The Leaders We Deserved by Alvin S. Felzenberg (Book Review)

History has the potential to be our tutor in humility. I will not claim any excellence in humility, but I will say that what humility I have is in large part due to reading history.

The Leaders We Deserved by Alvin S. Felzenberg is one of the better historical tutors as it exposes to us not only the lives and actions of our leaders but also the times, controversies, and cultures in which they led.

History can be dull and dry – because the writing makes it so, or the topics are mundane, or because we fail to see what it has to teach us. Yet history can also be exciting and insightful – history teaches us truths like:

  1. Those we judge today as scoundrels or imbeciles are oftentimes our heroes of yesterday.
  2. What seems the only way, the right way, frequently proves the wrong way with the passing of time.
  3. We are greater and worse than those who came before us – leaving us to consider, will we search out the sins of our generation and forsake them or will future generations look back at us in dismay?
  4. We repeat our past with variations. We are not the first to face such a dilemma, nor are we likely to be the last.
  5. People operate within a personal and cultural milieu; their actions are heavily weighted by their experiences and a little more listening, a little more grace, can go a long way towards understanding and appreciating the other.

Lets look at a few examples and I will share some of the lessons I learn from these historical truths:

  1. Anti-immigrant sentiment is not a new phenomenon. John Adams supported and enforced the Alien and Sedition Acts which specifically targeted immigrants. (pg. 258)
    1. Lesson: Anti-immigrant movements are not a new phenomena nor should one dismiss such movements as intellectually crippled, for great minds have supported them.
    2. Question for Consideration: Who were anti-immigration policies focused on? (Hint: Those who now proclaim themselves proudly and truly American were oftentimes the very individuals opposed in the past, e.g. the Irish)
  2. Nor is suppression of freedom of speech a new phenomenon – as John Adams used one of the laws in the Alien and Sedition acts to suppress political opponents. (pg. 258)
    1. Lesson: Freedom of speech has been threatened by great leaders in the past; it is not a new threat, nor does it being threatened mean that we are imminently facing its extinction.[1]
    2. Question: Who else in American history has constrained the rights of American citizens? (Hint: Abraham Lincoln suspended habeus corpus; under FDR during WWII we placed over 160,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps)
  3. Under Andrew Jackson we were the perpetrators of horrific acts of human rights violations as we manhandled Native Americans.[2] (pg. 261)
    1. Lesson: While we should oppose human rights violations around the world, we should not pretend that we are above such abuses.
    2. Question: What other atrocious acts have been committed under the authority of the United States? (Hint: Look for our purposeful infection of individuals in Latin America with a horrible disease, we are talking 20th century; also some of the regimes we have supported despite their genocidal human rights violations)
  4. Ulysses S. Grant fought for African American civil rights but his endeavors were not lasting enough to offset the foundation of the Ku Klux Klan, which violently enforced segregation and subjugation. It was with 700,000 Southern African American voters that Grant won the election; but, fast forward a short time into the future and African American civil rights would again be suppressed – including the right to vote. (pg. 278)
    1. Lesson: Americans allowed slavery to endure for a lengthy period of our history and when it was ended there was hope of a new equality, but we failed to protect those who were vulnerable and ensure that might didn’t make right…it was our inaction that allowed subjugation of our fellow members of humanity to continue on.
    2. Question: What other sorts of racism surfaced later in American history? Have we seen any recently? (Hint: Look for riots not just in Southern states but Northern as well – I’m looking at you, New Jersey, for one)
  5. There is something to be learned from Ulysses S. Grant whom Felzenberg notes as the only president “to apologize in his farewell message for his personal and policy failings.” (pg. 285)
    1. Lesson: It requires a deeper dive into U.S. Grant’s personality and circumstances to determine whether this apology came from a healthy place and whether it is something to be imitated by others. At first glance, though, we behold a refreshing humility for one of our elected leaders – the ability to admit one’s own incompetence.
    2. Question: What other American leaders have apologized for their actions? What is true about the character of these individuals as opposed to those who refused to apologize or did so in a belittling manner? (Hint: John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan may be a good start)
  6. Under Franklin D. Roosevelt America placed into concentration camps (and thereby abandoned the constitutional rights of) 120,000 Japanese Americans (60%+ were American citizens). (pg. 314)
    1. Lesson: Even if our cause is right we are capable of making grave mistakes that permanently and negatively affect the lives of others.
    2. Question: Have we placed other individuals into concentration camps or otherwise significantly curtailed their liberties? (Hint: Look into the historical treatment of the mentally ill and of those who were ill with HIV/AIDS)
  7. John F. Kennedy, in some ways an astute and successful leader in foreign affairs badly bungled the American-backed invasion of Cuba (pg. 355), and his numerous dalliances with the opposite gender could have been disastrous for national security. (pg. 356).
    1. Lesson: As we consider who will be most careful with our national security it is important to remember that heroes of the past had their great weaknesses as well.
    2. Question: How was John F. Kennedy’s health while in office? (Hint: Look into the consequences of his wartime injuries [WWII] and how this was handled and hidden during his time in office)

What historical books have you read? What lessons have you learned from specific historical events? What questions have historical events raised for you?

  1. [1]Not that I am suggesting we should stop fighting for freedom of speech or be aghast at attempts to deny it, only that in historical context our doomsday predictions are usually not fulfilled.
  2. [2]Some balk at the idea of the United States mistreating Native Americans, insisting this was brought on by their own misbehavior. Even if we were to grant this premise, we would still have committed many acts of atrocious violence against Native American civilians. Sixty thousand Native Americans died traveling the Trail of Tears! (pg. 263) It may also be worth noting that this horrific behavior was opposed by individuals such as American hero, Davy Crockett. (pg. 264)

My Haul: A Short Reading List.

An Estate Sale

Today I went to an Estate Sale in Mendham, NJ. The house was set back from the street, which was a sometimes one-lane road in the middle of the countryside. It was quite beautiful…and the most beautiful part where the thousands of books lining its walls.

The former resident of the house was obviously a lover of classic/contemporary literature, arts, history, and biography. I spent a solid two hours searching the shelves and finally exited with nineteen.

I know, that is a lot of books – but when there are several hundred you want to buy and you leave with less than two dozen, one feels a certain sense of accomplishment.

