What Are You Reading?
Prof Bob Schoone-Jongen
During the last few months I read several first rate books, history that is accurate, readable, and just plain fun. And life does not get any better than that. So for those warm days lolling about on the deck or at the beach, you can’t go wrong with any of these goodies. First, Isabel Wilkerson’s, The Warmth of Other Suns is three microhistories about three African-Americans who followed different paths out of the South right after the Second World War to spend their lives in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Then, for art lovers, there’s David MacCullough’s The Greater Journey. Here’s an account of Americans in Paris before Gene Kelly danced through the streets and George Gershwin mimicked its taxicab horns, the story of painters and sculptors from Samuel F. B. Morse (yes, the telegraph guy) to the likes of Augustus Saint Gaudens, who honed their skills in the City of Lights, before making their mark back home in the U.S. Finally, there’s nothing like the history of railroads to brighten a day. And the late Pierre Berton told an epic tale of political skullduggery, engineering marvels, and financial legerdemain that became the Canadian Pacific Railway in his two volumes, The National Dream and The Last Spike. Happy reading!
Prof Karin Maag
Long summer days seem ideally suited for longer books, ones that can’t really be fitted into the busy academic year. My most recent pick is Master and God, by Lindsey Davis. Over the course of 483 pages, readers delve into the life and times of Emperor Domitian, who ruled the Roman Empire from 81 to 96 AD, intertwined with the on-again, off-again romance between a Praetorian guard and a freedwoman who was hairdresser to the ladies of the court. Davis is best known for her long-running and witty series featuring her ancient Roman detective, Marcus Didius Falco, but Master and God and Davis’s earlier work The Course of Honor (on Emperor Vespasian) are in a different vein. Real and fictional characters are vividly portrayed, and in Master and God, we get a clear sense of the stress and tension faced by those in the emperor’s circle as it became increasingly clear that Domitian’s paranoia made him dangerously volatile. If you ever wanted to know what life in ancient Rome might have been like for its inhabitants, especially for its women, Davis is an unparalleled guide.
Prof David Diephouse
Since I very much dislike flying, I’m always on the lookout for “airplane books” to make the ordeal more endurable—preferably fiction, and preferably hefty enough that I don’t have to worry about running short. If there’s some sort of historical tie-in, all the better. So I suppose it was inevitable that I would eventually get around to Elizabeth Kostova’s bestseller from awhile back, The Historian. OK, it’s a vampire novel, which probably makes the ending slightly predictable, but the 800-plus pages it takes to get there constitute a neat metaphor for historical research, of which the author has obviously done a great deal. There’s even a nice whiff of Cold War paranoia about it all.
Speaking of Cold War paranoia, that plays a central role in another 800-page epic, Don De Lillo’s Underworld. I originally picked this one up because bits of it are set in Arizona, which was where I happened to be flying at the time, but I quickly became hooked on the cultural texture it evokes through its uncanny juxtaposition of atomic bomb tests and Bobby Thompson’s legendary 1951 “shot heard round the world” home run, not to mention J. Edgar Hoover and a nun named Sister Edgar, fine art and waste disposal, Lenny Bruce and the Cuban Missile Crisis, etc. A stylistic tour de force, though if you’re looking for a neat, straightforward plot it might not be to your taste.
Prof Jim Bratt
Since my Colonial America (HIST 251) course has been changed to “Early America” and now runs through 1815, I’m doing some reading on the very early republic. And now, just in time for the bicentennial of America’s first “forgotten war,” Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor delivers a fascinating portrait of the Great Lakes borderland between the United States and the Canadian provinces of the British Empire: The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies (Vintage, 2011). There are some guns and battles here, but blessedly not many, because most of the military action on this frontier was a fiasco, especially on the American side. Instead we get a picture of a complex world of many particular tribes—old Loyalists and “late Loyalists,” Irish immigrants, land-hungry Westerners, anti-war New Englanders, Iroquois, Ottawa, etc.—all swirling around in fear, hope, ambivalence, and confusion. They’re thrown into combat by an ill-advised but almost inevitable American declaration of war driven by ideology and national pride—but supported by laughably inadequate finances and an ill-prepared military. To me the most interesting dimension of Taylor’s story is the conflict between two notions of civil membership. Was one forever a “subject” of the monarch under whose reign one was born, or could one become a republican “citizen” by free choice—and very easy naturalization policies? A dramatic and memorable close-up of North America in the early 19th century.
