The Lost Prince: A Search for Pat Conroy by Michael Meshaw

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I confess:  I am a literary romantic.  I really want to believe that great writers live in a paradise of books, good music, poetry, and fine conversations with other literary people, punctuated by long periods of sitting in a perfect setting writing words that will last forever.  Reading about literary greats punches gaping holes in that myth.  All the way back to my high school days, I read biographies of writers.  Some writers led incredibly dull lives that were tied mostly to them pecking away on typewriters or filling pages with ink.  Others lived lives that were more adventurous and harrowing than their books.  Hemingway was not a nice guy, although he might have been fun to go fishing with.  Faulkner would not have been easy to sit around with and talk about literature, but that would not have been impossible.  Robert Frost could be downright mean and devious.  All too many writers were drunkards.

Pat Conroy was a man with real literary gifts.  He could write prose that soared.  Maybe more than most writers, his fiction was autobiographical.  And then much of his autobiographical material was fictitious. He was outgoing, fun, generous, and loveable, but he was also morose, cruel, and mentally messed up.  I tend to view his books overall as being good, but not great literature. He could weave a fine story.  He could make a reader laugh, cry, and feel the stunning weight of beautiful language.

This past several months, I have occasion to read and write several times about Conroy.  I read and loved the book Our Prince of Scribes which was compiled by a number of friends and fellow writers who shared memories of Conroy.  More than any other writer I have read about, Conroy encouraged, promoted, and pushed other writers.  He really loved helping others.  More than most writers, he really loved his fans.  Rather than eschewing crowds, he was empowered by them.  He would sit and autograph books and listen to fans for hours.  That is the Conroy man that I love.

I also read his posthumous book A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life.  Many of the essays were wonderful.  This book is quite similar in approach to his book My Reading Life.  Anyone wanting to enjoy books by a writer about reading and writing will enjoy these.  I ran up and down our school hall shouting the day I realized that I had an autographed copy of My Reading Life.

The Lost Prince, published by Counterpoint, is by Michael Meshaw, who is also a writer and was a close, maybe even the best friend, of Conroy.  This book is a delightful story in many ways about the ups and downs of the writing life.  Both the Meshaws and the Conroys were living in Rome; both Mike and Pat (begging pardon for this informality) were working on novels; both found lots of similarities in their life experiences.  However, Conroy was writing best-selling books that were being turned into movies while Meshaw’s works were less successful.

As always, Conroy was supportive of his friend.  That sometimes meant Conroy would make use of contacts to help Meshaw or would lavish him with gifts.  All this is the positive side of the friendship.  These two guys really did have some heart-to-heart shared thoughts, experiences, and vision.  But Pat Conroy was a combustible figure.  Much of the book is about how Conroy’s marriage to Lenore (his second wife) bounced from battle to battle.  Sometimes, the battles were with Lenore’s ex-husband, while often the conflicts were between Conroy and his wife.

Life in Rome was followed by times when the Conroys would move to Atlanta, Georgia or to California, or to Fripp Island in South Carolina.  The Meshaws lived a similarly nomadic life.  It is, once supposes, the nature of writers to be vagabonds in many cases.  The friendship and comradeship would wax and wane for years, but after Conroy and Lenore divorced, the Meshaws were estranged from Pat.

This book is a sad reflection of a lost and never-ending painful separation.  Granted, this is only Mike’s side of the story, but it seems that Pat was down-right cruel, manipulative, vindictive, and evil toward ex-friends and ex-family members.  Added to that, Pat’s tendency toward alcoholism, toward suicidal thoughts, toward sadistic behavior compounded the problems.

In short, Pat Conroy didn’t mind living in fiction as well as writing it.  It hurts to realize that the wonderful man described by friends in Our Prince of Scribes was also the mean man described by Mike Meshaw.  This is a story of love and friendship, but, boy, it hurts.

Preaching is not always appreciated, but I will venture to preach a bit in closing.  Pat Conroy needed to experience God’s grace.  He had a horrific upbringing with an abusive father and a deceptive mother.  He was a flawed human being.  He could be brave and bold with a willingness to fight for right.  But he never found the peace in his heart to deal with his past or to acknowledge his own sins to others.  Since Michael Meshaw was not close by during Pat’s last days, perhaps there were reconciliations and repentances.  One can only hope.

The lives of writers often fall short of their fiction.  Perhaps the same can be said of those of us who are teachers, preachers, and people in other professions. It is the greatness of man interwoven with the flaws of man that keeps us searching and thinking.  Only Jesus of Nazareth was perfect in every way.  The rest of us, whether we are lost princes or lost serfs, are still lost and in need of something greater than mere human improvement.

