Nineteen Reads of 2019

It’s been a stimulating, enriching, and enlivening year of reading across topics of religious freedom, minority experiences, foreign affairs, Judaism, Christianity, and cultural criticism.

Through these books, I’ve “travelled” Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Ohio, South Carolina, New York, Poland, and Austria.

At the end is a short review of my favourite overall book of the year and here are my nineteen reads of 2019 with some favourite quotations or brief comments.

1. Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor by Yossi Klein Halevi

“One morning I was driving my teenage son, Shachar, to school. Not far from the Old City, we got caught in a traffic jam. I said, ‘You know, in one sense here we are, sitting in a traffic jam, just like in any city anywhere. But sometimes it occurs to me that the most boring details of our daily life were the greatest dreams of our ancestors.’ I didn’t expect much of a response. Shachar, a jazz musician, tends not to speak in historical categories. But he surprised me. ‘I think about that a lot,’ he said.”

Yossi Klein Halevi is a great storyteller and I really enjoyed discussing this book with a Palestinian friend of mine.

2. The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State by Nadia Murad

“I still think that being forced to leave your home out of fear is one of the worst injustices a human being can face. Everything you love is stolen, and you risk your life to live in a place that means nothing to you and where, because you come from a country known for war and terrorism, you are not really wanted.”

Haunting. This is an unforgettable personal account of suffering at the hands of ISIS. Nadia put her people, the Yazidis, on our consciences. Now let’s look out for the traumatized yet heroically resilient Yazidi refugees in our midst and do our utmost the reunite families separated under the most horrific conditions.

3. Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion by Abraham Joshua Heschel

This book and the next one by Heschel were read in a reading group of Jewish and Christian young professionals. Uplifting, deep. Good food for thought and discussion. Heschel is among the most accessible and inviting Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century.

4. God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism by Abraham Joshua Heschel

5. Can’t is not an Option by Nikki Haley

“We are all, to one degree or another, reflections of our parents. I use the word ‘reflection’ deliberately. I am only an echo, an imperfect reflection of my remarkable parents.”

Listened to this one on audiobook narrated by the author, which really brought her story to life. Haley is an incredibly grounded, rooted, poised, elegant, and principled leader. Such a role model.

6. From Fire, By Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith by Sohrab Ahmari

“Now the friar held up a golden cup. The bell rang thrice. My silent tears gave way to choked sobs. I was in the proximity of an awesome and mysterious force–a force bound up with sacrifice, with self-giving unto death, the ideas that made my heart tremble ever since I was a boy.”

A good spiritual memoir tracing Sohrab’s upbringing in Iran, his move to America, and his gradual embrace of Catholicism.

7. Judas by Amos Oz

Very engaging work of Israeli fiction. Story within story. Especially cool to read upon my return from Jerusalem when so many of the settings had become familiar. Thanks to Gabi for recommending it.

8. Suddenly Love by Aahron Applefeld

More Israeli fiction that seems more memoir-esque than fictional. A somberly poetic novel about a young woman accompanying an elderly gentleman as they contend with their respective losses.

9. Worship of the Heart: Essays on Jewish Prayer by Joseph Soloveichik

Deeply philosophical yet conducive to prayeful reflection. My favourite chapter was on intention.

10. Life of Saint Antony by St. Athanasius

“That they may get knowledge, the Greeks live abroad and cross the sea, but we have no need to depart from home for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, nor to cross the sea for the sake of virtue. For the Lord aforetime hath said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is within you.'”

Interestingly read this book about desert monasticism on a flight to Taiwan.

11. Romance Behind Judaica: Celebrating the Richness of the Jewish Calendar by Faydra Shapiro

An enjoyable, accessible primer on Jewish holidays filled with delightful anecdotes about the glorious and beautiful ways the relationship between God and man is celebrated. Good work, Faydra!

12. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

Good cultural commentary and an eye-opening window into lesser known aspects of American life. Vance raises good questions about rootedness and identity but, at the very end of the book, seems to be only at the very beginning of answering them.

