Paul versus the Philosophers and America versus the Just War Tradition

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These two excellent morning readings of late are on very different subjects, consisting of multiple contributors, and both enriching.

America and the Just War Tradition: A History of U. S. Conflicts is edited by Mark David Hall and J. Daryl Charles and is published by Notre Dame Press.

Paul and the Giants of Philosophy: Reading the Apostle in Greco-Roman Context is edited by Joseph R. Dodson and David E. Briones and is published by InterVarsity Press.

The overwhelming criteria for my reading plans is that a particular book is close at hand.  I could wish that I had a drive to master particular topics and could read with a greater goal in mind.  But I accept my gadfly reading program and often surprise myself at how themes and commonalities crop up in spite of my non-intentions.

Paul and the Giants of Philosophy

I have been repeatedly made aware of how deficient my own education has been due to a lack of philosophy studies.  I have majors in history and English, but was never required to study philosophy.  It is inescapable for both of those fields.  I have also been involved in studying the Bible and theology since my late teen years.   I served as a pastor in the past and am still a teacher in a classical Christian school.  While philosophy and the Bible are not equal, any serious student of the Bible and theology must, as in MUST, study at least some philosophy.

This is not a case where one must go on a difficult journey to find someone, somewhere, who has written something on the connection between the history of philosophy and the history of the Church, or philosophical issues and theological issues, or of philosophers who were also Christians.  You want to get books on philosophy and Christianity?  Better get a large bookcase and a big budget.

The great thing about Paul and the Giants of Philosophy is its accessibility.  Each chapter takes one of the philosophers of the Greco-Roman world and presents their views on a topic and then contrasts those views with Paul’s writings.  There is more interaction between Paul and the philosophers in the Stoic tradition rather than examinations of Paul’s writings viewed in the light of “The Big Three,” meaning Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.  Certainly, more in-depth, scholarly, weighty, academic books can and have been written.

But this book is readable, enjoyable, and geared toward the non-expert.  I firmly believe that my philosophy professor and student friends and son would find reading this book profitable, but it is geared toward those of us who read Paul a lot and Stoics rarely.  But, for those who wish to know more, each chapter ends with suggested readings giving both primary and secondary sources for the more serious pursuit of the topics.  And each chapter has some discussion questions as well.

I believe that this would be an excellent book to use in a college philosophy survey.  It could also be used in any course studying Paul in his historical and cultural context.  Some groups would enjoy this for a series of Sunday school lessons or as a book club read.  And, with strong, hot, black coffee, it is wonderful for morning reading.

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I usually begin with some readings related to the Bible and theology, and after that, I like to read something that fits into the broader Christian worldview perspective.  This is what led to my reading of America and the Just War Tradition.

America and the Just War Tradition

This book is like a long trip for a child.  What was overwhelmingly attracting me was the chapter by chapter survey of the various wars that the United States has fought in, beginning with the War for Independence and going up to current engagements in the War on Terror, meaning Iraq and Afghanistan.

But before one can get into the fun stuff, there is a long chapter written by the editors, Dr. Hall and Dr. Charles, titled “The Just War Tradition and America’s Wars.”  These 50 pages constitute what could be a short book on its own.  We all have a sense of certain wars or aspects of wars being just or unjust.  We all have a list of do’s and don’t’s about what is allowable in war.  On the one extreme, we would find pacifists who would eschew all wars.  There is within the Christian tradition a great amount of history and theology to support such a view.  As one whose military “experience” consists only in teaching about war, I have a heart-felt desire for pacifism.  But it is not easily sustained in light of real world conditions.

On the other hand, you would find extreme nationalist views which would justify any and every war that America or some other country of one’s origins has fought.  I find a certain sympathy with that position as well.  We honor the military men who, as we say, fought for our liberties and right to be free.  But exactly what liberties and freedoms for us were they fighting for in the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, and possibly some or all of the others?

The weighing out of justice or injustice in war is not merely a matter of gut reactions or simplistic patriotic urges.  The Just War Tradition largely grew out of the context of Western Civilization, or we could even say Christendom.  The greatest philosophers and theologians have thought seriously about the ethics of conflict on both a personal and nation-wide level.  Growing out of the thinking of such people as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, philosophers have agreed (always a slippery word to use) on what constitutes justness before, during, and after war.  The Latin phrases which permeate this book and topic are Ius ad bellum, Ius in bello, and Ius post bellum.  

