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.

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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Support Your Christian Authors

There is much to envy about the life of writers.  On the other hand, it is a life of long periods of working alone, and while being alone and being lonely are not exactly the same, they can overlap.  It is a life of much labor and frustration.  The love that the writer pours out onto the page goes for a long time–and maybe forever–without being requited.  For most who write, the trips to the bank are not frequent or overly exciting.  All this is assuming that the writer or would-be writer actually gets a manuscript completed, manages to get it revised, finds some way of getting it published, and then actually sees it get into the hands of willing readers.

Lots of people would like, so they say, to write a book.  Lots of people think they could write a book.  Most don’t get books written.  How many of those completed manuscripts should not have been written and should not be published is a different story.  Overall, the “successful” writers’ life is a hard life.  Only a very few writers in any field make enough money to live off of writing.  Often even the more successful writers find it necessary to devote lots of time to publicity and book signings and speaking in order to draw attention to their books.

That is the writer’s life.  I know a bit about it, having written a book or two and having written lots of articles and book reviews.  I also know something of how difficult it is to get the word out that a book has been written and is in desperate need for buyers and readers.  So, I am highlighting some books by Christian authors I know.  In most of these cases, I these are men that I only know through correspondence and social media.  However, I have discovered so many common bonds that I feel like we could have been life-long personal friends.

War in the Wasteland

The first of the books is War in the Wasteland by Douglas Bond.  Set in World War I, this novel includes some actual people, such as C. S. Lewis.  There are also fictional characters.  I found myself drawn to this book for two reasons.  First, I used Bond’s book Hostage Lands in my junior high class. Set in the days when Romans and Celts were battling over lands north and south of Hadrian’s Wall, this book is rich in history with a compelling story of faith built in.  It passed the most difficult test: The judgment of junior high students.  After we read the book, one of them asked if we could read more books.

Already being pleased with this Bond book, I wanted to read his book on World War I in conjunction with my teaching on the Great War and my readings of some six or more other books on that war.  Bond’s books are perfect for introducing young people to history and reinforcing faith issues.  I confess to being some 20 plus books behind in covering all of Douglas Bond’s many works, but this journey to completion is now underway.

 

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George Grant is no novice when it comes to writing books.  I have a whole shelf full of books he has written or compiled, and my collection is incomplete.  But he is so busy with pastoral duties and teaching that he doesn’t whip out books as frequently these days.  But it was exciting to see this book arrive in the mail.  An Experiment in Liberty: America’s Path to Independence is a great reading resource for studying American history.  I feel myself wanting to use this book next year with my junior high history class.

As expected in a George Grant book, you will discover many gems and witticisms and details about history that are usually obscured.  If someone seeks the more technical, scholarly type of work, look elsewhere.  But if you like the idea of story being an essential component of hi-story, go for this book.  Check and see if free copies are still being sent out.  All you pay is postage.  Here is the website:  https://www.georgegrant.net/?fbclid=IwAR1RCYGADQNyyDrwByQ1Se-tjlTrsrrbaRVXO3YipLSwo-Oinutq1hbQeiw

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I have not known Paul Rydecki for long.  I learned about him through a mutual friend, Ryan Brown.  Ryan teaches Latin at Veritas Academy, and he crossed paths with Paul on a trip to Italy.  (There is a Biblical precedent for meeting someone named Paul in route to Rome.)  A month or so ago, Ryan mentioned that his friend from the Italy trip had just published a new edition of one of Luther’s works.

Titled Luther’s Small Catechism: An Introduction to the Catholic Faith, this beautifully done hardback volume is a great edition to any library.  Granted, I am a Westminster Shorter Catechism man, but I love the Heidelberg Catechism, the New City Catechism, and Luther’s Small Catechism.  This is a handy, compact of Christian truths. Besides the catechism, the book has a really useful list of Bible memory passages. And for those of us still getting our minds wrapped around the best of Christian traditions, it has a lectionary for Bible readings throughout the year.

Along with Christian education, a good church, and a solid family, getting grounded in the historic, Biblical, and Reformation-based creeds, confessions,  and catechisms are the most important components for Christian living and discipleship.  So, I urge everyone at whatever age or stage of life to begin reading and learning creeds, confessions, and catechisms.  Go to the historic documents of your own church tradition, but then branch out and little and glean from the breadth of God’s field.

Luther’s Small Catechism is a fine source for those of us who need to do more than just admiring Luther.

