Thursday, March 13, 2014

2013 – A Year in Books: Non Fiction

…and these are the non-fiction books I read in 2013.  (Do you like how I started that with an ellipsis as if there hadn't been a 3 month pause?)

My fiction post is here.

Non-fiction clumped this year…around four basic investigative topics (with a bit of remainder).

Topic 1: Psychological Meta-Analysis and Theory of Human Motivation


“You can never truly extinguish bad habits.  Rather, to change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.”

Summary: Duhigg surveys some of the research on habit formation and override and, with many many anecdotes, argues that understanding and manipulating the cycle of i) cue, ii) routine, iii) reward is the key to behavior modification.

I read this book with my reading group as part of the run up to preparing a teaching a series on behavior change (out of Colossians 3).  Then it showed up as the only ‘secular’ volume on Leadership Journal’s[1] year end list, and it felt like we might be on to something.  Like most popular meta-analyses of social science literature, it is a little light on the science and a little heavy on story telling, but was still pretty helpful.  And I will never look at a casino the same way again.[2]

I leaned on it pretty heavily for a talk on behavior change, because I basically believe that the current scholarship on behavior change vindicates the Pauline program of ‘putting off’ and ‘putting on’.[3]

Mortification of the Flesh ! – John Owen

“When a man on some outward respects forsakes the practice of any sin, men perhaps may look on him a changed man.  God knows that to his former iniquity he has added cursed hypocrisy…He is more cunning not more holy.”[4][5]

Summary: In what might be a top five classic work of American theology, Owen (a 17th century Puritan) compiled a surprisingly readable treatise on the salient New Testament passages on behavior change…with drama and flair.

I paired the narrative empiricism of Duhigg with a little tough minded theology to prepare for the same talk.[6]  Owen writes with the flourish and beauty of his tradition,[7] a comprehensive grasp of the salient texts, and a visceral penchant for metaphor. [8]   The problem with old books is that the effort-to-yield ratio can be unhelpfully low.  But the ratio in Owen is as high as any contemporary theologian.

Thinking Fast and Slow !! (A) (N)

"You know far less about yourself than you feel that you do."
“It is only a slight exaggeration to say that happiness is the experience of spending time with people you love and who love you.”

Summary:  Kannaman won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002.  Only, he’s a psychologist.  And this is an expansive but well written and accessible summary of his life’s work that mostly argues that our behavior is driven by a number of cognitive biases that keep us from making rational choices.[9] 

When it comes to the psychological meta-analyses I’ve been reading this one makes the rest seem amateurish.  Kannaman mostly investigates cognitive biases that cause us to behave against our interests.  There was a new rich idea every dozen pages or so (which is an unusually high yield rate…and he sustains it for 400 pages).  He introduces ideas like “availability entrepreneurs,” “denominator neglect,” “duration neglect,” “the focusing illusion,” “Bayesian effects,” and “miswanting.” One of the best books I’ve read in a while.

How Children Succeed (A)

Summary: Intelligence does not correlate with success as much as a more practical quality that includes things like tenacity, delayed gratification, and the ability to rebound from failure…which the author summarizes with the term ‘grit’.

So I have read a dozen of these psychological popular meta-analyses in the last three years and have found them mostly very helpful.  But the lack of actionable implications is starting to wear on me.  This book, like many others, seems more interested in being smart and observant, than wise.  It is more interested in describing how we are than how we could be.

I have read or heard about the freeking marshmallow experiment dozens of times.  But no one has ever offered a parenting strategy (empirically attested or even speculative) on how to develop a capacity to delay gratification in a child who is disinclined to do so.

Topic 2: Writing

2013 was the first year since high school that I read more fiction than non-fiction.  And that imbalance was exacerbated by the fact that much of the non-fiction I read was about ‘how to write fiction.’

I am essentially trying to get the content of an MFA through books and MP3 instruction while I write the million words[10] it will take to become a story teller.

I describe the motivation and lessons for this new and not so new obsession in a three part series

But these are the books I read: 

How to Write a Lot - Paul Silvia

Summary: This is a book on how to write a lot.

