of course, good fiction. All of that has arrived at my door in the last months. Many are new books published this year, but mixed in are also some older titles, mainly from authors I’ve discovered I liked.

In the Shadow of King Saul, Jerome Charyn. New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2018. Recently, I reviewed Swimming to the Top of the Tide. The publisher included a bonus book in their mailing, this collection of essays by the author of Sergeant Salinger, which I had reviewed this spring. I’m intrigued with what he will say in his essay on Saul, a biblical character I happen to have been studying of late.

Absence of Mind, Marilynne Robinson. New Haven: Yale University of Press, 2011. I love Marilynne Robinson’s fiction and essays, and this was a collection I had not read, found while browsing Thriftbooks. Turned out I was able to use a free book credit! What fun. She writes about the relation of science and religion and the new atheism in this collection.

Notes from No Man’s Land, Eula Biss. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2009. I recently read this author’s Immunity and decided to pick up some of her other essays including this collection on race in America, a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Having and Being Had, Eula Biss. New York: Riverhead Books, 2020. This is a more recent collection, examining middle class ethics.

After the Apocalypse, Andrew Bacevich. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2021. Argues for a different approach to U.S. foreign policy based on moral pragmatism and mutual coexistence with war as a last resort.

Devil in the White City, Erik Larson. New York: Vintage Books, 2003. I’ve discovered Erik Larson’s books and I’m looking forward to this one on the 1893 World’s Fair and a serial murderer!

Riding High in April, Jackie Townsend. Phoenix: Sparkpress, 2021. Just received this with LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program. The book is a tech thriller with a human element of love and friendship written by a former Silicon Valley management consultant.

Abundance Nature in Recovery, Karen Lloyd. New York: Bloomsbury Wildlife, 2021. This is a collection of essays on conservationist efforts in the face of biodiversity loss.

The Power of Us, Jay J. Van Bavel and Dominic J. Packer. New York: Little, Brown, Spark, 2021. Builds on the idea that the groups we are part of shape identity and can enhance performance, cooperation and social harmony.

The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, Louis Menand. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021. Menand is an intellectual historian whose Metaphysical Club was one of my great reads several summers ago. This one is on the art and thought trends that arose during the Cold War.

Children of Ash and Elm, Neil Price. New York: Basic Books, 2020. The Vikings enter into the history of peoples from the Asian Steppes to North America. This birthday gift gives me a chance to read a history of these people who keep barging into so many others stories!

Cloud Cuckoo Land, Anthony Doerr. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021. I thought All The Light We Cannot See was one of the best books I’ve read in the last decade. The writing voice I so appreciated in that work is here, but in a story occurring in three distinct times–as you can tell, I’m already into this book.

The Lincoln Highway, Amor Towles. New York: Viking, 2021. Towles is another novelist I’ve discovered in the past year, enjoying both of his deep dives into Jazz Age New York and a Russian hotel. This one is a cross-country flight to New York of several young fugitives on the title highway.

Along the way, I will be mixing in mysteries from Louise Penny, Ngaio Marsh and others. And what’s with the essays? Best I can figure is that blog posts are a version of essay, and I enjoy seeing how those who do it so well practice their craft–as well as the ideas they explore. Maybe this list will suggest some Christmas gift ideas–or not! At least you will know what not to buy me for Christmas if you are family! Whatever the case, you can look forward to hearing more about these books in the months ahead!

Review: We the Fallen People

We the Fallen People, Robert Tracy McKenzie. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: An argument that we have witnessed a great reversal in American history from an assumption of fallen human nature to the inherent goodness of people, which the author believes could jeopardize its future.

“America is great, because America is good.” Have you heard that phrase? Likely, it was attributed to writer on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville. Except that Tocqueville never said it. Rather, he said, “I cannot regard you as a virtuous people.” And his two volume work, which many believe to be a paean of praise to American democracy is in fact much more guarded in its appraisal according to Robert Tracy McKenzie. He contends, along with Tocqueville himself, that this work is often misunderstood, if it has been read.

While there is a good amount of material about Tocqueville here, the real concern of this book is about a Great Reversal that occurred in American history concerning American goodness. He begins with the Founders and the writing of the Constitution. The young nation just wasn’t working. Dependence upon the good will of the states to contribute to the upkeep of a national government just wasn’t happening and the national government had no way to compel it. They were depending on virtuous behavior and it was not forthcoming.

In writing the Constitution, the framers started from a different premise, “taking human nature as they found it.” In biblical terms, they assumed a fallen people. On one hand, they created a federal government with a strong executive office to implement the laws passed by Congress. Congress had two houses, one that represented local interests, and one representing broader concerns to balance each other. They could override the executive’s veto. At the same time a third branch, the judiciary, could check laws that overreached the power of the Constitution. It both guarded against excessive influence of popular power, and any concentration of power within the government. They wouldn’t trust anyone too far. They assumed human fallibility and fallenness.

