Review: One of Ours

One of Ours, Willa Cather. New York: Vintage Classics, 1991 (Originally published 1922).

Summary: The story of Claude Wheeler, raised on a Nebraska farm, longs to live his ideals and find his purpose and does so in the First World War.

This is my last read in what I might call “The Year of Willa Cather.” I discovered her fine writing this year (how did I miss her so long). This work, a later one, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1923. Yet I found it the least satisfying of the works I’ve read.

The story is in two parts. In the first, Claude grows into adulthood on a Nebraska farm. Unlike his father and older brother with minds for business, Claude is something of a romantic, his mind filled with heroic ideals from conversations with his mother, a stint at a Christian school and his association with the Erlich family, culturally refined freethinkers. Called back to help on the farm, Claude faces the death of his romantic visions, even while still cherishing something of the pastoral beauty of the land. After an accident, he is nursed by the beautiful Enid, whose aspirations are more toward missionary service than love. Claude ardently seeks her hand in marriage, hoping that in love with such a perfect soul, he’ll find purpose. Despite warnings and the attentions of the more worldly Gladys Farmer, he marries Enid, only to find her uninterested in his affections. When her sister, a missionary in China turns ill, she leaves Claude to nurse her and take her place. His hopes dashed, he closes up the house he lovingly build to return home to his parents.

And so it might have ended were it not for the war. One of the great “might have beens” is what might have happened if he would have gotten together with Gladys. Instead, the war intervenes, he enlists and becomes an officer. Cather describes the horror of a plague ship as the flu of 1918 strikes his troop transport. Heroically he assists the doctor in caring for his bunkmate, and many other soldiers, some who do not make it but are buried at sea. He experiences something of the “band of brothers” solidarity with his company of solders, including a fellow officer, Gerhardt, with whom he is billeted.

It seems he finds the fulfillment of ideals and purpose in the Allied cause, during a series of battles. But I wonder whether this is really so, or rather, does he achieve a sense of worth in acting with courage, something he has always lacked? I find myself struggling with Cather’s portrayal of war–at times startlingly real in describing the realities of trench warfare, and at other times, creating an ideal, at least in the mind of Claude, that seems to idealize a terrible war. Sergeant Hicks seems more realistic, wanting to retreat to the “logical and beautiful inwards of automobiles for the rest of his life.”

What Cather does capture is the reality of wars that usurp the lives of so many young still trying to make sense out of life, leaving them cynical and traumatized, offering brief shining moments to others, and snuffing out the lives of too many too soon. She alludes to the number who return who take their own lives, which may be one of the early instances of writing about the inner wounds of war. And she leaves us wondering about all the “might-have-beens” of the beautiful-souled character of Claude.

Review: The Disruption of Evangelicalism

the disruption of evangelicalism

The Disruption of Evangelicalism (History of Evangelicalism Series, Volume 4) Geoffrey R. Treloar. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: Countering the existing narrative of evangelicalism at its zenith before World War I followed by a great reversal, this work argues a more positive assessment of evangelical response to the disruptions of war.

The fourth volume in the series of the History of Evangelicalism Series covers the years of 1900 to 1940. The standard narrative is of evangelicalism reaching a pinnacle of influence at the Edinburgh World Missionary Conference of 1910, followed by the challenges of the Great War (World War I), and sent reeling into retreat by the forces of modernism and the post war boom and depression, resulting in a bunker-mentality fundamentalism. Geoffrey R. Treloar argues for a more positive assessment of evangelicalism throughout this period while noting the challenges, external and internal that it faced during this time.

Treloar understands Bebbington’s four marks of evangelicalism in terms of intersecting axes. One axis is the biblicist-crucicentrist axis focused upon doctrine and more inward looking and the other axis the conversionist-activist experiential axis. Broadly speaking, the first period between 1900 and 1914 focused around the more outward looking conversionist-activist axis. Two figures exemplified this period–the revivalist Reuben A.  Torrey and the missionary statesmen and ecumenist John R. Mott, who presided over the 1910 Edinburgh Missions Conference with its watchword, “the evangelization of the world in this generation.” Scholars like A. S. Peake were engaging modern biblical criticism, although the first signs of a conservative approach concerned with doctrinal integrity was evident in the publication and distribution of The Fundamentals to pastors.

The second period was the Great War of 1914-1918. Evangelicals rallied to support the war effort of the Allied Powers and an ethic of laying down one’s life shaped the zeal of many who fought. And many did, while others returned, some stronger in faith, but others shattered by the horrors of trench warfare. Evangelicals struggled with the tension between supposed “Christian nations” who did not act very Christianly at Versailles. The revival expected during and after the war did not occur. While church attendance did not fall off, neither was there the vibrancy of the pre-war period.

