Summer Reading List 2015

School’s out! Which means that it is time to begin acting out my single summer fantasy: reading barefoot on the patio. All. Summer. Long.

It’s been a humdinger of year, and maybe someday when I’m really brave, I will decide to write about it. At this point, I’m REALLY happy to be out of the classroom. Like. Out. Rolling in the grass. I have lots of goal-setting to do this summer for next school year, but right now that can wait.

Here’s my summer reading list, full of books which I will be voraciously devouring between trips to the library, the coffee shop, and the local farmer’s market.

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1. Obligatory Classic: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Would you believe I have never read this book? I am quite possibly the least well-read English major with a bachelors degree. I always feel the need to apologize for my lack of knowledge of classic texts. Anyhow, I am making up for it by inhaling classics whenever I can. (I most recently finished Briggs’s translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and it was an absolute delight. A monument to the theory of history, to Russia, and to everything that makes us human.)
I picked up my Warner Books copy of To Kill a Mockingbird at a garage sale a few years back, and it’s been waiting for me on my shelf. I had half a mind to save it until after I read Lee’s new novel due out in July called Go Set a Watchman. Here’s why. Lee actually wrote Go Set a Watchman before To Kill a Mockingbird! Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman first but publishers declined publishing it and instead encouraged her to create a novel about the main character’s childhood, which ended up being To Kill a Mockingbird. Technically, I had the chance to read these books in the order that Lee herself created them, rather than reading them chronologically. But. I couldn’t last. I guess I’ll leave that experience to some other young scholar and instead read the books in their chronological story order along with the rest of the population.

I’m halfway through savoring To Kill a Mockingbird, and besides being delighted with the vocabulary that reminds me of all things childhood (phrases like “open-faced sandwich” and “Miss Priss”), I am fully absorbed in Lee’s characters, and their familiarness, yet their curiousness, not to mention her slick and humorous descriptions (“Two geological ages later, Jem came home”) and her appropriately placed aphorisms (“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience”). I think it is safe to say that everyone should read this book.

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2. Obligatory Classic #2: Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee
In case you didn’t know, Lee wrote a book about Scout’s adulthood before she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird! I certainly didn’t know, and no one else really did either until Lee’s lawyer found the old manuscript last October and began working with 89-year-old Lee to get it published. Only two million are being printed, so you better snap yours up quickly! Mine is preordered from my local bookstore, and just so you know, July 14th will be theeee literary event of the year!

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3. Theology: Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright
Is this theology? I don’t know. It’s definitely inspirational religious scholarship. Wright not so much as presents new topics but instead reminds us what we’ve always known according to the Bible but we 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. Wright writes his book because he has picked up on an oddity of Christians that even Harper Lee notices. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee’s Miss Maudie says, “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.” Wright notices the same. Perhaps he is perplexed by separatist Christians jamming fingers in their ears, determined they’re “not listening,” 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.”

I’m currently still in the beginning where Wright presents many facts about the early church and its views on the resurrection, and I’m learning A LOT. Not a light read, but he could have fooled me in the friendly, conversational introduction, which introduces the interesting landscape of British Christianity, which is in fact the viewpoint from which N. T. Wright is writing. Besides being one of the world’s top Bible scholars, he is also a Bishop for the Church of England.

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4. Nonfiction: 1491 by Charles C. Mann
What happened in 1492? Columbus sailed the ocean blue!
But what was America like in 1491? What was life like in these United States before Europeans arrived? Many of our American history books begin with the story of Spanish explorers, and very little space is devoted to the history of indigenous people. This book gives a fuller history of pre-Columbian America along with ground-breaking research that brings into question many of our assumptions about our land before colonization, including assumptions like:
“The New World was relatively unpopulated.”
“Native Americans lived in the wilderness and never touched it.”
“Native Americans were unsophisticated and lived in simple societies compared to Europeans at the time.”
“Cities didn’t exist.”
However, did you know that the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan was larger than any European city at the time and also had running water?!

I suggested this book to a high school junior this year for a book report, thinking she might like it, and I got rave reviews! I’m so looking forward to reading this book! Hoping it might inform me before I dive back into American literature next year.

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5. Nonfiction: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
In much the same vein, Bury My Heart is an American history book about how the West was won, but it is written from a Native American perspective, one which happens not to leave out inconvenient truths about the American government. Historically, and contrary to popular belief, not all American Indians were tomahawk-thrusting, war-painted savages. Neither were all European settlers simply gentle pioneers. The fact of the matter is that the American government committed many atrocities against Native Americans. We are all aware, aren’t we, that “history” is essentially a narrative told from the perspective of whoever is in charge, right? I would argue that it’s probably good to hear from alllllll perspectives, not just the ones of those in charge. Basically, you are responsible for what is left out of your history book. You’re going to have to work a little bit to get the correct information, but the books are out there. Read them.

By the time I get through these, I’m guessing it might be the middle of July, and I’ll be heading back to the classroom.

What’s on YOUR summer reading list?

