Book Review: Answers to Life’s Problems

Book Review: Answers to Life’s Problems

Author: Billy Graham

Date: 1960-1988

Publisher: Chicago Tribune / Word / Grason

ISBN: 0-8499-0642-3 (Grason, 1988)

Length: 306 pages plus 6 pages of index material

Quote: “For nearly thirty years I have been writing a newspaper column called ‘My Answer’…My answers are based on what the Bible says.”

My copy of Answers to Life’s Problems was published in the year Billy Graham turned seventy. At the time when I wrote this review, more than twenty years later, the voice of twentieth-century American Protestantism was still alive and still, occasionally, preaching. Some people who buy books from me feel that this fact alone represents some sort of supernatural seal of approval on Graham’s work.

Graham may also be the best known American Protestant minister whose public career has not been marred by scandal. Although the position of this blog is that anyone can choose to avoid the tacky little sins that have discredited so many other preachers, the extravagances and adulteries and desperate bids for attention, I’ll agree that any of us who manage to avoid public displays of tackiness during public careers as long as Graham’s will have had some sort of supernatural help.

Not every Protestant will agree with every one of the interpretations of the Bible that shape this book, but as a general rule, if you want to know what most Protestant ministers would say about a given issue, Answers to Life’s Problems is a good book to consult. There is a great deal of plain common sense in this book; there is remarkably little divisive doctrine.

In fact, so closely does this book reflect the consensus of Protestant opinion that, if you are a Protestant of a certain age, you may feel that this book has little new to tell you. You may find yourself anticipating what Graham was going to tell each respondent and feeling that, in many cases, if you’d memorized the Scripture reference you would have told a young person the same thing.

Then again, if you’ve never given much thought to some of these questions, Answers to Life’s Problems may be a good reference to consult before giving advice.

Most of the common questions that touch on the practice of Christian religion are covered in this book. A few of the answers have a censorious tone, but even in those cases, contrasting the tone of Graham’s answers over time is a valuable study of how we can learn to express firmly held opinions in a modest and compassionate way.

Some of Graham’s Answers to Life’s Problems may surprise Christian-phobics who might imagine that the book would be full of fire and brimstone, judgment and doom. Respondents considering abortion are advised not to consider it. On the other hand, respondents confessing past abortions are advised to trust God’s forgiving love.

I’m particularly favorably impressed with Graham’s courage to print what was becoming bait for terrorist-style violence in the 1980s. Clearly and unequivocally he told a “gay” correspondent: “Homosexual behavior is wrong in God’s eyes, but [God] still loves you.” This is congruent with his advice to others tempted by the sins of the flesh. Nobody is told that carnal indulgence is unpardonable; nobody is told that it’s okay. Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn thee: go and sin no more.”

Far be it from me to suggest that homosexuality is worse than the careless procreation of unwanted babies, the false promises, the sadistic little “mind games” and the physical cruelty, to which heterosexuals are tempted. In some cases it may be less bad. A church where the Bible is sincerely and seriously read will have to welcome homosexuals in precisely the same way it welcomes adulterers, embezzlers, tax cheats, Sabbath breakers, and all the rest of us…without giving the claim that “gay is just as good as straight” any more credence than it would give a claim that “drunk is just as good as sober.”

Moral standards are not brickbats to throw at people’s heads; they are the solid brick foundations of healthy, happy lives. Answers to Life’s Problems is an excellent description of how these foundations are built.

Middle-aged Christians who read this book will find room to expand and update some passages. Because each question and answer originally had to fit into the space of a newspaper column, even though some of the questions suggest situations that call for in-depth counselling, it would be possible for several of Graham’s answers to be expanded into full-length books. It’s even been done. For example, Gary Chapman’s study of The Five Love Languages adds a great deal to Graham’s advice to a “desperate housewife” on pages 43-44.

Some of us may even think of a question that’s not addressed in this book. Anthony Campolo once claimed to have identified Twenty Hot Potatoes That Christians Are Afraid to Touch. Graham does discuss racism in Answers to Life’s Problems (he’s against it), but he offers no further advice for those trying to integrate a church dominated by a different ethnic group.

Anyway, Answers to Life’s Problems is an excellent basic book about the Christian life. It is particularly recommended to two types of readers. One is the teacher, preacher, counsellor, or evangelical Christian who needs a quick roundup of the basic Protestant positions on questions like cheating in business, what to pray about, and whether pets go to Heaven. The basics, with plenty of Bible quotes, are all there.

The other is the person who wonders what Christianity has to say to him or her, perhaps on a subject this person wouldn’t want to discuss with a client or co-worker. If you want to know whether Christian counselling can help you, this book will provide a good general idea of where Christian counselling is likely to lead.

Answers to Life’s Problems sold well and is easy to find secondhand. Billy Graham is alive and directing a staff (including some of his children) to continue writing and even Twittering in his name, although questions were raised, even when “My Answers” was a newspaper column, about the extent to which Graham actually wrote (or even dictated) “his” answers versus supervising the people who did. Therefore, Answers to Life’s Problems is a Fair Trade Book. Send $5 per copy + $5 per package to either address at the lower left side of the screen. We count this as $10 per book, although you could order four copies at one time and pay only $25 total, and will send $1 per book to Graham or a charity of his choice. (Yes, if you ordered four copies for $25, Graham or his charity would get $4.)

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Book Review: Welcome Holy Spirit

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Welcome Holy Spirit

Author: Garrie Fraser Williams

Date: 1994

Publisher: Review & Herald Publishing Association

ISBN: 0-8280-0852-3

Length: 365 one-page devotions, 6-page scripture index

Quote: “Spend a year studying everything in the Bible on the Holy Spirit.”

More than 365 Bible passages mention the Holy Spirit. Williams has considered some verses that appear close together as one passage, and some as more than one, to get 365 one-page commentaries. The passages appear in the same order they appear in the Bible. Like most writers who choose Review & Herald Publishing, Williams is a Seventh-Day Adventist minister writing primarily for other Seventh-Day Adventists, to whom this orderly sequence will be natural and easy to follow.

He doesn’t try to address all denominations impartially. There’s what might be called a mainstream view of the Holy Spirit, and what might be called the charismatic view. Adventists take the mainstream view, and Williams writes within that view throughout his book. He does, however, refer to the history and literature of other Christian denominations.

He also makes some typically S.D.A. mistakes. On page 54 Williams cites, as an example of “satanic attack,” the following incident: “A pastor who became depressed was asked, ‘Why don’t you practice what you preach?’” It’s not unusual, Williams continues, for Christian people to find themselves, “for no fault of their own, the objects of insult, suspicion, and ridicule.” It is not unusual for those people, later, to ask their verbal abusers why they don’t practice what they preach. It is unusual in mainstream society, yet quintessentially typical of verbally abusive Adventists, for verbal abusers to call this natural consequence of their actions a “satanic attack.”

Further internal evidence suggests to me that Williams may have been the pastor who received that particular “satanic attack,” or prophetic message, depending on how we look at it. On page 87 William shares what “a pastor” learned from a bout with depression as a symptom of a physical disease. “‘I went in bitterness, int he heat of my spirit; but the hand of the Lord was strong upon me.’—Ezekiel 3:14, NKJV. God’s Spirit does not operate in our lives on the basis of our feelings but rather in response to our willingness.”

