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An odd sensation grips this reader as he negotiates Zakaria’s 2008 cheerfully globalist 51rKArW6ZKL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_work (an updated edition appeared in 2012) in the Era of Trump amid the Rise of the New Nationalisms. As a sympathizer with Zakaria’s internationalism, I acknowledge that the sureties he dispenses are now all contested. Or, perhaps, shouted down. We are the worse for it.

Everybody’s rising. Or almost everybody.

This is the opening shot of Zakaria’s Post-American World, for he argues in his first chapter (‘The Rise of the West’) that modern history has seen three great risings: that of the Western World, that of America, and—under our feet—the rise of the rest. Zakaria’s globalist outlook is evident from the start:

Power is shifting away from nation-states, up, down, and sideways. In such an atmosphere, the traditional applications of national power, both economic and military, have become less effective … At the politico-military level, we remain in a single-super-power world. But in every other dimension—industrial, financial, educational, social, cultural—the distribution of power is shifting, moving way from American dominance. That does not mean were are entering an anti-American world. But we are moving into a post-American world, one defined and directed from many places and by many people.

If this sounds threatening to, say, American readers, well, that’s the problem!, Zakaria might say. We have won the battle of ideas and structures, but we cower like losers.

In the book’s second chapter (‘The Cup Runneth Over’), Zakaria argues—as the title suggests—that things are not as bad as they seem. This may sound a rather trite and even pollyannish claim to make in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. But that is exactly the author’s point: this counter-intuitive affirmation sounds absurd, yet the data back it up. Not only does the global economy power, seemingly immune to the shocks of war and terror, but ‘(i)t feels like a very dangerous world. But it isn’t. Your chances of dying as a consequence of organized violence of any kind are low and getting lower. The data reveal a broad trend away from wars among major countries, the kind of conflict that produces massive casualties.’

Now I write this review in 2017, nearly a decade after the book’s publication. It would be interesting to ask Fakaria whether his view has remained this sunny. Probably, it has. Probably, he would still cite the data against our more common and fearful intuition.

For Zakaria, even the threat of what we are once again calling ‘Islamic radicalism’ is a doomed and ultimately impotent one and that ’in some unspoken way, people have recognized that the best counterterrorism policy is resilience. Terrorism is unusual in that it is a military tactic defined by the response of the onlooker. If we are not terrorized, then it doesn’t work.’ Zakaria appears to suggest that a broader view of what is actually happening would lead precisely to the result that we would not be terrorized by violence that is unlikely to affect us directly.

In fact, ‘the Great Expansion’ has rolled along in a way that trumps what we used to call—at least in 2008 it seemed a matter for the past tense—political risk. ‘The expansion of the pie was so big that it overwhelmed day-to-day dislocations.’

How to explain all these cheerful developments? As a card-carrying globalist, Zakaria cedes pride of place to the free flow of capital. As free-market economists everywhere agree almost to the point of unspoken assumption—though the dynamics that make ‘socialism’ a desideratum and Bernie Sanders a credible presidential candidate may make us find our tongue once again—a million small decisions lead to much more rational asset allocation than any central government can hope to provide. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, this seemed a Big Idea that had done the battle of ideas and hardly needed servicing by lips and pens.

Yet there is a fly in this soup and it’s kicking its legs. American diners peer into their bowls, consternated and a bit wounded. Nationalism is on the rise and Americans are dumbfounded by the perceived challenge to their hegemony. At this point in The Post-American World, Zakaria’s prescription for American health begins to become legible. It looks something like this: Americans need to take comfort from the triumph of Western/liberal ideas and the growth of the global economic pie, even if this means their nation no longer looms disproportionately over the whole mix.

For the United States, the arrow is pointing towards (a lesser dominance over the global scene). Economics is not a zero-sum game—the rise of other players expands the pie, which is good for all—but geopolitics is a struggle for influence and control. As other countries become more active, America’s enormous space for action will eventually diminish. Can the United States accommodate itself to the rise of other powers, of various political stripes, on several continents? This does not mean becoming resigned to chaos or aggression; far from it. But the only way for the United States to deter rogue actions will be to create a broad, durable coalition against them. And that will be possible only if Washington can show that it is willing to allow other countries to become stakeholders in the new order. In today’s international order, progress means compromise. No country will get its way entirely.

Now Zakaria touches upon a point that the 2016 presidential election and the emergence of the Trump presidency has thrown into sharp relief:

Americans rarely benchmark to global standards because they are sure that their way must be the best and most advanced. The result is that they are increasingly suspicious of this emerging global era. There is a growing gap between America’s worldly business elite and cosmopolitan class, on the one hand, and the majority of the American people, on the other. Without real efforts to bridge it, this divide could destroy America’s competitive edge and its political future.

That ‘growing gap’ may abbreviate nicely the recent results in this country’s Electoral College. And it requires a different kind of comment than Zakaria can bring, one that takes into account the emptiness in ten thousand villages, towns, and cities that is left by unrestrained globalism, no matter how many theoretical boats a rising tide lifts.

In an artful display of data-crunching and story-telling, Zakaria’s third chapter (‘A Non-Western World?) traces the nearly half-millennium of Western dominance in a world whose other potential ‘poles’ turned inward while ‘the West’ hungrily processed inputs and ideas from wherever they came. Zakaria show himself not be among the economic determinists, for his argument hinges on the layer upon layer of decisions that either add up to a dynamic culture or to its opposite.

One of the chapter’s subtitles hangs the question ‘Is Culture Destiny?’ over a section that itself begins by querying ‘Why did non-Western countries stand still while the West moved forward?’ The latter question is not well answered by a simple ‘yes’, that is, by the affirmation that culture is destiny. How would that question fare in the face of China’s and India’s recent and relatively sudden rise to behemoth status. Zakaria places a well-timed reference to another thinker against this series of questions:

The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, America’s leading scholar-senator, once said, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” That gets it just about right. Culture is important, terribly important. But it can change. Cultures are complex. At any given moment, certain attributes are prominent and seem immutable. And then politics and economics shift, and those attributes wane in importance, making space for others.

The reader gathers that American culture, in Zakaria’s view, needs to be ‘saved from itself’ as it flirts with repeating the error of highly capable ancient medieval China in turning in on itself rather than looking outward for truths, ideas, and resources that would complement its native genius.

But this is to race ahead of the author’s carefully assembled argument. First, he wants to show that the the path that would take the non-West towards and into modernization was a path paved by Western ideas and processes that were disseminated via the virtues and sins of colonialism:

Postcolonial leaders tried to free themselves from the West politically but still wanted the Western path to modernity … Even today, when people in Asia or Africa criticize the West, they are often using arguments that were developed in London, Paris, or New York … They all believed in the glory of their own cultures. But they also believed that at that moment in history, in order to succeed economically, politically, and militarily, they had to borrow from the West.

Becoming a modern society is about industrialization, urbanization, and rising levels of literacy, education, and wealth. The qualities that make a society Western, in contrast, are special: the classical legacy, Christianity, the separation of church and state, the rule of law, civil society. “Western civilization,” Huntington writes, “is precious not because it is universal but because it is unique.

