James Monroe: A Life

James Monroe: A Life, by Tim McGrath ★★★★★

This book is one of many biographies that I have completed in the last few years on the founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and presidents Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. Monroe makes the fifth president that I’ve read. I’ll be skipping John Quincy Adams and going to Andrew Jackson, then Polk, and Lincoln as well as the chronology of other Civil War notables and history of the war. The authors in all the cases so far, present their biography most resembling a hagiography, viewing the world from the subject’s perspective and defending their positions. I suggest this because the subjects of the other biographies I’ve read tend to take a beating, including Washington, and are left as less-than-perfect characters. Hamilton and Jackson are the most frequently attacked, though no founding father has escaped the critical hand of contemporary biographers.

Tim McGrath gives us a picture of a great though flawed fifth president. Perhaps the Monroe Doctrine is best remembered, though Monroe played an enormous part in the acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase, as well as Florida. Monroe had a somewhat elitist upbringing in Virginia on the farm, becoming a lawyer through the aid of close family members. He fought in the Revolution along the side of Washington and Lafayette but was critically wounded at the battle of Trenton, leaving him on the sidelines for the remainder of the war. After the Revolutionary War, Monroe struggled continuously with his financial situation, while alternating between being a somewhat successful lawyer, running the plantation(s) that he owned, as well as serving stints in politics. He became the American ambassador to France under Jefferson, and then the secretary of state under Madison before being voted in for two terms as president of the USA. At the inception of our republic, civil servants, including the president were woefully underpaid, so that many functions of the president, such as travel or White House dinners with foreign dignitaries, came out of the president’s own pocket. The legislature was rather stingy with funds, including necessities such as maintaining an army and navy or building infrastructure such as roads, for the good of the whole nation. What this all meant was that one had to be a person of means to even survive civil office, not exactly fulfilling the constitution’s preamble of a government “of the people” since it was a government always of the elite.

Besides learning much that I didn’t know about Monroe, I also learned that the government even in the “golden age” of the Republic was seriously disjointed, manifesting extreme disagreements that nearly cost the nation its existence (such as political battles during the war of 1812); infighting, bickering, jealousy, and downright loathing of other political figures were abundant, leading one to wonder how the nation even survived. Indeed, it was not the elitist politicians, most of them truly nominal “Christians”, but the common man and his freedom and faith that allowed our nation to thrive and grow. The rift between the North and the South was quite extreme even at this early time of the Republic, and was over issues such as tariffs and management of the Indians, though the most prominent even back in Monroe’s time was the issue of slavery. Those who argue that the Civil War was not about slavery are deluded ideologues or confused states-rightists, driven more by ideology than an interest in discovering the full historical facts. Slavery was a bitterly hot issue in Monroes’ day, and while most of the early founding fathers (eg. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe) owned many slaves and knew that slavery was inconsistent with the ideals of the Constitution, they frequently expressed the wish to eliminate slavery yet had no incentive or reason to do so, so that, when each of the slave-owing president’s died, they did NOT grant their slaves freedom. Such hypocrisy is excelled only by the British, as well as many of our current politicians.

History of the Christian Church

History of the Christian Church, Complete in 8 Volumes, by Philip Schaff ★★★★

This is my second time reading through Philip Schaff’s History, though, this time including the last two volumes that discuss the German and then the Swiss Reformation. This time, I read it in digital format, as I had already given away the hard copies that I had. I actually jumped between two different digital editions as found on Amazon, and both of them were awful. The other edition had huge segments of text dropped, most notably, whenever there was a reference annotation. This edition was poorly edited with numerous spelling errors, little formatting, and no reference links. What a shame.

Schaff’s history has its good and bad points. Schaff seems oriented in the liberal German tradition, having studied under Baur and Harnack. He is Reformed in his orientation. The first time I read through this set was about 30 years ago, back when I was just becoming acquainted with church history. This time, I was considerably more well informed. I appreciated Schaff’s formatting of the book, where he separates political and ecclesiastical history, then discusses historical theology, church life and liturgical practices separately, and short descriptions of the most notable saints.

No history of the church can be written in only 8 volumes. I noted that Schaff fails to discuss many pertinent aspects of church history, including offering sufficient detail of the church councils, omitting a number of the most notable saints of the church (e.g. St. Anthony, the Stylite monks, Theodore of Mopsuesta, etc). The history of the German Reformation was nicely covered as well as the history of Zwingli, but Schaff went crazy on the history of Calvin, and editing should have reduced Calvin’s story by about a half. There is, for example, a fairly lengthy chapter of quotes from people following Calvin’s death, offering praise for Calvin and his ministry; this was totally unnecessary. Lengthy quotes from Calvin’s letters were a distraction, when a short summary commentary should have been offered.

