Tag Archives: History

Quick Review: 7 Women

7 Women and the Secret of Their Greatness by Eric Metaxas is a collection of 7 short biographies of significant women whose Christian faith informs their faith and extraordinary impact in this life.  I read the seven different chapters or short biographies periodically over the last year and wrapped up the final biography of Mother Teresa this past week. I read Metaxas’s 7 Men a couple years ago which you can get a feel for here.

I enjoyed this and learned a lot. Each biography was fascinating in different ways, but I really enjoyed learning about Hannah More and Rosa Parks especially.  But I was fascinated by Susanna Wesley, Mother Teresa, and Maria Skobstova. I was most familiar with Corrie ten Boom, but enjoyed this again. Maria Skobstova was really interesting – in her parallels to Bonhoeffer, but also that she was a twice divorced, alchohol drinking nun who became a saint in the Greek Orthodox church.

These are great books if you want to do some biography but you don’t want to go all in on a long one. This book is also a great listen as well for audio book people. Each chapter or biography was the length of my commute to work so that was quite convenient.

There’s been amazing women  in the world and in the history of the Church  – I suggest getting familiar with many of them starting with these 7.



Quick Review: The Fire Next Time

I read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time over the weekend and found it really powerful. I had wanted to read it for a while and have heard many people compare Te-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which I found really powerful a few months ago. That increased my drive to prioritize this book and I’m really glad I did, despite being late to the party as it were.

As a book that was written in 1963 in the heart of the civil rights struggle, it struck me just how many of the themes are similar. As I was reading the book I saw the recent news that home ownership for African-Americans was assessed as having made no progress in the past 50 years, since the time The Fire Next Time was written. That bit of info powerfully shaped my reading and experience of what was written in 1963 with such power, art, and conviction.

One of the fascinating dimensions of the book was Baldwin’s critique of the nation of Islam’s approach to peace and justice as he found them to be ideologically on the same ground as white supremacists. But he provides a first-hand account of conversations and interactions I could never experience or observe in person and I found myself riveted in hearing the raw passion and anger and desire for justice. I was also disturbed by the unfiltered hate for whites by some. At this point in my own journey, such realities do not generate as much fear in me as they once may have. Instead, they generate deep sadness and anger of my own. It is true that much has changed for the better in the last 50 years, but it’s also uncomfortable just how much continues to reflect the same patterns of sin and injustice.  It’s these realities that make this book important for today as well.

Baldwin gives a strong critique of religion in this book through the lenses of oppression, corruption, and hypocrisy. He offers helpful perspective on how the church – both the black and white churches of the time contributed to the cycles of hatred, violence, and systemic injustice of the time. He clearly turns away from the church as a result, but there’s a lot about his experiences and insights that merit self-reflection for the modern church – especially the way religion and religious institutions can get enslaved by culture and the ideology of the time.

At the core of it, I heard through Baldwin’s anger and contempt for some of these institutions a deep longing for the church to truly be what it should be in the context of such blatant hatred, evil, and injustice. It’s a reality that when the church fails to have anything to say or do that engages meaningfully in matters of injustice and that fails to point to a tangibly different possibility instead of pie in the sky theology, the Church loses its credibility. And Baldwin, stirred with passion and anger, still resists the temptation of ethnic hatred and retaliation in favor of love and sacrifice.

This won’t be the last time I read this book because there’s so much in here that you just can’t absorb or take in one time through.


Quick Review: 7 Men and the Secret of Their Greatness

Over the past year I have, as the opportunities have allowed, have worked my way through Eric Metaxas’ book 7 Men and The Secret of Their Greatness.  I took this book slow and when I was in the mood for a brief biography this was a great go to book, especially via the audiobook version.  Each biography is about 50-60 minutes on the audio book, basically the length of my commute to and from work.

The book includes 7 biographies of men of faith that have had a significant impact on others and society.  The list includes George Washington, William Wilberforce, Eric Liddell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jackie Robinson, Pope John Paul II, and Chuck Colson.

Many of thus are well-known figures, some with movies documenting parts of their stories or journeys. Amazing Grace came out on William Wilberforce, Chariots of Fire on Eric Liddell, and most recently 42 on Jackie Robinson. I recommend all of them.

I personally learned new and significant things about each man that I didn’t know before even though I have been quite familiar with many of these men.  I enjoyed all of the brief biographies, but I was particularly encouraged from my learning on the lives of Pope John Paul II and Chuck Colson, who I did not know as much about. These men are quite different in their personalities, gifts, and historical and social contexts. But the faith and integrity demonstrated that showed up tangibly in service to others is quite the powerful common thread to their impact.

