Thursday, December 29, 2011

Some Views of Dante's Paradise

Unsurprisingly, charts and artistic renditions of Dante's Paradiso are much more difficult to find than Purgatory or Hell.  But here are a few attempts at it.

Interestingly, one I found is unavailable in the public domain, but is available by special permission here.


The Celestial Rose (at the very top of Paradise):

Doré, Celestial Rose

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Philip Schaff's Reflections on Martin Luther's Trial

Luther’s testimony before the Diet [of Worms, 1521] is an event of world-historical importance and far-reaching effect. It opened an intellectual conflict which is still going on in the civilized world. He stood there as the fearless champion of the supremacy of the word of God over the traditions of men, and of the liberty of conscience over the tyranny of authority.

For this liberty, all Protestant Christians, who enjoy the fruit of his courage, owe him a debt of gratitude. His recantation could not, any more than his martyrdom, have stopped the Reformation; but it would have retarded its progress, and indefinitely prolonged the oppressive rule of popery.

When tradition becomes a wall against freedom, when authority degenerates into tyranny, the very blessing is turned into a curse, and history is threatened with stagnation and death.

At such rare junctures, Providence raises those pioneers of progress, who have the intellectual and moral courage to break through the restraints at the risk of their lives, and to open new paths for the onward march of history. This consideration furnishes the key for the proper appreciation of Luther’s determined stand at this historical crisis.

Conscience is the voice of God in man. It is his most sacred possession. No power can be allowed to stand between the gift and the giver. Even an erring conscience must be respected, and cannot be forced. The liberty of conscience was theoretically and practically asserted by the Christians of the ante-Nicene age, against Jewish and heathen persecution; but it was suppressed by the union of Church and State after Constantine the Great, and severe laws were enacted under his successors against every departure from the established creed of the orthodox imperial Church. These laws passed from the Roman to the German Empire, and were in full force all over Europe at the time when Luther raised his protest. Dissenters had no rights which Catholics were bound to respect; even a sacred promise given to a heretic might be broken without sin, and was broken by the Emperor Sigismund in the case of Hus.

This tyranny was brought to an end by the indomitable courage of Luther.

Liberty of conscience may, of course, be abused, like any other liberty, and may degenerate into heresy and licentiousness. The individual conscience and private judgment often do err, and they are more likely to err than a synod or council, which represents the combined wisdom of many. Luther himself was far from denying this fact, and stood open to correction and conviction by testimonies of Scripture and clear arguments. He heartily accepted all the doctrinal decisions of the first four oecumenical Councils, and had the deepest respect for the Apostles’ Creed on which his own Catechism is based. But he protested against the Council of Constance for condemning the opinions of Hus, which he thought were in accordance with the Scriptures. The Roman Church itself must admit the fallibility of Councils if the Vatican decree of papal infallibility is to stand; for more than one oecumenical council has denounced Pope Honorius as a heretic, and even Popes have confirmed the condemnation of their predecessor. Two conflicting infallibilities neutralize each other.

Luther did not appeal to his conscience alone, but first and last to the Scripture as he understood it after the most earnest study. His conscience, as he said, was bound in the word of God, who cannot err. There, and there alone, he recognized infallibility. By recanting, he would have committed a grievous sin.

One man with the truth on his side is stronger than a majority in error, and will conquer in the end. Christ was right against the whole Jewish hierarchy, against Herod and Pilate, who conspired in condemning him to the cross. St. Paul was right against Judaism and heathenism combined, "unus versus mundum;" St. Athanasius, "the father of orthodoxy," was right against dominant Arianism; Galileo Galilei was right against the Inquisition and the common opinion of his age on the motion of the earth; Döllinger was right against the Vatican Council when, "as a Christian, as a theologian, as an historian, and as a citizen," he protested against the new dogma of the infallibility of the Pope.

That Luther was right in refusing to recant, and that he uttered the will of Providence in hearing testimony to the supremacy of the word of God and the freedom of conscience, has been made manifest by the verdict of history.

-Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 7: The German Reformation 1517-1530; Chapter III, Section 56.

Friday, December 16, 2011

What Child Is This: Who is this Kid anyway?

What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
I had originally intended to use this series of posts as devotional reflections through a Christmas carol, but as I've been watching comments, posts, and stories make the rounds on Facebook, I've decided to turn at least part of this post in a more polemic direction.
I tend to have two different sets of friends on Facebook. One set is largely composed of people met in undergrad and have recently reconnected with, who tend to be atheist and highly educated (graduate level or higher). This set tends to view Christmas as at best a leftover pagan ritual that Christians adopted and still superstitiously upheld. I will not be dealing with this set of friends here (maybe in a later post, I don't know).

The other set tends to be people that I either knew in high school or have met in grad school in the DC area. This set of friends runs the gamut of education, from high school dropouts to terminal degree holders of various sorts. What unites this set of friends seems to be the believe that a war is being waged on Christmas, if not by President Obama specifically, then at least by liberalism in general. It is to this group that I would like to point out two things:

1) It is very important not to confuse the general hostility of the world to Christianity (which we should fully expect to be the case anyway) with the question of whether or not Congressmen can put "Merry Christmas" in official mailings. The latter is merely a political argument over rituals of state, which we as Christians can in good conscience go either way on.
We absolutely must remember that the world does not hate Christians because we like our society to have December 25 off as a holiday, or because we say "Merry Christmas" instead of the perfectly acceptable "Happy Holidays", or even because we sing along with the month of Christmas carols that somehow ends up starting a week earlier every year. The world hates Christians because the message of Christianity to the world is "you are sinful and deserve to burn forever in hell, and the only way to get out of it is to believe that someone else has already done all the work necessary to save you from it." That is the source of tension, and it happens to be something that runs all year long in every country and even in every person. And that, in turn, leads to the fact that

2) This is not worth our effort or attention. At least, not much of it. Traditionally, Christmas is the time when we remember the Incarnation. We remember that God became a man in the person of Jesus Christ. "What child is this" the song asks? "This, this is Christ, the King." The God who we have angered, the God who is our rightful King, whom we have rebelled against, became a man so that He could live the perfect life that you and I and every other person who has ever existed should have lived, and die the sinful death that every one of us deserved to die, so that if we repent of our sins and believe in this good news, that life and that death count as our own and we are made right with God. A great exchange takes place in which all our sin is counted as "paid in full" because of Christ's death on the cross, and all of our life is counted as "perfectly virtuous" because of Christ's life. This message is infinitely more offensive than putting "Merry Christmas" on your Facebook wall, or a nativity scene on a town hall lawn, or even a Ten Commandments display in a courtroom. And spreading this message is worth our effort and attention, every ounce and second of both that we can possibly muster.

