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Book Review: Howdy Pilgrim, a Review of Jesus and John Wayne

Okay, I couldn’t resist putting a John Wayneism in the title for my review of “Jesus and John Wayne”.

Please forgive me.

The book is 309 pages of text plus a lot more pages of notes, paperback, written by Kristin Kobes Du Mez. She has done good historical work, documented her sources, and covered the time period in a chronological way that I appreciate. There are sixteen chapters, and each chapter is thematic around a basic idea related to the rise of evangelicalism in the United States since the turn of the twentieth century.

Let me begin by addressing the salacious title. This book is not about Jesus. Actually, there is very little about Jesus in it. It is also not about John Wayne. There are a few scatterings about John Wayne and his politics and how it influenced his later movies, especially films like The Green Berets, but if you buy this book thinking there will be a lot of stories about The Duke in it and how he relates to Jesus, then you’ll be disappointed.

This book is about one thing, and one thing only — it seeks to describe and explain the emergence of toxic masculinity, or the patriarchy, within evangelicalism. The subtext of the book is that we are to believe the way evangelicals embraced former president Donald Trump in 2016 is a direct result of that toxic masculinity which had been carefully nurtured by key leaders for at least seventy years. If you want a book that is all about Donald Trump and his relationship with Christ-followers, this book is not that book, as he only occupies pages on the periphery, the beginning and the end. This book is more about the mindset of evangelicals rather than the politics of President Trump.

Du Mez believes evangelicals embraced Trump precisely because he was a testosterone-filled alpha male who put women and his enemies in their place, and that is what they had come to expect from strong leaders. As such, I think she comes up short of proving her argument en toto. She may be right, but I think she overplays the masculinity politics just a tad and underplays the genuine concern many Christians have about issues like abortion, the Supreme Court, and immigration. I don’t write this to defend those positions, but I don’t think it is just the issue of Trump filling the idealized image Christians have of a strong man. I admire her attempt though, because I have often struggled to understand exactly how a New Yorker who built an empire of casinos, had a penchant for pornography, was guilty of womanizing, said his favorite pastor was Norman Vincent Peale (a man evangelicals absolutely couldn’t stand), and cursed so much in public became the darling of Southern Christians. I am less than satisfied with her explanation, but I admire the attempt.

What I like about this book is the thoroughness. It is so thorough at times you feel like it is repetitive. Du Mez can sometimes belabor the point, but that is just good historical footwork. In doing this work she weaves a coherent narrative of evangelical thought from Billy Graham’s famous Los Angeles crusade to Bill Gothard to Phyllis Schlafly to Tim and Beverly LaHaye to Oliver North to John Piper to Mark Driscoll, covering all points in-between. She glosses over a lot of years and personalities, but the way she paints the picture it was one successive leader after another reenforcing gender stereotypes and tropes into the hearts and mental pictures of Christians.

If I were to say there is one particular target for Du Mez, it is not Donald Trump, but James Dobson. She spares no energy in attaching him and his organization, Focus On The Family, to every bad thought or bad idea or bad person. She really, really, really, really does not like him. Yet, it is hard to find anyone she is flattered with. The book is a virtual compendium on the agenda, style, and problems of key Christian leaders — and most of them are in my library — the ones mentioned above, plus folks like Wayne Grudem, Stu Weber, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren and Tim Keller.

Her critique is needed. There is much in the way of abuse, politics, agenda, and just plain-old-fashioned power grabs that have marred and scarred churches in America. This is an issue of repentance and of change. Do not read her book if you don’t want to argue with her a little bit, and do not read her book if you only read things that conform to your preconceived notions.

I agree with many of her assertions. For example, I think she is right when she highlights how complementarianism has been used by abusive personalities for their own gratification. As an egalitarian, I can completely join in on that perspective. However, not all complementarians are abusive, and the vast majority of them I know are good, honest, wonderful Christ-followers who are seeking to follow the Bible as they understand it. To paint them all with that broad brush of abuse or manipulation is going too far. Egalitarians can be just as guilty of abuse, as the sad situation with Hybels exemplifies.

But my criticism on this front is a minor issue because the church deserves this kind of evaluation from a skilled set of eyes willing to go through the actual historical record. She has the receipts, so to speak, on something I’ve said often but without the data, just more of a gut feeling — and that is this — when we look at what the last seventy years of church life has produced, biblically illiterate people who call themselves Christian, sex scandal after sex scandal, spiritually weak churches, church leaders obsessed with marketshare and media, and then put the cherry on top of a loss of credibility with just about everyone then I ask the honest question, why would we continue to follow any pattern in church life that has been handed down to us? If we are to have healthy Jesus-focused congregations in the future these congregations must break the paradigms that have produced so much poison. Taking away the power of celebrity pastors to set the agenda is one place to start. Another is to reject the idea that growing a big church is somehow the goal. Another is to reject power-players and bullies within local churches. And another, which this current volume aligns with, is the empowering of women to fully exercise ministry gifts. I mean, come on, men have made a pretty big mess of things. Maybe it will take godly women leaders to clean it up.

