Here’s a short summary of the books that several of us amongst the regular Mere O editors and contributors enjoyed this year:
One of my most enjoyable reads this year was Michael Chaplin’s Newcastle United Stole My Heart. It’s a memoir reflecting on 60 years of supporting northeast England’s biggest football club, Newcastle United (sorry, Sunderland). But it’s also much more than that—it’s a love letter to northeast England, a reflection on how something as trivial as a sports club can provide anchor points for family and cities, and it’s also just an absolute delight to read. I also still think there’s something uniquely thrilling about soccer. Because the technical difficulty is so high and scoring events are so few, the game naturally lends itself to moments of absolute magic. When you combine a game with that capacity for the spectacular and romantic with a writer like Chaplin, it’s sheer joy. I’m reviewing it for print #2.
A few other titles that stood out from this year: Vincent Lloyd’s Black Natural Law is absolutely fascinating. I’ve had an intuition ever since college that there was probably an interesting study to be done on how natural law relates to racial injustice in the US. Anyone who has read MLK’s Letter from Birmingham Jail has probably had the same thought. This book offers a fantastic summary of how Black Americans have thought about natural law, beginning with Douglass and working right up to the present. The final chapter is worth the price of the book, but the whole thing is great.
Two others that I enjoyed: I went back over Martin Bucer’s Instructions in Christian Love, which I’d not read in several years. It rekindled my love for the man. I don’t have many heroes, but Bucer is one of them. If you think the Reformation was just Luther and Calvin (and maybe Zwingli) you owe it to yourself to learn about Bucer and this slender little paperback is a great place to start.
I also began to acquaint myself with Ivan Illich’s work this past year. I started with Deschooling Society. I remember in college once before we read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the prof tried to prepare us for it by just telling us that it was highly likely we’d never read anything quite like that book, it was also likely we’d dislike it at first, and also we absolutely needed to keep at it. I had a similar sort of experience with Illich. He has the same sort of rhetorical flair and crankishness you’ll find in Wendell Berry, but he’s not nearly as lyrical as Berry is. But the rewards for persisting with him are immense.
Two notable titles in theology I read this year were Kate Sonderegger’s vol. 2 of her Systematic Theology and David Kelsey’s Human Anguish and God’s Power. I wrote about the Sonderegger here: (https://henrycenter.tiu.edu/2021/01/working-close-to-the-flame/) and have an essay coming soon on the Kelsey.
Both are significant titles by theologians at the top of their game, and both address somewhat tricky topics in theology. It might surprise you to know that, though I read these and found them profitable, I seem to have lost my ability to read for pleasure in 2021. Though I am usually a great lover of fiction, I found myself unable to follow even the simplest story lines. I think my mind was simply exhausted from managing the additional details and uncertainty of a year complicated by the coronavirus. This is a problem.
To address it, my friends in the Mere O writers room suggested I might read something different- like way different. I’ve never read Lord of the Rings (I know!)- so I have my first assignment for 2022. If you want to follow along, I’ll be writing about it here: https://inparticular.substack.com/p/coming-soon
My reading tends to fall into one of four buckets: 1) reading for particular projects (whether writing or teaching), 2) old books within the discipline, 3) new books within the discipline, and 4) “free range” books (those read for purely for interest). Since I teach graduate students in the Abilene Christian University Graduate School of Theology for a living, I’m afforded a good deal of time for these kinds of pursuits, as it’s literally my job to help form students intellectually and spiritually. My own scholarly. predilections for work at the intersection of theology and ethics lends to a lot of profligate reading along the way.
Reading I Did For Projects, That I Wouldn’t Have Found Otherwise, But am Glad I Did:
I spent part of the summer and Fall writing a paper on Dante’s engagements with Franciscan arguments around poverty, and couldn’t recommend this treatment any more strongly. It’s a brilliant reading of the moral world of Dante’s writings, and makes the case as clearly as you could make it why his moral theology needs to be taken seriously on its own merits, and not as some kind of subsidiary of Thomas Aquinas.
Dante’s more widely known for his literary accomplishments, but his political treatise is worth taking up again. The basic thesis here is that the church went wrong materially when it took up private property, a managerial vocation, and financial stability. Dante’s vision of material goods is a fairly radical one when it comes to the church embracing a life of poverty and recognition of the place of church within an overarching sense of social order. It’s bonkers and wildly wrong at some points, but worth your taking up.
Old and New Books within the Discipline
Agnes Callard, Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming
Theories of virtue within Christian ethics have been in dire need of this kind of philosophical intervention for decades. One of the basic problems within the development of virtue is the question of what that actually looks like, and how we move from learning about virtue to adopting habits. Callard’s theory of aspiration helps bridge this gap: we move forward by adopting a life which we aspire to but cannot fully know what it will entail to be different. Accordingly, the form of virtue is always different than we thought it would be, and that’s a good thing.
