You Think Language Isn’t Important? Microstyle Begs to Differ

One fantastic book I read this summer was Christopher Johnson’s Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little. I picked up this snappy writing guide at my local library because as a writer I think it’s important to read books about composition. I definitely hit the jack-pot with this volume, a book about successfully communicating in small spaces.

In today’s world, how do you capture a person’s attention in slogans, company names, advertising jingles, social media, and bullet points of blog-land? By carefully crafting your message and playing with linguistic patterns, says Johnson, a Berkeley-trained linguist, who has worked as a verbal branding consultant for Lexicon Branding, the naming firm that developed the names for Pentium, Blackberry, Swiffer, Febreze, and others.

An extremely successful linguist, Johnson PLAY WITH LANGUAGE FOR A JOB. I’ve always said that linguists have the most fun (and Johnson delivers with this satisfying read). And it IS fun, not uptight like that grammar Nazi friend of yours. Johnson writes, “Linguists are, quite simply, specialists who take a scientific interest in language. They want to know how language works, and they’re not interested in judging you. Prescriptive rules are among the least interesting things about language” (12). Oh Christopher, I couldn’t agree with you more! I despise when people find out that I have a job teaching English and inevitably remark: “I better watch my grammar.”

Johnson smirks at this reaction: “Prescriptivists are language poison sniffers. They pay little attention to what makes language delicious… I believe that people could genuinely love language more if they shifted their focus from judgment and insecurity to curiosity and appreciation. We do interesting things when we use language, whether or not we’re being “correct,” and we should all be able to relish and discuss those things without fear of embarrassment” (12). Grammar isn’t playful or poetical, but language is.

And we respond to it subconsciously, which means that if you’re using language AT ALL in your job as a business owner or working in marketing, some of Johnson’s insights may prove beneficial to you. He talks about why some brand names work better than others. Why some ad campaigns bring business and why others fall flat. In the book, he explains why “Apple” works as a business name, and why it is that we say “dry land” and “solid ground” but not “dry ground” and “solid land.” And, amazingly, WHY THIS MATTERS for writers and business owners.

A sampling of Johnson’s artistic writing tips:

When writing in small spaces, be clear, especially if you’re promoting a product.

Consider these ad slogans:

LISTERINE FIGHTS BAD BREATH

MILTON BRADLEY MAKES THE BEST GAMES IN THE WORLD

I JUST SAVED A BUNCH OF MONEY ON MY CAR INSURANCE (Geico)

It’s pretty clear what service is being offered. But not every business gets it right. For example, Johnson grumps about Twitter’s new description of itself on its homepage: “Twitter is a rich source of instant information. Stay updated. Keep others updated. It’s a whole thing.” Johnson quotes Steve Spillman from Slate magazine, “‘Seriously, Twitter, ‘It’s a whole thing’? That’s the way I describe Twitter, but I’m a 20-something New York hipster, or something close to it. And I’m usually not trying to get millions of people to sign up, or whatever you are trying to do with this. This doesn’t say anything about how Twitter works’” (49). While it’s sometimes okay to play with ambiguity, Twitter ultimately fails in its homepage description.

Another campaign slogan Johnson deconstructs is Google’s old Droid slogan: A BARE-KNUCKLED BUCKET OF DOES, whose failures include but are not limited to the verb “do” becoming the noun “does,” but possibly being scanned as the third-person singular of “do,” or even the plural of doe, as in the female deer, in which case, what is it doing in a bucket, which metaphorically refers to the phone, we presume, which is also “bare-knuckled” (?) A tragic case of mixed metaphor, to say the least. In small spaces, one can’t afford to be unclear.

When writing in small spaces, choose the right word.

Since microstyle depends on briefness, it is highly important to be choosy. Consider the company Reebok, who named one women’s shoe style the Incubus, which Johnson defines as “a demon from medieval folklore that rapes women in their sleep.” He concludes, “If you aren’t absolutely certain what a word means, at least look it up in the dictionary” (55). Truly, when it comes to writing in spaces as small as A SINGLE WORD, choosing the right word is critical!

When writing in small spaces, push buttons.

Writers effectively appeal to emotions to achieve desired effects. When Maytag employed the slogan OUR REPAIRMAN ARE THE LONELIEST GUYS IN TOWN, “they knew that we’d sympathize with those poor repairmen even though we knew they were fictitious, and that we’d remember their plight (73). For emotional appeals to work, they either need to be very subtle or especially over-the-top. However, some fall in between these two extremes, resulting in, well, unappealing appeals. (I simply loved all the moments when Johnson points out how writers sometimes just plain miss it.) Johnson complains, “CELEBRATE THE MOMENTS OF YOUR LIFE, the General Foods slogan for International Coffees, rings hollow with its bland coziness. Proctor & Gamble, the world’s largest consumer products company, claims to be TOUCHING LIVES, IMPROVING LIFE. Really? How are you touching my life, P&G? With a Swiffer?” (74). With emotional appeals, either go big, or go home.

Besides noting the intensity of the appeals, one might also be aware of the varying types of emotional appeals: self-actualization (US Army: BE ALL THAT YOU CAN BE, Apple: THE POWER TO BE YOUR BEST), generational rebellion (THIS IS NOT YOUR FATHER’S OLDSMOBILE), and spicy (Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science). Johnson deconstructs that last one: “The… title connects eco(yawn)nomics to the titillating topic of nudity” (76). A title from the latter category that I’ve discovered on my own: Naked Anabaptist: the Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith. Hmmm yes, I notice this appeal to sensuality. Apparently the idea of reading about Anabaptist theology is so mind-numbingly boring that the writers figured that the only way to get people to buy their book is to make it sound SEXY. (Seriously now. Aren’t you A LITTLE curious about these naked Mennonites?)

When writing in small spaces, zoom in on telling details.

Johnson opens this section by citing Ernest Hemingway’s six-word novel: “For sale: baby shoes, never used.” Talk about telling details. (Sniff.) In small spaces, you can’t tell the whole story, so you’re going to have to decide which parts to leave out and let the readers “connect the dots.” The problem lies in deciding what to leave out and in using metaphor inappropriately in the included details. Johnson includes one painful example: “Choosing the wrong way to indirectly evoke an idea can result in bad framing… In 2010, I saw a billboard for 7-Eleven with the following slogan: ‘Stuff your face with value.’ Pictured on the billboard were two pale, unappealing lumps that I believe were microwaveable burritos. That was the ‘value’ you were supposed to stuff in your face. This ad might appeal to people who enjoy taking their meals at 7-Eleven, but it certainly doesn’t appeal to me. Part of the reason stems from its peculiar use of metonymy. The word value refers to the food items that can be had at 7-Eleven. Tangible food is represented by the concept of the economic value you enjoy when you purchase it. But value, while desirable, lacks both specific sensory associations and emotional appeal” (88). Therefore, the details you include must be the ripest, freshest ones you’ve laid eyes on. You’re appealing to emotions, are you not?

When writing in small spaces, use ambiguity for good, not evil.