There speaks a man who has found the same Great Key Principle I’ve found in depression-as-symptom: Fix facts first; feelings follow. If Williams has never cured or recovered from a depressing disease, and watched the depression, which Positive Thinking never helped, just melt away, he has at least learned something from someone who has.

This book is recommended to mature Christians who know how to read the religious writings of our fellow mortals, comparing each idea against reason and revelation, taking the good ones and leaving the bad ones. Welcome Holy Spirit is the earnest effort of an ordinary fallible mortal. He has taken the trouble to assemble 365 Bible texts that are worth reading comparatively, as a set, whether you bother to read his commentary or not. If you read only the Scripture at the top of each page, this will be an enlightening book for any Christian.

Williams is alive and well; he even has an e-book, also about the Holy Spirit, available on Scribd. Therefore this early work of his is a Fair Trade Book. If you send $5 per book + $5 per package to salolianigodagewi @ yahoo, which we count as a total of $10 even if you order four books and send a total of $25, we’ll send $1 per book to Garrie Fraser Williams or a charity of his choice.

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Book Review: Race to Victory Lane

A Fair Trade Book (?)

Title: Race to Victory Lane

Author: Crystal Earnhardt

Date: 2003

Publisher: Review & Herald

ISBN: 0-8280-1775-1

Length: 75 pages

Quote: “John, I want you to meet Dale Earnhardt…your ancestors had a lot more in common than just a family tree!”

Race to Victory Lane is not a biography of the NASCAR superstar. It’s a biography of his relative, John Earnhardt, who became an evangelist, written by John’s wife and dedicated to their children. Nevertheless, the blurb promises race fans that “Some say they feel close to Dale through” John Earnhardt.

Though never each other’s very closest friends, Dale and John Earnhardt were close to the same age; they went to school, worked, and raced together as teenagers and saw each other regularly as each climbed his career ladder. Dale Earnhardt’s fans find enough about the racer in this book that they’ll probably be willing to overlook its Sunday-School-story narrative tone.

Although a Christian, Dale Earnhardt was not known as one of NASCAR’s more overtly religious drivers, nor did he join the church where John preached. Looks, temperament, and publicity built up his image as anything but a possible hero for Sunday School books. He was easily typecast as the rough, burly, blue-collar challenger to nice-guy Richard Petty. Like any man who weighs over 200 pounds and isn’t fat, he looked dangerous—and his “Intimidator” racing style was a very dangerous game.

However, what impressed fans were the showmanship, the precision, and the control of “The Intimidator.” There was no room for recklessness or bad temper in an act like that one. Even for Earnhardt and his series of incredible cars, everything had to be exactly right for Earnhardt’s “rough” racing style to work. In some intuitive way Dale Earnhardt was a physicist.

He was in control off the track, too. If he’d been challenging a driver whose lock on the nice-guy role was less solid than Petty’s, Earnhardt could probably have cast himself as a nice guy; his son has. A little yelling and swearing at autograph hounds fitted The Intimidator’s image, but Earnhardt fans remembered how, when a normal-sized driver actually swung at him, Earnhardt calmly held the smaller man at his own arm’s length until the other man calmed down.

He also had a gift for turning the trivia of a race into human-interest stories. When young, handsome, overtly Christian Davey Allison died in a helicopter crash, Earnhardt shed a few manly tears, but he was also reported to have said wistfully that it was too bad the accident hadn’t happened during a race. While some Earnhardt fans disliked “challenger” Jeff Gordon intensely (and a few still do), Earnhardt had quietly recognized Gordon’s potential fan appeal and taken him on as a business partner.

As Earnhardt’s challenge to Petty’s record built NASCAR into a million-dollar sport, publicity—and the IRS!—pushed Earnhardt into displays of generosity that would have threatened his redneck-chic image if they’d been publicized. America’s richest redneck began quietly making donations to schools, churches, and charities. There were reports of mild self-indulgence, the big house and the vacations, but no orgies. NASCAR racers have to have stamina to survive.

And in 2003, after his accidental death, John Earnhardt outed Dale Earnhardt as having waited to receive a printed Bible verse from a prayer partner before he’d attempt his act.

Not that John Earnhardt’s purpose is here, or ever was, to detract from what Earnhardt’s act was always all about. It was what Dave Barry would have gleefully called a Guy Thing. It was about driving extremely fast, and banging extremely large and expensive pieces of metal together, and bouncing out of a smoldering heap to wave to thousands of screaming fans, and the possibility that one day you or one of your friends might not be able to bounce out of the wreck. Although a minister, John is still a guy, and he does appreciate these things.

But the stories Crystal and John Earnhardt have a right to tell middle school readers in this book are, mostly, stories about John’s middle school years. He had to drive his parents home when they’d been drinking. He shot a squirrel—good ol’ boys will recognize this as a feat of marksmanship, but he’s not bragging—and felt sorry for the poor little animal. He went along with schoolmates when they robbed a store, but apologized humbly enough that the storekeeper let the kids go. He aimed his gun at a man, once, but decided at the last minute not to shoot, and has always been glad.

Looking back, John compares where he was with where Dale was and feels that, though less wealthy, he’s had the better life, or the better “victory.” He’s certainly had the longer one. He once challenged Dale to a foot race, which he thought he could win, and he lost. He seems to be trying to compete with his rich, famous, deceased relative again, in this book, but exactly where the track or the finish line is remains unclear.

Race to Victory Lane is recommended to all race fans, especially to those who remember Dale or Ralph Earnhardt and those who now root for Dale Junior.

Neither Crystal nor John Earnhardt is easy to find on the Internet. The names are not unique; a Crystal Earnhardt died in 2010, but her obituary doesn’t mention a husband called John. John Earnhardt does seem to be alive, and this is his story, anyway. Let’s call this one a Fair Trade Book. The usual terms: $5 per book + $5 per package, from which $1 per book goes to the Earnhardts or a charity of their choice; if you want twenty copies, which would probably fit into one package, you’d send $105 to either of the address in the lower left-hand corner of the screen and I’d send the Earnhardts or their charity $20.

This NASCAR race snapshot, courtesy of Southernfried at , was taken after Dale Earnhardt’s time…


Book Review: The Glory Within You

Title: The Glory Within You

Author: Duncan E. Littlefair

Date: 1973

Publisher: Westminster Press

ISBN: 0-664-20960-2

Length: 201 pages, plus endnotes and index

Quote: “The spirit cannot be separated from the body.”

People should never ask other people to discuss a book while they’re still reading it. The most courteous thing to say, should you find an acquaintance reading a book, is nothing at all; wait for the person to lay the book aside. If you really think you have to interrupt someone’s reading, say “Excuse me, please,” and say what’s on your mind. It had better be something good. If you’re past the age where people are excused for interruptions like “My tooth came out!”, other excusable interruptions include things like “The doctor says it’s triplets” or “The garage is on fire.”

Idle chitchat is never worth interrupting someone else’s polished, reviewed, and edited thought.

Nevertheless someone blundered into the room where I was reading this book and asked, “Is that a good book you’re reading?” Such questions can be properly answered only by flippant remarks. A good all-purpose one is “No, it’s not the Bible.” In this case, however, I could truthfully say, “So far I’ve found nothing in it that’s really good, and little that’s even fair.”

Is The Glory Within You really all that bad? Well, for starters, using the phrase “Women’s Lib” without quotation marks, even in 1972, was a reasonably reliable admission that you had nothing useful to say about it. “Women’s Liberation” was the trendy left-wing phrase; on the right and center, intelligent discussions were about the feminist movement, N.O.W. or other organizations, or specific campaigns for the various things women of various political stripes wanted. People who said “Women’s Lib” were unsympathetic and uninformed.