So the future according to Zakaria is likely to be both Western and modern. It may just be possible that the future will distinguish rather severely between the two, but the distinction will be a blurred and messy one nonetheless. With this conceptual prologue in place, Zakaria turns next to address the prospects of ‘the two most important rising powers’: China and India.

The author reminds us in his fourth chapter (‘The Challenger’) that American love big, and nobody delivers up big quite like Rising China, a behemoth that—like the USA—is negotiating its way through the challenges of globalization and nationalism. Central planning is not supposed to work, yet at the time of Fakaria’s writing it seemed indisputable that China’s rejection of the Western consensus of liberalizing all spheres of civilization at once was actually producing results; specifically, economic liberalization carried out under the strong hand of the Chinese Communist Party was buying time for progress to be made and acknowledged before facing down the inevitable calls for political liberalization as well. Yet Fakaria points out the symptoms of insecurity among China’s rulers (for example, repression of the Falun Gong) that suggest fear that the Party might not be able to hold the whole, gargantuan thing together.

Can a nation like China pull of its rise without, for example, God? That is, without one of the key components of Western evolution towards demonstrable progress and global predominance? This is one way of asking the Cultural Question. Fakaria suggests that China will in fact do so, thus—and almost in passing—refuting the idea that culture, and specifically the elements that have been foundational to Western culture, are prerequisites for progress towards modernization. China will find ‘its own way’, without the necessary orientation of any of the Abrahamic creeds.

This chapter is rich with somewhat oblique counsel for American leaders, who will be wise to accommodate and even encourage China’s rise according to patterns and rhythms that are respectful and responsible to other players on the world stage. By this approach, the United States will make its own accommodation to a diminished global role but in a way that nourishes an ordered globalization that is to be desired by all participants. Yet Zakaria wonders whether America’s leaders know how to engage this sort of unconventional challenge. Especially when they need simultaneously to be thinking about the other rising superpower-in-the-making: India.

If America must find a way to accommodate a rising challenger in China, it will also need to think creatively about India, its rising ally (Chapter 5, ‘The Ally’). But Fakaria would not mislead the reader to imagine that India will be the next China. Emphatically, it is not. In fact, India’s rise—astonishing in its own ways—might be hidden to the eyes of Western visitors who will have their own inevitable encounter with levels of grime and poverty that one might avoid in China.

India’s ace in the hole is its astounding human capital.  India shares with the USA one key quality: ‘In both places, society has asserted its dominance over the state. Will that formula prove as successful in India as it has in America? Can society fill in for the state?’ Zakaria displays a striking similarity to another erudite observer, Niall Ferguson, in his willingness to find some enduring good in the colonial legacy of a nation like India. In some ways, the Indian inheritance and adaptation of British colonial institutions may contribute to the messy stability of Indian democracy in a way that—ironically—values India ahead of China in the ‘predictable stability’ tables.

Much remains to be seen. But Fakaria has at least a bullish possible scenario to offer as India finds its way forward in a post-American world. India’s ‘central paradox’ is that …

… (i)ts society is open, eager, and confident, ready to take on the world. But its state—its ruling class—is hesitant, cautious and suspicious of the changing realties around it. Nowhere is this tension more obvious than in the realm of foreign policy, the increasingly large and important task of determining how India should fit into the new world.

I find Zakaria at his strongest in this book when he explains how this most pro-American country found its way through the official anti-Americanism of Nehru and the Non-Aligned Movement to the innate and perhaps surprising observation that ‘Indians understand America. It is a no icy, open society with a chaotic democratic system, like theirs. Its capitalism looks distinctly like America’s free-for-all. Many urban Indians are familiar with America, speak its language, and actually know someone who lives there, possibly even a relative.’

India is in some ways a mystery, yet an oddly congenial one from an American point of view. Congenial, at least, if America’s leaders will recognize that the ingredients of a ‘special relationship’ are present in the paradoxical similar of these two allied nations.

A sixth chapter (‘American Power’) surveys the decline of the British Empire, after its notably long run. Of this essay, Fakaria states that ‘the fundamental point is that Britain was undone as a great global power not because of bad politics but because of bad economics.’ One wonders where Fakaria is going with what appears to be an ominous analogy to America’s imperial experience. Yet the author surprises us by noting first a glaring disconnection between British and American experience:

First … it is essential to note that the central feature of Britain’s decline—irreversible economic deterioration—does not really apply to the United States today. Britain’s unrivaled economic status last for a few decades; America’s unrivaled economic status lasted for a few decades; America’s has lasted for more than 130 years.

Surprisingly in the light of the foreboding sound of the book’s title, Zakaria finds in America’s economic dynamism, excellent universities, patterns of immigration, and entrepreneurial ambition a recipe for continues surprise. Yet each of these could easily be squandered by accumulated bad political decisions:

As it enters the twenty-first century, the United States is not fundamentally a weak economy, or a decadent society. But it has developed a highly dysfunctional politics. An antiquated and overly rigid political system to begin with—about 225 years old—has been captured by money, special interests, a sensationalist media, and ideological attack groups. The result is ceaseless, virulent debate about trivia—politics as theater—and very little substance, compromise, and action. A “condo” country is now saddled with a “do-nothing” political process, designed for partisan battle rather than problem solving.

And if this was true in 2007 … One shudders.

The real test for the United States—a very different situation than the one faced by Britain as its empire declined—‘is political—and it rests not just with America at large but with Washington in particular. Can Washington adjust and adapt to a world in which others have moved up … Can it thrive in a world it cannot dominate?’

Echoes of ‘America First!’ do not encourage this reader-reviewer in this Political Madhouse called 2017.

In one sense, the first six chapters of The Post-American World are merely Zakaria’s prelude to the book’s seventh and final chapter, titled ‘American Purpose’. If the informative mode of the first six chapters was healthily interpenetrated with not-so-veiled exhortations to America to change course, the tone becomes almost imperative in this final essay.

For Zakaria, America has been dealt a very fine hand of cards, particularly since the Allied victory and the United States’ emergence as world-maker in the post-war period. Yet these cards have been badly played, with the result that America is now an ‘enfeebled superpower’ and not in the best position for tackling the challenges where American ideas have won the day and led to the emergence of powers that the U.S. is able to view only as competitors.

Like evolutionary adaptations that outlive their usefulness, the American privilege of presiding over a unipolar world has badly served her. She has forgotten how to operate in a world that is less and less unipolar with every passing week.

Here is a glimpse of what American power looked like in a prior moment:

All these exertions served our interests, of course. They produced a pro-American world that was rich and secure. They lad the foundations for a booming global economy in which others could participate and in which America thrived. But it was an enlightened self-interest that took into account the interest of others. Above all, it reassured countries—through word and deed, style and substance—that America’s mammoth power was not to be feared.

