History

The Demise of American Exceptionalism?

“American Exceptionalism” is a term that has resurfaced in recent times. This phrase has echoes in the American Revolution, Alex de Tocqueville and Abraham Lincoln. It reflects the unique origins and principles upon which the United States was established and its role in the world.

am-flagIf ever that phrase was under challenge it is now. When a nation of over 300 million people has placed before it two very unexceptional people as a choice for president any claim to exceptionalism comes under intense scrutiny. It could be argued that the two candidates, in fact, represent two aspects of American society that reveal the baser instincts of humanity – the power hungry political machine and the excesses of capitalism.

No matter who wins on Tuesday, the USA is going to struggle to assemble some social and political equilibrium in the future. This comes on top of its unwillingness as a society to deal with issues of guns, race and social inequality.

To prove to itself and the world that the title of being exceptional is justified, the nation needs to show that it has the willingness and moral fortitude to confront these issues. The next few decades will reveal which aspect of the American character will come to the fore.

 

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As Time Goes By

A few weeks ago while teaching a year 10 class it suddenly hit me that it was exactly 50 years earlier that I had been in Year 10. I expressed this to the students and they responded by saying that it was amazing that someone could be so old and still talk and stand at the same time.

We discussed the changes that occurred over this period. Then the unemployment rate was well under 2%. A student could leave in year 11 and do a two year primary teaching certificate and be back in the classroom before turning 20. Lots of students left by year 9 and 10 and went straight into jobs and apprenticeships. At Queenscliff High all my fellow students would remember Robbo who was the first to escape and became a postman. Even in the early 1970s I could still walk into the Ford factory and find myself on the afternoon shift the next day earning some money so I could afford to get married the following year.

At my school girls still did the “girls’ subjects (Home Economics, Commerce and Shorthand and Typing) and boys did the “boys’” subjects (Mechanical Drawing, Woodwork and the sciences).  Some schools were beginning to experiment by allowing a more democratic choice of subjects.

There was the cold war, nuclear fears and the growing rumbles of the Vietnam war. Colonialism was coming to an end and we had just introduced decimal currency.

The divorce rate was still low and de facto relationships hardly heard of.  Although later I found out that many of these families suffered at the hands abusive husbands and fathers.

Technology has of course been the one of the most massive changes. In 1966 the teacher would hand out sheets which had been duplicated on a spirit duplicator. Every student would sniff their sheet of paper for its faint smell of the spirit/alcohol.

For those of you who are a certain age, what changes have you noticed?

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Hope In The Valley of Madness

If you have any grasp of history one cannot but be sobered by driving through the Somme Valley. The list of military cemeteries, some large, some small, is horrific. Each grave in each cemetery is a testament to lost dreams, lost potential and human foolishness.
In one small town, Villers-Bretonneux, there is an example of hope persevering over madness. When soldiers returned after the Great War they instigated an appeal from the children in Victorian schools to rebuild the school in Villers-Bretonneux. It took a while but a school was finally built in 1927. Their contribution is not forgotten. A big sign in the school states “Do not forget Australia”. The town has many references to Victoria and Australia: The “La Melbourne Cafe”, the twinning of towns with Robinvale are just two. Even Melbourne and Victoria are both street names. The local WW1 museum has large photos of Victorian icons.
In this valley of madness there is a small declaration of the better aspects of humanity. It was good to see the children playing in the school yard. Let us pray that there is no Somme Valley for them.

  

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Another World

Like my own dad, my wife’s step father was also indentured to work in Germany during WW2.  I have reflected in the past on the tragedy of these young men having crucial years stolen from them. (Being Content in a WW2 Workgang)  Today I simply want to include a few photos that give us a glimpse of that time: the good, the bad and the ugly – and the downright strange.

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The striking thing about this photo is both the fact that the young men organised themselves into musical groups but also took pride in their appearance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This this one of the more bizarre photos. Dutch cowboys in a Nazi hall during an entertainment evening.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This was a time of war. The workers’ barracks were bombed by the allies. The Allies may have heard of the appalling costumes in the earlier photo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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So naturally the workers had to rebuild their own accommodation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My wife’s stepfather worked in a railway workshop. I am intrigued by the presence of a lady in the middle of this photo.

 

 

 

 

 

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MDCCLXXVIII

I am a sucker for old books. No, not the dog-eared silver fish nibbled paperback that you had to read for High School English but old books – books that have an odour acquired over the years, solid covers – often leather-bound and a history that can be traced well over 100 years. My oldest treasure is a Jonathan Edwards book printed in 1778 or MDCCLXXVIII as it is written on the Title Page.

