Book Review

“Lukewarm” must mean predictable.

The Road to Character by David Brooks

A Book Review by Marion D. Aldridge

This was a good book for me to read, though I alternated between being energized by it and frustrated.

Brooks is a conservative columnist for the New York Times. Yet, a liberal friend recommended this volume to me. I liked the possibilities of that combination. As a reader, a writer, a political observer, and a theologian/ethicist, I tire of the predictable. Tire. Tire. Tire. I think “lukewarm” must mean predictable. There’s nothing there. Some emperors have no clothes. Blah blah blah…

Brooks is better than that. But “The Road to Character” is uneven. I accept some of what he writes, but it’s pretty random.

I like his premise in the first sentence, that, as we age, we ought to pay more attention to our “eulogy virtues” than to our “resume virtues.” His method, for a few chapters, is to tell the stories of men and women who are successful, who he believes demonstrate character—Dwight Eisenhower, Frances Perkins, Dorothy Day and others. Brooks lifts up certain words as important: perseverance, humility, dignity, and moderation. There also seems to be a lot of dumb luck involved in the attainments of his examples, not to mention some extraordinary intelligence.

Brooks attempts to make a case for character and morality. But it was impossible to figure out which traits I should be emulating. His examples are often people with giant character flaws. I understand that even the best of us have deficiencies, but Brooks’ analysis seems scattershot. What is the takeaway?

Brooks is of the “Life is complicated” school, as am I. Life is full of paradox. But it is the task of a non-fiction author to help the reader work through the contradictions. On one page, he writes, “The more you love, the more you can love.” Okay. Two pages later, he writes, “All love is narrowing. It is the renunciation of other possibilities for the sake of one choice.” How are both true? I have my own opinions, but I’d like for Brooks to help me understand how his ethical framework includes both concepts simultaneously.

Finally, in the last chapter, Brooks produces a “Humility Code” which, like the rest of the book, was fairly ambiguous—seven pages of a bit of this and a little bit of that.

Lots of epigrammatic hints from David on how to live a life of character, but if this was a road, I got lost somewhere along the way.

Categories: Book Review, Faith/Spirituality, Quotations, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution

The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution by John Oller

Book Reviewed by Marion D. Aldridge

In my high school graduating class (North Augusta High School—in South Carolina, across the Savannah River from Augusta, Georgia) of 222 teenagers, there were at least three male Marions, maybe more, and at least one female Marian. You don’t get those percentages in Minnesota or New Mexico.

Because of South Carolina’s most prominent Revolutionary War hero, Francis Marion, “Marion” became a popular regional name for all children, especially boys.

My parents considered putting Francis Marion on my birth certificate, but to honor an uncle on each side of the family, I became Marion Douglas Aldridge.

My ears always perk up when I encounter the name of Francis Marion. During my Junior High years, Walt Disney produced eight episodes of The Swamp Fox, starring Leslie Nielsen. I watched them all. I read Francis Marion biographies. Later, in 2000, when Mel Gibson portrayed the Marion-based character in The Patriot, the elusive hero was nicknamed “the Ghost.”

One of the traditional difficulties of getting to know Marion better is the mythology that surrounds his life. The first biographies were pure hero-worship, as much fiction as truth.

So, when a new, better biography of Francis Marion was published in 2016, I bought and read it immediately. John Oller delivers the goods. Well-researched, footnoted thoroughly, yet very readable, Oller has given us a book we’ve needed and wanted for several decades.

South Carolina has been so enamored with the Civil War, we’ve pretty much ignored the Revolutionary War which happened, to a great extent, within South Carolina. Why haven’t our state and national park systems done a better job of paying attention to the sites of Francis Marion’s skirmishes? Why aren’t the students of West Point sent to South Carolina to study the military tactics of the Swamp Fox? Why hasn’t South Carolina’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism created billboards at every I-95 exit pointing to the small but significant locations of these South Carolina battle grounds that were vital to our nation’s independence? I would love to go to Snow’s Island, Marion’s Headquarters/Retreat, but I’ve never figured out a way to get there.

Readers with a knowledge of South Carolina geography will have an easier time with some of the obscure battle sites than those with no previous knowledge of South Carolina’s rivers, marshes, and towns. That many of the important locations are now under massive lakes doesn’t help. The volume contains a map of “The Principal Theater of the Campaigns of Francis Marion” which demonstrates the scope and shows the exact localities of Francis’s military activity. I suspect the fact that Marion didn’t venture into neighboring states has muted his national reputation somewhat. But the subtitle of the volume is true: “How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution.” I’d always heard, and Oller verifies, “More places have been named for Marion than any other Revolutionary War figure, excepting Washington. According to a current memorial project in the nation’s capital, Marion has lent his name to twenty-nine cities and towns and seventeen counties across America, not to mention a four-year university, a national forest, and a small part on Capitol Hill that cries out for a monument in his honor.”

