Leaping to Conclusions

Edwin H. Friedman says a number of good and helpful things in his book on leadership A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Too easily, he says, we allow our emotional engagement in a system to lead to a sort of gridlock that kills imagination and shuts leaders off from exciting possibilities. He’s right. But like many good books on leadership Friedman overstates his case, bases it upon what appear to be wild generalizations, and takes too long to say it. I’m clearly not a fan of books on leadership (except this one!).

As an example of innovation freed from such constraints, Friedman points to the courage and innovation of Christopher Columbus to whom he credits the restoration of European greatness. In so doing, Friedman paints a picture of European malaise drawn from a 1493 publication called the “Nuremberg Chronicle”. We ought always to be suspicious of points made by reference to single ancient texts. And preachers, no less than leadership gurus, are guilty of this.

Imagine in the wake of a nuclear holocaust or zombie apocalypse, the only historical record of our age several hundred years into the future are several fragmentary speeches of Donald Trump.
We would not want generalizations made about life now based upon such sketchy evidence. Rodney Stark, a Baylor sociologist, speaking of the late Roman Empire as an “experienced pollster” has reminded us that we ought not to characterize

“…the ‘feelings and thoughts of fifty-million people’ on the basis of a few fragmentary literay quotations.” (The Rise of Christianity, page 200)

This reminds me of the caution that writer Barbara Tuchman developed in her own presentation of medieval history A Distant Mirror. The negative will always be over-reported.

“A…hazard, built into the very nature of recorded history, is overload of the negative: the disproportionate survival of the bad side—of evil, misery, contention, and harm. In history this is exactly the same as in the daily newspaper. The moral does not make news. History is made by the documents that survive, and these lean heavily on crisis and calamity, crime and misbehavior, because such things are the subject matter of the documentary process—of lawsuits, treaties, moralists’ denunciations, literary satire, Papal Bulls. No Pope ever issued a Bull to approve of something….
“Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place.” (pages xviii-xvix)

Writing this in 1978 Tuchman had never heard of the internet, or imagined how it could magnify this tendency.

I say all this to urge caution in the generalizations that we accept as true. I say it as well as a caution that we not be those, especially we who are preachers, who further mistaken conclusions by making them or repeating them.

A Writer of Wrights

On Monday, October 18, 1909 witnesses gasped to see high in the sky over Paris, France, higher than the Eiffel Tower (then the tallest man-made structure on Earth) something never before seen over a major world city: an airplane. This one was a Wright brothers bi-plane piloted by a Wright friend and student, the Comte de Lambert. One witness was the American Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Edith Wharton who recorded her impressions.
HighFlight ComptedeLambert8

It is not her impressions that interest me, nor the flight itself, as remarkable as that must have been. What interests me is that in his recent book The Wright Brothers, David McCullough refers to Ms. Wharton blandly as ‘the American writer Edith Wharton’. This may have been for McCullough nothing more than an incidental word choice. But I like to think that it arose from something deeper: from McCullough’s assessment of his vocation. He wants to be known simply as this: as a writer, a person who tells stories with words. The Presidential Medal of Freedom which McCullough was awarded calls him “…one of our nations most distinguished and honored historians…”. Though no doubt true, he is first and foremost, in his mind, simply a writer.

I grew up in southwest Ohio, forty minutes or so from Dayton. When I was young I spent many enjoyable hours strolling through the magnificent Air Force Museum on the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Nevertheless, I had no particular TheWrightBrosinterest in the sons of Dayton for whom the air force base was named. With the release of David McCullough’s book The Wright Brothers, I have become interested. A good storyteller does that. He compels one to become interested in what interests him.

The basic narrative of the brothers Wilbur and Orville was taught to most school children of my era. These two from Dayton designed and built the first ever airplane, testing and flying it, for some reason never then explained, off the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, NC. McCullough fills in the rather monstrous gaps in that narrative.

In a 1909 interview with a New York newspaper, Wilbur, reflecting perhaps on his life, said

“A man who works for the immediate present and its immediate rewards is nothing but a fool.”

Ignoring “the immediate present and its immediate rewards”, the brothers attacked the problem of flight like none before them. Further, the design and building of a flying machine was only part of the challenge before them. They also had to learn how to pilot one, knowing that any error along the way could (and almost did) kill them. They worked obsessively, mostly in obscurity, often under great pressure, and sometimes in the face of mockery.

And yet they were not indifferent to immediate rewards. They attracted notoriety, and became acquainted with a wide span of celebrity, nobility, and royalty. But they never let their own celebrity lull them into complacency or rashness. They did not fly to impress, but to succeed. That that they did.

Living until age 77, Orville survived to see both the good and the potential for destruction their invention brought to the world. Wilbur, on the other hand, died of typhoid fever in 1912.

