Monday, May 20, 2013

2012 – A Year in Books: Part 2 - Non Fiction

Part 1 covered the Fiction I read in 2012 and can be found here

Notation key:
(A) - Audio – I listened to this book
(N) – I have a word document of notes and quotes from this book[1]
(!) – I really liked this book
(X%) – I didn’t finish this book – I either ran out of time to commit or felt like I got the gist - this is the percentage I read

Resurrection of the Son of God – NT Wright (50%) (N)

"In the tradition, then, firm, universal and early, we find unambiguous evidence that the earliest Christians believed both that Jesus had been bodily raised and that this event fulfilled the scriptural stories…Nothing short of the firm belief that resurrection had occurred in this one case could have produced this result."

"The point of resurrection is a reaffirmation of creation...not its denial"

The third book in Wright’s tree murdering series[1] was the best so far.  In general I think that Wright’s ‘popular’ theology is as much NT as I require.[2]  But these tomes are impressive and devastating responses to critical scholarship. 

I have always been nonplused by ‘resurrection scholarship’ (which tends to boil down to a couple pop-apologetic assertions).  But, this volume is a sweeping analysis of the heterogeneous landscape of pagan and Jewish beliefs on resurrection in the first century asking the question (by criteria of similarity and dissimilarity) “why did the early church codify one of these many many options?”  How did we get a relatively homogeneous Christian theology of resurrection when it was sampling from so many options.  He answers with the assertion[3] ”because of the nature of Jesus’ resurrection” forced their eschatological hand bringing unity out of outrageous diversity.

But my reading group ran out of patience with page after page of ancient near eastern evidence about 400 pages in.  We got the gist.

We recently had a discussion about finishing it and one of the guys said “we should do it in winter.  I need to literally have nothing better to do.”  But here’s the thing.  It is not difficult because it is dull.  Wright is actually an excellent technical writer, with a subversive (if very British) wit.  It is just devastatingly thorough.  He piles evidence for each point for a good 20 pages after I am thoroughly convinced.

The Social Animal – David Brooks (A)

"Perceiving isn't just a transparent way of taking in it is a thinking and skillful process.  Seeing and thinking are not two separate processes.  They are linked and basically simultaneous. "[5]

I am a sucker for a well written popular meta-analysis (see below) in fields where I am an outsider.  Usually I prefer if they are done by scientists, but a bona fide author can sure make it more readable.  There were parts of The Social Animal that I loved.  I have cited it in multiple posts and talks and have two complete draft posts base on it almost ready to run.[6]  But some of the criticism that this book received was justified.  He interspersed an undercited social science meta analysis with a story of two fictional (and hard to believe) individuals.  The fiction wasn’t particularly good or illustrative, and the work didn’t really cohere around his thesis.  But a book in which David Brooks thinks carefully about social science literature, reflects on our social and political context, and then says “David Brooks Things” is well worth the time.  (ted video)

Willpower – Baumeister and Tearney (A) (!) (200% - I read this book twice, and some of it more than that) 

"Emotion regulation does not rely on willpower. People cannot simply will themselves to be in love, or to feel intense joy, or to stop feeling guilty.  Emotional control typically relies on various subtle tricks,[7] such as changing how one thinks about the problem at hand.”

“On the whole, benefits of high self-esteem[8] accrue to the self while its costs (arrogance and conceit) are born by others.”

“The result of conflicting goals is unhappiness instead of action.”

But this was the finest and most helpful popular scientific meta-analysis that I read, not only this year, but ever.  Baumeister was one of the pioneers in rigorous studies of ‘self regulation,’ the technical term for something that has historically been called ‘willpower,’ ‘discipline’ or ‘self control.’  Tearney is one of his students turned science writer.  So the book has the rare advantage of being a synthesis of one of the great contributors in the field and engagingly written. 

It would be hard for me to exhaust the value I have gotten out of this book in the last couple years.  The work corroborates, informs and augments Christian theology and tactics and I have integrated some of the insights into my preaching and teaching.  But it also helped me re-organize and get more out of my work day[9] and optimize other aspects of my overall productivity.

Orthodoxy – GK Chesterton (!) re-read

 “Government…is a thing analogous to writing one’s own love letters or blowing one’s own nose.  These are things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly.”[10]

“Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”

“We forget that we forget…All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that, for one awful instant, we remember that we forget.”[11]

“stars seem bent on being understood.”

I am trying to re-read more great books (though my 2012 list would not convey that – I am spending more time reviewing underlines and notes of past reads[12]).  I’ve decided that I would rather know 20 books than have read 200.  And Orthodoxy is one of my favorite books.  I have leaned on him in posts before…and have another one coming. Even the title of this little blog comes off its pages.

