A Story of Art, Addiction, and Renewal

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is famous for its albatross and for “Water, water, every where,/Nor any drop to drink.” In Mariner, Malcolm Guite gives us so much more in this first-rate biography of Coleridge combined with a masterful analysis of the work’s compelling story, vivid images, and powerful poetry. In doing so Guite unveils the remarkable parallels between the two. Even more remarkable, Coleridge’s life seemed to follow the pattern of the ancient mariner after he had written the poem, not before.

Coleridge is also known for his addiction to opium which took him to his own “Night-mare Life-in-Death.” It began when a doctor prescribed it for his various aliments (something doctors of the day commonly did not knowing its powerful addictive effects). Intertwined with his years-long struggle for physical well-being was one for spiritual renewal. Coleridge never rejected his faith but went through struggles to a deeper more profound personal, intellectual and theological commitment.

We also see his early friendship with Wordsworth which was crucial as the two launched the Romantic movement in reaction to the dry rationality of the Enlightenment. Yet even this relationship went through its stormy patches, much of it due to Coleridge’s own troubles.

Such was the power of Coleridge’s personality and intellect that even in the midst of his deep struggles he reshaped the way the world saw Shakespeare in a series of landmark lectures. Previously the Bard was viewed as a second-tier talent of popular leanings. After Coleridge we know him to be the premier wielder of not only the English language but of art and life.

As a priest, poet and songwriter, Guite is perfectly suited for the task of bringing this life and this work home to us. He does not disappoint.

Disclosure: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

An American Ideal, An American Myth

Books are better sources of information and insight than tweets or headlines. Two years ago I reviewed here The Myth of Equality, a book that gives more help and understanding than anything you will hear or read in the news today.

Ken Wytsma was talking with a young man running his own landscaping firm who was proud of how he’d started from zero and succeeded by virtue of hard work, with no benefit from privilege. So Ken asked where he got most of his business (the suburbs) and where they worked on jobs (in backyards) and when (during the day) and how he got business (putting flyers on doors and knocking at houses).

Then Ken asked, “If you were a young black man proposing to work in the backyards of those suburbanites during the day when they’re not home, is it possible some of your clients might show a degree of suspicion or bias? If you were Hispanic, talked with an accent, or looked like you were from a culture unfamiliar to the suburban communities where people can afford backyard ponds and fountains, do you think it might–even if ever so slightly–affect how successful you are when you knock on doors?” The white friend understood.

While equality is an American ideal, Ken Wytsma tells us, it is also an American myth. State-sponsored racist policies did not end with the abolishment of slavery. They have continued in various forms ever since.

As Wytsma recounts in The Myth of Equality, voting restrictions in the post-Reconstruction era reduced Alabama’s black voter turnout from 180,000 to 3,000. It fell to zero in Virginia and North Carolina. Today efforts continue to hinder voter registration.

Astonishingly, forced labor was widely reinstituted around the turn of the twentieth century with thousands of blacks arrested on minor charges and then leased back by the state to business owners. In fact, in Mississippi, “25 percent of convicts leased out for forced labor were children.”

Regarding housing, redlining in the North during most of the twentieth century reduced the value of minority real estate holdings, with contractual options to take their property away from them for missing one payment–something white buyers did not have to endure. The effects of this systematic impoverishment are with us still.

In the last fifty years, the war on drugs has targeted minority populations creating an incarceration-industrial complex. Things are beginning to change, but Wytsma finds it ironic that in Oregon, where marijuana is now legal, “white corporate businessmen now stand to make millions of dollars by selling a product that millions of men, predominantly of color, are currently incarcerated for possessing in miniscule amounts.”

Does all this have anything to do with the gospel? Wytsma quotes Timothy Keller: “Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of the vulnerable is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity, but a violation of justice.” Biblical justice is not just punishing evil doers but restoring what was bent or broken. The cross doesn’t just allow sins to be forgiven but restores relationships. It reconciles us to God and us to each other.

Compassion for individuals is good and right, but it is only a component of justice which also looks to remedy underlying causes for such needs. Compassion, contends Wytsma, can also feed our hero complex. We encourage a more holistic justice when we use our influence and authority to give our responsibilities, opportunities, and power to those who have not had it equally.

Through a clear retelling of American history, a well-rounded discussion of biblical justice, and concrete ways we can move ahead individually and corporately, Wytsma provides an important book on an important topic.

Disclosure: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Why Some Innovations Succeed and Others Don’t

Coming up with a great idea can be hard enough. Getting the idea adopted can be even harder. Why do some innovations change the world and others go nowhere?

The reasons are many. In Originals Adam Grant highlights one factor in the story of the American suffrage movement.

