I did not watch the Oscars, but I do not live in a cave, either, so I know about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock. I do not condone Smith’s actions. Oscar hosts and presenters have always been expected to taunt, tease and, sometimes, humiliate, those in attendance. Whether you think that is right or wrong, that’s the way it has been…and what Rock said about Jada Pinkett-Smith was quite mild compared to what I have heard from some hosts and presenters in the past.
I have heard some people suggest that the reason behind Pinkett-Smith’s shaved head might be a factor in Smith’s response, but that doesn’t seem to hold much weight. She shaved her head last July after encouragement from her daughter to do so. She apparently acknowledged several years ago that she had struggled with hair loss issues and the tests to try to determine the reason revealed no medical issues. Relieved by that, Pinkett-Smith said that she “put it into a spiritual perspective, like the higher power takes so much from people,” like cancer, for example, and she was grateful that she was only losing her hair.
I realize that it is more common and probably less attention-getting for men to lose their hair than women, and I am not going to suggest, as someone who began losing his hair before he even graduated from college and has been “bald” for many years now, that I can empathize with what Pinkett-Smith went through in dealing with hair loss. But, whether appropriate or not, a bald head does tend to attract some wisecracks. For Rock to make a passing reference to G. I. Jane 2 in regard to Pinkett-Smith is pretty tame.
In 2013, Seth MacFarlane uttered what may be the worst attempted joke in Oscar history, saying, “The actor who really got inside Lincoln’s head was John Wilkes Booth.” The crowd wasn’t amused, and MacFarlane tried to blow it off. Of course, neither Lincoln nor his wife was present. A close second came in 1955, when Bob Hope said, “The winners will take home an Oscar. The losers will all be presented with monogrammed do-it-yourself suicide kits.” In 2010 Steve Martin asked, inexplicably, of Meryl Streep, “What’s with all the Hitler memorabilia?” In 2014, Ellen DeGeneres called Liza Minelli, who was in the audience, a Liza Minelli impersonator and then added, “Good job, sir.” Chris Rock himself has said worse—see 2005’s crack about Jude Law and his 2016 introduction of Stacey Dash as examples.
Referring to director Alejandro González Iñárritu, a citizen of Mexico, Sean Penn said, in 2015, “Who gave this son of a [expletive] his green card?” Yikes. But Iñárritu said later that he thought it was “hilarious” and that he and Penn had that kind of a relationship, a “brutal relationship” that included some “very tough jokes.” Maybe Rock and Smith don’t have that kind of relationship. Maybe Will Smith really just was not okay with someone making fun of his wife. I don’t know.
If the outrage over Smith’s slap of Rock results in less mockery, that may well be a good thing. Despite Smith’s action being wrong, though, and condemnation of him slapping Rock being appropriate, other parts of the response to it by some has been simply outlandish. Wanda Sykes, who co-hosted the Oscars, called it “sickening,” said she felt “physically ill” and three days later said she was still “traumatized” by it. Sykes also complained that no one had apologized to her as the co-host. Sorry, Ms. Sykes, but I don’t think you are the one deserving an apology.
Another of the co-hosts was Amy Schumer, who took to Instagram two days after the event to declare that she was “still triggered and traumatized” and “waiting for this sickening feeling to go away from what we all witnessed.”
Let’s put this in a bit of perspective, shall we. Last fall, Schumer marched in the Rally for Abortion Justice in Washington, D.C. At that time, Schumer posted on Instagram a photo of herself holding a sign proclaiming “Abortion is Essential.” She has also posted on Instagram, “Everyone deserves to have a safe and supported abortion, at any time and for any reason.”
Back in 2006, in response to President George W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominations, Sykes said in a comedy special, “I got two abortions on the way here. I was, like, ‘I got to stock up.’” She said essentially the same thing in her book Yeah, I Said It, writing, “Women and our right to choose were going to be challenged with Ashcroft around. When Bush appointed Ashcroft, I went out and got me four abortions. I stocked up. The doctor was like, ‘Listen, you’re not pregnant.’ I said, ‘Hey, just shut up and do your job. I’m exercising my right while I can, dammit.’”
As I have already said, Will Smith was in the wrong. But when you joke about the murder of unborn children, you have no standing to claim that you are sickened and traumatized by an adult male slapping another adult male for making fun of his wife. Doing so would seem to put Schumer and Sykes in the running for a Best Overreaction award. I would like to ask Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes to do a little research into what abortion entails, especially a late-term abortion, since Schumer thinks “everyone” should have the right to an abortion “at any time.” Perhaps then they can get back to us on what is really sickening and traumatizing.
On December 1, a bill, Bill C-4, unanimously passed the Canadian House of Commons. On December 7, it passed the Senate and on December 8 it received Royal Assent. On January 8, it took effect.
Bill C-4 is titled, “An Act to Amend the Criminal Code” and it specifically addresses conversion therapy.
Now, in order to be as generous as possible, I am going to give you the definition of “conversion therapy” provided by GLAAD, the organization founded in 1985 as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Their definition is, “Conversion therapy is any attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.”
The key words in that definition, and that lead to the problem I am now addressing, is “any attempt.” I will explain in a moment why that is so problematic.
First, however, I want to make it explicitly clear that I do not support anyone being forced to go through any kind of treatment against their will. You have quite possibly heard some horror stories about such so-called therapy and I do not in any way support such activity…nor do I believe that the Bible does so. There is no denying that some people have suffered considerable harm—emotional and in some cases maybe even physical—under someone’s guise of curing them of homosexuality. I condemn that and I believe that Christians have a responsibility to care for such victims if given the opportunity to do so. But conversion therapy can include much more than that—which is why the words “any attempt” are important. And while there may well be many legislators in Canada who were well-intentioned and want only to protect people against coercive so-called therapy, the Canadian legislation certainly includes more than that.
Why is this Canadian legislation such a big deal that I am talking about it—especially since I do not live in Canada?
One, because the U.S. has shown a tendency to follow in Canada’s footsteps in many areas of law. Canada, for example, legalized same-sex marriage ten years before the U.S. did. In 2018, cannabis became legal in all provinces and territories of Canada. Where are we headed?
Two, and more importantly, is that this is a big deal. It is serious. It is more than it initially meets the eye.
Part of why I say that is explained in this quote from CTV News, a Canadian news outlet. It says of C-4, “It includes wider-reaching vocabulary of what constitutes conversion therapy than what the federal government attempted to pass in the last Parliament, and expands beyond the past proposal which focused on outlawing the use of the practice against children and non-consenting adults.”
The article later says that conversion therapy “can take various forms, including counselling….”
The bill makes it a criminal offense to even promote conversion therapy—including counseling.
More than that, however, the bill includes specifically religious terms and attacks.
The preamble to the bill states that conversion therapy “causes harm to the persons who are subjected to it” and “causes harm to society.”
“[B]ecause…it is based on and propagates myths and stereotypes about sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, including the myth that heterosexuality…and gender expression that conforms to the sex assigned to a person at birth are to be preferred over other sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions.”
I don’t know if you are grasping the significance of that, but a bill, that has now passed the Parliament in Canada, received the approval of the queen, and been enacted into law, says that what the Bible teaches about sexuality and gender is a myth.
Right now, if you are in Canada and you believe what the Bible teaches about sexuality and gender, then, according to Canadian law, you and your belief are wrong. They are nothing more than myths.
So much for freedom of religion. And Canada does, by the way, have freedom of religion. Or at least it did. I am not going to go into the structure of the Canadian constitution, but a significant part of it is the Constitution Act of 1982, which includes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that states, in Section 2, that everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: freedom of conscience and religion; freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication….
And yet, the law now says that if you think, believe or are of the opinion that heterosexuality is right and homosexuality is not, or bisexuality is not, or that someone’s biological sex should coincide with their gender identity, that you are wrong. And not only are you wrong, but if you express that to anyone else in any form that could be considered therapy—despite the freedoms of expression press and other communication—you are breaking the law!
Later, the bill states that “[e]veryone who knowingly causes another person to undergo conversion therapy — including by providing conversion therapy to that other person — is (a) guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term of not more than five years.”
The information released by the Canadian Department of Justice about this law, and posted on the official website of the Canadian government, links to a policy statement from the Canadian Psychological Association, which says that conversion therapy includes “prayer or religious rites” and “individual or group counselling.”
A Department of Justice news release says that conversion therapy is discriminatory and proven to be harmful even for adults who consented to it.
And the government’s explanation of the changes to the criminal code says that “These proposed new offences would not criminalize interventions that assist a person in exploring or developing their personal identity, provided that they are not based on the assumption that a particular sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression is preferable to others.”
So bottom line, what does all of this mean? If you are a pastor or a Christian counselor, and you believe that what the Bible teaches about sexuality and gender is correct, and you allow that to influence your counseling or your prayer with someone—even someone who has consented to counseling and therapy with you—you are breaking the law.
Now, that’s a lot of background. I realize that. But it was necessary because it, I hope, makes clear exactly how serious this matter is. If we sit idly by and bury our heads in the sand and think this is not a big deal we are going to find, very soon, that this is happening here. In fact, I dare say we would find that it would not be very long before what I am saying here would be illegal if I were saying it from a church pulpit or in a counseling session.
That is troubling. I am not, after all, looking to go to prison. Far more dangerous than the possibility of going to prison, however, is the possibility that any pastor, any church or any Christian might shy away from standing firm on biblical truth in the face of such a possibility. We must never allow the fear of persecution—and certainly not the fear of prosecution—to deter us from believing and proclaiming God’s Truth. Should that time ever come, we must, like Peter before the Jerusalem council in Acts 5, says, “We must obey God rather than men.”
That sex is intended for marriage and that marriage is intended to be between a man and a woman and that whether or not someone is a man or a woman is determined by their anatomy and their biology, not by their whims or their feelings…none of that is a myth. All of that is God’s design.
The Bible makes no distinction between biological sex and gender.
Genesis 1:27 – “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
Genesis 5:2 – “Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Manwhen they were created.”
Mark 10:2-9 – And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
Now, maybe I am missing something, but it seems to me that those three passages make it crystal clear that God created male and female. He did not create entities who could then decide. God, in His sovereignty, by His design, created two sexes. Two genders. Male. Female. If you are a male, you are not a female. If you are a female, you are not a male. You do not get to pick which one you will be—it is not multiple choice. You do not get to change which one you are.
And regardless of how anyone feels, it is a scientific fact that there are genetic differences between males and females. Their bodies are made differently—by design. Neither is better than the other, they are just different.
We see this clearly in sports, when the issue of biological males identifying as women and competing in women’s sports is revealing just how different they are. It has been in the news quite a bit recently with the transgendered swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania. That swimmer, who competed for three years on the UPenn men’s team and, after undergoing hormone therapy is now competing as a woman, has obliterated college records this year. This year, that swimmer has the fastest time by any “female” college swimmer, including a time 0.64 seconds faster than Olympian Torri Huske in the 200m freestyle and a time nearly three seconds faster than Olympian Brooke Forde in the 500-yard freestyle.
A few years ago, a study was done comparing the best elite female athletes to men and boys. That study gave a great example: Allyson Felix, the most highly decorated track athlete in U.S. history, male or female, and who holds the record for most gold medals ever at the track and field World Championships—more than Usain Bolt—and who specialized in the 400m sprint for the latter part of her career and had a lifetime best of 49.26 in that event—in just the single year of 2017, men and boys around the world beat that time by more than 15,000 times.
Now, do all transgender individuals choose to pursue athletics? No, of course not. But these examples give very clear evidence that there are differences—real differences between men and women.
Of course, the most obvious difference is that men are biologically and anatomically incapable of giving birth. And, despite Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s claim to the contrary in September, only women menstruate.
God created male and female. There are only two options, despite what Facebook or others may say—some organizations claim there are as many as 72 gender options. There are two, male and female, and you don’t get to pick. God chooses for you.
