posted by Amy on Jul 24
Recently a friend asked me what I’ve been reading this summer. I couldn’t come up with a complete list until I went home and looked at my stacks of books. I am always reading, usually more than one book at a time, and I have eclectic tastes. Here is an annotated bibliography of what I’ve read so far:
Bacevich, Andrew J. The Limits of Power; The End of American Exceptionalism. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2009. Bacevich teaches at BU, and I hope to figure out a way to take a class from him for seminary credit. A New York Times bestseller, this book succinctly describes how U.S. society came to be so hyper-militarized, and explains why we’ve reached the end of that rope. A lethal combination of greed, hubris, incompetence, intemperance, lack of accountability, and delusion have created a huge national security state headed by an imperial presidency. In this book Bacevich quotes Reinhold Niebuhr frequently and pointedly, for example, the “false security to which all men are tempted is the security of power” (119). I have read a number of books critiquing the national security state. This book provides additional historical background and analysis that helped fill in some of the gaps in my understanding. I don’t need to be convinced that it is insane to give up freedom and economic independence in exchange for an illusion of safety from all possible kinds of violence, but maybe this book will convince others. I am afraid, though, that it might be too late. Witness the complete absence of proposals to make meaningful cuts in military spending, which makes up fifty percent of all discretionary U.S. government spending, in a time when we are being told we have to “get our fiscal house in order.”
Bell, Rob. Love Wins; A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. New York: HarperOne, 2011. This is the other New York Times bestseller on my summer reading list. I was curious to see what all the fuss was about. Bell admits that there’s nothing new here. He draws upon traditional sources to make his case for universal salvation. He does that without devaluing the concept of hell or being complacent or naïve about human evil. It’s a quick read, and I thought it was worthwhile.
Fromm, Erich. The Sane Society. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 1990. Originally published in 1955, this book advances a theory of mental health that is not dependent on culture. Fromm thinks that human beings all have innate needs, desires and drives that must be fulfilled. In this he rejects the idea that sanity should be defined with reference to how well a person is adjusted to her or his society, because society itself can be sick, and failure to adapt to it might actually be a sign of sanity. He says our society is, in many ways, insane. Modern society itself produces the alienation that it attempts to alleviate through consumption and entertainment. It’s impressive that in 1955, at the pinnacle of middle class “success” in the U.S., Fromm saw so clearly where we were headed. This book contains the best summary I’ve ever seen of eighteenth and nineteenth century proposals for alternatives to exalting the needs of capital over those of human beings, and forms an indispensable foundation for any critique of our current social ills and for designing correctives. In his writing Fromm follows the standard convention of his time that by saying “he” and “mankind” he means to include “she” and “womankind,” and that takes some getting used to.
Kiser, John W. The Monks of Tibhirine; Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002. This is the book which upon which the movie “Of Gods and Men” is based. Part of it was assigned reading for a class, but I decided to read the whole thing. It is about Christian monks in a monastery in Algeria, five of whom were kidnapped and beheaded in 1997. Although there is a little speculation about who might have done that and why, the story is about Christian love and faithful living. The Muslim town that had grown up around the monastery depended on it for their own safety, security and health. One of the monks was a doctor who ran a clinic that treated anyone who needed medical care, no questions asked. A story about a complex, high-conflict place where Christians are in the minority gives much food for thought. The evolving relationship of the brothers, their devotion to each other, to the people, and to God, and their faith, make for fascinating reading.
Peterson, Eugene H. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction; Discipleship in an Instant Society, 2d ed. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000. First written in 1980, Peterson uses the “Ascent Psalms” (120 to 134) to address common issues and concerns that arise for people who set out to follow Christ. In his meditations on these Psalms, Peterson addresses a broad array of everyday issues, such as work, community, worship, security and joy. He says that Christian spirituality must be grounded in Scripture and prayer. In the tradition of the Benedictines, he contemplates, engages, and illuminates these texts. This book introduced me to The Message, Peterson’s translation of the Bible. I had resisted using it before, but I now own a copy. The contemporary rendering of the words gives them a liveliness that traditional translations lack, and makes it easier to read long Bible passages in one sitting.
Pinkola Estés, Clarissa, PhD. Women Who Run with the Wolves; Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. New York, Ballantine Books, 1992. I haven’t quite finished reading this book, but I’m putting it on my list because I read it before, not long after it was first published. The author is an ethnographer, story teller, and Jungian psychotherapist. She retells ancient fairy tales and stories from all over the world, and interprets them in light of Jungian theory about universal psychic archetypes. She says that beneath our “civilized,” tamed, tamped-down, “good girl” personae we women have creative, vital, powerful, and wise “Wild Woman” natures that, if we are to be whole, need to have their say. Many psychic difficulties can be addressed by healing our injured instincts. She says women understand at a deep level the cycles of life and death, the ebb and flow of creativity, generativity and capacity for action. Some of the stories could stand alone as windows into the hidden world of the psyche. Some seem too violent or abrupt to understand, until Dr. Pinkola Estés illuminates and enfleshes them. Feminist and womanist Christian theology could benefit from these insights into the essential feminine nature.
Taylor, Barbara Brown. An Altar in the World; A Geography of Faith. New York: HarperOne, 2009. This little book is divided into chapters about “faith practices” that may not immediately seem to be traditional, such as “The Practice of Getting Lost.” The book is a treasure trove of insight and wisdom that would repay numerous readings, a few pages or entire chapters at a time. For example, Taylor says, “Wisdom is not gained by knowing what is right. Wisdom is gained by practicing what is right, and noticing what happens when that practice succeeds and when it fails. Wise people do not have to be certain what they believe before they act. They are free to act, trusting that the practice itself will teach them what they need to know” (14).
Servan-Schreiber, David, MD, PhD. Anticancer; A New Way of Life. 2d ed. New York: Viking Penguin, 2009. The author is a psychiatrist with a PhD in neuroscience. At the age of thirty, he took the place of an experimental subject who failed to show up one night, and learned from his own MRI machine that he had a cancerous tumor in his brain. After treatment, recovery, and then a relapse, he began to take more seriously the idea that he needed to care for his body and mind holistically, as a system. To express this system thinking he uses the word “terrain,” and advocates for lifestyle choices that optimize your terrain. He explains his reasoning in detail, and backs up what he says with numerous outside references.
You don’t give yourself cancer by eating junk food or by failing to manage stress or control your emotions. Cancer comes from some combination of genetics and environment—exposure to carcinogens. But here’s the rub: everyone has cancer cells inside them. Everyone has “microtumors.” Four out of ten of us in North America will die from cancer, but six will not. Genetic factors only account for about 17% of cancer cases. To guard against developing cancer, or to help your body fight it once you have it, you have to tend your “terrain.” Servan-Schreiber says that to do this you only need to do four things: avoid foods that cause inflammation (sugar, trans fat, too much Omega 6 fatty acid, and foods with a high glycemic index), consume thing that have anti-inflammatory or anti-cancer properties (a “Mediterranean diet,” ginger, some kinds of mushrooms, green tea, turmeric, dark chocolate, Omega 3 fatty acids, etc.), get regular exercise, and manage stress. He himself used conventional cancer treatments (surgery, chemotherapy, radiation) and he does not suggest that anyone who has cancer do without appropriate medical treatment.
To me the most convincing argument for fighting cancer with lifestyle is that even if it doesn’t “work” in the sense of avoiding or curing cancer, it will, by itself, improve quality of life. Good food, exercise and serenity can make you a nicer, happier, more self-actualized person. They can give you a more mindful, aware, and meaningful life with no foreseeable ill effects at all. That is reason enough to do them.