Hodge and Dabney–Read Them While You Can

The 1800s in American history was a time of great Presbyterian theologians and preachers.  Most history surveys overlook these men and their messages.  Historians adopt the view of the poet Oliver Wendell Holmes whose poem “The One Hoss Shay” attempted to mock the demise of Jonathan Edwards’ theology.  Quite often Ralph Waldo Emerson is treated as though he were a deeply profound American born and raised philosopher.  His buddy Henry David Thoreau is likewise hailed as one of the bright lights of American history.

The final nails are put into the Presbyterian coffin during the Scopes Trial.  Less often noticed is the battle for Princeton Theological Seminary.  Mark Twain, who was often better than the historians at noticing the things that mattered, took more than a few swipes at Presbyterians.  Take down the massive pillars of American Presbyterian theology and the rest of the edifice of American Protestant Christianity would follow.

I am not, at this moment, out to blame the historians.  No one or no one thousand histories can cover everything.  Of course, the perspective of the historian does determine what to include and what to exclude.  This point still remains:  Anyone serious about understanding American history from a Christian viewpoint must go beyond the best known texts and authors.

In short, Presbyterian theologians were some of the most dominant thinkers of the 19th Century.  That dominance continued on into the 20th Century, but their voices and impact became less and less known.  But just as one would not attempt to understand the Age of Elizabeth I in English history without taking note of the Puritan movement, one should not attempt to understand American history without studying the Presbyterians of the 1800s.

This study and emphasis, however, is not just a topic for intellectual historians who are trying to fill in gaps or connect the pieces of the puzzle.  It is not what the Presbyterians said in the 1800s that concerns me most.  Rather, it is what they are calling us to hear in the 21st Century.

We need the old Presbyterians now more than ever.  Sad to say, after being ignored or glanced over for a long time, they are currently being excommunicated from Presbyterian thought and studies.  Especially disliked are those who not only had the “misfortune” of being born in the South, but who defended the South and the Southern Confederacy on a number of very nuanced and profound ways.

The reading list I would like to give on this topic is long and involved.  There are nearly 30 books that I call attention to in one of my past book reviews that dealt with Columbia Theological Seminary.  That review can be found HERE.

For now, I would like to recommend two books written by two of the great Presbyterian theologians from the 19th century.  I will struggle to avoid both being overly biographical or full of praise for these men.  Just know that these are two of the pillars of American Christian Reformed and Presbyterian orthodox thought in the 1800s.

First, Charles Hodge and Exegetical Lectures and Sermons on Hebrews.  This book is published by Banner of Truth.

The pastor, student, or teacher who needs an all purpose commentary on Hebrews needs to look elsewhere.  The Hodge reader who is familiar with his incredible commentary on Romans should know that this work is not in the same category.  It does contain comments on the text, and it is classic Hodge theology from beginning to end.

The first part of this book is exegetical notes on Hebrews.  Hodge is not giving exhortation or application, but is working through some of the Greek grammar details and other points of exegesis, or drawing out the meaning of the text.  For me, it was yet another reminder of how exacting, careful, and learned the Presbyterian ministers were in Hodge’s day.  For me, it was yet another reminder of how far my own education is from the standards of that time.

Non-Greek New Testament students like me will find this section interesting, but not fulfilling.  Greek students would likely be crying out “More! More!”  As a student and teacher of history, it is more confirmation of the education found at Princeton and the scholarship standards of the time.

The following section gives a number of sermon outlines.  A few if the outlines, but not all, come from another Banner publication called Princeton Sermons.  I believe that preachers and students can learn quite a bit from studying these outlines.  A similar work can be found in the B & H series called The Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon: His Earliest Outlines and Sermons Between 1851 and 1854.  

Reading a sermon outline is a bit of a challenge.  It can be read quickly if one is simply trying to cover pages.  But I think the greater task would be to spend some time thinking on each of the outline points.  I think it would be a great lesson for aspiring preachers to take these outlines and fill in the gaps.  (But give credit to the original writer.)  Side note:  Hodge’s outlines are not bullet points.

The absolute best part of the new Hodge book is the all too few complete sermons from various Hebrew texts.  I remember thinking while reading one of these: “There is no way I could pack this much content into a single sermon.  There is no way I could grasp this much content in a single sermon.”  I am not speaking about merely being full of facts and theological information.  I am referring to the fact that these sermons were rich with content.  As Wesley said in another context, “I felt my heart warmly moved.”

One quote that I posted recently is worth repeating:  “It was the Spirit who made the sound ring in your ears long after the speaker’s voice had ceased, and which brought back the sound in the stillness of the night and repeated in a small, still voice the admonitions of the pulpit.”

