“…we need painters and novelists and dancers…”

We don’t just need teachers and preachers and scholars and “doctors” of the church to tell us what do do; if the gospel is going to capture imaginations and sanctify perceptions we need painters and novelists and dancers and songwriters and sculptors and poets and designers whose creative work shows the world otherwise, enabling us to imagine differently- and hence perceive differently and so act differently.

-James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom (2013).

On The Night Stand

The Unnecessary PastorEach month I drive south and west to meet with a few other pastors from my denomination.  After some brief pleasantries we turn to the book we’re reading through together.  On Wednesday we’ll begin talking about The Unnecessary Pastor by Marva Dawn and Eugene Peterson.  You already know of my abiding appreciation for Peterson- I’ve mentioned him and his many books on this blog too many times to count.  Dawn is an author I’ve meant to get to ever since gradate school, when I had the chance to meet her at a conference.  I’ve just read the introduction and the first chapter and it is, of course, excellent.

Last weekend we went camping with some friends at Starved Rock State Park (a beautiful spot if you’re in Chicagoland).  On Sunday morning – Father’s Day – Maggie “made” me sit by the campfire while she made a delicious breakfast.  I sat and finished Alister McGrath’s excellent biography about C.S. Lewis before picking up God, Christ and Us by the Catholic preacher, Herbert McCabe.  As sometimes happens, I stumbled onto McCabe through a review in Books and Culture where he was quoted approvingly by Eugene McCarraher

And They All Sang

I continue to slowly make my way through Augustine’s Confessions. I’ve found F.J. Sheed’s translation to be lyrical and very readable.  In conversation with Augustine on my actual nightstand is Studs Terkel’s And They All Sang. (I imagine Studs winking at Augustine as he says, “Lighten up!”)  This may be my submission for the perfect bedside book.  I can leave it alone for weeks and then dip back into one of Studs’enthralling interviews with some interesting musician or singer from a bygone era; last night it was Dizzy Gillespie reminiscing on jazz and the rhythms of latin music.  Wonderful stuff.

Having anticipated it for a few months, I’m now reading James K. A. Smith’s Imagining the Kingdom with three church friends.  We’ve traded some emails as we read and will find time to discuss Smith’s perspective on worship, cultural anthropology, liturgy over dessert later this summer.  Smith’s first book in this series, Desiring the Kingdom, was incredibly helpful to me and this one looks to be equally a gift to the church.

Finally, I just received in the mail Educating all God’s Children: What Christians Can – and Should – Do to Improve Public Education for Low-Income Kids. I’ll be reviewing this for Englewood Review of Books and am hopeful that it will add to my own education on a topic that is incredibly relevant to our neighborhood and church.

So that’s what’s on my night stand.  How about you?  Read anything lately that you’d recommend?

My 5 Favorite Books of 2012

During the year I collect a list of the books I read and then, in a completely unscientific process, choose the five I most highly recommend to you.  This year I read 27 books – a pittance compared to some of your lists, but still enough to make choosing five a small challenge.  Previous years’ lists can be found here: 2007200820092010, and 2011.  What about you?  What books did you read in 2012 that you can recommend to us?

The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson (2011).

The Warmth of Other SunsI don’t read enough fiction – and this book is historical non-fiction – but the The Warmth of Other Suns was the narrative I most enjoyed this year.  Wilkerson is masterful at taking the bits of history to tell a story that is so important to the demographic and cultural texture of America today.  Important, yes- but the history told in these pages is regularly overlooked.  By showcasing three individuals who made the trip north or west from the Jim Crow South, Wilkerson brings into focus the massive migration of African Americans that has shaped the country we know today.  Our church is situated in a neighborhood with deep ties to the stories in this book so I found it especially interesting. (One of the three characters the author follows is Ida Mae Brandon Gladney who moves from Mississippi to the South Side of Chicago.)  Ultimately though, The Warmth of Other Suns is an American story, one told exceedingly well by Wilkerson.

The Meaning of the City, Jaques Ellul (1970).

Jacques Ellul The Meaning of the CityJacques Ellul has been a footnote author for me over the past decade: an author who is regularly cited in appreciated books. Regularly enough that at some point the footnote must be traced back to the original source.  Ellul was a French sociologist, philosopher, and professor of law who is known for his writings on technology, among many other topics.  He was also a Christian whose theological work – in my cursory observation – is either seen as increasingly relevant in our technological age or anachronistic.  I lean toward the former.  In this book Ellul gives us his Biblical reading of the city: its origins, symbolism, role in redemptive history, and location for Christian witness today.  Some see Ellul as a pessimist whose view of the city leaves no room for positive change or reform.  I suppose there is some truth to this but I read him differently.  The vision found in The Meaning of the City is one that allows Christians to bear witness to Christ regardless of perceived reform.  For the growing number of young, Evangelical-ish Christians who see the city as the place to change the world (for God), Ellul provides a necessary corrective.  We witness to Christ in the city because of God’s love for the city and we continue to do so whether or not things turn out as we hope because, ultimately, we are simply called to bear witness.  The One with the power to change operates outside our time and plans and one day His heavenly city will replace all that continues to plague the residents of earthly cities.

Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith (2009).

Desiring the KingdomI recommended this book more than any other this year.  Desiring the Kingdom is the first book of a planned three-part series and the second book is the only book I’ve ever pre-ordered.  James K. A. Smith is a professor of philosophy and theology at Calvin College and, as the book reveals, an astute observer of American cultural practices and artifacts.  The book opens with a description of a typical American mall from the perspective of an alien who believes this massive edifice and those coming and going from its doors must form some sort of religious center.  Smith shows how humans are primarily desiring beings.  We do what we love rather than what we think or even believe.  Others have made this point and Smith’s important contribution is in showing how these desires are formed within us.  Liturgy is an important concept in this formation and the author shows the cultural liturgies that compete with those observed by congregations.  These are liturgies with radically different ends, liturgies that aim to form distinct desires among their practitioners.  For a long time I’ve thought about the occasional dissonance between a congregation’s spoken theology and the accepted practices (liturgies) that hinder the implementation of this theology and Smith has given me additional tools to think carefully about this unfortunate tendency.  There are questions I have after reading this book – Is a congregation’s liturgy limited to a worship service? – that I hope Smith will address in the next two books.  But those questions are mostly evidence of just how convincing I find Smith’s thesis and how helpful.

Life Itself, Roger Ebert (2011).

Life ItselfI read a few different memoirs this year and Roger Ebert’s was by far the most enjoyable.  I remember watching Siskel and Ebert’s movie reviews during high school- I didn’t watch very many movie’s then but was still fascinated by these two witty critics who made a living… watching movies?  (Check out this great oral history  about that unlikely show.)  In more recent years I’ve begun to appreciate the world of film more and Ebert has been one of the writers who has pointed me to the many great options beyond the megaplex.  Life Itself is worth reading for so many reasons: Ebert’s descriptions of journalism in a bygone era; his reflections on religion as an atheist married to a Christian woman he adores; the many, many stories of the women and men who make movies, each told without a trace of the cynicism or celebrity worship we’ve come to expect from such stories.  But what makes this book truly fantastic – why I’ll read it again – is Ebert’s writing.  These pages contain more than interesting remembrances of a more than interesting life.  It’s the words and sentences Ebert selects and crafts that make this book  a page-turner even to those who care little for the films with which the author will forever be identified.

The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander (2010).

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of ColorblindnessI said more about this book on the blog than any other this year. My friend Richard and I blogged our way through the book and it was gratifying to hear of others who were reading along.  Briefly, author Michelle Alexander makes evident the hard-to-grasp and harder-to-believe systems, policies, and narratives that have led to the mass incarceration (and huge racial disparities) that has become common in America.  The statistics Alexander provides will make you angry- and that’s the point to some extent.  The America beloved by so many and the one experienced by those portrayed in The New Jim Crow are two different Americas.  What will it take for those who’ve been privileged to know the supposed best of this country to see through that privilege to the appalling injustice on the other side?  Alexander’s book has been that catalyst for many already and, I hope, for many more.

Drones & Cultural Formation

RAZ: Talk about the consequences of the end of a peacetime American president.

ZENKO: Well, you see it in many areas. I mean, you see it in the media this unquestioning recognition that military solutions are sufficient means for U.S. conduct of foreign policy.

RAZ: We’re enablers, essentially.

ZENKO: We’re – I mean, the media is totally enablers, as is the general public. I mean, there are 10 movies currently in production or in theaters about the Navy SEALs. Nothing is more impressive and responsive than U.S. military capabilities – drones, Navy SEALs, cyberoperations. And so when we acknowledge their impressiveness and this sort of gee-whiz factor specifically of drones, you know, people are willing to let this happen.

And I would just say that before 9/11, the U.S. did not do targeted killings, and, in fact, they opposed other countries who did them. And if you would have told people on September 12, 2001 that the U.S. would have conducted 400 targeted killings outside of the battlefield settings, killing something like 3,000-plus people, they would have never believed you. And there seems to be no public debate about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.

-Guy Raz interview with Micah Zenko, fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The increased and largely unquestioned use of drones has been one of the most disappointing aspects of the first Obama administration.  There is a lot that could be said about this but it’s Zenko’s point about the media’s role in this destructive technology’s wide acceptance that is especially important.  He points out the important and subtle role Hollywood plays in moving an entire culture from opposing targeted killing to accepting it as normal and impressive technologically.  The administration has had to little convincing about drones because Hollywood has already done this far more affectively than any politician ever could.

In Desiring the Kingdom James K. A. Smith refers to this sort of thing as cultural formation and he, like Zenko, calls out the way media voluntarily inculcates certain nationalistic values among its viewers.  As a result, we Christians “can find ourselves unwittingly becoming disciples of Americanism.”  Could this be why so few Christians on either end of the political spectrum raised targeted killings by drones during the presidential campaign?

(Header photo credit: U.S. Pacific Fleet on Flickr (cc).)