My blog posts revolve around my interests and vocation as a historian: the intersection of history and contemporary church life, the intersection of history and contemporary politics, serendipitous discoveries in archives or on research trips, publications and research projects, upcoming conferences, and speaking engagements.
I sometimes blog for two other organizations, the Canadian Baptist Historical Society and the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.
The views expressed in these blogs represent the views of the authors, and not necessarily those of any organizations with which they are associated.
I have been working through my pile of stacked books, trying to beat it down so that it does not tip over (and so that I can pile more books on). Here are my summer reads so far, in no particular order (although the last one is pretty depressing).
I found this paperback edition at a local country general store’s used book bin. I bought it for 25 cents! It was a quick and fun read at the cottage. The only downside was it reminded me of the not-so-impressive movie trilogy made a few years ago.
“Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!” said Bilbo.
“Of course,” said Gandalf. “And why should not they prove true? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bring them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!” (286-287)
I have repeatedly said in my classes that virtually every movement and/or idea is a reaction to something. And the best way to understand a movement and/or idea is to find out what it is reacting to. This book is no exception to that general notion – in fact, is a perfect example of it.
For decades the West has understandably faced criticisms for the darker parts of its history, such as empire, slavery, or treatment of minorities (ethnic, religious, or otherwise). Some more recent denunciations of the West have gone much further and stated that western civilization is basically devoid of anything redeemable and should be demolished. Murray’s book is a reaction to such extreme rhetoric – a reaction to a reaction so to speak.
Memorable Quote: “For if you are to weigh a thing up, then you must not simply pile things up on one side of the scale. You must put something on the other side too. If you put the fact that the West has had racism in its history and leave the scale weighted only on that side, then of course you will come out with unbalanced judgments. And that is what has been allowed to happen. But must the good things not count for something?” (210)
This enjoyable and insightful book provides a fascinating portrayal of a German medieval abbess who was officially canonized in 2012. That same year she joined the ranks of the Catholic Doctors of the Church (4 women, 33 men).
I tell my students when I teach my course on women in Christian history that if they limit their study of the church to ordained female pastors/priests their study will be short indeed. In fact, they would never find St. Hildegard.
However, as soon as you ask “what are the various ways women have served in the church” you open up whole new vistas of research. As this book indicates, St. Hildegard was a dynamo of energy, gifted beyond most people, and a godly saint whose piety was widely recognized. She was a leader (abbess), reformer, visionary, an author in botany and health, as well as a correspondent with some of the most important religious and political figures in Europe. Her music can be listened to on YouTube! She was not perfect, but she is certainly worth reading about!
Memorable Quote: “These time-consuming battles are not easily comprehended today, with our sketchy knowledge of the mechanics of twelfth-century finances. Yet they reveal Hildegard’s sharp, if not ruthless, attitude to business and her careful forward planning. The move, prompted though it might have been by a heavenly vision, took effect in a real world of property and politics.”
I am fascinated by visions of the future (that is why my favorite movies tend to be science fiction). This book was written in troubling times, and it portrays a dystopian society controlled from conception to death by a state that is allegedly doing what it does it for the good of humanity. It is a dark vision where humanity has been altered by science, adjusted by behavioral modification, duped by propaganda, categorized by class, and numbed by “soma” (a drug that brings calm and relief from any anxiety). At the end of the day, the “savage” born in the wild was the only real human in the story. Not to be read if you are looking for a happy read.
“But I don’t want comfort, I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“All right, then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.”
There was a long silence.
“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.
Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders. “You’re welcome,” he said. (187)
This brief book (91 pages) provides a reprint (along with essay) of Michael Massing’s publications detailing the gross incompetence of the American media in the months leading up to the Iraq War (2003), as well as in the months immediately following the conflict. The government’s manipulation of the media – and the willingness of the media to be play along with the state by being the sycophantic patriotic cheerleader of the state’s actions – is a sober reminder to those today who blissfully and blindly believe that the state and media can be trusted in time of crisis.
As the booklet clearly demonstrates, governments lie and the media helps them do it (especially when the media stands to profit from it). You have been warned.
