Most of my reading this year was rereads of novels I enjoyed long ago — the prescribed medicine for Covid quarantine. But there were new items too, five in particular, and by far the best of that handful was the expose of the Jesus-Wife hoax. You should read Veritas if nothing else on this list.
1. Veritas, Ariel Sabar. I don’t care what else was published in 2020 that was good and I didn’t read. Veritas is the book of the year, a piece of detective work that shows rare command of so many specialties — early Christian texts, canonical and gnostic; papyrology; peer review processes; online pornography; the fine line between liberal theology and academic study. Sometimes the hardest lie to refute is the Big Lie, since it requires so much ground to cover — even when the lie is obvious from start. Veritas shows the depths to which professionals sink in willful naivete, and the lengths to which forgers will go to bamboozle the academy. I’m wiser than ever before about what drives forgers, and why certain scholars get easily played. Walter Fritz succeeded thanks to a divinity school in crisis. Harvard was on the brink of creating a secular religious studies department, and the divinity department (and Karen King’s status) was in jeopardy. The Jesus-Wife fragment came as a godsend to Karen King, for keeping progressive liberal theology married to academic scholarship. Full review here.
2. Rating America’s Presidents, Robert Spencer. Most historians tend to favor presidents who were charismatics, goal-oriented managers, foreign interventionists, and heavy into top-down government. But just because a leader is charismatic and can move you with speeches, doesn’t say anything about his policies and how good he was. That he accomplished his goals says nothing about how good those goals were. That he intervened militarily abroad and economically at home are just as likely bad signs as good ones. Robert Spencer grades the American presidents on the basis of their actual policies and their Constitutional fidelity. Were they good for America, or were they not? In most cases (26 presidents), I agree closely with Spencer’s rankings, aside from minor quibbles. And even in the other 14 cases, only 6 represent dramatic disagreements on my part (Spencer scores Jackson, Lincoln, and Trump high, where I score them low. He scores Hayes, Carter, and Clinton low, where I score them high.) We agree in any case on what matters most in a president’s policy-making decisions: the dangers of entangling alliances, the superiority of fiscal conservatism, and the importance of liberty. Full review here.
3. Age of Monsters, Robert Kruger. I read the draft for this novel in 2019 but it was published this year. It tells two stories — the aches and twists of teen love in the ’80s and a gaming campaign that loudens the relationship. An eighth-grade student in Portland Oregon falls for the new girl in town, and hooks her into his role-playing fantasies (the RPG sort, not S&M). The dark-priestess character she plays is a vessel of her real-world baggage, and together the teens use their imagination to confront real-world problems at school and home. There are Stranger Things vibes but it’s very much its own thing; Kruger started writing the story long before the Netflix series landed. It’s hard to make table-top narratives engaging as they are immersive, but Age of Monsters taps into the fire that made us grognards so passionate for old-school D&D in the ’80s.
4. Heroes of the Fourth Turning, Will Arbery. I saw this play dramatized over Zoom and it was brilliantly acted. Four graduates of a Catholic college in Wyoming have returned to campus for a weekend event, and spend an evening arguing with each other about a lot of things — abortion, divorce, the LGBT community, hate speech, to name a few. Justin laments the fading power of Christianity in the world. Kevin is a pathetic whiner who can’t shit or get off the pot. Emily is tormented by a painful chronic illness. And Teresa (by far the most entertaining character) is practically a clone of Ann Coulter who writes polemical essays for a right-wing publication. These four voted for Donald Trump in 2016 but had reservations about doing so. Their mindset is alien to those of a liberal or secular audience (like myself), but the play has been hailed as compelling by many viewers. It’s a fascinating stretch of dialogue between friends trying to make sense of entrenched values. Arbery neither endorses nor condemns them. He writes about them because it’s what he knows, having been raised as a conservative Catholic. See this review for more.
5. Presidential Elections and Majority Rule, Edward Foley. Since the 2016 election especially, people have demanded that we abolish the electoral college in favor of a national popular vote. But the electoral college is a very good if flawed system. A national popular vote carries the danger of mob rule — like the reign of tyranny during the French revolution, or the Brexit vote, when 51% or 52% of the people imposed their will on 49% or 48%. The American founders wanted more than just a simple majority rule; they wanted a compound form of majority rule, or a “majority of the majorities” — in other words, a majority of the electoral votes compiled from states in which the victor also achieved a majority of the statewide popular vote. That system works like a gem in two-party elections, where the winner by necessity obtains a compound majority of the vote, but when third-party or independent candidates are involved, they can rob another candidate of an honest victory. The solution, as Foley argues, isn’t to abolish the electoral college, but to establish rank choice voting (or some run-off equivalent) in all the states. Full review here.