The Bible is just as explicitly clear about homosexuality. The passage that we already looked at in Mark 10 makes it clear that marriage is to be between a man and a woman. Clearly, then, homosexual marriage is contrary to God’s design. Even if you were to take marriage out of the picture, however, homosexual activity is also outside of God’s design.
Leviticus 18:22 – “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”
Leviticus 20:13 – “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.”
Romans 1:26-27 – “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.”
Paul includes homosexuality in I Corinthians 6 when he presents a list of behaviors that are not pleasing to God. Paul addresses homosexuality again in I Timothy 1:8-10. Not only does he specifically name homosexuality in addition to the broader category of sexual immorality, he states that such behavior is “contrary to sound doctrine.”
Homosexuality is not okay. It is not just an “alternative lifestyle.” And certainly no one is made by God to be a homosexual. Homosexual behavior is very real, but that’s what it is—a behavior, not an identity. Not who a person is. And homosexual behavior is sin. There is no other way to honestly and legitimately interpret Scripture.
Plenty of people—some of them prominent and influential—have argued that the Bible’s teaching about homosexual behavior is out of date and no longer relevant, but no one has ever argued sincerely that the Bible does not teach that homosexual behavior is sin.
Back to why I am addressing this even though I do not live in Canada…consider an ordinance under consideration right now in West Lafayette, Indiana. Proposed Ordinance 31-21 has an odd title: “AN ORDINANCE PROHIBITING THE PRACTICE OF CONVERSION THERAPY AND DISCOURAGING ITS USE BY LICENSED PROFESSIONALS.” Hopefully you noticed why I say odd; I do not think it is common to have a law that both prohibits and discourages something! But the ordinance begins with this as the first of its many “Whereas” statements: “contemporary science recognizes that being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender is part of the natural spectrum of human identity.” That is a bizarre statement because all of those things are anything but natural. Indeed, Scripture specifically refers to homosexuality as going against nature.
Further troubling is another assertion, citing the Committee on Adolescence of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ 1993 claim that, “Therapy directed at specifically changing sexual orientation is contraindicated, since it can provoke guilt and anxiety….” Oddly enough, yes, when you tell someone that they are doing something wrong, they might feel some guilt. That is how it is supposed to work in a healthy mind, actually.
But the point of the ordinance is specifically to ban so-called conversion therapy being performed by unlicensed individuals—unlicensed, that is, by the State of Indiana’s Professional Licensing Agency. That would include many pastors and biblical counselors. And what exactly will they be prohibited from doing? The ordinance bans “any practices or treatments that seek to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity, including efforts to change gender expressions or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same gender.”
The Lafayette Journal & Courier reported that Dr. Steve Viars, an area pastor, raised concerns about the proposed legislation. “Imagine a scenario where an area teenager voluntarily visits a self-identified faith-based counselor, but because the counselor used the Bible as their source of truth, the local police department imposed a fine of $1000 per day,” Viars said. The article further notes, “Concerns of protecting free speech and freedom of religion have been raised, and [David] Sanders [a council member and co-sponsor of the ordinance] assures that these protections are being considered as the ordinance’s wording is being reworked.”
I do not know anyone in West Lafayette and I am not going to assume anything about anyone’s motives. But the law in Canada and the proposed ordinance in Indiana are both examples of why it is so important to be aware of proposed legislation/ordinances and the consequences, intended or otherwise, of the language they contain. Hopefully the Indiana ordinance can be amended to ban what is truly inappropriate while protecting both the freedom of religion and the freedom to counsel someone from the perspective that homosexuality and alternative gender identities are sin.
Now, let me transition a little bit because there are two other important points to make.
First, plenty of people have criticized the Church for picking on or singling out homosexuality when there are so many other sins. I oppose that sentiment. Yes, there are many other sins in the Bible. And I both believe and hope that I would be just as adamantly opposed to those other sins if our society tried to normalize them and force us to accept them. If this afternoon a movement began to make some other sin acceptable and normal and legally protected—and also to prohibit Christians from speaking out against it and taking a stand for what Scripture teaches, I hope that we would stand up and oppose that.
I am not naïve enough to think that our society is going to embrace the Bible and build our legal code around it completely. In fact, I don’t even know that I would want that completely. After all, if you look at colonial New England where it was against the law to break the Sabbath, that wasn’t a very effective way to win people to Christ or to cultivate sincere faith in Christ.
But I will not—and we as Christians must not—allow the world or the government or any other entity or person to tell us that what God says is sin is not sin. If God calls it sin, it is sin. Period, full stop. It is not up for debate.
Finally, we must be careful not to treat those who support homosexuality or transgenderism as rejected by God. Meaning, therefore, that we cannot reject them. We do not have to approve what they do or stand for. In fact, we cannot approve what they do or stand for. But we must always remember that every human being is created in the image of God, God loves each and every person and He sent His Son to die on the cross for each and every person. We are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God and need a Savior. God detests all sin.
We must never compromise on the truth…and we must always share God’s truth in love.
Image credit: Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0Pix4free.org
Today is January 6. I would love to say that is only noteworthy for those who celebrate Epiphany, those who, like my nephew, have a birthday today, or because of the historically significant events that occurred that day prior to last year. There are several of those by the way—Samuel Morse unveiled the telegraph, Theodore Roosevelt died, New Mexico joined the U.S. as the 47th state, and it is the day on which both George Washington and George H.W. Bush got married. For pop culture fans, it is the day on which “Wheel of Fortune” premiered. For sports fans, it is the day that Nancy Kerrigan got attacked in 1994. Hopefully in the long run at least some of those events will prove more memorable than what happened one year ago today.
On January 6, 2021, something happened in Washington, D.C. Sadly, what you think of the event, even what you call the event, seems to be heavily influenced by your political leanings. A riot seems to be the most frequently used term, as well as the term that I find to be accurate. Dictonary.com gives three definitions for the noun riot: “a noisy, violent public disorder caused by a group or crowd of persons, as by a crowd protesting against another group, a government policy, etc., in the streets; a disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons acting together in a disrupting and tumultuous manner in carrying out their private purposes; violent or wild disorder or confusion.” All three are fitting for what happened on that day.
History.com says that “a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters descend on the U.S. Capitol, attempting to interfere with the certification of electoral votes from the 2020 presidential election. The rioters assaulted the Capitol police force and ransacked the complex, destroying property and sending members of Congress and their staff into hiding in officers and bunkers. A protester who was shot by police, died in the chaos, and more than 100 police were injured.” None of that is really debatable, though there are plenty of attempts being made to spin those events.
Mike Huckabee, writing yesterday, said, “Get ready for a surreal couple of days during which the Capitol Hill breach will be presented as ‘one of the darkest days of our democracy’ (quoting Colorado Rep. Jason Crow) and worse than the Civil War, Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Combined.” Huckabee is noted for his wit and sarcasm, but trying to minimize what happened last year through hyperbole is not only ineffective, it smacks of disregard for the reality of what occurred. To be fair, Vice President Kamala Harris did say in her speech this morning, “Certain dates echo throughout history, including dates that instantly remind all who have lived through them where they were and what they were doing when our democracy came under assault. Dates that occupy not only a place on our calendars, but a place in our collective memory. Dec. 7, 1941. Sept. 11, 2001. And Jan. 6, 2021.” I don’t think last year’s riot rises to the level of Pearl Harbor or 9/11 in its magnitude or long-range impact, but at the same time, January 6, 2021 was the act of U.S. citizens and cannot be minimized.
At least Huckabee used the word riot when describing the events later in his piece. Just that word sets some people off. One of the commentors on Huckabee’s web site is a perfect example; he wrote, “it distresses me to the point of anger when anyone refers to what happened last Jan 6 as an ‘insurrection’ or ‘riot’ Both of those involve violence and destruction of property of which there was little if any… at least not at the Capitol building.” Such is the denial of reality we see among Trump followers.
But Huckabee took issue with Brit Hume’s comments two days ago. ““We are not living in normal times. What we need is for people to calm down. The bitter divisions that we see in this country are exacerbated by this tendency to exaggerate, and to do so grossly,” Hume said. Huckabee seemed okay with that part of it. But he took exception (his words) with Hume saying, “It was a cockamamie scheme by Trump that was bound to fail and did.” Huckabee countered that with, “He had called for a peaceful protest that was PRO-democracy. And we certainly can’t blame him for the riot.”
That, of course, is the recurring theme among Trump supporters—he cannot be blamed for the riot.
In An AP article by Jake Coyle, published yesterday, it was reported that a Quinnipiac poll found that 93% of Democrats considered the riot an attack on the government while only 29% of Republicans felt that way. A separate poll found that 40% of Republicans saw the riot as violent while 90% of Democrats did so. In what has to be the most idiotic statement I have come across about the entire event, Representative Andrew Clyde, a Republican from Georgia who is in the pictures of a door to the House chamber being barricaded by men with guns drawn against the mob, said last May, “Watching the TV footage of those who entered the Capitol and walked through Statuary Hall showed people in an orderly fashion staying between the stanchions and ropes, taking videos, pictures. You know, if you didn’t know the TV footage was a video from January the 6th, you would actually think it was a normal tourist visit.” Florida Representative Matt Gaetz has uttered plenty of baloney about that day, but then uttering baloney is what Gaetz does best.
I am not going to get into whether or not Trump provoked, or inspired, the riot. There are plenty of others out there who have commented on both sides of that. It is a fact, though, that as he concluded his speech that morning, Trump said, ““We fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore. So we are going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue – I love Pennsylvania Avenue – and we are going to the Capitol.” We do know that Trump did not act to deter the riot or to distance himself from it. His first tweet during the event was to say that “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution….” Not until 4:17 p.m. did Trump release a video asking those in the Capitol to go home, while also calling them “very special.” That was more than two hours after the Capitol was breached and five minutes shy of two hours after Pence was escorted out of the Senate chamber. Trump’s tweet about Pence lacking courage went out, by contrast, two minutes after Pence was escorted out.
Albert Mohler, who has maintained his support for Donald Trump, opined about the riot in his WORLD Opinion piece posted today. He writes of three Americas revealed by discussions of the January 6 events and rightly suggests that “mainstream America” is probably in agreement that “the events were a national embarrassment, a riot against lawful order, a stark portrait of political violence, and a sobering vision of a crowd out of control.” I am pleased that Mohler has the courage to call the events “horrifying, and bizarre,” and to acknowledge the Capitol was broken into by force, that the lives of elected officials were threated and that the Capitol was desecrated. He said that American witnessed a mob “expressing total disdain for our constitutional order. A nation that tolerates this kind of behavior and lawlessness undermines its own legitimacy.” He even said that “the passions behind those events were incited and flamed by the 45th president of the United States, Donald J. Trump. The mob was encouraged by the president….”
Trump and others are trying to downplay the event even today. Conservative radio host Jesse Kelly tweeted that “All the January 6th stuff this week is a distraction technique….” Matt Braynard has asserted that “January 6th was America’s Tiananmen Square.” Trump himself said that President Biden’s speech this morning “used my name…to try to further divide America.”
In the midst of the riot I posted this on Facebook: “This nonsense in Washington, D.C. is not okay, folks…. Storming the Capitol is not a protest. This is no different, and no more excusable, than the CHOP foolishness in Seattle last summer. Anyone who really loves this country and really believes in the principles on which this country is founded should condemn this. Looking through the pictures of the hooligans inside the Capitol makes me sick…both angry and painfully sad.” I feel no differently now. The riot was exactly that—a riot. It was not a protest, it was not peaceful and it is nothing to be proud of, by any stretch of the imagination. I believe that there were peaceful individuals and events in D.C. that day, and I am sure that there were some people who got swept up into the crowd and even went into the Capitol who had no intention of defacing property, attacking anyone or engaging in criminal behavior. There is, though, a reason why “wrong place, wrong time,” is a cliché. The bottom line is that our nation is deeply divided. Donald Trump plays a considerable role in that division but neither he nor anyone else can bear the blame alone. Every one of us who truly cares about our country, about the ideals upon which it was founded and about basic, common decency must stand up for our convictions. We have to speak the truth and we have to demand the truth. We cannot allow ourselves to go along with unscrupulous individuals or to contribute to the division because it seems to be the best available option or the candidate most likely to win at the time.
