Saturday, January 20, 2018

Winston Churchill

by John Perry
158 pages / 2010

Churchill had been dead more than 50 years now, but if the man himself is gone, the myth is enjoying a revival. Churchill has made recent appearance in the big screen productions Churchill and Darkest Hour, and has also shown up on the small screen in the British drama Crown. Of course, we all know the camera distorts, and it's not just the ten pounds it adds, so if you want a more accurate understanding of the British Bulldog, why not turn to  print instead?

Most Churchill biographies are the size of dictionaries, and since that exceeded my interest in the man I was pleased to discover John Perry's Winston Churchill was of a more reasonable size. Since it's part of Christian publisher Thomas Nelson's 16-book Christian Encounters biography series, I wondered if that meant Churchill himself was Christian. But, no, sadly it isn't so.

It turns out that while Churchill knew his Bible, and would sometimes speak of God – particularly in rousing speeches to the British public – he thought that, if there was a God, then God owed him heaven. So no, Churchill wasn't Christian.

As Perry makes clear, Churchill had a spiritual type of fatalism. Early on Churchill came to understand that no man is in charge of his own fate; the fact that one man lives through a battle and another dies has little to do with the men themselves. So when Churchill survived a number of dangerous encounters in his youth, he grew in his conviction that he had been destined for something great. Destined by Who? The answer to that question wasn't all that pressing to Churchill. But this conviction gave him confidence, and even a certain sort of humility... but it didn't result in worship. Churchill seemed to be the greatest being that Churchill knew.

CAUTIONS

As a rule I don't recommend (or even review) books that take God's name in vain – why would I praise someone who is mocking God?

This is especially true when it comes to fiction, however, a case can be made for exceptions when it comes to history. In detailing Churchill's agnostic attitude towards God (and his son Randolph's especially arrogant view) it would seem unavoidable that some of Churchill's blasphemous quips and comments would need to be shared. But while these quotes do seem necessary, this is an instance where less is more, so we can be grateful with the restraint in which Perry shares them.

CONCLUSION

Why, then, is Churchill being profiled in this Christian series of biographies? Because we can see God's hand on the man. From birth God was preparing him to be the right man, for the right time. And He so arranged things that Churchill was in the right place too, as the war time prime minister. This was all beyond Churchill's arranging, but looking back, we can see how God laid out events, and how He can use whomever he will because, whether Christian or agnostic, all are a part of His plan.

That's the real reason to read this biography – it is a treat to see how God has acted in history to preserve His Church. Churchill was a great man in ways, but he was also a petty one in others. Had he lived today, there might even have been unfavorable comparisons made between him and our least favorite politicians: he blew through taxpayer dollars to fund his own high living, and he was known to indulge in "alternative facts" in his writings. At a different time, this great man might have been run out of politics. That's the lesson here – the greatness of this great man can't be found in the man himself. Instead what's on display is God's gracious providence in providing for us the response we need to Hitler's Third Reich.

Winston Churchill is a quick, eye-opening read that both my wife and I enjoyed. I would recommend it to anyone, teens and up, interested in learning more about one of the pivotal figures of the 20th century.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide

by Blaise Alleyne and Jonathan Van Maren
104 pages / Life Cycle Books

I hope that many who are reading this are wiser than I have often been, but I wonder if, as was the case for me, some pro-lifers found it difficult to oppose euthanasia as passionately as we oppose abortion. How do you help someone who doesn't want to be helped - who wants to die?

Of course, that emotional tension is exactly parallel to the hard cases that are typically presented to pro-lifers in the abortion debate. Just as in that debate, the key is to find the central issue. With abortion, the main question is, "Who is the unborn?" There are only two options. If the unborn is not human, there can be no justification for 'its' surgical removal, but if the unborn is human, then there can be no justification for killing  him or her. Similarly, the crux of opposition to  euthanasia is the question, "How do we help those who are feeling desperate enough to want to kill themselves?" There are only two options: either we prevent suicide, or we assist it.

That's where Alleyne and Van Maren's book. These two men with extensive experience in the pro-life movement break down the debate in terms of that central question. They start with framing the debate
  • how to dialogue effectively;
  • how to define the three possible positions (the split position, the total choice position, and the pro-life position); and
  • how to approach the issue of suicidal despair (referencing Victor Frankl's insight from his experience in a concentration camp that "D = S - M," or despair = suffering without meaning).
The second chapter explores the first of those three positions. The job of pro-life apologetics is to show the inconsistency of the split position, which suggests that we should prevent some suicides while assisting others). The authors give ways to counter the reasons often used to justify some suicides, given by the acronym QUIT. They show that arguments based on Quality of life, Unbearable suffering, an Incurable condition, or a Terminal prognosis are fallacious, largely because they are based on ageism and ableism. In the same way as arguments against abortion bring out "two-year-old Timmy" to show that we should not be killing human beings at any level of development, arguments against euthanasia show us the healthy 19-year-old to help us realize that it is wrong to assist the suicide of anyone, of any age or level of health - because as the authors put it, "suicide is a symptom [of despair], not a solution."

