Book Reviews

How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs

How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan JacobsSummary: How to think is as much art as science, but it needs to become habit to make a difference

Alan Jacobs is one of my favorite essayists. He was a professor at Wheaton when I was there (although I never had him). He is now a professor at Baylor. I have read a number of his books, from a biography on CS Lewis, to several collections of essays, to a history of the Book of Common Prayer, my favorite book on reading , a cultural history of the concept of Original Sin, and now How to Think.

I wasn’t completely sure what I was getting into when I picked this up yesterday morning (it released yesterday). Jacobs is one of the authors I pre-order. But especially if he was writing something about how to think, I wanted to read it.

This is sort of like A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (or Letters to a Young Calvinist or one of the many other similar short books). How to Think is a book of advice written with the clear intention of helping the reader. Jacobs has taught Literature and Composition for more than 30 years. Helping people to think and write and communicate has been the job of English Professors more than professors in most other subject areas.

Jacobs starts by taking us down a peg or two. We are not as original as we think. We are not as good at evaluating ideas as we think we are. We, like everyone else, have confirmation bias and mental short cuts and sloppy habits. We also probably don’t really listen all that well.

Thinking is more art than science according to Jacobs. It is not that we cannot learn from science about how the brain works or principles of communication theory. But like many other things, thinking is something that has to be put into practice, not just studied. And to put good thinking into practice, you have to surround yourself by good thinkers and then listen to them.

Jacobs is particularly interested in helping us to think in an age where tribalism is rampant. That means breaking down some of those tribal walls and listening. He cites a debating group several times that is not trying to score points, but gain understanding. One person cannot start talking until they can summarize the previous person’s thought, in a way that the previous person agrees is accurate.

Also included are suggestions about how to avoid straw-men or ‘in other words you mean’ and other slopping thinking. Jacobs also advocates community building, to allow us to express and try out ideas. There is resistance to angry responses. However, most of this is also not particularly original or new. Jacobs is an engaging writer. He has lots of stories to give context. Jacobs digs at the reader, so that we can’t think that it is only ’that other person’ that doesn’t think well. He presents the ideas that we probably should have learned and put into place earlier, in a way that we can listen to now.

Like James KA Smith’s general approach to habit, we think well by making thinking something that is ritual, a habit that becomes reenforced over time.

It may stop you from reading the whole book, which I don’t want to do, but if you are thinking about the book, then pick it up at a book store, or look at the ‘look inside’ on Amazon and read the “Thinking Person’s Checklist” at the end of the book. If those 12 points make general sense to you, pick up the book and keep reading. The checklist is convicting. And if you are not convicted, you probably won’t benefit from the book.

How to Think is short, 157 pages of main material. I listened to the audiobook in a day. I will probably re-read in print again soon.

How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad by Colson WhiteheadSummary: Historical fiction imagining the Underground Railroad, as an actual Railroad.

The underlying idea of the Underground Railroad is fascinating. It feels at times like fantasy more than historical fiction. However, The Underground Railroad is as much history as fantasy. Virtual every plot point in the book is based on a real historical event. Having read this after The Half Has Never Been Told and Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution and listening to the Yale Historian David Blight’s lectures on the Civil War and Reconstruction, several of the historical events that I would not have recognized, were part of my recent memory.

I assume that the rest of the plot points that didn’t always make sense were also historical. Fiction can sometimes be more helpful in presenting history than straight history is. What is helpful about Underground Railroad is making that history real through seeing what the impacts of slavery were like on real people.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Summary: Two essays from 1963.

Since I saw the documentary I am Not Your Negro, about James Baldwin, I have been wanting to read more of him. This is my second book this year and I am planning on reading at least one of his novels before the end of the year.

I knew that many people compare Ta-Nehasi Coates to James Baldwin. But it was not until I read We Were Eight Years in Power that I realized that Coates’ Between the World and Me was a conscious effort to write a modern version of The Fire Next Time. Coates wanted something that was short, powerful and personal. And that is what The Fire Next Time is.

There are two essays here. Between the World and Me is more consciously emulated after the first, a short letter to Baldwin’s nephew on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Declaration. (Coates writes Between the World and Me as a letter to his son.)

