Sep 07

In preparation for the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I decided to read up on Martin Luther. I’ve read three books so far, the fourth is in the mail and will be reported later. One book, Here I Stand, I’ve read many moons ago, so it was like reading the book fresh.

A life-Martin Luther, by Martin Marty ★★★★

This is a short, easy to read biography of Martin Luther. Marty focused primarily upon Luther as a person, with no effort to show how ML changed and affected the world that he lived in. It is easy to read in 1-2 evenings, and leaves you a feel for knowing ML personally. He works through Luther’s life in a historical fashion, providing vignettes of his life that are often illuminating as to the nature of the person, often chummy, often quite irascible. The book definitely does not labor hard on Luther’s theology, but more on his personality, and leaves nothing to describe the Lutheran church that he formed. It is a fun book to read, though not an encyclopedia of his life.

The Legacy of Luther, edited by RC Sproul and Stephen Nichols ★★

This book is a hodgepodge. As an edited book, the style and quality is quite variable. Several chapters are informative. Many are misleading or mistaken in their information. The two editors provide very little input, with RC Sproul writing almost nothing save for a few brief meaningless summary pages of text. Written by a bunch of Presbyterians, they do Luther a serious disservice by trying to fit ML into a Presbyterian mold. Though Presbyterians pride themselves in vigorous and accurate scholarship, this book is anything but that, save for a few chapters. Many of the chapters try to paint ML as a near-Presbyterian with Presbyterian theology, something they are quite mistaken about. There is minimal discussion as exactly how Lutheran thinking affected the minds of Reformed thinkers, such as Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer, Cranmer and others. Such discussion might have made the book an informative read. There is so much left out that the entire book, that it is a travesty. They fail to grasp how the liturgical reforms of ML in Wittemberg during the years 1522-1528 so heavily influenced Reformed practice. They fail to describe exactly how the formulations of the doctrines of grace in Lutheran thought affected Reformed thought. They failed in their attempts to compare and contrast Lutheran from Reformed thinking. All of these issues were responsible for affecting the world after Luther and forming his legacy.

The book is in three parts, the first being the history of Luther, portrayed in a very abbreviated fashion. It does have some historical inaccuracies, and was a little too brief to be meaningful. The second part was an attempt to describe Luther’s thought and theology from a Reformed perspective. This section was weak, and often completely misreads Luther by trying to make his words that of a Reformed thinker. This section would be best skipped altogether. The last section was on Luther’s legacy, which contained some good chapters. Particular were Luther’s work at translating the Scripture, Luther as a musician, and Luther as a preacher. One chapter, “Luther in the middle: Luther among the Reformers” was just plain odd, in that Luther, in the space of just a few years, had to completely re-invent the liturgy, while refusing to totally trash the Roman Catholic liturgy. For the most part, though there was Huss and Savonarola and few others before Luther, their legacy was not strong. Contemporaries such as Zwingli did not survive long enough to leave a lasting imprint on the church. Only Luther remained as, not the man in the middle, but the man at the head, serving as the model and example for all of Christendom, including the Lutheran, Reformed, and Anabaptist faith, as model of the church, worship, and christian behavior. Indeed, Luther affected German culture in toto, down to the very language now spoken in Germany. To call him a “man in the middle” is not only insulting but inaccurate.

The few good chapters in this book do not justify its purchase or time to read. I generally pride Sproul as a great scholar, yet this book is a shame to his name. I certainly hope that he either quits writing, or that he return to his older standards of excellence in scholarship.

 

Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, by Roland Bainton ★★★★★

There is very little that I could possibly say critical of this text. It is no wonder that Bainton’s biography of Luther remains the top English text on this giant. Bainton’s writing style holds one fixed to the text, even when laboring over minute (but important) aspects of Luther’s life and teaching. Bainton provide a wonderful mix of the history of Luther, but also of the thinking and mind of Luther, providing many quotes, some even lengthy quotes, to help one understand the man ML. This text was a delight from the first to last page. It is detailed but not excessively so, giving one a feel as to Luther as a person, as a genius, as a scholar, as a husband and father, and mostly as a leader of the Reformation. Luther’s faults are all too well known, but Bainton does not labor on those, and shows the beauty of this man, making him proper to be labeled first among many to lead the charge against an evil and corrupt Catholic church. This book should be a must-read among Christians who wish to know their heritage.

