Archive for the ‘ Book Reviews ’ Category

The Preacher & the Presidents

Preacher & PresidentsIn preparation for my upcoming year of sabbatical when I will be doing some research at presidential libraries, I’ve been reading as much as I can about those who were spiritual advisors to presidents. The obvious first choice for study is Billy Graham. Recently, I finished a book that provided some really excellent and even profound insights into Graham’s relationships with presidents from Truman to George W. Bush. Elegantly written by journalists Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House is a treasure chest of information about how Graham saw his role as pastor to presidents and how presidents utilized him in their administrations.

I learned more about Graham than I expected. Personally, I’ve followed Graham’s evangelistic career since the mid-1960s. I remember vividly the telecasts of some of his crusades while I was still in high school, as well as reading his early autobiography. He played a significant part in my budding faith at that time.

Later, I branched out into other avenues for growing in my spiritual walk, but he was always there in the background. In the 1980s, when Graham went to China for the first time, a couple I knew at the church I was attending was connected with that endeavor. They turned to me to write a paper on the value of a market economy and freedom. That paper then went with Graham to China as part of his mission to the Chinese leaders. I felt quite honored to take part in that, even in a small way.

Graham-ReaganReading the book, I came away with a deeper appreciation for just how influential Graham has been in American society throughout his long ministry. His connections with presidents were often instrumental in forwarding the Gospel, particularly in many communist nations. That occurred primarily during Reagan’s tenure. Reagan was a great supporter of Graham’s ministry; he had known him personally since the early 1950s. One comment in the book intrigued me: Graham described Reagan “as the president he was closest to—and the one he would have liked to have known better. Nancy Reagan said her husband’s relationship with Graham deepened when he became president. ‘Their relationship was beyond political,’ she said in 2006. ‘Billy would keep in touch with Ronnie on all levels.'”

There were pitfalls along the way for Graham as he learned how to handle his fame and influence with presidents. His closeness to Richard Nixon also tied him to Watergate, even though he was in no way involved in that scandal. It taught him to be more cautious in future dealings, yet he never shied away from offering pastoral counseling and comfort to any president—and any other person—who sought him out.

Over this next year, I’ll not only visit presidential libraries, but I’ll travel to Wheaton College to examine Billy Graham’s papers. I also hope to make a trek, along with a colleague on this project, to North Carolina to interview Graham family members and associates. While it would be wonderful to get to see Billy Graham and talk with him, that probably won’t happen. His age and infirmities make that unlikely.

Graham’s ministry has ended now, for all practical purposes. He knows he doesn’t have much more time on this earth, but that doesn’t bother him. He has the assurance of an eternity with the One he has served faithfully all these years. It will be a pleasant experience to spend time this year getting to “know” him better.

Lewis: Hell’s Operating Principles

Screwtape LettersFor many, their first encounter with C. S. Lewis’s marvelous works is The Screwtape Letters. This witty little book, which consists of letters from a superior devil, Screwtape, to a junior devil, Wormwood, continues to be a bestseller. Why? I think it’s because it captures so well the essence of the sinful heart as it displays not only Screwtape’s advice on how to lead a person into hell, but also the manner in which the inhabitants of hell treat one another—the fact that it is a place where all the deviousness and self-centeredness of sin is in full play.

Lewis explains in his introduction the nature of the hellish operation:

[Hell is] an official society held together entirely by fear and greed. On the surface, manners are normally suave. Rudeness to one’s superiors would obviously be suicidal; rudeness to one’s equals might put them on their guard before you were ready to spring your mine. For of course “Dog eat dog” is the principle of the whole organisation.

Everyone wishes everyone else’s discrediting, demotion, and ruin; everyone is an expert in the confidential report, the pretended alliance, the stab in the back. Over all this their good manners, their expressions of grave respect, their “tributes” to one another’s invaluable services form a thin crust. Every now and then it gets punctured, and the scalding lava of their hatred spurts out.

In other words, hell is merely the logical extension of the evil one sees in men every day, except infinitely worse.

