Tag Archives: history


JRF’s #36 – Inventing the Enemy by Umberto Eco


This book is a collection of essays about anything and everything by University of Milan professor and author Umberto Eco.

Here’s a brief synopsis of each:

Inventing the Enemy –  A historical account of humanity’s proclivity to look for someone to stereotype, vilify, and hate.

Absolute and Relative – A somewhat muddled discussion of the relationship between absolute and relative truth.

The Beauty of the Flame – Beautifully chronicles the various uses, philosophies, and symbolic utilizations of fire and light throughout history.

Treasure Hunting – Catalougs some of the more interesting and fantastical relics that have filled the treasuries of Roman Catholic churches over the years.

Fermented Delights –  Catalougs the writings and musings of the late Italian historian Piero Camporesi, who had a fascination with historical forms of fermentation, be that of beer, cheese, or decomposing bodies.

No Embryos in Paradise -  An examination of Thomas Aquinas’ views on the humanity and soul of the unborn (spoiler alert: Aquinas was wrong).

Hugo, Helas!: The Poetics of Excess – Eco celebrates Victor Hugo’s trademark penchant for dramatic excess.

Censorship and Silence - Examines the irony that censorship of something make it more popular and the oversaturation in the media of that same thing dulls its influence and allure.

Imaginary Astronomies – Investigates the attempts throughout history to map the universe as well as the earth and shows how even erroneous theories became stepping stones in our understanding of the world and the heavens.  Interesting side story about how some Nazi’s belief that the surface of the world was actually concave with us on the inside of the sphere may have contributed to so many botched V8 rocket launches.

Living by Proverbs -  This essay is made up entirely of folk wisdom and “things my daddy used to say”, showing that if we literally lived by proverbial wisdom we would cease to function.

I Am Edmond Dantes! – Explores the use and misuse of the literary device of anagnorisis, which surprises the readers and/or the characters of a story with the revelation of a secret identity.

Ulysses: That’s All We Needed… -  A collection of fascist era reviews of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Why the Island Is Never Found – Discusses the search of islands real and imagined, the invention and importance of longitude, and the reason that some islands are never discovered.

Thoughts on WikiLeaks –  commentary on the significance of the WikiLeaks scandal and what it means to live in a world where not only is the technology for an Orwellian like Big Brother government available, but the technology exists to steal Big Brother’s secrets.


I enjoyed all of the essays, understood most of them and appreciated the opportunity to have my mind stretched in subjects I wouldn’t normally encounter.



Mark’s #51 – Thunderstruck by Erik Larsen (2007)

Thunderstruck is the story of two men whose lives are improbably intertwined in the  early 1900′s.  Guglielmo Marconi is the man who invented the “wireless” and changed the world forever.   Hawley Crippen is a soft-spoken, mild-mannered man who ends up taking meticulous steps to murder his overbearing, adulterous wife, and almost succeeding in getting away with it… Crippen would have succeeded had it not been for Marconi’s invention which enabled Scotland Yard to communicate via wireless to the transatlantic ship Crippen and his new lover we aboard while trying to escape.

Like other books I’ve read by Larsen (In The Garden of Beasts and Devil in the White City), this book not only digs deep into lives and circumstances of its principal subjects, but also into the world and times in which these men lived.  It was an age of scientific inventions that greatly impact our lives today, a world sliding toward the first world war,  a time of great interest in the supernatural world of seances, and a time when the wealthy went out of their way to flaunt their riches in extravagant ways.

In many ways, reading Larsen’s books are like stepping back into the past as you find yourself engaged in the triumphs and failures of men from that era.  However, this isn’t Larsen’s best work, go with one of his other two books before picking this one up.



JRF’s #30 – Lord Radstock and the Russian Awakening by David Fountain


Granville Augustus William Waldegrave, 3rd Baron Radstock, known to history as Lord Radstock, is one of the many unsung heroes of the modern missionary movement.  He was godfather to the Cambridge Seven.  He was a dear friend of George Muller.  He was the father of Russian Protestantism.  He was both admired and caricatured by the Russian elite, including the Czar, Tolstoy and Boborykin.  And he was one of those rare men of wealth who leveraged his earthly treasure and high position for an eternal purpose.

I have wanted to learn more about Lord Radstock when he was mentioned briefly in John Pollock’s Cambridge Seven which I read last year.

