A Year in Review | Reading and Listening

by Glenn on December 31, 2019

This was a good year for reading. I had two things going for me. First, for a good part of the year I had work that included a lot of driving, and I chose to listen to books, as opposed to podcasts, sermons, music, or NPR which are my normal go-to in the car. Second, when I became the pastor at Aims Community Church in June, I realized my schedule had to include some disciplined reading time. For most of my life, reading has been a marginal activity, something you do when there’s nothing else that has to be done. It was the thing that you did if there was nothing else interrupting you. Now I realize it is the activity that should not be interrupted.

I have never had an opportunity like this one, where at least a portion of my working day has to be devoted to reading or else my work suffers. One of the questions for next year is how to be more serious about reading, both the quality of my reading as well as what I am take from the experience. What exactly are you to take from books? How is what you find in the book supposed to be incorporated into your life? With some books, there isn’t really anything you are trying to add into your life. The experience of reading is all. But there are books that are worth thinking about. And there are books where the ideas talked about are actually useful in life. And there are books that teach you things worth remembering. How do you make all that happen? That seems to be the trick.

For now, I simply rejoice that I had a pretty good year reading. And thinking about the books I’ve read allows me to reflect on the year past. What follows is a lightly annotated reading list from 2019.

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1 | Siler, Julia Flynn. Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012.

We were fortunate enough to be able to spend some time in Hawai‘i at the end of 2018 because air miles and a time share meant the cost was not prohibitive. This was the last of a series of books I read about Hawai‘i before, during, and after that trip. It’s a complicated history to tell but I think it boils down to this:

1. A group of South Pacific people discovered and settled in what we now know as the islands of Hawai‘i. (James Michener’s novel, Hawai‘i, remains my favorite book on the subject—perhaps one of my favorite books of all time—and tells well the story of how this might have happened.)

2. The islands were discovered (again) by the world traveler, Captain Cook, in 1778, and the islands soon became a destination for all sorts of people, including whalers and missionaries and sandalwood purchasers.

3. The islanders were vulnerable to disease and power plays and for the next 100 years or so they struggled for survival and self-government as a growing population of people who were late to the island insinuated themselves into the hierarchical structure of the islanders and as world governments recognized the value of the islands in terms of projections of power around the Pacific.

4. The history of Hawai‘i since its re-discovery is intertwined in the history of The United States, which annexed Hawai‘i in 1898. Hawai‘i became a state in 1959.

That is the story. Not everyone is happy with that story. The challenge seems to be How do you go back? Assuming we can agree on the wrongs, How do you make things right? It’s not easy.

2 | Allen, David. Making It All Work: Winning at the Game of Work and the Business of Life. New York: Viking, 2008. [AUDIO]

David Allen is the gold standard for personal organization. He gets some criticism because his methodology is known as “Getting Things Done” (GTD) and some thoughtful and well-meaning people immediately see a problem: “You don’t need to get things done, you need to get the right things done.” Ahh. True enough. But I don’t think David Allen has ever said anything to contradict that. I certainly don’t hear him advocating thoughtless action. I think the fairest criticism is to say that in his earlier books, Allen focused on a bottom-up approach. What do you have to do? Let’s get it done. Sometimes you need to deal with urgent things so you can get to other things. You need to deal with the things that are on your mind. His set of best practices simply recognizes that there are things of all levels of import that need to be done and if you can get them done in under two minutes, do them immediately. Everything else should be tracked in a five-step system that captures, clarifies, organizes, reflects, and engages. He has never said everything must be done. Some things are delegated. Other things are discarded. Other things are put on hold in a Someday/Maybe file.

This latest book comes from more of a top-down perspective. Perhaps it is a response to criticism. Allen recognizes that we need two things as people: control and perspective. If you don’t have both, you will be in trouble—either out-of-control or focused on the wrong or unimportant things. You need to get organized and you need clarity about what you’re doing. I suppose you can also go too far in either direction—so over-organized that you’ve lost perspective, or so high in perspective but forgotten to keep track of the things that need doing. And so this book is Allen’s approach to bringing control and perspective to work and life. Allen recognizes that work has become more complicated. There was a time when work was about making widgets. Today, we are often trying to figure out exactly what our work is. I have both read and listened to this book and assume I will do one or the other again as the New Year begins.