I am not typically a “biography” guy, but this was a great way to expose myself further to the lives and examples of these men and leaders, each in contexts that carried such great challenges.  I recommend the audiobook, which is my preferred mode to do biographies. It was a great antidote for traffic and long commutes.


Quick Review – Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas

I recently read David Cortright’s Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas  as part of the Peace Studies PhD program I am currently in.  I had not heard of the book prior, but it blends some of the themes of my current area of study with my enjoyment of history as a history major.

The book is a history of the approaches people and groups have taken to take a stand against violence over the course of the past few centuries, especially the past 150 years or so.  There is a helpful overview of the origins of peace movements, nonviolent strategies, as well as the great barriers that have traditionally undermined peace efforts in the course of history which is perhaps the most insightful and interesting portion of the book.

The history of peace efforts in the face of great international challenges such as World War I, World War II, and other wars was incredibly insightful. There is an abundance of histories written on just about all other aspects of these conflicts, but I had not yet come across an analysis of these events through the eyes of peace advocates.  It was fascinating to read about the various groups, philosophies, different methodologies, and key figures like Einstein among others.

Where the book is really strong is in illuminating the forces that undermine the work of peace when it really matters.  One of the key themes that consistently shows up is nationalism functioning as a barrier to peace efforts.  I’ve known the distinction between patriotism and nationalism, but I came away wanting to distinguish these concepts even more clearly. Nationalism is a key theme that exposed the limits of the peace movements from the World Wars all the way to more recent conflicts.  I was amazed at how much was in place prior to the World Wars to support the peace processes and how quickly much of it dissolved in the waves of nationalism that swept over the countries.

There is a great introduction to the historical movements of nonviolence as well general treatments of the dynamics of violence in society and the difference between pacifism and nonviolence. One of the things that struck me is how leaders of nations time and time again have routinely sacrificed hundreds of thousands of lives because of certain patterns of thinking that history has shown to be inadequate to the moment they faced. It’s a tragedy and a reminder to advocate for Biblically based reconciliation in society and between nations as the path of hope for peace.



Quick Review: Jesus and the Jewish Festivals

A couple weeks back I posted a quick review of Encounters With Jesus, which is part of Gary Burge’s “Ancient Context Ancient Faith” series.  I finished another in the series entitled, Jesus and The Jewish Festivals.

Because of my ancient history background I have had a decent amount of 1st century culture and context input, but I have wanted for sometime to get more context on the Jewish Festivals and they play into some of Jesus “I Am” statements in John and contribute to the imagery and symbolism behind some of he teachings and how the gospel writers choose to portray his life and ministry. This book was a great next step for me in that area.

The book covers Sabbath, Passover, the Festival of Booths, and Hannukah especially along with a  chapter on the early church’s contextualization or adaptation of these festivals in their practice in worship.

The content related to the Passover was most helpful and of interest – in part because the author dedicates two different sections.  One to a season of Jesus’ ministry during passover season in which he fees the five thousand and declares “I am the bread of life….” and the second to Jesus’ final days.

As Easter is approaching, I really enjoyed the content related to the passion week and the connections to Passover.  It really helped connect a couple of dots that I had yet to really grasp well.  But it prepared me spiritually as well as anything entering into the weeks before celebrating Easter.

One additional insight I really was intrigued by was the chapter related to Hanukkah.  I was well aware of the context of this celebration, but was not aware, as Burge unpacks, how this celebration has included a reflection upon failed, worldly leadership that included a grieving element as it fits within the context of Israel’s covenant relationship with God.

I really have been thinking about that – an intentional season of grieving over and reflecting upon the lessons of leaders who failed to lead out of God’s ways and purposes as a reminder to current generations about the need to steward that leadership well according to God’s will.  Maybe I need to start celebrating Hanukkah because I love that idea.  Too often we gloss over the past and seek to move forward, but maybe we should have a regular rhythm of being reminded about significant seasons in our traditions where we went astray and paid the price for it for the sake of maintaining a repentant and humble posture before God.

Anyway – I wish these books were longer because there’s so much good stuff in them.  I look forward to reading the next in the series soon.

Quick Review: Encounters With Jesus

A while back I picked up a few books in Gary Burge’s “Ancient Context Ancient Faith” series.  I was an ancient history major as an undergraduate and my dominant strengthfinder theme is context so I was really intrigued by this series as an introduction to context and culture of the first century when the New Testament was written.  This is the first of the series I’ve managed to find time to go through and I’m really glad I did.

