Monday, January 17, 2011

Some Favorite Books from 2010

Here are a few books read in 2010 that you might enjoy reading in 2011. 

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, SpyBonhoeffer - One reviewer said that Bonhoeffer was "the right man for the right time." This seems to be the right biography at the right time about a fascinating figure in church history. It is a well written story and definitely worth taking the time to read. There have been a number of helpful reviews written of the book (here and here). You can also read a few of my favorite quotes from the book here. I would have liked to have seen more footnotes in the book, but overall was very pleased. Reading this book made me want to read more of Bonhoeffer's works, an impression for which I'm thankful.

Outliers: The Story of SuccessOutliers - Malcolm Gladwell works to get at the reason why people rise to the top of their field of expertise. Bottom line: lots of hard work. He proposes a "10,000 hour" rule of thumb. An excellent reminder to keep gaining skills and knowledge in your field. Become an expert at something. And like investing, the earlier you start, the better (assuming you're investing in the right thing….). Reminds me of Proverbs 22:29, "Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men."

The Cost of DiscipleshipThe Cost of Discipleship - The Bonhoeffer biography was so enjoyable, it increased my interest in reading his own works, so I began with a few pages from this classic every morning. The book had been on my shelf since college, and oh, how I wish I would have read it earlier! In TCOD, Bonhoeffer deals with the issue of "cheap grace" vs. "costly grace," and important topic with much relevance for today's church. I've since acquired two more of his works: Act and Being - his second dissertation, written at 24 years old, and his 'crown jewel,' Ethics, both of which are part of Fortress Press' 16-volume re-publishing of Bonhoeffer's works. It is rather humbling to know he wrote enough to fill up 16 volumes, all before he was executed by the Nazis at 39 years old (for his role in a plot to kill Hitler). 

2,000 Years of Christ's Power, Vol 1. - This blog post was my introduction to these excellent volumes on Church History. I have a bit of a soft-spot for church history, though I recognize that not everyone else does, but this is quite readable and full of original source material (i.e. actual quotes from the church history figures). This volume deals with the age from the passing of the Apostles, up to Constantine (which is one of the more fascinating stages of church history). This is the first in a three volume series (with two more planned). You can purchase all three existing volumes together at a discount here. If you want something a bit more accessible and introductory, try Mark Knoll's excellent book Turning Points. He deals with 8 major events in the history of the church. Very helpful approach and covers the most important, influential, and well known eras in church history. Though a bit larger, my personal favorite one-volume church history (or, two volumes bound together) is Justo Gonzalez's The Story of Christianity and is available at a great price here. This is the most readable church history book I've run across - much better than the often used Church History in Plain Language (yes, it is plain language, so plain in fact that it approaches un-interesting). Plus many appreciate that Mr. Gonzalez does a good job of dealing outside of European church history alone.

What Are People For?: EssaysWhat are People for? - A friend of mine mentioned Wendell Berry this summer, he said "If you were to take every occurrence of the word 'community' in Berry's works and replace it with the word 'church,' it would revolutionize the way we do church today." This piqued my interest, as I had heard other speak highly of Berry, a farmer, author and poet from Northern Kentucky. His burden is to grow local communities and local culture with local solutions (rather than national, removed, corporate solutions). This book is a collection of his essays, dealing with topics like Feminism, personal responsibility, the joys of farm life, and my personal favorite, "Why I will never own a computer." Though he makes a compelling case for avoiding the human Pavlovian instrument, I wonder if it is even possible to entertain such an idea in our age. Knowing that McCullough still does all his writing from a typewriter sure sets one to thinking about it (though I'm guessing it is not the typewriter alone that allows one to write like Mr. McCullough).

Flannery O'Connor : Collected Works : Wise Blood / A Good Man Is Hard to Find / The Violent Bear It Away / Everything that Rises Must Converge / Essays & Letters (Library of America)Flannery O'Connor - Collected Works - A great assembly of her short stories and novels. Within this collection are two stories that have brought about the most laughter ("Good Country People") and the most tears ("The River") in all my reading (aside from the river of tears shed during a 4th grade hearing of Where the Red Fern Grows). O'Connor's writing violently exposes the oppressive ugliness of human nature, but in a way that causes one to relate to the ugliness. In her stories, one does not only identify with the hero of the story (because one is not often to be found) but also to the one who fails horribly. When I need a good heart check, and want to read excellent literature, when I need my inherent hypocrisy exposed, after Scripture, Flannery is the next best thing. This edition by The Library of America is printed on excellent paper and well bound. 

Colonel RooseveltColonel Roosevelt - This is the highly anticipated (at least by myself) third volume of three in a series on Roosevelt. Edmund Morris wrote the first of these in 1979, so he has given a few years of thought to the towering personality of TR. I picked up and read this volume with vigor as soon as it was released in November. If you've not read about TR, I'd recommend reading the first volume in the series before tackling this one (selected quotes and anecdotes from the first volume can be read here). Edmund Morris' three works are the finest I've seen on TR and worth the investment. You can buy all three volumes in a hard bound set at a reasonable price here. You can also listen to a brief interview with the author on NPR. 

Two for Kids 

The Crispin: Cross of LeadCrispin: Cross of Lead - Great story about a mid-evil boy trapped in the treachery of the feudal system. He meets a jolly man and begins to learn from a father-like figure he never had. Lots of good conversations about life and theology came out of this one as I read it to my son (the role of the church in daily life is often discussed between the main characters). A fun and engaging story as well. 

The Church History ABCs: Augustine and 25 Other Heroes of the FaithThe Church History ABC's - of course the church history lover in me salivated over this one. It's a great introductory book for young and old, giving one page and one letter of the alphabet for each of the 26 church history figures highlighted in the book (i.e. "E is for Edwards", etc.). Many interesting facts are revealed about the various figures, and more information is offered in the back for those who want to go deeper. 

