Favorite books of 2014

I should say, books I read in 2014. Most of these weren’t published this year.

Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, H. W. Brands

A compelling and readable (indeed, almost novelistic) account of the life and times of our 32nd president. Brands doesn’t gloss over his flaws, but I came away even more impressed with FDR’s political genius and his sincere desire to make the United States a better, fairer country.

Doctor Who: Harvest of Time, Alastair Reynolds

A lovingly crafted story of the third Doctor and his arch-nemesis (and here temporary ally) the Master. Reynolds is a popular “hard” sci-fi writer, and he brings some of that ethos into this story, while remaining faithful to this particular era of Doctor Who (which also happens to be one of my favorites).

Tokens of Trust, Rowan Williams

This was a re-read, and I’m still convinced this is one of the best contemporary introductions to the Christian faith. Organizing the book around the theme of the “trustworthiness” of God beautifully illuminates how the various parts of the creed hang together.

The Magicians trilogy (The Magicians, The Magician King, The Magician’s Land), Lev Grossman

Grossman’s trilogy is a sort of mash-up of the Harry Potter and Narnia books filtered through the sensibility of a Brooklyn literary hipster. Which sounds kind of insufferable, come to think of it. But, despite the at-times aching self-awareness, Grossman manages to tell an original story about friendship and growing up infused with a genuine sense of wonder.

Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, Abraham Joshua Heschel

Heschel–refugee from European Naziism, mystic, rabbi, theologian, friend and comrade of both Martin Luther King and Reinhold Niebuhr–is a near-legendary figure. So I’m somewhat ashamed to admit this is the first time I read him. Even more, I’m sorry I waited so long. Heschel’s writing sits somewhere between poetic allusiveness and philosophical argument, but radiating at the core of this book is the insight that wonder–or what Heschel calls “radical amazement”–at the sheer contingency of being is our deepest clue to the existence of the transcendent–and to a worthwhile human life. I’m currently reading the companion volume, God in Search of Man, where Heschel lays out his vision more explicitly as a “philosophy of Judaism,” and am enjoying it even more. He is easily the religious writer I’ve been most excited to discover in years.

1812: The War That Forged a Nation, Walter R. Borneman

It seems inappropriate to call a book about a war “fun,” but Borneman’s history of the War of 1812 (meant for the general reader) is definitely written with a light touch. Borneman focuses mainly on the theaters of war (the Western frontier, the Great Lakes, the Eastern seaboard, and the Gulf Coast), and I for one would’ve liked to see a little more attention to the social and political context. But he brings to life the admirals and generals on both sides who executed the war, and deftly shows how the conflict helped put the “United” in “United States.” I knew very little about the particulars of the war going in, but after reading this, my appetite to learn more has been sufficiently whetted.

Heschel’s trilemma

Reading 20th-century Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel’s important work God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism recently, I was struck by this passage:

There are only three ways of judging the prophets: they told the truth, deliberately invented a tale, or were victims of an illusion. In other words, revelation is either a fact, or the product of insanity, self-delusion, or a pedagogical invention, the product of a mental confusion, of wishful thinking, or a subconscious activity. (p. 223)

This reminded me immediately of C. S. Lewis’s famous “trilemma” from Mere Christianity. Speaking of the claims the Jesus of the gospels makes for his own authority, Lewis writes that a man who did such things

would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. (p. 56)

What Lewis was criticizing was the view that Jesus of Nazareth was simply a “great moral teacher,” rather than God Incarnate. The claims Jesus makes for himself, Lewis argues, simply don’t allow us to place him in that category. His claims (e.g., the right to forgive sins) are much more radical than that.

Somewhat similarly, Heschel argues that we aren’t really in a position to evaluate the prophets’ putative revelation by our own canons of rationality. He writes that “[i]n calling upon the prophets to stand before the bar of our critical judgment, we are like dwarfs undertaking to measure the height of giants” (p. 222). Prophets like Moses, Amos, or Isaiah weren’t offering moral wisdom for our dispassionate consideration; they were propounding a radical demand for holiness and justice that, they claimed, came from God himself.

In both cases, we’re faced with a potentially life-changing challenge. Lewis and Heschel both want to bring us face-to-face with the unvarnished claim of God’s revelation. Categorizing Jesus or the prophets are purveyors of a vague and genial moral wisdom that we might choose to incorporate into our existing mental framework allows us to keep them at arm’s length. By denying this alternative and posing the remaining ones so starkly, both Lewis and Heschel are prodding us to decide whether we will accept their claims on us.

(Oh, and yes, it looks like I’m blogging again, at least for the moment.)

Overdue blog retirement party

I’ve been blogging for over ten years(!), but it’s become apparent to me–and quite likely to you, dear readers–that this blog has been running on fumes for quite some time. The truth is, at this point in my life I have neither the time nor much of an inclination to update this blog on a regular basis. I’m happy with a lot of what I’ve published here, but I increasingly don’t have much new to say on most of the topics I generally cover.

I’ve had some very enjoyable and intellectually stimulating interactions with commenters and other bloggers over the years, but for better or worse the free-wheeling atmosphere of the early blogosophere seems to have largely dissipated. The various blogging communities I’ve been a part of have drifted apart, as people moved on to other projects or just stopped blogging altogether. Anyway, these communities seem to happen more on Twitter or other platforms nowadays, and I’ll still be actively tweeting for the foreseeable future.