Chandeliers, Tolstoy, and Mennonites

Armed with a gift card and a ferocious excitement for my summer classic choice (Tostoy’s War and Peace) I trotted into Barnes and Noble to pick out the classiest-looking version I could find.

Yes, I’m a print girl. No Kindle yet for me.

We print people get to be choosy when buying classics. That is, on those occasions when we’re actually buying new books, rather than sniffing out old, bargain-priced copies at garage sales or Goodwill. Amongst booksellers, Barnes and Noble stocks the largest variety of versions, printings, and editions. Barnes & Noble, then, is a great stop for a picky book buyer. And we print people are especially picky concerning cover art.

I’ve been interested in cover art since I first noticed it in my parent’s little home library. (I get my book buying honestly.) While not exceedingly broad, my parents’ reading preferences (from Christian fiction to forty-year-old Bible college texts to my father’s current affinity for Jewish studies) exhibit the phenomenon that pop-culture inspires cover art. Digging through my parents’ books in the basement, I was never really quite sure what groovy font, bell bottoms, or afros had to do with the subject of prayer, but it certainly made sense to book cover illustrators in the 1970s. Cover art becomes so quickly dated but can, nevertheless, remind book buyers of the period or decade in which they buy a book.

Hoping to make a simple choice between a classic hardcover with gold edge gilding and a 2014 pop art cover, I wasn’t prepared for a heavier decision: choosing translations. I had not done my homework before buying War and Peace, and I wasn’t prepared to choose between various English translations of Tolstoy’s Russian text.

So I was reduced to judging a book by its cover. (And the little reviews on the back.) For example, did I want the most-read English translation? Or did I want a brand-new twenty-first century English translation? (There were two: a 2005 Briggs translation and a 2007 Pevear and Volokhonsky translation with the French sections still intact) Would I rather be familiar with the versions most English speakers my age have read, or would I rather read the newer translations? Would I gain something from reading a classic version of a classic? Or should I cheerfully accept a highly-readable modern translation with modern grammar, vocabulary, and syntax? Or would that be jolting, since War and Peace is classic-y? Would the contemporary language take something away from the historicity of the text?

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I reminded myself, though, that Tolstoy’s original audiences would have read War and Peace in a Russian text that to them would not have sounded antiquated. The same for English audiences soon after the 1904, 1923, and 1957 translations. I fingered the 2005 and 2007 translations. (Which incidentally had two cover choices: a heavy colorful volume with eastern-inspired art, and a bulky, rough-edge gilding little beauty, sporting a bronze chandelier, which I’m sure has nothing to do with War and Peace but has everything to do with fashion design trends of the 2000s.)

The point is, War and Peace is in modern, global English for the first time in 80 years. (The ’57 version used exclusively British English.) English audiences today (and in the next decade or so) get to have an experience with the text that will not happen for another fifty years. We get to read it in our contemporary language. Picture this: it’s 2074 and a professor of English soon realizes that her students, or her grandchildren, struggle through War and Peace. The diction and vocabulary are complicated and outdated. A re-translation will occur. Language changes over time.

Since I did not have a smartphone with me at the bookstore to google which translation I should choose, I went with the Briggs. Later, I learned there is a quite a controversy between the 2005 Briggs translation and 2007 Pevear and Volokhonsky, some of it having to do with class (intellectual snobs arguing that Tolstoy’s book wouldn’t have been easily accessible to all social classes, since he wrote portions in French and not all 1860s Russians were bilingual, so modern English translations should also keep the French portions original to maintain the inaccessibility), some of it having to do with style (Tolstoy’s Russian was choppy, so English translations should be choppy), and some of it having to do with Britishisms (can we really handle Russian soldiers popping out in lower-class British dialects). But you can read all this scholarship for yourself. By googling it.

Or. You could simply sit down and read for yourself for the first time a very accessible classic. I went with the Briggs, which leaves out the original French. It proves to be highly accessible, and I am devouring it more voraciously than even this winter’s A Tale of Two Cities.

Reader, you have raised your hand, I see.

“Why do we read Tolstoy?”

We read Tolstoy because he became convinced of the relevance of the teachings of Jesus Christ for everyday living. Fifteen years after publishing War and Peace, Tolstoy announced himself a pacifist, inspired by Jesus’ Sermon the Mount. (This fact alone drove this twenty-first century Anabaptist to read his earlier work. What could I learn, I asked myself, from his early questioning?) In fact, Tolstoy’s rejection of government involvement due to his pacifist leanings got him kicked out of the Russian Orthodox church. Interestingly, Tolstoy’s writings on nonviolence went on to inspire the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. These reasons, dear reader, are why we read Tolstoy.

Nonetheless, to first-time readers of Tolstoy’s amazing work, choose for yourself between the twenty-first century Briggs and the Pevear and Volokhonsky. But do it sometime in the next decade. The freshness of the dialogue will not occur again for another fifty years.