You don’t have to be named Marion for this biography to be significant. Oller provides a grand overview of the history of South Carolina during the Revolutionary War years. An example that caught me by surprise was how fluid was the movement between the American Patriots and the British Loyalists: “Several Tories captured by Marion at Black Mingo took an oath of allegiance and joined his brigade.” Wow!

Unfortunately, I was taught very little American history in high school or college, a deficiency I regret.

The Swamp Fox, by John Oller, is helping me catch up.

 

 

Categories: Book Review, South Carolina, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Movie Reviews January 2017

Since I’ve been in Connecticut (December 4, 2016) as an Interim Pastor at Wilton Baptist Church, I haven’t seen a bad movie. If I think I’m not going to like a movie, I don’t go. I’m not a movie reviewer! I pay money for my ticket and I want to be entertained.

But, because inquiring minds want to know, here is my list, in order, beginning with my favorite, with a comment or two about each:

  1. Hidden Figures—I loved it. Good story, well told, about an important subject—previously unknown to most of us—well acted, inspiring, educational. A small group of brilliant, black, female mathematicians played a vital role in the American space program, overcoming the obstacles both women and African-Americans faced and face in our culture. Octavia Spencer has been becoming one of my favorite actresses and she is perfect in this role.
  2. La La Land—A bright, clever, pretty, musical movie, but not in the tradition of Grease or Fiddler on the Roof or Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Two dreamers sing and dance their way to an unexpected conclusion. Emma Stone, who charms me in almost every movie she makes, and Ryan Gosling, who is apparently handsome, are the stars.
  3. Manchester by the Sea—Do not go to this movie if you only like happiness and light. This movie wrestles with the dark side of human nature, but does so with sympathy and hope. Fine acting, even by minor characters. It’s not the kind of film you love, but I suspect it sticks with you more than a few days.
  4. Patriots Day—“Based on the true story” of the Boston Marathon bombing and manhunt for the perpetrators. Riveting.
  5. Passengers—I’d be lying if I left this science fiction film to the last of my list. I’m sure serious reviewers would consider this movie too simple, but I loved it. Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt were exactly what they were supposed to be, two beautiful, smart, interesting, resourceful passengers who discovered they were stranded ALONE on a space ship for the next forty or eighty years or something. They worked it out.
  6. Fences—I wish I could rate this movie higher, because it stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, two of my favorite actors. Washington directs the film, which was adapted from a successful stage play about an overbearing dad making life miserable for a good son. After I had seen the film, someone suggested that maybe this was Black America’s Death of a Salesman. Could be. The movie has some powerful lines and moments, but, for me, it disappointed. I wanted more hope, redemption, reconciliation, or grace from the father. It never happened.
  7. Lion—Another “based on a true story” film about a five-year-old Indian boy who is separated from his brother at a train station near his village and ends up utterly lost a thousand miles away. No last name. No identity. Taken into an orphanage, he is adopted by a couple in Australia. As a twenty-five year old (played by Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire), he begins an almost impossible pilgrimage to find his home village and his birth mother.
  8. Rogue One—The latest in the Star Wars saga, this was a mostly entertaining installment in the science fiction genre. I go to Star Wars and the Ring Trilogy and a few other series as much out of duty as anything else. I miss the Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher days.

Disclaimer # 1—My Protestant Work Ethic, even in retirement, makes me feel a bit defensive about seeing so many movies.

Disclaimer # 2— Film is an art form. These are not all movies that should be seen by the easily offended. As an English major, decades ago, I learned that good literature portrays real life. So, I’m no longer upset by Shakespeare’s or Chaucer’s bawdiness or bad language in a modern movie.

Marion D. Aldridge

mariondaldridge@gmail.com

Categories: Book Review, Race | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Suggested Reading for 2017

Falling Upward by Richard Rohr (The winner, hands down, for the volume that most affected me in recent years. Rohr says life is divided into two halves. The skills you need as a young adult are not the ones you need past age forty. If you only read one book in 2017, read this one.)

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (Knowing way too little about the early history of our United States of America, I learned something on every page. It’s not a comic book, but it’s easy enough for adults to read. Hamilton gives perspective to this difficult political season.)

The Gifts of the Jews by Thomas Cahill (I find myself repeatedly quoting this book, so I must think it has something to say. I read everything Cahill writes.)

