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.

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Reforming for What?

Writing the history of this era will demand that shark jumping be elevated to poetic art.

We open news feeds with trepidation (but also a twinge of sadistic glee?), wondering which formerly trustworthy person or institution is going up in flames today. In a particularly painful twist of irony, this fall has seen American Christians by turns celebrating the liberation of the religious conscience and then re-enslaving it in service of a false god.

October 31, 2017, marked 500 years since then-obscure German theologian Martin Luther wrote up a list of disputations with abuses of Roman Catholic doctrine and practice, publishing it in the accepted manner by nailing it to the church door in Wittenburg. Luther’s act is traditionally viewed as the start of the Protestant Reformation, which forever altered Western culture and religious practice (though, it should be pointed out, much of his inspiration came from beyond Europe). His theological descendants have enjoyed an anniversary victory lap this year, reveling (not without merit) in Scriptural authority and historical doctrines the Reformation restored.

At almost the same time, news broke that the always-controversial Alabama politician (now Republican Senate nominee) Roy Moore stood accused of numerous instances of sexual harassment and general creepiness toward young women over many years. Several of the same Christian media personalities who had earlier compromised to publicly support Donald Trump’s presidency have beclowned themselves defending Moore. Some maintained Moore’s denial of the accusations, others have gone so far as to urge Christians to continue to support him even if every claim proves true. The stakes are too high, they say, to let a pro-abortion senator even finish out an abbreviated Senate term.

What do these events have in common? Surely #Reformation500 is not to blame for Christians thinking it OK to vote for a theatrical (and possibly criminal) huckster as the “lesser of two evils”?

New York Times columnist (and outspoken Catholic) Ross Douthat certainly sees a connection, if not to Moore directly then to the general climate that allows him to even have a leg to stand on.

Reaction to Douthat’s tongue-in-cheek trolling tweet was fairly hostile. To distill our current political moment to a centuries-old theological dispute is facile at best, especially considering that “Luther was responding to chaos, not creating it.” Still, Douthat may be on to something beyond a joke. In a fragmenting culture, is it really that far of a leap from the priesthood of all believers to setting up the pragmatic individual conscience as final arbiter of right or wrong?

The Reformation itself is not a fit scapegoat for our crisis of moral authority. Indeed, most of Luther’s complaints centered around the leadership of the church in his day acting like pagan kings. The recovery of Scripture as authority (which stood over church and civil leadership alike) was the goal, not the casting off of all authority. Moreover, a proper doctrinal understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit should constrain the conscience of the believer to the whole counsel of Scripture, never contradicting it on any point.

We’re not sent out on our own as free-thinking Spirit-buckets to make utilitarian choices in each situation. Supporting flagrantly immoral leaders is wrong, even if it appears to preserve perceived freedoms or achieve desirable ends. To believe otherwise is Enlightenment hubris, not Reformation thinking. If anything, the Reformation recalls the core truth that our would-be secular saviors (whether clothed in the mantle of religious authority or not) are nothing but idols. They disappoint at best and destroy at worst, using and abusing Christians for their own ends.

But secular saviors we want. Even the disciples were, at first, dejected that Christ turned out not to be the political Messiah they longed for. The church has often been so hungry for the pottage of political power that we have suppressed a bottom-up design of societal transformation that begins with the household of God, is refined through suffering, and flourishes to God’s glory in perseverance (see 1 Peter). This failure of vision often leads us to turn inward, choosing piety and order over justice and peace, despite Scripture’s insistence that these are not mutually exclusive pursuits (see Isaiah 58, among many, many other passages).

The energy of hope, desire, and growth so vital to a healthy community is not sustained by a church that trades the bounty of God’s kingdom table for the scraps of an individual pie-in-the-sky gnosticism. That joy may fade from the church, but even in times of unfaithfulness, God will not be without a witness, allowing (for a time) the mantel of social reformation to pass from the church and onto the shoulders of a no-less-zealous progressive irreligion. The heirs of New England’s Puritans are not churchmen but the elites of liberal democracy. If we fear the loss of religious liberty in such a world, surely a measure of blame lies at our doorstep.

How else can one explain why, on October 31, that venerable bugaboo of conservative Christianity, NPR, tweeted all of Luther’s 95 Theses. Some thought their account had been hacked, but I didn’t see any incongruity there. Whatever one thinks of NPR, it’s hard not to see that their leaders are pursuing a certain vision of a better society. Why not hearken back to a historical restoration of free speech and democratization?

While the political party pursuing (on paper) an end to abortion-on-demand is willing to cheerlead for the likes of Moore and Trump, the party of Planned Parenthood understands the wisdom of putting a Franken and a Conyers away for their transgressions. While some Christians make a public show of sweeping sexual sin under the rug, Hollywood’s empire of lust is throwing its newly exposed villains under the bus.

I’m not so naive as to think that public pressure, political posturing, and damage control have as much to do with these things than any latent morality, but they illustrate the failures of cultural Christianity nicely. Ceding the moral high ground to a secular culture can’t be good for Gospel witness (especially because it comes with all law and no grace), but it should wake us up.

It is deep in our humanity to long for the restoration of all things. The creation groans. If the church does not answer that desire with the fulness of God’s good plan through Christ, people will look elsewhere. When the church is rejected by a culture, it may indeed be persecution, but we ought also examine ourselves to see if what is being rejected is actually an incomplete and unholy vision.

