Icons, Fighting Conches, and Abundant Giving in the Kingdom of God

I was standing inside the book shop window of Gene’s Books on Sanibel Island, enjoying the solitude of the “religious books” section, when I picked up Madeleine L’Engle’s Penguins & Golden Calves: Icons and Idols in Antarctica and Other Unexpected Places. (Never before have I read Madeleine L’Engle. Egregious on my part.) Fresh off the beach, my friend and I were passing time before an early dinner. With sand still on my toes, I put back Thomas Merton and began reading L’Engle’s story about an unlikely trip to Antarctica and a particularly transcendent interaction with penguins, an experience so memorable and meaning-filled that she began to see penguins as a kind of icon. She created her own definition of “icon” to mean those moments, or places, or things, or people that remind us of God, or theology, in some way. As she put it, icons are “an open window to God.”

On her trip, L’Engle learned first-hand that penguins are extremely communal creatures. They never do anything alone, always waddling about in little groups. But L’Engle was surprised to learn this one fact: penguins lack intimacy: “Unlike some of the great birds who mate for life, the penguin does not. If, at mating time, last year’s mate appears, well and good. If not, another mate will do.” (8). This is because “intimacy is dangerous. If you open your heart to a mate or a chick and in the next hour that mate or chick gets eaten, you open yourself to loss and grief” (4).

L’Engle reflects on the way in which humans, too, avoid intimacy as a way to protect themselves, or they overlook the incredible amount of time it takes to build intimacy, even allowing for relationship missteps along the way. These thoughts led L’Engle to iconize the penguin: “An icon is something I can look through and get a wider glimpse of God and God’s demands of us, el’s mortal children, than I would otherwise. It is not flippant for me to say that a penguin is an icon for me, because the penguin invited me to look through its odd little self and on to a God who demands of us that we be vulnerable as we open ourselves to intimacy, an intimacy which leads not only to love of creatures, but to love of God” (7).

She goes on, “Perhaps one price we must be willing to pay in order to be what we call ‘human’ is to be vulnerable. To love each other. To be willing, if necessary, to die for each other. To let each other die when the time comes. So the penguin, lacking intimacy by its very nature, became an icon for me, an icon of vulnerability” (7). (If you’re thinking this writing sounds a bit like Brene Brown, you’re not wrong. Indeed, Brown quotes from this passage of L’Engle’s in a variety of lectures.)

I purchased the book and walked out back into the sunshine, pleased to have a met L’Engle and to have made a new literary friend. That night I went to sleep with icons on my brain.

The next morning, my friend and I slipped out of our Airbnb in the dark, quietly making our way back across the three-mile causeway to Sanibel island. We were hoping to make it to the beach before sunrise. As we approached the west-facing sand, the white sands were empty except for my one friend and our one book of sonnets. It was Easter morning.

To our right, the pearl, pale pink horizon was lifting the white sky above gray emerald waters, and to our left, the sun was just beginning to peak above distant midnight palms. The whole earth, the beach, the coast, was enshrouded in silent white and pearl pink.

“I’m crying. I can’t read the poem. You read it,” I told Janae.

She read Malcolm Guite’s fifteenth Stations of the Cross poem (“XV Easter Dawn”). We had meditated on the other Stations of the Cross sonnets the night before, saving Mary’s sonnet for Easter morning. Reading that poem, in that place, was a moment of deep beauty.

Arriving at the beach at sunrise also meant we were arriving at low tide, the prime time for shell collecting on one of the most shell-dense shores in the United States. We scampered about along the beach with our little plastic bags, offering each other treasures, and delighting over each other’s finds. I found a leopard crab shell, and many miniature cone-shaped shells, and after an hour of hunting, many, many, broken Florida fighting conches. (Not so very significant.) The beach was empty except for a few walkers. As we were bending over some shell mounds about half-way through our walk, a tall, dark-haired woman and her husband approached us.

“Are you looking for any in particular?” she asked.

“Not necessarily!” we murmured, barely looking up from the sand.

“Look at this one.” She approached me and handed me a perfectly polished Florida fighting conch. “This one is whole, with no imperfections. It’s a very good one.”

“Oh, wow, it’s beautiful!” I exclaimed. Not sure how close I should approach her (we live in COVID times, after all), I fingered its wet, dark brown coloring. “I love it!”

I handed it back to her, but she pushed it into my hands.

“You can have it,” she smiled.

“Are you sure?!” I asked.

“Yes!” She laughed. “I have dozens of them at home!” She and her husband walked off.

I gasped with delight and handed it to Janae.

The woman’s husband soon turned around with another shell.

“Did you see this one?” It was finely turned lightning whelk. “This one is also unique. You may have it!”

The moment of accepting that shell on the beach, accepting a gift, no matter how small it was, moved me. I was struck by this simple generosity. It was no-doubt a familiar courtesy for them, but rare for us as visitors, with our one-day desperate hunting. To our surprise, as the couple moved further down the beach, we began finding perfectly whole fighting conches nearly everywhere.

I suppose my story ends there: Some strangers gave me a shell at a beach. But the moment was so pregnant with meaning for me. During my vacation I managed to read Makoto Fujimura’s newly published Art + Faith from cover-to-cover, and I was completely taken with it, especially in its emphasis on generosity in the Kingdom of God. Fujimura is an American painter trained in Japanese tradition whose style includes abstract expressionism, and whose muse includes the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He is what I call a theologian in his writings on Christianity and the arts, and he published his most recent book in January. I was pleased to read the foreword by N.T. Wright that hinted at some of the themes from Duke Divinity’s conference on theology and the arts in 2019 (at which he spoke and I attended); in the foreword, I heard some themes that were discussed extensively there. Indeed, Fujimura counts Wright as one of his influences, for Fujimura draws on N.T. Wright in several passages.

In Art + Faith, both Wright and Fujimura depict a shift away from the classic Protestant cycle of “Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration” to a slightly more nuanced cycle of “Creation, Fall, Redemption, and New Creation.” Fujimura calls this theology the theology of making, and as sure as it is a step away from fundamentalism’s heaven-or-hell binary, it also moves a little further past the “God is putting everything to rights” “fix-it” sort of theology. (If you’re not familiar with this theological shift gaining popularity particularly among artists, I suggest Fujimura’s book as an introduction.)

What is beautiful about having theological discussions with artists is the possibility which they bring to conversations. And the possibility Fujimura brings is that he reminds us of the incredible abundance of the Kingdom of God. He writes, “When we make, we invite the abundance of God’s world into the reality of scarcity all around us” (4). This contrast of abundance versus scarcity is striking.

It’s not as if Fujimura doesn’t see the resistance: “A Theology of New Creation may at first seem ‘too good to be true’: excessively generous, even gratuitous. This generative path challenges our obsession to reduce everything to utilitarian pragmatism and presuppose a scarcity model. But there is not an iota of scarcity in ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.’ The God of the Bible is the God of abundance” (78). This focus on generosity and abundance is what brings freshness to Fujimura’s writing.

As Fujimura contrasts a familiar sort of “fix-it” theology (what he calls plumbing theology) with the theology of making (or the theology of the New Creation which God breaks open into the world), I thought of my own work in education, and the way that it feels like we are plagued by the scarcity model. All too often in Christian schools, we are stretched to the seams, and as institutions, we position ourselves in the “fix it” theology mode. I confess that I somewhat wistfully respond: what luxury making must be. To make. And further, to make a Christian school as it should be. Can you imagine this?