Lucy Stone launched the women’s rights movement in 1851, inspiring thousands to join the cause for women’s right to vote, work, receive an education, and own property. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were among her early followers. But after years of leading together, in 1869 Anthony and Stanton split from Stone, nearly causing the collapse of the movement. What happened?

Anthony and Stanton were purists. They opposed the Fifteenth Amendment giving African Americans the right to vote because if women couldn’t vote, no other minorities should either. Stone instead built bridges to those favoring the amendment.

Stone also sought allies in an unexpected corner, in the family-values organization of the day—the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The WCTU was conservative, largely made up of religious middle- and upper-class women who were unlikely to see Stone and her movement as upholding traditional values. Yet Stone forged an alliance by suggesting that the WTCU would have a hard time changing liquor laws if women couldn’t vote. The more radical-sounding “women’s right to vote” was reframed more moderately as a “home protection ballot.”

Anthony and Stanton were scandalized. But their differences didn’t stop there. “Stone was committed to campaigning at the state level; Anthony and Stanton wanted a federal constitutional amendment. Stone involved men in her organization; Anthony and Stanton favored an exclusively female membership. Stone sought to inspire change through speaking and meetings; Anthony and Stanton were more confrontational, with Anthony voting illegally and encouraging other women to follow suit.” (121)

The extreme radicalism of some scared away the potential sympathy of many. Though Stanton sought reconciliation in 1872, by then Stone was too wary of her unpredictable sisters in the cause. It took passing the torch to a new generation of moderate radicals before women won the right to vote in 1920.

Change the world? Yes. With creative coalitions, with tempered radicalism, by reframing the new as something old. A hundred years ago, women showed us how it’s done.

Photos: Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection (Stone); Library of Congress, (Stanton seated, Anthony standing).

The British to the Rescue

The story is classic. The main character enjoys prominence and prestige only to sink into obscurity before slowly rising again. Mark Noll tells this tale in his benchmark book on the history of American evangelical scholarship (1880-1980), Between Faith and Criticism–a book full of insights which still bear fruit today.

Some reasons for the decline are well-known but Noll adds other significant factors. One is the professionalization of academic study beginning in the late nineteenth century. Biblical studies were no longer the exclusive domain of denominational seminaries but became ruled by the technical, research-oriented graduate schools of major universities. In such an environment, assumptions of faith were thought to taint academic pursuits.

Though scholars like A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield at Princeton had the stature and substance to maintain some degree of standing in the field, shortly after 1900 such influence hit bottom. The next generation was one of exclusion and retrenchment, highlighted by the writing of The Fundamentals and the highly publicized Scopes Monkey Trial.

The issue which most divided evangelicals from modern or “liberal” scholars and vice versa, was biblical criticism. Noll, assuming his audience knows the term, never defines it (also called higher criticism) which does not mean negative evaluations. Rather it concerns a range of “scientific” approaches (which gained prominence in the nineteenth century) for analyzing texts to determine their meaning and historical accuracy. Many evangelicals objected to conclusions from these methods which included, for example, doubting Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and assigning a second-century BC date to Daniel. The result, they often felt, called the authority, infallibility, and inerrancy of Scripture into question.

How evangelical scholarship pulled itself out of these doldrums takes us to Britain. First, as members of the established Anglican church, some evangelicals there were always part of the faculty at the elite universities. They were never excluded the way their American counterparts were. Second, through the work of what became Tyndale House and Tyndale Fellowship (both under the umbrella of the InterVarsity Fellowship student ministry), serious scholars and scholarship were nurtured and encouraged. These included F. F. Bruce, G. T. Manley and others.

Via publications and some transatlantic travel both ways, the Brits had a salutary effect on American scholarship. Of ten evangelical commentary series available in the early 1980s, only one had a majority of American contributors.

Noll also offers a taxonomy of evangelical scholarship that is still useful thirty years after his book was published. (1) Critical Anti-Critics “regularly put scholarship to use in defending traditional evangelical beliefs and in attacking the nontraditional conclusions of other scholars.” (2) Believing Critics (led by British scholars) accept that new research may overturn traditional beliefs but that this need not undermine an inspired Bible. They “find insight as well as error in the larger world of biblical scholarship” (p. 158). Generally, then as today, members of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) are in the first category while members of the Institute of Biblical Research (IBR) are in the second.

Ultimately, the challenge for evangelicals has been to develop a comprehensive method for understanding both the divine and human aspects of Scripture. Do minor errors or a failure on the part of the biblical writers to (anachronistically) follow 21st-century historiographical conventions call the reliability of the whole Bible into question? Do the fallen and finite human contexts, cultures, and origins of the Scriptures somehow negate their divine inspiration and authority? Or is there a way both can be affirmed? In answering these questions, our British brethren have led and continue to lead the way.

