My 2017 reading in review

Just a quick post to summarize my reading and a few favorites this year. I read a total of 71 books in 2017, which I’ll split up into fiction, non-fiction, and theology. I’ll highlight no more than two in each category as particular favorites.

Fiction

  • Broken Trust – W.E.B. Griffin
  • Bounty – Michael Byrnes
  • The Whistler – John Grisham
  • The Believer – Joakim Zander
  • Last Year – Robert Charles Wilson
  • Dune – Frank Herbert
  • Before the Fall – Noah Hawley
  • The Girl Who Drank the Moon – Kelly Barnhill
  • The Shadow Land – Elizabeth Kostova
  • Walkaway – Cory Doctorow
  • The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – Becky Chambers
  • A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers
  • Parable of the Sower – Octavia E. Butler
  • Till We Have Faces – C. S. Lewis (re-read)
  • The Switch – Joseph Finder
  • Price of Duty – Dale Brown
  • Point of Contact – Mike Maden
  • The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. – Neal Stephenson
  • City of Stairs – Robert Jackson Bennett
  • Boneshaker – Cherie Priest
  • Autonomous – Annalee Newitz
  • The Berlin Project – Gregory Benford
  • Over Sea, Under Stone – Susan Cooper
  • The Force – Don Winslow
  • The Quantum Spy – David Ignatius
  • The Dark Net – Benjamin Percy
  • The Punch Escrow – Tal M. Klein

The Force is a well-written crime story featuring a flawed detective. A really engaging page-turner where I didn’t know where the story was going when I was half-way through.

The Punch Escrow is a sci-fi thriller that takes one reasonable conceit and runs with it to great effect. A really fun novel to close out the year.

Non-Fiction

  • Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America – Ibram X. Kendi
  • A People’s History of the United States – Howard Zinn
  • Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House about the Future of Faith in America – Michael Wear
  • The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion – Jonathan Haidt
  • Instrumental: A memoir of Madness, Medication, and Music – James Rhodes
  • A Wretched and Precarious Situation: In Search of the Last Arctic Frontier – David Welky
  • Now – The Physics of Time – Richard A. Muller
  • The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies – and What They Have Done to Us – David Thomson
  • City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York – Tyler Anbinder
  • A Natural History of the Piano – Stuart Isacoff
  • The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science – Julie Des Jardins
  • The Silk Roads: A New History of the World – Peter Frankopan
  • Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen
  • The World Will Be Saved by Beauty: An Intimate Portrait of Dorothy Day – Kate Hennessy
  • Boeing Versus Airbus: The Inside Story of the Greatest International Competition in Business – John Newhouse
  • Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich – Norman Ohler
  • The Givenness of Things – Marilynne Robinson
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption – Bryan Stevenson
  • The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America – Richard Rothstein
  • Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic – Sam Quinones
  • The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris – David McCullough
  • Movies are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings – Josh Larsen
  • The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II – Svetlana Alexievich
  • A Colony in a Nation – Chris Hayes
  • Getting Religion: Faith, Culture & Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Era of Obama – Kenneth L. Woodward
  • Khrushchev: The Man and His Era – William Taubman
  • Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness – Edward K. Kaplan
  • A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples – Ilan Pappe
  • Spiritial Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, 1940-1972 – Edward K. Kaplan
  • How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds – Alan Jacobs
  • The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency – Chris Whipple
  • Nevertheless: A Memoir – Alec Baldwin

I started off the year with a bang reading Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning. Stunning writing about the history of racism in America. So much that we as middle-class white Americans aren’t familiar with. But the one that will likely stick with me even more and provoke some re-reads came late in the year: Alan Jacobs’ How to Think. In this time of “fake news” and incessant online argument, Jacobs provides some much-needed sanity and advice.

Theology

  • How to Survive a Shipwreck – Jonathan Martin
  • Introduction to the Old Testament – J. Alberto Soggin
  • The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion – N.T. Wright
  • Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission – David E. Fitch
  • Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life – Tish Harrison Warren
  • The Imperfect Disciple: Grace for People Who Can’t Get Their Act Together – Jared C. Wilson
  • People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is Not Just an Issue – Preston Sprinkle
  • The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? – David Bentley Hart
  • Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony – Richard Bauckham
  • A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story – Diana Butler Bass
  • The Art of Curating Worship: Reshaping the Role of Worship Leader – Mark Pierson
  • Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News – Brian Zahnd

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham will permanently change how I read the Gospels. His case that most people named by name in the Gospels were specifically named because they were known eyewitnesses puts the accounts in a new light.

