Comment remains one of my favourite journals, publishing thoughtful pieces on a wide variety of subjects, often asking the questions of how best to think as Christians and what practices emerge from our reflections about God’s redemptive work in the world. Readers care about a lot of stuff, and want to learn how to live in these times fruitfully and faithfully.
Of course, as a bookseller, it is a joy to talk about books that might be of interest to this exact sort of engaged, open-minded, and discerning reader. Here are a few choice titles that Comment readers might enjoy.
The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement by David Brooks (Random House, 2011)
Brooks is a well-known, moderately conservative columnist for The New York Times and a regular pundit on PBS and other U.S. news shows. His popularly-written sociological studies Bobos in Paradise and On Paradise Drive—about the newer upper classes in North America, how they got to be that way, and what visions drive them—are funny and insightful. Brooks’s new one is major, offered with plenty of his wit and good humour, exploring (as the subtitle explains) how people end up as they do. Between nearly every page or so of this “novel” (a thin device for a wide-ranging literature review) are helpful overviews of various social science findings, information about neuroscience and learning theory, and all manner of facts about what some researchers are claiming about human behaviour. From how sexual attraction happens to how learning works, from why some people can rise to great choices despite setbacks to why some people are more loyal and good, this is a wild ride through philosophy, anthropology, economics, and politics, all reported as ways to help us follow his characters, Harold and Erica, who want to fight off loneliness, find meaning in their work and civic life, and realize a deep sense of human connectedness. Brooks has done a ton of remarkable homework for us (he’s been listening to social scientists, visiting researchers, and reading voraciously for years) and has presented his findings and subsequent conclusions in an upbeat, interesting manner, lightly mixing fiction and non-fiction. This shows that interdisciplinary work can be fruitful in raising great questions, and that even fairly scholarly reporting need not be dry. Hooray!
God and Gadgets: Following Jesus in a Technological Age by Brad Kallenberg (Cascade Books, 2011)
Perhaps you’ve read recent books showing how our involvement online can erode our ability to read carefully, like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. Perhaps you’ve had recent conversations about the pros and cons of nuclear power. On a more mundane level, we are surrounded by and embedded in a technological culture—from asphalt and glass to electricity and dentistry. How ought we to relate to the blessings and curses and unintended consequences of the gadgets of our lives? Do they affect our discipleship and Christian witness? Kallenberg has been an engineer, a philosophy student, and a theology professor, and has previously written a good book on postmodern evangelism (Live to Tell). He’s a bit of a Heidegger and Wittgenstein scholar, too, but don’t let that scare you away—this book, while serious, is not exceedingly academic. It is a thoughtful work that explores our relationship to our stuff, especially the technological sorts so common in our hot-wired age. (It also takes some side strolls into related areas—how do we speak about technology? About faith? Fascinating!) If you are drawn to the books on our high-tech culture by authors such as Egbert Schuurman, Quentin Schultze, and Neil Postman, add Kallenberg to your list. This is a provocative discussion of a topic we simply must think about conscientiously.
Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor by Ben Witherington III (Eerdmans, 2011)
Some readers may not know that Comment, published by the think tank Cardus, grew out of the movement that also includes the Christian Labour Association of Canada, one of the great Reformed organizations founded in the mid-20th century to explore and give public witness to a Christian view of collective bargaining, affirming a strong and happily Biblical view of the meaning of work, and bringing normative reforms to the work site. Few mainline denominational leaders and even fewer evangelicals have held up so consistently a deeply Christian perspective on the dignity (and brokenness) of the world of work. Gladly, many great books on the topic have come out recently, and this is one of the best—short, mature, readable, and full of good ideas. Witherington is a United Methodist Bible scholar (having written an extraordinary number of high-quality New Testament commentaries) who has also done a few very nice books for non-specialists. A previous recent one (We Have Seen His Glory) was about how the theme of the Kingdom of God might affect our views of worship. Here, he asks how these themes affect our daily toil. He interacts with a few of the classics in the field—Miroslav Volf, Lee Hardy—and discusses contemporary authors Gene Edward Veith and Andy Crouch in great detail. This book is a great encouragement for Comment readers and a great resource for small groups, adult classes, or reading clubs that want to reflect on a distinctively and energetically Christian approach. Highly recommended.
