When I first thought about what I have been reading lately, what came to mind is the undergraduate essays and papers I have been plowing through—more on them at another time. I offer some comments below on books I have been reading (in no particular order).
Benjamin Barber, Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole. I was part of a seminar on consumerism in summer 2014 and this intriguing book was among the readings. As the subtitle suggests, Barber argues that consumerism dumbs down notions of culture and citizenship by appealing to what is most infantile in human beings. Instant gratification, a focus on the self, it’s all there. As I made my way through this text, I was reminded at times of Romano Guardini’s question about whether persons in the present day are capable of liturgical action. Though simple, liturgical action is also dense and complex and, at its best, it is also unhurried. I would argue that quality liturgy is never impossible but Barber’s book indicates some of the many ways in which consumer culture undermines quality liturgy. His book reminds me of just how important it is for theologians to read cultural critics if we want to speak intelligently about matters of faith and worship.
Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance (books 1 and 2 of his Stormlight Archive). Ever since I was a child, I have loved the sci-fi / fantasy genre. I have read and re-read The Lord of the Rings more times than I care to admit in public. I came across the Stormlight Archive a few years back and just finished reading book 2. Sanderson crafts a remarkably intricate society of nobles and decorum along with slavery, war, and exploitation. Characters acquire fantastic powers and struggle to use them wisely. Religion plays an important role in this society, but Sanderson does not shy away from presenting characters who pray and offer sacrifice not out of devotion as such, but just in case there are divine beings who would look kindly on such offerings. Perhaps his approach speaks to the mindset of at least some “religious” people across all times and cultures.
Timothy Gabrielli, Confirmation: How a Sacrament of God’s Grace Became All about Us. A moment of disclosure here: I wrote one of the brief endorsements for this book’s front matter. I used it this term in an undergraduate sacraments survey class. I think the text does a fine job of addressing the faith-culture nexus, describing how themes associated with the sacrament of confirmation changed as the relationship between American Catholics and the wider American culture changed. The book helped me to appreciate (and I hope it helped my students to appreciate) that Catholic faith and practice is dynamic, not static. Of course, I had been aware of this point; this book provides an important example of this dynamism.