For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘history

Orphan #8 by Kim van Alkemade, William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2015, 381 pp.

Orphan 8I enjoyed reading this book, which was more like fictionalized history than historical fiction. Van Alkemade learned of her grandfather’s time spent in the Hebrew Orphans home, while his own mother also lived and work there. In pursuing more about his life there, she stumbled across the story of a group of orphans suffering from alopecia caused by “x-ray treatments” received in their time there. She continued to pursue her research, learning as much as possible about the medical experiments, life in the home, and stories of those who lived there.

This novel is a fictionalized version of that collected history. Van Alkemade does a marvelous job of weaving together a unified story and full, fictionalized characters from the history she unearthed, but there are moments and plot developments that feel forced or uneven–usually because she chooses to stick with what actually happened, rather than what might make a more satisfying story. It’s the danger found in all memoir, of neglecting storytelling in favor of recording facts. The novel suffers only lightly, however, and it is still well worth reading.

The story centers on the fictional character Rachel Rabinowitz, who becomes an orphan at age 4, along with her older brother. They are separated when Rachel goes to the Hebrew Infants Home rather than the Orphan Home for older children, and it is during her time at the Infants Home that she experiences the dangerous radiation, the medical experiment of a young doctor. We meet Rachel as an adult, when she is a nurse in a hospice unit who discovers she is caring for the doctor who gave her those painful, life-altering treatments.

There is a lot going on in the story–Rachel’s coming out, her relationship with her brother, her ethical decision about how to relate to the ailing doctor in her care as a nurse, the environment and information about the life of orphans in the early decades of the 20th century, and more. While it was all interesting material, it was cumbersome from time to time, as the novel bounced between different eras and relationships. Again, van Alkemade chooses to service history over story from time to time. Yet Rachel is such an enjoyable companion that it overcomes much.

Nevertheless, Orphan #8 was a fascinating read, van Alkemade is a good storyteller, and I enjoyed learning about this unique time and place in history.

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First Comes Love? The Ever-Changing Face of Marriage by John C. Morris, Pilgrim Press, 2007, 128 pp.

FirstComesLove.chosenMy denomination, the United Church of Christ, has been in the forefront of marriage equality for many decades, and I have been honored to officiate at many same-sex weddings myself. However, our congregational polity allows for each congregation to make its own decision, and my church is currently having conversations about whether to host weddings for same-sex couples. (As a pastor, I have authority to officiate weddings in outside venues for same sex couples.)

I picked up this book as a resource for that ongoing conversation. Since Pilgrim Press is part of the UCC, I expected it to address the topic directly. Imagine my surprise when Morris did not include anything about the subject of same-sex marriage until the epilogue, and then only a short explanation of the viewpoint of marriage equality he developed in response to the research for this book. While I remain disappointed that same-sex marriage did not get at least an equal treatment and recognition with the 21 other forms of marriage that he explores, the book otherwise accomplished exactly what I hoped it would: deconstructing the idea of “traditional marriage” altogether as a convenient fiction rather than a fixed notion in history.

Morris begins with biblical notions of marriage in the Hebrew Bible, starting in Genesis. After a short comparison of creation stories between Genesis and Olympus, he moves on to the first biblical couples actually described as married. He cites Isaac and Rebekah for the importance of marrying within one’s tribe; Jacob, his wives and concubines as a witness to polygamy; Levirate marriage, where widows marry their brother-in-law; and arranged marriages. He does compare these ancient texts to modern conversations about arranged marriage and miscegenation, although his choice to use the fictional Fiddler on the Roof as an example of Jewish life is questionable. Morris then adds marriage for political purposes and marriage for procreation to the list of Old Testament forms of marriage.

Early Christianity, Morris points out, actually offered revolutionary developments in understanding marriage. Christians opened the way for slaves and citizens to marry by proclaiming all equal in the eyes of God. They also declared that men and women were equal partners in marriage, and that the marital covenant should be a lifelong commitment, as Jesus himself spoke against divorce. Finally, early Christians argued for celibacy, even within marriage, as the ideal way to focus on God over the things of this world. (I’m doubtful that most people would still support that one as part of “traditional marriage!”)

