While away, I’ve been reading

Title slide with cover of three books that were reviewed
Lake Huron from the St. Mary's River in Michigan's UP
Looking toward Lake Huron from St. Mary’s River

I’m away for two weeks. I left early on Monday, April 9, and quickly drove across West Virginia and Ohio, to position myself in South Charleston for the eclipse. After 2 minutes of awe, I headed up to Michigan. I attended the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids (and will write more about it later). Then I headed up to Michigan’s UP and am in Detour Village for 8 days of reading, hiking, and discussions with a good friend.  These reviews are from books read so far during this trip: 

Freighter heading up toward the Son
Heading up to the Soo

Jonathan Healey, The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, 1603-1689

Cover for "The Blazing World"

narrated by Oliver Hembrough, (Random House Audio, 2023) 19 hours and 42 minutes. 

A lot happened in 17th Century England. It was an age of conflict between ideals. 

  • Did the king rule because of divine right or at the consent of the population? 
  • What role would parliament play in a monarchy? 
  • What was the best way for the citizens to practice religion? 
  • And would England remain Protestant or would it resort to Roman Catholicism?  

These ideas were debated and fought over. It was a century of much bloodshed. From civil war(s) to frequent executions of those who challenged order (from a king, to dissents, to a few condemned for witchcraft), blood flowed freely through much of the century. By the end of the century, with the Glorious Revolution, the Stuart’s dynasty was out and England began to resemble the country we now know.  

While listening to Healey’s book, I couldn’t help but think of the parallels to the American Revolution. Taxation was an important issue to both revolutions. In England, only parliament could authorize taxes which curtailed the king’s power. But the king could send home the parliament if he felt things weren’t going his way. The king tried other ways to raise funds, which eventually led to a war between the king and parliament. By the end of the century, parliament had more power and no longer ruled only at the king’s behalf.  

Much of the middle of the book focuses on Cromwell. In a way, as the “protectorate” he became like a king. There is much to dislike about him, but the same can be said about Charles I, who lost his head after the first revolution. As a Puritan, Cromwell tried to push Puritanism on England. Not only did this create turmoil in England, but it also drove a wedge between the English and the Scotch Presbyterians and Irish Catholics. Cromwell’s armies killed large numbers in Ireland, and he also brought in Scots to replace the Irish Catholics. 

The religious issues were numerous during this era. The Stuart kings looked more favorably on Catholicism than most of their county. Mary’s reign at the end of the 16th Century, which she attempted to steer the country back to Catholicism and executed hundreds of Protestants, left a bad taste for such a tradition. In a likewise manner, the harsh Puritan rule left a bad taste and after the death of Cromwell, England was more than ready to compromise with a king and parliament. While the country maintained an established religion after the restoration, it became more tolerate of other traditions, including the Quakers, Dissenters, and even Catholics. Interestingly, Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and the Baptist tradition in America, played a role in England as he modeled more tolerance toward other traditions. 

While Healey mentions the Westminster Parliament which created the Westminster Confession of Faith, he says little about it.  Of course, after the restoration, it had little impact in England. However, the Church of Scotland adopted the confession and because of this, the confession has influenced Presbyterians around the globe. (For more information, see my review of John Leith’s Assembly at Westminster). 

I may obtain a written copy of this book and spend so more time studying it. I recommend the book because I think understanding the English revolutions helps Americans understand our own history. 

Steven Galloway, The Cellist of Sarajevo 

Cover for "The Cellist of Sarajevo"

(Riverhead Books, 2008), 235 pages, no photos. 

I enjoyed this short novel. Drawing on a real-life event during the siege of Sarajevo, Galloway shows us how people struggled to live in a city reduced to rubble and under constant mortar and sniper attacks from the surrounding hills. After a mortar kills civilians waiting to buy bread, a cellist decided he’ll play a concert every afternoon for 22 days to honor those killed in the attack. Will the cellist also become a victim to those attacking the city?  

Galloway uses three characters to tell the story. Each story of survival provides an insight into the tragedy of Sarajevo. 

