“John Adams” by David McCullough: A Review

Amazon.com: John Adams (9780743223133): David McCullough: Books“Thanks to God that he gave me stubbornness when I know I am right.”

At the end of each year, I, like most bloggers, post my favorite books of the year. I am an avid reader and perusing the year of books is a real favorite of mine. Most years deciding on the winner is a real challenge. This year, however, will unlikely be that way. One of the nation’s leading historians and writers, David McCullough, has written one of the best biographies I’ve read. Simply titled “John Adams” McCullough has turned Adams, known as a stubborn and at times cranky founder who carried the burden following Washington in the White House, into my favorite founder.

McCullough’s biography is a detailed look at Adam’s public career – from his move to Boston as a lawyer to his death – written with engaging prose. The author presents a heroic, though flawed and sympathetic portrait of a founder that, for reasons unknown, has been largely forgotten.

The motive behind cracking this biography came from my wife and I finally starting the HBO miniseries on this book. Two episodes in, I knew I needed more than what the series was offering (a common pattern in my life). As much as I enjoyed the HBO exploration of this American hero, McCullough’s telling is far superior.

First, no one has been at the center of some of the most significant historical events in American history than Adam. Eisenhower might be second, but Adams is first. I was unaware of his involvement in the Boston Massacre. It was Adams, hired by the British soldiers when no one else would take their case, who defended their rights and innocence. He won in the end.

Adams then appears at the Continental Congress and was arguably the most influential character. Although persons like Franklin and Washington loomed large, it was Adams who spoke the loudest. Moving forward, he played the pivotal roll in selecting George Washington to lead the American army, lead the charge for Independence, asked Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence, negotiated peace following the war, established both England and France as partners (which was volatile to say the least), served as America’s first vice president, second President, and lived long enough to be the first former President to witness the inauguration of his son to the presidency – a feet that would not be repeated until the inauguration of George W. Bush.

Outside of his absence to the organization of the US Constitution, Adams was a leader among our Founders. Yet for reasons beyond my comprehension, Adams is largely backdrop to figures like Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson, and others. That is not to say that Adams is not well-respected or recognized as one of the most significant Founders, yet his stature is less than the others. McCullough changed this perspective for me. Without Adams, American history and America itself would look significantly different.

Secondly, McCullough presents Adams as he was, not as we imagine him to be. To some, Adams is a heroic figure that should be venerated. To others, he, like the other Founders, were flawed white men who hypocritically tolerated slavery and other bigotries. McCullough avoids these simplistic, political narratives.

Adams was heroic. There can be no doubt about that. Though close to his wife and children, they often suffered because of his service to his country. His defense of the British soldiers in Boston launches Adams down a path of courage and fortitude. He stood up to Jefferson who wrongly defended the French Revolution. He fought for the cause of Independence at the risk of his own life and the well-being of his family. He stood on neutrality when France and England were at war with each other. He was, indeed, heroic in the truest sense.

He was also deeply flawed. McCullough shows a man great in ambition and yet sensitive to criticism. He was well known and greatly loathed. Beloved by many and hated by others. He stood on principle even in the world of politics. It is good, indeed, that the Lord made him stubborn (a common criticism of Mr. Adams) especially when he was right!

We live in an age that either demeans or worships significant heroic figures. McCullough present a hero who, behind the public mask was a husband, a father, a citizen, a lawyer, a saint, and a sinner.

Finally, I greatly enjoyed the antidotes that McCullough provides. Adams famously said that “facts are stubborn things” during the Boston Massacre trial. This is likely the most memorable line from Adams’ entire illustrative career. Yet given the modern love-affair with feelings over facts, it is one worth putting into practice.

My favorite comes near the end. Adams was not secretive regarding his disregard of the Vice-Presidency, which he discovered the hard way. After Adam’s came a long line of former Vice-Presidents who loathed the position. When he finally surrendered the Presidency to Thomas Jefferson, Adams was both disappointed (in an ugly way) and yet relived.

While in retirement, Adams reflected back on his life and suggested that, if he had to do it all over again, he would have chosen the life of a shoemaker. McCullough then tells us:

Long before, on his rounds of Boston as a young lawyer, Adams had often heard a man with a fine voice singing behind the door of an obscure house. One day, curious to now who “this cheerful mortal” might be, he had knocked at the door, to find a poor shoemaker with a large family living in a single room. Did he find it hard getting by, Adams had asked. “sometimes,” the man said. Adams ordered a pair of shoes. “I had scarcely got out the door before he began to sing again like a nightingale,” Adams remembered. “Which was the greater philosopher? Epictetus or this shoemaker?” he would ask when telling the story.

