My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir

thomas-memoir

I updated and reposted this September 2016 review. Considering current events and the surrounding din, a redirection towards the life and memoir of such an accomplished man as Justice Thomas seems appropriate.

My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir, by Justice Clarence Thomas. Originally published in 2007. 304 pages.

Bootstrapping is an unpopular concept today, and My Grandfather’s Son is certainly an engaging, bootstrapping book. However, it is worth reading because in reality, Clarence Thomas understands that his success is as much a testament to his grandfather’s dedicated investment in him as it is to his own hard work and intellect. From that perspective, it is less a story of pulling oneself up by his bootstraps and more about appreciating and capitalizing upon the opportunities that come our way.

While most Americans associate Justice Thomas with Anita Hill and the scandalous nature of his Senate confirmation hearings, there is much more to his life’s story than that brief, unfortunate saga. In fact, the story of his growing-up years was so interesting that I almost forgot about the Anita Hill fiasco that made him a household name to begin with.

The book’s titular reference is to Thomas’ maternal grandfather, who took him and his brother in when their divorced single mother couldn’t give them the life she knew they needed to be successful. Justice Thomas clarifies that in all the ways that matter, he is indeed his grandfather’s son. It was he who taught the boys about life, work, manhood, and rising above their circumstances growing up in the Jim Crow south.

I always found it odd to see Clarence Thomas painted by the media and the left as a man disconnected from and unconcerned with the plight of the people he “left behind” in the black community. I found this odd despite being a very young, idealistic, card-carrying Democrat at the time of his contentious and tawdry confirmation fight. I was interested in politics even at 20 years old, because my parents were interested in politics. I was aware of what was happening and I wondered: How could a man born and raised in Georgia in the 1950s be indifferent to the plight of the people who shaped him into the man he was?

I later learned, and his memoir confirmed, that he was far from indifferent. The problem was that as a thinking person rather than a blind follower he concluded that the politically correct, liberal state-centered solutions being offered were not in the best interest of anyone, least of all black people. That wasn’t a popular position to take and still isn’t. It’s even less tolerable coming from a black person, as Thomas found out the hard way.

He was still quite a young man when he noticed the propensity of the liberals in academia and government to use the policy of appease and agree in response to every demand made by black leaders, even if the demands were illogical and damaging over the long-term. Also, he realized that the soft, paternalistic racism of the left was just as bad, if not worse, than the overt, virulent racism he’d witnessed growing up. At one point he reiterates this by noting that the first time he was called “nigger” he was not in Georgia, but Massachusetts.

The parts of Thomas’ book where he describes his gradual awakening to the reality that liberal policies that purport to help the black community choked the life out of the community, destroyed the family, and discourage self-sufficiency resonated.

If there was one part of Thomas’ story that left me a bit saddened, it was his account of the ending of his failed first marriage. His leaving because he was disillusioned and unhappy signaled that he hadn’t been fully immune to the liberal line of thought which gained its foothold during his coming of age years. That he and his ex-wife to her credit, understood that raising their son and ushering him to manhood was best handled by Thomas himself rather than his ex-wife was the one redeeming element of that period of his life as retold in the book. Like Thomas’ mother understood, they understood that men learn manhood from men.

He and his current wife took on the mantle of his grandfather, who raised Thomas and his brother, by taking in his young nephew from a troubled home and raising him as their own. Thomas clearly understood the challenges facing the young men, and has put his time and money where his mouth is, unlike many of his liberal detractors.

By the time the book gets to the Anita Hill scandal, it is an afterthought. The most interesting parts of Thomas’ life story occurred long before his nomination to the Supreme Court. His version of those events are what many readers are looking for, so he told his side of the story. His retelling is fairly dispassionate, until he describes his return to the Christian faith, guided by Senator and ordained minister John Danforth, as the entire ordeal wore on him and his wife.

As Thomas once again declared his innocence, I recalled the media coverage of the confirmation hearings. When I watched them, I was staunchly opposed to Thomas political views.  At least I thought I was, as this was before I started thinking through the issues. Even then, I remember having a hard time believing Ms. Hill’s accounting of events. I told myself that truth is often stranger than fiction so it was probably true, but I never really believed it. Though his confirmation was successful,  Thomas claims he didn’t  care if he was confirmed. That he stuck it out to clear his name and for no other reason.

One of the standout passages in the book was Thomas’ recounting of a private interview he had with a particularly hostile senator. The only thing that mattered to anyone on the left and most people on the right was, “How’s he likely to vote on abortion cases?” He had no judicial paper trail, so the senators tried to gauge his positions through the way they posed their questions. Thomas’ retelling of one of these interviews was priceless:

Howard Metzenbaum was the other kind of senator, and I already knew how he felt about me. It would have been charitable to call him unlikable, though he went through the motions of civility during my visit. At one point he actually tried to lure me into a discussion of natural law, but I knew he was no philosopher, just another cynical politician looking for a chink in my armor, so all I did was ask him if he would consider having a human-being sandwich for lunch instead of say, a turkey sandwich. That’s Natural Law 101: all law is based on some sense of moral principles inherent in the nature of human beings, which explains why cannibalism, even without a written law to proscribe it, strikes every civilized person as naturally wrong. Any well-read college student would have gotten my point, but Senator Metzenbaum just stared at me awkwardly and changed the subject as fast as he could.

