Revisiting the Catholicism of "Christ Among Us"

Educating new Christians in the basics of the faith has always been an important task of the Church.   A few years back I featured a series on Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures, which date from the fourth century.  Evangelical churches can be very casual about the whole business, their reputation for dogmatism notwithstanding.

With Roman Catholicism, things are a little more involved.  Roman Catholic doctrine and thought is enormously complicated; it can be a lot for the novice to absorb.  The approach here too has varied.

For many years American Catholics were inculcated using the famous Baltimore Catechism.  Vatican II pretty much left this behind.  When I first revealed to my parish priest that I was interested in becoming Roman Catholic, he gave me Martin Farrell’s Parish Catechism.    You can see an earlier edition of this here; the one he gave me had the obligatory hat tips to Vatican II, but the content was essentially the same.  Farrell was succinct and clear: you knew what the Church that followed it expected out of you, and that was fine with me.  I reviewed it, told him I was good with it and made the Profession of Faith.

Today, of course, it’s different: we have the RCIA, a multi-year voyage which includes the sprawling Catechism of the Catholic Church.  This document is the stuff of legend among conservative Catholics.  We have, for example, the spectacle of Al Kresta, who strolls to his talk show microphone with the Catechism of the Catholic Church in one hand and the New York Times in the other.  (Let’s hope his helpful staff has put the coffee on his desk in advance.)

Between the two was the stuff of another legend: Anthony Wilhelm’s Christ Among Us.  First published in 1967, when I got involved in the Texas A&M Newman Association, I found it was “all the rage.”  One friend had it read at his wedding.  Echoes from it can be found in the Catholic folk music of the era.  It was used frequently in study and, when I got to Dallas, I found myself using it in my high school CCD class.  Since then it’s fallen out of favour.  But what was the appeal?  And did (and does) it deserve the adulation?

The subtitle of the book is “A Modern Presentation of the Catholic Faith.” Both its strengths and weaknesses stem from that premise.

Its Strong Points

  • It makes being Catholic out to an adventure.  And, truth be told, in the 1970’s being Roman Catholic (for me at least) was both fun and an adventure, more so than before or since.
  • It really is a readable and easy to follow presentation of Catholic theology, doctrine and life.
  • It attempts to present the essentials of the faith without making the accretions to Catholic life essential in themselves.  To put it another way, it did not make the sacramentals that characterised pre-Vatican II Catholicism a necessity to arrive at the sacraments.  This, probably more than anything else, set the traditionalists’ teeth on edge.
  • Probably the best part of the book is “Our Christian Presence in the World,” where Confirmation is discussed.  Although not a Charismatic book, it actually adopts a “power to witness for Christ” view of the infusion of the Holy Spirit, something I would find again when I worked for the Church of God.

Its Weak Points

  • It brings in a rogues gallery of modern Catholic thinkers such as Kung, Schillebeecx, and Teilhard de Chardin.  (To its credit it also brings in John McKenzie; it also brought up a name I hadn’t heard in years, namely Michel Quoist.)
  • It works under an implied assumption that the supernatural work of God in the past has been superseded by our own work.  That’s the defective assumption behind the “Contract on the Episcopalians,” and it doesn’t work any better in Roman Catholicism than it does in the Anglican-Episcopal world.  That, of course, leads to its emphasis on social justice work.  I’ve discussed the problems of Roman Catholic social teaching in the past; this book doesn’t do anything to solve those.  The Charismatic Renewal could have helped to bring the supernatural and the temporal together better, but it got bogged down in authority issues and other problems.
  • It frequently implies that the practical magisterium of the church will shift from the bishops to the academics and lay people.  That, of course, hasn’t happened, and many of the changes they hoped for haven’t happened either.  In Mainline Protestantism, the seminaries have been the main source of trouble, eventually rolling both bishop and lay person alike.
  • Its presentation on which sins break the relationship with God and which sins don’t is mushy.  It studiously avoids for most of the book the terms “venial” and “mortal” sin, even though these are central to the whole Catholic penitential idea.

Probably the most objectionable point in the book takes place in (where else?) its discussion of sex and marriage:

Some couples feel that they have a deep, mature and permanent commitment t one another before the marriage ceremony–and often it has its consummation in the sexual union–and in the judgement of the couples this is not wrong.  Their permanent, unconditional commitment (not the instability of trial or companionate marriage) draws them to a fuller expression of their love.  Priests who are counselling couples, while they must present the Church’s ideal regarding this, also realize that what is a beautiful and attainable ideal for one couple may be deeply frustrating and disruptive for another.  Each couple, in dialogue with God, will have to do what they are capable of. (p. 323)

So how do we look at Christ Among Us on balance?  I think the concept is a good one, but the execution leaves something to be desired.  If it were “tightened up” in places, we’d have a real winner.  Unfortunately the drift with many “modern” presentations is outside of Christianity, and that occupational hazard pokes its head out more than once in this book.

The traditionalists, buoyed by the pontificate of St. John Paul, had their knives out for Christ Among Us.  In 1984, after a two-year letter writing campaign, the future Pope Benedict XVI ordered Newark Archbishop Peter L. Gerety to remove his imprimatur from the book.  This move, nearly unprecedented, pushed its publication to a secular house and made its use problematic for parishes.  Combined with the release of the Catechism of the Catholic Church later in the decade, the book largely went out of currency in catechetical work.

And as for me?  Personally I’m glad my years as a Roman Catholic saw my intellectual formation with the Fathers, Aquinas and writers such as Bossuet and Pascal and not Christ Among Us.  I am also glad that my spiritual formation came through not only the influence of this book but of the Charismatic Renewal.  Unfortunately the combination created a “new wine in old wineskins” problem with Catholic parishes I was a part of after undergraduate school that lead to the inevitable burst.

Where I teach, one of the Dean’s secretaries was a Third Order Franciscan.  She noted that the Catholic parishes in this area had a low view of spiritual formation, with few opportunities for growth.  That’s not restricted to this area, sad to say.  Christ Among Us was an attempt to do something about that and, although it leaves something to be desired of, so does the current state of spiritual life at the parish level.


Perusing My Parents' Bookshelf

Boomers have always had a love-hate relationship with the generation before them, transitioning from “don’t trust anyone over thirty” to calling them “the Greatest Generation.”  Most of those who brought us into the world are gone now, and the ones who are left are “full of years” to use the Bible’s expression.

Part of the problem was that our parents’ weren’t very forthright about what they were really all about.  Products of more than a decade of adversity in the Depression and World War II, they wanted to put it all behind them and create an ideal place for their children to grow up in.  That was a mistake; it resulted in a generation that lacked a sense of reality that has plagued our country ever since.  Understandable, but still consequential.

One place I have turned to to see what “made them tick” was my parent’s bookshelf.  My parents were intelligent, sharp-tongued people, but neither of them earned an undergraduate degree.  (My mother, I found out later, quit high school to run off and get married, but that didn’t dull her smarts either).  Like generations of Americans, they were literate but not literary.  The library at home reflected their interests and not a cultural aspiration.

Obviously it is impossible to recreate that library, long broken up with moves and a nasty divorce.  But university library sales and other sources have allowed me to savour some of the books that sat on the shelves, many of which I never read before.  (At the time most of my interest in the bookshelf was centred on the World Book encyclopaedia).  So let me do some “miniature reviews” of some of these titles.

Peter Freuchen’s Book of the Seven Seas
is his delightful and encyclopaedic account of human history at sea.  Freuchen, a Danish explorer who was part of the last generation to make really new discoveries on the earth, is the “Herodotus of Marine History”, not always precise with his facts but so entertaining and engaging in his narrative and sweeping in the scope of knowledge that his work is still the best place to start a study of the subject.  It conveys better than anything else why the sea is so compelling with a sense of awe that we’ve really lost.

An entirely different experience at sea–well, sort of–is William Brinkley’s Don’t Go Near the Water.  A satire on Naval public relations in the Pacific during World War II, his book has been criticised for its desultory organisation and lack of connecting plot (like the 1960’s art movies that shortly followed).  To some extent that criticism is justified; it is more a loose progression of short stories with a running undercurrent of one Naval officer’s attempt to romance an island girl with more culture that he had.  With World War II satires Boomers preferred Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, but this novel was a major best seller when it came out in 1956, the choice of the participants rather than their offspring.  The language is very salty (as one would expect in the Navy, my father’s similar speech came from the Coast Guard) but it shows a willingness–indeed a need–to make fun of the military that has been lost.

More for the coffee table than the bookshelf is the National Geographic classic Men, Ships, and the Sea (The Story of Man Library).  The text was written by the Australian mariner Allan Villiers, but it was loaded with the gorgeous photographs that were the trademark of National Geographic publications.  I grew up on what is now known as “NatGeo”, the monthly magazine was a staple at our house.  (I strongly suspect that my grandfather, in his years in Washington, got to know the Grosvenor family and the Society).  In some ways it parallels Freuchen’s book but the photographs don’t make up for Freuchen’s narrative.  In the back is a good summary of small craft operation and navigation that we, er, could have used…(this post’s date is the fiftieth anniversary of my father sending the check back to NatGeo for the book).

