Books of the Year that Was, 2016 ed.

‘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 2016. Since changing jobs in March, I’m no longer reviewing books professionally, so this year’s list is more stilted to my personal tastes (i.e. literature).

History/Biography/Cultural Observations

The Chip by T. R. Reid
Once in a great while, an invention comes along that upends the settled order of things. The cultural perception that such devices are the result of a “flash of genius,” striking from a clear blue sky, is misguided; often the discovery comes after years of questing to solve a particular problem. Such is the case with the integrated circuit, or microchip. Engineers from all over the world were working to figure out how to reduce the size of computer circuits, and two Americans, Robert Noyce and Jack Kilby came to the basic design almost simultaneously. Reid’s book engagingly narrates this discovery, the resulting patent disputes, and the legacy of rapid technological change that this tiny tool unleashed on the world.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
Some biographies inspire by demonstrating the heights to which humanity can soar with the right mix of circumstances, talent, and grit. This is not one of those. Isaacson’s overlong, chatty, and occasionally vulgar portrait of Jobs is not a particularly good book, and tiptoes too close to hagiography even to be a truly good biography. Jobs led groups to accomplish amazing things, but at such a great cost in burned up relationships, one wonders if it was worth it. A role model he was not. Jobs was a Raskolnikov of industry: someone to whom rules did not apply, at least in his own mind. And yet, yet, I can’t help but be a little in awe, especially thinking of the way Apple products and Pixar movies have made my life a little brighter, more productive, and more fun for many years.

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Hereitics by Ross Douthat
Despite the fact that he’s only a few years my senior, New York Times columnist Douthat has become one of the leading voices for conservatism, tradition, and common sense in the American public square. Bad Religion provides a fascinating take on the history of American Christianity, namely that the slide in religious adherence has less to do with outright rejection of faith than the accommodation of Christian orthodoxy to various cultural ideas, which in turn have lead to various heresies. It is a clearheaded approach to the (real and perceived) challenges to the Christian faith in America, recognizing that they come from within as much or more than from without.

Musing/Memoir

The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon
Capon’s masterpiece is delightfully uncategorizable. It is perhaps the world’s most circuitous cookbook or its most unorthodox work of theology. In either case, it is a must read for every one of us slightly pudgy and shameless lovers of all the tastes God built into His world. Food is necessary for life, but He made it fascinating and delicious on purpose. I’ve seldom come across a book that exudes such unvarnished joy.

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
Abbey, perhaps the atheist’s Annie Dillard, evokes with intimate detail the harsh moral clarity of the the wilderness while abandoning mankind to its condemning ravages all alone. Somehow, though, this paean to the vast inhospitality of the Colorado Plateau is more worshipful than Dillard’s glorying in the minutiae of a Virginia mountain stream. I read this (on a friend’s recommendation) before heading out West this fall, and Abbey’s portrait is richly accurate.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
Snarky in that particular mien of the Northeastern sophisticate, but heartwarming all the same. I’ve long been a frequenter of the AT for day-hikes, and I always loved chatting with through-hikers on Roan Mountain, Mount Rogers, and the Smokies. Bryson elucidates the exhilaration and exhaustion of walking these mountains with a good mix of humor, disgust, and awe. His relationship with Katz keeps the narrative going, helping the book to rise above mere travelogue.

Theology/Christian Life

Knowing God  by J. I. Packer
From my review: “Though this work has been driving home deep truths about our Triune Lord since well before I was born, it was to my great detriment that I only just recently picked it up for myself. Every accolade Knowing God has received through the years was just praise—I have seldom read such a clear, emphatic presentation of so much Christian doctrine. To ears ready to hear and hearts ready to obey, Packer’s masterpiece is sort of a devotional ‘jet fuel’ to feed the fire of spiritual maturity….This pastoral heart most characterizes Packer’s work. It is a systematic theology (and a good one), but it is a systematic theology for pilgrims. Other books have more academic depth, but few achieve the devotional concern for the holiness, peace, and joy of the Christian.”

