Two on the American West

title page with book covers and western scene in background

Ivan Doig, Ride with Me, Mariah Montana

narrated by Scott Sowers, (1990, audible release 2014), 14 hours and 18 minutes. 

It’s 1989. Montana is coming up on its Centennial celebration and newly widower Jick McCaskill drives a newspaper photographer and writer around the state in search of stories in his Winnebago. The photographer is his daughter, Mariah. The reporter is her ex-husband, Riley.  Jick doesn’t care for Riley ever since the couple’s split. He’d hoped the two of them would take over his sheep ranch. 

The three set off on their journey with Jick as the narrator. They mostly seek out small towns where they strive to learn more about their home state. Jick realizes change is coming, but he doesn’t like it. Pressured to sell out his sheep ranch to a large cattle operation (who wants to maximize the livestock on it), while coming to terms with his wife’s death, and attempting to keep his daughter from falling in love again with Riley, Jick begins the story as a bitter soul. Yet, even in his bitterness, there’s lots of humor mixed into his storytelling. But he softens and as the story continues, he (and we) learns more of his history. This is especially true after Riley’s mother joins them for part of the trip. The story ends on the day of the Centennial celebration in November with some surprises. 

In this novel, the reader gets to meet many interesting characters along with gaining insight into the state’s history. Jick’s background is Scottish and Swedish, and I couldn’t help but think of two other Swedish sheepherders I knew in Utah, Roy and Eddie. As I lived in Utah during that state’s Centennial, I was curious as how he used that celebration to tell this story. While much of the story is about loss, there is also hope in it for the future. I recommend this book and now look forward to listening to the first two books in this trilogy (English Creek and Dancing at the Rascal Fair).

This is my fourth book by Doig. Twenty-some years ago, when I lived in Utah, I read two of his non-fiction works (House of Sky and Heart Earth). Earlier this year, I listened to and reviewed, A Bartender’s Tale.

Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water

 

revised edition (1986, New York: Viking/Penguin, 1993), 582 pages including notes and index. Also, two collections of photographs.  Audible: 27 hours and 58 minutes. 

I read parts of the original book back in the early 1990s when I was living in Utah. There, the problems of water were real. This time, I mostly listened to the book and was caught up in the story Reisner tells. 

The book begins with a brief historic account of Western exploration and migration in the 19th century, especially focusing on the survey of the Colorado River by John Wesley Powell.  Reisner also reminds his readers that there were other civilizations there before the coming on European-Americans. For some unknown reason, these civilizations collapsed before European migration, probably because of a change in weather patterns. He also frequently reminds the reader that all desert civilizations in human history have collapsed with one exception, Egypt. Of course, the Aswan Dam may change this. While the country had 3000 years of life without a dam, Aswan ended the annual flood that brought new soil and enough water to grow crops. In addition, irrigating without fresh soil causes salts to build up in the soil. Sooner or later, the soil wears out. 

Much of the first part of the book focuses on the growth of Los Angeles and their taking water from the Owens Valley. From there, Reisner speaks of many other water projects in the West. From the Mormons who irrigated on a small scale and brought agriculture to the great basin to the big projects during the Depression that provided (temporarily) a surplus of water and electrical power for the West. The power these dams produced help fuel a growth in industry that was especially helpful during World War 2.  

In addition to building the dams and providing water and electricity, he acknowledges the problems. Backing up water floods places where people live. They must be moved. The larger dams (like Grand Coulee), block migrating salmon and have destroyed commercial fishing operations. I didn’t realize how valuable canned salmon was, but it was the cheapest meat available during the Depression. The safety of dams is another issue. Reisner goes into detail about the breach of the Teton Dam in Idaho. On rivers like the Colorado which carries a lot of silt, dams trap it, reducing the availability of electrical power and the amount of water available. Finally, using irrigated water also has a long-term detrimental impact on the land as salts build up in the soil. 

Reisner captures the battle that existed between the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corp of Engineers. Both were vying to build more dams in the West, often for different purposes. Bureau of Reclamation looked to irrigation while the Corp of Engineers were more interested in flood control and navigation.  Both had questionable ways of making a project look economic feasible as they tried to justify their projects, such as using the electricity produced to offset the cost of irrigation water. As Reisner shows, the economics of most dam projects didn’t make sense. After all, some of the crops grown with subsidized water were the same crops the Department of Agriculture were paying farmers not to grow in the East and Midwest.

The politics behind water projects are terrible (as is the economics).  With everyone wanting a piece of the pie, strange alliances form and no one questions the value or the wisdom behind the projects. I came away thinking that Eisenhower might have been the last true fiscally conservative President, as he questioned many of the projects. Carter was another who tried. stop a lot of projects that didn’t make economic sense. Reisner suggests that because of the way he attempted to stop them, it doomed his Presidency long before the Iranian hostage crisis. In the end, Carter’s hit list was narrowed, and many moved forward under Reagan. 

This is a book that needs to be read by more voters and concern citizens. More people need to understand the short-sightedness of many of these boondoggle projects. Unfortunately, it’s a long book that will overwhelm many people. 

Scene from Wyoming
A view from Wyoming

Catching up and a review of three books about the Deep South

photos of the covers of the three books reviewed in the post

Catching up:

Foundation diggings

I finally have a construction crew working on an addition to my house. When done, there will be an additional 384 square feet walkout basement that will serve as my shop and cool storage of produce. On the main level will be another 384 square feet of living space (with a half bath for guest) that will open out to a 200 square feet deck. The top level will add another room of roughly 140 square feet. In addition, we plan to put a porch on the front of the house. So, things are a little hectic, with a lot of waiting for workers and inspections.

In addition, yesterday I had a laser procedure done on my left eye where I have a leaking blood vessel.  It didn’t hurt. However, it felt like I was forced to watch a dozen nuclear explosions, the bright light exploding in my eye. The good news is that they only dilated my left eye, so I still had one good eye with which to drive home. 

In this blog, I’m still trying to catch up with recent books I’ve read or listened to. I listened to the Horwitz book in March when I traveled to the beach. This month I listened to the Foote book and read the Morris biography.  All three books have ties to the Deep South.

Larry L. King, In Search of Willie Morris:
The Mercurial Life of a Legendary Writer and Editor

Cover for "In Search of Willie Morris"

 (New York: Public Affairs, 2006), 353 pages with index and bibliography with 8 plates of b&w photos. 

I was introduced to Willie Morris in the late 90s when I read North Toward Home. As a southerner who was then living in Utah, the idea of the South no longer being my home resonated with me. (And like Morris, I eventually returned). I later watch the wonderful movie version of his book, My Dog Skip. Several years later I stumbled upon Taps, a book published after Morris’ death. Taps, which draws on his memories as a high school student playing his trumpet for military funerals during the Korean War, also says a lot about how we treat the dead as well as the racial tensions in the American South during the Jim Crow era. I recently read a reference to King’s biography of Morris and decided to check it out.

Larry L. King (the writer, not the TV host, author of the comic play, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas) was a good friend of Willie Morris. However, like most friendships, theirs had rocky roads including several years of estrangement after King had an affair with a woman with whom Morris had been seeing. In some ways, their closeness makes this a more difficult biography as you can see King’s obvious bias toward a man he admired. However, this also allows King to have a more intimate portrait of Morris. King doesn’t just rely on his own memory, but checked out his stories with many others who were close to Morris, including his son, ex-wife, widow, and friends. In places he offers competing insights, his as well as those from others. 

This book doesn’t provide much detail into Morris’ younger life in Mississippi, which I found disappointing as Morris mined his childhood for many of his stories. He focuses more on Morris as a student at the University of Texas. He also writes more about his time ss a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford, something that Morris only briefly mentions in his books. 

Willie Morris was the youngest editor ever in the long history of Harper’s Magazine, taking over the helm at 32 years of age.  From this point, King begins a much more detailed examination of Morris’ life. He established a staff of talented writers which included King. Those writing for the magazine that I read include William Styron, Norman Mailer, and David Halberstam. I’ve reviewed three of Halberstam’s books in the last few years: The FiftiesOctober 1964Summer of ’49

After a battle with the magazine owner, Morris was forced out as editor. All the big-name writers he assembled at the magazine refused to write again for at Harpers. Others, including his friend Truman Capote, joined the boycott. According to King, at publishing of this book 35 years later, they’d all kept their promise. Afterwards, Morris received all kind of offers, but ignored them. He also received a letter of condolence from a young attorney in Arkansas, who Morris had met when the future politician left for Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. Morris would meet him again, on his return. This was Bill Clinton. As President, he would write a piece read at Morris’ funeral.  

After Harpers, King focuses on Morris’ difficulty focusing, amplified by the divorce from his first wife, Celia. It was also a time when people were realizing that Morris was drinking too much. For this next period, Morris mostly lived on Long Island.

I was amazed by how Morris not only gave a voice to those young writers at Harpers, but to other talented writers. Later, after he returned to the South and was a visiting writer at the University of Mississippi, he encouraged and helped a law school student by the name of John Grisham publish his first book. He also helped Larry Brown (I’ve read a few of his books) and Winston Groom (who wrote Forest Gump). Morris became a close friend of Jim Jones, who had completed two of a trilogy on World War II. The first two books were Here to Eternity, and Thin Red Line. When Jones’ died, Morris took over and completed his third volume, Whistle. Both of Morris’ wives were authors and involved in the publishing business.

