Great books tell stories. Here’s our pick of vivid and insightful new releases for better understanding America, world events, history, science, and theology
Since so many excellent books emerge each year, we try to select a Book of the Year that is not only terrific but timely as well. Timeliness can be immediate, medium-range, and long-term:
• North Korea’s threats have made international headlines over the past year, homosexuality’s advances have been a torrid domestic story, and the future of Hispanics in America is a central question in Washington’s policy debates. Three excellent books supply more light than heat on these topics: Melanie Kirkpatrick’s Escape from North Korea (Encounter), Rosaria Butterfield’s Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (Crown and Covenant), and Samuel Rodriguez’s The Lamb’s Agenda (Thomas Nelson).
• Over the next few decades, the relationship of wealth and poverty will continue to be a vexing domestic issue, and the future of China is probably the key to whether the world will be at peace (with occasional terrorism) or at devastating war. Peter Brown’s scholarly Through the Eye of the Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 A.D. (Princeton) gives us perspective on the former topic, and Noah Feldman’s popularly written Cool War: The Future of Global Competition (Random House) is a thoughtful analysis of the China-America future.
• In the long run, nothing really matters except who God is, and nothing poses both a harder test for Christian faith, and greater evidence for our desperate need of God’s grace, than the enormity and normality of evil. Michael Reeves’ Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith (IVP) shows us how the Trinity is the basis for love and true communication. Peter Longerich’s Heinrich Himmler (Oxford) deals with the Satanic opposite: It’s a 1,000-page look at the bizarre Nazi who murdered millions with the goal of creating a Reich that would last 1,000 years.
And so our short list includes those seven books and three more our Books Issue committee found meritorious: Jonathan Last’s What to Expect When No One’s Expecting (Encounter); Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (Knopf); and Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 (Doubleday).
Deciding on our Book of the Year was not easy, but we’re reporters and we eventually had to acclaim a great entrepreneurial reporting accomplishment: Our No. 1 is former Wall Street Journal editor Melanie Kirkpatrick’s Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad. Kirkpatrick tells one of the most tragic but also heroic stories of our time, documenting the ways desperate North Koreans flee their country, with many dying in the process or ending up in concentration camps. She then shows how an “underground railroad” out of North Korea helps escapees survive in China, with Christian churches and homes providing most of the “depots.”
In the interview excerpted in WORLD’s Nov. 17, 2012, issue, Kirkpatrick explained that North Korean escapees learn to “look for a building with a cross on it.” Chinese Christians are putting their own lives in jeopardy, because “it’s against the law in China to help a North Korean—even giving somebody a meal is against the law.” Kirkpatrick spoke of “Mary” and “Jim,” a devout Korean-American couple from the Midwest. After successful careers and the graduation of their kids from college, they decided several years ago to devote the rest of their lives to helping people in China. Their church and the organization they work for, Crossing Borders, supported them, and today they run a string of orphanages in northeast China and a shelter for young women.
Escape from North Korea impressed our Books Issue committee of five WORLD journalists—Emily Belz, Janie Cheaney, Susan Olasky, Warren Smith, and myself. Emily called it a “well-written, untold story. If someone has little or no knowledge of North Korea and its history, she weaves that whole saga in so seamlessly.” Janie also praised it, “especially in light of its spooky relevance right now,” as North Korea flashes its nuclear weapons.
Warren called the book “journalism at its best, combining an important issue, meticulous reporting, and great storytelling.” He pointed out that the Christian church has played a key role in fighting totalitarianism: “Solzhenitsyn documented the heroic behavior of Baptists and other Christians in the Soviet Gulags. The Roman Catholic Church played a key role in Poland’s Solidarity movement.” Christians today are similarly risking their lives, and Kirkpatrick documents that: Escape from North Korea describes “what we can pray will be the last great battle in this century-long war against totalitarianism.”
