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The Envoy by Alex Kershaw

The Envoy: The Epic Rescue of the Last Jews of Europe in the Desperate Closing Months of World War II by Alex Kershaw.

On Saturday morning, I went to this protest at Planned Parenthood, Gulf Coast, the site of the largest and most lucrative abortion facility in the United States. On Saturday afternoon and evening, I read The Envoy, the story of the final months of World War II in Hungary and the genocide organized by Adolf Eichmann as a “final solution” to the “Jewish problem” in Hungary. Even though, as Jen Fulwiler writes in this piece, the analogy between the Jewish Holocaust of World War II and the abortion holocaust of the United States (and much of the developed world) is not complete or tidy, the parallels are obvious and undeniable. In both cases, a class of people were/are “dehumanized”, spoken of and then treated as less than human, unworthy of basic human rights and protections. (Bob DeGray on The Christian Response to Dehumanization)

The more I read about World War II or about Hitler’s Holocaust, the more I realize that I have huge swaths of ignorance about what took place during that time. Did you know that during the summer of 1944, when it was becoming clearer and clearer that the Germans were losing the war and that the Russian army was headed toward Budapest, Eichmann insisted upon continuing his program of exterminating the Jews of Hungary? During that summer, from May to August, over 500,000 Jewish men, women and children were transported to Auschwitz, mostly from Hungary’s provinces, outside of Budapest itself. The deportations were suspended in late August because the Romania had surrendered, putting the Russian army only weeks away from Budapest. However, after the Germans blackmailed Hungary’s puppet regent, Miklas Horthy, into resigning by kidnapping his son and holding him hostage, the Arrow Cross, Hungary’s viciously anti-Semitic Nazi party, took over the government. “The pogroms began that evening. Hundreds were pulled from their homes or off the streets and slaughtered in plain sight in the first hours of the Arrow Cross regime.” (p.160)

Then, Eichmann returned to his pet plan for liquidating the Jews of Budapest. When he couldn’t get trains to transport the Jews to Auschwitz, he forced them to march to the Polish border on foot, by the thousands. Many died on the way, and others were killed as soon as they reached Poland. Even though Eichmann (and everybody else) knew that the Russians would soon take Budapest, he was intent on killing as many Jews as possible before the Nazis were defeated.

All these details were things I didn’t really realize about the Holocaust, not set in context as they are in The Envoy. I had heard of Raoul Wallenberg; I read an account somewhere of his using his Swedish diplomatic immunity and his ingenuity to save Jews. However, The Envoy puts Wallenberg and his heroic work to rescue the Jews of Budapest into perspective. I was amazed at Wallenberg’s courage and that of many others during the latter half of 1944, and I was surprised and saddened to learn of Wallenberg’s fate after his work in Budapest was over. Probably, Wallenberg never knew that many of the Jews he rescued with fake diplomatic protection did survive the war, and he may very well have thought that no one knew or cared about his attempts to rescue at least a remnant of Hungary’s Jewish population.

Reading the story of Raoul Wallenberg and the Jews of Budapest made me remember that many of us, maybe most of us, will never know in this life the results of our attempts at kindness, courage, truth-telling, and goodness. Sometimes those actions bear fruit many years later. Sometimes Satan deceives us into thinking that our actions don’t really matter, that no one is listening, nothing is changing, no one cares, and evil wins. But God wins, and goodness outlasts and extinguishes evil, and our actions, for good or for ill, do matter. One man, or even a group of men, may not have been able to save all the Jews from the evil that was Hitler’s and Eichmann’s final solution, but one man and his co-conspirators made a difference. And I am determined to use my one voice and my one life to do whatever I can to make a difference for truth and justice, too.

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler by Phillip Hoose

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club by Phillip Hoose.

