James Matthew Wilson’s Some Permanent Things, and Other Poets and Poetry

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Poetry is difficult to teach.   Sure, I can assign the poems to be read, or we can read them in class.  I can generate a few questions about the poem in terms of author, subject, and particular details.  But poetry is not easily subjected to a factual set of accomplishments; meaning, I cannot say that I understand T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” because I have learned who he was, when he wrote it, and what images it contains.  Poetry has to be felt to a large degree, but this too leads to problems.  Often, when we read a poem in class, the students respond with “I liked it” or indications that they didn’t like it.  As a teacher, I feel like I am dishing out samples of ice cream flavors at Baskin and Robbins.

The emotional impact of a poem is not something that races straight to the heart, bypassing the brain or reason.  In fact, I may not at all like the emotional punch that a poem delivers, but still recognize the power of the poem.  “Don’t Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas disturbs me, but it is a great poem.  I think that it is odd that we recognize the depth of some types of mathematics and hard sciences, but poetry still gets kicked back into the realm of rhyming words that really serve no purpose.

To admit the next problem is difficult:  In spite of having shelves of poetry collections, both anthologies and works by individual authors, I am prone to not read poetry.  For the thousandth time, I am seeking to correct this vice, and vice it is for me.  My tendency is to start a book with the goal of reading it from beginning to end.  I am not a speed reader, but I do want to cover the ground in a reasonably short time.  Poetry reading throws all my normal reading patterns off.

Many years ago, I asked my students if they had read the homework assignment, which was to read some poems.  A rather good student (who is now a lawyer) said that he scanned over the poems.  Technically, scanning a poem is a technique that involves a very close and careful reading.  What he meant was that he glanced at the poems and speed-read through–to get the main idea.  Imagine applying that to Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony.”  Instead of listening for a half hour or so, a person just hears a few notes here and there.

Yet another problem with poetry is the tricky word “interpretation.”  I hear it from students:  “I don’t know how to interpret poetry.”  Once when we were reading The Iliad, a student made this as an objection. And remember that The Iliad and The Odyssey are both poems.  This is really nonsense.  When Homer says that Achilles thrusts a spear through some hapless Trojan, there is not extraordinary or hidden or veiled or metaphorical meaning.  Often we think of poetry as though it consists of riddles.  We read over a poem numerous times with puzzlement, and then the light comes on!  “Oh, it’s talking about a hippopotamus!”

Granted, poems contain the veiled, mysterious, metaphorical, and obscure, but the goal is not figuring out the riddle.  There are so many wrong ways to read poetry.  I confess that I am still struggling to read poetry better.  Some of my struggles, which have been more successful, are highlighted in the brief reviews to follow.

 

I read Some Permanent Things by James Matthew Wilson last spring and read it all wrong.  I thought the poems to be fine, but had run through them far too hastily.  Let’s just call that misadventure a pre-reading.

I then began–in late May–to read through his poems again.  This time I read slowly.  I kept my cell phone handy so I could look up words that were a bit off my vocabulary chart (and there were several) and places that I was unfamiliar with and people, usually other poets, that he referenced.  The richness of his poems opened quite a bit more.  Being that it is a book of poety, I can say that I have read it–twice–but I cannot say that I am through with it.

A big part of my appreciation for this book is knowing that the author is a Christian.  But these are not simple ditties designed to affirm our faith.  Such things are nice, I’m sure, but trite commonplaces are not what the Christian who wants to really read poetry wants to experience.  The faith undergirds the poems.  Wilson’s word-experiences contain troublesome thoughts, even unchaste thoughts, memories, questions, and various angles on a host of life experiences.  That resembles my own life, rather than a series of faith-platitudes.  Again, I am not criticizing encouraging words from believers, but I don’t want my mechanic or dentist to simply exhort me to look to God, and neither should my poet.

