Here are my top five books of this year. All are excellent in their own way, but I’ve ordered them with the ones I consider the most widely helpful and applicable at the top.
5. Born Again by Charles Colson
Before he was “born again” by putting his faith in Christ, Charles Colson was Special Counsel to President Nixon and known as Nixon’s “hatchet man,” “incapable of humanitarian thoughts” and willing to do anything to get the job done. With the Watergate scandal, Colson fell from the summit of power to the depths of nationally-televised trials, a conviction, and seven months in prison. This experience showed him the emptiness of power, revealed his ugly pride, and opened his heart to a new and infinitely better boss: Jesus Christ. This candid, moving, and powerful autobiography takes the reader into the smoke-filled rooms where Nixon men schemed of ways to destroy their opponents, through the heady days of Watergate, and illustrates the power of the Gospel to transform one’s life in ways nobody thought possible.
4. Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics by Robert Benne
Don’t mind the ugly cover; this book is an excellently reasoned guide to thinking about politics from a Christian perspective. Benne rejects what he sees as two wrong ways to relate religion and politics: “separationism” and “fusionism.” The first would have Christians reject all political engagement, and the second fuses religion and politics in an unwarranted manner that ends up distorting both. He offers a better way: a helpful framework for discerning how the Christian faith informs political stances and involvement. This is a helpful read for those who are wary of the use of Christianity by politicians and political parties who are more interested in scoring political points than being faithful to the teachings of religion. It is also good that Benne does not say what positions Christians should hold on specific issues, though he does use a few, such as abortion, as examples for his framework.
3. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
In this book Stevenson, an attorney who runs a non-profit legal defense group in Montgomery, Alabama, shares how he went from a directionless Harvard Law student who didn’t connect with his studies to becoming a passionate defender of the poor and disadvantaged whose lives are being stolen, and for some, threatened by an electric chair, by a broken criminal justice system. The people Stevenson represents are typically poor, uneducated, and often with disabilities, many of whom don’t receive the attention and care necessary to address the struggles they face. Full of harrowing real-life stories, Just Mercy is eye-opening, infuriating, tragic, yet ultimately hopeful. And if you pick it up, make sure you keep some tissues with you.
2. What’s Best Next? How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done by Matt Perman
As those who know him say, there is probably no one who has thought more about the relationship between the Gospel and productivity than Matt, and I think this book proves it. He first lays out the theological basis for caring about productivity, arguing that real productivity is not just getting things done, but getting the right things done. Christians are called to be rich in “good works,” which means we should seek to be productive not only because this brings glory to God, but also because our good works and effectiveness in doing them blesses our family, friends, or co-workers. Beyond being theologically sharp, Matt is full of practical advice, showing through his example and that of others who’ve written on productivity and management how to create a “life vision,” set goals, plan out your week, process e-mail, and so much more. Want to start the new year with a bang? Do yourself a favor and get this book!
1. Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller
In his characteristically thoughtful way, Tim Keller, who is the pastor of a large church in Manhattan, tackles the subject of suffering and offers biblical counsel on how to “walk with God” through trials and suffering. He begins by showing how our modern culture fails to see the uses of suffering that many in ages past recognized, resulting in inadequate ways of dealing with suffering. Keller then looks at the various reasons for and types of suffering (if you’re in the middle of suffering and just really need a hug, skip the entire first half of this book), and then shows us how the Bible depicts suffering and offers examples, such as Job, of how we can respond to and redeem our suffering. The biblical answer, as he describes, is compelling, in that it tells us to not ignore or run away from our suffering, but to trust the God who knows our pain and walk through the suffering as we talk to God (prayer) and hold him by the hand.
In Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics (Eerdmans, 2010), Robert Benne offers the following excellent, basic distillation of the principle of religious freedom as it ought to be applied in the United States. This distinction is too often blurred, or simply omitted, by those who would remove all reference to religion from the public square in the name of the legitimate principle of separation of church and state, which addresses institutions. As Benne notes in the last sentence, thoughtful Christians will inevitably, and legitimately, engage their faith in the world of politics and policy:
“The state should not confuse separation of church and state, which deals with institutional relationships, with the separation of religion and politics, which deals with the interaction of religious values and perspectives and the political process. The latter is protected by the First Amendment, whose first freedom enables religious persons and institutions to bring their religious values to bear in the political process. Further, such interaction is inevitable when Christians take seriously the comprehensive scope of God’s sovereignty and their duty to that sovereign God” (55-56).
