America in World War I–Two Great Reads

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I was recently attacked, beaten near senseless, and left bruised, bleeding, and humiliated.  I can identify the perpetrators.  One is Edward Lengel and the other is Geoffrey Wawro.  Both are historians.  Both have books on World War I that were published in the past year.  And I read both books and the results are described in my opening sentence.

When I think back on my stronger areas of history, I like to list such areas as American history, 20th Century history, and the World Wars.  There are a few other areas where I feel competent and many where I am better served by keeping my mouth shut.  But World War I?

Since the first of October I have been teaching on World War I in my Humanities classes.  I have taught from Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August, which sunk my students, and I tried to bail them out, but was not overly successful.  We also read All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.  We finished with World War One British Poets, a fine and short anthology of some of the vivid and powerful poems from the time.

I walked the students through the rival alliances, the strengths of the major powers, and the tensions that were threatening Europe.  I showed them the Schlieffen Plan as thought out and then poorly executed by the Germans.  I walked them through the succession of events from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand to the invasion of Belgium.  I went over a short list of why the United States entered the War.  I coached them through my “What Every Man or Woman Needs to Know About World War I” review sheets.

I felt pretty good about old Ben House as a history teacher.  Then along came Edward Lengel.  Many of his earlier books are on George Washington, but he has also written several on World War I.  His most recent book, even more recently reviewed in this blog, is Never in Finer Company.

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Never in Finer Company: The Men of the Lost Battalion and the Transformation of America by Edward G. Lengel is published by De Capo Press.

This book deals with an event within the greater actions of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I.  A battalion pushing against the German lines advanced beyond their flank supports and got cut off from the rest of the army.  The logical thing to do would have been to have retreated back to the security of the rest of the army.  But the orders and commands had been to advance and not retreat.

Another alternative would have been to surrendered.   The men under siege endured more than enough hardships.  Not only were they surrounded and under constant attack, but they were low on food and water and the wounded were not being attended.  They had fought the good fight and were in a hopeless situation.

Yet, they fought on.  How they held out is beyond me.  On one occasion, they even got shelled by American artillery.  The story is one of exceptional gallantry and worthy leaders on the battalion level.  Even the carrier pigeons in the unit served with distinction.

One side story on this story was the actions of Tennessee rifleman Alvin York.  York was not part of the Lost Battalion, but was part of the advancing columns that helped liberate the battalion and continued the advance against the Germans.

Great book.  Left me dazed with awe for the men of the unit, saddened at the effects of this on even the survivors, and the sacrifices men at war make.

Feeling the need to read even more on World War I and America’s role, I picked up the book Sons of Freedom by Geoffrey Wawro.

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Sons of Freedom by Geoffrey Wawro is published by Basic Books.  Dr. Wawro is a professor of history at the University of North Texas and the author of six books (four of which I now own).

As the subtitle explains, this book is about “The Forgotten American Soldiers Who Defeated Germany in World War I.”  I noticed a review that called this book “the definitive history” regarding America’s role in the war.  I agree.

This book is a lengthy and powerful account of how America’s entry on the actual battlefields enabled the Allies to win the war.  By 1918, both sides in the war were exhausted, bled white, and worn down by the grueling multiple fronts.  Russia was finished by then.  Revolution ended what the war itself had started on the Eastern Front.  Italy was basically caput as well. How Austria-Hungary was hanging on is still beyond me.  But there was Germany, now reinforcing the Western Front (the border areas in northern France and Belgium where the war had been raging since August of 1914).  Freed from the Eastern Front, Germany was racing more and more divisions to the west.

Under the command of the talented, but sometimes unbalanced, Erich von Ludendorff, the German army began a series of offenses against the British and French lines.  Any one of the offensive actions could easily have translated into the needed breakthrough that would have divided the Allied forces, pushed the British back into a Dunkirk situation (years before Dunkirk), or captured Paris.

The spent forces of the British and French armies sustained the front lines, but barely.  The German forces erred most greatly in shifting from one offense to the next instead of maintaining pressure in just one area.  But also, and most important, the American forces began hitting the fields of battle.

The United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917.  But it took a year before the United States was able to start massing still under-trained and unequipped soldiers on French soil.  Still, they were fresh troops, and so they began the process of filling in the gaps on the battlefields.  The American commander was General John J. Pershing.  Pershing’s greatest legacy in the war was his continual insistence on American troops being able to operate independently as American armies and not as replacements and gap fillers for the Allies.

In some cases, Americans got some useful baptism of fire by being used alongside of the British and French troops.  But the goal was always an independent field of action by the U. S. Army.  Pershing fought hard against his fellow Allied commanders to achieve this.  On the negative side, he was greatly underequipped as a commander to lead an army in this type of war.  He was somehow stuck in a time warp, not always realizing how the war had been fought for the past several years.

Americans focused on the offensive.  (So had every other major army for the previous years.)  In 1918, America had one resource that no other country had–a huge supply of troops.  The American muscle was just beginning to be flexed as the troops began pouring into France.  Sad to say, much of the story and much of the book is about the tremendous bloodbath Americans were thrown into in taking this war to the Germans.

Germany was a spent force, but far from a finished force by 1918.  They still had plenty of crack troops, plenty of machine gun and artillery emplacements, and an abundance of fighting experience.  Americans were the deciding factor in Germany’s defeat, but this was no cake-walk.

