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What Hath God Wrought

What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815 - 1848What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815 - 1848 by Daniel Walker Howe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I greatly enjoyed Howe's history and learned a lot, mostly details of topics I only had surface knowledge of, such as the Mexican War.

I'm very intrigued by his overall interpretation of the period. The heroes are John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, standing for a vision of America that challenged the white supremacy of the Jacksonian Democrats. He feels that Abraham Lincoln fulfilled the Adams-Clay vision for America and that that vision ultimately triumphed over the other. He closes with Seneca Falls as the 1848 event that most heralded America's (and the globe's) future.

Which is interesting to read now, more than a decade after he published the book. For Jacksonian populist nationalist white supremacy has reared its ugly head. Is the great history of America a battle between Jacksonian Democrats (now the GOP) and Whigs?

***
His treatment of religion is very well done and one of the reasons the book was on my list.

***
The closing chapter, centered on Seneca Falls, never mentions Sojourner Truth, which I found both odd and deeply disturbing. Especially because Sojourner Truth was one of the characters introduced early in the book, so I assumed it would circle back around to her once I realized the great women's rights covention was the closing scene. In a rather exhaustive tome, it is a noticeable absence that mars the whole.

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Our Truth

Our Truth

Luke 4:21-30

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

3 February 2019

 

 

            One of the things I enjoy about pastoring this church, is its rich history.  Fortunately, generations did a great job of archiving what they were doing and telling stories, so that you can learn about the past.  I particularly like reading about the pastors who proceeded me, most of them gifted leaders with vision and innovative thinking.

            Harold Janes was the pastor here from 1946-1958, in that post-World War II boom era for Mainline Christian churches.  One of our history books describes his pastorate as “outstanding” and said, “It can hardly be questioned that during his ministry the church has never been busier.  A great number of new organizations, projects and religious services have been inaugurated by him.  It would be impossible to name all of them.”  It then proceeds to list a bunch, at the conclusion of which the annual Jordan Festival.

            What’s that you ask?

            Then we are told, “This last originated in 1949 as a means of celebrating the baptism of Jesus, one of the most important and yet neglected events of the founder of the Christian Church.  As a result of this annual observance, First Central Church has become known as the Church of the Jordan Festival.”

            Now, see, this is the sort of tantalizing tidbit that sends me pouring through archives to learn more.

            The first place I learned more was in the booklet for the Capital Campaign that was launched in 1953 called “Program of Progress.”  Joan Eddy gave me the book a few years ago when I approached her wanting to know more about Harold Janes and his pastorate.  You might be interested in some of the things that were included in that capital campaign:  Air conditioning, new choir robes, the antiphonal organ, remodeling the chancel of the sanctuary, supporting medical missionaries in Angola, supporting the camping program.  Then there are a few others that never happened:  completing the bell tower, ensuring there were adequate parking lots of the future, adding counselors to the church staff, establishing a senior care residential home, building a cloister to run along the north side of the sanctuary connecting what we call the South Patio Entrance with the Narthex, and then building a 125 seat chapel off of the northwest side of the narthex running along 36th Street where the patio currently is.  Janes and the church leadership had ambitious, visionary goals.

            Now, I said this document told me more about the Jordan Festival.  That’s because fully funding it was the first item in the capital campaign.  What had started as an annual worship service was supposed to grow to include weekend conferences, lecture series by visiting theologians, commissioning new choral and dramatic works, and producing those for the community.

            Finally, they were going to install a quote “beautiful wood-carving of the baptism of Jesus” at the back of the chancel there where the table and cross now are to “be a source of constant inspiration to those who come within the sanctuary.”

            Before this week, I knew all of that, but this week I pulled out seven years of church bulletins from the 40’s and 50’s and scanned through them to learn more about this Jordan Festival.  The February 10, 1952 bulletin announces that year the expansion of the festival.  It had begun in 1949 with three weeks of preaching culminating in a big worship service which gained national attention interestingly enough.  Then in the following years, Martin Bush, who was this church’s  organist and music director from 1906-1955 (Stephen, to beat that you’ll have to be here till at list 2048) . . . anyway Martin Bush composed a choral anthem for the festival entitled “In Those Days Came John the Baptist.”  He composed the work because he realized there was a dearth of music about Jesus’ baptism.  By the way, I went looking in the music library, and sure enough, that piece is still there in our collection.  I couldn’t find another Martin Bush original piece “The Ballad of Judas Iscariot,” however.  I was really interested in seeing that one.

