Jan 1, 2015

Books of 2014

Six brief reviews, some notes on a year's reading, and a list:

House of Zondervan, by James E. Ruark

James E. Ruark tells the story of Zondervan from the perspective of the Zondervans. In the process one gets a picture of the emergence of modern evangelicalism, a common identity and subculture forming at least partly as the product of a book market.

There is not yet a good, reliable academic history of American evangelical publishing. Hopefully there will be soon. Right now there are only a few memoirs from those who worked in the industry and a few histories produced by publishing houses about themselves. This book is one of the better examples of that latter.

Fascinating detail: The Zondervans initially sold books on the apocalypse from a variety of theological perspectives. They later decided this was too confusing and they had to choose a theology to publish and promote. They chose premillennialism, which helped to make that the default position for American evangelicalism.

Demon Camp, by Jennifer Percy

This is an achingly beautiful book about trauma, pain, and one religious response to horror. Demon Camp tells the story of a soldier from America's wars on terror who has found a new mission in spiritual warfare. He seeks to be free of his demons, and to free other soldiers of theirs and, maybe, America of hers.

He doesn't think those demons are metaphorical.

Percy's creative non-fiction is deeply sympathetic to her subject, though also skeptical of the supernaturalism and the pentecostal cosmology that pictures the natural world as pervaded by the unseen. The book suffers from a lack of historical perspective. Percy doesn't have much context for what she sees and experiences. The book suffers from a lack of sociological perspective, too. Questions about secularity and taken-for-granted reality are raised, but only with a lot of hesitation and awkward first-formations.

She makes up for it in lyricism and an impressive ability to communicate the beauty in the strangeness of an unfamiliar and even off-putting religious practice.

Amazing quote:
I lean toward the dark.
'Power outage?'
'They're here.' He drums his hands on the table.
'Who?'
'The whole fucking army is here.' He reaches his arms above his head and opens them like a ballerina.
The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation, by Richard M. Gamble

America doesn't have a religious establishment that, in times of war, serves the state by giving its spiritual endorsement to the conflict, speaking to the morality of the situation and shaping a religiously acceptable response. Yet, in the early part of the 20th century, it kind of did. There was a quasi-establishment of progressive Protestant clergy -- what today is called the mainline -- who spoke with authority in America. They used that authority to advocate for involvement in the First World War.

This is an excellent historical monograph that traces the theology and politics of the leading Protestants in the lead-up to WWI. Richard M. Gamble grounds religious progressives in intellectual history and looks at how they responded to one cultural moment. There could be more about how those ideas were received and how non-clergy were influenced by and interpreted these ideas, but the book can be supplemented by other work, such as Jonathan Ebel's Faith in the Fight.

It's not particularly drawn out, but this history is also interesting for how it challenges some very popular contemporary narratives, conservative Christian narratives about the role of Christianity in public discourse in the good old days and liberal Christian narratives about the uses of calls to social justice.

Fascinating detail: The progressive clergy were strong proponents of evolution -- but not Darwinian evolution. They found the Darwinian idea of random development abhorrent, instead embracing a strong teleological view, which allowed them to see "progress" as always good.

The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, by Reinhold Niebuhr

I have been strongly influenced in my own political thinking by the conservative philosophy that values epistemic humility. There is a strong anti-utopian tradition I resonate with that takes as a basic premise a stubborn doubt about the absoluteness and purity of ideologies. We should be cautious, and learn to know what we don't know. Russell Kirk called this prudence and an awareness of human imperfectability. William F. Buckley summarized the political philosophy in the quip, "Don't let them immanentize the eschaton."

This political philosophy is also really problematic: In Kirk, epistemic humility becomes an argument for tolerating -- or even valuing -- existing injustices. The bugbear of "unintended consequences" becomes a bulwark against making things better. In Buckley, the humility is directed at others. Concern for others' efforts to construct the kingdom of God on earth isn't really humility at all, though, and it provides a protective cover for one's own efforts at immenantizing eschatons.

Niebuhr offers a different version of this political philosophy. He articulates a politics that starts from an Augustinian distrust of oneself, but which doesn't immobilize, doesn't blind one to present problems, or make a virtue out of tolerating present evils.

Amazing quote: "It must be understood that the children of light are foolish not merely because they underestimate the power of self-interest among the children of darkness. They underestimate this power among themselves."

Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter, by Randall Balmer

Any history of white evangelicals in the 20th century has to deal with the peculiarity of Jimmy Carter. Carter at once is the epitome of evangelicalism in America and not at all, as white evangelicalism has been so strongly linked with the religious right and a certain sort of political conservatism. Yet it was Carter who brought "born again" to national attention. Carter is significant to this history of political engagement, but also seems like a sort of exception or a road not taken.

In Redeemer, Randall Balmer, a leading figure among historians of American evangelicalism, looks at the peculiarity directly. This is a biography that attends especially to these questions and looks at Carter's own faith, and how it connected to his politics. It also looks at how Carter connected and didn't connect to other evangelicals, explaining why "his own received him not."

