zigzag journey

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… the un-assuming odyssey of a donkey learning to see…

Archive for the tag “History”

Journey Post 47: A Memorial Day Encounter Remembering American Pie

Note to readers:   I’ve written an essay on the parable of the good Samaritan (called, “Good Neighbor Sam”), which I will post in a week or two.  But since today is Memorial Day, I thought it more appropriate to write about America and those who gave their last full measure of devotion.


Friday night I had an encounter with American Pie.

I’m not referring to a recent series of films but to a classic song written and released in 1971, a retrospective on America in the decade 1959-1969 by Don McLean.  The song is a ballad, a lament about things lost.  It’s not just about the music and how it “died.”

The music is a metaphor for an America and a way of life that disappeared along with the music and died in a real way—at least in the perspective of 1971.  The sad longing to return to a simpler, more innocent time is palpable.  It looked to the time when America had saved the world and savored the happiness of music that made us smile and dance.  It’s a song worth reflecting on.

So why am I writing about this on Memorial Day, the day we remember our war dead?  Because Americans of my generation have a visceral attachment to the song, this ballad of the 1960s, this song expressing how things felt to us as we went forth doing our duty to preserve freedom and justice for our country and for struggling democracies around the world.  But, in the end, it seemed that the fate of Vietnam and the fate of America itself were one and the same: hopeless and not worth our sacrifice.

Many conflate Memorial Day and Veterans Day.  I certainly enjoy being thanked for my service, especially since that never happened until seven years after I came back.  But Memorial Day is about ultimate sacrifice, about losing one’s life for one’s comrades, about dying for our country.

Those of us who returned, however seriously wounded or hurting, did in fact return.  Most of us went back to civilian life, raised families and lived in their communities and led productive lives.  But we were all deeply affected by the experience in some way, some more than others.  In a very real sense, we all died, in part, in some fashion.  We left Vietnam, but Vietnam never left us.

I have my own memories of the men I served with, the men who died, especially my company commander, Capt. David Walsh, (pictured below, KIA June 10, 1969) whose story will always be with me—a man who led a small group out from our perimeter to take down snipers, who singlehandedly killed two of them before himself being brought down by a third.  He almost certainly knew that he wouldn’t come back, but he went out to keep safe the men he loved.

The Vietnam War is not explicitly mentioned in the song, but it hangs over every bit of it like a dark, ominous cloud.  That war was still going hot and heavy when Don McLean first sang the song in 1971.  Most troops would not be out until 1973.  Perhaps most Americans were thinking that we had already lost the war:  Newsman Walter Cronkite told us so.  After all, he was the most trusted man in America, (no irony intended).  He came to that conclusion when he visited Vietnam following the ’68 Tet offensive.

I played and sang American Pie in my first guitar recital on Friday night.  Before that night, I must’ve read and thought about the words every day for over a month.  Recitals like that are mostly about young people (middle and high school age), but the parents seemed at least familiar with the song.  I explained before starting that I had come home from Vietnam in 1969 wounded and disillusioned with an America that I loved: I think I shared the same outlook then as Don McLean did in the song—an America on the verge of self-destructing.

Vietnam may be fading from our collective memory, but it’s deeply embedded in the psyche of everyone who lived the confusing time McLean sang about.

He begins his ballad “a long, long time ago,” referring to “the day the music died,” his take on what happened in February 1959 when his hero Buddy Holly, along with Richie Valens and the Big Bopper, were lost in a single plane crash.

The song traces the course of the ten following years when we were “on our own,” going through a series of days on which, he says, is “the day the music died”:  After Holly, McLean loses his girl to another guy at a sock hop and knows he’s “out of luck.”  Bob Dylan (the “jester”) steals the “thorny crown” from Elvis (the “King,”).  Lennon reads Marx and the “quartet” (Beatles) practiced while “we sang dirges in the dark” (a possible second reference to the death of JFK).  As the culture and music was more influenced by drugs, the birds (Byrds) are “eight miles high an’ fallin’ fast” like bombs over North Vietnam. The Jester is on the sidelines and the Beatles are becoming Sgt. Pepper, who “refuse to yield” to other groups while the “sweet perfume” of marijuana is pervasive.  (Or, is the reference to “sergeants” to the military controlling demonstrators or the Chicago police dropping “sweet perfume”—tear gas—at the ’68 Democratic convention?)