So here is my haul…Perhaps it will make a fun reading list for someone who shares my interests.

Photo of Bookshelf with Lots of Old Books
Image thanks to Unsplash.

Why I Chose What I Chose

Feel free to jump down to the list itself, but for those who care (anyone?) I’d like to share the reasoning behind my choices.

  1. I focused primarily on historical and biographical books because:
    1. I don’t read much contemporary fiction.
    2. When I read classical fiction I usually use an e-text and turn it into an e-book.
    3. I consider myself too much a beginner in the arts to be able to understand much of what is said in these fields and would rather focus on learning more of the basics.
  2. I chose almost exclusively books that the former owner had read in their entirety (which was obvious by the hand-written notes, underlines, and bookmarks sprinkled throughout).
  3. My primary interests in reading are to (a) understand God and (b) understand humanity. The library was sparse in the former, so I focused on the latter.
  4. Most of these books are historical or biographical, but the way in which I read them remains constant with my primary interests:
    1. Who is God? How do we relate to Him?
    2. Who is Man and Woman? How do we relate to each other?

 

The Selections

Revolutionary War Era

World War II

Other

 

  1. [1]When we record history, we interpret it. We are not objective observers. With humility we acknowledge this and attempt to be self-reflective as we write…but sometimes the reader discovers the author has in fact (or just seems to) slipped into various biases which color the facts unnecessarily.

Man, Myth & Magic Volume 1

Perambulations

When I first venture into a new library I like to peruse the shelves and just get a feel for where everything is and what gems lie in wait for me.

Recently I visited the Mary Jacobs Library in Rocky Hill, NJ. During my perambulations[1] through their facilities I stumbled across the ten volume encyclopedia Man, Myth & Magic.

Editions

John William Waterhouse's Magic Circle (Dec. 31, 1885).
John William Waterhouse’s Magic Circle (Dec. 31, 1885).

Originally published as a series of periodicals in 1970 it was compiled into an encyclopedia in 1983 and 1985 and had further revisions in 1995 and 1997. It is to this most recent edition I refer (unfortunately, there has not been any further updates to this series).

Quality

I wasn’t sure what to expect, volumes of this sort tend to vary widely in quality. Some are reliable, academic works while others are unsubstantiated ramblings. This volume falls more in the former than latter.

Contributors

Its contributors are widely varied and a fascinating lot in and of themselves. A few names I recognized:

  • Roland H. Bainton – Professor of Ecclesiastical History (Yale); author.
  • F.F. Bruce – Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis (Manchester); author.
  • William Sargant – physician in charge of the Department of Psychological Medicine, St. Thomas’ Hospital; author.
  • M.C. Tenney – Professor of Theology (Wheaton); author.

There are brief summaries regarding each author and editor in the book which I found delightful to read in and of themselves.

Bibliography

This first volume contains a bibliography-to-die-for covering the subject material of all ten volumes. A few volumes that stuck out to me at first glance as being potentially fascinating:[2]