Fascinating detail: Carter fought to desegregate his Plains, Ga., Baptist church in 1965 -- and lost. Out of about 200 members, only six voted to allow African Americans to attend the church. Five of them were Carters.

Winning Marriage, by Marc Solomon

Arcs of history don't just bend themselves.

The politics of gay marriage changed rapidly in America in only a few years and this is the story of people who worked hard to make that happen. Marc Solomon -- himself an activist -- reports on the political battles to legalize gay marriage, making the argument that change doesn't just happen, even though sometimes it's politically expedient to pretend that it does.

This is a campaign book about lobbyists and activists. It reads a lot like books about presidential campaigns, except there's an issue instead of a candidate. Winning Marriage does a good job at looking at a variety of campaigns, focusing especially on efforts in Massachusetts, New York, Maine, and within the Democratic Party, though this means it is at times disjointed. Solomon doesn't really talk about the court battles, either, which is unfortunate given their historical significance. And he's not a historian, so there are fairly large questions of causation and cultural context that go unanswered.

For what it is, this is a good book. Right now it's the best account of this dramatic change of recent history, and indispensable to understanding what has happened.

Fascinating detail: The activists who sought to persuade undecided people before the popular vote in Maine practiced engaging religious ideas, speaking about their own faith, their own relationships with the church, Christianity and Jesus.

Overall, my reading was roughly broken into thirds, this year. One-third was teaching related (e.g. apocalypticism and WWI), one-third was related to my own research and my dissertation (e.g. spiritual warfare), and one-third was "other." I try to read one book a week and actually did a bit better than that. I really need to do better about reading more women and people of color, and would also like, this next year, to read a couple of works from the Western canon (maybe Aquinas, maybe Homer, maybe finally Capital).

My list:

1. Where There is a Vision, by Good News Publishers
2. His Time, His Way: The CBA Story, 1950-1999, by Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz
3. An Eerdmans Century, 1911-2011, by Larry ten Harmsel w/ Reinder Van Til
4. House of Zondervan, by James E. Ruark
5. Does God Listen to Rap? by Curtis "Voice" Allen
6. Defending the Faith: J. Greshem Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America, by D.G. Hart
7.Wrestling with Dark Angels, ed. by C. Peter Wagner and F. Douglas Pennoyer
8. This Present Darkness, by Frank Peretti
9. This Town, by Mark Leibovich
10. Apostles of Reason, by Molly Worthen
11. Some Said it Thundered: A Personal Encounter with the 'Kansas City' Prophets, by David Pytches
12. Demon Camp, by Jennifer Percy
13. Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
14. Hunger Games: Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins
15. Hunger Games: Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins
16. Are You My Mother: A Comic Drama, by Alison Bechdel
17. Pyro Marketing, by Greg Stielstra
18. My Friend Dahmer, by Derf Backderf
19. Wrestling with Alligators, Prophets and Theologians, by C. Peter Wagner
20. When We Were on Fire, Addie Zierman
21. The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman
22. The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation, by Richard M. Gamble
23. Flash Boys, by Michael Lewis
24. The Great and Holy War, by Philip Jenkins
25. Apollyon, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins
26. American Lion, by John Meacham
27. Titan, Son of Saturn, by Joseph Birkbeck Burroughs
28. Moral Man and Immoral Society, by Reinhold Niebuhr
29. The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, by Reinhold Niebuhr
30. The Irony of American History, by Reinhold Niebuhr
31. Against Conceptual Poetry, by Ron Silliman
32. The Last Jihad, by Joel Rosenberg
33. The Legacy of Ashes, by Tim Weiner
34. Redeemer, by Randall Balmer
35. The Business of Books, by Andre Schiffrin
36. Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America's Most Powerful and Private Dynasty, by Daniel Schulman
37. The Harlem Hellfighters, by Max Brooks and Caanan White
38. Alvin York, by Douglas V. Mastriano
39. The Third Wave of the Holy Spirit, by C. Peter Wagner
40. The Wounded Spirit, by Frank Peretti
41. The God Who is There, by Francis Schaeffer
42. Death in the City, by Francis Schaeffer
43. Cane Ridge: America's Pentecost, by Paul K. Conkin
44. What the World Should Be: Woodrow Wilson and the Crafting of a Faith-Based Foreign Policy, by Malcolm D. Magee
45. The American Churches in World War I, by John F. Piper, Jr.
46. American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism, by Matthew Avery Sutton
47. Poems, by Alan Seeger
49. Silver Linings: The Experiences of a War Bride, by Ruth Wolfe Fuller
49. Cannan Land, Albert Raboteau
50. The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin
51. Sgt. York and His People, by Sam Cowan
52. Thrall, by Natasha Trethewey
53. Winning Marriage, by Marc Soloman
54. Marxism in the United States, by Paul Buhle
55. The Age of Evangelicalism: America's Born-Again Years, by Steven P. Miller
56. Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, by Rick Perlstein
57. The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, by Rick Perlstein