That was a superb response, and one of the things I most enjoyed about this book. It was written by a person who has taken the time to observe and think about the world around him, rather than allowing someone else to do it for him.

It’s a quick and engaging read and offers a lot of insight into the life and mind of one of the most controversial Supreme Court Justices in recent memory.

Grade: B

*This review is a re-post, which sprang to remembrance as election coverage heats up.

Last Train to Paradise

last train

Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad That Crossed an Ocean, By Les Standiford.  2002. 288 pages.

The story of this robber baron and railroad magnate is not new to me. Florida history has fascinated me for a very long time, and you can’t examine it without repeatedly running into the name Henry Flagler. Nevertheless, when I ran across Last Train to Paradise in a local used bookstore, I couldn’t resist picking it up and giving it a read. Les Standford takes an admirable turn at recounting a most exciting time, not only in Florida’s history but in America’s industrial history.

After partnering with John D. Rockefeller as a founder of the Standard Oil Company, Henry Flagler was a very wealthy man. His life, however, was not without its tragedies. As was common near the turn of the 20th century, a doctor prescribed sea and sun as a remedy for Flagler’s very ill first wife. It was during that time that he first came to the sunshine state. The first Mrs. Flagler eventually died from her illness, but Henry Flagler’s love for the state continued and when he remarried, he honeymooned in St. Augustine. Despite its natural beauty, he found vacation amenities in the state sorely lacking. Being a man of action, Flagler embarked upon the building of an elaborate high-end resort hotel in St. Augustine, The Ponce de Leon. Almost instantly, it was the place for the wealthiest most powerful people in the world to vacation during the winter months.

The hotel still stands today and looks very much as it did back then. Now the site of Flagler College,  it is a breathtaking exhibition of craftsmanship, extravagance, and ostentatiousness.  We visited for a tour the weekend before the pandemic panic officially began, and the spectacle of that building along with Memorial Presbyterian Church also built by Flagler, never gets old.

In addition to being an oilman, Flagler was also a railroad magnate. It was in the context of his Florida East Coast Railway Company that he became known as “the man who built Florida.” It was also during this time when he became obsessed with building what was popularly known as “Flagler’s folly”, a railroad that ran down the east coast of the state, extending off of the peninsula, with connections all the way to Key West.

Between the swampy, mosquito-infested marshland of the Florida peninsula, the difficult and unprecedented nature of the work, and the repeated setbacks brought on by hurricanes one season after the next, few believed Flagler would conquer the challenges required to fulfill his mission. Last Train to Paradise documents all of the challenges, setbacks, and triumphs that paved the way for Flagler’s ultimate success. Although old and frail at 82 years old, he fulfilled his dream of riding his railway from the peninsula to Key West:

On the afternoon of January 21, 1912, almost 7 years after work on the Key West extension had begun, the project’s equivalent to the driving of the “golden spike” took place.  At Knight’s Key, nearly fifty miles north and east of Key West, a bridge foreman threw a switch that closed off access to the trestle curving from the main line toward the temporary docks. For the first time, traffic was open across the Seven Mile Bridge- at the time, the world’s longest continuous bridge- and from there, all the way to Key West. The process of rail building that had begun in 1892 was complete. There were now 366 miles of FEC track linking Jacksonville with Miami, and 156 more connecting Miami to Key West. p.201

It was known at the time as the eighth wonder of the world and with good reason.

Key West Extension

The Key West extension operated from 1912-1935 until it was partially destroyed by the Labor Day hurricane of 1935. With sustained winds of 185 mph, the bridge never stood a chance.

Standiford describes the last-ditch effort by FEC to send a rescue train to The Keys, but part of the train was washed away after having picked up a handful of its intended cargo. Somehow the engine compartment, along with the crewman in the engine’s cab survived the battering of a monster wave. The storm was the end of FEC’s Key West extension. However, the state of Florida used the remaining bridge spans as the route for a highway through the Keys. Thousands of tourists use the highway each year to visit the nation’s southernmost city. It’s totally worth the trek.

Despite making it onto the New York Times’ bestseller list, I would still categorize this book as written to a particular niche of readers. Even as a Florida history buff, I found several chapters too heavy with technical information concerning the nature of railroads and the construction of the bridge. I appreciate why the author found important the details of what was at the time, a marvel of modern engineering. It still made for much slower reading than the narratives describing the partnership of Rockefeller and Flagler, and their run-ins with trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt.

Calling Henry Flagler “the man who built Florida” is not hyperbole. That his singular vision transformed a muggy, swamp-filled, mosquito-infested landscape into a highly desirable destination is nothing short of extraordinary. He was a robber baron, an arrogant one at that, but at least he did more than the robber barons of today. He left something behind other than hollowed-out towns and empty factories.

