Monday, December 31, 2012

Favorite Reads: 2012 Minimalist Edition

I'm not sure how this happened, but somehow my 2012 reading was dominated by non-fiction and only some blips of fiction, short stories, and poetry (in stark contrast to my rich year of fiction reading in 2011).  Of the stories and novels I enjoyed in 2012, I think I would highlight just two (though I hope to have more to say about Tom Wolfe's Back to Blood in the near future):


Robertson Davies, The Rebel Angels, the first volume in his Cornish Trilogy (originally published, 1981).  A "campus" novel set at the College of St. John & the Holy Ghost (modelled on Trinity College at the University of Toronto), The Rebel Angels is a bit of an indulgent romp for an academic reader.  The pinnacle of Davies' weird blend of medievalism and Jungian notions of myth, populated with unforgettable characters, it's begging to be made into a Downton Abbey-like miniseries!  


Just one pristine gem to highlight from my reading this year: "The Necklace" by Guy de Maupassant.  This might just be the apotheosis of the short story.  I read this in a marvelous collection, The Oxford Book of Short Stories, ed. Elizabeth Fallaize (Oxford University Press, 2002), which also includes Balzac's classic, "The Message."


So 2012 was the year of nonfiction for me.  And looking back, it might also be described as the year I became a conservative (more on that anon, perhaps).  Here are a few highlights from my reading:

When I read Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, early in 2012, I found myself constantly arguing with it.  This was a sign that it was making a dent on my imagination.  And now that I look back on 2012, this is one of the bookS that has kept wafting back into my consciousness.  Murray is someone that liberals love to hate, but this book really pressed me to revisit some of my baseline assumptions.

In a similar way, Ross Douthat's Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics offers an analysis and argument of contemporary American religion and spirituality that I believe needs to be absorbed and heeded if any kind of integral, orthodox Christianity is going to survive the assimilating maw of American culture.  There might be points of disagreement about the history.  For example, I think the "heresy" of American religion is as old as the American experiment itself--it's just that American culture lived on borrowed capital until the mid-20th century.  But it's Douthat's diagnosis and prescription that are the most important.  (I would recommend reading this alongside Peter Leithart's very important book, Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective.)

I'm most grateful that I finally found opportunity to read Paul Elie's classic, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage--his stirring, intertwined account of the lives of Dorothy Day, Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Merton, and Walker Percy.  The book left me with a deep conviction about the need to cultivate more time and space for contemplation in my life.  (Not that I'm doing any better on that front.)

Finally, in the sheer-delight category, I was enthralled by Charles C. Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.   Mann challenges both "Sunday school" and "middle school" pictures of the Americas before European colonization.  He debunks the myth of a-cultural Indian existence, showing how indigenous peoples very much shaped nature by their culture.  While recounting the new state-of-the-art in our understanding of the Americas before Columbus, Mann also tells the story of science, tracking debates and developments in anthropology.  A fascinating book.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Books & Culture Podcast: On (Anti-)Intellectualism & the Church

I received an early Christmas present when I realized that John Wilson and Stan Guthrie were discussing my new book, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, in this week's Books and Culture podcast.  (You can also listen/subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.)

John does a great job of situating the new book--which will be available in late January--in the context of my argument in Desiring the Kingdom.  He does so by focusing on my admission, in the Preface to Imagining the Kingdom, that DTK was a "hypocritical" book--a long theoretical argument for displacing the centrality and primacy of the intellect.  Addressing that concern and dynamic is a big part of volume 2.  (And in the Preface I do so by drawing on Proust--but you'll have to get the book to see how that works!)

I was intrigued (and humbled) by John's discussion of the reception of Desiring the Kingdom as a kind of retroactive confirmation of the book's argument.  At first he was skeptical of my claim about the privileging of the intellect among evangelicals.  Indeed, per The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, John was inclined to think the very opposite: our problem hardly seemed to be a matter too much thinking.  And yet, as John noted the wide reception of the argument over the past few years, he wondered whether the claim was on to something.

I get at this problem right in the Preface of Imagining the Kingdom.  At one point I articulate it this way:

The point, rather, is that we have a tendency, in Christian higher education and even in the church, to overestimate the importance of thinking. Now, many of those toiling in the not-so-ivory towers of Christian colleges and universities would be quite surprised to hear that thinking is being overvalued in North American Christianity. Indeed, quite the opposite seems to be true: evangelical piety tends to intensify a general anti-intellectual malaise that besets our culture. The response to such a situation would be to encourage more thinking, not less—to emphasize the importance of the mind rather than fall back into the soppy mushiness of “the heart” and its affections. In short, with its critique of rationalist or intellectualist models of the human person, it would seem that Desiring the Kingdom plays right into the hands of antiintellectualism (p. 11).

So I completely understand John's worry here. But note that one of the goals of Imagining the Kingdom is to respond directly to this worry.

This gets at one of the most nuanced--and admittedly perplexing--parts of the argument: that those Christians who are "anti-intellectual" are sometimes the most ardent proponents of intellectualIST pictures of the human person.  Those who are suspicious of the university and "book learnin'" are often still "folk" intellectualISTS who think discipleship and sanctification are a matter of information rather than formation.  Whenever sanctification is conceived primarily as a matter of acquiring biblical knowledge--with no account of the importance of habit--then we are on the terrain of intellectualISM, even if we're talking about a community that looks askance at something like Books & Culture, which is rightly pointing folks to the riches of intellectual reflection.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  I hope you'll listen to the podcast.  And if that piques your interest, I hope you'll pick up Imagining the Kingdom in the new year.   

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Big News: JKAS editor of Comment magazine

I'm very excited to share some big news: Beginning in January 2013, I will take up the reins as Editor of Comment magazine, coupled with an appointment as a Senior Fellow of Cardus, a think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture, drawing on more than 2000 years of Christian social thought.

I'm incredibly excited to join the Comment and Cardus team.  It's a dedicated outlet for my work as a Christian public intellectual, and the invitation--while coming as a surprise--made immediate sense for me.  It also dovetails in providential ways with my appointment to the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology & Worldview at Calvin College.

I have much more to say about this over at the Cardus Daily blog.  Here's a snippet:

Above all, I want Comment to be a life-giving resource for those leaders, practitioners, entrepreneurs, and creators who are convinced of the importance of Christian cultural engagement but are now looking for in-depth guidance and direction.  In many other venues, we never seem to get beyond the starting block.  We hear a baseline emphasis repeated over and over: that Christians have permission and encouragement to be culture-makers.  While there’s a continued place for “Christianity and Culture 101,” so to speak, Comment aims to take you to the next level—to 201 and 301 levels of analysis.  We want to help you discern the nitty-gritty of how to actually do this and what it really ought to look like.  We’re unapologetic in having a vision for the renewal of North American social architecture.  We’re not shy to say where we think this architecture is crumbling.  And we’re calling Christians to be builders.  

Continue reading at the Cardus Daily and learn more of what's in store for the future of Comment.  And if you're not yet a subscriber, join us today.