If you haven’t yet read The Screwtape Letters, you should. And if you happen to see yourself in any of Lewis’s depictions, you can thank God you’re still on this side of eternity, and that there’s still time walk away from the deceptions of sin and enter into His righteousness.

Coolidge: Humor, Humility, & Faith

CoolidgeA few weeks ago, I gave an endorsement to Amity Shlaes’s biography of Calvin Coolidge, even though I had only read half the book at that time. I’ve now completed it, and my endorsement not only holds but is greater than before. She presents Coolidge from all angles, inspecting both strengths and weaknesses, triumphs and disappointments.

Along the way, she gives many insights into the character of the man himself. He took office as president upon the death of Warren Harding. While waiting to make the White House his home, he was staying at the Willard Hotel in Washington. One incident during that interregnum showcases not only Coolidge’s character, but also how different security was for a president in the 1920s. Shlaes recounts,

Calvin CoolidgeOne early morning in the Willard bedroom, a sound woke Coolidge. A strange young man had broken in and was going through his clothing. In the morning light, Coolidge could see that the burglar had taken a wallet, a chain, and a charm. “I wish you wouldn’t take that,” Coolidge said. “I don’t mean the watch and chain, only the charm. Read what is engraved on the back of it.” The burglar read the back: “Presented to Calvin Coolidge . . . by the Massachusetts General Court.”—and stopped in dead shock. He was robbing the president. It emerged that the burglar was a hotel guest who had found himself short of cash to return home. Coolidge gave the burglar $32, what he called a “loan,” and helped him to navigate around the Secret Service as he departed.

I love that story, hard as it is to believe it could actually have happened. Certainly nowadays it couldn’t. But it reveals a soft side to Coolidge and a willingness to reach out to someone in need, even someone who was in the process of robbing him.

Tragedy hit the Coolidge family about a year after he ascended to the presidency. His son, Calvin Jr., died suddenly from a blister he had gotten from playing tennis. It was a bewildering episode, since no one suspected a blister could lead to death. The Coolidges were devastated. Yet God uses the trials in our lives to get our attention. As Shlaes relates,

Protecting the space that faith enjoyed in American culture, the realm of the spiritual, seemed to him [Coolidge] especially important. In those early days after Calvin’s death he had refused many appointments, but had agreed to talk to a group of Boy Scouts in a telephone hookup. “It is hard to see how a great man can be an atheist,” Coolidge had told the boys. “We need to feel that behind us is intelligence and love.” Now he was preparing a speech for the dedication of a statue of a Methodist bishop, Francis Asbury. In that speech he wanted to make clear his conviction that government’s power, since the days of Jonathan Edwards, had derived from religion, and not the other way around.

Those are just two snippets from the book. It abounds with others. I highly recommend it.

Shlaes’s Coolidge

Amity ShlaesAmity Shlaes is a very good writer. She’s also a top-notch researcher. Her niche is showing how the 1920s and 1930s are not what many people think they were. Tackling academic political correctness is not for the fainthearted, so she apparently has a rather stout heart. I first became acquainted with her writing in the book The Forgotten Man, which lanced effectively the liberal-progressive theme that FDR was the nation’s savior during the Great Depression. Now she has struck again.

CoolidgeHer newest work is simply entitled Coolidge. In it, she resurrects the reputation of the president that most liberals enjoy ridiculing. I’m only about halfway through the book, but already I deeply appreciate her ability to explain people by placing them into the context of their times, rather than imposing a later worldview onto them for the sake of merciless critique.

What I find especially interesting in her portrait of Coolidge is her depiction of his journey from a progressive Republican to what he is better know for today—the staunch conservative that Ronald Reagan used as a model when he took the presidency. Her research indicates that it took some years for Coolidge to fully develop his beliefs, and that they were only coming to fruition around the time he became governor of Massachusetts and then vice president under Warren Harding after the 1920 election.

