Some Thoughts On The Doctrine Of The Laying On Of Hands: Part One

Some time ago, a local church elder in our congregation gave a very thoughtful sermon on the doctrine of the laying on of hands, a subject I do not ever remember hearing a message on beforehand. This message sparked, as messages often do, some lively conversation that sought to broaden the scope of the message, and as often happens, I have pondered and thought about the message and realized that there is a lot more to the doctrine of laying on hands than even the message itself dealt with [1].  What I therefore propose to do is to discuss this particular doctrine in some detail, since I believe that while there are many familiar examples of the laying on of hands in the scriptures, I also believe that even those who consider themselves to be very aware of the Bible are unaware of the important tie that the laying on of hands provides and why it is such a major doctrine.

Given that the laying on of hands is not viewed as an important doctrine, it is worthwhile to discuss where in the Bible it is viewed with such high importance.  Let us begin with Hebrews 6:1-6:  “Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.  And this we will do if God permits.  For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.”  There are two aspects of this passage that are relevant to our discussion of the pivotal importance of the laying on of hands.  The first is that the laying on of hands is explicitly mentioned as a fundamental doctrine by the author of Hebrews in the first part of the passage.  When the Bible says that something is a doctrine, it is best to believe it.  Second, it is worthwhile to note that after discussing various elementary beliefs, the author of Hebrews finds it necessary to note that there is no second chance for those who have, through the laying on of hands, received the Holy Spirit and enlightenment and have consequently fallen away.

This is a passage that all believers must take seriously.  To be sure, the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives is something to celebrate, and we rightly rejoice in being transformed into the sons and daughters of God through its workings within us.  Yet the laying on of hands is not a risk-free proposition.  With greater power and authority and greater access to God comes greater responsibility to God.  This is easy enough to recognize when we have little power and easy enough for people to forget, since God does not make his authority in our lives as obvious as that of the human authorities we have to deal with, and the higher we climb in human institutions, the more we can neglect the increasing divine scrutiny we are accordingly under.  In addition, the more we have access to the power of the Holy Spirit, the greater the risk that God presence in our lives and God’s judgment of us in the world to come will be extremely harsh if we reject what God wishes to do through us.  Whether we are contemplating on the fate of those who have fallen away from God’s ways or we reflect on the madness of King Saul after the Holy Spirit departed from him, it is easy for our reflections along this line to be rather melancholy.  The absence of security should we reject God ought to remind us of the importance of our remaining loyal.  No one can snatch us from God’s loving and protective hand, but we can certainly fall if we reject Him.

In light of the serious importance of the laying on of hands and its implications, I propose a multi-part examination of the subject.  I have here introduced its importance by looking at one of the scriptures that talks about it as a coherent doctrine and that applies that doctrine in a very powerful and important way.  What I would like to do next is discuss the laying on of hands as it appears both in the Hebrew scriptures as well as the New Testament.  It may not be possible to give an exhaustive examination of the subject, given space and time limitations, but we should at least be able to better understand how this doctrine is exhibited through stories in the Bible as well as in doctrinal statements.  Starting from the bottom, then, we will gather these stories together first, and then afterward seek to determine what elements bind them together into a coherent whole, and what makes this doctrine so important.  After this is done, there may be some occasion for some closing words that point to the importance of the laying on of hands and its role as an ordinance (or what may be called a sacrament) that is of the utmost importance for us, and one that we ignore at our peril.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: A Student’s Guide To U.S. History

A Student’s Guide To U.S. History, by Wilfred M. McClay

Three times in my grade school experiences I had year-long courses devoted to U.S. History, and in many ways they were done according to the way discussed in this book, with talks of names and dates and trying to memorize laws and government policies.  Many people, as a result of experiences similar to my own, view American history as boring or provincial when one compares it with the histories of Europe or East and South Asia or the Middle East, to give but a few examples.  The author gives a compelling reason why American history is worth studying, though [1], and in doing so makes this little book a compelling one that admits its short size and that triumphs because it opens a window to a field that is too often neglected or underappreciated.  All too often people study American History only because they have to, but this book encourages its readers to study American History because they want to, and that makes a big difference.  When we want to study something, we will seek out sources far more interesting and worthwhile than the textbooks that are foisted upon us.

