Expect Great Things - A Review

Expect Great Things is a spiritual biography of Henry David Thoreau. It provides an in-depth exploration of the nuances of this celebrated individualistic naturalist. Kevin Dann does the dirty work of digging through Thoreau’s various writings, including his copious personal diaries and correspondence, and correlating those informal writings with his published works.

If Dann’s biography of Thoreau is taken seriously, the work that some have done to include Thoreau on the list of vaguely Christian environmentalists should be viewed skeptically. The image Dann presents is of a man who held both strong skepticism of Christian truth with credulous belief in some of the spiritualistic superstitions common in early America. Thoreau certain used language that resonated with Christianity in some of his writings, but his own beliefs were far afield from orthodoxy by any reasonable reading. Dann argues that Thoreau was fascinated with Christ but rejected Christianity. However, to love the man and hate his bride does not show much affection for the loved object.

In addition to presenting the meandering spirituality of Thoreau over the course of his life, Expect Great Things provides a window into the complex and often bizarre spiritual beliefs that were common in ante-bellum America. Dann surveys the rise in popularity of the Freemasons, with their uniquely American adaptations. He spends several pages covering the evolution of the Mormon cult, the various prophetic cults that arose in the early 19th century, and the perversions of Christianity that arose from the Millerites and other pseudo-Christian digressions.

Some of this supernaturalism apparently came from incomplete understanding of natural science. Just as pseudo-Christianity was common, so was pseudo-science. Meteor showers were described in periodicals as divine signs. Accounts of sea serpents were accepted as factual and often embellished. Final conclusions were published about natural phenomena based on partial observations. This led to supernatural explanations for natural events and misinformation about much that would be later clarified. According to Dann, Thoreau’s practice of careful observation was an improvement over many other naturalists of the day.

The structure of this book is weak. The story of Thoreau’s life meanders through chronologically. There are chapter breaks, but there is often little clear reason for the distinction in chapters. The volume has no introduction and thus the reader is left to try to figure out what Dann’s purpose is in writing the book; there is no clear thesis. The aimless wandering of the book may provide a suitable simile for the life of Henry David Thoreau, but that sort of literary experiment is more effective in essays than in book length biographies.

The concluding paragraphs transition with little warning from anecdotes of Thoreau to the moral that Dann appears to want to draw. Based on those few paragraphs, it appears that Thoreau’s life is supposed to reflect the good of radical individualism codified into law based on universally accepted facts that are epistemologically impossible. In short, this account (and perhaps the actual life of Thoreau) represents the impossible tension between the desire to express and the prohibition of contrary expression that we see in modern culture. As such, Dann may have uncovered the patron saint for some in our confused time, but what he highlights in the life of Thoreau provides little worth emulating for those committed to the possibility and importance of pursuing truth.

Despite its weaknesses in form, Expect Great Things has a place within contemporary discourse on Thoreau. Dann sets Thoreau in historical context quite well. He pushes against the idea of a Christian Thoreau and presents more thoroughly the Thoreau that many have seen in the pages of the man's work. Dann adds to the field of study by presenting a nuanced, robust, and realistic portrait of Thoreau's spiritualism. This is also an interesting look into the spiritual climate of the early nineteenth century. For individuals interested in a casual, entertaining read about Henry David Thoreau, this book may be a real treat. 

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

A New Biography of Eric Liddell - For the Glory

I read biographies because it puts me in contact with better men and women, most of whom have died and whose lives can be measured with more accuracy and finality than the living. This is a sanctifying process, since it humbles me to recognize my own weakness in comparison to the greatness of others.

When it comes to the recent biography of Eric Liddell, For the Glory, I have found a man whose sandals I am unworthy to untie.

Liddell has been immortalized in contemporary culture with the Oscar winning movie Chariots of Fire. That film tells the tale to Liddell’s relatively short running career which cultivated in his surprising world record and gold medal finish in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. Previously, when I thought of Liddell, I always heard the synthesizer playing the familiar theme and thought of giving up a chance at more gold medals to honor sabbatarian traditions. The movie ends with a brief, abrupt epilogue that indicates that the hero died in an internment camp in China during WWII.

Another picture emerges in other biographies I’ve encountered. The YWAM biography and other simplified biographies written by Christians paint a portrait of a saint, telling a powerful story for an audience looking for a Christian hero. Danny Akin has preached a sermon using the life of Eric Liddell as an extended illustration.

I expected these sorts of biographies to paint Liddell in a positive light as the protagonist in a compelling sports movie and as a great missionary who died for the cause.

When I picked up Duncan Hamilton’s recent biography, I was expecting a much less flattering picture. A missionary biography written by an apparent non-believer with no clear Christian sympathies printed by a secular publisher is bound to find all the dirt and put it out so everyone can see it. I expected to find private details with hints of suspicious activities at every turn. That, however, is not the case.

The portrait of Liddell that emerges from this volume is of a man whose serious, meticulous devotion to God was rewarded by such a degree of sanctification that he was able to risk his life for Christ without thinking twice. In fact, the man once pushed two wounded men in a wheelbarrow through the countryside filled with Japanese aggressors because they would have otherwise died. He faced harassment, theft, confiscation of his property, and separation from his wife with a good attitude for the sake of the cross. The picture Hamilton paints is one of a saint who did great things for the Lord with a gracious attitude and without neglecting the other good things in his life as a consequence.

The book is divided into three parts. Part One focuses on Liddell’s childhood through his Olympic victories. These chapters line up well with other biographies I’ve read and generally support the well-known story that has been seen on screen as Chariots of Fire. Part Two explores Liddell’s work as a missionary in China, including his courtship of his wife, his continued athletic efforts, and his focus on doing the work God called him to. An interesting wrinkle to the legend of Liddell is that he didn’t absolutely reject the possibility of running in another Olympics. His faith was not a call to asceticism. Rather, it was the British Olympic Committee that failed to engage a man who might have won the U.K. another gold. This section was largely new ground for me and very engaging. Part Three expands on Liddell’s life in the Japanese internment camp, about which much less has been known than about other parts of Liddell’s story. Hamilton conducted a host of interviews of other internees to expand the available information about a great hero of the faith.

What Hamilton has done here deserves notice. He took a Christian hero whose story has been told before and he made it better. Hamilton added to the field of missiology by writing a careful history of someone who has been celebrated widely. He did this without slipping into dismissiveness of Liddell’s convictions or snarky digressions about the foolishness of his faith. Hamilton should be praised for adding a critical work on Liddell that doesn’t fall into the too common trap of attacking the biography’s subject in order to add interest. There are no “daddy complex” narratives or secret abuse allegations. What the reader gets is honest history told exceptionally well.

Even if missionary biographies don’t keenly interest you, this book is worth your time. Hamilton writes so very well. His retelling of Liddell’s life story is detailed but lively, carefully crafted but not pedantic, honest but complimentary. In short, this is a great book that deserves to be read and widely.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.