The Great Depression

The label “The Great Depression” applies largely to world-wide economic conditions after the Great War. France and Russia were badly damaged by the war (and both Russia and the Ottoman Empire continued to experience wartime conditions for several years after the Armistice). Germany was economically devastated and was further stifled by required reparation payments to France and Great Britain. Inflation in Germany was so bad after the way that Germany money was—literally—less valuable than the paper on which it was printed. The British Empire also required time to recover from the cost of the war in lives, dire medical conditions, industries that had been converted to wartime production, and disrupted transportation of raw materials and goods around the world.

The United States’ economy was booming from the economic benefits of a world war. Food, cotton, and many other products had been very profitable during the war and immediately after. But in the 1920s, customers did not always exist for American productivity; food and cotton and manufactured supplies began to pile up in warehouses. The problem worsened as European economies recovered from the war. Surpluses grew, prices fell, and jobs began to be cut. Powerful flooding further aggravated agricultural concerns in 1927. The historic Stock Market Crash of October 1929 was merely the final dramatic symptom of a Depression that had already begun. The banks that collapsed due to the stock market crash were already teetering on the edge of failure. In many parts of the country, the stock market crash was not even front-page news.

But economic depression was not the only kind of depression that the world faced in the 1920s. The Great War undercut everything that Europeans and North Americans had been saying about science and technology since the Enlightenment. Victorian optimism about an improving world was crushed by the War. Supposedly the most civilized and educated leaders had caused the war and had failed to stop it once it started. Science and technology had been used to cause and increase suffering. Optimism about solutions to all the world’s problems had been misplaced. Survivors of the Great War lacked the hope and encouragement that their parents and grandparents had invested in the future.

Some elements of this depression began during the Victorian Age. Cameras made naturalistic painting unnecessary, so painters began to experiment in abstract art, such as impressionism.  After the war, further adventures in art were explored, such as expressionism and cubism. All of these reflected, to a degree, rejection of the schools of art that had dominated European culture since the Renaissance. Likewise, in music, the change began during the Victorian Age. Especially in France, which lost a brief war to Germany in 1870, rejection of German music led to a new style of music which was also called impressionism. After the war, more jarring forms of music emerged, discordant and irregular in rhythm. Pessimism and absurdism began to emerge in literature and theater after the war. Writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald described the darker side of life, while other writers went to greater extremes to reflect their depression, turning away from the confident optimism that prevailed from the Enlightenment through the Victorian Age.

Science contributed to the depression. For several generations, it had seemed that science had achieved all its major discoveries; it appeared that science would now simply define its procedures, making knowledge more complete and more reliable with each new generation. Einstein’s theories of relativity changed all that. Suddenly it was seen that Euclid’s geometry and Newton’s physics only apply to the world we move through in our common experience. The rules are not the same at the very large or at the very small. Subatomic particles follow rules that seem to defy everything we thought we know about the real world. In biology, the prevailing theory of evolution presented men and women as nothing more than animals which were a little more successful than other kinds of animals. Now Sigmund Freud added to the recipe for darkness, arguing that strange and mysterious things are happening in our minds beyond the thoughts of which we were already aware.

In all this doubt and uncertainty—but especially in the turmoil of the economic Depression—large numbers of people put their trust in the power and authority of politicians and government to provide answers. Out of this misplaced trust came totalitarian governments—political powers that exercised control over vast portions of citizens’ lives. Modern technology made this kind of control more possible than ever before. Governments began by controlling communication—newspapers, magazines, books, radio broadcasts, and other way people shared thoughts and ideas. The same governments also controlled education. Stalin and the Communist Party gained that kind of power in the Soviet Union, followed by Mussolini and the Fascist Party in Italy, and Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany. In each of these countries, competing political parties were outlawed. Disagreeing with the government was not allowed. A person who spoke a contrary idea might be jailed as a criminal, or might be hospitalized as mentally ill (only released when that person was “cured” and agreed with the government), or might simply disappear. The government announced its economic successes, and no one was in a position to contradict those announcements. Even after the Second World War, an entire generations of historians continued to report that under the Fascists the trains ran on time. Finally, researchers took the trouble to fact-check that claim and to prove it false.

People from the United States visited the Soviet Union. They saw the new factories, they read the government reports, and they met no one who dared to seem unhappy with the new system. Therefore, they returned to the United States saying, “I have seen the future, and it works!” A Communist Party grew in the United States during the Depression, while other citizens advocated other forms of socialism. The Republicans in power seemed unable to help American citizens, especially when a devastating drought struck the central farmlands of the country in 1930 and 1931. Despairing voters turned to Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Party, hoping that the promises of a New Deal could be kept.

