Category Archives: American History

SURROUNDED BY BOOKS

In my Amazon review of John Lukacs terrific book I wrote:

If all historians wrote like Lukacs, more people would read history. Insightful and full of practical implications.  I enjoyed my reread of this fine book as much as the initial time through.

So here are poignant and penetrating reflections from the author of one of my favorite books, Five Days in London: May 1940

https://www.amazon.com/Five-Days-London-May-1940/dp/0300084668

https://www.chroniclesmagazine.org/2017/December/41/12/magazine/article/10842995/?utm_content=buffer97f8d&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

 

 

 

NOT JUST FOR ROMAN CATHOLICS!

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There are many things to like about this book, no matter which one of the big three traditions (Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox) you belong to.

Chaput is a lucid writer who has clearly done his homework. His book ranges over many significant thinkers, past and present. His analysis of our cultural moment is sobering, but never gloomy. He well understands the indispensable virtue of Christian hope.

I read Dreher’s The Benedict Option, but find Chaput’s approach much more in keeping with the entire record of Scripture.

YOU ARE NOT AN EXPERT ON EVERYTHING!

An occupational danger for anyone who regularly speaks in public is to overreach and say something (with presumed authority) about a subject one has not adequately studied.  General Kelly is the latest example of this, but he will be followed by many making the same mistake.

For a correction to General Kelly’s comments see Professor Caleb McDaniel:

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/11/states-rights/544541/

HT: John Fea

 

LAMENT FOR LAS VEGAS

From my forthcoming book, God, What on Earth are You Doing?

How Should We Live in this World?

As mentioned earlier, a proper understanding of trusting God through suffering does not preclude enjoying the good things of God.  We can and we should.  Since God does not need us, our celebrations, our hobbies like golf or woodwork, and our love of travel, can be tangible demonstrations of trusting in God’s grace.  Unfortunately, these good things can also become unhealthy diversions that keep us thinking about the most important issues of life.  Even gifts from our gracious God can lead us astray.  We must guard against “perishing inch by inch in play at little games.”

We live in a world with easy access (thanks to media) to the never ending news of injustice, suffering, and evil.  How do we process this avalanche of sadness without going mad?  Years ago, I heard theologian David Wells say that only God is able to handle all the suffering and evil in the world.  We were not designed for the constant bombardment of bad news, so it would be wise to consider how much we ingest on a daily basis.

Perhaps we should take the popular option of doing what Voltaire prescribed many years ago: simply hunker down and only “tend our own gardens.”  Tending to our own affairs does seem to be a good way to maintain some semblance of sanity.

Recently, I preached in various churches from the book of Lamentations.  Towards the end of my sermon preparation I spent some time reflecting on the common responses people have to suffering.  I’m sure there are others, but I came up with three “D words”: detachment, diversion, and depression.  My wife later added desensitized which could easily fit as a characteristic of those who detach.

The idea of “detachment” from pain is gaining popularity in everything from business books to popular books on spirituality.[1]  Diversion is also something we’ve already addressed.  Again, diversions in and of themselves can be welcome respites from the constant onslaught of grief, but it is unhealthy to never face your struggles.  The response of depression is something many of us can identify with.  We look at our broken world in all its chaotic mess and we despair.   Another “D” came to my mind later with diminish, where we downplay how bad things are.  I think those as well could be plugged under the detachment option.

Jesus provides us the perfect example of how to handle the devastation that comes from acute suffering.[2]  In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’s “soul was deeply grieved, to the point of death.” (Matt. 26:38)  Jesus was deeply troubled, yet willing to submit to the Father’s will.  If it is okay for the Son of God to be so troubled, we too are given much space to cry out to our God.  Being baffled by what God is up to and yet still trusting Him can coexist.  In fact, these are signs of spiritual health.  Lament underscores that we are not at peace with the brokenness of our world, but we can still experience “the peace that transcends human understanding.” (Phil. 4:7; J.B. Phillips New Testament)  What good is peace anyways if we only experience it when circumstances are to our liking?

