Category Archives: Non-fiction

Was Honor the Big Reason for the American Revolution?

The Art of Manliness has an audio interview with a history professor who’s written a book that has me repeatedly wondering if he’s right. Craig Bruce Smith is an Assistant Professor of History and the Director of the History Program at William Woods University. He’s written American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals During the Revolutionary Era. He says that while taxation, military aggression, and other oppressive treatment from King George and his empire did lead the colonists into a revolutionary war, the impetus behind our leaders’ call to arms was to defend their honor and that this idea matured over the lives of our founders to the point of pledging their sacred honor to the defend their independence.

In this vein, Yale’s Joanne Freeman wrote on the themes applied in the Burr-Hamilton duel. James Bowman reviews Freeman’s book, Affairs of Honor.

Among the Founding Fathers, she tells us, “Honour” was used interchangeably with “reputation” but it meant “reputation with a moral dimension and an élite cast”. It was, moreover, “the core of a man’s identity, his sense of self, his manhood”, which is why even in those relatively enlightened times it not infrequently involved men in single, and lethal, combat over real or imagined slights.

Bowman has written a book on the history of honor and its ties to morality and manners.

How Erling Skjalgsson helped to protect England

Viking Legacy

The publishers of Viking Legacy (which, in case I forgot to mention it, I translated), are pleased with the sales results of my article at The American Spectator Online yesterday (see below). So I thought I’d share a snippet of the book tonight. I chose this excerpt pretty much at random, except that I made a point of finding one concerning Erling Skjalgsson. This one deals with an aspect of Erling’s relationship with King Olaf Trygvesson that never occurred to me when I wrote The Year of the Warrior. It starts by discussing Olaf’s treaty with King Ethelred the Unready of England, entered into before he left for Norway. This treaty is documented (you can read it in the book), and it involves, among other things, a promise by Olaf to restrain Norwegian raiding in England.

When Olav returned to Norway in 995, he lacked the necessary authority to convince the chieftains of western Norway to abandon their traditional plundering economy, based on raids in England. Plunder was an important source of income for the communities of western Norway. Only Erling Skjalgsson, as the foremost chieftain of the Gula Thing, had the power to enforce Olav’s agreement so far as the people of western Norway were concerned. Erling was thus the key to Olav’s hopes of maintaining a positive and enduring relationship with England. But Erling in his turn would have to make sure of the other chieftains’ support. It would have been no easy task for him to keep his followers on a leash in order to guarantee Olav’s English agreement. Breaking off the raids in England would deprive the great men of part of their economic and political base.

For that reason Olav had to have some means of substantially compensating the people of western Norway if he was to persuade them to leave England in peace. He had procured the economic means to do this – among other things tons of silver, including what he had plundered himself. It is nearly impossible to estimate what Olav’s entire fortune would have been worth in today’s money, but we can assume that Olav Tryggvason in 996 was the richest man in Norway. Olav would have used these financial resources to woo the chieftains – while expounding the terms of his agreement with King Ethelred….

It was in Olav’s interest to avoid war with the inhabitants of western Norway. The terrain was difficult to control, with numberless fjords and mountains. Olav was effectively a foreigner in Norway. The people of western Norway would have been capable of setting a number of traps to defend their region, and it goes without saying that Erling’s willing cooperation was crucial to Olav. With Erling at his side as a loyal ally, the nation-building project would be much simpler than if he were a hostile or half-hearted vassal. He could hardly hope for a more influential collaborator.

Prospects for trade with England may also have played a part in the debate. Nor could Olav have been stingy when it came to the question of his sister’s [Erling’s wife’s lw] dowry. Miserliness in this matter would have weakened his reputation as a trustworthy man, and so Astrid must have brought a tidy sum of English silver into the marriage. This would have increased Erling’s fortune, as well as his influence, considerably.

Proof of life

Today I got my complimentary copies of Viking Legacy, the book I translated.
Translator pic

It’s always a strange and wondrous thing to finally handle a book you’ve only known in the abstract up till now. I’m not the author this time (in fact there are bits I don’t entirely agree with). But I worked long and hard on it, and did a lot of polishing. The translation still looks a little rough to me, especially at the very beginning, the worst place for it. The body of the text looks much better though. I like to think the “flaws” are the fault of the editors, but I’m not entirely sure of that.