3 | Allen, David. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. New York: Penguin Books, 2001, 2015.

This is the book that began it all. I’ve spent enough time with this material where you’d think I would be better at it. The thing I appreciate about Allen is that he is teaching a set of best practices, not selling a product. I remember years ago a few of us from the university where I was teaching attended a “First Things First” workshop based on the third habit of Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. We were issued a planner, which I couldn’t make work for me. We were also told to evaluate all of our tasks and think in terms of a matrix of four quadrants: 1. The urgent and important; 2. The important but not urgent; 3. The urgent but not important; and 4. The neither urgent nor important.

We were to place all our to-do’s within these quadrants and work on Quadrants 1 and 2 as much as possible. As I recall, there was a lot of writing and re-writing each day. The one thing I really liked about that calendar is that it approached work on a week-by-week basis. I think that’s helpful.

Allen has a different thought about calendars/planners. He says there are only three things that go on a calendar: 1. Date-specific information; 2. Date-specific tasks; and 3. Time-specific tasks. The calendar is not a wish list. It’s the hard data of what must be done or attended to, which means you don’t have to to re-write things every day. All of your other to-do’s are written on context lists—calls, errands, email, etc., which come from a list of projects you keep. Anyway, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is a great book for people who have their lives together. It’s how life should be lived. Allen’s materials are for people whose lives are not together, although he maintains that his process often provides the most significant help to the lives of people who are already productive.

I’ve written to Mr. Allen twice to thank him for two of his books. Both times he sent back a hand-written letter.

4 | Wiesel, Elie. Night: A New Translation by Marion Wiesel. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972, 1985, 2006.

5 | Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning: Revised and Updated. New York: Washington Square Press, 1959, 1962, 1984.

I re-read these two books about the Holocaust prior to a trip to the Holy Land we took early in the year. They are short books, making them quite accessible. But they are highly concentrated and difficult emotionally. My take is that they each, respectively, answer a question, How bad can things get? and What do you do when things get bad? Wiesel’s answer to the first question culminates in one scene, when he describes the execution of three Jews, one of whom was a young child who I think had stolen some bread or something. Wiesel writes,

One day, as we returned from work, we saw three gallows . . . erected on the Appelplatz. Roll call. The SS surrounding us, machine guns aimed at us: the usual ritual.  Three prisoners in chains – and, among them [a child].

The SS seemed more preoccupied, more worried, than usual.  To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter.  The head of the camp read the verdict.  All eyes were on the child.  He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadow of the gallows. … The three condemned prisoners together stepped onto the chairs.  In unison, the nooses were placed around their necks.

“Long live liberty!” shouted the two men.

But the boy was silent.

“Where is merciful God, where is He?” someone behind me was asking.

At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over.

Total silence in the camp.  On the horizon, the sun was setting.

“Caps off!” screamed the [head prisoner].  His voice quivered.  As for the rest of us, we were weeping.

“Cover your heads!”

Then came the march past the victims.  The two men were no longer alive.  …  But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing … And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes.  And we were forced to look at him at close range.  He was still alive when I passed him.  His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished. Behind me, I heard the same man asking:

“For God’s sake, where is God?”

And from within me, I heard a voice answer:

“Where is He?  This is where – hanging here from this gallows…”

“For God’s sake, where is God?” That’s about right. So is the hanging, which is the central claim of Christianity.

Frankl tackles the question of how you respond when things go bad. His answer is inspiring:

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. … We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct.”

I also attended to two histories of Israel. I listened to:

6 | Gordis, Daniel. Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2016.

And I read:

7 | Shavit, Ari. My Promised Land: The Triump and Tragedy of Israel. New York: Spiegel & Gray, 2013.

