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!

An Existential Bit of Birthing Video

One of the best moments this year happened when I substitute-taught a girls Child Care class one day. (Not necessarily your regular public school “Child Care for Teen Moms” course, but more of a “Child Care for 18-Year-Olds-Who-Will-Marry-Very-Young” class, which I oversaw for a single day. #mennoculture

It was THE DAY OF THE BIRTHING VIDEO.

We watched (kosher parts of) an ancient 1980s film, the title of which was something about “miracles” and “life.” The dusty cover indicated it had won an Emmy award, mostly due to the incredible microimagery of Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson. Ugh. So. Cool. No CGI here, but rather actual photographic footage of a singular sperm uniting with an egg. Sam Roberts at the New York Times writes, “Using high-definition, three-dimensional ultrasound; a scanning electron microscope; advanced fiber optics; color filters to tint the photographic gray scale; and wide-angle lenses, Mr. Nilsson documented the journey to conception by some two million sperm as they swam six inches upstream from a woman’s cervix to the eggs traveling down her fallopian tubes.”

So you can tolerate the screeching 1980s educational video musical score (you know the ones?) if only by marveling at the incredible photography.

I suppose life is a miracle, and beholding it at a microscopic level makes you stop for a moment. I was struck by something very particular while watching the film.

The tired narrator was droning on, dispelling all kinds of facts about sperm and eggs and fertilization, when he listed a statistic that stopped us in our tracks.

“Of the 200 million sperm released, only about 50 sperm make it past the uterus to the Fallopian tubes. Then, only a single sperm unites with the egg.”

“WHAT?!” I interrupted the bored movie-watching silence. I was incredulous!

Think about it.

Each sperm has a different DNA. This means essentially that Daddy is donating 200 million different options of people, when babies are being made.

And only one sperm makes it. One unique sperm, with its own unique DNA. One unique sperm unites with a mother’s unique egg to create you.

You made it. You made it. You beat out 199,999,999 other people to be here!

Do you realize how incredible it is that both of us are living on this planet, at this time, as we are?

It is a fantastical miracle, incomprehensible to the human mind, that you and I exist together in this moment.

I looked at my senior girls: “You belong here. You belong here. You belong here at this school! You were designed to be here at this time, at this school, in this moment, with these people.”

Later, during a girls chapel one morning, I geeked out again with my sperm facts. “Of those 200 million sperm created, only one created you. God designed you so perfectly to live in this moment.”

The Psalmist, in Psalm 139, also ponders God’s choice in creation:

“You created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.”

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Aunt life: our brand-new baby Ben.

I’ve been struck with such an incredible awe since watching that science-y birthing video one day in Child Care class. The knowledge of my incredible existence inspires me to want to live well. To live with eyes wide open. And to love well. To be grateful for my friends and all the incredible people I’ve come to know, especially those I’ve met since moving to Pennsylvania.

This knowledge seems to make every moment matter. I want to make my life count. (I mean, I do kind of owe it to 199,999,999 other little DNA globs.)

I find myself meditating, as Mary Oliver put it, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Speaking of Mary Oliver, what a better way to wish you all happy graduation, happy summer, and happy vacation than with a reading of Oliver’s “The Summer Day.”

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

In this post-school summer season, I wish you three things:

  1. Joy in learning, especially the joy of learning nerdy facts about God’s creation,
  2. Time and space for awe and gratefulness, perhaps a moment or two like Oliver’s stop-still interaction with a simple(!) grasshopper,

and finally,

  1. Motivation for life-changing acts of the will. Because it’s pretty incredible about the Fallopian tubes. So please understand how desperately serious I am when I say: “Don’t waste your life.”

Happy Summer!

Make it count.

Distant Skylines: On Sanctification Through Change

I last wrote about how “it doesn’t always get worse” and about how sometimes we develop life-giving running rhythms in the back half of a race. For a person going through significant life change, I suppose “developing” was the perfect topic for me, for I’ve spend the last three months on a whirl-wind roller coaster applying and getting accepted into a grad program at Yale Divinity School. (More on that in a bit.)