The book is a short one at about 100 pages but it manages to effectively ground American history on a solid foundation and then open a window into some genuinely interested aspects of American history that are well worth reading more about for the reader.  The author begins with a discussion of what this book is and isn’t, properly framing expectations for the reader.  After that he discusses history as laboratory and as memory, pointing to the limitations of history as a science but the importance of history as a repository of memory and as a genre of literature.  The author then spends some time rethinking American history as well as addressing the multitude of myths that exist about American history largely because the mythic nature of American history (whether for good or ill) is nearly universal even if the meaning and content of that mythic nature is difficult to agree about.  After a discussion of the relationship between micro and macro historical concerns, the author opens up some brief but fascinating windows on the relationships of America to Europe, capitalism, the city, equality, the founding, the frontier, immigration, liberty, nationalism and federalism, nature, pluralism, redemption, religion, revolution, self-making, and the South.  This fascinating and provocative look at different matters ends with some caveats and a lengthy and worthwhile glimpse at a canon of American history and literature worth reading and appreciating.

As someone who greatly loves American history as a field to study and who regularly looks at both detailed and broadly conceived accounts of various aspects of that history, I found this book to be a very worthwhile one for helping readers in self-education.  Whether one wishes to read great American novels (like the Great Gatsby) as a way of finding more about America, or whether one is interested in regional history or the deeply ambivalent to hostile view of Americans towards concentration in the city or America’s notoriously ambivalent attitudes towards immigration and liberty/equality, this book has something worthwhile and colorful to say.  Not only does the author have some striking insights to make about American history and its relevance for contemporary social and political issues, but the author manages to say it in a colorful and memorable way, such as the author’s memorable quip about how Americans are like a man in love with two women named liberty and equality and often not recognizing that his heart is divided or that liberty and equality are rivals, or the author’s humorous way of pointing out that the South is becoming Americanized as it is simultaneously Southernizing the rest of the United States, which is also something significant.  This book is short but packs some heat, which is just what I like in my books.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: A Student’s Guide To American Political Thought

A Student’s Guide To American Political Thought, by George W. Carey

I am of somewhat mixed feelings regarding this book.  On the one hand, I love the book’s content and have found myself pondering the sort of issues this book discusses concerning the implications of the political thought of the founders on contemporary political issues [1].  On the other hand, though, I  think this book’s focus on the founders might confuse many readers of the book, since I thought it was going to focus on contemporary political thought and not constitutional thought, although there is a great deal of overlap between the two, in that one’s political thought has implications on one’s constitutional thinking and vice versa.  The author is certainly to be praised for grasping the nettle of America’s founding politics and laying out the various views of the American founding that are present in the contemporary academy as well as the author’s own worldview.  Given that the book is about 100 pages, it makes for a quick read and also a genuinely informative one, one that many people will appreciate, especially if they do not come into reading this book with a firm knowledge of the continuing relevance of the constitution on contemporary political thought.

The contents of the book itself are surprisingly focused.  A book as short as this one can either focus on breadth of subjects touched upon or focus in depth on what it views as fundamentals and essentials, and the author of the book has chosen the founding of the United States as the essential aspect of American political history that needs a lot of focus, with less attention paid to the outgrowths of that.  After a short introduction, the author spends a lot of time talking about the “common ground” of discussions of American political thought in the era of the founding, including the search for the deeper meaning of the founding, questions as to whether the founders were sincere or disingenuous in their approach, a look at the broader picture of historical and contemporary comparative political science, the serious complications and multiple influences that the founders dealt with in their own attempts to construct a harmonious republic, the relationship between the Constitution and the Federalist essays, as well as the competing traditions that carry on to this day in the aftermath of the passage of the Constitution.  After this there is discussion about the continuing issues of federalism as well as the challenge of the separation of powers, before the book closes with a discussion on limited government and the thorny problem of virtue.