Then there were people who said, “Until recently, in anthropological terms, the human ancestor was without any kind of self-consciousness” (page 56). This has a literal meaning, if we understand “anthropological” to refer to the study of existing prehistoric cultures. “Prehistoric” does not mean “eons ago”; it means “before a civilization had invented writing,” and described the way some isolated communities had lived, within living memory, even in 1972. Unfortunately this literal meaning is false; in 1972 old people who hadn’t learned to read and write displayed quite elevated levels of self-consciousness.

So perhaps Littlefair is speaking in this authoritative tone about archaeological studies of our remote ancestors, the excavations of ancient burial mounds and garbage pits. Neanderthal Men and the stooped and stunted woman in the Olduvai Gorge certainly had odd, ugly facial bones, and some of us prefer to think of them as “human ancestors” who somehow weren’t completely human themselves, rather than funny-looking individuals who may have been buried separately because they had been ill, or even alienated because they were unattractive. (I say this because I went to university with a surly, embittered girl whose resemblance to the Olduvai Gorge woman was remarkable.) Whatever those people were, how anyone could imagine it possible to know whether or not they were self-conscious…boggles…my…mind.

And then there were people who said, and believed, “It has been demonstrated that no [W]hite person can grow up in modern American society without developing attitudes of antagonism to [B]lacks, and the same goes for [B]lacks in their feelings about [W]hites” (page 59). In 1972 nobody had to live in hate or fear, but when we chose to act against hate or fear we were consciously practicing “Love your enemy” toward people who we knew might respond with hate. Nevertheless, what had been and can still be demonstrated is that one can never conclusively demonstrate a negative assertion.

So…Littlefair would have liked to write like C.S. Lewis, or like Paul Tournier or Albert Schweitzer, but he was born without the ability. This by itself is normal; he might still have written a good book. Unfortunately, consider this whopper, on page 81: “I have never seen a person who was grateful for having enough who did not get more.” Well…I have.

Then, on pages 126-127: “…[A] person is consumed by love for another who is not good for him, and both individuals are ruined. But whether it is Love Story or Romeo and Juliet, this kind of love always opens both persons to more of life than they would have seen otherwise.” That anyone would claim that the tragic romance of Romeo and Juliet opened them to “more of life,” when the point of the story is that it aborted their lives, once again boggles my mind. That it opened their parents’ minds to some sense of compassion, or common grief, or common sense, is a possibility suggested by the end of Romeo and Juliet as it stands, but Shakespeare never actually demonstrated that. That what Romeo and Juliet felt was a deep and abiding love, rather than an infatuation that would have lasted about a week if they’d been allowed to live through it, is debatable. And that such a childish and silly approach to love is “feminine,” which is the point Littlefair has been trying to make, is therefore offensive to women.

This leads into a chapter titled “Women’s Lib and the Feminine Principle” (so help me) in which Littlefair seems to plead insanity (“Feminine qualities are aspects of the spirit. Why we associate them with women is a question we need not go into here”) before defining “feminine qualities of behavior” as “passivity; sense of wholeness; sense of relatedness; dependence; amateurism; reverence for growth; capacity for play; romantic attitude.” He is actually making a case for attitudes and temperaments that were misunderstood at the time, but his case would have been more easily made if, recognizing that “Men possess them too—sometimes to a greater degree than women,” he had identified these traits simply as traits.

Then, on page 164: “We should set as a goal that there be no unwanted, neglected, or abused children…It is an attainable goal if sex is freed of guilt and if children are born only to parents who want them.” So, no parent who wanted a child ever gets drunk, develops an anger addiction, or realizes that instead of going home to three children, all of whom have stomach flu, s/he could just stay on that train…

The Glory Within You is not a great book: parts of it aren’t even fair. Other books express Christian thoughts without these embarrassments along the way. There is, however, some comfort in reporting this because I’m sure Duncan Littlefair has gone to a place where there are better comforts than favorable reviews of bad books.

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Book Review: 82 Sins of the Church

(No longer a Fair Trade Book, which makes reviewing it much easier.)

Book Review: 82 Sins of the Church

Author: Cobus Van Der Merwe

Date: 1995

Publisher: Jacobus Van Der Merwe

ISBN: 978-1494432362

Length: 230 pages

Quote: “Children with good manners are always pleasing to every­one.”

Jacobus Van Der Merwe was a Boer, or South African of Dutch descent, who spent his old age in Kingsport, Tennessee. His English was fluent, but irregular. His understanding of the Bible was likewise…not so much irregular as foreign. Although he joined a charismatic church in Kingsport, his Dutch Reformed background comes out in the form of unusual attitudes.

Although it’s meant to provoke discussions among Christians in any country, 82 Sins of the Church was recognizably shaped by Kingsport. I think this book is part of Kingsport’s history and should be preserved as such. Kingsport has attracted some very distinguished engineers and inventors from all over the world, and Van Der Merwe was one of them.

For devotional use, the value of 82 Sins of the Church may actually be negative. There’s politically incorrect, and then there’s…well…

I’m put off by the sexism on pages 108-109: “A couple should never get married if they cannot make do on the man’s income. The main reason for the job shortage in the world we live in today, is directly ascribed to the greedy women, taking away men’s jobs…God’s Word says clearly that the man is the breadwinner.” Actually, the Bible mentions women musicians, scholars, builders, merchants, and “prophets.” When a Bible writer describes the ideal wife, in Proverbs 31, he spends as many words praising her business acumen as her religious devotion. The perfect wife doesn’t just weave; she has a home textile business that employs several “maidens,” delivers finished products to the merchants, and expands her business by investing in real estate: “She considers a field, and buys it.” Sociologists have generally ascribed the job shortage to technological development, laborers being displaced by machines.

There is much to recommend the idea that being the mother of small children is a full-time job, in and of itself, and should provide the same kind of automatic recess from a corporate “career” that military service does…but “women shouldn’t take away men’s jobs” thinking doesn’t even work out well for young mothers. Some families preserve the biblical family-as-business model, using their home as their business base and integrating their children into the business. But the 1950s TV family structure, where childless wives stayed home all the time and made dusting and polishing into a job, was not an approach that ever served many people well. Nor was it biblical.

The Bible writers don’t prescribe one particular pattern for family life. The economic pattern they describe is the one where both parents lived and worked at home. Everyone was a “breadwinner.” Even small children were “known by their work” as soon as they were able to do any. Even disabled old ladies, like Dorcas, wove and sewed. The lady described in Proverbs 31 was an especially desirable wife because her weaving skills were good enough to earn money as well as saving money. When Paul wrote, “I would have the younger widows (re)marry (or) keep house,” he was telling the early church that his use of the masculine form in “If anyone will not work, neither let him eat” was applicable to able-bodied people of both sexes.

More confusion is to come. Van Der Merwe cites a letter from a friend in South Africa: “What the outside world (that’s you) does not real­ize, is that we do not have to do with civilized people, but barbarians—a sub-race that can never reach the standard of the [W]hite Christian race.” The writer of this letter complains that Nelson Mandela, like every other person who had a complaint against a non-Marxist government during the twentieth century, received some support from the Communist Party. He overlooks the fact that the Communist Party in its heyday treated it as their duty to try to support, and co-opt, every dissident on Earth; what people did with this support was up to them.