  • E.M. Butler’s Ritual Magic (Cambridge University Press).
  • Joan Evans’ Magical Jewels of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Particularly in England (Gale).
  • C.G. Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy (Princeton University Press).
  • J. Read’s Prelude to Chemistry: An outline of Alchemy (MIT Press).
  • J.C. Baroja’s The World of Witches (University of Chicago Press).
  • H.C. Lea’s Materials Towards a History of Witchcraft (AMS Press).
  • Margaret A. Murray’s The God of the Witches (Oxford University Press).
  • Montague Summers’ History of Witchcraft and Demonology (Routledge & Kegan Paul).
  • H.R. Trevor-Roper’s The European Witch-Craze in the 16th and 17th Centuries (Peregrine).
  • Paul Boyer and Stephen Nisssenbaum’s Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft (Harvard University Press).
  • John Demos’ Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Early Culture of New England (Oxford).
  • R.E.L. Masters’ Eros and Evil: the Sexual Psychopathology of Witchcraft (Penguin).
  • Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon (Harper & Row).[3]
  • St. Elmo Nauman’s Exorcism Through the Ages (Philosophical Library).
  • Paul Carus’ History of the Devil and the Idea of Evil (Open Court).
  • Richard Emmerson’s Antichrist in the Middle Ages (University of Washington Press).
  • F.R. Johnson’s Witches & Demons in History and Folklore (Johnson N.C.).
  • Jeffrey Russell’s Lucifer: the Devil in the Middle Ages (Cornell).
  • Jeffrey Russell’s Satan: the Early Christian Tradition (Cornell).
  • William Howard Woods’ History of the Devil (Putnam).
  • Reginald Thompson’s The Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia (AMS Press).
  • A.L. Herman’s The Problem of Evil and Indian Thought (Orient Bk. Dist.).
  • Wendy O’Flaherty’s The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology (University of California Press).
  • Richard Stivers’ Evil in Modern Myth and Ritual (University of Georgia Press).
  • K. Amis’ New Maps of Hell (Arno).
  • R. Cavendish’s Visions of Heaven & Hell (Harmony/Crown).
  • Kaufman Kohler’s Heaven and Hell in Comparative Religion (Folcroft).
  • Jacques Le Goff’s The Birth of Purgatory (Chicago University Press).
  • John Macculluch’s The Harrowing of Hell: a Comparative Study of an Early Christian Doctrine (AMS Press).
  • Bernard McGinn’s Visions of the End: Apocalyptic Traditions in the Middle Ages (Columbia University Press).
  • James Mew’s Traditional Aspects of Hell (Gale).
  • D.L. Sayers’ Hell, Purgatory (Penguin).
  • H.B. Swete’s The Apocalypse in the Ancient Church (Macmillan).
  • Daniel P. Walker’s Decline of Hell: Seventeenth Century Discussions of Eternal Torment (University of Chicago Press).
  • David Aune’s Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World (Eerdmans).
  • A. Guillaume’s Prophecy and Divination among the Hebrews and Semites (Harper & Row).
  • E. Howe’s Astrology: The Story of its Role in World War II (Walker).
  • Wilhelm Wulff’s Zodiac and the Swatsika: How Astrology Guided Hitler’s Germany (Arthur Barker).
  • C.G. Jung and R. Wilhelm’s The Secret of the Golden Flower (Harcourt, Brace and World).
  • Carl Jung’s Synchronicity: an Acausal Connecting Principle (Routledge & Kegan Paul).[4]
  • F. Altheim’s A History of Roman Religion (Dutton).
  • Henri Frankfort’s Ancient Egyptian Religion (Harper & Row).
  • W.K.C. Guthrie’s The Greeks and their Gods (Beacon Press).
  • Georgia Pesek-Marous’ The Bull: A Religious and Secular History of Phallus Worship and Male Homosexuality (Tau Press).
  • L. Spence’s Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt (Harrap).
  • George W. Cox’s Mythology of the Aryan Nations (Kennikat).
  • E.A.W. Budge’s The Book of the Dead (Universal Books Company).
  • J.G. Griffiths’ The Origins of Osiris (Argonaut).
  • E.O. James’ The Cult of the Mother Goddess (Praeger).
  • H. Licht’s Sexual Life in Ancient Greece (Greenwood).
  • S.G.F. Brandon’s Creation Legends of the Ancient Near East (Verry).
  • S. Langdon’s The Babylonian Epic of Creation (Clarendon Press).
  • Joan O’Brien and Wilfred Major’s In the Beginning: Creation Myths from Ancient Mesopotamia, Israel, and Greece (Scholars Press).
  • Edward Westermarck’s A Short History of Marriage (Humanities).
  • Philippe Aries’ Western Attitudes Towards Death: from the Middle Ages to the Present (Johns Hopkins).
  • S.G.F. Brandon’s The Judgment of the Dead (Scribner).
  • John Hick’s Death and Eternal Life (Harper & Row).
  • J.M. Clark’s The Dance of Death in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Jackson).
  • L.P. Kurtz’s The Dance of Death and the Macabre Spirit in European Literature (Gordon Press).
  • Peter Armour’s The Door of Purgatory: a Study of Multiple Symbolism in Dante’s Purgatorio (Oxford University Press).
  • E.G. Gardner’s Dante and the Mystics: a Study of the Mystical Aspect of the Divina Commedia (Haskell).
  • R.D. Gray’s Goethe the Alchemist (AMS Press).
  • David Bindman’s William Blake: His Art and Times (Thames & Hudson).
  • Ronald Grimes’ The Divine Imagination: William Blake’s Major Prophetic Visions (Scarecrow).
  • Richard Carlisle’s (editor) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Mankind (Marshall Cavendish).
  • R. Cavendish’s King Arthur and the Grail: The Arthurian Legends and Their Meaning (Taplinger).
  • Sabine Baring-Gould’s Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (Oxford University Press).
  • K.M. Briggs’ An Encyclopedia of Faeries (Pantheon).
  • Basil Cooper’s The Vampire: in Legend, Fact, and Art (Robert Hale).
  • Basil Cooper’s The Werewolf: in Legend, Fact, and Art (Robert Hale).
  • Paul Newman’s The Hill of the Dragon: an Enquiry into the Nature of Dragon Legends (Rowman).
  • W.F. Albright’s Yahweh and the Gods of Creation (Eisenbrauns).
  • Alexander Heidel’s Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (University of Chicago Press).
  • Donald Leslie’s The Survival of the Chinese Jews (Humanities).
  • James H. Lord’s The Jews in India and the Far East (Greenwood).
  • D.S. Bailey’s The Sexual Relation in Christian Thought (Harper & Row).
  • Lawrence Besserman’s The Legend of Job in the Middle Ages (Harvard University Press).
  • James Gaffney’s Sin Reconsidered (Paulist Press).
  • A.D. Nock’s Early Gentile Christianity and its Hellenistic Background (Harper & Row).
  • J.A. Phillips’ Eve: The History of an Idea (Harper & Row).
  • Norman Powell-Williams’ The Ideas of the Fall and of Original Sin (Longmans).
  • Bruce Vawter’s Job and Jonah: Questioning the Hidden God (Paulist Press).
  • I. Engnell’s Studies in Divine Kingship in the Ancient Near East (Allenson).
  • Heinrich Dumoulin’s A History of Zen Buddhism (Pantheon Books).
  • Mary Boyce’s (editor) Zoroastrianism (Barnes & Nobles Imports).
  • M. Anesaki’s History of Japanese Religion (Tuttle).
  • C.H. Gordon’s Ugaritic Literature (Argonaut).
  • M.P. Nilsson’s History of Greek Religion (Greenwood).
  • H.J. Rose’s Ancient Roman Relgiion (Hutchinson).
  • T.C. Allen’s The Egyptian Book of the Dead (Chicago University Press).
  • J.H. Breasted’s Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt (Peter Smith).
  • E.A.W. Budge’s Egyptian Heaven and Hell (Open Court).
  • J.C. Gibson’s Canaanite Myths & Legends (Attic Press).
  • Brian Branston’s Gods and Heroes from Viking Mythology (Schocken).
  • E.O. James’ The Ancient Gods (Putnam).
  • Gilbert Murray’s A History of Ancient Greek Literature (Folcroft).
  • Slater Brown’s The Heyday of Spiritualism (Hawthorn).
  • C.E. Hansel’s ESP & Parapsychology: A Critical Re-evaluation (Prometheus Books).
  • F. Pdomore’s Modern Spiritualism (E.J. Dingwall).
  • Morton Kelsey’s God, Dreams and Revelation: a Christian Interpretation of Dreams (Augsburg).
  • Leo Oppenheim’s The Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East (American Philosophical Society).
  • F. Fordham’s An Introduction to Jung’s Psychology (Gannon).
  • Erich Fromm’s The Greatness and Limitations of Freud’s Thought (Harper & Row).
  • E.J. Dingwall’s (editor) Abnormal Hypnotic Phenomena: a Survey of Nineteenth Century Cases (Barnes & Noble).
  • Stefan Zweig’s Mental Healers: Franz Anton Mesmer, Mary Baker Eddy, Sigmund Freud (Ungar).
  • Shane Leslie’s St. Patrick’s Purgatory (Burns and Oates).
  • J. Ancelet-Hustache’s Master Eckhart and the Rhineland Mystics (Harper & Row).
  • Edmund Beaman’s Swedenborg and the New Age (AMS Press).
  • Robert L. Moore’s (editor) Carl Jung and Christian Spirituality (Paulist Press).
  • F. Neilson’s Teilhard de Chardin’s Vision of the Future (Revisionist Press).
  • David Bakan’s Sigmund Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition (Schocken Books).
  • Ernest Bates and J.V. Dittermore’s Mary Baker Eddy: The Truth and the Tradition (Halsted Press).
  • Lawrence Foster’s Religion and Sexuality: Three American Communal Experiments of the Nineteenth Century (Oxford University Press).
  • Handbook of the Oneida Community (AMS Press).
  • H. Henson’s Oxford Group Movement.
  • Tom Driberg’s The Mystery of Moral Re-Armament (Knopf).
  • George R. Scott’s The History of Corporal Punishment: a Survey of Flagellation in its Historical, Anthropological and Sociological Aspects (Gale).
  • George H. Williams’ The Radical Reformation (Westminster Press).
  • Lynn Dumenil’s Freemasonry and American Culture, 1880-1930 (Princeton University Press).

