The Story of the Story: A Review of the Boys in The Boat

Poughkeepsie. Most sports fans have never heard of this word that once filled the sports pages of the major newspapers. Those industrious enough to do a quick Google search of the term will discover a short definition of the word, a map, and a Wikipedia page that contains a few paragraphs about a sleepy town at the edge of the Hudson River. The amazing sports history tied to this term has almost completely faded from the American consciousness.

A Quick Overview

In all honesty, I too knew nothing of the word until I discovered the book, The Boys in the Boat, written by Daniel James Brown. In the span of 403 pages, Brown introduces his readers to the Poughkeepsie regatta and to the western college boys who overcame a world of adversity to best the Ivy League rowing crews at Poughkeepsie before securing Olympic gold in Berlin. I commend the author for rediscovering and then retelling this heroic tale of fortitude and perseverance that was accomplished by Joe Rantz, Roger Morris, and seven other determine, college students. As the pages turn, Brown places the reader on the edges of the Lake Washington, the Poughkeepsie and of the Grunau as he recounts the Washington University’s team’s various training exercises and multiple victories. Brown’s vivid details allow the reader to feel the boys’ powerful strokes as their racing shell, the Husky Clipper, glides past its competitors boats one seat at a time. Brown’s fulfills his mission to tell the narrative of the boys in the boat who made the 1936 Olympics. It is a story well worth remembering.

The Story of the Story

Though the book was phenomenal, I found the need for the book to be as thought provoking as the story printed on its pages. 

As Brown notes, rowing has not always been an obscure pastime. The author reminds us that, “In the 1930s and 1920s, collegiate crew was wildly popular, often ranking right up there with baseball and collegiate football in the amount of press it received and the crowds it drew.” In 1939, 125,000 fans came to watch the Poughkeepsie regatta. Radio listenership for the major rowing races came to rival the Kentucky Derby, the Rose Bowl, and the World Series. Kids even swapped trading cards of their favorite crews.

What exactly happened to the sport of collegiate rowing pushes beyond the bounds of this book. But its modern obscurity remains a fact. Where it not so, this book would not be necessary. The author recounts in the prologue how Joe Rantz’s gold medal had gone missing only to be discovered years later in a squirrel’s nest tucked away behind a wall. Picking up on the anecdote, Brown writes, “it occurred to me that Joe’s story like the medal, had been squirreled away out of sight for too long.” I am thankful that Brown was able to retrieve the story of the Husky Clipper.

Fame Does Not Last

But the fact that Joe and his boat could almost disappear from the American, public consciousness reveals that the philosopher Albert Camus was on to something. Our earthly legacy does depend a great deal on those who survive them. If one generation forgets us, our story can be lost from the halls of history forever. If a team of world-renowned fame can almost completely disappear from the modern consciousness, most of us average Joe’s and bland Betty’s face even worse odds. To quote the wise king Solomon who was reflective in his own right, “the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten (Ecc. 9:5).” If you doubt Solomon, I challenge you to recall the name of your grandmother’s grandmother without referencing your genealogy. How did that go? Don’t feel bad, I can’t do it either. We can all be easily forgotten. To quote Solomon again, “a living dog is better than a dead lion (Ecc 9:4).”

To his credit Joe Rantz was happy to be forgotten. The man who was content to let a squirrel steal his gold medal while he hauled logs down a mountain lived for much more than the fame of the moment. He enjoyed life with his bride and his children whom he loved deeply as evidence by their ability to share Joe’s various stories with Brown. To some degree, I think Joe Rantz understood that life was more than sports fame which can be lost far easier than it can be won.

Solomon also understood this principle, declaring most things to be vanity except the fear of the Lord. The story of Joe’s story reminds us all of the importance of heeding Ecclesiastes 9:13 which offers this overview of human life, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” Sports Fame is fleeting. The Fear of the Lord lasts forever. Choose wisely.

Final Thoughts

The story of Joe Rantz and the boys in the boat could easily be one of the best sports stories of all time. Brown should be commended for having preserved this captivating tale for yet another generation of readers. But I find the epistemological meaning found within the story of the story to be of even greater value. To stand atop the platform of eternity, men and women must do more than strain for earthly gold. To achieve that which cannot be destroyed by rust or faulty memories, men and women must heed the wisdom of Solomon and pursue righteousness, trusting God to care for the rest.

In other words, don’t waste your life pursuing that which can be stolen by a squirrel.

The Books on My Bookshelf 2019

favorite books of 2019Had you told 13 year-old Peter Witkowski that he would be reading thousands of pages every year, his eyes would have rolled upward and his mouth would have broken into a sarcastic laugh.  Despite my youthful misgivings and limited prophetic abilities, I have come to love books. I count them as some of my truest friends. They have guided, encouraged, and challenged my heart and mind.

