Saturday, May 14, 2016

Reflections: The March of Folly

In 2002 Elder Neal A. Maxwell gave a talk in General Conference titled Encircled in the Arms of His Love.  As part of his talk, he briefly discussed the Founding Fathers and subsequently quoted Barbara W. Tuchman from her book The March of Folly: "It would be invaluable if we could know what produced this burst of talent from a base of only two and a half million inhabitants."  As part of my quest to catalogue as many books quoted at General Conference as possible, I added the book to the list and shortly thereafter ordered it for myself.  The March of Folly is a deep dive; it's not for escapists or fair weather readers.  It takes focus and consistency to enjoy.  It's an excellent book.

Tuchman's main premise is that there have been many, many occasions in humanity's past in which governments, rulers, kings, etc., have acted against their own self-interest, even when clear alternatives were available, which led them to commit folly.  Tuchman focuses on four such events, to wit: Troy, the Renaissance Popes, the American Revolution, and the Vietnam War.  Although appearing to be disparate events and time periods, and one being veiled by mythology, Tuchman asserts that each have similar characteristics and outcomes.  Her writing and exhaustive research does plenty to convince the reader of her perspective.

I've read plenty of non-fiction books and works of history.  I have read very few more researched and detailed than The March of Folly.  Tuchman presents an avalanche of details--names, dates, locations, events.  It can be overwhelming and is not welcoming to readers unfamiliar with this kind of writing.  However, Tuchman has provided an incredible addition to the study of these particular events.  The American Revolution chapter in particular was especially intriguing.  Living in America we obviously and rightfully approach the American Revolution from an American-centric perspective.  However, Tuchman presents the circumstances leading to and pushing forward the American Revolution from the perspective of the British parliament and government officials.  She quotes their letters and their journals; she highlights their disagreements and apathy toward the American colonies.  She chronicles their ignoring of discontent, and the power of the American appetite for freedom.  It's a fascinating variation on a theme and story I have read about many times over but never from this angle.

Perhaps the most challenging chapter of the book was the one related to the Vietnam War.  My feelings on the war are nuanced, as they probably should be, but Tuchman presents details and information in The March of Folly I was completely ignorant of.  Although only occurring a handful of decades ago, the events of the Vietnam War seem distant and mystifying.  Tuchman demystifies some of it, but her cynicism and bias is most apparent during this chapter.  The Vietnam War was a badly managed war and was fought for troubling reasons, but I struggle to call it completely vain in purpose the way that Tuchman does.  As Gordon B. Hinckly said: "I have had many feelings about that conflict . . . I have known something of a feeling of bitterness over some aspects of that conflict . . . I think I have felt very keenly the feelings of many of our young men concerning this terrible conflict in which we are engaged, but I am sure we are there because of a great humanitarian spirit in the hearts of the people of this nation."  Communism is the greatest system of human slavery ever devised, and America's efforts, however mismanaged or misguided, to stop its spread throughout the Earth was noble.  Tuchman presents some troubling facts, mostly about the management of the conflict.  Regardless of my agreement or disagreement, The March of Folly presents a very valuable reflection on the Vietnam War and there are lessons to be learned.

The March of Folly is an excellent academic study of the four events or time periods previously listed.  It's a heady book and wouldn't be enjoyed very much by those looking for a lazy read.  It's a wonderful addition to my collection, and I will undoubtedly return to its pages for quotes, references, and insights.

Notable Quotes:
  • "The opponent's point of view is rarely considered in the paranoia of war."
  • "Men thinking for themselves will defeat the slush funds--if there are enough of them."
  • "The power to command frequently causes failure to think."

