Books of 2020

So, another year has come to an end, and it’s time for another list of books. This year was perhaps a bit more full of reading than most since, along with everyone else, my social calendar got cleared indefinitely after March 11. As with each year’s list (see 2019, 20182017, 2016, and 2015, for reference), these are not necessarily books released in 2020 (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. Also, I don’t put all my seminary assignments here, but some rise to the surface.

Christian Theology and Practice

Concerning the True Care of Souls by Martin Bucer
Off and on for the past few years, I’ve been part of a local reading group of the Paideia Center. In the spring we read this newly translated edition of a classic by the Reformer from Strasbourg. Though it can at times feel dated (an annotated edition is helpful), this book is rich and challenging, aglow with the fire of 16th century pastoral wisdom. I especially appreciated Bucer’s emphasis on pastors and elders knowing their congregations well enough to care for their deepest needs correctly, even to the extent of ensuring representation in leadership of the diverse backgrounds and walks of life of the community—”it is better to take those who may be lacking in eloquence and learning, but are genuinely concerned with the things of Christ. It is for this reason that the ancient well-ordered and apostolic churches chose their elders from people of all classes and types…on the basis of their common sense and experience.” 

This Too Shall Last by K.J. Ramsey
I’ve said often enough that majority-culture Christians in the U.S. (and the West more generally) haven’t meditated enough on suffering and lament to be able to effectively care for those in our midst and who endure pain and hardship and hold space for their honest experience without trying to “fix” them or their situations. Writing from a place of chronic pain from an autoimmune disease, Ramsey offers a faithful witness against our idols of ease, ability, and tidy outcomes, inviting us to sit with Christ in the long “middle” of unresolved suffering. In the process, she also focuses our attention on the devastating nature of shame and encourages believers to learn the way of Jesus in entering into others’ pain.

Practice Resurrection by Eugene Peterson
Devotional literature isn’t always my cup of tea. Too many popular titles in the genre tend to be weak on Scriptural exegesis and application, and even those that get that part right often read like self-help books with an air of religious authority—prescriptions for richer life without a humble invitation to mystery. Even so, you can’t read academic theology all the time, and I felt the need to have some “soul care” in my reading diet this year. The late Eugene Peterson’s series on “spiritual theology” (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, Eat This Book, The Jesus Way, Tell it Slant, and this title) fit the bill. Written between 2006-2010, when he was in his 70s, these late-in-life meditations on discipleship and what it takes to become the type of person who is like Jesus and does what Jesus does are a balm for weary souls. Practice Resurrection in particular is love-letter—with more than a twinge of lament—to the church in the United States, and a pretty fine commentary on Ephesians to boot.

The Day the Revolution Began by N. T. Wright
Wright was considered somewhat of a bogeyman in my undergrad Bible classes, always a bit suspect for his views on justification—even as he was regularly assigned by professors. Every time I read him, though, he makes so much nuanced biblical sense, I get more confused about the criticism. This 2016 work is a succinct yet thorough journey through the New Testament to put the death, burial, and resurrection (particularly the crucifixion) of Jesus into its cosmic context, as the defeat of sin, death, and Satan. If Jews and Christians alike were called to reject pagan notions of human sacrifice, what must Paul mean when he says that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3, emphasis added)? I will be recommending this accessible Christology as a primer for those seeking a richer and more hope-filled vision of what the church is called to be in our head, Jesus Christ.

Reading While Black by Esau McCaulley and The Beautiful Community by Irwyn Ince
In yet another year that has brought the rift of racial injustice to the forefront, listening to what our black sisters and brothers have to say, especially in the church, is an important discipline. Among many, many books already written on the subject, these two 2020 entries are wonderful invitations to understanding the broader tradition of American Christianity and recapturing the power of Scripture in every culture and age. McCaulley’s work reflects on the role of Scripture in the black church, pushing against the ways that tradition has been maligned as theologically weak and unbiblical. What a gift his book is, this year or any year. If Scripture isn’t the source of hope for those outside of society’s streams of wealth and power, then it doesn’t provide much hope to anyone. This book bolstered my appreciation of the depth and breadth of God’s Word. Ince’s work is deeply missiological, full of theological reflection on the church of “every tribe, tongue, people and nation” and practical wisdom for how this is to work out in our actual congregations. It is among the most Bible-saturated, commonsensical works on the beauty and challenge of multi-ethnic churches I’ve seen.

