Category Archives: Non-fiction

Bing Crosby, Forgotten Giant

There’s no good reason Bing Crosby is not at the top of everyone’s list of twentieth century superstars. He had a voice just about every man wanted, even those who didn’t like men singing.

Crosby recorded 396 hit singles, 41 of which topped the charts—yet only one, his 1942 “creator recording” of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” the bestselling record of all time, continues to be heard regularly. He was also the most popular movie star in the world for five consecutive years between 1944 and 1948, a record topped only by Tom Cruise—yet few of the four dozen feature films in which he starred are still shown with any frequency on TV.

Terry Teachout reviews a new biography on Crosby, part two of what may be a three part set. Gary Giddins released the first volume back in 2001, so readers will have waited a fair piece to see Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946. Maybe that’s because writing about this man is a challenge. He led an eventful life.

Still, readers who want to know as much about Crosby as Gary Giddins wishes to tell us—among whom I count myself—will find Swinging on a Star a compelling study of the middle years of a popular artist who by the end of the Second World War was so closely identified with the American national character that he seemed to embody it.

(via Prufrock News)

Stanley: Make the Church Irresistible Again

Andy Stanley wants to make the church Irresistible again (maybe he should get ball caps printed). He explains the problems he sees in the American church in his new book, released last month, and according to Marvin Olasky, gets several things right.

Stanley notes rightly that “skinny jeans and moving lights” won’t keep many young people from abandoning Christianity. But he argues that the way to hold them, and win others who say they’re “spiritual,” is to abandon the hard things in the Bible and emphasize a smiling Jesus. C.S. Lewis brought us Mere Christianity. Pastor Stanley brings us Mere Sponge Cake.

Stanley says he knows “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” but seriously people, “the Ten Commandments have no authority over you.” I don’t think Jesus would sign off on that. The new covenant is the fulfillment of the old covenant. The law given to us by Moses still reveals the state of our sin and our need for salvation. When Jesus preached his Sermon on the Mount, he essentially told us if we thought we knew what the law required, we didn’t know the half of it.

I don’t doubt Stanley has a pretty good point somewhere at the beginning of his line of thought, but where he runs with that line is straight heresy. I love what Steven Graydanus said about Stanley’s solution, published in an interview this summer.  Stanley said, “Without the OT, we can make a better case for Jesus,” to which Graydanus replies, “As *what*? Go into the Sistine Chapel and paint over everything except the figures of Yahweh on the central ceiling panel and Jesus on the west wall. At that point, what on earth are you looking *at*?”

Drink History from the Fountainhead

They say history is written by the winners, which is obvious because they are the ones still living. History is also written by people who implicitly swear to us they are telling the truth, that they have upturned the facts and have built the most complete picture they can of their subject.

Justin Taylor writes about Stanford professor Sam Wineburg’s book Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone) and draws out one example of a popular historian who has violated his oath. Howard Zinn urges us to believe the US dropped the bomb on Japan because we had the biggest hammer and we were going to use it. But the proof for this assertion crumbles when we start following citations.

“Zinn did not consult the documentary record to find the original cable. Instead, he relied on a secondary source,” who also relied on a secondary source.

In a related post on the same blog, Thomas Kidd describes how we can avoid sharing fake or falsely attributed quotations. Google Books is a great resources.

That reminds me a quote I’ve looked up without resolution. It’s attributed to Calvin, but I can’t find where he may have written it. “False teaching is easily identified by the fact that it is willingly received by all and is to everyone’s liking.”

It could be that I haven’t found the right translation, but it’s likely in this new age of free quotation someone made it up.

Will the Real Frederick Douglass Please Stand?

Douglass’s story was unique among slave narratives of the period, not because it followed one man’s path from ignorant bondage to literate freedom, but because his depiction of this journey insisted, more than any other before or since, on the connection between literacy and wisdom, between man’s physical freedom and his liberty to think for himself. In Douglass we watch not only the liberation of an American slave, but also the formation of an American consciousness.

