I really thought I would get a lot more reading done in 2020. Afterall, I, along with billions of my closest friends, was confined to my home for weeks. It turns out, however, that lockdown time is not the same thing as down time. Nevertheless, I managed to get through a lot of books, including some of the most consequential reading I have done in a while.
I tend to gravitate toward works of cultural reflection and analysis, especially if they are theologically or philosophically adroit. And this year produced several books I consider critical for understanding what is happening in the American culture right now. After watching way too many social media squabbles and reading Christian online magazines, I would personally contend that most people do not yet know the depth of what happened in 2020. Even fewer have shown the wisdom required to navigate the sea-change. These are the kinds of books that lead the way in helping us understand.
Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, by Tara Isabella Burton, is an incredible look into the religious warp and woof of the American culture. Taking the well-publicized so-called “rise of the nones” and digging deeper into the data, she unveils how the religious structure of our culture is changing. While there is a rise in pure atheism, there is a greater rise among those who would be considered “spiritual but not religious”, who she calls the “spiritually Remixed”. While many individuals are pealing off from traditional religion, most of them are not losing their religious impulses. They are simply being redirected in nearly any and all directions. From new sexual expressions to Wiccans to social justice, Burton makes a compelling case for all of it being a redirected form of the religious impulse.
If a Christian wants to make clearer sense of the changes in spiritual expression and preferences, this book is a must-read.
A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream, by Yuval Levin, is a book that came out at exactly the right time. Just before the COVID pandemic and all of the associated lockdowns, political and journalistic chicanery, church and school closures, and business failures, Levin released a book analyzing one of the most significant dysfunctions at the core of American life: the dissolution of our institutions. Levin notes both the precipitous drop in trust in cultural institutions (from churches to schools to legislatures) and the decay of those institutions. Part of what makes this a cultural cancer is how important healthy and trustworthy institutions are to the healthy governing of local communities. Our communities are the most healthy and most productive when we work with each other, associate with like-minded people, interact with people different from us in healthy ways, and look to our neighbors before we look to government. Our institutions make those interactions possible, and when they decay, we become isolated, distrustful of each other, locked in un-winnable social media squabbles, and we rely on governments to solve problems they were never meant to solve.
When I first read this book, I considered it one of the most important reads for pastors this year. It helps us understand how important a healthy local church can be, even beyond normal service times. I believe it still remains one of the most important books for a pastor or ministry leader to read. In a culture that is becoming a collection of atomized individuals who hold each other in scorn and who rely too much on governments, there is a real opportunity for the local church.
Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, by Rod Dreher, better not be as prescient as his previous book, The Benedict Option. If it is, we are in for a significant cultural change that will be very difficult for most Americans and will present serious challenges to an American church that has been, let’s say, less than stellar on discipleship in the past couple of decades. Dreher takes the underground church in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union as a model for faithful endurance under a political ideology, Marxism, that did everything it could to silence the church. Dreher does not see a hard totalitarianism coming our way, like the one our brothers and sisters in Christ endured in the middle of the 20th century, but he does see a “soft totalitarianism” already rising to the surface. While his view may be too much for many Christian observers, I believe it to be simply true. Live Not By Lies takes its title from a short essay by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in which he encourages the faithful to refuse to live according to the state sanctioned and enforced lies they all know surround them. Our culture is a combination of tech-manipulated search results and shadow banning, and advocacy journalism that produce the same problem for those who want to live according to the truth.
The church needs to hear the voices and analysis in Dreher’s book if it is to understand the kinds of discipleship and endurance the next several years will require of the church. Even if all the dire concerns of soft totalitarianism do not materialize in the future, we are already watching a significant falling away from the church with nothing more required than a pandemic to open the trap door.
American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time, by Joshua Mitchell, came as a surprise to me. I caught a podcast in which the author was interviewed, and before the podcast was over, I had paused it and bought the book. Mitchell is an adroit observer of our current cultural moment. With his background in teaching Alexis de Tocqueville around the globe, he addresses a handful of the serious cultural shifts which are at the heart of changing the foundational assumptions of our culture. Dealing with Identity Politics, bipolatiry, and what he calls “selfie man”, he has produced one of the most insightful pieces of public theology I have read in a very long time. Identity Politics, for instance, is not just a way of making sure we all hear the stories of marginalized people or of making space for minority voices. It is a corruption of Protestant theology in ways that change the whole cultural game. Sin is no longer in every human heart; it is located in certain groups of people. Culture is now divided into the “innocents” and those who are perpetually guilty because of their skin color, gender, and sexuality. Thus, expunging sin is not a matter of repentance and salvation, but of the destruction of a group of people (currently white heterosexual men). And once that destruction is seen for the fool’s task it is, the next group of people will be targeted.
Christian leaders need this kind of explanation of what is going on around us, and what is creeping into the church. In the heat of the summer of 2020, far too many Christians, Christian magazines, and pastors simply bought into the narrative being pushed by the politically angry. Mitchell helps us see what was profoundly wrong about that and how it flatly contradicts Christian theology.
Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity―and Why This Harms Everybody, by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, is a heady dive into a philosophy that has been brewing for decades, but which has now just become part of the common conversation. There is a lot of debate about the meaning of Critical Theory, what it refers to, how broad its ambitions are, and whether or not it is compatible with Christian theology, which makes a book like Cynical Theories so valuable. Pluckrose and Lindsay do an incredibly thorough job of explaining and analyzing a whole family of ideologies from Postmodernism to Queer Theory to Social Justice to Feminism. Of the books listed so far, this is by far the most philosophically challenging. But, for someone who wants to interact with original sources and get a feel for the history of these ideas, Pluckrose and Lindsay do a great job. And, in the end, they propose a traditionally liberal answer to the vast array of problems and dysfunctions these ideologies produce.
One reason this book and others like it are so important is that far too many people were caught up in the wave of Critical Theory in the summer of 2020, and bought the CT ideology hook, line, and sinker. And as normally happens in emotionally charged culture moments, many Christians went along without any critical thought. Cynical Theories fixes that lacunae.
The Origins of Totalitarianism, by Hannah Arendt, was not a book I planned on reading this year, but Dreher’s use of her work convinced me to pick it up and begin picking through it. Published in 1951, it is the account of one of the 20th century’s most important philosopher’s study of the shape of totalitarianism. A long tome written in three parts, the third is devoted specifically to the rise of totalitarianism in both Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union. It is thick, but it is profound. There are times when reading her accounts of the politics of those two states sound like they were written in the last few years to describe the rise of Leftism in the West. She had first-hand knowledge of how those kinds of states worked and was a brilliant philosopher who was able to get to the joints and the marrow and make sense of the structure of totalitarianism.
This book looks impressive on a shelf, and if you have it, you should awe your friends and neighbors with it displayed prominently for all to see. But, in the end, the more you understand what is in the book, the more use you will be to your neighbors as an informed and virtuous citizen.
The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, by Carl R. Truman, is an “honorable mention” only because I have not finished it. The buzz about the book is stellar, and so far, it has lived up to the hype. A fundamentally historical-philosophical description of how we have reached our current cultural moment, it is an incredibly lucid guide into our culture of self-expression. It begins by asking how the sentence, “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body”, can now make sense to us when it was non-sensical not that long ago. The result is a phenomenal explanation of how our idea of the self has changed and why self-expression has become the holy grail it now is.
I look forward to getting through the rest of the book.