Ius ad bellum, justness before war, begins with just cause, which is followed by just authority,  and right intention.  Ius ad bello, justness in war, hinges on discrimination and proportionality.   Ius post bellum deals with how the results are handled, what happens to the people and countries that were defeated, and what follows from that war.

As might be guessed, a war could be started for wrong reasons, conducted honorably (according to the criteria), and ended well.  Or you can mix and match the ingredients in a wide variety of ways.  As helpful as the criteria are, such things are not always clear cut.  War is so horrible that it sometimes seems insane to try to make it a subject of calm, reasoned discourse.

I majored in history in college.  I have taken courses that have included or primarily focused upon the wars of the United States.  I would guess that I have a thousand books dealing with war.  But this book revealed how little I actually understood or had been subjected to understanding the historical, philosophical, and traditional views of Just War.  That is the long journey that the reader has to take before getting to “the answers” in the chapters on America’s wars.

To quickly comment upon the wars, each chapter has a different contributor.  I honestly think there is not a bad or weak essay in the lot.  Part of the delight in this book is the cases where I was surprised or even shocked by the views of the authors.  I would tend, for example, to find the American War for Independence just and defensible, but Dr. John D. Roche thinks not.  Amazing argument, this chapter didn’t convince me, but it did humble me a bit. Many chapters later, I thought that there was little or no way to defend the American experience in Vietnam, but Mackubin Thomas Owens’s chapter blew me away.

As indicated in the review above regarding the Bible and philosophy, history teachers must study philosophy.  Just War is a philosophical and ethics related tradition and a theological concern as well.  Studying this book will not give you the set of pat answers to why this war and not that one was right or wrong.  But it will give perspective.

History teachers, read this book.  As a further note, it is chocked full of other reading suggestions on both the specific wars and on the topic in general.  I am convinced that I must acquire Michael Walzer’s book Just and Unjust Wars.  Also, I am confirmed in my conviction that Mark David Hall is one of the best resources for serious historical and political studies in our time.  I learned of him last year from political theorist Koty Arnold just after Hall’s book Did America Have a Christian Founding? was published.  I am now on a quest to obtain and read all that Dr. Hall writes.

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It’s Getting Western Real Fast Now: Four Histories of the American West

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History has been my life and career.  I decided in 9th grade, back in 1970, that I wanted to be a history teacher and never swerved off that path through the years that followed.  I have also been other things, such as a newspaper reporter, a convenience store worker, a pastor, a school administrator, and a teacher of other subjects, but I have always at heart been a history teacher.  The realm of history is, however, vast so I have my areas of focus, or what we might call specialization.  That is a fancy way of saying that some parts of history are of more interest to me than other parts.  Generally, I prefer 20th Century history to anything Medieval.  Always, I prefer political history over social or economic history.  I have read and taught the War Between the States without ever acquiring the ability to know when I should end the topic and move on.  Being one of the most non-military type people in the universe, I have, nevertheless, read and taught enough military history to at least get honorary rank of private, no class.

As a teacher of American history in most of my classroom ventures, I have tried to avoid getting too interested in the history of the American West.  On the one hand, that is impossible because the American West was originally the lands just past the coastlines of the original colonies.  The western frontier was a moving, fluid concept with different boundary lines, different cultural events, and different settlers all the up to 1890.  On the other hand, there are too many events that are directly tied to the west, as defined by the areas across the Mississippi River that were settled, fought over, and brought into the union from the time of the Louisiana Purchase and beyond.

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I tried to avoid the numerous Indian Wars, except the Nez Pearce’s ill fated skirmishes with the U. S. cavalry when they were led by Chief Joseph.  I tried to keep cowboys and cattle drives, saloons and settlements, outlaws and sheriff’s posses all confined to the television shows I loved as a kid and still enjoy on occasion.

But recently, I slipped away by night from the 20th Century, from Puritans, from Confederates, and from all other realms of history, and headed out west.

It all started with Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West by H. W. Brands.  This book was published by Basic Books in 2019, and I acquired it with a gift card from Christmas.

I have several books by University of Texas (Austin) history department chairman Dr. Brands.  He is not only quite prolific as an author, but he has written on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from both Roosevelts, to Benjamin Franklin, to Andrew Jackson, to books on western settlement.  He is one of those few authors who is both an academic professor and a writer of popular narrative histories.  In short, I would not hesitate to pick up any book that he has written (which total over 30) and would find them enjoyable reading.

This book goes back to the earliest of American (here meaning United States) explorations.  The western (here meaning west of the Mississippi River) expansion began with the fur trade.  For certain, the western man was rugged, tough, engaged with weather and conflicts, and resilient.  We have lots of myths about frontiersmen, but the myths exist only because there were actual people bearing mythic qualities.