The much longer (roughly 80% of The Fire Next Time) section is Down at the Cross. This is an essay about Baldwin’s understanding of the implications of historic racism for him personally. Much of it is about his grappling with faith. Christianity, which is where Baldwin started as a boy preacher, gets a lot of credit for saving Baldwin so that he could become a writer. But Baldwin eventually moves on because the Christianity of his world is not Christian enough to actually address the problems of race either by focusing on the radical repentance or the radical forgiveness that would be necessary to deal with the sin and result of racism.

Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir by Stanley Hauerwas

Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir by Stanley HauerwasSummary: Hauerwas theological and personal memoir.

I have been on a memoir kick this year. I tend to read through a genre or subject areas quite a bit and then set it aside for a while. This year my memoir reading has been consciously seeking out wisdom from elder Christians.

I picked up Hannah’s Child looking for something like Eugene Peterson’s memoir The Pastor or Thomas Oden’s memoir A Change of Heart. I have not previously read much by Hauerwas. The only full book that I think I have read is Resident Aliens, which I read in my first year of college, over 25 years ago. I have some relationship to him because a friend of mine studied with him and I absorbed some of Hauerwas’ positions through him.

Hauerwas is unique. He grew up as a working class boy from Texas. He was clearly brilliant. But also seems to have fallen into his life in a number of ways that he was not consciously choosing. The title, Hannah’s Child, is a reference to his own mother’s desire for a child after infertility and her prayer modeled on the biblical Hannah and her dedication of Samuel to the Lord’s work. Hauerwas clearly sees his mother’s prayer and God guiding him into his life as a theologian.

Hauerwas started his teaching at Augusta College (in Rock Island, IL where I lived from 6th grade to high school graduation.) From there he spent 10 years at Notre Dame and then the rest of his career at Duke. That progression and the different characters of the schools and the people around him really did shape him and that comes out clearly in the book. (After the book came out he retired from Duke in 2013 and was appointed to a Chair of Theological Ethics at the University of Aberdeen.)

We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates

We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi CoatesSummary: A reflection on eight years of Atlantic Essays during the time of Obama.

When I first heard about We Were Eight Years in Power, I was excited for a book from Ta-Nehisi Coates about the Obama years. Coates both is a serious critic of Obama and someone that has strongly defended him. I am going to continue to look for a book like that in the future.

We Were Eight Years in Power is not really that. Instead it is a repackaging of a number of essays by Coates from the Atlantic. Coates first essay for the Atlantic was about Bill Cosby and his conservative lectures to the black community to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. That initial essay eventually led to Coates becoming a staff writer for the Atlantic and a number of cover stories that many will have already read.

The three most famous are his Reparations article, his article on Mass Incarceration and his essay earlier this year on Trump as the first consciously White (post Obama) president.

Previously to reading We Were Eight Years in Power, I had read most of the essays. It was still worth re-reading the essays. But what I found most interesting was Coates introductions to each essay. These were sometimes biographical or historical, telling the reader about his life or the country when he originally published the essay. Almost all of them included an evaluation of the content, usually pointing out weaknesses in his approach or places where he wishes he had expanded the analysis or where he got part of the essay wrong.

That analysis was helpful both to give context to why he wrote the individual essay, but also to give context to his larger project and how, for good and ill, racial issues were important during the Obama years.

Coates talks quite candidly about his discomfort with being the main or only writer on race issues that many Whites have read. He has a clear perspective. One that is famously not particularly hopeful. But it is realistic to the current age and to the data as he sees it.

Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer by Ed Cyzewski

Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer by Ed CyzewskiSummary: An Evangelical discovers contemplative prayer.

Ed Cyewski is a freelance author. He is roughly my age, a stay at home Dad, a seminary grad and from what I have read, I think we would get along. I have read four of his books (links below) and picked this one up right after it came out. Although it took me months to get around to reading it.

Cyzewski grew up nominally Catholic, but came to a real faith as a teen through Evangelical outreach. He left the Catholic church and rejected it, partially out of Evangelical bias against Catholicism, but also because of some of his own history.

This book is focused on making contemplative prayer accessible to Evangelicals. For Cyzewski, that has meant coming to terms with some of the Catholic practices that he rejected earlier. My own movement toward contemplative prayer is less about coming to terms with than discovering as new.

A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards by George Marsden

I am reposting this 2014 review of A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $2.99
A Short Life of Jonathan EdwardsSummary: A short, readable, popular biography of Jonathan Edwards.

A couple months ago George Marsden’s A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards was the free audiobook at Christianaudio.com.  I picked it up, but was a bit skeptical because I read 3/4 of Marsden’s large academic biography of Edwards, Jonathan Edwards: A Life.  I put down the large biography as I moved to Georgia nearly 8 years ago, and for some reason never picked it back up to finish and then ended up giving it away.