Sadly, Schaff’s History needs an update and critical editing as well as corrections, though I doubt that it will ever be performed. There are really no quality histories of the primitive church to the Reformation that are available that are as complete as this. I’ve looked far and wide and found nothing, so I welcome recommendations. There are excellent texts that address one small aspect of church history, such as the books I had just read on the seven ecumenical councils. Our age seems to put little weight to our historical origins, much to our own loss.

Know the Creeds and Councils

Know the Creeds and Councils, by Justin S. Holcomb ★★★

Holcomb is an episcopalian priest who teaches at Reformed Theological Seminary. This book was written to inform the general church-going public about the creeds and councils. I’m not sure he accomplished his task. The writing is at the 8th-grade level, i.e., fairly simplistic. There are facts that he either got wrong or was confused about. His selection as to which creeds or councils he would discuss is at times a touch problematic. I certainly appreciate that he doesn’t attack certain individuals or groups (eg., the 19-20th century Roman Catholic church) like a vicious Doberman. Unfortunately, the creeds and councils are for Christians of such intense significance that a superficial reading does the reader a disservice. Thus, I would recommend reading the book but only with the understanding that the reader uses this text as a springboard for further study.

Holcomb superficially covers the first 6 councils, omitting altogether the 7th council. Various other minor Western church councils are briefly discussed, such as the councils of Carthage and Orange regarding Pelagianism; unfortunately, the discussion was so abbreviated as to leave the reader more confused than informed. Various Catholic councils were discussed including 1st and 2nd Vatican Council and Council of Trent. The development of the Heidelberg & Westminster Confessions as well as the 39 articles of the Anglican church but nary a mention of the Formula of Concord, the Belgic Confession, and other Reformed confessions. And, no mention of the Anabaptist confessions. The deficits don’t help the reader grasp the dynamics of those who wrote the most popular Reformed confessions.

This book might be best used as a junior high school text, supplemented by teacher insights to “fill in the gaps”. Otherwise, there are better texts to read for understanding the creeds and councils of Christendom.

First Seven Ecumenical Councils

The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology, by Leo Donald Davis ★★★★★

Growing up as a child, I was sternly taught that the word “ecumenical” was a bad word and that we just didn’t participate in that sort of thing. Thankfully, time and maturity have corrected that notion, while still acknowledging that “ecumenical” is not synonymous with “truth”.

Davis is a Roman Catholic theologian though he writes a book that may easily be accepted by both Protestants and Roman Catholics alike; the seven councils referred to in this text were well before the theological crises of the Reformation had occurred, and indeed, at least the first 4-6 councils were found to be acceptable to the Reformers, such as Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. Davis quotes heavily from the Protestants, and especially such scholars and JND Kelly.

This book starts off a little slow and stodgy, though Davis is highly successful at eventually drawing the reader into the spirit of the age. Better than any of the authors I’ve read on early church history, Davis provides the detailed historical context of each of the seven councils and includes a summary of council conclusions as well as the aftermath of those councils. I am not going to go into blow-by-blow accounts of the councils, as they are too detailed, and anything other than reading the book would do one a disservice.

I find a few details most interesting. First, all of the first councils were initiated by the state, and NOT the church. Politics and religion don’t mix well, a lesson that Luther should have learned and that today’s so-called conservative pundits that identify the USA (or any other country, for that matter, including Belize) as a Christian nation or in need of Christian nationalism surely get wrong. Second, oftentimes we allow the crisis of the moment to dictate our later opinions. A perfect example is the battle between Nestorius and Cyril. Both characters were slimy and despicable in many accounts. Yet, Nestorius is branded as the heretic and Cyril is not. A recently discovered document written by Nestorius and found in Armenia demonstrates that Nestorius mentioned that the Council of Calcedon precisely stated his view. Simultaneously, the entire “heresy” of Monophysitism was generated from the writing of Cyril. Go figure.

This is a wonderful book to read and I enjoyed it from cover to cover, but only after a rough start. If you have any interest in the church, please get a copy and read it!

