Jimmy Buffett said, “I’ve read dozens of books about heroes and crooks, and I’ve learned much from both of their styles.” Me too. And as a Christian who believes in both the imago Dei and original sin, I think every book (and every person) includes some of both. Every once in a while, I like to let you all know what it is that I’m reading at the moment. Here’s what’s currently on my nightstand (or in my carry-on bag or on my desk).
So let’s start with Buffett. In Ryan White’s Jimmy Buffett: A Good Life All the Way we finally have a comprehensive biography of the man Bob Dylan said was one of the best songwriters of the twentieth century (and I agree). Buffett is, of course, a fellow son of the Gulf Coast, and his music has been with me all of my life. As a teetotaler, I am better able to identify with “A Pirate Looks at Forty” than with “Margaritaville,” but still.
This book is worthy of him, both as an illuminating look at the American music industry and the global market and as a rollicking good time interacting with the original Parrothead.
Buffett, of course, didn’t have a bright future because he didn’t fit the sort of music expected by the rock or country music industries. He refused to un-Buffett himself, and created a new path. Like Willie and Waylon, Jimmy Buffett was, and is, an outlaw against the Nashville establishment (I like books like that).
This year is the centennial of the birth of John F. Kennedy, and I’m currently reading two books related to him.
The first is The Road to Camelot: Inside JFK’s Five-Year Campaign by Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Willke. This book is (so far; I’m halfway through) an inside look at how the Kennedy family marked out a path for JFK’s 1960 presidential bid well ahead of time. The book includes fascinating vignettes on such events as the 1956 vice-presidential jockeying (and Adlai Stevenson dithering) and the complicated relationships of JFK to Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, the future First Lady, and most importantly (in this context) his father.
Next is a centennial edition of Norman Mailer’s John F. Kennedy: Superman Comes to the Supermarket. The text is from Mailer’s famous piece in Esquire weeks before the ’60 election. The value of this book is not in the text, however, but in the expertly curated photographs of the campaign and the early days of the Kennedy presidency.
Thomas Ricks’ dual biography Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom intrigued me when I happened upon it at one of my favorite haunts, Parnassus Books in Nashville. I’ve only just begun this work so I will reserve judgment. Orwell, though, is one of my favorite figures of the twentieth century to study. Not only was his mastery of the language enviable, so was his courage. He and Churchill, in very different ways, Ricks argues, stood up to the authoritarian Right of Nazism and to the totalitarian Left of Soviet Communism.
Having finished recently several very fine works on Luther and the Reformation, coinciding with the 500th anniversary of the incident at the Wittenberg door (the review is forthcoming), I was interested to receive a pre-publication copy of a book that is sure to take a different view. Catholic historian Brad Gregory has argued that the Reformation was itself the cause of secularism and secularization and moral relativism. In this new book, Dr. Luther gets his skewering from antagonist. He’s survived worse.
As soon as I noticed many months ago that Eugene Peterson would have a new book out this year, I immediately texted the Amazon link to a friend I knew would be as excited as I am. The new book, As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God, will not disappoint Peterson enthusiasts. If I were still teaching preaching at Southern Seminary, I would probably assign this book, because it’s a meditation by an experienced preacher on how to engage people who aren’t automatically interested in the biblical text with the Word that confronts us there.
One of my trustees calls me “the Christian Chuck Klosterman” because the author wrote The Ethicist column for the New York Times Magazine for some time. His ethics counsel is often wrong, in my view, but the essays in his recently released Chuck Klosterman X are often right on point, and hilarious too. So far, my favorite chapter is a poignant look at how to relate Charlie Brown to our postmodern culture.
I won’t watch the new American Gods series on Starz for two reasons: I don’t have premium cable and, more importantly, because the reviews tell me there’s rampant nudity and exploitive violence. The release, though, prompted me to re-read Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel on which it is (loosely, they say) based. The underlying message of the book is one we should be able to speak to, at a moment’s notice. In Gaiman’s story, the American landscape is brewing for war between the “old gods” that came over with European and African and Middle-eastern immigrants with the “new gods” that Americans increasingly worship (media, technology, finance).
Gaiman assumes that gods gain power from those who worship them (true enough, in the biblical definition of idolatry), but he sees, at least in this story, the belief itself as creating the objective reality, whether of the supernatural or the technological gods. And yet, Gaiman still needs a Christ-figure to offer up his life as a sacrifice (right down to the spear in the side). Tolkien taught Lewis about the idea of a “myth become true.” It might be that Gaiman is circling around something True but hasn’t found Him yet…
More importantly than all of these, I’m spending my summer in a couple of exilic prophets, Ezekiel and Jeremiah (the Willie and Waylon of the Old Testament). I just finished a slow devotional reading of Ezekiel, and am now turning back to Jeremiah. Dry bones can dance; judgment can end in mercy. Good news.