This leads to the third discernible period in Treloar’s survey. He explores the tensions within the diverse evangelical movement, responding to modernism. On the one hand is a more liberal evangelicalism that attempts to hang on to its core of faith while engaging modernist ideas and social involvement. On the other, there is the rise of a fundamentalism concerned with doctrinal integrity and maintaining the priority of evangelism. Two figures Treloar focuses on here is Aimee Semple McPherson, representing the growing pentecostal movement and the uses of the new technology of radio, and Thomas Chatterton (T. C.) Hammond, whose work, first with the Church of Ireland as an evangelist and pastor, where he honed skills in articulating a winsome and theologically acute Christian faith, and later with the newly formed Inter-Varsity Fellowship and the Anglican Church in Australia. He was most know for a manual of doctrine, In Understanding Be Men, used to equip non-theological students with a knowledge of evangelical doctrine. Meanwhile J. Edwin Orr continued to study and mobilize believers to pursue revival in the church, and Australian Lionel Fletcher widely evangelized, seeing as many as 250,000 conversions in his extensive travels. By the 1930’s, a vibrant missions movement had also revived.

Treloar’s point is that while the war represented a definite disruption in the trajectory of evangelicalism, and an unraveling of the various strands of the movement, after a nadir period in the 1920’s, this very diversity resulted in a renewal of both axes–the doctrinal biblicist-crucicentrist, and the conversionist-activist.

I do think Treloar offers a more nuanced rendering of this history. Yet I believe he ignores the critique Mark Noll makes in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Noll notes that both the activist, and conservative theological commitments led to a disengagement with modernist scholarship, and a retreat from serious influence in the academic world. Apart from the theological rigor of the IVF in Great Britain and related institutions like Tyndale House, I would contend that this period represented a serious retreat and reversal in the market place of ideas, if not in other aspects, a retreat reversed only with the rise of the post-World War II evangelicalism of Carl Henry and his like.

As a side note, I was fascinated by Treloar’s focus on T. C. Hammond. His In Understanding Be Men was still in print in the mid-1970’s and was the theological handbook I studied in my early years on InterVarsity/USA staff. I was saddened to learn that Hammond was associated with a “White Australia Policy” as were many American churchmen in the 1920’s with “100 Percent Americanism.” Ideas of white supremacy and racism, sadly have a long history in evangelicalism.

Treloar does a great service in chronicling this period of evangelical history, often relegated to a kind of evangelical “dark ages” far less illustrious that the eras that preceded and followed. He helps us see that far more was going on in both theological and missiological formation in the evangelical movement than is often credited.


Review: World’s End (Lanny Budd #1)

World's End

World’s End (Lanny Budd #1), Upton Sinclair. New York: Open Road Media, 2016 (originally published 1940).

Summary: First in a series of eleven novels, introducing the character of Lanny Budd, a precocious youth on the eve of World War 1, his German and English friends and their respective fates during the war while Lanny divides his time between his glamorous mother and artist step-father on the Riviera, and in New England with his father’s Puritan munitions-making family, ending up as a secretary to a geographer at the Paris Peace Conference.

Several months ago, I read and reviewed A World to Win, number seven in the Lanny Budd novels. There, a decidedly adult Lanny Budd functions as a secret agent for the president (Roosevelt) during World War 2. This novel, the first in the series, introduces us to Lanny Budd on the eve of World War 1. Raised by Beauty, his mother, he grew up in the mix of art and culture of Paris and the French Riviera. Although she was a preacher’s daughter, she was rejected by Lanny’s father’s New England Puritan family because she had posed several times in the nude for Parisian artists, and never married Lanny’s father. He acquires the artistic tastes and cultured manners of his mother’s circle, and the savvy of his munitions-salesman father. He also acquires two friends at boarding school, an English boy named Rick, and a German boy of high birth named Kurt. Like other pre-pubescent teens, their discussions range from philosophy to the mysteries of girls.

All this ends with the onset of the Great War. Rick eventually ends up as an RAF flyer, married, and wounded, never to walk without pain. Kurt fights for Germany and eventually becomes involved in espionage at war’s end that catches up Lanny. Beauty retreats to the Riviera, marry an artist, Marcel Detaze, whose greatest work comes after he is severely wounded, before he returns to the front, never to come back. Lanny has his first love affair with a girl destined to marry into an English house, and his first heartbreak.

