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Quick Reads for January and February 2019

January 31, 2019 by

Here are our recommendations for January and February:

collage of three books

Ben Sasse, Them: Why We Hate Each Other – and How to Heal

What you think of Ben Sasse’s latest book probably mirrors what you think of him as a person. You have only to look at the replies to his tweets to know that there are a lot of people who vehemently disagree with him, so much so that they miss what he’s trying to say and instead launch ad hominem attacks on him and his family.

Unfortunately that’s nothing new in this age of online (and increasingly offline) outrage, but it provides the raison d’etre for the book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other – and How to Heal. It’s not the first of its kind by any stretch, but it’s a mostly useful addition to the canon. (One quick reason why it’s not: in spite of railing against divisions and bubbles and what he terms “anti-tribes,” Sasse does at times seem to exist in his own little bubble of Midwestern middle-class comfort, and at times seems to have a hard time grasping why people of a different ethnic or socio-economic background might view things through a different lens.)

But Sasse asks several good questions – how have we Americans gotten to this point of extreme division, and what can we do to move together again? – and he also gives a few good answers. Some answers are obvious: he rails against technology, specifically social media, but that’s so passé in 2019 that even the people who designed Facebook and Twitter say that sort of thing. And he can be scattershot at times, variously and predictably placing a bullseye on the mainstream media and its bent for sensationalism in the service of selling ads, and attacking the problem of too many choices in our consumer culture.

Jesus had great wisdom about judging the shortcomings of others. Remember that line about removing the beam in your own eye first? Let’s live more like that, and a better country will be ours.

A less obvious solution, at least for a sitting senator, but a more heartening one to me, is his recognition that more politics won’t fix anything. Perhaps more than a crisis of division, says Sasse, we have a crisis of loneliness, traceable back to broken marriages, failing schools, and a crumbling sense of community. Another of his culprits is economic uncertainty, where lifetime jobs simply don’t exist for many people, who then fall back on less-reliable options like driving for Uber. In Sasse’s world, the way to heal America is with more book clubs, more church potlucks, more high school basketball, and more of simply being happy with what we’ve got.

It should be obvious that this solution doesn’t necessarily address the full depth of the problem Sasse lays out, and it would be easy to dismiss it as so much folksy piffle, but it contains a truth. What we need, writes Sasse, are more tribes. We need to reject identity politics, to live more locally and more communally. As a member of a Christian intentional community, I couldn’t agree more. In the end, you can agree or disagree with Sasse about his politics, but read his book before tweeting about it, and see what you gain from it.

There is one more issue, though, and that is that Sasse assumes we all actually want a more united country and more communal neighborhoods. It’s clear there are many who don’t want this, and are quite happy to live in a polarized nation and yell at “the other side” who are clearly wrong about everything. But it’s going to be hard to change those folks; it’s far easier to change ourselves. Jesus had great wisdom about judging the shortcomings of others. Remember that line about removing the beam in your own eye first? Yeah, that one, the one we all try to forget. Let’s live more like that, and a better country will be ours.

Tommy and Karen Tighe, How to Catholic Family: Nurturing Faith in the Messiness of Everyday Life

The forthcoming How to Catholic Family: Nurturing Faith in the Messiness of Everyday Life, by Tommy and Karen Tighe, adds no little wisdom and a dash of humor to the genre of faith-based parenting guides. Vigorously practical – the Tighes are parents of four young children – it’s is full of simple but profound ideas for families who want to incorporate more of their faith into their daily lives but aren’t sure how to go about it.

While the Tighes and their book are strongly rooted in Catholic tradition, you certainly don’t need to be Catholic to appreciate their candor and learn a thing or two. Don’t discount, for example, their thoughts on how to survive a long mass with bored or hyperactive kids. Haven’t we all sat through an interminable service that made our kids, and therefore us, go nuts? The Tighes have got your back with suggestions on setting appropriate expectations beforehand, not being afraid of whispering to tell the kids what’s going on, and when all else fails, getting up and walking out without embarrassment.

As the father of three kids who are careering into the teenage years, I can tell you that no parent can ever get enough encouragement to pray.

Other chapters address how to answer simple questions of faith from curious young children, or more serious ones from prickly, possibly-skeptical older kids. The Tighes have found that focusing on the “why” of their faith bears better fruit than the shallower (but certainly easier) answers of “what.” If you are Catholic, you’ll appreciate the section on how to incorporate the lives of the saints into your family’s spiritual life, but even if you’re not, it’s an important reminder to celebrate whichever holidays and remembrances are important to you. Certainly for any Christian, Easter and Christmas should be the highlights of the year, and the Tighes helpfully include two chapters detailing how they approach these seasons to make them meaningful, memorable, and mostly stress-free.

As the father of three kids who’ve moved out of diapers and are careering into the teenage years, I can tell you that no parent can ever get enough encouragement to pray, both as a family and as a couple. The Tighes’ humility that not everything will always work out is apparent here; they recount their attempts to get a child through a bout of saying, at bedtime prayers, “I can’t think of anything to be thankful for” – and admit to sometimes wondering, “Is this even worth it?” Such honesty pervades the book, which is best seen as a hopeful handbook that should prod any Christian parent toward doing whatever it takes to lead a life, countercultural as it might be, that draws her children along their own walks of faith.

Ann Wroe, Francis: A Life in Songs

There is no shortage of books about Saint Francis (Elizabeth Goudge’s My God and My All, reissued by Plough a few short years ago, is a certifiable classic) but Francis: A Life in Songs deserves a place on the same shelf. Ann Wroe (whose obituaries for The Economist you should be reading regularly) has spun the tale a little differently here, her original poetry interlaced with the merest hint of biography, pulled mostly from Thomas di Celano’s The Francis Trilogy.

It’s an interesting conceit, and one that might not have worked with a lesser writer than Wroe. But in her hands the pages sing, not only of Francis’s life and legacy and legend, but of the ways we might see him – and his brothers, his beggars, his lepers, his animals, and his radical joy in Christ-like poverty and servitude – in the twenty-first century. At least she points to how we should see all these things, were we to open the eyes of our souls to them. And if, as I often do, you find yourself feeling blind to such sparks of light, she’ll help you regain your sight.

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Red Zimmerman

Red Zimmerman

Red Zimmerman lives at the Woodcrest Bruderhof and is the editor of Bruderhof.com.

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