McKenzie proposes that a Great Reversal occurred with the election of Andrew Jackson, who presented himself as the people’s president. He represented himself singularly as the people’s representative. He described his victory as “a triumph of the virtue of the people.” The great reversal in all of this was a growing belief in the inherent goodness of the American people, and those they elect, an assumption that has continued to the present day. Accruing great power to himself, he encouraged the abrogation of treaties with the Cherokee people and their removal via the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. In a lesser discussed move, he worked to end the second Bank of the United States. Tracy sees in this Jackson’s use of populism, the People versus the Monster, although the Bank had engaged in no wrongdoing. It is this extension of the power of democratic majorities, a “we versus them,” where “they” are not worthy, that is deeply disturbing. Democracy provides no protection from abuse of power when unchecked by the structures and the underlying premises behind those structures conceived by the founders.

It was this that was Tocqueville’s concern, writing during this period. Tocqueville witnessed the rise of partisan politics in which Congress failed to check Jackson’s moves, nor did the judiciary. While he recognized the great energy and productivity of the country, and the breadth of freedom its white male citizens enjoyed–greater than in Europe–he also recognized how democracies could be turned to ill, depending on how majorities wielded their power. He recognized how people could exchange liberty and justice for safety.

At the same time, Tocqueville finds that it is not virtue but self-interest that can be a safeguard–the temporary denial of benefit for long term profit that produces a kind of discipline, and counters individualism with collaboration on shared self-interests like good roads. Tocqueville also believed religious piety of importance, not because of his religious views, but as an early sociologist and political thinker. Belief in an afterlife in which one gives account can serve as a partial, not total, restraint on egregious evil. Tocqueville saw the separation of church and state as a good thing, recognizing the loss of spiritual force churches experienced when intertwined with political power.

All of this challenges the rhetoric of American goodness and greatness. McKenzie believes there can be great danger in being blind to human depravity, whereas the recognition of this gives reason for the countervailing powers of government and punctures the pretensions of political leaders. In his concluding chapter, he not only applies this to our current political scene, but if anything, even more forcefully speaks to his concerns for the ways the church has allied itself with political power.

This also explains to me the efforts to sanitize the teaching of American history, expunging our sorry dealings with native peoples, our involvement with slavery from our earliest settlements, and the structures that continued to oppress blacks, other minorities, and women even after Emancipation. None of these things ought surprise those of us who believe in human fallenness, who also believe in the biblical remedies of repentance, just restitution, and reconciliation. But those who must hold onto the myth of our inherent goodness cannot admit these things–the only solution is suppression–a strategy that has been a heavy burden on our nation

This is a vitally important book for our time. It not only takes a deep dive into the Great Reversal of the Jackson presidency but also uses Tocqueville to challenge the stories we tell about ourselves. It calls us to be clear-eyed about the future of our democracy, and questions the naïve notion of our inherent goodness. Perhaps a severe mercy of the pandemic is that it has challenged such illusions. But do we still hide behind them by attributing wickedness to “them”? Or will we learn from Samuel Thompson, a Massachusetts delegate in a ratification convention in 1788, to whom McKenzie introduces us. He declared, “I extremely doubt the infallibility of human nature” and gave for the basis of his doubt “Sir, I suspect my own heart, and I shall suspect our rulers.” Will we suspect our own hearts and put our trust not in rulers but in the God who searches hearts?


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

Review: Thunderstruck

Thunderstruck, Erik Larsen. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006.

Summary: The intersection of the lives of Guglielmo Marconi and Hawley Harvey Crippen occurs on a trans-Atlantic voyage with a Scotland Yard detective in pursuit.

Many of us still know who Guglielmo Marconi is. He was the most well-known pioneer of wireless telegraphy. But Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen? In the early twentieth century, he was known as the mild-mannered doctor whose missing wife was found buried in a most grisly state. Erik Larson tells the story of the unlikely intersection of their two lives, culminating in a trans-Atlantic flight of Hawley and his mistress, with a Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard on a pursuing ship.

Larson does this through parallel accounts of the two men’s lives. With Marconi, it begins with the childhood tinkerer who kept experimenting with electronic transmission and who not only envisioned wireless transmissions from ship to shore but even across the Atlantic. Larson portrays a driven man who sacrifices marriage and collaborative relationships in his obsessions, unwilling to listen to others even when his designs for transmission arrays were evidently structurally unsound. With no theoretical training, he kept making mistakes until he found ways to make it work, eventually getting his equipment on many ocean-going vessels, even as competitors both in England and Germany encroached on this lucrative market.