Roosevelt and the Democrats believed that some problems are so big that only the government is big enough to solve them. New Deal programs included several government ages that hired workers—building schools and parks and armories, paving roads, digging ditches, and contributing in other ways to the infrastructure. Artists were hired to paint murals in government buildings, especially post offices. Writers were hired to interview the last surviving former slaves, to record the memories of pioneers, and to pen travelogues of the various states. Women were gathered to sew and to learn how to can fruits and vegetables. Meanwhile, Social Security was created—collecting a tax from workers and their employers to pay other people (mainly the disabled and the elderly) not to work. Farmers were paid not to plant crops. Lands seized for tax default were offered to homeless farm families under generous programs that helped them to reestablish themselves on the land.

Historians debate whether the New Deal ended the Depression or prolonged it. Since the Second World War ended the economic struggle of the Depression (as well as some New Deal programs), a clear conclusion about the value of the New Deal cannot be found. But Roosevelt and the New Deal Democrats did not seek or establish a totalitarian state. They did not outlaw the Republican Party, or even the Communist Party. Instead, Roosevelt spoke in favor of four freedoms: “Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.” Even while expanding government’s presence and power in the lives of its people, the New Deal continued to focus on freedom for American citizens. J.

Two sides of the modern era

The modern era, with its Baroque or Enlightenment beginnings, soon developed two frames of mind. Opposing in some ways, they proved to be more complementary than oppositional. Often discussed separately, they actually overlapped, challenging one another and feeding one another. But both frames of mind were thoroughly modern—believing in progress, in reason, and in objective and complete access to truth.

These frames of mind have acquired various labels. They have been called classic and romantic, rational and emotional, head and heart, even Apollonian and Dionysian. While many people have favored one and spoken against the other, most individuals contain aspects of both in their outlook and in their daily lives. In the arts, the classical expressions are generally regarded as earlier and the romantic expressions as later, as if the romantic artists challenged the classical artists. But both continued to be expressed, to be enjoyed, and to be imitated throughout the modern era right up to the present time.

In music, Mozart represents the classical mindset, and Beethoven represents the romantic. In literature, Shakespeare writes in the classical style, and Goethe writes the romantic way. The contrast can be found in visual arts, in historical studies, and even in theology. Among Lutherans, the contrast is sometimes phrased as “dead orthodoxy” as compared to “pietism.” The former refers to faith as expressed through correct doctrine and formal, traditional worship; the later emphasizes faith as a personal relationship with the Lord, felt in the heart and not merely in the mind. Clearly, value is found in both; they do not have to be an either/or (although often they are described as either/or, one correct and one incorrect). Among Anglicans, the contrast is sometimes phrased as High Church vs. Low Church, or as Episcopal vs. Methodist.

It might seem that the classical mindset is more open to science and technology, but people with the romantic mindset also willingly benefit from the benefits of science and technology. In fact, a romantic mind might explore “what if” questions that lead to scientific or technological breakthroughs that would not come from a purely classical mindset.

Others might relate classical and romantic mindsets to conservative and liberal attitudes. But the contrasts vary in different dimensions. Both classical and romantic people might be conservative, wanting to keep things the way they are; both classical and romantic people might be liberal, wanting to improve things, assuming that they can be better than they are. Conservatism and liberalism both belong to the modern world in a way that does not relate as neatly to pre-modern thinking or to post-modern thinking.

Every human institution found it necessary to adapt to modern thinking. The Church, the governments, the schools, the workplaces, even the families were affected by modern thinking. Classical and romantic contrasts increased the turmoil of the transition. But probably no change was more earthshaking than the technological changes that are described as the Industrial Revolution. J.

The so-called Renaissance

Clearly no one living in the Middle Ages thought of their time as being the Middle Ages. Like people today, the people of medieval Europe saw themselves as the latest thing, living on the edge of the future. Probably some of them were convinced that “they’ve gone about as far as they can go” in historic progress and/or in wickedness and corruption. Many Christians living in those centuries were prepared for the End of the World and the New Creation, because the times seemed troubled, just as the Bible describes the Last Days.

Likewise, no one living in the Renaissance called their time the Renaissance. The label was attached centuries later by historians determined to teach that Europe experienced Dark Ages that lasted for centuries before reemerging into the light of civilization. “Renaissance” means “rebirth,” and those later historians interpreted certain events and trends to mark a rebirth of the glory of ancient Greece and Rome, overcoming the darkness brought on by acceptance of the Christian faith, invasion of Germanic and Asian tribes, and other supposedly bad things that happened in Europe between the years 500 and 1500 AD.

Getting historians to agree on a time span for the Renaissance indicates how illusionary the label truly is. The widest possible range would stretch from the beginning of revival after the worst of the Black Death—around 1350 AD—to the end of religious wars triggered by the Reformation—around 1650 AD. This three-hundred-year Renaissance swallows the Late Middle Ages, the time of European Exploration, and the entire Reformation era. But when one starts trimming away the events and trends of the Late Middle Ages and the Reformation era, very little history is left to apply to the Renaissance label.