Chapter 3 deals with those who are (sadly) willing to be consistent and advocate total choice for all who desire to be assisted in ending their lives. The only response is to insist that the suicidal need love even more than they need argument.

The fourth chapter shows how dangerous it is to accept either the split or the total choice position, because they have always involved a slippery slope toward more and more assisted killings, they reduce the willingness to prevent suicide, and they undermine the morale of everyone who works in any facility that provides suicide assistance.

Finally, the authors show the pro-life position. It is not mere vitalism, and so allows for
  • the refusal of burdensome treatment, as well as
  • the use of pain medication, even when that risks hastening death, as long as the intent of such medication is to alleviate pain rather than to kill.
The pro-life position also offers positive responses to the suicidal: psychological health resources, pain management, palliative care, and dignity therapy. The authors end with two pleas:
  • "Let death be what takes us, not lack of imagination." In other words, may no-one ever have their death hastened because we refuse to imagine how we may show more compassion.
  • "As people who believe in the dignity and value of every human life, it is our responsibility to.... persuade people that assisted suicide is wrong."
Alleyne and Van Maren admirably give us the tools to carry out that responsibility. Given the urgency of the push toward euthaniasia in both Canada and U.S., more of us should be reading this book.You can order it from Life Cycle Books (including the option to buy it in bulk for your pro-life group or circle of friends at greatly reduced prices).

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Steal Away Home

Charles Spurgeon and Thomas Johnson:Unlikely friends on the passage to freedom
by Matt Carter and Aaron Ivey
290 pages / 2017

This is two biographies in one, about the little know relationship between the "Prince of Preachers" Charles Haddon Spurgeon and a former slave, Thomas Johnson.

The men couldn't have grown up in more different circumstances. Spurgeon was in the United Kingdom, and establishing his reputation as "the Prince of Preachers," while Thomas Johnson was still a slave in the America. Johnson's first heard Spurgeon's name mentioned when the preacher's sermons and books were being burnt by slavery-defenders in the South. They didn't like the strong and clearly biblical way that Spurgeon had been denouncing slavery. 

And then emancipation came, and Johnson was finally free, he too, became a preacher. And with his heart inclined to the mission field in Africa, he eventually ends up at Spurgeon's College where the two meet and become friends. Perhaps one reason they became friends was because Spurgeon struggled throughout this life with depression, and his young friend Johnson knew something of that too, borne out of his despair as a slave. As true Christians brothers, they are a help and a companion to one each other.

One caution

Now, this while these two men are both real, I should note this is a fictionalized account. That means that while the broad details are all true, and much of the dialogue is taken from the men's works, this work should only be enjoyed for the general impression, not the specific details, it provides of their friendship.

I'll give one example of how this mix of fact and fiction does, on the one hand, stay very true to reality, but on the other hand, can give a bit of an inaccurate impression. When we read of how Spurgeon proposes to his wife-to-be, he comes off as quite the Prince Charming with all the right words, the perfect thoughtful present, and just the right timing. However, the authors have compacted the evening's events from events that took place over more than the one occasion. The facts are true, but it's an alteration of the timeline for brevity's sake, to keep the story flowing.

Conclusion

This is just a wonderfully readable book. And it is attractively put together too. You aren't supposed to judge a book by its cover; but it's wonderful when a good cover can give a reluctant reader just the encouragement they need to get started.

I'd recommend this to anyone with an interest in church history, or in knowing more about the American South during slaver and after, or who enjoy historical fiction or biographies. It's a well done book, so if you are a reader, I think you'll love Steal Away Home.

You can pick it up at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Great Brain

by John D. Fitzgerald
175 Pages / 1972

The Great Brain is the story of Tom Fitzgerald, a ten-year-old boy living in frontier Utah in a time so long ago that indoor toilets were considered a novelty. His hometown of Adenville is, like most Utah towns, populated mainly by Mormons who live beside a handful of Catholics and Protestants. For Tom that doesn’t matter since he can out think them all.

