A Day Late and [Several] Dollar(s) Short V: Catching Up Edition

From time to time, I [briefly] review movies. Not movies that are new, which the watching public may be eagerly awaiting information about, but usually movies that were new recently—and which I’ve finally gotten around to watching (most often on DVD, thanks to the local library). This time, a free month of Netflix, Prime, and a few weeks off from seminary studies helped expand the selections to some TV shows and documentaries as well. Here, in no particular order, are my thoughts.

Toy Story 4
Sequels are the worst. Unless, of course, they’re not. Toy Story 2 was arguably better than the original, and Toy Story 3 was excellent as well—if also a little dark and emotionally manipulative. Even with that track record, I didn’t hold out much hope for yet another installment. But, true to form, Woody, Buzz, & co. pulled out another improbable victory, sucking us back in and even giving new characters (Duke Kaboom!) room to come to life and shine for a moment. I guess we’re the ideal target audience for these films—Rachel & I were 11 (just like Andy) in 1995, and the movies have grown up with us, with themes (moving away from home in Toy Story 3; dealing with all our kids’ toys in Toy Story 4, etc.) that roughly parallel our life experience.

Shorter Toy Story 4: Maybe *I* am a sad, strange, little man.


The Rise of Skywalker
The one theater visit of this set of reviews, for good measure. The tradition of Star Wars on the big screen is almost as old as the tradition of Star Wars stringing along fans with a hope for an engaging storyline. If there’s a bright center to the universe of film, we’re on the planet that it’s farthest from. Even so, this final installment wasn’t unwatchably awful—some of it was actually quite good. If anything, the mistake here was J.J. Abrams trying to atone for all of the awful in the universe with a smorgasbord of fan service that doesn’t linger on anything long enough to let us savor it. There’s a nice enough bow on the ending that I think I can resist the temptation to ever spend money on this property again, no matter what Disney throws at us. Baby Yoda notwithstanding.

Shorter The Rise of Skywalker: Is it over?


Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Any movie released back in summer that can still hold its own with nominations and wins during awards season is usually worth exploring. I got snookered into watching Pulp Fiction nearly 20 years ago, and haven’t had the stomach for Tarantino since, but I’d heard enough people talking about Once Upon a Time to give it a try. Brad Pitt is truly astonishing in this movie, the whole thing is very funny, and the revisionist history of the violent death of the golden age is a nice thought experiment, but there are points where it all still seems like an elaborate excuse to commit footage of some gratuitous carnage to the archives. Here is a good plot and great acting that almost drowns in its excesses.

Shorter Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: The least Tarantino Tarantino film, but he still can’t help himself.


Ad Astra
On the subject of Brad Pitt being truly astonishing, I submit to you this movie. It is just as understated (not a word, I’ll grant, that often gets bestowed on space dramas) as Hollywood is garish. This is science fiction at its most visceral, and the space-as-blank-canvas-for-revealing-character motif at near perfect pitch. James Gray manages to use the entire solar system as a backdrop for a story about two people, only one of whom we really see much of—and most of his lines are delivered as internal dialogue.

Shorter Ad Astra: Good science fiction always points you back toward reality.


Chernobyl
I was able to catch up on this HBO miniseries via a few Delta flights last fall, and the intensity of this story didn’t lose anything to the tiny screen—if anything the setting amplified it, leaving me at least a few times wandering around an airport gasping for breath afterward. Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, and the rest of the cast suck you into 1980s Soviet groupthink and sycophancy. Gut-wrenching visual effects make you feel their human and environmental costs. A parable for our time on the dark places truth-shading and lack of curiosity will lead us.

Shorter Chernobyl: Some of the best historical storytelling I’ve seen.


The Crown—Season 3
The first two seasons of this show are so well done that I keep waiting for an inevitable letdown. The subject matter is just one bad script away from veering off into Downton Abbey banality—with the added soul-crushing value that these episodes are about real people and real politics. But Peter Morgan keeps pulling it off, bringing life and a real measure of relatability to one of the most recognizable and wealthy families on earth. Even the cast change this season wasn’t a net loss, with Tobias Menzies’ Prince Philip given many opportunities to steal the show (especially in “Moondust”).

Shorter The Crown: Fake people are people, too.


The Irishman
I’ve always liked Scorsese, but never his mob movies. This is, for film buffs everywhere, a heresy. Even so, this one rather insisted on being seen, perhaps a swan song of one of the great artists of our time. There were shortcomings—the incorporation of so many historical events in the backdrop made it feel a bit like Forrest Gump, but with a lot more blood—but most of the bold moves paid off. The 3.5 hour running time and much-vaunted de-aging technology are hardly noticeable as the story of men with too much money and too few outlets for healthy friendship and competition unrolls to its inevitably disastrous conclusions.

Shorter The Irishman: Death comes for us all, why not reflect on your life before then?


