The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee

After reading R. David Cox’s outstanding new biography, The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee, which examines Lee’s entire life with special attention to the role of the religious beliefs and practices of Lee and those around him, here’s what I think:

  1. Lee was a man of profound Christian faith. His trust in God’s providence and goodness grew greater and stronger throughout his life.
  2. Lee was a man a man of uncommon virtue. His Christian beliefs and practice were primary ingredients in the formation of his character, but Lee also seemed to absorb and integrate the best attributes of the culture of which he was a part, especially a devotion to duty, honor, and the dignity of others.
  3. No matter how good a person is, he is a product of, and to some degree a prisoner of, his culture.
  4. Character, virtue, and faith do not render us immune from believing lies. Lee, like many of his white American contemporaries, both Northern and Southern, believed that African-Americans were inherently inferior to whites.
  5. A godly Christian can make a decision that he firmly believes is the right, most ethical decision, only to discover later that his decision has placed him at cross-purposes with God’s overarching will. Lee was initially opposed to secession, and he believed that slavery was an evil that eventually should and would come to end. (Although he never offered a plan for how it should have been ended.). Nevertheless, when Lee resigned his U.S. Army commission and accepted command in the Confederate Army, he, like many of his fellow Southerners, believed he was making the best moral choice possible given the circumstances.
  6. Lee, like the overwhelming majority of his fellow Christians in the North and South—and for that matter, his fellow believers throughout Christian history—does not seem to have pondered very deeply the possibility that it might be against God’s will to continue to send tens of thousands of men to slaughter and be slaughtered even as Confederate defeat became increasingly likely. One of the criteria for a just war is a reasonable probability of success.
  7. What set Lee apart from many of his fellow Confederates was what he discerned regarding God’s will in the defeat of the Confederacy, a subject that Cox explores in detail. Soon after the end of the war, Lee met a friend, Marsena Patrick, who was a Union general. During an hour-long conversation, Lee reportedly said, “Patrick the only question on which we ever differed has been settled, and the Lord has decided against me.” At about the same time in 1865, Lee wrote to a friend:

    “God has thought fit to afflict us most deeply & his chastening hand is not yet stayed….How great must be our sins and unrelenting our obduracy….We have only to submit to his gracious will and pray for his healing mercy.”

  8. This understanding of the South’s defeat as a judgment of God did not leave Lee despondent. Instead, it formed the foundation upon which Lee embarked on the most admirable and noble mission of his life. From 1865 until his death in 1870, Lee led Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) located in the small town of Lexington in western Virginia. Not only did Lee save the college from closing its doors, he set the example of leading young men to embrace their identity as Americans and promoting reconciliation with the North. He continued to espouse unity even as his disappointment grew that Reconstruction was unfolding in a harsher way than what had been initially planned by Lincoln and initiated by Grant at Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. True to his Christian beliefs, Lee wanted the college to educate the young men under his charge, not only in a wide variety of practical and classical subjects, but also as followers of Christ: “I dread the thought of any student going away from the college without becoming a sincere Christian.”



Mother Tongue by Leonard Sweet

Is Mother Tongue a biography? Family memoir? Devotional meditation? Whatever the category, Mother Tongue is an inspiring remembrance of an amazing woman and an honest and engrossing recollection of Leonard Sweet’s mid-20th century growing-up years in a poor family led by his indomitable and devout mother, Mabel Boggs Sweet.

It is also a fascinating look inside the subculture of Holiness Churches of that era of which Ms. Mabel was an ordained, and then defrocked, minister. What made the story all the more compelling for me were the contrasts between the Len Sweet that I have come to know via his books, podcasts, and essays (and even a shared meal many years ago). Dr. Sweet is a sophisticated, urbane, scholar of American culture, college president, professor, semiotician (look it up!), and creative communicator extraordinaire. Although, I had inferred something of Sweet’s roots from passing allusions in his books and podcasts, I would never have guessed how humble his beginnings were, nor how saturated his formative years were in the Holiness stream of American Christianity.

Despite, however, Leonard Sweet’s impressive credentials and cosmopolitan persona, the singular trait that has always come through in his writing and speaking is his conviction that Jesus Christ is, as He claimed, the way, the truth, and the life. And, now, after reading this, his loving and respectful — although not entirely uncritical — portrait of Mabel Sweet, I know who planted and watered the seeds of Christian faith in Len Sweet.