The strangest–but in the long run the most important–book I got from their bookshelf was the Bible.  Most Evangelicals have the Bible handed to them, literally and in the life of the church.  As an Episcopalian, that didn’t happen to me.  It took an encounter with God to impress upon me the need to find out what was there.  So I went to the bookshelf and found a little white one, only to be informed that only girls had white Bibles.  I quickly substituted that for the black cover, red-letter King James that became my first Bible.

That Bible was older than I thought; it was only as an adult that I found out why the maps in the back looked strange.  But it was a start.  For five years it was the only Bible I had, until I acquired a New English Bible and started looking at more modern translations (and older ones too, like the Vulgate and Tyndale’s).  But my voyage with God was one where I at least started out somewhere ahead of an impressed deck hand, and for that I will be eternally grateful.

Book Review: Daniel-Rops' A Fight for God

One of the things Americans politicians endlessly yammer about is the way they’re “fighting” something or someone.  It never ends–they fight special interests, they fight the President, and when they want to be more positive they’re “fighting for you”.

The result of this mentality is obvious these days.  But what if there’s really something–or someone–worth fighting for, against a real enemy?  The answer to that, from a Roman Catholic perspective at least, is Daniel-Rops’ A Fight for God, which details the history of the Church between 1871–the beginnings of the French Third Republic and the unification of the German Second Reich–and 1939, when the Third Reich invaded Poland and began World War II.  It’s an eventful and trying era for the world in general and the Roman Catholic Church in particular, although the “separated bretheren” didn’t escape unscathed.

Daniel-Rops opens with a sweeping view of the secularist age which he writes about.  In this “goose who gets up in a new world every morning” age we live in, his description of the various enemies of Christianity has a very contemporary feel to it, and it’s hard to see that much has changed in the half century since he wrote it.  An example of this comes when he gets to the effect secularism had on sexual morals:

No less evident was the disruption of Christian society, the second factor which marked the process of dechristianization.  The collapse of Christian social structures was both case and consequence of that process.  It was not by chance that in all countries one of the first aims of anticlerical governments had been to secure the passing of laws to legalize divorce.  Indeed one of the most flagrant signs whereby the ebb of religion might be recognized was the progress of divorce.  It gained ground wherever it was made legal.  At the same time there was a marked increase in the number of purely civil marriages.

While ecclestiastical law was thus flouted, Christian morality itself was undermined.  This becomes clear when one looks at the sexual life of countries which still called themselves Christian.  The strict principles of the Church were openly defied.  The number of children born outside of marriage steadily increased; at Paris it rose from 22 per cent in 1877 to 39 per cent in 1937.  But even that was not the most serious feature; abortion was common, and adultery, fostered by a certain type of literature, was frequent among the middle classes.  The whole western world was gliding towards that obsession with sex which is so characteristic of our age; and the cinema from its very beginning contributed largely to encourage such an outlook.

He then outlines the lives of the four Popes whose reigns span the era: Leo XIII, Pius X, Benedict XV and Pius XI.  In the American church it has been fashionable to forget the era before Vatican II as a pious monolith that was blown apart by Vatican II and the 1960’s.  But each pontiff had a different personality and handled their situation differently.  Because of both the nature of the Catholic Church and the era, each pontiff also had to deal with both spiritual and temporal matters.  Daniel-Rops is careful to note that, if Vatican I had proclaimed the pope’s infallibility in spiritual matters, same did not extend to temporal ones, although he shows that in many cases the Vatican used wisdom and discretion.

He then launches into the main body of the book, the history of the Church, largely in Europe.  Secularism–and Daniel-Rops does not fail to include Freemasonry as central protagonists of that idea–was on the offensive in the last part of the nineteenth century, but how this played out relative to the Church depended upon the country.  In Germany and Switzerland, both governments launched  kulturkampfs which, if successful, would have severely curtailed the activity of the Church.  The Church managed to fight the state to a draw in both cases.

France was a more serious situation, but some of that was the result of French Catholics (lay and clergy) belligerently overplaying their hand (sound familiar?) in the early years of the Third Republic.  That led to a backlash that came to a head with l’affaire Dreyfus.  The result of that was that most of the Catholic educational system in France was forced to close, the Concordat revoked and state and church officially separated.  “Separation of church and state” meant something entirely different in France and many other parts of Europe; it generally meant the state was free of ecclesiastical control to the extent that the state controlled the activity of the church (sound familiar too?)

The situation in Italy was complicated by the fact that, in the process of unifying the country, the Kingdom of Italy had the bad taste to take over most of the Papal States.  The Pope became a “prisoner” in the Vatican.  It took more than half a century to finally straighten out this mess with the Lateran Treaty, and that signed with Benito Mussolini’s government.

In the early years of the era the Church took a dim view of the development of democratic institutions in Europe, but reality slowly sunk in.  Another reality that sunk in was that the Church had largely lost the working class.  A large part of that response was the papal formulation of Catholic social teaching and the beginning of Catholic Action movements, which included Catholic trade unions and political parties, the mix and nature of which varied from country to country.  American Catholic conservatives have expressed shock that the current pontiff has reminded the world of Catholic social teaching; part of the problem is that American Catholicism never had to develop a truly independent social action movement from the main political parties and trade unions.

Relationship with hostile states wasn’t the only difficulty the Church experienced in this period.   Pius X especially dealt with the problems posed by Modernism.  It may seem strange that Daniel-Rops is himself concerned with this after some of the things he says in books such as Sacred History, but there’s no doubt that people such as Alfred Loisy and George Tyrell went further than the church–and even Daniel-Rops–were ready to go.  Some Catholics may still be sore at the outcome of this, but it beats the outcome of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy in Protestant churches–on both sides.

World War I (where the Pope was accused of taking sides) saw a softening of attitudes towards the Church, especially in France, where many priests died during the war (and that in an army without official chaplains).  This is a similar result to the one we saw in Stalin’s Soviet Union during and after World War II.  But that leads us to the last part of the history: the rise of the totalitarian states such as the Soviet Union, Italy and Germany.  Concerning these Daniel-Rops has this to say:

Whatever their respective ideologies, all those new regimes were totalitarian.  According to them the State, the collectivity, was the sole legitimate reality.  Under State direction all living forces must be united in order ensure growth of the collectivity.  The State therefore had a righ to dominate man from his birth to his death, to impose upon him the principles, activities, ways of life and even opinions which it considered useful.  In such a system man is nothing: the State alone counts.  That doctrine was charcteristcs of the Soviets no less than of National Socialism, and indeed of Fascism, whose theorists coined the very word ‘totalitarian’.

The Church adopted a two prong strategy to deal with this.  One the one hand, it signed concordats with regimes such as Mussolini’s Italy (1929) and Hitler’s Germany (1933).  Daniel-Rops defends such a practice by basically stating that a concordat gave it status within such states without necessarily approving of that state; one would hope that the Vatican is taking that approach with its recent recognition of the Palestinian State.  On the other hand the Church opposed many moves of both states, especially Germany, to integrate the Church into its general program; Daniel-Rops rightfully characterises Nazism as “fundamentally antichristian.”  The book’s time scope ends with Pius XI dying as Germany prepared to invade Poland and once again drown Europe in blood.

But all was not in Italy, Germany and France; Daniel-Rops spends time on the smaller countries such as Belgium, Austria and Spain.  But he also casts his view abroad.  This is where the book really looks to the future, now our present, more than anywhere else.  He details both the Church’s situation in traditionally Catholic areas (such as Latin America), countries that transition from mission field to home front (such as the United States and Canada) and true mission fields such as Africa and Asia.  He notes the pastoral issues in Latin America and warns that they could give an opening to Protestants, which they have done in a big way.  He also notes that Islam’s “revival” and renewed opposition to Christianity started in the years leading up to World War II, something that the West was slow to realise (and, especially in the case of Britain, actually fomented that revival with its policies).

Roman Catholic missions have always been hampered by the rigid structure of the church and its priesthood.  One thing that offset that was an important decision by the Vatican shortly after World War I: the decision to actively open up the priesthood and episcopacy to non-European people.  In that regard they were ahead of just about every Protestant church out there except for the Pentecostals, whose own mission was just getting started.  The success of the Catholic mission is in no small way attributable to that decision.

The United States occupies an interesting place in his history.  It is introduced in a negative way as Daniel-Rops considers “Americanism” as a precursor to Modernism.  It’s sometimes hard to figure out what he means by Americanism, but what it boils down to is that the practical way in which the American church operated came out as something entirely different when put in front of a European (especially French) audience.