Work and Worship by Matthew Kaemingk and Cory Willson
Though academic theology can be dry, at its finest, it is eminently practical. Kaemingk and Willson offer a shining example of what it can be, anchoring robust critique of contemporary worship practices in thorough exegesis and historical analysis and turning to joyful commendation of new ways of integrating the embodied, working lives of worshippers into the sanctuary…all in less than 300 pages. From my forthcoming review at TGC: “If local churches take [the authors’] recommendations to heart, perhaps members and leaders would all be able to know one another better and work together for the good of the community in coordinated ways. If churches become more intimately aware of the triumphs and travails of each other’s daily lives, church members would begin to see how some economic and social conditions make work toilsome—especially for low-income workers at home and around the world. This extended conversation might open up ways for the church to speak into the lives and ethics of its members in ways that, provide the necessary grounds for true unity and love.”

History/Biography/Cultural Observation

Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King
History with broad application to understanding a time period or cultural phenomenon is often best told through a laser-focused, richly detailed narrative of one particularly incident. King’s Pulitzer-winning account of the attempted lynching of two black men falsely accused of rape in the 1940s in central Florida does just that. He explores the unchecked political power Southern sheriffs (the infamous Willis McCall of Lake County), the legacy of civil rights legal battles through defense attorney Thurgood Marshall, and of the lengths to which white citizens would go to subvert justice for those they wished to keep in poverty and subservience. King shows that post-war America was less “good old days” and more a circus of the damned when you peek under the hood, and offers subtle but clear implications for the present as well.

Grant by Ron Chernow
Chernow is arguably the reigning master of American biography, with sweeping 1,000 page portraits of remarkable lives that soak in the fullness of the events and circumstances that propelled them to prominence and/or disgrace. Through Chernow’s telling, Grant seems like he would’ve been one of the most likable public figures of the 19th century, personified unpretension and genuine trustworthiness. His kindhearted openness was also nearly his undoing, as his presidential administration was shadowed by numerous scandals and his post-presidency was clouded by financial disaster. Long overshadowed politically by Lincoln and militarily by Sherman, Grant emerges here as the indispensable person of America’s darkest hour, and one of a precious few who truly understood the War and its aftermath as a push to recognize and protect the personhood of African Americans and secure the promises of the Constitution for all.

The Power of the Powerless by Vaclav Havel
Havel, the Czech playwright-turned-dissident-turned-president, is justly lauded as one of the heroes of the cold war and instrumental in the fall of the iron curtain. Power of the Powerless is his most enduring manual for understanding the ways that the human spirit is always resilient in the face of tyranny. Though Havel doesn’t use the phrase, this short book is suffused with a celebration of the image of God in men and women. Living in the truth must be a spiritual and cultural discipline before it can become a political one, and there can be no freedom, justice, or peace without complete honesty about the past and present.

Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez
Writing on shortcomings of the church in the United States is a rather sizeable cottage industry these days, but that doesn’t mean that all criticisms are invalid. Du Mez approaches the critique primarily from a historical rather than a theological angle, tracing how evangelical Christianity in post-war America shifted from a culturally aloof, largely apolitical, ambivalently pacifistic group to an aggressive coalition of culture warriors, political movers and shakers, and military boosters through the development of evangelical ideas of masculinity. The stories and data collected here (of abuse, scandal, and trading the promises of God for a mess of cultural pottage) are not new information to me (though they may be for many), but the unrelenting drumbeat of it all compiled and sequenced here left me with an overwhelming sadness for the faith tradition that introduced me to Jesus. May we have ears to hear and a heart to repent and follow Jesus rather than the traditions of men.

How to Hide an Empire by Daniel Immerwahr
If good history is often zeroing in on a specific story (see my comments on King’s book above), a well-done 30,000 foot view can be equally illuminating. Immerwahr’s look at the often off-the-books expansion of America’s overseas territories is fascinating, fun, and painful all at once. I’d like to challenge anyone else to find a book that includes sections on (among many, many others): Daniel Boone, guano (seabird poop), birth control pills, the Beatles, labor laws, artificial rubber, tropical diseases, Osama bin Laden, James Bond, and stop signs, while somehow making sense of it all in a readable account.

Literature/Poetry/Criticism

Jack by Marilynne Robinson
Robinson is arguably the dean of American novelists at present, so when she releases a new work returning to characters of a beloved series, it’s a literary event. In Jack, we see more of the backstory of the lost sheep of the Boughton family who looms large but mysterious in Gilead and Home. The story covers Jack’s relationship with Della, an African American from the South, in 1940s St. Louis. Though issues of race and culture hover in the background (and have sparked much of the discussion of the book in reviews), Jack is her title character and central focus. Her depiction of the internal experience of the tortured soul here is powerful and rich, almost as if she has finally found a key to get inside a character that has hitherto remained opaque even to her. On that note, it reminded as much of Housekeeping as it did the Gilead stories.