To be sure, Fujimura is not writing of the religious school; he writes mostly of artists doing the work of culture care, but catch what he says here of the industrial mindset: “Ever since the Industrial Revolution, how we view the world, how we educate, and how we value ourselves have been all about purposeful efficiency. But such bottom-line utilitarian pragmatism has caused a split in how we view creativity and making. To what purpose, we ask, are we making? If the answer to that question is ‘we make to be useful,’ then we will value only what is most efficient, what is practical and industrial” (19).

If you’re unsure why this emphasis on practicality is problematic, Fujimura extends his plumbing metaphor to explain “fix it” theology. He suggests that many people go to church each week to “get fixed,” or to receive a tool to fix some pipes, as it were, each week, in their lives. The problem with this kind of thinking is that once the pipes are fixed, then what? “What are the pipes for?” he asks.

That transcendence is what artists help us to understand, for according to Fujimura, “Artists already live in the abundance of God. They see beyond the pipes. They hear the ‘music of the spheres’ and desire to respond; they see a vista beyond the world of gray utility; they desire to paint in color; they dance to a tune of the Maker who leads us beyond restoration in the New World to come” (31). Indeed, “God does not just mend, repair, or restore; God renews and generates, transcending our expectations of even what we desire, beyond what we dare to ask or imagine” (31).

Reading Fujimura’s book is like drinking a glass of water. It inspires and refreshes those tired, dry bits of yourself, especially those bits laid out in the work of culture care. I was encouraged by two points by Fujimura. First, he encourages those artists (who are also believers) who feel pulled between two worlds. He describes artists as “border-stalkers,” “found at the margins of society, meandering into the borders of established thought patterns” (46). I must admit that at times I feel as such a border-stalker, especially as it seems education falls so regularly along utilitarian lines. When you find yourself as a person who sometimes faintly hears that music of the spheres, it’s encouraging to hear Fujimura support that “border-stalkers have the ability to learn and communicate extratribal languages, and they can transcend tribal languages” (46). Indeed, it is helpful (dare I say useful) for the church to have people that “speak” a variety of languages. For is it not through the arts that our imaginations are formed, and that we learn to desire such a New Creation?

Second, Fujimura’s work made me think about how (if at all) the theology of making can be applied to the religious school. To me, it seems rather difficult to be an “artist” or a “maker” within the Christian school at this time, yet Fujimura reminded me that “an artist hovers in between what is conventional and what invokes the future” (48). How needed are these prophetic voices both within education and the church. So I was encouraged to think of the abundant, generous Kingdom coming about by new methods, apart from fix-it theology. Fujimura writes: “In building for the Kingdom now, we must move beyond the gospel of fixing things and instead set our hearts on the theology of Making. Again, redemption is more than fixing; it is a feast of healing and transformation” (54).

Don’t get me started on how fasting and feasting play out in our theology; they are the direct antithesis to scarcity models that were evident even among the disciples who asked of Mary’s gratuitous pouring of perfume, “Why this waste?”

So we are thankful for this feast. And may we ponder: what does feasting look like for us in the Kingdom of God? What does feasting look like in the religious school? What of the theology of making, there?

Fujimura expresses how beauty is connected to sacrifice, and he writes of the gift that is given through art, a kind of gift that is invaluable.

So I thought of gifts that morning there on the beach. I thought of giving that is abundant, generous, and gratuitous. I thought of my own work in education, and I thought of the theology of making. I thought of people who have offered themselves to me as a gift. I thought of a particular person who has been regularly pouring into me for 11 months. I thought of their input as a gift, an abundant Kingdom gift.

And I was reminded of a line from a poem by Malcolm Guite, from his Ordinary Saints collaboration with Bruce Herman and J.A.C. Redford. In his poem “A Shared Motif” he writes,

“To be a person is to be a gift,

Given in love. For each of us receive

The gift of being from another and we lift

Each other into light with every glance,

Given and returned in this long dance.”

The Ordinary Saints project is a series of icon-like portrait paintings and accompanying poetry and musical works, a work I was introduced to at Duke Divinity’s 2019 conference on theology and the arts. I attended a workshop in which Guite, Herman, and Redford explained their artistic process of Herman painting twenty portraits and Guite creating poems for each painting/person along with Redford’s music. The unifying concept of the work is the “sainthood” of everyday persons. It is true that sometimes we “go into nature” to glimpse God, forgetting that our cities are brimful of the image of God, for each person is made in His image. The artworks and poems speak of each person as an “ordinary saint.” At the workshop, there was a painting from the collection, a portrait of the artist’s father. Herman remarked, “You go to a gallery and you are never allowed to touch the paintings. You can touch this painting. There is nothing you can do to it that I haven’t already done to it.” And so we were able to touch and interact with his painting.

The workshop took the “ordinary saints” theme one step further. After Redford presented his music, the presenters asked us to take a quiet moment to regard the stranger sitting next to us. We were to turn to the stranger next to us and look them in the eye, and imagine them as an ordinary saint. I was sitting next to a middle-aged man in a suit, no doubt some musical director, and I turned, and it was a vulnerable, beautiful moment. A kind of communion.

For Guite had just read from his own poem, the “Ordinary Saints: Epilogue”:

“How shall we know each other now? Will all

That we have seen recede to memory?

Or is our sight restored, and having gazed

On icons in this place, will clarity

Transfigure all of us? We turn, amazed,

To see the ones beside us, face to face,

As living icons, sacraments of grace.”

_________________________

These thoughts flooded my mind, and I was left tightly clutching my shell as the sun rose higher. The strangers disappeared beyond the beach.

 “To be a person is to be a gift

Given in love.”

I can’t be sure, but perhaps that shell is my own little icon, a sacrament of grace.

Like what you read? You can support Shasta’s Fog through my “Buy Me a Coffee” button! By clicking on this button, you can support Shasta’s Fog with a small Paypal donation. If you hope to see this writing continue, I invite you to click the button and drop me a line if you wish. Your support means everything to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The actual three best quotes from Tournier’s book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like Tournier, I, too, am Swiss!

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

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

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

Like what you read? You can now support Shasta’s Fog through my “Buy Me a Coffee” button! By clicking on this button, you can support Shasta’s Fog with a small Paypal donation. If you hope to see this writing continue, I invite you to click the button and drop me a line if you wish. Your support means everything to me.

____________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSC_5917

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!

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.

DSC_0327

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?

Film Review

And so we are deeply indebted, Ms. Gerwig. Eliza Scanlen’s shy earnestness (a la Greta Thunberg) produces an unexpected subplot with Christopher Cooper, and it’s a heart-warming “seeing” for which we’re all grateful.

But Ms. Gerwig, perhaps more mentionable are the landscapes you’ve created which we’ve always wanted for American period films. New England is “nice,” and you’ll be thanked for giving those saccharinely sweet Jane Austen movies a run for their money. (Not since Kevin Sullivan’s Canadian Anne of Green Gables have we had brood-y North American period countryside to look at.)

But even more vibrant? The ivory beachside light, bathing your seaside tableaux, full of white dresses and parasols – itself an impressionist painting, in the manner of Degas, Monet, or even our very own William Merritt Chase! Never before accomplished on screen! A marvel!