Even though Sons of Freedom is a lengthy and heavily detailed book, I found it engrossing.  Granted, there were flank attacks, repulses, commander changes (many, in fact), and other details that slipped right my mind.  Yet, the larger picture of this book was of the Americans pushing and hitting the German lines and, even with mounting casualties and increasing numbers of deserters, and winning the war.

For anyone else interested in World War I, these are two great reads.  Having read Lengel’s book first, I better understood some of what was happening in Wawro’s book.  But either book could be read first.  You might end these readings being a pacifist (which is what I would be if everyone else would sign on as well), or you might end with a greater appreciation for our soldiers from the past.

Both books call attention to men who were forgotten.  World War II so overshadows the Great War that we tend to see it as amateurish and poorly done by contrast.  Arguments can be made that the two wars were simple one long conflict with a twenty year gap in the fighting.  However the First War is viewed, Americans need to remember that–whether it was the best thing to do or not–our country won that war.

I love both books and highly revere the authors, even after they so brutally beat me up.

Boethius’ Consolation and Gibb’s How to be Unlucky

How to be Unlucky is by Joshua Gibbs and is published by The Circe Institute.  List price is $15.99, but Circe Institute has it discounted to $10.99.

Part of the story of this book begins with the unexpected and still largely unnoticed revival, renaissance, and reformation of classical Christian education.  As a renewed movement, it has been going on for some 25 years and is still in its infancy.  Many teachers, parents, pastors, and scholars have gotten into the movement and have had to play catch-up for a decade or two.  It is not a monolithic movement, nor is it confined to one branch or denomination of Christianity.

At this juncture in history, there are adults whose education was in classical Christian schools.  Overall, the results are astounding and impressive, but not everyone with a diploma from a CCE school is a walking compendium of Latin, logic, and rhetoric.  Even with the best of training, donkeys don’t win the Kentucky Derby.  Even if I had had the same instructors as Michael Phelps, I still would probably not be much past my faltering efforts at dog paddling.  Gifts and abilities differ.  So do schools.  So do teachers. And certainly, so do students.

From my impression from the book, Joshua Gibbs would not have been nominated for “Most Likely to Succeed” by his teachers.  I suspect he was subjected to that age-old saw of teachers, “He is smart enough, but he just doesn’t apply himself.”  (Or as we say where I live, “He just doesn’t apply hisself.”)  That’s okay because the B and C students are and should be the prime focus of teachers.  Let’s face it:  “A” students learn and excel under even the worst instruction, teaching, and curriculum.  It takes some real teaching to reach other students, but then again, sometimes we don’t. Then life and career and other matters step in and the gist of the lessons from school finally take root.

Joshua Gibbs describes himself as a less than stellar student who then became a teacher.  But it was in his fifth year of teaching that he had a “conversion experience.”  I don’t mean that he became a Christian at that point, but rather that he became a real student and thus started becoming a real teacher.  He was instructing a Medieval class on The Consolation of Philosophy  by Boethius.  I know something of what happened to him.

There is, first of all, the experience of reading a book, particularly a classic.  Quite frankly, sometimes classics leave us feeling good for having read them, but somewhat lost as to what the what big deal was.  “It’s a great classic because other people have said so,” is my occasional reaction, without my actually using those words in a classroom.

Then there is the experience of teaching a book, particularly a classic.  Here the teacher gets better at the nuts and bolts of the book.  You learn, instruct about, and test over characters, plot, setting, background, the author, and other aspects of the book.  There is a gnawing sense of guilt in all of this.  I approve of making students learn the basic story line and the names of key figures in the work. I am all for memorization of facts and mastery of details.  And the driven students make “A”s on those tests, proving we are good teachers.  But is the heart of Hamlet the list of characters or the rise and fall plot found in a tragedy, or recognition of key quotes?

At some point, hopefully, the teacher falls in love with the book.  At some point, he or she gets captured by the text, gets carried away, experiences some sort of ecstasy, enters Narnia, gets lost in the cosmos, undergoes a transformation, or whatever phrase might describe it.  It will more likely happen to the students if the teacher has had such an experience, but that is not an absolute.

This is the point where the teacher or reader has not just read, taught, studied, or written about the book, but has actually bought, embraced, identified with the book.  It will not be the same for every work, for I don’t think someone could sustain the emotional intensity.

But this is what happened to Joshua Gibbs during year five of teaching and when he finally entered in to the world of Boethius the author, Boethius the character, Lady Philosophy, and God who rules over all.

Personal testimony time:  Never read Boethius in high school, college, graduate school, on my own, or in my first 20 plus years of teaching.  Had barely heard of it.  Then one year when I was teaching Medieval Humanities, I invited my well-read friend Matt Smallwood to come talk about the book to my class.  Matt forgot his notes and he rambled.  I followed his talks, but was also using the free time to focus on something else.  The class was not assigned the book, but my son Nick may have read it.  I made some notes and promised myself that I would read the book, but didn’t.

Four years later when Medieval Humanities cycled around again, we read the book together in class.  I enjoyed it and think the class did as well.  Then after another four year cycle, the next group read through it.  For some reason, the class just didn’t seem to connect to the book.  Blame the teacher, if needed.  But I never reached a personal point where Consolation became one of my books.  It was never like Faulkner, Homer, Dostoevsky, or others among my favorites.

Back to Gibbs:  He writes, “By the time I finished Consolation for the first time, I understood that every great work of literature could be used as instruction in virtue.”  This doesn’t mean tacking on morals or lessons to the stories, but rather fleshing out the issues, examining the heart challenges, and exploring the human condition in the books we read.

