This summer I spent most of my free time doing home improvement projects and spending time with the family, but I did manage to read a few books. Here is a quick review of the ones I read.
My Descent into Death: A Second Chance at Life by Howard Storm (Doubleday) — I have an abiding interest in the pervasive phenomenon of near death experiences (NDEs), both from a scholarly standpoint and, perhaps because my own eventual death appears to be inevitable, from a personal standpoint. Storm’s story is especially interesting because his experience occurred while he was a firmly convinced atheist. (Today Storm pastors a church in Ohio.) This book poignantly recounts his NDE, including a detailed conversation with Jesus and some angelic beings. Fascinating and inspiring stuff.
Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near Death Experience by Pim van Lommel (HarperOne) — Where Storm’s NDE account is deeply personal, this study by the renowned Dutch cardiologist is a dispassionate assessment of the evidence for the validity of NDEs. Building upon the research of previous NDE scholars (e.g., Kenneth Ring, P.M.H. Atwater, Melvin Morse, etc.), Van Lommel shares data gathered from his own research and considers it all in light of the latest insights in brain physiology. Along the way, Van Lommel repudiates all of the naturalistic accounts of NDEs, such as appeals to the effects of medication, hallucination, or oxygen deprivation. Those looking for a thorough and rigorous scientific assessment NDEs should start here.
Keaton by Rudi Blesh (Macmillan) — I am very selective when it comes to the biographies I read. The subjects must be either great artists or paragons of virtue (interestingly, these tend to be mutually exclusive categories), and the authors must be strong stylists or superb scholars (or both). This first bio of Buster Keaton met these criteria and was a delight to read. My respect for Keaton the artist grew immensely, as did my pathos for Keaton the man. (See my August 8, 2010 post for a more extensive discussion of the “Great Stone Face.”)
The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism by Mary Eberstadt (Ignatius) — If you thought that the new atheism was a hopelessly humorless topic, its time to think again. This cheeky satire is absolutely hysterical. Eberstadt manages to poke fun at the new atheists while revealing many of the serious problems with their perspective, not to mention some disturbing demographics (e.g., that atheists are far more likely to be men than women—so if atheism is about intellectual enlightenment, what does this imply about women? Hmm….sexism anyone?). For someone who is primarily a cultural commentator, Eberstadt displays tremendous insight into religious psychology and philosophy of religion.
Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations by Alex and Brett Harris (Multnomah) — American culture is indulgent in many ways, and one of the most damaging forms this takes is the way we coddle our teenagers. We don’t expect them to be morally serious and do significant work, so we don’t challenge them to do so. Then when they confirm our low expectations we conclude that they’re not capable of anything more. Alex and Brett Harris have had enough, and this rousing manifesto has brought throngs of young people, and their parents, to attention. Way to go, guys.
Why is God Ignoring Me? by Gary Habermas (Tyndale) — Most people of faith have experienced the “dark night of the soul” when it seems that God is absent when we need him most. In this book, Gary Habermas expounds on the critical resources that believers have to persevere through such times. The author’s own personal trials inform this study, which is refreshingly realistic about suffering and the biblical perspective on the subject. I also appreciate Habermas’s emphasis on the spiritual disciplines and other proactive ways of dealing with the problem of divine hiddenness.
The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux ) — O’Connor’s fiction is often characterized as dark and grotesque, full of freaks and the bizarre. Yet when I read her stories I find them to be both hopeful and, in a strange way, realistic (a response which prompts me, at turns, to question her readers’ interpretive sense and my own state of mental health). In any case, O’Connor’s genius for providing insights into human nature and grace, among other things, is profound. Her stories are consistently set in the “Christ-haunted South,” but the themes are universal. And to my mind she succeeds where few other twentieth century fiction writers do—at inspiring virtue and a deeper devotion to the Golden Rule.