So this was my third time through it, but maybe the first time I really followed the overall argument Chesterton was making (previously it had seemed more like a collection of essays).  I have said before that Orthodoxy is the most thrilling book that no one reads because the title sounds tedious.  But Chesterton is the most playful, disarming, surprising, subversive writer I know.  Every page is a joy and the arguments are worth not only having read, but internalizing.  So I read it again.

Gospel in the Pluralist Society (30%) reread – Leslie Newbigin

“A long established dogma only gives way to critical attack when that attack is based on some other beliefs. Criticism does not come out of a vacant mind.”[13]

It has been 10 years since I read Newbegin.  It was influential, but I knew I was overmatched at the time and only getting a fraction of the value out of it. So when I went back and re-read part of it I was embarrassed at what I had underlined – and what I hadn’t.  The marginalia suggests I had totally missed most of its value.  It appears that there is a kind of classic book that you can read too young.  Or maybe great texts[14] require just multiple interactions at various life stages.

Newbigin spent 30 years in India where he spent a lot of time thinking about the philosophy of religious pluralism, and then returned to a European religious landscape that was newly enamored with these ideas he had been thinking about for decades. 

Darwin’s Cathedral – David Sloan Wilson[15]

“resentence and forgiveness are so basic to social relationships that they emerge from simple game theory models”[16]

I read this for my “Evolution of Religion” seminar. The opening chapters were a survey of the main controversy surrounding the evolution of religion and made an excellent primer before I dove into primary literature.  Wilson outlines (and then supports) the argument that has emerged from a group of renegade evolutionary biologists that religion is adaptive (against the cognitive science orthodoxy that it is some sort of byproduct or antagonistic pleiotropy).  The first chapters are an effective primer on the new debate.[17]  But the whole book is interesting…as is Wilson.  He is not a person of faith[18], but has no patience with the scientific[19] carelessness that the New Atheists truck out.

Oh, and “The Valley of Cwm Idwal” (where Darwin saw evidence that led to glacial explanations – and Wilson uses as a metaphor of how the obvious explanation often eludes us) would make a great album title.

Moving Together in Time (20%)

This was an investigation of the social utility (and speculation about the evolutionary origin) of dance (for the same class).  It was worth about the time I spent on it.  The big questions it asked were interesting, but I didn’t find much of substantial reflective value.

Practice Resurrection – Eugene Peterson (A) (70%)

“Church is an appointed gathering of named people in particular places who practice a life of resurrection in a world in which death gets the best headlines.”

I put this on an MP3 player and listened to it while I fell asleep under the stars on various sand bars and rock ledges in the Grand Canyon.  (link) So my memory of it is fragmented.  But this is strangely fitting because my memories of most of my experiences with Peterson are fragmented.  He is a better writer than theologian.  He is more quotable than gifted at synthesis.  So this was not a terrible way to experience his wandering exposition on Ephesians. 

Peterson has a healthy and earthy view of the local church and the pastorate which I find refreshing and correcting.  But sometimes he follows that into the error of dismissing the attempts of many equally sound movements…like the boomer mega church pastors.  And speaking of boomer mega church pastors….

10 Dumb Things Smart Christians Believe – Osborne

“Think of the disillusionment that sets in when someone writes off God for failing to keep a promise that he never made.”

Dismissing the boomer big church guys is common Peterson’s generation (older than them)…but my generation (younger than them) has made a pro sport of it.  Nothing was so ubiquitous among Christian Xers in their late 20’s as bagging on Warren and Hybels.  But the wisdom required to do and sustain[20] what these guys have done deserves our attention.  My disinterest in them and their movement is my failing, not theirs.  So I picked up a couple books by Osborne. 

They are absurdly conversational.  I think they are written at like a 7th grade reading level.  But as soon as I got over the fact that it wasn’t written to me…as soon as I started reading it as if I was listening in on a counseling session – overhearing someone break down decades of careful observation of the Scriptures and human behavior in very clear and simple terms; then real, substantial, rich, wisdom was unlocked.

The implicit theme of this book is that we spend a lot of time talking about objections to Christianity…the things that our detractors throw at us.  But the things that destabilize and disillusion most Christians are not from without…they are from within…the false things we teach.  He calls them “Christian urban legends.”  Stuff that >50% of contemporary American Christians believe that neither the Bible nor any historical faith tradition assert.[21]  And when these illicit beliefs encounter counter factuals (as they ALWAYS do), they call the veracity of Christianity itself into question. 

