Curious and captivating
Four nonfiction books
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The Data Detective by Tim Harford: Economist Tim Harford argues that statistics provide a necessary lens for understanding the world—but only if we understand how to evaluate them. To that end he presents 10 commandments—and shows through clear writing and storytelling what he means. One commandment: Note your emotional reaction to a claim. We are less likely to scrutinize studies and stories that confirm our beliefs. Another commandment involves definitions: In tabulating infant mortality rates, is a premature birth at 22 weeks gestation a live birth and subsequent death? Or is it a late miscarriage? If we don’t know the definition, we won’t know if comparisons—say, between the United States and Finland—are valid. In short, be curious.
Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife by Ariel Sabar: Sabar’s fascinating true-crime tale tells how a feminist historian at Harvard Divinity School—whose disbelief in objective truth made her ripe to believe a con—got suckered by a pornographer hawking a papyrus said to describe a married Jesus. The story indicts journalists, theological journals, manuscript experts, and others who were eager to rewrite Christianity and challenge the Catholic Church. It shows how the forger played his victims, feeding them bits of info, changing his story, and demanding anonymity. It may seem odd in a book about forged ancient manuscripts to have a warning about language and sex, but the book needs one. Sabar makes clear he is not evangelical, but his exhaustive research will fascinate those interested in truth.
Forty Autumns by Nina Willner: At the end of World War II, residents of a German city were relieved when American rather than Soviet troops arrived. But three weeks later, the Soviets took over and Communism transformed life. In this memoir, Nina Willner tells the story of her family—Oma, Opa, and their children—trapped behind a solidifying Iron Curtain. Just shy of her 21st birthday, Willner’s mother escaped to the United States. Her escape became a political black mark against the family. School headmaster Opa was vulnerable to political pressure, as were the children who had to join party organizations. Oma countered those pressures by creating a family ethos forbidding members from informing on others. Willner’s family connections help her tell the larger Cold War story in an engaging way.
Resilient Faith by Gerald Sittser: Some older Christians who grew up in Christian homes internalized a Eusebius view of history: He lived in the fourth century A.D. and enjoyed a time when Christianity expanded rapidly under the rule of Emperor Constantine. Now, Christianity in America seems to be contracting. Sittser writes that young people leave Christian homes and “breathe a different air, the air of unbelief and secularity. … They don’t reject faith, as if won over to unbelief through reasoned argument. They simply and slowly drift away. Indifference—and even intellectual laziness—plays a bigger role than argument.” To push back against that we need the systematic discipleship and cultural engagement practiced by early Christians: “They prayed for the emperor but refused to worship him.”
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