            Anyway, this festival was growing every year, and in 1952 they added an original one-act play to the many-week program. The play was entitled “He Came Seeing” by Mary P. Hamlin.  Included in the choir performing that night was one Contralto Miss Joan Eddy and the part of Hilkiah, a Jewish aristocrat, was played by William Wiseman, Tracy and Wendy’s dad.

            Why all this for the Baptism of Jesus?  It appears that Harold Janes wanted this holiday to become as big as Christmas and Easter.  He must have been nuts.  I can’t imagine any sane clergy person wanting a third holiday as involved as the other two.  And even more nuts for putting it in between them! 

            But he had his reasons, in that 1952 newsletter announcement, we read,

 

The inception of the festival was based on the idea that the baptism of Jesus was one of the most transforming, yet much neglected, events in His life.  Its celebration, we thought, would remind us of the source of individual religious power, of the true basis of our democracy, and the nature of the church.

 

            I really wish I could locate one of Harold Janes’s sermons about this so I could get more details, especially how he connects baptism to democracy.

 

            Last summer our Worship Ministry read an essay by UCC theologian Walter Brueggemann entitled “Back to Basics,” and in the fourth section that essay, Brueggemann wrote that one of the ways our worship and preaching should get back to basics is “articulating and processing the profound either/or of our baptisms.”  As we discussed this section of the essay, the Worship Ministry was persuaded, we needed to spend some time exploring the implications of our baptism for our understanding of our identity and our ethics.  And that’s why this Epiphany Season we are doing that during this series we have called “Children of God.”  What does it mean to be God’s children, marked in a special way, committed to following Jesus?

            For Walter Brueggemann our baptism is a commitment to one way of life in direction opposition to another.  The way of life we are rejecting is the dominant culture’s value system.  In the time of Jesus this was the Roman Empire and its “predatory political economy” which specialized in “the desires of the flesh.”  Brueggemann writes that these values “consisted in mean-spirited self-promotion and uncaring self-induldgence.”  He adds, “The empire functioned to generate appetites that could be satisfied only by anti-neighborly action . . . that put the satiation of the self at the center of reality.”

            What, then, is the alternative way-of-life that we commit ourselves to in our baptism?  “Covenantal neighborliness” is what he calls it.  Particularly as that is directed toward “the poor, the immigrant, and the enemy.”  And this neighborliness finds expression in the fruits of the spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  All of these virtues are alternatives to the dominant value system.

           

            In today’s story from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus angers his hometown crowd by reminding them that God does not show favorites, but includes within God’s care and God’s family, those outsiders and aliens, even the enemies of the people, like the Syrian general Naaman. 

            The hometown crowd apparently didn’t like hearing the truth about God, so they wanted to throw Jesus off of a cliff and kill him.  A rather violent reaction.

            This story is a reminder that living as a child of God is not easy, that living the truth can generate opposition, particularly opposition in defense of the dominant value system which attempts to divide and exclude people rather than build an ever growing neighborhood of kindness and compassion.

 

            My predecessor, Harold Janes, was onto something then.  We do need to be reminded of what we are committing ourselves to in our baptism.  We need to be reminded because the dominant value systems are so powerful.  But we are more powerful.  We have the Creator of the Universe on our side, filling with us the Holy Spirit.

            And maybe there’s something to this connection between democracy and our baptism.  I don’t know what connection Harold Janes made, but here’s the connection I will make.  Our democratic society can only thrive and endure when we live together in covenant as neighbors, expressing kindness, generosity, and faithfulness to one another.  So, if the reality of our baptism reminds us to live a more spiritual life, then maybe it will also help us to be better citizens.