Please note that I am not suggesting that we compromise on our convictions or beliefs. (Quite the opposite, in fact. Had more conservatives not compromised by deciding to support Donald Trump we would probably not be in this position right now). Convictions are good. The United States government was designed to allow for disagreement and to work slowly so as to prevent quick changes and knee-jerk reactions. Amy Gutmann, in the Fall 2007 issue of Daedalus, wrote, “In a democracy, controversy is healthy,” adding, shortly thereafter, “The public interest is well served by robust public argument.” She was absolutely right. But she was just as right when she said later, “when disagreements are so driven and distorted by extremist rhetoric that citizens and public officials fail to engage with one another reasonably or respectfully on substantive issues of public importance, the debate degenerates, blocking constructive compromises that would benefit all sides more than the status quo would.” That was published before Donald Trump was elected, indeed before Barack Obama was elected. And yet, in the fourteen years since it was published, we have seen her words come alive. Disagreements are distorted. Extremist rhetoric is used on both sides. Politics has become a zero-sum game, with both leading parties casting aside members who dare to hold to their convictions rather than party demands. Just look at Tulsi Gabbard, Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney as three recent examples or consider the opposition Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin have faced for refusing to support the repeal of the filibuster or the passage of Biden’s bloated spending plan.
Last year, shortly after the riot, John Horgan, Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at Georgia State, said in an interview, “The United States is in a very precarious spot right now. We’ve witnessed a steady erosion of democratic norms, with increased polarization and radicalization that has reached a boiling point.” He later added, “The country is now so polarized it will take years to heal. It will require positive, constructive leadership at many levels, bipartisan reconciliation and a very basic recognition that we came close to losing a sense of what it means to be a democracy. I don’t believe we realize just how perilous things are right now.”
Gutmann was right and so was Horgan. Sadly, President Biden has not brought positive, constructive leadership. Sadly, Donald Trump has not only continued to demonstrate the same kind of attitude he had while in office, but he is considered the front runner for the Republican nomination in 2024. We don’t need Joe Biden and we don’t need Donald Trump. Nor do we need political parties that pursue victory at any cost.
In 1780 John Adams wrote, “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.” Two hundred and forty years later, I think we have seen that he was right.
Another year has come to an end, which means it is time again for my annual review of books I read. As per usual, there is a variety of genres and subject matter included.
Laura Story’s I Give Up recounts Story’s gradual release of her desire to be in charge of her life and her realization that fulfillment comes through surrender to God’s working. Dallas Willard’s The Great Omission emphasizes the importance of discipleship. In Holy Sexuality and the Gospel, Christopher Yuan develops what he calls “holy sexuality,” which includes chastity in singleness and faithfulness in marriage. Yuan is probably not as well known as Rosaria Butterfield, but their personal testimonies have some similarities and he, like Butterfield, has written and spoken at length about faith and sexuality. While Butterfield is now married, Yuan remains single. Randy Alcorn calls Holy Sexuality and the Gospel “profoundly relevant in an age of toxic confusion.” I agree with that. I think Butterfield, though, goes too far when she says it is “the most important humanly composed book about biblical sexuality and godly living for our times.”
John Piper’s A Peculiar Glory is an important book about the reliability of Scripture. In The Dawn’s Early Light, an older book byJoe Stowell that I picked up somewhere, Stowell addresses the “deepening darkness” of our times and how to counter that darkness biblically. Impossible People by Os Guinness describes the challenges faced by Christians today and the task they have of continuing to display courage in the face of opposition. Jesus Unleashed by John MacArthur is an overview of the way that Jesus dealt with confrontation during His earthly ministry, providing a clear look at His willingness to stand firm in the face of opposition. (This book is an abridgement of MacArthur’s The Jesus You Can’t Ignore).
Paul David Tripp’s Sex and Money examines the obsession of current culture with those two things and their inability to bring genuine satisfaction or fulfillment. The Entitlement Cure, by John Townsend, would be a good read for parents but also for anyone who is bothered by the sense of entitlement that seems to pervade modern culture. His recommended antidote is what he calls “the hard way.” Be the Leader You Were Meant to Be, by LeRoy Eims, was recommended by another pastor as an excellent book for developing men as leaders in the church. The book was fine, but given that it was originally published in 1975 there are more recent books that are just as good or better and would be more relatable for contemporary readers.
Uncoiling My Corkscrew is a book by a friend and former coworker, Marvin Williams, that recounts lessons he has learned in his life. Henri Nouwen’s Turn My Mourning Into Dancing is a short book with helpful biblical insight for finding joy even in the midst of difficulty. H.A. Ironside’s Full Assurance is probably about ninety years old now. It is a short, easy read, and is certainly of its time in terms of some of the language and illustrations, but it capably explains how and why Christians can have assurance of their salvation.
At some point last year I found myself wondering when African Americans first appeared in Coca-Cola ads. (The answer is Mary Alexander, in 1955). That led me to read Brenna Wynn Greer’s Represented, a fascinating look at the individuals who were influential in bringing African Americans into popular advertising and media and also, in the process, “reimagin[ing] African America citizenship.”
I read Melba Patillo Beals’ I Will Not Fear primarily because I had so appreciated A Mighty Long Way by Carlotta Walls LaNier when I read it five years ago. Both women were among the Little Rock Nine. Beals’ book does recount that experience but goes well beyond it in describing the experiences she has had in her life. There were a few times that I wondered how one person could have so many of the experiences she recounted, given how unusual they seem, and there is never an explanation given for why she moved so many times, but it was a worthwhile read for the most part. I suspect her earlier book, Warriors Don’t Cry, is probably more along the lines of what I expected.
Stephanie Grisham’s I’ll Take Your Questions Now provides a very interesting look at the Trump presidency. Grisham, who worked for First Lady Melania Trump and/or in the West Wing, including a stint as Press Secretary, from the beginning of the Trump presidency until she resigned on January 6 after Melania Trump declined to tweet out a condemnation of the invasion of the Capitol, provides a very different look at Trump and the Trump White House than Sarah Huckabee Sanders did in her memoir. It will be interesting to read Kayleigh McEnany’s recently-released book to see where it falls in comparison to those two, but I suspect that Sanders, who is running for office herself and has accepted the endorsement of Trump, opted not to include some of the less-flattering information that Grisham did not shy away from including.
There were a number of history books. Rosemary Zagarri’s Revolutionary Backlash offers a look at the role of women during the Revolutionary Era, particularly in the area of politics, and suggests that the women’s rights movement really began during that time period. David Waldstreicher’s In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes is an examination of political festivals in early American history and the rise of nationalism. It is an examination of an aspect of American history I had never considered before and has some notable insights.
Mark David Hall’s Did America Have a Christian Founding? has some merit, but I found it did not address the subject as clearly and carefully as it should have. Hall admits that it is the first book he wrote for the general public (not, in other words, for an academic audience) and it seems he may have erred to strongly on the side of not getting too deep.
Harold Holzer’s Lincoln at Cooper Union provides a fascinating look at the events surrounding Lincoln’s speech at Cooper Union in early 1860, as well as the speech itself, a speech that Holzer suggests made Lincoln president. Though it is not well known today, particularly compared to the Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural address, it was a very important speech for Lincoln. While the Gettysburg Address was supposedly written in haste, the address at Cooper Union was a thoroughly researched and thought-out rebuttal of the expansion of slavery.
Regarding slavery, Manisha Sinha’s The Slave’s Cause is an exhaustive look at abolition. It looks beyond the individuals and events usually included in studies of American abolitionism and thus includes valuable new perspectives. Unfortunately, I do not think that Sinha accurately represents the role played by those who believed that slavery was inconsistent with biblical principles. In a book that is just as voluminous, though, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, in The Mind of the Master Class, examine the role that faith played among Southern slaveholders, including their belief that slavery was consistent with the Bible. The book also manages to touch on the impact that Christianity had on slaves themselves. The book does help to understand the worldview of the enslavers even if one does not come away agreeing with them.
Sarah Rose’s D-Day Girls presents the many ways in which women were involved in Nazi-occupied France in helping to defeat the Nazis. Much like books by Erik Larson, among others, this is a non-fiction book that reads like a novel. I recommend this book for anyone with even remote interest in WWII history. Similarly, Lynne Olson’s Madame Fourcade’s Secret War is also about spying and the Nazi resistance in France, but her book is specifically focused on the story of Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, who held a more influential role among the French resistance than any other woman. Olson recounts the incredible personal sacrifices Fourcade made, including being away from her two children and being captured twice by the Nazis. I recommend this one, as well.
Alex Kershaw’s The First Wave tells the story of the men who were “the first wave” of the D-Day invasion. The book was published in 2019 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of D-Day. I have not read a lot about D-Day, but I am confident that this book belongs alongside any other histories of that day.
Ben Macintyre’s Agent Sonya is also about a female spy—a Soviet intelligence officer code named Sonya who served in China, Japan and England. It is a pretty incredible story, all the more so since it is true, but I did not like it as well as I liked Macintyre’s The Spy and the Traitor, which I read in 2019.
Molly Guptill Manning’s When Books Went to War is a delightful look at a very unique aspect of WWII. Specifically, it recounts the efforts involved by the War Department and the American publishing industry to produce millions of small paperback books that soldiers could carry with them throughout the war. The resulting Armed Services Editions, of which 120 million were eventually produced, were beloved by troops who would create waiting lists for popular titles and trade finished books amongst themselves. I have looked, and you can find some of these Armed Service Edition books on Ebay. I haven’t purchased one yet, but I suspect it is only a matter of time.
That makes for a good transition to the fiction I read in 2021, because one of the books I chose was Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I read it because it was one of the most popular books printed in Armed Services Edition format and I had never read it. It is a pleasant read, and I can understand why Manning reported that it helped soldiers remember “regular life” back home. That is, after all, what the book is about; it has no real plot or climax to speak of—it simply tells the story of the life of Francie Nolan.
I always try to read at least one classic book and this year that was Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In looking at a list of the most banned books during Banned Book Week I realized I had read three of the top five. Now I have read four; J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye will have to wait until another year. I have not seen the film, but I can imagine Jack Nicholson as McMurphy. I found it an enjoyable read and Chief makes a terrific narrator. I am somewhat surprised it is in the top five banned books; I can think of others that would seem more fitting for that honor, though I can also imagine why it is in that group. It is said that the book was influential in the closing of asylums, which, if true, could place the book alongside The Jungle in terms of influence, but I do not know enough about whether that is true to make that claim definitively.
Christine Mangan’s Tangerine is set in Morocco in the 1950s, is full of vivid detail and is a well written debut novel. It is not surprising that many reviewers called it “Hitchcockian” or that it has been optioned by George Clooney to become a film starring Scarlett Johansson. The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters, is set in 1920s London. The book’s main character and her mother are forced to rent out part of their home in order to afford to keep it following the deaths of the men in the family. The resulting story is well-written and provides evidence of why Waters is considered an excellent writer of historical fiction, but the book hinges on a lesbian affair that develops between the main character and the wife of the couple that move in as lodgers. The book does do an excellent job of portraying the costs of choices, especially choices that are intended to be secrets.
If you read these reviews annually then you know there are a few fiction writers whose work I read regularly. This year that included Jeffrey Archer’s Turn A Blind Eye and Over My Dead Body, books three and four respectively in the William Warwick series; John Grisham’s The Judge’s List, which brings back Lacy Stoltz of the Florida Board on Judicial Conduct who first appeared in The Whistler and is, in my opinion, the closest to Grisham’s early novels that he has been in a while; James Patterson’s Fear No Evil, the latest Alex Cross novel; and Daniel Silva’s The Cellist, a significant improvement over last year’s Gabriel Allon novel The Order.