How to be Unlucky is not a commentary to be used for lecture bullet points on Boethius.  It does explain a lot about the book, the author’s plight (in prison awaiting execution), and the issues he was grappling with.  But it is an examination of how Gibbs used passages to think through his own life, to apply the issues to his students’ experiences, and how to see God and virtue in the midst of life in a fallen world.

I hope that when I teach Consolation of Philosophy again, I have the good sense to read this book alongside Boethius.  But How to be Unlucky can be read as a stand-alone book with or without reading Boethius simultaneously.  It is a delightful look at two lives–that of Boethius from the late Roman period and that of Joshua Gibbs in our own time.

 

Reflect by Thaddeus J. Williams

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Reflect: Becoming Yourself By Mirroring the Greatest Person in History by Thaddeus J. Williams is published by Weaver Book Company.

First, let’s deal with my anger issues.  I did not know this book existed, nor did I know that Thaddeus Williams existed until a month or two ago. Here I am, slogging my way through this world, slipping and falling, sliding and failing, distracted by one worldly pursuit after another, wallowing in near illiteracy, and all the while, this book was out there.  I have already rebuked two friends, Andrew Sandlin and Brian Mattson, for writing glowing blurbs for this book, but not informing me of how good it is.

Related to all this, if Thaddeus Williams was really concerned with us mirroring Jesus, he should have personally flown across the country and hand delivered this book to me.  The fact that he did (or does) not know me is irrelevant.  This is a book I needed.  If it could be put in liquid form, I would have an IV attached to my arm and have the book fed to me that way.

Second, this book threw off my morning reading rituals.  I usually read only about ten pages a day in several different morning reads.  In this case, I would find myself reading and reading and reading until I was too full.  I was gulping this book down in whole chapters at a time.

Third, the cover art itself is worth the price of the book, especially for those of us who are always wanting to know who’s who in the world of Christian thinking and living.  By the way, inside the book is a numbered list identifying the 48 distinguished contributors to the book.  (Almost that many key Christian leaders wrote favorable blubs for the book.)

Where else will you see Bonhoeffer and Johnny Cash side by side?  Or Lecrae the rapper in between Augustine and G. K. Chesterton?  Or Charles Darwin looking rather uncomfortable because he is next to Jonathan Edwards?  This isn’t just clever cover art.  Each of the theologians, Christian authors, musicians, and cultural figures are quoted in the book with their own words being used to buttress arguments about following the life, teachings, and work of Jesus Christ.

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Some, but not all of the supporting cast in this book about Jesus Christ.

The title Reflect is itself full of meaning.  I must admit that as a book reviewer (my idea of a sports activity), I am always pressed to read and finish rather than read and reflect.  But we all have our urgent tyrannies.  Sometimes the words, “Nice sermon, pastor” (or I prefer to say, “Better luck next time”) is all of our response or reflection on a Sunday sermon.  After all, the sermon is over at noon or slightly past that and the call of the stomach for food is all consuming.  We all live too fast and furiously too much of the time and don’t take time to reflect on the Christian life.

This book is not a remaking of the Charles Sheldon’s somewhat drippy book In His Steps which was premised on the statement of “What Would Jesus Do?”  There is something to be said about the recurring WWJD idea or, now what we would call a meme.  But WWJD has to be approached with discernment.  Don’t come after me with a whip and turn over my book table where I am offering copies of this book in the church foyer.

Thinking about Jesus brings us to the R in the word Reflect and to the first point of the book.  Reason: Mirroring the Profound Thinking of Jesus.  I probably have a hundred books related to Christian thinking.  From Harry Blamires’ The Christian Mind to Herman Dooyeweerd A New Critique of Theoretical Thought to Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine to John Piper’s Think, I have been accumulating, reading, and using books showing how Christians ought to think.  After all, I am in the thinking business since I am a teacher.

What makes Williams’ chapter interesting (besides the fact that it is really interesting) is that his book doesn’t approach Christian thought and reasoning as an add on, or later chapter, in the process of following Christ.  He begins with this and then shows example after example of how Jesus won debates by using two successful keys:  Being right and using right reasoning.  After all, He could have turned his opposition into toads. (See the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? regarding the dangers here.)

The E in Reflect represent Emote:  Mirroring the Just Sentiments of Jesus.  I am enough of a crusty, old-time Calvinist to shudder when I am around too much emoting.  Modern Christianity, hand in hand with modern life in general, “thinks” emotion is thought, that feelings are doctrines, that being all heart is following Jesus, truth, and the American way.  The Christian doctrine of emotion, even that phrase sounds weird to me, is not to be Stoically cold and calculating to every event.  Jesus was an emotional man.  Being fully man and fully God, He is an emotional Person in the Triune Emotional Godhead.  When Williams talks about “outrage, passion, and joy,” he is describing aspects of the life of Jesus.  Theologians such as Jonathan Edwards and pastors such as Samuel Rutherford could write things that were downright embarrassing because they were so emotional in their devotion to Jesus.

F stands for Flip:  Mirroring the Upside-Down Action of Jesus.  As the criticism was made later that the apostles were turning the world upside-down by their teachings (Acts 17:6), so this could be made about Jesus.  Maybe we have read and heard the Bible stories too many times (let the reader understand), so we often are too used to, too comfortable with Jesus’ flipping situations, teachings, ideas, etc.

