Category Archives: Reviews

Reviews of books or films, especially those that relate to language or literature in some way.

Finding God in Ancient China – Review

Chan Kei Thong and Charlene L. Fu. Finding God in Ancient China. Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 2013. Print.

A number of years ago I read The Discovery of Genesis by C. H. Kang and Ethel Nelson, a book on how many Chinese writing characters or ideograms represented ideas found in ancient history as presented in the Bible. For example, the Chinese word for ship is represented by a character that means “eight mouths in a vessel.” The word for temptation is formed by a character that means “reveal two trees.” That book was interesting as far as it went.

Finding God in Ancient China goes well beyond that. It is thoroughly researched, using many Chinese classics to demonstrate that not only does Chinese history corroborate similar Biblical history, but that traditional Chinese culture was monotheistic. Even after the introduction of Buddhism and dragon worship, those various spirits were seen as lower spirits than Shang Di, literally Lord of Heaven, Creator of everything including those spirits. Until the last emperor abdicated in 1911, nearly every Chinese monarch for over four thousand years offered sacrifices to the King of Heaven.

Besides briefly covering some of the same ground as The Discovery of Genesis in one chapter, this book is a survey of Chinese belief. It emphasizes that Confucius, Mencius, Lao Zi, and most other classical Chinese scholars and writers recognized a great creator God and that a ruler’s mandate was from Heaven. In the West, we tend to equate the Chinese Mandate of Heaven with the Divine Right of Kings that appeared in Europe in the late Middle Ages. There is a difference. The Divine Right meant that the monarch could do pretty much anything he or she wanted and was only answerable to God. To oppose a monarch was to oppose God’s representative on earth—hence the language of the American Declaration of Independence.

The Mandate of Heaven was that God gave the monarch the authority, but the monarch’s position was conditional. He had to rule righteously. If the people were dissatisfied by injustice or if the ruler ruled unjustly, that was a sign that the ruler had lost his mandate. Indeed, that was why the Emperor was normally motivated to offer sacrifices to the Lord of Heaven, to cover for any sins he might have committed. The chiefest of these sacrifices was the Border Sacrifice, done annually from about 2200 B.C. until A.D. 1911 with few breaks. Even the most wicked rulers would still offer this sacrifice. Chan and Fu tell us one especially evil ruler died almost immediately after offering such a sacrifice.

It is interesting to note that unlike most monarchs who ruled in polytheistic cultures (Japan, Egypt, Rome, ancient Greece, Persia, etc.), Chinese emperors were never seen as gods or offspring of gods. They were always seen as human beings, subject to the Creator and His laws.

Finding God in Ancient China is primarily a history book. It includes summaries of the findings of the Revs. Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary of the 16th century, and James Legge, a Scottish missionary of the 19th century, who both encouraged missionaries to China to learn the Chinese traditions of Blood Covenant and sacrifices to Shang Di in order to more clearly present the testimony of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament to Chinese. The authors maintain that to a culturally aware Chinese person even today, Christianity is no “foreign religion,” but simply the fulfillment of the traditional Chinese worldview.

There is one chapter that is a little weaker. The book tries to connect certain Chinese astronomical observations with Biblical events. It proposes that a certain comet recorded by the Chinese was the Star of Bethlehem that brought the Magi to the infant Jesus. Not only does the timing seem a little early (5 B.C.), it is also true that in most cultures comets are a sign of bad luck. Even in Chinese, a person who is a family troublemaker is called a comet.

That chapter also suggests that a certain solar eclipse recorded by the Chinese in A.D. 31 may have corresponded to the darkness at noon during the crucifixion of Jesus. There is a major problem with that. Solar eclipses only happen during a New Moon (which is noted in the source that the book quotes), but Passover, the day Jesus was executed, is celebrated during the Full Moon. Whatever that darkness may have been, it was no solar eclipse. Some authorities, in fact, see Acts 2:20 “the moon [shall be turned] to blood” as a sign of a lunar eclipse, something that does happen when the moon is full.

Aside from the astronomical speculations, Finding God in Ancient China, originally written in Chinese as The Faith of Our Fathers, is well worth reading for anyone interested in ancient history or the mysterious Middle Kingdom.

The Beautiful and Damned – Review

F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Beautiful and Damned. 1922; rpt. 16 May 2012. E-book.

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are.

  • “The Rich Boy” Fitzgerald

He remembered poor Julian and his romantic awe of [the rich] and how he had started a story once that began, “The very rich are different from you and me.” And how some one had said to Julian, Yes, they have more money. But that was not humorous to Julian. He thought they were a special glamorous race and when he found they weren’t it wrecked him just as much as any other thing that wrecked him.

  • “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” Hemingway

Many readers are familiar with The Great Gatsby. It is the best-known, and probably the best, of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s four completed novels—though This Side of Paradise sold more copies during his lifetime.

Like Gatsby, The Beautiful and Damned is about the “very rich.” The main characters of Anthony and Gloria Patch, correspond in some ways to Tom and Daisy Buchanan of Gatsby. The one physical difference is that Gloria is blonde while Daisy has dark hair (at least in the novel…). Though no athlete like Tom Buchanan, Anthony has had life greased easily on the fast track. He is the only living descendant of his grandfather, millionaire philanthropist Adam Patch. Anthony spends much of the novel waiting for him to die so he can inherit his fortune.

Anthony could be considered a stereotypical spoiled rich kid. We are told immediately that he appreciated irony, the “Holy Ghost” of the twentieth century. (14) “He went to Harvard—there was no other logical thing to be done with him.” (69) His goal is nothing more than to live the life of the idle rich.

He is clever, intelligent, and manages to marry the “Famous girl” Gloria Gilbert. She is beautiful “but different, very emphatically different.” (531) It does not take much imagination to see her as a stand-in for Mrs. Zelda Fitzgerald. Like Poe’s “Helen,” “She was the end of all restlessness, all malcontent.” (1196) Indeed, the cover of the original edition of the book pictured a couple that resembled the Fitzgeralds.