     Any way you interpret it, the “day the music died” here seems to reveal that the American dream and promise of freedom is dead or dying….

On another day in December, 1969, there was the tragic Stones’ Altamont Speedway concert in which the Hell’s Angels did security, people died, and, McLean says, he saw “Satan laughing with delight….” “Jack flash” (Mick Jager) “sat on a candlestick.”  We were, as he said, “a generation lost in space with no time left to start again.”

McLean is a master at using double entendre.  Many have tried to figure it all out.  Don McLean himself has never explained it all, though he has mentioned some things.

His final verse was a retrospective on the era, and he has a line about the “three men I admire most, the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, they caught the last train for the coast the day the music died.”  After ‘Nam, I was doing my own search for God, and I kept hearing the question—not, “Is God dead?” as Time Magazine famously asked on its 1967 cover—rather, “Has God finally given up on America?  Is he getting out while the getting’s good?”

After Tet ’68, America seemed to begin its fall into what we later called “Vietnam syndrome”:  God is no longer blessing America, we can’t win a war against a “little” enemy like this, and we don’t ever want to get stuck in a quagmire like that again.  How could America actually lose a war?

American Pie seems (chronologically) to end at Altamont in ’69.  But before the song was released we heard the revelations about My Lai, and  young Americans killing other young Americans at Kent State in 1970.  Those, for me, were the final straw … at least until Nixon’s resignation.

The chorus of a song is generally key to its understanding, to getting the main point:

‘Bye bye miss American Pie, drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry,

An’ them good ole boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye, and singin’,

This’ll be the day that I die…  This’ll be the day that I die.

Don McLean

I’m a couple years younger than Don McLean.  He was 13 when Holly died, I was almost 11.  But many of our experiences were the same.  For example, listening to Dinah Shore, the very popular all-American girl who had her own variety show sponsored by Chevrolet.  The Chevy song she sang played for about a decade.  One heard it everywhere all the time:  “See the U.S.A., in your Chevrolet, America is asking you to call.  Drive your Chevrolet through the U.S.A., America’s the greatest land of all!  On a highway or a road along a levee, everything’s completer in a Chevy….”  This was America, even if you were a Ford man.

When Holly died, he was famous for the song, “That’ll be the day.”  He was singing about his girl, that, if she left him, “that’ll be the day-hay-hay … that I die!”  The good ole boys drinking whiskey and rye were lamenting his death.

Judging by all that Don McLean put into this song, they were lamenting much more: the death of America itself.  While the metaphor of the music standing for America, our way of life and our religion may seem a bit overdrawn to people now, it was very real in 1971.  It was not just a phase that we were going through and got over or grew out of.  Something real died, and those of us who returned from that war at that time know that something died in us as well.

That’s why I’m thinking that, on Memorial Day, it’s very appropriate to remember those of us who came back.  And it’s okay to mourn.  You may not be able to understand what died.  Just know that it did.

I find it greatly ironic for me personally that, in the year I came home (1969), I was just beginning to discover that those “three men I admire most,” as he called the godhead, were not getting out but were very much still around and interested in us personally and individually.  In the year he released American Pie (1971), I became a Christian.  And I began to live.


If you would like to read the complete lyrics of American Pie, you can do so here:  https://web.archive.org/web/20141129095635/http://www.don-mclean.com/viewsong.asp?id=89

a reflection on the idea of America: The Power of Words to Move a Nation

An essay about the legacy of John F. Kennedy as leader.

Kennedys in Dallas

The images haunt us still:  that beautiful couple, smiling, ready to face a bright day so full of promise…the bright pink outfit and pillbox hat…the handsome, youthful visage, forever young…the images and the might-have-beens…a bright, shining, final moment….

You know where it will end, a dark recurring nightmare you want to wake up from before the shots.…  If only they could hear you:  “Don’t go there!”

Gallery of 42 images marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy

The Kennedys with Gov. and Mrs. Connally leave Love Field

Fifty years ago, my mom gave me a beautiful, poster-sized calendar with portraits of all the presidents in small ovals arranged with Washington top center and all the others in order down to the most recent, on a regal blue background.  John F. Kennedy, our 35th President, was located at center bottom.  My hero, Abraham Lincoln, was placed at the center.  I often stood before those faces, gazing upon each—among whom were some of our greatest leaders—pondering the meaning of the American presidency.

