The Magna Carta of Humanity by Os Guinness

The Magna Carta of Humanity

The Magna Carta of Humanity: Sinai’s Revolutionary Faith and The Future of Freedom by Os Guinness is published by InterVarsity Press.

Some books we acquire because of who the author is. Such is the case with Os Guinness. For many years, he has been writing books that are combinations of cultural commentaries with Christian critiques and answers.

It all began with The Dust of Death: The Sixties Counter-culture and How It Changed America Forever. The 1960s were a redefining period of American history. I find it amazing that America survived during that period and the decade that followed. Guinness wrote this account, which is still in print, to examine that time period.

The Call: Finding and Fulfilling God’s Purposes for Your Life was first published in 1997. I did not pick it up and read it until many years later. There is a 20th anniversary edition of the book that came out in 2018. In my experience, this is my favorite Guinness book. Each chapter is a great meditation on finding purpose and direction for the Christian. And, Guinness, in all his writings, amply quotes from a wide variety of sources, both Christian and other.

This book is a great one for teens and younger believers to read. I think it would be great for a group study.

Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion is a book about Christian apologetics. I remember loving it the summer that I read it. I need to read it again…and again! Often, my experience has been in reading books where an advocate of one school of apologetics makes the case for his approach and critiques the other school. I reckon that all of that is needful. But I have often found myself discouraged by the rancor that exists between presuppositionalists and evidentialists, between Van Tillians and Clarkians, and between advocates of various church positions. Then there is the snobbery that is found among some, including, sadly Dooyeweerdians and Neo-Orthodox, and the dismissals that attend those who profess Christianity, but see no need to convert anyone.

While good and great men and women of God have written and argued in ways that reflect my concern, I often did not find enough basic stuff to instruct believers on how to live and speak persuasively on the faith. This book does not, to the best of my recollection, deal with the intramural debates.

Other Guinness book titles include Time for Truth, Unspeakable, A Free People’s Suicide, The Global Public Square, Last Call for Liberty, and Carpe Diem Redeemed. I have most, but not all, and have read many, but not all, of his books.

The Magna Carta of Humanity is Guinness’s most recent book. It is a classic and predictable work. He surveys the social, political, and theological landscape and finds much that is wanting in our day. He calls again and again for spiritual and theological renewal. The focus is not on the church or family primarily, although both are seen as central. This is not a rewrite of the Republican party platform with a few Bible verses, nor is it an acceptance of the social justice, or “Woke” concerns, or current mantras of the religious left.

As such, I reckon every school of thought will want to mentally add a chapter on to this book either prescribing particular Bible teachings, conservative or liberal applications, and endorsements for other ministries. (I don’t mean to imply that liberals–whether theologically so or politically so–will find much of comfort in the book.)

In large part, Guinness has written a book that is highlighting the writings of the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. I was not familiar with either Rabbi Sacks or his writings. He is described as a “British Orthodox rabbi, philosopher, theologian, author, peer and public figure. He died in 2020.

This book is dedicated to Rabbi Sacks. Much of it is a commentary on Sacks’s book Covenant and Conversation: Exodus: The Book of Redemption.

Perhaps many of us have not read Exodus with enough political focus. After all, we are often subtly instructed not the read any of the Bible with a political lens. But Exodus is a story that is inescapably political from beginning–with an oppressive baby killing government–to the end–with a law for God’s people that reflects God’s moral order for the nations.

I read some of Gary North’s fine books on Exodus years ago. It was part of his economic commentary on the Bible. And politics and economics are overlapping topics. Just today, I finished reading an outstanding essay on how preachers and writers in colonial America used the Exodus narrative to describe the plight that the colonies were in during the American War for Independence. That essay can be found in another IVP book, titled Every LIne, Leaf, and Letter: Evangelicals and the Bible from the 1730s to the Present.

Every Leaf, Line, and Letter

Sacks and Guinness contend that the Exodus story should be the defining model for a revolution. To bring about a real, good, and positive change, eschew French, Russian, and Chinese models, and anything advocated by Marxists pat and present, and look to Exodus.

God is at war continually with tyrants. Wimpy pastors who tremble at the political winds are not at all in good standing. Every state and social order adheres to a law code. And all law codes are founded on religious presuppositions. We are always seeing Egypt warring against the Hebrews. Change the names as needed to fit the era, and yet the battles remain the same.

