The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee by R. David Cox

The Religious Life of Robert E. LeeThe Religious Life of Robert E. Lee

by R. David Cox
Series: Library of Religious Biography

PDF (will be published as paperback), 259 pg.
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017

Read: December 25, 2016 – January 1, 2017

I feel always as safe in the wilderness as in a crowded city. I know in whose powerful hands I am, & in them rely, & I feel that in all our life we are upheld & sustained by Divine Providence. But that Providence requires us to use the means he has put under our control. He deigns no blessing to idle & inactive wishes, & the only miracle he now exhibits to us, is the power he gives to truth & justice, to work their way in this wicked world.

So wrote Robert E. Lee in a letter to his wife while serving in Texas, and according to R. David Cox it summarizes his theology. If you have to sum up a man’s theology in 3 sentences, that’s a decent one to have.

Robert E. Lee was no theologian, he wasn’t a pastor or preacher or religious scholar of any kind. He was a churchman, however. Seemingly a faithful one who served as he could — and he was a believer in the middle of a tumultuous time for American Protestantism and American as a whole, as such what he thought about the tumult from his religious perspective is instructive and fascinating reading. Which is pretty much why anyone might want to read this (and probably why Cox wrote the thing).

By and large, the book is a chronological look at Lee’s life, what’s going on in the national and ecclesiastical culture, and how Lee (and his family members — particularly his wife) responded to it and how his faith grew throughout his life. It’s not exactly a biography, but it is biographical. There were a couple of chapters that stepped back from the chronological look, and examined Lee’s perspectives on specific topics (the above quotation about providence comes from one of those). I particularly enjoyed and appreciated those.

I was surprised how little space was devoted to the years of The War Between the States, honestly. It may be that there wasn’t that much material — Lee was probably too busy to write a lot of things in letters that he might normally have (like: thoughts about sermons heard, theology, ecclesiastical concerns, etc.), that’d certain be understandable. Cox might be the one historian who doesn’t like writing about that time period. It might just be that his pre- and post- War writings were better material for the book — there are any number of good reasons for it, I was just surprised that the one thing the man is best known for is so little represented in the book.

One of the drawbacks of this book is the author’s perspective on Lee himself (at least what came across to me as his perspective, I could have read him wrong, he could have written it in such a way as to be easily misinterpreted, etc.). I’m not saying that I want a hagiography, nor do I want Cox to be some sort of Lee fanboy. A critical eye is essential. There’s an element of Chronological Snobbery (to borrow Lewis’ phrase) here when reflecting on Lee’s racial and political views. I have no problem with Cox disagreeing with them (I disagree with many of them), but he came across as patronizing (at least on the border of it). To a lesser degree, I thought the same about some of Lee’s religious views. But this didn’t crop up often, and when it did, it was easy to gloss over or ignore. It’s a drawback to the book, but not a reason to avoid it. If anything, Cox came across as detached and neutral when it came to the subject and his religion (it was impossible to tell if Cox shared any aspect of belief with Lee) 98% of the time. It’s just that 2% or so . . .

This is a part of Eerdman’s Library of Religious Biography series — which I hadn’t heard of until now. I have one sitting at the top of my To Be Bought pile (talked about it last month in a Saturday Miscellany post), but I didn’t realize it was part of a series. The books in the series are intended to “link the lives of their subjects – not always thought of as ‘religious’ persons – to the broader cultural contexts and religious issues that surrounded them.” It’s a fascinating concept, and I’m glad this series exists. I hope to get more of them soon.

This was a fascinating read, if a bit dry and detached. Neither’s bad, and may be commendable under the right circumstances (which may include such a divisive figure as Lee), but it doesn’t make for the best read. That, plus my ambivalence towards some of Cox’s attitudes toward the subject, makes me rate this 3 Stars. That’s still a recommendation, and I’ll gladly tell anyone to read it — believer or nonbeliever — if they want to understand Lee better, but I’m not that enthusiastic about the book.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this opportunity.
N.B.: As this was an ARC, any quotations above may be changed in the published work — I will endeavor to verify them as soon as possible.


3 Stars

Beyond the Gray Leaf by Dustin Renwick

If you’d asked, I’d have sworn I posted this back in August. I just knew I had. But I just found a half-completed draft in my draft folder and I can’t seem to find it on the blog. Ugh. I’m a horrible person.

Beyond the Gray LeafBeyond the Gray Leaf: The Life and Poems of J.P. Irvine

by Dustin Renwick

Kindle Edition, 154 pg.
Fleetwing Books, 2016

Read: August 8, 2016

This book is a look at the Nineteenth-Century poet J. P. Irvine — a little bit of a biography, a little sampler of his poems — and then Renwick explores some of what contributed to his disappearance from the cultural consciousness.

That’s a lot for 154 pages to pull off, but Renwick does it.

J. P. Irvine hailed from Illinois, and while he didn’t serve during the Civil War, some of his brothers did — in the same regiment featured in Huelskamp’s Friends of the Wigwam, so I felt like I already knew them. After the war, he bounced around from job to job working in newspapers, as a clerk in Washington D. C. and writing poetry throughout. He was widely published in papers throughout the country, had one collection published (to mostly positive reviews), and even read at a Presidential event.

Yet who’s heard of him? No one. Not even our author until he very accidentally ran into his book.

I’m not the biggest poetry fan in the world, but I know what I like — some of the poems printed here were pretty good, some did nothing for me. But I can see why Irving had a measure of success.

I thought this was a good short read — thought-provoking, interesting and made me think about Nineteenth Century poetry more than I had since my American Literature II class. I’d recommend this for someone needing a different type of read.