The book explores a lot of ancient near east culture and geography related to some of the more notable encounters Jesus had with different types of individuals in the Gospels.  This book highlights 5 specific encounters in addition to an initial overview of some of the key geographic, political, and socio-economic realities that help the reader understand the fullness of what is really going on in some of these stories.

The author highlights the Demoniac/bleeding woman/Jairus’ daughter narratives of Mark 5, Zacchaeus, the woman at the well in John 4, the Centurion in Capernaum and the Greek woman in Tyre. This includes a lot of general information as well about Roman government, Jewish politics, and the economics and customs of the times.

I found the Mark 5 section extremely compelling and thought it alone was worth the read of the book.  It really opened up those narratives to me and has helped give me some new eyes to see similar elements in other passages.  The Zacchaeus encounter was similarly fascinating and while not definitive in its conclusions, it opened up whole new readings.  For example – I was fascinated that there was a good argument to be made that Zacchaeus wasn’t necessarily short.  There’s a case to be made that the word often interpreted as “short” refers more to status.  Regardless, it opened up new possible interpretations that are powerful to consider.

The others were interesting too, the least interesting was the woman at the well, only perhaps because I have heard so many bring out the cultural elements of that passage.  It had the least amount of “new” information, but it was still quite good.

These books aren’t particularly long and they are written in a very easy to understand way.  I think it’s a great introduction to the 1st century culture and context of the Holy Land and would really help the average reader expand their awareness of what is going on in the Scriptures.

I also think this would be an exceptional resource for those in women’s ministry as three of the narratives deal with three of the most prominent or potentially impactful narratives outlining encounters between Jesus and women. That’s not relevant just to women, but this would be a great resource in developing talks, sermons, or other content related to these encounters.

I wrote an article last year on the interconnected disciplines of developing a cross-cultural capacity in studying the Scriptures while practicing cross-cultural ministry. Each one enhances the other.  If approaching Scripture cross-culturally is an area you want to explore more, find the article here: http://www.brianvirtue.org/2015/02/three-cultures/ 



Quick Review: Lincoln (The Movie)

After my review yesterday on the book Lincoln’s Melancholy and mentioning that I had read that prior to seeing the movie, I wanted to share some of my reflections from my experience in the movie.

First, the movie wasn’t what I expected. I thought it was a more biographical movie, but was surprised to find out that the movie really only covered the last 4 months of Lincoln’s life, corresponding also to the ending of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th amendment. This made me even more thankful I had read Lincoln’s Melancholy first and that I had previously read the well known and long Team of Rivals which the movie is partly based on.

The movie is pretty accurate in its portrayal of Lincoln. I’ve read a lot on him – thousands of pages worth, and it’s a great illustration of strong and secure leadership in the midst of untold horrors and pressures and pain. The politics of it was enjoyable too as was Tommy Lee Jones’ performance.  It captured well the imperfect and flawed motivations of many on both sides of the 13th amendment debate and the entrenched racism of the time.  As an illustration of high level leadership and leadership in anxious times, it was phenomenal and fairly honest and accurate.

It’s been interesting seeing some of the critiques of the movie, particular from some in the African-American community.  There’s been some critique that this movie is a white guilt alleviation tool and another example of the white man celebrating itself while the true story of slavery is once again minimized and glossed over.  I think there is some truth in this, though I think the criticism has to be viewed in context of expectations of what one would want the movie to be.  But given the central theme of slavery, it was pretty glaring that Frederick Douglas was nowhere to be found. That alone is enough to alert folks to maybe some limited storytelling.

However, the movie is about Lincoln. And in doing so I think it does a great job even illustrating the politics around slavery.  It does not attempt to tell the story through the African American perspective.  I think that would have enriched the film and brought a greater weight and truth to its content and ethos.  But it would have been a very different movie. I’d be equally interested in watching one that was focused on slavery and the 13th amendment from the African American perspective. But I also enjoyed the movie for what it was and that was a treatment of Lincoln’s political genius in very complicated times – and in this view, the movie was exceptional.

I think there’s things the movie could have done better to honor the African-American experience and perspective.  I think there’s a kernel of truth in the criticism and I’m no one to say that people shouldn’t feel that way about the movie.  I do think it’s unfortunate and unfair to judge the movie as a white feel good movie. I don’t think anyone in the movie except Lincoln comes off anything less than racist – and we all know Lincoln had his moments too in reality.  The movie I think gives a pretty sober and unflattering portrayal of how the 13th amendment came to be and just how racist and dark those times were in how our country engaged diversity.