So, I guess what I'm saying is that I suspect that some of my friends are fighting the wrong battle (however good their intentions might otherwise be). Rather than working to keep the trappings of Christmas from slipping out of mainstream political culture, we should be working to be more offensive by telling people the truth about what Child this is.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Book Review: Why Church Matters by Joshua Harris

Why Church Matters: Discovering Your Place in the Family of GodWhy Church Matters: Discovering Your Place in the Family of God by Joshua Harris

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book by Joshua Harris (formerly titled Stop Dating the Church!: Fall in Love with the Family of God) is a little primer on, appropriately, why church matters.

To that end, a few observations:

1) this book is only written for Christians. Of course non-Christians are welcome to attend church on Sunday mornings, even encouraged to do so. But there is no obligation on someone who does not self-identify as a Christian to join a local church.

2) if you are a Christian and are not active in a local church, you're probably struggling with pride. Or, even more likely, not struggling with pride. (Of course, Harris is too much the gentleman to come out and say that explicilty, but I'm a nobody reviewer and can say what I like, bwahahahaha!) Among the many things the church is intended to do, God has set it in place to help take care of us, and for us to live out our faith by helping to take care of others. If we are not doing that, we are, in practice if not openly in our words, telling God that he has made a mistake and that we do not need the body of people he has prepared for our good.

And really, those are the big points. Beyond that Harris discusses things like how to spot a good local church, how to support the local church, and how to get the most out of local church (not from a consumer perspective, but rather from the perspective of a Christian who wants to reflect the Gospel in his own life).

Highly recommended as a starting place for thinking about our lives together as Christians.

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

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Friday, December 2, 2011

Bookroll! Ancient History Edition

I minored in Ancient history in undergrad, and, in my more honest moments, I admit I probably should have majored in it. Not that I'm dissatisfied with political science, it's just that in undergrad I spent far more time discussing/reading/sitting in class and learning about the Ancient world than I did any single political topic (and possibly more than all political topics put together, though I haven't gone back and looked at my schedule to try to figure it out). Even now I haven't given up my delight in the Classical world, and as soon as I'm done flogging the politics out of the good Reverend Edwards, I fully intend to get back to my first love.

So, with all that having been said, this is a list of books from or about the ancient world that 1) I've read myself; 2) I wish more people would read; 3) aren't so difficult that they couldn't just be picked up and read by anyone, whether they've got a history background or not. To simplify things, I will not be including philosophy, religion, or fiction on this list. History only!

1) Twelve Caesars by Suetonius. This book is simply a must-read. Suetonius was some form of minor functionary in the Roman government, but the kind of bureaucrat that got access to the Imperial archives. Which meant that he could read all about all the terrible things that Roman Emperors had done, and write about them (after he got caught and got fired, and had some leisure time on his hands). Suetonius tries his hardest to give each emperor a fair shake, listing first the good things they did, and then chronicling their much more numerous vices.

2) Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian. Arrian was one of the first military historians, and is the primary source (along with Plutarch, see below) for our knowledge of Alexander the Great. While Arrian isn't necessarily a spectacular writer himself, he's interesting enough to keep the narrative flowing. Besides, Alexander the Great is the single most interesting figure in the ancient world, and it's almost a given that a book about him is going to be fantastic.

3) Parallel Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans by Plutarch. Plutarch was a philosopher and pagan priest who wrote a great many books, all of which are worthy of attention (his essay on "Talkativeness" is fantastic, he argues that talkativeness is a sin because it can never be satisfied), but his biographies are really the place to start. In the Parallel Lives, Plutarch pairs up Greeks and Romans, comparing their accoplishments and commenting on their similarities and differences. Cicero, Demosthenes, Caesar, and Alexander the Great all make appearances. Even better, these biographies aren't written as a narrative whole. so you can go through and pick out the ones you want to read and pass over the rest, without missing anything.

4) Rise of the Roman Empire by Polybius. Polybius was a Greek prisoner of war being held by the Romans, and had a front row seat to the destruction of Carthage. He wrote this history to explain to the Greeks why it was that Rome was the up-and-comer in the world, while their own cities languished or even collapsed. Mostly dealing with Hannibal and the Punic War, this is one of the most readable books from the ancient world and is well worth a look, especially book 5, which covers the battle of Cannae, and book 6, which describes the Roman constitution.

5) The Catilinian War by Sallust. A governor of North Africa, Sallust was a friend of Caesar and both spectator and participant in the Roman revolution. In The Catilinian War, he writes about the conspiracy of Catiline to overthrow the Roman government (just a few years before Caesar managed to throw it off). This short book is useful both as an interesting narrative, and as a great way to meet such famous characters as Cato, Cicero, and Caesar.

6) The Spartans by Paul Cartledge is the best introduction to the warrior city of ancient Greece. Both readable and informative, Cartledge lays out the structure and culture of Spartan society, as well as discussing its growth, apex, and destruction.

7) Civilization Before Greece and Rome by H.W.F. Saggs is a good catch-all for the "everything else" of the ancient world. Discussing Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, the Hittites, and so on, Saggs gives an engaging overview of the development of society prior to the rise of Greece. The economics chapters can bog down a bit, but in general this is an excellent read.

8) Gods, Graves, and Scholars by C.W. Ceram is a survey of the greatest hits of archaeology from the beginning up through the 1940s, and, well, I'm glad I didn't read this until after I'd graduated college, because I would have seriously considered converting away from political science and into archaeology. Unfortunately, archaeology these days is much more about digging through the dirt with a toothbrush and much less about fighting off bandits while you dig up gold. Fortunately, this book is about the earlier stage in archaeology...

9) Alexander the Great by Robin Lane Fox. There are many great biographies of Alexander (both ancient and modern), but this is one of the best since it not only tells Alexander's story, it explains the ancient world in a way that is understandable to the modern reader. There are others that could be read, but this is probably the one to start with (my favorite is Wilcken's, which was written in Germany in the 1930s...). Fun fact about Lane Fox: he was the historical advisor on the Oliver Stone Alexander movie (which is one of the reasons it was historically accurate, even if it's a terrible movie). As part of his payment for putting his name on the movie, he demanded that they let him take part in a cavalry charge (apparently that's a common wish amongst Alexander scholars), and at one point, so the rumor goes, he got so into it that they had to stop shooting because they were afraid he was going to spear someone...

10) The Battle That Stopped Rome by Peter Wells. This isn't an earth-shattering book or anything like that, it's just a solid example of how one historical event can be covered in an interesting way with a full-length book. I could have easily picked one of many others, but this one is fairly short and covers an important battle.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Coffee Please

Johann Sebastian Bach, great composer of sacred and secular music, author of St. John's Passion, St. Matthew's Passion, and the Magnificat, wrote a canto about... coffee.

                                       Also, he may have been a robot here to save or kill John Connor.

Bach wrote this short piece about a girl who's father won't let her marry until she gives up her addiction to coffee.
Fortunately, times have changed.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


I know there's a link on the side of the blog for this sort of thing, but I'm too lazy to figure out how to use it. Instead, I thought I'd just briefly outline some of the blogs I follow, and give a quick reason for why I enjoy each of them.
Disclaimer: I am not a compulsive blog reader. Some of these I only visit occasionally, and may not have visited even recently. If things have changed on any of them and they're no longer read-worthy, please do let me know.
Disclaimer(2): I'm not going to list any personal blogs, only ones intended for broader consumption are going to be listed here.

