Beach Reading: 2016 Edition

There is something about being at the beach, in addition to virtually commanding one to slow down, sit, look, listen and ponder the magnificence of creation, that has always invited me to read. It has always been that way, even with five children and assorted friends to feed, supervise and entertain, when whatever reading I did was in the very early morning. I assumed that in retirement I would do all the reading I put off over the years and surely read my newspapers cover to cover and finally read the entire New Yorker every week. It hasn’t happened. Somehow, mysteriously, time that I assumed would be gloriously free fills up with the mundane tasks and activity of daily living and I am not, I confess, sitting down every morning for a few hours of reading enjoyment. But the moment I arrive at the beach something fundamental shifts and I find, to my delight, that there is time to read.

So I do and did again this year. After a morning Psalm sitting in a rocking chair on the porch listening to the ocean I turned to Robert P. Jones’ The End of White Christian America. Jones is CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute and his new book is receiving a lot of well deserved attention. The sobering opening sentence of the Introduction, “An Obituary for White Christian America,” riveted my attention: “After a long life spanning two hundred and fifty years, White Christian America – a prominent force in the nation’s history – has died.” After all, I am a White Christian American. The facts are familiar now: less than a decade ago, white Christians were a majority, 54%. Today that percentage has slipped to 45%.

Jones begins with architecture. The spires of what we know as mainline churches, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Congregational, rose above the cities and towns of colonial America, signifying the central role those churches played in the founding of the nation and American culture. The high point for W.C.A. was the mid-twentieth century symbolized by three buildings that expressed the churches’ confidence and aspirations: The United Methodist Building in Washington, D.C., The Interchurch Center in New York City – which we Presbyterians used to call “The Vatican on the Hudson”, and The Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. As American culture began to become more diverse W.C.A. began a long, steady decline in presence, influence and real numbers. That time period encompasses my own adult life and ministry. I have witnessed the transformation of my own denomination and its place in the world, from the day when the Presbyterian Stated Clerk was on the cover of TIME, to our current virtual cultural disappearance. And I have witnessed and personally experienced the range of reactions within my church from anger to blame. Somebody must have done something very wrong.

Jones is particularly helpful in invoking Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s “stages of grief”: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance with examples of each stage from mainline and evangelical churches. I was the target of that anger as my church struggled and argued about inclusivity and ordination. The intensity of the anger stunned me at the time and I find it very helpful to understand it now as an authentic expression of grief over what seemed like terrible loss to some people.

Jones also recounts the enormous influence for good that White Christian America and the Mainline Churches have been and continue to be in American Culture.

The book helped bring perspective to the profound anger Donald Trump has tapped into and continues to provoke as an expression of grief over the loss of White Christian dominance. It also underscored how pathetic Trump is when he promised a rally of evangelical Christians recently that he’s going to “bring back” Christianity, and that in his presidency his evangelical Christian supporters will “have great power.”

H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald, was one of the most fascinating and beautifully written books I’ve read in a long time. Macdonald is a poet, writer, and historical researcher at Cambridge University. The author is grieving the death of her father who, among other important influences in her life, introduced her, as a young girl, to the ancient art of falconry. In her grief, which she describes beautifully, she sets off on an adventure: acquiring and training a goshawk. Her mentor in this elaborate process is T.H. White, a school master and avid falconer who, a generation ago, wrote a detailed account of training a goshawk. White also wrote The Once and Future King, on which the Broadway show Camelot was based. Falconry has its own ancient traditions and vocabulary. Hawk wings are sails, claws are pounces. A hawk in training flies on a line called a creance. Macdonald named her goshawk Mabel. The process of gaining the hawk’s trust and confidence and then training her to fly, kill and return to the trainer’s gloved fist requires incredible patience and discipline. A hawk is a fierce predator and the art of falconry began as a method of hunting pheasants and rabbits. I loved this book and found myself rereading paragraphs and pages.

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, by Mary Roach, explored and explained the peculiar research that prepares soldiers and sailors for their responsibilities. Chapters on suitable, efficient uniforms, protection from heat, noise and explosions were not only fascinating but reassuring, as were detailed accounts of the medical treatment and reconstructive surgery wounded combatants need and receive. Two chapters on the exigencies of life on board a submarine and what happens when things go wrong several hundred feet under water concluded the book. Roach writes with a touch of redeeming humor as she describes preparing men and women for the violent and tragic business of war. The book is a reminder of what we ask our young men and women of the Armed Forces to do on our behalf and made me newly grateful to and for them.

The surprise of the summer is how very much I am enjoying Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. In a conversation with my oldest child we talked about the great and important books we had never read, or partially read enough to pass a college exam. We both confessed that when Moby Dick was required reading in a college course we had found it tedious and tough going and read as little as possible. So we covenanted together to read Melville’s classic novel this summer. She applied real pressure by ordering the book and having it sent to me. I couldn’t back out even though it was tempting. I dreaded the responsibility and wondered why I had agreed to such a daunting assignment . Well – surprise of surprises – I am well into Moby Dick and loving it. I’m reading a few short chapters every day. There are 135 of them. I am finally appreciating one of the great literary accomplishments – what many think is the greatest American novel. I am also considering Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, The Scarlet Letter, another great book I pretended to read!


  1. After a tearful goodbye as my great-nephew began the last preparations for deployment to Afghanistan (yesterday), I was immediately drawn to “The Curious Science of Humans at War”. I will, indeed, heed that suggestions. This vacation I read John Grisham’s “The Street Lawyer” – a good read in itself.

  2. Thank you for great recommendations — especially “Moby Dick.” I saw a neighbor reading it on the bus, and he recommended it for travel thanks to its short chapters. This is a stronger recommendation, of course, even though my own “vacation beach” is going to be in walking distance this month.

  3. Al Butzer says:

    Thanks, John. In addition to The Scarlet Letter (which I read after beginning to serve in a congregation where the prior minister was found guilty of misconduct), I would also recommend The Red Badge of Courage, an amazing glimpse into the mind of a young soldier.

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