Tag Archives: history

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Weight of History

When I was a student at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, I had a course entitled “Approaches to History.” In it, we considered various ways of writing and reconstructing history. It reflected the first beginnings of what is now commonly referred to as revisionist history, which means history interpreted through the lens of a particular sociological or political agenda. It sounds innocent enough, and at some level it is innocent. On the positive side, such an understanding of history means that we can’t just take for granted what we have inherited in a history book that purports to be unbiased. To enlarge on that, it means that there is no “unbiased” history. Everyone, wittingly or not, has a point of view that is influenced by his or her surroundings, his or her values or lack thereof, and when one interprets or reconstructs or writes history it will be, inevitably, interpreted or written through the aforementioned lens.

Take Christianity, for example. The Christian scriptures were written, presumably, by Christians who no doubt would have had a bias as to how to interpret the history of Christmas and Easter. The minor miracles surrounding Christmas are less spectacular than that of Easter, so I leave those aside. But Easter: now there’s a dilemma. If the Christians are the ones in charge of relating the history of the empty tomb, couldn’t they be revising their interpretation of the events to suit their own political agenda? In the gospels (and non-canonical concomitant Christian literature), the early Christians all claimed that the tomb was empty. A modern historian, operating from the assumption that miracles don’t “really” happen, could revise that account: “Well, the Christians were obviously biased and were unable to see clearly what happened, so they pretended he was raised from the dead. Or maybe they even hid the body and lied about the resurrection.” And thus this historian has revised the history to what is “more likely” or at least more logical. But the lens of that historian has its own bias: it is based on the notion of miracles not happening.

But what if those miracles did happen? If one were to entertain that possibility for even a moment, one would have to go back and reconsider, yet again, the big miracle of Easter and, yes, even the minor miracles surrounding Christmas. And one would have to look at one’s own life and recognize those times when something happened that seemed miraculous. And so forth. That process may just lead that person upwards out of despair and directly to the wider, redemptive implication of Easter, the foot of the cross. But that is the material of another blog.

Let me close with another aspect of history: not just how we can interpret it, but how heavy it is, for that is the title of this blog. For example, the weight of the Second World War and the atrocities that led up to that war is indeed ponderous. Hopefully consideration of those events has changed the way we think about evil and has strengthened our resolve to confront it courageously when we see it again. The same can be said of the American Civil War and the circumstances that caused that conflict—can we do better now, can we move forward together as a country, regardless of race, creed, or color? Can we consider and recognize the weight of history without carrying on our back the unnecessary burden of history?

I don’t know if we can, but I know where such healing must start: it starts not in the legislative chamber or in the courtroom or in a protest march, but in the heart. It starts with each one of us letting go of the ponderousness of his or her own history. We can’t forget the past, but we can let the burden of it go. I have a friend who is still carrying the burden of his childhood with him. No, he can’t just forget his childhood, and in fact he should not, for we all need to learn from our parents’ mistakes so that we don’t inflict those same mistakes upon our own children. But we don’t need to carry the weight of those mistakes, whether our own errors or those of our parents, around with us any longer. How can we let go of such a burden? The answer lies in our consideration of Christmas and Easter above, summarized by St. Paul at Romans 7:24. If miracles happen, we can let go; if they don’t, maybe we can’t. I believe we can.

 

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Reading for Friends (or, “How to Get Smarter”)

The wickedly exciting combination of being overbold and enjoying even limited philological training will allow you to do something quite special: read for friends. Now I don’t mean the kind of “fun reading” that one does on the living room couch or at the beach. That kind of reading of, say, a good novel is almost a holy act—it is purifying for the soul, for it provides the soul with something more than just fun; it gives it pause, a different kind of pause, too, than simply being still and reflecting. Yes, that kind of reading is as good for you as the alarmingly named Grape Nuts (probably) are. Grape Nuts taste healthy, at the very least, even though their name remains one of the most unsolvable mysteries of modern food science, as they are made of neither grapes nor nuts in the same way that the drink known as an “egg cream” includes neither eggs nor cream.

egg cream

But I wander too far afield. Rather I prefer to speak about reading for friends or rather for one friend at a time, for that is all one can do. One reads one’s friend’s book or article as it comes off the pen, and one gives feedback. I can recall doing this for a friend of mine who taught at Rutgers years ago—he wrote a book on the Martini and, indeed, I have never met anyone who knew more about that particular drink than the famous Lowell Edmunds. And I have been doing it today for another friend who is writing on the topic of reading and writing in antiquity. Exhilarating—and, no, I’m not being facetious!

