Thursday, December 31, 2015

What I Read in 2015

A few of my books from 2015. Others are tucked away on Kindle.

The rocky path toward excellent writing passes through the heart of the paradisaical land of great reading. As one writer has said"If you’re a real writer … you read and read, and then you read some more."

One of my life goals is to constantly improve my writing talent. And so I read as much as a busy life of full-time employment and family (a wife and two--soon to be three--children) allows. I read in the morning while I eat breakfast. I read while standing on the train platform. I read on the train to and from work. I read during lunch breaks. I read after the girls are in bed. I read on days off. I read while my wife drives on road trips.

In 2015, I've read several books; the number is irrelevant because quality of the text and the level of retention matters much more than quantity read. A scripture verse dear to Mormons guides me as I choose what to read: "Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom" (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118). The definition of "best books" is different for everyone; for me, they are books of deep spirituality, refined thinking, rich wisdom, powerful ideas and new ways of looking at the world.

You'll notice my list leans heavily on the side of Russian novels. I have a strong connection to Russian and Ukrainian culture thanks to two years as a Mormon missionary in eastern Ukraine. What's more, as  a Muscovite friend of mine has said, "there is such a thing as a wide Russian soul that contains a lot of wisdom and long suffering, even though it may appear as an enigma." My experience with Russian novels is evidence of each author's "wide Russian soul."

My favorite passage of the year: 
Is there anything in the world that merits faithfulness? Such things are very few. I think we must be faithful to immortality, that other, slightly stronger name for life. We must keep faith in immortality, we must be faithful to Christ! (Dr. Zhivago, p. 8)

My favorite book of the year: Not in God's Name:Confronting Religious Violence (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks)

The asterisks in the list below indicate that book is good enough to read again.

Russian Classics

Anna Karenina*
Leo Tolstoy

Master and Man (a novella)*
Leo Tolstoy

The Idiot*
Fyodor Dostoevsky

Notes From the Underground
Fyodor Dostoevsky

Boris Pasternak

Dead Souls
Nikolai Gogol

A Hero for Our Time
Mikhail Lermontov

The Master and Margarita
Mikhail Bulgakov

Other Novels

Moby Dick
Herman Mellville

Don Quixote
Miguel de Cervantes


The Pilgrim's Progress*
John Bunyan

The Road to Character*
David Brooks

The Social Animal
David Brooks

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

The New Testament*

The Book of Mormon*

The Crucible of Doubt*
Terryl and Fiona Givens


One Good Life*
Jill Nystul

I am a Mother
Jane Clayson


The Search*
Carol Lynn Pearson

Writing Tools

The Elements of Style (I re-read this book once a year)
Williams Strunk and E.B. White

The Associated Press Guide to Punctuation (I also re-read this book once a year)

Finishing Up

Onward! Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel
Dr. Russell Moore

Russell M. Nelson: Father, Surgeon, Apostle
Spencer J. Condie

Writing Tools*
Roy Peter Clark

On Deck for 2016

The Best American Essays of 2015
Ariel Levy (editor)

Democracy in America
Alexis de Tocqueville

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Eats, Shoots & Leaves
Lynne Truss

The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court
Jeffrey Toobin

The Four Loves
C.S. Lewis

The Iliad and The Odyssey

Unforgettable: A Son, a Mother, and the Lessons of a Lifetime
Scott Simon

Monday, December 28, 2015

'Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence'

I purchased Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence because one writer says it is "one of this decade’s most important books." After reading it, I heartily second that assessment.

If you care about the future of peace, religion and religious freedom, or if you are interested in Old Testament exegesis, this book is so worth your time. 

Below are some of my favorite passages:

Science, technology, the free market and the liberal democratic state ... do not and cannot answer the three questions every reflective individual will ask at some time in his or her life: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? ... The 21st century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.  p. 13

Violence is born of the need for identity and the formation of groups. These lead to conflict and war. But war is normal. Altruistic evil is not normal. Suicide bombings, the targeting of civilians and the murder of schoolchildren are not normal. Violence may be possible wherever there is an Us and a Them. But radical violence emerges only when we see the Us as all-good and the Them as all-evil, heralding a war between the children of light and the forces of darkness. That is when altruistic evil is born.  p. 48

As Jews, Christians and Muslims, we have to be prepared to ask the most uncomfortable questions. Does the God of Abraham want his disciples to kill for his sake? Does he demand human sacrifice? Does he rejoice in holy war? Does he want us to hate our enemies and terrorize unbelievers? Have we read our sacred texts correctly? What is God saying to us, here, now?

