New year, new #content

One of my new year’s quasi-resolutions was to be a bit more intentional about recording and reflecting on the books I read. Looking back on 2016 I was dispirited by the number of books I could barely remember reading, much less had really digested.

To remedy this, I’m going to try to jot down at least a few thoughts about each book I read this year. (We’ll see how long this lasts!) Here’s what I’ve got so far:

Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It

Enns argues that we seriously misunderstand the Bible when we expect it to “behave”–that is, to answer the kinds of questions (theological, historical, etc.) we’d like it to in a straightforward, “objective” way. That’s not the kind of book the Bible is! First and foremost it’s a collection of stories that were written not to give sober, disinterested accounts of the past, but to provide meaning and direction for the people who wrote or edited them in their own time and place, and in their own social and cultural idiom.

Allowing the Bible to speak on its own terms largely sidesteps a lot of the problems raised by more literalistic, flat-footed readings. And, as Enns shows, the New Testament authors were highly creative in their own use of scripture to make sense of the events surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Bible is a place where we encounter God, but it works best when we don’t try to force it to meet our expectations of what a sacred book “should” be.

Richard K. Matthews, The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson

Matthews argues that Thomas Jefferson represents a road not taken in American history, an alternative to the “liberal-capitalist” ethos of Madison and Hamilton. In Matthews’ account, Jefferson is not a liberal individualist in the Lockean tradition, but a “humanist,” “communitarian anarchist,” and “radical democrat” who dissented from the emerging ethos of the market society, atomistic individualism, and the leviathan state. This isn’t just an effort at historical reconstruction; Matthews thinks this Jeffersonian philosophy still has much to say to 20th (and 21st) century America. As the book’s subtitle suggests, Matthews is engaged in a self-consciously revisionist interpretation, taking issue with both “liberal” and “civic republican” portraits of Jefferson. On Matthews’ account, Jefferson is a veritable proto-socialist and apostle of “permanent revolution” in laws and property relations.

I’m not really qualified to assess the accuracy of Matthews’ reconstruction of Jefferson’s political philosophy (though aspects of it are corroborated by Joseph Ellis’s Jefferson biography American Sphinx); but it’s a stimulating alternative to what is often assumed to be Jefferson’s quasi-libertarianism or nostalgic agrarianism. One does suspect, however, that in contrasting Jefferson with Madison and Hamilton, Matthews isn’t being quite fair to the other two gentlemen, and his view of Jefferson tends toward the overly sunny (slavery gets fairly short shrift in the discussion, for example).

I also would’ve liked to see Matthews’ Jeffersonian philosophy brought into conversation with that of John Adams, the other “pole” of the American revolution (to use Benjamin Rush’s expression). In fairness, Matthews’ book came out in the 80s, before the mini-Adams renaissance of recent years, but Adams provides a contrasting example of someone who rejected Jefferson’s optimism (naiveté?) about human nature without embracing the philosophy of “acquisitive individualism” ascribed to the other founders.(David McCullough’s biography of Adams was one of the best books I read in 2016.)

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

This is my third, and favorite, Ishiguro novel so far. The blurb from Newsweek on the back cover of my copy–“quietly devastating”–about sums it up. It’s the story of a man who so perfectly inhabits a role that he never manages to live.

Michael Walzer, On Toleration

A short but rich discussion of the meaning of toleration and of the political conditions under which a diversity of race, ethnicity, religion and culture can flourish. Walzer discusses several historical “regime types” that have facilitated tolerance to various degrees, including the multi-national empire, the nation-state with an officially dominant culture, and the immigrant society. The U.S. is an example of the last, and its combination of multiculturalism and liberal individualism presents distinctive challenges in balancing the rights of individuals with respect for cultural, ethnic, and religious difference. Walzer offers insightful discussions of how this should play out over such areas as economic and social class, education, and religion, among others. In general, while he favors multiculturalism and affirmation of difference, he thinks individual rights understood in a broadly liberal sense should generally trump the rights of groups, which will inevitably lead to a certain “thinning” out of distinctive cultural/religious/ethnic ties.

At times, Walzer comes across as a bit dismissive of objections to liberal tolerance. For example, he assumes that it is straightforwardly good that conservative forms of religion will be forced, in liberal-pluralist societies, to become more accommodating over time. I happen to largely agree, but Walzer says very little that would convince a proponent of such a conservative view. (In fairness, maybe this isn’t ultimately possible.)

Moreover, Walzer argues that tolerance and multiculturalism go hand-in-hand with a commitment to greater economic equality, cutting across an often acrimonious debate in modern left/liberal political arguments. But one might well wonder whether the broadly egalitarian politics he favors can flourish among individuals with increasingly tenuous social ties. In other words, to what extent does the solidarity required to sustain social democracy rest on shared cultural and other pre-political ties? (He is aware of this latter challenge, but understandably doesn’t try to fully resolve it here.) Walzer also comes across at points as a bit too sanguine about the eventual triumph of liberal tolerance, something that recent events certainly seem to have called into question.

These quibbles notwithstanding, this book is certainly as timely as when it was published (about 20 years ago), if not more so.

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