Truly Divine Truly Human

Truly Divine Truly Human: The Story of Christ and the Seven Ecumenical Councils, by Stephen W. Need ★★★★

Stephen Need is an Anglican priest who has taught for many years at St. George’s College in Jerusalem. This text reflects a strong bent toward the Eastern Orthodox perspective of the seven councils. In this text, Need shows great skill in that of being a teacher and producing a book that is easy to read, with supportive summaries and tables. After a chapter describing the situation before the first council (Nicea), Need walks through each of the seven councils, identifying the theological crisis, and detailing the solutions resolved at the council. He also includes a summary of other church management decisions made at the council, such as prohibitions against the purchase of church office, or prohibitions against bishops moving from one See to another without permission.

I truly enjoyed this book and how Need painted the councils. At a few times, there were comments made leaving suspicion for Need being a liberal in the theological sphere, but that did not distract from the overall quality of the text.

Conquests and Cultures

Conquests and Cultures: An International History, by Thomas Sowell ★★★★★

Conquests and Cultures is the last of a series of three books by Thomas Sowell, the first being Race and Culture and the second Migrations and Culture. In Sowell’s words, the overarching theme of this series is to show that “racial, ethnic, and national groups have their own respective cultures, without which their economic and social histories cannot be understood.” In this text, Sowell focuses on British, African, Slavic, and American Indian cultures, though he generalizes a prevailing concept. This concept is that all civilizations have been subject to invasion and conquest, and how conquest has often enhanced a culture, and at other times has destroyed much of that culture. Beginning with the Roman Empire, Sowell demonstrates how countries that had a strong Roman presence have later come out stronger than their non-Roman counterparts, even after the demise of the Roman Empire.

It is hard to give a detailed description of this book, yet it held my interest through all of its pages. It is written from a distinctly conservative perspective, and Sowell uses his expertise in economics to further show how economic policy has affected the rise or fall of various cultures. The book is heavily referenced, and every page demonstrates a plethora of facts and details to support his thesis. I found the chapters regarding Africa and Western Hemispheric Indians to be the most fascinating, and greatly in support of the thesis of the previous book that I had recently reviewed, Not Stolen. You don’t find this stuff in standard textbooks. Reading this book will help round out one’s education with details that would never be taught in a liberal school or university.

Not Stolen

Not Stolen: The Truth About European Colonialism in the New World, by Jeff Fynn-Paul ★★★★★

I’ve already posted several reviews of books related to the conflict between the European settlers and Indians. In this text, Fynn-Paul provides a more comprehensive review of the interactions between the Europeans and the Indians. This text offers a rebuttal to claims made beginning in the 1970s that the Americas were “stolen” from the Indians. In that, Fynn-Paul is highly successful.

Columbus was the first European mentioned, followed by the Spaniards in general, then the French and English. The Pilgrim Thanksgiving was discussed, the trail of tears, settlement west of the Mississippi, and the western Indian “wars”. In each of these times and epochs, Fynn-Paul outlined various issues. Did the Europeans slaughter the Indians? (No; generally as many Europeans died as Indians). Did the Europeans feel superior to the Indians? (Generally, no, and often regarded them as noble races). Did the Europeans steal their land? (On rare occasions, they did, but nearly always, they paid well for the land. The cover photo of this book shows the Dutch negotiating for the sale of Manhattan Island. The Dutch got a large piece of malaria-infested swamp land, while the Indians got what they considered to most valuable–useful products from Europe. Both sides were happy, and Manhattan Island had no value until the Europeans developed it). Were the native Indians peaceful? (Almost always, no. Indian life was that of constant migration and warfare. There was no sense of permanent property, and new property and hunting grounds were obtained through bloodshed). Were the Indians the true environmentalists? (To even ask the question is laughable. They had no great concern about the preservation of either flora or fauna). Was American Democracy a gift of the Iroquis Coalition? (Again, with a little bit of information, this is a laughable question, though Fynn-Paul shows that it was definitely not). Was the Trail of Tears forced migration of the southeast tribes wrong? (For the most part yes it was, and most Americans at the time felt that it was wrong. Yet it showed a struggle by the newly formed USA to solve a vexing problem. Though it is taught as a massacre, in reality, less than 5% of the Indians perished in the process. A far greater percentage of Europeans were slaughtered at the hands of Indians in their migration on the Oregon Trail. ) Was there ever a genocide, such as putatively claimed in California in the aftermath of the gold rush? (Indian populations significantly decreased, but this was multifactorial. In addition, it is impossible to get accurate population counts on the Indians before and after the gold rush, so, it is impossible to make any hard and fast claims). Did the Europeans attempt to kill off the Indians through disease? (Even the Christian high school teachers where our children attended claimed this was true, there is hardly any evidence for that. The Indian population was exceedingly sensitive to the new diseases of the old world. The Europeans made enormous efforts to offer vaccinations to the Indians, who mostly refused).

