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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The actual three best quotes from Tournier’s book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like Tournier, I, too, am Swiss!

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

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

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

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____________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Add This to Your New Year’s Resolution

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

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

The Marshmallow Test

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

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

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

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

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

It seems that self-control alone is not enough.   

The role of emotions in achieving your goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theology and brain science on transformational change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fostering attachment for transformational change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jean Louise & Virtue Signaling: A Meditation for Millennials

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few observations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do she hurt you in any way?”

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

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

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

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

“‘WELL, HOW’S NEW YORK?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You’re right,’ she nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Also, Big Reveal:

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

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

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

Update + Chat about Power, Expertise, & Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Westover fans! Where are you?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(There’s always one, you know?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(It didn’t.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drinking Coffee with Canada’s National Mennonite Historical Society

This past weekend, I listened to no less than thirty academic presentations in a space of 2.5 days as Canada’s national Mennonite Historical Society hosted scholars and speakers for the annual Mennonite Studies conference at the University of Winnipeg. For me, to hear Mennonite history treated with academic regard of the highest degree was paradigm shifting. The conclusions of scholars on Mennonites and education, specifically Mennonite girls in education, were especially moving.

If Canadian Mennonite history were a monarchy, then Frank Epp was crowned king by the frequent reference to his contribution to the three-volume work Mennonites in Canada, his daughter Marlene Epp reigning as current monarch, with U of W’s Mennonite Studies chair Royden Loewen acting as lovable prime minister.

It’s been only recently that I’ve come to discover that the idea of a singular “Mennonite identity” is passé, and it was confirmed to me by the conference. The Canadian presenters seemed to take this as a given as they presented deep research showing diversity of expression in Anabaptist identity in Canada since the 1970s. The fact of diversity within Canadian Mennonitism was further supported through Ted Regehr’s opening comments that highlighted that one major change of Anabaptism in Canada since the 1970s is that it is now primarily an urban identity, not a rural one. (In this way, Mennonites in America seem some fifty years behind their northerly neighbors.) I’ll share here some of the emphases of conference topics and research that to me seemed particularly Canadian in flavor.

1. One of the first concerns raised seemed to be that of indigenous issues. Canadian Mennonite scholars were sensitive to the fact that white Mennonite settlers in Canada settled on Native lands, and the conference began with a ceremonial naming of the tribes on whose land rests the University of Winnipeg. Daniel Sims outlined the interaction of Mennonites with Tsay Keh Nay in Ingenika, British Columbia while they squatted on “government” land. One MCC worker spoke about donations at an MCC thrift store being able to be repatriated to First Nations people in Saskatoon. Coupled with this was occasional reflection on the Mennonites’ responsibilities to the 2008 Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with Melanie Kampen asking the question if Canadian Mennonites have fully explored their participation in the cultural genocide of First Nations through residential schools.

2. There were frequent references to Canada’s 1971 induction of a state policy of multiculturalism, which led to (for Mennonites) the creation and promotion of the Manitoba Mennonite Centennial (attended by 70,000) and even government grants for writing the histories that Frank Epp did.

3. Most thrilling of all was my first taste of Canada’s vast archiving of its Mennonite identity. IT IS TO BE RESPECTED. We in the States do not have any sort of Mennonite Historical Society on a national level, and the level of scholarship, documentation, and archival work is simply phenomenal, leading to highly gratifying presentations like that of Laureen Harder-Gissing’s work on Canadian Mennonites at the edge of activism.

  • It was a Canadian Mennonite woman who gained national attention by lobbying (successfully) for less violent scenes in the children’s TV show “Power Rangers” in the 1980s.
  • Mennonites also hopped on the anti-war toys campaign of the 1990s. Ontario Mennonite Fred Snyder bought his local Sears’ entire stock of GI Joe toys on his credit card, and then returned them after Christmas. Sears was forced to return the toys to the manufacturer!