Interesting Articles

Of the articles contained in this first volume I find the following particularly interesting:

  • Aberdeen Witches – Witches in Scotland, what is myth, what is fact, executions.
  • Agrippa – Involved in the occult.
  • Ahriman – The evil god of Zoroastrianism.
  • Aix-En-Provence Nuns – A group of nuns in the 17th century allegedly possessed by demons.
  • Alchemy – Attempts to turn base metals into gold and to perfect the individual.
  • Alexander the Great – The facts and the legend.
  • Angels – From Jewish and Christian belief.
  • Animals – All about their relationships with the spiritual – e.g., those that are sacred.
  • St. Anthony – Experienced apparent demonic attacks.
  • Aphrodite – Greek Goddess of love.
  • Apollo – Greek god, the oracle at Delphi was his.
  • Apple – It’s religious meaning goes far beyond Jewish/Christian thought.
  • Arthur: The Once and Future King – You know, King Arthur.
  • Asmodeus – A demon found in the book of Tobit.
  • Astarte – Queen of Heaven, regularly led Jews away from Yahweh, also known as Ishtar and Aphrodite.
  • Astrology – Predicting the future from the sky.

Grumblings

Overall I was happy with the Encyclopedia, but let me note two areas of disgruntlement.

The more minor involves the section on Astrology, which while decently long was still fairly confusing as far as how the system worked. I could have spent more time in it figuring it out, but I wasn’t that interested.

The more major one is the tendency of some secular historians to recast religious beliefs from their own perspective. I can’t remember where, but at least once (it may have been in angels) I noticed a significant disconnect from what those who practice Christianity would say about a belief and how it was presented.

This sort of playing loose and reinterpreting religious beliefs in a way that is outside what the practitioners of that religion would state as their belief is disconcerting. I don’t mind if it is done with a disclaimer and an explanation of how those within the religion would have viewed the matter, but when the external view is imposed without disclaimer it raises concerns for me – namely, how can I trust that you (the author) are providing me with a real account of other religions? If you cannot represent the beliefs of a major, well-known religion accurately, how do I know you have not misrepresented other, lesser-known religions?

This is a major concern – but it is something found in so many books that I can’t write the volume off for this reason alone – I simply take the article with a grain of salt…kind of like Wikipedia.

This trend seems to be most pronounced among scholarly authors (who, imho, sometimes get too big for their britches) but, thankfully, it appears to be a declining trend (from my subjective experience) – that is, academia seems more inclined to write objectively than it did for much of the 20th century when at least some authors felt the need to reinterpret instead of report.[5]

  1. [1]Yes, I used that word just because it was fun to do so. :P
  2. [2]Okay, I wrote this out largely for my own benefit…in case one day I think, “I really wish I could remember the name of that book on x I thought would be interesting to read.”
  3. [3]Okay, I’m just a sucker for Aldous Huxley.
  4. [4]If you haven’t noticed, Jung fascinates me.
  5. [5]Again, I have no issues with reinterpretation, I am interested in postmodern thought, etc., I only complain when the interpretation given is stated as if it where the de facto interpretation and thus the belief is significantly misrepresented.

Uppity Women of Medieval Times (Book Review)

Vicki Leon wrote a very enjoyable and informative book labeled humorously Uppity Women of Medieval Times. The book contains brief biographies of perhaps several hundred women from Medieval Times who achieved renown for all sorts of positive and negative reasons.

The tone of Leon’s book is well captured in this brief quote from the introduction:

Anna Maria van Schurman
A portrait of Anna Maria van Schurman by Jan Lievens.

“Life was especially hard on wives, even if you were the lady of the manor. There were no hardware stores and no football games, so husbands tended to be underfoot a great deal. Therefore, when women caught wind of the Crusades idea, they wholeheartedly supported it. ‘Okay, you’ll be gone what, a couple years? Make sure you rake the leaves and take out the garbage before you leave.'” (pg. xi)

Books like this are excellent for throwing our ideas of the way the world does and/or has operated into disarray. I love them because they force me to think about things in new ways – to be challenged as the oversimplifications of life are re-complicated before my eyes.

A few interesting women from this book:

  • Chiyome (Japan) – “around 1560 started her own rent-a-ninja business, training girls to become kuniochi or ‘deadly flowers,’ as they were called.” (pg. 8)
  • Anna Maria von Schurmann – “learned a dozen languages, graduated with a law degree from Utrecht University, studied medicine, taught philosophy, wrote books, and in her spare time was a sculptor and painter of note…” (pg. 16)
  • Olga (Russia) – “Around 945…she methodically went after the various rebel groups, wiping them out in ingenious ways designed to put the fear of Olga into the rest. The first batch she buried alive; the second, she had bailed in their baths.” (pg. 28)
  • Raziya (India) – Ruled over a powerful area in the country, memorized the Koran, charged into battle on her war elephant, was the first female leader of a Moslem state. (pp. 32-33)
  • Damia al-Kahina (North Africa) – “…rallied the Berber tribespeople…taken the Jews who’d gotten tossed out of Spain….beaten a famous Arab general…led [her] own army of Jews and Christians and leftover Byzantines to victory over invading Moslem forces….won five years of peace for her people–the only time…that anyone would unite North Africa until modern times.” (This is late 600’s AD) (pg 48)
  • Trotula of Salerno (Italy) – “…pioneered surgical techniques for repair of the perineum…wrote two important medical books…advocated the use of opiates to ease childbirth pan and prescribed hormonal treatments…to regulate menstruation and overcome sterility.” (pg. 92)
  • Louise Labe (France) – “…took up martial arts and became a superlative horsewoman and archer…got a kick out of jousting…During the siege at Perpignan [300 miles from her home]…she rustled up a flattering suit of armor and fought for [her countrymen.]” (pg. 108)
  • Eleanor of Aquitaine (1100’s) – “…ruled as queen of France for fifteen years and queen of England for fifty more, producing ten kids when she wasn’t busy with music, health care, or political maneuverings.” (pg. 126)