Last year I quit my job as an English teacher, and this entire year has been one of learning to be flexible, and of learning to try to new things. One of the new rhythms I recently experimented with was fasting from social media and Youtube for the 40 days of Lent. Now that I’m nearing the end of this season of withholding, here is what I found:

  • I found I had more head space. Science tells us that it takes 30 days to develop a habit, and by the time I hit that 30-day marker, I realized that my daily routines and my emotional awareness were slightly shifting. I find that the white noise of social media gives me an illusion of being busy and having stuff (and people) going on. Removing the illusion is highly illuminating. It allows the “peak” sounds of your own mind and your own experience to shine through with greater intensity. Three things I noticed during my fast were (1) a hint of a greater tolerance for solitude (in other words, a few times I fully entered into a healthy kind of being alone, when I was alone), (2) tiny moments of writing inspiration (a few times I drifted off to sleep and some lines I could put in a novel someday danced around my head), and (3) a full awareness of my emotional state (me, reaching for my phone: “Am I feeling boredom? Sadness? Loneliness? Or do I really, actually need to look up the trailer to the documentary Free Solo?)
  • Second, I missed being creative. While mindless consumption of social media has great consequences (mood shifts after engaging, anyone?), social media content creation is about being creative, after all, and I missed being able to post snarky jokes, pretty photos, and theological wonderings.

Being off social media also allowed me to be more intentional with my schedule. I actually planned ahead to rent Free Solo. (You know the documentary, right? The story of Alex Honnold scaling for the first time the half-mile-high rock face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in a free solo climb, that is, rock climbing with no ropes?!) At the end, I wept like a baby. There’s something about the scene where he’s clinging to a ledge, there’s all those bugs flying in his face, and he says something like, “Imagine going to the worst Pilates class possible, and them making you hold the pose until you vomit, and if you drop the pose you literally die.” The film holds its own sort of artistic solemnity because viewers know he’s risking his entire life for a three-hour dream.

On the summit, his face shows simple joy, a simple smile, and a smiling and quiet response: “So delighted.”

There’s something about miles and miles of running that connects me to him. It’s endurance sports. It’s the connection of being part of a community where your life rhythms just don’t make sense to “normal” folks. Once he had finished the climb of his lifetime, he was asked, “So what are you gonna do now?”

“I’m gonna go hangboard.” He went into his van that he lives in and hung by his fingers which were stuck into a board, for…. strength training.

When I get up on a Saturday and go run 11 miles, I get it now that it’s a small sacrifice to the miracle that is the human race. It’s only a small sacrifice to the virtue of determination and discipline.

Anyway, if you want to watch a documentary that inspires you to find your dreams and to be true to yourself and never stop, and that also makes you weep like a hurt sparrow, watch Free Solo.

(I know that sentence sounds like crap, and maybe it is) but guys, I got in to Yale Divinity School. I don’t really know how to explain how deeply the last four months have touched me, and how they have been an absolute roller coaster of hope and turmoil and chaos and fear. I found out in December that I had everything I need to apply, so I simply went for it.

Why Yale?

I’ve been looking for grad programs that pair theological study with literature programs, and YDS happens to have a Master of Arts in Religion that pairs those two interests. And currently, YDS has some amazing literary folk (think: Christian Wiman and Marilynne Robinson). I applied, and I waited agonizing weeks to find out if I was accepted.

I visited YDS in February.

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Not YDS. Just undergraduate dorms.

On one hand it was so inspiring to be around such hungry learners. The entire earth holds such wonder for them. I happened to sit in on a chapel service (which, I had been warned varies in a mind-blowing gamut of Christian expression, from Episcopal liturgy, to Unitarian Universalist water services, to a joint service with the Yale Forestry people, featuring tulip-planting in your bare feet), but this time a young man preached for 10 minutes, and another young man sang the most beautiful solo I’ve ever heard to water the earth (a nod to a Grammy-nominated Gospel artist who happens to live near New Haven). The sun was streaming into the white marble-floored Marquand chapel, and it was a moment of beauty that brought tears to my eyes.

On the surface, I received an incredible welcome to the Yale community. The students I met were genuinely interested in the research work I hope to do with Mennonite literature for the sake of Mennonite literary education, and I had several conversations about how my work relates to other students’ areas of expertise.

