In my previous post, I shared part 1 of my favorite books from 2021. Except for maybe 1 or 2 exceptions, none of these books was published in 2021 — it just happened to be the year I picked them up. So, here are some more books I enjoyed last year.
Culture & Theology. The first work — The Coddling of the American Mind — is definitely about culture (rather than theology), as both of its authors (Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt) identify as atheists (or, at least, so says Wikipedia). These two contend that our culture is hurting our youth by focusing on feelings and the presumed fragility of our kids.
They cite Nassim Taleb, who describes things that are fragile (break easily), resistant (can withstand shock but aren’t made stronger, like plastic), and antifragile (things that require challenges and stressors to grow and learn). Our immune systems are anti-fragile, they say, and likewise, our bones and muscles. To this, they add: our children. They need challenges and stressors to grow. Protecting them from difficulty may seem protective and helpful, but Haidt & Lukianoff contend that it actually keeps them from growing and maturing.
I think Haidt & Lukianoff are onto something important in our current cultural climate. Read the original article that led to the book, and check out their website. It might just give you some insight into what the kids in your life need from you.
From a Christian perspective, Carl Trueman makes a similar point in his book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. Trueman meticulously & historically develops the point that we now live in the era of the “psychological person.” Previous generations defined themselves through their family, their community, their religion, even the economy in the region where they lived. Now, Trueman contends, we find ourselves primarily through self-identification and feelings. For an introduction to his ideas, give a listen to this 20-minute interview with Trueman.
Reading this book gave me a cultural and theological framework for the age we are now in — where, everywhere we look, self-definition reigns. The rapid changes we see in our culture come from these roots — and its growth shows no signs of abating. This isn’t to say that all these changes are harmful, but the Church is going to have to have a robust anthropology, and theology, to better understand how to live in an age where self-definition is sovereign.
A good conversation partner for those interested in a durable theological underpinning for self-understanding is William Webb’s Slaves, Women & Homosexuals. In it, Webb carefully examines how these 3 types of people are addressed in the Bible. Webb shows how the trajectory of Scripture is toward equality for all people, but that the moral foundations of the earliest Christians continue the traditional understanding of sexuality. Webb’s approach is detailed and can be redundant, but in an age of half-reasoned arguments and lofty pronouncements made in 280 characters, his exact and thorough approach is a welcome offering.
Ok, last category for this year’s book list: letters. In the past year, I have come to appreciate the power and insight of a well-written letter. It started with 2 books: my favorite from 2020 (by some British guy called Jack), and Shaun Usher’s eclectic Letters of Note. Usher includes letters both whimsical and wise, often including pictures of the original correspondence — making it appealing, both linguistically and visually. In this work, there’s a compelling letter to a nun from a director at NASA, defending space travel in an age of hunger; advice letters from Ronald Reagan to his son, and F. Scott Fitzgerald to his daughter; a curiously dark note from Charles Schulz about the unknown-to-me character Charlotte Braun; and a plea from Gandhi to Hitler that includes these words: “It is quite clear that you are today the one person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to the savage state.”
In 2021, I also enjoyed Good Things out of Nazareth, Benjamin Alexander’s collection of letters from and to Flannery O’Connor. Last year, I also watched a movie based on her book, Wise Blood, and read her novel, The Violent Bear It Away. No doubt about it, FOC’s fiction is tough; it’s dark, quirky, hard-to-label. While it’s not your typical Christian fiction, it definitely arises from O’Connor’s deep Catholic faith. As she is known for saying: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the blind you draw large and startling pictures. If that was true in the 1950s and 60s when she wrote, how much truer is it now?
Though O’Connor’s writing would win many awards and continues to speak today, Flannery O’Connor writes in one letter how her mother doesn’t think much of her fiction. She describes how her mom would take Flannery’s book to bed to read it in the afternoon, and within 10 minutes she would be snoring. Whatever she reads from me, Flannery writes, she always returns it, saying, “That was very interesting.”
FOC’s letters led me to the book Conversations with Flannery O’Connor, where she describes a Catholic woman she knew who married a Baptist. He went with her to mass for 12 years or so, and then officially joined the Church. Being “considerably surprised,” Flannery asked him: “Whatever got you interested?”