One cannot look for a better guide through Douglass than Blighthimself a master orator and one of Yale’s last great lecturerswho is equally attuned to the beauty of Douglass’s language and the depth of his thought. Blight seeks to balance “the narrative of his life with analyses of his evolving mind, to give his ideas a central place in his unforgettable story.”

362 Cases of Innocent People Convicted of Crimes

Since we review so many crime novels on BwB, I occasionally think about posting something on true crime. I discovered a site today for the Innocence Project, a group seeking to “exonerate the wrongly convicted through DNA testing and reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.” Their site summarizes the stories of 362 people like Joseph Abbitt, who served 14 years for a sexual assault he did not commit. Even though he was at work at the time of the attack and his employer backed him up, he could not produce a time card for the day four years prior. The two victims were sure Abbitt was the man who attacked them, so he was convicted. But DNA testing was able to rule him out several years later.

It’s chilling to think law enforcers would want to wrap up a case plausibly, even if it isn’t true. But that’s human perspective for you. I hope this Innocence Project is doing good work and not just bending plausibility in another direction.

Love Yourself Above All Else

Aimee Byrd based her book No Little Women on the charge that Christian women were being led astray by shallow or false teachers who wrote books and studies for a churched female audience. Prime examples of this threat come in the form of charming, intelligent authors who use Christianized batons to beat the drums of self love.

Writer Alisa Childers reviews a new book by one such author, Rachel Harris, entitled, Girl, Wash Your Face: Stop Believing the Lies About Who You Are so You Can Become Who You Were Meant to Be. Naturally, it’s a New York Times bestseller (hopefully by honest sales) and currently #3 in three Amazon.com categories. Childers notes how much she likes Harris’s style and some of her stories, but despite the Christian words here and there, the themes do not point to Jesus. She preaches loving yourself above all else.

“You are meant to be the hero of your own story.”
“You, and only you, are ultimately responsible for who you become and how happy you are.”
“You should be the very first of your priorities.”

The answer is always something like picking yourself up by your bootstraps and striving and trying . . . Anything but surrendering your life to Jesus and placing your trust in him alone.

Self love is big message for Christian women today. You can see it everywhere, and of course it has its place. But Jesus never talked like this. He urged us to seek His Kingdom before ourselves and to remember we are blessed when we have nothing but our Lord to rely on. If we could tune those drums up a bit, we might be able to hear a message of loving yourself enough to love Jesus most.

Who Are We or Is Self an Actual Thing?

Alan Jacobs has written a moving essay on the self, pulling together a few stories of people pushing against cultural influences on them. He begins describing a podcast that intends to show “the invisible forces that shape human behavior.” People in different situations remark on how certain cultural norms are deeply ingrained in them, even those contrary to their chosen beliefs.

The really interesting and important point here is this: It never occurs to anyone associated with the podcast that smoking is as much a “cultural norm” as disapproval of smoking, or that a commitment to multiculturalism and anti-racism emerges from “cultural messages” just as surely as does racism. And the really interesting and important question that follows is: Why not? How is it possible that a point so blindingly obvious could utterly escape the notice of people making a podcast about “the invisible forces that shape human behavior”?

Jacobs presses on with something of a take-down of secularism, an appeal to Nietzsche, and the blinding light of man’s hopelessness with God. “We will, it seems, do almost anything, construct almost any story, to avoid the recognition that something is deeply wrong with all of us.”

Our selves, in other words, are real things, not blank slates being written upon by outside forces, but ugly blocks of mud, both corrupt and corrupting. We are not chemical reactions or autonomous individuals. We are people born into families with history in a changing culture. Yes, that culture influences us. We can resist to a point and influence others in response, but we do as corrupt souls incapable of purifying ourselves.

Daniel Krauthammer on Finishing His Father’s Book

Charles Krauthammer’s son, Daniel, has written a touching paragraph on his father’s final project.

When his health crisis struck a year ago, my father was in the advanced stages of work on a new book. And when his health deteriorated and the end of his life was approaching, he entrusted me to bring it to completion on his behalf.

Read the rest here.

The book, The Point of It All: A Lifetime of Great Loves and Endeavors, will be released in December.