Practical jokes stand out in the books I’ve read by Morris. King shares many more such jokes, including taking William Styron on a night stroll through the Yazoo cemetery. There, upon a grave, Styron found a copy of his novel, Lie Down in Darkness. Inside the cover was a note from the one buried in the grave, that read, “To William Styron. Come lie down in darkness with us. It is not as bad as it has been made out.” At an Ole Miss home football game in Hemingway Stadium, Morris delighted telling two French journalists how the school wanted to honor Faulkner, but he refused. So, the name went to Hemingway, implying it was named for the author. The truth was that the stadium had been named for a former dean. King found himself at the blunt of some of these jokes, including many prank phone calls. It became so frequent that when Nelson Rockefeller called King to offer him a speechwriting job, he assumed it was Morris and said some inappropriate things. 

When Morris was asked about the truthfulness of his stories in his book, Good Old Boy, he said they were all true. Then he quoted Mark Twain, “sometimes you have to lie to tell the truth.”

But with the jokes come sadness and Morris had a melancholy streak. Imagine your son’s dog (and later a friend’s dog) dying after being hit by a car while in your care. It happened to Morris. Or having to endure lectures about your drinking from your mother who (it was later discovered) had her own alcoholism issues. Morris’ relationship with his mother was so difficult he seldom went home without taking a friend. And then there are the critics who could be brutal. Yet, as King points out, while Morris often hurt those close to him, he probably hurt himself most.

The last decade of Morris’ life was one of his most productive. He had married JoAnne Prichard, who stabilized his life. He became more focused. But sadly, that ended in 1999, when he died of a heart attack. His beautiful book, Taps, which he had worked on for thirty years came out after his death. 

Willie Morris was a fascinating man. He had faults, but we all do. But I found it amazing how well connected he was with the literary world of the era. Now I am wanting to read more of his works. If you’re interested in his life or in the writing life, I recommend this biography. 

Shelby Foote, Jordan County

Cover for "Jordan County"

(1954, Audible, 2004: 10 hours and 5 minutes. Narrated by Tom Parker 

I have read some of Foote’s Civil War accounts, but this is the first time reading (or listening) to his fiction. The setting for this novel is a fictional county in the Mississippi Delta, between Memphis and Vicksburg. Through a series of stories, the author creates a portrait of the country stretching back over 200 years. Each vignette is more like a short story or novella, with the location being the main connection. In an interesting twist, the first story is set in 1950, five years after the Second World War. Each story thereafter moves back in time. The second, about a blues musician who is executed for killing a man involved with his lover, was set in the 1930s. There is a story about old plantation homes being burned during the Civil War, in which the infirmed owner had fought with Andrew Jackson at New Orleans in the War of 1812. Then came the stories of those same homes being built and slaves hauled into the region, after the discovery of the cotton gin made cotton valuable. Then we learn of those who settled this country, as the local natives were being pushed out. The last story is set before this land would become a part of the United States, as Christianity was being brought to the native people. 

I found reading these stories chronologically backwards interesting. It was kind of like peeling an onion to get back to the roots of the land. In this case, it shows the connection to the land. I need to read more of Foote’s writings. If this is any indication of his fiction, he is a much more accessible writer than his friend, William Faulkner. 

Tony Horwitz, Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide 

Cover of "Spying on the South"

(2019, 17 hours and 11 minutes). Narrated by Mark Deakins and Tony Horowitz.

Long before I started blogging, while living in Utah, I made a cross country flight. A friend had given me a book, Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic. I never laughed so much on an airplane. I kept trying to mute myself and about bit through my cheeks, but the book was so funny. Everyone around me wanted the name of the book. I’m sure many of them went out an brought a copy! 

In Confederates in the Attic, a Yankee explores Civil War reenactments in the American South. In his new book, he returns South just before the 2016 election, and traces the second journey William Laws Olmstead made into the American South in the decade before the Civil War. Olmstead had been a farmer. Before he became famous as a landscape designer, he struggled as a journalist. He made two trips into the South to learn about the differences in agriculture. He travelled under the name, Yeoman, drawing on his farming past. In his first journey, which took him down along the Atlantic seaboard, he began to question slavery. When he took his second journey, which went down the Mississippi and across Louisiana to Texas and on into Northern Mexico, slavery haunted him. While Olmstead books were not well received in the United States, they were well-received in Britain. Some think his books on the South may have helped keep Britain from joining the Confederacy during the war. To read my review of a recent biography of Olmstead, click here.

In this book, Horwitz sets out to travel as closely to Olmstead’s path as possible. He takes the train South to Washington and then west. When he gets into the navigable waters on the other side of the divide, where Olmstead took a steamboat, he arranged transient on a tug pushing coal barges. This allows him to learn about the life of the deckhands as well as exploring the use of coal and how its link to global warming. Then he cuts across country through Kentucky and part of Tennessee before joining a riverboat for his travels down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Along the way, he sees plantations and reflects on what Olmstead might have seen and how the plantation life is portrayed today (somewhat whitewashed from the harshness of antebellum South.  He then travels by car across Louisiana and into Texas and barely into Mexico (where he discovered it was much safer for Olmstead than it is today. 

In addition to interesting travels, Horwitz draws out the most unique people and events along the way. His retelling of being at a monster truck mud rally is classic. But he also tells the stories of folks he meets in dive bars and tourist attractions, from the Creation Museum to the Alamo. He even finds some cowboys to take him out riding a few nights with pack animals as Olmstead had travelled, which creates more humorous stories. Horwitz can make most any adventure funny, which is why I have enjoyed the books I’ve read by him. 

But there is also a serious side to this book. Traveling in the lead up to the 2016 election in some of the more conservative parts of the country, Horwitz wonders if America will face a similar divide as it did when Olmstead made his journey in the 1850s. Like Olmstead, he attempts to set the historical record straight, which challenges some the myths of the Old Southwest. While Horwitz befriends all kinds of people along the way, and seems to get along with them, I’m sure if many of those he met read his book, they would not like the bite in his humor. In this way, Horowitz is like Olmstead, they both spied on the South.

Two on theology and faith

Title slide showing covers of the two books reviewed

While I don’t review all that I read, I’m way behind in writing reviews of books I planned to review. Here’s an attempt to catch up a bit on what I have been reading in the religious and theology realm.

Adam NederTheology as a Way of Life: On Teaching and Learning the Christian Faith 

(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019), 158 pages.

This is a small and somewhat simple book with profound insights into the teaching profession. While Neder is a professor, much of what he says in this book can be applicable to all levels of teaching (especially teaching the Christian faith). This book grew out a lecture the author gave at a Karl Barth symposium on Barth’s Evangelical Theology. Neder shifted focus from Barth’s thoughts on writing to teaching. In addition to Barth, he draws heavily on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Soren Kierkegaard and the Scriptures. He also draws on his own experience in the classroom and acknowledges the lessons (sometimes hard lessons) he has learned.

Each chapter focuses on a different theme that together helps create a portrait of one who might teach Christian thought. The first theme is “identity.” Our identity must be bound in Christ, who reconciles us to God. Everyone, the teacher and student, must make a decision as to whether or not the accept Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the teacher needs to understand his or her inability to teach faith. That can only come from the Holy Spirit. 

The second chapter examines “knowledge.”  The author begins by noting that some of his best students of theology were not Christian. In an academic setting the teacher can only evaluate academic work. However, as the case was made in the first chapter, knowledge doesn’t save us. It’s our willingness to trust and follow Jesus. As Kierkegaard insisted, “the Christian life cannot be “reduced to thinking the right thoughts about God.” The teacher has to help the student develop his or her own thoughts about God, which is risky as the teacher cannot control the outcome. Neder also examines objections to such knowledge such as the idea that God is unknowable. While that it true we can’t know God with our own efforts, we must remember that Jesus reveals God to us.

The third area of exploration is ethos. Christian teachers need to be humble for we are witnessing to a larger truth. While Barth lays out such ideas in Evangelical Theology, Neder acknowledges that he, too, fell short. It’s easy for us to think higher of ourselves that we should. We need to be humble and to realize that we’re always teaching, not just when we are behind the podium. Can God’s truth be seen in our lives? How can we, as a teacher, remain connected to the truth? Can we become less so that someone else become greater?

Danger is the subject of the fourth chapter. Our theology takes place in an encounter with a living God, which means we’re moving out from our comfort zones and walking a precarious path.  Using the story of Nicodemus (John 3), Neder demonstrates how we can’t follow Jesus from a safe distance.  Christianity is more than knowledge and doctrine. While that might think we can maintain a safe course, faith demands otherwise.

Neder’s final chapter is titled “Conversation.” Here the conversation is between us and God (and God’s word). Barth describes this as “primary conversation.” But we also need what Barth called secondary conversation, that between the student and other students (past and present). We learn from others, not just from the living, but also from those who preceded us. That’s why we study their written records, but it’s all in service to the primary conversation. their attempts at understanding God.  Neder encourages his students to read widely and outside their tradition, to gain appreciation of and to maintain a healthy skepticism of their own traditions. Learning from a broad perspectives reminds us that in this imperfect world, we can always improve ourselves. 

Neder then goes into detail about having such conversations in the classrooms. He encourages the teacher not to answer their own questions and to engage the students to help them arrive at the answers. It is also important for the teacher to understand the student’s questions. Failure to do so will cause a student to shut down. 

There is much to commend in this book for teaching, but especially for the Christian teacher. 

