The five best books I read in 2015

In 2015 I set what I thought was a modest – but not insignificant – personal goal for reading: one book every two weeks – or 26 over the entire year (by comparison, Mark Zuckerberg set a similar goal for himself, and Bill Gates reads about a book a week; so I figured if those guys can carve out time then surely I can too). By the end of December I had finished 31 books, which I was pretty satisfied with. From those books, here are the five that made the biggest impression on me and were most worth my while.

1. East of Eden by John Steinbeck

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John Steinbeck called East of Eden “the first book,” and indeed there is something elemental about this masterful work. It aims for the moon and soars to the stars. Through the multi-generational story of several families who all cross paths in California’s Salinas Valley at the beginning of the twentieth century, it captures both a thousand stories of an era and that singular, timeless, origin story of human nature. At a time when many people still felt bound by fate, especially their own heritage, East of Eden proclaims the great freedom of human choice in a fallen world to break the moral trajectory of one’s lineage. The book finds its mythic roots for this in the Old Testament: Genesis 4. God accepted Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s, to which Cain responded with jealousy and anger. God asked Cain why he was angry and challenged him to overcome his temptation to sin. Per the King James Version: “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.” The key word here, one character insists, is timshel – the Hebrew verb that means “thou mayest.” The “thou shalt” from the passage, he says, should be rendered “thou mayest.” The message for young Cal Trask, who poetically revives the part of Cain in the book’s retelling of the story, is that evil is crouching at his door, but he is not destined to repeat Cain’s sin (or the sins of his parents).

Steinbeck’s prose – his ability to portray characters, to delve into the great perversities and nobilities of human motives, and to craft scenes that deeply engage the reader – is some of the best I’ve ever read. East of Eden is a tome, weighing in at more than 600 pages, but it is well-worth the toil of reading it.

2. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

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Before reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I’m not sure I had much of a propensity to connect road trips and motorcycle mechanics with philosophy, but I do now. Robert Pirsig’s account of a former college professor’s motorcycle road trip to the American northwest with his son alternates between the physical, concrete, and calculable to the realm of values and meaning. It moves to and fro from the task of keeping a motorcycle in top shape to abstract musings that probe all the way back to The Phaedrus, the ancient dialogue penned by Plato between Socrates and Phaedrus. These musings, conducted over long hours spent traversing America’s backroads, revolve around a deceptively simple question: what is quality? It eludes simple definition, but put two papers of decidedly differing quality in front of an undergraduate English composition class and nine out of ten of them will pick the same one as being of better quality. So quality is real, it shapes how we live and perceive and engage with the world, but is there any way to put a finger of what, exactly, it is – to capture its essence in words?

The book grows more and more philosophical as the narrator delves deeper into the troubled intellectual toils of his past, but as it grows in abstraction it also grows in tension and suspense as it is revealed that the narrator’s inquiry into values ultimately drove him mad. Will he return to the madness of the pursuit? Is there any other conscionable thing to do – any other way to stay committed to the truth? The book was published in 1974, but its subject remains timeless and profound.

3. The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

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In The Denial of Death, the late Berkeley anthropologist and writer Ernest Becker works his way through the inherent tension of man’s nature, delving farther into the Nietzschean abyss than most modern, secular people have gone. As the title indicates, this book is about man’s struggle to reach the eternal and find meaning as a mortal creature – the result of this impulse being that we obsessively deny the impending reality of our own death. Sure, we have the head knowledge and pay lip service to the idea that we will die eventually (YOLO!), but most people go about their days without a deep existential realization of the dagger hanging over their heads by a thread. We long for greatness and transcendence and try to find it by investing all of our purpose in the nation state or existential act or romance or faith. We are gods, so to speak, yet we all end up as worm food. As Becker memorably put it, men are “gods who s***.”