Marriage Story
Movies about divorce aren’t supposed to be cute and enjoyable, but this one had lots of quiet humor in the midst of a rolling disaster. The acting is superb top to bottom (and as a lifelong M*A*S*H fan, I’m always a sucker for Alan Alda bit parts), and the script is tight, never letting you lose sight of what a tragedy divorce and custody battles are, whatever the circumstances. The two leads are so well developed that it avoids simply retreading Kramer v. Kramer for a new generation. They’re so well developed in that their personalities hit me a little close to home. I nearly lost it when Charlie (Adam Driver’s character) breaks into “Being Alive” from Company at the end, not just because it’s inherently moving, but because belting out show tunes at karaoke seems about how I might process personal devestation.

Shorter Marriage Story: People are complex, broken, and all your feelings run together and come out at odd times. Also: this.


The Report
If you like to believe settled patterns of political life fall into neat ideological buckets, or worse, that there are more or less “good” guys and “bad” guys sorted tidily into partisan camps, don’t watch this movie. It takes an unblinking stare at the bowels of the CIA and U.S. foreign policy, and how people from other countries (even people with evil intentions and associations) are dehumanized by both parties (in this case, the Bush and Obama administrations) when it suits political needs at home. Easily the best political thriller since All the President’s Men, miraculously turning a 6,700-page government document into 2 hours of taut intrigue.

Shorter The Report: America is doomed. Also, does Adam Driver sleep?


American Factory
The flow of many familiar narratives is a journey from stasis to crisis to resolution. Sometimes, however, the bell curve inverts, and a story goes from despair to joy and back to despair. This is the case with American Factory—a multi-year tale of the shuttering of a GM plant in Dayton, Ohio, and its re-opening as an auto glass manufacturing site for a Chinese corporation. The nature of work, family, just wages, unions, safety, intercultural cooperation, and hope are all explored in depth. The filmmakers capture candid conversation so well, you almost forget that it’s a documentary.

Shorter American Factory: America is doomed


Edge of Democracy
There are few things Americans are less well-versed in than political occurrences in other countries. For that reason alone, this fine documentary chronicling the rise and fall of the Brazilian Workers Party through the impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff and speciously legal arrest and imprisonment of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is worth your time. The lessons for a politically divided U.S. (and, more to the point, its sharpening class divide) are there for those with eyes to see. The film is that much more remarkable for director Petra Costa’s ability to see her own family’s entanglement in both sides of the conflict, giving its incisive political observations a personal edge.

Shorter Edge of Democracy: America is doomed


The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Coen Brothers are definitely part of the “love-’em-or-hate-’em” school—you can’t ignore their work if your like movies, but they’re not to everyone’s taste. In Buster Scruggs, this is on full display, not just once, but six times. The movie is really 6 narratively disconnected shorts in a classic Western style held together by themes of death, fear, greed, and pride with trademark Coen dark humor. If you like this (which I do), it works quite well as an allegory for many aspects of American life and culture. If you don’t (which my wife does not), it really just turns the stomach to no greater purpose.

Shorter The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: America is doomed, but probably in a piecemeal, individual-demises-pooling-into-disaster sort of way.


The Two Popes
The retirement of Pope Benedict XVI and ascension of Pope Francis in 2013 remains one of the most remarkable (and controversial) papal transitions in Roman Catholic history. Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles explores this time in a fictionalized account of a visit between then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) and Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) at the papal estate, using this conversation to explore the church’s past and its future. The result is a dialogue between the need for openness, love, and evangelism and the need for structure, stability, and courage that shows the vitality and grace of Christianity, whatever tradition you examine.

Shorter The Two Popes: Tension is actually the key to hope.


The Good Place
I can’t remember the last time I felt like binge-watching a sitcom, but I got sucked into The Good Place last month, and decided to plow right through to the series finale (on Jan. 30). This is possible—because the whole series only has about 55 episodes—and probably a fine way to watch, since the story arc follows more of the pattern of a dramatic series even as it keeps the character-driven focus of a sitcom. While there are plenty of Hollywood tropes (primarily constant sexual references) that bog things down, the end result is a series that is incredibly funny, but also heartwarming and philosophical. The creators force viewers to think about morality, death, friendship, and the purpose of existence in the face of eternal ennui. In essence, the show provides a fine exploration of the unimaginative nature of many Americans’ vaguely Christian (or vaguely Buddhist) visions of heaven and hell. Mostly, I come away thankful for Jesus (as opposed to the show’s “point system” for determining one’s afterlife) and for a robust biblical vision of the new Jerusalem as a place of creative work in fellowship with God (as opposed to a “heaven” of eternal pleasure).

Shorter The Good Place: It’s telling that the only place this sort of conversation can break out in our culture is in a sitcom.

Header image: Rock in North Chickamauga Creek, March 2016.

Books of the Year that Was, 2019 ed.

So, another year has come to an end, and it’s time for another list of books I’ve read since January. As with each year’s list (see 20182017, 2016, and 2015, for reference), these are not necessarily books released in 2019 (though some are), but books that I encountered this year. Short reviews follow for a few, clustered around some broad categories.

As a seminary student (with a full-time job and four kids), I also should give a special shout-out to our library’s excellent selection of audiobooks, without which I would not get to read nearly as many things as I’d like.

