Cromwell in Painstaking Detail

Title: Thomas Cromwell:
A Revolutionary Life
Author: Diarmaid MacCulloch
Genre: Biography/History
Pages: 575 (plus citations & indices)
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: 10/31/18 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This in no way reflects the content of the review)

In his exhaustive portrait of Thomas Cromwell, the author focused largely on Cromwell’s scheming and plotting overseeing and subtly nudging the English Reformation in an Evangelical (i.e. Protestant) direction. The English branch of the Protestant Reformation was seemingly driven more by lust and greed than concern for godly living or doctrinal purity (as aptly summarized my Rowan Atkinson and Horrible Histories here). However, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s thesis is that Cromwell was driven, at least in part, by real (but cautiously concealed) Evangelical leanings.

MacCulloch’s biography is built on an examination of what must have been reams and reams of correspondence and court documents. The whirl of names, titles, legislation, favors granted, animosities provoked, etc. can be a bit dry and confusing, but no one can accuse the author of not being thorough!

Throughout the book, MacCulloch assumes that the reader has a basic knowledge of the major events of the Tudor period especially ones relating to Henry VIII’s marriages and relationship with the church. His goal is to describe Cromwell’s role and motivations in this history, not to give an “entry level” summary of it.

Cromwell is treated fairly sympathetically throughout, though the author admits more than once to “blood on his hands.” I can’t help but wonder if in an effort to save him from being portrayed as a monstrous “mustache-twirling villain,” MacCulloch hasn’t gone a little too far in the other direction. Many of Cromwell’s actions (e.g. participation in the destruction of Anne Boleyn) seem to be more about personal vengeance and/or advancement rather than Protestant idealism. Whatever the case, this book filled in some gaps in my understanding of the Tudor period in general and the English Reformation in particular. I recommend it to anyone interested in the time period who appreciates (or at least doesn’t mind) painstaking detail derived from primary sources.

Sobering History

Title: Darkness over Germany:
A Warning from History
Author: E. Amy Buller
Genre: History
Pages: 296
Rating: 4.5 of 5

In the years leading up to World War II, E. Amy Buller spent a lot of effort fostering dialogue between English educators and Germans. Obviously, war was not averted, but in this book (published in 1943 while WWII was still raging) she recollects many of the conversations she had with German friends and acquaintances. Most of the conversations involve Germans who dislike Nazism to some degree, ranging from unease to outright hatred. This seems to be an attempt to help understand and humanize the enemy to some degree, looking forward to the day when the war is over and people will have to coexist again…perhaps hoping that this will not end in another bitterness-inducing Treaty of Versailles.

Additionally, these conversations provide a sober warning of how difficult it can be to resist once a brutish totalitarian regime has consolidated power. Many of them feature regret that people waited too long to stand up to the Nazis coupled with fear, bewilderment, and/or resignation regarding the seeming futility of making any kind of stand now. For example:

“Of course, our real guilt lies in our slowness and in letting these gangsters get the whole country in their grip sufficiently to paralyze all collective opposition. So many people were so relieved to see any kind of order emerge out of the uncertainty and chaos that they said ‘Certain  things the Nazis are doing are good,’ and left it at that, without inquiring on what this new order was based or what was the spirit of the movement that was sweeping the land.” (p. 20)

Throughout the book Hitler and his cronies are characterized as upstart “gangsters” whose ham-handed foreign policy can lead only to war. For instance:

“It is also, I gather, true that Hitler is completely ill at ease with the more cultured and conventional diplomats, and looks upon them as quite unsuitable agents for putting over his policy with vigour and determination. The groveling insincerity of von Ribbentrop with his horde of keen and fanatical young men, together with the high tension atmosphere of No. 63 [the Nazi Foreign Office], gave Hitler the kind of setting and support he felt he needed.” (p. 69)

and

“And finally there was the von Ribbentrop and Hewel type who had never held power, men who had very little integrity to suppress and who loved the power that was so new to them. They  cheated, bullied and would even murder, I suspect, to gain their ends. All the tricks of the dishonest commercial traveler were in use among this crowd.” (p. 93)

Quite a bit of space is also devoted to exploring how Nazism became widely accepted because it had a religious appeal to those who had drifted from traditional spirituality (especially Christianity).

