1. Jefferson’s Books by Douglas Wilson
I picked up this monograph at Monticello, and at least for this lover of books, it was delightful. Douglas Wilson shows us the founding father as reader and book collector, featuring images of his reading lists and diagrams classifying types of knowledge (Jefferson was a great list maker and was perhaps most himself when classifying things). This treatment of Jefferson and his books was generally educational, practically instructive, historically interesting, and above all, fascinating. “As Jefferson’s library revealed,” Wilson writes, “books were for him not ornaments but instruments for coming to terms with the world.” (See my blog post on this book here.)
2. The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama
The eminent political scientist of “End of History” fame does it again. Here he traces the development of political institutions through world history, beginning with our hunter gatherer ancestors and showing how the first modern state developed in China, rule of law in India, and an accountable state in Europe. Fukuyama is nothing if not ambitious, drawing on disciplines as varied as anthropology and evolutionary biology to offer a unified theory of state formation and political stability.
3. Gilead by Marylinne Robinson
Everyone and their aunt had recommended this novel to me, so I finally read it, and I was captivated by its penetrating beauty. Robinson masterfully gives voice to a Midwestern preacher in the last days of his life who is writing to his young son, offering an account of his times that showcases Robinson’s eye for the terrible beauty that imbues so much of the ordinariness of life. The Washington Post was right in saying of this book that “one feels touched with grace just to read it.” This is a generations-spanning family drama that does the soul good. (See my blog posts on Gilead here, here, and here.)
4. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
If nothing else, Ta-Nehisi Coates is a fearsomely powerful writer. His June 2014 Atlantic cover story “The Case for Reparations” sparked a national conversation on the notion that Americans need a reckoning with the legacy of racism and injustice against blacks. Between the World and Me is a harrowing meditation on what it means to be black in America and what this says about America. Coates’s words are a cry of protest and an indictment on our nation, which he says was built on the backs of blacks, whose “bodies,” as he so frequently writes, remain completely unsafe from the depredations of a thoroughly racist system. (See my blog post on this book here.)
In this book Trueman, a British transplant and professor of theology and church history, skewers Left and Right as he calls on Christians to engage politics intelligently and responsibly. A pro-life, pro-traditional marriage supporter of stricter gun control and universal healthcare, Trueman brings the valuable perspective of a foreigner, one who is also a careful thinker and is concerned more with responsible Christian engagement with political issues than with who is up or down in the perpetual war between Democrats and Republicans. At least for this lover of all things political, this book is a helpful tonic that cuts both ways and encourages me to engage more thoughtfully, carefully, and even lovingly.
This Independence Day weekend I went to Monticello, and there I bought Douglas Wilson’s Jefferson’s Books, a delightful monograph that shows us Jefferson as the remarkable book collector and reader that he was. Much of it deals with his decades-long, setback-ridden (fires! thieves!) building of his library, whose 6,700 volumes became the founding contribution to the Library of Congress upon his retirement.
I have more, much more, to learn about Jefferson, but at least in the matter of books and reading, he may be my ultimate role model. Not that I want to build extensive, world-renowned libraries, but I want to dedicate myself to the systematic study of books to improve my knowledge and to share it with others and encourage them to read more – all things at which Jefferson excelled.
Below are some choice quotes from the book, a recommended reading schedule he gave to a friend, and a picture of his revolving bookstand, one of the coolest (okay, maybe cool isn’t the right word here) items in his Monticello house.
