How I Came to Be Polish – and Other Stories

Four weeks ago I discovered a pretty incredible Polish ancestor. I was quite thrilled with my discovery, for I would be traveling to Poland in a matter of days.

It all started with my great-grandmother who lived to be 102. Here’s a picture of her reading me a book.

Circa 1991


I have clear memories of her, and I’m so delighted that she lived to be so old. (I plan on living just as long. Also, how fun is it to be able to say I met someone who was born in the 1800s?! 1893, to be exact.) I remember the way she conserved water when washing her hands by turning on the faucet to only the tiniest stream, and there are stories about her traveling via horse-drawn wagon from Iowa to Oklahoma.

What’s interesting about my great-grandmother is that her mother was adopted from the Ukraine. You must know that this is significant; my family has very solid Swiss and German roots, so a Ukrainian ancestor is a bit of an anomaly. My great-great grandmother’s name was Mary Ratzlaff, and I was always convinced that she had an interesting Russian heritage.

Russian? Ukrainian? Polish?

You see, I have always wanted to be Russian. Because of this, I exaggerate my Ratzlaff family history. Some of you also know my affinity for Tolstoy. Once I spent the weekend in New York City and bought tickets to see The Great Comet on Broadway, Dave Malloy’s musical adaptation of War and Peace. I was pleased as punch with my nosebleed seats to see Josh Groban performing as Pierre, but more so by an Asian family who asked me how much it meant for me to see the play since I was obviously Russian. Earlier that day, a Russian family on the street stopped my friends and asked me for directions, and please could I give them in Russian.

“Why are you asking me?!” I said.

The man replied: “You look like you speak Russian!”

My family tells the story this way: Mary Ratzlaff arrived to America as an immigrant whose parents had died. She was taken in by the Brennemans, a childless Mennonite couple in Oklahoma. She never learned to read or write, but perhaps she enjoyed looking at pictures in the Brenneman’s German family Bible. (My father is in possession of this Bible, and I will inherit it.) The Bible includes a letter, written in my great-grandmother’s hand, on her mother’s origins.

Papa and I have done a bit of digging to discover more of Mary’s past, and we connected a few dots in Ukraine, but the trail goes cold in Poland, right around the time Mary’s parents and grandparents were marrying very Jewish sounding names – Koehns and Schmidts. (!!)

Dad and I lost our minds – what if we are Jewish?!

Last year, I posted about this on Instagram, and my Belarusian friend Kristina (who is living in Poland) mentioned: “Yes, her name sounds a little bit Jewish!”

Me: “Okay, is it Jewish? My dad and I have always wondered!”

Kristina: “For me, it sounds very Jewish. Both name and surname.”

Dad and I were so intrigued. A year later, this December, I did the final uncovering. Using all the free tools at ancestry.com, geni.com, and wikitree.com, I discovered the following:

Slavic?

The earliest known Ratzlaff relative was a Swedish soldier, of Slavic origin named Heinrich, who lived from 1590-1631. (Actually, his first name is unknown, but genealogists have nicknamed him thus.) He may have been a Swedish soldier in the European Civil War (the 30 Years War in 1618-1648), or perhaps a contract soldier (mercenary) of Slavic origin fighting for the King of Sweden. He was born is what is now Szczecin, Poland, a major seaport near the German border and the Baltic Sea. (This city was found by West Slavs in the 700s).

Reportedly, this Ratzlaff ancestor was moved by sermons he heard in the Mennonite church and determined to join the church. He pulled his sword from its sheath and thrust it into a hedge post and broke it off at the hilt. Jacob Wedel (1754-1791), a Mennonite of Przechovka, Poland, who traced family names back to their origins in his Przechovka-Alexanderwohl church record, relates that due to the laws in Prussia of the time about converting to the Mennonite church, Heinrich could not immediately join the church. He had to leave for the Netherlands before returning to Prussia to join the congregation. Heinrich Ratzlaff married Caterina Alcke Vogt, and his only son is described by Wedel as “by our people’s standards, a very wealthy man.”

Wedels are not only 18th century Mennonite record keepers; their German counterparts started the Polish national chocolate brand: E. Wedel!

Kenneth Ratzlaff, in his 1998 A Mennonite Family’s History, raises some interesting questions regarding the possible Slavic origins of the Ratzlaff name: “Where did this ‘Swedish’ Ratzlaff come from with his Slavic-sounding name? Several sources have pointed to Pomerania, a region of northern present-day Germany, on the Baltic Sea west of Danzig [Gdansk]. Pomerania at that time was under Swedish control, and Sweden had been at war with Poland and Russia. Consequently a soldier from that region might have had contacts around Przechowka, and someone from Pomerania could have been identified as Swedish. A similar name, Retzlaff, is common in the area around Stettin [Szczecin] in Pomerania. The name Retzlaff could have been changed to Ratzlaff to fit the Low German dialect of West Prussia. That leaves another question: Ratzlaff sounds Slavic; why would a Slavic name come from a Germanic area? Centuries earlier, Pomerania had been occupied by Slavs. Though Retzlaff is not a Serbian-sounding name, a possible origin in the present-day area of Serbia has been suggested. The Slavic identity had been lost, but the name Retzlaff was possibly a relic of that occupation.”

(Interestingly, wikitree.com indicates that “no known carriers of Heinrich’s DNA have taken a DNA test.” Presumedly doing so could prove these Slavic roots. Me: HOLD MY MENNO TEA. My DNA test just arrived in the mail today!)

For eight generations, the Ratzlaffs resided in what is now Poland. They participated in Mennonite congregations in Prussia throughout the 1600 and 1700s, and if we follow the line, it is Heinrich, Johann V Hans, Elder Berent, Berent, Hans, Heinrich, Andreas Heinrich, and Andreas, who moved to Ukraine. Andreas’s son Tobias, and Tobias’s daughter Mary Ratzlaff (my great-great-grandmother) were both born in Antonivka, Ukraine.

Indeed, to have discovered these possible Slavic origins only days before a short trip to Warsaw, Poland, was immensely gratifying. I imagined my trip to be a kind of home-going, a visiting of the motherland. I imagined 6-year-old Mary Ratzlaff boarding a ship for America, leaving behind the flat plains of Antonivka, never to return again. I imagined her on her deathbed, at 44 years old, learning of her great-great granddaughter whose entire occupation is teaching language and reading. I tried to imagine the Polish landscape, a land my ancestors once inhabited.

No words on any Jewish origins, though. Many female maiden names in the family line sound quite Mennonite (Dutch Mennonite, for that matter): Voth, Funk, Kornelson, Unruh, Dreier. (However, a DNA test should be able to identify Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, if there is any. I will know soon!) I was also shocked to discover that Mary Ratzlaff’s father Tobias did NOT die, leaving her an orphan. Rather, he dropped her off in Oklahoma, and went on to Kansas where he remarried a Helena Schmidt, and proceeded to have 13 children! Both Tobias and Helena are both buried in a Mennonite cemetery in Kansas. I HAVE SO MANY QUESTIONS. How could he leave his little daughter, and was he estranged from her? For my great-grandmother’s letter mentions nothing of her mother’s father remarrying or ever visiting Mary after she was taken in by the Brennemans. So fascinating.

Story #1: Warsaw holiday

Some of you who follow me on social media know that I planned a short trip to Poland over Christmas to visit two dear friends, Lizzie who is teaching English in Minsk Mazowiecki, and my Belarusian friend Kristina, who is living in Warsaw, who I met on Oasis Chorale tour in Ireland in 2014. (A crazy connection! We met after a concert in the Waterford cathedral, and we’ve stayed connected on Instagram ever since.) When I mentioned that I might be in Warsaw over Christmas, Kristina graciously invited me to visit her church and have a meal with her family.

I traveled with an old roommate of mine (you remember my scientist friend who accompanied me to the Mennonite History conference in Winnipeg) and her husband, and we had a magical time exploring the most festive bits of Old Town, for we arrived at 5:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

(Interestingly, Tobias and his little daughter Mary arrived to Philadelphia from Europe on Christmas day in 1874. One hundred forty-seven years later, I traveled from Philadelphia to Warsaw on Christmas Eve.)

Mary’s passage documents that I found on ancestry.com: “Maria Ratzlas, 6, female, child, Russian” aboard the S.S. Vaderland in December 1874. (Note the two little girls’ names after hers. Mary had several little sisters on the ship!)

Christmas day was spent with Lizzie and her friends, and Lizzie put me on a train back to Warsaw in the afternoon to meet my Belarusian friend Kristina, who I had not seen for seven years. I was so nervous about getting off at the correct stop, but I managed to find my way, and soon I was in the middle of a Belarusian house party, laughing my way through games played in Russian. Kristina took me back to her apartment, and we drank tea and talked late into the night.

It was an honor to attend her church on Sunday (I may or may not have sung a duet with Kristina in the service), and it was a privilege to meet her parents and 12 siblings. We shared a meal, after which the house was filled with music and singing (in Polish and English), and it felt nearly familiar, with rich four-part harmonies.

Evening came, and more conversation, and soon Kristina and I were sipping coffees at the train station, waiting for my goodbye train.

It is conversations and connections like these that bring us back to “where we are” and remind us of God’s good earth the world over. Sometimes I find that my life feels very in-grown, so very small, at my tiny school in a rural county. But that evening, it was as if, for a moment, I turned slowly in place and surveyed the whole landscape, instead of fixating on that broken hilt.

Story #2: A Man with a baby cat

On my train back to Minsk Mazowiecki, a Man with a Baby Cat began walking through my train, asking everyone to pet it. Everyone cooed at the baby cat. Even though he was well-dressed, I did NOT want to be bothered by this stranger. I got off at my train stop, and he sidled up to me near the stairs:

“Chcesz pogłaskać kociaka?”

I tried to ignore him, and put my head down and kept walking, a little scared to find an empty train platform with my friends NOWHERE in sight.

The Man with a Baby Cat, who was still wearing a huge smile, toddled off to find other victims. I couldn’t remember how to get back to Lizzie’s apartment, so I was left to shiver in 7-degree weather on the train platform and furiously text my friends.

Ten minutes later, they arrived, and all the way home, I gushed about my freshly-made Warsaw memories, and hollered about the Man with the Baby Cat, and right when we were crossing the street to my friend’s apartment, the Man with a Baby Cat dashed up behind us and asked in English, “DO YOU WANT TO PET THE KITTEN?” and we squealed and ran for the apartment and dashed inside and locked the doors.


Story #3: Ice Skating

Indeed, my Warsaw holiday was a gift, thanks to the hospitality of Lizzie and Kristina, and my traveling companions Janae & Justin.

One highlight was exploring Kazimierz Dolny, a historic town filled with art galleries, along the Vistula River.

I also enjoyed ice skating in Old Town Warsaw. (Indeed, I hadn’t gone ice skating in years!) Admission to the rink in the center of Old Town is free, and renting skates costs only $2.50. The rink is lit by festive lights strung dazzlingly across, and in the amber light, I shoved my feet into hockey skates while my friends sought out hot drinks and grilled sheep cheese with cranberries.

I slowly warmed up on the ice, weaving in and out of Polish strangers until my body remembered the movements, and then I skated fast like a little girl, darting in and out of the bundled skaters. I skated around and around, changing directions when the announcers called it, lost deep in thought, not realizing my time had wound down, much past my rental. As I swirled around on the ice that night, an old woman with gray hair, across the rink, caught my eye. She stared into my eyes, smiled, and waved and waved. I circled the rink again, trying to find her face to see if she was actually waving at me or someone else.

I kept scanning the spectators warming themselves with hot drinks by the fire heaters, but I couldn’t find her.

Had she slipped into the crowd?

It doesn’t matter. I will always imagine her to be my ancestor welcoming me home.

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Whole-Hearted Living: Psychology and Christianity in Paul Tournier’s A Place for You

If you’re like me, when it comes to counseling, you’re aware of a certain stigma related to folks who receive counseling services. This phenomenon is especially present in the church, as it seems that many in the church curate a certain suspicion for, or an ambivalence to, the field of psychology. With this in mind, I must tell you of the book I’ve finished reading. It’s by a French-speaking Swiss psychiatrist who was trained as a physician but later turned to counseling as a profession. Practicing in Geneva, Paul Tournier wrote prolifically on the intersection of psychology and spirituality. Tournier, who was a devout Christian, wrote works that received overwhelming reception due to their pastoral nature, and many of his books were translated into English and German.

First published in French in 1966, his book A Place for You attempts to bring together the seemingly separate worlds of psychology and Christianity. He explains how nonbelievers and Christians alike (while they may not have language to express it) seem to “know” the Two Gospels of both worlds, which seem in opposition to each other. The gospel of psychology, as he calls it, is one of “self-fulfillment” and “self-assertion,” while the Biblical gospel is “self-denial” and “renunciation.” (Tournier is careful to point out that this particular conception of the Biblical gospel is just that: a (g)ospel, not the Gospel, but it is nevertheless a gospel which Christian communities immediately recognize.) If, then, we recognize the strain between these two seemingly separate entities, we must ask the question: is there any “place” in which they merge?