In looking at this book, there is a lot more that I wanted.  For one, I wanted the author to provide a selection of books that would help the reader to better grasp American political thought, including the writings of the Founding era and the Federalist and Antifederalist papers, which can be found inexpensively, along with some of the most thoughtful discussions of American political history and political philosophy.  I would have liked to have seen more information about the Civil War and the falsity of the connection made both at the time and to the present day by neo-Confederates relating to slavery and state’s rights.  To be sure, some mention is given to these matters, but there is a lot more that could have been said.  However, all of that aside, one reviews not the book one would have preferred to have read, even if it would have been longer and more contentious, but rather the book one has actually read, and even with some reservations about what it does not include, this is still a worthwhile and enjoyable book.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: A Student’s Guide To International Relations

A Student’s Guide To International Relations, by Angelo M. Codevilla

This was the first of fifteen books in this series that I happened to acquire, and it made for an interesting and short read of about 100 pages.  Indeed, I do not think I have ever formally studied IR as a field, but diplomatic history has long been a personal interest of mine and it forms a substantial part of the field as a whole.  I have had philosophical debates with friends of mine who were students in the field about viewpoints and have from time to time read books about the field [1] and written about topics relating to the field.  Perhaps I am not the ideal reader for this book or even this series, but although I am not, I am someone whose approach is certainly amenable to what this book (and presumably the series) is trying to accomplish in encouraging self-education on the part of its readers.  The goal is a noble one and the book serves as a short and rather pointed discussion about the importance of international relations to the history of the United States as well as to our current political situation.

The contents of the book take less than 100 pages to cover an introduction to the field.  The author begins, after a somewhat lengthy introduction to why an American (the presumed audience) would care about International relations, looking at the stage and the characters on it in the post-Westphalian world.  The author writes at some length about regional geography before discussing the international system in history as well as the instruments of power at the hand of players on the international stage.  After this the author talks about contemporary geopolitics region by region, showing a great deal of empathy and insight into the problems faced by various states, before discussing what it means to America at some length.  Particularly interesting are the author’s insights about the relationship between isolationism, neoconservatism, and progressivism when it comes to International Relations, and the ambivalent relationship that the United States has with Europe.  The book ends with some recommended reading that is pretty varied and impressive, including some books that influenced the founding fathers, classics in the field going back to Hugo Grotius’ work, the writings of the founders themselves as well as looks at regional studies and various IR perspectives, and even some classics on non-Western statecraft.

Suffice it to say that someone who takes this book seriously and reads the books recommended will be very versed in the field, and will be able to converse intelligently and thoughtfully with those involved in a wide variety of concerns relating to International Relations, including the history of the field, the historical and contemporary geopolitical issues faced by the United States and other nations (and stateless nations) around the world, and the cultural and political assumptions that sit underneath debates about foreign policy attitudes and choices.  To be sure, the course of action recommended in this book is a rigorous one, more rigorous and broader-minded than that required of undergraduates or even graduates in the field, most of whom appear to have a very narrow base of study that is focused on the perspectives of their professors.  For those who do not have a background in IR but want to be knowledgeable in the field, this book is a good look at what is necessary to become a knowledgeable expert in the field in terms of self-education, allowing one to talk with ease and confidence with others from other worldviews and even other cultural backgrounds.

[1] See, for example:

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The Mysterious Case Of @ChartData

Who is @chartdata?  As someone who probably spends more time on Twitter than is probably good for me, one of the many feeds I follow is one by Chart Data that posts information about songs and albums and artists that are popular on charts in the United States (where I live) and around the world.  For example, throughout the week I will look at feeds that tell me song and album certifications in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and other places, while seeing the movement of songs on and off the charts.  The person/people behind the feed will also post changes in roles, the songs of the summer, and retrospectives that tell us that on this date ___ years ago ____ hit their peak chart position of ____ with the song _____.  I must admit that I am intrigued by these statistics, even when the news is bad news, like some mediocre trap album having all seventeen of its songs chart simultaneously on the Hot 100.  As someone who cares deeply about music charts [1], I find the sort of information provided by this account to be deeply interesting and worthwhile, in that it gives me an efficient way to keep track of what is going on in popular music.

Yet it would appear as if not everyone is content that the mysterious identity of chart data should remain mysterious.  It so happens that not all is going well with the Twitter feed.  As I write this, earlier today the person in charge of the feed wrote the following:  “I appear to have been targeted with false DMCA claims by someone after my personal information. Twitter allows me to file a counter but only by disclosing this info. If anyone knows how to fix this please send a DM otherwise I risk losing the account entirely in the future.”  Regrettably, I was unable to help the person behind this feed with their concern, as I do not know how to fight DMCA related claims that are related to doxing.  For whatever reason, and I do not know nor care about the reasons, the person or people behind @chartdata want to remain private.  I tend to live a pretty public life myself and my opinions and general worldview and bias are openly acknowledged.  Not everyone appreciates it–Amazon, for example, considers me a biased reviewer and refuses to accept my reviews on products–but knowing who I am and what I stand for is not a very difficult task, come what may.

