Favorite books read in 2013

This is not based on any kind of rigorous methodology;  these are just the books I enjoyed and/or that “stuck with me” the most throughout the year. As should be obvious, these were not necessarily books published in 2013.


Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

I decided to start reading this late last year after seeing the film version starring Keira Knightley. I’m frankly in awe of it, and nothing I can say will do it justice. But the thing that probably struck me the most was Tolstoy’s ability to draw fully realized characters and make the reader truly view the world from their perspective (including, in one case, a dog!). I can see why some people have compared Tolstoy to God: he intimately knows and truly loves each of his characters (sometimes, one senses, in spite of himself). And I haven’t even mentioned the delicately intertwining stories, the astonishingly clear and beautiful scenes Tolstoy draws, the social commentary, and the philosophical and religious musings. Basically, this book deserves every bit of its reputation as one of the greatest novels ever written.

True Grit, Charles Portis

I’d seen both movie versions, but had never read the book. Portis’s unforgettable characters, deadpan dialogue, and tightly constructed plot made this a hugely enjoyable read.


The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, James Oakes

Oakes’ recounting of how the radical abolitionist Douglass and the temperamental conservative Lincoln converged around a particular brand of antislavery politics isn’t just a fascinating story about two important figures at a pivotal point in American history (it is that, though!). It also serves as a rebuttal of sorts to radicals of every stripe who think they’re too pure for the grubby business of electoral politics.

Systematic Theology, vols. 1 and 2, Paul Tillich

I disagree profoundly with some of Tillich’s basic theological positions, but his thought remains, nearly 20 years after I first read him, a source of stimulation and insight.

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, Garry Wills

I’m not sure Wills persuaded me of his main thesis, namely, that Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg was, in effect, an ideological re-founding of the Republic. But his erudition is undeniable, and his analysis of the address in light of classical and contemporary examples of funeral oratory is extremely illuminating. He also writes like a dream.

Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, Francis Spufford

Spufford avoids nearly every cliche of contemporary religion writing and provides the freshest take on Christian faith I’ve read in ages. Sharp, funny, and heartfelt without being sappy. As I said in my “non-review,” I think Spufford captures how many of us in the “post-Christian” West experience our faith.

How Much Is Enough?: Money and the Good Life, Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky

This father-and-son team (an economist and philosopher, respectively) ask why the richest societies in history have so much inequality and so little genuine leisure. They blame a combination of political and philosophical failures, and argue for recovering a broadly Aristotelian concept of the good life than can help us get off the production-and-consumption treadmill. Their skewering of trendy “happiness” research and its associated policy prescriptions alone is worth the price of admission. Also worth noting is their critique of liberal “neutrality” regarding the good life.

I’ve got a couple of books going now, and if any finish any before December 31st that blow me away, maybe I’ll update this. Also, looking this over, I realize that I really need to read more books not written by white men.


To effect an intellectual revolution

This was the perfect medium for changing the way most Americans thought about the nation’s founding acts. Lincoln does not argue law or history, as Daniel Webster did. He makes history. He does not come to present a theory, but to impose a symbol, one tested in experience and appealing to national values, with an emotional urgency entirely expressed in calm abstractions (fire in ice). He came to change the world, to effect an intellectual revolution. No other words could have done it. The miracle is that these words did. In his brief time before the crowd at Gettysburg he wove a spell that has not, yet, been broken–he called up a new nation out of the blood and trauma.

–Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg

The address itself, delivered 150 years ago today.

Slavery, divine judgment, and atonement

During my vacation I read James Oakes’ The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics. Oakes tells the story of how the radical abolitionist Douglass and the temperamental conservative Lincoln converged on a brand of antislavery politics that eventually resulted in the emancipation of America’s millions of slaves (via a bloody civil war, of course).

One thing that struck me was Oakes’ description of Douglass’ response to Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Douglass adhered to what Oakes describes as “a messianic Christianity in which a vengeful God commanded the bloody overthrow of the slave system.” In Lincoln’s speech, particularly its references to the war being a form of divine judgment on the nation, Douglass saw a vindication of his view.

Oakes points out, however, that there were differences between Douglass’ and Lincoln’s views of divine judgment. Douglass saw things in more black and white terms–slaveholders and those who enabled them were sinners, and God would judge them accordingly. Lincoln, meanwhile, saw the sin of slavery as something that both North and South bore responsibility for, and he held that neither side’s cause could be simply identified with the divine will. “The Almighty has His own purposes.”

