When History Becomes Family History: Part Two

I did not realize until last night that my post on finding people in the church with whom I was connected by family ties [1] would be a regular phenomenon, but here goes.  Yesterday at church I had a fairly Nathanish day.  The choir sang, and I thought we performed well, and I found myself teased in the usual fashion by the people speaking–by the gentleman giving the announcements because I would not be there to help serve as a backstop for him next week when he was giving the Bible Study.  After church, though, I was invited to come to dinner at home with my cousins with whom I will be staying with for the next month as is my fashion, even though we had a retired minister who served as our guest.  Of course, the guest was late, mainly because he refused to follow the directions given and wandered all over creation and ended up about an hour and a half late, by which point we had already eaten.

Admittedly, this sort of dinner party is the sort that deeply interests me.  After all, dinner parties [2] are a place where I cannot only play the raconteur and share my own humorous stories, which I need little encouragement to do, but it is also a place for me to listen to the stories of others and gain some understanding and sympathy with the people I am eating with.  Since I enjoy understanding as much as I like being understood, that is quite alright by me, and while some people might have been made uncomfortable by the sort of conversation partner we had, I found it worthwhile to acquire some humorous stories and enjoy the conversation of someone who liked to talk about themselves, at any rate.

But, as is my fashion sometimes, I realized before too long that I was acquiring more than just entertaining stories about famous and important people and a high degree of bragging that would be unseemly in a sermon message but is not terribly uncommon in personal conversation.  Towards the end of the conversation, we spoke about the Puritan elite from which we are all descended in our own ways.  Our guest spoke about being descended from the Dudleys, among the first royal governing families of the Massachusetts Bay colony and notorious for corruption–to which I pointed one of the Bailyn books we had around that talked about it–and he mentioned that he was descended from George Washington’s grandfather, Lawrence Washington.  This morning, though, my cousin and I discovered that if he was indeed descended from Lawrence Washington that we were related because we were both cousins with him through his wife, who was descended through our common Spencer family.

When I told the story of how I was related to my hosts to another one of my friends, the reply was that my world is too small, and that is indeed true.  My world is indeed too small, and it is continually getting smaller.  Yet it is getting smaller in rather striking ways.  To find three previously unconnected family lines all coalesce in the same small Spencer ancestors suggests a few worthwhile and strange areas of thought.  How is it that a retired minister, a vagadondish person from the East, and a native-born Oregonian would be related to the same exact family in the England of the sixteenth century?  This is definitely we mystery well worth solving, and to my mind it suggests several possible conclusions.  For one, it suggests a possibility that anyone who can connect their family to the interconnected elites of colonial America and early Reformation England can probably connect themselves to others because of the endogamy elites tend to show.  For another, it raises the possibility of God having worked with a common ancestor of us whose faith opened the way for God to work with anyone who would hear His word however far off they may be, as it was promised in Acts 2.

There are different ways we can react to this interconnectedness.  For one, I find it deeply of interest that I am connected to this retired pastor through the same precise line that is connected to my hosts, and that connects us all to such people as George Washington and the Spencer-Churchills of high English nobility and royalty.  Not everyone is as interested in such matters, but whether one views my friends and acquaintances and I as “illuminati-confirmed” because we are connected to the same elite families that end up providing so much leadership as far as politics and institutions are concerned or to view it as the opportunity for discovering the specific people we are related to and figuring out what kind of larger spiritual importance they may have is, I suppose, up to others.  I now leave the verdict in your hands, dear readers, whether it is a good thing or a bad thing that my world should be such a small place where I have so few strangers and have so many connections of such concern with a small band of Anglo-American elites.

[1] https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/06/08/when-history-becomes-family-history/

[2] See, for example:





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Book Review: Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith, by Robert V. Remini

As part of his large selection of writings about Antebellum American history, this book from the Penguins Lives series serves as a thoughtful and mild biography of one of the most fascinating but also problematic American religious figures in history.  Now, anyone who knows my own life story will realize that I have a deep and abiding interest in the fascinating and problematic aspects of American religious history [1], and this book certainly fits that bill.  The author openly admits that he is not a Mormon and thus tips his hand as to how he approaches its subject, but he decides to write his history based on the largely pro-Mormon accounts he has available and lets the reader decide how skeptical they want to be.  I happen to think that he was pretty skeptical himself about Smith’s claims and I happen to be as well, but those readers who are inclined to desire a pro-Mormon history will see that there is at least some genuine respect for Smith and his followers as well as considerable and extensive criticism of their views of history and their behavior and the general financial shadiness of Smith’s short life.

