Abortion, the Bible, and Us: The Evangelical About-Face on Abortion

An anti-abortion protest in California's Bay Area from 1986
A 1986 anti-abortion protest in the Bay Area
(Photo by Nancy Wong, CC by SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)
To recap what I’ve covered in this series so far:

All of this is hard to square with the tenor of contemporary abortion politics, where absolute opposition to abortion, grounded in a belief that life begins at the moment of fertilization, is often held to be the defining political commitment of the religious (read: Christian) right. Within this conservative coalition, evangelicals in particular tend to justify their anti-abortion stance in originalist and biblicist terms. 

Take, for example, resources developed by Focus on the Family that assert that the Bible says life begins at conception, or megachurch pastor Rick Warren’s comment that “the reason I believe that life begins at conception is because the Bible says it.”

The Bible, of course, says no such thing.

And you have to work pretty hard to get the Bible to imply it.

 If it isn’t in the Bible, then—and it isn’t—where does it come from? Is it simply a constant element of Christian belief? Again, the answer is no.

The Evangelical About-Face

From the outset, we have to distinguish between different kinds of Christians, since different denominations do not have the same historical relationship with abortion. Officially, the Roman Catholic Church has long opposed abortion and, since the mid-20th century, contraception (individual Catholics have various opinions, of course, and tend to access contraception and abortion at roughly the same rates as everyone else in the United States.

Evangelical Christians, however, who are now at least as closely identified with anti-abortion politics as Catholics, have not always been politically motivated by abortion—or even united in opposition to it.

In the era before Roe v. Wade, many evangelical leaders argued that abortion was permissible in many circumstances. For example, the influential evangelical theologian and apologist Norman Geisler, in the 1971 and 1975 editions of his Christian Ethics, wrote the following, which I will quote at length:

The one clear thing which the Scriptures indicate about abortion is that it is not the same as murder. … Murder is a man-initiated activity of taking an actual human life. Artificial abortion is a humanly initiated process which results in the taking of a potential human life. Such abortion is not murder, because the embryo is not fully human — it is an undeveloped person.

When it is a clear-cut case of either taking the life of the unborn baby or letting the mother die, then abortion is called for. An actual life (the mother) is of more intrinsic value than a potential life (the unborn). The mother is a fully developed human; the baby is an undeveloped human. And an actually developed human is better than one which has the potential for full humanity but has not yet developed. Being fully human is a higher value than the mere possibility of becoming fully human. For what is has more value than what may be. …

Birth is not morally necessitated without consent. No woman should be forced to carry a child if she did not consent to intercourse. A violent intrusion into a woman’s womb does not bring with it a moral birthright for the embryo. The mother has a right to refuse that her body be used as an object of sexual intrusion. The violation of her honor and personhood was enough evil without compounding her plight by forcing an unwanted child on her besides. … the right of the potential life (the embryo) is overshadowed by the right of the actual life of the mother. The rights to life, health, and self-determination — 
i.e., the rights to personhood — of the fully human mother take precedence over that of the potentially human embryo.

Fifty years later, such a position from a notable conservative evangelical would be almost unthinkable. Indeed, Geisler himself did not remain supportive of abortion. Long before his death in 2019, he had become an ardent opponent of abortion in any form, arguing explicitly that it should supersede all other issues in determining Christians’ voting priorities. This change was already apparent in the 1989 2nd edition of his Christian ethics, where he asserted (as part of a much longer discussion):

Scripture texts leave no doubt that an unborn child is just as much a person in God’s image as a little child or an adult is. They are  created  in  God’s  image  from  the  very  moment  of  conception,  and  their  prenatal  life  is  precious  in  God’s  eyes  and  protected  by  his  prohibition  against  murder.

In 18 years, the Bible had managed to shift from being crystal clear in one direction to being crystal clear in the opposite and contradictory direction, something which Geisler scarcely hints at (and only in the preface)..

But Geisler’s permissive position was far from anomalous in the evangelical circles of the mid-20th century. Bruce Waltke, a professor at the famously conservative Dallas Theological Seminary, wrote in Christianity Today in 1968 “God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed.”

In 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted an official resolution that affirmed the value of fetal life but added “We call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”

At the time, 70% of Southern baptist pastors approved of abortion to support the mental or physical health of the mother. Support was 64% for “fetal deformity” and 71% in cases of rape. 

Similarly, the evangelical response to Roe was not immediate or uniformly negative. While Christianity Today criticized the decision in 1973, many influential conservative pastors voiced their support. W. A. Criswell, pastor of the largest Southern Baptist church in the US, said “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had life separate from its mother, that it became an individual person.” He went on “it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and the future should be allowed.”

The Baptist Press actually hailed the decision as a win: “religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision.”

Neither was this a case of leaders who were out of touch with the theological leanings of their congregations, as rank-and-file evangelicals were not exercised by the decision and proved hard for activist groups to mobilize. In 1980, the evangelical magazine Moody Monthly lamented that “Evangelicalism as a whole has uttered no real outcry. We’ve organized no protest. … The Catholics have called abortion ‘The Silent Holocaust.’ The deeper horror is the silence of the evangelical.”

This sentiment was echoed by other members of the new religious right at the time, including Heritage Foundation founder and John Birch Society member Paul Weyrich,  Moral Majority board member Ed Dobson, and the anti-abortion activist group the Christian Action Council.

Eventually, though, activist efforts to mobilize evangelicals against abortion did come to fruition. Harold O. J. Brown, the Christianity Today editor who wrote the original criticism of Roe v. Wade, founded the Human Life Review in 1975 and the Christian Action Council in 1976. Jerry Falwell preached his first sermon against abortion in 1978, and Francis Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop published their influential Whatever Happened to the Human Race? in 1979. Together, these and other activists worked to bring abortion to prominence among evangelicals. 

By 1984, the landscape had changed. That year, the book Brave New People argued the once common evangelical view that abortion was ethically complicated and often permissible, but this time it provoked such a strong backlash that the publisher, Zondervan, conducted the first recall in its history.

Since then, staunch opposition to abortion has been the almost unquestioned position of the Christian right, evangelicals included.

What happened?

At this point, the facts are pretty clear. Abortion for evangelicals was not an important issue or an issue of unanimous agreement in the middle of the 20th century. Since Jonathan Dudley made this point in an influential op-ed for CNN, however, there has been a war over the narrative. Why exactly did evangelicals perform this about-face on abortion?

When evangelicals themselves tell the story, it becomes a story of heroes rousing morally sluggish congregations to realign with clear biblical truth. In other words, the problem was general ignorance of the Bible’s clear teachings and the remedy was deeper, more diligent Bible study.

These retellings rightly emphasize the significance of highly motivated activists, but their Bible-centrism falls flat. As I’ve argued throughout this series of posts, biblical texts stake out no clear position on abortion or fetal personhood, and neither do they suggest it was an issue of moral significance to the communities by and for whom biblical texts were written. The Bible could not have been the sole driver of this revolution in evangelical politics, which means that other motivations must be identified.