Some quotes:

Grace is not opposed to working but to earning and self-reliance. (30)

Jesus wants followers, not admirers. (41)

Christians do not only receive from him (Jesus Christ), they also partner with him in the work he is doing in the world. (72)

Conversations with Jesus rarely unfold according to plan. Jesus continually shocks and astonishes people, rattles their cages, upends their expectations, eludes their traps, and zeroes in on their deepest motivations.” (96)

“Jesus is the most hazardous of all hazards.” -Barth in his Epistles to the Romans commentary (99)

“[W]e tend to talk about God as if he is not present. Few things are harder than remembering that God is alive and active in our classrooms, few things easier than teaching as if he is not.” (101)

“The pressure to sell Christianity at discount prices is intense, and Christian leaders who refuse to adjust to these conditions create very real problems for themselves.” (111-I would add, and for others.)

“Our aim is to lead students more deeply into the subject matter to which Scripture bears witness, and we cannot do that apart from the history of Christian reflection on Scripture.” (121).

“We read because we are not yet who we want to be, because our knowledge and our lives are not yet what we think they could or should be.” (128)

Katherine StewartThe Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism 

(2019, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing 2022), 342 pages including notes and index.

Katherine Stewart focuses her journalistic lens into the rise of religious nationalism within the United States. Following the money along with individuals who seem ubiquitously present (but always in the background such as David Barton, Tony Perkins, Peter Wagner, and R. J. Rushdoony), she shows how the movement is more than a cultural crusade against perceived social ills such as abortion or the LBGTQ community. Instead, she suggests the movement is about power. The movement isn’t necessarily conservative (as in maintaining the status quo), but radical at its core. One of its goals is to undo the democratic processes and grab power. As one founder noted, if they could just get support of 10% of the county, they could control the change. Along with being political, the movement seeks to mobilize churches to achieve their goals of creating a society based on their vision of a biblical worldview. 

Stewart acknowledges the best resistance to the Christian Nationalism will probably come from other Christians. However, she only focuses on the movement itself. While she is honest about this from the beginning, her reporting left me feeling hopeless against such an onslaught. 

In each chapter of the book, Stewart follows a particular organization or idea within the larger movement. She begins with a gathering of religious leaders in the Carolinas at Unionville Baptist Church just before the mid-term elections in 2018. The gathering was a forum for Tony Perkins, of the Family Research Council, to reach pastors to help them organize voters. While he didn’t mention the Republican party, everyone present knew he was promoting their candidates. Much of the danger of the Christian nationalist movement is they use politicians, preachers, and key moral arguments to consolidate power. 

As has many others before her have pointed out such as Kristin DeMez in Jesus and John Wayne, Protestant Churches haven’t always been against abortion. Even in the early 70s, the Southern Baptist Convention supported abortion rights. Ronald Reagan as governor signed the most liberal abortion law to date. The big issue for many pastors of large conservative churches (such as Jerry Falwell and Bob Jones) was how to maintain tax exempt status of their segregated schools. Into this discussion came Paul Weyrich. He was a former Catholic (who’d joined a Melkite Greek Catholic Church after Vatican II). Weyrich saw an opportunity to help conservative causes as they made abortion a political issue hidden within a religious framework. This decision helped the conservative movement “Get Religion.” In the 60s and 70s, the liberals appeared to have religion on their side. This was especially so during the Civil Rights movement. 

In other chapters, Stewart examines how Christian Nationalist attempt to rewrite history. Some within this movement draw deeply from historic teachings from the likes of Robert Lewis Dabney. He was a Southern theologian and an apologist for slavery before and during the Civil War. However, it’s wrong to think of the movement as only white as she explored those of other races within it. She looks at how others in the movement have developed massive data bases to help conservative pastors to get out the vote. Not surprisingly, home schooling is a big issue for many, as well as helping church sponsored schools.

Writing a few years before the reversal of Roe vs. Wade, she explores the movements attempt at remaking the nation’s courts. In addition to abortion, she also looks at how the movement, especially within Roman Catholic hospitals, who often limit medical care that’s provided. In the final chapter, she looks at the global movement and the draw to authoritarian leadership in other countries (including Russia) for those who identity with Christian Nationalism. While she shows the international reach of Christian Nationalism, I would recommend the reader check out Ann Applebaum’s The Twilight of Democracy.

We live in a fast-changing world. As a result, some of this book is out-of-date after less than five years. After all, after January 6, we have some Americans being willing to undermine democracy openly. Furthermore, the Supreme Court has overturned Roe vs. Wade thanks to the packing of the court with those who had that as a primary focus. And Russia has shown its hand in its invasion of Ukraine, claiming partly their goal is to save Christianity. This study provides the background for how this came about. It will be up to us to heed Stewart’s warnings. If not, the book might become prophetic. It’s my hope, by pointing out the goals of Christian Nationalists, this book can be an antidote to bringing about a world view that seems out-of-step with that rabbi from Galilee.

I recommend reading this book.  Even more than that, I encourage those who see the danger of Christian Nationalism and strive to follow Jesus to consider how we can confront this attack on American Democracy. The abortion debate is one area that I find particularly disheartening. How can we discourage and reduce abortion on demand, which I feel should be the goal, while removing it from arena of politics?  But if it has political advantages for some, I’m afraid it will continue to divide people and make our society even more unstable.  Christian Nationalists have their own world view. Christians who strive to be faithful to their Savior need to articulate a world view that’s faithful to Scripture and Jesus Christ.

This morning–the smoke from fires in Quebec are filling our skies and making the air unhealthy.

RIP Timothy Keller

Photo of Timothy Keller and six of his books

I wasn’t going to post this week. I’ve been busy. A contractor is preparing to add a large addition to our house and I’ve been trying to get the garden in, and I’ve done volunteer work, and I have all kind of other excuses. Then, today, I learned of the death of Timothy Keller. After a long battle with pancreatic cancer, our last enemy death finally claimed him this morning. In recent days, knowing this time was short, Keller (and his son) sent out tweets telling of his struggles and his hope to soon be with his Savior.

I first became familiar with the ministry of Timothy Keller while on a month Sabbatical for Preachers interested in how literature can inform our preaching led by Neil Plantinga at Calvin Theological Seminary in the summer of 2003. In discussing Franz Kafka’s writings, he played a sermon that was in a serious Keller preached on the hopeless many feel in today’s world. In these sermons, in addition to scripture, Keller depended upon Kafka’s The Trial. I was impressed and had never imagined using Kafka in the pulpit.

While I never met Keller, I heard him speak once. Even though we are from different Presbyterian denominations, I once worshipped at the church he founded, Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City. But it was summer, and he wasn’t preaching. I’ve read six of his books. In addition to the two below, which I first reviewed in another blog, I have read and have on my shelves The Reason for God, The Meaning of Marriage, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, and Centered Church: Doing Balanced Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City. I may not have always agreed with him, but I learned a lot from him. His arguments were always compiling and his gracefulness came through in his writing as well as in his speaking.

May Timothy Keller rest in peace.


Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters

(New York: Dutton, 2009), 210 pages

Idolatry is not just a failure to obey God, it is a setting of the whole heart on something beside God. (171)

Idolatry is prevalent in our world, our communities, our churches, and our individual lives. As Keller points out over and over, idols are not necessarily bad things. In fact, they are seldom bad. They are generally good things (family, sex, money, success, and even religion), but when we look to them to “satisfy our deepest needs and hopes,” they fail us. They become a counterfeit god. (xvii, 103). I found this to be a powerful and challenging book. It was published following the 2008 financial melt-down, written by a pastor whose church on Manhattan draws many of the investment bankers that were at the forefront of the crisis.

Using Biblical stories as illustrations, Keller attempts to expose the idolatry of our lives. For idolatry of the family, he draws on the story of Abraham and how the old man pinned his hope for a legacy on Isaac, essentially making his son into an idol. For sex, he explores the story of Jacob’s courtship with Rachel and Leah. For money and greed, he looks at the call of Zacchaeus. For success, he looks at Naaman, the leper, who question Elijah’s method of healing. For success, he looks at Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of clay feet. His examination of how “correct religion” can become an idol leads him into the story of Jonah. And finally, he looks at how we need to replace our idols with God by exploring Jacob’s wrestling.

There are two levels to our idolatry according to Keller. We all have surface idols that mask our deeper idols. These surface idols are mostly good things, but they become idols because we place our ultimate trust in them as we strive to satisfy our deeper longings for power, approval, comfort or control. (64) We can fight against the surface idols, but new ones will pop up unless we address our deeper needs, which can only be handled by replacing such idols with a total trust in God.

Keller confronts our worship of success. He even challenges how some place total trust in “the free market.” “The gods of moralistic religion,” he proposes,” favors the successful.” It could be argued that such folks are attempting to earn their salvation. But the God of the Bible comes down to earth to accomplish our salvation and give us grace. (44) Later in the book he writes that the “Biblical story of salvation assaults our worship of success at every point.” (94) He challenges Adam Smith’s theory of capitalism for “deifying” the invisible hand of the market which, “when given free reign, automatically drives behavior toward that which is most beneficial for society, apart from any God or moral code.” He ponders, in light of the financial crisis, if the same dissatisfaction that occurred with socialism a generation earlier might also occur with capitalism. (105-106)

Keller also challenges our political and philosophical ideals, especially those that we place above our faith in God. Straddling the political fence and refusing to place himself on the right or left, as a Republican or Democrat, he observes that a fallout of us making idols out of our philosophy/politics may be the reason why when on group loses and election there is often an extreme reaction.

