“Sudsy” was his nick name, used only by the students and only behind his back! He was an average looking guy except he always was a bit disheveled. His nickname came from gossip, though quite broadly substantiated, that he drank a bit to much beer, or “suds” as it was called back in the day (mid sixties in the Midwest US). By the time I took his history class my perspective of him was already set. I planned on not taking him seriously and knew that my time in his classroom was going to be a tough journey. It was. To the best of my recollection, I managed to pass his course with an average score. Even giving him the benefit of the doubt, he was extremely boring. My view of studying history was tarnished as well. By the time I got to college I dreaded to take the required history courses.
I finished all of my liberal arts courses except for history at a liberal arts college and then transferred to a bible college. The only courses I needed for my bachelor’s degree were the required bible and theology courses and I had to fulfill the history requirement, crap! On top of my dreaded perspective of studying history, the professor of history at the bible college was a Princeton graduate and a Rhoades Scholar! Double and triple crap! I actually waited until my senior year before taking the one history course I needed: ancient history.
Just before the beginning of classes I asked around about the history professor. Everyone liked him, saying he was tough but interesting. I found it hard to believe and decided to make my own assessment after the first day of class. Dr. Patterson turned me around! He was tough but he was interesting! He was more of an artist than a scientist, painting word pictures of the past that seemed to become alive as he took his linguistic brush and painted the details of the story ancient civilization. That semester was my final semester, no more opportunity to take other courses he taught, crap!
Reading this week’s book, A Brief Guide to Ideas, brought my history class experience to mind because it is a seminal type of book. It reviews the big ideas of life by giving a snapshot of how they began. For example, the traces the background of philosophy, existentialism, politics, Christology, relativism and new age thinking to those who championed the subjects or originated serious and foundational thinking in those disciplines. Their writing is not as “artistic” as Dr. Patterson’s lectures were, but they are easy to read and the book is structured thematically with concise and brief chapters.
A few of the chapters caught my attention. The section on how societies should be organized (politics) was interesting. I have always been the champion of capitalism until very recently. I still like the idea of being responsible and accountable for oneself but the brutal realities of a “de-Christianized” capitalism are difficult to swallow. Those who are challenged beyond their control; those who truly need the grace of others face the rigors of a capitalistic society as if it were a wall of barbed wire. I was particularly interested to read the author’s recap of Karl Marx and their take on his “insights into the ‘consumer society’, showing how capitalism often controls us when we should be controlling it.” I do not like where Marx is going, but I do think he rightly identifies the negative and controlling aspects of consumerism in a capitalistic society.
Another section that was interesting to me was the section on relativism versus certainty and particularly the chapter on fundamentalism. I was saved in a Baptist church in the mid seventies and that church and denomination were inclined to represent a “fundamentalist” attitude. The writers describe that attitude as “the hurry to re-establish order out of the postmodern chaos” where “One particular and specific fragment within a tradition is made the primary focus … then expanded into al all encompassing ideology and world-view through which life may be ordered afresh.”
My concern is that fundamentalism is being refreshed inadvertently in order to sell the news and many are being ill motivated. I have a good friend who is a medical doctor. He is a believer and the fundamentalist/nationalist/conservatism of some opinion/journalist media types have caused him to mix up his political and theological ideas so that they have become one. This section was a good review of how fundamentalism as a dynamic can be ill fated.
This book is a handy reference tool to keep on the shelf.