Friday, January 04, 2019

3 Non-Fiction Books I Read in 2018

As I go though the books I read this year, I should clarify right away that very few if any of them were published this year. This isn't like my movies list; it's just everything I read.

I don't typically read a lot of non-fiction, but I'm trying to get better at that. With limited reading time, I've traditionally focused on made-up stories. Sometimes though, you wanna know what other people think about stuff without having to dig through symbolism and characters to get at it. Here's what I was interested in last year.

Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians But Were Afraid to Ask by Anton Treuer

I've been interested in American Indian people and culture since I was a kid. As a fan of Westerns, it always bugged me that Indians were assumed to be villains and I always perked up when a movie or show offered a different perspective.

As an adult, I haven't been as involved in Indian issues as I would like to be, but I want to change that. Minnesota has a large Indian population and there's an American Indian school in my neighborhood that we sent David to for Middle School. That was a great experience for him and through the school we started getting a glimpse of the issues that are important to the local Indian community.

In an effort to learn more, I picked up Anton Treuer's book. He writes that American Indian culture is something that is imagined by outsiders, rather than understood. That's been true of me, but Treuer's book has helped. It's a collection of questions and answers, divided into categories, that can either be read cover to cover or just referred to by whatever topic the reader is interested in. I read it cover to cover and am eager to continue learning.

God Has a Name by John Mark Comer

I heard about this on Phil Vischer's Holy Post podcast where Comer was a guest. It got me interested in hearing more of what he had to say. I don't talk much about religion here, but it's a deep interest of mine and I was attracted to Comer's vision of God as a being with a specific personality, as opposed to a construct or model based on what worshipers want him to be. Comer digs into a passage in Exodus where Yahweh reveals his nature to Moses. I don't agree with every assertion Comer makes, but his understanding of God's nature is thoughtful and lovely.

God According to God: A Physicist Proves We've Been Wrong About God All Along by Gerald Schroeder

This is older than Comer's book, but it's been sitting on my shelf for a while and it was Comer's book that made me pull it off and read it. I don't remember why I originally purchased it, but it was probably the same impulse that made me interested in Comer. Using scientific observations of nature, Schroeder asserts that God has a personality and that he wants to partner with humanity rather than control us.

Coming at it through the lens of science is interesting, but I found Schroeder's voice rather dry and other authors cover the same ideas in more compelling ways. Comer is more persuasive about the personality aspect in God Has a Name and professor John Walton covers the partnership aspect especially well in his Lost World of Adam and Eve. To anyone interested in this kind of theology, I recommend those books instead.


Siskoid said...

In line with your interests, let me recommend one non-fiction book and two fiction books which deal with the nature of God.

Harold Bloom's Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, a comparison of the two from a literary standpoint, i.e. as literary characters. I knew a lot more about Jesus than Yahweh going in, being well versed in my catechism, but the God of the Tanakh (what Christians call the Old Testament) was a revelation (no pun intended). As usual, Bloom has his mannerisms (like repeating his thesis way too often), but he always always makes me want to reach for whatever books he's discussing, and that's a good thing.

The other two are by Nobel Prize-winning author José Saramago.

The Gospel According the Jesus Christ. I was immediately taken by Saramago's high wire act, which critics have called a kind of skeptical humanism. Telling the story of Jesus without contradicting the four accepted Gospels, he nevertheless reminds us of how far from the Bible's original context we now stand. His Jesus (and his Joseph and Mary, as the book is far more interested in his origins and early life than the Gospels are) lives in a real place and time, made real by sensual detail and cultural norms now alien to us. The novel is irreverently ironic, consistently shocking us with questions of how true any given account can be given human interpretation, but Saramago so loves his characters, it never turns into a take-down. He gives the story a literary bent with leitmotifs, for example, which are ironic in and of themselves (revealing Scripture as literature rather than History, which itself is an interpretative genre), and provides logic and psychological truth to the characters and events. Not to say it debunks the Bible - God and the Devil are manifest - but it does test your faith in the best way possible, by showing literal truth as improbable, and requiring a more thoughtful kind of faith that isn't about believing in "facts" but in ideas and ethical philosophies.

Saramago's last novel before his death, Cain, is like a prequel to his Gospel. Though 18 years separate them, I found there the same skepticism and humanity. I loved the Gospel, but I think I love Cain more. Taking a similar tack, it starts with Adam and Even and their fall from Grace, but soon gets us to Cain and the first murder. From there, Cain is condemned to wander for eternity and the book that's a strange turn, becoming a kind of time travel adventure through the books of Genesis and Exodus. Cain goes back and forth through time, interacting with Abraham, Job, Noah, Moses, Lot and so on. Every incident makes him wonder why he was punished for a single murder, while the Old Testament God commits or encourages genocide. Skeptical Saramago attacks the Old Testament's hypocritical double standards, again asking literalists to question their beliefs, while Saramago the humanist paints the portrait of Cain as a psychologically believable character so he can act as reader identification figure. And no spoilers, but the twist ending is remarkable. Especially considering it was the writer's last book. I won't say any more. It's just 159 pages, an easier read than Saramago's other works (guy just doesn't break for paragraphs).

And maybe you've read them already!

Michael May said...

I haven't! And they all sound fascinating.

I've done some study on the way Yahweh presents himself in the Old Testament, so it would be cool to compare notes with Bloom.

And while I'm a big fan of historical fiction, I've done surprisingly (to me) little reading of stories set in the ancient Middle East. The Red Tent has been on my To Do pile for ages, but I've never picked it up. Possibly because I added it at a time when I wasn't reading like I am now and just never bumped it up in line once I started making time to read again. I'll add Saramago's books to the list. I've heard of them and would love to check them out.



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