These were a great counterpoint. Gordis writes what I take to be an honest and unapologetic history. From my perspective it was objective, although if you are of the belief that Israel should not even exist, then I’m sure it would come across as propaganda. It is the story of the creation of modern Israel from a Jewish perspective. Some things I never understood before. The Israelis nearly had a civil war at the outset. But they were united in their need for self-protection. There was and is nowhere else to go. They live with their backs against the wall—the Mediterranean Sea, which we might think of metaphorically as extinction. Their history has included the absorption of large waves of immigration, including ethnic and religious Jews from Russia and Ethiopia.

In contrast, Shavit’s book has angst. He is a Jew, but is conflicted about how his nation has treated and is treating Arabs and Palestinians. He writes of some uncomfortable experiences in the Israeli Army and the difficulties of trying to be progressive member of what necessarily must be a self-protective society. If Hawai‘i’s history is complicated, the history of Israel is on another level. Nuclear weapons are involved. My sense is that World War 2 made modern Israel possible. With the fresh memory of the Holocaust, the United Nations voted to create two states. The problems were there from the beginning. The Jewish people had an identity and were given a place. Arabs and Palestinians were a people of a place, but not necessarily a unified identity. They were against Israel, but not necessarily with and for each other. When they were displaced, there was no desire to start fresh somewhere else. They wanted the land that they had lost. And so the problem from the beginning continues today.

8 | Haidt, Jonathan. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books, 2006. [AUDIO]

I need to actually read this book. I listened to it. And it’s clear that some books are better for the car than others. I would say memoirs and novels are better for the road. There was too much of value in here and no easy way to “underline” what I was hearing as I was driving around.

9 | Koukl, Gregory. The Story of Reality: How the World Began, How it Ends, and Everything Important that Happens in Between. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2017. [AUDIO]

This is one of a handful of books this year that I cannot recommend, even though I found it on a recommended reading list at Christianity Today. The title of this book is funny considering it’s a short book. The danger of an author reading their own book is evidenced here. We think of a writer as having a voice. But this writer’s voice on paper is inaudible because it is drowned out by the voice of the author who is a radio announcer. I found it a tough listen. I might have enjoyed it more had I read it. I also was disappointed that this begins as a story but, as I recall, becomes more ideological in nature toward the end. I remember a kind of shift in the writing from telling a story to trying to indoctrinate.

10 | Graham, Lauren. Talking as Fast As I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls (and Everything in Between). New York: Ballantine Books, 2016, 2017. [AUDIO]

11 | Graham, Lauren. Someday, Someday, Maybe. New York: Ballantine Books Trade Paperbacks, 2013. [AUDIO]

This year we watched The Gilmore Girls for the first time. Lauren Graham is very funny there because she manages to pull off physical comedy, which places her in the company of female actors like Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett who were able to do this so well. Hard to know if I enjoyed these books on their own merit or because I like Lauren Graham and always found her entertaining when she appeared on the Craig Ferguson show.

The novel, Someday, Someday, Maybe is sweet. The only criticism is that the experience of the protagonist is not normative of actors. I like happy endings, so I was fine. But most people who pursue acting don’t actually become successful actors.

The best thing in the memoir was advice on the writing process offered to Graham from a friend. The essence of it is to reward the actual behavior of writing rather than the product of writing. Schedule time for writing and don’t let anything get in the way. That is the rule. It’s a good one.

12 | Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. New York: Harper San Francisco, 1998. [AUDIO]

I listened to this and now it’s time to go back with a physical book and figure out how to absorb it into my life.

13  | Perino, Dana. And the Good News Is … Lessons and Advice from the Bright Side. Hachette Audio, 2015.

I didn’t know much about Dana Perino except that she had a difficult job—the public face of an unpopular administration. One of the things in this memoir is the delightful story of how she met her husband. My take from this book is that there isn’t a prescription for success. You need preparation, but there isn’t a right way (e.g. a right school) to become prepared.

14 | Friedman, Richard Elliott. The Exodus: How it Happened and Why it Matters. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2017.

What do you do when a modern scholar says things that interfere with your understanding of the world? I don’t know. That’s what this book does. There was a time when I would have avoided a book like this. Something like “Ignorance is bliss.” Friedman is a serious scholar, but I’m still not sure what to do with the ideas in this book.

15 | Martin, James, SJ. Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship With Jesus. New York HarperCollins Publishers, 2016.

