Politics & Society

 

 

Stealing Jesus: How the Religious Right Betrays Christianity,  Bruce Bawer

***  “Go to Jesus and Ask”

 

Who Really Cares?  The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism – Who Gives, Who Doesn’t, and why it Matters, Arthur Brooks

**** “Bleeding Heart Conservatives”

 

Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis, Jimmy Carter

* “Republicans are Sinners” 

 

Architects of the Culture of Death, Donald De Marco

**** “Dancing with Wolves” 

 

Architects of the Culture of Death, Donald De Marco

**** “Dancing with Wolves” 

 

American Fascists: The Religious Right and its War on America, Chris Hedges

* “Why, oh why, does my flesh creep?”

 

Ariana Huffington

“Another Loud-Mouthed Fanatic”

 

The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis

***** “Bio-engineers, read this book!”

 

***** Ten Big Lies About America, Michael Medved

“Effective, Mostly Accurate, a bit Over-the-Top”

 

The Hand of God, Nathanson

***** “Needs more negative reviews”

 

Return to Modesty:  Wendy Shalit

**** “Love Beats Lust, After All”

 

Jesus Land: A Memoir, Julia Scheeres

***** “A Daisy Cracks the Concrete” 

 

Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta, Gore Vidal

** “Paranoia on a Silver Platter”

 

Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the birth of Religious Freedom in America , Steven Waldman

***** “Beyond Propaganda”

 

Stranger at the Gate: to be Gay and Christian in America, Mel White

** “Riveting Story, Doubtful Argument”

 

Coming of Age in Samoa, Margaret Mead

** “Gilligan’s Island on a Friday Night”

 

Won by Love: Norma McCorvey, Jane Roe of Roe vs. Wade, Speaks out for the Unborn as she shares her new conviction for life

***** “Can I buy the movie rights?”

 

Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, Michelle Goldberg

** “The Sky is Falling!”

 

Architects of the Culture of Death, Donald De Marco

**** “Dancing with Wolves” 

 

 

 

 

Politics & Society

 

 

Stealing Jesus: How the Religious Right Betrays Christianity,  Bruce Bawer

***  “Go to Jesus and Ask”

 

Let me begin by laying my cards on the table. I'm a Christian apologist; my most recent book, The Truth Behind the New Atheism, is a response to the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens from an "orthodox" perspective. I see myself very much in the center of the Christian tradition -- my favorite writers having lived in 2nd Century Alexandria and Greece, 4th Century Hippo, 17th Century Beijing, 19th Century Russia, and 20th Century Oxford, and few from the American South. (Apart from Walker Percy.) But sociologically, I'm "evangelical." I grew up in these churches I've visited hundreds of "legalistic" (in Bawer's terminology) churches around the world, and have been welcomed as a speaker in dozens of denominations.

So I know something about the subject. And like Bawer, I have my biases.

In some ways, "Stealing Jesus" is an excellent book. The author is intelligent, reflective, and insightful. There's a lot of truth in his critique . . . though some of it may boomerang back on him. This book is miles ahead of a more recent best-seller by a New York Times journalist that attempts the same thing -- Chris Hedges' bathetic and hysterical "American Fascism." For one thing, Bawer is a much better writer. And the dangers he warns of are generally more realistic. I get the feeling he takes his "Church of love" rhetoric seriously, and is really trying to understand those he derides.

Nevertheless, the book ultimately fails badly. First, what Bawer says of Frank Perretti (though he should read Peretti's The Visitation
, in some ways a stronger attack on legalism than his own!), ultimately comes back to haunt him:

"It's a world in which everything and everyone divides up readily into two categories -- black and white, satanic and godly."

Conservative Christians, according to Bawer, see foreigners as "very much the other." (Don't we all? But talk to a few foreign students, and chances are you'll find many have been befriended by evangelicals -- my wife was once one.) These folks have a "loathing of sex."  Pastors treat church members like children, and teach them to put on a front. Believers are even taught not to love.  Megachurches are "more of an entertainment than a spiritual excursion."

Every serious observer knows these complaints are sometimes true.  But we also know that often they aren't.  One can find churches, and Christians, to justify all these complaints. But that's called "stacking the deck," and that's really what Bawer is doing in this book.

Read Arthur Brooks' "Who Really Cares" for a more objective summary of Christian compassion in America.  Brooks shows that believers both in the alleged "Church of Love" and the alleged "Church of Legalism" are in fact far more compassionate than those who don't go to church at all.  (In terms of giving money, time, and even blood to charity, and every other measure of generosity.)

Second, while more fair than Dawkins or Hedges, Bawer can be terribly unfair.  He criticizes James Dobson for promoting a naive picture of 1950s America.  There may be some truth to this criticism.  But it is also true, according to government statistics, that violent crime skyrocketed in the 1960s and 70s, and that far fewer kids today have fathers.  While of course institutionalized racism is rarer today, thank God, isn't Dobson reasonable to decry some of these other trends?

Bawer talks about "spiritual warfare" as if he'd never heard of a metaphor, or assumes conservative Christians are too stupid to maintain the difference between metaphor and reality.  He assumes that Waco or "Christian Identity" are the natural conclusion of conservative Christianity -- though neither is orthodox Christian.  He lists several violent cults, none of them orthodox Christian, then adds, "If anything should amaze us, it is . . . that more legalistic Christians have not chosen to act out in conspicuous and sensational ways."  Bawer sounds disappointed.  Perhaps he should begin to question his assumption that orthodox Christianity belongs in the same category as, say, the Taliban or Heavens' Gate.

It should be a clue to the failure of his hypothesis, when Bawer has to point to non-Christian extremism to buttress his argument.  He says the Taliban is "a terrifying illustration of what can happen when legalistic religion moves from theory to practice."  But might it not make a difference if the theory is different?