The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks might be a fitting end to the Middle Ages and beginning of the Renaissance, since the Byzantine Empire represents continuity from the Roman Republic and Empire. Distinguishing the Renaissance from the Reformation—which traditionally begins in 1517—we are left with a sixty-four-year Renaissance in Italy and the rest of western Europe. Even then, many of the events and trends assigned to the Renaissance belong to the Late Middle Ages. Trying to dial back the Renaissance to 1400 or 1350 clouds the issue. Some historians split the Renaissance into two pieces—one for Italy, which had an earlier and longer Renaissance, and one for the rest of western Europe, which joined late and had a shorter Renaissance culminating in the Reformation.

Historical progress and set-backs, bright ages and dark ages, are largely illusions. Many gains are accompanied by losses. Resistance to change often outshouts new ideas for a while; as a consequence, when historians seek the beginning of new ideas, they find their origins happened earlier than most people realized. The Scientific Revolution, for example, was well-supported by Middle Age philosopher/theologians including William of Ockham, Nicholas of Cusa, and Roger Bacon. Nicolaus
Copernicus lived from 1473 to 1543, but his revolutionary suggestion that the Earth and other planets circle the sun was already suggested as an alternate model of the universe in Ptolemy’s famous work from the second century (and earlier Greek scientist/philosophers had made similar proposals).

Aside from allegedly rediscovering the civilization of ancient Greece and Rome, what made the Renaissance different from earlier times, particularly the High and Late Middle Ages? Renaissance artists strove to imitate the world as they saw it rather than using the visual arts to reinforce religious teachings. As a result, Renaissance artists developed new techniques to make their paintings and statues more photographically accurate. Famous artists, including Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo (yes, and Raphael and Donatello—they were all Renaissance artists in Italy before they became mutant ninja turtles), are famous for the realism of their artwork. Previous artists could have achieved similar work; they chose not to because the purpose of their art differed from that of the Renaissance artists.

That observation signals a second difference: Renaissance artists and thinkers valued the individual more highly than medieval artists and thinkers. Research must be done to uncover the names of those who built and decorated the medieval cathedrals. Their work was a gift to God, and they celebrated their anonymity. The heroic stature of Leonardo and Michelangelo reflects a philosophy of humanism, one which includes among its values the preeminent significance of the individual.

Renaissance humanism was not like modern secular humanism; sometimes it is called Christian humanism. While humanists asserted that “man is the measure of all things,” they did not deny the existence of God or his importance in creation and in salvation. Many of the works of Leonardo and Michelangelo depict Biblical persons and events. Still, these artists—along with philosophers and writers and historians of the Renaissance—emphasized the humanity of their subjects and the humanity of their audiences. (This trend also can be traced back to medieval thinkers such as Peter Abelard and Dante.)

Politics and economics are said to have changed significantly during the Renaissance, beginning in Italy. The shift from feudalism to capitalism can already be perceived in the guilds of the Middle Ages and in the development of banking, which did not appear out of nowhere in fifteenth-century Italy. Economic shifts happened in Europe because of the population decline due to the Black Death and to population growth after the plague diminished. At the same time, new wealth poured into western Europe from the explorers—first the Portuguese on the Atlantic coast of Africa, then the Spanish entering the New World, then the English and French and others also entering the Americas. These all contributed to the political and economic changes that were reshaping Europe at the very same time that the Reformation of the Church developed.

Which, of course, leads to several more historic posts in the coming days…. J.

More Heidegger

Last night I finished reading Martin Heidegger’s classic philosophy text, Being and Time. (That makes 98 books finished before the end of June 2021, which means I am on roughly the same reading pace that I was last year, but no one but me is measuring.) Heidegger’s mention of “falling prey” prompted me to write a recent post, which led to a comment by Slim Jim (whose blog I strongly recommend) that he would like to read some of Heidegger’s work. I was going to respond to his comment, but I think that instead I will share my impression of Heidegger with the world in general.

As a philosopher working in the first half of the twentieth century, Heidegger had a long tradition preceding him, one that had thoroughly inquired into many of the key questions that philosophy generally addresses. At the same time, many philosophical questions were beginning to be handed off to various branches of science—astronomy, physics, chemistry, psychology, anthropology, and so on. Heidegger found himself returning to some of the questions that many people considered solved already in the work of Plato and Aristotle: what does it mean for someone or something to exist? What does it mean to speak of existence? Is existence a quality like size or shape or color? The study of existence (technically called ontology) opened new doors for Heidegger to explore. His entire career consisted of various approaches to the meaning of existence and how a definition of existence shapes all the other philosophical questions we might ask about ourselves and about the world around us.