After assisting his father for a period, learning to code and decode documents and meeting numerous famous figures, even Zaharoff, his father’s main competitor, he returns with his father to New England, meeting his stern old grandfather, his very correct step-mother, and an enlightened old great grandfather, who kept company with the New England transcendentalists. He is used for his connections by another woman, and returns with his father to Europe wiser and sadder.

Due to language skills and his savvy and facility in meeting the rich and powerful, he serves as a secretary to a geography professor who is part of the US delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. He witnesses the high public ideals of the Fourteen Points, and the private maneuvering among Wilson, Clemenceau, and Lloyd George, for land and oil and the utter subjugation of Germany. At a point of disillusionment, he dabbles with Kurt and the socialists in a dangerous set of liaisons.

Sinclair portrays Budd against the backdrop of the Great War–the folly of the great powers who stumbled into this conflict, and eventually drew in the US. Lanny’s father tries to keep him out of it all, even as his company profits greatly, as do all the munitions manufacturers. He gets an education in the power politics, and the business interests that profit by war. This sets up a tension for Budd, raised among artists and caring for the fine and noble things of life. Does he join his father in an enterprise even his father approaches with cynicism, or pursue another path?

Budd also meets the socialists, and those who have ties to the revolution in Russia, through a socialist uncle, Beauty’s brother and becomes aware of the ways the rich exploit workers in every country. Lanny’s father tries to protect him from such influences as well. In this first novel, we see the tensions and influences at war in Lanny, while the world is at war. Sinclair sets us up for succeeding novels in introducing us to Lanny, able to travel with and identify with artists, the wealthy capitalists, even the socialists, moving through all these circles. We wonder if he really belongs to any of them.

If there is any criticism to be laid to this novel, it is that it seems more preparatory than anything to the stories to follow. The war and the Peace Conference really are the plot, with a bit of suspense toward the end around his relationship with Kurt and his uncle. But the book serves as a great summation of World War 1 and what pre-war Europe was like. It portrays the tragedy of Paris and Versailles that made the second World War inevitable and carved up the Middle East in ways that are still having repercussions. We glimpse the graft and folly behind noble statements and patriotic sentiment. And, similar to “Pug” Henry in The Winds of War, we wonder at what famous events, and with what famous people, Lanny will turn up next.

Review: Wilson


Wilson, A. Scott Berg. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013.

Summary: A definitive biography of Woodrow Wilson, that traces the arc of his life from boyhood to professor to college president to U.S. president in biblical terms fitting for this deeply religious man.

For many of us, Woodrow Wilson is the somewhat tragic figure associated with the cruel peace of Versailles that sowed the seeds of World War II, the unwillingness of Congress to embrace U.S. entry into the League of Nations, and the secrets of his final year as president, severely impaired by a stroke, protected by his wife and doctor. That is only a small part of the story of this deeply religious man who combined a progressive vision for the nation with great integrity, and, for over six years of his presidency, masterful leadership. It is this fuller story that A. Scott Berg renders in what may be, for our generation, the definitive biography of Wilson.

As befits the staunchly Presbyterian Thomas Woodrow Wilson (he dropped the Thomas in college), Berg uses a biblical narrative arc to trace his life. Berg’s opening chapters capture the pinnacle of Wilson’s “Ascension” as he arrives to acclaim in Europe for peace talks after the Armistice and the “Providence” of his boyhood as a Presbyterian minister’s son.

We then begin with the Eden of college years at Princeton, where he would spend much of his life. There were the Sinai years of wilderness wandering in law school and then graduate studies at Johns Hopkins, followed by several professorship, culminating in his appointment at Princeton, where he and first wife Ellen would spend much of adult life, first as a remarkably popular professor and scholar, and later as an ambitious reforming president. “Advent” covers the politics of the latter part of his presidency, the first signs of arteriosclerosis that would play a significant role latter, and his (likely non-sexual) dalliance with Mrs. Peck.

“Paul” covers his brief tenure as New Jersey governor and presidential campaign. It was striking to me that one of the things that won people to Wilson was that he never “talked down” to people but rather his elevated speech lifted them up. “Disciples” discusses the people Wilson surrounded himself as he prepared for his first term and the reforms he hoped to introduce. We meet Colonel House, who holds no office but was perhaps his most intimate adviser and emissary until their falling out after the peace talks at the end of the war. There is William McAdoo, who will later become his son-in-law. We are also introduced to Dr. Cary Grayson, the military doctor who oversaw the president’s health. “Baptism” covers the beginning of the first term and “Ecclesiastes” the death of Ellen from Bright’s disease and the subsequent courtship and marriage to Edith, who would play such a critical role at the end of his presidency.

