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Archive for January, 2009

Originally published as a letter-to-the-editor in the Sioux City Journal, I wrote that for all of our faults as a country, we are still the greatest country in the world. Nowhere does that mean that there isn’t much work to do nor that we shouldn’t critically think of ways to improve and progress in the world. Here is my original letter. I am including Professor Guelcher’s response. He is a history professor at Morningside College and vice-chair of the Woodbury County Democrats. While I think Prof. Guelcher’s response is well-written, it’s fundamental flaw is that it doesn’t take into account that even Barack Obama acknowledged:

Four years ago, I stood before you and told you my story, of the brief union between a young man from Kenya and a young woman from Kansas who weren’t well-off or well-known, but shared a belief that in America their son could achieve whatever he put his mind to. It is that promise that’s always set this country apart… [my emphasis]

America is Exceptional (Jeremy Taylor)

SIOUX CITY–American conservatism is often derided by the left for exceptionalism, or the belief that as a country we’re different and exceptional, which sometimes leads to unilateralism. Two dangerous ditches exist: one is patriotic hubris blinding one to America’s faults while the other is self-deprecation which blinds one to America’s virtues. The ditch which the left all too often falls into is knee-jerk apologizing for America.

Now with the proper humility and balance, let me quickly dispense with the customary invocation which must precede, “I’m proud of America,” and that’s, “Of course, America isn’t perfect. We have our faults.”

But let’s take a look back. Collectively in the primaries, we saw a Kansas farmer, a Mormon business executive, a guitar-playing former Baptist minister, an Italian-American twice remarried prosecuting attorney, a decorated Vietnam veteran, a female lawyer, an African-American community organizer, a Hispanic gun owner. Now, the descriptors obviously are simplistic tags, but they aren’t meant to be reductionist or divisive.

The labels are meant to show that we have more social mobility in a diverse nation which cannot find compare even in Europe. Where else in the world can such diversity of candidates for executive office be found?

This year’s crop of candidates show that for all the supposed glass ceilings in American life, maybe the reason that the ceilings look clear is that they no longer exist the way they do in many parts of the world today.

American Exceptionalism: Superficial (Greg Guelcher)

SIOUX CITY — Exceptionalism, as any social studies teacher knows, portrays American history as a seamless story of inevitable progress and improvement.

American exceptionalism, however, makes for boring, superficial history. “Things have always been much better in America,” we’re told. Bad events such as slavery or racial segregation are explained away as mere anomalies destined to be overcome by the Great March of American Progress.

More worrisome, American exceptionalism is uncritical history. It skews the truth by privileging the positive and downplaying or ignoring the negative. A recent Letter writer’s example of exceptionalism is telling. Yes, it’s wonderful that such a diverse group ran for president in 2008, which suggests that America is generally more open and tolerant than many societies. However, an exceptionalist view too easily glosses over areas of needed improvement. Underlying distrust of Mormonism, for instance, arguably cost Mitt Romney votes among evangelicals who form much of the Republican Party’s base. Sexism helps explain our unproductive obsession with the clothing choices and physical appearances of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. Finally, who could discount that ugly racial and religious bigotry incited mock lynchings and fueled many baseless yet tenacious charges against Barack Obama, such as that he was secretly a Muslim, or an angry black nationalist, or even a non-citizen?

Unquestioning patriotism is the poorest form of patriotism. American citizenship demands informed self-reflection; it requires that we critically assess our successes and our shortcomings and learn from both. Otherwise, we invite the sort of hubris that excuses abuse and encourages arrogance.

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Our culture seems fascinated with celebrity, and who hasn’t wanted to be the one all eyes were on? Especially in the midst of the Heisman, playoffs, and the flocking of hordes to have one touch, autograph, smile, be photographed, I have even wondered if my days were over to grab the spotlight in college football. The fantasy begins…Maybe I could be a kicker. I let the fantasy run until I remember that I stopped starting in high school football after my sophomore year, and not too many colleges recruit hard for kickers who max out at 30 yard field goals. But the fantasy didn’t stop for Kevin Hart, who faked his own recruitment to the U. of Cal and Oregon.