Tournier argues that there is. He contends that both movements are necessary for whole-hearted living, but that they must be enacted in a particular progression. He sees the necessity for self-actualization and self-fulfillment to come before renunciation, and the former movement can only occur when children experience attachment in their family of origin – when they have a sense of place within their family. It is out of this sense of place that attachment forms, which is the starting point for young people to develop a healthy sense of self and self-assertion. It is this personhood, this self, which then interacts with a spiritual movement as an adult, when they, as fully formed adults, make true commitments of faith and willingly give themselves up to appropriate renunciation and self-denial.

We are all aware of Christian communities that legislate conformity in behavior and attitude (and dare I say, dress). Further, we are all familiar with Christian communities that deem unacceptable such language as “self-assertion” and “self-fulfillment.” Yet Tournier argues that untold damage is done in Christian communities by curating “premature renunciation” before the member has experienced the appropriate “free expansion” of self, which occurs mostly after having experienced attachment love in the home, when the person felt a place in their family of origin. Without this sense of place, the church’s language of renunciation, to “deny oneself,” becomes painful and confusing. Tournier narrates the progression of a child who does not experience a sense of place in the family, how he begins to imagine that he is not accepted, and he becomes prey to a martyr complex (whether real or imagined), and how he can drift from place to place as an adult, always seeking something he never had, torn by a nostalgia for a place he never knew. It is to this person that the church says, “Give yourself to the service of others, for in the service of others you will find yourself.” Tournier responds in a resounding, “No!” for he understands that since the client “has not been loved, or not loved well, he can neither love nor believe in and accept love.” 

This is the place where psychologists and the Church can work together, if they can understand their respective roles – that is, the psychologist and the counselor attending to the needs for a sense of place (in the consulting room), and the Church rightly interacting with whole-hearted adults who understand the call of Jesus, who says, “Come, follow me.” It is interesting, Tournier notes, the type of person it was who God “called” in Scripture; Tournier notes that those who were called demonstrated a well-formed sense of place. Abraham was well-established in Ur of the Chaldees when God called him. Moses was asked to leave Midian, where he was tending his father-in-law’s flocks. Jesus called Simon and Andrew to leave their well-established fishing profession. The rich young ruler was just that: a rich young ruler, seemingly self-actualized and well-situated in society. Yet we note that perhaps the Church preaches this self-denial a bit too hastily to all persons before (as Tournier argues) the necessary self-assertion movement occurs.

The actual three best quotes from Tournier’s book:

“We have all seen so many of those men and women who have never grown up because they have been repressed by a religious upbringing, and have been trained since infancy in systemic renunciation.”

“To how many generations of miserable exploited people has the Church preached resignation, acceptance of one’s lot, surrender, and submission?”

“How many mediocre personalities are there in our churches – people who have not the courage to live full lives, to assert themselves and make the most of themselves, and who look upon this stifling of themselves as a Christian virtue, whereas faith ought to create powerful personalities?”

It is astonishing how accurate Tournier’s vision of the church is, considering he lived in French-speaking Switzerland (and over fifty years ago!).

I must tell you that reading Tournier was as worldview-shifting for me as reading N.T. Wright, G.K. Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis. There is something in the writing that rings so true. I’m most struck by the stories of his clients who struggled to fit in as young children, along with his clear vision of the way that the church is experienced in almost a heartless way by its many calls for renunciation. (Interestingly, he has many comments about single women and their journey to detaching from their parents, whether in healthy or unhealthy ways. In one chapter about “place,” he indicates that he could not stress enough how important it is for a woman to move out and have her own home.) I appreciate how he clearly highlights the distinctions between the work of psychologists and the work of pastors, and how he offers a Biblical framework for understanding a sense of place and a sense of self in the context of mature Christianity (hence the title, A Place for You).

A bit more personally, his work is teaching me to have grace with myself as I attend to the Two Movements, perhaps at rates different from my peers. Additionally, I’m learning to have grace with others who use language of attachment with God that I used to think was unbelievably hypocritical or even ignorant, for I boasted, “You cannot possibly feel that way about God,” when in fact, perhaps I did not feel that way about God, but yet somehow, by some grace, those persons had experienced some sort of spiritual ascension which I had not yet found. There is a sense, then, in which reading the book improves your own self-knowledge.  

Like Tournier, I, too, am Swiss!

Indeed, I developed my own little attachment to Tournier because I, too, am Swiss, but more than that, there is something about reading his work which makes one feel seen. And that is one of the best feelings in the world.

If you’re curious to read countless stories of his clients from years in the consulting room (to include single women learning to detach and self-actualize in healthy ways), you simply must read this book. A word to the wise: the book is out of print, so scrounging around Amazon is the best way to go. A few copies show up on Amazon for $20 every few weeks; other than that, original copies sit around $600 for sale (!).

Fun fact: I begged three friends to buy their own dusty copies, made them read it, and forced them to attend my own little book club. I cooked Herbed Artichoke Cheese Tortellini and baked (what I call) somewhat edible gluten-free garlic muffins, and we discussed the following book club questions (written by yours truly) for three hours! Let me know if you want to come next time. 😊  

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1. How do you interact with Tournier’s discussion of children knowing a sense of place? Did you experience a strong sense of place within your family as a child? Why or why not? (See p. 12.) If you struggled with attachment as a child, do you connect with the “increasing and unsatisfied nostalgia” he mentions? Further, did that lack of attachment produce in you “real and imagined persecutions” (18)?

2. Choose one of the following quotes and discuss it:

  • “It is readily understandable that to be denied a place is to suffer a serious moral trauma. It is a sort of denial of one’s humanity” (26).
  • “It is true that [man] has a remarkable capacity for adaptation… Nevertheless his capacity to adapt himself has its limits, and if the evolution in his environment becomes too rapid, it may demand a rate of transformation in man which is beyond his capabilities” (53).
  • [many quotes from 55-57 about how our sense of place as humans is being majorly disrupted by advances in science, travel, communication, etc.] “Time was when each man lived shut up in his own little garden. How the world is swept by one tidal wave after another. How can you ask young people to hammer out a personal spiritual place for themselves in the midst of such a maelstrom?” (57)
  • “[The woman] feels more strongly than the man the importance of places… Having a home of her own is particularly important for a woman… it means she has become a person… what a difference it made in their lives. They could have visitors, they had a place of their own” (59).
  • “It is often very difficult for a patient who has been cured, or at least undergone an improvement in his condition, to feel at home in the Church, even if he wants to. He finds it so impersonal, so cold and conventional, after the stirring experiences he has had in the psychotherapist’s consulting-room” (79).

3. Tournier’s argument begins with his concept of the Two Gospels. Define each gospel, and describe how premature renunciation is problematic (91-93).

4. Explain Tournier’s concept of the Two Movements, and give examples of hindrances to this linear movement (98, 101, 108).

5. Father Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “Develop yourself first” (100). Do you agree or disagree? Where might some disagree theologically?

6. Why does Tournier takes issue with the following statement: “Give yourself to the service of others. It is in giving oneself that one finds oneself” (105)?

7. Delineate the movement of Tournier’s female client that begins with a silent girl with quarreling parents and ends with parents shocked by the adult woman literally “coming to blows” with them (109-110). Discuss the “religious blackmail” in the life of this client, and also in the context of, oh I don’t know, Mennonite women everywhere.

8. Do you feel that your own parents in any way inhibited your “free expansion of youth” (115)? Do you, or do you not, agree that there is a tendency by Christian parents to dampen ambition?

9. Discuss premature renunciation. For example, Tournier writes, “The great risk, if one tries to urge someone to be loving and forgiving is that he will pretend to love and forgive” (120). Note, too, the example of the young married man on 129 & 130. With this as a context, how comfortable are you with waiting “to urge self denial on a man” (141)? Discuss your own experience of “false forgiveness, false loves, and false renunciations” (142).

10a. In section III “Supports,” Tournier discusses a kind of anxiety that clients must overcome as they leave the first movement of self-actualization (and its accompanying supports) and enter authentic renunciation. (This anxiety may also be experienced in a preliminary stage of self-actualization, wherein a client may realize their false renunciations and exchange them for authentic self-actualization). Situate yourself within these movements, especially in the context of this comment by Tournier: “The person who has had the benefit of a solid support in childhood from which to launch out into life, will have no difficulty in letting go of that support, and in finding fresh support somewhere else” (163).

10b. Lastly, let’s discuss “infantile regression,” this tendency in both psychology and Christianity for people to remain satisfied right at the point when they should be marching forward (186). Where have you seen folks “fossilized in their satisfaction”? And how does Tournier see this phenomenon in relation to the impulse for basically all of his work (see p 222)?

Add This to Your New Year’s Resolution

While thinking about goal-setting, I was listening to Shankar Vedantam’s Hidden Brain episode, “Where Gratitude Gets You.” He was interviewing psychologist David DeSteno about the role gratitude plays in helping us achieve our goals.

Early in the episode, they reminded listeners that one ingredient for success is delayed gratification. DeSteno points to the infamous “marshmallow test” by Walter Mischel which concluded that children with the most self-control are situated to be the most successful in life. (You’ve no doubt seen plenty of parodies of the marshmallow test on Youtube.)

The Marshmallow Test

What’s so fun is that DeSteno ran an adult version of the marshmallow test at Northeastern University, but this time with cash. He found that adults, not just toddlers, were pretty susceptible to instant gratification, agreeing to accept $17 in cash right away, rather than waiting for $100 in cash in a year.

Another thing that DeSteno found in his research was related to people’s [in]ability to use self-control in order to act with integrity. His team conducted a study where they asked participants to flip a coin in order to decide which of two tasks they would complete for the experiment – a long, tedious task, or a short, fun one. In this willpower test, 90% of participants fudged the coin toss flip to make the answer be in their favor, creating all kinds of stories for why it was okay for them to cheat.

Perhaps you think that you would pass the willpower test with flying colors, but we all know that self-control is hard to cultivate. And what’s more, it is interesting to note that self-control, and not giving in, is, according to research, stressful on the body. DeSteno suggests that using self-control alone to reach your goals brings a stress response that actually affects your health. He cites a study by Gregory Miller of Northwestern University who was working with kids from disadvantaged background, teaching them executive control strategies. He found that over time, those strategies worked, but “the stress level that those children… and adolescents were under began to manifest itself physically. And so if you kind of expand that out, the upshot is, yes, if you’re always trying to exert self-control, you can achieve your goals, but your health is going to suffer.”

For those of you who pride yourselves on being able to win the marshmallow test or to not cheat on coin flips, beware. There’s another caveat for those with self-control superpowers. The interviewers cite a study by Christopher Boyce that indicates how self-controlled folks interact with failure.

DeSteno explained: “This was a study looking at the trait of conscientiousness, which is the ability to kind of put your nose to the grindstone and persevere in pursuing your goals. And people who do that, yes, they succeed. But when they do fail (and they do fail less because they’re working really hard), the hit to their well-being is 120 percent greater than the rest of us. And although the data doesn’t show exactly why that is in that study, personally, I believe that one reason is because these individuals haven’t been focused on cultivating the social relationships that are there to catch us when we fall and to make us more resilient.”

It seems that self-control alone is not enough.   

The role of emotions in achieving your goals

Next, Vedantam and DeSteno discuss emotions in relation to achieving goals, and they hint that emotions may be an important key for success. In fact, DeSteno suggests that we should rethink the “use” of emotions. He suggests that emotions are not about the past; instead, emotions are about protecting ourselves for the future: “Many of us see our emotions as the enemy when it comes to carrying out our resolutions, but we often forget something: emotions can also be enormously constructive and powerful… Emotions are not about the past. They are about the future. And what I mean by that is if you even just think about the brain metabolically, what good would it be to have a response that is only relevant to things that have happened before? The reason we have emotions are to help us decide what to do next. When you are feeling an emotion, it’s altering the computations. Your brain is making your predictions for the best course of action.”

DeSteno’s work explores how cultivating certain emotions allows us to meet our resolutions. In one study, DeSteno’s team found a correlation between gratefulness and being able to practice self-control. That is, when people were in a state of gratefulness, they were able to double their self-control. Now it took participants $31 of cash up front, instead of $17, before they would give in to a cash payout, instead of waiting for $100 in a year.  

Not only did studies show the connection between gratefulness and practicing self-control, but also between gratefulness and lowered stress. The emotion of gratefulness elicited by counting one’s blessings had a powerful effect, as DeSteno notes: “Robert Emmons would ask a certain percentage of his subjects to engage in daily gratitude reflection. So he was making them basically count their blessings as a kind of an experimental intervention. And what he found is that over time, the individuals who did this reported that they were better able to engage in exercise again, a type of sacrifice in the moment for future gain. They reported better quality of their relationships. They reported less symptoms of illness. And so taken together, what this kind of signifies this to me, that it’s practicing gratitude is enhancing people’s well-being and kind of reducing the stress that comes from illness or feelings of loneliness or disconnection.

Additionally, a study by Wendy Mendez shows how gratitude can buffer the effects of stress, and she found that gratitude “was basically like a booster shot for stress reduction.

