Italian Humanists (Six Tuscan Poets), 1554
Oil on panel
“I am unable to satisfy my thirst for books. And I perhaps own more of them than I ought; but just as in certain other things, so does it happen with books: success in searching for them is a stimulus to greed… Books please inwardly; they speak with us, advise us and join us together with a certain living and penetrating intimacy, nor does this instill only itself into its readers, but it conveys the names and desire for others.”
(Francesco Petrarch, Letters on Familiar Matters III. 18)
One of my great delights in life is reading other people’s booklists. Russ Moore just published his recently. Every year he was President of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Alec Hill used to publish a list of his own. There’s something telling and intriguing about a collection of eight, ten, twelve seemingly-unrelated texts that have, somehow, mysteriously, been woven together by the mere fact of one person reading them over the course of a year. You can see the contours of a life, for one, but, and more importantly, you can also see the contours of thought that weave together. I already knew that Russ Moore was both an avid DC Comics fan and a follower of Charles Taylor; but discerning in his collection of books a trajectory of Christian cultural engagement and theology of post-Christendom is helpful for me.
So, as a December practice here on The Poet in Babylon, I am planning on sharing my own shortlist of books that have made an influential impact on me this past year. My sense is that this list communicates something that I will write about once I compile the list.
Listed, roughly, in the order I read them this year.
Political Speeches by Marcus Tullius Cicero
In tumultuous and politically-uneasy times, one longs to return to nice, easy balance of, say, when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and claimed eternal dictatorship over the (then) Roman Republic. Which is to say that reading Cicero’s rhetorically-charged, professionally-written, sharp and snide speeches, targeting everyone from corrupt governors to unjust leaders to even Marcus Antonius (who would have Cicero executed). There’s all kinds of politics at play in these speeches, giving one a sense of the delicate complexities of how politics ought to work, the beauties of the art of statecraft, and the sheer power of rhetoric. Knowing that I would become a preacher in the future (though not knowing how soon!), Cicero provided me with sets of rhetorical tools that have been far more helpful than I could have ever imagined. But, even more crucially, he gives insight into the functioning of a dying political establishment, and he raises good questions on how to turn political tides.
The Confessions by Saint Augustine
Oft misappropriated, oft misunderstood, St. Augustine is the patron saint of Protestantism (if that makes any sense). His writings undergird the foundational texts of Martin Luther (like The Bondage of the Will, see below) and John Calvin, especially in his discussions and confessional thoughts on the nature of sin. But St. Augustine is, nevertheless, a North African bishop of an ancient church whose like who do not recognize, however committed his Reformation interlocutors were to his doctrines. There is something refreshing about reading an ancient believer relay the story of his conversion, the supernatural elements of his mother’s wisdom and the voice of the angel saying “Tolle lege!” The final half is committed to bizarre (and profound) semi-exegesis of Genesis 1-2 (something the Creation Science folks would bemoan as “liberal” in our days), and meditations on the nature of time that prove to be the foundations of existential philosophy, from Heidegger to Sartre. In short, Augustine is a delightfully refreshing burst of ancient air, challenging our modern assumptions, whilst also providing the philosophical-theological grounds for them.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Haunting, heart-rending, beautiful. I have so few suitable words for this masterpiece. I read Beloved walking to and from work at the University of Chicago, and it would just absorb me. The story of both grace and shame, love and death, hatred and barbarity, all entangled and disentangled, all complicated by the simple (horrendous) notion that a man might have dominion over another man, continues to resonate in my life. There is no need, I posit, for us to go to the tomes of Critical Theory to discuss terms like objectification or what Hortense Spillers calls “flesh”; we only need to read Beloved and let it be absorbed into our skins. Maybe then we would begin to understand the depth of the evil that was / is slavery / institutional racism, and truly begin to feel its existential, systemic, and social powers. This is a book to catches you by the heart and rends you to pieces.
The Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther
I read Luther’s Bondage of the Will already slightly convinced that the Calvinist view of salvation was more correct than my semi-Arminian. So maybe I approached it with that slight bias. But what delighted me the most about Luther’s writing here is how consistent a philologist he is, how thorough an exegete on the Old Testament and the Book of Romans, and how excellently he debunks Erasmus’ half-hearted On Free Will. Set aside for the moment all the inevitable ethical and moral debates around free will and predestination; here is an incredible argument, sufficiently nuanced, and well-versed in both Scholastic and humanist lines of thought. Luther leaves no shred of dignity for Erasmus’ claims, and he does so with an eviscerating precision. However we later readers take his claims of bondage seriously (or not), we certainly have no room to take Erasmus seriously anymore.
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
I’m not certain which is the most ingenious work of narrative imagination in Jayber Crow: the preacher-turned-barber, the small town in which he lives and works, the vibrancy of rural life, the existential crisis of modern farming, or Berry’s humble, yet fiery, delight in all things agrarian. It doesn’t quite matter which is the best or most profound: the novel as a whole is a work of art, taking part-fantasy (a nostalgic romanticism) and part-reality (which undergirds all nostalgia anyways) to communicate a critique of the scientific-industrial imagination and its status quos. At its heart, Jayber Crow is a jab at the capitalist vision of “the working man,” calling for instead of community-centered, relationally-vibrant society that rejects the utilitarian assumptions of the human good. Jayber’s profession and life-story work in utter contrast to that of the agribusiness master Troy Chatham, demonstrating a vision of vocation more thorough, more powerful, more poignant, and more beautiful than we might think possible in our late capitalist world. One leaves the novel with a renewed vocational imagination, a sigh for all that has been lost, and hope for all that can yet be.
Politics by Aristotle
My thoughts have often, over the past several years, turned around the problem of the “political.” In the American Church, the rise in statist and secular assumptions of “ways of life” have given all-the-more ultimate significance to the political space, creating an ever-bifurcating and venomous social context, as well as an ever-the-more disjointed view of Christian political engagement. There are those who, tired of the scene, attempt of thorough disentanglement, others who, vying for power, aim for a theonomist or theocratic establishment, still others who, sentimental towards justice, call for a more equitably-ordered social community, and still others who, dissatisfied with these above approaches, suggest radical alternatives, including communism and anarcho-capitalism. Aristotle, refreshingly, returns us to a time where politics was just city-states killing each other and enslaving large populaces for the sake of advancing their households. In other words, Aristotle’s ancient, even regressive, point of view allows for a fresh take on how stagnant and even destructive our own modern points of view can be. There’s a work defamiliarization that happens when one reads Aristotle, and his stunningly non-Platonic views actually serve the late modern in re-thinking the particular, the local, the practical, and the real, instead of operating (as late moderns often do) in the general, the universal, the theoretical, and the ideal. Whatever his social failings (e.g. the first book’s adoration of the institution of slavery), Aristotle serves as a balanced, nuanced, and complex lens through which we ought to re-evaluate our own political moment and even question some of our own political “givens.” For more on political theology, see James K.A. Smith, Awaiting the King, below.
For the Life of the World by Alexander Schmemann
In perhaps one of the most engaging books on Eucharistic theology, Alexander Schmemann takes a novel approach to the problem of “the secular” by returning Christian attention to the true nature of the Sacraments – that is, of man’s original nature as priest (homo adorans), and of God’s original intent in making man the relation between God and the world. This phenomenal work is foundational for several of the more modern theological writings I read this year (including those on this list! Smith, Hauerwas, Wells, etc.), and has served as a fresh epistemological-hermeneutical grounds for some of my own ventures in modern theology. It is more than persuasive: it is a provocative reminder of the supernaturality of the natural, and the naturality of the supernatural, and, in some sense, could be extended as a meditation on the nature of the charismatic gifts. For the Life of the World questions “the secular” not just in the world but in Christianity and reifies our other-worldly-yet-this-worldly faith as one that mediates the relations between God and the world God has made.
