Archive for the ‘history’ Category

Family Devotion

February 6, 2018

I recently read Nicholas and Alexandra, a history of Russia’s last royal family by Robert Massie. It’s an old (1967) and wonderful account.

The basic story line is simple. Nicholas and Alexandra were kindly, devout and family-oriented people. Their only son Alexei was born with hemophilia, which he inherited from his great-grandmother Queen Victoria of England. This excruciating disease dominated the attention of his loving parents, particularly his mother. She would give anything to see him live. Through her son’s repeated near-death crises, only one person could help–Rasputin, a peasant who posed as a holy man. Rasputin had a mesmerizing personality, and more importantly, his presence or advice did, on several occasions, lead to a miraculous recovery for Alexei. Alexandra came to rely on him, almost desperately. He came to dominate Alexandra, making key government appointments through her, especially when Nicholas was on the field with the army. Due to numerous dreadful decisions, the royal government grew increasingly incompetent, unable to respond to the crises of the world war and the rapid changes in Russian society. The Revolution came. All the royal family were murdered and the tsar replaced by Vladimir Lenin, a man who was certainly not kindly, devout or family-oriented.

Massie suggests that a very different outcome was possible. Russia could have followed England’s lead, with a constitutionally limited monarch, beloved but constrained by Parliament. It did not happen because the Romanovs loved each other too deeply to see clearly. They dug their own grave—and Russia’s—with shovels made of family devotion.

I take it as a warning that it’s not good enough to be good. You have to think.

 

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The Beginning of Globalization

November 27, 2017

Of all the books I’ve read in the last year, I’ve most frequently found myself referring to 1493. I read it by accident–my library had it available for e-book loan when I was headed out on a long trip–and it’s become a marker in my mental map of the world.

1493 is a clever title for a book that might be called The World After Columbus. The author, Charles C. Mann, went up against the fact that Columbus is very out of fashion, seen as an exploiter and a bumbler who pioneered the rape of indigenous Americans. Mann’s point isn’t that Columbus was or wasn’t a great man, it’s that his discovery changed the world as dramatically as any single event in its recorded history. “Columbus’s voyage did not mark the discovery of a new world, but its creation.” (xxiv)

Mann is a very well informed journalist who covers a huge front of information, dallying in interesting stories. Any reader is bound to come away with at least a dozen cocktail-party conversation pieces. Mann does like to entertain, but he’s aiming to expose something bigger: the indisputable fact that a new world began. Trade, both intentional and inadvertent (nobody intended to pass African grasses to the New World), created the world that is recognizably our own, founded on trade and international exploitation, ecological transformation and crisis, the global spread of disease, foods that know no national boundary, and international economics.

I knew about some of the exchange between Europe and the Americas–for example, how American potatoes and corn transformed European diets, and how Bolivian silver enriched Spain while also hollowing out its productive economy. (You could make more investing in ships going to Mexico than in building factories or roads in Spain.) I didn’t know anything about Spain’s beginning trade with China (80 years after Columbus’s discovery), and how that led to a complete transformation of China’s agriculture, a doubling of its population, and ultimately the political crises that destroyed so much of its economy. I also didn’t know that China–which had long looked down on Europe because it offered no product that China really wanted–moved into international trade because of Bolivian silver, which came to comprise China’s entire money supply.

Mann tells a lot about the spread of disease. I knew about cholera and smallpox, which played a large role in decimating populations and enabling their conquest. I didn’t know much about malaria, which is more insidious. Mann has a long discourse on the varieties of malaria and their effects on England and the Americas, including most of what would become the United States. He suggests that malaria played a potent role in the southern colonies’ adopting slavery.

What about horses and cows, which came to America with the conquistadors and quickly transformed the way of life of many native American tribes? What about tobacco? What about rubber? These were plants of little or no importance in their place of origin that became the source of great fortunes–and great ecological transformations–in other places around the globe. What about the rise of slavery, which went from a local practice to a global business that was essential to other global businesses–for example, the production of sugar, which was the source of enormous riches.

Mann effectively portrays the world we know, where everything affects everything whether we like it or not, and transformations occur for good or evil (more likely, both) invisibly and visibly, and on a human level, great riches, great suffering, ecological convulsions and political mayhem are the inevitable result. These forces were at play long before Columbus–think of the Roman Empire, think of the Silk Road–but they exploded globally after Columbus. The world Columbus inadvertently created is our world.

1493 is relevant not by telling us whether to support or oppose globalization but by making it clear how utterly ubiquitous globalization is. It is, literally, in the air we breathe. We can’t stop it, we can only seek to shape it. And because there are so many complicated, interlocking and invisible forces at play, our attempts to shape it will have many unintended consequences.

