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July 4th Batch

July 4, 2022

On a July 4th trip to visit my daughter and her family, I made my pilgrimage to a park several blocks down the way to see what was available in a Little Free Library™ , and I also picked up on a few books my daughter and her eldest daughter passed along to me for a look. In these brief takes, you see represented a mixture of those readings. 

“Vargas Llosa for President,” by Mario Vargas Llosa (Granta 36, Summer 1991)

I’d heard of Mario Vargas Llosa off and on, and I think he came most prominently to my attention when he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010. I figured he was one of those “pass the love around from country to country” honorees—seldom if ever Christian, often “groundbreaking” in their assaults on conventionality, even when conventions were sound (or at least sounder than what they proposed as an alternative). Sartre can deny human nature and Russell can dismiss marital morality and get the prize. But a C. S. Lewis or a J. R. R. Tolkien is nowhere to be found. The choice of Bob Dylan was sort of fun, and, yes, there are some great writers on the list (e.g., from Bellow to Faulkner to Naipaul), but I could suggest any number of edifying and engaging rivals to the ones they’ve chosen.

When I saw Varga Llosa on a campaign poster with Libertad blazoned in red over his image, I figured I’d take my cultural-awareness medicine and read up on another understudy to Castro. Well, sure enough, he once supported Castro, but by the time he ran for president of Peru, he’d done a near 180, and was pushing hard against collectivism and authoritarianism/totalitarianism. He was reading one of my philosophical favorites, Karl Popper, especially his The Open Society and Its Enemies, and calling names to shame the power-hungry chameleon’s who seek only power. 

On a DC Metro ride down the Blue Line to Franconia/Springfield, I pulled it out of my book bag for a sampling, and before I knew it, I’d read half of it and was looking forward to the other half once my meeting down that way was over.   

BTW, I did finish it on the train trip back up. And Vargas Llosa lost to Alberto Fujimori of Japanese extraction. I remember how odd that struck me back when it happened in 1990. Also odd was a conversation about Peru I had back in 1989. At the time, I was director of the State Convention Baptists in Indiana, and I was visiting a campus minister at Ball State University. He was in the process of being sent as a Southern Baptist missionary to Peru, and I asked if he was concerned about Sendero Luminoso (“Shining Path”) terrorists, the Maoist insurrectionists who threatened the national government. I was surprised he’d never heard of them. As I read in this piece, Vargas Llosa had certainly heard of them and had to work his way through the danger zones while addressing the victims of these thugs.

Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood: A World War I Tale, by Nathan Hale (Amulet, 2014) 

When Sharon and I were on this holiday visit, we all took a walk around their neighborhood. Along the way, I found myself in a lengthy conversation with their daughter Lois as we both pulled off from the group to check out a Little Free Library™ in a kiddie park along the way. (This one resided in an old newspaper vending box, repainted.) We got to talking about books, and I asked her which ones she’d recommended to girls her age back in Nashville. Tough choice, but she came up with several that made sense to me, given my limited knowledge of the field—something from the Windfeather Saga, from Harry Potter, and from Agatha Christie. But she also showed me some books that she thought we both might like. 

From her local library, she’s checked out several from the Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series, including this one and another about the Donner Party (the wagon train that slipped into cannibalism as they were stranded, dying in the snows of the High Sierras). Yes, some gruesome topics, but made more accessible and perhaps more palpable by their illustrated-book format. And was pleased to see how they’d enriched her early-teen vocabulary with such terms as ‘Austria-Hungary,’ ‘Triple Entente,’ and ‘Lusitania.’ 

In this book, the various national parties to the conflict are represented by animals, e.g., the rooster for France, the bear for Russia, and the bulldog for the UK. It starts with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. In this rendition, a Serbian wolf (actually a Bosnian who wanted unification with Serbia) shoots a Austro-Hungarian griffin. (I didn’t know that the guy who did the shooting, Gavrilo Princip, was just one of three who tried to kill Franz, one of them missing him with a bomb.) Amazingly, this act triggered a mad war in which the various parties had their motivations (redrawing boundaries, preserving treaties, showing their dominance, protecting their buddies, etc.) for jumping into the bloody fray. 