What is the relationship between love and law?  Jesus said he did not come to "abolish" the law, but to "fulfill" it.  And is anti-nominalism really an option? Even "liberal" churches have implicit legalisms, after all.  In some churches, driving a Hummer might be frowned on, or flying a Confederate flag, or failing to recycle.  And for "conservative" Christians, laws like "thou shalt not commit adultery" are not merely tacked onto the "law of love," they are an expression of love -- of commitment, kindness, justice, responsibility -- in a certain sphere of life.  It seems to me a more nuanced and cautious discussion of this complex issue is required that this Manichean "light and dark" image of two churches, one committed to righteous love, the other to evil law.

"Before you take the splinter out of your brothers' eye, first take the log out of your own eye."  We can all still learn a lot from Jesus -- gay members of the "Church of love," straight members of the "Church of legalism," and those who are members of none.  What is needed is that we come to Christ willing to die to ourselves, and recognizing that he is lord, and so we might all need to change in fundamental -- though not necessarily fundamentalist -- ways, as he calls us beyond ourselves.

 

 

Who Really Cares?  The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism – Who Gives, Who Doesn’t, and why it Matters, Arthur Brooks

**** “Bleeding Heart Conservatives”

 

America is deeply polarized. This can be seen, if nowhere else, from reviews of this book. The split between parties has morphed into a split between philosophies ("liberal" and "conservative") and increasingly, worldviews (here, "religious" and "secularist.") It has become hard to talk about much of anything fairly across "party lines."

Brooks tries to do so. He does not pull punches: he states the facts clearly and succinctly. But he tries to soften the sting of the blow of his argument by telling anecdotes, including the story of his own journey. He writes in simple language, and anticipates contrary arguments well.

Brooks' own argument is that religious people, and by default conservatives, are more generous than liberals. If you read the critical reviews below, you will not find any that really challenge his main points. In fact, unless he has made his statistics up (which seems highly unlikely), his argument appears essentially incontrovertable. In America, religious people are in every measurable way dramatically more generous than secularists. The same holds true when you compare religious America with secular Europe, or believers in Europe with non-believers. Everyone who reads Dawkins, Harris, Goldberg, Carter, or other often recent attacks on "Jesusland" should read and ponder the facts in this book deeply. It is said that a lie gets halfway around the world before truth puts her shoes on; I hope these facts can outpace the propaganda.

Even a conservative Christian like myself may find some of the contents of this book surprising, though. It appears, for example, that religious non-Christians in America are equally generous. As we interact with the more angry members of the Dawkins / Goldberg faction, I think it would be wrong to adopt a triumphalist or in-your-face attitude about such facts. As Brooks seems to recognize, we need to look deeper than politics, to the value and need of each individual, including those with whom we disagree.

Brooks' argument is pretty straightforward and sometimes a little dry. Brooks helps bring it to life by writing in a conversational style. It's not hard to read, but in the end is basically a bunch of statistics dressed up in words. Still, these are facts that ought to be known.

 

 

Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis, Jimmy Carter

* “Republicans are Sinners” 

 

 

If you don't remember why Jimmy Carter was voted out of office so emphatically, read this book. It's not that he is wrong all the time. It's that he clearly thinks he's not only right, but righteous, and that those who disagree with him are unholy along with deluded. If Carter were not a politician, he would be the kind of preacher who says "we have sinned," when he really means "you."

One of Carter's chief bogeymen in this book is the people he calls "fundamentalists." Indeed, one reviewer implies that those who dislike this book will be mainly "fundamentalists" who "want our country to become a theocracy," along with "rabid Republicans who attack anything democratic." I am neither. In fact, in decades of working with conservative Christians of many denominations, I am not sure I have heard anyone advocate theocracy. Carter, however, argues that Christian theocrats were a key element in the coalition that voted Bush into power. Worse, it seems these wackos see it as their "personal responsibility" to instigate war leading to Armageddon in the Middle East!

I find it deeply irresponsible for a former president to represent his political opponents in such an uncharitable and divisive way (And he wonders where civility in politics went!) While it may be possible to find some nutty Republican who truly thinks like this -- though I haven't, so far -- so one can probably also find seedy characters who voted for Carter. (Not to mention among his friends, like that thug Yasser Arafat.) But to write a book that will be naively accepted as Gospel in many circles abroad "explaining" American foreign policy in this absurd manner is remarkably unstatesman and reckless. The fact is, regime change in Iraq was US policy already under Bill Clinton. Most leading Democrats spoke in favor of overthrowing Saddam. Carter is free to disagree, but to publicly accuse the opposing party of invading Iraq to bring about the end of the world, is not merely uncharitable, it is daft.

I know the image Carter paints of the "religious right" will be attractive to many readers -- looking at reviews below, it is obvious that is one of the book's great selling points. But ask yourself, on what evidence are you assuming the worst about so large a portion of your countrymen? As someone who not only grew up in that sub-culture, but has interacted with conservative Christians from dozens of denominations, I say he is wrong. And I challenge anyone to provide reliable demographic data to support his implied claim that a sizable percentage of Christians favor war in the Middle East in order to fulfill end times scenarios. I have heard NO ONE say that.

Carter also has the gall to blame Bush for the threat North Korea poses in East Asia. Actually, he admits that a "strong argument might be made on both sides." What two sides? On the one hand, the Kim family co-opt, the communist regime that invaded the South, killing millions, tortured or murdered every Christian it got its hands on, blew up a civilian airplane in Burma, kidnapped people at random off beaches in Japan, tunnels under the DMZ, launches missiles over Japan, points others at Seoul, and easily fooled Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton into thinking it closed its nuke program down. Carter admits that a case might be made that this North Korea is to blame for the problems on the Korean peninsula! But he, himself, does not make that case.

Who stands in the opposite scale of Carter's moral equation? The US -- which spent blood and treasure to defend South Korea, allowing it its present freedom and prosperity? He refers instead it seems to the evil Bush administration. And what crime has Bush committed in Korea? He concluded that Carter's deal with the Kim regime was a sham. Kim accepted all the goodies we offered, but did not quite discontinue his nuclear program. Now that the shell game is doubtful, Bush insists that other countries in the area -- and in range of Kim's missiles -- be involved in talks on de-fanging the beast. It seems this president doesn't want a repeat of Carter's earlier possibly potemkin deal: for some strange reason, he is leery of gentlemen's agreements with tyrants and terrorists. While Carter was praising the intelligence of Kim and the beauty of his wife (who didn't vote for Bush, after all), Christians and other non-conformists were being used as human guinea pigs in North Korean prisons.