Mabel Sweet’s life was in many ways a difficult life. I suspect that I’m not the only fellow follower of Christ who has read this book and wondered what might have been if she had been born in a different time and into different circumstances. But, in the end, most of us will join Len Sweet in thanking God that Mabel Sweet persevered and left the rich legacy that she did.

Wolf Willow – a portrait of the Plains

The short story embedded in the middle of Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner is now one of my favorite short stories. And, the rest of the book, which was first published in 1955, is one of the best I’ve read during the past year.

Stegner spent part of his growing-up years in the small town of Eastend, Saskatchewan in the northern Great Plains just east of the Cypress Hills. In Wolf Willow, Stegner creates the fictional town of Whitemud, Saskatchewan as the surrogate setting for his remembrances.

The Plains are the book’s main character. The physical reality of the Plains always has the final word. The people who have lived there, or in some cases attempted to live there–Native Americans, metis (a people of mixed French and Indian heritage), cattle ranchers, wheat farmers–adapt as best they know how to the extreme weather, the lack of trees, the isolation, and a host of other factors that make this region something far less than ideal for human habitation.

A few “stickers” among the non-native settlers successfully adapt and stay on, and even a few of their children and grandchildren. But, for many of the Canadians and Americans who attempted to make a life on the northern Great Plains of Canada, in fact most of them if Stegner is to be believed, the harsh, grim, drought-prone, lonely Plains prove too inhospitable.

“The Whitemud River Range,” is the name of the short story found in the middle of the book. It is a dramatic tale of just how brutal the Plains can be. The story follows a band of cowboys through the early weeks of the frigid winter of 1906-07 as they attempt–again and again–to round up the cattle for their ranch and keep them from freezing. Eventually, in the teeth of a howling blizzard the task shifts to saving their own lives.

If that sounds like a Jack London short story set in northern Canada, well, there are some parallels. But, I much prefer this story of Stegner’s. Despite the grim setting, the cowboys are a more likable and more human collection of characters than those I’ve encountered in London’s stories.

Wolf Willow is hard to categorize with its mixture of memoir, history, geography, and fiction. I found it a fascinating mixture and a wonderful evocation of the spirit of a place where I’ve never been but which I am now unlikely to forget any time soon.

Rising Tide

The Mississippi River flood of 1927 is at the center of Rising Tide, but John Barry freely interweaves much more. I found these subplots as interesting, if not more so than, the flood itself:
  • How Mississippi—economically, politically, and culturally—has long been comprised of two very different parts: the Delta and the rest of the state. (And, I would add, a third part, the Gulf Coast, which has long been under the New Orleans’ sphere of influence.) This was much more interesting that the bland story told in my eighth grade Mississippi History class.
  • How New Orleans in the early 20th century was the most powerful city in the South, and how the insular, wealthy, usually non-elected, elite of the city controlled, not only the city, but economic and political power in Louisiana and beyond.
  • How those New Orleans elites ruthlessly, callously, and needlessly sacrificed the people of St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes by dynamiting the levee south of the city in order to decrease the height of the river at New Orleans. And, then how those same power brokers reneged on their lofty promises and refused to compensate the flood refugees for destroying their lives.
  • How St. Bernard Parish truly has a fascinating history, including the bootlegging, fur trapping, and “wild west” atmosphere of the 1920s. I live only 30 miles from St. Bernard Parish, and many of its residents have moved to our nearby higher elevation county in south Mississippi. So, I know many people from “The Parish.” What I didn’t know is that of one of the most important ethnic groups in St. Bernard Parish are the Islenos, descendants of Spaniards from the Canary Islands who arrived in the 18th century. The Islenos’ culture was still very much alive in 1927.
  • How two brilliant, ambitious civil engineers—James Eads and Andrew Humphreys—engaged in a bitter feud over how the Mississippi River should be controlled.
  • How never before the post-1927 flood control project had the Congress appropriated such a large expenditure  to fix a problem that was in essence a regional, state, and local problem without requiring at a minimum “matching” funds from local governments. The flood control bill, reluctantly signed by Republican Calvin Coolidge, set a precedent that Franklin Roosevelt would push to even higher and broader levels in the New Deal just a few years later in the 1930s.