The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh (What I learned in Baptist life, including seminary, was a caricature of the actual beliefs and practices of other faiths. Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to listen to what Buddhists say about themselves, what Muslims say about themselves, etc. This book is a good start.)

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson (An impressive account, academic and easy-to-read, of Americans of African descent, who left a perilous existence in the Deep South and moved North, hoping to create better lives for themselves and their children.)

Under the Banner of Heaven—John Krakauer (Continuing in the theme of trying to understand worlds I know little or nothing about, I’m fascinated by Krakauer’s stories of both faithful and radical Mormons.)

Overcoming Adolescence by Marion Aldridge (Well, of course, this book impacted my life. This is my story. I distill thirty years of life’s sometimes painful lessons on the subjects of fear, grace, wisdom, power and addiction.)

Marion D. Aldridge

Mariondaldridge@gmail.com

Categories: Book Review, Faith/Spirituality, Holiday, Lists/Top Ten | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

A Gift of Advent

Over the past few years, I have become exasperatedly aware how Big the Bible is. I’ve read it all my life—I don’t know how many times. I’ve even read the New Testament in Greek.

The Holy Book is HUGE—containing 66 smaller books, some of them not-so-short. Some texts are enigmatic. All are written in languages foreign to me. Some of the Bible is fiction—that’s what a parable is. Paul even resorts to sarcasm. There is no end to conversations and debates about the Bible.

Three years, at least, is how long a pastor needs to preach through the Bible, and that requires skipping a lot of texts. A sermon based on a passage from II Chronicles gets the same attention as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. For me, that’s a problem. I’m a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ. I’m not a Davidian and certainly not a Branch Davidian. Some are. I’m not. I read the entire Bible. I value the entire Bible. But I’m a Jesus guy.

Twelve Step groups  read each step at every meeting, focusing on a different step each week. When the group finishes the Twelve Steps, they start over and go through them again.

Not so in Sunday school or sermons. If we limited ourselves to a single Bible book each week, we’d need sixty-six weeks to skim through the Bible once. We’d spend only one Sunday, for example, on Matthew—to learn about …

The birth of Jesus

The visit of the Wise men

The preaching of John the Baptist

The Sermon on the Mount

The Beatitudes

The Lord’s Prayer

The healing of a leper, etc. etc. etc.

That’s an impossible task.

The Gift of Advent is that for four weeks, every year, we focus on …

Hope

Peace

Joy

Love.

Year in and year out, approaching Christmas, we are reminded that these attributes are important. No need to ignore salvation, grace, justice, or the Ten Commandments, but at least once each year we will focus on Hope, Peace, Joy and Love.

Year after year. Over and over.

Hope

Peace

Joy

Love.

Categories: Book Review, Faith/Spirituality, Holiday | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance, reviewed by Marion D. Aldridge

Hillbilly Elegy is a “New York Times #1 Bestseller,” and, according to all accounts, an Important Book, meaning, we should probably read it. Written before the 2016 election, it explains a lot about the perceived disestablishment of older white men throughout much of the country, the formerly powerful feeling powerless, and even the rise of Donald Trump. Hillbillies never had much clout, but Vance argues that, previously, they could at least make a living for their family.

Vance subtitled his volume, A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. His roots are the mountains and hollers of Kentucky and sections of Ohio to which the economically depressed people of Appalachia transplanted themselves.

My dad’s family came from the Horse Creek Valley in the sand hills of South Carolina, in many ways similar to Vance’s Appalachia. My granddaddy and daddy were mill workers. My dad’s nickname was Rube, which means country bumpkin. The great difference in Vance and me appears to be that he blames his culture for the slights he’s endured in his thirty-one years of life, while I credit my family, as deprived economically as his, for providing a solid foundation of core values.

He writes, “Yes, my parents fought intensely, but so did everyone else’s.” I don’t believe that. It’s not even true of the other members of his extended family. Vance falls victim to universalizing his own experience. It makes a good story, but it ain’t necessarily so.

He bemoans his mother’s alcoholism and drug addiction, and I can feel his pain. He doesn’t burn with the anger of Pat Conroy who wrote creatively and passionately about his father’s abusiveness. But Vance writes well and interestingly about his family and culture. Yet, all the while, I kept thinking his issues were as much family as culture. After all, there are alcoholics and drug addicts in the wealthiest neighborhoods of every community. Maybe the numbers are disproportionately high in so-called hillbilly communities, but he didn’t convince me.

Obviously, culture affects us, whether we grow up with a military family that moves every few years, or in a Chinese neighborhood in San Francisco, or in an urban setting in Chicago, or on a small island in the Pacific.