You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K.A. Smith
It takes a while to get going (unpacking a philosophy of formation), but eventually Smith gets up a good head of steam and makes some very punchy, helpful suggestions on how to recover and retain the faith in the midst of our self-absorbed consumer society. In brief, he teases out at a more popular level what he has been writing about for years: that culture is liturgy, and the Church cannot combat secularism with knowledge alone. His earnestness comes across rather condescendingly at times, especially when he seems to downplay the intellectual pursuit of God, which can be just as formative as other more “embodied” acts of worship.

Fiction

Laurus by Evgheny Vodolazkin
Hands-down my favorite read of the year. From my review: “What shines in both the words and the story is a voice eerily absent from the world of modern literature—sincere faith. The Orthodoxy of Laurus isn’t merely attached to a character or added for ‘color’, but suffuses the entire work because it is real. The people of this book are, like the rest of us, sinners, but through God’s mercy, many are saints. Most are earthy, some insufferably pious, and a few are wicked, but they all live under the shadow of the Almighty. In this world, the glow of icons by candlelight is meant to inspire, and a Holy Fool throwing rocks at invisible demons is to be expected.”

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
My first foray into McCarthy did not disappoint. Horses has doses of his trademark depravity, but the story is tempered with enough tenderness to make it go down. The interweaving of characters into the turbulent political history of Mexico gives a literary and cultural ballast to what is already a fine (if bleak) bildungsroman. As a marginal hispanohablante, I also enjoyed McCarthy’s frequent use of untranslated Spanish dialogue.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
A masterpiece in every way. Why, oh why, do we persist in thinking the classics are somehow less accessible? Human drama explodes from every page, and spiritual significance crackles throughout. “Hurrah for Karamazov!”

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Powerful, affecting assault on the American soul. Being “colorblind” is not the opposite of racism, but often the same beast in another cloak. Ellison refuses to let any region (South or North), class (establishment, radicals, workingmen, etc.), or race off the hook for our mutual culpability in dehumanizing one another.

Honorable Mention: 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.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Much as I want to find fault with this book (Atticus’ stoicism being an unsustainable ground for real social change is about as close as I can get briefly), it is justly enshrined in the American literary canon. Lee manages to be endearing, but not cloying; profound, but not preachy; childlike, but not childish.

Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy
As an habitual re-reader of Percy, this deceptively deep comedy has wormed its way into my list of favorites. It even inspired an effort at scholarly analysis this summer. From that paper: “This then, is the solution to which Percy points the beleaguered reader. Life, to be genuine and grounded, must find its roots in the reality of Christ, but also in the reality of creation—even in the realistic parameters of the Fall. To attempt salvation by any other means only brings disaster. By God’s grace, change comes to sick men and sick systems through the ordinary faithfulness of doing the next right thing.”

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
In the morass of 2016, I reached again for the mother of all political novels for understanding, if not consolation. Warren’s magnum opus is so good, and ranges so much farther than politics, or the South, into the very depths of humanity. Truly, everything worth knowing is covered in blood, and we cannot escape the awful responsibility of time.

*UPDATE
It was suggested that I list the other books I read this year which didn’t make this “hits list” but are still worth a read. Here they are, without comment:

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie
Godric by Frederick Buechner
The High Price of Materialism by Tim Kasser
Hillbilly Elegy 
by J. D. Vance
Intellectuals and Race by Thomas Sowell
The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Poirot Investigates by Agatha Christie
The Sympathizer by Viet Than Ngyuen
Teacher Man by Frank McCourt
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John LeCarre

Photo: Stacks, Chattanooga Public Library, Eastgate Branch, February 2015.

Cultural Appropriation

“Write what you know,” wisdom conventional,
Threatens to morph into ironclad law.
Fearing aggressions unintentional;
The best lack all conviction in its claw.
Sympathy is nice; empathy divine,
But you’d better think twice (or more), you cad,
If you think your words can ever touch mine;
If you, you WASP, you geezer robed in plaid,
Dare deign to make artist’s gestures this way!
What you know (not much!), keep it over there,
While I sit here and type, to my dismay
Using all your best English words with care.
Forsooth! Never could I more clearly see
That your culture appropriated me.