I recommend this book if for no other reason than we all need to be exposed to our own history.

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The Greatest: Part II

I had so much joy writing “The Greatest” blog yesterday, especially with some of my friends who chimed in with their own lists. Check it out by clicking here if you missed it.

Do not go qentle into that good night

I had so much fun I want to turn the page by picking up where yesterday’s list ended. I used real people and actual life callings in defining who I thought was the greatest, but I cheated by finishing up with “The Greatest Star Trek Captain”, which is, of course, Jean Luc Picard. Today we play a little more and go totally fictional.

  1. Greatest Jedi — Luke Skywalker
  2. Greatest James Bond — Daniel Craig
  3. Greatest Fictional President — Thomas J. Whitmore
  4. Greatest Disney character — The Genie
  5. Greatest book to film — To Kill A Mockingbird
  6. Greatest literary character — Sherlock Holmes
  7. Greatest action hero — Dr. Henry Jones, Jr.
  8. Greatest villain — Sauron
  9. Greatest Wizard — Hermione Granger
  10. Greatest Avenger — Iron Man

Honorable mentions: Obi-Wan Kenobi, Sean Connery, Pierce Brosnan, Laura Roslin, Tom Beck, Mickey Mouse, Jiminy Cricket, Jaws, The Godfather, Odysseus, Beowulf, John Rambo, Ethan Hunt, Tarzan, Darth Vader, Cylons, The Man in Black, Gandalf the White, Merlin, The Black Widow, and The Black Panther

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Book Review: Strange Rites

This afternoon was perfect. The morning rain dried up and the sun came out. The temperature was a comfortable mid-60s with only a slight wind. For mid-December, this is as good as it gets. So I made a cup of Darjeeling and finished the last bit of the book I’ve been working on since Thanksgiving. It is titled Strange Rites: New Religions For A Godless World and was written by Tara Isabella Burton.

The premise of the book is people are moving through the essence of religion without the belief in God. She makes much of the Durkheim principle of collective effervescence. What that means is people bond together through rituals that create its own meaning and define what the community is. A common example is an athletic event where people all know the fight song and the cheers and are enthralled as one community for one purpose.

Burton argues this happening in several different ways in our culture right now. The biggest examples she gives are wellness culture, witchcraft, social justice advocacies, techno-utopians, and the alt-right movement which she labels as atavistic.

The strength of this book is the interesting nature of the subject. She is an excellent researcher and every chapter has historical, cultural, and religious background that she brings out in explicit and delicious detail. One of her arguments is nothing new is happening in essence because America has always been ‘intuitional’ at its core. She backs this up with lots of historical figures. At the same time she argues something really big and new is happening, because it is now a much bigger deal with more people.

A second strength of the book is the intellect Burton brings. She is very smart and her vocabulary is impressive. Reading this book will make you far more comfortable with words you don’t use every day.

It has some weaknesses, though. One is she repeats herself. The second is she references a lot of cultural phenomena that I am not plugged into. She assumes I know things I do not know. A third weakness is, and forgive me, she COMPLETELY OMITS GEN XERS! I mean, there is one reference to us in the whole book and it is a throw away. She goes on and on about boomers and busters and millennials and genZ and blah blah blah and she forgets about those of us in the middle here who are paying all the bills and taking care of everything for everyone else. Statistics show many Gen Xers are supporting a child and a parent AT THE SAME TIME.

Okay, sorry. I just had to get that out of my system. Us Gen Xers are used to it. We were latchkey kids, after all. Remember. No, you don’t remember, because ALL 66 MILLION OF US ARE USED TO BEING IGNORED.

Where was I? Oh, right, the book. Burton has taken a deep dive into the history of the internet, and one finds this theme throughout, that the internet is what has created the strength and proliferation of these godless religions. She goes on and on about Harry Potter, including some rather interesting footwork on the deification of Severus Snape.

Is she right? Is America blossoming new godless religions which form communities, liturgies, and belief systems all their own? She may be onto something, but she might also be confusing herself and others. My final analysis of her work is that corporate culture is using religious language for its own greedy gain. People are being used to line the pocketbook of people selling something — whether it is Goop or iPhone apps. What we see is really the success of the Christian church. Everyone uses our words, our models, and tends to parasitically adopt our structures.