Lest I make Wilson’s poetry sound like a “Where’s Waldo” kind of works where the Christian message is hidden in there somewhere, I will share this verse:

“For, while You shroud Yourself in speaking darkness or withdraw,
The world You fashioned coruscates with stars that overawe,
And the abyss in which You set them terrifies my soul.
From those abyssal depths, I cry to You, My God, my goal.
From “De Profundis”

Part of the bigger challenge of poetry is the battle between poetry with rhyme and meter and that which is often called Free Verse.  In the world of poetry today, anything goes in all too many cases.  In spite of Robert Frost’s complaint that writing free verse was like playing tennis without the net,  most of the moderns play poetry without the net.

Wilson describes his labors to work within the parameters of the older forms where rhyme and meter counted.  This book, Some Permanent Things, is a second edition.  I will add that it is published by Wiseblood Books.

It is really far more than a reprinting of the first book, for Wilson says, “This second edition of Some Permanent Things contains all the poems of the first, but each of them has been rewritten to come closer to that ease and fluency that belongs to the classics of our prosody.”  That sentence alone reveals so much about the man and his craft that it alone sold me on the book.

 

On to a couple of other books:

I am nearly finished with reading The Old Life: New Poems by Donald Hall.  I learned of Hall’s death some months back from Remy Wilkins, a most literary friend of mine.  My first thought was that I had never heard of Hall, but then discovered that I owned one of his books, Their Ancient Glittering Eyes:  Remembering Poets and More Poets.  Hall was acquainted with, even more than that, friends with many of the great poets of the twentieth century.  Men like Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and others were among his peers and mentors.

Having learned who he was, I was then delighted when I found The Old Life in a used book quarry for a couple of bucks.  I have been reading it over the past week or two.  Let’s just say that his poems in this collection are strongly autobiographical in a narrative style.  At times, I ask myself what makes his poems poetry?  I ask that quietly, by the way, so as to not look foolish.  There is much that is sad, delightful, whimsical, and homey (home-like) in this work.  Yup, I reckon I will need to read it again after I finish.  And I need to read som more of his books.

The beautiful book in the collection is Collected Sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay.  I love the beauty and design of that old hardback volume, which was another bargain find.  But I do have a bit of concern when poetry is dressed in such finery, lest we think that such poetry is just pretty words for pretty people on pretty occasions.

And I love Edna St. Vincent Millay.  I cannot say her name without feeling like it is poetry.  Why she is not as popular as Robert Frost is a mystery to me.  She was a modern, but her style was very much rooted in the traditions of the past.  I may never read this book from cover to cover, but may, instead, open it to a sonnet or there and read randomly.  Such is the nature of poetry.  And life.

 

 

The Resistance by Douglas Bond

The Normandy landings, D-Day, June 6, 1944, of which we are now remembering 75 years later, did not begin on that date.  Long before General Eisenhower gave the nod, amidst the dour weather reports, to proceed, actions had been taken to help make that landing a success and a stepping stone toward the defeat of the Third Reich.

Besides the immense amount of work that was going on in planning and training sessions on both sides of the Atlantic, there was a massive air campaign that was designed to impair and cripple Hitler’s war machine.  People still debate how effective the air offensive was and question the ethics of some of the bombing targets, but that debate is much easier to conduct long after the war has ended.  Certainly, lots of German men and materials were concentrated on battling air raids, and that kept those same men and weapons far from either the eastern or western fronts.

Resistance movements were at work all across occupied Europe.  Whether they were sending inside information about troop movements or sabotaging their oppressors, they were able to chip away at the enemy.

World War II, even if just restricted to the European theater, is simply too big, vast, and overwhelming a subject to grasp.  We are endlessly fascinated by it.  The remaining veterans are now few in number and feeble.  The world conflicts have moved on to new and other ugly threats.  But we still find so much that is full of wonder, amazement, horror, and conviction when looking at the Second World War.

I could easily recommend dozens of books, authors, movies, and documentaries that fill in gaps on the story.  I have been reading about the war since 1970, not realizing at that time that it was so very recent.