Anyway, it’s grown up and left the nest now, and I look at it, not as a father but as a sort of uncle, I suppose. I hope it does well in the wide world.

In point of fact, this is an important, groundbreaking book. If it finds its audience it will be controversial.

Buy it now and see why!

‘Viking Legacy’ is here!

Viking Legacy

I’ve been telling you about this book for — it seems — about half my life. (Actually it’s two or three years. Maybe four). But it’s here at last — Viking Legacy, by Torgrim Titlestad. Translated by your humble servant.

The book has two main themes — one, that Viking democratic traditions of governance were influential in European history. And two, that the Icelandic sagas, while not inerrant, do provide useful information which, coordinated with other historical research, can shed light on the political history of Scandinavia.

Hernando’s Once Great Library

Like the hierophants of search-engineering, Hernando wanted readers to have an infinitely searchable database ‘that would allow people to wander in places they did not know, perhaps had not even dreamed existed’. Like him, the webmasters have failed to give us that degree of liberation: cyber ghettoes prevail. ‘We are in danger of hemming ourselves into ever smaller enclaves, increasingly oblivious to the infinite … worlds that we simply no longer see.’

Hernando Colón, son of Christopher Columbus, gave us the story of his father’s great adventures, making much of the man and little of the missteps. He built a library with the intention of housing everything long before Ripley tried his hand at a tawdry version of it. The Biblioteca Colombina (pictures) has been a marvel in the past but only about 4,000 of the original 15,000 items remain.  Felipe Fernández-Armesto paints a picture of it in his review of Edward Wilson-Lee’s Harnando biography. (via Prufrock News)

Recommended Reading, Listening on African American Evangelical History

Some months ago, I listened to two moving lectures from Thabiti Anyabwile which compared and contrasted some of the life and teaching of Jonathan Edwards (part 1) and the next generation preacher from the other side of the tracks Lemuel Haynes (part 2). I recommend these lectures to you as biblical messages on two godly American men and a difficult issue that continues to reverberate.

In this vein, Thomas Kidd recommends five books on African American Evangelical History. Anyabwile’s book on Haynes is one of the recommended titles. Here’s a quick glance at the list.

  1. Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion: The ‘Invisible Institution’ in the Antebellum South
  2. Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews, Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism Between the Wars
  3. Thabiti Anyabwile, May We Meet in the Heavenly World: The Piety of Lemuel Haynes 
  4. Jon Sensbach, Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World
  5. Paul Harvey, Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity

David, We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Cake

Today, April 20, is the 300th birthday of David Brainerd, a missionary to Native Americans who left a mark on the people of my town and stirred many souls who have read his diary, which was edited by Jonathan Edwards. In honor of the day, Thomas Kidd shares his review of The Lives of David Brainerd: The Making of an American Evangelical Icon.

In this important book that should be read by scholars of American and British evangelicalism, John Grigg provides a compelling biographical portrait of Brainerd, one of Christian history’s most influential missionaries. It offers new information on episodes such as Brainerd’s famous expulsion from Yale, which may have been precipitated by more persistent, abrasive radicalism than Brainerd simply declaring that tutor Chauncey Whittelsey had no more grace than a chair.

Evil Is Bound by the Shore

There’s a marvelous biblical metaphor I’ve only known about for a few years, that the sea is a picture of evil and chaos. When Jesus preformed any miracle, he did so with Messianic implications, never as a mere demonstration of his power. So when he walked on the water, he did so as a metaphor of his authority over all the earth, including this ancient picture of evil. (If you need more to support this idea, note that the beasts of Daniel and John’s prophecies rise from the sea and that in the new heaven and earth “the sea [is] no more” (Rev. 21:1).)

I wrote earlier this week about the uneasy idea presented in the book of Job about evil having a place in the created order, and when God answers Job at the end of the book, that’s largely what he talks about.

Or who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb,
when I made clouds its garment
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed limits for it
and set bars and doors,
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stayed’? (Job 38:8–11)

The Lord’s first speech can read like a list of creation areas. Look at the sea. Look at the sky. How about the depths of the earth? Do you have any control over these things? But this is a grand and majestic poem from thousands of years ago. It has many beautiful lines and pictures to provoke our attention. Here the Lord says he has “shut in the sea” and bound it, even like an infant, and he’s talking about evil. The Lord is describing all of the wickedness and natural horror in the world in terms of that dark, mysterious, alien world off the coast. It may eat away at our shores and flood our river valleys, but the Lord has said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther.”