The Christian Humanist Blog: Ending always with the very Luther admonition to "let your sins be strong, and let your faith be stronger", these three guys (all, I believe, graduates of the University of Georgia) discuss the various and sundry things that human beings do well. Mostly that means literature and philosophy (not that human beings don't to architecture and engineering well also, just that those topics are a bit off the radar of these humanities-types), though occasionally it branches into movements in the historical and contemporary church. While not every episode is for everyone, every episode does engage thoughtfully and somewhat thoroughly with important topics, thinkers, and events.

Mike Gilbart-Smith is a preacher in London who only occasionally updates his blog (not that I have room to throw stones), but who is always worth checking out.

Also from across the pond is Richard Bartholomew, a more liberal thinker about religion (I'm not sure if he self-identifies as Christian or not) who focuses mostly on domestic British religious issues, but whose book reviews are always worthy of note. "Who," you might be asking yourself, "the deuce is Richard Bartholomew?" Well, according to his blog, "there are at least four people Richard Bartholomew is not. He is not Richard Bartholomew the JFK conspiracy theorist and political cartoonist from Texas. And he is not Richard Bartholomew, author of books on India. He is also not Brother Bartholomew, the Satanic Catholic leader in Salem Kirban’s apocalyptic novel 666, nor is he the mystic entity Bartholomew channelled by Mary Moore." Enough said.

The First Things website has a couple of good ones, Evangel tries to cover the broad relationship between Christianity and culture on a popular level. At least, that's what it does nominally. From time to time it breaks into theological debate, and then a purge is made of the bloggers guilty of religious... unpleasantness. Which alone is worth following. On the other hand, Postmodern Conservative tries to consider the relationship between Christianity and movements in modern philosophy, though it often ends up merely sniping at modern politics and politicians. Which again is worth paying attention to :)

Also along political lines, Front Porch Republic is worth the occasional glance. Though I am not an agrarian myself, these wannabe farmers usually have insightful critiques and thoughtful analyses of the problems of modernity, even if their solutions lack luster at times.

Finally, Kim Riddlebarger is a pastor out in California (I forget where exactly, but does it really matter anyway?) who I occasionally check in with. He is at his best when dealing with matters eschatological, and (he would undoubtedly want me to add) matters concerning the New York Yankees, which I am much less inclined to care about.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Pictures and Drawings of Christian Rome

This is a series of pictures, etchings, and recreations of Christian art and artifacts from the first four centuries AD in Rome. Some of these are especially interesting (I've always liked #2, which is sometimes thought to be Daniel, but which I think works better as various interpretations of Christ- the one with the Shepherd carrying the lamb on his shoulders is my favorite). And, for our Catholic friends, please note #8 (pictured above), which includes both Bishop Cornelius of Rome and Bishop Cyprian of Carthage being held in equal stature :)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

What Child Is This? Introduction

Once again it's time for the annual "blog through a Christmas Carol" series. At least, if having done something once in the past really counts as being "annual." Again, a bazillion thanks to Roger Overton, who did this before me and oodles better than I could hope to. In fact, if you're reading this and haven't read his, stop now, click on his name, and read his meditations on O Holy Night...
This year, I've picked What Child Is This? Partially because I must obey the inscrutable exhortations of my soul, and partially because it's just a great song.

What Child Is This? was written by William Chatterton Dix during a deep depression, which occurred after a sickness brought him to the brink of death. (There's probably a book to be written, but not by me, on the connection between clinical depression and hymn writing, cf William Cowper and Horatio Spafford.) The song was later set to the traditional English tune "Greensleeves."

What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh,
Come peasant, king to own Him;
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.
Raise, raise a song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Friday, November 18, 2011


Holiness is for prudes, for sticklers, for the uptight, the judgmental. Holiness is boring in the minds of most people. You young people know very well... that you're tempted to think that holiness is boring. But that's because, as with the Presence of God, you've never seen it, or experienced its power.
-Robert Rayburn, Sermon on Ezekiel 43:13-46:24 available here.

Book Review: Why Men Hate Going to Church by David Murrow

Why Men Hate Going to ChurchWhy Men Hate Going to Church by David Murrow

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hmm, another book where it's tough to know where to begin. I guess with a summary:

This book is about why men hate going to church. Specifically, it walks through some historical and psychological reasons men don't go to church, and then through some possible solutions.

This book is well written, so it gets three stars (my rock-solid rule of book rating is that if you can string two sentences together in a way that keeps me reading, you get the average- it's a rare enough skill that it ought to be praised when encountered).

Having said that, I do not actually recommend any of the content of this book. Let me just suggest three reasons why:

1) Ultimately the theme of the book is that men don't go to church... because they are men. Which wouldn't be a problem, other than that Murrow believes that the church since the Victorian Era has been in a steady process of feminizing. He points out that the vast majority of church programs and institutions in the 20th century are either geared towards women or require more feminine virtues to implement. This drives men away, or at best makes them grudging attendees. What Murrow fails to point out is that most of these men wouldn't go anyway not because their biggest problem is their gender, but because they are sinners. It is not our masculinity that keeps us from God, it's our rebellion against him. We don't go to church because by nature we hate God and don't want anything to do with him.

2)The bulk of the statistics he quotes are from mainline Protestant churches, as are the majority of his solutions. The fact that he focuses on theologically liberal churches is in itself enough to skew the book to the point where it essentially has no value for a Christian. If churches where the Gospel is being regularly and faithfully preached are having problems keeping men in the seats (and they might very well be), that's a very different issue than a bunch of social clubs who gave Christianity the boot a hundred years ago (and hence really lost the right to be called "churches") having trouble keeping men interested.

3) There is no Gospel in this book. Not only in the sense that it is not shared, it does not work its way into Murrow's writings even by implication, nor is it part of his proposed solution. In one sense, Christians should be like Sunday School kids who know that the answer to every question is the atoning work of Jesus. Murrow thinks that t he solution to the lack of attendance at churchon the part of men is making church more attractive to them. He never once points out that the problem might be with the men. Maybe we don't go to church because we're lazy, or because we're proud, or because we're simply distracted by other good things that we think are more important. To any of these problems, the solution that Christianity has to offer (and has always had to offer, it's not like this is a radically new thing) is the Good News that our sin has been paid for on the cross. Our laziness, our pride, our distraction, all of our sin in wanting to forsake the church has been completely paid for, and not by us. That, and that alone, is the message that we should be relying on to bring men back into the church. Of course there are other things that we can do better, but if the Gospel is left out we might as well lock the doors now, because we're not doing anyone any good, men or women. Without that, this can't even be classified as a "Christian" book in any sense of the term that would have any meaning.