Dr. Janis Thiessen delighted conference-goers with her exposition on John Braun and his Leftist manifesto of the Radical Mennonite Union of the 70s. Hoping to unite the radical Left and Anabaptists, Braun organized and gained funding for a pan-American road trip in which he interviewed Mennonite dissidents along the way, at the same time distributing Leftist propaganda, stopping by the Chicago Mennonite commune that produced the Leftist Mennonite newspaper, the Mennonite Stomach. Thiessen’s research culminated with observations about how the Mennonite Left differed from its nondenominational counterparts. First, there was an intergenerational institutional support in the fact that the older generation indulged Braun, allowing him to create his trip and even agreeing to be interviewed. Second, the Mennonite Left maintained pacifism and the absence of violence, unlike the New Left when they lost out.

4. Another concern to be raised was that of gender – how would Canadian Mennonites include and promote LGBTQ persons within the church, and how did Canadians view the historical contributions of Mennonite women in their respective communities? (Frank Epp’s wife Helen personally reviewed countless national documents in order to find and record every single Mennonite conscripted during the World War. Also, 40% of Mennonite farmers who testified against building a uranium refinery, the El Dorado nuclear site, on Mennonite farmland in Warman, Saskatchewan, in 1980 were women. [They won, incidentally.])

Thus, a theological self-consciousness emerged, along with a call to “change our theology when it hurts others” (which begs the question – what is the definition of theology, and is it so liminal?) This self-consciousness appeared both in relation to gender, but also to ethnicity. For example, Mennonite Brethren folks wondered whether a name-change is in order for the conference, an option for a new name being Evangelical Anabaptist. (One sees how the name is less gendered and less ethnic than Mennonite Brethren). Which actually makes sense given the fact that one researcher pointed out that the Mennonite Brethren church in Quebec is made up of almost entirely non-white immigrants.

The ethnic question was also brought up implicitly by the cultural diversity presentations. For example, how do we account for a Chinese Mennonite Brethren church in Caracas, Venezuela? “That’s so specific,” in the words of Marlene Epp (who was actually describing a cookbook called Friendly Favorites: a Cookbook of Favorite Recipes of Ontario Markham Mennonite Girls Born in 1995, but it nevertheless relates.)

5. Also noticeable was the Mennonite connection to a farming past (and farming future). We heard how Ontario Old Orders responded to the implementation of electric, refrigerated milk tanks. “Can’t use milk cans anymore? We’re moving to Guatemala.” In relation to a change in farming policy, there was, historically, overall, a wide berth of resistance, flexibility, and acceptance. Or as Royden Loewen’s research mused, “Are Canadian Mennonite farmers biotic believers? Or Anabaptist agricultural agnostics?”

6. A purview into contemporary history of Mennonites necessarily reported on Mennonites “Re-Imagining Education,” and it was telling to hear about the move away from Bible schools to Christian universities for the Mennonite Brethren. I tried to remain stoically unemotional when powerhouse Robyn Sneath dusted off her shiny new Oxford doctorate, reporting on forty oral interviews she collected from Lower German Mennonites on their experience with 8th grade public education, and why secondary education seems unobtainable. Further, Janice Harper’s work on the Elmira Life and Work School in Ontario demonstrated to me a flexibility and creativity at the state level to address truancy among conservative Anabaptist who drop out of school after 8th grade. (Among the compromises this Canadian high school made were providing the Mennonites high school segregation at an off-campus location (!) and a work-study option, in which students attend high school one or two days a week, working for a local business for the other three or four days.) The creativity and flexibility demonstrated by the public school board in order to compromise with the religious community in Elmira, Ontario pierced like a neon saber.

But I couldn’t hold back the tears because I was seeing the issues for which I champion every day as an educator discussed in respectful, nuanced ways by national scholars, while feeling the weight of class struggle bind me in solidarity to one Lower German Mennonite girl who solemnly declared when asked if she would ever go to university: “I could never afford it.” While a fog settles over my own educational path, a path of economic resistance, to see my questions legitimized by cutting-edge researchers was paradigm shifting, yet also called into remembrance what Daniel Sims, a Native researcher called for: “No research on us without us.”