In this case, I will focus on just one book as a way of exploring the war.  This might be especially helpful for those of you who are teaching your children at home, teaching in a classroom, or just looking for a good read that is informative, enjoyable, and uplifting.

The Resistance by Douglas Bond is published by Inkblots Press.  Mr. Bond’s website is www.BondBooks.net.

Douglas and I became friends via social media last fall after my class read Hostage Lands, which is an historical novel about a Roman soldier and a Celt warrior who get acquainted in the region around Hadrian’s Wall in England.  We all loved the story, and I felt that making contact with Douglas was long overdue.

Douglas Bond has created a whole shelf of historical novels, along with some biographies and Christian music.  He is a Christian writing machine.  What G. A. Henty did in the past (without following a set formula like Henty) and what Bernard Cornwell is doing in the present for adult audiences (without Cornwell’s brutish realism), Douglas Bond is doing for young readers in our time.  But remember the necessary guideline for writing good books for younger readers:  The book has to be enjoyable for older readers as well.  If the parent reading the book sees that it is garbage, the child on the knee who is listening doesn’t need to be subjected to it.

That discussion of books for young people aside now, let’s look at The Resistance.

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This book is something of a sequel to War in the Wasteland, which is Bond’s book about World War I.  I say “something of a sequel” because they are not about the same characters with the same developing plot lines.  But War in the Wasteland deals with an individual soldier and his comrades in the First War, while The Resistance focuses on several individuals in the Second War.  Besides the war themes, the other common denominator is C. S. Lewis.  Lewis the soldier was in the first book, but during World War II, he was on the radio–by request from the BBC–giving lectures on a surprising topic–the Christian faith.

In some ways, discussing Christianity in the 1940s in Europe was akin to discussing alchemy as serious science.  But Lewis did exactly that; meaning, that he made the case for Christianity, not alchemy.  The radio talks became a short book called The Case for Christianity (and I have a copy of it!) and then became part of a larger book called Mere Christianity.

Lewis’s radio talks are the recurring background story in this novel.  The main story is about a B-17 crew that is shot down over France.  Only two crew members survive, and they are picked up by the French Resistance.  From there, there are search and chases and narrow escapes, bloody wounds, ambushes, concealments in strange places, internal conflicts, and—a developing love story.  The two main characters, Eli Evans the pilot and Charlie Tucker the navigator, share a number of harrowing experiences and confrontations with good and evil.  Tucker is a good ole southern boy, deeply rooted in the faith.  Evans has learned to pray during the war out of the fears and dangers, but is only slowly awakening to who God is.

This book is a good adventure into some real history, real conflicts, and the reality that supersedes even World War II.  I started the book by reading a few short chapters at a time, but soon found that I could not put it down.  Can’t wait until the next Bond book appears.

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Summer Morning Readings

Summer mornings are grand.  I love listening to the waves lapping against the shore, watching the sea gulls swoop over the waters, feeling the salty sea breeze against my face, and seeing sun rise as I drink coffee and read.

Okay, none of that describes my mornings except for the last two.  But beaches are overrated, hot, and humid, and sand gets in your coffee and in between the pages of books.  But I do enjoy the extra time that most summer mornings provide for that most delightful of chores:  Reading review books.

I read from a number of different books during the morning.  I will either try to read a whole chapter or I read try to read at least ten pages.  The pattern varies, but that is basically my mode of operation.  I am not recommending it, but it seems to work for me.

I am reading from a new republication of Tozer’s work by Moody Publishers.  This nice hardback volume consists of three of Tozer’s books:  The Knowledge of the Holy, The Pursuit of God, and God’s Pursuit of Man.  Sometimes, I find books that are all combined in one volume are too bulky, but this book has a good feel to it.

I have read A. W. Tozer off and on for years, and I have encountered quotes from him numerous times.  Of late, while reading The Knowledge of the Holy, the first of the three books in this collection, I realized something.  If you are wanting to work through some serious theological issues, like the doctrine of God, don’t read Tozer.  If you are wanting some comforting devotional reading, don’t read Tozer for that either.