Summertime is approaching, and it’s 90 degrees today in this former mosquito-infested marshland. Well, it’s still muggy and mosquito-infested, but now we have infrastructure and homes with central air conditioning.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

 

 

 

 

 

 

Knowledge of the Holy

knowledge of the holy

Knowledge of the Holy, Kindle edition, by A.W. Tozer. Originally published in 1961.

It has taken me a long time to review this book, despite having read it weeks ago because it turned out to be far more personal than I anticipated. I strongly considered not reviewing it all. However, because I believe it is worth sharing and encouraging others to read, I’m going to make an attempt at a proper review.

Books that call me out of my stoic, reserved, cards-close-to-the-vest nature tend to make me uncomfortable. The Practice of the Presence of God was such a book, and this one was similar in that regard. What was different about this book was that while Tozer demanded that “reason kneel in reverence outside” the place in the spirit where love and faith reign at home, Knowledge of the Holy was still full of intellectual stimulation. It just stimulates the reader to remember that true Christian faith can never be fully validated intellectually:

Philosophy and science have not always been friendly toward the idea of God, the reason being that they are dedicated to the task of accounting for things and are impatient with anything that refuses to give an account of itself. The philosopher and the scientist will admit that there is much that they do not know; but that is quite another thing from admitting that there is something which they can never know, which indeed they have no technique for discovering. To admit that there is One who lies beyond us, who exists outside of all our categories, who will not be dismissed with a name, who will not appear before the bar of our reason, nor submit to our curious inquiries: this requires a great deal of humility, more than most of us possess

Indeed this is true, and the distinction between acknowledging a lack of knowledge and accepting the impossibility of full knowledge is an important one. We currently live in a world where we are being told that science reigns supreme and is certain despite many of its obvious contradictions and limitations.

As Reformed theology is growing as a reaction against watered down, emotion-driven postmodern Christianity, I appreciate being reminded that childlike faith and perfect love trump intellect and reason in God’s economy.

One of the reasons it took me so long to read -and review- this book is that I had to stop several times to do some introspective work. This book compelled personal examination about what I really believe. Challenges such as this were good for me:

The Church has surrendered her once lofty concept of God and has substituted for it one so low, so ignoble, as to be utterly unworthy of thinking, worshipping men. This she has done not deliberately, but little by little and without her knowledge; and her very unawareness only makes her situation all the more tragic.

The question Tozer posed here is one that occupied me for several days, and in many ways I am still considering it, distinguishing between intellectual assent born of a lifetime in the church, and the reality of what I truly believe. It is a question we should all consider from time to time:

What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.

There is a lot more to said about this book, but I’d rather you read it for yourself. It is an excellent exposition on the modern man’s interpretation of God compared to how Scripture reveals God to us.

It will make you think, regardless of whether or not you ultimately agree with Tozer’s conclusions… if what he reaches can be called conclusions.

4 1/2 out of 5 stars.

The Plague

 

the plague book

The Plague, by Albert Camus. Originally published in 1947. 320 pages.

Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history, yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise. The Plague, Albert Camus

It might seem as if The Plague is the last thing any sane person would want to read right now, but I beg to differ. It’s a great novel exploring the nuances of human nature during times such as these. Our current crisis, to date, is not as severe as the plague described in the novel, but Camus still speaks to the spirit of this age.

That Camus, in 1947 no less, described his French Algerian city of Oran in ways that easily parallel any American city in 2020 was pretty striking. As our story begins, the plague has not yet struck. Camus describes it this way:

Certainly, nothing is common nowadays than to see people working from morning till night and then proceeding to fritter away at card tables, in cafes, and in small talk what time is left for living. Nevertheless, there still exist towns and countries where people have now and then an inkling of something different. In general, it doesn’t change their lives. Still, they have had an intimation, and that’s so much to the good. Oran, however, seems to be a town without intimations; in other words, completely modern. Hence I see no need to dwell on the manner of loving in our town. The men and women consume one another rapidly in what is called “the act of love”, or else settle down to a mild habit of conjugality. We seldom find a mean between these two extremes. That too is not exceptional. At Oran, as elsewhere, for lack of time and thinking, people have to love one another without knowing much about it. p. 4-5

With this description of the busy city of roughly a quarter-million residents, Camus begins their story. It begins when they’re faced with the unsettling but manageable proliferation of rats dying in the streets, then the slow but emerging realization that whatever is killing the rats is also beginning to plague the city’s human population. It’s a nasty disease, and its victims experience painful buboes and die gruesome deaths.

At first, the people are in denial, while the authorities resist drastic measures for economic reasons. Before long, the reality of what they are facing becomes apparent and the town is locked down. The city gates are secured and no one is allowed in or out of the town. The residents still move freely, as there are no other restrictions in place, but there are many non-residents trapped inside the city, and residents who can’t get back in.

In the midst of all of this is the story’s hero, Dr. Rieux who is treating a significant number of plague patients. Most of what we see, we see through his eyes as the town slowly descends into a place quite unlike anything its citizens are accustomed to.

