Thursday, December 29, 2016

Favorite Books I Read in 2016

Below are my favorite books that I read this year:

1. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson (2011)

From 1915 to 1970, 6 million black southerners to the North, the greatest migration of any people in American history. This book tells the story of this migration by telling the stories of three different people: Ida Mae, who in 1937 left central Mississippi for ChicagoGeorge Starling, who in 1945 left central Florida for Harlem; and Robert Foster, who in 1953 left Monroe, Louisiana for Los Angeles. It is a captivating read, as it speaks to the brutal inequality these and others dealt with in the Jim Crow South and to the courage they exhibited by leaving everything they knew for the possibility of a better life. 

Quote: "The layers of accumulated assets built up by the better-paid dominant caste, generation after generation, would factor into a wealth disparity of white Americans having an average net worth ten times that of black Americans by the turn of the twenty-first century, dampening the economic prospects of the children and grandchildren of both Jim Crow and the Great Migration before they were even born."

2. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2016)

A beautifully moving story about a neurosurgeon, who at 36, receives a fatal diagnosis of lung cancer. His thoughtful reflections on life and death, both as the doctor and the patient, are great reminders of what is truly important in life and how death awaits us all. 

Quote: “Don’t think I ever spent a minute of any day wondering why I did this work, or whether it was worth it. The call to protect life—and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another’s soul—was obvious in its sacredness. Before operating on a patient’s brain, I realized, I must first understand his mind: his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living, and what devastation makes it reasonable to let that life end. The cost of my dedication to succeed was high, and the ineluctable failures brought me nearly unbearable guilt. Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.” 

3. The Looming Tower: Al-Queda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright (2007)

This is a fascinating read, focusing on the birth of radical Islam in the 20th century. This book won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction in 2007 and I understand why. Wright does a great job providing rich history in a seamless, interesting way. One of the biggest ideas I gleaned from this work was how critical Osama bin Laden really was at fanning the flames of hatred towards the United States, ultimately leading to the attacks of 9/11.

Quote: “Radicalism usually prospers in the gap between rising expectations and declining opportunities. This is especially true where the population is young, idle, and bored; where the art is impoverished; where entertainment—movies, theater, music—is policed or absent altogether; and where young men are set apart from the consoling and socializing presence of women.”

4. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt (2013)

I meant to review this book with it's own blog post, but didn't get around to it. Though it's fourth on the list, this very accessible (not-too-academic) book was a huge paradigm shift for me. I've thought about it's principles many times since I finished it earlier this year, especially during the election season, when people seemed to be more divided politically than ever. Haidt is a social psychologist who looks into how moral psychology can help us understand our political and religious views better. We think we use our reason much more than we actually do, when in fact, our intuition/gut is much more involved in our judgments. He ultimately urges us towards empathy and humility in engaging with people who have ideas different than ours. A good introduction to this book is a 30 minute talk he gave at a Mockingbird conference, entitled "The Rationalist Delusion and the Perils of Certainty."

Quote: “Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.” 

5. A Place on Earth by Wendell Berry (1983)

My third in the fictional Port William Series (previously read Hannah Coulter and Jayber Crow). I love Berry and his writings. There is a certain peace and wisdom in his words. Like others in the series, this book is rich with stories of an imperfect, yet loving community in the farmland of Kentucky. I'm looking forward to the next one.

“Now, as from the extremity of his embarrassment, she grows aware of his caring for her. She understands, with shame at her misapprehension, that he is not there because he is flattered by her small attentions; he has come to offer himself. In all her life she has known nothing like it. She sees how free he leaves her. His love for her requires nothing of her, not even that she find it useful. He has simply made himself present, turning away, as he has now, to allow her to sleep if she wants to. She feels enclosed by this generosity as by a room, ample and light. Turning on her side, she does sleep.” - Hannah, speaking of Old Jack after having her baby

6. Jonathan Edwards: A Life by George Marsden (2004)

This was the last of four biographies I read within a year (Bonhoeffer, John Adams, Steve Jobs). I enjoyed it and would rank ahead of Bonhoeffer, but behind Adams and Jobs. Edwards was a brilliant man, pastor and theologian, and Marsden does a great job revealing all of these facets of his life.

Quote: “Having once thought that most of his parishioners shared the life-changing encounter with blazing beauty, it was all the harder for him to see them day after day preoccupied with petty jealousies, avarice, and lusts, and to endure their sullen expressions and bored irreverence as they went through the forms of weekly worship.” 


7. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)

I really appreciated hearing the perspective of Coates, a man who thoughtfully writes to his son of his experience of being black in this white dominated world. He speaks most of the preciousness of the black body and how many will try to abuse and destroy it. This book has helped me understand the fear that many people in our country face today and has challenged me think more about the privileges I and my ancestors have had purely because of our whiteness.

