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.

The Adventure of Christianity

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things. – Thoreau, Walden

If Thoreau is right, and some have argued so, then many people walking the earth and living their lives routinely with no hope of change. We dream great dreams and long to do great things, but often allow ourselves to be satisfied with our normal responsibilities.

A Trip to Antarctica

Recently I had reason to reconsider an adventure that I have long dreamed of taking. I’ve always wanted to make it to the South Pole.

Antarctica, by Ronald Woan. Used by CC license. http://ow.ly/YQUSY 

Antarctica, by Ronald Woan. Used by CC license. http://ow.ly/YQUSY 

This weird, masochistic idea was birthed by my reading of Mind over Matter by Ranulph Fiennes when I was in high school.  He and a partner crossed the Antarctic continent in 1992-93 without any outside support. They hauled sledges that started at nearly five-hundred pounds each for more than 1,000 miles.

Unless you are still in high school, you will likely wonder why someone would attempt this, much less why they would actually follow through with it.

In the case of Fiennes and Stroud, the answer is a resounding “Because.”

The reason they wanted to undertake such a grueling and miserable trip was simply because it had never been done before. They did raise quite a bit of money for people suffering from MS, but one does not simply cross Antarctica to raise money. There has to be something else in play to get someone to do that.

But for Fiennes, the answer really seems to be that he wanted to do something no one had ever done before. The book is a detailed account of how that adventure took place.

I had reason to think about this journey again, twenty years after I first read about it because I was looking for something to read. Since I am rather tied up in normal human responsibilities in addition to my dissertation, reading about adventure is about as close as I can get to it.

My body tells me, however, that it is highly unlikely that I will ever attempt anything as grueling as a trip across Antarctica. There are too many grinds, bumps, and creaks in my joints. When I get up and move around they get louder.

Longing for Adventure

Although I may not have an opportunity for such a lavish adventure in this life, I appreciate that some people have. But reading the book, including the account of the absolute misery of the trip, it makes me consider why adventure is so appealing.

Most people that have adventures did not set out to have them. It is one thing to be swept into an adventure and another to seek one. It seems to me that having adventures is good, while seeking adventures is a bit vain. Perhaps I am experiencing early onset curmudgeonity.

Of course, from a Christian perspective, even a life of quiet desperation is one of great joy. It may be that we simply do not require adventurous thrills to feel fulfilled. As Christians, we have the hope of the resurrection and the knowledge of the significance of our actions even in the mundane things of life.

However, setting aside that vision of grandeur for a moment—and it may be helpful to do so, as a thought experiment—we can see that most of us do live in a rather routine sort of way and rarely do we do something truly adventurous. It is good occasionally to consider adventure and what may come of it. According to Bilbo, they tend to make one late for dinner.

Christian Adventure

When I read Christian biographies, as I often do aloud to my children for their benefit and to myself for my own edification, I am often struck by the fact that many Christian heroes got sucked into adventures while simply trying to live for Christ.

Corrie Ten Boom got taken to the Nazi concentration camps because she was faithful in being hospitable to her fellow humans who happened to be Jewish. William Carey started a university, a printing press, and did many other things in India because it was how God allowed him a platform to preach the gospel. Francis Schaeffer lived in the mountains of Switzerland for decades and welcomed hundreds of young people into his home because it was the simple task that God gave him.

Indeed, while Carey may have called for his audience to attempt great things for God and expect great things from God, his adventure was built around living faithfully for the Lord by fulfilling his vocation. In other words, he didn’t seek radical adventure, though he embraced what came his direction.

This sort of faithfulness, I think, is the way we Christians ought to live our lives. We should be joyful in the mundane. Faithful in everything. In the end, who knows what adventures will come our way.