Page by page, we work our way through battles at Mons and Ypres and Passchendaele (with helpful pronunciation guides, e.g., “Eep” for ‘Ypres’). And sensitive to readership, the book offers no pictures of gore and dismemberment.

The book is laid out chronologically, and as we move into 1915, we pick up gas warfare in the trenches and the Gallipoli disaster; into 1916, where we learn of the Somme, where about 20,000 British troops were killed in a single day, and of the first appearance of the tank; into 1917, with the Zimmerman Telegram and the Yanks going “over there”; and into 1918, where it came to an end.

At the end, we read Ernest Hemingway’s take on the affair, he himself being an ambulance driver on the Italian front: “World War I was the most colossal, murderous, mismanaged butchery that has ever taken place on earth.” Elsewhere, I’d read that in 1990, a journalist asked British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, “Isn’t it terrible about losing [in the World Cup semi-finals] to the Germans at our national sport.” She replied, “They might have beaten us at our national sport, but we managed to beat them at their national sport twice in the 20th century.” And so they did, in WWI and WWII. And here was the story of the first victory, which ended in the Treaty of Versailles. 

The Best Things in Life: A Contemporary Socrates Looks at Power, Pleasure, Truth & The Good Life, by Peter Kreeft (IVP, 1984) 

I’ve been reading Peter Kreeft for years, and have heard him in person at least once. I’ve used his Handbook of Christian Apologetics in an SBTS class, and I was surprised and pleased when Lois enthused over this book and handed me her copy for a look. Here’s my stream-of-consciousness notetaking:

Socrates is talking to Peter Pragma (as in pragmatism) and refers to his education at “Desperate State University.” Socrates says he wants to “spread the infection of philosophizing” and to teach Peter to “become [his] own teacher.” Peter says that playing the video game “Pac-Man” is more fun than the pursuit of truth. Marigold Measurer enters the conversation and objects that philosophy bakes no bread. Socrates responds to the criticism that philosophy is useless in R&D, saying, “You conquer nature, but do you control your own control?” The president of DPU, “Fudge” Factor, is feckless when it comes to the big questions. Felicia Flake, a pot smoking airhead, appears and opines that truth is relative, that rock music is the best, and that sexual promiscuity is just the thing. In this last connection, Socrates asks, “Isn’t sex ‘being it’ before it is ‘doing it’?” Then there’s John “Pop” Syke. In this discussion, he distances himself from Dr. Fraud [Freud], Dr. Junk [Jung], and Dr. Addled [Adler]. A couple come to him and say, “Johnny, unite us.” He’s sort of into “Beef” [B. F.] Skinner and Timothy Bleary [Leary]. Regarding sex, he appreciates Dr. Alex Comeforth [Comfort] with his Joy of Sex, a book allegedly more read than the Bible. Felicia introduces Socrates to Karl [Marx], whose grandfather is [Thomas] Hobbes and whose great grandfather is Niccolo Machiavelli.  Socrates calls epiphenomenalism (the materialist’s theory of consciousness) the Fart Theory of Thought. Adam [Smith] shows up, defending capitalism, but Socrates argues that it’s just as materialistic as communism. In Socrates’ discussion with Felicia on the objectivity of morals, we read

Felicia: Moderation sounds so boring, Socrates.

Socrates: It is just the opposite. Extremism is boring. Did you ever meet a monomaniac? Moderation is exciting because it is the principle of life itself. Life is a balancing act between dull and deadly extremes.

In a closing scene, both the Moral Majority and the ACLU want Socrates thrown off campus; Peter and Felicia unite to carry on Socrates’ tradition.

A lot of good stuff in this book, but its examples are somewhat dated, what with talk of Pac-Man, Johnny Unitas, the Moral Majority, and Timothy Leary. And Kreeft’s effort at “moral equivalency” between free-market capitalism and Communism is weak, perhaps an outworking of Roman Catholic “social justice” theory, exemplified by the current Pope Francis.