The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers

Dorothy Sayers is, in my world, the lady who wrote the essay. I am referring to “The Lost Tools of Learning,” which Miss Sayers wrote in 1947 and delivered at Oxford University.  Like quite a few other people, I read it several decades later, and slowly, it began to change my whole approach to education.  That essay is the founding document in the classical Christian school movement in America.  It doesn’t say everything that needs to be said about education in general or classical education more specifically, but it said enough to spark thought, debate, and, more important, application.

That essay was just a sliver of the corpus of writing that Dorothy Sayers did in her lifetime (1893-1957).  Her main means of support was writing mysteries, and her main characters in her stories were Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane.  Lest one think that this was just pot-boiling writing to make a buck, take note that she was one of the founding members of the Detection Club.  She also served as president of that organization of mystery writers, being preceded by G. K. Chesterton, author of the Father Brown stories, and succeeded by Agatha Christi.

She was also an incredibly gifted theological writer.  Her contemporaries were such fellows as C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and others among the famed Inklings. I am not sure she was ever able to hang out with the guys, but she could have more than held her own trading wit and wisdom with those writers of Christian thought and imagination.  Her theological books blend deep convictions about doctrine with a worldview that applies the faith to art and all of life.  Not as wittily quotable as Lewis, she was still quite bold, profound, and solid.

In her own personal life, she battled quite a few issues.  She got a degree from Oxford at a time when such a thing was unheard of for a woman.  Her personal life was full of struggles, both from her own bad choices and from other circumstances, but she persevered and made her own niche in English letters.

Plough Publishing House has produced a series of books with titles beginning with the words The Gospel in….  Authors whose works have been chosen for this series include Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, George MacDonald, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Dorothy L. Sayers. As the subtitle of The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers states, this book is made up of “Selections from Her Novels, Plays, Letters, and Essays.”

This book is a marvelous way to either get acquainted with Dorothy Sayers or to renew and enrich that acquaintance.  Reading her books would involve taking quite a few mystery novels, a number of theologically-centered plays, several books of theology, some translations of classics (like The Song of Roland and Dante’s Divine Comedy), and reading her letters.  This is not to say that they are all here in this volume, but it is a great selection of bits and pieces of her mysteries, without any fatal spoilers, and portions of her other writings.

The book consists of twenty chapters, preceded by a biographical sketch and followed by short essay about Sayers by C. S. Lewis. The chapters are mostly named for her mystery novels, and then the selections begin with something from a novel, followed by non-fictional writings on the same topic.  Topics include conscience, sin and grace, covetousness, forgiveness, judgment, and more.

Let me confess something:  I have failed greatly in not reading or appreciating enough of Dorothy Sayers’ writings.  My response to the chapters of this book as I read it in the mornings (usually) is one of lament and regret over having ignored her.  As I said in the beginning, my Sayers’ experience has been centered on that one brilliant essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning.”  This book is a marvelous means of literary repentance for me.

I love this whole series of books by Plough Publishing House.  I hope they do more books of this type.  So many writers have structured their books around Gospel themes.  Even unbelieving authors resort to sin and grace, forgiveness and redemption, fall and restoration in their stories.  Literature is a bulwark of Christian history and apologetics.

Books like this one, The Gospel in Dorothy Sayers, are great tools for students and teachers.  Forget that statement.  It sounds much too serious.  This book is great fun to read and is packed full of plenty that will nurture the soul and create an appetite for reading more of Dorothy Sayers.

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Susie by Ray Rhodes–Charles Spurgeon’s Wife

Susie: The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon, wife of Charles H. Spurgeon

Okay, I must begin again by confessing, “I was wrong.”  You would think I am used to this by now, but it is still hard to do.  But let everyone hear me clearly, “I WAS WRONG!”

First of all, I like biographies.  But I want to read about political leaders like Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, or Ronald Reagan.  I love biographies of military leaders, such as Douglas MacArthur, Robert E. Lee, or Archibald Wavell.  I even read biographies of theologians, philosophers, novelists, and poets.  And I have many books about preachers such as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and others.

Second, I love the writings of Charles H. Spurgeon.  I first heard of Spurgeon when I was in Henry Wood’s history classes in my first year of college.  “Sell your shoes and buy Spurgeon,” Mr. Wood said, quoting Helmut Thielike.  I didn’t completely embrace that advice.  Yes, I bought a few Spurgeon works here and there, but never enough.  It was only in recent years that I acquired the available in-print editions of the Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit.  It was just a few years ago that I read Lectures to My Students from beginning to end.  Perhaps my own ministry work and preaching revealed my Spurgeon-gaps more than I realized.  But I was a fan, a reader, a gleaner of quotes.