This short book of less than 200 pages is divided into nine chapters that give a chronological discussion of Joseph’s Smith’s background and life.  Remini opens with a discussion of the context of Smith’s childhood in the Second Great Awakening (1) and in his own parents’ high degree of private religious belief as well as considerable recourse to superstition.  After that the author talks about the supposed first vision (2) of Joseph Smith and his enigmatic relationship with the supposed angel Moroni (3), whose name it is difficult not to pun in relation to the credulity of those who followed Smith.  A discussion of the Book of Mormon (4) follows that manages to avoid talking about the plagiarism accusations that have long dogged it and even manages to take “reformed Egyptian” script unironically.  After this the author talks about the difficulties in organizing the Church of Christ (5) in New York before discussing the slow migration of Mormons westward first to Kirkland, Ohio (6) where there was some difficulty involving a failed bank and then the move to Far West, Missiouri (7), and then Nauvoo, Illinois (8), where the movement grew to a large size and eventually faced the opposition that would lead to the assassination of Joseph Smith (9) [2].

What makes this book most interesting from the point of view of the non-Mormon reader is that the author manages to pinpoint some of the qualities that made Smith’s beliefs most appealing to people, including the way that it provided a distinctly American answer to questions of great political importance and also combined a focus on the family with occult ideas, racism, and a high-minded communitarian ideal as well as a strong interest in genealogy.  The author praises the human qualities of Joseph Smith that made him something other than a plaster saint and also comments that many of the pro-Mormon sources that one reads play up the sense of hostility that Joseph Smith inspired among others for all of his life up to his death, providing a sense of dramatic foreshadowing as well as attempting to encourage the sort of immunity to social pressure that comes from musing on one’s status as an outcast and a misfit in a dangerous and hostile world.  Overall, despite the unpleasant nature of some of Smith’s behavior, including his adoption of the doctrine of plural marriage for LDS elites and the weirdness of magic underwear, the author manages to write about his subject with a surprising degree of respect and regard.

[1] See, for example:





[2] See, for example:


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Book Review: John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams, by Robert Remini

For a variety of reasons, I have always been very interested in John Quincy Adams.  He is is precisely the sort of presidents that many contemporary liberals wish they had, and also someone who was lamentably far better at everything (except being a husband and father) than he was as a president of the United States.  His interest in public service and the fact that he spent almost all of his life in the employment of the government as a diplomat and politician gave him a rather high view of what government could do for others that is not something I tend to share.  He was, moreover, a rather stiff and formal person who was nonetheless eloquent when speaking out against the slave power against the Gag Rule and in the Armistad case, both high points of his post-presidential career.  His work as a diplomat on behalf of the United States and as Monroe’s Secretary of State was nothing less than superb, and he was certainly the least corrupt political figure of his time, so there is a great deal to appreciate about him regardless of the distance between his political views and my own [1].

In this short book of less than 200 pages, the author continues his tour through antebellum American political history by writing a short and excellent biography on the life and career of John Quincy Adams.  The book takes a chronological approach to its subject and points out the author’s approval of most aspects of the author’s life and political service, although not his political savvy or his demanding ways as a father.  Remini begins with a discussion of Adams’ privileged but demanding childhood (1) and then looks at the way he found a career as a lawyer (a profession he hated) before moving into electoral politics (2).  After that he examines the move JQA made from Federalist to Democratic-Republican (3) and his influential time as an immensely successful Secretary of State (4).  The election of 1824 (5) precedes four chapters that deal with his unsuccessful presidency, a look at his misguided principles for highly wonky policies that were out of step with the larger American population (and in many cases still are nearly two centuries later) (6), Adams’ efforts at being fair-minded with regards to Indian Removal (7), his diplomatic successes and failures (8), and the controversy over the supposed “tariff of abominations” that brought South Carolina to national attention (9).  A discussion of the immensely bitter and nasty campaign of 1828, the nastiest campaign until at least 2016 (10) precedes Adams’ successful time as a US Representative for his home district in Massachusetts (11) and his victorious career as an advocate for freedom (12) before his death in 1848.

What this book succeeds at particularly well is making John Quincy Adams into a human figure rather than a caricature, which is all too easy to imagine happening in either his own time or our own.  Resistant to the bossiness of his harpy of a mother (the famous Abigail Adams), he proved to be just as demanding and harsh a father to his own children and an immensely awkward husband to his wife, a woman who shrewdly saw that despite his flaws he was certainly a worthwhile catch.  He was widely read but considered himself to lack intellectual depth, and he was deeply shaped by being a bookish intellectual with a lifetime of public service and very little experience in the private sector.  He represents the sort of intellect that is highly praised by scholars but not particularly skilled when it comes to winning elections or dealing with other people in a gracious and warm fashion.  For all of his successes, this book has a great deal of tragedy running through it, as one realizes that he could have been of so much more use to his country and to his family if he had a bit more sense and a bit less of that brutal combination of intellectual arrogance and withering self-criticism.  Such is the life, though.