And I had heard good stuff about D.B. Hart’s little volume The Doors of the Sea for a long time but just never gotten to it. In it he uses the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 to frame his response to the age-old question of how a good, omnipotent God can allow such evil and suffering. My theological upbringing has been pretty Calvinist, but Hart’s very non-Calvinist approach (he’s Orthodox) provided a more compelling and beautiful explanation than anything I’ve previously read.

Summary

On the whole, I feel like I got a lot of variety this year and read a lot of interesting books. I do have a handful that I started and for some reason bogged down in and need to come back to – Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God is on that list… to be picked up sometime soon.

Finished reading: 2017 year-end edition

I’ve gotten seriously slack at listing all the books I’ve been reading. Consider this my year-end catch-up post. (Not to be confused with my year-in-review post which will come next week sometime.)

Here’s what I’ve finished reading since last time I posted:

Fiction

  • City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
  • Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
  • Autonomous by Annalee Newitz
  • The Berlin Project by Gregory Benford
  • Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper
  • The Force by Don Winslow
  • The Quantum Spy by David Ignatius

Non-Fiction

  • A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples by Ilan Pappe
  • Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, 1940-1972 by Edward K. Kaplan
  • Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God by Brian Zahnd
  • The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency by Chris Whipple
  • How to Think by Alan Jacobs

I’m currently reading The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein, which if it stays on track will climb pretty high up my favorites list for the year. Stay tuned!

Some thoughts on my social media fast

Back in November I decided it was time for a social media break. Facebook and Twitter were turning into frustrations that caused me more to feel fractured than to be too helpful. So I deleted the apps from my phone, closed the usually-open tabs in my browser, and decided to abstain until Christmas.

There were a few things I was afraid I’d miss – things that had dissuaded me from doing a fast like this before now – chiefly updates and photos from family members on Facebook, and staying in touch with a handful of friends for whom Twitter is our primary communication means. But for a month, it was definitely time to give it a try.

A month later it turns out that I didn’t miss all that much. Yeah, there were a few pictures from family members. I was able to catch up with those pretty quickly. The biggest miss was indeed the Twitter friends. There were a handful of times when I had the itch to post something to Twitter or FB and felt like I had no place to put it… but then I remembered my blog.

There were some unexpected positive aspects to the fast. Within the first few days I got text messages from friends who never otherwise text me. That was fun. And I spent some more time actually writing stuff on my blog. I kicked off a topic series that could eat up far more time than I have to actually do it justice. And for family pictures I set up an iMessage thread with my parents and all my siblings and it’s been a lot of fun, too.

On December 26th I reinstalled Tweetbot on my phone. My first step was to unfollow a lot of accounts. I had been following nearly 600; I cut out nearly half of them, trying to retain only real people I know personally or through one of my online communities. I may still need to cut down a few more noisy accounts, but it’s a little easier to tolerate being a Twitter completionist when I pull it up after a few hours’ break and there are only a hundred or so tweets to read through.

I’m not sure I really want to get back on to Facebook. I will stick around the Christ and Pop Culture group at least, but if it were to have a separate platform (which it won’t, for reasons that I understand), I would probably just jettison FB altogether.

I do want to spend more time writing on my blog – something that seems far more productive than being endlessly distracted by social media. Hopefully this taste of social media absence will help me set more reasonable levels of interaction in 2018.

Positive Politics: Internet and Technology Policy

Well I’m not ready to jump into one of the big ugly topics yet, so maybe this one will be a little easier. (Maybe.) Let’s talk about the internet and overall technology policies.

Access / Control of Internet

There’s a current debate about a concept called “net neutrality” that, as typical, is highly spun by both sides on the issue. So I’m going to avoid that term in my discussion. I’ll try to make this one fairly simple.

Access to the Internet should be thought of and regulated like a public utility, analogous to water, gas, and electric. Market competition is difficult here because the cost for infrastructure development is relatively high and a physical connection is required to each home and business. (We don’t expect that we’ll have three electric companies run lines to our house so we can choose the one with the best rates!) Pricing should be overseen and controlled just like it is for other utilities. Access to the internet should be unrestricted – no paid “fast lanes”, no filtering, no blocking.