Vedantam & DeSteno remind us that “it might be better to think of gratitude as a skill rather than as a trade or just simply an emotion, something that just pops up unbidden in our hearts.” Also, “emotions are tools that you can cultivate in your life. When you meditate, you’re building an automatic response to feel compassion more regularly. When you count your blessings daily, you’re engaging in an activity. You’re curating your own emotional states. You’re making yourself feel more grateful.”

[And just think: all of this on a secular podcast about the benefits of gratefulness, while our Scriptures speak about thankfulness upwards of 170 times. It is always so fascinating to find instances of science aligning with spiritual directives given by God.]

Theology and brain science on transformational change

I was pondering this Hidden Brain podcast over the Thanksgiving holiday when I stumbled upon an interview with neurotheologian Jim Wilder, a clinical psychologist who studies the intersection between theology and brain science. He was discussing his new book, Renovated: God, Dallas Willard, and the Church That Transforms. Wilder draws on from multiple conversations with contemporary Dallas Willard (who positions himself as a counselor) to produce his book which asks the question: how is it, exactly, that people change? What causes transformation in people?

Interviewer Skye Jethani asked the question this way: “What leads to real transformation? For a long time in the western church, we’ve believed that knowledge alone is what will change people. Therefore, if we just learn enough of the Bible, if we just have enough theology, our behavior will be transformed. Well, a lot of us have realized that that’s actually not the case, and so in recent years, a lot of us have been drawn towards spiritual disciplines, the practices that change our behaviors, and we’ve come to believe that a combination of knowledge and practice is what really leads to transformation.” But for Wilder, there is a third component, one that is deeply rooted in our biology.

Indeed, we understand the limits of “worldview education,” that is, using sermons, Sunday schools, and Christian schools as the primary means to “communicate” someone into the kingdom of God in order to bring about transformation. (I have blogged extensively about the limits of worldview education as a means of transformational change and as a mode of transferring the Gospel and discipling Kingdom participants.) Certainly, theologians and philosophers like James K.A. Smith (drawing on the work of Charles Taylor) depict other means of imparting the Gospel or forming the imagination and desire, one of the strongest drivers of behavior (for, as Smith puts, “we are what we love”). While many Christian leaders today emphasize theology and worldview instruction (or even a passive education of “knowing all the worldviews so that you can be aware of how they depart from Christianity”), we know through work by Smith and others that factors much stronger than explicit instruction of worldview components (through sermons and high school Bible classes) are the factors that lead to evident behaviors. We call these forces liturgies, or embodied practices that tell us much about the way we see the world than any stated doctrine, and these liturgies (or embodied practices) bend back on us and reinforce the way we view the world. 

In the interview (beginning at 48:00), Jim Wilder (who has the closest thing to a Mennonite or Beachy Amish accent that I’ve heard on air – no relation) speaks as a neurotheologian when he says that if the brain tells us something, and the Bible tells us something, it strikes a theologian that we ought to pay attention. Wilder then argues that the brain needs to learn to be Christian, and that it is the main thing that learns to interact with God. (Admittedly a departure from that recognizable American evangelical Gnosticism that always situates the body and the material as less spiritual.)

Many are familiar with Dallas Willard’s VIM model as a vehicle for transformational change: Vision, Intention, and Means. Wilder breaks down the components this way: “The ‘vision’ everyone can agree on. We have to have the right ideas, the right vision, the right understanding of things. Truth and all of that fits very well on the vision side. The ‘means’ side is what are the actual practices that we have to go through. But the ‘intentions’ side was always the squirrely one. How do you actually get people to try to do this? What’s the motivation?… Dallas knew right from the start it wasn’t willpower. Because there are some people who are willful, but not necessarily better spiritually. How do we go about motivating people to want to be Christ-like?… The strongest motivator in the brain is attachment. It’s who we love. It forms our identity in the brain, it forms our attachments, it shapes our ideas… We are much more changed by who we love than what we believe.

Wilder then explores if there is anything in Scripture that hints at, or supports, a kind of transformational attachment love. (For he acknowledges that “attachment love” as a concept is only about fifty years old in science.) He points us to Scriptures like Isaiah 49:15, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” This example of nurture between mother and child is certainly an example of what we now call attachment love. Wilder points to the difficult-to-translate Hebrew word checed as further Biblical instance of God pointing to the attachment function he created in our brains. (The word appears 248 times in the Bible.) Wilder explains checed love as a kind of gluing us to God: “This attachment is permanent, it is full of good things, it is full of kindness, and it is a source of love for us.” Wilder asks what resembles checed love in the human brain – and it is attachment love.

I was keenly interested in Jethani’s and Wilder’s discussion of how attachment to a group forms our responses and behavior, rather than words or ideas. (Especially as we in the church continue to deal in “truths,” focusing on “having the right ideas.”) They asked the question how we might form deeper attachments to God, which Wilder deemed a very important question, for he pointed out that Willard had not yet heard of a theology where salvation involved a new attachment with God. Jethani agreed, citing that the way many of us have been taught about salvation is agreeing to a set of doctrines, or having intellectual assent to “ideas that are true or are from the Bible.”

Fostering attachment for transformational change

When asked how we might foster a deeper attachment to God (rather than just having a knowledge of ideas about him, or incorporating practices), Wilder responded this way: “I take biological systems to be a metaphor for spiritual life. Jesus talked about your hearing, your eyesight and things like that… they reflect some kind of greater truth. Attachment is the way your brain finds out what gives me life. So we attach to what feeds us. That’s how it starts for every child, for every animal. You want to get your dog to attach to you? You gotta feed it. If you don’t give it food and water, that dog is not going to attach to you, and the same with any living creature. It’s what gives us our food and water. So in one sense you could look at the original sin as letting the wrong person feed us.”

Wilder takes it one step further: “And you would anticipate that if feeding you was very central, then central to most worship service there should be some meal, or some feeding of people. The god when he came to earth would say, ‘Um, you know, I’m like bread for you. I’m the bread that would give you life. I’m the water that would give you life. And the thing is, he actually practiced that in relationship to other people, so now we have life-giving relationships.

Wilder lists a second step: “Once you get past food, the next thing that causes attachment is joy. You will attach to whoever it is who is just super glad to see you.

But the most important takeaway from the interview, the actual kicker, is when Jethani asked, “Any final advice to people who want to foster that deeper attachment to God? What do they need to include in their life or remove from their life that’s going to help their brain form that attachment?

Wilder responded, “Most of the spiritual disciplines are pretty good at removing stuff that shouldn’t be there and creating some space for God, but they’re not particularly designed directly to create that attachment with God. So the number one thing that forms that attachment with God is actually thankfulness or appreciation. Every time something good comes your way from God, make a point to thank him about and then tell somebody you know how grateful you are… I think there’s one other thing I would tell people. The relational system that runs your identity has a firewall in it. It won’t let your identity change unless you have an attachment to the person who you’re interacting with. So if we have a problem, some area of ourselves that needs changing, we actually need to have God’s presence, either through another person or through God directly, be available for us right when we are having our hard time. So the thing that we typically do as religious people is we hide our hard times from each other, so we never have this attachment, and it’s because we think this whole Christian thing is not about permanent attachments. If you don’t like what you see, you’ll dump me. But all attachments for the brain, and I think for God, are meant to be permanent. If we are becoming a permanent people, then if I see you struggling, or having a weakness, my inclination is to bring God into that moment of weakness with you. And if we have a permanent relationship, you’ll let me do that.

I’m intrigued that neurotheologians and secular psychologists both point to gratefulness and thanksgiving as a means of transformational change. (You can be sure that practicing gratefulness is a part of my resolutions for 2021!) Significant, too, is this idea of attachment love both in the spiritual and the relational (especially remembering back to the example of overly-conscientious people who experience hard-hitting failure when they fall, and who may not have cultivated the necessary social relationships in the meantime).

I pray you find much success in 2021 as you cultivate regular thanksgiving into your life rhythms. And may your arms stretch wide as you welcome the good gift of life-giving relationship when it is sent.

Jean Louise & Virtue Signaling: A Meditation for Millennials

Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman has been my summer read, and it has been so cathartic for its giving language to the experience of coming into one’s own views, views which necessarily create tension with the community that raised you.

I’ve been drawn to this novel since I charged into Better World Books in downtown Goshen, Indiana, on July 14, 2015, the official release day of the book, determined to be one of the first customers to buy it. I’m fascinated by its historic publication, and how it functions alongside Lee’s better-known work, To Kill a Mockingbird (published a full 55 years prior in 1960). It’s said that Go Set a Watchman is actually a 1957 draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, a draft that publishers did not accept (I have my own reasons for why they did not – the angsty vitriol from which Lee does not hold herself back, the neatly tied ending that offers resolution prematurely for Jean Louise’s conflict with her community, the “telling” rather than “showing,” the lack of character development, etc).

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It is this vitriol for which TKAM fans are shocked. How can the same author who wrote the heart-warming tale of 6-year-old Jean Louise produce a profanity-laced manifesto against Atticus Finch? TKAM fans revere their beloved Atticus Finch, the lawyer who defends an innocent black man who was unjustly accused of raping a white woman. But in Go Set a Watchman, readers are shocked to discover that Atticus Finch not only sits on councils approving of segregation but was at one time a member of the KKK. This shock, this jolt, is the main experience of Finch’s daughter, Jean Louise, throughout the whole novel, as she comes to grips with the way that her conscience has formed apart from her father’s.

I do not offer my comments here as any sort of comment on current events, rather, as a few observations on the topic of the individual vs community, a topic which is a bit of a mainstay here at Shasta’s Fog.

I’m particularly drawn to the fact that Lee was 31 when she wrote this draft about a 26-year-old woman returning from the urban environment of New York City to visit her rural southern town one summer, as race issues pushed to the forefront in the news and in her daily life. Not only are urban vs rural tensions incredibly significant for us today, but also Jean Louise’s experience of facing realizations about her hometown is a thing so common among 20-somethings.

For me, in a world where virtue signaling has taken the place of coming to grips with one’s own emotions upon finding the disparity between one’s conscience and the community in which you live, I can’t think of a better time to reflect on Lee’s novel. There’s something about Jean Louise’s experience that speaks to the anger, fear, and disgust one experiences upon realizing that your conscience no longer aligns with the community that raised you. For Jean Louise, those issues are related to race. For the 20-somethings reading my blog, it could be that issue, but it could be many more.

A few observations:

1. First, we ought to be aware that Jean Louise is blessed with physical proximity to the issues that plague her, related to community.

She does not wake up in New York City, flip to her phone, and see an inflammatory comment from a former classmate on social media. These comments only come to her after a long train ride to from New York to Maycomb, Alabama, and even then, she has to endure a grueling hour of Aunt Alexandra’s ladies’ coffee before she can get into with Hester Sinclair. It is not that she does not engage with the tensions, but it is that she does not have to engage every day, especially in a space like social media in which very little helpful dialogue occurs. The anxiety, anger, fear, and disgust that comes from processing your community’s endless opinions on a daily basis are largely absent. This is not to say that she does not “know” her community; she could have accurately guessed how any one of them would have responded to any such event. But she did not have the burden of needing to process all of it at once, especially while sitting on her bed on any given day, reading some New York newspaper.

2. Jean Louise is used to living in community with people who believe and say really unreasonable things.

(Aren’t we all.) Jean Louise sneaks into a meeting of the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council, and she notices a gentleman about to speak: “She had never seen or heard of Mr. O’Hanlon in her life. From the gist of his introductory remarks, however, Mr. O’Hanlon made plain to her who he was—he was an ordinary, God-fearing man just like any ordinary man, who had quit his job to devote his full time to the preservation of segregation. Well, some people have strange fancies, she thought” (108).

You can hear the you-know-the-type in Harper Lee’s narration. This is a characterization that folks from religious communities are familiar with – we’ve all had the experience of sitting under some visiting somebody who says legendary unreasonable things that nevertheless strike a chord with our community, and we can’t believe how comfortable everyone is with it.

Jean Louise, too, is familiar with this type of visiting somebodies.

3. But what she’s not familiar with is her loved ones putting up with it.

“She stared at her father sitting to the right of Mr. O’Hanlon, and she did not believe what she saw. She stared at Henry sitting to the left of Mr. O’Hanlon, and she did not believe what she saw… …but they were sitting all over the courtroom. Men of substance and character, responsible men, good men. Men of all varieties and reputations… …She knew little of the affairs of men, but she knew that her father’s presence at the table with a man who spewed filth from his mouth—did that make it less filthy? No. It condoned” (110-111).

Jean Louise is shocked by two things: presence and silence. She is shocked to return to her hometown for a 12-day summer visit and spend the first day back watching her father and her kind-of-boyfriend listen politely to this pro-segregation discussion. Further, she is incredulous that the rest of the home folks are complicit as well, content to let a monster drone on with his political meanderings.

A comment: we’ve just come through no less than two culture wars, and I’m guessing that many young Mennonites have had this same experience. (Yet due to the pandemic, this shock is experienced virtually rather than in physical proximity.) You have been shocked by your community’s shares, likes, and posts. The whiplash you experience in your feed is divided into the following categories: urban vs rural, educated vs ignorant, and occasionally there are age dynamics (whereby sometimes age dictates fear and an aversion to conflict & dialogue). Additionally, you have had significant experiences which shape your understanding of any number of issues, and these experiences are included but not limited to: classroom education, the reading of books, urban work and urban living, and living and moving around to different states/countries.