At the end of Over My Dead Body there is a conversation with Jeffrey Archer in which he states that Stefan Zweig is his favorite author. I had never heard of Zweig, but I decided to read his novel Beware of Pity. Zweig was purportedly one of the most popular writers in the world in the 1920s and ‘30s, yet somehow his popularity has faded. Beware of Pity is the only novel that he published during his lifetime, though The Post Office Girl was published posthumously. In Beware of Pity Zweig tells the story of an Austro-Hungarian cavalry officer in 1914 (the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand occurs at the end of the book, though it is not significant to the story). As the title implies, the book is a cautionary tale about how pity can change someone’s life.
The Burglar is the first book I have read by Thomas Perry. I enjoyed it, and Perry does a nifty job of making a criminal—the burglar—a character the reader finds himself rooting for, and he never really addresses any negative to the fact that the main character makes her living breaking the law. Somewhat similarly, Colson Whitehead, in Harlem Shuffle, has a protagonist who breaks the law—willingly in terms of selling some stolen items and serving as a fence for others, and reluctantly in terms of some mischief his cousin gets him into. Whitehead, at least, depicts the negatives associated with criminal activity, and his main character also pursues a mostly honest living as a furniture salesman. Whitehead interweaves storylines about race and social status even among those of the same race in this story set in the 1960s. Whitehead is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, but this is the first of his books I have read.
Sharyl Attkisson’s Slanted is her account of the way in which the mainstream media manipulates and cherry-picks news stories to cover and angles to take. Given that Attkisson is a five-time Emmy Award winner, her insight has to be taken seriously.
During our family vacation to the Outer Banks of North Carolina I picked up two books primarily of interest to those who live there or who have, like me, spent a lifetime vacationing there. Amy Pollard Gaw’s Lost Restaurants of the Outer Banks and Their Recipes is exactly what the title says. It is also a fascinating look at restaurants that were notable and influential in the area for years, including a bit of history about the local culture. John Railey’s The Lost Colony Murder on the Outer Banks recounts the true story of the 1967 murder of Brenda Joyce Holland, who had gone to the area to work at the long-running outdoor drama “The Lost Colony.” The murder was never solved, and Railey did some investigating of his own, leading to his conclusion about the perpetrator. Since the man Railey thinks was responsible is now dead himself, it seems unlikely anything will come of it, but his theory certainly seems plausible.
Quite possibly in response to my growing frustration with the modern game of baseball (and particularly the commissioner) I found myself reading a number of autobiographies and biographies of baseball players of yesteryear. Say Hey, by Willie Mays with Lou Sahadi, tells the story of Mays’ life and career. Perhaps no greater evidence could be given of the way the game used to be to the way it is now than the fact that Mays used to play stickball in the streets of New York when he first started playing for the Giants, even forgetting about a home game once because he was so into the stickball game. Charles Leerhsen’s Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty is an excellent book and should be read by anyone who wants to know what Cobb was really like. He does not have a great reputation, and while he surely did have a temper, much of what is purportedly “known” about him is inaccurate. Thom Henninger’s Tony Oliva is a wonderful biography of a man who is finally, as of December 2021, getting his due, having been elected to the Hall of Fame by the Golden Era Committee. Oliva was an incredible player—a dominant player for a few years before injuries limited his effectiveness. It was fun to learn, as well, that Oliva, a Cuban, married a woman from a town just about an hour from where I currently live. They have been married 53 years now. Doug Wilson’s Pudge, a biography of Carlton Fisk, is all the more impressive for the fact that Fisk himself never spoke to Wilson during the book’s writing. For a player with the work ethic, grit and competitiveness that Fisk had, it is amazingly sad how poorly he was, in the end, treated by both Boston and Chicago.
There were two other baseball books, Bill Gutman’s It’s Outta Here!, an interesting history of the home run, and Kevin Cowherd’s When the Crowd Didn’t Roar. Cowherd’s book is not purely (or only) a baseball book but it was an interesting look at what, prior to COVID, no one could have imagined–a game played with no fans. Following the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, and the unrest in Baltimore, the Baltimore Orioles played a home game against the Chicago White Sox in an empty stadium. The gates were locked and no fans were allowed in the park.
Terry Teachout’s Pops is marvelous biography of Louis Armstrong. The Good Life is Tony Bennett’s 1998 biography and he has since written two more books, but I finally got around to reading this one. Perhaps most interesting is Bennett’s recounting of his battle with his record company over his desire to record the kind of music he liked—classic American songbook—and not to make what seemed popular at the moment. Given that Bennett, who now struggles with Alzheimer’s, just released his final album at the age of 95—recorded with Lady Gaga, whom Bennett influenced significantly—it would seem that he had the stronger argument.
I will wrap this review up with three books that deal with contemporary culture. We Too, by Mary DeMuth, is an effort to address the role that the church needs to play in addressing #MeToo—both in terms of listening to and affirming victims and proactively preventing future victimization. While the book makes some good and valid points, I didn’t really like it overall. I suspect that some other individuals have addressed this issue in ways that I would consider more effective. Because I never give any individual book lengthy space in these annual reviews, I will put additional thoughts on this one in a postscript.
Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is considered must-reading among many Christian thinkers. The book is a thorough overview of the philosophies and worldviews that shaped the thinking and actions that led us to where we are today, looking specifically, but not exclusively, at the sexual revolution. This is one of those books that I filled with highlighting and marginalia as I interacted with the text. It is well worth reading, but I think it does miss in a few areas. A couple of times Trueman seems to overreach, failing to adequately support the conclusion he reaches. I think he ascribes far too much influence to the Romantic poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley in particular. Oddly, around the middle of the book it almost seems that Trueman learned two new words and wanted to show them off, as he includes “adumbrate” and “lacuna” far more times than seemed appropriate—especially since very few people use either of those words ever. At the end of the book, as Trueman was making his conclusion, he suggested that he could have made the same arguments using art or architecture instead of sexuality and I think that was a significant error on his part. While there are certainly fads and influences that can be seen in those two fields, neither have inherent binary characteristics and neither is inherently moral. As a result, Trueman undermines the importance of the very argument he spent 400 pages making about sexuality—though I am sure he had no intention of doing so.
In part of his book, Trueman addresses critical theory. It is not a major element of his book, though, and it does not as a result, get a lot of space. For a better understanding of both what critical theory is and why it is so dangerous, read Cynical Theories by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay. This book is all the more powerful because Pluckrose and Lindsay are not conservatives. They fall into the categories that most would expect to embrace critical theory, yet the effectively show why critical theory should be opposed. Rarely will you find a book recommended by such disparate thinkers as Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It is about fifty pages shorter than Trueman’s book and, while they do not have the same purpose, I would probably have to recommend this one over Trueman if someone pressed me to select one over the other. Both, however, are timely and relevant.
I don’t think I said so at the top so, in case you were not counting, that was fifty-three books for 2021. Thanks for reading my thoughts. Hopefully you found a title or two you now want to read for yourself.
Mary DeMuth’s We Too is a book that claims to be a “how to” manual for the Church to “respond redemptively to the sexual abuse crisis.” While it has elements of that, I suspect there are other, more helpful books on this subject. I actually found myself liking the book less and less as I read it. DeMuth suffered horrific sexual abuse as a child, so she knows whereof she speaks. At the risk of sounding like I am dismissing that, which I am surely not, she reminds the reader far more often than seems necessary of that fact. At times she comes across as condescending. At other times one wonders why she did not just publish a giant post-it note saying to refer to Boz Tchividjian to know how to effectively deal with abuse. The book is only about 200 pages, so she could probably have taken the time to deal with some matters more carefully. On the subject of forgiveness, for example, she spends about three pages, and as a result does not deal with it in nearly the detail and accuracy it requires. That error is exacerbated by the fact that she spends most of those three pages using Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers as her example. DeMuth also errs in oversimplifying other recommendations that could be valuable. For example, when suggesting that parents and churches place children into potentially dangerous situations by teaching them to respect adults, she says, “We strip children of their autonomy when we insist that they be kind to elders.” Well, children are not supposed to be autonomous. They are children. Effective parenting strips children of their autonomy on a regular basis. There are many ways in which children can be taught what is and is not appropriate behavior, and what to do if something inappropriate happens, while still teaching them to “be kind to elders.”
DeMuth also makes the valid point that those who are informed of abuse sometimes make it about them and thus diminish the victim, but it is important to recognize that someone who learns of abuse will understandably feel angry and guilty if the victim is someone they know and care about—particularly if they think they could have done something about it had they known sooner. It is foolish to suggest that such individuals can simply absorb the victim’s story and not have an emotional response to it. DeMuth references Rachael Denhollander several times throughout the book, including in the acknowledgements, but Denhollander is not the author of any of the more than twenty endorsement blurbs at the beginning of the book. This is pure speculation on my part, but it does make me wonder if that is because Denhollander recognized some of the same issues I am touching on here. The bottom line is that what DeMuth is addressing in the book needs to be addressed, but there have to be more effective books out there than this one.
Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, welcomed Donald Trump to their service this past Sunday morning. The church’s website proclaimed: “The focus of the music and message this Sunday will be on the most important event in human history—the birth of Jesus Christ. President Trump is known for his love for Christmas and what it represents. We are thrilled to have him join us this Sunday morning.” Apparently Trump was in Dallas for a rally that afternoon with Bill O’Reilly, but Jeffress seized the opportunity to have him at First Baptist.
Readers of this blog know that I am not a fan of Donald Trump. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say now that I am not a fan of Robert Jeffress, either. To give you an idea why, consider the biography of Jeffress that appears on the First Baptist web site. It begins, “Dr. Robert Jeffress is Senior Pastor of the 14,000-member First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas and a Fox News Contributor. He is also an adjunct professor at Dallas Theological Seminary.” It then proceeds to tout his “more than 4,000 guest appearances on various radio and television programs” before listing some of the shows he has appeared on. After mentioning his radio program, TV program and books, it says, “Dr. Jeffress led the congregation in the completion of a $135 million re-creation of its downtown campus. The project is the largest in modern church history and serves as a “spiritual oasis” covering six blocks of downtown Dallas.” Presumably that means First Baptist’s modern church history because if it means modern church history in the broader, worldwide sense then it is an outright lie, but either way…brag much? Jeffress seems to fully embrace the notion of “celebrity pastor.”
Having said that, Jeffress does seem to teach biblical truth. I may not like his personality, his arrogance or his priorities, but I am unaware of any heresy he preaches.
Before preaching his sermon, Jeffress said that Trump’s remarks would be the “climax and conclusion of the service.” While Trump spoke of the biblical account of Christmas, in words he admitted were prepared for him by the church, he added references to Afghanistan, police reform, America first and his never-ending crusade to “make America great again.” He even managed to work in his irritation with the press that Melania Trump received for her selection of White House Christmas decorations while Trump was president. Trump then received a standing ovation that included some chanting “U.S.A.!”
Absurdly, the church’s executive pastor then took the stage and said, “While we were very honored to have the 45th president of the United States with us today, I must remind you that it is our longstanding policy as a church that we do not endorse or oppose any political candidate for public office or otherwise intervene or engage in any political campaign.”
Interestingly enough, the church’s website even contains a small-print disclaimer that appears on every page and reads, “First Baptist Church of Dallas does not endorse or oppose any candidate for political office. Instead, any information, videos, appearances, posts, etc. related to any political topic are provided for informational purposes only, and represent the personal views or opinions of the individual expressing them, but do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of First Baptist Church of Dallas.”
Trump made it clear that he was going well astray of the remarks that had been prepared for him, but since Jeffress has been an unabashed supporter of Trump all along there is no way he could truly have been surprised. After all, Donald Trump has never stuck to a script in his life and he is not going to pass up any opportunity to make something about him. I am not embellishing here, either; while introducing Trump, Jeffress called him one of his closest friends. He even said that Trump was “the most consequential president since Abraham Lincoln.” After the service Jeffress had the temerity to say that he did not think that Trump had said anything political and that the “full house” at First Baptist was evidence of Trump’s popularity.
