A Reading Guide for 2013

In the Andersonian fashion of asking questions, I submit that one of our urgent questions is this: What are the possibilities of the vita contemplativa in the late modern world? In Human, All Too Human, Friedrich Nietzsche lamented, “Because there is no time for thinking, and no rest in thinking, we no longer weigh divergent views; we are content to hate them. With the tremendous acceleration of life, we grow accustomed to using our mind and eye for seeing and judging incompletely or incorrectly, and all men are like travelers who get to a land and its people from the train.” What a sharp observation! We moderns view life from a train window – blurred. Nietzsche continues:

The farther West one goes, the greater modern agitation becomes; so that to Americans the inhabitants of Europe appear on the whole to be peace-loving, contented beings, while in fact they too fly about pell-mell, like bees and wasps. This agitation is becoming so great that the higher culture can no longer allow its fruits to ripen; it is as if the seasons were following too quickly on one another. From lack of rest, our civilization is ending in a new barbarism. Never have the active, which is to say the restless, people been prized more. Therefore, one of the necessary correctives that must be applied to the character of humanity is a massive strengthening of the contemplative element. And every individual who is calm and steady in his heart and head, already has the right to believe that he possesses not only a good temperament, but also a generally useful virtue, and that in preserving this virtue, he is even fulfilling a higher duty.

How, then, can we moderns, in our train-zooming and bee-buzzing world, undergo that “massive strengthening of the contemplative element”? In my own life, I try to slow the acceleration through five practices: lectio divina, liturgy, cooking, walking, and reading.

For this post I will focus on reading. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then after years of rapturous listening to Ken Myers, host of Mars Hill Audio, I’ve developed his gift of bibliography. Other than John Wilson, editor of Books & Culture, I’m not aware of any contemporary Christian who has a more refined taste in books than Myers, who consistently brings forth treasures from his deep-sea diving in the sea of published works. Permit me to be a bibliographic fascist of sorts, dictating what new and forthcoming titles sound promising from various publishers.

My favorite American academic publishers are the trinity of Ivy League schools: Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

From Harvard: Literary critic David Mikics demonstrated his virtues as a slow reader in The Art of the Sonnet, so I am excited to read Slow Reading in a Hurried Age (October 2013). As an instructor of literature, I goad my students to control their “ecosystem of interruption technologies” in order to develop the habits of deep attention, otherwise the reading of Great Expectations or Crime and Punishment is nearly impossible. Mikics shows “exactly how the tried-and-true methods of slow reading can provide a more immersive, fulfilling experience. He begins with fourteen preliminary rules for slow reading and shows us how to apply them. The rules are followed by excursions into key genres, including short stories, novels, poems, plays, and essays.”

If we follow Nietzsche’s exhortation to “weigh divergent views,” then every Christian should engage the secular humanism of philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum. In Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (October 2013), she asks this big question: “How can we achieve and sustain a ‘decent’ liberal society, one that aspires to justice and equal opportunity for all and inspires individuals to sacrifice for the common good? In this book, a continuation of her explorations of emotions and the nature of social justice, Martha Nussbaum makes the case for love. Amid the fears, resentments, and competitive concerns that are endemic even to good societies, public emotions rooted in love—in intense attachments to things outside our control—can foster commitment to shared goals and keep at bay the forces of disgust and envy.”

Another divergent view that should be weighed is Albert Camus, the most honest atheist that I’ve encountered. Robert Zaretsky’s A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (November 2013) sounds promising: “In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Albert Camus declared that a writer’s duty is twofold: ‘the refusal to lie about what one knows and the resistance against oppression.’ These twin obsessions help explain something of Camus’ remarkable character, which is the overarching subject of this sympathetic and lively book. Through an exploration of themes that preoccupied Camus—absurdity, silence, revolt, fidelity, and moderation—Robert Zaretsky portrays a moralist who refused to be fooled by the nobler names we assign to our actions, and who pushed himself, and those about him, to challenge the status quo.”