There are included the stories of people who are in various levels of despair and desperation because of the separation from the ones they love. There is the priest with his fiery sermon calling the people to repentance. After the initial pause for fearful reflection, he is largely ignored:

With regard to religion- as to many other problems- plague had induced in them a curious frame of mind, as remote from indifference as from fervor; the best name to give it, perhaps, might be “objectivity”. Many of those who took part in the Week of Prayer would have echoed a remark made by one of the churchgoers in Dr. Rieux’s hearing: “Anyhow, it can’t do any harm.”

I’ll not give away every aspect of the plot, but this quote is an apt description of the paradox of human behavior in crisis, which Camus captures quite well:

But we do not congratulate a schoolmaster on teaching that two and two make four, though we may, perhaps, congratulate him on having chosen his laudable vocation…But again and again there comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two make four is punished with death. The schoolmaster is well aware of this. And the question is not one of knowing what punishment or reward attends the making of this calculation. The question is that of knowing whether two and two do make four.

This novel is definitely worth the read. Y’all should check it out.

 

4 out of 5 stars

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ship of Fools

ship of fools

Ship of Fools: How a Selfish Ruling Class is Bringing America to the Brink of Revolution, by Tucker Carlson. Hardcover edition published in 2018, 256 pages.

There’s this feeling I get when someone writes what I am thinking. When they are able to say it and somehow hit all the nuances that I wish I could fill in, but am not quite sure how, and when they seem to just *get it*, even if imperfectly, such a writer is a kindred spirit. That describes Tucker Carlson’s Ship of Fools.

In a political climate that is so contentious and within which everyone seems to be stuck in a foolishly binary perspective, I find political conversations very frustrating. When I converse with sincere, well-meaning people who, in their zeal to help the poor, view the left as the least-best option, I cringe. I don’t cringe for the reasons you might assume. No, I cringe because I know that when you scratch the surface of things and watch what politicians do rather than what they say, you quickly realize that the left’s talking points are a mere window covering for a party as beholden to big business as the rabid, pro-corporate, so-called capitalists on the right.

In other words, there is no savior in Washington, D.C.  They are almost all -regardless of the party affiliation- looking out for their own interests. This is the case Tucker Carlson lays out beautifully in Ship of Fools. I should add here that he isn’t asserting, and neither am I, that there are no good people with good intentions in politics. However, among those who wield the most power, they are very few and far between, and even those soon get swallowed up in the zeitgeist, unable to affect the change they had hoped.

Before I offer a couple of quotes, a brief outline of what I liked and didn’t like about the book. I’m a big fan of the bad news first approach to these things, so I’ll start with the problematic aspects of the book, in my own opinion:

  • The tone often reminded me of Carlson’s televised monologues; so much so that I am convinced that several parts I vividly recall hearing from him before. Given that I don’t watch his show (or any news networks outside of youtube snippets) that’s problematic.
  • There wasn’t enough tilling of new ground. There was very little here that I wasn’t already aware of. To be fair, I’m more informed than your average American, but I would suspect that is the case with a fair number of Carlson’s readers.
  • No source notes. When you put forth as many claims on the work and positions of as many people as Carlson does here, you need to have tens of pages of footnotes and sources to back it up. Again, because of my familiarity with much of what is written here, I am comfortable with the veracity of his claims, but a book such as this one needs to provide sources for the sake of its own integrity.

What I liked about this book:

  • This isn’t a “progressives bad”, “conservatives good” type of book. Carlson rightly acknowledges that there is more than enough blame on both sides of the imaginary aisle for the current political and economic predicament this country finds herself in.
  • The dissecting of the sacred pillars of the political classes, both left and right.
  • The populism angle speaks to me. As much as I abhor the notion of socialism as a political and economic order, I’m not overly enamored with the fake crony capitalism of the right or the market-as-king, pie-in-the-sky notions of libertarians either. I do believe that there is a third way, but because it doesn’t serve the interests of our present oligarchy it is often dismissed.
  • Carlson’s witty, biting humor and gifted storytelling keep his book moving forward.

Enough about what I think. Here are a few salient quotes from Ship of Fools. On the unholy alliance between the left, who supposedly care about the downtrodden, and big businesses like Apple and Amazon, who routinely and grossly mistreat their poor, foreign workers (love those iPhones though!):

All pretty grim. Yet when was the last time you heard a politician decry Apple’s treatment of workers, let alone introduce legislation intended to address it? When was the last time a group of socially conscious hipsters from Brooklyn protested outside the home of Apple CEO Tim Cook?

Never, of course. That’s because Apple, like virtually other big employer in American life, has purchased indulgences from the church of cultural liberalism. Apple has a gay CEO with fashionable social views. The company issues statements about green energy and has generous domestic partner benefits. Apple publicly protested the Trump administration’s immigration policies. The company is progressive in ways that matter in Brooklyn. That’s enough to stop any conversation about working conditions in Foxconn factories.

On the foolishness of foreign wars began by Republican presidents and then perpetuated and often expanded by their liberal successors:

The first is that war is destructive. It kills people. War flattens cities, hobble economies, topple civilizations, and upend ancient ways of doing things; often forever. In war, children always die.