(Of course, Lincoln, as a free white man, had the privilege of taking this “broader” view, while Douglass–a former slave–had first-hand knowledge of slavery’s evils. So you could see why Douglass was less inclined to magnanimity.)

But what really interested me about this was that divine judgment played an important role in both men’s thinking, even though they represented what would be considered the “progressive” position of their time, politically speaking. They were invoking God’s judgment–even wrath–in the service of social justice and equality. This contrasts with a lot of contemporary progressive theology, which seems uncomfortable at best with the notion of divine judgment. Instead, God is often portrayed in terms of unconditional acceptance or “hospitality.”

But can unconditional acceptance of oppressors–slaveholders, victimizers, or abusers–be at the same time hospitality for their victims? If God loves his creation, wouldn’t he be wrathful at seeing his creatures abused? (It was Elizabeth Johnson’s defense of divine wrath in her feminist theology She Who Is that first made me realize this was not necessarily a “conservative” position.)

Maybe this is why, despite the many critiques that have been leveled at it, I still find something worth holding on to in traditional “satisfaction” accounts of the atonement. As Paul Tillich has written, we relate to God both as Father and Lord–that is, as a loving Father with whom we can have an “I-thou” relationship, but also as the universal governor of the universe and upholder of the moral order. Tillich thought that the emphasis on God’s fatherhood to the exclusion of his lordship accounted in part for liberal theology’s neglect of what he calls the Pauline doctrine of the atonement.

Lincoln and Douglass both believed there was a moral order in the universe, upheld by divine governance and that this would ultimately doom slavery. But it’s less clear to me whether Lincoln, with his God of inscrutable judgment, or Douglass, with his God of vengeance, could make room for divine mercy. (At least in Oakes’ account, Christ didn’t seem to play much of a role in either one’s theology.)

For all the distortions, that’s what the Anselmian doctrine of atonement–and its many offshoots–tries to do: hold together mercy and justice. God wants to save his creatures but does it in a way that preserves the moral integrity of the creation. There is a price to be paid for sin, though the Christian message is that God, in the person of his Son, has paid it himself. I’m not sure the doctrine is entirely successful, but it at least points to a genuine problem.

Wesley’s “conversion”

Methodist and other churches remember today as the anniversary of John Wesley’s “Aldersgate Experience.” Richard Hall at Connexions provides some of the background here. Essentially, Wesley reported having a vivid experience of assurance in his own salvation when hearing a reading from Luther’s Preface to Romans. While this has sometimes been described as Wesley’s “conversion experience,” it seems that later Methodist lore may have invested it with more significance than it warrants. Wesley was undoubtedly a very sincere Christian virtually his entire life, and had been preaching justification by faith for some time prior to this experience.

As Stephen Tomkins relates it in his very accessible biography, Wesley experienced several turning points in his faith and ministry: when he started the “Holy Club” at Oxford (which became the nucleus of the Methodist movement), when he encountered the pietistic German Moravians during his mission trip to America, at the meeting at Aldersgate Street, and when he began his field preaching, among others. Tomkins traces a life-long dialectic between Wesley’s emphasis on God’s free grace and on the need for personal holiness. As Tomkins puts it, “He had an evangelical horror of trying to satisfy God by good works, but an even greater horror of trying to satisfy God without good works” (p. 196). When he felt that one pole of the dialectic was in danger of being over-emphasized, he often swung back toward the other. For example, the classic evangelical experience represented by Aldersgate and Wesley’s preaching on justification by faith has to be viewed side-by-side with the teaching on “Christian perfection,” arguably his signature doctrine.

Reading highlights of 2012

This was the year I finally got into Civil War history. My reading of McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, mentioned in the last post, was a follow up to reading Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery earlier this year. I really enjoyed Foner’s book, but felt that I lacked an understanding of the broader context of the war, which led me to McPherson’s book. Now I’m looking forward to moving on to James Oakes’ The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, a copy of which I received as a Christmas gift.