For whatever reason, though, @chartdata wants to remain private.  I am okay with this decision.  Not everyone wants to live a public life where they are subject to intense scrutiny over the way that they spend their time.  Perhaps @chartdata works for Billboard, or a music label, or has a job that may not be considered related to the music industry.  Perhaps they have political or religious beliefs, as I do, that would lead them to be subject to considerable scrutiny and disapproval.  Perhaps they do not want their personal life to become the subject of discourse and would prefer to focus on posting chart data and information.  The why and wherefores of their desire to remain private is private, and I am not privy to the reasoning.  I simply agree that in our world there are many legitimate reasons why someone would want to remain private and have their tweets be judged on their own merits and not the personal standing or opinions or decisions or life of the person making the posts.  If there was ever a time that was an acceptable course of action, it would be in our present days.  When I go to @chartdata, which I do multiple times daily, I am looking for music data and statistics, not anything personal, and that is exactly how I want it to remain.

Yet in a world where there is an increasing desire to make everything about people public, from their purchases and search data to their photographs and random internet comments, where public figures find their third grade behavior under intense scrutiny, the desire to remain intensely private while having a popular online presence is a deeply anomalous one.  To what extent does our personality matter with regards to what we say.  I happen to believe that a message and messenger need not be viewed as synonymous.  If someone is faithfully transmitting data and not infusing it with their own personal commentary, that data can speak for itself and others are free to interpret it however they will.  If we view #peaktrap as a threat to the well-being of society or puzzle over the wide gulf between streaming and radio with regards to what is judged as “popular music,” we are free to draw such inferences as we may from the data, while the person or people providing the data remain hidden.  It should not be necessary for the identity of the account holder to become an issue.  Some of us just want the data to work with, trusting that our own interpretive skills can handle it without the need to puzzle over who is providing us with the information and what their own reasons for doing so are.  Sometimes data should be left to remain data, and if someone wants to share data but not share themselves, who am I to complain?

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: The Education Of A British-Protected Child

The Education Of A British-Protected Child, by Chinua Achebe

As someone who had to read the author’s perennially overrated book Things Fall Apart in high school, and who apparently still somewhat resents the time wasted reading and talking about this book, I felt it worthwhile to read this relatively short collection of the late author’s essays.  That is not to say that I found this book to be uniformly pleasurable or that I agreed with everything that the author had to say, but I did agree with more than I thought I would, and even that which I did not agree with I found to at least be worthwhile in showing the author’s perspective and in wrestling with topics in which i have no direct personal interest but some scholarly interest [1].  As someone who is neither African nor African-American, I view this book and its subjects as an outsider, but although I am a fairly fierce reader of books, I do not think I am lacking in sympathy (even if empathy is beyond me), and so I consider a book like this worth reading even if one is not an insider to the author’s concerns or identity.

In a bit more than 150 pages the author provides a variety of essays.  The author begins in a discussion of British imperialism in Nigeria, and what it meant to be a British-protected child whose country did not come into existence until later on in his life.  The author reflects on what it means to deal with (other) legendary writers, spends a couple of essays pondering on his father as well as on his daughters, and looks at what it means to be recognized.  He offers some tips on how to teach Things Fall Apart so that people who are not African or African-American would be able to relate to the stubbornness and intended nobility of its protagonist Okonkwo.  The author muses on what it was like to travel white in Southern Africa and deal with the ambiguities of race and identity in other places.  He tries to defend Africa from the hostile view many have of its lack of civilization, praises Martin Luther King, makes some trenchant conversations on the politics of language and the failure of Africa’s leaders, and closes with a “Captain Obvious” moment that Africa is people in showing hostility to demands for austerity by the World Bank and related creditors of Africa’s governments.