Christian Theology and Practice

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone
This is haunting and, for theological conservatives whose blood pressure goes up at the mention of Cone’s name, christologically and exegetically robust. A very painful contextualization of the gospel message to the American scene, made more painful by the fact that Cone goes straight at a part of our history that has been systemically erased from our collective conscious (and conscience). By identifying the injustice of spuriously legal or extrajudicial murder of innocent African Americans who dared to question the status quo of Jim Crow with Jesus’ crucifixion, Cone sheds light on aspects of the power of the gospel witness that are often overlooked by dominant cultural groups.

On the Road with St. Augustine by James K.A. Smith
Not that I ever expect Jamie Smith to let me down, but this book was astonishingly punchy, deep, and tender. I picked this up right after finally reading The Confessions, and it provided quite the chaser, deepening the takeaways I’d made from the classic. In many ways a passion project attempting to rescue Augustine from a mask of dour, proto-medieval theology and show (with the aid of Smith’s trademark weaving of philosophy and pop culture) how he is instead a guide and traveling companion for Christians seeking to follow Christ in a dark, hungry, and confusing world.

The Book of Pastoral Rule by Gregory the Great
For the past couple of years, I’ve been part of a local reading group of the Paideia Center. The group itself is marvelous, and our Chattanooga chapter includes men and women from multiple denominations and age groups. This fall, we read Gregory’s appeal for churchmen retreating into monasticism to consider the weighty calling of pastoral ministry instead. In his practical application of Scripture to people of various personalities and experiences, Gregory is chock full of worthwhile counsel—reading like a more complex and thorough enneagram resource from the 6th century. His allegorical interpretations of Scripture make some hermeneutical leaps that seem foreign to modern ears, but they are worth wading through to have our interpretive frames challenged by Christians across the ages.

All That’s Good by Hannah Anderson
A gifted writer (who, I might add, also curates one of the most insightful Twitter profiles around), Anderson always brings to her books a wealth of metaphors, reminding us that seeing a well-worn truth through the refraction of a new facet reveals new depths of blessing, reproof, and call. Here, she considers the spiritual discipline of discernment from a variety of angles, making a fine case for the cultivation of a “taste” for the wonder of the world and the joy of following Christ.

Separated by the Border by Gena Thomas
The decades-long humanitarian crisis unfolding in many central American countries has finally begun to capture the attention of U.S. Christians, thanks in large part to revelations of the federal government’s policy of separating migrant and asylum-seeking children from their parents. Gena Thomas (who I’m proud to call a friend and co-worker) and her family provided foster care to one of these children for several months, and were able to see her reunited with her mother in Honduras. In this gripping story, Gena simultaneously produces a tender, vulnerable memoir and a bold call for justice for the immigrant the oppressed and the orphan.

History/Biography/Cultural Observation

Fundamentalist U by Adam Laats
As an alumnus of Bryan College, a non-denominational Christian liberal arts school birthed out of the heyday of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy (in the town where the 1925 Scopes Trial took place and named after its star prosecutor) that has seen more than its fair share of recent debacles, I was intrigued by this historical analysis of independent Christian higher ed. Laats has produced a remarkably fair yet hard-hitting history of bible institutes, colleges, and universities that ends up connecting many themes of the broader American Christian movement in the 20th century—from church splits to evangelical obsessions with politics to global missions and domestic opposition to civil rights.

The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward E. Baptist
All my life, I’ve been told that American slavery was an outmoded institution that would have died out eventually in the face of technological advances and modern labor practices, but Edward Baptist is not buying it. Through this book, he makes a compelling case that Southern enslavement was, instead, a foundational driver of the massive explosion of wealth and productivity of the industrial revolution, a thoroughly modern institution integral to the building of a global economy. The book was not without controversy when released, with some accusing Baptist of revisionism with an eye toward the full discrediting of capitalism, but I found his arguments to stay focused on this institution and era. As such, I think he forces a needed reckoning with a part of our history so few of us have been willing to even countenance. Baptist’s telling, in particular, makes the Civil War so much more understandable, offering a clear picture of why the North would be politically willing to do battle, but also a better picture of why Reconstruction so quickly devolved into sharecropping and Jim Crow—the world market’s demand for cotton did not, after all, slow down. This is a painful work, but one that Americans need to read. See a longer review at goodreads.com.

Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi
Looking back, I think 2019 was a year of educating myself on the ways our culture and law in the U.S. has historically dehumanized and abused non-white people, particularly our African American brothers and sisters. Kendi’s massive “history of racist ideas” demonstrates the rot of the doctrine of discovery in Western thought and law since 1493. He writes engagingly, tying historical discussions in various epochs to a few central figures and their work for or against the advance of racist policy and practice (Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. DuBois, and Angela Davis). Perhaps his strongest contribution is the observation that racist ideas do not generate racism, so much as they are attempts to codify and justify racist attitudes and actions motivated by greed and pride. A painful but important book.

The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby
Just as Baptist covered the effects of dehumanizing policy and practice in economics and Kendi in politics and culture, Jemar Tisby explores these themes in the American Church. Tisby’s work is remarkable in that he ambitiously covers so much ground in a slim volume (just over 200 pages, in contrast to the 500+ of Baptist and Kendi). He starts off with a short discourse about the discipline of history and acknowledges that his project here is to offer a survey, a necessarily shallow introduction to a massive subject. His goal is to illuminate the big arc of the story and encourage readers to go “upstream” into the multiplicity of deeper sources he cites. Read my full review.