Photo: Feeding Time, Tracy Aviary, Salt Lake City, Utah, October 2016.

Percy’s Love in the Ruins: A Dystopia for Our Time

The 1970s have a curious aura, especially to those of us born in the early 1980s. Not quite far enough before our time to feel like “history,” Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation, and all the associated malaise were so much a part of our parents’ formative experience that they taste to us rather of a half-remembered bad dream—especially given the relative peace and prosperity we enjoyed throughout childhood. Perhaps it is only natural, then, to associate that 70s vibe with our own grave misgivings about the present.

Facing as we do a national election between a habitual liar under investigation by the FBI (is anyone more Nixonian than Mrs. Clinton?) and a much-married misogynist, racist, and paragon of petty machismo, we see a strong political overlap between the two eras. The nausea goes much deeper too—into sex, race, religion, and society itself. All around, our souls give way, yet no solution presents itself. The exhaustion is palpable, even papered over as it continues to be by our blithe consumption and entertainment.

Into such troubled times, the prophets of old spoke even greater trouble. “On account of you, Zion will be plowed as a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the temple will become high places of a forest.”[1] This indicts us just as much as it happens to us. Perhaps the prophet we need to hear thunder today is the unlikeliest of anointed men—nearly three decades dead and always unassuming in his own time.

Walker Percy, Louisiana novelist and essayist, keenly felt the dislocation of man in the modern age, and set his face toward exploring and explaining that pain in nearly everything he wrote. In Percy’s own telling, a serious novelist (one as much concerned with plumbing the depths of existence as with telling a good story) is by nature a sort of prophet:

“Since true prophets, i.e., men called by God to communicate something urgent to other men, are currently in short supply, the novelist may perform a quasi-prophetic function. Like the prophet, his news is generally bad. Unlike the prophet, whose mouth has been purified by a burning coal, the novelist’s art is often bad, too…. Like the prophet, he may find himself in radical disagreement with his fellow countrymen. Unlike the prophet, he does not generally get killed. More often, he is ignored.”[2]

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Honor Codes and Celebrity Woes

A musing from several years ago.

When is honor dishonorable?

A major subject of discussion in the American evangelical scene over the past several years has been the presence and influence of certain “celebrity pastors”. Much has been written on whether well-known personalities in Christian ministry qualify as “celebrities” or merely “public figures”—whether they gain notoriety for faithfulness and accomplishments or whether they seek fame and power and use the Church as their platform. A helpful roundup of these thoughts is available here (ironically enough, a panel discussion of well-known pastors in front of a crowd of 7,000).

There are other issues underneath this general discussion, notably the increasing lack of oversight and accountability for famous pastors and speakers. Carl Trueman (who appears on the panel mentioned above) writes incisively about a few flare-ups of this phenomenon here (N.b.: Since writing this in 2013, the list of fallen Christian celebrities has sadly grown longer and longer).

Most of what I hear on the subject focuses on three areas in particular 1) the aforementioned accountability issues, 2) the seeping into the Church of the general celebrity culture of the contemporary West, or 3) the role of mass and social media in “feeding the beast”. What if, perhaps, there was something else operating in the shadows here? Something more primal, more dangerous, because it comes from within?

Honor Codes and Christ
One of our church elders (who also happens to be a professor of English literature) and I were talking about the prevalence of honor codes in world literature. He noted that, despite surface differences, shame/honor cultures typically function by elevating the social standing of men who conform to a given culture’s ideal of manhood and shielding those who rise from dishonor or any damage to their reputation. Christianity, he argued, subverts that model in the person of Christ—He receives the highest honor (being seated at the right hand of the Father and receiving worship from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation forever) through being subjected to the highest dishonor this life could muster (emptying Himself, betrayal by friends, false accusation, public humiliation, execution as a criminal). That radical perspective shift upends the notions of manhood, leadership, and power in the Church, giving Christians a framework by which humility, tenderness, patience, etc. become markers of strength rather than weakness.

The Code Redeemed in the Church
In a sense, Paul expounds this redeemed code of honor in his description of the character of elders/overseers in the Church: “An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:2-7).

