Reflections on Kidd’s Biography of a Founding Father

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This week I read a history of one of the most influential men in American history, a Founding Father, printer, author, autodidact, aphorist, statesman, scientist, friend of Calvinist George Whitefield, and inveterate ambassador of discovery, education, and self-improvement. Biographies are among my favorite areas in which to read deeply, and Thomas Kidd’s bio of Ben Franklin did not disappoint.

Following is a form to provide a brief book review:

1. Overview

2 Quotation

3. Main idea

4. Questions raised/reflections

Overview:

 Kidd divides the book into nine chapters: 1) Child of the Puritans; 2) Exodus to Philadelphia, Sojourn to London; 3) Philadelphia Printer; 4) Poor Richard; 5) Ben Franklin’s Closest Evangelical Friend; 6) Electrical Man; 7) Tribune of the People; 8) Diplomat; and 9) The Pillar of Fire.

Kidd provides a clear overview of Franklin’s Calvinist upbringing and deep knowledge of the Bible; his prodigious work ethic and self-discipline; his staggering output of pamphlets, articles, ads and booklets as a printer; his deftness with proverbs; his lifelong friendship and theological foil with Christian evangelist George Whitefield; his discoveries in electricity; his educational and political honors and appointments; his government service; and his final days wrestling with the question of the exclusivity of the Christian gospel.

Quotation:

 Consider the following commentary by Kidd re Franklin’s self-help moralism:

If Whitefield preached transformation by God, Franklin advocated gradual reformation by daily effort, with biblical precepts as a guide. No internal change or divine regeneration was needed. Whatever the lingering influence of his Puritan heritage, this was a point on which Franklin clearly departed from the Puritans, and from their evangelical successors like Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards. In this focus on harnessing daily habits, Franklin was setting foundational precedents for that distinctively American, quasi-religious genre, the self-help movement. Franklin’s “The way to Wealth” and his Autobiography were ur-texts of that movement. (161)

Kidd excels in demonstrating the rich theological culture that existed in America in the middle of the 1700s due mostly to the robust evangelism of Calvinists like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield amidst the literacy rate of the nation seeking to separate from George and English dominion.

Main Idea:

 Kidd maintains his focus throughout the book on Franklin’s internal struggles. He (Franklin) was saturated with biblical knowledge but he never would concede the divinity of Christ, his virgin birth, or that salvation was by grace alone. Franklin sifted the Bible for moral precepts, acknowledging Jesus’ incomparable greatness, but would not, as far as historians can tell, ever trust in Christ and the gospel completely. Whitefield and Franklin corresponded for decades, and all the while, Whitefield pleaded for Franklin to trust in Christ alone, but Franklin persisted to trust in his own deeds as meriting favor with God, a clear indicator he had not embraced the gospel.

Questions raised/reflections:

 It is interesting to study a man as brilliant and gifted as Benjamin Franklin, one who was largely self-taught, one who explored the Greek and Roman classics, the Bible, philosophers like Locke, Hume, and Kant, theologians and pastors like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, and never seemed to lose his zeal for discovery and learning. Despite his experiences of man’s butchery in the American Revolution, the slaughter of Indians by misguided zealots, and some of America’s birth pangs, he continued a rebel soul up until his end in this life. I wish he has listened more to his friend Whitefield and believed the Scriptures, rather than just quoting them when they suited his rhetorical purposes.

Lastly, if you wish to learn of this Founding Father, this contradictory man, this gifted writer and satirist, read Kidd’s bio of Franklin. Kidd writes so well that you may wish the book had been even longer.

 

 

Thoughts on Orwell’s 1984

IMG_1995This week I read George Orwell’s 1984. Published in 1949, the close of WWII was less than four years prior. Unimaginable horrors were replete: Hitler and the Third Reich; Nazis; the slaughter of 6,000,000 Jews; President Truman’s authorizing the dropping of atomic bombs upon Japan four years after Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was attacked by Japanese kamikazes; Mussolini’s fellow fascists in Italy; Franco’s fellow fascists in Spain; Lenin and later Stalin in the USSR; Mao in China … the list of totalitarian/socialist/communist tyrants in the 20th century alone staggers the mind. And Orwell’s 1984 still retains cogent warnings.

Published in the middle of the 20th century, 1984 imaginatively concretizes the horrors of tyranny, big government, and totalitarianism/socialism/communism by focusing on an ordinary man (Winston Smith).

How will Winston (a type of Everyman) endure when oligarchy replaces republicanism? Can the human soul endure when God is jettisoned and secular power replaces him? And what of beauty? Is literature possible in a world when bureaucrats determine the curricula? Will Shakespeare and Dickens survive in 1984’s world of Telescreens and Newspeak? Short answer: no.

Governments don’t stir the soul; reading Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, however, does. When the media are merely arms of the government, and the masses (what Orwell terms the “proles” for proletariat) know only what government wants them to know, wisdom goes underground. And so do truth, goodness, and beauty.