16 | Hayford, Jack. Hope for a Hopeless Day: Encouragement and Inspiration When You Need It Most. Bloomington, Minnesota: Chosen Books, 2001, 2007. (Originally published as How to Live Through a Bay Day, Thomas Nelson)

17 | Hauerwas, Stanley. Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2005.

18 | Pink, Arthur. The Seven Sayings of a Saviour on the Cross. (Arthur Pink Collection Book 49). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2005.

19 | Laurie, Greg. Finding Hope in the Last Words of Jesus. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2009.

20 | Hamilton, Adam. Final Words from the Cross. Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2011.

21 | Rutledge, Fleming. The Seven Last Words from the Cross. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman ublishing Company, 2005.

22 | Brueggemann, Walter. Into Your Hand: Comforting Good Friday. Eugene Oregon: Cascade Books, 2004.

23 | Sheen, Fulton J. The Seven Last Words. Imprimatur (Patrick Cardinal Hayes, Archbishop, New York, April 2, 1933).

For Lent this year, I preached a series of messages on the Seven Last Words of Jesus from the Cross. I used the above as sources. None of these books were particularly long. Some of the comprised a series of Good Friday messages. Others, like Jack Hayford and Adam Hamilton, came from a sermon series that I imagine led up to Easter.

24 | Newport, Cal. Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2019.

There is sort of this expectation that if you are alive then you must be involved in social media. If you own a business, you more or less need to be on Google and Facebook and Yelp and Instagram and Twitter and …. As an individual, I find myself much happier being without social media. The journey started last year when I read Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. His idea is that it’s hurting you. Cal Newport encourages an engagement with the work you want to do and all the ways that social media will interfere with that. His life is a testament to what can be accomplished because he is not on social media (what some might say is in spite of not being on social media).

25 | Shaffer, Mary Ann & Annie Barrows. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. New York: Dial Press Trade Paperbacks, 2019

This is also a movie, which I was attracted to because a number of cast members from Downton Abbey were in it. I think I watched the movie first, which I never recommend because the movie is never as good as the book. But in this case, both are delightful experiences. I’m beginning to think that shorter books, like this one, are better for the screen because they don’t have to eliminate so much. Pictures can paint words, but it’s not that easy. I never knew there was an island of Guernsey or that it was occupied during World War 2.

26 | Gardner, Erle Stanley. The Case of the Black-Eyed Blonde: A Perry Mason Mystery. New York: Ballantine Books, 1944.

27 | Gardner, Erlse Stanley. The Case of the Golddigger’s Purse: A Perry Mason Mystery. New York: Ballantine Books, 1945.

I don’t seem to have the mind for mysteries, but I am committed to reading the entire series. My goal is two-three per year. I have about 55 to go and am assuming a long-enough life to get through them all. It’s fascinating how life goes on while the War is raging in Europe and the Pacific. I like idea of Perry Mason. A lawyer who will do whatever it takes to make sure the innocent have an advocate. It always looks bad for Mason’s clients, but in the end they are proven innocent. I think Gardner’s idea of Perry Mason is better than the actual books. I remember one simile from a number of books ago. Something like “Della Street looking as fresh as a chilled lettuce leaf …”

28 | Wills, Garry. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America. New York: Touchtone, 1992. [AUDIO]

Wills is a great historian. This is a fantastic book. I listened to it, but have a hard copy in case I want to go back to it. The myth of this speech is that Lincoln scribbled it out on the train ride to Gettysburg. The truth is that Lincoln was a really smart man who prepared for opportunities to push his agenda. One of the things that happens in this speech is that he refers to “this nation.” A major change happened during the Civil War. People began saying “The United States is …” as opposed to “The United States are …” The idea of a singular country rather than a collection of states comes from Lincoln.

