8 books that made 2018 better

books on a bookshelf

I wish I’d read more in 2018, but to be fair, I was pretty busy (#5 might give you a clue why).

Part 1: Some zesty, fresh nonfiction

In no particular order:

#8: God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

Christopher Hitchens, 2007

Let’s start right off with the spiciest. The late journalist and debater, one of the “four horsemen” of the New Atheists, attacks every aspect of religion with rhetorical flourish and plenty of vitriol. His basic objections to religion are that it:

  • conflicts with science
  • makes people egotistic and servile
  • springs from wishful thinking and sexual repression

Although his main arguments don’t hold up and he makes some very ignorant statements about history and the Bible, he’s a keen observer of many real abuses of religion, and asks some questions of the Bible that deserve an answer. He is obviously very well-read, with a fine aesthetic sensibility, and that makes his book enjoyable on at least a literary level.

I wish more Christians would read books like this, for three reasons:

  1. To gain a sense of the horrific and widespread crimes committed by people using faith as a pretense for evil, or convinced they were doing God’s will
  2. To meet and grapple with uncompromising challenge to their faith
  3. To practice listening patiently to someone who might make them very angry

Not that I felt angry while reading it: more annoyed, amused, shocked, and sad.

#7: The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door

Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon, 2012

In American culture, we don’t know our neighbors and the news teaches us to be afraid of strangers. This tends to get in the way of Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Authors Jay and Dave (one feels on a first-name basis with them) believe Jesus really meant we should actually love our physical neighbors.

This could have easily been a Proven 12-Step Plan to make sure you’re obeying God by loving your neighbors, checking all your boxes to clear your conscience. Instead, it unfolds like sitting down with Dave and Jay over coffee and talking about neighboring. They get it: our lives are too full, we’re all too busy, we’re scared of the psycho next door. They’ve been there.

Thanks to this book, Megan and I have started with baby steps towards getting to know our neighbors. You know what I love about that (besides new friends and home feeling homier)? Learning people’s stories. You don’t get to know a young father from China who came here alone to teach animation without, well, getting to know them. They’re all just a knock away.

#6: Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past

John Fea, 2013

Most people seem to think that history can be summed up like this: At the end of the day, a lot of things were done by a lot of quaint people, but they don’t matter anymore because they were too dumb to invent cell phones.

This book paints a very different picture: the past is wildly and wondrously complex, full of people who are strange and familiar at the same time, and historians are interpreters of that past, with all its irony and paradox. History is not about memorizing names and dates: it’s about resurrecting the people who came before us, who have shaped our present reality, and meeting them face-to-face. We’re confronted by their worldviews and, if we’re honest, force to engage with them as ideaseven at the risk that our own worldview might change in some way. That’s why history, more than any other secular discipline, inspires humility if it’s done right.

#5: What I Wish I’d Known Before We Got Married

Gary Chapman, 2010

An intensely practical guide to asking the tough questions that make a marriage strong. The author has been counseling married couples for 30+ years (and himself been married for longer). He seems to know what binds couples up and tears them apart. At the same time, his words are warm and humbly personal.

Each chapter is framed as a completion of the statement, I wish I had known . . .

  • That romantic love has two stages (ch. 2)
  • How to solve disagreements without arguing (ch. 4)
  • That apologizing is a sign of strength (ch. 5)
  • That mutual sexual fulfillment is not automatic (ch. 9)
  • That I was marrying into a family (ch. 10)

These are things many couples appreciate only in hindsight. Thanks to Mr. Chapman and our pastor, though, Megan and I got a chance to learn these things before we got married, and I think we’re stronger for it.

Part 2: Fiery Fiction from Faerie to Darbyshire

Again, in no particular order…

#4: Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women

George MacDonald, 1858

This book transports you to a world that is strange and familiar, like a dream of the world you were born to inhabit but missed by a slip of fate. For all its garden-fairies, rock-goblins, tree-ogres and living lady carved from marble, it feels stubbornly, wondrously real. So real that you yourself, if you take the journey, may die and rise again on the way. Step with an ordinary young man into Fairy-Land, where everyone must be allowed do as they please and anything can happen.

#3: The Lord of the Rings

J.R.R. Tolkien, 1955

If you haven’t read it, forget everything you think you know.

I’ve loved this long-yet-too-short journey every time I’ve taken it. It’s deep and strong and heroic and ancient in a way I’ve encountered almost nowhere else (certainly not in anything else so modern). Our heroes set out not to win treasure but to lose it, not to gain power but to give it up, not to win glory but ensure peace, preferring to diminish and remain themselves rather than master all and be twisted.

The wonder of Tolkien’s world and all its folk is that they are there. At the beginning of the story, it feels as though the curtain has risen on a world that’s been going on long before we looked in on it and will continue long after we leave it. And perhaps it’s because they feel so real that their stories make me want to be more loving and courageous.

Take this journey with four small, homely hobbits out of safety and comfort into an ever-widening, terrible, beautiful world.

#2: Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold

C.S. Lewis, 1956

Move over, Wicked. C.S. Lewis is here for a mythical alt-perspective tale (and it’s nothing like Narnia).

In an ancient Greek myth, Aphrodite becomes jealous of Psyche, a beautiful princess, and orders her to be sacrificed. Aphrodites’ son, Eros, rescues and marries Psyche, but forbids her to see him, coming only in the dark. Psyche’s jealous sisters persuade her to bring a light to her bedchamber, thereby exposing her and Eros to his wrathful mother. Aphrodite sets her a series of impossible tasks, which she nonetheless completes. Reunited with her lover, Psyche becomes immortal.