Turns out, the way to write a lot is precisely what I do.  Find a recurring time and place where no one can or will bother you, and then make that time non-negotiable.  The only difference between me and the author is that for him it is the first two hours of his work day and for me it is the two hours before my work day.  But there were also some interesting and helpful bits in here about ‘how to publish a lot’ of scientific research and ways of thinking about the peer review process that I found worth the price of admission (which was relatively low at ~90 snappy pages).

The First Five Pages

The single biggest mistake modern day MFA writers make is to presume that the modern-day reader is interested, above all else, in realism…”[11]

Summary:  Most fiction manuscripts are discarded within the first 15 minutes base on a few common errors that identify the author as an armature.  In order for your manuscript to make it past this first evaluative threshold there are a few things (18 to be precise) you need to watch out for.

This is a pretty basic book on things to avoid when writing modern fiction.  That is ok, because I’m kind of at the beginning.  But even at my level of amateurism, only about half of the 18 topics added value.  But the real disappointment of this book was the examples, or rather the counter examples.  The examples used to demonstrate common errors were so egregious that they felt like they were written by a 16 year old.  They did not really help me picture how these errors were pervasive in my own writing (and I know that they are)

Gotham Writer’s Workshop - Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York's Acclaimed Creative Writing School – Various

Summary:  A series of authors introduce the primary categories for crafting written story.

This was the best introduction to fiction craft I encountered.  Basic enough for someone getting in on the ground floor.  But the diversity (and quality) of voices gave the elegant[12] and parsimonious essays depth and breadth.

Topic 3: Ecclesiology

Sticky Church (80%)

Summary: Boomer evangelical churches (particularly large ones) have historically focused on widening their ‘front door.’  By being welcoming and intelligible (and trying not to be asses) they have increased the number of people who have entered their church.  But they also tend to have large ‘back doors’ and retain very few of the people they welcome.[13]  The church this book described grew by focusing more on the back door (why are people leaving) than the front door.[14]

The mechanism that Osborne offered almost made me close the book at page 1…Small groups.  Um, I’m sorry, I just fell asleep.  But then I kept reading and learned that 80% of this large church is in small groups, which got my attention.

I had an Osborne book in last year’s list too where I talked about my commitment to embrace the wisdom of boomer leaders even when it was delivered at an 8th grade reading level.  Once again, as soon as I stopped rolling my eyes at the simple prose and optimistically parsimonious message, and listened…like actually listened…there was wisdom here.  My favorite three insights were:

1. Never split up a small group.

“Except for pastors, staff members, and church leaders who are professionally responsible for the growth of the church, you’ll find hardly anyone who thinks this is a good idea – especially those who are fortunate enough to find a group filled with significant relationships.”[15]

2. The key to making small groups easy to join is to make them easy to leave.
“I don’t want us to do anything that makes those who don’t enjoy their first attempt at a small group feel guilty or uncommitted.  I want them to know it is ok.  I want them to know they aren’t alone.  I want them to keep try it until we get it right…I’m convinced that we’d have a lot less people velcroed to our church and to one another if we made the mistake of making it too tough for people to get out of a group they didn’t want to be in.”

     3. Value the time of your key leaders more than your own preaching.

 “Many of our best church leaders are also leaders in the workplace or community.  This is a good thing.  But I’ve also found that many pastors and staff members fail to grasp the time commitment this demands….So they plan way too many meetings that run way too long…(Our lay leader meeting and training) are now held simultaneously with our worship service, meaning they no longer demand an extra night out.[16]

Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works  ! – James Smith

"We tend to operationalize our values.  Our 'causes' are more reflective of our pragmatic desire to change the world then they are of our philosophical commitment to the principles."

Summary: Human behavior is not driven by a string of concrete volitional decisions but habituations that emerge from physicality and the narrative we write ourselves into.  The best way to redirect behavior is to physically rewire habits (with liturgical worship) and to restory the imagination.

I bought this book based on the title[17].

I have never done that before.

I might have to do it again. 

This book was wonderful.

I am persuaded that our imaginations are the most important cognitive process in worship[18] and an underappreciated

Though, this was probably the best book I read this year (tie with TF&S), I was not persuaded by the central thesis.[19]  My critique of this book really deserves its own post.  But to summarize, the book has two theses that were independent but artificially confounded.  I think both are true. 

i.                    I agree that the loss of physicality and repetition in the evangelical liturgy has led to a loss of value in Christian worship.[20]

ii.                  I agree that the primary way to reorder a life is to re-story a life.

