Measurement keeps things real.
Read and Removed 2022 (27)
Akenson, Donald Harman. Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and The Talmuds. University of Chicago Press, 1998. added 06.07.2019. [Because of Tim Miller at Human Pages.] (22)
A marvelous book – literally, a marvel. Immense, inventive in its own right, and carefully teaching the appreciation of the inventiveness of the human author-editors of the marvelous texts which are Akenson’s subject. He approaches the investigation of the history of those texts as a historian, and that alone repays the study of the curriculum of this long volume. But it will change your thinking about the texts themselves, too; although it is not congenial to anyone who thinks these sacred texts come down to us by means of a cosmic dictaphone. And I particularly love this book for its painstaking demonstration that whatever you think you learned in western civ, the Greeks were cultural window dressing; the Hebrews were the architects and structural engineers of the western mind and its world.
Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, 2nd edition. Jossey-Bass, 2011. (23)
A clear, readable, inspiring, state-of-the-art compendium of why and how to integrate writing across the curriculum – that is, in your own course – and thereby encourage critical thinking. And also, just how to encourage more critical thinking. Too late for me, alas, but maybe not too late to adapt some of these ways and means to Sunday school teaching and other educational venues. If I had to put together a list of good books to read for someone starting out teaching, this would be on it.
Berger, Warren. A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. Bloomsbury. 2014. added 03.23.2019 (19)
This was by turns an interesting and maddening book: when talking about education, the need to teach or at least to encourage or at the very least not to completely stifle questioning, rock solid; when discussing questioning as a tool of business innovation, no doubt correct, though he sometimes struck me as too instrumental – as if questioning is merely a form of self-help; when failing to ask his own questions about why our world is the way it is, a singularly tragic prisoner of our weird culture. Because how’s this for a sentence: “Almost every company would acknowledge that it is in business to make money so that it can stay in business” (140)? Can anything be more absurd? And he presents that absurdity as simply … obvious. But this is also someone who can talk about Facebook’s “Hacker Way” as if it has no downside (121), which is probably what he gets for writing a book in 2014. But if you can stomach his hero-worship of people like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, he has provocative advice for the church. We no doubt need to be doing a lot of the kind of questioning he is talking about right now.
Bos, Johanna W. H. Van-Wijk. The End of the Beginning: Joshua and Judges. Book 1, A People and a Land. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2019. added 12.5.19 – a gift from the author (3)
A lyrical commentary on the opening of the Deuteronomistic history, beautifully written, paying patient and loving attention to the characters and events and especially to the literary features of the text, and to explicating their effects and meanings. Clear and explicit about the multivocality of the text, and its ambiguous contemporary significance. Inviting dialogue, contemplation of the riches of the text, and reappraisal. Seriously, anyone who can convince me that the book of Judges is something more than a gruesome record of hideous mistakes has done something amazing.
Bos, Johanna W.H. van-Wijk. The Road to Kingship: 1-2 Samuel. Volume 2, A People and a Land. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020. added 08.12.20 – a gift from the author (5)
A continuation of the work begun in volume 1, here looking at the book of Samuel, from the story of Hannah through the stories of Saul, and almost the full story of David, as told in its various ways. This is a full course in reading, really, demonstrating what it means to pay attention to prose and to poetry, pacing, attention to detail, symbolism, the layers of meaning. Breathtaking, balanced in its treatment of these incredible characters, open to questions and possibilities and indicating where those lie most mysteriously. My favorite part is the argument about who might have, and could have, written the Court History of David.
Bos, Johanna W.H. van Wijk. The Land and Its Kings: 1-2 Kings. Volume 3, A People and a Land. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020. added 08.12.20 – a gift from the author (7)
The continuation of the translation and commentary of the Deuteronomistic history, with the tougher part of the story, as the kings become wickeder and wickeder; more clarification of the international situation than I had personally understood before; really interesting insights into Elijah and Elisha; careful attention to women characters and notes on their uneven treatment. Tremendous attention to place, and to mood. All in all, an intense introduction to what it means to read Biblical text carefully, and faithfully, as literature. Just brilliant.
Burge, Ryan. The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going. Fortress Press, 2021. added 10.3.2021 (1)
This is an interesting little book, which mostly reads like it’s been written by a political scientist – which it has – but concludes with a really remarkable sermon that more than makes up for all the prior annoyance. So I continue to think that it is a big category mistake to conflate “one’s relationship with the divine” with “the way an individual thinks” (as he does on page 10); and it is like nails on chalkboard to me every time he uses the word “visualize” to mean “represent” or “depict” or even “graph,” which were all still perfectly good verbs the last time I checked; and I noticed that he treated the behavior of capitalist managers (“business leaders”) like some law of nature instead of as the socially conditioned behavior we all know it is (123). But it really was worth putting up with all that to learn more about the “nones,” and especially to hear his plea for taking the imago Dei more seriously in the life of the seemingly inexorably shrinking American church.