Epictetus, the Greek Stoic philosopher, had said, among other things, “it is difficulties that show what men are.” (570-571)

Indeed. And Adams lived in trying times – the times that would test the soul of man. And he left it on July 4, 1826 – the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and on the same day as Thomas Jefferson. Its poetic.

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"Manhunt" by Peter Bergen: A Review

Image result for manhunt the search for bin laden peterTomorrow marks the 7th anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden. Below is a review of the best book I’ve read on his hunt.

Well-written non-fiction, when done right, is better than fiction. Knowing the words on the page are true grabs the readers attention and the story becomes more than just a story – it becomes, because it is, real life. Peter L. Bergen, in his book Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden–from 9/11 to Abbottabad has a story to tell that is shaping history and which grabbed the world’s attention on May 2, 2011. On that day, Seal Team 6 killed the world’s most wanted (and hated) man, Osama bin Laden. In this book, Bergen tells the story of the ten year hunt for the terrorist and how he found, and how he came to his end.

This is a fast paced, well-written history from a reporter who has followed the trail the entire way. Bergen is among the few journalists to have done an interview with the mass murderer and even was able to go inside the compound that housed bin Laden up to his death and thus his credibility is secured and his research is profound.

I could not put this book down. Since the announcement of bin Laden’s death, many documentaries, specials, articles, and books have been written on Seal Team 6, the raid, bin Laden, etc. Among those that I have read, this certainly ranks up there as one of the best, if not the best, in print.

One of the most fascinating parts of the book to me regards the percentages given to the President as to how certain various insiders and administrators were regarding whether or not bin Laden was actually in the compound. Some gave the President a 40% chance that bin Laden was inside that compound. Others gave him an 80-90% chance that he was there. This makes the President’s decision all the more difficult. Bin Laden simply did not come out of the compound enough for CIA officials to get a confirmation of him. There was a man they called “the Pacer” who would daily walk outside, but officials could not get a good enough look at him. Thus bin Laden’s presence was based on circumstantial evidence. Bergen even goes on far to suggest, quoting officials, that there was more, and better, circumstantial evidence for Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq than there was for bin Laden in the Abbottabad compound.

So why take the chance? Some in Obama’s administration told him not to go in. Others said to. The best explanation provided in the book for the raid came from Leon Panetta. Bergen writes:

Leon Penetta, who had been Bill Clinton’s chief of staff and before that a nine-term congressman, knew a thing or two about the realities of politics. He delivered a persuasive political argument in favor of the raid and of doing it as soon as feasible. “I’ve always used the test, Mister President, as somebody that’s been in public office: What would the average American say if he or she knew what we were talking about? And I think if you told the average American – we have the best intelligence we’ve had since Tora Bora, we have the chance to get the number one terrorist in the world who attacked us on 9/11 – I think that they would say ‘we gotta go.'” (202-203)

Bergen then adds, Hillary Clinton voiced a related point: enough people already knew about the bin Laden intelligence that it would eventually leak” (203).

Both Penetta and Clinton are exactly write. The intelligence wouldn’t get any better and this was our best chance since Tora Bora to get him and if the average American were in that room given the same intelligence, they would order the raid.

This is a great book but it isn’t without some bias. Bergen paints President George W. Bush in much more negative light than President Barack Obama. Early on in the book, Bergen notes Bush receiving intelligence regarding what would become 9/11 and then adds that he then enjoyed his long vacation in a somewhat condescending tone. Later in the book, right before the raid, President Obama is noted to have gone golfing with the less judgmental note that it was only for 9 holes. In addition, President Obama is presented as a sort of non-traditional Democrat war hawk – much like Bush. Bergen highlights the surge of troops yet fails to report that the surge was much less than was recommended to him. Nor does he mention his policies towards Russia and the downgrade of American nuclear bombs. So yes, bias is there, but it does not dominate the book and it is the main criticism I have for the book.

Overall, this is a great book that I highly recommend. This is where you want to begin to know more about bin Laden, the raid, and the story behind it all.