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Jul 26

Puyallup-A Pioneer Paradise, by Lori Price and Ruth Anderson ★★★★

Now that I have lived in Puyallup for over 25 years, I decided that it would be nice to read a history of our town. This book became available at the local Costco, and at a most reasonable price. The book is organized mostly in a chronological fashion, starting from the early 1800’s and going up to the end of the 20th century. The focus is nearly entirely aimed at the central town itself, and the settlers who built the town. Many details are missing, which I presume are facts which might never be known. The book does provide brief sketches explaining why Puyallup was built the way it is.

My greatest complaint with the book is its brevity. The authors will use flowery language to explain town struggles during the war years and hardship times, such as with the hops aphid crisis. Reading past the flowery language, one wonders about the true nature of the settlers of the Puyallup valley. My second gripe relates to the focus entirely on Puyallup. In a way, it is good that Price and Anderson held to their stated topic, so, I can’t complain. Yet, Puyallup was developed in a much larger context. An explanation of the development of Sumner, Orting, Eatonville, and the (now ghost) towns that dot the banks of the Carbon River and Puyallup River are all of intense interest to me, and provide a greater understanding of the town of Puyallup. What about the Indian wars, and other relations with the Indians. Satulik? Other famous Indians of the area? Where were they? What about the railroads? Puyallup and the surrounding towns were bustling railroad towns, and how where they developed? Even details such as when the Puyallup River was given a straight course are left out.

The book is a fascinating read, and I was delighted in reading about my town history. It has piqued interest in further exploration of the Puyallup valley and its history.

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Jul 01

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The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, A History of Nazi Germany, by William Shirer ★★★

This book was read on my iPad. It is a fairly large book, taking me a while to complete it, thus, the absence of many other book reviews on my blogsite. Shirer was a journalist in Berlin, leaving Berlin approximately 1940-1941 (he doesn’t say exactly when), and then observing from the sidelines. The book is fairly well researched, and heavily referenced. After the end of the book, a 1990 afterthought is included by the author. He had noted that the book was on the best sellers list for a number of years, and purchased in many countries except for Germany itself. This Shirer felt was a sign that the German people still remained clueless as to the nature of their goose-stepping militaristic nature, and he expressed fears that the re-unification of Germany was going to lead to yet another rise to power and German world war. Perhaps the person the most clueless is Shirer himself. Throughout the book, Shirer writes not as an objective historian, but as an opinionated, biased journalist. Shirer seems to let his thinking and emotions get in the way of solid historical reporting. As an example, he shows his bitter disdain for the personality of Von Ribbentrop, rather than seeking to describe his personality and then letting the facts speak from there. He describes many episodes of secret meetings where he seems to be cognizant precisely what transpired. He makes warrantless broad assumptions about the German people that don’t serve his commentary. Here is an example, quoting the book, ” One gets the impression that … many … “Good Germans” fell too easily into the trap of blaming the outside world for their own failures, as some of them had done for Germany’s misfortunes after the first lost war…”. Excuse me, but the blame does spread around to all the European nations as well as the US. Or, of speaking of Mussolini, “…as dictator, he had made the fatal mistake of seeking to make a martial, imperial Great Power of a country which lacked the industrial resources to become one and whose people, unlike the Germans, were too civilized, too sophisticated, too down to earth to be attracted by … false ambitions. The Italian people, at heart, had never, like the Germans, embraced fascism.” Such comments leaves one feeling whether they could take anything that Shirer says seriously. He truly couldn’t be serious in implying that the mass of German people were uncivilized, unsophisticated, not down to earth?  There are many more examples throughout the book.

Shirer provides a nice flow through the book and it is very readable. There is a wealth a facts that need to be selected out in writing any historical account, and the fact that huge numbers of texts have analyzed the Nazi phenomenon attest to the fact that even 60 years after the fact, we are still grappling with the problem of made Germany do what it did. Shirer provides a completely wrong explanation, but feeds western, and especially US arrogance in the matter. To divorce himself from the reality of Germany, Shirer had to paint the Germans as a different creature, perhaps even a different species or genus. To this date, political situations are so often compared to that of Hitler and Nazi Germany. The left and right of politics continually hurtles the accusation at the other of being just like the Nazis. Why isn’t Stalin and the Communists equally brought up as a examples?Or Mao Tse Tung? Or the Japanese emporer? Or Napoleon? The list could go on at length. Germany is used as the example because sub-consciously, they are a people the most like us. They, more than any other modern country, developed the ideas of ethics that shape our world. They developed our philosophy, our music, our culture, etc. They, more than even England, gave us our work ethic, and our sense of obedience to authority. The rise of Nazi Germany seems to be a great puzzle, yet it isn’t. We see ideas in politics today reinforce that the events of the rise of the Nazi state happen on a smaller scale every year in Washington, D.C. We claim that the German people should have known and risen up, yet we don’t rise up, as our freedoms are constantly eroded, and our government increasing behaves in a dictatorial fashion that we have no control of. We claim a moral superiority to the Germans of the first half of the twentieth century, yet truthful soul-searching suggests that we aren’t much different than they.