For Dudley, it was a story of the political tail wagging the theological dog. That is, adherence to political conservatism did not result from the belief that life begins at conception; rather, political conservatism motivated many Christians to interpret biblical texts to mean that life begins at conception.

Religious historian Randall Balmer puts a finer point on it. In his book Bad Faith and these articles for Politico Magazine, Balmer argues that political mobilization around abortion was actually kicked off by conservative evangelical resistance to government-mandated desegregation of religious schools. 

Balmer is not arguing for anything as simple as an “Aha! It was really just racism all along!” gotcha. This is America, and at some level it’s racism all the way down. The anti-abortion movement has had troubling connections with white supremacist and eugenics movements throughout its long history, but the pro-choice and birth control movements have a few racist and eugenicist skeletons in their closets as well.

What these reconstructions show, however, is that anti-abortion politics did not arise directly from diligent Bible reading and that abortion did not function as an independent political issue. Rather, it interacted with a slew of other issues that all revolved around the social and cultural changes of the 1960s and ‘70s.

The civil rights movement, anti-Vietnam movement, sexual revolution, and second wave of feminism co-occurred in ways that profoundly destabilized the traditional hierarchies of American society and, working together, motivated the political resurgence of the religious right.

While the rhetoric of the abortion debate focuses intensely on the figures of the fetus and the mother, the ethics and politics of abortion have implications that connect very strongly to these traditional hierarchies. I have more research to do here, but I have a hunch that opposition to abortion has proved so powerful a galvanizing force because its intense focus on the fetus—usually portrayed as a baby no matter the gestational age being discussed—easily obscures its connections with less palatable and less popular conservative political priorities. For decades now, the mantra “abortion is murder” has acted as a powerful Trump card and a nearly insurmountable barrier to defecting from the Republican Party, as Bradley Onishi wrote in this powerful essay. No matter how many harmful and destructive policies they espouse, no matter how promiscuously they flirt with authoritarianism, how can any other issue compete with the murder of a million babies a year? This question keeps many people voting for candidates they disagree with on almost everything because the prevalence of abortion weighs too heavily to bear.

I understand this earnest belief. I understand this discomfort. At some point, though, I had to acknowledge that the Bible’s clarity on prenatal personhood and on abortion were illusory. 

This doesn’t mean that people who read and believe in the Bible can’t believe that life begins at conception or that abortion is always wrong. However, these beliefs must be understood also as reflections of social, historical, and political forces outside of the Bible. The attempt to locate fetal personhood and anti-abortion ethics in the original message of the Bible is an attempt to remove them from historical and cultural contingency and to sink them deep in the unchanging bedrock of eternal truth. However, theological priorities are influenced by contingent and contextual forces for evangelicals as much as for anyone else. 

In short, categorical opposition to abortion is neither a necessary element of true Christian faith nor an ethical issue so clear and settled that it should supersede all others in social and political reasoning.

I can’t tell you exactly what to think about abortion (I’ll share my own positions in the next post), but I can tell you this: if it were left to the Bible, we’d spend a lot less time policing it.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Most of these sources are linked above and repeated here for ease of reference. 

Balmer, Randall. Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right. Eerdmans, 2021.

—. “The Real Origins of the Religious Right.” Politico Magazine, May 27, 2022.

—. “The Religious Right and the Abortion Myth.” Politico magazine, May 10, 2022.

Dibranco, Alex. “The Long History of the Anti-Abortion Movement’s Ties to White Supremacists.” The Nation, Feb 3, 2020.

Dudley, Jonathan. “When Evangelicals were Pro-Choice.” CNN Belief Blog, 2012.

—. “How Evangelicals Decided that Life Begins at Conception.“ HuffPost Religion, Nov. 5, 2012.

Farley, Audrey Clare. “The Eugenics Roots of Evangelical Family Values.” Religion and Politics, 2021.

Onishi, Bradley. “Pro-born: A Former Evangelical on the Single-Issue Politics of White Christians.” Religion Dispatches, March 18, 2018.

Tisby, Jemar. The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism

 

Further Reading

Griffith, R. Marie. Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics. Basic Books, 2017..

Parker, Willie. Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice. 37 Inc., 2018.

Pittman, Ashton. “To Rule History with God: The Christian Dominionist War on Abortion.” Mississippi Free Press, Jan 26, 2022 (Part one of a three-part series).

Schenk, Rob. Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope, and Love. Harper COllins, 2019.

Abortion, the Bible, and Us: Conducting Abortions in the Ancient World

A silver coin from ancient Cyrene, dating from the 5th century BCE, which shows a fruit or pod from the silphium plant.

A 5th century BCE silver coin from Cyrene, showing part of a silphium plant. Photo from Expeditions Magazine 34 (1992).

In their accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion, all four of the canonical new Testament gospels include a scene in which Jesus stumbles under the weight of the cross and falls. In response, his Roman guards pull a man out of the crowd and compel him to carry it the rest of the way.

This may seem like a strange way to introduce a blog post on the practice of abortion in antiquity, but stay with me. I mention it more for the man than the story, and more specifically, for the man’s home town. His name was Simon, and he came from the North African town of Cyrene. Cyrene was not large, but it was famous throughout the Mediterranean world for its primary export—an herb called silphium that was reputed to be the safest and most effective contraceptive and abortifacient available. According to the Greek physician Soranus of Ephesus, drinking the juice from a chickpea-sized piece of silphium monthly would “not only prevent conception but destroys any already existing” (Riddle 1999).  

Silphium grew only on the Mediterranean-facing hillsides surrounding Cyrene, and proved impossible to cultivate agriculturally. Demand outstripped supply, and by Jesus’s time silphium had been harvested almost to the point of extinction. Writing around the same time, Pliny the Elder said the price of silphium had surpassed its weight in silver, and by the 3rd or 4th century CE, it could no longer be found, making it the first species extinction caused by humans in recorded history.

Of course, mentioning a guy from the town made famous by silphium doesn’t mean the Gospels were taking a position one way or the other on its use, but it does offer us a nice entry point into the discussion of abortion in the ancient world. Silphium was the herb of choice for those who could get it, but it was far from the only option for preventing or ending pregnancies in the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean world. Starting almost two millennia before Jesus’s time, texts and art witness to a diverse array of contraceptive and abortive medicines and practices.

some General Comments on Ancient Birth Control

People in ancient societies cherished, valued, and wanted children just like people do today, but there were also times when it was not right to bring a(nother) child into the world. To this end, women developed ways to regulate their fertility to ensure that they would be able to meet the sustenance and care needs of any new additions to their families. Women generally managed their reproductive lives and health care among themselves, with little involvement or interference from men. Most of the relevant knowledge was held by midwives and other learned women, whose traditions did not tend to be put down in text as often as men’s. We must assume, therefore, that the texts we do have represent only the tip of the iceberg in terms of ancient contraception and abortion. 

Why do I keep talking about contraception and abortion when this is a series on abortion? The line between the two is difficult to draw even today, and it was much more so in antiquity.