Once that level of utility access is in place for the internet, I’m more open to allowing mobile providers to offer variation and experiment within the market space, because there is more room for genuine competition within the mobile internet (aka cell phone) market.

Encryption

The government should not restrict the use of encryption or push for the inclusion of “back doors” into encryption systems. From a technical standpoint, if a back door exists, the probability is 100% that at some point the bad guys will figure out how to get through it. The FBI may complain that good encryption slows their investigations down, and may dream up scenarios where they suggest having a backdoor would help avert some impending attack; I don’t believe that because we can imagine such a scenario that it justifies crippling our encryption systems. Encryption helps enable the right to digital privacy. We need it.

Consumer Data and Privacy

Big data analytics, whether by the government or by corporate interests, are affecting our lives in ways we struggle to understand (or are hidden from us). While it’s folly to think we can get the genie back in that bottle, I’d be interested to explore the idea of a Consumer Data Protection agency similar to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that was created after the 2008 financial crisis. We need awareness of what’s being done with our personal data, and we need real penalties for companies that mismanage or abuse it.

Social Media Transparency

And then there’s Facebook. And #FakeNews. And election meddling by way of Facebook propaganda. I don’t know what it’ll take for the giants like Facebook to get serious about trying to patrol that type of obviously fake material – maybe they shouldn’t. But what we do need is a populous that is more educated about how to identify fake news stories so they can evaluate things on their own.

Evaluation

So let’s evaluate these against our five-principle framework.

1. Is it good for the poor?

When compared with the possibility of pay-for-access, a Net Neutrality position is good for everyone, and benefits the poor who otherwise might be shut out of the benefits that internet access provides.

2. Is it good for the planet?

I’ll rate this one as neutral.

3. Does it promote peace?

The internet can be used for peaceful ends… or for not so peaceful ends. Better consumer education about how and what to consume would help us learn to ignore propaganda, which would be a positive and usually peaceful improvement.

4. Does it challenge the powerful?

Net Neutrality and awareness / limitation of big data collection would serve to at least give us awareness of what the powerful are doing with all that information… and knowledge is the first step toward taking action.

5. Does it let the marginalized have a seat at the table to speak for themselves?

Free and neutral access to the internet would provide each user, regardless of wealth or status, the same ability to distribute their message as anyone else. While access to already-popular channels isn’t automatic, the internet provides more ability than ever before in history for an unknown person with a notable message to spread virally.

Positive Politics: Education

None of the topics I’ve teed up for my Positive Politics discussions are easy ones, but in the interests of easing into things I’ll try to take one that’s maybe not super-controversial to start. (Of course, as with anything political, I may be surprised by what becomes controversial.) So let’s talk about education. For my own organizational purposes, I’m going to break this down into three pieces: early childhood, K-12, and college.

My Background

My background is probably relevant here. After attending two different public schools for kindergarten, I was homeschooled as a child from grades 1 – 12. My maternal grandmother spent her entire career as an elementary school teacher. My parents, after some years as public educators, blazed the homeschooling trail when it was not quite and just barely legal. Thanks in large part to their efforts I did well on the college admissions tests, was named a National Merit Scholar, and graduated with an engineering degree from a private university. My wife and I are now on year 8 of homeschooling our three children, which we anticipate continuing with them through their high school years.

Early Childhood Education

Gone are the days when we could expect that preschool-age children would be cared for by a parent at home. Our modern society is nearly based on the assumption that even if both parents are present in the home – that itself a less frequent condition than it used to be – that both parents are working outside the home to make ends meet. For those with means, children may be left in educational day-care facilities and preschools, but poorer children may more usually get left in a less beneficial environment. Research shows us that these early years are critical to a child’s intellectual and emotional formation.

So what should we do? I suggest that the government should fund early childhood education opportunities. These need not be mandatory – parents should be welcome to choose their own option such as a stay-at-home parent, family member, or private setting – but it should be available for those who would need and use it. Yes, these programs would cost money, but as an investment in the good of those individual children and in society as a whole, they would be a wise choice.

K-12 Education

When compared with the benefit they provide society, I believe teachers are one of the most underpaid groups of workers in America. We require advanced college degrees, often expect that to a great extent the teachers will self-supply their classrooms, and then pay them a barely middle-class salary. I guess then I shouldn’t be surprised – just appreciative – when I see so many teachers with such strong altruistic desire to teach. Why else would they do it?