A sampling of newspaper headlines, which may have got it wrong:

GRANDMOTHER OF EIGHT MAKES HOLE IN ONE

PROSTITUTE APPEALS TO POPE

IRAQI HEAD SEEKS ARMS

RED TAPE HOLDS UP NEW BRIDGE

YOU CAN PUT PICKLES UP YOURSELF

MCDONALD’S FRIES THE HOLY GRAIL FOR POTATO FARMERS

This reminder of the possibilities of ambiguity had me giggling over here like:

When writing in small spaces, say the wrong thing.

Sometimes, saying the wrong thing will appeal to your target audience. And even if it sounds wrong, the implication can still be positive. Volkswagen did this with its THINK SMALL campaign. (I mean, we’re supposed to THINK BIG, right? Nope. Volkswagen is reminding us that sometimes compactness is more environmentally friendly.) The company continued this marketing trend with its UGLY IS ONLY SKIN DEEP campaign and WHILE IN EUROPE, PICK UP AN UGLY EUROPEAN (113). Here’s a smirk-inducing campaign: “Avis Rent  A Car System used to boast, ‘We’re number two. We try harder.’” (Hertz had run a campaign about being number one. Avis. Those little devils.)

When writing in small spaces, keep it simple (in relation to sound).

For the love of Pete, make it easy to pronounce. Johnson describes the problem of hard-to-pronounce names: “Stephen Merritt…decided not to keep it simple when naming the albums for one of his side project bands called the 6ths (itself a real mouthful). The band’s two albums are called Wasps’ Nests and Hyacinths and Thistles. This tongue-twisting names are a sort of a practical joke—a radio DJ’s nightmare. Just imagine having to announce one of these albums on air… Think of pronunciation as driving. Vowels are like cruising down the open road. Consonants are like city driving, with all its stops, perilous lane changes, and unexpected turns. Saying ‘hyacinths and thistles’ is like having to cross three lanes of busy traffic to exit the freeway, only to find yourself heading east instead of west” (125).

Indeed, I have found there’s a good many people who cannot pronounce “sixth.” It invariably comes out as “sikth” (INCORRECT) versus “sikSth.” (Please let’s include the “s” in there, shall we?) But due to the amount of consonants there (four total!), it’s hard to pronounce. And even Ed Sheeran can’t do it, using the incorrect pronunciation “sikth” in his chart-topping song “Photograph.” No wonder my students can’t pronounce the word. Nor can they correctly pronounce “especially.” Half of them insert an anomalous “k” sound at the beginning, articulating “EK-specially.” Poor dears. It’s “ES-specially.” From where do they get this “k”? They create more work for themselves by adding sounds that aren’t even there. This also happens in the word “escape.” For my students, it becomes “eK-scape” for some unknown reason. And they’re just stumbling over TWO consonants!

But we should take Johnson to heart. Too many consonants are problematic. (OH FRIENDS. My own domain name features multiplicities of consonants of which I am now very insecure. More than one acquaintance has given me a hairy eyeball when I suggested they check out my blog “Shshchtashtshsffphoaugh.” Announcement: blog name change coming soon.)

When writing in small spaces, break the rules (in relation to structure).

I’ve always said that good writers know the rules, but if they have a reason to break them, they do so confidently. Certain misspellings can be used to create a brand. (We’re not thinking KOA Kampgrounds or anything, but more clever uses like that of “Clay Shirky, the NYU professor, author, and social media commentator, [who] used the following bio on his Twitter profile: ‘Bald, Unreliable, Easily distracte’” (155). This sort of clever rule-breaking extends one’s message. There the misspelling augments Shirky’s message about his quirky personality. Indeed, the misspelling is not some far-flung pun attempt, like that of Ephrata’s local “Compleat Restoration.” The company’s logo features the curiously spelled “compleat” atop two houses and a cozy flame. (Google the image.) When I saw the logo, I assumed the company installed new heating systems (complete… compleat… heat). However, the company’s website indicates that it is a disaster restoration service, specializing in fixing fire and flood damage and that “compleat” is an Old English spelling of “complete,” chosen in order to “set the company apart.” Yeah, sure, as a company that doesn’t know how to spell! What do Old English, large houses, and cozy flames have to do with cleaning up after catastrophic infernos? If I were a consultant, I might suggest that the spelling is arbitrary, unhelpful, and (like in my case) just plain confusing. There’s too much explaining that has to be done on the company website with that one. And in small spaces like company names, customers shouldn’t have to do that much work.  The odd misspelling, in my opinion, doesn’t work like Shirky’s does.

And this is where Johnson’s work shows how a firm grasp of the language of microstyle connects to our society. His showing us where the rubber meets the road reminds us what we have always known but we’ve been scared to bring up about grammar: sometimes we focus on things which students will never apply, and we skip teaching the art of applied language.

When writing in small spaces, combine words artfully (in relation to structure).

Having a knowledge of word associations and figuring out how to combine these associations unusually is a sure-fire way to make your wording stand out. A Seattle web design firm named their company Blue Flavor. A pretty fetch name if you ask me. Johnson explains why: “Colors don’t literally have flavor, but there are certain canonical color-flavor associations. Makers of jelly beans, slushy drinks, and other artificially colored foods use these all the time. Yellow for lemon. Purple for grape. Red for cherry or strawberry. Orange for orange, of course. Green for lime or mine or maybe green apple. But missing from this list is blue… Blue Flavor names a mythical taste that doesn’t exist. Something you’ve never experienced before. It’s a great idea for a web design studio to evoke, and it shows the power of putting words—even just two of them—together” (175). Contrast Blue Flavor’s naming win with LiftPort, the name for a company building an elevator to outer space. Johnson bemoans the moniker: “Lifting is carrying, porting is carrying, a lift is a kind of conveyance, a port is a place of departure. Combining these words hits the same overly general and uninspiring meanings again and again, neglecting more interesting ideas like outer space, science fiction, and doing the impossible” (176). Too true! An elevator to space and “LiftPort” is the best you can do? Combining words is a delicious task unless you’re using old alphabet soup.

Finally, word combination has its limits. Don’t decorate a title which doesn’t need decorating. Be up front. Johnson jokes about “pre-owned” cars (they’re “USED” for Pete’s sake!) and other words and prefixes frequently used to ornament common things. Like the prefix “pre-.” “The most ridiculous euphemism I’ve encountered lately is pre-reclined, used by Spirit Airlines to describe the nonadjustable seats in its new Airbus A320s,” Johnson explains. “Just imagine a flight attendant dealing with a confused customer asking how to make his seat go down: ‘Sir, our seats are pre-reclined, which means you’re already comfortable!’” (178). Ah, language. I love it more than most people.

This is only a sampling of the best bits of Microstyle. If you’re in business, in marketing, or interested in personal branding, you’ll love this book. It uncovers some subtleties of language and makes suggestions for the kind of writing that many of us do everyday but for which we were never trained—writing in the small spaces of social media, personal branding, and advertising.

What Happens After You Believe?

A basic question every Christian has at one time or another is: so what’s the whole point? What does Christianity DO? Is Christianity working? After I believe in my heart and confess with mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord, what’s supposed to happen?

I remember discussing Christianity with a Chinese classmate at Ohio State at the café in Thompson Library. I was interviewing her for a missions class I was taking off-campus, and we were discussing the basic tenets of Christianity. I clumsily explained the steps of salvation and then came up for air.

She nodded: “Okay, but does your life change?”

Me: “…”

Chinese classmate: “?”