The sermons themselves are worth the price of the book.  But the other parts are also helpful in giving both spiritual guidance and a standard to aspire to.  By the way, Banner of Truth has continued to put out or reprint books by Charles Hodge. His commentaries on Romans, Ephesians, and 1 and 2 Corinthians and his book The Way of Life are both available, as is a biography of Hodge by his son A. A. Hodge.

Dabney on Fire: A Theology of Parenting, Education, Feminism, and Government is edited and introduced by my friend Zachary Garris.  This book can be purchased from Amazon.

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The books by Robert Lewis Dabney are many, usually lengthy, and now often highly priced and out of print.  Thankfully, Zach Garris has made a handy, short, readable, and very pertinent collection of Dabney’s writings available in this book.

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One of the many strengths of R. L. Dabney was his ability to see the direction that the culture and world was headed in.  I think this insight, often called prophetic by those who study him, came from his Presbyterian worldview, vast scholarship, and personal experiences in being on the losing side of a major war.  I have heard many literary figures explain Southern literature as being the result of the South losing the War Between the States.

Let us sidestep, for the moment, the issues and controversies related to that war.  Often the greatest examples of human writing and thought come from people who have experienced the greatest hardships.  Arguably, any soldier from World War I could have written All Quiet on the Western Front, but the fact that Erich Maria Remarque was a soldier on the German side increased the power of that novel.

The War Between the States was followed by the period known as Reconstruction.  The standard history book then follows up with a period called “The Gilded Age.”  That catchy phrase refers to the surface appearance of gold on an object that is not gold.  Just as the world after World War I was not “safe for democracy” and the world after World War II was full of tragic courses, so that must be said about post-bellum America in the 1870s and beyond.

Dabney saw some bad consequences of ideas that were gaining the high ground in his time.  Repeatedly, his warnings about education have been mentioned, quoted, and listened to by many, except those in the educational establishment.  American education is in a crisis.  Right now, the crisis is centering around school closures and possible inability to open in the fall.  This is not to demean good teachers, faithful parents, or good effects stemming from the modern education system.  But Dabney was looking beyond just a few symptoms to the greater problems.  For Dabney, the problems stemming from a secular agenda would be astronomical.  Be warned:  He is not going to be nice in these essays.  But carefully consider all of what he says.

Dabney was also concerned about feminism.  It is routine to mock nearly all males from the 1800s regarding their views of women.  Granted, they were not perfect in their understanding of this or other issues.  I am thankful for the changes in culture and society that have granted greater opportunities for women in all areas of life.  I have recently read books by one of the best literary scholars of our time, Jessica Hooten Wilson, who was a student of THE best literary critic of our time, Dr. Louise Cowan.  I have been reading The Great Society by Amity Shlaes, who ranks among the greatest historians of our time in my thinking.

But feminism was in some of its root and is in some of its modern day fruit more than just a case of righting some societal wrongs.  We have found ourselves in a world of gender insanity in these days.  Hence, again there is the need to return to Dabney.

Concerning government, Southern Presbyterians had an oddly workable theological position.  Pastors did not see that their task was to instruct the government from the pulpit, but they were pastor/scholars and public intellectuals.  Hence, men like Dabney and his colleagues James Henley Thornwell and Benjamin Morgan Palmer used a variety of formats, usually written articles or public lectures, to address the government.

Dabney’s thought was conservative, but if a modern reader spends some time with Dabney’s writings, he will not find much to connect him to modern day talk radio “conservatism” or Republican party conservatism.  Once again, Dabney will make us uncomfortable.

Zach Garris gives a fine introduction that provides pertinent biographical and theological details about Dabney.  That is followed by reprints of four articles by Dabney on the topics listed in the subtitle.  This is a great way to get introduced to a man who will not be often mentioned in today’s culture–secular or Christian.

There is your assignment:  Get to know Charles Hodge and Robert L. Dabney.  Here are two books that will enable you to go well into that task.

 

 

“What a Piece of Work is a Man”–Studies in Theological Anthropology

 

 

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.

Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet.

Psalm 8:4-6

What piece of work is a man, how noble in reason,
how infinite in faculties, in form and moving,
how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension,
how like a god!

William Shakespeare, Hamlet , Act 2, Scene 2

Truly the study of humans is among the most profound, deep, enriching, challenging, and worthwhile pursuits.  Most of us in our professional lives as well as our day to day living are continually studying both ourselves and others. At every stage in life and family, the topic is renewed and expanded and the perspective is widened.  Marriage changes our understanding drastically.  Children expand that understanding in even more ways.  Self-reflection involves a series of affirmations or denials that all contribute to the topic.