“When either party wins an election, a certain percentage of the losing side talks openly about leaving the country. They become agitated and fearful for the future. They have put the kind of hope in their political leaders that once was reserved for God and the work of the gospel. When their political leaders are out of power, they experience a death. They believe that if their polices and people are not in power, everything will fall apart. They refuse to admit how much agreement they actually have with the other party, and instead focus on the points of disagreement. The points of contention overshadow everything else, and a poisonous environment is created. (99)

The author closes with an Epilogue where he discusses the discerning and replacing our idols. To discern our idols, Keller suggests we contemplate where our imagination goes when we’re daydreaming, where we spend our money, or where we really place our hope and salvation instead of where we profess to place it, or where we find our uncontrolled emotions unleashed. (167-9) To handle our idols, we have to do more than repent, they have to be replaced with God. I found this last part of the book to be the weakest, with just a few pages of suggestions, drawing heavily from the opening of Colossians 3. He calls for us to rejoice and repent together and to practice the spiritual disciplines as a way to invite God to replace our idolatrous desires. His final comment is an admission that this is not a onetime program, but a lifelong quest for as soon as we think we’re got our idols removed, we’ll discover deeper places within our psyche to clean out.

This book has given me much to think about. We can all benefit from what he says about the difficult to discern our own greed (52) and on how we worship success and our political ideals. Only one did I get excited about a “theological error,” and I feel pretty certain it was more from carelessness in language than in what Keller actually believes. On page 162, Keller speaks of when our “Lord appeared as a man” on Calvary, which sounds to me a lot like the Docetism heresy. Docetism held that Jesus’ humanity was an illusion. However, Keller concludes the sentence saying that Jesus “because truly weak to save us,” which sounds as if Jesus’ humanity wasn’t just an illusion. 

I recommend this book and am grateful to Mr. Keller and Dutton Publishing for providing extensive notes and a detailed bibliograhy. 


An Essay and Review of The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith 

(New York: Dutton, 2008), 139 pages.

There are two kinds of sinners, as Timothy Keller explores in this book. One kind of sinner is rather obvious. They live only for themselves, breaking God’s laws and perhaps even the laws of the land. Such sinners are represented by the younger son in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, who after wishing his father’s death so he can inherit his portion of the estate, is given his inheritance and runs off to a foreign country.

We have a love/hate relationship with the younger boy. In God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, James Weldon Johnson captures the flavor of American-American preachers early in the 20th Century. Many of these preachers could not read and write, but the way they told stories were poetic. In a sermon on the Prodigal Son, the preacher paints a vivid picture of the young wayward son with his daddy’s inheritance burning a hole in his pocket…


And the young man went with his new-found friend,
And brought himself some brand new clothes,
And he spent his days in the drinking dens,
Swallowing the fires of hell.
And he spent his nights in the gambling dens,
Throwing dice with the devil for his soul.
And he met up with the women of Babylon.
Oh, the women of Babylon!
Dressed in yellow and purple and scarlet,
Loaded with rings and earrings and bracelets,
Their lips like a honeycomb dripping with honey,
Perfumed and sweet-smelling like a jasmine flower;
And the jasmine smell of the Babylon women
Got in his nostril and went to his head,
And he wasted his substance in riotous living,
In the evening, in the black and dark of night,
With the sweet-sinning women of Babylon.

Why is it that we are fascinated with the younger son? Certainly we’re glad that he’s redeemable, but we also relish in the visions of his sinful past. If truth be told, we’re a little jealous of his freedom. Over time, the parable has even been named for him. He’s the prodigal, the one who lavishly spends his inheritance. And we forget about that this is a parable of two sons.

Timothy Keller reminds over and over again that there are two ways to be separated from God. Yes, we can be like the younger son and live wildly. This is the popular view of a sinner and many of us have been down that road. But we can also be the dutiful son and do what’s expected of us, but deep down despise the father for whom we work. Sometimes even free-spirited younger sons can become zealous older brothers. The sins of the older son are not so evident. Such sins live in the heart where they fester and boil and eventually boil over in anger and rage. Keller makes the point that churches are filled with “older sons,” those who look down on their younger brother’s sinful ways. But these “older sons” don’t enjoy the father’s company any more than the “younger sons” who want to strike out for the territories, sowing their oats along the way. Older sons are those who give religion a bad name and make the church seem harsh and judgmental. Because of their hard hearts, they don’t get to enjoy the banquet the father throws for the return of the younger son. Instead, they sulk in anger, showing the condition of their hearts.

Prodigal means reckless extravagant, having spent everything. Keller suggests that the true prodigal in the story is the Father in the story, who represents God. God goes to great distances to restore the lost son, that even though the son has already cost him a fortune, he spends it again to reclaim the boy. Redemption is not cheap, as the older boy discovers, for he feels the father is stealing from what belongs to him in order to redeem the younger boy. He’s not gratiful at all. Keller is writing, not to call the wayward younger son home, but to remind those who have never left, the older brother, not to be so self-righteous and to look down on others. This book calls those in the church to task, asking that we not be so judgmental. It’s also a book that confirms one of the main critiques made against the church, that it is a place of hypocrites. Certainly, if our hearts are like the older brother, such a critique is justified. We should take the critique as a warning for in the story, it is the younger son, not the older boy, that experiences salvation.

This is a good, easy to read, book. It can easily be read in a sitting. I recommend it.

Peaceful waters: The Thornapple River, May 2013

Review of Martin Clark’s “The Substitution Order” and other books

Author Clark title cover with his books

Years ago, I read several books by Martin Clark and reviewed them in an old blog. Clark, a retired judge, just down the mountain from me in Stuart, Virginia. I meet him in person about a year ago. I’ve finally have read and now reviewed his most recent book. Much of his recent book takes place around where I live and serve in ministry.

A note about my reading: We’re 1/3 of the way through 2023. When I reviewed my readings from 2020, I noted that I needed to read more fiction and books by women authors. So far, I have exceed my 2022 totals for both categories.

Martin Clark, The Substitution Order

book cover for The Substitution Order

 

(2019, New York Vintage Books, 2020), 338 pages.

A substitution order is a legal term for when an attorney turns over a case to another attorney and a judge has to sign off on the exchange. This is just one of a string of events Protagonist Kevin Moore secretly arranges to obtain revenge on those who had scammed and helped ruin his life even more than he had already done. On his own, attorney Kevin Moore quickly developed a cocaine habit after trying it at a law conference. The urge to get high led to his quick downfall, ending in an arrest, the loss of his law license, and his divorce. While he confesses his mistake, he didn’t need someone trying to scam him from legal malpractice. But that happened. 

With his life in ruins, Moore lives in a cousin’s house in Meadows of Dan, Virginia. Disbarred, he leaves his legal career and now spreads mayonnaise on sandwiches at the SUBstitution, a Subway knock-off in Stuart, Virginia. Substitution orders and orders at SUBstitution, Clark is a master at double-entendres.  While working at the restaurant, Moore saves a puppy from a dumpster. He names the dog Nelson, and he becomes a part of Moore’s life.  A stranger offers him an opportunity to benefit on a scam. Moore who (except for three months) appears to have lived the life of a Sunday School superintendent, declines. The stranger who offers Moore the chance also threatens him if he doesn’t participate with them. 

It appears Moore’s life couldn’t get worse, but it does. A crooked probation officer plants dirty urine in his drug test as well as a gun and bags of drugs in his car. Moore finds himself in real trouble. 

In the middle of his problems, Moore has a stroke. Thankfully, a farmer who was renting farmland from Moore’s cousin, happened to be driving by and see’s Moore collapse. As a member of the local rescue squad and fire department, he rushes in. Seeing the obvious symptoms, he takes Moore in his truck down the mountain to the hospital. Moore slowly gets better and falls for a home health nurse. 

While he is getting better, he must deal with a legal malpractice scam. His insurance company is willing to settle, but Moore has an idea of what’s happening. To everyone else, Moore’s theory seems farfetched, and he must take things in his own hands. But everyone is skeptical. 

It looks like Moore is going to attempt to run from the law. But there are some twists in the plot. Despite a somewhat happy ending, Moore spends time behind bar. He also would prefer everything would not have happened and that he would have never tried cocaine. 

I enjoyed this book and surprised by the ending. My copy of the book came from a gift without an expectation of a review.


Martin Clark, The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living

Book cover for "The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living"

( )

This is one crazy book. My life has been crazy for the past few weeks and it has been a pleasure to occasionally retreat into Evers Wheeling’s world. Wheeling, a young district court judge in Norton, North Carolina is bored and ready for adventure. It arrives one day when the beautiful Ruth Esther English, one of the top car sales associates in the Southeast, seeks his help with her brother’s trial. She must get her brother Artis out of jail to help her recover money and a letter left by her father. Wheeling refuses to do anything illegal to help Artis, but when his case comes up, the police have screwed up the evidence so that he has no choice but to free him.

Soon everyone, including Evan’s brother Pascal, are off on a trip to recover the hidden money in Salt Lake City. Pascal, like Evers, had inherited a small fortune from their parents. Unlike Evers, Pascal lived as the Prodigal (except there was no father to come home to), and after blowing much of his inheritance, spends his days living in a double wide, smoking pot. Evers also has a fondness for the weed and seems to get most of his caloric intact in the form of distilled spirits.

When I reviewed Clark’s other novel, Plain Heathen Mischief, I noted that it had more twist and turns than Lombard Street, San Francisco. The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living has more twist and turns than the highway out of Owen’s Valley and into Yosemite via Tioga Pass.

