2017 in Books

At the end of each year I think back over the books I’ve read in the past twelve months. Since I don’t blog about every single book, I use Goodreads to keep track of my numbers. I pushed my reading challenge at that site to 105 books for last year, and the meter stopped at 111. In 2018 I’m planning on reading some bigger books, so I’ll scale the numbers back a bit, I think. In any case, what were the most memorable books of 2017? It’s perhaps best to divide these up into categories since the number of books has become unwieldy. I’ve written a book about horror movies, and much of this year’s reading has been in support of that. Since my book addresses, among other things, possession movies, I’ve read several tomes on the topic. Noteworthy among them have been the three books by Felicitas D. Goodman that I read over the year. J. H. Chajes’ Between Worlds was exceptional, and Jeffrey Burton Russell’s The Devil, was likely the overall best on the topic. Also noteworthy for purposes of my book research were Catherine Spooner’s Post-Millennial Gothic and Monstrous Progeny by Lester Friedman and Allison Kavey.

For books on religion, Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy was an important start. Amy Johnson Frykholm’s Rapture Culture and James William Jones’ Can Science Explain Religion? addressed aspects of the topic that will continue to bear further exploration. God’s Strange Work by David L. Rowe and American Apocalypse by Matthew Avery Sutton stand out in my mind as a memorable treatments of William Miller, and of understanding American religion respectively. Chris Hedges’ American Fascists is remarkably urgent and should be read widely, especially since he has shown where current political posturing will lead if it’s not stopped cold. We will be struggling against a situation like Nazi Germany for many decades to come, and forewarned is forearmed.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. Much of the fiction I read was excellent. Bill Broun’s Night of the Animals, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Butterflies in November, Robert Repino’s D’Arc, Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, Christobel Kent’s The Crooked House, and Leah Bobet’s An Inheritance of Ashes all stayed with me long after I read them. And of course, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Some non-fiction read just as engagingly. The autobiographies by Carly Simon and Bruce Springsteen were deeply engrossing. The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleneben and John Moe’s Dear Luke, We Need to Talk were great guilty pleasure reads along with Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, W. Scott Poole’s At the Mountains of Madness, and Mathias Clasen’s Why Horror Seduces. The latter title brings us full circle. I suspect that’s appropriate for rounding out a year. Many of the other books were also quite good; I tend to rate books favorably. Read the revolution—make 2018 a memorable year with books!

Need to Know

It’s particularly encouraging when the first book I finish in a year is an important one. I try my best to read books that won’t disappoint, but the thing about books is that you sometimes can’t tell until the end. In any case, I can highly recommend Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t. It’s easy to acquire blinders, especially when you stick with a subject through childhood, three degrees, and a career of teaching and editing in that same field. You kind of think other people can see how important it is. Having grown up religious, I was well aware that other people didn’t share my family’s convictions, but it was pretty clear about the continuing uproar of prayer being deemed unconstitutional in public schools that many Americans were concerned about religion. Or so it seemed in my small town.

Prothero, a specialist in American religion, demonstrates in this book just how little we really know about religion—any religion. He traces this lack of knowledge to the Second Great Awakening and the conviction that belief required Christians not to study religion, but to feel it. This “ethic” of knowing little about what you believe, he suggests, became dominant and has reigned ever since. Clearly, watching the results of the presidential election, many people have no idea what Christianity has historically taught, or in official channels, continues to teach. They know that they feel it is right, but they can’t quite say what “it” is. Most Americans fare even worse when it comes to other religions. As a culture we remain very religious. It’s just that we don’t know what we say we believe. Belief has become politicized and it bears little resemblance to what its historic roots have been.

Critics will say that of course people like Prothero—he’s a religion professor after all—will say that we should know about his subject. The truth, however, goes much deeper than that. The world is a very religious place and we have effectively blocked our children’s way to learn about it. Religion motivates billions of lives, but most Americans know very little about it. Those of us who’ve spent our lives studying it are often condemned to stints of unemployment because what we know is deemed unimportant to Wall Street. Religious Literacy, although the statistics are a bit outdated after nearly a decade, remains more relevant than ever. The potential to learn about religion is widely available. The spirit may be willing, but the mind, it seems, is weak.

Jesus Lets Himself Go

Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper


Carpentry is hard work, as Jesus must have known. The occasions when I head to the basement and chew through wood with an electric saw and nail boards together through pre-drilled pilot holes always leave me feeling like I’ve burned a few calories. Not to mention walking everywhere. No Hondas, Volkswagens, or Smart Cars in those days. A guy could sure build up an appetite. My wife pointed me to Newsweek’s blog this week, where a story about the portion sizes portrayed in paintings of the last supper over the past millennium is posted. The conclusion drawn: the food servings have continued to escalate in size as food production and acquisition have become easier.

This is not so surprising, given that what people value is what they portray in art. As I’ve mentioned before, Stephen Prothero, in his book American Jesus, demonstrates that portraits of Jesus reflect the self-perception of the society in which they are produced. Few attempt to make a life-like representation, largely because no one knows what Jesus might have looked like.

Jesus as an ordinary guy

A few years back, Richard Neave, a retired medical artist from the University of Manchester reconstructed, based on forensic research, what he believes Jesus likely looked like. The portrait is not handsome, and to be fair, not based on the actual skull of Jesus which has been missing for a couple of millennia. I used to ask my students in Intro to Christianity what difference it would make if Jesus was not good-looking. They tended to react strongly – particularly those of Christian disposition – there was an inherent blasphemy in suggesting that Jesus might not have been drop-dead handsome.

Now, if we gently push his chair back into that fateful table one more time, we might wonder how an overweight Jesus might appeal to those who struggle with weight issues. More of him to go around, as the saying goes. I’ve viewed much religious art in my time, but I’ve never seen a love-handled Jesus, let alone a chunky savior. And perhaps that is the biggest miracle of all, given that he eats more each passing year.

Saint John, Elton, That Is

“I think Jesus was a compassionate, super-intelligent gay man who understood human problems. On the cross, he forgave the people who crucified him. Jesus wanted us to be loving and forgiving. I don’t know what makes people so cruel. Try being a gay woman in the Middle East — you’re as good as dead.” According to Parade.com, this was Elton John’s take on Christianity. I find the comments endearing in a naïve sort of way. They further demonstrate how people construct their gods in their own images. Compassionate? No question. Super-intelligent? Well, maybe. He certainly was creative, witty, and above average in intellectual celerity. Gay? Not likely. Not for doctrinal reasons, but simply for cultural ones. “Gay” as a lifestyle simply did not exist in the first century. The Bible maintains a steely silence on any aspect of Jesus’ sexual life, so we can never know. Perhaps it’s a case of “don’t ask, don’t tell”? Understood human problems? Bingo! Yahtzee! That is, I believe, what Jesus was all about. In my humble opinion, Elton hit that one dead on.

The crafting of Jesus into our own form is a major aspect of Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus. A fascinating romp through a bizarre collection of made-over Jesuses, Prothero’s book should be required reading for anyone interested in civil religion or Thucydides. Even a religion prof from my alma mater, however, didn’t fully convince me that anybody really understands who Jesus was. Such is the way with all truly great individuals.

Unlike some commentators who are clearly upset by Elton John’s summation of Christianity’s founder, I am a bit more circumspect about it. No one has cornered the market on Jesus. As hard as various Christianities have tried, Jesus still emerges in divergent forms to diverse individuals and populations. From Superstar to “super-intelligent gay man,” there is no doubt that Jesus left an eternal imprint on the human population of this planet and that those who believe in him will always portray him in their own image.