The glorious news is that the ultimate lament of all time was given by Jesus on the cross.  I like to say that because Jesus gave the only upper case L, lament, we now can “lament with hope.”  Our laments can come from deep within.  These visceral cries are not just allowed by our great and gracious God.  They were modeled by Him! 

It may feel like our world is crumbling before us, but the worst possible lament was already offered by Jesus.  His lament on our behalf gives us confidence that our weeping will not last forever.  The older I get I find myself offering two laments on a regular basis: “God, you know how difficult it is to live in this world, right?” and “Please come back soon and make things right!”  I’m comforted by the fact that I have the full freedom to offer these prayers of lament to God.

Tragically, the cynic’s posture is one many take.  It is important to realize that all cynics share a common, but terribly misguided belief: they think they are omniscient.  This may sound very strange to you.  How in the world does a cynic think he is all knowing?  Let me explain.  A cynic has determined that he knows everything, and concluded that all indeed is bleak.  Nothing or no one seems to be able to change his gloomy assessment.  Here is where theology gets practical.  Only God is all-knowing.  He is the only one who is fully aware of all the pain and suffering that goes on in our world.  As we saw, God’s Son gave the ultimate lament for sin.  Sin is the reason for all the grief in our world.  The irony is that things are actually worse in one sense than the cynic can appreciate for cynics rarely consider their own sin.  Fortunately, this is not the end of the story.  The cynic has missed a massive truth:  God is the author of hope.  Biblical hope does not mean our life will be smooth sailing.  This is clear from our study of Habakkuk.  We can find rest, however, in the hope-filled promise that the “sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed to us.” (Rom. 8:18)  Lest you are tempted into a cynic’s mode by saying these words are unrealistic, keep in mind who penned them.  The apostle Paul experienced great suffering.  He was no mere theoretician when it comes to pain.

Christians can stare honestly at the brokenness of the world, their world (!), yet be steadied by a God who offers real comfort in Jesus.  My prayer is that this study brings greater wisdom, joy, and confidence in the only One who is worthy of our trust.  May we be like Habakkuk who learned that nothing or no one can take away “the God of his salvation.”

[1] See for example, Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, The Daily Stoic: 366 Mediations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living (New York, NY: Random House, 2016) and various writings of the popular writer on spirituality, Anthony de Mello.  A profound book demonstrating the impossibility of mixing Stoicism and Christianity is C. Kavin Rowe, One True Life: the Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016).

[2] For the suffering of Jesus, I am grateful for a conversation I had with our son, David.

WOMEN SHOULDN’T READ HISTORY!

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I’ve read several books on Benjamin Franklin, but this is the first on his sister.

Lepore brings all the things we have to expect from her writing, especially the telling detail.  

Yes, it’s true.  Women in the eighteenth century were discouraged from reading history.  What’s the point?  History reading is for those who serve in political and educational leadership.  Since women couldn’t do those sorts of things in colonial America, what’s the point in them reading history?  For a Christian this crass utilitarian notion of learning history is at odds with a faith that is historical in nature.  

There are many wonderful insights in this wonderfully conceived book.

THE DEMON IN DEMOCRACY

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Professor Ralph Wood, the gifted writer and teacher, works his craft at Baylor University. Ralph recommended that I read The Demon in Democracy. I’m glad he did, though it was not a comforting read.

Legutko’s big idea is that the liberal democracy of our day shares many of the same features as communism. There are commonalities such as a penchant for utopianism. There is also an undying belief that one’s system of thought is perfect and so should be immune from critique.

Most of us simply accept that everything about liberal democracies is wonderful so questioning any part of it would be un-American. Actually, the opposite is true. Serious questioning of political institutions is at the heart and founding of our history, something most of us have forgotten.

Legutko teaches philosophy in his homeland of Poland.   He is not opposed to progress per se, but finds a troubling hubris at the heart of many modern notions of progress.

More than once I put a marginal note of “no dissent allowed” to characterize the lack of scrutiny most Americans give to the modern notion of liberal democracy. And it is the modern notion, not the older versions of liberal democracy, that is in the author’s crosshairs.

If you want to know more about why serious thinking and free speech (on both the left and right) has gone the way of the Dodo bird, this book has much to offer.