The “Why’s” of My Reading List (Across the Sundering Seas 2020 #13)
I read almost nothing this week. I had a very sick wife (now on the mend), and therefore ran point for our whole household, including all the parenting, as well as doing my normal work tasks. The net was that by the end of the day, I had little mental or emotional energy to spare for anything at all. Single parents do heroic amounts of work, and single parents whose children are now at home in the midst of COVID-19 school system shutdowns particularly have my sympathies. It’s one thing to know these things are hard; it’s something else entirely to try to carry everything alone for even a single week.
Even so: I’m committed to writing this newsletter—it does my soul good.
Before we get any further, though: the usual qualifiers, just in case you don’t remember how you ended up reading this. I understand: there’s a lot happening. March felt a year long!
This is Across the Sundering Seas, a basically-weekly newsletter by Chris Krycho (that’s me!). In this space, I write about the things I’ve been reading recently—from theological anthropology to centuries-spanning histories of technology. You can always unsubscribe at any time, and I won’t even be offended: we all have lots of things to read!
In lieu of having something specific to say about something specific I read, and in the interest of still saying something interesting, this week I’m going to list out the books I’m actively reading right now—and, likely the more interesting bit, why I’m actively reading them.
Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: this is the “background book” I’m reading with Stephen Carradini for Winning Slowly Season 8. Our focus this season is on the relationship between epistemology and technology: how do our ways of thinking about the world shape the technologies we build, and vice versa? Eisenstein’s volume came recommended to us by way of L. M. Sacasas—whom many of you will recognize as one of the thinkers on technology I respect the most.
So far, the book is more than proving its worth. I wouldn’t say the volume is radically transforming the way I think. I would say it is fleshing out a lot of things I’ve had only half-formed or -guessed. If nothing else, I suspect I will come out the other side with a lot less intuitive and a lot more well-grounded a sense of the history and impact of the printing press—a device we essentially take for granted, not much different than a fork, but which (Eisenstein demonstrates quite compellingly) did in fact steadily change the world.
Comparisons between the internet and the printing press are a dime a dozen, and so far the comparison seems mostly apt—in both cases, there are simultaneously great degrees of continuity with what came before and yet also serious and important shifts produced by the differences created by the new technology. I have many quotes and notes from the book, and hope to make something meaningful of them over time. (If nothing else, more of them need to end up in the Library section of my website!)
I’ve also been slooooowly but steadily working my way through David H. Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology for a few months now. I picked up Kelsey’s two-volume deep dive on theological anthropology as part of the preparatory reading for a class on theological anthropology I’m presumably teaching at the end of the summer at church. Presumably, I say, because in fact none of us have any idea what our church schedule looks like for the foreseeable future!
In reading Kelsey, I’m doing something that is, unfortunately, a bit unusual among other conservative evangelicals: reading and taking seriously someone not from my tribe. Kelsey is a member of the PC(USA). I’m a member of the PCA: a denomination which split (to the right) from the PC(USA) forty years ago over a mix of theological and cultural differences.1 There’s a tendency among theological types (let’s be honest: among people; but theologians might be particularly tempted this way) to look at books from folks to the right or to the left of us and find them untrustworthy, and so skip them.
But all books (save one) are untrustworthy in various ways, and all authors make more or less serious mistakes. I’m interested in Kelsey’s work because it is a substantive and provocative contemporary account of human nature, and one that takes a very different tack from many of the traditional Christian readings—even while aiming (more or less successfully) to remain faithful to the tradition. I regularly disagree with him: but that is part of the point!
The dynamics look different for a would-be teacher than they do for others. If you’re not teaching, you are free to read books which challenge you—but you are also free not to. It is, sometimes, better to spend that time and mental energy on other things. Wisdom might mean looking at a given book and your own heart and recognizing that this is not the right time or place to push on that subject. (This is, I know, contrary to how a lot of modernists think about knowledge. The frame has a good pedigree, though, and it is one we would do well to remember). The demands of wisdom are not diminished but increased for teachers: sometimes we must decide we are not in a place to teach a given subject! That takes a humility few of us have.
When we do dare to teach, though, we must read more provocatively. Reading only things which confirm our existing ideas is a pretty serious waste of time. Reading books which sharpen and challenge our thinking—which either change our minds or make us actually explain why we are not changing our minds—that’s fruitful.
The third book I have going is one I started just this week (even if I only managed to read the introduction and part of the first chapter): Ashley Hale’s Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much. I picked this book up at the recommendation of a good friend, for two reasons:
I find suburbia hard myself, for a variety of reasons: the lack of walkability (or bike-ability) and the corresponding need to drive everywhere, the general blandness and sameness of the big box stores and restaurants and houses, the general difficulty of having meaningful community… and yet, I live in a very suburban context, where nothing is walkable and every house on my street looks very much the same. I need to figure out how to love this place for its own goodness, as well as how to help make it better in what ways I can.
I am committed to reading books that I can give to other people to read. Too often over the past few years, I have been caught by the question, about some conversation I’ve had, “Is there a book I could read on that?” It turns out that, “Well, uhh, I don’t know: I picked this up from a mix of long-form essays, arguments with friends, academic papers, and a few very heady academic books” just isn’t all that helpful—whatever the subject, but perhaps especially in the life of the church. As I increasingly take on lay leadership roles, it’s really important that I be able to answer that question better. It’s also important for me to have some sense of what the people I’m serving are reading—both to be able to answer hard questions those books might raise (which, to be very clear, is good in my book!) and also to have a sense for what people are struggling with or thinking about. Accordingly, I’m making a point to work through a couple popular-level books each year. Hale’s is one of them!
I hope that was an interesting look into not just what I’m reading but why and how. And hopefully, now that my wife is on the mend, I’ll be able to get back to reading in the week ahead, so that I can actually get back to the normal format for this newsletter next week!
As is often the case, the history of the split is complicated, and both hateful and hagiographical histories of the split are mistaken in serious ways. It certainly had serious and significant theological warrant… but it also unquestionably had a racial component: one that the leadership of the PCA has publicly admitted and apologized for in recent years. Every institution’s history is the same kind of checkered mix at best. ↩