Good Reads

Just over halfway through 2022, and I still can’t keep up with all the books I want to read. When it comes to Marie Kondo’s tidying up lessons, count me as a miserable failure. The stack on the nightstand grows larger and I just prepared four large boxes of books to give away.

So, it’s time to briefly review some good books read during the first half of the year. For most of my adult life, I’ve tried to read three books each month. Some months, I make that, and some I don’t. So here are some good ones that I have read this year so far.

First on the list is Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles (Cornell University Press, 2019) by Kenneth Womack. I’m a Beatles fan and junkie. A couple of years ago, I finished my collection of the 2009 CD remasters of all of the Beatles British albums. And I’ve read a host of books about the fab-four including what I think is the best of all Beatles books, Here, There, and Everywhere (Avery, 2006) by their recording engineer Geoff Emerick. Womack sheds light on the fracturing of the band during the Let it Be and Abbey Road album sessions and attributes much of it to strained relationships that developed over business issues following the death of their manager Brian Epstein. Other things contributed including John Lennon’s drug addiction which hampered his songwriting, and George Harrison’s constant complaints that his songs were not given proper respect by the band (and I think George was right). Womack suggests that the collapse of the band occurred after the Abbey Road sessions were finished when their business disagreements festered and brought their working relationship as a band to an end. Lots of interesting reading here.

Tim Keller is someone who I read regularly, and his book Making Sense of God (Penguin, 2018) is one of his best. Keller writes this as a sequel to his 2007 work The Reason for God (Penguin, 2009), and his audience is skeptics who may or may not be open to considering Christianity, and Christians who want to explore how their faith makes sense in the modern world. One thing about Keller’s work that I love is his ability to clear out all of the distractions that plague modern evangelical Christianity–things like the overemphasis on partisan politics and the rise of celebrity (things that skew perceptions of Christianity in America). Sadly, those distractions are real and harmful, but they are alien to authentic Christian faith and need to be seen as such. Making Sense of God reminds me of reading C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity as Keller attempts to demonstrate how Christianity is credible in 21st century Western culture. Keller writes well with humility and grace. I underlined a lot of passages in this work.

It’s hard to believe that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the infamous Watergate break-in. I was in college for all of that, and I thought I knew everything there was to know about the so-called “crime of the century” that lead to the resignation of Richard Nixon from the presidency of the United States. Then I read Garret Graff’s Watergate: A New History (Simon and Schuster, 2022) and discovered how little I knew. Like most who lived through the sad events of Vietnam and Watergate, I thought the Watergate story began on June 17, 1972, when James McCord, Egil Krough, Gordon Liddy and others engineered the break-in of the Democratic national headquarters offices in the Watergate hotel in Washington, DC. But the story goes back to the 1968 election when at Nixon’s request, one of his major supporters got the South Vietnam government to reject participation in the Paris peace talks about the Vietnam war. That was in clear violation of laws regarding intervention in foreign affairs by private citizens, and this started the Nixon administration down a path of cover-up for this and other assorted adventures. This is a well-researched and documented history that not only explains a lot but describes some mysteries that to this day have not been solved.

St. Augustine is one of the most important figures in Christian history, and his Confessions one of the great pieces of literature ever published. Princeton University has started a delightful series titled “Lives of Great Religious Books” and Garry Wills has contributed a short volume for this series Augustine’s Confessions: A Biography (Princeton, 2011 . The goal of books in this series is not so much to describe the contents of the book itself but discuss the impact the book has had on successive generations of readers and on the Church down through the ages. Wills points out that Augustine’s Confessions is perhaps the first work of autobiography in civilization and offers insights into his conversion to Christianity, a conversion that sets the stage for his great biblical and theological works such as The City of God and On the Trinity. Wills traces the influence of Augustine and his work right up to our present day. Suffice it to say that much of western Christianity (which includes evangelical Protestantism) is Augustinian in its theological outlook.