The Thank You Economy by Gary Vaynerchuk (Harper Business, 2011)
Those who read the pop bestsellers on the business list (or those touted by high-tech motivational speakers like Seth Godin) know Vaynerchuk’s Crush It! He’s been called one of the top 20 authors entrepreneurs should read and is sometimes named in “top 50” movers-and-shakers lists. He is pushy and energetic, overstates much (and later admits it—he’s trying to get our attention, of course), and, like the best motivational speakers, has a way of saying some common sense stuff in ways that inspire us to take a deep breath, perhaps whisper a prayer, and set off to do something great. He is a bit of a serial entrepreneur, skilled at the “art of the start,” and justly famous for his early work on selling online. His freely offered information about wine is also justly famous, and his successful family wine business forms much of the backbone of this exciting book. Vaynerchuk thinks we have moved into an era where the virtues and habits of small-town, independently-owned businesses—treat your customers well because you care for them, because you know them—are making a comeback. Who isn’t tired of the big-box chains and their essential facelessness? Outsourced customer service folks who really don’t care, who you can hardly talk to? A business culture of anonymity and discourtesy? Vaynerchuk calls us to good manners, based on sincere care, and shows how we can use social media as an effective means to spread his gospel of connection and gratitude. I suppose it isn’t utterly profound, and one could poke quite a bit at his technological optimism. Still, a call to care? To be nice? To truly serve and find joy in forming authentic business relationships of—dare we say it—love? I could think of worse ideas. Pick this up for a quick shot in the arm and an invitation to get on board what he insists is the next big movement: creating businesses and organizations and systems and networks designed to convey the virtue of appreciation.
To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild (Houghton Mifflin, 2011)
This stunning book (over 400 pages) deserves more than my quick comments here. I will be to the point: Hochschild is one of the most energetic writers of history of our generation and has been awarded often for his prestigious work. His entire body of work has been honoured by the American Historical Association. King Leopold’s Ghost was a finalist for the National Book Award, as was his vivid Bury the Chains (about the British anti-slavery movement, including much on William Wilberforce). He is deservedly famous. This book is about World War I, one of the modern era’s most morally challenging wars, one of the most “senseless spasms of carnage” ever. This study is riveting from the first page onward and explores two major topics juxtaposed in the war years: the European war and the British war critics. Few books offer such fabulous character portrayal and few study both the generals and the pacifists, the heroes of the military and those who opposed them. And what a largely untold story it is! Britain’s leading investigative journalist was jailed, as was a future winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Some published newspapers on toilet paper. There were intimate connections, too—one of leaders of the most prominent woman’s anti-war organizations was the beloved brother of the commander-in-chief on the Western Front. The millions of lives lost stand as a witness to the urgency of studying this critical time period and this controversial world war. Hochschild is an author to read, and his approach is both compelling and significant.
Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises by Scott W. Hahn (Yale University Press, 2009)
This significant work came out a few years ago and is still not as well-known as it should be. At over 500 pages (over a quarter of them fascinating footnotes), this is Hahn’s long-awaited re-working of his much-discussed Ph.D. work. A former Protestant Calvinist, Hahn is now a much-loved Roman Catholic radio personality and his ecumenical faith journey shows in this extraordinary, brilliant, serious scholarship. Who else cites Meredith Kline, Walter Brueggemann, David Noel Freedman, and a host of up-to-date Catholic scholars? Who else has raving book blurbs by Jesuits from the Pontifical Biblical Institute and evangelical Scot McKnight, both insisting that this is “the” go-to work for serious information on the important notions of covenants in the Old (and somewhat) New Testament? Hahn surveys all of the important literature, explains the very best work, and makes a strong case that (as James Swetnam puts it) “life lived under Biblical covenant cannot be separated from life lived in relationships dictated by familial terms and ties. It is the family which is central to the Bible’s view of life.” This insight about ancient Near-Eastern covenant treaties is important, and this book is a richly documented, valuable contribution to the foundations of Biblical scholarship and our understanding of Biblical oaths and covenants. Those who work through this tome will be richly rewarded with a valuable learning experience.
The books listed above are all available from Byron Borger’s bookstore—Hearts & Minds Books.