Kenan walks every few days with a bunch of containers to obtain water for his family and an older woman in his apartment building. The city’s brewery is the source for potable water. To make the trek requires a difficult crossing of bridges and intersections that exposes individuals to guns of the snipers in the hills. 

Dragan is a baker. His wife and daughter fled the city, but he stayed behind. His home was shelled in the opening days of the battle, so he has moved into a small apartment with his sister’s family. He doesn’t get along with his brother-in-law, but he’s tolerated because he brings the family bread.

Arrow is a young woman who had been on the university’s rifle team. We’re not given her name, at least at first. Her father, a police officer, was killed in the opening battle for the city.  Because of her shooting skills, she’s recruited to serve as a sniper. She kills the men who have laid siege to the city. It was an uneasy transition, from shooting at paper to shooting men, but she’s a good shot.

After introducing Arrow as a sniper, she’s called on to protect the cellist. He has become a symbol of defiance and those laying siege to the city want him dead. Studies the cellist’s location, she attempts to get into the mind of the enemy sniper. She almost makes a mistake and the enemy sniper shoots at her, but misses. Then, she kills the sniper even though he hasn’t yet aimed his gun and is listening to the music. The psychological battle between the two snipers reminds me of Liam O’Flaherty’s short story, “The Sniper” which I first read in Junior High. 

In a way, Arrow becomes the main character. After protecting the cellist, she has had enough of killing. They assign her to a new group but refuses to kill the enemy civilians. She runs away. Her story ends with the city’s soldiers coming to kill her. At first, she thinks about killing them, but then decides against it. She doesn’t want to be a fugitive and waits. As they bust down her door, she speaks, “My name is Alisa.” While we don’t know what happens, I’m left with the sense she decided her death was preferable to continuing to kill. In this way, she becomes a Christ-like figure in a world of turmoil. 

All three characters reminisce about the city’s past and have hope for its future. I recommend this book and found myself constantly thinking about those in Ukraine who now live under such situation with the Russian invasion. 

John Lane, Gullies of My People: An Excavation of Landscape and Family 

cover for John's Lane's "Gullies of My People"

(Athens, GA: University of Georgie Press, 2023), 204 pages including source material and black and white photographs. 

Lane explores his family’s past while also learning about the gullies which washed away much of the Piedmont near his home in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The chapters of the book flip back and forth. In some he’s traveling to see where his relatives lived and farmed, often with Sandy, his older half-sister. In other chapters, he hangs out with geologists, studying the erosion of the soil, building their explorations upon the research of the Soil Conservation Service of the 1930s and early 40s.  And in others, he writes about his family’s and his own history.  Like the gullies, which can never completely heal, the hurts of the past still haunt the lives of the living. 

The Second World War creates a dividing line and hangs over the book like a dark shadow. The gullies in the Piedmont were well established before the war, driving many of Lane’s ancestors from the land and into the mills. During the war, Lanes mother, a young mill worker, became semi-famous as a runner-up to a beauty contest for women working in the mills. She would carry around the magazine article with her on the cover for the rest of her life. But her fame flamed out and after her first marriage (Sandy’s father), she struggled with alcoholism for much of her life. Lane’s father spent the war in the army. He served in Africa, on the second wave on Omaha Beach, and across Europe. He suffered emotionally after the war and took his one life when his son was still young. 

The war also brought an end to the Social Conservation Service work in the South. It wasn’t that there were more no gullies to study. Instead, the war took away the resources and the scientists became engaged in other activities. Interestingly, among the early soil scientists was the son of Albert Einstein. Lane even has a vision of Albert at the river site of his son’s laboratory on erosion. 

In addition to recollecting the memories of his family and learning about the erosion of the land, the book highlights the difficulties of memories. Lane even tells some of the family stories from the perspective of different people to show how such memories can manifest themselves differently.

Toward the end of the book, Lane allows his mother’s a chapter which he drew from her personal journal. In this chapter, we get a sense of her hard life. She died in 2004.

John Lane recently retired from Wofford College, where he taught environmental studies. 