To qualify as a leader in the Church, a man must be recognized as holding to the standards to which all believing men should aspire—pastors and elders are not called to be a breed of theological übermenschen, but rather faithful men who lead others by teaching and example to greater Christ-likeness so that the witness of the Gospel may be upheld and spread. Paul says as much in introducing this list of qualities: ”It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do” (1 Tim. 3:1).

Double Honor
Even so, this is not an easy calling, and Satan desires the distortion and downfall of God’s good plan for Church leadership. For this reason, Paul shares (later in the same letter), that “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17). He suggests that those who labor in the Word for the benefit of the body should be compensated for their work (5:18), and that criticism and accusation against them should be weighed carefully (5:19).

It is right and good that we should honor and, in some measure, elevate those who serve the Church well. Like cream, they rise because of their obedience and perseverance over the long haul. Perhaps they even gain notoriety beyond their local church and community through media transmission of their teaching. Though it is easier to gain a wide audience through today’s technology, this goes all the way back to the beginning of the Church in that its leaders often wrote widely and impacted wide swaths of the population. The Church Fathers, and later the Reformers, were something of “celebrity pastors” in their own day, and their writings continue to wield influence. Again, to be a celebrated teacher of God’s Word is not inherently problematic, and the Church past and present has benefitted through the very public ministries of some men.

The Code Resurgent
Perhaps this is where we swerve. All it takes for the old pagan code of honor to overtake this righteous double honor is the most natural of human weaknesses—pride. As soon as the man who gains fame from ministry begins to believe that this condition arises from his work rather than the Lord’s, he will chafe against any attempt to counsel or correct him. When other godly leaders pointing out his errors or character flaws, he sees it not as loving reproof but an affront to his reputation. To save face, he may surround himself with yes-men and go to great lengths to remove himself from those who would correct him. From there, it is a short road to disaster, for the celebrated man, his church, and the witness of the Church of Jesus Christ around the world.

Our enemy is endlessly creative in the ways he can bring this to bear to the ruin of the Gospel. For some, he delights in allowing them to faceplant into sexual or financial sin that anyone who was listening to godly counsel would have fled long before it consumed him. For others, he seeks to have them continue in authority but tempts them through their pride to teach false doctrine and lead many thousands astray from Christ. Most dangerously (and most germane to the issue at hand within the evangelical and Reformed communities), he seeks to get believers to separate the life and doctrine of public teachers, so that we accept many failings so long as their words retain the truth of Scripture. In such cases, the ripple effects of unaccountable leadership trickle down to cripple churches with leaders who answer only to their own egos.

The Corrective: Biblical Authority
The shame/honor dynamic is deeply embedded in our sinful hearts, and it is always ready to creep back into the Church. This is why, almost in the same breath as he urges honor for Gospel ministers, Paul minces no words to ensure that honor is well checked: “[Elders] who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning. I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality” (2 Tim. 5:20-21). The Lord knows that men, even His chosen redeemed, are sinful and would abuse the honor given them to make much of themselves at the expense of Christ and His Church. Therefore, He establishes 1) a plurality of elders to keep the whole church in submission to God and prevent any one man from co-opting a local church, and 2) a firm standard to rein in those who go too far.

Public ministry is a privilege, but it can become a precipice without the oversight of faithful elders. Any man given a broad platform to teach and preach ought to be exceedingly careful to submit to the authority within his local church, to men who know him and his proclivities and who will not hesitate to strike loving blows upon his sinful heart when necessary. To step out from under that umbrella is to cross the threshold from public figure to “celebrity”—without authority over you, you are left unprotected from both the enemy’s snares and the destructive capacity of your own heart.

As to those of us in the pews who are in no danger of becoming publicly known pastors, what is our responsibility in this? First, we should be shrewd in accepting teaching from any “celebrity pastor” and “test the spirits,” checking their words and  by the Word and being wary of any who are not fully submissive to the elders of their local church. Second, we should submit ourselves to the Word and elect our  own pastors and elders with great discernment. As Paul warns, “Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin” (1 Tim. 5:22). To exercise that level of care and concern for sake of the Gospel and its teachers is honor indeed.