Pardon the sarcasm. Carter may intend well. But before he lectures the rest of us about morality, he badly needs to examine his own actions. As scholar Joshua Muravchik pointed out, Carter is habitually charitable towards despots like Kim, Arafat, Tito, Castro, and Ceausescu. He just draws the line at the GOP, it seems.

I am not in favor of theocracy, and will be happy to praise democrats for positive foreign policy ideas. (I studied at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, after all!) But I am so glad Jimmy Carter was voted out of office. It is no longer his job to conduct foreign policy. In fact, it is his job NOT to continue running his own amateur one-man state department, undermining official US policy, writing letters to foreign leaders telling them to oppose US policy, and creating misinformation and ill-will towards Americans abroad. Read this book, and find out why the American people had the good sense to send this ex-president packing; and why he should go packing again. Perhaps he should go to New Orleans and build houses.

 

 

Architects of the Culture of Death, Donald De Marco

**** “Dancing with Wolves” 

 

In light of recent reviews, it may be helpful to begin by saying what this book is not about. It is not an apologia for large families. Neither is it an attack on socialism or a defense of such alleged "major" players in the spread of capitalism as El Salvador, Panama, and "Algiers." (The reviewer who suggests this is eloquent, though I think badly deficient in his history -- but this book is not a defense of what he attacks.)

Architects of the Culture of Death
describes the lives, thoughts, and influence of 23 "great thinkers" who helped make our world. These include the famous -- Nietzche, Darwin, Marx, Sartre, Freud, Margaret Mead, Kinsey, "Dr. Death," Peter Singer -- the relatively unknown, and those somewhere in between (Ayn Rand, Margaret Sanger). What they share in common is they expanded on the intellectual and Promethian tendencies of the Enlightenment, attempted to reinvent human nature, usually had troubled (or frankly perverse) personal lives, and (the authors think) made the world a much worse place. Each chapter tells an individual story, usually rather sad, and draws a moral. The stories strung together are meant to show how Western civilization moved from a "pro-life" Christian perspective, to a perspective that diminishes and disfigures humanity, ending in abortion, infanticide, sexual loneliness, and of course the totalitarian regimes of the 20th Century. But most of the lines lead towards Western secularism.

The authors are not "morons" or "idiots," as the reviewer of apocalyptic temperment suggests. They are intelligent and informed, if sometimes simplistic. I'm not sure Darwin deserves the honor of being in the company of some of the deeply sinister folks who haunt these pages. De Marco and Wiker seem a bit more cautious and thoughtful than Paul Johnson in his scathing and not always fair Intellectuals, but never as profound as C. S. Lewis in his classic Abolition of Man, or as historically detailed as From Darwin to Hitler. But the territory covered is similar, and readers may find these books worthwhile too.

True, fools, madmen, and false Messiahs -- those Jesus called "wolves" -- are always with us. But there is a heart of darkness in the Enlightenment project that wars with whatever good once guided Western civilization out of its periodic madnesses, and bids (it seems at times) to snuff the light of humanity from our souls. You may disagree with the authors about the source of that darkness, or the nature of the Light. You may feel they preach too much. You may argue there are other threats to worry about, as there are. But clearly, overpopulation and greedy businessmen are not our deepest dangers; human nature itself may be up for grabs. It may take special courage for "progressives" to read these stories and honestly entertain whatever truth can be found in De Marco and Wiker's warnings. But for those willing to face such criticism, the rewards may be greatest. As Proverbs says, "he who regards reproof is prudent."

 

 

Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, Michelle Goldberg

** “The Sky is Falling!”

 

Michelle Goldberg thinks the Religious Right is out to create theocracy in America. She tours the outbacks of Suburbistan to interview members of this strange religious tribe, and report to, I suppose, other secular journalists from the Bronx who haven't met any for themselves.

This appears to be the new fad in paranoia. Kevin Phillips, Sam Harris, and even Jimmy Carter just wrote books making roughly the same claim. I'll give Goldberg this: she knows more than Harris, at least, and she's not as grating as Carter. She did get out and talk to people. She even admits she liked most of them. (Qualifying herself by pointing out that she also liked people she met in the wild and crazy Middle East.)

The first serious problem with this book is simple: Goldberg doesn't know what she's talking about. I grew up in evangelical churches, and have been involved with Christians belonging to dozens of denominations for the past 45 years. Goldberg tries to catch up in a quick blur of travel, but it's like she's traveling through a foreign country. For example, she makes the absurd claim that there were only ten churches with 2,000 or more members in the whole country in 1970. She makes the Presbyterian Church in America sound like some ultra-insidious organization. I grew up in the denomination, and had no idea it was so exciting -- no one even told us to vote Republican!

Goldberg's thesis is complete twaddle. I have never met an American Christian who wants to get rid of the Constitution and create a theocracy, and have been in hundreds of evangelical churches, urban and rural, of many denominations. Jesus said "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's." As historians who have studied the issue know, that advice has had a long and fruitful history in Christian thought, helping slowly form Western pluralism. A state religion is the very last thing most of us want.

Goldberg is young and ignorant. She seems to think everything good in Western culture began with the Enlightenment, and that the Enlightenment occurred in 1973. Judging by the topics she covers, her real fear is not that Christians will shred the Constitution, but roll back some of the judicial and social "advances" of the past 30 years. Most of the book is about sex: abortion, gay rights, and promiscuity in general. Here Goldberg is right to think we would like to "roll back the clock," or forward, depending on which direction you think we should go. But if she thinks significant numbers of Christians want to reform society beyond Constitutional bounds, or other than through reason and the ballot box, I challenge her to prove it with some real evidence, rather than the series of out-of-context statements and connect-the-dots inuendos that obfuscates this book.