More disturbingly, he also overlooks the fact that Mandela was mentored by the nonviolent, non-Communist, committed Christian Albert Luthuli…and greed-blinded “Afrikaners” managed to ignore Chief Luthuli. The Christian magazine Van Der Merwe’s friend addressed had ignored his letter because Christians around the world felt that, when people refused to hear a message of peace from a man of God, those people invited a twisted version from the Evil Principle. Many were surprised and grateful that Mandela emerged as a left-wing Humanist leader rather than a violent, vengeful Communist Party dictator. Van Der Merwe complained that Christians in the United States had no right to denounce Bill Clinton unless they prayed for him. He does not write as if he spent much time praying for Nelson Mandela.

And what exactly was “sub-race” supposed to mean? Because the Republic of South Africa incorporated several pre-existing ethnic groups who had weakened themselves by wars with one another, it’s possible that Van Der Merwe understood Lane Sherman, as quoted on page 192, to be expressing resentment of the Zulu “sub-race,” or ethnic group, as distinct from the Venda “sub-race,” of which Van Der Merwe has written with less resentment earlier in this book. However, one can hardly blame uneducated readers for hearing in “sub-race” an echo of “subject race.” Like “niggardly,” “sub-race” is almost always an ill-chosen word.

Feminists are supposed to oppose “patriarchal” social structures, so I’ve always taken some contrarian pleasure in expressing love and pride about the patriarchs in my family. I know what Van Der Merwe has in mind when he writes about “Sin #49: Husbands Are Not Always Real Men” and praises the Real Man who “opens God’s Word at the breakfast and supper table…tells the truth at all times, regardless of the cost or consequences…provides for his family even if he has to do without…can give some leadership at home and work and is always prepared to listen to good advice” (pages 120-121), “rises early enough, works hard enough to provide enough…can apologize for any mistake…sets the example…visits the sick and bereaved and provides for the needy” (page 198).

Opposing patriarchal systems does not imply failing to appreciate that sort of men when we find them. What we oppose is the idea that a Y-shaped chromosome is enough to make any man a patriarch. In the Bible, Abraham travelled around with his flocks and herds and his extended family, apparently opposing cults that practiced human sacrifice. Kings called on Abraham for help and advice, yet he never called himself a king. Abraham listened respectfully to the advice of his wife and foster son, although they were less enlightened than he. When other people were around, his wife Sarah enjoyed basking in his glory by calling him “milord.” Privately, Sarah was a nagger (her name changed from “Quarrelsome” to “Princess” as her social status rose) whose demands reduced Abraham to tears. A patriarch never demands respect. He earns it—but, even so, he does not always get it. As C.S. Lewis once put it, he wears two crowns, but one is made of paper and the other of thorns.

Of course, many of the 82 Sins are theological rather than interpersonal issues. Van Der Merwe rebukes churches that are non-charismatic, that “do not seek or expect miracles, do not teach and practice demon exorcism.” He believes in “mandatory forgiveness”; some Christians believe that it is possible to talk about “forgiving” people who are still actively sinning. He thinks special liturgical interest should be given to Psalms 113 through 118. He objects to historical reading of the Bible when “the New Testament is not recognized as being directed to the church at all times.” He has an interpretation of the prophecies in the Bible, and thinks churches need to give more attention to this interpretation.

Others of the 82 Sins are social and political. Van Der Merwe identifies with those who seem to believe that “resistance” to abortion is a matter of political agitation, rather than personal ministry. He rebukes Christians for suing each other in court. He rebukes both the churches that “do not teach against divorce” and the ones that “condemn divorced people.” He complains, in his charmingly eccentric use of English, that “Pastors are fearful, muzzled, proud, greedy and affirmative.” (It takes him three pages to explain what he means by this, but he does have a point.) He thinks children need to participate in formal, audible prayers at school. He has been active in prison ministries, and thinks more Christians need to be. He thinks secular commentary, at least jokes and sports stories, have no place in the sanctuary and should not be used to liven up sermons.

Other “sins” are matters of church subculture. Kingsport is more heterogeneous than some of the towns around it, less dominated by First Families, more open to immigration. Cultural differences among its churches reflect the economic status as well as the temperaments of the congregations. So many of Kingsport’s churches do stress greeting rituals and eye contact that I suspect Van Der Merwe’s complaints here come from his having chosen a church where he seemed to “fit in” economically, and then realized that affluent Anglo-Americans look down on the folksy Dutch cultural customs Van Der Merwe wanted to bring with him.

Intensive eye contact is typical of mainstream Anglo-American culture. Apparently it’s also typical of mainstream Dutch or Boer culture, since Van Der Merwe fails to recognize it among the “bad manners” with which he reproaches “Ugly Americans”; much of the world would place our shameless eyeballing behavior high on the list of obnoxious American manners. Some cultures have rules that a modest person never holds eye contact with a member of the opposite sex, other than the person’s own wife or husband, for longer than a moment; or that younger people, or subordinates, never hold eye contact with senior or superordinate people; or that eye contact is optional, usually used for emphasis after a conversation has begun. Van Der Merwe places great emotional emphasis on people’s being able to “look you square in the eye.”

His list of 82 Sins is random, as his short reflections on these practices occurred to him, rather than categorical. There are sequences where one thought seems to have led to the next, and sequences where he seems to have put down his list for a few days and come back to it on a whole new train of thought. I’ve discussed the list in a more organized way than Van Der Merwe presents it.

So, this is not a book to share with non-Christians or with very young people. It is a book mature Christians can appreciate as historical commemoration of a distinguished resident of Kingsport. It could even be used by groups of mature Christians as a starting point for study and discussion—Bible and otherwise. It should never be used in such a way as to give Christian-phobics the idea that Van Der Merwe ever spoke for any substantial number of American Christians.

82 Sins of the Church ceased to be a Fair Trade Book last winter. I sold the copy I physically owned before that. Prices for this privately published book are already rising. At the time of writing I can offer it, should you want to buy it here, for $10 per book + $5 per package. But Van Der Merwe no longer needs $1.50, so if you don’t need this one to complete a collection of Kingsport history…there are better devotional books in the world, even at this web site.

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Book Review: Mandie and the Invisible Troublemaker

Title: Mandie and the Invisible Troublemaker

Author: Lois Gladys Leppard

Date: 1994

Publisher: Bethany House

ISBN: 1-55661-410-8

Length: 173 pages

Quote: “I have a great idea, Uncle John. Why don’t you just buy my school.”

Although the Mandie Books were published by a Christian publisher, and although Mandie is being brought up a Christian who recites a Bible verse for courage and prays for President McKinley, Volume 24 is not exactly what parents think of as a Sunday School book. Mandie goes to a small, pathetic “private school” run by two old women, sisters; the sister responsible for their finances is stressed and irritable, and refuses to listen to Mandie’s truthful explanations of how the messes into which Mandie stumbles came to happen. Mandie happens to overhear the sisters talking and realize that although they can’t afford to expel Mandie, the sisters think it best to make Mandie think they’re going to expel her. She calls their bluff, threatens to leave the school, and decides it’s all right for her to break school rules on purpose since she’s being blamed for someone else’s misdeeds anyway.