Read about Kevin here. He is 6’5″ and 300 lbs and could take a year off and get lean, tough, and mean. Then, two years into the junior college career, he gets a look by a D-1 school. Wouldn’t it be interesting if Kevin found a junior college who is desperate enough to take a chance on him?

For now, Kevin has a lot of letter-writing, apologizing, and owning up to do. Watch the video of Kevin’s recruiting announcement here.

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melvilletwain

Recently, I was asked to name the top five American novels. Let me boil down the list to two: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In some ways, two books could not be different for I believe that in them, we have represented the two broad strokes in which the original American colonists found themselves, what Peter Brooks might call the Holy and the Rough.

Melville’s work takes place aboard the Pequod, which tries to catalogue a multitude of races and religions. In fact, Melville’s first novel Typee is the named pronunciation of the Taipis, a supposedly cannibalistic tribe in the South Pacific where Melville found himself after abandoning ship. So Melville takes up strange “heathen” customs, slavery in Benito Cereno and the South Pacific; however, he makes the Pequod a universal microcosm of the world at large. Yet for all its multifarious races, Moby Dick remains a New Englander’s novel told in Ishmael’s first person narrative.  The roots are Puritan, chewing over whether Ahab is “predestinated” for his tragic, vengeful end or whether his own character (instead of God) has “destined” him. The novel segways shortly after “Call me Ishmael” into a weighty sermon. In Melville, we have a respecter of forms, a patient cataloguer, John Adams, a Bacon Essayist, the fiery Oliver Cromwell, a bearded novelist, with a suit, a tie, maybe a frock, we have Plymouth, and names like Providence, Rhode Island.

Twain’s work takes place on an unnamed raft, an escape from the cruel world of austere orthodoxy (Miss Watson, Widow Douglas),quixotic friends who sacrifice slaves for games (Tom Sawyer) cheats and scoundrels (the King and the Duke), horribly abusive, wild-eyed fathers (Pap), and towns in Arkansas where chew-spitting and lighting dogs on fire is a good pasttime, families whose feuds end in death (Grangerfords), and the lynch mobs that dole out Southern justice in merciless fashion. The only saving grace and goodness seems to be in Jim, Miss Watson’s slave, for whom Huck will be sent to Hell merely by contravening society and–Huck believes–the Bible’s dictates. The roots are Cavalier, chewing over a thoroughly pessimistic view of society in which the “least of these” –an uneducated boy and a slave–develop a deep friendship by sharing a lust for freedom. The novel starts off with an address to readers, “You don’t know about me except you read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer…” In Twain, we have a respecter of the unconventional, the starry-eyed wink, Andrew Jackson, a Walter Raleigh adventurer dark from the New World, a mustached poet in a white suit dressing up as a woman at Christmastime, workman’s clothes, smoking a tobacco pipe, recalling the Great River, full of the kind of muscle developed in backwoods of Tennessee or piloting the Mississipi, the name of Hannibal.

Moby Dick and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn do share much of the same: navigating through waters, deeply concerned with sin and conscience, vividly bringing to life the weighty, glory of the deep and the devastating effects of unrepentant vengeance (Ahab’s bringing down the whole ship for personal gain) and vividly bringing to life the raffish, freeing beauty of the rivers and the devastating effects of enslavement (Huck and Jim are the respective slaves to the desires of all others until each finds freedom in the end.)

For their destinations, strangeness, wonderful characters, and deep thematic ponderances of sin and salvation, slavery and freedom, weakness and power, I find no deeper satisfaction than in navigating the waters through the eyes of Ishmael and Huck.

In Daniel Pawley’s “Never the Twain,” there is more discussion of the intersection of these two writers as seen in their observation of the world abroad. And Pawley goes deeper with insights into the two men.

Much more important, however, was the impact of the Middle East on the two acknowledged giants of American letters, Herman Melville and Mark Twain – giants because each contributed one novel which has a lasting place among the greatest novels ever written: Melville’s Moby Dick and Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn .

As an admirer of geographically vivid literature, I have frequently consulted – for pleasure and instruction – the Middle East accounts left by Melville and Twain: the daily journals of their travels and the published books based on their observations. Read on…

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Rembrandt's Christ in the Storm...

Rembrandt's Christ in the Storm...