13. Dear Zealots by Amos Oz

Amazing essays. Oz is so on point and so deeply humanizing. Was wonderful to read this as I flew into Israel last May.

14. The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick

“All philosophy is rooted in the suffering of the passage over time.”

Good literature. As soon as I read that Ozick is like a Jewish Flannery O’Connor, I was intrigued. It’s accurate.

15. My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son’s Search for Home by Michael Brendan Dougherty

“A nation cannot live its life as a mere administrative district or as a shopping mall; nations have souls. It’s a virtue when poetry colonizes our politics, even if today the situation is reversed. The life of a nation is never reducible to mere technocracy, just as the home cannot be, no matter how much we try to make it so. I see that nationality is something you do, even with your body, even with your death.”

Written as letters to his father who was mostly absent from his life, Dougherty grapples with the need to know where he comes from in order to gain direction and insight into where he is going. Characteristic of and relevant to our times. Thanks so much to Peter for recommending this gem of a book.

16.The Retreat by Aharon Appelfeld

“The magic had dimmed but not vanished. Especially when he spoke of the melancholy deeply embedded in the soul of our tribe. For the most part, he spoke of this subject in a whisper, with a kind of reverence for the subtle and unpredictable human sensation in question. A sad tribe which bequeathed its sadness to its children.”

Short story on the tragic aspects of assimilation.

17.With All Due Respect: Defending America with Grit and Grace by Nikki Haley

Scroll down for complete review below.

18. God’s Hostage: A True Story of Persecution, Imprisonment, and Perseverance by Andrew Brunson

Fascinating story of Pastor Brunson’s imprisonment in Turkey and of how he continually struggled to see God’s providence in his suffering but ultimately convinced himself that God is worthy of his all. Impressive work by the Trump administration to help bring Brunson home.

19. Mama Maggie: The Untold Story of One Woman’s Mission to Love the Forgotten Children of Egypt’s Garbage Slums by Marty Makary and Ellen Vaughn

“The journey of Coptic believers in Egypt had been a long one. Their faith is not a cultural add-on as religion can be in other cultures. It’s core to their identity. As one Egyptian put it, ‘In other places, religion is a part of life. Here, life is a part of religion.”

An amazing, uplifting, and faith-filled story of Mamma Maggie, an affluent Coptic Christian woman who decided to devote her life to serving the poor, instilling confidence, and raising people to an awareness of their dignity. Edifying to learn about the establishment of the Stephen’s Children ministry and thanks to Chris and Christine for the introduction.


Nikki Haley’s With All Due Respect: Defending America with Grit and Grace

Already a New York Times bestseller, Nikki Haley’s memoir about her tenure as United States Ambassador to the United Nations offers exemplary lessons in principled leadership in politics in general and foreign policy in particular.

Contextualizing her unanticipated launch into her role as ambassador, Haley begins with a couple chapters about her time as Governor of South Carolina. In them, she reflects on the Charleston church shooting and the debate that ensued in the aftermath over removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse. The daughter of Indian immigrant parents, Haley had been serving as governor in the state in which she was born and raised, when she received a text informing her that there had been a shooting at Mother Emanuel Church. Attempting to do a press conference the following day, she got choked up and was frustrated with herself for her lack of composure. But she had learned that a white supremacist had planned and executed a mass shooting killing nine congregants at the oldest black church in her home state. How could she – how could anyone – be anything but completely shaken and stricken with grief at so great an evil?

The next difficult issue she had to navigate was the renewed controversy over the Confederate flag that had long flown at the statehouse. When photos emerged of the racist mass murderer posing with the flag, Haley knew that “the evil act he had committed had robbed the good-intentioned South Carolinians who supported the flag of this symbol of heritage and service.” She quickly concluded the flag should come down and began arranging meetings with legislators so that she could appeal to their compassion and patriotism in an effort to get the required bipartisan two thirds majority support needed to remove the flag. It was challenging, but she was successful and the drama of these defining moments demonstrated how Haley’s courage and resolve was forged, how she learned to transcend the partisan divide with the moral clarity of principles communicated with sincerity, and how these events laid the groundwork for the kind of strategic and tactful negotiations she would carry out at the United Nations.

