Book Review: Witness, by Whittaker Chambers

I am writing while standing on my back deck in the middle of an electrical storm.

 

I’m cozy and dry under this roof and I hear the rain tattering on the slates above and the lawn below.  It’s not a violent storm, at least not right here, right now.  There is an occasional flash of distant lightning and then the accordant, low roll of thunder, coming near and then trailing off to the west.

I absolutely love these warm, summer rains.  This one is gentle enough for me to take in this way, only a few feet away from the rainfall itself, and I feel in the moment like I am somewhere far away in the mists of highland Scotland or on some outpost in the Brazilian rain-forest.  When the storm escalates and I see the leaves nodding and the grass soaking and the dimpling sheets of clear water rinsing street and walk and the stream out back rising in its flow I am reminded again that rain is a sign of God’s blessing.  I guess what most of us remember about rain in the Bible is the Great Flood, brought on, so the scripture tells, by forty days and nights of rain.

But there are other references.  Here is one of God’s promises to Israel, if they will keep His commandments:

[I] will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil . . .

The rain, when it falls in buckets as it is doing now, reminds me of God’s abundance, His power and His ability and desire to bless us, over and above even our own imaginings.    There is one place in scripture where God tells the priests to “bring the tithe into the storehouse” and, in response, He will “open the very sluices of heaven and pour down on us a blessing so great” that (this last bit is from a Scottish paraphrase) “we can scarce receive it.”

It’s a great time to write.

Which, if you are a follower of this blog, you know I have not been doing very faithfully these last few days.  Sorry about that.  I really do appreciate my followers and make it something of a point to try to deliver something pretty regularly to keep up the interest in this blog.  Kind of lax there, lately.  But I do have an excuse:  I’ve been reading.  Filling the mind and soul with the thoughts and emotions of one great man.  Any writer must do this often.

If you’ve kept up here, you know that I’ve been on something of a Bob Dylan kick lately.  I am a lifelong fan of his and very much interested in his spiritual life and in the way he creates.  The two books I have just finished – Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life and Chronicles, Volume I – address both of those subjects in satisfying depth.

I won’t say much else about those two books in this post.  I’ve reviewed them pretty fully in my last few posts here.  I do recommend that you read them – particularly if you have any interest in Dylan’s life or work.

But today I want to talk about another book that is of another order entirely.  I recommend the Dylan books, but I beg you to read this one.  It is by any measure a masterpiece and there is a good argument to be made that it is the seminal book of the American twentieth century.

The book I’m reading is titled Witness, and it is written by a man named Whittaker Chambers.

Product Details

 

I had heard of the book years ago through the writers of some political and social commentators I used to read.  Their praise of the book was effusive.  These men, all of whom had made names for themselves as writers, all pointed to this book as “life changing.”  And now, only about a quarter of the way through the book, I know why this is no exaggeration.

**************************************************

 

Whittaker Chambers was, during the 1930s, a Communist.

Image result for whittaker chambers

 

 

He was active for years in an underground operation in Washington, D. C., working with several American citizens who held high positions in the Federal Government to steal and copy official documents and provide them to the Soviet Union in preparation for the war that, so they believed, would inevitably come.

In 1938, in response to what he learned of the so-called “Great Purge,”  Chambers lost faith in Communism and saw it as the great, enslaving, murderous evil that it is.   At that moment he decided to desert the party, even though he knew that such desertions usually ended in the deserter being killed.  He also then believed that the Communists would be successful in undermining the west and achieving world domination.  Upon his decision to desert, he told his wife: “You know, we’re going from the winning to the losing side here.”

His desertion was also a conversion to faith in God.  That is no mere coincidence, as he describes it, for he says that Communism is itself a faith.   It is a faith that says first of all that the world must be changed and, second, that humanity can accomplish that change without the aid of God, without reference to God.  Thus, any sort of tactic can be justified in pursuit of the ultimate goal of perfect justice.  One such tactic was Stalin’s Great Purge that resulted in the murder of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Russians and eastern Europeans, many of whom were themselves active Communists but had been determined to not be loyal enough to Comrade Stalin.

One of the many strengths of this book is its description and definition of Communism.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union over twenty-five years ago, the idea of Communism has become kind of a Seinfeld joke.  But it was no joke in the early and mid-20th century.  This book, written by a man who had seen the movement from both the inside and out, explains the phenomenon clearly.  He tells of its psychology and its attraction.

And its attraction, even here in the United States, was much greater and pervasive than I had ever imagined.  I thought of American Communists as a few, crazed radicals who, even taken all together, never posed much of a threat to our freedoms, our constitutional system of government, our individual rights.  I don’t believe that now.

Chambers, as an operative for the Soviet Union, worked hand in hand with Americans from well-to-do families who had been to our best colleges and who held lucrative and powerful positions in government for the express purpose of undermining that government and subordinating our democratic institutions to the control of party bosses.  This was business as usual, for years on end.

It is a scarier story than I knew; a closer call than I ever believed.  It is worthwhile to consider this structure, at one time gigantic, that had for its floor human arrogance and for its ceiling an accordant naivete.