For others inclined, like Slim Jim, to go online or to the library and tackle some of Heidegger’s work, I have four suggestions to keep in mind:

  • Like most professional philosophers, Martin Heidegger used a carefully defined vocabulary in which some common words have very narrow and specific meanings. Other words you find in Heidegger’s work are used only by philosophers, and many of the words he uses, Heidegger himself invented. Philosophers do not write this way became they are trying to be difficult or to look smart. They do this so that, as they write, they say exactly what they mean, no more and no less.
  • Not only is the vocabulary challenging, but the sentence structure is also more complex in Heidegger and in most other philosophers than it is in (for example) a typical novel or newspaper story or Reader’s Digest article. The reason for such a complex style of writing matches that of the difficult vocabulary: Heidegger and other philosophers are trying to make sure that they write exactly what they mean, no more and no less.
  • Because of the difficult vocabulary and structure, the writing of philosophers such as Heidegger must be read slowly and repeatedly. Reading the same work five times is considered typical for the reader who wants to grasp what the writer is saying. (I will address this from a different angle in a few seconds.)
  • When you have taken the trouble to learn a philosopher’s vocabulary, to adjust to that philosopher’s writing style, to read slowly, and to read that philosopher’s work several times, you may find that the philosopher’s conclusions are startlingly simple. Perhaps they even seem like common sense. This does not mean that the philosopher wasted his or her time spent in writing or wasted your time spent in reading. The philosopher may have reached a conclusion that you already believed, but the philosopher has taken the difficult road to reach that conclusion. The philosopher’s conclusion is not a guess; it is based on long and deep thinking, consideration of many other options that never occurred to you, and considerable caution to make sure that no false steps were taken at any part of the journey.

My senior year of college, I was one of a team of students who came early to campus to help orient the incoming freshmen. College orientation means more than standing in the quad and pointing east. (The term, however, comes from the practice of observing the sunrise at the beginning of the day, knowing that the sun rises in the east, and using that information to identify north, south, and west.) During that orientation weekend, I had ten or twelve freshmen sitting in my dormitory room where we had a scheduled visit from their faculty advisor. Standing in my room, leaning against my closet door, this professor told the new students that they should consider college a full-time job. It was not enough to attend classes and do a little homework; they should expect to spend hours outside the classroom reading the assigned work, researching and writing, and thinking about what they were learning. One of the points he made was that, to understand a book well, one must read that book five times.

After the professor left, the freshmen asked me whether it is true that they had to read their books five times to understand them. “It depends upon the book,” I told them. I reminded them that this professor taught philosophy, where the five-times rule is generally true. Other books might be grasped in a first or second reading. With many more years to consider the five-times rule, though, I have come to the conclusion that any good book requires and deserves multiple readings. The books of the Bible require multiple readings—the five-time rule is a worthy guide for the Bible. Great literature needs repeated reading. Many science and history textbooks need more than one reading before they start to make sense. In our busy, hurried world, most of us read a document (on paper or on a screen) only once. Even our own writing, we often read once and then click “publish.” Good writing merits re-reading. When we want our writing to be good, we must read it again and again, verifying that we have written what we want to say—no more and no less.

Two little things (aside from “falling prey”) captured my attention in the last part of Heidegger’s book. One was his examination of conscience. Normal people (excluding psychopaths or sociopaths) have a conscience, an inner voice that warns us when we are wrong. Heidegger asks what we call that inner voice when it persistently reminds us that we have been wrong: is that a “bad conscience” or a “good conscience”? Stop and think about that for a moment. As a Christian, I have an answer Heidegger did not propose: a bad conscience reminds us of our guilt and keeps on warning us we were wrong but offers no hope to change our condition; a good conscience also reminds us of our guilt but leads us to repent of our sin, to throw ourselves on God’s mercy, and to trust his promise of forgiveness.

Dealing with the themes of being and time, Heidegger spoke about the items on display in a museum. We often say that we look at them to learn about the past. But, as Heidegger reminds his readers, we see them in the museum only because they exist in the present. Their meaning and significance may be altered now that they are displayed in a museum—they are not, in that sense, identical to what they were when they existed as everyday items in common usage. But they cannot bring us into their past because our being, our existence, our Da-sein, is seeing them only in the present, not in our personal past.

That’s enough deep thinking for tonight. J.

No need to jump, part two

I have found a way to work my latest story idea into a long-standing unfinished novel that has been brewing for roughly thirty years. The main character, Roger Sorenson, will be the poisoning victim I mentioned in my last post. The story begins with his death and the beginning of the police investigation. It then jumps backward in time to the beginning of his relationship with Rose Gardner, his ex-wife who is a suspect in his murder.