…A tableaux that’s nevertheless jarringly animatronic due to the fact that there are only a few scenes in which Saoirse Ronan is not jabbing or shoving Timothée Chalamet to the ground. To be sure, Saoirse’s physicality is what makes the movie positively American. We’ve always been England’s rowdy cousin, and Saoirse’s clobbering is remarkably precise, both in representing American folk cultural mileaus, and in representing tightly-knit all-female households.

I assure you that the fist-fighting scenes are remarkably accurate for such homes, despite the long-gowned costuming. That is to say, there were three sisters in my household, and clobber them I did. In fact, so much of the film sat like a remembered memory, of the bickering, the excited holidays, and pensive futures of four very different girls, the joys and the sorrows, and the simplicity of modest, long-dressed little women.

Anyone previously concerned by friends’ imperfect engagements will spit out their popcorn at Saoirse’s supportively serious begging on the morning of Meg’s wedding: “We can leave!” It is her earnest belief and misplaced support that we find so endearingly reckless: “You’ll be bored of him in two years. We’ll be interesting forever.”

By the way, enneagrams everywhere will be vying for Jo or Amy as their patron saint. I have my own estimations of who is which.

We do wonder at the crossroads of religion in the film, with the March family walking in the opposite direction of churchgoers on Christmas day, in order to go feed the poor, the Hummels. This artistic choice seems to suggest, “Why don’t we just ‘be the good we want to see in the world’… that is, be the bringers of good ourselves, rather than bother with stuffy old religion?” We wonder at this suggestion.

And if I may, is Marmee’s prayer at Amy’s bedside convincing? Previously, her quotation from Proverbs, “Do not let the sun go down upon your wrath” seemed pithy, or at least other than sacred. Unfortunately, Marmee’s wisdom doesn’t appear until late in the film (a bit of a disappointment), but the development of Jo’s character due to these late interactions with Marmee is an incredible leap forward from Armstrong’s 1994 movie, producing a dynamic character for Saoirse to play, requiring incredible control for both her and Laura Dern in the final, pregnant moments of the film.

Little Women

We of the 1990s have had our share of headstrong female heroines, at least in the line of feature family films, being raised with dear old Anne of Green Gables, Christy Huddleston, and the much older Sound of Music’s Maria von Trapp. Jo March rounds out the quartet, yet Ms. Gerwig, your Jo is achingly vulnerable as a woman forced to make her way in a man’s world. She is the most stubborn of these four iconic heroines, and in your film she all but swears off marriage. (Do you know, I’ve heard whisperings of this on lips less like Jo, even among the very young.) Starved for intellectual pursuit (women have “minds” and “souls,” Jo says), she is aghast at the state of anti-intellectualism among women (and rightly so): “I’m so sick of people saying love is all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it.” Yet at the same time, she seems to imagine intellectual pursuits and a life of the mind as replacing marriage, for unlike the other heroines, she adds, “But I’m so lonely.”

Ah well. We have Louisa May Alcott to thank for finding a Professor Baer to prop her up.

But Ms. Gerwig, the last scene is anything but idyllic! We were writhing in physical pain, scouring the landscape for Baer in those final moments. (We should have known better. You wouldn’t have done that to us. We’re cynical millennials, yes, but there are limits.)

Ms. Gerwig, this is the 2019 Little Women that everyone needed. Thank you for the remembered memories, the explanations of why Jo and Laurie would have never worked out anyway, and for offering us two inestimable images we’ll take with us into 2020:  bootstraps (for pulling us up by), and open hearts (with realistic visions) that are nevertheless able to be warmed.

####

(The above I quickly jotted upon my first viewing of the film, which I viewed after reading Karen Swallow Prior’s excellent review. The first paragraph, written in my half-serious facebook-post-review-style begged the rest to be written, and subsequently read aloud in dramatic, over-confident fashion.)

Wishing the happiest of New Years to you, my dear readers.

Love, Shasta’s Fog

The Limits of a Biblical Worldview

One of my reading goals has been tackling James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, the first in his three-volume Cultural Liturgies. The “It-read” of OC 2012, the book arrived on my shelf years ago, and I am finally doing it justice.

In the book, Smith champions a Christian education that is not merely the dispensation of a Christian worldview, because, as he argues, humans are more than thinking machines, and the most important parts of human existence are not heady, intellectual affairs (we at Shasta’s Fog imagine that they nearly are) but rather the habits and loves of whole-bodied persons. He therefore reimagines humanity as “desiring animals” rather than “thinking things.”

Knights

Professor at Calvin College (*cough* theological alliances made clear), Smith writes to a seemingly Protestant audience, one that he finds doctrinally bloated (Ye lucky Reformed brethren! Ye of the orthodoxy!), evidenced by his gentle questions:

“What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?” (18).

Some worldview definitions reduce “Christian faith primarily to a set of ideas, principles, claims, and propositions that are known and believed. The goal of all this is ‘correct’ thinking. But this makes it sound as if we are essentially the sorts of things that Descartes described us to be: thinking things that are containers for ideas. What if that is actually only small slice of what we are? And what if that’s not even the most important part? In the rationalist picture, we are not only reduced to primarily thinking things; we are also seen as things whose bodies are nonessential (and rather regrettable) containers for our minds… But what if our bodies are essential to our identities?… What if the core of our identity is located more in the body than the mind?” (32)

Smith proves this nature in a creative anthropological study of the American shopping mall (reminiscent of Horace Miner’s “Nacirema” essay) to represent that all embodied humans are religious, chapel or no chapel, and that our behavior rises from a certain vision that we have of the good life, a vision which, cyclically, is reaffirmed through habits and practices. In short, “what defines us is what we love,” not what we believe (25). Humans, then, are creatures of desire. Or as Smith states,

“Human persons are intentional creatures whose fundamental way of ‘intending’ the world is love or desire. This love or desire—which is unconscious or noncognitive—is always aimed at some vision of the good life, some particular articulation of the kingdom. What primes us to be so oriented—and act accordingly—is a set of habits or dispositions that are formed in us through affective, bodily means, especially bodily practices, routines, or rituals that grab hold of our hearts through our imagination, which is closely linked to our bodily sense” (63).

And so we read Smith’s presentation of the “new,” which rejects humans as merely “believers,” for he questions the capability of worldview, as we understand it, to explain our behavior. “For most people,” Smith points out, “religious devotion is rarely a matter of theory” (69).

(Which, I think, is a *very important* distinction for those of us trying to make sense of [what I would call] forceful contemporary Anabaptist orthopraxy.)

Without worldview as a conceptual framework, Smith must offer us another explanation of reality, and he borrows Charles Taylor’s “social imaginary,” conceivably because “Taylor intuits that what we ‘think about’ is just the tip of the iceberg and cannot fully or even adequately account for how and why we make our way in the world” (65). Convinced of the limits of worldview, Smith then fully explains this social imaginary as a “noncognitive director of our actions and our entire comportment to the world… It is a way of intending the world meaningfully—giving it significance—but in a way that is not cognitive or propositional” (66). Smith notes how Taylor insists that “‘it can never be adequately expressed in the form of explicit doctrines’” (66). Which means, that the social imaginary must have different means of transmitting itself—through images, stories, and legends.