L stands for Love:  Mirroring the Radical Relationability of Jesus.  Once again, we are so accustomed to the use of the word “love” in a Jesus and church context that we forget how radical and challenging this is.

E stands for Elevate:  Mirroring the Saving Grace of Jesus.  I was so thankful for this chapter.  Here is why:  Basically, I believe in salvation by works plus grace.  Basically, I believe that while I might be a C- Christian, I am passing and will get promoted to heaven.  Grace always hits me hard and right between the eyes.  It corrects what is has already corrected a million times in my life and reinforces to me that Jesus saves sinners.  Saves, not just helps; saves, not just instructs; saves, not just supplements my own efforts.

Williams says, “To think, feel, act, and love in a Jesus-reflecting way is not challenging; IT IS IMPOSSIBLE. Anyone who thinks otherwise has either laughingly overestimated himself, or seriously underestimated Jesus. The distance between him and us is infinite. Thankfully, there is grace.”

C stands for Create:  Mirroring the Artistic Genius of Jesus.  This is the chapter (not to be read by skipping ahead) that I commend to all my artistic friends and family members.  Poets, musicians, artists, designers, and writers:  Take note how we as Christians are to follow Jesus as our Master Artist.  For a time, there were tables, chairs, or other items that Jesus the Carpenter had made.  No doubt these artistic works were well done, but Jesus the Artist, Designer, Author, Carpenter, Painter left us His magnum opus:  An empty tomb.  All the great paintings, all the fine poetry, and all the moving songs (“He’s Alive” by Dolly Parton is my favorite) and then realize that they are all covers, imitations, and copies of the original:  Jesus’ Resurrection.

T stands for Transform:  Mirroring Jesus in All of Life.  Transformation is an underused and overwhelming word in the Christian life.  As a Christian who uses the word “Reformed” to describe my theology, I really need to be a Transformed Christian more and more.  It is not a one time action, but a life-long process.

Since I have given all these spoilers, is there any reason now to read this book?  As my pastor Jared Gibson often says, “Are you crazy?” (Or the milder version, “Are you kidding?”).

Read, reflect, read again, buy copies and give them to those that need to read and reflect.

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Orcs and Hurons

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Long before Middle Earth was born in the mind of J. R. R. Tolkien, long before the fellowship of a band of unlikely travelers to Mordor, long before battles between Orcs and Hobbits, another imaginary world was created.  Both this imaginary world and the Tolkien world were rooted in history and in a sense of home and place.  Both envisioned shires that were or could have been unspoiled by the forces of conflict all around.  Both worlds were caught up in deadly battles.

In our day, we have grown fond of the author who creates a literary universe inhabited by characters we can love or hate, aspire to be like or loath for their likeness to our worst natures.  We long to know that the small niche we occupy in the universe could possibly open a door to a victory that will tip the scales of a cosmic war in favor of good.  We desire for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, with our efforts and prayers being a contributing factor.  And we long to love, to be loved, to have companions whose ties are more than common interests, but rather feelings stemming from the heart.

Tolkien witnessed a broken, ugly, ripped and torn world located in the trenches of World War I.  Pastures and fields of northern France were caught in the jaws of the war gods of modern metalic and explosive technology combined with a desire to destroy the order and unity of the older European culture.  Recovering from his war wounds (illnesses which took him away from the front and likely saved him from a battlefield death). Tolkien began imagining a world that came to life years later with the words, “In a hole in the ground lived a Hobbit….”

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But Middle Earth had its prequels in the world of literature.  One could go back as far and The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid, or to the worlds of King Arthur or Spenser’s Fairie Queene to find the precursers to Middle Earth.  However, a world that captured the imagination of Tolkien and whole legions of writers was found in the upper reaches of the British colony of New York.  The names are actual historical places and some of the events are historical.  The world itself was a created fiction that sprang from the mind and prolific pen of James Fenimore Cooper.

Cooper’s novels and writing style have not fared well in the modern world.  In that respect, he is in good company, alongside Sir Walter Scott, Herman Melville, John Fox, Charles Dickens, William Gilmore Simms, and others.  To make matters worse, Cooper has also had to sustain the most devastating literary attack of all time:  the sarcastic, cynical, cruelly witty, satorizing bombardment by Mark Twain.  Many who read a bit of Cooper’s books have then discovered Twain’s essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” and grant Twain the role of jury, judge, and executioner.  That is an overly hasty judgment, to say the least.

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Cooper was the father of many trends in literature.  He wrote the first sea novel–The Pilot.  Thus, he spawned genre that would lead to books like Moby Dick and to series like the Horatio Hornblower novels and the Aubrey-Maturin by Patrick O’Brian.  He wrote the first spy novel–The Spy.  This became the first of a genre that still excites readers and has engaged the writing focus of authors such as John Buchan, John LeCarre, Daniel Silva, Brad Thor, and Olen Steinhauer.  He wrote the first literary series–the five volumes called The Leatherstocking Tales.  Series novels, that is, novels that return again and again to the same character, now account for such favorite series as The Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter books, and the works of Rick Riordan.  He wrote the first “westerns,” which would include several of his books, but particularly The Prairie.  From Zane Gray to Louis L’Amour to a whole range of authors, the western continues to be a favorite type of novel.

More important, Cooper was the first to make use of the American continent as a setting, American history as a context, and the relations between the white European settlers and the Native American/Indian tribes as a theme.  The richness of this land, this cultural experience, and the conflicts–social and political–here in the United States became Cooper’s best remembered literary legacy.  Upstate New York during the late colonial and early national period became the forerunner of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Wendell Berry’s Port William, Kentucky.

