Laughing at Demons: Why You Should Read The Screwtape Letters

On second page of The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis provides a framework for reading his work—

“The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”—Luther

“The devill . . the prowde spirite . . cannot endure to be mocked.”—Thomas More

C.S. Lewis takes a swipe, however, in his classic satire about an uncle demon instructing his young nephew in the ways of the diabolical. Each chapter is structured as a letter in the Screwtape’s own hand. As a senior demon, he has much advice for the younger novitiate.

Reading this novel is like chewing the best kind of cake. The texture and flavors are unexpected, satisfying, and, even better, you find out AFTER you’ve eaten it that it’s one of those really healthy kind of cakes that’s barely a cake at all, but full of fiber and those natural sugars that someone named Dawn told you about.

So you eat another slice.

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Announcement: if you’re opposed to learning, skip this book. I’m learning a lot about my own vices, the enemy’s role in using them, and suddenly I find myself highly on the defensive. Therefore, it’s much too practical for those opposed-to-learning types. Avoid at all costs.

I offer you a brief sample, Letter 10, which hit me, well, like a load of cinder blocks. That is, I identified with it grand ways, and I felt as if I were ogling myself with an awkwardly large magnifying glass. (Do not materialize that image of me in your mind.) (Before or after the cinder blocks, you say.)

In this letter, we are warned of the problems of “pretending;” in this case, the “patient” starts pretending in order to be accepted into a group of intellectual elites. If you, or anyone you know, is a Christian interacting with an intellectual community, you would do well to read this letter. Or, if you are not a part of an intellectual community, but you’ve ever felt tension between Who You Are and Who They Are, and you desperately wish to close that gap, and you find yourself no longer being true to yourself (or your Lord), you, too, ought also to read this letter.

Afterward, I’ve posted a few thoughts, and I welcome your questions.

MY DEAR WORMWOOD,

I was delighted to hear from Triptweeze that your patient has made some very desirable new acquaintances and that you seem to have used this event in a really promising manner. I gather that the middle-aged married couple who called at his office are just the sort of people we want him to know—rich, smart, superficially intellectual, and brightly sceptical about everything in the world. I gather they are even vaguely pacifist, not on moral grounds but from an ingrained habit of belittling anything that concerns the great mass of their fellow men and from a dash of purely fashionable and literary communism. This is excellent. And you seem to have made good use of all his social, sexual, and intellectual vanity. Tell me more. Did he commit himself deeply? I don’t mean in words. There is a subtle play of looks and tones and laughs by which a Mortal can imply that he is of the same party is those to whom he is speaking. That is the kind of betrayal you should specially encourage, because the man does not fully realise it himself; and by the time he does you will have made withdrawal difficult.

No doubt he must very soon realise that his own faith is in direct opposition to the assumptions on which all the conversation of his new friends is based. I don’t think that matters much provided that you can persuade him to postpone any open acknowledgment of the fact, and this, with the aid of shame, pride, modesty and vanity, will be easy to do. As long as the postponement lasts he will be in a false position. He will be silent when he ought to speak and laugh when he ought to be silent. He will assume, at first only by his manner, but presently by his words, all sorts of cynical and sceptical attitudes which are not really his. But if you play him well, they may become his. All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be. This is elementary. The real question is how to prepare for the Enemy’s counter attack.

The first thing is to delay as long as possible the moment at which he realises this new pleasure as a temptation. Since the Enemy’s servants have been preaching about “the World” as one of the great standard temptations for two thousand years, this might seem difficult to do. But fortunately they have said very little about it for the last few decades. In modern Christian writings, though I see much (indeed more than I like) about Mammon, I see few of the old warnings about Worldly Vanities, the Choice of Friends, and the Value of Time. All that, your patient would probably classify as “Puritanism”—and may I remark in passing that the value we have given to that word is one of the really solid triumphs of the last hundred years? By it we rescue annually thousands of humans from temperance, chastity, and sobriety of life.

Sooner or later, however, the real nature of his new friends must become clear to him, and then your tactics must depend on the patient’s intelligence. If he is a big enough fool you can get him to realise the character of the friends only while they are absent; their presence can be made to sweep away all criticism. If this succeeds, he can be induced to live, as I have known many humans live, for quite long periods, two parallel lives; he will not only appear to be, but actually be, a different man in each of the circles he frequents. Failing this, there is a subtler and more entertaining method. He can be made to take a positive pleasure in the perception that the two sides of his life are inconsistent. This is done by exploiting his vanity. He can be taught to enjoy kneeling beside the grocer on Sunday just because he remembers that the grocer could not possibly understand the urbane and mocking world which he inhabited on Saturday evening; and contrariwise, to enjoy the bawdy and blasphemy over the coffee with these admirable friends all the more because he is aware of a “deeper”, “spiritual” world within him which they cannot understand. You see the idea—the worldly friends touch him on one side and the grocer on the other, and he is the complete, balanced, complex man who sees round them all. Thus, while being permanently treacherous to at least two sets of people, he will feel, instead of shame, a continual undercurrent of self-satisfaction. Finally, if all else fails, you can persuade him, in defiance of conscience, to continue the new acquaintance on the ground that he is, in some unspecified way, doing these people “good” by the mere fact of drinking their cocktails and laughing at their jokes, and that to cease to do so would be “priggish”, “intolerant”, and (of course) “Puritanical”.

Meanwhile you will of course take the obvious precaution of seeing that this new development induces him to spend more than he can afford and to neglect his work and his mother. Her jealousy, and alarm, and his increasing evasiveness or rudeness, will be invaluable for the aggravation of the domestic tension,

Your affectionate uncle
SCREWTAPE

My Meager Thoughts

1. Anyone who has grown up in an insular conservative community and suddenly finds themselves “outside” knows what is that “subtle play of looks and tones and laughs by which a Mortal can imply that he is of the same party is those to whom he is speaking.” We are try-hards.

2. “All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be.” This is chilling.

3. The pleasure of belonging can be a temptation—wow, Lewis, you’re really on fire.

4. Embracing the paradox of the two worlds… I’ve done this. You’ve done this. You’re really smart, so contemporary, and you’re very glad that you can so easily dance between both worlds. Strange, isn’t it, that C. S. Lewis just condemns it? Pretending is not an option. He really does poke fun at your little urbane dreamworld.

But C. S. Lewis is talking about a young Christian, maybe or maybe not on a university campus, who is dazzled by the intellectual elites. He is probably not talking about all the identity issues of a leftover female Anabaptist who sometimes feels like a polar bear at a rice convention. (But maybe he is.)

Ah well. Perhaps we all are little devils. Because as C. S. Lewis writes, we soon find that he is sniggering at us. In a helpful uncle-y way.

And as annoying as it is, I’m glad.

READ THIS BOOK

 

 

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.

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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.

You Think Language Isn’t Important? Microstyle Begs to Differ

One fantastic book I read this summer was Christopher Johnson’s Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little. I picked up this snappy writing guide at my local library because as a writer I think it’s important to read books about composition. I definitely hit the jack-pot with this volume, a book about successfully communicating in small spaces.