F. F. Bruce photo credit: InterVarsity Press

Did Jesus Make a Difference?

In the last century millions were killed in genocide, a hundred million in armed conflicts, fifty million more in political purges. Has Jesus, acknowledged as the most influential person in world history, really made any difference?

Thomas Cahill begins to answer this question in Desire of the Everlasting Hills by considering the written record of Jesus’ life and the other documents his earliest followers left behind. He doesn’t make the mistake of homogenizing the four gospels into one bland account. Instead he recognizes the distinct emphases of the gospel writers, devoting a chapter to each of the four, and as a result giving us a richer picture.

While starting with an introduction on the Greek and Roman history that led up to the New Testament era, chapters on Paul and the early church round out his account. Throughout he shows respects for the text by quoting many long New Testament passages—including the entire letter of Paul to Philemon! This Cahill shrewdly summarizes as “instructing the slave master in his Christian duty, while seeming not to do so” (237).

Cahill offers a popular history based in mainstream scholarship. Having written a book on Mark’s gospel, I take issue with some points, but I agree with far more. Cahill does not, for example, dismiss miracles and the resurrection as mere fantasy. He calls for us to seriously consider the evidence that supports such reports.

Rather than focusing on particularly “spiritual” topics, Cahill emphasizes other themes inspired by Jesus—peace, justice, and lifting up the poor and marginalized. While the book is not religious in its intention, the author seems not to be able to help lapsing into some wonderfully devotional passages.

What of the initial question that inspired the book? He only hints at answers. Certainly the crucified image of the righteous sufferer has remained strong, inspiring many to follow his example even at great risk. Also, it is hard to imagine the Bill of Rights and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights emerging without the widespread influence of Jesus. “The pressure to make peace [in various quarters of today’s world] is quite unlike anything the Greeks or Romans or even the Elizabethans could have imagined” (310).

We have far to go in becoming the people Jesus called us to. Yet because of Jesus, we know the way.


photo credit: Pixabay, wynpnt

The Shape of Democracy

Is democracy worth fighting for and even dying for? Does it need greater goals than itself? What should be the shape of our social order?

In an era gone by, Christian thought leaders believed they had a public role in answering such questions, and the public thought they did too. In 1943, as the Allies began to realize that victory over the Axis powers was inevitable, the independent work of five key intellectuals coalesced in remarkable ways concerning what the post-war world should look like.

In that year a French Catholic philosopher, a British poet living in America, an American poet now a British citizen, a French mystic working for the resistance in England, and an Oxford Don gave lectures, wrote poetry, produced books, and spoke on the BBC. The five—Jacques Maritain, W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, Simone Weil, and C. S. Lewis—all addressed the larger questions of society and politics for what would soon become the post-war world. Taking up themes of education, the demonic, and force, all asked how Christian perspectives might inform such answers.

Since the Allies used the methods of mechanized, technocratic warfare against the Fascist powers who employed the same techniques, the five wondered, What was needed so that we would not become like them? Despite the best efforts of these intellectual powerhouses to point society in a different direction (spoiler alert here), they failed. Such thinking and warnings were overwhelmed by the ultimately dehumanizing technological worldview that had been employed to win the war—and which would permeate the peace.

Of the five, only Jacques Maritain actually engaged substantively in the world of politics after the war as the French ambassador to the Vatican. Weil died and the others moved on to other concerns.

Alan Jacobs concludes his book The Year of Our Lord 1943 with an afterward about a somewhat younger Frenchman who had many of the same concerns as the five—Jacques Ellul. His conclusion about what Christians ought to do in such times is outrageous for the age we live in. I will not spoil the shock of that recommendation here but will encourage you to read it.

The unwritten agenda of this book and its relevance for today seems to be the similar questions that are now afoot. Does democracy have a future? Can it withstand the impulses of our now hyper technological society joined with the forces of nationalism which once more assert themselves–now in currently democratic societies like Great Britain, India, the United States and elsewhere? What role if any does Christianity have to play other than chaplain to the powers or hand-wringing bystander?


photo credit: Pixabay/Mark Thomas

The Struggle of Our Better Angels

We seem to live in unusually contentious times. Tensions between established ethnic groups and against new immigrant groups seems on the rise. Many wonder if peace and justice still have a place in our future.

In The Soul of America, Jon Meacham says the lens of history can offer a corrective perspective. Our current situation is not unprecedented. By touching on key conflicts and changes over the centuries, Meacham shows that our better angels have always had to struggle to overcome our lesser instincts.

The Civil War to end slavery was one such struggle. But the battle continued on new fronts, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries being one of the most obvious. The decades-long, hard fought struggle to gain women the vote in 1920 was another high point except that it took so much effort to achieve what now seems so obvious.