I want to take a break here and, first, point out how much SENSE the social imaginary makes to one needing an explanation of the “success” of contemporary Anabaptism. How can a denomination self-perpetuate so successfully, for so long, in a seemingly “doctrine-less” context of practice? But that is what Taylor exactly expects: “If the understanding makes the practice possible, it is also true that it is the practice that largely carries the understanding” (67). Which explains the incredulous looks I receive when I question whether Mennonites really know what they believe. Passionate adherents immediately begin listing “beliefs” that are nothing more than ordinances, practices. Which, as we have learned, carry certain understandings about “who I am,” an understanding rarely put into words, but powerful nonetheless.

Second, Smith develops a rich argument for the viability and strength of social imaginary being perpetuated through “images,” images that powerfully (yet subtly) develop a particular vision of the good life. My one fleeting thought (I cannot help myself): what if we went further than shopping mall behavior and assessed the liturgical practice of incessant scrolling? How does this practice/habit/behavior both reflect and refine our vision of life? What does the social media scrolling practice say about what we love? How does it sculpt our loves? How does it redefine them? If the “social imaginary” is conceptually true, then our media habits hold powerful sway in creating and sculpting our loves, for they powerfully captivate our imaginations, compounding in time to drive a stake, claiming our loves.

Since I’m only one-third of the way through the book, I imagine Smith will do several things: (1) more fully work out how the social imaginary is different than “worldview” as we know it, and (2) offer suggestions for how the church must necessarily shift away from thinking worldview-ishly, and begin offering embodied alternatives.

In a telling essay called “Why Victoria’s In on the Secret,” Smith highlights how modern advertising campaigns seem understand our embodied nature better than the church. He writes, “On one level, Victoria’s Secret is right just where the church has been wrong. More specifically, I think we should first recognize and admit that the marketing industry—which promises an erotically charged transcendence through media that connects to our heart and imagination—is operating which a better, more creational, more incarnational, more holistic anthropology than much of the (evangelical) church. In other words, I think we must admit that the marketing industry is able to capture, form, and direct our desires precisely because it has rightly discerned that we are embodied desiring creatures” (76). Yet the church seems to be fighting these strong passions and loves with… ideas. And beliefs. In our heads. Which have somehow gotten disconnected from our bodies. Smith writes, “When Hollister and Starbucks haven taken hold of our heart with tangible, material liturgies, Christian schools are ‘fighting back’ by giving young people Christian ideas. We hand young people (and old people) ‘Christian worldview’ and then tell them, ‘There, that should fix it.’ But such strategies are aimed at the head and thus miss the real target: our hearts, our loves, our desires. Christian education as formation needs to be a pedagogy of desire” (33).

(I might note here that Smith uses the term “liturgies” to mean any formative practice, that by repetition, becomes a ritual of identity. Less like brushing your teeth, more like going to Cross-Fit every day or shopping on amazon.com. What does it mean that one goes to Cross-fit every day, and how does that habit or ritual begin to bend back on a person, shaping their desire? What liturgies do we participate in every day? Are there Christian liturgies, and secular liturgies? Smith calls liturgies “secular” when they “capture our hearts by capturing our imaginations and drawing us into ritual practices that ‘teach’ us to love something very different from the kingdom of God” (88).)

Finally, Smith will (3) more fully explain how the new conception of the social imaginary comes to bear in what we call Christian education. I love Smith’s definition of education:

“An education – whether acknowledged or not – is a formation of the desires and imagination that creates a certain kind of person who is part of a certain kind of people. The facts and information learned as part of the process are always situated and embedded in something deeper that is being learned all along: a particular vision of the good life” (29).

The full title of the work is Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, because it is when education prioritizes worship (whatever that is) that education can begin to expand beyond the limits of worldview-dispensing into an actual education that recognizes and uses our bodies.

 

 

 

Extroverts Are More Likely to Commit Adultery, and Other Facts

“What are you reading?” my bus mates asked me on tour this summer.

Quiet by Susan Cain. It’s about why introverts deserve to live.” Leave me alone, I’m reading.

The subtitle of the book is “The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” Besides the Bible, it is one of the most helpful books I have ever read, and you should read it too because #society.

Here are some things I learned:

We Are the 33%

One-third of us humans are introverts.

How We Act

Extroverts are more likely to commit adultery than introverts. Extroverts also function better without sleep. Introverts, however, more often learn from their mistakes, delay gratification, and ask “what if.” Things that are not related to extroversion and introversion include shyness, and being a good leader.

Wait, What’s the Definition?

Defining extroversion and introversion may be best described as being high reactive or low reactive. Introverts react more strongly to highly stimulating environments, causing them to prefer solitude, to dislike multitasking, and to prefer classroom lectures, rather than group discussion. When introverts are described as being “shut down” during group activities, it may be because they are experiencing sensory overload, and are struggling to know which parts of the environment they should pay attention to. This is why some introverts find group activities “exhausting.”

Cain cites an experiment on babies that succumbed them to strange or stimulating environments (balloons popping, the scent of alcohol etc.) Babies who cried loudly and waved their arms in response to these new environments were described as high reactive and grew up to be introverts. Toddlers who were unphased by a strange clown and a robot in the room, were described as low reactive, and grew up to be extroverts; they tended to be unphased by, indeed, readily sought out, new stimuli.

DSC_1404.JPG

These differences are proven by physical means in adults. Introverts, when tasting lemons, produce more saliva, than extroverts—they are more reactive. Introverts also have physically “thinner skin,” causing them to sweat more (especially when visiting environments that are new to them). This physical reaction hints at the internal warning bells that researchers continually record in introverts’ brains.

DSC_1162 (edited).jpg
Introvert: *poses calmly with Big Ben* Extrovert: OHMYWORD LET’S TAKE A JUMPING PHOTO!

(Correspondingly, this also points to a physical embodiment of “cool” for extroverts. The unphased, hip teenager, who always knows what to say, has skin that is quite literally “cooler” than his peers.)

Introverts and the Church

The evangelical mega-church service, with its Jumbotron screens, pumping music, Powerpoint sermons, and Bible-less sanctuaries caters to extroverts. Adam McHugh, an evangelical pastor, after visiting Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, commented, “Everything in the service involved communication. Greeting people, the lengthy sermon, the singing. There was no emphasis on quiet, liturgy, ritual, things that give you space for contemplation.” Personally, I’ve often wondered why it is that I’m so drawn to liturgical services. Perhaps it has more to do with my temperament, than with theological aversions to the evangelicalism of many pseudo-Mennonite churches.

Born This Way

To answer the question if personality is inheritable, Cain responds that “half of the variability in introversion-extroversion is caused by genetic factors.” In other words, 50% of the difference between you and another personality type might be related to genes, but it might not be, too. Personality is categorically related to both nature and nurture. In other words, your in-born temperament is not necessarily your destiny. But. Cain reminds us that “people who inherit certain traits tend to seek out life experiences that reinforce those characteristics.” You’re an extrovert who loves risk? It’s more likely that you’ll keep seeking and encountering excitement and experiences which will compound over time, and before you know it, you’ll be able to achieve things introverts only dream of doing, not because you’re an extrovert, but because you’re an extrovert who has sought out experiences that persons with other temperaments tend not to.