Much of this book is, as expected, standard and recurring Guinness talk and advocacy. He didn’t abandon what 20 other books promoted and repeats his best themes and working bullet points. What preacher or teacher doesn’t do the same?

This leads to part of what is a bit confusing or cluttering about this book. Guinness repeatedly contrasts the American War for Independence (okay, for this occasion, let’s call it the American Revolution) with the French Revolution. That is a great theme. That is a good reason why we all need to study history. Read the historical accounts of the Frenchies and read the fiction as well. Concerning fiction, I am thinking of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities (which I have written about previously and compared to Augustine’s two cities) and Baron Orczy’s Scarlet Pimperness. Concerning history, read Otto Scott’s Robespierre or Simon Schama’s Citizens. And there is an older work titled The Origin and Principles of the American Revolution Compared with the Origin and Principles of the French Revolution written by Friedrich Gentz with a preface by John Quincy Adams. And I simply must mention Unbelief and Revolution by Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer.

The dust jacket on the book reflects this conflict: At the top is seen a portion of the painting of Washington crossing the Delaware. At the bottom is seen (upside down), Lady Liberty in the French Revolution. At the end of almost every chapter, Guinness repeats the words: “America cannot permanently endure half 1776 and half 1789.”

This recurring message, the history lessons in the book, the warnings of our forefathers, are all useful reminders of the need for vigilance and reawakening.

But alongside this theme is the workings of Sacks’s ideas. So, the dust jacket also includes the image of Moses with the Ten Commandments off to the side. The calling attention to Sacks’s ideas and books is useful. I was not aware of him or his writings. But the clutter I mentioned earlier comes from Guinness hopping from a discussion of the Exodus Revolution to the American or French events and/or to current events.

Maybe he should have written a shorter book in praise of and commenting on Rabbi Sacks. Whether another shorter book on the American and French historical experiences should have been written is another story. If Guinness had written both, I would have been interested.

We are used to older people talking on and on. In many cases, when the older person is wise and learned, he or she is worth listening to even if there are repetitions or ramblings. I have heard and read the thoughts of people who may have passed their high bars of succinctness.

I reckon I can imply that Os Guinness is old, because I am old and he is older. But old Guinness, like wine, not the beer his family created, ages well.

This is a needed book. It is worth the few confusing portions to read. It is yet another call for our day and time.

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George Washington–Political Achiever

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George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father by David O. Stewart is published by Dutton Books. Click HERE to learn more about the author and the book.

Of the buying and reading of books about George Washington, there is no end. I have at least a couple of shelves that are devoted solely to the man. Add to that all of the books about the War for Independence, the Constitution, the early years of the Republic, and the Presidency, and I am guessing that the numbers go up in the hundreds.

But I was immediately attracted to David Stewart’s biographical study of Washington due to its subtitle. I have typically thought of Washington as primarily a soldier and farmer who, nevertheless, proved to be a successful politician. The history of military men who reached the Presidency is an interesting story in itself. Washington, Jackson, Eisenhower, and some of the post Civil War President Generals were successful at transitioning their military skills and experiences into political leadership. Theodore Roosevelt was a politician who took advantage of the Spanish-American War to upgrade his resume and fulfill some of his bucket-list agenda. William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor were both in office for too short periods to be ranked. Grant is usually the poster boy for the great general who makes a lousy political leader. (Maybe Ron Chernow’s biography has offset that.)

As it turns out, Washington was not a Johnny-come-lately when he took the oath of office to be President. He spent quite a few years in Virginia serving in the legislative branch. He was active both in trying to win elections and in trying to affect and influence legislation. He was not, in other words, purely a Virginia farmer who got called away to military service.

At the same time as Washington was doing political service, he was actively looking for and finding opportunities to serve in the various frontier campaigns under the British army. One has to realize that young Washington would never have been dreaming of being President or of leading an army that was opposing the British.

He was, in contrast, honing his skills in battle, military leadership, and the politics of military leadership. And, as this book strongly emphasizes, Washington’s political and military skills needed honing. He made more than a few blunders, and he was (surprise! surprise!) prone to equivocate, minimize, and reinterpret failures and blunders. He worked to get on the good side of those who were in charge. That sounds a bit self-serving for the Father of Our Country, but it is a necessary skill for people who are climbing the ladder of success.

