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Book Reviews

Book reviews and abstracts

Founders’ Faith: None of the Above

Founders’ Faith: None of the Above

 

by Gregg L. Frazer; University Press of Kansas, 2012; 296 pp., $35.
 
by GARY SCOTT SMITH
 
The religious views of America’s founders have been fiercely contested in the public arena for many years. The principal battle is between those who claim that most founders were devout Christians and those who assert that they were deists. This debate has important ramifications for arguments that the United States was founded as a distinctively Christian nation, or as an essentially secular one, and for how to interpret the First Amendment.
 
Into the fray has stepped Gregg L. Frazer, a professor of history and political studies at The Master’s College in Santa Clarita, California. In The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, Revolution, he argues that the nation’s most prominent founders—George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin—and key framers (of the Declaration and the Constitution)—Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton—were neither Christians nor deists.
 
Frazer aims to correct the “severely flawed” arguments of popularizers (primarily pastors, lawyers, and armchair historians) such as David Barton (The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson) who portray most of the founders as committed Christians, if not evangelical Protestants, and others, including Americans United for the Separation of Church and State spokesperson Barry Lynn and journalist Brooke Allen (Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers), who depict the founders as “rank secularists.”
 
  

End Times: The Bible’s failed prophecy

End Times: The Bible’s failed prophecy

 

By Sarah Ruden
 
 
The Book of Revelation is a jolt at the end of the New Testament: thrilling, baffling, or embarrassing to many Christians, shocking or laughable to many others. The monsters lumbering across its war-torn pages and its loud rage and triumphalism did not sit well with the liberal Methodist church of my childhood. I was told that the author, the mysterious John of Patmos, must have been a madman and should not be in the Bible. But Revelation is deeply at home in our culture; a couple of verses even supply the lyrics of the “Hallelujah Chorus.” What do we make of the book, which has survived the complete failure of its prophecies?
 
With her usual sweeping knowledge and accessibility, Elaine Pagels charts the book’s ricocheting reception and explores the milieu of John of Patmos, a pious Jew and follower of Jesus writing c. 90 C.E. Haunted by the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans a generation earlier in 70 C.E., he appears to have blasted not only the menacing Roman Empire but also the gentile followers of Jesus converted through Paul’s evangelism—whose descendants were the winners in the early development of Christianity. As Roman persecutions of Christians intensified over the next two centuries, spokesmen for the new sect found justification and hope in the prophecies in Revelation of God’s judgment on Rome.
 
In the early fourth century, when Christianity became Rome’s favored religion under Constantine—and Christian clergy became imperial functionaries—Revelation’s fury was redirected at heretics, or Christians who did not defer to the catholic (from the Greek for “universal”) church now sanctioned by Rome. For 40 years, Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, fought opposition to the hegemonic church, banning nonconformist writings like the Gnostic Gospels, which survive as a collection of 52 texts not included in the Bible and encourage worshippers to look inward for salvation rather than to the Church. He found Revelation so effective in combating heresy that he championed the book’s inclusion in the New Testament.
 

The New Jim Crow: How the War on Drugs Gave Birth to a Permanent American Undercaste

The New Jim Crow: How the War on Drugs Gave Birth to a Permanent American Undercaste

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindnessby MICHELLE ALEXANDER; The New Press, Paperback, $19.95.

The New Jim Crow
Ever since Barack Obama lifted his right hand and took his oath of office, pledging to serve the United States as its 44th president, ordinary people and their leaders around the globe have been celebrating our nation’s “triumph over race.”  Obama’s election has been touted as the final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow, the bookend placed on the history of racial caste in America. 
 
Obama’s mere presence in the Oval Office is offered as proof that “the land of the free” has finally made good on its promise of equality.  There’s an implicit yet undeniable message embedded in his appearance on the world stage: this is what freedom looks like; this is what democracy can do for you.  If you are poor, marginalized, or relegated to an inferior caste, there is hope for you.  Trust us.  Trust our rules, laws, customs, and wars.  You, too, can get to the promised land.
 