The Denial of Death’s diagnostic of the human condition is spot on and much more honest about the secular worldview, I think, than most intellectuals are willing to be. It is bleak and concludes without any hope beyond some abstract notion of throwing oneself into the life-force of the universe. Reading it shook me up pretty bad and deeply disturbed me at times, but in a good way. It’s not beach reading, but for those courageous (and perhaps foolhardy) souls who can’t get past the most basic questions of what it means to be alive and who value delving into the ideas of guys like Freud, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard, I commend this book to you.

4. This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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“I have sworn not to put pen to paper until my ideas either clarify or depart entirely; I have quite enough sins on my soul without putting dangerous, shallow epigrams into people’s heads…” This conclusion to the despairing rant of Amory Blaine, the young protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s freshman novel, captures the angst of the young, talented writer. It’s a conundrum I often run up against myself. How does one justify his own participation in a world constantly in flux, in which public opinion shifts with the winds of the media’s ideology, true love feels eternally elusive, and matters of life and death seem to be dictated by cold, impersonal happenstances of car accidents and stray bullets?

Fitzgerald published This Side of Paradise at the age of 23, delivering a quintessential coming of age tale as America entered the Roaring Twenties. It is a fictionalized memoir of sorts, drawing heavily from his own crash-and-burn experiences with women, attending Princeton University, serving in World War One, and moving to New York City as a young man. I don’t have an answer for all of his frustrations, but it’s nice to encounter a youthful, zealous personality whose ambition and optimism crashes on the rocks of vanity. It’s also refreshing to encounter someone who is aware of his own self-absorption enough to refer to himself repeatedly as “the egotist.” Millennials may be the self-absorbed generation, with our Instagram and smartphones, but This Side of Paradise shows that adolescence hasn’t really changed much since it first came into being a century ago.

5. The Autobiography of Malcolm X

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I don’t read many autobiographies (or biographies, for that matter), but maybe I should. Back when I was in college a writing professor once referenced the Autobiography of Malcolm X, so when I saw it sitting in a box of free stuff on the sidewalk I picked it up. My professor had recommended the book because of its account of the turning point that steered Malcolm X’s life away from a vicious cycle of crime and prison to standing as a ideological and political leader among African Americans in the tumultuous lead up to the civil rights era. Everything changed in prison, as Malcolm himself recollects. When he first went to jail he estimated he had a vocabulary of just a few hundred words. He got religion through a Black Muslim, and then he decided to teach himself English – proper English. His method was simple. He opened a dictionary and started meticulously memorizing it one word at a time, starting with “aardvark.” By the time he was out of prison, he had read a vast swath of literature, history, and philosophy, and his education rivaled that of any college graduate. He became an eloquent speaker and powerful societal voice. As my professor would have said, he “mastered the civilization in which he lived.”

The literary and intellectual prowess of Malcolm X is evident in this book. It thoroughly transported me into his shoes. Given the great disparity between our life experiences – me, a college-educated middle-class white Christian from California, and Malcolm, a black hoodlum who cut his teeth on all manner of unlawful dealings in Boston and then Harlem – that’s really saying something. Even though much of his career was marked by decidedly extreme, violent rhetoric, reading his autobiography gave me a fresh empathy for the African American experience that has expanded how I think about racial issues today.

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Calvary and the weight of the World

There’s a powerful scene at the end of the film Calvary, where the town butcher Jack Brennan (Chris O’Dowd) confronts his priest Father James (Bredan Gleeson) on a beach in Ireland. He has a gun that he’s prepared to use.

For five years, Jack was sexually abused by a priest, raped “anally and orally, as they say.” A week earlier, at the beginning of the film, he had come to Father James during confession and said he was going to kill him because of the abuse he suffered.

Midway through the film, someone burns down the church where Father James ministers. And shortly after that, someone slashes the throat of his dog. In both incidents, he weeps.

As Jack stands here with his gun pointed at Father James, he asks him if he cried when his dog died. Father James says he did. Then Jack asks him how he reacted when he heard the news of the sexual abuse scandal among the Catholic clergy.

“Did you cry then?”

Father James’ hesitation condemns him. He didn’t weep over it. It was like reading something in the papers, he stammers. Jack can’t take it, and so he puts a bullet through Father James’ head.