In spite of a good deal of anti-Catholicism in American society, Daniel-Rops recognises that the Roman Catholic Church had almost ideal conditions to operate in the United States.  Without an agressively secular government interfering in its affairs, it could carve out its own destiny.  Part of that destiny was the Vatican’s rejection of the concept of different systems of parishes and dioceses for the various ethnic groups.  The practical result of this was that the Irish came to dominate the life of the American church.  As was the case with Evangelicalism, Celtic Christianity set the agenda, something that doubtless needs some revision for the present situation.

The book ends with a brief biography of St. Thérèse de Liseux, who became the Church’s patron saint for missions within a few years after her death in 1897.  That may seem strange for an author as scholarly as Daniel-Rops, but he uses the simplicity and austerity of her life and the single-mindedness of her faith as a response to Friedrich Nietzsche’s proclamation of ‘God is dead’ which he starts the book with.

Protestants are generally loathe to make a positive spin on Catholic history such as this.  However, with corporatist states breathing down Christianity’s neck in so many places and in so many ways and with other types of persecution rearing their ugly heads, the relevance of his narrative of this era leaps out at you.  People decry  the decline of Christianity in Europe, but reading Daniel-Rops we should be thankful it survived at all, and we who are elsewhere should be neither so smug nor short-sighted about our own situations.  Instead we should be concentrating on the conflict we really need to be waging: A Fight for God.

Book Review: Daniel-Rops' Sacred History

In the Nazi-Occupied France of 1943, the Gestapo visited the French publishing house Fayard to break the plates of a new book they were publishing. So what was the Gestapo stopping the presses on? How to Help the Allies When They Finally Get Around to Invading France? Hardly. The book they were so concerned about was entitled Sacred History, by the Catholic author Daniel-Rops, the nom de plume of Henri Jules Charles Petiot (1901-1965). There were many Catholic books being printed in those days, so why this one?

The answer to that question is what makes this book one of the most intriguing that any Catholic author has ever written. In a church which began and perfected “replacement theology,” the idea that Christianity in general and the Church in particular replaced the Jews and their temple sacrificial system with a new people and system, Daniel-Rops produced a sweeping treatment of the central role of the Jewish people from their father Abraham all the way until the time of Jesus Christ. This kind of emphasis on the Jews may have been distasteful to some of Daniel-Rops’ fellow Catholics, but it was anathema to the Nazis, who were busy with their “Final Solution” of the Holocaust. In a way the book was resistance literature, and the Nazis didn’t miss its import. It was not published in France until after the war and, translated into English, published in the U.S. in 1949.

Daniel-Rops begins his history of the Jews in this way:

At Ur in Shinar, a local capital of the Lower Euphrates, about four thousand years ago, a man called Abram was visited by God and, without hesitation, believed the promise: “I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great” (Genesis XII:2).

This is the point of departure assigned in the Bible to the whole historical development of which the people of Israel were both the agent and the witness. It is an event of an essentially mystical order, no less mysterious in its essence and no less tangible in its results than was, for example, the mission of Joan of Arc for France. That a small Bedouin clan, nomads wandering, like many others, across plains and steppes, should be the source of a destiny so fraught with significance, the distant heirs of the Patriarchs were to understand as a fact that cannot be explained by the logic of history; it is explainable only as the will of God.

He uses the fruits of archeology—much of which involved his fellow Frenchman, Roland de Vaux—to explain and illuminate the “Sacred History” from Abraham through the coming and going from Egypt, Moses and Joshua, the time of the Judges, the turning point when Samuel anointed first Saul and then David as King, the zenith of the nation under Solomon, its division and long road to disaster, captivity in Babylon, return under the Persians, revolt under the Greeks and at last the various aspects of Judaism that were in place at the time of the coming of the Saviour.

The historical aspect of the Old Testament is one that many people, both its supporters and detractors, struggle with. The detractors decry the cruelty they see in God and the way his people advanced themselves (although they are by and large content to allow the cruelty of the present Middle East pass them by without substantive action.) The supporters, whose principal interest is to apply the Scriptures directly to their own lives, either gloss over much of the sacred history, pick and choose episodes that are easy to understand, or spiritualise it using a sensus plenior based hermeneutic. Daniel-Rops addresses both. To the former, he calls on the concept of progressive revelation, the idea that the way God deals with his people varies according to their state of development. During the conquest he describes the Israelites as “people in their infancy,” carried away by “all the energy and the illogicalness of impetuous youth.” He describes the development of the way the Israelites matured in the way they looked at themselves and their relationship with God through the calamities and triumphs they went through.

To deal with the latter, Daniel-Rops is emphatic: the monotheism of the Jews is the cornerstone of Western civilisation. He makes that point in discussing the name of God given at the Burning Bush and in other places. That may not be spiritually edifying for immediate application, but it’s central to God’s message to the world. The Nazis, who were busy remaking Europe in general and Germany in particular with a pagan construct, didn’t miss the import of Daniel-Rops’ point, another reason they broke the plates.

Sacred History was written by one of Roman Catholicism’s premier authors of the twentieth century, and yet it is not a particularly “Catholic” book as most non-Catholics would understand the term. He uses the deuterocanonical books from time to time, but mostly to catch the pulse of Judaism in the years between the return from exile to Herod. English speaking readers will probably have more trouble with his references to French history and literature than to a Catholic frame of reference. But the one place where his Catholicism comes out is the way he handles the truth content of the Scriptures.

He makes frequent and generally disparaging reference to Protestant Biblical scholarship; neither higher critic nor fundamentalist comes off particularly well in his pages. He is completely convinced of his title: as the quotation above shows, he believes and is convinced (to use Origen’s phrase) that the sweep of Old Testament history is a God-directed process. He is not afraid to consider human events in the process. For example, in Abraham’s call to leave Ur, were there migrations across vulnerable Mesopotamia that made God’s call more credible and motivated him to move himself and his family elsewhere? (Mesopotamia/Iraq’s vulnerability to foreign invasion is certainly something we have seen in abundance lately.)

On the other hand, he takes a breezy, informal approach to the truth content of the details of the Scriptures. He is no inerrantist, but he does not let that stand in the way of his faith. In a long passage towards the end of the book that considers these matters, he states the following:

It is clearly beyond our subject to ask in what measure divine inspiration corresponds with historical exactitude. If the critic, who sees the Bible as a historical document, reduces the facts in the crucible of his analysis, their dogmatic verity is not thereby destroyed. The test that we read is expressly declared to be the work of God, but by the intermediary of man: this accounts for certain fabulous details, or the many different styles, which are inevitable enough. On the other hand, the pseudo-scientific theories of concordism that during the last half-century have attempted to classify the facts of the Bible like facts of modern geology, astronomy, or biology, have produced only superficial criticisms.

The key to understanding this seeming contradiction is in fact Daniel-Rops’ Catholicism. He drifted from his faith and then came back to it. His belief in God is not based on a book but in God himself mediated through an institution. For all the problems that institutionalist religion has, Daniel-Rops—and many other Catholics—see the truth of the Scriptures primarily buttressed by the truth of God and not the other way around, as is customary with Protestants. That reordering, which many non-Catholics find disconcerting, was part of the key as to why the Roman Catholic Church, for all the chaos that came with Vatican II, has survived with its belief structure far more intact than those of its Main Line Protestant counterparts. It’s something that Evangelicals, wrestling with their own current problems in this area, would do well to consider.

Today we have our own new Gestapo and our new Nazis who are trying to impose their own pagan replacement for our civilisation. And we have the lengthening shadow of a very secular state. When Daniel-Rops wrote the book, the Third Republic (only recently gone from the German invasion) had imposed full-bore laïcité on France for at least forty years. It is fitting that we reconsider to our profit this magnificent little book, which finds its message for the present by considering nothing short of its subject: sacred history.

Book Review: Richard Hofstader's The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays

Political analysis and punditry can date awfully quickly.  Nevertheless–and this is especially true in a place like the United States, whose structural continuity is exceptional–some pieces of political prose, especially when written in a historical context, can have relevance for several generations.

One of those analyses–actually a series of essays not originally intended to be a corpus–is Richard Hofstader’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics: And Other Essays.  It’s one of those books, for better or worse, whose influence has not waned in the years since its first publication in the mid-1960’s (some of the essays go back further than that).  It’s one of those works, for the left at least, that leaves you wondering why anyone bothers writing on the subjects again, except that a) the names change and b) they need the money.

The book is made up of six of Hofstader’s essays, divided into two sets of three.  The first are “Studies in the American Right”, which leaves the reader no doubt where Hofstader’s sympathies lie.  The first essay is, of course, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, and the other two concern the campaign and defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964, along with an analysis of the “pseudo-conservative” (to use Hofstader’s distinction of the Goldwater right from the moderates in the Republican party who opposed him) movement.  And this is where the relevance comes in: depending upon how you look at it, Hofstader either nails the right so well that everyone who comes after him cribs him to be correct, or that his view of “flyover country” is so congenial to the left that they no longer have to think of another model to use (which is why, I think, liberals often refer to this piece in their own analyses).

