Category Archives: Books

Quick Links, Opening Weekend Edition

Here are some fun random links on this first day of April:

  • Is VCU’s Final Four run the least likely of all time? Let’s ask Nate Silver. Meanwhile, my bracket has actually survived assuming Kentucky doesn’t take the title.
  • Interesting review of the book Scorecasting by Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim. Seems like it tries to apply the Freakonomics approach to sports subjects. If you’re a sabermetric nerd, some of it might be old hat. But what I found interesting is that, according to the research, “home field advantage” really is nothing but refs unintentionally making more calls for the home team in an psychological attempt to be liked. Food for thought.
  • In the wake of the Congressman Gabby Giffords shooting, Richard Florida checked out the gun rights conventional wisdom that “an armed society is a polite society.” In terms of gun deaths, most certainly not. In the states with the most restrictive gun laws, he saw much fewer violent and accidental gun fatalities. In Hawaii, 2.6 per 100,000 for example; in New York 5.0 per 100,000; and in New Jersey 5.2 per 100,000. On the other hand Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alaska with their liberal gun laws saw many more deaths. Not sure what to make of D.C. in there on the high end; their gun laws were draconian until the recent Supreme Court decision.
  • The Economist defends the teaching of…. history? Wow, finally props for the liberal arts in public discourse. Someone tell Obama that it takes more than science and math nerds to Win the Future.
  • Murder in the Time of Cholera. This is really cool, and kind of creepy. From Philadelphia Magazine, a story that combines historians, anthropologists, earth scientists, a 178-year old railroad murder mystery, and… ghosts?
  • A Man’s Guide to Boots and Shoes. The first place many women look, my friends.
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Books of 2010: Second Half

I’m posting my books read list every six months these days. Rather pathetic these last six months, eh? I think I started and failed to complete more books than I actually read.

Bryson, Bill. A Walk in the Woods:Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. Writer Bryson tries to tackle the entire AT with his incredibly out-of-shape friend. Enjoyable tale spun with information about national parks, the wilderness we’re losing, and curious places in the eastern U.S. Recommended.

Spencer, Michael. Mere Churchianity. Review here.

Big Pizza and the Emerging Foodie Narrative

One of the more interesting cultural/political developments of the past decade or so is the the politicization of food consumption habits. On the one hand you have the mass of mainstream America, which has never enjoyed a more diverse assortment of culinary options. For most in the West our pantries have never been fuller and calories cheaper—an incredible blessing we’re paying for with expanded waistlines but nevertheless a net win. The emerging critics of this way of life are an odd assortment of anti-capitalists (specifically anti-Big Agriculture, anti-Big Chain Restaurant, and indirectly Big Oil), health nuts, and organic yuppie lefties, accompanied by crunchy localist “Front Porch” conservative types from the heartland.

If you’re familiar with the works of Michael Pollan (Omnivore’s Dilema) and the like, you’re already aware of the contours of the foodie critique. Big chain restaurants/supermarkets/etc. require food at such quantities and to such specializations that only Big Corporate Ag can satisfy them. They also require such low prices that traditional, local farmers can not compete at either price or quantity, driving them out of the business. Meanwhile, the number of varieties within food options has gone down (Pollan has talked about the number of chicken breeds, for example, that have disappeared in the last 100 years), all the while Big Ag requires petrol-based fertilizers to keep production up. It’s unsustainable price-wise and volume-wise, they say, so people should try other options like eating locally, and growing and cooking their own food.

The foodie narrative has become pretty well established. I ran into it during my most recent convalescence in this article on “The Dominos Effect” in Men’s Health. All the major plot points are there: the Big Pizza four (Domino’s, Pizza Hunt, Papa Johns, Little Caesars) dominate the market to a tune of $36 billion per year; “the unrelenting push for ever-cheaper pizza ingredients is hurting the planet and driving small and medium-size farms out of business;” the bio-engineering needed to create ingredients for “the perfect slice” is cutting down on plant diversity; the simple domination Big Pizza has over certain commodities in the production of its product, like the fact that 1 in 20 cows in America are simply producing mozzarella for Domino’s supplier, Leprino Foods; and the highly subjective (but in some ways, the foodie narrative’s strongest) argument that chain foods “just don’t taste as good”.

Aside from homebrewing and patronizing the local craft brew scene, and despite living next door to a Trader Joe’s, I’m not much of a foodie. I find it hard to argue against the advances in food output, pest and spoilage control, and transportation brought to us by Big Ag. Calories have simply never been cheaper. Yet there is some romantic appeal to the self-sufficient, yeoman farmer in the crunchy con critique. And the big question is, which I don’t think either side can answer at the moment, is it all sustainable?