 


The Unwomanly Face of War

The Unwomanly Face of WarThe Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Alexievich interviews Soviet women who fought in the Second World War. Apparently many women did, in all sorts of roles. These stories had not been widely told before she set out to capture these stories in the 1980's.

This edition, which came out in 2017, includes material censored in the original publication.

This book was initially difficult for me to get into, in a way that her Voices from Chernobyl was not. But it soon became difficult to read. I have taken longer to read it than a book of its size should have taken me, because the material was so often difficult to read.

Today I was fewer than 100 pages from the end, so having the day off I decided to push through unto the end. And sometimes after reading a story, I was crying. At least once I yelled at the pain. One rarely is exposed to such evil and suffering.

Near the end of the book, Alexievich writes, "I don't see the end of this road. The evil seems infinite to me. I can no longer treat it only as history." I was glad to read this when I did, as I was feeling overcome.

Her final interview subject, Tamara Stepanovna Umnyagina, who was a junior sergeant in the guards, is one of her most eloquent and profound storytellers. She speaks of how after the war, the people who fought in it were looking forward to peace, for surely now people will be changed for the better and start loving one another. "People still hate each other. They go on killing. That's the most incomprehensible thing to me."

And she speaks the words that make reading this book and enduring the pain it reveals a worthwhile experience. She said, "Yet this must be preserved, it must. We must pass it on. Somewhere in the world they have to preserve our cry. Our howl . . ."

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Leviathan

LeviathanLeviathan by Thomas Hobbes
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The first two parts, wherein the essence of the political argument is made, were entertaining enough. Interesting to read for better historical perspective. Interesting to read to see the flaws in the argument--such as the false dichotomy between an all-powerful sovereign or a state of civil war and his oversimplified and incorrect understanding of human psychology and evolutionary development.

Parts three and four are a chore, even if you skim through them. I didn't expect the lengthy theological arguments. At points the issues are relevant to the political issues confronting him--he is writing after a religiously-motivated civil war--but often there are vast numbers of pages on various doctrinal issues that seem unrelated to the main thrust of the book (and also wrong with the hindsight of the history of theology and biblical interpretation).

But worthy to read these historical text if nothing else to help remove the blinders that keep us trapped into our current moment, thinking we live at this exceptional time and that our troubles are so, so bad.

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The Blood of Emmett Till

The Blood of Emmett TillThe Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A searing exploration of the lynching of Emmett Till and what followed--the trial, the protests, the civil rights advances.

But what most astonished me reading it was that the book gave me insights on our current moment and the support for Donald Trump. Which is frightening. For example, there was this, in a paragraph on the 1948 Dixiecrats:

"Judge Brady was already a fuming Dixiecrat, calling for a new party 'into whose ranks all true conservative Americans, Democrats and Republicans alike, will be welcomed' to battle 'the radical elements of this country who call themselves liberals.' Senator James Eastland of Mississippi termed the Dixiecrat revolt 'the opening phases of a fight' for conservative principles and white supremacy, and 'a movement that will never die.'"

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Personal History

Personal  HistoryPersonal History by Katharine Graham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed Katharine Graham's autobiography. In fact, I wish she had instead written a series of more focused memoirs so that you could get more in-depth to some of the key, historic moments of her life.

The autobiography serves also as a personal view on American history in the 20th century, as her parents, husband, herself, and kids, played significant roles and knew very important people throughout the century. The one serious surprise is how much the Civil Rights Movement and racial issues are mostly absent in the story. She does not appear to have had any close relationships with people of other races.

At times reading the book I was nostalgic for another age, when politics and journalism and the wider society functioned by a set of mores and standards that seem to be missing now. One reason Watergate was such a shock, and ultimately the parties united against Nixon, was the way he flouted the traditions.

In this strange time we live in, it was good to read a book lionizing the importance of journalism.

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Perspective of "Death of Liberalism"

These authors point out that for more than a century liberalism's death has been predicted.  But that's nonsense, one reason being that so many different things are a form of liberalism.  This article gives some good historical perspective on our current moment.  And I liked this line, "Even if liberalism does not provide a telos or supreme good toward which we should strive, it helps us avoid greater evils, the most salient being cruelty and the fear it inspires."