Thankfully, every two hours we breaked for coffee and pastries, and I was able to gulp huge breaths of air, and Mennonite big-whigs exchanged my tears for business cards, helpful introductions, and a genuine interest in my conference affiliation because what are you, and would you even consider yourself Mennonite.

7. The last session cast its eye toward the future with talks on Youth & Generation. Gil Dueck’s “Conceptualizing the Millennial: Questions of Theology and Identity” reported that millennials’ questions are not theological in nature, but rather those of identity. A few data points: (1) The 2011 study “Hemorrhaging Faith: Why & When Canadian Young Adults Are Leaving, Staying & Returning to the Church” reported in a weirdly recognizable way that things that keep teenagers from engaging with the church include, for one, not having a meaningful relationship with God (not that teens were able to describe what a meaningful relationship looked like, yet they seemed to be able to feel what it was not). (2) “Identity” is becoming crucially important in emerging adulthood, and the search for identity is continuing quite abnormally into the late 20s and even low 30s. (3) Now, adulthood is about standing alone, rather than accepting role change.

Peter Epp spoke on unbaptized young adults in Mennonite contexts and asked the question, “Why aren’t young people getting baptized?” His named his work “It’s Like Dating Around” because participants in his study equated baptism to marriage, in importance. Since it was a historical conference, Epp was forced to offer objective findings rather than subjective analysis, but it was easy to see how the research pointed to a response. For instance, Epp reported the following concerning unbaptized young adults in Mennonite contexts: (1) To them, baptism requires certainty of belief and changed behavior AND they believe that certainty of belief and changed behavior will be arrived at individually (as in the case of one girl who was waiting to get baptized until she had time to “think really thoughtful thoughts” about what she believed). (2) Secondly, they’ve experienced isolation at church.

If you’re not a historian, feel free to make subjective analysis now.

I worried that a conference of this pace might be tiring, but part of the fun was managing the metacognition of dropping down into a new country… adjusting to signs for “the washroom,” being frowned at for saying, “Yes, sir” (“This is NOT the military!”), noticing uncluttered European-like spaces (a design sense that’s inexplicably un-American), Canadian politeness (could Americans be any more whiny at security), and Canadian forthrightness (especially females). Also the cold. (On a 7o morning, an older conference member announced cheerily, “I walked here, 1.2 miles. Took me twenty minutes. Nice brisk walk.” Another man: “I bike to work. If it’s below -40o, I wear goggles and a face mask. If it’s above -40o, you don’t really need the goggles.”) Have literally never seen an electric hitching post before, in the parking lot, and there was an electric plug sticking out of the hood of the 2018 Dodge Charger we rented. My friend Janae and I dashed out for the most highly rated coffee in Winnipeg, Fools & Horses, and haphazard flakes flittered down lazily, an afterthought in the pink morning sky. (My friend Janae is a chemist, but she graciously accompanied me to the three-day conference, and I think she took more notes than I did!)

 

Winnipeg’s annual Santa Claus parade provided us an hour detour before our final stop: across the Red River is Winnipeg’s French quarter, St. Boniface, and slipping into Promenade, we enjoyed bouef bourguignonne by candlelight, the city lights sparkling on the banks of the river, and we discussed with exuberance our copious notes. Warmed and grateful, I recalled a bit of John Braun’s manifesto as we later stepped out into the night: “Before change, understanding. Before understanding, confrontation. God is alive. Magic is afoot.”

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.

 

 

 

Years That Ask Questions, and Years That Answer

Remember that AIO episode where Eugene Meltzner packs his bags for California and victoriously declares, “I’m going on a journey… to find myself!”?

Bernard Walton (every evangelical’s favorite sarcastic saint) replies, “Sounds like a pretty short trip.”

I feel like I’m approaching this year in the same way: with both parts inspirational stirring and bemused pragmatism.

