One of my favorite conversations with friends and colleagues revolves around books we are reading. I will post a running list here of the books I am currently reading and/or have just finished. Feel free to comment on recommendations you have if you feel it adds to the conversation.
I have been raving about this book ever since my friend, Josh, first lent me his copy to read. I immediately had to go get my own copy, because just about every line in the first half of the book deserves annotation! This is a true masterpiece of intellectual scholarship. What Smith does that moves the conversation forward is unpack the various ways in which the human condition is shaped by our worship of what he calls “liturgies”–those thick practices that play a central role in the formation of the human experience. His driving thesis is this: “We are what we love, and our love is shaped, primed, and aimed by liturgical practices that take hold of our gut (our kardia) and aim our heart to certain ends.” One example of such a formative “liturgy” (one of at least three Smith makes, but, in my opinion the best and most important one) is what Smith calls, the “liturgy of the mall”: the place where something deeper than mere shopping occurs; a place where, through very intentional rituals, our imaginations are shaped towards specific ends to see the world in ways that form us relationally, emotionally, intellectually, economically and even (perhaps most certainly) spiritually. The scary and dark side to all this, as Smith points out, is that we are being shaped in these liturgical ways without our being aware of its happening. We sit silently while the “hymns” of the mall are sung every night for hours on our TV screens; we complicity obey the “sermons” being preached to us about success and the good life by politicians, teachers, parents, even pastors; we engage in acts of “communion” more often besides a cash register than besides an altar; we willingly “sacrifice” ourselves before “priests” who hold out the promise of “eternal happiness” with the next purchase; and we do so all in ways that are both secular and religious without ever stopping once to critique it. What Smith does is pull back the veil so that we might see the Wizard behind the curtain for what it is. He writes, “Every liturgy constitutes a pedagogy that teaches us, in all sorts of precognitive ways, to be a certain kind of person.” If that is true, it is scary to think about what kind of person the liturgy of the mall is shaping us to be.
Since my doctoral and professional work is rooted in critiquing and redeeming overarching narratives, this book will be seminal to my work. Its subtitle (“Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation”) tells you much about the work being done between its covers.
This book should sit on the shelf of anyone concerned with the systemic forces of oppression, injustice and marginalization that disempower and disenfranchise human beings. Though the last third of the book is intentionally geared for a Christian re-imagining of formative practices (and, as such, should be required reading for anyone in a role of pastoral leadership), the first two-thirds are must reads for sociologists, historians, philosophers, media moguls, teachers, administrators, bankers, lawyers, fathers and mothers; in short, anyone who seeks an alternative narrative to the hopeless narrative of consumption, greed and power.
These questions alone should haunt you enough to buy the book:
“What vision of human flourishing is implicit in this or that practice? What sort of person will I become after being immersed in this or that cultural liturgy?”
I vowed during this calendar year to read one book a month on some aspect of the life of Abraham Lincoln, an intellectual journey that, eight books later, has been incredibly rewarding. At the end of this year, I will write a post that details what I have gleaned from this experience; for now, let me say that, if you choose to read one book on Lincoln, make it this one. It is a biography written from the perspective of Lincoln’s moral development, showcasing how this man, even at the earliest ages, stood out not only for his physical strength, but, more importantly, for his moral strength. It details the reality that not only was Lincoln a self-made learner, but a self-determined moral learner who, “in a society of hunters, did not hunt; among fisherman, did not fish; among many who were cruel to animals, was kind; in a world in which men smoked and chewed, never used tobacco; in a rough, profane world, did not swear; in a hard-drinking society, did not drink; in an environment soaked with hostility towards Indians, resisted it; surrounded by Democrats, became a Whig; in a white world hostile to blacks, was generous.” In short, what William Miller points out is that, in a world where it was costly to choose virtue, at most every turn, A. Lincoln did just that.
One of my new favorite authors is Frederick Buechner (many of my more recent posts have been influenced by his works). Buechner’s writings have done for me what only the likes of C.S. Lewis and George Macdonald have thus far: opened up the world of the spiritual in a way that rings true and points to the deeper magic beyond the dawn of time. Buechner writes in such a way that makes theology walk into the room, dusty from travel, footsore, asking for a pint, yet ready, when the time comes, to share the great secret that just beyond the veil there lies a land more home than any we dare realize. This book is a collection of his life in sermons, and reading it is like attending a month of church when church brings tears to the eyes and respite to the soul. I cannot recommend it highly enough! Here is but a sample: “It is God who has been with us through all our days and years whether we knew it or not, he sings–with us in our best moments an din our worst moments, to heal us with his wonders, to wound us healingly with his judgments, to bless us in hidden ways though more often than not we had forgotten his name.”
Godric: A Novel
I will admit up front that this book takes some work to chew. It is the story of the historical figure, Godric of Finchale, a twelfth-century English holy man whose story in Frederick Buechner’s hand is told as a ribald tale fraught with holy wonder, human frailty and the earthiness of spiritual rebirth. There were times when I wanted to stop reading and move onto something less demanding, but I am thankful I did not. This is one of those rare books that makes you work for its rewards, but once you have done so, it lingers on, haunting you long after you are done with it. Indeed, it may be one of those rare books that is never quite done with you. This text is not for everyone, but for those with the heart to undertake such a literary quest, it is a tale rich in its weaving.