I have to confess, this is a somewhat difficult review to write, since I agree with the bulk of Murrow's points. More men should go to church; praise bands do kind-of suck; I don't like being put on the spot to pray; lots of functions in the church are more geared towards women than men; and so on. Nevertheless, I can't recommend this as anything other than a well-written book. Hence: 3 stars.

Personal Disclaimer: I intend no comment one way or the other on the state of David Murrow's own relationship with God. Saying this is not a Christian book is not the same thing as saying he is not a Christian personally. That is not information to which I am privy.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Book Review: Radical Together by David Platt

Radical Together: Unleashing the People of God for the Purpose of GodRadical Together: Unleashing the People of God for the Purpose of God by David Platt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

See, my problem with this book is that if I buy into Platt's argument, then I have to let Christianity affect my whole life, instead of just the parts that are comfortable and easy. Specifically, I have to do this in the context of the church.

This book is a follow-up to Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream and contains David Platt's meditations on the implications of Christianity for our corporate life as a church. This is a much-neglected side of 20th and 21st century Christian life, and in turn has meant that most churches have become worldly, isolated, or spiritually dead. Platt's book is an important challenge to churches to recapture the belief that God is sovereign and to take the reality of God's sovereignty seriously. Specifically, Platt suggests that

1) traditional (or even non-traditional) church programs may need to be let go in order to better obey the Great Commission;

2) the Gospel should both rescue a church from legalism and inspire it to action;

3) the guide and means which God has established for us to do this is His Word;

4) the job of the church is not to reach out to non-Christians in the community, the job of the church is to equip Christians to do so themselves;

5) the job of the church is to establish new churches around the world to do 4);

6) the job of the church ultimately is to glorify God, not the church.

Overall, this is an excellent and challenging book. Platt's writing is clear and flows well, and his examples (while at times a bit of a stretch) are generally interesting and engaging (the mention of the Moravian Christians from Germany who sold themselves into slavery so they could share the Gospel in the Caribbean was especially interesting). I especially recommend this book to anyone who wants to know what the church is all about...

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Happy Guy Fawkes' Day!

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
the Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent to blow up King and Parliament.
Three score barrels were laid below to prove old England’s overthrow;
By God’s mercy he was catch’d with a dark lantern and lighted match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
Hip hip hoorah!

A penny loaf to feed the Pope
A farthing o’ cheese to choke him.
A pint of beer to rinse it down.
A bundle of sticks to burn him.
Burn him in a tub of tar.
Burn him like a blazing star.
Burn his body from his head.
Then we’ll say ol’ Pope is dead.
Hip hip hoorah!
Hip hip hoorah hoorah!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Why Great Men Are Not Chosen Presidents

It's election season again (or if you prefer, "already"), and the candidates for president are salivating at the thought of either keeping or seizing power. If you're anything like me, you probably are wondering "why can't we just have a king and be done with the whole stinking mess?" If you're slightly less like me, you might be wondering "why does it always seem like the choices are the dregs of society?"
At the beginning of the 20th Century, British observer James Bryce commented on this very thing in his book The American Commonwealth (link to this specific chapter here). Below is his chapter on the reasons so many of our presidents are really just... meh.

(If you're wondering, the exercise in mediocrity pictured above is Millard Fillmore, who served from 1850 to 1853, and whose primary achievements were doing nothing while Kansas and Nebraska descended into brutal violence and helping to found the Buffalo (NY) Historical Society.)

Why Great Men Are Not Chosen Presidents

Europeans often ask, and Americans do not always explain, how it happens that this great office, the greatest in the world, unless we except the papacy, to which anyone can rise by his own merits, is not more frequently filled by great and striking men. In America, which is beyond all other countries the country of a “career open to talents,” a country, moreover, in which political life is unusually keen and political ambition widely diffused, it might be expected that the highest place would always be won by a man of brilliant gifts. But from the time when the heroes of the Revolution died out with Jefferson and Adams and Madison, no person except General Grant, had, down till the end of last century, reached the chair whose name would have been remembered had he not been president, and no president except Abraham Lincoln had displayed rare or striking qualities in the chair. Who now knows or cares to know anything about the personality of James K. Polk or Franklin Pierce? The only thing remarkable about them is that being so commonplace they should have climbed so high.

Several reasons may be suggested for the fact, which Americans are themselves the first to admit.

One is that the proportion of first-rate ability drawn into politics is smaller in America than in most European countries. This is a phenomenon whose causes must be elucidated later: in the meantime it is enough to say that in France, where the half-revolutionary conditions that lasted for some time after 1870, made public life exciting and accessible; in Germany, where an admirably organized civil service cultivates and develops statecraft with unusual success; in England, where many persons of wealth and leisure seek to enter the political arena, while burning questions touch the interests of all classes and make men eager observers of the combatants, the total quantity of talent devoted to parliamentary or administrative work has been larger, relatively to the population, than in America, where much of the best ability, both for thought and for action, for planning and for executing, rushes into a field which is comparatively narrow in Europe, the business of developing the material resources of the country.

Another is that the methods and habits of Congress, and indeed of political life generally, seem to give fewer opportunities for personal distinction, fewer modes in which a man may commend himself to his countrymen by eminent capacity in thought, in speech, or in administration, than is the case in the free countries of Europe. This is a point to be explained in later chapters. I merely note here in passing what will there be dwelt on.

A third reason is that eminent men make more enemies, and give those enemies more assailable points, than obscure men do. They are therefore in so far less desirable candidates. It is true that the eminent man has also made more friends, that his name is more widely known, and may be greeted with louder cheers. Other things being equal, the famous man is preferable. But other things never are equal. The famous man has probably attacked some leaders in his own party, has supplanted others, has expressed his dislike to the crotchet of some active section, has perhaps committed errors which are capable of being magnified into offences. No man stands long before the public and bears a part in great affairs without giving openings to censorious criticism. Fiercer far than the light which beats upon a throne is the light which beats upon a presidential candidate, searching out all the recesses of his past life. Hence, when the choice lies between a brilliant man and a safe man, the safe man is preferred. Party feeling, strong enough to carry in on its back a man without conspicuous positive merits, is not always strong enough to procure forgiveness for a man with positive faults.

A European finds that this phenomenon needs in its turn to be explained, for in the free countries of Europe brilliancy, be it eloquence in speech, or some striking achievement in war or administration, or the power through whatever means of somehow impressing the popular imagination, is what makes a leader triumphant. Why should it be otherwise in America? Because in America party loyalty and party organization have been hitherto so perfect that anyone put forward by the party will get the full party vote if his character is good and his “record,” as they call it, unstained. The safe candidate may not draw in quite so many votes from the moderate men of the other side as the brilliant one would, but he will not lose nearly so many from his own ranks. Even those who admit his mediocrity will vote straight when the moment for voting comes. Besides, the ordinary American voter does not object to mediocrity. He has a lower conception of the qualities requisite to make a statesman than those who direct public opinion in Europe have. He likes his candidate to be sensible, vigorous, and, above all, what he calls “magnetic,” and does not value, because he sees no need for, originality or profundity, a fine culture or a wide knowledge. Candidates are selected to be run for nomination by knots of persons who, however expert as party tacticians, are usually commonplace men; and the choice between those selected for nomination is made by a very large body, an assembly of nearly a thousand delegates from the local party organizations over the country, who are certainly no better than ordinary citizens. How this process works will be seen more fully when I come to speak of those nominating conventions which are so notable a feature in American politics.