[1] See, for example:





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How To Appeal To Nathan Albright: A Case Study In Logos, Ethos, And Pathos

As someone who reads many books and is generally critical about much of what I encounter, I often wonder about what grounds something would appeal to me.  According to the rhetorical classifications of the Greeks [1], there are three basic grounds by which we appeal to someone.  In a logos appeal, we seek to appeal to someone through reasoned arguments, convincing them that our view is the most rational.  In an ethos appeal, we present ourselves as someone who is trustworthy and decent and honorable, and therefore worthy of respect as a person.  Lastly, in a pathetic appeal, we seek to motivate someone else to pity on our behalf.  By and large I tend to find that most pathetic appeals leave me cold where there are no other elements besides pity that I am expected to latch on to, but perhaps I am getting a bit ahead of the story.

Being someone who fancies himself to be a generally reasonable and rational person, it is fairly easy for a strong logos appeal to win my approval.  Let us take for example the case of Fredèric Basitat, the noted French libertarian economic philosopher of the mid-19th century.  During my teenage years I read his classic work “The Law,” and more recently I re-read that book and read several of his other volumes, and one thing that marks his works is their strong attention to logos.  Whatever you know or think about Bastiat as a person–and my thoughts of his personal dignity and honor are high–he knew how to craft an unassailable argument in favor of free trade that was hostile to imperialism, protectionism, and socialism.  His firm understanding of the difference between that which is seen and the unseen and hidden hand of providence as well as cause and effect makes his work quite excellent to read.  I feel the same way, it should be noted, about Adam Smith, especially in the latter volumes of his masterpiece The Wealth of Nations.  When someone shows a soundness of thinking, an awareness of repercussions and context, and a thorough attention to often neglected details that is logically consistent, my favor is not hard to reach.  By and large, I view a logical appeal as a rather winsome one, although I should note that there are a great many people who think of their appeals as logical when they are not, because they are based on flawed premises that are unadmitted and unexamined.  Generally, my favor is not won over when someone fancies themselves a logical debater when they are not, and that is unfortunately all too often.  Worldview errors in particular detract a great deal from my enjoyment of someone’s writing and argumentation.

Even so, there are ways in which I can be won over by an acceptance of a person even if I do not accept their position or their arguments.  This is an example of an appeal to ethos.  I could believe that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream of equality between the ethnicities of the United States even if I considered his expressions to that effect largely plagiarized from a previous black speaker and even if I found his personal life and even ethics to be questionable concerning his proclivities towards intellectual theft.  This is perhaps as charitable as I am willing to be in such matters.  On a more positive note, I recently finished a book by a Catholic writer named John Zmirak, and while I am by no means a friend of Catholicism or accepting of his arguments about tradition and magisterium and rules of faith or anything of that matter,  I was won over by his appeal to ethos, by his discussion of himself and others of his kind as being principled people with whom I find a great deal of agreement as well as mutual understanding as beleaguered traditionalists who have had to wrestle with corrupt authoritarian religious authorities.  I certainly have dealt with more than my quota of corrupt religious authorities during the course of my life, and on those grounds I was won over by the ethical value of the writer’s opinion, so that even if I did not consider myself favorite to Catholicism as a whole, I certainly did find myself to feel positively about the author and those within Catholicism who feel and think as he does concerning matters of common moral and political interest.  And sometimes, that is enough.

However, I do not generally find appeals to pathos to be very successful, nor would I recommend this avenue for someone who wishes to win my approval.  This became particularly noticeable to me (and no doubt to many others as well) when I engaged in a discussion with some friends of mine concerning the issue of illegal immigration.  Throughout the week a great many people were trying to encourage in me a feeling of compassion towards people who had been separated from their families on account of their violation of immigration laws.  Such people said that Jesus would not cruelly demand the enforcement of such laws and looked forward to a time when there would be no such thing as illegal immigration in the world to come.  On the contrary, I pointed out that God has always taken borders seriously [2].  On the contrary, I found the appeals to logos and ethos on the part of those who pointed that criminals repeatedly find themselves separated from their families on this side of the border, so why should it be any different when one breaks immigration laws as opposed to any other kind of laws.  Those who, like me, are highly wary and suspicious of appeals to our pathos found ourselves unmoved by the attempt of the mainstream media to manufacture artificial outrage about the enforcement of laws that have languished without proper enforcement for far too long.