The all consuming love of Tom’s life is money. If there’s a way to get it, Tom puts his great brain to work so that the money can be his. Not surprisingly, Tom’s great brain finds other things to work on, including finding kids lost in a cave, and getting even with his teacher.

This book is fun to read as the schemes dreamed up by the “Great Brain” are often hilarious and crazy and almost always successful. Yet though Tom’s fascinating schemes are not always something to admire, there’s a wonderful sense of morality that runs through the book.

The whole tale is told by Tom’s younger brother, John. He is often taken in by Tom’s smooth justifications of his actions, but John always lets you know that he’s still left with nagging doubts. Part of John knows, however silky the Great Brain’s explanations might be, that his schemes still aren’t quite right. Tom also has great parents who are almost always on the ball. They catch onto his antics, punish him, and force him to make restitution to those he’s swindled.

In the end, though, the Great Brain sees that there’s more than money. While there isn’t an overt religious message in the book, Tom actually saves a friend’s life and passes up a great money making opportunity that went with it. It makes him feel “extra good inside. Sort of clean and warm and Christmasy.”

This is a fun book, good for anyone 9 and over. I absolutely loved it when I first read it as a kid. While it tells the story of an entertaining and sometimes shady child, it doesn’t glorify his antics. Ultimately Tom’s activities are clever, entertaining, confounding and successful, but you still are left with a clear sense that they’re wrong. It’s a fascinating tale with an “old fashioned” sense of morality; good must ultimately win out.

The best part is that not only is this a great book, but if you love it as much as I did, there’s a number of sequels to enjoy.

You can pick The Great Brain up at Amazon.com here, or Amazon.ca here.

- reviewed by James Dykstra

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Flags out front


A Contrarian's Daydream
by Douglas Wilson
196 pages / 2017

In Flags out Front, Douglas Wilson has crafted something that is as inspirational as it is fictional.

What if a Christian public figure took a stand on principle and, no matter what pressure came, just would not back down? What might happen if, instead of wilting under that pressure, or trying to avoid it, a Christian leader embraced it, and fought back fearlessly?

In Flags out Front we get to find out. Tim Collins is a "mild mannered president of a dwindling southern" Bible college who never meant to cause a fuss. But he
arrives on campus one day to find a prankster has swapped a couple of the flags at the campus entrance. Now instead of the American flag flying above all, there is the Christian flag waving from on high, with the Stars and Stripes just below. Collins doesn't know quite what to think. But, upon reflection, he concludes the change is a good one and leaves it.

Then the phone calls start coming. He gets calls from conservative, patriotic sorts, wondering why the American flag is not in its central place. And he hears from the other side too, from those who'd be happy enough to burn the flag, but don't want to see it waving below a Christian flag.

Protests to the right, threats from the left, and Collins quietly stand his ground. He's willing to do it, even if it means standing alone...but alone is one thing he's not going to be. Quiet, meek, Dr. Collins, becomes the rally point for Christians of all sorts...including some clever college students who know how to make some noise.

This is how is should be, and, maybe could be. Who knows what God would do with a fearless few? Actually, we already know: this year we're celebrating the 500th anniversary of the firestorm God started with one monk and his mallet.

Flags out Front is a funny, clever, comedic novel that most anyone would enjoy, particularly if they have an interest in politics. I've foisted this off on a number of friends and family (and read about half of it out loud to my wife) and the response has been enthused all around.

You can pick up Flags out Front at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Visit the Sick

Ministering God's Grace in Times of Illness
by Brian Croft
94 pages / updated in 2014

One of the ways that Jesus described the difference between "the sheep and the goats" as the members of the church come before Him on Judgment Day is that the sheep visited the sick. Clearly visiting the sick is one important fruit of true faith in Jesus Christ.

Brian Croft's book not only shows the theological foundations for and purposes for visiting the sick, but also gives practical guidelines on how to do so in a way that builds up those beset by illness or injury, their family and friends, and those who do the visiting.

Croft starts by showing God's care for the sick after man brought the curse of disease into the world through sin - His care in the nation of Israel, in the life of Christ, and in the New Testament church. He next makes clear how our care for the sick can build up others spiritually through leading questions, the reading of Scripture, praying the gospel (especially when there are non-Christians on their deathbed), affirming God's promises, and trusting God's sovereign plan. This second chapter also gives a useful list of Bible passages to comfort and bring the gospel to the ailing.