Vance introduced me to a term with which I was not familiar, Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), apparently a kissing cousin to PTSD, to explain symptoms in adults who suffered various types of emotional or physical violence in their childhood homes, e.g., a parent who attempted suicide. Such experiences are in no way limited to the people of Appalachia. Adversity also happens in Hollywood and Hawaii.

Vance’s anecdotes from his childhood are entertaining, but a few more statistics would have been helpful to make his case.

Vance comes close to being the definition of a “self-made man.” He quotes his sister Lindsay, “You have to stop making excuses and take responsibility.” After a rocky childhood, Vance joined the Marines, graduated from Ohio State University, and then finished Yale Law School. He has impressive credentials and is now, something of a media darling, a member of the Ivy League Elite. Upward mobility appears to be his mantra. He credits individuals within his culture and family system with being helpful but is openly disdainful of government involvement. Yet, public schools, the Marines, and the Ohio State University are all government entities.

I think both/and/and/and/and/and is more honest than either/or.

Family, local hillbilly culture, American culture, teachers, the Marines, personal decisions, intelligence, white maleness, dumb luck, grace, providence, and hard work are each a part of Vance’s success story.

I like this book. It’s easy to read and provocative. It’s one of the narratives of some working class white people, but not the whole story.

Categories: addiction, Book Review, Faith/Spirituality, Family | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Turning off the Noise

People ask me why I’ve not published my blog the last few months. My response is that I’ve not wanted to add to the noise.

At least in sports we’re honest enough to call the racket, “trash talk.”

A friend once explained to me why a meeting had taken so long: “Everything had been said, but not everyone had said it.”

That’s how I felt the past few months. I would have been adding to the uproar. So I stayed quiet.

When our oldest daughter was a child, my wife’s favorite children’s book was Jill Murphy’s Five Minutes’ Peace. Note this was Sally’s favorite book, not necessarily Jenna’s. The idea was that a harried, frazzled mother needed, not an entire day off, or a week’s vacation, just five minutes alone in the bathtub when she wouldn’t be bothered by the demands of being a mom.

God, from this frenzy, give us five minutes’ peace.

Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “Stopping, calming, and resting are preconditions for healing. When animals in the forest are wounded they find a place to lie down and rest completely for many days . . . They just rest and get the healing they need.”

It’s not an accident that the language of spirituality includes words that encourage us to call “Time out” occasionally.

Sanctuary

Contemplation

Meditation

Refuge

Retreat

Sabbath

Ecclesiastes, chapter 3, says, “There’s a time to speak and a time to be silent.”

Categories: Book Review, Faith/Spirituality, Family, Health, Holiday | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Alexander Hamilton

“Alexander Hamilton is the foremost political figure in American history who never attained the presidency, yet he probably had a much deeper and more lasting impact than many who did.” Ron Chernow

Honesty compels me to confess that Broadway piqued my interest in Alexander Hamilton. Family and friends who were fortunate enough to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about Hamilton raved.

My formal education in American history was deplorable. I took the required course in the eleventh grade. Probably made a “C” and probably didn’t deserve that. But I spent most of July 2016 overcoming that deficiency. I read all 738 pages of Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton. I loved it.

Somewhere in my under-utilized cranium was awareness of Hamilton versus Jefferson. I knew the name Aaron Burr. This volume remedied my early American history deficit.

Chernow covers Hamilton’s view of church and state: “The best government posture toward religion was one of passive tolerance, not active promotion of an established church.”

About mud slinging, Hamilton lamented that, “no character, however upright, is a match for constantly reiterated attacks, however false.” I’ve observed that in politics, religion, business and education.

Hamilton and George Washington often sided with one another against Thomas Jefferson and other “state’s rights” advocates. Hamilton and Washington “had drawn the same conclusions: the need for a national army, for centralized power over the states, for a strong executive, and for national unity.” When twenty-first century Americans want to interpret the Constitution according to the desires of our Founding Fathers, we would need to ask, “Which Founding Fathers?” They were no more homogeneous in thought than we are today.

Some of the issues our forebears wrestled with sound modern: “Hamilton had to combat the utopian notion that America could dispense with taxes altogether.

Another twenty-first century conundrum: “For Hamilton, the federal government had a right to stimulate business and also when necessary to restrain it.”

Another current dilemma is mirrored from early years of our history: “It irked Hamilton that Jefferson claimed a monopoly on morality, and he made the following retort to his adversary: ‘As to the love of liberty and country, you have given no stronger proofs of being actuated by it than I have done. Cease then to arrogate to yourself and to your party all the patriotism and virtue of the country.’”

I love it!