When your loved ones do not share these experiences, and when they do not fully understand how they form your worldview, you feel silenced, or even betrayed. You feel so different, and when you realize that your conscience is continually being formed apart from a collective conscience (or collective conscious?), there is an anger that arises from the pain of separation.

Jean Louise’s language for this, for her father sitting at a council meeting where someone speaks about segregation, is one of hurt and betrayal: “The one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her; the only man she had ever known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge, ‘He is a gentleman, in his heart he is a gentleman,’ had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, shamelessly” (113).

4. Not only is there pain and anger, but Jean Louise experiences a disgust for home folks who speak in ignorance.

She quietly sits at an awful coffee organized by Aunt Alexandra, and she tries, she really tries. She throws a dress over her head, bothers with lipstick, and endures conversations. But she silently seethes.

You are fascinated with yourself. You will say anything that occurs to you, but what I can’t understand are the things that do occur to you. I should like to take your head apart, put a fact in it, and watch it go its ways through the runnels of your brain until it comes out of your mouth. We were both born here, we went to the same schools, we were taught the same things. I wonder what you saw and heard” (175).

Notice her irritation. At the coffee, Jean Louise vacillates between amusement at Claudine McDowell’s description of New York (“We saw a stage show at Radio City Music Hall, and Jean Louise, a horse came out on stage”) and graciousness:

Claudine: “I wouldn’t want to get mixed up with all those Italians and Puerto Ricans. In a drugstore one day I looked around and there was a Negro woman eating dinner right next to me, right next to me. Of course I knew she could, but it did give me a shock.”

“Do she hurt you in any way?”

“Reckon she didn’t. I got up real quick and left.”

“You know,” said Jean Louise gently, “they go around loose up there, all kinds of folks.”

But when Hester Sinclair goes on to parrot her husband’s views related to race, Jean Louise engages with her head on. For her, there’s an incredulous horror at the “acceptable” opinions, and Jean Louise is mystified how these people made her.

5. But they did make her, and it’s not as if Jean Louise is a product of some liberal agenda at a liberal arts college. In fact, she doesn’t feel at home there either, and maybe even feels the need to “defend” her hometown to more liberal communities, in some ways. She feels conflicted about who she is and where she belongs. When the conversation dies down, one overly powdered lady turns to Jean Louise in a shrill voice:

“‘WELL, HOW’S NEW YORK?’

New York. New York? I’ll tell you how New York is. New York has all the answers. People go to the YMHA, the English-Speaking Union, Carnegie Hall, the New School for Social Research, and find the answers. The city lives by slogans, isms, and fast sure answers. New York is saying to me right now: you, Jean Louise Finch, are not reacting according to our doctrines regarding your kind, therefore you do not exist. The best minds in the country have told us who you are. You can’t escape it, and we don’t blame you for it, but we do ask you to conduct yourself within the rules that those who know have laid down for your behavior, and don’t try to be anything else.

She answered: please believe me, what has happened in my family is not what you think. I can say only this—that everything I learned about human decency I learned here. I learned nothing from you except how to be suspicious. I didn’t know what hate was until I lived among you and saw you hating every day. They even had to pass laws to keep you from hating. I despise your quick answers, your slogans on the subways, and most of all I despise your lack of good manners: you’ll never have ‘em as long as you exist” (178).

And this is the experience of so many – we have been formed by communities that make us, and we’ve had a falling out with them, but here’s the thing – they’re not monsters. I mean, at least – we don’t think they are.

6. Jean Louise is angry, and there’s a lot of language.

Ahh, uh, this is, actually, in reality, how 26-year-olds talk. They feel so much. Everything matters. Everything is vital. That is why the experience of realizing how you depart from what’s acceptable in your home community is so destabilizing.

7. Also, Jean Louise wants Maycomb not to mean anything.

She wants to be free to run away from it and not care a nit-wit about her hometown. It’s one of the things she lauds New York for: “In New York you are your own person. You may reach out and embrace all of Manhattan in sweet aloneness, or you can go to hell if you want to” (180).

But is she kidding herself? Some people are able to fly away to urban anonymity, but Jean Louise is not that naïve. Note her conversation with a gentleman at a grocery store:

“‘You know, I was in the First War,’ said Mr. Fred. ‘I didn’t go overseas, but I saw a lot of this country. I didn’t have the itch to get back, so after the war I stayed away for ten years, but the longer I stayed away the more I missed Maycomb. I got to the point where I felt like I had to come back or die. You never get it out of your bones.’

‘Mr. Fred, Maycomb’s just like any other little town. You take a cross-section—‘

‘It’s not, Jean Louise. You know that.’

‘You’re right,’ she nodded.

It was not because this was where your life began. It was because this was where people were born and born and born until finally the result was you, drinking a Coke in the Jitney Jungle.

Now she was aware of a sharp apartness, a separation, not from Atticus and Henry merely. All of Maycomb and Maycomb County were leaving her as the hours passed, and she automatically blamed herself” (153-154).

There is a reckoning that Jean Louise must have with her hometown. It is not so disposable; it is not so able to be curated. She spews out at Atticus: “You cheated me, you’ve driven me out of my home and now I’m in a no-man’s land but good – there’s no place for me any more in Maycomb, and I’ll never entirely be at home anywhere else” (248).

8. Finally, instead of owning the way that her conscience has formed differently than her loved ones, she takes on these issues personally and begins a very negative internal dialogue – that there’s something wrong with her.

You can hear Jean Louise’s desperation: “Something’s wrong with me, it’s something about me. It has to be because all these people cannot have changed. Why doesn’t their flesh creep? How can they devoutly believe everything they hear in church and then say the things they do and listen to the things they hear without throwing up? I thought I was a Christian but I’m not. I’m something else and I don’t know what. Everything I have ever taken for right and wrong these people have taught me—these same, these very people. So it’s me, it’s not them. Something has happened to me” (167).

The religious language continues, and is paired with cynicism and an emerging fatalism. Also note how the narration vacillates between the narrator and Jean Louise to the point that we can’t tell if this is Jean Louise or Harper Lee herself. And it all converges: “Hell is eternal apartness. What had she done that she must spend the rest of her years reaching out with yearning for them, making secret trips to long ago, making no journey to the present? I am their blood and bones, I have dug in this ground, this is my home. But I am not their blood, the ground doesn’t care who digs it, I am a stranger at a cocktail party” (225).

To my millennial readers, I say, if that isn’t a mood, I don’t know what is.

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If you’ve read Go Set a Watchman (especially recently) I’d be curious what your thoughts are regarding the way that Harper Lee characterizes the conflict between the individual and community (and the individual and family) as one of conscience. In some ways, we rarely hear that language anymore, and instead the conversation is immediately politicized (for example, conversations of race, gender, the economy, etc). I wonder if it could be helpful to describe these conflicts as one of conscience, and if a certain humanizing could occur by that appeal. This is what Harper Lee seems to suggest in her final chapters, particularly through the appeals of Dr. Finch and Atticus, and while I initially resisted this move, but I’ve been thinking about it for a while and would be interested in your thoughts.

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Also, Big Reveal:

To my beloved readers: I have been blogging at Shasta’s Fog for 9 years now. In the past, you’ve received free monthly content (and one year, even bi-weekly content) on this platform. I have never monetized my blog. You’ve scrolled through awkward ads, reading free literary essays, travel diaries, and academic recaps. This writing takes time. Sometimes I don’t even know why I bother putting stuff out there. In fact, I contemplate deleting my blog every summer. One of these times I will.

Your feedback is incredibly motivating. Your comments, likes, and shares keep this blog running. Some of you have even walked up to me in real life and introduced yourself. That has meant so much to me.

Anyway, I just found out about this great little app called “Buy Me a Coffee,” and GOING AGAINST EVERY FIBER OF MY BEING, I’m offering you a chance to show Shasta’s Fog some support. By clicking on this button, you can support Shasta’s Fog with a small PayPal donation. If you’ve been encouraged by Shasta’s Fog and hope to see this writing continue, I invite you to click the button below and drop me a line if you wish. Your support means everything to me.

A Book Questionnaire to Share with All Your Bookish Friends

Last week The Striped Pineapple completed this bookish questionnaire created by The Girl in the Red Rubber Boots, and I thought it was pretty on-brand for Shasta’s Fog, so I thought I’d join in on the fun. Here goes!

What’s the last book that made you cry?

Educated by Tara Westover.

What’s the last book that made you laugh out loud in public?

Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss’s hilarious, guffaw-inducing manifesto about how crucially easy it is to learn where apostrophes go. Minneapolis airport. 2015. I was wheezing out loud on a white-ish leather chair, my back to the glass of a moving sidewalk, when I read:

“Getting your itses mixed up is the greatest solecism in the world of punctuation. No matter than you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing, ‘Good food at it’s best,’ you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.”

I don’t need to tell you that I snorted a scone through my nose.

What’s a book that people make fun of but you secretly love?

The Scarlet Pimpernel. Before I was 16 years old, I read virtually no classics. Some old souls (well-read girls at church who had read all the classics and were just beginning Mein Kampf) attempted to rectify that by suggesting this classic-lite, and I still think of The Scarlet Pimpernel as my first classic novel. (Though it’s a bit saccharine to be called that.) Dashing men, damsels, and daring seaside escapes?

“Yes, please!” – 16 year olds

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What’s the longest book you’ve ever read?

Tolstoy’s War & Peace, specifically Anthony Briggs’s 2005 translation (a particularity that makes all the difference in the world. I have nerded out about War & Peace translations here.)

What’s a genre that you love so much that you’ll read even sub-par books so long as they’re in that genre?

Running memoirs. I absolutely love a good running tale. From even poorly written books can be gleaned great advice.

What’s the last book you purchased?

Mark Buchanan’s The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath, recommended to me by three different Friends Who Think. Man, anyone else growing in their notion of what Sabbath means? Here are some great thoughts by Peter Scazzero about rhythms of rest in the Christian life: “Before I routinely observed the Sabbath, I often returned from vacation or days off feeling somehow further from God… …We’re not taking time off from God; we are drawing closer to God… It does not mean we necessarily spend the entire day in prayer or studying Scripture, though those activities may be part of a Sabbath day… On Sabbath, we intentionally look for grandeur in everything from people, food, and art to babies, sports, hobbies, and music… we are intentional about looking for the evidence of God’s love in all the things he has given us to enjoy” (The Emotionally Healthy Leader, 148).

What was your favorite book as a pre-teen?

The Jennie McGrady mysteries, a series about a 16-year-old super sleuth who solves crimes for local law enforcement (lol) and occasionally the FBI. Bonus: her dad died eight years ago but SPOILER ALERT he was actually working undercover in the FBI the whole time (we do not find this out until book 8!!)

What was your favorite book in your late teens/early 20s?

I enjoyed The Horse and His Boy from The Chronicles of Narnia so much that I named this blog after one of its characters! (More about that in my disintegrating About page.)

But nothing will compare to devouring Jane Eyre for the very first time. I was a sophomore in college, and never before had I been so hungry to read, analyze, and devour a novel OF MY CHOICE. With a year and a half of literary analysis under my belt, I was offered the whole of the British canon from which to choose a novel to study for my final Brit Lit research paper. Every day before dissections in Biology, I sat in the glass atrium of the Richard E. Smith Science Center holding a banana, a string cheese, and my beloved Jane Eyre. I underlined the novel copiously and self-righteously aligned myself with Jane’s character in all things (hmm hmm, a little of Brontë also features in my About page.)

P.S. Charlotte Brontë’s birthday is today. (What are the chances?!) Happy Birthday, dahling!

What’s your current favorite book?

What?! The Ohio State University just asked me the same thing! The English Department is posting lists of social-distancing book recommendations, and alumni were invited to share their top ten favorite books. I knew I wouldn’t be able to list ten novels because I am such a non-fiction girl (and poet, for that matter!), but I submitted a list anyway, after deliberating nearly an hour whether the Bible belongs on a list like that. In the end, it does, and it did, for I decided to make a list of my ten *current* favorite books, with the list slipping toward the category of “formative.”

  1. The Bible
  2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  3. War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  4. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  6. A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken
  7. Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright
  8. Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith
  9. A Capella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry (anthology)
  10. Sounding the Seasons: 70 Sonnets for the Christian Year by Malcolm Guite

Have you ever read a book so many times that you ruined your copy of it?

To be clear, I do get a lot of jam on books I read. I also cover them in notes, using a pencil. I’ve never had to replace a book, but there are books I wouldn’t lend to people because of the amount of writing that’s in them.

Tell a story about something interesting that happened to you in a bookstore.

I was twelve years old, armed with a stack of cash to spend at Good Steward Books, a dusty little Christian book warehouse two towns over from us. I was buying the last seven books of the Jennie McGrady mysteries, plus two devotionals. With my wallet balanced on top of my loot, I approached the cashier window, and a big man whose dad ran the warehouse rang up my total: “That’ll be $16. …But… you’re a kid, and you must like to read a lot, and that’s a really good thing to do, so I’m gonna take 50% off. Total is $8.00.”