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But it was Cooper’s Indians who made the biggest impact on the American way of thinking.  It is easy to assume that Cooper, living in the early 1800’s, was living right in the mix of white man and Indian conflicts.  But for him, where he was and where he lived, the issues had long since been settled.  Indian wars, conflicts, abuses, and interactions were still happening in the mid-west and west, but the Indian populations of Cooper’s area, including his home base in Cooperstown, had suffered the fate of his fictional Mohicans and Delawares.

Sure, Cooper sometimes romanticized Indians.  He was writing Romantic novels in the age of literary Romanticism.  No doubt he depended on stereo-types, distortions, misunderstood legends, and cultural fictions.  What else can we expect?  If I were to write fiction set in the American south of the early 1900s, it would contain just as many inaccuracies.  All fiction depends on a host of character-types.  But the significant thing is that Cooper wrote about Indians.

In The Last of the Mohicans, the Delaware tribe, of which the Mohicans are a part, are a noble, but defeated people.  The hostile Hurons regularly refer to them as being “women” and “dogs.”  They have been culturally demolished, demoted, and depressed as a people.  Compare them to the Polish people during the first half of the twentieth century (conquered and divided by Nazis and Soviets, then completely dominated by Nazis, and then “liberated” by the Red Army and oppressed until the 1980s).  Cooper’s main character, Natty Bumppo, loved and learned from the Delawares.  Although Natty reminds us about a thousand times that he is “a man without a cross” (racially white, not mixed) and that he has white man gifts and not Indian gifts, he has high regard for the tribe that to some extent adopted him.

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Closest to him is his companion, the quiet, unflinching, steady Mohican chief Chingachgook, son of one Uncas and father of another Uncas and the descendant of the great Unamis–the Turtle.  A man of few words, a good friend to have in the woods, a sure source of rescue when captured, Chingachgook was the model of the good, noble savage.  Killing and scalping an opponent was all in a day’s work for him, but he was a ture friend and brother to Natty Bumpo.  Nicknamed “Le Gros Serpent” or the Big Serpent, Chingachgook has the legendary stealth and threat of the creature he is compared to.

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By the way, unlike several of the film portrayals of this pair of frontiersmen, Hawkeye/the Pathfinder/Scout/Deerslayer/La Longue Carabine and Chingachgook are roughly the same age.  The Mohican is likely a few years older, but they are contemporaries, not father and son figures.

 

The stock bad guys in several of Cooper’s books are the Hurons.  Cooper or Natty Bumppo will often refer to them as Mingos, Maquas, Iroquois, or even imps, they are usually up to no good, in the pay of the French, and on the war path.  When a Huron shows up in one of the Leatherstocking Tales, be assured that within four or five pages, some deviltry will be going on, unless Hawkeye and the Serpent arrive to clear the decks.

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The more sensitive literary critics of our time are quick to remind of how Cooper’s good/bad dichotomy is simplistic.  But then what literary series or movie or television drama does not have bad guys?  When it is the government, big business, the Russians in the past, conservatives in some twists, or foreign terrorists, bad guys have to…be bad.

Even with his black and white portrayals, Cooper none the less gives some credence to why the perfidious Hurons seem to have woken up on the wrong side of the buffalo robe every day.  Magua, the most malacious of Hurons, had endured some pretty severe treatment from the British and the his own tribe.  The recurring theme is that the Indian tribes (whether Huron, Delaware, or other groups) found themselves in the midst of several European conflicts (particularly between French and British empires) in which they–the Indian people–were losers, no matter what.

Many years after Cooper’s novels were written, an English author found Cooper’s Redskins fascinating.  They were distant, historical, mythical, and useful.  In his own mind and works, they were a shadow, pattern, archetype for his own race of evil creatures–the Orcs.  Tolkien’s various people groups–Hobbits, Elves, Orcs, and others–each had their complex history and interactions.  They were what they were due to both nature and nurture.  Orcs were pretty nasty and foul in both actions and moods, but there was something human and in need of redemption in them.  Not that the Rings Trilogy dealt with the redemption of Orcs, but rather it was that killing Orcs was still a sad, though necessary, business.  “There but for the grace of God, go I,” one might say when thinking of Orcs.

By the “accident of geography,” or rather the “decrees of God,” we are living in the freedom-centered American world.  But had I been born in Germany, Russia, China, Yemen, or the jungles of who knows where in the not-so-distant past, what is the likelyhood that I would have been a middle class, church going, Reformed Protestant, conservative Republican school teacher?

There is always a battle for Middle Earth, for sanity, decency, Western Civilization, Christendom.  The warriors are a combination of forces made up of a number of factors.  Some fight for the right to live lifestyles I find abhorent.  Some envision a return to Medieval Christendom as a worthy model; others look to the Old South, Geneva during the Reformation, Britain during the Golden Age of Empire, the short-lived Kennedy/Camelot vision, a one world order, a society of agrarian values and villages, or a benevolent Big Brother state.  We have no concensus over what “Let’s Make America Great Again” would mean or look like.

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The way to our visions or hopes or Utopias is hindered by Hurons and Orcs.  Rename them what you will.  As long as there is a tale told by some storyteller of a frontiersman named Hawkeye and his faithful Mohican friend or a fellowship of Hobbits with an Elf, a Dwarf, and a future King, there is hope.