As for the reader who warns darkly about the words "In God we trust" in Mississippi schools, I don't suppose she's looked at American money lately? She talks ominously about the southern judge who displayed the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. Never mind the fact that the state Supreme Court, made up mostly of conservative Christians I believe, ordered it removed. Folks, anyone left or right, Christian or atheist, who wants to select facts like that to prove a particular case and work himself or herself up into a fine lather of paranoia, can do so any day of the week and twice on Sundays. It's called stacking the deck.

The second main problem with this book is that Goldberg does not argue issues. Preaching entirely to the choir, she treats serious differences about the meaning of American democracy as if those who disagreed with her were some kind of sociological outlier group from Mars, and never even tries to persuade her readers that she is right on the issues. She explains that the book was born in a conversation with her agent, and it shows.

I think Christianity helped create Western freedoms, and that liberty is part of God's modus operandi. I have stood in front of hundreds of conservative Christians and said the same, and no one has stoned me yet. Goldberg can disagree if she likes; it's a free country, and God willing will remain so. But she needs to get at least a minimal grasp of Christian thought before she can begin to do so intelligently.

I guess we can expect more books on the subject. If any other secularists have similar ambitions, please do your homework! First, immerse yourself in the primary documents, the New Testament. (Which Goldberg may or may not have heard of.) Then read the Church Fathers -- Augustine in particular, and Justin Martyr. Do some Pascal, and John Locke, maybe John of Paris Then read Rodney Stark's four volume set on the influence of Christianity, Chesterton and Lewis, sure, Francis Schaeffer, and magazines like First Things and Books and Culture. If you're going to say something about "faith," (Harris made a total fool of himself on this issue), please read my anthology on faith and reason at christthetao.com.

Then go ask ordinary Christians. "Do you want to get rid of the Constitution?" "Do you think America should be a theocracy?" "Have you ever heard of Rushdooney?" "Do you secretly admire the Ayatollah Khomeini?" Prepare for some interesting facial expressions. Stones, you don't need to worry about.

 

 

American Fascists: The Religious Right and its War on America, Chris Hedges

* “Why, oh why, does my flesh creep?”

 

Of the some 300 books I've reviewed at Amazon -- and I disagreed with half of them -- this may be the worst. Let me (begin to) count the ways:

(1) The writing is pure schlock. Hedges makes bold assertions -- Dobson is a fascist, evangelicals are totalitarians, conservative Christianity is all about mind control and subjugation of women -- gives a single anecdote, then fills page after page with meandering psycho-babble.  How does a graduate from the Harvard Divinity school become an authority on Freud?  Don't they teach them to qualify, specify, or avoid sweeping generalizations at the New York Times?

If you like rigorously defined claims, backed up by strong evidence and clear logic, this book will drive you crazy.

Want an ill-informed hatchet job on Christianity? Read Harris or Dawkins: their books are at least well-written.

(2) Hedges accuses the "religious right" of hatred, but I've never seen anything so one-sided and uncharitable from any Christian writer that I can recall.  Hatred radiates from every page of this book.

(3) Hedges defines "fascism" so vaguely (admitting up-front his definition is self-contradictary, as if to pre-empt criticism), that it could apply to anyone or no one.  Whole chapters of this book seem to have nothing to do with his thesis.  So what if James Kennedy teaches people to use canned evangelistic techniques?  Fascism is supposed to be about storm-troopers and concentration camps, not campy religious come-ons.

(4) Hedges makes liberal use of the "heurmeneutics of suspicion."  "Anything you say can and will be used against you." Mother Theresa would come out looking like a Nazi after he was done with her.

Full disclosure. I am (broadly speaking) one of Hedges' targets.  I'm Christian, generally vote Republican, and am fairly conservative. I grew up among conservative Christians -- I've visited over 300 fellowships of one kind or another around the world, and my family and friends all belong to this sub-culture.

You might take that as a reason to reject my review as "sour grapes." But it also means I know this group of people -- what they think, what they want -- far better than Hedges, Goldberg, Harris, Phillips, or Dawkins do.  While I am not objective of course, I have reviewed many books by atheists, communists, Buddhists, Hindus, gays, Muslims, and all sorts of other people, and usually find something good to say. I certainly don't deny that there are flaky Christians.  But as a generalization about the Christian community, this book is the vilest slander.  It is demogogic, paranoid, and deeply dishonest.  It is also one of the most tedious books I have ever opened -- like listening to a sermon by a malevolent elderly pastor who thinks he is profound because he is vague, and thinks he is charitable because he uses words like charity, even while he tries (in his vague way) to cut the throats of people he hates.  I can't help thinking of the Grimm story of the boy whose flesh would not creep, try as he might.  "Why, oh why, does not my flesh creep?"  Read this book, kid.

 

 

Ariana Huffington

* “Another Loud-Mouthed Fanatic”

 

Some books you need to read through thrice, learn a new language, study a two new scientific disciplines, and then sit and think for ten years, before you know whether the author is a genius, or full of beans. Others you can pick off the shelf and tell in a ten minute skim.

This book appears to belong to the latter category.

I opened to the section on "Global Warming." Within a single paragraph, I learned that (1) Glaciers in Alaska are melting within a single decade; (2) Native animals are dying off en masse; and (3) Native villages are disappearing, all due to Global Warming.

As it happens, I grew up partly in Southeast Alaska. Two years ago I returned to the town I lived in, and visited a famous glacier less than two miles from our home. In 30 years, the glacier had retreated a quarter of a mile; about 1/40th of its total length. The previous century, it had retreated two more miles or so; so apparently its retreat has actually slowed down a bit. Of the 30-odd glaciers in that Ice Field (the Juneau Ice Field), all but two were retreating; but no serious glaciers seem to have simply disappeared the last three decades, let alone one. Maybe Huffington is talking about some glacier in the Brooks Range; but it sounds like the sort of vague, blanket propaganda you get from someone who doesn't have the faintest clue of what she's talking about.