In today’s world, how do you capture a person’s attention in slogans, company names, advertising jingles, social media, and bullet points of blog-land? By carefully crafting your message and playing with linguistic patterns, says Johnson, a Berkeley-trained linguist, who has worked as a verbal branding consultant for Lexicon Branding, the naming firm that developed the names for Pentium, Blackberry, Swiffer, Febreze, and others.

An extremely successful linguist, Johnson PLAY WITH LANGUAGE FOR A JOB. I’ve always said that linguists have the most fun (and Johnson delivers with this satisfying read). And it IS fun, not uptight like that grammar Nazi friend of yours. Johnson writes, “Linguists are, quite simply, specialists who take a scientific interest in language. They want to know how language works, and they’re not interested in judging you. Prescriptive rules are among the least interesting things about language” (12). Oh Christopher, I couldn’t agree with you more! I despise when people find out that I have a job teaching English and inevitably remark: “I better watch my grammar.”

Johnson smirks at this reaction: “Prescriptivists are language poison sniffers. They pay little attention to what makes language delicious… I believe that people could genuinely love language more if they shifted their focus from judgment and insecurity to curiosity and appreciation. We do interesting things when we use language, whether or not we’re being “correct,” and we should all be able to relish and discuss those things without fear of embarrassment” (12). Grammar isn’t playful or poetical, but language is.

And we respond to it subconsciously, which means that if you’re using language AT ALL in your job as a business owner or working in marketing, some of Johnson’s insights may prove beneficial to you. He talks about why some brand names work better than others. Why some ad campaigns bring business and why others fall flat. In the book, he explains why “Apple” works as a business name, and why it is that we say “dry land” and “solid ground” but not “dry ground” and “solid land.” And, amazingly, WHY THIS MATTERS for writers and business owners.

A sampling of Johnson’s artistic writing tips:

When writing in small spaces, be clear, especially if you’re promoting a product.

Consider these ad slogans:

LISTERINE FIGHTS BAD BREATH

MILTON BRADLEY MAKES THE BEST GAMES IN THE WORLD

I JUST SAVED A BUNCH OF MONEY ON MY CAR INSURANCE (Geico)

It’s pretty clear what service is being offered. But not every business gets it right. For example, Johnson grumps about Twitter’s new description of itself on its homepage: “Twitter is a rich source of instant information. Stay updated. Keep others updated. It’s a whole thing.” Johnson quotes Steve Spillman from Slate magazine, “‘Seriously, Twitter, ‘It’s a whole thing’? That’s the way I describe Twitter, but I’m a 20-something New York hipster, or something close to it. And I’m usually not trying to get millions of people to sign up, or whatever you are trying to do with this. This doesn’t say anything about how Twitter works’” (49). While it’s sometimes okay to play with ambiguity, Twitter ultimately fails in its homepage description.

Another campaign slogan Johnson deconstructs is Google’s old Droid slogan: A BARE-KNUCKLED BUCKET OF DOES, whose failures include but are not limited to the verb “do” becoming the noun “does,” but possibly being scanned as the third-person singular of “do,” or even the plural of doe, as in the female deer, in which case, what is it doing in a bucket, which metaphorically refers to the phone, we presume, which is also “bare-knuckled” (?) A tragic case of mixed metaphor, to say the least. In small spaces, one can’t afford to be unclear.

When writing in small spaces, choose the right word.

Since microstyle depends on briefness, it is highly important to be choosy. Consider the company Reebok, who named one women’s shoe style the Incubus, which Johnson defines as “a demon from medieval folklore that rapes women in their sleep.” He concludes, “If you aren’t absolutely certain what a word means, at least look it up in the dictionary” (55). Truly, when it comes to writing in spaces as small as A SINGLE WORD, choosing the right word is critical!

When writing in small spaces, push buttons.

Writers effectively appeal to emotions to achieve desired effects. When Maytag employed the slogan OUR REPAIRMAN ARE THE LONELIEST GUYS IN TOWN, “they knew that we’d sympathize with those poor repairmen even though we knew they were fictitious, and that we’d remember their plight (73). For emotional appeals to work, they either need to be very subtle or especially over-the-top. However, some fall in between these two extremes, resulting in, well, unappealing appeals. (I simply loved all the moments when Johnson points out how writers sometimes just plain miss it.) Johnson complains, “CELEBRATE THE MOMENTS OF YOUR LIFE, the General Foods slogan for International Coffees, rings hollow with its bland coziness. Proctor & Gamble, the world’s largest consumer products company, claims to be TOUCHING LIVES, IMPROVING LIFE. Really? How are you touching my life, P&G? With a Swiffer?” (74). With emotional appeals, either go big, or go home.

Besides noting the intensity of the appeals, one might also be aware of the varying types of emotional appeals: self-actualization (US Army: BE ALL THAT YOU CAN BE, Apple: THE POWER TO BE YOUR BEST), generational rebellion (THIS IS NOT YOUR FATHER’S OLDSMOBILE), and spicy (Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science). Johnson deconstructs that last one: “The… title connects eco(yawn)nomics to the titillating topic of nudity” (76). A title from the latter category that I’ve discovered on my own: Naked Anabaptist: the Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith. Hmmm yes, I notice this appeal to sensuality. Apparently the idea of reading about Anabaptist theology is so mind-numbingly boring that the writers figured that the only way to get people to buy their book is to make it sound SEXY. (Seriously now. Aren’t you A LITTLE curious about these naked Mennonites?)

When writing in small spaces, zoom in on telling details.

Johnson opens this section by citing Ernest Hemingway’s six-word novel: “For sale: baby shoes, never used.” Talk about telling details. (Sniff.) In small spaces, you can’t tell the whole story, so you’re going to have to decide which parts to leave out and let the readers “connect the dots.” The problem lies in deciding what to leave out and in using metaphor inappropriately in the included details. Johnson includes one painful example: “Choosing the wrong way to indirectly evoke an idea can result in bad framing… In 2010, I saw a billboard for 7-Eleven with the following slogan: ‘Stuff your face with value.’ Pictured on the billboard were two pale, unappealing lumps that I believe were microwaveable burritos. That was the ‘value’ you were supposed to stuff in your face. This ad might appeal to people who enjoy taking their meals at 7-Eleven, but it certainly doesn’t appeal to me. Part of the reason stems from its peculiar use of metonymy. The word value refers to the food items that can be had at 7-Eleven. Tangible food is represented by the concept of the economic value you enjoy when you purchase it. But value, while desirable, lacks both specific sensory associations and emotional appeal” (88). Therefore, the details you include must be the ripest, freshest ones you’ve laid eyes on. You’re appealing to emotions, are you not?

When writing in small spaces, use ambiguity for good, not evil.

A sampling of newspaper headlines, which may have got it wrong:

GRANDMOTHER OF EIGHT MAKES HOLE IN ONE

PROSTITUTE APPEALS TO POPE

IRAQI HEAD SEEKS ARMS

RED TAPE HOLDS UP NEW BRIDGE

YOU CAN PUT PICKLES UP YOURSELF

MCDONALD’S FRIES THE HOLY GRAIL FOR POTATO FARMERS

This reminder of the possibilities of ambiguity had me giggling over here like:

When writing in small spaces, say the wrong thing.