29 | Robert Alter. The Art of Bible Translation. Princeton: Princetone University Press, 2019. I’ve now read three books on Bible translation. One was by a Jewish girl (Aviya Kushner, The Grammar of God: A Journey Into the Words and Worlds of the Bible, New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015) whose point was that you can’t really understand the Bible in English. She was, of course, speaking of the Hebrew Scriptures, what Christians often call the Old Testament. Her book is a celebration of Jewish life and the questioning that goes on around the dinner table and in Hebrew schools. Understanding the language is essential to understanding the scriptures. That was one extreme. Another book was by Sarah Ruden (The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible, New York: Pantheon Books, 2017) who is more blithe about the prospects of bringing ancient words into modern languages.

If those two books represent a kind of spectrum, I see Robert Alter’s book somewhere in the middle. Translating the Bible is a difficult job. It means there may be some compromises in terms of bringing forward all the nuance of the original language. But, ultimately, you can know what the words mean. The dilemma of course is how do you bring forward to this day what the words meant then. He seems both intrigued by but, ultimately, dismissive of what, say, Eugene Peterson did in The Message—to have the words mean something to our time and ignore the era in which they were written. This is a book I will revisit.

30 | Shaara, Michael. The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War. New York: Ballantine Books Trade Paperbacks, 1974, 2002.

31 | Keegan, John. The American Civil War. [AUDIO]

We traveled to Washington, D.C. in May for work and decided to stay an extra two nights so that we could take a day-long tour of the historic Gettysburg battlefield. This book was my preparation for that tour. You certainly understand Little Round Top better from Little Round Top. What you don’t understand is the kind of loyalty and discipline evidenced by thousands of people who marched into almost certain injury or death. How did they deal with the heat? It was merely warm the day we were there and it was unpleasant. This was the battle where everything changed for the North as Robert E. Lee’s troops took a major hit. Gettysburg is a tiny town and it’s hard to imagine the effect of tens of thousands of soldiers descending on it. Michaela Shaara’s book is simply excellent.

John Keegan’s book gives the bigger picture. It’s hard to imagine the death toll as old tactics encountered modern weapons.

32 | Noll, Mark. The Civil War as Theological Crisis. University of North Carolina Press, 2010. [AUDIO]

This may have been the most troubling book I read this year. In essence, Noll says that the people who took the Bible literally were in favor of slavery. After all, the Bible talks about slavery and the apostle Paul even tells a slave to go back to his master. And so the people who took a step back to say that slavery was evil and that the teaching of the Bible actually couldn’t let us abide by it weren’t taking it literally.

This book was troubling because there are issues today where Christians are quite divided. I see the Bible as quite literally against certain things in our culture. How do we know when to take the Bible literally? When do we step back to embrace a larger truth? It’s my sense that the vast majority of Christians, today, would say that slavery was wrong. Will there be issues in fifteen, fifty, or a hundred years, where the consensus of most Christians will be different from my views today? This was a terrific and troubling book. So much to continue thinking about.

33 | Sasaki, Fumio, translated by Eriko Sugita. Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017, 2015.

Sasaki downsized
Possible to live simpler
I must own less stuff

34 | Noll, Mark. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. [AUDIO]

35 | Schaeffer, Francis A. The Great Evangelical Disaster. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1984, 1995.

36 | Wells, David F. No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? [AUDIO]

37 | Price, Robert M. Beyond Born Again: Toward Evangelical Maturity. [AUDIO]

Historically, the idea of evangelical has been defined by four things: 1. The Bible is important; 2. the cross is central; 3. you must be converted; and 4. the gospel must be expressed in action. The idea of being evangelical is that you are a thoughtful Christian. My sense is that evangelical means you go beyond being merely ideological, as in “Here are the things we believe. Now, believe them.” You try to make sense of the times in which you live and order thoughtfully the way you live in those times.

Of course, there are problems once everyone starts thinking for themselves. When you try to get everyone to agree on things, then everyone wants to hedge. Take scripture, for example. Is it the inerrant word of God or the inspired word of God or something else? Do we take every word literally and if we don’t, what does it mean that the Bible is important? Where is authority in the Christian world? There is a lot to think about.

Noll is now a favorite author, but I should have read this one.

Francis Schaeffer’s book is pretty pessimistic and I’m not sure what to do about it.

David Wells, in my estimation, tries to do too much, but perhaps it would have been better had I not listened to it. It’s a sweeping book and I don’t feel I have a solid enough grasp on, say, post-modernism for him to move through it so quickly.