One issue was brought up that I never considered. Fynn-Paul examines the native populations before the arrival of the Europeans. The USA and Canada had only about 20,000 TOTAL Indians in the entire area which is now filled by over 300,000,000 people. The preponderance of the Indians were in central Mexico (the Aztecs) and in western South America (the Incas). These people intermarried with the Spaniards so it is now impossible to sort out the pure Spanish or pure Indians. Thus, nearly every Mexican is a mestizo, which is of combined Spanish/Native descent. Thus, the Indians remain and are prospering, thanks to the European influence in their lives.

Many questions were raised and answered in this book regarding the interactions between the European settlers and the Indians. The chapters are nicely arranged as questions which are then answered through the text. Truth be told, there were terrible wrongs committed by both the Europeans as well as the Indians, and no group had a monopoly on virtue. The last section of the book summarizes a few contemporary issues. Did Europeans commit cultural genocide? Libtard scholars cannot provide any evidence for a physical genocide of the Indians, so the only recourse is to claim that a “cultural” genocide occurred. But is that all bad? Since when is a cultural status ever stable? As an example, before the Europeans, the Indians rarely were extremely successful at hunting buffalo, that is, until the Europeans provided them horses and guns. Would anybody in their right mind consider that to be genocide? The Europeans quickly provided education to the Indians, to learn to read and write, which is also relegated as a form of genocide. Is it cultural genocide when the Europeans put a halt to the constant Indian wars? When we name things after Indians, is that a form of cultural appropriation, and thus wrong? To even ask the question shows an abundance of folly in the questioner! Are the natives owed reparations? Heavens to Murgatroyd!!!! Even now, the native Indians receive more government handouts and are offered more privileges than any other minority group, including the negro.

This book is a wonderful text to read. I learned much, and appreciate that serious academic scholarship is refuting the ridiculous claims of the new liberal academia who are hell-bent on reconstructing truth. It is easy to read, and so I highly recommend it without reservation.

The Case for Christian Nationalism

The Case for Christian Nationalism, by Stephen Wolfe ★★

This book was obtained free from Amazon.com and read in digital format. Wolfe attempts to describe how a nation would look governed entirely by Christian leadership and (mostly) Christian citizens. Wolfe provides a heavily referenced text, though the most relevant text, the Bible, seems to come short. Tacitly assumed by Wolfe is a post-millennial world where everyone is Christian. Efforts to form a Christian society and government in this fallen world will segue into the millennial kingdom. Therefore, it behooves us to imagine how to best establish a Christian nation.

Wolfe spends much of his time describing either what he is going to do, or what he is doing at the moment. A huge portion of the book consists of quotes regarding a Christian government, written by (mostly) Protestant saints within the last few hundred years or medieval Scholastics. After introducing at length what Wolfe is going to write about, he begins by hypothesizing what sort of government would exist had the fall never occurred. Such idle speculation really doesn’t get one anywhere, since Scripture is silent on the topic. Scripture is silent perhaps for good reason; thankfully, the Bible wasn’t written by medieval scholastic scholars who would debate at length the imponderables, such as how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Wolfe then discusses the fall of man and how this affects the establishment of a nation. Of importance is the identification of people groups or cultural groups, who would coalesce and govern themselves. Nations need a well-defined set of values and objectives, agreed upon by the masses. Issues of war were not discussed. Cultural Christianity would have an elevated status and thus define normative behavior in society. Wolfe discusses the construction of civil law in Christian society. He also describes what a Christian “prince” would look like, which sounds more like an unfallen sinless human than the fallen Christians who could lead us.

Wolfe then takes a turn and attempts to develop an argument for revolution. Wolfe doesn’t say overtly but does imply that bad government loses its legitimacy in God’s eyes, and thus it is right to overthrow such a government. Not mentioned is how one determines when a government is ever evil enough to call for revolution. Certainly, Christian history doesn’t help, as the early Christians in Rome probably were as great as a 1/4 of the population, and never ever sought to overthrow the government. In the chapter on conscience, Wolfe mulls over how much authority the state should have to suppress heresy, idolaters, false teachers, etc. Though his answer is quite lengthy, he really doesn’t provide even guiding principles for the management of heretics, save to identify how much harm a heretic might do to society and punish them accordingly. Wolfe’s attempt to go back to the founding fathers and show how the USA was essentially established as a Christian nation fails. Christianity was indeed the prevailing religion of the 17th and 18th centuries in America, yet evangelical movements such as with Whitfield and later Finney demonstrated that much of Christianity was in name only. Wolfe fails to demonstrate that the bulk of leadership in the American Revolution was only nominally Christian, thinking of such greats as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Monroe, etc.