Crippen began life in Coldwater Michigan. He trained in homeopathic medicine. After his first wife died of stroke, he married an aspiring but untalented stage actress Cora Turner, also know on the stage as Belle Elmore. He developed a career of selling patent medicines. In 1897 they moved to England where Belle briefly pursued a career on the stage. What she lacked in talent, she made up in friends. She was domineering and he was unfailingly accommodating. Then he met a woman, Ethel, at Drouet’s Institution for the Deaf. After a party during the winter of 1910 where Belle insulted him, she disappeared, and shortly after, Ethel moved in. He gave out the story that she had left him for America, then that she was ill, and finally that she’d died in California. And he might have gotten away with it were it not for her stage friends.

One went to Scotland Yard. Chief Inspector Dew was assigned. He liked Crippen but was troubled by the discrepancies in his story. As Crippen realizes he is under suspicion, he and Ethel flee to the continent, and then board a ship to Quebec. Meanwhile, Dew, investigating the house comes across a grisly burial in the basement. Marconi’s invention gets the word out to all points, including all the ships on the ocean. The captain of the Magenta suspects that the father and son traveling as the Robinsons are in reality the fugitives, finding confirming evidence. Dew gets the word via the wireless and pursues on a faster ship. But has he gone after the right suspects and will he catch them before they reach Quebec and disappear?

The first half of the account fills in the backgrounds. It’s not even clear, apart from the prologue, how the lives of Marconi and Crippen will intersect. The pace picks up in the second half as we discover the possible crime that connects Marconi’s invention to Crippen’s flight. Meanwhile, Larson fleshes out two very interesting characters. We, along with Dew, find ourselves wondering whether Crippen really was capable of what Dew found in his basement. And what part did the apparently innocent Ethel play?

This was my first encounter with Larson’s work. I have two of his other books, The Devil in the White City and The Splendid and the Vile on my TBR pile. What I discovered is a combination of historian, biographer, and true crime writer who could spin a great and true tale. I anticipate more happy hours with this author!

Review: Sweet Land of Liberty

Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North, Thomas J. Sugrue. New York: Random House, 2009.

Summary: A history of the fight for civil rights in the North from 1920 to roughly 2000, focusing on movements, leaders, issues, and their expression in northern cities.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Birmingham, John Lewis, sit-ins, James Farmer, the Edmund Pettus Bridge. When we thing of the history of the Civil Rights movement, we often are thinking of the movement in the South. But racism and the efforts of Blacks to assert their rights in the North was just as real, even if the racism was not so out in the open. Thomas J. Sugrue traces this history beginning in the 1920’s, at the time of the great northward migration of Blacks, in a dizzying array of detail that I can only begin to summarize.

We are introduced to leaders: Henry Lee Moon, A Philip Randolph, Anna Arnold Hedgeman, Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, Attorney Cecil B. Moore, Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, Constance Baker Motley, Reverend Albert Cleage, and so many others. Sugrue covers their contributions. Perhaps one of the most striking profiles was Roxanne Jones, who rose from poverty to street activism to the state senate of Pennsylvania.

We learn about the movements: The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the Urban League, CORE, the NAACP, with their attorney and litigation strategies, Nation of Islam, the Revolutionary Action Movement, and Mothers for Adequate Welfare.

Then there are the issues. Workplace rights. Equal access to facilities, a reality in the north, but often implicit rather than explicit. Open housing is one running through this narrative from redlining to exclusion from the Leavittown suburbs and restrictive covenants to real estate “steering” practices that preserved segregation in housing. There is the struggle for equal resources in schools, the struggle to desegregate, whether through redrawing school boundaries or busing, and all the pushback that occurred. He covers government employment programs and the ongoing income inequities.

Finally, because this happened in the North, this is a narrative that takes place in cities: New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Gary, and Chicago. This last I found intriguing because the issues, the patterns, and struggles were ones I see as I study the history of my own home town of Youngstown. Sugrue’s history parallels the history both in time and struggle what I’ve observed. In the struggle for history, local history is national history.

Sugrue’s history demonstrates how so much of northern racism is woven into the fabric of our cities: government, residential patterns, workplace policies, school systems, economic policies. It explains the necessity of the movements because these systemic issues would not be changed out of the goodness of people’s hearts. They needed to be protested, resisted, litigated, boycotted, and legislated. Gradualism and patience was not adequate to bring about change. Yet often the targets were subtler and tougher to call out, and invidious actions could be justified by what seemed common sense or even noble reasons, always aiming to preserve the status quo.

We must face what is broken before we can repair and heal it. It seemed so much of this history was one of efforts to call out what was broken, and the stubborn refusal, or if that was not possible, the superficial steps to heal deep grievances and brokenness. We should not be surprised by the protests we saw in our streets in 2020. Within the frame of this book, they were simply one more expression of a hundred year history going back to the great Black northward migration in the first decades of the last century, one more cry to be heard, one more plea that we embark on the hard work of justice it takes to truly become the sweet land of liberty of which we sing.