It was hard to appreciate Robert Price’s book. There is a rather sarcastic tone that makes the reference to maturity in the title rather ironical. He is advocating for an evolution of thought for evangelicals, but it feels like there is a point at which once you abandon the truth and authority of scripture then we’re into the realm of relativity where you can dismiss him because of his own arguments. His truth is no more important than anyone else’s truth. Why should I listen to him? Especially when he sounds rather smug and self-satisfied. Is he a pioneer or someone who has slipped away? It feels like he is a drum major without a band behind him.

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There’s a lot to think through about being evangelical. For one, I need to understand the history of the evangelical movement better. Two, how do evangelicals do politics? For example are evangelicals Republicans? With the current administration in mind, do you vote to re-elect President Trump because you are happy with some of his actions, or do you dismiss him because of his character. I don’t think evangelicals are completely together on this. It will be interesting to see who becomes his opponent in the general election next fall. If it’s someone extreme, I can see President Trump being re-elected. If it’s someone in the middle who is thoughtful and appears to have good character, I can see evangelicals being split.

In a recent podcast, Dr. Jordan B. Peterson said this about the 2016 election:

“One of the fundamental faults of Hillary Clinton was that everything she did was crafted for a particular outcome. She wanted to be President. What do you do if you want to be President? You say everything you should say if you want to be President. But then what you say can’t be trusted because it isn’t a representation of the world. It’s a tool to obtain something from the world. It’s manipulative. And you might say it’s necessary if you want to be President. Well, first of all I don’t think this is really necessary. Second, it’s not obvious that if you become President under those circumstances that there’s anything left of you by the time you become President.  … not trying to contrast her brutally with Trump. My sense with Trump was that people preferred the unscripted and impulsive lies of Donald Trump to the scripted and careful formulated lies of Clinton.”

As evangelicals, what is our relationship to the truth? If a truthful opponent of Mr. Trump steps forward, what will they do?

38 | Smith, Sally Bedell. Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2012.

This is the second book about the Queen I have attended to. I think I decided to read this after watching the first two seasons of The Crown. Previously, I listened to Robert Hardman’s Queen Elizabeth II and Her Court.  Here’s what’s challenging about both books: You don’t come away understanding the person of Elizabeth Windsor (previously Saxe-Coburg and Gotha) any better. It’s okay to have an affinity for your subject. I think that only makes sense. But the tone of these books borders on reverence. But it’s a reverence for a role not a person. I would say that Hardman’s book is a little braver in talking about the challenges the Queen has faced, how she has responded to them, and how her role has evolved, particularly in terms of how much financial support she receives from the government and how she is or is not taxed.

In literature, we get to know a character by what they say, what others say about them, and what they do. We learn not to trust the first thing so much. And here, the Queen doesn’t actually say anything. When she speaks, it is the voice of the government, not her as a person. We never know what she thinks about anything, truly. We do get an assortment of statements of people saying things about the Queen. But boy are these statements cautious. So then, we have what the Queen does. And the Queen doesn’t really do anything. Well, the Queen likes her horses. The Queen embodies the State. To criticize the Queen is like criticizing Mary to a Catholic. So this is a frustrating book on the one hand. On the other hand, she came to power right before I was born and so it’s interesting to reflect on the history of my life through the events of her reign.

One thing that comes through clearly in both books is the advantage of the separation of the Queen in her role as head of State from being the head of the government, which is taken by the Prime Minister. This means that whatever is happening in the politics, you can still be loyal to the Queen, if you’re not a republican. She is above the politics. It seems rather tricky when perhaps the Queen doesn’t like the policies of her government. But that’s the role. Practically, though, it means it’s always an honor to meet the Queen. You can speak reverentially of the Queen.

The problem here in The United States is that the President is both the Head of State and Head of the Government. With most presidents, it seems they try to govern in such a way that they can be appealing in the former role even if you disagree with them in the latter role. I might not have liked the politics of President Obama, but it would have been an honor to meet President Obama. With President Trump—that still feels weird to write that three years after his election—he governs so chaotically that it is no wonder that people have a hard time seeing him as the Head of State, evidenced by the statement “Not my President,” which is problematic because whoever is the President is your President. But you can understand people not wanting to go to the White House to meet the President because it is this President.