Ernest Gardner had nothing in his life but his business and his family, and long ago he combined the two into one. His wife is long-gone, but all three of his daughters—Rose, Lily, and Violet—work at his florist shop. (Those names may be too cute, but for the time being they will work as place-holders.) Ernest’s florist shop is no small business at one end of a strip mall, ordering produce from chain suppliers. The shop occupies most of a city block, complete with greenhouses, showrooms, and office space. Ernest inherited the business before he was married, and his daughters have grown up with the business. Violet is still in school, but she works in the shop evenings and weekends. Lily is a full-time worker in the greenhouses. Rose, the eldest, has taken business classes and earned a degree; she is the company bookkeeper for Ernest’s shop.

For several years, Ernest has hired a student or two from the university across town to assist in the office with clerical work. He has never hinted this thought to any of his clerks or to any of his daughters, but at the back of his mind Ernest is always hoping to create a match. He would like to find a husband for his daughters, an educated man, but a man willing to take an interest in the family business. Rose is old enough and set in her ways; Ernest doubts at this point that any romantic match will come her way. Lily and Violet seem more eligible matches for the young men Ernest hires. Rose is strong-willed, firm in her opinions, and confident in her abilities. (Shakespeare may have helped a tiny bit to invent this character and her situation.)

Roger Sorenson is this year’s clerk. He is finishing his classwork to earn a doctorate in Philosophy. He has already begun contemplating the topic of his thesis. Most of his mind is focused on his schoolwork, but he appreciates the extra income from the clerk’s position. Moreover, Roger is a quick learner. In a few weeks he learned the basic tasks in the florist business; not only can he handle office paperwork, but he is also capable of serving in the shop, waiting on customers.

One day, when Roger and Rose are in the shop, a man enters and attempts an armed robbery. Roger heroically protects Rose from harm and disarms the robber, but not before Roger is injured. (I have fantasized this event in many ways over the years; the details will not be hard to write.) Because all his family is out of town, Roger is welcomed into the Gardner household to continue his recovery once he is released from the hospital. Rose is at his side as often as her schedule allows. Romance and marriage will follow.

Since Roger is studying philosophy, he will have many opportunities during his convalescence to explain the workings of philosophy to a skeptical Rose. To show the value of his discipline, Roger will begin with aesthetics—the question of what things are beautiful, and why. Rose must analyze flowers and flower arrangements according to structured thought rather than intuitive design. From that beginning, Rose will also learn about ethics and finally about the eternal questions regarding the universe—what is real, and how do we know? These questions become increasingly important as the accused robber and his friends present a version of what happened that fateful day in the shop which is dramatically different from the event as Roger and Rose remember it.

A jury hears the evidence, including the conflicting testimony, and it convicts the robber of attempted murder. He spends the next several years in prison, learning from his fellow prisoners about crime, making connections with other members of the local criminal community. His release from prison happens only a few weeks before Roger receives the package of poisoned candy. By this time, Roger and Rose have been married and divorced. Did she send him the candy, or was she framed by the man who once threatened her with a gun? Will the truth ever be found?

This story permits the insertion of various explanations of philosophy and its applications to contemporary life. One version or another of this book has been in my mind for many years. Like me, Roger Sorenson is a Christian, a fan of Kierkegaard, and an avid reader of western civilization’s classic works. Can he share this passion with Rose, or will the Great Thoughts be the nemesis of their relationship? J.

The best and worst of times

In January I began the great five-year adventure of reading through the Great Books—the classic writings of Western Civilization from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. This being mid-March, I have just finished Herodotus’ historic description of the Greek war with Persia and have begun the equally famous Peloponnesian Wars.

Looking once again at the political adventures and battles that set the poleis, or city-states, in conflict with one another, I am reminded of Charles Dickens’ famous opening to his novel of the French Revolution. Everyone knows how the novel begins: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness….” Likewise, everyone knows the closing line of the novel: “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done….” Probably not so many people can summarize the plot that fills four hundred pages between those lines or can remember any other memorable quotes from that novel. But I wander from my point, which is that for Greece in the years of the Peloponnesian Wars it also was the best of times and the worst of times.

Against all odds, the Greeks had withstood two invasions from the mighty Persian Empire. They had overcome both the massive land army raised by Persia and also its mighty navy. Now Athens was being rebuilt, fashioning the remarkable structures that still draw tourists today. The great Greek dramatists were writing the great timeless plays that are still read and studied today. Greek science and mathematics were reaching new and amazing heights, and for the first time philosophy was being developed in the European continent.

Yet at the same time, the Greeks were destroying themselves with constant warfare against one another. Men lost their lives on the battlefield in the prime of their life, sacrificing themselves nobly for petty squabbles that were unworthy of the price they demanded. Armies leveled the crops and orchards of their opponents. Money was wasted on military equipment—money that could have further advanced the architecture, drama, science, and philosophy of the age. Crowding into their cities to escape the battles, citizens spread plague that cost the Greeks more lives and more sorrow. Wisdom and foolishness, Light and Darkness: all these contrasts can be seen in the ancient Greek wars as clearly as in the French Revolution or any other modern conflict.