Dignity by Chris Arnade
Of all the “here’s what’s gone wrong with America” takes, Chris Arnade’s is one of the most honest I’ve seen. Though the author (a former Wall-Street banker who also holds a Ph. D. in physics from Johns Hopkins) possesses greater privilege than many others in this group of writers, Dignity takes pains to  center with humility and humanness those for whom America has gone most wrong. Those who are being ground up get the focus and the voice here; those who’ve lost already, not those who merely fear what they may lose. Read my full review, and this commentary on what this book has to teach the church.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
I’d heard several people recommend this book, and upon reading it I was floored. What a gift! Kimmerer, an accomplished botanist and university professor, is a member of the Potawatomi Nation. In this book—part memoir, part field guide, part history, part scientific survey, part conservation manifesto—she explores the ecology of Eastern North America through the lenses of her indigenous heritage and her botanical training. Through a loving exploration of the interconnectedness of plant communities and the role of animals and humans in every ecosystem, she casts a vision for a culture of reciprocity that resists the temptation to take all we can get. Aglow with common grace and wisdom, and beautifully written as well.

Literature/Poetry/Criticism

Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky
I’ve been making the effort to stretch my language muscles by reading (and writing) more poetry over the past few years, and I’m convinced that we’re living in a golden age of the art form. Far and away the best collection of new poems I read this year was Kaminsky’s narrative arc of a town under cruel military occupation in which the populace feigns deafness together as an act of resistance. Simply stunning, especially in the way he bookends the story with two poems commenting on contemporary life in the U.S. Also a highlight of the year for me was running into Kaminsky, who holds the Bourne Chair in Poetry at Georgia Tech, recently in Atlanta (seriously, I just bumped into him at the botanical gardens) and getting to tell him how much I appreciated his work.

"At the trial of God, we will ask: why did you allow all this?
And the answer will be an echo: why did you allow all this?"

For the Time Being by W.H. Auden
Speaking of poetry, if any one poet is responsible for drawing me into the art, it’s Auden. This year, during Advent, I finally read his Christmas oratorio, “For the Time Being”. Written in the bowels of World War II, his sense of the radical light of incarnation in contrast to the darkness of the world is as prescient and moving as ever. It will be a Christmas tradition for me from now on.

Though written by Thy children with
   A smudged and crooked line,
Thy Word is ever legible,
Thy Meaning unequivocal,
And for Thy Goodness even sin
   Is valid as a sign.

Paradise Lost by John Milton
It’s part of the “canon.” It’s certainly a poetic achievement (and Satan is the best character). It’s also the source of a lot of bad cultural imagery of Satan, overemphasis of gendered sin patterns, etc. And yet it does still represent a powerful artistic achievement. I think it is also Milton’s honest wrestling with existence—Why would God allow the whole of humankind to be born in sin and misery after Adam & Eve’s fall? Why not just allow the curse of death to work immediately and start fresh? Isn’t that the height of cruelty? Milton’s answer seems to be that the cross, the great inversion of power (which is threaded throughout Scripture) is the point of existence, not the patch. An intellectually satisfying answer? Not fully. But it is perhaps “the sum of wisdom.” Maybe hoping higher is not good for our soul, even as we long for Christ to make all things new.

Merciful over all His works, with good
Still overcoming evil, and by small
Accomplishing great things. By things deem'd weak
Subverting worldly strong, and worldly wise
By simply meek; That suffering for truth’s sake
Is fortitude to highest victory,
And, to the faithful, death the gate of life;
Taught this, by His example whom I now
Acknowledge my redeemer ever blessed

On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior
Literature has value in and of itself as story—the wonder of exploring the joy, sorrow, and mystery of people in the image of God. The best of literature also is among the best teachers of what a life well-lived might look like. To that end, Prior explores several classics (from Pride and Prejudice to Huckleberry Finn to The Road to Flannery O’Connor’s stories) to explore the virtues and how their depictions in good stories help us understand how to cultivate them in our own lives. Along the way, she does a good deal to unpack how virtue functions in the first place, a discussion worthy of publication in its own right. On Reading Well is a delight-filled reminder of why any of us read in the first place, abounding in wisdom and joy.

Giving the Devil His Due by Jessica Hooten Wilson
Regarding literature, one of the common excuses I’ve heard from Christians over the years for why they don’t read more is that they do not like dark or depressing stories—in other words, they conflate the portrayal of sin, and evil, and brokenness with the endorsement of such. In this excellent short book, Jessica Wilson (an acquaintance of mine and fellow devotee of the Walker Percy Weekend) shows convincingly that the dark side of literature is often where great authors do their best soulcraft. Chiefly, she applies the work of Rene Girard to the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Flannery O’Connor to show that the great choice of life is not belief in God or belief in oneself, but submission to God or submission to Satan (whose slavery lurks behind every idol, including even our own self). If you’ve not read Dostoevsky and O’Connor (particularly The Brothers Karamazov and The Violent Bear It Away) this one is hard to follow. If you have, it will make you cherish these writers and their work all the more.