I suggest that we should significantly increase our commitment to public education, while allowing alternative options with appropriate safeguards in place. We should pay teachers at a rate more commensurate with other professional career paths and should fund associated school programs similarly. While I think local control and direction of the school system is important, schools should be funded from a broader pool – say, at the state level rather than the municipal level – so that we don’t forever build bigger and bigger rich suburban schools while having no funding available for poor districts.

Alternative options such as home schools and private schools should be allowed, but I’m skeptical of the case for routing funds to those schools via things like voucher programs. While on the face of the argument, vouchers seem like a reasonable idea – pay for results, regardless of where the results come from – the metrics make it very tricky. The example of the No Child Left Behind Act over the past 15 years should be enough for us to seriously consider whether we really want to couple educational funding to test-based outcomes. Should assessment tests be a part of an overall institutional evaluation? You bet. But funding contingent on those specific outcomes is problematic. Metrics are tricky things – design the wrong one and you get the wrong behavior.

College education

There’s probably a whole separate post to be written on this topic, but I’ll try to restrain myself. I see two primary problems with our higher education system at present: first, that the costs are increasing exponentially, resulting in college graduates with huge piles of debt; second, that a college diploma is considered nearly a de facto requirement for most jobs.

My grades and test scores helped when I went to college in the mid-90’s. I passed up several full-ride scholarship offers at public universities to attend a private school that offered more minimal scholarships. After graduating in four years, I still had enough college debt that I was writing significant checks every month for 10 years to pay it off. Now 20 years later, the College Board reports that, even adjusted for inflation, public school tuition and fees have more than doubled since I was in college. I’ll guarantee you that inflation-adjusted salaries for parents and students haven’t doubled accordingly! The result: even more debt for students and parents.

Unemployment rates make the story clear: for college graduates, the unemployment rate is nearly zero. (2.5% in January 2017, which is in practice full employment.) For high school graduates, unemployment is more than twice that – 5.3% – and for high-school dropouts, the unemployment rate nears 8%. So the most job opportunities would seem to be available for those who have a four-year diploma. But need this really be the case? Sure, in some disciplines a significant professional education is a must. (I’d like the guy designing my bridge or the woman operating on my heart to have the best education they can get!) But many blue collar and even white collar job fields shouldn’t require four or five years and a mound of debt just to buy entry to the field. Vocational training programs should be developed and encouraged for job areas that can reasonably be done without a four-year degree.

Evaluation

So let’s evaluate these against our five-principle framework.

1. Is it good for the poor?

Increased funding for the education system, with funding spread more broadly, should work to help improve education for the poor.

2. Is it good for the planet?

I’m not sure that the education system has a direct ecological impact – other than that ecological education could be part of a well-balanced system.

3. Does it promote peace?

Similar answer as to #2, though I would add here that education practices that lead to more diversity in our school populations should in the long term encourage more tolerance among diverse groups, which should promote peace.

4. Does it challenge the powerful?
5. Does it let the marginalized have a seat at the table to speak for themselves?

I’m not sure what all powerful groups need to be challenged in this area, but I would hope that the combination of more broad-pool funding combined with local control would help restrain more impersonal national forces in favor of more accessible local ones, and would empower even those in poor districts to make decisions that are beneficial for their children and communities.

[As a reminder: while this blog post is cross-posted to Facebook, I’m on a social media fast through the end of 2017, which means if you comment there I won’t see it. If you want to interact, comment here on the blog!]

[Image credit: The Blue Diamond Gallery]

Andrew Sullivan on the Gay Wedding Cake Case

I miss Andrew Sullivan. I’m glad the guy detached a bit – the pace of his daily blogging was incredible, no surprise it wasn’t sustainable – but he has a unique and important voice on issues of our time. So it was no surprise to me that his weekly column addressing the Gay Wedding Cake case is a must read.

I find myself pretty much in alignment with Andrew’s conflicted take. I’d highly recommend reading the whole thing – it’s not too long – but I’ll quote just one pithy paragraph.

In other words, if the liberals were more liberal, and the Christians more Christian, this case would never have existed. It tells you a great deal about the decadence of our culture that it does.


New York Magazine: The Case for the Baker in the Gay-Wedding Culture War