Monday, July 7, 2008

Ten Books Before You Die

AOL has a list of Ten Books to Read Before You Die. I don't know how they came up with the list but here it is:

  1. Gone With the Wind
  2. Lord of the Rings (that's actually three books)
  3. Harry Potter (that's actually seven books)
  4. The Stand (a 1978 Stephen King novel)
  5. The DaVinci Code (!?)
  6. To Kill a Mockingbird
  7. Angels and Demons (!?)
  8. Atlas Shrugged
  9. Catcher in the Rye (Count me as one who never could see what all the swooning was about over this book)
  10. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

I never read The Stand nor The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy so I have no comment about them. I mostly enjoyed Dan Brown's two books (#5 and 7), despite having to swallow a character parachuting safely out of a plane with an umbrella or something, but I would hardly say they're books one should read before they die.

I do tell my students from time to time that there are three books they should read before they graduate, however:

  1. Les Miserables (unabridged, of course)
  2. The Brothers Karamazov
  3. Tale of Two Cities

How any of these could be left off the above list is beyond me unless the authors of the list just think they're too hard for the average reader.


Cosmopolitans and Populists

Byron sends along a link to a talk by Michael Lindsey at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in which he explores contemporary evangelical Christianity and its discontents. It's a fascinating lecture and the response by David Kirkpatrick is equally interesting. There is also a panel of questioners comprised of some jounalistic heavyweights who ask some great questions. If you're interested in the sociology of modern protestant Christianity you'll find this transcript riveting. Here are some highlights from Lindsey's talk:

The difference between evangelicals and fundamentalists is how they respond to secular society. A fundamentalist comes into contact with secular society and his or her natural inclination is to pull back, to withdraw, to maintain the integrity of his or her faith. It's something that's borne out of religious conviction. Evangelicals, on the other hand, encounter secular society and their natural inclination is to engage it because they're wanting to win it over.

[T]he real divide, in my opinion, in evangelicalism is not between the left and the right; it's not between the young and the old. It is between a group that I call the "cosmopolitan" evangelicals and "populist" evangelicals. And these are very, very significant divisions.

You see, populist evangelicals are what we often think [of as] evangelicals. These are the folks who are culture warriors, who say that they want to take back the country for their faith. They see themselves as embattled against secular society. They are very much concerned that they are in a minority position, and they've got to somehow use very strong-arm tactics to win the day.

So populist evangelicalism is alive and strong, especially in the evangelical subculture: the music, the publishing, the entertainment segment of the evangelical subculture. But there is a whole other segment. The people who I interviewed, by and large, fit more this cosmopolitan outlook. They are less interested in taking back the country for their faith. They really are more interested in their faith being seen as authentic, reasonable, and winsome. So they still have an evangelistic impulse, but their whole modus operandi looks quite different. Because of that they have different ultimate goals of what they are actually trying to achieve. They want to have a seat at the table. They want to be seen as legitimate. They are concerned about what The New York Times or TIME magazine thinks about evangelicals because they [the cosmopolitan evangelicals] are concerned about cultural elites. They want legitimacy. Legitimacy is actually more important to them than necessarily taking back the country. And so that cosmopolitan-populist divide I find to be quite significant.

Here's an interesting tidbit: Twenty years ago, the Campus Crusade for Christ chapter at Yale University, one of the leading evangelical campus ministries, was 100 percent white. Today it's 90 percent Asian-American.

Francis Collins, the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, is an outspoken theistic evolutionist. And that's significant because the close identification of evangelicals with either traditional creationism or intelligent design is actually going to be giving way, I think, to a whole new generation of theistic evolutionists.

Note: I think he's mistaken here as well. Theistic evolution is coming to be seen more and more as theologically and philosophically incoherent. The future of this issue, in my opinion, lies with a form of intelligent design known as "front-loading." (See The Design Matrix).

[I]n the United States, cultural capital is revealed by having an omnivorous approach to cultural artifacts. You have to be cultural omnivores. So you not only have to like the opera and the symphony; you also have to like jazz and hip hop. You have to be omnivorous in your cultural tastes. And you think about it; that's exactly the case for political figures. You have to be able to have a very interesting conversation with nuclear physicists at 12 o'clock and at 2 o'clock be bowling with the folks down the street. You have to be able to walk in these two arenas, and [Mike]Huckabee actually can do that. So in the very moment that he's talking about how he believes in creationism about science, he also says, the book I'm reading right now that's very interesting on religion and science is Francis Collins' book, The Language of God.

I think there are some issues that people assume will be huge elements that I think are going to go away: same-sex unions, for example. I think the train has left the station. I don't think evangelicals 20 years from now will be raising concerns about it. I think same-sex unions will be across the country in 20 years. And I don't think evangelicals will raise a very big stink because this is one of the issues where you do see very significant generational divides. Older evangelicals are very opposed to it; younger evangelicals are not. And in this way, it mirrors the rest of the country.

Note: I hope Lindsey's wrong about this. Marriage has for two thousand years been seen as a union of one man and one woman. If we decide that the gender of the individuals entering into marriage no longer matters then there will be no logical impediment to concluding that the number of individuals no longer matters either. Once we've crossed this Rubicon there will be no basis other than the arbitrary preference of judges and legislators for restricting marital rights on any grounds whatsoever. There will be no logical reason for imposing any restrictions on kinship, or even the species, of the participants and marriage and family will have ceased to be a sacred committment and will have collapsed into a farcical carnival.

There are some theologically literate cosmopolitan evangelicals, people who are able to articulate how their faith matters and drives them to particular positions, but the interesting thing about that is that almost all of them come from the Reformed tradition. The rise of Presbyterian theology has been very interesting to observe. Abraham Kuyper has been one of the figures that is oftentimes cited among the people I interviewed. But on the whole, most of the evangelical leaders that I interviewed -- most of the folks who are in powerful positions who are evangelicals, they are like most of their fellow churchgoers. They are like most Americans: they don't know what they believe or why. They cannot articulate basic theological ideas. There have been a number of folks who have written books about how America is becoming a theocracy as evangelicals have come into powerful positions. One of the interesting notes they talk about is how evangelical ideas about the apocalypse or eschatology are driving American foreign policy. You know, that would be interesting, except most of the people I interviewed do not know the difference between premillenialist and postmillenialist theology. They can't articulate that.

There's much more from Lindsey and the other participants at the link. It's interesting stuff.