The terms Orwell coined in 1984 endure. Big Brother, Thought Police, and Newspeak are just some of the examples. If you control the language, you control the message. And today, look at college and university campuses where Leftists demand “safe spaces,” and being called by pronouns that are in contradiction to their gender. Professing themselves to be wise, they’re fools. And it is shameful.

These examples from our day illustrate what happens when a culture abandons God, abandons reason, and abandons self-discipline. Orwell’s 1984 is still important.

First, are you paying attention to phrases en vogue today? Ever heard the phrase “safe spaces”? A couple of years ago, I was at military training with my unit and a female officer asked me if I would step out of the auditorium because she wished to speak to only female soldiers. That seemed understandable to me. But what caught my attention was when she said, “We are creating a safe space.” Huh? A space is now safe when any and all potentially dissenting views are prohibited. Verboten. Forbidden. Not tolerated. What is demanded is conformity.

Second, there is a loud and mean push in contemporary politics and discourse that demands—instead of reasons. Leftists demand a Christian baker, for example, go against his deeply held religious beliefs. If he won’t, they smear him as a bigoted moral monster. If he won’t contradict biblical morality, they set out to destroy him. So much for their so-called tolerance. In 1984, the individual is crushed by Big Brother and oligarchy. Power is stolen from the individual and reserved only for the all-powerful State. If the individual dissents, he/she is crushed via torture and/or indoctrination.

Third, Orwell dramatizes in 1984 what happens when people don’t know history. What they know is what the media have force-fed them. Instead of wisdom with regard to historical understanding, they have platitudes and bromides: WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH, for example. Clichés are not arguments; assertions are not arguments; platitudes are not arguments. But if the masses only parrot the media they ingest, shibboleths and slogans are what we get.

In 1984, a novel now 70 years old, I encountered a warning we should heed. We are drowning in information rather than standing upon wisdom.

We would do well to read deeply, to think through Orwell’s warnings from decades ago. We would do well to actually know and understand history. We might discover how we got to such a sorry place with regard to our conversations with one another. We might rediscover that masterpieces like Romeo and Juliet, David Copperfield, and 1984 were not produced by bureaucrats or governmental committees.

The Colonel

“You ever notice, chaplain, people don’t know their Bibles anymore?” the colonel asked.

The chaplain studied the colonel to see if he was asking with the desire to listen to the chaplain answer, or to hear himself. As the chaplain was about to answer, the colonel continued.

“You know, chaplain, I used to think it was just Millennials–the guys who can’t do fifty push-ups because their man-buns might come undone . . .”

The chaplain nodded his head slowly at the colonel to let him know he understood. The chaplain knew he would not have to say much because the colonel wanted to impress him.

“And what’s with women who now dress and act like men, but then get offended if we treat them like they are men? I mean, which is it?” Suddenly the colonel realized he’d left his original topic.

“What was I saying, chaplain?”

“You began with how few people know the Bible, sir.”

“Exactly, chaplain! But it’s even the older generation, too. You know that?”

“That’s been my experience, sir.”

“How old are you, chappy?”

“Forty-eight, sir.”

“Me, too, chaplain. But when I was coming up in the Midwest, at least my family taught us the Bible, and we even went to church. But people nowadays, chaplain—I just don’t know anymore.”

“Not much of a shared foundation anymore, sir. I’ve noticed.”

“You know, chaplain. I have an eleven-year-old son named Luke. Every night before I put him to bed, I read the Bible aloud with him for thirty minutes.”

“That’s great, sir,” the chaplain said. “He will remember that time with him and probably much of what you read with him.”

“You know what really gets me, though, chappy? It’s how he’ll hit me with a question a day or so later about something we read—something I didn’t think he was really tracking,” the colonel said.

“He may be beyond much of the West, sir,” the chaplain said, smiling a sad smile.

“Say again.”

“Firsthand knowledge of Scripture, sir, like you were saying,” the chaplain said.

“Exactly. He’ll up and ask me something about people loving darkness rather than light. Ain’t that something, chappy?”

“Yes, sir.”

“But what do we do, chaplain? With the world going the way it is, and all? I mean, I know the Bible, and my wife and I, we teach it to Luke. But this generation, and even our parents’ generation . . . I just don’t know, chaplain.”

“Sounds like you’re doing well, sir. Open the Scripture, read it, and share it with those who’ll listen.”

He watched the colonel listen to his own thoughts, and pictured the colonel with Luke beside his dad, perhaps under his boyish covers on his bed, listening to his father read of David and mighty men of valor, who surely resembled his dad the colonel, and his staff officers or non-commissioned officers; and a flaming sword that blazed amidst a ruined garden; and of Jewish boys perhaps his own age, cast into a furnace deep in the desert sands near the Tigris and Euphrates where his dad had battled and returned; and of trees cursed by Jesus as symbols of people not using their time the way God wanted, and . . .

Thus ran the chaplain’s thoughts as he watched the colonel listen to himself.

“You’re a good listener, chappy. Appreciate you.”