Croft's third chapter on "Wise Care for the Sick" reminds us to prepare our hearts, watch our time, listen to the sick members without the immediate compulsion to resolve all their questions, leave a note when necessary, and enjoy the opportunity to grow in the Lord ourselves through our visits. "Skilled Care for the Sick" (as the fourth chapter is titled) also requires us to make effective eye contact, use appropriate physical touch, be pleasant in our manner, be sensitive to the sick person's situation, and even to keep our breath fresh! Croft's last chapter gives several ways for pastors to encourage their congregations to visit the sick.

The conclusion and afterword give a concrete example (in the life of the famous preacher C. H. Spurgeon) of how effective our ministry to the afflicted can be and why it is so important. The appendices give a single-page checklist of what to remember when we visit; pointers on how to start and move spiritual conversations forward; a series of "Frequently Answered Questions;" a summary of J. C. Ryles's essay on the prevalence, benefits, and duties related to "Sickness"; and a bibliography of very useful resources.

In just 94 pages, Croft gives a wealth of ideas to motivate and prepare us to visit ailing members, to their benefit and ours. If you think that Brian Croft's book will help equip you and others in the communion of saints to Visit the Sick effectively, you can order the book at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Pollyanna

by Eleanor H. Porter
abridged and modernized by Kathleen Olmstead
150 pages / 2007

I'm not one for abridged classics – why not just read the original?

However, there is an exception to every rule. I recently realized that my little ones could benefit from learning about Pollyanna's "glad game" but they just weren't old enough yet to sit through the original. Fortunately Sterling Books' "Classic Starts" has a very good abridgment. At first I was wondering whether this even was an abridgment - had they maybe just tweaked the language a bit? But it is, in fact, about half the size. And that made it the perfect size for my girls.

Pollyanna is a poor but cheerful orphan girl who goes to live with her rich, strait-laced aunt. Hilarity ensues, and the aunt is gradually won over. I won't tell you more, other than to say there is one shocking/sad moment that could cause young listeners some distress – Pollyanna gets hurt quite badly. I peeked ahead and made sure that the chapter with the accident was one I would begin an evening with, so that, before concluding for the night, I could read two more chapters where things took a happier turn. That helped my audience work through this tense section.

So what is Pollyanna's "glad game"? It's something her father taught her - he explained that even when things aren't going our way, there is always something to be glad about. He first taught her the game one Christmas when Pollyanna was hoping for a doll, but the only gift sent to her poor family was a pair of tiny crutches. So what is there to be happy about that? It took some thinking, but eventually father and daughter came up with something: they could be glad about the crutches because at least “we didn’t need to use them!”

Pollyanna teaches her game to many others, and in doing so, transforms her community - they too, start to see the silver lining to each dark cloud.

Of course, this game can be taken to extremes. When an older man breaks a leg, Pollyanna notes he could be glad that he broke just the one leg. Well, okay. But, as the Preacher said, there is a time for everything, and that includes mourning. So maybe it is fine for the man to just simply be sad for a time at the pain and suffering that's happened to him.

But while Pollyanna's game can be taken to extremes, I don't think many of us are in danger of doing so. Couldn't we all do with a good dose of this Pollyanna-ish thinking?

You can pick up this wonderful book at Amazon.com or Amazon.ca but there are other abridgments, and not all as good, so do make sure the one you get is the Sterling Books' "Classic Starts" edition

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Then comes marriage

by Angela Hunt and Bill Myers
2001 / 137 pages

This is a great book. It’s funny and serious, goofy and intellectual all at the same time.

Then Comes Marriage is the story of Heather and Kurt Stone as they celebrate their first anniversary. While Heather and Kurt are madly in love, you’ve likely never met two more clueless individuals. As an anniversary present he gives her a four-wheel drive truck, and she gives him a collage of photos and ticket stubs from the months of their courtship. What neither seems to understand is that the present they give the other person is really what they wanted themselves.

Fireworks result, and this short novel or “novella” is spent sorting out the mess, and trying to figure out just what it is that God wants Heather and Kurt to bring to their marriage.

The story is definitely funny, and it makes some wonderfully serious points in a light-hearted way. It’s rarely preachy yet manages to provoke thought. This would be a wonderful book to stir discussion in a marriage preparation course or perhaps in a high school life skills course. Of course, it’s also great to read just because you want to dig into a good book.

The only real problem I had with the book is the price. At nearly $20 Canadian new, it’s a lot of money for such a tiny book. On the bright side, the book comes very solidly bound in a nice hardcover edition. And there are lots of used copies going for just a few bucks.

This is the kind of book that’s meant for sharing because of it’s lively story and important message, and with it’s rugged construction, it’s the kind of book you should be able to share for years to come. Then Comes Marriage is not only a book worth buying, but a book worth keeping.