Two other Noteworthy Novels  

Just finished Gilead by Marilyn Robinson, a novel which uniquely combines a memoir and a work of theology (never read anything like it), yet somehow, even with the theological conversations, it won a Pulitzer prize (the writing is superb). I'm currently wrapping up Henry James' The Ambassadors. Written in the late 1800's, James writes an interesting exploration into human nature with the most descriptive dialogue I've encountered in any work of fiction (descriptive, yet still readable). I've never read a book that does such a detailed job of describing the mannerisms of those engaged in awkward conversations. Reminds me that body language is central in communication (and a good reminder to avoid email/phone when addressing a difficult issue).

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

On Being Teachable

A few years ago a colleague asked me to look over some facts and draw a conclusion. A few days later I gave my response, which was the exact opposite of what others had concluded about the same facts (and it wasn't because I was right). Where did I go wrong? I allowed my pre-understandings of the facts to guide me to the conclusion I wanted, rather than allowing the facts to speak for themselves. Bad move. Leaves one feeling a bit like their pants have fallen down while on stage at an important event.

Recently I listened to an interview with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer on NPR. It's the first time I've heard a Supreme Court Justice interviewed on the radio, and I found it quite interesting to hear him discuss the way the court operates and how he makes up his mind in difficult cases.

The thing that I found most revealing about this interview was the shameless agenda of the interviewer and the way Justice Breyer responded to her. The interviewer, Terri Gross, had some pretty clear pre-understandings about what she thought the current Supreme Court was about. Her questions seemed designed to assist Mr. Breyer in slam dunking her ideas on home. Refreshingly, he did not join in the game, but responded with a patient disdain for the media characterizations of the court. 

Here are a few of her questions (All quotes pulled from the transcript of the interview.)

GROSS: …I think a lot of Americans, a lot of court watchers, court reporters, see this court as a court with a bloc of activist conservative judges who are very strongly conservative and are very consciously trying to move the court and the country in a more conservative direction. And I'm wondering, from your seat on the bench, if you would agree with that perception?
GROSS: If we interpreted the Constitution only literally in the way that the framers had in mind, would we still have slavery? (Implying that those who hold to a conservative interpretation of the constitution are still in favor of slavery.)
GROSS: So, the outsider perspective is that all arguments now in the court are pitched to Justice Kennedy because he's perceived as the swing vote.
(implying that the conservatives control the court?)

No hiding her agenda there.

Here is a longer exchange between them:

GROSS: How would you compare the Roberts court versus the Rehnquist court? (i.e. please confirm for us how evil things are!)

Justice BREYER: Well, from the personal point of view you said it. The Roberts court is one where so far I've found myself more in dissent. You want a characterization in terms of conservative and liberal, but that's not my job. That's your job. That's the job of the press and the public to characterize. My job is to decide the cases, write the decisions as best I can.
GROSS: I guess I was wondering if you think Chief Justice Roberts is different as a chief justice than Chief Justice Rehnquist was.

Justice BREYER: Every new appointment is different. Every new person who comes on makes it a different court. So the difference is not just the individual, it's the reactions of the others to that person. White said that some time ago and I have found truer words were never spoken.

GROSS: But do they run the court differently to the extent that the chief justice runs the court?

Justice BREYER: No. No. The chief justice [is] in charge of administration. But each of us has a vote and each of us votes on everything.

Finally, I've included his response to a question about decision making and the way our human nature plays a part. It was refreshing to see him speak candidly about a very secret process. Basically she asks how he feels later after making a decision - is he worried that he ever makes the wrong call?

Justice BREYER: I've found it interesting. I bet it's true whether you're in business, whether you're in law, whatever field of life you're in, you have a tough decision to make, really tough, and you think, my goodness, this is evenly balanced. Oh my goodness, what will I do? But I'm sorry, time is passing. You better make up your mind. And so you do and you think this side has a slight edge. Now time passes. Do you think "I might have been wrong?" No. As time passes you begin to think, I think I was probably right. More time. Yeah, I was right. More time. I sure was right. More time. How did I think the opposite? That is called the self-protective psychology of human nature. (laughter)

Her interview techniques reminded me of how important it is that I enter into a situation with a keen awareness of my pre-understandings, as well as a teachable spirit so that real dialogue and understanding can take place. This is one of the main reasons I went to seminary, because I found myself often using the biblical data and facts to build a case for my predetermined conclusion. This works great if the two align, in which case you appear rather brilliant. But when they don't, the house of cards comes tumbling down. Then if you stick to your guns, one is left with no choice but to argue for the losing position more vehemently, and before long you are snarling like a rabid dog at anyone who might think otherwise. Not a pretty site. As Breyer noted, this is the self-protective part of human nature. 
Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial 
Reminding myself of the importance of being teachable is one of the main reasons I read the book Lying about Hitler by Richard Evans (I had recently read a couple of his books on the Third Reich from his very thorough and readable 3-volume series: see 1, 2, & 3). Lying about Hitler deals with a British liable case between two authors, one who was suing another for accusing him of twisting facts about Hitler in his historic works. The accused author made assertions such as; Hitler didn't really have a role in killing Jews, nor were as many killed as once thought. Richard Evans was called as an expert witness to provide evidence supporting the standard views on Hitler. And he sure did deliver. The amount of research and document searching noted in this book was overwhelming. I was surprised that Evans went into the case with a seemingly open mind. He was ready to tackle the facts. The book is tedious for its level of detail, and of course the conclusion is pretty obvious from the beginning, but reading it served as a great reminder to be teachable and to be fair with the facts, especially when it comes to Scripture.

As Churchill said "everyone can have their own opinions, but not their own facts."