LBJ and on the cusp of a storm

This photo was taken at Delegal Creek last night as the sunset. Hurricane Dorian is several hundred miles south at this point. Today, as I write this, we have had a few bands of rain with wind, but nothing too bad. The storm should brush by us late this afternoon or in the evening, but will be staying off shore. Prayers to those in the Bahamas who suffered so greatly, and for those in the Carolinas who may experience more of this storm’s fury.

 

 

Robert A. Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1982), 882 pages, photos, index and detailed notes on sources used.

 

It’s a goal of mine to read Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. He’s the first President I can remember. The only thing I remember of Kennedy was him being shot in Dallas, as I had just started the first grade. LBJ would remain President throughout my elementary years.

 

Several years ago, I partly read this volume, but this summer invested the time to listen and/or read the entire volume that covers the life of the future President from before his birth through the beginning of the Second World War. The first volume I read in this series, over a decade ago, was Master of the Senate. It was Caro’s third volume, which consists of the years from 1948, when LBJ was elected to the senate, to the late 1950s as the 1960 Presidential campaign heated up. Caro has four volumes out and has just began covering Johnson’s presidency. As he is now in his 80s and I (along with lots of other folks) hope he’ll complete his life-long ambition to cover all of Johnson’s life.

 

As with Caro’s other volumes, he spends a significant portion of his book providing background information. The reader learns about the events that shaped life in the Texas Hill Country and the people who influenced Johnson. We’re taken back to the early years of Texas and of its frontier heritage that was still in the memories of those alive when Johnson was a boy. Johnson always discounted his father as a failed drunk and attempted to create an image of a self-made man, but Carol dug deeper and discovered a different truth. Johnson’s father was a very honest former legislator whose ties to populism was so strong he had his son listening to the speeches of Williams Jennings Bryan. He also took Lyndon, as a boy, with him to Austin, where Johnson experienced the political life for the first time. There were many other individuals who helped Johnson’s rise to power. Richard Kleberg, one of the richest men in Texas and a new congressman, hired a schoolteacher named Lyndon to be his congressional aide.  As an aid, Johnson both learned politics as well as began to build his own base of power. Then there was Sam Raybun, a Texas congressman who became speaker of the House and who saw LBJ as the son he never had. There was Herman Brown, of Brown and Root, became a mighty industrialist who helped and was helped by Johnson’s growing power. Caro also provides details in how the landscape of the hill country shaped those who settled there, such as Johnson’s families on both sides of his family. He even provides detail into a dam that helped push Brown and Root to a major corporation, a dam in which Johnson worked to fund as a junior congressman. The funding was in jeopardy because the dam did not meet the New Deal guidelines, but Johnson found a way around such requirements.

 

As Caro points out over and over again, the real Lyndon wasn’t likable. He was awkward, didn’t really fit in, and learned early on how to manipulate others. Most of his peers didn’t think highly of him, but some saw his ambition and was willing to work for him with the hopes that as he rose in power, they would too. When he was denied entry into the White Stars, a college club, he created his own secret club, the Black Stars. Those who joined him had also been denied entry into the more elite group. They were able to secretly control school politics. While he wasn’t popular with those his age, Johnson had a way with adults and spent more time with them.

 

From an early age, he wanted to be President. Caro’s shows how LBJ never lost that ambition. From politics in college, through working as a congressional aide for Kleberg, to heading the New Deal’s Youth Program in Texas, to a young congressman raising money for other congressmen, Johnson was constantly building a larger organization with the goal to become President.  Interestingly, while through the book, Johnson publicly is seen as a “Roosevelt man,” and in favor of the New Deal, Caro shows how Johnson’s politics was more about achieving and holding power than ideology.

 

Johnson was quite a risk-taker.  After marrying LadyBird, he carried on an affair with the beautiful and younger mistresses of Charles Marsh, one of his top supporters who also owned a number of newspapers in Texas. Obviously, had that become well-known, it had the potential to destroy the young Congressman’s political future.

In the spring of 1941, a senator from Texas died suddenly. Johnson, seeing this as his opportunity to increase his power, campaigned for the race. He quickly went to work building a base and becoming the front runner against many other better-known candidates, when the state’s colorful governor, Pappy O’Daniel, through his name into hat. “Pass the biscuits, Pappy,” was a former flour salesman, who knew how to campaign (his character even shows up the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou). It became a bitter race with both sides having precincts that they controlled. When he through he had a comfortable lead, Johnson told his precinct bosses to release their votes. Pappy, holding on to a handful of precincts, was then able to “best” Johnson by 1300 votes. It would be the only election Johnson would lose.

 

While Johnson doesn’t come across as a likeable character throughout the book, there were places where Caro showed a gentler side of him. As a teacher in a mostly Mexican-American school, he was one of the few who cared for this students and encouraged their success. Later, after college, he became a teacher in Sam Houston High School where, as a debating coach, was able to propel his students to greatness. Johnson was a complex man, who carefully cultivated his image. The book leaves the reader wondering what’s going to happen to the young congressman who receives an appointment as a naval officer as the country goes to war. I also came away book wanting to know more about Johnson’s father and his “surrogate” father, Sam Rayburn.

 

If you have the time (and you’ll need it) and interest, I recommend this book!

First Cosmic Velocity

Zach Powers, First Cosmic Velocity (New York: Putman, 2019), 340 pages.

 

I’m not sure how to classify this novel. At times I thought the author had written the first anti-Sci-fi (similar to the anti-western genre of films that began to challenge the classical westerns in the 1960s). At other times, it felt as if I was reading a comedic Cold War spy thriller or an alternative history. Regardless of the genre, this book is a fun read.