Where the author is at his most moving is when he talks about his own family and his relationship to other writers and thinkers who have influenced him and who have wrestled with divided identities.  Unfortunately, while the author has a lot of worthwhile things to say about the divisions within Nigeria, and while I certainly favor the Igbo of the author over the Muslim Hausa who have long oppressed them within Nigeria, it seems as if much of the author’s worldview has a rather fatal logical flaw that really bothers me.  On the one hand, the author is an observant viewer of the failures of Africa’s leadership to bring the blessings of Africa’s resources to its people, but on the other hand, the author’s commitment to Marxism and identity politics does not offer a way forward out of the corruption and poverty that the author decries.  The author is wise to want a better life for his children and future generations, and is right to criticize the corrupt leadership of Nigeria and other countries, but he does not have anything better to offer other than criticism of others.  Of course, the reader of the book is in the same position as the author, only able to offer criticism and likely few answers to the seemingly intractable problems Africa faces.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: A Passage To India

A Passage To India, a play by Martin Sherman

It should be noted that what I read and am reviewing here is a play that is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by E.M. Forster that I have not read.  I am going to assume that the plot is basically the same, but this is a play, and it is a book that I managed to find in the stacks of my local library but that was not in the book’s database.  I chose to read the book because I guessed it had something to say about imperialism, and though the story does not appear to be all that compelling when viewed on its own apart from the somewhat heavily freighted, it is easy to see how the story has become a classic because of the influence of anti-imperialism in contemporary studies.  This book is a clear example of what happens with politics trumps the essential elements of a story, and where a book becomes famous and viewed as a classic without really deserving the honor on its own merits.  As much as I am intrigued by India [1], subject matter alone does not make for a classic work.

This play is a two-act drama of about 100 pages in length, and it is mercifully short, because the plot is wafer thin.  When one is used to reading great plays, reading a play like this one of such mediocre content is more than a bit disappointing.  The plot itself is pretty basic–an idealistic young woman from England goes to India to see if she is going to marry a local Anglo-Indian magistrate there.  She finds herself charmed by her potential future mother-in-law, who wants to escape from conflict and who finds the troubles of British imperialism in India too difficult to honestly face, and is taken on a cave expedition that leads her to think herself attacked by her Indian host, Dr. Aziz, only to realize that she had made a dreadful mistake by falsely accusing him, when the case becomes massively and sensationally political.  A great deal of the discussion is tiresome, focusing on the fact that Adela, or Miss Quested, is supposedly some sort of great prig, as if it mattered, and discussing the snobbery among the British population and their hauteur towards their subjects, as if that made a book more interesting to read.

It would be a great disservice if Forster’s work happened to be a good one, since this play is not a very compelling one to read.  If you do not happen to share the author’s worldview, there is not much to enjoy here, since this play is exceptionally heavy-handed in its approach to imperialism.  Most of the English here are not particularly sympathetic, but that is largely because most of them appeared to have worshiped power and not been very good Christians.  Of all the characters in the play, I think I resemble the somewhat gauche but also sympathetic Adela the most, and the fact that the writer is rather harsh towards her makes me less sympathetic towards him and to his work as a whole.  Dr. Aziz and Mrs. Moore are viewed as somewhat sympathetic characters as well, but for the most part this book is strongly lacking in people worth caring about who behave in ways that are worth giving credit to.  The big points in the book are heavily signposted, and amount to bromides about imperialism being bad and honesty being good and all that.  This is a play that was barely worth reading and would not be worth paying for in a theater.

[1] See, for example:

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Antifa: A Case Study In The Ignorance Of History

Admittedly, I don’t write as much history as I intended to when I started this blog.  I write a fair amount of book reviews that relate to history, and a fair amount of music history as well, but not nearly as much in the way of historical analysis that I wish to, because it takes a while to think about and write and because the business of life gets in the way.  That said, there are definitely aspects about our contemporary sociopolitical context that greatly worry me as a student of history.  Among those is the rampant ignorance of history among those who attempt to use it against others.  As someone who lives on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, anytime I see or read the local news, there is almost always some reminder of some kind of Antifa outrage gone wrong, some sign of the leftist of the area going in a particularly horrific direction with baleful consequences for the area where I live.