This Post is dedicated to two of my favorite citizens from Middle Earth who are seen below discussing strategies for the next phases of the battle for the Shire:

George, an Elf in the Tolkien sense:  A towering warrior and freedom fighter for what is best in Middle Earth.

Julian (“Shep”): A Hobbit, albet a tall one.

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The Mayflower by Rebecca Fraser

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On this Thanksgiving Season in 2017, it is easy to think back to the American Pilgrims, Plymouth Rock, The Mayflower, and the first Thanksgiving (which really wasn’t the first–Thanksgiving started in the southern colonies).  The pleasant features of the story are ingrained into our culture.  Even those times when some tried to divert the message into being a feast where the Pilgrims were giving thanks to the Indians for their help, the religious nature of the Pilgrims has not been erased from our heritage.

Each time I teach American history, I run the risk of foundering my course by getting too lost in the colonial period.  1607-1775 is a long time.  Many foundational actions took place in the many (not just 13) colonies in the New World.  Besides, I am a Calvinist, so there is lots of rich material regarding the theological roots of American history.  Seventy-five percent or more of colonial Americans held to Reformed theology in some form or another.  The Great Awakening, with its two key leaders Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, is a vital chapter in America’s history which directly impacted much that followed.  I never get to adequately cover the French and Indian War, in spite of my interest in it.

Of course, the landing on the harsh, rocky banks of what was called Plymouth gets notice.  The Pilgrims, who are better termed Separatists, play a major role in many aspects of American history.  There is the voyage itself, an incredibly risky venture based on certain convictions about church life.  Then there is the Mayflower Compact, a precursor of the written constitutions that would form the governments of both colonies and states and then of the United States.  Literature was birthed in part at Plymouth with William Bradford’s classic Of Plymouth Plantation.  European and Indian relations would be seen in its best light with the aid given by Samoset and Squanto to the settlers. Economics was provided with the greatest example of the failure of socialism when the settlers attempted to share all things in common.  The 1621 thanksgiving celebration, of course, then is re-enacted by school children even to this day.

But the Mayflower and Plymouth Plantation or Colony gets a short column or a few paragraphs in our history books.  (Of necessity, no history survey can do justice to specific events.)  Plmouth’s few hundreds were soon overshadowed by the thousands of Puritans who settled the Boston area and other parts of what became the larger, dominant Massachusetts Bay colony.  Massachusett settlers and Plymouth settlers would share and cooperate with each other for a time, but Plymouth soon became just a part of the larger, wealthier, more advanced Protestant community of Massachusetts.

A new book, perfect for today, great for anytime, is titled Mayflower: The Families, the Voyage, and the Founding of America is by Rebecca Fraser.  This new book is published by St. Martin’s Press and is available from all major book stores.  Rebecca Fraser is well equipped as a historian and writer.  She is the daughter of Antonia Fraser who has written quite a few works on English history.  Rebecca  has previously written The Brontes (about the sisters who were writers) and the very readable Story of Britain.

The story of the hardy band of Pilgrims is a tale worth telling and hearing again and again.  Call it audacity, pluck, courage, or even near insanity, the forces that worked in them to commit them to stepping on a west bound ship across the Atlantic were extraordinary.  Sure, they survived, but as evidenced by previous ventures into the New World, such as Roanoke and Jamestown, this was a high risk venture.  The mortality rates for those who came to Plymouth were exceedingly high.  Fraser notes a few souls who went back to England, but the amazing story is of those who literally carved out a home in the wilderness.

Of course, it helped that portions of land had already been carved, or more actually cleared, by the Indian tribes.  The interactions between the Europeans and the various Indian tribes plays a large part in the developing story.  From some of the early and successful interactions, relationships were often cordial and cooperative.  Indian chiefs were quite shrewd in their dealings with these new inhabitants.  Trade and diplomacy were both conducted to gain maximum benefits by both parties.  Items such as beaver skins provided a means for the colony to thrive economically.  Hachets, guns, and cloth from the Europeans were beneficial to the Indians.

Sadly, the whole story is not one of two mutually prospering groups.  The increasing numbers of Europeans and superior fire-power enabled them to dominate the story.  There were two major wars in the region.  The first was the Pequot War and the second was King Phillip’s War.  While the numbers of those killed are small compared to later wars on this continent, on a per capita basis, there were real killing fields.  King Phillip’s War was perhaps the best opportunity the Indian tribes ever had to drive out the English.  Of course, it failed, and with it, the power base of the Indian community was forever diminished.

Religion is a major focus of the book.  After all, this is about the Pilgrim Fathers.  Add to that, it was the century of religious wars and conflicts that consumed England and much of continental Europe during the 1600s.  Furthermore, as the story of Plymouth develops, the Puritans will come to dominate the region.  The American colonies were a testing ground, a melting pot, a safe zone for many religious ideas and practices that were challenging Europe and England in particular.

Puritan New England (which we might better call Reformed New England since not all were Puritans) is often criticized, misunderstood, and caricatured.  Until Perry Miller decided to study those dreadful Puritans, they were more an object of curiosity or distaste than a subject of study. Miller’s academic pursuit later merged with a theological reawakening of interest in Puritanism and Puritan theology.  As with all of history, the simple explanations don’t explain.  The Puritan society or religious foundations of New England were complicated.