Barry’s historical narrative reads more like a page turner than a textbook. I don’t rate many books 5-stars. For me, this one easily made the cut.

The heartbreak of communal living – Heinrich Arnold and the Bruderhof

Rod Dreher has become the champion of Christians in the U.S. building “Benedict Options” in the face of American culture’s increasingly hostile stance toward traditional Christian faith. Dreher has written and spoken extensively on the Benedict Option over the past two years, and is writing a book, which will be released in March 2016.

Dreher insists that embracing the Benedict Option–which undoubtedly will be expressed in a variety of forms by different communities of believers–does not mean withdrawing from the world, but it does mean, “we must withdraw behind some communal boundaries not for the sake of our own purity, but so we can first become who God wants us to be, precisely for the sake of the world.” (Benedict Option FAQ)

It will be interesting to see in his upcoming book how Dreher recommends drawing those communal boundaries. Based on what Dreher has written thus far about the Benedict Option, I doubt he will advocate that intentional Christian communities renounce private property and share everything in common.

But, from the very beginning of Christian communities, there have been those who have embarked on just that kind of radical communal life:

“All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:44-45)

The Bruderhof are Christians who have been living this way in various communities for nearly a century. The man who brought Bruderhof communities in to the U.S. in 1954 was Heinrich Arnold. His grandson, Peter Mommsen, tells his story in Homage to a Broken Man: The Life of J. Heinrich Arnold.

Arnold’s story is fascinating, inspiring, and to my thinking, heartbreaking. The young Heinrich Arnold is idealistic, sensitive, and driven by a sense of God’s calling and a devotion to his father, Eberhard Arnold, the founder of the Bruderhof. Thirty years later, Heinrich Arnold has experienced the joys of living in community. But, he has also suffered the dictatorial, devious, legalistic and cruel torment of fellow leaders of the community and those who cooperated with them to isolate and punish Arnold on the numerous occasions when Arnold crossed them.

Mommsen presents the elder Heinrich Arnold as having emerged from this crucible of abuse broken, both physically and emotionally. Out of this suffering God molded Arnold into a compassionate Christ-like leader full of empathy for the hurting and the marginalized. Arnold’s love for the Bruderhof then compelled him in the 1950s and early 1960s to accept the role of single “elder” and to drastically reorganize the communities in order to rescue them from the legalism and dysfunction that began to plague them after his father’s death in 1935.

Was Heinrich Arnold the man on the white horse portrayed by Mommsen? Who knows. Some of those who were hurt in the great reorganization didn’t think so.

Regardless, the story of Arnold and the Bruderhof is a sobering reminder of the difficulties and dangers of equating following Jesus with selling all we have and living together in community. Good intentions are not enough to keep sinners–even redeemed sinners–from brutally hurting themselves and one another.

Renovation of the Heart

Even though I’ve been an admirer of Dallas Willard for many years, I just got around to reading his 2002 book, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ. I’ll refer to it as ROTH in this review. In many ways I found ROTH to be one of the most helpful things I’ve read by Willard, but I also found myself disagreeing with one of the sections in ROTH more than anything else that I’ve read or heard from Willard.

Over the past 15 years or so, I’ve spent quite a bit of time learning from Willard. I’ve read several of his other books, for example, The Divine Conspiracy, The Spirit of the Disciplines, Getting Love Right, and Hearing God. I’ve read many of his articles posted at and in other publications. I’ve listened to a number of Willard’s teachings and listened to or read a number of interviews with him.

Willard, who died in 2013, was a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. But, beginning in 1988 with the publication of The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives, Willard became one of the foremost thinkers and teachers in the movement to encourage modern evangelical Christians to pursue “spiritual formation” in Christ.

Willard insisted that every person is being spiritually formed, for good or for ill. It’s not surprising that his definition of spiritual formation in ROTH illustrates the precision and rigor that Willard (after all, he was a professor of philosophy) brought to the definitions of all terms he deemed important: “…spiritual formation for the Christian basically refers to the Spirit-driven process of forming the inner world of the human self in such a way that it becomes like the inner being of Christ himself.”

Willard argues in ROTH and elsewhere that one of the tragedies of modern evangelical Christianity is that we have lost sight of the centrality of spiritual formation in the life of every follower of Christ. God doesn’t just dump spiritual formation on his children without any regard for their role in the process. Just “letting spiritual formation happen,” will, at best, result in stunted, anemic growth in Christ.

