Before I became a Christian at age 26 I would have protested the title of John Dickson’s Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History (Zondervan, 2021). I would have told evangelicals, “You’re a bunch of bullies.” A decade ago I might have complained the other way: “We’re flawed saints battling against the left, but we’re not bullies.” Now, after some educational years, I think the title is good and Dickson’s writing is lively. Bullies and Saints is a lucid overview that takes us from early centuries of persecuted Christians to later centuries of Christians sometimes becoming persecutors. Dickson also notes that Reformation era “wars of religion” were not primarily religious. Sounds like today, where “evangelical” has become mostly a political term. By the way, Dickson writes that “in ancient times” the custom of “exposing” unwanted babies — leaving them outside to die or be eaten — was common, but perpetrators today “would be arrested on the spot.” Yes, but it’s worth noting that in modern times the custom of abortion is rampant. Sometimes we look for a window into history and find it’s a mirror.
Here are a dozen other recommended books, in alphabetical order by authors:
Stanley Corngold’s The Mind in Exile (Princeton, 2022) shows how great novelist Thomas Mann fared after fleeing Hitler’s Germany. He understood how German conservatives feared Communism, backed Hitler as a bulwark against the Bolsheviks, and learned too late that the Fuhrer’s fury was as deadly as Stalin’s.
American Afterlives by Shannon Dawdy (Princeton, 2021) is a fast-moving look at what happens to bodies today — embalming, cremation, gravestones, pendants with ashes, etc. She sees no lack of faith but more “eclectic, syncretic, speculative, woo-woo, and whackadoo belief.”
America has great occupational diversity. The Arbornaut (FSG, 2021) is Meg Lowman’s charming memoir of her extraordinary career: climbing to the tops of the highest trees to check the leaves and see the species that live in “the eighth continent,” the canopies of endangered forests.
Jan Lucassen’s The Story of Work (Yale, 2021) isn’t great writing but it’s full of interesting material from the past ten thousand years, along with a European perspective that gives unions more importance than our current situation in America suggests. Lucassen recognizes, as did sociologist David Riesman in 1950, the “need to feel adequate: to hold down a job… to be related to life through consumership is not enough.”
Darrow Miller, editor of Don’t Let Schooling Stand in the Way of Education(Credo, 2021), shows that many public schools now drop even the pretense of worldview neutrality. Other chapters describe the Christian view of children, the lost purpose for learning, and the importance of the Bible.
Basketball fans: Leigh Montville’s Tall Men, Short Shorts (Doubleday, 2021) is an enjoyable look at the 1969 NBA Finals, Bill Russell’s last as a player.
Robert Osburn’s Developing Redemptive Change Agents (Wilberforce Press, 2021) thoughtfully expands the concept of discipleship beyond personal spirituality so that it includes helping the vulnerable and making practical applications in several crucial spheres.
In The Least of These: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth (Bloomsbury, 2021), Sam Quinones continues the story of drug ravages that he began in Dreamland (2015): Fentanyl, a hundred times more powerful than morphine and cheaper to create than methamphetamine, has led to tens of thousands of deaths and a surge of mental illness and homelessness.
It has more detail than most readers will want, but American Shtetl by Nomi Stolzenberg and David Myers (Princeton, 2021) is a deep dive into the making of a Hasidic village in upstate New York, including its political alliance with conservative Christians.
Boria Sax’s Avian Illuminations (Reaktion Books, 2021) is a beautiful volume that provides a cultural history of birds and shows why their songs sometimes make us sing for joy.
Richard Weikart’s well-researched Darwinian Racism (Discovery, 2022) shows how Hitler’s doctrine of Aryan racial superiority gained a scientific patina when Nazis loaded evolutionary theory into their rhetorical cannons. Hitler said the difference between “highest” and “lowest” races was greater than that between low men and high apes.
Ben Wilson’s Metropolis (Doubleday, 2020) is an enjoyable history of 5,000 years of cities, starting in Mesopotamia. What’s not fun: A chapter titled “Annihilation” that focuses on what Hitler did to Warsaw. Too close to what Putin is doing to some Ukraine cities.
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