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: American Lion
Bosom Buddy Books: The Prince and the Radical
Writing History I can't Forget: Leon Uris

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Reflections: The Book of Mormon

It is no mistake that the vast majority of reviews on Amazon of The Book of Mormon are either 5 stars or 1 star.  The very nature of the book, claiming as it does to be holy writ, the word of God, makes it divisive and partisan.  Therefore, you see reviews related to the book as follows:

"A trite, misogynistic, racist collection of demonstrably false stories written by a convicted con artist and peddled as Gospel truth by a masonic country club of ancient, white men who gleefully scam their ovine followers out of time, money, and critical thinking skills..."(Amazon Customer)

"One of the most helpful books you can ever read! I have read it many times and yes I had my doubts but anyone who prays to God while reading this book will know the truth. Many people try to prove this book wrong and failed. They will continue to fail because that which is truly from God cannot be destroyed." (Dustin)

The dichotomy is staggering yet not unexpected.  During Jesus Christ's time some said He "was not of God" while others said: "How can a man that is a sinner do such miracles?" (John 9:16).  As a devout Latter-day Saint, I firmly believe The Book of Mormon comes from God.  I have written before that I don't believe in encore reading; however, a book like The Book of Mormon or the Holy Bible are designed for encore reading.  Indeed, their purpose and significance cannot be truly appreciated unless they're read again, again, and again.  Having recently completed The Book of Mormon for the thirteenth time, I felt it was appropriate to provide a reflection on the book, from a reader and a believer's perspective.  

The Book of Mormon deals with the great themes of humanity.  In its commentary and perspective it is extremely binary.  Nations are wicked or righteous.  Choices are good or evil.  The complexities of the nations aren't exactly on display in this record.  Yet, the endless cycle is.  As Joseph Campbell said: "As I can see no reason why anyone should suppose that in the future the same motifs already heard will not be sounding still . . . put to use by reasonable men to reasonable ends, or by madmen to nonsense and disaster" (Emphasis added).  Those "motifs" are clearly and simply detailed in The Book of Mormon.  This simplicity compels some to criticize the book; however, for those who believe the record's truthfulness it is one of its most attractive features.  

At its core, The Book of Mormon is a work of doctrine, not history; therefore, those details which normally would be included in such a record, compels, once again, its critics to look for something The Book of Mormon never attempts to be.  The record's authors are far more worried about the faith in its readers than their intellectual understanding of ancient American civilization.  It provides details that supporters and detractors obsess over but in the end don't matter to its essential message.  The doctrines emphasized in The Book of Mormon are ennobling and inspiring, but the historical message and its conclusion are not particularly encouraging.

The sanguinary conclusion of The Book of Mormon describes a people "without civilization," which they lost in "only a few years" (Moroni 9:11-12).  It's a tragic lesson for any people, any nation, any family.  Beyond the religious and doctrinal implications of the truthfulness of The Book of Mormon is a message about humanity which can only be ignored with devastating consequences.  People may laugh at and scorn the book, but they miss something crucial when they do.  They miss some of the greatest themes and repeated lessons of history.

Those involved in the bringing forth of The Book of Mormon, such as Joseph Smith, in some cases gave everything, including their lives.  Elder Jeffrey R. Holland asked why they would do such a thing for a book which was not only false but a fraud.  He said: "They were willing to die rather than deny the divine origin and the eternal truthfulness of the Book of Mormon."  Furthermore, he made the following comment regarding the various explanations for the book's existence: 

"For 179 years this book has been examined and attacked, denied and deconstructed, targeted and torn apart like perhaps no other book in modern religious history—perhaps like no other book in any religious history. And still it stands. Failed theories about its origins have been born and parroted and have died—from Ethan Smith to Solomon Spaulding to deranged paranoid to cunning genius. None of these frankly pathetic answers for this book has ever withstood examination because there is no other answer than the one Joseph gave as its young unlearned translator."

And so I line up on one side of the debate, the side of faith and acceptance of the book as the genuine word of God.  The Book of Mormon will remain a divisive book, perhaps one of the most divisive because it claims so much more than almost any other book.  Stephen L. Carter once wrote that religion and education "share a characteristic that so many human activities lack: they matter."  The Book of Mormon, unlike many or even most books, matters.  This I believe and know to be true.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Apocrypha
Reflections: Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling
Reflections: People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Reflections: Things Fall Apart

I went into Things Fall Apart thinking it was a straight down the party line anti-colonialist book.  I feel I got quite a bit more out of the book, although I'm not sure I'm culling the lessons the author or the book's biggest fans would have me walk away with.   Things Fall Apart is a fascinating book, partly because it pulls back a portion of Africa's cultural curtain and what is seen behind it isn't purely pleasant.  Chinua Achebe wrote a simple but thematically layered book and the story provides readers plenty to talk about.