Adam Smith is best known for his idea of an “invisible hand” shaping the selfish forces of a free-market economy into a benevolent result. A globalized world of the kind the Mann describes is a free-market economy of much wider extent and scale. It does much greater good and evil, and no “invisible hand” appears anywhere. Our human reaction is to try to regulate and legislate, but it is hard to be optimistic that these forces can be regulated effectively–or perhaps at all. Do you have faith in a loving God? The alternative, in the world Columbus created, is to anticipate disaster.

Footsteps of Paul

February 19, 2016

I was in Europe for 2.5 weeks, visiting places I had never seen before, but with no time for tourism. Virtually every waking moment I was chasing interviews with refugees and the people who were helping them. In Berlin I saw the Brandenburg Gate from the window of my bus. Look quick!

The exception was my last day in Greece, when I spent a wonderful afternoon around the Parthenon with Theo Karvounakis and Sokratis Anastasiadis, my delightful and generous hosts from Scripture Union. A friend of theirs is a professional guide, and he took a little time off between gigs to walk me through Mar’s Hill, where Paul preached his famous sermon regarding the Unknown God. (Acts 17:16ff) Mar’s Hill, better known as the Areopagas, is a rounded rock outcrop near the foot of the Parthenon. It’s quite an obvious feature of the terrain. Our guide said that archaeologists have discovered that it had a parapet all around it, so there was only one access to the small forum at the top. That access was a staircase cut out of the rock, still visible today.

“So you are saying,” I asked, “that Paul must have walked up those very stairs.”

“Yes.”

“So if I were to climb up there, I would be walking in the exact place where Paul walked.”

“Yes, but I wouldn’t advise it, it’s very slippery.”

“I’m a mountain guy,” I said. “I will have no problem.”

So here I am with Theo. I can’t quite explain why I got such pleasure from this, but it really was the highlight of my trip.DSC00917 (1)

 

A Different Way

November 17, 2015

For years my friend Fred Prudek has been telling me about the Moravians, an early Protestant missionary community that he much admired. I more or less rolled my eyes. Then, in the providence of God, our daughter moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which was and is the American center for Moravians, and since I am the kind of person who finds history fascinating, I’ve had little choice but to learn about the Moravians.

They established Bethlehem in 1741, coming from Germany to preach the good news to native Americans and to colonists. They lived communally and earned the respect of their fellow Europeans through their skill in various trades, as did other pietist groups that came to the new world with a distinctive religious point of view. What stands out today, however–and did in the 18th century as well–was their respectful treatment of the native Americans.

You can read it in their letters and written accounts, but where it shows most is in  their cemetery. Very recently I walked through that acre of green land in downtown Bethlehem. Leaves had covered the ground, and Popie and I had to use our feet to scrape off each gravestone to read who had died there. They have small gravestones set flat in the ground, all about the same size and all level with each other. Most remarkably, the races are buried together quite promiscuously–Indians, Europeans and Africans. Here is Andrew, a Mohican, here David, one of the first missionaries, here Thomas, an African. Among the 18th century graves there are many native Americans and quite a few Africans. They are all treated the same, and all mixed up together. That may seem trivial, but show me another graveyard like it. (Fred tells me that at another Moravian colony in North Carolina, the local settlers forced the Moravians to dig up all the Africans and move them in the 1830s.)

Through the Revolutionary War the Moravians had extensive, positive interactions with tribes living nearby. Moravian missionaries were welcomed to live in Indian villages, and quite a number of Indians chose to follow the Christian way the Moravians offered and exemplified. (When they did so, they usually moved to a new, separate quarter. There was clear choice involved.)

These hopeful beginnings were all blown away by the ferocious, violent, acquisitive colonists. War waged against them drove the native Americans away, and spoiled any possibility of a different kind of relationship–the kind exemplified today in the Moravian cemetery.

My Promised Land Again

April 17, 2015

I wrote last week about My Promised Land by Ari Shavit, a powerful, emotive history of modern Israel. What struck me most was the recording of Israel’s founding—the evocation of a people on the brink of an abyss, about to be exterminated in eastern countries and assimilated in western countries. The idea of the nation of Israel—Zionism—was anathema to many Jews who saw their salvation in religious identity, not in establishing a state after more than 2,000 years without one. Even if you believed the premise that a Jewish state would transform their situation, was the idea practical? Shavit shows that it was made practical only through a remarkable combination of zealous idealism and ardent pragmatism. He dramatizes real people and real places where extraordinary determination, skill, chutzpah, smarts and risk-taking created a desert miracle, a vital, successful, creative and sometimes joyful country. If a degree of cold cruelty was unavoidably at its heart, Israel was still a remarkable accomplishment.