“The whole world today is full of false gods, and it is not surprising that in Germany they have chosen particularly brutal and violent gods. That makes it easier to see what is happening but there are also other false gods being followed in America and England.'” (p. 157)

The recently written introduction to the book is unnecessary (any relevant information on Buller is presented again and better in the afterward) and goes a bit “Godwin’s Law.” I would strongly recommend skipping it and deciding for yourself what kinds of warnings the sobering history contained in this book has for our own time.

“Character Counts!”

Title: Believe Me:
The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump
Author: John Fea
Genre: Theology/Politics/History
Pages: 208
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 8/30/18 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley…this does not affect the content of the review)

My earliest clear memory of American politics is of conservative Christians howling “Character counts! Bill Clinton is not morally qualified to be president and must be impeached!”.  Fast forward to 2016 and many of these same voices eagerly led 81% of white Evangelical Christians to vote for a profane, lecherous bully…but it’s okay because “we’re voting for a commander in chief, not a pastor in chief and he’s going to appoint such good supreme court justices.” Major cognitive dissonance! This book, written by a self-identified Evangelical historian who is appalled at this pragmatic hypocrisy inconsistency, explores how this came about.

His main premise is that the evangelical “political playbook” has been driven by three factors:

  • Fear: “If you don’t vote for/donate toward/support [fill in the blank] you’re going to lose your religious freedom (and guns)!”
  • Power: “We must have people in positions of high authority who are on our side or we cannot properly influence society!”
  • Nostalgia: “We need to get back to ‘the good old days’ when everyone acted like Christians and things were so much better” (as long as you were white, male, and born in this country)!

He seeks to demonstrate that these three factors have long been a part of the American political landscape and have caused a variety of sinful/hypocritical behavior along the way (racism, or at least calloused insensitivity toward people not just like me, being a major focus). Because he is primarily historian, the author doesn’t offer a lot of commentary on what could have been done differently. However he does suggest that rather than play power games, maybe Christians need to take the role of outsiders “speaking truth to power” with hope for the future…more like prophets than courtiers.

I greatly appreciate the main thrust of this book, and it has helped me think through some things related to the unedifying spectacle that was the 2016 election. That said, I don’t know how convincing the book would be to someone who wasn’t already inclined to agree with the author. His presentation isn’t always carefully argued/sourced, as he occasionally takes an approach that sounds like “most scholars agree on [insert interpretation of data without presenting the data itself in any detail]…”. Another issue was that along the way I spotted a couple factual errors (the worst being identifying DACA as pertaining to children born in the US!), which made me question his credibility a bit.

Overall, I think that this is worth reading as a critique from someone within the Evangelical movement even if not all of his arguments are as fleshed out as they could be.

Iconoclastic History

Title: The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee:
The Forgotten Case Against an American Icon
Author: John Reeves
Genre: History
Pages: 264
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: 6/1/2018 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley…this does not affect the content of the review)

In most of my school history books Robert E. Lee was presented as being practically the fourth member of the Trinity. Among many dedicated church-going people I know, it is a “known fact” that Lee was a godly man fighting for a noble lost cause (states rights, not slavery which he abhorred).

John Reeves calls this narrative into question with his well-researched book. As the title suggests, the main focus is on the treason trials promised by President Andrew Johnson after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Though he is clearly not very sympathetic to Lee, the author is fairly even-handed in his presentation of the facts; not cherry-picking just the ones that suit his purpose and admitting when contradictory reports (e.g. of Lee’s cruelty to the 197 slaves under his charge) render a point uncertain. The neutral examination of thoughts and attitudes in the North immediately following the war provides a helpful perspective that I had never read about before.

