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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Step Back Sometimes and Remember that it’s All Fake and Pointless

Meet the latest cultural artifact and YouTube sensation from mix master Daniel Kim. For the past several years, Kim has been creating pop music mashups of the past year’s hits. His 2012 mix is easily his best yet, and the collective internet audience has rewarded it with more than seven million views after being out for only a week. It’s worth the eight minute watch:

I confess I’m enough of a Philistine to enjoy a good pop tune once in a while. Some I enjoy quite frequently (like Owl City’s “Good Time,” which I listened to daily all last summer). I try to at least know of the top music stars right now. A compilation like this thus brings back many memories from the past year. It’s skillfully mixed together and a lot of fun to watch.

These songs have a certain nostalgic value because I associate them with people or times in my life. That’s fine, but it really just obscures their true nature. When you think about the songs themselves, there’s almost nothing there. They are nothing but sticky-sweet ear candy stretched over a gaping void. Some of these songs are uplifting and anthemic, but most are also overwhelmingly narcissistic.

If this is representative of our cultural consciousness for the past year (not an entirely unfair claim), it raises some scary questions. The songs in this anthology are utterly detached from anything real, significant, lasting or valuable. It’s a load of fakeness, fool’s gold, glam and glitter, lights, pretty faces, too-perfect bodies, fleeting feelings. It’s kitsch that has little reason for existing other than to make money. Out of the Pop Danthology’s 55 songs, I could probably count on one hand the ones that aren’t about “love.” Continue reading →

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 →

Book Review: Animal Farm

In terms of making me feel like I’m actually doing something with my life, George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” was a pretty good deal.

Here’s what I mean by that. It was short—at 128 small pages, I read most of it in a single weekend. It is easy to read—written in a clear, simple style. And it’s a classic—ranking just under “1984” on the list of famous Orwell books. In other words, I read a classic over the weekend and understood it.

Wish I could do that every weekend.

But seriously, “Animal Farm” is a pretty good read. Orwell writes with a down-to-earth simplicity that fits the book’s parable-like fairy tale genre. First published in 1946, in the aftermath of Nazi Germany and on the brink of the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union, Orwell launches a scathing attack on totalitarianism in no uncertain terms in one of the most simple contexts imaginable—a farm.

The plot is simple but effective. It begins on Mr. Jones farm. One night, one of the old hogs gathers all of the animals and tells of a coming revolution. He predicts that one day the time will come for all animals to rise up, overthrow their oppressive human rulers, and establish their own utopia where all animals live in harmony with each other, reap the full fruits of their labor, and enjoy an abundance of food and rest. Soon after the old hog’s death, on a night when Jones was especially drunk and careless with his animals, two younger pigs lead a revolution that ousts the farmer and gives the animals control of the farm.

Everything goes wonderfully, at first. Led by the pigs, the animals collectively work hard for the benefit of each other and quickly establish their own laws of “Animal Farm” to ensure equality and further their cause around the world.  They rename the farm “Animal Farm,” fly their own flag, and sing their own national anthem, “The Beasts of England.” Yet the dreams of a world of animal equality and abundance for all turn out to be nothing more than that—just dreams. Continue reading →

“After-Birth” Abortion?

Like many people, I reacted with horror and disgust when I first read in The Weekly Standard about this recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics. It is by two ethicists in Australia, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, and argues for the ethical legitimacy of what they call “after-birth abortion.” It’s a fascinating read, but it comes to a chilling conclusion: it is ethically permissible to kill an unwanted baby even right after it is born. The same reasons which justify abortion, they say, should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn. This is because a newborn baby is not yet a “person” in the proper sense of the word. It can take a few days or weeks for an infant to develop a sense of self, purpose, and aims. If the child is going to cause undue stress to the mother or her family, or if the child’s life will not be worth living because of some debilitating disease, the best thing to do is end its life.

I come from the pro-life camp, and I’ve no doubt that a lot of pro-lifers will probably jump on this article and claim that it is the inevitable result of the pro-choice position and that all abortion advocates implicitly promote infanticide. I don’t want to go that far (at least not quite yet), but I do think that it demands some hard questions of abortion proponents.

Given the assumptions that justify abortion, their reasoning that extends this to newborns sure seems pretty valid to me, but I’d be curious to hear it from any pro-abortion folks out there: what makes killing a newborn different from aborting a fetus? If there is no line before birth, why should birth itself be a line? And if we want to delve more into the philosophy of it, what gives us the right to decide when a fetus becomes a person?

For William Saletan, writing for Slate, the big question for pro-choicers is this:

How do they answer the argument, advanced by Giubilini and Minerva, that any maternal interest, such as the burden of raising a gravely defective newborn, trumps the value of that freshly delivered nonperson? What value does the newborn have? At what point did it acquire that value? And why should the law step in to protect that value against the judgment of a woman and her doctor?