More personally, it was incredibly exciting to see such laser focus in these adults who were studying all day long. It made me want to come home (to Lancaster, or to wherever) and to never stop growing. I was inspired to constantly redeem the time, to be reading and studying, preparing (for something, I’m not sure what).

On March 15th, I received noticed that I was accepted.

And not only did I get accepted to Yale Divinity School, I’m also turning it down.

For this fall at least.

Like I said before, I don’t really know how to explain how deeply the last four months have touched me.

“I have called you my friends,” yes, but you’re still the internet. So. I suppose I’ll just leave it like this: theeeeee most cathartic read on the internet this week has been David Brooks’s “The Moral Peril of Meritocracy.” The by-line of Brooks’s article states, “Our individualistic culture inflames the ego and numbs the spirit. Failure teaches us who we are.” In the article, Brooks erects two mountains, where mountain #1 is our career in which we achieve success and “win the victories the ego enjoys.” The second mountain is one in which we climb when we are thrown into our greatest adversity, when we find ourselves “falling, not climbing,” when we are navigating tragedies that “[make] the first-mountain victories seem, well, not so important.” Brooks describes the kind of people who experience moral renewal on the second mountain – people who are not broken by these experiences, but rather “broken open.”

He writes, “The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that suffering upends the normal patterns of life and reminds you that you are not who you thought you were. The basement of your soul is much deeper than you knew. Some people look into the hidden depths of themselves and they realize that success won’t fill those spaces. Only a spiritual life and unconditional love from family and friends will do. They realize how lucky they are. They are down in the valley, but their health is O.K.; they’re not financially destroyed; they’re about to be dragged on an adventure that will leave them transformed. They realize that while our educational system generally prepares us for climbing this or that mountain, your life is actually defined by how you make use of your moment of greatest adversity.”

If I’m wondering a bit aimlessly at the base of either of Brooks’s mountains, it is because I realize that grad school for me is part of my first mountain, and as a 29-year-old (cough cough, for only four more days), I realize I need some time to hangboard, and hangboard with people before I finish my first mountain, parts of which may very well be free solo. If we’re still speaking metaphorically, I’m actually doing training climbs on my second mountain instead, right now. I have some great coaches, and most of my training right now looks like uncomfortable ice baths and deep tissue massage, a little hangboarding, learning new rope techniques, and also scheduling time for the hot tub and sauna. It’s quite revitalizing, actually.)

If you ask me, I don’t know how long I’ll be on this second mountain. Because timelines in second mountain experiences are a bit subjective, like those in spirituality, and those in relationships. Second mountains do not always have the objectives timelines like those that first-mountain career experiences have, timelines like those in a two-year grad program.

While the second mountain is new, I’ve found that what I’m experiencing and what I’m living is distantly familiar…. Like a skyline you’ve seen before, but in which you’ve never lived, a skyline that is not the green hills of home, but another sort of artistic beauty, one that pulls you out of yourself, and requires change.

I complained to my friend recently that I don’t like these changes. They HURT. And they are HARD.

She softly responded, “Maybe this is part of your sanctification.”

And she is exactly right. Which is the only reason that this uncomfortable disappointment is bearable.

“So is it hard not having grad school plans for the fall, then?” you ask. I’ll spare you. “YES.” It is The Big Thing That Didn’t Happen.

For the moment, I’ve been drowning my sorrows with the artistic delights of spring, like lawn-flavored reading of Carolyn Weber’s Surprised by Oxford, most of which I consumed propped up by my elbows under a curiously gray sky. Or like my friend’s performance at her choir’s concert “The Unknown Regions,” which featured a cheerful selection of death songs (including Schuman’s Carols of Death, lyrically informed by Walt Whitman, Bach’s Jesu Meine Freude, and John Rutter’s Requiem).

Another delight was inaugurating my birthday week by playing privileged host to the dearest and oldest of friends, roommates from Bible school in days of yore. These wives and mothers and I galavanted all across Lancaster County this weekend, experiencing its best bits.

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Cafe One Eight, Longwood Garden, the sauna, Rachel’s Creperie, Main Street Exchange, Fashion Cents, Community Aid thrift shop, and the driving range for golf. Did we leave anything out?