While it has been noted that Fitzgerald admitted Daisy Buchanan was “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” inspired by the Keats poem, Gloria is actually called that directly. Yet Gloria is probably the most sympathetic character in the book. One night at party at their country home in “Marietta,” Connecticut (based on Westport, where the Fitzgeralds lived for a year), Gloria flees a party. She is sober, but most of the other guests are drunk, including a stranger who is making unwanted advances. The fears she expresses are profound and moving—so much so that when some critics maintain that Zelda had a hand in some of her husband’s stories, this provides evidence for that hypothesis. It sounds like something that only a woman could understand. (I immediately thought of the painting Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi).

When Anthony is drafted, he is called the “Man-at-Arms,” and echo of the “knight-at-arms” in the Keats poem.

Much of the action takes place in New York City or the Connecticut coast of Long Island Sound. Like the Buchanan family, the Patches chartered four trains to transport guests from New York to Gloria’s hometown of Kansas City for their wedding. Like Tom and Daisy, they honeymoon in Santa Barbara. Unlike Tom, though, Anthony is faithful to Gloria until much later.

The Patches do move around some, but they do not move because of scandal as Nick Carraway insinuates about the Buchanans. They either do not like or cannot afford where they are living. And then Grandpa Patch surprises everyone with his will when he dies. This conflict echoes the contested will of Dan Cody in Gatsby.

Irony abounds as promised. Anthony’s college friends all become officers in the military when America enters the Great War. Anthony fails the physical—probably because of his drinking. However, he does not fail the physical when he is drafted later, so he becomes a private. He is promoted to corporal but then demoted when he gets drunk. What happens to him in the army parallels what is happening to him socially and economically.

There are other echoes of Gatsby in this book. As in many of Fitzgerald’s other works, popular songs are worked into the story line. One song entitled “Daisy Dear” reads, “The panic has come over us, So has the moral decline.” Is this a reason for choosing the name Daisy for The Great Gatsby‘s Gloria?

Anthony and his friends philosophize about why God does not exist. In this novel there is no Monsignor Darcy in the background as in This Side of Paradise, or even any suggestive eye doctor’s billboard. To Anthony and his Harvard buddies, existence and intelligence are mere instruments of circumstances. (2883) Besides, they observe, philosophy and science always change. The reader cannot help thinking that this is less intellectual than willful. When you are rich and young and good-looking—why would you want to have a God?

Maybe old Adam Patch needed a God because of remorse, but do we? And yet, there is a niggling, nagging theme that these people have no hope: They are truly “without God and without hope in the world.” (Ephesians 2:12) “I don’t care about the truth,” Gloria exclaims. “I want some happiness.”

Thanks to his amorality, his money, his drinking, and his pride, Anthony Patch does make a mess of things not unlike the way Tom and Daisy Buchanan do. Tom tells Nick Carraway that he has suffered, but no one believes him or feels sorry for him. Anthony Patch meditates on his suffering, and the reader sees that he has actually suffered some—but he has no one to blame but himself.

In The Great Gatsby the Buchanans escape Long Island, and we learn only that they get away with things and leave messes behind. In The Beautiful and Damned we see what happens to them. Yes, they do get away, literally. They join the expat Lost Generation in Europe. We can easily imagine them as guests at one of Dick and Nicole Diver’s parties. Perhaps they get away, but as the title implies, “What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36)

Note: The references to the text are Kindle locations, not page numbers.

References for epigraphs:

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. “The Rich Boy.” The Redbook. Jan-Feb. 1926. Project Gutenberg of Australia. Web. 3 Jan. 2011.

Hemingway, Ernest. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York: Scribners, 1938: 52-77. Print.

The Time Was at Hand – Review

Robert Finley. The Time Was at Hand. Maitland FL: Xulon, 2011. Print.

If you have read one book by an evangelical American on Biblical prophecy, you have probably read them all. Yeah, they keep getting updated when world events change things—so now they say “Russia” instead of “Soviet Union.” Chafer, Anderson, Lindsay, Walvoord, LaHaye and Jenkins, Rosenberg, they all pretty much say the same thing.

Well, Finley does not. And it is refreshing.

Finley maintains that much of the Book of Revelation and the Olivet Discourse (Jesus’ prophetic lecture in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21) are mostly about events that would happen in the first century. Jesus said “This generation shall not pass till all these things be fulfilled.” (Matthew 24:34, cf. Mark 13:30, Luke 21:32). Revelation begins and ends with the expression “The time is at hand.” (Revelation 1:3, 22:10).

The Time Was at Hand presents plenty of evidence that much of what passes for possible end-times scenarios today was actually fulfilled from A.D. 66 to 73 when Judea and Jerusalem were under siege by the Romans. The details of the civil war, death, suffering, and treachery endured by the Jews in those years is unparalleled in the history of the world. That was, says Finley, the Great Tribulation. And it put a final and brutal end to the Old Covenant.

The main emphasis of The Time Was at Hand is simply that the New Covenant has superseded the Old. (Jeremiah 31:31-33, cf. Hebrews 8:8-13) The Scripture tells us that under the New Covenant there is no longer a distinction between Jew and Gentile, but that God’s Kingdom is meant for everyone. God’s way with the Jews is no longer different from His way with Gentiles.

Hal Lindsey hypothesized the 144,000 called out Jews in the Book of Revelation will be “144,000 Jews for Jesus” in the future. Finley reminds us that the first generation of Christians were mostly Jewish and that the 144,000 refers to them.

Many American writers suggest that Israel may rebuild the Temple at some point. Finely does not argue the point, but recognizes that since the coming of the Messiah, a Temple is no longer necessary:

If present day Zionists, or whoever, should put up a building in Jerusalem which they choose to call a “temple,” we can be sure that God in Heaven will have no interest in it whatsoever. (290)

Not only does Finley emphasize that God’s Gospel is the same for all people, he also believes that the modern American Christian focus on Israel is a distraction and a hindrance. It is a distraction because American believers are putting time and energy in interpreting Near Eastern events instead of sharing the Gospel. It is also a hindrance in witnessing the claims of Jesus to the quarter of the world’s population in Muslim-majority countries.