What can we learn from this?  If we separate appeals based on appeals to reason/logic, appeals to the character of the person speaking, and tugs on our heartstrings, I am far less amenable to those who attempt to move me emotionally than those who can demonstrate a character I can identify with or an argument I find convincing.  No doubt other people find different appeals more successful than others.  No doubt there are many people who are far more sympathetic than I am.  There are people whose character would be winning to me who would be quite offensive and irritating to others.  There are also arguments I find wanting that others would find convincing because others would accept the premises of the people making those arguments where I do not.  We live in a world of increasing disagreements and decreasing abilities to understand where we and others are coming from, or why we have such disagreements as we do.  It would be good for us from time to time to examine ourselves to better understand where it is that we can be convinced either to agree with someone’s opinion or to view them as someone who is on our side or someone we can approve of, and what arguments are entirely useless for winning our favor and assent?  After all, we live in a world where people are continually trying to sell us on something, and it is worthwhile for us to know on what grounds we can be sold arguments or anything else, because it is on those grounds where we will find ourselves most influenced by the marketplace of goods and ideas around us.

[1] See, for example:






[2] To wit, when God visited Moses on Mt. Sinai he warned the children of Israel on pain of death not to touch the mountain he landed on.  Likewise, the children of Israel were forbidden, again on pain of death, not to touch the Ark of the Covenant under any circumstances, and God was not particularly moved by pathetic appeals or excuses by those who failed to respect the borders between the holy and the profane.  God takes boundaries seriously, and so should we.

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Book Review: Andrew Jackson And His Indian Wars

Andrew Jackson And His Indian Wars, by Robert V. Remini

At the beginning of this book, the author states that he doesn’t want to write another book about Andrew Jackson.  I can certainly sympathize with his issue, for this is the third book by the author that touches on the career of Andrew Jackson and like the proverbial advice to a bride on her wedding day, this book has something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.  There are definitely some areas where this book echoes and perhaps even copies the author’s previous writings on Andrew Jackson [1].  There are other areas where the author spends some time dealing with topics that he did not address in either of the first two works about Andrew Jackson that he wrote, going into a great deal of detail about Indian Removal, areas that may greatly sadden many readers who dislike the author’s resolute realism that paints Jackson’s behavior as the most humane possible option for the cultural survival of the civilized tribes of the American South, something that will be difficult for many idealistic readers to accept.  As for me, I found this book to be an appropriate mix of hardheaded realism and detailed historical analysis, and that is something I approve of in general as well as in this particular case.

This book of about 300 pages is divided into seventeen chapters that cover the wide expanse of Andrew Jackson’s dealings over the course of his lives with the indigenous peoples of the United States.  The author begins with the making of an Indian fighter in the rural areas of North and South Carolina (1) and cover his initial experiences as a young man in the militia fighting the Cherokees, Chickasaws and Creeks in Tennessee and the Old Southwest (2).  After this the author talks about the abortive mission to New Orleans that led to Jackson acquiring the nickname Old Hickory (3), Jackson’s leadership during the Creek War (4), and Jackson’s sharp diplomacy that gave him the name “Sharp Knife” after he took half of the land of the Creek in the draconian peace after that war (5).  Jackson’s somewhat inaccurate claim to be the friend and brother of the native peoples (6) as a commissioner to help make peace treaties between the United States and various tribes (7) then follows before the author discusses Jackson’s efforts to cease Florida (8) which triggered the First Seminole War (9).  Jackson’s successful efforts to despoil the Chickasaws (10) and Choctaws (11) precedes a discussion of Jackson’s ultimately successful efforts to be elected President (12).  Several chapters then cover the Indian Removal Act (13), Jackson’s advice to the tribes to move peacefully to the west rather than be overwhelmed by insatiable white demands for land to settle on (14), Jackson’s legal struggles with the Cherokee nation (15), and the costly struggle of the Second Seminole War (16) before the author closes with a fair and balanced discussion of Jackson’s troubled but realistic legacy regarding Native Americans (17).

It is an often-cited but equally often ignored truism that politics is the art of the possible.  Andrew Jackson has fallen under a great deal of contemporary disdain for his tough-minded approach to solving the problem of cultural differences between the indigenous people of North America and the European-American settlers he was a part of by presenting the tribes of the Eastern United States with the choice of either staying and assimilating to the dominant American culture or getting out of the way.  Like the author, I believe that there are no easy answers when it comes to massive cultural divides, and that if there is no assimilation and open conflict is to be avoided that some degree of separation is necessary.  We see the same issue with regards to the contemporary divides within American society, and it is little wonder that people should find it intolerable to be close to those whom they cannot respect and cannot get along with.  If such a thing is true in our own time, how can we condemn Jackson for acting on that truth almost two centuries ago when he served as a racist but hardly cruel and wicked representative of American culture to its native people regarding the troubled relationship between ancestral rights and the irresistible pressures of demography.