Cohen, Roger. The Girl from Human Street: A Jewish Family Odyssey. New York: Vintage Books, 2015. added 04.30.2022 – a gift (26)
Cohen is a beautiful writer. What makes his prose so beautiful is not obvious, either, so this is a mysteriously beautiful book. It is all about a single family, Cohen’s family, which he traces from Lithuania through South Africa and London and Jerusalem and New York. It is all about love, and loss, and the struggle to balance those, which people often fail to do. It is all about memory, and forgetting, and constructing and maintaining a self that can live, and help others live, in the world of others. It is all about right and wrong, in real life. It is all about what it means to be Jewish. It is all about what it means to be human. It is a wonderful book.
Daum, Meghan. The Problem with Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars. Gallery Books, 2019. added 01.08.2022 (9)
I got this book because it was displayed prominently at Half-Price Books, and I thought, “well, I should learn about younger people and their views,” even though I could tell it was not exactly “my kind of book.” So, sure enough, it was not exactly “my kind of book,” and I found myself disagreeing with things and only imperfectly “relating,” and sometimes feeling like the author was what I would be inclined to call “whiny,” if only that wasn’t so mean to say. Upon reflection, I’d say this is a book about boundary lines shifting and opinion landscapes changing and not being able to count on things as one did in the past. You would think I would empathize more, being a Boomer and a Christian and a mainline Protestant. Where I didn’t was my sense that the prose overstated the drama of the reality it described. But I agreed with her conclusion on page 194: “… the more honest you are about what you think, the more you have to sit in solitude with your own thoughts.” And with her desire for nuance instead of one-dimensionalized simplification in public discourse, too, wholeheartedly.
Duncan, Stan G. The Big Issue: Homosexuality and the Bible from a Christian Perspective. A Jubilee Justice publication, 2006. added 03.15.2022 (16)
This is such a brief volume it barely qualifies as a “book,” but what it lacks in length it makes up for in passion, and also in pastoral concern. Rev. Duncan is a careful exegete [many examples at his blog, “If You Lived Here You’d Be Home By Now”], and some examples of that are on display in his treatment of the issue of same-sex marriage, the issue that precipitated the short essays in this book. More important, for me, is that his careful exegesis is in the service of an engaged and open approach to the faithful living-out of the gospel of Christ that doesn’t conflate “fundamentalism” with “faithfulness.” That approach to Christianity gets an articulate display in these essays. So for an inspiring rhetorical treatment of this “big issue” – the bigness of which he also ably prompts his readers to consider – from this perspective, this is a lovely source, especially for readers who share his “God is still speaking” hermeneutic.
Fairbairn, Donald. Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers. IVP Academic, 2009. added 11.08.2021 (13)
An illuminating book, for better and for worse. I never felt more keenly the insanity and inadequacy of the substitution theory of atonement than I did reading Fairbairn’s account. I’ve never felt so clearly the blinkered perspective on scriptural inerrancy as reading some of Fairbairn’s assumptive statements. At the same time, he offers a marvelous account of Christian life, of the Trinity, and of Christians’ relationship to Christ. A deeply worthwhile effort to read, and one that ultimately anchors a view that how we live in the world matters and is part of or is an expression of the life of the Triune God, in particular of the Holy Spirit, even now in the act of the redemption of all creation. That really is inspiring.
Finkel, Donald L. Teaching With Your Mouth Shut. Heinemann, 2000. added 10.14.2021 (8)
An inspiring book – I wish I’d read it 20 years ago, which WOULD have been possible, too. Finkel’s discussion of John Dewey and the implications of his philosophy of thinking and learning for education only make me fall more in love with John Dewey. His affection for Plato and Rousseau does not make me fall more in love with those guys, although Finkel gave that his best shot. This book is almost inspired enough to make me want not to retire from teaching. Jk, but it definitely DOES make me want to remember that prompting curiosity and reflection on an experience is how we learn, and that telling people things is not (automatically, certainly) the equivalent of doing that! And maybe all that will be relevant to becoming a “teaching elder,” too.
Fung, Jason, M.D. The Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss. Greystone Books, 2016. added 02.28.2022 – an example of what happens when I go to Sam’s Club with my daughter. (11)
Well, we’ll see.