“As Jefferson’s library revealed, books were for him not ornaments but instruments for coming to terms with the world.” (8)
“…the book-hunting chores he tirelessly performed for his friends back home far outnumbered his own requests for help.” (25)
“The amount of money [he] spent for books while he was in Paris and throughout his life was prodigious…He was aware that his indulgence in books amounted to extravagance and sought to moderate it by buying cheaper and smaller format editions wherever possible, and driving a hard bargain when offered an expensive book.” (25)
“His library, from an early period, formed an essential part of his vision of the good life.” (26)
“Jefferson was dependent on books, tended to take his knowledge from them rather than from direct experience, and approached the world with studied eyes.” (29)
“The need to know seemed to to come as naturally to him as the need to breathe. He spoke often of his belief that nature had formed him for study, and he exercised his remarkable powers of discipline to find time for reading even in the busies and most hectic times of his life.” (29)
“I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid; and I find myself much the happier.” (46)
His favorite granddaughter, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, said of him: “Of history he was very fond, and this he studied in all languages [he knew seven], though always, I think, preferring the ancients. In fact, he derived more pleasure from his acquaintance with Greek and Latin than from any other resource of literature…I saw him more frequently with a volume of the classics in his hand than with any other book.” (48-49)
“Jefferson was constantly being consulted on matters relating to books and education and conscientiously made out dozens of reading lists at the requests of his friends.” (50)
To a friend he recommended this reading schedule:
– Before 8 am: Physical Studies, Ethics, Religion, Natural Law
– Eight to 12 pm: Law
– 12-1 pm: Politics
– Afternoon: History
– From dark to bedtime: Belles-lettres [literary works admired for their style], Criticism, Rhetoric, Oratory
And finally, his revolving bookstand, on which he liked to have five reference books while he wrote letters to friends:
In a day when what it means to follow Christ can be so grossly distorted by a pastor saying he “needs” a $65 million-dollar jet to carry out his ministry, we need all the more the examples of self-sacrificial men and women eager to give away their earthly possessions to advance true gospel-centered ministry. One of the founders of Methodism, John Wesley (1703-1791), was such a man. His example is commended to us by pastor and author Thabiti Anyabwile in his excellent Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons (Crossway, 2012), to illustrate the view of money and possessions that should characterize church elders, those who “shepherd” and watch over the flock.
After you read Wesley’s example below, ask yourself: Could you do something similar (it doesn’t have to be as radical) with your earnings? If not, what keeps you from doing so? And what does this say about what you really value in life – that is, what your heart treasures? These are questions I want to continually ask myself through the years, so as to not let money and possessions (stuff!) control my decisions and make me a less generous, small-hearted person.
“Wesley preached that Christians should not merely tithe, but give away all the extra income once the family and creditors were taken care of. He believed that with increasing income, the Christians’ standard of giving should increase, not his standard of living. He began this practice at Oxford and he continued it throughout his life. Even when his income rose into the thousands of pounds, he lived simply and quickly gave his surplus money away. One year his income was slightly over £1,400; he gave away all save £30. He was afraid of laying up treasures on earth, so the money went out in charity as quickly as it came in. He reports that he never had as much as £100 at one time… When he died in 1791, the only money mentioned in his will was the miscellaneous coins to be found in his pockets and dresser drawers. Most of the £30,000 he had earned in his lifetime he had given away.” (89)
To put it in perspective for us, Thabiti points out that “Wesley’s income in today’s dollars would be $160,000 annually. Yet he lived on only $20,000 of it.”
In her terrific Democracy on Trial (1995), the late political theorist and public intellectual Jean Bethke Elshtain (whom I had the privilege of having as a professor as an undergraduate – she was one of Georgetown’s best-kept secrets!) reflects on the ills afflicting American democracy, among them the obliteration by both Left and Right of the private-public distinction (e.g. feminists’ 1970s slogan “the personal is political,” or conservatives’ attempts to involve the government in private sexual lives) and what identity politics, where groups such as women and ethnic minorities militantly pursue a politics revolving around a perceived victimization demonize the “oppressor” to the point that any meaningful dialogue, one of the currencies of democracy, is ruled out or made impossible. More importantly, in this book Elshtain reminds us that true democracy is not just a system of government but also a set of “democratic dispositions” among citizens that enables them to debate, compromise, and respect their fellows as they seek, not utopia, but a “more perfect Union,” as Lincoln so aptly put it.