Sometimes, saying the wrong thing will appeal to your target audience. And even if it sounds wrong, the implication can still be positive. Volkswagen did this with its THINK SMALL campaign. (I mean, we’re supposed to THINK BIG, right? Nope. Volkswagen is reminding us that sometimes compactness is more environmentally friendly.) The company continued this marketing trend with its UGLY IS ONLY SKIN DEEP campaign and WHILE IN EUROPE, PICK UP AN UGLY EUROPEAN (113). Here’s a smirk-inducing campaign: “Avis Rent  A Car System used to boast, ‘We’re number two. We try harder.’” (Hertz had run a campaign about being number one. Avis. Those little devils.)

When writing in small spaces, keep it simple (in relation to sound).

For the love of Pete, make it easy to pronounce. Johnson describes the problem of hard-to-pronounce names: “Stephen Merritt…decided not to keep it simple when naming the albums for one of his side project bands called the 6ths (itself a real mouthful). The band’s two albums are called Wasps’ Nests and Hyacinths and Thistles. This tongue-twisting names are a sort of a practical joke—a radio DJ’s nightmare. Just imagine having to announce one of these albums on air… Think of pronunciation as driving. Vowels are like cruising down the open road. Consonants are like city driving, with all its stops, perilous lane changes, and unexpected turns. Saying ‘hyacinths and thistles’ is like having to cross three lanes of busy traffic to exit the freeway, only to find yourself heading east instead of west” (125).

Indeed, I have found there’s a good many people who cannot pronounce “sixth.” It invariably comes out as “sikth” (INCORRECT) versus “sikSth.” (Please let’s include the “s” in there, shall we?) But due to the amount of consonants there (four total!), it’s hard to pronounce. And even Ed Sheeran can’t do it, using the incorrect pronunciation “sikth” in his chart-topping song “Photograph.” No wonder my students can’t pronounce the word. Nor can they correctly pronounce “especially.” Half of them insert an anomalous “k” sound at the beginning, articulating “EK-specially.” Poor dears. It’s “ES-specially.” From where do they get this “k”? They create more work for themselves by adding sounds that aren’t even there. This also happens in the word “escape.” For my students, it becomes “eK-scape” for some unknown reason. And they’re just stumbling over TWO consonants!

But we should take Johnson to heart. Too many consonants are problematic. (OH FRIENDS. My own domain name features multiplicities of consonants of which I am now very insecure. More than one acquaintance has given me a hairy eyeball when I suggested they check out my blog “Shshchtashtshsffphoaugh.” Announcement: blog name change coming soon.)

When writing in small spaces, break the rules (in relation to structure).

I’ve always said that good writers know the rules, but if they have a reason to break them, they do so confidently. Certain misspellings can be used to create a brand. (We’re not thinking KOA Kampgrounds or anything, but more clever uses like that of “Clay Shirky, the NYU professor, author, and social media commentator, [who] used the following bio on his Twitter profile: ‘Bald, Unreliable, Easily distracte’” (155). This sort of clever rule-breaking extends one’s message. There the misspelling augments Shirky’s message about his quirky personality. Indeed, the misspelling is not some far-flung pun attempt, like that of Ephrata’s local “Compleat Restoration.” The company’s logo features the curiously spelled “compleat” atop two houses and a cozy flame. (Google the image.) When I saw the logo, I assumed the company installed new heating systems (complete… compleat… heat). However, the company’s website indicates that it is a disaster restoration service, specializing in fixing fire and flood damage and that “compleat” is an Old English spelling of “complete,” chosen in order to “set the company apart.” Yeah, sure, as a company that doesn’t know how to spell! What do Old English, large houses, and cozy flames have to do with cleaning up after catastrophic infernos? If I were a consultant, I might suggest that the spelling is arbitrary, unhelpful, and (like in my case) just plain confusing. There’s too much explaining that has to be done on the company website with that one. And in small spaces like company names, customers shouldn’t have to do that much work.  The odd misspelling, in my opinion, doesn’t work like Shirky’s does.

And this is where Johnson’s work shows how a firm grasp of the language of microstyle connects to our society. His showing us where the rubber meets the road reminds us what we have always known but we’ve been scared to bring up about grammar: sometimes we focus on things which students will never apply, and we skip teaching the art of applied language.

When writing in small spaces, combine words artfully (in relation to structure).

Having a knowledge of word associations and figuring out how to combine these associations unusually is a sure-fire way to make your wording stand out. A Seattle web design firm named their company Blue Flavor. A pretty fetch name if you ask me. Johnson explains why: “Colors don’t literally have flavor, but there are certain canonical color-flavor associations. Makers of jelly beans, slushy drinks, and other artificially colored foods use these all the time. Yellow for lemon. Purple for grape. Red for cherry or strawberry. Orange for orange, of course. Green for lime or mine or maybe green apple. But missing from this list is blue… Blue Flavor names a mythical taste that doesn’t exist. Something you’ve never experienced before. It’s a great idea for a web design studio to evoke, and it shows the power of putting words—even just two of them—together” (175). Contrast Blue Flavor’s naming win with LiftPort, the name for a company building an elevator to outer space. Johnson bemoans the moniker: “Lifting is carrying, porting is carrying, a lift is a kind of conveyance, a port is a place of departure. Combining these words hits the same overly general and uninspiring meanings again and again, neglecting more interesting ideas like outer space, science fiction, and doing the impossible” (176). Too true! An elevator to space and “LiftPort” is the best you can do? Combining words is a delicious task unless you’re using old alphabet soup.

Finally, word combination has its limits. Don’t decorate a title which doesn’t need decorating. Be up front. Johnson jokes about “pre-owned” cars (they’re “USED” for Pete’s sake!) and other words and prefixes frequently used to ornament common things. Like the prefix “pre-.” “The most ridiculous euphemism I’ve encountered lately is pre-reclined, used by Spirit Airlines to describe the nonadjustable seats in its new Airbus A320s,” Johnson explains. “Just imagine a flight attendant dealing with a confused customer asking how to make his seat go down: ‘Sir, our seats are pre-reclined, which means you’re already comfortable!’” (178). Ah, language. I love it more than most people.

This is only a sampling of the best bits of Microstyle. If you’re in business, in marketing, or interested in personal branding, you’ll love this book. It uncovers some subtleties of language and makes suggestions for the kind of writing that many of us do everyday but for which we were never trained—writing in the small spaces of social media, personal branding, and advertising.

What Happens After You Believe?

A basic question every Christian has at one time or another is: so what’s the whole point? What does Christianity DO? Is Christianity working? After I believe in my heart and confess with mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord, what’s supposed to happen?

I remember discussing Christianity with a Chinese classmate at Ohio State at the café in Thompson Library. I was interviewing her for a missions class I was taking off-campus, and we were discussing the basic tenets of Christianity. I clumsily explained the steps of salvation and then came up for air.

She nodded: “Okay, but does your life change?”

Me: “…”

Chinese classmate: “?”

Me: “Oh. Well. YES! It does! …For example, um, I would say that you become… more… peaceful?”