Tozer is theologically challenging and sound in his writing, but he requires the mind to connect to the heart.  He may not be the best beginning person to read to get grounded, but he is solid for reinforcement.  His chapters are quite suited for a short reading time, being that they are ten or fewer pages long.  The prayers at the beginning of each chapter are powerful.  I usually read the prayers twice.

A. W. Tozer: Three Spiritual Classics in One Volume: The Knowledge of the Holy, The Pursuit of God, and God's Pursuit of Man

Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church by James Beitler III is published by InterVarsity Press.  This book is shaping up to be one of my best reads for the year. The classical Christian school movement has been instrumental in reviving the study of rhetoric.  While that emphasis has often been grounded in the teachings of the ancients, such as Aristotle, (pseudo) Cicero, and Quintillian, this book focused on some recent and Christian writers and thinkers.

The five people whose rhetorical skills are touted in this book are C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu, and Marilynne Robinson.  Each chapter (lengthy ones at that) explores the dimensions of a particular author’s use of rhetorical conventions.  I am less than halfway through this book and am totally swept away by what I have learned from it.

Seasoned Speech

Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (Second Edition) by David Koyzis is also published by IVP.

I have been friends (through various media channels) with David Koyzis for many years.  He is a top scholar, dedicated Christian, and a Dooyeweerdian thinker who is readable.  I have read from and used the earlier edition of this book, but am making myself read through the entire second edition.  This is the high diving board of Christian political thought.

I have been long convinced that most Christians know and understand little about politics.  I think they/we are gullible, narrow, and prone to use a few catch-phrases and political words in ways that far exceed good sense.  I often credit the book Master of the Senate by Robert Caro as a political eye-opener for me.  This book is filling the gaps in my understanding.  We are not talking about caulking up a few holes in my thinking, but rather filling in a vast chasm of unclear thinking.

Are you ready for this book?  If you talk in any public forum about politics, you better read it (twice or three times) before you say much.

Political Visions & Illusions

The Love of Wisdom: A Christian Introduction to Philosophy by Steve B. Cowan and James S. Spiegel is published by B & H Academic.

I learned about this book when I sat in on a philosophy class at John Brown University last fall.  This was the textbook for that class.  I have read through several books that are meant as introductions to philosophy, but most of them focus on the history of philosophy and a discussion of ideas of the main thinkers from Socrates to Derrida.

This book analyzes the different ways that philosophy deals with topics.  Like the book above, this is not the wading pool.  I am trudging slowly through this book and am thankful that I am not being tested over the contents. I would love to sit in on a class where this book is being taught.  This is a solid and challenging work.

Reason and Worldviews:  Warfield, Kuyper, Van Til, and Plantiga on the Clarity of General Revelation and Function of Apologetics by Owen Anderson is published by Rowman and Littlefield.

This rather short book with a rather long subtitle is still awaiting my official kick off in getting it read.  But I have picked it up and time or two to see what it is in store for me.  A few years ago, I gave a series of lectures on “Calvinist Worldview Thinkers in the Wilderness Years.”  I was pretty proud of my accomplishments in studying the Dutch and American thinkers who were Calvinists before Calvinism was cool.  But I was only scratching the surface.

This will be a slow read, and I will be lamenting not being in a classroom listening to Dr. Owen lecture on the issues in this book.  He and I recently became acquainted on social media.  Again and again, I am rejoicing in the caliber of men and women God is raising up in our day to take dominion over the various fields of thought.  Owen Anderson’s website can be found HERE.

Reason and Worldviews

Some Permanent Thingby James Matthew Wilson is a collection of poems and is published by Wiseblood Books.

I read the poems in this book last March and April.  But working through a collection of poetry is not just a matter of starting on page 1 and getting to page 156 in the case of this book.  It is in the slower, more meditative rereading that Wilson’s words are breaking in.

