My favorite books of 2013, in order:
1. Seven Men: And the Secret of their Greatness by Eric Metaxas.
I’m breaking a rule with this one: including it as one of my top reads before I’ve finished it. But I’m just over halfway through the book, and it’s already my favorite! Expertly employing historical narrative, Metaxas introduces us or reminds us of these seven great men: George Washington, William Wilberforce, Eric Liddel, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jackie Robinson, Pope John Paul II and Chuck Colson. Their greatness, Metaxas explains, is in their use of their power and position to serve others. Indeed, we can and should all recognize this as that which makes one truly great.
2. The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God by Timothy Keller.
I read this to prepare for marriage this year, and it’s a book my wife and I will go back to many times during the course of our marriage for guidance and motivation when the going gets tough. Keller expounds on the biblical principles laid down for husbands and wives and shows us the power, the essence, and mission of marriage. It’s replete with useful principles and examples of meaningful, Christ-centered marriage, but one of the most helpful insights I took was the view of marriage as, ultimately, “spiritual friendship” between two sinners in need of God’s grace. Five months into my marriage, I affirm that this is indeed the bread-and-butter of our union – daily friendship and companionship in which we not only greatly enjoy one another, but also encourage and gently push each other to grow in our love for God and others. Keller’s important book explains the theology and teaches the practice behind meaningful marriage.
3. Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled his Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk.
Most people recognize the greatness of Abraham Lincoln, but few know the crucial role of his struggle with lifelong, persistent clinical depression in forming and strengthening his character. Shenk sheds light on Lincoln’s condition, which began in his 20s when he had his first severe bout of depression, with the understanding of our modern understanding of this illness, and he demonstrates how Lincoln’s trials with depression prepared him for the gargantuan trials of his presidency and the nation. This book illuminates and consistently fascinates, besides being eloquently and delightfully written.
4. The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr.
Though too few today have heard of him, Reinhold Niebuhr was a towering theologian and public intellectual at mid-century. He wrote this book as a critical self-examination for our nation, which following WWII found itself as the unchallenged superpower in a world threatened by the menace of Communism. Clear-eyed about the evil and perversion of communism, Niebuhr called on the American public and their leaders to not be blind about our own contradictions and ironies, such as professing noble universal ideals of peace and freedom while securing them through the threat of nuclear annihilation, as demonstrated in Japan at the close of the war. He argued that as the necessary and often tragic exercise of leadership in the world meant that we would not be able to keep intact our professed innocence and virtues. Still, he was clear that the consequences of inaction and isolationism are worse still. This profound and prophetic work, written in 1952, remains as relevant as ever today.
5. Making Sense out of Suffering by Peter Kreeft.
“This is a book for anyone who has ever wept and wondered, ‘Why?’” begins this book. A philosophy professor at Boston College, Kreeft takes the reader by the hand and brings him to the feet of philosophers, theologians, artists and writers to help him better understand the why behind the painful but universal reality of suffering. Kreeft’s gentle wisdom is displayed on every page, making this a deeply personal and moving journey in addition to an intellectual examination of the various and often inadequate answers to suffering found in different religious and philosophical worldviews.
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.”
Have you ever paused to consider how much of our culture is influenced by that seminal phrase, “the pursuit of happiness”? I think it’s fair to say that before these words were penned into our Declaration of Independence, no nation had ever before staked its people’s happiness as one of its founding principles and a reason for being.
Today we see this fixation with happiness in many places, from the check-out lines where Cosmopolitan reveals its “7 Secrets to Happiness” to the Barnes & Noble with the prominent display of Gretchen Rubin’s #1 New York Times bestseller, The Happiness Project (Harper, 2011). But “happiness” is no simple proposition, and too often in its pursuit we forget that more important than mere happiness is the wisdom needed to negotiate life’s challenges and to know when to try to change one’s circumstances and when to accept, and even embrace them. This kind of wisdom produces not happiness, but joy and peace. Alternatively, does the absence of “happiness” indicate personal failure? Are those whose days are more characterized by difficulty and suffering than cheery happiness doing something wrong or missing out on a fuller and better experience of life?
In his recent book, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (Penguin, 2013), Tim Keller writes that one of the major failings of modern society is that it fails to provide an adequate framework, if any, for understanding suffering. He explains that unlike in previous civilizations where suffering and trials were understood to be a crucial aspect of life which could better one’s character, many people today are more likely to see suffering as an accident of life to be avoided and removed from human experience.
More than fifty years ago Reinhold Niehbur wrote eloquently about this dilemma for American society, calling it “our difficulty as a nation.” Does this still hold true today? And has it gotten worse?
“The real question is whether a religion or a culture is capable of interpreting life in a dimension sufficiently profound to understand and anticipate the sorrows and pains which may result from a virtuous regard for our responsibilities; and to achieve a serenity within sorrow and pain which is something less but also something more than ‘happiness.’ Our difficulty as a nation is that we must now learn that prosperity is not simply coordinated to virtue, that virtue is not simply coordinated to historic destiny and that happiness is no simple possibility of human existence” (The Irony of American History, University of Chicago, 1952), 52.
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.”