This week, I’m thinking on events surrounding the death of a president.  I find it easy to give in to self-pitying nostalgia over the loss of John Kennedy and “Camelot.”  One can make a case for linking that real loss with the remaining trauma of the 1960s.  I want to focus on lessons from his White House tenure that we might learn; these get lost if we see only the glamour, the life cut short, the might-have-beens.

The lessons concern the nature of public service and the nature of presidential leadership.  All seem to agree that Kennedy left certain unfinished tasks.  But they also agree he could inspire and move our nation by his words as few have with a vision of what America is all about, the idea of America….

Had it not been for Dallas, we would be focused this week on the 150th anniversary of another vision, the one cast at Gettysburg, given November 19, 1863. That battle, unknown to Americans then, marked the midpoint of the war and the point after which the South would never again be in a position to win.

Lincoln head

Lincoln gave us great words that day, great not because of their brevity (272), though their brevity enhanced them.  The occasion, the ideas, the delivery, and the genuineness of the conviction and longing they represented gave them power to move men and women.  They also confirm the image of our greatest president.  He spoke briefly, and before many could appreciate their import, he was gone.

Lincoln famously (and modestly) underestimated his “poor power to add or detract” and the impact his few lines would carry:  “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”  We have forgotten that nearly as many Americans died in that one battle as in all the Vietnam war.  And few know the name of the featured speaker for the occasion, nor any of the thousands of words he uttered.  Lincoln’s words continue to remind us who we are and claim to be.

Words spoken today aren’t taken to mean as much as they once were.  We listen skeptically, at best, to our “leaders,” assuming their words are not so forthright as they are wont to have us believe.  We watch them parry questions from news people, noting how adroitly they use words to skirt the answers.

There was a time in our land that, when the President spoke, we would listen carefully, because what he had to say was of importance to everyone in the entire United States.  It was in our interest to know and consider what he said, because he was our leader looking out for our interests more than his own.

Kennedys in car downtown Dallas

I was 15 when President and Mrs. Kennedy rode into Dallas.  I have my own memories of that day, and I’ve spent much of this week pondering its significance.  I mourn that many young people I work with see John F. Kennedy as simply another dead president.  I hope that this week of remembrance may help them think otherwise and arouse their curiosity to probe the meaning of the presidential leadership he modeled.  I hope the message they receive is more than one of national self-pity and fatalism.

Schieffer headSchieffer in Dallas

Left:  Bob Schieffaer hosting “Face the Nation.”  Right:  In Dallas

Watching one special, I was struck by Bob Schieffer’s words.  The venerable CBS newsman was a young newspaper reporter in Dallas on that day.  I heard him mention several times that America was never the same after November 22, 1963.  Others echo that sentiment.  I agree with that, both as historian and as an American who lived the turmoil and malaise of the later 60s.  That is when the events in Dallas were given exclamation points by the assassinations of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy, by My Lai and Kent State.  A couple years following John’s death, we began to learn about the affairs (which I didn’t believe at first), and by the time of Bobby’s death,  my own sense of disillusion had set in:  the optimism and can-do spirit conveyed by JFK turned to pessimism and “can’t-do.”  His vision and the challenge he laid down by his rhetoric now seemed empty, confirmed by my draft invitation from LBJ to go to Vietnam.

I regained a sense of optimism after becoming a Christian in 1971, and time has given new perspective to the Kennedy years.  I (hopefully) see more clearly some things that matter.   In light of the revelations of his unfaithfulness, you might expect me as a Christian to condemn JFK.  I don’t dismiss that cloud over his integrity and character.  However, I have to pause and marvel at the graciousness of Jackie Kennedy who, after all, went into their marriage knowing this about him.  It was she who created the Camelot myth, and she now lies buried alongside him at Arlington, their secrets resting there.

Kennedy head

We are left to ponder John Kennedy’s inspiring words and how he used them to lead this nation.  Were they those of a hypocrite?  I’m convinced not.  Though many were penned by another, we rightly remember them as Kennedy’s own.  He spoke them.  He knew what he wanted to say at the time and used them appropriately and judiciously as few others have.  His words inspired us, gave us courage and hope.  In saying them, he made them ours.  He gave them to us, as others have, and they are now ours.