Me: “Oh. Well. YES! It does! …For example, um, I would say that you become… more… peaceful?”

Chinese classmate: “Okay, but does your behavior change? Like do you stop doing the things you used to do before you become a Christian?” (Honestly, she was being a better missionary than even I was at that moment.)

For some reason, this question jolted me then and has since been one that I contemplate. I might even ask YOU this question. What EXACTLY is the nature of a life affected by Christ?

“To become like Christ,” you fire off. “To be a better person.”

Why, I ask you? And, how? How EXACTLY does one become like Christ? May I ask what are the steps and the methods? Exactly?

This summer I finished a book which has answered for me, in part, that question. It’s called After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters by N.T. Wright.

It’s the sequel to another excellent book called Surprised by Hope (which I also highly recommend) in which Wright doesn’t so much present new topics as he reminds us what we’ve always known according to the Bible, but have sometimes let contemporary society drown out. What happens, for example, after you die? There is a bodily resurrection, and Wright explains why this is so important and how that changes how we live here on Earth. But some Christians miss this part about LIVING ON EARTH. (Remember Miss Maudie in To Kill a Mockingbird? “There are just some kind of men who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one.”) It’s as if Wright notices the same. Perhaps he is perplexed by separatist Christians jamming fingers in their ears, determined they’re “not listening” to the world, and seeking only to “endure” this life until they get to the real one, heaven. Wright complicates this, determined to explore the mystery of “Why are we here?” and he does so by “rethinking heaven, the resurrection, and the mission of the church.” By the end of the book, one begins seriously examining the notion of God’s intention to redeem all creation back to Himself and, against all odds, His inviting us to join Him in that work.

 

DSC_0948

Wright’s not always a light read, but at times his Britishisms and friendly, conversational tone are downright charming. He also provides a fascinating introduction to the landscape of British Christianity, which is in fact the viewpoint from which he is writing. Besides being one of the world’s top biblical scholars, he is also a Bishop for the Church of England.

This is the backdrop for reading After You Believe in which, having firmly in place the idea that all Christians are called to redemptive life works, Wright focuses a little bit more on the how. If all Christians exist for the purpose of uniting with God in His grand design to ultimately redeem all things to Himself, then there must be a way that God intends for us to go about that.

Some points he makes:

  1. Wright ties worship and mission together with Christian holiness, indicating that two without the other, well, in fact, aren’t:

    “The high calling of Christian morality is therefore the necessary handmaid of the still higher callings of Christian worship and mission. The virtues which constitute the former are the vital components of the latter. The only way for worship and mission to become second nature to the followers of Jesus is for the virtues, the Spirit’s fruit, the passion for unity, and the celebration of the multiply varied vocations within the one body all to become second nature as well” (247).

  1. Wright further expounds on the why of Christian virtue and warns against common misunderstandings. For example, we don’t “put on virtue” to either receive rewards or to avoid punishment.

    “Jesus is not meaning either ‘If you can manage to behave in this way, you will be rewarded’ (a kind of legalist solution) or ‘Now that you’ve believed in me and my kingdom project, this is how you must behave’ (the sort of thing some post-Reformation theology might insist on)… What Jesus is saying, rather, is, ‘Now that I’m here, God’s new world is coming to birth; and, once you realize that, you’ll see that these are the habits of heart which anticipate that new world here and now.’ These qualities—purity of heart, mercy, and so on—are … in themselves, the signs of life, the language of life, the life of new creation, the life of new covenant, the life which Jesus came to bring” (106).

    Here is Wright’s notion that Christian virtue is an expression of the Gospel (the advent of God’s kingdom) which has already come to pass and is coming to pass.

    DSC_0930

  1. Another claim by Wright is that one doesn’t attain Christian virtue simply by “following Jesus’ example” as it is so commonly (and awfully) put these days. (One way that many people approach this question of “How shall we live?” is pointing out Christ as the great example.) Wright has some terse words about this.

    “To what extent would this be a helpful, or even possible, line to pursue? At one level, it certainly wouldn’t be helpful and might well not even be possible. Holding up Jesus as an example of how to live a moral life seems rather like holding up Tiger Woods as an example of how to hit a golf ball. Even if I started now and practiced for eight hours a day, it is highly unlikely that I would ever be able to do what Woods can do; and there are many people out there, younger and fitter than I, who are trying their hardest to do it and still find they can’t. Similarly, watching Jesus—with his astonishing blend of wisdom, gentleness, shrewdness, dry humor, patience with blundering followers, courage in confronting evil, self-control in innumerable situations of temptation… makes most of us, all but the most proud and ambitious, feel like we do when watching Tiger Woods hit a golf ball. Only more so” (126).

    Wright goes on to explain how expecting virtue to proceed from watching Jesus as example is not only improbable, but also simplistic and untrue to Jesus’ conquering nature:

    “It is basically safe: it removes the far more dangerous challenge of supposing that God might actually be coming to transform this earth, and us within it, with the power and justice of heaven, and it neatly helps us avoid the fact, as all four gospels see it, that this could be achieved only through the shocking and horrible events of Jesus’s death. Jesus as ‘moral example’ is a domesticated Jesus, a kind of religious mascot. We look at him approvingly and decide we’ll copy him (up to a point at least, and no doubt he’ll forgive us the rest because he’s a decent sort of chap.) As if! If all we need is a good example, we can’t be in quite such a bad state as some people (including Jesus himself) have suggested. Over against all such notions stands the entire tradition from Jeremiah with his warnings about the deceitful heart, through John the Baptist, with his warnings about the ax being laid to the roots of the tree, through Paul, with his warnings that if righteousness had come by the Law the Messiah wouldn’t have need to die, through to Ambrose, Augustine, Luther, Kierkegaard . . . and a host of others. And of course Jesus himself. He doesn’t go about saying, ‘This is how it’s done, copy me.’ He says, ‘God’s kingdom is coming; take up your cross and follow me.’” (126-27).

    It seems that expecting the appearance of virtue simply from “Jesus’ example” is just bad theologically, not to mention downright unBiblical.

  1. We can agree, then, that there is a process to learning virtue and it admittedly takes effort. Wright compares learning Christian virtue to learning a foreign language as an adult.

    “You will often get it wrong, but it’s worth persisting for the goal… of what lies ahead. If you’re an English speaker learning German, you must continually remind yourself that the verb comes at the end of the sentence. And, even in a language quite like your own (think of an Italian learning Spanish), there will be quite a large amount of vocabulary which just has to be memorized. This requires mental effort, the conscious, acted-out intention to imprint these patterns, with their physical outworkings (the contortions of tongue, teeth, lips, and vocal chords), upon the brain, aiming at the point when they will happen without effort and indeed without conscious thought. It is exactly this kind of complex effort, as we shall see, which the early Christians described when they were urging one another to develop the character which anticipated God’s new world” (40-41).

    Certainly, some sort of human patience and “practicing” is necessary.

    DSC_0968

  1. But what about “practicing”? In his book, Wright brings clarity to age-old arguments about virtue, especially the one about hypocrisy. He concedes that invariably the question will be asked:

    “If developing character by slow, long practice is what it’s all about, doesn’t that mean that for most of that time we will be acting hypocritically, play-acting, pretending to be virtuous when actually we aren’t? And isn’t that kind of hypocrisy itself the very opposite of genuine Christian living?” (58).