 

It’s 1964 and the Soviet space program is a deception. Instead of challenging the United States in the race to the moon, the Soviets haven’t yet had a successful mission. They have placed men and women into space, but have yet to successfully bring them back to earth. The cosmonauts have either burned up on re-entry or in the case of Leonid, are doomed to orbit the earth for the entire book. You’ll have to read it to understand what happens. To make up for the lack of success, the Soviet cosmonaut corps are made up of identical twins, each given the same name. While one sibling conducts a suicide mission, the other receives a hero welcome back home. The secrecy of the program is so guarded that only a few know about it. Even the Soviet premier, Khrushchev, doesn’t know of the deceit. At first, even Ignatius, the KGB-type agent who is always close by, doesn’t appear to know (even though she knows more secrets than most). In a country with lots of deception and secrets, maintaining this secret is of ultimate importance for everyone involved (including the remaining twins) risked execution for treason is exposed.

 

This secrecy leads to humorous moments such as when Khrushchev volunteers his dog for the next space mission. Everyone but the Premier hates his ratty dog, and they can’t find another one like it in all Russia. Khrushchev aids secretly suggest they leave the disliked mutt in space (not realizing that might actually happen as the space agency has no way of returning it alive to earth). The space program is frantically attempting to build a successful heat shield that will allow cosmonauts (and dogs) to safely return, while two of the surviving twins (the second Leonid, the brother of the Leonid in space, and Nadya, whose sister was the first cosmonaut, run away.

 

The book ping pongs between 1964 and 1950, the year when a famine struck the Ukraine, That’s the year the twins who were both renamed Leonid were taken from their grandma to be trained for the space program. As the reader is taken from the present (1964), into the past, we gain inside into bits of history such as the struggle within the various states within the Soviet Union, the impact of the war (World War 2), and the hope of the space program. Powers also brings up the discussion of faith, looking at how the older members of society (such as the twin’s grandmother) practices faith and prayer, and its role (or lack of a role) with the younger generations who have grown up in an atheistic society. In one discussion, it is suggested that a society without gods must create them from their “heroes”

 

This is a delightful and unique novel. I recommend it for an enjoyable read. For full disclosure, I was in a writing group with Zach Powers when I first moved to Savannah (and before he left the area). I was under no obligation to write this review.

Baseball as a Road to God

John Sexton, Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game (New York: Gotham Books, 2013), 242 pages including photos, index and bibliography.

 

 

Sexton, the president of New York University, has written a wonderful book that shares his enthusiasm for baseball while weaving in thoughts drawn from his academic background as a philosopher and student of religion. The book’s chapters are divided into innings, each exploring a particular aspect of faith: “sacred space and time, faith, doubt, conversion, miracles, blessings and curses, saints and sinners, community, and nostalgia (and the myth of the eternal return).” He also throws in three extra chapters focusing on baseball: “the Knot-hole Gang (Brooklyn Dodger’s pregame show), “the seventh inning stretch” and “the clubhouse.” He highlights the parallels between the game and faith, and notes how the small details of a baseball game encourages us to slow down and enjoy life and to find meaning and beauty in small things.

 

Sexton is a member of the Roman Catholic Church and while he generally writes from a Christian perspective, he also draws on religious teachers from a variety of faiths: Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim. This is not a book about orthodox Christianity, although when he writes about the Christian faith, his theology is orthodox. Having grown up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, he was a Dodger fan. In the 70s, he became a Yankee fan (this is where his orthodoxy breaks down). He felt he needed to give his son a baseball team (by then the Dodgers had long moved to Los Angeles).  Discussing team allegiances allows him to explore the meaning and process of conversion.

 

Baseball is a game that places great hopes on what might happen next year. No one knew this better than the Brooklyn Dodger fans who encouraged one another, year after year, with the saying, “Wait till next year.” Doris Kearns Goodwin, the Presidential historian and another Brooklynite who wrote the introduction to this book, has a memoir that uses this phrase filled with Brooklyn’s hope. Of course, the Dodgers did finally win the World Series just before moving to the West Coast. Baseball, like religion, has its own eschatological vision of the future!

 

In the chapter of sacred time, Sexton links baseball to religion’s cycles (baseball starts just before Easter and Passover, and the regular season ends around Yom Kippur.  Like all religions, baseball has a cycle of life). Drawing on the writing of Marceau Eliade, he shows the importance of specific places and times which ground our religious traditions, Sexton muses also how ballparks serve a similar function. Discussing miracles, he relives Willie Mays’ fabulous 1954 catch that turned around the last World Series played in the Polo Ground as the Giants beat the Indians. But with miracles, there is always some doubt, as he illustrates with the 1951 Giants coming from a 13 ½ game deficit behind the Brooklyn Dodgers with six weeks left in the season. But then the miraculous happened and the Giants were able to catch up and with the “shot heard around the world,” beat the Dodgers to take the pennant. Years later, it was revealed that during the last ten weeks of the season, when the Giants won 80% of their home games, the team was given an advantage with a telescope deep in a clubhouse behind center field. The Giants had been stealing the opposing team’s signals and then quickly relaying them to the batter. This wasn’t against the rule in 1951, but in 1961, it was banned by Major League Baseball. As Sexton notes, sometimes miracles just seem miraculous.