Perhaps greater lies have been told in the past century, but they can be counted on one hand.  Racial caste is alive and well in America.

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Big Thinker: The diplomat who argued for “containment”—and lived to regret it

Big Thinker: The diplomat who argued for “containment”—and lived to regret it

 

George Kennan was the J. Alfred Prufrock of American diplomacy—acutely observant, toxically self-absorbed, and to borrow T. S. Eliot’s words, “full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; / At times, indeed, almost ridiculous— / Almost, at times, the Fool.” Stress-fueled ulcers would periodically compel him to take weeks or months of convalescence. Several times he tendered, and then rescinded, his resignation from the Foreign Service. Bureaucratic setbacks or unexpected foreign developments would provoke him to all but reverse his positions. His love-hate relationship with his own country would plunge him into alienation and despair.
Yet Kennan (1904-2005) was also the greatest American strategist of the 20th century. Not only did he conceive the now-totemic Marshall Plan and the policy of containment that guided the United States through the Cold War, but he also inaugurated the study of grand strategy at the National War College, created the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department, and helped define the realist school of foreign policy thinking. Outside government, he was an award-winning historian, a sometimes hugely influential gadfly-cum-prophet, and a friend and colleague to intellectual giants such as Isaiah Berlin and J. Robert Oppenheimer, his boss at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey.

Experiment Eleven: Dark Secrets Behind the Discovery of a Wonder Drug

Experiment Eleven: Dark Secrets Behind the Discovery of a Wonder Drug

 

Reviewed by Marc Parrish
According to the famous German physicist Arnold Berliner, scientists are “a cross between a mimosa and a porcupine”: one part bubbly, intoxicating sweetness and one part prickly brawler. Along with their commitment to the intellectual pursuit of truth, to the great benefit of humankind, scientists know that the main ingredient in their career broth is Realpolitik. Without patronage come no rewards.
Consider Arnold Berliner himself. Having lost his position at the German scientific magazine he founded in 1913 due to the persecution of “non-Aryans” by the Nazis, he took his own life in 1942, the day before his scheduled evacuation to an extermination camp. The accomplishments of his lifetime, which included German influence over all manner of scientific endeavors in the 1920s and ’30s, were also nearly destroyed by the Nazi machine.
Indeed history, even of science, is written by the winners.
In Experiment Eleven, the new book by Peter Pringle (author of Food, Inc.), we see another tragedy of scientific politics unfold against the backdrop of New Jersey in the twilight of World War II. A mentor, Dr. Selman Waksman, betrays and reduces his student Dr. Albert Schatz to career rubble as Waksman seeks to claim all credit and related cash for the discovery of the wonder drug Streptomycin that halted the onward march of tuberculosis (TB).

Tough love: A new book lowers the boom on some of Israel’s firmest friends

Tough love: A new book lowers the boom on some of Israel’s firmest friends

 

Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance With Israel is Coming to an End. By Norman Finkelstein. OR Books; 472 pages; $18 and £12.
 
IT HAS become increasingly common for prominent liberal Jewish Americans to voice anguished disquiet over Israel’s behaviour. The most visible signs of this trend are books, such as Peter Beinart’s “The Crisis of Zionism”, which came out three months ago, and the growing support for the (admittedly patchy) achievements of J Street, an advocacy group that lobbies for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. In his eighth book, “Knowing Too Much”, Norman Finkelstein, an American academic who became a critic of Israel long before it was fashionable, traces the underlying dynamics of the disquiet.
 
Mr Finkelstein’s central claim is that American Jews’ feelings about Israel were always guided more by self-interest and personal values than by Jewish solidarity. They cared little about the country before the war of 1967, fearing accusations of “dual loyalty”. Israeli concerns, to them, were not American concerns. They rallied round after the war, Mr Finkelstein argues, chiefly because that was when Israel’s fight against the Arabs became geopolitically tied to America’s fight against the Communists.
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