    But Wright deflects this question (vehemently answered YES! by the likes of Martin Luther) by giving a voice to none other than Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

    “‘Putting it on’ is all right. It isn’t hypocrisy, Hamlet is saying. It’s the way virtue comes into its own:
    Refrain tonight;
    And that shall lend a kind of easiness
    To the next abstinence; the next more easy;
    For use almost can change the stamp of nature,
    And either curb the devil, or throw him,
    With wondrous potency. (lines 165-170)
    The alternative is to let ‘custom’—that is, the force of regular behavior which carves a groove in our minds and our behavior patterns—so dictate to us that we cannot see sense (lines 37-38)” (59).

    If we never put on, then our custom may be to continually follow a pattern of behavior which is not good. Wright goes on to express the possibilities of changing our custom not only to virtuous behavior but also to the custom of embracing and inviting virtuous behavior:

    “Instead, such ‘custom’ or ‘use’ should be turned to good effect, helping us to ‘put on’ virtues which do not come naturally to begin with but which will do so in time (lines 161-165). It is remarkable, he says, what can be achieved by this means” (59).

    Thank you, Hamlet.

    DSC_0602

  1. Getting back to the how, Wright makes the point that we shall be transformed (to answer my Chinese friend’s question) by the renewing of our minds. “Oh, good!” you say, “now I can finally know how to live!” But I will warn you that Wright refuses to offer a 10-step approach. First, he argues that before a transformation can take place, your mindset must be renewed. To get to this, Wright pulls out Paul’s New Testament vision of Christians being “daytime” people, as it were. First, one has to be utterly convinced that God’s kingdom and redemptive work has already come to pass and is already being worked out in the world. This knowledge gives one the confidence to begin the life-long journey of renewing one’s mind. (Again, read Wright’s first book Surprised by Hope for more on that.) Wright points out that the Beatitudes are a picture of this. The blessings listed there are a picture of God’s ordered world, not how things perhaps are now but ultimately will be, due to God unleashing His blessing on the world. Christians must, then, develop ways of being that ultimately reflect this upcoming ordered world. We must be people of the day.

    “For Paul, faith, hope, and love are already given in Christ and by the Spirit, and it is possible to live by them. But you have to work at it. And to work at it you have to want to live in the daytime. You have to understand how your own moral life functions. You have to think through what it all means and how it all works. You have to develop, consciously and deliberately, the habits of heart, mind, soul, and strength that will sustain this life of faith, hope, and love” (138).

    (Hmmm, what are these “habits”? Do I have them and how do I develop them?) Then Wright supports his vision that the knowledge of God’s new order is necessary before this virtue appears by quoting Colossians and I John.
    DSC_0593.JPGAdditionally, in these passages, Wright admits the challenges that many of us avoid in our pursuit of virtue.

    “What then is Paul saying in Colossians that Christians must do? Answer: he is telling them to develop, in the present, the character which will truly anticipate the life of the coming age… What we need to grasp, as being of the essence of his summons to Christian virtue, is the moral effort involved. ‘Put to death . . .’ (3:5), ‘put away . . .’ (3:8), ‘put on . . .’ (3:14)” (143).

    This is a point which I think many of us shy away from. That it actually takes work to define one’s character.

    “[Paul] does not say, ‘You might to try giving up a bit of this’ or ‘If it feels all right to you, think about doing without some of these thing.’ He says, ‘Put them to death.’ If you don’t kill them, they will kill you (3:6). This is not, we must stress, because God will suddenly invoke some arbitrary and tyrannical divine prohibition to cramp our style, stop us having a good time, or punish us if we step out of line. Rather, it is because these styles of behavior lead directly, as a matter of necessity, into corruption, decay, and death and hence away from the new creation where heaven and earth come together and resurrection results” (143).

    In essence, these particular “natural” ways of being do not foreshadow God’s ultimate redemption of all created things and therefore must be avoided.DSC_0790.JPGBut Wright does not leave us in a legalistic time-out to think about how bad we’ve been behaving. No, rather, he points to the glorious dawning of God’s new order, reminding us that we are already awake to this new life.

    “As we saw, that future state is, for the Christian, the resurrection to a body like that of the risen Jesus Christ, a resurrection to share in the new world, the new creation that has already begun with him, and in which God’s people are to be a royal priesthood, the genuine human beings through whom God’s world is brought into glorious flourishing and order” (141).

    Since Christians have been translated into this new world order THAT ALREADY IS AND IS GOING TO CONTINUE TO BE, we can ask ourselves the question how might God expect it to come about. We have already touched on the renewing of our minds, first by announcing that one must be convinced of the this new order and be convinced of one’s own place in this new order, that is, that a Christian has already been inducted into this new life. If you are a Christian, you WILL receive the virtue of God Himself (I John 2:28, 3:2-3).What Wright does is he continually suggests that setting a goal is paramount to actually achieving some sort of Christian virtue.

    “This same setting of the goal—the goal of complete and finished product of humaness—drives and shapes the habits of mind, heart, and body which will lead to that finished product and, in addition, drives and shapes the way in which those habits must be clearly understood, chosen, and learned” (167).

    This is the mind-renewal which must firmly be in place before one can expect any transformation at all.

    DSC_0603

  1. Next, Wright discusses the importance of what I earlier pointed out as “habits.” One of the most important things that I came away with from this book is that what happens after you believe is a new life of new habits formed by a life-giving knowledge: that knowledge of God’s intended order. And I continue to explore ways in which those habits of thinking and being might be formed. For Wright there are a variety of ways (though he does NOT spend his book exploring what to DO to ACHIEVE, this is not his style but rather arguing for a case for Christian virtue) but he does hint at times how these might look for the curious Christian:

    “A rich mutual ministry of the word, then, is what Paul has in mind: the word bought taught and sung, telling and retelling the story of God, the world, Israel, Jesus Christ, and (not least) the future hope. The aim is that individual Christians might have their minds and hearts awakened and alerted to fresh visions of God’s reality, of the final hope set before them, and be able to discern in a fresh way what habits of mind and heart and body are necessary if they are to grow into the people God intends” (169).

    There are various habits or pathways within which a development of Christian virtue might occur, and Wright discusses these throughout his book.

  1. But for those of you practical folk, Wright doesn’t leave you hanging and after an entire book of comparing early Christian views of virtue in Pauline writings to even earlier views of morality, in the final chapter, he finally hints at the ways in which a Christian might think of answering this question of what happens after you believe and how it comes about. (Hints, because, Wright does not insult us with a 10 step approach.) In the final chapter he answers the question: “how can virtue be practiced?” Wright offers a circular approach by which these virtues might come about: scripture, stories, examples, community, and practices (260).First, Scripture:

    “The practice of reading scripture, studying scripture, acting scripture, singing scripture—generally soaking oneself in scripture as an individual and community—has been seen from the earliest days of Christianity as central to the formation of Christian character” (261).