Having looked over these various forms of marriage, Morris ventures into questions of what makes a marriage valid and how it is recognized in society, again overturning any notion that marriage has been an unchanging institution. He points to mutual consent, consummation and validation by an outside authority as the typical ingredients to validate a marriage. The fact that we can all quickly think of examples that contradict that construction (like a forced marriage, an unconsummated marriage or a common law marriage) only add to Morris’ argument that marriage has never been a fixed idea. Exploring marriage as sacred covenant and secular contract opens the conversation about the role of clergy in the United States today, in the uncomfortable position of acting as spiritual guardian and agent of the state.

After an exploration of the meaning and evolution of betrothal, Morris adds modern developments in the form of marriage: marrying for love, marrying for happiness, marrying for companionship, marrying as equal partners, marriage detached from property or procreation, and easy divorce. In the end, Morris makes a claim that all couples should be allowed to marry, both in civil and religious ceremonies–but that the two should be separate from one another in form, content and occasion.

This book was a very helpful, readable summary of the evolution of marriage throughout the bible and history, and it would make an excellent resource for congregational study. It does not have the depth of primary source research, historical analysis or scholarly precision that some might desire, but such a book would take nearly 1,000 pages, not a mere 128. I recommend this resource to any group struggling with conversations about the meaning of marriage, as this will ground your conversation in shared history, simply told.

American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic by Joseph J. Ellis, Vintage Books, 2007, 283 pp.

American CreationI know that Joseph Ellis can be a controversial figure, respected by some academics and disdained by others, criticized for his histories of “great men” without much attention to the concerns of women or non-white individuals. I do not know enough about the history to judge the quality of his research, but I thoroughly enjoy the stories he tells and the ways he explores the intersections of the founders of the Revolutionary generation. This is the fourth Ellis book I’ve read, and each one has taught me another layer of the Revolutionary era history while engaging interesting questions and inviting me into a fascinating story.

American Creation focuses in on several key events that were turning points in the choices the Revolutionary generation made, both bold and compromising. In response to questions and critics, Ellis ponders how and why the founders managed to set a new way of government based on soaring rhetoric of liberty, even while failing to address the glaring gap between their principles and the harsh realities of slavery and Native American relocation.

As is typical of his other books, Ellis argues that key circumstances and personalities joined together at critical moments to change history. He begins by looking at the year between the Battle of Lexington and Concord in spring 1775 and the Declaration of Independence in 1776, arguing the necessity of an “evolutionary revolution” to give an opportunity for reconciliation with Britain to fail and therefore unite the colonies behind the idea of independence.

The second chapter looks at the fateful winter at Valley Forge. Ellis argues that the experience of disorganization and deprivation endured by troops at Valley Forge sowed the seeds of federalism (especially for Washington and Hamilton), because the later federalists came to see the impossibility of relying on competing states to fulfill their obligations voluntarily. Valley Forge also altered the military strategy to focus on managing the countryside, not just fighting key battles.

Subsequent chapters address the argument for a new constitutional convention to replace the Articles of Confederation and Madison’s developing sense of the new Constitution; the failure of treaties with the Native Americans to stop further settlements of European Americans on the frontier, and the recognition that the newly formed government did not have sufficient power or will to enact justice; the development of a two-party political system after the Federalist Papers and the corresponding change in position by James Madison; and the way Jefferson’s handling of the Louisiana Purchase sealed presidential power even while he claimed to abhor it.

Ellis has another work of readable, engaging history here in American Creation. If you are a history buff or, like me, always fascinated by the Revolutionary generation, you will find plenty of interest here, and a fun book to read.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009, 532 pp.