 

I’ll have more to say as I make my way through the book.

Book Review: Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life (Part Five)

Come mothers and fathers

Throughout the land

And don’t criticize

What you can’t understand

 

Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are a’Changing”

The book is very right to address the question “Is Bob Dylan a Christian or a Jew?”  since that is how so many people see the issue.

 

But, as the book explains, it is the wrong question or at least not the real or final question.  Of course, Bob Dylan is a Jew.  He is a Jew in the same way that Lebron James is African-American.  By birth and also by what we in Appalachia call “his raisin.’”   So was the Apostle Paul.  So were all of the twelve Apostles, and so was Jesus.  So what?

When confronted with what the questioner apparently saw as a contradiction between his mid-60s visit to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and his later gospel songs, Dylan answered rightly, and in accordance with the scriptures.  His answer was, more or less:  I don’t see any contradiction.  To me it’s all one thing.

Dylan continues to acknowledge his heritage and to love and be a part of his community – a community that has suffered unimaginable horrors throughout history and particularly in this modern age.  He is right to do that.  He’d be wrong not to.

The real question is whether Dylan stands by his confession of Jesus; his conviction that Jesus of Nazareth is who He claimed to be – the long-promised Messiah of Israel, to whom all of the Old Testament law and all of the Old Testament prophets pointed.

 

Scott Marshall’s book, as it considers this question, inevitably tells us much about Dylan’s character and personality.  One of the most telling sentences for me was this one, a quote from John Dolen, who interviewed Dylan in 1995:

Dylan is not an intellectual.  He is wise, but he is more folksy than cerebral . . . I was struck by this and realized I had put my own trappings on what he is, just as others have throughout the years.

Dylan is not C. S. Lewis.  He is not a systematic theologian.  He is a poet and a musician and his life is one of emotion, synthesis and experience.  Indeed, as he describes his encounter with Jesus, it is a tactile, almost physical experience.  We should not expect Bob Dylan to write apologetic tracts.  We should not expect that when he is interviewed about his faith he should respond with a recitation of the Westminster Larger Catechism.  That’s not who Dylan is.  It’s not how he experiences the world; it’s not how he articulates.  Indeed, if we got an answer like that from him, we’d be sure he was faking it.

Scott Marshall makes the case that with Dylan the ultimate expression of his soul is in his songs.   For him, songwriting was not a nine-to-five job; a way to make a living.  He did not set out to find and exploit a market.  He set out to tell the truth; to bare his soul.  Even if that took him away from the market.

Indeed, this book makes the case that Dylan finds his own philosophy, a statement of his own faith, in the songs of others.  He points to songs Dylan covered in the years following the “gospel” tours.  The songs are old, traditional, American, country gospel:  Ralph Stanley’s “I Am The Man, Thomas,” and the gospel standard “Stand By Me.”

 

If we are to believe that Dylan’s true convictions are articulated in his songs and if we believe that he has never, ever retracted or disavowed any of his expressly Christian songs from the 1979-81 period, then what can be said about the change in Dylan’s setlists?  That is, if he is still convinced of the deity of Christ, and still convinced of the reality of his experience with Jesus, why isn’t he singing about that anymore?

Marshall offers several ideas on the point.  There are good arguments that several of Dylan’s songs written long after the “gospel period” carry references to his Christian experience and confession.  In “Thunder On The Mountain,” released in 2006, Dylan sings this verse:

Everybody’s going and I want to go too
Don’t wanna take a chance with somebody new
I did all I could and I did it right there and then
I’ve already confessed – no need to confess again

Dylan is a man who says it once and moves on.  Doesn’t mean he forgot what he said or that he no longer means that.  He just goes on to the next chapter.

 

Because this book deals with such a controversial matter; because so much seems at stake for several diverse crowds; and because the book comes to at least a soft conclusion about Dylan’s continuing faith in Christ; it will be a lightning rod for criticism.  This world is full of experts about Mr. Dylan and full of folks who will challenge every statement of fact, every conclusion and every inference that Marshall makes here.  The train of criticism is sure to come and it may not be a slow train.

But the book is a wonderful piece of work.  I could hardly put it down.  The research is exhaustive and the conclusions are never overstated.  It deals with an amazing subject; this Nobel-Prize and Medal of Freedom winning American poet.  Want to know why everyone is out to claim him for their own?  Listen to what Marshall quotes from Andrew Motion, poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, in 1999:

The concentration and surprise of his lyrics, the beauty of his melodies and the rasp of his anger; the dramatic sympathy between the words and the music; the range of devotions; the power of self-renewal; his wit; his surrealism; the truth to his experience.

Oh, yeah.  Oh, yeah.  And Amen.

Bottom line?  Here is the conviction the book leaves me with:  Dylan’s conversion was no stunt.  It was not a result of confusion or delusion.  He met the living Christ and the songs thereby inspired are gold, not fool’s gold.  They are every bit as authentic as any of the rest of Dylan’s work and they continue to stand.  They may be cherished.