This is why, as psychologist Jerry Miller notes, “the university is filled with introverts. The stereotype of the university professor is accurate for so many people on campus. They like to read; for them there’s nothing more exciting than ideas. And some of this has to do with how they spent their time when they were growing up. If you spend a lot of time charging around, then you have less time for reading and learning.”

Small Talk Vs Deep Talk

A temperament feature that is closely related and highly overlaps with “highly reactive” is “high sensitivity” (read the book for a complex definition). Most introverts find themselves to be highly sensitive, and this may explain why introverts tend to dislike small talk. High sensitives tend to think in complex ways, as proven by an experiment with first graders, which found that high reactive children take much longer in the classroom to choose an answer in matching games, or when reading unfamiliar words. Therefore, “if you’re thinking in more complicated ways,” says Jadzia Jagiellowicz, the lead scientist at Stony Brook, “then talking about the weather or where you went for the holidays is not quite as interesting as talking about values or morality.”

We are famously told that introverts don’t do small talk, but Cain found that introverts do participate in small talk, but normally at the end of the conversation, not the beginning. After introverts have established authenticity in a conversation by discussing a deeper topic, only then do they deem it appropriate to “relax” into small talk.

Shyness and the Animal Kingdom

There’s a whole interesting section about how shyness works in the animal kingdom, and how if shyness is a desirable trait for natural selection, or not. It’s reported that of the 100 species that have noticeable temperaments, 80% of animals within a certain species are extroverts, and 20% are introverts.

Take Trinidadian guppies, for instance. For every 8 outgoing guppies, there are 2 loners in the group, who prefer to “watch and wait” instead of to “just do it.” Neither trait is preferable, necessarily, except for the environment each guppy is in. If guppies find themselves in an area full of pike, their natural predator, scientists notice that the outgoing guppies die off with lightning speed, nature preferring the quieter, more cautious guppy. These cautious types, while still casting a wary eye toward pike, manage to throw off their shyness long enough to mate, and guess what? A whole new generation of fish are born, and in time, the genes mutate, leaving mostly shy guppies. (Aw, lil guys so adorable.) BUT. In areas upstream where there are fewer pike, the outgoing guppies have no qualms with bouncing around, looking for food any old time, and since loner guppies tend to “hunt” less, nature then prefers, and promotes, outgoing guppies.

Guilty Guilty Guilty

Introverts report feeling higher levels of guilt, which is not altogether a bad thing, as Cain reminds us that guilt is “one of the building blocks of conscience.”

Extroverts Get More Jollies

The pleasure “reward center” of an average extrovert’s brain is more sensitive than the average introvert’s. That is, extroverted people report higher levels of pleasure for many types of rewards received. (Perhaps this is why introverts are able to delay gratification more easily than extroverts. They literally get less of a bang out of sex, chocolate cake, and roller coasters.)

This is also why introverted students consistently outperform extroverted students in high school and college. Cain reports, “At the university level, introversion predicts academic performance better than cognitive ability.” Introverts are extremely disciplined, focused problem-solvers while at the same time excelling in assessing long-term goals, while extroverts are less-focused problem-solvers and tend to overlook the long-term, focusing only on the task at hand. In a sense, extroverts’ lack of discipline shows how they may have less grit.

Vocation: Introverts Need to Look Out for Themselves

There are many ways in which the work force (and the classroom) has historically catered to extroverts (including, but not limited to, open floor plans and group work, which by the way Cain effectively proves to be less effective for creativity and productivity.) She also speaks at length about the importance of introverts finding vocations in which their needs are met, where there is enough solitude for insightful discovery.

There are times and places in which introverts can “fake” extroversion, for the sake of vocation, or for a task or topic about which they are very passionate. Oftentimes, though, this pseudo-self gets burned out over time. So if you are in a vocation that requires you to have more “people-time,” or stimulation than you are prepared to healthfully engage, you must work at negotiation with your boss to find the mental rest that you need.

Negotiations, not only with your boss, but also with family members will be tricky if you are working with an extrovert. Cain found one study that suggests that “introverts like people they meet in friendly contexts; extroverts prefer those they compete with.” Therefore, introverts may find it really difficult to negotiate for “a night in,” or “a silent working lunch” because they perceive negotiation as conflict. Conflict is then internally perceived as guilt (for introverts), when extroverts might just be getting their engines started. This is why introverts must continually work at not shutting down, but learning to firmly ask for the things they need.

Cain’s narrative turns personal when she begins to answer the question many introverts have upon reading her (vindicating) research – okay, so but how do I find a vocation that meets my need of being a core personal project? She gives three answers: “First, think back to what you loved to do when you were a child… Second, pay attention to the work you gravitate to… Finally, pay attention to what you envy.” Envy, as nasty as it is, can teach us a lot about our desires.

Interesting, But Who Cares?

You might be asking: why does any of this matter?

Cultures and societies generally prefer, promote, and value one temperament over the other. Cain’s book makes a strong case for American culture preferring extroverts, versus Asian respect for introverted qualities. Yet Cain also points out how a society’s preference for a certain temperament can have long-lasting impacts. Cain makes a grand case that the recession of 2008 resulted in part from American society idealizing extroversion in business schools, and accordingly undermining, and even ignoring, introverts. Her extensive research from some of the top business schools in the nation is mind-boggling as she makes a very tight case. My question is this: if a cultural preference for one quality over another can cause a national financial crisis, what else might we be on the brink of losing, due to our national aversion to the slow and steady deep thinking that so many introverts hold dear?

DSC_0896.JPG

Let’s think about introversion and extroversion in the church. One of the deepest impacts from my classroom last year was the following realization: society is made up of the kind of students I have in my classroom. In the same way that my high school classrooms consist of readers struggling to decode a single paragraph alongside highly gifted teenage readers who have highly nuanced critical thinking skills, so, too, is our world made up of these individuals. And so too are our churches. As I struggle to create content that meets the need of challenging and engaging ALL types of students, I imagine that our pastors also have an incredible task. Very often we teachers find ourselves “teaching to the middle,” as it were, hoping our highest achieving students are not getting bored, and then scaffolding for others. But as an educator, I ask myself the question: what am I losing by not pushing the rest of the class in the direction of my gifted students, who, many times, are introverts, cultivating a life of deep thinking?

(But for some reason, our classrooms are places of these business models which do not place a heavy emphasis on quiet, personal inquiry and focused individual scholarship, and I am convinced we cheat our students because of this.)

My question for us is this: how are we doing with engaging gifted Christians in the church? And what do we gain to lose by not making space for introverts in the church?

I contend that our churches, our church services, our Sunday schools, and our Bible studies do not engage the type of deep thinking that so many introverts long for. And we’re culturally insecure about it, on all fronts. Introverted thinkers are insecure of their fresh visions, and extroverts, insecure about their own academic habits, make jokes about Biblical study being “too smart” for them.

However, I contend that if we do not make space for liturgy, for focused study, and for a tolerance of scholarship within the church, we risk silencing a significant 33%. We will be left with Christian thinkers who are disappointed by the intellectual life of the church, who are insecure about their God-given temperament, and who quietly shift their intellectual energy elsewhere. And that’s a shame.

The Marriage Book Every Single Person Should Read

Today I’m posting quotes from a marriage book I read and giving opinions about them.