Bruce – The Gospel of John (30%)
Bruce – The Letters of John

For some reason I always want to call FF, ‘The Bruce.’  If Robert the Bruce in Braveheart was a more sympathetic character, I would.  ‘The Bruce’ is THE commentator of my father’s generation, in my opinion.[22]  If he has written on a passage I am preaching, I will read it.  I also distributed Bruce to my preaching students who are doing messages on John because he forges an excellent balance between technical detail and pastoral application.

John For Everyone I and II/ Thessalonians for Everyone – NT Wright

“The chaos and misery of this present world is, it seems, the raw material out of which the loving wise God is making his new creation.”

“They were living in the old time zone, and were angry at Jesus for waking them up too soon.”

Wright once said “The book of John is like my wife…I love her very much…and I don’t understand her at all.”[23]  So you can imagine my intrigue taking on his popular work on the text.  How would the great champion of the ‘Jewishness’ of the gospels handle the most overtly Hellenistic of these documents?  The answer is, very well.  While many of the themes of John are informed (and often elucidated) by his synoptic scholarship (particularly Resurrection) he lets John speak in chorus with the synoptic when appropriate but preserves its unique harmonies as well – even when they cut across his polemical hobby horses.

Homiletics – Karl Barth

"We run the risk of ruining the language and letting clichés become a regular disease.  The only way to avert this danger is painfully to work on every single word...in the sermon."


My blurb on this book turned into a post 
  
There are interesting ways in which Barth’s preaching lectures emerge from his theology.  For example, his distrust of general revelation makes him suspicious of introductions and illustrations.  It was kind of fun to read an author that most would classify as ‘left’ of me and my tradition and feel him as a historic pull to be more text focused in my preaching.  I feel like the ‘left’/’right’ categories[25] can be pretty unhelpful sometimes, but they are especially unhelpful wrt the early neo-orthodox guys. 

Foucault Reader/Foucault for Beginners

“History…introduces discontinuity into our very beings.”

“Knowledge is not made for understanding; it is made for cutting.”[26]

“The law of nations will no longer countenance the disorder of hearts.”

“The author is the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning.”

My summer project[27] was to do a little introduction to Foucault.   I’m not sure the investment to return ratio warranted the project, but I found it really interesting.  Foucault is a puzzle because sometimes I feel like he has really tied into something fundamental and real, and other times I think he is literally on drugs because he is totally failing to perceive any sort of reality that I have encountered.  It is as if he teeters on the edge of a solipsistic precipice between wisdom and self parody and falls off one side as often as he falls off the other.

Mostly it was difficult for me to take his “mental illness as stigmatization of the normals” stuff in the wake of losing one our students to mental illness.  No. 

Rock of Ages – Stephen Jay Gould (!)

“The causes of life’s history cannot solve the riddles of life’s meaning.”

“(the late 1800’s) marked the construction of warfare between science and religion as a guiding theme of Western history…the flat earth myth achieved its canonical status as a primary homily for the triumph of science under this false dichotimization of Western History.”

Finally, Gould’s[28] book about science and religion (which he calls “the great nonproblem of our times”) was, unsurprisingly, great.  Gould had no business writing as well as he did and, while his philosophy is sometimes a little thin (though it regularly puts Dawkins et al.’s depth of analysis to shame) it is always engaging, helpful, kind, and thought provoking.

 Gould argues for the Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) approach to synthesizing faith and science.

(Digression on NOMA that should be a footnote – or, actually, its own post:  The reason I can’t buy fully into ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ is that I see no reason why they should happen to be entirely exclusive by some cosmic, metaphysical accident.  It seems artificially clean epistemologically.  But Gould could have totally talked me into MOMA (marginally overlapping) or TIMA (Tangentially intersecting).  And I think that the rest of his argument emerges pretty effectively from TIMA.)

But the main contribution of this book is not so much his positive assertion but his deconstruction.  He argues that the narrative of a historical conflict between faith and science is actually a total anachronism.  The conflict is contemporary and projected backwards into history by those on both side who are vested in making it seem really critical and divisive.  Gould makes an excellent, accessible, multipronged case that the conflict is a modern construct and the well worn parables that we hang our narrative of conflict on (Columbus[29], Galileo[30], Copernicus, Darwin, and even, more recently, the fictionalizations of the Scopes trial[31]) that are often told as morality tales of science scoring great victories over intransient religion are not nearly as useful for that polemical intent as we have heard them.

This post was also written while listening to the Radical Face pandora station...
...seriously, have you heard these guys, they're pretty freeking great.