“If Christians help Zionists drive out the inhabitants of Palestine and make it a Jewish state,” the Muslims ask, “then why should we not drive out the Christians from other places and make them Islamic states?” And that is just what they are doing in many places where Christians and Muslims lived side by side for generations. (191,192)

I have great respect for Robert Finley. Christian Aid Mission, which he founded, focuses on indigenous and non-Western missions around the world. He is probably more aware than most people of the kind of work that is effective in bringing the Christian message to places in the world where it is unknown. His is a serious concern.

Understand that Finley is no Bible skeptic. Such skeptics will sometimes take the position that Bible prophecies were written down after the fact so that all “prophecies” were already fulfilled. Finley understands that many prophecies about the Second Coming are yet to be fulfilled. He just emphasizes that most, if not all, of the prophecies concerning the land of Israel-Palestine have already been fulfilled. The most important prophecy that has not been completely fulfilled yet is Matthew 24:14:

This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness to all nations [Greek ethnos, i.e. “ethnic groups”], and then shall the end come.” (cf. Mark 13:10)

Finley does draw from some historical sources that may not be well-known. He presents evidence that most Christians and Jews in the Middle East and North Africa converted to Islam during the Arab conquest of that region. He also adopts the thesis made famous by Arthur Koestler’s The Thirteenth Tribe that most Eastern European or Ashkenazi Jews were converts to Judaism in the Middle Ages. When adding the descendants of these people with the converts to Judaism from the time of Esther to the fall of Jerusalem, Finley suggests that few people who today identify with Judaism probably have any Abrahamic ancestry.

I recall reading in the Talmud that some Jews in Babylon had so many ancestral records that they needed a camel to carry them. Most such records were deposited in the Temple and so were destroyed in A.D. 70, so no one knows today. Though Arthur Koestler was an Ashkenazi Jew himself, his hypothesis does remain controversial. Still, I had a friend who discovered at age thirty that she had been adopted. She was able to reunite with her birth family and found out they were Jewish. A Jewish friend of both of us told her, “Only God knows who the real Jews are.”

Finley also makes a convincing case for who he thinks the antichrist is. I am not going to give that away in this review. While this is by no means original with Finley, it is not a name on the usual contemporary list of suspects be it the Pope, a Russian leader, the Kaiser, Hitler, Anwar Sadat, Saddam Hussein, Nicolae Carpathia, Henry Kissinger, etc. etc. etc. He also makes some clever observations regarding alien invasion stories like the film Independence Day. No, he does not believe in space aliens—I said, clever, not paranoid.

Finley’s approach is humble. He notes that Isaac Newton, one of the greatest minds of the millennium, spent years studying Bible prophecy, and even he admitted that there was much he could not understand and much that he missed.

Finley does not claim to have an end-times scenario worked out. “A great deal of mystery remains,” he admits. (201) It is better to admit that than to be following “fictional prophecy concepts.” (56)

Take a look at this book. It is well worth reading.

Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin – Review

Benjamin Franklin. Autobiography and Other Writings. Ed. Russell Nye. Cambridge MA: Riverside Press, 1958. Print.

Franklin’s Autobiography was not really written for publication, but for his grandson. He wrote it in fits and starts over a number of years. He had only gotten to the year 1757 when he died. Franklin was not only a printer, scientist, and politician, but he truly was a thinker and observer. Some of the things from Franklin’s autobiography are well known, like his tongue-in-cheek attempt at moral perfection or his version of a daily planner. Here are some other things from this autobiography worth thinking about.

While in his twenties, Franklin wrote an article speculating that, if Newtonian physics is exact, then everything is predetermined. This idea would be picked up later by Europeans such as Laplace and Hegel. It even becomes a topic of discussion in Stoppard’s Arcadia. Franklin also read Locke and became more and more persuaded that man needed government because he could not govern himself, but that too much government kept man from achieving his potential. This political tension is still very much with us today.

Though Franklin did dabble with determinism as mentioned above, he ultimately rejected it for typically scientific reasons. He could not observe it. If everything were determined then everything man did was morally good all the time. Franklin could easily see this was not the case. That moral sense had to come from somewhere. He ended up embracing Locke because he realized that the moral sense did, in fact, point to a moral creator.

While Franklin never was a member of any church, and he did have some doubts about some of the Bible’s history, he respected the Bible because its moral precepts worked. Indeed, the Autobiography gives credit to Biblical moral practices for his success in business. Franklin admitted that some of his things were not well written, but he learned from his mistakes. His writing ability and his admiration for Locke no doubt were factors on his being chosen to help draft the Declaration of Independence.

Franklin admired Pilgrim’s Progress. Critics have sometimes compared his Autobiography to that book. When Franklin was writing in the 1750s, the term novel was not widely used, but by his observation, Pilgrim’s Progress was the first novel, at least in English. It was prose (hence, not an epic) with narrative (unlike drama) and with a good deal of dialogue (unlike prose romances). It was indeed novel, something new.

From the autobiography, it is clear that Franklin was no deist. When he was in his early twenties, he found that philosophy somewhat appealing, as he had with determinism, but for reasons similar to why he rejected determinism, he rejected deism. He did attend church from time to time, and he did express in different places that he could see the hand of God in people’s lives. He believed that God had a significant hand in his own life. He could not see how he succeeded in business and others did not apart from Providence.

As Emerson mocked Coleridge for his belief in an objective God apart from His creation, so I recall some of my college professors mocking Franklin. I can see why. I thought at the time it was just that his daily planner made then nervous—though Franklin jokes about that—but it is really that Franklin used reason to argue against their pet theories and against amorality in general. This is the way the “establishment” works today, mockery and ad hominem. Let’s not bother to see whether the idea or observation makes sense, let’s attack, initiate lawsuits, and “demonize the opposition.”

Franklin had an interesting comment on religious doctrines. A friend who was a Dunker, a German Baptist group, complained that people were preaching and even publishing things about his sect that were untrue. Franklin suggested to his friend that they publish a statement of what they do believe. His friend demurred, saying that already they have learned that some things they used to believe they do not believe any more, and that such a statement might keep them from discovering God’s truth. It also might keep future generations from learning more because they might believe the elders had put it all together. Wise. Franklin thought so, too.

