2023 Reading List to Rebuild Civilization & Community

Rebuilding civilization will be a project soon halted without literature, academics, and history. As Augustine understood, a city is a community of people united by a shared love. Taking Augustine’s point more loosely, a shared love of ideas, ideals, stories and histories are necessary to build again. Therefore, literature and history are necessary points of departure as we move forward in a crumbling civilization.

Yet, any concerned soul who would see civilization rebuilt will understand the prudence of drawing on both the past and the present. This yearly list will provide works both ancient and new. It is a list designed to inspire and critique, to sharpen and to encourage.

1. The Brothers Karamozov

Many literary critics rate Dostoevsky as one of the greatest novelists in all of world literature, and many consider The Brothers Karamozov to be his best. This is a novel with a simple murder plot yet a complex tête-à-tête between faith and unbelief. The father, Fyodor Karamazov, is murdered, yet this is no ordinary murder story. Instead, it is a deep psychological exploration; the indelible effects on the soul of lying, sin, unbelief, as well as love, forgiveness, and faith, are shown to have a ripple effect in our relations. Allegedly read by Nietzsche, Einstein, and Freud, Dostoevsky’s works provide grist for the intellectual’s mill.

2. Fault Lines

Voddie Baucham’s Fault Lines claims that there exists a seismic rift between two worldviews. These two views are ripping apart both church and society. Pastor Baucham takes an exploration through recent events, Black Lives Matter, and the news headlines, and then contrasts them with facts in order to shed light on so-called social justice and Critical Race Theory. 

In the process, Baucham also reveals his own side of the story; an ethnocentrism that he himself had to repent of. This book is highly readable, and a valuable read even for those who are already familiar with the debate. 

3. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: A Refutation of Liberalism

Revolutionary fervor gripped the Netherlands in the mid-19th century. “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”—the Enlightenment motto—threatened to destroy much of the Dutch nation’s heritage. Consequently, Groen van Prinsterer sought to refute said motto.

He claims that the Revolution offers freedom but only enslaves, equality but creates inequity, and brotherhood but has made men more alienated and vicious than ever. He instead contends that only Christ and Christianity provide genuine liberty, equality, and brotherhood. Secularism only can produce a bankrupt society. A popular work in its own day and translated into English for the first time, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, is a deeply contextual work, but also as deep as it is short. The Reformed Conservative’s own translation project; no student of neo-Calvinism or Burkean conservatism can afford to miss it.

4. Stahl’s Principles of Law

The first book of Friedrich Julius Stahl’s (1802-1861) multivolume Philosophy of Law is the finest treatise of a confessionally Christian view of  jurisprudence ever produced. Stahl’s common-law approach is presented in The Principles of Law.

As has been noted, Stahl was the first and only legal philosophy “produced by a modern, post-French Revolution conservative…a follower of…Edmund Burke.” Stahl stood for the authority of an historically developed common law as opposed to the rationalistic view of law produced in France. Thus, familiar themes to the Burkean conservative are either developed or applied in his legal philosophy, such as:

  1. The rejection of pursuing a perfect society at the expense of reality.
  2. An emphasis on the unique character and nature of each nation and people group.
  3. Rooting all change and reform in a solid continuity with the past.
  4. The organic (as opposed to mechanical) relationship between law, nation, and society.

No rebuilding of society can be done with an honest examination of what law is and how it should function in society. And since Stahl’s work is the only simultaneously Christian, conservative, and comprehensive work to this end, it cannot be recommended enough.

5. Christina Hoff Sommers’ The War Against Boys

A needed antidote to many modern problems, Sommers argues that boys, not girls, are the ones who are suffering socially and intellectually. It is no surprise that social and economic problems ensue.  

The War Against Boys claims that male underachievement is a constant, even growing problem. Her book addresses various issues, including how the war on boys is damaging our economy and how boy-averse trends like recess elimination and zero-tolerance disciplinary practices have transformed our schools into unfriendly settings. This is all no surprise as feminist-driven public schools become more feminized as they become more “feelings-centered, risk-averse, competition-free” — all a threat to Biblical masculinity.