You can buy a copy at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here.

Reviewed by James Dykstra

Friday, November 24, 2017

Eric says...thanks, sorry, and please

Dai Hankey has a great voice, and has paired up with a fantastic illustrator for his three books about Eric, and how this little fellow learns to say thanks, please, and sorry. Usually an author's voice isn't all that relevant, but in the three videos below we get to listen in as he reads his books (which can all be found at Amazon.com or Amazon.ca). Fun stuff!

Eric Says Thanks
32 pages / 2016

In Eric Says Thanks this little boy models some fantastic enthusiasm as he learns Who to give credit to for the goodness he's been giving in his "brecky."



Eric Says Sorry
32 pages / 2016

When Eric messes up he tries all sorts of way to get out of trouble, but lying, shifting blame, and coming up with excuses don't get him anywhere. But when his dad gives him grace - epic grace! - and pays for the broken pot, Eric gets a glimpse at the grace God gives us. We can't earn forgiveness. But we can ask for it.

Parents with highly developed "arminian sniff detectors" might detect a hint of this theology in the author's commentary after the book concludes. But if it's there (and I don't know if it is) it certainly isn't anything that children will notice or be impacted by. And, more to the point, it doesn't come up in the book.



Eric Says Please
32 pages / 2017


Eric wants to show he can do it all himself, but the little fellow soon learns that pride goeth before a fall...right out of a tree!  When Eric finally realizes he can't do it on his own, his grandfather points Eric to Who he can go to, to ask for help.


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Literature Through the Eyes of Faith

by Susan V. Gallagher and Roger Lundin
192 pages / 1989

I am not the only person I know who considers this a really good read. At a teachers' convention I attended recently, a university professor quoted paragraphs from this book several times, and this presenter also referred to it as a "trusty guide" (or words to that effect).

So why is this nearly 30-year-old textbook still worth reading? Well, as the Foreword (by Nicholas Wolterstorff, himself a generally trusty Christian guide to philosophy) shows, Literature Through the Eyes of Faith carries out two important tasks in responding to literature. It both maps out a more than merely Romantic way of looking at literature and outlines how to respond to (fairly) recent critical approaches to literature.

So... what does that mean? Well, let's start with the "Romantic" view of literature. The authors show how as the Enlightenment undermined Western cultures' trust in Biblical revelation, writers and critics began to justify the writing and study of literature as a search for wisdom and self-improvement. The problem with that approach is that it treated literature as almost inspired. It also ultimately left no room to evaluate literature by outside standards (like the Bible).

At the same time, the authors stress "that the reading and writing of literature are forms of human action and... have the same potential for good or evil as any of our actions." In other words, the same piece of literature can indeed point to the truth (as the Romantics emphasized) - but can also be used to glamorize or justify evil. Of course, if literature is truly capable of promoting both good and evil, the interpretation of literature becomes very important. The authors show the problems with both many secular methods of interpreting literature and naive approaches to literature by well-meaning Christians who fail to account for the contexts and purposes of the stories, poems, and plays they read. They show both that not just "anything goes" in evaluating a work of literature, but that we must be willing to give time and careful reading and study to given works, authors, and forms of literature before we label any of them as being not worth a Christian's time and energy. The same is true when we consider what works are worthy of being included in "the canon" - the literature that everyone should study.

What makes all this more than dry definition is the range of people drawn into their discussion - from church fathers and classic Christian writers to scientists to writers promoting the American mythos: Augustine, William Bradford, Emily Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Irenaeus, Stephen King, C. S. Lewis, John Milton, Sir Isaac Newton, William Shakespeare, and Mark Twain (to name only the more obvious ones that are dealt with over several pages each).

My only quibble with the book might demonstrate my ignorance, rather than their mistake. The authors make a different distinction between form and genre than I typically use with my students. I have called form the description of HOW a story is told - for example, in poetry, in a novel, in a short story, or in a play. Genre, in my use of the term, refers to WHAT the story is about - a romance, a western, a fantasy, an adventure story, a war story, a comedy, a tragedy, or many, many others. As for the authors' use of these two words, you will have to read the book to see whether it is more accurate or useful than mine.

If you think that Gallagher and Lundin can help you see Literature Through the Eyes of Faith, you can order it at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here.




Saturday, October 28, 2017

Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland

by Christopher R. Browning
271 pages / 1992

This is a really horrifying book.