Augustine, Sermons on the Psalms
For several months, my morning devotional reading was helped by reading Augustine’s sermons on the Psalms. At one level, they’re interesting for historical and theological readings: you can see fragments of his other works developing as he works these things out for weekly preaching. But there’s a true joy in reading someone else’s meditation on Scripture. We have thousands of patristic-era sermons, and while Augustine wasn’t the best homiletician of the era, they’re accessible, meaty, and a grateful reprieve from most terrible modern preaching.
Matthew B. Crawford, World Beyond Your Head
Drawing together reflections on tech, social formation, epistemology, and behaviorism, Crawford offers his analysis of not only how we learn to think well, but what it means to think well within the contours of a late modern world in which thinking is scarce. It’s one well worth re-reading.
Hartmut Rosa, Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity
To say that this blew my mind would be an understatement. Rosa’s account of modernity is not one which trades on the decline of authority, secularization, or the rise of the affective self, but on acceleration: the world’s acceleration leads to increased cycles of social and material obsolescence, anxiety of people about their place in the world, the loss of traditions, and much more. It’s a truly breathtaking work, and one which I hope to do more with in the future.
If you can find the audio books with Stephen Fry, these are some of the most delightful things I can recommend. The Paddington books are pure whimsy, set in a world where a talking bear wearing a hat is simply no big deal.
This year I read several books that I think will stay with me for a long while. The first one was Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in a World of Distraction. Crawford argues that our ideological and political commitments from the Enlightenment to the present day have set us up to value individual autonomy above all else, which means that our common spaces have been left to the advertisers, our common life is devalued by an endless stream of distractions, and our experience of the world itself is diminished when everything is mediated through technology.
His profile of gambling addicts who wear dark clothing so that they will not be noticed when they soil themselves at a slot machine drove home the insight that pathologizing individuals who are addicted as patients in need of “treatment” intentionally elides the fact that those who build these machines design them to profit from our weakest impulses. When we treat people (including ourselves) as autonomous individuals who should be able to reason our way into less distraction, we deny the realities of how our attention works. He calls for reclaiming “the attentional commons” by removing mindless muzak from every public space and ugly ads from every flat surface, and he points to communities of practice that submit themselves to a goal (e.g. pipe-organ builders) as examples of how we can reclaim our own individuality by giving our attention to something worthwhile.
I also read bell hooks’ Where We Stand: Class Matters this year. hooks, sadly, died this year at age 69 and if you’ve been curious about her work, this is a great place to start. She grew up in rural poverty in Tennessee (and later returned to be a part of the community again, as she describes in Belonging: A Culture of Place) and has insights into the challenges of poverty and race in America that I have not found in any other writer. Where We Stand, unlike many other writings about class, is perceptive about how the ways in which consumerism deforms the desires of rich and poor alike while also attending to the lack of hope that pervades the race- and class-based systems keeping people in poverty.
Lastly, I want to speak about Tish Harrison Warren’s Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Watch or Work or Weep. This book was a beautiful, tender, piercing reflection on the most difficult questions that a Christian will face in their life as we face the darkness in ourselves, in others, and in the world: Why does injustice persist if God is just and loving? What do we do when we have tried our best and have only ashes to show for it? How does the Gospel keep us going when pain and evil seem to have the upper hand at every turn? You can read more in Brad East’s review for Mere Orthodoxy. 2021 was a year of intense personal sorrow and pain for me personally, and I am eternally thankful to have encountered Tish’s book when I did.
Appeals to ressourcement and the return to weightier traditions are everywhere these days, but the proof of retrieval is in the theology it produces. On that point, Brad East’s The Doctrine of Scripture delivers. Taking aim at both thin biblicism divorced from a ecclesial, liturgical home for scripture as well as the naturalist approach to biblical studies that finds it impossible to see the Bible as part of the saving work of the triune God, this book draws deeply on Christian thought from East and West throughout the ages.
The result is a beautiful reflection on what it means to see this collection of books as “the word of the Lord,” bolstering confidence in this confession by drawing our gaze away from the dual myopia of the modernist-fundamentalist debate into a vision of scripture that could be confessed throughout church history. East isn’t afraid to dip his own feet into some spiritual exegesis (his reading of the river and tree of life in Revelation 22 is worth the price of the book) and his courage extends to suggesting some real challenges for views of scripture that inadequately consider its churchly setting. Wrestling with these questions so lovingly presented, though, is just what he calls the doctrine of scripture itself in his opening: an occasion for joy.