And if one reads for one’s friends, one learns a lot. One learns about topics ranging from Renaissance Latin to Columella’s poem entitled, in English, “On the Rustic Thing.” One of Columella’s more famous quotes is, of course, “Thus far the tillage of the land.” And one can learn about Hellenistic poetry, Medieval art, the history of troop movements at the Battle of the Bulge, statue busts—you name it. You can learn a lot by reading your friends drafts.

And one or two of you are right now thinking, “Great! But how can I ever get the chance to do so? I know so few scholars personally. Well, the answer to that good question is pretty simple: go to your local college’s espresso bar, if you are lucky enough to have one—by “one” here I mean a college or university, of course—and intentionally eavesdrop (scholars rarely notice eavesdroppers), and then introduce yourself. After you get to know the scholar, whose résumé you might well have checked out online in advance for this very purpose, you can say, “So, what are you working on these days,” even though you know already the answer is “The Three Bar Sigma and Re-dating of Important Greek Inscriptions” or “Secondary Characters in Beowulf” or “The Use of the Subjunctive in Cervantes.”

Yes, you more or less stalked him or her so you could say, “Wow, that’s right up my alley—I have just been refreshing my Don Quixote, my study of Greek epigraphy,” or the like.

And then he or she will say, “Smashing! Perhaps you would like to read an article I am preparing on ML 84” (where ML is short for Meiggs and Lewis, i.e. a standard epigraphical collection; the eighty fourth entry lays out various payments from the treasury of Athena and is dated to 410/09 B.C.).

And when you read this person’s article you will definitely get smarter. And that is a good thing, even if it is not the same as the “holy time” you might have enjoyed reading a novel at the beach. And, yes, I do recommend both; but the summer is still a long way off, so perhaps you should head to that local college’s espresso bar now and learn about the three bar sigma, which is not at all, as it sounds, a fraternity drinking game but rather just a fancy Greek “S”.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: History

Each one of us has a personal history, and amidst that history is a story. I can recall very well in the nineties, when I thought the politically correct movement was at its highwater mark—never could I have anticipated the inundation of our current day, so high up on the mountain that its waters have created a generation of snowflakes—that some wanted to make a false etymology of history and create a category called herstory; i.e., the important contributions women have made to the world. The spirit of that venture was, of course, quite well justified: how often women are ignored, how often their talents and accomplishments are overlooked because of piggish, sexist attitudes that are, all too often, endemic to any given culture. And as much as has been accomplished, in part driven by a strong politically correct agenda, there is yet more to do. A woman is too often underpaid for the same work as a man—need I even mention (quite liberal but apparently not liberated) Hollywood as the locus classicus for this imbalance?

Yet the larger history—the one that is both ugly and beautiful, noble and ignoble, joyous in victory and often sad in defeat—that history, the one related not to “his” and “hers” but to the Greek word historia, meaning “witnessed events,” things that were seen (derived from the word eidon, the aorist of the Greek verb horao, meaning “see”), is another matter. It isn’t biographical, as “his” or “hers” might be. It is rather a wider narrative, involving men and women, social trends, economic trends, technology, even animals—need I mention the Zion Mule Corps at Gallipoli (Curious Autobiography, p. 256)? It can be looked upon askance, it can be extolled, it can be argued over and, most importantly, it can be learned from. But it can’t be unwritten.

Which brings us to Frank Rizzo. Elaine Jakes was no fan of Frank Rizzo. Though she lived in New Hope when he was the hardball mayor of Philadelphia, she and a number of other folks in that distant Philadelphian suburb felt that he was, by extension, their own mayor, as Philly was the nearest big city to Bucks County. Frank Rizzo is dead now, long dead, and though his body lies decaying in the grave, his aura, it would seem, has not passed away. There is a statue in Philadelphia to that former mayor, and a large mural on the wall of an apartment building. Yet it has become the fashion to deface such monuments, particularly if they are images of folks with whom you might disagree. Even if the vast majority of those protesting the mayor’s statue never knew him as mayor, or never knew him at all. I understand, of course, that Delbert Africa, was beaten badly when Mr. Rizzo as mayor ordered the eviction of the Move members from their squalid abode. But I rather would love to know if, when they are protesting, the vast majority of the protesters actually know about Delbert Africa, and even if they do, what removing Mr. Rizzo’s statue will accomplish. With the removal of Mr. Rizzo’s statue, to some extent we also remove the memory of Mr. Africa, and we remove dialogue about Mr. Rizzo’s legacy that is likely to have been both good and bad. We do not change history; rather, we suppress dialogue about it. If that’s not quite removing history, it is certainly whitewashing it.