    DSC_0976

    Being Church of English, Wright necessarily makes a case for the use of liturgy and its ability to impress scripture upon believers. One such passage which I enjoyed and simply have to share with you: 

    “The church needs constantly to learn, and constantly to be working on, the practice of telling and retelling the great stories of the world and Israel, especially the creation and the Exodus; the great promises that emerged from those stories; and the ways in which those promises came to their fruition in Jesus Christ. The reading of Scripture—the written account of those stories—has therefore always been central to the church’s worship. It isn’t only that people need to be reminded what the stories say (though that is increasingly important in an age where otherwise ‘educated’ people simply don’t know the Jewish and Christian stories at all). It’s that these stories should be rehearsed in acts of celebration and worship, ‘telling out the greatness of the Lord,’ as Mary sang in the Magnificat. Good liturgy uses tried and tested ways of making sure that scripture is read thoroughly and clearly, and is constantly on the lookout for ways of doing it even more effectively—just as good liturgy is also eager to discover better and better ways of singing and praying the Psalms together, so that they come to be ‘second nature’ within the memory, imagination, and spirituality of all the worshiping faithful, not just of a few musically minded leaders” (225).

    But Scripture is not the only way to develop virtue, Wright offers.

    “Scripture trains us to listen to and learn from stories of all kinds, inside the sacred text and outside, and to discern patterns and meaning within them. And stories of all sorts form and shape the character of those who read them” (264).

    Wright goes on to make an excellent argument for the study of all literature, an argument that as a teacher of literature I find highly validating.

    “Within the Christian tradition there is special reason to pay attention to stories. Many of the great writers in the world have been deeply formed by the Jewish and/or Christian tradition, and their thoughtful words can help us to reflect on that tradition more deeply. But Christians believe that all human life is itself a gift of God and, however much it may be distorted, a reflection of God. Thus even stories written by writers who are explicitly atheist—indeed, writers whose words were intended to mock or dismiss God—have a strange knack of making crucial points about what it means to be human, about the importance of love and justice and beauty. Living within the world of stories increases—if we let it—the capacity for discernment” (265).

    DSC_0928
    Besides Scripture and stories, Wright offers “examples” as another pathway to Christian virtue. I have already mentioned that Wright discounts “example” alone to be a pathway. It only works once knowledge and a greater understanding of “what will be” are firmly rooted in the believer. However, once these things are in place, “examples” may well be a pathway to Christian virtue. Both the example of Jesus but also countless other Biblical and nonbiblical examples (268-269).Add to examples community, including the large church abroad, the home congregation, and small groups, which Wright breaks down for us:

    “It may be a parish church, it may be a neighborhood Bible study group, it may be a group that meets to plan strategy in relation to local social issues, whatever—where sharply focused learning can happen and where decisive action can be planned and taken. Here the habits are formed by Christian friends, neighbors, and colleagues working together, prayer together, sharing one another’s lives and sorrows and frustrations and excitements” (274).

    Wright then presents a beautiful pictures of what he means by community—how exceedingly diverse, yet unified in spirit we can expect our smallest “communities” to be.

    “Here is Jane slowly thinking through the plan to meet women ex-offenders when they emerge from prison, to prevent them going back to the new habits that got them there in the first place. Here is Jack, full of a new Bible study guide he’s been reading, which he knows will open the whole group’s eyes to vistas of truth previously unimagined. Here is Jeff, who has been talking to the local education authority about starting a preschool for the young children of single parents (of whom there are many in the area) who have nothing to do when Mom goes out. Here is Lisa, who has been writing some new music for use at the Sunday night service for which a motley crew of young people typically drifts in. The point of introducing you to this four, and millions like them in small groups around the world, is that they are learning the habits of heart and life together. The point of ‘virtue’ for them is not that any will become the kind of striking ‘leader’ who will win awards, be recognized on the street, and appear on television chat shows. Nor is the point that they are all just like one another. They are not; they are very different characters, with different gifts and vocations and temperaments and social and cultural backgrounds… In order to work together, these four, and the others in their local fellowship, have to develop the fruit of the Spirit. If they don’t have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, they won’t get very far. Their fellowship will fragment. Each one will go off and do his or her own thing, muttering about the lack of vision of the rest of the church. This is what I mean when I say that the church, the community of God’s people, is the forum within which virtue is learned and practiced” (274-75).

    Finally, Wright cites “practices” of the body of believers as the final pathway of developing virtue in the believer. These community practices include the shared worship of communion and baptism, prayer, tithing, and reading scripture.So there you have it:

  1. (Worship + mission) – virtue = 0
  2. Putting on virtue is the sign of life.
  3. Virtue is not attainable by following example alone.
  4. Virtue is a process that requires effort.
  5. Practicing virtue is not hypocritical.
  6. Virtue cannot come about until your mind is renewed.
  7. There are habits within which virtue is more likely to come about.
  8. A cycle of scripture, stories, examples, community, and practices is most effective for the putting on of virtue.

Herein have I offered you the best bits of N.T. Wright’s After You Believe. I invite you to read the book for yourself to more fully answer for yourself the why and how of what happens after you believe.

My Ancestors, Singing, and Oasis Chorale

So the last three weeks have been FANTABULOUS.

I spent a weekend at a family reunion in southern Virginia. In case you don’t know, a Good family reunion consists of:

  1. Exquisite four-part hymn singing.
    How am I blessed with this heritage?

  1. Obligatory “Good” puns.
    “It’s ‘Good’ you made it.”
    “It’s a ‘Good’ reunion this year.”
    “These are my ‘Good’ relatives.”
    wp-image-1233931652jpeg.jpeg
  1. Meticulous research and history prepared by our family historian, Evelyn Bear, who traced our family tree as far back as the 1500s to our Swiss roots THROUGH FOUR LINES (the Resslers, Goods, Brennemans, and Hubers). The Brennemans and Goods were Swiss Anabaptists who emigrated to America through Germany due to religious persecution, settling in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (of all places!), Melchior Brenneman in 1709, and 20-year-old Jacob Good on the ship Samuel in 1732. (Surprise, surprise, I now live in the land of my ancestors! Except both families moved to the Shenandoah Valley several years later.)
20160723_181657~2
Clockwise: My great-grandparents’ wedding photo (1904), their 50th wedding anniversary, my mother’s baby picture, my mother’s family in 1951, my grandparents’ 40th wedding anniversary.
  1. Fabulous coffee prepared on the spot by my coffee connoisseur cousin Paul Yates.
    Vanilla rosemary latte, anyone? (He creates his own rosemary syrup.)
wp-image-1090150961jpeg.jpeg
With my mama.
wp-image-1633598927jpeg.jpeg
There was also lots of niece-squishing.

I then drove north to the Shenandoah Valley to meet my favorite people, the Oasis Chorale, for our annual summer tour. This year we toured Virginia and the Carolinas and additionally recorded a second hymns project in conjunction with John D. Martin’s new Hymns of the Church. (Recordings will be available in October! Click here or here for up-to-date information regarding new musical releases.)

13709924_10153907622378802_7618463285457050192_n
Photo by Erin Martin.

wp-1469320023868.jpeg

It’s no point trying to put into words what the experience of Oasis Chorale means to me, but I will try.

First, it is community. The more I sing with this choir, the more I come to love its individual members, the camaraderie that ensues, the spontaneous philosophical and theological discussions that we inevitably find ourselves in, and the way that we care for each other. People who aren’t conservative Mennonite may not be able to tell, but Oasis Chorale is actually extremely diverse. Our members come from a wide variety of Anabaptist, educational, and musical backgrounds, each with our individual experiences of Anabaptist communities and unique musical experiences within those communities. There is such strength in this diversity. For one, I think we are better equipped to minister to wider varieties of congregations. Second, it enables us to learn from and to support each other in our varying church, musical, and educational contexts.