It must also be remembered that the merits of a president are one thing and those of a candidate another thing. An eminent American is reported to have said to friends who wished to put him forward, “Gentlemen, let there be no mistake. I should make a good president, but a very bad candidate.” Now to a party it is more important that its nominee should be a good candidate than that he should turn out a good president. A nearer danger is a greater danger. As Saladin says in The Talisman, “A wild cat in a chamber is more dangerous than a lion in a distant desert.” It will be a misfortune to the party, as well as to the country, if the candidate elected should prove a bad president. But it is a greater misfortune to the party that it should be beaten in the impending election, for the evil of losing national patronage will have come four years sooner. “B” (so reason the leaders), “who is one of our possible candidates, may be an abler man than A, who is the other. But we have a better chance of winning with A than with B, while X, the candidate of our opponents, is anyhow no better than A. We must therefore run A.” This reasoning is all the more forcible because the previous career of the possible candidates has generally made it easier to say who will succeed as a candidate than who will succeed as a president; and because the wire-pullers with whom the choice rests are better judges of the former question than of the latter.

After all, too, a president need not be a man of brilliant intellectual gifts. His main duties are to be prompt and firm in securing the due execution of the laws and maintaining the public peace, careful and upright in the choice of the executive officials of the country. Eloquence, whose value is apt to be overrated in all free countries, imagination, profundity of thought or extent of knowledge, are all in so far a gain to him that they make him “a bigger man,” and help him to gain a greater influence over the nation, an influence which, if he be a true patriot, he may use for its good. But they are not necessary for the due discharge in ordinary times of the duties of his post. Four-fifths of his work is the same in kind as that which devolves on the chairman of a commercial company or the manager of a railway, the work of choosing good subordinates, seeing that they attend to their business, and taking a sound practical view of such administrative questions as require his decision. Firmness, common sense, and most of all, honesty, an honesty above all suspicion of personal interest, are the qualities which the country chiefly needs in its chief magistrate.

So far we have been considering personal merits. But in the selection of a candidate many considerations have to be regarded besides personal merits, whether of a candidate, or of a possible president. The chief of these considerations is the amount of support which can be secured from different states or from different “sections” of the Union, a term by which the Americans denote groups of states with a broad community of interest. State feeling and sectional feeling are powerful factors in a presidential election. The Middle West and Northwest, including the states from Ohio to Montana, is now the most populous section of the Union, and therefore counts for most in an election. It naturally conceives that its interests will be best protected by one who knows them from birth and residence. Hence prima facie a man from that section makes the best candidate. A large state casts a heavier vote in the election; and every state is of course more likely to be carried by one of its own children than by a stranger, because his fellow citizens, while they feel honoured by the choice, gain also a substantial advantage, having a better prospect of such favours as the administration can bestow. Hence, cœteris paribus, a man from a large state is preferable as a candidate. The problem is further complicated by the fact that some states are already safe for one or other party, while others are doubtful. The Northwestern and New England states have usually tended to go Republican; while nearly all of the Southern states have, since 1877, been pretty certain to go Democratic. Cœteris paribus, a candidate from a doubtful state, such as New York or Indiana have usually been, is to be preferred.

Other minor disqualifying circumstances require less explanation. A Roman Catholic, or an avowed disbeliever in Christianity, would be an undesirable candidate. For many years after the Civil War, anyone who had fought, especially if he fought with distinction, in the Northern army, enjoyed great advantages, for the soldiers of that army rallied to his name. The two elections of General Grant, who knew nothing of politics, and the fact that his influence survived the faults of his long administration, are evidence of the weight of this consideration.

Long ago on a railway journey in the Far West I fell in with two newspapermen from the state of Indiana, who were taking their holiday. The conversation turned on the next presidential election. They spoke hopefully of the chances for nomination by their party of an Indiana man, a comparatively obscure person, whose name I had never heard. I expressed some surprise that he should be thought of. They observed that he had done well in state politics, that there was nothing against him, that Indiana would work for him. “But,” I rejoined, “ought you not to have a man of more commanding character? There is Senator A. Everybody tells me that he is the shrewdest and most experienced man in your party, and that he has a perfectly clean record. Why not run him?” “Why, yes,” they answered, “that is all true. But you see he comes from a small state, and we have got that state already. Besides, he wasn’t in the war. Our man was. Indiana’s vote is worth having, and if our man is run, we can carry Indiana.”

“Surely the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill, but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

These secondary considerations do not always prevail. Intellectual ability and strength of character must influence the choice of a candidate. When a man has once impressed himself on the nation by force, courage, and rectitude, the influence of those qualities may be decisive. They naturally count for more when times are critical. Reformers declare that their weight will go on increasing as the disgust of good citizens with the methods of professional politicians increases. But for many generations past it is not the greatest men in the Roman Church that have been chosen popes, nor the most brilliant men in the Anglican Church that have been appointed archbishops of Canterbury.

Although several presidents have survived their departure from office by many years, only two, John Quincy Adams and recently Mr. Roosevelt, have played a part in politics after quitting the White House.1 It may be that the ex-president has not been a great leader before his accession to office; it may be that he does not care to exert himself after he has held and dropped the great prize, and found (as most have found) how little of a prize it is. Something, however, must also be ascribed to other features of the political system of the country. It is often hard to find a vacancy in the representation of a given state through which to reenter Congress; it is disagreeable to recur to the arts by which seats are secured. Past greatness is rather an encumbrance than a help to resuming a political career. Exalted power, on which the unsleeping eye of hostile critics was fixed, has probably disclosed all a president’s weaknesses, and has either forced him to make enemies by disobliging adherents, or exposed him to censure for subservience to party interests. He is regarded as having had his day; he belongs already to the past, and unless, like Grant, he is endeared to the people by the memory of some splendid service, or is available to his party as a possible candidate for a further term of office, he may sink into the crowd or avoid neglect by retirement. Possibly he may deserve to be forgotten; but more frequently he is a man of sufficient ability and character to make the experience he has gained valuable to the country, could it be retained in a place where he might turn it to account. They managed things better at Rome, gathering into their Senate all the fame and experience, all the wisdom and skill, of those who had ruled and fought as consuls and prætors at home and abroad.

We may now answer the question from which we started. Great men have not often been chosen presidents, first because great men are rare in politics; secondly, because the method of choice does not bring them to the top; thirdly, because they are not, in quiet times, absolutely needed. Let us close by observing that the presidents, regarded historically, fall into three periods, the second inferior to the first, the third rather better than the second.