All of the usual actors are in place: the militant anti-communists, the religious right, the small business people, the less educated, the emotionalist–all of them find a place in Hofstader’s knave’s gallery of which he presents a sweeping view.  Hofstader, to be fair, does not believe that the paranoid style is the exclusive franchise of the right.  But he hardly spends enough time on their left-wing counterparts to leave any doubt of where he thinks the home of paranoia in American politics lies.  One thing he consoles himself with is a) Goldwater managed to alienate such a large part of the electorate and b) their commitment to their cause without regard for political consequences indicates that their 1964 performance with Goldwater would be repeated in the future.

Or would it? In the second series of essays, “Some problems in the Modern Era”, he deals with three topics which don’t get a good deal of treatment these days.  The first concerns the Spanish-American War and our entry into imperialism, one which was uncharacteristic (for foreign imperialism at least) up to that time.  The last is devoted to William “Coin” Harvey, his “Financial School” and the subject of bimetallism, where he is able to capture a conspiracy style of thinking that has resurfaced in differing forms.  But his treatment of the intricacies of bimetallism, something that is difficult for those of us who are products of fiat money times may find difficult to grasp, is one of the strong points of the book.

But it was in the middle essay, on the subject of anti-trust, that the possible future (at that point) of the post-Goldwater Republican right surfaced:

In politics, of course, it is the right-wingers who really count–it is they who have the numbers, the money, the political leverage.  They can also invoke the old American pieties and can appeal to the kind of old-fashioned American who believes that federal fiscal policy is just like the family budget.  Much of our conservative writing echoes with concern over the decline of the older kind of economic morale, which it identifies with smaller entrepreneurship.  But conservatives understandably fear to make the large corporation the object of their criticism; this smacks too much of subversion.  They have a safer and more congenial outlet against the organisation of modern life in the form of denunciations of big government…

In this regard Hofstader was prescient, for the conservatives, roundly defeated in 1964, and the Republican Party, trashed by Nixon in Watergate, looked like a lost cause by the mid-1970’s.  But conservatives’ organisation and rootedness in the country’s core ethic–plus finding a more congenial leader in Ronald Reagan who knew “when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em”–put them back in the driver’s seat in the 1980’s and pretty much for the next quarter century.  So how else has Hofstader’s whole model held up?

Hofstader was right in pointing out the paranoid style in American politics, but he was blind to its relevance on the left.  It wouldn’t be long before that came roaring out in the 1960’s campus revolts which were in part a revolt against liberalism’s own quiescent acceptance of large corporations (something Hofstader also identified).  If there’s one thing the unwashed students didn’t think much of, it was working for “the man”.  Such raw emotionalism resulted in the nervous breakdown that the U.S. experienced in the early 1970’s.  (A more balanced view of American emotionalism can be found here).

But that, in turn, leads to a more contemporary question: if Barack Obama manages to crush the Republican Party the way he wants to (and, for those who can still count, that would lead to a one-party system) and at the same time break the right once and for all, would we have a better country for it?  Or, to put it another way that would be a fair question Hofstader doesn’t address, how is it that a nation of insane crackpots has been as successful as we have?  The 60’s and post-60’s left in this country hasn’t shown that it understands how to have a growing economy (let alone really wanting one) or a great nation, let alone one with a more even distribution of income (one that existed, by the way, in Hofstader’s day).  They are good at going through their process.  But will that carry the day when the competition is Asia?

Although Hofstader makes many astute observations about this country, its past and for him its present, one gets the impression that he’s like Biblical scholars who really don’t believe the truth content of the book they’ve devoted their lives to studying but don’t have the grit to find another line of work.  One another level one can only wish that those who pine to make us like Europe would just move there, but that’s another post.  In the meanwhile The Paranoid Style in American Politics: And Other Essays is a “must read” for those who really want to understand where liberals have come from for a long time.

Book Review: Frank Bartleman's Azusa Street

Anyone who has been around Pentecostal academic circles (and yes, they do exist) has heard a great deal about the Azusa Street revival of 1906, an event which marks (but does not solely define) the beginnings of modern Pentecost.  And they’ve heard many things about.  But how do they know these things?  How, for example, do we know that William Seymour, the black man who lead the initial revival, prayed speaking into a shoe box?  Who said that the colour line was washed away in the Blood?  How do we know that they sang “The Comforter Has Come” as sort of an anthem?

While not the only source, a key witness–and participant–to all of this who went on to write his account down was Frank Bartleman.  His Azusa Street: How Pentecost Came to Los Angeles, first published in 1925, is probably the single most important account we have of an event which has, over the past century, swept the world and transformed Christianity as nothing else has since the Reformation.  However, in spite of what has come to be associated with “Pentecostal” and “Charismatic”, Bartleman–at once journalist, tractarian and preacher–was in many ways a far cry of what many associate now with a Pentecostal minister.

Bartleman was born in 1871 in Pennsylvania, and was converted in a Baptist church in Philadelphia.  Like many of his era, he was uneasy with the church choices of his day, and he wandered from one to another, getting married in the meanwhile.  He eventually ended up “cured of ever worshipping a religious zeal or creed” at the Pillar of Fire Church in Denver.  From there he moved to Los Angeles, where he ministered to the downtrodden, preached and wrote and distributed tracts.

There had been signs in Los Angeles that something greater was coming in Methodist and Baptist churches.  There was also the Welsh Revival in progress across the Atlantic, and Bartleman corresponded with Evan Roberts.  When Seymour was locked out of a Nazarene church for preaching the baptism in the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in other tongues, he began his work at the Azusa Street Mission.  On 19 April 1906–the day after the San Francisco earthquake up the coast–Bartleman first visited the Mission.  The evidence Seymour had preached for had been out in the open for ten days, and the racially mixed services abounded with a new move of the Spirit.

That move did not come without controversy.  As would be the case today, the secular press of the day (especially the Los Angeles Times) trashed the movement.  But there were problems enough “inside the camp”.  Bartleman, for his part, attributes most of these to the ministers, both those who opposed the movement and those who supported and attempted to “lead” the movement.  Bartleman was a tireless advocate of a truly Spirit-led Christianity where the only authority came from God and the only movement came directed by the Holy Spirit, and the machinations of ministers grieved him greatly.  He even decried the “jazzy” music that came into vogue in Pentecostal churches after World War I.  For those of us who were nurtured on folk music during the Charismatic Renewal, then went to Pentecostal and Charismatic churches only to be told that first the “bar room” style, then rock-style praise and worship are the only things that came from the Throne Room, such an assessment is heartening.  (His comments on the deleterious effect of war on Pentecost and revival bear repeating; it wasn’t the first time it happened, and certainly not the last).

His attitude toward ministers–one that has some parallel in Charles Finney, although in many ways Bartleman is more “purely spiritual” than Finney was–is only part of what sets him apart from today’s standard.  He lived his life in poverty, depending upon God for his sustenance and wandering from one rented room (or not much more than that) to another.  His daughter Esther died shortly before the revival began, leading to the most heart-rending part of the book.  But he accepted what came his way as part of the price he paid for doing God’s work and forwarding the revival, one which he was confident would go around the world, as it did.

Bartleman writes in a maudlin style that has gone out of fashion, with many pithy and poignant phrases, but he still writes with more precision and without the positive-confession triumphalism that is common now.  This edition’s introduction by Vinson Synan provides very helpful historical background to Bartleman’s life and writing, although Bartleman’s own book does not need as much commentary as many others.

Bartleman ends his book with a plea for Christian unity.  Division and difficulties were present even at Azusa Street; our track record in that regard is no better, we should take his exhortation to heart.  Azusa Street: How Pentecost Came to Los Angeles is a sincere and documented account about a movement that has shaken the world to the same extent as the earthquake shook San Francisco, one that anyone who considers him or herself an heir to should read–and one that those who don’t should also.

Book Review: Barbara Tuchman's Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45

When we think of China today, we think of a nation growing very fast economically and taking its place as one of the great powers of the world.  Getting to that point–or getting to that point again, if one takes a long view of history–took a course of great suffering and several unexpected turns (how unexpected they were depends upon whom you are talking to). Understanding that course is essential to understanding where China and the Chinese are today, and a key reference is still Barbara Tuchman’s Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45.  Told through the career of one of this country’s unique generals, it documents not only the course of China itself from the end of the Qing Dynasty to the end of World War II but the course of American policy (civilian and military) and how that policy interacted with the realities of China to, at best, not hinder the Communist victory in 1949.