The Newbery honor and National Book Award winning author of Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, Phillip Hoose, has chronicled the fascinating true story of a group of Danish boys who jump-started the resistance to the Nazis in Denmark during World War II. Knud Pedersen, a pastor’s son, joined with his high school buddies to harass and subvert the Germans who were occupying Denmark. They stole guns, burned German vehicles, confused signage, posted graffiti,and cut phone lines, among other acts of sabotage and resistance. And they acted when almost no one else in Denmark was resisting the Germans at all. Pedersen says they did it because they were ashamed of Denmark’s easy capitulation to the Nazis and the collaboration that characterized the Danish response to the German occupation.

“I kept asking myself: How on earth could I lie on the beach sunning when my country had been violated? Why were we not as brave as Norway? Had Denmark no pride?”

Eventually, the boys, who after all were just boys with no military or resistance experience, were arrested and imprisoned. But they became an inspiration to the adults of Denmark who began their own resistance movement. Mr. Hoose credits Knud Pedersen and his Churchill Club with “setting the ball in motion” and making Denmark “a hotbed of resistance.”

I would have liked to have read more about the religion “ghosts” (hints about a religious or Christian influence that aren’t fleshed out) in this story. Pedersen’s father was a pastor, but we are never told what denomination or what that fact meant to Knud Pedersen. Pedersen tells how the boys decided that they would have to be willing to kill Germans in order to form an effective resistance cell, but he never says anything about how they reconciled the violence they were willing to commit with their Christian background or faith. In fact, it is hinted, but never stated, that perhaps Knud Pedersen and his brother, who was also involved in the Churchill Club, didn’t have much faith or Christianity to reconcile. However, perhaps they did, but the author doesn’t tell us about it. Pedersen is filled with hatred: for the Germans, for the Danish collaborators, and for his jailers. A struggle with what to do with such hatred in a Christian context is never mentioned.

Religion ghosts in the text:

“Holy Ghost Monastery . . . would host Edvard Pedersen’s Danish Folkschurch and provide living quarters for the Pedersen family.” Folkschurch?

Most of the boys of the Churchill Club attended Aalborg Cathedral School, presumably a Christian private school?

Knud Pedersen: “Each Sunday morning Jens and I practiced shooting the guns in the gigantic open loft at the top of the monastery during father’s church services. We would lie on our stomachs, waiting for the music to swell, and when it did we’d blast away, firing at targets positioned in the hay on the other side of the loft.” So the boys didn’t attend church services?

Pedersen on Christmas in prison: “I wanted to cry, but I had forgotten how. I finally discovered that by softly singing Christmas songs in my cell at night I could make the tears flow down my cheeks. I sang every song I knew and wept the whole next day.”

Knud Pedersen, describing the end of the war for him: “Father distributed hymnals. I ended the war at the monastery chapel just a few meters away from the room in which the Churchill Club was born–singing hymns with the men of my K Company group. I was eighteen.”

Knud’s brother, Jens, “struggled with depression.” “He died in a hospital after a very unhappy life.”

After the war, Knud Pedersen wrote a memoir about the Churchill Club. His father, “Edvard Pedersen, arranged to have a secretary type the finished manuscript, but—unbeknownst to Knud and his club mates–he had the typist cross out all the curse words just before publication. This angered the group when they finally saw the book.”

These ghosts/hints are interesting for what is not mentioned: no prayer, no consolation from remembered Scripture or Biblical truth, no Christ or Christian commitment. Judging from a quick skim of his blog, Mr. Hoose himself seems to have Buddhist sympathies, so it’s understandable that he would not be as interested in the Christian underpinnings or lack thereof of the Churchill Club and its members. But I was. Unfortunately, since Mr. Pedersen died in December of last year, 2014, I can’t ask him whether he rejected or found strength in the faith of his parents or what exactly that faith was.

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler is a book about teen heroes, young men who decided that if the adults wouldn’t do anything for the honor of Denmark and the confusion of her enemy, the German invaders, they would. As such it’s an interesting and exciting portrait of youthful zeal and even foolhardiness which can sometimes trump an adult over-abundance of caution and planning. I just would have liked to know more about the boys’ foundational thinking, about what motivated them and sustained them, or didn’t sustain them, through prison and life after the war.