Re-reads

“We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness.” – C.S. Lewis, “On Stories” 

Christ and Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr
There is an ever-present tension in the history of the spread of the gospel between the authority of Jesus and the reality of culture—between rejection of some cultural authority in Jesus’ name and faithful cultural engagement. Perhaps no one captures this as well as H. Richard Niebuhr, who says that where this balance is lacking, “Christian faith quickly degenerates into a utilitarian device for the attainment of personal prosperity or public peace; and some imagined idol called by His name takes the place of Jesus Christ the Lord” (p. 68). I read this in college, and didn’t get the depth of what Neibuhr was saying; 15 years later, his work still makes a ton of sense.

My Antonía by Willa Cather
Cather has become one of my favorite American authors, and so I deeply enjoyed that my wife chose My Ántonia for her turn in our bi-monthly book club. This is bittersweet and beautiful as American lit gets. As I wrote on this blog after my first reading several years ago, “I never thought of Nebraska with such tenderness. The themes of place, home, family, unrequited love, coming of age, and immigrant experience are deftly handled and give the story weight, but it is the American-ness of it all that gives it a worthy place in our national canon.”

Also-reads

These books are not necessarily “second class” in any way, I just can’t review ’em all. Listed here in alphabetical order are all the other books I also read in 2019.

Act of Grace by James C. Petty
Chinnubbie and the Owl by Alexander Posey
Confessions by Augustine of Hippo
Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith
Dubliners by James Joyce
A Field Guide to Becoming Whole by Brian Fikkert and Kelly M. Kapic
Free at Last? by Carl Ellis
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
Our Secular Age by Collin Hansen
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans
Ulysses by James Joyce
The Warden by Anthony Trollope
Whose Religion Is Christianity? by Lamin Sanneh
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
The Year of Our Lord, 1943 by Alan Jacobs

Image: Little Opossum Creek, Hamilton County, Tenn., December 2019.

A View from The End of the World

Seeking “the meaning of life” is as human an activity as breathing, and wrestling with why things aren’t as good as they could (should?) be follows close behind. For better or for worse, I can’t stop reading books that propose to answer the pervasive sense of foreboding about the status quo that so many of us feel.

As someone who stands up in church every Sunday to confess that I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting, this habit of watching for the end of a certain world seems a bit incongruous. I’d like to think I’m in good company with prophets (like Daniel, Ezekiel, and Micah) and apostles (like Peter and John) in looking for the Day of the Lord. They remind us that it is possible to raise up a Jeremiad with joy and to temper handwringing with hope.

So I keep reading and listening. This is true whether these works come from a political science perspective (like Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed), a sociological perspective (like Charles Murray’s Coming Apart), a religious perspective (like Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option), a personal memoir (like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me), the agrarian (all of Wendell Berry’s work), the poetic (like W.H. Auden’s Age of Anxiety), the dystopian (like P.D. James’ Children of Men), and even the historical (like Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning). Look in any direction and it’s existential crises for days, but there’s always something to learn.

One thing all of these books have in common is an explanatory posture—they attempt to make sense of the loss and the dread and offer some semblance of a way to the good (looking back for some, forward for others, and grasping at things not yet seen for a few). Most start from a place of reminding the reader what society stands to lose if we’re not careful, a warning to the privileged that their inheritance is spending down faster than it is accruing value. Others point out that what we’ve inherited was never what we thought to begin with.

Of all the “here’s what’s gone wrong w/America” takes, however, Chris Arnade’s recent book Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America is one of the most honest I’ve seen. Though the author (a former Wall-Street banker who also holds a Ph. D. in physics from Johns Hopkins) possesses greater privilege than many others in this group of writers, Dignity takes pains to  center with humility and humanness those for whom America has gone most wrong. Those who are being ground up get the focus and the voice here; those who’ve lost already, not those who merely fear what they may lose.

Some of this comes from the book’s format. It’s not an academic or even a narrative work, but rather a travelogue weaving episodes and itinerant thoughts with personal stories from all over the U.S. It’s also a sort of coffee-table book: Arnade is an accomplished photographer, and the faces and places he encounters feature prominently throughout the book, giving the words flesh and feeling.

At first, Arnade appears to be launching into memoir as he recounts the beginnings of this project in his long walks in New York, farther and farther afield from his Manhattan office. At some level, he never leaves this mode, stickA1UfDx8SR9L copying around to narrate, to tie together disparate interviews, and to offer an epilogue of his visit back to his hometown.

His voice, though, isn’t the thing you take with you. It’s the words of Takeesha, Imani, Luther, Jeanette, Beauty, Fowisa, Jo-Jo (all street names or pseudonyms to protect their identities), and the others you meet in these pages. It’s the drugs, chemicals of every kind that can be swallowed, snorted, smoked, or shot up. It’s the emptiness of homes, factories, cities, and towns that once held a fuller life. It’s the inexplicable persistence of community in McDonald’s, churches, bars, abandoned buildings, and parks. It’s the clear-eyed pictures of racial injustice that still pervade America and the ways its evil seeps into and drives other class and culture issues.