Nikita S. Khrushchev;John F. Kennedy

Nikita Khruschev and John Kennedy in Vienna

JFK’s words reflect the fact that he was a serious student of history.  He had an understanding of its direction and its dangers.  He often quoted Khruschev about the danger of nuclear war, in which “the living will envy the dead.”  He traveled extensively as a young man (he had money, you know), and was fascinated by international relations and wrote his Harvard thesis which became a book, Why England Slept.  Watching England sleep while Hitler built helped him when it came time to stand his ground (and to provide a compromise) when face to face with nuclear holocaust over Cuba.  It also helped that he had just read Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August about how miscalculations led to World War I.  Determined to avoid nuclear conflagration, he was able to negotiate a test ban treaty.

Kennedy Why England slept               The Guns of August

JFK was raised to honor the nobility of public service.  One who enjoyed the blessing of God to gain riches had a responsibility to give back.  John Kennedy lived that out (however imperfectly), as did many in the past century who were from wealthy families.  We may envy their money, but we do better to emulate their service.  Kennedy may have finagled his way into the Navy by his father’s influence, but he quitted himself well when the need arose to lead his men in battle.

This notion of public service gave meaning and legitimacy to his Inaugural words calling us to dedication and commitment:  “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”  It was behind his creation of the Peace Corps and its call to service, and in part behind his call to go to the moon by the end of the 60s.  Americans responded.

Kennedy speaking Inauguration

Words are one of the simplest tools that a leader has at his disposal.  He may not be a great orator, but presidents can enlist the aid of great speech writers.  John Kennedy did.  They wrote what he wanted to say, and he had a vision that was communicated clearly, memorably, and eloquently.  Americans today might cringe at his Inaugural call to “pay any price, bear any burden” because we seem to have borne all the burdens of the world for the last 50 years.  But there is no question those words were appropriate to their time—and no, I don’t know what he might have done in Vietnam.

Consider one speech he gave to the American people (he did not use that phrase as we often hear it today to close a speech).  It was his “Report to the American People on Civil Rights,” June 11, 1963.  The speech is 13 minutes, 41 seconds of some of the most compelling and morally right words you will ever hear.  You will note that the final couple of minutes are different: the camera pulled away, as though expecting him to finish.  Instead, he continued on, never once looking at his prepared statement.  He was, as one said, “winging it” during one of the most significant speeches he ever made.

Watch it. It will give you some idea of the moral authority he carried when he spoke to us.  He spoke it knowing the stiff opposition he was facing in the South at that time, and his bill indeed stalled in Congress at the time of his death.  President Johnson (of Texas) used the memory of JFK to get it passed.

Here is the link from the Kennedy Library:  http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/LH8F_0Mzv0e6Ro1yEm74Ng.aspx

Let me leave you with the last portion of Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg.  John Kennedy may have been killed by an “insignificant man,” as some say.  This has been so difficult to accept that many have insisted that there must have been a conspiracy.  But John Kennedy died for our nation as much as the men at Gettysburg.  Read these words with that in mind:

“… we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground.  The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract…. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Adlai Stevenson once said: “Your representatives serve you right.”  Let us then seek leaders who will be dedicated to the public service, not because they say it but because they’ve lived it.  Let us find leaders who lead by setting a vision articulated in words that will move us to follow his example.  They don’t have to copy the Kennedy style, but they do need to copy the substance.  This is the role of a leader.

(To those who expected this post to be about C.S. Lewis.  There’s a tie-in here:  Lewis died of liver failure on the very day John Kennedy was shot.)

journey post 16: A Son’s Heart Set Free

(Part III-a , on The grammar school of freedom)

“If the Son sets you free, then you will be really free”  (John 8:36).


The first time I remember reading those words was 1970 or ‘71.  I had this little paperback New Testament, a new, contemporary English version that I was reading so much it was falling apart.

But the verse puzzled me.  Free?  Close by was another verse that people quote a lot:  “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”  Jesus didn’t seem to be talking about being free from hell.

Freedom was on everyone’s lips in the 60s.  It was the time when our nation, free from the Nazi menace, was getting schooled in what we thought freedom meant, nationally, racially, personally.  Having “survived” Vietnam, I felt very alive and free.  But I would soon be stepping into a religious world beset by legalism, and would not recognize it because I did know how legalistic and performance-minded I already was.  The speed of the performance treadmill in my new world would be considerably faster.  It took 35 years for me to finally get off the treadmill and understand Jesus’ words, “really free.”

