Discovery in Unlikely Places
I was assigned to teach “Conflict and the Church.” One of my required texts might be a surprise to some. Last year I read Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year by David Von Drehle. The year was 1862 and nothing was going right for Lincoln, whether in the war, in congress, his own political party, or his family—Conflict from every direction. It takes “dealing with conflict” out of the propositional world and helps us see and feel the trench warfare with no end in sight that can often occur as conflict steamrolls. It is a sobering but hopeful book.
Some books I read for joy. The novelist, John Updike wrote six books of essays and literary criticism. His sentences are as delightful as they are long, and I think he must have read a lot of the Apostle Paul while developing his style. Commenting on the author Cyril Connolly he writes, “His language at times can be too figurative, as when he writes of ‘the lilt of transience which is the breath of readability.’” I just sat back and laughed.
An old travel classic is Alan Moorehead’s The White Nile. I enjoyed it so much I was eager to read Peter Forbath’s The River Congo. But this turned out to be a different book. Though it included many interesting anecdotes on the explorations of David Livingstone, Forbath’s description of the development of the slave trade and of the squalid and inhumane treatment of Africans working on the rubber plantations was nearly unbearable to read. One keeps shaking one’s head and thinking, “How could they?” The King of Belgium’s cruelty while piling up wealth even caused other rulers to distance themselves from him. For me, it was a salient reminder that any economic system in the hands of fallen humans must have boundaries or it can become loathsome. It is sin with a name. Nothing generic here.
How can a story about rabbits engender any suspense or create any energy? Or so I thought. I read Richard Adams’ Watership Down decades ago, and still it lingers in my memory. For me, it is a tribute to the creativity we humans carry, created in the image of God the first creator.
A person recently asked me if I could recommend a good book on writing. I had just finished…wait for it…Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. It is really exceptional, and so I mentioned it to the inquiring person. They responded, “Could you recommend a book from someone who isn’t crazy?,” which brings up the topic of who we choose to learn from. If we are too picky about who gets to teach us, we soon only hear our own voice and views regurgitated comfortingly back to us. I know there are limits to this, but I see, too often, a resistance to any fresh perspective. Thinking without imagination can be threatening and also stifling.
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. It turned out to be a riveting account of a president with a staggering political skill, who was sunk by the weight of his own unresolved personal and childhood injuries—much like Nixon I would say. It was a reminder to tend to the unhealed wounds of life. Fortunately, we have a God of grace and mercy—a balm adequate to the task. Billy Graham said that of all the presidents he had contact with, the one who showed the most genuine spiritual interest was Johnson. Puzzling. Who knew?
Sometimes, for sheer delight I take down a book published by the expert publishers Harry N. Abrams. The Most Beautiful Libraries of the World is a pictorial feast which always reminds me of the value of beauty. I think Daniel Grotta’s biography Tolkien: Architect of Middle Earth is also a handsome volume.
Lastly, could an autobiography by a Bible scholar be anything intriguing? The N.T. Wright of his day, F.F. Bruce was an exemplary Bible scholar. I never saw a negative review of one of his books, and I have ten or so. Perhaps his most famous is Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free. But he wrote a small autobiography, In Retrospect: Remembrance of Things Past. Book-lovers will like it because every other chapter is mostly about books. His gracious and appreciative spirit is revealed when he was asked, “If stranded on a desert island and you could have only two books, the Bible and Shakespeare excluded, what would you choose?” He replied that he would take Calvin’s Institutes to “keep my mind from going to seed,” and Charles Wesley’s Hymns to “keep my soul from drying out.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part 2 of Dr. Long’s blog “The Books That Make Me.” Read the previous post at yellowstonetheology.org/wednesday-word-books/.