None of this is hidden knowledge- nobody would deny that war destroys- but it’s easy to forget it anyway. Look up any speech by a political leader rushing his country into conflict and you’ll notice how nonspecific the descriptions are. It’s always a battle for something abstract, like freedom of sovereignty. If politicians acknowledge that soldiers will be killed at all, it’s only to extol their bravery and highlight the sheer glory of the endeavor. In speeches, war is never a bloody slog where eighteen-year-old boys get castrated by landmines, blasted apart by grenades, or pointlessly massacred in friendly-fire accidents, though that’s exactly what it is. p.91

Tackling everything from the foolishness of modern feminism and identity politics with several detours highlighting the utter silliness of editorial and political personalities such as the hawkish Bill Kristol and the utterly banal Ta-Nehisi Coates, Carlson does a good job cutting through the bull. He invites the reader to look at the evidence rather than get swept up in talking points and media propaganda. One need only scratch the surface to see that there are no heroes to be found in our current political system.

The irony here is that like him or loathe him, the only genuine political actor in the current paradigm, the only person who is generally a “what you see is what you get” operator, is Donald Trump.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

 

 

The Practice of the Presence of God

presence of god book

The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawerence, Kindle edition. The text was originally written and compiled in 1692.

Timing is everything, at least that’s what the ubiquitous “they” supposedly say. In this case, I’d have to agree. The time was right for me to read The Practice of the Presence of God. I know that the time was right because, at almost any other time, I would have found it too mystic for my general sensibilities. However, these times are uncertain, and for the duration of this season and its fallout, I have a strong impression that Brother Lawrence’s admonition to purposefully focus on God will be the key to enduring whatever comes next.

Before I offer my overall impressions and brief excerpts, a little background may be in order for readers who are unfamiliar with this book, or with Brother Lawerence. From a brief biographical piece by Christianity Today:

[Brother Lawerence] was assigned to the monastery kitchen where, amidst the tedious chores of cooking and cleaning at the constant bidding of his superiors, he developed his rule of spirituality and work. In his Maxims, Lawrence writes, “Men invent means and methods of coming at God’s love, they learn rules and set up devices to remind them of that love, and it seems like a world of trouble to bring oneself into the consciousness of God’s presence. Yet it might be so simple. Is it not quicker and easier just to do our common business wholly for the love of him?”

For Brother Lawrence, “common business,” no matter how mundane or routine, was the medium of God’s love. The issue was not the sacredness or worldly status of the task but the motivation behind it. “Nor is it needful that we should have great things to do. . . We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him, and that done, if there is nothing else to call me, I prostrate myself in worship before him, who has given me grace to work; afterwards I rise happier than a king. It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God.”

Brother Lawerence’s peace and communion with God became so well regarded that many people sought him out for spiritual guidance.

When I first started reading the book, my stoic, sola Scriptura mind was not entirely receptive. I’m not a Calvinist, but I see some of the merits in Reformed Theology, and one of them is the wholesale condemnation of relying too much on our feelings at the expense of the written word of God. I actually put this book aside for a bit to ruminate before picking it back up. It’s a short book, however, so once I went back to it in the wake of current events, it spoke to me in a fresh way. I realized that what Brother Lawerence referred to was not a contradiction of the Scripture, but was in effect a result of hiding the logos in my heart.

After getting past my initial reservations about the mysticism, and reconciling the veracity of Brother Lawerence’s recorded experiences and admonitions with the truth of Scripture, I was challenged with contemplating whether what Lawerence described is even realistic for a busy wife and mother with a busy life and days filled with lots people, places, and things to do:

Thus, I resolved to give my all for God’s all. After having given myself wholly to God that he might take away my sin, I renounced, for the love of God, everything that was not God, and I began to live as if there was none but God and I in the world.

I don’t live in a monastic order like Brother Lawerence did. St. Paul himself acknowledged that the married believer is naturally distracted by the things of the world in a way that an unmarried believer is not.

Nevertheless, I have come around to the conclusion that Brother Lawerence’s single-hearted devotion to remembering and focusing on the fact that God is always with us, and that Christ, the hope of glory, is indeed in us, is a truth within the grasp of each and everyone who is a believer. Is it a challenge? He admits as much:

I found a great deal of pain in this exercise, and yet I continued it even in the midst of all the difficulties that occurred, trying not to trouble myself or get angry when my mind had wandered involuntarily. I made this my business throughout the entire day in addition to my appointed times of prayer.

At all times, every hour, every minute, even at my busiest times, I drove away from my mind everything that was capable of interrupting my thought of God.

This has been my practice since the first days I entered into religion. Though I have done it imperfectly, I have found great advantages in this practice. I am aware, however, that all of these advantages are to be attributed to the mercy and goodness of God, because we can do nothing without him—especially me!

What is good is almost never easy to acquire, and while few of us postmoderns may ever reach the heights of spiritual fulfillment Lawerence described, we can, by God’s grace, achieve more than we have to date.

As far as the writing goes, the structure of the book lends itself to a bit of repetitiveness. Because these are mostly letters written by Brother Lawerence to various fellow Christian travelers to whom he is offering spiritual encouragement, this is to be expected. Lawerence had found the key to living at peace in a tumultuous world and rather than coming up with new or novel things to say to his friends, he continued to share with them what worked. Repetitiveness is often a very good thing, especially when are trying to internalize things that are particularly hard to internalize.

