Monday, March 23, 2009

Books of 2008

The circle that is my Ideal Self is always reading, paging through one stack of classics after another (and don't even get me started on Ideal Self's comprehension!). The circle that is my Actual Self works a full-time job, has a pregnant wife at home, and--worst of all--subscribes to Netflix. The circles of Ideal and Actual do not overlap as much as I'd like when considering book reading, yet when I compiled the list of books that I read in the year past, I was pleasantly surprised. List and comments below:

God of Promise, Introducing Covenant Theology by Michael Horton - One of two books that I read for the Men's Reading Group that met in January 2008, and my first Horton book. "Covenant theology" is a phrase that I hear a lot of, but has never been something about which I could speak with great confidence (the lines would blur between covenant of grace/covenant of works, Moseic covenant/Abrahamic covenant). I was grateful for Horton's clear introduction of the topic, and I am glad to have this book on my shelf as a future resource.

God and Evil, The Problem Solved by Gordon H. Clark - This was also read (at the suggestion of Gerry Cruz) for the January 2008 Men's Reading Group, and represents the first book I've read that was written in a formal philosophical style. I was kept busy looking up the meaning of phrases/words such as positive causality, surreptitious, workmanship of suasion, and necessity of compulsion, but found it well worth the effort. I was moved to the point of verbal exclamation a few times, struck by the boldness and deftness with which Clark dissected the issues. The book concludes with the same firepower as a July 4th fireworks display--but I remember being struck with how simple Clark's points were. It thoroughly excites me to read an expression of a grand, magnificent concept presented in a succinct, lucid manner. Another excellent topical resource.

Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck - I posted my thoughts on this book in June. You can dust off the post HERE.

Amusing Ourselves to Death
by Neil Postman - Joel turned me on to Postman when he shared his "Rules for Living the Rest of Your Life" lecture, and I now count him on my list of not so small man-crushes. Postman cries out like a prophet in the wilderness about the "evils" of television, although the book does not represent a mere book-lover's rant against all things modern. Instead, Postman identifies the ways in which television has disintegrated the spheres of modern journalism, religion, political discourse, and entertainment, among others. The conclusions he draws are sometimes simple yet profound when one considers how obvious they should be to the common man. It is the pervasiveness of television's effect that is perhaps the most frightening to me. Do not read this book if you value cable television. Or, better yet, read this book if you think that you value cable television.

The Sovereignty of God
by A.W. Pink - A most valliant defense of a most essential doctrine of Scripture, and the first time I've read something of Pink. Sections of his work read with a fury of assertion that I've not found in another author--he was a thrill to read. So often his arguments are not comprised of more than "verse A says this...verse B says this...therefore verse C cannot be interpreted thus." Yet the confidence a reader has in being shown the clarity of Scripture examined with Scripture creates a sense of a firm footing that is not easily lost. I can't imagine a more thorough book on the topic.

Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me
by Andree Seu - I have sometimes fancied myself a clever writer, but have indulged in these delusions far less often since reading Seu's work. She is a surgeon, I a hack. This, her first collection of essays in book form, has been my toilet reading for over a year. She writes with the observational wisdom that I wish I had in greater abundance. She declares things to be so, things that I only muse over and about which I have difficulty drawing conclusions. She is an expert pen weilder.

The Peacemaker
by Ken Sande - CJ Mahaney is quoted on the back cover as saying "There is no need for another book on this topic to be written, now that this volume exists." While far from well-read in literature from the Counseling shelf, I can't imagine a more thorough, Scripture-saturated approach to the topic of forgiveness and reconciliation. This book was assigned reading in my Engineering Ethics class (thanks, Dr. Gidley). I've kept it under the driver's seat in my truck, and I pull it out whenever I have down time on a job site. It took me almost three years to finish the book this way, but it was easy to pick up and put down. There is not a relationship in your life that will not be enriched as a result of reading and applying the wisdom of this book.

Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor by D.A. Carson - D.A. Carson's stated purpose in compiling "The Life and Reflections" of his father, Tom, was to pen a "modest attempt to let the voice and ministry of one ordinary pastor be heard, for such servants have much to teach us." Memoirs is a home run of an attempt. To bring the life work of a modest, faithful minister under such focused yet intensely loving and personal attention causes one to marvel as one does admiring a streetlight (as if streetlights were ever admired). This book accurately potrays the immense weight that "ordinary" pastors bear on a weekly/monthly/yearly basis. Times of doubt and fits of maddening introspection, seasons of new harvest and faint shimmers of progress. The effects of all the above are presented accurately throughout Carson's loving account of his father's ministry and should cause anyone to have a greater appreciation and reverence for those called to the pastor Christ's church.

Not Even a Hint by Joshua Harris - I have read this slowly over the course of the past 18 months, picking it up when most in need (but not as often as I should). This is THE book on the topic of lust/sexual purity that I would recommend a father to give his son. This is THE book that I would urge a young brother to read with honesty and in order to better equip himself to fight his old man in the battle for purity.