At the same time, Mandie is doing what is, for a thirteen-year-old, a noble thing. Most of the girls at her school don’t interest her, although she claims to think of them as friends. Three of them she particularly dislikes. She’s sure that one of her three school enemies is taking papers to her room and tucking open jars of molasses into her bag, just to cause trouble for her. She enlists her school friend Celia to help her find out for sure before she accuses one of them. The mystery isn’t made very easy to guess, and Mandie’s self-control pays off when she finally sees the invisible troublemaker.

Still, her disrespect for the teacher is rebuked but not really repented of—and her heroic refusal to make accusations that might be mistaken is not rewarded by others, either. This is another Mandie Book that definitely reads more like a memory shared by someone who really was in school in 1901 than like a typical moralizing Sunday School story.

Though Lois Gladys Leppard no longer needs a dollar, and I still have to charge the minimum of $5 per book + $5 per package, almost any Fair Trade book would fit comfortably into the package along with this pocket-sized book. Or you could complete your collection with twelve different Mandie Books, which would (probably) cost $65. Payments may be sent to either address in the lower left-hand corner of the page.

Book Review Cat courtesy of Morguefile:

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Book Review: Ama a Dios y Haz Lo Que Quieras

Book Review: Ama a Dios y Haz Lo Que Quieras

Author:  Morris Venden

Translator: Felix Cortes

Date: 1995

Publisher: Asociación Publicadora Interamericana

ISBN: 1-57554-008-8 … missing from Amazon! Unthinkable! Here’s the English edition.

Length: 122 pages

Quote: “Los cristianos maduros pueden hacer lo que gusten, porque lo que a ellos les agrada hacer le agrada también a Dios.”

Morris Venden originally wrote Love God and Do as You Please in English. I didn’t buy the English version. I remember thinking at the time that I didn’t want to encourage him, because the book was part of the movement that I think killed his church in the United States.

It was harmful to Venden, too; later it came out that, while expounding these ideas and writing this book, he was feeling liberated to love God while having an adulterous affair. And so, although Venden was a hugely popular speaker and writer and people online are looking for this book, neither Amazon nor the Adventist online bookstore site is selling copies. I sold the copy I physically owned before uploading this review, and can’t promise anyone a copy now. But, like many books that have been banished from stores, the text is available online–free of charge, if you don’t mind an annoying ad-cluttered format:

Venden was a Seventh-Day Adventist. I’m not a member of that church. My mother is. From time to time we go to one of the large stores that sell products made by church-sponsored industries, primarily books and canned goods. On these trips it’s routine that my mother buys everything I can load into the back of whatever she’s driving, and I buy one paperback book, usually the Spanish edition of a book that’s also available in English. And only after I’d bought this book, fifteen years after its publication, did I remember, “Oh yes, that was back when the Adventist church was trying to repackage itself as just another brand of Feel-Good Universalism.”

I was there, a student in the Adventist school system, to observe some of the silliest things that led to the publication of this book.

As teenagers, my brother and I had wanted to be baptized. Our relatives belonged to various denominations; our parents didn’t want us to favor one church over another. In order to be baptized before we were eighteen we had to stumble across a church, during a winter visit to Florida, that baptized tourists who might never attend the church again. The church that baptized us was Seventh-Day Adventist. My mother has continued to attend that church.

As HSPs we had natural tendencies to be modest, frugal, untempted by the minor sins of the flesh against which the churches of our childhood had rules. Adventists had preserved relatively strict rules. We swore off, not just gambling, but all card playing; not just TV watching, but frivolous reading as well. We hadn’t been in the habit of doing any of the things we renounced, and I’ve never missed them. However, being baptized as a tourist meant that I had some inner reservations. I wanted to be a full-fledged Christian, but I never intended any commitment to a denomination. I think Dad thought denominationalism was a bigger sin than gambling.

Since I’d been baptized in an Adventist church, Adventists got me into one of their church colleges. There I learned that different individual churches in that denomination had different rules. Kids went around asking new acquaintances, “Are you an Adventist?” All Adventists had sworn off drunkenness, adultery, presumably murder and treason. Some Adventists had also sworn off drinking coffee, eating meat, reading any fiction including the parables of C.S. Lewis, listening to “Satanic rock” bands like Kiss and Black Sabbath, listening to any rock music, listening to any non-church music, using any makeup at all, using makeup in a way that flattered their faces, wearing tight jeans, wearing any jeans, wearing trousers without a skirt over them, wearing bangles, wearing any jewelry but a watch or wedding ring, wearing any jewelry including a watch or wedding ring, wearing beards, wearing long beards, shaving their beards, trimming their beards, playing sports…the list went on and on.

Understandably, when these people got together, a certain amount of confusion and acrimony arose. As a group Adventists are the world champions of verbal abuse, and when they got into a serious debate about some major moral issue like wearing trench coats, I think some of them managed to pack ten of the dozen or so classic vaps in English into one sentence.

What I never understood was why so few of them saw any of the rules to which they adhered as positive and desirable. Why had they taken a public vow to adhere to a rule if it didn’t seem good to them?

In the early 1980s the pseudo-hippie fad, plus protests against product testing on animals, had cost the makeup industry a lot of money. I didn’t want to wear makeup, because damp East Coast air made my skin feel sticky at best, and the last thing I wanted to do was smear grease paint on my face. I had expected that, since I found it easy, pleasant, and profitable to adhere to the rule, I’d hear a lot of “That’s how our young ladies ought to look.” Instead I kept hearing, “Is that some kind of religious thing that you’re not allowed to wear makeup?”

When the Adventist church was organized, its mission work grew explosively because so many church ladies sold their jewelry and gave the proceeds to the schools, hospitals, and other missionary efforts of the church. I am not saying that this noble gesture didn’t deserve to become traditional. I am not saying that even asking little girls, as a gesture of remembrance, to take off even the junk jewelry today’s little girls tend to get as a reward for being quiet in the Dollar Store, was ever a bad idea. I am not saying that Adventist ministers shouldn’t continue to celebrate the church tradition of ringless weddings. I will say that, just possibly, people who never had any valuable jewelry to sell on behalf of a good cause would be better occupied in reflecting on what they were doing for good causes, instead of bothering about whether visitors who might have had on ten dollars’ worth of junk jewelry had been told that “we don’t wear jewelry in this church.”

I didn’t wear jewelry, during my churchgoing years, because I didn’t own any. Still, when the Bible writers (a) describe the jewelry people wore, exchanged as gifts, were required to wear when performing ceremonial duties in the temple, and were given as rewards for good deeds, and (b) describe spiritual things by comparing them with precious stones, and (c) tell people to cultivate inner beauty instead of “pearls and precious stones,”  it seems clear that a rigid ban on any kind of jewelry is an Adventist “accretion” with no biblical basis.

Admitting that the fashion for jewelry as a major investment had passed, and that the only reason to discourage children of the 1980s from wearing half a dozen plastic-bead rings on each finger was that they looked childish, would have been timely. But what I saw and heard was more like, “You don’t want to wear jewelry? Why are you so inhibited? Why do you always have to be so uptight and rule­bound and holier than thou? People like you are turning everybody against the church? If you’d ever had a personal relationship with Jesus, you’d be a ‘people-person’…” The so-called liberal faction were definitely the ones I saw acting “holier than thou.”

To be fair, in 1983 we didn’t actually know that saying “If you had a better relationship with Jesus, you’d be a ‘people person’” is as idiotic as saying “If you had a better relationship with Jesus, you’d have brown eyes.”