The west is a complex story, filled with fur traders and Indian conflicts, religious migrations and Indian conflicts, wagon trains and Indian conflicts, gold strikes and Indian conflict, cattle drives and Indian conflicts, the Civil War and Indian conflicts, railroads, buffaloes, untamable lands, impassible mountains, raging streams, frontier justice/injustice, territorial expansion, broken hearts and bodies, and Indian conflicts.

As a non-specialist in American western studies, I was continually amazed at how much I was familiar with.  There is no study of American history without a Conestoga wagon being pulled (hopefully) by oxen and mules and heading toward the direction of the setting sun.  While El Dorado, the mythical city of gold, was never found, many El Dorados were found.

Brands’ book might be bypassed by the college professor who wants a more scholarly, footnote laden, “this scholar contends, while that scholar objects,” politically correctly, and horrendously overpriced university press book for a 300 or 400 level history course.  I disagree.  This book is good history and good reading.  Add on, Mr. or Madame Professor, a few more in-depth monographs, but assign this book.  Historians must never forget that story is essential to history, and that story must be engaging.

Massacre in Minnesota: The Dakota War of 1862–The Most Violent Ethnic Conflict in American History by Gary Clayton Anderson is published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

Dr. Anderson is an authority on western, Native American, and U. S. history, with having authored a dozen books.  He even wrote one criticizing Texas.  That is one brave historian, and I hope he has had facial recognition surgery to protect himself from some of my Texas friends.

This book was for me what reading history must be like for many people.  I was largely unfamiliar with most of the names, places, and events in the book.  My knowledge of Minnesota history basically begins with the late 1940s and 1950s when Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy began rising to prominence as leaders in the Democrat Party.  I had heard of the mass hanging, eerily photographed and often reprinted, that was part of the outcome of this event.  The Dakota tribe was just a name that merged in with the several dozen Indian tribes that I have read over and past through in many surveys of American history.

After feeling frustrated for not grasping more of the details of this event (and surprise that I never really knew about it), I remembered that Dr. Anderson began the book by telling that how he had been studying, thinking through, and researching this story for four and a half decades.  Why should I expect that one book read over a period of a few weeks would fast forward me through what he has spent a lifetime studying?

There are basically three stories in this book, and all three of them are sad, tragic, and painful to read about.  History is not for sissies.  If you want knights rescuing damsels in distress, pure heroes and heroines, and truth, justice, and the American way, go to some source other than history.  (Hence, referring back to Dr. Anderson’s book on Texas, even the Lone Star State is a collective sinner in need of grace.)

The first story is one that is overall familiar.  Treaties, reservations, and corruption were endemic problems.  No one wishing to make a case for government involvement in human affairs would want to call in examples from how the Dakota tribes were dealt with.  Some people benefited greatly from these actions, but they were usually the government agents who were mishandling funds.  The Dakota people had few resources and means to combat and certain few, if any, to correct the abuses.

That led to the second story which was an outbreak of hostilities between Indians and whites.  As has often been said, when whites fought and won a conflict, it was called a battle, but when Indians won, it was called a massacre.  This part of the story is a horror story equal to the best/worst accounts that we have read about or watched on old television westerns and movies.  White communities were attacked, men, women, and children were killed, torturous methods were used on human beings.  In many cases, the news accounts became exaggerated and accounts were tweaked to satisfy the morbid curiosity of those far from the scenes.  Then there were the stories of rapes and abuses of women.  White people who had co-existed near Indian tribes were victims of the attacks; militia units hastily formed to stop the attacks suffered as well.

This was all happening during 1862, so the United States was so focused on what were the worst years of the Civil War for the Union that few resources were available to rescue the area.  In what was the only bit of humor found in the book, one U. S. soldier said that the weapons he and others were issued were so bad that they  should have been given to the Indians to help defeat them.  As expected, as is the case in every book and account of white and Indian civilizations at war, eventually, the power, numbers, and resources fell to the whites.

The third story may be accounted as the most tragic and horrible of them all.  It is the story of injustice.  Indians were not reckoned as a military enemy in the traditional sense.  Nor were they citizens.  There were trials of large numbers of the captured warriors.  These trials sounded more like things I have read about “justice” in Stalinist and Nazi regimes than what I would have expected in America.  Bereft of counsel, deficient in understanding of the English language, totally lacking knowledge of the justice system, one after another, Indian men were hauled before the courts, given a brief (often less than an hour) of trial, and sentenced to death by hanging.