As Fraser emphasizes, the Mayflower settlers were people of firm, dedicated commitment to living the Christian faith in ways their separatist and Reformation theology demanded.  Bradford, Brewster, Winslow, and others were the real deal.  So were many of those whose theological differences confuse the outsider.  By that, I mean that the Puritans, Roger Williams and his followers, the Mathers, and even the Quakers were people of conviction.  Simply put, they would die for their faith commitments.

At the same time, from our distant perspective, the theological worldview was flawed.  The problem was not that they were trying to follow the Bible, but rather they did not follow it adequately or correctly.  A recurring error of that time was interpreting bad events as judgments of God. A drought or storm, an Indian raid, an unexpected death, and other events were too readily explained as though the New Englanders could read the mind of God in them.  (I do believe calamities ought to drive us to self-examination and repentance, but we cannot know God’s purpose in all such tragedies.)

Then there were the outright theological failures.  Most saddening was the practice of selling Indian captives into slavery.  This was the common practice during King Philip’s War.  War rarely brings out our better qualities, but this was quite deplorable.  Later, the witchcraft frenzy and trials were another blot on New England.  While there were those pastors who warned against abuses, some stupid things were allowed such as allowing for “spectral evidence” in court.  This has reference to people claiming to have seen or witnessed a person doing something weird and that testimony being accepted as fact.

Much of this book is centered around the Winslow family.  They came on the Mayflower, became leaders in the community, and continued to be influential through the generations.  They represented what was the best, most creative, and most worthy of the world that would grow out of Plymouth.  Edward Winslow was a great man, but he was still just a man, a success in some areas and a failure in others.  He befriended Maasassoit, chief of the Wampanoags, and he worked to make Plymouth prosperous.  His son, as is often the story in history, was a man of a different generation.  His faith commitment was dim compared to the father, and his actions were more of the enterprising and pragmatic American than that of the commited Pilgrim.

This book is a fine story.  It is history as story; therefore, it contains truth, beauty, and goodness, but also reveals falsehoods, ugliness, and evil.  It is our nation’s story.  We re-enact and remember only a small part, but we need to know the bigger story as well.

Glancing Back at Antiquity–Quick Looks Books

In college, my focus was mainly on American history. I did take courses on British history (which is fundamental background for American history) and on Modern Europe (meaning Europe since the 1500s).  Outside of my course work and interest was the Ancient and Medieval Worlds.  Years of teaching world history did better acquaint me with fields outside of my preferences.  But the focal point was always on American and Modern European history.

My entrance into classical Christian education began with a horrifying jolt in the summer of 1995.  I attended some lectures by Wes Callihan and Chris Schlect (both of whom were then teachers at Logos School in Moscow, Idaho) and found myself confronting a near total illiterate–myself.  That began what is now year 24 in a quest to read all the classical works from Genesis and Gilgamesh to Faulkner and Ishiguro.  I am still behind on my readings, by the way.  But I have made progress.

This post–which promises to be brief–will focus on three recent books that are helps or friends in the journey through Antiquity.  They all deserve longer, more detailed, more persuading reviews.  For now, let me assure you that they are all worthy candidates for a space on your bookshelf if you are reading, teaching, or exploring the worlds of Greece and Rome.

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Communication, Love, and Death in Homer and Virgil by Stephen Ridd is published by the University of Oklahoma Press.  It is Volume 54 in the Oklahoma Series in Classical Culture.  As Victor Davis Hanson and others have lamented, studies in the Classical Culture of Antiquity or studies in the Greek and Roman languages and literature are much diminished in our day and time.  College educated people from past centuries read the classics in the original languages.  My college experiences did not even include reading translations.

This is not the book to start with.  Even though it is called “An Introduction” to certain aspects of Homer and Virgil, don’t begin here.  Read Homer and Virgil.  Read them several times.  Read them with a group.  Read a couple of translations.  Homer’s works are simple enough:  The Iliad and The Odyssey.  (I recommend Richmond Lattimore for the first and Robert Fagles for the second.)  For Virgil, read The Aeneid.  Virgil’s Georgics can also be fun.

It was Louise Cowan and some of her students who first opened my eyes to the richness of these works.  Through the years, I have taught Homer and Virgil’s books to many innocent students.  Each reading and teaching experience challenges me to better understand and enjoy the epics.  My preliminary reading from Dr. Ridd’s book convinces me that this is a worthy resource to be dipped in to or read from cover to cover.

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Worldview Guide: Meditations of Marcus Aurelius by Dr. Brian Phillips is published by Canon Press.  Brian Phillips is a friend of mine (although we have only met once) and a brother in Christ.  He is also the pastor of a family of friends–Wade, Jody, and Caleb Choate.  Brian jokingly wrote in the inscription of my copy “Rave about it publicly.”

This makes my task and burden difficult.  But I will be brave and launch in with this major criticism of this book:  At 41 pages, it is WAY TOO SHORT.  I was just getting into the enjoyment of this book when poof, it was over.

Now, let me put a better spin on all this.  When reading and teaching classics, we often need help.  The tendency is to go pull a dozen volumes off the shelf that provide helps and hints to understanding some older work.  The book–even if it is War and Peace–looks small compared to the towering stack of commentaries and serious studies.  The book described above about Homer and Virgil is that type of helpful reading.  But the key to reading classics is reading classics.  

My belief is that the reader/teacher needs to find a few short, simple (as in simplistic), readable guides for the classic.  Read the Wikipedia article on the classic.  Read an encyclopedia article, a summary, or a brief (5 pages or less) introduction.  But let nothing stop you from reading the classic.  Upon reading the work itself, keep plowing back through the brief helps.  Only after your classical permanent teeth come in can you or should you read the experts.