Given my academic studies and profession, my tastes unapologetically bend towards history and theology. Though I read a good deal of academic literature, I have found such literature to possess an engaging sense of readability. Below are the three books that most prominently snuck into my conversations with April Witkowski and a few others in 2019. Though all are not academic in nature, I found all of them to be enjoyable reads.

George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father

Thomas Kidd

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“With apologies to the Beatles, George Whitefield was the first “British sensation.” The missionary to Georgia quickly outgrew the confines of his Savannah assignment and metamorphosed into the first great American preacher. He profoundly shaped the America Christianity as he preached to overflowing churches, challenged other pastors to preach the doctrines of grace, denounced the faculties of Harvard and Yale for their lack of spiritual vigor, and employed the technology of the printing press with unprecedented skill. Since his death, historians have either stomped upon the preacher’s grave in frustration or have desecrated his memory by pulling out one or two choice biblical lessons that ignore the scope of his life and ministry. Kidd attempts to avoid both extremes. He explores and defends Whitefield’s robust faith, giving credence to the preacher’s spiritual believes and experiences. But Kidd also wrestles with Whitefield’s faults, chronicling his odd (and at times comical) interactions with women, his self-awarded sense of grandeur, and his promotion of slavery. Kidd provides readers with a sympathetic and honest presentation of the first “British sensation”

Whitefield may have adopted modern marketing and communication methods, then, but his message was traditional and Calvinist. Instead of softening his view on the depravity of man in response to humanitarian critics, he emphasized original sin more. Whitefield spoke regularly of how people in their lost state became “sunk into the nature of the beast and the devil.

America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation

Grant Wacker

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Readers who engage Grant Wacker’s book will discover a wealth of insights into the depth of breath of Billy Graham’s influence over America. Wacker looks at how southern culture, the civil rights, the economy, and many other factors shaped Graham and were shaped by him. While Wacker paints an endearing picture of Graham’s heart for reaching the lost, the author also deals with the pragmatic realities of Graham’s life and ministry, discussing how Graham worked with Mormons, interacted with racists, and formed an almost monolithic support base middle-class, white evangelicals. Those seeking to understand the many and varied ways Billy Graham’s life has shaped their culture will find Wacker’s book to be a fascinating and beneficial read.

To say that Graham possessed an uncanny ability to adopt trends in the wider culture and then use them for his evangelistic and moral-reform ability purposes is another way of saying he possessed an uncanny ability to speak both for and to the times. Speaking for required him to communicate in a registrar his listeners could hear. He legitimated their social location by guaranteeing that their values would count…Yet…he spoke to them as well. He helped shape their consciousness…Speaking to Americans mean that he challenged them to live up to their self-professed values of biblical equality, moral integrity, and social compassion.

Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: The Mavericks Who Plotted Hitler’s Defeat

Giles Milton

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Prior to World War 2, to be British was to be one who championed “decency and fair play.” But as the Nazi military machine filled Europe with death, Winston Churchill decided to liberate the British army from her people’s high sense of morality. The Prime Minister empowered Cecil Clarke, Colin Gubbins and others to research and deploy the dirtiest tools of warfare. The stories that follow appear more fanciful than the tale of Beau Geste. Yet these stories arise not from Milton’s imagination but from the British National Archives. Readers cannot help but be drawn into the tales of misfiring rockets that became for the first anti-tank weapons, daring assignation attempts that snuffed out hated Nazi leaders, and commandos raids that resulted in ships disappearing into the night. As author P.C. Wren noted in 1926, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Milton has rediscovered this maxim afresh, providing his readers with a fantastic read. In addition to chronicling the spies’ bravado, Milton found ways to discuss the humanity of his subjects, weaving details into his book about how their sixteen hour days and long alcohol filled nights strained marriages, enhanced their grief, and resulted in a tank being driven to church. Milton has put together a compelling string of stories that reveal both the strategic benefits and the human cost of Churchhill’s ungentlemanly warfare.

A Ministry of Ungentlemanly warfare. If its name was amusing, its role was anything but. It was to subvert the conventions of war – punch below the belt…Any German target, however soft, was to be considered fair game, and no weapon was to be considered off limits. “This from of activity was of the very highest importance.’ Said Churchill.

Review of: The Big Picture Interactive 52-Week Bible Story Devotional

Sargeant, Anna. The Big Picture Interactive 52-Week Bible Story Devotional. B&H Publishing Group, Nashville, 2016. pp224. $13.49

I cannot lie. I am a big fan of the Gospel Project and all things related to it. It combats the biblical ignorance of our day by walking families through every book of the Bible. With colorful pictures, great lesson, and fun crafts, the study shows kids how all of scriptures points to the gospel of Jesus Christ. In addition to producing great Sunday school materials, the Gospel Project brand via Lifeway has produced a ton of great resources for the home. They’ve released board book Bibles, children’s Bibles, and a student study Bible that empower parents to reach their kids with the gospel.