Ellen White wrote about the health benefits she, and patients in the early Adventist hospitals, found from a dairy-free diet. Milk is probably safer to consume now than it was then. However, because Ellen White used a dairy-free diet, the dairy-free diet was then set up as a sort of proof of holiness, and then attacked as such. The Adventist school cafeterias did not serve meat; they did serve dairy products. Bearing in mind that most people lose lactose tolerance around age 20, we can now explain why Caucasian students tended to have higher grades and be perceived as more popular—a lot of students who had become, or were becoming, lactose-intolerant were living with continual indigestion. I’ve seen high-achieving non-Caucasian students resolutely say no to all those dairy products, and their so-called friends began to quarrel: “You’re such a pharisee! Everybody likes ice cream! Go on and eat it! Why do you always have to be different?”

I definitely did not see any evidence that this liberalization was being done by “mature Christians.” What I saw happening, in the Adventist church, was that quiet, modest, frugal, gentle, sincere people who respected others’ rights were being verbally attacked, to a degree that felt like persecution to teenagers. Most of the Adventist friends I had are now ex-Adventists.

I never suggested that the Adventists adopt a rule like “Everybody should be asleep by nine o’clock and awake by three o’clock in the morning, because that’s the rule that worked for Priscilla King’s Great-Aunt Griselda.” An occasional reminder that certain Christians had chosen to “keep the Discipline of the Morning Watch” (yes, that’s a traditional Adventist name for getting up at 3 a.m.), and felt healthier for it, and some of them were blessed with unusually long and productive lives, is enough. But I had no respect for a church that was telling me, “You want to get up at six? What’s wrong with you? What awful thing could have happened to make you so peculiar? Don’t you know people prefer to sleep till nine…or noon, if possible.”

Why do readers need to know all this? So that they’ll understand why I say that, in this book, Morris Venden was preaching to a little choir of his own. I do not know who’s in his choir. His book is addressed to Seventh-Day Adventists but it doesn’t seem to be addressed to anybody I met in that church. This book expressed ideas that were current ten years before it was published, and supported them with stories that must, if true, have happened to a different generation.

Venden tells the story of a young couple who had been studying the Bible with him. At home they dressed simply, but when he finally got them to meet him at church, to his dismay the woman’s idea of her “Sunday best” was an outfit Carmen Miranda might have worn. He didn’t scold them or send them home, and after church both of the couple told him they wanted to stop smoking.

Should members of the church have scolded this young woman for not knowing what to wear? Of course not. But should the church have disrespected the ladies who might have been told, “We don’t paint our faces, wear jewelry, or even wear dresses with ‘trimmings’ on them,” for years? I think that, if I’d been the one who thought dressing appropriately for church meant dressing like Carmen Miranda, I would rather have found a church where people prayed in the sanctuary and never mentioned my fashion blunder. At such a church, if I’d persisted in dressing like Carmen Miranda, eventually someone might quietly have said, “‘Plain dress’ is traditional in this church.”

The people Venden is most concerned about correcting are the “traditional legalists” in the Adventist church. Did I ever meet any of them? I don’t remember. A legalist, as Venden explains, is a Christian who thinks that we are saved by Christ and observance of some rule or other. Christ alone is not enough. The legalist thus makes the rule an idol, and ceases to be a Christian.

There is no biblical basis for the heresy of legalism. There is, however, a biblical basis for churches to tell people to keep any vows or pledges they have made, as a point of personal honor. In the Old Testament period denominationalism did not exist, but individuals were always making personal vows—sometimes “bargaining with God” under stress, sometimes giving thanks for their blessings. Nobody had to make any of these vows. People said, “I will sacrifice a lamb,” or whatever else, for reasons of their own. Sometimes, then as now, keeping a vow proved to be unexpectedly inconvenient, and the people were warned: “Lord, who shall stand upon Thy holy mountain?…He that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not.”

People can release others from vows that prove to be “to the hurt” of both parties. If a church group has demanded that members subscribe to rules that members now agree are useless, the group can agree to release people from those vows. But in Venden’s Adventist church there was no agreement that the rules were useless. The General Conference had decided at some point, “We must loosen our rules and give up our distinction.” While the ministers were saying that people should not quarrel about the rules, the leaders of the church were in fact instigating the quarrels.

Hence the peculiar phenomenon, which Venden acknowledges in this book, of “liberal legalists.” Only among Adventists is a phrase like “liberal legalists” more than an oxymoron. In the 1880s there might have been, but in the 1980s there were not, stereotypical pharisaic-type legalists, lurking at the church steps, looking for ways to denounce people. “Here comes a man with the wrong kind of beard! Bar the doors!” Instead, there were the “liberal legalists,” hounding the sincere out of their own denomination. “Why didn’t you watch that television show? You’re a legalist! You don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus!”

So the denomination has fissioned into quarrelling factions, none of which is representing the teachings of Christ or even those of Ellen White. The people who actually want to practice all the teachings of Christ in every way possible, who would gladly sell their jewelry to launch a mission if they had any salable jewelry or if the church had any viable missions, who want to get up early to pray, who put a spiritual meaning into every song they sing, have been pushed out. The number of potential churchgoers who just want to be comforted, not challenged to think or understand or do anything, is limited, and the original Universalists had taken in most of them before the Adventists decided to pursue them. In other countries the Adventist denomination is growing, but in the English-speaking countries it is in a decline.

Venden’s book was not addressed to the people to whom it has some hope of being useful—people who have been observing the deterioration of the Adventist church, and want to help their church avoid a similar decline. Venden writes as if addressing some of those mythical Adventists who really were said to be more concerned with the length of a girl’s skirt or a young man’s beard than with whether either of them was doing something beautiful for God.

How useful can Love God and Do As You Please, or Ama a Dios y Haz Lo Que Quieras, be to an ordinary Christian reader? While serious Christians have had the proverb “Love God, and then do as you please” for centuries, Venden’s exposition of what loving God first means is marred by his blindness to his denomination’s failure to do so. A church that began as Universalists, or one that gradually evolved in that direction, might be said to honor God in its way…but a church that began by requiring adherence to rules, and then turned against those of its members who followed those rules, cannot be said to love or honor anything.

If Venden had recognized the “liberal legalists” as the greater problem within his church, and expounded on the theme that loving God would require them to honor the sincerity of people who chose to adhere to older rules, his book might have become valuable for devotional use. He didn’t.

So, this book can be recommended primarily to those studying the decline of the Seventh-Day Adventist church as an American denomination. If the Adventist denomination is still viable, according to the statistics, it’s in Spanish-speaking countries…and so Ama a Dios y Haz Lo Que Quieras is likely to be more useful to more people than the original Love God and Do As You Please. 

Today, a Google search for Morris Venden brings up the obscenely detailed charges brought against him by his partner in adultery before it brings up Ama a Dios y Haz Lo Que Quieras. And, since the book is displayed on a web site for free, it’s unlikely to be republished. I had a copy, once. I sold it. I may or may not be able to get another copy. Venden no longer needs a dollar. Go ahead and download it if you have US$8.99. Print copies for your friends, if they don’t have US$8.99. This book hardly deserves better.