1776 by David McCullough

I feel as if I learned a lot about the first year of the American War for Independence while reading this book, and I did enjoy it. However, all I can really remember right now is a few broad impressions.

The war went really, really badly for the Americans right up until the crossing of the Delaware and the Battle of Trenton at the very end of the year. This defeat of the Hessian troops left there to “guard” Washington’s army was such a great victory because the year up until the day after Christmas was such a disaster.

Washington’s greatest attribute was perseverance.

“Above all, Washington never forgot what was at stake, and he never gave up. Again and agin, in letters to Congress and to his officers, and in his general orders, he had called for perseverance—for ‘perseverance and spirit,’ for ‘patience and perseverance,’ for ‘unremitting courage and perseverance.'”

And he needed that character attribute. He also needed it in his soldiers and officers, who would have been praiseworthy in the eyes of many, including their own friends and families at times, to have given up and gone home. I wonder if the United States of America produces men, and women, nowadays like those who persevered and fought in the grandly named, but not so grandly supplied, Continental Army of 1776.

The war in 1776, for enlisted men, was 95% slogging through forced marches and living in destitute conditions while not getting paid and worrying about your family back home. Communications were poor; disease was endemic; and if you made it through the actual shooting part of the war, you were only marginally likely to survive the other part in which sickness, starvation, and privation were daily dangers.

Several times during the battles and retreats of 1776, God seems to have saved the Continental Army, by His mercy providing a concealing fog or other helpful weather conditions or human intelligence that just came in the nick of time to preserve the army from certain destruction. At the end of 1776, when a great part of Washington’s army had their enlistment time ending and when a goodly number of them were sick and tired and ready to go home, Washington offered a bounty of ten dollars to those who would stay for six more months and managed to talk many of them into reenlisting. General Nathaniel Greene said, “God Almighty inclined their hearts to listen to the proposal and they engaged anew.” (p.286)

I do think that God had a hand in creating and preserving this nation, and I do wonder if He has finished with us —as a nation. I pray not, but we heartily need Washington’s perseverance and God’s mercy and provision now more than ever. And how many of us are praying and looking for His hand in our history?

Peter Stuyvesant by Anna and Russel Crouse

The Landmark series of history books, published by Random House in the 1950’s and 1960’s, were a series of American history books written by such famous and talented authors as John Gunther (best-selling author and journalist), Mackinlay Kantor (Pulitzer Prize winner), Sterling North (Newbery honor), Armstrong Sperry (Newbery Award winner), Robert Penn Warren (Pulitzer Prize winner), Pearl S. Buck (Nobel Prize for Literature), Jim Kjelgaard, Quentin Reynolds (World War II reporter), Van Wyck Mason (historian and best-selling novelist) and C.S. Forrester. There were 122 titles in all. For any upper elementary or middle school age student trying to get a handle on American history, these books are the gold standard.

My plan is to read as many of these Landmark American history books as I can over the course of this school year, since I am teaching American history to or exploring American history with my youngest child, age 14, this year. Z-baby will be reading some of these books with me, and I’ll be reading others on my own. I’m excited to be able to do this project and enjoy these “living” history books written by skilled historians and authors.

Peter Stuyvesant is the biography of a man, the Dutch governor of New Amsterdam, as well as the history of the founding and growth of a city, New York City. I learned about Mr. Stuyvesant’s famous wooden leg, the result of his having his leg blown off by a cannonball on St. Martin’s Island in the Caribbean. After having recovered from his injury and being fitted with a wooden leg with silver bands around it, Stuyvesant married his long-suffering wife Judith and took her to New Amsterdam where he was appointed to serve as governor by the directors of the Dutch West India Company. These investors were still waiting for their investment in a colony in the “new world” to pay off, and Peter Stuyvesant was just the man to take charge and make sure that the furs (money) began to roll into the coffers of the company.