And now Lifeway has released its first Gospel Project devotional for kids called, The Big Picture Interactive 52-Week Bible Story Devotional For Kids. Although the title is not too catchy, the content is! If you are looking for a great devotional for grade school kids that will connect them to the story of Jesus, then this is the devotional for you!

How It Works

As the title suggests, the devotion is divided into 52 weeks. Each week stars with a one page devotion filled with application from a Bible story such as creation, the ten commandments, or the parable of the sower. The next page contains a colorful picture that your kids might recognize from Sunday school with a brief summary of the story underneath it.

Turn the page, and you come across a whole host of additional information. There is a “Read It” section, containing verses that show how the principles of the story appear all over the Bible. Underneath the “Read It” section, the “Christ Connection” shows how the story fits into the entire gospel narrative. Also a QR code on the page links you to the Gospel Project Sunday School video that creatively recounts the Bible story you just read.big picture devotoin

On the next page over there are three sections: “Live Big.,” “Big Picture Questions,” and “Dear God.” The “Live Big” section is full of great ideas that will help your kids apply scriptures. The activities include everything from planting seeds, to praying for the lost, to getting your family to do a trust fall (You might want dad for that one). The “Big Picture Questions” help kids apply the lesson to their own lives, by challenging them to think about whether they would obey God or cheat on a test. Would they be willing to love the bully next door? Lastly, each devotion ends with a “Dear God” section. It is a prayer designed to show the kids how they can ask God to equip them for every good work in light of what they have just studied.

How you go through the material is up to you. You could do it in a day, a few days, or stretch it out over the whole week. Regardless of how you do it, this devotion brings the truths of the Bible into your kids’ lives through stories, Bible reading, videos, activities, discussions, and prayers. With so many resources at their disposal, parents should be able to connect their kids to the gospel.

What To Like:

Of all the kid’s devotionals I’ve come across, this is one of the best because it faithfully teaches Jesus in a kid friendly manner. It helps kids to see that salvation comes through Christ alone through faith alone. And then it helps them to understand what it means to be a Christian in real life. Because the devotion covers the full scope of the biblical narrative, it touches on a ton of relevant topics for kids and their families. It talks about death, suffering, how to fight the urge to work our way to heaven, how to overcome the fear of man, and much more. In short, the devotion hits on a ton of the issues of that kids struggles with day in and day out. And as families work through the stories and illustrations, they will learn that God’s word is relevant for their lives and hopefully grow in their faith.

What Not To Like:

Although, the devotion does many things well, it has a few draw backs. First, there are no big picturedirect scripture references. Although the devotions are filled with supporting scriptures, the reader is never told where the Bible stories come from. I feel that having the scripture references printed somewhere in the devotional would help the kids and parents grasp that the stories are historical. Second, a few of the devotions such as the one about Zacharias and the one on Samson, assume that the reader already knows the story (p.76, 122). The “Hear It” section does offer a short explanation of the story. But I could easily see a reader doing these devotions and not gaining a full understanding of that particular biblical text. And lastly, some of the devotions focus on secondary points of application. For example when talking about Samson on page 76, the devotion says we need to trust that God is always working. And while this is true conclusion, I think the main point of Samson’s story is that Samson shows our need for Jesus, the true deliver. And thankfully, the “Christ Connection” says just that. “Jesus would come as the last Deliverer, saving through His life and His death those who would trust in him” (p.78). Sometimes, I wish the “Christ Connection” was the devotion.  But at the end of the day, these are all minor concerns. Anna has done a great job of walking people through the Bible in 52 lessons. This was not an easy task.

Final Thoughts

Like all of the other Gospel Project for Kids materials to date, the 52-week devotional does not disappoint. It is a great resource for families with grade schoolers. The devotions are filled with illustrations that most every kid can relate to. (Using the stories of Corrie Ten Boom and Martin Luther King to explain the gospel is an added plus). Moreover, the “Live Big” and “Big Picture Questions” sections show kids how to insert the gospel into their lives. How great would it be if every kid applied the scriptures by praying for their lost cousins, by doing the dishes, and by getting the bully at school a birthday present? If you are looking for a devotional that will help your young family understand and apply the narratives of the Bible, get this new devotional.

And if your church is like mine and currently uses the Gospel Project Curriculum, this devotional will be an even bigger blessing. It will enable you to work in tandem with your church I will allow your church to reinforce your family worship time.

Are you ready to get copy of the 52 Week Bible Story Devotional?

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