 

In the chapter on blessings and curses, we relive the curses of the Cub’s “bill goat” and the Red Sox’s suffering revenge for trading a failing pitcher, Babe Ruth, to the New York Yankees. In the chapter on saints and sinners, we travel to the shrine of the “saints” at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Saints also play a major role in religion, from those canonized within Roman Catholic Christianity, to the prophets of Judaism, to the “Friends of Allah” in Islam, to the swami of Hinduism. Of course, as with many saints, parts of their lives are overlooked as it was with Babe Ruth whose monument reads: “A GREAT BALL PLAYER, A GREAT MAN, A GREAT AMERICAN.” As Sexton reminds us, Babe wasn’t always “saintly” off the field. As for sinners, there’s Ty Cobb, who still has many records in the book, and others only broken by another “sinner,” Pete Rose. And don’t forget the Chicago “Black Sox” scandal with its conflicting tales.

 

If there is one thing that Sexton left out, it was purgatory. As a Protestant, I find such a concept lacking in Scripture and doctrine and it’s not a part of my faith, but as a Pirate fan, I sometimes feel stuck in purgatory. Perhaps Sexton could have added an extra inning for this concept that I find more support for at the ballpark than within doctrines of my faith.

 

I should also note that his book is primarily about Major League baseball. The minor leagues, little leagues and other leagues are not the focus of Sexton’s work. The is room on the shelf for other books about the religious-like hope of the minor player at making the majors, or the high school standout hoping to catch the eye of a big league scout. And, of course, every little league player and kid on a sandlot has dreamed of one day playing in the world series.

 

On the last page, Sexton humorously muses that maybe baseball isn’t a road to God after all, but it can help awaken us to what’s important around us while providing an example of how to merge together the life of faith and the mind. The reader has been treated to two hundred pages or baseball stories, mixed in with teachings of the great religions. This book is a delight for any baseball player. For the serious student of world culture, the book might help them learn to pay attention to life and not take things too seriously. I recommend this book, but maybe you’ll want to catch a few games as the season moves into its final stretch toward October. By November, when the ballparks are all shuttered for winter, pull out this book and remember when, or (especially if you’re a Pirate fan), “wait for next season!”

Listening to the Heartbeat of God

J. Philip Newell, Listening to the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1997), 112 pages.

 

I have some problems with this book, but I’m glad I read it. I did like the last chapter where I found myself in agreement with the author on the need to draw from a broad theological base. He labels these two theological camps for disciples: John (the emotional) and Peter (the rational). While I agree with this,he overstates his case when trying to separate the two camps within church history.

 

My problem is that Newell sets Augustine theology (along with the Protestant Reformation), in conflict with a more ancient Celtic theology. He grounds Celtic theology in the thoughts of Pelagius (a lay theologian who is thought to have come from the British Isles and declared a heretic by the church in the 5th Century). Augustine was the theologian who challenged Pelagius’ thoughts, especially on free-will and original sin. Little is actually known about Pelagius’ thought outside the response of his opponents (this may well be the case of the winners writing history). In fact, so little is known about Pelagius that makes me wonder about Newell’s claims. He suggests that Pelagius may have come back to the “Celts” after his conflict in Rome, but it appears he traveled on East, where he had a conflict with Jerome who was living in Palestine. Then Pelagius disappears from history.

Newell is correct in pointing out problems with Augustine’s theology, especially linking the fall and original sin, which he saw as being passed on generation to generation through sexual reproduction. Then he sets up a “straw man” by linking Calvin and Calvinist thought to such views. Calvin and others struggled with this concept (See Jane Dempsey Douglass, Women, Freedom & Calvin, chapter 4). Furthermore, while Calvin realized sin was a real issue, he never felt the imago dei was completely wiped away from humans who had been “created in God’s image” (see John Calvin, Institutes, I.15.4 and Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin, 126ff.). Newell’s argument rests on his belief that within Augustine/Calvin thought, there is nothing in creation that can help us understand God. That God’s image had been totally purged by sin. While Calvinist thought certainly suggests that because of the fall, we cannot obtain the knowledge of salvation on our own, it also maintains that God has implanted an “awareness of the divinity within the human mind” (Institutes I.3.i) and that the “knowledge of God shines forth in the fashioning of the universe and the continuing government of it” (Institutes I.4).

It is my opinion that Newell sets up a false dichotomy within Calvinistic thought, where the world is seen as totally evil and contrasts this with the Celtic thought where the world was seen as good. The idea of the physical being evil is more of a gnostic idea than Augustine/Calvinistic thought. As I showed in the previous paragraph, Calvin never saw the world as totally evil. Yes, creation is good, but because of our sin, it has been tainted and we can’t fully know God through it. We need to experience the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, which is given to us through the Scriptures.

Newell also conveniently ignores the Calvinistic concept of “common grace,” the idea that God implants grace into all of humanity, even those who are not believers, for the purpose of helping all people. Could not such “common grace” allow everyone to enjoy creation and benefit from it? As Jesus says, it rains on the just and unjust.

Another area that I took issue was the lay centered leadership with Celtic thought verses the clergy leadership of the church. While the clergy certainly dominated the Roman Church, the protestant reformation sought to solve this issue with the concept of “the priesthood of all believers.” This thought balances the power of the laity and the clergy and insists that Jesus is the only priest needed. The clergy/laity separation seems to be another area that Newell is reaching to show the benefits of the Celtic ways. While this would remain true for Roman (and even Anglican) theology, it does not fit with non-Anglican Protestant thought, such as the Presbyterians.

