My Year in Books

I usually don’t plan out my reading, and this past year was no exception. As I look back, however, I’m happy with my mix of topics and genres.

On average I read or listened to a book a week in 2023, about thirty of them being nonfiction. Of those, twenty covered topics like the Christian life, the church calendar, Christian political involvement, and the New Testament. The other ten were general nonfiction titles including three memoirs and two in American history.

Of the twenty-two fiction titles, the biggest single group (nine books) was SciFi and Fantasy which is a favorite for me. Another three were young adult and the rest general fiction, set mostly during the last hundred years.

Here are some of the best from my year:

Educated by Tara Westover (2018) is the astounding memoir of a woman who grew up in a radically survivalist family in Idaho, who never went to school and was only self-taught till she, amazingly, was accepted into college. The story is almost unimaginable how she managed to extricate herself from the iron grip of this sub-subculture reinforced by its extremist religious beliefs, violence, and emotional intimidation.

Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri (2020) is another memoir which opens a window into a very different culture. The author (now an adult) writes from the perspective of his young self, forced out of Iran as a refugee and ending up in Oklahoma. He delightfully communicates his obvious love for his native Persian culture even as he, his mother (the book’s hero) and his sister escape the religious persecution of his homeland. A book full of heart and sorrow and hope.

Tell Her Story by Nijay Gupta (2023) carefully unpacks the life and ministry of women in the New Testament that is hidden in plain sight. In everyday prose, he also provides valuable cultural background which the New Testament authors left unsaid because they would have assumed all their readers would have known it. While ancient Jewish, Greek, and Roman cultures were clearly patriarchal, many women of note were exceptions which we likewise see in the earliest Christian communities.

Rembrandt Is in the Wind by Russ Ramsey (2022) offers a wonderful meditation on the worth and importance of beauty in our lives. In nine chapters this consummate storyteller highlights nine artists from the last five hundred years of the Western world. In each he tells the story of the artist, or of a particular artwork, or of the subject of the art. The tales and their backstories are fascinating, engrossing, and sometimes tragic. Ramsey weaves together mysteries, human drama and more into compelling tapestries. A book of wisdom, of grace, and of beauty.

My local library has used the tagline: “Never apologize for your reading tastes.” Whether your reading is fun or serious, long or short, many or few, may your reading fill you in the coming year.

The Book We Need This Year

When I was recently asked to do a six-minute radio interview on Francis Schaeffer’s classic The Mark of the Christian, I was reminded what a good book it would be to read this year. With all the political vitriol sure to be spouted incessantly, Christians will be challenged. Will we follow the world’s ways or follow Jesus’ command to his disciples to “love one another” (John 13:34)?

If we frequently listen to radio, TV, podcasts and even sermons that tell us that people who disagree with our political views are ignorant and unbiblical, if not downright in league with the devil, how can we help but think and feel the same?

Schaeffer makes two compelling points from John’s gospel in this book that can be read in just an hour. First, if we don’t show love toward other Christians, then non-Christians have the right to say we aren’t Christians at all. “By this,” Jesus says, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

And Jesus was right. That is exactly what happens when my neighbors see how much Christians show hatred toward others. “How can they call themselves Christian when they act so unlike Jesus?”

Schaeffer’s second point is perhaps even more dramatic. When Christians show loving harmony and grace toward each other, that is “the final apologetic.” It is proof that the gospel is true. When Christians are “brought to complete unity,” Jesus says, “then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:21). Schaeffer’s timeless book closes with some very practical counsel on how to do just this.

In 2024 reading The Mark of the Christian can set us on the right path. Who’s lead will we follow? The polarizing voices of our political persuasion? Or the voice of Jesus?

Avoiding Biblical Missteps

Interpreting the Old Testament can be a tricky business. What do we do with all those laws in Leviticus? Do the promises to Israel apply to us or the church, or neither? And those prophecies in Daniel—they are pretty weird. The author of Ecclesiastes also seems kind of depressed. Does he need cheering up?