That damning question is one for us all: Did you cry then? How can you weep over the death of a pet yet skim over stories of sexual abuse and hardly bat an eye? What a powerful indictment – the notion that we could live life like everything’s fine, detached from such great scandal and pain. But don’t we all do it every day, every time we read a newspaper or surf the web?

It’s almost cliché to lob this critique at middle-upper class America, Christian or otherwise. We slam politicians for not addressing or speaking to certain problems, or we slam them for focusing too much on relatively trivial matters when there are bigger fish to fry. We lament our affluent, entertainment-laced culture, where people watch hours of TV a day and fool around on the internet laughing at memes and trolling on YouTube while elsewhere in the world terrorist groups shoot children and tear women in two.

And maybe all those criticisms have a point – they undoubtedly do – but Jack had a point about Father James’ lack of tears too. That didn’t make Father James a heartless monster. He spent his days faithfully, though not perfectly, ministering to the people under his spiritual care. The problem is that Jack’s brand of moralizing – heaping guilt on people (implicitly or explicitly) for not caring about huge evils in the world – inevitably condemns us in our finiteness.

Suppose I give up a few hours of TV each week to volunteer at a homeless shelter. And then a bit later I decide to see one less movie a month and cut back on a latte or two to support aid to a poverty-ridden country. Guess what? There’s still human trafficking in Asia and drug violence in Central America and abortion here in America, and war in the Middle East. And what kind of person am I to stand by with my unprecedented American wealth and safety and comfort and do nothing about it? Here we are going about our comfortable, middle-class lives, maybe paying lip-service to a few of these horrors with a hashtag or dumping a bucket of ice on ourselves if we feel especially moved. What heartless wretches we are.

Source: Pixabay.com

The intent is not to downplay any of these things. They are tragic and real and, for all practical purposes, without number. And yet because of that, our hearts can’t bear the weight of the world’s problems. We really can’t. Not the emotional weight, nor the physical poverty, nor the pain. If we came to a full existential grip with all of it – every rape, beheading, bombing, starvation, theft, suicide, abuse – well, it would crush us.

Once in high school, I remember talking with a few of my more intellectually-savvy friends about the concept of equality. One of them was arguing there’s a certain absurdity or lie to the notion that we can treat people equally by loving every last one of our neighbors the same. We claim we stand for equal treatment, but we practice favoritism, he said, because when we give money to, say, some sort of cause, it benefits a few people, but leaves countless others who need help completely untouched. You can’t split a dollar a million ways, so how can you ever claim to treat everyone equally?

I don’t remember the exact point he was going for, probably trying to show me the absurdity of Christian ethics or something like that, but it shows what can happen when you abuse the James 4:17 card: “whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” There is almost always something more obviously virtuous you could be doing. Like Father James and Jack, even the most righteous men among us cannot stand before every victim’s accusations. Sooner rather than later, we’re bound to appear callous. As this College Humor video illustrates, you can find a way to make it socially unacceptable to do just about anything. Some evils we have to choose not to care about.

So what do we do, then?

One extreme is denial, which I suspect we choose far more frequently than we’d like to think. Ignore it. As the band Dragonette sings:

“We don’t need a cure for the weight of the world, cuz it’s floating ‘round in the universe / Just swing it like it’s tied by a string that you hold, and let it go.”

We can adopt this carefree ethic of radical individualism and self-autonomy, choosing the bliss of ignorance by distracting ourselves. We can tell ourselves it’s not our problem because we didn’t do anything to directly cause it. It’s out there, thousands of miles away, in a different world, and we need not worry about it because others are more capable of helping and hence more responsible.

Such extreme apathy, of course, is despicable – perhaps downright sinful. But again, we can’t be a crusader against every evil. And who is to say where you draw the line and decide which ones?

The only answer that is both practical and principled, I’m convinced, is to turn everything over to a Being whose moral capacity and ability to act infinitely exceeds ours.