One of my favorite moments in the book comes when Elshtain recounts her response to a radio broadcaster’s question: “What does it mean to you to be an American?” She “stammered and mumbled for a moment before I got my bearings and responded”:
It means that one can share a dream of political possibility, which is to say, a dream of democracy; it means that one can make one’s voice heard; it means both individual accomplishment as well as a sense of responsibility; it means sharing the possibility of a brotherhood and sisterhood that is perhaps fractious – as all brotherhoods and sisterhoods are – and yet united in a spirit that’s a spirit more of good than ill will; it means that one is marked by history but not totally burdened with it and defined by it; it means that one can expect some basic sense of fair play…I think Americans are committed to a rough-and-ready sense of fair play, and a kind of social egalitarianism, if you will, an egalitarianism of manners. I think that’s the best I can do. (35-36)
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
We read Job for comfort.
I believe there is no more satisfying answer (or rather, non-answer) to the problems of suffering and evil than the one we find in Job. Here is a righteous man who suffers misery upon misery without knowing why this is happening, who wishes he’d never been born and shakes his fist at the heavens and questions God’s ways, only to be humbled by a God who comes not to tell him why he is suffering, but rather to throw his own questions at Job and silence him with the precious knowledge that God is God and he is more powerful, wise, and good than any of us can imagine. This is why we read Job for comfort – because in it we come upon the wall that faces us the end of all our agonizing questions in the face of suffering, and we find not a neat answer but a person: God himself. And this is more than enough.
G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), the British journalist, poet, novelist, and all-around man of letters, wrote about this comfort, as well as the way God’s questions confounds the most stubborn of skeptics, in a 1929 essay titled, “The Book of Job.” (From In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius, 2011)):
“When, at the end of the poem, God enters (somewhat abruptly), is struck the sudden and splendid note which makes the thing as great as it is. All the human beings through the story, and Job especially, have been asking questions of God. A more trivial poet would have made God enter in some sense or other in order to answer the questions. By a touch truly to be called inspired, when God enters, it is to ask a number more questions on His own account. In this drama of skepticism God Himself takes up the role of the skeptic. He does what all the great voices defending religion have always done. He does, for instance, what Socrates did. He turns rationalism against itself. He seems to say that if it comes to asking questions, He can ask some questions which will fling down and flatten out all conceivable human questioners…
“… In dealing with the arrogant asserter of doubt, it is not the right method to tell him to stop doubting. It is rather the right method to tell him to go on doubting, to doubt a little more, to doubt every day newer and wilder things in the universe, until at last, by some strange enlightenment, he may begin to doubt himself.
“… Verbally speaking the enigmas of Jehovah seem darker and more desolate than the enigmas of Job; yet Job was comfortless before the speech of Jehovah and is comforted after it. He has been told nothing, but he feels the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told. The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man” (97-99).
Monica, the pious, long-suffering mother of Augustine, for whose soul she shed many tears because her greatest desire was to see him leave behind the Manichean heresy and become a baptized Christian, was not only a terrific mother but, as Augustine tells in his Confessions, she was also an infinitely patient and loving wife to a difficult husband (the unbelieving Patricius, for whom Augustine seemed to have little affection), and a wise and devoted daughter-in-law to a woman who otherwise might have made life even more difficult for her and her husband. To our modern sensibilities Monica probably put up with more than she deserved from Patricius, but then again, this was a pious woman who put her faith and the covenant of marriage above her own temporal comfort and happiness. Whether male or female, we can all learn from her example.
“She never ceased to try to gain him [Patricius] for you as a convert, for the virtues with which you had adorned her, and for which he respected, loved, and admired her, were like so many voices constantly speaking to him of you [God]. He was unfaithful to her, but her patience was so great that his infidelity never became a cause of quarreling between them. For she looked to you to show him mercy, hoping that chastity would come with faith. Though he was remarkably kind, he had a hot temper, but my mother knew better than to say or do anything to resist him when he was angry. If his anger was unreasonable, she used to wait until he was calm and composed and then took the opportunity of explaining what she had done… Many women…used to gossip together and complain of the behavior of their men-folk. My mother would meet this complain with another – about the women’s tongues.