Yet Fakaria believes that there is still (a little) time for this nation to re-engage with the world along lines that were familiar in a better diplomatic day:

This new role is quite different from the traditional superpower role. It involves consultation, cooperation, and even compromise. It derives it s power by setting the agenda, defining the issues, and mobilizing coalitions. It is not a top-down hierarchy in which the United States makes its decisions and then informs a grateful (or silent) world. But it is a crucial role because, in a world with many players, setting the agenda and organizing coalitions become primary forms of power. The chair of the board who can gently guide a group of independent directors is still a very powerful person.

Reasonable as these words are per se, they are painfully absurd when read against the rubble of expectations and disappointments handed to us by the 2016 presidential election campaign, its results, and the first six months of Donald Trump’s administration.

‘America First!’, particularly when pronounced with the snarl that too often accompanies it, is a universe apart from the kind of global leadership that Zakaria sketches out here. He goes so far as to prescribe six ‘simple guidelines’ that might serve a powerful America as operating principles in a multipolar world. They are:

  1. Choose.
  2. Build broad rules, not narrow interests.
  3. Be Bismarck not Britain.
  4. Order a la carte.
  5. Think assymetrically.
  6. Legitimacy is power.

This might sound a particularly Obama-esque menu of principles. For some, any such association will already be discrediting, particularly in the light of Obama’s wavering and hesitation when faced with circumstances that might have called for the deployment of hard power.

Yet one can imagine Fakaria’s ‘simple guidelines’ proving highly useful to an American president whose hand did not tremble at the prospect. The trouble is that the nation’s current president and present mood are not likely to produce anything like careful consideration of Fakaria’s strong prescription. A pity, for sure. A tragedy, perhaps.

Fakaria follows up his half-dozen principles with a pungent warning: ‘Before it can implement any of these specific strategies, however, the United States must make a much broader adjustment. It needs to stop cowering in fear.’ (emphasis added)

It is an odd exercise to review a book with a decade under its belt, particularly when an updated edition is available. This reader has done so largely as an exercise in seeing how far debate and discussion have shifted in the course of that turbulent decade. I do not find the results encouraging and the exercise has been, at points, excruciating.

In my judgement, our multi-polar world needs strong American leadership. Fakaria would agree with this. Perhaps our sad experiment with tribal division and  our over-reaction against the foreign-policy dithering of the Obama era will produce results so suddenly bad that we will pull ourselves away from the abyss and re-engage seriously with a world that no longer asks our permission to change; yet has not for that reason turned against us.

The evidence seems not to encourage hope in this regard. Yet Americans are good at this one thing, lurching towards the abyss and then pulling ourselves back from it. Perhaps we will do so again.

If so, even this ten-year-old work by a perceptive commentator, himself a grateful immigrant to the American experiment, might prove useful, once dusted off and consulted with a certain serenity.

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51ksHJ2NUPLI sometimes wonder, trundling along near the end of six decades, how I’ve managed never read Thomas Hardy. Until now.

Prodded on by the marginally satisfactory film version, I downloaded this very English novel. It had me by the throat from its first pages. My wife and I are now, in consequence, listening to a spoken version of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Thomas Hardy gets quickly to the reader’s heart.

Far from the Madding Crowd is a tragic tale that somehow ends in deep comedy. Only after all its protagonists have loved (nobly or not) on to their own injury does the joyful denouement begin to come into view. Along the way, Hardy shows himself to be the kind of novelist who can capture more human observation in a dependent clause than many of us manage in a lifetime.

I’m hooked.

A reader who doesn’t want to miss one of the English language’s great novelists might find Far from the Madding Crowd a serviceable place to start. This extremely inexpensive digital version makes the beginning an easy expense to bear. Then, read, read, read. Don’t put it down. The night is darkest just before the most splendid of dawns.

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With a heart full to overflowing and eyes quite moist, I finish this novel of a young waif 51LK1NgAk6L._AC_US436_QL65_of a girl in Hitler’s Germany whose body, soul, and spirit ought never have survived her furnace of affliction. Yet survive she does, grittily and even poetically, with the aid of a good friend, a tender father, a Jewish refugee in the basement, a mother whose harshness runs only skin keep, and a traumatized mayor’s wife who loves to have her books stolen.

As the old proverb—old but still true for all its rusty years—would tell us, ‘The book is far better than the movie’. This has never been more true than with Markus Zusak’s phenomenal achievement.

The book is narrated by Death, the Grim Reaper. Yet he is not an evil presence, indeed his tender observations are endearing. In the end, the circumstances of 1940s Europe keep him far busier than he’d prefer. Yet he cannot take his eyes off these dismal, glorious humans.

They haunt him, these human beings do. He sees such majesty in them, and such cruelty. The circumstances that call him into hard labors allow him to peer into the human condition at its best and, simultaneously, at its best.

He cannot look away from them, these horrible, beautiful, haunting beings.

This reader revels in the deeply biblical substratum of this compelling novel, whether intended by its author or not.

The best book I’ve read in a year. And I’m hardly alone, for this work has virtually nailed itself to the top rung of the New York Times Bestsellers List. As another old proverb might have it, 50,000,000 Elvis fans can’t be wrong.

Buy it, read it, remember it when you least expect.

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511492nmk9LWhen Australian New Testament scholar and educator David Seccombe writes about ‘Jesus’ revolutionary message’ (the subtitle of The Gospel of the Kingdom), it is almost inevitable that he should set out a two-part arrangement that puts one in mind of the apostle Paul: ‘What is the Gospel?’ and ‘Proclaiming the Gospel’.

This is so because Seccombe’s scholarly gifts have always been deployed in the interests of people and churches whom the author longs to see brought into redemptive, joyous, and invigorating relationship with Jesus Christ. A gospel minutely defined and delimited but not preached, lived, and taught would fall short of Seccombe’s ambition.

So in thirteen spritely chapters, in the course of which Seccombe wears his scholarship lightly but not without effect, we are asked to think again—or even for the first time—about the nature of the strange news that intruded into human discourse by means of Jesus’ life and teaching.

Seccombe writes because he perceives a problem: an abundance of ‘confusion and fuzzy thinking’ about what ‘gospel’ means (Ch. 1, ‘Gospel Confusion’). Scanning Old Testament and extrabiblical antecedents, the author concludes that ‘(a) gospel at the time of the birth of the New Testament was the announcement of momentous good news, mostly about victory in battle and the rise and fall of kingdoms’.

Seccombe has a large space for the Old Testament book of Isaiah in his understanding of ‘gospel’. He works his way toward that formidable prophetic scroll in chapter two (‘The Old Testament and the Kingdom of God’) by tracing the way in which divine rule or kingship works its way into the covenants and the promises embedded in them. Israel, in effect, leans through her mixed experiences with good and bad rulers and the disappointments that cling to them and into a future where the Lord will make good on his promise to send a Davidic scion who will rule well. The ‘kingdom of God’ as an abstraction is not language that is common to the Old Testament, but this does not mean that the idea of a divine king and his human proxies is anything close to absent.

When it comes to Isaiah (Ch. 3, ‘The gospel according to Isaiah’), Seccombe is not bashful about the ancient book’s influence:

The gospel language of Jesus and the apostles derives primarily from the book of Isaiah. Israel’s prophets delivered political, social and religious criticism from God to the people of their day, but they also spoke of what God would do in the future. Isaiah was the most detailed and influential with respect to the New Testament.