The term “Theology” means the “study of God.”  Much of theological study involves in depth examination of Scripture and historical theological developments regarding who God is.  But in the broader sense, we use the word theology to refer to a series of studies that include not only God Himself, but the created order.  Highest in that order is man, meaning in the older sense, mankind or people.  The beautiful opening line of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion says, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.’

I have recently been blessed by the challenge of working through three outstanding studies on the doctrine and nature of human anthropology.  First of all, I recommend all three books highly. They are not repetitions of one another, but the contents complement one another.  I did not set out to read these three books in an academic quest for studying humanness.  My reading plan is far too haphazard to be the result of a logic on my part.  But it has happened to me, and I could wish it to happen to others.

Reenchanting HumanityA Theology of Mankind

Reenhanting Humanity: A Theology of Mankind by Owen Strachan is published by Mentor, which is an imprint of Christian Focus Publications.

This book is very basic, sound, and suited for regular readers, laymen, high school students, and perhaps college students in their first couple of years.  Topics include creation, fall, and redemption, as expected, but also particular subjects including work, sexuality, race and ethnicity, technology, and justice.  Each of those latter topics are hot spots in modern discussions.  Obviously, there are a wide range of views and speculations on these issues, but that does not mean that there are not basic and foundational truths to start with.  Strachan neither skirts the controversial issues nor does he waver from having a solid and traditional Biblical defense.

Some friends criticized this book as being a bit shallow.  Well, maybe.  But that depends on who the audience is.  I found the book to be both informative and spiritually moving.  In other words, theology and devotional reading met and ministered to me as the reader.  And there is always the need for good statements of basic truths and teachings.

This is a book that I would love to teach to a high school group or a Sunday school class.  At the same time, it was a very enjoyable morning read.

Reformed Ethics: Created, Fallen, and Converted Humanity by Herman Bavinck is published by Baker and is the first of three volumes.

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Herman Bavinck is currently a rock star among Reformed readers.  His books are being published, republished, translated, discussed, and promoted with unwavering zeal.  Now, along with the books by Bavinck, there are a number of studies appearing where scholars are analyzing and discussing him.  While he was never completely disregarded in the Reformed world, the degree of attention he is now getting is amazing.  I have previously posted a discussion of him and some of the many books that are now available.  I am currently reading off and on from The Wonderful Works of God, and it may well be the best Bavinck book to start with.

Bavinck is weighty and scholarly, but not impossible to read.  All he calls for is a bit of patience, a reasonably slow pace, strong hot coffee, and a mind ready for work. This first volume is…no surprise here…on ethics.  But such a topic so overlaps the study of man, mankind, humanity, people-persons that it is worthy to be used alongside the other two books listed here.

Any study of anthropology from Christian foundations has to examine what we were created to be like, how that changed due to the Fall, and how that has changed again due to redemption.  This is not ivory tower philosophy or dry-as-dust theology.  These matters are the nuts and bolts of Christian life and thought.  From here, one gets an understanding that should emanate from the pulpit, define the Humanities, impact the social order, and permeate every area of life and thought.

As my previous post indicates, one ventures here not just in reading some old dead Dutchman named Herman Bavinck, but in “Scaling Mount Bavinck.”

An Introduction to Theological Anthropology:  Humans, Both Creaturely and Divine by Joshua R. Farris is published by Baker. Academic.

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When I first received my review copy of An Introduction to Theological Anthropology, I began second guessing myself for requesting it.  I really try to avoid asking for review copies of books that I think I will find too shallow, too technical, or disagreeable.  I thought this book would be way over my head, far above my reading ability, too deeply theological for my tastes, and too unfamiliar as a topic.

I was right.  And I am loving this book.  Yes, at times my comprehension of the discussion falls to a flat zero while Dr. Farris buzzes right on along tossing out terms and views that I know nothing of.  Some mornings, the caffeine in the coffee cannot quite energize me to the level of the book.  But so often, I have found myself very moved in the heart and challenged in the mind to think on topics that have never resonated quite this way before.

One of the saddest parts (and don’t bother to mourn for me) of being a book reviewer is that there is a drive to finish and post a few comments.  But this is a book that a reader needs to go through from start to finish, and then start over again with a pen and paper in hand.  Or he or she needs a group to study with.  Or maybe, one should just pay Dr. Farris to give lectures and reading assignments from the book.