This world is complicated.  Understanding doesn’t always excuse evils, but it often helps explain why things happened.  In many cases, Indian men took white women and made them their wives.  That was their way.  In the white world, this was abuse and rape.  I honestly felt grief for both sides in this situation.  I could wish that mercy had triumphed over justice.

Over three hundred Indian men were sentenced to hang, but President Lincoln pardoned most of them.  Granted, some who died had been criminal in their war waging, but again, the system was complicated.  Thankfully, there were Christians among both white and red peoples who sought to do right; however, these instances were far too few.

I wish I were convinced that we actually learn from history and correct the wrongs of the past.  There is so much to learn here.  Grievous though this story is, it needs to be read, remembered, and mourned over.

The Second Colorado Cavalry: A Civil War Regiment on the Great Plains by Christopher M. Rein is published by the University of Oklahoma Press

I am still reading this book so I will limit my remarks.  First, this book is a useful follow up to reading Thomas W. Cutrer’s Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River.  That book is my “go to” work on any of the campaigns and battles that took place in that most neglected part of the Late Unpleasantness.

Second, Colorado was a territory, along with New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, and other places in the far west.  Like the California Gold Rush of a few years earlier, Colorado had drawn hordes of men interested in finding gold.  Some came out of the South, some from the North.  In some ways, the small battles, whose numbers pale before the fight going on along the eastern and middle parts of the country, seem inconsequential.  The Confederacy tried, unsuccessfully, to extend the boundaries of their nation to the western regions.  Units like the Second Colorado Cavalry tied into battle and stopped them.

What difference did it make?  Or could that have turned the course of the war?  Interesting questions, but those who fought, died, were injured, or maimed in those battles were just as much dedicated soldiers fighting for beliefs and visions as were those who are buried at Gettysburg.

I hope to report more on this book later. Perhaps it is of interest only to those who are really engaged in not just the Civil War but the less known theaters of the war.

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Author Stephen Harrigan standing outside the Alamo holding his book.

 

Big, Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas by Stephen Harrigan is published by the University of Texas Press.

Weighing in at close to 1000 page, this history of Texas promises to be fun.  I reckon that like the two books immediately preceding this one, there are some terrible tales that will make even Texans humble themselves into a repentant attitude.  But this book, which I have yet to start, looks to simply be lots of fun.

I count it as a near miracle that I survived 7th grade Texas history class.  I even became a history teacher, not because of, but in spite of that class.  It was terrible.  The “bless her heart” teacher apparently knew nothing about Texas, 7th grade boys, or teaching.  (I warn’t no saint either.)  When I taught Arkansas history, I often told my Arkansawyer students that most of their (now mine as well) state’s history was the story of people passing through on the way to Texas.

James Michener wrote a fat novel called Texas.  The very state just demands BIG.  Granted that Michener’s writing tended toward obesity of prose, he would have made a novel about Monaco at least 500 pages.  I have often taught a portion of Michener’s draft that got cut out and then was revised to make a separate book.  Titled The Eagle and the Raven, that historical novel compares and contrasts the careers of Santa Anna and Sam Houston.  But, I have read far too little about the state I grew up in.  In fact, I know far too little about the state.  Unfortunately, when I was able to travel, we usually opted to head north to north east to find cooler climates and mountains.  Living in the corner of northeast Texas and now southwest Arkansas, Texas was too hot during the summer to draw me into traveling there.

I hope Emily Dickinson was right in saying, “There is no frigate like a book to take us miles away,” because I am going to travel across geography and time to visit the great state of Texas in this book.

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How to Read the Histories We Object To

 

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How the South Won the Civil War:  Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America by Heather Cox Richardson is published by Oxford University Press.

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For more than forty years now, nearly eight times as long as the war itself, I have been a student of the war that is called both the Civil War and the War Between the States.  In classroom lectures, I have devoted much attention to the battles over just what the war ought to be called.  I will, in this post, use Civil War mainly because it is the shorter and most familiar name.