Quote: "But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white."

8. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene (1951)

This was my second book by Greene after first reading The Power in the Glory. I really like Greene's style and themes. This is a book about two lovers mixed up in an adulterous relationship and about how they wrestle with God in the midst of their love and hate.

Quote: "I went to a priest two days ago before you rang me up and I told him I wanted to be a Catholic. I told him about my promise and about you. I said, I’m not really married to Henry any more. We don’t sleep together—not since the first year with you. And it wasn’t really a marriage, I said, you couldn’t call a registry office a wedding. I asked him couldn’t I be a Catholic and marry you?...No, no, no, he said, I couldn’t marry you, I couldn’t go on seeing you, not if I was going to be a Catholic. I thought, to hell with the whole lot of them and I walked out of the room where I was seeing him, and I slammed the door to show what I thought of priests. They are between us and God, I thought; God has more mercy, and then I came out of the church and saw the crucifix they have there, and I thought, of course, he’s got mercy, only it’s such an odd sort of mercy, it sometimes looks like punishment."

9. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (2016)

I began reading this as it seemed most everyone else was. The New York Times says it's one of several books to explain the rise of Trump. It's basically about a rural working class white family, which is a microcosm of the hillbilly world described. Cycles of poverty, substance abuse, and family instability and dysfunction plague J.D.'s family and most of the families around him. Against the odds, and mostly due to a always present Mamaw along with some mentors along the way, J.D. breaks out of the cycle and ends up graduating from Yale Law School. 

Quote: “If you believe that hard work pays off, then you work hard; if you think it’s hard to get ahead even when you try, then why try at all? Similarly, when people do fail, this mind-set allows them to look outward. I once ran into an old acquaintance at a Middletown bar who told me that he had recently quit his job because he was sick of waking up early. I later saw him complaining on Facebook about the “Obama economy” and how it had affected his life. I don’t doubt that the Obama economy has affected many, but this man is assuredly not among them. His status in life is directly attributable to the choices he’s made, and his life will improve only through better decisions. But for him to make better choices, he needs to live in an environment that forces him to ask tough questions about himself. There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day.” 

10. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K.A. Smith (2016)

After Smith's Desiring the Kingdom rocked my world several years ago, I was excited to see a shorter, less academic version of the concepts he previously laid out. In many ways, this book is a summary, but also has some fresh takes and new sections that DTK did not have. In it, he continues to remind us that what we do shapes what we love more than what we think. Also, he adds a particularly relevant warning to the rise of mega-churches, or really any church that removes the opportunity to corporately confess sin. He explains...

Quote: "In the 1980s, North American evangelicalism experienced an almost revolutionary innovation: what later came to be known as the megachurch…...One common aspect of traditional Christian worship that was excised from seeker-sensitive congregations was the practice of corporate confession of sin.....But what if the opportunity to confess is precisely what we long for?...What if we want to confess our sins and didn’t even realize it until given the opportunity?”

"Look--everybody knows there's something wrong with them. They just don't know what it is. Everybody wants confession, everybody wants some cathartic narrative for it. The guilty especially. And everybody's guilty." - Rust Cohle, True Detective

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Favorite Films of 2015

Just in time for the Oscars tomorrow night, below are my favorite movies and documentaries of 2015.

Favorite Movies:

Top 10
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
2. The Revenant
3. Spotlight
4. Sicario
5. The Hateful Eight
6. Creed
7. The Big Short
8. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
9. Inside Out
10. Ex Machina

Next 5
11. Room
12. The Martian
13. Love & Mercy
14. Jurassic World
15. Spy

Unseen: Mistress America, Brooklyn, Straight Outta Compton, The End of the Tour, Steve Jobs

Favorite Documentaries:

1. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
2. Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine
3. Meru

Unseen: Amy, The Look of Silence



Monday, December 28, 2015

A Reflection on Sufjan's Carrie & Lowell, My Favorite Album of 2015

At the end of the year, I rank my favorite albums of the year. However, this was a year where I drifted towards individual songs more than any other year and didn't listen to many albums over and over. However, there was one clear front runner in this category, Carrie and Lowell by Sufjan Stevens.

I've been a Sufjan fan for a number of years. With that comes not always knowing what he's going to do with his next album. After a few great albums in the early to mid-2000s (Michigan, Seven Swans, Illinois), he took three years off and then came out with a couple of instrumental albums that I was not that interested in (The BQE and Run Rabbit Run). In 2010, he came out with Age of Adz, an album that was wildly different than anything before it, and one that took me a while to appreciate.