The implication that native animals are dying off en masse reinforces that impression. Bears seem to have taken over the town I lived in; we saw more in a few days (in two recent visits) than I did in years while living there, sometimes. Wolves, cariboo, deer, dall sheep, mountain goats -- Alaska is not suffering from a wild animal shortage. But of course her comment was so indefinite and vague, that it could mean anything -- again, she sounds like some hysterical woman talking on a subject she's totally clueless about. Perhaps she meant polar bears, which were no doubt happy to see the Arctic Ocean freeze pretty solidly this winter; the seals and belugas may have been ambivalent.

As for Native villages disappearing because of Global Warming, I'd like to know exactly how that's supposed to be happening. The last two years, Southeast Alaska has had unusually COLD winters. And I think that's been true of Fairbanks and Anchorage, too. But even if the temperature in some Central Alaskan burgh did skyrocket from an average 30 below zero in January, to say 25 below, exactly why that would wipe out whole villages, it is hard to say, and details are not provided. Lots of Alaskan natives survive here in Seattle, without visibly overheating.

The truth is, "native" villages have been under stress for a long time, now -- from globalization, not global warming. Even Dr. Johnson seemed to notice a precursor of this phenomena during his jaunt through Scotland with James Boswell. Today, villages across East Asia are full of old people, as youths go to the cities to work. The same thing has been happening among native tribes of North America for a long time.

Leafing through the rest of the book, it appears to be much the same. This woman hates a bunch of people, and stacks a bunch of cards to make them sound vile, stupid, evil, and a threat to the planet. Might as well be Ann Coulter, except she's a tad less witty. Could be a female Michael Savage. One rude, ill-informed ranter is as good (or bad) as another. If that's the sort of thing you enjoy, bon appetite -- I think I'll look for a book written by someone who actually knows something.

 

 

The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis

***** “Bio-engineers, read this book!”

 

A timely and prophetic defense of the authority of moral absolutes. (Prophetic not in the sense of foreseeing the future -- though a little of that too -- but of boldly speaking unpopular truths to a culture that sorely needs to hear them.) Just a few months ago Francis Fukuyama actually used the phrase "abolition of man" in a positive way to describe the effect of upcoming advances in genetic engineering and computer technology on the human race. God save us from ourselves.

The Puget Sound reader who, in an otherwise cogent critique, complained that Lewis' use of the word "Tao" to describe traditional morality is "presumptuous," couldn't be more wrong. The word's original non-metaphorical meaning (road or path) was first expanded by Confucius (not Lao Zi), who used it in precisely that sense. ("Our Master's Tao is simply this: conscientiousness and consideration.") In Lao Zi, though some passages can be interpretted as antinomian (if you favor letter over spirit), I think that as with Jesus, it was not goodness Lao Zi meant to rebuke, but people who think they can legislate it. Indeed, the history of Taoism nicely illustrates Lewis' thesis about the universality of the moral code. By the end of the second century, mainstream Daoism was interpreting Lao Zi's attack on moral rules to mean you need to follow the right rules. By the Fifth Century lists of sins appear that could have been written by a Southern Baptist preacher with Sierra Club leanings: "The sin to throw food or drink into fresh water. . . to eat by yourself when among a group. . . to abort children or harm the unborn . . to be nasty to beggars. . . to worship ghosts and spirits." (!) Yes, there are differences, as Lewis admitted, yet the similiarities are not "superficial," but show morality is universal truth rather than an arbitrary convention.

How great is the danger Lewis writes of? I am not sure. But certainly this remains a timely warning against relativism, a reductionist approach to man and to nature, and all the sordid machinations of realpoliticians and social engineers around the world. My only serious complaint is the book too short. ....

 

Won by Love: Norma McCorvey, Jane Roe of Roe vs. Wade, Speaks out for the Unborn as she shares her new conviction for life

***** “Can I buy the movie rights?”

 

Just kidding. The movie industry would hand over Hollywood Hills to the Southern Baptists for a retreat center before it made a film out of this book. But what a story! As fascinating as the basic outline is -- Roe becomes friends with Operation Rescue personal, believes in Jesus and turns against abortion -- the details are even more fascinating. This dramatic, personal, and very frank book is not just about abortion. It is about a human being whose heart begins to melt under the love of her neighbors and "enemies." It is wonderful drama, with characters and dialogues too good to have been invented. And unlike most Hollywood movies, there are some real heroes in this one.

The story is extremely well-told. The co-author seems to have done a good job of allowing Norma to speak in her own voice, and she doesn't hide her flaws, hurts, or biases, or idiosyncricies. I think anyone who is interested in the topic of abortion, or just wants to read a fascinating spiritual pilgrimage, should read this book. Then give it to a friend.

Apart from abortion, one of the most unsettling things about the story Ms. McCorvey tells is the injustice and bigotry with which the press, courts, and even the police treated Operation Rescue. It makes you wonder if, for all our history of free speech, our American love of freedom runs as deep in our veins, and is as secure, as we would like to think.

 

Coming of Age in Samoa, Margaret Mead

** “Gilligan’s Island on a Friday Night”

 

Coming of Age in Samoa is a pleasantly-written South Sea fantasy, heavy with the author's social agenda upon it. If you buy the agenda, apparently you can hardly help like the book. (See reviews below.)  Even if I bought the agenda (and it is hard for me to look at American society and say the sexuality Mead encouraged has made people entirely free of guilt or conflict), I would still choke on her dishonesty.  But as they say in the anthro business, different strokes for different folks.

Some of the defenses of this book below are hilarious. "Sure, it's largely untrue. But it reads well!" (And here I thought it was supposed to be science.)  "It stimulated my thinking about culture!  Mead really did interview thirty live Samoans!  (In some language or other.) "Besides, what scholarship from that era would not sound like fiction today?"  (Uh, honest scholarship?  Do you want a book list?)