According to the authors, Stuyvesant was a mostly good governor, if somewhat dictatorial, and he fell in love with New Amsterdam and the New World. He attempted, with some success, to keep the peace with both the Native Americans and the English to the north and south, in Massachusetts and Virginia. He made and enforced laws that brought prosperity to the Dutch settlement and its burghers until 1664 when Stuyvesant was forced to surrender the colony to British warships off the coast of Manhattan.

Students in New York and bordering states should find this story especially interesting since it’s really a history of early New York City and Manhattan Island in particular. And because NYC to some degree belongs to us all, the rest of the country might want to know where the place names we’re all familiar with—Wall Street, The Bowery, Coney Island, Sandy Hook, Flatbush, Harlem–came from. All Dutch.

On June 28, 1945, Anna Erskine married Russel Crouse, the playwright who, with his longtime partner Howard Lindsay, wrote such Broadway hits as State of the Union and Life With Father. Mr. Crouse was 23 years Anna’s senior. They had two children, the actress Lindsay Crouse, who was married for a time to playwright David Mamet, and the writer Timothy Crouse. Russell Crouse died in 1966, and Ann died at the age of 97 on December 29, 2013. The couple wrote this Landmark history book about Peter Stuyvesant and the history of old New Amsterdam and also another, Hamilton and Burr.

The Collapse by Mary Elise Sarotte

The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall by Mary Elise Sarotte.

World Magazine just published its annual issue on books, and one of the books chosen as a runner-up for book of the year in the history/biography category was The Collapse. Coincidentally, I had already heard of the book and requested it from the library and had it in my stack of TBR books in the cradle next to my bed. (Since I have passed the years of child-bearing and baby-rocking, my handmade wooden cradle now serves as a books-to-be-read repository as it awaits the advent of grandchildren.)

I can see why The Collapse made World‘s shortlist of best books. It is a stunning account of a moment in history, a moment that changed history. And, as the author points out over and over, it could easily have not happened or have happened very differently. Inexorable violence, intimidation, and renewed repression could have been the operative words to describe the events of October and early November 1989 in Berlin and in greater Germany; instead, Ms. Sarotte uses the adjectives “coincidental” and “unexpected” and “improbable” and even, blessedly, “peaceful”.

In her book, Ms. Sarotte tries to explain how these many, many serendipitous events combined to allow or even produce the opening of the Berlin Wall and eventually the reunification of East and West Germany. The “why” is beyond the scope of the narrative and perhaps beyond the understanding of mere authors and readers. Sarotte does reiterate many times that the collapse of the Wall was not inevitable.

“The Wall’s opening was not a gift from political elites, East German or otherwise, and was in no way predetermined. It resulted from a remarkable constellation of actors and contingent events—and not a little courage on the part of some of the individuals directly involved—that came together in a precise but entirely unplanned sequence. And the larger, successful peaceful revolution surrounding the opening was a truly rare event, one to be considered carefully, not discounted. The history of 1989 shows just how many things have to go right for such a revolution to succeed.”

I am left with some questions of my own, questions that will never be answered this side of eternity, but that are nevertheless interesting to me from a Christian perspective:

The dissident movement in East Germany was birthed and nurtured in the churches of Leipzig and Berlin. Many of the dissidents were not believers, but were nevertheless willing and thankful to use the churches and their “peace prayer” meetings as a shelter and a staging area for demonstrations and peaceful protests against the East German government. Could the peaceful success of the revolution and the reordering of Germany’s culture and government be credited in part (or even in whole) to its genesis as a prayer movement? Perhaps God answered those repeated prayers for peace and justice?