In reading this book, one needs to keep in mind its central purpose: to show that the “loss” of China in 1949 was not caused by pro-Communist people in our own government but by the realities of China in general and the Kuomintang (Nationalist) government in particular, led by Chiang Kai-Shek.  It’s easy to forget that the one event since World War II that has galvanised the American left more than any other was the “Red Scare” of the 1950’s.  That scare, in turn, was given life in no small measure by the fall of Nationalist China.  It’s supremely ironic, therefore, that the beginning of the reversal of American isolation of the People’s Republic of China was presided over by the left’s bête noire, Richard Nixon, a process begun shortly after the book’s publication.

On 10 October 1911 (the “double tenth”) anti-Qing revolutionaries staged a coup in Wuhan.  They chose as their leader Li Yuan-Hung, the regimental commander who was hiding under his bed.  Told that he was to lead the revolution or be shot, he chose the former, and the beginning of the end of China’s last imperial dynasty was at hand.

The following month Joseph Stilwell made his first visit to China.  The scion of an old prominent Yankee family, he was a West Point graduate and a career Army officer with a strong sense of duty and a dislike for many of the trappings of officer life.  He had a gift for languages, and learned Chinese before his first trip.  That knowledge made him over the long haul one of the most knowledgeable “China hands” the U.S. had at its disposal, albeit one whose language skills were not matched by his diplomacy.

In the collapse of the Qing dynasty, the system for governing the country was decapitated, which devolved the governing of the country to the provinces.  That was the source of the “warlord” system which dominated Chinese politics in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and led one observer to call the situation “democrazy”.  More to the point, Sun Yat-Sen, the founder of the Republic, characterised his country as not one China, but a “sheet of loose sand”.  The centripetal tendency of Chinese politics–not understood by Americans–is a reason the People’s Republic acts the ways it does towards dissenters, as they proved fatal to the Kuomintang.

After Sun’s death, leadership of the Kuomintang ended up with his brother-in-law, Chiang Kai-Shek.  A Chinese politician of the old school, Chiang attempted to pull things together through a system of patronage and playing one warlord/governor/general off against another and, in doing so, insure his survival.  The one group of people he had absolutely no use for were the Communists, doubtless because they opposed the moneyed classes which bankrolled him.  The history of the Kuomintang and the Communists is complicated, because in the beginning the Kuomintang modelled itself after the Soviet Communist Party and had Soviet advisors.  Chiang attempted to exterminate the Communists after formally splitting with them, which led to the famous “Long March” to Yenan.

Stilwell, after serving in France during World War I, was posted in China in various capacities during the 1920’s and 1930’s.  He supervised the building of a road near the Yellow River and got to meet many of the political figures of the time in North China (he was stationed in Beijing and Tianjin).  One of the more interesting was the “Christian Warlord” Feng Yu-Hsiang, who baptised his troops with a fire hose and taught them evangelicals hymns.  In addition to that, he also taught them trades and to treat the people properly, as the Communists were to do in Yenan a few years later.  Stilwell also found what just about everyone else who has visited China has found: some of the most charming and beautiful people on the planet.

Bringing up Feng brings up the subject of the missionary effort in China.  It’s easy to forget that China was the mission field par excellence for the last half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth.  But missions were vastly different.  In contrast to today, where American elites are as little inclined to be Christian missionaries as they are to serve in the military, the Christian mission was very much a Main Line effort, both in terms of the denominations and the family origins of the missionaries, including Franklin Roosevelt’s mother’s family.  Seldom have the U.S. ruling classes had so much foreign experience of any kind.  One thing that the elites of the day shared with those we have now is a childlike faith in the Chinese ability to embrace Western democracy, at that time through the effects of the mission work.  This system, with its mission stations and protections for foreigners extended to the missionaries, was criticised at the time, but both facilities and missionaries turn up often in the narrative.  At the end of the book, Tuchman states that Christianity did not address the needs of the Chinese, but later events have shown that the missionaries, having started the work, simply needed to step aside for the greatest Christian revival in human history.

Chiang’s method was a recipe for corruption.  It just might have triumphed, however, had it not been for one of the rude interruptions of history: the Japanese invasion of China, starting with the north in 1931 and moving southward through the decade and into the next.  When the United States was kicked into World War II by Pearl Harbour, Stilwell was assigned to the Chinese forces on the east side of Burma.  The Japanese were swift in their conquests in South-east Asia, swallowing up the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and ultimately Burma itself.  The British had never had a serious military challenge in most of their empire, and the Japanese basically overran Burma in short order.

Stilwell, caught with about a hundred others and trapped, opted to walk out of Burma.  He even refused the services of Robert “God is My Co-Pilot” Scott, who came to fly him out.  If he expected others to walk out, he did also.  So his party, many sick and wounded, set out on a miserable march northward.  It’s an epic that rivals the Communists’ trek in difficulty if not in distance.  Along with Stilwell was Baptist medical missionary Gordon Seagrave, whose Burmese nurses–singing Christian hymns and songs along the way–seemed to fare best.  The walk out exemplified much of what was best in Stilwell–his willingness to share the hardships of those under him, his devotion to duty irrespective of cost to himself, and his dogged determination to meet an objective.

Once out Stilwell had to face his two biggest problems: Chiang Kai-Shek and the British.  The latter were the usual obstacles to progress.  Their first goal was to keep their empire in general and their treaty-enforced place in China in particular, and often ran interference against Stilwell to fulfil both goals.  Stilwell in turn disliked the British and, in his style, wasn’t reticent about letting that out.

With Chiang things were more complicated.  Both Roosevelt and Stilwell were convinced that China was to become a great power, the former through his mother’s family experience and the latter through his own.  Roosevelt additionally wanted to help China’s entry into the world stage.  Chiang’s method of power holding, however, prevented him from seeing a successful military figure from emerging among his generals, to say nothing about the skimming from the top he was doing with American aid.  He turned his military strategy into a large delaying tactic, irritating the more proactive Stilwell to no end.  Most of the book is taken up with Stilwell’s struggles with “Peanut” (the code name for Chiang Kai-Shek) over military strategy.  Stilwell was able to get enough authority over enough troops–and trained many of them personally, as was his style–to win Myitkyina back from the Japanese and open up a larger flow of supply to China, both by air and land.

Chiang’s continued back-pedaling, however, combined with Stilwell’s ever-difficult relationship with the British, made follow-up of this victory difficult.  The result of this was a diplomatic “Hail Mary pass” if there ever was one: Roosevelt asked Chiang to make Stilwell commander over the entire Chinese army.  Chiang, shamed at the request, came back with his own request: remove Stilwell.  Roosevelt complied and Stilwell’s career in the CBI (China-Burma-India) theatre was at an end.

One thing that Tuchman attempts to explore was Stilwell’s regard for the Communists.  He was so frustrated with Chiang that he was certainly ready to consider working with them, but Chiang blocked that relationship.  Stilwell didn’t see the Chinese as much Communistic, which probably elicited snickers when the book was published but has proven correct, especially since the death of Chairman Mao.  (The Soviets were never really sold on Chinese Communist orthodoxy’s purity, which is one reason it took so long for them to back Mao and his party and why they were shown in the door in China.)  Stilwell also saw China as a great manufacturing power, this before Japan led East Asia on its export-driven road to success after World War II.

Tuchman remains one of this country’s great historians, although occasionally one gets lost in her battle descriptions.  It was a special pleasure reading a book that showed signs of a serious editor at work, which is more than we generally get these days (such as this).  She wrote when many of the principals in the story were still living (Stilwell himself died of cancer in 1946) and had a better feel of what a World War II narrative should be like than we do now.

My only regret is that I did not read this (and many other books like it) before my foray into China in 1981.  It is a tribute that Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45 remains the definitive narrative on the subject forty years after its first publication.  It is an era that is too easily forgotten, but it’s too important of a moment in American–and Chinese–history to set aside.

Book Review: Laurence Leamer’s Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach

One day while growing up in Palm Beach, I stopped to visit my grandmother.  As I’ve documented numerous times on this blog, I frequently found myself on the wrong end of Palm Beach’s brutal social system (well, the young part of it, at least.)  In response to my complaints about the place, she, in some ways embodying the “old Palm Beach,” said that the town was a place that grew on you and you’d always want to come back to.

As the years pass, in some ways I find she’s right, although Palm Beach, like some other places in the world, doesn’t have a “right of return.”  More to the point Palm Beach is a place that doesn’t leave you once you’ve internalized it.  The world never looks the same once you’ve lived and moved and had your being in a town that is, for many of the most successful in this world, the ne plus ultra of communities.

It is with more than passing interest, therefore, that I picked up a copy of Laurence Leamer’s Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach.  Leamer, who has written extensively about the Kennedys (another Palm Beach fixture,) went one better than many people who write about the place: he actually has a residence there and moved socially amongst the residents before putting his thoughts, experiences and interviews to book form.  How he manages to show his face in the place after this is his problem, but for me a documented journey through the island was an opportunity to reflect on my own experience and to see what had changed and what had not.