By the way, I’m keen on the dialogical approach, so much so that some of my early introduction to philosophy classes (Wheaton, 1975-1981) used only dialogues for texts, e.g., from Plato, Hume, Berkeley, Purtill, and Aquinas (through the seminar-based Q&A of the Summa). And in my 21st century teaching, I’ve pressed my students to explore an issue asking these ten dialogical questions:

1. Can you give an example? (illustration)

2. What’s at stake? What difference does it make? (application)

3. Where are you going with this? (destination)

4. But wouldn’t that mean . . . ? (implication)

5. What exactly do you mean by . . .? (clarification)

6. So it is kind of like . . . ? (analogy; comparison)

7. But what about . . . ? (counter-example)

8. Wouldn’t it be better to look at it this way? (alternative paradigm)

9. So you’re saying . . . ? (summarization)

10. But how does this square with . . . ? (cohesion)

Fit For Heaven: The Best Catholic Athletes and Coaches Talk about Sport, Faith, Leadership, Family, and Heaven, by Trent Beattie, Foreword by Mark Teixeira  (Beacon, 2015).

I’ve seen a good many testimonies from evangelical sports stars, Tim Tebow being a case in point. But I’ve not read nearly as many from Catholic athletes. This volume of interviews supplies those exclusively, with 20 from the NFL, 19 from MLB, 5 from MLS, and another 20 from miscellaneous sources, including bobsledding and golf.  It ends with quotes from papal sources. 

I was drawn first of all to Philip Rivers, long time San Diego Chargers quarterback, who ended his career with the Colts. He hailed from Decatur, Alabama, where his family transitioned from Southern Baptist to Roman Catholic, a choice that moved them from majority religionists to a distinct minority. (Rivers had only 15 in his county-wide confirmation class.) When Beattie asked him if he suffered opposition for his Catholic faith, he said he hadn’t, but rather fielded some “questioning as to why we did certain things.” He married a convert to Catholicism, and they were devout to the extent that they practiced “natural family planning (NFP)”—the rhythm method. Beattie also asked him about Tim Tebow’s statements about his faith, and he said that he respected both Tebow’s play and his witness, adding, “I’ve been public about my beliefs, as well, but not in as vocal or persistent a manner. Everyone has a different way of expressing themselves, and Tim has his own way too.”

As I worked down through the interviews, I was particularly intrigued by their answers to questions about their patron saints. Rivers claims St. Sebastian and recounts the time he played (amazingly if not miraculously) with a torn ACL on St. Sebastian’s Day; punter Zolstan Mesko of the Ravens wears a medal with the image of St. Anthony of Padua; another Raven, center Matt Birk, goes with St. Thomas More.


They also cite their favorite books (e.g., Conversation with God by Father Francis Fernandez, Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila, and a catechism by Peter Kreeft, a Catholic writer noted above), and they cite especially meaningful Bible verses (e.g., Jeremiah 29:11, Romans 8:28, and Proverbs 3:5). Their talk is often distinctly sectarian, as when Seahawk Luke Willson says, “As any Catholic should, I also have a devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is the Queen of Angels and Saints” and also when Browns linebacker Eric Mahl (now a priest) says he was puzzled by a question posed to attendees at a Kent State Protestant prayer group—"When did you ‘get saved’?” And though some have spent time with AIA and FCA, they also have homed in on Catholic Athletes for Christ.

I have to say I was unfamiliar with the majority of personalities, but the names Vin Scully (Dodger broadcaster), Lou Holtz (whose Notre Dame team won a national championship in 1988), and Mike Sweeney (whose Royals team I followed closely in my KC days) were instantly recognizable. 

