"AS I SEE IT"
Volume 1, Number 11, November, 1998
One of my brothers works for a man who owns a number of rental properties. From time to time, my brother helps in the renovation of a house or apartment after the renters have moved out (not infrequently skipping out on the last month or two of rent). Oftentimes, when people move out, they leave things behind that they do not wish to trouble themselves with--broken-down furniture, old clothes, car parts, and an amazing array of other items. Most of the stuff is taken to the nearest dumpster, but sometimes there are things which are good and usable. Once my brother offered me a nearly-new all-wool topcoat from one of the houses. It fit perfectly. I have also gotten a few LP records that way as well (remember, "vinyl is final"). But one item abandoned by renters skipping out on a couple months' rent disturbed me greatly. It was a Bible.
This attractive and expensive copy of the NIV has an inscription on the inside cover:
"To Our Daughter and Our Son-in-Law--our S---- & R--- on their Second Wedding Anniversary, June 11, 198_. Your Loving Parents, Dad and Mom"
There is much to see in these few words. I reconstruct the scenario this way: a Christian girl decides to marry a non- Christian boy. Her parents are not happy with her choice, but hope to make the best of a bad situation. He probably came to church some with her before the marriage, but afterward neither he nor she showed any interest in God.
Out of spiritual concern for the couple, and knowing that they desperately need God in their lives, her parents buy for them a Bible with the wish and the prayer that they will sometime, somehow be drawn to read it and discover the way to peace with God and real purpose in life. The girl seems to have had enough of a Christian up-bringing to keep the Bible for several years (I acquired it in the late 1980s). But finally, when in a rush to move out and cheat the property owner out of rent money, the couple takes only the things they truly value, abandoning the rest. Among the debris of a hurried departure was the Bible given out of parental concern. Unread, unvalued, unwanted. Had they been wiser, they would have chosen to abandon all else if necessary and keep the Bible.
I have often thought about this couple (who are wholly unknown to me), and wondered what became of them. Still turning their backs on God? Divorced like so many? Overwhelmed by the problems and miseries of life? Standing amidst the wreckage that they have made of their own lives? I think of her heart-broken parents--wanting what is best for their daughter and her husband, but unable to lead them to the light, and grieved by their indifference to God. And when I think of this young couple, I often pray that God would even yet open their hearts and bring them to Christ, that God would give them a second chance to accept the Gospel message, not merely as a gift in the form of a book, but in the person of Christ Himself, a gift that none would ever think to abandon.
It takes no great political savvy to notice that frequently, even usually, those who are theological conservatives regarding the Bible (also variously know as fundamentalists and evangelicals) are at one and the same time political conservatives. The inverse--that political conservatives are usually also theological conservatives--is not however an accurate generalization.
Why, I ask, do theological conservatives regularly find themselves among political conservatives? In reality, the reasons are not far to seek.
FIRST, a cardinal principle of both religious and political conservatives is that of "original intent," that is, interpreting the foundational written documents (whether the Bible or the Constitution) in harmony with the original intent and meaning of the authors. A fundamentalist asks, "What exactly did Paul (or Moses or Peter) mean when he wrote this?" not "What does this mean TO ME?" The strict constructionist justice or lawyer asks "what did Madison, Hamilton, Jay, and the others means by this article?" not, "How can we play we these words to find in the Constitution what we wish had originally been there?"
The Constitutional reconstructionists, as with religious apostates, rigorously avoid discovering the intent of the original writers (unless it serves their purposes). Instead, they seek to twist, contort, revise and alter the document so that it conforms to their current political view point. The Constitution becomes putty in their hands to be semantically revised so as to conform to their wishes, rather than their submitting to the express statements of the document in all of its original intended force and meaning. It is only by scrupulously avoiding the original intent that a "Constitutionally-protected" right to an abortion can be discovered in the Constitution.