This book was given to me courtesy of Crown Publishers for the purpose of this review.


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"A History of SBTS" by William Mueller: A Review

Let the history, when written, tell only of the toils and trials and sacrifices, and wisdom and purdence and foresight, and prayers and tears and faith, of the people of God to whom the institution will have owed its existence and its possibilites of blessing. (vii)

-James P. Boyce

I had a professor in seminary once comment that most biographies and historical books fall into one of two categories: hagiography or critical analysis. To err on either side does not make a book worthless. But it is important to be aware of the bias of the author going into the book. The facts of history are what they are, but they must be interpreted and presented . And in there lies much of the bias.

Consider the 1959 book A History of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary by William A Mueller. The book was published on the century anniversary of my alma mater, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I have read most of the sesquicentennial history of SBTS by Gregory Willis published in 2009 simple entitled Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009. The two books tell the same history (at least regarding the first one hundred years) yet they read like two different stories.

I was alerted to this a number of years ago in conversation with an older minister who graduated from SBTS prior to the conservative resurgence at Southern. He was bitter about the latter volume and criticized it for rewriting history. That comment has remained with me ever since. Therefore, I picked up Mueller’s history recently to investigate how the original history was written and the liberal bias is overwhelming.

Southern Seminary opened its doors in 1859 in Greenville, South Carolina. Due to the Civil War, it temporarily closed its doors and eventually moved to Louisville, KY where it remains today. Its founding faculty are key to understanding the history and legacy of the school. This is both the strength and the weakness of Mueller’s volume. All four men, James P. Boyce, John Broadus, William Williams, and Basil Manily, Jr., were ardent Calvinists who defended orthodoxy vigorously while promoting academic excellence.

In Mueller’s history, we are given that portrait with extra paint. Throughout the story, especially regarding the founding faculty, the author struggles to make the first four faculty members to be more liberal than what they actually were. It is important to note that throughout the book, the comments are slight, yet the agenda is clear.

Prior to establishing SBTS, Dr. Boyce insisted the school be founded on a confessional document as a means of protecting it from heterodoxy. This document, written by Basil Manly, Jr., is known as the Abstract of Principles and is still in force today. Regarding this confession, Mueller notes, “The Abstract of Principles is still in force. Dr. W. O. Carver has suggested that if it were composed today, certain changes might be made in this instrument . . .” (31-32) Though he would go on to largely praise the document, it is comments like this that liter the text.

His survey of Boyce, which dominates a chapter and a quarter, has consistent liberalization of the record. Regarding his systematic theology textbook, the author writes, “one will understand the vigor and persuasiveness of his position despite its evident methodological limitations.” (58) He then notes “Boyce’s high regard for textual criticism” and his “insight into the peculiar problematic of interpreting the Scriptures.” (58)

Or consider the following comment:

Whatever may have been the limitations of James P. Boyce’s theological outlook, one fact seems clear: his thinking had not yet been eroded by the impact either of liberal or romanticizing tendencies of his age. Dr. Boyce’s theology still had some of the “intellectual defenses of historic Puritanism” which, according to Dr. Hudson, had been dismantled by the work of men like Horace Bushnell, Mark Hopkins, an other neoromantic evangelicals. (61)

The author lays his cards on the table here. He places Bushnell ahead of Boyce. That is problematic as Bushnell was a heterodox liberal.*

Regarding John Broadus, the second president of the seminary, the author highlights his commentary on Matthew. Mueller almost seems surprised that Broadus would interact with some of the chronological challenges of the Gospels. The author unnecessarily walks the reader through a number of these and explores what Broadus had to say on each of them.

Likewise, Mueller highlights Broadus’ apparent hesitation to interpret “righteousness” in the Gospels in the Pauline sense. He writes:

It is highly illuminating to observe how Dr. Broadus was careful not to read Pauline ideas back into the Synoptic Gospels. At least four passages in the Gospels dealing with the idea of righteousness . . . come under Broadus’ critical review. In all these passages he rightly held that the idea of imputed righteousness, so evident in Paul’s writings, is absent. (73)

For those familiar with liberal theology, this is a crucial distinction.