Ordinary Men tells the World War II story of German Reserve Police Battalion 101. Police battalions were units sent into occupied territory to quell civil unrest and to take care of any remaining partisan forces. They generally consisted of men too old for the regular military draft, or sometimes volunteers attempting to avoid conscription into an active military unit. They were formed of men with families and careers, the sort of men you might meet at the grocery store, or perhaps go bowling with. The men in police units were not normally those you'd consider likely to become mass murderers.

On July 13, 1942, that all changed. The nearly 500 men of the battalion were sent to Jósefów in Poland. Upon arrival, Major Wilhem Trapp, the battalion commander gave the men their instructions. In tears he told them that they were to round up the 1500 or more Jews in the town and execute them. In an unusual move, Trapp invited anyone to step forward who did not want to carry out the task at hand and be assigned to other duties. Only 12 of the nearly 500 took Trapp up on his offer.

Those who didn’t stepped forward were set to work, and an initially small group of them was brought to the nearby woods where they were instructed on how to execute the Jews in as swift and tidy a way as possible. With their victim lying face down on the ground, the policemen were instructed to place the bayonets of their rifles at the base of their victims' necks, and then fire. This method ensured a swift death for the victim, and was as clean and tidy as a mass execution could be.

Later groups that carried out the executions that day were not given the same precise instructions, and often shot wildly. This meant that the victims' skulls were frequently blown apart, splattering the formerly tidy uniforms of the police with blood and brains of the victims. As might be expected, many of the shooters were unable to continue and were allowed to assume other less distasteful duties. Unit discipline was surprisingly loose that day, and many of those doing the shooting simply abandoned their posts without permission and slipped off into the woods. They were able to do this without any punishment from their superiors. Despite how easy it was to avoid being one of the executioners, 80 per cent or more of the battalion continued rounding up and executing the Jews until the job was completed.

Upon returning to their barracks, most of the men of the unit quickly got drunk.

As with most tasks that assault our conscience, repetition numbs our response – executing the Jews became easier, and even a source of merriment at times.

Battalion 101 did few actual executions on their own, generally providing police cordons to prevent doomed Jews from escaping their fate. While Lithuanian "Hiwi" units did much of the actual shooting, the men of Battalion 101 were involved in the execution either directly or by providing a security cordon to at least 38,000 Jews from July 1942 until November 1943. Additionally, they forced at least 45,200 other Jews onto trains bound for death camps like Treblinka.

Story of those that killed

This is a horrifying book, but not so much because of the number of men, women and children who were innocently executed. This book is not the story of those who died, but of those who killed them. After the initial incident at Jósefów, battalion discipline was tightened. Despite this, men who didn't want to be involved in the executions had little trouble avoiding the duty. When officers set up details, they generally picked volunteers. On those occasions when they simply chose people at random, it was still easy to avoid the duty by moving to the back of the crowd. It quickly became apparent that men in close proximity to the officer got picked, so avoiding this unpleasant job was a relatively simple affair.

The horrifying part is that despite it being easy to avoid execution duties, it was never a problem finding volunteers, eager to go out and join the latest squad. There were always other more seemingly honorable tasks available for those who chose not to join the execution squads, such as joining a patrol to eliminate partisan resistance fighters. None the less, there was a conspicuous number of men in the unit who appeared to prefer the task of killing unarmed civilians.

In reading a book like this, one has to ask how an average man could become a mass murderer. The author is quick to emphasize that these were not men trained to kill. As police officers, their military training was no better than the average. They had received no special indoctrination that prepared them for their task. Being, for the most part, middle aged men set in their ways, they were, if anything, less susceptible to the worst of the Nazi propaganda than most of the younger soldiers conscripted into military units. Only about 25 per cent of the policemen were members of the Nazi party and most of those were late joiners, coming into the party after National Socialism had become well established in Germany. In other words, most of these men weren't even committed Nazis. The author emphasizes that in almost every conceivable way, the men of Battalion 101 were average. They were, quite literally, ordinary men. They could well have been your neighbor next door, or the guy from down the street.

So how do you explain something like this, when ordinary men become willingly involved in extraordinary evil? The author notes that psychological experiments suggest humans will readily inflict severe pain on other human beings when ordered to do so by an authority figure. It seems that the average man's conscience can be put at ease if someone else has told him to cause pain, for perhaps then he might be able to convince himself he is not morally responsible.

In the case of Battalion 101, however, the normal stern authority figure who ordered the killings was a kindly older man, so distraught about the orders he brought that he was literally in tears. His instructions to clear out the ghetto in Jósefów came less as an order from an authority figure than as a request from a man deeply uncomfortable with his task. The standard explanation of many accused of heinous crimes - "I was merely following orders" - simply doesn't apply here for it was almost always possible to avoid the order with no adverse consequences. The authority figures of the battalion never took a stern line and never forced the men to kill.