Religious liberals approach the Bible the same way, by asking, "What verbal metamorphosis can we impose on the Bible to make it say what we want it to say?" Only by such dishonest disregard for Scripture's actual affirmations can homosexual marriages or the ordination of women to the pastorate be "harmonized" with the Bible.
It is ultimately a question of authority and truth--is their a final, written authority that guides and controls us, or are we our own authority, with all "truth" being merely subjective and "personal opinion" being the final arbiter of "truth"? In politics, it is a question of the rule of law--law which is a known and fixed standard. In religion, it is a question of an authoritative written Divine revelation. Conservatives in politics insist on conformity to the law as it is written. Conservatives in theology insist on conformity to the Divine revelation "as it is written."
SECOND, religious and political conservatives also agree in their emphasis on personal, individual responsibility and accountability. In contrast, theological and political liberals emphasize the group, the class, the masses, "society." This is manifested in the title of Mrs. Clinton's farcical book, "It takes a village."
The individual is incapable, and therefore also unaccountable. If you kill your parents or sell drugs, it's your parents' fault or society's fault, in fact, everyone's fault but the individual's. If you choose to smoke and get lung cancer, it's not your fault, it's those big, terrible tobacco companies. If you get drunk and kill someone with your car, it's the bar's fault, or the brewer's fault, not your own.
In theological liberalism, the emphasis is on class justice, manifested in so-called "liberation theology," whose advocates seek to "liberate" the "oppressed masses" (and ultimately install themselves as a new class of tyrannical dictators). Society is more important than the individual. Justifying the slaughter of millions of people, Lenin excused himself--"When you make an omelet, you must break a few eggs."
On the other hand, there is no personal accounting for sin, no personal judgment before a just and holy God. All, whether good or evil, whether religious or secular, whether sincere or hypocritical, can depend on the blind indulgence of a grandfatherly God, who never holds the individual responsible for his individual choices and acts.
Political conservatives, in contrast, emphasize the rights and responsibilities of the individual. The rights of the individual--whether personal or property rights--generally take precedent over the rights of "society." And with regard to responsibilities, each is accountable for his own conduct. Each is to provide for his own needs. Each is to behave himself in a way acceptable to society and in the sight of the law, and each is subject to personal individual punishment for violations of the law.
Theological conservatives emphasize the individual over the "group" or "class"--we are born as individuals, we live as individuals, we sin as individuals, we are accountable to God as individuals, we die as individuals, and we go into eternity as individuals. If we are to be saved and forgiven, it must be on a personal basis, with personal repentance and personal faith in a personal savior. There is no excusing my sins by passing the blame to others, whether individuals or to that ultimate fall-guy, "society." And there is no "mass salvation"--it is always personal and individual.
These two great principles, "original intent," and personal accountability, are great governing principles in both political conservatism and religious conservatism, and the fact that religious conservatives usually find themselves in company with political conservatives is no mystery at all.
I cannot remember a time in my life when I was not interested in history. As an elementary student, I was a devourer of biographies: books about Daniel Boone, Wild Bill Hickock, Pilot Jack Knight, Portuguese Phillips, Kit Carson, and many more. I frankly cannot comprehend in the least how some people consider history "boring." Now, I do understand why some history teachers or history books are considered tedious and dull, because many of them are, but, history itself is anything but dull. The problem is in the presentation, not the subject.
Though I took a few history courses in college, seminary and graduate school, nearly the whole of what I know about history is through extensive reading and a constant search for the best, most authoritative, most valuable works on whatever specific subject I was interested in. While most of this reading was worked in around other activities--going to school, working, preaching, and the usual things which occupy life--there was a period of five years when I taught history in a Christian high school, and in preparing my lectures, I was compelled to read much more than usual in history. In fact, I am grateful for those five sometimes miserable years because they gave me the excuse and the opportunity to read books which I had wanted to read for years or even, in some cases, for decades.