Though I have already referenced this book in a previous post (The Wisdom of Lincoln), after having just finished it, I felt that it deserved a recommendation all to itself. This is one of the most engaging books I have read in a long while. Goodwin’s narrative draws the reader in by showcasing the humility, wisdom, and moral courage of our 16th President. Reading this book is a commitment to jumping into the world of Lincoln with both feet; thankfully, Goodwin does not make this commitment a fruitless endeavor. Beginning with Lincoln’s first election as President, Goodwin traces this one dominant theme throughout the book: while most people thought initially that Lincoln was no more than a backwoods storyteller capable of producing a good yarn but little else, they almost to a one came to see him not only as much wiser than they thought, but as the greatest man among them. Over and over, in letters written by his rivals-turned-intimate colleagues, each man came to see Lincoln as the preeminent man with a moral compass and indomitable will that far surpassed anyone they had ever known. After reading this, I cannot get enough of Lincoln. His ability to see far into the future, to take the most difficult decision for the greater good, and understanding of the human condition make him worthy of our greatest study and emulation. Though he may not have been the “best” man for the job in the eyes of his rivals, they each came to see that he was the “right” man (indeed, the only man) capable of seeing us through the horrors of the Civil War and into the brighter future promised by the Emancipation Proclamation.
I don’t read a lot of books like this one (though I should), but let me tell you, this is as good as it gets for an “insiders peek” at how to get your voice out there. In today’s digital world, one lone voice has the power to stand out like never before (the fact that you are reading this blog is proof of that), but it must be able to cut through the clutter to do so. Former CEO of Nelson Publishing and popular blogger Michael Hyatt gives you keys to success in everything from how to write a catchy title to how to use email more effectively. This book has definitely paid for itself in how I think about the practical side of blogging. As I’m sure you can guess, I am much more of a theorist than a logician, so I need books like this more than I often want to admit. Hyatt’s work is accessible, timely, and practical. If you want your voice to reach a larger audience, I cannot think of a better book to help you than this one!
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin
I just finished this great work of historical non-fiction about the Dodd family, America’s ambassador to Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power in Nazi Germany. If you want an American’s perspective on what was going on leading up to the events of WWII and the Holocaust, this is it. What strikes me all too often when I read accounts of this nature is how little anyone (including those closest eyewitnesses) believed that such atrocities could happen in such a modern society. Remember, this was just “yesterday” historically that these events happened. Nazi Germany had telephones, radios, cars, airplanes, etc. In other words, they were very much part of our modern society. Germany at the time was home to world renowned physicians, psychologists, artists, philosophers, even theologians, yet they adored Hitler and were willing to turn a blind eye to the uncomfortable sense of rising anti-Semitism that adorned the times. Reading this book reminds me that it was not just the Germans who believed National Socialism to be the answer to a Germany left decimated by WWI; those in positions of high authority in America felt that way too.
Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America
I am a huge fan of anything written by Jonathan Kozol. In my opinion, Kozol is a prophet of the top order. His book, Savage Inequalities has done more for my thinking of education and its role in shaping lives of despair, disorder and inhumanity than anything else out there. In his latest book, Fire in the Ashes, Kozol gives the reader an inside look at the lives of the poor with whom he comes in contact in over twenty-five years of walking among them. He recounts the ways in which loving mothers and fathers bleed for their children and the choices they make amidst the squalor, filth, and sordid constraints of life in New York City’s most destitute neighborhoods. He calls out the rich developer who makes money by squeezing together as many human lives in cramped, dingy, disease-infested tenement housing as possible without proper electricity and sanitation while at the same time giving us the full blow of human dignity and decency of those who rise above such tragic circumstances. For anyone even remotely interested in the human faces of poverty, this book is a must read. It will both break your heart and give you hope for the goodness in even the least of these. There is no one better in America today at exposing the humanity of the vulnerable caught in the snares of power, wealth, greed, and the nightmare of the “American Dream” than Kozol. His pen is mightiest when defending the most vulnerable among us, our children. Nelson Mandela once said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” There is no one better at revealing the condition of America’s soul than Jonathan Kozol.
The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School
In this book, Postman uses the word “end” in two different ways: 1) the “finish/demise/or completion” of education and 2) the “purpose/meaning” of education. Both work well in this context, and the first third of the book is nearly all highlighted in my edition. Postman starts by saying that the current narratives we ask students to live out have little to no purpose, offering very little in the way of meaning and value. Narratives like “Consumerism,” “Economic Utility” and even “Technology” have failed both our students and our culture. What is needed is a new narrative, one that inspires a reason for schooling and a deeper meaning to life. I highly recommend this text for anyone interested in education and culture. This quote should tell you all you need to know about how intuitive this book is, “We are unceasing in creating histories and futures for ourselves through the medium of narrative. Without a narrative, life has no meaning. Without meaning, learning has no purpose. Without a purpose, schools are houses of detention, not attention.”
In this highly accessibly work of biblical history, Cahill takes the reader into the world leading up to first century Palestine in order to flesh out the historical context of Jesus, Paul, and the writers of the four Gospels. He makes clear the power Rome held over everything from economics to religious ideology, and how that shaped the life, ministry, and death of Jesus, the writings of Paul, and the work of the early church. Though not as engrossing as the biblical history of one of my favorite writers, John Dominic Crossan, this is still a worthy read, especially for anyone unfamiliar with how powerful the empire of Rome was in Jesus’ day, and how that shadows and informs the message of the church. It is hard to do any good theology without a clear appreciation of how unique Jesus is given his cultural context, and this text does a strong job of bringing that to the forefront.
Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the image of the book and purchase it, I will receive an affiliate commission Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade COmmission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”