I feel that the book suffers slightly from a lack of focus as it leaps between the attempted treason trials, reconstruction, the character of Robert E Lee (including his inconsistency/hypocrisy regarding slavery), and the revisionist “lost cause” narrative. I am unsure whether the main goal was to simply describe the events surrounding the attempted treason trials as accurately as possible or to discredit the Lee-as-godly-hero mythos. Nevertheless, it was an excellent read that I would highly recommend for those who want to read about a forgotten part of post-Civil war history and for anyone who wants a balance to the usual hagiographic Lee biographies.

Some Mini Reviews

It’s time to get caught up on the books that I’ve read that didn’t warrant a full scale review (which doesn’t necessarily mean that I didn’t enjoy them):

Title: Saga of the Jomsvikings
Translator: Lee Hollander
Genre: Norse Saga
Pages: 116
Rating: 3 of 5

I enjoy Norse mythology (especially in poetic form) but find the more historical prose sagas a bit “meh.” There is certainly historical, cultural, and poetic interest in this tale of a brotherhood of warriors and their participation in a major battle with Earl Hakon, but the Old Norse style is a bit dry.

Image result for the informer liam o'flahertyTitle: The Informer
Author: Liam O’Flaherty
Genre: Irish Crime/Noir
Pages: 189
Rating: 4 of 5

This felt a lot like Crime & Punishment…if it were set in Ireland during “the troubles” and the protagonist was a brutish moron instead of a sensitive, philosophical type. We get to watch the mental torment of an oaf who betrays his friend as the vengeance-seeking revolutionary party plays a game of cat and mouse with him. The plot crawls through the seedy underbelly of Dublin and was surprisingly deeper/better than I expected.

Image result for Night Squad GoodisTitle: Night Squad
Author: David Goodis
Genre: Crime/Noir
Pages: 200
Rating: 4 of 5

This is a good, solid noir tale, featuring an ex-cop, who unlike his “chump” father (an honest cop  killed in the line of duty), looks out for his own interests even if it means a bit of corruption. He eventually finds himself working for the local mobster and reinstated as a cop on the infamous Night Squad. This isn’t necessarily Goodis’ best work (Dark Passage is much better), but it’s well worth a read if you’re a fan of noir.

Image result for Right ho Jeeves book coverTitles: Right Ho, Jeeves / Thank You, Jeeves
Author: P. G. Wodehouse
Genre: Classic Humor
Pages: 256 / 282
Ratings: 4.5 & 5 of 5

I love the Jeeves and Wooster books, and these are two of the best. Unlike the previous books in the series, these are each one continuous (though episodic) story rather than a collection of loosely related short stories. As usual, good-hearted but dim Bertie Wooster tries to help his friends and relations, gets himself in trouble (which usually means engaged to someone he doesn’t want to marry) and has to be rescued by his genius valet (which frequently seems to involve temporarily throwing Bertie under the bus, but it’s all good in the end).

Title: The Adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser
(omnibus containing Swords & Deviltry, Swords Against Death, & Swords in the Mist)
Author: Fritz Leiber
Genre: Swords & Sorcery
Pages: 520
Rating: 3 of 5

There’s really not a whole lot to say about this one. It’s fairly standard antihero swords and sorcery featuring a northern barbarian (basically a less broody, less rapey Conan) and a thief/swordsman who dabbles in magic (though we seldom see him use any). It’s entertaining enough but nothing special.

Title: Immeasurable:
Reflections on the Soul of Ministry in the Age of Church, Inc.
Author: Skye Jethani
Genre: Practical Theology
Pages: 210
Rating: 4 of 5

This insightful little book offers bite-size reflections on what it looks like to biblically lead, serve in, and be the church in a day when many churches and Christians are all about counting attendance, perpetuating programs, offering the “full service church” experience, and honoring celebrity pastors. While I disagree with some of his views on preaching (e.g. that it should inspire rather than teach), it offers some thought-provoking insights that would be helpful for both pastors and church members.