Seccombe derives from Isaiah’s vocabulary license to turn his own gospel language in unconventional directions: Hebrew מבשר (mebasser) becomes ‘gospeller’ as a noun and ‘gospelling’ as a participle/gerund. Seccombe’s linguistic liberty is key to expressing his point that in the Old Testament the language that we know as ‘gospel’-related would have corresponded to the announcement of earth-shaking news, usually but now always good news. He is on his way to driving home the point that the gospel is a revolutionary development and its proclaimer is the bearer of revolutionary news.

Strictly speaking there is no gospel in the Old Testament, but only the promise of a future gospel. The Old Testament is a book of promises, the gospel being one of them; its coming belongs to the age of fulfillment, just like the Messiah. In the Old Testament the coming of the gospel is an event which is yet to take place. When it does, it will mean that God has arrived (or is about to), and that salvation has come, the promises have been fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand.

In this light, the announcement is that Jesus comes ‘gospelling’. Indeed, his famous words in the Nazareth synagogue are not a sermon, but rather an announcement ‘of the kind that brings into being what it declares’ (Chapter 4, ‘Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom’). Jesus self-identifies as the awaited gospeller whose teaching is gospel itself. God’s kingdom has come or, better, made its initial appearance. Jesus’ news would have had a decided political import. Insofar as people became his followers, Jesus became a dangerous man. Tragically, most people rejected him, which occasioned Jesus’ teaching that the kingdom whose arrival he heralded would be a long time in the making. Its coming would be marked by conflict and by the death of Jesus’ himself.

In fact, Jesus and his gospel experience opposition of at least two kinds. There was opposition that was ‘flesh and blood’, chiefly the Jewish religious leaders. And then there was a threatened kingdom that was not of flesh and blood and that Jesus had come to supplant from his Father’s world. Kingdoms would clash (Chapter 5, ‘The gospel under fire’).

But Jesus seemed to fail against his deepest adversary.

Jesus’ death presents us with a paradox: was it Satan’s victory, or Jesus’? To human eyes it was clearly the former. Jesus came to save sinners, but the sinners turned against him, would have none of his kingdom, and ejected him from the world—all through satanic manoeuvering. Yet Satan failed to break Jesus’ obedience to God. He stood firm through coaxing and ordeal and died a death which he believed was God-ordained. Could it be he who triumphed?

This is how the early Christian saw it. They did not make this up, but obtained their view from Jesus. He had spoken of his death as the means by which he would overthrow Satan’s power and establish his own kingdom over the human race …’

One of the principal virtues of Seccombe’s book is that the author finds the story of Jesus strange and he perseveres in allowing it to remain strange rather than taming it in order to find an anodyne ‘moral of the story’.

Seccombe would have his reader peer for a moment through a lens that focuses on the sequence of Jesus’ grand gospel announcement (Ch. six, ‘The gospel breaks out’). Jesus announced first that the kingdom of God was very near to invading and even imposing itself upon reality as its hearers knew it. Yet his own role in that kingdom—that of its monarch—comes only gradually into view. First comes the announcement of a kingdom, then the presentation of its king.

We are not so very far from this dynamic at the present time, Seccombe argues, for Jesus’ kingdom has been established in his advent, life, death, and resurrection and it is sustained via Christ’s heavenly reign and the gift of his Spirit. Yet we do not yet experience this kingdom in its fullness.

Both the apostles’ experience and our own disciplined waiting correspond not to two different versions of Christian faith—as is sometimes alleged—but rather to two different forms of the same gospel. Seccombe presents a ‘strong/high christology’, which equates the application of YHWH’s name to Jesus as the ontological identification of Jesus and YHWH. In recognizing Jesus as king of the announced kingdom, we stand at an incomparable advantage over against the apostles in their earliest experience, when the kingdom had been announced but its king was in their frame of reference still to be identified.

This reader finds Seccombe at his best in this chapter, not least in observations like this:

The early Christians knew that their message was not self-evidently true. But if Jesus’ life and the Old Testament were carefully considered they were confident that its truth would emerge. Thus although it is possible to state the essence of the gospel in a sentence, the communication of the gospel can seldom be done in such an easy fashion. Where Jesus’ characteristic way of authenticating his message was by miracle and exorcism, the apostles’ was by reasoned statement and argument.

When Seccombe turns to the break-out of the gospel to the Gentile world that lends its name to the chapter’s title, he insists that gospel argumentation was necessary if gentiles were to make sense of the Jesus message. Yet he drives home what might be isolated as the book’s principal point when he argues that the gospel is not everything that we learn in the biblical witness. Rather, it centers on the kingship or lordship of Jesus:

I run the risk of frustrating my reader with what may appear to be a nit-picking desire to keep a narrow focus for the gospel. Why can we not take everything the early preachers said as gospel? Why can’t we put together Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, the Holy Spirit, salvation, judgement, second coming, God and creation and the rest—call all these gospel, and preach the lot? The answer is that we can, if we know what we are doing. But it is possible to preach some of these things—even all of them—and for it not to be the gospel, if the lordship of Jesus is absent or out of focus. Yet it is the gospel—and only the gospel—which saves people. It is also possible to preach any one of these and for it to be the gospel, so long as that crucial declaration of Jesus’ kingship is the keynote.

This insistent pressing of the disruptive nature of kingdom announcement sets the stage for the book’s second of two sections: ‘Proclaiming the gospel’. In this section, Seccombe argues that the revolutionary brevity of the gospel—captured in the declaration that ‘Jesus is Lord’—must be astutely reconstituted and delivered of its fullest implications. He finds the canonical ‘gospels’—even Mark, the briefest of the four—to be an excellent model for such reconstitution, for these works tell the story of the Jesus who is Lord in a way that fills in the reader’s understanding of just what this king of the encroaching kingdom is like (Ch. 7, ‘The Kingdom’s King’).

Seccombe next turns to the deep paradox—indeed the gospel’s core ‘scandal’—that one cannot relate to this king except as a crucified king (Ch. 8, ‘The crucified King’). This reader encounters this chapter as both brilliantly succinct (though its topic requires some 40 pages) but also patient of the complexities that attend to any discussion of the this most awful and mysterious core of the gospel. Without using the potentially off-putting term ‘theories of the atonement’, Seccome expertly walks us through them, reminding us after having done so that ‘(i)t is not an understanding of how the cross works which saves us, but its brute fact.’ One thinks of John Stott’s well-received The Cross of Christ, for one finds similar clarity here, in miniature.

Then, these words:

This is heady wine. Yet we must take care not to jump to the conclusion that the good news of God’s love is the gospel. God’s love is good news, and it is worth talking about, but the gospel is an announcement of a very special manifestation of that love. It is the announcement of the arrival of God’s kingdom, which is the kingdom of King Jesus, who is the crucified one, who dies “for us men and for our salvation”, who calls us to know him and share his kingdom for ever. The gospel of the kingdom is a message of the cross-shaped love of a Saviour who died on a love-shaped cross.