Pharisee (Quinn)

I had been confused by all the personal freedom that people were claiming for themselves in the 60s.  I thought there was something wrong with it, but I was unsure why.  Back then, it was likely due to my legalistic sense of self-righteousness:  I was okay, they were not.  They were just selfish and sinful.  I was to be reinforced in that condemnatory view by the new religious milieu into which I was about to enter.

But there was more to  that view than selfishness, which most would agree is wrong.  The 60s thinking went something like this:  “I am free when I am free from all hindrances and obstacles to do what I want.”  The idea wasn’t new by any means; what was new was its wide acceptance.  Within a few years, it would become the unconscious working assumption of the shapers and movers of our nation:  parents, teachers, lawyers, business people, politicians, et al.

So what could have been wrong with that?  Did we not experience a “new birth of freedom,” becoming more tolerant, more accepting and encouraging to people pursuing their individual dreams?  Yes, we did.  But the idea of individualistic freedom is not wrong just because it is selfish.  It is wrong, I now realize, because it does not take account of the complex nature and contradictory desires of the human heart.  (More on this in the next post.)

If there is one thing I have learned in forty-odd years as a Christian, it is that the important things of life come from the heart.  From the heart comes the “ask not what your country can do for you,” the sacrifices on Normandy Beach, the countless acts of charity and love, the routine kindness of friends; and from it also comes cheating on tests, fathers walking away from families, Auschwitz and My Lai.  We puzzle over evil in our world, but in our hearts, we know the answer because we sense what our own conscience says is our inability to consistently do the right.  History is a mirror that we ignore at our peril, a mirror which tells us not to trust in the “basic goodness” of mankind.  Individualistic freedom has become so important that we are unable to evaluate the larger society around us and understand just what is being sucked away from us.  It is being sucked away from our hearts, and we are blind to it.

I was as blind as anyone as long as I was on that treadmill.  Scripture says we cannot evaluate and help someone else as long as we have a log in our own eye (Matthew 7).  In my case, the log was a treadmill….

Here now is a foretaste of the freedom that was to come into my life at the end of the zigzag….

By 2006, I had not solved the underlying problem of what made me a people-pleaser or performance minded.  I was just becoming aware of my thinking, how wrong it was, how self-destructive.  Our church put a premium on pursuing personal holiness such that those who failed were suspect—which set some to running even faster on the treadmill without prospect of being acceptable.

I finally got honest with myself the same as I did on a hospital bed in Vietnam long ago.  I admitted that I did not know if God cared about me at all.  So I asked him:  “Lord, what do you really think of me?  I must know.  I can’t go on like this!”  Sitting in my despair, a verse from Proverbs came to mind, (3:12), that I’d only ever heard when our church disciplined errant members:  “…the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.”  Delights?  “Lord,” I said, “you delight in me??”  It was one of those moments when the dawning light changes everything.  Delight?  How could it be?

I Googled my question, and was shocked but intrigued to see links referencing the teaching we had once received in Bible school about our spiritual adoption, that God the Father has adopted those who trust in Jesus as his children.  Back then, it had bounced off my emotional baggage.  I remembered something my friend Andy told me when they adopted a son.  I asked him (this was 1973), “Are you going to tell him he’s adopted?”  “Of course,” came the reply.  “I want him to know just how special he is.”

I began in earnest, exploring “adoption” in Scripture, reading everything I could get my hands on in theology books (not much there) and the personal experiences of various other Christians.  (My reflection and research eventually led to a thesis that I called, “God is out to get you.”)  What did it mean that God is my “Father.”  Wasn’t it merely a title used in prayer?

Long story short, my thinking was getting revised by what I was learning.  I began to focus my Bible reading on the Gospel accounts to find out if Jesus said anything about it.  I read the Gospels so much I began to feel as though I were one of those disciples walking around with Jesus, spending time with him, watching and listening, learning from him to think like him, to know his agenda and what was important to God.  What I was learning was all about what it meant to be an adopted son of the Father.  Jesus didn’t use the word “adoption,” but his teaching was all about a relationship with God and what the Father is like.  Jesus’ confrontations with the leaders were about their legalism  and their distorted view of God:  Christian writer A.W. Tozer once commented, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”*  I began to see how distorted my own picture of God truly was so I set out to get to know him as I had never before.  Jesus taught his disciples to call God their “Abba,” a familiar, intimate name like “Papa.”  He taught them that the Father (Abba) is like the perfect earthly father who always loves, always gives, always protects and provides, who loves unconditionally and never pulls away.  He showed them God by his life: “If you have seen me you have seen the Father.”  Much fell into place for me as I read Jesus, learned all over again to be his disciple, an “apprentice.”