The photos-and-snippets motif Arnade chose invites comparisons to Depression-era narrative shapers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. He is justly in their company in terms of his photographic eye, but his artistic aims are more subdued. He paints people not as victims in need of assistance or pawns in a political game, but as they are—human beings, broken and beautiful, navigating the life they’ve got with the tools they have. This gives the book a strikingly agenda-less quality. Yes, he addresses globalization, crony capitalism, automation, family fragmentation, drug policy and other macro-level trends that have contributed to the plight of his subjects in some way, but he shies away from any prescriptive action steps. Some may find this (and the attendant lack of concrete “solutions” to “problems”) frustrating, but I think it is a critical posture for the observations Arnade makes to be taken seriously.

Throughout the book, he presents the key divide in American society as that between the “front row” (educated, workaholic, powerful, cosmopolitan, upwardly mobile, rootless) and the “back row” (underemployed, powerless, bound to place, loyal, struggling). Arnade uses these terms descriptively, but neither is intended derisively—front row and back row America both have values and vices, but their cultural currencies and drugs of choice differ widely. Both can provide meaning and community, but both battle despair and can be toxic to outsiders.

It is in the question of values—or rather value—where Arnade makes his most helpful contribution to our national conversation. The front row, he says, lives by “credentialed” value. A person is welcomed into that community based on their gifts and abilities, their degrees, their accomplishments, and their contributions to others’ well-being and success. This world is competitive and rewarding, but also insecure. In the back row, value is “non-credentialed.” Your identity and worth comes from things you are born with (family, ethnicity, work-ethic, local roots) or from belonging to groups that are accessible to almost anyone willing to join (a church, a drug community, a gang, becoming a parent).

At present, the high places of cultural influence and power are open only to the front row, and the non-credentialed bona fides of the back row aren’t likely to earn you a seat at the table or a steady job. If there is an ax to grind here, it is Arnade’s persistent message to his fellow front-row-ites that the meritocracy at the helm of American society today is a much, much more closed system than they’d like to believe. His forays into the back row—whether in Bakersfield, Calif., Johnson City, Tenn., Selma, Ala., Portsmouth, Ohio, or even neighborhoods of front-row cities like New York—demonstrate how the solutions of the front row (“get an education,” “move away,” “get clean,” “learn new skills,” etc.) are much higher mountains to climb from this different perspective. What seems like common sense to one group is to another group a command to turn one’s back on everything they’ve ever known. The repetition of this theme comes both from his desire to make this known, but also because his interviewees so frequently have been confronted by this stark divide.

Dignity matters, not as another explainer of “how we got Trump” or a push for better government and nonprofit programs for poverty alleviation (though it has implications for those discussions), but as a step toward helping us as a country see all of our neighbors as brothers and sisters. Arnade does not claim to be a Christian, but he is implicitly calling us to recover the imago dei as the final arbiter of one another’s value.

Arnade’s lack of professed faith also makes his assessment of the real value of congregational life and earnest beliefs in the churches (and mosques) of the back row that much more remarkable. In an excerpt from the book published in First Things, he writes: “My biases were limiting a deeper understanding: that perhaps religion was right, or at least as right as anything could be…. On the streets, few can delude themselves into thinking they have it under control. You cannot ignore death there, and you cannot ignore human fallibility. It is easier to see that everyone is a sinner, everyone is fallible, and everyone is mortal. It is easier to see that there are things just too deep, too important, or too great for us to know.”

His chapter on religion hit closest to home for me and the work that I do. The churches he visited in the back row certainly don’t check all the theological or cultural boxes front row Christians deem necessary, but they all reflect the person of Jesus Christ in loving their neighbors and being faithfully present with them. Too often, front-row Christianity (whether conservative or liberal in theology, whether high-church or low-church in polity) has trouble doing this—we’re not quite sure what we’d do if someone from the cultural back row walked in and wanted to join. We don’t often have a story of change that would work for them. Doctrine, expected behaviors, and appropriate political positions we can get our minds around; Jesus gives us heartburn.

So where do we go from here? How do we build up? As I said, Dignity is long on observation and short on solutions. Many others are starting to digest the realities on the ground and work toward tying some of these threads together in ways that can repair the breach and bring people back to the wholeness we were designed to experience together. I’ve highlighted some of these on Twitter (that paragon of civil discourse), and in other writings, and I’m sure it’s a theme I’ll take up again. Moreover, this is no small part of the mission of the ministry where I work.

For now, though, let Dignity soak in and open your heart to those you might otherwise be tempted to forget.

Image: Abandoned farm equipment, Channel Islands National Park, California, June 2019

 

2018 Reads & Recommendations

So, another year has come to an end, and it’s time for another list of books I’ve read since January. As with each year’s list (see 2017, 2016, and 2015, for reference), these are not necessarily books released in 2018 (though some are), but books that I encountered this year. Short reviews follow for a few, clustered around some broad categories.