Last winter I made the crazy decision to take a year off from the English classroom, and I spent most of this summer furiously job-hunting, most interviews going something like this:

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Saved by the bell (a literal school bell), I got an administrative assistant job just weeks ago in a local high school. While I was initially looking for more distance from a school setting, I’m not going to lie that I look forward to #everyholidayoff and #snowdays.

I thought I would make things easy for myself as I adjust to a new job by packing up my entire apartment and moving across the county. Things I’m gaining: roommates who cook, a dishwasher, a yard with big trees, and a patio. #suburbia

Things I’m leaving behind: cement, my favorite running trail, the clip-clop of buggies, and the infamous Menno Wal-Mart. (Tons more diversity in this part of Lancaster. I went for groceries, and I’m pretty certain I was the only white person there.)

Oh, and did I mention that this summer I also threw out all my beginners’ training plans and ramped up half-marathon training to chase an early fall half-marathon PR. (So laughable because my new neighborhood lies on top of countless, impossibly-mountainous hills.)

A lot of people have been asking me why I quit teaching this year, and I can’t say it better than Zora Neale Hurston: “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”

2018 is that year for me, and I feel incredibly blessed to have the luxury to take time off to ask deep questions of myself, my career, and of God.

Don’t get me wrong, this year I have an incredible to-do list. I have an incredible reading list. I have an incredible amount of research and academic networking to do. (Step 1: Mennonite Studies conference at University of Winnipeg in November.) And as always, I have writing goals, running goals, and music-learning goals.

“But wait,” my friend said. “Are you going to actually take the time to rest and do the re-focusing that you wanted to do in the first place?”

(Thanks, Nancy, I need the reminder.)

Because at the outset, I scheduled this year as one big fat giant reminder to rest… a sort of personal maintenancing. I have a feeling that the silence of rest will at first sound like a roar. (Especially as I force myself to answer some deep questions.)

You know what they say: “Ask yourself if what you are doing today is getting you closer to where you want to be tomorrow.” I hope to be asking that question for this entire year.

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One of my new next-door neighbors is from West Africa, and he said this about Americans: “You ask American, ‘How are you?” They say, ‘I’m fine.’ Could be living catastrophe. Could be shot by bullet with blood coming out, they say, ‘I’m fine.’”

Here’s to a year of asking myself, “How are you?” and answering honestly.

Because the truth is, readers, if you’re running a rat race, you’re allowed to DNF.

A Good Mennonite Poem

One new little blog feature that I’m happy to roll out this year is a Good Reads widget that gives you a peek at what I’m currently reading.

(Yes, I said books, plural. I’m famous for reading several at a time. This is actually good practice according to Douglas Wilson, author of the cunning little writing book Wordsmithy. In his chapter, “Read until Your Brain Creaks,” he encourages writers to read widely, and he announces that it’s perfectly acceptable to have to have, say, twenty books going at a time.

I don’t quite have that many, but I DO try to follow his advice by reading a lot, dabbling in different genres, and bouncing between several different covers.)

Currently, I’m still digesting The Brothers Karamasov… then there’s Vera Brittain’s autobiography, Testament of Youth (a movie by the same name was released in 2014) about a young British scholar, who, after fiiiiinally convincing her Papa to let her go to college (and Oxford at that!), she abandons her studies to enlist as a nurse in the armed forces during World War I, after which, she becomes a staunch pacifist, due to her experiences on the front and the war-time death of her brother, her lover, and another friend.