On the day at that writer’s conference that I realized I would never be in the picture with my earthly dad, I also found something greater:  the identity and the key to the freedom I had searched for all my life.  I am my Father’s son.  I am adopted.  This is my identity.  I am loved and delighted in simply because I now belong to him.  Being a son was the key to my freedom.  And I still almost hear the quiet voice of my Father in heaven saying to me, “My son, you will always be in the picture with me.”

Free at last.


* The Knowledge of the Holy, The Attributes of God: Their Meaning in the Christian Life (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1961), 1.

journey post 8: “Luke, I am your Father”

Significant moments of life have a way of scribing themselves indelibly in memory. Those of us old enough remember exactly where we were when we heard that President Kennedy had been assassinated.    Events in fiction can also be written in the memory of a culture, like the moment Darth Vader revealed to Luke Skywalker that he had not killed Luke’s father, that he was, in fact, Luke’s father.

Sometimes cultural memory gets it wrong, however.  Lord Vader did not actually use Luke’s name, but the quote above does reflects how it has been passed on in cultural memory.  (http://starwars.com/watch/episode_5_i_am_your_father.html )

Luke, I am your father

Surprised?  The misquote has now taken on a life all its own.  The name “Luke” has taken on other meanings for me, and that has to do with un-assuming a different aspect of our cultural memory, i.e., that the Bible is a collection of stories that teach good moral lessons; otherwise, it doesn’t have much relevance to my personal life.  In our culture, the Jesus story has an air of mythology about it—hence my hospital question (in June, 1969) about him being a cosmic Santa Claus.  My un-assuming of the cultural narrative began early in 1971… in a library of course….

As a boy, the only Luke I knew was one of those Bible guys, as in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Yes, there was also Luke McCoy (a fictional Luke from “The Real McCoys” TV show).  When I got serious about answering my question, I decided to read through the four Gospel accounts.  This was for me uncharted territory.  Luke’s Gospel was addressed to some obviously important person named Theophilus (I did not know any Theophilus growing up, either).  My trained historian’s attention was arrested by what followed:

“[B]ecause I have carefully studied all these matters from their beginning….I thought it would be good to write an orderly account for you….so you will know the full truth about everything…” (Luke 1:1-4, Good News New Testament).   What I was seeing here was a man who had taken time to speak with—and verify—sources and to write so as to present a credible account of some things he had not personally witnessed.   (If you read through the book of Acts, the same Luke is writing to the same Theophilus, only this time, about events that he did take part in.)

Not far into my search, I was in the library next to where I worked.  I had often spent lunch browsing the shelves.  One day, I came across an intriguing book: Archaeology and the New Testament, by Merrill Unger.    Archaeology?  Until that very moment, it had not even been on the horizon of my search,… but here it was.  Briefing the table of contents, my eyes lighted on a chapter, “Luke the Historian.”  Someone else (Unger) was already onto what I was beginning to think about Luke.  I checked out the book and carried it back to the cafeteria, where I devoured it over the next few days.

My thinking about the Bible before this was unclear.  I had always assumed it was true, but also unreal in a way.  Was it myth?  I had read Beowulf and the Greek myths, some legends of the Vikings (my ancestors).  But reading Luke, and now this book….The way Luke had listed places, times, participants, conversations, etc., was not the typical stuff of mythology.  Granted, there were those miracles sprinkled in, but even they seemed somehow so “natural.”

There was something else: a ring of authenticity about how Luke described things.  (This was in the other Gospels too.)  Here was Peter, revered by many as the first “Pope,” but:  just how many times can one man stick his foot in his mouth anyway, and this, in an account designed to “sell” Jesus and Christianity?  The writers or editors had forgotten to take the “stupid” out.  And women: how in the world would someone leave in the part about women being disciples to a rabbi or witnesses to the resurrection—in a culture in which women were more or less property and whose testimony could not be accepted in court?  And how about all those followers who were to become “pillars” of the church arguing about who was the greatest, or asking permission to call down fire on scoffers, or getting their mom to ask Jesus to be seated on his right and left in the Kingdom?  Not exactly spiritual giants.

