Category Archives: Non-fiction

‘Stand Firm,’ by Svend Brinkmann

Stand Firm

There are people you like, public and private, not because you agree with them particularly, but because you’re both against the same things.

That’s kind of how I feel about Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, by Danish author Svend Brinkmann.

Brinkmann argues that this whole modern self-improvement thing, with all its books and seminars and courses, has resulted not in greater happiness, but in greater frustration, because we’re never “improved enough,” and we’re constantly made to feel guilty about our many failures to “live in the moment,” “think positively,” etc.

Taking his cue from some tenets of classical Stoicism, Brinkmann recommends a new program, whose bullet points are:

1. Cut out the navel-gazing.
2. Focus on the negative in your life.
3. Put on your No hat.
4. Suppress your feelings.
5. Sack your coach.
6. Read a novel – not a self-help book or biography.
7. Dwell on the past.

That reads as parody, and in fact the book is often funny. But there’s a serious point too. What Brinkmann calls “liquid modernity” – the “flexible” approach to life that the self-help gurus require – is murderous to the soul. We need a place to stand. That requires some negative thinking and a focus on our duties to others rather than just to ourselves. We live in community with others, and we often need to deny our own “needs” in order to maintain our relationships.

I found it interesting that Brinkmann appealed to Stoic philosophy rather than to Christianity in his quest for a backward-looking discipline through which to resist liquid modernity. It reminded me of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, which also looked to Stoicism for a similar purpose. I don’t know whether this choice reflects an unthinking modern prejudice against the riches of Christian thought, or just a (probably well-founded) assumption that if you talk about Christianity, people today won’t listen to you. I think the book is diminished by the choice, but I can’t argue that my way would improve sales.

I don’t agree with all the guidelines recommended in Stand Firm, but I enjoyed reading it and consider it a tonic for our times. And the English translation is first-rate. Recommended.

‘The Last Gunfight,’ by Jeff Guinn

The Last Gunfight

None of the Earps were flawless saints, but they also were not shady characters who lucked into heroic places in Western history. What they did do, Wyatt especially, was exaggerate their accomplishments and completely ignore anything in their past that reflected badly on them. In this, they were typical of men of their time—and men today.

Wyatt Earp wanted a desk job. You could argue that that simple fact is responsible for the bloodletting that occurred in an empty lot next to C.S. Fly’s photographic studio, not far from the OK Corral, on October 26, 1881 in Tombstone, Arizona. All the Earps dreamed of wealth and social respectability, but they had to settle for gambling, police work (usually as deputies), and sometimes less reputable work like pimping, until they could catch the brass ring. Which none of them did in their lifetimes.

Wyatt thought he had a fair shot at being elected sheriff of the newly-created Cochise County, Arizona, on the Republican ticket. He was a deputy to his brother, Deputy US Marshal Virgil Earp, who was also Tombstone chief of police. He thought he could arrest several wanted “cowboys” (a word that meant rustlers at the time), if he made a deal with the rancher Ike Clanton to betray his cowboy friends. Unfortunately, Ike got the idea that Wyatt had been telling people about the deal, and got so mad that he spent the night of October 25 lurching from one saloon to another, bragging about everything he was going to do that two-faced Earp. This was a stupid thing to do if he wanted the deal kept secret, of course, but brains were never Ike’s strong suit. The next day Virgil deputized his brothers and Doc Holliday and led them down to the vacant lot to disarm Ike and his friends. The rest is… about 1% history and 99% myth and romance.

Though the Amazon description calls Jeff Guinn’s The Last Gunfight the “definitive” account of the affair, it’s not and cannot be, as Guinn himself admits in his Afterword. New information keeps turning up, and sometimes it’s pretty illuminating. What The Last Gunfight offers is a fairly recent, and fairly comprehensive, account of the personalities and forces that led to the shoot-out, and the events that followed, with the focus on the Earps. Continue reading ‘The Last Gunfight,’ by Jeff Guinn

Marx Was a Racist

Karl Marx, blockhead“Few people who call themselves Marxists have ever even bothered to read Das Kapital,” writes professor Walter Williams. “If one did read it, he would see that people who call themselves Marxists have little in common with Marx.”

In a piece today, Williams says Karl Marx was a racist who would not be tolerated on Twitter, and yet many people who style themselves as his disciples would be outraged if a current public figure said things he said. Pulling from a book by ex-communist Nathaniel Weyl, Williams offers examples.

Marx didn’t think much of Mexicans. When the United States annexed California after the Mexican War, Marx sarcastically asked, “Is it a misfortune that magnificent California was seized from the lazy Mexicans who did not know what to do with it?”