After a five year hiatus, Sufjan finally comes back with a simple, beautiful, yet haunting album, Carrie and Lowell. Carrie is Sufjan's mother, who left the family when Sufjan was very young and later died. The album is mostly about dealing with her death, and all kinds of feelings he had during the grieving process. Near the end of the opening track, Death with Dignity, he sings, "I forgive you, mother, I can hear you / And I long to be near you / But every road leads to an end."

After describing how his mother left in the second track, Should Have Known Better, he grieves, "I should have known better / Nothing can be changed / The past is still the past / A bridge to nowhere / I should have wrote a letter / Explaining what I feel, that empty feeling". Eugene continues the sad reflection as Sufjan remembers his mother after her death and wonders how he'll go on ("What's left is only bittersweet...Now I'm drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away").

One of the most haunting songs on the album is Fourth of July, where Sufjan and his mother converse as she dies. She asks multiple times, "Why do you cry?" and "What did you learn from the Tillamook burn or the Fourth of July?" The answer, that is repeated softly eight times at the end: "We're all gonna die."

Sufjan continues his grief on "The Only Thing" as he sings, "Should I tear my eyes out now? Everything I see returns to you somehow." However, in the next track, "John the Beloved", after admitting his brokenness ("I am a man with a heart that offends / With it's lonely and greedy demands"), Sufjan is able to cry out to One who can help ("Jesus I need you, be near me, come shield me").

In the second to last track, he seems to go back to losing hope again as he talks about his various ways of coping with his mother's death ("search of the capsule I lost", "get drunk to get laid", "blood on that blade"), finishing by saying, "There's no Shade in the Shadow of the Cross."

Sufjan closes the album beautifully with "Blue Bucket of Gold". In a radio interview, earlier this year, he spoke about this song: "I didn't know (my mom) well in a lot of ways and I didn't know how to say goodbye on the last track with articulation. So, I quit playing piano and vocals and just stopped. I wanted to surrender her to the beyond with noises that sound bigger than just me."

As I reflect on the words of this album, I'm struck again with how honest and despondent they are. While I haven't lost anyone super close at this point in my life, leading me to grieve in this way, I know that this level of grief is likely to hit me at some point. I'm thankful to have an album that doesn't shy away from the sting of death or try to explain it away.

This album reminds me of an incredible book on the pain of death, Lament for a Son, by Nicholas Wolterstorff. After losing his son tragically in a climbing accident, Dr. Wolterstorff wrestles through his own bereavement and feels the isolation that Sufjan expresses above. However, near the end of the book, he sees purpose and redemption in his great loss:
“God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers. The pain and fallenness of humanity have entered into his heart. Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God… and great mystery: to redeem our brokenness and lovelessness, the God who suffers with us did not strike some mighty blow of power, but sent his beloved Son to suffer like us, through his suffering to redeem us from suffering and evil. Instead of explaining our suffering, God shares it.
In many ways, I like that Sufjan's album doesn't end with some great triumph of hope. In this way, I believe it normalizes those long seasons of grief where hope and comfort might be out of reach. However, I do agree with Dr. Wolterstorff that our grief can and should point us to the great God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who shares in our suffering. To put it another way, there is shade in the shadow of the cross.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Favorite Books I Read in 2015


It's a little disheartening to look back and see a once flourishing blog only being updated at the end of each year for the past few years with end of the year lists. However, I'm still happy to least have this space to compile these lists, both for my own love of organization and the opportunity to reflect back on what I've enjoyed and also to encourage any of you who happen to come across these posts to read, watch, and listen to meaningful and interesting things.

Below are my favorite books that I read this year:

1. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (2011)

This was my third biography of the year and my favorite because of how deeply intriguing Steve Jobs is to me. As told in the book, Isaacson was the one writer that Jobs wanted to write his biography. With that, Jobs gave Isaacson permission to be honest, even about his many faults and the ways he poorly treated the people around him. Jobs' perfectionism and lack of concern about what others thought certainly made him very hard to be around at times, but these same qualities were driving forces that lead to his being one of the most creative minds of our time, revolutionizing six industries: personal computers, animated movies (Pixar), music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing. 

Quote: "Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

2. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson (2015)

This was my first Erik Larson book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's a fascinating tale of how (spoiler alert) the sinking of the British-owned Lusitania, by a German U-boat, helped launch the United States into World War I. Larson does a great job weaving in stories of the Lusitania passengers, the German navy, Woodrow Wilson's love interest, and a secret British war room. 

Quote: “Families learned of the deaths of kin mostly by telegram, but some knew or sensed their loss even when no telegram brought the news. Husbands and wives had promised to write letters or send cables to announce their safe arrival, but these were never sent. Passengers who had arranged to stay with friends in England and Ireland never showed up. The worst were those situations where a passenger was expected to be on a different ship but for one reason or another had ended up on the Lusitania.”

3. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God by Tim Keller (2014)

I really appreciated this unique book on prayer. Devoting time to prayer has been a growing struggle for me, especially over the last year or two. I loved how Keller spent the first several chapters getting to the heart of why prayer is good and beneficial, which is a motivating introduction to everything that comes afterwards. He then takes the reader through biblical and historical examples of prayer and gives plenty of practical suggestions for growing in one's prayer life. This will be a book I will probably revisit again and again throughout my life.

Quote: Prayer is the only entryway into genuine self-knowledge. It is also the main way we experience deep change--the reordering of our loves...Indeed, prayer makes it safe for God to give us many of the things we most desire. It is the way we know God, the way we finally treat God as God. Prayer is simply the key to everything we need to do and be in life.”

4. John Adams by David McCullough (2001)

This was my first McCullough book, and I'll definitely be reading more. He does a great job leaning heavily on primary sources, such as journals and letters, and pulling them all together for an engaging and interesting read. I definitely came away from this book with much more appreciation for our 2nd president. McCullough shows how foundational Adams was to the founding of our country, more so than I ever knew. He was contrasted a lot with his on-again, off-again friend Thomas Jefferson. I preferred Adams' rich inner thought life, his ability to live simply within his means, and the way he seemed not to be as power hungry as Jefferson, Hamilton, and many others who surrounded him. 

Quote: "An honest, sensible, humane man, above all the littleness of vanity and extravagances of imagination, laboring to do good rather than be rich, to be useful rather than make a show, living in modest simplicity clearly within his means and free from debts and obligations, is really the most respectable man in society, makes himself and all about him most happy."

5. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas (2010)

I've been wanting to read this book ever since it came out and finally got around to it. I've read a couple of Bonhoeffer's books (Life Together is one of my favorites, and The Cost of Discipleship was an inspirational read in college) and vaguely knew of his story. It was encouraging to read about someone who stood up with such conviction and courage to a tyrannous regime, Nazi Germany, that brutally punished those who opposed its mission.  Bonhoeffer was a brilliant mind who loved God and loved to help others do the same. 

Quote: "Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God's will."

6. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (2003)

After flying through Dead Wake (see above), I went right into this one. In this fascinating story, Larson looks at everything involved in planning and building The Chicago World's Fair of 1893, while simultaneously telling the story of a serial killer who takes advantage of the popularity and excitement that bring many women into his city. I would recommend reading this one before the movie comes out. Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio are already working on it.

Quote: "Beneath the gore and smoke and loam, this book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in the manufacture of sorrow. In the end it is a story of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black."

7. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (2010)

Before this year, I didn't know what the term "mass incarceration" meant. Through various resources this year, including this book, I now understand it to be a huge problem that African Americans have understood and dealt with for years. In this book, Alexander argues that the War on Drugs, famously implemented by the Reagan administration in the 1980s, was the impetus for the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States. While I didn't always agree with her perspective or her solutions, this was a deeply helpful book for understanding how certain laws and systems contribute to racial injustices and mindsets.

Quote: “In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” 

8. Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works by James K.A. Smith (2013)

Smith's first book in this series, Desiring the Kingdomreshaped how I think about everything I do. In this series, Smith is showing how everything we do is a type of liturgy and is constantly shaping what we worship. In this book, Smith continues this argument by focusing on how our practices shape our imaginations for the Kingdom.

Quote: "Whereas the technological rituals we just considered reinforce a social imaginary in which I am the center of the universe, only related to others as an audience for my display, Christian worship is an intentionally de-centering practice, calling us out of ourselves into the very life of God. That worship begins with a call is already a first displacement that is at the same time an invitation: to find ourselves in Christ."

9. Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel by Russell Moore (2015)

I appreciated what Dr. Moore had to say here, especially in the early chapters as he discusses the decline of the Moral Majority and how that's actually a good thing because it allows Christians to love people as a "prophetic minority" with the real gospel, instead of fearfully marking territory with an "almost-gospel." This is definitely a good read for anyone wanting a biblical response to the shifting of today's American culture.

Quote: "The shaking of American culture is no sign that God has given up on American Christianity. In fact, it may be a sign that God is rescuing American Christianity from itself."

10. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (1994)

This is a novel about Ignatius Reilly, a lazy, yet brilliant man living with his mom in New Orleans. It's a bizarre and fun read. Henry Kisor of the Chicago Sun Times says, "Ignatius J. Reilly is huge, obese, fractious, fastidious, a latter-day Gargantua, a Don Quixote of the French Quarter. His story bursts with wholly original characters, denizens of New Orleans' lower depths, incredibly true-to-life dialogue, and the zaniest series of high and low comic adventures."

Quote: “I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.”