In Wisdom for Faithful Reading, John Walton (author of the stellar volume The Lost World of Genesis One) offers much helpful advice on how to keep going off the rails into fanciful interpretations of prophecy and unwarranted applications of narratives. His valuable principles include:

♦ Stay close to the biblical author’s intentions and purposes
♦ Consider closely the linguistic, literary, cultural, and theological context of each passage
♦ Don’t impose our modern ideas, context, or worldview on a text
♦ Remember that genre (whether poetry, prophecy, genealogies, narrative, wisdom literature) is key to understanding
♦ Avoid reading the Bible as a how-to book or an instruction manual
♦ Keep asking this main question about each passage: “What can we learn about God, his plans, and his purposes?”

At each point, Walton offers many concrete examples from all over the Old Testament that illustrate and illuminate each point.

His examples of correct interpretation, however, may reveal a problem for many readers. While his analysis in each sample text is insightful and helpful, he gives the impression that if you don’t know Greek and Hebrew as well as he does, and if you aren’t thoroughly trained in ancient Middle Eastern culture and customs as he is, you can’t possibly understand the Bible. Though he tries to address that, overall it can be discouraging for ordinary readers.

Sometimes he also seems to strip the Bible of its authority rather than highlight it. For example, according to Walton, anything that is common knowledge in the ancient world (like it is bad to steal or murder) would not count as revelation. Only why the author included the Ten Commandments is revelation (pp. 40-47 and 115-16).

I also have questions about the primary mantra he keeps repeating throughout the book: “Only the author’s intentions carry authority.” That is, if the original biblical author never consciously intended a certain meaning, then that cannot possibly be normative for us today. I see at least three problems.

First, for centuries the primary (not the only) way in which the early church fathers interpreted the Old Testament, was to see Christ in every page. And if Jesus is the same as the God of the Old Testament, then there is merit in that approach. Walton would seem to dismiss this out of hand because the ancient writers couldn’t possibly know anything about Jesus, and so he couldn’t be part of their literary intent. Though it is true we must also view the Old Testament on its own terms, I think we dare not shed the perspective of our early Christian heritage lightly.

Second, all authors (biblical or not) communicate things that were not part of their original, conscious message. Yet these are every bit as much a part of the actual communication as that which was consciously intended. The Old Testament authors were thoroughly immersed in the ancient writings that had come before them. The prophets and psalmists knew the Torah deeply. Were they always conscious of when and how it was influencing them? No, but it did. Likewise, are we conscious how assumptions about democracy, individual freedom, capitalism, and (even) Shakespeare are influencing us when we write? No. But these are deep and real influences that emerge in our writing all the time, even when we do not consciously intend them to come out.

Third, I wonder if Walton’s laser-like focus on author intent doesn’t contradict one of his own principles—don’t impose “a foreign perspective on the text.” Isn’t the principle of author intent a modern construct which might get in the way of our encounter with Scripture? Until the last century or so, has anyone in the history of interpretation had such a single-minded obsession with this principle? Doesn’t it largely come out of modern literary theory rather than from the world of the Bible itself?

In this book Walton is legitimately reacting to the many abuses of interpretation that have sadly wracked the church, especially in modern times. The guards he offers to protect against these missteps have much to commend them. But I fear that instead of just reacting to these problems, that he is overreacting.

Having said that, his very last chapter, “Living Life in Light of Scripture,” is a wonderful, clear-headed, positive statement of what we should be looking for from God and his Word. We would all do well to follow Walton’s encouragement to focus on the message of the Bible to trust God, love God, and love others regardless of what life may bring.

What’s Left When Persuasion Dies

Our world is complex and difficult to understand. With billions of people, millions of ideas, thousands of corporations, and hundreds of countries—each with different (sometimes conflicting) histories and motives—no wonder we are confused.

No wonder we are anxious and yearn for simple explanations. No wonder we want someone to tell us conclusively what is going on in the world—and who is to blame!

Because easy answers to complex questions are very appealing, we are sometimes willing to believe people who are very confident and who play on our fears—even if reason and facts don’t support them.

Diane Benscoter found herself in just this situation. In chapter six of The Persuaders (which I reviewed here), Anand Giridharadas tells how she became a true believer in the Moonie cult back in the 1970s. After she got out, she reflected long and hard on how she was sucked in and was so thoroughly indoctrinated.