Shavit mourns this Israeli history—sees it as tragic as well as triumphant—because he thinks the tough and practical unity that built Israel has been splintered, its idealism gone down the drain, its smarts smothered in a senseless macho that is its own enemy. I don’t know much about today’s Israel, so I can’t agree or disagree with Shavit’s analysis. I do know that it struck me as having a parallel in my own country. During much of our history the USA has been highly pragmatic and determined when it faced large national problems. We have been a can-do nation. That has meant facing and solving problems, doing whatever it takes, regardless of our ideological presuppositions and differences. The Depression is a good example. Franklin Roosevelt found traction with approaches that violated many well-established principles of government. The nation—not all the nation, but most of it—threw itself behind what he wanted to do. It’s not clear that people were converted to his ideas about activist government. But they knew they had a problem, and they were willing to put their ideas to one side while they solved it.

I can’t imagine us having the toughness to do that today. We can’t even fix our bridges. Maybe it’s just that we haven’t faced a great enough problem, one that shows us we have no choice but to respond.

**

Shavit’s description of Jewish desperation also reminded me of a much earlier time: the 1st century AD. Then too Israel faced a double threat: assimilation into prosperous Greco-Roman culture, and annihilation by the military power of Rome. Revolutionaries and terrorists—zealots–led a violent response. Other Jews saw their survival in assiduous law-keeping, which would preserve their identity as a separate people. Jesus offered a different solution. He proposed love for enemies and neighbors alike. He insisted on forgiveness seventy times seven. He and his disciples would enter Gentile homes to bless them. Law-keeping would promote love and sacrifice, not separation. They would heal and cast out demons, but never take up a sword. They would willingly give their lives.

If you see this through the lens of private religion, as Protestants (and a good many Catholics) have been eager to do, it’s not so offensive. A few nice and harmless individuals don’t rock the boat much. But Jesus addressed not a collection of individuals, but the nation of Israel. He came to be King. What he proposed dealt with personal sin, but also Israel’s sin, which according to all the prophets had led to its loss of identity and its subjugation by foreign powers. Jesus proposed his way as the nation’s way—and as the nation’s salvation.

Most of the Jews of that day couldn’t see it. It was too radical, too dependent on miracle. They chose either law-keeping separatism or war-making—much as did Jews in the 20th century. In the first century, the war-making led to national catastrophe. Modern Israel seeks to undo that catastrophe.

I don’t know whether that second attempt will succeed. It’s early: the nation of Israel has been with us less than threescore years and ten. Thinking about it, however, sharpens my awareness of how radical a course Jesus followed and bids me follow. It goes against our most basic instincts to choose the cross. Think of offering that pathway to Israel today. They are not much more likely to accept it than they were the first time.

Two thousand years later, it’s still too soon to say whether Jesus’ movement will succeed. That’s where faith comes in.

My Promised Land

April 7, 2015

Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel is a wonderful and troubling book, a history of modern Israel that uses carefully researched profiles to tell Israel’s story and pose its dilemmas. Shavit is a secular Zionist and a journalist who writes for Haaretz. He begins the story of Israel with his own great grandfather, Herbert Bentwich, an English Zionist who visited Palestine in 1897 to test the possibilities of establishing Jewish colonies. Shavit paints vivid pictures of the early kibbutz movement. He describes in detail the men who fought for Israel’s independence in 1948, and carefully draws out what is known of the development of nuclear weapons in the 1960s. Shavit writes beautifully, and his deep love for and pride in his country suffuses the book. He made me feel the severe beauty and energy of modern Israel.

He also looks unblinkingly at Israel’s cruelty. As he sees it, Israel was a necessary and astonishing innovation intended to solve the problem of the Jews of Europe—under deadly persecution in the east (which would lead to the Holocaust) and at risk of complete assimilation in the west. If the Jews as a people were to survive, they needed a place of their own. He makes a strong case that Israel was necessary, and he clearly believes that it is necessary today. But with equal insistence he describes the fatal flaw in the vision: Palestine was already the home of somebody else. The early Zionists (including his great grandfather) chose not to see Palestinians; the later Zionists saw them and recognized that they could not coexist. Some of the most harrowing passages in My Promised Land describe the actions and thoughts of men whom Shavit clearly admires as they steeled themselves to cruelty and murder, forcing Palestinian Arabs out of their ancestral villages and towns.