The interesting thing about this book, to me, is the way it illustrates human self-deception, in particular the hubris of those who claim to speak for "Science."  Being interested in such curiosities, for me personally the book was worth buying.  Mead's sexual fantasies are not the only instance in the 20th Century in which anthropologists sought to throw out "religious dogma" in favor of "scientific" new theories of their own cultivation.  As pleasant as an idyllic trip to the islands may be, those for whom such theories hold charm should remember that honest scholarship and imagination are two different things, that vacations in Fantasy Island usually cost something, and that the one who takes the vacation is not always the person who pays the bill.

 

***** Ten Big Lies About America, Michael Medved

“Effective, Mostly Accurate, a bit Over-the-Top”

 

Recently, I was sitting in a pub in Oxford with a friend from India. He seems to find me, an American who did not share in the general "euphoria" in the UK over Obama's election, a rather exotic creature. But he made an interesting suggestion: why not look at the election of Obama, even if you don't welcome it, as a chance to reinvent what it means to be an American Christian, in a way that will connect more deeply with the world at large?

His challenge was still in the back of my mind when I read this book.

The years of American hegemony are now ending, and China and India will soon take positions on the world stage in some proportion to their vast populations. Witnessing how broadly many of the "lies" Medved describes are believed outside the US, I'd love to give Chinese and Indian friends a book like this and say: "See what America has been, at its best, for the world. As your power grows, try to emulate what you can of our successes, or do us one better."

Most of Medved's arguments are solid. He cites leading experts as well as opponents to make his case, and I think generally gets his facts right. (Notice that critics so far generally depend on vague complaints, unable it seems to point to specific errors.) Among other things, he argues that: America has seldom been as nasty to the Indians as is often claimed. The Founding Fathers were less secularist than supposed. (I wish he'd given both sides here, though -- as Steven Waldmon does in Founding Faith.) Big Business does help the country. America has seldom been truly imperialist, and has done the world a lot of good. And morality rises and falls; "a dizzying roller coaster of steep ups and downs, zigzags, climbs and reverses, and even loop-the-loops."

Medved carefully limits his claims, then backs them up with copious relevant facts. Many of his facts and anecdotes are quite interesting -- McKinley's prayer for the Phillipines, the story of how "America the Beautiful" was written, the size of houses in the 1950s compared to our "supersized" homes of today.

In the end, though, Medved is a bit too triumphalist to wish his book into the hands of Indian or Chinese friends. Sometimes he simply protests too much. Granted there was no official American policy of genocide. Granted that most Indians deaths came from disease, that others married out rather than being murdered, even that Indian cultures were "savage" in some sense. Still, the fact is, we wound up with the land (just as China ended up with Tibet, and India with Nagaland), and they wound up with treaties for half of almost extinct salmon runs. Is self-justification really the right tone to take? Having heard the same tone, and some of the same arguments, from Chinese about Tibet, I feel a bit uncomfortable with them. I would also have liked to have seen a more positive statement from Medved on the role native peoples were to play in America, culturally as well as in terms of territory.

To some extent, Medved's "American exceptionalism" cuts us off from others -- from our European roots, from human tradition as a whole. (Sociologist Rodney Stark gives a much more nuanced reading of what went into American success -- most of which is not unique to America.)

I believe America has done a great deal of good in the world. But pride comes before a fall, for countries as well as individuals. One thing that typifies nations at their greatest periods of growth -- Japan in the late 19th Century, China during the Tang and today, America at the revolution -- is a combination of confidence, and openness to outside ideas.

The challenge for conservatives, and for Christians, is to find a way of affirming our ideals, to seek reform on the model of Burke, Jefferson, Reagan, or St Paul, yet to do so in a way that helps us develop a fuller appreciate of the God-given beauties and truths in other traditions as well. Medved does seem to appreciate good in other cultures to some extent, but is unable to articulate his patriotism, and how it relates to the riches humanity shares in common, in what I found to be a fully satisfying manner. This is a generally excellent book, full of useful information, and an important answer to unfair attacks on the American heritage; but infused with a less than fully satisfying philosophy of patriotism. Maybe Medved should read G. K. Chesterton.

 

 

The Hand of God, Nathanson

***** “Needs more negative reviews”

 

C. S. Lewis once wrote, "For many healthy extroverts, self-examination first begins with conversion.  For me it was the other way around. . . I had been 'taken out of myself.'"  While it would be inaccurate to call Dr. Nathanson a "healthy extrovert" before he became a Christian, this is the story of an abrasive and self-centered man who, coming into the presence of God, became more aware of what was within.  He is almost painfully honest in telling what he found and why it troubled, and continues to trouble, him. T he book's confessionary ending reminds the reader that the spiritual journey, like a human partnership, only begins when one steps up to the altar.  Perhaps the opposite delusion, our demand for instant gratification, pay-off without investment, is one fault behind American acceptance of cheap grace, fast food, divorce, and abortion alike.

While the Hand of God is first of all a contemporary spiritual pilgrimage, it is also a book that anyone who is at all open-minded about abortion should read and carefully consider.  Dr. Nathanson has looked at abortion from both sides, now: he knows very well what he is talking about.  So it is a pity there are so few reviews of this book here, including the kind of attacks from hostile reviewers that show a point has sunk in, or that a book has sold beyond its narrowest constituency.  This is a book more people ought to read.  I might add that it is well-written and full of surprising and sometimes rather contrarian observations.

 

Return to Modesty:  Wendy Shalit

**** “Love Beats Lust, After All”

 

A person who knows the thought of only his own time and country is like the frog in the Chinese proverb who looks at the sky from a well. Shalit makes good use of Jane Austen and other voices of sanity from eras bygone, including Jewish tradition, to launch a revolution against one of the most provincial and demeaning errors of our day: the "boys (and girls) will be boys" view of sexuality, that the only problems with promiscuity are STDs and unwanted pregancies, and those can be solved. She could have found a more holistic and human view of sex in other cultures as well as other eras, that aren't so nutty as our own in this particular way.

Admittedly, critics get in a few good licks below. Shalit repeats herself too much: the book should have been shortened by 20 pages. She portrays men as tending towards rudeness, filth, and animimalism as pigs tend towards mud; which seems a bit over the top.