What do historians and politicians mean when they talk about being “on the right side of history”? In the book Soviet leader Chernyaev says of Gorbachev: “He sensed the path of history and helped it to follow its natural path.” Impersonal History nevertheless has a will and a flow? How can this be? (It’s the same way that evolutionists talk about Nature doing this or that. How did Nature become a Force with a will and purpose? And do we humans discern that purpose?)

In a bigger way, could all of those fortuitous events of people being in the right place at the right time or absent from the right place at the right time or able to communicate or unable to communicate, all of those things that had to go right, could they have been orchestrated, not by politicians or revolutionaries, but rather by God himself? Maybe the lesson here is that the “remarkable constellation” was not “entirely unplanned”—just unplanned by man? Man proposes; God disposes.

The Collapse is not a book about God, just as the book of Esther in the Bible hardly mentions God—unless you have eyes to see the hand of God in all of history. I think it much more likely and believable that God is working His purposes out in the course of history than that History itself has an undefined will and an inscrutable purpose.

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Weight of a Flame by Simonetta Carr

Weight of a Flame: The Passion of Olympia Morata by Simonetta Carr.

I received this book, from the author, for possible review a long time ago, started reading it, and then misplaced it. Then there was the fire, and I thought it had been lost. Then, I found it!

It is the somewhat fictionalized, but historically accurate, story of a 16th century Italian Reformation scholar and poet, Olympia Morata. The book is one of the series, Chosen Daughters, published by P & R (Presbyterian and Reformed) Publishing, whose mission is “to serve Christ and his church by producing clear, engaging, fresh, and insightful applications of Reformed theology to life.”

Weight of a Flame does serve that purpose with the story of an unusual Christian woman. I particularly liked this description of Olympia’s mother, Lucrezia: “Quiet and reserved by nature, she had learned the power of silence, leaving all matters to God.” I am trying to learn that lesson myself, but I don’t find it easy to “leave all matters to God” and remain silent in situations when I know that I should keep quiet. I sometimes have a tendency to rush in where angels fear to tread.

Olympia Morata was a classical scholar in an era when women often did not even learn to read. She was a Protestant Calvinist Christian in a largely Catholic country, Italy. She wrote poetry, essays, and letters in Greek and in Latin and translated many of the Psalms into metered poetic settings which her husband then put to music.

Some of Olympia Morata’s poetry (translated from the Greek that they were originally written in):

I, a woman, have dropped the symbols of my sex,
Yarn, shuttle, basket, thread.
I love but the flowered Parnassus with the choirs of joy.
Other women seek after what they choose.
These only are my pride and delight.
(Translator: Roland Bainton)

PSALM 23
The King of great Olympus and the bountiful earth,
He shepherds me. What shall I desire? For in a soft meadow
He lays me down, where beautiful living water flows
to refresh me whenever toil overwhelms me.
He himself leads me in righteousness to straight paths
for the sake of his own great compassion and mercy.
If through the dark glooms of monstrous Hades I go,
all the same my mind and heart shall be unmoved,
for always have you been an aid to
Your rod and staff help me when I fall.
A most beautifully prepared table you set before me,
a great strength empowering me, if I am overcome
with hostile hands in fierce battle.
You anoint my head richly with oil, and the cup
you give me overflows with honey-sweet wine.
Always is your heart merciful to me, in order that all the days
I might dwell within your high-vaulted, great and beautiful house.
(Translator: Chris Stevens, Westminster Seminary)

WEDDING PRAYER
Wide-ruling Lord, highest ruling of all,
Who has fashioned both male and female.
To the first man you gave a wife,
So that mankind would not fade away.
And the souls of mortals should be a bride to your Son,
And he should gladly die for the sake of his wife,
You give a united heart of happiness to husband and wife,
For the ordinance, the marriage couch, and the weddings are yours.
(Translator: Chris Stevens, Westminster Seminary)

The last poem seems particularly apropos for 2015. I would that its sentiments and assumptions were as uncontroversial now as they were in the 16th century.

A Train in Winter by Carolyn Moorehead

A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France by Carolyn Moorehead.