Stephen Wolfe fails miserably in his attempt to provide us a model for Christian nationalism. He is not wrong that for a Christian government to work properly, the subjects also need to be more than nominally Christian. Consider the eras in history when there was a truly Christian nation with Christian nationalism. Actually, there are many, but I’ll list a few. 1) Outre Mere (Jerusalem of the Crusaders) 2) Byzantium, 3) The Holy Roman Empire, 4) Oliver Cromwell’s England, 5) the New England Pilgrim states, 6) Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, and 7) The Colony (Belize). These are only a few attempts to set up an isolated group of people who will preserve and protect divine truth. All have (so far) failed. In the absence of a post-millennial hope, this book becomes relatively meaningless, or perhaps idle speculation and wishful thinking. Of course I wish we had a perfect, peaceful, Christian society, but with fallen man, such wishfulness remains nothing but fanciful daydreaming.

Scripture speaks plentifully about government. The clearest statement is found in Psalm 2, which paints man as forever attempting to overthrow God from His rule. The author Robert Case also develops an excellent argument as to why the book of Esther is relevant for developing a philosophy of politics (Esther & Trump, published by Saluda Press). Why Wolfe has so few Scriptures to defend his arguments is itself most telling. The VanTillian notion of the primacy of Scripture in philosophy and politics is defied by Wolfe, whom I might presume would consider himself a VanTil disciple. Wolfe’s suggestion that nations that restrict personal freedoms delegitimize themselves, yet Scripture would be at odds with this notion, starting with Psalm 2. I am not opposed to Wolfe’s desire to think out the characteristics of a Christian nation, though his inability to reckon with the dirty facts of life in a fallen world weakens his argument. Thus, I didn’t find this book very helpful at thinking through the ramifications of life in a political world. Who should I vote for? What laws are most fitting? Should our nation consider itself under the obligation of behaving in a Christian fashion with other nations? Should we allow open borders that provide for a large group that could be evangelized? Is Capitalism any more Christian than Marxism or other forms of government? If the nation is controlled by a Christian tyrant, is that bad? How should the nation treat citizens who reflect poorly on our nation’s Christian image on the international stage? Why does Christ occasionally mention non-religious people who have the art and skill of managing a nation? Should any nation identify as the world’s policeman? Is there a role for international law, and how is it developed and enforced? Many questions come out of this book; the book has value mostly at stimulating thought as to what government should look like. Otherwise, The Case for Christian Nationalism most fails in actually making a case for and against Christian nationalism. This book reminds me of a song by John Lennon, which imagines a fictional world that escapes reality. I quote the lyrics in full…

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us, only sky

Imagine all the people
Livin’ for today, Ah

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too

Imagine all the people
Livin’ life in peace You

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world You

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

The Early Church

The Early Church, by Louis Markos ★★★★

I’ve appreciated the writings and lectures of Louis Markos and found this book to have an interesting theme worth reading. It was. Markos excels in literary criticism, and that is exactly what this book does in looking at the writings of some of the early church fathers, rather than just recording their historical details. Markos addresses a variety of topics including early church sermons, early letters of the Patristic saints, writings regarding the church itself, martyr accounts, apologists for the faith, and heresy hunters. This book provides a slightly different flavor to the church fathers through focusing on the church literature per se. Thus, Dr. Markos accomplished his objective well. My only problem with the book is that I’ve essentially read all of the source documents contained in this book. It would probably be of more value to those without the exposure to the early church literature as I have had. Hopefully, the book will encourage more people to pay closer attention to early church writings.

The Lost Art of Dying

The Lost Art of Dying: Reviving Forgotten Wisdom, by L.S. Dugdale ★★★★

This book was recommended to me by my past surgery practice partner, Dr. D. King. It is written by an internist who directs a medical ethics center at Columbia University in New York City. Dugdale writes in a very personal fashion, recounting many of her patient and family experiences with dying. As a retired surgical oncologist, the stories she shares are very much in common with what I’ve experienced over my lifetime of a surgery practice that focused on cancer. I held in common with her many of her experiences with patient encounters and family encounters when death was imminent.