Returning to my initial feeling, I was somewhat stunned by how unsympathetic the main character was at the beginning and throughout the duration of the book.  Okonkwo is an abusive husband and father, albeit protective and a sufficient provider, but is not anything out of the ordinary for his time and place in Africa.  Herein lies one of the fascinating aspects Things Fall Apart.  If the book is anti-colonialist, or if its framed within that context at times, I think the categorization is wrong.  This book provides plenty of reasons, in my mind, to not care one whit if the people chronicled in this story are conquered and tamed by civilization and Christianity.  But at some point during the first half of this book, I realized I was reading it as a Westerner.  I was reading it as someone who might have stumbled onto a tribal people who believe in the most outlandish of superstitions, commit infanticide (Westerners have their own problems with that), abuse their wives as a standard way to resolve marital conflict, and hold tightly and forcefully to established traditions and mores.  When everything does fall apart, which apparently is not when the people of Umuofia act according to clearly unjust but established rules, it's when Western society with its new rules, laws, missionaries, and God comes bursting on the scene.  However, the question must be asked: is that all bad?

It seems apparent from everything I've read that Things Fall Apart is a book about African identity and the loss of it.  I feel the book, deliberately or inadvertently I'm not sure, poses the very valuable and potentially divisive question regrading the equality of cultures.  Are all cultures equal?  My sociology teacher would have emphatically answered in the affirmative; however, I think a book like Things Fall Apart challenges the assumption, even when he might have used Things Fall Apart to prove the exact opposite conclusion.  Regardless of my feelings on that topic, I was moved by the raw emotions at the end of the story related to the loss of an identity, good or bad: "It seemed as if the very soul of the tribe wept for a great evil that was coming--its own death."  Loss of identity, a cultural element, or some other defining feature can be painful, but is it wrong? 

I'm not an expert on Africa, but I know the debate surrounding colonialism is impassioned and probably more complicated than we realize.  (As one character prophetically says: "There is no story that is not true.").  Years ago I read A Long Way Gone and realized some of the deep and terrible trials afflicting the African people, many of which were inflicted upon themselves.  Things Fall Apart shows a little bit more of the African personality and history and it is layered indeed.  It's a fine book and no doubt one I'll remember for a long, long time.

Notable Quotes:
  • "We say he is foolish because he does not know our ways, and perhaps he says we are foolish because we do not know his."
  • "Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten." 
  • "The world has no end, and what is good among one people is an abomination with others."  
Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Death Comes for the Archbishop
Reflections: Guns, Germs, and Steel
Reflections: Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture

Friday, April 15, 2016

Reflections: Old Testament and Related Studies

My favorite non-fiction book of last year was Hugh Nibley's Temple and Cosmos.  His book was an exceptional exploration into literally the deepest and most important concepts and ideas that could possibly cross the mind of man.  I decided after completing Nibley's excellent book that I would read the entire series of Nibley's collected works, which includes 19 volumes in all and begins with Old Testament and Related Studies.  The first volume in Nibley's collection isn't nearly as good as Temple and Cosmos and really lacks much of what I loved in that volume, but it wasn't so bad that it soured my desire to complete the entire series of books. 

My biggest grumble about this volume of Nibley's collected works is that it felt, at times, a bit too arcane.  The commentaries regarding the Dead Sea Scrolls were interesting, but when Nibley delves deep into esoteric Arab stories I lost essentially all of any frame of reference I had.  I can appreciate stories.  I can appreciate myth, ancient religion, etc., but the specificity of Nibley's commentary in this volume exceeded my knowledge and felt unconnected from larger discussions on important topics.  In addition, I was disappointed with one of the chapters, which was a reproduction of a speech he gave rather than an article he wrote, because it relied far too heavily on his paraphrasing rather than his quoting directly from the sources.  Having said that, I can't fault the book for being a poor academic work or having any less academic value than Temple and Cosmos.  Some of it was simply beyond me.