Reading in the New Year

Great writers are well read. For this reason, one of my goals for the new year is to read. One thing that has helped me to read more is to accept my own strange reading habits. I feel so much better about my reading habits after reading Douglas Wilson’s book Wordsmithy. In his chapter “Read Until Your Brain Creaks,” he encourages writers to read widely, and he announces that it’s totally okay to have, like, twenty books going at a time.

I’m relieved. I actually have a whole shelf devoted to books I’m currently reading. I start reading really great books, but sometimes I don’t have time to finish them right away. And then another book catches my fancy. Or, I’ll be in the middle of a good book, but it’s not the right “book mood” for the certain time of day that I’m reading: for relaxing late at night, for quiet dinner times, or for loud-ish laundromats. So I’ll start yet another book. However, thanks to Wilson, I no longer have to feel guilty about my ADD reading habits.

Right now I’m in the middle of seven (yes, seven) books.

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1. Obligatory Classic: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
Fact: A Tale of Two Cities is (except for religious texts like the Bible or the Quran) the best-selling book in the world today. So I think to myself: this book I’ve got to read! Plus, it was one of the highest bidders for my tiny facebook survey of “What classic shall Esther read next?” Several people have responded about this book: “It’s kind of hard to get into, but once you get near the end, you’re like, ‘This is about Everything!’”
Reason for Reading: As an English teacher, I’m trying to brush up on the classics that I haven’t read yet. Sadly, my own high school curriculum and even my liberal arts college education gave me a poor treatment of the classics, so accessing these texts will be prove to be a long, arduous journey, but nonetheless personally satisfying. I think these books have more meaning then we can even begin to imagine.
Reading Ease: It’s not been super easy, but it’s been interesting and heart-warming. I truly have to train myself to enjoy deep reading. I do waaayyy too much internet reading, so I truly do have a short attention span.

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2. Christian Life: Crazy Love by Francis Chan
Fact: A lot of my friends read this New York Times bestseller five years ago. Cringe. (Okay, so, I’m a little behind.) The great thing for me, though, is that I get to read the “revised and updated” 2013 version.
Reason for Reading: I wanted to read a book about the Christian life that focuses on the character of God. The version I’m reading is almost devotional as Chan encourages frequent meditation throughout the different sections.
Reading Ease: Very simple. Chan is not writing. He is talking, and he is doing so in an everyday street vernacular. His paragraphs and thoughts don’t always really relate together in logical ways, and a time or two he (carelessly?) dismisses huge theological debates with simple statements of childlike faith. But. I have to consider the point of his book (which is not to answer huge theological questions) and the audience to whom he is writing (the churched, who perhaps he assumes has come to accept, based on faith, certain debated issues.) And, I have to remember that sometimes my “earnest, academic questioning” is not so genuine, but is really only prideful. Or lazy. It is a laziness that comes in the way of getting to know God better. Or that comes in the way of my obedience or of my having to be faithful to certain teachings and beliefs. It’s almost like I’m saying, “Well, I don’t have that figured out yet, so I don’t need to obey my Savior in this area yet.” ?? Ironically, Chan even addresses this tendency (though in regards to another issue) in the book. He talks about the sins of worry and stress, and he writes: “These two behaviors communicate that it’s okay to sin and not trust God because the stuff in my life is somehow exceptional. Both worry and stress reek of arrogance.” My toes are stepped on.

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3. Christian Life, Academic: Finding God at Harvard: Spiritual Journeys of Thinking Christians ed. By Kelly Monroe Kullberg.
Fact: Few of you will forget my raving review of Finding God Beyond Harvard, the second book that Kullberg compiled. That book, for me, was life-changing and inexplicably refreshing.
Reason for Reading: My secular liberal arts education, the media, cynical bloggers, dear searching friends, hipster Christians, and even the Church have told me that Christians can’t, or don’t, think. This book indicates otherwise. So you better believe that I’m going to read it.
Reading Ease: Now, we are talking about academics here. They write gorgeous prose about their super-interesting and diverse (albeit mostly upper-class) backgrounds, which is really fun if you are in a learn-y, academic-y mood. Honestly, it’s exciting. But not what I would call easy reading.

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4. Christian Theology: Miracles by C. S. Lewis
Fact: The New Yorker writes: “If wit and wisdom, style and scholarship are requisites to passage through the pearly gates, Mr. Lewis will be among the angels.” I AGREE! Esther squeals in a sort of teenage-One-Direction-like frenzy.
Reason for Reading: Duh. Lewis is AHmazing. I have greatly enjoyed Mere Christianity, and even Chesterton himself, the one who got Lewis thinking about Christianity in the first place.
Reading Ease: To be honest, I need “world enough and time” for this one. And a little peace and quiet. So many great thoughts, that I fear they may pass over my little mind, but nevertheless, I grasp, reverently, at the few pearls I might amass. Thank you, Mr. Lewis.