Take God, for example. Perhaps one can see, after Hurricane Harvey, why someone might blame God for these disasters—certainly, if he is the God associated with the Bible, he could have prevented Harvey from ever happening. And it’s easy to blame God and religion for nearly all the atrocities that humans inflict upon each other. Don’t competing religions, after all, produce conflicts? Wasn’t Christianity responsible for the Crusades? Aren’t many of the terrorists of today, in places like Ireland at least, Christians? Isn’t at least some of the bombing that goes on nowadays done by radical Muslims, for example? Thus, one solution that some have advanced is simply to remove any hit of God or religion from monuments, schools, mottoes. Surely removing God from a motto, as Harvard did for its own in 2011, is more likely to produce a fundamental shift in society than simply pulling down a statue of Frank Rizzo or Robert E. Lee, for that matter.

Pulling down a statue of Robert E. Lee

Not that Frank Rizzo and Robert E. Lee are really all that comparable, other than the fact that both of their statues have come under fire—one actually already toppled, the other likely soon to be. I base this lack of comparability not on Elaine Jakes’ dislike of Mayor Rizzo, but on her admiration for General Lee, even though she obviously disagreed with him on the issue of slavery. Though she herself was quite unpolitical and, if anything, rather left-leaning and quite hopeful when Mr. Obama was first elected president. Elaine believed fervently that one could disagree with someone but still respect them or at least respectfully discuss their legacy. She saw the good of and, to some extent, contributed quietly to what was called the Women’s Liberation movement in the 1970s. She greatly admired Martin Luther King Jr. She loved the Kennedys and the democrats of the 1960s, save President Johnson. She even threatened to move to Canada when Mr. Nixon was elected president in 1968. (I was young and didn’t understand that she was only joking; when I went to school and told my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Hendrickson, that we were moving to Canada she had a going away party for me in mid-November of 1968. Poor Mrs. Hendrickson never understood why I never left.)

But Elaine never thought for a moment that you shouldn’t even listen to the other side. Had she had such an attitude, she herself would never have changed her opinion on the abortion issue (cf. Curious Autobiography, p. 100) or any other. She never thought that a statue of someone you might have disagreed with should be pulled down. She hated racism, despised and resisted what she would have called “male chauvinist pigs” (and Mr. Rizzo likely qualifies under both of these categories) and would speak up for the oppressed at any and every turn. But she did not and would never have advocated rewriting—or worse—suppressing history. There are lessons embedded in our history, lessons we can only learn if we acknowledge the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the insipid and intelligent in history. These things, the Greeks would remind us, are not myths but they were witnessed. We have written testimony about those who witnessed them. They are not matters of opinion, like “God must not exist because there was a flood or an earthquake.”

No, history is something that was witnessed and, for better or worse, is something to be remembered. Monuments can be despised, but do they need to be removed? Not if we are to remember our history, for history is a shared experience with good and bad, a positive and negative legacy for all, not just for some. If we lose our shared history, we shall never, I ween, have a shared future. May that future be our shared story, as well.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: History, Breakfast and Bill Glass

we-the-peopleMy grandfather taught me to love history. Though he never went to college, Harry Jakes was an educated man. His education was garnered through the books he read, books about history, chiefly American history. He knew most of the presidents by heart. More importantly, he knew what they did and how ideally the country should function, its bicameral representative democracy, its three balanced branches of government, the fair and equitable distribution of power—a nonpareil essentially lost nowadays as we have a largely dysfunctional congress, increasing executive overreach, and politicized Supreme Court appointments. Yet Harry knew how the country had struggled to preserve its constitutional integrity, and when, and why.

And thus, beyond mere civics, that self-same grandfather taught me to love history. Yet for all his knowledge of history, Harry either did not have the capacity or desire to explain it fully—he rarely talked about “history” per se and indeed was generally reticent about what he was reading, though occasionally he would mention an important historical person, offering a slapdash and condensed biography. And that is precisely what I plan to do now. Yet I will not speak about American history or even my favorite, Roman history, but I will offer one of those random biographies as Harry used to do, in this case about Bill Glass. And there is a reason I will do so.