‘Superheroes Can’t Save You’ by Todd Miles

There is no hint that Batman is anything other than an incredible human being (with seemingly unlimited amounts of cash). Though such qualities and skills are never found in any one real human being (that is what makes him Batman, after all), they are just human qualities and skills. He may be the most remarkable human being in comic lore, but in the final analysis he is just a human being.

And some people feel the same about Jesus.

Todd Miles, professor of theology at Western Seminary in Portland, Ore., spent most of his allowance on comic books for many years back around the time each book cost a quarter. He would browse the drug store rack weekly, reading most issues while in search of the few he would redeem with his not-so-hard-earned dollar. Many years later (after the experiments of a mad scientist would ruin his ambition to become the first man to circumnavigate Mars in a weather balloon), he connected his theological training to his comic lore fascination to make this conclusion: “Every bad idea about Jesus can be illustrated by a superhero,” at least the biggest bad ideas can. He ran with that idea in a Sunday School class, later a youth retreat, and with much encouragement wrote a book on it.

Superheroes Can’t Save You covers seven of the most popular heresies about the person of Christ Jesus, tying each of them to memorable superheroes. The chapter on the Trinity ties to Ant-Man, arguing against the idea that God manifests himself in one of three modes: the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit. The chapter on Jesus’s full humanity connects to Superman, explaining how Jesus, as God, did not merely pose as a man (as Kal El did in taking the alias Clark Kent) but became a man completely.

While each chapter is not evenly paced, they do follow a pattern. Miles begins with the comic lore, segues into the heresy, takes a moment to explain who commits the heresy today, describes the biblical truth, and then offers reasons for the importance of these truths. I think in every case, the key problem with the heresy is the undermining of our salvation. The Bible offers a clear logic for salvation, why we need it and how it is accomplished. With humor and careful writing, Miles tells his readers these alternate concepts of Christ don’t work in that logic. Thor can’t save us. Neither can a savior like the Hulk with all of his incredibleness. Only the living Jesus can save us.

I said each chapter is not quite even, because some of them dive into the comic storyline more than others and some swim through history more than others. Miles’s explanation of each heresy in a modern context brings the history forward, so it doesn’t remain as weird ideas from the past. Casual readers can discover liberals commit the Batman heresy and ways we teach about the Trinity easily lead people into the Ant-Man heresy (Oneness Pentecostals teach that heresy explicitly).

In the chapter on the Green Lantern heresy, Miles’s dive into Christ’s humility as Paul puts it in Philippians 2:5-8 had me in tears. Christ Jesus is awesome. He is the only one who can save us. But from who? Luthor? Bane? Magneto or Doctor Doom? No, the real life treat we face is ourselves. We have forged our own destinies, followed our own dreams, and would pour dust upon dust forever if the Lord God, our Creator, refused to intervene.

‘Laughing Shall I Die,’ by Tom Shippey

Laughing Shall I Die

And what this means for us is that if you come across headlines – as these days you very often do – which say something like ‘Vikings! Not just raiders and looters any more!’ then the headlines are wrong. If people weren’t raiding and looting (and land-grabbing, and collecting protection money), then they had stopped being Vikings. They were just Scandinavians.

The trouble with reading a book that really excites you is that you end up highlighting passage after passage. Then it’s hard to pick one out to put at the head of a review. I finally chose one from near the beginning, but there were many others.

I’ve posted an excerpt previously, because I did find Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings, by Tom Shippey an intriguing and exciting book in my favorite historical field. It’s been a long time since I’ve read one more intriguing. I don’t necessarily agree with all of it. In some ways Shippey’s thesis supports “my” work (Viking Legacy, which I translated), in some ways it contradicts it. I have praised Anders Winroth in a previous review (though disagreeing with him at many points). Shippey essentially discards Winroth as one who misses the whole point.

The point being that the word “Viking” is routinely misused in our day. “Viking” means a seaborne warrior – a pirate. If you write about early Medieval Scandinavians in all walks of life and re-label them Vikings, you’re confusing the matter.