Chinese classmate: “Okay, but does your behavior change? Like do you stop doing the things you used to do before you become a Christian?” (Honestly, she was being a better missionary than even I was at that moment.)

For some reason, this question jolted me then and has since been one that I contemplate. I might even ask YOU this question. What EXACTLY is the nature of a life affected by Christ?

“To become like Christ,” you fire off. “To be a better person.”

Why, I ask you? And, how? How EXACTLY does one become like Christ? May I ask what are the steps and the methods? Exactly?

This summer I finished a book which has answered for me, in part, that question. It’s called After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters by N.T. Wright.

It’s the sequel to another excellent book called Surprised by Hope (which I also highly recommend) in which Wright doesn’t so much present new topics as he reminds us what we’ve always known according to the Bible, but have sometimes let contemporary society drown out. What happens, for example, after you die? There is a bodily resurrection, and Wright explains why this is so important and how that changes how we live here on Earth. But some Christians miss this part about LIVING ON EARTH. (Remember Miss Maudie in To Kill a Mockingbird? “There are just some kind of men who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one.”) It’s as if Wright notices the same. Perhaps he is perplexed by separatist Christians jamming fingers in their ears, determined they’re “not listening” to the world, and seeking only to “endure” this life until they get to the real one, heaven. Wright complicates this, determined to explore the mystery of “Why are we here?” and he does so by “rethinking heaven, the resurrection, and the mission of the church.” By the end of the book, one begins seriously examining the notion of God’s intention to redeem all creation back to Himself and, against all odds, His inviting us to join Him in that work.

 

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Wright’s not always a light read, but at times his Britishisms and friendly, conversational tone are downright charming. He also provides a fascinating introduction to the landscape of British Christianity, which is in fact the viewpoint from which he is writing. Besides being one of the world’s top biblical scholars, he is also a Bishop for the Church of England.

This is the backdrop for reading After You Believe in which, having firmly in place the idea that all Christians are called to redemptive life works, Wright focuses a little bit more on the how. If all Christians exist for the purpose of uniting with God in His grand design to ultimately redeem all things to Himself, then there must be a way that God intends for us to go about that.

Some points he makes:

  1. Wright ties worship and mission together with Christian holiness, indicating that two without the other, well, in fact, aren’t:

    “The high calling of Christian morality is therefore the necessary handmaid of the still higher callings of Christian worship and mission. The virtues which constitute the former are the vital components of the latter. The only way for worship and mission to become second nature to the followers of Jesus is for the virtues, the Spirit’s fruit, the passion for unity, and the celebration of the multiply varied vocations within the one body all to become second nature as well” (247).

  1. Wright further expounds on the why of Christian virtue and warns against common misunderstandings. For example, we don’t “put on virtue” to either receive rewards or to avoid punishment.

    “Jesus is not meaning either ‘If you can manage to behave in this way, you will be rewarded’ (a kind of legalist solution) or ‘Now that you’ve believed in me and my kingdom project, this is how you must behave’ (the sort of thing some post-Reformation theology might insist on)… What Jesus is saying, rather, is, ‘Now that I’m here, God’s new world is coming to birth; and, once you realize that, you’ll see that these are the habits of heart which anticipate that new world here and now.’ These qualities—purity of heart, mercy, and so on—are … in themselves, the signs of life, the language of life, the life of new creation, the life of new covenant, the life which Jesus came to bring” (106).

    Here is Wright’s notion that Christian virtue is an expression of the Gospel (the advent of God’s kingdom) which has already come to pass and is coming to pass.

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  1. Another claim by Wright is that one doesn’t attain Christian virtue simply by “following Jesus’ example” as it is so commonly (and awfully) put these days. (One way that many people approach this question of “How shall we live?” is pointing out Christ as the great example.) Wright has some terse words about this.

    “To what extent would this be a helpful, or even possible, line to pursue? At one level, it certainly wouldn’t be helpful and might well not even be possible. Holding up Jesus as an example of how to live a moral life seems rather like holding up Tiger Woods as an example of how to hit a golf ball. Even if I started now and practiced for eight hours a day, it is highly unlikely that I would ever be able to do what Woods can do; and there are many people out there, younger and fitter than I, who are trying their hardest to do it and still find they can’t. Similarly, watching Jesus—with his astonishing blend of wisdom, gentleness, shrewdness, dry humor, patience with blundering followers, courage in confronting evil, self-control in innumerable situations of temptation… makes most of us, all but the most proud and ambitious, feel like we do when watching Tiger Woods hit a golf ball. Only more so” (126).

    Wright goes on to explain how expecting virtue to proceed from watching Jesus as example is not only improbable, but also simplistic and untrue to Jesus’ conquering nature:

    “It is basically safe: it removes the far more dangerous challenge of supposing that God might actually be coming to transform this earth, and us within it, with the power and justice of heaven, and it neatly helps us avoid the fact, as all four gospels see it, that this could be achieved only through the shocking and horrible events of Jesus’s death. Jesus as ‘moral example’ is a domesticated Jesus, a kind of religious mascot. We look at him approvingly and decide we’ll copy him (up to a point at least, and no doubt he’ll forgive us the rest because he’s a decent sort of chap.) As if! If all we need is a good example, we can’t be in quite such a bad state as some people (including Jesus himself) have suggested. Over against all such notions stands the entire tradition from Jeremiah with his warnings about the deceitful heart, through John the Baptist, with his warnings about the ax being laid to the roots of the tree, through Paul, with his warnings that if righteousness had come by the Law the Messiah wouldn’t have need to die, through to Ambrose, Augustine, Luther, Kierkegaard . . . and a host of others. And of course Jesus himself. He doesn’t go about saying, ‘This is how it’s done, copy me.’ He says, ‘God’s kingdom is coming; take up your cross and follow me.’” (126-27).

    It seems that expecting the appearance of virtue simply from “Jesus’ example” is just bad theologically, not to mention downright unBiblical.

  1. We can agree, then, that there is a process to learning virtue and it admittedly takes effort. Wright compares learning Christian virtue to learning a foreign language as an adult.

    “You will often get it wrong, but it’s worth persisting for the goal… of what lies ahead. If you’re an English speaker learning German, you must continually remind yourself that the verb comes at the end of the sentence. And, even in a language quite like your own (think of an Italian learning Spanish), there will be quite a large amount of vocabulary which just has to be memorized. This requires mental effort, the conscious, acted-out intention to imprint these patterns, with their physical outworkings (the contortions of tongue, teeth, lips, and vocal chords), upon the brain, aiming at the point when they will happen without effort and indeed without conscious thought. It is exactly this kind of complex effort, as we shall see, which the early Christians described when they were urging one another to develop the character which anticipated God’s new world” (40-41).

    Certainly, some sort of human patience and “practicing” is necessary.

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  1. But what about “practicing”? In his book, Wright brings clarity to age-old arguments about virtue, especially the one about hypocrisy. He concedes that invariably the question will be asked:

    “If developing character by slow, long practice is what it’s all about, doesn’t that mean that for most of that time we will be acting hypocritically, play-acting, pretending to be virtuous when actually we aren’t? And isn’t that kind of hypocrisy itself the very opposite of genuine Christian living?” (58).