And, Washington was a grand and capable actor, which was best demonstrated when he donned his old military uniform at the meeting of the Continental Congress gathering that chose him for leading the Continental Army.

Washington, as Stewart points out, won four key elections in his life unanimously. An occasional three point basketball shot may be lucky, but four in a row says much more about the player than luck. Washington was unanimously chosen to lead the Continental army. Some years later, he was the unanimous choice to preside over the Constitutional Convention. Then he set an unbroken record for being unanimously chosen by the electoral college twice as President. (It is interesting to speculate what might have occurred if Washington had sought a third term, for his fan base had declined and criticisms had increased.)

Some of Washington’s greatest political triumphs occurred not in the legislative assemblies where he had been a member and not in the Presidency. They occurred during his time as a military commander. Six years in the field with an always under-supplied and under-manned army did not yield Washington many great victories. Indeed, it can be argued that his success was usually found in avoiding annihilation of his army and the Patriot cause. Then there was a great victory–Saratoga–but it was not Washington’s leadership there.

Horatio Gates receives the honors for that victory, even though it can be better attributed to a then honorable Benedict Arnold. A simple proposition followed that great victory: If Washington can’t win a battle, but Gates wins not only a battle, but captures a whole army, then….

There are plenty of details in the military battles and army movements that Washington experienced that allow armchair strategists today and observers at the time to question the man and his methods. And ambition was a driving force in many a heart of the soldiers in that war. Intrigues and cabals between men in uniform and men in the halls of government not only questioned Washington’s leadership, but took stealthy steps toward removing him.

Washington survived and trumped his opponents on the American side with a skill that may have been often lacking when confronting his British military opponents. He had to cajole and plead and maneuver his way through the political labyrinth to both keep his position and procure goods.

Valley Forge was not just a miserably cold place where his army struggled to survive. It was also where he was able to keep his political enemies unbalanced and hold on to his power.

Washington’s presidency witnessed many more political battles lost and won. Washington learned, to his disgust, that going down to Congress to talk out a plan was not productive. He learned well how to work with congressional leaders from his distant perch. It is interesting that James Madison, quirky mercurial Little Jemmy, was a key Washington ally for many years.

Perhaps his greatest triumph and one that has rarely been equaled and never exceeded was his balancing act of having both Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton in his cabinet. They were, perhaps, the two most brilliant political thinkers of their time (and most times since then), but they were diametrically opposed to one another in terms of political philosophies. People still identify themselves as Jeffersonians or Hamiltonians. (Jefferson awaits his revival of interest based on a musical.)

Another fact about Washington’s presidency is his health. The demands of the office, what we would call stressors today, were many. Washington, although far younger than our last two Presidents, was often suffering from a variety of health problems. The years in the fields of battle and other factors made him an old and sick man. But he persevered. No doubt, he looked forward to the end of his first term when he could go home to Mount Vernon. But he basically got roped in and “guilted” into serving an additional term.

Eight years were enough. In his short time as an ex-President, he did face one time when it looked as though he might have to wear a military uniform again. John Adams, Washington’s lack luster successor, did achieve one thing–he kept the US out of war with France. That kept Washington from being coerced into leading an army.

I could name a dozen or more great and delightful books on Washington the man, the general, and the President. But one would do well to either start with this fine work or, like me, supplement his or her knowledge of Washington by reading it.

This is a fine, readable, and informative study of a great leader during perilous times. It is also a reminder that our own times resemble a softball game with out of shape amateurs manning the pitching mound and the bases.

The Path of the Martyrs: Charles Martel and the Battle of Tours

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The Path of the Martyrs: Charles Martel, the Battle of Tours, and the Birth of Empire by Ed West is published by Sharpe Books. Ed West’s books and ideas can be found on his website: Ed West — Journalist and author . Among other attributes of this are its brevity (100 pages) and very cheap price (5.99).

I hate when I hear people “compliment” a history teacher or author when they say, “He/she makes history interesting.” This always sounds like history is a painful subject, forced on poor captive students, and desperately in need of of a makeover, a recasting, or a transformation from what it is to what it needs to be.