One of the lessons of classic literature is this: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Centuries have come and gone, and people continue to make the same mistakes. We study the past, but we fail to learn from it. Indeed, the history of the Peloponnesian wars is, without doubt, a tale of Thucydides. J.

Thoughts on Dr. Seuss’s “cancelled” books

People thinking about this week’s Dr. Seuss controversy will benefit from reading this article. It addresses all sides of the issue, separates facts from misunderstandings and misinformation, and provides a greater context within the cultural mayhem of our time. J.

https://librarianmagdalena.wordpress.com/2021/03/05/thoughts-on-dr-seusss-cancelled-books/

Of many books there is no end

  Last night I read Psalms 149 & 150 and also Revelation 21-22. This morning I read Psalms 1 & 2 and Genesis 1-3. These readings are part of a pattern I established years ago, reading through the Bible in one year (and covering the book of Psalms five times each year). Although those selected readings may create an impression that I read the Bible from cover to cover, I actually alternate between the testaments. In January, for example, I will read Genesis, Matthew, and Ecclesiastes. In February I will read Exodus, Hebrews, Romans, and Song of Songs. I try to keep the longer books (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) separated from one another; I try to match themes between the testaments as much as possible.

I also read other books: devotional books, philosophy, history, literature, fantasy and science fiction, poetry, drama, and the classics. Since the beginning of January 2001, I have kept lists of books I am reading and have finished. In this way, I have been counting the books I finished each year over the past twenty years.

In 2020, I smashed my previous record, probably because of the virus crisis and quarantine. Between January 1 and December 31, I finished 205 books, far beyond the earlier record of 176. In fact, my reading in 2020 actually increased my twenty-year average from 123.7 to 127.8. And these were not all short and easy books. They included the works of Soren Kierkegaard (which I actually started more than a year ago, so some of them were counted in 2019). They included the works of Leo Tolstoy (yes, even the epic War and Peace, unabridged). They included philosophers Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Rosseau, the Federalist, de Tocqueville, Thoreau, Emerson, and William James. In all, I read roughly 65,000 pages in 2020.

This being the dawn of a new year, I have started my reading list for 2021. I will read several volumes of Martin Luther’s works, will pick up some twentieth century philosophers (including Dewey, Nietzsche, and Freud), will read the works of Mark Twain and those of Kurt Vonnegut, and some other books besides. I will read the five books I got for Christmas this year. I will also read the first twelve volumes of Britannica’s Great Books; I already read the first twenty pages of Homer’s Iliad this afternoon.

I like to read. I like to relive old experiences by reading books I have read before. I like to learn new things. I like to see things from a different perspective. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that he had tried meditation, but he found that all the benefits promised from meditating happened for him when he was reading. That is my experience as well.

I tell prospective writers that they need to do three things: they must read a lot, they must write a lot, and they must rewrite a lot. I’ve got the first two skills down pretty well; I don’t always carry through with the third. Reading develops communication skills. It exposes the mind to better ways of expressing one’s self. It improves vocabulary, grammar, style, creativity, and thoughtfulness. More than any other means of communication, reading and writing allows communicators to reflect upon what is being said and to refine and polish the communication before sharing it with others.

For all I know, this could become one of those busy years when I don’t even finish one hundred books. Or I might have lots of spare time and set a new record. Either way, I will enjoy the books I read, and I will benefit from the exercise. Of that I can be sure. J.

Eponine and Irony

This summer I read, cover to cover, Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace. I also watched the movie musical made from Hugo’s epic novel Les Miserables. Both these great works from the nineteenth century contributed to my understanding of the underlying forces that are propelling our world and its communities in the mystical year 2020.

Tolstoy repeatedly and emphatically insisted that heroes and geniuses do not exist. We create them out of historic figures (or mythical figures) trying to understand history. Real history, according to Tolstoy, consists of movements among masses of people. Napoleon in his wars two hundred years ago was merely a chip bouncing on the waves of history. He had no more to do with the real history of his times than any other man or woman alive at the same time. Revolutionaries and street protestors, like those portrayed in Les Miserables, are equally impotent to shape the times in which they live. Hugo deliberately chose one of the most pointless and ineffective uprisings in French history—the June Rebellion of 1832—for his novel. Both Tolstoy and Hugo created fictional characters with meaningful lives and troubles to inhabit their novels. Both writers incorporated historical events as virtually meaningless background sights and sounds for their stories.

[With this innocuous beginning, I hope to have lost, by now, the more casual readers, along with those computer-generated searches that are designed to keep real thought and real truth from existing on the Internet. Indeed, some of those preceding sentences may well be copied and pasted into college papers handed in to professors for years to come. But my real Reader, if there is such a person, is advised to print a hard copy of this pair of posts. What I write and post today may well be edited or entirely removed in the coming days, and I might not be available to clarify or restore what I have written.]