All that being said, I was not initially drawn to this book.  There is a slight dread of the religious biography that tends toward hagiography.  There is the slight distaste for the Victorian era style of writing with overblown, overly sentimental, and overly “spiritual” language.  And I am possibly a male chauvinist.  It is stupid if I am such, for my life has been incredibly enriched by wise, godly, strong-minded women.

The first wall of resistance crumbled when George Grant promoted the book back in December in a series of posts recommending books for Christmas. I did succumb to several of George’s suggestions, meaning that I bought the books for myself for Christmas. But I did not buy Susie.  And one of my teachers offered to buy me a copy of the book, but I declined that act of generosity.

Then I became friends with Ray Rhodes Jr., the author, on Facebook.  At that point, I was being overwhelmed with reading posts by him and comment from appreciative readers.  I gave in, contacted Moody Press, and received my copy of the book.

Susie:  The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon, wife of Charles H. Spurgeon, published by Moody, is a very delightful book.  Yes, Charles and Susie used much of the stilted and spiritual Victorian language in communicating to each other.  This tends to obscure some of the real emotions or trials they were facing.  In the case of Susie’s physical problems, we are left to speculate what her problem was.  She had a very serious surgery after the birth of twin boys, resulting in no further children for the couple.  So, we don’t know exactly what female problem she had, as though my life is somehow incomplete for not knowing this.

We live in a time of bluntness, detail, and, subsequently, crassness.  While I don’t think we should revert to saying “She is in a family way, rather than “She is pregnant,” I do wish we had a little more circumspectness about language.  The age of the Spurgeon’s is a healthy antidote to our age.  Plus, the degree of turning every written communication into a Christian exhortation is woefully deficient.  I confess to being far more prone to ask a fellow church member about work, weather, or widgets than asking him about his prayers.  The point being that the life and times of Charles and Susie Spurgeon are instructive and convicting for us in our times.

Now, here’s the scandal buried in the text of this book.  After all, we live in a time of scandals here and there among not only political and entertainment figures, but also church leaders.  Charles and Susie Spurgeon were on the surface fully absorbed in the Christian life and faith.  But in private…they were just as absorbed, if not more so.  Outwardly, they seemed to have a marriage driven by love for Christ and each other.  Inwardly, the same.  Charles was a powerhouse in the pulpit, and he was the same man at home.

Along with their solid Christian lives, take note also of this:  Their lives are a repudiation of the health and wealth gospel heresy of our time.  Financially, they did seem to do well, but considering the fact that Charles pastored a mega-church, they were not rich.  Healthwise, their lives were incredibly difficult.  Besides frequent bouts of depression, Charles suffered gout continually along with other ailments.  His life’s work looks to be the product of someone who lived 300 years, but he died at age 57. Susie lived on for more than a decade longer, although she was ill and infirm during that time.

Being married to a woman who has been the wife of a pastor, I know the weight they carry.  Although Scripture gives no commands regarding the duties of pastor’s wives, they have many duties, chief among which is being a helpmeet to a man with an impossible job.  Like many spouses of preachers, Susie carried on additional work.  She wrote a number of books herself and worked extensively on her husband’s posthumous autobiography.  She helped start a church in a community that did not have a Baptist church.  Most of all, she ran a ministry devoted to sending out books to pastors whose shelves, unlike her own husband’s, were devoid of books.

She was, in short, quite an incredible woman.  I found myself inspired, convicted, and amazed constantly while reading this book.  I have no doubt that many women have and will enjoy reading this book, but I would encourage men to read it as well.  There have been too many cases, especially in some Reformed circles, where women and women’s ministries have been demeaned, suppressed, and despised.  Susannah Spurgeon was a woman who shouted at the top of her lungs to the church and to the world.  She didn’t do so literally, of course.  But through her works, book distributions, prayers, and testimony, her life was a loudspeaker proclaiming the glories of Christ.

Don’t hesitate any longer.  Buy and read this book.

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Calvin Books from Banner of Truth

 

Sermons on Timothy and Titus (16th-17th Century Facsimile Editions): Calvin, John

It is a rather funny thing that that such words as “Calvinists,” “Calvinism,” and the like exist.  I don’t think Calvin himself would find it either funny or flattering. He would be most troubled that his attempts to mine the truths of the Bible would be something that resulted in attaching his name to a movement, which is really a number of movements.  But the terms related to Calvin’s name are useful as identifiers when used correctly.