Granted, there are plenty of poor history teachers and rare is the history textbook that becomes the page-turner keeping students up too late at night. But bad teachers and poorly written texts are not confined to history. And students are not uniformly a group of neutral tabula rasas awaiting anxiously to be absorbing knowledge. Students, in many cases, are bored with almost everything. The “teach me by entertaining me” mindset is a different story.

Also, there are analytical, in-depth, highly scholarly accounts of history that are simply above the average reader. And they are above even the above average reader who is not a specialist in a particular area. Authors, particularly scholarly ones, assume a certain knowledge from their expected reading audience. If she is writing for non-historians who want to read a juicy biography, she writes a certain type of book. But if she is written to refute the claims of three other historians in their technical and critical biographies, she is assuming that the reader already has lots of knowledge of the subject. That is to be expected. All subjects can be examined at the more shallowed, wadable ends of the pool or be dived into on the deep end.

All of that is to say, Ed West’s little book doesn’t make history interesting. Instead, he does a fine job of tell a story that is already intrinsically and inescapably interesting, fun, and compelling. If you want to fit the book into a bigger picture, a meta-narrative, you can for it deals with an event that can be called “the Birth of Europe.”

Those serious, somber, scholarly types who prefer a more analytical and in-depth look at the rise of Europe would do well to read Stephen Davies’ book The Wealth Explosion: The Nature and Origins of Modernity, which I reviewed in a previous post.

The Wealth Explosion: The Nature and Origins of Modernity

Births are not easy, painless events. I say that as a personal witness to four of them. The metaphor of a birth is not an apt way to describe anything easy either. The fate of the world was hinging on two major worldviews, world orders, and philosophy/religions. The prevailing power of the age in which this book is set was the Muslim religion. While much of history bemoans (rightly so) European efforts during the Crusades to defeat Muslims (and Jews) in the Holy Land, that was just one chapter in a long history of struggles between the Christian West and the Muslim East. (And I know that both of those labels are inadequate.)

Islamic forces had long since captured what we call the Middle East. North Africa was also under their sway, and Spain had been taken by them as well. Europe, in contrast, was a hodgepodge of smaller, less powerful, but emerging nation-states. Judging from the look of the times, one would have speculated that Islam would become the ruling ideology and political force of the following ages. Europe would have been a weak holdout at best or a number of vassal states under Islamic domination.

But Charles Martel and the forces aligned with him changed all of that. France had been under the “rule” of wimpy, inadequate kings, but the real powers were exercised behind the throne by the Mayors of the Palace. As Muslim forces advanced by conquest and raids into the Frankish Kingdom, Charles Martel led the resistance.

The climatic battle, the one often regarded as a turning point in world or at least European history, took place somewhere in west-central France. Outnumbered by the Muslim forces, Charles’ heavy massed infantry not only held the battlefield but administered a sound defeat to the Muslim armies.

With the never ending debates and revisions and rewriting of history, some more recent historians have questioned the centrality of the Battle of Tours. Carry on with such explorations, but many of us profit from the less detailed historical records with the more catchy bullet points as markers. So, we can be allowed to persist in calling this victory of European Christendom over Islamic expansion as the “Birth of Europe.”

The events in this book are usually covered rather matter of factly in a paragraph or two in the textbooks. And I don’t mean to completely dismiss the role of such learning tools. But the richer story, which West tells, is one that the history teacher needs to learn and learn to tell. Or, since the book is short and inexpensive, it could be assigned to a class. The historical events are the background to a grand piece of literature called The Song of Roland, ably translated by Dorothy Sayers, so anyone teaching that poem should read this account.

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For me, I was looking for a short book to read in between two rather lengthy ones. So, I picked this book up, little knowing that it would be a really enjoyable read.

I feel compelled to add that for the more serious reader, Ed West has the habit of inserting a few bits of humor along with way. I confess to having the same tendency. Plus–horror of horrors–he has based the book on a number of other books, all of which are secondary sources. I confess to having the same tendency. And finally, he includes a bibliography that only lists the names of the authors and titles of their books. How can we read a book that sites a secondary source and then doesn’t tell us that it was published in London in 1984? Actually, I didn’t have any problem with that, and in typical Ben House-fashion, I found several titles that I wish I had.