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

A book on that is on my “Read Next” stack is Susie: The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon–Wife of Charles H. Spurgeon by Ray Rhodes, Jr.  There are quite a few things that commend this book.  First of all, it is related to the life of Charles H. Spurgeon.  If I had my life to live over, I would have invested time and money in obtaining the sermons and writings of Spurgeon much earlier and with much more diligence.  I am where a person ought to be at age 20 in terms of reading and cherishing Spurgeon.  I will not refrain from encouraging others to read the man himself.  Read Lectures to My Students, An All Round Ministry, John Ploughman’s Talks (now reprinted as Spurgeon’s Practical Wisdom), Treasury of David, and the many, many collections of his sermons, but especially the series published by Pilgrim Publications.  And read biographies of the man.

That being said, if this woman merely knew Spurgeon, her story would be of interest.  But she was the woman behind the great, but often suffering pastor, preacher, writer, and organizer of many ministries.  Add to that, I have heard so many recommendations of this book.  I will be writing a review just as soon as I finish reading this work.  But don’t wait for me!  Get the book.

The Oklahomans

I reviewed Shortgrass by John J. Dwyer just a few weeks ago.  I am still reeling and swooning over that book.  I can hardly wait until the sequel comes out in May.  This novel is set in Oklahoma in the years of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.  War is looming in the near future, in spite of promises to the contrary by President Roosevelt and actions to keep us out of it by Charles Lindberg (both of whom appear in the story).  It was an age where flying was still coming into its own and was filled with thrilling adventure to those willing to learn the skill.  Lance Roark, the hero of the story, is the guy I would want to be.  Don’t parade any super-heroes before me, for they fall short of Lance.

This book has so affected me that I may just haul off and buy John’s books on Oklahoma history, even though it is illegal to own books about Oklahoma in my state of Arkansas.  (In my home state of Texas, people would wonder why anyone would bother to read about any other of the lesser states.)

A last add-on to the list:

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The Resistance by Douglas Bond is his newest work, and my copy just arrived this week. This is a companion volume to War in the Wasteland, and it promises to be another great story set within a historical context.  In this book, the setting is World War II.  Expect more later.  But note this:  Both The Resistance and War in the Wasteland can be purchased together for a mere $25.  If you are homeschooling, use education as the excuse for buying these books.  If you are a Christian, use that as an excuse.  Find some reason and buy these books.

Coming soon:  New books by P. Andrew Sandlin, a reprinted book by David Chilton, more on Dostoevsky and Flannery O’Connor, new and older works on philosophy from a Christian perspective, more books on World War II, and books by historians that I have become acquaintances/friends with.

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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.

Shortgrass: A Novel of World War II by John J. Dwyer

I have a confession to make, and it will be of no great surprise to those who know me well.  I don’t prefer fantasy, science fiction, or what I might call Christian fantasy.  I have read and felt the power of The Chronicles of Narnia (although my reading was late in life) and I read and enjoyed The Lord of the Rings (and The Hobbit, but not The Silmarillion yet).  Does Fahrenheit 451 count as science fiction?  I love that book, of course.

But as a whole, in general, and overall, give me a novel with a realistic twist and a setting in the south or the west, preferably in an earlier era.  For that reason, I love Wendell Berry’s books.  And although William Faulkner’s southerners are often (nearly always) a bit on the eccentric, weird, and warped side, I love Yoknapatawpha County.  The books of Jesse Stuart are among my favorites, and Hie to the Hunters is the most popular book I teach.  The books of Ron Rash, some of Bret Lott’s novels, the Joe Pickett novels of C. J. Box, and the non-fiction, but deeply southern books of Rick Bragg are among my favorites.

So, it should be no surprise that I read and liked Shortgrass by John J. Dwyer.  But I was surprised.  You see, it is a bit awkward when one reads a novel by someone you know.  John Dwyer is in the category of a good friend I have never met.  We live in neighboring states:  He is in Oklahoma and I am in Arkansas. I have personally inscribed and autographed copies of his biographical novels about Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson.  I have his study of America history, titled The War Between the States: America’s Uncivil Civil War.  I read his posts on Facebook with joy and laugh at his grandson’s cute antics.  But his and my paths have not crossed.  We would be instant friends because of so many shared interests, although I would be a bit daunted by all he has done and is doing.

Here is the difficulty:  What do you do when a friend or acquaintance writes a book and it is only “so so” or even worse, what if it is awful?  Usually, I can find some good points in most books.  I have read a few where I found myself hoping the authors would kill off the main characters and end the book more quickly.