[1] See, for example:





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Book Review: Andrew Jackson: A Biogrpahy

Andrew Jackson:  A Biography (Great Generals Series), by Robert V. Remini

The late historian Robert Remini did a good job at writing about the history of the early American republic and in particular the career of Andrew Jackson [1], and this book is certainly a good one albeit a short work of only about 200 pages or so and a book with a narrow focus on the military career of Andrew Jackson.  I found the work to be an interesting and worthwhile one, especially because as a historian myself I have a strong interest in the history of the 19th century and this definitely fits the bill of being a worthwhile text within that context.  Any time I can find a work that provides a thoughtful examination of military history and the skills of a general that can be learned from, I am generally an appreciative reader and that is certainly the case here.  Remini, moreover, manages to praise Jackson as an inspirational leader without glossing over his faults and flaws as a leader within the republican context of American military history and that is an admirable work in terms of its honesty as well even if this work has some unsettling implications.

This short work is divided into six chapters.  Before these begin there is a foreword by General Wesley Clark and an introduction by the the author that places Jackson’s military service in the context of his harrowing Revolutionary War experience where he was orphaned and deeply wounded by the British.  After that the author discusses Jackson’s initial rise to prominence in the political and military world of early 19th century Tennessee as an Indian fighter in that brutal combat over the expansion of settlers into native hunting grounds (1).  This leads quite naturally to Jackson’s generally exemplary work as a leader in the Creek War (2), which led to the massive rise of settlement in the old southwest due to draconian peace terms.  A lengthy chapter quite properly addresses Jackson’s success at the Battle of New Orleans (3), placing that battle in its proper context by showing how a defensive victory on favorable terrain was the result of a long and wide-ranging campaign.  The author then spends some time examining Jackson’s controversial efforts in the First Seminal War (4) and the end of military service as he accepted the office of territorial governor of Florida (5), which is an area of his career that not many people are aware of.  The author then closes with a look at Jackson’s legacy (6) as a leader who inspired his troops and focused on the placing of overwhelming force against one’s opponents to ensure victory.

Overall, this is an excellent work in that it demonstrates the importance of ambition to Jackson’s military career.  Seemingly a born leader, Jackson viewed the military as a way to defend his beloved country and to rise up in the world and receive the respect and honor of others.  His care for and concern for his men and his willingness to share in their sufferings led him to develop a strong concern for logistics and his autocratic and sharply honed sense of conviction in the rightness of his position made him an occasionally insubordinate officer who bristled at the occasionally incompetent and unwise demands of civilian superiors.  Likewise, this book demonstrates how Jackson’s military prowess and political prowess fed into each other and how despite his very modest educational background, his intuitive understanding of the longings and desires of the American people at large gave him a lasting and successful political career that included two terms as president of the United States of America as well as a starring role in the expansion of American settlement and plantation slavery over the area of Mississippi, Alabama, parts of Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida.

[1] See, for example:




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Let’s Wait Awhile

From time to time I like to discuss songs that are immensely culturally significant, and today I would like to tackle what is perhaps my favorite Janet Jackson song, her 1980’s classic ballad “Let’s Wait Awhile.”  From time to time I write about Janet Jackson here in a few contexts, including her grossly undeserving snub from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and even an album review [1].  Today, though, I would like to examine the song “Let’s Wait Awhile” and put it in context.  I will be writing here both as a moralist (perhaps an unusual perspective to look at the music of Janet Jackson) as well as a textual critic who believes in taking the words of people seriously and trying to understand their meaning as charitably but also as honestly as possible.  Both of these perspectives, I think, are useful in understanding this song and its place within the body of work that Janet Jackson has made over the past thirty to forty years.

“Let’s Wait Awhile” was the fifth single off of Janet Jackson’s Control album, and the song ended up reaching #2 on the charts and landing at #50 at that year’s Year-End Hot 100.  In terms of its content, for which it has been remembered and for which it was used for larger political purposes at the time, the song is definitely a message song.  Overall, it is a somber ballad that shows a breathy and somewhat fragile-voiced Janet Jackson urging the lover in the song to hold off and not be so pushy.  Thematically, the song points to an interesting aspect of the album’s theme as a whole, in that part of the control that Janet Jackson (and one of her co-writers on the song, whose relationship is the personal context for the song) seeks is control over her sexuality.  Given the larger importance of sexuality in the career and music of Janet Jackson, this is an important point that we will discuss at much greater length anon.  Overall, the lyrics of the song express a strong sense of caution when it comes to sexuality and the singer expresses her desire not to push things too far too fast.

It is perhaps inevitable given the timing of the song’s release that it quickly became more than a personal message song and became caught up in the larger social debate over abstinence.  Indeed, the song was taken as a theme for abstinence and an encouragement of people to avoid promiscuous sexuality given the fear of AIDS during the mid 1980’s as that disease was coming to the public consciousness.  This political importance likely was a mixed blessing for Janet Jackson.  On the one hand, it made the song a lot more socially relevant and certainly gave Janet Jackson a great deal of cultural importance as a spokesperson giving her perspective on a woman refraining from sex with a partner who is pressuring her into it.  That said, as is often the case, the singer’s own views towards sexuality were far more complicated than the way the song was straightforwardly interpreted as an ode to abstinence.  The singer wasn’t saying “let’s wait forever” and expressing a desire to become a nun, or even “let’s wait until marriage,” but rather “let’s wait awhile.”  In terms of its meaning, the song is rather close to Monica’s similarly successful #1 hit “The First Night,” where Monica opines that she wants to get down–i.e. enjoy sexuality–but not on the first night.