Wilson is a Christian, but don’t expect nice little poems about God and the Bible and going to church.  He is not a sentimentalist, even though he says so much so well about faith, family, and loves.  I suspect that he is a name to keep an eye on.  This book is a revised second edition for he saw fit to keep working on and molding his poetry more in line with the poetic tradition.

I make the mistake of not reading enough poetry collections, and worse, I make the mistake of only reading poems once.  These poems are worth the time spent and the time spent again.

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And summer really hasn’t even begun.

Cracks in the Ivory Tower–In the Review Queue

 

I am all in for higher education.  My two oldest children are currently making plans for graduate school.  One is going into philosophy and the other into occupational therapy.  This past spring, I took a graduate course at the local university and loved both the class and the idea of being back in school.  At the same time, I realize that the education business in America is a huge industry, and the cost of education is staggering.  College debt is a real burden on many (including my two children and myself), and sometimes the payoff in the work world is slow in coming through.

Being that there are so many colleges, so many courses, so many professors, and so many ideas, agendas, and philosophies “out there,” it should come as no surprise that the world of higher education is not some mythical paradise.

For years, I have been reading critiques of the American education system.  I went from teaching in a public school to being a founding member, administrator, and teacher in a private classical Christian school.  To call much that I read about education a “critique” is a bit misleading.  Most of what I have read has been downright critical–in the negative sense–of education.  I have also been such a critic.  That being said, I enjoyed my years in public school teaching.  Although far from perfect or far from ideal, the school where I taught was a good school, with many fine colleagues, and a good working environment.  But there were enough problems to force me to make the sacrifice and enter into the less secure, less lucrative, and less sustainable private school world.

As far as my own college education is concerned, I have very little to criticize.  I would do a lot of things differently if I could go back, but I did have good courses and many fine teachers.  I will pat myself on the back for refusing to go for an education degree and for insisting on getting a major in history and a minor in English.

But plucking a few ripe cherries off the tree is not the greater picture of American education.  When I teach about the causes leading up to the Protestant Reformation, I know that there were faithful parish priests who were seeking to pastor their people.  I know that the Bible was being taught.  Chaucer’s parson, in The Canterbury Tales, was a godly man.  The Brethren of the Common Life Schools, begun by Gerhard Groote, was a good source for Christian training.  But there were some major faults running through Christendom.  Both Erasmus and Luther, who became bitter opponents, railed against the worst of abuses.

Likewise, all is not right in the world of academia today.  This is all a preview regarding Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education by Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness.  This new book is published by Oxford University Press, an all time favorite source of mine for books.

As the website notes in a few bullet points about the book:

  • Provides a comprehensive account of why American academia is dysfunctional
  • Offers evidence that most academic marketing is deeply immoral
  • Examines at length what promises universities make and finds overwhelming evidence they fail to deliver

This being an Oxford University Press publication means that this is not just some cranky and quirky book by a couple of malcontents. We who are in the world of education must be our own most severe critics.  Something is rotten in the state of academia.

Stand by for me to update you as I venture over the next couple of weeks into this book.

Liberty in the Things of God by Robert Louis Wilken

Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom by Professor Emeritus Robert Louis Wilken is published by Yale University Press. It is a hardback book affordably list priced at $26.

This book was incredibly pleasing to me in a variety of ways.  It was scholarly without being technical.  It covered a wide range of history going from the time of the Church Fathers through the Reformation.  It was a combination of historical, political, and theological studies.  It affirmed the Christian faith and Christian struggles with conscience issues.  It is the kind of book that makes me say, “This is why I have chosen to make history my life study and to teach it to others.”

Sometimes, we are given the impression that Christianity, the Church, and religious folks in general have been the enemies of freedom, especially freedom of conscience.  If you are wanting to slap Christian really hard in the kisser, history provides plenty of examples of sins, bad rulings, and oppressive actions.  To be fair, history has enough sewer running right down through the middle of human affairs to throw everyone and every cause into it.