Her research is thorough and her subject is interesting. I disagree with her religious assumptions, but her book is valuable in knowing what is going on out there from SoulCycle to The Singularity to Jordan Peterson. I just think her evidence that it is religious is flawed. It is no more religious than Marxism or people who love Superman, and both of those have been around for a long time. Americans are prone to fads, and the internet, combined with great prosperity and conspicuous consumption, have made it seem like these things have more of a pull than they really do.

One more caveat on the book. It came out this year, but before COVID-19 became what is. I have some ideas about how the pandemic has impacted these godless communities, but perhaps that is for a different blog post.

I encourage you to read the book, but watch out. I almost didn’t get past the first chapter. I’m not kidding. It was so bizarre I almost put the book down for good. I’m glad I didn’t, but you might want to skip the first chapter and maybe, read it after the third or fourth chapter. Maybe.

The book is loaded with profanity, and lots of very disturbing language, particularly the chapter on sexual communities. It is not appropriate for teenagers or the who are easily offended.

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A Book Review — A Book To Make You Smarter

Some books you read for the joy of it.

Some books you read because you want to learn something.

Sometimes, a both does both. That is the case with Christopher Manske’s excellent new book, The Prepared Investor. It was an unexpected pleasure.

I was eager to read The Prepared Investor because I wanted to learn. Markets, investing, and financial planning are all things that I, as a middle-aged person, need to start thinking about a little more seriously. It started as a learning project. As I read, it turned into a joyful experience. The Prepared Investor is a guide to financial planning and investing, but it is really about human nature and history.

Manske indicates in the book it took him a decade to write it, and the research and skill at storytelling show he did his homework. He is as comfortable telling about Napoleon’s escape from Elba as he is referring to tables and charts of marketplace indices. But more than this, he shows how things such as leadership (Napoleon), terrorism, or social unrest play a very important role in financial stewardship. Take for example this excellent observation from 1970.

While it is easy to find articles about the Kent State shooting itself, its much more difficult to find the Wall Street Journal’s description of the stock market published the day after the tragedy: ‘Stock prices took their steepest dive since President Kennedy’s assassination.’

P. 160

The Prepared Investor is filled with this kind of cause-effect analysis. Without giving too much away, the point of the Kent State example is observing how markets react to unfamiliar actions of a dramatic nature. The lesson to be learned is an investor, regardless of ideology or politics, should recognize the responses people and markets make to various stimuli and then, knowing what history says will happen next, make appropriate investments to capitalize on it.

Manske is talking about wealth. I read the book, however, and thought about spirituality and maturity. We live in very unsettling times where something dramatic happens almost daily, and everyone knows about it instantly. Recognizing their patterns of behavior can help me identify how these variations impact my daily life and work. People respond spiritually much the same way they respond financially — when uncertainty comes, they withdraw to ‘bunkers’ of safety. Manske spends a lot of time on analyzing 9-11. I remember those days well. I never saw as many people in church as I did the month after 9-11. But, when the crisis abates, people return to their normal patterns. Within two months of 9-11, church attendance declined to below numbers of what it had been before the crisis. We held several special prayer services right after 9-11 and the church building was filled with people, elbow to elbow. A year later, we held a special one year anniversary service and only about fifteen people showed up. People return to normal, and sometimes it is a new normal, and that normal comes much quicker than most people anticipate.

It is human nature at work, and that is the background for Manske’s work.

There are three features of the book that were helpful.

  1. The outline is easy to follow, and he uses “Action Steps” as a checklist for those wishing to implement what is being learned.
  2. Charts and graphs. Then more charts and graphs. And now some charts and graphs about the charts and graphs. The Prepared Investor is loaded with this kind of data, and if you like that, there is plenty to enjoy.
  3. My favorite part was the long chapter near the end as a timeline of Manske’s own notations in real time about the spread of COVID-19. As a reader, I would be interested to see his contemporary notes right now as we spike. If for nothing else, this part of the book documents in historical fashion what has already happened, because people forget and they bend their memories toward ideologies and preconceived notions rather than reality.

The Prepared Investor is a quick read coming in at 209 pages. I read it in one week, and a big part of my leisure time during that week was making pies and chicken and dressing.

Who would like this book? People who love history will want this book, so too would someone who has a little bit of savings and is wanting to invest it well, People who are interested in human behavior will like it as well. Manske is well read and references everyone from Yuval Noah Harari to Henry Kissinger to Quentin Tarantino.

Who should read this book: I think every graduate of high school and certainly college would benefit. It would make a great Christmas present or graduation gift. In fact, it probably should be on your list of books to read this year simply because the knowledge, though fine tuned to finance, is really universal in nature. This book will make you smarter and wiser.