Duke Divinity School professor Kate Bowler has struggled with and survived a stage-four cancer diagnosis, a struggle that has shaped her faith in unforeseen ways. While in the throes of that struggle, she had to finish some research and writing to achieve tenure at Duke, and the result is a wonderful book, The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities (Princeton, 2019). Bowler’s first book, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (Oxford, 2018) is a gem, and this book in many ways builds on that first work. Here, Bowler not only focuses on the celebrity culture that now dominates much of American evangelicalism but on ongoing conflicts over what leadership and teaching roles that women can take in churches and ministry organizations. In most megachurches, especially those that identify as Pentecostal or charismatic, pastor’s wives can lead and teach as long as they do so under the “authority” of their husbands. (And the term “authority” is rather nebulous.) Hence, prominent evangelical women like Joyce Meyer, Beth Moore (until recently), and others could have expansive leading and teaching ministries as long as they were careful not to usurp their husbands or other prominent male leaders. Bowler describes the multiple impacts that such a posture has. On one hand, an amazing amount of creative and entrepreneurial ministry has flourished as evangelical pastors’ wives and women have found ways to lead and teach. On the other, their roles are so tied to their husbands and to navigating evangelical and Pentecostal mores that their ministry positions are insecure and dependent on their husbands. Hence when the husband’s ministry is damaged or ends, the spouses’ ministry come to an end at the same time.

Oxford University at mid-20th century was recovering from two world wars (of the 2,000 Oxford students who left to fight in World War 1, only 800 returned from the battlefields at the end) and in the midst of the wars and their aftermath, an intriguing group of literary scholars met weekly to discuss their academic work and their writing. Often, they would bring drafts of manuscript portions they were working on and invite critique from their fellow colleagues. The story of this unique group is described by Philip and Carol Zaleski in The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams (Farrer, Straus, and Grioux, 2015). You likely know those first two names. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is perhaps the greatest work of fiction produced in the 20th century. And Lewis, the renowned Christian apologist, has produced works that have sold over 100 million copies since they were published. Not a year goes by that I don’t read something by Lewis, and currently I’m working through his essays published under the title God in the Dock. The Zeleskis’ have produced a delightful work, something of a fourfold biography that not only describes each individual but their interactions as the core of The Inklings. We read of their delightful eccentricities, their struggles with Christian faith, and how they perceived the nature of their literary musings. Such a delightful book and if you are a Lewis or Tolkien fan, this is one you won’t want to miss.

Oxford University Press also publishes a wonderful series titled Very Short Introductions. There are over 700 of them, and each provides a brief working introduction to various topics and themes. I’ve read two of them so far in 2022, a short volume titled Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2002) and the one I want to recommend here: Evangelicalism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2022) by the Canadian historian and apologist John Stackhouse. What is evangelicalism? A cottage industry has emerged trying to answer that question, and because evangelicalism is not a church, it is a notoriously difficult question to address. I’ve tried to address it with my students and the best that I can do is point to some commonalities that participants in the 300-year-old evangelical movement have shared since the 18th century. Stackhouse argues that the best way to view evangelicalism is not as the essence of true Christianity or as a movement within the larger church, but as what he terms “a style” that appropriates Christian tradition “selectively in terms of what they see [as] the core of Christianity and then innovate as necessary in order to fulfill their mission” (24). In other words, evangelicals “attempt to construe and practice Christianity in the creative tension between the heritage they inherit and the challenges they face.

The style of Christianity practiced by many evangelicals includes a Trinitarian understanding of God, entry into Christian faith through conversion, an emphasis on mission in terms of communicating the Christian gospel, a populist understanding in terms of the liberty of individual conscience and “a broad spiritual competency in the heart of each believer” (35), and a pragmatic concern to “get things done” (38). These last two give evangelicalism a distinctively Anglo-American character, and Stackhouse offers some excellent insights into how evangelicals select which biblical mandates to emphasize and the different ways that evangelicals interact with modern life. Stackhouse has written this little book for the many folks who have little or no understanding of evangelicalism apart from what they see on television or social media. But he doesn’t answer whether evangelicalism in its current form is worth preserving. That is a question for the rest of us who have used or still use the name.

Most of these are available for Kindle if that is your reader of choice. I’m biased toward print books, but I use a Kindle paperwhite for beach reading, fiction, and for sales. As I prepare for vacation the suitcase is already packed with a book by Henri Nouwen as well as my Kindle reader packed with some good reading. Of course, there is the obligatory John Grisham novel packed as well. There is nothing like sitting on the porch at home or in the mountains or beach with a good read.

One thing I encourage students and others to do is read widely. Try not to focus your reading in one area. Obviously, we have to read books that relate to our job or profession. But a well-rounded diet of good books, fiction and non-fiction on a variety of topics offers a wholistic understanding of faith and life, something that all of us need in these divisive days.

Leave a comment and tell me what you have read that you think I should read. Some of my best reading has come from friends recommendations, and I’d love to hear what you’re reading and why you like it.

Author: Bob Mayer

Bob Mayer recently retired after 24 years as Librarian and faculty member at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He loves good books, especially the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Henri Nouwen, and C.S. Lewis. He also enjoys film, especially movies that cause him to reflect theologically and culturally on important themes and questions.

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