But Shalit writes well and boldly. Her stories are fascinating; and frankly, American adults deserve the scolding she gives. Having unearthed strong supporting evidence that monogamy leads to better health, happiness, and even sexual fulfillment (for my book, Jesus and the Religions of Man), I also think the evidence is on Shalit's side. If I could, I might give a copy of this book to every high school girl in the country. (As a teacher, I am often faced with displays of student immodesty. Maybe I'd lose my job, but sometimes I would like to tell some of the girls, "You come to class dressed that way, and sure, you'll attract attention. But I also hear you saying, 'I don't think much of myself, and don't expect you to respect me, either.'")

I am disturbed by the psychology professor below who found that in a class of 63, "The rejection of Shalit's ideas was total," and described Shalit's argument as "a new way to debase women."  What kind of Stalinist dictatorship yields such perfect agreement?  And how could college kids, evidently brainwashed or afraid to let out a peep of disagreement, know that there was "much more ('hidden') violence" towards women before the sexual revolution?  Check the census statistics for any state in the Union: the rate of sexual assaults, like every other violent crime, has skyrocketed since the 60s.

That sexual promiscuity ruins millions of lives is one of the most obvious facts about modern American society: the evidence is all around.  Shalit proposes a modest solution.  The really interesting psychological question is why that solution, echoing the wisdom of many ages and cultures, seems to bother some modern folks.

 

 

Jesus Land: A Memoir, Julia Scheeres

“A Daisy Cracks the Concrete” 

 

This is one of those heart-breaking books, like Elie Wiesel's Silence, or the stories of Ivan in The Brothers Kharamazov, that make you question not only a given religious authority, but God himself. It is more painful than the book of Job, in a way, because here unrelenting cruelty strikes not an adult, but innocent kids. Yet as other reviewers note, this book also contains hope. Julia Sheeres and her brother slowly overcome the cruelty of parents, a racist town, and what can only be described as a Christian concentration camp in the Dominican Republic, through love of life and of one another. The author has done a wonderful job, telling her story. I could hardly put the book down.

I also grew up in an evangelical Christian family. My parents really follow the teachings of Jesus, though; and I don't think that's so rare. But I think Christians should read this book. Jesus warned about "wolves in sheeps' clothing," who come to "kill and destroy," rather than give life. Sheere's story should encourage us examine our own motives, and also also keep an eye out for children in families like this, even in the church. Kids need real love from someone, God knows.

On the other hand, I don't think readers should identify this kind of abuse with evangelical Christianity too closely, as some seem to below. No matter the ideology or lack thereof, every generation produces horror stories about growing up. M. Scott Peck's analysis of four levels of religion fits this story well. Sheeres' parents, and the thug who ran the camp, appear to have been classic "level two" religious types, who escaped moral (redneck style) anarchy by adherence to rigid authoritarian beliefs. But even number two types often show more love than this.

For those who understandably feel leery of Christianity in general because of such nastiness, I recommend seeking balance by considering the arguments of Vishal Mangalwadi, Carroll and Shiflett's Christianity on Trial
, or the chapter in my own Jesus and the Religions of Man entitled "How Has Jesus Changed the World?" The answer to one form of dogmatism is not dogmatism on the other side, but a fearless commitment to truth wherever it lies, and fairness all around.

 

 

Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta, Gore Vidal

** “Paranoia on a Silver Platter”

 

Every president at least since Franklin Roosevelt has been in the pocket of corporate America. Roosevelt had to prod the Japanese into attacking us, and of course knew the attack was coming. Truman dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to scare the Russians, even while forcing poor old Stalin into a confrontation that the Soviets didn't want. Osama bin Laden was chosen "on aesthetic grounds" as the latest member of our "enemy of the month club." Apparently the Cheney-Bush junta was expecting 9/11, needing it to justify the conquest of Afghanistan. They "leveled" that sorry country only to let Union Oil of California to build a pipeline across it.

If you can buy any of this, and like your paranoia served up on a rhetorical silver platter, there's a good chance you'll enjoy this book. But if you want reasoned argument, at best you will find Vidal's arguments tedious, at worst a sad form of narcicism. His "evidence" is the stock circumstantial evidence and out of context quotes of the conspiracy theory, and his techniques those of the propogandist. (Which, as a student of comparative religion, I have often seen before.) Run out in front of a car to save a stranger's life, and one sort of person will call you a show-off, or assume you have vile designs on the life you saved. Vidal views the American government like that. He engages in what Paul Mankowski (reviewing his book on another subject) called "monotonously mirthless tittering." Here, the objects of his titters are presidents of the United States, from Roosevelt to Bush II, and the figures in dark rain jackets who stand behind them, or hover above them in black helicopters.

What makes this book most tedious, to someone like myself who has spent much of his life studying Soviet and Chinese societies, and living in East Asia, is its narcisistic focus on American society. It was America's fault that World War II began (sort of) at Pearl Harbor, and that it ended at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We were to blame for the Cold War (Joseph Stalin was apparently a placid, easy to get along with individual, unlike that mad haberdasher, Harry Truman), for Vietnam, Osama bin Laden, and Saddam Hussein. I find the demonology monotonous, not to say improbable, and the "evidence" trumped up and absurd. Vidal and his fans protest that he is not "anti-American." Be that as it may. But hatred seems to be his great solace, and he chooses objects to despise (as he put it) on aesthetic, rather than moral or rational, grounds. All in all, a sad warning about the state a human soul can reach.

Walker Percy may have been thinking of Gore Vidal when he commented that Alexander Solzhenitsyn was the "secret envy of American writers." "Despite their most violent attacks on the state and the establishment, nobody pays much attention . . . least of all the state." Solzhenitysn, by contrast, took on the Soviet Leviathon, and defeated it. He faced genuine torture and a thousand deaths, wrote brilliantly, and enjoyed the further advantage of writing about real, rather than imaginary, crimes. I strongly recommend that readers who are attracted to this sort of thing read him first.