To repeat, Ed West failed to make history interesting. Instead, he aptly told a story that is more than merely interesting, but is rather fantastic. I think we might say it has had an impact on our lives as well.

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The History Spectrum

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“I am a history teacher,” I usually tell people when they ask. And they, most often those who are professionals (and in recent weeks usually doctors), respond with telling me how they enjoy watching the history channel. Occasionally, one will mention a book that he read or intends to read that is about history.

It is a bit disconcerting. I would never think to answer the doctor by telling him that I watched “House” on television in such a way as to imply that I am as grounded in his profession as he is in mine. Maybe it is all part of the liberal arts inferiority complex that some of us have to deal with. We know what useful things doctors, dentists, chemists, lawyers, and accountants do. But people who talk of history , literature, and the arts can seem to be a bit of societal fluff.

At the same time, we who teach history and other academic subjects should not be so smug and elitist as to think that the non-academic cannot benefit from and enjoy the same kinds of things that we label as work. And maybe there is truth to what I have often said (possibly in jest) which is that I became a history teacher because I didn’t want to have to work for a living.

Most non-professional history fans, enthusiasts, and buffs enjoy a particular kind of history book. Or they consume hours of endless World War II documentaries on cable television. The Bill O’Reilly “Killing” series, which I am skeptical of, is said to be one of the best selling history series ever. And plenty of other news celebrities write books on history. I myself recently read Bret Baier’s Three Days in Moscow: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of the Soviet Empire. I picked up another of his “Three Days” histories shortly after that.

Dr. Michael Douma, who is both one of the most serious academic historians and least serious Facebook friends, wrote a fine article describing “Dad History.” This has reference to the often best selling histories and biographies that many men (and probably women as well) enjoy reading and read simply for enjoyment. (Men are often skeptical of fiction.)

One of my recent readings was Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin. What a story of adventures! And it is history! I have read few books as fun, terrifying, and gripping as this story. The idea of Boone being a legend, a near mythic character, and a proto-type o western heroes is all true and laid out in this book.

The range of historical studies goes far beyond those books that show up in our local book franchises or that get best seller status. The more serious “tools of the trade” will almost never be seen at a Books-A-Million or Barnes & Noble. Thanks to on-line venues, they are much more easily found.

I recently read a book and have been reading a book that illustrate some of the spectrum of what historians and history students (I am one of the latter) read. If there is a depth and seriousness to our calling, it must be cultivated in the types of books I am going to mention below.

Fort Laramie and the Pageant of the West, 1834-1890 by LeRoy R. Hafen and Francis Marion Young came out in 1938 and is being kept in print by the University of Nebraska Press.

This book deals with a narrow portion of a relatively short period of time in a subsection of American history. The story is part of the Western Movement, particularly that part concerning events and places beyond the Mississippi River. Keep in mind that all of American history up to 1890 was the Western Movement.

Located in the eastern part of Wyoming, Fort Laramie is still a national historical sight. It was one of the pivotal locations in the processes where trappers and traders, farmers and soldiers, Indians and agents, and missionaries and Mormons passed through in route to new lands and hopes for wealth or struggles for survival.

This book is clearly not the work of a modern historian. He or she would have sifted through the material, woven a unified narrative, analyzed the data in comparison to other events, set the story in the greater historical context, and produced an academically satisfying work.

Instead, the authors of this work did lots of archiving and compiling. The book has lots of details that include the numbers of wagons, the names of both obscure and famous travelers, the food items and supplies delivered or consumed, and more. But the narrative story, the adventure we might say, still emerges in the midst of the details.

What is refreshing is that the bulk of the information is not pasteurized, sanitized, or analyzed for the reader. Horrible events (perpetrated both by whites and Indians) are told. Attitudes are reflected. Historical figures are named. But judgments are left out. There is no attempt here to expand upon or refute the Turner Thesis or to condemn what would now be unacceptable.

Lots and lots of facts, anecdotes, trivia, and minor details fill the book. But it is not just a sourcebook for factual content. It is a story and that story is easily seen as being pivotal to the western movement, the growth of the nation, the plight of the Indians, and the changing roles of the government as the nation settled the areas beyond the MIssissippi.