I think it’s fair to criticize the movie with what was desired to be reflected about the reality of slavery at the times and its aftermath.  I think criticism must also be tempered in considering that the movie was about Lincoln and his political genius as the centerpiece, which is the centerpiece of Team of Rivals on which it’s based.  And I don’t believe a movie that chooses to portray the life and politics of a significant figure in such a way should be automatically judged as racist or ignorant. Though I concede – it’s tricky business to do a biographical treatment of a white hero in the context where slavery is the center of the story’s conflict. And I will say that maybe such reactions show that we’re not able to celebrate some of these “political victories” together when there have been so many failures and painful ripples from the story of slavery. There is so much more work done for the sake of reconciliation that is still needed.

I want to say that I walked away more convicted as a white person as opposed to having my guilt about slavery alleviated. Maybe that’s because I’ve worked for a while in ethnic minority contexts – that I’m more attuned to how deep racism and power dynamics go. But I’m still white and my understanding only goes so far.  Some of what impacted me though was the movie itself – whites were not the “heroes” (though Lincoln is portrayed that way, though with flaws).  Whites were in two categories. Good racist and bad racist. There were courageous racists and jackass racists.  It’s remarkable to me that the 13th amendment passed at that time. I think it should be celebrated – but it’s not the white establishment that is to be celebrated, and I don’t think the movie goes there. If anything, the movie shows just how toxic racism and discrimination is and how hard it is for people who benefit from power to consider an alternative reality that is inclusive of all people.

So if you find the movie to be a celebration of white, paternal leadership – I can live with that. I can see some of why one might see it that way despite my own perspective being much different.  But I do think it’s a great movie that provides a remarkable window to the flawed, yet genius man and politician that God used in unbelievable ways at a crossroads in American history.

Feel free to share your own perspective if you’ve seen it. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Daughter Date at Independence Hall – Kind of

I got some time with my daughter over the weekend.  We’ve been wanting to check out Independence Hall together (the slightly less famous Buena Park version). But I think I’ve finally found the person in my family I can nerd out with over American History. She wanted pictures with all the significant displays and items of historical significance.  She’s now totally into the kid’s series “Liberty’s Kids” which documents the American Revolution and the founding of the country. So fun!

Do You Have Room to Doubt?

I’ve been reading Douglas Starr’s The Killer of Little Shepherds which documents the origins of forensic science alongside the story of how the French apprehended and successfully prosecuted serial killer Joseph Vachay in 19th century France.   It’s like “CSI: 19th Century France.”

One of the main “heroes” of the book and of forensic science is renown criminologist Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne. Lacassagne, while constantly breaking new ground in forensic science, also served as a voice of reason against many more “medieval” approaches to criminology.   Many at the time believed being a criminal was genetic and due to various genetic features – such as types of ears, skull shapes, and the like.

Lacassagne, who was a criminologist during the time in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was releasing his Sherlock Holmes novels, showed a commitment to truth that outshined most everyone else in his era.  Of his commitment to uncovering the truth amidst the complexities that limited evidence provides, Starr writes,

“He made a point of maintaining uncertainty, right up until the end of the investigation.  He famously told students, “One must know how to doubt.” (pg. 105)

Lacassagne always was wisely aware that new evidence was there for the discovering and therefore, there must always be room in one’s vision and paradigms of thought for newly discovered truths that might alter one’s conclusions.   Such a posture led to groundbreaking discoveries, a non-anxious presence in the face of hysteria and anxiety, and shrewd analysis of the known facts.

Such an insight is nothing new as wise men over the years have emphasized the virtue of humility – knowing that there is much that you do not know.  However, knowing that there is much we do not know is a much different thing than us actually living like there is so much we do not know.  So many people are almost trained to believe that doubting anything is always a negative thing and that it reflects somehow a character flaw or weakness.  Doubt in the pursuit of truth is a valuable ally.  It’s the reminder that there might be something that we might not have considered yet, an unexplored avenue that can lead us closer to the truth.  It can be the checks and balances against ego, pride, and naivete.

I wonder how many things would look differently if we as people could actually live out in our relationships and responsibilities such a commitment to the truth, that we choose not give into the temptation to close our eyes to yet revealed evidence or facts just so we can rest easy in the mirage of certainty.

Lacassagne is now a hero of mine for maintaining nerve in the face of societal anxiety and by leading revolutionary change through his commitment to uncovering truth.

People offer up definitions of humility all the time – but how do you such a commitment to the truth lived out in your life or others?

For a slightly different post on doubt versus certainty, click here.

I’ll post a more detailed review on this book in the near future because there are some great components to it that make it a great read.