Christian means “little Christ,” but a Christ-figure is no substitute for the real Thing. In Calvary, Father James faces an inverse martyrdom – a vengeance that he bears as a public servant of God yet also because of the sins of those who outwardly claimed to be God’s servants. As a “little Christ”, he may be an agent of grace, but he is only one of many. As a finite, fallen man, he can’t dispense enough sympathy and counsel and prayers to support his community by himself. The world’s problems are as numerous as the stars in the sky. Who can bear it?

Weep with those who weep. Visit orphans and widows in their affliction. That’s true religion, sure. But Jesus tells us that sufficient for the day is its own trouble. And the Apostle Paul says to aspire to live quietly and mind your own affairs. We do not need to right every wrong, mourn every sin, and carry every burden, because we have a God who has already done it. And soon he will do so once and for all.

New Side Project Of Mine

I’m excited to announce that I’ve just started up a weekly Film Review Blog over at Redfence Magazine. This certainly won’t be replacing ACwords, but I’ll be sure to highlight my work there over on this blog too.

We start things off with a review of the new Bond movie, Skyfall. You can read it here at RedfenceProject.com, so check it out! I know they would appreciate the traffic (and so would I)!

Book Review: “To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World”

It was with great eagerness that I picked up James Davison Hunter’s “To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.” As the title suggests, Hunter tries to tackle the contentious topic of culture changing as it’s understood and practiced by Christians. Given that Hunter is both a Christian and prominent sociologist at the University of Virginia, he seems to be a good man for the job.

Any talk of transforming culture inevitably involves politics, and that’s the thing about “To Change the World” that piqued my interest. My understanding of the intersection of Christianity and politics has evolved quite a bit over the past several years (along with my convictions about what that intersection ought to look like). Given that I just graduated from a Christian college and started a fledgling career in politics, I could hardly have chosen something more relevant to my life.

That’s because Hunter sets out to answer the big question: how do Christians go about changing the culture in which they live? Or more generally: how ought we to go about living out our faith and engaging with the world? It’s a timeless subject that Christianity has wrestled through since it’s inception, starting at least with St. Augustine and continuing until today with organizations like Focus on the Family.

Hunter responds to this question in three parts. He first explores the substance of the question: What is culture? How and why does it change? What is it like today and what kind of influence do Christians currently wield? This part of the book is mainly analysis that lays the groundwork for the rest of the book, clears up some misconceptions about world-changing, and defines key terms—what exactly is “culture,” for instance. How do ideas have consequences? Why doesn’t society always reflect the beliefs of the majority?

Whether or not you’ve thought through these questions, it’s well worth the read. Some of Hunter’s answers may surprise you. For instance, changing culture isn’t as simple as “changing the hearts and minds, one person at a time.” Rather, those at the top of elite power structures have far more sway in the movement of our ideas and beliefs than whatever the masses say. Only 15% of America at the most is secular, yet our society–the public square, our classrooms, and so on–is intensely secular.

The second part of the book explains and critiques, in a self-admittedly very broad fashion, the three main movements or “models” that American Christians have adopted over the past several decades in their mission to change the world—the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and the Neo-Anabaptists. He sums them up in the terms “defensive against”, “relevance to”, and “purity from”, respectively.

In the third part, Hunter goes on the offensive, offering a new model for cultural engagement that he terms “faithful presence.” Continue reading →

Music Co-Review: A Conversation About “Cold Hard Want” by House of Heroes

It’s my pleasure to introduce my first guest blogger of sorts, Austin Mitzel. Austin and I were roommates for a year in college, and one of the many affinities we shared was a love for art, philosophy, and the intersection of the two. As one clear example of this, when I discovered the band House of Heroes’ (HoH) sophomore album, “The End Is Not The End,” and showed it to my roommates, Austin fell in love with the band just as much–if not more–than I had. When House of Heroes’ newest album, “Cold Hard Want,” came out earlier this summer, I made a point to ask his opinion via Facebook message. Here is our exchange (with minor edits for grammar and flow):

So your request lit reviewer flame in my soul. here goes.