In his tremendously helpful Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics (Eerdmans, 2010), Robert Benne lays out the two main ways to wrongly relate religion and politics – separationism, which calls for a strict removal of faith and religious values from the public square, and fusionism, which seeks to marry religion to politics in a way that has repeatedly proved toxic and destructive for religion itself. Benne then argues for “critical engagement,” whereby Christians critically participate in politics by seeking to move from the “core” insights of their faith (e.g. the fallenness of man, or the dignity of life in all its forms) to public policy, allowing for sincere disagreement on certain trickier issues.
In the excerpt below, on the problems of separationism, Benne shows how many of us do this – compartmentalize faith – in other areas of life besides politics. The right approach, he argues, and I would heartily agree, integrates faith in a way self-critical, thoughtful, and sensible way to all areas of life. But separate it must not remain, for if Christians had always practiced this – keeping religious values out of various spheres of public life – we wouldn’t have the likes of Isaac Newton, William Wilberforce, and Eric Liddel, whose Christian faith spurred their historical achievements in the fields of science, politics, and sports, respectively.*
“The vast majority of separationism…is not driven by faulty theology. Most is a product of practical tendencies to separate religion from ordinary life – Sunday from Monday through Saturday. People don’t have to be sectarians or dualists in theory; they just think and act in ways that separate religion and ordinary life, including politics. One major reason for such dualism is that since the coming of modern times…each sector of life is increasingly divided from other sectors of life, each being purportedly guided by its own autonomous principles. So practical wisdom gives the verdict that ‘religion and politics don’t mix.’ Religion and science don’t mix. Religion and business don’t mix. Religion and art don’t mix. Religion and sport don’t mix. So Christians segment themselves according to the sector of life that they inhabit at the time. They are bifurcated or trifurcated Christians.
“While there is some truth to this segmentation – there is a tentative autonomy to these various sectors – there is no final autonomy. From a Christian point of view all sectors are under the sovereignty of God, and he is active in them… There can be no areas that are free and clear from the presence and commands of God. Practical separationism is as bad as theoretical separationism. Both must be rejected by serious, classical Christians” (23-24).
* Wilberforce was the 18th-century British politician who led the campaign to abolish the slave trade, and Eric Liddel was the Scottish runner and missionary who famously refused to participate in an event at the 1924 Olympics because it would have forced him to compromise his Christian convictions (the film Chariots of Fire was based on this).
What if a hospital refused to see you because last summer you volunteered for the political party opposite of that of your Governor? What if you were dropped by your insurance company because you signed a petition calling for the passage of a law opposed by the President? We would be outraged if these things happened in this country regularly and without consequence, and rightly so. Sadly, this has been the reality in Venezuela for many years under Hugo Chávez, and it continues today under his hand-picked and less talented successor, Nicolás Maduro.
In his timely and important book, The Dictator’s Learning Curve (Anchor, 2013), William Dobson gives us a glimpse of the abuse of state resources by government officials who target those who act to challenge the state:
“In one case documented by Human Rights Watch, a ninety-eight-year-old woman was denied medical prescriptions she had been receiving for years; when her family inquired, they were told it was because she had signed the referendum [for a recall vote challenging Chávez]. One person I met told me a similar story. Her fiancé required immediate medical attention and went to the emergency room of a government-run hospital. The hospital representative was in the process of admitting him, until she ran his voting identification card through the computer. He was told he would have to go someplace else…In a society ruled by patronage politics, being identified as an enemy of the state can have serious consequences…Venezuelans used the list against fellow citizens to decide everything from who is hired or fired to who gets a passport or is audited by the tax authorities” (100).
Twentieth-century theologian, public intellectual, and prophet, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote powerfully about America’s role in the world. He beckoned Americans to examine their own values in light of their professed virtues and noble national goals, reminding a nation of the need for humility and faith even as it pursues justice and confronts real evil in a morally ambiguous and often tragic world. In his classic The Irony of American History (University of Chicago, 1952), he achieved the nearly impossible: critiquing his own society from within, like an astute and wise outside observer, but with eyes of faith which transcended the events of his day.
A short sampling of some of my favorite excerpts:
“A sane life requires that we have some clue to the mystery so that the realm of meaning is not simply reduced to the comprehensible processes of nature. But these clues are ascertained by faith, which modern man has lost.”
“Genuine community is established only when the knowledge that we need one another is supplemented by the recognition that ‘the other,’ that other form of life, or that other unique community is the limit beyond which our ambitions must not run and the boundary beyond which our life must not expand.”
