August 2010: Books Read

1. Same Kind of Different as Me by Ron Hall and Denver Moore. Reviewed earlier here.

2. Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir by Stanley Hauerwas. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas’s memoir is called Hannah’s Child, but it could easily have been called Things that Didn’t Occur to Me At the Time. Out of the long list of things in his life that he acknowledges he was clueless about, a few are that a person would go to divinity school in order to prepare for ministry, that Protestants would not be allowed to partake in Catholic Mass, or that he would have to get used to the differences between Durham and South Bend when he moved from Notre Dame to Duke.

Nevertheless, this was a fascinating book. Hauerwas tells his readers exactly what they expect in a theologian’s memoir: how he came to study theology at Yale in the first place, how he was influenced by his professors, how he came to be one of the few Protestants on the theological faculty at Notre Dame, how he was influenced by John Howard Yoder and Alasdair MacIntyre (among others), and how he came to teach at Duke. He also tells us more: specifically, he talks frankly about his marriage to a woman with bipolar disorder. In some ways, this memoir is a paean to friendship, and he tells us all about the many people he has encountered and become friends with along the way.

The only interactions with him that I have ever had were a letter that he was kind enough to respond to in 2001, and a brief meeting when he came to Vancouver to give the Grenz Lectures in 2009 (he autographed one of his books that I bought for my dad). But at the end of this book, after having him open up so much of his life, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit as if Stanley had become my friend.

3. William F. Buckley (Christian Encounters Series) by Jeremy Lott. Reviewed earlier here.

4. Getting It Right: A Novel by William F. Buckley. I read this book because Lott mentioned it in his biography of Buckley. Somehow I had missed that Buckley was a novelist in addition to being conservative pundit, and so I decided to read one of his efforts. I chose this one in particular because it contained Buckley’s critique of Ayn Rand, whose Objectivist philosophy seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance at the moment.

Besides being a critique of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, it is a fictionalized history of conservatism between 1956 and 1965, beginning with the repressed Hungarian Revolution and ending just after Barry Goldwater’s failed bid for president. In addition to critiquing Ayn Rand, it also contains a critique of the paranoid anti-Communist John Birch Society. Buckley himself makes a cameo, and it is clear by the end of the book that it is his brand of conservatism (rather than that of Rand or the JBS) that ought to win, and in fact did win.

5. The Richest Man in Babylon by George S. Clason. While Buckley’s book was a fictionalized history of mid-20th-century conservatism, this book was fictionalized financial advice. Clason wrote this book in the 1920s, but in a stroke of genius he set it in Babylon and told it as a set of ancient parables. His advice is nothing new, but striking because it is so seldom followed: save 10% of all you earn. Be conservative rather than greedy in your investments. Seek investment advice, especially in areas you are not familiar with. Not particularly exciting stuff, but this book has had enduring popularity in part because of its brilliant presentation. It’s a story, which is always more interesting than straight advice, and it is presented as wisdom from the ancients. The edition I read was even in King James English, though I believe there is a modern-English version.

6. The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith by Tim Keller. In this short book, Keller focuses on the familiar parable of the “prodigal son,” but presents it in an unusual way. That difference can be seen in the title: “prodigal” doesn’t mean “lost,” as so many people assume, but rather “recklessly extravagant; having spent everything.” This is why Keller applies the word to God, who as the father in the parable is extravagant both in giving his son his inheritance prematurely and in welcoming him back when he returns.

Though this book is short, it gave me a lot to chew on. Take this quote: “Mercy and forgiveness must be free and unmerited to the wrongdoer. If the wrongdoer has to do something to merit it, then it isn’t mercy, but forgiveness always comes at a cost to the one granting the forgiveness” (83). Also, his description of the elder brother – and his claim that the elder brother was just as lost as the younger brother, but didn’t know it – struck home. Jesus told this parable so that the Pharisees would understand why he spent time with people they regarded as sinners, and to invite them to lay down their religious moralism and superiority. I was left wondering, How have I been an elder brother?

The main thing that I will take away from this book is this: Keller makes a sharp distinction between religious moralism and Christianity. This is a distinction that needs to be made sharply in our world, where Christianity (at times deservedly) has the reputation of being the same as religious moralism.