Given what his ancestors did, Shavit sees no possibility of peace. He does not blame Palestinians for hating Israel, and he does not blame Israelis for defending their land at all costs. He believes that Israel’s current occupation of Palestinian territory is a policy disaster, as well as a humanitarian outrage, but he understands that it is rooted in well-grounded fear. “On the one hand, Israel is the only nation in the West that is occupying another people. On the other hand, Israel is the only nation in the West that is existentially threatened. Both occupation and intimidation make the Israeli condition unique. Intimidation and occupation have become the two pillars of our condition.” Try as he may, he cannot see a good future in this combination. He has only an amorphous hope that somehow the genius of Israelis will find a way, again, to preserve their country. Otherwise Israel’s triumph can only lead to tragedy for Jews as well as for Palestinians.

Shavit is a passionate man with strong ideas, and he writes with verve. Some of course disagree, and he allows them, including Palestinians and religious Jews, to have their word, which he treats with respect. He is impressively fair-minded, a journalist who asks probing questions and listens to the answers. All the same it is his passionate conviction—his fear, his pride, his hope, his shame—that makes him a wonderful dialogue partner in trying to understand the past, present and future of Israel. I learned a lot from reading this book, and it sparked many thoughts about the meaning of life and history far removed from the triumph and tragedy of modern Israel. More on that in future posts.

Providential History

February 22, 2015

I am in the midst of writing a book-length journalistic history of Biblica, a 206-year-old organization. I won’t go into detail here—you’ll have to read the book—but suffice it to say that Biblica has gone through its highs and lows, its ins and outs, its days of triumph and unmitigated disaster. That’s probably true of any 200-year-old organization (there aren’t all that many) or for that matter any life.

My explicit purpose in writing this book is to tell the story truthfully but in such a way that a thread of purpose is revealed. That is to say, I am trying to marshal the facts in such a way that somebody who lived through them will recognize as accurate, while at least suggesting a note of redemption even in the catastrophes.

Some would look askance at the effort, as shamelessly manipulative. I grant you, it is not the same thing as an academic history, which ideally tells a story without fear or favor, as it were, and does not present God’s purpose except as an idea residing in someone’s brain. (Though even academic historians may look for themes to emerge from their telling of the story, and suggest what can be seen beyond the facts.)

But even granted that my purpose is a good one, it is not all that easy. Life is messy. Sometimes it appears to be a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The only thing I can prove is that Biblica survived its crises. Whether they had meaning, whether God was overseeing and protecting, and more importantly, how God was overseeing and protecting, I can only theorize cautiously and hopefully. It’s never absolutely clear. Sometimes you have to use considerable ingenuity to see some purpose in what happened.

I tell you this because it makes me think of an old and important question: whether there is such a thing as “providential history,” and whether Christian historians are obligated to write it. We have some very noteworthy historians who are Christians—George Marsden, to mention just one. But he, and many of his Christian colleagues, are sometimes assaulted by their fellow Christians for their failure to write “providentially” about subjects like Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening. That is to say, they don’t attribute what happened to God. They focus on the mechanics of events, the human activities, rather than the divine purpose that lies behind them.

I’ve always sided with the historians on this one, mainly because I like to make up my own mind about what God was doing. Just the facts, ma’am. But now I find myself writing a sort-of providential history, and it feels very reasonable to me. I’ve concluded, tentatively, that there are two layers to history, and that it’s possible to write one or the other with perfect grace and integrity.

I get this from something important I learned while writing Miracles: everything is natural and supernatural at the same time. People desperately attempt to separate them, demanding to know, for example, “Did God heal that boy? Or did the doctors do it?” I learned that is not an either/or question. God is involved in everything that happens, sometimes obviously, sometimes subtly. When it’s obvious, and surprising, we call it a miracle. But God is no less involved at other times. (Yes, this does lead us to the problem of evil. What doesn’t?)

At the same time, even what we call miracle happens at a natural level. It happens to stuff, which is composed of particles, and the behavior of those particles is a natural phenomenon subject to scientific description and analysis.

So with history: it is at the same time both natural and supernatural.

Just as it is appropriate for scientists to describe the behavior of some organism without ascribing purpose to the organism, so it is appropriate for historians to write “just the facts,” without bringing God into it. On the other hand, there is a place for writing history through the eyes of faith. This kind of history will always be tentative, for the only fully trustworthy providential history is in the Bible. (That is, it is for those like me who believe the Bible is inspired by God.) But those who bring faith to the facts may venture hypotheses about what makes sense of the facts. (That is how Hebrews 11:1 describes faith: “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”) The ultimate point of history is surely to make some sense of what happened. We can as well try that using the idea of God’s care as any other.