There’s a good chance I’ll find myself with the itch to blog again at some point, but if I do, I’ll probably do it somewhere else and with a different focus. In the meantime, thanks to everyone who has read or commented over the years. I’m both honored and humbled to think that people have found it worth their time to read this blog.

“Get down, you damn fool!”

When Confederate General Jubal Early drove a small Union army out of the Shenandoah Valley in the summer of 1864, crossed the Potomac, and threatened Washington itself before being driven off, Lincoln went personally to Fort Stevens, part of the Washington defenses, to observe the fighting. It was on this occasion that a Union officer standing a few feet from Lincoln was hit by a Confederate bullet and that another officer–none other than Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.–noting without recognizing out of the corner of his eye this tall civilian standing on the parapet in the line of fire, said urgently: “Get down, you damn fool, before you get shot!” A chastened president got down.

–James McPherson, “Lincoln and the Strategy of Unconditional Surrender,” from Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, pp. 67-8

Cosmic piety

There’s a lot going on in Douglas Ottati’s Theology for Liberal Protestants–much more than I’m going to be able to cover in a blog post (or several). But as I’m nearing the end of the book, I think what will stick with me most is Ottati’s insistence on a cosmic theocentric piety.*

What does this mean? Mainly it’s about adjusting our theology and piety to the size and scope of the universe as modern science has revealed it. Christians often pay lip service to this, have we really adjusted our worldview accordingly? Many of us still think of humanity as the crowning achievement of creation, if not indeed the very reason for the creation of the entire cosmos. And we think of God’s activity as centered on the human race.

But this just isn’t realistic given what we know about the universe and our place in it. The universe is billions of years old and contains probably hundreds of billions of galaxies, themselves containing countless trillions of stars (the Milky Way alone contains something on the order of 400 billion stars) and, potentially, life-bearing planets. Add to this the fact that in all likelihood the human race will go extinct (quite possibly as the result of a self-inflicted wound) long before the universe itself winds down into a heat death or some other unimaginable final state. Taking these facts into account, it’s very heard to see humanity as particularly important to the cosmic drama. As Ottati puts it:

If all the cosmos is a stage, then it is far too vast and complex for us to plausibly consider it the stage for human history alone. Indeed, given the vast expanse of the cosmos, the staggering cosmic time frames, the astounding number of stars, planets, and meteors, the gases, chemicals, ice, and dust scattered through space, and so forth, perhaps the appropriate analogy is not a single stage but a world with many different venues, theaters, stages, and shows in many regions, cities, hamlets, and towns. (p. 227)

For Ottati, God is both the ground of the universe’s existence and the source of the processes that give it structure and coherence. And within this cosmos, humanity may be one of many “players,” and not a particularly central one. What we should hope for, he says, is a “good run”–we have our “place and time” to live out as participants in a vast, complex, cosmic ecology.

This prompts the shift from an anthropocentric to a theocentric perspective. If humans are displaced from the center of the cosmic drama, the cosmic ecology as a whole can nonetheless be seen as having value for God and as being a product of the divine creativity. This doesn’t mean that human beings don’t have a special value, but it’s as “good creatures with distinctive capacities,” not the “fulcrum . . .  of all creation.” The proper religious response to this is to understand ourselves as participants in the cosmic ecology and ultimately as dependent on God as its mysterious ground and source. As Ottati summarizes it, the “chief end and vocation of human life” is “to participate in true communion with God in community with others” (p. 306).

The second, yet-to-be-published volume of Ottati’s theology will cover the traditional topics of sin, redemption, and eschatology. I’m intrigued to see how he reconciles these more down-to-earth (so to speak) topics with the wider, cosmic perspective he develops here.
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*By “piety” Ottati means a pattern of sensibility or a general orientation toward God, self, and world.

Augustinian, Protestant . . . and Liberal?

I like that Presbyterian theologian Douglas Ottati is willing to go to bat for the much-maligned tradition of liberal Protestantism in his recent book (which I’ve just started reading). Liberal Protestantism is pretty unfashionable in theological circles these days. From what I can tell, it’s much cooler to be “post-liberal,” “post-conservative,” “postmodern,” “Barthian,” “Radical Orthodox,” or even just “progressive.”

But Ottati thinks that liberal Protestantism–while probably never destined to be a majority view within Christianity–provides a vital minority position that’s still worth defending. He says that liberal Protestants often know what they stand for in social and ethical debates, but that they currently lack solid theological underpinnings. That’s what he’s trying to provide in this book.

Ottati points out that there’s no such thing as a “generic” liberal theology: it has to be rooted in a specific tradition. He describes the tradition he’s working in as “Augustinian-Protestant-liberal.” It’s Augustinian in emphasizing the priority of grace and the profundity of human sin; Protestant in denying the infallibility of church or tradition; and liberal in making engagement with contemporary modes of thought and social reform central.

I’m only about 50 pages into the book, but I’ve found it really engaging so far. (It helps that Ottati is a wonderfully clear writer.) I’ve long resisted identifying as a liberal Protestant, but if I’m being honest, it’s probably the tradition within Christianity that I stand closest to.

UPDATE: I originally wrote that Ottati characterizes his theology as “Augustinian, Reformed, and Liberal.” It should be “Protestant,” not “Reformed.” I’ve corrected the post.