A few years ago, Mike Bird posted the first “Let’s all do X and then tag others and pass it on” blog post that anyone had done for a while. Here’s what his proposal was:
I want to launch a series whereby bibliobloggers nominate “a book that you’d be surprised that I like.”
Sounds simple enough at first. But given his choice, which is not surprising because of its perspective but because it is not widely known, I find myself wondering what book, if any, I could mention that might genuinely surprise you, given my penchant for the obscure.
I nominate my fellow Patheos bloggers.
I didn’t respond then, and it didn’t really take off. But all kinds of tagging and nominating activities have helped people feel more connected with others via social media during the pandemic, and so it seems like a good time to revive this. I was reminded of it by a piece in the Christian Century book reviews section in which writers mention books they value precisely because they disagree with them. I agree that the best books are those that we have to wrestle with, as much as I also appreciate it when I read something that confirms a hunch that I had, answers a question I posed in a way that I find satisfying and compelling, or provides me with precisely the piece of data that I was seeking.
Some may expect me to say (whether tongue in cheek or seriously) that I like the Bible, and there are probably as many people who’d be surprised at my saying so as would be surprised that I wouldn’t and won’t. My life is dedicated to reading, interpreting, and wrestling with the Bible, but some think that’s not what the Bible is for, as though a collection of books (the Bible is not a “book” but a library) that includes a story about someone wrestling with God offers texts that one should not wrestle with but merely submit to.
I truly value books that I disagree with but which do something creative and challenging. Even if they don’t persuade me, they make me think, force me to ponder why I disagree, and do me a great service in the process. Unlike his blogging which tends to be a flood of rhetoric denigrating anyone who dares criticize him, I have consistently appreciated Richard Carrier’s books and indeed all his academic publications. For instance, I found his past discussion of the empty tomb narratives so insightful that it seemed bizarre to me that he chose to shoot his own arguments in the foot by rejecting the historical Jesus framework that provided the rationale for the scenario he explored. Even once he embraced mythicism, he still offered in his publications substantive arguments which did not convince me, but which I benefitted from thinking about and considering. The same can be said of Thomas Brodie, another scholar who forces everything into the framework of mimesis and literary reworking, but with astounding creativity so that in the process one is forced to ask why they don’t think something is simply all made up. It is a question worth asking, and one can hardly do so meaningfully in the absence of other voices and perspectives that view the evidence differently than oneself. I strongly object to the popularization of mythicism as truth, as a conclusion equal to the overwhelming consensus of historical scholarship. But I like the exploration of possibilities within the academy, as long as the exploration is rigorous, well-argued, and thought-provoking. These books definitely meet those criteria.
Since years have passed since this started, I won’t tag anyone in particular. But I invite anyone reading this who blogs to take up the challenge and talk about one or more books that they like and/or value that those who know them might find surprising.
I can tell you about others if you want me to, but perhaps I’ve surprised readers enough for today…