Today, the typical abortion is usually thought of as a highly medicalized surgical procedure, and this has been generally true for the past century or so. Recently, however, the identification of certain medications that cause abortions has revolutionized the practice (as described in this very helpful episode of Radiolab). This shift has brought the practice of abortion much more into line with the way it was conducted in the ancient world, where surgical abortions would have been dangerous and probably very rare. Instead, most abortion would have been handled early, through the use of pharmacological herbs and medicinal compounds. Because of how and when these worked, it’s not always clear whether we would classify them as contraceptives or abortifacients today—or how they would have been understood in antiquity. Basically, we call anything that prevents fertilization contraception and any intervention after conception abortion. This seems clear and tidy, except that the point of conception is hazy today and was far hazier in antiquity. Women in the ancient world may have begun to suspect pregnancy with a missed period, but they could not be sure until they detected fetal movement—sometime around the third month in most cases. This is where that divergence in ancient and modern concepts of conception becomes so crucial.

In his survey of premodern abortion methods, Eve’s Herbs, John Riddle covers a wide variety of birth control practices. Some are clearly contraceptive by anyone’s definition, including withdrawal during intercourse and lactation-induced amenorrhea (that is, a pause in ovulation caused by breastfeeding), while others are clearly abortive methods, such as late-term surgeries.

In the middle are a host of other methods that could have worked as contraceptives, abortifacients, or both depending on the case. Most of these involved herbal and/or other medicinal compounds, which could be prepared and administered in various combinations and forms. Some were taken orally—eaten, dissolved in water, beer, or wine, or brewed in teas. Others were used as pessaries (that is, vaginal suppositories). They could be used prophylactically or in response to suspected pregnancies.

They also worked by various biological mechanisms. Most common were emmenagogues, a term for any substance that stimulates menstruation. These can be used to ensure regular periods on an ongoing basis, but they also impede the implantation of fertilized eggs. Some 40–60% of fertilized eggs do not implant naturally and leave the uterus with the next menstrual cycle anyway, according to UCSF Medical Center and the Gutmacher Institute. Emmenagogues simply ensure this result when pregnancy is not wanted. Other treatments may have worked as spermicides or by forcing the uterine muscles to contract. 

The herbs and other substances used varied depending on local availability and pharmacological practices, and many mentioned in texts have been discovered to have abortifacient properties when tested in modern laboratories. Riddle’s list includes  silphium, of course, along with pomegranate skin, pennyroyal, artemisia, rue, Queen Anne’s lace, myrrh, squirting cucumber, juniper, aloe, dittany, chaste tree, birthwort, asarum, willow, cypress, and various mints. 

Let’s look at a few specific texts for examples.

Egypt

The earliest textual evidence for pregnancy prevention comes from Egypt. The Ebers Papyrus, dating from around 1550 BCE but based on earlier texts, is a 20 meter long medical compendium with cases, treatments, and medical theory discussed under some 877 section headings. It covers every part of the body, including several aspects of gynecology and reproductive care. It contains instructions for a pregnancy test as well as an abortion in the “first, second, or third period” (the time frame is not entirely certain). The prescription involves applying a paste of acacia, dates, and honey to a pessary of moistened plant fibers. In modern laboratories, some species of acacia have been found to decrease fertility substantially in rats.

Recipes for contraceptive pessaries also appear in the Kahun Papyrus, which was written sometime around 1900 BCE. These utilize acacia as well as colocynth, which was also described as an abortifacient in medieval texts. It is potent, but also quite toxic if taken in too large quantities, meaning that some knowledge and experience would have been necessary to prepare it safely.

Mesopotamia

Evidence from Mesopotamia is rarer, but there is at least one medical text with a prescription to “cause a pregnant woman to drop her fetus” (BAM 246). The tablet is broken and much of the process is lost, but it seems to consist of three different concoctions that are ingested on subsequent days. They involve mixing herbs and crushed lizards into beer and wine and are meant to be taken on an empty stomach. None of the herbs in question can be identified with any certainty, but one is mentioned as a drug that promotes easy birthing in other medical texts. Thus, it may have worked by stimulating the uterine muscles to contract, expelling the fetus.

Mesopotamian law collections also contain stipulations for cases of spontaneous, unintentional, and intentional miscarriages like the biblical ones discussed in the last post. These differ by time period and ruling polity, but most do not treat a fetus as equivalent to a child or adult person. However, one law collection from the Middle Assyrian period (15th–13th century BCE) commands the death penalty for any woman who procures or causes her own abortion (Middle Assyrian Law A 53). Further, her corpse must be impaled on a stake and never buried. This was not the majority position among ancient Mesopotamian polities, but it does demonstrate that they could clearly articulate bans on abortion when they wanted to.

Greece and Rome

Greece and Rome provide much more textual evidence for all areas of reproductive medicine, but they are way out of my wheelhouse, disciplinarily speaking. Nevertheless, I can sketch out some characteristics in broad strokes.

Greek and Roman writers held different positions on abortion, but it is clear they were regularly practiced and well-known. Aristotle, for example, supports the use of induced abortion as a means of limiting family size, while Pliny the Elder opposes it as a rule.

The herbal and pharmacological treatments mentioned above occur often in medical texts, identified as contraceptives, abortifacients, or “menstrual regulators.” In addition, physicians including Hippocrates and Galen recommend strenuous exertion or jumping up and down to cause abortion by inducing premature labor. The Hippocratic work Nature of the Child says that a woman early in pregnancy should “jump up and down, touching her buttocks with her heels at each leap, for seven times,” at which point the seed should fall out onto the ground.

 Perhaps the most famous example of a ban on abortion, the Hippocratic Oath, turns out not to be one on closer investigation. The Latin translation of the oath that predominated for centuries in Europe included a blanket prohibition on abortion. The original Greek, however, especially in the earliest manuscripts, read differently:  “I will not give a woman a pessary for the purpose of inducing an abortion.” Hippocrates and his followers knew both oral and vaginal methods of birth control, so why the distinction? A likely explanation comes from Soranus’s treatise on gynecology, written in the 2nd century CE, where he says that the side effects and potential risks of pessaries are simply too great to support their use. thus, the oath seems to have been originally about the safety of abortions rather than their permissibility.

Ancient Israel

We do not have any explicit medical or pharmacological evidence of contraception or abortion from ancient Israel itself, except for one biblical text that indicates knowledge of withdrawal as a means of preventing pregnancy (genesis 38:8–10).

Aside from that, there is also one biblical ritual that can result in the termination of a pregnancy in some circumstances, although it is not clear that it should be understood as an abortion text in the same way as the medical writings referenced above. There is no identifiable mechanism by which the ritual could cause a miscarriage or abortion medically, and within the logic of the ritual the power that determines the result is magical or miraculous, depending on how you want to define it.

The ritual, Numbers 5:11–31, is known as the Sotah, after the Hebrew term for a “wayward woman.” It is intended as a means of divining whether a woman has had sexual intercourse with anyone other than her husband, and to initiate it he need only suspect her of infidelity (in biblical language, when “a spirit of jealousy comes over him,” Numbers 5:13–14).