The biggest thing for me to embrace (and again, I don’t know if I ever fully will), is that despite my deeply flawed nature, I can have faith in God’s presence if I draw near to him rather than hide as Adam and Eve did:

I imagine myself as the most wretched of all, full of sores and sins, and one who has committed all sorts of crimes against his king. Felling a deep sorrow, I confess to him all of my sins, I ask his forgiveness, and I abandon myself into his hands so that he may do with me what he pleases.

This king, full of mercy and goodness, very far from chastening me, embraces me with love, invites me to feast at his table, serves me with his own hands, and gives me the key to his treasures. He converses with me, and takes delight in me, and treats me as if I were his favorite. This is how I imagine myself from time to time in his holy presence.

Timing is everything, and this was the right time for me to read this book. At no time is the reality of God’s presence more important than when we are facing the unknown and the reality that we are not as in control of our life’s trajectory as we imagined.

4 out of 5 stars.

Sick of Me

sickof me2

Sick of Me by Whitney Capps, published in 2019. 192 pages.

I started reading this book a few weeks ago, but due to a hectic schedule including family obligations, school obligations, and two trips in as many weeks, it has taken me quite some time to write up a review.

In general, I tend to shy away from Christian books that are new, and this is doubly true if said new Christian book is written specifically with women in mind. Nearly without fail, such books contain cultural nods to emotions and feelings and water down theology in ways I find intolerable. I am not a woman who often trusts my feelings (I know me too well!), and I am not interested in a concept of God which encourages me to elevate my feelings beyond that which is warranted.

Thankfully, Mrs. Capps takes an admirable turn at laying out the case for why we need to get our feelings in check. One of my favorite quotes in this book is found on page 25, and it gets to the heart of what the book is trying to express:

Take one of the more popular passages we flip open to affirm the peaceful, easy life of Christ: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

This is Matthew 11:28-30. Now I don’t know about you, but I’m not super familiar with a yoke. So, I did a little research. A yoke is a curved piece of wood that was fitted to oxen to keep them pulling a plow, cart, or otherwise heavy load. It was affixed using metal rods or a noose of rope around the animals’ necks. It was used to keep them from taking an easier path, ignoring the lead of the one driving the plow. Yokes were meant to keep them in line. The more they resisted or struggled, the heavier the yoke felt.

After explaining to the reader what a yoke is, she comes back around to the way modern Christians often misuse the aforementioned Scripture:

You’ve probably read it or heard Matthew 11:30 quoted when life gets wicked hard. We love to chant the life-affirming truth that Jesus’ yoke is easy and His burden light. But friends, it’s still a yoke. His yoke is definitely easier to carry than the world’s but it’s still a yoke.

For me, that was worth the price of admission. Whatever issues I have with the overly personal tone of a book focused on theology, it was easily forgiven because Mrs. Capps doesn’t engage in the normal female Christian writer ego-stroking. You know the spiel: “You are enough”, and all that good stuff.

In fact, her thesis, if you will, seems to be that we focus so much on being “transparent” about our faults that we forget that the gospel is about being transformed from where we are to the image of Christ. More importantly, we need to get over ourselves and turn our attention to pleasing our Lord more than feeling better about our broken selves. In other words, we’re really not enough, and in our well-intentioned attempts to avoid living life feeling condemned, we forget that we do need to feel convicted.

Overall, this book added value, and it would be especially useful to women who are more immersed in the usual content aimed at modern Christian women. It’s 1000 times better than books such as Girl, Wash Your Face. No book is a replacement for The Book, which Mrs. Capps is also careful to point out on p. 107, but women are starved for truth, and while this book isn’t perfect, it’s closer than most being marketed to women from houses like Thomas Nelson, et. al.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

 

 

 

 

Culture Counts

culture counts book

Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged,  kindle edition, by Sir Roger Scruton. Originally published in 2007. 120 print pages.

This is the first book I’ve ever read by the recently departed Sir Roger Scruton, and I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. I was expecting to find ideas that I’ve read in any number of Scruton’s essays over the years; simply expanded and better fleshed out. What I found here was partly that, but also an opportunity to think more deeply about the importance of culture and beauty on us as individuals, and on the generations left behind when we are gone.

Scruton makes a strong case for understanding the importance of knowledge as something to be passed on. That this understanding is of greater value than our modern, ravenous appetite for increasing bits of random information. Anyone who has engaged in an online discussion can relate to being bombarded with links providing “pertinent” information offered solely for the purpose of winning an argument. Once the point is made, further opportunity for understanding is discarded in favor of the checkmate. There’s the pretense of knowledge where none truly exists.

It is sometimes said that we now live in a “knowledge economy,” and that “information technology” has vastly increased the extent and accessibility of human knowledge. Both claims are false. “Information technology” simply means the use of digital algorithms in the transference of messages. The “information” that is processed is not information about anything, nor does it have its equivalent in knowledge.

