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Book Review of: The Masonic Myth

Unlocking the truth about the symbols, the secret rights, and the history of Freemasonry

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Review of The Masonic Myth, by Jay Kinney (Softcover, 2009)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: 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 close.
  • 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 piece.
  • The basic elements are history and secrets. The history hasn't influenced world events, and the "secrets" are the details of the initiation rites.
  • 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.




About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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