But I think the relative importance of these is dramatically different (with the latter being ~an order of magnitude more important).  Smith makes a logical leap that I simply do not buy, that the best way to re-story a life is to invite integrated physicality and repetition into the evangelical liturgy.  But I think that the quality and content of preaching is much more important to the ‘re-storying’ of our communities than the rediscovery of a physicality of worship.

Topic 4: Revelation

The team I teach with decided to do Revelation last summer.  I was not thrilled with this choice, but decided that if I was going to teach it, I needed to really get to the bottom of what is going on in the intimidating apocolypse.  What I found was surprisingly (or maybe unsurprisingly, given that I have had this experience when diving into almost any intimidating Scriptural text) it is a wonderful bit of first century art and divine self disclosure.  It just took a little more work than usual to get to it.

No other NT text will generate the heterogeneity of commentary documents as Revelation.[21]  Content is driven by per-interpretive assumptions.  There are two basic types of commentaries…and both suck (though I read a couple of each).
1. Dispensational 'treasure hunters' of the future telling variety.  Spelunkers for nuggets of predictive gold.
     2. Dismissive historians who treat it as an idiosyncratic example of the apocalyptic genre. 

It can leave you wondering if there is a sane middle way, that deems the document valuable and rich but attempts to interpret it on its own historical terms (and to steer clear of the crazy).  There is.  But there is also a lot of crazy to from materialists and dispensationalists alike.  First the best…

The Theology of the Book of Revelation - Richard Bauchkham

“Revelation is the most powerful piece of political resistance literature from the period of the early Empire”

“John, who is very sensitive to the theological implications of language and even prepared to defy grammar for the sake of theology…He never makes them (God and the Lamb) subjects of a plural verb or uses a plural pronoun to refer to them both.   The reason is surely clear: he places Christ on the divine side of the distinction between God and creation, but he wishes to avoid ways of speaking which sound to him polytheistic.”[22]

Summary: An excellent and accessible overview of the major thematic elements of the book of revelation taking both the historical context and theological tradition very seriously.

Bauchkham’s thematic volume was the best I read.  Maybe Revelation is more of a gestalt that makes it more amenable to this kind of thematic analysis than sequential parsing more common to the commentary tradition.  But Bauchkham’s discussion of the emerging Doctrine of Christ in this text is, alone, worth the price of admission.  I did a whole talk on this.

Revelation – NT Wright

“John, like the other NT writers, had a realistic view of the deep rooted problem of the human race…Nobody deserves to open the scroll.” 

“What John has heard is the announcement of the lion.   What he sees is the lamb.”

It has gotten to the point where I just read Wright’s little popular commentaries on any book as the second step[23] in taking on a new text.  They are always excellent introductions.

But his discussion of the Locust (arguably the most troubling chapter of Revelation) in the context of the Parthian Cataphract finally brought both the initial intent and the modern implications of this passage into focus.

Then I read parts of a bunch of others:

Revelation - Caird –  40%

Wonderful.  Caird was writing in this genre of “contextually robust historical-grammatical exegesis” of Revelation as an instance of apocalyptic genre from a position of belief” before Bauchkham and Wright.

Spectacles of an Empire - 10%

Reading Revelation through the lens of Foucault…yawn[24]

Revelation - Hal Lindsey – 30%

Lindsey, author of the Late Great Planet Earth set the interpretive framework for American dispensational readings of Revelation (which includes almost everyone over the age of 50 in my church).    So I figured I’d review his commentary, which was pretty much the classic statement of dispensationalist that you might expect.

The Wedding of the Lamb: A Historical Approach to the Book of Revelation -  James Papandrea – 40%

Here is how bad evangelical exegesis is on Revelation.  An evangelical Romanist publishes a book that treats Revelation canonically, but bounding its potential interpretations by the historical context of its Roman audience…and the prologue and promotional blurbs call it “a radical new reading of Revelation.”  Um, no.  It is just applying the same rules of interpretation that we apply to the rest of the text.[25]  There were a couple really good insights in this text, but mainly he was taking up a program that Caird et al did decades earlier and better.