THIS IS NOT TO SAY that Oasis Chorale is not first and foremost concerned about performing choral music well. It most certainly is.


You better have your pitches and rhythms learned. Along with your consonants, vowels, body alignment, proper breathing technique, appropriate tone, lifted soft palate, sense of line, inflection, suitable syllable stress, bright eyes, all performed with a sense of wonder.

But to me, Oasis is more than just a choir that sings beautiful music well. It’s a choir that strengthens its members for service beyond just a two-week summer tour. It encourages and refreshes singers, musicians, song leaders, artists (also a huffing lot of teachers) to pursue beauty and truth the REST of the year. This happens due to having a visionary conductor who expects discipline and personal musical growth (which is possible both within and without the choir) and who regularly invites us to contemplate the poetry of musical texts and the truth expressed therein. This emphasis on discipline and thoughtfulness is a haven for me.

Getting to be immersed in this convivial, contemplative, Christian community is something for which I thank God.
Every.
Year.

As a choir, we visited colonial Williamsburg this year and performed a candlelit concert in the historic Bruton Parish church. Definitely a highlight!

wp-image-1390451627jpeg.jpeg

13680640_10153907590938802_740280146283685514_n
Performing by candlelight in the historic Bruton Parish Church in colonial Williamsburg. Photo by Erin Martin.

One line from a hymn we recorded this year captured my attention and expresses a very particular worldview which I personally think aligns with the mission of Oasis Chorale:

“Crown Him the Lord of peace;
Whose pow’r a scepter sways
From pole to pole, that wars may cease,
Absorbed in prayer and praise.”

For these things, we sing.

Amen.

This Is Awkward, Lancaster

Just at Starbucks lowkey chillin’ with my friend Bob, who drives a bright blue Porsche. Jk we’re totally not friends, but is he here like every day or what? Because I’ve seriously been. BEEN HERE. At Starbucks. Every day. Because: no internet. I mean, who even lives without internet? (Apparently me, until Thursday.)

My dear readers: I’ve moved to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. If you don’t already know how I feel about this place, read my archives.

20160621_153159-2

Besides going to Starbucks every day, I’ve also gone to Walmart every day. Guys, there seriously must be some kind of convention in town because I went to Walmart and only ALL THE MENNONITES OF ALL CREATION WERE THERE. And then I realized: …oh wait, no convention… just… L a n c a s t e r.

“Mom, I can’t do this. I can’t live here.”

“Well, we’re not packing up all your stuff and taking it back home!” she huffs.

Moving has been a cheerful combination of the following:

  1. Weeklong flu-bug from hell
  2. My laptop (only my WHOLE LIFE) going kaput
  3. Finding out my bank doesn’t exist in this state
  4. Finding out all my money is frozen for several days at my new bank (welcome to Pennsylvania!)
  5. Finding out my health insurance isn’t accepted in this state
  6. Worst of all, finding out Pennsylvania libraries don’t have educator cards (Seriously? Who has only a REGULAR library card?)

A bit of an emotional rollercoaster, it’s been. Basically, my only wish is: can I eat food again? I’m feeling rapturous! (Er, I mean, ravenous.)

We here at Shastas’s Fog also like to look on the bright side:

  1. My brother-in-law’s parents and a church family DONATED the use of a nice truck and trailer to move me.
  2. While my laptop is being fixed, my sister lent me her laptop for three weeks because let’s face it: she’s pretty selfless.
  3. While moving, I found $$$ in an old Bible as I was putting it on its new shelf. (Let this be a lesson: first, you should always read books. Second, because no one else reads books, it is a safe place to stuff your cash. #threeyearslater)
  4. I now live next to a cupcake shop.
  5. Let’s have a moment of silence for #4.

More posts and updates coming this summer! Thanks for reading!

What Christian Apologists Think You Should Read

What if you had the chance to ask the world’s leading Christian apologists for a book recommendation? Assuming you love reading, this could be your most interesting conversation all month!

Last week I had the opportunity to hear some of the most respected Christian apologists answer this question at a conference on the evidence for the Christian faith in Bangor, Maine. Sitting front-row at this all-day event, I heard speakers offering arguments in defense of the Christian faith, as they sought to equip believers and challenge seekers with the credible and convincing evidence for the relevance of Jesus Christ.

13173168_10153872441763110_8708375066290848153_o.jpg

Presenting apologists included Randy David Newman, Dick Keyes, Lee Strobel, Tom Woodward, and Ravi Zacharias.  Besides these speakers, there were numerous workshops and breakout sessions throughout the day and (my main reason for attending the conference) music by the Oasis Chorale (featuring yours truly!). (Not very many Christian events feature music by a capella Mennonite choirs, but props to Daryl Witmer of the AIIA Institute for organizing this anomaly. It was a gift to share in song at this incredible event.)

At an afternoon panel discussion, the speakers were asked to give a book recommendation. “What is one book besides the Bible that everyone ought to read?” Following is an introduction to each speaker and their top reading picks:

1. Randy David Newman recommends The Reason for God by Tim Keller.

why1.jpg

According to the WhyJesus2016 website, Randy David Newman is “a nationally-known Christian disciple, evangelist, apologist, and author. He has served on staff with CRU (formerly Campus Crusade) since 1980. He has taught seminars at locations ranging from college campuses to the Pentagon. Newman often uses humor to make a point and his books offer a proven and practical approach to Christian witnessing.”

Randy David Newman spoke on the topic of evangelism, and he told of his conversion to Christianity from Judaism. Regarding evangelism, his humor was refreshing: “You know those people who say they can’t go to sleep at night unless they’ve had the chance to tell at least one person that day about Jesus? How is it that if I haven’t told someone about Jesus, I can go to sleep at night JUST FINE?! Or those people who pray for a nonbeliever to sit beside them on an airplane so that they can witness to them? I pray for there to be an EMPTY SEAT beside me on the airplane!”

Besides his refreshing honesty, his most salient points were the art of engaging seekers and skeptics in conversation and answering questions with questions in the same manner that Jesus does in the New Testament. His book recommendation is Tim Keller’s Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, a book which addresses common doubts about religion and explains how belief in God is actually rational.

2. Dick Keyes (rhymes with “wise”) recommends The God Who Is There by Francis Schaeffer.

why2.jpg

First, you ought to know about the organization with which Dick Keyes is affiliated: the L’Abri fellowship. The L’Abri fellowship was first started in Switzerland in 1955 by Francis and Edith Shaeffer who decided to open their home as a place for college students and seeking individuals to ask their deepest questions and to find satisfying answers while experiencing Christian community. Labri.org reports that “it was called L’Abri, the French word for “shelter,” because they sought to provide a shelter from the pressures of a relentlessly secular 20th century.” Imagine spending extended time in a safe place, sorting out your spiritual questions, while breathing in the alpine air in a chalet in the mountains! The ministry of L’Abri has grown, and today L’Abri locations exist in 10 different countries. (Read: you can still experience this intellectual homecoming today! Communities exist in England, Holland, Massachusetts, Switzerland, Sweden, Australia, Brazil, and more.)

