Category Archives: Non-fiction

“As Individuals, We Can Never Be Happy”

To label [novelist Marilynne] Robinson a postmodern conservative or a conservative postmodernist seems to invite boundary policing and accusations of claiming the novelist for a political agenda she does not share. Perhaps a turn away from the language of modern politics can allow us to state what Robinson and [Peter Augustine] Lawler hold in common. Their respective postmodernisms represent, above all, returns to humanism. Specifically, the recognition of the human as a created being is found both in Robinson’s “radical anthropocentricity” and in Lawler’s “whole human being.” The intellectual terrain they share might be called a postmodern humanism (or a humanist postmodernism), joined in the understanding, in Lawler’s words, that “to the extent we understand ourselves as individuals we can never be happy.”

J. L. Wall writes about the big ideas behind Robinson’s stories and essays and how she and Lawler both believe we have lost the language to communicate our deepest longings. We can still ask the right questions, but our attempts at answers fall short.

Also on this subject: “So why are humans in the secular age so unhappy? Calasso says it is because they find something ominous in the insubstantiality they feel both within themselves and in the world around them.” From a review of The Unnamable Present by Roberto Calasso.

Willing to Fail: Adorning the Dark

Author and musician Andrew Peterson has written a book on artistic creativity for everyone, called Adorning the Dark. It will be released in four days. (Already Amazon’s #1 seller in Music Encyclopedias. What?)

On his promotional site (from which I pulled this graphic above), Peterson describes the book.

This isn’t a technical “this is how you write a song” kind of book. There are plenty of those, and I don’t happen to think they do much good. I wanted to write something that would be helpful to all manner of disciplines: songwriters, novelists, poets, painters and pastors—but also parents and teachers and accountants and carpenters. One of my soapboxes in the book is that everyone’s creative. Everyone. And my hope is that the principles I cover in “Adorning the Dark” can be helpful no matter what field you’re in.

We Can Read Anything, But Do We Read Well?

Imagine there’re no novels
No books for us to buy
No bargain basement deals
Just notes to apply
Imagine no one reading more than daily tweets

Sings the would-be profound poet in the corner coffeeshop.

Has the virtually infinite access to written resources improved or inhibited our reading? To put it another way, are we wiser as a society for having so much more information? Author Sven Birkerts doesn’t think we are, and he’s written a book that celebrates reading and warns us against forgetting how much fun it is.

We know countless more “bits” of information, both important and trivial, than our ancestors. . . . [But] inundated by perspectives, by lateral vistas of information that stretch endlessly in every direction, we no longer accept the possibility of assembling a complete picture. Instead of carrying on the ancient project of philosophy—attempting to discover the “truth” of things—we direct our energies to managing information. . . .

Access may not be the undiluted blessing we can easily perceive it to be. Rather, we might gain wisdom more readily not simply by owning fewer books, but by focusing on fewer, and knowing those few better.

from The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age

Photo by Perfecto Capucine from Pexels

Brief Review of History Books

SOME TRADITIONAL Christian publishers don’t do much in history. After years of reading overstatements from both left and right concerning America’s founding, I enjoyed the calm and thorough analysis of Mark David Hall’s Did America Have a Christian Founding? (Thomas Nelson, 2019). Those who read minds and extrapolate diaries may still fight over questions of sincerity and personal faithfulness, but Hall clearly shows what’s most important: that Christian ideas profoundly influenced the Founders, and through them all of us.

World Editor in Chief Marvin Olasky offers many quick evaluations of new history books in this week’s issue, pointing out trends from select publishers like the above. He notes Mary Grabar’s Debunking Howard Zinn, which we highlighted earlier this year.

Motel, Miracles May Be Likely to Occur

Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles is a new documentary on the making and lasting influence of Fiddler on the Roof. It first appeared on Broadway in 1964, was released as a movie in 1971, and has been on stages around the world ever since.

Through cast, crew and luminaries’ commentary, [Max] Lewkowicz examines the play’s time-transcending magic as he wonders why “mainstream America is interested in a bunch of Jews living in a pale of Russia of 1905.”

“Tevye is from the shtetl, but his message is universal,” Lewkowicz told The Jerusalem Post from his New York home. “He could be a family man in Honduras, or anywhere in the world for that matter – a father whose children rebel and want to go a different way against his will. He is a man whose tradition is being seriously challenged.”