What didn’t help Diane leave was people trying to replace bad information with good. What did work was someone planting a seed of doubt about the bad information.

People showed Diane how brainwashing looks in general (not about the Moonies in particular), and then let her draw her own conclusions. What she began to see is that the manipulative techniques of both revolutionary Chinese Communists and of the Moonies had a lot in common. And the trickle of doubt became a torrent.

While there can be many dimensions to brainwashing, two of the most common techniques are isolation and indoctrination. You remove people from a wider range of contacts (family, friends, etc.) and only let them connect with those who are like-minded.

That can sound eerily like many people today who only associate with those who share their political viewpoints and who only consume “news” from outlets (right or left) that they agree with. They may be unwittingly cooperating with their own mental and emotional exploitation. Diane is now on a mission to inoculate people against being manipulated.

In chapter seven Giridharadas then contrasts that manipulative model of persuasion with an approach called deep canvassing. Usually canvassing means knocking on doors and asking for someone to sign a petition or vote for a candidate (all in less than five minutes). Deep canvassing asks people for fifteen to thirty minutes of their time.

The approach might be called deep listening because canvassers ask lots of questions and accept every answer without judgment. After building trust in this way, eventually canvassers ask, “Do you know anyone affected by this issue?” At that point they are legitimately beginning to touch the whole person, and potentially get beyond the surface opposition a person might have.

As I’ve said in Write Better, reviving honest persuasion is important to me because without it all we have left is manipulation or coercion. In these two chapters Giridharadas emphasizes just this point.

image: Peggy Marco on Pixabay

A Lost Art

Persuasion is a lost art. Persuasion means we respect the dignity and value of people we disagree with. Persuasion, if it is honest, means we ourselves are open to new ideas, new information, and are willing to adjust our previous conclusions. Persuasion is a win-win for us and society. And, sadly, we see too little of it in a world that favors screaming at and insulting opponents.

For that reason, I was looking forward to Anand Giridharadas’s The Persuaders. And I got a little of that, but not as much as I hoped. If you are looking for a balanced book that considers what we could learn positively from both right and left—you won’t find it here.

Instead The Persuaders reports on some of the different approaches left-leaning strategists, activists, and legislators have been using recently to shift the thinking of voters. Each chapter focuses on one or two key people, such as Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others. And we find some interesting approaches described which depart from less than successful practices of the past.

The book is strong on reporting but is weak on analysis. As a journalist, Giridharadas largely chronicles the work, words, and methods of public figures he admires. He doesn’t offer much insight. I appreciate books that tell stories to illustrate their content. Narratives help drive home in concrete ways what can be abstract principles. But this book does the reverse—it illustrates stories with a smattering of principles. And that is usually much less effective because the point can get lost in the midst of a long tale.

Often I am annoyed by reviews that say, I don’t like this book because the author didn’t write it the way I would have. And there may be some of that in my critique. But the book could have been so much better (more persuasive?) if the author had taken longer to write it, thought more deeply about the nature of persuasion, and guided us more concretely on how the character of our national discussions needs to change to preserve and enhance civility and democracy.

I am sympathetic to many of the viewpoints he highlights. I know the author wants us to be better, wants the American dream to be accessible to more and more Americans rather than fewer and fewer. But he might have included more thoughtful synthesis and a wider range of voices who all want us all to move forward together.

Having said all that, two chapters are particularly worthwhile, and I’ll talk about those more in my next Andy Unedited.

A Serious Look at Nationalism

I have a friend who says he’s not a patriot. You can’t love a country like the United States, he says, that has done so many horrendous things in the past (slavery and its treatment of Native Americans, to name two) and which continues its racism and bigotry in the present.

I have a second friend who acknowledges all that but who thinks that if our current form of government disintegrates, the results would be even worse. Indeed, she believes government still has an important role to play in helping America live up to its own dreams and aspirations.

Yet a third friend believes America has been called by God as a nation like Israel was. He is a nationalist who believes in the greatness of our Anglo-Protestant origins and touts America First.