Instead, Willard asserts that good, healthy, Christian spiritual formation happens when Christians cooperate with God. This cooperation is a delight to God, and for the Christian is not a burden, but a great privilege and joy. Willard is careful to say that the capacity to cooperate is itself a gift from God, so we have no grounds for being prideful about our cooperation. Willard frequently said, “God is opposed to ‘earning’; he is not opposed to ‘effort.'”

In ROTH, Willard recaps what he believes to be the three essential ingredients in the recipe for a believer to be spiritually formed into the image of Christ: Vision, Intention, Means. The believer needs a vision of what it means to have the mind, emotions, spirit/heart/will, and relations with others of Christ. That picture is most vividly painted in the New Testament, especially the Gospels, and also in various parts of the Old Testament.

Willard argues that while the vision is essential, it’s impact on the believer only comes alive when it becomes that believer’s intention to be aligned with, and formed into, the image of Jesus presented in the Bible and seen in his closest followers over the past 2000 years. In other words, the believer must decide that he will do what it takes to be formed into the vision of Christ given to us in Scripture.

“What it takes” to experience that formation are the “means,” that is the practices, disciplines, and methods that we need to actually do. One of Willard’s most crucial insights in ROTH and elsewhere is that we simply can’t grit our teeth and do what Jesus has commanded. We simply aren’t capable of obeying Jesus through application of our sheer willpower. In fact, Willard spends quite a bit of time in ROTH showing that all of us begin our walk with Christ with a depth of rebelliousness, sin, and evil within us that makes it literally impossible to do the things Jesus did/does without a radical “renovation of the heart.”

Instead, we must take a more indirect approach. Over time as we practice the presence of Christ, meditate on what God has done for us through Christ, continually turn and re-turn to Jesus as our Master Teacher, and practice the “means” of prayer, Bible study, service to others, silence, worship, fellowship, etc., the Holy Spirit will “renovate our hearts.” We will gradually become people for whom it is increasingly natural to love our enemies, forgive those who abuse us, turn the other cheek, etc., just to name a few of the things that make up the vision of being a person like Jesus.

ROTH is a powerful exposition of the call to embrace the vision, intention, and means of following Jesus Christ. Part of Willard’s genius in ROTH and elsewhere is his ability to define words, phrases, and concepts in fresh, enlightening ways that are, not only convincing, but seem to encourage the reader to both gratitude and action.

For all my enthusiasm about ROTH, I also have two concerns and one major criticism.

The first concern is with the anatomy of the human being presented in ROTH. Willard argues that the human being is comprised of spirit (heart/will), mind (thought/feeling), body, social relationships and soul. Willard persuasively presents this paradigm, and I found it very helpful in understanding what makes us tick and why and how God can change us as we follow Jesus.

But, is such a model of the human person true? Do some of the distinctions and conflations within Willard’s model owe more to philosophy than to the Bible? Are spirit, heart, and will synonyms for the same “thing”? I don’t know. I suspect that other Christian philosophers and theologians might offer different models than Willard does in ROTH.

My second concern is that, despite Willard’s frequent statements that Jesus’ Way is the very essence of simplicity, the way of following Jesus presented in ROTH sometimes seems to involve a level of intellectual sophistication that is beyond some Christians. It’s obvious that Willard was a brilliant philosopher. And, it’s obvious that his intent is to call his fellow believers to child-like trust in Jesus. There are, however, passages in ROTH that leave me wondering how the concept being presented would connect with a lot of regular Joe or Jane Christians.

Finally, my harshest criticism of ROTH is of Willard’s understanding of the Christian’s relationship to God’s Law as presented in the Scripture, and in particular the Mosaic Law. Willard says, “….human deliverance comes from a personal relationship with God….but the law is an essential part of that relationship.” Willard strains to show that “Law and grace go together,” and that “love of the law restores the soul.”

Put simply, Willard ignores much of St. Paul’s teaching regarding the relationship between God’s Law as given to Israel and those who are now in Christ. What about the fact that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4)?

Even though the section on God’s Law only covers five out of the 255 pages in ROTH, unfortunately, it seriously misses the mark on a very important subject.

