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The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis

The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of CrisisThe Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis by Alan Jacobs
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Some months ago this book was reviewed in The Christian Century and I put it on my to-read list. Last week looking for some work-related books to order, I saw this on the list and thought "That might be relevant to our moment" so I ordered it and have already finished it.

The book focuses on five thinkers--Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, C. S. Lewis, and Simone Weil--as they imagined what the future should be like after the Second World War. The key idea was that "miseducation had left the ordinary citizens of Western democracies in helpless thrall to the propagandistic machinations of unscrupulous nationalist movements," so they reimagined what education could/should do. A key theme was that they were critical of the technological fixes so fascinated upon by many in the West.

Jacobs is clear at the end that the changes these folks imagined did not occur. In many ways, it is a pessimistic book.

I did find some ideas that might be helpful to our current moment, and I did order one Auden book and one Eliot book that I haven't read. Also, there's one really excellent Bonhoeffer quote in the book.

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The City and Man

The City and ManThe City and Man by Leo Strauss
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A congregant who was a retired political science professor died last year and because he and I had engaged in various philosophical discussions over the years, I was able to select some books from his library. He was a student of Strauss, so there were a handful of Strauss' books to choose from.

This volume is made up of three long essays--one on Aristotle's Politics, one on Plato's Republic, and one on Thucydides' Peloponnesian War. In each essay there are some interesting insights, but overall I found Strauss to be a most infelicitous writer. The final essay was by far the best and the most interesting, making me want to read Thucydides in full (I've only ever read excerpts).

An overarching theme seems to be doing what is practical and realistic in politics.

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A Journal of the Plague Year

A Journal of the Plague YearA Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"A plague is a formidable enemy, and is armed with terrors that every man is not sufficiently fortified to resist or prepared to stand the shock against."

I had actually been contemplating reading this book of Defoe's sometime this year anyway. I had picked up my copy at the church's used book sale last year. A few weeks ago I decided it was timely.

The historical perspective helps to break us out of the fierce urgency of the now, reminding us of what remains the same and also that this too shall pass.

What Defoe describes is far more frightening than what we are currently encountering, at least here in Nebraska. And in this book about the 1665 London plague you encounter all the same issues we are in 2020.

I particularly liked reading his discussions of churches and clergy and how they ministered through the devastation. He is very severe on those ministers who ran away to avoid it all.

There's wisdom here as well, such as "Nobody can account for the possession of fear when it takes hold of the mind."

Also sobering. In the last few days I've read some article predicting we will be better after this crisis. Defoe writes about how the people of London were actually worse because they had been "hardened by the danger they had been in."

And I intend to begin using the phrase he does on the final page of the book, "This calamitous year."

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Benjamin Mays

The first post in this series as I read Gary Dorrien's Breaking White Supremacy, on the history of Black Social Gospel Theology, was about Mordecai Johnson.

Mays

In chapter 3 of the book, entitled "Moral Politics and the Soul of the World" Dorrien features Benjamin Mays and Howard Thurman while discussing their interactions and Gandhi and influences upon King.  First Benjamin Mays.

The longtime President of Morehouse College grew up in South Carolina.  He said of this childhood, "The experiences I had in my most impressionable years, hearing and seeing the mob, observing the way my people were treated, noting the way in which they responded to this treatment, never having developed any white friends in the county, and living all my early years in a rented house--all this left me with a feeling of alienation from the country of my birth."  He described growing up in this segregated world that "the wings of ambition were crushed at birth."

Attending Old Mount Zion church where James F. Marshall was pastor, Mays later described Marshall's gospel--"primarily an opiate to enable them to endure and survive the oppressive conditions under which they lived at the hands of the white people in the community."  

Mays determined to pursue an education to have something more out of life.  In college he described feeling at home in the universe.  Inspired by the socialist Eugene Debs, Mays wanted a heroic Jesus, not meek and mild.  In seminary he learned and adopted the latest liberal thinking.  In his dissertation entitled "Pagan Survivals in Christianity," he argued that acknowledging these meant that "Christianity was inevitably bound up with the environmental forces of the Roman world; that it is an evolutionary movement; and must be modified, as all movements are, by its environment."

Dorrien records that Mays was fond of saying that "no person is free who backs away from the truth."

In a landmark early study, Mays criticized the black church for its conservative theology and failure to grapple with social issues.  But this wasn't really their fault as this resulted from oppression.  He did admire it as a "genuinely democratic fellowship."