Tolstoy and Hugo provide examples of a philosophy or world-view that has risen to dominate much of twenty-first century life. Behind this movement is a They or Them who really exist, although they are not formally organized as a single organization. One could call them the Illuminati, so long as one understands that they have no constitution or bylaws, no board of directors or officers, no membership list, no budget, no dues, no regular meetings, and no periodic newsletters. If they ever use a label like “Illuminati” among themselves, it is done with an ironic wink and grin. This Illuminati, like Tolstoy and Hugo, denies the value of individual accomplishment, of heroes and geniuses, of persons who mold and shape human history. When individual names (such as da Vinci, Rothschild, or Rockefeller) are attached to the Illuminati, the real Illuminati only chuckle in response. They lurk in the shadows, wanting no public recognition for their deeds. Yet, since this group includes the rich and the powerful, their influence extends into the lives of most people living in the world today.

They cross paths on the boards of large corporations. They see each other at gatherings of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Tri-Lateral Commission, and the Bilderberg Group. Their thinking is echoed by government officials around the world. Yet the Illuminati does not own or control any of these groups. They have uses for corporations, for governments, and especially for gatherings of people who discuss major issues and listen to one another to learn more about these issues. But the true Illuminati could not be extinguished by gathering and controlling people involved in the world at these levels.

The members of the Illuminati are rich and powerful. They all want to remain rich and powerful. In many ways, they compete with one another for wealth and power. They are not equipped to cooperate among themselves to run the world politically, economically, or in any other fashion. But they also do not believe that politics and economics run the world. They usually do not care who lives in the White House. Elections are, for the Illuminati, mere drama to entertain and distract the masses. In fact, most newsworthy events and most historic happenings are distraction and entertainment, neither caused nor controlled by the Illuminati, but used to achieve their deepest goals.

The Illuminati cannot control the weather. When storms happen, though, they find ways to use the aftermath for their own purposes. The Illuminati have no control over Mother Nature (or, if you prefer, God’s creation). They cannot start, spread, or eliminate diseases. When diseases happen, though, the Illuminati exercise their ability to focus attention on these diseases and their consequences or to distract people from these diseases and their consequences.

Their primary weapon is fear. Their primary tools are education and communication. What passes for news reporting in the current world is, in fact, an arm of the entertainment industry and not a service of communication for the world’s population. While they do not declare wars, fight wars, or bring an end to wars, the members of the Illuminati use past and present wars to shape public perception. Fear is their primary weapon: they are behind much of the fear that people have felt over the Cold War, nuclear weapons, environmental concerns, terrorism, climate change, street demonstrations, and COVID-19.

Because they deal in fear, the Illuminati do not want to solve problems of racial injustice, discrimination, or other factors that separate one group from another. Instead, they use their power over education and communication to highlight differences, stoke anger, and continue injustice. Government programs and privately-funded efforts that genuinely reduce injustice and promote cooperation are undermined; similar programs that continue injustice, damage cooperation, and generate further anger and fear are encouraged.

Like Tolstoy and Hugo, members of the current Illuminati are interested in broad movements among large groups of people. History and progress, to the Illuminati, are found in these movements. At the forefront of the powers that inhibit these movements are the traditional family and the traditional Christian congregation. The Illuminati encourages every opportunity that arises to undermine these two opponents. Removing children from their families to educate them in public schools was an Illuminati goal. Dominating the conversation in colleges and universities to turn students against their families and other traditional supporters of family was an Illuminati goal. Redefining the family to promote alternate lifestyles, even a rejection of biological gender, has been an Illuminati goal. Separating the joy of sex from the stability of marriage and family has long been an Illuminati goal.

Because it uses the entertainment industry to attack traditional families and traditional Christianity, the Illuminati has long endorsed anti-family behavior within that industry. As a result, children and young adults have succumbed to predators hidden within the industry for years. Public embarrassment of child stars emerging into adulthood has been the norm, not the exception. Charges against Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein are only the tip of the iceberg—surrender of a couple of egregious examples for the purpose of maintaining the nefarious structure to which those men belong. The victims of this structure are not people singled out for programing by a massive conspiracy; their tragedies are the inevitable result of a view of life that places personal pleasure and profit ahead of appropriate human relationships—and that plans to train the rest of the world to do the same.

To be continued… J

Seven classic novels for children

I’ve been buried in words the last several weeks, as I have engaged in a host of literary tasks. First, I am copy-editing and tweaking my book on Revelation, with the hope of sending it to the publisher in a week or two. Second, I’ve been quickly reading a book about the Sabbath (Saturday or Sunday) to which I’ve been asked to write a response. Third, I’m still enjoying First on the Moon as I celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo XI mission. Add to that my regular reading from the Bible and devotional material (I will finish Jerome on Monday—yea!), and have started reading Steinbeck’s novels, and am catching up on a stack of books I’ve acquired over the years without bothering to read them until now. On top of that, I chose this summer to revisit some old friends from my childhood.