The best place to start is the title.  There’s no doubt that Madness Under the Royal Palms was intended to be provocative.  But is the way the social system works in Palm Beach really a generalized form of insanity?  A true Palm Beacher would simply come back in this way: is there any other way to run a social system?  Like many places in the world, Palm Beach runs on its own internal logic, which makes sense to the participants even if it defies the conventional wisdom of outsiders.  But one of the first lessons of life under the royal palms (or the Australian pines, or the banyan trees, or behind the ficus hedges) is that you’re not on this earth to conform to the conventional wisdom of the unwashed.

Leamer’s chief explanation of the ostensibly bizarre doings on the island is that the system is entirely driven by money, especially its disposition.  At one point in the book he compares the destructive results of the system to the One Ring of J.R.R. Tolkien.  A more relevant ring analogy would be Wagner.  Palm Beach has more than its share of Alberichts who have forsaken love for gold, and that fact leaves more conventional wisdom about human relationships behind as well.  In the end, however, things are more complicated.

In the midst of his chronicle of the present reality of Palm Beach, Leamer does provide some background.  Palm Beach is originally a product of the Gilded Age, a place meant to be both the pleasant geographical terminus of a nation and the end game of success and upward social mobility.  His account of the family affairs of Henry Morrison Flagler, the real founder of the place, is intended to be compared to the escapades of his current characters.  To some extent the career of Addison Mizner, the gay architect whose Mediterranean creations defined Palm Beach for many years (and much of whose work has been lost in the “level and rebuild” craze that has taken the town by storm the last thirty years) is paralleled with the current situation of that community in Palm Beach.  But Palm Beach, although a world unto itself in many ways, is influenced by the changes taking place in American society at large, and Leamer’s book documents those changes without really coming to grips for an explanation.

One of the important variables in the way people move up socially is determined by the rate of ascent.  As long as that rate is moderate, it’s possible for those who at the top to begin with to properly assimilate those who are moving up, both by marriage and by enforcement of the rules of society.  When that rate is very fast, however, the assimilation problem breaks down, and you end up with most dreadful result possible: tasteless nouveaux riches making a statement and getting away with it.

Leamer is certainly aware of the effects of vast sums of money showing up all at once, and its effect on society:

At the top of the milieu Shannon (Donnelly, the Palm Beach Daily News’ society columnist) covered was a new breed of billionaire and near-billionaire who set themselves apart and above from the old elite.  For the most part, they did not join the clubs, and they held themselves separate from the community.  The gods of irony or unintended consequence had played a cosmic joke, giving them money beyond human imagination, money so grand that there were no pleasures expensive enough be beyond them; yet in having everything they cared for nothing. (pp. 153-4)

The fundamental disconnect between money and the positive human attributes that most Americans associate with material success isn’t new in Palm Beach.  The whole concept of “more money than brains” is an old one there.  The realization of that disconnect is one of those things that sticks with a product of Palm Beach more than just about anything else.  It’s a major reason, for example, for my instinctive aversion to prosperity teaching, an aversion that’s next to impossible to explain to people.  (I see that my fellow Palm Beacher George Conger has a similar aversion that that theology, although he, like most, couches it in Biblical terms.)  What’s changed, however, is a) the size of the fortunes being made and b) the fact that most of the people who have them have ostensibly come by the wealth in the first generation, which implies that they’re responsible for its accumulation even when there’s no obvious reason why they should be.

The inrush of that kind of money has changed the landscape of Palm Beach more than anything else, both physically (to the extent that those who want to build can get past the preservationists) and socially.  At the vanguard of that change is Donald Trump, whose transformation of the Mar-a-Lago estate into a private club, with the concomitant opportunity of the clubless arrivistes to have their own place in the sun free from the constraints of places like the Everglades Club, the Bath and Tennis (B&T) Club, or even the Palm Beach Country Club.  (As an aside, my gut tells me that Leamer has overplayed his hand on the formal stuffiness of the B&T.  Palm Beach is full of institutions which set ridiculous rules and people who ignore them when the situation calls for it.  The B&T was the place, for example, where one Palm Beach Day School classmate asked me at a dance, “Are you experienced?”)

Mentioning the Palm Beach Country Club brings up another ongoing transformative aspect to Palm Beach life: the island’s Jewish community.  Jews have come to Palm Beach since the beginning, in the early years readily mixing with their Gentile friends.  (For numerous reasons I prefer my mother’s term for the non-children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob over Leamer’s “WASP.”)  The whole saga of a Jewish community that is socially (and to some extent physically) separate from its Gentile counterpart began in 1944, three years before the founding of the State of Israel.  At that time Jewish entrepreneur A.M. Sonnabend offered to purchase a large tract of land and buildings which included the Biltmore Hotel and the original Flagler mansion.  Just as their Zionist counterparts needed an Arthur Balfour to facilitate their return to the Promised Land, so also did the Jews who wished to come to the island.  They found one in Claude Reese, scion of a pioneer family in Palm Beach County and an eminent realtor.  (The Southern Scots-Irish have always been the great interlopers between Jew and Gentile, and always with unexpected results.)  The Gentiles were furious at such an invasion, so Reese, mindful of his commission, came up with a plan.  Knowing that Sonnabend was undercapitalized, he offered to the residents the option to buy out his contract before he could come up with the money.  They could not bring themselves to do so, and Sonnabend was able to make the purchase.

The subsequent quasi-two-state history has pretty much paralleled its Middle Eastern counterpart, albeit with more money per capita on the table and less bloodshed.  (My brother did get a fractured jaw out of the conflict.)  The Gentiles fulminate and moan about the Jews and their ways, but with each passing year the Jewish presence in Palm Beach increases and the Gentile decreases.  Without enough fresh Gentile blood and money (and without the Palestinians’ death penalty for selling property to the Jews, we sold our house to a Jewish couple when we left in 1972) Palm Beach is transformed into a predominantly Jewish town, gripes about the Shiny Sheet looking like the Jerusalem Post notwithstanding.  (Personally I think that the paper’s coverage of Jewish holidays and other religious events is one of the best things they do.)  In the meanwhile Palm Beach life goes on with separate clubs, charity balls and other social events.  It’s a situation that doesn’t fit into anyone’s “politically correct” paradigm and Leamer has received criticism for discussing it.  But he is spot-on in his description.  I first commented on this state of affairs in 2005; its perpetuation isn’t really a credit to anyone on the island.

While discussing communities in Palm Beach, Leamer documents the rise (or more accurately the revealing) of another group: the gay community.  Until the 1990’s the existence of same was largely an open secret in a town where open secrets are plentiful.  But, in parallel with developments elsewhere, the gay community has come out in force to the extent that Leamer proclaims that Palm Beach is as gay as San Francisco.  (But does it rival Atlanta?)  As is the case with just about everything else in Palm Beach, the results don’t match conventional wisdom.  To begin with, Leamer had more difficulty getting gays to talk about their life in Palm Beach more than any other group, and in some cases was forced to use pseudonyms, something that strikes me as “old school Palm Beach” as much as anything he touches upon.  Beyond that, rather than creating a new paradigm for life on the island, “(w)hat the gays in Palm Beach have produced is largely a society that replicates the straight world with the same preoccupations the same narrow preconceptions and judgments.  They play same games with charity and go through the same struggles to get their Botoxed features in the Shiny Sheet.” (p. 253)

If group documentation was Leamer’s main device to chronicle Palm Beach in the decades straddling the turn of the millennium, it would probably make for a dull book.  Leamer’s technique, however, is to use selected people to illustrate the state of the island.  He weaves his characters skilfully like a good novelist, which is good to hold your interest, and of course it’s always a good idea to keep up with the key players (which he struggled to find in some cases, especially when it came to the Gentiles.)  Novelists, however, are forced to resort to artifices to keep the narrative moving, and although Palm Beach is this country’s small town par excellence, he runs the risk of either missing something or someone really important or having to bend his narrative to keep his story together.

Through his characters we see the various aspects of life in Palm Beach: the houses, the Worth Avenue shopping, and the charity balls.  These last are not to be underestimated; they define both the season in general and those who attend them.  They are part of the race to the top that Leamer likens to a greyhound race (an analogy I used in my piece Running Rusty.)  Although these have doubtless raised money for worthy causes, the whole spectacle of the things tends to sour the long-term observer to charitable giving as a whole, which is something else that’s hard to explain outside of Palm Beach.  But perhaps the sincerity of the givers and guests should not be underestimated.  Leamer’s epilogue is the aftermath of the collapse of Bernie Madoff’s scheme, which drained funds from both the Palm Beach Country Club and a good portion of its membership.  In the wake of that collapse, one lament many of his Jewish victims made was that they were no longer able to give to charity, something that struck me as heartfelt.

