May 24, 2016
In the 1970s a friend gave me a copy of Kenneth Bailey's The Cross and the Prodigal. I was blown away. It transformed my understanding of how to read the New Testament. Later I devoured Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes. Bailey's basic thesis was that Middle Eastern peasant culture changes only very slowly. So if we want to understand the world that Jesus lived in, we should get to know Middle Eastern peasant culture today.
As a missionary and a son of a missionary who lived in the Middle East for sixty years, Bailey had an exceptional opportunity to do just that. He told the parables of Jesus to peasants from Morocco to Pakistan and their insight helped him (and so us) gain new understanding that would be available no other way. Being fluent in many ancient languages also gave him a remarkable perspective on the New Testament that few others could match.
As testimony to Ken's notion that the peasant culture of the Middle East had changed very little in two thousand years, I remember telling a friend from our church about Ken's understanding that Jesus was born in a home, not a barn. I told her that typical houses of that time had a place for animals inside the home to provide warmth for the family and protect the livestock from thieves. As I described all this and the raised area for family living, her eyes got huge. "That's the kind of house I grew up in!" Her family had been missionaries among peasants in Syria. You can still find such homes there today.
When I found out that his seminal book, The Cross and the Prodigal, had gone out of print in the U.S., I contacted Ken about publishing a new edition, which he was very happy to do. This led to me working with him on a half dozen books including Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes and his last book The Good Shepherd.
I have fond memories of meeting Ken, his wife and daughter in his home in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, where he eagerly showed me his private collection of antique books and Middle Eastern artifacts. Like a proud father he handed me one of his babies, a stone object I couldn't quite identify. "That," he said, "is from the era of Moses. And this one," handing me another, "is from the time of Jeremiah!" Did he really want me to handle these ancient "children" of his? Apparently.
At dinner he told me of growing up in Egypt in the 1930s. As Rommel's army was closing in on Cairo in 1942, government officials told the missionaries, "We can't tell you what to do, but we are burning all our papers and evacuating." So over the next couple weeks as a twelve-year-old he had the adventure (to him, to his parents it was a dread ordeal) of flying south to Khartoum, west across Africa and then on to Brazil before flying north to the U.S. All to avoid Nazi controlled territory. Since then he had lived through several other wars.
Ken died May 23, 2016. He was an extraordinary Christian gentleman. One of my great privileges as an editor was to work with him and help spread his valuable work to thousands of others. His insight, integrity and friendship will be deeply missed.
May 12, 2016
I remember first coming upon T. S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" and thinking it was completely nuts. I was in high school at the time. So it is a tautology to say I was quite sure of my opinions.
Though this is one of the most important and influential essays of the twentieth century, I thought Eliot was crazy to say artists should seek to extinguish their personality. Wasn't individual expression at the heart of what art was all about? And wasn't Eliot a quintessential modern artist standing for freedom against the chains of the past? Yet here he was upholding the importance of tradition (by which he largely meant Western literary tradition). What could he possibly have been thinking?
Eliot contends that we don't move forward by breaking from the past but by building on the past. Without knowledge of our past, our accumulated wisdom of the human condition with all its failings and successes, we are in a quagmire. Unless we recognize that our very present is shot through with the past, we will misunderstand ourselves and the world. We will fail to contribute anything new. Yet when we do listen to the past, our new work becomes part of the tradition and alters all previous works like introducing a new planet into a solar system would alter the orbits of all the other planets.
As Eliot writes, "Some one said: 'The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.' Precisely, and they are that which we know."
What difference does all this make? Let me name two. First, we cannot know who we are and where we should go without knowing our past. And in our intimate twenty-first century globe, our past is now worldwide, not just Western. So novelists must study novels of the past, scientist study science of the past, politicians study politics of the past.
Without the Old Testament, we can't understand the New. Without knowing the American Revolution, we can't understand the American Civil War. Without that, we can't understand Reconstruction, industrialization, reform movements and so forth. We desperately need the long view.
Second, Eliot helps us understand that creativity does not come from generating something that is entirely without precedent. Rather, creativity comes from combining two or more pre-existing ideas in a fresh way. Chocolate and peanut butter = Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. A wine press and books = Gutenberg (or perhaps a pleasant evening). The more we know from the past, the greater our likelihood of coming up with fresh combinations.
In high school I thought the past was the enemy of change. But I have come to see nostalgia as the enemy--repeating the past because it is comfortable or because we think it cannot be equaled. Instead, the past is the storehouse of the future.
May 6, 2016
Franklin and Winston is a delightful piece of narrative history from one of the masters of the genre. By focusing on the relationship of these two titans rather than the massive array of events that was World War II, Meacham gives us, just as the very apt subtitle promises, "An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship."Continue reading "Dance of the Titans"
April 26, 2016
Bobby Fischer was a World Chess Champion who stood out as an eccentric genius in a field full of eccentric geniuses. As portrayed in the movie Pawn Sacrifice, he walked out of a chess match complaining about the lighting, ransacked his own hotel rooms looking for bugging devices, thought the Russians were watching him through his TV and believed the US government was listening to him through (wait for it) his dental fillings. Though his mother was Jewish, he was vocally anti-Semitic, holding to many conspiracy theories about Jews.Continue reading "Bobby Fischer Played Tennis"
April 13, 2016
The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough, paints a portrait of two heroes and celebrities who stand in sharp contrast to those of today. The brothers didn't look to maximize their fame; they simply wanted due credit. They didn't try to amass enormous wealth; they simply ran a business.Continue reading "The Right Brothers"
April 7, 2016
When people hand me a proposal or manuscript for a non-fiction book and ask me for a publishing opinion, we'll talk about a number of issues. But I have one chief diagnostic question. Almost anything and everything an author has to say flows from the answer to this question. It tells writers what kind of vocabulary and images to use, how long the piece should be, how to organize the material, what to leave in, what to take out, and even where to try to publish it.
The question is this:Continue reading "The Key Question I Ask Authors"