As a Southerner, I have imbibed a love of most things Southern.  (Humidity and August heat are still not favored.)  Southern history, literature, theologians, music, folkways, myths and legends, music, and food top my lists of loves and likes.  William Faulkner and Rick Bragg are both in among my pantheon of favorite authors.  Add Flannery O’Connor to that list.  Robert L. Dabney and J. Gresham Machen are favorite theologians.  And the heyday of American music was and may still be at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

Some years ago, I gave a couple of talks on the War.  My first talk was called “The Tragedy of the South Going to War.”  Of course, heading the bullet points from that talk would be the fact that the South lost and lost totally.  The failure of compromise, the rush to arms, and other factors compounded or caused the tragedy.  The second talk was called “The Blessings of the South Losing the War.”  In short, as Walker Percy, famed author, noted, the South produced great writers because “We lost the War.”  Losing preserved, conserved, and consolidated many things in the Southern states and culture that would have otherwise been lost in the embracing of Progress.  (One should detect a bit of the 12 Southerners who wrote  I’ll Take My Stand in that sentence.)

There is no dealing with the South without facing the abuses from slavery in the past, racial injustices through the decades before and after the war, and ongoing racial problems in all part of the United States.  “Yes, but” can be followed up with any number of details that can give perspective, pause, and nuances to the history, but we are not talking about mistakes, or poor judgments, or bad manners.  We are talking of sin.  A nation with as many Southern Christians as there have been should not repent of the past (which is cost free), but the sins ought to have been recognized, called out, condemned, judged, and dealt with at the time.

That being said, I was quite interested when I first learned of a new book titled How the South Won the Civil War by Heather Cox Richardson.  The Civil War may have been fought out and settled on a few dozen major battlefields, but the issues were not resolved to the satisfaction of all.  On the one hand, it may have been the greatest example of the ad baculum fallacy (an appeal to force) ever, for the stick was used to pound the Confederacy into agreement.  On the other hand, it may have been the best use of the ad baculum method.

There remain issues of the constitutionality of secession, total war, the nature of the state, use and abuse of politics, the justification of war against civilians, the intent of the Founders, centralization of government, suspension of constitutional rights, the legitimacy of the Declaration of Independence, and a host of other matters that came up during Reconstruction.  Southern arguments were discredited by defeat.

Just consider the following statement by James Oscar Farmer, Jr. in his book  The Metaphysical Confederacy: James Henley Thornwell and the Synthesis of Southern Values (Mercer University Press):

“The reason for this unwillingness or inability to deal with the values of the old South in an objective way is not hard to discover. Eric McKitrick perhaps puts it most succinctly when he writes that ‘nothing is more susceptible to oblivion than an argument, however ingenious, that has been discredited by events.’ He adds that the works of Southerners have ‘remained superbly unread’….
“Two sets of values have been in opposition to one another through most of our history as a nation; one has cherished dynamism, cosmopolitanism, rationalism, and egalitarianism, while the other has preferred stability, localism, faith, and deference.”

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That being the case, I was eager to read  How the South Won the Civil War.  I was expecting something regarding Southern culture and traditions (in the Agrarian tradition), or Southern literature (in the New Critic, Agrarian, Southern Renaissance tradition), or politics (in the tradition of a number of studies on Southern political leaders), or the ongoing popularity of Confederate leaders, the battle flag, or ideas, or some discussion of political topics (in the tradition of works by scholars such as M. E. Bradford and Eugene Genovese).

This book was none of those things.  Dr. Richardson’s thesis is that white oligarchs from the South sought to suppress the voices, opportunities, and freedoms of women, people of color, and lower classes.  Having failed in the war itself, the same controlling motif continued to motivate Southerners after the war and then found alliances in the western parts of the United States.

Let’s call it the Cotton and Cattle Alliance.  Or Confederates and Cowboys.  In the west, those being suppressed were Native Americans, immigrants largely from China, Hispanics, and women.  Culture, literature, movies and television (in time), and political power worked to make the ruling white male class more powerful and the others less so.

In the center of the target being fired upon are such people as the late Senator Barry Goldwater, conservative thinker William F. Buckley, Jr., President Ronald Reagan, Phyllis Schlafly, all evangelical pro-life voters, and more. Of course, by the end of the book, Donald Trump was the target.

Let me quickly point out a few ways one should approach a book where the disagreement factor goes off the scale.

  1.  The serious student/reader/reviewer must first listen.  That means to be quiet, read the book, and hear the arguments.
  2.  The serious student must determine that the issues, charges, thesis, contentions of the book must be evaluated slowly and carefully.  It is not enough to find a glitch here or a rebuttal there.
  3.   The serious student must not defend the indefensible.  That racism, oppression, political corruption have existed and that people much like me or you have been guilty is a given.  I stand with the author in condemning such.
  4.   The serious student must take into account that an author, professor, and scholar has devoted lots of time to developing the arguments.  No quick shots from the hip should be employed to settle the score.  Time, study, patience, consideration, and research are needed.