Because modern Bible translations sound relatively “modern,” we moderns tend to miss just how radical was the style of these accounts, just how different they were from other books that recounted the tales of heroes.  What stood out in Luke’s and the other’s stories was how some unbelievably ordinary people, afraid and hesitant and brash or timid and wondering if this guy Jesus might be their Messiah, but unbelieving and mystified at first…. What stood out was how they were gradually won over by the winsomeness of Jesus, by the authority of his teaching, and, yes, by the miracles.  He not only possessed healing powers like others who were healing and casting out demons at the time, but he demonstrated power over nature, making things happen that had never been imagined.

Authenticity.  Did I mention that these accounts seemed more and more authentic?  That’s a word that had been part of my vocabulary reaching at least back to Davy Crockett and the Alamo.   Authenticity was important to me, now more than ever.

I don’t have a copy of Unger’s book today.  (I left mine in Africa.)  But the impact of the book is undoubted:  reading Unger’s look at the archaeological evidence moved the Bible from the category of legend to the level of history for the first time in my thinking.  I could now approach the Gospel accounts as reliable and authentic.  While much of the American church got caught up in a vitriolic controversy about the “inspiration” of the Bible in the course of the 70s, I was left wondering what much of the hubbub was for.  I felt they were totally missing something I had learned while spending long hours reading and researching the Alamo, and later the Civil War as a boy: The Gospels all presented the same Jesus, they all taught the same things, each author choosing and highlighting things as he thought best, and all coming to the same conclusion as a result of the resurrection.

The resurrection.  At some point, my researches pointed me to one thing.  That one thing, I realized, would determine whether or not I could honestly “sit in the chair,” whether or not I could trust Jesus to be what he said.  That became my next focus.

And, before I forget:  Thanks, Luke!

journey post 7: Walt Disney, Davy Crockett, the cardboard box, the library chair, and the mystery of sitting … (also featuring John Wayne)

1955 was a turning-point year for the children of America.  Disneyland opened, the Mickey Mouse Club started on TV, and Disney’s Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier hit the theaters.  Disneyland, Disney World, and Disney anything have become so much a part of our culture that it is easy to overlook its revolutionary impact on the era.  The Davy Crockett film spawned a craze among us kids that lasted years!  (I wasn’t quite old enough to understand then why Annette was so popular with the guys, nor why Elvis soon after became so popular with girls—but I was jealous.)

Davy Crockett and the Alamo stirred my first serious interest in investigating history, and what I learned from that initial foray into serious research helped me plant my feet in reality after Vietnam.  In that era of drugs and draft notices, the question of the hour was, “Are you for real, man?”  The landscape of America was surreal, and the question that became suddenly real in my mind was, “Is Jesus for real?”

This is how I began to find out….

Five years after Disney’s Davy Crockett went to the Alamo on screen, John Wayne’s epic, The Alamo, was released.  By then, my interest in Crockett and the battle for Texas independence was at a peak.  I had read Crockett’s Journal and another book, 13 Days to Glory.  When I finally got to see the movie, the Alamo depicted there was so far different from what I had seen in the Disney movie or photos…it was like hearing two different people talking about the same car accident.

I knew the Alamo, so it seemed.  As a kid, I made my own coonskin cap and I had a flintlock rifle cap gun, and I loved to play “Alamo” with my toy cowboys and soldiers, defending and attacking a fortress I made out of a cardboard box by carving out the graceful shape of the façade top and the crenellated walls with a pocket knife.  (Crenels were the gaps on walls that provided an opening to shoot from.  The Disney movie had crenels on the walls and the top of the façade looked very much like one today.)  I was careful about the shape because I wanted it to be authentic, like the photos I had studied.

alamo facade


John Wayne Alamo set


John Wayne drove me to the library.  Not him personally, of course, but his movie did.  I got on the bus and went to Central Public Library in Downtown Los Angeles to find the truth.  I was 12….

Some of my best childhood memories are from time spent among library shelves.  Ever since I was little, my mom took me along with her to the library.  First, it was the small Eagle Rock Library.  We didn’t just go in, find something, and check out.  My mom loved to browse the shelves of California history.  She would often take a book and read a few pages before putting it back.  She was looking for some information.  A library was a place of quiet, refuge, and enjoyment, but also of inquiry.

