The Masonic Myth, by Jay Kinney (Softcover, 2009)|
(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)
Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.
Kinney did a really good job with this book. He clearly stated his goals in the Introduction, setting expectations for the reader. Then he competently met those expectations and, in some cases, exceeded them.
Like most people, I had very little idea of what the Masonry was about (before reading this). The relatively few things published about the Masons have generally been of such dubious integrity that a discerning reader must dismiss them as agenda-driven propaganda rather than serious non-fiction on the subject.
Some of the information in the public sphere is very positive. For example, we've all seen the Shriners at the parades and are aware of their good works with Children's Hospitals. Granted, the connection to Masons is weak enough that some of us don't make it but it's still there for the observant to see.
As there's no sensationalized agenda for this work, there's no sinister plot or alarmist message to hook the reader. That's one of the "problems" with true nonfiction in general. Of course, there are exceptions--for example, when the work is about a bizarre event, a tragedy, or a famous criminal.
Writing a factual book about the Masons is a challenge in itself, for several reasons. Making it interesting is a further challenge, also for several reasons. Kinney handled these challenges well, with a combination of dry wit, logic, and good writing. From his 30 or so pages of notes, we can conclude that his work is also heavily researched. That research is especially valuable, because it wasn't from the outside looking in. He is a practicing Mason, but not just an "ordinary" one. He's the librarian and director of research for the San Francisco Scottish Rite, plus he's heavily connected in other ways. If he has a question, he is positioned extremely well to get the right answer.
Reasons that writing a factual book about the Masons is a challenge include:
- There is no monolithic Mason Order, Society, or other form of
organization. Thus, there is no central information source. Not even
- Most of the previous works are grossly inaccurate, poorly
researched, hyperbolic, and agenda-driven.
- Masonry is practiced in autonomous "Lodges" that are divided
geographically. They have their own bylaws and officers. They don't
follow the bylaws of any "home office" and there are no "higher"
officers coordinating things. So the facts vary depending on which
group you're looking at.
- The largest body of facts would be the "degrees," which are
intricate initiation rituals. While the symbols used in these
rituals are widely on display, the actual rituals vary by "Lodge"
and members are supposed to keep those details secret.
Reasons that making a factual book about the Masons interesting is a challenge include:
- There really isn't anything sensational to write about. The
details of the rituals are not all that interesting. That is not to
say the rituals are boring, as they apparently are not. There's a
reason why people play basketball rather than sit around reading
books describing how basketball is played--it's the experience that
they find interesting.
- While lack of something sinister or sensational prevents the
author from writing an expose, the need for editorial integrity also
prevents him from writing a hyped up "rosier than real" marketing
- The basic elements are history and secrets. The history hasn't
influenced world events, and the "secrets" are the details of the
- The main purpose of Masonry is to provide a brotherhood network
and moral standards for men. These things, while of great benefit to
the participants, are not "exciting" in the modern era.
Here's a fact that surprised me: About 95% of today's masons are over the age of 70. Now, that's interesting....
This book consists of 11 Chapters. The first four tell us the history of Masonry (which he refers to as The Craft). The thumbnail here is that many centuries ago, some construction tradesmen called masons (bricklayers, essentially) formed an association of fellow masons. These associations morphed over time (the particulars are in the book) from being "worker" oriented to being "philosopher" oriented (my words). Despite the name, few modern Masons spend their days picking up a trowel with one hand and a brick with the other (in fact, I have a cousin who is a mason but not a Mason). Understanding that history helps the reader understand today's Masonic orders.
Chapter 5 explains the structure, such that it is, of Masonry. This is far simpler than is widely assumed.
Chapters 6 and 7 explain the rites, rituals, and degrees of Masonry. This is the area in which Masons pledge their secrecy, but the author gives us enough information for us to get the general idea. Not much "there" there, unless you are actively involved yourself.
Many conspiracy theorists provide cloud cover for the real conspiracies all around us, by engaging in ridiculous speculation that defies the known facts. Several books exist on this problem, and the author gives a nice summation of the conspiracy theory self-delusion process. Yes, there are conspiracies. But the ones that get the most press usually exist only in the imaginations of those who expound on them. They get a notion, then cherry pick (and usually distort) facts or alleged facts to support that notion.
Masonry has been a victim of this kind of "analysis," and most of that centers on the "Satanic" symbols of Masonry. As you read the alleged "evidence," you find that it typically is based on "secret" Masonic symbols. I have always found that hilarious, because Masons wear various emblems with those same symbols right on their suit coat jackets. That's a strange way to keep a secret. In Chapter 8, Kinney explains what various symbols mean. None of them, of course, have anything to do with world domination. The symbols largely represent personal virtues, and the purpose of the symbols is to help the individual Mason keep those virtues in mind.
Chapters 9 and 10 explore some of the more grandiose claims about Masonry. I've never read a cogent argument in the positive on such claims, so was never convinced. In these chapters, Kinney's analysis shows why those arguments fail.
The final chapter examines the future of Masonry. It's bleak. Masonry is anachronistic in many ways. For example, the dress code and formality fit the 1950s very well but do not enjoy the same level of appeal today. Kinney provides the actual numbers, but suffice it to say that it's the rare Mason who doesn't qualify for membership in the AARP and Masonry rolls have been on a steady decline for decades.
I'm not going to say whether I think Masonry has outlived its usefulness. In my own case, I simply do not have time to participate in something like this no matter how beneficial it might be. The author, of course, is not happy with the current trend.
Masonry itself hasn't been at the center of world events, so there isn't the practical "need" to read this book as there would be for, say, a book on managing personal finances. However, this book offers a value that Kinney probably didn't intend and that isn't mentioned on the jacket. I feel this value more than justifies the price of the book.
What value might that be? Let me precede the answer with a short explanation. I see half-baked, irrational "arguments" all the time. They dominate our culture, political sphere, and what passes for "news" in the "mudstream" media. When I was on the Debate Team in High School (so long ago, it seems it was just before Moses crossed the Red Sea), we had to construct an argument a certain way for it to be valid. Debates weren't won on the basis of who was loudest or most shocking, who could make up the most absurdities about the other side.
One core aspect of debating back then was you had to prepare a case both for and against the proposition, and argue each side at various times. This forced you to see an issue objectively, and discourse on it the same way. This ability to think rationally and objectively is fairly gone, today. Maybe it's one of the anachronisms the Masons cling to as their membership declines.
Kinney's book is an example of how to present an objective discourse on something, using valid arguments. He does it time and again, drawing from verifiable fact gleaned from reputable sources. He puts the facts together with logic (a basic tool of reasoning that is normally abused or absent altogether in today's culture). A person reading this book can experience what proper analysis is. That can be a lesson for those not aware of it, or it can be a source of encouragement for those, like me, who mourn its near absence today.