Rationalizing evil

Some of the men of the battalion rationalized their actions in strange ways. One explained that he always paired himself with another policeman who would shoot the parent of a child. Since the child was now an orphan, it seemed only merciful to this individual to also shoot the child, for this would "deliver" him from the lonely, miserable life that orphans have often experienced. It may not have been intentional, but the policeman justifying his actions used a perverse pun. The same German word he used to suggest he delivered the child, also means "to redeem." It seemed shooting these Jews almost took on a religious significance for him.

The author also contrasts the policemen with the bureaucrats in Berlin who issued the orders that Battalion 101 followed when they executed civilians, or forced them onto death trains. These bureaucrats, he notes, were able to issue their directives with relative ease because they never actually had to face the people whose deaths they were responsible for.

The men of this police battalion never had that excuse. They couldn't claim that they were emotionally distant from their victims as they escorted them, one by one, to the areas in the forest where the killing was taking place. The policemen saw their victims close up, and were able to look them in the eye. The men of the battalion indicated they even struck up conversations with the men, women, and children they were about to kill though one is left to wonder what kind of a conversation could possibly have occurred. The policemen could not claim a moral distance from their victims like the bureaucrats in Berlin could. They looked many of their victims in the eye and treated them like human beings until the very last possible moment.

True cowardice

So what could be the cause? There is, perhaps, only one explanation that makes sense and even partially accounts for what occurred. Twenty years after the fact, when facing criminal prosecution for their actions, men of the battalion were asked why they didn't step forward and avoid becoming a mass murderer when offered the opportunity by Trapp. Most explained they didn't want to appear cowardly. It was one thing to start with the executions and then be unable to finish. It was quite another to not do the executions at all. That was cowardly. Only one individual seemed to understand his own motivations clearly. When asked why he didn't step forward when given the chance, he didn't say that he was trying to avoid being a coward, but that he didn't step forward precisely because he was a coward. He was less afraid of killing innocent children than he was of the peer pressure exerted by his comrades.

The true story of Battalion 101 is a horrifying tale. There was, no doubt, enormous pressure from the rest of the battalion to conform and to join the executions. Yet peer pressure is not an excuse. We don't excuse kids at school caught smoking who gave in under pressure from their peers, and, though the crime is larger, people caught in the situation of the battalion cannot be excused either. Peer pressure helps to explain their actions, but it doesn't take away the guilt.

Perhaps the most obvious element lacking from all the excuses provided by the policemen is any sense of morality. Twenty years after the fact when criminal investigators interviewed these former policemen, there was no longer an immediate sense of peer pressure. The rest of their unit no longer had the same sway over them, and even that long after the events the policemen overwhelmingly indicated they had done what they did because they didn't want to appear weak in front of their comrades. They hadn't been motivated by a belief in Nazi values. Twenty years after the fact they expressed little remorse for what were clearly morally repugnant actions. Even those who had not been involved in the killing did not claim to be "too good" to kill, but they were "too weak." It is almost unbelievable that crimes of this magnitude could be discussed without any reference to morality.

In all of us

Though this is a work of history and not theology, and though the author reveals no obvious religious bias, his conclusion sounds like something straight out of the Bible. He warns against the smugness many feel when discussing the evil actions of others. As he notes in his final sentence, if under these circumstances the very ordinary men of Battalion 101 could become mass killers, "what group of men cannot?"

It is in this last comment that it might be possible to finally understand the actions of these men. The Heidelberg Catechism explains that we are "incapable of any good and prone to all evil" and the Larger Catechism of the Westminster Confessions states that mankind is "wholly inclined to all evil." This is why the tale of Battalion 101 is so utterly horrifying. Their actions are not horrifying because they're so unusual, and so implausible, but because they're something we're all capable of. The level of evil to which they descended - the same evil we've seen repeated in places like Rwanda, or by individuals like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahlmer, or Clifford Olson - is something that lies in the hearts of all of us.

Reading a book like this is not for the faint of heart, or those prone to nightmares. As one of my grad school colleagues commented, it is almost senseless to talk about preventing these kinds of actions, for without the regenerating work of God the cause of the evil remains unsolved. Despite its disturbing story, the book is one well worth reading for it illustrates in a brutally clear fashion why reaching out to our neighbors is so urgent. If you ever needed a slight push to talk to co-workers, or the people just across the back hedge, to explain to them "the reason for the hope that you have," this book will do that for you.