“Thanks, sir. Likewise.”

“Hey, sir?”

“What you got, chappy?”

“Tell Luke to keep reading, and that the chaplain says hello.”

“Good copy, chaplain.”

 

The Devil’s Books?

Prepare to be offended. I want to ask two related questions. First, should Christians read the classics? Second, what principles should guide their reading?

Let me sharthe the background of what got me thinking on this. Recently, I was having an email conversation with a “Facebook friend.” We’re both Christians, both thoughtful people, and both reasonably well educated. In the course of our writing back and forth, she asked me why I had read Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Here are my exact words to her: “Ha, I read widely. I was a latecomer to Harry Potter (sic). I read a lot of history, theology, and literature. But when something is as influential as those books, I thought I should read them all in order to understand their worldview. Just because I read something doesn’t mean that I buy into its ideology or worldview. I read many things with which I disagree. But I think it’s important to know the entire marketplace of ideas, not just things that make me comfortable or with which I agree.”

Can you guess her response? Here is the first part: “I’ve heard that before. Please don’t be offended, but don’t you think we can know about it because we know about the enemy and his worldview? All I need to know is that it is inspired by the dark side. When Harry uses supernatural powers that do not glorify Jesus Christ, it’s pretty obvious that it’s not good for us. We can know a lot about it because we know the enemy. We know how he works and we know his tactics, but we don’t need to eat from his table. It’s kinda (sic) like the Lord’s warnings in the Old Testament about going to them for counsel.”

What does that conversation reveal about the issues raised? Am I sinning because I read the Harry Potter books? I don’t practice divination; I don’t consult the dead; I don’t cast spells. But I did enjoy the books. I cannot speak for other readers, but I was never as interested in the magic that Harry performed as I was in Harry’s character—how Rowling made him (and other characters) come alive in the stories. We see how Harry grew up, and how and why his personality was the way it was.

The same goes for any literary character, right? Read The Great Gatsby? I feel like Jay Gatsby, Nick Carraway, and Daisy Buchanan live in my imagination, but they were just literary characters. I don’t worship them. Rather I learn from them. How? I can only say, in the way that great literature alone accomplishes. It is part of the (forgive the pun) magic of great literature.

On the other hand, I have tried to think through my friend’s counsel. She is right in that Scripture clearly condemns magic, astrology, demonic spirits, witchcraft, etc. (see Deut. 18:9-12 and 1 Chr. 10:13, e.g.). There are scores of examples in Scripture where witchcraft is condemned. I selected these as among the most obvious, for those who will read them and think through them. Does thinking on things that are honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable (Phil. 4:8) preclude me from reading anything but Scripture and Sunday school literature?

I asked her if Christians should read War and Peace and Huckleberry Finn. I’m still waiting on her answer. Because we need to think through these things. Much is at stake. I’d hate to think that all my shelves of Dostoyevsky, Tolkien, O’Connor, Walker Percy, Tolstoy, C.S. Lewis, Larry Woiwode, and T.S. Eliot are for naught. Murders abound in Dostoyevsky, but he’s generally considered a Christian novelist. Tolkien wrote of hobbits, magic, etc., but his writings have reached thousands with the gospel worldview. O’Connor’s writings are filled with sexual deviancy but she’s overtly biblical. Percy, like O’Connor, was Roman Catholic, but I wrote my master’s thesis on Percy, and he was saturated with the biblical worldview, and warned through his writings of man, outside of Christ, is “lost in the cosmos.” Tolstoy, Lewis, Woiwode, Eliot, et al were all orthodox Christians, but each had things in his writings that wouldn’t make it into one’s Sunday school curricula. And the Christian world should evade reading them? I don’t think so.

Fear not, we’re still “Facebook friends.” Iron sharpens iron, right? Hopefully, we can discuss more than the 66 books we both cherish. I hear some good ones have been written. Many even term them “the classics.”

I realize I didn’t answer the questions myself, but you might infer what I think. I continue to teach literature and writing to this very day. I think life without literature, like life without music, would be a mistake. Scripture must guide our evaluations of what constitutes “great” literature (often termed ‘the classics’). Though I don’t make the case that the Harry Potter books constitute great literature, I do think they’re worthy of being read.

Secularism does not lend itself to the creation of great literature simply because secularism is reductionistic. Only a biblical Judeo-Christian worldview gives objective reasons for man’s dignity (he is the creation of God who is goodness Himself) and art, as an ability of co-creation of the true, good, and beautiful, is rooted in a biblical worldview.   But to disparage quality literature as inspired by the devil, it seems to me, cheapens the discussion and tends more towards intellectual cowardice than towards sanctification. Romeo and Juliet, e.g. is replete with metaphors about astrology and the roles of fate. However, to ignore and/or forsake the incomparable beauty and truths in that play, or others of that caliber, ends in making Christian holy huddles an object of pity.

As thoughtful Christians, let us trust truth-tellers, even if they don’t have coffee with us in our Sunday school classes. God even uses pharaohs to manifest his glory.