From his other writings, I knew Lane and I share a common birth location. Both of us were born in the Sandhills of Moore County, North Carolina. Lane is a few years older than me. He was born right after Hurricane Hazel blew through the area (I was born two days after Humphrey Bogart’s death). Lane spent his earliest years in Southern Pines. I spent my earliest years a dozen miles away, along the Lower Little River, between Pinehurst and Carthage.

Both of us left the area before starting school. Lane’s mother moved him back to Spartanburg after the death of his father. My father moved his family away from our family’s roots after starting a new career.  Through this book, I learned of another connection. One thread of Lane’s family (the Mabes) is from Carroll County, Virginia, where I currently live.  And, on the eastern side of my property is a large gulley which I suspect washed out after the death of the chestnuts.  As I read this book and looked at the cross-cut of the gulley used on the title pages, I couldn’t help but think of my own gulley. 

Canadian geese eggs buried in the rocky limestone along Lake Huron's shore
Canadian Geese eggs along the shore of Lake Huron

Losing Our Religion

Title slide with photo of book and a rock church in West Virginia

Russell MooreLosing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Sentinel/Penguin Random House, 2023), 256 pages, no illustrations and (sadly) no index.

I have followed Russell Moore from a distance for the past decade, finding him a voice of compassion and reason within the Southern Baptist Convention. It was sad to watch as he was pushed out of his leadership role. But I rejoiced when he became the editor-in-chief for Christianity Today. After the publication of this book, it quickly rose to the top of my to-be-read pile. I appreciate the grace Moore displayed in these pages, even as he deals with those who see him as an enemy.  

Moore acknowledges his book title is a riff off the hit song of the same name by the band, REM. But then, as he notes, we’re not called to a religion. We’re called into a relationship with Jesus Christ. We confess him publicly as Lord and Savior and strive to follow him in our lives. 

This book is part memoir. The author describes his experience in the Baptist tradition, starting when he walked down to the altar to commit his life to Christ. He noted that at such an early age, he had no idea as to where his commitment would lead. He told about those who called for Bill Clinton’s head after his affair within the White House. The leaders of the church took the moral high road with Clinton. However, many of the same leaders fell under the spell of Donald Trump. He recounted his battles within the Southern Baptist Convention after he refused to endorse Trump, a man he felt morally unfit to be President. 

A personal note: I don’t think preachers and religious leaders should endorse any candidate. But this is not a hard and fast rule. When candidates behavior and rhetoric are an affront to the values of our faith, we should speak up. Think of the Old Testament prophets. Furthermore, when candidates attempt to misled the faithful, as “wolves in sheep clothing, we have an obligation to challenge and to protect the faithful. Moore has been especially good at remaining focused on Jesus while challenging such dangerous ideology.

Moore did not hold back his opinion, especially after the events of January 6, 2021. He took offense at those who stormed the capital with signs reading, “Jesus Saves.” He noted the religious aspect behind the failed insurrection, which included the “Jericho March” that brought a religious theme with the same falsehood about the election before the riot.. Moore acknowledges that many faithful pastors found themselves blindsided when they spoke out against such misuse of the Christian faith. Reading this book, I continually kept going back to the Sunday after January 6. I recalled three people getting in my face that Sunday, before I could leave the chancel, upset that I had challenged the blasphemy of those using Jesus’ name in a riot. Click here to read my sermon from that day.

With additional issues such as sex abuse coverup within the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention, Moore exposes an evangelical church enthralled with human power. He acknowledges that Christian leaders are always sinful, and the church has always dealt with the problem of hypocrites. But because the evangelical church appears to have sold out to power politics, he questions the church true allegiance. Is it to Jesus?

In five detailed chapters, Moore speaks of the church losing its credibility, authority, identity, integrity, and stability. He engages in many of the topics battered around in church circles these days including deconstructionism, tribalism, the cultural wars, hypocrisy, and nostalgia for what we fear to have lost. We can gleam much from Moore’s insights. He offers suggestions on how we can grow as Christians in each area. While Moore vision of the church he loves has grown larger than just the Baptist denomination of his youth, he does long for the church to experience a Baptist-like revival. But he also warns the church not to attempt to come up with its own program to revive American evangelicalism. To do so, the church would risk “reviving” the wrong thing and miss out on God’s true revival. 