The jealous husband brings his wife to the tabernacle courtyard, where a priest conducts the ritual test. First, he makes an offering of grain provided by the husband. Then he adds dust from the ground to a bowl of sanctified water. He makes the woman swear an oath of her fidelity, writes its words on a scroll, and then scrapes them off into the bowl of dust and water. He gives the woman this “water of bitterness” to drink, and its effects provide a judgment on her guilt or innocence.

If she has been faithful, the potion will have no effect and she may go free. If she has had sex with another man, however, the “water of bitterness” will cause bitterness within her and “her stomach will distend and her thigh will drop” (5:27).

This is not the same wording as the accidental miscarriage law in Exodus 21:22–25, which says “if…her baby comes out,” and some have suggested that it refers literally to symptoms of the intestines and legs. In context, however, termination of the pregnancy is the only viable interpretation.

The term translated ‘belly” (Hebrew בטן) is anatomically imprecise, but every time it occurs in the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) it refers specifically to the womb. Likewise, the term translated “thigh” (Hebrew ירך) is a common euphemism for the genitals, as when all of Jacob’s descendants are called יצאי ירכו “those who came out of his ‘thighs’” (Genesis 46:26). And finally, if she is innocent the text states that “she will be able to retain seed” (ונזרעה זרע; i.e., become pregnant, Numbers 5:28). The implication, of course, is that the physical symptoms described in the opposite case would entail not being able to retain seed—that is, infertility.

This is unlike the previous examples of abortion texts for some obvious reasons. It is not primarily intended to induce an abortion; rather, the abortion results from being found guilty of adultery. Second, there is no identifiable abortifacient involved in the process. Within the logic of the text, the thing that makes it work is the incantation (or the god invoked in the incantation).

As with other ancient Middle Eastern and biblical texts, the concern was not for the fetus’s rights for their own sake, Neither was it for the health, wellbeing, or autonomy of the woman. The concern was for the paternity rights of the father, whose patrilineage was threatened by the prospect that his wife had become pregnant by another man. This is why this particular ritual doesn’t come up much in modern abortion debates: the moral justification for the abortion is unsympathetic, if not entirely abhorrent, to both sides of the contemporary struggle over abortion rights. Literally no one today would argue that doubts about paternity provide sufficient reason for a husband to unilaterally procure an abortion for his wife. 

 Final Thoughts

Abortion is not a new phenomenon, and neither is the demand for it. There are times when people want to have (more) children, and times when they do not. Ancient texts show us that people have devised many ways to regulate their fertility and reproductive rates throughout history, and that they have debated the ethics of these practices for just as long. The Bible speaks less of contraception and abortion than do texts that have been found in the areas surrounding ancient Israel, and in different terms. Its ethical concerns are foreign in many ways to the lines of the contemporary debate, yet they also circle around key issues that still drive political discourse and activity today: the roles of women in society, the purpose of reproduction, and who gets to make decisions about it.

On our next stop: the modern political fight over abortion inlight of the Bible’s extreme unclarity about it.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Biggs, Robert D. “Conception, Contraception, and Abortion in Ancient Mesopotamia.”

Kapparis, K. A.  Abortion in the ancient world. Duckworth classical essays. London: Duckworth Academic, 2002.

Riddle, John M. Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Thoughts on Abortion: Satire and Seriousness

I wrote a piece of satire that was published today, and I felt it was worth writing some serious thoughts on it as well. Abortion is an issue of critical importance to a lot of people I know and care about, and it’s not a topic I take lightly. My beliefs and positions have changed substantially over years of thought, reading, and discussion, and I’m going to start sharing that process and where I’ve ended up.

Though the McSweeney’s piece is satire, I stand behind the serious point that it makes. Essentially, I find that Christian pro-life arguments often assume three things that cannot all be true at the same time.

1. God is a good communicator

2. God inspired the Bible to communicate (among other things) deep and enduring ethical concerns

3. God cares deeply about abortion and opposes it entirely

In other words, if God is a good communicator who wanted to convey the sanctity of fetal life and the absolute impermissibility of abortion, then God would have had to create a text quite different from the Bible.

On the flip side, if God wrote (or inspired) the Bible as we have it to express (again, among other things) prohibition of abortion, then God is not a very good communicator. So the silly thought that inspired this piece was “how would a God who wrote this Bible to express opposition to abortion justify those writing decisions?”

This disconnection between anti-abortion ethics and the text of the Bible may come as a surprise; it was certainly a surprise to my students this year. Anti-abortion organizations claim that the Bible is crystal clear on the topic of abortion so often and so forcefully that it is generally believed to be true. That is certainly the understanding I grew up with and operated under before I became a Bible scholar and looked into it systematically.

After the draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe vs. Wade leaked this Spring, the students in my  “Bible, Politics, and the Internet” course insisted that I expand our one class session on abortion into a week. I’m glad I did, because we all got a lot out of the experience.

For the first session, I gathered every biblical text that I could find quoted or cited on either side of the abortion debate. There were quite a few but not an absurd number, so I asked them to read through them all before class. I had also assigned articles on contraception and abortion in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, so they knew that both were known and commonly practiced throughout the societies from which the Bible emerged.

In class, the students broke up into small groups and answered two questions: which of these texts pertain to abortion directly? Which of them pertain to other ethical issues that influence the debate over abortion?

In the general discussion that followed, most students agreed that none of the verses or passages we read had anything at all to do with abortion. Some were indirectly relevant (the accidental miscarriage laws in Exodus 21:22–25, for example), but most were either shoehorned into the debate in a wholly inappropriate way (creation verses in Genesis 1:26–28 and 2:7) or were only relevant if you had already made your mind up that abortion was murder in advance (Exodus 20:13, Proverbs 24:11 and 31:8).

Their reaction echoes the position of many biblical scholars, such as John J. Collins. I take a slightly different stance, since I understand the ritual in Numbers 5:11–31 to describe the induction of an abortion for failing a divinely abetted paternity test. However, even if this one text literally prescribes an abortion, it does so in a way that helps neither side of the contemporary debate (as Rhiannon Graybill has helpfully explained. 

My students, to a person, were shocked. All of them had assumed it was in there somewhere—a clear and unambiguous prohibition of abortion. How could it not be, when abortion took up so much space in political discourse, especially among Bible-believing communities?

The fact is, the clarity of the Bible on abortion is largely an invention. More sophisticated anti-abortion advocates know this and so focus on natural law and Christian tradition over biblical precedent, but the broad assumption that the Bible prohibits abortion continues to be widespread and common.