The good news is that I not only found this book pleasing to my desire to read about people in a past-tense southern setting and I found it quite enjoyable.  In fact, I am now chomping at the bit for the sequel which isn’t due out yet for a few months.  So, let me talk about this book a bit without any spoilers.

Shortgrass: A Novel of World War II by John J. Dwyer is published by Tiree Oghma Creative Media.  You can read and learn about the book from John’s website found HERE.

Oklahomans - Stry of Oklahoma and Its People

The story is set in Oklahoma (which is no surprise since John has written some histories of that state) during the 1930’s and 40’s.  The book is set in a historical context with lots of references to political events of the time, primarily the Great Depression, the New Deal,  and the looming prospects of war coming to America.  The main character is a young man named Lance Roark.  Lance is the All-American boy in many respects.  He loves his family, excels at football, loves his horse Jeb deeply, and faces all sorts of challenges and threats to his future.

While Lance is a great guy, he is not perfect or flawless.  He struggles to know what to do, which direction to turn at times, and how to curb his appetites and desires.  And Lance is a Mennonite.  He is not nominal believer, but rather is deeply committed to following Christ.  On the front line–to use an awkward analogy–the issue of interaction with the world is critical for a Mennonite believer.  Going to war is verboten (German for forbidden).  But what about other interactions in this world, or in Lance’s world, like football and college and girls of other faith persuasions?

I have to admit that the opening chapter created great doubts about the book in my mind.  It begins with the story of Lance’s senior year and a football game that turns into a brawl between neighboring towns.  If you don’t understand the intensity of small town sports rivalries, you won’t get this chapter.  Football has never been my sport.  God made me far too small, too slow, too uncoordinated, too unaggressive, too clumsy, and totally unfit for anything resembling sports competition, especially football.  But I was enduring the chapter until the end when something happened at the end that hooked me into the book.

So much for plot details.  Here I shall say a word or two about the importance of the book.

First, it accomplishes what a piece of fictional writing is supposed to do.  It provides enjoyment.  Great stories are enjoyable in many different ways and at different levels, but beyond all great themes, worldviews, philosophical underpinings, and the like, a story is to be enjoyed.  Mark Shortgrass a success here.

Second, this book deals with the struggles of a believer who is facing challenges to what he believes.  Lance has two loves pulling for his attention:  He wants to work at a mission among the Comanche people and he wants to fly airplanes.  Add to this all of the other things tugging at his heart and life:  Family, friends, football, girls, college, career, and the war.  Lance’s people had known religious persecution.  During World War I, the Mennonites in his community and background had been harassed and persecuted for their pacifism.  Their Germanic heritage caused people to accuse them of being in sympathy to Germany in World War I and their refusal to fight resulted in their being called cowards, traitors, and worse.

This is no book about shallow faith or easy believe-ism.  And it is not a sappy religious story of a good boy who finds the doors open to him as he obeys God all along the way.  An curmudgeonly Presbyterian Calvinist like myself found much in this book that resonated with my own life.

Third, this novel is set in the midst of a historical time-period with interactions and appearances of actual historical figures.  This gives the book a real feel.  If it did not actually happen, we know it could have.

Don’t want to overkill the book with praise here, so let’s give this review a rest.  Unfortunately, it will have to be a long rest since Mustang, the sequel, will not be out for a few more months.

John J. Dwyer, novelist, historian, Christian, and real Oklahoma cowboy.

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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Hitting the Heart and the Mind–Morning Reads

 

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Maybe I do believe in what is called “Second Blessing.”  And I certainly do believe it is the power of God’s Holy Spirit at work.  And it was not something that happened when I was a new Christian.  The Second Blessing that I refer to is learning to love mornings.  I wish that I could boast of being up by 4 or 5 a. m., but for that to happen, there will have to be a third blessing.  However, I do love mornings, and I love them for the fact that this is the time when I enjoy the BBC, not meaning the British Broadcasting Company, but rather Bible, books, and coffee.

Here are some of the recent reads that have been very strongly caffeinated remedies for both the heart and the mind.

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Mark Jones is a bright, young pastor, theologian, and writer who lives in Canada.  His mind, heart, and writing style almost appear to be cloned from the inimitable J. I. Packer.  In his book, he does several things.  First, he takes the reader through some deep systematic theology. In fact, the central focus of the Christian life is knowing who God is.  But this is not the deep end of the Olympic-size theological pool where Jones simply pushes you in and says, “Swim.”  He is clear, brief, direct, and very understandable.