Nibley's intellect is once again on display in this volume, and I have a tremendous respect for him as an academic and a thinker.  When it comes to scriptural or doctrinal commentary, I have not found his equal.  I find myself wanting to know what Nibley thought about various topics, whether they be the creation of the Earth, evolution, the Great Deluge, etc.  I value his opinion far more than most, and I believe he gives a reasoned explanation for his viewpoints even if they're not necessarily correct.  I found many of his commentaries regarding Adam and Eve in this volume to be thought-provoking and intriguing.  In addition, his commentaries which begin with scriptures from Genesis or other holy writ (canon and otherwise) often end up providing insight into seemingly unconnected but nonetheless consequential topics. 

Old Testament and Related Studies adds to the panoply of Nibley's recorded opinions and is certainly worth reading.  It doesn't have the same weight, in my mind, as Temple and Cosmos, which I consider to be one of the finest doctrinal, spiritual, and intellectual commentaries I have ever read.  Yet, it has its own value and has more to recommend itself than not.

Notable Quotes:
  • "Since we cannot prove a negative, being convinced of one is a pure act of faith."
  • "In the business of scholarship, evidence is far more flexible than opinion."
  • "I would rather be a doorkeeper in the House of the Lord than mingle with the top brass in the tents of the wicked."

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Temple and Cosmos
Reflections: The First Two Thousand Years
Best Books of 2015

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Reflections: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

After the semi-slog of The Fellowship of the Ring, the excitement and emotional journey of The Two Towers, I have come to the end of Tolkien's epic trilogy with The Return of the King.  Aside from an overly long ending (a little bit like the film adaptation), I was pleased the The Return of the King was an appropriate, engaging, and thrilling ending to fantasy's most well known adventure.

I can't help mention the inspiring heroism on display in Tolkien's story.  These are characters of a nobler type; there are no anti-heros to be found here, and that's quite refreshing.  With characters like Aragorn, Samwise, Theoden, Gandalf (who takes somewhat of a back-seat later in the book), Eomer, Eowyn, Merry, Pippin, and, of course, Frodo, the reader is shown again and again what moral rectitude and courageous action looks like.  It's inspiring and touching.  Samwise and Frodo's actions in particular at the end of the book are so touching and meaningful I struggle to find too many comparisons in other literature and stories I have read.  (I feel one comparison could be made to the self-sacrifice on display at the end of Charles Dickens's incredible A Tale of Two Cities).  Tolkien's storytelling can be slow, although deliberate, with a lot of detail regarding each step of his characters' journey.  This made the pay-off all the more fulfilling. 

The Return of the King, along with the entire The Lord of the Rings trilogy, is, even with all of its fictional complexity, a very, very simple story.  Good vs. evil.  Light vs. dark.  The book frequently returns to themes of hope, especially when the night is the darkest.  There appears to be unseen influences working on the characters that aren't fully explained which I found to be very interesting and thought-provoking.  There may be some additional Lord of the Rings lore which explains this, but I'm unaware of it.  I'm moved by the thematic elements on display in Tolkien's story and consider his addition to our library of stories to be of exceptional value. 

As much as I liked The Return of the King, I must confess I found the ending to be overly and unnecessarily long, especially with the addition of the chapter The Scouring of the Shire.  Once the main conflict of the story is resolved, the book somewhat meanders around for another 40 - 50 pages with, in my opinion, very little value being added to the overall story.  The Scouring of the Shire in particular feels like a short story haphazardly inserted because, well, why not?  It exists so readers might as well as read it.  I think I understand why Tolkien would want to have added that chapter, but I don't feel it was in any way necessary. 

In the end, The Return of the King was a great book--better than The Fellowship of the Ring but not quite streamlined a story as The Two Towers.  Furthermore, The Lord of the Rings is appropriately considered one of the finest works of fantasy and fiction we have.  I am so glad to have read the trilogy for myself and regard it as highly as many others. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Fellowship of the Ring
Reflections: The Two Towers
Memorable Moments: A Tale of Two Cities - 'It is a far, far better thing'