Regarding Mr. Keyes background, labri.org gives this bio: “Dick Keyes is the Director of L’Abri Fellowship in Southborough, Massachusetts, where he has worked with his wife and family since 1979. He holds a B.A. in History from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Dick has worked for L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland and in England, where he served also as a pastor in the International Presbyterian Church in London for eight years. He has been an adjunct professor at Gordon Conwell Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is the author of Beyond Identity, True Heroism, Chameleon Christianity, Seeing Through Cynicism, and several chapters in anthologies such as No God But God, ed. Os Guinnes, Finding God at Harvard, ed. Kelly Monroe, and New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics from Intervarsity Press. He is currently writing a book on the significance of Jesus’ questions. He has lectured widely in the U.S. and also in Europe and Korea.” Certainly, he was very qualified to speak at this event!

I truly enjoyed Dick Keyes’s academic approach to the question, “If I’m Okay, Why Jesus?” (his talk which responded to the view that sin is obsolete). (Random fact: Dick Keyes commented to our director that he liked Oasis’s consonants. Yay, choral diction!) Naturally, at the panel discussion, Dick Keyes recommended a book by the founder of L’Abri, the community with which he is highly involved. Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who Is There confronts not only the origin but also the future of competing philosophies of the church and the world, and Schaeffer’s book highlights how the God who has always been there is the answer for life’s deepest problems.

3. Lee Strobel recommends Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis and Cold Case Christianity by J. Warner Wallace.

why3.jpg

A household name for many, Lee Strobel is a Christian author, journalist, speaker, and highly respected Christian apologist. You might be familiar with Strobel’s life story of working as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune and, despite originally confessing atheism, converting to Christianity after investigating Biblical claims over a period of two years.

Strobel spoke on making a case for the real historical Christ, drawing heavily on his personal testimony and his own investigations. Strobel recommends reading C.S.Lewis’s Mere Christianity, a book which expounds on beliefs that the Christian faith holds true. Certainly, C.S. Lewis’s writing is a powerful display of Christian apologetics.

Secondly, Strobel recommends J. Warner Wallace’s Cold Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels, a book which, I assume, imitates Strobel’s methods. An L.A. homicide cold-case detective and former atheist uses the skills of criminal investigating to produce evidence for the Christian faith, a topic which could be considered a “cold case”: it makes a claim about the distant past, and there is little forensic evidence to rely on.

why4.jpg

4. Thomas E. Woodward recommends essays by C.S. Lewis in God in the Dock.

why5.jpg

Tom Woodward (a Columbus, Ohio native–woot!) is a research professor and department chair of the theology department at Trinity College of Florida and a prominent Christian apologist. Published works by Woodward include those defending intelligent design and those disputing Darwin’s theory of evolution. (He is not one, though, that should be written off as one of those obnoxious brands of creationists.) Speaking on “Why Jesus? Why Not Science?”, Woodward presented an engaging lecture that touched on neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and space exploration (engaging, because besides his Bachelors in History from Princeton, his Masters of Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary, he also has a Doctorate of Communications from the University of South Florida!). So the whole time, I found myself reservedly thinking: you are so convincing and charismatic. Which rhetorical mode are you wielding expertly now?  

What I was struck with from Woodward’s talk was his comments on the limits of science (something that I’ve recognized myself: science is not actually objective [i.e. we research where there are funds to research, and funds are normally appropriated for “money-making” scientific endeavors]) and also his suggestion that the theory of evolution is currently undergoing a major, bone-crushing paradigm shift, which, as he explains, means basically that Darwinian evolution is a sinking Titanic that is taking on water. This paradigm shift of the questioning of Darwinian evolution is going on at the highest level, and these questions are being asked by the brightest minds and most respected scientific scholars at the most elite academic journals. (You can find this information published by the Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press.) In fact, the UK’s Royal Society is meeting later this year to discuss the evolution paradigm shift and what it means for science and society. (Er, I quickly googled this topic, and this left-wing newsletter explains some of the ins and outs of the conversation of the paradigm shift and what it means among scientists.) Enlightening, at the very least.

A note: when questioned, Woodward wouldn’t allow himself to be cornered into either a young-earth or old-earth perspective; rather, he argues for a case of intelligent design.

Woodward’s recommendation for reading on apologetics is a series of essays published in God in the Dock by C.S. Lewis, including “What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?”, “Man or Rabbit?”, and “Religion and Science.”

5. Ravi Zacharias recommends The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel and Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis

why6.jpg

Ravi Zacharias is a speaker, author, and dynamic defender of historic Christian truth. He is the author of numerous books, the host of radio programs, the founder of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, and has six honorary doctoral degrees. Growing up in a nominal Christian family, Ravi Zacharias was an atheist, and when he was seventeen, he tried to commit suicide. Lying in the hospital due to his failed suicide attempt, he became a Christian after reading in the Gospel of John. Since that moment, Ravi Zacharias remains committed to the pursuit of truth through the person of Jesus Christ. Ravi Zacharias works as a scholar, lectures, writes, and represents evangelical Christianity at the National Day of Prayer in Washington, D.C. and at the Annual Prayer Breakfast at the United Nations.

Speaking on “Why Jesus? Why Should Anyone Follow This First Century Religious Figure?” Ravi Zacharias left us spellbound as he wove together logical reasoning, personal experience, and poetry in a display of evidence for the Christian faith. Books on apologetics which Ravi Zacharias recommends include The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel, the books which explain Strobel’s coming to faith due to his investigative reporting.

Another book Ravi Zacharias recommends is C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, a book which describes Lewis’s movement from atheism to theism and from theism to Christianity, all motivated by the discovery of joy.

why8.jpg

This concludes the panel discussion book recommendations. Happy reading everyone! I hope this list points you to some great reading this summer!

At the close here, I’ll offer three bonus books, or honorable mentions, which were not mentioned in the panel discussion but by certain speakers throughout the conference, which I deem interesting enough to read myself.

Bonus Book #1: Andrew Delbanco’s The Death of Satan

why9.jpg

Dick Keyes referenced this book in his talk which responded to the problematic view that sin is obsolete. One of the issues we face today is the idea that “I’m okay / I don’t have a sin problem / Sin isn’t even a thing.” Before we respond to this viewpoint, it may be helpful to understand American culture’s historical shift in its understanding of sin and evil. Delbano’s book seeks to do just that. Amazon.com describes the book this way: “Through the writings of America’s major figures, a professor at Columbia University traces the change in Americans’ view of evil over the nation’s history from a clear, religious understanding to a perplexed helplessness.” I totally just ordered this book from my local bookstore.

Bonus Book #2: Langdon Gilkey’s Shantung Compound

why10.jpg

Dick Keyes additionally mentioned Gilkey’s book in relation to the idea that sin is obsolete. Shantung Compound, published in 1975, is a vivid diary of life in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, and it examines the moral challenges encountered in conditions of confinement and deprivation. Reviewers mention that the book is a powerful depiction of the human condition and that the book is more important now than when it was originally written.

