About a year ago, in my old blog, I put up a pair of book posts. I listed something like 25-30 books that had been especially significant in forming my thinking over the years, with secondary mentions of about the same number (just out of curiosity, did any of you read any of the books I mentioned, on my recommendation?) (It's OK if you didn't; I'm not all ego-invested in it. If you want to be an unenlightened simpleton, that's up to you. . .) (I'm kidding!) I said at the end of those posts that, probably within a month, I'd think of a dozen more books that I'd wish I'd mentioned. Well that wasn't quite true. It's been about a year, and I'm not sure if I made it all the way to twelve or not (for a math guy, I'm really not much into counting. . .)
Since I ended last time with works of fiction, that's where I'll start this time. . .
The Children of Men, by PD James; First of all, if you saw the movie, get it out of your mind before you read the book. This is a very provocative novel about a world in which, for unknown mysterious reasons, there is an utter and complete epidemic of infertility - no-one, anywhere in the world, is getting pregnant, or having babies. Somewhere in the world is the identified Youngest Person on Earth - the last person to be born before the onset of the epidemic. A fascinating study of the psycho-dynamics of a world without a Next Generation. . . And of course, a sharp (albeit understated) critique of the various-and-sundry 'anti-life' ideologies. . .
Contact, by Carl Sagan; Again, if you saw the movie, try to put it out of your mind before you read the book. This is a fascinating book, and pretty good Science Fiction; and all the moreso, coming from an author for whom writing science fiction wasn't his 'day job'. On the face of it, the plot revolves around an inter-stellar message picked up by earthly radio-telescopes (Sagan was very into the whole search-for-extraterrestrial-intelligence thing). But it ends up touching on themes of human nature, and our 'Place In the Universe', as well as assorted other 'religious' themes. The book is all the more interesting for having Carl Sagan as its author; Sagan, who never made any bones about his disdain for religion, wrote a very 'religious' novel. At the climax of the story (I suppose I should give a Spoiler Alert here), our heroes encounter the Caretakers - alien beings who are ultra-wise, deeply moral, all-knowing, and powerful enough to manipulate galaxies. They are super-intelligent, but also personal. You don't get to see them as they really are (you couldn't handle that), but only as they deem it best to show themselves. The impression slowly dawns that they are just . . . like . . . God. Carl Sagan had little use for conventional ideas of God, yet in his novel, he gives us aliens who are a pretty good first-order approximation of God. Very interesting. . .
OK, back to the non-fiction. . .
One By One From the Inside Out, Glen Loury; One of the most insightful books I've come across on the topic of race and the status of blacks in America. In his prologue, Loury (who is black) states, "The most important challenges and opportunities that confront me derive not from my racial condition, but rather from my human condition." Amen. And he goes from there. White racism, says Loury, is not dead, but it is no longer the main impediment to black progress. Much of what will make for black progress lies within the control of black people themselves, and is more moral than anything else. He is also sharp on the limitations of ideology - "Both [liberal and conservative ideologies] smack of a mechanistic determinism wherein the mysteries of human motivation are susceptible to calculated intervention." I love books that train me to 'think outside the box', and this one did.
Time for Truth, Os Guiness; I'd have loved this book just for one marvelous quote (among many) that I could take from it - "Truth is True, even if no one believes it." But Os Guinness has a few more things to say on the topic than that. Mainly that the devaluing of Truth in our culture - the apparent loss of the very notion that Truth exists independently of us, and that we should conform our minds and wills to the Truth, rather than the other way around - cannot fail to have dire consequences; Truth will have the last word. Such pop-notions as 'true for you/me' cannot be other than nonsensical. I might have wished that Guinness had given a few examples showing that the Loss of Truth isn't simply a 'leftward' phenomenon; it would seem less like a partisan screed (it isn't, but it could be susceptible to such a reading). But as Cardinal Ratzinger used to say, before he was pope, "Truth is not determined by a majority vote." Or Solzhenitsyn - "One word of Truth outweighs the world." And Os Guinness concurs.
Psychology as Religion, Paul Vitz; Vitz, a practicing psychologist, confronts the 'ultimate pretensions' of what he calls Self Theory, which has been the dominant, popular version of psychology since the 70s. Self Theory has tended to claim for itself a Golden Key to Meaning, reinforced by its apparent ability to claim for itself the mantle of Science, which, in our present age, is taken as the final arbiter of Truth. Vitz demonstrates convincingly that these 'religious' aspects of Self Theory are not merely anti-religious, but bad science, resting on unsupported hypotheses (sort of a Proof by Persistent Vehement Assertion). Vitz is even more devastating when he turns to consider the outcomes of Self Theory, and the kind of society that is composed of sovereign individual selves, each a god in his own universe, to whom self-denial is a foreign or even evil concept. And the past 30-40 years have not given happy testimony in that regard. . .
The Idea of a University, by John Henry Newman. Cardinal Newman (1801-1890), who was, at the time of writing this book (1858), a fairly recent convert from Evangelical Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, and was also trying to found a Catholic university in Dublin, gives a solid account of how the Life of the Mind relates to Christian faith. Suffice it to say that he doesn't view the two as opposites; his maxim, 'Truth cannot be contrary to Truth' is one that I have worked to make my own.