This book tells the harrowing story of 230 French resistance fighters, women, who were sent first to Auschwitz in 1943 and then to to Ravensbruck in 1944. By April 1945 after twenty-nine months of torture, imprisonment, and starvation, when Ravensbruck was liberated, only 49 of the 230 French women who had left Paris for Auschwitz survived.

Unfortunately, I had trouble keeping up with the various women’s names and backgrounds and feel it would have been better for the author to have concentrated her narrative on just a few of the women, those she was able to interview and get more information about. Nevertheless, the story of what these women endured at the hands of their Nazi captors was painful and appalling even to read about, and I was reminded again of just how cruel and sadistic we humans can be.

At the same time I was reading this book about these mostly Communist and atheist female resistance workers in France (only a few of the women professed to be practicing Catholics), I was also reading aloud The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom to my two youngest daughters. Corrie and her sister Betsie lived in the city of Haarlem in the Netherlands, and there their family ran an underground resistance network that mostly hid Jewish people and smuggled them to safe houses in the country or out of the country. In February 1944 Corrie and Betsie were arrested and sent to Ravensbruck, the same camp where the French women had already been transferred.

In The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom describes much the same horrific conditions that the author of A Train in Winter tells about as she relates the experiences of the French prisoners. They all experienced the same fleas, lice, nakedness, cold, hunger, violence, and brutality. Betsie Ten Boom died after spending about six months in Ravensbruck. Corrie Ten Boom was freed about a week after her sister’s death and sent home to Holland, her release due to a “clerical error.”

The contrast between the Ten Boom sisters and the French resistors was not so much in their circumstances, except that the French women spent much longer in prison, but rather in how they responded to and saw those circumstances. Nor were the French women any more or less courageous or perseverant than Corrie and her sister Betsie. Upon their return, however, the surviving French women “shared the same sense of alienation, loss, and loneliness. . . . There was no innocence left in any of them, and they would not find it again.” These women with their faith in country and in the Communist ideal “returned to families that had been broken up, houses that had been bombed or ransacked, children who no longer knew them. Many had husbands and lovers who had been shot by the Germans. Few, very few, found the life of happiness they had dreamt about.”

Corrie Ten Boom also returned from Ravensbruck traumatized and bereft. She had lost not only Betsie, but also her elderly father, Casper Ten Boom, who died in prison not long after the family was arrested. Other members of her family had been arrested and were believed dead. Her country, Holland, was in ruins. And yet, God turned Corrie Ten Boom’s life into a life of joy and forgiveness and ministry. Corrie wrote that it was those who were able, by God’s grace and mercy, to forgive, who were able to heal from the trauma and the suffering of the war. She went to live for another almost 40 years after her release from Ravensbruck, traveling all over the world and preaching the mercy and forgiveness of God for sinners.

The contrast between The Hiding Place and A Train in Winter shows the inadequacy of a philosophy based on the communist brotherhood of men. What happens when that philosophy is shown to be a farce in the face of true evil? Where does a survivor of such atrocious evil get the power and the trust to forgive, move past bitterness, and go on to live in community with other human beings?

Quiet, A Servant in the Discernment of Truth

“I have naturally formed the habit of restraining my thoughts. A thoughtless word hardly ever escaped my tongue or pen. Experience has taught me that silence is part of the spiritual discipline of a votary of truth. We find so many people impatient to talk. All this talking can hardly be said to be of any benefit to the world. It is so much waste of time. My shyness has been in reality my shield and buckler. It has allowed me to grow. It has helped me in my discernment of truth.”

~Mahatma Gandhi, from Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.

The Hidden Art of Homemaking, ch.12, Clothing

“There is nothing like knitting or sewing to give on the opportunity of using time in two ways at once. Perhaps you have to go to committee meetings which take a long time, board meetings or any meetings where you do not need to take notes, where you presence is reuired for votes and possible comments and where you really sit and listen and think without much to do with your hands. The time can be doubly well employed if you have some sewing, knitting or embroidery with you.” The Hidden Art of Homemaking by Edith Schaeffer, ch. 12.