Lewis retells this story from the perspective of one of Psyche’s sisters. I’m not too big to say it is four-for-four for making me cry. This is one of those books that, once I’ve read it, I can’t believe exists: it seems to have been miraculously conceived.

Read the life of Orual, ugly sister of the worshiped princess, who writes (in her words) “what no one who has happiness would dare to write:” to “accuse the gods.”

#1: Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen, 1813

Aaand #1 not because it’s my favorite of the bunch (sorry, Ms. Austen), but because I want to end on this note:

You might not expect this from one of the greatest romance novels ever written, and one from the early 1800s at that, but this was just plain fun. It was also beautiful and absorbing and worth its legendary status in literature, but I was laughing out loud. My wife read this to me, and we had a great time.

If you’re a lit nerd and you’ve been thinking forever, “Oh, I know, I should get around to Jane Austen sometime,” start here!

 

 

 

God is Not Great: first impressions and thoughts on book and author

I’m three chapters into God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by the late, atheist debater and journalist Christopher Hitchens, and I’m getting a few distinct impressions of the author’s overall argument and personal qualities.

At the end of the first chapter of this book, I wrote, “So far, I’ve found this book alternatingly entertaining, saddening, thought-provoking, wise, foolish, absorbing, and irksome (sometimes several of these at once). I can’t wait to continue.” That remains true.

A few initial thoughts:

Who was Hitch really mad at?

It seems his original gripe was with 20th-century, British-American, pietistic, ideologically-driven, shallow, pseudo-Christian religion, of the kind that is commonly seen in the U.K. and U.S.A. today (and about which there’s certainly plenty to criticize). I sense his complaint started there (very legitimately) and grew with his experience to encompass all forms of legalistic, domineering religious belief and practice (of which there’s been no shortage in world history).

He accurately sees and rightly repudiates much that is vile, regressive, and unjust in many religious people, factions, and organizations across the world.

Are “religious” conflicts religious?

In any conflict in which the opposing sides have claimed different religious denominations, Hitch seems to automatically assume that religion must have been at the heart of the conflict (or at least an intensifying factor). I mean conflicts like the Roman Catholic Croats vs. the Orthodox Serbs, or the Northern Irish Protestants vs. the Southern Irish Catholics.

I have a problem with that automatic assumption: it seems plain to me that, in cases like these, religion has been completely assimilated into nationalism. As Hitchens says, “To be Croatian…is to be Roman Catholic.”

The transition from religion to religion-as-nationalism is easy, natural, and common, but I don’t think that’s because religion is predisposed to it: it’s because people are disposed to be nationalist and tribalist, and nationalists will seize on any difference at all to puff themselves up at the expense of the “others.” And once religion has become “baked into” a culture—once the form is everywhere and the substance is gone—then one of the most obvious differences between the nationalist’s culture and the “enemy’s” culture is their religion. So this too is chewed up by tribalists—and readily received by the outwardly religious who’ve lost any real substance of what their ancestors believed.

His doctrine

So far, he doesn’t strike me as having well understood the claims the Bible and Jesus Christ actually make about themselves and God. Then again, for all I know at this point, that could be because the people he most criticized didn’t well understand these things either.

His language

He was a commander of words, with a sharp and incisive mind—a true reporter’s eye and satirist’s wit. I’ve greatly enjoyed the quality of his writing.

His sweeping claims

So far, I’ve read at least one statement in this book that is plain bunk (there’s another possible one that I’m still holding in suspension of judgment).

The statement, from chapter 4, is, “The attitude of religion to medicine, like the attitude of religion to science, is always necessarily problematic and very often necessarily hostile.”

Always? Necessarily? This was too much for me. Did Hitchens honestly not know of the faith of Galileo, Kepler, James Clerk Maxwell, Michael Faraday, Copernicus, Mendel, or a host of other great figures in the history of modern science and medicine? Not even of very contemporary figures like Raymond Damadian, co-inventor of the MRI scan? What about Christian theologian and Oxford biophysicist Alister McGrath? Or even Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian, whom Hitchens chose to supervise his medical care during his battle with esophageal cancer?

I mean no acrimony towards Hitchens in saying all this. The statement I’ve highlighted is simply exasperating. It puts me out of patience, as the old idiom goes.

I suppose the most charitable interpretation is that Hitchens grew up (as seems likely) in a pseudo-Christian community that discouraged and deplored science as a menace to faith; from there, perhaps he bought into the popular narrative that faith and science are inherently opposed. This blatantly false narrative is now so common that many people seem to think it self-obvious, and Hitchens may have been one of them.

Other impressions of Hitchens

In no particular order, it seems to me he:

  • had a fine aesthetic sensibility
  • was wise enough to wonder at the marvels of the universe
  • could be crude and vitriolic
  • was very well-read
  • was well-traveled and, if there’s anything to his brief sketches of his journalistic journeys (which I see no reason to doubt), physically courageous

Last words

Just to be clear, Hitchens and I would have disagreed on nearly every fundamental question of life, especially the question of who is Jesus of Nazareth.

All the same, had circumstances concurred, I think he and I could have been friends. At the very least, I would’ve enjoyed a chance to talk with him. I hope he had someone in his life to show him plainly, not in words and arguments but in deeds and manner, who Christ really is.