Paul D. Miller is none of these. He is a self-described conservative who stresses “the paramount value of human liberty within a framework of limited government” (p. 1). In The Religion of American Greatness Miller who served in the second Bush White House and is a professor at Georgetown, has written a profound critique of nationalism on political, historical, and biblical grounds. (He plans to write two more volumes—a critique of progressivism and a positive case for conservatism.)

In dealing with nationalism, Miller does not set up a straw man. In chapter 3 he gives ample space for the most thoughtful and articulate nationalists to have their say, including Samuel Huntington, Nigel Biggar, R.R. Reno, Rich Lowry, and Yarom Hazony. In summary, they believe that “preserving the United States’ Anglo-Protestant culture should be a major focus of public policy, even if and when it conflicts with the tenets of classical liberalism,* civic republicanism, and the American Constitution” (p. 58). Christian nationalists follow suit.

Miller then engages their arguments, focusing on “cultural nationalism, . . . not racial or theocratic nationalism, because it is a stronger argument and a more popular kind of nationalism and deserves a more careful and sensitive treatment.” Miller argues that humanity is not divisible into cultural units, as these nationalists contend. Therefore, the belief that political and cultural boundaries should overlap is essentially impossible. He contends “that the belief that government should have jurisdiction over culture is mistaken and dangerous” (p. 61).

In practice it would be folly to seek to enforce such a culture. “It is unlikely that the US government is competent to sustain, create, or orchestrate a common national cultural template for a nation of 320 million people when it can barely deliver the mail” (p. 102).

Neither does democracy depend on an Anglo-Protestant foundation. There are two dozen democratic countries in the world with no Christian heritage. Japan, India and South Korea are examples of the most stable and prosperous of these.

Miller argues that nationalism does not create national unity, as its proponents contend. Rather Christian nationalism still has anti-democratic, illiberal tendencies, especially in how it treats ethnic and religious minorities. “Nationalism is the identity politics of the majority tribe. . . . It perpetuates the cycle of political warfare between nationalist majorities and identity-group minorities, each side . . . trying to seize state power and milk it for perks for their tribe” (p. 108).

Miller further unpacks how the Bible does not say what nationalists claim it says. “The civil religion that equates America with Israel is a prolonged exercise in missing the point. America is not Israel: the church is” (p. 130).

Ultimately, nationalism is idolatrous, supplanting loyalty to Jesus with loyalty to the nation. Evidence for this is seen in how many Christians disregard Jesus’ commands to “love your neighbor” and “love your enemies” if it serves their political goals.

Miller’s is an important and substantive book that will require substantive engagement by readers. But the reward will be equally substantive.

*By classical liberalism Miller does not mean left-leaning politics. Instead he uses it in its 18th-century sense of embodying the principles of liberty and equality on which the U.S. was founded, something both Republicans and Democrats say they support.

An Antidote to Fake News

Sadly, fake news and widespread misinformation are probably here to stay. So many fabrications appear so fast that there’s no way we can correct every wrong claim someone makes.

But there is hope. We can use a few quick, handy tools to make us less susceptible to being conned on social media and elsewhere.

With the fun, free, and easy to use Cranky Uncle app, we can start to train ourselves to spot false reasoning and errors in logic. The colorful game in the app introduces us to the five-point acronym FLICC.

Fake experts
Logical fallacies
Impossible expectations
Cherry picking
Conspiracy theories

Cranky Uncle, for example, offers this statement: “A Nobel Prize winner in chemistry says vitamin C can cure cancer.”

Which of the five FLICC techniques listed above is that statement an example of? I missed this one the first time. This is an instance of a fake expert. A chemist is an expert but not in the area of cancer research.

What about this: “Scientific models don’t perfectly match observations so they can’t be relied on.” Which FLICC is this? You probably got this right away—it’s impossible expectations which demand unrealistic standards of certainty.

You can find Cranky Uncle, the brainchild of John Cook from the University of Melbourne, at the Apple App Store or on Google Play. There’s even a version you can use on a browser.

If we can get better at spotting logical fallacies like oversimplification, ad hominem, false analogies, red herrings and more, it’s less likely anyone will make a fool out of us.