Wolf HallI stumbled into this by impulse and accident, buying Bringing Up the Bodies from the discount bin only to set it aside when I realized it was part two of a series. When my eyes caught Wolf Hall on the library shelf, I decided to give it a try. I’m so glad I did.

Wolf Hall is the story of Thomas Cromwell. Set against the backdrop of Henry VIII’s romance with Anne Boleyn, the book covers the subtle machinations of Cromwell’s service to Cardinal Wolsey, then Henry and Anne. Cromwell is usually a side plot in most books on this place and time. Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn have had countless novels imagining their relationship, personalities and political maneuverings. Likewise with Sir Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cranmer (Archbishop of Canterbury), who get feature roles. Cromwell, however, is generally portrayed as the aide or antagonist to these main characters. Wolf Hall finally gives him the spotlight in our imaginations.

The book begins with a brief account of a working class, violent childhood, followed by disclosure of youthful wanderings and military service on the continent that remain shrouded in mystery. He emerges from time on the continent as a wealthy, well-connected, senior advisor to Cardinal Wolsey. Wolf Hall imagines how the most trusted advisor to Wolsey could somehow maneuver to become the most trusted advisor to Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, which is an unlikely assimilation but true to history.

Mantel’s storytelling is wonderful, and even after 532 rich pages, I still wanted more. She portrays Cromwell as the smartest man in every room, a scholar with a kindly heart and a desire for grace. He is willing to do what is necessary to accomplish the goals of his master (or his own, which are never quite explicit); however, in spite of about his bloody past as a soldier, Cromwell avoids violence as his tactic, unlike More and the King. In every other portrayal I’ve seen, he is mean-spirited, cold, calculating and harsh. In Wolf Hall, I liked him immediately. He is still calculating, but aloof instead of cold, and winsome in his humor and intellect. His Reformation tendencies emerge as a desire for knowledge, of the scriptures especially.

I can’t wait to dive into Bringing Up the Bodies, and I am already enjoying the miniseries version of Wolf Hall currently airing on Masterpiece Classic on PBS. Wolf Hall is a great read.

Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, New York: Vintage Books, 1999, 323 pp.

Isaacs StormI loved Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City when I read it more than 10 years ago, and I have given it to at least a half-dozen other people who have loved it too. He has a way of mixing together historical reporting with narrative storytelling about a particular set of real-life characters that makes it feel like reading a novel. I was drawn to The Devil in the White City because I have always been fascinated by the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. I never dug deeper into Larson’s work because I was drawn more to the topic than the author, until one of those people to whom I had lent The Devil in the White City returned the favor by giving me Isaac’s Storm. I read the whole thing in two days, staying up until 2:00 a.m. because I couldn’t put it down.

Isaac’s Storm tells the story of the massive hurricane that destroyed Galveston, Texas in September 1900, particularly through the eyes of Isaac Cline, the chief weather bureau official in Galveston at the time. Larson follows a similar style to the one he used in The Devil in the White City, telling the story by laying out thick detail and behind the scenes portraits that point toward why things unfolded as they did. He begins by drawing a detailed picture of the city of Galveston at the time of the storm, especially its competition with Houston and its vision as an idyllic paradise for business or pleasure. He also offers an intricate accounting of the history, politics and embattled nature of the national weather bureau at the time. Weather bureau officials were terrified of making mistakes, eager to downplay danger, and in competition with each other for accurate predictions–without permission to use any words that implied a dangerous storm was afoot.

Larson then introduces us to several central characters, the people through whose eyes we will come to see this story. Isaac Cline is primary, along with his family, which includes his brother Joseph. Joseph and Isaac are estranged in the years after the hurricane. While there is no clear answer as to why, Larson offers some hints and ideas about the roots of the tension, including their disagreement about how they should be responding to the 1900 Galveston storm. We also meet several children who survived the storm (this is quickly evident, because their accounts would not be available otherwise), and several ship’s captains who rode out the storm as well.