Try not to be shocked that we at Shasta’s Fog have been looking for the perfect book on marriage for a long time. As a Christian who happens to be single, I think it’s important for me to get my theology straight regarding marriage. (Conversely, it would be good for married people in the church to thoughtfully produce a theology on singleness.) However, I find that so much of the literature that’s on the Christian book market related to sexuality, gender roles, and marriage seems to have been written for (and by) people who’ve been married for at least 10 years. These books are full of prescriptive stereotypes (that writers claim to be Scriptural, yet are weak exegetically) and unhelpful advice (regarding gender roles) that is really only applicable in marriage.

So when I found a marriage book written by a New York City pastor whose congregation happens to be 80% single, I giggled with glee, expecting relevancy. (Finally!) Tim Keller, in his introduction, calls it first, “A Book for Married People,” second, “A Book for Unmarried People,” and third, “A Book about the Bible,” writing that the book’s primary goal is “to give both married and unmarried people a vision for what marriage is according to the Bible.” That is the book I was looking for.

20180619_155747

(I’ll comment here to say that at different times in my life I would have been more or less ready to read a book about marriage. In other words, I have several single friends who are refusing to read this book along with me, and I totally get why.) For the rest of you who are only a little bit curious, you might pick up a copy.

Benefits of Marriage

You can expect that a pastor whose congregation is 80% single has two tasks in this type of book: (1) talk about the goodness of marriage, and (2) be honest about the hard work it entails. For example, a striking benefit of marriage that singles must wrestle with is the accountability it offers: “Studies show that spouses hold one another to greater levels of personal responsibility and self-discipline that friends or family members can. Just to give one example, single people can spend money unwisely and self-indulgently without anyone to hold them accountable” (17). Finances aside, Keller and his wife Kathy spend much of the rest of the book describing how spiritual accountability is the great benefit, or one of the purposes, of marriage. Singles, then, must decide how to actively seek accountability if it is not “built in” to their homes.

The Cultural Climate of Marriage

In the first chapter, the Kellers describe how society’s view of marriage has changed historically, and they hit the nail on the cultural head, in regards to the current vision of marriage being a self-focused (or self-helpful) means of “finding emotional and sexual fulfillment and self-actualization” in contrast to the historical notion of “finding meaning through self-denial, through giving up one’s freedoms, and binding oneself to the duties of marriage and family” (21). (Because how fun does that sound?)

The studies they cite for self-defined compatibility are laugh-out-loud accurate in their unrealistic idealism, for both genders. Sexual attractiveness aside, men reported that compatibility meant “someone who showed a ‘willingness to take them as they are and not change them’” (24). Women, too, seem to want the best of both worlds: “Both men and women want a marriage in which they can receive emotional and sexual satisfaction from someone who will simply let them ‘be themselves.’ They want a spouse who is fun, intellectually stimulating, sexually attractive, with many common interests, and who, on top of it all, is supportive of their personal goals and of the way they are living now” (26). A little idealistic, don’t you think? But single and married readers alike, recognize that irony. If not, the Kellers drive it home: “You are looking for someone who will not require or demand significant change. You are searching, therefore, for an ideal person—happy, healthy, interesting, content with life. Never before in history has there been a society filled with people so idealistic in what they are seeking in a spouse” (27).

The Kellers recognize that not all millennials are selfish hogs, though—there are some who recognize very much the *cost* of marriage and are terrified of intimacy. To these afraid of losing their freedom, C.S. Lewis is quoted: “If you want to make sure of keeping [your heart] intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation.” (Are you getting the picture? This book is thought-provoking!)

The Purpose of Marriage

True to his word that the book is a book about the Bible, Keller takes very great pains to be sure that readers know what marriage is: a bumbling metaphor for Christ, and us. The same outworking of the gospel message is what’s expected for the marriage relationship. The gospel gives us this knowledge: “We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope” (44). Keller then explains in detail how this type of self-knowledge is reflected in marriage, and he does so in very practical and helpful ways. (Okay, I did skip a chapter in there, but not the one where he waxes philosophical about reconciling romance with the drudgery of marriage by quoting Kierkegaard.)

Marriage is Friendship

Speaking of practical, one clear emphasis of the book is that a person’s marriage partner should be their best friend. A lot of people marry someone because they are attractive, or because they are financially stable. The Kellers emphasize that those two qualities are extremely unstable, but finding a partner with whom you can enjoy life is a wiser choice. There’s actually a whole chapter devoted to Biblical friendship! (So helpful. I mean, who’s good at making [and keeping] friends these days?) A clear message about Biblical friendship is that, in part, it should sanctify you. Good friends ought to sharpen each other, pointing out the flaws, if necessary. (Oops, sorry, I guess we do have to change.) So while some see the point of marriage as happiness, God sees the point of marriage (and friendship) as holiness. Again, our society reacts to this because “holiness” does not sound fun or sexy. So the Kellers leave us with a solemn reminder from C.S. Lewis for good measure: “He gives the happiness that there is, not the happiness that is not. (1) To be God, (2) to be like God and to share his goodness in creaturely response, (3) to be miserable—these are the only three alternatives. If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows—the only food that any possible universe can grow—then we must starve eternally.” Either have superficial friendships and miss out on the real joy of life, or go deep and find the good earth.

Gender Roles

Probably the book’s greatest success is that the definition of gender roles is reduced to a single paragraph.

MIC DROP.

Notice: in this book, it is argued that the gospel is the starting point which helps us know how to be male and female. The book does not start with grandiose definitions of gender, spend pages and pages citing anecdotal evidence for these flimsy definitions, wallow in Timothy for a while, encourage women to sell Plexus, and then plop Jesus at the end. Instead, marriage is defined through the whole of Scripture, and the Trinity is used to explain a bit how gender roles might work. (In marriage alone, though).

Here are quotes for you to argue with your friends about:

“The family model in which the man went out to work and the woman stayed home with the children is really a rather recent development. For centuries, husband and wife (and often children) worked together on the farm or in the shop” (208).

“Christians cannot make a scriptural case for masculine and feminine stereotypes” (210).

“While the principle is clear—that the husband is to be the servant-leader and have ultimate responsibility and authority in the family—the Bible gives almost no details about how that is expressed in concrete behavior” (209).

(It’s almost as if Kathy Keller has heard of Midwestern evangelicalism and winks, “I see you.”)

Singleness and Marriage

I skipped ahead to the chapter on singleness. What’s noticeable is the Kellers’ recognition of Apostle Paul’s ambivalence regarding marital status. In other words, “both being married and not being married are good conditions to be in.” Literally nobody believes that. But here’s a message for the church, married and singles alike: “We should be neither overly elated by getting married nor overly disappointed by not being so—because Christ is the only spouse that can truly fulfill us and God’s family and the only family that will truly embrace and satisfy us” (222). We are reminded how it is possible to have this perspective through the gospel. Also, it is the gospel that creates communities of believers, the church, which become family for all Christians. (Again, I’m certain that many churches have a very long way to go, to develop this culture that is nevertheless Scriptural.)

Last summer I blogged about gender roles, and I wrote about a quote that I had never before seen in print. This summer I found another one, in the singleness chapter, borrowed from Paige Benton Brown’s article “Singled Out by God for Good.”

Here goes.

“I am single because God is so abundantly good to me, because this is his best for me.”

I’ve been thinking about this for days.