This applies to making sense not just of history but of our own lives. The unexamined life is not worth living, someone said, and whether or not that is true, there is beauty and nobility (and inevitability?) in trying to see some sense in your personal history. Is there a pattern? Is there meaning? Those questions will always lead to the question of God, in the end: is there one? Does he care? Is he involved? And can we have any idea at all of what he would care about, and how he might be involved?

Hemingway the Creep

November 19, 2014

I have been reading about the Spanish Civil War lately, partly because it is my daughter’s specialty and partly because it is so very interesting in its own right. It was the Vietnam war of its day—passionately argued over, saturated by media coverage, attracting celebrities. Also very deadly and very disheartening.

One excellent, gossipy book is Amanda Vaill’s Hotel Florida: Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War, which tells the story of the war through a number of more-or-less celebrity couples that experience it: Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn among them. Hemingway was cheating on his wife and doing his macho bluster thing, writing dispatches that suggested he was seeing a lot more combat close up than he ever did. As Vaill writes of him—in this and also in Everybody Was So Young—Hemingway was a truly repellant human being. As to cheating on his (several) wives it does not seem that he was promiscuous so much as he was a born cheater, in a self-glorifying, self-justifying way. He trashed many of his friends in print, including people who had helped him a lot and put up with him a lot. He was vicious with those who (he thought) crossed him. He drank too much, bragged constantly, thought it was a great thing to knock somebody down. Ick.

But my daughter reminded me, as I went on about this, that he was also quite a writer. I hadn’t read him since I was in college. I remembered good things regarding the depressing The Sun Also Rises, but I was thinking that the rest was mostly Hemingway’s macho schtick. Which it is, I think. But with my daughter’s encouragement I re-read For Whom the Bell Tolls. It is a wonderful book, probably the best war book I have ever read. I can only conclude that Hemingway, when he stopped talking and sat down to write, became a much more contrite and controlled human being.

It’s a small reminder that people of great talent are human beings, and that even dreadful human beings may have something truly great in them. I like this quote from Philo of Alexander: “Be gentle with each person you meet, for each of them is fighting a great battle.”  

Science and Religion Intersect

October 21, 2014

My interview with Owen Gingerich, a retired Harvard astronomer and historian, is on Christianity Today’s website. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/october-web-only/when-science-loses-sight-of-god.html

Gingerich is a wonderfully warm, inviting figure. In his book God’s Planet he analyzes the work of Copernicus, Darwin and Hoyle, showing how Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of “non-overlapping magisteria” for science and religion doesn’t really hold. Gingerich is a subtle thinker, and he doesn’t describe anything in a black-white, slam-dunk-you’re-wrong manner. His love for science really shines through. So, too, does his Christian faith, which is expressed gently but with great confidence.

What Makes a War

October 13, 2014

I just finished reading The War that Ended Peace, by Margaret MacMillan, a history of the events leading to WWI. She asks the obvious question, how all of Europe could enter such a war apparently without any reason.

She gives multiple explanations:

–the rise of social darwinism that valued struggle and even war as an improving process;

–the increase of nationalism and a valuing of national honor, so that both leaders and public looked for a chance to demonstrate national valor and could not countenance backing away from conflict;

–the intricate alliances formed on behalf of security that caused one assassination—which concerned Austria-Hungary but hardly anyone else—to ripple into world war;

–the persistent success of the international community in averting crises in the decade before, resulting (ironically) in a blithe confidence that peacemaking was inevitable;

–a mistaken analysis that war would necessarily be brief, because no economy could sustain its costs more than a few months;

–and the misfortune that put some unstable and callow leaders at the head of several countries, at the same moment that more cautious leaders fell out of power for various reasons.

MacMillan paints a clear picture of the forces in each of half a dozen countries, but she insists that these forces did not determine what happened. Ultimately, the decision to go to war came down to the will—or the weakness—of a handful of leaders, who pushed for war or failed to push against it. They all went into it blind—either not recognizing the edge of the cliff as they approached it, or believing it to be an opportunity for glory or greater security rather than the absolute horror that the war proved to be.

I found it chilling to absorb the reasons for war in such detail. The lesson we have absorbed so well from WWII—that you must stop the Hitlers of the world while they are still weak—is very different from the lesson we might learn from WWI—that it is possible to drift into war in a spasm of enthusiasm or obligation and then find it a tar pit that cannot be escaped. The hard part is to decide which lesson applies best to any particular situation–to the rise of the Islamic State, for example.