I’ve always appreciated the band’s work for its originality and thought-provoking material. Besides the album “Cold Hard Want,” I’ve only heard “The End is Not the End” and “Suburba.” Both of those were strong albums–particularly, in my view, in terms of thematic unity. “Cold Hard Want” isn’t an exception. In fact, “Cold Hard Want” is arguably more unified, especially in formal, musical terms. I’ll get to that later on, but you can know, for now, that I think it’s their best work yet.

In strictly musical terms, I think “Cold Hard Want” is features some of their most diverse work, and it seems to consistently get better. They’ve started to move away from the classic rock of “The End is Not the End,” but what’s not to like about “Remember the Empire,” or “Angels of Night”? Frontman Tim Skipper is considerably more adventurous on this album, and his vocal talent shows. “Cold Hard Want” feels much more weighty than HoH’s earlier work, but I think the heavier punch suits them.

Isn’t the title fascinating? It struck me as odd even before I took my first listen. I’m convinced now that that is how it’s supposed to be. The title is taken from the chorus in “Out of my Way”:

“It took a whole lot of blood and sweat to get what I got,
It took a whole lot of cold hard want to get what I got,
It took a whole lot of nights like these to get what I got,
Yeah it took cold hard want to get what I got yeah!”

Of course a whole host of questions come up: What did he get? Was it worth it? Quintessential HoH here; it’s never answered. Or, actually, the whole album is the answer. One of the stand out tracks for me at this point is “Comfort Trap.” It’s a blood chilling caricature of the materialistic man if ever there was one. “Cop” is another one of my favorites, and one that was (I think) deliberately placed before “Comfort Trap” to depict the characters in contrast to each other. It’s easy enough to see the album as a resounding condemnation of materialism (“Comfort Trap” is, after all, the centerpiece of the work) but the questions it asks are more universal.

Back to the musical form. If you’ve listened to the album, you’ve probably noticed that two of the tracks are a capella. Their positions in the album at the very beginning at near the end would seem to make them book ends–and would make the last song a coda of sorts. The opening a capella track sets the tone for the whole album. Time, racing on before us while we stare helplessly as it passes. And a dream of a man, a man who’s not afraid of life and death. The second a capella section asks us to look into our souls-time passes us by, but we can still get home. Or can we? Continue reading →

Jerry Sandusky and Ultimate Right and Wrong

The Penn State scandal culminating in the conviction of Jerry Sandusky on 45 counts of sexual abuse last month was a truly horrible story. However, I think that some good may have come out of it; namely, the Sandusky case has brought some important moral questions to the fore of our national consciousness. Last month, for example, Dr. Benjamin Wilker published an article in the Catholic Report with a provocative title: Why is Jerry Sandusky Guilty?

The article opens with this:

There is no doubt that Jerry Sandusky is guilty, the real question is why? Why is it that we, here and now, would send a man to prison for molesting boys? Why is the public reaction one of both deep disgust and quite visceral anger? Just canvass a few opinions about what people would like to be done to punish Sandusky if they were the judge.

But why? What is the cause of this deep disgust? This seething anger?

Why indeed. I would agree with just about everyone that what he did was sick and despicable. But why does it anger us so?

Wilker chalks it up to one thing: Christianity. He notes that in the ancient Greco-Roman world, homosexual relations between an older man and a boy (between 12 and 17) were completely acceptable. This was the age range that Sandusky happened to target. In other words, if Sandusky had done what he did 2000 years ago, no one would have thought much of it and we wouldn’t have found him guilty of anything. The rise of Christianity, with its Judeo-Christian sexual ethics, according to Wilker, was the main thing that ended up instilling a new morality so that most of us now view such acts with disgust.

I think he has a point, but the historical impact of Christianity isn’t what I want to address right now. Regardless of what you make of Wilker’s argument, it highlights one simple thing about morality that I think people tend to overlook when they make their own moral judgments: moral norms change across eras and civilizations. Continue reading →