Beyond dispute, the pre-eminent American historian, the "Dean" of American writers of American history, was Samuel Eliot Morison (1887-1976) of Harvard. Morison was a genuine New England "Blue blood." His ancestors were traceable back to the Puritan era and numbered among them important figures in the Colonial and Revolutionary periods. His Grandfather Eliot was a Harvard graduate and professor, and when Sam entered Harvard early in the 20th century, the President of the school and one of the professors were blood relatives (he was also a cousin to writer T. S. Eliot). Sam's Ph.D. dissertation (approved in 1912) was written about Harrison Gray Otis, one of his great great grandfathers, and an important figure in 18th and 19th century Massachusetts politics (Sam used boxes of Otis' papers preserved in the family cellar in his research!). After his own graduation from Harvard, Sam taught at Harvard (and for three years at Oxford) until his retirement from teaching in the late 1950s. In typical blueblood fashion, Morison died in 1976 in the house where he had been born more than 88 years earlier.
Morison's best-known (and most easily found) book is his general history of the United States, THE OXFORD HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE (1,150 pp.;1965), which I used as one of my two primary tools in preparing lectures for American History (the other was AMERICAN HISTORY: A SURVEY, 2nd edition, by Richard N. Current, T. Harry Williams, and Frank Friedel; Knopf, 1967). Beyond this general survey of American history, most of Morison's extensive writings focus on New England and on the sea.
Among the books on New England are THE INTELLECTUAL LIFE OF COLONIAL NEW ENGLAND (first published in 1936 under the obscure title THE PURITAN PRONAOS; 288 pp.). This volume was written to correct the very distorted popular view of the New England Puritans as anti-intellectual, anti-social staid, stiff, unsmiling kill-joys. It was the first Morison book I read, and it is superb (I include a brief review elsewhere in this issue). Morison also prepared an excellent annotated edition of William Bradford's journal, OF PLYMOUTH PLANTATION 1620- 1647 (Knopf, 1953; 448 pp.), which, among other things, informs us that the first English Bible in New England was by deliberate choice the Geneva Bible of 1560, not the KJV of 1611 (as is commonly and erroneously claimed in literature of our day). Another volume, BUILDERS OF THE BAY COLONY (Houghton, Mifflin, & Co., 1930; 405 pp.) has the notable subtitle, "A gallery of our intellectual ancestors," which reveals Morison's sympathies. Among the fifteen individuals treated is John Eliot (pp. 289-319), who was actively engaged for 60 years in evangelizing the Indians of Massachusetts and who translated the whole Bible into the Algonkian language (which had never before even been reduced to writing), the first Bible published in America. If you are unfamiliar with this great man of God, this chapter can remedy your deficiency. Another book worth noting is Morison's THREE CENTURIES OF HARVARD (Harvard University Press, 1936, 512 pp.), a popularized history (more or less boiled down from his more detailed 3 volume treatment of the same subject) of America's first and most prestigious university.
The sea was a lifelong interest and passion of Morison whose family had become wealthy in the 19th century by sea trade with China and who was himself an accomplished yachtsman (again, in typical New England blueblood fashion). He wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies of Columbus (ADMIRAL OF THE OCEAN SEA, Little, Brown and Co., 1942; 680 pp.) and John Paul Jones (JOHN PAUL JONES, Little, Brown, and Co., 1959; 456 pp.), in research for which he more or less retraced the steps of both on land and on sea to more fully enter into their spirit and perspective. During World War II, Morison petitioned the President for a commission as 'roving naval historian,' which was granted. As a result, Morison spent a great deal of time on a variety of U.S. ships in both the Atlantic and the Pacific and was an eye-witness to numerous engagements. With the help of a support staff of subordinates, Morison wrote the "semi-official" HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES NAVAL OPERATIONS IN WORLD WAR II in 15 volumes (Little, Brown, and Co., 1947-1962, and recently reprinted). A condensed one-volume edition of this history, THE TWO- OCEAN WAR (Little, Brown, and Co., 1963; 611 pp.) is commonly met with used. The final books written by Morison (written after he was in his 80s!) are the two-volume THE EUROPEAN DISCOVERY OF AMERICA, the first of which covers "The Northern Voyages, A.D. 500-1600" (Oxford University Press, 1971; 712 pp.); the second is the natural complement, "The Southern Voyages, A. D. 1492- 1616" (Oxford University Press, 1974; 758 pp.). The former is highly informative and an absolute delight to read (I have not yet read the latter).