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Finding a home for EB9

Some people rescue stray animals, my weakness is stray books. Recently I acquired a 9-10th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica plus Wilson’s Tales of the Borders and Scotland Illustrated.  All up, it means I have to find over 3 metres of heavy duty book shelf space on my over-full book shelves or a family member with the same sensitvity and compassion.  The added problem is that I already have a 9th edition of the Britannica.

You may consider me greedy or just plain loopy but the problem is that these books have a lineage and pedigree that needs to be preserved.

The 9th edition of the EB comes from a time when scholarship was taken seriously. It wasn’t the democratic hodge-podge of Wikipedia but a collection of the most renowned thinking of the era. Mind you, as with all learning it has to be read with discretion. Julius Welhausen may have been a great classical scholar but I still don’t have to agree with his article on Israel.  It reflects a time when science and engineering inspired enthusiasm and excitement. The car, planes and the space race were still to come but the possibility was in the wind.

When a book was printed it was an event – it made a statement. In the C16th a person could be put to death for having a copy of Tyndale’s New Testament in their possession. Now we can buy books by the kilo and recycle them as soon as we are done with them. Some of us have transitioned away from books altogether and swan about imperiously with our loaded Kindles.

I was once asked what heaven would be like. I answered, “The biggest and most comprehensive library ever!” The closest I got to heaven on earth was my visit to the British Library in London a few years ago.  Its collection of old treasures is amazing. A few years ago it purchased St Cuthbert’s Gospel which came from the C7th. Now, that is old!

Wait, a phone call has come in.  A stray volume has been discovered wandering and alone. I must go and rescue it.

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European Castles – A Selection

Some readers have wanted me to continue with my castle fascination. Below are a few photos I have taken in different parts of Europe. To us they may be quaint and beautiful in their own way but most have a history of bloodshed and intrigue.

Gavno Slot near Naestved, Denmark

Gavno Slot near Naestved, Denmark – started off as a pirate hideout.

Fredericksten, Halden Norway
Fredericksten, Halden Norway – a reminder that Scandinavia was not always a place of liberalism and confraternity.

Het Steen Antwerp
Het Steen Antwerp

Carcassonne, France
Carcassonne, France – the site started life as a Roman fortress and later became a Cathar stronghold

Alcazar Toledo

Alcazar Toledo – Toledo was once a centre of Christian, Muslim and Jewish learning and cooperation

Castle at Peniscola Spain

Castle at Peniscola Spain – used in the film El Cid, if you are old enough to remember!

Alhambra Granada

Alhambra Granada – a Moorish stronghold

Real Alcazar Seville

Real Alcazar Seville – a Spanish castle with a Moorish flavour

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Favourite Castle Photos – Wales

Wales has amazing castles. Here are some found in the north west. Most of these represent Edward 1st’s attempt to subdue the unruly citizens of Wales in the C13th. The one exception is Dolwyddelan which started life as a Welsh castle guarding a route in central north Wales but also ended up in the hands of the cunning Edward.

Caernarfon Castle

Caernarfon Castle

Inside Caernarfon Castle

Inside Caernarfon Castle

Conwy Castle

Conwy Castle

The Rounded Walls of Conwy Castle

The Rounded Walls of Conwy Castle

Dolwyddelan Castle

Dolwyddelan Castle

Criccieth Castle

Criccieth Castle

Beaumaris castle

Beaumaris castle

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Unusual Grace – A Dead Man’s Boots

My dad and fellow workers in WW2

My dad and fellow workers in WW2. Dad is top left.

I have reflected previously on some of my father’s experiences as a conscripted worker in Germany during WW2. (See here) Dutch workers had more freedom than others as the German authorities simply said, “If you abscond we will pick up your father to take your place.”

My father worked north of Berlin in a place called Hennigsdorf on the Havel river. In 1945 he and his fellow workers were liberated by the advancing Soviet armies. The workers found themselves in the midst of extremely harrowing battles as the German army made its last ditch stand.

One of the few detailed stories my dad told me about this part of his life centred on this liberation. By 1945 his clothes, and in particular shoes, were in a state of extreme deterioration. One of the liberating soldiers motioned (language being a useless option!) to my father that he should find a German soldier’s corpse with the right boot size and “liberate” them for his own use. I gather there were quite a few and they all wore high quality boots. But even after years of war my dad was still squeamish about such matters. The Russian soldier, seeing my dad’s reluctance, took off his own boots gave them to my dad and then went in search for an appropriately sized and equipped corpse.