Okay, $16 is like $80 in kid money, so getting eight bucks wiped off your bill was THE BARGAIN OF THE CENTURY.

Interestingly, I showed back up to Good Steward Books when I was 15, taking my first job shelving stacks and stacks of Christian romance.

If you could forget the entire plot of one book, just so you’d have the chance to read it for the first time again, which book would you choose?

War & Peace. I remember this wave washing over me upon finishing it, thinking: oh my goodness, I have so many classics to read that I shall never finish all my days. And, I probably have no business re-reading books if that is the case. Shall I never read this whole novel, this War & Peace, again? I wept, thinking about how I had just read it for the first and probably the last time. (My 20s were a very dramatic time.)

Have you ever read a book all the way through, thinking you loved it, but the ending just destroyed it for you?

Okay, when Pip finds out that his anonymous donor is not Miss Havisham, that he is not entitled to marry beautiful Estella, and when he loses Estella in a marriage to his mortal enemy, and he lopes home to make up his proud, haughty behavior to father-figure Joe, and seeks to marry (what’s left of) his boring friend-from-home, Biddy… it is a LITTLE DISAPPOINTING TO FIND OUT THAT JOE AND BIDDY MARRIED EACH OTHER. #deniedexpectations

Do you prefer fiction or nonfiction? Why?

Nonfiction, because truth is stranger than fiction.

What book has given you advice that still sticks with you?

Douglas Wilson’s Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life was a helpful little book that I read at just the right time. As a freshly graduated teacher (who was cultivating a rambunctious little toddler blog), I was looking for advice about “making it” as a writer. Wilson pointed out the importance of being a reader, if one intends to be a writer. He wrote: “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?”

This helped me realize that there is a certain lifestyle which accompanies great writing. I was working on the “experience” bit, throwing myself into a zany teaching schedule of teaching SEVEN COURSES A DAY, WITH NO PREPS. Teaching by day, ticking off the occasional classic by night.

Which fictional man would you most like to marry?

Wow, okay. Hmmm. Maybe Pierre Bezukhov.

Which fictional woman would you most like to be friends with?

Anne of Green Gables, but then she’d always get all the attention. So maybe Jean Louise Finch in Go Set a Watchman.

Which fictional house would you most like to live in?

That boat from A Severe Mercy (yes, I know it’s not fiction) where the Vanauken lovers spend a whole summer sailing, sun-tanned, and living off the sea.

Has anyone ever read a book over your shoulder on public transportation?

Yes, I was trying to stuff my copy of Finding God Beyond Harvard surreptitiously into my bag, for the title was SO LARGE, and I didn’t want to be that person, evangelizing to everyone as I waited to deplane at JFK. It was May 2013, and I was the freshest graduate of The Ohio State University, and I was unbelievably excited to have the crushing weight of four years of undergrad under my belt. NO. MORE. ASSIGNMENTS. No more pressure. Unbelievable freedom, and I was traveling to New York for four solid days of touristing with Camille the local. The jet descended toward Queens, just as the sun was coming up and casting golden shadows on the Manhattan skyline.

The seatbelt light came off, and the young soldier next to me, a Pacific Islander, asked, “What are you reading?”

I knew we would have this conversation; he had been eyeing my tome out of the corner of his eye the whole flight, and I was desperately trying to avoid a religious conversation.

“Ah, um, it’s called Finding God Beyond Harvard. It’s a book about the origin of the American university, and how if we look at early university mottos, crests, and architecture, we can see that American universities were intended for the pursuit of truth, or veritas, and these artifacts show that these institutions believed that truth was found in the person of Jesus. The author suggests that removing Jesus as the central focus of university has resulted in a lot of the problems that we see on college campuses today.”

“You must really like it. You are making A LOT of notes.”

“I can’t help but think that she’s right. I think that a belief in Jesus provides a lot of answers for university students, on the far side of complexity.”

I was hoping to end the conversation quickly. Maybe it was because I was so weary of those kinds of conversations. Maybe it was because the few times I tried to seek out those kinds of conversations in college, they went so badly. (I was a self-righteous little thing, desperate for everyone to agree with me.) That day on the plane was the first time where felt like I didn’t care if he agreed with me or not.

But he smiled. And said, “Yeah, I think you may be right.” And he very, very carefully helped me with all my bags.

I wonder if that was the first time I spoke about my faith in a remotely gracious way.

What book(s) are you currently reading?

There are about seven unfinished books on my bookshelf. The one I’m actively penciling right now is the second in James K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies series – Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. It’s halfway between inspirational and academic, and I’m learning so much.

All right, friends! You’re invited to complete the questionnaire, or, if you’re not a blogger, to choose a single question and answer it in the comments below!

Easters I Remember

There are two Easters I remember well.

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In the first, Papa is a carpenter. I grew up around sawdust and power tools, screw drivers and lumber. Daddy wore jeans and tan work shirts to work every day, with a pencil stuck behind his ear. Sometimes as little girls, we tagged along to job sites, sweeping up sawdust Here, and learning to put Those Boards over There. We were handed nearly empty jars of putty and dull carpenter’s knives to fill holes in woodwork. We’d hold the ends of giant pipes, while Papa carefully painted their rims with green and purple substances. We supervise him soldering copper with a blowtorch, cringing in fear when tiny bits of melted metal dropped to his skin. He’d bark, “Don’t open the tape measure all the way!” But we always did anyway, holding contests to see how long we could unroll it into the air without it cracking to the floor. We stood next to him as dutiful carpenter nurses, handing him various instruments: “Square.” “Sawzall.” “Screw.” “Tape.”

Many times, we were called upon to clean up his work site. We’d arrive to find sawdust spit into every corner, the little bag for catching sawdust completely fallen off the miter saw. Wooden clamps lay twisted on the floor, every which way. Power drills and cords lay haphazardly. “After you fill this, you can play,” he said, handing us impossibly large black trash bags.

Papa had this way of convincing you that you were the greatest at tasks you’d never done before. One day I helped him spackle some drywall. He handed me a stainless-steel trough of freshly-mixed spackle, along with a trowel, demonstrating the motion. He left, then returned to check my work. He’d shake his head.

“I can’t believe it!” he’d say. “You’re better than the guys I hire in Columbus!”

“Lookin’ good, sister! I tell you what. I’d like to hire you!” he’d say, while re-spackling most of the spots I’d done with a “second coat.”

“Just smooth it out, there. See.”

One time, Papa worked for a German woman named Heike in Columbus. She was a professor in the Department of Design at The Ohio State University. I don’t know how Papa met her, but he had a knack for finding German-speaking people and for going out of his way to practice his German on them.

Heike had a remodeling job for Papa to do, and one day Mama drove us in our green wood-paneled Plymouth Grand Caravan to see Heike’s house.

“Esther, you have to see her house. You’ll really think it’s neat.”

Heike had short hair like a boy. Her house was unlike most houses I had seen, in shape, in the amount of rooms, and the furniture. She had a whole table made of glass. (A whole table! Think of it!) Mama instructed us not to touch it. When Mama and Heike were not looking, I touched it.

I remember rattan chairs, and strange art, perhaps from Africa. The best thing of all was her garden and lattices to the side of the house. Papa hadn’t finished the steps down into the little alcove, so he had set up a piece of 2×8 as a ramp that he padded across, and we girls thought that was the neatest thing. But it was raining that day, and as we trotted back and forth on the ramp, Rachel promptly fell off, sprained her ankle, and there was maybe a little blood. The carpenter’s blubbering, crying daughter caused quite the alarm for Heike, who wanted Rachel to be taken to the emergency room. (“That’s because she’s Professional,” Mom said.) Instead, Mom asked for a rag, loaded my two sisters in the minivan and drove home.

I was left with Papa at the work site. I wanted nothing more than to march up and down the ramp some more. But Heike said no.

She asked me if I liked to draw. I said I did, and she invited me into the house. I suddenly felt shy as she walked me toward a sunken room that had little natural light. Only a small window was near the ceiling. She offered me a pencil with which to draw, and gave me the largest collection of colored pencils I had ever seen. I turned my nose up at them (for they were not Crayola), but I was in shock to discover that they were the smoothest set of colors I had ever used. There were no primary colors, and I remember being disappointed to have to improvise using obscure shades. The colored pencils were magical, the lead buttery soft. (I now know that Heike leads the Interior Design department at Ohio State, and I can only imagine what writing instruments she put into the hands of a grimy 7-year-old.)

“Heike is probably not a Christian,” I reasoned, so I decided to draw her a picture of Jesus so that she might be saved. Perhaps it was nearing Easter, for I decided to draw Mary at the tomb. I colored Mary’s robe with a non-descript mauve color for there was no pencil labeled “blue.” Heike returned to the inner room.

“Show me what you’ve drawn.”

“It’s Jesus’ resurrection,” I explained. “This is the angel,” I pointed to a white character. “He’s telling Mary that Jesus isn’t here. He’s risen from the dead. And that’s the tomb.” A large gray circle filled the middle of the page.

“I see,” she said.

“It’s for you,” I explained.

“Oh!” She set it aside.

I was a little surprised she didn’t become a Christian after I gave her my picture. I squirmed out of my seat to go find Papa. I didn’t want to draw with Heike anymore.

***

I am not sure why that memory is so vivid in my mind. I remember her soaking-wet, green gardens, the overcast gray clouds, and the curious angles of her home. I remember her very short hair. I remember the delight of scampering over a simple ramp made by Papa, and the momentary uncertainty of being with a stranger.

***

Easter as a child was memorable for a lot of reasons. Grandma sent us brand-new matching Easter dresses (from J.C. Penney) in a box in the mail every year. We got to wear white shoes to church, or even better, white sandals. There was always an Easter play at church on Good Friday. Grown men would roughhouse Jesus (where the podium used to be), and soldiers (really, all the carpenters in church) would “nail” Jesus to the cross, pounding real nails with hammers that echoed throughout the sanctuary. Jesus would writhe in agony, then be raised on the cross, wearing a T-shirt splattered with red food coloring. Easter morning was a sunrise service, and families would argue whether the church window blinds should be opened or closed.

“The sun causes a glare on some people’s glasses,” some said. Others remarked haughtily, “It’s a sunrise service! What’s the point of a sunrise service if we don’t see the sun?!”

The song leader would apologize “to our morning voices” before leading “Up from the Grave He Arose.” He would try to pitch it down, to the chagrin of sopranos like my mother. Then we had a magical hour of breakfast at church, with tulips on the table for three hundred forty-seven people, and plenty of old ladies to “ooo” at my new dress.

After church, there was ham.

***

But once we were not home for Easter. We traveled to Illinois to visit mom’s friends. I was delighted to realize that mom’s friend had a daughter my age, and we would be playing together all weekend long. Not only that, we would be playing on a farm. Her father was not just a farmer; he was a shepherd. And it was lambing season!

The frigid chilly mornings were full of sunshine and romps through the greening pasture, down to the stream that ran under a road culvert. We spent hours playing by the stream, accompanied by their border collie. I caught a tiny fish by plunging my bare hands into the ice-cold water. We sprinted the long distance toward the farmhouse, skidding to a stop to gingerly crawl under the electric fence, before galloping the last few yards, hollering for an ice cream bucket to keep our new pet in. We turned on the laundry sink at full blast. “Don’t you want pond water?” Katie’s mama said. We stared each other, hollered and sprinted out the back door, stopping to carefully slip inside the pasture again, and whooped and hollered all the way to the stream to fill our 2 qt. cottage cheese container with a more hospitable environment. Her little brother Grant followed us, though we had averted him all morning.

Papa and the older girls picked up branches in the yard and loaded them in wheelbarrows (strong winds were common there). Katie’s father started a fire to burn the brush. In the afternoons, we washed dishes and listened to Adventures in Odyssey.

There was so much laughter when we visited. Papa teased the older girls, and their dad had blue eyes that sparkled when he threw his head back and laughed. The whole family laughed.

The night before Easter, and a lamb was to be born. We had to walk through the pitch-black to get to the barn. Only the oldest daughter was allowed inside the stall. The ewe was in distress, and my friend’s dad informed us the sheep was having twins, and one of them was breech.

In the straw lay a huge bottle of dish soap. He started slathering his hands with soap and explained to each girl in attendance, “This will help me pull out the lamb very quickly. When a lamb is being born, it’s first instinct is to…’hah!’” he motioned taking a big breath. “If it breathes too soon, the baby lamb will breathe in the birthing fluid and drown.”

The ewe became increasingly restless, and my friend’s father sternly rebuked it. His loud voice and firm grip scared me, for he was a kind and gentle man, and I had not seen him be gruff with anyone, especially his children. Adding one last bit of soap to his hands, he slipped his hands in the birthing canal after the sheep had settled, and pulled the first lamb to safety, immediately wiping the amniotic fluid from its mouth. The second twin was ready to be born, and with his hand inside the ewe, his blue eyes widened incredulously, “This one’s born breech too!” Soon two tiny lambs lay next to each other in the straw, one a lot smaller than the other. The oldest daughter poked some straw just inside the lambs’ nostrils, to help them breathe.