“…Her mother-in-law was at first prejudiced against her by the talebearing of malicious servants, but she won the older woman over by her dutiful attentions and her constant patience and gentleness. In the end her mother-in-law complained of her own accord to her son and asked him to punish the servants for their meddlesome talk, which was spoiling the peaceful domestic relations between herself and her daughter-in-law. Patricius, who was anxious to satisfy his mother as well as to preserve the good order of his home and the peace of his family, took the names of the offenders from his mother and had them whipped as she desired. She then warned them that anyone who told tales about her daughter-in-law, in the hope of pleasing her, could expect to receive the same reward. After this none of them dared to tell tales and the two women lived together in wonderful harmony and mutual goodwill.” (194-195).
The hour Augustine became a Christian is a watershed moment in Christian history, for this young man would go on to become not only a beloved bishop in a small town in north Africa but arguably the tallest intellectual mountain in the history of the church. Before his conversion, Augustine was engrossed in one of the heresies of his day, something that caused much grief to his pious mother, Monica. Following his assent of the Christian faith, however, he devoted his vast intellectual energies to exploring and expounding upon the Christian doctrines, producing a great number of works, including the Confessions and the City of God, which would have a lasting influence in such fields as psychology, philosophy, history, politics, and even war (e.g. Just War theory is often traced to Augustine). His famous conversion story is a powerful example of the power of Scripture – God’s revealed thoughts and will – to pierce the heart and spark new life. If you never read the Confessions (though I hope you don’t deprive yourself of such a treat!), at least read of the conversion of this mountain of the church, a great moment in history.
(The passage begins when Augustine, with his equally philosophically-oriented but heretical friend Alypius, are sitting at a friend’s house listening to a man tell the story of St. Antony, one of the first monks who retreated to the desert and whose monastic life of deep sacrifice and devotion inspired many to follow in his steps. This provokes Augustine to reflect seriously upon his own spiritual condition, causing him to leave the house in anguish.)
“I probed the hidden depths of my soul and wrung its pitiful secrets from it, and when I mustered them all before the eyes of my heart, a great storm broke within me, bringing with it a great deluge of tears. I stood up and left Alypius so that I might weep and cry to my heart’s content, for it occurred to me that tears are best shed in solitude… Somehow I flung myself down beneath a fig tree and gave way to the tears which now streamed from my eyes, the sacrifice that is acceptable to you. I had much to say to you, my God, not in these very words but in this strain: Lord, will you never be content? Must we always taste your vengeance? Forget the long record of our sins. For I felt that I was still the captive of my sins, and in my misery I kept crying, ‘How long shall I go on saying, “tomorrow, tomorrow”? Why not now? Why not make an end of my ugly sins at this moment?
“I was asking myself these questions, weeping all the while with the most bitter sorrow in my heart, when all of a sudden I heard the sing-song voice of a child in a nearby house. Whether it was the voice of a boy or a girl I cannot say, but again and again it repeated the refrain, ‘Take it and read, take it and read.’ At this I looked up, thinking hard whether there was any kind of game in which children used to chant words like these, but I could not remember ever hearing them before. I stemmed my flood of tears and stood up, telling myself that this could only be a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the first passage on which my eyes should fall. For I had heard the story of Antony, and I remembered how he had happened to go into a church while the Gospel was being read and had taken it as a counsel addressed to himself when he heard the words Go home and sell all that belongs to you. Give it to the poor, and so the treasure you have shall be in heaven; then come back and follow me. By this divine pronouncement he had at once been converted to you.
“So I hurried back to the place where Alypius was sitting, for when I stood up to move away I had put down the book containing Paul’s Epistles. I seized it and opened it, and in silence I read the first passage on which my eyes fell: Not in revelling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature’s appetites. I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, confidence flooded my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.” (177-178)