Down till the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828, all the presidents had been statesmen in the European sense of the word, men of education, of administrative experience, of a certain largeness of view and dignity of character. All except the first two had served in the great office of secretary of state; all were known to the nation from the part they had played. In the second period, from Jackson till the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the presidents were either mere politicians, such as Van Buren, Polk, or Buchanan, or else successful soldiers,2 such as Harrison or Taylor, whom their party found useful as figureheads. They were intellectual pygmies beside the real leaders of that generation—Clay, Calhoun, and Webster. A new series begins with Lincoln in 1861. He and General Grant, his successor, who cover sixteen years between them, belong to the history of the world. The other less distinguished presidents of this period contrast favourably with the Polks and Pierces of the days before the war, if they are not, like the early presidents, the first men of the country. If we compare the twenty presidents who were elected to office between 1789 and 1900 with the twenty English prime ministers of the same period, there are but six of the latter, and at least eight of the former whom history calls personally insignificant, while only Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Grant can claim to belong to a front rank represented in the English list by seven or possibly eight names.3 It would seem that the natural selection of the English parliamentary system, even as modified by the aristocratic habits of that country, had more tendency to bring the highest gifts to the highest place than the more artificial selection of America.

[1] J. Q. Adams was elected to the House of Representatives within three years from his presidency, and there became for seventeen years the fearless and formidable advocate of what may be called the national theory of the Constitution against the slaveholders.

[2] Jackson himself was something of both politician and soldier, a strong character, but a narrow and uncultivated intellect.

[3] The American average would be further lowered were we to reckon in the four vice-presidents who, down to 1900, succeeded on the death of the president. Yet the English system does not always secure men personally eminent. Addington, Perceval, and Lord Goderich are no better than Tyler or Fillmore, which is saying little enough.

Of presidents since 1900 it is not yet time to speak.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Book Review: Raised Right

Raised Right: How I Untangled My Faith from Politics and Learned to Start Living the GospelRaised Right: How I Untangled My Faith from Politics and Learned to Start Living the Gospel by Alisa Harris

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is part memoir, with Alisa Harris walking through key events in her life, and part meditation on the appropriate relationship between religion and politics. I highly recommend this to anyone who has an interest in thinking more carefully about church/state relations or the place of religion in the public square.

The strengths of this book are many. It is well written, and flows easily (I read the whole thing in three sittings of about an hour each), which I suppose is to be expected of a professional journalist...

Moreover, it is thoughtful and raises points that many polemical Christians have forgotten. Our primary point of interaction with the world is not to be power, but rather love. As Christians we should find our responsibilities not in political credos or shallow one liners, but in care for those around us, in concern for those who cannot defend themselves, and in working to love our neighbors. This love should not be any kind of abstract love for humanity, but in concrete relationships with those in our lives (Harris is quite right to point out that the two are mutually exclusive anyway). Areas in which we can all agree, left and right alike, are that we should: 1) care for the poor and underprivlidged; 2) love "not just with words but with actions," and 3) to take heart that Christ has overcome the world "not through a show of power but a picture of love." (218-219)

The problem with so much of the Christian right, according to Harris, is that
The hope of the gospel meant more than the truth that Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, had come to earth, died on a cross to free us from sin, and then rose on the third day. It also meant the hope of being free from the shackles of government as we worked to redeem the world for Christ through political means.(65)
Most importantly, this book is remarkable evidence that as Christians we can disagree on issues (no doubt Harris and I would differ on many) while agreeing on methods and respecting each other as believers.

The primary weakness in this book seems to be that Harris has spent her life looking to politics for what she should be finding in a healthy, Gospel-centered church. As a conservative and as a liberal (seemingly starting with her parents' activism), she has continually looked to politics as a place where love is achieved. She writes of the civic potential to become a people of "no color, just people, loving each other and doing the right thing, helping." (162) While this of course is something we can and should work for not just in politics but in all of life, it must always be remembered that this is an ideal that will only be fulfilled where people are drawn together by the Gospel, and that is something which no state, political party, or law will ever be able to do. Only in a faithful local church do we see this ideal at work, and even then only imperfectly. (Perfect love on the part of Christians is seen only in heaven.)

But even this is a fairly weak criticism, as the book is about politics. Perhaps if she had written a book on the church this sentiment would be echoed...

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

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Friday, October 28, 2011

Book Review: Ascent from Darkness by Michael Leehan

Ascent from Darkness: How Satan's Soldier Became God's WarriorAscent from Darkness: How Satan's Soldier Became God's Warrior by Michael Leehan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ascent from Darkness is the story of Michael Leehan's conversion from Satanism to Christianity. The bulk of the story covers his time as a Satanist, how he felt and what he did during that time, and how he eventually converted.

It's probably important that I give a disclaimer before I give my thoughts on the book. I am likely not the intended audience here. Leehan is a charismatic to the very core of his being, first as a Satanist and then as a Christian, and I just can't get on board with that way of doing things. Not that I think it's necessarily inherently wrong, just that it's not my cup of tea.

Having said that, the book is overall fairly well written. The narrative flows well, and he keeps you wanting to know what happens next. By the end, you're pulling for the guy and want to see him saved from his lifestyle and brought to Christ.

The great strength of this book, and the main reason I'd recommend it (should I ever do so) is that it deals very honestly with the spiritual world. In the vein of a Frank Peretti work, Leehan discusses the reality and influence of the world of demons, angels, and all other sorts of extrasensory matters. In our deeply materialistic culture full of people who refuse to believe in anything beyond what we can see and touch and feel (and occasionally not even that), it's refreshing to be reminded that there is a greater world at work, and that our actions and lives have one foot in an eternal realm. Especially clever and useful was the inclusion of testimony at the end of the book of people who know Leehan and witnessed some of the events of his life. It gives an element of depth that would not otherwise be present.

And yet, I don't really see myself recommending this book (it still gets three stars for being well written, that's a rock-solid rule I hold myself to). Nowhere does it have a clear expression of the Gospel, and it almost seems as if there's a deeply dualistic worldview at work in the text. Leehan is clear that he has exchanged service to Satan for service to Jesus, but he never makes clear any idea of how that works. The atonement is nowhere discussed, nor is it clear what the role of the cross is in Leehan's conversion (I am not commenting one way or another on his personal salvation- he says he's a Christian, and I am perfectly willing to take him at his word, I'm just commenting on what is contained in the book). The book is quite clear that God wins over Satan and evil and darkness, but it is not clear how God does so. It's certainly a good thing that Leehan no longer feels rules by the powers of darkness, but for me to endorse this book as a Christian it needs to be reworked so as to explain the role of Christ. Perhaps a second edition would be useful to this end...