This dilemma is a profound one, especially for women.  Let us make no mistake about it, because Janet Jackson has not been shy about discussing the subject in her music, that Janet Jackson was and is a sexual woman.  On “Miss You Much,” she sings that she is not the kind of girl who likes to be alone.  On “Twenty Foreplay,” she sings about how long she likes lovemaking to last–namely as long as possible, and on “Any Time, Any Place,” she is quite forthright about her desire to express her sexuality with a partner wherever and whenever she can.  Yet with all of Janet Jackson’s forthrightness about her desire for sexual intimacy, a desire that appears to be extremely common among both men and women, there is a note of caution here.  Quite understandably, Janet wants her enjoyment of sexuality to be within certain boundaries and under her control, as it were.  She wants to enjoy that sexuality often with a loyal and loving partner who is enraptured by her and not simply using her for his own satisfaction or spreading his attention and affections elsewhere.  Janet Jackson in her career is trying to find that middle ground between the virgin and the whore, someone whose sexuality is the source of intimacy and personal enjoyment but not someone who is viewed as a piece of meat.

It is somewhat baffling to me how difficult this has to be.  Admittedly, I speak as someone who is similarly stuck in my own dilemmas in terms of simultaneously seeking and fearing intimacy, and that sort of double bind gives me a great deal of empathy for others who struggle with the matter as well.  For there is no doubt, if one looks at the career of Janet Jackson, that she has struggled with the dilemma of wanting to express and enjoy her sexuality but also keep it within certain boundaries and under her control.  And Janet Jackson has seen both sides of the cultural conversation about sexuality and been an object lesson about both abstinence and sexuality run amok.  “Let’s Wait Awhile” shows her engaged in a conversation where she is trying to overcome the pressure to have sex too soon with someone who is not committed and loyal.  In her notorious Super Bowl performance, we see her as a woman struggling with the double standard that let Justin Timberlake off without any consequences for having ripped her top off (and presumably he was supposed to only rip off the first layer of the top and leave her with some sort of bra for her performance) while more or less ending her career on pop radio so far.  In neither case, though, was she seen as a woman with complicated and nuanced thoughts and feelings about sexuality, but in both cases her words and actions were viewed as a symbol and as a message that she was not trying to send.  And that leaves me with a frequently melancholy thought, only brightened by the fact that Janet has continued to make music and continued to demonstrate that she wishes to define who she is for herself and not let herself simply be used by others, whether it is for their sexual longings or their desires to push her into a dishonest cultural narrative that fails to recognize who she is as a woman.

[1] See, for example:




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Book Review: Passion In The Pulpit

Passion In The Pulpit:  How To Exegete The Emotion Of Scripture, by Jerry Vines and Adam Dooley

[Note:  This book was provided free of charge by Moody Publishers/Net Gallery.  All thoughts and opinions are my own.]

Like many readers of this book, I come to this volume having read the author’s previous two books on important qualities speakers need with regards to homiletics [1].  It should be noted, though, that this particular book focuses much more on the concern of rhetoric than previous books did.  If previous books were all about the rhetorical approach of speakers, it was done in a way that did not require a great deal of knowledge or interest in the forms of classic Greco-Roman rhetoric.  In this book, though, it is clear that the author wishes to focus on Christian pathos in giving sermon messages and its connection to ethos and logos.  Obviously, these are matters of great importance, in that emotionally fraught manipulation is all too common in our present world and that all too many people give sermon messages without an understanding or appropriate use of pathos, including the biblical pathos that exists in passages.  By and large, though, I must admit that as a student and occasional practitioner of rhetoric that I certainly came to this volume with a great deal of sympathy and understanding of the authors’ aims.

In terms of its structure and contents, this book is about 200 pages, of similar length to the first two books in the trilogy.  The book consists of twelve chapters that show a similar structure and a unified intent to encourage the use of biblical pathos among preachers in their exegetical messages.  The authors begin with three chapters that examine the context and dangers of pathos in spiritual communication, by pointing out that pathos is a missing dimension in many messages (1), that we have to be aware of personality-driven preaching that draws attention to us rather than communicating the truths of scripture to our audience (2) and avoiding emotional manipulation but rather motivating our audience to repentance and obedience (3).  The next five chapters discuss various approaches that help a speaker to better understand the emotional pathos of a text, such as knowing genre (4), probing the vocabulary and syntax of a given passage (5), examining the world behind (6) and in front of (7) the text, and gauging the reactions one has to reading the text (8).  A transition chapter discusses the issue of authenticity and hypocrisy in heartfelt preaching (9) before the authors conclude with three chapters that discuss verbal (10), vocal (11), and visual (12) strategies to move the audience.  In the book as I read it the supplementary material like the foreword and acknowledgements were missing.  Moreover, each chapter ends with a section by co-author Jerry Vines.

