What We’ve Been Reading: Fall 2019
Here at Conciliar Post, many of our authors are avid readers. Below are some of the books we’ve been reading in 2019 along with a short review for each one. Feel free to join the conversation and offer your recommended readings.
John Ehrett, Lutheran
Restoring the Soul of the University: Unifying Christian Higher Education in a Fragmented Age (Perry L. Glanzer, Nathan F. Alleman & Todd C. Ream)
The authors—professors at Christian universities—lay out a comprehensive intellectual history of the origins and decline of theology as a university discipline. Notably, they argue that without a proper understanding of the unifying role of theology, as the superstructure that gives coherence to the purposes of the university and to all other disciplines, contemporary universities will continue to struggle to articulate a coherent reason for being.
On Faith: Lessons from an American Believer (Antonin Scalia)
In this collection of speeches and judicial opinion excerpts from one of America’s most colorful Supreme Court justices, the late Justice Scalia discusses the moral responsibilities of judging and the challenges of faith in public life. But the real highlights here are the notes from friends and former law clerks interspersed through the book, shining light on the deep convictions the Justice regularly demonstrated throughout his career.
I Am Not Afraid: Demon Possession and Spiritual Warfare (Robert H. Bennett)
In this intriguing blend of theological and anthropological study, a Lutheran professor investigates the exorcism practices of the Malagasy people of Madagascar. In Bennett’s telling, real-world exorcisms are quite different from the highly ritualized ceremonies depicted in Hollywood films—particularly when practiced in a Lutheran context. The questions Bennett raises may be uncomfortable for Western readers, but his perspective is firmly grounded in the faith throughout.
Benjamin Winter, Roman Catholic
Which was a singular pleasure to read (creating a novella unlike any I have ever experienced), with an excellent admixture of philosophy and thrill, combines an unusual format, written in 1991 by Martin Amis, Time’s Arrow.
If you cannot tell from the opening sentence, this will be a strange review of a strange book. But strangeness is not something shied away from by today’s literary luminaries, following as they are in the Wake left by Ulysses. Martin Amis has indeed accomplished something worthy of veneration—his work at once evokes horror, fascination, frenzy, and failure.
Our protagonist (“the passenger”) awakens inside the body of a man who has just died; everything proceeds backwards from there. We watch in amazement as the man’s body, with its own consciousness and inaccessible thoughts, grows younger and younger. We cringe as the passenger, who begins with no knowledge of the world, misidentifies various misdeeds machinated by the man. For instance: The passenger tells us that this man is clearly a monster. When the man approaches children, they are happy. He takes lollipops from their hands. When he leaves, walking backwards (as everyone does), the children are crying.
Furthermore, this whole church business. Isn’t it a bit too obvious how the man goes through the motions, waiting for that moment when he will take the biggest bills from the collection plate and walk out of the building wealthier? And birth? A nightmarish affair. An infant slowly grows weaker and weaker, only to be shoved up out of existence entirely by “doctors.”
Feeling disoriented yet?
Reading this book left me destabilized. I would wonder: “Could there be such a passenger inside of me?” Or, I would begin thinking in reverse, only in a new phase to re-begin anew from here, leading up to this moment, everything in my life it would seem would become jumbled my thoughts.
Experience this book if you are ready to explore the inner workings of time and mystify your mind. If you are a fan of Memento, Martin Amis did it first! Finally, there are various historical and political ramifications that will present themselves to readers as they engage the text—implications moving beyond the mere plot of the thing (which is quite intriguing in itself, and kept me reading). But don’t expect to enjoy this. I struggled to complete its pages and feared losing my mind, many a time…
Timon Cline, Reformed/Baptist
Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647, William Bradford
It is perhaps obvious to readers of CP that I possess a certain enthusiasm for the history of Puritanism, specifically that of early seventeenth century New England. But I would commend Bradford’s classic account of the first two decades of the separatist Plymouth colony even to those that do not share my interest. Bradford was a remarkable character in his own right. Largely a self-made man and autodidact, at age thirty-one he was unanimously elected governor of the new colony and re-elected no less than thirty times thereafter. I can think of no politician in recent memory who possessed the fortitude and drive to accomplish such a run. Bradford’s long tenure in governance, however, was not motivated by lust for power. As Samuel Eliot Morison has noted, Bradford’s was the only name on the land patent of Plymouth Colony in 1630. He could have become the New England equivalent of the Lord Baltimore of Maryland, had he wished it. Instead, he shared his proprietary right with the other founders and eventually convinced them all to surrender the patent to the entire body of freemen.
Yet, the allure of Bradford’s upstanding character is not the primary reason for reading his history. It presents a fascinating look into the everyday life of the colony; on some events, it is the only account contemporary historians possess. Of course, Bradford’s work does not conform to modern expectations of history. It weaves together polemic and apology with reflections on providence. Within this peculiar mix is also profound wisdom. In his brisk assessment of the epochs of prior church history, culminating in his own moment, Bradford observes that in the early church when “by the bloody and barbarous persecutions of the heathen emperors could not stop and subvert the course of the gospel, but that it speedily overspread, with a wonderful celerity,” Satan was forced to adopt new strategies. He “began to sow errours, heresies and wonderful dissensions amongst the professors themselves, working upon their pride and ambition… by which woeful effects followed… bitter contentions… schisms… horrible confussions [sic],” and more. In Bradford’s mind, martyrdom and persecution were less effective (for Satan’s purposes) than were infighting and corruption. This is an apparent truth for Christians of any age to ponder. Certainly, our own day lends itself to the veracity of Bradford’s conclusion.