When I was on a Ralph Waldo Emerson binge during graduate school, I read Lawrence Buell’s biography Emerson, and found a brilliant interpreter of the man and his ideas. I will definitely be reading Buell’s newest book, The Dream of the Great American Novel (February 2014). “The dream of the G.A.N., as Henry James nicknamed it, crystallized soon after the Civil War. In fresh, in-depth readings of selected contenders from the 1850s onward in conversation with hundreds of other novels, Buell delineates four “scripts” for G.A.N. candidates. One, illustrated by The Scarlet Letter, is the adaptation of the novel’s story-line by later writers, often in ways that are contrary to the original author’s own design. Other aspirants, including The Great Gatsby and Invisible Man, engage the American Dream of remarkable transformation from humble origins. A third script, seen in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Beloved, is the family saga that grapples with racial and other social divisions. Finally,mega-novels from Moby Dick to Gravity’s Rainbow feature assemblages of characters who dramatize in microcosm the promise and pitfalls of democracy.”

Reformed theologian Peter Leithart gave me the courage to shout “Real Men Read Austen,” which is the title of his first chapter in Miniatures and Morals: The Christian Novels of Jane Austen. All Austenites should fill their libraries with the beautiful annotated editions of her novels published by Harvard University Press. Patricia Meyer Spacks, author of Rereading, edits Sense and Sensibility (October 2013), one of my favorite novels in Austen’s corpus because it finesses a via media between Enlightenment rationalism and Romantic emotivism.

From Yale: Historian D. G. Hart became a “go to” voice for me after reading A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State and From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism, which I reviewed for Books & Culture. His latest book, Calvinism: A History (July 2013), will brighten the Reformation heritage after some recent books – Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation – have darkened it. “This briskly told history of Reformed Protestantism takes these churches through their entire 500-year history—from sixteenth-century Zurich and Geneva to modern locations as far flung as Seoul and São Paulo. D. G. Hart explores specifically the social and political developments that enabled Calvinism to establish a global presence. Hart’s approach features significant episodes in the institutional history of Calvinism that are responsible for its contemporary profile. . . . Raising important questions about secularization, religious freedom, privatization of faith, and the place of religion in public life, this book will appeal not only to readers with interests in the history of religion but also in the role of religion in political and social life today.”

Biblical scholar Gary A. Anderson, author of the acclaimed Sin: A History, will be releasing another book published by Yale, Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition (August 2013). “In this significant reappraisal of charity in the biblical tradition, Gary Anderson argues that the poor constituted the privileged place where Jews and Christians met God. Though concerns for social justice were not unknown to early Jews and Christians, the poor achieved the importance they did primarily because they were thought to be ‘living altars,’ a place to make a sacrifice, a loan to God that he, as the ultimate guarantor, could be trusted to repay in turn. Contrary to the assertions of Reformation and modern critiques, belief in a heavenly treasury was not just about self-interest. Sifting through biblical and postbiblical texts, Anderson shows how charity affirms the goodness of the created order; the world was created through charity and therefore rewards it.”

While I cannot imagine a superior book to Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, which I dared to critique for The City, anything from the writing desk of Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart should be regarded as “an intellectual event.” His forthcoming title is The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (September 2013). “Ranging broadly across Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism, Hart explores how these great intellectual traditions treat humanity’s knowledge of the divine mysteries. Constructing his argument around three principal metaphysical ‘moments’—being, consciousness, and bliss—the author demonstrates an essential continuity between our fundamental experience of reality and the ultimate reality to which that experience inevitably points.”

Terry Eagleton is my favorite contemporary literary critic, and I’m currently savoring his latest book, How to Read Literature (May 2013), which combines is usual erudition and entertainment. “In a series of brilliant analyses, Eagleton shows how to read with due attention to tone, rhythm, texture, syntax, allusion, ambiguity, and other formal aspects of literary works. He also examines broader questions of character, plot, narrative, the creative imagination, the meaning of fictionality, and the tension between what works of literature say and what they show. Unfailingly authoritative and cheerfully opinionated, the author provides useful commentaries on classicism, Romanticism, modernism, and postmodernism along with spellbinding insights into a huge range of authors, from Shakespeare and J. K. Rowling to Jane Austen and Samuel Beckett.”