One of my recurring thoughts on this book is about how vital this topic would be not just to a trained or aspiring theologian, but to a trained or aspiring student of philosophy.  I have spoken, as an outsider, about the need for, the growth of, the advance of Christians in philosophy and Christian approaches to philosophy.  And humans are central to our study of philosophy.  One thing that has dawned more slowly on me is that it is not just theologians and philosophers who should study “Humans, both creaturely and divine,” but also historians, literary scholars, psychiatrists, teachers, business people, and everyone else whose lives touch humanity.

What about preachers?  One of the questions I keep asking while reading this book is the old saying, “Will this preach?”  I don’t think, on the one hand, that many preachers will be stealing long passages from this book to incorporate into their sermons.  But the book’s discussion of the Incarnation worked me over.  I would not dare read those portions on the morning before giving an Advent sermon.  If I did read them at that point, I would not step into the pulpit.  But I would read and reread and think on these passages in my own study, which should be filled with sermons directed to my own mind and heart.

This is rich stuff. I have no doubt that some scholars and students more familiar with the sources cited and the topics addressed will have some fascinating tug of wars with this book.  “Farris did not adequately address such and such.”  “His treatment of this or that did not reflect a proper understanding of the whatever position.”  That is fine, for that is the world of some people, and such clashes of iron sharpens the clashed against iron.  But that is not my world.

For me, this book is once a again a work that impacts both head knowledge and heart direction.

Great books–all three.  Certainly, different strokes for different folks.  All three are evidences of God’s abundant blessings via the publishing world for us today.

 

 

 

Return of the Strong Gods and The Virtue of Nationalism

 

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In Greek mythology, Proteus was quite the character.  You could get the truth from him, but only if you could catch and hold on to him.  Not hard to do, except for the fact that he could morph from one being to another.  He might be found looking like a seal, sunning on a rock in the sea, but when you tried to catch him, he could turn into a fish and swim away or into a bird or fly away.

In politics, words are often like that.  Get a good grasp on a word and the next thing you know, it changes.  Liberal has one meaning today and in the United States, but the word had different meanings in the past or in the European experience.  The same goes for conservative.  So, is a person who wants to abolish an absolute monarchy and establish a republic the liberal or conservative?  Depends on who you read or how you define the terms. Liberal, conservative, democracy, republic, libertarian, legal, illegal, protests, revolutions, reforms, federalism, and other terms demands a context and an explanation.  Phrases are the same.  “Public servants”  is a great term, as is “statesmen,” but “politicians” has negative connotations.  In rhetoric classes, we often begin by pointing out the proper and the less accurate ways of defining the term “rhetoric.”

This brings us to the term Nationalism.  In the studies of American history, there is a period of time somewhat after the Founding Era and the Federalist Era that is often called the Nationalist Era or Period.  It is set in contrast to Sectionalism, which of course hurls the nation onto the fate of civil war and disunion.  Like all terms and labels, this moniker is both helpful and a bit of a stretch.  Sectionalism can be found in not only our nation’s origins, but in the colonial period.  Likewise, nationalism was a concept that goes back at least to the times when Benjamin Franklin and others were calling for colonial unity.

In the study of European history, nationalist periods are those times when the nation-states that came to dominate Europe developed as separate nations, usually under absolute monarchs.  Then in time, these “nations” had their own internal nations that were subjected to rule by the larger powers.  What we call France and Spain are actually hegemonies of groups within those recognizable boundaries.  Germany and Italy are a bit easier to understand because neither existed as nation states until 1870.

Nationalism was often cited as a cause of World War I.  Austria-Hungary to a large extent was an empire that corralled several nations under a ruling Hapsburg monarchy.  The breakup of that polyglot was one of the results of World War I.  Thus a number of new nations emerged in that age of nationalism.  In the years that followed, the more positive connotations of nationalism turned dark and bleak as leaders like Hitler, Mussolini, and others incited their nations to a more intense, dangerous, and megalomaniacal versions of the idea.

The handy and ugly term Nazi is simply a short form of the term National Socialist.  It is ironic, perhaps, that World War II featured various forms of nationalism that adopted ideologies that involved the suppressing nationalism of their conquered territories.

The story goes on after World War II.  Books on the topic abound.  Views on the issue are varied.  For one just wanting to grasp the history, I would highly recommend Eric Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalism Since 1780.

For some contemporary thought on the matter from positive viewpoints, I have found much appeal in the books highlighted above.  I have read and am working on a second reading of The Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West by R. R. Reno.  This book is published by Regnery Gateway.

That the West is in trouble is beyond debate.  That the future of the West is uncertain is for certain.  Reno contends that in our quest to be anti- or against this or that ugly ideology of the twentieth century has caused us to also reject some of the forces for cohesion and strength that are necessary for a society to survive.