All of that being said, history is ugly.  The doctrine of sin, meaning the Fall,  Original Sin, and Total Depravity (to use the Calvinist term), is the defining explanation of history, alongside of Creation and Redemption.

I will say that I find the book a book too heavy in terms of ripping Republicans, westerners, southerners, whites, and evangelicals for a university press title.  It read like a liberal alternative to the John Birch Society. It seems to follow the Howard Zinn approach to history, with the same blunt honesty as to where it is coming from.

It is also interesting that the book never acknowledges the examples, which are myriad, that counter the arguments.  It was the conservative Republicans who supported such people as Colin Powell, Clarence Thomas, Condoleezza Rice, Ben Carson, and others.  Reagan appointed the first woman to the Supreme Court and his successor appointed the second African American to the court.  Lyndon Johnson used, even more so than Barry Goldwater, cowboy images of himself.  Dr. Richardson also seemed quite muddled over what to make of Theodore Roosevelt, who was a cowboy, a Republican, an individualist, a Progressive, and more.

Yes, an oligarchy may be said to rule.  But the wealthy in our country and the wealthy who use their powers to sway politics includes both Republicans and Democrats (and even multi-millionaire Socialist Bernie Sanders).  Women and people of color have achieved numerous offices and positions in both parties.  Old white guys of both parties have made crude, racist, vulgar, and evil remarks.  (It is interesting to contrast the more diverse field of Presidential candidates in the Republican Party of 2016 with the Democratic Party in 2020.)

All political issues are presented simplistically.  Communism was presented as a clear black and white issue, but Cold Warriors were found in both parties.  Very tellingly, abortion is the murder of babies.  Many Catholic and Protestants of both parties (particularly in the past) said so.  Also, the first state to allow women to vote was Wyoming.

Contending that the soul of America has been fouled by white, fundamentalist Confederates and Cowboys is a hefty charge.  I think the book certain achieved the goal of being written with passion.  But I think there is much more to be said.

 

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The Poetry and Poetics of James Matthew Wilson

Last fall, I took a graduate class on literary criticism and poetry research.  I am both astounded at how much I learned and was exposed to and humbled by how little I know.  Critiquing the class itself, I don’t think it was a good idea to try to study poetry as poetry and then work in the different fields of literary criticism.  In several cases, we read short stories or essays to grasp or apply the schools of criticism.  And much of literary criticism is bogus.  And bogus is one of the nicest words that I can think of to describe it.  Karl Marx’s followers should have stuck to doing bad economics.  Freud’s followers should have kept their thoughts to themselves.  And people with agendas other than literature should have kept their grimy fingers off the literary works, anthologies, and minds of people who love reading.

When I finished the course, I resumed reading and studying my collection of books by James Matthew Wilson.  He should have taught my class.  Or at least, we should have been reading The Unmaking of Poetry along with one or all of his collections of poetry.  (Side note:  the Norton’s Anthology of Poetry that we used was quite good, as are most Norton Anthologies, but why do we  buy these monstrously big books and only read a few snippets from them?  And why do the publishers keep dropping out the old and adding the newer, usually inferior, selections to satisfy some advocacy literary shams?)

Wilson is a modern poet.  That should offend some.  But just in case you prefer the modern poets, he is a traditionalist writ large.  Wilson is also a Christian.  But fellow Calvinists, just to make you gnash your teeth a bit, he is a Catholic.  He is also a scholar of immense learning and depth of thought.  You might try rushing through a few hundred pages of Immanuel Kant before tackling Wilson’s essays, just to get your mind revved up for the challenge.

Wilson’s poems are not going to satisfy a desire for beautiful lyrics about flowers or sunsets.  There is a lot of grit and grime in his writing, as though he actually believes in Original Sin, which he does.  The lyrics hurt, confuse, question, and affirm, as good poetry should.  Then there is this personal problem:  I find poetry collections nearly impossible to read and finish.  Wilson’s books are short, if we are simply looking at the number of pages.  And some poems only cover a portion of a page.  But as much as most useful or necessary books, books of poetry require not just reading but rereading, and then rereading faster, and then rereading more slowly than ever, poetry books do that even more.

I never glance at the Robert Frost poem “Birches” and think, “Oh, I have read that.”  It is a favorite, and I can even quote a few lines and could probably explain it (which we never really do) to a class.  But it is there to be read again and again.  Poems age alongside us,  As I heard Louise Cowan say, “Hamlet changes” as she described her lifelong experiences with the play that reawakened her faith and continued to witness to her through the years.