Although I was sympathetic to the authors in reading this book, I found much about the book that was unnecessarily irritating.  For one, almost all of the sections from Jerry Vines focused on himself as a great expert of biblically driven pathos.  I found it somewhat off-putting for the author to consider himself an expert on rhetoric and wished for a more humble approach that sought to bring more glory to God.  The authors’ attempt to portray themselves as experts on biblical pathos was greatly hindered by their deliberately antinominan approach–where they deliberately denigrated the importance of God’s laws to contemporary believers, except for their passion to receive the tithes of their brethren.  Apparently the only laws of God that they are passionate about defending are the laws that give them money.  The fact that the authors approach the intersection of logos and pathos from a Southern Baptist perspective means that those who have a very different understanding of the Bible from the authors are left in a position of being critical of the authors and of their self-confidence in their own mastery of biblical truth and its proper emotional expression from the pulpit.

[1] See, for example:



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Book Review: Made For His Pleasure

Made For His Pleasure:  Benchmarks Of A Vital Faith, by Alistair Begg

[Note:  This book was provided free of charge by Moody Publishers/Net Gallery.  All thoughts and opinions are my own.]

This is the sort of book that I would want to like but a situation where the author’s approach makes it hard to really like this book as much as I want to.  It is hard to know where the blame for this lies.  To be sure, I am an extremely oversensitive reader, and that can make for rough reviews [1] from time to time.  And there is certainly room for some of that year.  For example, when the author talks about godly marriage, I took it as somewhat of an insult that not only did the author assume that the reader was likely married but also that an unmarried man is, by definition, immature and not having passed fully into adulthood.  Perhaps, in such cases, the author did not mean to insult his unmarried readers, but it is just as likely that he never thought about that sort of perspective at all.  Indeed, the author as a whole seems to have a presuppositional sort of approach where he assumes the validity of his (mistaken) worldview and fails to account for the fact that other people would think or believe differently from himself, with predictable results.

This book is a bit under 200 pages and is made up of ten chapters after two forewords by John McArthur and RC Sproul and an introduction by the author.  The author discusses spiritual fitness in a flabby world (1) while making fun of people who are not particularly fit and trim.  He then talks about prayer that is larger than ourselves (2) as well as the importance of making sacrifices and commitment to God’s kingdom (3), where he finds a way to praise an aunt of his who died early in her own missionary career.  After that the author talks about having a marriage that is pleasing to God (4), and finding an ideal vocation to serve God in what we do (5).  After this the author talks about how to please God during suffering (6) where he discusses the Calvinist view that all suffering is something willed by God, living the narrow way and avoiding heedlessness (7), and avoid chasing after the wind through intellectualism and materialism (8).  The author then closes with a discussion of how we need to put on the garment of humility (9) and bring others to Christ through salvation (10) before the usual conclusion, acknowledgements, and notes.

I have two basic approaches to a book like this.  One is to recognize that the author means well and to give it some praise for the author’s intentions to encourage godly and responsible living and what he considers a “vital faith.”  That said, this book is a prime example of why Calvinists should write far fewer books.  Here a book about personal faith gets tangled up with all kinds of cases where the author appears to insult a large number of potential readers and demonstrates the problematic nature of combining a belief that now is the only day of salvation (leading to aggressive efforts at evangelism) alongside the offensive Calvinist view of predestination that views all kinds of tragic and problematic results of human free will as being specifically ordained by God, all of which makes this book far less pleasant than it could have been had it been written by a thoughtful and serious Arminian.  The message written by the author is something that needs to be said in an age of selfishness and general moral and spiritual (and, sadly, physical) flabbiness, but the author is just not a kind and gentle enough person to make this message palatable to any reader outside of his own narrow worldview.

[1] See, for example:






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Who Is Responsible For Bullying Anyway?

It is not uncommon to hear stories of somewhat fragile young people who commit suicide because of the bullying and ridicule and abuse they receive from their savage peers.  We live in a world where such savagery is all too common, and it is fairly predictable both that schools would be sued by the parents of such sensitive young people and that schools themselves would tout being hostile to bullying of any kind even while they are largely powerless and not particularly interested in dealing with bullying when it is brought to their attention.  Today, I would like to discuss the thorny issue of who is responsible for bullying and examine some of the insights we can discover so that we may better deal with bullying when we encounter it as an unhappy recipient of such behavior and that we may avoid being the perpetrator of bullying on others, both of which are vital.

