Saturday, May 28, 2016

"Contact" by Carl Sagan (1985)

This is one of those rare cases when you actually saw the movie WAAAAYYYY before you read the book. But you are certain Sagan would have forgiven you. He actually first wrote "Contact" as a treatment for a movie, so it's a totally forgivable sin. Plus the movie was fantastic. But you should still feel a little bit ashamed. Read the book first from now on, okay?

Carl Sagan is a modern day nerd hero. He was an astronomer who dealt in mathematics and physics but who was also endowed with the soul of a poet. There were better astronomers than Sagan, there are smarter physicists. But what made him so wonderful was his knack for communicating the awe that studying the cosmos instills in us all. He wrote "Cosmos" and was responsible for swinging the camera on the Voyager 1 probe back towards home to snap the photo of earth that is now famous as the 'pale blue dot.' He was a genius at contextualizing how profound our discoveries in astronomy were, how small it made all of our differences seem, and how great it made our efforts to learn more.

Unsurprisingly, the book is better than the movie. Sagan's prose is much more intimate, more nuanced. The movie combined some of his characters for the sake of simplicity, but some of the richness and subtlety is lost in the translation. Besides, Carl Sagan was famous for painting pictures with words, for allowing you the luxury of contemplating vast and impossibly beautiful cosmic events within your own mind. Seeing it all as dated special effects on a silver screen almost cheapens what the author can do with words on a page.

Sagan peppers every chapter with extraordinary quotes.

"Contact" is not a sci-fi adventure story in the classical sense. The main character, Eleanor Arroway, is an astronomer who deals in boring numbers and graphs all day. There is no war among the stars in this book. Ellie does not save the world from destruction. But it is a phenomenal read, nonetheless. Sagan seasons every chapter with a random and extraordinary quote or two. Some are drawn from the likes of Walt Whitman and John Keats, some from Aristotle and Cicero, and others as disparate as Bertrand Russel and the Bible. These quotes alone are reason enough to have read the book. You were tempted to copy them into a file on your phone as a sort of meditative philosophical missive, a reminder for those times when you are feeling anything less than reverent for the miracle of human consciousness that there is no greater gift in all the worlds.

Sagan begins the book at the moment of his heroine's birth and chronicles her development into adulthood in succinct yet pithy snapshots. Her natural curiosity is insatiable and her intelligence provides her with the ability to go further in discovering the answers to her questions than the average child. Ellie's father dies when she is still small and her relationship with her step father remains aloof throughout the story. She wrestles with the religion that is forced on her by society and her step father and she becomes a devout atheist, or maybe an agnostic. Eleanor soon discovers the complexity and the clarity of mathematics, the secrets that calculus can unlock. A bit of a loner, Ellie finds herself often gazing at the night sky and pondering the mysteries above us all and the promises of profound answers hiding in plain sight for all of humanity to see.

Eleanor enters into the world of academia, acing her entrance exams got her a scholarship to Harvard. She sought a broad education but focused on math, science and engineering. Sagan was familiar with this world, being a creature of academia himself, and describes how difficult it is for a woman to do well there. The glass ceiling is there not because of any lack of feminine aptitude, but because of the latent sexism of the predominantly male colleagues. He describes how Ellie learned to literally speak louder in order to get the attention of men who reflexively ignored her, expecting her to remain silent and demure, as if she were not their equal. Sagan does not spend a lot of time on this point, nor does he make it a huge cross for his protagonist to bear. He simply states that it was one more thing she had to overcome, one more puzzle for her to solve in order to find the answers she sought.

In forty pages, Sagan takes his main character from birth to adulthood, succinctly summarizing her pragmatic views on politics, religion, and romantic relationships. And suddenly Eleanor Arroway is in charge of giant radio telescopes that scan the sky in their Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). It seems to make sense that if there is intelligent life out there and they are interested in communicating with other intelligent life (assuming the quixotic notion that they would even recognize humans as fellow intelligent creatures, which is pretty unlikely) they would attempt to communicate by using radio signals. Information broadcast via radio is easily manipulated and easily received. The message travels at the speed of light and requires no spacecraft or propulsion to arrive at its intended target. So both Eleanor and Carl Sagan operated huge telescopes and scanned the skies looking for the likeliest spots that might be transmitting the first interstellar "Hello" anyone has ever picked up.