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5. Biography/Memoir: Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World by Shirley Hershey Showalter
Fact: I pre-ordered this book before it was even available to the public. Showalter writes about growing up conservative Mennonite to finally becoming a college president! I read an online interview a while back about this book, and Showalter said something to the effect that there’s a lot of books out there about being Amish or growing up Mennonite, but this is a book by someone who actually lived it.
Reason for Reading: I spent a good deal of my English (Pre-Education) undergraduate degree reading a ton of “minority” literature so that (according to the state of Ohio) I would be prepared to teach all kinds of constituencies. Well, guess what? I never found “myself” or “my people,” very remotely, in ANY of the literature we read, so I guess all this talk about diversity is a little misleading, wouldn’t you say?
Reading Ease: Great! If you’ve had a bit of a literary education, you can pick out the literary things she’s doing… like starting her book, quite literally, in a root cellar, and beginning with genealogies. But even if you don’t pick up those things, you will find it to be an interesting read.

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6. Familiar, Comfortable, Baby-Bye-Bunting-Feeling Book: Anne’s House of Dreams by L. M. Montgomery
Fact: Growing up I had many positive role models of strong, educated females both in my literature choices and in my guarded exposure to media. Anne Shirley, Jo March, Christy, and Maria von Trapp? It’s like I didn’t even have a chance. #teacherforlife
Reason for Reading: To induce baby-bye-bunting feelings when one’s family is very, very far away.
Reading Ease: Quite perfect. Just enough plot to keep you moving and just enough contemplative moments to keep you thinking.

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7. Nonfiction: Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language by Robert McCrum
Fact: You all probably watched McCrum’s informative, though highly dated, T.V. series “The Story of English” in your introductory undergraduate linguistics coarse.
Reason for Reading: It struck my fancy in the nonfiction section at our local library. I absolutely love studying the history of the English language. That course, “The History of English,” was one of my favorite courses at Ohio State. Thank you, Dr. Modan!
Reading Ease: Good. He’s clearing his throat a lot at the beginning, or it seems like it to me (maybe because I’ve actually studied a bit of these topics before), and he has an amusing view of the United States and its politics (most snobby Europeans do), and his writing is cluttered with a lot of academic jargon, but I think I will be able to pop over these portions with ease to get to the real meat of his work.

Also, we include a picture of McCrum because he is so funny to look at.

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Question 1: Do you believe in “reading moods”?

Question 2: What is the largest amount of books you’ve ever had going at a time?

Blue Like Jazz: Movie Review

I finally took the time to watch “Blue Like Jazz,” a 2012 independent film based on a book by Donald Miller. My reason for watching this film? The issues in the movie are relevant to my life: it talks about Christian subculture and how Jesus is portrayed, accepted, or rejected in secular liberal arts colleges. (Disclaimer: I did not watch the movie in mindless absorption but rather with a critical mindset. In other words, the language and adult themes of the movie were not drawing points.)

I was expecting to hate it. Or at least be offended.

I wasn’t.

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So I would like to discuss the movie a bit here.
One of the reasons I wanted to see the film is because I am somewhat familiar with the work of writer Donald Miller. I’ve read a few of his books (though it’s been quite awhile), and I heard him speak in Wichita, Kansas. So I’m somewhat familiar with his worldview, some of his life goals, and ministry to fatherless boys. I feel like this background knowledge helped me to overlook things in the film which would normally greatly offend me as a Christian viewer. I know that the main character is based on Donald Miller himself, and I understand how the experiences at Reed College greatly changed him for the better. So it was like I was cheering for Don through the whole movie. (Also, I heard him talk about this movie way before it was even a possibility to film it. He joked that if a film was ever made, the he certainly wouldn’t be “played by Kirk Cameron.”) My first point: Don’t watch the movie unless you’ve read some of Miller’s books. The work will be greatly misunderstood by you, and you’ll probably be offended.

We have to be so careful when it comes to separating someone’s words from their actions. There are many things written by Donald Miller that I disagree with, perhaps things that sound nice but are not theologically correct. However, taking someone’s words alone isn’t always the best idea. We have to look at someone’s words followed up by their life. A person’s actions give more weight to their words.
Because I’ve heard him in person, and because I’ve heard about The Mentoring Project, I’m more inclined to give his movie a little more credit. Christians who haven’t had this opportunity (to understand his character) might totally misunderstand him.

I was reminded of this truth of combining character and words by a teacher/pastor from Kansas last weekend when I attended a teacher’s conference. He emphasized (in a most cosmologically Anabaptist way) that our words should not be separated from our actions. He also indicated that we should not put much stock into words that ARE separated from actions or from true lives lived. (So, he was saying: take books with a grain of salt. And facebook posts. And blogs.) So the second point is: This movie should not be separated from the writer who wrote the work and from his post-college ministry.

I say all this because there are plenty of things in the movie to offend Christian audiences, including language, sex jokes, and homosexual characters. Certainly, it could be argued that the movie makers could have produced a Clorox-clean version of a freshman year in college, but they made a different artistic choice. This is always a difficult choice. How will you present sinful realities without reveling in them? There is always a fine line here in the arts. The one thing I would say is that the movie makers, I thought, were sensitive in some areas. They could have over-sexualized the Renn Fayre. But they didn’t. There could have been more reverie, but they were careful to make it peripheral.

