FROM MY BOOKSHELF: Lessons from Lives Past

By LeRoy Lawson

Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer
Tim Jeal
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007

Cleopatra: A Biography
Duane W. Roller
London: Oxford University Press, 2010

George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I
Miranda Carter
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010

“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Who hasn’t heard Henry Stanley’s famous greeting when, after an incredibly arduous search for the missing missionary-explorer, he uttered this premeditated, deliberately understated line?

More Than a Counterfeit

That greeting, frankly, is about all I could have told you of the man before reading Tim Jeal’s Stanley. I didn’t know he was an illegitimate child named John Rowlands who
was reared in a Welsh workhouse, disowned his family, ran away to America, fought in the Civil War, worked as a journalist, pretended to be adopted by a prosperous businessman named Henry Hope Stanley, passed himself off for most of his life as an American, and, when he became the 19th-century’s foremost African explorer and a member of the British Parliament, gave up an attempt to write his autobiography because he couldn’t square his real life’s story with his fabricated one.

And yet, and yet. He can’t be passed off as a mere counterfeit. The truth is, he did find David Livingstone, and he did open up much of what later became known as the Belgian Congo, and, in spite of later accusations against him, he contributed hugely to the abolishing of European trafficking in slaves. He was and, to this reader, at least, remains a fascinating, complicated, even sympathetic character.

Jeal, who earlier wrote a myth-shattering biography of Livingstone (presenting a far more complex, far less saintly version of the man whose life inspired me as a teenager), here takes advantage of Stanley’s archived documents that go far to resuscitating Stanley’s reputation as, for his time, a compassionate man and a genuine lover of Africa and Africans. One grieves that in his final years, dominated by his politically ambitious wife, he was unable to return to the land he loved.

If you share my interest in the history of missions in Africa, you’ll find Jeal’s book, which does not treat this subject directly, paints the backdrop of the mysteries and horrors Stanley faced again and again so vividly. You’ll have a new appreciation for the missionary pioneers who introduced their faith to what we often still hear called “the dark continent.”

More Than a Beauty

To a person old enough to remember Elizabeth Taylor’s portrayal of Cleopatra and who was a student and onetime professor of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Duane Roller’s Cleopatra offers a necessary, if somewhat disillusioning, corrective. She wasn’t a stunning beauty like, say, Helen of Troy in Homer’s Iliad. Her power wasn’t in her sexual allure, but in her political cunning. Never secure on the Ptolemaic throne in Egypt, she wooed and won first Julius Caesar, with whom she had a son, and then Mark Antony, who gave her other sons.

Romance may
have been involved— at least feigned ro-
mance was. But when Julius and then
Antony ruled the world, the queen of Egypt needed their alliance (as did another ruler a little better known to the Christian reader—Herod the Great of Israel, who was in many ways Cleopatra’s chief rival for Rome’s blessings).

Reading Roller is a good reminder that the biblical record did not emerge from nowhere. Jesus was born during Herod’s reign; his parents were refugees in Egypt not long after Cleopatra’s reign. Octavius, who ruled Rome at the time, defeated and succeeded Mark Antony, and is the biblical Caesar Augustus who issued the “decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world” that sent Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

When I was a young man my preacher told a Sunday school class that he had seen Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, an admission that shocked some of our more staid members. Then he added that it was good to try to understand the world into which Jesus came. Well, you can debate whether that movie was the best introduction to that world, but his point has remained with me. Roller’s biography serves that end. Welcome to Egypt.

More Is Never Enough

I don’t understand the popular fascination with royalty. When Princess Diana and Mother Teresa died on the same day, the saintly missionary’s passing was barely noted in the press—all eyes were on the Princess, the paragon of glamour and privilege. And now the media hounds her sons and her ex-husband Charles, snooping for bits of gossip to titillate and defame.

My wife, Joy, and I have been in Europe several times. Whenever possible, we’ve visited cathedrals and museums—and palaces. I find the palaces depressing. We do the appropriate oohing and aahing over the gilded decorations and magnificent gardens and ballrooms and throne rooms and sitting rooms and bedrooms and way-too-many other rooms.

But sometimes we get to see where the servants lived. And how. And where the peasants starved and fought their masters’ wars of conquest and of pride.

And we wonder, is there any limit to greed? Is power ever satisfied? Is enough ever enough? How many palaces does it take to satisfy the royal ego? And how many minions must die to satiate the royal lust for blood?

King George of England, Tsar Nicholas of Russia, and Kaiser Wilhelm of Prussia were cousins, descendants of Queen Victoria. They ruled over competing countries, mixing family politics with national interests, convinced of their superiority, oblivious to their people’s interests, and finally responsible for the jealousies and rivalries that led to the disaster now known as World War I. When the war was over and the Bolsheviks were in power, Nicholas Romanov and his family were assassinated and the Russian monarchy was obliterated. Wilhelm’s reign collapsed and paved the way for Nazi Germany and Hitler’s rise to power and descent into madness. King George survived, but only because England had long since defanged the monarch and made it irrelevant.

Absolute Power

The lesson to be learned in reading these biographies? Nothing new. We already know “there is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). That’s from the Bible. From Lord Acton comes the reminder, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

My old preacher was right. We do need to know something of the world into which Jesus came. And the world into which Jesus’ disciples go with the gospel and the character of those disciples. Rulers of all generations—and all forms of government, even church autocracies—have always lorded it over others.

“But it must not be so among you.”

LeRoy Lawson, international consultant with Christian Missionary Fellowship International, is a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and a member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee. His column appears at least monthly.

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