One of the highlights of the book thus far is her description of how Coolidge handled the Boston police officers’ strike in 1919. By standing firmly for law and order and rejecting the idea that police could strike, thereby harming the public safety, he won the admiration of an entire nation. It was that key event that lifted him into the national political arena.

I normally don’t review books without reading them all the way through first, but thought I’d give a heads-up on this one because I already know it’s worthy of your time.  Perhaps when I finish it, I’ll provide an update on what I gleaned from the last half. In the meantime, I just plan to enjoy the rest.

Up from Slavery: The Character of Booker T. Washington

Up from SlaveryI’ve been reading the autobiography of Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery. The story of his childhood in slavery, the privations he suffered both under slavery and in the years after its abolition, would have made many men bitter. Washington, though, never lost the vision planted in him by God that someday he would be able to rise above it. He learned, along the way, that one’s goal was not to be selfishly motivated but to become the best for the benefit of others.

Although he experienced racism, he also saw models of true Christian devotion and love in white people who came into the South to help after the Civil War. His time at the Hampton Institute, getting a college education, was the most formative time in his life. The man who established Hampton made a lifelong impression on Washington, as he explains,

I have spoken of the impression that was made upon me by the buildings and general appearance of the Hampton Institute, but I have not spoken of that which made the greatest and most lasting impression on me, and that was a great man—the noblest, rarest human being that it has ever been my privilege to meet. I refer to the late General Samuel C. Armstrong.

It has been my fortune to meet personally many of what are called great characters, both in Europe and America, but I do not hesitate to say that I never met any man who, in my estimation, was the equal of General Armstrong. . . . It was my privilege to know the General personally from the time I entered Hampton till he died, and the more I saw of him the greater he grew in my estimation. One might have removed from Hampton all the buildings, class-rooms, teachers, and industries, and given the men and women there the opportunity of coming into daily contact with General Armstrong, and that alone would have been a liberal education.

Washington learned at Hampton that head knowledge, by itself, was not enough. The emphasis was on character-building and hard work rather than looking to others to provide for oneself. He saw a basic flaw in some of the expectations of his newly freed race:

The ambition to secure an education was most praiseworthy and encouraging. The idea, however, was too prevalent that, as soon as one secured a little education, in some unexplainable way he would be free from most of the hardships of the world, and, at any rate, could live without manual labor. There was a further feeling that a knowledge, however little, of the Greek and Latin languages would make one a very superior human being, something bordering almost on the supernatural.

That’s why, when he started the Tuskegee Institute after he left Hampton, he required all students to take part in manual labor. He was just as concerned for the development of their character as their minds. The two had to go together.

98f/42/hgmp/12704/tep038Unfortunately, Washington is not held up today as a role model. Instead, the image of W.E.B. DuBois is the current hero from this era because he stressed the political side. Yet, interestingly, DuBois never had been a slave, had grown up in the northeast where he was largely accepted as part of the community, enjoyed the privilege of a Harvard education and a stint overseas to learn the ways of Europe. He was hardly the typical black man of the period. Despite all these advantages, DuBois became a bitter man, criticizing Washington’s character-centered approach. He instead focused on the top 10% of his race, believing that progress would be made via higher education alone, without the manual labor aspect of Washington’s regimen. DuBois rejected Christian faith, became increasingly bitter over time, and eventually joined the Communist party.

What a shame that DuBois gets more attention nowadays than Booker T. Washington. We need an army of Washingtons in our time, dedicated to humility, gratitude, integrity, and hard work. The victimization mentality must disappear from all races if we are to make genuine progress.

Lewis and God’s Severe Mercy

In a post a couple weeks ago, I referenced a new book about C. S. Lewis I was reading. Alister McGrath’s C. S. Lewis, a Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, while not a full biography, nevertheless provides a satisfying interpretation of what motivated Lewis at various stages of his life. Its primary value, though, is his analysis of the significance of the variety of Lewis’s writings, noting how he shifted his emphases throughout his literary career. He began as an apologist and science fiction author, then altered his focus toward the imaginative world we all know as Narnia, as well as the engaging novel Till We Have Faces and commentaries on Biblical themes.