When people accuse others of seeking to control the world, it may be that they are unconsciously projecting what they themselves want but do not wish to be accused of wanting. If you seek to understand what a group truly intends, look at the accusations it levels against its enemies.  p. 83

The face that is truly ours is the one we see reflected back at us by God. ... Peace comes when we see our reflection in the face of God and let go of the desire to be someone else. p. 138-139

Love is not unproblematic. Given to one but not another, to one more than another, it creates tensions that can turn to violence. ... the message of Genesis is that love is necessary but not sufficient. You also need sensitivity to those who feel unloved. p. 145

On the surface, Genesis is a series of stories in which the elder is supplanted by the younger. Beneath the surface, in a series of counter-narratives, it tells the opposite story, subverting the whole frame of mind that says, 'Either you or me. if you win, I lose. If I win, you lose.' That may be true of scarce goods like wealth or power. It is not true of divine love, which is governed by the principle of plenitude. p. 172

A humanitarian as opposed to a group ethic requires the most difficult of all imaginative exercises: role reversal—putting yourself in the place of those you despise, or pity, or simply do not understand. … Empathy across boundaries can sometimes threaten religion at its roots, because one of the sacred tasks of religion is boundary maintenance. … Biblical ethics is a prolonged tutorial in role reversal. … Memory and role reversal are the most powerful resources we have to cure the darkness that can sometimes occlude the human soul.  p. 183-84, 88

When a single culture is imposed on all, suppressing the diversity of languages and traditions, this is an assault on our God-given differences. p. 193

A chosen people is the opposite of a master race, first, because it is not a race but a covenant; second, because it exists to serve God, not to master others. A master race worships itself; a chosen people worships something beyond itself. p. 198

You cannot love God without first honoring the universal dignity of humanity as the image and likeness of the universal God. … Search for the trace of God in the face of the Other. Never believe that God is defined by and confined to the people like you. p. 200, 203

For all the natural pride we feel in being part of our group—the people of the covenant, a holy nation—we are brought face to face with the fact that others may sometimes respond to the word of God better than we do. p. 204

Religion is at its best when it relies on strength of argument and example. It is at its worst when it seeks to impose truth by force. … Religion — as understood by Abraham and those who followed him—is at its best when it resists the temptation of politics and opts instead for influence. For what it tell us is that civilizations are judged not by power but by their concern for the powerless; not by wealth but by how they treat the poor; not when they seek to become invulnerable but when they care for the vulnerable. Religion is not the voice of those who sit on earthly thrones but of those who, not seeking to wild power, are unafraid to criticize it when it corrupts those who hold it and diminishes those it is held against. p. 234, 236

If vengeance belongs to God, it does not belong to us. p. 247

The entire ethical-legal principle on which the Hebrew Bible is based is that we own nothing. Everything — the land, its produce, power, sovereignty, children and life itself — belongs to God. We are mere trustees, guardians, on his behalf. We possess but we do not own. That is the basis of the infrastructure of social justice that made the Bible unique in its time and still transformative today. p. 254

Altruism misdirected can lead to evil: that has been the thesis of this book. That is why the West must recover its ideals. p. 256

Hate harms the hated but it destroys the hater. There is no exception. p. 261

We must put the same long-term planning into strengthening religious freedom as was put into the spread of religious extremism. … We must train a generation of religious leaders and educators who embrace the world in its diversity, and sacred texts in their maximal generosity. p. 262

We are each blessed by God, each precious in his sight, each with our role in his story, each with our own song in the music of humankind. To be a child of Abraham is to learn to respect the other children of Abraham even if their way is not ours. We know that we are loved. That must be enough. To insist that being loved entails that others be unloved is to fail to understand love itself. p. 264