I was intrigued by statements from the Vatican, with two particularly interesting. Pope Francis said, “[To belong to a sports team] means to reject all forms of selfishness and isolation—it is an opportunity to meet and be with others, to help each other, to compete in mutual esteem and grow in brotherhood.” (Right, like James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr., and Aaron Rodgers.) Then, back in 2000, John Paul II prayed for the athletes, “Help them to put the same effort into personal asceticism that they do into sports . . .” (Asceticism? Perhaps that was the translator’s effort to capture “rigorous training and discipline.”) 

Homeward Bound: The Demobilization of the Union and Confederate Armies, 1865-1866, by William B. Holberton (Stackpole, 2001).

The author was Catholic priest who served in World War II. As a lifelong student of the Civil War, he turned to writing this book after his retirement, only to die before its completion. Nevertheless, friends pitched in to bring the book to publication. The title grabbed me by its niche particularity—one year of going home from war. And I was rewarded by a variety of things, some of which I can use in other writing projects, e.g., talk of branding and flogging deserters (re my work on just punishment) and an exclamation of color blindness by an returning Texas Reb (re my work on race).

Much of it was not surprising, but the details were instructive. Union soldiers returned to intact homes, farms, cities, and parades. Confederate soldiers wandered back, skinny and ragged, to ruins. Still, in all this, there were acts of brotherly kindness, with, for instance, some U.S. troops giving C.S.A. soldiers various forms of assistance, including money. 

I was surprised by the number of desertions on each side, from ten to twenty per cent by war’s end. And I’d never heard of the “bounty jumpers” on the northern side. These were the Yankees who took $400 and one-month’s furlough to reenlist for the duration after their three year stint was up, but then never came back to the ranks.

Not surprisingly, at war’s end, the black troops were calling for the right to vote, with such slogans as “He who is worthy to be trusted with the musket can and ought to be trusted with the ballot” (Orderly Sgt.  I. N. Triplett of the 60th U. S Colored Infantry Regiment of Davenport, Iowa). Perhaps less expected were expressions of sadness at departing from units involved in the fray. As Sergeant Rice Bull (123rd NY Infantry) put it

Surely we all rejoiced that the end had come, the victory was ours and that home was near. But there was after all a sadness deep down in our hearts in this parting hour. We boys had been together for three years; we had formed close friendships; we had slept under the same blanket;  we had faced the enemy shoulder to shoulder on the firing line; we had marched side by side; we had borne danger, hardship, and privation alike; thus a comradeship had grown as only such conditions could form. So it was hard to separate and say goodby, one with the other; but we shook hands all around, and laughed and seemed to make merry, while our hearts were heavy and our eyes ready to shed tears.

The Penal Colony: Stories and Short Pieces, by Franz Kafka, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir (Schocken, 1948, 1961).

My daughter asked me what I made of a Kafka essay called “The Penal Colony” in a collection of short stories by the same name, one that included “The Metamorphosis,” which I read back in my 1960s college days. Well, having read this new (to me) piece, I’m not so sure. But before I turn to commentators, I thought I’d try on some ideas.

First, a quick summary: An explorer lands on a curious island where a zealot is about to execute, without due process (regarded as a nuisance), a man for a minor infraction. He’s using a machine that the now-departed commandant oversaw with relish, with large crowds in attendance. The death-contraption is worse for wear, and spare parts are elusive, but it still works. Kafka goes into great detail on its construction and operation, but I’ll just say that a vibrating bed of needles is lowered onto the back of the strapped-down prisoner, and the rule he violated is inscribed, slowly, deeper and deeper into his flesh, till he dies and is dumped into a pit. It takes six hours of this torture to remove his interest in lapping up the rice gruel they put before him, and twelve hours for death to come. 

The zealot wants the visitor to endorse the practice, at least tacitly by not objecting, but the visitor won’t go along with it, judging the practice inhumane. So the zealot has the prisoner unbound and takes his place on the rack, having made the suitable adjustments in the inscription machine. He sets it to read, “Be Just,” and then submits to its lethal engraving.