I have just spent one of those long nights wrestling with the human soul. Martin Lloyd-Jones speaks of voices talking to us, e.g. thoughts, whispers from the enemy, past regrets, guilt, a sense of purposelessness. And on last night’s New Year’s, they seem to come in droves. Adding to that has been a subsequent dry spell of not being in the Word and a potent mixture of Dante, Bronte, ESPN, Internet, and lethargy over a 16-day vacation period.

What are we to do with such thoughts? Martin Lloyd-Jones say we ought not to listen to them. Easier said than done but not if we understand the powerful Welsh preacher’s  instructions for the prescription (he started off one of England’s most promising doctors). We will certainly hear the thoughts, e.g. “You took the wrong direction in life…”, “Wouldn’t life be nice if only…”, “How can you go to Heaven? If people really knew who you were, the secret sins and thoughts, the game would be up.” “What’s the point of reading the Word if you’re not going to go whole-hog and really be consistent about it?” Etc. Etc. Etc! But Lloyd-Jones says essentially that we must talk back to these thoughts and stop being such good listeners. Instead, we must start becoming great debaters and arguers using our one offensive weapon–the Word of God.

Here’s how Jones sees the Psalmist doing so, “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why are you so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God (42:5a). Most of us never even ask the question of why we’re downcast. We cede the argument. I don’t know where the voice or thought originates–regret, the Enemy, a commercial–it doesn’t matter. We take the “you should have done this or that” and breathe a bit more heavily, and like Don Quixote imagining windmills to be giants, we fantasize something that’s not, seeing absolutely no downside to the supposed bad decision God let us make. To the suggestion that everything would have been better, we nod assent and pine for the sweet fantasy dream of “what might have been” and taste the bitter reality of only what is. Lloyd-Jones says we ought to use common sense (crying over spilled milk really never did clean it up), logic (fantasizing a perfect perfection of the road not taken doesn’t help my situation now), and over and above all–Scripture.

And so last night it was the most effective argument of, “Do you know who you are?” And the floodgates of past sins came to mind, e.g. “If people really knew…” Mostly, I cry “uncle” before the match has even begun, hand the medal to the opponent, and walk off the mat. It’s not much of a fight. Last night, by God’s grace only, I opened to Zephaniah, closed it, and opened to Hebrews where I read in 2:14:

Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He himself likewises shared in the same, through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.

I boiled down all of my reading of Hebrews 1-4 to commands to trust, rejoice, and believe and whispered through haunting thoughts, “Rejoice. Relax. Rest. I’m commanding you, seriously. Will you do that? I’m a wonderful God who wants to release you from fear and bondage by what I accomplish. Therefore, take some joy in that. Believing me will help you relax. Did you read about who I am, and what I did? Trusting me will be evidenced by your rest.” And by God’s grace, I did. I woke up full of hope so much so that last night seems almost a distant memory.

Do you want to know the thoughts that have just come in? They’re whispering, “What about tomorrow? How long can this last?” And here is my answer to the whisper: “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness” (Lam 3:23).

One last thought. Last night, I sensed God powerfully. There is a security in the most dangerous of times. I’m absolutely serious about saying that I’ve never felt more safe than in the times of my life when I found myself in great storms, both literally and figuratively. In Sioux City seven years ago, there was a terrible downburst that rent through huge oaks, sending one crashing onto our garage, and I thought the walls might come down from the howling 100 mph winds. My sister screamed and we ran toward each other on the second floor praying frantically as we realized both that my dad had been out on his motorcycle as we saw the walls tremble. Being thrust entirely on God, I felt a peace in the helplessness.

And so Psalm 107:27-30 shows the reaction of sailors to physical storms. Consider what a loving and sovereign God, who has control over your soul as much as every wave, can do if we take him seriously and speak these kinds of words to the sea storms of the human heart:

Those who go down to the sea in ships, who do business on great waters, they see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep for He commands and raises the stormy wind, which lifts up the waves of the sea. They mount up to the heavens, they go down again to the depths; Their soul melts because of trouble. They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunk man, and are at their wits’ end. Then they cry out to the LORD in their trouble, and He brings them out of their distresses. He calms the storm, so that its waves are still. Then they are glad because they are quiet; So he guides them to their desired haven.

The Psalmist then can do nothing other than what is perfectly appropriate–praise such a God. And so I thank you, Lord.

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