Sunday, July 17, 2011

2011 Book Briefs Part 1

Just where has the time gone? While I am overcoming my writers' block, I thought it might be fruitful to discuss the reading I've done this year and offer some recommendations. I think that great leaders and writers are first and foremost readers. In fact, one of the books on this list is a book about reading and (as we shall soon see) how reading and feeling are intimately connected in a sort of holistic well-being. So what have I read this year and would recommend to you? Here we go:

Decision Points by George W. Bush

I have met almost no one neutral on Bush 43. This is unsurprising, as holding the most powerful office in the world has a tendency to energize your base and embitter your dissidents. Only a casual reading of the comments on Amazon will make it clear that many readers are having difficulty trying to rate only Decision Points and not the man himself. That said, I will confess up front that I actually liked George W. Bush as a political ruler. He was ineffective at some very key points, but I rarely doubted his sincerity. I believe he also has a healthy pre-modern belief in transcendent, absolute Truth that is a good inoculation to modernist and postmodernist skepticism and materialism so rampant in every echelon of American life. I mention this because I want to be open and honestly admit that my review may be colored by my positive opinion of him. Still, I will strive for objectivity.

Unlike his presidency, there ought to be very little dispute about how Bush rates as a storyteller. He organizes his work into topical chapters dealing with the major choices made both leading into and during his term in office. From the brief sketches of childhood to the day he passed out of the Oval Office for the last time, we are painted the picture of a very human being and the characters who inhabit the White House. I was surprised to see a very different Dick Cheney, portrayed not as the maniacal tyrant cursing of the floor of the Senate nor the greedy mastermind passing crony-istic contracts to his minions at Halliburton. Bush writes that Cheney was aware of his chilly media image and offered to step down in 2004, afraid that he was a liability to the re-election campaign. The Cheney we see in Decision Points is a man characterized by loyalty more than anything else—loyalty which unfortunately manifests as cutting and icy remarks to Bush's critics. Another interesting portrait is that painted of George H.W. Bush and former First Lady Barbara. While during his presidency Bush 43 was portrayed as trying to repair his father's failures, he writes that his father instead offered supportive advice. His version of events has mother Barbara as the truly opinionated and stubborn parent, teasing her son and rarely withholding her views. The book also has some fascinating anecdotes about other world leaders like Hamid Karzai, Vladimir Putin, and Jacques Chirac.

The enduring lesson I took from Decision Points is one I learned in my American History and Government courses: Politics is dramatic and transient. Every new political scandal, legislation, and crisis is hyped in the media as the keystone event of our age. Few really are. As Bush discussed his critics and media reports from as far back as 2002, I remembered hearing those things on the lips of reporters and liberal critics all over the radio, television, and newspaper. They were all wrong. Life goes on. This is a good lesson to remember when judging the Obama presidency; we don't really know what policy decisions have a lasting impact on history. It's still too soon to judge the presidencies of Bush or Obama positively or negatively, and this book is proof of that. Bush wrote this to give historians of the future a primary source—insight into how the first president of the 21st century saw himself. Maybe most of all, it's just cool to reflect that this book represents a unique kind of history for this twenty-something reader: history I remember.

Think: The Life of the Mind and the Mind of God by John Piper

Being a young Evangelical and saying you like John Piper is tantamount to saying you have a mouth and like ice cream. Many people have Desiring God in their top five Christian books, right alongside C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity or Augustine's Confessions. That said, I was surprised at how muted the response seemed to be to this book. I heard no negative press... instead, I heard almost nothing at all. That is unfortunate because this book is a challenge and a manifesto for Evangelical Christians, so often maligned as Bible-thumping fundamentalists or dogmatically ignorant, to become better students.

Like most of Piper's work, this book reads like a sermon. It would be very easy to imagine Dr. Piper preaching each chapter or two on a Sunday morning. That morning's thesis? "[A] plea to embrace serious thinking as a means of loving God and people [....] to reject either-or thinking when it comes to the head and heart, thinking and feeling, reason and faith, theology and doxology, mental labor and the ministry of love" (p. 15). For Piper, the head and heart are not so much in opposition as master-servant. The head is the servant of the heart. The intrinsic human craving to learn is a heart-driven quest to know God more fully through meditation on His Word and His words through other sources—history, biology, philosophy, mathematics, fiction, etc. Piper also equates reading with thinking, since reading is a complex process which involves recognizing symbols, interpreting them, stringing them into coherent thoughts, analyzing those thoughts, connecting them with other thoughts and experiences, and applying them to our lives. He is also very honest about anti-intellectualistic strands in the church, specifically from D.L. Moody and Billy Sunday (among others). This demonstrates not snobbish sniping, but honesty to a world which rightly sees a defensive, "batten-down-the-hatches" sort of attitude in Evangelical learning (see Pensacola Christian College, Creationist theme parks).

I think the true benefit of this book is in destroying the false and divisive notion we have in our churches and culture which says that there are basically "heart" and "head" people. Heart people are compassionate servants, often tangible instead of abstract and value good intentions over academic precision. They're commonly seen as naive and even ditzy. Head people are sarcastic or sardonic people who obsess over discovering deeper mysteries . They take stands and contend for truth. They are regarded as wise and instructive, but can be cold and unforgiving to those they don't respect. Piper says this whole mess is nonsense and he's right. True, people are gifted in different ways. Some are just plain better at reading and footnoting while others have a knack for creativity and acts of service. But the truth is that we must all live as people who strive after truth in all its complexity and difficulty while also letting that truth translate to loving, selfless work for others.

American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham

Anyone who has allowed me to steer a casual conversation into a history lessons knows how I feel about Andrew Jackson. He was a hard-fighting, smoking, drinking, dueling, cussing general—the epitome of the manly president. I find him not only fascinating but in many ways admirable. He is many things I wish men still were: particularly courageous and honorable. Yet even a cursory study of Jackson has to reveal those very damning flaws: a racist and adulterous scoundrel who is single-handedly responsible for the Trail of Tears. And you thought George W. Bush was polarizing.

Jon Meacham won a Pulitzer in 2009 for this biography and his hard work shows throughout. His notes show meticulous combing through diaries and personal letters. He manages to string these various sources from very distinct and often contrary people into a layered portrait of America's fierce seventh president. Like Decision Points, the book focuses mainly on the presidency itself. Unlike it, American Lion takes a chronological approach. This allows the reader to see how the different threads of intrigue and policy develop throughout the sundry circumstances of the late 1820s and 1830s.

Jackson as a character steals the show throughout the book, just as he did throughout his presidency. He is a man who won't be defied and believes in his ideals, even if they may sometimes be inconsistent (and whose aren't?). Meacham's treatment is sympathetic but honest. He does not excuse Jackson's violation of the Constitution nor justify the Indian Removal Act. Still, what must impress the modern reader is how the author makes this decision understandable. Knowing Jackson, it makes sense why he would do such a deplorable thing and why he really didn't see it that way. And as easy as it is to throw stones at the dead for the cannot defend themselves, I would hope that my progeny afford me some amount of sympathy when they look back at the inconsistent ideals and evil decision in my life. The "rustic frontiersman" image is tackled as well, Meacham attributing our view of him as oafish and provincial largely to his opponents like Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams. It turns out that Jackson was a shrewd, well-read, and religious politician. He would often use his fierce reputation as a tool, feigning a tantrum to keep his critics and opponents afraid to undermine him... only to light his pipe and laugh at their terror once they left the room. Like a boss.

More to come!

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