Motel may have believed marrying Tzeitel to be a miracle of miracles, but many smarter-than-thou philosophers have argued against miracles being a thing (FWIW, “When You Wish Upon a Star” is now playing on my Your Classical stream). Michael J. Kruger of Reformed Theological Seminary has a post about a popular view on miracles, that “given how unlikely miracles are, it is always more likely that a miracle did not occur.”

But we must remember the context of every “miraculous” event. If God is living and active in our world, then miracles will occur. They may even be likely.

Another Girl’s Diary from the Holocaust

You know what Anne Frank wrote about her experiences under Nazi oppression. Now another diary from a Jewish girl living under the Nazis is being released this month. Renia Spiegel lived in Przemyśl, Poland, and she started writing about Nazi attacks and family disappearances in 1939. Renia’s Diary has been translated by her sister, who lives in New York City.

The Smithsonian published an excerpt last November. Here’s a very small sample from it.

What a terrible night! Horrible! Dreadful. I lay there with my eyes wide open, my heart pounding, shivering like I had a fever. I could hear the clanking of wheels again. Oh, Lord God, please help us! A truck rolled by. I could hear a car horn beeping. Was it coming for us? Or for someone else? I listened, straining so hard it felt like everything in me was about to burst.

I heard the jangling of keys, a gate being opened. They went in. I waited some more. Then they came out, taking loads of people with them, children, old people. One lady was shaking so much she couldn’t stand, couldn’t sit down. The arrests were led by some fat hag who kept yelling in Russian, “Sit, sit down now!” She loaded children onto the wagon. The whole night was horrific. I couldn’t wait for the dawn to come.

Some of the people were crying. Most of the children were asking for bread. They were told the journey would take four weeks. Poor children, parents, old people. Their eyes were filled with insane fear, despair, abandon. They took whatever they were able to carry on their slender backs. They are being taken to Birobidzhan. They will travel in closed, dark carriages, 50 people in each. They will travel in airless, dirty, infested conditions. They might even be hungry. They’ll travel for many long weeks, children dying as they pass through a supposedly happy, free country.

And how many will reach their destination? How many will die on the way from illness, infestation, longing? When they finally reach the end of this deportees’ route somewhere far into Asia, they will be stuck in rotting mud huts, hungry, exhausted, ironically forced to admire the happy workers’ paradise and sing this song:

A man stands as the master
Over his vast Motherland

July 6, 1940

Can Christians Write Good Satire?

A popular fact-checking, myth-busting website has been in something of a stare-down with a popular Christian satire site over everyone’s favorite topic since 2016–fake news. Worries flare over the possibility that readers will take headlines like this, “Portland Police: ‘We Wish There Were Some Kind Of Organized, Armed Force That Could Fight Back Against Antifa’,” as actual reporting.

Christianity Today’s “Quick to Listen” podcast interviewed an editor of the biggest Christian satire and humor magazine in our lifetime on that topic and what Christians should expect from satire.

The Wittenberg Door and other Christian satire at its best would be like the little boy in the old fable who was the only one who would say the king is buck naked. Everybody else was just nodding about how well-dressed the king was. Well, good satire is sometimes that little boy who points out what we’re all either afraid to say or just overlooking.

‘The 12th Man,’ by Scott and Haug

A multitude of stories of courage and endurance come out of World War II. Surely one of the most remarkable is that of Jan Baalsrud (pronounced “Yon Bowls-rood”), the subject of the book, The 12th Man by Astrid Karlsen Scott and Tore Haug. (If you see a book called Defiant Courage, it’s the same book. They changed the title to go with the release of a 12th Man movie a couple years back.)

Jan Baalsrud was one of a team of 12 saboteurs who sailed to Norway from Scotland in a fishing boat as part of a “Shetland Bus” operation in 1943. They were to deliver arms, munitions and supplies to the Resistance, and to attack some air bases. Tragically, a missed connection led to their betrayal, and a German patrol ship attacked them. They managed to blow their boat up, but the whole team except for Baalsrud were either killed on the spot or captured, tortured, and executed. Baalsrud himself escaped into the mountains with one foot bare and wounded.