Okay, I could go on forever…and I barely touched on many of these women’s amazing exploits.

There is no doubt that women have historically been oppressed and marginalized in a male-dominated society – and I don’t want to minimize that in the least – rather I want to acknowledge the marvelous way in which women under the most adverse of circumstances rose to great heights and accomplished great things.

Go get Leon’s book. It is a fun and informative read!

The Lady in Red by Hallie Rubenhold (Book Review)

Due to a bout with insomnia I completed Hallie Rubenhold’s The Lady in Red: An Eighteenth-Century Tale of Sex, Scandal, and Divorce in the wee hours of this morning.

The work is non-fiction though written with a narrative style that reads like a novel. The dustjacket includes the following brief summary of the work’s subject:

“She was a spirited young heiress. He was a handsome baronet with a promising career in government. The marriage of Lady Seymour Dorothy Fleming and Sir Richard Worsley had the makings of a fairy tale–but ended as one of the most scandalous and highly publicized divorces in history.”

The Lady in Red by Hallie Rubenhold
The Lady in Red by Hallie Rubenhold

But that summary fails to portray the worth of this volume. The affair is almost incidental, in my opinion, to the insights yielded into the culture and morality of 18th century England (and to a much lesser extent, France).

The affair provides the narrative in which Rubenhold unfolds for us the life and thought of the individual man and woman of England in the 1700’s.

The hardcover copy I have clocks in at 308 pp. and includes a center set of images of paintings and so on depicting various characters from the story, some satirical comics, and antiquities.

I read the book as part of my ongoing quest to understand the nature of morality throughout time and to further my hypothesis that immorality shifts form from generation to generation rather than running in the direction of either increasing or decreasing morality.

The work is well-written and Rubenhold unfolds the lives of the Worsley’s step by step, as The Times Literary Supplement (UK) notes, “[The Lady in Red] is told as a mystery, with Rubenhold keeping up the suspense.” One is repeatedly surprised by the twists and turns the tale takes…what seemed like a fairly straightforward affair is anything but and its repercussions are strange and unexpected.

I have two complaints of significance – first, Rubenhold doesn’t include footnotes in the work, but only a bibliography at the end. I understand the reason for doing so – the work reads much more as a novel than a historical tome because of this…but it also makes it more difficult to research further the stories and details Rubenhold tells and requires a certain trust on the part of the reader that Rubenhold is being honest and fair in her portrayal.

My second complaint is somewhat related to the first – and that regards how much subjective interpretation is present in the book as opposed to objective fact. There is much that is obviously taken directly from the historical record but Rubenhold frequently provides us with insights into the interior thoughts and/or motivations of individual persons and, again, without footnotes, it is difficult to say how much of this is the result of her interpretation and how much is sourced from journals, letters, etc. which explicitly provide insight into the individual’s internal thought life.

Still, none of this reduces from the volumes’ worth significantly. If one is looking for a simple historical tale of immorality, I’m unsure whether one will be well-pleased. I did not read the work as such – but rather as an insightful peek into the lives of our ancestors…and for this, it excels.

Gaining a Little Perspective Through History

I am skeptical of the idea, popular especially among evangelical Christians, that society is in a sharp downward spiral – particularly American society. This has resulted not from reading one or two specific volumes but from reading a wide variety of historical literature…and it comes not from volumes attempting to make such an argument but from volumes which incidentally address moral issues in their historical accounts. [Incidentally, my interest in history has revolved for some time to some extent around an understanding of the sociological and psychological…particularly, in understanding the differences, similarities, causes, and effects of behavior in the past and the present…]

A photo held by the Library of Congress of long-time FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover.
A photo held by the Library of Congress of long-time FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover.

[I think elder generations look at younger generations frequently and abhor their moral degeneracy (e.g. profanity, sexual looseness, school violence) while younger generations gaze in confusion and disgust at the moral lapses of the elder generations (e.g. racism, genocide, hypocrisy). I’m not sure either is inferior or superior to the other, rather I hypothesize that history is somewhat cyclical and that the changes reflect difference emphases on moral depravity rather than an increase or decrease in overall depravity.]

Add to this pile an example par excellence in Anthony Summers’ tome Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover. Summers takes several years to write each of his books, spends a massive amount of time researching and interviewing as he prepares the volumes, and the sheer amount of knowledge he manages to acquire in this process is clear in this volume in the text itself but also in the extensive end-notes and bibliographical sources he provides.