What is too easily overlooked is how Calvin the man was so different from those of us who have appropriated the name Calvinists.  Calvin was often more a devotional writer than a scholarly theologian.  He seems to have had one and only one audience:  God’s sheep, the congregation.  His preaching schedule was murderous, and his method was expository teaching through the Bible book by book.

Some years ago, Banner of Truth (which is a favorite publisher) reprinted several facsimile editions of Calvin’s sermons.  These were English translations from the 1500’s and maybe the 1600’s.  These were beautiful books–big, well bound, and printed with quality in mind. But for reading purposes, they were less appealing.  The size of the books, the older versions of English print, and the other features expected in a facsimile edition render these books hard to read.  When I preached through 1 Timothy a few years ago, I don’t think I even looked at the facsimile that I have.

Now here is the good news:  Calvin still speaks to us today.  His message is still relevant.  And, translations are pouring off the printing presses that are much more manageable, readable, and attainable.  While Banner of Truth is not the only publisher to be mining the riches of Calvin’s sermons and books, they books they have made available are outstanding.

Currently, I am reading from Letters of John Calvin.  Banner has a more complete multi-volume edition of Calvin’s letters and other writings that is quite attractive. It is called Tracts and Letters of John Calvin.  Many years ago, I picked up a four volume set of Calvin’s letters that has been valued, but under-used in my library.  It was published by some scholarly publisher, and I suspect Calvin’s correspondence was rare until the recent Banner set.

But most people are not going to casually or devotionally read multiple volumes of Calvin’s mail.  This book is just the right size. It is a relatively small book of some 70 letters and less than 300 pages.  The letters are preceded by a biographical sketch of Calvin’s life.  Despite having read books and articles by the scores on the life of Calvin, I always enjoy revisiting his story once again.

His correspondence provides an autobiographical look into the man’s personality and character.  It is also a testimony to the front line issues of the Reformation and key figures in it.  Because Calvin’s intent and life was God-centered, this book is devotional reading and theological study as well.

Cover image for Sermons on 1 Timothy

Robert White is, as far as I know, the best Calvin translator around today.  Several years ago, I received and read from his translation of Calvin’s Institutes.  It is a beautiful rendering of Calvin’s words.  Most recently, I have acquired Sermons on First Timothy.  It rests on the stack of books I read from in the mornings, and for now, it is part of my Sunday morning reading.  In other words, I am inching my way through this book of sermons.

I would think that the better method would be to read a sermon every day, but time constraints prevent that right now.  But Calvin can be enjoyed in just short and even infrequent doses.  Cotton Mather said that he loved to sweeten his breath with the taste of Calvin before going to bed.  Me, on the other hand–I prefer a dose of Calvin along with strong morning coffee.

Whether read in conjunction with Calvin’s commentary on 1 Timothy or read as a resource, this book would be most useful to the pastor or teacher working through the letter.  Also, as a book just for spiritual edification (as though that were a minor component of life), this volume is first rate.

Take note that Banner now has volumes of sermons on 2 Timothy, Titus, Genesis, Job, Jeremiah and Lamentations, Daniel, and perhaps others that I have overlooked. Needless to say, there are far too many good books around than I can wrap my mind, time, or pocketbook around.  Nevertheless, we do what we can.  Inch along the way and get Calvin’s books in the new, faithful translations.

Banner Books on Calvin:  HERE.

Cover image for John Calvin's 'Institutes of the Christian Religion'

Cover Image for 'Sermons on Titus' by John Calvin

How the Dutch Saved Civilization

 

This year I have been teaching a history course on the twentieth century. With a number of historical periods that I have studied, read about, and taught on, the twentieth century is possibly my most frequently studied period.  My class and I spent an inordinately long time studying the Great War (World War I) which, like all historical turning points, extends both back in time and forward in its causes and effects.  We are currently wrapping up a study of the Russian Revolutions.  Next I will be devoting attention to the period between the World Wars, leading up to a month or more of looking at World War II.

The chessboard of twentieth century history includes many key players.  The United States, Great Britain, Russia, Germany, and France are vital to the whole period.  But one cannot overlook Italy, Japan, China, and then some major minor players like Belgium and Serbia in World War I and Poland and Spain (particularly the Spanish Civil War) in World War II.  The post-war period brings in a whole new cast including Greece, Israel, Korea, Yugoslavia, Vietnam, and other countries.