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Ah, yes, at length we sipped the bowl of friendship.

I will close with these lines from John Updike’s Seven Stanzas for Easter because they point to the sort of reality I’m seeking. If it is second-mountain self-awareness that allows me to more fully outline the cross, then I consider these lines as fuel for these new treks.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of
beauty, lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

May your distant skylines bring you ever closer to the real, lived truth of the Gospel.

Wishing you a Happy Easter from Shasta’s Fog.

 

It Doesn’t Always Get Worse: Thoughts at New Year’s

Happy New Year’s from Shasta’s Fog!

This New Year’s I’m celebrating in the best way, brilliant sunshine bursting through floor-to-ceiling windows at my favorite coffee hotspot downtown, a buzzing atmosphere for family and friends enjoying embarrassingly late brunches. (Travel tip: there’s free parking in downtown Lancaster on federal holidays!)

On the first day of the year, I’m taking a few moments to breathe in the newness, and as I open my planner, I notice a new scent.

I smell violent adventure.

In many ways, the year ahead looks very hard, full of change, decision-making, exploring new opportunities, meeting new people, networking.

It all sounds adventure-y, yes. But also terrifying for this self-proclaimed introvert.

Despite the fact that it’s easy to writhe under the day-to-day grind of vocational service, sometimes it’s easier knowing exactly what the next twelve months hold, vocationally.

If you find that you don’t have that luxury this New Year’s Day, I offer you this observation gleaned from the endless stream of running podcasts I listened to driving back and forth from Ohio for the holidays. #midwest #roadtrips

Lindsey Hein, interviewing ultramarathoner Jessica Goldman, asked her about mental fortitude on the trail: “How do you navigate the ultramarathon mentally? What makes a person able to conquer distances of 100 miles or more?

Goldman responded, “One thing I repeat to myself is, ‘It doesn’t always get worse.’”

When you’re in mile 20 of a 100-mile race, you may be feeling awful, your legs screaming at you. When you look ahead to the fact that you have 80 miles left to go, there are two options. You may be tempted to think that you don’t have enough in you, and that if this is how things are going now, there’s absolutely no way that you can finish, because you cannot handle it if things continue to go downhill. (Heh heh.) Or, you have this option: you can glean from the experience of Goldman and others who know that sometimes it doesn’t always get worse. Sometimes life-giving running rhythms develop in the back half of the race, and it’s only in those first 20 miles that you experience mind-numbing distress.

Take this as a running tip and also as a booster for your New Year’s day. Perhaps this is the year in which your lived experience collides with never-before-experienced wellness.

Because that, my dear readers, is hope.

Hope is flexible. Hope is open to new experiences. (Truly, hope believes that new experiences are in fact possible.) Hope trusts that God gives wisdom for navigating new places and people. Hope believes that the power of Jesus gives us everything we need for a godly life. Hope is humble and ignores the awkward feeling of trying to do things differently. Hope is ambidextrous, employing multiple modalities for seeking spiritual and mental health.

J.R.R. Tolkien famously wrote: “The world indeed is full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”

I think Tolkien points to a hopefulness much needed in our world. (Even though as I’m blogging, I’m at the same time reading at Peter Hitchens article over at First Things called “Vice and Fire” that questions the religious ambivalence of Tolkien’s work and also prophesies the cultural effects of religious indifference promoted by George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Hitchens brings clarity to the way in which Tolkien and Martin create nonreligious fictional worlds which have no need nor vision for the spiritual; indeed Hitchens writes that Martin’s “fantasy greatly disturbs me, because it helps to normalize the indifference to Christianity which is a far greater threat to it than active atheism.” So on second thought, perhaps Tolkien’s hopefulness doesn’t go far enough. What fair-ness, for example? And what, really, is its undergirding? Human wistfulness? Sentimentality? That is the last thing we need.)

As you step forward into growth this new year, I pray that the hope you encounter is real and true, creational and cosmic, impossibly larger than human sentiment.

In 2019, perhaps Isaiah is the prophet we need:

Why do you complain, Jacob?
Why do you say, Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord;
my cause is disregarded by my God”?
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

Isaiah 40:27-31