While I agree with Newell in the importance of creation displaying the glory of God’s handiwork, I don’t think the followers of Augustine or Calvin would necessarily disagree. We live in a world that was created and declared good. Yes, as Newell points out, the Celtic ways had ties to pre-Christian beliefs, but that’s not necessarily a problem. You can make the same argument with early Roman Christianity, too.

As for this book, I recommend reading the last chapter, which applies us today. When we strive to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12), we do so by involving the emotional sides of our brains along with the rational side. One final comment, the fear and trembling quote comes from Paul, which I don’t believe Newell even mentions.

Behind the Barbed Wire (A Review)

A lot of students have fantasies of having teachers locked up. For my 5th grade teacher, it wasn’t a fantasy, it was a horrific experience. As a Marine embassy guard in China, which was behind enemy lines when the war began, he spent the entirety of the 2nd World War as a POW. This is a review of a book he later wrote about this experiences.This review originally appeared in my other blog and has been slightly edited.

The author as an embassy guard in China.

Chester M. Biggs, Behind the Barbed Wire (1995, Jefferson, NC:  McFarland & Co, 2011), 224 pages, some photos and maps.

 

On the morning of December 8, 1941, the Marine guards at the American consulate in Peiping (Beijing), China woke up behind enemy lines. Overnight (on the other side of the International Date Line), the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. The Japanese had invaded China several years earlier and the American consulates in China were now inside territory held by the Japanese army. Although it was a tense situation in the Far East and war was not out of the question, the Marines were caught unaware. They were in the process of packing up and were days away from being withdrawn from China (many of the military members and diplomats of other consulates such as Britain had already been withdrawn). As the war began, the ship sailing to North China to pick up the Marines turned south and those left behind were prisoners of war. They would spend the entire war as POWs. One of these Marines, PFC Chester Biggs, the author of this book, was also my fifth grade teacher. Mr. Biggs would spend 20 years in the Marine Corp (1939-1959). The latter half of his life he spent in education. And, until his death, he would spend time teaching and answering questions at the Special Forces POW classes taught at Fort Bragg. He died in December 2011 at the age of 90.

The book begins by describing the events of December 8, 1941.  Only hours before the Marines awoke, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The Marines have no idea what is happening or that the day meant war. The Japanese surround the compound, disarm the sentries and forced their surrender. Biggs, a young man of 20, finds himself as a POW. The next two chapters, Biggs describes life in Peiping before the war. China had been at war with Japan for years and the area of the consulate had been securely controlled by the Japanese. The situation in the countryside, where there were Chinese guerrillas fighting the Japanese, was tense and movement by American personnel there was limited. However, inside the city, where there was quite large contingent of foreigners, life continued as normal. Peiping, at least in the international section, was a cosmopolitan city with Europeans, Russians and Americans living there. During this time, there were fancy parties and even premiers for movies such as “Gone with the Wind.” There were some tension with Japanese soldiers, but with the exception of a few incidents, it appears much was done on both sides remain calm. After the one incident, US military personnel were restricted to a few clubs near the compound.

At first, after the surrender, the main change that the Marines noticed was a loss of freedom of movement, the loss of their Chinese workers (they had Chinese laborers that did many of their task from laundry to shoeshines to manicures) and a reduction in food. Even though they were confined to the compound, one Marine who had girlfriend in the city slipped out and then came back undetected. The NCOs tried to impress upon the Marines of the serious of such actions, but two others slipped out and were caught. Although the Japanese had said anyone caught attempting to escape would be shot, they were not. As Biggs noted, the Japanese could and would be brutal, but their behavior wasn’t always consistent, and at times they surprised everyone. At the end of January 1942, the Marines in Peiping were transferred to Tientsin and were later transferred to a POW camp near Shanghai. Before the transfer, the Japanese allowed a Marine from Tientsin to marry his English fiancé before they were moved to Shanghai. During Christmas 1942, the Japanese allowed an American restaurateur who ran a famous establishment in the city to prepare a Christmas dinner for the POWs. This was the last great meal they enjoyed. Before the next Christmas, all expats in the city including this man were confined to concentration camps by the Japanese.

At first the Marines who had been on diplomatic duty were hopeful they would be exchanged and freed. The diplomats in China were exchanged six months into the war. Such hope began to wane as they were placed into a POW camp in Shanghai that included Marines and civilian contractors from Wake Island and British sailors on a ship captured in a Chinese port at the beginning of the war among others. Interestingly, in 1943, they were joined by Italian Marines stationed in China. As a part of the Axis powers, they we left alone. But once Italy surrendered and declared war on Germany, members of the Italian military in China found themselves as POWs bunking with Americans and British POWs. In the Shanghai area, the Marines were held in two different camps. They were worked hard and the Japanese capturers could be incredible brutal. The POWs did what they could to keep their spirits up and Biggs tells many incredible and sometimes humorous stories of survival and endurance. There was even a radio which provided a little news of the war (which was spread via rumor for no one was to know about the radio).

In 1945, the POWs were locked into rail cars and shipped north and then down through Korea. Their travel was hard. In Pusan, they were placed on a ship bound for southern Japan. Once on Japanese soil, they were shipped by train north. Although they could see only a little (the Japanese had covered the windows of the trains) there were enough cracks through which they realized the devastation done to Japanese cities from American bombings. They knew the war couldn’t last much longer. The Marines were taken north, to Hokkaido, where they were put working inside coal mines. This was brutal work and from the book I have the sense it was the worse time of Biggs’ entire imprisonment. The Americans were split up and sent to smaller camps where they worked in teams with a Korean miner underground. After the Japanese surrender, the POWs stayed at the camp as American planes dropped supplies. It was well into September that Biggs had his first airplane flight in his life as he was being moved from Hokkaido to Yokohama. However, bad weather forced the plane to turn back. He would later take a ship south and then on to Guam where the POWs were seen by doctors and navy intelligence officers who record their experiences.  From Guam, they were flown across the Pacific, with stops for hospital visits at Honolulu (to be checked for infectious diseases and parasites) and then on to a hospital in San Francisco.