Franklin had a number of interesting things to say about the French and Indian War (a.k.a. the Seven Years’ War). Franklin’s Pennsylvania Militia supported and supplied some material for General Braddock. Braddock was convinced that the French fighters in inland America were ill-prepared and, like colonial militias, would be easily defeated by any professional army. Braddock’s pride, indeed, was his downfall. His attitude would continue among at least some of the British military leaders at the time of the Revolution.

Franklin also criticized General Lord Loudon, a bureaucrat who took no action and to Franklin was the man most responsible for English losses during the war. Franklin’s description of Loudon was reminiscent of history’s usual take on the dithering of General McClelland during the U. S. Civil War.

Franklin tells of a fascinating conversation (or lecture) from a Lord Granville who told him that colonial legislatures had to obey whatever their governors told them because “The King is legislator of the Colonies.” (Franklin wrote that in all capital letters!)

Franklin’s reply was, “This is new doctrine to me.”

This exchange does reflect a change in the British government’s view of the colonial constitutions. It certainly foreshadows the division that would come and the new country that would be formed.

The Eustace Diamonds – Review

Anthony Trollope. The Eustace Diamonds. 1872. 12 May 2012. E-book.

I had to read this book. I believe it was the most frequently mentioned work in What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. Trollope is sometimes considered more dated than other Victorian writers because his novels are so directly focused on the ins and outs of British society, especially the upper classes of his day. Some might say he was a British Sinclair Lewis. One of his book simply goes by the title of The Way We Are Now.

When compared with approach, probably the closest writer to Trollope is Henry James. Both men focus on what the main characters are thinking. Trollope’s characters may not have the depth of James’s. Perhaps that is because Trollope is not as good a writer, or it may be that his characters are just more shallow. In both writers a lot of the action is at the social level.

The Eustace Diamonds is one in a series of six novels in the Palliser Chronicles, but the Pallisers are truly minor characters in this one. Each novel is a tale by itself, so it is not necessary to read them in order or to read them all.

It is also no exaggeration to say that the Eustace Diamonds, that is, the literal diamond necklace owned by the Eustace family, are one of the main characters in the book. Unlike the Hope Diamond or the Moonstone, there is nothing spooky or accursed about the necklace. However, one could make a case that the Eustace Diamonds are the tragic character in the story. Of course, all diamonds have tiny flaws…

Most of the human characters in the novel are pretentious aristocrats or aspiring social climbers. Lady Elizabeth Eustace, or Lizzie, the young widow of Sir Florian Eustace is a bit of both. The educated and beautiful Lizzie married a Lord who conveniently died in a year leaving her a nice legacy of £4,000 a year and a baby son who would eventually become the next Lord. He also—depending on whom you believe—left her the diamonds.

The Eustace family lawyer, Mr. Camperdown, is convinced she possesses the diamonds illegally and becomes her Javert, tormenting her throughout the book. But, please understand, Lady Eustace is no Jean Valjean. She is calculating and manipulative, charming everyone but liked by no one, a Becky Sharp or a British Scarlett O’Hara. At least four men in the novel consider marrying her—but, beautiful as she may be, they only consider it for her income and her interest in the near-gothic Portray Castle of the Eustaces on the Scottish coast.

Like a James novel, The Eustace Diamonds takes its time. There are many conflicts and surprises before the tale completely unwinds. Will the honest but penurious Member of Parliament Frank Greystock, cousin and childhood friend of Lizzie, follow his heart or his ambition? Will Lord George (if he really is a lord) be the “Corsair” to sweep Lizzie off her feet? (Like Rhett Butler?) Will ________ (fill in the blank with any number of characters’ names) quit acting like a jerk? Or is it simply that everyone is interested in money but pretends otherwise?

Lucinda, an American with a British aunt, comes to England with the express purpose of finding an aristocrat for a husband—at least that is what her aunt thinks. Some of the other characters see her as a “grasping” American who has no business in their society. But she is one of the frankest characters in the story. No, she is not pleasant or sympathetic, but she speaks her mind and ultimately acts on her own instead of bowing to social expectations.

Drop the titles, add a little more technology in the background, and this could be set in modern America or China. The only difference is that women were expected to be treated with respect, and for the most part men did so.

While Trollope does spend time analyzing many of the characters, the story is plot-driven. The writer seems to be most exuberant when there is action—not Rafael Sabatini swashbuckling action, but when people are trying to handle conflict. There are two chapters near the end of Volume 1 that describe a lively fox hunt. This British tradition I knew little about. I had a college friend who doused himself with fox scent on Saturdays and worked as an ersatz fox for riders of a nearby hunt club to chase, but that was about it. On the many acres of Eustace land in Scotland, Trollope’s excitement is contagious. Now I get it! Even you do not read the whole book, read those chapters to get an appreciation of the fox hunt. Now if only Trollope had written in the same way about cricket, perhaps we poor Americans could begin to appreciate that…

As a postscript, to give a sense of Trollope’s social commentary, here are some quotations from The Eustace Diamonds (references are Kindle locations, not pages).

Lady Linlithgow would cheat a butcher out of a mutton-chop, or a cook out of a month’s wages, if she could do so with some slant of legal wind in her favour. (170-171)

How few there are among women, few perhaps also among men, who know that the sweetest, softest, tenderest, truest eyes which a woman can carry in her head are green in colour! (365-367)

Of listeners she was the very best, for she would always be saying a word or two, just to help you,—the best word that could be spoken, and then again she would be hanging on your lips. (464-462)

Some vague idea has floated across his brain that the world is wrong in supposing that such friendship cannot exist without marriage, or question of marriage. It is simply friendship. And yet were his friend to tell him that she intended to give herself in marriage elsewhere, he would suffer all the pangs of jealousy, and would imagine himself to be horribly ill-treated!(559-562)

To be alone with the girl to whom he is not engaged is a man’s delight;—to be alone with the man to whom she is engaged is the woman’s. (2484-85)

And a man captivated by wiles was only captivated for a time, whereas a man won by simplicity would be won for ever,—if he himself were worth the winning. (2841-42)

“It is good to be merry and wise,
It is good to be honest and true,
It is good to be off with the old love
Before you are on with the new.” (4572-74)

She could not disbelieve it all, and throw herself back upon her faith in virtue, constancy, and honesty. She rather thought that things had changed for the worse since she was young, and that promises were not now as binding as they used to be. She herself had married into a Liberal family, had a Liberal son, and would have called herself a Liberal; but she could not fail to hear from others, her neighbours, that the English manners, and English principles, and English society were all going to destruction in consequence of the so-called liberality of the age. Gentlemen, she thought, certainly did do things which gentlemen would not have done forty years ago; and as for ladies,—they, doubtless, were changed altogether.