A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver
I’m generally not one for “how to” books, but this one was so sparse and short as to actually be helpful. I’ve played at writing poetry, generally badly, a lot over the past few years. Mostly, this is because I never read much poetry until about 5-6 years ago. Oliver here gives very direct, clear instruction in the concrete elements of form that I had never been taught. I’ll be trying to apply some of what I’ve learned in subsequent work, and you can let me know if it gets any better. =)

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos
As we’ve engaged the world of neurodiversity through life in an ADHD household, finding the Joey Pigza stories has been a dose of empathy and laughter for what can be a tough road at times. Gantos crafts a delightfully wacky world through they eyes of Joey and the people he encounters at school and in his neighborhood, but his tender accuracy in describing impulses and mood swings and the stresses of family life is beautiful. It’s a kids’ book, but I’m raising a tall glass to authors that work to help people in different walks of life feel seen, heard, and valued.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
If there was ever a year to revel in the joys of apocalyptic literature, this probably wasn’t it. Nevertheless, I signed on to another trip into McCarthy’s clear-eyed perspective on the dark side of the world. This book has been out for nearly 15 years now, but I get the hype. This is a painstakingly textured, ghastly, and yet achingly beautiful story. It’s also by far the tenderest of anything I’ve read from McCarthy, yet does not undermine his devotion to searching out the evil in men’s hearts. In wrestling through why I found it such a hopeful novel for this particular moment, I think something in my bones needed reassurance that all the commitments to God and a moral universe that were inculcated into me from a young age are actually true and would be true even without the brace of culture and civilization—that the ways of God and His people cannot be just one more relativistic political gambit, that truth is worth pursuing and clinging to, and cannot be decided on the outcome of a vicious, conniving game. Also, as always, I commend McCarthy on audiobook. His work can take a fair bit of interpretation looking at the page (with limited use of punctuation, no indentation, etc.), so a skilled reader can really bring it to life in audio.

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” 

Laurus by Evgheni Vodolazkin
I raved (like, 3 blog posts worth of reflections) about this when it came out, and it does still glow on a re-read 5 years hence. From my initial review: “Laurus is a serious work which is nevertheless extremely delightful. This is wholly different from being entertaining. The joys found here come not from exhilarating motion (though there are segments of adventure), but from the savor of fulfillment: complementary scenes, piercingly accurate phrases, redeemed longings, deftly chosen character names. Laurus is self-contained, intact, and deeply satisfying.”

Children of Men by P.D. James
Speaking of apocalyptic literature: Normally known for her detective stories, James here works out a taut, provocative thriller. This is sci-fi for grown ups, full of enduring themes and a banal plausibility that makes it the more chilling. She wrote this in 1992, near the height of the 20th century crime wave and the peak years of the abortion industry, so some of the story’s sociological punch has faded (her “future” setting for the action is 2021!). Still, it touches on the some of the core fears of humanity and does so with deep religious sensibility, often explicitly Christian—James, a lifelong Anglican, peppers the novel with quotes from Scripture and the Book of Common Prayer. The story moves along briskly, almost too quickly for robust character development, but the themes carry the day well enough for me. In a particularly 2020 twist, a dystopian novel about societal collapse was my book club pick for Feb. 26—the last time we were able to meet in person for a long while!

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
I read this last year, and was so blessed that we decided to do it again with the kids as a family read-aloud through this summer and fall. It was an absolute joy to see the kids respond and share thoughts as we went through each chapter. From last year’s review: “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.”

Also-reads

These books are not “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 2020. As a reminder, you can also find me on goodreads.com for more regular updates, as well as brief reviews of all these titles.

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
The Art of Biblical History by V. Philips Long
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk
The Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster
Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places by Eugene Peterson
The Christian Imagination by Willie James Jennings
Citizen Coke by Bartow J. Elmore
Culture Care by Makoto Fujimora
The Decadent Society by Ross Douthat
Eat This Book by Eugene Peterson
Evil and the Justice of God by N.T. Wright
The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson
The Gospel Comes with a House Key by Rosaria Butterfield
Heaven by Randy Alcorn
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
In Search of the Common Good by Jake Meador
Indescribable by Michael Card
Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman
The Jesus Way by Eugene Peterson
Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The Myth of the American Dream by D.L. Mayfield
The Possibility of America by David Dark
Rediscipling the White Church by David W. Swanson
The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron
The Sacredness of Questioning Everything by David Dark
Tell It Slant by Eugene Peterson
Unsettling Truths by Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah
What Is Art? by Leo Tolstoy
When Narcissism Comes to Church by Chuck DeGroat
Where Goodness Still Grows by Amy L. Peterson
White Flight by Kevin M. Kruse
Words of Life by Timothy Ward

Image: Autumn leaves, Tucker County, W. Va., October 2020.