Naming the resurrection, the ‘leading edge of the gospel’ and sufficient in itself if its implications are fully explored to lead people to faith (Ch. 9 ‘Proof of the gospel’), Seccombe wants to persuade his reader that there is at the same time ‘more to the resurrection than a miracle and a demonstration of Jesus’ bona fides’.

The New Testament makes a number of statements to the effect that in some manner Jesus actually became Messiah through his resurrection. Looking forward, Jesus saw his death and subsequent resurrection and ascension as the glorification of the Son of Man, a reference to his elevation to dominion over the peoples of the world. He expected the kingdom of God to be established in power through his death and subsequent exaltation—within the lifetime of his disciples. When he appeared to them in Galilee after his resurrection he was able to announce to them that “all authority in heaven and earth has been given to me”. These are the words of a new king, and they are pure gospel.

If Seccombe’s readers will see him as daring in his suggestion that Jesus did not during the course of his incarnation know the timing of his kingdom’s full advent, he is conventional in his understanding of Trinitarian ontology. Having identified the exalted ‘name above every name’ that is given to Jesus as that of YHWH himself, Secommbe hurries to clarify that Jesus did not become God in his resurrection-ascension-enthronement. Rather, he was invested with messianic office and declared to possess a status that is no less than that of God himself.

For the duration of this dense and pregnant chapter, Seccombe argues that this resurrection power loosed in the kingdom by its newly enthroned king makes ‘heaven when you die’ a reduction of the Christian gospel so extreme as to be almost unrecognizable when placed alongside the biblical witness.

As this reader absorbs our author’s claim that ‘resurrection is the cutting edge of the gospel’, he wrestles with the sensation that Seccombe is not in fact distilling ‘gospel’ down to a simple core, as the book may have appeared to promise. Too many of the facets of the Jesus message have in seven chapters been named as critical, essential, central, and cutting-edge for that to be the case. Rather, he is attempting to shear Christian understanding and proclamation of all extraneous additions and limp-wristed concessions. He then gives us an exceedingly dense—and, yes, multiply layered—core of the gospel that does not align well with sloganeering. Yet the astute and gospel-saturated preacher can indeed make sure that this gospel core remains the preached core of his or her proclamation.

In his chapter ten (‘Your kingdom come’), Seccombe combats the urge to deal with the impression that ‘nothing has changed’ by assigning Jesus’ kingdom to a space in one’s inner world rather than accepting it for the …

… full this-worldly solution to the problems of history’ that Jesus claimed it would be. He reminds his reader that ‘Our Lord come! (Aramaic, Maranatha) is (the Jesus movement’s) earliest recorded prayer and that ‘(t)he New Testament closes with the promise of the ascended Lord himself, “Surely I am coming soon,” and the answering cry, “Amen, come Lord Jesus.”

The missing element in much modern and post-modern Christian understanding is hope, Seccombe alleges, in particular a hope that anticipates the full-bodied arrival of this kingdom.

Here and elsewhere, Seccombe’s writing shows him to be sensitive to the claims of honest skeptics, particularly in those areas where the Christian message seems to thrust forward an Achilles’ Heel of particular vulnerability. So why, he imagines his honest skeptic to ask, has this Jesus of yours disappeared from human view just when he has led us to expect the establishment of his kingdom? Where has he gone, and why?

The author’s response to this probing is subtle, and seeks to find a response not so much in contemporary conjecture as in the recorded teaching of Jesus and the early reflection of his disciples. From Jesus’ story about a nobleman traveling to a far country while leaving matters in the hands of his servants to his image of wheat and tares growing both robustly and together, to Paul’s assertion that something in Christ is at the time of his writing ‘incomplete’, Seccombe attempts to show the long period of Jesus’ ‘absence’ that is so familiar to us was foreseen by the earliest voices of the Jesus Movement. This time, for Seccombe, is a space opened up in history for ‘loving conquest’ (via the turning of hearts more than the unwilling submission of the recalcitrant) and gathering of the kingdom’s people in anticipation of Jesus’ ‘second coming’. He allows that the ‘mission’ of Jesus’ people occupies perhaps a larger space in history than either Jew or early Christian could have anticipated. Yet the Spirit of God’s/Jesus’ empowering presence allows believers-on-mission to experience the announced and coming kingdom even before final resistance to it is quieted and its promise become fully lived reality.

Several things about Seccombe’s treatment of ‘(j)ustification by faith’ (the title of the book’s twelfth chapter) are worthy of mention in a review like this one. The first is that the topic comes up in the twelfth chapter rather than in the first or second. By itself this is a signal in the current climate of discussion that Seccombe does not stand with those who risk reducing the gospel to this doctrine. The second that it is inevitable that mention of and even a swipe at N.T. Wright should be forthcoming.

Seccombe’s approach to this core doctrine of the Protestant Reformation—the author would certainly speak of its rediscovery rather than its invention during the Reformation—may best be summarized by this paragraph:

Justification by faith, then, is implicit in the gospel. It may or may not be stated or explained. It is not the centre of the gospel. The gospel announces Christ’s kingdom and victory, but also declares “repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name”. Justification is about forgiveness of sins; it is what God does to un-disqualify—actually, to re-qualify—the person who believes in Jesus. Justification does not come through believing in justification by faith, but by believing in Jesus. A person who hears the gospel of Jesus’ kingdom and trusts in him will be justified, even if he or she has never hard of justification by faith. The call of the gospel is to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. If we do, we will be saved, even if at the beginning we are hardly aware of the extent of our gain.

It is also possible that this paragraph captures better than any other Seccombe’s work as a pastoral theologian, to say nothing of his winsome and gently daring way with a pen.

Seccombe’s final chapter (Chapter 13, ‘Gospel life’) examines the nature of law, principally in the Old Testament. He places such legislation in the context of other inputs into the ethical life of ancient Israel, such as that nation’s wisdom tradition. Yet the law was deficient, both intrinsically in its incapacity to forge true righteousness and experientially, in Israel’s repeated transgression of it.

The New Testament, for its part, does not present a codified ethical system. ‘The new Christian wants Jesus’ words, not an ethical theory. These were willingly supplied by the Gospel writers.’ Nor were Jesus’ apostles stingy about offering their own, Jesus-derived ethical instruction.

Seccombe seems burdened not to deprive simple, saving faith from its primordial position in Christian experience. Yet he recognizes, that as the follower of Jesus goes on in his or her new life, he longs for more instruction on how to live. And he finds it in Scripture, even if what he discovers there is not an ethical code that per se defines or sketches the boundaries of life in Christ.

It would take a whole book to unwrap the world of early Christian ethics thoroughly’, Seccome writes, suggesting that this is not a book that he has written. ‘What we have done should be sufficient to to establish the rightness of speaking of “gospel ethics” and show that this is no peripheral aspect, but the fundamental principle of true morality … The gospel is the announcement of a ‘new covenant” order: a new King, a kingdom, and a people. It defines a new reality, which requires a new response in human behavior and striving. The gospel offers amnesty and membership to all who will embrace Jesus as King and Lord. This alternative kingdom will ultimately issue into a new world: “new heavens and a new earth where righteousness dwells.” For the moment, it is represented in communities of kingdom-loving people following Jesus in the midst of suffering and righteousness. Their hope is lit with the dawn of the coming kingdom, and their way of life strains forward to what shall be.