I am still beginning my long overdue reading of The Virtue of Nationalism by Yoram Hazony.  Dr. Hazony is a great thinker, an Israeli scholar, and a gifted writer.  I have enjoyed all that I have read from him in the past.  This book comes highly recommended by a number of people whose opinions I already respect.

Hopefully, we can return in a future blog to discuss both these books.  You are welcome to provide me your own thoughts, reviews, or concerns.  Post a comment or send me an email at Veritas@cableone.net.

Christian Essentials: The Ten Commandments and The Apostles’ Creed from Lexham Press

The Ten Commandments: A Perfect Law of Liberty is by Peter J. Leithart

The Apostles’ Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism is by Ben Myers

Both of these volumes are part of the Christian Essentials series published by Lexham Press.

 

Thank God for the massive, weighty, richly voluminous weight-lifting theological books available to us in our times.  My bookshelves are literally sagging from these huge volumes often surpassing the 1000 page mark.  From the past and the present, great works of theology have been made available to us in these times.

Yet many of us have to confess that we have bookmarks sticking out in the first chapters of these books.  Or we have cheery picked a chapter or two for particular reading.  Or we have made it through only the first volume of a multi-volume set.  Or we have read the endorsements and blushed with shame that we have not been able to echo the words of J. I. Packer or Joel Beeke about the value of some great theological treasure.

Praise God for our partially read books, our unstarted books, our good intentioned book reading, and our failed efforts to persevere.  Bit by bit, we have tasted great works.

But let us also give thanks for those books that are easily read from cover to cover.  And thanks be given for the short summaries, the “concise brevity,” to use Calvin’s words, and the books that are so easy to buy, carry around, and not only start, but finish.

Lexham Press published books of all sizes and shape.  Abraham Kuyper’s Honey From the Rock  is a physically big book from Lexham Press, but so are John Frame’s We are All Philosophers

and Nature’s Case for God: A Brief Biblical Argument.

 

               

Besides the differences in size and topics, these books also display the variety of theological angles that Lexham Press books are providing.  Travis James Campbell and his study titled The Wonderful Decree: Reconciling God’s Sovereign Election and Universal Benevolence and Michael Heiser’s books such as The Unseen Realm and Demons: What the Bible Really Says About the  Powers of Darkness are in the Lexham line-up.  At the same time, there are a number of rarely seen books by a few of the great Dutch theologians and thinkers such as Kuyper, Geerhardus Vos, and Groen van Prinsterer.

Then there is this fine series called Christian Essentials.

These books are short, well-bound hardbacks that address key elements of Christian doctrine and life.  They are also deceptive!  One thinks that he or she is going to skip along through a nice, devotional read, but instead, the reader discovers a deep wellspring of theological practice and thought.  Short books, to be sure, but books that are far from light and fluffy.  Readable, yes, but also deeply connected to Faith and Life.  Practical, yes.  Teachable, yes.  Understandable, yes, assuming one is in a good solid church that is supplementing a life of Christian doctrine and practice.

I read Ben Myers’ Apostles’ Creed a year or more ago.  Sometime after reading it, I pulled it off the shelf again to borrow heavily from in preaching a sermon on the Creed.  (I never got past the words “I believe” from the opening of the Creed in my sermon.) This Creed is one that all Christians should believe, embrace, and recite.  Growing up Methodist, I learned it from childhood.  Recently, Al Mohler, a Southern Baptist theologian, wrote a book on the same creed.  (Mohler’s book is good, but Myers’ book is better.)

A few months back, I received a copy of Peter Leithart’s The Ten Commandments.  I have met and heard Dr. Leithart and have read quite a few of his many books.  Hop on board the Leithart train and you will be taken on a wild and surprising journey into theology, liturgy, literature, and more.  He is, quite simply, too smart.  (Read jealousy into that statement.)  He is also a good writer.

There are a number of books, as one might guess, on the Ten Commandments.  On the one hand, I tend to shy away from some of the ones that would be more popular, trendy, and designed to go after our cultural enemies.  Note that I would probably agree with most of the content of such books, but would still not prefer to be reminded that statistical numbers and Hollywood culture are cringy signs of a culture that hates God.

My two previous and preferred books on the Ten Commandments are as follows:  I love R. J. Rushdoony’s classic Institutes of Biblical Law.  This book is large, detailed, profound, thoughtful, and revolutionary.  More than any other work I know, it expands and applies the commandments to all of life, culture, thought, politics, and society.