Young or old, men are apt to become Merlins when they encounter Viviens. (8439-40)

It is only when we read of such men that we feel that truth to his sweetheart is the first duty of man. I am afraid that it is not the advice which we give to our sons. (9837-38)

Far From the Madding Crowd – Review

Thomas Hardy. Far From the Madding Crowd. Rev. ed. 1895. 2004. E-book.

Thomas Hardy writes wonderfully. He expresses so many things with the perfect word in each sentence. His images and sensory descriptions come alive like no other prose. His word pictures of the natural world in and around southwestern England—what he calls Wessex—delight the mind. His presentation of the farms and singing birds not only makes the writing live but makes the reader want to visit.

But Hardy’s nature in Far From the Madding Crowd is not always idyllic. There is that thunderstorm which washes the torrents of water through the mouth of the church’s “gurgoyle” that doubles as a water spout. Nature is indifferent. It can provide peace and shelter as it does sometimes in this novel, but it can also lead to the destruction of shepherd Gabriel Oak’s flock of sheep, and, therefore, any hope he has of a stable life—and the only hope of winning the hand of the beautiful but proud Bathsheba Everdene. (She is a collateral ancestor of Katniss Everdean, but I would not make too big a deal of it.)

Although critics like Arthur Quiller-Couch have tried to analyze or categorize story plots into different types, famous horror-flick director-producer Roger Corman said there is only one plot: A stranger comes to town.

So in this tale the beautiful but still naïve Miss Everdene comes to Weatherbury to live with her aunt and ultimately inherit her uncle’s working farm. Though legal in the second half of the nineteenth century, it was still unusual for a woman to inherit property like this. Yet we are told that the uncle saw intelligence and promise in his niece. The people in town note that she prefers to ride a horse like a man.

Shepherd Oak saw something else. He and the turnpike gatekeeper discuss their brief encounter on first meeting this “handsome maid.” They each express admiration for her attractiveness, but Oak notes realistically, “She has her faults.” No, not snobbery, he suggests, but something else.

“What then?”


And so the first chapter ends. And so the tale of Bathsheba, Gabriel, Mr. Boldwood, Sergeant Tory, Liddy, Fanny, Coogan, and the other inhabitants of the village of Weatherbury begins.

As in other Hardy novels, there are plenty of plot twists—some funny, some ironic. Depending on one’s sense of humor, some readers might find them all ironic. While things never happen randomly, people who do not pay attention to nature lose their crops or flocks. Similarly, people who do not pay attention to character traits of others or to their own flaws may lose their reputations or even their lives.

Because of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, Hardy has a reputation of being “dark” or “bleak.” Far From the Madding Crowd is not that. It is merely realistic. Indeed, it even has a very tender happy ending. It is worth getting there.

Of course, to arrive at that ending, the characters have to go through many trials. People are tested. And, as in real life, even the best of people do not pass every test. As in any Hardy novel, there are surprises. One common surprise in his novels is the secret wedding. It seems to be a recurring theme in many of his works. And secret weddings leave some people disappointed, if not betrayed.

Yes, Miss Everdene’s flaw is vanity. And she endures a lot to learn that it is something she must manage.

And if Bathsheba is an ancestor of Katniss, then the dashing, witty, educated, Sergeant Troy is a collateral descendant of Austen’s Wickham. Mr. Boldwood echoes Henchard, the Mayor of Casterbridge. And the abandoned, exploited, torch-carrying Fanny is herself a type that runs through literature, especially stories of knights and chivalry. Think “The Lady of Shallot” or Lancelot and Elaine.

A stranger comes to town. And another. And another. Life is hard. But in this sad story of desperate people, Gabriel Oak, while making mistakes, lives up to his name. He is the steady one. He grows, if slowly. He withstands the storm. He can tell time by the stars. He reads the sky accurately to predict the weather. Ultimately, he understands character and can tell the difference between superficial and deadly flaws. Though he loses his own flock through misjudging a sheepdog, as a servant he helps others save their sheep and corn and even their lives. He is quiet, patient, and, much of the time, in the background. He is a reminder of another Good Shepherd. After all, true character is what you are when no one is watching.

Ibsen and Hitler – Review

Steven F. Sage. Ibsen and Hitler: The Playwright, the Plagiarist, and the Plot for the Third Reich. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2006. Print.

Let me tell you how I ended up reading this book. Goddard in his Meaning of Shakespeare mentions that Ibsen thought his best play was Emperor and Galilean. Now, I am no Ibsen expert, but I have taken a couple of modern drama courses and have read a few of his plays. Even some I have not read, I have read about. But this was one I had never heard of, yet Ibsen thought it was his best?

The title of that work did resonate, though. It sounded like it was probably about the Emperor Julian the Apostate (A.D. 361-363). Julian had become Emperor of the Roman Empire after a series of Christian emperors and had attempted to make the official religion of the Empire the old pagan Roman polytheistic one. (Christianity would not become the state religion of the Empire until 380 under Theodosius). When Julian died his last words were reported by some to be “You have conquered, Galilean.” We know that in his own writings, Julian referred to Jesus as the Galilean.

I turned to that source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, which says that, indeed, Emperor and Galilean is a two-play cycle about the accession, rule, and death of Julian the Apostate. It was not translated into English until 1963—a condensed version at that. Unlike Ibsen’s recognized great works like A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler, The Wild Duck, or Enemy of the People, it was never produced at all on stage in English till 2010, about 140 years after it was written. Ibsen may have liked it, but it did not seem that too many other people, certainly not English speakers, cared at all about it.