On Easter Sunday, the sun was replaced by freezing gray clouds, and a chill wind blew over the unplowed corn fields. I did not wear a new dress from Grandma; she had died the year before. Instead I wore a floral skirt and a lavender T-shirt from Kmart. I had packed large brown sandals, and Mom handed me some nylons to wear. I found Katie downstairs sitting on a sheep’s wool rug, putting on her nicest Sunday shoes. She was wearing a velvet mauve dress and white tights. She looked like she was going to the orchestra. I felt like… that I did not look like I was going to the orchestra.

Katie’s dad was a preacher, and there are few sermons I remember from childhood, but I remember that one.

For his text, he did a word study on the word “Easter,” explaining that the term is nothing more than the name of a pre-Christian goddess. Early Christians in England began celebrating Christ’s resurrection during “Eastermonth,” a season named for the goddess, and a season in which early pagans celebrated the vernal equinox. The preacher carefully highlighted the events of Holy Week, along with the resurrection, resting on the meaning of Easter for Christians who serve a risen God, before arriving at his conclusion: why do we choose such a strange name for our Christian holiday?

Easter Sunday? Pagan god Sunday?” he asked gravely.  “No,” he shook his head, before breaking into a smile, “Resurrection Sunday!”

There was a certain triumph when we sang “Up from the Grave He Arose.” For one thing, it was noon, and every soprano could hit the high note.

On our drive home, they called us to tell us that the smallest little twin lamb had died.

Update + Chat about Power, Expertise, & Education

It’s March 11, and I’m still thinking about January 1st. Back in October, I started carefully planning, scheming, and devising New Year’s resolutions. I read Harkavy & Hyatt’s Living Forward the week of Christmas, and two days before New Year’s, I followed their prompts and wrote a Life Plan that turned out to be an eight-page document, including my eulogy (how I want to be remembered) and 20-year goals for myself in the areas of spirituality, health & wellness, friends/church community, family relationships, career, and finances. Each category included specific “next step” goals for this year that move me toward 5, 10, and 20-year benchmarks. I bit the bullet January 1st slowly picking away at each goal (some are daily, silly things like flossing, or a bit of reading, and others are weekly or monthly goals). It’s been my Life Plan that’s sent me to the gym five or six days a week.

Goal-setting is entirely unromantic! In some ways, I despise the Life Plan! But I’ve found it to be an exceptional tool to help me think about “drift.” Have you ever found yourself thinking, “How did I get here? And how did I become this person?!” Harkavy and Hyatt’s concepts and tools from Living Forward are very practical for thinking through who you want to become and how you want to become.

Over and above these changes, beginning in January, I also started weekly voice lessons. My voice teacher is so gracious with my timid attempts, and I’m discovering so much about my voice and me in these weekly sessions! I love the challenge!

February 26 also marked the beginning of the season of Lent (which I’ve blogged about here), and for forty days there is no snacking after dinner, or Youtube/Netflix.

I’ve been able to finish a few books due to all this structure. One of the most notable is one by Peter Scazzero, called The Emotionally Healthy Leader. (I once quoted Scazzero in a blog about Empowering Single Women as Leaders in the Home, and I had forgotten how inspiring I had found his writing then. It’s been fantastic to fully digest his ideas in a book-length work.)

Besides gaining the confidence to take drastic steps to seek emotional health as a leader, I’ve also felt empowered to make much of my current singleness.

Scazzero argues that emotionally healthy leaders do four things: (1) face their shadow, (2) lead out of their marriage/singleness, (3) slow down for loving union with Jesus, (4) practice Sabbath delight.

Scazzero makes driving claims – that marriage (and/or singleness) is a vocation, and that our marriage/singleness should be the loudest gospel message that we preach:

“When I say that our loudest gospel message is instead our marriage or singleness for Christ, I mean that our vocation points beyond itself to something more important—to Jesus. In this sense, singleness, just like marriage, is a sign and wonder… as a single leader, you bear witness to the sufficiency and fullness of Jesus through your celibacy… You are married to Christ. Your whole person belongs to him. This serves as the foundation of your life and leadership. Your commitment affirms the reality that Jesus is the bread that satisfies—even amidst the challenges of being a single leader. Every day you choose to maintain that commitment, your singleness stands as a countercultural and prophetic sign of the kingdom of God—to the church and to the world.” (110)

Beyond this call to prioritizing the type of healthy relationship needed for marriage and healthy singleness (he offers all kinds of little quizzes as rubrics to see how “healthy” your singleness/marriage is), Scazzero also gets down to the brass tacks of leadership in chapters about power and team building.

In one of my favorite chapters, readers are instructed to take a power assessment. What are different kinds of power, and how much of each do you have? Scazzero lists six kinds of power: (For some of you, this might be a little chilling. You carry more power than you can even imagine!)

  • Positional Power – what formal titles do you have, and what privileges and opportunities does this open up for you?
  • Personal Power – what gifts, skills, experiences, education, natural competencies, and personality do you have that exponentially expand your influence within positional power?
  • “God factor” Power – do you carry any “sacred weight”? Do people look to you for spiritual wisdom and counsel? Are you in any way perceived as a spiritual authority who speaks for God?
  • Projected Power – Who might idealize you from afar because of what you represent as a leader? Does any of that projected power come from that person’s unmet or unresolved needs?
  • Relational Power – How long have you mentored a group of people though life’s challenges and transitions? How does their vulnerability and trust in you influence their perceptions and expectations of you?
  • Cultural Power – What is your age, race, gender, and ethnicity? How do these cultural factors serve as a source of power or influence for you, especially over those of another age, race, gender, and ethnicity? Further, does your influence change as you move from group to group, culturally?

I encourage you to take a power inventory! (For fun, discuss it in the comments!) (Hee hee you can surmise a guess as to how much power Shasta’s Fog wields.)

I tend to get around to popular things about two years after the fact. (Save only for January’s Little Women review. Shocker!) Case in point, I just pulled a new pair of running shoes out of my closet that I bought 1.5 years ago and laced them up for the first time. I got a new coat in November and didn’t wear it until months later. Such is the case with the 2018 book Educated by Tara Westover. Last week I finally read it.

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Westover fans! Where are you?!

Educated is a gripping memoir about a girl raised by (Mormon?) conspiracy theorists in Idaho (who both become mentally ill), who refuse to send their children to school, and their daughter, at 17, decides to take the ACT, and she gets accepted into college, and then finishes her doctorate at Cambridge.

I find the themes of mental health, religious and ideological fanaticism, skepticism of education/establishment, and Tara’s thirst, or great need, for education to be so, so relevant for our cultural moment, and so relevant, unexpectedly, for me.

(Here’s the thing that separates my thinking from some in my community. I believe in expertise. There is a strange movement afoot, politically and ideologically, that denounces expertise. (If you need examples, I’ll point you to recent elections examples.) Yet no memoir more perfectly questions the legitimacy of these self-sufficiency movements than Westover’s story. Doctors don’t know much about coronavirus and vaccines, some say, but what happens when your brother’s brain is dripping on the floor, and you’re not allowed to take him to the ER? Therefore, I find there are limits to this cultural questioning of expertise, and I am infinitely interested in discussing instances in which expertise helps, rather than hinders. At what point does your self-sufficiency and self-education break down? Where might you be helped by an expertise, an authority, a tradition, beyond your own? Furthermore, for those who claim self-sufficiency and self-education, is there any authority, any authority, to whom you still subscribe? I contend there is, though it may be masked in homemade activist posters and shiny Instagram accounts.)

Back to Westover: besides weaving dynamic characters into a personal story of self-realization, she crafts these beautiful lines that can only be understood by first-generation students, or anyone who has felt that incredible ache, or thirst, to know. She lays hold of the “world-expanding” experience of being a liberal arts student: “By the end of the semester the world felt big, and it was hard to imagine returning to the mountain, to a kitchen, or even to a piano in the room next to the kitchen” (228). (I’ve always explained my college experience in this way. College opened my world exponentially.)

Jagged memories of her academic life are shoved between graphic descriptions of verbal and physical abuse committed by her brother and father. Tara’s father has a junkyard, and she is raised as a scrapper – she is constantly being sent to the house due to some floating hunk of iron whacking her in the head/legs/stomach.

While at BYU, Ms. Westover completes a study abroad program in Cambridge, during which she studies under an eminent professor who asks her to write an essay comparing Edmund Burke to Publius. She alights on a change in her approach to texts that is so revealing (I think) to religious students, to those raised in a culture of thou shalt, and thou shalt not. She writes, “From my father I had learned to that books were either to be adored or exiled. Books that were of God—books written by the Mormon prophets or the Founding Fathers—were not to be studied so much as cherished, like a thing perfect in itself… I read them to learn what to think, not how to think for myself. Books that were not of God were banished; they were dangerous, powerful and irresistible in their charm.” She goes on, “To write my essay, I had to read books differently, without giving myself over to either fear or adoration” (239-240).

I think a lot of Christian students arrive at this moment at some point in their academic career, and it’s a beautiful thing (though a bit unsettling). (Think of it as ridding oneself of Orwellian crimestop.) Developing the ability to critique a text, to examine it from all sides, to see it from all facets and angles, is in one sense, the type of education Ms. Westover was denied for most of her childhood.

Tara also invites us into her struggle for identity, not necessarily between being educated vs not being educated, but rather the struggle to see herself in any other light than an identify chosen for her by her abusive brother. He regularly calls her a whore and at times forces her head into the toilet. Yet 95% of the time she experiences him as a loving, caring brother.

One day in a clock tower in Cambridge, Professor Steinberg asks Tara where she might complete her graduate degree after she finishes her bachelors at BYU: “I imagined myself in Cambridge, a graduate student wearing a long black robe that swished as I strode through ancient corridors. Then I was hunching in the bathroom, my arm behind my back, my head in the toilet. I tried to focus on the student but I couldn’t. I couldn’t picture the girl in the whirling black gown without seeing the other girl. Scholar or whore, both could not be true. One was a lie” (241).

This “toilet girl” persona forced upon her by her brother seemed to block out other possibilities for her. Tara writes, “He defined me to myself, and there is no greater power than that” (199).

It would diminish Ms. Westover’s story to say that there are forces other than abusive brothers that choose identities for us, forces that choose identities for us where we cannot imagine one outcome simply for the sake of the identity. And yet…

At the closing dinner for Ms. Westover’s study abroad program, she slips out of the dinner, but Dr. Kerry, her BYU professor catches up with her. He asks her the Cambridge equivalent of, “What gives?”

“This is a magical place. Everything shines here.”

“You must stop yourself from thinking like that,” Dr. Kerry said, his voice raised. “You’re not fool’s gold, shining only under a particular light. Whomever you become, whatever you make yourself into, that is who you always were. It is always in you. Not in Cambridge. In you. You are gold. And in returning to BYU, or even to that mountain you came from, will not change who you are. It may change how others see you, it may even change how you see yourself—even gold appears dull in some lighting—but that is the illusion. And it always was” (242).

Reading that paragraph, I blinked back tears, knowing that I would write this blog, retype that paragraph from page 242, and dedicate it to some exceptional female students from the last six years (you know who you are) perhaps so that such a dedication would be a feint, a slight of hand, in which my pebble memorial would function not only for them, but also for me. For I, too, have identities chosen for me.

Westover also alights on that “apart-ness” of leaving: “When you are part of a place, growing that moment in its soil, there’s never a need to say you’re from there” (206).

And isn’t that an education, distancing oneself far enough from the mountain that you can look back on it and finally draw its shape?

Does It Matter If I Read the Bible on My Smartphone?

We all know that printed, paper Bibles are appearing less and less frequently at church (and in the pulpit). We listen to our favorite Bible teacher and snicker knowingly when he says, “Those of you with Bibles can…. go ahead and switch them on.”

We’ve forgotten our own printed copies of Scripture, on occasion, and pulled out our own greasy devices thinking to ourselves, “I guess this will do. Kinda handy.”

And as we swipe right on our favorite Bible passage, there’s still a niggling feeling at the back of our minds that this is a little bit “off.”

The question we all have is: are smartphone Bibles appropriate for worship services, and does it matter if I make a practice of reading Scripture on my phone?

Yes. Yes, it does matter. And here’s why.

(Spoken from a high school educator of Gen-Z students. Humor me for a moment. I’ve spent the last seven years teaching high school students how to read (that is, interpret) texts in the English classroom. I’ve gained a wealth of experience in understanding the attention span of the Gen-Z mind and its ability to crack the code of some of the more complex areas of Scripture. If I make any arguments here, it is with my beloved Gen-Z students in mind. If you are an adult who was taught to read in a non-screen era, learned how to do distraction-free “deep work,” enjoyed a teenage upbringing that featured lots of paper book-reading and Scripture memorizing, and sat in church without a device attached to your active hips that offered you the entertainment of the entire world (organized into addictive social media cocaine), you were blessed. But I invite you to sit back for a bit, and “think really thoughtful thoughts” as it were, about what we communicate to young people by using these devices in worship services. Perhaps you have learned how to avoid distractions (but really, have you?), but most kids today haven’t learned that skill.)

In my English class, I like to have my students read Cal Newport’s 2016 NYT editorial, “Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend on It.” Not that my students are all heavy social media users (they’re Gen-Z, after all), but his argument for “deep work” (Newport actually coined the phrase) catches them red-handed.