Sagan never received any message, but he had Eleanor discover one emanating from a star just 26 light years away, from a star called Vega, one of the brightest in our sky. The Message, as it soon becomes known, speaks in the only universal language we can conceive of, mathematics. Initially it appears it is a repetition of prime numbers, which could not be a purely naturally occurring sequence of radio pulses. Quasars are rarely so well educated. Soon it becomes clear that the Message is much more than a simple string of numbers. It is a complex instruction manual for building a machine. The world debates the merits of doing so, but of course, humans being naturally insatiably curious, we eventually do it anyway. Of course we would!

The machine takes a group of five individuals on an extraordinary journey through the stars. The aliens have a far more advanced understanding of the manipulations of time and space than we do and are able to pull the team of humans through worm holes that land them on a picturesque beach somewhere near the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Each of the five encounter someone whom they love more than all others, or facsimiles of them. Eleanor meets her long dead father who tells her that he is merely an image the aliens created to allow Ellie the comfort level to listen to what they have to say. Humans are not alone. The universe is populated with ancient culture who are actively engineering the fabric of reality and who are cultivating whole star systems. But even more than that, the alien/father figure reveals that the universe has even deeper signs of grander designers. The worm hole system that brought the humans to meet this new species has existed as long as any culture has ever known. No one knows who built it. But even more profound than that are the messages hidden in the fabric of reality itself, within certain transcendental numbers like pi.

When the team returns home their colleagues tell them that they were not gone for the day and a half they experienced, they were merely out of radio contact with the outside world for 20 minutes. No one believes their fantastic stories of worm holes and aliens who appear on pristine beaches in the guise of long lost loved ones to teach humanity that they are part of a larger, more beautiful reality than they ever imagined. The powers that be, including influential religious leaders, demand that the five forever keep their mouths shut about what they claim to have experienced.

And so Eleanor Arroway, the woman who has always been skeptical of those who profess a religious faith, is now claiming to have had an experience she cannot deny and those whom she has always doubted now doubt her. This whole book, written by a famous skeptic (though Sagan was not a self-described atheist) is about faith. Sagan is arguing that while healthy skepticism is the only way humanity will advance its knowledge, pure skepticism is useless. At some point we must all make a leap of faith. Ellie did not believe in a god because there was never any evidence presented to her to suggest one existed, but she never claimed to know that there was no god at all for the very same reason. Anyone who believed her incredible tale had to set aside their own skepticism and believe without empirical evidence, just as all who believe in God must do. This is what faith is, belief without overwhelming evidence.

Carl Sagan never found the evidence for a greater designer of the universe he spent his life looking for, but he created a hero who did. He was teaching us all that some day even the greatest of skeptics might be satisfied, even as those who have faith today may be disappointed. "Contact" was a nuanced and respectful work, one with intellectual challenges, narrative surprises, and even a twist ending. When you finished the book you were not filled with that usual ecstatic post-literary glow. It didn't feel as if the story had ended. Sagan managed to include you in his story, and the story goes on and on. Your kids will carry it on after you and so will theirs after them and so on.

"Contact" is a celebration of the awe and wonder that the cosmos conveys upon the human mind. It is reminder that one of the greatest things the universe has ever accomplished was to create minds that can contemplate itself. By that regard, there have been few minds greater than that of Carl Sagan.

On to the next book!