Hysteria or Hope

Into the blast furnace of political rage and hysteria, Patrick Schreiner brings a cool, fresh breeze that clears heads and calms souls.

Rather than erupting about particular issues, his book Political Gospel takes a measured and insightful look at what the Bible says about Christians and governments.

First, Schreiner says the gospel is decidedly political but not the way we might think. It is not partisan. It does not justify supporting one party or another. Rather it is political in that the gospel speaks to our common public life that we all share, regardless of our beliefs.

Jesus, after all, said he was king. And certainly the Roman government as well as the Jewish leaders understood that to be political. So political, in fact, that it got him killed.

The word gospel was also taken from the world of politics, a word meaning “good news” that was applied to the announcement of military victories.

Even the word believe (as in “repent and believe the gospel”) was about loyalty as much as faith. Who would we be loyal to ultimately? Caesar or God? That’s political.

With skill and expertise, Schreiner handles all the passages we’d expect and many we wouldn’t that bear on these questions. Yes, Romans 13 encourages submitting to government authorities because their authority comes from God. But we must also lay that alongside Revelation 13 which views governments as sourced in Satan.

How do we deal with this dual nature of civic power? With a dual response—both submission and subversion. Schreiner contends this was Jesus’ own response.

Jesus submitted to a Roman trial when he could have used his power (that is, he could have used violence) to stop it. He didn’t. Nonetheless, he refused to accept Rome’s authority as ultimate. God was the source of whatever authority the government had. While the government could act contrary to God, it was nonetheless responsible for its misdeeds and for failing to provide justice for the weak and oppressed.

Likewise, Paul proclaimed a subversive message contrary to the government’s view of the gods and what it meant to be a loyal citizen, but he submitted to government authorities and procedures when arrested—much like his Master.

Schreiner’s framework, as he himself admits, doesn’t resolve every public debate. We still have knotty problems to untie. But he does offer principles to guide us—principles that clearly don’t include ridiculing others, name calling, self-righteous anger, or violence.

Throughout Schreiner highlights Jesus’ third way—not a compromise between two extremes but a path that refuses to accept the assumptions or categories of either side.

One of his most important insights in applying the framework of submission and subversion is that how we employ these two strategies is dependent on how much power we have in society. “For those with power, submission means sacrifice and service. We sacrifice our own desires and power for the common good.” Subversion means taking advantage of “opportunities to reform” from the inside in the cause of justice for those without power, not for our benefit or that of our group.

Those with less power will spend “more time critiquing or protesting the existing norms” (p. 198-99) even as they seek to show respect for those in authority. In either case, to subvert is to suffer for doing good.

Clearly, when so few American Christians seem to believe we should love our enemies, the church has failed in political discipleship. Political Gospel is a step toward faithfully bearing witness to the kingdom of God.

Why Are Bible Translations So Different?

How should gender language be handle in Bibles? Are some translations liberal and others conservative? Is it okay that I like some versions and not others? Why are Bible translations often so different? Which ones are most accurate? Isn’t a literal translation always the best?

Reading and studying the Bible has been a revered practice for centuries. Yet often we take for granted that it is there, not realizing the complex and fascinating process involved in making it available. Mark Strauss, who has been involved in many translation projects, pulls back the veil on all this in 40 Questions About Bible Translation, a book that models clarity and good sense. His volume is packed with so much helpful information that it is hard to summarize.

Translation begins with finding the oldest and best ancient manuscripts from earlier centuries. While most scholars agree, even in this a minority don’t, and that can lead to differences.

Then, besides knowing Greek and Hebrew, translators must know ancient cultures and how they used language and figures of speech. Consider, for example, how translations sometimes render phrases in ordinary language and sometimes don’t:

♦ “If he is alone, there is news in his mouth” meaning “he brings good news” (2 Samuel 18:25 ESV/NET)
♦ “Putting everything under his feet” meaning “under his authority” (Psalm 8:6 NASB/TLB)
♦ “I send My messenger before your face” meaning “ahead of you” (Mark 1:2 NKJV/NIV)
♦ “Having lived with her husband seven years from her virginity” meaning “after her marriage” (Luke 2:36-37 KJV/NASB)
♦ “His father . . . ran and fell on his neck” meaning “he hugged him” (Luke 15:20 ASV/CEB)

Strauss offers many such examples throughout the book to help us understand how Bible translators go about their important work.