The second volume I like is Thomas Watson’s Ten Commandments.  This book is, in Puritan fashion, aimed at the heart.  It is rich, devotional, and filled with practical exhortations.  If you want to like the Puritans, read this book.

Now, my favorite Ten Commandments book has a third member:  Leithart’s book.  At the end of each chapter, I found myself wondering how anyone could have packed so much into so few pages.  This book is a not a call for posting the Commandments on the lawn of the city square.  Nor is this book one that places the Law of God in a museum for New Testament believers to tour and take selfies in front of.  The Law is applied to people in Christ because they are in Christ and the Ten Words are from God.

Great books–The Christian Essentials are wonderful studies, preaching and teaching tools, family worship materials, and reads.

 

 

 

History Readings on the Nightstand and Day Stack

Under a Darkening Sky:  The American Experience in Nazi Europe: 1939-1941 by Robert Lyman

This book is an account compiled from Americans who were in Germany, France, and Britain during the years when World War II began.  This is an engaging book for one who knows how the story progresses.  Many Americans in Europe felt strongly that America should have acted sooner in entering World War II.  Knowing the home-front, that was not going to happen.  It was surprising to read about how nonchalant, uninterested, and uncommitted many Germans were to the war, Hitler, and events of the time.  Also, shortages of almost everything in the Third Reich were astounding.

One who knows little of the war would not enjoy this book quite as much, but I am finding it really enjoyable, if that word can be used to describe such a depressing scenario.

This book was the sole birthday present I received some months ago.  My favorite book hunter found it for me.

The Puritans: A Transatlantic History is by David D. Hall.

I started reading from this book, little by little, several months ago.  I got 50 or more pages into this massive study, but it got shuffled aside due to other reading ventures.  Just those opening chapters were outstanding.  I am planning on going back to the beginning and reading this from cover to cover.

This is a scholarly study of the wide-ranging group of religious thinkers and doers that we call Puritans.  It deals both with the movement in England and with those who migrated to the New World.  For anyone who has simply a layman’s interest in Puritans, I would recommend more easily covered accounts.  But for a serious history reader, this is the book to go to.

The Progressive Era by Murray Rothbard

This is my second time to read a Rothbard book in recent months.  As I covered in a previous review, he is an outlier in the field of history.  In other words, he was very well educated, scholarly, and unconventional.  If you want to read the traditional accounts of American history, don’t read Rothbard.  But if you want a different, a challenging, and even a disturbing perspective to upset your mental apple carts, he is the man.

While he wrote quite a few works on American history, he never did a complete survey of our country.  In fact, this book is made up of several chapter of a manuscript along with some other related essays.

I usually find that teaching about the Progressives in American history is very difficult.  There are many students who may dislike current liberals, but they are not usually interested in seeking out the roots of the movement.  It, whatever it is, did not begin with Presidents Obama or Clinton, or even Johnson or Kennedy, or either of the Roosevelts.  Progressivism is so ingrained in our culture today that it is almost impossible to imagine a society where we were not gearing our political discourse and elections around Progressive themes.

Side note:  the previously reviewed Rothbard book was Conceived in Liberty, Volume 5.  It deals with the era in which the Constitution was written and ratified.

How America’s Political Parties Change by Michael Barone

 

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How America’s Political Parties Change (And How They Don’t) by Michael Barone, longtime political analyst, is published by Encounter Books.

If you are looking for a fun, rip-roaring tale of politics and politicians, don’t look here.  If you are looking for a searing attack on the bad guys (whoever you think they are), don’t look here either.  But if you like a good, serious, fact and detail filled study of political trends, this is the book you should read.

I love politics.  I have taught government and history for over forty years.  Somehow, the details of the legislative process, the levels of court jurisdictions, and the dynamics of the bureaucracy fail to excite me.  But political campaigns–that’s a different story.  Polls, primaries, speeches, endorsements, dark horses, front runners, and old time conventions are sheer delight for me to read about.  The series of books that Theodore White wrote, beginning with The Making of a President 1960 going up through America in Search of Herself, are beloved volumes.

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I have read lots of books on the candidates, winning and losing ones, the elections, and the campaigns.  Concerning the last Presidential campaign, 2016, I have, so far, only read two books.  One was John Fea’s Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  This book was weak, whiny, and unconvincing.  There were a few useful parts here and there, but it was mainly an shaky evangelical lament that Donald Trump won.  (And I was not happy with the 2016 choices either.)Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump by [John Fea]

The other book was P. J. O’Rourke’s How the Hell Did This Happen? The Election of 2016.  O’Rourke’s book was sheer delight.  He is an incredibly witty writer, but it only took some reporting of the story to write comedy about the 2016 election.