Here, for Google + purposes, is our Morguefile cat:

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To the Confused Christian Pronouncing Judgment…

To the confused Christian pronouncing judgment…in the supermarket yet…these Christian cliches, in the hope that s/he may think about them for the first time:

His sin’s not difficult to find;
it’s marred his body and his mind
but God alone can now foresee
nor will God show to you or me
what you, cocksure, presume to tell:
whether he’s bound for Heaven or Hell.
The measure with which you now mete
Christ said, at Heaven’s bar you’ll meet.
If your eye’s never lingered on
another’s mate, nor ever gone
aloft on your own fancy’s flight
while your mate murmured in the night,
then it may be you have some claim
to cry aloud another’s shame;
but I myself would hardly dare
to judge his sins: I say, beware;
the eyelash that you think you see
lodged in his eye may prove to be
but one small splinter from the limb
that renders all your vision dim;
if your heart was set on true love
you’d spare no time for thinking of
the sins in someone else’s past;
what right have you a stone to cast?

This piece of Bad Poetry–which is the official name of the genre of free and formal verse I write–isn’t long enough to meet this site’s requirements for a blog post. So, although I was inclined to spare youall the sermon, I have to expound on these little rimes. Very well.

When a family has both Irish and Cherokee ancestors, there is a high probability that anyone in that family will have the alcoholic gene. The surprising thing is that I have a handful of relatives for whom “responsible use of alcohol” and “One should never drink cleaning fluid” do not mean exactly the same thing. For most of us these phrases do mean exactly the same thing. Of course there are a few cousins in each generation who need to find this out the hard way.

So, one of them hit the bottom and climbed on the AA wagon and was working his program diligently when I saw him in town. (It’s been a few years; those who think you know whom I mean may be wrong.) And guess what? Hitting the bottom of alcoholism means that a person becomes physically sick, and stays that way, often for years. And looks ghastly. And feels worse.

Now, if he were still drinking, I could see the point of mean-mouthing and trying to help him hit the bottom. But he was not.

So, what exactly was the point of the comments that were heard? What do some so-called Christians do that makes them feel so ashamed that they have a need to harass somebody who is already very obviously paying for the sins of his past?

Morguefile cat:


Book Review: Love and Laughter

Book Review: Love and Laughter

Author: Marjorie Holmes

Date: 1967, 1972

Publisher: Doubleday (1967), Bantam (1972)

ISBN: none, but click here to see it on Amazon

Length: 239 pages

Quote: “It doesn’t take money to achieve an atmosphere of charm and quiet. It merely takes time, efficient management, and the little artistic touches…”

And also, as Holmes goes on to show on pages 9 and 10, a family who want the same kind of charm and quiet for which Mother envies her single friends, which is probably a family where all the children are over age twelve. When Grandma wanted an “atmosphere” at dinner, she had the children fed somewhere else. Which probably involved paying someone money.

The writer known as Marjorie Holmes (a pen name) wrote a successful book called I’ve Got to Talk to Somebody, God. Seeing that the book had sold well, the old Washington Star newspaper started printing regular short columns by Holmes. These columns were secular, and dealt with the brand-new, made-for-TV “traditional” family lifestyle in which all husbands were full-time breadwinners, all wives were full-time homemakers, all sons went into the Army, all daughters moved away to wherever their husbands had come from or gone, and everybody was happy-happy-happy because they had the latest expensive toys.

Although a full-scale industry grew out of publishing the complaints of people for whom this lifestyle pattern didn’t work, it was working pretty well for Holmes. Here and there, as in the quote above, we find a gentle murmur of dissatisfaction…but Holmes did seem to have a nice life, with the income from a big-city newspaper to help support her “cabin” at a posh lakeside community in suburban Virginia . She wrote short pieces about her children’s love of water, about holding a child’s hand, about letting neighbors’ children visit her home, about squirrels, about catalogue paper dolls, about the joys of helping her husband with some of their home improvement projects and watching all the neighbors pitch in to help with others. Being a Total Woman, Full-Time Wife and Mother and Part-Time Writer was a truly plushy job for those who could get it; what all those other women (and men) were complaining about was that they couldn’t get it, that simply taking a job and having a church wedding did not put people straight into a family life like Holmes’s, even in 1967.

Holmes was grateful. Her way of showing gratitude was to write these pieces, with occasional touches of humor, but more often with heartfelt sentimental bliss. This is a volume of Blessings being Counted: baby carriages, suitcases, even a ticket for fishing without a license (it was legal to fish from the pier, but not from their own boat, at the lake)—and even the children. Not everyone had them, Holmes knew. She herself might not have them forever. Best to write down what she loved about them, in case she needed to remember it someday.

The result was what 1970s pre-feminist literary circles dismissed as calendar art. Some pundits even claimed that in a good story somebody had to die, and of course there were, at the time, the Radical Red Writers clamoring for revolutionary work that would make people fighting mad, like Richard Wright or The Diary of a Mad Housewife, or at least thoroughly dissatisfied, like all those depressing Europeans you had to read for college credit. Meanwhile, ordinary unpretentious people were buying more copies of books like Holmes’ than of books like Wright’s. When one wasn’t trying to impress other artsy types with one’s tolerance for the ugly, depressing, or positively psychotic avant-garde, whether or not one had a house by the lake or even had children, it was nice to remember the good things about being a mother. Or a father. If a book like Love and Laughter didn’t make you glad to be a parent, it might at least make you glad to have one, or have had one.

Anybody who can construct sentences on paper could write a book similar to Love and Laughter, and these days dozens, if not hundreds, of bloggers are doing it, but it’s still pleasant to have one of the best collections of this kind of writing bound together in a book.

Marjorie Holmes no longer needs a dollar, and this web site still has to charge $5 per book + $5 per package if you buy it online here. However, the $5 per package shipping fee can be consolidated with the shipping fee for other books that are Fair Trade Books, so please browse through those (that’s what the “A Fair Trade Book” label is for), and consider tucking this slim volume into a package with one of them.

For Google + purposes, here’s that book review cat from Morguefile:

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Book Review: Another Turn of the Crank

A Fair Trade Book (hurrah!)

Title: Another Turn of the Crank

Author:  Wendell Berry

Date: 1995

Publisher: Counterpoint / Publishers Group West

ISBN: 1-887178-28-7

Length: 109 pages

Quote: “[C]onsumers…are beginning to see that a sys­tem of food production that is dependent on massive applica­tions of drugs and chemicals cannot, by definition, produce ‘pure food.’”

The thing I can’t understand about Wendell Berry is why his books seem to be better known in Washington, D.C., than in my home town. I suspect prejudice may be involved. Virginians who didn’t go to Berea College can form a habit of looking down on Kentucky. Big mistake. By way of correction, I’ll disclose that Berry is one of the few contemporary thinkers (as distinct from reporters) George Peters used to read regularly; when I miss working on his FacTapes, I read Berry. It would be hard to think seriously about the role of farming and hand crafts in the twenty-first century without reading Berry.

Wendell Berry wrote many different kinds of things: biography, fiction, poetry, literary criticism, and practical essays about his farm in Henry County that used to be published in Organic Gardening & Farming; but Another Turn of the Crank is a sort of quick summary of his philosophy.