Memorable Quote: “It is understandable that governments should want to limit dissent within their own ranks and to avoid embarrassing disclosures. Less understandable, however, is that an independent press in a ‘free’ country should allow itself to become so paralyzed that it not only failed to investigate thoroughly the rationales for war, but also took so little account of the myriad other cautionary voices in the on-line, alternative, and world press….Few, it seemed, remembered I. F. Stone’s admonition, ‘If you want to know about governments, all you have to know is two words: Governments lie.’” (iv-v)
I enjoy Margaret MacMillan’s approach to historical research and have appreciated other works of hers such as Paris 1919, The War That Ended Peace, and The Uses and Abuses of History. All well written and researched history.
This book provides a fun and informative journey through time to look at a number of personalities that displayed leadership characteristics (both strengths and weaknesses) under the categories of Hubris, Daring, Curiosity, and Observers. Her emphasis on human agency and the power of a single person to make a difference is appreciated.
Memorable Quote: “I hope that the individuals I have selected from the past will help to illuminate for us here in the present the complicated nature of humanity, its many contradictions, inconsistencies, its wickedness and follies but its virtues too. Above all, history’s people can make us aware of the possibilities for good and evil we all possess.” (348)
This work may be short (81pages) but it is quite interesting and informative. It is works like this that remind us that the past is far more complex than how movies or social media portray it. For instance, most people are not aware of the Muslim slave trade in North Africa that operated as far north as Iceland for over three centuries, taking over a million Europeans into slavery.
The book is not a work of whataboutism. It passionately condemns the American slave trade and notes the inconsistency of some Europeans to condemn slavery on the one hand but carry it out on the other. It is also a work from the mid-nineteenth century, and so must be read with that context in mind. That said, it does provide a summary of the history of slavery from the world of antiquity to the nineteenth century, notes the Christian ministries established to ransom slaves taken in raids, and details the horrors of the slave trade running out of the Barbery Coast (basically the north of Africa from west of Egypt to the Atlantic coast).
Memorable Quote: “God, in his great mercy, showed them a means for their wished for escape. A sudden wind arose, when, the captain coming to help him take in the mainsail, two of the English youths suddenly took him by the breech and threw him overboard; but, by fortune, he fell into the bunt of the sail, where, quickly catching hold of a rope, he, being a very strong man, had almost gotten into the ship again; which John Cook perceiving, leaped speedily to the pump, and took off the pump break, or handle, and cast it to William Long, bidding him knock him down, which he was not long in doing, but, lifting up the wooden weapon, he gave him such a palt on the pate, as made his braines forsake the possession of his head, with which his body fell into the sea.”
This reprint of a nineteenth century history provides a gripping description of the small group of zealous Christians in northern Italy who sought to live a gospel-oriented life outside of the structure of the medieval Catholic Church. Sadly, the persecution of the church was brutal, leading to deaths and diaspora. Fortunately, a remnant survived (and joined the ranks of the Protestants of the Reformation).
The oppression of this group is almost beyond imagination, and the “memorable quote” below is a gruesome reminder of what horrors those people faced simply to remain faithful to their confession of faith. You may not want to read the following description of the Great Massacre of 1655.
Memorable Quote: “Little children were torn from the arms of their mothers, clasped by their tiny feet, and their heads dashed against the rocks; or were held between two soldiers and their quivering limbs torn up by main force. Their mangled bodies were then thrown on the highways or fields, to be devoured by beasts. The sick and the aged were burned alive in their dwellings. Some had their hands and arms and legs lopped off, and fire applied to the severed parts to staunch the bleeding and prolong their suffering. Some were flayed alive, some were roasted alive, some disemboweled; or tied to trees in their own orchards, and their hearts cut out. Some were horribly mutilated, and of others the brains were boiled and eaten by these cannibals. Some were fastened down into the furrows of their own fields, and ploughed into the soil as men plough manure into it. Others were buried alive. Fathers were marched to death with the heads of their sons suspended round their necks. Parents were compelled to look on while their children were first outraged [raped], then massacred, before being themselves permitted to die.” (106-107)
 See previous blogs on the media and war: https://www.gordonlheath.com/blog/fake-news-media-war-and-violence-part-1;https://www.gordonlheath.com/blog/fake-news-media-and-war-part-2; https://www.gordonlheath.com/blog/fake-news-media-and-war-part-3