Disclaimer: This was provided to me in exchange for my honest take on the the book. My thanks for the book and apologies for the tardiness, Mr. Renwick


3 Stars

John Knox by Simonetta Carr, Matt Abraxas (Illustrator)

John KnoxJohn Knox

by Simonetta Carr, Matt Abraxas (Illustrator)
Hardcover, 64 pgs.
Reformation Heritage Books, 2014
Read: May 25, 2014

I’m tempted to say, for a children’s book, this is quite good. But honestly? For a brief biography for any reading level, it’s quite good.

In these pages we get a good picture of Knox’s life (public and private), his historical context, and his teachings/beliefs. Essentially, everything you could want. There’s excitement, there’s hardship, there’s triumph and there’s tragedy. This isn’t a hagiography — Carr isn’t afraid to point out weaknesses, or problems with Knox (although she could’ve gone a little further in that direction). Nor is this all sweetness and light, as you might expect from a children’s book. While not dwelling on the details of the violence in Knox’s Scotland, she doesn’t sweep it under the rug, either.

The illustrations are great — the map, the photos and historic portraits are as well. Abraxas does a really good job in making his illustrations pop — but not to the degree that they become the focal point. The text carries this book, but the illustrations aid the text, as it should be.

Assuming this is a representative sample (and, based on a couple of interviews I’ve heard with Carr, I think it is), this is “Christian Biographies For Young Readers” series to get for anyone with kids. Or anyone just wanting small biographies to teach them Church History without having to wade through a tome like Shelley or Gonz├ílez.


4 1/2 Stars

Superman: The Unauthorized Biography by Glen Weldon

A briefer (and less self-indulgent) version of this appears on Goodreads.


Superman: The Unauthorized Biography
Superman: The Unauthorized Biography by Glen Weldon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was five years old when Superman: The Movie was released, and while I can’t remember much of the experience — by gum, when I left the theater with my parents, I believed a man could fly. I don’t know if that was my introduction to the character, it’s certainly the one that I remember. He was certainly around for the rest of my childhood — action figures, in SuperFriends, coloring books, the sequels, clothing, and, of course, in comics. He was never a favorite the way that Robin (later Nightwing), Cyborg, Changeling, or Spider-Man were, but he was a constant, an ideal. The cover of Crisis on Infinite Earths #7 is burned into my brain. I can’t tell you how many times I read John Byrne’s Man of Steel. Even after I stopped collecting comics, he was around — I watched most of Lois & Clark‘s episodes, and every one of Smallville‘s. My older sons and I spent who knows how many hours with the Justice League cartoons. I even own Superman Returns on DVD (as I recall, I purchased it the same day as I got the Donner Cut of Superman II, a far better use of my money).

In other words, this was a book written for people just like me.

Glen Weldon, NPR’s Comics Critic, has given us a great cultural history of Superman — from his prototypes and then genesis in the early work of Shuster and Siegel up to The New 52 and looking forward to the release of Snyder’s Man of Steel — and all points between. At once entertaining and pedantic, Weldon examines The Last Son of Krypton, the state of comics as a medium, and what both say about American culture through the decades.

He begins, as he ought, with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster growing up, reading and (even as kids) writing comics, their struggles along the path to publication and eventual establishment in the field. Shortly after this, they came up with their most famous creation, which was essentially the inception of the dominant genre in comics. Weldon focuses on this period in painstaking detail — giving detailed descriptions of the early stories (panel by panel sometimes), their reception and sales.

Following this, he moves into decade by decade summaries — in these chapters Weldon looks at the predominant themes in the stories, power changes and development, new characters, and so on. Special attention is given to Lois Lane (both as an individual and in her relationship(s) to Clark/Superman), tweaks to his origin, and depiction of Krypton. I thought there were too many reboots, resets, etc. today — glad to see it’s not a novel development. Superman’s appearance in other media is also discussed — comic strips, radio, television, cartoons, movies, and even merchandising — how that affects Superman, Clark and the rest. As interesting as that was, I was most interested in seeing how cultural movements, politics and wars impacted the character.

Weldon spends a lot of time discussing Superman: The Movie, the ups and downs along the path to its production. I laughed out loud at the lengthy list of actors considered for the role — so, so few of them should’ve been in the running. Everyone so up-in-arms about the recent Affleck-as-Batman casting should read this list, it might help them see how good he might be in comparison. The list for Lois was shorter, but no less interesting. In light of how far-reaching movie cross-promotion goes today, it’s amazing to see how little DC Comics did to capitalize on this movie (or the sequels).

I think he went lighter on Superman in the comics from this point on, focusing on the Reeve films, the Superboy TV series, Lois & Clark, Smallville, and Singer’s movie. Well, except a really good and thorough look at The Death of Superman saga from the 90’s. Still, fascinating on the whole — sometimes the level of detail can get overwhelming and hard to wade through, but it was worth it. It’s not encyclopedic — however close it feels — there were stories and creators that I thought got short shrift from the last couple of decades. For example, I was disappointed in the lack of any discussion of It’s Superman by Tom De Haven — 2005’s best depiction of the character, although as it wasn’t sanctioned by DC, I understand it.

I would’ve liked to see a more consistent tone — he never steps over the line in to fanboy territory, but generally he’s positive about the characters and universe — but from time to time, he seems snide and like he’s looking down on the franchise and its fans. That said, his take on the character as a whole, and why he’s still a force in popular culture today expressed in the Introduction was great — almost perfect. I wish that Nolan and Snyder had more in common with that take than they seem to have. My major complaint was the utter lack of any images whatsoever — as thorough as some of his descriptions of the art may be, it’s no replacement for the Real (reprinted) McCoy. Licensing those images would be a nightmare (and likely an expensive one), so again, I understand it — I just would’ve liked to see it.

For fans, for those who like the character but wouldn’t go so far as to call themselves that, those interested in the medium — this is a recommended read on this slice of American history.