Likewise, he informs the reader that “Dr. Broadus came to the conclusion that the Lord’s Prayer need not be considered original.” (74) Even more striking is when he asserts, “Dr. Broadus firmly yet modestly stated the case for Jesus the Christ, Son of man and Son of God. The language he employed was chaste and simple.” (75) What an odd way to report Broadus’ orthodoxy. He was not an orthodox Baptist full of doubt. He was an ardent defender of the faith!

Finally, consider the following:

But – and this is a most significant point – Broadus also made it clear that while the Word of God is true, “it does not follow that our interpretations are infallible.” Dr. Broadus affirmed himself to be an advocate of progressive orthodoxy. (81)

No he wasn’t. The writer wants us to associate Broadus with the word “progressive.”

This same pattern is followed regarding the biography of Manly. For example, he is described as being “solid though often overly cautious conservative without, however, ever being bereft of his critical faculties.” (87-88) So conservative believers refuse to use their mind?

This is the pattern throughout the book. Mueller inserts his liberal bias even if it requires him forcing it. Regarding the Crawford Toy controversy, his sympathy to the fired faculty is evident. He emphasizes the boards hesitancy in accepting his resignation and Boyce’s famous meeting with him afterward. Throughout the narrative, however, Mueller describes his theology in shocking ways. For example, while discussing the biography of Manly, Toy’s theology is described as being “advanced.” (96)

Overall, I appreciated Mueller’s approach to writing the story of the first one hundred years of Southern, but am disappointed by the clear bias of its writer. Having considered Mueller’s history of Southern, I disagree with the man I met a number of years ago. The story had to be rewritten and updated and I would recommend Willis’ volume. The liberal hijacking of Southern Seminary is its saddest chapter. Unfortantely, this book was written as those days were just beginning.


*Later, Mueller favorably references Friedrich Schleiermacher. See page 85.

"Theologies of the American Revivalists" by Robert Caldwell: A Review

One of the most significant events that shaped the founding of America was the two Great Awakenings between 1740-1840. Countless souls were saved in the colonies and on the frontier shaping what we now know to be America. The story of the First and Second Great Awakening is fascinating. The theology behind them is even more riveting. Robert W. Caldwell III explores both revivals in his book Theologies of the American Revivalists: From Whitefield to Finney.

This is a work of historical theology, an important distinction before cracking its spine. Though Caldwell tells the story of the Great Awakenings, it is not a history of those revivals. At the same time, this is not merely an exploration of the theology of Whitefield or Wesley or Edwards or Finney. Rather, it is a study of the dogmatic evolution regading revival theologies during this century.

I must confess that revival theology is an area I have given little thought to. Though I have done a lot of studying on the Second Great Awakening on the Kentucky frontier, I have not considered the theology behind it. Caldwell, however, shows that behind the story is the theology.

Exploring all the ins and outs of the book would go behind the purpose of a brief review. Instead I want to highlight some of the insight I gleaned from this volume. First, Caldwell showed that the differences between the two Awakenings is more complicated than I had previously assumed. I always imagined the First Great Awakening as a conservative, Calvinist triumph – the climax of the Puritan age. It was characterized by order and solid theology. The Second Great Awakening, however, was the triumph of Arminian and Pelagian theologies. It was more eradic, emotional, and too modern. It is no accident that many of the prominent heretical groups (like Jewhovah’s witnesses, Mormons, and others) came out of the Second Great Awakening. The author, however, showd that the history is more complicated than that. Finney was not an opportunists, but one sympathetic to some of Edwards’ theology who had taken the theological tragetry to the next step.

Secondly, I find myself pulled back and forth between the slower approach to conversion modeled in the First Awakening and the immeidate call to repentance modeled immediately after. Andrew Croswell I found particularly interesting. As Caldwell presents him, he shifts the emphasis from proving one’s conversion to the more contemporary emphasis on respondng to the gospel. I see merits in both. This volume lays out the context and history of that development.

Thirdly, Caldwell provides snippets of insight that are illuminating. For example, he explores the genesis of altar calls. Though the precise beginning is uncertain, it grew in popularity in the Second Great Awakening. Likewise, the author’s exploration of what sparked the revivals are instructive. Let us pray that a genuine revival will be stirred among us in this generation.

Ultimately, this volume illustrates why theology mattes and how it can shape a nation. We have benefitted from the fruit of these revivals for generations. Although not everything that came out of them was good, let us pray that God will send another revival among us. In the mean time, I would highly recommend this work.

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