John Sutherland is another literary critic to highlight. Following on the coattails of his popular book Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives, Sutherland’s A Little History of Literature (October 2013) sounds ambitiously fun. “This ‘little history’ takes on a very big subject: the glorious span of literature from Greek myth to graphic novels, from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Harry Potter. John Sutherland is perfectly suited to the task. He has researched, taught, and written on virtually every area of literature, and his infectious passion for books and reading has defined his own life. Now he guides young readers and the grown-ups in their lives on an entertaining journey ‘through the wardrobe’ to a greater awareness of how literature from across the world can transport us and help us to make sense of what it means to be human. Sutherland introduces great classics in his own irresistible way, enlivening his offerings with humor as well as learning: Beowulf, Shakespeare, Don Quixote, the Romantics, Dickens, Moby Dick, The Waste Land, Woolf, 1984, and dozens of others. He adds to these a less-expected, personal selection of authors and works, including literature usually considered well below ‘serious attention’—from the rude jests of Anglo-Saxon runes to The Da Vinci Code. With masterful digressions into various themes—censorship, narrative tricks, self-publishing, taste, creativity, and madness—Sutherland demonstrates the full depth and intrigue of reading. For younger readers, he offers a proper introduction to literature, promising to interest as much as instruct. For more experienced readers, he promises just the same.”

Until Wesley Hill, author of Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality, releases his theology of friendship, you can ruminate on the subject with A. C. Grayling’s Friendship (October 2013). “What is the nature of friendship, and what is its significance in our lives? How has friendship changed since the ancient Greeks began to analyze it, and how has modern technology altered its very definition? In this fascinating exploration of friendship through the ages, one of the most thought-provoking philosophers of our time tracks historical ideas of friendship, gathers a diversity of friendship stories from the annals of myth and literature, and provides unexpected insights into our friends, ourselves, and the role of friendships in an ethical life. A. C. Grayling roves the rich traditions of friendship in literature, culture, art, and philosophy, bringing into his discussion familiar pairs as well as unfamiliar—Achilles and Patroclus, David and Jonathan, Coleridge and Wordsworth, Huck Finn and Jim. Grayling lays out major philosophical interpretations of friendship, then offers his own take, drawing on personal experiences and an acute awareness of vast cultural shifts that have occurred. With penetrating insight he addresses internet-based friendship, contemporary mixed gender friendships, how friendships may supersede family relationships, one’s duty within friendship, the idea of friendship to humanity, and many other topics of universal interest.”

Finally, as a teacher of George Herbert’s poetry, I’ll put this book on my nightstand: Before the Door of God: An Anthology of Devotional Poetry (October 2013). “Featuring the work of poets over a three-thousand-year period, Before the Door of God places the devotional lyric in its cultural, historical, and aesthetic contexts. The volume traces the various influences on this tradition and identifies features that persist in devotional lyric poetry across centuries, cultures, and stylistic differences. To scholars, literary professionals, and general readers who find delight in fine poetry, this anthology offers much to contemplate and discuss.”

From Princeton: No Christian voice resonates more deeply with me than Soren Kierkegaard, who is celebrating his 200th birthday this year. In commemoration of that date, I’ll be attending the Baylor Symposium on Faith and Culture, “Kierkegaard: A Christian Thinker for Our Time?” (October 31-November 2). Princeton publishes the most authoritative English translations of Kierkegaard’s corpus. Not surprisingly, then, they’ll be delivering a unique title, The Quotable Kierkegaard (October 2013), on topics such as “anxiety, despair, existence, irony, and the absurd, but also erotic love, the press, busyness, and the comic. Here readers will encounter both well-known quotations (‘Life must be understood backward. But then one forgets the other principle, that it must be lived forward’) and obscure ones (‘Beware false prophets who come to you in wolves’ clothing but inwardly are sheep–i.e., the phrasemongers’). Those who spend time in these pages will discover the writer who said, ‘my grief is my castle,’ but who also taught that ‘the best defense against hypocrisy is love.’”

The paperback of John M. Cooper’s Pursuits of Wisdom: Six Ways of Life in Ancient Philosophy from Socrates to Plotinus (August 2013) will be coming out, which reminds any of us who got bogged down in modern philosophy that this enterprise was originally about solving practical problems and living well rather than muddling over intractable intellectual puzzles.