To end it, Shirer ends with the execution at Nuremberg of the main Nazi officials. Specifically, Ribbentrop, who Shirer completely despised,  is reported as to have flippantly blurted out to the American Military pastor, “See you later” as though he was making a colossal terminal joke. Actually, the full quote is as follows… “I place all my confidence in the Lamb who made atonement for my sins. May God have mercy on my soul”. Then he turned to Gerecke (the Lutheran pastor) and said “I’ll see YOU again”. In the book “War and Grace”, Don Stevens recounts the story of Henry Gerecke, a Lutheran Pastor in the military from Missouri, who was assigned to be the chaplain to the Nazi war criminals. In the process of his encounters with Goering, Rosenberg, Ribbentrop, etc., he noted that not a few felt genuine remorse for their actions, and found faith in Christ, including Keitel, Fritzsche, von Schirach, Speer, Raeder, and after much struggle, Ribbentrop. Many Americans sent Gerecke hate mail, detesting the fact that he would minister to the Nazi war criminals. Yet, the additional story from Stevens only strengthens the impression that the Nazis are us. We might have done exactly what they did in the circumstances. The story of the Nazis is a sobering story that should make all of us weep, and not arrogantly state that “they” are a breed of another kind. For that end, a book like this is worth reading.

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Jun 10

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For All the Tea in China, by Sarah Rose ★★★

Sarah Rose provides a most interesting story of the adventures of a Mr. Robert Fortune of the British East India Company in China during the 1840’s and 1850’s, stealing prized tea plants from China and exporting them to the Himalayas, under the immediate control of Great Britain, to permit them to compete with China in the tea industry. Also taken was the technology for growing and processing the tea leaves into great tea. It is a most fascinating story that is not often told. Fortune had several very unfortunate attempts, in part from bungling up the tea plants and leaves in the process of shipping them to the Himalayas, as well as incompetence and ineptitude on the part of arrogant British horticulturists, even when told by Chinese coolies what they were doing wrong with the plants.  Sarah’s writing style attempts a mix of pure historical reporting and historical fiction, leaving one certain that the tales of Fortune’s adventures were probably just approximately recounted in this book. Sarah maintains a heavy pro-British bent in her reporting, going very light on the evils of the British empire in their dealings with China (such as with the Opium Wars), as well as the Indians. This poor historical accounting even goes to British competitors in the west. When she speaks of the development of porcelain in the west to compete with fine “china” from China, she drools over Wedgewood and British porcelain manufactors, she blindly forgets the role of the Germans (especially the town of Meissen) in re-discovering and developing the European porcelain industry). A perfect example her Western blindness can be quoted from near the end of the book…

” By the time the Chinese realized that Fortune had stolen an inestimable treasure from them [the Chinese], it was many years too late to remediate their loss. His theft helped spread tea to a wider world at lower prices. He democratized a luxury, and the world has been enjoying it ever since”

That quote sounds warm and fuzzy except for a few glaring details. Now that China is reportedly “stealing” technology from the West, I suppose that they can use the same justification, since they are simply spreading Western technology at a much lower price. It is hard for me to have a sympathetic ear toward the west when they rail on China being an aggressive competitor in the markets. We are simply getting our own medicine back on us 150 years later. Most of the world has a better memory than Amerikans.

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Apr 28

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Cambridge Illustrated History of China, by Patricia Buckley Ebrey ★★★

I purchased this text from Amazon.com as a used book to read before and during my trip to China with Betsy and Dr. Liao. It arrived very heavily marked up with multiple pages folded over, not exactly what the seller suggested. This text is fairly comprehensive of all aspects of history,  and includes many  beautiful illustrations and helpful maps, unlike many Chinese history texts. The author attempts a newer style of history taking, focusing on “the man/woman in the street”, and de-focusing on the rulers and leadership. Unfortunately, it leaves the history of China seriously poorly explored, since the actions of the emporers had an immediate effect of the man in the street. Ebrey spends much time discussing the development of Chinese art and poetry, yet even that is poorly explored. I was left with a very poor impression of having learned much from this text about Chinese history.

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