I digress.

But not yet, actually. The thing that will keep weakening our churches is a lack of Biblical literacy and the absence of “deep work” in Scripture study. (I am talking about reading the Bible on a smartphone for the purpose of Scripture study, not a simple fact-check journey, or a lunch-time Psalm. Actually, no, avoid it too for the lunch-time Psalm.)

It matters if you read your Bible on your smartphone according to several principles of reading comprehension.

Let’s approach the argument from the most basic understandings of literacy and critical thinking.

Research indicates that we “read” differently on screens, compared to printed material. First, there are physical differences. Scientists have found that when people read on a screen, they read in an F-pattern.

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That is, most people, when they read on-screen, are not doing deep reading of the text, but rather skimming headlines and the beginnings of paragraphs. We commonly read this way on screens because much of our screen reading is for the purpose of skimming search results in our browser. When we Google something, we are not so much “reading” as we are “skimming” to find content, content that is “usable” or “useful.” If you came to the Abiding in the Word women’s conference last month, you heard me talking about different “reading speeds” that we use to access different kinds of texts. Screen-reading puts our brains into “skimming” mode, not an entirely helpful mode for digesting large bits of Scripture (particularly the prophetic books, where one has to do a fat lot of background work to build context for the reading).

Therefore, F-pattern screen-reading is problematic in that it makes us consumers of the text, rather than students of the text. These differences are crucial when it comes to the way that we interact with the Word.

I might also mention that our brains are elastic things, and unfortunately, our excessive Googling habits continually teach our brains to read in this “surfacy” way. Simply put, we are being trained daily to be bad at reading. (For more information, read Nicholas Carr’s entire book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. It’s a New York Times bestseller that I highly recommend.) We need to wake up to the way that technology is affecting our literacy, specifically the reading habits of the upcoming generation.

Additionally, research suggests that people who are doing deep reading are not doing so on screens. Whether you agree with my next statement or not (or align with it personally), this is what research shows: people are not reading difficult texts like “the classics” on screens; screens are mostly used for “light reading.” In his 2013 New Yorker article “E-Book vs. Paper Book,” James Surowiecki quotes an important study: “The Codex Group finds that people of all ages still prefer print for serious reading; e-book sales are dominated by genre fiction—’light reading.’ ….We do read things differently when they’re on a page rather than on a screen. A study this year found that people reading on a screen tended to skip around more and read less intensively, and plenty of research confirms that people tend to comprehend less of what they read on a screen. The differences are small, but they may explain the persistent appeal of paper.” (Some of you may say, “No, that’s not true! I just read War & Peace as an e-book.” I commend you. You are an exception.)

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Surowiecki’s observations serve our argument that it is better to read the Bible off-screen. If religious devotion motivates our Bible-reading, we cannot offer anything less than intensive reading of Scripture. And we’ll have to do that offline.

It is at this point in the argument that a self-important, barrel-chested man invariably asserts himself: “Argument is so weak!! I read so smart on screens. Bible apps are very, very good. My people designed the biggest Bible app there ever is. I use Bible apps at church and for anyone who says I can’t: I WILL BUILD A WALL!!”

(There’s always one, you know?)

This friend is certainly free to bring his devices to worship services, but I would like to remind him of something: he learned to read in the absence of screens, in the absence of distractiphilia. He is from a generation of deep readers who read marginally well on screens because the physical makeup of a book, its parts, its chapter titles, its table of contents, its pages, its beginning and end are physical objects that have been imprinted on their minds. He therefore can easily access the Bible in an app because he understands the physical makeup of a printed, paper Bible. If he wants to use a Bible app at church, he’s championing for rights that he deserves, but he is doing so at the expense of our youth, our anxious, insecure youth, who deserve the blessed freedom of screenless worship.

To that point, I would add that people like him who are reading their Bible on their phones are at the mercy of push notifications. Must your worship really be interrupted by annoying notifications from the Weather Channel, a Facebook notification announcing your mailman’s birthday, and an email from someone who didn’t bother to come to church this morning? Those things can wait. Our brains are already distracted and spinning a million miles a second. The last thing we need is the phone adding to that chaos. Can we not offer God two simple hours a week, set aside, on Sunday, for worship?

I say these things because of my background in education, and because of the research that I’ve read about how smartphones limit our ability to think deeply. A 2018 study published in the research journal Educational Psychology showed that in classrooms that allowed cell phones and laptop use, students dropped half a letter grade on test performance, compared to students who took the same class in a classroom where no devices were allowed. Further, even if students did not use the device, but were in the same room as a device, their test performance still dropped.

This is excellent evidence to begin questioning the inclusion of electronics in the classroom, but it also allows us to ask the question about cell phones in church.

And yet. We live in a time where administration and school boards are pushing for “more technology” in the classroom. They want one-to-one laptops and electronic textbooks (“because they are cheaper”), and then there’s the businessmen encouraging the shift because they know what product they want to hire: employable 18-year-olds who are tech-savvy. Education is thereby increasingly treated as a “business” (both in high school and the university), but it is always at the expense of student literacy and the education of deep work. Cheap e-textbooks solve no problems when it comes to reading comprehension. For one thing, it’s rare to find an actual e-textbook. Most electronic textbooks are dinosaur PDF’s of last decade’s book, not true interactive textbooks. They are glitchy dinosaurs, in which students struggle to turn the pages, find the table of contexts and the index, and generally maneuver it as fast as a paper copy. Do you know? I’ve never had to plug in a paper textbook to charge. Turning the pages of a paper book also comes very easily. I also never forget the password to log into my paper textbook.

But now I’m just getting carried away. As I did one afternoon, whereupon in a fit of passion, I published a manifesto entitled “Why I Am Against Paperless Classrooms,” and saved it stoically in My Documents. “There. That’ll show ‘em!” I reasoned.

(It didn’t.)

Perhaps we’ve arrived at the existential question: how does one characterize cell phones – sacred? or profane? (I don’t tend to be opinionated, but I personally find them gross and vile.) (Okay, that was sarcasm.) (Yet when I think of cell phones as objects, I don’t think of them as making me feel closer to God.)

Adding to the distractiphilia, reading the Bible on your cell phone means your screen blacks out over time. This is to save battery, but this does not allow the brain to relax into a deep-thinking mode. It has to be in that state of semi-stress, where you continually tap your device so that the backlight comes back on. Whatever happened to meditating on a portion of Scripture? I don’t want some backlight telling me when it’s time to come out of that deep thought I had about Psalm 46.

But even if persons have learned to read with physical books and feel they can expertly navigate Bible apps, I question them. There is research that suggests that people need the physical experience of knowing where they are in a book to comprehend fully. When we read e-books or online articles or use Bible apps, we have less of a sense of “where we are” in the text. This leads to a generally lower level of comprehension. Ferris Jabr at Scientific American offers a sound analogy in his article “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age”: “Imagine if Google Maps allowed people to navigate street by individual street, as well as to teleport to any specific address, but prevented them from zooming out to see a neighborhood, state or country. Although e-readers like the Kindle and tablets like the iPad re-create pagination—sometimes complete with page numbers, headers and illustrations—the screen only displays a single virtual page: it is there and then it is gone. Instead of hiking the trail yourself, the trees, rocks and moss move past you in flashes with no trace of what came before and no way to see what lies ahead.” Later, Jabr points out the difficulty of navigating page turns for online books (and I would argue here: Bible apps) and the fact that a physical book allows us to skim ahead, and easily flip back to the current place we are in the book/discussion. (Fact: not all Bible apps are created equal. Some are buggy, not allowing you to quickly pull up a passage and follow along. And, not all Bible apps contain appropriate cross-references and important footnotes, which always improve comprehension.)

My last argument is for toddlers. Toddlers (and teenagers for that matter) are hyper aware of the engrossing nature of smartphones. Have you noticed that way that toddlers make it their mission to bug you (or quietly slip away) while you are smiling into your lap? I simply wonder how the practice of parents reading Bible apps forms a child’s social imaginary. The child is very aware that when you are on a screen, you are absent. I beg parents to think over their Bible app use carefully.

To sum up, I don’t recommend reading your Bible on your phone because:

  • On-screen reading is F-patterned and “consumer” oriented.
  • Our brains are not in the practice of reading deeply on-screen.
  • Our Googling habits train our brains (daily) to read in a “surfacy” way, and we ought to give ourselves as many off-screen reading experiences as possible to build up deep-reading muscle.
  • Reading the Bible on your phone puts you at the mercy of trivial push notifications – you are reading in distracted mode.
  • Your comprehension will be lower. #science
  • A physical Bible gives you a better sense of “where you are” in the text, an especially helpful feature for any reader under the age of 25.
  • Little kids need to grow up with mommies and daddies who read printed, sacred texts (the Holy Bible, specifically) but who are not absent when doing so.

Those are reasons I *don’t* recommend reading the Bible on your phone. Here are things I *do* recommend:

  • Give young people plenty of paper texts
  • Explicitly teach school-age kids the different “parts” of printed books and Bibles, so they may more easily access on-screen reading when the time comes (you would be amazed at how many high school students do not know what a Table of Contents is, or an Index)
  • Read a printed Bible, meditatively
  • Throw your cell phone into the Red Sea

What I’m arguing here is that the medium by which we access a text really does affect our comprehension of it. The real question is: does that matter to you and your congregation?

Life at Home Upon Returning from a Theology and Arts Conference

“How was your weekend?” a co-worker asks. (I’ve just returned from a three-day Theology and the Arts conference at Duke Divinity School in North Carolina.)

How to say… it was the most inspiring event I’ve been to in a solid five years, I watched some really important poets read verse that made me cry in its beauty and brilliance, and it was a ridiculous privilege to listen to the some of the brightest minds in theology and the arts today discuss Creation and New Creation. Instead, I simply nod: “It was great” and go about my office(ial) duties, all the while wondering to myself what is the definition of “eschaton,” “mimetic,” and “Principio,” and what is Judith Wolfe doing right now. And how my life is such a confluence of difference, how I go from squeezing in between MDivs and PhDs to find a seat, to speaking to someone about the dress code, watching 9th grade girls giggling in the corner, preparing remarks for conservative Mennonite patrons at PTF, re-stocking the toilet paper, and wondering how to get students to sign up for my newspaper class.

All the while my soul is literally mopping the floor in Goodson Chapel.

Ah well, I keep all these things and ponder them in my heart.

Every evening after school, I come home and put on some tea (a little pre-run caffeine), and sit down with Michael O’Siadhail’s new poetry book, The Five Quintets. In my bare feet and business-wear, I step out on my new, secluded, second-story deck (I just moved) and sip tea, and read some of the best poetry I’ve encountered. (I discovered O’Siadhail at Duke Divinity School’s DITA conference two weeks ago. After listening to a lecture in which he outlined his latest volume and then read to us, I’ve become completely enamored with his reliance on form, his grasp of language and philosophy, and for that matter, I suppose if Duke’s renowned New Testament scholar, Richard B. Hayes, introduces O’Siadhail as having written one of the most important works in the English language that will be published in our lifetime, one does sit up and take notice.) (Not only that, but order the poetry collection from Amazon immediately!)

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After tea and sonnets, we change into running clothes. It’s about 6:00 o’clock and it’s soon golden hour. The sun is moving toward setting, casting a golden hue through all the forest-green trees. (The running’s been so great in my new neighborhood, I’ve been leaving my iPod at home – it’s THAT good around here.) I found this excellent route with virtually no traffic and all the best scenery: muscular horses, a pasture of lambs, a lonesome swan, a miniature pony…

It’s amusing to me how fulfilled I feel living out in this part of Lancaster county. I never really took myself for a country girl, but I’m flooded with memories of my childhood on the Ohio plains. I remember my friends who milked cows and the way their clothes smelled, I remember playing with kittens in my friend’s haymow, rambling in pastures spotted by craggy oaks, taking long walks down farm lanes, bike rides with Dad, the miles of corn, the quietness, the solitude.

It’s been so long since solitude like this.

I pass a farm lane, and it occurs to me that everyone knows this lane. Everyone knows who has walked this lane. Everyone knows who drives this lane. Everyone knows how to drive down this lane. Everyone knows what goes on this lane. The ruts, the gravel, the weeds, the hat, the arm dangling outside the pickup truck… a cat picking its way along the corn… This knowing occurs to me, and I inspect it.

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I easily finish my evening run, ending with a negative split. After cleaning up, I pull out Bach and practice Singet Dem Herrn, plus more than a dozen other pieces for an upcoming concert. The Russian doesn’t come so well. There are more pieces, some German. I think of Papa, and my pronunciation of Herrlichkeit. Two hours later, I heave a deep sigh, and start cooking dinner.

I’m eating by 9:00 p.m., opened up to the Word, and soon I’m crying again. I’ve been crying nearly every evening at dinner since I moved to my new place. I’m so grateful for this space, a second-story apartment above a rambling country home, lightyears closer to work and church. I feel entirely lucky.

I think about the winding drive home from school yesterday, through fields bursting with life, and I think, “You know, on these roads I feel the most ‘at home’ I’ve ever felt since moving away from home in Ohio in 2013.” And I get this huge lump in my throat because some of you know how big of a deal that is for me.