Again, Seccome is averse to any notion that ethical behavior defines the gospel or Christian life; that human communities achieve the gospel’s intrinsic ethical standard; and that for these reasons ethics is somehow moved to the margins of the gospel and of Christian experience.

Two brief appendices sort through the lexical and theological morass that leads us to the English words ‘gospel’, ‘righteousness’, and ‘justify/justification’. In the latter case, Seccombe argues strongly that the traditional view still holds water, alluding to the ‘imputation’ of righteousness to justified human beings though—so far as I can tell—without using the word.

What, then, has David Seccombe given to us in these 304 words of winsome prose?

In this reader’s view, The Gospel of the Kingdom should hold a prominent place on the list of resources that might guide a reader or a group of readers into a fuller understanding of the nature of Jesus’ announcement that God’s kingdom has arrived. I can’t think of a better ‘advanced introduction’ to this core of Christian life and understanding.

Secondly, Seccombe’s book aims at and hits a homiletical target. That is, any Christian preacher might well place this book alongside, say, John Stott’s The Cross of Christ as an advanced (again) primer for how to preach the kingdom that Jesus announced. Secccombe has in common with Stott a knack for taking complexity into full account while communicating a truth that must not become complex upon every declaration of it.

Thirdly, Seccombe’s book is recurrently refreshing. Even when the space he allows himself for thinking creatively—from time to time one feels he is writing as an act of thinking-out-loud—occasionally risks a loss of clarity, one comes away feeling that he is hearing something new. Or perhaps hearing something old in a new way.

Finally (though in no exhaustive sense), Seccombe’s work makes for a very good read. One can imagine sitting late into the night alongside the man, perhaps consuming a pint or two in the mix, and heading home with the heady sense that one has had a very fine conversation.

This, when such important and theological realities are in the mix, is an accomplishment of ample proportions. Perhaps more than two have been at that table.

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51f38SlZnUL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Across ten chapters organized thematically rather than chronologically, Michael J. LaRosa and German R. Mejía present this fine English-language history of Colombia in accessible prose that only occasionally belies that they were writing or thinking initially in Spanish before making this considerable gift to the English reading public.

The line-up of chapter titles arguably serves as LaRosa’s and Mejía’s first promise that their history will not weep over a fragmented and violent nation, but rather will sketch the contours of a nation seeking unity, nourished by a certain dynamism, and eager—or perhaps more often merely destined—to find its place in the world:

  • ‘Origins’
  • ‘The Colombian Nations’
  • ‘The Dynamics of a Political Community’
  • ‘The Cadence of Unity’
  • ‘Conflict’
  • ‘Economic Unity’
  • ‘A Common Space’
  • ‘Cultural Dynamism’
  • ‘Daily Life’
  • ‘Colombia and the World’

The book’s first chapter (‘Origins’) establishes the case for autonomy and then independence from Spain on the awkward fact that Spanish plans for that European nation’s ‘American’ colonies would always leave the ‘creoles’ at a disadvantage over peninsular interests. The detail that this history begins with post-Columbian political reorganization rather than the pre-Columbian ‘given’ that the Spanish conquerers encountered is perhaps symptomatic of the concise nature of the work. It is also programmatic of history and of this particular narrative that ‘Colombia’ was born in blood and contest, a genesis that wants to extend its hegemony—but in LaRosa’s and Mejía’s telling, does not finally succeed—from the beginning through to the end of the nation’s story. In this North American reader’s opinion, the authors make the eventual Colombian state’s post-Encounter pre-history understandable in broad brush and via analogies with a North American historical experience that is more familiar to the book’s English readership.

‘The Colombian Nations’—the work’s second chapter—clarifies that political wrestling between fair-skinned peninsulares and criollos does not by itself exhaust the Colombian story, neither in its earliest decades not in the present time. On the contrary, the country’s staggering diversity is enriched by vast contributions by its indigenous and Afro-Caribbean populations, even when ‘official’ histories and mainstream politics have conspired to push such nations to the barely visible margins. Colombia is a ‘nation of mestizos’ in which a majority self-identifies as white. Yet history, as ever, is more complex than any demographic snapshot of self-identification suggests. In addition, the chasms, evolutions, and migrations between and among rural and urban experience are those of a profoundly regional country, where the sentiments and realia of national unity have been condemned to swing against the strong and persistent currents of regional identity.

In ‘The Dynamics of a Political Community’, (chapter 3), the authors introduce us to the 1830 death of ‘Gran Colombia’ (comprised of today’s Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela) and the de facto birth of the Republic of Colombia, with its political center of gravity never shifting entirely from Bogotá despite the pretensions of elites from the country’s other regions. The hard work of ‘transforming subjects into citizens’ was now to raise myriad questions about what citizenship should mean in this country of comparatively modest dimensions after the collapse of the Bolivarian dream. Here the influence of the French and North American revolutions is felt, with their values duly registered in a sequence of national constitutions that register the enduring conflict between federalist and centralist views of what the nation should become.

LaRosa and Mejía observe that …

… (t)he lesson of Colombia’s nineteenth century was clear: presidentialism/centralism created fertile ground whereby party-led management of the state became the factor that contributed most directly to chronic violence. A monopoly of state offices by one or the other political party was viewed as the most efficacious manner of operating government, and such a monopoly was typically enforced through violence. Triumphs at the ballot box granted political party to one party to the exclusion of the other. The party out of power often determined that violence was the only way to overturn such a situation of exclusion. Although formal civil wars disappeared in the twentieth century, political party violence remained one of the basic characteristics of the Colombian political model: violence was the manner through which control over the Colombian state was ensured.

In the authors’ persuasive telling, this hard-wired impulse towards the exclusive use of power of political party by one party and the reactive deployment of violence to ‘rectify’ the situation by the other led to the political exhaustion that produced the concordist National Front model in the middle decades of the twentieth century. This political agreement established alternating ‘turns’ at national government by, respectively, the Conservative and Liberal parties. It managed to reduce political violence but at great cost:

Politics as an exercise of citizenship was stripped of its virtue, instead favoring the technocrat and punishing the career politician. At the same time, new, dangerous actors, exploded onto the national political scene: the guerrilla fighter, the drug trafficker, the paramilitary, and the corrupt public official. A society that was becoming ever more urbanized increasingly grew politically apathetic, a phenomenon that was made evident by the significant abstention that characterized all elections during the last two decades of the twentieth century.

LaRosa and Mejía seem to place significant hope in the consequences of the 1991 constitution, though faulting the manner in which it nourished the continuance of ‘a weak Congress. This has allowed the executive power to carry out legislative initiatives in the country, either because many of the law projects discussed in Congress have been developed in the offices of the different ministries or because the constitution of 1886 allowed the president to govern by decree …. Also, unfortunately, the parties continue to approach politics in a manner that places a high value on coercive customs associated with political caudillos.’