    But Wright deflects this question (vehemently answered YES! by the likes of Martin Luther) by giving a voice to none other than Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

    “‘Putting it on’ is all right. It isn’t hypocrisy, Hamlet is saying. It’s the way virtue comes into its own:
    Refrain tonight;
    And that shall lend a kind of easiness
    To the next abstinence; the next more easy;
    For use almost can change the stamp of nature,
    And either curb the devil, or throw him,
    With wondrous potency. (lines 165-170)
    The alternative is to let ‘custom’—that is, the force of regular behavior which carves a groove in our minds and our behavior patterns—so dictate to us that we cannot see sense (lines 37-38)” (59).

    If we never put on, then our custom may be to continually follow a pattern of behavior which is not good. Wright goes on to express the possibilities of changing our custom not only to virtuous behavior but also to the custom of embracing and inviting virtuous behavior:

    “Instead, such ‘custom’ or ‘use’ should be turned to good effect, helping us to ‘put on’ virtues which do not come naturally to begin with but which will do so in time (lines 161-165). It is remarkable, he says, what can be achieved by this means” (59).

    Thank you, Hamlet.

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  1. Getting back to the how, Wright makes the point that we shall be transformed (to answer my Chinese friend’s question) by the renewing of our minds. “Oh, good!” you say, “now I can finally know how to live!” But I will warn you that Wright refuses to offer a 10-step approach. First, he argues that before a transformation can take place, your mindset must be renewed. To get to this, Wright pulls out Paul’s New Testament vision of Christians being “daytime” people, as it were. First, one has to be utterly convinced that God’s kingdom and redemptive work has already come to pass and is already being worked out in the world. This knowledge gives one the confidence to begin the life-long journey of renewing one’s mind. (Again, read Wright’s first book Surprised by Hope for more on that.) Wright points out that the Beatitudes are a picture of this. The blessings listed there are a picture of God’s ordered world, not how things perhaps are now but ultimately will be, due to God unleashing His blessing on the world. Christians must, then, develop ways of being that ultimately reflect this upcoming ordered world. We must be people of the day.

    “For Paul, faith, hope, and love are already given in Christ and by the Spirit, and it is possible to live by them. But you have to work at it. And to work at it you have to want to live in the daytime. You have to understand how your own moral life functions. You have to think through what it all means and how it all works. You have to develop, consciously and deliberately, the habits of heart, mind, soul, and strength that will sustain this life of faith, hope, and love” (138).

    (Hmmm, what are these “habits”? Do I have them and how do I develop them?) Then Wright supports his vision that the knowledge of God’s new order is necessary before this virtue appears by quoting Colossians and I John.
    DSC_0593.JPGAdditionally, in these passages, Wright admits the challenges that many of us avoid in our pursuit of virtue.

    “What then is Paul saying in Colossians that Christians must do? Answer: he is telling them to develop, in the present, the character which will truly anticipate the life of the coming age… What we need to grasp, as being of the essence of his summons to Christian virtue, is the moral effort involved. ‘Put to death . . .’ (3:5), ‘put away . . .’ (3:8), ‘put on . . .’ (3:14)” (143).

    This is a point which I think many of us shy away from. That it actually takes work to define one’s character.

    “[Paul] does not say, ‘You might to try giving up a bit of this’ or ‘If it feels all right to you, think about doing without some of these thing.’ He says, ‘Put them to death.’ If you don’t kill them, they will kill you (3:6). This is not, we must stress, because God will suddenly invoke some arbitrary and tyrannical divine prohibition to cramp our style, stop us having a good time, or punish us if we step out of line. Rather, it is because these styles of behavior lead directly, as a matter of necessity, into corruption, decay, and death and hence away from the new creation where heaven and earth come together and resurrection results” (143).

    In essence, these particular “natural” ways of being do not foreshadow God’s ultimate redemption of all created things and therefore must be avoided.DSC_0790.JPGBut Wright does not leave us in a legalistic time-out to think about how bad we’ve been behaving. No, rather, he points to the glorious dawning of God’s new order, reminding us that we are already awake to this new life.

    “As we saw, that future state is, for the Christian, the resurrection to a body like that of the risen Jesus Christ, a resurrection to share in the new world, the new creation that has already begun with him, and in which God’s people are to be a royal priesthood, the genuine human beings through whom God’s world is brought into glorious flourishing and order” (141).

    Since Christians have been translated into this new world order THAT ALREADY IS AND IS GOING TO CONTINUE TO BE, we can ask ourselves the question how might God expect it to come about. We have already touched on the renewing of our minds, first by announcing that one must be convinced of the this new order and be convinced of one’s own place in this new order, that is, that a Christian has already been inducted into this new life. If you are a Christian, you WILL receive the virtue of God Himself (I John 2:28, 3:2-3).What Wright does is he continually suggests that setting a goal is paramount to actually achieving some sort of Christian virtue.

    “This same setting of the goal—the goal of complete and finished product of humaness—drives and shapes the habits of mind, heart, and body which will lead to that finished product and, in addition, drives and shapes the way in which those habits must be clearly understood, chosen, and learned” (167).

    This is the mind-renewal which must firmly be in place before one can expect any transformation at all.

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  1. Next, Wright discusses the importance of what I earlier pointed out as “habits.” One of the most important things that I came away with from this book is that what happens after you believe is a new life of new habits formed by a life-giving knowledge: that knowledge of God’s intended order. And I continue to explore ways in which those habits of thinking and being might be formed. For Wright there are a variety of ways (though he does NOT spend his book exploring what to DO to ACHIEVE, this is not his style but rather arguing for a case for Christian virtue) but he does hint at times how these might look for the curious Christian:

    “A rich mutual ministry of the word, then, is what Paul has in mind: the word bought taught and sung, telling and retelling the story of God, the world, Israel, Jesus Christ, and (not least) the future hope. The aim is that individual Christians might have their minds and hearts awakened and alerted to fresh visions of God’s reality, of the final hope set before them, and be able to discern in a fresh way what habits of mind and heart and body are necessary if they are to grow into the people God intends” (169).

    There are various habits or pathways within which a development of Christian virtue might occur, and Wright discusses these throughout his book.

  1. But for those of you practical folk, Wright doesn’t leave you hanging and after an entire book of comparing early Christian views of virtue in Pauline writings to even earlier views of morality, in the final chapter, he finally hints at the ways in which a Christian might think of answering this question of what happens after you believe and how it comes about. (Hints, because, Wright does not insult us with a 10 step approach.) In the final chapter he answers the question: “how can virtue be practiced?” Wright offers a circular approach by which these virtues might come about: scripture, stories, examples, community, and practices (260).First, Scripture:

    “The practice of reading scripture, studying scripture, acting scripture, singing scripture—generally soaking oneself in scripture as an individual and community—has been seen from the earliest days of Christianity as central to the formation of Christian character” (261).