The strength of this short book is in recalling ancient wisdom. Much of the focus is centered on a manual titled ars moriendi written in the 14th and 15th centuries to guide folk in the art of how to die. There was an age when a person was surrounded by death, and society did not shield a person from observing the death process. People died at home among a community of friends. Dugdale doesn’t mention that the attitude toward death was radically different in medieval times, in that a good death was a long drawn-out painful event, and to die in your sleep was the ultimate bad death. Still, our historical fathers did not avoid discussions of death. The churchyard of every church older than 150 years ago had an associated cemetery in front of the church that you had to walk through before entering the church, a reminder of our true place on earth.

Dugdale does well at emphasizing how we have made death to be a theatrical, yet exceedingly lonely event. Nobody dies without being on a bucketful of expensive medications, all of which add to the misery of the dying process. Death is sterile, shielded from the prying eyes of family and friends. Dr. Dugdale describes some horrible scenarios that she encountered early in her training, such as a person who arrested three times in a night before actually dying, with each CPR (including the first) that never should have been done. Death in history is described, most notably entailing the plague (black death) from the 15th century. Death becomes a useful reminder of our personal finitude, that we here today, gone tomorrow. Dugdale speaks of how it has become common for people to die alone in their homes, only to be discovered days, weeks, and even months later, and how community in the process of dying is most relevant to offer the dying person the honor and dignity that they deserve.

Where we die is important. It is only in the last century that the end of life most commonly occurs in the hospital setting. There is no need for this, and in fact would be far better for death to occur at home. The fear of death is discussed as a component of the dying process, something that not everybody experiences. What about the body? What significance do we place on the corpse? Dugdale spends much of a chapter discussing the Isenheim altarpiece which illustrates Jesus on the cross and in death with skin ulcers similar to what would have been seen commonly during the plague. Dugdale then treads the issue of the spirituality of death. Here, she tries to be sympathetic to all faiths and beliefs, and struggles with the issue of being spiritual without being religious, ie., not trying to offend those that do not match her Christian faith. To this end, she comes up a touch short. If the reality of the Christian faith suggests a finality and ultimate judgment, it would be impossible to smooth out the stark reality of most people ultimately facing a judge rather than a savior. Is a generic spirituality really congruous with a person nearing the irreversible prospect of an eternity in hell? I don’t think so.

There is a chapter titled “Ritual” which discusses what we do with the corpse. Do we embalm it? Do we cremate it? Do we quickly bury it, as is consistent with Jewish tradition? Does the corpse become a meaningless hunk of matter, or, is there symbolism in the body that deserves respect even after death? This is not well addressed. Dugdale wraps up by insisting that in order to die well, one must live well. This is a truism that needs no further expansion. Indeed, part of living well is in accepting one’s mortality and preparing each day for death. To this end, nobody has tackled this issue better than the Puritans of the 16th/17th century.

This book is excellent at helping one reflect on death, and in preparing for death. Such an action is counter to our culture, which wishes to sterilize death and medicalize death. The stories about patients being abused at the moment of death by the medical-industrial complex are very familiar and consistent with what I experienced as a physician. I’ve seen patients whose lives were gone long before the family was willing to withhold interventions. I’ve seen patients who were undergoing CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) while simultaneously receiving an intravenous infusion of toxic chemotherapy. Too often the intensive care unit was nothing but an insensitive care unit. In academia, too often the patient was maintained on life support solely to improve the numbers for some research project. I could go on and on. Where Dugdale most seriously misses the point is in the grasp of the entire nature of healthcare. Healthcare is intrinsically a religious activity, and secularizing healthcare, making it devoid of a Hippocratic ethic, does both the patient and the system an injustice. Having served for years as a chairman of a hospital ethics committee, too often ethics is reduced to an ephemeral “gut” feeling as to what is right or wrong. Ultimately, medical ethics committees are to placate the medical industrial complex for their misdeeds while protecting the hospital from liability in a diverse cultural setting where norms for ethics do not exist.

Cemeteries should return to the churchyard. Hospitals should return to the church. Death should occur in the context of the family, with a pastor/priest, and not with a highly technical health care system in attendance. Churches should assume a greater role in discussing death and preparing for the inevitable. To this end, Dugdale accomplishes the marvelous task of describing the contemporary 21st-century problem with how we approach death but fails in part at offering the best solutions to the death problem. Without Christ, death is a veritable tragedy. With Christ, the curse of death is overwhelmed by the victory of life eternal in the presence of God. Dying and the Christian faith cannot be held as soft options.