Mays embraced the black social gospel--"It does not encourage one to wait for justice in the other world.  It does not dissipate itself in mere feeling."  Rather, "It tends to give one poise and balance to struggle for social righteousness here on the earth."

Mays was one of the first scholars to contend that there was a unique theological contribution in the black church where their ideas of God were "chiseled out of the very fabric of the social struggle."

Mays became a leader in the international ecumenical movement, which brought him to India and an important meeting with Gandhi in 1937.  He brought Gandhi's message of nonviolent resistance back to the US and began to write and speak about it.  

He was a part of international efforts of Christians to challenge the rise of Fascism in Europe, but her feared that the movement was too late.  He was discouraged when ecumenical statements of denominations were not embraced by congregations; he wrote "social custom makes cowards of most Christians and I fear the majority of ministers."  He proclaimed that "When the church truly repents, let us not deceive ourselves, it will be a suffering church."

Racism and a problem created by modern Christianity arising from the colonial project of European powers.  He wrote, "It is the modern church that again crucifies the body of Christ on a racial cross."  He authored the Federal Council of the Churches 1946 condemnation of segregation.  

He held out hope for a transformative movement--"If Germany through brutal means can build a kingdom evil in one decade and if Russia, through brutal processes, construct a new order in two decades, we can democratize and Christianize America in one generation."

Dorrien contends that Mays's most important legacy was his mentorship of his student Martin Luther King, Jr.  Dorrien writes that King chose Mays as a model when leadership in the movement was thrust upon him as a young age.

May declared, "I just want to be human and be allowed to walk the earth with dignity."


Mordecai Johnson

A few years ago when I read Gary Dorrien's The New Abolition, I posted a series of blogs about the book, particularly the various figures he discussed.  At the time this was the third book I'd presented in this way, also having done so with Amy Kittelstrom's The Religion of Democracy and David Brooks's The Road to Character.  Dorrien's book was his attempt to do something he thought lacking in the history of American religion--discussing the various movements in black religion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that led to the development of a distinct theological tradition of the black social gospel.

Now I've begun reading his second volume in this history, Breaking White Supremacy, which takes us from the 1920's up to Dr. King.  Part of Dorrien's aim is to show how King stood within a rich, well-developed tradition.

Mordecai

The first figure discussed in this new volume is longtime Howard University president Mordecai Johnson.  As with many of the figures Dorrien writes about I have previously known either nothing or very little about them.  Reading about Johnson fascinated me.  

Johnson's mother Carolyn named him after the character in the Book of Esther, believing that her son has a special mission in life.  He used education as a means of advancement.  At the University of Chicago he experienced modern science, liberal theology, and socialism, merging both with his Christian faith and throughout his life advocating that Christians should never fear knowledge.  Otherwise the faith would face a credibility problem.  Dorrien writes, "In Johnson's experience education was liberalizing and empowering, and he wanted as much as he could get." 

At Rochester Seminary he soaked up the social gospel theology of Walter Rauschenbusch.  Johnson wrote in a letter, "Religion is going to be a great factor in the new adjustment.  There never was such a reformation as we are now on the verge of.  This religion reemphasized with new aspects to suit the modern needs will bring forth great moral and spiritual engineers.  God grant that I may be one of these among my own people!"

In his early preaching career in West Virginia, he advocated three themes: "'the brotherhood of man,' the necessity of Christian unity, and the Christian mission to build the kingdom of God."  He preached, "If the church is to live there must be a Christian movement to give reverence to human personality, a movement to use all the forces of modern knowledge and technology to build a social order which will raise and enlarge the life of every human being."

Also, "A selfish human being is a monstrosity, is a monstrosity.  Any human being who lives for himself and himself only is a monstrous creature.  The very foundation of his life is the basest of all human qualities--ingratitude.  For a man to be selfish in such a world as this, he must shut his eyes and his mind and his heart to all the great things that he has received from the human race."  Selfishness was the root of sin, even racism and lynching ("the most diabolical crime in the universe").

In 1922 he spoke at Harvard's commencement and gave a powerful speech on  American racism.  Dorrien summarizes "Johnson still believed that Christianity and American liberal democracy--'our American faith'--offered the best and most light.  But the actually existing United States betrayed both."

When Johnson went to Howard, as the first black president, he wanted to build a major and influential institution that would promote blackness.  His time was filled with controversies, and some viewed him as an overbearing leader.  But he succeeded in building a black intellectual powerhouse that trained leaders of the civil rights movement.  

He was an early supporter of Gandhi, believing that the movement against Jim Crow had much to learn from him.  He viewed Gandhi as "the epitome of true religion."  He spent forty days in India in 1949.