The powerful fear-mongering of media-savvy Senator “Play Fast and Loose with the Facts” Joe McCarthy in the 1950s was certainly a low point. Yet politicians of both parties were finally willing to challenge him. Soon thereafter the determined efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and President Lyndon Johnson to overcome fear led to the passing of the landmark Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of 1964 and 1965.

Throughout our history the doors of immigration have also alternately opened wider and narrowed through many cycles. The shameful internment of Japanese Americans during World War II was followed in the 1960s by widening the doors of immigration from Asia.

The three-steps-forward-two-steps-back nature of American history is not new nor is it easy. Meacham suggests nonetheless that this should be cause for hope about our present situation. After all, it will not last.

We are far from a perfect nation. But we are a country rooted in the propositions that “all men are created equal,” that all have a right to equal justice under the law, and that the freedoms of religion, speech, the press, and the right to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances shall not be abridged.

As we strive to live up to our aspirations for the future, says Meacham, we do well to remember our past.

History More Interesting Than the Myths

Napoleon and Wellington are historically joined at the hip because of their epic encounter at Waterloo. Yet other apparent similarities are striking: both were born in the same year (1769), both were born of prominent fathers who died when the boys were in early adolescence, both had four brothers and three sisters, both spoke French as their second language, both were self-taught in military matters, both led their nations (Wellington as prime minister from 1828-30), they even shared two mistresses (though perhaps less remarkably Wellington picked them up after Napoleon’s defeat), and one of Wellington’s brothers even married the sister-in-law of the ex-wife of one of Napoleon’s brothers.
Continue reading “History More Interesting Than the Myths”

Where Have All the Fundamentalists Gone?

We used to have fundamentalist Christians, but where are they now? I rarely hear anyone refer to themselves by that label. Do you?

When many of the main denominations in the U.S. began to be influenced by liberal theological ideas in the late nineteenth century, some conservative Protestants responded. They wanted to affirm the authority of Scripture, the virgin birth of Jesus, his bodily resurrection, and much more. This movement gained the name Fundamentalism in the early twentieth century after publication of a series of twelve volumes called The Fundamentals containing ninety essays by such leading lights as James Orr, B. B. Warfield, R. A. Torrey and many others. The name was adopted widely by conservative Christians.

The label took on decidedly negative connotations during the Scopes Monkey Trial on evolution in July 1925 when journalist H. L. Mencken heaped scorn on those defending a literal interpretation of Genesis. After that fundamentalists retreated from the public scene in a defensive posture against a dominant culture they saw as their enemy.

In the late 1940s, two important events altered the religious landscape in the U.S. Carl F. H. Henry published The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism in 1947, saying it was time for conservative Christians to not be separatists and instead engage the culture, seeking to influence it constructively.

Two years later Billy Graham was launched on the world stage with his first major evangelistic campaign in Los Angeles. He welcomed Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox and Black Christian leaders to his stage–much to the consternation of Fundamentalists. Graham also took the label evangelical.

The two groups, evangelicals and fundamentalists, lived side by side for many years but of late, especially in the news media, we almost never hear about Christian fundamentalists, only about evangelicals, especially in relation to politics. Conservative Christians seem to have followed suit. They mostly call themselves evangelical, rarely fundamentalist. Even Bob Jones University, on its website, does not describe itself with the term.

But why? Did the more open, socially engaged evangelicals win and the more closed, insular fundamentalists diminish? Yes and no.

Conservative Protestants are now generally more socially active though usually on a narrow range of issues like abortion, pornography, evolution, and gay marriage as opposed to the comprehensive engagement Henry urged. And they have tended not to call themselves fundamentalists anymore, preferring evangelical.

Even so they often remain separatist in their inclinations. Usually they take a defensive rather than a generous posture toward culture. Rarely do they openly listen to or cooperate with those they differ with. They can be much like political conservatives and liberals generally who tend to follow likeminded news sources and only associate with those they agree with.

One other factor, I think, has contributed to the demise of evangelicalism as the kinder, gentler fundamentalism Henry imagined. Just as moderates seem to have disappeared from both political parties, moderate evangelicals have tended to leave the movement. They care about a wide range of issues, believing the Bible has having much of value to say about the environment, race, poverty, human rights, cooperation among nations, violence, modern slavery, war refugees, women, children, and more. But they have become disaffected from what they see as a narrow and strident form of Christianity that seems not to welcome people like them.

Why are there no more Christian fundamentalists? I wonder if it is because fundamentalists over the years have largely rebranded themselves and coopted the term evangelical, while many of the more moderate evangelicals have moved to mainline churches or none at all.

What do you think?

Photo credit: InterVarsity, Urbana 64