Winston Churchill said the sheer breadth of his reading was “scaffolding” for constructing a comprehensive view of the world. Here’s some scaffolding (books) for a Christmas wish list.
Churchill: Walking With Destiny, by Andrew Roberts (Penguin 2018).
Another Churchill biography? Yes, and it’s a good one. Churchill was impacted by his time in India, beginning October 1896. There, he grew to admire how the British had brought internal peace for the first time in Indian history by creating systems. Railroads, vast irrigation projects, mass education, newspapers, standardized units of exchange, bridges, roads, aqueducts, docks, universities, and so on. Today, of course, these systems are framed as imperialism and colonialism—evil and exploitive. This biography is scaffolding for helping us construct a better understanding of systems and institutions.
The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2015)
From the end of the Great Depression through World War II and into the 1950s, a small circle of writers gathered on a weekly basis in and around Oxford University to drink, smoke, quip, cavil and read aloud their works in progress. They endured and enjoyed with as much grace as they could muster the blistering critiques of colleagues. This small circle was called Inklings. It included C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien. Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams.
Their great hope was to restore Western culture to its religious roots, to unleash the powers of the imagination, and to reenchant the world. This book is scaffolding, as it helps reconstruct what the Inklings sought to reconstruct: the medieval world’s comprehensive understanding of the cosmos—a spherical universe depicting God and a meaningful, humanly habitable ordered universe.
The Inklings and King Arthur: J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, and Owen Barfield on the Matter of Britain, by Sørina Higgins (Apocryphile Press, 2018)
The Inklings were part of a revival of the Arthurian legend in Britain. They felt it spoke directly to their times. Author Sørina Higgins cites over 500 references to the Arthurian legend in the writings of Tolkien, Williams, Lewis, and Barfield. They all viewed the Arthurian legend as instructive in at least two ways.
The legend of Arthur depicts the medieval world’s understanding of God, the cosmos, and eternity as spherical (as do older church traditions). The Round Table was spherical. The Inklings felt the Arthurian legend helped restore Western culture to its religious roots.
But the Inklings also saw the Arthurian legend as a cautionary tale. At the Round Table, the knights slowly but surely began to dismiss the two outside, prophetic voices (Merlin and Dagonet). Eventually, Merlin and Dagonet left the Table. Arthur’s kingdom collapsed.
The Inklings feared the Western world was collapsing. Each writer felt called to be a prophetic voice, warning of peril. This book is sturdy scaffolding but difficult reading (very academic). Even if you don’t read it, it’s helpful to know why the Inklings felt the Arthurian legend was the defining cautionary tale of Britain—and our modern Western world.
Ways of Attending: How our Divided Brain Constructs the World, by Iain McGilchrist (Routledge, 2018)
Iain McGilchrist would likely agree. He describes the brain’s right hemisphere as “prophetic.” McGilchrist says the modern Western world disregards the prophetic, outsider voice. For years, I’ve encouraged friends to read his book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Few do. I get it—the book’s massive. Here’s an abridged version: Ways of Attending: How our Divided Brain Constructs the World. Just 32 pages.
Many of us feel McGilchrist’s writings are important scaffolding. In the modern Western world, neuroscience is replacing religion as a resource for understanding human nature. McGilchrist’s work aligns with the medieval world’s comprehensive understanding of the cosmos. This book helps us construct a better understanding of how the Western church biases the left hemisphere; and why this yields a linear, didactic, and – ultimately – a rather dry faith.
The British Are Coming, Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt & Company, 2019).
Okay… enough of neuroscience. I was a history undergraduate. Not many of us left. Rick Atkinson writes great history. He wrote a World War II trilogy that columnist George Will called “history as literature.” Amen. Atkinson’s new book is Volume One of a trilogy on the American Revolution. This scaffolding helps us construct a more comprehensive understanding of what was involved in winning our freedoms.
I hope this scaffolding helps you construct a more comprehensive understanding of the faith as well as the times we currently live in. Merry Shopping.