Here are four books that I’ve read in the last year that have proven to be both informative and influential in my thinking. Two are “Christian” books and two are “secular”—two terms I really don’t like using to describe books, but that’s another discussion—but all of them have helped me to understand Christianity, and Evangelicalism in particular, in its American context. I'll take them in the order in which I read them.
Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman. This was originally published in 1985, and has proven to be amazingly (and disturbingly) prophetic. Postman, noting that every method of communication shapes the message communicated, asserted that television not only shapes the message but actually distorts it. Television, especially when compared to the written word, cannot foster deep, rational thought in its viewers, because it requires absolute passivity from them. Television can only be about entertainment, and its cultural dominance, Postman argues, has had negative effects on education, politics, journalism and religion. We demand to be entertained, and in fact can no longer tell the difference between information and entertainment. What passes as information is actually entertainment, feeding us what we want to hear rather than what really is. While Postman focused on television, 25 years later we find that screens dominate our lives more than ever, with TV being joined by other sophisticated electronic media like the Internet, smartphones and DVD/Blue Ray. It’s interesting to me that this book was published a year later than the setting of George Orwell’s famous book, 1984, almost as if Postman was validating Orwell’s vision of modern life.
American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard. According to award-winning journalist and historian Colin Woodard, North America is made up of eleven distinct nations or cultures, each with its own unique historical roots. American history tends to be taught, at least when I was in school, from an perspective that privileges American roots in England, as well as the struggle between North and South that culminates in the Civil War, to the exclusion of the other cultures that have existed almost from the beginning of the European conquest of North America. In fact, Spanish settlements in the Southeast predate English settlements, though that tends to be overshadowed in our Anglo-centric histories. From the Deep South to the Far West, to Yankeedom to El Norte, Woodard reveals how each regional culture continues to uphold its distinguishing ideals and identities today, with results that can be seen in the composition of the U.S. Congress or on the county-by-county election maps of presidential elections.
Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture by Lesslie Newbigin. Newbigin was an English missionary to India for nearly forty years, which allowed him to view both Western culture and Western Christianity from a non-Western perspective. The argument Newbigin make is that when we encounter a culture not our own, we tend to impose on that culture the values and understanding of the gospel we bring to them; a gospel shaped by our own culture. He helped reshape Christian missions to non-Western cultures, and that alone was good, but the real value of the book to me is that it helps Western Christianity distinguish what is Western in our Christianity, and what is truly the Gospel. And he argues that Western Christianity needs to be converted to the Gospel as much as the rest of the world.
Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien. Continuing the theme of culture’s influence on American Christianity, this is another book written by missionaries who have seen the way that culture shapes our understanding of Christianity. While Newbigin focused on missiology and theology, Richards and O’Brien focus on how our Western culture influences our understanding of Scripture and leads us down interpretive paths never envisioned by the biblical writers. If you can get past the sometimes clunky writing style, this book will help you to read the Bible with fresh eyes and deeper understanding.