Published December 9, 2009
They're not all new, the books that follow, but they're all well worth reading, and giving.
David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press). You'll need the dental records to identify what's left of the “new atheists” — Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens — after David Hart turns his lucid mind and brilliant pen on them. Atheist Delusions is not only a devastating critique of the intellectually vacuous, however; it's an important reminder of how much the civilization of the West owes to Christianity. Any college student on your gift list would be well served by reading this exceptional book.
Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., Church and Society: The Lawrence J. McGinley Lectures, 1988-2007 (Fordham University Press). In a year replete with the deaths of irreplaceable Catholic intellectuals, the loss of Cardinal Dulles, a model of theological precision and fairness, was especially grievous. In this collection, the late, great theologian takes up important social and political questions (including the death penalty and the nature of human rights), explicates the thought of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and treats sacramental, ecumenical, and interreligious issues with deep insight. Especially useful for students attending colleges and universities “in the Jesuit and Catholic tradition.”
Andrzej Paczkowski, The Spring Will Be Ours: Poland and the Poles from Occupation to Freedom (Pennsylvania State University Press). On this twentieth anniversary of the Revolution of 1989, in which Poland and the Poles played the pivotal role, this six year old book remains the gold standard for understanding the experience that produced John Paul II, the revolution of conscience he ignited in 1979, and the difficulties Poles encountered on the hard road to freedom. Historian Paczkowski has a sharp eye for the telling detail, and, in a serious work of the historian's art, nonetheless offers several side-splitting examples of the mordant humor that was one tool of Poland's cultural resistance to communism. Paczkowski is judicious, fair, and thorough in his assessment of the Church's complex role under Polish communism; those who are only familiar with that part of the story will find their appreciation of the Catholic human rights resistance enhanced by Paczkowski's account of the rest of the tale.
Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford University Press). In a season of widespread historical ignorance, this splendid volume, the sixth in the Oxford History of the United States, takes up a period of our national story that even the historically literate often miss — the time between the War of 1812 and the conclusion of the Mexican War (which, as Howe shows, made the Civil War virtually inevitable). It was a time of technological innovation; mass migration; genocidal abuse of Native Americans; culture-shaping spiritual convulsions; the beginnings of a national literature; the annexation of Texas; the ongoing debate over America's original sin, slavery — a political moment defined by such large-scale figures as Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John Quincy Adams, to whose memory the book is dedicated. Daniel Walker Howe is especially effective at cutting Jackson down to size, thus reversing the hagiography that began when Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., tried to turn Old Hickory into a proto-Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Charles McCarry, The Tears of Autumn (Overlook Duckworth). Once an underground cult novelist, McCarry, a former intelligence operative, has now been mainstreamed. And rightly so, for The Tears of Autumn, which explores the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy, is arguably the greatest espionage novel ever written — and a powerful meditation on unintended consequences in history.
Richard John Neuhaus, American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile (Basic Books). He didn't write it as a valedictory, but that's what American Babylon turned out to be — RJN's last literary testament. The year he didn't live to see, 2009, has made many of us miss his insight and his witness (not to mention his company) more than we could have imagined. It's also made American Babylon even more important: not simply as a farewell, but as a penetrating analysis of our current public discontents and the ways in which Christians should address them.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.