That’s not to say evil is actually good; it’s only to say God sees a place for it that we will not understand.

Why won’t the Lord drain the sea complete? Why must we live in a world where monsters swim the deeps and storms born over the ocean crash into our cities? That question isn’t answered, but if we worry over God’s ability or intent to control the seas in our lives, he asks, “Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?” (Job 38:16). In short, do you have a handle on creation’s extremities? Could you unlock the gates of death? Of course not; only the Almighty has. His knowledge extends to every corner of existence. That’s not academic knowledge; that’s intimate control. By the wise Lord’s all-powerful hand, evil keeps to its place. Though it may overflow it’s banks from time to time, that’s not because it has gotten away from God’s control. The Lord can stop the springs of the deep whenever he wants. Wickedness will not flood us because the Lord holds it back. Anything that afflicts us has been given limited permission to do so.

So what do we do when, like Job, our suffering overwhelms us?

Read and pray the Psalms. Cry out to the Almighty God in faith, remembering his character, wisdom, and faithfulness. In all things, seek to love him with all of our heart and love our neighbors in response to that love. And recognize we do not need to defend God from every charge, because God’s own defense does not explain the place of evil.

“God thunders wondrously with his voice;
he does great things that we cannot comprehend” (Job 37:5).

The Agency of the Adversary

In Job 1–2, we see a couple scenes of a heavenly council. “Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them” (Job 1:6). I think a common view of these scenes is to see Satan, the Adversary, barging into heaven to bring his accusations uninvited. I’m told, however, the language does not support this idea. The sentence above could just as easily describe a day when the angels came before the Lord and Michael was among them. The point of the scene is what Satan has to say. In short, the Adversary was one of the heavenly council at this time. (And if he was not, how could he have barged in anyway? No one gains an audience with God on his own terms.)

Why was he there? What purpose could this being serve in the council of God? That’s the most disturbing message in the book of Job. It’s much easier to view God as the conqueror of evil, someone who hates evil will a pure hatred, and he is that, but evil persists like weeds in my yard. (In that sense, my yard is the epitome of evil.) God does hate wickedness and all the rebellion that has brought evil into our world, and he is the Almighty, able to snuff it all out. A new dawn is coming that will overtake the night forever and “take hold of the skirts of the earth” in order to shake the wicked out of it (Job 38:13), but that dawn has yet to come. Today, evil still has a place in creation.

I may be getting ahead of myself here. Continue reading The Agency of the Adversary

The Innocent Suffering of Job

Since last August, I’ve been leading our Sunday School class in a discussion of Job. I didn’t think we’d take it chapter by chapter, almost verse by verse, but we have. My expectations were set by my casual reading of a difficult book. Reading this ancient poem on my own is almost fruitless and fairly boring. It’s much more rewarding to go through it with a reliable guide. Everything I’ve learned has been through Christopher Ash’s commentary, which is just as readable as I had heard (recommending with two links).

Perhaps the difficulty of reading through this long, dialogic poem is the reason so many of us don’t get its central message. We bog down in the long-winded complaints and accusations, coming away only with the idea that God can run over anyone he wants and make it all right again in the end. But the tension point of Job’s argument is one we still miss when trying to apply God’s Word to our own or other people’s lives—that Job is completely innocent.

The first couple chapters present to us a man who is “blameless and upright, who fear[s] God and turn[s] away from evil.” That’s how his character is summarized for us upfront, and God repeats that description (2:3). Job is brought to the point of death “without reason.”

No matter what other questions we have about that, we have one truth to apply to our lives—innocent suffering exists.

Many people naturally believe that just about all suffering has a reason that can be avoided. The pain in our lives can be avoided by the proper regimen of diet, respectable living, and sound thinking. If you find yourself in pain or hardship, you’ve either caused it yourself or God is judging you for something. Seek the Lord, these people will say, so that you can learn what you need to learn in order to get out of this trial. Because the trial is unnatural. The trial is not how God intends your normal life. Suffering doesn’t just happen.