Social Science Commentary on Revelation – Bruce Malina (25%)

John was a star gazer and everything needs to be interpreted astrologically.  Ok, that’s not dull, but it does seem to smack of hubris.[26]  It seems a new genre of speculative apocalyptic hermeneutics has spawned since simple internet tools for looking at the ancient near eastern night sky have become available.  The amusing part is that the John-as-astrologer hypothesis is as popular among materialist interpreters as it is among dispensationalists.


Paleohydrology (40%)

I started getting into some paleohydrology work this year (trying to estimate large flood recurrence beyond the period of record based on physical clues and Holocene statigraphy).  So I pulled this volume to refresh.  Unsurprisingly, it is a collection of articles which unsurprisingly vary in value.  But it was the best resource I found and the only technical monograph I read this year.

Invitation to Cross-Cultural Theology: Case Studies in Vernacular Theologies

My reading group set out to read some works by non-white-men...and ended up at first, with this work by Dyrness, which is pretty hilarious.   There were some interesting insights but little new insight to anyone who has thought for very long on the challenges and benefits of cross cultural theology, with no resolution to the paradoxes.

The best part of this book - of the 5 local theologies investigated, someone in our reading group had spent time in each culutre.

But the year was mostly dedicated to fiction…which is covered here.

[1] A Christianity Today publication.
[2] The most interesting anecdote was about a woman who sued a casino where she lost her all of her family’s money not once but twice on the premise that Casinos set themselves up to put people in a sub-conscious decisional state and that she her liability for her actions at a casino are similar to the liability of a violent sleepwalker.  This conversation is more interesting and complicated scientifically than it initially seems.
[3] Pre-scientific wisdom gets far too little credit.  Even from an entirely non-providential and thoroughly Darwinian perspective, dominant historic worldviews emerged because they worked (the providential component would be that they weren’t just the winners in a social trial-and-error experiment, but were the beneficiaries of outside insight).  The more I read about contemporary psychology the more I feel like we are empirically verifying the wisdom of compiled observation that has been around for a really long time.  Or that if the authors of Christian scripture weren’t inspired, they were brilliant early social scientists.
[4] “And the reason why a natural man is not always perpetually in the pursuit of some one lust, night and day, is because he that many to serve, every one crying to be satisfied; thence he is carried on with great variety, but still in general he lies towards the satisfaction of the self.”
[5] “A man may be sensible of a lust, set himself against the eruptions of it, take care it shall not break forth as it has done, but in the mean time suffer the same corrupted habit to vent itself in some other way…it beaks out in another place… the bartering of lusts…He that changes pride for worldliness, sensuality for Paharisaism…”
[6] This is why topical (or sapiential) talks are so much harder than exegetical talks.  I don’t feel like I have anything to say on a topic until I’ve read several books on it.  A passage just needs to be discovered (which is harder work than it sounds but requires repeated reading rather than broad reading).
[7] If you associate Puritans with dullness (as many do) and suspect that their literature might read like a phone book, you have not read one.  The Calvinist commitment to general revelation led the best of the Puritans to an aggressive love of life that manifested in a love of words and their artful ordering (among other things).
[8] Theologically, it is a little interesting that his methodical and urgent approach to sanctification does not echo in the more passive theology of transformation of the neo-Calvinist movement.
[9] At the end of the book he makes really interesting comments about how his work affects economic politics (which some might discount because of his unapologetic Zionism, but I thought it was a really interesting path through the muddy Lib-Con discourse).  He argues that on the whole, free markets need to be allowed to form and correct the exchange of goods and services…BUT…and it is kind of a big ‘but’ (heh, heh, big butt)…the state can and must regulate to protect citizens from the exploitation of their pervasive and unrecognized cognitive biases.  Otherwise the populace is vulnerable to the predation of bias exploiting machines developed by the intellectual and economic elite.  If regulation mitigates economic predation based on cognitive biases, then we start to approximate the ‘rational actors’ that free market economics are based on.
[10] In the last year I’ve written 1.3 novels and a half dozen short stories which puts me 10% of the way there, which puts me on schedule to be a writer in 10 years.