Let me share just a few representative examples out of so many that this volume contains of moral degeneracy:

  • There was something really wrong with John F. Kennedy. He was addicted to sex or women or something in a way I’ve seldom heard before (e.g. far worse than Bill Clinton)…I knew he had been one to ‘sleep around’ but I had no idea the extent…nor the reckless way in which his actions endangered the nation (nor that it included prostitutes). [This was apparently a pervasive issue for the Kennedy’s, Joe Kennedy’s (the father) sexual exploits are well-known, and Robert Kennedy doesn’t emerge unscathed either.]
  • While still controversial, it seems fairly clear, that for all Martin Luther King Jr.’s positive attributes and accomplishments that he also was a frequent philanderer. As a pastor, I find this especially disconcerting. [The evidence for these sexual improprieties was presented to newspapers – for JFK, MLK, etc. but at this time would not be printed or acknowledged…which to me raises the question – how much have these sort of things increased in frequency and how much where they simply ignored in the past?]
  • Summers makes a strong case that J. Edgar Hoover persecuted homosexuals so vehemently because he himself was one and wanted to reduce suspicions regarding his own sexuality via this persecution. Further, Hoover appears to have been involved in pedophiliac relationships with teenage boys. [It is worth noting that homosexuality is not a cause of pedophilia. Pedophilia is frighteningly common among heterosexuals.]
  • The overwhelming prevalence of bomb threats and actual bombings (domestic terrorism). [Compare this especially to the school shootings of contemporary society.]
  • The prevalence of organized crime and its close ties with many significant political figures (including Hoover, JFK). [Gang violence is horrifying, but I have high doubts that the level of sophistication is anywhere near that achieved by the mafia in its heyday.]
  • The extent of wiretapping, strong-arming, blackmail, violence, and other techniques to quell political opponents. [While I won’t make any excuses for the extent of contemporary abuses of power in observing American citizens by governmental powers, I will note that it appears to be largely passive in nature whereas in the past it was oftentimes active (and violently so).]
  • The extent to which racism permeated official government institutions as well as society at large. [Traditionally northerners sometimes perceive racism as a ‘Southern’ problem – but racism was deeply embedded in the north as well…and sadly, is still a much bigger problem than we oftentimes care to admit…if you doubt me, see the Newark (New Jersey) riots of 1967.]
  • The hypocritical behavior of many of our best leaders. [I am not upset that these individuals, for example, were excessively profane and vulgar in their speech, but rather the hypocritical manner in which they publicly derided such behavior while privately engaging in it to the hilt.]
  • The many disconcerting questions remaining around the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Marilyn Monroe, and even J. Edgar Hoover – questions which raise the possibility of involvement by government officials (sometimes at the highest levels) as well as organized crime (in collusion with government officials). [The implications here are that the government was potentially not nearly as controlled by democratic principles as we would like to imagine. See also the prevalence of organized crime mentioned previously.]

Reading this list should clue you in that this read is not entirely pleasant and for those who find profanity disturbing in their reading – this book is not for you. The profanity while historically accurate (e.g. direct quotes) is pervasive…and while Summers never seeks to titillate in describing the sexual behavior of various individuals, the presence of immoral sexual behavior is also pervasive.

My main suggestion, should the book be rewritten is that some of the material be moved into the end notes. For example, Summers gives numerous in-text examples of how individuals perceived other individuals (e.g. how JFK and Nixon perceived J. Edgar Hoover and vice versa), a representative example or two could be given and an end note then referenced which provides the more exhaustive list that is currently in-text.

[Let me conclude by noting what I believe is the ‘take-away’ from my hypothesis that society tends to run in a circular manner of immorality, in which the shape of immorality changes from generation to generation rather than the amount of immorality (and I do think there are exceptions, I just think we are horribly inclined to view every other generation as ‘worse’ than ourselves b/c their immorality is different than our own). I do not mean this to be a ‘then we shouldn’t worry about our own immorality.’ Rather it is a call to mind our own immorality…rather than focusing on other’s, or as Christ told us – to take the log out of our own eye before attempting to take the speck out of another’s.

It is easy for individuals in each generation to become incensed at those in another for the failures they have or are committing morally…and doing so puts the generations at odds…but this stirs up anger and resentment and does nothing to clear up the issues of immorality.

In general, we would do better to remove judgment on whose sin is worse and instead focus on what the sins of our generation are and how we can address them.]

[For those interested in examining, proving, or disproving my hypothesis, a few of the other works which have been influential in my forming these conclusions include (a) Christian Scripture (compare what is taught versus what is lived), (b) John Toland’s Adolf Hitler, (c) John Toland’s Empire of the Rising Sun, (d) William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, (e) Jeff Shaara’s Revolutionary War (Rise to Rebellion, The Glorious Cause) and Civil War (Gods and Generals, The Last Full Measure) novels, and (f) H.W. Brand’s The Money Men.]

The History Channel’s The Bible Mini-Series (Part 2)

Introduction

300px-Samson_in_the_Treadmill
Last week I wrote a review of The History Channel’s The Bible Mini-Series, Part 1. If you’ve read the review you’ll know that I wasn’t a huge fan of the series thus far due to (a) its being too ambitious in covering too great of a time span, (b) the lack of multidimensional characters, (c) the over-focus on fight scenes, (d) the odd mixture of literal biblical interpretation with completely fictional elements, and (e) the poor casting of some secondary characters.

So what about week two? Did the issues continue in this episode? Where there new issues? Happily, the second episode made significant strides in rectifying several of the shortcomings seen in the first episode – namely, it focused in on a more limited time span which in turn allowed for slightly better multidimensional character development. It also utilized better casting for secondary characters and the fight scenes became a more measured portion of the entire narrative. I also didn’t notice the blatant mixture of strict literalism with oddly fictionalized elements.

Thus the second episode was significantly better than the first, but still significantly below what I had hoped for before viewing any of the series. I am optimistic that the series will continue to improve in quality as the time spans continue to shrink, but I also feel pessimistic about the potential for a moving portrayal of the life of Christ and/or the Acts of the Apostles. This is not because these narratives lack in the material to make good television, but because I rarely have seen a portrayal of these narratives which has managed to move beyond the mediocre, wooden, and tedious (ironic, given the power of the material!).

The Siege of Jericho

I don’t have any significant complaints about the Siege of Jericho or the portrayal of Rahab, other than wooden dialogue and the general lack of being swept up in powerful emotions in the portrayal of these epic stories (for comparison, one might watch Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit and compare the emotional experience to that felt during The Bible – at least for me, the former have a much greater impact than the latter).

I did wonder to myself about marching around the city. Did the people of Jericho just allow the Israelites to walk around the city? Or did they fire at the Israelites? Send out sorties to attack and break their ranks? Or did the Israelites walk so far outside the city walls that they were out of range? I visualize the people of Jericho shooting arrows, throwing rocks, and attacking via cavalry sorties. If so, this would have been a great test of the Israelites faith. As they walked around the city day after day, suffering causalities, they must have thought, “Why are we wasting our time and our people walking around the city? We will be too weak by the time we actually attack the city to overcome it!”