Trump’s visit to First Baptist is certainly not the first time a political figure has attended a church service. That happens often and on both sides of the aisle. It is not the first time a political figure has been acknowledged at or given the opportunity to speak at a church service. Again, happens on both sides of the aisle. But a politician should never be the center of attention at a church service. Indeed, no human should ever be the center of attention.
It is incredibly sad that Robert Jeffress would preach a message that was, by all accounts, biblically accurate and invited unbelievers to salvation, yet call Trump’s remarks the climax. That absolutely sends the wrong message. Intended or not, Jeffress essentially declared that the account of Christ’s birth is nice, but Donald Trump is better. There is no greater climax than the birth of Jesus Christ in human form, coming to earth as a baby, knowing He would grow up to die on the cross for the sins of humanity. How tragic that minutes after that truth was proclaimed—and thankfully it was proclaimed—the congregation was chanting about human politics. A church service should never become a political rally. Chants of “U.S.A.!” in a worship service should sadden any true believer.
This morning, TIME announced that Simone Biles has been selected as its Athlete of the Year. It did not take long at all for the backlash against the choice to begin, particularly amongst the so-called conservative online press. The Western Journal headed its social media post with “’How can TIME choose her over much more deserving athletes?” and linked to a piece by Jack Davis published just an hour after TIME’s announcement was made. And this is how he began his comments:
The old adage was that “winners never quit and quitters never win.”
But in 2021, quitters can be named Athlete of the Year.
This is a ridiculous and, frankly, stupid statement to make. It completely disregards Biles’ own statements made shortly after she withdrew from the team competition in Tokyo that she was experiencing “the twisties,” If you’re anything like me, you had no idea what that was exactly when you first heard it. If you follow the Olympics then you probably know now, but just in case, here is a definition provided in a July 28 Washington Post article by Emily Giambalvo—”the twisties”
describes a frightening predicament. When gymnasts have the “twisties,” they lose control of their bodies as they spin through the air. Sometimes they twist when they hadn’t planned to. Other times they stop midway through as Biles did. And after experiencing the twisties once, it’s very difficult to forget. Instinct gets replaced by thought. Thought quickly leads to worry. Worry is difficult to escape.
The same article quotes Biles saying, “I had no idea where I was in the air. I could have hurt myself.”
Athletes are not machines that can perform on demand. I cannot imagine that anyone wanted her to dominate the Tokyo Olympics more than Simone Biles wanted it herself. The expectations were through the proverbial roof. I detest the term GOAT, but if there is one in the world of gymnastics, it is Simone Biles. As the commentators never tired of pointing out, Biles does skills that other gymnasts can only dream about doing; she has four skills named after her. That means that she performed those skills, previously unperformed by anyone else, at a major international competition. Prior to the Tokyo Olympics there was speculation that Biles might increase that number to five.
Biles has won 25 World medals in Olympics—19 of which were gold—and both of those numbers are the records for gymnastics. Biles was the first woman to win five World floor exercise titles, to win three World balance beam titles and to win five World all-around titles. Not the first to accomplish that combination, mind you, but the first to reach all three of those levels. She is a five-time U.S. floor exercise champion, five-time U.S. balance beam champion, six-time U.S. vault champion and seven-time U.S. all-around champion. She has seven Olympic medals, tying her with Shannon Miller for the most by an Olympic gymnast. This is not the resume of a quitter.
Why, then, such a negative reaction to TIME’s choice?
Well, back to Davis’s pitiful opinion piece, Biles withdrew from the team competition of the Olympics because “she was not sufficiently mentally focused on what she was doing and could have injured herself had she competed in her condition.” That’s a gross and, I dare say intentional, misrepresentation of the facts. While technically a true description of the twisties, the implication is clearly that Biles was slacking, not giving the competition the attention it demanded and her performance was suffering as a result.
Davis continued with, “Time [sic] explained that those old-fashioned views about athletes achieving excellence in their sports had nothing to do with its decision.” Again, the implication is that Biles has not achieved excellence. Might I direct you back two paragraphs for evidence of the absurdity of that suggestion. Was Biles the best athlete of 2021? Probably not. She certainly did not achieve the level of success expected of her in Tokyo. But it’s not like she was a slouch. She qualified for the Olympics, after all, and at the age of 24. Sixteen is considered to be the peak age for a gymnast. The Tokyo Olympics was the first time since 1968 that there were more non-teens than teens competing in gymnastics, and even in Tokyo the median age was 21 and the average age was 21 years 11 months. Even though every member of Team USA’s artistic gymnastics team in Tokyo was 18 or older for the first time since 1952, Biles was the oldest on the all-around team by three years. McKayla Skinner was on the USA squad as a specialist, and she is older than Biles by just over three months. The other specialist was Jade Carey, who was 21, and who ended up subbing for Biles in the all-around. But the other three original members of the team were 20 (Jordan Chiles) and 18 (Suni Lee and Grace McCallum). Biles returned to the Olympics for the individual balance beam competition and she took Bronze. The winners of Gold and Silver were Guan Chenchen (age 17) and Tang Xijing (age 18) respectively. So you’ll pardon me for calling the assertion that Biles did not achieve excellence nothing but hogwash.
Later, Davis wrote, “The article extolling her selection labeled those who believe dropping out of Olympic events partway through them is not the hallmark of a champion as ‘naysayers.’” Davis pointed this out derisively, but the statement is correct. Athletes cannot be demanded, or even expected, to be super-human. Many athletes—perhaps Simone Biles more than any—do things that the rest of us cannot even comprehend, much less imagine doing. But they are still mortal. They are still human. They still have bad days and struggles and doubts. And that does not even include the fact that doing Olympic-level gymnastics with the twisties is just plain dangerous.
Davis enjoyed pointing out that “many disputed Time’s selection.” Of course, none of the “many” that Davis quoted were gymnasts. As best I can tell, none of them is even an athlete. I am sure I am not the only one who thinks that Biles’ withdrawal from Olympic events—not her quitting—was not only justified but groundbreaking. Her teammate Suni Lee said, “What Simone did changed the way we view our well-being, 100%. It showed us that we are more than the sport, that we are human beings who also can have days that are hard. It really humanized us.” 1988 Olympian Missy Marlowe said the twisties is “like a nonserious stroke.” 1996 Olympian Dominique Moceanu, who was only 14 at the Atlanta Olympics, tweeted that Biles’ decision “demonstrates that we have a say in our own health—’a say’ I NEVER felt I had as an Olympian.” Dominique Dawes, who competed in three Olympics (1992, 1996, 2000) said that she quit during the 2000 prelims but was not allowed to do so. “[I]t was too much on me emotionally,” Dawes said. “However, I was not able to make that decision. It was very much a controlled atmosphere.” Nastia Liukin, who won the All-Around gold medal in 2008 and was a commentator at the Tokyo Olympics, said, “Thank you for creating a safer space for current and future athletes to unequivocally be themselves.” And 2012 Olympic gymnast Jordyn Wieber said “I never remember feeling like I ever got to make those decisions, even if I had wanted to,” continuing, “the gymnasts don’t have the voice, it’s up to the coaches. And I sometimes describe it as we’re just kind of like robots that do what we’re told.” Wieber, who is now the head gymnastics coach at the University of Arkansas, called Biles “a pioneer,” and Moceanu, who owns and coaches a gymnastics camp, said, “What she did was actually very brave and is a positive sign for the future of the sport.”
All of this would be sufficient to justify the selection of Biles as TIME’s Athlete of the Year for someone who feels such justification is necessary, but there is more. Biles was also one of four gymnasts who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September regarding the FBI’s handling of the investigation into Larry Nassar. While the other three gymnasts—Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney and Maggie Nichols—were all outstanding gymnasts, with Raisman and Maroney competing in the Olympics, only Biles is still actively competing. She had to testify just a month and a half after the Tokyo Olympics—an Olympics at which she was representing not just the United States, but also USA Gymnastics. Of that, Wieber commented, “I can take some guesses and imagine that it’s probably difficult to represent an organization like USA Gymnastics for her, an organization that has failed her so many times and failed a lot of us. I’m just making assumptions here, but I can imagine that it, it adds to the weight of what she carries with her every day of having to represent that organization.” No doubt Wieber is right, given what Biles said in her testimony:
I believe without a doubt that the circumstances that led to my abuse and allowed it to continue, are directly the result of the fact that the organizations created by Congress to oversee and protect me as an athlete – USA Gymnastics (USAG) and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) – failed to do their jobs.
Later, Biles said, “We suffered and continue to suffer because no one at the FBI, USAG or the USOPC did what was necessary to protect us. We have been failed, and we deserve answers.” As she also pointed out in her statement, Biles was the only athlete at the Tokyo Olympics who was abused by Larry Nassar.
Put the Senate committee testimony and the impact of the Nassar abuse and investigation together with everything else described here and Biles should be an obvious choice for Athlete of the Year, not a choice that is second guessed and mocked.
And yet, mockery and scorn is exactly what Biles is receiving. Not only did Davis write his absurd opinion piece, but The Western Journal published it. The Independent Journal Review then published it, too. So opposed are some to the Biles choice that one tweet that Davis chose to include suggested four other candidates for the recognition—only one of which is an American! It is true that TIME’s Person of the Year is not always an American, but it is, after all, an American magazine, so I think a Serbian tennis player, Australian swimmer and Russian tennis player should take a back seat in this discussion.
Far worse that Davis’s article, however, are the comments on the social media pages for The Western Journal and the Independent Journal Review. One charming individual, for example, said, “she’s a triple winner in the Victimhood Olympics – Female, Black and suffers from anxiety.” Several people commented that it was a “woke” decision. More than one called her a quitter, including one guy who said, “She quit on her teammates and America,” echoed by a lady who commented, “She let our country down and deserves no recognition!!” Not to be outdone, another lady said, “She is a failure and a crybaby who deserves nothing.” Someone named Joseph Casale probably topped them all, though, calling Biles the “coward of the year.”
One of the wonderful freedoms we enjoy in the United States is the freedom of speech, and that means that people have the freedom to say and write stupid things. That means internationally known companies and publications, like TIME, and a guy in front of a keyboard or pecking away at his phone like Jospeh Casale—or me. But I could not sit idly by and watch Biles’ recognition be trashed as some politically correct participation trophy. She deserves the recognition and I commend TIME for the choice. Should she ever (miraculously) see this post, I want Simone Biles to know that I do not think she let down her teammates or America…and I admire her courage.
Unless you have been living under the proverbial rock, you have heard and/or seen the phrase “Let’s Go Brandon!” The use of the phrase began with a NASCAR race on October 2 in Talladega. Driver Brandon Brown was being interviewed by a reporter who suggested that the crowd was chanting “Let’s Go, Brandon!” That was not at all what the crowd was saying, though; turns out the actual words were far less encouraging. In fact, they weren’t even polite. The crowd was actually saying, “F— Joe Biden!” I did not take long for “Let’s Go Brandon!” to catch on as a way of expressing dislike for President Biden.
The only good thing about it is that it does not contain the actual profanity the crowd was chanting, which, sadly, I have seen displayed numerous times in public, often on flags using the same design as pro-Trump banners but with the other words. It was not that long ago that publicly displaying the “f-word” would have been considered extreme and unacceptable. Now people are literally flying it from their front porches.
In an AP article, Colleen Long called “Let’s Go Brandon” the “G-rated substitute for its more vulgar three-word cousin.” The problem is that despite it G-rating, everyone now knows exactly what the phrase means. And precisely because it is, in and of itself, G-rated, people who would never utter what the NASCAR crowd was chanting or fly profanity from their porch are perfectly comfortable displaying and/or being seen with the child-friendly alternative. You can find it on flags, stickers, t-shirts…even “ugly sweaters.”