39 | Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

I’ve read this before. Still good. Neil Postman’s books were prescient and I’m planning to revisit them as we now live with his predictions.

40 | Sleeth, Matthew, MD. Reforesting Faith: What Trees Teach Us About the Nature of God and His Love for Us. New York: Waterbrook, 2019.

This book was a gift from someone who is a lover of trees. It’s an effort to trace trees through the Bible. One of the challenges for Christians is that the Bible teaches about “a new heaven and a new earth,” which means, then, that there is a question of what we do with this earth. Matthew Sleeth teaches a respect for the earth that isn’t alarmist but simply Biblical.

41 | Eco, Umberto, translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon. Chronicles of a Liquid Society. Boston and New York: Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016, 2017, 2018.

This book is a collection of his blog entries. I need to go back through the many things I highlighted. This man is a genius. I remember his The Name of the Rose, which I discovered because of the movie. The book was incredible; the film was appealing largely because it was sensual.

42 | Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2007. (Originally published in 1908.)

Apologetics is a challenge because you are addressing the critics and arguments of your age. What worked then may not work today. This was my second time through this book. It’s a difficult read for me because he is addressing critics of his time who I don’t know and making arguments that I’m not sure I totally follow or which work today.

43 | Larson, Erik. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. Random House Audio, 2011, 2013. [AUDIO]

Great book to listen to in the car, although I got a kind of tension from the reader that the actual story doesn’t carry. What you get from this book is a sense of how complicated the political structure in Germany was at the time. It was a slow movement until there was a tipping point. The central questions were How do you conduct yourself as an ambassador? and How does your daughter live her life? in a difficult time. It’s a great story because there is all sorts of complexity and we don’t know how it’s all going to end. It’s hard to characterize. I suppose it’s tragic.

44 | Wolf, Maryanne. Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2018.

Yes, reading on screens is different from reading books. Read books.

45 | Epstein, David. Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. New York: Riverhead Books, 2019.

The central metaphor of this book is Tiger vs. Roger. Tiger Woods was raised from the earliest age to be what he is—among the greatest golfers ever. Roger Federer’s mom was a tennis instructor, but he was all over the place until he was an adult. He is one of the greatest tennis players ever. The argument of this book is that the 10,000-hour rule is not everything.

46 | Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. Boston and New York: Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1937, 1951, 1966, 1978, 1995.

I wrote extensively on this book this year.

47 | Hitchens, Christopher. Arguably: Essays. Hachette Audio.

48 | Noonan, Peggy. The Time of Our Lives. Hachette Audio.

I listened to these books back to back. They are an interesting counterpoint because in my estimation, both Christopher Hitchens and Peggy Noonan are great writers even though what they are doing is wildly different.

As an avowed atheist, Hitchens is a critic of Christianity. But his harshest critiques of religion he saves for those whose religious impulses lead them to kill unbelievers. Specifically, he challenges Islam in this way. Hitchens is so broad and so deep as a writer. He is beyond impressive with the scope and depth of what he writes about. My favorite essay of his was about the final book in the Harry Potter series. He acknowledged that his daughter loved the books but he had an interesting criticism: there are Christian impulses in the books, but no actually overt Christianity. A grave site that reads, “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death,” stumps Harry and Hermione who have no reference for it as coming from the Bible.

Peggy Noonan is unapologetically Christian and American. She writes music for the ear. Her essays amount to songs about faith in God and love for America. She has a point of view: Reagan, good; Clinton, bad. But she is not afraid of challenging Republicans when they miss the mark. Her range is smaller than Hitchens, but it is such a pleasure to read Peggy Noonan (or in this case listen to her). The events of 9/11 dominate this book.

49 | Ward, Mark. Authorized: The Use & Misuse of the King James Bible. Bellingham, Washington: Lexham Press, 2018.

I didn’t know that “King James Only” was a thing until this year. This was the first book I read on the subject. I wrote about it here.