[11] ..interested in mundane, everyday dialogue from the East Village that doesn’t go anywhere or serve any greater purpose.”
[12] One of the pleasant things about books about writing is that they tend to be written by writers who think about craft.
[13] And you end up with a community of people who have been to the church for a month or two.
[14] Osborn argues that someone who walks into a church has already shown interest and deserves our care and attention rather than getting someone new to walk into our church.  This rankles every one of my convert sensibilities, but there is an unassailable logic to it.
[15] He argues that splitting a small group appears to ‘work’ early…but is damaging in the long run as you signal to your healthiest groups that those groups do not primarily exist to help them build long term flourishing relationships, but for something much more pragmatic.
[16] Also:
Not every Christian event (especially sgs) needs to involve a guitar.
In too many of our churches, we offer discipleship training and leadership training without providing any significant platform for people to do the things they’ve been trained to do.
And maybe the most important idea for me “Because we hate so badly to bore people, most teachers don’t repeat anything often enough to move beyond the deep familiarity of boredom to the point of true knowledge.
[17] I also looked at where the author was from.
[18] I am hesitant to say this because it could be easily misunderstood.  (e.g. Since God is imaginary we need strong imaginations to interact with him).  I actually think that a good imagination is central in any good relationship.  I interact with my wife better when I am relentless in trying to imagine the struggles and joys of her day.  I parent better when I work hard to try to imaginatively reconstruct what it was like to be six.  And I worship better when I am willing to imagine a reality that is different than the one my senses tend to report (but that other evidence tends to corroborate) and the cultural story tellers describe.
[19] I am constantly puzzled by how anthropological philosophers (and others in the social sciences) argue.  They cite established philosophers (‘theorists’), which always leaves me thinking ‘and why should I believe that is true besides whether it generally aligns with my capricious plausibility structures.’  I used to think that psychology was the lightweight version of philosophy.  But as psychology matures, builds a strong empirical bias and begins to be informed by neuroscience, I am starting to think that Philosophy of mind is a lightweight version of psychology.
[20] Yes, absolutely.  Boomers thought they could remake the world and worshiped novelty (both inside and outside of the church).  They were wrong.  Remaking the world presupposes you understand the world…and they didn’t.  The cost was unintended consequences.  The Spiritual Imagination cannot be sustained by novelty.  It has to be washed again with the fundamental facts of our cosmic situatedness.  So I think rediscovery of some of the ancient, responsive, habituating, even physical forms of worship into the evangelical corporate gatherings potentially has a lot of value.  But too much emphasis on this overlooks the thing we do pretty well.  The reason that evangelicalism has emerged is because the new liturgy (music + sermon), when done well, focus on the instances of the ancient liturgy that are most effective at ‘restorying.’
[21] One of the weird results of this is that every Revelation commentary has 4 stars on Amazon and all the reviews read the same (‘this was the book that finally made sense of Revelation’) even thought their content is almost non-overlapping.
[22] “It cannot be attributed to Gentile Christian carelessness of the requirements of monotheistic worship.  It must be regarded as a development internal to the tradition of Jewish monotheism, by which Jewish Christians implicitly include Jesus in the reality of the one God.”
[23] After doing some initial overview reading, study, theme mining, and outlining.
[24] And what a disappointment.  The title is transcendent and one review suggested that the premise of this book was that the Roman penchant for spectacle including weird demonstrations like circuses and zoos played into the Revelation iconography.  I thought that was a pretty interesting angle.  But it turns out to be another exercise in decentering.
[25] Also, whenever you hear people talk about ‘Christians make the Bible say whatever they want it to say’…well, they are on to something.  But they are also mostly wrong.  Hermeneutics started with the need for Christian expositors to allow the text to speak on it own.  Augustine has a whole book on it.  So anyone media pundit or celebrity detractor that can’t define hermeneutics probably should be careful offering confident opinions on how Christians interpret the Scriptures.
[26] The idea that someone in the 21st century would develop a totally novel interpretation of this book that is completely different than how it has ever been read…when it has been read by so many for so long…whether that reading is from the left or right, strikes me as absurd.

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