Engels said similar things, such as writing that a political foe who had African heritage was suitable to represent the people living in a district that contained a zoo because he was biologically closer to the animals than other other men.

Of course, the question is not whether anyone from history said anything hateful or disagreeable to modern listeners. The question is whether such statements flow naturally from the speaker’s worldview. Given Communism’s bloody history, even its current practice, I don’t find Marx’s views of personal superiority surprising on any basis.

‘The Benedict Option,’ by Rod Dreher

The Benedict Option

“When a man first comes to the monastery, the first thing he notices is everybody else’s quirks—that is, what’s wrong with everybody else,” said Father Martin. “But the longer you’re here, the more you begin to think: what’s wrong with me? You go deeper into yourself to learn your own strengths and weaknesses. And that leads you to acceptance of others.”

OK, this time it is a review. I read The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher.

I won’t lie to you–I didn’t want to. I had a pretty good idea what this book would be—a depressingly realistic appraisal of the current, radically changed situation in which orthodox Christians find themselves. Plus a series of suggestions for dealing with the new normal—all of them uncomfortable.

I was correct.

Dreher describes how the situation of the (small “o”) orthodox church in America (and in the west as a whole) has changed, suddenly and (apparently) for the foreseeable future. Thanks to the cultural earthquake that the Gay Movement brought forth, Christians who had been ensconced, relatively comfortably, within our culture just a decade ago are now an isolated, and increasingly threatened, minority.

Dreher sees no chance of altering that situation through politics or public relations. All we can do, he believes, is what Saint Benedict of Nursia did in the 6th Century, after the fall of Rome. Benedict founded western monasticism, creating communities of committed believers who cared for one another, cared for their neighbors, and preserved the wisdom of the Classical age for the future. Little Noah’s Arks in a sea of barbarism. Continue reading ‘The Benedict Option,’ by Rod Dreher

New Ideas About Christ Are Fairly Old

It is difficult to think of a modern “radical” theory about Christian origins that was not pretty standard and mainstream in the decades before the First World War. So, (we heard way back then) Jesus was a New Age teacher; Jesus drew on Buddhist thought; Jesus was an Essene mystic; Mary Magdalene and other women disciples were crucial transmitters of his inner truths; the Gnostics represented alternative feminist and psychological-oriented traditions in early Christianity . . .

Philip Jenkins says it’s natural for writers wanting to be published to present their conclusions as earth-shattering when truthfully the same ideas have been written about–the same “discoveries” made, the same arguments about conspiratorial cover-ups put forward–for decades. We want to been seen as smarter than our predecessors, so look what we’ve rehashed today.

‘Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus,’ by Nabeel Qureshi

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus

Islam is not just a set of religious beliefs. It is an all-encompassing identity. It is inconceivable to change that identity, even for those who barely practice their Islamic faith. To do so is like suicide. It kills the identity of the convert and leaves the rest of the family in a state of shameful mourning.

Nabeel Qureshi has given us, I think, not only an outstanding memoir of conversion to Christianity from the Islamic faith, but a formidable work of apologetics, in his book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. It makes an excellent companion work to Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ (indeed, Strobel provides the introduction to this expanded edition).

If you’re expecting a story of a man who longed for freedom from Islamic bondage and found it at last, you will be disappointed here. Nabeel Qureshi is more like C.S. Lewis, “dragged kicking and screaming” into Christianity, a “most reluctant convert.”

Nabeel was raised in a loving, even somewhat indulgent home of Muslims of the Ahmadi sect. He adored his parents, loved his mosque, and was proud of his Islamic community. His family was Muslim-American, his father a Navy officer. Nabeel spent much of his childhood in Scotland, where his father served at a naval base, before relocating to the US. Like most Muslims, he believed Muhammad self-evidently superior to the Prophet Issa (Jesus, whom he nevertheless revered), and the Quran (preserved without error) much nobler than the corrupted Christian Bible. Islamic culture, of course, was obviously the most perfect in the world. Continue reading ‘Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus,’ by Nabeel Qureshi

Obviously the words of a humanitarian…

Here’s a little dose of massive cognitive dissonance for you, courtesy of Richard Weikart’s Hitler’s Religion, which I reviewed yesterday:

…Like many atheists and freethinkers, [Hitler] often associated Christian churches with the Inquisition and witch hunts. According to August Kubizek, Hitler got riled up even as a youth by reading books about witch trials and the Inquisition. In 1927, Hitler corresponded with a Catholic priest who had previously supported Nazism but by this time had some misgivings. Hitler contradicted the priest’s claim that Christianity had brought an end to Roman barbarism. Instead, Hitler insisted that Christianity was even more barbaric than the Romans had been, killing hundreds of thousands for their heretical beliefs. He then rattled off a list of Christian atrocities: killing the Aztecs and Incas, slave hunts during medieval times, and enslaving millions of black Africans. Otto Wagener reported that Hitler made similar comments several years later. Hitler attacked those in the churches who opposed his regime, indignantly claiming that their resistance was “nothing more than the continuation of the crime of the Inquisition and burning of witches, by which the Jewish-Roman world exterminated whatever offered resistance to that shameful parasitism…. Hitler wondered why the thumbscrews of the Inquisition were necessary if the Christian faith was based on knowledge.