P.S. Here is an article on how and why Sagan refused to label himself as an atheist. Fascinating.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

"Storm of Steel" by Ernst Junger (1920)

This was one of those books that when you found it on the shelf you actually cheered out loud for joy in the middle of the store. Your local used books store has a pretty anemic World War One section and you have been looking for "Storm of Steel" for years, always dutifully glancing at the few titles on the lone WWI shelf and only occasionally picking up anything and taking it home. This is what you have been looking for. Sure, you could have just ordered it on Amazon, but this one has always seemed too personal for that. You wanted to find this one yourself. Sometimes the hunt is sweetest when it requires the most endurance.

The first edition of "Storm of Steel" was written in 1920, but Junger spent several decades refining it and re-releasing different versions. Also, there have been a few different translations from the native German into English. This translation was done in 2003 and the translator, Michael Hoffman, spends quite a bit of time describing the fascinating shortcomings of the previous attempts. Hoffman is clearly offended at the short shrift given Junger's masterwork by previous translators. His introduction was a reminder that translation is always a matter of interpretation. Translating word-for-word or even phrase-for-phrase often does not convey the original meaning from one language to another with any fidelity whatsoever. It takes a mind fluent in both languages to tease out the nuances and the beauty of a work and present it for someone who would otherwise have no hope of experiencing the original work. God bless good translators.

Or maybe you should just learn German and read the original as it was written. Lazy American.

The word baddass is too weak a title to describe Ernst Junger. A native born German with an affluent upbringing, he longed to prove himself in combat and joined the French Foreign Legion at the age of fourteen. When the summer of 1914 threatened to plunge his homeland into war, he raced home eager to do his part in service of his beloved Germany. Of the millions of German infantry commanders who served in the Great War, only 11 were awarded the Pour Le Merite, Imperial Germany's highest honor. Junger was one of those eleven. He led men into impossible battles and held untenable positions at all costs. After the war he questioned the rise of the Nazis and the wisdom of another war, publicly rejecting all requests to serve in Hitler's new government. Hitler recognized a fellow soldier, one who had served with such extraordinary distinction, and ordered him left untouched by his goose-stepping thugs, placing him in an administrative role in Paris. Implicated in Von Stauffenberg's plot to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the Nazi government, Junger somehow survived the murderous purge of the German military and made it through his second World War unscathed. Junger lived to be 102 years old and was considered by many to be one of the greatest men Germany produced in the 20th Century.

Junger's writing style is simple and direct, almost stripped down. It's like listening to an acoustic set by the most talented musicians; direct raw and honest. Junger is not self serving in his story telling. He is matter-of-fact and to the point. He never extols the virtues of war but he never condemns war either, except to lament the horrors he had had to see when he did what he thought needed to be done. "Storm of Steel" is an outstanding example of what a combat memoir can be at its best.

Junger's descriptions of the static nature of trench warfare should be required reading for anyone who seeks to understand what the Western Front must have felt like. You found it interesting that he only occasionally encountered rifle or machine gun fire, and then only when he had left his trench to probe his enemy's positions or take a prisoner. Mostly what he and the other troops in the trenches experienced was constant, unrelenting shelling. It came in all sorts of varieties. There were differing caliber of shells, different types of fuses, and wildly different effects upon detonation. He became, as most soldiers of the Great War almost surely did, a connoisseur of explosions. Some detonations had a thumping feel while others rattled, some came without warning and filled the air with zooming needles of white hot steel while others tumbled from the sky like sausages dumped from baskets. Some of the shells were so massive that even the duds which did not explode shook the very ground and jarred the teeth of everyone anywhere near the impact.

Reading these descriptions of trench warfare made it clear to you that what we call "trench warfare" was really a phrase intended to describe the construction of two opposing impenetrable and primarily subterranean fortresses, built mere yards apart, manned by millions, that stretched from the English Channel to Switzerland. These two fortresses stretched and twisted through the French and Belgian countryside and were sometimes several hundred yards deep. If one small part of the enemy's fortress happened to be captured, typically at the cost of thousands of lives, that section was simply integrated into the victorious army's existing fortress and the enemy would bolster their own defenses at the spot they had retreated to, often a spot that had been prepared for just such an eventuality. Breakthrough was not possible. There was no exploiting of flanks. This type of fortress versus fortress warfare required constant vigilance and constant combat.