Still, somehow, the Colombian political reality has with one brief exception managed to avoid the cold grip of dictatorship, no doubt a core plank in any case that can be made for Colombian exceptionalism.

The book’s well-titled fourth chapter (‘The Cadence of Unity’) broaches the remarkable fact that a Colombian state—in multiple forms and with more than one name—existed long before a Colombian nation had come to be:

As the multiple name and territorial changes suggest, the nation (a unifying culture) did not exist when the state first formed. Even today a “Colombian nation” is difficult to identify. What emerges out of the depths of Colombia’s republican h history is a state that constructed the “nation”. By actively producing both governmental and cultural institutions over its territory, Colombia would gain stability and, over time, would consolidate into a unified nation.

The primary creative forces were the two traditional political parties, the Catholic religion, and the Spanish language, not necessarily in that order. Of these, the first (the Liberal and Conservative parties in their undying quests for national hegemony) were the agents of conflict and disunity as well as undeniable unifiers of Colombians who shared similar political sentiment across the regional divides.

This fourth chapter is arguably LaRosa’s and Mejía’s most illuminating and orienting assessment in a book that excels at both. It leads organically into the next, with its awful and too accurate title (Ch. 5, ‘Conflict’). The chapter begins pungently: ‘Colombia’s history has been defined by epic conflicts.’

Organized around four key categories (politics, international relations, social structure, illegal narcotics), the discussion shows that—even here—Colombian history is paradoxical, for …

 … (d)espite endemic conflict, Colombia has held together as a territorial entity, with the exception of the separation of the Province of Panama, which resulted from a myriad of colliding national and international factors. Colombians have been able to resolve conflicts through creative methods and intermediaries.

Alas, these creative methods involved the (arguably ill-fated) National Front in the late 1950s, of which the unintended consequence was that ‘it pushed people who belonged to neither party toward the sociopolitical margins and eventually into armed guerrilla forces’.

Though their tracing of internecine violence from the Spanish evacuation thought to Plan Colombia has no shortage of episodes upon which to alight, the authors insist—again, the paradox is rife and at times the protestation a bit much—that Colombian levels of violence are not unique within Latin America. Indeed the they do not approach the ‘lurid madness’ of the Mexican experience. Sadly, the 2013 date of the book’d most recent edition allows the inclusion of Álvaro Uribe’s mano dura, corazón grande but not the efforts of Uribe’s erstwhile secretary of defense (now president) to achieve a peace deal with the FARC and eventually the ELN. The authors’ efforts to move beyond bare description and on to the lived experience of Colombians is again evident in the chapter’s conclusion:

Colombians have learned to live with great ambiguity and uncertainty. Conflict is part of everyday life, but so too is warmth, generosity, and a spirit of collaboration. Most Colombians try to transcend the daily political and social conflict by spending as much time as possible with family, friends, and visitors—a style of endurance influenced by Colombia’s unique historical and cultural development.

In chapter five (‘Economic Unity’), we learn that Colombia’s ‘modern, diverse, market-driven economy’ maintains itself in the context of ‘one of the most unequal societies in Latin America and the world’, yet another of Colombia’s pluriform paradoxes. The economy of what we today call Colombia would not have been foreseen from the time of the Spanish conquerors, for its land area was modestly endowed when compared to the rich metal deposits to the north and the south. Moreover, it would be impossible to speak of a ‘Colombian’ economy until modern transportation networks allowed production and consumption to escape the country’s marked regionalization.

The authors explore coffee’s role as an economic motor, with due attention to how this and other economic developments in Colombia took place in the shadow of the economic behemoth in the North. LaRosa’s and Mejía’s analysis manifests a center-left suspicion of large corporations, external investment, and industrial agricultural that is more common among Latin American economic historians than among English-language readership. Yet if ideology discernibly contextualizes the authors’ efforts to make sense of their topic, it does not in this reader’s estimation come close to distorting the narrative. The chapter includes a valuable discussion of the drugs cartels from an economic perspective.

The post-independence forging of a shared national community (Chapter six, ’A Common Space’) has been a long journey on a mountainous road. ‘From 1830 until the profound social crises that lasted from about 1960 to 1980, the fundamental objective of governance was to force all populations to cooperate with an ideal that was to be nourished by democratic-liberal institutions and principles, the ideals of capitalist bourgeois thinkers, and the normals and practices of Catholicism’. The authors argue, however, that in the light of today’s multicultural Colombia national unity can only be a political reality.

In working out how this common (political) space has been formed to date, LaRosa and Media survey improvements in transportation systems, the establishment and expansion of mail and communications systems, the growth of regional print media (few of which have commanded a national audience) as means that have served the pursuit of this end (Chapter seven, ‘A Common Space’). A useful chart (‘Table 7.1. Railroad National Network’) nicely illustrates several flurries of railroad  construction as well as the quite limited lengths of each line, owing no doubt to the ever-influential limitations that topography imposes upon any transportation ambition in Colombia. Sadly, this chapter was written too early to allow consideration of Medellín’s recent inventiveness with urban rail (‘metro’) and the city’s transformative ‘metro cable’ system. The latter has linked previously isolated comunas on the sides of the valley the city occupies, to great social and economic effect.

The names ‘Botero’ and ‘García Márquez’ loom large over any discussion of Colombian visual and literary art, yet the authors introduce their readers to the lesser lights of a dynamic culture that, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, has often been veiled by the ‘centrifugal force’ of ‘the enormous vogue of things Mexican’ (Chapter eight, ‘Cultural Dynamism’). In this reader’s opinion, Colombian music has enjoyed less light than the chapter might have thrown upon it, particularly as popular superstars such as Shakira and Juanes have refracted its rhythms and tones to an international public.

LaRosa and Media have a knack for nuanced and illuminating final statements in their chapters, of which Chapter Eight gives us this:

Colombians have been successful at creating literacy works of astonishing originality, such as García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude; at the same time, they have been able to incorporate, adapt, and innovate as only a mestizo nation can. Colombians are comfortable with the hybrid; their culture is not obsessed with pursuits that are purely intellectual, avant-garde, or otherwise divorced from the concerns of daily reality. Colombian culture, shaped by regional realities and restraints and the burdens of history, and conditioned by the serene wisdom of living day to day, is vibrant, often nostalgic, and sometimes uncertain. It is a metaphor for Colombian society.

The authors once again explicit their option of avoiding the ‘catastrophic history’ that characterizes much writing about Colombia (Chapter Nine, ‘Daily Life’): ‘Few textbooks published in English deal with Colombian daily life, preferring to focus on violence, drug trafficking, and other lurid topics that frequently find their way into the Colombian evening news. This chapter seeks to explore the cultural forces that move Colombia and Colombians: for example, religious festivals and Catholic feast days are part of the rhythm of the Colombian calendar.’ The shared celebrations of a ‘decidedly more secular’ Colombia are still apportioned with reference to Catholic saints, though only the most devout can these days link the holiday to the religious figure whose life is memorialized by it.