Second, he has this book divided into 26 chapters with some introductory pages and an epilogue.  That makes this book a great resource for reading over the course of a month. Families could read it for the family devotion or Sunday school classes could use it as well.  (Preachers:  Don’t feel ashamed if you want to use the book for a sermon series.)  The chapters are short.  In fact, I had planned on finishing the book on January 27, but found myself reading more than one chapter on quite a few mornings.

Third, Jones brings you into his circle of mentors, teachers, and guides.  Like Packer, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and Jerry Bridges, Mark Jones is on a first-name friendship basis with many of the Puritans, Reformers, and Church Fathers.  One could simply go through this book and read the quotes–all warmly evangelical and nourishing–and delight in it.  The notes at the back of the book were announcements to me of books I should be reading and acquiring.

Fourth, in each chapter Pastor Jones first discusses and explains the doctrine–God’s Omnipresence, for example.  Then he turns the focus to Christ.  God’s attributes are found in the Lord Jesus Christ.  His Incarnation did not mean that He was not God the Son for a season. But we often don’t realize how Jesus has the same attributes we attribute in a fashion to the Triune God.  The final part of each chapter is application.  God’s attributes are not speculative, philosophical, or theoretical characteristics of a Supreme Being.  Our Covenant God reveals Himself and teaches us through that most vital aspect to all life and learning–Knowing God.

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Along with this book, Jones’ book Knowing Christ, which I read last summer, is also a fine work.  It should be read after reading Packer’s classic work Knowing God.  In fact, Dr. Packer wrote the foreword to Knowing Christ.  Once again, this book will take the reader deep into the Bible and theology with abundant quotes from the Puritans, their forebears, and heirs.

Some may be familiar with Jones from the massive book that he and Joel Beeke compiled titled A Puritan Theology:  Doctrine for Life.  This is a weighty book in every sense of the word, but one that can be digested in small sections.  Maybe this summer, I can return to digging from this gold mine.

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This past summer, Mark Jones gave some talks in Brazil where there is a growing love of Reformed theology and Puritan writings.  At least some of his books have been translated into Portuguese and published in Brazil.  He is also in demand as a speaker across North America.  With his youthful mind and love for God’s Word and God’s servants of old, I am hoping to see quite a few more books from him as the years go by.

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Mark Jones and son with Joel R. Beeke. Together, these two men compiled a great devotional and theological study of the Puritans titled A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life.

 

I mentioned Joel R. Beeke a few paragraphs ago.  Whereas I fight back being jealous of Mark Jones’ youth and brilliance, I have to combat a different type of jealousy regarding Joel R. Beeke, who is close to my age.  Pastor Beeke produces books faster than most people read them.  He writes, edits, compiles, or reprints and promotes more books than I can keep up with.  He may be the leading expert on the Puritans in our time.

I recently read and greatly enjoyed his latest book Reformed Preaching.

See the source imageTake this warning:  No man dare enter the pulpit without reading deeply, prayerfully, slowly, repeatedly, and thankfully from this book.  It is a wealth of practical instruction and guidance for the pastor and speaker.  Also, it is a history of preaching.  In fact, much of the book is a history of the preaching styles and focus of great preachers.  The history begins with the Reformers, and that does not mean just Calvin and Luther.  No surprise also that Beeke, as a proponent of the Puritans and their theology, includes lots of biographical and exhortative information about those hardy Englishmen.

There are also chapters devoted to Dutch preachers.  I can never really decide who were the greatest:  The Puritans, the Scots, or the Dutch.  I don’t have to pick a favorite, and they are all described here.  Some of the more recent preachers like Martyn Lloyd-Jones are included as well.  Even though the history section of this book is lengthy, I would have enjoyed yet another one or two hundred pages of such material.

Pastors need to be well versed in history and theology, they need to also be grounded in other areas that Beeke addresses.  These included being balanced (Woe are us Calvinists all too often!), being effective (not the same as being successful, but also not the same as being theologically sound), and being holy (and that is not just a scandal in the Roman Catholic Church).

The opening chapter of this book is titled “Reformed Experiential Preaching.”  When I first started this book (in either November or December last year), I read that chapter in one sitting.  The next reading time, I could not bring myself to move on in the book, but chose to read that section again.  I am still planning on reading the last chapter, “Preaching for Holiness,” again.

I have been blessed by being able to put this book in the hands of other preachers.  I wish I could give out a hundred copies of it.  My preaching career is over, so it seems, but still I found the book helpful and soul-nourishing.  The man or woman in the pews can read this as profitably as the preacher.

Reformed Preaching and God Is are both published by Crossway Books.  Knowing Christ is published by Banner of Truth.  A Puritan Theology is published by Reformation Heritage Books.