“The God before whom ‘the nations are as a drop in the bucket and are counted as small dust in the balances’ is known by faith and not by reason. The realm of mystery and meaning which encloses and finally makes sense out of the baffling configurations of history is not identical with any scheme of rational intelligibility. The faith which appropriates the meaning in the mystery inevitably involves an experience of repentance for the false meaning which the pride of nations and cultures introduces into the pattern. Such repentance is the true source of charity; and we are more desperately in need of genuine charity than of more technocratic skills.”
“…the whole drama of human history is under the scrutiny of a divine judge who laughs at human pretensions without being hostile to human aspirations.”
“…humility…is the prerequisite of every spiritual achievement.”
“Those who succeed in life, whether by the acquisition of power, wealth, or wisdom, do incline to value their achievements too highly and to forget the fragmentary character of all human achievements.”
My work exposes me to difficult questions about America’s role and responsibility in the world community. Iran and the nuclear bomb. The use of chemical weapons against innocents in Syria. Billions in assistance to Egyptian strongmen who offend our democratic sensibilities but who ensure our national interests in the Middle East. These examples are the ones that grab the headlines, but there are many more like them that are no less complex.
Though I have no decision making responsibility over these matters, the people I work for do, and their responsibility forces me to consider the inevitable exercise of American leadership on the world stage. On the one hand we see the reality of this exercise – far from perfect, sometimes hypocritical, but, as I and many others see it, on the whole good and indispensable; and on the other hand we hold the ideal of this exercise – the promotion of the universal principles of liberty, equality and human dignity through our engagement with the world.
Too often in our discourse and our policymaking we lose the balance between the actual and the ideal: some jettison any notion of universal norms and humanitarian disinterestedness as self-defeating delusions that have no place in the exercise of foreign policy in the real world, and others would seek to wield American power to crusade against all injustice and, whether unilaterally or in concert with international bodies, seek to prevent conflict everywhere and usher in world peace. Two men exemplifying these two spectrums are Henry Kissinger, the brilliant realist behind Nixon’s opening to China, and Woodrow Wilson, the academic architect of the League of Nations who said he was taking the U.S. into World War I to “make the world safe for democracy.”
To this discussion Reinhold Niebuhr offers wise words which, though written 1952, remain as relevant and pressing today. Public intellectual, Christian theologian and adamant anti-communist, Niebuhr was clear-eyed about the shortcomings of our nation as it proclaimed its virtue against the evil of communism. In The Irony of American History, he shattered the illusion that we as a nation could keep intact our innocence and virtues and still fulfill our responsibility to the world. He understood that though this exercise of leadership is inevitably imperfect and sometimes tragic, the consequences of inaction and isolationism are worse still. Today’s idealists who call on our leaders to either retreat from the world stage or pursue a more innocent and pure foreign policy would do well to consider his words:
“They [the idealists of the 1930s] had a dim and dark understanding of the fact that power cannot be wielded without guilt, since it is never transcendent over interest, even when it tries to subject itself to universal standards and places itself under the control of a nascent world-wide community. They did not understand that the disavowal of the responsibilities of power can involve an individual or nation in even more grievous guilt.”
This country needs more men like George Kennan.
George Kennan is best known for his “X” article, which laid out the policy of containment that was to define decades of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union. George Kennan (1904-2005) was an accomplished diplomat, a devoted husband (a marriage of over 70 years!), a natural teacher, a meticulous historian, and a gifted writer. But perhaps the best way to describe him is as “conscience of a nation,” as John Lukacs puts it in his excellent biography, George Kennan: A Study of Character (Yale, 2009). What made George Kennan invaluable as a diplomat was that he was the best kind of patriot: a man who so loved his country that he did not turn a blind eye to its faults and defects but shined a light on them, wishing the improvement of our character and conduct as a nation. He was deeply committed to the principles of liberty and equality and believed America should exert its influence in the world, but he deplored the tendency toward wrongheaded, righteous interventions and the increasing overextension of our military throughout the world. In this vein he often quoted John Quincy Adams: “We are friends of liberty all over the world; but we do not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” This posture earned him the ire of both liberals and conservatives, and so it should be, for he had “no doctrines, only principles.”
George Kennan led a long and fruitful life, leaving behind a mountain of writings on the role of the U.S. in the world. As our country faces many serious threats, it is worth recalling the lessons of this sober-minded and clear-eyed American, of which the most important may be, humility:
“Remember that the ultimate judgments of good and evil are not ours to make: that the wrath of man against his fellow man must always be tempered by the recollection of his weakness and fallibility and by the example of forgiveness and redemption which is the essence of his Christian heritage.” (130, quoted from his 1953 address to University of Notre Dame).