[1] The next “one” is coming out and it is a 1700 page 2 book set with 2 additional ‘companion’ books.  I have often thought that I will make time for all the video games I never had time to play when I am cooped up in an old folks home and no one is interested in any contribution I can make any more.  I think that those lonely days will now be brightened by video games and Wright’s spralling Pauline corpus, because that is the next time I expect to have that much free time.

[2] And less than my reading group requires…so we ‘took a break’ at the half way point and haven’t gone back yet.

[3] I desperately want to put a ******Spoiler Alert******** like the ones that were ubiquitous in my fiction post, but I’ll desist.

[5] I have crafted a post around this, but my favorite book of 2013 (“Imagining the Kingdom” by James Smith) just essentially made precisely the argument I was going to make using this quote from Brooks and then his psychological influences.
[6] That at my posting rate, should get finalized within the next 20 months or so.

[7] Which I might call habits, or spiritual disciplines.  'Tricks' seems far to pajorative or trivial to describe the practices of emotional regulation that are at the heart of human experience and interaction.

[8] Which, the authors argue, have not been largely vindicated by research.

[9] The chapter on the Zeigarnick effect alone is worth the price of admission.  I’ll do a post some time on how this has helped me increase efficiency and order my work day.

[10] GK was a populist.  He found democracy horrific, except in comparison to all the other options.

[11] “The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad.  The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated form each other and are wandering alone.”E.g. justice without grace creates a non-mystical religion of intolerable self righteousness based on arbitrary standards.  Virtues work in as a behavioral and attitudinal ecosystem exerting dynamic control on each other to generate a precarious stable state of behavioral and attitudinal equilibrium.  Most of our contemporary political conflicts are not good vs evil, but the warring of differently segregated virtue (which can bear the weight of other-marginalization better than crass power grabbing) I am working on a post on this and how a variety of isolated virtues each becomes monstrous and generate the conflict in the Ice an Fire (Game of Thrones) novels. 
[12] This is the chief reason for doing a year end summary nearly half a year late…it is an opportunity to re-aquaint with the best of what I read last year.  I have found minor blogs are more pedagogical than polemical.

[13] “When “reason” is adduced as…truth, it is obvious that what is happening is simply that the reigning plausibility structure is being allowed to operate.”

[14]One of the things I do when I preach (and teach my students to do) is to read the passage several dozen times.  That is because texts are surprisingly difficult to penetrate.  One student who preached for us last quarter (and did a phenomenal job) admitted that he was skeptical that he would see new nuance and implication on his 25th reading…but there it was.  So often there are higher returns of art and insight by going back to a book you know is rich ground that speculating on a novel volume.

[15] It is important to remember that the evidence for deisgn in nature is so compelling that it cries out for an explanation.” 37
“My status as an outsider makes it easy for me to island-hop the social sciences, and I am struck by the lack of consistency.” 83
“The main conclusion to emerge (from Nazi gemany studies) was that us/them thinking can be triggered extremely easily in normal people.  The seeds of genocide are within all of us.”

[16] Or the most cursory reading of the gospels.  I have often said, if Jesus wasn’t who he claimed to be, he was the most brilliant mad man who ever lived.

[17] I don’t have a dog in this debate, but I find the content and form of it incredibly interesting.  I have a draft post on it.  In fact, I have drafted a 3 part series of posts that I outlined during this seminar.  They should show up on this site within the next 3 months to 8 years…I can’t be sure.

[18] Arguing that divine intervention is a ‘testable hypothesis’ that has been ruled out.

[19] Yes that’s right, he doesn’t go after their sloppy philosophy but the contested nature of their science.

[20] Sustain is the key word here.  When I look at how Bell and Chan have walked away from their churches it makes me feel like our generation should be looking to those with more track record to see what is not only attainable but sustainable.  Of course this includes the distantly dead (Augustine, Luther, Owen), the recently dead (Henry, Stott), and the closer to dead than I would like to admit (Keller – Contemporary American Christianity will feel the loss of his voice acutely, here’s to another 20 years).  But it also includes the currently middle aged who did the sort of things in the last 20 years that I would like to be part of in my next 20 years.

[21] Stuff like “faith can fix anything”, “everything happens for a reason”, “Let you conscience be your guide”, and “God brings good luck” and “Anyone who dares to question their veracity gets written off as spiritually dull, lacking in faith, or liberal.”

[22] One of my Biblical studies professors studied under him and said he had the NT memorized in Greek and English and consistently produced scholarship constant with orthodoxy because it was where the data led him.  “He was not a man with an axe to grind” is a description that has stuck with me…and his commentaries read like this.  They are the reflections of a man who both loves the text and knows it better than I ever will.

[23] He went on to point out that most NT scholars go through their Johanine phase perilously close to their own expiration date which is why many great John books (including, potentially his own) go unwritten.

