Seeing the Dead among the Living: Lessons from a Graveyard

We live next to a cemetery. Not merely nearby or down the street, but directly at the end of the driveway, visible out the kitchen window. And not an old family plot, either, but a commercial cemetery complete with a two-story mausoleum building.

Sometimes it’s a source of humor. When new guests ask what it’s like having such a property next door, my standard response is “At least the neighbors are quiet.” After windstorms, we pick the shredded remains of silk flowers from our backyard fence.

Occasionally it’s an opportunity for embarrassment, like when I rev up the lawnmower only to roll around the fence to the stares of indignant mourners at a graveside service.

Whenever it’s not raining, it’s a shady place to break from the day for a quick walk or pacing phone conversation—all the more so during the past 14 months of working mostly from home.

In the winter months, when the sun’s angle has tilted toward the southern horizon, it is the foreground of an almost daily flash of blinding beauty at the edge of the night.

In the spring, the trees fill with bluebirds, flickers, flycatchers, and robins, and the tombstones become battlements for feral cats attempting to make a meal of any of the above, or fighting with one another for territorial supremacy. Its wooded lower slopes have played host to broods of red fox kits, more than one nest of red-tailed hawks, a clutch of barred owl eggs, and even a litter of coyote pups—all this in the middle of a semi-urban area of a mid-sized metro.

Always, the cemetery is present. A patient, faithful memento mori that demands not to be ignored or passed off as a mere park. When you do stop and look, as I’ve been compelled to do for the past 13-and-a-half years of living here, that memento grows sharper still, telling stories of demise with a painful specificity that cuts across many walks of life.

At the top of the hill are the original burials, capped by weathered granite obelisks with barely visible names and dates, the oldest of which mark the resting place of people born over 200 years ago. Civil War veterans and even those who never lived long enough to see the battles that raged just a mile away in 1863 share the high ground.

Further down, on the side adjacent to the road, large, more ornate markers shining with glaze blare out the names of prominent citizens of our town—names that also signify many of our streets, parks, and buildings. Undoubtedly many of these were good men and women, but whatever services they rendered or businesses they built did not stop the passing of time that brought them here. Their personalities, triumphs, and trials fade as surely as the moss and diesel soot slowly unburnish their stones.

The new mausoleum is, as yet, mostly uninhabited by the deceased. There are a few scattered along the back wall, cheaper than the side visible to the road, and some cremated remains tucked in the specially designed corner slots. Most of the plaques denote pre-purchases, unclosed date-dashes extolling the financial prudence of a city councilman here, a dentist there, and the widow of a recently interred husband in the adjacent hollow.

When you get to individual graves amid the crab-grassed rows, the dead begin to speak their wisdom more directly.

The shared tomb of a husband and wife tells of sorrow and separation. He died in 1947, while she—were the headstone speaking true—is still roaming the earth today at the age of 151. More likely, she had to leave home when widowed, passing away in another place, her family unable to bear the cost to have her body delivered back here to be interred with her spouse’s.

A marker for a young woman of 23 who died in 1935 curiously bears her maiden name, along with a note that she was the wife of her husband—presumably a newlywed unable to afford the stone and honoring her parents (who could) by retaining their family name. Perhaps she died trying to bring a child into the world or from some then-incurable infection. The inscription below testifies to this grieving widower’s character and presence of mind, and never fails to catch my attention: “The Lord gave. He took. He doeth all things well.”

Under one of the sprawling willow oaks, a swath of tiny marble lambs mark the children’s section. Headstones of dozens of infants, toddlers, and stillborn children, some whose birthdays was their death-day, offer a solemn reminder that death plays no favorites. Such losses seem foreign to our age of NICUs, pediatric surgery, and antibiotics, but surely remain all too present for those who have endured pregnancy losses, without the funeral and the lamb to silently invite the rest of us to share in grief and support.

The cemetery itself is part of the ballad, its general disrepair a steady bass note. A few years ago, the family who founded it in 1847 either sold the property or outsourced its management (it’s not quite clear which is actually the case). Now, it’s not uncommon for a month or more to pass between mowings, or for storm-downed tree limbs to lay across paths and markers for weeks. Leaves go unraked, brush is piled in plain sight, and fill dirt left over from recent burials is mounded 3-4 feet high at the top of the hill. Some graves are still well-tended by survivors who bring new flowers with each season, but many markers have cracked or fallen over, with no one among the living able to muster enough concern to repair them. Even cemeteries must someday die.

I’m not going to tie this up into a simple sermon on how to value each day as though it could be your last (though each of my neighbors would attest that it certainly could). Consider it instead an invitation to see what is preaching to you from your own backyard, if you’ll stop rushing by long enough to look. Soak in the wide shot and the closeups and attend to the director’s framing. Dust you are, and to dust you will return, but between your forming and decay, a world of wonders beckons.

Hiwassee

At the confluence of the Hiwassee and Tennessee Rivers, silt swamps and rich farmland attract tens of thousands of sandhill cranes on their annual migration from the upper midwest to the Gulf coast. In recent decades, a sizeable population overwinters there instead of continuing further south. Just downstream from this merging point is Blythe Ferry, the site of the final forced removal of the Cherokee nation from their lands, where some 9,000 men, women, and children were held in camps for weeks before floating downstream or being carried across the river to walk what is now known as the Trail of Tears.

From the air, a river’s course is plain—
No surprise waiting around the bend
On this map for migrating sandhills.
Life is carried effortlessly as silt.
The flock pauses to dig mussels or
Pillage a farmer’s unreaped corn
Rejoicing in rattling trumpet calls.

From the ground, a river marks an edge
A line of knowing and not knowing
One side from the other as it flows.
Death is carried down cold and aloof.
Blood, waste, and tears washed along with mud
From a people massed and waiting for
The flood of pain to crest and recede.

Image: Original watercolor, January 2021

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.