Another reason for many of these differences in Bibles is the philosophy of translation. All “versions agree on two fundamental goals of translation, accuracy and readability” (p. 22). But it is nearly impossible to do both 100%. So some translations will aim primarily at accuracy (preserving the original language as much as possible), and others primarily at readability (making it understandable to current readers), while a third group tries to find a happy medium between the two.

We might think that word-for-word translation would be the best option, but often it is not. A literal word-for-word translation of Romans 7:23 would read, “I see but another law of members in me.” Yet no translation reads like this. If readers are confused, then the meaning is not communicated accurately. All versions, therefore, mix a word-for-word approach with readability to some degree or another. As a result, no translation is or can be literal.

Another challenge translators face is that a single Greek or Hebrew word can have multiple meanings. To illustrate, Strauss considers some meanings of the one English word board (see pp. 85-86):

A flat piece of wood (n.)—“Saw that board in half.”
A control panel (n.)—“Check the circuit board.”
A leadership team (n.)—“The board voted on new officers.”
Various flat surfaces (n.)—“skateboard,” “surfboard,” “blackboard”
Daily meals (n.)—“Does that include room and board?”
To get on a vehicle (v.)—“It’s time to board the plane.”

So a judgment call (that is, an interpretation) is always made on which meaning is intended for a particular Greek or Hebrew word, usually based on context.

While the differences in Bible versions can be confusing, it’s important to remember the advantages. It means we have a variety of translations well suited for different purposes–some for public reading, some for study, and others for devotional reading. In addition, if we come across phrases like “holy kiss,” “with . . . a double heart,” “make their ears heavy”—we may be left a bit befuddled. By comparing different translations, we can sometimes get a better sense of the range of meanings in a text. 40 Questions charts dozens of translations along a continuum to show how they each wrestle with the balance of accuracy and readability in different ways.

Space doesn’t allow me to mention all the interesting factors that go into translation which Strauss explains with such finesse. Just a few of the other topics he addresses include:

♦ The strengths and weaknesses of different translation philosophies
♦ How different ancient copies of Bible books help in translation
♦ Why there have been so many different translations over the centuries
♦ What has happened with gender language in the Bible over the last thirty years

Given how much is packed into this volume, it is now the basic go-to resource for what’s behind Bible translations.

*Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of the book from the publisher. My opinions are my own.

Image: Peachknee on Pixabay

Stories of Beauty, Imperfection, and Grace

Goodness, truth, and beauty—pursuing these three famous ideals are core to our health as individuals and as communities. I confess, however, that I probably pay least conscious attention to beauty. It seems to matter less than the others, to make less of a difference.

Enter Russ Ramsey and perhaps the finest book I’ve read this year—Rembrandt Is in the Wind. He offers a wonderful presentation on the worth and importance of beauty in our lives. But he does much more than that.

Ramsey is a consummate storyteller. In nine chapters he highlights nine artists from the last five hundred years of the Western world. In each he tells the story of the artist, or of a particular artwork, or of the subject of the art. The tales and their backstories are fascinating and engrossing. Ramsey weaves together mysteries, human drama and more into compelling tapestries.

We learn the hidden flaw in one of the most famous masterpieces in the world, as well as discovering the long-held secret of Vermeer’s paintings. We see how the revered work of one artist contrasts so thoroughly with his disreputable life, while also unearthing how an African American artist subverted the standard genres and expectations of his day. Finally, we are confronted with a woman who, inexplicably for some, abandoned the path leading to the pinnacle of her art.

Still I am not doing justice to this marvelous book. Ramsey infuses each chapter with remarkable insights into the artworks themselves and the people he portrays. And more than that, with understated artistry, Ramsey weaves in moving reflections on what it all means for our humanity and our lives before God.

Here is a book of wisdom, of grace, and of beauty.