Colombians have also made their mark internationally in auto racing, golf, tennis, cycling, baseball, and coleo—the latter ‘a sort of Colombian-Venezuelan rodeo’. LaRosa and Mejía also touch on Colombia’s remarkable presence in international beauty pageants, the retaking of the nation’s urban centers, radio and TV (including the famed soap operas), gastronomy, and university life. Yet, even here, national unity is an uphill climb:

A nation as divided as Colombia, by geography, race, social and economic class, political power, education, and apellido (family name) can never come together completely and earnestly, but innovative and intelligent Colombians have worked hard to create infrastructure, parks, programs, transportation systems, and university curricula that help Colombians focus on what unites them as a people and a nation rather than what has historically divided society.

In their tenth chapter (‘Colombia and the World’), LaRosa and Mejía engage Colombia’s place in the wider world to which it belongs.

As independence from Spain became a reality, ‘(t)he new Colombian nation looked—generally—to Great Britain for economic advice, to France for cultural and philosophical principles, and to the United States, begrudgingly, for technical support.’ The word ‘begrudging(ly)’ is a serviceable descriptor in fact for much of nearly two centuries of Colombian interaction with the colossus to the north. Yet paradox continues to play a central role, for the authors note that, Panama and other grievances notwithstanding, ’(c)compared with the United States’ historical relationships with other Latin American nations during the twentieth century, the U.S.-Colombian relationship is actually a model of pragmatism and stability.’

Notice of Eric Hobsbawm’s description of Colombia as ‘long … known for an altogether exceptional proclivity to homicide’ evokes a push-back from the authors in terms of ‘the remarkable set of policies developed by Colombians to stem the violence’. This push-pull of the authors’ recognition of the harshest realia of Colombian history accompanied by an insistence that there is an additional side to the story that is seldom told is a signature facet of LaRosa’s and Mejía’s historiography. The desire to set the record straight by broadening and completing its conclusions is perhaps to be expected in a substantial history like this that is directed to an English-language readership that will almost by definition have missed all but ‘catastrophic’ history-writing on Colombia. In this reader’s objective, it is important that this impulse be called out, but it does not lessen the value of the ‘concise contemporary history’ that our authors have given us. The book’s publication date allows only for a consideration of Presidents Bush and Uribe as ‘brothers in arms’, followed by the briefest recognition of President Santos’ ‘entrance’ as president, though hardly as a national leader of influence since he had served as Uribe’s Secretary of Defense.

The authors ‘Conclusion’ is something of a cri de coeur, a plaintive and to this reader compelling plea that the non-catastrophic history they have given us persuade Colombia watchers that …

… Colombia endures as a nation despite difficulties, challenges, and a history that is tragic and dynamic. Colombians do not hide from their past. Indeed, they have learned to confront and incorporate parts of their history that would be more convenient to forget … Our book has attempted to show that Colombia, despite its complex historical record, endures, and that the focus on political violence, illegal narcotics, and corruption hides a less dramatic but more important story of constitutional procedure, governments that regularly transfer power after elections, and a concern with social rights of the people … While interpretations will vary, we have little doubt that Colombia the nation will endure and that Colombians will continue to face the challenges ahead of them with a sound spirit of skepticism grounded in hope, fortitude, and the dignity that seems to define them as a people. The quest for a better future is the goal of all civiized peoples, and Colombians have been moving toward that goal—not always evenly, but in a systematic, remarkably creative Colombian fashion.

This reviewer has read LaRosa’s and Mejía’s perhaps misnamed brief history alongside Marco Palacio’s Between Legitimacy and Violence. A History of Colombia, 1875-2002. Both books open doors and windows through which Colombia becomes accessible to an appreciative viewer who peers in from outside.  Both require a patient reader, for the complexities of this nation’s story are dense and persistent. LaRosa and Mejía move more satisfyingly beyond Colombia’s economic and political history, which is more a description of their focus than of any deficiency in Palacio’s arguably magisterial work.

I cannot think of a better place for the highly interested reader on Colombia to move beyond or bypass the tendentious tourist guides and dig into Colombian realia. The journey on which these authors take their readers is a sober one, yet the path on which one is led takes in the dramatic, the painful, the violent, and the enchanting aspects of Colombia and Colombians in a measure that corresponds to the lived experience of this nation’s hopeful citizens.

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In a political era when scandalously few of the United States’ political leaders have beenshaped by military service, this b51K4gjfgdKLook provides a fascinating look at a formative moment in the career of HR McMaster, who as this reviewer sets pen to paper serves as the country’s National Security Advisor.
The brief survey of an armored battle that takes pride of place in a world that sees few such large-scale engagements of tanks tells as well the satisfying story of the U.S. Military’s improbable feat of transformation from post-Vietnam malaise through to the disciplined, strategically minded force that destroyed Saddam Hussein’s forces in the First Gulf War (1990-91).

Guardia’s Fires of Babylon chronicles the U.S. Army’s pivot from an anti-Soviet blocking mission that had lost its relevance by the time the Berlin Wall crumbled to a highly fluid challenge from operating positions in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and eventually Iraq itself. It was commanders like McMaster (a Captain at the time of 73 Easting) who brought the discipline and savvy that produced overwhelming military success against an Iraqi force that was judged to be capable of kicking butt on the battlefield. In the end, only one butt got kicked in an epic slaughter that could have led to the removal of Saddam but for the political considerations that led the first President Bush to pull up short.

Yet none of this was foreordained. Things might have turned out badly. That they did not is a story that deserves retelling, particularly in the environment I mention in this review’s first paragraph: one where a highly disciplined fighting force enjoys emotional support from a populace that has little real understanding of what it takes to fight.

Guardia performs his narrative duty in a way that puts flesh and blood, face and voice to a limited number of armored warriors who prepared assiduously to face down Iraq and then did so with stunning speed and results. We follow them from Germany to Saudi and then across the berm into Iraq. This reader is struck by how severely intelligence had over-rated the Iraqi troops that waited there, and by how little our armor and infantry could have known of that until contact had been made. The opposite would have been calamitous.

Guardia teases out the humanity of these soldiers, together with a number of other fascinating threads that include the shifts of military technology that were taking place at the time (for example, in armored troop carriers and among the tanks themselves); the critical pivot-point of professional and disciplined small-unit leadership; and the powerful strategy and tactics that were brought to bear on Saddam’s challenge.

Not one of these themes has any element of ‘automatic’ in it. Each is the product of sustained effort in a single direction. Else Saddam might have stood.

This reviewer also appreciates the author’s description of how quickly and savagely the desert can turn from friend to foe, and how such bad turns can effectively incapacitate an otherwise overwhelming force.

A superbly well chosen collection of photos, together with the now obligatory piece (after Band of Brothers) here called ‘After the Storm’ that traces the lives and careers of soldiers come home, rounds out Fires of Babylon.

Four stars for a well informed and nicely told story that both illuminates and teaches, perhaps without the polished writing that would have earned it a fifth.

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Arguably my most self-absorbed acquisition this decade, I bought this mug for my wife.

She loves the humor (failing to see it as a statement of fact), but also appreciates how big and sturdy this mug is.41xci8IjqcL._AC_US320_QL65_

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