Nonetheless, the remainder of ROTH is so powerful and, I believe, such helpful medicine for most of us 21st century Christians, that I highly recommend it.

The Quiet Game: Southern legal thriller that’s just too much

I’m not a big reader of crime novels or legal thrillers. But, I know some of their standard literary devices and stereotypes. In The Quiet Game, Greg Iles falls back on those devices and stereotypes so frequently that, at times, I felt like I was reading a parody.

Don’t get me wrong. It was an entertaining read. I just can’t imagine that The Quiet Game is that good compared to the top tier novels in this genre. It’s certainly not nearly as good as the three John Grisham novels I’ve read. And, it’s very different (in an inferior sort of way) than mysteries I’ve read such as the Maigret stories by Georges Simenon or The Lake of Darkness by Ruth Rendell.

A page turner. A pot-boiler. There’s no doubt The Quiet Game narrative moves right along, and the plot has twists and turns galore. Action. Adventure. Intrigue. So much so, that the other words that come to mind include contrived, melodramatic, even ridiculous. How many times can the hero, Penn Cage be shot at by the bad guys in a two week period, and most of those shots in the small town of Natchez, Mississippi? Twice? Thrice? Four times? I stopped counting.

In addition to the plot being over the top, the characters take stereotyping, especially Southern stereotyping, to new heights:

– The good-hearted, honest, handsome, crusading, Ole Miss alum and lawyer–Penn Cage–is the hero. He is so wonderful, that not one, but two beautiful women are throwing themselves at him.

–  His father, the good-hearted, honest, world-weary Atticus Finch-like, cigar-chomping small town doctor, who treats everyone, including, yes especially, African-Americans, with respect and dignity.

– Of course, both father and son are atheists of the Old Southern aristocratic variety. Much too wise to be Christians themselves, they nonetheless are tolerant and respectful of the faith of those who do believe, especially…..

– African-American Christians. Of course, the person with the strongest faith is the elderly, black maid who has loyally served the doctor and his family for years, and is, thus, practically family.

– The mind-bogglingly beautiful, passionate, intelligent, mysterious, rich Southern Belle. Although groomed to matriculate at Ole Miss, she instead, in one of the many early mysteries of the novel, attends one of the few other schools acceptable to genteel southerners, the University of Virginia.

– The crazy, dangerous, racist, evil redneck/one-time policeman. His villainy is made all the more heinous because he bears the same last name as one of the great saints of Mississippi. Ray Presley is bad to the bone and beyond.

– The good-hearted FBI agent, driven to drink by the injustices he’s seen perpetrated by Evil Edgar (as in Director, J. Edgar) Hoover, fired by the Bureau to cover up their own nefarious dealings, but who at age 70 can still perform in the pinch like a 25 year-old Navy Seal.

I could go on. It’s all really too much.

I decided to read The Quiet Game after hearing an interview with Iles. He sounded like an intelligent and likable guy.  We’re about the same age. He’s a fellow Mississippian, and this book is set in Natchez.

If you’re in the mood for a dark, rollicking, good-guys-versus-bad-guys, stereotypical Southern legal thriller — and, you’ve read all of Grisham’s novels already — then, prepare to put aside your disbelief and pick up a copy of Greg Iles’ The Quiet Game.

For me, I think I’ll go back to Inspector Maigret, or check out some of Grisham’s newer stuff.

Blame It All – and, I Do Mean ALL – on Somebody Else

Rod Dreher has written a scathing review of Ta-Nehisi Coates book Between Me and the World. I haven’t read the book. However, I did watch an interview of Coates by Charlie Rose. Apparently, Coates makes the same point in the book that he did in the interview, namely, whatever bad or immoral thing happens to black people, even if it is perpetrated by other blacks, it is the fault of white people. Apparently there are no exceptions. If you’re hearing good things about Coates book, which is in the form of a letter to his son, read Dreher’s review for some counterbalance.

Dreher also takes the opportunity to mention a memoir by another black man, The Wind in the Reeds, by actor and New Orleans native Wendell Pierce. Pierce tells his story of hardship from a much different place and with radically different assumptions and worldview than Mr. Coates. Again, read Dreher’s article for more about The Wind in the Reeds, which will be released in September. I look forward to reading Mr. Pierce’s book. I think I’ll skip Mr. Coates’ Between Me and the World.