Democracy is "the highest friendship that we have known."  It must be built upon respect for the human dignity of all people.   Moreover, anyone who opposed the sacred worth of the individual was not a Christian. 

Johnson praised King: "You have led your people on a victorious pathway seldom tried in human life.  You have shown them how to mobilize the fullest powers of their souls for effective resistance to evil and who to overcome humiliation and abuse without violence and without hatred in deed or in words."


Making Haste from Babylon

Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their WorldMaking Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World by Nick Bunker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This year is the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower voyage, and I read this book in preparation for activities at church (and a family vacation this summer). I really enjoyed this book.

Bunker wants to expand the scope of the normal histories of the Pilgrims in order to better understand them in their religious, political, and economic context. So we don't get the standard narrative of the voyage and the founding of the colony. We also get great details about the English villages where English Separatism arose, detailed descriptions of what was going on in Leiden, the wars of Europe, economic developments in London, and details about the trade in beaver furs.

I also enjoyed the highlighting of my ancestor John Howland at various points.

So, if you are looking for a book this year to better understand the Pilgrims and their world, I highly recommend this in-depth, well-written, engaging work.

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Say Nothing

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern IrelandSay Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Troubles was such a dominant news story for much of my life until suddenly it wasn't. The American press definitely dropped it after the Good Friday agreement, so I was most intrigued by all the developments and lack of developments in the decades since.

Keefe tells a good story, but with lots of questions and gaps still remaining. There were times when I thought the structure could have made better sense.

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Against the Grain

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest StatesAgainst the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Christian Century recommended this book for better understanding the ancient world that is the context for earlier biblical culture. Making that connection is not the goal of the author, though he makes occasional allusions to the biblical tradition, but is the task of the reader to identify how this research into the origins of agriculture, sedentism, urbanism, writing, and the city-state plus the responses to it by the "barbarians" contributes to a better understanding of the biblical world. And it has done that. Now when reading, teaching, and preaching various texts I will have a better grasp of the latest research in very ancient history aside from that presented in biblical commentaries.

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These Truths: A History of the United States

These Truths: A History of the United StatesThese Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I thought the Introduction and first chapter were brilliant. Also the sections on the Populist and Progressive Movements and the chapter set during the Second World War. But others were more uneven. Any one volume national history obviously makes choices, skimming over some things and digging deeper into others.

Lepore's focus is our national pursuit of truth. In the Declaration Jefferson wrote, "we hold these truths to be self evident" and in the Federalist papers Hamilton wrote of America being a test of truths. From this frame she explores the nation's history, with much focus on communications technologies, journalism, and how we've viewed our history (though on this latter point, I feel she did less of that when she got into the twentieth century).

The final section on our own time is very chaotic, with a structure that is difficult to follow, as it is neither chronological nor clearly thematic. It was sad to read an American history that in the 1980's begins accounting for the rise of Donald Trump and then feels necessary to detail the post-9/11 conspiracy theories that he has participated in and which helped to explain his ascent. Yes, sadly, this is now part of the national story. And, of course, the book has a depressing ending. Plus, I thought the final paragraph so overwritten as to be comically absurd.

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The Colonial Mind

Main Currents in American Thought, Vol. 1: The Colonial Mind, 1620-1800Main Currents in American Thought, Vol. 1: The Colonial Mind, 1620-1800 by Vernon Louis Parrington
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I often walked the Parrington Oval while a student at the University of Oklahoma. And I remember the photo that hung in Dale Hall of OU's former head football coach who was a Pulitzer Prize winning historian. This is the book that won Vernon Parrington the prize in 1928.

Parrington has a strong position in favor of the Jeffersonian philosophy--agrarian, egalitarian, and democratic--and opposed to the Puritans, Tories, and Federalists. So it was interesting to read his takes on various thinkers. He was a big fan of Roger Williams and Benjamin Franklin and deeply critical of John Winthrop and the Mathers. He thought Jonathan Edwards had great ability which was squandered on his Calvinism. Hamilton he thought of great ability and very successful at achieving his goals of establishing the national economy, but he thought Hamilton completely wrong about what direction America should head and that we were still saddled with problems he had created. Strangely, he writes the only vigorous defense of Philip Freneau I've ever read.

Parrington has blind spots. He lauds Jefferson, though we now have a far more critical view of Jefferson, especially his hypocrisy.

But Parrington is a fun read. He is eloquent and witty with his descriptions of all these thinkers and movements. I enjoyed getting a perspective very different from my own.

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