50 | Lightfoot, Neil R. How We Got the Bible: Third Edition, Revised and Expanded. New York: MJF Books, 1963, 1988, 2003.

When I began some preliminary investigations into translations of the Bible (here, here, and here) and came across the King James controversy, I decided that I needed to understand better the origin of the Bible. This is an excellent primer. It’s not long and is very accessible—clearly there’s scholarship, but it’s not a treatise. The book is well-organized and each chapter has a summary at the end, which is very helpful. I plan to do more thinking and writing about the Bible in translation in the coming year

51 | Levitin, Daniel J. The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in an Age of Information Overload. New York: Plume, 2014.

I need to go back and take some notes and incorporate some habits based on this book.

52 | Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas: A Cultural History of America’s Most Cherished Holiday. New York: Vintage Books, Random House, Inc., 1996.

I recently preached a sermon on the myths of Christmas and this book was invaluable. One of the criticisms that Christians receive goes something like this: “Oh, you Christians, you just made up Christmas. You took a pagan celebration and tried to Christianize it.” The only response to that is: “You’re right. We did do that.”

What we learn in this book is that “[I]n the fourth century … the Church officially decided to observe Christmas on December 25.” There was a pagan celebration that morphed into a Christian holy-day. “Holy-day” is where we get our modern word holiday, which were once called “red-letter” days. You still see calendars where certain days are marked in red. There has always been a tension between the idea of a holiday— a “holy day”—and people who lived in an unholy manner.

Christmas was as much a season as a day and it was an excuse for some people to cut loose. If you’ve ever been to an office Christmas party in December, you know what I’m talking about. The placing of Christmas late in December was a kind of compromise. By choosing December 25, it meant the Christmas holiday might be celebrated the way the pagan celebration was always celebrated. For this reason, many Christians chose (and choose) not to celebrate Christmas, for example, the Pilgrims, who said, “We can’t “Christianize” this day, so let’s not celebrate it.” Ergo no Christmas. A year after the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock some of the residents tried to take Christmas off. The governor, William Bradford, made them go back to work. He was the original “Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” In 1659 celebrating Christmas became a criminal offense. “It was actually illegal to celebrate Christmas in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681 (the fine was five shillings).” Years later, a minister named Ezra Stiles [1727–1795] wrote this one Christmas day:

“This day the nativity of our blessed Savior is celebrated through three quarters of Christendom …; but the true day is unknown. On any day I can readily join with my fellow Christians in giving thanks to God for his unspeakable gift, and rejoice with them in the birth of a Savior. Tho’ [i.e., if] it had been the will of Christ that the anniversary of his birth should have been celebrated, he would at least let us have known the day.. …”

We have a romanticized view of Christmas. We also have this idea that Christmas has always been a certain way and that modern forces are at war with Christmas. The truth is there has been no one way to celebrate Christmas. And there are practice of Christmas in the past—misrule and wassailing, for example—that would be troubling, today. The trappings of Christmas—lights, bells, wreaths, the Christmas tree, the holly and the ivy—all have pagan roots. You can Christianize them, but you can’t really find these things in the Christmas story. These are traditions. I’m actually fine with the traditions. I think it’s helpful to understand what is tradition and what is essence.

The discussion of Santa Claus, who was created in the early 1800’s was really good. This was an academic book. I tried to read it years ago, but it required having to read it to get me through.

53 | Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. [Audio.]

I’ve heard Malcolm Gladwell speak on several occasions. I’m embarrassed that I have just started to read his books which are as good as they are unassuming. He tells a story but you can’t predict where the story is going to go. Yes, there are outliers in the world. 10,000 hours doesn’t hurt. But there are other factors, like the family in which you grew up and the year you were born. So there is an element of luck or fortune or whatever you want to call it. The road map to success isn’t guaranteed. Education is everything, though. I loved his statement about the most satisfying work. It provides autonomy, complexity, and rewards based on effort. I am grateful that I have a good mix of all three these days.

54 | Newport, Cal. How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.

As I contemplate some seminary courses in the New Year, I thought I should think about how to be a good student. This will be invaluable. I knew some of this in college, but an improved use of a calendar would have been really helpful.

 

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