Moore uses himself as an example of one growing in the faith. In the early years of this century, he attacked fellow Baptist Beth Moore (no relationship even though he joked about her being his mom) for her stance of women in leadership. He has since become a friend of hers and acknowledges his earlier defense of male leadership is not the major issue of scripture as he once thought. 

In addition to appreciating his insights, I realized many of the same authors influenced Moore and as well of me. Two of these include the poet David Wythe along with Wendell Berry. Moore tells a favorite story of mine from Berry’s Jayber Crow, in which Troy questions radical teachings which turn out to come from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I have used this story in several sermons including this one from April 2022

I recommend this book. The prophets of today, who raise questions about our allegiances, are no different than those in Biblical times. While Moore may not end up like Jeremiah, in a cistern, he has had his share of battles. Yet he remains gracious to others, including those with whom he disagrees, all while striving to be faithful to his Savior. Having committed himself to Christ, he realizes our hope is not in human power. Our hope is in God, who revealed his power in the weakness of the cross. (See 1 Corinthians 1:18-19). 

Let me leave you with a quote: “Christian nationalism is a prosperity gospel for nation-states, a liberation theology for white people.” (page 117)

Learning more about the Okefenokee

Photo of book, "Suwannee River"

Cecile Hulse Matschat, Suwannee River: Strange Green Land, A Descriptive Joureny through the Enchanted Okefenokee (1938, 1966, Athens, GA: University Press, 1980), 296 pages including a bibliography, glossary, bird and flora list, an index. Black and white drawings illustrate each chapter.

I picked this book up at a used bookstore several years ago. It was the perfect book to pack along on my recent ramblings in and around the Okefenokee. Originally published in the late 1930s as a part of a “River in America” series, the University of Georgia Press republished it

I have read many books about rivers. I enjoy an author taking me down a steam, telling me about the river, its history, along with the flora and fauna and wildlife around its water. This book does that in a fresh and unique manner. The author, an “outlander” from New York. She, heads into the Okefenokee Swamp looking for the headwaters of the Suwanee River in the 1930s. Drawing on her interest and knowledge of plants, she becomes known as the “Plant Woman,” and gains the confidence of the people who live in the swamp. She then writes about the swamp and river through the eyes of the native residents of the swamp. Not only will the reader learn about the region’s natural history but also gains an appreciation of the stories of the swamp. These stories are told in the swamper’s own dialect. 

The largest part of this book involves the Plant Woman’s stay with those living in the swamp. Here, we also learn the folk heritage of the swamp. Instead of a scientific understanding of the region, we learn of how the beavers and the native people had developed a truce, but when a new chief rose, he decided to make war on the beavers. In retaliation, the beavers flooded the land and abandoned it forever (there are no beavers in the swamp. We learn of tall tales of the ingenuity of who lived in the swamp. One “swamper” wedded bees and lightening bugs, doubling his production of honey because the insects could now work 24 hours a day. 

Matschat asks to see a still. They blindfolded her and take her by boat to a remote landing. There, she sees a still in operation and learns about moonshine. She introduces us to the “snake woman” who has a pet kingsnake. Some of boys catch a large rattlesnake with 21 rattlers They set up a fight with the kingsnake. Everyone knew the kingsnake would win, but the betting was on how long the rattlesnake could last against its arch enemy. She’s present as they boil off cane squeezings into syrup and learns about “old Christmas.” She tells of people’s encounter with the wilds. This included wild hogs, bears, and sandhill cranes. We also learn how they cared for each other. We are provided with recipes for delights like sweet potato biscuits along with the words to songs sung to pass time.  Her time in the swamp ends with a wedding. 

After her time in the swamp, she takes boat down the Suwannee River. Here, she experiences a variety of orchids and meets those who live by the river. She spends some time on old cotton plantations, with African Americans left behind after the Civil War. There, they eke out a living from farming, hunting, and fishing. Some may find this section difficult as Matschat tells of older members speaking fondly of slave days. This doesn’t ring politically correct today, but she found the former slaves still living in their cabins as the old mansions of the masters were rotting away and considered haunted. 