[25] Which are generally pretty unhelpful.

[26] “Truth isn’t outside power…truth isn’t the reward of free spirits, the child of protracted solitude, nor the privilege of those who have succeeded in liberating themselves.  Truth is a thing in the world.  And it induces regular effects of power.  Each society has its regimes of truth…the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements.”  “Regimes of truth” are made of the same philosophical stuff as Berger’s “Plausibility Structures.” 

[27] I try to do a ‘summer reading project’ every year that I consider the ‘high volatility portion of my reading portfolio.’  It is outside of my standard reading categories and has the risk of being useless, but the possibility of unlocking new reflective, philosophical, and linguistic frontiers.

[28] Gould the Harvard Paleontologist, was probably the most famous paleontologist of his generation.  Gould was a naturalist and many people compare him to Dawkins, but there are two very big differences.  Gould loved words and wrote as craft rather than polemic, and Gould’s scientific credentials are vastly superior, responsible for more than one Khunian shift in his career…Oh, and Gould was kind and generous. 

[29] “This silliest and most flagrantly false of all tales within the venerable genre of ‘moral lessons for kiddies’…(exposes) the harm done by the false model of warfare between science and religion.”  111 – This part was a reprint from his great essay in “Dinosaur in a Haystack” which I read nearly a decade ago and remembered vividly because it was so shocking.  It turns out that “virtually all major Christian scholars (in Columbus’ day ) affirmed our planet’s roundness”.  They opposed Columbus because they had calculated the circumference of the earth CORRECTLY (“his critics were entirely right”) and didn’t think he could make it to India.  Columbus flaunted the best science of his day (which was both correct and clerical) and got lucky because he ran into an unexpected continent.

[30] “Galileo’s career was propelled and then undone by…patronage dynamics...’the fall of the favorite.’  As a prod for questioning our misleading modern categories, ask yourself why a spiritual leader could compel Galileo at all.” 73

[31] “Bryan advocated the wrong solution, but he had correctly identified the problem.”

4 comments:

Teresa said...

I have lots of thoughts on your book list (mostly in the realm of "I want to read that!" and "I need more time to read.") But a comment in the Foucault section caught my attention. I have taken from Foucault the idea that "we" have stigmatized mental illness in order to confirm some ideal of normal, which Foucault argues doesn't exist (the normal)precisely because we have had to create and confirm "normal," thus making mental illness something that is, after all, normal and wide-spread and, because of our ideal of normal, hidden--to the cost of too, too many who we have lost, and are still losing. Although there are lots of parts of Foucault that strike me as a bit...out-of-touch, I would argue that he would be appalled at the level of inhumanity that we have enacted in the name of "normal."

stanford said...

Thanks Teresa, I really appreciate your thoughts. I know you have a much more complete and nuanced reading of Foucault, so your input is really helpful. I agree, the idea that 'there is no normal' is a true and useful perspective. You are totally right, that we have to think carefully about how it to protect the dignity of people with rare 'brain states' and to do that these conditions have to be de-stigmatized and humanized.

But it was all just a little raw for me. It is hard to read his mental health stuff without feeling like he is arguing that attempts to intervene on behalf of the mentally ill are acts of power and oppression. But last summer left me feeling like we need fewer not more social barriers to intervention. And the second guessing that comes from perceiving the desire to help as a degrading exertion of power seems a step in the wrong direction.

But my negative reaction to the material was pretty emotive. I would sometimes be reading him on a early flight after spending the night before scouring the woods for our student. It was not a good summer for him to get a fair reading from me on the topic and your nuance is totally fair.

bronlea said...

I love your book reviews, Stan. Your comment about nt wright's over-proving the point got an audible amen out of me. And yet, despite their length, I keep reading because of that dry, British wit.... And now that I've heard him speak, I read it in his accent (in my head), which makes it that much drier and wittier.

Teresa said...

Stan--Understood. The deconstructionist leaves little to work with in the realm of "doing" and I agree that there needs to be less academic hand-wringing and more towards "doing," especially in situations like what you all went through last year.

I just went to a conference that addressed environmental things, and I found it interesting that a lot of the same concerns--where is "doing" oppressive power and where is it activism--came to the forefront of almost all of the discussions. One of the phrases I heard a lot was "neo-liberal hand-wringing," which grates as a catchphrase and is an enormous generalization (and is perhaps unfair), but speaks to the thousand-year-old question of the academy trying to address social problems in a way that is theoretical AND practical. Where do theory, intent, policy, and empathy meet in a place where care can be offered and accepted as needed for all individuals?

...which is all abstract, theoretical, academic thinking on my part.