Brian’s book is a part of a series of Worldview Guides.  The Christian reader can easily succomb to either rejecting a book totally because the author is a pagan  or embracing it totally because it mentions things compatible with Biblical truths.  Marcus Aurelius was not a Christian; in fact and almost unexplainably, he was a Roman emperor who persecuted believers.  But before we shout, “Unclean, unclean,” we have to recognize the sheer brilliance and beauty–via God’s common grace–of his Meditations.

I read and loved the Gregory Hays’ translation of Meditations, pictured above and published by The Modern Library.  Phillips uses the older George Long translation (1862).

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Destoyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World by Larry W. Hurtado is published by Baylor University Press.  This book is a blockbuster of a work.  It can be asserted that the Christian battle royal against the Roman world is the greatest epic battle of history.  Many of us Christians read the New Testament with far too much ease.  But the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles are battle reports and tactical training manuals for warfare.  And, pragmatic folks notice, it worked.

This book will preach, to use the old preacher term.  It is a scholarly, historical, and theological work.  But it is affordable (not all that common for university press publications) and practical and devotional.

My only lament in this post is that this is my American Story year for Humanities.  Most of my reading and all of my teaching will be devoted to things American.  But books can still be scanned, dipped into, and coveted (in terms of content) even when they are not on the reading stacks.

The History Teacher’s Morning Devotional

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Many pastors and preachers are readers of history.  If the study of theology and the Bible is their vocation, history is often their source for relaxation as well as for extra help.  Stories from history support and add to sermons.  History is, in some ways, an extended commentary of Biblical truths.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “I know of nothing next to the reading of the Scriptures themselves that has been of greater value to me in my own personal life and ministry than constant reading of the history of the church.”  Along with church history, biographies are a favorite of ministers.  But secular history, and I wince at that awkward term, is also useful for broadening a pastor’s perspectives, providing rich sources for sermon illustrations, and disciplining the mind.

Not only do many preachers read history, quite a few have written on historical subjects.  There is the field of history as a profession, involving certain academic credentials and labors, but history is not confined to the specialists.  Along with journalists, novelists, and popular authors dipping into the vast river of history, preachers sometimes write histories.

Along with history-reading-and-using preachers, there are also history teachers who borrow heavily from the fields of the Bible and theology.  I am talking about more than a history teacher who is a church member in good standing and who reads his Bible each morning for personal spiritual growth.  Some historians have dug deeply into theological matters for historical research.  This is more than just the realm of church historians.

Christopher Dawson was first and foremost a historian, but his historical works are shaped by his theological concerns.  The Dutchman Groen van Prinsterer was primarily a historian, but his conversion to Christianity radically altered his understanding and writing of history.

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Just as some (hopefully not many) preachers preach badly, so some people do history badly.  Beware of statements like “History shows” or “History proves” or “What we can learn from history is.”  History provides illustrations of everything.  Want to prove or buttress any argument?  Look around in the huge bin of historical examples.  Every cause imaginable has been put forth as to why the Roman Empire fell.  Every American President or political leader can be likened to some famous or infamous Roman.  Almost any era of history can be presented as a golden age or as an example of vice we should be careful not to follow.

In short, history does not prove.  Go to math class for proofs.  This does not mean that history is without lessons or practical applications.

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Today (July 19, 2017), I finished reading the book Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers by Daniel L. Dreisbach.  It is published by Oxford University Press.This is one of the best books I have read this year and is one of the best studies of the Founding Era of U. S. history that I have ever read.  While it is true that we should not be taken in by credentials and academic titles, professional historians are held to higher standards than the rest of us.  There is much to be said for academic reputations and peer reviews.  Yes, mother sometimes knows best what to do for your stomach ache, but you still go to the trained, licensed doctor for serious medical conditions.

Dr. Dreisbach is both a scholarly historian and a Christian.  He has filled in a large gap in the conventional story of the sources of America’s freedom and establishment as a nation.  Certainly, the familiar names, such as John Locke and Montesquieu, are mentioned, but it was the Bible that provides the most quotes and references among the founders in their writings and speeches.  But was this just a ploy used to appeal to a Bible-reading public?  To some degree, yes, but the extensive use of Bible verses, references, and ideas in public and personal discourse indicates that the Bible was believed and adhered to as a spiritual or God-given source for political understanding.

In my Humanities class this coming school year, I will be teaching The American Story.  It is my favorite of the four Humanities courses, largely because I am better versed in American history and literature than the other subject areas.  But even the teacher needs both refresher studies and new realizations.  This book provides both.  I have been exploring the connection between the Bible and American history for years.  I am certain that I have read and studied at least a couple of hundred books on the topic.  (Many books included the topic but were not focused on it.)  If I were to provide a bibliography of ten or so books, this one would make the cut.  Unless I am forgetting some other vital book, this one might very well get first place honors.

If 234 pages of text were not enough to convince or challenge me, Dreisbach has an extensive section of notes with further details.  This book can be used, as the title of this post states, as a devotional read for the history teacher.  But this devotional will not be closed as the teacher then prepares for his or her labors in the classroom.  Whether quoted extensively in lectures or just used indirectly, this book will impact the teaching of history.

I received my copy of this book free for the task of reviewing it.  As such, I am not obligated to speak in favorable, much less glowing, terms about it.  But I am doing such because it is that good.