At first when I read the quote I got excited because I think it silences a pity party that’s easy to have. Then, the silenced pity party made me extremely zealous for singles to pick themselves up by the bootstraps and become busybodies for the sake of the kingdom. In fact, I found myself scribbling this in a notebook:

“Can we stop idolizing marriage, and can we start privileging singleness? Singles, this is on us. Do we take ourselves seriously? When is the last time we asked how our singleness can help us better serve the Lord? I contend that few singles view their relationship status as an out-flowing of the goodness of God for the sake of effective kingdom work, even though Scripture would allow us to make that claim. I wish singles could know that they are loved, highly valuable individuals in the kingdom of God, pregnant with kinetic potential. I wish singles didn’t view their status as a prison sentence.”

But then I read Brown’s full article, and I paused when I realized she disagreed with my hasty leaps:

“Warped theology is at the heart of attempts to ‘explain’ singleness… ‘As a single you can commit yourself wholeheartedly to the Lord’s work’–as though God requires emotional martyrs to do his work, of which marriage must be no part… Accepting singleness, whether temporary or permanent, does not hinge on speculation about answers God has not given to our list of whys, but rather on celebration of the life he has given. I am not single because I am too spiritually unstable to possibly deserve a husband, nor because I am too spiritually mature to possibly need one. I am single because God is so abundantly good to me, because this is his best for me. It is a cosmic impossibility that anything could be better for me right now than being single. The psalmists confirm that I should not want, I shall not want, because no good thing will God withhold from me.”

I invite your reflections in the comments. Meanwhile, I’m welcoming the exchange of self-important busyness for calm rest in the goodness of God.

Now, go read The Meaning of Marriage.

(Also, here is the link to Brown’s full article. If you are single, I caution you—her top-notch sarcasm may leave some of you bleeding. Otherwise, a delightfully refreshing read.)

 

Essential Summer Reading for Christian-College-Bound Kids

Got this in my inbox:

“I’m looking at doing hopefully a bunch of reading this summer in preparation for college this fall. As an English teacher, do you have any good book suggestions to read? This could be any genre or style.”

Answered with pleasure! Today’s list happens to be for kids heading off to Christian colleges who have already taken high school lit classes that feature fewer authors of the white male variety than are listed here. (Note: were the student heading to a public uni or nonreligious private university, I’d majorly modify this list as well.) Nevertheless, below I’ve featured some canonical works that we just didn’t get to in my lit classes that I recommend as great summer reading.

Theology Nearly All Thinking Christians Have Read

N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope – You need to be reading N.T. Wright because he’s the C.S. Lewis of this century, not to mention a leading New Testament scholar. Most thinking Christians today are intimately familiar with his work. He gives a lot of insight into how the early church thought about the resurrection. Warning: worldview shift ahead.

Wright not so much as presents new topics but instead reminds us what we’ve always known according to the Bible but we sometimes let contemporary society drown out. What happens, for example, after you die? There is a bodily resurrection, and Wright explains why this is so important, and how that changes how we live here on earth. Wright writes his book because he has picked up on an oddity of Christians that even Harper Lee notices. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee’s Miss Maudie says, “There are just some kind of men who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one.” Wright notices the same. Perhaps he is perplexed by separatist Christians jamming fingers in their ears, determined they’re “not listening,” and seeking only to “endure” this life, until they get to the real one, heaven. Wright complicates this, determined to explore the mystery of “Why are we here?” and he does so by “rethinking heaven, the resurrection, and the mission of the church.”

Not a light read, but you may be fooled in the friendly, conversational introduction, which introduces the interesting landscape of British Christianity, which is in fact the viewpoint from which N. T. Wright is writing. Besides being one of the world’s top Bible scholars, he is also a Bishop for the Church of England. (I’ve blogged about Wright’s other writings here.)

C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity – A solid defense and introduction to the Christian faith, this book is an excellent example of Lewis’s direct and accessible style. Read this book if you want a taste for one of the most remarkable apologists of the 20th century.

G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy – Chesterton, the Catholic predecessor to C.S Lewis (who indeed inspired many of Lewis’s writings) offers a defense of Christianity as an Anglican, before he converted to Catholicism 14 years later. Interesting reading, considering the amount of influence he ended up having on C.S. Lewis.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn essays – You should probably know about this Russian critic of the Soviet Union and of anti-God communism. A lot of Christian high school students I know have studied his famous Harvard commencement address from 1978 called “A World Split Apart.” Another writer in the same vein, and of equal importance, is Malcolm Muggeridge, who Ravi Zacharias quotes extensively.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship – Read the theological writings of a German pastor caught in the middle of Nazi Germany. What is the responsibility of a Christian in a secular society? (You should know that Bonhoeffer was ultimately accused of an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler and was executed in a concentration camp.) There is no room for hypothetical Hitler questions here; this man lived to tell about it. (Or did he?)

St. Augustine’s Confessions – an important autobiography (theological in nature), the first of its kind, from A.D. 400.

Classics That You Should Have Read in High School

John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress – The most classic of British classics, a must-read for every Christian.

Image result for pilgrim's progress barnes and noble

George Orwell’s 1984 – An English dystopian novel, published in 1949, that’s all about government surveillance and public manipulation. Nearly everyone in college has read it.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy – Read the books or watch the movies. Without question, you should have familiarity with Tolkien’s work.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas* – a memoir from 1845 that was an exceedingly influential piece of abolitionist literature. Features uncomfortable truths about slave life and the “Christian” South.

Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery* – one of the most popular African American autobiographies

The Federalist Papers and/or Thomas Paine’s Common Sense – You should probably have some familiarity with these great American political classics. Both will probably be very slow reading, heh heh.

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov – A very long Russian novel about belief, doubt, mercy, and patricide.

Leo Tolstoy’s War & Peace – An even longer Russian novel about war and humans… broken, beautiful humans. (Be sure to read only the newest translations. I break them down here.)

William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech – The context in which Faulkner gave this speech illuminates its importance.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet – Read this Shakespeare play about a conflicted teenager, caught between doing the right thing and committing suicide. Or, if you can, find any Shakespeare play being performed in a local park this summer, read the Sparknotes ahead of time, invite a girl, and pack some popcorn.

Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations – a good classic to have under your belt, very Dickensian in style, and a little heart-warming. (Though it should be called Denied Expectations. Poor Pip.)

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin* – the anti-slavery novel that Abraham Lincoln claimed basically started the Civil War

Books for the Lake – Reading That Your Professors Will Not Assign, but Are Nevertheless Helpful

Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy – The perfect novel for the lake (or should I say, the cabin). Large glass of sweet tea optional. A true story about a pagan who finds his soul mate, rides an academic high, and becomes friends with C.S. Lewis. A cancer diagnosis means he ultimately must choose between his beloved wife and the Christian faith.

Image result for a severe mercy

Nabeel Qureshi’s Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus* – This riveting personal narrative on Qureshi’s journey out of Ahmadiyya Islam to Christianity includes a glimpse into the importance of inerrancy within Islam. (Christians think THEY’RE Biblicists?) Qureshi’s narrative is gripping, risky, and thought-provoking as he offers a beautiful picture of Islam yet reveals how his allegiance to scholarship and academia ultimately forced him to reject Islam and embrace Christianity and the solidness of its Scriptures. A truly moving testimony.