Or to follow another line of thought: why shouldn’t the mother’s best interests, particularly her psychological and economic well-being, take precedence over the destruction of human life—even if that life is still potential? It is, after all, on an inevitable course to personhood, which brings us back to the basic abortion debate. I’m not asking these questions to back anyone into a corner. I’m genuinely curious.

Continue reading →

Book Review: A Rumor of Angels

We live in an age in which beliefs about religion and the supernatural–especially in the public square–seem to be growing increasingly polarized and antagonistic toward each other. The religious seem to be growing more religious, and the secular more secular. Modernity has engulfed the world over the last two centuries, and genuine, deep-set religious faith seems to be growing more and more untenable.

What are we to make of this? How should church leaders and secularists alike respond when faced with decisions about how to engage with the culture and those with differing beliefs? Or more important still, how ought we to go about finding answers to questions of faith and the supernatural?

Enter “A Rumor of Angels” by Boston University sociologist Peter Berger. Berger is one of those delightful intellectuals who refuses to be easily categorized. He does not subscribe to the typical thinking and well-known rhetoric of either side and offers his criticism to traditional Christians and the secularizing left alike. Berger himself probably put it best in a 1980 article in The Christian Century in which he described “A Rumor of Angels” as “an attempt to overcome secularity from within.”

I was first introduced to Peter Berger through a pastor. In this video about the question of certainty in biblical interpretation, Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York city referenced “A Rumor of Angels”, noting that the decision to remain skeptical and avoid taking a position on something is itself a decision about what the text is saying. In other words, you can choose from the various interpretations, come up with your own, or claim some sort of “enlightened uncertainty”, but all three are concrete statements about the nature of what you are interpreting. Any belief you choose takes a stance about the nature of reality. If one of the first two positions is correct, then the third one isn’t going to do you much good.

Indeed, the most valuable insight of “A Rumor of Angels”, I found, was Berger’s insistence that the cultural forces that condition our beliefs really have little to no bearing on whether or not something is true. At one point in the book he recounts a visit to India where he encountered a street funeral and afterwards spoke with a Hindu who shared a passage from the Bhagavad Gita. It spoke of life, death and reincarnation. Berger found that his western, Judeo-Christian sense of life sharply rejected the eastern view. He admits why: worldviews are relative and his beliefs had been largely conditioned by his background and society.

This fact in itself, however, does not present any “new” problems to the question of belief; it is merely a sociological observation. “The matter becomes interesting in a very different way,” Berger writes, “the moment one passes from, broadly speaking, the sociology of knowledge to questions of truth.” For all of our observations and analysis about how religious belief comes about, it does not help much when it comes to answering the one big question: Who is right? Continue reading →

Thinking About Science

Nothing huge this week. But one of my professors recommended a while back that I watch this interview with philosopher-mathematician David Berlinski.

Berlinski is a senior fellow at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture in Seattle and well-known as a critic of evolution. People can be quite dogmatic about evolution these days, but I think it’s pretty funny when a stuffy old philosopher like Berlinski comes out of academia and starts tearing apart the scientific establishment.

Whether or not you agree with what he has to say, I think it should at least give us pause. Maybe, just maybe, we ought to be a little more skeptical towards the claims of science.

With that, I give the floor to Mr. Berlinski himself. The following are a few quotes that stood out to me. Be sure to watch the interview to understand them in their full context.

In regards to evolutionary theory and the big bang:

It is a creation myth without a Creator.

The game must be fixed, or I must be inordinately favored to win it like this.

In regards to morality and the meaning of life:

The idea that the world of matter is the world that matters is simple not true.

All the laws of heaven and earth are unable to prevent man from his crimes. Surely relaxing the laws of heaven and earth shall not dispose man to better behavior.’ That seems to me self-evident.

In regards to the nature of science:

In order to advance scientifically, there’s an enormous body of assumptions that have to be in place, and those assumptions can’t be defended. No science, Aristotle said, ever defends it’s own first principles. And we can’t either.

In regards to the Bible:

The Old Testament is the greatest repository of human knowledge and wisdom in the history of civilization–any culture, any time, any place–and that really should be the first point of discussion because every attitude current today in the discussion, from Richard Dawkins to me to Christopher Hitchens to lonely pastors in the Bible belt on Sunday morning ranting from a particular text, is discussed in the Bible and there’s a character in the Bible who expresses that point of view and there’s sympathy expressed for that point of view and there are reservations expressed by the sympathy.

I think that last quote in particularly significant, as Berlinski is an agnostic and describes his relationship to the intelligent design movement as “warm but distant.” Yet he has a point. For anyone seeking answers to the big questions of life, or anyone who simply wants to engage with western civilization, you must read and study the Bible. If nothing else, it’s a matter of intellectual honesty.