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    Being Church of English, Wright necessarily makes a case for the use of liturgy and its ability to impress scripture upon believers. One such passage which I enjoyed and simply have to share with you: 

    “The church needs constantly to learn, and constantly to be working on, the practice of telling and retelling the great stories of the world and Israel, especially the creation and the Exodus; the great promises that emerged from those stories; and the ways in which those promises came to their fruition in Jesus Christ. The reading of Scripture—the written account of those stories—has therefore always been central to the church’s worship. It isn’t only that people need to be reminded what the stories say (though that is increasingly important in an age where otherwise ‘educated’ people simply don’t know the Jewish and Christian stories at all). It’s that these stories should be rehearsed in acts of celebration and worship, ‘telling out the greatness of the Lord,’ as Mary sang in the Magnificat. Good liturgy uses tried and tested ways of making sure that scripture is read thoroughly and clearly, and is constantly on the lookout for ways of doing it even more effectively—just as good liturgy is also eager to discover better and better ways of singing and praying the Psalms together, so that they come to be ‘second nature’ within the memory, imagination, and spirituality of all the worshiping faithful, not just of a few musically minded leaders” (225).

    But Scripture is not the only way to develop virtue, Wright offers.

    “Scripture trains us to listen to and learn from stories of all kinds, inside the sacred text and outside, and to discern patterns and meaning within them. And stories of all sorts form and shape the character of those who read them” (264).

    Wright goes on to make an excellent argument for the study of all literature, an argument that as a teacher of literature I find highly validating.

    “Within the Christian tradition there is special reason to pay attention to stories. Many of the great writers in the world have been deeply formed by the Jewish and/or Christian tradition, and their thoughtful words can help us to reflect on that tradition more deeply. But Christians believe that all human life is itself a gift of God and, however much it may be distorted, a reflection of God. Thus even stories written by writers who are explicitly atheist—indeed, writers whose words were intended to mock or dismiss God—have a strange knack of making crucial points about what it means to be human, about the importance of love and justice and beauty. Living within the world of stories increases—if we let it—the capacity for discernment” (265).

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    Besides Scripture and stories, Wright offers “examples” as another pathway to Christian virtue. I have already mentioned that Wright discounts “example” alone to be a pathway. It only works once knowledge and a greater understanding of “what will be” are firmly rooted in the believer. However, once these things are in place, “examples” may well be a pathway to Christian virtue. Both the example of Jesus but also countless other Biblical and nonbiblical examples (268-269).Add to examples community, including the large church abroad, the home congregation, and small groups, which Wright breaks down for us:

    “It may be a parish church, it may be a neighborhood Bible study group, it may be a group that meets to plan strategy in relation to local social issues, whatever—where sharply focused learning can happen and where decisive action can be planned and taken. Here the habits are formed by Christian friends, neighbors, and colleagues working together, prayer together, sharing one another’s lives and sorrows and frustrations and excitements” (274).

    Wright then presents a beautiful pictures of what he means by community—how exceedingly diverse, yet unified in spirit we can expect our smallest “communities” to be.

    “Here is Jane slowly thinking through the plan to meet women ex-offenders when they emerge from prison, to prevent them going back to the new habits that got them there in the first place. Here is Jack, full of a new Bible study guide he’s been reading, which he knows will open the whole group’s eyes to vistas of truth previously unimagined. Here is Jeff, who has been talking to the local education authority about starting a preschool for the young children of single parents (of whom there are many in the area) who have nothing to do when Mom goes out. Here is Lisa, who has been writing some new music for use at the Sunday night service for which a motley crew of young people typically drifts in. The point of introducing you to this four, and millions like them in small groups around the world, is that they are learning the habits of heart and life together. The point of ‘virtue’ for them is not that any will become the kind of striking ‘leader’ who will win awards, be recognized on the street, and appear on television chat shows. Nor is the point that they are all just like one another. They are not; they are very different characters, with different gifts and vocations and temperaments and social and cultural backgrounds… In order to work together, these four, and the others in their local fellowship, have to develop the fruit of the Spirit. If they don’t have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, they won’t get very far. Their fellowship will fragment. Each one will go off and do his or her own thing, muttering about the lack of vision of the rest of the church. This is what I mean when I say that the church, the community of God’s people, is the forum within which virtue is learned and practiced” (274-75).

    Finally, Wright cites “practices” of the body of believers as the final pathway of developing virtue in the believer. These community practices include the shared worship of communion and baptism, prayer, tithing, and reading scripture.So there you have it:

  1. (Worship + mission) – virtue = 0
  2. Putting on virtue is the sign of life.
  3. Virtue is not attainable by following example alone.
  4. Virtue is a process that requires effort.
  5. Practicing virtue is not hypocritical.
  6. Virtue cannot come about until your mind is renewed.
  7. There are habits within which virtue is more likely to come about.
  8. A cycle of scripture, stories, examples, community, and practices is most effective for the putting on of virtue.

Herein have I offered you the best bits of N.T. Wright’s After You Believe. I invite you to read the book for yourself to more fully answer for yourself the why and how of what happens after you believe.

What Christian Apologists Think You Should Read

What if you had the chance to ask the world’s leading Christian apologists for a book recommendation? Assuming you love reading, this could be your most interesting conversation all month!

Last week I had the opportunity to hear some of the most respected Christian apologists answer this question at a conference on the evidence for the Christian faith in Bangor, Maine. Sitting front-row at this all-day event, I heard speakers offering arguments in defense of the Christian faith, as they sought to equip believers and challenge seekers with the credible and convincing evidence for the relevance of Jesus Christ.

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Presenting apologists included Randy David Newman, Dick Keyes, Lee Strobel, Tom Woodward, and Ravi Zacharias.  Besides these speakers, there were numerous workshops and breakout sessions throughout the day and (my main reason for attending the conference) music by the Oasis Chorale (featuring yours truly!). (Not very many Christian events feature music by a capella Mennonite choirs, but props to Daryl Witmer of the AIIA Institute for organizing this anomaly. It was a gift to share in song at this incredible event.)

At an afternoon panel discussion, the speakers were asked to give a book recommendation. “What is one book besides the Bible that everyone ought to read?” Following is an introduction to each speaker and their top reading picks:

1. Randy David Newman recommends The Reason for God by Tim Keller.

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According to the WhyJesus2016 website, Randy David Newman is “a nationally-known Christian disciple, evangelist, apologist, and author. He has served on staff with CRU (formerly Campus Crusade) since 1980. He has taught seminars at locations ranging from college campuses to the Pentagon. Newman often uses humor to make a point and his books offer a proven and practical approach to Christian witnessing.”

Randy David Newman spoke on the topic of evangelism, and he told of his conversion to Christianity from Judaism. Regarding evangelism, his humor was refreshing: “You know those people who say they can’t go to sleep at night unless they’ve had the chance to tell at least one person that day about Jesus? How is it that if I haven’t told someone about Jesus, I can go to sleep at night JUST FINE?! Or those people who pray for a nonbeliever to sit beside them on an airplane so that they can witness to them? I pray for there to be an EMPTY SEAT beside me on the airplane!”

Besides his refreshing honesty, his most salient points were the art of engaging seekers and skeptics in conversation and answering questions with questions in the same manner that Jesus does in the New Testament. His book recommendation is Tim Keller’s Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, a book which addresses common doubts about religion and explains how belief in God is actually rational.