You can pick up Ordinary Men at Amazon.com here and Amazon.ca here.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Two novels that ask, "What if we found Jesus' bones?"

In 1906 a momentous discovery was made. While digging in Turkey, Hugo Winckler, a German archeologist, discovered the ancient ruins of the Hittite capital city of Hattusa.

This discovery was momentous because, up until that time, many had been sure that Hittites didn’t exist. The only mention of them was in the Bible, but since no solid archeological evidence of Hittites had been found, there was a growing speculation that the Bible had made them up. It was seen as evidence, then, that the Bible was in error.

Prior to 1906, conservative Christians still believed in the inerrancy of the Bible, even though the archeological evidence (or lack thereof) seemed to be stacked against them. In a way the 1906 find was hardly relevant to them – they believed before this discovery and continued to believe afterwards. The discovery did, however, illustrate two important points:

  1. Archeological, and other evidence, continues to verify parts of the Bible.
  2. It is illogical to base our faith on the latest scientific or archeological, finds since some evidence might seems – at least for a time – to differ with the Bible.

It is the logic and limit of trying to prove the Bible that is the focus of these two novels. Both books are built on a very similar premise: What if the bones of Jesus were discovered? Or to put it another way, what would the Church, and world do if the archeological and scientific evidence was stacked against Jesus’ resurrection?

Wil’s Bones
by Kevin Bowen
Engage Publishing, 2000, 244 pages

With short chapters (frequently two and three pages), this novel is a quick read. Wil Wilson has grown up to be the preeminent Biblical archeologist of the day. He is not a Christian though. The hypocrisy of his father, a respected deacon in his church, and an abusive womanizing drunk at home, has killed Wil’s faith. In fact, Wil first becomes interested in archeology as a way to hurt his father. If Wil can only find Jesus’ bones he can destroy his father’s church, his faith, and his respected position as deacon.

When the bones of a crucified man are found in a hidden section of the Garden Tomb, Wil thinks he has found what he is looking for. However, the enormity of this find leaves many highly placed people nervous. How will the world’s 2 billion Christians react when they hear the news? This is the most interesting part of the book, as ministers specializing in apologetics suddenly start wavering. Liberal Christians start winning more and more recruits and the President of the USA renounces his Christianity and launches his reelection campaign with the slogan “Leading you into the Post-Christian age.”

A solid, entertaining book that deals with some very serious ideas, this novel is still a pretty light read – parts of it might even be described as corny. I definitely recommend it, but not as some sort of great work of literature. If you are the type of person who only reads weighty fiction, then this is not the book for you. But if you are looking for something fun and intriguing, in which the writing, while middling, doesn't get in the way of the story, then I think you may enjoy this as much as I did. 

You can pick up a copy at Amazon.com by clicking here and Amazon.ca here.

A Skeleton in God’s Closet
by Paul Maier
Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994, 336 pages

The hero of this story is Dr. Jon Weber, a biblical scholar, and son of a pastor. Invited to a dig in Israel, he discovers what he thinks are the bones of Joseph of Arimathea. However, as the dig proceeds his first evaluation changes and he starts to wonder if these bones might instead be the bones of Jesus.

This is in many ways a mystery novel. As this is a Christian book, readers know from the start that this must be a hoax (I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that) but how could a fraud of such magnitude be pulled off?

The author, Paul Maier delves a good deal deeper into the world’s reaction to this find. When it is first revealed the evidence seems to be utterly beyond question, and even Jon Weber’s father, a Lutheran pastor, is disturbed. But while some people start renouncing their Christian faith, Pastor Weber, continues on, knowing that the find must not be true. This is a very intriguing element in this story, since Pastor Weber knows that his own son believes that the bones belong to Jesus. So even though his son found the bones, Pastor Weber’s faith remains steadfast. And of course, in the end, he is proven right.

Another intriguing part of the book: Maier is an Old Testament scholar and his expertise comes out. Throughout the story we learn many fascinating details about how archeology is done, and what both ancient and modern Israel looks like.

So which of these two books is best for you? Both are fun, but Skeleton is the more sophisticated – it would be Adult Fiction, whereas Wil's Bones is more Young Adult.

If you like it you'll certainly enjoy the rest of Paul Maier's fiction. In fact, the only book that doesn't quite measure up is a sequel he wrote to this one called More than a Skeleton - the same characters return, which is great, but they run through the same plot, which is not.

You can pick up A Skeleton in God's Closet at Amazon.com by here and at Amazon.ca here.