One of the stories an old man tells the children is about the rabbit. Supposedly, the rabbit used to have a beautiful long tail. Noah’s son, Ham, in the ark, spent his time during the rain playing the banjo. When his strings broke, Noah suggested he take the tail of the rabbits to create new strings. He did, which is why rabbits now have bobbed tails.

When she gets to the mouth of the Suwannee, she takes a boat down to Cedar Key. There, she meets a more international community of Cuban and Portuguese fishermen and hears more tales of pirates and hurricanes. She leaves her journey behind, taking an airplane from Cedar Key back north. For all her journey, you’d thought she was in the 19th or 18th centuries. Only here at the end we’re reminded that her experiences were in the 1930s.  I found this a delightful book and highly recommend it if you can find a copy.  

If one wants to learn more about the actual history of the Okefenokee, I suggest reading Trembling Earth. I first reviewed it in 2015 and have republished my review below. It’s academic and approaches the swamp’s folklore from a more objective perspective. She of how it was a refugee for runaway slaves, native Americans, deserters during the Civil War, and outlaws. She also tells of human efforts to drain the swamp, which became a folly.

Opening pages of book
A look inside at the opening page of the book
Photo of book, Trembling Earth

Megan Kate Nelson, Trembling Earth: A Cultural History of the Okefenokee Swamp (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2005), 262 pages including notes, index, bibliography, and a few photos.  

The Okefenokee Swamp is huge bog located mostly in South Georgia, just above the Florida border. Today, much of it is a National Wildlife Refuge. Prior to this status, the swamp existed as a barrier. Nelson calls it an “edge space.” The name, “Okefenokee,” comes out of a Native American term meaning “trembling earth.” This name describes the floating peat islands inside the swamp. Since there is only a little “solid” high ground inside the swamp, few made their home there.  

Prior to European immigration, there were a few native communities existing along the edges of the swamp. The interior was only probed for hunting. This changed over time as the Spanish began to populate Florida and the British began to move into Georgia. The swamp and the native populations served as a buffer between British and later Americans in the north and the Spanish in the South. 

Native communities began to move into the swamp during the Seminole wars of the early 19th Century, using it geographical barrier to their advantage. Another group to find the interior of the swamp beneficial were runaway slaves. At first, Georgia didn’t allow slavery. However, Africans had some immunity to the diseases that affected Europeans. That, along with the need for new areas to expand rice plantations , a push was made to extend slavery. Being close to Spanish Florida, some slaves would hide out in the swamp before making their ways south. Interestingly, the last group to find refuge in the swamp were poor white men. At first, they avoided conscription in the Confederate army during the Civil War by hiding in the forbidding swamp. Later, “crackers” who lived under the radar in the swamp, living off the bounty of the land. 

After the Civil War, serious attempts were made to “conquer” the swamp. The first was a failed attempt to drain the swamp through the St. Mary’s River to the Atlantic Ocean. It was with hopes that the rich ground could be utilized for farming. This attempt failed to understand the geography for most of the swamp drains through the Suwanee River into the Gulf of Mexico. 

After the bankruptcy of the dredging company, the swamp fell into the hands of northern timber companies who built “mud lines” (temporary railway spurs) which allowed them to harvest much of the cypress and pine within the swamp.  During this time, another group began to make the swamp their home. These “crackers” or “swampers,” both worked for and often resisted the various dredging and timber companies who attempted to change their environment. As the timber was being harvested, the interest in birdlife in the swamp increased as various surveys were made of the birds and waterfowl within the swamp were taken. This lead to the creation of a government protected wildlife refugee in the 1930s.  

Using a historicity which she labels “ecolocalism,” Nelson tells the history of the swamp through the stories of competing groups who relate to the landscape in different ways. These groups include Native Americans, slaves, colonists, developers, swampers, scientists, naturalists and tourists. This book is a distillation of the author’s dissertation. Although edited into its present form, it still maintains an academic distance from her subject. Only in an opening essay does she acknowledge having been into the swamp. This lack of a personal connect makes the book seem a little aloft. She does draw upon many of the group’s stories which makes the book very readable.  

twilight in the Okefenokee
Winter twilight in the swamp (photo taken in January 2017)