One could make analogies to various chess pieces and the leading countries.  Then there are the pawns whose movements may or may not be significant to the causes of events.  Any chess player (and I am not one) can affirm that pawns can make or break a game of chess.  They can be minor pieces, but their impact can direct the course of events.

This brings me to the topic of the Netherlands and the Dutch people in the twentieth century.  I am not when or if the fine textbook I am using refers to events in the Netherlands after the age of Napoleon.  The Netherlands was neutral during World War I (wise move on their part) and were a quick knock-out in World War II.  The Dutch underground in the Second War gets some attention.  The failed Allied offensive (recounted in the book and move A Bridge Too Far) took place in the Netherlands, but that story is one of the British, American, and German armies.

After World War II, the Netherlands was a NATO member, but has remained on the periphery of historical movements.  One recurring story is of decadence and immortality in that country which seems to be ahead of the rest of the West in moral degeneracy.

The history books and the news accounts often miss or don’t know the whole story or even the greater story.  The late 19th and 20th century history of the Netherlands is rich in certain respects.  Unlike my hopeful title, the Dutch have not saved civilization, but they have pointed to and promoted what would be civilization saving in many respects.

There are a number of Dutch Christians who lived in the middle to late 1800’s and up through the mid-1900’s who have grasped issues even more important than the immediate challenges of ending World War I, defeating Naziism in World War II, or holding on to the Free World against the Communist Bloc in the Cold War.

The names are familiar to those who have waded into the deep currents of Reformed theology and philosophical thought.  Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Herman Dooyeweerd, Geerhardus Vos, Klaas Schilder, Hendrik van Riessen, H. R. Rookmaaker, and Cornelius Van Til are among the key leaders in the intellectual revolution of the past 100 plus years.

I could devote quite a few paragraphs and pages to talking about the various men named above.  I actually have talked and written about most of them.  In fact, I have literally talked from coast to coast about them.  (I spoke at two conferences years ago–one in Virginia and one in Alaska.)  For now, I will focus on two of the many books that are now available highlighting key ideas from the Dutch Calvinist Worldview Thinkers, as I like to call them.

Lectures on Calvinism by Abraham Kuyper is a Christian classic.  It has been reprinted and edited many times since it first emerged from the Stone Lectures that Abraham Kuyper gave at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1898.  One such reprinting and repackaging changed the name to something other than either Lectures on Calvinism or The Stone Lectures.  The goal of all such publications is to get the message of these lectures out.

This book calls for a big dose of humility from all Christians.  Reformed Christians need to realize how limited our vision is when we think of Calvinism as a system of 5 Points or we think that our efforts to promote Christianity are full-orbed.  Non-Calvinists need to realize how, despite whatever struggles they may be having in regard to soteriological (salvation related) issues, the claims of God are over all areas of life.

Many books, movements, schools, colleges, ideas, study centers, and terms have grown out of this book.  Many Christians speak today of having a Christian worldview without knowing that this idea springs from Kuyper.  Kuyper, however, spoke of a World and Life System rather than using the more compact term Worldview.  Every concern that comes up about the Christian role or lack thereof in politics needs to be referenced back to Kuyper’s chapter on politics.

He also spoke about science, art, and the future, which can be studied for how Kuyper may or may not have foreseen events.

American Vision has reprinted and edited the edition of the book pictured above.  Some of Kuyper’s sentences were a bit long and heavy and many of his references are obscure to most of us.  This book has modified some of the language and punctuation without rewriting or condensing the content.  Also, footnotes explain many of the terms or references that Kuyper and his audience would have been familiar with.

I would include this book for essential reading not just in my top 100 or 50 or 25 reads, but in my top 10 reads.  Furthermore, it is not a read-once-and-shelve book.  This is a book to reread often.  Get it and read it.

One of Abraham Kuyper’s mentors and contemporaries was Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer.  Usually and conveniently, he is referred to as Groen, pronounced to rhyme with prune and equivalent to our word green.  Groen was a brilliant Christian historian and political leader in the Netherlands.  At some point in his career, he gave a series of lectures at his house on the key determining issue of his age.  That issue was the French Revolution.  It was not the details of the storming of the Bastille or execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette that concerned Groen.

Behind the Revolution and preceding from it was a worldview or philosophy.  As has been often, but not often enough, pointed out, the so-called American Revolution and the French Revolution were not twin events.  Their differences are comparable to the knife use of a surgeon and that of a street criminal.  Lest someone think this is a odd-Christian weirdo interpretation, just look at such books as James Billington’s Fire in the Minds of Men.  