There are many characters and more than a few deaths and a lot of “who-done-it” questions. Those who die include Evers’ non-live-in wife (she refused to live in Norton). After Evers discovers her in bed with a “cow farmer,” they are locked in a divorce battle. Although her death seemed to be a suicide, it was also suspicious. At first, Evers seems a likely suspect, but then Pascal confesses although he later recants. Due to the many problems with his confession, he is offered a plea bargain that nets him only a couple of months in jail.

Of course, there’s more to the story but to tell it all would be to ruin the story. Read it and laugh. And don’t get too hung up on all the characters, because some just disappear without explanation and not all questions that are raised by the story get answered. The book may not be neat and tidy in that way, but such is life in a double-wide inhabited by a bunch of lazy pot smokers.

There are also many characters in the book. Paulette is a sharp dressed African American attorney from Charleston, West Virginia. Paulette represents Ruth Ester and later defends Pascal. Ruth Esther’s brother Artis is short and African American and obviously not blood related to his stately “white” sister. There are also boozing doctor and a handful of good ole boy cops. And then there are some mysteriously white tears. A hint of mysticism is found in the pages of the novel and at one point, I wondered if I was reading a legal thriller or fantasy. The mix-mash of characters create lots of humorous moments—such as when Judge Wheeling does a double take when he’s introduced to Artis, Ruth Esther’s brother, realizing there is no way they’re real siblings.

There are a few things in this book that I will have to blog about later. The first is the town of Climax, NC (yes, there is a town and when I was a high school debater, we often drove through it going to tournaments in the High Point, Greensboro, and Winston Salem area).

Next is William Jennings Bryan. The letter that Ruth Esther wanted was written by Bryan to a “teenage” lover of his, a letter which is real would have tarnished Bryan’s Puritan image. When I was in college, I did a paper on Bryan and discovered that I wasn’t at all interested in the Scopes Monkey Trial (for which he is remembered) but as him being a populist (probably in reality a socialist) candidate for President in 1896. He carried much of the nation. Although many in the religious right revere Bryan for being the prosecutor in the Scopes Trial, they would be horrified to realize that his political philosophy wasn’t anywhere near theirs.

The final thing I should blog about sometime is Salt Lake City. I’ve spent a lot of time in that city when I lived in Utah. Two corrections that I might suggest to Clark, you don’t need a cab to get from the Hilton to Temple Square (if I remember correctly, the Hilton is only two blocks west). Secondly, Mormons don’t’ wear crosses.


Martin Clark, Plain Heathen Mischief

Book cover for Plain Heathen Mischief

 (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2004), 398 pages. Reviewed in 2007


The Reverend Joel Clark has lost everything. The pastor of Roanoke’s First Baptist Church pleads guilty to having sex with Christy, a 17-year-old parishioner. He’s sent to jail for six months. When released, his wife serves him with divorce papers. He’s also issued a lawsuit from Christy. She hopes to receive five million for her emotional damages. With his world crumbling, he left with only one loyal friend, Edmond, who picks him up when he’s released and takes him to his sister’s house in Missoula, Montana.

On the way, they stop to see Sa’ad X Sa’ad, Edmond’s Las Vegas lawyer friend (Las Vegas, Edmond assures Joel, is just a little detour on the way from Virginia to Montana). Both guys are flim-flam men. They offer Joel a stake in an insurance scam. The disgraced preacher at first rejects the temptation, but when he’s unable to secure a job and he finds himself with a crook for a probation officer, he accepts the offer to make some quick cash so that he might help his sister and his former church (Good motives, bad ideas). As soon as he agrees to participate in the scam, Joel’s luck changes and he lands two jobs, one as a dishwasher and the other as a weekend fishing guide on Montana’s rivers.

Plain Heathen Mischief has more twist and turns than Lombard Street in San Francisco. Every time I thought I had the plot figured out, Clark threw another twist. This book was anything but predictable; making it both enjoyable to read while keeping me from doing other things because I was unable to put it down. I will not spoil the ending of the book by giving additional details of the plot except to say that Joel’s interpretation of “having sex” is a lot broader than our former President’s interpretation.

Through the misfortunes of Joel, many which he brings upon himself, Martin Clark explores ethics and morality. By seemingly resigning himself to the notion that he must do something, and the end justifies the means, Joel finds himself deeper and deeper in trouble. Although he preached grace, Joel appears to have little of it for himself. He seems to think it’s up to him to keep his former congregation and his sister afloat. Such a burden almost drowns him. The book also demonstrates how wrong we can often be about other people and their motives. Although Joel is an educated man with a master’s degree, he is naïve, which provides many comic scenes throughout the book.

I wonder about Martin Clark positioning Joel as a Baptist minister. In many ways, he seems Baptist in name only. I don’t know too many Baptist ministers (or any or ministers for that matter) who keeps Aquinas’ Summa on the nightstand. Joel also reads Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Niebuhr and Barth. Although Joel doesn’t drink, he doesn’t have a problem being with those who do, as we learn when he enjoys a night in Vegas, accompanied by Edmond and Sa’ad and three beautiful women.

My favorite characters in the book are Sophie (his sister) and Dixon (his boss at the outfitting service). Like Joel, Sophie’s life crumbled when her well-off doctor husband left her and took off for France in the hopes to make it as an artist. Although she has problems with organized religion, she comes off as a good person who refuses to cut corners or to do anything that’s morally questionable. Likewise, Dixon is a person who tries to do right. I love his comparing churchgoing to the blues.

Churchgoin’ to me is a lot like blues music. Everybody always talks it up, says great things about it, and you know its supposed to boost your soul, but when you actually do it, when you go sit in a smoky club for two hours hearing some old brother with a bum leg an a pair of Ray-Bands play the same slow, self-indulgent, strung-out three notes and squeeze his eyes shut, you start thinking, man, his crap ain’t so hot. Truth is, you’d rather be down at the Holiday Inn lounge tossin’ back dollar shooters, pawing the strange women and dancing to disco… (page 263)

My only complaint is that the book is a bit long. The story could be tightened up a bit, which I think might make the book funnier. However, I’m really shouldn’t complain. Not only did I enjoyed the book, I didn’t want it to end. I’m looking forward to reading Clark’s other book, The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living. Martin Clark is a circuit court judge who lives in Stuart, Virginia. 


Martin Clark, The Legal Limit 

Book cover of "The Legal Limit"

(New York: Alfred Knopf, 2008), 356 pages

Mason Hunt, the Commonwealth Attorney, has come a long way from his horrific childhood with an abusive father. Respected in the community, he’s married to a devoted and sexy wife. They have a beautiful daughter and live on a gentleman’s farm. He also has a dark secret, one that can destroy him. And then, fate turns against him. His wife is killed in a tragic car accident and his convict brother, with whom he shared the secret, decides he’s going to use the secret to get himself out of jail. Life unravels.

Gates Hunt, Mason’s older brother, took the blunt of his father’s blows, often protecting his younger sibling. Gates was a promising football player, but couldn’t hold it together and as a young adult, slipped into the world of drugs and crime. Mason graduates from college and goes on to law school. Home one weekend, Mason and Gates are riding together when they have a run-in with Wayne Thompson, Gates’ girlfriend’s ex. They were on a remote road, no one was around. Threatened, Gates pulled out a pistol, shoots and kills Wayne. The two of them flee. Mason creates alibis, which they rehearse over and over. He also takes his brother’s pistol and disposes of it. The crime goes unsolved.

Twenty years later, Mason has come back to his hometown as the prosecutor. His brother, having shunned a plea bargain and demanded a jury trial for a drug bust, is serving a long sentence in the state penitentiary. As a single parent after his wife’s death, Mason finds himself struggling to raise a teenage daughter. He also finds himself being wooed into supporting a business opportunity for the country, an opportunity which promises short-term jobs and is funded with money from the state’s tobacco settlement. Then, to get out of prison early, his brother fingers him in the unsolved murder of Wayne Thompson.

I won’t spoil the ending, but it suffices to say that Mason’s troubles are never truly over. The book demonstrates how secrets come back and haunt us. We also see howitzers are nearly unredeemable. Finally, we see how we get caught in our lies. Except for his youthful mistake, helping his brother beat a murder rap, Mason is a good man. In fact, his honesty and integrity (in all but this one area of his life) causes his downfall (he wasn’t about to let an innocent man take the fall for his brother’s crime).

This book raises many questions for the reader to ponder. What role does fate play? Why was Gates the older brother? Why does one’s wife die in an accident? It also raises questions about the evil intentions of some people (Gates, prosecutors, those in law enforcement, and those involved in schemes to spend tobacco money on a questionable development which only promise that they’ll be financially rewarded). Another question is about loyalty to family (Mason to Gates, Mason’s mother relationship to Gates, Mason to Curtis, his colleague who also have secrets, and Mason to his daughter). And finally, as the reader I pondered the question of justice. Was justice done in the case? Not really. We’re reminded of the Thompson family and their questions. A better question might be, “Could justice be done in this case?”

I enjoyed this book. The Legal Limit is not as funny as Clark’s other two novels, but in many ways, this is a more serious and tightly constructed work. I’m still pondering the ending of the book. Although I think I understand what Clark is driving at, I also feel that the ending is the weakest link in Clark’s cleverly told story. 