In all the years they had been working together Wilbur and Orville had never once flown together, so if something were to go wrong and one of them should be killed, the other would live to carry on with the work. But on this day at Huffman Prairie, where they had developed the first practical flying machine ever, the two of them, seated side by side, took off into the air with Orville at the controls.

To many then and later, it seemed their way of saying they had accomplished all they had set out to do and so at last saw no reason to postpone any longer enjoying together the thill of flight.” (page 253)

The quality of a story is often found in what is withheld. A good writer does not obscure his story under a weight of detail but keeps his focus and lets the story unfold. I would like to know more about why the brothers were so fastidious about not working on Sunday, and others might want to know greater details about their legal battles. If we all got our wishes, the book would double in size and be half as interesting.

David McCullough’s degree from Yale is in English literature. Whether he qualifies as a historian, I’ll leave to others to decide. Clearly, he is a writer, one for whom I continue to be grateful.

[Footnote point of regional pride: Why does North Carolina gets the cool ‘First in Flight’ license plates? All they provided was isolation, sand, and a prevailing wind for the boys from Ohio to ply their magic!]

In the Garden of Beasts

In the Garden of Beasts is Erik Larson’s offering opening a window on the troubling world that was Berlin prior to WWII. Subtitled “Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin”, the book follows the experience of the United States’ first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany, William Dodd, his wife Mattie, and their adult children Martha and Bill, Jr. Their life in Berlin paralleled Hitler’s ascension to the chancellory and eventual assumption of complete power. The more power that Hitler assumed, the greater the culture of fear and suspicion and intrigue spread.
The realities detailed are not altogether surprising. Larson in all his books finds an intriguing tale to tell (The Devil in the White City remains my favorite), and the tale he tells inevitably involves some unspeakable evil. While in his previous books that evil was hidden and surprising, in this one though the evil was visible to all, few took note of it.

One would expect that nothing evil would trouble an author who writes so frequently about it. (The Devil in the White City is subtitled “Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America”!) But this story effected him differently.

What I did not realize as I ventured into those dark days of Hitler’s rule was how much the darkness would infiltrate my own soul…. [L]iving among Nazis day in, day out proved for me a uniquely trying experience.

I can still not fathom how evil of this depth can gain such broad acquiescence. I like to believe that it could not happen again. But just over a week ago (on April 19) Matthew Kaminski, a journalist on the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, tweeted

What’s Moscow like these days? Longtime diplomat suggests reading “In the Garden of Beasts,” Erik Larson’s account of Berlin in late ’30s. (@KaminskiMK)

One can hope the unnamed diplomat is wrong.


If I wanted to follow this book up with something less troubling, I probably should not have turned to this one: World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks. But I did.


Mr. Knox’s Courage

In my sermon this past Sunday, I made mention of the period of England’s history in which Edward VI was dying, and others were scheming to retain power by arranging for young Lady Jane Grey to be his successor. (This is all wonderfully captured in a movie called simply Lady Jane which is, unfortunately, very expensive to buy, but can be streamed.)
Lady Jane
In the midst of this intrigue, a young John Knox was given opportunity to preach to the parties involved. He made the most of his opportunity.

The second Sunday in April 1553 the last Tudor King of England went to hear, for the last time, one of his favourite preachers in Westminster Abbey. All the glitter and jingle of a medieval court was there; the glorious, flashing colour, the shields and banners, the velvet and miniver. His Highness Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, a gorgeous figure, famous as a jouster, with his tall handsome sons: Paulet, Marquess of Winchester, the perfect time-server, who was Comptroller, Secretary and Lord Treasurer to Edward, who cursed Mary as a bastard, yet lived to ‘crouch and kneel’ successfully to her in turn; all the dukes and earls and jewelled ladies were there: for sermons were high fashion, for the moment, in England.

Knox, the dour little Scotsman, rising to preach, perhaps looked round from the white-faced boy to the jealous lords: and gave out his text from the Gospel of St. John xiii. 15: ‘He that eateth bread with me hath lifted up his heel against me.’

These words, used by the Lord at the Last Supper, are quoted from Psalm 41, v. 9, in which David laments the treachery of Absalom. Knox turned back to read again those incomparable stories of treachery and heroism in Isaiah, in 2 Samuel xvi and xvii, 2 Kings xviii; stories of three different sorts of traitors: of Shebna the traitor who wormed his way into King Hezekiah’s confidence, becoming comptroller, secretary and treasurer – did the congregation prick up their ears? Of Achitophel who rose to be the highest in the land while he plotted with Absalom to supplant David: whose counsel ‘was as the oracles of God’: of Judas who sold his friend.