Congratulations to Melanie Kirkpatrick. And here’s a rundown of our other nine “short list” books for 2012-2013, in chronological order of publication:
2. Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert
July 2012 | You can learn more about Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by reading the interview of author Rosaria Butterfield in WORLD’s March 23, 2013, issue—and more than 50,000 people have watched the interview on YouTube. Butterfield shows how God changed her from a lesbian and tenured professor to a person “willing to be considered stupid by those who didn’t know Jesus.” She notes, “Conversion put me in a complicated and comprehensive chaos. I sometimes wonder, when I hear other Christians pray for the salvation of the ‘lost,’ if they realize that this comprehensive chaos is the desired end of such prayers.”
Butterfield has good advice for Christians: “We don’t see God making fun of homosexuality or regarding it as a different, unusual, or exotic sin.” She has good advice for churches, which “would be places of greater intimacy and growth in Christ if people stopped lying about what we need, what we fear, where we fail, and how we sin.” Her story is particularly compelling because she doesn’t try to pretty it up: “I didn’t choose Christ. Nobody chooses Christ. Christ chooses you or you’re dead. After Christ chooses you, you respond because you must. Period. It’s not a pretty story.”
3. Through the Eye of the Needle
August 2012 | Peter Brown, author of Through the Eye of the Needle, has spent half a century studying the last centuries of the Roman Empire, and his 800-page book shows it. Brown sees positives in the rise of Christianity and connects theological heresy to political and economic nuttiness. Pelagius, for example, thought humans did not have hearts of darkness, so if the rich just gave away their money, they and those enriched could have perfect lives. Augustine, though, reminded the poor that the rich who were evil would not get to heaven, but the question for a poor person should be “whether you will enter. What if, as well as being poor you are greedy; what if you are both weighed down with want and on fire with avarice?”
Brown summarizes Augustine’s view that “pride, not wealth, was the true last enemy of the Christian. The real division of the world was not between the rich and the poor. It was between the proud and those who were enabled by God’s grace to be humble before God and before their fellows.”
4. Delighting in the Trinity
September 2012 | Even many Christians find the Trinity confusing, but Delighting in the Trinity is the clearest and best-written explanation I’ve ever read. Michael Reeves notes, “If God was a single person, salvation would look entirely different. He might allow us to live under his rule and protection, but at an infinite distance, approached, perhaps, through intermediaries. He might even offer forgiveness, but he would not offer closeness.” The Holy Spirit is as essential as the Father and the Son, because we need the personal touch and the experience of tasting and seeing that the Lord is good—and the Holy Spirit gives us both.
Reeves draws the contrast with Islam: “The Quran is a perfect example of a solitary God’s word. Allah is a single-person God who has an eternal word beside him in heaven, the Quran. At a glance, that seems to make Allah look less eternally lonely. But what is so significant is the fact that Allah’s word is a book, not a true companion for him.” Writers have an adage, show, don’t tell: The Quran is all about telling, but God the Father showed by sending His Son.
5. Iron Curtain
October 2012 | Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 shows how Soviet forces transformed disparate European countries into a Communist bloc through increasingly brutal tactics. She challenges the notion among some historians that the Cold War and Western aggression pressured the Soviets into harsh repression in the Eastern bloc—instead she puts the blame on totalitarianism itself as a flimsy system that requires harsh repression.
Iron Curtain includes engrossing human drama but is heavy in its depressing detailing of how would-be dictators chew up liberty slice by slice, at first appearing benevolent. Applebaum observes Soviets’ attacks on Protestant and Catholic churches: “Religious leaders were a source of alternative moral and spiritual authority. Young people were taking too long to become enthusiastic communists, and religious people were not dying out fast enough.”
6. Going Clear
January 2013 | When Paul Haggis, a successful Hollywood screenwriter and director, finally reached the coveted status of “OT III” in the Church of Scientology, he obtained the privilege of learning the secret origins of his faith. His half-hour in a locked room with the sacred text resulted in confusion and dismay. That dismay forms the climax of “The Apostate,” a piece of long-form journalism by Lawrence Wright, published in The New Yorker. “The Apostate” became the opening chapter of Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. In this fascinating blend of investigative reporting and celebrity exposé, Wright delves deeply into the career and legacy of L. Ron Hubbard and dredges up a twisted tale.