Theology and Practice

The Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren
This small book is a straightforward, elegant, needed reminder that the balance of faithful Christian lives around the world are lived in the everyday grind of waking, sleeping, eating, working, and caring for others. Warren crafts a framework of routine tasks that most will encounter in some form each day and explores their spiritual significance, teaching us to turn our work and worries back to worship. If we are to walk faithfully with the Lord, she contends, we must be encouraged to see His grace and provision (as well as our dignity and significance) in our mundane daily walk just as clearly as in heroic deeds of faith.

Playing God and Culture Making by Andy Crouch
Both these books were quite good and helpful. Andy is more philosopher than theologian, and that works in his favor for books like this, where he takes a high-level idea (power and power dynamics in Playing God, creativity in Culture Making) and brings it back from its cultural captivity to enable a more theological understanding of it to emerge. In Playing God he explores power as God’s character, and our image-bearing as a calling to use power rightly. Culture Making presents his thinking on the purpose, potential, and limitations of creative work. Though these books were written several years apart, they complement each other. There is much here to think on in the midst of a distracted world and our Western “cult” of productivity.

Black Religion, Black Theology by J. Deotis Roberts
Roberts, one of the leading African American theologians of the 20th century, deserves to be known as a leading cultural theologian more broadly. He shares much in common with James Cone and Black Liberation Theology’s critique of Western Christianity’s complicity in oppression and the selective biblical application that has helped prop up systemic sins. Roberts, though, critiques BLT for losing the “universal Christ” (i.e. a Jesus who transcends all earthly cultures and points us to God) in their zeal to rescue Christ from the powers that be on earth. This is a far-too-brief summary, but the essays collected in Black Religion, Black Theology provide a good overview of Roberts’ work. Insofar as culturally captive Christianit-ies hold sway in the U.S. and elsewhere, Roberts ought to be required reading for any pastor and theologian practicing today. A goldmine.

Embodied Hope by Kelly M. Kapic
The problem of evil supposedly keeps theologians and (especially) atheists awake at night. This is not a book about that. Kapic takes both a fallen world filled with pain, suffering, and injustice and the infinite goodness and power of God. His focus is on what meaning there is in pain, and particularly, how we should approach suffering in the church: how we should acknowledge pain individually and corporately, and how we should consider our responsibility to those who suffer. This small but rich book is worth reading for anyone who has experienced suffering or is living in it now, who loves someone who has experienced suffering or is living in it now, and for those who may someday experience it.

Disruptive Witness by O. Alan Noble
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age has proven to be an indispensable text for grasping the social and theological import of our present moment. James K. A. Smith’s “Cultural Liturgies” trilogy stands as the premier exposition of Taylor (though he is not, by far, the only thinker represented in that series), translating his insights for a wider audience. Others have followed in Smith’s wake to riff on Taylor’s work of criticism, and a new wave of writers is working on building up a path forward for Christians living in a post-religious world. Alan Noble jumps into this latter category, inviting believers to lean into countercultural (yet historical) disciplines of prayer, worship (including observance of the church calendar), service to and reverence for others, etc. that both anchor us to faithfulness and present an alternative report on the nature and purpose of life than the one our culture adheres to. A persevering church made up of faithful believers is able not just to withstand cultural forgetting, but to catch the world off guard and with the fullness of the Gospel message.

History/Biography/Cultural Observation

Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins & Dominique LaPierre
In the aftermath of World War II, the new Labour government of Clement Attlee began to divest the war-spent and indebted United Kingdom of its overseas holdings—to dissolve the British Empire. The crown jewel of that empire was the Raj of India, a vast territory covering all of what is today India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. With the native populations of those regions crying out for independence from the crown and seething with internal cultural and religious divisions, the British opted for speed rather than stability in that process, unloading power and partitioning the countries in a matter of months and unleashing a bloodbath in the process. Collins and LaPierre had unprecedented access to Louis Mountbatten, and the family and archives of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Mohandas Ghandi and tell the story with impressive detail from multiple angles, focused on the year between Mountbatten’s appointment as the last Viceroy of India (January 1947) and the assassination of Ghandi (January 1948). There is somewhat of a Western bias to the tale, but the level of nuance makes it worth the telling.

How to Think by Alan Jacobs
Jacobs, literature professor in the Baylor honors program and a rather prolific author, has a knack for mining 20th century literature for perceptive critiques of contemporary culture and habits, and his 2017 effort, How to Think, is a reminder for our politically and socially fractured age if ever there was one. Jacobs stitches together threads from C. S. Lewis, Daniel Kahneman, David Foster Wallace, and George Orwell (spiced, as Jacobs’ work so often is, with input from W. H. Auden) to declare that “thinking”, properly considered, is the curated ability to calmly evaluate an opposing viewpoint. This, Jacobs argues, is the antidote to tribalism—even if tribes themselves must always exist—and inflexibility—even if there are certain convictions to which we always hold tightly. 

I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown
The memoir as a genre is overplayed these days, and, I fear, is forcing other forms of creative writing into the background of cultural dialogue. Surely not everyone who feels called to write also thinks their personal story is the thing we most need to hear from them, right? That said, a memoir that combines a compelling narrative with an incisive reading of a cultural moment is often exactly what we need to hear. Brown tells a story of growing up into an increasing awareness of what it means to be African American in an evangelical world that, as she puts it, assumes a monocultural (and largely white) perspective on everything from fashion to entertainment to worship style and is all-too-often fearful of any alternatives. Given some of the emotional pain she unveils here, this could’ve been sent out as a gut-punch of bitterness, but is instead a plea for grace and truth from a place of love and joy.

Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen
Deneen observes some of the contemporary travails of Western Society—political gridlock, elimination of local culture, erosion of self-governing habits, technological replacement of nature, intense social stratification, etc.—and looks for their causes in history. In digging beneath the standard left-right blame game to explore the roots, he finds the sources of our malaise in the underlying ideology of the Hobbesian-Lockean Liberalism that birthed the modern world. For a short book, it’s remarkably thorough, conversant with other major voices in the “all’s-not-right-with-the-world” camp (from Neil Postman to Robert Putnam to Charles Murray), and tying up their various loose ends into a compelling thesis. Deneen is also mindful that any solutions to the problems he diagnoses must be inherently small-scale and long-range activities of culture-making, sidestepping the classical liberals’ key error of believing they could remake the world.

Literature/Poetry

American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes
This book of 70 identically titled poems is the first volume of contemporary poetry I’ve ever picked up. I’ve learned to love poetry in the past few years, thanks largely to Christian modernists like Eliot and Auden, but Hayes’ effort here was the first book of poems I’ve read start to finish. It is both raw and polished, crying out from the anguish at an America that has never fully respected the personhood of black citizens while simultaneously exulting in dignity with pride. This isn’t for the faint of heart (as Hayes’ “raw” includes some explicit sexual references, and overarching themes of violence and loss), but worth the effort for an incisive look at our cultural moment. It’s made me want to write more and better poetry of my own, for some things that most need to be said pass beyond the realm of argument.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
What can one say about the greatest of books? To sum up or “review” seems petty, worthless. As has been said, one does not read the great books, they read you. Tolstoy’s tale of unhappy families is a striking morality tale, but also a political treatise and a master class on storycraft and character development. I suppose, like all the classics, it contains the world entire, without succumbing to pedantry or plotlessness.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville
I’m all for a good grounding in literature that exposes students to the best of what their culture has to offer throughout their education. This, even though I was a terrible reader until midway through my undergrad years. Of course, based on my experience, I can also say that the best books of any literary tradition are not meant to be read until adulthood, or at least not fully appreciable. I’m convinced that I’d have found this tome tendentious and boring as a high school or college student. In my mid-30s, though, it’s plain that this is one of the top 5 or 10 masterpieces of American literature. Even though the world described by “Ishmael” (19th Century Whaling) is long deceased, it feels fresh and real in narration. The symbols and themes are evergreen, and the peripatetic foreboding of the story is still haunting—Shakespeare at sea, almost.

Re-reads

“We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness.” – C.S. Lewis, “On Stories” 

Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor
It seems like O’Connor has been hyped and analyzed to death in recent years, but her short stories and essays continue to yield fruit for Christians working in the arts. She will always hold a special significance for me as the first author I discovered who could keep the faith while facing the evil of men with a clear eye and balled fist. Converge remains my favorite of her short story collections, and “Revelation” is perhaps the perfect short fiction, and grows in force with each passing year that I fail to fully heed its message of grace. As long as I live, I’ll be trying to come up with a line as powerful as: “she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
Cather has become an indispensable part of the American canon for me, as no one seems to understand the significance and contradictions of our country quite so crisply—both as the thief and plunderer of the native peoples and as a haven of opportunity for peoples from around the world. Death Comes for the Archbishop is so beautiful; as I’ve written on it before, her descriptions of land and sky here make you stop and re-read paragraphs for the sheer wonder of it. Re-reading this after spending a few days in Santa Fe this year, I’m even more in awe of Cather’s descriptive powers. This story is as intimate as the friendship between its main characters, expansive as the New Mexico sky.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
An excellent novel, bringing together historical and theological threads through the lens of family, and of particular interest in humanizing the profession of a Christian minister. This 2004 book solidified Robinson’s reputation as America’s queen of letters (with Barack Obama a noted member of her legions of admirers) and earned her a Pulitzer. Its success gave me hope that people would still read spiritual fiction today. It has, I think held up well in the years since I last read it. I’ve written more on Robinson’s fiction here.

Also-reads

Not necessarily “second class” in any way, I just can’t review ’em all. Listed here in alphabetical order. Also, I started a seminary degree program this fall, so not every book I’m reading to that end will show up here (though the ones that have general application certainly will).

The Aviator by Eugene Vodolazkin
Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream*
by Brian Fikkert and Kelly M. Kapic
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
I Dared to Call Him Father by Bilquis Sheikh
Deep Work by Cal Newport
Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind by Thomas C. Oden
The House of Bondage by Octavia V. Albert
Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson
King Lear by William Shakespeare
Light in August by William Faulkner
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
The Negro Church in America by E. Franklin Frazier
Notes from Underground 
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Prophetic Lament by Soong-Chan Rah
Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon
Rooting for Rivals
by Peter Greer and Chris Horst
The Scarlet Letter
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1 by Justo L. González
Strong and Weak by Andy Crouch
Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

* Forthcoming (March 2019)