“More than half a century after its translation into English, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis remains a masterpiece of literary criticism. A brilliant display of erudition, wit, and wisdom, his exploration of how great European writers from Homer to Virginia Woolf depicted reality has taught generations how to read Western literature.” A new expanded edition of Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Thought will be released in October.

At my alma mater, Wheaton College, students remarked that the most difficult course in the natural sciences was Organic Chemistry and its counterpart in the humanities was History of Philosophy; both are a yearlong. Philosophy majors like myself were required to take History of Philosophy. Oddly, I was never exposed to the figures treated in Isaiah Berlin’s book, Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder, which will appear in a new edition this November. I skipped over them and sunk my teeth into postmodern philosophy with all of its promises and perils. I hope to overcome this lacuna in my education by reading Berlin’s treatment.

Sailing across the Atlantic, let me highlight a few titles from the best academic publishers in Great Britain.

From Cambridge: Furthering my engagement with the Great Dane, I’m fascinated with John Lippitt’s project in Kierkegaard and the Problem of Self-Love (June 2013). “The problem of whether we should love ourselves – and if so how – has particular resonance within Christian thought, and is an important yet underinvestigated theme in the writings of Søren Kierkegaard. In Works of Love, Kierkegaard argues that the friendships and romantic relationships which we typically treasure most are often merely disguised forms of ‘selfish’ self-love. Yet in this nuanced and subtle account, John Lippitt shows that Kierkegaard also provides valuable resources for responding to the challenge of how we can love ourselves, as well as others. Lippitt relates what it means to love oneself properly to such topics as love of God and neighbour, friendship, romantic love, self-denial and self-sacrifice, trust, hope and forgiveness.”

Protestant theologian Sarah Coakley emerged on my radar when I read her provocative essay, “Taming Desire: Celibacy, Sexuality and the Church.” I plan on reading her new book, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (September 2013). “Sarah Coakley invites the reader to re-conceive the relation of sexual desire and the desire for God and – through the lens of prayer practice – to chart the intrinsic connection of this relation to a theology of the Trinity. The goal is to integrate the demanding ascetical undertaking of prayer with the recovery of lost and neglected materials from the tradition and thus to reanimate doctrinal reflection both imaginatively and spiritually. What emerges is a vision of human longing for the triune God which is both edgy and compelling: Coakley’s théologie totale questions standard shibboleths on ‘sexuality’ and ‘gender’ and thereby suggests a way beyond current destructive impasses in the churches.”

From Oxford: Oxford had to get in on the Kierkegaard 2013 action, too. They published Daphne Hampson’s Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique (May 2013). “Living shortly after the dawn of modernity in the Enlightenment, Kierkegaard restates classical Christianity in dynamic fashion. His Lutheran heritage is vital here as he places ‘faith’ over against ‘reason’. Yet Kierkegaard also holds decidedly pre-modern epistemological presuppositions that are supportive of his endeavour.”

As a pilgrim on the road to Canterbury, I could benefit from reading Philip H. Pfatteicher’s Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year (October 2013). “Primarily through deft examination of the Western Church, Pfatteicher reveals how the liturgical calendar has been transformed over thousands of years. It is a work of art–the collaborative achievement of generations of hands and minds. He shows how the church year dramatizes and grounds the strange complexity of the human experience and how it encourages honesty, humility, growth, and maturity in those who live by it. Pfatteicher also offers insight into the liturgical texts of the Eucharist, the less familiar Daily Office, and the people’s theology voiced in hymns from a broad spectrum of ancient and modern traditions. It will be an indispensable resource for both clergy and laity in the liturgical denominations, including Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Anglicanism.”