Though marketed as a religion for the rich and famous, Scientology progresses on the backs of the rank and file, who surrender most of their rights upon signing a “billion year contract.” Wright does his best to understand how otherwise intelligent people could fall for such an evident scam, but as he claims no belief system himself, his interpretation falls short. Going Clear is nonetheless instructive for Christians, as an exploration of the deceptiveness and gullibility of the human heart without Christ.
7. What to Expect When No One's Expecting
February 2013 | Jonathan Last’s What to Expect When No One's Expecting makes interesting the dismal science of demography. Last shows that population growth has been slowing for two generations and, if present trends continue, world population in several decades will begin shrinking. Some countries have a head start: Japan may be half its current size by the end of the century and Italy now has more deaths than births. Many middle-class Americans have an informal one-child policy, and some upscale professionals go further by having a dog rather than a kid.
The results of this failure to look ahead will be treacherous materially and psychologically, as even China is realizing. Countries will not have enough young people to support their elders. Elders will eat and drink without thinking of what comes after that, but will be less merry without the delights of grandchildren. Last notes but does not preach about reasons for the birth dearth, such as feminism and careerism: His tone is sorrowful, not angry, because he knows we still have time to reverse the curse.
8. Heinrich Himmler
February 2013 | I kept reading Heinrich Himmler to find a magic bullet, the one psychological twist that led to a sadistic brain. Peter Longerich doesn’t make it that easy, but laboriously details dozens of strands. Himmler, born in 1900, was in 1914 describing captured Russian soldiers as “vermin.” In 1927 he orated, “The Jews have used capitalism for their own ends. … Our aim is to establish a powerful, nationalist, socialist German workers’ party.” In the 1930s he emphasized “de-Christianization” because principles of Christian mercy would not allow “Germanic” virtues to prevail against Jewish and Slavic “subhumans.”
Himmler consciously set out to plan anti-Christian rites, much as Robespierre did during the French Revolution. “Name consecration” would replace baptism, with a swastika flag-draped altar and a “consecrator” intoning about “the mission of our German blood / that grows eternally young from the German soil. / We believe in the nation, the bearer of this blood / And in the Fuhrer. …” Himmler did have praise for Islam, “a religion that is both practical and appealing to soldiers,” for it “promises them heaven if they have fought and fallen in battle.”
9. The Lamb’s Agenda
April 2013 | The Lamb’s Agenda: Why Jesus Is Calling You to a Life of Righteousness and Justice displays the thoughtful understanding of Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. It will help some anti-immigration conservatives understand why the increased number of Latinos in the United States is likely to benefit evangelical churches rather than weaken them.
Rodriguez’s Lamb’s agenda transcends the desires of either donkeys or elephants. He criticizes those who put their hope in “another bailout, stimulus package, or new political movement,” and has the right understanding of church-state relationships: He’s against Christian groups begging for government funding, and never wants the government to put pressure on churches to change what they do—but he also wants officials to recognize that Bible-based poverty fighters help the needy “in a more constructive and holistic manner than government ever can.”
10. Cool War
May 2013 | Some pundits describe the U.S.-China future as one of inevitable conflict, while others fantasize about utopian cooperation. Noah Feldman’s Cool War assesses the mutually advantageous economic relationship but doesn’t assume, as some did about the British-German relationship a century ago, that countries won’t fight an economically irrational war. Feldman points out that Chinese leaders don’t allow free elections but don’t embrace dictatorship either: They have institutionalized transitions of power through 10-year generational shifts in which elderly leaders voluntarily retire and those about a decade younger take over.
Although stories abound of corruption among the elite and their children, Feldman sees China perhaps moving to institute the rule of law and protection for human rights. He falls short in not taking into account China’s most important change over the past 15 years—the dramatic surge of Christian belief—and its most atrocious desecration, forced abortions under the one-child policy. Without Christian influence China’s nationalism is likely to turn violent. With it the Chinese discipline of mind, tenderized by Christ-centered hearts, could be a blessing for all its trading partners.
For the sake of more than a billion souls and for world peace, we should pray that God’s grace will continue to spread in China.
2010 | Arthur Brooks, The Battle