At all times, whether napping in a deep bunker or standing sentry at an exposed observation post, Junger and his fellow soldiers (on either side of no man's land) had to be prepared to either fling themselves into the best possible cover from incoming shells or rush, at a moment's notice, to defensive positions to fend off incoming waves of attacking infantry. And the gas was absolutely evil. Junger's descriptions of the poisonous gas attacks make this war seem like the place you would least want to be out of any place in history. Even Hitler recognized the madness of using gas on the battlefield and refused to allow it in the next war (it helps that he was gassed in the trenches too). Junger describes a level of attrition in his units that seems almost unbearable. Every day or two Junger looses another close friend even when they are not engaged in anything like a recognized named battle. These dozens and hundreds of deaths multiplied thousands upon thousands of times throughout the war represent the futility of the whole conflict. So many lives were thrown away for absolutely no gain. Even when one side launched a major offensive, no significant swaths of territory changed hands for any amount of time. And still the boys died. Over and over and over for years.

The paradox of this kind of warfare was that it became difficult for either side to determine how effective their military actions truly were against their enemies. Hundreds of yards might exchange hands and dozens of enemy prisoners might be taken in an offensive of maximum effort, but to no larger strategic advantage. With such enormous forces involved it was simply too difficult to tell what they had accomplished. In a perfect example of this paradox, Junger took part in a famous withdrawal of German forces across the Somme river in the spring of 1917. In order to establish a more effective defense, to shorten the linkages with other segments of the fortresses, therefore requiring fewer soldiers to man the line as a whole, Junger and thousands of his fellow German soldiers were abandoning positions they had held onto desperately for years. As they withdrew the Germans suffered very few casualties but as their enemies moved into the now abandoned positions, the Germans inflicted heavy losses upon the British and French. The Germans had strengthened their position and weakened the armies of their adversaries by a count of thousands of men, and yet the Allies considered this battle to be a victory on their part. As great as it may have been, this was a strange war.

In war, of course, death is always a constant companion but in most wars this usually means the death of friends or the threat of your own death. On the Western Front death was literally everywhere, omnipresent like a malevolent god. So dangerous were some areas where waves of soldiers had died that no one could ever retrieve their bodies, every attempt only adding fresh corpses to the piles. Men lived mere feet from where their dead friends lay rotting on exposed ground. Heavy shelling often shook corpses out of the walls of the trenches and into the laps of the living. During one memorable bombardment Junger describes trying to dig a foxhole in the ground only to find the bodies of his countrymen layered in stacks beneath him. One company of men had died here in a previous season of fighting and they had been buried by the tons of dirt and mud flung upon them by the same artillery that had cut them down. And then the same had happened to the next company. And then the next. Junger and his men were literally surrounded by the dead.

During the summer of 1916, Junger and his unit were moved to Guillemont to defend against what the British would come to call, in somber and tragic tones, the Battle of the Somme. A German runner met Junger and his men behind the lines to guide them to their positions. Junger's description of this nameless veteran bears repeating. "He was the first German soldier I saw in a steel helmet, and he straightaway struck me as the denizen of a new and far harsher world. Sitting next to him in the roadside ditch, I questioned him avidly about the state of the position, and got from him a grey tale of days hunkered in craters, with no outside contact or communications lines, of incessant attacks, fields of corpses and crazy thirst, of the wounded left to die, and more of the same. The impassive features under the rim of the steel helmet and the monotonous voice accompanied by the noise of battle made a ghostly impression upon us. A few days had put their stamp on the runner, who was to escort us into the realm of flame, setting him inexpressibly apart from us."