The tension of the book is palpable, because we as readers know what the people in the story do not–that the hurricane is bearing down on them, and more than 6,000 people will lose their lives. As the story builds, Larson introduces us, with affection, to person after person, and each time you meet a new character you wonder if they will be one of the lucky ones who survive, or the many who perished. Larson tracks the individual choices–left or right, north or south, stay or go–that are the difference between life and death. Once the storm hit Galveston, I couldn’t stop reading until I knew who lived or died.

Isaac’s Storm was a great read for anyone who likes history, weather, science, survival or just a good story. I found it a fact-packed page-turner, and now I want to find more of Larson’s work again.

The Spiritual Practice of Remembering by Margaret Bendroth, William B. Eerdmans, 2013, 132 pp.

Spiritual Practice of RememberingMargaret Bendroth is the director of the Congregational Library in Boston, and her job is to collect and curate the historical archives of the Congregational church, which includes helping local congregations reckon with their own historical artifacts, records, stories and more. This book is a beautiful theological reflection on that work, the spirituality of engaging our history, and what it is that we are doing when we interact with our past.

The Spiritual Practice of Remembering opens with the wonderful story of a tricorne hat encased in glass in the entryway of a church. By virtue of its age and connection to a legendary preacher, the hat had become somehow sacred. I think any of us who serve congregations with a long history know about those sacred objects that hover in hallways or display cases or even in sanctuaries. Their original users never intended them to be preserved—they were ordinary practical objects—but their age and connection to the past has endowed them with something akin to holiness.

Bendroth’s book doesn’t just probe the spiritual meaning of churches’ old junk, but invites us into a relationship with the past as a spiritual discipline. Judaism and Christianity have a unique relationship as “religions of remembrance,” who worship a God active in history, defined by events in time. However, modernism in Western culture emphasizes a break from the past, freedom to define one’s own identity apart from history, and a sense of time always marching forward. Our relationship with the past, then, is as tourists—we are “stranded in the present,” with the past as novelty or nostalgia, but no depth of relationship and identification. We have moved from a medieval faith in which the past and the present co-existed all around us, with the past able to break through and impact this current reality, to an understanding of history as progress that makes the past always different, other and inferior to the present. This historicism, also found in biblical criticism that privileges factual history over other forms of biblical truth, costs us a meaningful relationship with the saints of the past. Bendroth writes:

History for grown-ups is complicated. It asks us to balance sympathy and judgment, hero-worship and sharp-eyed criticism. It recognizes and respects differences across time, but also looks for honest points of connection. … Our ancestors have a lot to teach us. This is not because they were wiser or more devout than we are or were “better” Christians, though we can’t rule out such possibilities. It is because they can point us toward what is essential. (50)

Bendroth also tackles the commodification of history as both entertainment and possession. As technology externalizes memory (photos, recordings, even Facebook place memory outside of our own identity and community, into an external place), it has become less valuable. It has also come to rely less on imagination.

There is a thin line between approaching people and events through imagination and assuming that they are in fact imaginary. The first assumes that the past was “real,” with a separate integrity all its own; the second that there is no past at all beyond what we choose to see. (70)

One of the most interesting chapters was about the way American culture is built on letting go of the past, and American religion models this “historyless.” Our emphasis on experience over tradition has helped with a more religiously tolerant society, but it has also cut us off from rich resources that can come from conversation with the past. We need not be traditionalists in order to value tradition.

The Christian tradition itself is a long conversation about the declaration that “Jesus is Lord.” … A truly creative conversation builds on what has been said before, exploring nuances and suggesting different interpretations—but never assuming that the people who began it have nothing more to say and can be safely ignored. The living do not own the conversation any more than those past or those yet to come. (94-95)

The communion of the saints is a theological idea that helps us understand this obligation, the way we the living continue to interact with the dead.