Jonathan Edward’s Philosophy of History: The Reenchantment of the World in the Age of Enlightenment, Avihu Zakai
Keeping with the theme of New England history, this volume by Zakai, a professor of history at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, has absolutely captivated me. Puritan historiography is often written off as overly providentialist and erroneous. Concerning Edwards, much of the assessment of his theology has suggested a capitulation to Enlightenment thought (whatever that means), especially in his epistemology. Zakai strikes at both of these simplistic yet ubiquitous conclusions. It is the conviction of Zakai that Edward’s historical project was a self-conscious reaction to certain Enlightenment-era “mechanical” narratives. Edward’s response was to reassert in history theistic considerations and a classical Christian teleology. To Edwards, contra Robert Boyle, the world and worldly events were not simply an “Automation, or self-moving engine,” they were the “proportion of God’s acting;” all things falling out according to his providence and for his glory, and therefore, not always and everywhere predictable or controllable. Man is not master of the universe, God is. God is both the wholly other sovereign and near in his management of worldly affairs. It was simultaneously God’s immanence and the mystery of nature that Edwards sought to reassert in a fresh way, all whilst situating history within the Christian paradigm of progressive revelation and redemption. I cannot do it justice here, but Zakai’s work is a compelling assessment of the neglected elements of Edwards’ thought. As Perry Miller reminded us before, Edwards “was infinitely more than a theologian,” but a “pure artist,” America’s first original mind, so to speak. Zakai does an excellent job of shedding light on Edward’s historiography and natural philosophy in particular. The work is divided into four main sections, excluding the introduction and biographical ones—labeled, “The Soul,” “Space,” “Time,” and “Ethics.” My favorite chapter is situated under the second heading and entitled “Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning: Edwards and the Reenchantment of the World.” It serves as a good contribution to the debate on Edwards’ sources and influences, including that of Nicolas Malebranche.
City of God, St. Augustine
As I’ve argued before, the best approach to our present political crises and cultural clashes is to return to the thought of those who have lived through our age before. The Bishop of Hippo is a good place to start. Like many people, I’ve read huge swaths of Augustine’s magnum opus before, but never straight through. My approach has been deliberate and my pace slow; a few chapters (which only span three to four pages in the Penguin edition) every night. It is both a salve to the day past and a guide for the day approaching. As Peter Robinson recently discerned in an interview with Douglas Murray, the implosion or disintegration (however you want to look at it) of the west has much in common with the context of the City of God, i.e. “barbarians” sacking the capital, a culture overcome with licentiousness, and the former glory of the civilization Augustine loved fading into the distance. Robinson recalled that decades ago Malcom Muggeridge had identified with Augustine’s despair and longing, applying to20th century England rather than 5th century Rome. Muggeridge would be no more comforted today. Of course, Augustine also presents an apology for Christianity in a political context where everyone was looking for a scapegoat. This also has utility today. But, especially for Christians, it is Augustine’s famously confident (not desperate or cynical) realism that I wish would grip modern readers. It has never been more necessary for politics to be taken less seriously, expectations to be lowered, patience to be instilled, and the hope of future (not present) tranquility to be more desired.
Jarrett Dickey, House Church
A Season on the Wind, Kenn Kaufman
Kenn Kaufman, the author of a popular series of field guides, moved from the American southwest to northern Ohio about a decade ago. This decision was not initially motivated by ecological interests but the love of a woman. Through Kaufman’s relationship with his new wife, he got connected with the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, a conservation organization located at the entrance to Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, one of Ohio’s (and the nation’s) most important birding locations during spring migration. Due to Kaufman’s presence in the region, the local spring birding festival, The Biggest Week in American Birding, has exploded in growth and attendance in recent years.
A Season on the Wind documents Kaufman’s experiences birding in northern Ohio and working on environmental projects in the region. One notable, and potentially controversial aspect of the book, is Kaufman’s opposition to wind power turbines in northern Ohio. While many eco-minded people see wind as an attractive alternative energy source, wind turbines are particularly dangerous for migratory birds that travel at night, as well as large raptors such as bald eagles. Kaufman and others from the Black Swamp Bird Observatory worked hard to keep wind turbines off the southern shores of Lake Erie in the interest of preserving bird populations.
Given Kaufman’s popularity and influence in the field of birding, the book is almost certainly a must-read for birders. The book offers bits of ornithological wisdom that naturalists may find helpful. For example, Kaufman suggests that crow migration is one of the first harbingers of spring in northern Ohio. When the numbers of crows surge, Kaufman knows that migrating songbirds are on the horizon. For those without prior exposure to the birding subculture, a subculture with apps, movies, and podcasts, the book is an enjoyable primer on the topic.
We invite your participation in charitable discussion of these book reviews in the comments section.
Featured image of the Ohio State Library Stacks by Father Ted. Used under creative commons license.