Scruton noted that this way of being and living leaves little margin for passing along true, practical knowledge that will be of value to our progeny :

it is true of practical knowledge, too, that we educate people in order to conserve it, and if we ever lose sight of this truth, then we are sure to lose what practical knowledge we have.

The true purpose of education, Scruton asserts, and I agree with him, is to transfer the kind of knowledge that isn’t acquired by a few clicks of the mouse. But first, he notes, we have to do away with the silly idea that education exists solely for the benefit of the student:

I emphasized that we make a mistake in believing that education exists primarily to benefit its recipient. I suggested, rather, that the goal of education is to preserve our communal store of knowledge, and to keep open the channels through which we can call on it when we need to.

This is a very hard sell in the postmodern West, which doesn’t even pretend to preserve the tension and delicate balance between individual liberty and the common good. We have gone so far that we absolve ourselves and our own children from any sense of familial duty. The idea that education is bigger than its recipients is gone.

At the core of all this, Scruton’s focus is defending the necessity of teaching the canon of high Western culture against those who are part of the current culture of repudiation. The culture of repudiation seeks to discount the value of classical Western culture as elitist at best and racist at worst. This repudiation is apparent in nearly every postmodern art form.

One of the things Scruton did here, which I was not expecting, was to give an appropriate nod to the originality and value of musical genres such as jazz. He doesn’t hold them in the same category as Mozart, of course, but he does acknowledge their value when compared to the popular music of today. He offered a theory on the connection between the downward trajectory of musical culture and what it tells us about the cultural zeitgeist of today.

Pop music, which presents the idealized adolescent as the center of a collective ceremony, is an attempt to bend music to this new condition—the condition of a stagnant crowd, standing always on the brink of adulthood, but never passing across to it. It shows youth as the goal and fulfillment of human life, rather than a transitional phase which must be cast off once the business of social reproduction calls. For many young people, therefore, it constitutes an obstacle to the acquisition of a musical culture.

I can relate to this. Despite having fully embraced my adult life and all of the responsibility which it entails, I still feel a certain nostalgia for the popular hits and R&B music of the 1980s and 1990s. There is a sense in which much of the music of my adolescent and young adult years serve as a sort of soundtrack of my life. When I listen to those songs today, however, rather than simply being caught up in the catchy beat, I am incredulous of the vapidity in the lyrics and that I’d never noticed them before. Scruton also notes that the perpetual adolescence induced through popular music and culture, in general, undergirds an ever-present attempt to de-contextualize important rites of passage. He uses, for example, one result of the sexual revolution:

The ritual transition from the virgin to the married state has all but disappeared, and with it the “lyrical” experience of sex, as a yearning for another and higher state of membership, to which the hard-won consent of society is a necessary precondition.

Scruton didn’t only see the assault on Western culture as an assault from within due to the cult of adolescence and the repudiation of tradition, but also from without via multiculturalism, including the increasing encroachment of Islamic culture in Europe. As an Englishman, Scruton was especially attuned to those happenings in his home country.

There are myriad topics to explore in Culture Counts, far more than I can summarize here. Even if you don’t agree with Scruton on all counts, he at least raised pertinent questions that have been mostly ignored in this generation which purports to know better than all of our ancestors who have gone before.

Time will tell, I suppose.

4 out of 5 stars.

 

 

 

 

 

Confessions of a Food Catholic

food catholic

Confessions of a Food Catholic, by Doug Wilson. Published in 2016. 212 pages.

A friend loaned me this book to read and I was very interested to see what, exactly, it is all about. I wasn’t sure what Doug Wilson could possibly mean by the term “food catholic”, but eventually the idea became crystal clear.  If I had to summarize the general thesis of Confessions of a Food Catholic, I’d say it’s this:

The fact that the church has joined the world’s food fads, crusades, and trends has created a situation where the simple and joyful yet profound Christian experience of breaking bread with other believers is being tainted and hindered. He argues that we all need to learn to accept what is set before us with thankfulness, and stop pretending that we are going to be irreparably damaged if we accept one dish of sweet Sister Jones’ homemade macaroni and cheese because “carbs” or “gluten” or “Monsanto” or whatever other excuse we can conjure up to resist being gracious towards our sisters and brothers in Christ. That is what I would describe as the thesis statement of Wilson’s book.

I agree with his overall thesis, but as is often the case when I read Doug Wilson’s writing, I ran into something that short-circuited his execution. I found his extensive insertion of caveats in the first three chapters problematic. In a world where almost nothing goes without saying anymore, I can appreciate the compulsion to say things like, “If you are deathly allergic to milk, I don’t expect you to risk your life eating sweet Sister Jones’ mac ‘n’ cheese in some misguided attempt at Christian unity”. What I don’t appreciate is feeling the need to say it over and over…and over again.

Thankfully, as the arguments unfolded and Wilson began to tackle the myriad individual food causes and crusades which have infiltrated the church world, the book gradually became much more pleasant to read. The secondary thesis, if you will, is almost as compelling as the first. I don’t necessarily agree with every assertion Wilson makes, but I do agree with this overall idea:

I am an active participant in my food chain, and I occupy a particular place in it. My moral duties are strongest right next to me, and they are weakest (to the extent they exist at all) at the far side of the food chain.