One thing caught my attention. Ibsen presents Julian fairly sympathetically. His intent in part is to make a connection with the rising romantic attraction to some aspects of the pagan religions (think of Wagner or Swinburne) in reaction to Christianity in the culture of the nineteenth century. The way Ibsen tells it, Julian sees his attempt to revive the Roman religion as an attempt to establish the Third Empire. He died in battle and was unsuccessful, but one of his court magicians “prophesies” that there will be a Third Empire some day. Reich is the German word for empire. The Third Reich? Re-establishment of paganism at the expense of monotheism? That seemed too weird to be entirely coincidental.

Steven Sage apparently was wondering the same thing. That is where Ibsen and Hitler comes in. The book begins slowly and carefully. The first few chapters seem almost apologetic. At one point I said to myself, “Dr. Sage doth protest too much methinks.” But once the book gets going, it is fascinating. The author at one point self-consciously realizes that a book about Hitler’s motives is not going to be too popular among academics. But Dr. Sage had been a fellow at the Holocaust Museum. If anyone could give a hearing to this thesis, he would be the person.

He begins to make his case. A significant chapter in Hitler’s Mein Kampf plagiarizes Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. Mainly, the heroic and scientific doctor who is the main character of the play is scorned by the masses because he is trying to disinfect the public baths from bacteria which Pasteur has very recently connected with disease. Not only would Hitler adopt the “scientific” social outlook of the doctor, but he would see Jews as a kind of social infection to be eliminated. There are numerous other parallels to this play as well.

Hitler also patterned his political rise somewhat after the title character in Ibsen’s The Master Builder. Hitler had studied architecture some and part of his vision for Germany, as we know, was architectural. His proudest achievement may have been the Autobahn. Some of the Hitler’s oversight of architecture and his treatment of leading architects (whom he called Baumeister, or “master builder”) parallels events in Ibsen’s play.

Though Ibsen was critical of established religion, and he did promote social changes, there is nothing in his life or writings that could be construed as anti-Semitic or nationalistic. Still, it appears Hitler looked to three Ibsen plays for some kind of inspiration. As I was reading, I began thinking of Charles Manson, whose communal “family” committed a series of brutal murders in the Los Angeles area in the late sixties. Manson claimed to be inspired by some Beatles songs and by the science fiction classic Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. Manson identified with Valentine Smith, the protagonist of Stranger, and began to act out the book in his own twisted way. For example, some of his murder victims had forks stuck in them like the way Smith “grokked” things in the book.

Sage does not mention Manson, but he does name some other notorious criminals who patterned their crimes after a work of fiction that seemed to motivate their lives. John Wilkes Booth had been inspired by Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, especially its Brutus “the noblest Roman of them all” who assassinated Caesar to end tyranny. John Hinckley, who stalked President Carter and shot President Reagan (Sage calls Hinckley “nonpartisan”), was inspired by the film Taxi Driver. So Hitler through his life patterned numerous actions of his after Ibsen’s Emperor and Galilean. At some point after becoming the Führer, he actually read some of Julian’s own writings and was further impressed by them.

For reasons made somewhat clear by Sage, Hitler, like Julian, was hostile to Christianity since he had been a young teen. He called it “the worst regression that mankind can ever have undergone” and said that “Such a religion carries within it intolerance and persecution.” Hitler admired Julian and paganism because “The priests of antiquity were closer to nature.” (181) Today Hitler would be called neo-pagan.

Hitler believed, with some other “modernist” interpreters of Christianity, that Jesus was not a Jew and that his simple ideas had been “Judaized” by St. Paul who used his missions to get Gentiles to accept Jewish ways. Ibsen had Julian believe something similar. He also portrayed Julian believing that he was the reincarnation of the real, non-Jewish Christ. Hitler would believe the same thing about himself: He was reincarnated by nature to create the Third Empire.

There are many curious behaviors that parallel the three Ibsen plays. A truly odd and perhaps most fatal decision Hitler made was during his invasion of Russia. His army had conquered the Ukraine by early 1942 and had a direct route to Moscow. Military observers and analysts on both Allied and German sides said Moscow could have easily fallen. The city had few defenses, and at the rate Hitler’s army was moving, it would have secured the Soviet capital long before winter. Instead, Hitler inexplicably, and against the judgment of his generals, ordered the army north to Leningrad. The German army got bogged down in Russia and the conquest ultimately failed.

The Emperor Julian had done something similar. He attacked the empire to his east, Persia, and was heading for its capital. Intelligence warned him of a trap, so he turned north. It seemed like Hitler was imitating his model.

Julian had earlier made a treaty with Persia that he broke. So Hitler broke his pact with Stalin when he attacked the U.S.S.R. But before Hitler attacked Russia, he reinforced Germany’s western frontiers with a fort and bunker system along the Rhine that the British called the Siegfried Line. Hitler himself always referred to this as the Limes (Latin, two syllables), the term Julian used for the fortifications he set up along the Rhine before beginning his campaign to the East.

These are just a few of the many parallels that Sage brings up in his book. Perhaps it is a little freaky, perhaps prophetic in a negative way, but three of Ibsen’s dramas became models for Hitler: for his military campaigns, for his personal beliefs, and for his political maneuverings. Ibsen and Hitler shows us how.

Little Brother – Review

Cory Doctorow. Little Brother. 2007. E-book.

Remember the British TV show Max Headroom? It always began with the subtitle “20 Minutes into the Future.” This is the second Cory Doctorow book I have read, the other being Makers. Both novels are like Max Headroom in that they are set in the very near future. The stories, like the old TV show, focus on technology and would qualify as cyberpunk. Little Brother, the title is a play on 1984‘s Big Brother, could begin the day after tomorrow.

The narrator and most of the other main characters are high school teens who have a lot of computer savvy and enjoy live-action role-playing games. The quartet is tracking down clues in an online but live-action scavenger hunt in San Francisco where they live when they get rounded up by some heavies from the Department of Homeland Security. They are hooded, taken to a prison, tortured, and accused of being involved in a successful plot to destroy the Oakland Bay Bridge.