The ancestors live on in different ways, sometimes as a deep undercurrent of sadness or disappointment, sometimes as a tendency toward suspicion of outsiders or resentment of authority. They can work in positive ways too, inuring a centuries-old congregation against panic or despair. (113)

When we recognize ourselves as part of the communion of the saints, we know that “all God’s people—past, present, and future—form a single, interdependent whole.” (115)

Bendroth develops and explores many concepts that I have vaguely and inarticulately carried for a long time. As a student of history, I find much richness in exploring the life world of the past, but I had never connected that to my fascination and spiritual connection to the communion of the saints. I am also someone willing to let go of much tradition in favor of connecting with the present and future, and this book helped me think through how to engage the past in a good and meaningful way. Her mixture of stories and exploration combine for a book that is delightful, provocative, novel and engaging. I recommend The Spiritual Practice of Remembering to anyone considering the way the past can invite us to a richer present as people of faith.

 

 

 

 

Augustine: A New Biography by James J. O’Donnell, Harper Perennial, 2005, 396 pp.

augustineI picked this up a few years ago to be a refresher on Augustine. I read Peter Brown’s landmark Augustine of Hippo back in seminary, but I wanted to revisit this epic and influential figure, his controversies and his theologies. O’Donnell’s book was on the non-fiction “summer reading” display at the local Barnes & Noble, so I figured it to be a fairly easy go. I was wrong, but I was richly rewarded by the effort this book required.

Augustine: A New Biography is not an appropriate introduction for beginners. O’Donnell is clear to distinguish his project from so many others. While traditional biographies tell Augustine’s story through his writings and the public records of his major controversies–in effect, Augustine in his own words–O’Donnell invites the reader to examine what Augustine’s carefully crafted words leave out. What emerges from O’Donnell is a counter-narrative to the traditional Augustinian biography. It is not an open conflict with the stately portrait of the struggling author of the Confessions and vociferous defender of the faith against heretics, but more like the counterpoint that runs beneath that main melody.

As such, O’Donnell assumes a fairly sophisticated familiarity with Augustine’s traditional biography and catalog. I found myself turning to Wikipedia to remind myself of the various stories and heresies to which he regularly alludes, and even had to chase down a few vocabulary words from time to time. O’Donnell’s writing is an exercise in cleverness, and it does not follow a linear timeline or provide a basic outline. He regularly includes imagined letters, made-up words, and anachronisms as tools of revelation. He invites the reader into a hall of mirrors where he shows Augustine in various reflections and leaves you wondering which one is the distortion and which is the true picture, until you realize that all are equal parts accurate and misleading. Like the end of the hall of mirrors, you leave the biography amused and entertained, but also aware that the reflections have revealed both flaws and beauty marks you had not previously noticed. It is not a place to go for encyclopedic information, but what O’Donnell has created is brilliant and beautiful.

The Augustine that emerges in his portrait is the man behind the curtain of his bold, confident writings. O’Donnell asks, in a postmodern way, why Augustine was so insistent on various points. What was he trying to conceal? Why did he want this version of his story to survive against others? O’Donnell finds answers by quoting more frequently from Augustine’s interlocutors than from the man himself. They offer insight into how Augustine was viewed in his own time, and they interacted with the man himself, not the voice in his writings. The picture that emerges is more changeable than his immutable words, but it is also more pastoral. Augustine’s life’s work was not writing theology for the ages, but holding together a church full of squabbles, attempting to bring about a vision of all believers in catholic unity (a unique contribution from Augustine), all while negotiating imperial politics and the financial stability of the church at Hippo. This version of Augustine is far more human and relatable, in both his strengths and weaknesses.

While I would not recommend this as easy reading, or as an introduction to Augustine’s life and times, Augustine: A New Biography is well worth the endeavor. Its perspective is unique and compelling, and unmasks Augustine in a way that leaves you wanting more of him. I have removed Augustine of Hippo, the Confessions and City of God from my shelf, and added them to the pile of things marked “to be read.” Rather than feeling satisfied with an Augustine refresher, this book revealed just how much more there is to contemplate, and made me want to do so.

 


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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