“I found myself reaching for my knitting at all times, but especially when I prayed. I still pray better with needles in my hands. Rows stand for worship, thanksgiving, petition, confession, renewal, people, problems, wisdom, insight character memory verses. Some people keep a prayer jurnal. My prayer journal is knitted into ridges and rows.” The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Butterfield.

I’m not a knitter or a seamstress, but this idea is lovely–using one’s hands to accompany one’s mind and prayers, to stay occupied and engaged while praying or listening, to be able to calm the thought that often comes to me during prayer, “Oh, but I should be doing something!”

Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington

Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia by Dennis Covington.

Does a journalist need to participate in his subject’s life and culture in order to write with insight and understanding about those subjects? For instance does one have to handle snakes in order to write about snake handlers, Pentecostal Christians who believe that they are showing the world their faith in Christ when they drink poison and handle snakes, taking their cue from Christ’s words?

“And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” Mark 16:17-18
Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. Luke 10:19

Or is a journalist who participates in such rituals not only a little crazy, but also devoid of journalistic objectivity? I would say the latter, but this book did make me think. It didn’t make me want to handle snakes, nor did it convince me that those who do so are anything other than thrill-seeking cultists. (There are other issues with the Jesus-only, legalistic, spiritual gift-seeking doctrine and practice of these snake handling churches.) What it did make me think about is the lines we draw between emotion and spiritual experience and reason, the way try to keep ourselves so safe that we wall out the Holy Spirit himself and become bored with our safe, unemotional, non-experiential Christianity. There’s a balance somewhere, and even though I see the kind of presumptuous testing of God that the snake handlers do as dangerous and somewhat prideful, I also see that we lose something precious when we say that God cannot and will not ever perform the kinds of miracles and signs that were common in the New Testament.

This book is about more than just snakes. The author reaches back into his own past and into his family heritage to try to understand just where the snake-handling preachers and testifiers have come from and what they really are experiencing when they “handle”. Mr. Covington also muses on the essence of a good story and how the ending is surprising but somehow inevitable. The book would fascinate fans of Flannery O’Connor’s stories, and in fact Covington begins his story with a quote from O’Connor:

“The descent into himself will, at the same time, be a descent into his region. It will be a descent through the darkness of the familiar into a world where, like the blind man cried in the gospels, he sees men as if they were trees, but walking.” ~Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners.

Covington descends deep into himself and his region to try to explain the lives and actions of the people he comes to know and care for, such as:
Preacher Glendel Buford Summerford, accused of attempted murder of his wife by snakebite.
Darlene Summerford, the alleged victim, who keeps a photograph of her favorite snake in her purse.
Charles McGlocklin, end-time evangelist and snake handler.
Aline McGlocklin, his wife, also moved by the Spirit to handle on occasion.
Punkin Brown, legendary evangelist who would wipe the sweat off his brow with rattlesnakes.
Aunt Daisy, the prophetess.
Anna Pelfrey, who is said to have died twice and been revived by prayer.
Diane Pelfrey, her daughter, age 21 and a third-generation handler.

And others. Mr. Covington doesn’t make fun of these people and their beliefs, but rather he becomes a part of them, to an extent. Yet, it is the reservations he holds, the core of sanity and even dedication to something higher than mere ecstatic experience, that brings about an ending to the story of Dennis Covington and the snake handlers. It’s a good story and a good ending, and I learned something from the journey, although I’m not sure I can put it into words. If any of this rambling interests you, read the book. Then, come tell me what you learned.

Note: This book was published in 1995. Wikipedia says, “In 1998, snake-handling evangelist John Wayne “Punkin” Brown died after being bitten by a timber rattlesnake at the Rock House Holiness Church in rural northeastern Alabama.”

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