Bonus Book #3: Dikkon Eberhart’s The Time Mom Met Hitler, Frost Came to Dinner, and I Heard the Greatest Story Ever Told

why11.jpg

In his evening address, Ravi Zacharias mentioned that his wife is a voracious reader and that this is his wife’s favorite book. Not only that, but also the author Dikkon Eberhart (who lives in coastal Maine) was sitting in the audience!

Eberhart grew up in a literary household: his father was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, and their home regularly featured literary greats among their dinner guests: Robert Frost, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, and others. These famous poets were Eberhart’s family friends, yet Eberhart strove to leave his father’s literary shadow. This memoir is a coming-of-age story which deals with the theme of identity. (No order necessary, the used bookstore had a copy in stock! I’ll be starting this one soon!)

My Celebrity Birthday Friends

Big shout out to all my famous celebrity birthday friends!
(In case you don’t know who my birthday-matching buddies are, I can fill you in. I share my birthday, April 26th, with:

1. Marcus Aurelius

Born April 26, my buddy Mark was a Roman Emperor from A.D. 161 to 180. He was a Stoic philosopher and wrote a bunch of quotes for the internet.

HB.jpg

2. David Hume

David (known as Davy to his close friends) was a Scottish philosopher born 1711 who basically blew rationalists to shreds, arguing that passion guides human behavior and also argued against inductive reasoning. Well, Davy, say what you want, but I think your most impressive feature is that at 25 years old you basically had NO JOB and NO PROSPECTS but you managed to figure it out and write a ton of influential stuff. Pat, pat.

HB2.jpg

3. John James Audobon

My buddy John, born 1785, was an American ornithologist, naturalist, and painter. He basically discovered 25 new kinds of birds ON HIS OWN, and painted a whole bunch more and put them in a book that you can get maybe on Amazon?

HB3.jpg

 

4. Frederick Law Olmstead

Freddy, my man! Frederick Law Olmstead, born April, 26, 1822, was an American landscape architect who designed some really cool parks that y’all should really check out! Fred designed Central Park in New York City, and he also collaborated with The Ohio State University on the design of my universiy’s beloved Oval. Boom. Everybody loves Freddy!

HB5.jpg

5. the Prophet Muhammad

According to some sources, the Prophet Muhammad was born April 26, 570. So we are basically twins. Peace, Muhammad.

HB4.jpg

6. Channing Tatum

Mr. Tatum is an American actor (born April 26, 1980) who overcame attention deficit disorder (ADD) and dyslexia to become a highly successful actor, worth $60,000,000. (Ladies, he’s married. To Jenna, actually. Now aren’t they cute.)

HB6.jpg

Happy Birthday Channing, Prophet, Freddie, John, Davy, and Marcus!

 

 

A Poem: Teaching Heart Beats

I’ve been working on portions of this poem every spring over the last three years of teaching here in Indiana. It’s deeply personal, and for my students.

There are things left unspoken inside a teacher’s heart. After the grading is done and the lesson plans are printed and the meetings are over, some of us teachers go home, and myriad thoughts whirl around in our heads, long after the sun sleeps, and we lie in darkness praying for tomorrow.

In “Part I: Memories,” you’ll meet several students that are characters created from parts of students’ personalities from the past three years, collected into single characters. “Part II: Lament” grieves students’ loss of innocence, and “Part III: Credo” is a charge for Christian teachers. “Part IV: Invocation” is a prayer for my students.

I’m not particularly fond of this poem (obviously, as I’ve been continually revising it). But sometimes revisions are never done. So I’m putting it out here, meaning, it’s good enough, and it’s what I want it to be for now.

IMG_20160323_193537.jpg

Teaching Heart Beats

Part I: Memories

Once,
I saw you reach out.
Once, I saw you pray.
Once, I saw you put an end to the mocking.
Once, I saw you listen.

I see you.

They told me, “His name is Learning Problem.” “He calls himself Attitude.”
I try to see potential.
And buried in your sporadically-done homework, I once heard a quiet moral opinion from you.
I whisper-cheered through clenched teeth, at my desk, at 9:00 p.m.
“Yessss.” He thought today.
My hope is that you will think tomorrow.
And the next day.
And the day after that.

I see you.
You’re the one who demands A’s.
But I gave you a B
To teach you to think.
Writing is the measure of thinking,
Not silly test scores.

I see you.
You’re all alone at lunchtime,
The others gathered around in desperate cliques, animatedly eating.
And my heart aches for you.
I pray for you.
I think you are special. I think you are unique.
(If I were 14, we would be friends!)

I see you.
You’re the intellectual one.
You keep me on my toes when you fact-check me.
Your assignments are almost chilling in their brilliance.
You will be taking a road that not many of your peers will.
My advice: keep your social life and go play some volleyball. Get the B.
(Learning the art of friendship is also a lifelong study.)
Teaching you is one of my biggest tasks.
I feel a huge responsibility to guide you toward the big “c.”
College.
You will go.
Will you become bitter at your uneducated subculture?
When will you realize that Mennonite pastors and deacons are fallible humans?
Will you notice the uncommon fellowship of our subculture?
Will that fellowship be important enough for you to stay?
Will you find community, acceptance, love, or romance outside our culture, leading you away?
Will that acceptance change your morals?

I see you.
Wasting time.
Staring
At
The
Clock.
Creatively taking a long time to do anything besides your work.
Throw away a tissue.
Get a drink.
Go to the bathroom.
(I snicker at you.)
Know why?
Your vocab words still aren’t done. Even after all that.

I see you.
You had to stay in from recess.
Again.
You glance up from your book
And with your inquisitive face
You inquire
What this verse means
And how to deal with an angry friend.
Your thirst for wisdom is deep.

I see you

I see you all.

Do you know
…that your radiant face in 8 a.m. Bible class is inspiring?
…that your seriousness and bold attention in literature is startling?
…that your hard work and goodwill are so convicting?

You are skillful students. You clean, cook, work, and play with such excellence.

(Who do we think we are, trying to exercise your minds?)

To the students at UCS:
Your faces and lives stretch before me
like a promising Midwestern sunset

And I weep
on my knees
for the lives you will live.
I thank God for the pain you will endure in the next five years,
pain being the only thing God can use to empty you of yourself so that you cling all the more to Him.

What token, what gift, can I give to you who have given me so much?
This poem
is my photograph.
Keep a copy to glance at sometimes
and remember a teacher who saw you in this way.

Part II: Lament

I am weeping for you.
My heart is bleeding for you.
Oh my students.
The pain in your lives.
The hurts from your past.
Your broken families.
Your lost childhoods.

Part III: Credo

We will be strong.
We will be pure.
We will stand in the gap.
We will sacrifice our lives.
We will build up the church.
We will love each other.

We will not back down.
We will be good role models.
We will love Jesus more.
We will be disciplined.
We will be difference makers.

We will not be down-hearted, cynical, or hopeless.
We serve the God of all comfort.

Our task is not our task.
Our task is God’s task.
To bind up the broken hearted, to heal their wounds, to love.
God is our hope.

Part IV: Invocation

The wind whips and whistles through the early spring sunshine
Tries to dry the wet land and white lumps in the fields.

I know that spring is coming.
We are not surprised.
It always does.

So like spring
comes the enduring work of God.
And wherever His Word goes
It is not wasted.

Oh Jesus
Ravish us with the spring-dream of your unending faithfulness and blessing.
Amen.