My summer reading list

I started on my summer reading list early — in March, when the coronavirus pandemic shut down public libraries and shut readers in their homes.

But no matter what book I pick up, it seems to speak to me about this afflictive time and about how things might be different on the other side — whenever that is and whatever that will look like.

For instance, as the pandemic hit, I read Stephen Kotkin’s astonishingly detailed “Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941.” The crisis to be managed then was the 1932-33 famine in the Soviet Union that killed millions. But Stalin’s murderous regime cared much more about preserving his rule than about saving lives.

Stalin was one of history’s most evil rulers, of course, and cannot be compared with anyone in office today anywhere. But I still find it disturbing that some of today’s political leaders at the federal, state and local levels seem to care more about rebooting the economy than they do about people’s health and preserving their lives. It’s frustrating.

Then I read an e-version of “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,” in which he recounts how, as a young man, he devised a scheme to start a new religious movement by quietly and secretly getting other young people to agree to these several points of doctrine:

“That there is one God, who made all things. That he governs the world by his providence. That he ought to be worshiped by adoration, prayer and thanksgiving. But that the most acceptable service of God is doing good to man. That the soul is immortal. And that God will certainly reward virtue and punish vice, either here or hereafter.”

Franklin never managed to implement this plan, but I see several points in his list that would stir up fierce theological debate of the kind that’s been common among American Christians for a long time. In fact, I’d be happy to start that debate with the question of whether the soul is immortal. I throw my lot in not with the Westminster Divines, who bought that dubious old Greek idea, but with such modern theologians as Thomas G. Long and Shirley C. Guthrie, both of whom argue persuasively in their books that only God is immortal, not something in us.

Speaking of theological battles, next up on my reading list was 2 Corinthians, which a Bible study group I help to lead had taken up. And there we find Paul going through a crisis involving what he believed were false teachers leading the people of Corinth astray from his own teaching.

Paul was direct and authoritative: “When I was with you on my second visit, I already warned those who continued to sin. Now I’m repeating that warning to all the rest of you while I’m at a safe distance: if I come again, I won’t spare anyone” (2 Corinthians 13:2). Who knew social distancing started with Paul?

(Satire alert.) Can you imagine such a thing as dissent within an ecclesiastical community today? Surely, we won’t see anything like that in our church, will we?

Today – and for how much longer isn’t certain – I see the world and even the books I read that were written long ago through virus-colored lenses. What worries me – and I hope it worries you, too – is that one day we will be tempted to forget the lessons we’re supposed to be learning in this dismal time. Lessons about valuing life. About understanding our own faith tradition well enough to share it and even defend it. About knowing what’s worthy of sacrifice and commitment and what’s temporary, fleeting.

But history doesn’t give me optimism about humanity’s ability to learn. Ask Cain’s parents. So I don’t rely on optimism. I rely instead on hope in the immortal God. And that’s a very different thing.