2. Dick Keyes (rhymes with “wise”) recommends The God Who Is There by Francis Schaeffer.

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First, you ought to know about the organization with which Dick Keyes is affiliated: the L’Abri fellowship. The L’Abri fellowship was first started in Switzerland in 1955 by Francis and Edith Shaeffer who decided to open their home as a place for college students and seeking individuals to ask their deepest questions and to find satisfying answers while experiencing Christian community. Labri.org reports that “it was called L’Abri, the French word for “shelter,” because they sought to provide a shelter from the pressures of a relentlessly secular 20th century.” Imagine spending extended time in a safe place, sorting out your spiritual questions, while breathing in the alpine air in a chalet in the mountains! The ministry of L’Abri has grown, and today L’Abri locations exist in 10 different countries. (Read: you can still experience this intellectual homecoming today! Communities exist in England, Holland, Massachusetts, Switzerland, Sweden, Australia, Brazil, and more.)

Regarding Mr. Keyes background, labri.org gives this bio: “Dick Keyes is the Director of L’Abri Fellowship in Southborough, Massachusetts, where he has worked with his wife and family since 1979. He holds a B.A. in History from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Dick has worked for L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland and in England, where he served also as a pastor in the International Presbyterian Church in London for eight years. He has been an adjunct professor at Gordon Conwell Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is the author of Beyond Identity, True Heroism, Chameleon Christianity, Seeing Through Cynicism, and several chapters in anthologies such as No God But God, ed. Os Guinnes, Finding God at Harvard, ed. Kelly Monroe, and New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics from Intervarsity Press. He is currently writing a book on the significance of Jesus’ questions. He has lectured widely in the U.S. and also in Europe and Korea.” Certainly, he was very qualified to speak at this event!

I truly enjoyed Dick Keyes’s academic approach to the question, “If I’m Okay, Why Jesus?” (his talk which responded to the view that sin is obsolete). (Random fact: Dick Keyes commented to our director that he liked Oasis’s consonants. Yay, choral diction!) Naturally, at the panel discussion, Dick Keyes recommended a book by the founder of L’Abri, the community with which he is highly involved. Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who Is There confronts not only the origin but also the future of competing philosophies of the church and the world, and Schaeffer’s book highlights how the God who has always been there is the answer for life’s deepest problems.

3. Lee Strobel recommends Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis and Cold Case Christianity by J. Warner Wallace.

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A household name for many, Lee Strobel is a Christian author, journalist, speaker, and highly respected Christian apologist. You might be familiar with Strobel’s life story of working as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune and, despite originally confessing atheism, converting to Christianity after investigating Biblical claims over a period of two years.

Strobel spoke on making a case for the real historical Christ, drawing heavily on his personal testimony and his own investigations. Strobel recommends reading C.S.Lewis’s Mere Christianity, a book which expounds on beliefs that the Christian faith holds true. Certainly, C.S. Lewis’s writing is a powerful display of Christian apologetics.

Secondly, Strobel recommends J. Warner Wallace’s Cold Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels, a book which, I assume, imitates Strobel’s methods. An L.A. homicide cold-case detective and former atheist uses the skills of criminal investigating to produce evidence for the Christian faith, a topic which could be considered a “cold case”: it makes a claim about the distant past, and there is little forensic evidence to rely on.

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4. Thomas E. Woodward recommends essays by C.S. Lewis in God in the Dock.

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Tom Woodward (a Columbus, Ohio native–woot!) is a research professor and department chair of the theology department at Trinity College of Florida and a prominent Christian apologist. Published works by Woodward include those defending intelligent design and those disputing Darwin’s theory of evolution. (He is not one, though, that should be written off as one of those obnoxious brands of creationists.) Speaking on “Why Jesus? Why Not Science?”, Woodward presented an engaging lecture that touched on neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and space exploration (engaging, because besides his Bachelors in History from Princeton, his Masters of Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary, he also has a Doctorate of Communications from the University of South Florida!). So the whole time, I found myself reservedly thinking: you are so convincing and charismatic. Which rhetorical mode are you wielding expertly now?  

What I was struck with from Woodward’s talk was his comments on the limits of science (something that I’ve recognized myself: science is not actually objective [i.e. we research where there are funds to research, and funds are normally appropriated for “money-making” scientific endeavors]) and also his suggestion that the theory of evolution is currently undergoing a major, bone-crushing paradigm shift, which, as he explains, means basically that Darwinian evolution is a sinking Titanic that is taking on water. This paradigm shift of the questioning of Darwinian evolution is going on at the highest level, and these questions are being asked by the brightest minds and most respected scientific scholars at the most elite academic journals. (You can find this information published by the Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press.) In fact, the UK’s Royal Society is meeting later this year to discuss the evolution paradigm shift and what it means for science and society. (Er, I quickly googled this topic, and this left-wing newsletter explains some of the ins and outs of the conversation of the paradigm shift and what it means among scientists.) Enlightening, at the very least.

A note: when questioned, Woodward wouldn’t allow himself to be cornered into either a young-earth or old-earth perspective; rather, he argues for a case of intelligent design.

Woodward’s recommendation for reading on apologetics is a series of essays published in God in the Dock by C.S. Lewis, including “What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?”, “Man or Rabbit?”, and “Religion and Science.”

5. Ravi Zacharias recommends The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel and Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis

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Ravi Zacharias is a speaker, author, and dynamic defender of historic Christian truth. He is the author of numerous books, the host of radio programs, the founder of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, and has six honorary doctoral degrees. Growing up in a nominal Christian family, Ravi Zacharias was an atheist, and when he was seventeen, he tried to commit suicide. Lying in the hospital due to his failed suicide attempt, he became a Christian after reading in the Gospel of John. Since that moment, Ravi Zacharias remains committed to the pursuit of truth through the person of Jesus Christ. Ravi Zacharias works as a scholar, lectures, writes, and represents evangelical Christianity at the National Day of Prayer in Washington, D.C. and at the Annual Prayer Breakfast at the United Nations.

Speaking on “Why Jesus? Why Should Anyone Follow This First Century Religious Figure?” Ravi Zacharias left us spellbound as he wove together logical reasoning, personal experience, and poetry in a display of evidence for the Christian faith. Books on apologetics which Ravi Zacharias recommends include The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel, the books which explain Strobel’s coming to faith due to his investigative reporting.

Another book Ravi Zacharias recommends is C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, a book which describes Lewis’s movement from atheism to theism and from theism to Christianity, all motivated by the discovery of joy.

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This concludes the panel discussion book recommendations. Happy reading everyone! I hope this list points you to some great reading this summer!

At the close here, I’ll offer three bonus books, or honorable mentions, which were not mentioned in the panel discussion but by certain speakers throughout the conference, which I deem interesting enough to read myself.

Bonus Book #1: Andrew Delbanco’s The Death of Satan

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Dick Keyes referenced this book in his talk which responded to the problematic view that sin is obsolete. One of the issues we face today is the idea that “I’m okay / I don’t have a sin problem / Sin isn’t even a thing.” Before we respond to this viewpoint, it may be helpful to understand American culture’s historical shift in its understanding of sin and evil. Delbano’s book seeks to do just that. Amazon.com describes the book this way: “Through the writings of America’s major figures, a professor at Columbia University traces the change in Americans’ view of evil over the nation’s history from a clear, religious understanding to a perplexed helplessness.” I totally just ordered this book from my local bookstore.