It is time, now as always, for the church to declare the breaking in of God’s kingdom, already here but not yet fully seen. Why settle for power when we can rejoice in redemptive confrontation with the brokenness of mankind? Why settle for trying to make a temporary home “great” when we could be building on our imperishable inheritance? Why settle for burnishing our credentials to one or other political party when we serve the king to which they must one day bow? This is the good news of the Reformation, the one that began at Calvary and carried right through Wittenburg and on to the New Jerusalem. May we not settle for anything less.

Semper reformanda

Photo: 13th-century Gothic archway & stained-glass window, Philadelphia Museum of Art, September 2017.

Vide Bellum: A Vietnam Reflection

Earlier this month, Rachel and I carved out ten evenings to watch The Vietnam War, the new film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, as it aired on PBS. Burns is the master documentarian, but this is a new high even for him—a peripatetic funeral march for the death of America’s virtue, such as it ever was. I hope every American invests the 17+ hours to watch this, particularly those of us who did not live through the period.

We were born less than nine years after the fall of Saigon, but it’s only been in recent years that we’ve even begun to hear people talk about the war. Growing up, no one I knew well had served, except for a distant cousin—the cousin who thought it was a good idea to bring a loaded service sidearm (Colt .45) to a family reunion and let 9-year-old me and another 10-year-old cousin shoot it into the creek behind the family homeplace.

Vietnam always felt like a shameful family secret; a box buried in the attic we knew existed but had been trained never to open. What remembrance and restoration there has been has been muted and not publicly embraced. It’s a sore spot we still don’t like touched. The war left us nothing to celebrate. No Yorktown. No Gettysburg. No Armistice. No D-Day. Only the dead, wounded, and a million might-have-beens.

None of this American angst begins to touch the devastation the war brought to Vietnam and her people, for whom every victory was also a defeat, and whose land bears scars still. This aspect comes through well in Burns and Novick’s work, with Vietnamese veterans (from both north and south) speaking their piece and helping fill this complex story with rich context. The war did not come about or escalate in a vacuum, and the pains that flowed into and out of it (from colonialism to civil rights) are given their fair shake.

Moreover, the personal tragedy of young lives snuffed out and veterans wracked with physical or emotional disabilities is brought front and center, with a wide cast of interviewees from every corner of the country and every branch of the military. The same young men who were sent off to die under the aegis of patriotism and honor impressed on them by their families and communities returned home as outcasts. The cause they served no longer seen as just, their sacrifice was turned into a stain on their conscience. No forgiveness. No lament. Only forgetting.

The full film is an impressive study in human nature, hubris, and groupthink, and none of the parties involved (on any side) come away unscathed. Yet I can’t help but notice that the United States has learned so little from that experience in how we conduct ourselves in the world. We persist in meddling beyond our expertise, using ethnic tensions or economic attachments as pawns in geopolitical chess. The specter of another Vietnam is always lurking in every pot we stir, every airstrike casually called in for political show. Now, as then, it is the young, the poor, the minority, and the “enemy” who pay the price for such games.

A movie, however good (and Burns & Novick have put everything they could into this one), is no truth & reconciliation commission, but my prayer is that it can be a spark to remind us of what lies at the end of the way of ignorance, callousness, and unconfessed pride.

Watch the movie. Talk to a veteran. Talk to someone who didn’t fight. Never vote for military force on a whim or to make a point.

Of course, the larger, unspoken target for this movie at this moment in time may be the political discord currently animating our national mood. We may not be at the gates of 1968 again quite yet, but The Vietnam War is a not-so-subtle reminder that it only takes a few well-placed sparks in a room full of gasoline to do a lot of damage.

As Walker Percy put it, describing his comic dystopia Love in the Ruins (which he wrote during 1968-1970), “What I really wanted to do, I guess, was call a bluff. For it has seemed to me that much of the violence and alienation of today can be traced to a secret and paradoxical conviction that America is immovable and indestructible.” During the latter stages of the war, that conviction was stretched to breaking. It’s hardly seemed as shaky since, but I fear we’re getting close.

Image: Movie poster, courtesy of PBS

Qualm Before the Storm

O faith once delivered for all the saints,
Built, against the gates of hell, on truth’s rock.
Secure, sealed by grace from all earthly taints,
Fitting man to don his heavenly smock.
Holy Word of God on high, placed in feeble hands.
Holy church on earth, guarding the good deposit.
Holy Ghost within to guide, convince, and sustain.
With great strength and courage, sent out to all the lands.
Authority and order, to truth apposite.
Full-arrayed in mighty armor, the Devil’s bane.

O! Doubt that cries out from behind restraints,
And bristles at that double-dealing flock.
God, who made the world, does not take complaints?
Stout cathedral doors cannot bear a knock?
Lament opens a chasm, untying stale bands.
Horrors in the name of Christ would likely cause it,
How should “Love thy neighbour” unleash such pride-wrought pain?
Confidence, a casualty of our warring clans.
Our baptized idols spill from the church’s closet
Upending joy, sapping power, shading hope vain.

“O child, I know thy strife.
Take now bread, breath, and life.
O sinner, I have died
For every evil plied.
No one is good,
No one is right,
But I have stood
Despite all blight.
I alone good.
I alone right.”

Photo: Summer Sunset, Chattanooga, Tenn., July 2017.