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One thing I want to discuss is a rather abrupt shift in topic, but here goes. Um, so this is me getting all English major-y and everything, but I couldn’t help but notice the homosexual metaphors in the movie. A female college student demands that Don keeps his Christianity “in the closet.” (Ironcially, the student is a lesbian. I could go on for a while here about how this movie speaks into some of the latent hypocrisies of LGBTQ agendas of tolerance and diversity, but I won’t.) Also, Don’s best friend Penny, when describing her new-found faith in Jesus (which did not come from her childhood subculture but rather from her personal study of the Bible in college), declares, “I wasn’t born this way.” Now the metaphor “born this way” does not have to refer to homosexuality, but one cannot miss its significance, especially in a movie filled to the brim with pop philosophy. Curiously, the idea of “coming out” is essential to the movie. I argue that that’s a strange metaphor choice for talking about Christian believers. Why was this metaphor chosen? And what is its effect? I could wax academic and ask if this metaphor is working to build inclusivity for the LGBTQ community within Christian cosmologies, but I’m not really ready to do that. And I doubt that’s what Miller was going for. (Or was it? I mean, he’s not stupid. He was an English major, too.) Maybe I’m reading too much into the movie. I mean, I’m not an expert in Queer Theory or anything (managed to skip that one in college). I’m just wondering why the “coming out” metaphor was chosen. Or borrowed. (Because, I mean, the LGBTQs borrowed “coming out” from the patriarchal American South whose young, upper-class women formally presented themselves to society at a “coming-out ball.”) I would welcome your feedback on this minor observation.

Next:
Q: Who would I recommend to watch this movie?
A: Christian college students
On one level, it’s just enjoyable to identify so much with the main character. Watching the movie makes you remember those first college days: of walking around in a fog of architecture and ideas… and then that first know-it-all student who makes you feel so stupid and sheltered… and the first person who hands you condoms on the sidewalk…  My favorite scene is when Don is checking out his college campus, all the while rocking his tucked in polo shirt. Hilarious for those of us in church subculture.

On another level, this movie strikes a chord with Christian college students trying to make sense of a world of conflict. We identify with the antagonism that Don experiences. During college – a  time of intense personal growth – we experience many competing philosophies, ideas, and worldviews, and we encounter so many hurting people that we sometimes begin to doubt many things: ourselves, the church, and God himself. But Don’s character doesn’t descend into the blame game. His tearful apology at the end of the movie is humble and vulnerable. His two-fold realization and admission goes something like this: “I’m ashamed of Jesus.” And: “He’s not like me. I’m sorry.” It’s moving to watch Don admit that his spiritual discontentment has to do with his own shortcomings.

Finally, I also enjoyed seeing how Don interacted with unbelievers. His personality and wit allowed him to get along with a lot of different people. He wasn’t judgmental in his friendships.

Have you watched “Blue Like Jazz”? What did you think?

Hot Tips: How to Write for the Rest of Your Life

I just finished this book, giggling.

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It was recommended to me by a choir director, and I bought it with a gift card from my pastor. How’s that for pious?

I wasn’t sure how I would enjoy reading a book about writing, but Douglas Wilson makes it bearable. His writing is an amusing mix of G.K. Chesterton, P.G. Wodehouse, and that snarky southern uncle on your dad’s side. In short, Wilson is a conservative Reformed and evangelical theologian and also a prolific writer. He has interesting ideas about Christian education and also valuable grandfatherly wisdom regarding what it takes to “be” a writer.

Wilson describes what kind of life a writer lives. He uncovers tools that all the best writers wield regularly. And everything he tells you about writing, he uses somewhere in the book.

Reading this book confirmed my suspicion that being a writer takes a lot of work. One does not simply snag a table at the closest coffee shop, macbook and latte in hand, and get published. Good writing comes with education, experience, and with age. Writing is also a lifestyle. Wilson confirms another of my suspicions: writers must read. (Sigh. I guess I’ll be taking up THAT hobby again. I’ve just really struggled to keep reading in college!) You’ve got to read so you know who to sound like. You expand your world by reading widely.

The book is peppered with wit and wisdom, but mainly just a ton of really valuable writing and lifestyle advice. (The question is: will I heed it?)

There are also laugh out loud moments. Wilson describes the attitudes of many young writers:

“The aspiring writer would like to graduate from college at twenty-two, marry at twenty-three, and land a major book deal at twenty-four. While the right kind of ambition is good, it rarely works like that. And even if you did have a major book deal at twenty-four, you would hardly have a vast reservoir of experiences to draw from. There was that time when you went sledding with your college buddies and broke your finger. Anything else?”

And a little sarcasm, regarding his own recommendation to read one to two books a week:

“If you begin this when you were thirty and joined the choir invisible when you were seventy, you would have read, over this course of time, between 2,080 and 4,160 books. It is quite true that you run the risk of learning something, but these are the risks a writer must take.”