Junger recounts his emotional reactions to intense combat in such honest and simple terms that it makes this war, fought a century ago, feel immediate and real to you. He unabashedly describes how he was unable to control his chattering teeth after one fearsome raid gone wrong, how a man's normal reaction to the terrifying depths of mortal dread can sometimes be uncontrollable giddy laughter. Enduring some of the heaviest shelling he had yet experienced, Junger describes the experience saying, "Throughout, we sat in our basement, with our heads in our hands, counting the seconds between explosions. The witticisms dried up, and finally the boldest of us had nothing to say... The shelling acquired a demented fury. Because of the racking pains in our heads and ears, communication was possible only by odd, shouted words. The ability to think logically and the feeling of gravity, both seemed to have been removed."

But however excruciating the newer, modern art of war had become, however industrialized and overwhelming the weapons of war had become, combat was still combat. In a later battle, this one fought against Indian troops (the British had used the peoples of their entire globe-spanning empire to fight the war) he speaks of the universality of armed conflict. "The whole scene - the mixture of the prisoners' laments and our jubilation - had something primordial about it. This wasn't war, this was ancient history." Junger was a soldier's soldier, the kind of guy who itched to leave the boring confines of his trench find action. he lead raids on enemy lines and his descrptons are nothing if not harrowing.

Like any good hero, Junger often managed to inadvertently avoid certain death by sustaining grievous wounds that kept him from more than one suicidal battle. "Leaving out trifles such as ricochets and grazes," he writes, "I was hit at least fourteen times, these being five bullets, two shell splinters, one shrapnel ball, four hand grenade splinters and two bullet splinters, which, with entry and exit wounds, left me an even twenty scars. In the course of this war, where so much of the firing was done blindly into empty space, I still managed to get myself targeted no fewer than eleven times." His narrow escapes throughout "Storm of Steel" are just one more reminder that luck really is as important in combat as skill or training.

In the summer of 1918, desperate to end the war before the Americans could make it to the Western Front in anything like decisive numbers, the Germans launched several massive offensives against the Allied lines. Junger led his company against veteran Scotsmen. Charging the enemy's lines, unleashed from their subterranean dugouts and tunnels, Junger and his men finally felt like true warriors. They met other true warriors in close quarters and even hand to hand fighting. It was in this last massive effort that Junger lost most of his friends. It was in this battle that he suffered the wounds that nearly killed him and forced him to convalesce for two months. From his hospital, Junger was able to see that the last great push was doomed. All the veterans and elite soldiers were gone. Those that were left could not accomplish what their leaders asked of them. "There crept over me a mood I hadn't known before. A profound reorientation, a reaction to so much time spent so intensely, on the edge... I felt I had got tired, and used to the aspect of war, but it was from this familiarity that I observed what was in front of me in a new and subdued light. Things were less dazzlingly distinct. And I felt that the purpose with which I had gone out to fight had been used up, and no longer held. The war posed new, deeper puzzles." The war was over because it was unwinnable. At long last it was over.

Reading this account of the events that are now a century in the past, yet that still shape our world today, reminded you that this war, as titanic a struggle as it was, was fought by individuals, not by nations. Seeing it from the perspective of one of the war's greatest soldiers reminded you that millions of more young men did what was asked of them even though it was impossible. You pray that no other generation has to live through the hell they did.

On to the next book!

P.S. in the Spring of 1917, Junger moved into a new position along the front and was ecstatic to take a moment to record that his trenches were being defended from the air by Von Richthofen himself. Even Ernst Junger was awed by the fame and greatness of the Red Baron. It's good to remember that even heroes have heroes.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

"Strength to Love" by Martin Luther King Jr. (1963)

In your effort to learn more about the intricacies and the chronology of the Civil Rights movement, you recently read a biography of Dr. King. When you finished it, you decided it made logical sense to then move to a book written, not about the man, but by him.

Dr. King wrote several books but this is not actually a book as much as it is a collection of several sermons he preached during or shortly after the Montgomery bus boycott. Some of these sermons were written from inside jail cells. "Strength to Love" was published the same year that he wrote "Letters from a Birmingham Jail." In his preface, Dr. King reminds his readers that he only published these sermons in this format under protest and at the avid request of many of his most trusted and beloved friends. He was worried the emotional impact of what he wrote would be watered down in book form. Sermons, he clarifies, are meant to be heard, not read.