James Matthew Wilson has purposely and deliberately chosen to conform his theory of poetry in his essays and in his actual poems to the forms and meters of old.  Robert Frost once lamented that writing free verse was like playing tennis without a net.  My athletic abilities are so bad that I don’t object to the removal of the net (or of tennis balls and rackets and of the whole game).  My poetry skills, likewise, delighted in being able to skip the syllable counting, the measures and sound, and to just focus on the feel of the words I called poetry.  I would fail Wilson’s class and deservedly so.

In my poetry class, we read a selection while studying Queer Theory.  Yes, that is what it is called and what it is.  This is not just a recognition that some great artists and poets have been homosexuals.  It is an attack on “hetero-normative” sexuality and thinking.  One such poem dealt with the truly tragic murder of a homosexual couple, but the poem was a blank page with footnotes.  Innovative to be sure and haunting, but like John Cage’s “4:33,”  this is not art.

Poetry, like all of art, history, theology, philosophy, and literature, has to exist at two levels at least.  It has to have the pleasing aesthetic appeal to those who read, look, or listen.  Those who walk through an art gallery, listen to a concert, or read a book of imaginative thought should be able to enjoy such creations at a pedestrian level.  But the internal subject must reach must higher standards.  The poet cannot simply be a person who finds rhyming words, nor can the artist just be someone holding a paint brush.

For these reasons, those of us who are called to labor in the field of literature (what a labor of love it is!) must be willing to forego simply just the fun of figuring out something of what a poem says.  We must question, to use John Ciardi’s title phrase, “how a poem means.”  The vocabulary of the specialist is, as is usual, hard to grasp., but necessary.  The skill of the literary critic, like that of the preacher-theologian, is not one easily picked up.  But it is necessary.

If you are not enrolled to study directly under Dr. Wilson, invest in these books and begin the long trek to a better understanding of poetry and the humane civilization that poetry both sustains and feeds itself.

The Vision of the Soul:  Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition is published by  The Catholic University of America Press.  Essays on broader issues of culture and life.

The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking is published by Wiseblood Books.    This work is a collection of essays that describe, lament, critique, and condemn much of what is found in poetry in our times.  The last part of the book is basically a handbook of tools to use in understanding the mechanics of traditional poetry.

Favorite quotes from the book:  “I hope the readers of this book will find something in it worth the knowing, because it seeks to defend something they love, the art of poetry and all that it does to enrich human experience, to form it and orient it to the permanent things.”

“We can say that contemporary poets acknowledge a poem as a poem so long as it meets the following definition of form: the lines do not look like prose on the page.”

 

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Some Permanent Things is published by Wiseblood Books.  This is a lengthy collection of poetry that reflects Wilson’s labors to rewrite and bring more into conformity with traditional standards the poems he had earlier published (with a few additions).

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The Hanging God is published by Angelico Press.  This is a collection of poems.  Selections include decidedly religious poetry and some shocking poems that remind us that not all poems are about pretty things.

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The River of the Immaculate Conception is published by Wiseblood Books.  This is my favorite book, with my biggest criticism being that it is too short.  The title poem deals with French explorers who traveled the rivers of North America.  While loving older historical narrative poems, I have often wondered how such could be done in our time.  This book shows how.

Favorite lines:  “Let crosses be upraised and idols downward hurled/ That all shall see his peace restored into the world.”

This time, like all times, is a great time to read some poetry and a new author.  Get James Matthew Wilson’s books and read–slowly, repeatedly, and lovingly.

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Murray Rothbard’s Conceived in Liberty, Volume 5

 

It has been said that while history may not repeat itself, historians repeat each other.  Years of reading histories of different events confirms that as a general truth.  Loving history and loving stories (both are intricately connected), a reader does not mind tramping along on the same battlefields, witnessing the same political risings and fallings, and hearing the same anecdotes, with a few new ones added on.

But one thing that slowly dawns on the eager college kid who is majoring in history is that “the story” is not “a story.”  As Dr. Thomas Wagy repeatedly says, “If you want truth, go to the religion or history departments.  History is art.”  It is well that he repeated this often, for it took me years to grasp what he was saying.  History is built upon layers of interpretation, presuppositions, viewpoints, angles of observation, and preferences.

New information often not only sheds more light on a topic of historical study, but it changes the contours of the study.  Every subsequent event in history changes the way the previous events were viewed.  The rise and fall of Nazism not only altered the understanding of World War II, but it altered the understanding of World War I, the career of Bismarck and the unification of Germany, and the history of Europe.  In short, you never learn history, but you are always learning history.