And it is a fun book. Consider this snippet:
“Sir George Gore’s favorite author was Shakespeare, which Jim Bridger ‘reckin’d was too highfalutin’ for him; moreover,  he remarked,  ‘thet he rather calcerlated that that big Dutchman,  Mr. Full-stuff (Falstaff), was a leetle too fond of lager beer, ‘ and thought it would have been better for the old man if he had ‘stuck to bourbon whiskey straight. ‘”

Those who settled the West were, in the best senses of the word, characters.

Thanks to Steven Carr, a serious student and teacher of American history, for both calling my attention to this book and for putting one into my possession.

Far different and far more difficult on the history spectrum is The Wealth Explosion :The Nature and Origins of Modernity by Stephen Davies. This work is published by Edward Everett Root Publishers in London.

This book was proved to me by the aforementioned Michael Douma. I was invited to read it and then join in a discussion with some real scholars who also read the book. (Alas! My most recent hospital venture prevented me from finishing the book and messed up my efforts to join in on the discussion via Zoom.)

This is the type of book that one might pull from the nightstand, start, get sleepy, put away, and never pick up again. Despite the use of the word “explosion” in the title, this book is not one for those who enjoy the rough and tumble, the wars and tribulations, and the trials and tribulations of history.

But, after hearing parts of the group discussion and after my own–as yet incomplete–reading from the book, I recognize that it is an important work. Whereas Fort Laramie focused on a narrow part of American history, this book is examining an incredibly wide swath of world history, particularly from the 1700s on.

I often contrast narrative histories with analytical histories. This one is analytical. It not only gets under the hood, but it dismantles the engine to examine how the parts work.

This is a book that makes me want to study it and hear lecture discussions on it piece by piece. One reading is not enough. This is historical calculus, not historical multiplication tables. Get the point?

Would non-historians want to read the book? No, not for fun, but I can see the advantages for academic or scholarly people working through it. But this is mainly for the historians.

Granted, when I teach, I prefer to build the case for Modernity and wealth on a few preferred foundations. Following the work of Christopher Dawson from the past and Rodney Stark from the present, I would structure the modern world in the positive sense on the influence of Christian thought. And I would throw in enough of Adam Smith, the American Founding Fathers, Edmund Burke, and or Northern Europeans to solidify my biases.

I don’t think I am all wrong, but my explanations would suffer from not being broad and deep enough. Davies’ book takes me past my stream and forces me to go both up river and down river to see how much I am missing.

Stephen Davies seems to have historical superpowers. He analyzes and describes events in Asia, Europe, and America, past and present, with broad sweeping generalizations and specific details. This is a world history text, but one that supplements the books that give us the maps and timelines.

This is the book that I need to read several times. And if the book itself is not daunting enough, at the end of each chapter, Davies includes a section for further reading that is incredibly wide-ranging and comprehensive.

Fine books described above. Very different. Very representative of what we history folks really have to contend with. We only make it look easy and fun for your benefit.

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Benjamin Myers: A Poetics of Orthodoxy and Black Sunday

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Poetry. Where does it fit in your life? You may hear or read lines quoted in various places. I recently came across a wonderful poem titled “No Enemy” by Charles McKay. It was quoted on the Netflix series “The Crown” by Margaret Thatcher, and it is true that Ms. Thatcher loved that poem.

I come across other poems in reading. Scott Christensen quotes a poem titled “This is the True God” in his book What About Evil? (A very moving poem in a great book). That poem was used by contemporary Christian music artist Phil Keaggy and it is titled “Maker of the Universe.”

I took a graduate level English class a year or so ago that was called “Poetry and Literary Criticism.” But my main motivation was the need for 3 additional graduate hours in English (so as to be able to teach English at a college level–which hasn’t happened). I did enjoy reading previously unfamiliar poetry and in understanding some of the theories of literary criticism (many of which are insane).

Even in teaching, poetry has its challenges. How do you teach the poem without making it into a pedantic labor that guarantees that neither student nor teacher will like it? Sometimes, we read the poems and we all weigh in as to whether we like the poems or not, as though we were sampling sweets in a candy shop.