Before Billington and before all the forces for secularism, humanism, and whatever other objectionable isms of the twentieth century, Groen was discussing the essential beliefs and unbeliefs that propelled Europe into the modern age with revolutions continuing for over a century.

For years this book has been hard to find.  It was translated into English and published by a small Canadian publisher back in the 1980s and 90s.  I doubt that it is on the reading lists of any or certainly not many college courses on the French Revolution, modern thought, revolution in general, or political philosophy.  Groen would not have been shocked or surprised by that omission.

Unbelief and Revolution has been reprinted by Lexham Press.  Along with a number of great books, including Geerhardus Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics and many volumes by Abraham Kuyper, Lexham Press is turning into a modern center of Reformed Christian thought and theology.  Harry Van Dyke, a great scholar and acquaintance of mine, translated this book.  Jake Mailhot, who is what I want to be like when I grow up, is a key figure in the distribution of Lexham Press publications.

Get this book.

Read the Dutch Christian authors.  Start with Kuyper and Groen.

Alfalfa Bill: A Life of Politics and What is History Anyway?

Alfalfa Bill: A Life in Politics by Robert L. Dorman is published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

Twentieth century, political biography, southern history, and interesting, but often forgotten characters in history:  All these were draws for me wanting to read Alfalfa Bill.  The biography is about William H. “Alfalfa Bill” Murray who was a key political figure in the early days of Oklahoma statehood.  It is often not thought about, but Oklahoma became a state very late in the process.  In 1907, it became the 46th state in the Union.  Of course, it was in the thick of events in American history long before statehood.  There is no understanding of Oklahoma history without recognition of its previous existence as a land set apart for Native Americans.  That would have created enough adventure, but white Americans (Surprise! Surprise!) realized they wanted part of the Indian Territory.

Bill Murray was Texas-born.  After the kind of tough upbringing so characteristic of his times (1869-1956), he found his political and personal options in Texas diminished, so he lit out for Oklahoma Territory.  He is one of Oklahoma’s great success stories.  Only, he often suffered quite the opposite of success.  His political career was a series of disastrous defeats and surprising victories.  It was hardscrabble politics and brawling every step of the way.  On several occasions, Murray would reach a pinnacle of success only to see that turned into a bitter setback.

A big part of the Murray story is longevity in politics.  He served in a number of political roles.  He balanced the weight of varying political forces that contributed to the Oklahoma firestorms.  In his favor, he married a woman who was of Choctaw-Chickasaw heritage.  He was well schooled in politics due to a smattering of formal education and personal readings.  He was a man who understood–like all successful politicians–how image is so vital to political credibility.  Forever, he was touting himself as a farmer, and Murray did have a farm or two along the way; however, he was not really a farmer and was certainly not a success at it.

The high points of his career were the prominent positions he held in his long tenure as a political figure.  He was president of the Constitutional Convention in Oklahoma.  Unlike the legendary quiet, but powerful persona of George Washington at the 1789 convention, Murray was up to his neck in the rough and tumble of the political document-creation.  He served several terms in the United States House of Representatives.  That may have been his finest hour in terms of his political skills, networking with powerful political figures like President Woodrow Wilson, and showing real non-partisanship.

Later he served as governor of Oklahoma.  This was during the Great Depression, and his victory in politics (after a long moribund period) was a reminder that the voters were looking for a common man with more than just common sense to guide them.  Remember that Oklahoma was hit during that time by two great tsunamis.  Along with the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl devastated the region.  This links up with the great migration of Okies, as they came to be called, who migrated to California.  (See John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath for a fictionalized account of those times.)

As the 1932 Presidential election neared, one thing was clear:  This was going to be the time of a great Democrat Party win against the hapless Herbert Hoover.  Among those who toyed and attempted to win the nomination was Oklahoma’s “Alfalfa Bill” Murray.  His candidacy was pretty much a flop.  (Compare it to Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Lindsay Graham, and many others in 2016.)  Murray gave some attempts to run a campaign without money, political guidance, and a slim chance while going up against more powerful figures like John Nance Garner from neighboring Texas and Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt from New York.

In one sense, it was the 1932 Presidential election that began drawing the closing curtain on Murray’s career.  Rather than flocking to Candidate Roosevelt, Murray had said some rather cruel and over-the-top things about the man who was to become the face of the Democrat Party.  By 1936, Murray was supporting Alf Landon in his hapless race.  In all following years, Murray’s ventures into political events seemed more and more Quixotic and hopeless.