 

 

Categories: Book Review, Faith/Spirituality, Quotations | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Gifts of the Jews

A few years ago, I discovered a book titled, The Gifts of the Jews, written by Thomas Cahill. Cahill argues that routines and predictability are pagan ideas, not Christian. I mean “pagan” in the classic sense of ancient religions that worship the creation instead of the Creator. Whether you are an anthropologist studying Stonehenge or an archeologist studying the Mayan ruins in Central America, the common theme is that life is circular, what goes around comes around, spring, summer, fall, winter, then again, spring, summer, fall, winter, this year just like last year, and next year just like this year. The earth’s orbit is predictable. The moon’s orbit is predictable. Round and round, no change, no change. Does that sound like the people in your Sunday school class? That’s pagan, not Christian. Next year is not supposed to look like 1950 or 1980.

God can intervene into history and God does intervene into history.

The gift of the Jews was to help humans understand for the first time, beginning with Abraham, the first hero of Hebrew story, that the events of this world did not have to be circular and predictable. We can break out and go in a new direction. That is what Abraham did, and the world has never been the same.

Of course people resisted that notion then and now.

Numbers 14: 4, while Moses was leading the people of Israel on an Exodus from 400 years of slavery to a new promised land, tells us that some said, “Let us choose a captain and go back to Egypt.” Return to the familiar.  That’s pre-Christian. That’s pre-Jewish. It sounds like a lot of churches.

Categories: Book Review, Faith/Spirituality, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Fairy Tale Retold: the Blue Collar Kid and the Cantaloupe

Do you remember the Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tale about the Princess and the Pea? The bottom line was that the Princess was so sensitive that even though 20 mattresses were placed between her and the Pea, she still felt the discomfort caused by that tiny little Pea. That proved she was a real Princess, fit to marry the Prince.

After I had been married several years, I realized that I had married a Princess. My wife Sally and I would be in a room and she would complain of being cold when I felt comfortable. That made sense. Some people are cold-natured. They should keep a sweater handy. But, later, in another time and place, Sally would complain of being hot, and I still felt comfortable. You can’t be both cold-natured and hot-natured, can you? Eventually I remembered this story of the Princess and the Pea and concluded that this doctor’s daughter from Greenville, South Carolina, is ultra-sensitive. She is delicate! Nowadays, we might say she is “high maintenance.” She has very elevated expectations regarding her own personal comfort. She knows—even though 20 mattresses may separate her from that Proverbial Pea—that the Pea is there, and she feels it. And she lets me know she feels it! And she wants me to do something about that blasted Pea, no matter how many mattresses have to be removed and replaced.

So far, this sounds like a complaint about the Princess’ super-sensitivity, but it’s not. Here’s another Fairy Tale. This one is about the Blue Collar Kid and the Cantaloupe. This Fairy Tale is about me. Instead of being extra sensitive, I tend to be less sensitive, even insensate, numb, not sensitive at all, anesthetized, and utterly unaware of the cantaloupe beneath my own thin mattress.

Sally and I would come home from somewhere and she would ask, “Do you smell that?”

I would answer honestly, “No.” I sensed nothing.

Over time, too many of these “Do you smell that?” or “Did you hear that?” episodes occurred when something was actually overheating or burning in the oven or making a noise that needed our attention. It wasn’t just that I married a person whose perception was extra keen; it was also that she married someone whose senses were apparently exceedingly dull. As I have tried to analyze candidly what was going on, I have concluded that there were a couple reasons for my insensitivity, my lack of awareness.

  • In the instance of “Do you smell/hear/etc.?” at least one aspect of the situation was my not wanting there to be a difficulty! If there were a problem, the commode overflowing, an electrical short in the light fixture, a noise in the ceiling fan, the smell of dog urine, twenty mattresses that needed to be unpiled and restacked, I suspected I would be the one whose task it would be to ameliorate the crisis. I didn’t want there to be a problem so I didn’t want to see, hear, smell, taste, or feel one.
  • The more basic issue was that I had rarely ever listened, smelled, tasted, touched, saw, or felt with much consciousness or comprehension, and that insensitivity predated my relationship with Sally. Call it clueless. Call it naïve. Call it stupid. Call it immaturity. In the movie “Clueless,” the teenage protagonist was hilarious. A 50-year old naïf is sad and frustrating, not humorous.

Listening or paying attention was actually a third-tier challenge for me. Not listening went hand in hand with an addiction I have, the need to talk incessantly, the secondary difficulty. The prior issue to that, however, my primary demon, has to do with fear, the fear of not being liked. I have heard it called “Approval Addiction.”

Categories: addiction, Book Review, Faith/Spirituality, Family, Humor | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Blog at WordPress.com.