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sermons from Acts: Sermon 6

The Setting: Acts 13: 13-15  "From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, where John left them to return to Jerusalem. From Perga they went on to Pisidian Antioch. On the Sabbath they entered the synagogue and sat down. After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the leaders of the synagogue sent word to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have a word of exhortation for the people, please speak.”
The Sermon Text: Various, but including: Psalm 2:7; Isaiah 55:3; Psalm 16:10; and Habbakuk 1:5; Exodus, Deuteronomy, and several historical books are also mentioned.
The Exposition:  Acts 13: 16-41 "Standing up, Paul motioned with his hand and said: “Fellow Israelites and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me! The God of the people of Israel chose our ancestors; he made the people prosper during their stay in Egypt; with mighty power he led them out of that country; for about forty years he endured their conduct in the wilderness; and he overthrew seven nations in Canaan, giving their land to his people as their inheritance. All this took about 450 years.
   “After this, God gave them judges until the time of Samuel the prophet. Then the people asked for a king, and he gave them Saul son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, who ruled forty years. After removing Saul, he made David their king. God testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’
 “From this man’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised.  Before the coming of Jesus, John preached repentance and baptism to all the people of Israel. As John was completing his work, he said: ‘Who do you suppose I am? I am not the one you are looking for. But there is one coming after me whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.’
 “Fellow children of Abraham and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent. The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath.  Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed.  When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead,  and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people.
   “We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. As it is written in the second Psalm:
   “‘You are my son;
   today I have become your father.’
 God raised him from the dead so that he will never be subject to decay. As God has said,
   “‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David.’
    So it is also stated elsewhere:
   “‘You will not let your holy one see decay.’
   “Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his ancestors and his body decayed. But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay.
   “Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you.  Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses. Take care that what the prophets have said does not happen to you:
   “‘Look, you scoffers,
   wonder and perish,
for I am going to do something in your days
   that you would never believe,
   even if someone told you.'"
The Result of the Sermon: Acts 13:42-43 "As Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, the people invited them to speak further about these things on the next Sabbath. When the congregation was dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God."

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Happy Birthday Loeb!

The Loeb Classical Library turn 100 this year. For those who don't know, the Loeb library has set itself the goal of publishing everything from the Classical world written in Greek or Latin into English, providing on the left page the original Greek or Latin text, and on the right the English translation. Greek texts have green covers, Latin one red. Students of both languages owe a great debt to Loeb. I certainly would never have passed any of my upper-level Latin courses if not for the assistance of these tiny red books.
As Adam Kirsch writes:
 For the Loeb classics are the monument of a book culture that now seems on the wane -- a culture that prized the making and owning of physical books, not just for the pleasure of turning the pages, but from a sense that the book was the natural, predestined vessel of every expression of human thought.
Read the rest of his tribute here: The Other Socrates - The Barnes & Noble Review.
By the way: the "other Socrates" books are very much worth the read, especially Aristophanes' The Clouds, which hints that Socrates is really a bit of a bumbling oligarch intent on gaining personal power, but not quite sure how to go about it. The story is that during the play, when Socrates' character walked on stage, the real Socrates stood up and bowed to him (much as Davy Crockett would do when attending plays about his own life).

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Book Review: Our Enemy, the State by Albert Nock

Our Enemy, the StateOur Enemy, the State by Albert J. Nock

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting book, worthy of closer study (I distractedly listened to the audio version). Nock makes several arguments about the nature of the state in general, the nature of the traditional American state, and the planting of the seeds of totalitarianism.

Nock argues that the expansion of state power always comes at the expense of what he calls "social" power. That is, power which exists across the rest of society. For example, before 9-11 (obviously not Nock's example), the need for security on airlines was met by society, sometimes airports themselves, sometimes local communities, sometimes the states, and sometimes private companies. Now, the government does it all, and that social power has been transfered to the state. Nock further argues that:

1) it is in the nature of the state to continually expand its power at the expense of society.

2) it is in the nature of people to allow the state to do so, either out of greed and lust for power (on the part of those in the state working for expansion); or out of laziness (on the part of the rest of us who would rather let it happen, than actively fight the expansion of state power).

(I think Nock misses something here that was true even in his own day: he was using the Fascists and Commies as his model, and applying those lessons to the nascent American welfare state. But, even in the 1930s, the expansion of the American national state was not done out of a lust for power so much as it was done from a misdirected and fuzzy sentimentalism. C.S. Lewis better identified the source of Western liberal tyranny:
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics
Here at least, I think Nock was off in his analysis.)

The critical stage is the time immediately after the assumption of a new power by the state. This is the point at which civic virtue will either resist the state, or die. In a famous example, Nock discusses the effect of the welfare state on the traditional civic virtue of charity. In the past, he argues, if a man asks you for a quarter, you would give it to him if you could spare it, since it was your duty as a citizen. Once the state has started to tax you in order to support the man, you will no longer give the quarter, considering that you have already given through your taxes, whether you wanted to or not.

From this point, Nock argues that the state will increasingly cement its power first by gradually outlawing the exercise of it by any other institutions (again, re: the TSA). Then it will being to conscript citizens to perform the now "necessary" functions which the state has taken on itself, at which point we are reduced to slavery, in that we are reliant on a service only provided by the state, and simultaneously forced to perform that service.

Nock draws his examples primarily from three places: from the transition of the Ancient Roman Empire from the Enlightened rule of the Antonines to the despotism of the Severan Dynasty, from the rise of the Fascists in Europe, and from the rise of the welfare state in America.

Overall, an interesting read. I'm not sure I disagree with the general outlines (his views of the nature of government and of the nature of people I think are spot on). I merely question his application. Liberals (in the modern sense of the word), are not fascists or communists. There isn't the same lust for pointless destruction that so marked the death camps and the gulag.

Having said that, this book is still worth reading for all interested students of American politics.

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Saturday, October 8, 2011


HT: The Christian Humanist Folks

On the Banning of Books

So, it's "Banned Books Week" again, at least according to the American Library Association, the American Bookseller's Association, and various and sundry other folks. [Update: Okay, so the week is over now, I'm just slow in getting this posted] They say
During the last week of September every year, hundreds of libraries and bookstores around the country draw attention to the problem of censorship by mounting displays of challenged books and hosting a variety of events. The 2011 celebration of Banned Books Week will be held from September 24 through October 1. Banned Books Week is the only national celebration of the freedom to read. It was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. More than 11,000 books have been challenged since 1982.
Some of the banned books, or at least "challenged" books, include Crank, And Tango Makes Three, and classics like Brave New World.
And yet, I suggest that there are at least two very good reasons to endorse the banning of books, at least in a limited measure. Reasons that are built into the very nature of censorship.
When discussing censorship (a word that brings up images of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia), it is important to remember that there are two different kinds of censorship:
-passive censorship: This is the kind of censorship in which all people and institutions engage. We all have a limited resource pool, and decisions have to be made concerning how those resources are used. When I choose to purchase one book over another, I am exercising a kind of censorship, albeit a fairly mild and unoffensive one. So when the library has to choose between buying the newest Stephen King book and the newest Nicholas Sparks schlock, the choice of one is an automatic exclusion of the other, with no more malice behind it than that of an empty wallet.
I would suggest that this is going to be the primary point of book banning that we can engage in publicly, when we direct our libraries to purchase certain kinds of books rather than others.

