How did you arrive at this summer season? For many, it’s been a tiring year so far. We often look to summer months for an opportunity to be refreshed. Echoing what Drew wrote last year, our prayer as Science for the Church staff is that, over the next couple months, you find places for the rest and relaxation that your body and spirit need. In a similar vein, this newsletter comes with our hope that you’ll have just a bit more time to read, to watch, or to listen to insights that will renew the way you approach faith and science.
Thus, we offer our 2023 recommendations for books, podcasts, and films.
I’ll start off these recommendations. I’ve already talked about Kazuo Ishiguro’s tour de force, Klara and the Sun, a novel told from inside an AI robot’s mind (if “mind” is even the right term). More recently, I also discussed the variety of stunning and provocative insights from Elaine Howard Ecklund and David R. Johnson’s Varieties of Atheism in Science.
With those two in mind—and which I continue to recommend—I’ll focus here on John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies. Though I highlighted it previously in Christianity Today, the book is so good, my recommendation bears repeating. Updike’s novel explores how certain technologies—particularly films—have affected American perceptions of what is real and what is transcendent. In the first of four sections, (each follows a different generation of the same family), the early 20th century Presbyterian pastor Clarence Wilmot “felt the last particles of faith leave him. The sensation was distinct—a visceral surrender, a set of dark sparkling bubbles escaping upward.” This happens at the very moment that the silent film actress, the 17-year-old Mary Pickford faints while filming at local landmark Lambert Castle.
Clarence finds he can no longer serve as a Minister of Gospel and literally cannot speak when he’s called to deliver sermons. Instead, he seeks transcendence in watching the technological marvel of the silver screen. So, if you’re ready for a bit of Updike’s normal palette of sexual and other transgressions, I think you’ll find that this initial episode begins an eloquent and challenging narrative of American life as the novel’s characters seek to live out faith—or perhaps lose it—in an increasingly technological 20th century.
Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi
For my first three years at Northwestern, I double majored in English literature and physics. It prepared me well for my current work at the interface of the humanities and science. However, I don’t find myself finding time to enjoy novels the way I did at Northwestern. So, I was thrilled a few years ago when my wife introduced me to a novel about Gifty, a daughter of Ghanian immigrants who like my wife grew up in Alabama. Gifty left Huntsville to attend Harvard undergrad and then pursue a PhD in neuroscience at Stanford.
Transcendent Kingdom is a powerful story as she wrestles with her faith (like many, she struggles with her childhood experiences of church), her science, and the space between them. It is also a powerful story about family, the experience of graduate students, and the complexities of being a young woman of color trying to make it in the highest levels of research science. As if that is not enough, it describes how one’s experience—Gifty’s brother struggles with an opioid addiction following a sports injury—so often impacts their scientific pursuits. Gifty’s research is on mice as she tries to understand treatment possibilities for addiction.
So, whether your summer includes time to enjoy a novel beside an ocean, lake, or pool, I suggest you give Transcendent Kingdom a read. (If you want to learn more about the book, BioLogos featured it—both an article and a podcast—back in 2020.)
Epic Science, Ancient Faith, Dan E. Guenther
The last few months have been insane for me. On top of my academic research, unexpected circumstances have severely limited my time to keep up to date with other topics of interest. That is why it was so refreshing to stumble upon a book by Dan E. Guenther, director of the Chi Alpha Campus Ministry at Central Washington University, a few weeks ago. In Epic Science, Ancient Faith, Guenther helps the reader sift through divergent and essential attitudes that help us make sense of both the book of Scripture and the book of nature.
The general premise of the book hinges on the dialectic tension that arises from the seemingly dissimilar views and positions held by faith and science. To solve this tension, Gunther suggests five overarching attitudes. First, he posits an approach focused on suspense for what God has created. Second, Guenther recommends that we delight in his creation by caring for it and exploring his handiwork. Third, he suggests we approach this study with an attitude of equity in evaluating God’s multifaceted revelation and the limitations of both the sacred text and the scientific method. Fourth, the author challenges us to have an attitude of curiosity that looks beyond and embraces the task of science in pushing the boundaries of knowledge and revelation. Lastly, he proposes we enter this space with a reverence for Scripture that transcends literalism or concordism. Finally, Guenther invites us to embrace this task with a relational optimism capable of resolving every difference by working together.
If you have time this summer, I invite you to get a copy of Epic Science, Ancient Faith.
The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, Jamil Zaki
Researchers have been measuring empathy for at least the last four decades, and, in news that will surprise few, the trend lines are not good. Zaki unpacks both the research itself and the underlying causes of these changes. More importantly, he shows that empathy is not a fixed trait but rather a skill that can be cultivated. The heart of The War for Kindness is its stories, which make the science come alive. From a former neo-Nazi who guides others out of their hatred and a police academy reformer we learn about the imaginative and redemptive work that is produced when kindness is nurtured.
The chapter that most caught my attention is titled “Caring Too Much.” Zaki focuses on the experiences of pediatric intensive care nursery workers and asks what sort of research-backed practices sustain them in an environment that could so easily lead to burnout. Nearly all the practices and wisdom shared in this chapter would apply to pastors and chaplains as well, and that’s what makes it so practical for our readers. The willingness to talk openly about mortality and suffering while still affirming the gift of life is deeply Christian, and there’s a lot we as the church could learn from the ways others engage in that calling.
For now, let me invite you to sit back, find a great spot (perhaps with a view), grab your favorite beverage, and feast on these books.