Prof Kristin Du Mez
Since my historical research centers around religion, morality, and sexuality, I recently read Donna Freitas’ Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses. A few years back, Freitas conducted interviews on college campuses across the country—public universities, private colleges, Catholic colleges, and evangelical liberal arts colleges—to learn how religion factored into young people’s views on sex. Filled with personal narratives as well as statistics, the book is a compelling read—perhaps most especially for college students. What I found most intriguing was Freitas’ conclusion that although the secular “hook-up” culture and evangelical purity culture differed in dramatic ways (not surprising, I know), both cultures left young women unable to identify and resist sexual assault. To me this is something that should alarm feminists and Christians alike.
I’ve also been reading Stanley Hauerwas’ War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity, in preparation for a unit on gender and militarism that I’ll be teaching in this fall’s Gender Studies capstone course. In a series of essays, Hauerwas claims that war has become central to the American identity, but he argues that in the cross of Christ war has already been abolished, and it is up to Christ-followers to live accordingly. He then explores how Christians can do so in a world of war.
On a lighter side, I also like to use summer as a time for rest and relaxation, intellectually and spiritually as well as physically. So I’ve been working my way through Norman Wirzba’s Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight. It’s a good book that helps keep one spiritually grounded and refreshed.
Prof Dan Miller
Here are two books that I read with my former student Jordan Bruxvoort who works with the Micah Center. He is passionate about social justice and spiritual growth and the books he picks for us to read and discuss reflect those commitments. The first one has no explicit Christian focus but it presents a profound challenge to anyone who believes that God hates injustice and cares for the poor. The second one is a very clear Christian meditation on the intentions and the vagaries of the Civil Rights movement. It offers food for thought for any Christian who considers getting involved in the wider community to promote justice.
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2012). With a wealth of historical detail and sociological data, Alexander makes the case that the huge number of African American males incarcerated in the United States is the third manifestation of a system of racial control that stretches back to the 17th century. The first two systems were black slavery, which was created in the colonial era, and segregation (the “Jim Crow” of the title), which was created after the Civil War to protect the racial status quo from the threat to it posed by emancipation. The author argues that the current system is even more difficult to attack than the other two because of its purportedly “colorblind” character. It is a passionate and a well-reasoned book that will change the way you see the United States.
Charles Marsh, Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, from the Civil Rights Movement to Today (New York: Basic Books, 2005). This book is a rare combination of serious historical research and thoughtful Christian reflection. The topic is the movement for racial justice in the second half of the 20th century. Each chapter deals with a different person or movement in that struggle. Some stories are cautionary tales about original vision lost, others are powerful tales of persistence in the face of violence and misrepresentation. Throughout, it combines an appeal to work for justice and reconciliation with a reminder that all such efforts are sterile if they are not grounded in love.
Prof. Kate van Liere
The first book I read this summer was Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, a novel about a fictional military coup in modern Turkey. It presents complexities of contemporary Turkish political culture through the medium of a tragic love story. I thought this would be an enjoyable way to learn something more about the interplay between religion and secularism in an important Muslim country. To a certain extent it was; it offers a window into a range of modern Turkish identities, from Muslim fundamentalism to secular nationalism to the dilemmas of expatriates who feel torn between Western liberalism and Turkish patriotism (like Pamuk himself and his fictional narrator). But I did not love it as a novel; the plot was a bit too contrived for my taste, and I did not warm to any of the characters. So I’d give this one thumb up. If you want better recommendations for books about modern Turkey, ask Prof. Doug Howard, who knows this field a thousand times better than I do! For a change of scene after Pamuk I read The Sense of an Ending, the latest novel by Julian Barnes (an English writer whose style and subject matter are a lot like Ian McEuan). This won this year’s Booker Prize, so I had high hopes for it, but was also a bit disappointed. So I’m not recommending that anyone rush to buy either of these novels.
After these mild disappointments, I sensibly reverted to reading history and am thoroughly enjoying my current book, Mike Dash’s Batavia’s Graveyard, a popular history about the sinking of a V.O.C. (Dutch East India Company) ship off the Australian coast in 1629. This combines the gripping story of a gruesome shipwreck and its harrowing aftermath (in which starvation and natural hardships are being exacerbated by the cruelty of a psychopathic Anabaptist pharmacist-turned-colonial-entrepreneur—I’m still reading, but the prospects look grim!) with a well-told account of Dutch culture, religion, politics, and colonialism in the early modern period. Unlike the first two books, I would heartily recommend this both for its historical interest and as a highly entertaining story. It will take me inordinately long to finish, as I am reading it in Dutch translation (I got it as a present from my Dutch relatives) as a way to brush up on my Dutch while here in the Netherlands on a three-week family visit.
