Book Reviews: An Excessive Fondness of Reality

January-February 2010

By James T. Tresner II, Book Review Editor

Dr. Robert Lee Jones, Professor of Theology at Oklahoma City University and one of the primary mentors of my youth, was wont to say to his Comparative Religions of Mankind class, “I would be very disappointed in any of you who went for a walk in the woods expecting to see an elf: I would be even more disappointed in you if you were surprised when you did see one.”

I often have a hard time preferring reality over imagination. I know the crusades were in many ways exercises in greed, ignorance, and intolerance. But I still like to keep the image of the knight as a paragon of virtue. I know that the Nazi world-view was in some ways informed by the Teutonic world Wagner created in his operas, but I still enjoy losing myself in its beauty and heroism—flying horses and all. Anyone who watches the daily news is aware that there is no limit to the base cruelty and arrogant stupidity of mankind, but I still like to believe in the inherent goodness and nobility of the human spirit.

Most of the books in this month’s reviews share an excessive fondness of reality. In spite of that, or perhaps because of it, they add to the richness of our understanding.

McCauley, Robert N. & Lawson, E. Thomas, Bringing Ritual to Mind: Psychological Foundations of Cultural Forms, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002, softbound, 236 pages, ISBN 978-0-521-01629-2, list price $27.99, available on the Internet, new and used, from about $15.

I missed this book when it was published eight years ago. It is a very interesting study for those who are curious about ritual and how it works. Be advised up front, this is not a very easy read, especially if you are not conversant with the contemporary argot of psychology (which has greatly changed since my college days). Nevertheless, there is much of interest here. The authors are speaking primarily in terms of religious ritual, but it is not hard to apply it to Masonry. One of the interesting suggestions is that ritual can “work” if it is frequently repeated, but also if it is far less frequent but accompanied by greater impact and elaboration. It is interesting to speculate as to whether this may account for the effectiveness of both Blue Lodge ritual (which is engaged in much more often but which, except for the candidate, it not really accompanied by high emotional impact or elaborate staging) and Scottish Rite ritual, which is far less often performed but which usually involves more elaborate costume and props, even when it does not involve stage effects. There are interesting observations about the participation in ritual as well, which may play into the question of whether those participating think of themselves as ritualists or as actors.

Given my free choice, I’d prefer to think that ritual works because that’s what ritual does, more or less magically and without the intervention of the mundane human mind. But I must admit, the material here is very thought-provoking. The book is not for every interest, but for those who are curious about the ways in which ritual works, there is much to think about.

Klimczuk, Stephen & Warner, Gerald of Craigenmaddie, Secret Places, Hidden Sanctuaries: Uncovering Mysterious Sights, Symbols, and Societies. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2009, Hardbound, 260 pages, ISBN 978-1-4027-6207-9 List price $19.95 available on the Internet for about $14.00.

For a reality check without excessive spoil-sportage, this is a great book. It is written with wit and style (and occasional acid—the authors are not amused by those who make a cottage industry out of inventing Templar legends, for example). If the title suggests this is another romp through fairyland, be prepared for exactly the opposite. My father was fond of remarking that nothing spoils a good story like a blasted eye-witness, and the authors bring that spirit to the book. They are eager to destroy pretense, but equally ready to point out the real and celebrate its importance.

Their credentials are impressive. Klimczuk is “A world traveler and corporate strategist who recently served as head of strategy for late billionaire Sir John Templeton’s main private foundation.” In addition to working with Oxford University he is advisor to an impressive list of philanthropies and foundations. Warner (“The Much Honoured the Laird of Craigenmaddie,” to give him his formal title) is a Scottish Newspaper columnist, broadcaster, and author of six books on history, folklore, and curiosities.

There is a lot of information in the book about Masonic sites that I did not know. Among interesting Masonic sites you can read about is the Masonic Museum of the Grand Lodge of Austria, Schlosss Rosenau, which occupies part of the same space as a working Catholic chapel, or the Masonic Chapel at Pushkin, Russia, where the overthrow of the imperial Russian family may have been planned, or the Goetheanum.