But as you read these sermons, written by one of the most famous preachers in modern history at the apex of his game and height of his passions, you could hear him. His voice would ring clear in your head, his phrasing, his cadence, his almost musical intonations. You are already a fairly slow reader, but this was a book you savored almost indulgently. Dr. King's written prose transformed into his famous orations in your mind, sweeping you off your couch and into the pews of a sweltering Alabama church in the heat of southern summers that were to be filled with days that would be marked in history books. You even found yourself nodding along with the young preacher who was desperate to change the mind of a nation which had been conceived in liberty but shackled from the moments of its birth by a sin it had yet to atone for. King preaches from these pages as he said he wanted to before he even became a preacher, as a man who crafts sermons that are based on and intelligent faith, as a scholar whose messages are laid out logically and based upon sound philosophical principles. King was a voracious reader and it shows in his sermons. Surprisingly, this man who is famous for being a Southern pastor reminds his congregation from the very beginning that there is no intrinsic conflict between science and religion, exhorting them to be both tough-minded and intelligent. "Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge that is power; religion gives man wisdom that is control... The two are not rivals. They are complementary."

He preached on the importance of intellectual curiosity and the necessity for Christians to be enlightened, not just redeemed. "One day we will learn that the heart can never be totally right if the head is totally wrong." King talks about how the cross is a representation of both, "The beauty of sacrificial love and the majesty of unswerving devotion to the truth... The radiance of the divine, but also the tang of the human. I am reminded not only of Christ at his best, but of Man at his worst."

Addressing the moral defense of challenging segregation and discrimination, Dr. King asserts that to passively accept an unjust system "is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil." And he warns that charitable giving and passive philanthropy won't be enough. "Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice that make philanthropy necessary." King reminds us of the universal truth that "The ultimate measure of a man (and you would add of a society) is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands in moments of challenge and controversy."

King lays down the creed of a people who are followers of a god who forgave his own tormentors and murderers because he loved them, and they new not what they were doing. Dr. King professes that this is a lesson that loving our enemies is the only way to solve the problems of the world (not just American segregation). Refuting Nietzsche, King observes that, "Jesus is not an impractical idealist; he is the practical realist." Vengeance, God demands, belongs to him alone, yet he delivers mercy and forgiveness and love instead. Dr. King was trying to lead a movement that was motivated by the same principles.

He knew that secret that is so hard for all of us to remember even today, that ignorance does not make our enemies evil, it makes them pitiable. Those who are blind to their actions, who 'know not what they do,' deserve our patience and our love rather than our scorn and our hate. King's was the first revolutionary social movement that fought against the boots at their throats while still remembering to stop to consider how the people wearing those boots were doing. Of course freedom for his oppressed people was the primary motivator for Dr. King, but, somehow, he was also motivated by his passion to save the souls of his oppressors too. In one of his most profound moments, King preaches that, "Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship... The degree to which we are able to forgive determines the degree to which we are able to love our enemies."

Dr. King uses colonialism as well as segregation as a symbol for modern day evil. As colonies across the globe throughout the 1960's asserted their independence from war weary empires, King reminded his congregation that oppression, either from a foreign occupying power or from a powerful and ensconced racial majority, can be overcome. Indeed, he says that the Bible promises that it will be overcome and God will come to the aide of those who help defeat injustice. King preaches passionately that good will overcome evil in the end, that the struggle is not in vain. The Bible uses the symbol of a serpent to remind us that humanity has never been free from evil, and the Egyptians who enslaved the Israelites serve as a reminder that God will overcome evil no matter how long is might take. "In the long run," King preaches, "Right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant."