If only he’d been born later in time, Hitler would probably have qualified to teach liberal arts at an American university.

‘Hitler’s Religion,’ by Richard Weikart

Hitler's Religion

It still amazes me that some people actually believe the public religious image that Hitler created for himself, as if Hitler would never have stooped to deceiving anyone about such important matters.

If you’re in the mood to start an argument and lose some friends on Facebook, you can hardly choose a better topic than Hitler’s religion (or lack thereof). Hitler is the great hot potato of ideologues – whoever gets him in the toss tries to pass him on to somebody else as quickly as possible. Atheists like to declare that Hitler was a Christian, and Christians like to retort he was an atheist, or an occultist.

Richard Weikart, author of Hitler’s Religion, says they’re all wrong. He provides pretty convincing documentation that Hitler was in fact a pantheist. Hitler remained a member of the Catholic Church for political purposes, and appealed to God and the Creator in his public statements. But, like so many modern figures, he cherished very private, secret definitions of those terms. Continue reading ‘Hitler’s Religion,’ by Richard Weikart

Luther’s “Utterly Improbable” Career Shown in New Biography

Lyndal Roper has a new scholarly biography on Martin Luther’s “utterly improbable” life.

Roper took ten years to write this book, which the NY Times calls, ” a fresh and deeply illuminating study of the man who somewhat reluctantly divided a continent.”

Roper is especially good on Luther’s unusual upbringing as the son of a mining family. It was a hard life, full of risk; they lived well, but always one bad business decision away from disaster. Young Martin knew that the price of his education was an investment in the family’s future, and how much his decision to abandon his legal studies in favor of a church career would disrupt his father’s plans.

But reviewer Melanie Gilbert suggests Roper crops out the full picture. “When read for its smaller insights – his prolific letter writing, for instance – this book offers a rewarding look at a specific time and place in history. But in a story where the Gutenberg printing press isn’t even mentioned, and the English Reformation gets only a one-page mention, the larger importance of Luther’s life is lost in translation.” (via Prufrock News)

MIT Presents Communism for Kids


This is not a joke.

From the book page: “Once upon a time, people yearned to be free of the misery of capitalism. How could their dreams come true? This little book proposes a different kind of communism, one that is true to its ideals and free from authoritarianism.”

Historian Philip Jenkins has looked into it and found it isn’t tongue-in-cheek. It’s deeply ignorant. Does it point to Stalin or Mao Zedong as examples of pure communism at work? Of course not. Labor camps? We’ll do it right next time.

Should it not be said that a solid scholarly consensus now accepts that this record of violence and bloodshed was a logical and inevitable consequence of the communist model itself, rather than a tragic betrayal or deformation? Evil Joseph Stalin did not distort the achievements and goals of Noble Vladimir Lenin: rather, he fulfilled them precisely. Pursuing the “for kids” framework, should we not see some equally cheery volumes such as A Day at the Gulag, and even (for middle schoolers) Natasha Is Shot as a Class Enemy? How about Springtime for Stalin?

(via Prufrock News)

New Podcast Is Both Curious, Repulsive

S-Town is the to-rave podcast of the month. It comes from the people who make This American Life and the podcast that spawned 100 imitations, Serial. I heard about Serial at some point in the middle of the run, I think. Maybe it was at the end of its first season. I heard many good things from many people, but I never listened to it. Podcasting, developed in 2000, just hasn’t been my thing, because portable tech hasn’t really been my thing. Whenever I heard a podcast, it was through my PC, kind of like the cans-and-string method. Only in the last few weeks have I begun to use a loaner iPad for something it’s actually good at.

So I was ready when I caught word of the new S-Town, which released all seven episodes on March 28. That initial word described a true crime podcast, but S-Town is a different story. (spoilers)

It begins with the wildly colorful, possibly genius John B. McLemore reaching out to Brian Reed about a murder that happened in his home town, Woodstock, Alabama, about which he needed a barrel of venom to describe. Everyone, including himself at times, was a loser, a failure, an idiot, and many more vulgar labels. His old school was Auschwitz. The police were corrupt. The county had one of the highest rates of child abuse and molestation anywhere. At least a couple people asked John why he didn’t move away since he hated the place so much.

