June/July 2008: Books Read

Last month I didn’t post my monthly brief reviews of books I read. The reason for this is that I didn’t read any books during the month of June. I took Herodotus’ The Histories with me on the cruise that I was on from June 3 to June 19, and read a bit of it after I got back, but didn’t finish it by the end of the month. Here it is, along with the other things I had my nose buried in during July:

1. Herodotus, The Histories. (The 1954 Aubrey de Selincourt translation) Herodotus is known as the “Father of History” largely because of this book, which is regarded as the first work of what we would today call “history.” It is ostensibly a history of the Greco-Persian wars that took place in the early fifth century B.C. However, it is sometimes difficult to follow the narrative because Herodotus interrupts himself so often. He doesn’t begin talking about the wars until well over halfway through the book. Instead, he sets the stage by giving histories of the Persians, the Greeks, the Scythians, and the Egyptians, among others, and passing along every story he has ever heard, whether true or not, about everyone and everything in the ancient world. As a source for information about the ancient world, it is invaluable. This is how we know almost all of what we know about, for example, the famous battles of Marathon and Thermopylae. As a narrative, though, it drags.

2. F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture. I’ve been talking with the pastors of my church about teaching an adult Sunday School class in September on how we got the Bible. As part of my background research on this topic, I read this book. Even though it came out almost 20 years ago, I think that it holds up well. First he writes about the Old Testament, and gives details about why some books were included by everyone, other books (the Apocrypha) were included by some, and still others were left out by everyone. He then does the same for the New Testament. I’d recommend this book to anyone who is curious about how the canon of Christian scripture was formed. Don’t read this book if you’re looking to have your ears tickled with titillating conspiracy theories about how the church “silenced” its enemies.

3. David Sedaris, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. I first heard of David Sedaris from his 2001 book Me Talk Pretty One Day. His comic, autobiographical essays are hilarious, though I’d only recommend them for adults (some of the essays have foul language or mature subject matter). One thing I particularly appreciate about Sedaris is the essays about his childhood, growing up in Raleigh, NC. Even though he is older than I am, I resonate with many of his observations about southern culture from my own North Carolina childhood. One of my favorite essays in this collection is “Rooster at the Hitchin’ Post,” about his brother Paul’s wedding. Here is a sampling:

My brother had chosen the [hotel] not for its sentimental value but because it allowed the various family dogs. Paul’s friends, a group the rest of us referred to as simply “the Dudes,” had also brought their pets, which howled and whined and clawed at the sliding glass doors. This was what happened to people who didn’t have children, who didn’t even know people who had children. The flower girl was in heat. The rehearsal dinner included both canned and dry food, and when my brother proposed a toast to his “beautiful bitch,” everyone assumed he was talking about the pug.

4. Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt and Certainty in Christian Discipleship. This book is a short one (104 pages), but an excellent one. It is one of the best books on religious epistemology I’ve ever read, and I think that it is sorely needed as many churches are struggling with how to be missionaries in our “postmodern” world. Newbigin relies a great deal on Michael Polanyi’s idea of “personal knowledge,” and applies it to Christian discipleship and missions.

5. Paul Wegner, A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible. I’ve had this book for over a year now, and finally got around to it because of the aforementioned Sunday School class I plan on teaching soon. This book has a different subject matter from the Bruce book above. Instead of asking how we got the canon, this book introduces the science and art of textual criticism, which is dedicated to determining as closely as possible what the original biblical texts said. The book can be a little technical (it is a “student’s guide,” after all), but I think that it will be a great resource. It has many charts and illustrations to help the reader get a sense of what the author is talking about, and the end of each chapter has a reading list for further study. It is also organized thoroughly, so you can find what you’re looking for easily. This is a worthwhile addition to my library of biblical reference books.