In the same AP article quoted above, Long pointed out that Republican Rep. Bill Posey of Florida ended a speech on the House floor with the phrase, South Carolina Republican Jeff Duncan wore a “Let’s Go Brandon” face mask at the Capitol, Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas posed with a “Let’s Go Brandon” sign at a World Series game and the press secretary for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky retweeted a picture of a sign in Virginia bearing the phrase. Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert famously wore a dress with the phrase on the back to meet with former president Donald Trump. (The dress was also a dig at Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Tax the Rich” dress worn to the Met Gala). When Boebert tweeted a picture of herself in the dress standing next to Donald Trump giving a thumbs up, she headlined it with “It’s not a phrase, it’s a movement! #LGB”
In late October a pilot for Southwest Airlines concluded his address to passengers with the phrase. Just a few days ago I saw someone wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase at a Christian school. Jim Innocenzi, a founding partner at Sandler-Innocenzi and a prominent figure in political advertising for the GOP called the phrase “hilarious” and said, “Unless you are living in a cave, you know what it means. But it’s done with a little bit of a class. And if you object and are taking it too seriously, go away.”
Well, I have news for Mr. Innocenzi: G-rated or not, that’s not okay. There is no way to say “f—” with class. Not even a little bit. To normalize such a profane insult toward any elected official, much less the President of the United States, is not appropriate or respectful. While it is true that we enjoy freedom of speech in the United States, and the ability to express our displeasure with and dislike of our elected officials should not be taken for granted or infringed, there is still something to be said for basic decency.
Just yesterday Amanda Prestigiacomo published an article on The Daily Wire in which Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame defended the use of the term. Rowe, according to Prestigiacomo, said that the phrase is “a refutation of not only the president, but of the media and the Left’s effort to change the meaning of language.” I am afraid Mr. Rowe is being too clever by half. While he is correct that much of the American public is growing tired of the mainstream media telling them “that what they’re seeing and what they’re hearing is not what they’re seeing and hearing,” he is bestowing upon “Let’s Go Brandon” far more intention and meaning that it really has. There is zero evidence that Kelli Stavast, the NBC Sports reporter who claimed in the interview with Brandon Brown that the crowd was chanting “Let’s Go Brandon!” did so with any intentionality. Bruce Haring, on Deadline, said that Stavast “is either hard of hearing, or a very, very quick thinker.” There were immediate claims that Stavast was gaslighting the public and that the media would do anything to protect Joe Biden. I suspect, however, that Stavast is not hard of hearing and that her misinterpretation of the chant was not quick thinking on her part. She was trying to conduct an interview. No doubt she had an earpiece in, was trying to hear Brown, and was trying to do all of this with a noisy crowd screaming to be heard on the live camera. Stavast certainly could not repeat what the crowd was actually chanting, and it is entirely plausible that she thought the crowd was showing support for Brown’s first victory. It strains credulity to think that Stavast was intentionally, as Rowe suggests, trying to tell the television audience that they were not hearing what they eventually realized they were hearing.
Later in the Daily Wire piece, Rowe is quoted as saying, “I don’t think people who yell it are necessarily enemies of the president. I think they’re enemies of being told that what they’re seeing and what they’re hearing isn’t real, that it’s somehow a figment of their imagination. People are sick of that.”
I am sure they are. But let’s not try to excuse a euphemistic means of saying “F— Joe Biden” by instilling in the phrase something that it is not. To do so is to do exactly what Rowe claims people are sick of—to claim that what people are saying is not what they are really saying. Stavast was in an of-the-moment situation with conditions that were not ideal. Rowe is speaking a couple of months after the fact, having had plenty of time to think through what he is saying. If anyone is gaslighting here, it is Rowe. He makes valid points that are worthy of attention. Unfortunately, he detracts from a valid and important discussion that needs to be had by claiming that those legitimate concerns are encapsulated in “Let’s Go Brandon.”
So, I have a better idea… Go away, Brandon. Please.
Paloma Esquivel’s recent article in the Los Angeles Times about grading practices is mindbogglingly contradictory. The headline says that schools are “ditching the old way of grading” in light of skyrocketing numbers of Ds and Fs brought on largely due to COVID-related changes in education. The article begins by referring to a teacher who became increasingly frustrated a few years ago with the fact that grading “had become a points game.” His solution? He “has done away with points entirely. He no longer gives students homework and gives them multiple opportunities to improve essays and classwork. The goal is to base grades on what students are learning, and remove behavior, deadlines and how much work they do from the equation.”
This sounds lovely, but it is a false dichotomy. I will not address homework here, because that is a separate issue and one I have discussed previously. To imply, though, that basing grades on what students are learning is a new concept is laughable. Effective grading has always been based on what students are learning. Furthermore, to suggest that using points has nothing to do with what students are learning is equally laughable. If, after all, a teacher gives students a quiz with ten questions designed to gauge the student’s mastery of content, and the student misses three of the ten questions, it is neither inequitable nor unrelated to learning to give that student a grade of 7/10 or 70/100 or 35/50 or whatever scale is used in grading the quiz. In other words, it is quite possible to base grades on what students are learning and still utilize points.
That move away from points is, Esquivel writes, part of a trend of “moving away from traditional point-driven grading systems, aiming to close large academic gaps among racial, ethnic and economic groups.” This is both a false dichotomy and an insult to any student considered to be disadvantaged by their racial, ethnic or economic group because the unmistakable implication is that such students are not capable of learning well enough to achieve a good grade.
Esquivel continues, “Los Angeles and San Diego Unified — the state’s two largest school districts, with some 660,000 students combined — have recently directed teachers to base academic grades on whether students have learned what was expected of them during a course — and not penalize them for behavior, work habits and missed deadlines.” Again, this is making an unfair implication that utilizing points automatically and necessarily does not result in a grade based on actual learning.
There is another dangerous element to this too, though. Eliminating behavior and missed deadlines from grading serves only to create a false concept among students that those things do not matter. In reality, though, both matter. Or at least they are supposed to matter. That behavior matters regardless of performance is something that our culture is increasingly coming to terms with; thing, for example, of how many professional athletes are now disciplined or even released because of their off-field behavior, regardless of how well they perform during game time. Movie stars and television personalities, politicians, business executives… All are being increasingly held accountable for behavior even when it is not directly related to the performance of their job. It is not, then, inappropriate, nor is it unfair, for bad behavior to impact a student’s grade. And to say that missed deadlines should not apply is truly silly. See how well and how long it lasts trying to tell your employer that deadlines shouldn’t apply to you…for whatever reason. The notion that allowing students to revise essays or retake tests means deadlines have to be eliminated is simply not true.
Esquivel quotes Alison Yoshimoto-Towery, L.A. Unified’s chief academic officer, as saying, “It’s teaching students that failure is a part of learning. We fall. We get back up. We learn from the feedback that we get.” Again, this is true. Again, it is not new. And again, it does not negate a points-based grading system. But Yoshimoto-Towery claims that traditional grading systems have been used to “justify and to provide unequal educational opportunities based on a student’s race or class.” This is patently false, and again such an implication serves only to insult students and their families by implying that some students just cannot succeed without “the system” being manipulated in their favor.
The COVID pandemic, Esquivel writes, gave teachers a new insight, as teachers suddenly “saw how some teenagers were caring for younger siblings while trying to do their own work and witnessed the impact of the digital divide as students with spotty internet access struggled to log on to class.” Do some teenagers have more responsibilities than others outside of school? Of course. Does that impact the amount of time those students have to do homework? Certainly. Does it mean that those students do not need to master content at the same level as other students? No. Internet access is a valid concern, but one that serves only to reinforce the importance of in-person learning, not one that means that grading scales and systems need to be chucked. Carol Alexander, director of A-G intervention and support for L.A. Unified, said that the pandemic heightened awareness of such differences, “but those different circumstances of learning have always been present.” Quite right. And despite them, students of all ethnicities and socioeconomic classes have always found a way to succeed if they—and their parents—prioritize their education.
The West Contra Costa Unified district, which is majority Latino, issued a memo last year encouraging its secondary teachers to give a five-day period to turn in work. Makes sense amidst COVID. The memo also said, “Assignments, exams, quizzes, or projects will be marked ‘Missing’ until completed” rather than be given a zero. Missing assignments would “not be given a zero, but rather a failure to turn in or F in the gradebook to maintain the relative mathematical validity of the gradebook.” This is nothing more than fancy footwork; an assignment that is missing is still missing, and therefore ungradable, regardless of what it is called or how it is entered in a gradebook. Presumably if that assignment were never turned in the student would never receive a grade for it—or for the class.
Next Esquivel cites Placer Union High School District, which directed its teachers “to base grades on ‘valid evidence of a student’s content knowledge and not…on evidence that is likely to be influenced by a teacher’s implicit bias nor reflect a student’s circumstances.’” If that’s a novel idea, that’s terrible. Of course student’s grades should be based on evidence of content knowledge! There is no place for teacher bias in grading. Notice, though, that the statement also says that grades should not “reflect a student’s circumstances.” Exactly! Grading systems should be fair and consistent across the board—regardless of any extraneous factors (including ethnicity, socioeconomic status or any other circumstances). Esquivel, and the memos and directives she cites, like to use the word “equity.” Equity means “fairness or justice in the way people are treated.” That means treating all students fairly and not treating them differently based on any factor other than mastery of content and completion of course assignments. The Placer board policy says, in part, “A teacher shall base students’ grades on impartial, consistent observation and evaluation of students’ learning and their proficiency in Essential Learning Outcomes.” Again…duh!
Shockingly, Esquivel writes that prior to the pandemic, “In Los Angeles, the district had begun to train teachers on practices including basing grades on whether students are meeting academic standards.” Whatever else student grades had been based on before I would love to know. If grades were truly being given on the basis of something other than meeting academic standards then there was a real problem. “In the recent guidance,” Esquivel wrote, “teachers were directed to base final academic grades on the ‘level of learning demonstrated in the quality of work, not the quantity of work completed.’” I do not understand the idea that a grade would be based on a quantity of work completed. Presumably all students would be assigned the same work. If some completed all of it, but did so poorly, that should be reflected in their grades. If some completed only a little of it, that too should be reflected in the grades. Even if 15% of assigned work was completed perfectly, that leaves 85% of the work undone. Unless work is being assigned purely as busywork, no one could demonstrate mastery of a course by completing only 15% of the work assigned.
Esquivel quoted Yoshimoto-Towery as saying, “Just because I did not answer a test question correctly today doesn’t mean I don’t have the capacity to learn it tomorrow and retake a test. Equitable grading practices align with the understanding that as people we learn at different rates and in different ways and we need multiple opportunities to do so.” This is both true and false. Answering a question incorrectly today does not mean the one answering could not learn the correct answer and get it right tomorrow—or next week—or next year. That’s true. But if the standard or expectation is that you should know it today, and you do not, it is not unfair or inequitable to tell you that you got it wrong today.
Incomprehensively, Esquivel says that “shifting away from traditional grading to basing grades on whether students have mastered standards is not easy.” I would love to know what Esquivel, or any of the Los Angeles area educators she references, think traditional grading was based on. To her credit, Esquivel does quote Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute as pointing out that telling students that deadlines do not matter does not prepare students “for successful careers or citizenship.”
Thomas Guskey, author of On Your Mark: Challenging the Conventions of Grading and Reporting, told Esquivel that reforming the grading system is “not about watering down expectations; it’s about ensuring that grades are meaningful and fair.” With that I can agree. Grades need to be meaningful and fair. If they have not been then that needs to be fixed. Let’s just be careful that in the process of pursuing that meaning and fairness we do not achieve the opposite.
It is difficult to say that much good came out of the worldwide disruption caused by COVID-19, but I am sure that I am not the only one who found that I had more time to read in 2020 than I had for quite a while. In fact, I read 61 books in 2020, the most since 2012, when I also had 61. So, here is my annual review of those books…
I will start with fiction. I cannot remember a year when my reading did not include one or more of James Patterson, John Grisham and Jeffrey Archer, and 2020 was no different. I read James Patterson’s Criss Cross and Deadly Cross, the latest additions to his Alex Cross series. These were what you expect from an Alex Cross book, but I have to say that the timeframe covered by this series is not very realistic. Deadly Cross is the twenty-eighth book in the series. If anyone in real life experienced what Alex Cross has in those twenty-eight books, in the time period covered by those books, well…let’s just say it’s not possible, let alone plausible. I also read Patteron’s co-authored Lost and Blindside (both with James Born) and Princess (with Rees Jones). Lost is a stand-alone book (at least so far); Blindside is the twelfth installment in the Detective Michael Bennett series and Princess is the latest in the Private series.