I was taking the bus on my own to go Downtown when I was 11 or 12.  You may wonder, but this was 1950’s L.A.  It was a different town.  Quiet, low buildings.  The tallest building was City Hall—yes, the “Daily Planet” the 50’s Superman could leap with a single bound.  I got off at Pershing Square, avoided the scary man with the Bible and sign about repentance and hell, and walked up 5th Street to Grand Ave.

It was in the cavernous—but ornate and peaceful—rooms dedicated to the muse of history that I began the serious pursuit of problems in history.  You may question the seriousness of a 12-year-old’s search for the truth about the Alamo.  But it was there that curiosity, determination, and skill began to blend in the search for “authenticity.”  I didn’t mind standing in the stacks searching through book after book to see whether it contained information relevant to my quest.  I’d seen my mom do that many times.  A tables of contents, picture, index, or bibliography: if it held promise, I laid it aside to take to a table for quiet perusal.  Some very old books were kept in a separate room, and waiting for one to come was more exciting than waiting for that mini-sub to enter the state rooms of the Titanic.

Keep in mind that that this was pre-internet and pre-Google.  This meant, among other things: extended concentration required because search terms might yield to patient mining in a matter of hours, not minutes or seconds.  There was no electronic clip-board on which to instantly copy mounds of potentially useful information (unless one copied relevant pages on a copier—for 2-3 cents per page).  It also meant retaining many bits of information in my non-electronic brain, like the location of material on a page or in a book.  Notes were a necessity, the ability to summarize saved much time, and documentation, if neglected, might send you back to the same library to search out again that statement, quote, or fact you wrote down sans reference.  (Been there, done that, more than once.)

This excursus on old-fashioned research is offered because, in addition to being a reminder of what we have gained (or lost) by relying on Google, it will indicate that, when everything was up for question after Vietnam yet there seemed to be some authentic object of faith that my friend was seeing, I had an idea where I might find an answer to my query, “Is this Jesus for real?”  Did he live, die, and rise like it says?  This would take time, patience, and work, plus any skills as an investigator that I had learned.

Even after I had began to read and research, I knew there was one question that troubled me that I knew would not yield to patient study.  And it was big.  My friend Andy kept talking about believing in Jesus and something called “justification by faith.”  I thought I believed the facts of history about Jesus, but he seemed to be talking about something personal, about a relationship.  The more I thought, it seemed that this kind of faith must be some sort of blind leap.  I don’t remember asking about it—I was likely afraid to.  It just came up.  Andy  gave a simple illustration:  It’s like a chair.  (You don’t have to picture a stout oak library chair here.  Any picture of “chair-ness” will do.)  If you’re not sure about a chair, you check it out.  You may push on it to see if it’s wobbly, or sit tentatively with your legs braced.  But when you have enough evidence that the chair can be trusted to hold you up, you sit.  It’s the same with Jesus

I knew where I could go to find evidence.  But knowing how to “sit” in the “chair” would not be found in a card catalog, and that was scary.

Note on the writing process: writing and remembering

One of the exciting things I’ve been reminded of since starting this blog is the following:

In the process of writing about my past, details from my life have come to mind that I haven’t thought about in years, perhaps even since the time of the event itself.  I found this true when I was writing about my last days in Vietnam.  I was doing this at the request of Chaplain Max Sullivan, who wanted me to write out how his coming out to get me when I was wounded was instrumental in my becoming a Christian.

I first discovered this about the writing process when I was trying to recount my relationship with my dad in preparation for a writer’s conference three years ago.  What apparently happens is that, when I’m writing about a particular event or idea, my brain begins to dredge up details long submerged.  (It can also bring up memories that, for whatever reason, have been “suppressed” because they were uncomfortable.  I’m aware of the danger of “reconstructing” false memories, so I try to be careful with such things.)

I began writing this week’s Journey Post yesterday morning.  I had thought to focus on one thing: how I began my own search for the “historical Jesus” and the resurrection in the library.   This a.m., as I sat looking over what I had written yesterday, I realized there was something missing, but I wasn’t sure what.  I had listed my experience in going to various libraries while growing up.  As I thought about looking through books and card catalogs at the Downtown Los Angeles Public Library, I remembered just what it was that had sent me on my first quest for an answer to discrepancies in historical accounts, something that was to prove critical in my personal search for reality in Christianity.  It all started with Davy Crockett and the Alamo.

Stay tuned….

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