This is also only one of a few scenes thus far in which a woman (Rahab) is portrayed in a positive light (I suppose one might consider Moses’ adoptive mother a positive female character in Part 1).

Samson and Delilah

This narrative was told in an okay manner. I think Samson’s African heritage may have been a subtle nod to the correlations between Israelite enslavement by the Philistines and African enslavement by Americans/Europeans. While historically unlikely that Samson was black, it may go towards furthering the narrative further in the future as I imagine they will emphasize the inclusive nature of Christianity and the tearing down of ethnic and social barriers that Jesus implemented.

Again, I found the dialogue fairly wooden and the primary female characters weak (Samson’s mother) or downright evil (Delilah). I did however greatly enjoy the narrators overture that, “Samson was given great strength to cast out the Philistines but he was distracted.” (as Samson falls in love with a Philistine woman) This was a genius line that added some levity to the story.

The secondary characters looked more like hardened soldiers in this episode, although they seemed completely one dimensional evil villains.

King Saul

Here is where I thought things improved significantly. The cast (both primary and secondary characters) looked much more the part than in early narrative segments. Time was spent on the narratives which allowed us to develop some affinity for the characters. King Saul is a multidimensional character who honestly struggles to obey God’s will, and one feels empathy for him when he is rejected by God.

King David

One can hardly separate the narrative of David from that of Saul, they overlap in so many areas and as with the overlap in story so there is overlap in quality. The time spent on the story is more appropriate, the characters are more multidimensional, and at times the dialogue is almost inspired. I especially enjoyed the combination of David’s Psalm 23 with his advance against Goliath.

I found the portrayal of David’s relationship with Bathsheba interesting. Ever heard the saying, “No means no”? In other words, one is raped or sexually assaulted if one says no and the person persists? This is what frequently happens with date rape, etc. Individuals reject the advances but the other individual continues to pressure and eventually the original individual gives in. They are thus not necessarily physically compelled, but they have been emotionally or psychologically compelled – their personal will being overwhelmed by the aggressor.

In this portrayal of David, it is clear that David’s advances upon Bathsheba are unwanted and would have qualified as date rape. While in the end she acquiesces to David’s advances, her initial attempts at rejecting him indicate clearly her heart and will’s desire, which is overwhelmed by undue pressure by David.

I don’t think I had ever thought of this scenario as being a rape before – always having thought of it as consensual…but if it was a rape, this would throw significant light on the later rape of Tamar and even Absalom’s actions with David’s wives (neither of which are portrayed in this series).

For those holding discussions after the series this might be a worthwhile discussion. Too often folks feel as if they have to be physically compelled into a sexual act for that act to be a crime against them – but the truth is that the act of overpowering another’s will is a crime against them. On an emotional level we see this when “brainwashing” occurs – an individual’s will is subsumed into the will of a leader, e.g. of a cult.

Narrative Threads

There are two narrative threads that flow throughout the series thus far – intentional or otherwise. The first has to do with the significant characters who follow God (e.g. Abraham, Saul, Samson) – they are told to perform acts of which they are unsure, they act sometimes in a way that seems unthinking, they are torn by what sometimes appears to be a lack of faithfulness of God’s part, and so on. In this manner, the relationship between God and his followers is mysterious and frustrating…

The second thread is the peripheral character of women to the series. Women are constantly used by the male characters or influence the male characters by speech rather than action. This does reflect, to some extent, the character of the ancient mindset regarding women, but I get the feeling that the women are weak characters, unable to act or think for themselves, whereas while the ancient cultural context may have deemed them as such they oftentimes showed themselves to rise above these low cultural views, challenging the men to step up and stop being such cowards (e.g. Rahab, Deborah, Abigail).

I Dream

I must admit that a while back as I was reading through the Scriptures regarding King David my mind’s eye was filled with the epic nature of the story and I felt a yearning to see a TV series made which would address this topic in detail over several years. I don’t think I have the technical skills for such an undertaking…but just in case anyone out there is thinking about properly funding such a series, may I make a few suggestions?

I’d recommend Paul Scheuring, Jon Turteltaub, and Jonathan E. Steinberg to head up the film crew. For cast I think Kim Coates would make a dynamic and powerful King David and Ian McShane should retake the role of King Saul. Jesse Spencer would make a dashing Prince Jonathan. Scott Wilson could play one of several wise prophets.

Katey Sagal and Mary Steenburgen both would make great leading ladies and Sarah Wayne Callies, Lisa Edelstein, Olivia Wilde, and Clea Duvall would be excellent choices as well.

Mark Boone Junior, Omar Epps, Idris Ebla, Ron Perlman, Ryan Hurst, Common, Tommy Flanagan, Robert Knepper, William Fichtner, Lennie James, Mickey Rourke, Lance Reddick, Vincent D’Onofrio, Stephen Lang, Mandy Patinkin, Rockmond Dunbar, Gabriel Byrne, Jeff Goldblum, Walton Goggins, David Meunier, David Morse, and Don Cheadle would all be excellent choices – some for David’s Mighty Men, others for commanders of the various enemies David faces throughout his reign.

The budget for such a series would need to be significant – as it would need an ensemble cast to hold things together. Scheuring, Turteltaub, and Steinberg should head up the film crew for their ability to enter into the minds of their characters and to create connective tissue between episodes. The series should have a definite arc, concluding after a predetermined period of time to avoid “jumping the shark.” But I digress…

For Further Reading

The History Channel’s The Bible Mini-Series (Part 1).

Lot Flees as Sodom and Gomorrah Burn
Lot Flees as Sodom and Gomorrah Burn (Gen. 19:1-20,24-36) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t have cable – so I don’t watch a lot of The History Channel. I do respect some of the programming that comes out of the channel, but my limited exposure to its “documentaries” on Biblical/Christian topics has raised serious concerns about their accuracy and fairness in dealing with this subject matter. That said, when I initially heard about The Bible mini-series coming out on The History Channel I wasn’t particularly interested – expecting more of the usual. But then YouVersion, an extremely popular bible web / smartphone application began pushing it – and I have respect for the folks at YouVersion and LifeChurch…and the accolades began to roll in from there – I received promotional emails from Christian Book Distributors (CBD) and Christian Cinema and apparently Rick Warren and Jim Daly (Focus on the Family) among others jumped on board as well – Warren even acting in an active consultant role to the mini-series.