It is perhaps for the best that hipsters are so fond of irony [1], because there are few ironies in our political scene greater than the fact that a group labeling itself as anti-hate is among the most hateful participants in our contemporary cultural wars, and a group that labels itself Antifa in a professed opposition to the illusory fascism of our present government itself behaves like the SA brown shirts of pre-fascist Germany.  How is it that an avowedly anti-fascist group can mimic so assiduously the tactics of the anarchic but simultaneously well-organized ground troops whose civic disorders helped to encourage Hitler’s rise to power in Germany?  One might argue that Antifa were useful idiots (although useful to whom is perhaps difficult to say), but questions of their idiocy depend on their awareness of history.  To the extent that Antifa is deliberately naming itself in a traditionally ironic leftist way in the way that Democratic Republics of the leftist variety are invariably neither democratic nor republics, we may consider them to be hypocrites, but not idiots.  However, it does not appear as if many antifa supports, especially on the ground level, are that aware of history, although their leaders may be.

There seems to be a widespread blind spot on the left that argues that only those who are right-of center can be fascists.  To be sure, many conservatives (although not I) have read Liberal Fascism, a book that seeks to connect many of the contemporary behaviors of the left with those of fascist regimes of the period during and shortly before World War II.  Yet while it is fairly obvious among those who are more conservative (or more open-minded to historical truth in general–the two may not be exclusive) that fascism is not strictly on the right or the left, no matter how much neo-Nazi movements may be connected with the far right in the United States and elsewhere, it is not so obvious to those on the left.  It should be noted that while some people define facism as “an authoritiarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government and social organization,” as my web browser helpfully tells me, in general use it is used to label practices or views that are authoritarian, oppressive, or intolerant.  And while the first definition would appear to exclude contemporary leftists who are certainly not nationalistic in their views, it certainly does include antifa in its second direction, given the oppressive and intolerant nature of the contemporary left.

How would a better understanding of history help us with the scourge of the ironically fascist anti-fascists among us?  Historical perspective could help out in multiple ways.  For one, a better understanding of history would allow people to realize that the public position of avowedly racist groups is not simply a matter of contemporary society but has a long history in the United States, even if not a positive history.  Such knowledge as the presence of xenophobic public protests in the early 1990’s or the popularity of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920’s could put contemporary white nationalism in its proper context as a fringe and extreme minority, and not something worth disrupting the peace of our republic for.  Additionally, a better understanding of the attempts of Hitler and his associates in using urban disorder through the brown shirts of the SA in encouraging the rise of law-and-order support for his party would remind contemporary imitators (whether intentionally or not) of the SA that history generally is not kind to those who are on the side of disorder in supporting the rise of authoritarian regimes.  After all, the SA was decimated in the night of the long knives when Hitler realized that the SS was better suited than the SA to being his paramilitary group of choice once power was achieved.  It is very possible that contemporary leftism could make the same sort of choice to strike against those whose urban behavior has been such a troublesome aspect of contemporary political activity in our own society.  If those who were a part of Antifa were more aware of the tragic history of the brownshirts, they would likely be a lot less interested in copying their example, or in exposing to the world their ignorance of history by adopting fascist behavior under the name of avowed anti-fascism.

[1] See, for example:

Posted in American History, History, Musings | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Book Review: Delights And Shadows

Delights And Shadows, by Ted Kooser

This book was a well-earned winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2004.  After having read two previous books by this poet, I figured that I had a pretty good sense of the kind of writer he was, and that sense generally found itself present here, as the author had a wide variety of inspiration and his poetry was deeply reflected and highly colored with melancholy.  At less than 90 pages, this is a short book of poetry [1], as many books of poetry are, and it is a deeply enjoyable one.  Yet its enjoyment is not the sort of enjoyment one gets from something that is happy, but rather the enjoyment that comes from recognizing the poetry as authentic and deeply moving.  And as someone who can certainly be moved by poetry, whether as a reader of it or as a writer, this poetry is the sort that I imagine comes particularly well from someone who has lived a long life and is reflecting on death and loss, as well as delight.  Perhaps it is a bad thing to reflect upon loss, in that it can remind us of our own griefs, but this task is done well enough here that it seems churlish to complain.

