Formation | Community | Culture

Five Good Reads: Culture & Society

Welcome back, Fidelity faithful. I’m taking a break from essay writing to post a handful of great books for your reading lists: Five Good Reads. We’ve knocked out a few already, including On Spiritual Formation and Essays, and we’ll hit plenty more. Remember this is not a comprehensive list, just my top five books of a given category for the purpose of a deep, well-rounded pastoral ministry.

This week’s category is another of my favorites: Culture & Society. In the Creative Nonfiction genre, writers and journalists use all of the elements of fiction—story, setting a scene, character development, etc—to tell a true story or report on findings in research or society. It’s a broad and sweeping category, and I could easily drop 15-20 books on you, so you can trust that the few that made this list will be well worth your time.

This category may not show up in the standard seminary curriculum, but it’s immensely helpful reading for pastors. Especially for my fellow pastors of community and care, these books will help you understand the dynamics of relationship, community, and culture from a variety of perspectives. (For my top books for community pastors, see CG 101.)

Lastly, remember that all these books can be picked up at your local privately-owned bookstore or public library; I’m just providing Amazon links for extra context.


Between the World and Me by Ta-Neishi Coates

Mr. Coates is one of the freshest, most important voices in American culture today. He is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a 2015 MacArthur “Genius” fellow. Between the World and Me won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2015, and was on top of basically everyone‘s “Best Of” lists, including mine.

Between is written to Coates’s teenage son about the atrocities of growing up black in America. His challenges to “white” culture and social criticisms are on point, and as an intimate memoir, it engages on an emotional level. As NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explained in The Righteous Mind, very few people ever change their fundamental views on politics, religion, race, and other critical issues. You can try to convince them with logical, intellectual arguments till you’re read in the face, but only one thing works: emotional engagement. To change someone’s mind, for example, about the tragic realities of white entitlement in America, you have to tell a different story. Coates’s Between is one of those stories that has the power to change an individual’s lifelong beliefs about race, privilege, and justice. You don’t have to agree with everything, but you gotta read it.

The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community by Marc Dunkelman

Why do all sociology professors have names like Dunkelman? Do they get these last names with their PhD’s, or are they born into them and just have to become sociologists? Either way, Professor Dunkelman’s book is describes a major yet unseen shift in American culture post WWII, where the upper, middle and lower classes have become increasingly segregated as a result of decreasing “township,” where communities gather in particular places for friendship and economy. Read this mug hand-in-hand with Wendell Berry and the New Testament, and you’ll have yourself the theological and sociological and literary foundations for Fidelity (my brand here, which promotes faithfulness to God, self, and neighbor).

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

This is a hard book to categorize, so I’m putting it here in Creative Nonfiction. In case you haven’t seen the movie, Krakaeur (also author of the fantastic Mt Everest thriller Into Thin Air) tells the story of Johnson McCandless, the upper-middle late adolescent who gave his savings to charity, hitch-hiked to Alaska, and (spoiler alert) was found dead of plant poisoning in an abandoned bus by a moose hunter. His memoirs, included in the book, give unique insight into the necessity of both solitude and relationship. You simply have to read this book.

Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There by David Brooks

It’s hard to believe this book is almost 15 years old, because it’s brilliantly accurate for our contemporary culture. David Brooks is one of my favorite journalists and still writes an Op-Ed twice weekly for the NY Times. In Bobos, Brooks takes a Toqueville-esque outsider view at American culture, where the upper class have tried to have the best of both the bourgeious (big, old money) and the bohemians (hippies smoking pot and talking philosophy)—thus the new title “BoBo.” It’s not the most famous of Brooks’ books, but it’s very entertaining, and especially useful if you’re ministering to over-educating twenty and thirty-somethings.

Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream by Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck

This is another early 2000’s classic that hopefully many of you have already read. This book is the essential guide to suburbanism in all its beauty and horrors. Whether you’re in an urban, mid-urban, or suburban context, you’ll learn a ton by this book. When you’re done with it, you can read Speck’s newer book, The Walkable City, or the old classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, which if I remember correctly, has about 100 pages just about sidewalks.

Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son by John Jeremiah Sullivan

My boy JJ Sullivan’s first book is creative nonfiction at its best, merging memoir, history, and research into a compelling story. Also, it’s about sports and takes place mostly in the Louisville metro, both pluses here at Fidelity. Sullivan traces the transcendent elements surrounding Kentucky horseracing through his father’s experiences at the Derby to early historical beliefs and practices surround equines.


Wait, was that six books? Oh snap, you got one free!

You’re welcome.


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