The Inimitable Jeeves
by P.G. Wodehouse - Becca, Jonny Wilson, and I listened to this on cassette tape while we drove to Virginia Beach in August. It was my first experience with a book-on-tape, and an enjoyable one. Wodehouse is a master at weaving ridiculous scenarios and is as deft a composer of conversational humor as I've ever read. At the recommendation of Nanx Swift, Becca and I Netflixed the "Jeeves and Wooster" BBC television series. They feature the guy from House as Bertie Wooster, and are a more than fair presentation of the books.

Monday, March 02, 2009

How Long, O Simple Ones, Will You Love Being Simple?

It has been difficult for me to settle on how I feel about the "Self-Checkout" lanes that I see at Shop Rite, Wal*Mart, Home Depot, and the like. The poet in me weeps into his beard at the sight of shoppers rejoicing over one more way to eliminate interaction with a fellow human being. My poetical side always presents the deeper, more moving arguments, but my rational, practical self reminds me that poets are not known for their accomplishments, and even less for steady employment. It is usually in a state of deep emotional anguish that I scan my few items and curse under my breath at the screen when the sensors "think" that I've not placed one of them in the bag. I would feel guilty enough to avoid eye contact with the human cashiers as I leave, but most of the zit-faced cashiers at our Shop Rite are too busy talking with their neighbour to notice me even when I'm in their aisle.

There is another new item in Shop Rite about which I have no trouble forming an opinion: the "Checkout Aisle TV's." Do you have them at your grocery store? I won't even ask you to comment with your thoughts on them because I know that you must hate them. How can you not?

The "Checkout Aisle TV's" (CAT's) are positioned above the rack of TV Guides and Soap Opera Weekly's that line the conveyor belt approaching the register. They would perhaps be no more than an illuminated version of the tabloids and women's magazines that stand as sentries at each checkout aisle--just another reason to keep one's eyes pointed toward the straight and narrow--but they play sound! These CAT's play a loop of meaningless, hit-and-run-style advertisements in full volume that cannot be tuned out. I suppose that there are those who are delighted that the store has given them "something to keep their mind occupied" while they wait in line, but I don't like those kinds of people, and it would be for their good if these CAT's never existed.

To condense my rant into one sentence, I hate "Checkout Aisle TV's" because they represent one more way in which Everyman is prevented from being alone with his thoughts. Like the character Guy Montag trying to memorize a Bible verse while the subway radio "vomited" upon him the jingle for Denham's Dental Detergent in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, I feel as if I am being driven mad at the intrusion of the CAT's into my mindspace. What dark humor is required to laugh at the thought that if Wisdom were to be found in my grocery store, she would now literally need to "raise her voice in the marketplace (Proverbs 1.20)!"

In Fahrenheit 451, the character that first helps Guy to understand why he feels disconnected from his culture is a girl, Clarisse McClellan. Clarisse is regarded a threat to her classmates and, ultimately, society because of her "antisocial tendencies." She walks as a pedestrian instead of racing in jet cars, she spends nights outside alone instead of in the parlor surrounded by a three-walled television over which one could not hold a conversation. Guy's character was shocked and invigorated to listen to her simple observations about the Man in the Moon (because he had never looked), the smell of old leaves ("like cinnamon," she said), or the morning dew (which he was ashamed to have never noticed).

The characters in the books that I read to which I am most readily drawn are the antisocial ones, the ones that are marked as unusual by the amount of time that they spend alone. [Let me note that Boo Radley is certainly an exception to the above statement]

Clarisse is a great example in Fahrenheit 451, and the Savage character in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World is another, albeit a more tragic, example. The Savage is brought from his reservation to live in Civilization where man is conditioned from conception to exist without free will, negative emotion, or independent thought. The clash is immediate and unable to be overcome. He finds himself before one of the Controllers before his exile, where is made privy to the reasons why man is kept under such control. An excerpt is below:

The Savage interrupted him. "But isn't it natural to feel there's a God?"

"You might as well ask if it's natural to do up one's trousers with zippers," said the Controller sarcastically. "You remind me of another of those old fellows called Bradley. He defined philosophy as the finding of bad reason for what one believes by instinct. As if one believed anything by instinct! One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them...People believe in God because they've been conditioned to believe in God."

"But all the same," insisted the Savage, "it is natural to believe in God when you're alone--quite alone, in the night, thinking about death."

"But people are never alone now," said the Controller. "We make them hate solitude; and we arrange their lives so that it's almost impossible for them to ever have it."

The above line pierced my heart as I read Brave New World recently (for the first time). What little time we as a generation spend alone, not just alone in Creation under a bowl of stars or next to a tree older than our grandfather, but merely alone with our own thoughts. One cannot use Romans 1 to teach that men would become disciples of Jesus Christ if only they went camping more often--we know that a claim of our Saviour's life, death, and resurrection to cover one's sin is the only means by which one may be saved. But how many men are kept from even considering the state of their lives or the state of their souls by the din of the maddening crowd around them!

I will not put on airs to present myself as a man of thoughts more profound or meaningful than my neighbor, but I can say that I do consider time alone a precious commodity. What's more, I feel violated when moments primed for contemplation are stolen by some stooge in a chef's hat peddling his wares as I wait in line at the grocery store. The "Self-Checkout" line may be a bleak commentary on our culture as it keeps us suckling at the breast of Convenience...but at least it only speaks when spoken to.