I await the time to read a good coverage and analysis of the 2016 election.  I don’t want to read a Trump supporter, a whining liberal, or a Never-Trumper, so I may have to wait a while to read about what we experienced.

Back to Michael Barone’s How America’s Political Parties Change:  I have been reading Michael Barone’s political analyses for years.  He is a conservative of the Reagan-era type, but he is not using his books to grind ideological axes.  Instead, he compares numbers.  Lots and lots of numbers, percentages, vote totals, trends, demographic changes.  He has visited every congressional district in the United States, and I reckon it was for research purposes.  He has been a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics since 1972.

In 1940, FDR ran for an unprecedented third consecutive term and was opposed by a political neophyte and former Democrat and businessman named Wendell Wilkie.  Roosevelt won the election, in large part, because the impending war made some nervous about switching Presidents, and in larger part because of the political coalition that the Democrats had assembled.  That coalition was winning control of the Presidency, the House, and the Senate from 1930 to 1996.

In 1944, Roosevelt told an aide, “We ought to have two real parties–one liberal and the other conservative.” That was not true for many years, because both parties were made up of coalitions of both conservative and liberal factions.  It is more closely true today.

Overall, the American electorate is fairly evenly divided between Republican and Democrat voters.  In a given Presidential election, if the Democrats run unknown Candidate X and the Republicans run unknown candidate Y, the Democrats will net somewhere between 47 to 49 percent of the vote.  The Republicans will tally somewhere between 45 to 48 percent of the vote.

In only two of the past seven elections have the winning party actually won a majority of the popular vote.  In two of the past seven elections, the Republicans won in the Electoral College vote while losing the popular vote.  The spread has been less than 5 percent difference in five of those seven elections.  Winners have been determined in large part by rallying the certain voting factions or groups or by edging out the opponent in a few key swing states.  In other words, a small number of voters in a small number of states or districts could have changed most of those election results.

The House and the Senate, predominately Democrat from 1930 to 1994, have switched back and forth several times since the mid-term elections during the Clinton Administration.  While congressional seats tend to remain in the hands of incumbents, there are always incumbent Senators and Representatives who don’t seek re-election or a few who become vulnerable for a variety of reasons.  Almost every election cycle has included a realistic possibility of the majority party in either house losing control.

Barone surveys several periods in the past where similar cases prevailed.  Along with that, there have been a few times where one party or the other swamps the losing party in several elections for a period of time.  In our own time, there are Red States  (Republican) that are inching toward turning Purple (undecided) or Blue States (Democrat) that get flipped and go red.  It wasn’t all that long ago that California was in the Republican column in several Presidential elections.  In recent years, West Virginia, a long-time Democrat sure bet, has gone for Republican Presidential candidates.  2016 was a surprise because the big mid-western Blue Wall broke with Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa going for Trump over Clinton.

What does all this mean for the 2020 election?  Right now, President Trump is dealing with a wrecked economy, on-going fears and problems related to Covid-19, and riots and racial unrest across the country.  Economic troubles favor the Democrats, while law and order issues favor the Republicans.  Just a few months ago, the economy appeared to be booming.  President Trump continually displays weird, uncouth, and irrational behavior that either excites his base or at least does not worry them, but neither do such actions expand that narrow base.  Candidate Joe Biden continues to display moments of blundering thought, lack of thought, and no thought.  While confine to his basement, he seems to be a safer and more winnable candidate that he would be if he were out and about.

This is June and the election is in November.  In political terms, that is many lifetimes for a campaign.  But of this much you can be certain, the race is within a likely 5 percentage point spread.  It will be decided in a few key swing states.  That will be true if it is a Trump vs. Biden race or if it is a Candidate X vs. Candidate Y race.

 

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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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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The White Flag: When Compromise Cripples the Church by David S. Steele

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The White Flag: When Compromise Cripples the Church by David S. Steele was published in 2019 and is available through Amazon.

A few months ago, Dr. David Steele sent me a copy of his latest book The White Flag.  Being the diligent and quick book reviewer that I am, I was able to turn to this past week to read it.

First of all, I think it is good and necessary that pastors write.  David is senior pastor of Christ Fellowship in Everson, Washington.  This is, I believe, his third book, and the other two are on Martin Luther and John Calvin.  Pertaining to the topic sentence of this paragraph, I believe that writing, on the one hand, is a good discipline for pastors.  (I often cringe when I know that teachers assign themes and papers, but never write such things themselves.)  But more than just the discipline and focus that writing entails, it is good for a congregation to have written messages from their pastors and leaders.