The authors freely admit that Freemasonry is a very complex topic. “It is difficult … to characterize in a simple way a heterogeneous worldwide movement and brotherhood whose members have ranged from Mozart to Count Basie, Gerald Ford to Giuseppe Garibaldi—and from the Duke of Wellington to Duke Ellington.” Nevertheless, their discussion of the Fraternity is fair and rational.

Of course there are many other famous sites discussed as well, from the brooding castle which Himmler designed as the headquarters of the SS, to the shrine of the Oracle at Delphi, to Bollengin Tower on Lake Zurich, Switzerland, which Carl Jung built as a retreat for his study into psychology. I really enjoyed reading the book and learned a lot in the process.

Wood, Gordon S., Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, hardbound, 778 pages, illustrations, ISBN 978-0-19-503914-6, List price $35.00, available new and used on the Internet from about $19.00.

Professor Wood is known for a passion for reality which amounts nearly to an obsession. He is an excellent historian with an unimpeachable reputation and the gift of making history both approachable and fun. The book is part of the Oxford History of the United States series, which continues to receive the highest critical acclaim. This book would be well worth your time, even if it made no mention of the Fraternity at all.

However …

The institution that many Americans believed best embodied these cosmopolitan ideals of fraternity was Freemasonry. Not only did Masonry create enduring national icons (like the pyramid and the all-seeing eye of Providence on the Great Seal of the United States), but it brought people together in new ways and helped fulfill the republican dream of reorganizing social relationships. It was a major means by which thousands of Americans could think of themselves as especially enlightened.

Freemasonry took its modern meaning in Great Britain at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The first Grand Lodge was formed in London in 1717. By mid-century English Masonry was strong enough to provide inspiration and example to a worldwide movement. Although Masonry first appeared in the North American colonies in the 1730s, it grew slowly until mid-century, when membership suddenly picked up. By the eve of the Revolution dozens of lodges existed up and down the continent. Many of the Revolutionary leaders, including Washington, Franklin, Samuel Adams, James Otis, Richard Henry Lee, and Hamilton, were members of the fraternity.

Freemasonry was a surrogate religion for enlightened men suspicious of traditional Christianity. It offered ritual, mystery, and communality without the enthusiasm and sectarian bigotry of organized religion. But Masonry was not only an enlightened institution; with the Revolution, it became a republican one as well. As George Washington said, it was “a lodge for the virtues.” The Masonic lodges had always been places where men who differed in everyday affairs—politically, socially, even religiously—could “all meet amicably, and converse sociably together.” There in the lodges, the Masons told themselves, “we discover no estrangement of behavior, nor alienation of affection.” Masonry had always sought unity and harmony in a society increasingly diverse and fragmented. It traditionally had prided itself on being, as one Mason put it, “the Center of Union and the means of conciliating friendship among men that might otherwise have remained at perpetual distance.”

Nor is that the only reference. As I said, it would be a great book even if it did not make reference to Freemasonry. As it stands, it is a real treat. If you like your American history lively, it’s a safe bet you will enjoy this book.

Campbell, Joseph, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, originally published in 1949, illustrations, available in several editions as well as audio recording and download. Look on the Internet for the best price and format for you.

From time to time, I like to remind us all of very important books, even if they were written some time ago. New Brothers are always entering the Rite, and many may not even know the book exists.

It was sixty years ago that Campbell, a professor of comparative religion, published this seminal work. In it, he traces the story of the hero and the hero’s journey as it appears in many cultures and over many centuries. As to its importance to us, suffice it to say that the hero’s journey is the story of initiation. As he describes the elements of the journey, you can see the elements reflected in the Blue Lodge Degrees and also in those of the Rite. It is a book I always recommend to new Masons. Campbell proves that reality and mythology are really two faces of the same being.

An excessive concern for reality may merely be a different approach to the world of ideals.