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

 

2017 in Pages

‘Tis time again for the annual stroll down library lane. As always, what follows is not an exhaustive list, but a selection of some of my favorite reads of the year sorted by genre. Also as usual, most of these were not published within the year, but I encountered them for the first time in 2017.

History/Biography

Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow
This is superb biography. Thorough and unflinching. Alexander Hamilton’s reputational resuscitation—from forgotten financial guru to Broadway inspiration—owes pretty much everything to Chernow. His mining of records from Hamilton’s childhood and deep familiarity with his personal correspondence yields a detailed, engaging story that presents the fullest picture of this founding father yet produced. His thought (on human nature, financial systems, geopolitics, etc.) is well-explored, and his failures are given full airing. Hamilton is unquestionably one of the most consequential figures in Western history, and it’s hard to imagine the United States becoming a global power without his influence at the beginning.

The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown
Hindsight is 20-20, so they say, and in American hindsight, the 1936 Olympics in Berlin were the height of moral clarity, with waves of virtuous young athletes staring down the Nazi machine and beating the “master-race” on their own turf in nearly every event. Rose-colored memories notwithstanding (if everything was so cut-and-dried in 1936, one wonders why World War II had to wait three more years), there are plenty of inspiring stories from those games (e.g. Jesse Owens taking four golds). The U.S. victory in men’s eight-oared rowing is perhaps one of the most improbable, and Brown’s retelling dives deep into “why”, exploring the rocky upbringings and incredible efforts of Joe Rantz and the rest of the boys in the boat. A bit floridly written at times, but earnest and beautiful all the same.

Cultural Observations

The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher
From my review: “Some of his observations and recommendations may strike readers as good common sense (such as deepening the way our lives are structured around the historic rhythms of church life or a call to support the businesses of our fellow believers). Others may be hard to swallow (as a fellow homeschooler, I am sympathetic to Rod’s call to pull our children out of both public and status-oriented private schools, but many will bristle at such a brusque suggestion). Dreher is at his finest in the two chapters on sex and technology, where the culture holds most sway within the church, often without our notice. You may react with shock, but you cannot deny the clear and dire warnings he lays out there.”

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Stevenson’s narrative of abuse of the death penalty and life imprisonment in the supposedly “post-racial” era shines a light on just how far the U.S. has to go in pursuit of civil rights for all her citizens. This is a powerful book on the merits of the subject matter alone, but Stevenson’s style and depth of personal experience take these hard truths and make them into urgent pleas for action. “Why must we kill all the broken people?” he asks. Simply devastating.

The New Jim Crow by Michele Alexander
This should be required reading for every American. Alexander’s thorough research is compiled here in a relentless drumbeat of indictments against every level and branch of government (with equal shame heaped on both major political parties), popular culture, civil rights and community leaders, and the “colorblind” complacency of Americans of all races. The mass incarceration of non-white men, she argues, is a de facto caste system, trapping for life those caught in its web for even the most minor offenses. We are all complicit, and we must all work against it. Whereas Stevenson tugs at the heart through stories, Alexander presents an unrelenting barrage of facts that demand a verdict. Both are effective, and both are needed.

Fiction

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
“Grumpy Old Swedish Man” doesn’t do it justice. This is a story the West needs to hear right now. There is more to life than individuals and the administrative state, and that the people we do not want to “bother” us (neighbors, co-workers, and those in need) are precisely those whom God puts in our path to save us from despair. Backman weaves very modern tale with intense heart and a Wodehouseian love for the absurd metaphor. What a joy!

East of Eden
by John Steinbeck
Steinbeck is one of those authors (like Hemingway) considered to be near the pinnacle of greatness for a certain generation of American literati. I’ve read much of Steinbeck in the past, and none of his work ever “clicked” with me in the emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually satisfying way truly great books tend to. All of that probably explains why I missed reading this one until now. This is truly his magnum opus, one of the masterpieces of American story, an epic homage to home and the ways sin and hate co-mingle with love and redemption in the secret sauce of family. East of Eden redeemed Steinbeck for me.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
I picked this one up out of love for the man responsible for its publication, Walker Percy, who read the manuscript and championed its printing at the behest of Toole’s (reportedly obsessive) mother some years after her son’s suicide. This is one of the funniest novels I’ve read, with lots of of laugh-out-loud scenes. It’s also quite insightful into the brokenness of social systems and the seamier side of life in New Orleans. Despite the excellent writing and well-drawn characters, none of them ultimately rise to the level of care and concern for the reader…which, I suppose, is Toole’s point. Still, it’s grown on me as it marinates after reading.