Mr. Biggs was 18 when he left his home in Oklahoma for the Marine Corps training base in San Diego. He was 24 when he returned home on an extended leave after having been a POW for over 3 ½ years. I found this book to be well written and to give great detail of everyday life in a POW camp. I wish I had read it while Mr. Biggs was still alive.

Three Reviews: Poems, the Old South, & Storms at Sea

Joy Harjo, Conflict Resolutions for Holy Beings: Poems. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2015) 139 pages.

I picked up this book after learning that Joy Harjo has been appointed poet laureate for the United States. It’s exciting because she’s the first Native American to serve in this position. In addition to being a poet, Harjo is also a jazz musician. Her poetry blends music with longing for a home that seems evasive. In different poems, the reader is taken an “Indian school” in Oklahoma, to the hunting grounds of the Inuit people in northern Alaska, and through airports and other locals in between.  She alternates between more free-form poetry to “prose poems.” Many of the poems draw the reader into the experience of modern Native Americans, who, having lost a homeland, are not sure where they belong. We also are reminded of the realities within Native communities of alcoholism and suicide. Yet, a thread of hope weaves through these poems, as we (as well as all creation) are encouraged to be blessing to others. I find her poems accessible and easy to understand. I’m sure I will reread many of them as I continue to ponder their messages. .

 

Archibald Rutledge, My Colonel and his Lady, (1937: Indianapolis, The Bobby’s-Merrill Company, reprinted 2017), 92 pages.

In this short book, the former poet laureate of South Carolina, Archibald Rutledge, writes a memoir of his parents. His father had been the youngest colonel in the Confederate army.  His father joined the war in North Carolina (the family kept a mountain home to escape to in the summer). He was wounded three times, involved in many engagements and served as best man for General Pickett, when he married. Archibald was the youngest child of the family (for which, his father often called him Benjamin, for Jacob’s last son). He was born in 1883, nearly twenty years after his father’s military experience had ended. Rutledge was in awe of his father, whom he saw as a kind, gentle, and loving man. His father shared with him the love of all things wild-hunting and fishing and just walking in the woods. He also shared his love of the creator whom he saw revealed in nature. His mother, the colonel’s lady, was also a kind but strong woman. As her husband was often away, she had to take control as she did directing the successful efforts at fighting a fire in the great house (when water had to be drawn from the river by buckets) and shooting to scare away intruders who were looking to steal from their rice barn. She also impressed the young Rutledge with her love of books and her care of others (she often served as a medical resource in a community that often had to go without physicians).

One interesting fact I learned about the low country was a tsunami struck South Carolina following the great earthquake in Charleston in 1886. The family was staying at their “beach home” in McCellanville, South Carolina and Archibald was only three. Suddenly the water started rushing in and  his mother quickly put him and a sister on a table and went to make sure the other children were safe. The water rose several feet before rushing back out to the ocean. I knew of the earthquake and its damage, but not the coastal damage from wave action.

The Rutledge family lived on a plantation that had been in the family since the 17th Century. It survived the war (it was outside of Sherman’s march through South Carolina). Of course, by the time Archibald Rutledge was born, there was no longer slaves working the fields, but sharecroppers and those who gave a day’s work a week to “rent’ their cabins. I appreciate the way Rutledge describes his encounters with the natural world, but he does display a paternalistic view when he discusses those former slaves who lived on the plantation. This book provides a glimpse into another era and the reader should remember that its view is somewhat nostalgic and romantic. This is the third book I’ve read and reviewed by Rutledge.

 

Sebastian Junger, The Perfect Storm (W.W. Norton, 1997, audible 2014, 9 hours and 25 minutes.

I watched the movie, “The Perfect Storm,” many years ago, but really enjoyed the book. Junger has mastered a style used by Herman Melville. Through Melville’s novel, Moby Dick, Melville blends an exciting tale with the explanation on how the crew lived, sailed and hunted whales. Junger, in telling the story of the demise of a swordfish boat, provides enlightening detail into the method of longline fishing along with metrological details and the role the Coast Guard and other rescue groups perform when the weather turns rough. Writing about a particular weather event that occurred in 1991, he primarily focuses on the men of the fishing boat Andrea Gail. He introduces his readers to the crew and their families and the “Crow’s Nest,” a favorite bar back in Gloucester, MA, from where the boat sails. In addition to the problems faced by the Andrea Gail, which was lost at sea and never found, he speaks of some dramatic rescues that were made by the Coast Guard as they rescued three from the sailboat Satori, deal with other floundering boats such as a Japanese fishing ship, and also rescued all but one of an Air National Guard helicopter crew that ditched after a refueling attempted failed. One of the members of the crew was lost at sea. This is wonderful writing and an exciting read (or, my case, an exciting listening event). I highly recommend it.

The Fifties

David Halberstam, The Fifties (1993, New York: Ballantine Books, 1994), 800 pages including index’s and notes, plus 32 pages of black and white prints.