But Job tells us it does.  Continue reading The Innocent Suffering of Job

A Point of Unity in Essentials

Many books have been written on the topic of race and “racial reconciliation,” particularly in recent years. One Blood stands out for the unique perspective, integrity, and wisdom supplied by its author—one born into a sharecropping family in Mississippi, who, despite losing his brother to racial violence and nearly losing his own life after a severe beating by racist cops, renounced any “right” to be resentful and angry and instead devoted his life to the twin ministries of justice and reconciliation. John Perkins writes as one whose life, formerly filled with prejudice and hate, is now overflowing with the love of God, “the ultimate reconciler.”

Pastor Duke Kwon reviews Dr. John Perkins’s new book, One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race, undoubtedly an important book, but I don’t know if it’s any more important than Perkins’s other books. Dream with Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win came out just last year. This is a man we should be listening to.

‘The Secret Knowledge,’ by David Mamet

The Secret Knowledge

David Mamet is, of course, one of America’s foremost dramatists. He was highly respected by critics until he came out as a conservative a few years back. Since then many have discovered that he has no talent at all.

Still, he perseveres, and he has written a book about Politics, The Secret Knowledge, to explain how his mind has changed on a number of issues and to provide a few glimpses into his personal pilgrimage. I don’t agree with all his opinions, but the book was fascinating to read.

The title is paradoxical. There is no secret knowledge, Mamet informs us. The basic truths of life are widely known by all people, even (or especially) the extremely unsophisticated. It is the intellectuals and the avant garde who reject obvious truth and embrace nonsense, to which they cling desperately, because their adherence marks them as among the Enlightened.

Any review is likely to devolve into commentary on Mamet’s actual beliefs, either approving or condemning them. So I’ll content myself with providing a few choice quotes – of which there are many. I think I may have highlighted about a third of the text.

Writers are asked, “how could you know so much about (fill in the profession)?” The answer, if the writing satisfies, is that one makes it up. And the job, my job, as a dramatist, was not to write accurately, but to write persuasively. If and when I do my job well, subsequent cowboys, as it were, will talk like me.

Continue reading ‘The Secret Knowledge,’ by David Mamet

Look Again at the Lewis Chessmen

Scholarly paper warning.

David H. Caldwell, Mark A. Hall, and Caroline M. Wilkinson have written an interdisciplinary paper on the Lewis chessmen, uncovered in Scotland in 1831. They are centuries-old, walrus ivory chess pieces, 78 in all. The authors suggest the story may have become too streamlined to reveal reality.

Whether kings or princes from the Isle of Man or descended from Somerled, local nobles or high-ranking clerics, there were several men in late Norse Lewis who could have aspired to own the Lewis pieces, and who would have valued them as gaming pieces. Rather than accepting the deus ex machina  explanation of a passing merchant losing his stock, it is surely more plausible that the Lewis pieces were found in Lewis because that was where they were intended to end up and be enjoyed.
   . . .
There are two final points to make here. First, no matter how or why the Lewis pieces arrived at Uig, it is only a presumption that they were new when buried. If they belonged to a local nobleman or cleric they may have provided many years of enjoyment before they passed out of use. This is a significant point to which we will return after a more detailed analysis of the individual pieces. Second, the circumstances of the hoard’s discovery are so vague that there can be no confidence as to whether it was lost or deliberately hidden.

This isn’t quite the storyline of The Chessmen by Peter May, but you may find it interesting. Abstract to follow. Continue reading Look Again at the Lewis Chessmen

‘Hell’s Princess,’ by Harold Schechter

Hell's Princess

How they resisted the temptation to title this book, “Hell’s Belle,” I will never understand.

We Norwegian-Americans are generally reconciled to the fact that we occupy a secondary (at best) tier in American culture. But we take pride in our notabale sons and daughters: Politicians like Hubert Humphrey, scientists like Norman Borlaug, actors like Harry Morgan.

There is one prominent Norwegian American, though, whom most of us had never heard of (I had, but I’m fairly remarkable): Belle Gunness of LaPorte, Indiana, one of America’s first known serial killers and one of her few female serial killers. She also scores pretty high in the body count tallies.

Hell’s Princess, by true crime author Harold Schechter, tells her grisly story in a scholarly and judicious manner. Though the ending (as he admits) is kind of anticlimactic.

Belle Gunness was born in Norway in 1859; she was a large, unlovely woman and the victim of rape. She immigrated to America, worked hard, and had a reputation for kindness to children. But somewhere along the line she determined to be rich, and chose an easy road to wealth. Continue reading ‘Hell’s Princess,’ by Harold Schechter