I remember when I was small and just beginning to receive my education via Kindergarten and Vacation Bible School that many topics and concepts were presented to me in such a way as to put the focus on how I was supposed to perceive them rather than to encourage me to investigate and explore their possibilities.
Later, elementary school and church going did much the same and this carried right through high school. I must say, it had the opposite effect from that intended. Most of the instructors were like art experts leading a group of tourists through an exhibition for the purpose of interpreting for them that which they are viewing and thus saving them the trouble of having an opinion.
I found that most folks were happiest with this and experienced real discomfort when, however rarely, they might be called on to decipher things for themselves. In this scenario, the person who can memorize and parrot the buzzword and jargon-laden interpretation du jour of a blank canvas is hailed as an intellectual, while the person who points out the obvious will be denounced as a hillbilly.
From what I could discern by the time I got my two front teeth, there are two kinds of people the world over. Those that want to know things and are willing to use the intellect given them by their maker and those that choose to have others tell them what everything means. In part this phenomena is due to the awe of academia which is inculcated into the youngster. The valuable lesson of The Wizard of Oz seems to me to have been lost on most of my generation who were fortunate to have seen that movie.
The foregoing is in no way meant to imply that we do not need teachers and true experts to help us along the way to understanding things. Indeed we do. But what do we need them for precisely? I would venture to say that the most precious thing that they could give us is accurate, documented information or to put it another way, clean data. I would like to define my use of the word expert to mean someone who has exhaustively investigated a particular subject and thus has a greater share of data specific to that topic than the average person.
If the expert has done their work properly, the student may check all their sources and verify all the data. The boon to the student comes from having all the diverse sources collated into an index that makes for easier examination as regards to the time involved in this process. Just as there is an obligation upon the expert to conduct proper research, there is an equal obligation on the student to utilize their own intellect in assessing the data before them.
If a teacher gave a bowl of different kinds of bird eggs to five students for them to examine, they should all come away with five individual understandings of these items if left to their own senses and not subject to any input from the teacher. Having said this, they would all five undoubtedly have much the same things to say about the nature of these objects. This hints at the beauty of truth. It is verifiable at any time by anyone, thus we need not fear that each individual seeker of knowledge may incorporate those building blocks into a unique structure of thought.
Working backwards we might take the five unique reports of the students in the example above and sift them down to that which is common to all. Using that as a base we would be able to conduct our own further inquiries into the topic and have saved precious time in the bargain. This brings us to well-written books by reputable authors. They are powerful resources and can save us much lamp oil and shoe leather. They can never replace thinking however and a reputable author, in my opinion, would not want a non-thinker to tout their work.
Two of the topics, of the many that fascinated me from my earliest times were those of history and religion. Alas, it is these two precisely that remain the most nebulous and partly this is due to the fact that the majority by far of those who write on these subjects have an agenda, an ax to grind or are bullied and bribed to present their material in such a way as to lead a reader to a given conclusion. This is a science in of itself and was perfected long before technology greatly leveraged the effect.
If a person was given a bowl of different kinds of bird eggs to examine by a chicken egg farmer and was briefed beforehand upon what they were to conclude from studying them, that person's perception would be much different than if this same process was initiated by an environmentalists out to save the hummingbird or an African Bushman with an ostrich egg canteen around his neck.
Thus, a child who just goes and gathers a bowl of different kinds of bird eggs and studies them alone may come away with as much useful hard data as any of the aforementioned groups and also be free of their biases. The child will of necessity of being human have his own bias. It cannot be otherwise. If you presented a hummingbird eggshell and an ostrich eggshell to our Bushman for making a new canteen, which do you think he would choose?
So let us imagine for a moment that books well-written are like unto bowls of eggs. We should be able to glean from them much basic data that is appealing to common sense and obvious to any observer that glances inside. I would recommend to you three books by one author that deal with the two topics of history and religion.
The author is Douglas Reed and the books are Insanity Fair, From Smoke To Smother and The Controversy of Zion. The first was written in 1938, the second in 1948 and the third was begun in 1949 and finished in 1956 although the manuscript never came to light until 22 years after that. One book deals with the lead up to the First World War and the other deals with the aftermath and build up to the Second World War. It also served to show the accuracy of Mr. Reed's predictions outlined in the first book. Almost like a report card. The final book is an exhaustive, meticulous study on the genesis of Judaism and Zionism, their impact on Christianity and their role in history.
Mr. Reed was an Englishman who described himself as "relatively unschooled". He began work at 13 as an office boy and followed that with being a bank clerk at 19 at which time he enlisted to fight in World War One. In 1921 at the age of 26, he began working for the London Times as a telephonist and clerk. Not until the age of 30 did he become a journalist in the capacity of sub-editor. Three years after that, he became the assistant Times correspondent in Berlin and finally was the Chief Central European correspondent in Vienna of the same newspaper.