 

The decade was 70% completed when I was born. I have no recall of the 1950s, even though I was born late in the decade. Having now read this massive history, I now feel as if I lived through the decade.

Halberstam begins his story with Truman’s election of 1948, the Soviet test of a nuclear weapon in 1949, and the beginning of the Korean War in 1950. The short time the United States had as the leader of the world and the only nation with nuclear weapons had come to an end. We were beginning a new era, the Cold War. The uneasy situation with the Soviets would remain throughout the decade and Halberstam ends this book with the story of the U2 being shot down over Russia (which ended Eisenhower’s quest for a nuclear treaty) and the planning for the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

A lot happened in the 1950s and, as Halberstam points out, much of what occurred in the 60s had its roots in the 50s. From music to Vietnam, civil rights to foreign policies, the sexual revolution to television, space and science to the rise of suburbia, McCarthy to Kerouac, the 60s (and 70s) grew out of seeds planted in the 50s. Halberstam follows these developments through vignettes, stories of what was happening. In ways, the stories can stand alone, but taken together they paint a picture of vibrant decade that too often has been portrayed as sleepy.

Many of the people whom Halberstam writes about are well known and became even more famous in the 1960s (Richard Nixon, Hugh Hefner, Marlo Brando, Marlyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Martin Luther King, among others). Others were less well known, but their ideas caught on as they developed fancy car designs, hotel and restaurant empires, housing tracks, and pushed America into a consumer culture. As I approached the end of the book, I was shocked to see one such individual that I knew personally. Kensinger Jones (pages 629-635) spent his retirement years on a farm south of Hastings, Michigan. He was a member of First Presbyterian Church in Hastings while I was pastor. Unfortunately, he was unable to be very active due to health issues, but I often visited with him and his wife Alice and enjoyed our conversations. Ken Jones was responsible for a series of Chevrolet ads that weren’t designed to “sell cars, but to sell dreams.” These ads were essentially a mini-story told visually as the consumer was encouraged to “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet.” While Ken certainly appreciated the power of the image, as Halberstam notes, he also appreciated the written word. After he could no longer attend church, he would read my sermons and often wrote notes of appreciation. And he was an author himself. I have two of his books on my shelf today.

Toward the end of Eisenhower’s presidency, there were those who suggested it was a shame there was the 23rd Amendment that kept a President from running for a third term. Eisenhower, whom it seems in Halberstam was never sure if he wanted to be President, would have nothing to do with such talk. He didn’t want a third term nor did he think anyone should be President over the age of 70. I wonder what Ike would think about our last election with both candidates over the 70 mark?

This is a wonderful book with many great stories. Even those who have no memories of the 1950s will find themselves entertained and will learn how this decade influenced future decades in America.

The Social Media Gospel

Yesterday’s worship service focused on our responsible use of social media. Here is a review of a book that reminds the church how we might use such media in a positive way. Click here to read yesterday’s sermon, “A Light in the World”

Meredith Gould, The Social Media Gospel: Sharing the Good News in New Ways, second edition (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015), 180 pages, index and notes.

 

This easily read book encourages churches to support social media as a way to expand their communication and outreach. Sadly, it is four years old. The digital world is rapidly changing as new venues come online and changes are made to existing ones. The author, a committed Roman Catholic, writes for an ecumenical audience. She often quoting those from other Christian traditions. The forward for this edition is even written by the Reverend David Hansen, a Lutheran pastor in Texas.

The book consists of three sections with a number of helpful appendixes. In the first section, which I found most helpful, she debunks the idea that social media destroys community. Instead, it creates new types of communities. She also has a brief chapters on generational differences, learning styles, and personality types. She helpfully points out that what one person finds annoying could be what draws another person into the community (22). Such a reminder is helpful, for it is too easy to let the most outspoken critics drive us, which often leading to inefficient efforts that fail to accomplish anything. A little grace by all of us goes a long way toward accomplishing the church’s mission.

Gould provides an interesting take on the old 80/20 rule. She suggests that 80% of our content on social media should be about building community and only 20% to be about promoting and reporting on the news of the organization. I have heard similar ideas from several other sources writing about business use of social media, one of which suggested that you try to build up your reputation (or brand), offer five helpful solutions for every “sales pitch” you make. A second interesting “rule” (which she credits to Jakob Nielsen) is the 90/9/1 Rule. 90% of the people observe your social media presence, 9% occasionally participate by commenting or interacting, and 1% dominate by providing most of the content and comments. She suggested the 1% are important for they are our ambassadors/evangelists, but that we also don’t forget that we may be reaching a lot more people than those who participate. (26)

There were a number of other gleaming I found helpful in Gould’s opening section. She suggests that technology provides a means to prepare people for the sacraments, but it does not replace or provide the sacrament. (10)  There is still need for real presence within the community. I also found it helpful how Gould describes the development of online communities. Online, things move approximately three times faster than in the real world. People engage much quicker and they also stay engaged shorter periods of time than they might in the face-to-face world. (31)

The second section of this book offers guidelines into developing a social media strategy and provides a basic overview for top mediums of social media: blogging, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat. For each of these groups, she provides suggestions on ways the church might use them to further its mission. While she does not suggest that the church attempt to use all of these mediums, but to pick those which would best for the church’s situation (there are helpful questions that can guide such decisions), she is a big fan of Twitter. While she doesn’t suggest that Twitter is for everyone, she tells of her “conversion.”