But what was the ongoing and developing direction of history?  As this book points out, Christian leaders repeatedly came back to recognizing that the conscience of a person, his or her inner convictions, cannot be commanded, controlled, or coerced by Church or State.  And without being overly progressive or unduly optimistic about human nature, the Faith has matured in its convictions and practices regarding religious differences.

In many Christianized societies of the past, serious leaders were completely troubled by the idea of two religions co-existing in the same realm.  The idea that religious beliefs might take on a thousand different shades was beyond their grasp.  In their better moments, it was conceded that those whose convictions differed from the state religion or religion of the realm would need to exercise their faith and liturgy somewhere other than the public square.

It is easy to be condescending to everyone in the past from our modern perspective.  They were narrow minded, but we are broad minded.  We have embraced the virtue of tolerance, but they were intolerant.  Granted, a person today faces no attacks from the ruling or ecclesiastical authorities for his views on the Lord’s Supper.  But we have our own “religious dogmas” that cannot be tampered with.  Thankfully, the diversity within the United States allows some freedom of movement, expression, and action for those of us who go against the accepted (politically correct) views of our time.

Speaking out sexual, economic, racial, political, and even some scientific views can get a person banned from the academy, politics, or even Facebook.  We have our own religious battles in our own society.  That is all the more reason to study books like this one.

A free church in a free state is a golden ideal.  Neither is accomplished without lots of ink and maybe blood.  Neither can achieve permanent status in this world.  But if it is freedom that one desires, it is to the Christian tradition that one should go to find it.  Christians erred many times, but in the ongoing clash of ideas, of working through the theology, the recurring idea has prevailed.  I cannot make your religious, Christian, or moral.  That does not necessarily rule out laws to restrain all human impulses, but it does bring us back to a formula for a society of faith existing alongside societies of differing views.

I have several of Robert Louis Wilken’s books, but this is the first time that I have given one of his volumes a serious and complete reading.  It will not, Lord willing, be the last time.  The mark of a good book is that the reader hurries to get through it, then is sad that it is finished, and then wants to read it again.  That is very true of this book.

 

 

For God and Country by Mike Root

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There is something to be said for the new and aspiring author.  There is something to be said for the person who has gotten his hands dirty doing the Lord’s work in missions.  There is something to be said for the person who has served in the armed forces and now seeks to apply aspects of those experiences to the civilian and Christian world.  There is a lot to be said for the person who doesn’t just want to write a book, but actually does so and gets it published.

Meet Mike Root.  Along with his wife Michelle, Mike founded The Kingdom Advancement Project (KAP) that provides Bibles and other resources to missionaries in Nicaragua, Pakistan, and India.  Mike is also an officer in the United States Air Force and a student on the road from two master’s degrees to current work on a Ph.D.  He is also irritatingly young, athletic, and possessed of an outgoing personality. I got to know him via Facebook a few months back, and I began our friendship by my usual subtle method:  “Send me your book.”  It took a little while for Mike to fulfill my wish/demand because the book was not then published.

For God and Country: A Discussion on Servant Leadership is available through Amazon or Barnes & Noble.  Get to know Mike on Facebook and let him know if you want a signed copy (like mine).

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First, a word about the value of short books.  For God and Country is the second of two short books I have read this month.  (The other is Brian Mattson’s fine new book Cultural Amnesia.)  Short books rebuke those who say they don’t have time to read.  Skip a few shows, put your phone away, and take a few minutes to read.  On a topic like servant leadership, much more could be written.  Mike may very well be working on the four volume, 2800 page, encyclopedic study of the topic.  But we know that we would not read much past page 86 of such a massive work.  Guess what?  For God and Country is 86 pages.

Second, we need short, readable, handy, practical books in the Christian community.  More could be said on any topic, but getting the message across is essential.  All of us who have preached (and listened to preaching) know the dread of a sermon that tries to say too much.  I know that certain Puritans preached for one to two hours.  Great, but (prepare to be shocked) we are not living in Puritan times.