Gilbert, George B. Forty Years a Country Preacher. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1940. added 04.30.2022 – a gift (25)
Gilbert is the type of preacher who is willing to say that all that Hebrew and Greek in seminary was a waste of time, and that “the academic type of man” who turns to preaching is likely not to connect with his [sic] parishioners. So … not exactly a role model for me, in a way, and definitely “dated” in many ways, but … yes, a role model, because this memoir of “country preaching” is really an illustration of what it means to love and serve the people where you are called to love and serve people. He was clearly good at that. And shows, maybe more than tells, how that works. Entertainingly [when you get past the dated parts]. And valuably. Because not as much has changed as we might think.
Goulston, Mark. Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone. AMACOM. 2015. added 03.23.2019 (18)
This seems like a useful, helpful book. The things Goulston says all make sense, and seem likely to work. They also seem like things that I am likely to forget – at least some of the “quick” bits of advice for not-quite-everyday situations. That makes it the kind of book that I would probably need to reread from time to time, but might not really want to. Still – the idea that it’s possible to get way better at interpersonal relationships mainly by listening better [and articulating just how much better you’re listening] is seductive.
Graeber, David and Wengrow, David. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2021. added Christmas 2021 (6)
This book is profound and paradigm-shifting, in more than one way! Its exposure of the massive blind spot in our thinking about the inevitable organization of modern life, the unbreakable tie between agriculture and domination, is stunning and conceptually liberating. The authors remake social science method before our eyes. Re-assess our thinking about Americans – indigenous Americans, that is – again, before our eyes, and expose our unobserved and therefor unexamined prejudices in the process. Huge implications, it seems to me, for thinking about the Ancient Near East, the rise & fall of the Israelite monarchy, the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, and the significance of synodical polity. Huge theological implications, but also huge practical political implications. Well – maybe those are never so remote from one another, let’s face it. Deeply researched. Provocative. Begging to be read again.
Green, Gene L. Pardue, Stephen T., and Yeo, K.K. Majority World Theology: Christian Doctrine in Global Context. IVP Academic, 2020. added Christmas 2020 (12)
This is one of those big books that is hard for me to actually get read, which is unfortunate, because now that I finally made some real time for reading it, I know it is really good. The contents cover six key topics in systematic theology: the Trinity, Christology, pneumatology, soteriology, ecclesiology, eschatology. Usually there are eight articles on each, spanning the globe – investigations from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere. In every case, there is a helpful analytic review of the topic, setting the subsequent offerings in historical and often more familiar “western” theological context, as well as sketching some of what’s at stake in the wider global treatment of the area. And then – just in case we had the idea that Christian theology was context free – these careful considerations of theological issues, and examinations of how they are taken up and thought about in the various and varied global contexts in which many Christians are living these days, and reflections on what it means to translate the gospel into different languages and ways of life proceed to remind us once again that words and ideas are not neutral, but are what we think and live with. Theology is not some abstraction; it is related to people’s daily life, which people are trying to live Christianly all over the world, in every cultural context. I learned more from some of the essays than from others, but my favorites might be different from others. Personal favorites C. René Padilla, “The Holy Spirit: Power for Life and Hope”; K.K. Yeo, “Introduction to Part Four, Soteriology in the Majority World”; Daniel J. Treier, “The New Covenant and New Creation: Western Soteriologies and the Fullness of the Gospel”; Ruth Padilla DeBorst, “Church, Power, and Transformation in Latin America – A Different Citizenship is Possible”; D. Stephen Long, “Eschatology, Apocalyptic, Ethics, and Political Theology” – from which: “… for resentment is always a sign that confidence is a sham. It is a sign of insecurity in which what one opposes is more determinative for who one is than what one is for” (613). A deeply worthwhile book.
Guardini, Romano. The Spirit of the Liturgy. Translated by Ada Lane. The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2016 (1930). added 02.07.2022 (17)
A lyrical, thought-provoking treatment of “the liturgy” – pretty clearly, not the abbreviated and rationalized version familiar to the Presbyterians, and for that matter, there are more than a few disparaging remarks about Protestants – but plenty to think about in the relationships between liturgy, art, and play. And beauty and truth.
Horn, Dara. People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present. W.W. Norton & Company, 2021. added Christmas, 2021 – a present from my teacher (15)
This remarkable, eye-opening book caused me to re-examine much that I’ve taken for granted. With a chapter on Harbin, of personal interest because of our family history. A reminder that freedom entails a willingness to embrace responsibility. And real difference.
Lasker, Alex. The Memory of an Elephant. Alex Lasker, 2021. added 05.22.2022 – happy birthday. (27)
When I was little, I wouldn’t watch Wonderful World of Disney if it was about animals, because I didn’t want to see the animals die, which they always did. So when I got this book for my birthday, from my sister-in-law who reliably gets me THE BEST BOOKS, I was more than a little disappointed. Like – does she not know me?? But, I did read it anyway … mostly … and it is a good book, even though OF COURSE there is a lot of animal death, due to ivory poaching and evil and sin in the world, but there are also good and noble humans, and appropriate justice, and some hope. So all in all, it was still a good birthday present.