On the theology front, Friedrich Schleiermacher loomed large this year. I read his systematic theology, The Christian Faith, and it has had a significant effect on how I think about theological questions. I supplemented it with Terrence Tice‘s and B.A. Gerrish‘s introductions to Schleiermacher–the latter was particularly helpful. Currently I’m working through F.S.’s On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers.

I’ve also been revisiting the work of Paul Tillich. I read a lot of Tillich in college, but hadn’t paid him much attention in years. This year I read two collections of his sermons–The Shaking of the Foundations and The New Being. Right now I’m just over halfway through his History of Christian Thought, and I have The Courage to Be and Theology of Culture on deck. I’ve discovered that I still find Tillich’s approach to theology helpful, even if I may not agree with all his specific conclusions.

Fiction-wise, the high point of my year was Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. Great Expectations (which I read late last year) was my first foray into Dickens, but Copperfield edges it out in my estimation. While Expectations is more tightly plotted, Dickens’ famous knack for generating larger-than-life characters is on fuller display in Copperfield. I’m thinking about finally tackling Tolstoy in 2013–possibly Anna Karenina.

What were your favorite books this year?

Negative liberty, positive liberty, and the second American revolution

In the afterword to his magisterial Battle Cry of Freedom (which I finished reading over Christmas), historian James McPherson says that the Civil War was a turning point between two different understandings of liberty. He distinguishes them using the terms made famous by Isaiah Berlin: “negative” liberty and “positive” liberty. Roughly, negative liberty is freedom from external interference–the “right to be left alone.” So understood, freedom is essentially opposite to government power: the stronger the government, the less freedom. The American Revolution was arguably a battle for negative liberty in that the colonies were seeking freedom from English domination and that the resulting government was one of sharply limited powers.

By contrast, positive liberty is having the actual capability to do something you want. Freedom in this sense is not inherently opposed to power, but in fact requires a strong government. Freeing slaves, to take the most salient example, required a dramatic increase in federal power.

McPherson contends that, after the Civil War, positive liberty became the dominant American understanding of freedom. He points out that the first ten amendments to the Constitution–the Bill of Rights–were essentially a series of “thou shalt nots” directed at the federal government intended to limit its power; but the post-Civil War amendments (the 13th, 14th, and 15th) established that the federal government did have the power to enforce the equal civil rights and freedoms of citizens. This created a much wider scope for government activity to ensure equal effective freedom.

McPherson observes that the “libertarians and southern conservatives of the 1980s and 1990s who wanted to revive the exclusively negative form of liberty that prevailed before the Civil War were right to make Lincoln a target of their intellectual artillery.”

Unlike these one-dimensional philosophers of negative liberty, however, Lincoln understood that secession and war had launched a revolution that changed America forever. Eternal vigilance against the tyrannical power of government remains the price of our negative liberties, to be sure. But it is equally true that the instruments of government power remain necessary to defend the equal justice under law of positive liberty. (p. 867)

This, of course, is also the view of American liberalism–the liberalism of F.D.R. and L.B.J. and the modern Democratic Party. When conservatives invoke freedom they usually intend to restrict it to negative liberty in McPherson’s sense (although even this commitment is often more honored in the breach than the observance). Freedom from taxes, from regulation, from restrictions on gun ownership, etc. are all framed as negative freedoms. Liberals maintain, though, that government power is necessary to ensure a degree of positive freedom sufficient for people to lead flourishing lives. This is the theoretical basis for the social welfare state and government regulations on nominally private activity, such as pollution. Lincoln may not have been a “liberal” in the modern sense, but there’s a relatively straight line from his political philosophy to New Deal-Great Society liberalism.

Disturbingly, though, the increase in positive liberty often seems to go hand-in-hand with a diminution in negative liberty. We only need to recall Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, F.D.R.’s internment camps, or Obama’s “kill list.” That’s the legitimate insight of the libertarians (and their left-wing cousins the anarchists)–that it’s hard to establish a firewall that confines government power to good purposes. So you end up with an expanded welfare state and civil liberties violations and overseas wars. That doesn’t mean that a free, peaceful, and social democratic society is impossible (the Scandinavian countries seem to pull if off fairly successfully); but it may be a risk inherent in the project.

Small government

“On all issues but one, antebellum southerners stood for state’s rights and a weak federal government. The exception was the fugitive slave law of 1850, which gave the national government more power than any other law yet passed by Congress.” — James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, p. 78