Camino Winds by John Grisham is his second book featuring Bruce Cable and Mercer Mann and the eclectic group of friends Cable has accumulated on the island. It is not what I would call a typical Grisham read but it is no doubt exactly what people have in mind when they think of the term “beach read” and it does include an ingenious murder. The backstory about a prescription drug and nursing homes is completely fictional but raises some alarms of what could be possible, too!
John Grisham’s A Time for Mercy is his third book featuring Jake Brigance, who first appeared in Grisham’s debut novel. I was not the only person, based on Amazon reviews, to get a copy of the book that had major printing errors. It was fine until page 69 or so and then it became truly unreadable—missing pages, duplicated pages, etc. I had to return it and get another, which was correct. I was shocked, though; Doubleday is no fly-by-night publisher and Grisham is one of the best-selling authors in the country; that such a book could get out with such incredible errors is rather surprising. The story itself was what you would expect from Grisham; or, more precisely, from classic Grisham. Jake is, again, defending someone no one else in town would want to touch. It is not a pleasant story—but neither was A Time to Kill. Grisham manages to use a stereotypical presentation of rural, Southern Christians without belittling or mocking them, which I appreciated.
Jeffrey Archer’s Hidden in Plain Sight is the second in the William Warwick series, which is a spin-off of the Clifton Chronicles. It follows an Archer pattern of having a nemesis that just won’t go away, but it does also take a slightly different tack by having Warwick transferred to the drug squad when he gets promoted.
Mark Pryor is another author who has appeared regularly on my reading lists in recent years. In 2020 I read The French Widow, his ninth Hugo Marston novel. Marston, of course, seems to do surprisingly little in his actual job as head of security at the U.S. embassy in Paris, but he does manage to help the French police once again solve a tricky crime. The book again includes transgender French police Lt. Camille Lerens, which I could do without, but Pryor seems to include her primarily to be able to say that he does so—or to be cutting edge—since her transgenderism has absolutely nothing to do with the story. This book does take the approach of, at times, speaking from the perspective of the killer, which is a unique twist, and Marston does a good job—in my opinion—of keeping the reader guessing until near the end of the book.
I actually did not finish a fiction book until April of 2020, when I completed The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. I try to include at least one classic work per year, and this was the one for 2020. I enjoyed it. I have actually not seen any of the various theatrical versions, so I cannot comment on those, but D’Artagnan and his three pals are not necessarily, or certainly not always, admirable individuals. If I was going to recommend one Dumas book it would be The Count of Monte Cristo, not this one, but it is worth reading.
This may be a surprise to some, but The Last Trial is the first Scott Turow book I have ever read. As the title suggests, it is the end of the career of a character that I now know has appeared in other Turow novels. I suspect that some of what this book includes would make more sense or be more meaningful to those who have read others in the series, but I found it an enjoyable read–but then I enjoy courtroom dramas.
Daniel Silva’s The Order is the third or fourth Gabriel Allon book I have read. I enjoyed the others much more than I did this one. Suffice it to say that this book presents the theory of a missing “gospel” that the ultra-conservative wing of Catholicism will literally do anything to prevent coming to light. The papacy is also connected to a far-right political group in Europe. And never mind the unlikelihood of the now-dead pope’s private secretary asking the head of Israel’s security service to help investigate; after all, in his last book Silva had the prince of a Muslim nation doing the same thing. I haven’t read or seen The DaVinci Code, but I suspect that this book has a lot of similarities. I wouldn’t recommend it.
I do not remember how Alyssa Cole’s When No One Is Watching even got on my radar. I almost put it down after the first page because of the language, but I didn’t. The frequency of obscenities decreased, but there is plenty of foul language and—shocker—it adds nothing to the story. From what I can tell from what the book includes about Cole’s other works she usually writes romance novels, but this one was supposed to be a thriller. And it was, but I think Cole tried too hard. There are elements of reality in the book but in her effort to deal with issues of racism she takes a far-flung approach that is unrealistic. And then the ending is even more unrealistic than that. So again, I wouldn’t recommend.
Probably the biggest departure from my usual fiction reading was Asha Lemmie’s Fifty Words for Rain. First of all, this is Lemmie’s debut novel, and I think that bodes very well for her future. It is the story of a girl, Nori, who is the daughter of a Japanese woman of aristocratic lineage who had an affair with an African-American man who was in Japan because of WWII. The story touches on the importance of honor and tradition in Japanese culture but also touches on racism—realistically, unlike Cole’s book—and, most of all, about the power of sibling love. It is a richly told story and I found myself really invested in it, but I was, I confess, disappointed in the ending.
That was it for fiction in 2020. So, moving on…
Jon Bloom’s Not by Sight is an interesting read. It is, by its own description, “the imaginative retelling of 35 Bible stories,” and it does provide the reader with a new perspective on some very familiar passages of Scripture.
Rebecca McLaughlin’s Confronting Christianity examines twelve questions that most Christians have either asked or been asked—or both. Questions like, “doesn’t Christianity crush diversity?” or “doesn’t religion cause violence?” Perhaps the most timely questions were those on taking Scripture literally, whether or not Christianity is homophobic or denigrates women and how a loving God could allow suffering or “send” people to hell. John Lennox calls it “compelling reading” and I agree. It is well-written and thought-provoking.
The subtitle of David Jeremiah’s Reset—“Ten Steps to Spiritual Renewal”—gives you a good idea of what to expect. I am not a huge fan of “steps to…” books, but this one does have some good insights. It is what you would expect from David Jeremiah in terms of style. Jeremiah’s What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do is a good overview of the epistle of James. John MacArthur’s Only Jesus is essentially a significantly condensed version of The Gospel According to Jesus. The book begins by asking, “What did Jesus mean when He said, ‘Follow Me’?” and then proceeds to answer that question. MacArthur’s Stand Firm is a short book that addresses how Christians are to live in a post-Christian world.
Charles Bordonaro’s Free to Be Me is a good book for anyone who wants to understand what “security” really means for the believer apart from the strict Calvinist interpretation. It highlights the freedom that believers have in Christ without ever suggesting that such freedom is a license for ungodly living. Suffice it to say that it also presents a very different view than R.C. Sproul’s Willing to Believe, which is solid, as Sproul always is, but which comes down in a very Calvinistic conclusion. It is an interesting book for understanding more about Pelagius, Augustine and Arminius in particular, but also Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Finney and Chafer.
J.I. Packer’s A Quest for Godliness is subtitled “The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life” and it looks extensively at the writing and teaching of Baxter, Edwards and Owen. It felt appropriate to read something by Packer since he passed away in 2020 and it is valuable introduction to Puritan thought.
John Piper’s Coronavirus and Christ is a small book and obviously put out hastily in order to respond to the pandemic, but the truths that the book contains apply far beyond COVID. The back cover of the book is headed with this from Piper: “This is a time when the fragile form of this world is felt. The seemingly solid foundations are shaking. The question we should be asking is, Do we have a Rock under our feet? A Rock that cannot be shaken―ever?” That is a powerful question and, like I said, it applies far beyond the current pandemic.
The Liturgy of Politics by Kaitlyn Schiess is her first book. She is a graduate student at Dallas Theological Seminary and she completed her undergraduate degree at Liberty University. I did not agree with everything that she wrote, but she did do an admirable job of addressing how our political views and our understanding and interpretation of Scripture are likely more intertwined than we realize. I told someone recently that I would read the book again, so perhaps that is the best compliment I can pay to the way that the book makes the reader think.
Pulpit Aflame, edited by Joel Beeke and Dustin Benge, is a collection of essays in honor of Steven Lawson, and is one of the best books I have ever read on sermon preparation and delivery and the ministry of preaching.
As I always do, I read a significant amount of history in 2020. Andrew Lawler’s The Secret Token is another book about the Lost Colony of Roanoke. Lawler spent significant time in Outer Banks communities around the colony’s location and he investigated every possible lead he could find. I do not think he leaves the reader with any new conclusions, but that’s probably because—in my opinion—we will never really know what happened.
I intended to read extensively about women in American history in 2020—historically and contemporarily—given that 2020 was the one hundredth anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. Carol Berkin’s Revolutionary Mothers and Nancy Loane’s Following the Drum both provide great insight into the roles that women played in the American Revolution—Berkin’s more broadly and Loane’s specifically at Valley Forge. Melissa Lukeman Bohrer’s Glory, Passion and Principle examines eight women of the revolutionary era, some of whom are familiar (Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren and Phillis Wheatley) and others who should be (Sybil Ludington, Lydia Darragh). She gives a better understanding of who “Molly Pitcher” was and she selects one woman (of a number of them) who dressed and fought as a man (Deborah Sampson). Karin Wulf’s Not All Wives focuses on women in Philadelphia during the colonial era in order to explain the law of coverture and the way that women who were no longer, or who had never been, married were able to survive.
Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming is the first in a projected trilogy on the Revolution and, despite being about 800 pages long only gets to 1777. Perhaps most interesting to me about the book was the re-introduction to me of Dr. Benjamin Church, a leading figure in the Massachusetts patriot movement who was convicted of spying for the British. That led to me reading John Nagy’s Dr. Benjamin Church, Spy, which I would love to write a rebuttal to someday since I do not think that the evidence that Church was indeed a spy is sufficient to warrant his conviction.
Like Atkinson, Alan Taylor is a Pulitzer Prize winner. But his American Revolutions covers fifty more years in one hundred fewer pages. To be fair, he and Atkinson have different goals in their works, and Taylor provides much more insight into what led to the revolution and then also describes the first years of the newly-independent nation.
Edward Larson’s Franklin & Washington is a fascinating dual-biography about two of the most famous Americans ever, examining how the two men worked, often together, to pursue American independence.
It is important to get the full title of Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality because the subtitle is exactly what the book is. Allen, a Harvard professor who has recently announced her candidacy for governor of Massachusetts, takes the Declaration line by line to examine what it meant—and means—and particularly to understand what equality really means vis-à-vis that founding document. I highly recommend this one.
Of course, at the time the Declaration was written, the founders removed the attack Jefferson originally penned against slavery, and it would not be until a Civil War more than eighty years later that slavery would finally be abolished. Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning has perhaps been one of the most talked-about books in the past year or two and it makes for itself an audacious claim—“The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” If for no other reason than that Kendi has become so influential it is worth reading. Kendi does offer some valuable insights, but I cannot say that I agree with all of his conclusions or assertions.
James Gorman, Jeff Childers and Mark Hamilton edited Slavery’s Long Shadow: Race and Reconciliation in American Christianity, and the essays it includes are worth reading. Some are more denominationally-specific than some readers might care for, but those could certainly be skipped. Perhaps most disconcerting is the fact that Richard Hughes, a Scholar in Residence in the College of Bible and Ministry at Lipscomb University, begins his essay “Resisting White Supremacy” by asserting that the “heart of Jesus’ preaching was his concern and compassion for disenfranchised and oppressed people” and that “to listen carefully and attentively to what those people wish to tell us about the contours of their lives” is the first step to becoming a disciple of Christ. The gospel is not a social justice message and any attempt to make it one distorts who Jesus was and why He really came.
In When Slavery Was Called Freedom: Evangelicalism, Proslavery, and the Causes of the Civil War, John Patrick Daly suggests that Christians “interpreted the Bible and Christian moral dictates in light of individualism and free market economics” and that interpretation is what led to some Christians using the Bible to oppose slavery while others used it to support it. The use of Scripture on both sides of the slavery debate is a subject of great interest to me, and thus I found Daly’s book worthwhile, but I would not suggest reading it and only it on this subject, as it needs to be balanced out with other perspectives.