There is a paradise this side of heaven that bursts softly through the clouds. It quietly rests on the most unsuspecting of us.

You know, Christian Wiman says, “All art is making visible what is not visible.”

Perhaps that is why I blog at all. Perhaps this blog (while you’ll have to pardon its “particularities,” and “definite pictures”) is a little temporary installation, lit up by that “Paradisal light.”

And so.

Here’s to art-making.

Poets, and Me, at Duke Divinity’s Theology and the Arts Conference

Spending 3.5 days in Goodson Chapel at Duke Divinity School, listening to some of the brightest minds discuss theology and the arts is among one of the finer weekends I’ve had this year.

A Conference

Duke’s Initiative in Theology and the Arts (DITA) exists to promote “a vibrant interplay between Christian theology and the arts by encouraging transformative leadership and enriching theological discussion in the Church, academy, and society,” and it does so by encouraging “rigorous scholarly work and effective, imaginative teaching that fosters the biblical vision of a new creation in Jesus Christ.”

You understand, then, why I was completely excited to secure my ticket months ago to its 10-year celebration this September. On Thursday evening, director Dr. Jeremy Begbie spoke to us on the conference’s theme: Creation and New Creation, reminding us how this is the plot line of the entire Bible, whereby God makes and remakes (a process known by anyone who chips mortar, mixes paints, or plucks strings, over and over, hours on end).

The Mastermind Behind It: Jeremy Begbie

Begbie continues to be a leading figure in the field of theology and the arts, especially at Duke where he’s known for concert lectures, his theological lectures bring interspersed with piano performance. (You can get a sense for those here.)

Begbie quoted Rowan Williams who was once asked what it is that seminarians should teach, to which he replied, “I’d like them to sense the pressure out of which Christianity burst.” This kinetic pressure, so creational, lived in each of us this weekend, as we sat spell-bound to Malcolm Guite and Micheal O’Siadhail reading poetry, or to Yale Institute of Sacred Music’s Awet Andemicael singing “Witness.”

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Notes from Begbie on Bach in the First Plenary Session

Bach is Begbie’s eternal hero, and Begbie spoke of the way that New Creation appears in Bach’s work, in which New Creation doesn’t flow out of the old; it is, in fact, new. He also remarked that the New Creation doesn’t flow out of artists living in the “cheerless gloom of necessity.”  (All the more interesting to remember, then, that Bach lived surrounded by death, as it were, as he buried 10 of his own young children.) (Also exciting to read these things into Bach’s Singet Dem Herrn, which I’m rehearsing for an upcoming concert.)

Begbie also encouraged artists to avoid reductionism, or to avoid that “nothing-buttery,” which is the tendency toward implying things be “mere” or “nothing but,” which breeds a sort of unimaginative skepticism for our enchanted world.

He also conceived artists as witnesses, witnesses to something they didn’t invent, or witnesses to Someone.

Everyone Meets Malcolm Guite, Inspired Writer of Sonnets

Before DITA, I had only heard of Malcolm Guite in passing, and I knew plenty of my friends greatly enjoy his poetry. To be sure, I wasn’t disappointed. Malcolm Guite’s morning homilies were an absolute pleasure, each ending with a transcendent poem. I do not know which it was that brought me to tears, the light of Goodson chapel, Guite’s bearing, or his enchanted verse – the kind that feature “an imagined world in which you encounter the deepest aspects of what it means to be human, and when you come out, you see more enchantment in everyone.”

Guite’s first homily was a jolt, a spark, like the delight of passing through the wardrobe. He reminded us that anyone, at any moment, is in the first morning. In God’s grand picture of time, we’re so close to the beginning of things. God is creating at every moment, and in the scheme of things, the cosmos is just now being created.

Guite has finished a book on the theology of Coleridge, and he quoted Coleridge as saying, “The primary Imagination I hold to be … a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation.” Guite also imagined poems as a veil between the poet and the reader. He then reminded us how God lovingly brings us into the act of creation, and that the Principio is here, right now! (By the way, most of Guite’s poetry is available on his personal blog where you can listen to recordings of him reading his work. Try “Trinity Sunday” which he read to us on this first morning.)

Guite & Wolfe Discuss the Inkings

After morning worship, Guite was joined on stage by Scotland’s own Judith Wolfe, the inimitable Inklings scholar, for their plenary session titled “Inklings of Heaven: Creation and New Creation in the Work of Lewis and Tolkien.” Wolfe is the director of the graduate program in Theology and the Arts at the University of St. Andrews, holds multiple degrees from Oxford, has published works on Martin Heidegger, and is the general editor of the Journal of Inklings Studies. (!) (Even better, she’s the most articulate woman I’ve ever heard speak, live or recorded.)

To begin, Wolfe borrowed Neubuhr’s notion of “metaphysical dreams” to suggest two compelling ways of intending the world which we see today in many political landscapes: conservativism (a dream in which we do not know the future, so we shore everything up for ourselves) and liberalism (a dream of progress, in which our world is eternally progressing, and it is the worst possible thing to be left behind). Wolfe suggested we raise two pillars over and against these dreams – Creation and New Creation – for a third way of intending the world. In this metaphysical dream, art, then, is one of the most basic human expressions.

Wolfe went on to quote Tolkien from his “Mythopoeia” poem which addressed C.S. Lewis in his state of unbelief in order to demonstrate Tolkien’s conviction that unless we see the world as created by God, we do not see it all. Our imaginations only come fully alive when we imagine a Creator, and become co-creators in his story. We do not see the reality of earth, unless we see the Person who created it.

“He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath the ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.”

Wolfe argued, then, that for Tolkien, the ability to see the world at all *has* to be through the imaginative.

Guite quoted Lewis’s “On Ways of Writing for Children” in which Lewis responds to the question: do fairy stories promote withdrawal and send “you back to the real world undividedly discontented, the pleasure consisting in picturing yourself the object of admiration?” “Do fairy tales,” asked C.S. Lewis, “teach children to retreat into a world of wish-fulfillment… instead of facing the problems of the real world?” Are fairy stories nothing more than compensation to which we run “from the disappointments and humiliations of the real world?” Guite, like Lewis, responded with a firm “no.” “By contrast, it is in imagined worlds that you encounter the deepest aspects of what it means to be human, and when you come out, you see more enchantment in everyone. This is literature of the New Creation, not stories where we’re briefly compensated by shock, and, returning to the surface, we find ourselves unprepared to live life well.”

Creation and Creators in Tolkien and C.S. Lewis

Wolfe and Guite contrasted the dissimilar creation stories in Tolkien and Lewis, Wolfe citing Tolkien’s creation story in the The Silmarillion. While some of the creation work is reserved for Eru himself, some of the creation is Eru and the angels singing together. (It’s to be noted that song is a means of creation; he gives them a theme to sing, a sort of music that becomes the world.) So creation has two dimensions in Tolkien: some is reserved for God himself, but some is reserved for us. Wolfe notes how this preserves the freedom of the co-creators and the creator. On the other hand, Guite noted how Lewis worried of idolatry in the language of “creating.” Lewis does, though, like Tolkien, draw on the idea of song in his creation story in The Magician’s Nephew. (Imagine. Imagine Malcolm Guite reading you passages from The Magician’s Nephew on a random Friday morning.)

Wolfe expounded how Lewis shies away from particularities and the body, toward a Platonism, demonstrated in his remarks about Milton in his A Preface to Paradise Lost:

“The naif reader thinks Milton is going to describe Paradise as Milton imagines it; in reality the poet knows (or behaves as if he knew) that this is useless. His own private image of the happy garden, like yours and mine, is full of irrelevant particularities—notably, of memories from the first garden he ever played in as a child. And the more thoroughly he describes those particularities, the further we are getting away from the Paradisal idea as it exists in our minds, or even in his own. For it is something coming through the particularities, some light which transfigures them, that really counts, and if you concentrate on them, you will find them turning dead and cold under your hands. The more elaborately, in that way, we build the temple, the more certainly we shall find, on completing it, that the God has flown. Yet Milton must seem to describe—you cannot just say nothing about Paradise in Paradise Lost. While seeming to describe his own imagination he must actually arouse ours, and not to make definite pictures, but to find again in our own depth the Paradisal light of which all explicit images are only the momentary reflection. We are his organ: when he appears to be describing Paradise, he is in fact drawing out the Paradisal stop in us.”

This fascinates me as a writer and a poet, for writers constantly think of perfecting the image of a work, of recreating glimpses for audiences to carry with them, but Lewis here questions throwing one’s energy into that part of the work, and he does so due to a sort of Platonism. (Hmmm, what do I think of Platonism?)

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Tolkien, though, sees creation as a much more humble act, as described in his essay “On Fairy Stories”:

Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Disgraced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons—’twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we’re made.

A strong claim of Tolkien’s, despite his cautious moments: “Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

Tolkien thus departs from Lewis’s misgivings of the created (seen in the scene of the painter arriving to heaven in The Great Divorce, in which Lewis’s character rebukes the eager painter arriving to the heavenly scene, eager to paint, and the heavenly character indicates that, no, “looking comes first,” to which the painter, not a little miffed, says that he isn’t much interested in a place where they haven’t got much use for painting.) You see, for Lewis, the imagination is a means by which to break out of this world which is unfinished. (Why would one need to paint, then, once in the presence of the Real?)

But for Tolkien, he sees the imagination and creating as an act by which we usher in the New Creation: “The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the happy ending. …[I]n Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.”

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Next We Meet Micheal O’Siadhail – Ireland’s Poet

Mind you, this was one whirlwind of an hour, after which the intensity quickened, for Duke’s renowned New Testament scholar Richard B. Hayes introduced Ireland’s Micheal O’Siadhail, who according to Hayes has recently published the most important work in the English language that will be written in our lifetime. It is hard not to scoff at such grandiose magnanimities, yet he went on to describe the scope of O’Siadhail’s work: “In his poetic work, he holds a conversation with the key figures in art, politics, economics, science, and philosophy of the last 400 years of modernity in order to answer the question, ‘Where are we going?’” Me: THIS IS NO SMALL TASK, ARE WE SERIOUS HERE?

O’Siadhail took to the stage and outlined the utterly dazzling structure of his 600-page tome. Riffing on Dante’s three cantos, he chose instead a five-part structure (in part because T.S. Eliot has already done The Four Quartets) and besides, O’Siadhail needed a fifth circle. There are five sections of the book, each outlining significant figures in the five disciplines of the arts, politics, economics, science, and philosophy.

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Each quintet is then divided into five cantos. These cantos and their characters represent for O’Siadhail movements within modernity: Canto 1 characters are traditional figures (Milton, Ruben, Handel, and Donne), Canto 2 figures are those liberated from traditional strictures (Goya, Wordsworth, Beethoven), Canto 3 (representing hell) are those characters fixated on ideologies and “isms,” exacting extreme control (Margaret Thatcher, Osama Bin Laden, Hitler, and Stalin), Canto 4 characters are those who envision a new future, who try to fix things and seek a new direction, however imperfectly (Dostoevsky, Rothko, D.H. Lawrence, and T.S. Eliot), and Canto 5 represents perhaps a bit of the New Creation which the entire conference celebrated – those saints and stars, and the New Creation of heaven itself (Dante, Shakespeare, Bach, George Eliot, Willa Cather, Marc Chagall, and Messiaen.)

O’Siadhail thus creates conversations between these characters and himself as he questions them on their life and work. And of course, each quintet celebrates its own poetic structure, the first being sonnets interspersed by haiku, or “saikus.”

After O’Siadhail read his epigraph, a poem to Madame Jazz (in the manner of invoking the Muses), he read to us from various characters, after which Hayes questioned him regarding his work. Among other things, he asked:

“Who is Madame Jazz?”

“The life force that we all want to dance to.”

“Perhaps the Holy Spirit?” Hayes smiled.

“That, too,” O’Siadhail replied.

Hays specifically asked O’Siadhail where it is that Jesus appears in his work, since O’Siadhail seems to envision the New Creation, and had even remarked that T.S. Eliot belongs for him in the fourth canto category because “he gets the fire, but the not the Resurrection.”

O’Siadhail responded, “Christ is not there overtly, but I allow every character the last word, which is their redemption, and my compassion. That is my Catholic faith.”

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The conversation quickly turned to O’Siadhail’s use of form. O’Siadhail remarked that he used tradition and innovation, which is what we need in our world today. “Form is freedom.” There is tradition and spontaneity, and O’Siadhail remarked that it is very American to think that nothing is authentic unless it’s spontaneous. (!) He also explained, “The Beatniks allowed us to leave and now return to the form.” Besides the patterns of feet and rhyme, O’Siadhail also remarked that using persona poems in some ways allows us to say what we could not say. “Truth,” he quoted Coleridge, “is the divine ventriloquist.”

Friends, we’ve only arrived at lunchtime of Day 1. As I’ve said before: this event was a match that sparked something inside me that hasn’t burned for some time. It was completely humbling to sit at the feet of these scholars (in such an intimate space – maybe 300 guests), and in another blog post, I’ll chat a bit about Christian Wiman, Bruce Herman, Natalie Carnes, and that other great old chap, N.T. Wright. Stay tuned!