Theology & Practice

The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch
I heard Andy Crouch deliver a condensed version of the content in this book at a conference earlier this year, and made a point to buy a copy. Like most of Crouch’s work, this one is winsome, accessible, at times painful, but much needed. There is far more here than a stern warning about screen time for young children (though he makes a good case in that direction). The book is truly a meditation on Sabbath keeping, wherein we truly rest (not just take leisure) after pursuit of creative work (not just mindless toil or frittering). His is a prophetic call to resist the “easy-everywhere” idolatry to which our devices tempt us.

Practicing the King’s Economy by Michael Rhodes & Robby Holt with Brian Fikkert
Among the perks of working for and with authors is that you get to read, edit, and comment on books before everyone else sees them. This is the case with this volume, due out in April 2018 from Baker books. Rhodes & Holt make a compelling exegetical and practical case for a biblical reorientation of our economic lives around a vision of Christ’s already-but-not-yet kingdom. This is explored through six keys (worship, community, work, equity, creation care, and rest) each bolstered with thorough study of scripture and real-life, attainable examples. I read a lot, and this book makes me very excited, and I’m not just saying that because I love the three guys who wrote it!

Memoir

The Hidden Wound by Wendell Berry
I think rather highly of Wendell Berry, but find his oeuvre somewhat uneven. When he is on to something, he is prophetic. When he is cranky about a hobby horse, it shows, and his prose suffers. This short book, which I only recently heard of, is among the finest of the former category. In traveling back through his childhood experience of America’s racial caste system, he cuts to the heart of the social and economic dislocation crushing the American soul. Jim Crow and slavery are only the half of it. Though this book is nearly 50 years old, it seems even more incisive now than I’m sure it must have been then.

The World’s Largest Man by Harrison Scott Key
I met Harrison and heard him speak at this year’s Walker Percy Weekend. When I stopped laughing, I bought a copy of his memoir of growing up as masculine misfit in Mississippi. Key is by turns crass, juvenile, and silly, while simultaneously managing to be spiritually insightful and deeply moving. It’s a neat trick if you can do it.

Re-reads

C.S. Lewis wrote in “On Stories” that “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.” Armed with that exhortation, I’ve made a habit of revisiting books that hit the mark to see if they stick. Here are a few that came back up this year.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor
There’s not much one can say about O’Connor that hasn’t been said, but it’s all true. Her stories are always on my nightstand, ready to deflate any bubbles of self-importance and remind me that I only pursue righteousness through the benevolent violence of God’s grace. Overall, I prefer Everything that Rises Must Converge, but this volume contains plenty of gems as well.

The Last Gentleman by Walker Percy
It just gets better and better with age. All of Percy’s work feels more or less prophetic, as humanity has still not fully come to terms with the dislocation of the individualized, technological society birthed by WWII, but The Last Gentleman sums up his philosophy best of all his fiction. I read this for the fourth time this year, in preparation to lead our book club in a discussion of it. The “New South”, the old South, the sexual revolution, cultural Christianity, and so much more comes under his withering eye.

Everyday Church by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis
Like many American Christians, I confess to being overly comfortable with my culture and overly sensitive to perceived threats to religious liberty and biblical values. It is easy to see the Church’s influence waning in our society and be tempted to anger or despair, especially when so many of my fellow believers still seem intent on pursuing purely political solutions to fundamentally spiritual/cultural problems. Speaking into that frustration, Everyday Church is an excellent wake-up call, breathing Gospel life back into my understanding and expectations of the Church and its relation to culture. Chester and Timmis both serve as pastors in the United Kingdom, a country whose Christian heritage has all but disappeared, so their sound scriptural advice is also given the weight of experience.

Also-Reads

The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks
Howards End by E. M. Forster
The Fractured Republic by Yuval Levin
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out a Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis
Twelve Ways Your Phone Is Changing You by Tony Reinke
The Second Coming by Walker Percy
A Meal with Jesus by Tim Chester
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
At Home by Bill Bryson
The Age of Anxiety by W. H. Auden
A Legacy of Spies by John LeCarré
Silence by Shūsaku Endō
ReSet by David Murray
Onward by Russell Moore

If you wonder what I thought of these, find me on Goodreads.

Photo: Library, The Biltmore Estate, December 2017.