Next, a pair of books by the martyr to the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
The Cost of Discipleship has justly acquired something of a reputation as a 'modern Christian classic'. His theme of 'cheap grace' is a direct challenge to a lot of what gets put forth in 21st-century America. Rather, as Bonhoeffer puts it, "When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die." Christian discipleship isn't supposed to be easy or comfortable. And Bonhoeffer, who spent most of WWII in a Nazi prison, and was killed as the Third Reich was in its death throes, is a striking example of matching his deeds to his words.
I have also greatly enjoyed Bonhoeffer's book, Life Together, which is Bonhoeffer's vision of Christian community life, and thus of interest to me for obvious reasons. The main idea that I have taken from Bonhoeffer is that, for all the zeal that we might have for Christian community life, we cannot forget that we, and all our 'brethren' are nonetheless still fallen human beings. "He who loves his vision of the Christian community more than he loves the Christian community [ie, the actual men and women who comprise the Christian community], becomes a destroyer of the Christian community." And I have seen the existential truth of that on multiple occasions.
A Return to Modesty, Wendy Shalit; Ms. Shalit makes bold to say out loud what is becoming all-too-empirically-obvious - that the 'emperor' of the Sexual Revolution has no clothes (uh, no pun intended) (really); and that young women are disproportionately bearing the costs of that tragic bit of 'social progress'. Alas, in spite of all the Persistent Vehement Assertion to the contrary, it turns out that men and women aren't put together quite the same; it turns out to make a difference that women are the ones who have the babies. And that accounts, at least in part, for why women are 'wired' for permanence in their sexual relationships. And it is passing strange that the personal and social costs of treating them otherwise - depression, failed marriages (or the increasing incapacity to even form marriages) - are so willingly accepted. . .
A few years back, I received a book in the mail - Couples In Love, by John R. Waiss. The book was sent to me by the author himself (who is a Catholic priest), asking me to review the book for Amazon.com; I don't even remember any more how he happened to find my name, much less why he thought I'd be a fitting reviewer for his book. But review it I did. It is a fine book, presenting the late pope's Theology of the Body in an accessible, 'dialog' format. Fr. Waiss thanked me for the review, and other than checking the 'helpful' votes every so often, and occasionally recommending the book to friends, I really haven't thought about it all that much in the meantime. . .
Until earlier this year, when Fr. Waiss asked me to review his second book, titled Born to Love, which is a similar 'dialog-format' presentation of Catholic teaching relating to homosexuality. I wasn't at all sure I wanted to step into that quarrel, but I told Fr. Waiss I would at least read it, so I did. And I was glad I did. Fr. Waiss does probably the best I've seen at 'speaking the Truth in love'; which ain't always easy to do, when homosexuality is the subject matter. There isn't room enough here for much of an in-depth discussion, but Fr. Waiss did an amazing job for me of getting me to just step back from the ideological 'Culture War' shouting matches, and see instead the people - persons, like me, made in God's image and likeness, and like me, engaged in the moral task of trying to make their way through this world with integrity. And, in that context, he also gets me to confront my own sinfulness and lack of love, and ask myself why I should think that homosexual sins are somehow more offensive to God than are my own. . .
Not long after I read Born to Love, I picked up Sexual Authenticity, by Melinda Selmys, which is, as its subtitle proclaims, 'An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism'. Or, as I think of it, 'Augustine's Confessions Meet the Theology of the Body' (and yeah, I was even sorta wondering to myself just what was up with all the books on 'Catholicism and Homosexuality'). Selmys is simply amazing in the way that she weaves the experiences of her own life into penetratingly deep insight into human nature and sexuality. Having spent several years of her young life as a partnered lesbian, her mind is remarkably 'free of cant', and she calmly points out the fatuities put forth by both sides of the 'Culture War'. Like Fr. Waiss, she puts homosexuality into a full human context, with all the fallen-ness that goes with that (and of course, I am no less fallen than anyone else). And in the course of all this, she tells one of the more brutally intellectually-honest 'conversion stories' I've ever encountered. . .
And oh, heck - just for fun (and to keep this post from just being totally woolly and highbrow), I'll mention Dave Barry's Book of Bad Songs, from which I've probably gotten more belly laughs per word than anything else I've ever read. I do feel duty-bound, though, to repeat Dave's warning at the beginning of the book, that it will reawaken bad songs that are lying dormant in the far back reaches of your brain, causing it to "repeat [them] over and over and OVER AND OVER AND OVER, sometimes for days, until you want to commit suicide by driving off a cliff, except you can't remember where you left your car keys." So, fair warning. But I got multiple huge fits of laughter from recalling to mind just how BAD some of the songs of my wayward youth really were - songs like 'MacArthur Park' (which, incidentally - Spoiler Alert! - came out in Dave's survey as the #1 awful song of all time), or 'In the Year 2525', or 'Muskrat Love' or 'Timothy', or 'Honey', or. . . you get the idea. Heck, even my musical idol, Paul McCartney, gets skewered a couple times (and deservedly so; there's just no way to make ". . . this ever-changing world in which we live in. . ." sound other than insipid) (which is too bad, because, from a purely musical standpoint, 'Live and Let Die' is a pretty cool song) (but I digress). So, with all due caution, I encourage you to check it out. But don't blame me for what happens when you do. . .
So there you go; I hope that's enough to get you all by until I can scrape together another one. . .