I was impressed that Haley began with such a direct and serious engagement of issues of extremism, racism, identity, immigration, patriotism, and nationalism. These are the issues that strike at the heart of our public life and with which we desperately need to grapple with thoughtfulness, nuance, and civility as we seek the common good of all.

Haley tackles these issues well because she is not an ideologue. She thinks for herself and makes her own judgments by remaining honest to her life experiences, so someone who considers him or herself an absolute partisan will surely find her ideas a challenge. Anyone who expects blanket support from her for Trump will be disappointed as will anyone who expects a blanket denunciation. Haley defies categorization and this fact and her tact are why she can insist, “We are much more than the sum of our labels.”

With All Due Respect offers lessons in leadership combined with a fascinating overview of the key events in US foreign policy over the past couple of years, particularly at the United Nations. I think that most readers will find themselves thinking about politics, family life, faith, the businesses and projects in their own corner – and applying Haley’s lessons and insights and, where similar conditions do not exist, diagnosing their absence as the reason for certain crises and dysfunction within their proximate organizations and communities.

Some of Haley’s core principles come from her parents and how she was raised: “Whatever you do, be great at it and make sure people remember you for it” and “I always thought that if you take something on, you have to invest in it and be great at it. If you can’t do that, don’t do it.” Even the message – “Winners do what losers don’t want to”, which she found in a fortune cookie, gave her insight that she says helped inform her political endeavors.

Nikki Haley’s leadership is characterized by: loyalty, values, and unconventionality.

The Book of Sirach says, “Let those who are friendly with you be many, but let your advisors be one in a thousand. When you gain friends, gain them through testing, and do not trust them hastily.” (Sirach 6:6-7) Haley agrees with this biblical wisdom: “I’ve never had a big circle of advisors. I’ve always preferred a small, loyal team of trusted people.” From staffing her office with people who share her values to “taking names” at the UN of who could be trusted and who couldn’t – Haley knows the significance and the test of loyalty.

When it comes to defending values of democracy and human rights, Haley says she did so “not just because I believe in freedom and human dignity, but because I have seen what life is like when they are absent. I have seen things that I cannot un-see.” From this juxtaposition came a heightened responsibility to affirm certain values, even when standing alone in their defense. And so Haley consistently urges us to “challenge hate with the values we cherish.”

With All Due Respect is an engaging discussion of American foreign policy in the challenging geopolitical landscape involving Syria, Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, South Sudan, and Venezuela. It is also a heartening report that, even in the often exasperating world of the UN, Haley was able to achieve some concrete accomplishments like sanctions against North Korea, a veto against an anti-Israel resolution over the US embassy move to Jerusalem, and a weapons embargo against South Sudan. Providence readers are sure to appreciate this memoir of principled public service lived with grit and grace.

Here’s to an even more literary 2020!

What Millennials Want

This talk was given on a panel themed “In Pursuit of the Millennials” during the 22nd annual Civitas conference in Montreal.

While in Israel last summer, I was struck by a story a Holocaust survivor shared. She told us: “A few years ago, a Jewish child came home and asked her mother, ‘Can we get a Christmas tree?’ and the mother replied, ‘No, we don’t really believe in that.’ ‘Well,’ continued the child, ‘Can we have a menorah then?’ And since this mother was a secular Jew and non-observant she answered, ‘We don’t really believe in that, either.’ The child then asked, ‘So what do we believe in?’

Millennials, like most people, are asking this question and it’s partly why we’re not only reading and watching Jordan Peterson, but meeting in pubs and cafes to discuss him, talking about his ideas online, and weaving what we’re learning from him into our studies. Peterson resonates because millennials deeply want: authority, responsibility, and affirmation.

The American writer, Mary Eberstadt, observed: “Our macro-politics have gone tribal because our micro-politics are no longer familial.” The current expression of the state corresponds to the decline of the family, so conservatives and libertarians alike have reason to pay attention to the status of family life in culture.