Beyond that, I appreciated the insight into his academic world—the rigors of daily tutorials, the struggle to research and write the kinds of works required in academia, and the dismay of university politics, which, in his case at Oxford, led to one disappointment after another, as he was always turned down for promotion. This was in spite of his fame and popularity in the wider world. McGrath explains that it was that very popularity that grated on his colleagues. They felt his popular writings were “beneath” him. Ah, the elegant snobbery that emanates from prideful hearts.

After completing this book, I had a great desire to return to another book I hadn’t read for over thirty years. I had often thought I wanted to reread it, but it took the Lewis biography to inspire me to do so. A bestseller in the late 1970s, A Severe Mercy relates a tale that involves Lewis directly. The author, Sheldon Vanauken, shares the true story of his relationship and marriage to Jean, better known as “Davy.” They began as pagans—Vanauken’s own term for them—who sought to selfishly guard their love against all distractions or threats. Gradually, their pagan love is transformed into love for God, which opens the door for a new understanding of godly love for one another.

One of the catalysts for this change is the time they spend in Oxford as graduate students. It is there they come under the influence of a number of Christian authors, the chief of which is Lewis. He befriends the Vanaukens and aids in the regeneration of their minds, helping them see the world through Christian eyes. The book includes a generous sampling of letters from Lewis to Vanauken that were newly revealed at the time of its publication.

The greatest lessons learned, though, come through Davy’s illness and death. Vanauken has a way with words, as befits a disciple of Lewis, and the poignancy of his experience with his wife’s death, the manner in which it teaches him the difference between selfishness and genuine love, and Lewis’s role in helping him to see the death as one of God’s severe mercies, is riveting. There are tears as Vanauken tells the tale, but also joy and the revelation of a closer walk with the God who is mercifully severe with us, for our own good.

I highly recommend these two reads. They engage both the mind and the heart.

An Oasis

As promised, Pondering Principles begins again today. My week away was well worth it. I never even touched a computer the entire time. Cruises are a lot about food, but I tried to limit the intake—somewhat. Working out nearly every morning must have burned some of those calories. At least I’m going to tell myself that.

It was my first time back in Puerto Rico in about four years, and I was glad to renew acquaintances. The door is open again to do some more teaching down there, possibly in November. That would be a fine way to spend Thanksgiving week.

One of the other highlights was a visit to St. Thomas. The views from the hilltops [mountaintops?] were stunning. I don’t use the word “awesome” too often, but it applies to the beautiful waters and architecture.

Yes, I rested, and God provides a rest for us from time to time. This one was needed. Some people are depressed as a cruise winds down; they don’t want to face coming back to “reality.” I don’t have that problem. My reality is from the Lord. He’s given me students to teach, good things to teach them, and a place to call home. The cliché is “count your blessings.” Well, that’s what I’m doing.

Although I didn’t enter cyberworld for a week, I did have time to delve into a new book about C. S. Lewis. I’m three-fourths of the way through and am enjoying it thoroughly. The subtitle is “Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet.” The focus is on Lewis’s writing, both the academic and the popular.

The book also has been an encouragement to me in a strange kind of way. The author details the trials Lewis went through during the late 1940s-early 1950s when the pressure of work, self-doubts, and the burden of taking care of a woman with dementia and a brother who went on alcoholic binges threatened to overwhelm him. He wondered if he would ever again find the time to write, and feared he had lost his edge in being able to write effectively. But what followed all these trials? The Chronicles of Narnia. His greatest success emerged from his darkest days.

As I consider the grading that is yet undone, the pressures of family and health, a manuscript that can’t find a publisher, and my own self-imposed regimen of attempting to say something worthwhile in this blog daily, I can empathize with Lewis. The encouragement is that I know the Lord leads us through every dry place into a refreshing oasis. His work is not done in me. Or you.

I’ve had my physical oasis this past week. The spiritual version is ongoing, if only I will tap into the Giver of all encouragement. I plan to do so.