What I've Been Reading Lately
Among the hats I wear, I’m a Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics and a Fellow with Samford University’s Center for Science and Religion. This means I get to read a lot of books at the intersection of science, scripture, and supply & demand. Here are a few things I’ve read recently that fit (loosely) within this capacity. I should call this the “Doug Stuart Post” because a few of these have been recommended by Doug Stuart at LibertarianChristians.com. Faith has been a force for liberation–see the end of slavery in the West, for example–but it can also be a force for tyranny as it’s very easy, by picking and choosing within holy texts, to justify just about any horrific thing you want to do.
I’m working on a book with Deirdre McCloskey on rhetoric and economic change. Economic, political, social, and cultural change takes place within the context of a broad cultural milieu that includes how we think about the past, the present, the future, the afterlife, the roles of men and women, and The Good. In short, to borrow from McCloskey, how we think about things like faith, hope, love, courage, temperance, justice, and prudence has as its by-product either liberty, dignity, and prosperity or tyranny, humiliation, and poverty.
1. Rachel Held Evans, Evolving in Monkey Town and A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Ms. Evans spoke at my institution in late September, and her lecture & Q&A session were my first experiments with Sketchnoting, a note-taking practice I’ve adopted (see my Kosmos post on this). I was able to snap up Kindle versions of her books for $2.99 each, and they’re quick and entertaining reads. My takeaways from her talk and books were these: interpreting the Bible isn’t as easy at it might at first seem once you consider (in no particular order) the historical and cultural context, advances in science, similarities between Biblical accounts of human origins and other ancient texts, and evolving language. Too often–and this is Evans’ point–the word “Biblical” is used as a weapon. I fear that it’s becoming a weasel word in Christian circles.
2. Sharon Baker, Razing Hell. Doug Stuart had recommended this to me some time ago, and I wonder if the popular conception of hell (as a place of eternal, conscious torment) is (wait for it) really Biblical. Baker argues, quite persuasively, that the answer is “no.” With respect to my project with Professor McCloskey, I’m interested in how changing conceptions of redemption and damnation might have contributed to liberty and prosperity.
3. CS Lewis, The Great Divorce. This is possibly the best book I’ve ever read. Lewis considers eternity and explores one of Lewis’s claims about eternity: “I willingly believe that the damned are, in on sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.” Reading Lewis motivated me to read Baker as Lewis presents what I think is a much more intellectually and emotionally appealing view of eternity than traditional interpretations. Once again, I’m motivated to look into how depictions of eternity have influenced how people talk and act during the here and now and, ultimately, what this means for human liberty, dignity, and prosperity.
4. Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam; What the Bible does and doesn’t say about human origins. This is a reading for a future Center for Science and Religion discussion. Enns asks how we need to revise our understandings of origins in light of the similarities between the Genesis account and other ancient texts, and he further considers why Paul, as a man in the early 1st century, thought as he did about origins. I would summarize Enns as follows: belief in a literal Adam is not necessary (though it may be sufficient?) for the integrity of core Christian doctrines. Here’s a short video with Enns on “Challenging Old Assumptions.”
5. NT Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God. McCloskey and I refer to what she calls The Great Enrichment as “the most important secular event in human history.” I’m about 200 pages into this, and I stalled on it a while ago before picking it back up again yesterday. Wright argues that the idea of Christ’s bodily resurrection was (and remains) the unique historical claim of the Christian faith. It’s a dense read, and one I hope to grit my teeth and finish within the next few weeks.
At the risk of being uncharitable, I come from a faith tradition (conservative evangelicalism) that is unfortunately soaked in fear: believing that we share common ancestry with other species or believing that the first few chapters Genesis may not describe actual historical events is often construed as the first step down a slippery slope into total apostasy. Someday, I hope to write a detailed response to this view tentatively titled “The Gospel Beyond Fear.” But that will have to wait until about umpteen dozen other projects are complete. Until then, please content yourself with The Veritas Forum, the BioLogos Foundation, and the “Letters to Creationists” blog, written incidentally by the father of one of the graduate students I mentor through IHS.
As a bonus for those of you who have read this far:
6. James Altucher, Choose Yourself. Not a book about religion, but it’s a fun contribution to the self-help/personal productivity genre. I discussed it for Kosmos last week. Altucher notes, though, that he spends at least a little bit of time each day considering the sacred.