billglass

William Sheppeard Glass, who goes by Bill, a former football player and not a “historical figure” per se, is someone whose story informed my grandfather’s outlook on life. Born in 1935, Bill Glass grew up in Texas, went to Baylor University, and then played defensive lineman for the Detroit Lions and the Cleveland Browns, retiring from the pros in 1968.[1] In college Mr. Glass was a consensus all-American. As a pro, he proved worthy of the pro-bowl, and later authored or coauthored two books, an inspirational memoir entitled Get in the Game and another didactic work entitled Stand Tall and Straight, the latter of which is meant to foster character formation in young men. After his career ended, he attended Southwestern Seminary and would go on to learn about ministry from no less a preacher than Billy Graham. In 1969 Mr. Glass founded Bill Glass Ministries, whose primary thrust is to help emotionally and spiritually those who are in prison, though the ministry also touches those outside prison walls.[2]

Now what does this have to do with Harry’s penchant for history? For what reason do I quixotically offer this biography of a defensive lineman? No president, no congressman, he. It is because incumbent upon Harry’s general reticence about history was an equal reticence about interfering in the way Elaine Jakes was bringing me up. Elaine, you may know from reading the Curious Autobiography, was more or less a lightly practicing Jew throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. 9781480814738_COVER.inddAnd thus, I suspect, Harry felt it might be a breach of etiquette to encourage too strenuously his grandson to go to church, even though Elaine took me to synagogue but rarely, for she herself did not go regularly. Yet, Harry reasoned, if he gave me a record made by a football player speaking about his life—that football player was Bill Glass—then maybe I would listen. Maybe I would connect some dots that he thought, not without reason, I was not already connecting in my life. He was, and rightly so, deeply worried about my moral formation outside of church or, in my case, synagogue. And thus, Harry also thought, I suspect, that perhaps Bill Glass could make a lasting impression on me. Maybe I would even read Stand Tall and Straight, which I suspect he would have bought me for Christmas/Hanukkah if I had liked the recording of Glass speaking on the album that he had insisted I listen to.

Yet, though I was enamored of sports and especially loved football, by 1970 or so, when this was all happening, I had no interest in retired players—they were “old,” they were no longer playing, so I didn’t pay close attention to Mr. Glass’ impassioned appeal to turn to God, to give one’s life to Christ—though I don’t recall the specifics, I do recall the gist of the record. Had I listened, no doubt Harry would have been right to infer that I would have turned my life around—or rather God would have—and been on a better path, emotionally, morally, and spiritually. But that did not happen, not then.bill-glass-on-stadium

Now I forgot about all this for a long time. I forgot about it until a year or two ago when I was biking near the now demolished Floyd Casey Stadium in Beverly Hills, Texas, where the Baylor Bears used to play. On the side of that stadium was a larger than life-size portrait of none other than Bill Glass. I stopped my bike and looked at the poster and I said to myself, “I recall that guy. But how do I know him?” And then, as I resumed my bike journey it came back to me—history, my own history, and that of Harry Jakes as well. The awkward moment when he asked me to listen to the recording of Bill Glass.

And I would have forgotten about that, too, perhaps, but history doesn’t go away and often has a way of coming full circle. Later this week there is a fundraising breakfast for a ministry to the poor in Texas known as Mission Waco/Mission World. That breakfast was to feature Bill Glass himself as the chief speaker—until a week ago, when it was reported that Mr. Glass, now aged 81, has fallen ill and won’t be able to keep his speaking engagement. Needless to say, as a ticketholder to that breakfast, I am disappointed; more importantly, I sincerely wish him a swift recovery. I had hoped to tell him in person what a difference, albeit not at the time but over the course of time in my own personal history, that record album had made.

And thus I write this, on the one hand, for him: to let him know how his own history, many years ago, touched me, for though the message did not take root then, it would later. Within a few years of that moment, his words would come back to me. This time they came afresh in written form in St. Peter’s first epistle, spoken through the mouth of another person with Glass-like compassion—she would later become my wife—in Rome, Italy, a long way from Harry’s home in Kingston, Pennsylvania, a long way from Floyd Casey Stadium in Texas or the stadiums of Detroit or Cleveland. And I write this, on the other hand, for all of us, to remind us that history, whether our own, our country’s or simply that of a single individual, can have bearing on the present—redemptive bearing—and that, though we may not see figures of the past with our eyes, if we can recognize them in our minds and our spirits, their words and their lives truly will not lose meaning. Though I may never get to meet him, Bill Glass’ words resound and will continue to resound in my mind. I heard them but once, warbling on a wind-up Victrola nearly a half century ago.

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[1] http://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/G/GlasBi00.htm.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Glass.