MI-6: The Old Boys’ Club

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by [Macintyre, Ben]Title: A Spy Among Friends:
Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal
Author: Ben Macintyre
Genre: True Crime / Espionage
Pages: 328
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This is a tale of cold-blooded betrayal by a charismatic double agent and of monumental incompetence by his colleagues at MI-6 who sheltered, enabled, and defended him for several decades . Soviet mole Ken Philby (and associated traitors in “the Cambridge five”) wreaked havoc in both the British and American intelligence communities, compromising operations and costing the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Ben Macintyre examines Philby’s career with a focus on his friends/dupes in the intelligence community, especially his closest friend and most loyal defender, Nicholas Elliott.

Clearly, the authors had to wade through massive amounts of self-justification and obfuscation in writing this book, so we are getting version of the story of which a definitive version is probably impossible. That being said, his presentation is convincing, well-sourced, and hangs together well. MI-6 is portrayed as an above-the-law “old boys club” that couldn’t be bothered to do serious background checks on “gentlemen” and refused to believe that one of their own class could really be a Soviet agent (even when presented with damning circumstantial evidence by MI-5 and the CIA). I think that the author was trying to be as nice as possible in his portrayal of Philby’s friends, but to me Nicholas Elliott comes off as a class-blinded moron and naive fool of the first order.

After reading this, it is easier to understand the cynicism in the spy novels of Graham Greene and John LeCarré (the mole in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is based on Philby). Overall, it was a fascinating book, though largely in a “can’t look away from the tragedy being brought about by arrogant fools” kind of way.

Christianity & Roman Culture

Title: Destroyer of the gods:
Early Christian Distinctives in the Roman World
Author: Larry W. Hurtado
Genre: Church History
Pages: 260
Rating: 4 of 5

Larry Hurtado explores ways in which Christians and Christianity diverged radically from the religious landscape of the Roman Empire in the first three centuries AD/CE. The characteristics he describes are largely inherited from Judaism but were regarded as bizarre, offensive, and/or antisocial in Christians who were not ethnically Jewish and thus were abandoning their duties to the gods. The points he discusses included:

  • Belief in only one God and absolute refusal to participate in the worship of any other deities (and a confusing identification of Jesus with God…a major divergence from Judaism)
  • A reliance on written Scripture
  • Behavioral requirements and community values significantly more restrictive than Roman culture at large – especially in the value of human life (opposing abortion, the exposure of infants, and gladiatorial games) and sexuality (limiting it to marriage in a culture where men were pretty free to sleep with anyone who wasn’t married or a freeborn virgin).

The author presents the beliefs and practices of the early Christians fairly neutrally, mostly refraining from evaluating their truth or even elaborating on specific beliefs about Jesus (e.g. he’s pretty coy about the exact relationship between Jesus and God the Father). He generally accepts the books of the New Testament as accurately representative of the dominant early form of Christianity though he does seem to consider many of them to be pseudonymous.

The main text of the book is complemented by copious end notes (over 40% of the page count) in which the author interacts with other scholarly works relating to early Christianity and the culture/religion of the Roman Empire. In these notes he generally argues against positions that seek to radically reinterpret or call into question the reliability of early witnesses.

Even though I have some disagreements with the author (e.g. he doesn’t seem to hold as “high” a view as Scripture as I do), I found this to be a profitable and fascinating look at the tension between early Christians and the predominant culture of their day. It has interesting implications for how it has affected the way people in general now think about religion (one of his main points throughout) and for how Christians should be distinctive today (something he doesn’t really explore).

Dated & Overgeneralized

Title: They Thought They Were Free:
The Germans, 1933-45
Author: Milton Mayer
Genre: History / Anthropology
Pages: 384
Rating: 2.5 of 5

From reading the Amazon reviews and blurbs for this (which is what piqued my interest), you would assume that every page drips with parallels to the current political climate of the US. While there were certainly some troubling similarities in the first half of the book, the book as a whole was overgeneralized and very dated.