This philosophy reflects Dr. King's confident optimism, rooted in the knowledge that evil is always self-defeating. This is not the naive belief of a man who ignores the teachings of history or the experience of generations of oppressed and abused souls. It is the wisdom of a man who knows that every step towards freedom and every victory on the road to righting the world will be met with renewed obstacles and fresh battlegrounds. But the moral arc of history bends towards justice and hope is never ultimately in vain. King warns his congregation to not fall into the traps of cynicism, bitterness, or fatalism, not to give in to the claim that everything is preordained. He answers those ideas with the assertion that freedom is an essential part of humanity claiming that, "Freedom is always within the framework of destiny."

Recognizing that humans must have freedom of action as a part of their identity, King reminds us that God is still in control of the end of the story. "Man is free to go north from Atlanta to Washington or south from Atlanta to go to Miami, but not north to Miami or south to Washington." He repeats again and again that we believers should accept even the most bitter of tragedies secure in the knowledge that these are merely "Finite disappointments even as we adhere to infinite hope." We may not live to see the world made right in our time, but we Christians are believers that good will emerge victorious in the end.

Dr. King quotes from great philosophers and ancient poets, confident enough to assert the simple truth found in some timeworn adage yet bold enough to argue the folly of some revered philosophical assertions, taking on Hegel and Kant and Nietzsche. Expounding on his ideas that humanity must work towards a better world while also recognizing that the fight would require sacrifices and great suffering he notes that, "The Renaissance was too optimistic, and the Reformation too pessimistic. The former so concentrated on the goodness of man that it overlooked his capacity for evil; the latter so concentrated on the wickedness of man that it overlooked his capacity for goodness." But humanity cannot wait, passive and comfortable, for a just God to fix the world without any effort on our part. "We must learn," King implores, "That to expect God to do everything while we do nothing is not faith but superstition."

In his most surprisingly ambitious sermon, Dr. King wrote as the apostle Paul, imagining what the zealous leader of the First Century church would have had to say to American Christians in the middle part of the 20th Century. King, as Paul, reminds the citizens of a nation that calls itself Christian to be, "Sure that the means you employ are as pure as the end you seek. Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter... Let no man pull you so low that you hate him. Always avoid violence. If you sow the seeds of violence in your struggle, unborn generations will reap the whirlwind of social disintegration."

In a dark and hyper violent time, Dr. King preached a message of hope and faith in a better future, a belief that we can become better today than we were yesterday. He believed that people must work hard to achieve a world that God desired here on Earth. His deep faith in a just and loving god married with his philosophical faith in the innate goodness of humanity and inspired a generation to rise above the collective sins of their ancestors, to sever the long chains of injustice to become better people. He inspired a people to find the strength to love.

On to the next book!

P.S. You were surprised to find included in this collection a sermon on the evils of Communism calling it the only serious rival to Christianity. King honestly recognizes the weakness inherent in unrestricted Capitalism. He claims that the selfishness and materialism intrinsic in our own system, "Inspires men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life." Dr. King was targeted and surveiled by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI because of the suspicions he leaned a little too far to the left. For a pinko commie, the good Dr. King sure delivers a rousing condemnation of Soviet style Communism, deftly dismantling the pillars of the political belief system even as he admits the failures of the Christian church in fighting for social, economic, and racial justice. Those failures may have laid the groundwork for the rise of an atheistic solution to some of the greater injustices in the world. In a moment of tortured self-incrimination, he asks, "Is Communism alive in the world today because we have not been Christian enough?" But, unsurprisingly, King insists that war is not the answer to defeating the threat of godless Communism, especially since that war might very well mean the end of the world he was trying so hard to make a better place. Christians must assert the power and the rightness of their own philosophy as a viable and hopeful alternative to the Soviets. And then, King says, we must seek, "To remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, injustice, and racial discrimination that are the fertile soil in which the seeds of Communism grows and develops. Communism thrives only when the doors of opportunity are closed and human aspirations are stifled." No offense, Hoover, but that man sounds like a lousy Communist.