The one place that hit home more than any other was the effect of Palm Beach-level wealth on family life. It was painful to read many of the accounts.  This is one place where Palm Beach has changed very little.  Children are still victims of acrimonious divorces and abductions that would land lesser parents in prison, in between being shunted off to boarding schools and raised by the help.  Leamer’s account of Fred Keller, which ended up in Keller murdering his wife and going to prison while his son Fredchen blocked him out of his life, was one of the more riveting—and gut-wrenching—things to get through in the book.  But if Leman had gone back a generation or two, he could have found equally squalid accounts.

That, of course, brings me to an aspect of Palm Beach life I am all too familiar with: Palm Beach Day School.  His description of the school (with the exception of a few details) could have been made when I was there:

The Day School teachers are often excellent, and they try to teach the children about the world beyond Palm Beach, but it is difficult.  Ten-year-olds have their hair colored and go in for weekly manicures and pedicures.  The private school children learn how to judge another person by his clothes, his car, and his address.   Many of them are brought up more by nannies than mothers, and only toddled occasionally to be displayed to dinner guests like a new bibelot.  Many of the children, especially those who are the children of divorce, have their own therapists with whom they discuss their problems.

They live on their own island of children within the island of Palm Beach.  If things go according to plan, they go to prep school and then to the Ivy League, and from there perhaps to Wall Street.  As long as they live in this pocket of privilege, they are smart and adept, but step across the bridge into what most people call America, and they are confronted with a world about which they know nothing. (pp. 24-25)

At the start I considered the book’s title, Madness Under the Royal Palms.  It’s time to consider the subtitle: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach.  Leamer rightly describes Palm Beach, behind the three bridges that both connect and separate the town from the mainland, as the country’s first gated community.  It is a place at the pinnacle of this country’s life, and its residents—past and present—know it.  For all intents and purposes they might as well inscribe on all of the bridges’ the street lights the same motto the Romans had for the Straits of Gibraltar: ne plus ultra, there is no beyond.  And it’s not only gated from the outside world, but within there are many gates and walls that keep people from each other as well, barriers more than what we see “beyond the gates.”

To have grown up in such a place was and is an experience both defining and dissatisfying.  There has to be better, one tells oneself, even as people pay exorbitant prices for large houses (only to replace them in some cases) on tiny lots to have their address on the island.  Some of that beyond can be found in that wide world beyond; in that respect, the efforts of my Palm Beach Day school teachers paid off (maybe too much.)  But when you’re in the “centre of the universe,” there is ultimately only one plus ultra that can satisfy:

And so Jesus, also, to purify the People by his own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go out to him ‘outside the camp,’ bearing the same reproaches as he; for here we have no permanent city, but are looking for the City that is to be. (Hebrews 13:12-14)

Book Review: Peoples of the New Testament World: An Illustrated Guide

One of the challenges of New Testament study at any level is simply putting ourselves–and the events and people depicted therein–into the world in which they actually happened and lived.  The Greco-Roman and Jewish world at the turn of the first millennium has many features that are on their face unfamiliar to us, yet are crucial to understand the life and ministry of Our Lord and the early days of the church.  Many of these features, if properly explained, can be more readily understood, clearing up mysteries and enriching our understanding of the Scriptures.

A book that can be very useful in that explanation is Peoples of the New Testament World: An Illustrated Guide.  Written by Dr. William A. Simmons, Associate Professor of New Testament at Lee University, it uses the device of “people groups” to break down and explain the various groups and institutions that Jesus and the early church encountered in the New Testament era.  The whole concept of “people groups” may conjure visions of political correctness run amok, but this book is anything but politically correct.  Sticking with the Biblical text while employing a broad range of scholarship, Simmons begins with a brief introduction which is more of an overture than anything else, repeating themes that he returns to in the core of the narrative.

Simmons’ core contention is that the Judaism’s leitmotif from the Babylonian Exile onward to the destruction of Herod’s Temple was dealing with constant threat of national extinction, either through genocide or assimilation.  (For some reason the author uses the term “holocaust” for just about every disaster the Jews encounter, even when genocide isn’t the whole discussion.)  In doing so Simmons extensively explores the intertestamental period, a portion of time that many Evangelicals look upon with the same inchoate dread as Muslims do al-jahiliya.  That, in turn, is due to the fact that those books referred to by Protestants as “apocryphal” and Catholics as “deuterocanonical” (specifically 1 and 2 Maccabees, but also Sirach and Wisdom) are key references for this period, which is the immediate prologue of the New Testament era.  But Simmons is unafraid of using and discussing these sources, along with other classical sources, chief among which is Josephus.

The Jews’ response to their existential threat varied from religious resistance and exclusivity (the Pharisees and Essenes) to political accommodation (the Sadducees and Herodians) to political revolt (the Zealots).  Some of these make up the people groups he reviews, which are as follows:

  • The Pharisees
  • The Sadducees
  • The Scribes, an excellent section which shows how literacy empowered this group in a world where it was the exception
  • The Zealots
  • The Tax Collectors, with an overview of the Roman system of tax farming and how the Jews were paying taxes both to the Romans (and their clients) and the Temple
  • The Sinners
  • The “People of the Land” who clashed with the Jewish establishment from Ezra’s return from exile onwards.  This whole subject engenders a discussion of Ezra’s exclusivistic standards, why they were brought into being and how they conflicted with other Jewish and semi-Jewish groups.
  • The Samaritans
  • John the Baptist and his disciples, which is where Simmons brings in the Essenes and Qumran.
  • The Hebrews and the Hellenists.  In his coverage of these two groups, he deals with one of the knottiest problems in studying the Acts of the Apostles: the whole rationale behind the appointment of Stephen and the other deacons, and the nature of these two groups both within Judaism and the Jerusalem church.  Simmons’ idea is that the Hellenists, being Jewish by religion but largely Greek in culture, were the vanguard of the church’s outreach to the Gentile world, and also the chief sufferers of the persecution unleashed by the Sanhedrin.
  • Charlatans, Exorcists and Magicians
  • The Herodians
  • The Roman Imperial Rulers, which includes a description of every emperor from Augustus to Domitian, including the most detailed description I have seen of the lives of the three emperors of Tacitus’ “one and long year” (69 A.D.) namely Galba, Otho and Vitellius
  • The Centurions
  • Patrons, Clients and Trade Guilds.  Patronage drove the whole Roman system and made it work for a millennium, but this is a subject that gets almost no coverage in Christian literature.  Simmons discusses patronage in general, how it affected the church from the outside, and how the patronage mentality, engrained in the people, entered the church.
  • The Greek Philosophers.  Another subject that Evangelicals tend to shy away from, Simmons concentrates on two schools: the Epicureans and the Stoics.
  • Slaves and Freed Persons, where he discusses the whole institution in its Roman (not American) context and why the church probably did not openly advocate its abolition at the beginning

Simmons’ narrative is generally clear.  He tries to avoid the academic jargon that seminary scholars are famous for, but many of his topics are complex.  Lighting the way are his illustrations, which are numerous and attractive.  In particular his use of the artwork of J.-J. Tissot is proof that, as long as copyright laws are what they are, Christian authors will continue to profit from their nineteenth century predecessors, although there’s no question that Tissot’s work (he spent extensive time in the Holy Land) does add to the book.

The editing needs some touching up in spots.  If there’s one aspect of the content that in my opinion could use some enhancement, it’s his use of his sources and context after the New Testament era, which needs to be brought up to par with his use of intertestamental information.  For example, his depiction of the brutality of the Julio-Claudian emperors should be set against, say, the Severans and their third century successors, whose damage to the Empire was far more extensive and ultimately proved to be fatal in the West.  Some discussion of the effects of the Roman world on the development of Christian theology wouldn’t hurt either.  For example, he discusses the “graces” that came from patrons, but that reality in turn influenced Augustine’s concept of justification, so important for Reformed theology.  In the reverse, he mentions the proper client response of being eucharistos (grateful) without really dealing with the relationship between that and the Lord’s Supper.

But perhaps much of this is beyond the scope of the book, which is broad enough.  It’s hard to think of a book where one can get “up to speed” more readily on the world of Jesus and the Apostles than Peoples of the New Testament World: An Illustrated Guide, and as such it is an essential reference for those who wish to really know what it was like to walk and live in the world of Jesus and his Apostles.

The book’s author furnished the review copy.

Book Review: The USS Essex and the Birth of the American Navy

Ever since World War II, most Americans have taken for granted that we should have a strong military establishment befitting a world power.  That wasn’t always the case; in fact, it took some serious reality checks to convince a critical mass of the American body politic that any substantial military establishment was even necessary.  In spite of the fact that the Republic was born with a long coastline (and one that got longer with territorial acquisitions,) this was particularly true with the Navy.  The process by which that perception changed is the backdrop for Frances Diane Robotti and James Vescovi’s The USS Essex and the Birth of the American Navy.  Through the events of one ship and those who commanded it, the story is told of the U.S.’ earliest forays into both foreign relations and world commerce.