It’s rare for people my age to speak about their families, so I was surprised, on a summer program with 20 Christian young adults, how many of them spoke about their parents while briefly introducing themselves. Between mentioning their universities, work experience, and achievements, they also said things like, ‘Growing up, my dad went for long walks with me.’ ‘My mom always read to us before we went to bed.’

Recently an interviewer said to Peterson, “It seems you were fathered well” to which he replied, “VERY.” He said, “My father is a formidable person. Both my parents… I’ve been blessed with my parents because they’re extraordinarily honest people. I can’t think of a time when I believe that my parents lied to me about anything. And that’s a great gift. The other thing that my father bequeathed to me when I was a child is an unshakable confidence that I could do what I put my mind and efforts to. He truly believed that. That’s lodged inside me like an unshakable foundation.”

This reminded me of a retreat for young adults that I attended led by Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche. What led the son of former Governor General Georges Vanier to devote himself to a life of service and community among persons with disabilities? Introducing himself to us, Jean told us about a turning point in his life that happened when he was 13. It was 1942 and he was living with his family in Canada when he decided to ask his father for permission to enter naval school in England, which meant crossing the Atlantic during the Second World War. He told us, “Papa said to me, ‘I have confidence in you. If this is what you want, then you must do it.’” Jean said these words liberated him, permitted him to be himself, and gave him confidence in his desires and choices.

We need and want authority – fatherly authority – that says, ‘I have confidence in you. I expect things of you. You must decide for yourself and what you decide matters.’

Our families are supposed to be the context in which we develop our personalities that are not reducible to a single identity marker. It’s why our tombstones say things like, ‘beloved daughter, sister, wife, mother’ and not ‘straight, white, middle class, feminist.’ Our tombstones are still relational, not ideological.

Identity politics is the bringing together of people based on some shared facet of identity to which personalities are usually reduced (such as race, class, or gender). If we seek to understand what’s going on, we can see that millennials are looking for belonging and rootedness in social movements and a security that they may not have found in family life.

Paternalists seem to me to offer a counterfeit of true paternity since paternalism restricts freedom and responsibility whereas paternity contributes to it. Paternalists say, ‘I don’t trust you. Let me decide things for you. You’re not really responsible for yourself.’ We need more true fatherhood that says, ‘I have confidence in you. Take some responsibility.’

Jean Vanier’s insight is that, “Biological and spiritual paternity have the same goal: to liberate the son or daughter so that he or she becomes a complete man or woman, responsible for his or her life.” He asks: “But can someone liberate his son or daughter if he himself has not been liberated by his own father?”

Even with the Ten Commandments, God begins by saying, “I am the Lord your God…” The responsibilities are not given before we are secure in our relationship with our Father.

Next, millennials want to be called to responsibility and Jordan Peterson knows it. He says he watches eyes light up when he speaks about how responsibility gives life meaning. And when the Conservative leadership race was taking place, Peterson spoke to the candidates about their difficulties communicating to millennials: “What the hell are conservatives going to sell to young people?” he asked them. “Being conservative is something that happens when you’re older. Well, they can sell responsibility. It’s unbelievable how hungry people are for it and no one’s selling it.”

Peterson tells us, “I believe that your actions tilt the world toward heaven or hell, that your actions have consequences and that’s why they matter, and that this is what gives your life meaning and dignity.”

Last year, when Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was being awarded the Templeton Prize, I paid close attention to what he said was the most defining moment of his life: When he was a student at Cambridge, he travelled to the states to meet the great rabbis of the day. After much persistence, he got a meeting with the leading rabbi. Sacks asked his intellectual questions and the Rabbi answered. But then the Rabbi started asking him questions: ‘How many Jewish students are involved in Jewish life at your university? What are you doing to bring other people in?’ Sacks started saying, ‘In the situation in which I find myself…” and the Rabbi interrupted him: “Nobody finds themselves in a situation. You put yourself in a situation. And if you put yourself in that situation, you can put yourself in another one.” Rabbi Sacks says this changed his life and propelled his next fifty years of changing the situation.