-active censorship: This is the kind of censorship which involves the explicit banning of individual books or authors, or entire literary categories. Americans instinctively recoil at this sort of censorship, and yet I would maintain that there is a limited legitimacy even to this category of censorship. Were I to publish a book on the best way to break into my neighbor's house and murder him in his sleep, society would be quite right to censor me. Perhaps even punish me.

The difficult comes in establishing a boundary of appropriate censorship, in figuring  out which books are to be banned. Books that actively endorse personal evil are sometimes difficult to distinguish from those books which merely use personal evil as a vehicle to tell a story. The use of unacceptable words in Huckleberry Finn is clearly different from the use of unacceptable words in a threatening tirade directed at named individuals, but exactly where to set the difference in terms of acceptable public speech is something which even the most trained eye struggles to establish.

I make no claims to know where such a line is, I merely suggest that occasions like "banned books week" be used as an opportunity to reflect on this difficult social problem. We have a remarkable freedom to engage in public affairs in this country, and it would be a shame to let this freedom be dominated either the extreme of banning everything with anything offensive in it, or the extreme of banning nothing, however terrible it might be.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Book Review: Pershing: Commander of the Great War by John Perry

Pershing: Commander of the Great War (The Generals)Pershing: Commander of the Great War by John Perry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Perry's bio of Pershing is well-written and, so far as I know, fairly thorough given the length of the book. The narrative is roughly at the young adult level, so it's in an excellent tone for what is supposed to be a brief introduction to a complicated life.

There are three main points about Pershing's life the author tries to bring out:

1) Excellence in the details will bring success in the big things. Pershing was a firm believer that if his men had the discipline to maintain small things like their appearance, their posture when standing at attention, and the condition of their equipment, then they could handle larger affairs like winning wars. Neglecting these little things was a sign that the soldiers were not ready for combat.

2) Respect for all people was the foundation of cooperation, whether they were Americans, Mexican bandits, or Muslim Filipino tribesmen.

3) The military (and the nation as a whole) must be flexible enough to fit itself to the changing conditions of modern warfare. Methods that worked in the Civil War and even in the Spanish-American War had no place on the battlefields of World War I, given the existence of the airplane, tank, poison gas, and machine gun.


Perry is an excellent writer and tells in a clear and engaging way the life story of an almost forgotten hero. This book highlights Pershing's strengths without ignoring or glossing over his faults.


I can't speak to the historical accuracy of the book, as this is the first Pershing bio I've read. I can, however, say that Perry skims World War I far too much. This war was easily the worst of the 20th century for those involved in the actual fighting, to the point where those who went through the trenches almost universally refused to talk about it. Not that Perry should have spent an extra hundred pages talking about the horrors of war, just that a clearer picture of what the American army was stepping into would have helped highlighted Pershing's leadership ability (and his faults as well).

I highly recommend this book.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Thomas Nelson Publishers as part of their book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

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Friday, September 30, 2011

Book Review: The God Pocket by Bruce Wilkinson

The God Pocket: He owns it. You carry it. Suddenly, everything changes.The God Pocket: He owns it. You carry it. Suddenly, everything changes. by Bruce Wilkinson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summary: Bruce Wilkinson says that you should carry around a certain amount of money, a "God pocket", as it were, with the intention of giving it away whenever and wherever God leads you to do so.

Review: This is a short book, nonetheless my review will not be appropriately short.

Strengths: Wilkinson is an engaging and clear writer. His prose moves quickly and he tells stories well when giving examples. The whole book could be read in a single sitting without much difficulty.

Also, Wilkinson's call to generosity is an important one for Christians, especially for American Christians who have sufficient material wealth to actually be generous. The idea that we should be prepared to be generous at any time and any place is also a good one, as is the idea that such generosity should be both personal (rather than the more distant methods such as electronically sending a check once a month) and directed towards God as the source of the gift. Not, of course, to say that we can't give in other ways too (tithing electronically might be the best way to make sure that it happens regularly), but that this additional giving should be a regular part of our lives.

Weaknesses: For all its strengths, this is not a book I'd recommend a Christian read about giving (it still gets 3 stars because I have a rock-solid rule that if a book is well-written, it gets 3 stars however terrible it might be otherwise).

First, Wilkinson is far too reliant on the idea of inspiration. The "God pocket" is to be given according to the "God nudge", which is God telling you to give away the God pocket. What is a "God nudge"? It's the internal, unexpected, uncomfortable, and "subtle but clear" feeling that you should give away your God pocket (46-47). The "God nudge" is confirmed by the external "cue" and the "bump", the former of which is a sign from the other person that they actually need the money in your God pocket, and the bump is a question you ask them to make sure (48-49). The problem of course is that there is no Biblical evidence that God works this way. God's primary direction to us is found in His Word, not in an inner voice. We are of course commanded to give, and we have some discretion concerning whom we give to (so long as we're caring for our families and giving to the church), but the claim "God told me to do X" is always a dangerous road to walk.

Second, the examples Wilkinson uses are, well, problematic at best. The spectrum ranges from "person A needed money desperately and person B gave them their God pocket just in time and they both praised God" to "person A needed money desperately and person B gave them their God pocket just in time and person A became a Christian and they both praised God." Granted, Wilkinson (I think) lives in South Carolina, where cultural Christianity might still have something of a toehold and "praise God" might come more naturally, but the bulk of people Christians are going to run into around the country are going to be the homeless, the mentally disturbed, the rude, the crotchety, the loud and obnoxious, and so on. We should as Christians be prepared to give despite the response of the recipient, not in anticipation of a postiive one.

Third, Wilkinson dances around the idea that if you give your money away, God will give it back to you with interest. He does admit that the ultimate repayment will come in heaven (93), so he can't be classed completely with the prosperity gospel crowd. Nevertheless there's a consistent tone that "most people I've met who practice the God Pocket become more enthusiastic givers through their local churches- and with more funds to give."(99) This forgets that the only promises God gives us concerning life in this world are that 1) it's temporary; and 2) it's full of suffering. There is no discussion that God very well might not return His money, and that giving should be done even through suffering, poverty, disease, war, and every other kind of destitution imaginable.

Finally, and most important: there is no Gospel in this book. The other weaknesses could be forgiven if the Gospel were shared as the center of the idea. Our being sinners who deserve Hell, and the mercy of God in rescuing us from Hell by sending Christ to give up His life in our place, these central doctrines of Christianity make no appearance anywhere in the 124 pages of the book. Consequently, this is fundamentally not a Christian book and I cannot in good conscience endorse it as such. To tell people that Christians ought to give without mentioning that we give because God first gave us salvation, and that our generosity is overflow from the generosity God has shown us on the cross, is merely to create a legalistic feel-good theology that doesn't address the true problem of the human condition: that of sin. While I am sure that Wilkinson is personally a Christian, that fact seems not to have affected his "God Pocket" idea in this little book.

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

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