So, what does it mean that the Bible does not present a clear position on abortion? What does it mean that the Bible does not seem to care about abortion enough to mention it almost at all, especially considering the prevalence of contraceptive and abortifacient practices throughout the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean? It’s a complicated question, since no religion has ever derived all of its doctrine and ritual from the Bible, and all types of Christianity have added, adapted, and sidelined biblical texts liberally for all manner of culturally and historically contingent reasons. It’s complicated further still by the Bible’s nature as a composite anthology with numerous different (and often disagreeing voices) represented within its pages. It is not a single text, with a single meaning and a single way of reading it. Rather, I see biblical texts as a generative base from which all manner of interpretations grow. It is certainly possible (as simple observation makes abundantly clear) to hold the Bible sacred and arrive at a pro-life, anti-abortion ethic, It is also possible to hold the Bible sacred and hold fast also to choice and reproductive justice. Neither derives necessarily from any Bible and no Bible alone can definitively adjudicate between the two for us.

As a historical Bible scholar, though, I also try to work out how these texts emerged and fit into the world in which they were written and spread. So in posts that follow this one, I’m going to discuss the place of abortion in antiquity, how the Bible’s various texts fit into it, the relevance of Bibles and biblical texts to the current debate over abortion policy, as well as my own thoughts and positions as they have developed over the past few decades. Maybe take it with a grain of salt since I’m not capable of getting pregnant, but I hope you’ll stick around and join in the conversation!

Best Books of 2021: The Mess We’re In

It’s no secret that we’re in a mess right now, politically, economically, and societally. In this third batch of favorite reads from 2021 (see 1, 2, and my full reading list), I’m sharing a few books that have helped me think through the present moment and how we get somewhere better together.

Front cover to Ill Fares the Land

Ill Fares the land, by Tony Judt

In this book, Judt tells the story of how the United States developed a faith in social democracy in the mid-20th century, then lost it in favor of a fetish for privatization and a devotion to free market solutions. The result is what he calls the ”eviscerated society,” characterized by private wealth and public squalor. Inequality has reached unsustainable and destructive levels through the consistent workings of unregulated capital markets (or more accurately, capital markets whose regulations are set by the most powerful interested players). His analysis is based on a life’s work as a historian of the post-war period, and his argumentation is lucid and eminently quotable. That said, it is not a perfect book—Judt is more statist than I am always comfortable with, and he falters on topics of race and identity as determinants of American economics and politics (see the forward to the 2020 edition by Ta-Nehisi Coates). On these, the next two books (and especially Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us) do much better.

Front cover of the 9.9 Percent

The 9.9%: The New Aristocracy that is Entrenching Inequality and Warping our Culture, by Matthew Stewart

This is another entry on the theme of inequality. However, Stewart takes a broader approach, examining a wide array of socio-cultural phenomena in addition to economics and politics. He argues that it is not only the 1% or the .1% of America’s wealthiest who are hoarding undue wealth and unraveling the fabric of society, but the 9.9%—the top decile in terms of net worth excluding the ultra-rich of the .1%. 

As inequality has grown, the upper decile has observed the shrinking chances of upward mobility and the increasing precarity of remaining in their place in the hierarchy. Stewart makes the case that this has led to a pervasive and corrosive anxiety that is spreading throughout every part of our lives and our institutions. To ensure their continued position near the top, 9.9 percenters (and those who wish to become 9.9 percenters) have imported ultra-competitive and anti-social logics into their child-rearing, education, marriages, living situations, health and fitness practices, etc., etc.

The tone can be a bit glib and some evidence and analysis could be disputed (his interpretation of ancient texts and archaeology made this scholar of the ancient Near East’s eyes twitch a little, for example), but Stewart’s overall case is strong. I learned a lot from this book, and it gave me a lot more to think about. Definitely worth a read.

For further reading in this vein, see Richard V. Reeves’ excellent Dream Hoarders (which was one of my top picks in 2017) and Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s The Sum of Small things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class.

Front cover to The Sum of Us

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can prosper Together, by Heather McGhee

In this book, Heather McGhee gives not only a clear and convincing analysis of how racism has and continues to increase and entrench inequality in the United States, but also a compelling path forward.

She shows that the only way to an economy that does not tilt entirely in the ultra-wealthy’s favor is by building multiracial coalitions that work on behalf of everyone. She also provides communication strategies for getting past places where conversations on race in the US tend to stall or backfire.

The key is dismantling the myth of zero-sum racial progress. There is a common perception (particularly among white Americans) that any improvement in the economic wellbeing of black and brown people must be accompanied by a corresponding decrease for whites. This, as McGhee shows with much data and many examples, is entirely false. It is in those very places where legal and cultural oppression of black and brown Americans was most severe that we find also the poorest conditions for working class white people. In effect, capitalists and business owners exacerbated and exploited the social divisions and resentments between racial groups to preempt solidarity and thus, to keep wages low and benefits minimal. In places where racial division has been intentionally overcome in the creation of multi-racial labor and political organization, Mcghee identifies what she calls a “solidarity dividend”—economic benefit to the communities of color involved, certainly, but also to the white population and to the region as a whole. As one organizer she quotes put it:  “as long as we’re divided, we’re conquered. The only way we succeed is together.”

This book would pair well with Jonathan Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness.

Front cover of Becoming Abolitionists

Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom, by Derecka Purnell

Uprisings in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last summer brought police abolition and PIC abolition (i.e., abolition of the prison-industrial complex) into the public conversation in a way it had never been before. I have spent a lot of time reading and learning about what abolition means in theory and practice over the past year, and I have come to resonate with it as an ideal and a horizon toward which our society and our politics should always be oriented. I also understand that it can seem opaque, unclear, foolhardy, or destructive. Questions about public safety and protection are valid and deserve answers. In many cases, though, conversations and publications on abolition were being conducted by small groups of like-minded scholars and activists who shared common presumptions and language, and they were hard for curious newcomers to break into.

 Luckily, this year has seen the publication of several books that aim to make abolition more accessible and understandable to people who are curious but perhaps skeptical or uncertain about whether it can work in reality. I particularly like this book by Derecka Purnell, which conveys abolition theory through her own personal journey. Purnell is honest about the reservations she had toward abolition as her experience and consciousness have shifted over time and makes a compelling case for the insufficiency of reform and the need for an entirely new paradigm. I also enjoyed Mariame Kaba’s essay collection We Do This ’Til We Free Us and highly recommend Angela Y. Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete?

Front cover of You are Here

You Are here: A Field guide for navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and our Polluted Media Landscape, by Whitney Phillips and Ryan Milner.

When we talk about this mess we’re in, the role of the internet in getting us here inevitably makes its way into the conversation. Many problems with the internet and social media cannot be solved by individuals making individual choices, but each of us who lives some part of our life online needs to know how it works, how it goes wrong, and how it can lead us astray. Phillips and Milner have written a short, clear, and very illuminating guide for internet users who want to consume, share, and publish information responsibly and productively. This is going to be required reading in my spring course on “The Bible, Politics, and the Internet,” so it’s fair to say I think it has something worthwhile to say!

 

And now some runners up in the education department:

Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, by Diane Ravitch

Public schools are wonderful. Charter schools are vicious parasites that suck public dollars into wasteful, undemocratic, and often corrupt private ventures, impoverishing us all in the process. Read this book, support your local teachers’ union, and vote to fund public education.

Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America from my Daughter’s School, by Courtney Martin 

A mom’s journey to make good educational choices for her daughter in Oakland, CA, where good means good for society too, not just for her own family. Good for anyone feeling squeamish about sending their kids to “bad” or “low performing” public schools.

My Year in Books: 2018!

Picture: A collage composed of the covers of many books i read in 2018

Continuing the tradition I began last year, I’ve decided to celebrate the increasing availability of books to the blind by sharing my full 2018 reading list, with some of the best and most meaningful given special comment.

In 2017 I read 59 books, and thought I might have to slow down. So of course in 2018 I read 67 books! Many of them were meaningful and formative, and I struggle to narrow down the list to recommend just a few. Below are some notable works in no particular order, followed by the rest of my reading list.

Top Picks

Fiction

The Remembrance of Earth’s Past Trilogy by Cixin Lio (The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, Death’s En)

This imaginative, thinky trilogy is quintessential speculative fiction for super nerds. If you like your novels pumped chock full of wonky physics and written in a non-Western cultural idiom, these books are for you. 

The Broken Earth Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin (The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, The Stone Sky)

I thought I had lost the taste for straight fantasy, but then I read this series by N. K. Jemisin. The world she builds here is spectacularly creative, and she delves deep into some very real and very rough parts of human nature. There’s a reason she’s just become the first author to win the Hugo award three years in a row (once for each of these books)—you won’t regret reading them. 

Non-Fiction: Race, Society, and Inequality

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

A detailed and masterfully-argued examination of the changing face of racial discrimination in America. Writing at the height of the Obama era, when many Americans were heralding the onset of a post-racial society, Alexander revealed their optimism to be largely unwarranted. Discrimination is still rampant, though it now adopts subtler and less explicit means than slavery or Jim Crow segregation. Alexander shows how the construction of an unnecessarily punitive and differentially-applied justice system has effectively created a new iteration of the same old racial caste system—exploiting Black Americans for free labor, diminishing their economic prospects, and reducing their access to voting and other rights and responsibilities of full citizenship. All of this goes on within a culture of nominal colorblindness, a thin veneer of propriety and unbiased objectivity that peels away under Alexander’s relentless scrutiny.

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

This book is dizzying in its scope and utterly surprising for many who learned a sanitized version of American history in school. Kendi defines three strains of thinking on race and traces them across four centuries through the life, work, and context of five paradigmatic American thinkers: Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W. E. B. DuBois, and Angela Davis. Each of these individuals exhibits one or (more often) more than one of Kendi’s three strains of thought: segregationist, assimilationist, and anti-racist. Kendi does an excellent job of showing how racist ideas were created and perpetuated to justify exploitative economic practices, as well as how the particular expressions of those ideas changed and adapted to new cultural, legal, and economic context. Racist thinking has changed, but never disappeared from American life.

I have a few residual questions about the nature and scope of Kendi’s assimilationist category, but they do not diminish the overall value of the book. This book would pair well with Paul Ortiz’s An African-American and LatinX History of the United States  or Karen Fields’ Racecraft, mentioned below.

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas

The world of big-money philanthropy operates under the assumptions that market solutions provide the best hope to rectify societal ills and that it is possible to become extremely wealthy in a way that also benefits society as a whole. Long an insider to this world, Anand Giridheradas has become disillusioned with these beliefs and argues effectively against both in this incisive book. He questions the basic premise that one can “do well by doing good,” that every problem has a win-win solution that allows for both the reduction of inequality and the accumulation of fabulous personal wealth. Instead, he urges the creation of more democratic and more egalitarian institutions and social structures to combat growing inequaltiy and the worsening prospects faced by many Americans. 

Non-Fiction: Bible

Womanist Midrash by Wilda C. Gafney

Gafney combines rigorous scholarship and imaginative storytelling in this quest to rediscover important female characters of the Hebrew Bible. She provides fresh and well-argued interpretations of the text and explores the evocative importance of its gaps and holes. This welcome and challenging contribution honestly probes the concerns and perspectives of biblical women, addressing in the process a host of neglected questions that will benefit all readers and interpreters.

The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity by Eva Mroczek

The Bible was not always the Bible. Before the diverse texts we now call biblical were gathered into one binding, each of them had a life of its own (and some more than one). They existed alongside and together with a vast library of other writings—some were lost to history and others survived in non-biblical contexts. How did people think about these texts before there was a Bible, before there were even books? Mroczek approaches that question with clarity and creativity, suggesting a number of productive metaphors that can guide our thinking about the Bible before there was a Bible.  

Nonfiction: Blind Lit

Crooked Paths Made Straight: A Blind Teacher’s Adventure Traveling Around the World by Isabelle D. Grant

Dr. Isabelle Grant was a Scottish-born Los Angeles schoolteacher who was forced out of her job after she went blind as an adult. So of course she embarked on a trip around the world with her cane and Braille typewriter. Alone. In the 1950s. She visited five continents and many countries to observe and assess the quality of education for blind children, encouraging teachers and authorities to invest in blind youth and improve their self-sufficiency and self-determination.. Her intelligence, good humor, and openness to new ideas and relationships make for a delightful and surprising read. Foreword by Debbie Kent Stein, who found this manuscript decades after it was written and saw it through to publication. 

Non-Fiction: Personal Growth & Effectiveness

Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris

A master class in humility. Tavris digs deep into wrongness—why it’s inevitable, why we have trouble recognizing it, and why we avoid doing anything about it. The process is so universal and so relatable that you can’t help but begin to recognize unwarranted certainty and misplaced confidence in your own life and thinking. Everyone should take the lessons of this book to heart.

Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts by Annie Duke

This book can help address some of those pernicious human problems described in the last entry. Duke applies her experience as an international poker champion and Ph.D. in psychology to the problem of making good decisions in an uncertain world. Excellent theoretical frameworks as well as practical tips. Let’s all work on thinking better!

French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered Ten Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters by Karen Le Billon

A much more nuanced book than the title implies. I found it extremely helpful—not for definitive answers, but for opening up new avenues of thinking about food and food education within the family. French parents consider good eating a crucial skill to be acquired, and teach it as intentionally as reading, writing, or math. They do not consider children’s tastes to be immutable, but condition them by repeated exposure to and discussion of healthy and diverse foods. A great read for parents of young children trying to escape power struggles over food.