For more serious academic reading, I’m also in the middle of something closer to my research field: Erin Rowe’s Saint and Nation, a study of the seventeenth-century struggle between the partisans of two Catholic saints (James the Apostle and Theresa of Avila) for the role of patron saint of Spain. This bears closely on one of the themes of the research that I’ll be pursuing next year: the ways that Spanish Catholics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries used “sacred history” (the lives of saints) to define their own personal, civic, and national identities. It’s a much more academic work than Dash’s book, but also very accessibly written and full of insightful comparisons, so I would recommend it to anyone who wants to understand Spanish or Catholic culture in the Counter-Reformation period, or the ways that religious and political identity intersected in Christian cultures before the Enlightenment. For a great read on the beach, though, my strongest recommendation would be Batavia’s Graveyard.
Prof Joel Carpenter
So much of my reading is “required,” with pending deadlines, that I hesitate to put it on a "recommended” list for anyone else. Yet I have found that having deadlines and assignments helps me do some enriching reading. So I became part of a men's reading group, which gathers monthly for food, drink, and a good book to talk about. Here's what we have been reading in recent months:
G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy. Chesterton is best known perhaps for his fiction, including the Father Brown mysteries. He was a serious Christian, something of a traditionalist (but not a conservative, he said), who converted from Anglican to Roman Catholic commitments. Orthodoxy is a spirited defense of traditional Christian belief and doctrine, but it is not the typical “apologetic” work, the kind that can be rather dry and uninteresting. Chesterton writes lively, epigrammatic sentences, and Orthodoxy asserts Christianity’s joy and laughter. Chesterton contrasts Christian joy to ancient stoic resignation:
Greek heroes do not grin: but gargoyles do—because they are Christian. And when a Christian is pleased, he is (in the most exact sense) frightfully pleased; his pleasure is frightful. Christ prophesied the whole of Gothic architecture in that hour when nervous and respectable people (such people as now object to barrel organs) objected to the shouting of the gutter-snipes of Jerusalem. He said, “If these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” Under the impulse of His spirit arose like a clamorous chorus the facades of the mediaeval cathedrals, thronged with shouting faces and open mouths. The prophecy has fulfilled itself: the very stones cry out.
Shusako Endo, Silence. A novel by the celebrated Japanese author that conveys the spiritual struggles of a fugitive Portuguese missionary in 17th century Japan, when rulers sought to eradicate Christianity from their land. The protagonist is faced with the impossible dilemma of either publicly renouncing the faith, or seeing many of his parishioners die by torture before his own death. This is one of the most emotionally and spiritually wrenching books I have ever read, and our reading group was sharply divided as we debated the nature of the crisis the author posed and the decision that the missionary eventually made. Silence forced us to consider, too, the relative openness or imperviousness to the Gospel of a variety of cultures, especially as the faith has been presented by Westerners.
Graham Greene, Monsignor Quixote. Greene, the master of the spy-thriller genre, wrote this last novel in a more light-hearted spirit, tracing the travels and conversations of a small-town Spanish priest who had been accidentally elevated to the title of monsignor, and his longtime friend and debating partner, the recently deposed Communist mayor of the town. Their adventures and conversations follow somewhat the journeys of Cervantes’ famous characters across Spain, and they are funny and thought provoking at the same time, all about the path to social justice and the certitude of belief—or unbelief. (Also made into a great movie staring Alec Guinness and Leo McKern.)
Liao Yiwu, God is Red. Liao Yiwu is a celebrated Chinese journalist, poet, and social and political critic. He was jailed for four years following the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989, and he has been in trouble with the government intermittently since then. He left China in 2011. God is Red is essentially a collection of interviews which Liao gathered in Yunnan Province, southwestern China. This is an ethnically diverse region near the Burmese and Thai borders where Christianity became deeply rooted in the first half of the last century. Liao publishes the stories of Christians who were persecuted during the early years after the Chinese revolution and during the horrific years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when extremists savaged the nation. The people who emerge in these interviews are mostly ordinary folk, not necessarily religious leaders, but their faithfulness under extreme duress is exemplary. Liao admires them deeply, but remains a skeptic. His deepest desire is to see China become a free nation one day, and he praises the “spirit” of these believers as the stuff from which democracy springs. They would remind him, no doubt, that you don’t get shade without a tree.