My favorite moment, however, was reading Wilson’s literary opinion of Eugene Peterson’s (cringe-inducing?) translation of the Message (particularly the Psalms). I’m not trying to be cynical here, but it was truly fascinating to hear a scholarly critique of this Bible translation/paraphrase from a professor and literary genius. But, of course, I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you.

Do yourself a favor. Order Hot Tips.

Or check out Wilson’s blog at dougwils.com. …He’s entitled it, “Blog and Mablog.” (Giggle.)

Jesus, Truth, and the University

I just finished this phenomenal book. I like it because it gives such an accurate depiction of intellectual life at today’s universities. After completing my liberal arts education at The Ohio State University, I feel like I lived through the intellectual funk described in the book: the biased, secular, intellectual funk plaguing our universities. Written by Ohio native Kelly Monroe Kullburg, Finding God Beyond Harvard describes the founding of the Veritas Forum at Harvard in 1992, an organization which now serves over 50 American and international universities. Veritas hosts forums and speakers on college campuses in order “to inspire the shapers of tomorrow’s culture to connect their hardest questions with the person and story of Jesus Christ.” The book has been described as “part history, part theological meditation on the deepest level, and part thoughtful, personal reflections on the many issues facing our generation.”

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Kullberg herself graduated from The Ohio State University and continued her education at Harvard Divinity School. She surprised me with her descriptions of Harvard’s attitude toward Christianity:

“I went to Harvard Divinity School expecting to be challenged by both secular and Christian professors, students, and a broad curriculum. But by the end of an orientation lunch, I gather that one was not to speak of Jesus or the Bible without a tone of erudite cynicism.”

This was exactly my experience at Ohio State. Kullberg then exaggerates to make a point:
The overall ethos of HDS at the time was something like this: We wear black and are tolerant of anything but belief in truth. We are sophisticated post-Christian intellectuals who understand, rather than stand under, any authority or truth claim. We are subject to no one. All things are subject to our interpretations and preferences.”
Sound familiar?

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One of my favorite descriptions by Kullberg was her explanation of the real religious diversity at Harvard:
The few evangelicals barely came out of the closet as Christians; meanwhile, the Full Moon Circle—self-defined as the “Neo-pagan, Pre-Christian, Eco-feminist Wiccan Society”—packed out the chapel when it was their turn to host weekly worship. The songs were more like chants, and some knew them by heart. Several women led the service and had choreographed a dance to beckon the “spirits of the east, west, north and south.” One professor was speaking to a spirit or an ancestor; I couldn’t tell which. Gee, I thought to myself, we’re not in Ohio anymore. I wonder when we sing “Amazing Grace” and “The Old Rugged Cross(26).

Kullberg stays personal and describes her secular, academic family and how, despite this, she found Jesus as a high school student:
We were among an earlier wave of the secular harvest, ourselves reduced and separated by divorce, for we reap in life what we sow as ideas” (40).

I loved Kullberg’s research about the origins of “university.” By presenting research of university mottos, crests, architecture, and early documents, Kullberg proves what American universities were originally intended for—the search for truth (veritas), found in the person of Jesus Christ. And she indicates that the problems we see on college campuses today are a result of removing Jesus as the central focus of university.
Billy Graham asked a recent Harvard president, ‘What is the biggest problem of college students today?’ The president answered with one word: ‘emptiness.’ Unwittingly, he had offered an explanation for the rise in depression, sexual confusion, transmitted disease, drug use, binge drinking, pornography and even suicide. How did our great universities become places of emptiness? They didn’t start off that way. Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Princeton, Northwestern and hundreds of other colleges were founded for students to pursue a life of meaning and truth, to discover the fullness of life in Jesus Christ that we might advance his kingdom of love. Harvard’s particular vision and motto was ‘For Christ’s glory’ (In Christi gloriam) and was later changed to ‘Truth, for Christ and the church’ (Veritas: Christo et Ecclesiae). To Harvard’s original founders, truth (veritas) wasn’t an abstraction or a nice word for T-shirts and diplomas; it was a person—the Life Giver” (84).

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Considering the volatile reactions to Christianity in today’s college classrooms (ones I personally have sat in), it is shocking to read Harvard’s long-ago student goals:

“Let every student be earnestly pressed to consider well that the main end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ who is eternal life—John 17:3—and therefore to lay Christ in the bottom, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning… seeking him for wisdom.”

But Kullberg explains the progression away from Jesus, and she states the times correctly:
Nonetheless, the name of Jesus was eventually deleted from the motto. Today’s students are invited to a university dedicated to the pursuit of veritas, but upon arrival they often feel that no real truth is worth pursuing. As one student quipped in his commencement speech in Harvard Yard, ‘They tell us that it is heresy to suggest the superiority of some value, fantasy to believe in moral judgment sounder than your own. The freedom of our day is the freedom to devote ourselves to any values we please on the mere condition that we don’t believe them to be true’” (84). It’s creepy how right that student got it.