Three Reviews: History and Theology

Photos of three books reviewed in this post

Bill Bryson, One Summer: America 1927 

(Random House Audio, 2013) 17 hours and 3 minutes.

book cover of One Summer,  America 1927

I can’t say I have given much thought of what happened in the summer of 1927, but Bryson is able to make the year come alive. It was a time when America was on top of the world in most areas except for aviation. Partly due to the Great War and the invocations made before our entrance into the war, Europe held the lead. By 1927, commercial passenger flights were flown between London and Paris. While few American cities had airports, most cities in Europe did. Against this background was the “race” to fly non-stop from the United States to Paris. Most people thought larger planes with a crew to handle the flying and the navigation were required. Many of the top contenders were Europeans. Then Charles Lindberg comes on the scene, flying solo in plane without even a front window. Lindberg had barnstormed and flew across country for the postal service. He would surprise the world as he flew across the Atlantic and landed in Paris.  Afterwards, New York City gave Lindberg the largest ticker tape parade seen up to this point in history. He would tour the country receiving parade after parade. 

Other things also happened in America in 1927. This included Babe Ruth hitting a season homerun record that stood until the early 1960s.  It was also a great year for another support, boxing. 

In the political world, President Calvin Coolidge, not known for many words, made a sparse announcement. He was on vacation in South Dakota, where he informed gathered reporters that he would not seek his party’s nomination for the Presidency in 1928. Also in South Dakota, workers started carving on Mt. Rushmore. Others feared archaists and the summer would include the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, two suspected archaists. America feared communists and radicals led to restricted immigration. Others took an interest in eugenics, a pseud-science that sought to create a better humanity by discouraging births of those supposedly of those of an inferior race.  The Klux Ku Klan also enjoyed a national revival with their anti-black, Jewish, and Catholic views.

Ford Motor Company shut down its production of the Model T during the summer as it retooled for the Model A. Henry Ford, himself, who had shown his antisemitic strips in his newspapers, would cease making such statements. In Hollywood, motion pictures began to shift toward the “talkies.” A private meeting between the top bankers from the United States, Great Britain, France, and Germany were held. Their decisions would guide the world toward the Great Depression. 

Bryson ties together these stories and more in a readable and sometimes even in a humorous manner. At the conclusion of the book, he looks ahead to the troubles of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism which led to Lindberg’s downfall from the public eye. America’s beloved aviator had befriended many in Nazi Germany and encouraged the United States to remain neutral as war clouds began to gather. 

As I have enjoyed all the books I’ve read by Byson (especially A Walk in the Woods and Thunderbolt Kid, this book was a delight. I recommend it as a look back at our country almost a century ago.  


Fleming Rutledge, The Undoing of Death: Sermons for Holy Week and Easter 

(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 360 pages plus copies of historical artwork depicting Jesus’ passion and resurrection appearances and notes.

Book cover of "The Undoing of Death"

These 42 sermons begin on Palm Sunday and continue through Easter Week, with most falling on Good Friday. The cross is central to Rutledge’s theology. She develops her theology of God reaching out to humanity through the cross. She defends the cross from distractors who either ignore or downplay its role in salvation history. Most of these sermons were not preached on Sunday morning. Rutledge often humorously builds up her audience by congratulating them on their faithfulness for showing up at worship. 

These sermons are faithful to scripture. Rutledge not only builds her message from the text supplied. She also draws on other passages from the Bible to support her message. Her sermons reflect on issues going on in the larger world. Sometimes, she mocks the Jesus Seminar and others who like to “publish” scandalous ideas about the faith around Holy Week. She also makes it clear in many sermons that all of us are responsible for Jesus’ death, that it is not something to be pinned on the Jews. 

This is a classic series of sermons and I’ll return to this resource during holy week. While I have known of Rutledge’s work and have read her articles and sermons in magazines, this is only the second book of hers that I read. During the last Season of Advent I read her book, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ. Like her Advent book, I recommend this collection of sermons. 


Caroline Grego, Hurricane Jim Crow: How the Great Sea Island Storm of 1893 Shaped the Lowcountry South

Read by Diane Blue (University of North Carolina Press, Tantor Audio, 2022), 12 hours and 35 minutes.

Book cover of Hurricane Jim Crow

A late August 1893, a hurricane struck Hilton Head and the South Carolina lowcountry. The death toll included an untold number of African Americans who lived and worked in the region. The storm brought environmental destruction. Most of the crops died on the vine while salt water inundated many of the wells. Thousands of homes were unlivable, and the main industry (phosphate mining and fertilizer production) was ruined. The storm along with the rise of white supremacy would greatly change the region forever. 

The 1893 storm occurred in the aftermath of the Reconstruction and as Jim Crow laws were enacted in the South. This created even more hardship for the former slaves in the low country. Grego explores the development of the region with its crops of sea island cotton and rice cultivation. Because the climate and disease, most of the whites who controlled the region abandon it during the summer months. The slaves in the low country developed a certain autonomy. Early in the Civil War, the Union captured parts of the low country. This allowed them places to refuel and supply ships setting up the blockade of the southern ports. And while the slaves were not immediately freed, this allowed them to live without the oppressive oversight of their owners. After the war, former slaves were able to own much of the land. Beaufort even had a black sheriff during this era. Most of the African Americans owned small farms that raised some cash crop along with subsistence food. 

The storm was so destructive that it set in force a series of events that decreased the African American hold on the region. The Red Cross responded to the storm. They found themselves torn between those wanting white control of the region and the needs of the former slaves. Some white organizations within the state responded to a mistaken belief the Red Cross gave preferential treatment to blacks by creating a white-only relief organization. Grego explains how the white controlled governments surrounding the low country along with the state worked to encourage black migration. Theysought to bring this region into the Jim Crow era. Such events continued even into recent history as the region was “rediscovered” and many of the islands are converted to gated communities. 

Of course, it was not only the storm that helped create an unfavorable environment that forced many of the blacks within the low country to move or to lose their land. Grego acknowledges the role of technology and cheaper production methods. Rice in the low country died out. This was because of fewer workers and cheaper methods of growing it in the Mississippi delta. The same is true with cotton, which also suffered from the boll weevil. 

At the end of the book, Grego speaks of the “rediscovery” of the region. As it becomes a more popular destination, property prices and taxes go up, which continue to force out those whose families have lived on this land for centuries. 

MY interest in the book and recommendations

I have been interested in this book since I first learned of it. From 2013 to 2020, I lived on Skidaway Island, in the low country of Georgia. This island was settled by former slaves after the Civil War. They abandoned the island after a later storm in the 1890s, I was curious as to the parallels. Grego mentions the other storms that destroyed communities along the coast and set up new communities on the mainland like “Pinpoint.” The residents of Pinpoint were known for seafood, especially oysters. Sadly, they lost their income in the 1960s when a causeway was built between the mainland and Skidaway Island. The causeway changed the salinity of the water and much of the area no longer produced oysters. 

Grego mentions white “Red Shirts” who terrorized the black population in the later part of the 19th Century. I am curious about this group. A similar group also known as Red Shirts existed at the time in Wilmington North Carolina. In 1898, they brought terror on the black population of Wilmington and led a violent coup against the local government. 

I wish I had read instead of listened to this book. The book is academic. While the woman who reads the book is clear and easy to understand, I found it choppy. By increasing the speed, I was able to mitigate this to some extent. As a warning, I am sure that many people might consider this book within the genre of “Critical Race Theory.”  However, it’s history and we need to deal with it. I am glad to have read learned more about a region I called home for over six years.  

Dear Park Ranger: Essays on Manhood, Restlessness, and the Geography of Hope

Review of Dear Park Ranger: Essays on Manhood, Restlessness, and the Geography of Hope By Jeff Darren Muse
Advance Publication Edition
This book will be released on May 6 and is available for preorder.

Cover of the book
Book cover

Through a series of essays, Muse sews together a patchwork memoir of his life in a quilt-like fashion. Some of these stories are humorous and while others are quite sad. Together, they provide important details of Muse’s life as a middle-aged man dealing with life changes along with environmental and racial issues facing our country. Muse looks at how his family background, his love of nature, the authors he’s read, and being a white male influences his views and creates the man he is today. Many of us reading these essays will find a helpful voice as we struggle through similar issues. 

Born in Indiana, Muse is a Hoosier. His father was an alcoholic from rural Kentucky. In several essays, Muse explores his Appalachia roots, from his early travels to his grandparents with his father, to his return to Kentucky as an adult, long after his father’s death. Muse’s parents split when he was a child. He was mostly raised by his mother who struggled raising two boys. Muse found a place for himself playing football.

In college he met a student from Astoria, Oregon. Visiting her home, they took a car trip down the Pacific coast which changed his life. While the relationship didn’t work out, Muse fell in love with the West. Later, he fell in love with Paula, a ranger for the National Park Service. They married. Parts of this book feels like a love-letter to her. However, Muse is careful to protect her. While he mentions the harassment she experienced in the Park Service and the lawsuits, he doesn’t go into detail. Instead, he lets his readers know that’s her story to share. 

Muse has worked in a variety of positions as he followed his wife’s career around the country. His employment mostly involves outdoor education and park interpretation. Starting in the Pacific Northwest, they have also served at Pipe Spring National Monument (where she worked as Muse took seasonal positions at nearby Zion National Park). They have lived in the Upper Midwest, where he worked on a boat taking tourist up the headwaters of the Mississippi. When the National Park assigned her to Charleston, SC, Muse took a job at a local plantation teaching about slavery. This position allows Muse to explore his white privilege and deal with the issue of race. Shocking, the fire towers in the American West, where one seasonal employee lived, are approximately the same size as slave cabins in which whole families lives in the American South. At the end of the essays, Muse and Paula leave the South and return to the West. 