It’s a Green book, of course. Finding myself frequently out of step with people in the Green Party, I’d even go so far as to say that Another Turn of the Crank is, for me, the Green book. I’ve written about Sick Greens, Bitter Greens, Hazy Greens, Poison Greens, Fluorescent Greens…this book defines what I’d call True Green ideas at their best. Except for the last one, the points made in this book repeat ideas Berry has written about at greater length in other books, but this is the book that pulls his politics and philosophy into a coherent order:

  1. “Nothing that I have written here should be construed as an endorsement of either of our political parties as they pres­ently function…The ‘conservatives’ believe that an economy that favors its richest and most powerful participants will yet somehow serve the best interest of everybody. The ‘liberals’ believe just as irrationally that a merely competitive economy, growing always larger in scale and controlled by fewer and fewer people, can be corrected by extending government charity to the inevitable victims: the dispossessed, the unrepresented, and the unemployed.” (Pages ix-x.) “Communists and capitalists are alike in their contempt for country people…Moreover, the old opposition of country and city, which was never useful…is, in fact, damaging to everybody involved.” (Pages 15-16.) Berry predicts that the real political issue of the twenty-first century will be between the current powerful support for an unsustainable global economy and the efforts of small farmers to preserve a sustainable local economy.
  1. “A reader would also be in error who concluded, from this book’s reiterated wish to restore local life by meas of local economies, that it is ‘antigovernment.’ On the contrary, one of the fundamental purposes of these essays is to serve the cause of democratic government as established by the Consti­tution…[C]entral planning is of a piece with absentee ownership and does not work…The proper role of a government is to protect its citizens and its communities against…economic conquest just as much as conquest by overt violence.” (Pages x-xi.)
  1. “I believe that for many reasons—political, ecological, and economic—the best intelligence and talent should be at work and at home everywhere in the country. And therefore, my wishes for our schools are opposite to those of the present-day political parties.” (Page xi.)
  1. “Now that the issue of sustainability has arisen so urgently…we can see that the correct agri­cultural agenda following World War II would have been to continue and refine the already established connection be­tween our farms and the sun…Instead, the adopted agenda called for a shift…to the expen­sive, filthy, and limited energy of the fossil fuels…It called also for the displacement of nearly the entire farming population.” (Page 2) “[F]armers…must learn—or learn again—to farm in ways that minimize their dependence on industrial supplies. They must diversify, using both plants and animals. They must produce, on their farms, as much as the required fertility and energy as they can. So far as they can, they must replace purchased goods and services with natural health and diversity and with their own intelligence…If farmers hope to exercise any control over their markets…then they will have to look to local markets. The long-broken connections between towns and cities and their sur­rounding landscapes will have to be restored.” (Page 5.)
  1. “Always ask of any proposed change or innovation: What will this do to our community? How will this affect our common wealth? Always include local nature—the land, the water, the air, the native creatures—within the membership of the community. Always ask how local needs might be supplied from local sources…Always supply local needs first. (And only then think of exporting their products, first to nearby cities, and then to others…Develop small-scale industries and businesses to su­pport the local farm and/or forest economy. Strive to produce as much of the community’s own energy as possible.” (Page 19.)
  1. “To say that the right of private property has often been used to protect individuals and even global corporations in their greed is not to say that it cannot secure individuals in an appropriate economic share in their country.” (Page 49.)
  1. “[N]ot just forest land but allland, private and public, farmed and for­ested, is ‘natural.’ All land is natural and all nature is a com­mon wealth.” (Page 54.)
  1. “[Y]ou cannot get good care in the use of the land by demanding it from public officials…If we want the land to be cared for, then we must have people living on and from the land who are able and willing to care for it.” (Page 55.)
  1. “We have tried…preferring ourselves to the exclusion of all other creatures, with results that are manifestly disastrous. And now, conscious of those faults, we are tempted to correct them by denigrating ourselves…[W]e cannot be made kind toward our fellow creatures except by the same qualities that make us kind toward our fellow humans. The problem obviously is that we are not well practiced in kindness toward our fellow humans…especially, I think, toward human children…who are being aborted or abandoned, abused, drugged, bombed, neglected, poorly raised, poorly fed, poorly taught, and poorly disciplined. Many of them will not only find no worthy work but no work of any kind.” (Pages 78-79.)
  1. “I am moreover a Luddite…not ‘against technology’ so much as I am for community. When the choice is between the health of a community and technological innovation, I choose the health of the community.” (Page 90.)
  1. “Why should rest and food and ecological health not be the basic principles of our art and science of healing? Is it because the basic principles already are technology and drugs?” (Page 98.)
  1. “[W]e had better under­stand: sex and fertility are joined…sex and the world are joined.” (Page 81.)

Obviously, any book that tries to make these points in 109 pages is going to be a slow, dense, serious read even for True Greens to whom the ideas are familiar. This book includes some witty remarks and some anecdotes, but it’s much “heavier” than its small physical size suggests.

There are points on which it’s possible for True Greens to disagree with this book. Berry complains about the plight of small farmers and small business owners trying to obtain loans and credit from big-chain banks. George Peters would have said, and now I would say, that these individuals’ problem is their need to remain independent of the banks in the first place. Berry thinks the Internet destroys communities; online readers probably think it helps build communities. Minor points, these.

Then there’s a point of word usage on which Berry disagrees with most of the English-speaking world. All the English-speaking countries had a postwar baby boom. While the “Baby Boomer” generation in the U.K. was shaped by growing up in economic hardship, and the “Baby Boomer” generation in the U.S. was shaped by growing up in economic “boom times,” there is at least a general agreement that “Boomers” are people born between 1945 and 1970.

Berry, who was born in 1934, learned the slang word “boomer” at the time when it referred to the semi-nomadic lifestyle of those who always rushed toward the sites of the brief economic “booms” created as Americans discovered and exploited our natural resources. He opposes “boomers” to the “stickers” or “nesters” who wanted to stay in one place, use its resources prudently, and form social bonds with neighbors. He admits that these tendencies probably coexist in most of us, and feels that morality requires us to check any “boomer” tendencies we have and strengthen our “nester” tendencies–our topophilia. What Berry means by “boomer” is fairly close to what I mean by “greedhead,” what some other Greens mean by “land-rapers,” and what several people, a hundred years ago, seem to have meant by “capitalist.” In any case, it’s not a demographic defined by date of birth…and it’s not a thing anybody wants to be.

So far as I know, every time Berry has used the word “boomer” in this idiosyncratic, obsolete way he’s taken a page or two to define what he means, so confusion is not possible for those who read the whole book or article. I mention this point for the benefit of those random readers who try to judge a book by reading a page somewhere in the middle, who may have thought Berry was insulting their age group. He’s not…we’ve been his best students and biggest fans.

I’m tempted to say that everyone needs to read Another Turn of the Crank, because I wish everyone had already read it, but no. This is a book for adults who’ve had a fairly extensive, fairly liberal education, and some work experience. In previous books Berry built up his evidence in support of each of his points, and cited his sources; in this book he gives readers an overview of what he’s already studied and concluded. If these thoughts are at all new to you, Another Turn of the Crank would be a challenging place to begin learning about them. Everyone may need to read this book, eventually, but not everyone is ready for it yet.

So, if you’ve not read earlier Berry books, where should you begin? Home Economics and The Gift of Good Land were written earlier, for a more general audience…I think that might still be a general audience of university students, but at least he identified and recommended the supplemental reading that can help you understand his True Green thought.

At latest report Berry was still alive (“They tell me I have a web site, but I didn’t do that”–his publisher maintains a book sale site, and a fan maintains a site for fans) so Another Turn of the Crank is a Fair Trade Book. To buy it online, send $5 per book + $5 per package to either address in the lower left-hand corner of the screen, and from this total of $10 I’ll send 10%, or $1, to Berry or a charity of his choice. (If you want four copies, send a total of $25 and I’ll send Berry or his charity $4.)