We’re starved for this ennobling reminder of what lies within our responsibility. We need to face the reality of our own potential in order to appreciate the freedom and responsibility we have to realize worthy ends. And who is calling us to responsibility?

This year, Catholic Christian Outreach hosted its annual conference attended by 1,000 young adults from coast to coast. Fr. Raymond de Souza addressed us saying, ‘You will forgive me if this talk is more of a challenge than a consolation.’ He basically spent half an hour saying, ‘You’re not yet who you should be’ and we were transfixed. We were captivated because he cared enough to admonish us.

He said, “My dear sons – do not be afraid to challenge the casual assumptions of what it means to be a man on campus, that to be a man is to indulge the appetites, drink too much, play video games and seduce girls. The world needs better men, and it needs you to be those men.” And then he said, “My dear daughters: Men often live up or down to standards that are set for them by the women in their lives, beginning with their mothers and sisters, and later the girls who capture their hearts. Be demanding of them.”

To anyone thinking millennials seeking to grow in the ethical maturity that comes from mastery over our freedom is an anomaly, I saw a thousand Canadian millennials taking seriously this call to responsibility and it gave everyone hope. I have confidence that they – that we – will do the things that count.

Debriefing Fr. de Souza’s talk with one attendee I asked him, ‘Why is it that we want a priest who tells us we’re in the wrong place?’ and without hesitation he said, ‘For the same reason we want a doctor who prescribes things to heal us.’ This same young man told me, ‘I don’t like the term social conservatism but prefer to think of social elevation. We’re not trying to go back to some idyllic former age; we’re striving for fundamentally human ideals which are good and true and elevate our life together.’

We want to be judged and admonished because it’s a sign that someone cares for us enough to want our good, which is one definition of love. The libertarian seminars I attended as an undergrad always left me wondering, ‘But what, after all, is freedom for?’ We intuitively know that how we exercise our freedom matters. Freedom is only meaningful in relation to moral consequences, which are either good or bad.

So millennials actually do want elevating expectations that call us to responsibility and the moral adventure of freedom because this corresponds to who we are in truth.

Finally, I want to mention that we appreciate Jordan Peterson because he’s pointing out worthwhile values, but even more because there is a sense that’s he’s accompanying us. Through YouTube videos, books, talks, and Twitter, he makes himself available.

A friend of mine who attended his event in Toronto alternated her gaze between Peterson and the students, including afterward when he stayed to speak with them one-on-one. She told me, “The very way that he looks at people is affirming. He has a way of showing people they’re worth listening to. Here’s someone who loves people enough to bring out the best in us and who believes we’re capable of it.”

Millennials long for this affirmation and accompaniment. We need others who take us seriously and who help us contend with the reality of brokenness without sacrificing ideals.

We need to remind one another of the fundamental goodness of the world because if we believe that the world is good and that people are very good, then we’ll always have reasons to be hopeful and to take responsibility personally.

Affirmative action, then, seems to be a counterfeit of true affirmation. It’s true that we all need the rootedness. stability, and belonging that we find in relationships of unconditional love. Against affirmative action, let’s promote affirming actions that value the freedom and dignity of persons, not only for what they can do but for who they are – affirming actions like eating dinner as a family, involving grandparents in our lives, going to church together, and welcoming the presence especially of the vulnerable who so well reveal our humanity to us.

If we do not discover our identity through our relationships with God and others, then we will seek counterfeits to substitute telling us who we are.

As Benedict XVI put it:

It’s crucial to have this certainty, based on faith, that I am wanted; I have a task in history; I am accepted I am loved. […] Those who are unloved cannot even love themselves. This sense of being accepted comes in the first instance from other human beings. But all human acceptance is fragile. Ultimately we need a sense of being accepted unconditionally. Only if God accepts me, and I become convinced of this, do I know definitively: it is good that I exist. It is good to be a human being. If ever man’s sense of being accepted and loved by God is lost, then there is no longer any answer to the question whether to be a human being is good at all.

And so, against the counterfeit of paternalism, let’s seek the freedom-respecting, confidence-instilling encouragement of true paternity. Against the counterfeit of group conventions, let’s promote elevating expectations and personal responsibility. And against rootlessness and individualism, let’s seek the accompaniment and affirmation that liberates us to rejoice in what is good and contribute to it.