Jesus Shaped: Michael Spencer’s Mere Churchianity

I discovered the late Michael Spencer’s blog, Internet Monk, maybe 6 or 7 years ago–ancient history in internet terms. I was initially brought in by a rant against cheesy Christian music that I completely sympathized with. In the following years I became a regular reader of Internet Monk and his Christian group blog, the Boar’s Head Tavern (BHT).

Michael’s writings were pastoral and deeply personal. His most popular (and controversial) essays were personal ruminations on what was going on in evangelical Christianity and reflections on his own struggles with things such as depression, inadequacy, weight, doubt, fear of death, and other personal issues. His personal issues tied closely to his takes on grace and faith (see, for example, the classic “When I Am Weak“). His theology it seems started as pretty standard John Piper-loving New Reformed, but evolved into a thoroughly ecumenical (post-)evangelical Christianity with a deep appreciation for Martin Luther (Michael was easily the most Lutheran Baptist ever), Episcopalian Robert Capon, and Catholic monk Thomas Merton (towards the end, his handle on BHT was TommyMertonHead). This especially after some run-ins with the internet Flying Monkeys of Reformed Orthodoxy for suggesting things like someone with Piper’s influence needs to be held accountable and for essays like “I Am Not Like You.” Michael would accuse his critics of misreading his confessional essays working through personal doubts as theological treatises, while his critics would say he took their comments too personally and defensively (which he did on occasion). The tag line from his podcast–“The internet’s longest-running theological soap opera”–was close to the truth.

But there’s little self-defensiveness in Michael’s first and only book, Mere Churchianity:Finding Your Way Back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality, which came out earlier this summer. The book takes as its starting point Michael’s 2009 article, “The Coming Evangelical Collapse,” and speaks mostly to people who have left–or are ready to leave–the church, yet still find Jesus compelling. He tries to untangle the person of Jesus Christ from the American and church cultures (churchianity) we wrap him in, obscuring the far more radical implications of His message. Those familiar with Michael’s takes on “christ-less preaching” might be familiar with the argument–that instead of Christ churches preach culture war, politics, The American Way of Life–but it’s far more unpacked here (see pages 70–73 for a fun list of the uses and abuses of Jesus’ name). Churchianity promises Christ, but delivers something far different, and eventually when people pick up on this as it fails them, they start to leave.

Sometimes the healthiest thing a person can do for their faith is leave a church, he says, especially if it preaches churchianity. Get your hands on a Bible, read a gospel, and find out for yourself who this Jesus person is. Instead of taking an authority’s word for it, read what Jesus says and try to figure out what He means. Ask questions of the text and of spiritual leaders (good churches equip disciples and form welcoming communities, he says, while bad churches preach churchianity and are closed to those who are different). Updating WWJD for the 21st century, Michael re-uses a phrase that appeared on his blog from time-to-time that can help guide the thought process: If I’d just followed Jesus in the desert for three years, what would I think about this issue? At the core of Mere Churchianity is an attempt at a deeper look at the incarnate life of Jesus, trying to get below the layers of ideology and theology.

Mere Churchianity is a pastoral and ecumenical book. Sectarians will not appreciate portions of it (I think Lutherans and Baptists will agree in disagreeing with Michael that mode of baptism is a minor issue). But it is thoroughly Christ-focused and you can feel the ministerial heart he had for those upset or disappointed with the church. Also, I do think Michael was smart enough to realize that being perfectly “Jesus-shaped” is impossible on this side of paradise, though for those of us with little inclination to leave the church the book might serve as a warning to look out for creeping nationalism, consumer culture, and so on in our own faith communities.

You don’t need to have been a reader of Michael’s blog to appreciate Mere Churchianity; he re-introduces the concepts enough that you won’t get lost. But for those of us who did read iMonk–myself especially, facing the same disease that took Michael’s life in April 2010 after just four months–it’s a sweet nostalgia trip that occasionally brings tears to the eyes. The closing paragraphs especially got me:

As I have come to discover that Jesus’ Kingdom is a far more diverse and interesting movement than I realized when I was growing up in a narrow fundamentalism, I’ve come to understand that what Jesus is doing in the world is exactly what his parables described: the smallest of seeds growing into a great tree.

Many of us will meet one another on this journey. We may share the same story or the same pain, or we may be so different that we keep looking, again and again, to recognize the family resemblance. It is my hope that the time we have spent together will encourage you to keep pursuing Jesus, no matter where you are in your journey. Don’t neglect the search for authentic, Jesus-shaped spirituality.

And finally, when we come home, we will find that Jesus has made us like himself, and yet, amazingly, we will have remained in every way ourselves.

I hope that means he still has the Kentucky accent in Heaven.