The slightly more than 80 poems in this collection are divided into four sections.  The first section is called “Walking On Tiptoe” and contains poems about subjects as diverse as a visit to the cancer clinic, tattoos, and visiting a cosmetics department of a store, as well as rainy mornings and mourners.  The second section, “The China Painters,” includes the titular poem as well as reflections on memory, the author’s mother and father, dishwater and depression glass, as well as creamed corn and an old cemetery.  The third section, “Bank Fishing For Bluegills,” contains poems about turkey vultures and and a moth as well as the home medical dictionary, as well as what is, I think, the book’s best poem overall, a musing on four Civil War paintings by Winslow Homer.  The fourth and final section, “That Was I,” gives the reader a chance to look at an unsuccessful garage sale, starlight, a spiral notebook that contains too many subjects for the lives of its elderly writers, and a glimpse of the eternal.  The poems in general are reflective and meditative and deeply thoughtful and creative.

It is hard to know what audience would be most appreciative of a book of poetry like this one.  To be sure, poets in general are read mostly by other poets, and the fact that I both read and write poetry a fair bit is probably not coincidental.  Yet aside from the normal audience of other poets–who were quick to appreciate this book and recognize its excellence–it is hard to tell who exactly would most appreciate this book.  Those who can relate to the author’s musings on death, loss, illness, approaching night, and related subjects likely could write similar musings themselves.  And those who would do best to gain wisdom and insight from these meditative pieces, including the pieces on the Civil War and the way that the author makes a painting come alive by putting himself in the place of the subjects of the paintings, are likely those whose youth and vitality would delude them into thinking that they will last forever until the moment that they vanish irrevocably.  Perhaps it is best that a book like this exists, to be enjoyed and appreciated by whoever comes along with the right frame of mind to appreciate both its shadows and its delights.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: Flying At Night

Flying At Night:  Poems 1965-1985, by Ted Kooser

This is the second book by the poet I have read, and it serves as a bit of a “best of” compilation, something that is common in poetry [1].  While it is certainly a very worthwhile collection of most excellent poetry, it is by no means an easy book to recommend for all readers.  The particular excellence of this book consists of the poet’s dark reflections on death, illness, and the ravages of time, as well as the triviality of the lives of so many people.  Perhaps ironically, the author’s turning of the material of contemporary life into moving poetry serves to point out how trivial most people’s understanding of their existence is, because he manages to make experiences that are neglected or forgotten into poetry of the highest order.  When someone can write moving poetry on book clubs, walking to work, and the basement of a Goodwill store, no one has any excuse to view anything as beneath poetic excellence and attention, as is often the case for many.  These poems may not be fun to read, but they are certainly worth reading and reflecting on and serving as the inspiration for one’s own musings.

The nearly 150 pages of poems here, including nearly as many poems, are divided into two sections, with the titles of “Sure Signs” and “One World At A Time.”  The author sets the tone for the book from the first poem, which shows the author selecting a reader who enjoys the poems and looks through them but figures that for the price of the book she can spend it on something more useful, and then she does.  Other poems reflect on the seasons, the country of the midwest, dying at work, people with various ailments like hobbled feet and hearing aids, and even such matters as having to take a urine sample in order to get a job.  Some poets may be accused of writing about recondite subjects that are far too obscure or estoeric for ordinary readers, but the poetry of Kooser manages to strike the right touch between short impressionistic sketches as well as realistic portrayals of prosaic lives.  The poetry manages to be both beautiful as well as relatable, and the author even manage to write about politics without causing offense, something that is rarely even attempted at present.

This poetry is certainly better to read for free, by reading a library copy, rather than paying for, but all the same it is worth more than just reading.  This is the sort of poetry that hopefully has inspired at least some of its readers to write.  For the artist, every experience or observation is fuel for art, and that is clearly the case here.  As someone who has written poetry on the broken doors of office restrooms or the broken software that companies use, the poems are definitely ones that I can appreciate as someone whose on poetic beat and approach are not very far from this one.  To be sure, these poems were published more than thirty years ago, but they feel fresh, in large part because they are written about the author’s observations and experience and still feel like stories told as memories.  Given the wide variety in time as well as subject matter as well as the author’s winsome manner in writing and his wry and ironic tone, this book is certainly a pleasure to read.  Any poet who can switch from talking to a late-marrying widow who wanted to keep her husband’s smelly feet against him like a chit until he died while working on the farm to writing about how to clean a bass and then what it is like to get to the office early deserves one’s respect and regard.

[1] See, for example:

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