And Kullberg cites how secular the university’s loyalties lie. It is very telling.
The administration just decided to fund a Harvard sex magazine but gave nothing to help Veritas—even though we have fourteen hundred students attending and are talking about love, truth and meaning” (162).

Finding God Beyond Harvard is full of history (and, frankly, cluttered with a lot of names and individuals), but what makes it work are Kullberg’s vivid accounts of tense interactions with students and faculty at countless of Veritas events. Once, Kelly had to fill in at the last minute at the University at Albany and speak at an event called “The Bible and Feminism.” With no preparation, Kelly entered as anti-Christian protestors filled the meeting hall.

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“She started in on me. ‘Did some men pay you to come here? You’re being used. You are a subjugated tool of the white male hegemonic power structure, a repressed homophobic Westerner, disconnected from goddess wisdom and the rhythms of nature.’ She sounded like a women’s studies textbook. I said, ‘I’m sorry, but I think you’re a lot smarter than I am. Could you repeat that in terms I understand?’ Several students broke into laughter. ‘Some of us are in her class and we’ve been asking her that all semester,’ one said. She tried again, but when asked for her own thoughts what came across was a lot of hurt. And loneliness. She hid behind clichés and academic jargon, muttering about choice” (71).
This particularly tense Veritas event is described vividly in fifteen pages. Kullberg spent over an hour writing the audience’s complaints with Christianity on a chalkboard. Then, led by the Holy Spirit, she gave her personal testimony and shared the gospel of Jesus Christ. Some of the students had never heard about the loving person of Jesus in this way.

Veritas began to spread as a movement, and Kelly describes the vibrant community it invoked. Organizers planned countless outdoor outings for grad students. These brilliant students, soon to be world leaders, were interacting with God’s beautiful creation while working through the toughest questions of life. Kullberg describes kayaking, trail running, camping, and skiing on the East coast and surfing on the West coast.

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Veritas groups visited Walden Pond.

[Obligatory Mennonite comment: there’s an appendix of photographs in the back to the book, and a photograph from USC philosopher Dallas Willard’s midnight fireside chat after his talk at Stanford features quite a few conservative Mennonites!]

While Kullberg and her shoe-string ministry to Harvard grad students seems like a tour de force, we are quickly spun into reality as she relates a devastating blow in her personal life. Ready for marriage with her long-time (7 year!) boyfriend, Kullberg finds herself alone. She gets really personal, and we watch Kelly question the God she has so faithfully served.
It was an act of the will to advocate God’s reality when I didn’t really see his hand at work in my own life. At least not in my love life” (112).
Kullberg’s questions and doubts make her human and relatable. In her doubts and cynicism, Kelly is brought back by an intense evening… an evening so beautiful… alone with God…

“Something about it seemed too good to be false.”

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And she asks the question:
How could I enter back into God’s presence with this enchanted symphony of the creation around me? How could I trust the One behind it all? The answer came unbidden and clear: I was to choose life, to join the dance, by forgiving. Only by doing so could I enter into the abundant reality I deeply desired.”

I could go on and on about this book. (I literally made four pages of notes on this book, which I read for fun.) This book is real. While it gives a somewhat depressing image of universities today, there is unmistakable hope through its description of Veritas events, of engaged students, and of God himself. Kullberg writes,
Overwhelmed by—if not already numbed lifeless—by images of violence and injustice, by sex apart from fidelity, and by the cynicism and confusion of their own professors, many students are asking about wisdom and even truth again. They want to know what lasts, what matters and why. Discontent, many in our culture are rebelling against the desacralized world with its appetite for abomination” (159).

This unmistakable hope is like that of the Veritas spiritual grandmother, Vera Shaw:

Honey, the future is as bright as the promises of God.”

Students: have you ever been to a Veritas event? What was it like?

Reviewing Reviews: “October Baby”

This weekend I finally watched “October Baby,” and I thought it was a great movie. Apparently it met with mixed reviews. (IMDB, for example, gives it only 5 out of 10 stars.) Since it was rated this low, I was surprised that I enjoyed it, because I’m normally pretty picky about movies. (However, any contemporary movie that keeps my attention but is clean enough that I can enjoy it with my mom gets a lot of stars from me.)

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To balance my bias, sometimes I like to check out Amazon reviews. Contrasting the 5 star reviews with the 1 star reviews is really revealing, and it is a great way to “read” critically. Concerning “October Baby”  though, I would like to comment on several of the points of the 1 star reviews.

1) Is the “abortion survivor” premise accurate?
One review comments on how this movie is inaccurate because there is no possible way that fetuses could survive modern abortions. The reviewer cites that this movie is based on an occurrence from the 1970s when abortion procedures were less thorough, and that this fact alone makes circumstance of the movie highly inaccurate.
I, however, found out on the IMDB website that while the movie is “inspired” by the life story of a 70s abortion survivor Gianna Jessen, the survived abortion itself is based on an actual case from 1991 in New York City. Apparently, a doctor removed the arm of a fetus, sent the mother home, told her to return the next day to finish, but the woman went into labor the next day.
My own biased opinion: even if the 1991 survival case (and hundreds more since then) had not occurred, it does not preclude filmmakers from taking past occurrences and situating them in current events. The opposite of this (current events set in past history) happens all the time in cinema and modern storytelling. For example, we all watched “The Help,” and no one complained about Kathryn Stockett setting her personal experiences from the 1980s in a different time period (the socially tense 1960s). The issues themselves (unfortunately) do not change; they are, in a sense, timeless.