The preacher’s voice rose to a climax: ‘Was David and Hezekiah, princes of great and godly gifts and experience, abused by crafty counsellors and dissembling hypocrites? What wonder is it then, that a young and innocent King be deceived by crafty, covetous, wicked and ungodly counsellors? I am greatly afraid that Achitophel be counsellor, that Judas bear the purse and that Shebna be scribe, comptroller and treasurer.’

There must have been a wave of anger – perhaps of laughter – along the gorgeously dressed congregation. Was there too a flicker of satisfaction over the white face of the little King? But whether or not he was the King’s favourite, this sermon went a little too near the bone : Knox was summoned before the Privy Council of England on 14 April.

There were present at this Council, Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chancellor, the Earls of Bedford, Northampton and Shrewsbury; the Lord Treasurer (‘Shebna’), and the Lord Chamberlain, and two Secretaries of State. For obvious reasons, they did not take him up on the sermon; but instead brought up the old complaints against him. Why had he refused preferment? Why had he objections to kneeling, to the special wafer instead of common bread, and the like? Knox had answers ready for all their points: so in the end they ‘dismissed him with fair words’, saying only ‘they were sorry to understand he was of a contrary mind to the Common Order’….

His enemies could afford to wait a little. The sands were clearly running out for Edward. Youth had ceased to fight with death: his days were numbered.

Plain Mr. Knox, Elizabeth Whitley

This scene, unfortunately but not surprisingly, does not make it into the movie.

Dear Diary…

I mused a few weeks ago about the lost art of the diary.

Apparently, according to the New York Times, I’m not the only one musing along those lines. The Morgan Library and Museum in New York has apparently brought together an exhibit focusing on the art of keeping a diary. Oh, to be able to visit. If the previous post sparked any interest at all, this article will be worth the read.

As I did, the author here sees the relationship between the diary and things such as Facebook and Twitter.

Our own era, of course, has turned spontaneous journalizing into something of a fetish, as 140-character tweets supposedly spring spontaneously from the thumbs of celebrities; scores of electronic walls sprout on which “friends” post tirelessly about their socially networked activities; and blogs are tossed into the electronic ether like rolled-up notes floating in virtual bottles. And though far less distinguished, the contemporary mix of self-invention, self-promotion and self-revelation is probably not that different from what is on display here.

But the most interesting observation she makes is on whether written self-reflection is true. Some diarists clearly wrote for history, and tidied up their lives to make themselves look good. Others wrote for themselves, and might have been excessively hard on themselves. For honesty, she commends the author of the Christian hymn “Amazing Grace” John Newton:

An enormous volume by the British slaveholder John Newton recounts his spiritual conversion (which led to the composition of the hymn “Amazing Grace” and to his later opposition to slavery), but also his “repeated backslidings”: “I have been reading what I have recorded of my experience in the last year — a strange vanity. I find myself condemned in every page.”

My own journal keeping occurs early, early in the morning, when sometimes my soul is as dark as the sky is outside. It’s not necessarily an accurate description of my whole view of life!

Anyway, fascinating reading.

The Diary

Interesting men and women of the past kept diaries. They would record, often daily, without the aid of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates (or Thomas Edison for that matter) thoughts, observations, joys, sorrows, all threaded through a running narrative of their daily lives.

Do they still? I really don’t know. I don’t.

In Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln Doris Kearns Goodwin tells the stories of four men who rose to prominence in the 19th century: Lincoln, and three rivals who eventually served with him on his cabinet. She records the diary keeping habits of one of these men, Edward Bates of St. Louis.

Beyond commentary on his family and his city, Bates filled the pages of his diary with observations of the changing seasons, the progress of his flowers, and the phases of the moon. He celebrated the first crocus each year, his elm trees shedding seed, oaks in full tassel, tulips in their prime. (page 67)

Goodwin goes on to note that Bates was a “contented man”. That in and of itself is a rare thing.

Taking time to regularly take note of one’s place in life and to reflect on the rhythms around us by recording our narratives would be beneficial, especially for those who process life by writing, and could perhaps serve to feed contentment.

Why did such men and women keep diaries? Were they kept by only certain social strata? Did they keep them with the expectation that they would be read? If they lived now, would they trade the diary for Facebook, Twitter, or a blog? Did anyone ever begrudge them the time spent in their diary keeping? Where did they find the time, discipline, and motive to keep a diary?

Those questions could make an interesting study, which I’m sure has been done. But my real interest is whether anyone, perhaps among my readers, yet keeps a diary. If you do, please share some of your thoughts with the rest of us.

History of the Whole World

In the early 1990s, I had the privilege of driving Dr. James Montgomery Boice, then pastor of Philadalphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church, from Bradenton, Florida, after a speaking engagement at our church, to the train station in Tampa, where he was to catch a train (he was weary of flying) back to Philadelphia.

On that ride, Dr. Boice revealed to me that he was then beginning to read again Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume history The Story of Civilization. I was impressed by his desire to be well rounded and in his curiosity in all things.