This is not to say that moral responsibility cannot be transmitted along the food chain. Surely it can, as when my buddy shoplifts something from Safeway so we can share it for dinner. Eating stolen goods that I watched get stolen is morally problematic, and I cheerfully grant it. But I am here talking about my supposed complicity in the strange oaths that the foreman in the Texas pecan orchard swore at his underpaid migrant workers, in the season before those pecans from said ranch made their way through thirteen other morally problematic checkpoints on their way to my pie. p.109

The numerous documentaries produced for the sole purpose of “informing: and inducing guilt into the American populace about the foods we eat has reached such a level of absurdity that even I, a girl who has to be careful about jumping on bandwagons, have learned to tune them out. I’m still a sucker for a good health fad, but I can no longer be bothered to bear guilt for Jose and Juanita’s suffering experienced on the tomato farms of South Florida.

I certainly believe that when we know better, that to the extent that we can, we should do better. I might be proving Wilson’s point here to a degree, but I don’t think it’s wise to ignore medical knowledge and advancements which offer information we can act on and to build on, especially in the areas of health and wellness. However, as Wilson aptly points out, every generation believes it has the lock on the truth about any number of things, and ours is no different. We should keep that im mind.

Touching on everything from our misguided expectation that a government which ushered corruption into the food industry should somehow fix it, to the ironic reality that the people who browbeat us the most about our food choices abhor our faith and values, Wilson offers a lot of food for thought here. He certainly opened up my thinking in ways that will help me to be a little more conscious of the areas in which I have raised food choices to the level of moral authority on par with The 10 Commandments.

Overall, it’s not a perfect book, but it is a worthwhile admonition.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

 

 

 

 

Eggs are expensive. Sperm is cheap

eggs are expensive

Eggs Are expensive. Sperm is cheap: 50 Politically Incorrect Thoughts for Men, Kindle edition, by Greg Krehbiel. Published n 2014. 94 pages.

It just took me a grand total of one hour and 45 minutes to read this book, so it’s pretty short. I have heard the titular expression several times, but was unfamiliar with any book with this title. I learned of it after stumbling upon this article by Doug Wilson in which it was referenced. The book was far less expensive than eggs or sperm, and so I grabbed a cheap download and read it just a bit ago.

The basic premise, with which I fully agree, is that what our postmodern culture brands sexism is actually the recognition of human nature, common sense, and God-given sexual hard wiring for our survival and human flourishing. It’s a necessary good, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with pointing out that men and women are fundamentally different, thrive in different capacities, and are best served by the acknowledgment and acceptance of these realities.

There isn’t much more to it than that, broken down into 50 bullet point thoughts to organize the author’s points. The examples are worth considering; on everything from the privilege of male children in China to the “oppression” of women prior to 1920 when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed. One example in particular that is worth considering is the ongoing fight for female equality in the armed forces:

Another example is warfare. If you understand the fundamental math (eggs are expensive and sperm is cheap) you understand why it makes perfect sense to have men fight the wars. Nature seems to understand that because it made the men physically equipped for the task. But somebody who is an absolute genius at spin has convinced us all that this very fact — that it’s the men who have to fight and die in war — is now seen as oppression of women. It’s almost hard to write something so transparently stupid, but that’s the way people think nowadays.

The modern lie has taken hold so completely that up to this moment you probably saw it that way. You probably saw the exclusion of women from various roles in the military as a left-over of pro-male prejudice. You may have thought, “Why can’t a woman go fight if she wants to?” And there you have the female imperative. “If she wants to.” The man might be drafted against his will and sent off to fight and die in a war a thousand miles away from everyone he loves for a cause he doesn’t believe in. But the woman gets to choose if she wants to fight, and the entire military structure has to be retooled and reorganized to accommodate her preference.

There is a lot to be said about the subject of this book, and unless any of us are willing to think critically, outside  the box, and consider another perspective if only as a thought experiment, no consensus will be reached. I didn’t agree with everything in the book. As is often the case when I read secular books on this subject, I like to see more credence given to the transcendent, even when I have no reason to expect such.

Krehbiel is far more right than wrong on all 50 of his counts, so it’s worth a read whether you’re male or female. The second half is mostly advice for men, but most of it -not all of it- was decent advice. I arrived at that conclusion from observing my own husband, not because of any inbred authority on the subject of manhood.

One thing is true, no matter what side of the argument you come down on. Mr Krehbiel is right absolutely about this:

The modern approach to sex doesn’t build a culture. It doesn’t harness the energy of the young man’s sex drive to make young men into responsible, useful members of society. It also fails to maximize women’s potential as wives and mothers. It is, in short, destroying civilized society. For the time being, our society is living off the borrowed capital of previous generations. A couple more generations of the modern way, and we’ll be in full-bore idiocracy.

This is a book that hits all the pertinent notes in a concise, no nonsense way and does it without being coarse or vulgar. Totally worth a read, even if all it does is make you think.

 

4 out of 5 stars