Here are a few books I read in November.
I’m starting with some weighty reads, and what are probably the most important two books I’ve read this year.
Live Not by Lies by Rob Dreher. I loved Benedict Option. In this book he unpacks what it means to live in a world of “soft totalitarianism” as a Christian. He interviews many who survived various “hard totalitarian” regimes, like Communist Russia, and shared stories of how they survived and maintained their Christian faith. He takes special care to note the ways these survivors are alarmed by many of the similarities they see between the current cultural climate in the U.S., and some of what they experienced under Communism (for instance, afraid to talk openly about their faith or political views for fear of losing their job). Dreher is unapologetically trying to sound an alarm, so don’t be surprised by the tone. Even if he overstates the case, it is still an important book to give perspective on the current we’re all swimming in. I love that he ends the book with a practical manual on how to live in this climate, one of which is the importance of family.
The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman. I’m only 80 pages into this book, but I have already found it incredibly thought provoking. He attempts to outline how our culture came to the place it is in today where someone can utter the sentence, “I am a man trapped in a woman’s body,” and not be thought of as crazy. He contrasts this to his grandfather, whom if he had ever heard such a sentence, would have laughed it off as insane, or not even known how to acknowledge or engage with it. He dives into the philosophical underpinnings of this thought movement, citing heavyweights like Charles Taylor, Philip Rieff, Nietzsche, Freud, and many others.
WATCH: Part of the reason I enjoyed these books is because of how inspired I was watching this conversation between Tim Keller and Jonathan Haidt (Haidt’s book, The Coddling of the American Mind was one of the more important books I read last year). The conversation was about finding shared grounds for morality in a secular culture (Keller is a Christian pastor and Haidt is an atheist, though friendly toward religion). The most inspiring part of the talk was watching each of them reference author after author as the basis for various views they held. I’ve often found this inspiring and have tried to do the same—to share credit from readings to show where my ideas were sourced. However something about these talks turned a corner for me. In the past I often liked doing this (i.e. mentioning authors/books) because I liked the feeling of saying, “Look at me and what I’ve read.” But watching them I saw another side to it. Both Keller and Haidt were inferring a few things that I hadn’t. Things like this: “I’m not the only one who thinks this.” “This isn’t my original thought.” “These are well respected people that I got this idea from, so this idea has some merit even if you disagree.” “Here’s where you can read more if you find this idea intriguing.” These are not postures of pride, but each of these approaches comes from a place of love. They are showing love to their audience through their research, reading, and careful thinking. And that’s the kind of writer, thinker, teacher, and person I want to be.
The Book of Waking Up by Seth Haines. This book on addiction that’s not really about addiction was one of the more practical and useful books I’ve read this year. Every Christian should read this – you will benefit from it though it might challenge you to think more carefully about where you find your worth. I wrote a longer review here.
Free Will by Sam Harris. A friend who has struggled with addiction mentioned how important this book was for him. I read it and thought there were some helpful ideas (i.e. so much of who you are and thus how you live was shaped by factors almost entirely out of your control). Yet at the end of the day it fell short. Harris, an atheist, claims that no one really has any control over their choices and yet also maintain that the justice system still has the right to hold people accountable for their actions. He says the justice system is in place to protect people from the criminals, for the better good of society. But in his world, who determines what good is? I don’t think you can have it both ways.
The Eternal Bond by David English. In the summer of 1999 I helped staff a summer missions team in Branson Missouri where David English was in charge. His main goal was to teach the men about the importance of a Covenant group: Forming a group of 3-4 friends in your age/life-stage that you can process life with. I’ve been meeting with two guys at least once a year for the last 15 years or so, two good friends from college. But we’ve really just started to be intentional with this concept over the last few years. The book is worth reading to get your mind around the concept. I love how much he talks about it being a non-group group.
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. One of the most rewarding reading experiences I’ve ever had was the three volumes (some ~4,000 pages) of C.S. Lewis’s letters. I didn’t think anything else in life could match it, but this volume from Tolkien has been a nice follow up, especially since so much of their lives intersected. Almost the same day I read one of his letters to his son Michael about marriage, Al Mohler re-posted this article about that same letter. This is the kind of book I love to nibble on – just a few pages, maybe even just one short letter, a day. His letters seem to be slower going than Lewis, not because they are deeper but I think Lewis was just such a master at saying the profound in a succinct matter. Tolkien has a way of drawing things out and circling around them and yet still keeping you interested before he lands.
Speaking of Lewis, Walter Hooper, the man who compiled, edited, and annotated all of Lewis’s letters, died today. It really made me sad to hear of it. I’ve read so many things he had a hand in, and spent time transcribing his long interviews, that I felt like he was a bit of a friend. If not for him, we wouldn’t have a fraction of Lewis’s writings in print today of what is available. I regret that I never met the man.
Here’s an example: As I worked on compiling my notes from Volume One of C.S. Lewis’s letters, I ran across this quote on pride. Such a powerful quote that very few would have ever read without Hooper bringing it to light. It’s from a letter he wrote to his childhood friend, Arthur Greeves, on January 30th, 1930. Note that that this is less than a year before his conversion to Christianity.
“What worries me… is Pride — my besetting sin… During my afternoon ‘meditations,’ – which I at least attempt quite regularly now – I have found out ludicrous and terrible things about my own character. Sitting by, watching the rising thoughts to break their necks as they pop up, one learns to know the sort of thoughts that do come. And, will you believe it, one out of every three is a thought of self-admiration: when everything else fails, having had its neck broken, up come the thought ‘What an admirable fellow I am to have broken their necks!’ I catch myself posturing before the mirror, so to speak, all day long. I pretend I am carefully thinking out what to say to the next pupil (for his good, of course) and then suddenly realise I am really thinking how frightfully clever I’m going to be and how he will admire me. I pretend I am remembering an evening of good fellowship in a really friendly and charitable spirit – and all the time I’m really remembering how good a fellow I am and how well I talked. And then when you force yourself to stop it, you admire yourself for doing that. It’s like fighting the hydra (you remember, when you cut off one head another grew). There seems to be no end to it. Depth under depth of self-love and self admiration. Closely connected with this is the difficulty I find in making even the faintest approach to giving up my own will: which as everyone has told us is the only thing to do.”
Lastly, I was interviewed on the NobleMan podcast. Check it out here.