Friday, November 5, 2010

What I have been reading

I read quite a bit. I read as a spiritual discipline. I read for fun. I read to stay current on what is going on in the world and I read to stay focused and fresh in my vocational ministry. I tend to read a little faster than I blog so not everything I read ends up on the weblog. So, occasionally, I put a bunch of really short thoughts on what I have been reading in one post. This is one of those posts.

It has been a tradition for me to read way outside my field during vacation. This is the first one I tackled during my time away in October. Author Mark Kurlanksky is quoted on the dust jacket, "If only I had read it before taking chemistry." Amen to that. Science has never been my love. I limped through chemistry in high school and college. Kean makes it fascinating. I think I originally bought the book because I just had to see for myself if the author could make something as seemingly dry as the periodic table compelling. He did. For my non-science brain, I struggled a little bit trying to again understand what all those protons and neutrons are doing. I was rewarded by some absolutely wonderful stories of the personal drama behind some of the breakthroughs in chemistry that have led to our current understandings and a lot of the neat stuff we take for granted.

Before I move on to the next book, a word about why I have the tradition of reading way outside my field. I believe that it makes me a better theologian and pastor. I believe that God created us to be curious and creative. I think humans were uniquely created by God in a way that makes us want to try and understand our world. Our Wesleyan understanding of our approach to scripture even invites us to bring our curiosity, intellect and reason to our study of God's word. As a person who spends most of my days learning, studying and teaching God's word, I want to also always be expanding my ability to understand. I want to always be using my God given curiosity in exploring the creation. I am thankful to authors like Sam Kean and Stephen Hawking (who I will discuss in a moment.) They are much more gifted in other areas of curiosity and exploration and they take the time to write things that allow people like me to peek into parts of the world that I might not otherwise get to see.

In Stephen Hawking's bio on the dust jacket, there is a list of his books for the "general reader." That is a nice way of saying that I wouldn't really be able to read most of the stuff he writes. I am glad that he has taken the time to write some things that ordinary people with ordinary IQs can read. Hawking gets some help on this one from physicist and author of The Drunkard's Walk, Leonard Mlodinow. This book came on my radar because it caused some stir amongst Christians claiming that in it, Hawking denies the existence of God. The reason Christians claimed that is that, well, Hawking and Mlodinow pretty much do that. Right off the bat, on page 8 they write about M-theory, a sort of ultimate theory of everything. There they write, "M-theory predicts that a great many Universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather, these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law." This is not the only jab that Hawking and Mlodinow take at religion. Religion has made some pretty decent scientific gaffs over time (although, so has science) and they like to remind us of that. I don't really have the energy nor the intellect to debate Hawking and Mlodinow and I don't really see a need to. Although they appear to dabble in theology here, they are not theologians. And their words by no means upset me. They are sharing what they believe and there is nothing wrong with that. I would say from a theological standpoint that they continue to talk about "how?" questions. I believe theology to be about the "why?" questions. They don't touch those. I loved the book. I learned a lot about how the universe God gave us works and came to be and that makes me more grateful for it.

Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives

When we think "social networks" lately we think about Facebook and Twitter. But these new technologies are really just electronic representations of the natural reality that has been going on as long as there were enough humans to gather into groups. Christakis and Fowler look to some pretty extensive and astounding research to show how predictable and influential our human social networks are. We all know that we affect our friends and our friends affect us. But most of us don't think about how much our friend's friend's friends affect our decision making and even happiness. Delving into research on disease, voting habits, dating and marriage, and even networked video games, the authors lay out an understanding of social network dynamics that made my brain hurt.

I read this book as another attempt to read out of my field. While this is clearly out of my field, I think this should probably be required reading for pastors of large and mega-churches. The authors do speak specifically about religion but that is not the most important part for pastors. Pastors of large and mega churches might be well informed to understand the dynamics in play in the spread of influence, opinion, ideas and even anxiety. This book is worthy of its own post and, if I find the time, I will get back to it.

I had planned on covering my whole stack of recent reads but this post is long enough for now. More soon.


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