Third, Mike’s book is not a “read through and put it on the shelf” type of book.  As a book reviewer, I am always in a hurry to get the book finished.  But this book needs to be read not by me as book reviewer, but me as a Christian who has often been in a leadership position.  In other words, read the book as fast as you can, but then plan on reading it again or, better, read it with a group that is interested in discussing it.  It would make fine 8 week Sunday school study.

All that being said, much of Mike’s book didn’t deal with my situation in life.  Mike talks about the need to witness to co-workers, how to live and maintain the faith in a secular environment, and how to share the faith as a leader.  I work in a Christian school.  My co-workers are all Christians.  I don’t have to think through ways to bring up the faith when teaching students.  We were reading Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, Hugo’s Les Miserables, and R. C. Sproul’s Everybody’s a Theologian.  I live and work in a Christian environment.

But my experiences–at this time–are different from that of most Christians.  I have not always been in the current setting.  I forget that many people work around folks who are crude, blasphemous, immoral, and hostile to Christianity.  I would add that sometimes in working in Christian communities we assume everyone is spiritually with us when that is not really the case.

So, how do you (in your mingling with the world) share the faith?  We perhaps can all cringe when we think of the person who overdoes it with too many words and efforts or who is “Obnoxious for Jesus.” Some environments and workplaces are more congenial to sharing the faith than others.  And what about those serving in the military?  (This, of course, is one of Mike’s primary concerns as a military man.)

Read this book.  The profits, by the way, go to support KAP (www.theKAP.org).  Take care to notice the leadership style promoted/commanded all through the Bible.  Then re-read and discuss this book.  Be a witness to those around you by how you live and conduct yourself, but don’t fall for the mistaken saying “Preach the Gospel at all times: Use words if necessary.”  We are not people of the Ethic, but followers of Christ.

I remember many years ago listening to Dr. Greg Bahnsen talk about how he and his family came to know Christ.  Dr. Bahnsen’s mother worked for a dentist.  That dentist invited her to church.  No doubt that if he had been a terrible person to work for, she would have run the other way.  But God used that to convert her and her husband, and then they raised their sons, Greg and his brother, in the faith.  (Greg was converted, if I am remembering his story correctly, at a church camp later.)  We are not witnessing so that we can cultivate the next Greg Bahnsen or Billy Graham or Mike Root.  We are telling others about Jesus because of who He is and because of what He has done and is doing for us.

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Going to the Wars by John Verney

John Verney, 1913-1993, was a writer, painter, and illustrator who served in the British Army during World War II.  He wrote Going to the Wars: A Journey in Various Directions about his military experiences.  Some years later, he wrote Dinner of Herbs which covers more of his military adventures in Italy.  Both books have been republished by Paul Dry Books, Inc.

In recent months, I have picked up several books relating to particular individuals who served in World War II.  Along with reading the broader histories covering battles, campaigns, and leaders, it is important to read the accounts about and by the men who served in the wars.  One type of book complements the other.  Without understanding the overall scope of the war, the personal account will sometimes be confusing.  Without seeing the war from the perspective of the man who was there, the real individual cost of war is lost in the numbers.

John Verney’s two books are quite different from most of the books I have read written by actual participants in the war.  Verney was a literary man, as well as an artist with a love for the moderns.  The two books have a literary flair that often creates an atmosphere more like a novel than a memoir.  His experiences were varied and fascinating.

Verney’s actual military service began in the Middle East where he was serving in a mounted unit.  We forget how prevalent was the use of horses in World War II.  Verney was in the region around modern day Israel and Syria, and his unit rode from place to place dealing with either the French or natives of the area.  The main theaters of the war were to the west in North Africa or to the north-west in France and Britain.  In time, Verney’s unit, the North Somerset Yeomanry, entered the “modern war” and he became part of the Royal Armoured Corps.  His main activities came about when he became part of the Special Air Service.