So yes, “Huh”? Well, here goes with first impressions:

1. It’s an indictment of old, stupid—even evil— ways, and you can pretty much fill in the blank. If you think society is pathetic and wicked for continuing to practice capital punishment, marginalize/stigmatize transsexuals, or whatever, you can compare suffocating conventionality to the executioner’s rig. In this, I’m reminded of Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery,” which features a charming village whose residents have a drawing and then a stoning each year—not sure why it’s done, but that’s the way it’s been done, and you’d better not mess with it.

2.  I think of our own “cancel culture,” fueled by the “woke” machinations of social media.

3. Of course, there is vast literature on the history of cruel and unusual punishment, which is forbidden in our U. S. Constitution. In an article we posted to, we read, “In 1531, Richard Rouse, a cook for the bishop of Rochester, slipped poison into the food, sickening members of the household and killing a visitor and a pauper. As punishment, he was boiled to death.” And also, Balthazar Gerard, who had assassinated the Prince of Orange in Delft in 1584, was “flogged with knotted cords, sliced by split quills, dipped in salt water, and left overnight in a garment soaked in vinegar. In the morning, they placed him on the rack and tore his flesh away with red-hot pincers.” On the same web site, we published a piece on the trivialities which were counted capital offenses in some seasons and jurisdictions in England, including poaching a rabbit and cutting down an ornamental shrub. And yes, public executions once garnered a host of spectators. Despite the parallels, I doubt that Kafka has crafted this piece as a slam strictly at capital punishment.

4. Maybe it’s a slam on zealotry, the sort of thing that drove the official to undergo a torturous death once he found himself guilty of a heretofore unsuspected offense. I think of the Nazi who justified his annihilation of Jews with an appeal to the Golden Rule: If he discovered that he had a drop of Jewish blood in his veins, he would wish his own annihilation.

As one of my students once said of an exercise in brainstorming, “I’m just spitballing here.” 

Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life, by Carol Sklenicka (Simon and Schuster, 2009) 

I’d heard of Carver, but I couldn’t remember reading anything he’d written, so I wanted to take a look at this book. Flipping through it, including the photos, I learned that he focused on short stories and poems; that his family hailed from Arkansas, where I was raised, but that he grew up in Washington state, where his dad had gone for work in timber; that he attended the Iowa Writers Workshop in Iowa City, just east of Coralville, where we RAGBRAI bike riders would make our overnight camps; that, like too many writers, he was, for long periods, a miserable and offensive drunk; and that he left his longsuffering wife for another woman, whom he married not long before his death in 1988. He won some nice awards, and I’ll probably read some of his stuff now. 

Essential Smart Football, by Chris Brown (self-published in Middletown, DE, 2012)

Flipping through the table of contents, I was drawn to a couple of essay titles, one by mistake—"Why Spiking the Football is Almost Always a Bad Idea.” I thought he was going to talk about the celebrational spike in the end zone, and I wondered if he’d home in on the way it could draw a penalty, stir up resentment in the other team, or even do some damage to the spiker because of a bad bounce. Turns out, Brown was talking about spiking the ball to stop the clock, and he gave the 1998 Rose Bowl example, where Ryan Leaf of Washington State blew it against Michigan when he needlessly spiked the ball with two seconds left on the clock. 

The second title that drew me in was “Gus Malzahn’s Multiple Attack,” since I knew his pastor in Arkansas (see here) and he’d moved on to Auburn, where my eldest son went. Brown wrote this piece when Malzahn was still riding high at Auburn, before he was “bought out” and then moved to UCF. I’d known a fair bit about Gus, but I had no idea that he’d drawn on a book called The Delaware Wing-T when he started making a name for himself as head coach of the Hughes (AR) High School team.

Other pieces discussed the work of such luminaries as Tom Brady, Rex Ryan, and Urban Meyer. Good stuff, I’m sure. Brown’s contributed to ESPN in the past, and his writing is perceptive. But I may be done with this one, ready to return it to the Little Free Library™ down the way. It’s sort of dated, and if I have a hankering for more of his work, I can turn to his web site,