Three of them are released, including the narrator Marcus. Marcus and a new girlfriend then try to frustrate the DHS surveillance in the Bay Area by a combination of cyberspoofing and messing with RPIDs (“Arpids”) that have become ubiquitous—not only in EZ-Pass toll clickers and passports but also in credit cards, subway passes, and other common devices that the government is using to track people.

I give Doctorow credit for explaining some Internet arcana and especially for the clearest explanation I have read on Bayesian probability. The kids in the book understand these things; now the reader can, too. They are just trying to have fun with their role-playing games, online messaging, and flash mobs (though he does not call them that). But the DHS continues to track them and considers them potential terrorists.

One of the DHS sympathizers explains that “the framers of the Constitution intended it to be a living document,” that we have to be flexible for the “needs of the day,” that the Bill of Rights is subject to government interpretation.

When Marcus challenges this, is suspended from school for two weeks as “some kind of fundamentalist” like the alleged terrorists. It is not only unjust but also ironic. Indeed, the one caution I would have for some readers is that while the book is billed for Young Adults, i.e., junior high, Marcus does tell how he loses his virginity.

The author has a lot of acknowledgments in the book, and he confesses that he admires William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, especially Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, a favorite of mine. Makers reminded me of Stephenson, and I recommended it to a friend who is a Stephenson fan. But the book that Little Brother is most like is The Journal of David Q. Little. Little Brother‘s Marcus could be Little’s little brother.

I thought I was probably the only person living who had read that book. It came out in 1967, and I never saw or heard anything of it since I read it then, but when I checked Amazon, I found out it has some fans. It was re-released in 2012 with some additional material written by a few big-name writers. Because it came out in the late sixties, the “20 minutes into the future” is like the sixties’ America rather than twenty-first century America. With no Internet, Mr. Little relies on typewriters and mimeographs like the samizdat of Soviet Russia. Instead of using the threat of “terrorists” to establish state tyranny, Little’s America blames the Ku Klux Klan.

Little Brother is also a little more sanguine than David Q. Little. The State of California comes to the rescue in a deus ex machina—asserting the Tenth Amendment of the Bill of Rights. It is impossible to imagine the current ruthless, overfed government of California doing that. That is probably the least believable part of the novel, but it does appeal to a sense of the Creator-endowed unalienable rights.

Little Brother is an entertaining story. It is one of those tales of which we have to say, “It could happen here,” but we pray that it doesn’t.

The author is a Canadian who has lived in the United States and England as well. Each chapter of Little Brother begins with a tribute to a bookstore—usually ones that carry Doctorow’s work or have a solid science fiction section. These tributes plus a nostalgia for sixities radicals give the impression that Doctorow is some kind of bicoastal yuppie. But anyone who likes On the Road must have some contact with the real world.

The Possessed (The Devils) – Review

Fedor Dostoyevsky. The Possessed (The Devils). Trans. Constance Garnett. 1916. 14 July 2011. E-book.

Two of my all-time favorite novels are by Dostoyevsky: The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment. The Brothers is probably the greatest novel ever written. I will not quibble if you say War and Peace, Les Miserables, or even Notre Dame de Paris. But the ending of The Brothers stuns the reader with its beauty. So does The Possessed.

Just as the story of the Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov is sometimes published as a standalone story, so the penultimate chapter, especially Part 2 of Chapter 7, of The Possessed could stand alone in its beauty and eloquence. Except here, it helps to know the events that lead up to Stepan Trofimovitch’s confession—not a confession like that of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, but the last rites involving a dying man and a priest-confessor.

I read this book because The Meaning of Shakespeare referred to it several times. The author of that book enjoyed the numerous allusions to Shakespeare in The Possessed. The characters in The Possessed are more sophisticated than those in Crime and Punishment. A poor college student might identify with Raskolnikov. A college professor or a college benefactor would be more likely to identify with any number of characters in The Possessed.

The novel is set in Russia in the 1860s after the emancipation of the serfs. The middle and upper classes travel to other European countries, sometimes even to America, and read various socialist writings, especially those of Fourier. (N.B.—Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Brook Farm, a.k.a. “Blithedale,” became a Fourierist commune). The younger generation of such people are beginning to form socialist cells. Some cells want to reform Russia peacefully, others believe there has to be unrest and confrontation for a socialist takeover. Much of the plot involves such a cell (a “quintet” they call themselves) that hopes to get the workers and peasants in their town to start something that will resonate even in Moscow and Petersburg.

There are many great quotations in this novel which describe socialism and communism—indeed some could be called prophetic. Yes, the reader says, that is exactly what happened in Russia when it became the U.S.S.R.

[W]hy is it that all these desperate socialists and communists are at the same time such incredible skinflints, so avaricious, so keen over property, and, in fact, the more extreme they are, the keener they are over property—why is it? (1205-1207)

“[T]hey will divide history into two parts: from the gorilla to the annihilation of God, and from the annihilation of God to—”

“To the gorilla?” (1837-1839)

[W]e Russians were like little children beside the Americans, and that one must be born in America, or at least live there for many years with Americans to be on a level with them. (2223-2225)

Reason has never had the power to define good and evil, or even to distinguish between good and evil, even approximately; on the contrary, it has always mixed them up in a disgraceful and pitiful way; science has even given the solution by the fist. (4077, 4078)

Charity ought to be forbidden by law…In the new regime there will be no poor at all. (5547)

Socialism spreads principally through sensationalism.(6303)

[T]he essence of our creed [i.e., socialism] is the negation of honor, and that by an open advocacy of a right to be dishonorable a Russian can be won over more easily than by anything. (6334, 6335) [This reviewer would not limit this observation to Russians only but would apply it to all humans.]