The author spent a year in early-1950’s Germany getting to know ten average, unimportant men  who had been members of the Nazi party. His goal was to try to understand how seemingly normal people could be party to the atrocities of the Nazi regime and how they felt about it now that it was over. The author (who is Jewish, though his German friends didn’t know it) is extremely gracious in how he presents the thoughts and attitudes of these men and tries to understand where they are coming from.

By his account, most of them looked back on Hitler’s rule with nostalgia (they had jobs and stability, anything really bad wasn’t Hitler’s fault but other people sabotaging his good intentions, at least Hitler wasn’t a politician or an academic, the Jews might’ve been treated too harshly but they were outsiders who hurt the real Germans economically, etc.). The two or three who showed some regret spoke of the steps toward evil being so gradual that it was hard to notice or object…how would you stand up against such small steps that were supported by so many people (especially when it would cost you your job and you didn’t know for sure that bad things were happening)?

Unfortunately, once he has finished describing his fascinating (in a sad/disturbing kind of way) conversations with these men, he spends the last half of the book making sweeping generalizations about the “national character” of Germans and the doom that is likely to follow for Europe and the world once they are rearmed. Many of these condescending generalizations don’t even seem to follow from what he has presented up to that point, and history certainly hasn’t borne them out.

The book ends with an afterward, written in 2017, that calls into question a lot of his methodology and conclusions (arguing, in part, that neither Marburg nor these ten men were particularly representative of the average German experience and attitude). I was already a bit disillusioned with the book before getting to the afterward, and it put the cap on a fairly disappointing reading experience.

Vivid Glimpses of History & Culture

Title: Tell My Horse:
Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica
Author: Zora Neale Hurston
Genre: History / Anthropology / Autobiography
Pages: 336
Rating: 3.5

Zora Neale Hurston’s record of her travels in Jamaica and Haiti provides colorful glimpses into the history, daily life, and religion of these nations. The historical sections in the early part of the book skillfully gave a sense of the extreme racism, pervasive corruption, simmering  rage, and explosive violence that accompanied their early history. Unfortunately the arrangement was haphazard and elliptical in the extreme. Unless you are already well-acquainted with Haiti’s history, Google and Wikipedia will be your friend here.

The later part of the book that focuses on voodoo/vodou is fairly fragmentary as well, but no less interesting. Apparently Hurston was a first level initiate (she mentions preparing for her second level, but never directly tells us about her initiation). Her level of credulity seems to vary depending on the passage, but she mostly manages to present it fairly neutrally as “this is what people believe.” While I would tend to agree with the view that the pantheon/loas of Vodou are identical to the demons/evil spirits of the Bible (e.g. Ephesians 6:12), I think it is important to understand people’s beliefs from their own perspective, and this book is helpful in that regard.

Overall, this isn’t a systematic treatment of the topics in the title, but Hurston’s personal experiences and vivid writing make this a worthwhile read.

Happy Reformation Day!

Five hundred years ago today is the traditional date for Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg and sparking the Protestant Reformation. There are plenty of areas where I would disagree with Luther, and people in my denomination (Baptist) like to argue about whether we actually came out of the Protestant Reformation at all (it’s complicated), but I still see this as a day to celebrate. The movement unintentionally launched by Martin Luther 500 years ago ended up bringing back to the Christian consciousness at large 5 essential truths.

SolasScripture Alone is the basis of Christian faith and practice (II Timothy 3:16) which teaches that true righteousness comes from Faith Alone (Romans 1:17) which is a completely undeserved gift of God’s Grace Alone (Ephesians 2:8-10) resulting in good works, not produced by good works because it is made available through the death and resurrection of Christ Alone (2 Corinthians 5:20-21) with all Glory to God Alone (2 Peter 3:17-18).

Happy Reformation Day! (If you haven’t had enough of my preaching, here’s a link to a sermon I preached a couple weeks ago on the life of Martin Luther).