He reported from this vantage during the years between the wars. Many of the biggest players of the era, which I know only from newsreel clips, photos and textbooks, Mr. Reed knew personally by dint of having interviewed them in person or having sat down to coffee with them at cafes in Vienna, Berlin, Prague, London, Moscow or Budapest. This list includes villains such as Hitler as well as the nobility, heads of state and the diplomats of many countries. Added to this first hand perspective, Douglas also spoke to the janitors, maids, farmers, soldiers and commoners of Europe and their presence in his observations of the power brokers serves to ground the entire body of his writings in a reality that at once is translatable to any reader when trying to make sense of their own time or of his.
His training as a journalist, his experience as a soldier, his lack of a bow-tie and his own standards of excellence in his work all add up to one of the best bowls of eggs I have ever been handed on the topics of history and religion. From it I will make my own omelet and invite you to do the same.
I have long felt that religion and history are artificially joined at the hip and this condition gives explanation as to why they appear to limp like Quasimodo through recorded history when we try to study one without taking into account the other. The period of the last two thousand years in particular appears to defy all logic when viewed from the singular perspective of historical narrative that we have inherited in our own time. In concert with this we are confounded by the phenomenon in religious history that a seemingly global trend towards the eventual idea of a single universal deity dressed up in differing robes should be rather suddenly overshadowed by the idea of a singular god acting on behalf of one exclusive group of humans, whether it be to their benefit or to their detriment. Mr. Reed apparently pondered this same conundrum.
Through his news career, which predated the first transatlantic phone call, Douglas eventually began to notice that many of his dispatches to his employer were lost, altered or suppressed. This led to him breaking with the paper in 1943. It is important to note that he walked away from them. Soon afterward he was to enjoy world fame for his books, Insanity Fair, Disgrace Abounding, Lest We Regret, and Somewhere South Of Suez.
The figures of the sale of these books in their day is nothing short of impressive and I imagine that at one time Mr. Reed was a so-called household name in the literate world. After 1951 his book Far and Wide was published, which was a look at America through the eyes of an ex-pat Englishman with much experience and independent study under his belt. I am a born American and when I read that book I learned a lot from it. Being a North American, I found I had very different views on the monarchy of Britain than Mr. Reed but I also learned to cut them a modicum of slack as well. Just a wee, mind you.
What followed next was a complete shutting of the doors. His books were banished from bookstalls, publishers refused to speak to him and the wonderful books already published began to be withdrawn from library shelves and to literally “disappear”. If you had read his books without knowing about this censorship, I wager that you would certainly wonder why this was done. Did this finish the man? No.
In 1951 he began writing The Controversy of Zion. He was adding the Epilogue just before I was born. This book is over 500 pages and is thoroughly documented, sourced and indexed. It was, clearly, his magnus opus. He knew it would never be published in what remained of his lifetime and thus it sat in a zippered file on top of a wardrobe in Durban, South Africa for over two decades.
The most I have learned about the story of my Cherokee ancestors was from material gathered by a relatively unschooled Irish-American, James Mooney who was as scrupulous as he was meticulous. After reading a score of books about the story of the gypsies, I found that the most plausible and resonant attempt to trace that story was in the work of a French-Canadian author who's research and findings were endorsed wholeheartedly by the leader of the Romany Kris.
Similarly, I feel certain that Jewish people could learn much about their own story from this work of a relatively unschooled English newspaperman who utilized his skills of gathering facts and presenting them in a concise verifiable format. At all points, Reed allows his readers to draw their own conclusions while precisely articulating those of his own in a spirit of simply wishing to see the lives of all mankind improved. When he opines, the reader is made well aware of this.
Also, this book contains the best description of that notorious Texan, Colonel House that I have ever encountered to date. While not fully plumbing the depths of this shadow man's motivations and likely connections, Mr. Reed is easily savant enough to see through Mr. House's methods and he presents them to you in a way that a child could easily grasp. As a Texan, it has always intrigued me just how many Texans there are in history's woodpile.
I can tell you that the first two books I mentioned will give any reader a better sense of the modern history of the Western world when added to whatever texts they have read prior, particularly those texts provided in their education. This last mentioned book, however, will take the reader many layers deeper. Deeper than most folks in his day and in ours would be comfortable to venture. I will quote here from Edmund Burke, a quote included in the manuscript before me, “An event has occurred, upon which it is difficult to speak and impossible to be silent.”
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.