Then followed months of working his way eastward toward the Swedish border through some of the roughest terrain in the world. He endured an avalanche, starvation, frostbite, gangrene (he amputated his own toes) and snow blindness. He received help and supplies from scattered farms along the way, but when he finally came to the great mountains around Manndalen he was unable to go further under his own power. He then became dependent on a team of Resistance sympathizers in the area who – in spite of killing weather and repeated missed appointments – refused to let this brave man die.

It’s a harrowing, almost unbelievable story. It was first publicized (I believe) by David Howarth in his book The Shetland Bus. Later he devoted a whole book, We Die Alone, to the tale.

Unfortunately (the authors report) Howarth didn’t get the whole story. Apparently, the Norwegians he interviewed were suspicious of him, and did not tell him everything they knew. Authors Scott and Haug spent five years interviewing surviving participants and combing the records, in order to provide what they believe to be an accurate account.

Sadly, their book isn’t very well written. Ms. Scott and Dr. Haug describe themselves as co-authors, but to me The 12th Man reads exactly like a bad translation (and I know bad translations). The phrasing is consistently Norwegian (hence awkward in English), the word choice poor. I wish I could say otherwise, but the book needed a good editor badly. I’m not quite satisfied with a few passages in Viking Legacy, but I felt better after reading this.

But if you can deal with the clumsy writing, it’s one heck of a story. Cautions for intense situations.

The True Crime book Harper Lee never finished

Author Casey Cep writes about a true crime story Harper Lee could not complete. “Harper Lee always said that she was ‘intrigued with crime.’ She grew up surrounded by stacks of the magazine True Detective Mysteries, cut her teeth on Sherlock Holmes, watched trials from the balcony of the local courthouse as a kid, and studied criminal law at the University of Alabama.”

The story of Reverend Willie Maxwell, a man accused but not convicted of murdering and collecting death benefits from five family members, was as compelling as any story Lee had grown up with. But she could not pull it together. Perhaps the characters were too much larger than life.

Part of why true crime stories are so appealing is that they force us to confront the limits of what can be known, and eliding those limits, whether by fabricating motives or means or inventing someone’s inner life, doesn’t just cross the boundary between fiction and nonfiction; it transgresses something deeper.

For His Lovingkindness Endures Forever

A great way to remember the Lord’s work in your life is to write down your prayers and experiences. My pastor has recommended a mementos box to remind you of the stories of God’s faithfulness. Others have recommended keep a diary. I know a ministry leader who has filled up dozens of journals with daily devotions, prayers, and their answers.

World News Group reports on a great-grandmother, Ernesta Wood, who has been writing letters for many years.

Wood’s home displays photos of her 53 descendants, nearly all Christians. Once a week for the past 16 years, she has sent them letters—777 in all, as of July 1—filled with stories. Some are dramatic: Her blind grandmother miraculously saw Wood’s grandfather minutes before he died. Other stories cultivate a sense of God’s presence in less dramatic moments: Once, her parents’ pet birds escaped but returned to their cage before dark, just as her mother had prayed.

How Landing on the Moon Changed Us

We once thought nothing was in the heavens, at least nothing like what we saw around us. We didn’t see the moon as a destination of any kind. Joseph Bottum says that began to change after the Renaissance. Authors used the moon as a metaphor for their own commentary for a while; later sci-fi authors explored how we could get there and who might meet us. Before the moon landing, authors told new stories of an uninhabited moon.

But after the 1969 moon landing, the expectation shifted again—to the notion that now we would see a rapid expansion of human settlement out into the solar system. The moon would be a pawn in interplanetary politics, a hostage in the fight between such dominant powers as Mars and the moons of Saturn.  . . . That space mission 50 years ago—Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin moonwalking on July 20, 1969—felt to science-fiction writers mostly a precursor, a first step, to the planets beyond. 

Image by Ponciano from Pixabay

‘The Far Traveler,’ by Nancy Marie Brown

The 1,000 square-foot sail, requiring almost a million feet of thread, took two women four and a half years to make. It used the wool of more than 200 sheep, each sheep the size of a large dog and yielding two to four pounds of wool.

I resisted reading Nancy Marie Brown’s The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman, because I generally avoid the whole matter of Viking women. The field is too fraught with politics. But I’ve come to trust Nancy Marie Brown, who, even when I disagree with her, seems to be a solid (and, as we see in this book, highly industrious) scholar with a fair mind. And I’m glad I read this one. It was an enjoyable and informative work. I learned stuff.

Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir is a figure of particular interest in the Icelandic sagas. Widow of Leif Eriksson’s brother Thorstein and wife of Thorfinn Karlsefni, who led the most ambitious attempt to establish a Norse colony in Vinland, she outlived three husbands and ended up becoming a nun and making a pilgrimage to Rome. Thus she was best-traveled woman in the Viking world, and possibly in the world at large. Though she seems a subsidiary character in the sagas, author Brown believes, based on saga hints and a deep understanding of Norse culture, that she played a more decisive role than has been thought.

This book would be much shorter than it is if it had not been extended – or rather enriched – by the author’s thoroughgoing efforts to enter profoundly into Gudrid’s world. In that capacity she spends time in museums and archives, travels far in Gudrid’s footsteps, and does backbreaking labor on an archaeological dig in Iceland. It makes for fascinating reading, and the reader learns a whole lot at her expense.

I enjoyed The Far Traveler, and highly recommend it. I was particularly pleased when she demolished the judgment of Jared Diamond on the Greenlanders in one of his books, and when she explained positive reasons why Christianity appealed to so many Viking women, in spite of all the “superior” rights we’re always told they enjoyed under the old religion.

A good  book, which every Viking buff ought to read.

‘The Holy Island of Lindisfarne,’ by David Adam

[Bishop] Aidan was deeply moved by such generosity, and, taking hold of the open hand of [King] Oswald, said, ‘May this hand never wither with age.’

Not long afterwards, aged only 38, Oswald was killed in the battle of Maserfeld….

This is the book I mentioned reading the other day, about the island of Lindisfarne, renowned both in religious and secular history as a center of early English Christianity and the site of [supposedly] the first Scandinavian raid of the Viking Age.

The author, David Adam, is an English clergyman and for 13 years served as vicar of the church at Lindisfarne. As such, he brings a wealth of personal experience to this work, making The Holy Island of Lindisfarne rather a subjective book.

Beginning in the heroic age of British resistance (what we call the Arthurian Age, though Adam doesn’t mention that), we learn how the heathen Saxon invader, King Oswald, applied to the Irish church for a bishop. This led eventually to the establishment of an episcopal seat on the mystical island of Lindisfarne, which is connected to the mainland by a causeway, but is fully an island twice a day. Author Adam goes on to tell of the community’s ups and downs through history, illuminating the historical facts with his own personal experience of the place. It’s quite a charming account.

As a pure work of history, I think The Holy Island of Lindisfarne probably falls short of the mark. But as a virtual tour, it’s excellent. You’ll want to visit the place. The author isn’t embarrassed to draw spiritual lessons now and then too.

Recommended.

Death Levels Us All

Matthew McCullough’s recent book on death was featured last week in World Magazine’s Saturday series. It’s not a subject I like to think about, perhaps because I like to imagine I’m above it just as he says here:

The reality of death is profoundly humbling. It tells me that I’m not indispensable. It assures me I will be forgotten. And so death boots me from my self-appointed place at the center of the universe. But learning to recognize death’s challenge to my subconscious narcissism also raises haunting questions about who I am. It isn’t just that death is humbling. It can also be profoundly disorienting.

Most of us would probably agree that a reality check is a generally a good thing. No one likes a narcissist. Wouldn’t it be better for all of us if none of us saw himself as more important than everyone else? If death puts us in our place, that’s ultimately healthy, right?


Yes … but. Death’s challenge actually pushes even deeper. Death’s statement does more than put us in our place. It also raises questions about where our place actually is.

Write History as You Would Want to Be Written About

If only all history teachers would take a Golden Rule approach as Yale professor Mark A. Peterson does. It would revive history as a viable college major. (via John Wilson)

“If you take seriously the moral reality of historical subjects as equal to your own and write about them with the respect they deserve, I think that is a valuable skill in terms of how you conduct yourself in your daily life,” says Peterson. “In that regard, I see a serious engagement with the humanities as the most essential thing that anyone can pursue in college. Even subjects that we don’t always associate with ‘the humanities’ such as engineering, computer science, and chemistry deserve the kind of scrutiny that humanistic thinking teaches, the capacity to imagine and interrogate how the discoveries we make and the things we invent will shape the lives, for better or worse, of real human beings like ourselves, our fellow inhabitants of humanity’s only planet.”