But as Marsden says in the introduction, this is not an abridgement of the larger biography, but a completely new book that was written intentionally as a popular level short biography.  This book is only about a quarter of the length of the longer one, but is surprisingly comprehensive given its short length.

Glass Houses by Louise Penny (Chief Inspector Gamache #13)

Glass Houses by Louise Penny (Chief Inspector Gamache #13)Summary: Gamache, now head of the Sûreté du Québec gambles.

The Chief Inspector Gamache series has been consistently the best mystery series I have read. It is rare series, 13 books in, that still keeps me engaged. And I think the last two books, while a bit unbelievable as mysteries, are probably the best two books of the series.

Armond Gamache has been a career homicide detective. The past several books he has been in an out of the Sûreté. Two books ago he took down the corrupt head of the Sûreté. The last book he was the head of the training academy where he again rooted out corruption. Now he is the head of the whole Sûreté and he turns his attention to the drug trade.

What I have loved about the series is the characters. I am not particularly interesting in the actual mysteries except as a means to see the characters. Penny falls into the common mystery series trap of thinking that she needs to make each successive crime bigger to keep the attention of the reader. (I think this is a false trap. Crimes do not need to be bigger, but the growth of the characters needs to be bigger.)

While I am not particularly interested massive governmental corruption or international terrorism plots or organized crime, I am interested in how those challenges impact Gamache. One of his faults is keeping the responsibility and information too close to his vest. This is a book where he is forced to plan with others a little bit. But because of previous corruption he keeps that circle very small.

Two Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage by Madeleine L’Engle (Crosswick Journal #4)

Two Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage by Madeleine L'Engle (Crosswick Journal #4)Summary: The last of the series of memoirs, about her husband and their marriage.

Memoirs are about recounting and processing different of life. I appreciate that L’Engle has four different memoirs that are themed. I do not know of any other author that has done this. The first is about being a writer, mother, teacher and creative person. The second is about her own mother and the grief she feels at her decline. The third is about her faith using the liturgical year and a method of organizing.

And Two-Part Invention is about her marriage to Hugh. All of these books are really about Madeleine of course. But we are created by our interactions and integration with others. Marriage impacts us because it is a relationship of choice that at its best is for a lifetime.

There is a lot of background on Madeleine before her marriage. And the years between meeting Hugh and the current story she is telling. The story main story is about Hugh’s dying. I suppose that is a spoiler, but he died over 30 years ago. It is a remembrance and dealing with grief. Marriage, when not interrupted through divorce, is ultimately interrupted by death. That is the normal way of life.

Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism by David Gushee

Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism by David GusheeSummary: A brief memoir about how Gushee’s attempt to follow his calling moved him out of Evangelicalism.

David Gushee is one of those authors that I know about but until I read his book Changing Our Mind, I do not think I had read more than a couple articles by him (mostly at Christianity Today.)

The transcript of a speech at the end of the 2nd edition of Changing Our Mind (the 3rd edition is now out) is what made me what to pick up this book. Gushee’s dissertation was about German Christian response to the Holocaust. Gushee in his speech drew parallels to how ethical thinking was impacted by the understanding of actual people harmed.

Last week I saw that this memoir was coming out. I picked up a review copy and moved it to the top of my reading list. I have been craving memoirs of my elders lately. After finishing the four volumes of Madeleine L’Engle’s memoirs I was intending to pick up Stanley Hauerwas’ memoir Hannah’s Child. Gushee’s memoir jumped in line.

Seeing how people work out their faith over time, in good and bad times, is very encouraging. And watching how people of deep faith come to different conclusions in their theological and ethical positions while retaining a robust devotional and theological life also is a good reminder of the greatness of God, and of our own limited perspectives.

David Gushee grew up a nominal Catholic. As a teen, Gushee came to faith through a Southern Baptist church in Northern Virginia. Quickly feeling the call to ministry, he went to undergrad at William and Mary and then seminary at Southern Seminary. Gushee had not been prepared for the internal politics of the SBC that was in the throes of a significant theological battle.

He moved from Southern to Union Seminary in New York City, from a school that was fighting about how conservative to be, to one that was the center of Liberation Theology. For three years on campus and then three years off campus, he started to gain an understanding what it means to be too conservative for the liberals and too liberal for the conservatives.