Generally, there are two major sources or streams of thought that affect the understanding of history.  One is the work of the popular, usually narrative historians. Their books are the ones found in the large book chains and that show up in the New York Times Book Reviews.  Authors such as David McCullough, Rick Atkinson, Andrew Roberts, Joseph Ellis, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and others are among our most gifted and popular historians.  In an earlier era, the works on the Civil War by Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote were among the most popular treatments.  Far from criticizing such writers and writing, I love them.  The authors are generally well trained academically and vetted by fellow authors and historians.  Their writing styles are superbly readable.  Books like Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert Massie were influential in luring me into a life of reading history.

The other current comes from the academic historians.  These works are usually written by professors in universities.  The works are more weighty, more heavily documented, less dependent on secondary sources, and more analytical.  They are usually printed by university presses and are rarely found on the shelves in the book chains.  I love them!  Books pouring off the presses from Oxford University Press, Oklahoma University Press, the University of North Carolina Press, Kansas University Press, and more are weighting down my shelves and bookstands.

Some authors, by the way, manage to score on both fronts.  They maintain their academic standing and produce the less widely distributed and more scholarly studies while producing some more popular books for a wider reading audience.  Mark Hall, who is a political theorist rather than a historian, has written or contributed to quite a few serious, scholarly works.  But his book Did America Have a Christian Founding? was published by Thomas Nelson and is reaching a much wider audience.

So we have three kinds of historians or history writing types:  The popular narrator, the academic analysist, and the rare bird that combines both traits.  Now, let’s add a fourth type:  the outlier.  (I will refrain from examining the kooky historians who load down their books with bogus references and bizarre twists.)

The outlier, to use Malcolm Gladwell’s term, refers to the scholar or writer who presents viewpoints and interpretations, heavily documented from solid or overlooked sources, that run roughly against the grain of the accepted and majority views.  Some of the writers in this category are not historians by profession and training.  Rodney Stark, for example, is a sociology professor at Baylor University, but his history writings on Christianity are outstanding.  Paul Johnson is a journalist and an art student, but his history writings are among the best around.  R. J. Rushdoony was a theologian and pastor, but he wrote several fine works on history.  Shelby Foote, named above for the popularity of his Civil War trilogy, was a novelist who turned his skills to writing about the Late Unpleasantness.

Groupthink is both a useful method and a questionable one.  You go to college and study history in order to think like a trained historian.  That is why I hate the term “history buff” and get really irritated when someone calls me that.  If it is my medical doctor saying that, I want to return the favor and call him a “medicine buff.”  A liking of the History Channel (which at least used to have history documentaries), historical novels, and historical anecdotes are all good things, but that is not what historians do.  The goal of historical training is to proscribe bad analytical thinking and prescribe sound thinking.  But, the group, in this case the academic historians, often narrow their vision and embrace certain orthodoxies of historical interpretation.

Along comes the outlier, that is, the man or woman who approaches the same historical period, the same huge ocean of facts, and the same events, but says, “I don’t think so” in terms of causes, effects, or actual occurrences. Sometimes, they are disparagingly labeled as “Revisionists.”  But all historians are, even within the orthodoxies, seeking to do some degree of revision.  And often, the novelty of the differing interpretations, the revealing of overlooked sources, the guiding presuppositions gets the unorthodox historian ruled out of court, with or without a hearing.

Many paragraphs into this, I now can mention the name of Murray Rothbard.  The guy was brilliant, incredibly well educated, scholarly, meticulous, and guided by a set of ideas.  He was a libertarian, although we might humorously call him a far right libertarian, because he tended toward believing in anarchy or no or almost no government.  He was an economist, associated with the Austrian school (another rich source of outliers).  Although he served as a professor at several schools, he was always on the fringe of academia.  And, he always managed to attract and educate a small remnant of willing students.

He wrote many books, mainly on economics, but also on history.  Called upon the write on the history of the United States, he published four volumes under the title Conceived in Liberty during the middle to late 1970s.  This history, beginning with early colonization only reached as far as the end of the War for Independence.  By the way, he also wrote books on the Great Depression and the Progressive Era.  A fifth volume on the Conceived in Liberty venture remained unpublished until recently.

The text was written in longhand, which according to those who saw it, was undecipherable.  Some brave soul labored through it; the Ludwig von Mises Institute published it; and now we have it.

In part two of this review, I will actually discuss the book!

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