Back to the fight for women’s suffrage, Catherine Clinton’s The Other Civil War examines the efforts of women in the 19th century to achieve equality. They were generally unsuccessful, of course, but their efforts are worthy of study. Lisa Tetrault’s The Myth of Seneca Falls explains that the well-known Seneca Falls Convention was not necessarily the starting point for the suffrage movement that it is so often presented as—and that Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony worked so hard to make it. Combining those two books with Susan Ware’s Why They Marched gives readers an introduction to many other suffragists they might want to read more about, such as Lucy Stone, Charlotte Perkins Gillman, Julia Ward Howe, Ida Wells Barnett, Francis Ellen Watkins Harper and more. Vanguard, by Martha Jones, looks specifically at the efforts of black women in the fight for equality—including, but not limited to, the right to vote.
Shifting gears, Adam Cohen’s Nothing to Fear was a fascinating look at the New Deal and gives valuable information about Frances Perkins, Raymond Moley and Henry Wallace in particular.
The Landscape of History by John Lewis Gaddis and Historiography: An Introductory Guide by Eileen Ka-May Cheng are good for those interested in historiography, but would not likely be of much interest to others.
2020 was certainly marred by racial tension and plenty of authors have attempted to address that subject over the years. But Jonathan Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness has to be one of the stupidest books I have ever read and my copy is filled with marginalia expressing my thoughts on Metzl’s arguments. Those arguments can essentially be summed up this way: if you favor anything that would be considered politically conservative then you are “white”—regardless of your race or ethnicity—are you are not only what is wrong with the country but you are actively opposing your own best interests.
Another book that has received a lot of attention is Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste. It contains some personal accounts that are both sad and inexcusable, but overall I cannot agree with her attempt to equate the caste system in India, Nazi Germany and the racial issues of the United States.
Interestingly, the best book that I read on the subject of racial tension was written a half-century ago—Albert Murray’s The Omni-Americans. Perhaps this line will suffice to provide an idea of what Murray spent the book arguing: “The United States is in actuality not a nation of black people and white people. It is a nation of multicolored people…. Any fool can see that the white people are not really white, and that black people are not black. They are all interrelated one way or another.” In his forward to the anniversary edition, Henry Louis Gates asserted that Murray had a unique ability to argue all sides of any issue and to point out that which was not necessarily clear or even desirable to those dominating the conversation. I would agree, based on this book. And for this book, I am indebted to Wynton Marsalis, who wrote of Murray in his book Moving to Higher Ground. Marsalis spoke specifically of Murray’s Stomping the Blues, which I have not yet read, but he still made the introduction. As for his book, Marsalis proves to be a terrific teacher about what jazz really is. While the book’s subtitle—“How Jazz Can Change Your Life”—might be an overreach, I would recommend this book specifically, and Marsalis in general, for anyone who doesn’t really get jazz.
This Is Your Time is a short little book by Ruby Bridges, who, at just six years of age, was the first to integrate an all-white school in New Orleans. The book would be a great introduction to Bridges’ story for anyone who does not know it, and it is worth getting just for the photographs that it includes. It is sad, though, how far we have not come in the nearly sixty-years since Bridges’ experience.
A couple of baseball books in 2020—Ron Snyder’s A Season to Forget tells the story of the truly awful 1988 Baltimore Orioles, who started the season 0-21, and in The Lost Memoir Alan Gaff assembles into one volume the syndicated newspaper column Lou Gehrig wrote in 1927 for Christy Walsh’s papers, telling his personal story and also giving an inside glimpse into the Yankees’ season.
In the genre of memoir and autobiography, I tended mostly to women in 2020. Nadia Murad’s The Last Girl is powerful and should be read by anyone who wants to understand (and can stomach) what ISIS did to Yazidis. Likewise, Rachael Denhollander’s What Is a Girl Worth? is powerful and should be read by anyone who wants to understand (and can stomach) what Larry Nasser specifically, and any sexual abuser generally, does to the victims of their actions. Denhollander’s book also makes her statement to Nasser at his sentencing all the more incredible. I read those books back-to-back. Both stories are sickening and heart wrenching but both women also have incredible stories of resiliency.
Nikki Haley’s With All Due Respect is an interesting look at her life, including deeper looks at her time as governor and UN ambassador. If I had to select a woman to run for president in 2024 I would have a hard time picking between Haley and Kristi Noem. But since I hope that Noem will be re-elected governor of South Dakota in 2022 and will finish out her term, I will have to go with Haley in 2024. I enjoyed Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ Speaking for Myself, and while I understand that she desired to present a side of Donald Trump that she thinks too few people know, I think she may have been overly kind to him despite her effort to be balanced.
Michelle Obama’s Becoming was a well-written autobiography. I do not understand why she has become so reviled by the political right. I do not agree with her on much politically, there is no doubt, but I do not think that she is the horrible monster she is so often portrayed to be. Kamala Harris’s The Truths We Hold is well-written, too, and Harris has quite a personal story. She has had some tremendous accomplishments and some interesting ideas, particularly when it comes to criminal justice, but the book also reinforces why I would not want her to be the president.
Alex Trebek’s And the Answer Is… was a unique memoir in its structure but it does give the reader a great glimpse into the life of one of the most famous game show hosts in American history. It would seem that Trebek was a nice and truly decent guy…though I have to hope that he changed his thoughts on God before he passed away.
If you want an easy and light-hearted read, and you enjoy musical humor, Victor Borge’s My Favorite Comedies in Music fits the bill—but the book is not nearly as funny as Borge’s live performances.
And there you have it, another year in books. Feel free to comment with book recommendations—I have plenty of books on my list, but am always looking for suggestions. Happy New Year…and Happy Reading!
To the astonishment of…no one…Mitch McConnell announced within hours of the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that a nomination from President Trump to fill the seat “will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate.” No surprise here. The Republicans wouldn’t consider an Obama nomination eight months before the 2016 election, but they’re determined to get Trump’s a month and a half before the 2020 election. Shameful. Embarrassing. Partisan nonsense. No one should be proud of this. Mitch McConnell needs to go.
It is not just Mitch McConnell, though. John Thune, the Majority Whip, echoed his leader, saying, “As Leader McConnell has said, President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the U.S. Senate.” Not wanting to be left out, Texas senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn promptly jumped on board Mitch McConnell’s hypocrisy train. According to the Texas Tribune, Cruz announced on Friday that an “urgent confirmation” was needed. In an opinion piece for FOX News on Sunday, Cruz insisted that Trump “must nominate a successor next week and…the Senate must confirm that successor before Election Day.” His reasoning? It is why the American people elected President Trump and a Republican Senate, there is historical precedent, and, given the possibility of a contested election in November, America cannot be left with an eight-member Supreme Court.
A few thoughts here…
First, using George Washington’s election-year nominations as an example doesn’t even really count. His two nominations in 1796 were both confirmed the very next day. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both made election year appointments too, and their nominations were confirmed within a week. But politics have changed so drastically since then that those examples cannot really be considered fairly.
In an article published last month in the National Review, Dan McLaughlin made the same point, insisting both that “History supports Republicans filling the seat,” and that doing so “would not be in any way inconsistent with Senate Republicans’ holding open the seat vacated by Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016.” Really? Let’s see…
McLaughlin makes the same point that Cruz did, citing “twenty-nine times in history” when there has been an election year or lame duck session appointment. He names Washington, Adams and Jefferson. Then he mentions Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln nominated Salmon Chase as Chief Justice, to replace Roger Taney, on December 6, 1864. Four things about this appointment are noteworthy. First, it is a real historical travesty that Roger Taney was ever on the Supreme Court, given his decision in the Dred Scott case. Second, Chase was confirmed the same day that Lincoln nominated him, beating even the quick confirmation that Washington received for his nominees. Third, as I mentioned, Lincoln appointed Chase on December 6. The election took place in November, and Lincoln won. Given that as far as anyone knew at that time Lincoln would be president for another four years, any delay would have been pointless. Fourth, however, and perhaps most importantly for this discussion, Taney died on October 12, 1864—four days shy of one month before the election. But Lincoln did not appoint Chase until two days shy of one month after the election. If Cruz, McLaughlin and Company want to use Lincoln as a precedent, it is not one in their favor.
McLaughlin also points out Ulysses S. Grant as an example. But, like Lincoln, Grant appointed Ward Hunt to the Supreme Court during an election year, but after the election—he appointed him on December 3; it was after Grant had already won re-election; and Grant appointed Hunt to replace Samuel Nelson, who retired from the Supreme Court on November 28, 1872, twenty-three days after the election—meaning that there was no vacancy prior to the election, and the appointment was not during a lame duck session.
Taft’s nomination was in February of the election year. Wilson’s were in January and July of the election year. Hoover’s was in February of the election year. FDR’s was in January of the election year. These would have been terrific precedents in support of Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland in 2016, but they do not do much to help McConnell and friends in this instance.
Oddly, McLaughlin claims “Dwight Eisenhower did it” but he didn’t. Eisenhower made appointments in 1955 and in 1957, but not in 1956, which was the election year.
LBJ nominated two in June of an election year and both were withdrawn–one due to a filibuster of the nomination to move Abe Fortas to Chief Justice, and the other because Homer Thornberry had been nominated for the Associate Justice position Fortas would have been vacating. Ronald Reagan nominated Anthony Kennedy one year before the 1988 election, but he was confirmed in February of the election year–by a Democratically-controlled Senate. (And any true conservative now wishes that the Democrats would have declined!)
Second, the Republicans put themselves in the position they are now in. President Obama nominated Merrick Garland in March 2016. That means Obama still had 20% of his term remaining. But the Republicans refused to even consider the nomination; they wouldn’t even allow it to come to a vote. Even if Trump were to make a nomination tomorrow, he has only about 7% of the current term remaining. Outside of Washington, Adams and Jefferson, there has never been a nomination made later than July of a presidential election year and before the election, with one exception. That exception was Millard Filmore’s nomination of Edward Bradford on August 16, 1852—and there was no action taken by the Senate. So, Cruz’s appeal to historical precedent falls woefully flat. Even John Tyler, who nominated three men a total of five times in the first six months of 1844 quit in June and did not act again until after the election, when he tried twice more in December.
The bottom line is that if Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans would have allowed the Garland nomination to proceed in 2016 this would be a completely different situation. But they did not, and now they find themselves faced with waiting or becoming guilty of obscene hypocrisy…and I think we all know which they are going to choose.
President Trump should absolutely make the nomination. Indeed, doing so could even help the Republicans in the November election, and he has every right to do so. But the Senate should not act on it. In fact, acting on it could well come back to bite McConnell and friends. As Russell Berman wrote last Friday in The Atlantic, “A number of Republican senators have already said they’d want to fill a Supreme Court vacancy while Trump is still in office. But McConnell would need the votes of 50 out of his 53 members to allow Vice President Mike Pence to break a tie (assuming all Democrats voted against Trump’s nominee), and the numbers may not be on his side.” In reality, Berman was being kind. Republican senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski are already on record opposing a confirmation at this stage, and just about everyone knows that Mitt Romney is not going to support Donald Trump on this one.
Ironically, McLaughlin states in his article, “Norms are crucially important. If parties cannot trust that the other side will abide by established norms of conduct, politics devolves rapidly into a blood sport that quickly loses the capacity to resolve disagreements peaceably within the system.” He’s right, of course—only he is not right in the way that he thinks he is. He thinks history is on his side, and that that Senate should act to confirm. As we have seen, though, he is wrong about that. The norm of conduct that the Republicans established in 2016 is simple—no confirmation during an election year. No amount of foaming at the mouth or attempting to stretch historical precedent to fit their narrative will change that. The Republicans set the precedent, now they need to follow it. If they do not, they will have only themselves to blame when the tables are turned—which eventually they will be—and when voters express their displeasure—which at least some will.
Additional irony for the fire – since 1981, the only SCOTUS nominee to be appointed and confirmed within the amount of time that is available now before the November election was Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Image credit: Gage Skidmore, with the conductor cap added by Jason Watson.