Yes, it is a strange story, yet I have always seen it as an act of unusual, but real, grace. This was one of only a very few experiences that my father ever shared with me about that time of his life. The grace shown in the midst of horror was a memory he could share.

Categories: Family, History, my dad, Reflections, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Geddington, Grief and the Eleanor Cross

The Eleanor Cross, Geddington on a gloomy day

The Eleanor Cross, Geddington on a gloomy day

In the delightful little village of Geddington in Northamptonshire there is a fine example of an Eleanor Cross. Edward 1st was so grief stricken by the death of his wife, Eleanor of Castile in 1290, that he erected fine stone crosses from Lincoln to London to mark where the body had rested on its journey. They  are an amazing record of devotion. Today three of the 12 crosses survive and the Geddington cross is considered to be the best of these.

Edward had the power and wealth to manifest his grief in this physical manner. For the commoner on the other hand the memories and grief are usually less tangible. We may erect a headstone or another small plaque but our expression is limited.

What is the best memorial to erect? I believe the best memorial is the legacy that we leave to others and to a large degree that is in our own hands. And of all the legacies to leave, rather than wealth, fame, land and possessions, we cannot do better than pass on  the power of faith in Jesus Christ. I know that each person must make their own decision with regard to faith. However our lives can declare its reality and appeal. We can make it attractive. I have written on previous occasions of my dad whose faith struggles manifested, for me as a child, the reality of the relationship one can have with God. To this day the memory and image of my dad living his life before God is extremely powerful for me, even though he has been dead for nearly 19 years.

So when people grieve at our passing what will they remember, cold stone crosses or a life well lived that pointed beyond itself to greater and eternal realities?

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Memories of Church No.4 – Conflict and Conclusions

The last part – for the time being.

As I grew up, particularly in my teen years, I began to realise that Christians weren’t perfect and conflict was an inevitable part of church life. It became obvious that the words and actions of adults didn’t always match, and that motives were not always pure. One became aware of the cliques and groups – people with different attitudes, agendas or values.

In the early 1960s our church had a very conservative, very Dutch minister. In order to attend communion, which was held every three months, you needed to attend church twice a Sunday. My dad, also Dutch and stubborn, had refused to travel to Geelong twice a Sunday after his little church in Ocean Grove had been closed. “If they close my church, I am only going once!” So the scene was set for conflict. Every three months before communion my family would receive “huisbezoek” – a home visit by the elders and minister. I was allowed to attend the formalities: coffee, Bible reading and prayer. Then I was sent to my room. However I could still hear the “conversation” between my father and the minister clearly through the walls. Dad didn’t give in and neither did Dominee K.

As I stated earlier, Dominee K returned to Holland and we had a new minister who simply asked my dad, “Do you love the Lord?” To which my father replied, “Of course!” and so he was allowed to return to the communion table. And my father started going to church, twice on a Sunday!

The arrival of the Pentecostal movement had far more profound effects. The church became divided, some families split and there were married couples who lived in tension for decades to come, with the death of a partner greeted with relief rather than sorrow as it ended an unhealed past. The power of deeply held beliefs to unify is profound, but its power to divide is monumentally tragic.

Looking back, I can now see the attraction of the charismatic outbreak. There was a joy in God and worship, a recognition of the power of the Spirit and an overall enthusiasm for faith and outreach. At the time there were also excesses and extremism. But that was true of both sides. Both groups saw right on their side. I don’t want to enter into the theology of this division at this point but rather consider the attitudes that people held that didn’t reflect Christ. As a young person at the time I was bewildered. How could beliefs, people and values shift so quickly? On the other hand I was in a privileged position as the two key leaders on both sides of the debate had a profound impact on my life. They were both men who loved the Lord deeply. Their followers were not always that wise. Blacks were made blacker and whites whiter. I have come to reflect that we often justify our attitudes by hardening our positions. There are times when we may need to separate or part ways due to deep disagreements but this can still be done with grace and Christ-likeness. This is particularly true when the heart of the gospel is not compromised.

Over 45 years later, I now work in a school where fellow Christians from a wide variety of evangelical backgrounds respect each other’s differences and work together for the common good of Christ’s Kingdom and Christian education. These changes didn’t happen overnight. It took many, many years. I rejoice often that I have lived to see a day when the values of two men I respected dearly have come to coexist and empower the place where I work. More importantly, I believe because of this healthy co-operation, we can see Christ and His kingdom more clearly.

Hah! But that callow youth back in the late 1960s did not have clue of what God had in mind.

Categories: christian, Christianity, Church, Faith, Family, History, my dad | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

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