Do not skip Christina Hoff Sommer’s insightful commentary if you have no sons. The only way the problem may be resolved is by society acknowledging the problem. And having a son is not a prerequisite for that.

6. Bavinck’s The Christian Family

A surprisingly well informed and insightful study by the Dutch Presbyterian Herman Bavinck, The Christian Family addresses the origins, deterioration, and blessing of home, family, marriage, and ethnicity. Echoing the typical conservative adage that “the moral health of society depends on the health of family life,” Bavinck issues an evergreen challenge to God’s people: “Christians may not permit their conduct to be determined by the spirit of the age, but must focus on the requirement of God’s commandment.” A difficult task, for the spirit of the age ever presses harder. Nevertheless, the Reformed Conservative pushes on contra omnia adversa – against all adversity.

7. Shakespeare’s Othello

The most well-known literary examination of the corrupting effects of rivalry and mistrust, love and passion, is Othello.

The antagonist, Iago, is enraged with his General, Othello, for passing over Iago for advancement, and he exacts revenge on him. Othello’s jealousy is stoked when Iago tricks him into thinking his wife Desdemona is being unfaithful. Thus, one jealousy ignites another when Othello kills Desdemona, before committing suicide.

Shakespeare does not, despite popular belief, appear to be delving into issues of racism, homophobia, or misogyny. Shakespeare’s cautionary story, by contrast, is about old fashioned hatred and rivalry. It serves as a grim reminder to control our emotions; to be quick to listen, slow to anger, and even more quick to forgive. Othello is a masterpiece and a must-read in a time when society is being torn apart by uncontrolled emotions, ungracious accusations, and dark suspicions.

8. Roger Scruton’s How to Be a Conservative

“In discussing tradition, we are not discussing arbitrary rules and conventions,” Scruton explains. “We are discussing answers that have been discovered to enduring questions.” These answers, ironically, fly in the face of newly established answers that show themselves to be bankrupt. His popular level work challenges countless other wrong ideas of conservatism, wrong notions that have been around since Burke first gave conservatism a voice.

Scruton’s book argues that men are not the Enlightenment’s atomistic, free-floating, and autonomous beings, rather we were created to be and operate best as interdependent members of society. Thus, the mythical Social Contract must be rejected. However, much of this book is a defense of Burkean conservatism; a conservatism of the home and family. As always, Scruton’s writings are always worth diving into, and this highly accessible text makes for a great introduction to the subject.

9. Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician

T.S. Eliot once wrote that, “To do the useful thing, to say the courageous thing, to contemplate the beautiful thing: that is enough for one man’s life.” For many, the music of J. S. Bach is that beauty. His work has marked him as one of the greatest composers, winning fans in every generation since.

Finalist for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in Biography, this work shows how Bach’s outstanding creativity saturated his career as a musician and composer, demonstrating the deep relationship between his life and his music. The reader also perceives Bach in the context of his day, including its institutions, customs, and inspirations. Wolff sets a new bar for Bach biographies with this wonderfully accessible book.

10. Love: A History

Simon May has delved into 2,500 years of thinking on the topic of love. It is an exploration on how our collective and instinctive concept of love developed into a new religion, as it were. In his view, over the past few centuries, “God is love” became “love is God.” Thus Love: A History sets out to demonstrate how love has become a modern-day substitute for God, and to highlight the illusions of this replacement.

Simon May does not write as a theist, but this Visiting Professor of King’s College London nevertheless raises legitimate concerns. “Human love,” he writes, “is widely tasked with achieving what once only divine love was thought capable of: to be our ultimate source of meaning and happiness, and of power over suffering and disappointment.” The transformation of love as an eternally enduring, all-powerful force that can overcome any obstacle is a topic worth considering carefully. If, indeed, Western man has made an idol of love, then only tragedy can ensue unless and until the living God is once again man’s chief love.

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