Preachers are, whether they wish to acclaim the title or not, public theologians.  So, their writings need to address both doctrinal positions of their church, but also the greater cultural issues swirling around and affecting the minds of people both in and out of the congregation.  Also, written articles, newsletters, and, even better, books by the pastors enable the congregation to share, evangelize, and edify those they come in contact with.

Second, David has addressed some vital topics here in this book.  Scrolling through Facebook (with both the good and bad benefits of such), I am constantly made aware of heretical preachers, misleading theological deviations, denominational fights, and, in short, surrenders to the wrongful ideas that are battering the walls of the church.

The history of Christianity is a history of all too many surrenders.  As a student of history, I have read many accounts of armies surrendering.  Some surrenders were long overdue, but what is painful to read about is where an army surrenders unnecessarily.  (I am thinking here of the British surrender at Singapore in 1942.)  In contrast to the debatable historical examples, the church need never surrender its claims before the threats it faces.

The dangers can be put into two categories:  Outward dangers and Inward dangers.  The Outward dangers are probably the easiest to confront and are the least likely for the church to embrace.  In recent years, there has been a resurgence of atheism with several key figures who are the public apologists for such positions.  In my youth, that role of public atheist was carried on by Madelyn Murray O’Hair, who was something of an obnoxious buffoon. The big names today are more formidable.

The idea of a church surrendering to atheism is absurd.  (That doesn’t mean that it may not have happened in some case or another.)  Even the far from Fundamentalist or Evangelical churches in your community are not likely to hire an atheist pastor.  In past decades, most of Christendom was pretty firmly against the then-present threats of Communism, Fascism, and Nazism.  There were compromises, sell-outs, surrenders, etc., but it would not be expected that a church today would tolerate swastika or hammer and sickle symbols in their presence.  And thankfully, even in some of the whitest of Southern churches, the KKK is not welcome.

These outward threats, which must still be identified and confronted, do not constitute the greatest dangers.  Don’t look, in other words, over the wall of protection at the raging worldlings out there.  As the old Pogo cartoon character said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The key word in understanding what Dr. Steele addresses is compromise.  The middle and largest section of the book examines compromises.  No, neither your church nor mine will tolerate an atheist, Communist, Nazi, Mafia don, KKK member, or whatever else, but we are all susceptible to compromising what we believe, what the Scriptures teach, and what churches have historically affirmed.

I recognize that finding a balance is sometimes tricky.  Maybe some issues would be easier to confront if we just adopted a full-fledged Amish approach and cut off the world and most modern gadgets.  While I admire much in such separatist and pietistic efforts, I don’t think such an approach is reasonable or Biblical.  On the other extreme would be an antinomian embrace of “Christian liberty” where “all things are lawful” (wrenched out of context) and we get to enjoy “all this and heaven too.”  That would also allow for a libertarian Christianity that boldly proclaims in creed:  Whatever!

The solution is embarrassingly simple.  Adhere to the historic, creedal doctrines of what the Bible is, who God is, what Christ is, what faith is, and how we should then live and worship.  Yes, we will have some brush-ups and spats between ourselves and others.  Dr. Steele is a Baptist, while I am a Presbyterian. We can have a water fight at some point, but there are just too many clear and agreed upon doctrinal immovables for the two of us, and for Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Reformed, Protestant, and creed affirming Christians to join together on.

Finally, I found myself thinking, while reading this book, that I may not tend to raise the white flag of surrender, but I am all too willing to seek detente.  That term, going back to the 1980s, refers to mutual coexistence.  On the one hand, I don’t want to fall into the mean-spiritedness that Christian convictions can wrongly cause us to embrace.  I want to have friends and connections with people on the other side of issues.  I wish every solid standing Christian could have a friendly relationship with at least one atheist, Muslim, LGBTQ person, and a dozen varieties of heretics.  How else can we share the Gospel with them?

But I don’t want to reach the point of affirming to myself that my friend X is Y, but I can accept that because of Z.  We recently watched the movie made about the life of Stephen Hawking, the brilliant physicist, whose life was overwhelmingly difficult because of Lou Gehrig’s disease.  There were many wonderful things included in this movie about this man, including his lifelong atheism.  I can’t give him a free pass because of his rejection of even a mere belief in theism.  Nor can I overlook the soul killing heresies or unbelief or wrongful lifestyle choices of people around me.  Compromise does not just lead to surrender:  compromise is surrender.

David Steele’s book contains some vital reminders for us.  It is as timely as the daily news, but its message is far more lasting.