“Well,” he said, “the sermons were so terrible, I knew there must be something else to it to get all those people there Sunday after Sunday.” This led FOC to reflect to her intereviewer: “The Lord can use anything, but you just think He shouldn’t have to.”
This last year I also found myself reading some JRR Tolkien: a book of his letters, a biography, and an audio version of The Hobbit. (But alas, not Lord of the Rings. Maybe I’ll get back into that when I retire.) But, for those interested in Tolkien’s most famous work, his letters show the long drawn-out process he went through to get them published. Tolkien’s letters also show his understanding of the importance of right & wrong, and choosing well. As he says in a letter to his son Christopher, “You can’t fight the Enemy with his own Ring without turning into an Enemy.”
He goes further in another letter to Christopher, written near the end of WW2:
The appalling destruction and misery of this war mount hourly: destruction of what should be (indeed is) the common wealth of Europe, and the world, if mankind were not so besotted, wealth the loss of which will affect us all, victors or not. Yet people gloat to hear of the endless lines, 40 miles long, of miserable refugees, women and children pouring West, dying on the way. There seem no bowels of mercy or compassion, no imagination, left in this dark diabolic hour. By which I do not mean that it may not all, in the present situation, mainly (not solely) created by Germany, be necessary and inevitable. But why gloat! We were supposed to have reached a stage of civilization in which it might still be necessary to execute a criminal, but not to gloat, or to hang his wife and child by him while the orc-crowd hooted. …Well the first War of the Machines seems to be drawing to its final inconclusive chapter — leaving, alas, everyone the poorer, many bereaved or maimed and millions dead, and only one thing triumphant: the Machines. As the servants of the Machines are becoming a privileged class, the Machines are going to be enormously more powerful. What’s their next move?
And how about his view of Church? He advises his son Michael:
Make your communion in circumstances that affront your taste. Choose a snuffling or gabbling priest or a proud and vulgar friar; and a church full of the usual bourgeois crowd, ill-behaved children — from those who yell to those products of Catholic schools who the moment the tabernacle is opened sit back and yawn — open necked and dirty youths, women in trousers and often with hair both unkempt and uncovered. Go to Communion with them (and pray for them). It will be just the same (or better than that) as a mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people.
You might read that as a non-Catholic woman who attends church wearing trousers with your hair uncovered — and so might want to have a word or two with Tolkien. But what about his overall point? I think he’s right; there is something about committing to a church that is messy and imperfect. Is there any other kind?
And then there’s the letter where Tolkien uses the word youbody — and adds this footnote: “A nice singular which I feel hobbits must have used, with a distinctive pl(ural) ‘youbodies’.”
You gotta love a writer who footnotes his own letters — and uses it to add a new word to English! Add youbodies to the list of plurals for you that I just blogged about!
Let me close this section, this post, and my discussion about my favorite books of 2021 with an excerpt from one more Tolkien letter — this one to his son Michael on love and marriage:
The devil is endlessly ingenious, and sex is his favourite subject. <Western culture> inculcates exaggerated notions of ‘true love,’ as a fire from without, a permanent exaltation, unrelated to age, childbearing, and plain life, and unrelated to will and purpose. (One result of that is to make young folk look for a ‘love’ that will keep them always nice and warm in a cold world, without any effort of theirs; and the incurably romantic go on looking even in the squalor of the divorce courts).
In the same letter, he continues:
No man, however truly he loved his betrothed and bride as a young man, has lived faithful to her as a wife in mind and body without deliberate conscious exercise of the will, without self-denial. Too few are told that – even those brought up ‘in the Church’. Those outside seem seldom to have heard it. When the glamour wears off, or merely works a bit thin, they think they have made a mistake, and that the real soul-mate is still to find. The real soul-mate too often proves to be the next sexually attractive person that comes along. Someone whom they might indeed very profitably have married, if only –. Hence divorce, to provide the ‘if only’. And of course they are as a rule quite right: they did make a mistake. Only a very wise man at the end of his life could make a sound judgement concerning whom, amongst the total possible chances, he ought most profitably to have married! Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might have found more suitable mates. But the ‘real soul-mate’ is the one you are actually married to. You really do very little choosing: life and circumstance do most of it (though if there is a God these must be His instruments, or His appearances).
Timely & timeless wisdom from a man known for hobbits! That’s why we read, and keep reading — for who knows where we’ll find the next insight or gem?
So, who, and what, are you reading?