The need for a substantial standing military force wasn’t obvious in the early years of our Republic; in fact, the general consensus was that the whole point of the founding of the U.S. was to get away from large, impressed (drafted) military forces.  (The New York draft riots during the Civil War demonstrate that this opinion persisted for a long time.)  Unfortunately, the French Revolution which began in 1789 and the European conflicts which followed that caught the U.S. between competing powers.  That squeeze was manifested most clearly in the effect it had on U.S. shipping.  In spite of what looks to us now as primitive technology of shipping and communications, international commerce was vital to the welfare of the Republic.  Shorn by independence of the Royal Navy’s protection, American shipping fell victim to interceptions of all kinds.

The trading “establishment” was the first to realise the gravity of the situation.  Salem, Massachusetts, is best known today for witches, but it was in age of sail an important port for international commerce.  As was the case with other leading American ports, the merchants of Salem put up a “subscription,” i.e., contributions, to build a 32-gun frigate, which would be then outfitted by the U.S. Navy.  Built in Salem, the USS Essex was launched on 30 September 1799.  Its shakedown cruise, under the command of Edward Preble, was to what is now Djakarta, Indonesia and back, not an inconsiderable voyage then or now.  In doing so it became the first U.S. Naval vessel to round the Cape of Good Hope.

Although the warring European powers were a serious problem, Essex’s first combat missions would take place in the country’s first round of wars with the Barbary States.  It’s easy to forget this war now, but it was our country’s first foreign war, and it was our first serious contact with the Islamic world.  The lessons learned in that conflict would have been useful in what we have gone through in the last decade, but learning from history—ours and others’—isn’t an American strong suit.

The Barbary States—which are today occupied by Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya—had made a reasonable living for themselves and their rulers by piracy against ships sailing through the Mediterranean.  (The Somalis today have attempted the same thing in the Horn of Africa, albeit without the strong supervision of their government.)  They frequently captured the ships, seized the cargos and enslaved the crews.  The usual European response to this was to pay tribute to these states, and the U.S. followed suit.  In 1800 William Bainbridge, later to command the Essex, had the distasteful mission of delivering tribute to the Dey of Algiers.  Having done this, he was forced to deliver the Dey’s own tribute to the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople, along with the Dey’s new ambassador and his retinue.  He made the most of the voyage.  For example, he tacked the ship (put it on a zig-zag course) so that the Muslims were never sure which way they were supposed to orient themselves at prayer time.  When he reached Constantinople, he made a better impression on the Sultan than the Dey’s envoy; the Stars and Stripes had never flown in the Ottoman Empire before.

Unfortunately the Algerian Dey’s success made the neighbours envious, especially the Bashaw of Tripoli.  In 1797 the U.S. had signed a treaty with Tripoli which exchanged tribute for safe passage for American vessels and persons.  This is the treaty that contains the following clause, beloved by American secularists:

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

This Masonic flourish (and it needs to be understood in that context) was in response to the Bashaw’s claim that his pirates were conducting what amounted to a holy war in their activity (including the straight shot to paradise if they were killed in battle.)  It should also be compared to George W. Bush’s protestations that the “war against terror” wasn’t a war against Islam.

All of these niceties, however, didn’t stop the Bashaw from declaring war on the United States on 19 May 1801, with the idea that the U.S. would up its tribute.  Unfortunately the next day a squadron of Navy ships (including the Essex, under Bainbridge’s command) sailed for the Mediterranean.  When they arrived they, and the Bashaw, realised they had a fight on their hands.

The war against Tripoli was, in many ways, a desultory affair.  To begin with the rules of engagement laid down by President Jefferson were too restrictive (a mistake the Americans would repeat in Iraq and Afghanistan.)  In spite of this Essex managed to execute its merchant marine escort duties successfully, although the squadron in general was unable to bring the Bashaw to heel.  It came back to the U.S. from its first tour and was put “in ordinary” (mothballed, using the modern terminology.)

The U.S. sent another squadron under Preble’s command, with broader rules of engagement.  Bainbridge, commanding the Philadelphia, managed to run it aground off of Tripoli; he, his ship and his crew were captured.  The Bashaw began reconditioning the ship for his own fleet, but on 16 February 1804, in a daring raid under Stephen Decatur, the Philadelphia was burned.  While in prison, Bainbridge was also witness to a “suicide bombing,” but the bombers were in this case Americans: thirteen were killed when the ketch Intrepid, filled with explosives and floated in under the command of Richard Somers, blew up in Tripoli harbour.  (The original plan was to light the fuses and escape in small boats, but the escape plan went awry when the Tripolitanian harbour guns opened fire.)

The Americans’ third squadron, under the command of Commodore Samuel Barron, included the Essex.  The Americans got down to business in good Middle Eastern style, including recruiting the Bashaw’s brother as a power challenger.   This last squadron managed to make a sufficient impression on the Bashaw that he sued for peace.  On 27 May 1805 the Essex, near “the shores of Tripoli” immortalised by the Marines, raised a flag of truce and fired off two shots, answered from the shore.  The following month an agreement was struck between the U.S. and the Bashaw and this phase of the war was over.  (There was one more round of hostilities with the Barbary States after the War of 1812.)

Much of the book is spent chronicling the Essex’s performance during the War of 1812, under the command of David Porter.  The U.S. entered this conflict with a navy that was literally dwarfed by the Royal Navy.  She had no first rate ships of the line and was badly outnumbered.  Nevertheless the U.S. Navy, a volunteer force that was better trained and had higher morale than the Royal Navy (much of which was impressed) scored some significant victories against the world’s greatest navy.  Porter, bending his orders a bit, rounded Cape Horn (another U.S. Naval first) and entered the Pacific.  He wrought havoc amongst the British whaling ships; in the days before petroleum, whale oil was a vital fuel and lubricant for an emerging industrial Britain.  He captured so many and had such a large number in his “fleet” that he was forced to do another U.S. Navy first: place his chaplain in command of one of the captured ships! He attempted to claim the Marquesas Islands for the U.S., a claim that did not stick, and he helped to inspire the Chileans, engaged in their own revolution against Spanish rule.

Although Porter’s damage to British interests was significant, it was spoiled by another good American trait: impetuosity and the desire for a good fight.  He had the option of sailing west to the East Indies and continuing to damage British commercial interests.  A century later, Karl von Müller did just that with the Emden in the age of steam, and Porter didn’t have the radio communications that Müller had to contend with.  But Porter was no von Müller; he wanted a one-on-one sea battle, and got it (sort of) on 28 March 1814, when near Valparaiso, Chile, he took on the HMS Phoebe, under the command of James Hillyar.

Everything that could go wrong for Porter did.  First his main topmast was lost in his attempt to escape into open water.  The “one-on-one” battle didn’t quite materialise because Hillyar also had under his command the HMS Cherub.  Porter’s biggest problem, however, was that, when last under repairs, the Essex was fitted out (over Porter’s strenuous objections) with carronades, cannons with larger bores and ammunition than usual but shorter ranges.  If an enemy ship was in range, the carronades could turn an opposing ship into splinters in short order.  If, on the other hand, the opposing ship had longer range guns, the carronades were useless.  Hillyar was able to force Porter to strike his colours by staying out of the Essex’s carronades’ range, and with that Porter’s dream of victory at sea was at an end.

Porter and the remainder of his crew (including his stepson, David Glasgow Farragut, of Civil War fame) were paroled to return to the U.S.  The British took the Essex back to the UK, where it was turned into a prison ship and eventually scrapped.  With the French defeated, the British could have probably done in the U.S., but decided that discretion was the better part of valour and signed the Treaty of Ghent.

In spite of Porter’s loss at Valparaiso, he was regarded as something of a hero.  He literally opened up new vistas both for his country and the navy, vistas that would continue to expand (especially when the U.S. acquired a Pacific coast) during the next two centuries.  And the U.S. would finally commit to a consistent development of its Navy, which would bear fruit in every war it has fought from then onward.  (The book also outlines the difficulties the Navy had had in obtaining funding from a Federal government that was struggling to pay off its Revolutionary War debts.)

The book is a straightforward read, with good explanations of the age of “iron men and wooden ships.”  It’s amazing how many expressions from the age of sail have survived in our vocabulary, including “first rate” (and second, and third…) and “loose cannon.”  I also saw some expressions I heard growing up in a family of “old salts,” such as “stem to stern” and “powder monkey.”  The book also does a good job illustrating the state of admiralty law in those days and how it affected the conduct of war and merchant ships alike.

Our country is in need of a refresher course in the early history of this Republic if we are ever to understand its purpose. The USS Essex and the Birth of the American Navy is an excellent and easy to read narrative of one important aspect of that history, one that is too often neglected.

Note: the illustrations are obviously not of the Essex, but depict ships in the age of sail.  They were drawn by William H. Warrington; more of his drawings are here.