All in all, a colorful career politician, Bill Murray was.  Legendary in Oklahoma simply due to the fact that he accomplished a lot even though he was as self-serving as so many are.  He was lovable and deplorable at times.  On some issues, he was far-sighted; on others, he was blind.  He was a product of the prejudices of his time, and that was a day where there were real racists.  Politicians would often either echo racist sentiments or truly believe them in order to win.  He was a faithful husband, unless one considers politics his mistress.  And, sad to say, in his latter years, he was a cranky and often ugly commentator on people and events.

I really enjoyed parts of this book, but must confess a few of my shortcomings.  Somehow, the details of Oklahoma state legislative battles eludes my interest. (And I am a rather dull person.)  The great German statesman Bismarck once said that it is better not to watch sausages or laws being made.  Even reading about the processes after the fact–long after–is not recommended either.

This question I kept asking myself was this:  Who will read my review and rush out and buy this book?  Maybe only the first part of that question is relevant.  But even people I know who share interests in politics, history, and biographies will not likely rush to order this work.  As a book reviewer, I read quite a few books–usually by university presses–that I know want get much notice even as non-fiction.

This led to this question:  What is history about anyway?

I am glad that Robert Dorman at Oklahoma City University devoted countless hours to research and writing this book.  No doubt, it was gratifying to him.  He is probably giving a few talks on Murray and is being consulted in person or in his printed works for his take on related events.  But who reads about the long forgotten political figures of other states?

I have been re-reading Michael Douma’s pathbreaking, world-changing, revolutionary book Creative Historical Thinking.  It was published by Routledge this past year.  (My over-the-top description of the book is due to my friendship with Michael, which is based on trading insults and compliments with little to distinguish the two.)

Here is the pertinent problem:  How do people, particularly students in my classroom see or understand history?  After reading 339 pages of Oklahoma political history, much of it is a total muddle in my mind.  The details of the Oklahoma State Constitutional Convention slid right over my thinking even as I was going through those pages (painfully at times).

Okay, it’s trivia from early 20th century Oklahoma.  What difference does it make?  But I am teaching the Russian Revolution right now to my students.  What difference does Alexis Romanov’s hemophilia make to them?  What difference does the quarrels between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks make?  Then when we get to World War II, what difference does it make?

Obviously, some people take a shine to history.  The Ardennes Offensive is as fascinating as last night’s football game leading up to Superbowl 2019.  But we don’t teach courses on everything that happens to be a personal interest of someone out there.  Let’s don’t even consider some of the college courses and majors now offered.  I am talking about education.

A history teacher needs to read books like Alfalfa Bill sometimes just to see how their students view history class.  “What is going on?  Who cares? and Why do we have to study this?”  This is not all just student rebelliousness, but is sometimes rooted in the way different folks process time and events from the past.

Was I helped personally by reading this book?  Yes.  How?  I was made better aware of the impact of Socialists in early 20th Century America and even in places like Oklahoma.  I was sadly made aware (again) of some extremes of racial prejudice that were then prevalent.  I saw the futility of a life devoted to politics with political success seen as an idol.

Nothing is new under the sun.  Ugly has always existed.  “Dear children, keep yourself from idols” (I John 5:21).

For those who like political biographies of past governors, I would recommend T. Harry Williams’ great book Huey Long or any books on a former California governor named Ronald Reagan.

For those interested in Oklahoma history, read the books by John Dwyer, such as The Oklahomans (volume one is out and volume two will be in time).  For a fun and uplifting account of Oklahoma life, read Dwyer’s book Shortgrass.

The Oklahomans

The Oklahomans

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The Essential Jonathan Edwards by Owen Strachan and Douglas A. Sweeney

The Essential Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to the Life and Teaching of America's Greatest Theologian

As an incurable reader, I often find myself stumped over what kind of book I need to read next.  My tastes range from theology to literature to history to politics to poetry to philosophy to biography and more.  I could almost paraphrase Will Rogers and say, “I never met a book I didn’t like.”  I have met a few that were not to my liking, but I am prone to find something of use in even the worst of readings.

My morning reading time is when I focus on Biblical and theological books.  If a book is devotional, without being fluffy, and enlightening, it makes for a good start for the morning stack of books.  I have about an hour to read and usually read a chapter or about 10 pages from each of 3 or 4 books.  (This method works well for me.)  After the book aimed at the heart, I am more ready for the book aimed at the mind.  So, a book applying Bible teachings might be read from first and then followed by a bit more weighty theological reading.  The preferred third book is usually more focused on Christian worldview thinking.  It might be on history, education, current issues, philosophy, or some other area.  It might or might not be a specifically Christian book.