 

 

Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the birth of Religious Freedom in America , Steven Waldman

***** “Beyond Propaganda”

 

I approach this book from a rather different point of view than some other reviewers. I'm a Christian apologist. My most recent book, The Truth Behind the New Atheism, attempted to refute Richard Dawkins and allies. One of the chapters of that book, "What About the American Taliban?" tackled the allegation that conservative Christians are a threat to democracy. Despite Chris Rodda's claim below that "historical misconceptions and misquotes used by the 'secularists' can be counted on one hand," counting dubious claims by that great scholar of American history, Richard Dawkins, alone might wear out the toes on a centipede. And an ACLU poster glibly suggests that the Constitution built a "wall of separation" between church and state -- which as Waldmon shows, is at least an exageration, if not a fantasy.

On the other hand, I'm also leery of books like "Sea to Shining Sea," and the gross exagerations Christians are also sometimes guilty of.

Steven Waldman does a good job of going beyond propaganda for either side. While honest and pretty balanced, he is also passionate, engaged, and not afraid to write well, or to add interesting asides. He concentrates on five figures: Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, and tells their stories fairly. He weaves these stories in with a general history of how the new American idea of church and state evolved. He doesn't try to pin a halo on anyone's head, but he clearly respects these men, and explains why he thinks their solution was best. The book is to the point, pithy, and readable -- I zipped through it in two or three days.

The question that often came to mind, while reading, was "Why didn't Christians get this earlier?" Sociologist of religion Rodney Stark makes a strong case for a market view of religious organizations -- any "church," whatever it's ideology, will oppress, just as Ma Bell will give bad service, given a monopoly. Jesus seemed to understand that from the get-go. And some Christians -- Francis Bacon, John Locke, Edmund Burke -- figured it out again, over time. But as Waldman shows, sometimes we Christians have to learn the implications of our own faith from those who, like Franklin, Adams, Madison, and Jefferson, have in some sense already left the faith, or like Gandhi, who never claimed it. Sometimes we have to be hit over the head with oppression to see what is in front of our eyes.

[...]But after reading the book, I'm inclined to agree with the principals that Providence was working through its chosen instruments over the course of the American revolution. I'm also inclined towards a stricter view of separation, not on legal grounds -- as Waldon shows, those are fairly muddled -- but because to paraphrase Madison, with friends like Big Government, who needs enemies?

An important part of the truth.

 

 

Stranger at the Gate: to be Gay and Christian in America, Mel White

** “Riveting Story, Doubtful Argument”

 

Mel White was raised in a Christian home but found himself endowed, apparently through no fault of his own or those around him, with an interest in men rather than women.  The church told him his desires were wrong, and he needed to change. But he found himself unable to change, and came in the end to the conclusion that the church was wrong about homosexuality.  Not only wrong, but bigoted, intolerant, hateful, and at the root of a broad national intolerance that encourages thuggery against gays.

White told his story well, but left me wondering at what he left out.  First of all, the premise of his argument seemed to be that people are endowed with one of two distinct sexual orientations.  But there are plenty of people who fall into some other camp.  If homosexuality is a gift from God, what about those who only find pleasure by giving pain? How about people attracted to children?  They too could say, "I was born this way -- I have always had this desire -- God made me like this -- I can't help myself."  In fact, some of them do say these things.  With these parallels in mind, White's repeated untested assumption that if one cannot change one's orientation, it is therefore from God, seemed somewhat hollow and unpersuasive to me.

In fact, White seems to have forgotten the doctrine of the fall -- that not all in the world is as it ought to be, even in our genes or instincts.  White tells us that "After decades of trying, we discovered that no one can change his sexual orientation."  I am willing to grant that point, at least for the sake of the argument.  But the Bible is not about orientation (which it says in all cases is somewhat warped) but about action.

White also seemed to assume that "straights" are simply affirmed by Christian morality.  But I didn't find White's account all that different from my own life.  I also find the Bible confronting and restraining my natural urges every day.  I married at 30.  Before and after that, I tried, with some success and some failure (especially by Jesus' tough standards) to stay within the constraints Scripture lays down.  I am not sure it is much easier now that I am married.  One partner gets sick, ages, loses interest, husband and wife drift apart -- almost anyone who decides to live as a Christian will face difficult challenges in regard to sexuality.

Everyone around Mel White goes to great length to say how honest he is.  To be frank, many of his modes of argument seem somewhat devious to me.  He claims to bring up the name of Adolf Hitler with reluctance when speaking of his old clients among the religious right, yet he does so repeatedly.  He tends to paraphrase the so-called leaders of the religious right (who cares what Jerry Falwell thinks, anyway?) when citing such parallels, rather than using direct quotes.  Often the sting lies in what he paraphrases, rather than the words he actually does quote.  "Available studies show that those who attend church regularly. . . tend to be more disapproving of (gay and lesbian people.)"  (Did they say people? Or acts?)  He equivocates.  "In far too many cases, those young haters came from Christian homes."  (How many is too many?)  His arguments are full of non-sequiturs and hype.  (Did Hitler and Stalin really quote the Bible when they "created gulags and concentration camps?"  Having studied Marxism, I have yet to come across evidence of Bible studies in the Kremlin.)  And why, having spent so much time looking for evidence to prove that thugs who beat up on gays were inspired by the religious right, did neither of the quotations he gave from the thugs mention anything about religion?

White shows the enthusiasm of the convert, but also a great deal of the bitterness, and the quality of his writing (or should I say "their" -- he shifts towards the collective "we" of a spokesman or sectarian towards the end of the book) suffers at times.  And yet, on his own account, all those Christians truly close to him have loved him as best they could.  Who is he bitter at?  And why did he mention so little of his children?  He speaks with regret of the sexual pleasures he missed as a youth, and blames the church.  Has it never occurred to him that apart from those restrictions, whatever we say for or against them, he might not be alive?  Isn't that worth something?

As a story, I found Stranger fascinating, but as an argument, it brought up more questions than it answered, and seemed more than a little self-serving.