The Rest of the List

  • The Time Quintet by Madeleine L’Engle (A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, An Acceptable Time)
  • You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith by David Kinnaman
  • How to Write Short: Wordcraft for Fast Times by Roy Peter Clark
  • So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
  • Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
  • How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversation by N. J. Enfield
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
  • R. J. Rommel: An Assessment of His Many Contributions, edited by Nils Petter Gleditsch
  • Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America by Jennifer Harvey
  • An African-American and LatinX History of the United States by Paul Ortiz
  • Can We Talk About Race? and Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation by Beverly Daniel Tatum
  • The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness by Karen Armstrong
  • Rethinking Expertise by Harry M. Collins
  • God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says by Michael D. Coogan
  • Reality is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli
  • Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein
  • Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein
  • Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just by Timothy J Keller
  • The Formation of the Jewish Canon by Timothy H. Lim
  • Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind by Gary F. Marcus
  • What is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics by Adam Becker
  • The Talmud: A Biography by Barry Scott Wimpfheimer
  • Insight: Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life by Tasha Eurich
  • People of Vision: A History of the American Council of the Blind by James Megivern
  • Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success by Shane Snow
  • The Anne Shirley Series by L. M. Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, Anne of Windy Poplars, Anne’s House of Dreams, Anne of Ingleside)
  • 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan B. Peterson
  • Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope, and Love by Rob Schenck
  • What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel
  • Manhood: How to be a Better Man or Just Live with One by Terry Crews
  • Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson
  • How the Bible Became Holy by Michael L. Satlow
  • The Akata Witch Series by Nnedi Okorafor (Akata Witch and Akata Warrior)
  • The Blind Doctor: The Jacob Bolotin Story by Rosalind Perman
  • Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse
  • Love and War: How Militarism Shapes Sexuality and Romance by Tom Digby
  • On Liberty by John Stuart Mill
  • Becoming by Michelle Obama
  • Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life by Karen E. Fields
  • How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them by Jason Stanley
  • Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race Through the Eyes of the Blind by Osagie Obasogie

What is the best book you read in 2018? Leave a comment and help me build my 2019 reading list (as if it isn’t 20 books deep already)!

2017: My Year in Books

An image collage of book covers for all the books I read this year.I set a goal to read 40 books this year, and according to my Goodreads Reading Challenge, I read 59!

I am profoundly grateful to be able to read this much and this widely, considering the historical “book famine” that has plagued blind readers. Only about 10% of English books ever make it into an accessible Braille or audio format, and in most world languages that number is closer to 1%, Advances in technology (like Bookshare and the NLS) and policy (the Chaffey Amendment to U.S. copyright law an the Treaty of Marrakesh internationally) are allowing for more books to be made accessible in Braille and audio more quickly than ever before.

And so, to celebrate, I have taken a cue from my friend Emily K. Michael and decided to share my full 2017 reading list. I’ve pulled out a few that I highly recommend to everyone and added a few comments (choosing which was hard—almost everything I read this year was good!).

Top Picks

(grouped by subject, not quality):

Fiction

 The Dream of Scipio, by Iain Pears

This intricate and well-crafted historical novel traces the lives of three men who live in southern France at different times in history: a fifth-century Roman philosopher-turned-Christian-bishop, a poet in the court of the fourteenth-century Avignon papacy, and a scholar of medieval French poetry in the years leading up to World War II. The three men’s lives parallel one another as each reads and interprets the work of the one who came before.

The King Must Die, by Mary Renault

Mary Renault is a master. This historicized novelization of the myth of Theseus is infused at every turn with her deep knowledge of the ancient Mediterranean world. It perfectly balances the foreignness of the past with the universality of human experience. Historical fiction at its finest.

Non-Fiction

Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass

I have thought of this book often since I read it. It is the third and last of Frederick Douglass’ autobiographical works, revised in 1892, three years before his death. Douglass’ life and accomplishments are, of course, astounding, and his prose is masterful. He is a model of the courage to risk everything for freedom, the passion to fight for justice and equity, and the strength to forgive even those who have harmed us most.

The only fault is Douglass’ meticulous effort to thank and acknowledge every abolitionist and freedom fighter he ever met, which results in long lists of names otherwise forgotten to history. Those aside, the writing is excellent, and this book is well worth the read.

Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice, by Dr. Willie Parker

This is a must-read for all American Christians, and probably for most other Americans as well. Dr. Willie Parker is a Southern, African-American, Pentecostal Christian abortion provider—a unique perspective in a political landscape known for entrenched positions and hostility to productive discussion.

Dr. Parker argues from his life history and his Christian faith that access to safe abortions is a moral imperative in a loving and just society. It is precisely the Christian foundation for his beliefs and practice (often in the face of abuse and threats of violence) that makes this book so unusual and valuable. It defies the notion that Christianity can permit only one stance on reproductive rights, and I hope by the end readers will see that there is more to being truly pro-life than simply voting against abortion.

Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, by Roy F. Baumeister

Probably the best book I’ve read on the dark side of human nature. Baumeister’s broad synthesis of the research debunks the common simplistic notion that only unusual, intrinsically bad people (i.e., “bad apples”) can commit acts of horrific violence. He also avoids the emerging popular view that these terrible deeds are primarily the product of external, situational factors (i.e., “bad barrels,” an approach typified by Philip Zimbardo in The Lucifer Effect, below).

Instead, Baumeister presents a complex interaction between individuals and their contexts. The seeds of evil are present in every person to a greater or lesser extent, but how they manifest depends greatly on the social and cultural context. 

The theoretical backbone is strong, but it is still a 20-year-old book. I would love to see an updated second edition informed by more recent research and world events.

Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition, by Michael Tomasello

This is a pretty dry, technical linguistics book, but I loved it so much. Tomasello blew my mind on nearly every page as he completely reconfigured the way I think about language and human interaction. If you are interested in fundamental aspects of what language is, how it works, and how we use it, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

The End of White Christian America, by Robert P. Jones

Important reading for pretty much everyone in the U.S. Whether the title inspires glee, fury, or anything in-between, it is difficult to deny that in the coming century the “default American” will no longer be both white and Christian. This book gives a good overview of the rise and decline of White Christian America over the course of the last century, with an insightful epilogue written after the 2016 presidential election.

Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That is a Problem, and What to Do About It, by Richard V. Reeves

Phenomenal book. Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institute shows that rising income inequality cannot be blamed on the wealthiest 1% alone. The entire top 20% of the American income distribution have done their best to elevate their position and then “pull up the ladder” behind them. Laws governing taxes, housing, education, and inheritance have all been shaped to protect the upper middle class and their children from downward mobility, and have stifled upward mobility in the process. As the top 20% pulls further and further ahead of the rest, the meritocratic American ideal becomes less and less a reality. I was convinced, convicted, and inspired to reanalyze my policy views and voting choices.

Personal Development

Designing Your Life: Build a Lifethat Works for You, by Bill Burnett andDave Evans

This superb book applies design thinking to life choices, demystifying some of the most perplexing aspects of wayfinding in life and career in the process. I plan to reread this and work through the exercises in detail, probably multiple times throughout my life.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown

A strong argument for ruthless focus. If you, like me, have the tendency to make “a millimeter of progress in a million directions,” this book might help you reframe and refocus on the few essential things.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport

A practical guidebook for developing practices, habits, and schedules that foster deep focus and productivity. Great framework for getting things done!