To put it bluntly (again), most scholarly books with ‘Viking’ in the title turn out not to be about Vikings, because Vikings aren’t popular among scholars. This book is different: it really is about Vikings.

Continue reading ‘Laughing Shall I Die,’ by Tom Shippey

The Ones We Remember

Mary Turner’s story died when she died. Mary Turner’s protest died when she died. Mary Turner’s pre-born baby died when she died. Mary Turner’s name died when she died.

You don’t recognize her name. You don’t recognize her story. And if you were there on May 19th, 1918, you wouldn’t recognize her body either.

Mary Turner was a mother of three. She was a wife to Hayes Turner. She was a woman of colour—and that’s why she was killed in Lowndes County, Georgia.

Samuel Sey tells the horrific story of Mary’s lynching, which took place 100 years ago last May. “Mary Turner is just one of 4,743 Black Americans who were lynched between 1882 and 1968—and you don’t know their names. You don’t know their stories. You don’t know their faces—except one: Emmett Till.”

He offers a simple reason to explain and apply this reality to today.

Shippey on Vikings

My friend Dale Nelson suggested I read Tom Shippey’s Laughing Shall I Die, a book on the Viking Age focusing on its warrior ethos. This isn’t a review, because I’m still reading the book. It’s quite long. But I’m finding it immensely congenial, a book that reinforces my prejudices – and who doesn’t enjoy that? Broadly speaking, it’s a sort of a backlash book against the prevailing consensus in Viking studies, the one that says, “The Vikings were really pretty much like everybody else. They just got bad press because their enemies wrote the history books.” I must admit I’ve said the same sort of thing, especially at reenactment events, but I’ve always held secret reservations.

Shippey (a Tolkien biographer and “the Professor’s” successor at Oxford) says phooey to all that. The Vikings, he says, were masters of violence and of psychological warfare. They won by intimidation, and through belief in something like a death cult. Here’s what he says about the political upheavals that wracked Scandinavia in the time of Beowulf:

Using modern terms, the story is one of centralizing power, professionalization of the military, disappearance of local groups and tribal names, and wars – so Hedeager suggests – to control strategic resources including land and access to bog iron.

The last is a modern view, by a modern scholar who characteristically prefers sensible economic motives for war. Our ancient texts, like Beowulf and Hrolf’s saga, suggest just as plausibly that the wars were undertaken for glory, for revenge, to expand power.

Delete Your Social Accounts

Richard Clark reviews a curious book that argues social media is the shadow that stalks and soon will strangle you. It is Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. 

If the claims of this book sound like cynical fear-mongering, then it’s time to wake up. The downsides of social media are no longer up for debate, and this is coming from someone who has esteemed its virtues for years. The structure upon which social media has been built, in the big picture, brings our meanest, dumbest, most impulsive tendencies to the forefront of public life.

This has bled into other areas of life and media as well. We are being actively encouraged to overshare our personal lives and spit out hot takes on all the major social platforms. Taking time to think, meditate, and rest is becoming weird and maybe the best way to become out of touch. This joke about only doing devotions so others will think well of you is where some people actually live.

I wonder about the shelf life of our current social platforms. Will my children take to any of them or will they consider them a bit stupid? I won’t be surprised if five to ten years from now the major platforms will be gone or greatly changed because the money or the people or something else just isn’t there to sustain it.

Reading report: ‘Rogalendinger i den Amerikanske Borgerkrigen’

Hans C. Heg
Col. Hans Christian Heg

The Norwegian soldiers had a reputation for never retreating in battle, and their courage resulted in their regiment being among those regiments suffering the greatest losses in the American Civil War. (Translation mine.)

When I’m manning a bookselling table for hours on end at a Sons of Norway convention, my greatest concern is generally to have sufficient reading material. Although I do almost all my reading on my Kindle Fire nowadays, one has to consider battery life. Also, I have a few “dead tree” books I’ve been accumulating. The convention seemed a good opportunity to read one of those. And if it’s in Norwegian, it has the advantage of allowing me to show off, and who knows, maybe somebody will walk past looking for a translator.