Charles C. Mann’s 1491 – While the jury’s still out on the academic credibility of Mann’s research, this nonfiction book is nevertheless fun reading. What happened in 1492? Columbus sailed the ocean blue! But what was America like in 1491 before Europeans arrived? Many of our American history books begin with the story of Spanish explorers, and very little space is devoted to the history of indigenous people. This book gives a fuller history of pre-Columbian America along with ground-breaking research that brings into question many of our assumptions about our land before colonization, including assumptions like:

“The New World was relatively unpopulated.”

“Native Americans lived in the wilderness and never touched it.”

“Native Americans were unsophisticated and lived in simple societies compared to Europeans at the time.”

“Cities didn’t exist.”

However, did you know that the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan was larger than any European city at the time and also had running water?! High school students of mine have done book reports on this book, giving it rave reviews.

Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz – Irreverent essays about the Christian bubble. Includes Don’s experiences at the secular-of-all-secular colleges, Reed College.

Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey* – A non-kosher exposé on the plight of illegal immigrants in the U.S. Journalist Nazario records the experiences of a Honduran boy who crosses the Mexican border to find his mother in North Carolina. Not recommended for Republicans.

Kelly Monroe Kullburg’s Finding God Beyond Harvard* – It may be because of the academic landscape described in this book that Sattler College was founded. I review the book here.

Finding God at Harvard* – Again, I briefly describe the book here.

Mary Poplin’s Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me about Meaningful Work and Service* – The story of American educator Mary Poplin’s experiences volunteering with Mother Teresa in the 90s.

Chaim Potok’s The Chosen – This novel about a conservative Hasidic Jewish community in NYC during the 1930s is as comfortable and enjoyable as your favorite cousin.

Lee Strobel’s A Case for Christ or A Case for Faith – Vanilla and evangelical, but both very readable in style. Strobel comes to faith while working as an investigative journalist for theChicago Tribune.

Rosaria Butterfield’s Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert* – Because you ought to know how some in the homosexual community feel about Christians.

Selected Poetry, Because You’re Not a Caveman

John Milton’s Paradise Lost – You don’t have to read the whole thing (it’s over 10,000 lines long), but you should know that this epic poem exists. Just read a section or two.

Image result for paradise lost barnes and noble

T. S. Eliot poetry, maybe “The Waste Land”– Famous modernist poet despairs after WWI. Finish up with Faulkner’s Nobel prize speech after.

Any poem or poet featured here: https://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/20-best-poems/

 

Online Resources (Including News Sites) for Thinking Young People

Veritas Forums on Youtube – The Veritas Forum was founded at Harvard in 1992, and it is an organization which now serves over 50 American and international universities. Veritas hosts forums and speakers on college campuses in order “to inspire the shapers of tomorrow’s culture to connect their hardest questions with the person and story of Jesus Christ.” On Youtube, you can find Veritas Forums featuring (1) TED-talk like content, (2) full debates, or even (3) congenial conversations related to most fields of study in the university. A great resource for skeptics and thinking Christians. In fact, it may have been a Veritas forum that pointed me to Poplin’s book on Mother Teresa.

Random speeches on Youtube (or podcasts) by N.T. Wright, John Lennox, and/or Tim Keller, all important authors and apologists with whom you should be familiar.

The New Yorker – a magazine of current events reporting. Snobby academic writing at its finest. Read one online article a week.

First Things – This publication calls itself “America’s Most Influential Journal of Religion & Public Life.” Noticeably Catholic, the online version offers thoughtful (and conservative) social critique. Read one article a week.

BBC app – Skim the headlines of the Top Stories every day. Compare them to the headlines of the Popular Stories.

New York Times app – Once a week, skim the headlines of the Most Popular stories. Read anything interesting. You get access to 10 free articles a month.

NPR, especially the program “the 1A” – A co-worker recently told me that it’s dangerous to listen to NPR because they find that then you have a knowledge base that not everyone else has. In other words, it’s informative.

*books that aren’t written by white males

 

How to Know Your a Grammar Stickler

Calling all grammar sticklers! How good is your grammar? If you meet at least 13 of the following 16 qualifications, you’re well on your way to being a licensed, registered grammarian!

1. The title of this article makes you want to stick pins in your eyes.

2. You’ve read Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves for fun on vacation and have memorized her hilarious soliloquy on the its versus it’s debacle.*

3. There are three kinds of torture: water boarding, forced nudity, and someone pronouncing the word especially as expecially.

did-you-just-say-expecially-noooooo.jpg

what-if-i-told-you-its-pronounced-especially-not-expecially.jpg

4. You refuse to succumb to societal pressures to use text as a verb, as in the doltish statement, “I texted him last night.” You prefer instead to say, “I sent him a text message last night.”

5. You notice that people who use text as a verb are more commonly disposed to use objective case pronouns in the subjective case, as in, “Me and him texted last night.” Inwardly, you correct this nitwit: “He and I were sending each other text messages last night.”

6. You know the difference between prescriptivism and descriptivism (you weren’t born in a proverbial linguistic Dark Age), but you still prefer to have a little class.

7. This little class meets every day at 10 a.m., and it’s called Language and Composition.

so-you-think-alot-is-a-word-try-again.jpg

8. To you, the grandest anomaly of the misused possessive apostrophe has to be the inimitable possessive I’s, as in, “You can come to Jordan and I’s house.” You know that there is no English textbook under heaven in which that word appears.

proudly-uses-i-at-the-end-of-every-sentence-has-never-heard-of-objective-case-pronouns.jpg

9. You rarely tout your grammarian philosophies in public lest you start appearing a sexless prude. Instead, you privately (but voraciously) read articles like this one online, and if you’re feeling especially brave, you click, “Like.” (Though, when you’ve simply had enough, you muster up the courage and click, “Share,” later mentioning to Mom that she can say goodbye to the idea of grandchildren.)

10. You would like to introduce a few of your acquaintances to a new vocabulary word: doesn’t. As in, “He doesn’t know that it is incorrect to say ‘He don’t know.’”

11. At the same time, you would like to remove a certain four-letter word from the mouths of your acquaintances; the word is seen. As in, “I saw that she does not know how to use the word seen correctly.”

12. You need to use both hands to count how many times Calvary has been misspelled cavalry on those church praise and worship PowerPoints.

29tmyh.jpg

13. In fact, there are a couple of words that come to mind regarding the grammar and spelling on church praise and worship PowerPoints: extreme discomfort, embarrassment, anxiety, bodily aches, high blood pressure, nervous twitching, and general foaming at the mouth.

14. Despite the fact that society labels you a disagreeable prig, you do enjoy the occasional social mixer. In fact, you find that the two most attractive traits in the opposite gender are (1) eyes like pools in the ocean, and (2) the ability to use the pronoun each as a singular subject. As in, “Each of us is weak at the knees for blue eyes and verbs that agree in number.”

correct-grammar-much-wow-such-fun.jpg

15. You’ve given up on foreign words like espresso and en pointe, which people can’t pronounce or spell, respectively, to save their lives. It strikes you that their dignity ceases to be in shreds; it is now burnt ashes.

en-pointe-is-a-ballet-term-that-refers-to-the-tips-of-the-toes-but-thats-none-of-my-business.jpg

16. You know that someone with bad grammar is going to read this article, feel bad about themselves, and then curl up into a ball to whimper ceaselessly. Ironically, you find that this is the exact reaction that you have to most instances mentioned in #1-13…