The Rest of the List

(in the order I read them): 

  • Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, by Jill Lepore
  •  Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, by Paul Bloom
  • Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform our Lives, by Tim Harford
  • Empirical Models Challenging Biblical Criticism, edited by Raymond F. Person and Robert Rezetko
  • America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, by Jim Wallace
  • Little Book of Restorative Justice, by Howard Zehr
  • Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Russell Hochschild
  • The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger
  • Why Wall Street Matters, by William D. Cohan
  • Crashing Through: A True Story of Risk, Adventure, and the Man who Dared to See, by Robert Kurson
  • The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, by Norman Doidge
  • Intelligence in the Flesh: Why Your Mind Needs Your Body Much More than it Thinks, by Guy Claxton
  • On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfurt
  • The Shadow Series by Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Shadow, Shadow of the Hegemon, Shadow Puppets, and Shadow of the Giant)
  • Teacher Man, by Frank McCourt
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
  • Dreamblood Series by N. K. Jemisin (The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun)
  • The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
  • Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet can tell us about Who we Really Are, by Seth Stephens Davidowitz
  • The Sellout, by Paul Beatty
  • Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond
  • The Babylonian World, edited by Gwendolyn Leick
  • The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class, by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett
  • The Egypt Game, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
  • What Technology Wants, by Kevin Kelly
  • When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi
  • Small Great Things, by Jodi Picoult
  • The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language, by John McWhorter
  • The Song of Achilles, by Madeleine Miller
  • Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
  • The Giver Series by Lois Lowry (The Giver, Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son)
  • Engines of Liberty: The Power of Citizen Activists to Make Constitutional Law, by David Cole
  • The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles, by Steven Pressfield
  • The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, by Philip Zimbardo
  • The Articulate Mammal: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics, by Jean Aitchison
  • The “Lotus Sutra”: A Biography, by Donald S. Lopez, Jr.
  • The Book of Mormon: A Biography, by Paul C. Gutjahr
  • Nefertiti, by Michelle Moran
  • The Reign of Nabonidus, by Paul Alain Beaulieu
  • The Time Keeper, by Mitch Albom
  • Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, by John Steinbeck

What is the best book you read in 2017? Leave a comment and help me build my 2018 list!

What Would the “America First” Budget Mean for Me?

Ever since the White House released the blueprint for its “America First” budget, my email inboxes have been inundated with urgent pleas from organizations who would have their funding cut or eliminated under the new plan. After a few days, it became clear that these budget priorities would affect the work that I do and the ways that I do it on a daily basis.

Many things in this budget make me deeply uneasy, but this isn’t the place for a full analysis, and I am not a policy analyst. What I am is a person who works at the corner of blindness and academia, and I recognize things in this budget blueprint that would create very real difficulties for me on both of those counts. I will focus here on two specific cuts and the harm they would cause without creating any real benefit.

Research Funding

The “America First” budget blueprint calls for elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA; p. 5). These two organizations provide funding and support for projects and programs, large and small, in the arts and humanities. 

I have personally worked on research projects that were funded by grants from the NEH, and I have benefitted from many more. In a recent email to members, the president of the Society of Biblical Literature reported that SBL members have received over $7.2 million in research grants from the NEH. Further, the SBL’s Bible Odyssey website, a source for reliable, scholarly information on the Bible and Bible-adjacent topics, is made possible in part by a $300,000 NEH grant.

This is just one scholarly society. Scholars working in Egyptian, Syrian, Anatolian, and Mesopotamian studies also receive funding from the NEH. 

Their research links us to our shared cultural heritage. It connects us to the roots of Western society and the worlds from which our major religions sprang. If you cringe when ISIS bulldozes ancient gates in Palmyra, churches in Aleppo, or palaces in Nineveh, you should cringe when the humanities are dismantled at home. 

I might be more sympathetic to this budget reduction if the amount of money saved were not so extraordinarily small. The NEA and NEH each received about $148 million last year, meaning together they made up only 0.006% of the federal budget. Their elimination is an ideological and symbolic gesture that would do a great deal of harm while doing taxpayers very little good.

Educational Resources

According to the blueprint document, “[t]he 2017 Budget…continues support for the nation’s most vulnerable populations, such as students with disabilities” (p. 17). If only that were true. It seems that, in reality, these budget priorities would place a heavy burden on students with disabilities. For younger students, the emphasis on charter schools would probably end up reducing school choice and educational quality (see point 3 in this article). 

For me in particular, and other blind students, scholars, and citizens of all ages, it would mean increased difficulty in accessing books and other academic materials. The budget jeopardizes funding for the Educational Technology, Media, and Materials for Individuals with Disabilities Program, which benefits me through services like Bookshare.

Bookshare is an online library that provides accessible digital versions of print books to people who are blind, have a learning disability, or are otherwise unable to read print. Their catalog contains more than half a million books, and is growing quickly.

I use Bookshare literally every day—it is not my only source for accessible books, but it is a major one, and it has saved me dozens, if not hundreds of hours of work in the past few years.

And this is why Bookshare is so important, for me and for everyone else: because it saves so much work. Bookshare is an incredibly efficient and economical program, and defunding it would make life more burdensome for students of every age and level, and would end up increasing costs for everyone. Here’s how:

Books enter the Bookshare library in two ways: either publishers send digital files directly, or volunteers scan printed books and submit their own files. When a volunteer digitizes a book, it takes a few hours to scan the book, OCR and edit the text, and prepare the file. After that, it can be downloaded and read in large print, Braille, or audio by students nationwide using any number of disability-specific apps and devices. There is some additional labor in maintaining the database and website, but it is minuscule in comparison with what would be required if Bookshare’s federal funding were cut.

If that happened, the burden of providing accessible materials to disabled students would shift to local school districts. Not all districts would be able to advocate with publishers as effectively as Bookshare, which would increase the burden on volunteers and paid school staff. That same 4-10 hours of work digitizing books would have to be done anew in every district in every area of the country.

This could only play out in two ways: either local taxes would increase to accommodate the increased need, or educational outcomes for disabled students would suffer due to lack of resources. More likely, both of these would happen to a greater or lesser extent in every school district, depending on the resources at their disposal.

I am a firm believer that U.S. schools should provide excellent educations to students with disabilities, so that they can become self-sufficient, contributing members of society. But I also believe that accommodations for students with disabilities should be made in the most efficient and effective way.

In the digital age, centralization is the best way to provide many kinds of accessible materials in the most economical way  without compromising its quality or availability. A federal dollar simply goes much further than a state or local dollar. Cutting federal funding for accessible materials may appear to save money, but any savings will be offset by a manifold increase in costs at the state and local level. It helps no one, and hurts everyone.

Other Cuts

These are only two issues raised by the budget blueprint, but there are many other, darker parts of the White House budget priorities. The cuts to Legal Services could prevent citizens with disabilities from seeking and receiving justice from discrimination and mistreatment. Cuts to the Department of Labor, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and various programs like Meals on Wheels could remove much-needed aid from the disabled, poor, elderly, or otherwise vulnerable populations in the U.S.

In short, these specific cuts and the “America First” budget priorities as a whole are hostile to academic learning and disabled citizens. Furthermore, any savings at the federal level would increase costs locally, creating a net harm to taxpayers. Pleas contact your legislative representatives and suggest budget priorities that do more than pay lip service to education and the idea of supporting vulnerable populations.

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If you would like to help support Bookshare, I would appreciate it! They have provided this very easy to use tool to write your representatives about it: Support Bookshare