So I chose a book called Rogalendinger i den Amerikanske Borgerkrigen (Rogalanders in the American Civil War. Rogaland is a county in Norway, from which my dad’s father’s family came). It was written by Arne Halvorsen and Mari Anne Næsheim Hall. Mari Anne is a friend of mine – she was the person who first put me in touch with Prof. Titlestad, author of Viking Legacy. She sent me a copy, and I was keen to read it.

The most renowned “Norwegian” regiment during the Civil War was the 15th Wisconsin, commanded by Col. Hans C. Heg, who was killed at Chickamauga. Wisconsin was more or less the center of Norwegian-American settlement at that point in time, but a number of other soldiers came from Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, and (in lesser numbers) from other places, serving in various units. The reasons for signing up varied – many simply needed the enlistment bonuses. But many also felt honor-bound to demonstrate their loyalty to their new country – a loyalty sometimes doubted by their neighbors. And Norwegians in general were sincerely appalled by the institution of slavery (though there were some Norwegians on the other side – especially from the Norwegian settlements in Texas). Continue reading Reading report: ‘Rogalendinger i den Amerikanske Borgerkrigen’

Who Would Read a Twitter Feed in Book Form?

New Hampshire professor Seth Abramson has put in many hours following the news on President Trump, updating his readers with tweets like these:

  1. [Aug 15, 2018, 2:55 PM] (NOTE) As to Bruce Ohr, who is currently employed by the federal government, Trump’s THREAT to revoke his security clearance—which would make him doing his job impossible, and might lead to his termination—is, given the “grounds” Trump has spoken of on Twitter, WITNESS TAMPERING. [93 replies 2,191 retweets 4,133 likes]
  2. (NOTE2) Trump is AWARE that Bruce Ohr is about to testify before House Republicans (see below) and he is seeking to INFLUENCE his testimony, as his statements on Twitter make clear, with this THREAT against him. Mueller will undoubtedly investigate this. [Link to The Hill, “House GOP prepares to grill DOJ official linked to Steele dossier”] [25 replies 777 retweets 1,728 likes]
  3. (NOTE3) A key national security expert for MSNBC just said on-air, “This is quite clearly designed to send a chilling effect to all of those who would criticize Donald Trump or his administration that this will not be tolerated.” Do people realize that, as to Ohr, that’s a CRIME? [28 replies 677 Retweets 1,801 Likes ]
  4. Seth Abramson Retweeted Donald J. Trump
    (NOTE4) This tweet is now evidence of a federal felony: @realDonaldTrump [link to this tweet]
    <<Bruce Ohr of the “Justice” Department (can you believe he is still there) is accused of helping disgraced Christopher Steele “find dirt on Trump.” Ohr’s wife, Nelly, was in on the act big time – worked for Fusion GPS on Fake Dossier. @foxandfriends>>
    [35 replies 1,028 retweets 2,240 likes]
  5. (NOTE5) People do not yet realize—but soon will—that Trump has just made as big a mistake as he made in firing Comey. You *cannot* threaten the job of a witness against you in a federal investigation and SAY ON TWITTER that your reason is that he will offer testimony against you.

Now, Abramson is shopping around a proposal “to ‘bookify’ my feed.”

According to the proposal, the book will be based off of edited and rewritten versions of his Twitter threads—a conceit, Abramson declares, “whose time has come.” The book will create a “comprehensive, chronological review of the Trump-Russia case by transforming my Twitter ‘threads’ into prose.”

“A book of this sort is daring,” he writes. “Few if any have leveraged the advantage that books offer in collating, organizing, and amplifying in narrative form an intensely followed Twitter feed.”

This looks like an incredible waste of every resource devoted to it, but I think I’ve seen similar wasted efforts in printed books. Not that there’s anything daring about it, except that writing any book believing people will buy or read or both feels daring. Of course, there’s the daring of the carefully planned tightrope walk over Niagara and the daring of the spur-of-the-moment motorcycle jump into the Grand Canyon. [via Prufrock News]