So, when friends offered to host us to watch The Bible miniseries I said yes and settled in for the first two hours. The food and company was great – but the mini-series, well, I was unimpressed. I’ll keep watching b/c I want to continue to see how they unfold the story and also b/c the conversation we have during the show is profitable and entertaining – but I’m not continuing b/c I am enamored with the show nor do I expect to be (though I’d love to be surprised!).

Too Ambitious

When I heard about a mini-series covering the Bible one of my first thoughts was, “How are they going to tie it together?” The Bible was written over hundreds of years, covering a time span of thousands, and contains numerous stories of varying character. This is probably the greatest failing and the greatest success of the mini-series thus far. It was a bit too ambitious to attempt to undertake the entire Bible all at once, and at the same time they did manage to stitch the narrative thus far together. I’m most impressed by the way they recounted some stories within stories – e.g. the story of Creation being told by Noah in the midst of the flood.

But attempting to tackle so many stories so quickly results in one huge downfall: you never become emotionally connected to the characters…and by the end of the first two hours I walked away thinking, “If I didn’t know the God portrayed in the Bible…I’d think this God is a real jerk.” Now I’m hoping that they will bring everything together and show in retrospect how God was working in all these situations – but at this point it feels too slipshod to be redeemable and I am afraid folks will walk away thinking that the God of the Old Testament at least was a sadist.

Flat Characters

Due to the pace of the narrative the characters are exceptionally flat. Eve is just the means by which Adam is persuaded to eat the forbidden fruit. Lot’s wife is a nag, manipulative, and selfish. Sarah is hesitant and self-centered. Abraham is crazily following this strange God.

Lets Kill More People

There are so many great stories surrounding Abraham and Sarah, but so much time is wasted on a relatively minor incident in which Abraham rescues Lot from enemy armies. While large portions of the narrative (and character development) are skipped over, there is plenty of time to watch Abraham and his servants hack the enemy to pieces.

Later we’ll see the same thing when the angels enter into Sodom and Gomorrah to rescue Lot’s family. In an entirely extra-biblical take, the angel’s fight their way out of the city. Now, I’m not complaining about the extra-biblical aspect, but that this supplants much more important narrative – especially character-development narrative.

Biblical or Extra…But What?

Another item that really frustrated me was the way in which the film mixed the biblical with the non-biblical. Now, I’m not a strict, “thou must use the KJV and must stick exactly to the storyline” kind of guy, but I felt that the melding of the biblical with the fictional was strangely done. There are many parts where the speech is directly from the Scriptures, but then there are other parts that are entirely invented – especially the scenes with the angels in Sodom and Gomorrah. I’m okay with ninja angels, but, shouldn’t the rest of the film reflect a similar aesthetic? It doesn’t, so it feels choppy – part bible quoting, part ninja.

Casting?

The last issue I’d like to raise is the cast. Some are okay, but many seem obviously out of place and I can’t understand the choice. I don’t mean their acting is poor, but rather why so many secondary characters obviously overweight and out-of-shape? This was a time when food was oftentimes scarce. I found this especially disconcerting in combat scenes when soft, round-faced men were portrayed as elite warriors.

The Vikings

I watched the first two episodes of Vikings, History Channel’s other new series which is running immediately after the Bible – and here I saw a production of the quality I would have liked to have seen in The Bible mini-series. The character development is present, the actors are realistic, though the story is much darker and the gore more explicit.

It reminds me of the film Gettysburg and its successor Gods and Generals. While Gettysburg was a multi-hour epic covering a span of three days, Gods and Generals attempted to cover two years in a shorter film. Gettysburg is a classic, Gods and Generals is forgotten. Why? Mainly b/c the lack of character development and story which occurs when you try to compress a story so greatly.

Bibliography

Book Review: The Dante Club (Author: Matthew Pearl).

The Dante Club
The Dante Club (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Dante Club is a historical novel written by Matthew Pearl and clocking in at a lengthy 370 pages. Set in the days immediately following the conclusion of the American Civil War in Boston, Massachusetts with the literary elite of the time and Harvard as its background, it tells the story of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, J.T. Fields, and George Washington Greene‘s endeavors to translate Dante’s Comedy from the Italian into English and the opposition they encountered from entrenched literary and academic concerns.

At the same time the novel addresses a fictional series of murders which are based on Dante’s Comedy and which the translators attempt to solve. An interesting side-story is the character of Nicholas Rey, a mulatto officer who serves as Boston’s first African-American policeman and the many challenges he experiences in serving in this capacity.

The book is a New York Times bestseller and has received rave reviews from a number of sources including The Wall Street Journal, People, The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Esquire, and so on. Alexa.com listed the book as the number one bestselling book for reading groups.

So what makes this book so amazing? I’m unsure. It is certainly a solid read, but I did not find it an amazing read. The story plods along at a tremendously slow pace with occasional sprints. The story is largely concerned with slow-moving consideration of the characters, their interactions, and the scenery and culture of the day – but then is occasionally interspersed with graphic portrayals of the murder of various individuals in Dantean ways (one reviewer “said the novel’s murders are gruesome enough to make Stephen King flinch.”[1]) – this creates an odd contrast between a slow-burning historical novel and a fast-paced thriller.

Overall, I wouldn’t call it a must-read, but if you are interested in the time period, you’ll probably find the descriptions of the cultural milieu fascinating and Pearl does a good job of bringing to light many of the travesties of the time period – as well as the violence of the American Civil War (and it is against this background that the graphic murders become more understandable in their descriptiveness).

  1. [1]From the Reader’s Guide at the end of the book, pg. 376.

Some Interesting Free Amazon Kindle Reads…

Browsed through the top 100 free ebooks available for the Amazon Kindle again…Here is my selection of books that look interesting:

  • True Community: The Biblical Practice of Koinonia (Jerry Bridges) – HT William Smith.
  • The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door (Jay Pathak, Dave Runyon, Randy Frazee).
  • World War One: History in an Hour (Rupert Colley).
  • Psychology in Plain English (Dean Richards).