Among Morison's published essays, one of particular interest to me was "Faith of an Historian," printed as chapter 16 (pp. 346-359) in a book of his collected articles BY LAND AND BY SEA (Knopf, 1954; 359 pp. Strangely, no table of contents is found in this volume--except on the back of the dustjacket, and even there, no page numbers are given. Careless editing!).
These are the Morison writings best-known and most likely to be met with. For information on all of his writings and his place in the flow of American historiography, the reader should consult SAMUEL ELIOT MORISON'S HISTORICAL WORLD by Gregory M. Pfitzer (Northeastern University Press, 1991; 367 pp.), a semi-biographical treatment which will be of greatest interest to those who have already read some of Morison's writings (when Pfitzer descended into close analysis of the various "schools" of history-writing in the 20th century, my eyes tended to glaze over and my brain switched to "cruise control."). Judged according to its intended purpose, Pfitzer's volume is worthy of its subject.
Morison was a self-professed Christian of the Episcopalian sort, and is sympathetic toward (though not always in agreement with) the Puritan heritage of the U. S. in general and New England in particular. His writing is founded on thorough research and guided by sound judgment, and what is equally important, it is actually readable. Of the books in my library, I prize those by Morison among the highest.
While the title makes this book sound like a real "cure for insomnia," it is in fact a valuable and remarkable book that does a great service in dispelling multiple myths that have grown around the 17th century New England Puritans--that they were anti-intellectual, obscurantist, anti-scientific and bigoted beyond measure--none of which were true, as Morison decisively proves. Morison focuses on education, whether elementary, secondary or collegiate, publishing and book circulation, libraries public and private, literature (whether historical, political or poetic), and scientific interest in the New England colonies to gauge the level and nature of intellectual pursuits and interest. The Puritans come off very well indeed in the final analysis, even compared to the best of intellectual life in England itself.
Paul Johnson is a politically-conservative British Catholic historian. He is on the editorial board of and is an occasional contributor to THE AMERICAN SPECTATOR, one of the foremost conservative monthly publications in the States. Johnson is a voluminous reader and perceptive thinker, besides being a competent and interesting writer. He has numerous earlier historical works to his credit, among them ELIZABETH I, A HISTORY OF THE JEWS, A HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY and MODERN TIMES, this last being a superb history of the 20th century, and is so densely written (that is, so filled with information), that it requires a deliberate, careful reading to grasp it all.
Johnson's A HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE may be described as a "narrative history," that is, a flowing narrative of events, without the usual charts, maps, and photos that are found in many college-text type American histories (such as that of Current, Williams and Friedel mentioned in the survey of Morison's writings). It may be compared in style to William Manchester's THE GLORY AND THE DREAM, a history of America in the forty years 1932-1972, though it is decidedly more conservative in outlook. Johnson defends America as on the whole the brightest light in the whole history of nations, with its emphasis on justice and its self-sacrificing aid to other nations in distress, whether in the form of military assistance (as in the two world wars) or economically (as in the Marshall plan which rescued Western Europe from post-war deprivation). Those who wish to denigrate and "trash" the U.S. will find no sympathy here.
Johnson's style makes for easy and instructive reading. I was just going to "scan" through the book the day I got it, and ended up reading nearly 200 pages before I put it down. The book has been adopted as the text for American history in some colleges (in fact, my son at the Citadel has my copy now. Son, please send it home). This is definitely worthwhile reading.