The final section of the book is titled “Making Social Media Work.” There are several helpful chapters here that focus on how social media can be integrated into a church’s communication strategy, how to develop content (and share it on multiple platforms), handling burnout, best practices for social media use and how to handle online conflict. As for creating content, it needs to be short (according to her suggestion, this review is about 250 words longer than it should be J).

While I found parts of this book dated and a little elementary, Gould provides useful tools to help congregations discuss this new world in which we live. And, as for it being elementary, I must remember that may not be the case for everyone. After all, I’ve had a blog for over 15 years, have served churches with websites for 25 years, and have been on Facebook for nearly a dozen years. Others may find this book to be right at the level as they began engaging in this new online world.

Readings of late (3 book reviews)

I’m catching up on my reading… I keep thinking I’ll write short reviews for posts like this and I never do! These are some of the books I’ve read over the past month.

 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Purple Hibiscus (2003, New York: Random House/Anchor, 2004), 309 pages.

This is the first novel for Adichie, a Nigerian author. The story is set in her country during a politically unstable time. Kambili, a fifteen year old girl, is attempting to makes sense of her world. Her father is rich, generous, powerful, and a devout Catholic. In addition to factories, he owns a newspaper that isn’t afraid of speaking out against the corruption of the government. But at home he’s a tyrant. He makes his children live by a strict schedule and demands perfection. If they are not first in their class, they’re punished. He leads his family in saying their rosary and in prayers daily, but even these times are strict and rigorous. He’s highly thought of in the church, but is cruel and abusive with his children and wife.  Kambili and her older brother Jana are treated terribly. In anger, he deformed one of Jaja’s fingers and at another time made his children stand barefooted in the tub while he pours hot water from a tea kettle on their feet.

Java and Kambili are granted a respite from their troubles when they are allowed to stay with their Aunty Ifeoma for a few weeks. He sends them with his driver, the trunk loaded with extra bottles of gas for her stove and sacks of rice and other foot stuff. Their aunt is also religious but she has a much more gentle faith, even praying that her family might experience laughter. She is a professor at the university, but there is unrest even there. At the aunt’s home, Kambili falls for a young priest, Father Amani. She is coming of age and is shocked to learn that all the women are interested in him. There, they also spend more time with their grandfather, whom their father has essentially disowned because he still worships in the old (non-Christian) ways.

They go back to their aunt’s after Kambili is severely beaten by her father and spends time in the hospital. This sets up the conclusion of the story, which has twist that I won’t spoil.

This book explores many themes. The tension between old traditions and newer (European) ways, the problems experienced by post-colonial countries like Nigeria, the lure of the West (Aunty Ifeoma ends up moving to America and Father Amani is sent to Germany). The book also deals with themes of abuse, corruption, and how a man like Kambili’s father can be brave and generous and evil at the same time. Adichie’s writings draw heavily on the setting and one can smell the flowers blooming and the downpours in rainy season.

I recommend this book! I think it is important for us to look into other cultures and in this era of debate over immigration, Adichie’s provides insight into what native people in a post-colonial country thinks about Europe and America.

 

 

Rick Bragg, The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table (2018), 19 hours and 17 minutes on audible.

I listened to this book, read by the author. It’s a treat to listen to Bragg read his own words as his accent brings the book alive. However, this will be a book that I also plan to buy and keep as a hard copy, for the stories are wonder and every chapter ends with a recipe or two.

Over the past twenty years, Bragg has told many of his family stories, but this book tells the stories from a different focus, the kitchen table.  Every dish he writes about comes with a family story, some going back to his great-grandfather. He was a wild man who, at the request of his son, taught his daughter-in-law (Bragg’s grandmother) how to cook. While Bragg never knew his grandfather or great-grandfather, both who died before his birth, he did know his grandmother and wrote about her and her husband in his book, Ava’s Man.  As he tells of hard times and the good food that sustained the family, we are treated with wonderful stories. Bragg can make his reader lust after pig feet (I remember my mother’s mother eating pickled pig feet and all it took for me to try it). Many of his stories are about how to procure pigs and cows to eat. His family was involved in some minor incidents of larceny, which long after the guilty have passed on, can be quite humorous.  And then there are the chickens and how the roosters who enjoyed pecking at the ankles of his grandmother were soon destined for Sunday dinner.

Some of his stories have a familiar ring to them. He speaks of baking possum on a hardwood plank and then throwing away the possum and eating the board. I’ve heard this same story many times in cooking shad, a fish that runs up rivers along the East Coast. Shad was to be nailed to a board and then the board consumed.  Another familiar story is a variation of “stone soup,” where his grandfather made “ax head soup” for a bunch of hobos. But he also had meat and some beverages to help complete their feast. It was his grandfather’s way to helping those who were in the same predicament in life as he had once been. There was a tenderness in this show of generosity.

Bragg gives inside into another southern treat, poke salad. Most people would have never heard of such thing had it not been for the song, “Poke Salad Annie.” But I remember poke salad from my grandma, my father’s mother. Although I don’t remember her fixing it, she talked about how you prepare the tender young leaves. The plant is poisonous, so one has to take the young leaves and boil it in several pots of water, throwing away the water that contains the toxins. When one has to take such care to rid toxins, it’s not worth it. I’ll stick turnip greens.

There are many other great stories around making biscuits, cornbread, greens, fish, fried chicken and deserts. This book will delight your taste buds and make you long for good home cooking.

 

 

Jack Kelly, The Edge of Anarchy: the Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest labor uprising in America (2019) 11 hours and 15 minutes on Audible.