“Deliverance” describes his election to a second term on the slogan “he kept us out of the war” and the increasing awareness that it would not be possible for the U.S. to remain neutral. “Armageddon” chronicles the entrance into the war, and how Wilson masterfully mobilizes the nation to move onto a war footing. “Isaiah”and “Gethsemane” give an account of the peace talks and the maneuvering of Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and others to undermine Wilson’s lofty ideals about both the League of Nations and the terms imposed upon Germany. “Passion” tells the tale of Congress’s rejection of his treaty efforts, and the punishing cross-country journey to try to sell the treaty to the people that led to a series of small strokes, culminating into a major one that left Wilson paralyzed on his left side. “Pieta” describes the efforts of Edith, Grayson, and others close to Wilson to sustain his presidency when he was greatly disabled, and the passing of the presidency to the antithesis of Wilson, Warren Harding. The final chapter, “Resurrection” tells the story of his final years, the rise of his reputation in the nation including outliving Harding, and his passing and burial in the National Cathedral.

We have a portrait of a great and tragic figure. He wasn’t perfect. He was a man of integrity who could be unforgiving when trust was betrayed, as he was with some of his closest advisers at the end of his presidency. He was that rare occurrence, an effective scholar-politician. His record on race was spotty, but he advocated for women’s suffrage. He fought big business and pressed tariff reforms that helped many in the country. He resisted the drumbeat of war, and when it could be resisted no longer, led the nation into a disinterested effort to fight a “war to end all wars.” He saw further than others, and fought in vain for the settlement and the institutions that would forestall a renewal of war. His sense of duty, and obligation to the fighting men, led him to efforts that nearly killed him, and did break his health irreparably.

Reading the biography reminded me that the struggle between American self-interest and an expansive view of our role in the world has run throughout our history. It portrayed how much we ask of our presidents, and the wonder that any of them survive their terms in office. A. Scott Berg’s biography of Wilson is a fascinating exploration of what makes for presidential greatness, the shaping of presidential leadership and the perennial conflicts that seem inherent in the American experiment.


Review: A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War


A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great WarJoseph Loconte. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.

Summary: A study of why Lewis and Tolkien, contrary to a disillusioned post-war generation, went deeper into their faith and allowed both war experience and that faith to shape their greatest works.

In one sense, Joseph Loconte covers ground that others have covered in exploring the lives and work of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. What Loconte uniquely does are two things. For one, he explores why Lewis and Tolkien defied the trajectory into disillusionment of so many in the post-World War I generation, and went on to embrace and espouse a vibrant Christian faith. As for the second, Loconte reads the works of these two men, exploring how war experiences shaped the imaginary worlds of Narnia, the Space Trilogy, and Middle Earth. He articulates his particular theses as follows:

     “Indeed, it was the experience of war that provided much of the raw material for the characters and themes of their imaginative works. In a talk called ‘Learning in War Time,’ Lewis explained how war exposes the folly in placing our happiness in utopian schemes to transform society. ‘If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.’ As we’ll see, unlike the disillusionment that overwhelmed much of his generation, Lewis would use the experience of war–its horror as well as its nobility–as a guidepost to moral clarity.”

For Loconte then, the beginning point is to discuss the “Myth of Progress” that preceded the war as it viewed humans, society, and technology evolving to ever more enlightened forms by which humanity would cast off the darkness of ignorance that had contributed to so much suffering in the past. With the onset of the war and the horrors of the trench warfare (perhaps Tolkien’s inspiration for his vision of Mordor), these illusions were shattered for many. Both were casualties of war through illness or wounds. In Lewis’ case, a journey through the country to a hospital to convalesce may have sparked a vision of Narnia. It was during Lewis’s war years that he came across George McDonald’s Phantastes, that certainly contributed to the conversion of his imagination.

War’s end brought the massive disillusionment of much of the intellectual class. While Tolkien devoted himself to work and to his Catholic faith, and began to sketch the outlines of the great myth that would be the foundation of Lord of the Rings, Lewis struggled with doubt. Lewis and Tolkien first met in 1926, recognizing their common interest in languages. But they had a profound disagreement about myth that culminated in a long conversation between Lewis, Tolkien, and Hugo Dyson in which Lewis recognized the story of Christ dying and rising to be a true myth, a crucial step for Lewis in coming to Christian faith. In the years ahead, they would collaborate as two key figures in a larger group knowing as the Inklings in a host of writing projects that birthed the Space Trilogy, the Chronicles of Narnia, and The Lord of the Rings, as well as many of Lewis’s apologetic works. Through the mutual encouragement they gave each other and their vibrant faith, they provide a counter for the outpouring of disillusioned, despairing writing of the post-war period.