Then where do we fit in the person who writes poetry? It seems lame to be standing in a crowd of guys where one speaks of having overhauled his truck engine, another tells of having hunted and killed an elk in Colorado, the next one updates us on his remodeling of the living room of his house, while yet another tells of his deadlifting over 300 pounds at the gym, meanwhile, you are wondering if you should mention your failure to get the rhymes and syllables just right in a sonnet that you labored over all afternoon.

Poetry often survives because of the captive classrooms. Like with many academic subjects, there is always the student who “smartly” questions where he will ever use what he is being subjected to in the classroom. The teacher takes consolation in the small cadre of students who like the poetry. That creates the danger, however, of that particular type of student (like me) who assumes that because T. S. Eliot wrote poems without rhyme that he can do the same.

Let’s face it: America, Western Civilization, and the world are in trouble. Be it the liberal viewpoint or the conservative viewpoint, no one is echoing Robert Browning’s lines “All’s right with the world.” Few people read poetry. Few know contemporary American poets. And who memorizes poems?

And yet, I was in the hospital for 23 days during May and early June. Being in ICU and a hospital bed, I was struggling to rest and sleep. One night, John Masefield came to mind. I remembered his book of poems that I found in a bargain store for a buck or less. And there was that line from his most frequently anthologized poem, “I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky….” (from the poem “Sea Fever”).

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My longing for home, my bed, my life was comforted by those words. It may only be Fahrenheit 451 type fragments of poetry that I know, but they come to my mind. They remind me, fortify me, redirect me, and often just bring a bit of pleasure. Perhaps poems need to be labeled for ingredients: Comfort, humor, meditation, courage, sadness, memory, etc.

I have recently become acquainted with Benjamin Myers. He and I share an affinity for “the Great Books” and teaching the classics. He does such work at Oklahoma Baptist University, just as I was doing such work at a different level at Veritas Academy. I reckon that if he and I were bound to ride together across west Texas. we would suffer no shortage of books, novels, authors, and poetry to discuss. We would probably both prefer to meet and talk over a few cups of coffee or other refreshments.

Benjamin is also a published poet. He was the poet laureate of Oklahoma and has written several volumes of poetry. This past year, I read his latest volume, which is titled Black Sunday: Dust Bowl Sonnets. This book is published by Lamar University Literary Press.

This is a really fine collection that would make sense to the person who is not at home with poetic works. I am assuming that such a person would be aware of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. In other words, those who know a bit of history or literature would recognize what is going on.

Myers writes a series of sonnets here that reflect the experiences of different individuals during those terrible times. The book also includes some grim pictures showing the heavy piles of dust covering everything. Unlike Steinbeck’s Joad family, these people are stuck in Oklahoma. The miseries pile up with each layer of sand. The farmer, the wife and mother, the preacher, and others are all struggling with the sandy, dry, life-killing Hell. Even the few experiences of having sand or grit in my mouth are unpleasant. Even the seasonal pollen that coats our out-of-doors is a mild plague. Imagining the waves of dust is basically unimagineable.

Myers’ people are a bit like those of Edgar Lee Masters in his famous Spoon River Anthology. The difference is that Myers doesn’t include a wide range of character, and each one speaks through several of the poems.

Okay, here is an interpretation of history and a bit of collateral reading to supplement the Steinbeck novel. Why read the book? This past year (2020) America went through all manner of upheavals primarily springing from the Covid pandemic. Granted many bad things happened. But people often talked about this as though this was the ultimate disaster and crisis of all American and even World history.

Along with that, we suffer. And if we are not suffering, we are prone to not have the empathy needed to help those who are in misery. These poems take us to the inside of such suffering and hardships. Dr. Louise Cowan used to emphasize how literature teaches us of mortality (even as she seemed for a season to defy it while continuing to lecture while in her 90s).

Such poetry, whether Myers’, Masters’, or Masefield’s, provides us with emotional knowledge. We too often put knowledge and reason in one box and emotional responses in another. But human feeling is knowledge of the human condition.

To follow up on this, I will soon discuss Myers’ latest book A Poetics of Orthodoxy: Christian Truth as Aesthetic Foundation. This book is a fine way to deepen our understanding of the hows and whys of poetry.

Save yourself some time by ordering and reading both books.