Books of 2010: First Half

I’m posting my books read lists every six months these days. Since January 1, 2010:

Blaylock, Russell. Natural Strategies for Cancer Patients. Talks about how diet can cause cancer and how it can also be used to treat cancer, or at least assist a traditional course of treatment. Big on supplements and a near vegetarian diet. Generally accessible, though a few more charts and lists of recommendations would have been appreciated. You basically have to comb through the chapters to create your own plan of attack.

Crawford, Matthew. Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. A political philosophy PhD quits a cushy think tank job to start a custom motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, VA. Make the case for working with your hands as a true source of knowledge, versus people becoming “knowledge workers” that actually do very little thinking. It’s part defense of the skilled trades, part indictment of the modern credentializing system we jokingly call “education,” and part Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Does your work actually add value or just shuffle paper around? This book will make you want to quit your job and strike out on your own.

Dunham, Craig and Doug Severn. Twentysomeone: Finding Yourself in a Decade of Transition. Decent book, though I am 32 right now so some of the stuff seemed pretty basic. Loved the “100 Things to Do” and the suggested reading lists in the back though. I actually added a few of their recommended books to my own list.

Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. Challenging apologetic for Lewis’s brand of Christianity. Its reputation as a classic is well deserved.

McKay, Brett and Kate. The Art of Manliness. Clever little based on the very popular blog. Good discussions about Ben Franklin’s virtues, a solid recommended reading list, and overall decent reference book.

Miller, Donald. A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life. My new favorite Don Miller book, and that says a lot. Miller made a name for himself about 6-7 years ago with his memoir Blue Like Jazz, which gained a large following in the under-35, Christian but bored with evangelicalism, politically liberal crowd. Miller’s subsequent books were less successful (though I happened to regard his Searching for God Knows What as his best work), and having achieved a life goal of being a New York Times best selling author, Miller went into a deep funk. He was snapped out of it when two indie filmmakers contacted him about making Jazz into a movie. What Miller learned about good screenwriting and creating a character for film he channels into life lessons, with great results for his own life and hopefully the readers too. Like most of Miller’s work it’s engaging, funny, and tear-jerking as well. And if you read closely, he’s structured the book like a screenplay, with three acts, inciting incidents, and positive and negative turns. Clever devil. Highly recommended.

Not New Year’s Resolutions, New Year’s Stories

Related to my last post, see also these two blog posts from Don Miller on creating a story for oneself, rather than just a list of New Years Resolutions bound to fail.

I See What You Did There: Don Miller’s Latest Book

Donald Miller is one of my favorite authors (and bloggers). His latest, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life, is my new favorite of his, and that says a lot. Miller made a name for himself about 6-7 years ago with his memoir Blue Like Jazz, which gained a large following in the under-35, Christian but bored with evangelicalism, politically liberal crowd. Miller’s books are typically written in a rambling, confessional essay-type style, and populated with his strange collection of Christian and bohemian friends from Portland (“Keep Portland Weird” as the city’s merchants tell us). Through his deeply personal writing, Miller has always had the ability to bring his readers to emotional highs as well as deep depressing depths.

Miller’s books subsequent to Blue like Jazz were less successful (though I happened to regard his Searching for God Knows What as his best work), and having achieved a life goal of being a New York Times best selling author in his early 30s, Miller went into a deep funk. Feeling directionless in career and a failure in relationships, he was stuck. He was snapped out of it when two indie filmmakers contacted him about making Jazz into a movie. Skeptical at first, Miller said yes, and what he discovered while putting the film together was that the movie “Don” was a far more interesting character than the real thing. Wanting to know why this was so, he dove into learning screenwriting and character development, even taking the infamous Robert Mckee writers seminar (as seen in the movie Adaptation). What Don learned about good screenwriting and creating a character for film he channels into life lessons, with great results for his own life and hopefully for the readers too. Incited by his film writing experience, he seeks out the father who left his family 30 years prior, inspired by a young woman he wants to impress, he gets himself in good enough shape to hike the Inca Trail, and finally, in the hopes of creating an epic story, he founds a church-based mentoring program for other fatherless boys, and bikes across the U.S. to raise money for freshwater wells in Africa (I remember this and actually donated money at the time).

Like most of Miller’s works, A Million Miles is engaging, funny, and tear-jerking as well. Don, his Portland friends, filmmakers Steve and Ben, and master storyteller Bob Goff will have you laughing at their bizarre antics. Don may be able to draw some tears when he writes about losing his uncle, who served as a father-figure for troubled youth, and about the man losing his wife to cancer. If you’re a writer, you’ll pick up some good tips about creating characters and a compelling narrative. And if you read closely, you’ll see Don has actually structured the book like a screenplay, with three acts, inciting incidents, and positive and negative turns. Clever devil, I see what you did there! (Note also what Don says about the ancient playwrights on comedy vs tragedy and then read the chapter on his uncle’s death again–I see what you did there!). This was a great book to start off the new year. Highly recommended.