Marco asked me to share what I’d most like you to know about millennials. To sum up, we need you. We need your presence in our lives to say to us, ‘I have confidence in you. I expect things of you. You’re responsible and how you act matters. I’m glad you exist. You matter for who you are, not only for what you can do. Let’s rejoice in the goodness of the world that has been entrusted to us and may we love it enough to cooperate in taking responsibility for it.’

Amanda Achtman studied political science in her hometown of Calgary, Alberta and recently completed an MA in Philosophy at the Catholic University of Lublin in Poland. She is an alumna of the Philos Project’s Leadership Institute. 

La révolution de la moralité supernaturalle

Dans son avant-dernier chapitre, Dietrich von Hildebrand parle de quatre façons par lesquelles la moralité a changé après l’incarnation du Christ.

Il dit que le premier aspect qui distingue l’ethos Chrétien de la moralité naturelle, par exemple des grecs anciens, c’est l’humilité. Il explique que “l’importance de l’humilité a transformé la somme totale de la moralité.” Avant l’incarnation de Dieu, il n’y avait pas d’appréciation pour la valeur de l’humilité. L’incarnation a revolutionné la moralité, changé son point de référence, et est devenue une source de beauté mystérieuse.

La deuxième révolution de la moralité supernaturelle  est la miséricorde. Hildebrand la décrit comme “un rythme de moralité entièrement nouveau.” La miséricorde est reliée à la contrition et la conversion. La croissance dans la miséricorde nous offre un chemin hors de notre orgueil vers la sainteté. 

La troisième caractéristique de la moralité Chrétienne est “la bonté spécifique de l’amour.” Il explique que la véracité et l’intégrité de Socrates ne sont pas identiques à la moralité supernaturelle d’un martyre comme Étienne qui a decidé de prier pour ceux qui l’ont tué.

La dernière chose que Hildebrand explique nous montre le caractère radicalement nouveau de la moralité Chrétienne:  toutes les vertus et attitudes morales ont leur origine dans une réponse au Dieu qui est la source de chaque “bien moralement pertinent.”

En résumé, l’humilité, la miséricorde, la bonté de l’amour et la moralité comme réponse à Dieu constituent la différenciation entre la moralité naturelle et la moralité supernaturalle qui est un standard nouveau et éternel pour nous après l’incarnation de Dieu.


The Reason for the Hope

The next chapter I read in The Art of Living is also written by Dietrich’s widow Alice von Hildebrand and it’s on the subject of hope. In it, she begins by diagnosing despair as “the consciousness of a metaphysical calling, a metaphysical destiny left unfulfilled.” And she argues that whenever a person despairs and says about his life, “It’s too late”, this betrays a lack of confidence “in the eternal renewal of the generous creativity of God.” Continue reading “The Reason for the Hope”

How telling people what you do for a living affects your personality

The newly republished book by Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Art of Living, includes two beautiful essays by his widow, Alice, on the topics of communion and hope.

The chapter on communion is marvellous and incisive. She begins by discussing the various crises of communion in our contemporary society. There are different types of solitude. Sometimes being alone can be a source of anxiety and other times it can be a relief. The peculiar and unsettling loneliness is that of being alone in a crowd, which Hannah Arendt discussed as the social realm (neither the public nor the private sphere but some collapsed in-between) and which Sherry Turkle discusses in the context of technology in her book Alone Together.
Continue reading “How telling people what you do for a living affects your personality”

Poland: Righteous Among the Nations?

When the Polish government passed a bill on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day in an effort to criminalize attributing responsibility for the Holocaust to Poles, many Israeli leaders and Jews became furious considering the move tantamount to a form of Holocaust denial.

The proposed legislation reads: “Whoever claims, publicly and contrary to the facts, that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich… or for other felonies that constitute crimes against peace, crimes against humanity or war crimes, or whoever otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes – shall be liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to 3 years.”

To read more, click here to view my piece on The Federalist.