Verney and others were sent on a mission that bears the feel of a war dramatic movie.  They were taken to the island of Sardinia and tasked with blowing up airplanes located on that island which was part of Italy and occupied by both Italian and German forces.  This stealth activity was successful, but the men then faced the task of traveling across the island to reach a rendezvous point where they would be rescued.  Along the way, they encounter a number of peasants, most of whom thought they were Germans, and some Italian forces.  After a few narrow escapes, they were captured and held.  Being good soldiers and men with quite a bit of derring-do, escape was their great hope and mission.

The prisoners in Sardinia were transferred to the Italian mainland.  More of this story is taken up in Verney’s second book, A Dinner of Herbs.  The Italians were, by most World War II standards, more accommodating and considerate of their prisoners than some other countries.  (Meaning, you would not want to be in a POW camp run by Russians, Japanese, or Germans. Americans and British were the most civil of the countries involved.)  At times, Verney was able to actually enjoy aspects of prison life.  He was able to read, work on his art, enjoy good conversations, and survive with a minimum of difficulties.

It was the expectation of being liberated by the Allies that helped make the prisoners’ lives even more bearable.  But that hope was always hindered by two factors.  First, in spite of capturing Sicily rather rapidly in the Mediterranean campaigns, the invasion of the Italian peninsula was a long, slow, costly process.  Rick Atkinson’s The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy 1943-1944 aptly chronicles this part of the war.  Second, the Germans moved quickly to occupy Italy after that country toppled Mussolini and surrendered.  That meant that the prisoners were facing the likelihood of being put under German control and being shipped to Germany.

It was during this time that Verney and two other soldiers escaped.  For a long period, they lived in the mountains and caves of Italy and were cared for by Italian people who risked their own lives and sacrificed their own goods.  All along, the expectation was that the Allies were just days away, but the actual time when Verney was able to get back to his side was much longer.

In Dinner of Herbs, Verney alternates the narrative between a visit that he made back to Italy years after the war and his experiences in the war itself.  He was able to meet the people again who had rescued him.  He was able to climb the mountain and look at the cave he and his friends once lived in.

As I often tell my students, I could not have survived World War II if I had just been assigned the task of feeding old cavalry horses in some obscure military post in North Dakota.  Compared to many, Verney’s experiences were difficult, but not filled with unending horror.  Nevertheless, he was separated for years from his wife and a young child he had never seen.  He and his friends suffered from bitter cold, some bouts of hunger, and constant danger.

Still, he had a certain elan and adventurous spirit about him.  As I said, the books read like a novel.  His friends were amazing and quirky characters.  Being in a prison and later living together in the mountains, they were able to share lots of stories, conversations, and ideas.  One man, Mark Gruffy, was a literature and history scholar, and he was a talker, so he recited and commented upon poetry endlessly.  As is the case in war, some companions never made it back; others were separated by time and events, but the memories remained strong.

I had first wondered why these two short books were published separately.  Together, they would comprise a book of about 400 pages.  Nevertheless, in spite of both being written by the same man about the same time period, the books stand alone quite well.  A Dinner of Herbs could be read without  previously reading Going to the Wars.  Likewise, the first can be read without reading the second.  I think that the reader who loves the military aspects of World War II and the adventures of soldiers who still had a bit of the swashbuckler about them would enjoy the books.  But the reader whose taste is less for the guns and guts of war could also enjoy these books.

The recent movie Tolkien is really a story about male friendship.  That is a concept that is endangered in our times for lots of reasons, but it was a real part of J. R. R. Tolkien’s life leading up to World War I when all of his close friends but one were killed.  John Verney’s books are similar in his recounting the close, the irritating, the good, and the bad types of men he spent lots of time with in the war.  Those of us who have never served are thankful for being spared the difficulties, but the human bonding is something that we have truly missed out on in our lives.

Going to the Wars