In the family library downstairs I have my reading chair. Just behind the chair, on one of the corner shelves, are two rows of children’s books—some were bought for my children, but most have belonged to me when I was young. Working my way through Jerome and Steinbeck, I’d see these books out of the corner of my eye. Seven particular books are old friends, books that I would read and enjoy every summer when I was a boy. Finally, I couldn’t resist the temptation—I grabbed one of the seven and added it to my daily reading schedule.

In no particular order, here are my seven old friends.

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass: Mathematician Charles Dodgson created amusing tales for his friend and neighbor, Alice Liddell, and her sisters. Using the name Lewis Carroll, he published these stories to share with the world. Starring Alice, the two stories follow a little girl on two amazing journeys, one down a rabbit tunnel where she meets a variety of interesting characters, many of whom are members of a deck of cards. The second takes here through a mirror where she joins a chess game as a pawn, eventually crossing the board and becoming a queen, also meeting a variety of interesting characters along the way. In both stories, Dodgson (or Carroll) intersperses plot with poetry, sometimes with nonsense poems and sometimes with satires upon classic children’s poetry. He also blends in simple logic puzzles and other signs of his brilliant mathematical mind.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: Journalist Samuel Clemens also took on a pen name, calling himself Mark Twain as he wrote amusing stories to appear in journals and in books. His childhood memories that he blended into the character of Tom Sawyer and his friends are among his most remembered and beloved stories. Tom is a lively rascal, flitting from one adventure to another, but getting involved unintentionally in some of the greater drama of his community. Much of Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, is dedicated to his memory; I recommend a visit there during summer travels.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: More than a sequel to Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn tells the story of a lost boy, son of the town drunk, who eventually takes a raft down the Mississippi River in the company of an escaping slave. Without straying from plot and adventure, the book also wrestles with the problems of race, slavery, and human nature in general. One episode, set in an unnamed Arkansas riverside city (probably Napoleon) has the two travelers who have joined Huck and Jim swindle an entire city of naïve citizens. Tom Sawyer makes an appearance toward the end of the book, but he’s not the same carefree boy of his own novel. Instead, he builds an intricate web of intrigue to rescue Jim from confinement, even though Tom knows all along that Jim has already been freed by his owner.

Heidi: Johanna Spyri describes a young Swiss orphan who is left to her grandfather, a recluse living high on a mountain. The title character brings life and joy to all the neighborhood, but suddenly she is snatched away to be the companion of a crippled girl (probably a polio victim, although the book does not say) in Frankfurt. Heidi is miserable in the city, but she continues to bring life and joy to others. Along the way she is introduced to Christian piety by Klara’s grandmother, who teaches Heidi to pray and to trust the Good Lord. Heidi does as she is told, is whisked back to her grandfather on the mountaintop, once again brings life and joy to her neighbors, and does the same for her newer friends when they visit from Frankfurt. If you have only seen the Shirley Temple movie based on this book, you must read the book for yourself.

The Wizard of Oz: Frank Baum created a story which may or may not be an allegory of American politics. Dorothy Gale lives on a farm with her uncle and aunt and her little dog Toto, until one day a tornado lifts her and Toto to the land of Oz. There, she must travel to the capital city to see if the wizard can return her to Kansas. Along the way she is joined by a scarecrow seeking brains, a tin man needing a heart, and a lion wanting courage. To earn what they seek, they must kill the Wicked Witch of the West. The movie version, starring Judy Garland, omits many of the interesting events in the book; and the movie destroys the story with its resolution of “it was all a dream.”

Five Little Peppers and How They Grew: This story was written by Margaret Sidney. Three boys and two girls are being raised by their mother in poverty, but for the most part they are happy in spite of their lack of material comforts. About with the measles tests the family’s endurance, but afterward they cross paths with a rich family that dotes on the Peppers and mentors them. Unspoiled by their taste of wealth, the Peppers (like Heidi) continue to bring blessings into the lives of those near them. Even though I read the book every summer, my favorite chapters relate the family’s effort to celebrate Christmas in spite of their poverty.

Treasure Island: Robert Louis Stevenson begins his adventure with the son of an innkeeper. One of the inn’s residents is a retired pirate, now in hiding. When the pirate dies, his treasure map falls into the hands of the innkeeper’s son, just ahead of the effort of the other pirates to recover the map. Two wealthy gentlemen join with the son to sail to the island and find the buried treasure. Unfortunately, much of the crew that they hire as sailors consists of former pirates seeking the same treasure. Jim—the innkeepers’ son and now a cabin-boy, happens always to be in the right place at the right time to learn the plans of the pirates, led by the one-legged Long John Silver, and to foil those plans.

This is just some of the classic literature I am enjoying this summer. J.