Starting from unlimited freedom, I arrive at unlimited despotism. (6586)

Every member of the society spies on the others, and it’s his duty to inform against them. Everyone belongs to all and everyone. All are slaves and equal in their slavery. In extreme cases he advocates slander and murder, but the great thing about it is equality. To begin with, the level of education and science is only possible for great intellects, and they are not wanted. (6830-6833)

Slaves must have directors. Absolute submission, absolute loss of individuality. (6844, 6845)

Moreover, this riff-raff almost always falls unconsciously under the control of a little group of “advanced people” who do act with a definite aim, and this little group can direct all this rabble as it pleases. (7511, 7513)

One can look at a lot of these and say—that does not merely describe Russia under communists, but trends we can clearly see in many parts of the world.

While some of these quotations stood out from a historical perspective, do not get the idea that The Possessed is a mere political tract or satire. It is an honest work of art. It includes family relationships, unrequited love, aristocrats, workers, and peasants. It begins almost like a Jane Austen or Henry James novel of social status, but it ends up raising questions not just about society and government, but man’s place in the universe, the creation, and God. As always, Dostoyevsky is taking in the big picture.

[A]ll nature cries every minute to its Creator, “Why?” (2839)

One of the main characters, Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch, is compared in an early chapter to Prince Hal in Shakespeare. Perhaps Goddard in The Meaning of Shakespeare sees the prince as a cynical Machiavellian because of The Possessed. But Nikolay does not reform. Think more of Fyodor Karamazov (the father) or even Svidrigailov in Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov is a destitute Nietzchean—but what about someone “beyond good and evil” who has wealth and connections?

As Crime and Punishment has its epiphany around the reading of the New Testament when Sonia reads about the raising of Lazarus, so there is a similar epiphany in The Possessed. If anything, this is even more profoundly moving because it has the potential of hitting every heart. The Scriptures read are quite different—the seventh church in the Book of Revelation and the Gadarene demoniac. The title of the novel comes from the second story. The devils (perhaps a more literal translation of the novel’s title) go into swine and destroy the whole herd.

But the sick man will be healed and “will sit at the feet of Jesus,” and all will look on him with astonishment. (10727)

If you read The Possessed, hang in there to the end. It is worth it. You, too, will be astonished.

A note on the translation. I read the translation on because it is public domain and available for Kindle. The parenthetical references above are Kindle location references, not page numbers! Constance Garnett’s translation is very good, though some critics feel she should have called the book The Devils as that is a more accurate transation of the Russian word. But “the devils” of the book are people, so that is probably why she chose the title that she did. At any rate, the translation is very readable and quite artistic itself. As with War and Peace, the Russian aristocrats often speak French, and Garnett does not translate the French. If that is a problem for you, you might want to find a version that translates the French, or at least has footnotes with the interpretation.

Two last philosophical thoughts from the novel:

“The Jews lived only to await the coming of the true God and left the world to the true God. The Greeks deified nature and bequeathed the world their religion, that is, philosophy and art. Rome deified the people and the State, and bequeathed the idea of the State to the nations.” (4090-4092)

“There are no such things as ghosts nowadays, nothing but natural science. Look it up in a scientific book.”(7819)

Today, we might say, “Look it up on the Internet,” but things really have not changed that much…

Loving the Way Jesus Loves – Review

Phil Ryken. Loving the Way Jesus Loves. Wheaton IL: Crossway, 2012. Print.

Do not read this book if you are content with your life. This will wreck your comfort zone.

There have been a handful of books that have brought me literally to my knees. One, Daring to Draw Near by John White, I pretty much read on my knees. Another that somewhat shocked me was Overcoming Racism by Rick Joyner. I am a Yankee; all my ancestors fought for the North. I lived in the ghetto for a while. I am post-Civil Rights Movement. Yet that book caused me to pray in a way I never had.

Similarly, Loving the Way Jesus Loves opens up Jesus to us the way few books outside of the Bible have. Reading one chapter in this book also brought me to my knees.

As the former manager of a Christian bookstore, I have seen and read numerous books on love. There is a certain sameness in many of them. They are either analytical word studies, or else they tell us what we ought to do. The first are dry; the second are preachy. While we understand that God wants us to love good deeds and avoid evil ones, most of us who have been Christians know what we ought to be doing, even if we do not (see Romans 7).

Loving the Way Jesus Loves is really different. It does not tell us what to do. It shows us. And it mostly shows us through the life of Jesus. The plan is very simple. Analyze I Corinthians 13, the “love chapter,” by showing how Jesus lived it out. That what was literally awesome about this book. Jesus. His love.

There are two things implicit in this approach. One, we can learn to love and appreciate Jesus more. Two, we can live by His example. I think it was chapter five in this book that brought me to my knees. “Love is patient,” says the verse. For years I have noted that patience is the difference between love and lust. But this was different. Ryken used the story of the raising of Lazarus to illustrate this. Jesus waited a couple of extra days after he heard Lazarus was sick. By the time he arrived at his house, Lazarus had been dead four days. Jesus took His own sweet time as they say, but what he accomplished was much more than a mere physical healing. If we get a vision that Jesus really does hold the keys to death and hell (Revelation 1:18), we really can relax. We know it is all in His hands.

So each chapter tells a similar episode in the life of Jesus. Interestingly, the chapters follow the verses of I Corinthians 13 in order, and the episodes follow the life of Jesus in order: His ministry, His arrest and trial, His suffering, His resurrection appearances, and His promise to return.

The author encourages us to try to put our names in the chapter in place of “love”: “I am patient. I am kind.” And so on. That is enough to trouble most of us if we are honest. But, you know, we can say, “Jesus is patient. Jesus is kind.” And so on all the way to the end of the chapter. That ultimately is our hope. Not I, but Jesus. As that old chorus says, “Jesus in me loves you.” Without Jesus, I am nothing: I am that clanging gong and clashing cymbal.

Ryken does include some interesting testimonies. One seemed unbelievable to me, but I found that it had been well documented. There was a famous photograph from the Vietnam War of a village being napalmed by American planes. A small group is fleeing the bombs including a little girl who is completely naked because the napalm had burned off all her clothes. She has her own story of how she learned to forgive.

Read this if you dare. If your heart still beats, it will affect you. My prayer is that in my own life the effect will become a permanent change. Amen.