This book is in keeping with a long lists of books about America in the late 19th Century which I’ve read this past year. The book focuses on two key people, George Pullman and Eugene V. Debs. The late 19th Century was a period of unrest in this country as Kelly points out. This was the era of Coxey’s army marching on Washington, along with large strikes by workers and anarchist ready to toss a bomb (sometimes literally) into simmering conflicts.

Pullman was the founder of the “palace car empire” and a very wealthy man. Not only did he build sleeping cars, he maintained control of his cars by leasing them to the railroads instead of selling them. This way, he not only built the cars but provided staff that operated the rolling hotels and was able to shuffle cars between railroads, allowing customers to stay in a car as the train passed over multiple railroads. Pullman was innovated in many ways. He attempted to build an upscale company town. His idea was to attract better workers for building his rail cars, but it was still a town that he owned and controlled. In the 1890s, as deflation swept the nation, Pullman cut the wages of his workers, while maintaining the rents he charged in his town. During this time, he refused to cut the dividends his company paid or reduce his own and his top management’s salaries. This lead to unrest and eventually a major strike that impacted the entire nation.

Opposite Pullman was Eugene V. Debs, who was attempting to change the nature of unions from a craft guild that served particular skills (such as firemen and engineers) to a union that represented all railroad workers. As the strike at the Pullman plant grew, other railroads workers became involved, leading to disruption throughout the system. While employees refused to handle Pullman cars, the battle became greater as other traffic was delayed or stopped. Cities like Chicago were beginning to starve.

Kelly demonstrates the length the railroads went to in order to break the strike. One tool they had was the mail service. Debs and other strikers insisted that nothing was to be done to disturb the mail, which was a federal offense.  Mail cars on passenger trains were generally at the front of the train, while the Pullman cars, which had to be available to be transferred from one line to the other, were at the back of trains. This allowed railroad workers, who were refusing to handle Pullman cars, to easily push them off onto sidings while allowing the railroad to continue operating. Knowing this, train officials starts making up the train, putting the mail cars behind the Pullmans, forcing the union’s hand. Eventually, the federal government was able to use the excuse of mail disruption to call in the army to break the strike. Soldiers who had been used to keep the peace in the West (or fighting the “Indian Wars”) were deployed to cities like Chicago and Sacramento.

Kelly tells the story of the strike and the era in an interesting way that keeps the reader engaged.

Love Your Enemies

Arthur C. Brooks, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America for the Culture of Contempt (HarperCollins, 2019), 243 pages, index and notes.

 

In this year’s January Series from Calvin College, I heard Brooks speak. Much of his presentation, it appears, was taken from this book which was released in mid-March. I’m glad it is in print for I was impressed with his talk and liked how he addresses the lack of civility in American political discourse. What bothers Brooks isn’t anger. Anger can be effective in the right circumstances. Nor is he bothered by arguments. That, too, can be productive. He doesn’t even want us to tolerate each other for that seems to be a way to look down on others. Brooks argues for us to love everyone, especially our enemies. What frightens Brooks about American society is the rise of contempt for “the other.” When we get to a point where we wish our enemies would disappear or go away, it’s easy to consider them less than human. Then we have a real problem. Brooks’ points out how this is a problematic for both sides of the political spectrum in America today. Looking back at the 2016 Presidential election, he points to Clinton’s comments about the “deplorable” folks behind Trump, and to Trumps many comments in which he belittled or attacked the dignity of “others.”

 

Brooks is an economist and the director of the American Enterprise Institute, which he describes as a “center-right” think tank. He often draws from economic principals in a making a case for having a diversity of opinions at the table. He believes in competition in both the business world as well as in the marketplace of ideas. When there are more ideas and choices being discussed and debated, the chances of us coming up with a better solution increases. But when voices are silenced and viewed with contempt, we will all lose because the best ideas may be kept from rising to the top.

 

Brooks begins his book by examining the rise of contempt in our culture. He draws from many fields to make his case. He insist that those on both sides of most arguments have values and to treat the other side as someone without values is the beginning of a culture of contempt. Our problem intensifies (and is undermined) when we use our values as weapons. He suggests that we all make friends and really listen to those with whom we disagree. Not only will this help us sharpen our own views, we might learn something.  He also encourages his readers who feel they don’t like the other side to “fake it,” noting that just forcing a smile can help change our own outlook and help us to relate to others.

 

The book ends with five rules in which we can resist the culture of contempt in our society.

  1. Resist “the powerful” (especially those on your side of the debate). When you just listen to the politician or the news media you agree with, you are easily manipulated. He encourages us to stand up to those who belittle others, especially those with whom we agree. It’s easy to stand up to those with whom we generally disagree.
  2. Get out of our bubbles and listen to and meet those from the other side. How else will we hear diverse opinions?
  3. Say no to contempt and treat everyone with love and respect even when it is difficult.
  4. Disagree better. Be a part of a healthy competition of ideas.
  1. Tune out: disconnect from unproductive debates. Brooks sees social media as a problem for our democracy as we find ourselves in constant debates in which no one changes their minds. Sabbaticals from such dialogue can be helpful to our own well being.

 

Brooks is a committed Roman Catholic and while his faith is displayed throughout the book, he also demonstrates his openness to others. He is a good friend of the Dalia Lama from whom he has learned much. At the end of the book, he encourages his readers to become “missionaries” as we help with love and kindness to provide an alternative for the contempt in our society. This is a useful and timely book. I highly recommend it and hope it becomes a best seller. Interestingly, Brooks is donating all the profits for his book to the American Enterprise Institute. That’s an example of someone living the missionary life!