A reader once pointed me to the biography of Lilias Trotter (after having blogged about the writings of John Ruskin), and let me tell you, Lilias Trotter’s testimony is phenomel (though much of the literature around her life is a bit lacking). A documentary of her life was made in 2015 (a little disappointing cinematically, but I made my parents watch it on Christmas with me, and we enjoyed her testimony, despite some of the movie’s slow pacing). Basically, John Ruskin, leading art critic of the Victorian era finds 20-year-old Lilias to be England’s next rising artist. Convinced of her artistic genius, he offers to tutor her, and they enjoy the kind of friendship that only the arts provides, until Lilias announces that she cannot continue to paint, but that she has another love–that of Jesus Christ, and as a young women, heads off to Algeria as a missionary. Despite her poor health, her inability to speak Arabic, and the fact that all missionary societies refuse to support her, she and a few friends leave on their own, determined to make North Africa home. Her slow, steady work and her approach to missions was uncommon for the time as she tried to reach the Arab world through the written word and the arts. Go google Lilias Trotter! Or better yet, read her biography A Passion for the Impossible!

I’m also reading The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost Their Sense of Evil by Andrew Delbanco. (That’s pretty self-explanatory.)

And finally, I continue to page through one of my new favorite books, an anthology of poems (published by the University of Iowa Press and edited by Ann Hostetler, professor of English at Goshen College) called A Capella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry.

a capella.jpg

I picked up my copy at my favorite used book store in Goshen, Indiana for $9, only to go to the Goshen Library sale a few weeks later and find a copy for $1. (Lucky me. I gifted one to my roommate). And. We have been devouring Mennonite poems for days!

Who even knew that writing like this existed?!

Good Mennonite poems!

Good poems. The kind I read at university and dearly loved but never stumbled across ones that were about me.

I read the poetry of white British mothers, African American artists, Native American activists, political poetry from Guam, plays from Hawaii, Lakota cries, Cherokee voices, Argentine verse… but where was the story of me?

In Mennonite Voices, these poems are our story.

Probably the strangest poem in the anthology is this poem about cookies. It is my favorite poem of the anthology. If you read it here, and you don’t understand it, that’s fine. It’s probably not meant to be totally understood at the first reading.

The Cookie Poem
by Jeff Gundy

“Here are my sad cookies”

The sad cookies. The once and future cookies.
The broken sweet cookies. The cookies
of heartbreaking beauty. The stony cookies
of Palestine. The gummy and delicious
olive and honey cookie. The pasty
damp cookie trapped in the child’s hand.

Sad cookies, weird cookies, slippery
and dangerous cookies. Brilliant helpless
soiled and torn cookies, feverish and sweaty
cookies. Sullen cookies, sassy cookies,
the cookies of tantrum and the cookie of joy
and the sweet dark cookie of peace.

The faithful cookie of Rotterdam. The wild-eyed
cookie of Muenster. The salty Atlantic cookie.
Cookies in black coats, in coveralls,
in business suits, cookies in bonnets
and coverings and heels, cookies scratching
their heads and their bellies, cookies utterly
and shamelessly naked before the beloved.

Cookies of the Amish division, cookies
of the Wahlerhof, cookies of Zurich and
Stassburg and Volhynia and Chortitza,
Nairobi Djakarta Winnipeg Goshen.
Cookies who hand their children off
to strangers, who admonish their sons
to remember the Lord’s Prayer, cookies
who say all right, baptize my children
and then sneak back to the hidden church anyway.
Cookies who cave in utterly. Cookies
who die with their boots on. Cookies
with fists, and with contusions.
The black hearted cookie. The cookie with issues.
Hard cookies, hot cookies, compassionate
conservative cookies, cookies we loathe
and love, cookies lost, fallen, stolen,
crushed, abandoned, shunned. Weary
and heroic cookies, scathingly noted cookies,
flawed cookies who did their best.
Single cookies, queer cookies, cookies of color,
homeless cookie families sleeping the car,
obsolete cookies broken down on the information
highway. Sad cookies, silent cookies,
loud cookies, loved cookies, your cookies,
my cookies our cookies, all cookies
God’s cookies, strange sweet hapless cookies
marked each one by the Imago Dei,
oh the Father the Son the Mother The Daughter
and the Holy Ghost all love cookies,
love all cookies, God’s mouth is full
of cookies, God chews and swallows and flings
hands wide in joy, the crumbs fly
everywhere, oh God loves us all.