Letters on Familiar Matters (Rerum Familiarium Libris), Volume 1 (Books I-VIII) by Francesco Petrarch
Why do adore Petrarch so much? Is it his rhetoric? His mastery of language? His philological pursuits? His love of Cicero? (Do I love Petrarch because of Cicero, or Cicero because of Petrarch?) His classicisms? It’s all very hard to be sure. But one thing is for sure, Petrarch remains a lasting and profound influence on my work. Do I read him for the sake of his writing, or does his writing read my own (or lack thereof)? I am uncertain. This initial volume (in a three-volume set) is the first major chunk of the Rerum Familiarium that I have completed, and it serves as an entry-point into the complexities of Petrarch’s life, thought, art, and lived humanism. These letters are more than works of art; they are artifacts of a life pursued with the intent of revivifying a lost practice of philology, a lost culture of Greco-Roman intellectualism, and a lost vision of friendship. It is that last subject which allures me perhaps the most about Petrarch, as he bemoans the distances between himself and his friends. In Petrarch, we see how a person considered friendship when friends are liable to die to bandit-attacks or the Black Death or be exiled into some far-off land. Maybe letters do have the power to cross incredible distances?
The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics ed. by Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells
I have not actually finished Hauerwas and Wells’ seminal volume on “Christian ethics” (a thing that they ontologically deny existence to in their opening essays) yet, but, my oh my goodness, here is the product of theological work exemplified. How such a textbook has come into being honestly boggles my brain: so often such “companions to” turn into either impossibly nuanced theses or broadly-considered nonsenses. But the BCCE (as I’ve been fondly abbreviating it) is a masterwork, exemplifying some of the best ecumenical theological work that exists in the Christian academy today from some of the finest Christian intellectuals (including, amid others, Kevin Vanhoozer, David Matzko McCarthy, and Rowan Williams). The BCCE‘s structure, addressing ethical quandaries using the confines of Christian worship and liturgy, reveals an underlying thesis on the implicit relationship between worship and moral thought (something Smith will exploit further in his Cultural Liturgies, below), and it successfully contextualizes all ethical-moral problems within the view of the Church. It is the centrality of ecclesiological thought that most permeates the BCCE, and, as such, is a mighty corrective to the secular age’s tendency towards giving ethical-moral primacy to the “reasoning individual.” Each problem is taken, in turn, from the viewpoint of the historic Christian liturgy, allowing for a more embodied, more discipled, more rightly Christian (and certainly more Eucharistic, in Schmemann’s sense) ethical theology. As a pastor, the BCCE is always on the back of my mind every time we discuss liturgy and the structure of our worship service, and I hope in the future to implement its practical theology even further.
Cultural Liturgies by James K.A. Smith
If it was not self-evident from my review for volumes 1 and 2, I am effusively in love with James K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies trilogy, and it isn’t even because they’re so beautiful to look at. For so long, I have wondered how to take the hermeneutics of postmodern literary critique and apply them to orthodox Christian theology, in particular in the project of rejecting the Rationalist conception of the human being. And for a while I toyed with a project of my own to accomplish just that. But I don’t need to anymore, Smith has satisfied all my concerns and questions and preponderances on that point. This trilogy is an exemplary and necessary set for the late modern theologian, for the pastor engaging a post-Christian culture, or for anyone who takes Charles Taylor seriously. Of the three, my sense is that volume 2 is the most critical, as Smith takes Bourdieu and Merleau-Ponty into Schmemannian liturgical theology and provides a theology of practice as practice, but volume 1 is a suitable introduction to liturgical-cultural theology and the terms of formation that Smith works with throughout the series, and volume 3 finally gets around some of (what I consider to be) the biggest philosophical troubles of late modern political theology. Altogether, they are foundational for all modern theology, ministry, and Christian philosophy.