Also, not to be missed, especially for those of us who have undergone evangelical disenchantment, is Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (November 2013). “Evangelical Christianity is a paradox. Evangelicals are radically individualist, but devoted to community and family. They believe in the transformative power of a personal relationship with God, but are wary of religious enthusiasm. They are deeply skeptical of secular reason, but eager to find scientific proof that the Bible is true. In this groundbreaking history of modern American evangelicalism, Molly Worthen argues that these contradictions are the products of a crisis of authority that lies at the heart of the faith. Evangelicals have never had a single authority to guide them through these dilemmas or settle the troublesome question of what the Bible actually means. Worthen chronicles the ideological warfare, institutional conflict, and clashes between modern gurus and maverick disciples that lurk behind the more familiar narrative of the rise of the Christian Right. The result is an ambitious intellectual history that weaves together stories from all corners of the evangelical world to explain the ideas and personalities-the scholarly ambitions and anti-intellectual impulses-that have made evangelicalism a cultural and political force. In Apostles of Reason, Worthen recasts American evangelicalism as a movement defined not by shared doctrines or politics, but by the problem of reconciling head knowledge and heart religion in an increasingly secular America. She shows that understanding the rise of the Christian Right in purely political terms, as most scholars have done, misses the heart of the story. The culture wars of the late twentieth century emerged not only from the struggle between religious conservatives and secular liberals, but also from the civil war within evangelicalism itself-a battle over how to uphold the commands of both faith and reason, and how ultimately to lead the nation back onto the path of righteousness.”

From University of Chicago: Chicago has a few gems every now and then. For the unabashed bookworm, be sure to check out James W. P. Campbell’s The Library: A World History (October 2013). The photographs speak for themselves. See the sample pages. If you haven’t read it before, pick up the new expanded edition of Richard Weaver’s now classic work, Ideas Have Consequences (October 2013).

Here are some odds and ends from other publishers that caught my eye:

As far as Christian publishers go, there are two titles, above all else, that should be read. The first is Bruce Ellis Benson’s contribution to the excellent series by Baker Academic, “The Church and Postmodern Culture.” In the enticingly entitled, Liturgy as a Way of Life: Embodying the Arts in Christian Worship (April 2013), Benson explores “how the arts inform and cultivate service to God, helping the church to not only think differently about the arts but also act differently. He contends that we are all artists, that our very lives should be seen as art, and that we should live liturgically in service to God and neighbor. Working from the biblical structure of call and response, Benson rethinks what it means to be artistic and recovers the ancient Christian idea of presenting oneself to God as a work of art. Rather than viewing art as practiced only by the few, Benson argues that we are all called by God to be artists. He reenvisions art as the very core of our being: we are God’s own art, and God calls us to improvise as living and growing works of art. Benson also examines the nature of liturgy and connects art and liturgy in a new way.”

Next to Alan Jacobs and Leland Ryken, there’s not another Christian literary critic with more gravitas than Roger Lundin. In Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief (Baker Academic, December 2013), he “offers a sophisticated theological engagement with the nature of language and literature. Lundin conducts a sustained theological dialogue with imaginative literature and with modern literary and cultural theory, utilizing works of poetry and fiction throughout to prompt the discussion and focus his reflections. The book is marked by a commitment to bring the history of Christian thought, modern theology in particular, into dialogue with literature and modern culture. It is theologically rigorous, widely interdisciplinary in scope, lucidly written, and ecumenical in tone and approach.” See my review of his previous book, Believing Again: Doubt and Faith in a Secular Age, that appeared in Image.

Runners-up from Christian publishers

From Eerdmans

From Baker Books

From InterVarsity

I hope I have steered you to some titles that may produce “an individual who is calm and steady in his heart and head.”

CHRISTOPHER BENSON teaches literature at The Cambridge School of Dallas and writes for The Weekly Standard, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, First Things, Image, and The City.

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  • Matthew Miller

    Great list. Giambattista Vico, one the “three critics of the Enlightenment,” is well worth knowing–his “On the Study Methods of Our Time” offers a critique of an educational system that was already trending away from rhetoric and the humanistic disciplines toward science. It’s excellent.

    • Christopher Benson

      Kevin and Matthew: Thanks for the compliments on this reading guide!

  • Kevin

    I love a good reading list and this one is superb. Particularly excited to read the Terry Eagleton book. Alan Jacobs’ forthcoming biography of The Book of Common Prayer published by Princeton (September 2013) also looks promising.

  • Jeremy Larson

    Yes, Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation definitely darkened Reformation history. But like all authors, Gregory was not writing from an unbiased perspective.