Along his travels, Muse studied creative writing. One of his professors in an MFA program taught “you can only come from one place.” Muse uses this concept to dig into his Hoosier background, but I found myself thinking these combined essays refute this idea. While he’s from Indiana, each new place and experience adds to his experience and combined creates him into the person he has become. While a Hoosier, I think he’s also a Westerner, drawing from the rainy Pacific Northwest and the arid southern deserts. 

As I read these stories, I found myself pondering my own experiences and decisions.  Surprisingly, there are many similarities, such as how a futile attempt to woo woman brought us both into an appreciation of the American West. Muse often quotes authors who have influenced his thinking, and I have read most of their works. Finally, Muse attempts to understand issues of race while working in South Carolina. Growing up Southern, I have been very conscious of race and its role in my life going back to at least the third grade. 

Dear Park Ranger contains eighteen well-crafted essays. I recommend the book, especially for those who enjoy the wilderness or learning how a person’s experiences inform their lives. I was provided an advance review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 


The author’s mini biography:

Photo of Jeff Darren Muse
Jeff Darren Muse

From crawdad creeks and public wildlands to college classrooms and prison gardens, Jeff Darren Muse has worked throughout the United States as an environmental educator, historical interpreter, and park ranger. As a writer, he is inspired by Brian Doyle’s dictum: “The essay is a jackdaw, a magpie, a raven. It picks up everything and uses it.” He has published in AscentThe CommonHigh Country News, and River Teeth, among others. Today, while working seasonally as a wilderness ranger in northern New Mexico, Muse lives with his wife where the aspen-studded Sangre de Cristo Mountains tumble into Santa Fe.

Travels, Readings, and Reviews

author sailing on a Rhodes 19 out of Landings Harbor
Sailing out of Landings Harbor

I’ve been gone for the last nine days. Last week, I attended the Theology Matters Conference at Providence Presbyterian on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. This is their third conference and they’ve all had excellent presentations. This was no exception. Then I headed down to Skidaway Island, where I lived outside of Savannah. There I met up with some friends I used to gather with for late Friday afternoon board meetings. I also got in some sailing with other friends. Then I drove up to Wilmington, NC, to see my dad, along with one of my brothers, my sister, and some friends. While the wind kept us off the water, I did do some hiking around Carolina Beach State Park. I came home yesterday. Below, I review three books I read while away: 

Douglas W. Tallamy, The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees

Cover of "The Nature of Oaks"

 

(Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2021), 197 pages including references, planting guides, and index. Many photos. 

The author moved to a new home in Pennsylvania in 2000. Shortly afterwards, he collected an acorn from a nearby white oak tree. Planting it in a container, it sprouted. After it grew some, he replanted on his property. After 18. years, the white oak is still young, but nearly forty feet tall. He author comes back to this tree, which serves as his laboratory for studies and his example for talking about the lives associated with oaks. This book is organized month by month as we gain insight into what’s happening to the oak as well as those whose lives depend on oaks. Such lives include not just insects and caterpillars living on the oaks, but also birds and other animals that feed such animals. 

This book is a delightful read. While I have known that trees often have bumper crops of acorns and other fruit, I never knew it had a name (masting). I always assumed this phenomenon helped overwhelm animals depending on certain seeds, knowing that they couldn’t eat all of a bumper crop and some seeds will help the plant reproduce. I learned this is only one of three possible answers to the question of “masting.” Nor did I know that blue jays will often bury acorns up to a mile from the oak that produced the seed.  Nor did I know that oaks provide a larger percentage of the insects needed by songbirds to survive than other trees. While I certainly knew that oaks and even more so, birch, hold their leaves sometimes through winter, I know why or that there was a name to describe this phenomenon (marcescent). Even more amazing is Dolbear’s Law, which accounts for how fast crickets chirp based on the temperature. These are just a few of the interesting facts presented by Tallamy in his book of wonder. 

Tallamy warns us of overusing insecticides, which have devastating impact on wildlife (especially birds). He shows how the oak is quiet resultant, often surviving attacks by insects and even plants like mistletoe that live in its limbs. Because of this book, I’m going to find some white oak acorns and plant them on my property! Of course, don’t expect this book to teach you how to tell the difference between a white, red, or black oak. This is not a guidebook, but a book that describes how a specific tree can benefit our world.

Thorpe Moeckel, Down by the Eno, Down by the Haw: A Wonder Almanac

Cover of "Down by the Eno, Down by the Haw"

 (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2019), 127 pages.

I picked up this book because when I was younger, I felt the call of the Haw River and wanted to spend as much time as possible running its rapids. I’d never paddled the Eno, but I knew of it. I was expecting to learn more about these two streams. Reading the book, I was shocked to learn that wasn’t what the book is about. Instead, the author who is also a poet, spent a year collecting these thoughts while living in the North Carolina piedmont. He’s drawn into the woods. While he mentions rivers, he doesn’t identify which one. Other times, he’s visiting a pond instead of a river or describes walking in the woods. His focus is to describe in detail what is going own around him. It must have been a year with many hurricanes striking the coast for Moeckel describes their aftermath after they pour out their water over the piedmont and mountains. 

Like The Nature of Oaks, Moeckel divides his thoughts by months. In each month, he makes multiple trips into the woods. He’s observant and his writing reads like a prose poem.  It took me a few months to really get into his writing. By the end, I was sad there were no more months.  To read about my first experience with the Haw and another book review of the river, click here.

Rick Bragg, A Speckled Beauty: A Dog and His People

Cover of "The Speckled Beauty"

(2021, Audible), 6 hours and 22 minutes. 

The thing about dog stories which have haunted me since I watch Old Yeller as a kid is that in the end, the dog dies. And I have shed more than my share of tears over the death of dogs, both those I’ve known in life and those I’ve read about. The good thing about this book is that Speck doesn’t die. He lives on with us, still chasing cars and animals and rolling in stinky dead stuff. As Bragg claims, his dog isn’t a “good boy,” but he still uses that term. When Bragg is away from home, his mother, or his brother (who lives next door) are likely to throw Speck in jail (the outdoor pen). But Bragg has a soft heart from this stray dog that showed up one day at his house. The dog was missing an eye and beaten up, having obviously been in a few fights. Bragg cleans him up and as he recovers, takes him to the vet. It was just what a man, who had a host of health issue, needed. He nurses the dog back to health and in a mysterious way, the dog helps him overcome heart and kidney failure, cancer, and other ailments of a man beginning his sixth decade.

I listened to this book. The author reads the story. His slow voice tells the story in a way that I might have been out on the back porch listening. Of course, I wasn’t. I was in a car on a six-hour drive to a conference on Hilton Head Island. While this book might be classified as a memoir of him and his family, he doesn’t focus on himself. Furthermore, Bragg’s humor is often self-effacing. He says he’s living in his mother’s basement (but if I remember correctly, in one of his other books he admits to buying his mother a house and land). And once COVID hits, the dog becomes a cherished companion. 

Bragg will have you laughing and crying, sometimes in the same paragraph. This is how storytelling should be done. 

I highly recommend this and many other books by Rick Bragg. See my review of another of his books, The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s TableMy favorite book by Bragg is Ava’s Man.   

Long leaf pines at Carolina Beach State Park
Long Leaf Pines in Carolina Beach State Park

A Review of Two Works of Fiction

Last year, I noted in my reading summary that I didn’t read enough women authors or fiction. So here are two reviews of books I’ve read that meet both categories. I have read several of McKenzies books including Not Guilty which I reviewed in this blog. I have also read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which I have also reviewed here.  Both books appealed to me. Shattered because I enjoy skiing and have a daughter that skied in high school and was a coxswain on a college crewing team. Demon Copperhead is set just west of where I live in Virginia.

C. Lee McKenzie, Shattered 

Cover photo of "Shattered"

(Evernight Teen, 2021), 295 pages. 

This story begins with Libby Brown heading out to get a few runs on the ski hill early in the day as she prepares for the Olympic tryouts. We’re taken along with the 19-year-old as she makes her way to the lift and rides to the top. McKenzie captures all the details, from her friendliness with the lift operator to how one sits back as the lift chair swings into position. Then, as she makes the run, an out-of-bound snowboarder runs her down. Libby wakes up in the hospital to a nightmare. She can’t move her legs. From here, the story continues as Libby struggles to rebuild her life. At first, she’s bitter. She lost her chance at the Olympics. But slowly, especially with the help of another young patient who was swimming star who lost a leg in an accident, she begins her comeback. 

Once Libby is out of rehab, she must move downstairs as she can no longer navigate the stairs. Her parents try to make the best of things, but they have another surprise, her mother is pregnant. But she meets and dates guys, wondering how she can have a relationship while confined to a wheelchair. When the suggestion is made that she learn to ski sitting down, she’s reluctant. But in time, she gives it a try. Without her legs, she gains upper body strength and joins a girls crewing team made up of those with disabilities. In time, she gets her life back together. She finds love and makes the Para-Olympic team and finds independence on her own. 

Photo by Jeff Garrison of his daughter skiing at Bittersweet Ski Resort in Michigan
My daughter learning to ski

As the story unfolds, she learns that her accident wasn’t accidental. She had been set-up to take her out of the Olympics. I read it thinking that the other woman whom she was in competition for the place was the culprit, but at the end there is a surprise.  

This is a quick read designed for young adults. This is the third book of McKenzie’s that I have read. The author often tackles with issues faced by young adults and show them learning and thriving despite limitations. As a skier who have generally seen snowboarders as someone unwanted on the hillside (they tend to cut up the snow into ruts and are often rude), I tried not to smirk too much as I read this book. 

