Each year around this time, through the Update, I offer ten titles - in no particular order – from the previous twelve months for your summer reading consideration, usually with an emphasis on cultural understanding. Enjoy.
The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier by Tony Jones. The “emergent church movement”: whether you love it or hate it, feel attraction or fear, consider yourself “in the know” or feel bewildered – or all of the above – this may be the definitive work to date on all things “emergent” by one of its leading voices. Jones, the national coordinator of Emergent Village and a doctoral fellow in practical theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, offers an in-depth view of this new “third way” of faith that attempts to stand between religious conservatism and religious liberalism.
The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800 by Jay Winik. As you can tell from this year’s list, I was taken by the number of excellent histories that give insight into our present day through the lens of the past. The author of April 1865, Winik’s accomplishment is his global analysis, linking a new United States, the imperial power of Russia, Islamic peoples preparing for war, and the French revolution. As Winik argues, their seemingly individual fates were actually a singular and deeply interconnected moment in time that changed the world and continues to shape the one in which we live.
The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin. Few would argue that the judicial system is one of the great epicenters of American culture. Within the judicial system, the Supreme Court is the most important legal body in our country. The Nine, referring to the Court’s nine members, explores an institution in transition as it adjusts to its new conservative majority and what it might hold for such issues as abortion, civil rights, presidential power, and church-state relations.
The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. In what the New York Times called a “morbidly fascinating non-fiction eco-thriller,” Weisman explores humanity’s impact on the planet by asking us to envision our earth without us. As the flyleaf to the book details, “Weisman explains how our massive infrastructure would collapse and finally vanish without human presence…how, just days after humans disappear, floods in New York’s subways would start eroding the city’s foundations, and how, as the world’s cities crumble, asphalt jungles would give way to real ones. It describes the distinct ways that organic and chemically treated farms would revert to wild, how billions more birds would flourish, and how cockroaches in unheated cities would perish without us.” Beyond the sheer fascination Weisman’s exploration brings, the work raises profound issues related to humanity’s relationship with creation.
A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. Emerging from the Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh, Taylor delivers an 874-page magnum opus on secularism and its meaning from a historical perspective. Central to his thesis is that secularism is not a single, continuous transformation but rather a series of departures. Further, that secularism is not marked by an absence of religion as much as the multiplication of options available which may be seized in order to make sense of our lives and give shape to our spiritual inclinations.
Unchristian by Steve Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. The findings of a study which revealed that those outside of the Christian faith think Christians no longer represent what Jesus had in mind. We’re seen as hyper-political, out of touch, pushy in our beliefs, and arrogant – and most of all, homophobic, hypocritical, and judgmental. (Disclosure: I was one of several “essay” contributors to the book, along with Chuck Colson, Andy Crouch, Louie Giglio, Dan Kimball, Brian McLaren, Chris Seay, Andy Stanley, John Stott, Jim Wallis, and Rick Warren).
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. In this remarkable and highly readable new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, who brought equal skill to their translations of Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov, one of the great works of world literature is brought to life for our day. Easily destined to become the definitive English edition.
The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross. The music critic for The New Yorker explores modern music in all its forms, from Stravinsky to the Velvet Underground, and how it illumines the world in which we live. Beginning in Vienna before the First World War, Ross’ sweeping narrative carries us to Paris in the twenties, on to Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, through to downtown New York in the sixties and seventies. As the flyleaf promises, “the end result is not so much a history of twentieth-century music as a history of the twentieth century through music.”
American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic by Joseph Ellis. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Founding Brothers and His Excellency examines the founding years of our country. Noting that both success and tragedy during the last quarter of the eighteenth century shaped our burgeoning nation, Ellis “guides us through the decisive issues of the nation’s founding, and illuminates the emerging philosophies, shifting alliances, and personal and political foibles of our now iconic leaders.” Much that shaped those early years continues to shape us – this book helps us understand how, and why.
Modernism by Peter Gay. The single best book for understanding the Enlightenment was penned by Peter Gay. It can now be said that he has written the single best book for understanding modernism. Originating in the middle of the nineteenth century, through such founding figures as Flaubert and Baudelaire, the history of modernism continued through such figures as Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Igor Stavinsky, T.S. Eliot, Frank Lloyd Wright, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles – down to our day, with the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Through its “ability to integrate the history of art and literature with the Western society it changed forever, Modernism informs our present like no other recent work of cultural history.”
James Emery White
To view last year’s list, visit:
Bonus Consideration from the Shameless Commerce Division:
Wrestling with God by James Emery White (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008). Originally published as Embracing the Mysterious God (2004 Award of Merit Winner from Christianity Today), now available in paperback (and now benefiting from the title given its release in the United Kingdom). To explore, visit: http://www.ivpress.com/cgi-ivpress/book.pl/code=3363; to order, visit http://www.amazon.com/Wrestling-God-Loving-Dont-Understand/dp/0830833633/ref=sr_1_10?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1212792749&sr=1-10.