What is more, they envisioned in their work, shaped by their experience of a brutally efficient technology unhinged from a larger theological framework, the ways bureaucracy and technology might interweave to obliterate the human image in books like That Hideous Strength, or in the idea of a Ring of Power that could subject all manner of beings to its owner’s bidding. Seeing the machines of war in their own experience, and the more sinister regimes of Hitler and Stalin, they could write of the evil power that, as Screwtape desires, would devour the other.

Yet Loconte shows how this bracing grasp of the nature of evil did not discourage them. Their works were infused with Christian hope–an Aslan that rises, a hobbit who, against all hopes, fulfills his mission with the help of tragic Gollum, the crowning of Aragorn as the long-awaited great king, and the Christ-like figure of Ransom, who summons both Merlin and the angels to subvert the villainies of the N.I.C.E. Like the foot soldiers in the war, many of the most significant turns of events come from the actions of children and hobbits doing their duty.

This, as I said, is not a book that covers new ground, but I found myself as I read making new connections, the “I hadn’t thought of it that way” moments when you see something you know in a new way. Loconte concludes the book with a tribute to grandfather, Michele Loconte, who fought with the American forces, and only after the war became a U.S. citizen. Loconte says his research helped him understand more how the war had an impact on so many ordinary families including his own. Fitting that an Inklings scholar should make this connection between his own history and that of the Inklings!

Review: Home Before the Leaves Fall

Home before leaves fallHome Before the Leaves Fall, Ian Senior. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2012.

Summary: This is a new account of Germany’s invasion of France at the beginning of World War I, describing how it almost succeeded and why it ultimately ended in stalemate.

German, French and British forces all thought the conflict that became World War I would be a brief one, resulting either in victory for the Germans or a decisive repulsing of the German threat. The boys were promised they would be “home before the leaves fall.”

Ian Senior’s account of the German invasion of France through Belgium describes how this nearly came true, and why the Germans failed in their aims at the beginning of the war. The book begins with accounts of the battle plans developed by the Germans and the French. In the German case we learn of the Schlieffen plan, as further elaborated by Moltke the younger, which depended on a wheeling turn through Belgium of the German right that turned the flank of the French-English forces, leading to envelopment and the conquest of Paris. What Moltke had to contend with were the challenges of the possibility of a two front war which would lessen the forces he could work with, and the challenges of transport and communication in making this wheeling move. Ultimately it would prove too much, while nearly succeeding.

The book proceeds with a day by day account of the battles, from the initial defeat of the French at Charleroi, the retreat, including the unsteady performance of the British on the French left. It traces the the initial French failure to anticipate the strength of the German attack through Belgium, and Joffre’s skillful shifting of forces to his left after retreating, to stop the German advances. In the end, he mounts a counter-offensive on the German right, exploiting a gap between the First and Second German armies, leading to their eventual retreat and the transition from a war of maneuver to the deadly stalemate of trench warfare.

What I’ve just outlined in broad detail, Senior elaborates minutely with battle by battle accounts across the front. The book includes maps in every chapter of the changing battlefield and also diary and action reports that help one understand vividly the realities troops faced of marches, attacks into blistering artillery fire, and retreat, often going for days with little sleep, covering, in some cases, hundreds of miles, mostly on foot.

What Senior develops is an understanding of how close the Germans came to success and that it was a combination of the inadequacies of communication, transport, and supply, plus the shifting of some troops to the eastern front from Moltke’s right wing that may have cost him victory. Likewise, we see Joffre, not considered a terribly brilliant officer, come into his own as he sacks incompetents, promotes the effective, and recovers from a French battle plan that failed to anticipate Germany’s strategic surprise on their left.

The book reminds me that beyond strategic concepts and careful planning, there are still the variables of logistics and the character of battlefield leaders. When forces are closely matched, as were the two sides going into this conflict, it is often factors that don’t show up in plans that make the difference. Also, many accounts look at the battle from the perspective of the British Expeditionary Force, which was only four divisions strong at this point. The Germans and French each had over sixty divisions and Senior’s account focuses much more closely on what happened from the perspective of these troops in battle. In particular, Joffre and the French come out looking better than what I’ve read in other accounts.

I’d recommend this book for those who already having a working understanding of the battles and troop movements of World War I rather than as a first book on this subject, because of the level of detail the author goes into. But if one wants to go more deeply, and perhaps more from the French and German perspectives, this is a valuable addition to World War I scholarship.