Laubach, Frank C. Letters by a Modern Mystic. Purposeful Design, 2007. (2)
What a provocative, life-changing book – even if you don’t start trying to play “the game with minutes,” but you probably will. Watch out.
McCall Smith, Alexander. The Sunday Philosophy Club. Anchor Books, 2004. added Christmas 2021 (4)
A leisurely walk through a slowly unravelling mystery, with romantic side plot, local Edinburgh color, and moral philosophy musings along the way. This is to be expected, as the main character, Isabel Dalhousie, is managing editor of The Review of Applied Ethics, and thoughtful in every sense of the word. As well as being independently wealthy, an inveterate solver of crossword puzzles, a lover of music and art, and a model conversationalist. Pleasant despite the mortality.
McCall Smith, Alexander. Your Inner Hedgehog. Anchor Books, 2021. added after Christmas 2021, 01.2022: “here, read this one” (10)
What a very odd little book. [I was warned.] Fundamentally – I think – about academic politics; decorum and convention, and differing views of what constitutes those things; wisdom in the sense of knowing how to get things done; purpose (?); value (?); the point of autonomy (?). Entertaining, sure. Odd, but recognizable. In an odd way, really thought-provoking. Hmm.
McCall Smith, Alexander. Precious and the Mystery of Meerkat Hill. Polygon Books, 2012. added 03.27.2022 (20)
Saw this in the bookstore, and it looked short, and sweet. Once I started to read it, realized it is really a children’s book – one of those my daughter’s third grade teacher used to describe as a “chapter book.” That didn’t stop me reading it, though, and it was short, and sweet, and also a little moralistic, but in a charming way. It was not really about anything, in the end, except maybe friendship. Can’t really go wrong with that.
Ruiz, Don Miguel. The Four Agreements: A Toltec Wisdom Book. Amber-Allen Publishing, 1997. 03.27.2022 (21)
Someone asked me what I thought of this book, and I hadn’t read it, so I couldn’t answer. Now I have, and I think – these “agreements” [watch that self talk, don’t take things personally, check out your assumptions, just do your best] don’t seem like bad advice, but for “the wisdom of the ancients” they strike me as remarkably consistent with contemporary psychotherapeutic recommendations and postmodern ideas about the narrative construction of the self. Call me skeptical. They also seem short on ethical meta-narrative and transcendent purpose. Both of those things are probably unavoidable, often implicit, and sources of personal incoherence beyond the agreements the author calls out. So I doubt these four agreements will suffice to make a philosophy of life. But I suspect I would have liked this book a lot better about forty years ago.
Simon-Peter, Rebekah. Dream like Jesus. Market Square Books, 2019. added 02.03.2022, free with the workshop registration. (14)
I always like Rebekah Simon-Peter’s articles in Ministry Matters; usually think her theology is on target and her insights helpful. I’m enthusiasm-challenged, though, and don’t usually purposely sign up for experiences where I think people are going to make me commit to being excited about whatever. But I signed up for this workshop anyway, and although I did have to battle my enthusiasm challenge, I thought the battle was worthwhile. In particular for the realization that I don’t give myself permission to “envision” as much as I could, thanks to a wall of self-censorship that stops with what would be possible, what would be realistic, etc. That lesson alone was worth the price of admission. That, and the place where she points out that the paradigm of a “Jesus-like” dream is: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” A book I’m glad I read (and a workshop I’m glad I attended).
Smith, Justin E.H. Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason. Princeton University Press, 2019. added Christmas 2021 (24)
More like a book-length essay. As such, it indeed, follows Adorno’s dictum that the essay “shakes off the illusion of a simple and fundamentally logical world, an illusion well suited to the defense of the status quo.” In this case, since the subject matter is literally the irrational world, that seems doubly true. He challenges the rationalist pretensions of logic and scientific method. Of course citing Dialectic of Enlightenment. And then spends time looking at several realms the “Enlightenment rationalists” – whoever they might be, and he notes that there can be some confusion about that – and their heirs would consider the special arenas of the irrational. Dreams. Art and religion and ritual. Wishful thinking and the cons and conspiracy theories that take advantage of it. The internet. The 2016 US election and the devolution of US electoral politics. He concludes that irrationality is irreducible – but that doesn’t mean that we might not want to reduce some of its manifestations, in our individual lives, and maybe also in our collective ones. I am not sure whether I liked this book. Even though Smith says many intelligent and even undeniable things.