This brings us to the topic of The Essential Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to the Life and Teaching of America’s Greatest Theologian by Owen Strachan and Douglas A. Sweeney.  This book is published by Moody Publishers.

In light of the different types of books I like to read in the morning session, The Essential Jonathan Edwards can fit into any of the categories.  The breadth of the approach of the book itself is similar to the breadth of the subject.  Jonathan Edwards is acclaimed as one of the great preachers of all time.  He is also one of the great theologians.  He was also a prolific writer.  He is recognized for his contributions to the field of philosophy.  He is studied for his views on any number of topics, both those pertinent to his times and to ours.

As the subject of biography, Edwards’ life is also rich.  He lived in colonial America during a period that was just past the heyday of Puritan thought and just before the period leading up to the American Revolution and War for Independence.  I will assume for the moment that the term “American Revolution” refers to the change in thinking and outlook that developed prior to any shots being fired at Lexington and Concord, and I am borrowing this definition from John Adams.  Back to Edwards:  He was a major figure in the Great Awakening.  Along his labors were limited geographically to a small part of New England, his role through his preaching and writing explained, furthered, and cautioned against aspects of the revival.  He was the spokesman for this side of the Atlantic.

His marriage and family are models for both understanding American culture and for spiritual edification.  His tumultuous relationship with his Northhampton congregation is insightful into the workings of colonial communities and all too familiar territory for many pastors and their churches.  Edwards was briefly connected to the still new Princeton University and had been educated at Yale.  His life shows the richness of potential opportunities in the colonial period even accounting for the particular genius and gifts of the man.

The most scholarly and library-bound academic wanting to grapple with theological conundrums (like free will and Original Sin) can study Edwards alongside the more profound student of philosophy, especially the one interested in American contributions.  But the pastor can also find Edwards a helpful mentor giving encouragement to his soul as he prepares sermons and lessons for his congregation.  Again, the study of Edwards is a hall filled with treasures.

So where do you begin?  Or how can you access the wealth of Edwards’ life, faith, and thought?

The Essential Jonathan Edwards is an excellent place to begin.  The book contains an account of Edwards’ life, but it is only partially a biography.  Much of the focus is on the teachings of Edwards.  The book is heavy laden with quotes and lengthy ones at that.  It doesn’t take many lines of reading Edwards to realize that this guy cannot be skim read.  He is not impossible or overly technical, but his language is rich and detailed.  While the entire book reveals biographical details, the first section is more largely focused on his life.

The authors cover a number of larger and then more particular topics in subsequent chapters.  The second section of the book is on the topic of Beauty.  As has been noted, some of the higher, more liturgical churches focus on beauty in their church buildings and liturgies.  The Protestants who are more in the tradition of Edwards in terms of evangelical emphases have overlooked the topic of Beauty.  (As a former pastor, I am asking myself, “When did you preach on the Beauty of God, of Christ, of the Church?”)

The third section focuses on the Good Life.  This is yet another case of the authors bringing an unused phrase into Christian thinking.  Living the Christian life is the good life.  Man’s chief end is enjoying God forever, which does not mean that we start when we get to heaven.  Edwards wrote, “God in seeking his glory, therein seeks the good of his creatures: because the emanation of his glory (which he seeks and delights in, as he delights in himself and his own eternal glory) implies the communicated excellency and happiness of his creatures.” (Found on page 199)

The fourth section deals with a troublesome issue in Edwards’ ministry and in our times.  Statistics show certain numbers of people who are Christian by profession.  Church rolls show smaller groups of the same.  Yet nominalism, that is, being Christian in name only, is a huge problem.  Protestants like to think it is merely a Roman Catholic problem.  Within Protestant groups, one group will wag their heads at another for this plague, but the truth is that it hits ever section of Christianity and every church.  If you don’t know of where to locate the dangers of nominal Christianity, begin by looking in a mirror.  I am not saying that you and I are believers in name only.  But I do know it is a real threat to me.  Those of us in Christian works (and I teach in a Christian school) can easily confuse occupation with salvation.  The problem beset Edwards both in the times of his grandfather’s Half-Way Covenant approach and in his own dealings with a congregation that fired him.

The final section deals with heaven and hell.  Edwards is once again a needed instructor to our times.  Because Christianity offers so much in this world, we can easily undervalue what it teaches about the world to come.  And the doctrine of Hell is just uncomfortable.

I recently posted a blog review highlighting a number of books on, by, or about Edwards.  For the reader wanting to meet the great theologian, this is the book to start with.  For the reader who has already read a lot by and about Edwards, this book is also a great read.