Nat King Cole had one of the most distinctive voices among 20th century American popular singers. Is there anyone who doesn't recognize immediately his rendition of "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire"? Frankly, I have liked the way he sang a number of different songs. I was interested in reading about Cole's life in part because I had heard that his father was a Baptist preacher, and I wanted to know to what degree that background influenced Cole's viewpoint and conduct, and whether he showed any evidence of truly knowing the Lord.
Nathaniel Coles (for such was his real name) was born in Alabama between 1916 and 1919 (documentary evidence varies), one of thirteen children, though only five lived to adulthood. When he was about 4, his family moved to Chicago, where his father became pastor of a small Baptist church. All the Coles children learned to play musical instruments and sing in connection with the church. The music of Chicago night clubs, especially jazz, attracted first older brother Edward and then Nat, who would stay out in the alley behind the night clubs listening to the leading jazz artists of the day, and then try to imitate their style on the piano at home. This pre-occupation with contemporary music eventually resulted in Nat quitting school. He organized a trio, and began playing in night clubs, and then touring in the midwest. His father vigorously objected to his playing in the clubs, but his mother didn't see any great harm in it as long as Nat continued to play in church on Sundays as well.
Among the habits Nat picked up in the clubs was the use of tobacco. He was a very heavy smoker from his teens to his mid-40s, when he got lung cancer and died in early 1965. He also began the consumption of alcohol, though the biographer says that he rarely 'drank to excess,' whatever that might mean.
Around age 19, Cole married Nadine, a woman about 10 years his senior. This marriage lasted a decade. In 1946, while still married to Nadine, Cole met Maria, a widowed singer slightly younger than himself, and began an adulterous relationship with her which lasted until he divorced Nadine in 1948 (the book contains hints of other immoral relationships). Nat and Maria were married in Harlem at the Abyssinian Baptist Church by the infamous Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, who, besides being married four times himself, would later represent Harlem in the U.S. Congress, and was actually expelled by that body because his conduct was so outrageous and disgraceful.
At the time he discovered that he had lung cancer (late 1964), Cole was apparently about to divorce wife no. 2 so he could marry a dancer in her 20s.
Because of his fame and importance in the world of entertainment, Cole played an important part in breaking down the barriers of segregation that were a large part of America in the 1940s and 50s. He was the first black performer to host a TV program, though for want of sponsors, it did not remain long on the network's schedule.
If the biographer presents anything like a balanced and accurate picture of Cole, then I must conclude that from the time Cole left home in Chicago until his death, his Baptist heritage was pretty much abandoned. His attendance at church is not noted but once (when he returned to Chicago for a visit; he went to his father's church). His daughter Natalie (and apparently the rest of the five children in the Cole home) was raised as an Episcopalian, like her mother, but converted to being a Baptist in the 1980s after a nearly- disastrous period of drug abuse and depression. Whether her profession was the genuine article, I cannot say.
There is nothing sadder to me that seeing someone who had a great Biblical heritage turn away from it and cast it away. Privileges squandered, blessings abandoned, and for what--a few brief days of the world's praise and the temporary gratification of the body? How sad indeed!
Perhaps I display a good deal of naiveté in saying it, but I keep hoping against hope that sometime I will read the life of someone in the "entertainment" business (whether music, sports, or drama) who had real character and convictions which compelled him to lead a decent moral life that was in fact exemplary rather than being degraded and depraved. Perhaps, by its very nature, the entertainment business would drive out anyone who displayed any real moral fortitude. The more I read and learned of Cole, the less taste I had for any of his music.
The author of this biography, which is based in very large measure on interviews with people who knew and worked with or for Cole, is very sympathetic to Cole, and glosses over most of his serious character defects. The focus is on Cole's music, and so naturally there are lots of people in the narrative--jazz musicians, song writers, music publishers, record producers, and the like--about whom I know little or nothing. This of course made the reading more of a chore to me. Because most of Cole's public life was in the era of racial segregation, this also has a sizable place in the narrative. Let us be grateful that the blatant racism described is no longer characteristic of our society.