John B. can work himself into a fit by thinking of how no one is outraged over countless liberal talking points, and this murder is a prime example. Everyone knows who did it. The man himself has bragged about it. Why doesn’t anyone give a rat’s rear-end?

The story shifts from that question to focus on John B., which isn’t a selling point. He’s a babbling brook of liberal outrage and profanity. He can’t tell Brian about the many flowers and butterflies on his property without worrying that they’re dying off. By episode two, I was already telling him to shut up. Two of the people who may have cared about him the most pushed him away because they couldn’t bear up under the weight of his poisonous worldview. Continue reading New Podcast Is Both Curious, Repulsive

‘The War of Art,’ by Steven Pressfield

The War of Art

Because when we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen. A process is set into motion by which, inevitably and infallibly, heaven comes to our aid. Unseen forces enlist in our cause; serendipity reinforces our purpose.

Someone suggested to me that I might enjoy Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art (and yes, I caught the reversal on Sun Tsu’s The Art of War… eventually). I’ve been struggling with my work in progress (it’s coming, but I’m fighting for every inch of ground), and I thought, what could it hurt?

It’s a remarkable book. I’m still not entirely sure what to think about it, though.

It might save you the cost of purchase if I give you the basic message right here – the only way to succeed as a writer is to become a professional. Sit yourself down at your desk at the same time every day, and work at your craft. Don’t listen to the negative voices in your head. Especially don’t listen to the ones that say, “I’ll just skip it today.”

But the value of the book is (of course) in the reader’s journey. In polished, powerful prose Pressfield (author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire, and other bestselling books) analyses the writer’s problem (we have an enemy, which he calls “Resistance,” and we must learn to tread it under our feet). And he tells the story of his own evolution from a blocked, self-pitying wannabee to a fulfilled professional (anyone can do it, he says, which I think is an exaggeration. Not for me, of course, but for you other folks).

What troubles me about the book is its religious nature. When Pressfield talks about his Muse, he’s not being metaphorical. He lays out a whole theory of reality and consciousness (based on Jung), and says he believes that his muse actually exists. He prays to her each time he sits down to write.

On the negative side, he condemns all forms of Fundamentalism. “Fundamentalism and art,” he says, “are mutually exclusive.”

I take that kind of personally. I think you could call the medieval Roman Catholic Church fundamentalist, by his definition, and they did pretty well on the art front. The Puritans themselves gave us Milton and Bunyan.

So I’m uncomfortable with Pressfield’s religious statements. Speaking as a fundamentalist, I worry that he may have sold his soul to a devil, or be possessed in some way.

So I can’t wholeheartedly recommend The War of Art. As a motivational book, it’s excellent (I had a pretty good writing day the day I finished reading it). But spiritually I found it hazardous.

Also, cautions for language.

Why Not Ask the Black Church?

“The Benedict Option fails to ask how black believers have survived racial, economic, and social marginalization with their faith intact.” Jemar Tisby offers an important perspective to Rod Dreher’s new book, a book he has mulled over for at least ten years. When considering options for the persecuted church in America, it seems natural to look to those portions of the church that have lived through persecution, but as Tisby writes, this is a continuing blind spot for many white people.

The reality for many white believers is that Christians of color may provide inspiring stories of resistance and are certainly nice to have on display in the congregation, but they are not a true source of wisdom for the white church. To some white Christians, the faith traditions of racial minorities may offer great aesthetics like preaching or musical style, but they don’t have the legitimacy to lead the way into the future. The constant refusal to learn from the black church can only be termed ecclesiastical arrogance.

The Real Reason the Benedict Option Leaves Out the Black Church

Dreher did start a conversation about the black church four years ago, asking why it hadn’t influenced communities more. That doesn’t answer Tisby’s critique, but it does offer a bit of context.

Cling to Jesus As If Your Life Depends on It

Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is being released tomorrow. Collin Hansen reviews it here.

My main fear with Dreher’s book is that the people who need it most won’t read it. How do you convince Americans that replacing fast food and cable news with fasting and hard labor will be good for their souls?

Overwhelming evangelical support for Trump suggests not many conservative Christians would agree with Dreher that “losing political power might just be the thing that saves the church’s soul.” Rather, they seem to believe the American Empire needs our partisan politics in service of God’s kingdom.

Dreher will have many interviews this week. This one with Russell Moore is bound to be one of the better ones.