2) Is the movie too sentimental?
Many reviewers complained that the movie was too sentimental. I agree that sentimentality was used extensively—through facial close-ups and “the falling tear”. (This rhetorical appeal of “pathos” is used to promote an emotional response.)  However, I would argue that the movie uses a variety of appeals, including “logos” and “ethos”.
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One of the most significant scenes is when Hannah visits her birth mother’s (Cindy Hastings) office. When the “aborted child” invades the professional office space, the juxtaposition is highly revealing. As readers, we begin to embrace “logos,” or reason and logic. We ask: “Cindy Hastings has a successful, professional career, but what is the cost?” The cost is a “dead” teenager. We as an audience begin to reason and to think logically about the importance of professional goals and what costs or “sacrifices” we are prepared to make to accomplish those goals. (Granted, we are guided toward the moral question of whether or not it is appropriate to kill one’s offspring in order to reach one’s professional goals.) The movie also utilizes the rhetorical appeal of “ethos”; actress Shari Rigby’s testimony at the end of the movie functions as an authoritative voice. For those who are worried that the “abortion movie” might be condemnatory for our sisters who have found themselves in these situations, Rigby, the real human, functions as an authority in this case because in real life, she herself had an abortion while working in a law firm (not unlike the character she plays). Rigby, as one authority on the subject, deemed this story (of loss and forgiveness) worth telling, and that counts for something. “October Baby,” then, utilizes multiple appeals.
Shari Rigby as Cindy in ``October Baby.''

3) Are the characters realistic?
Many 1 star reviews complained that the characters were one dimensional and the dialogue was terrible. The reviewers wrote that they could not imagine these kind of characters. In this case, I think we would do well to remember WHO this movie is about (and who the filmmakers themselves are): white middle-class Christians. Hear me out. I would like to submit that we need to think about the cultures of the characters and the story-telling group. Whether or not you’ve had a lot of interaction with this group of people, white middle-class Christian families exist. Some reviewers complained that these scenarios are not ones in which the abortion issues typically fall. Even if this is the case, like I said earlier, it does not preclude filmmakers from telling a story from their own perspective: that of a loving, close-knit nuclear family. Just because the story is not a gritty, inner-city tale, featuring broken families, does not mean that the characters are not realistic. They are simply a realism that everyone might not have experienced. We always hear the statistics that “over half of American homes today do not have two-parent homes.” This means, however, that for almost half of the population, two-parent nuclear homes DO exist. “October Baby” is a story told by the “other half.” If this is not your experience, do not simply ignore it as “unrealistic.” We NFP’s (nuclear family peoples) have sat through PLENTY of your divorced, separated, single parent movies. Why is it necessary for you to condemn our own stories?

I also submit that the accusation of “one-dimensionality” results from a cultural disconnect. In solid, nuclear family relationships, there is a give-and-take (and, truly, it is Love) that might seem otherworldly to people who have not experienced these relationships. For example, when Hannah obeys her dad and gets in the car in Mobile, I can imagine that those from other cultural backgrounds might react: “What is she doing?! What is her problem! Why is she taking orders from him? She should get out of that car right now and CUSS HIM OUT.” Yet there is an unspoken cultural understanding of NFP’s that this is how relationships work. Hannah has experienced love and leadership from her Dad, and she trusts him. In a Christian context, she also has a responsibility to moral “ways of being.” (Though they are never expressed verbally, we see this, fleetingly, in the moments of tension and intense conflict that regularly cross actress Rachel Hendrix’s face.) What seems one-dimensional is actually highly complex (though maybe unspoken).

(My only contention with the “realism” of the movie is that I think that sentimentality was taken too far when it was sloppily inserted into the plot. I struggled with the scenes involving the policemen. Little sob stories like Hannah’s [in real life] may or may not elicit that kind of mercy from modern-day law enforcement officials. But, those were the only scenes that I thought seemed truly “unrealistic.”)

My own biased opinion: The relationships in this movie are depictions of NFP reality. To me, it is refreshing that the filmmakers refuse to succumb to Hollywood clichés (read: SEX EVERYWHERE). How interesting that the guy gets the girl, and THEY DON’T KISS. In this movie, we get: delayed gratification, a gentleman, and submission to authority (on multiple fronts!): Hannah to her dad, Jason to Hannah’s dad, and Dad to God. It’s triangle that we rarely see on camera.
Jason Burkey as Jason and Rachel Hendrix as Hannah in ``October Baby.''

This pretty much sums up a few thoughts I had after reading the Amazon 1-star reviews.

Have you seen “October Baby”? How many stars (out of 5) would you give it?