Barbara Kingsolver, Demon Copperhead

Cover photo of "Demon Copperhead"

 (2022, Audible Books, 2022), 21 hours and 3 minutes or 546 pages. 

This is an incredible novel. Kingsolver deals with rural poverty, drug abuse, race relationships, sexual identity, and hopelessness. Yet, as I listened to this book, I found myself cheering on the protagonist, Damon Fields (known as Demon Copperhead for his red hair). The novel begins at his unique birth to his teenage mother and follows him throughout his childhood and teenage years. Demon faces challenges after challenges and while he makes many bad decisions, he always seems to land on his feet as he hopes on day to see the ocean.

The setting for the story is Lee County, Virginia, in the far western part of the state. It’s coal country, but the mining has mostly moved on, leaving behind impoverished towns where people unite around the high school football team. Demon’s father died before his birth (he later learns the details). Then his mother dies of an overdose on his 11th birthday. He becomes a ward of the state. 

He is sent to Mr. Crickson’s farm. The old farmer takes in troubled boys no one wants to work them in his fields and to tend his cattle. Here, Kingsolver shows the hard work that goes raising into Burley tobacco. At the farm, Demon meets several other boys who will remain with him for good (Tommy) or bad (Fast Forward) for the rest of the novel. 

After Crickson, Social Services moves him to the McCobb family who provides him a bed to sleep in the room where the washer and dryer were located. This had been where they kept the dogs when they had tried breeding them for income. We’re shown how many of those in the foster care system only looking to the money they receive to care for the kids. Mr. McCobb forces to take a job recycling hazardous material. But he also gets to know an Indian who runs a store, who tells him about the underclass in India. Now in America, he helps Demon by giving him plenty of food, something he’s not receiving from his foster family.  Demon saves his money and runs away. A truck stop whore steals his money.

Penniless, he finds his paternal grandmother, Betsy Woodall. He’d never seen her before, but she recognizes him because he looks just like the dad who’d died before his birth. She arranges for him to stay with a football coach (Coach Winfield), the husband of her late daughter. He has a daughter, Angus, who becomes another positive force in Demon’s life. The coach appears to care for Demon, but he has his owns “demons” with alcohol. But things begin to look up for Demon as he becomes a star tight end, until he messes up his knee. While he had often used drugs (smoking pot or popping pills at a party with the other foster boys at Crickson’s farm), with his injury, he slides deep into drug use.

Then we think he’s saved when he meets Dori, a girl he describes as an angel. But she is also deep into drugs as she cares for her father whose lungs were destroyed in the mines. After her father’s death, they move in together. Later, Demon realizes that if he wants to get clean, he’ll have to leave her. Then she dies of an overdose. 

When he hits bottom, Demon finally agrees to leave the region for treatment, afterwards, he says in a half-way house… The book ends with him visiting Lee County and reuniting with Angus. Kingsolver leaves the reader with hope for Demon, but also with the knowledge he has a lifelong struggle ahead of him. 

Along his journey, there are many who try to help Demon. At the forefront is the Peggot family. Demon’s mother had rented a trailer from them. The Peggot’s look out for him. They are elderly, but with a daughter in the state prison for killing her husband, they raise her son, Maggot (most everyone in this book has nicknames). He is a weird child, but a good friend. As they grow older, he’s gay and, like many others, has a drug problem. One of their daughters, June, who had been a nurse in Knoxville. She becomes a nurse practitioner and moves back to Lee County. Through her efforts, Kingsolver provides insight into how so many people have become addicted to opioids.  She also helps Demon get help.

Other helpful individuals include an art teacher who encourages Demon’s drawings. Her husband, an African American counselor and teacher from Chicago, strives to help the kids see how the area has been devasted by outside forces. One of the social workers (Miss Banks) is helpful but realizes she’s in a dead-end job and returns to school and becomes a teacher. She sees being a teacher to provide economic security in an area where there are few opportunities. 

Those who pull Demon in the wrong direction include Fast Forward. At the farm, he was a high school student and given special privileges because he is the school’s quarterback. Fast Forward introduces Demon and others to pill popping. Later, he gets more involved with drugs and their distribution, leaving a wake of broken people behind him. 

This should be an eye-opening novel for many people. Kingsolver used Charles Dicken’s David Copperfield, as a model for this story. While I haven’t read David Copperfield, they both deal with how the poor become trapped, but also provide a glimmer of hope. This is a long novel but provides the reader with insight into the rural poor in America and the challenges they face. I like the voice of Demon, who tells this story that helps educate the rest of us about the hopelessness that many people face as well as the lure and the entrapment of the drug culture.

A quote: to end with: “Certain pitiful souls around here see their whiteness as their last asset that hasn’t been totaled or repossessed.”  

Photo of Foster Falls, along the New River. Photo by Jeff Garrison
Foster Falls along the New River in Western Virginia

Two theological books

Book cover of "Rediscovering Humility"

Christopher A. Hutchinson, Rediscovering Humility: Why the Way Up is Down 

(Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2018), 250 pages including endnotes and scriptural references. 

It is the gospel itself that demands humility. 
Therefore, Christian discipleship cannot be supplemented with a dash of humility for flavor, 
but must have humility as the main ingredient. (page 31)

Hutchinson thesis is that humility is the center of the gospel. It’s not just something for which we’re to give lip service or to try harder to achieve. It is certainly not a contest to see how we can be humbler than someone else (that would be a self-defeating effort if there ever was one). Instead, humility comes from our relationship with God through Jesus Christ, who humbled himself by coming to us in the flesh.

However, humility is not a virtue with much value in society, which makes this book even more valuable. We recognize and reward those who are strong, not the meek. The economics systems upon which our society is based awards strength and in this manner is antithetical to Scripture and the Kingdom. Jesus speaks of the last being first, storing our treasurers in heaven, and blessings showered upon the meek. 

Drawing heavily up the Puritans, Hutchinson clarifies what humility is and isn’t. He uses examples from his time as an officer in the U. S. Army during Desert Storm and from his ministry. A promising student graduating at the top of his class, Hutchison headed into ministry only to be voted out of his first call after only a year in ministry. Such an experience provides Hutchinson with a valuable tool. Leadership is about service and focusing on others. He writes about presenting the Elders in his church, upon their ordination, a toilet plunger to remind them of their role of service in the life of the church. 

From the individual to leaders within the church, Hutchinson examines humility from many points of view, not just from the view of the individual. He explores its meaning in relation to the Sabbath, Church doctrine, Church unity, relations with unbelievers, and nationalism. The sanctuary in which he worships doesn’t have an American flag because the church is for all people, not just Americans. Likewise, he has refused to hold services that honor the Scottish heritage of Presbyterianism. I found this to be honest and refreshing (but I’m not sure what I’d do with my kilt if there were no such Sundays). 

As a pastor in the conservative Presbyterian Church of America, which does not allow women in governance, Hutchinson refers mostly, but not exclusively, to male leadership. However, Hutchinson avoids falling into the macho Christian image for men and, as he did with certain strains of nationalism, repudiates such views. 

This is a book that should be read and studied by Christian leaders. In a world where power and might rules, the church needs to model humility.


Book cover of After Baptism

John P. Burgess, After Baptism: Shaping the Christian Life

(Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2005), 155 pages including index and notes. 

The sacraments and commandments remind us that being Christian is not only a question of what we believe but also and foremost a question of how we live.  Christians are a people who live out their faith. (page xiii)

We can of course continue to ignore our need to confess sin.
We can continue to pretend that we have no hunger, no thirst.
But then we refuse to admit our dependency on God and others,
and deny the fundamental fact that we cannot give ourselves life but, rather,
have to receive whatever good we have from a source of life beyond ourselves. (page 137)

How are we to live as followers of Jesus? John Burgess, a professor of Systematic Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary provides a theological framework for such a life. This is a theological work, not a how-to book. Burgess doesn’t provide tricks to help us grow in our faith. Instead, drawing heavily on John Calvin and Martin Luther, along with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, he focuses on how we are to shape our lives. He bookends his thesis with the two Protestant sacraments (Baptist and Eucharist) and in-between explores the meaning of the 10 Commandments. 

Early in the book, Burgess introduces the three interpretative moves from the Reformation which help us understand the commandments. These moves broaden each commandment (murder can be more than physically killing someone). Then they internalize the commandments (wrong desires underlies every violation of the commandments). And finally, they reverse the commandments. Every negative commandment also has a positive side (see the Westminster Larger Catechism with each one having a list of what the commandment requires and well as prohibits). While Burgess has something to say about all ten, he devotes most of his writing to the center commandments (keeping the Sabbath, honoring parents, and not killing). 

By bookending his thesis with the sacraments, Burgess makes the case that the Christian life is not shaped by the individual but by God through the Christian community. Christianity isn’t an individual quest, but one lived out together (as Bonhoeffer makes clear in Life Together). He also provides a theological and biblical foundation for infant baptism. 

Burgess draws from many personal stories, including writing about his own children’s baptism, his family history that includes German Jews, the impact of 911, hiking in Colorado, and his ecumenical work in Eastern Europe.

If one is looking for a book of ideas of how to grow as a Christian (such as how to pray, or to study scripture, etc.), this book probably won’t be of much help. But if one is serious about living a Christ-like life in a complicated world, After Baptism book provides much to consider.  This book should be used in seminaries. I found myself wishing that Burgess had taught at Pittsburgh when I was a student there. Realizing he’s been at Pittsburgh 25 years made me feel even older as I graduated almost a decade before he started. 

A Parting Shot

Take on February 7, during a late evening walk