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Flawed but useful books

Treadmilling as the election returns come in

Issue: "Iraq and terrorism," Nov. 11, 2006

I'm writing this column before the Nov. 7 election but many of you won't read it until afterwards. We'll cover the election results in next week's issue and through election night blogging on, so this is a good opportunity to catch up on some recent treadmill reading.

I can't avoid, though, one political tie-in. Many evangelicals have learned to vote for candidates in the realization that they, like all of us, are fallen sinners. A similar attitude is useful regarding books: None is perfect, but it's good to give thanks for thought-provoking or evidence-supplying books, even when they err in significant ways.

For example, Stephen Slivinski's Buck Wild: How Republicans Broke the Bank and became the Party of Big Government (Nelson Current, 2006) shows a misunderstanding of compassionate conservatism but delivers the goods on the GOP's pork-barrel spending spree. Charles Murray's In Our Hands (AEI Press, 2006) centers on a proposal to substitute for all federal income transfers a $10,000 guaranteed income for each adult. Murray is overly optimistic about human nature, but his ideas, as always, are stimulating.

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Brendan Sweetman's Why Politics Needs Religion (Intervarsity, 2006) could use more sprightly writing, but his thesis that "politics needs religion if it is to be truly democratic" is right, and he explains logically the importance and omnipresence of worldviews. Thomas Sowell's Black Rednecks and White Liberals (Encounter, 2005) would be helped by a Christian sensibility, but his six brilliant essays contradict widely held beliefs about ethnicity, the history of slavery, and other topics.

Jon Meacham's American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (Random House, 2006) is a liberal but non-nutty corrective both to the ACLU view of Godless America and to the understanding of some Christians that the United States is a Christian nation. He even depicts Franklin Roosevelt proselytizing atheistic Soviet official Maxim Litvinov, whose parents "believed in God and taught you to pray to God . . . when you come to die, Max, that is what you are going to think about."

(One of Meacham's amusing anecdotes also corrects the notion that our country's obesity problem began with the McDonald's supersizing gambit. In the 18th century Benjamin Harrison, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, told fellow-signer Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, who was as thin as one of the congressional districts later named for him, "Gerry, when the hanging [for treason to the king] comes, I shall have the advantage; you'll kick in the air half an hour after it is all over for me.")

Bayard Taylor's Blah, Blah, Blah: Making Sense of the World's Spiritual Chatter (Bethany House, 2006) is deliberately lightweight, an easy-to-read apologetic that might break through to high-school and college students resistant to theological terminology. C. Stephen Layman's Letters to Doubting Thomas: A Case for the Existence of God (Oxford U. Press, 2007) goes deeper but is over the head of a typical reader.

Another book from Oxford, New News Out of Africa by Charlayne Hunter-Gault of PBS, doesn't have words like Christian or church in its index, but it provides information about developments in politics and journalism, particularly in South Africa. Jonathan Kirsch's A History of the End of the World (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006) brings a skeptic's approach to the book of Revelation, but his catalog of the ways it's been misused reminds us not to demand that God's calendar conform to our own.

Thomas Craughwell's Saints Behaving Badly: The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men, and Devil Worshippers Who Became Saints (Doubleday, 2006) reminds us that Christianity is the world's most change-oriented religion: God's grace transforms many among the worst. (Craughwell uses "saints" in the Catholic sense, but his stories are generalizable.) The Best Christian Short Stories, edited by Bret Lott (WestBow, 2006), gives a sense of how far Christian fiction has come, as well as an answer to the question, "Are we there yet?"-No.

Religion reporter Mark Pinsky's A Jew among the Evangelicals (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006) shows evangelicals how an outsider sees us. Robert Spoede's Double Identity: A Texan in Hitler's Reich (iUniverse, 2005) is a page-turner-and it's written by a man celebrating his 80th birthday this year. God's mercies appear in big and small ways.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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