David Fountain’s short book gives a good sketch of Radstock’s life.   Unfortunately it is just that, a sketch.  Fountain’s greatest success in this book was to wet my appetite for more information on this amazing man’s life and legacy.  I look forward to learning more from the life and ministry of this faithful disciple.


(by the way if any of you readers are a person of considerable wealth, I am looking for a Radstock type to support our missionary work in South East Asia…let me know :)


Mark’s #45 – A Free People’s Suicide by Os Guinness

Os Guinness is an astute social critic, historian, Christian apologist, Irishman born in China and educated in England. Os has also long been an admirer of America’s founders and their commitment to ensuring American freedom.  A Free People’s Suicide serves as a prophetic warning cry to Americans to take heed, learn from their past, or else be buried in the inevitable decline that has overtaken every other world super power.  Or, as he closed each chapter:

Those who aspire to be like Rome in their beginnings must avoid being like Rome at their ending.  Rome and its republic fell and so too will the American republic – unless…

Guinness argues that “the greatest enemy of freedom is freedom”  (19), meaning that our freedom we enjoy turns out to be a sort of assumed freedom that does not press us to persevere in our freedom.   For example, in the name of ‘freedom’ we will go to great lengths to remove our private freedoms in a scary and dangerous world, thus justifying increased government intrusion in a wide variety of surveillance and ‘safety’ measures (see the full body scans at the airport these days).

More concerning than these infractions however, Guinness argues that the greatest threat to American freedom is the loss of a culture of virtue, honesty, and integrity that was present and necessary at our nations founding  (with the exception of obvious blind spots such as slavery).  In other words, a nation may have freedom on the constitutional level (which is necessary), and yet not have these ingredients necessary on the individual level… thus there is increasing legislation to protect us from ourselves because there is no longer an ethos of virtue in America… Unless we recover this ethos, we as free people will commit a type of freedom suicide.

What is necessary to persevering in freedom is what Guinness calls the “golden triangle of freedom”

The cultivation and transmission of the conviction that freedom requires virtue, which requires faith, which requires freedom, which in turn requires virtue… and so on, like the recycling triangle, ad infinitum.”

Thus secularism and postmodernism threatens freedom because concepts such as virtue, truth, and freedom are ultimately meaningless within these worldviews.

And so Guinness critiques modern Amercians,

You have turned to alternative visions of freedom that are seductive but lazy-minded and empty, and are now proving disastrous.  And all the time you are turning yourselves into caricatures of your original freedom in ways that are alternatively fascinating and repellent to the world (204).

However clear the signs of decline are at this point in history, the final nail in the coffin has not yet been driven down.  As Americans we must go forward (which we love) by reviving the past (which we’re not so good at).  We must return to virtue and faith.  In our educational systems we must reclaim the essential role of training in virtue and not just skill sets.

Guinness sets forth the steps necessary for American freedom to persevere in the decades and centuries to come:

  1. America must strongly and determinedly restore civic education (192).
  2. America must strongly and determinedly rebuild its civil public square (194).
  3. America must strongly and determinedly reorder the grand spheres that make up American society and its powerful cultural influence in the world (194)
  4. Americans must restore the integrity and credibility of the faiths and ethics of the citizenry (196).


On the night of President Obama’s reelection, the big idea of his acceptance speech as captured by most of the news headlines was “The best is yet to come”… this may be true (I hope it is), but let’s all hope, pray, and fight that it is more than our dying mantra… Otherwise the dystopian vision of the likes of Orwell (Animal Farm, 1984) or Huxley (Brave New World) may shift from the category of fiction to nonfiction.



Mark’s #40 – Prague Winter by Madeleine Albright

While serving as America’s first female Secretary of State in the 1990s, Czechlosovakian born Madeleine Albright discovered that she was of Jewish descent.  When Hitler and the Nazi regime rolled in to Prague in 1939, Madeleine and her immediate family fled to London, where her father worked with the Czech government in exile.

This is both a personal story as well as a well written and researched national history of Czechloslovakia – focused primarily on the years between 1937-1948.  Madeleleine’s research led her to places like Terizin, where many of her Jewish relatives were sent to live in what Hitler called a “prosperous village for Jews”.  Sadly, only traces of her relatives remained after the war, as they, along with thousands of other Czechloslovak Jews were sent by train to the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Berkanou.

I have long been interested in WWII history in particular, but this book was absolutely fascinating to me as I have gone to school in Prague, and I hope to one day serve as a missionary in the Czech Republic.  This book gave me a great insight into the particular Czech tragedies of WWII, and some of its shaping influences that persist in the country today.

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