So when I heard of Susan Wise Bauer’s similar but more compact four-volume history, I decided to jump in. (I have finished The History of the Ancient World and am in the middle of The History of the Medieval World.)

I’m glad that I have done so, and from the vantage point of 1400 pages in, I feel that I’m in a position of making an observation or two.

First, I’m impressed. Knowing something of how hard it is to write, and how difficult it can be to sustain one’s productive interest in a project of this magnitude over a prolonged period of time, I cannot imagine how tough it is for her to keep at this project for so long. Add to this the fact that she is not an historian, but a professor of English, I am more amazed at her ability to grasp and wrestle to the ground such massive amounts of information.

Secondly, she tells this story with as much passion and interest and personality as she can muster. The narrative is punctuated with wry observations about the myriad characters involved. She is able, for example, to see through and expose with a wink a king’s supposed ‘holy’ purpose when it is clearly a raw grab for power.

Thirdly, her purpose is incredibly noble. She is not trying to write a typical Euro-centric ‘world’ history, but a true history of the whole world, giving the stories of China and India and Japan and the Islamic states, and one imagines in the future, those of Africa and South and North America, equal coverage.

The problem I find is that the task is just so monumental that I’m sure that it is impossible to do.

Compressing such massive amounts of information into a mere four volumes of 900-1000 pages each results in a narrative that moves from one battle to another, one political play for power to another military victory, from one region to another. Sprinkled within are occasional glimpses of life, and now and again the pace slows to give the back story to contemporary events (such as the intriguing explication of the different claims of Sunni and Shia Muslims). But overall, something of the human in the story is lost.

I’m thinking that part of the problem is my own. My knowledge of, say, the ninth century, is so insipid that the parade of names and places leaves me as dazed as a first reading of the prophecy of Isaiah must to the person new to the Bible.

But I can’t help but think that the issue is bigger than that. That it is impossible when one moves further and further away and condenses an era into fewer and fewer pages to write much more than about tectonic shifts in power. Lost is the detail that makes the living of life human.

I have calculated that if one were to shrink the earth to the size of a bowling ball, that the resulting sphere would be, if possible, smoother than a bowling ball. That is, all the detail and contrast which make the earth wonderful to observe would be gone. All that would be left to describe would be surface detail. For the most part, that is how I feel in reading these books. They are well done. But the scope is too large.

Somewhere, a family this morning is sitting down to a breakfast of waffles and sausage, perhaps celebrating the return of a son or daughter from military service or mourning the loss of a family patriarch. Elsewhere, a young man is plotting the means of telling his girl of his undying love and desire to marry her. And still elsewhere, a child is going to sleep hungry, struggling with his family to find the food to eat in an impoverished land.

All over this drama goes on and has gone on, but none of it is visible to the writer of a general history. And the further we are removed from these stories, the more sterile a history MUST become. When one pulls back further and further, one is left with little but battles and wars and usurpations and power struggles. And no matter how well that history is written – and this one is written well – the end result can be tedious.

Perhaps I’m not James Montgomery Boice after all.

Terrible Technology: Bad News for Luddites

Meg Ryan’s live-in in Sleepless in Seattle 2 (aka You’ve Got Mail) was a Luddite of the first degree. He was a writer who eschewed the computer for his beloved typewriter. He was making a valiant stand against a formidable foe.

A couple of things can be said about advances in technology: They will change us and they cannot be withstood.

The digitizing of music files and their easy dissemination in an mp3 format has forever changed the way we listen to music (there may never be another Dark Side of the Moon). But no effort to stop this change has proven successful, Napster’s demise notwithstanding.

I write sermons differently now that I do the whole process on a computer. I have been irretrievably changed by the process. But I can’t go back.

Technology will always have curses mixed in with its blessings. But there is simply no way to stand in its way, and so we adapt to it.

I’m stimulated in these thoughts by the technological advances of the Middle Ages. According to Barbara Tuchman in her book A Distant Mirrora major advance incorporated in 14th century structures was invented sometime in the 11th: the mantled chimney.

I think most of us looking back would say that this structural improvement was a huge step forward over the typical ‘hole in the ceiling’ approach popular before then.

But this advance was not without its social consequences. As Tuchman notes:

As distinct from a hole in the roof, these chimneys were a technological advance of the 11th century that by warming individual rooms, brought lords and ladies out of the common hall where all had once eaten together and gathered for warmth, and separated their owners from their retainers. No other invention brought more progress in comfort and refinement, although at the cost of a widening social gulf.

Surely someone should have stood in the gap and have opposed this technological advance.


Note: One can expect occasional posts stimulated by this wonderful book as I read it over the next, oh, 18 years or so. My grandson saw it and said, “Wow! That book must have a thousand pages!” He wasn’t far off.