Here are a few books and essays I’ve been reading over the past month. For those looking to turn off cable news, run away from polls, or escape Twitter, perhaps one of these recommendations could serve as a reminder of what lasts.
Most recently I read this essay in Harpers by Alan Jacobs, a professor at the Baylor Honors College. Titled “The Watchmen,” Jacobs’ piece asks a simple question: Where did the Christian intellectuals go? In an election cycle in which many Christians find themselves orphaned, where are “the interpreters,” “the bridgers of cultural gaps,” people who can go between congregations and the academy. The piece is an exploration of Christian voices in the public square—or the lack thereof—that goes back to the World War II. It might find a nice home in the syllabi of a number of courses at Calvin College.
“Freedom and Equality: Two American Bluebirds”
Updike, who isn’t mentioned in the Jacobs’ essay but certainly could be, calls freedom and equality two ideas that “rest at the heart of what we like to think makes the United States an exemplary and revolutionary place, yet neither is unambiguous or without its problematical concept.” His essay takes a close look at both of the concepts and how they exist, don’t exist, or contradict each other in the United States.
Equality is freedom’s pragmatic, “closer-to-earth” companion, writes Updike. He recalls the willingness an American tour group on a safari “A sense of equality is necessary to freedom because when a society breaks down into hopelessly unequal blocs the elite in its own defense will seek to contain—that is, to repress—the disaffected,” he says. With each major party putting forward a business-friendly presidential nominee, inequality is a topic that has all but vanished from national discourse.
Toward the end of the piece, Updike makes the rather optimistic prediction that technology will “As information blankets the globe, tyranny, injustice, and falsehood have become harder to hide.” Spend an afternoon on Twitter and this claim approaches indefensibility. Technology, while in some regards a democratizer, isn’t the fact-checking equalizer Updike expected it to be. Nonetheless, his essay is a measured and valuable meditation on two fundamental pillars of democracy.
In the middle of a tangent on equality in American life, Updike recalls an English friend’s astonishment at the casual disregard with which an American child greeted him. It’s often outsiders like the Englishman in Updike’s story who contain the best insights into another world.
This sentiment is echoed by Akua, a character in Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing. Akua tells her estranged son, “Sometimes you cannot see that the evil in the world began as the evil in your home.”
Homegoing traces the heritage of a single African family through seven generations, steering readers through a litany of tragedies and injustices that take the family from present-day Ghana in the 1700s to the contemporary USA. The scope of the novel is tremendous, it’s insights on race are many-facetted and occasionally breach ideological bounds, and Gyasi’s prose is clean, clear and elegant—fully capable of carrying a reader nearly 300 years.
As the book’s third chapter reminds readers, there’s a time for everything. Now might be the time for Ecclesiastes 2. In verse 11, the speaker, sometimes called Qoheleth, beholds the works of his hands and remarks, “Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun.”
Is there a bigger vanity and vexation than the 2016 United States Presidential election? The Democrats nominated a fixture in the political class, not short on experience but lacking regard for the law. The Republicans countered with an unfit demagogue with reality-TV experience, a penchant for nationalism, and a voided soul the size of Atlantic City. What does wisdom look like in the face of vexation and vanity? Maybe verse 24 points us in the direction of an answer: “There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God.” So it was written, so let it be done.