I should note that I have considerable expertise in dealing with the problem of bullying [1].  For whatever reason–and there were plenty of reasons–it seemed as if I grew up with a “kick me” sign tatooed my face, to the extent that bullying was a problem for me wherever I was, whether in dealing with my family, or my neighbors, or classmates, or even at church.  My own response to this bullying was rather complex.  At times I was able to befriend bullies by demonstrating that I was worth more as a friend than as an attempted target.  At other times I honed my sense of restraint so that others would not easily get a rise out of me while simultaneously making myself a deeply unpleasant target of violence and abuse by showing a sharp wit and a firm ability to defend myself with violence if necessary.  All of this had its intended reward, and by the time I was out of high school I was not the sort of person who was either viewed as an easy or pleasant target of bullying without being the sort of person who bullied others as well, despite the fact that the bullying I have endured in the course of my life has contributed mightily to my high degree of anxiety and gloominess.

When we look at the responsibility of dealing with bullying, there are really two parties that we have to be concerned with at first, namely the bully and the person who is targeted by the bully.  Generally speaking, bullies (like any other species of abuser) have a preternatural sense of who is vulnerable to abuse.  Those who desire to oppress and abuse others seek out easy targets, since they are cowardly and do not desire a fair fight.  We will consider the position of the abuser and what could be done about them later, but it is worthwhile to note that the most obvious way to limit bullying is to make people less vulnerable to it in the first place.  How do we toughen up people to make them less appealing targets for abuse in the first place?  Well, there are a wide variety of ways.  Certainly, some of the ways we have of toughening up vulnerable children make them more capable of inflicting harm on others by honing their ability to respond to violence in kind.  As a child I had to practice fighting in positions where I was outnumbered and became reasonably skilled at grappling and close-in brawling, and once I was older I developed a certain amount of handiness with weapons, both improvised and intentional, all of which made me less appealing for others to attack.

Even those of us who are not necessarily pacifists, though, would agree that this can only be a part of our ability to handle bullying.  After all, much bullying happens via words and not outright violence, and we must be prepared in this way also.  Fortunately, there is a lot that can be done to decrease one’s vulnerabilities in this fashion as well.  We can make sure, for example, that no one is left as a vulnerable outsider without a close network of friends and encouragers, no matter how odd or quirky they may be.  Training and encouraging people to stick up for the socially awkward not only allows us to develop the better angels of our nature, but also will (in time) allow those who are shy and timid and put-upon outcasts to build up their own social skills and their own self-confidence, which will make them much less appealing targets to the abuse of others.  Likewise, it is important that we develop the rhetorical skills of those who are subject to abuse, as those with a quick and ready wit can make themselves unappealing targets to verbal abuse because they can defend themselves when it comes to sharp comments, and those who can engage in duels of wits end up earning the respect of those who use their intellect in such a fashion.  Someone who is respected and capable of verbal as well as physical self-defense is not going to be a target for continual bullying and may even be able to use their wit to defend others as well.

Yet this only deals with half of the problem.  To be sure, making people less vulnerable to bullying and better able to tangle with others in a cruel world is a very necessary skill, especially since our world appears to be increasingly less kind, especially in social media, yet this only deals with half of the problem.  How do we deal with the temptation to bully others?  Perhaps the best way is to address that problem within ourselves.  Those who bully may be quick to blame others for why they are the way they are.  Parents who are sharp with their children and quick to engage in violence in word and deed will raise children who similarly tend to solve their problems with aggression rather than seeking more productive means of dealing with the world.  Likewise, social media allows us all to be bullies at a much easier threshold because of our partisan loyalties, our disrespect for those whom we happen to bully, and the lack of body language that may produce shame in our part for having behaved in such a bullying fashion, especially the judgment we would receive from those around us.  Online, no matter who we bully, we can count on there being at least quite a few people who will like what we have to say, no matter how reprehensible it is, because they will despise the same target we have.

This all means that our ways of reducing bullying must be more intentional.  Quite simply, we have to put ourselves deliberately around people who will encourage our better nature.  We need people who will hold us accountable for what we say, who will call us out when our social media posting is less than friendly, and who will remind us of the importance of treating even those with whom we deeply disagree with respect and honor even if we do not feel in the mood to respect or honor other people and even if they are not necessarily honorable and respectable people.  We honor others not because of their worthiness but because we are honorable and respectable people ourselves.  And being honorable and respectable is determined by our standard of behavior towards others, not by our good fortune in being the blessed recipients of such honor and respect by others.  Obviously, though, it is easy to honor others when we have first been honored ourselves, but in a world where honor and respect are not common, someone has to be the first to try it out.  How else is anyone going to be able to learn from the example otherwise?

[1] See, for example:





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