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.
Veneer: Living Deeply in a Surface Society by Timothy Willard & Jason Locy (Zondervan, 2011)
Much has been written about consumerism and how the worldview of buying and selling has reduced our experience of much of life to less than what it should be—a full-orbed, opened-up awareness of life at its most meaningful, not reduced to dollars and cents. When we see life through the lenses of materialism, shaped by a pop culture that pushes a (false) gospel of more and bigger and slicker, we are driven to cover our hurts and ignore our God-given longing for spiritual depth.
As these two vibrant and skilled writers put it, we live with veneer—fake, thin, and finally neither good nor beautiful. Willard and Locy are young and hip and have a particularly acute awareness of this glitzy, mediated postmodern world, and they write with great poignancy about the sadness of life among their peers these days. Some are so upwardly mobile they cannot stop and enjoy their families. Others try so hard to fit in that they can hardly imagine a life of authenticity. Many are longing for a better story to indwell, but they have had their hearts captured by the vanities of social status. Not all of us are taken with the plastic promises of this media-shaped culture, but many of us are, even if we don’t quite admit it. This is a heartfelt cry for a generation to grow up, settle down, get real, and say no to the bright lights of our surface society. It is enhanced with great quotes and citations from thoughtful writers, and both authors share about their own quest for depth. Highly recommended, but especially for those who find themselves on the fast track, who sense in their quiet moments that they are increasingly consumed by consumption, and who long to admit to their pain and allow God to heal their brokenness.
The Kuyper Center Review: Volume One, edited by Gordon Graham (Eerdmans, 2010)
The Kuyper Center Review Volume Two, edited by John Bowlin (Eerdmans, 2011)
It is no secret that the mostly-Dutch faith community of neocalvinists—who began the organizations and reforming ministries that gave rise to Cardus and Comment—like to trace their theological and social loyalties to the former Prime Minister of Holland, the distinguished Abraham Kuyper. Many know his line about Christ’s claiming “every square inch” of creation and most know that he rejected both secularized and ideological conservatism and liberalism. Few, though, have reflected seriously on Kuyper’s social thought or his extraordinary legacy.
That is why I thank God for the renewed work at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, which not only holds the Kuyper library, but hosts annual events at its Kuyper Center for Public Theology. These two books have come from those stimulating events. They are detailed and serious papers that were presented at the conference, considerably raising the quality of Kuyperian discourse. We simply must be fluent in these kinds of conversations—so I highly recommended these books, even if they may seem a bit arcane to some. Volume One covers “Politics, Religion and Sphere Sovereignty,” while Volume Two carries the subtitle “Revelation and Common Grace” (which has a particular emphasis on the work of Kuyper’s own hero, Herman Bavinck). A rare array of international contributors makes these exceptional anthologies.
The Mind and the Machine: What It Means to Be Human and Why It Matters by Matthew Dickerson (Brazos, 2011)
Increasingly, theological anthropology—a Christian perspective on the meaning of being human—is being written and taken seriously. Perhaps this is because of technological encroachment, or perhaps it is due to remarkable new discoveries by neuroscientists and the new generation of brain studies. In any case, there are several recent books from which to choose if one wants to stay current with this fast-developing field. (Christian Smith, for instance, has an extraordinarily detailed and much-discussed text called What Is A Person? from Oxford University Press, which attempts to assert a new normative perspective within the field of sociology.)
But I can think of no better recent book on all this than this new work by Middlebury College professor Matthew Dickerson. Dickerson is well-suited for this broad topic: he teaches both computer science and environmental studies (do you know his books called The Fields of Arbol or Ents, Elves and Eriador? Yep, he’s quite the fantasy buff, too). In The Mind and the Machine, he is asking that huge question—are we or are we not mostly just biochemical machines? It is a complex question, and this is a highly engaging study that draws on a wide range of material. He’s a great writer, too. His critique of progress is particularly significant, and his reminder of the dangers of losing a classic view of the person is prophetic.
The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created The Soul of Western Civilization by Vishal Mangalwadi (Nelson, 2011)
Those who know the legacy of Francis and Edith Schaeffer and their community called L’Abri may have heard of this author. In the 1970s, he studied in the Swiss Alps with Schaeffer and the L’Abri community, returned to his own culture in India, and there took up the cause of the oppressed, insisting that the Hindu worldview was inadequate to form a sustainable foundation for serious social reform in his homeland. He is a vibrant writer and speaker and a profound thinker; it is not insignificant to call him the Francis Schaeffer of the subcontinent. In this well-documented, wide-ranging work, he (as an outsider to the West) reminds us of how very central the Bible has been to our culture and how the very best fruits of Western civilization can be traced to a Judeo-Christian response to Biblical revelation. It has earned rave reviews from people like apologist Ravi Zacharias, historian George Marsden, and worldview-guru James Sire. Art Lindsley, author of C.S. Lewis’ Case for Christ, says it is a “tract for our times and a must-read for anyone concerned with impacting our culture.”
Ravished By Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality by Belden C. Lane (Oxford University Press, 2011)
Lane has written two renowned books, both of which explore the nexus of wilderness (deserts and mountains) and spirituality. Although he writes as an historian, his memoiristic Solace of Fierce Landscapes is beloved in the world of outdoor education and spiritual formation. In this long-awaited new release, he explores how the piety of the Reformed tradition has yielded an immense concern for profound experience and the nature of beauty. This may be new ground for some and will be a glad reassurance for many. As William Dyrness, professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, puts it, “Rereading Calvin and Edwards, Lane finds neglected (and surprising) resources in the Reformed tradition for seeing creation as a rich and wild theater of fulfilled desires. In the process he teaches the reader to share creation’s passionate and conflicted yearning for God, and to join its praise of God’s loveliness.”
The Next Story: Life and Faith After the Digital Explosion by Tim Challies (Zondervan, 2011)
I’ve proclaimed in these pages—and anywhere else I can, short of a soap box at the mall—the importance of The Shallows, the riveting critique of the internet by Nicholas Carr. Carr worries that screening, scanning, and skimming has eroded our brain’s ability to think well, and he raises very important questions about how technology may be affecting us. Challies, a conservative evangelical Christian known for his good writing about basic Christian discipleship and robust Reformed doctrine, does his own fair share of reading and writing. And as he tells in this brand new book, he uses his electronic devices daily.
I am glad that he has turned his attention to the shallows, and this careful study has much to offer. He wisely offers a bit of history of the rise of digital technologies and wonders how we can think about, and engage with, the latest gizmos and gadgets without compromising our essential posture of being Christ-like “in but not of” the world. His flow of ideas is clear, his teacherly overview of the scope of the problems is helpful, and his intentionally Christian resolve is inspiring. He tells good, personal stories and offers a prudent approach to both the benefits and the temptations of our Web 2.0 experiences. The last section, in which he shares how writing the book affected his habits and practices, is great, reminding us that faithful navigation of cultural forces may take great prayer and small steps. Very nicely done.
The books listed above are all available from Byron Borger’s bookstore—Hearts & Minds Books.