Bonus Book #2: Langdon Gilkey’s Shantung Compound

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Dick Keyes additionally mentioned Gilkey’s book in relation to the idea that sin is obsolete. Shantung Compound, published in 1975, is a vivid diary of life in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, and it examines the moral challenges encountered in conditions of confinement and deprivation. Reviewers mention that the book is a powerful depiction of the human condition and that the book is more important now than when it was originally written.

Bonus Book #3: Dikkon Eberhart’s The Time Mom Met Hitler, Frost Came to Dinner, and I Heard the Greatest Story Ever Told

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In his evening address, Ravi Zacharias mentioned that his wife is a voracious reader and that this is his wife’s favorite book. Not only that, but also the author Dikkon Eberhart (who lives in coastal Maine) was sitting in the audience!

Eberhart grew up in a literary household: his father was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, and their home regularly featured literary greats among their dinner guests: Robert Frost, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, and others. These famous poets were Eberhart’s family friends, yet Eberhart strove to leave his father’s literary shadow. This memoir is a coming-of-age story which deals with the theme of identity. (No order necessary, the used bookstore had a copy in stock! I’ll be starting this one soon!)

Finding Peace for Paris

I spent most of Friday night watching my phone light up with news updates about the Paris attacks. I scrolled through BBC feeds, New York Times articles, and a piece in The Globe and Mail.

And I’m not okay.

I’m really shaken up. I’m torn up. I can’t even go to bed right now because of how disturbed I am.

Which is strange because I’m a small-town Midwesterner, and I don’t know any French people, nor any Parisians.

But I can’t let it go, and I’m sitting up late bugging my roommates with questions like “Why Paris?” “Why now?”

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Doug Sanders in the Globe and Mail article “Attack on Paris an assult on the city itself” makes a statement concerning the locations of the attacks: a legendary concert hall hosting a U.S. independent rock band, a Cambodian restaurant in a bohemian district, and a France-Germany soccer match.

“These do not appear to be symbolic targets. They are not places related to the French state, to the military, to religion or commerce or international affairs. Rather, they are targets chosen, it seems, for maximum carnage: Popular, unprotected, soft targets all on busy thoroughfares with large crowds engaged in popular Parisian evening activities. It was, then, an attack on Paris itself. It is hard to avoid seeing it as an attack on the very spirit of modern, pluralist Paris, on the youthful libertine air that still permeates the French capital.”

Was it, simply, an attack on a modern, pluralist city? If so, what is the reaction to, exactly? Is it related to the Charlie Hebdo incident? Do we know who claims responsibility for the attacks? Are other European nations in danger? We will continue to watch this story unfold in the coming days.

These questions and more swirled around in my mind as I sat on my bedroom floor and prayed.

Yet even though I am asking so many “whys”, I am reminded of the “becauses.” Why do these things happen? Why does evil continue?

Evil exists because people all over the world have evil inside of them. I have evil inside of me.

While I sat on my bedroom floor, sipping tea, staring at empty space, I was reminded of all the times this week that I didn’t choose good. That time when I was irritated and snapped at an annoying student. That time when I was tempted to be selfish with a family member. And I was reminded of all the times this week that I didn’t choose God, the only truly good Being. And I chose my own selfish way instead. (“I don’t really need to read the inspired Word tonight. I can read something else.”) (“Whatever. This thing doesn’t really matter to Him. He wouldn’t really care. So I’m going to do what I want.”) I didn’t choose good this week because I never asked myself, “What can I do to get closer to God this week and grow His goodness in my life?”

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I think that evil grows just a little bit when we live like this. And when it’s compounded to a thousand decisions a day, and multiplied by a thousand people, in my town, and then multiplied by the millions of people in my country, and my country multiplied many times over… … I think this is how tiny seeds of selfishness grow and become the fields we now have of dishonesty, of greed, and of corruption, which always lead to injustice. And where there is injustice, there is violence and death.

I’m reading the book Loving Jesus by Mother Theresa. She writes about a young Sister, just graduated from university, from a well-to-do Indian family who had just joined the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta and was required to spend time at the Home for Dying Destitutes. Mother Theresa cautioned her: “You saw the priest during the Mass, with what love, with what delicate care he touched the body of Christ. Make sure you do the same thing when you get to the home, because Jesus is there in a distressing disguise.” The young woman returned after three hours, and Mother Theresa was amazed to find her beaming. She said, “They brought a man from the street who had fallen into a drain and had been there for some time. He was covered with maggots and dirt and wounds. And though I found it very difficult, I cleaned him, and I knew I was touching the body of Christ!”

Reading this book moved me. Because, you see, this week, the evil inside of me (my selfish humanness) really wanted to give a difficult (yet needy) student an earful for her irresponsibility. But my conscience spoke beautifully and loudly to me. “That child is Jesus to you. You must treat her like Jesus.” And I swallowed the lecture, which would have surely wounded, and instead began helping.

These are the moments that breathe life. This is how good grows in the world.

It is very easy for us to read newspaper headlines and point out all the evil in the world. But that’s the point. Anyone can do that. My 12 year old students can do that. But I will tell you what a 12 year old cannot do. They cannot (or at least they find it very hard to) call out and fix the evil within themselves.

We find it so easy to point fingers at terrorist groups, at governments, at nations, and at religions other than our own. But we do not recognize the evil that we carry with us every day. An evil that we refuse to regard. A sinful habit that we ignore. (Which may not necessarily be an overt “sin” other than the sin of ignoring or abandoning God, the bringer of good, which is no less serious.)

I challenge you who want to find peace for Paris.

First, you must find the evil within yourself. And you must recognize it and deal with it. You must make peace in your own home. You must first find peace in your own heart.

Like Mother Theresa says: “It is always so much easier for us to be very kind to the people outside our own circle than to be full of smiles and full of love to those in our own homes… We only have today. If we help our children to be what they should be today, then, when tomorrow becomes today, they will have the necessary courage to face it with greater love.”

This greater love, beginning with each of us, in our own hearts… in your heart and in mine… this greater love is the path to finding peace for Paris.

May you find that peace in the love of Jesus Christ, which is the balm that heals the wounds inflicted by evil in our world. May this balm heal our hearts, so that we may in turn heal our families, our children, and our lands.

O Jesus my Savior, my song in the night,
Come to us with Thy tender love, my soul’s delight.
Unto Thee, O Lord, in affliction I call,
My comfort by day, and my song in the night.

O why should I wander, an alien from Thee,
Or cry in the desert Thy face to see?
My comfort and joy, my soul’s delight,
O Jesus my Savior, my song in the night.

Don’t Read This Blog Post. Read a Book.

Even though most of my days consist of the following: Grammar Grammar Grammar Poetry Grammar Grammar Spanish Grammar Grammar Lunch Grammar Grammar Run Grammar Grammar Grade Composition Grammar, I do manage to get out of my house
a
few
times
a
year.

One evening last week, I decided to take a night off from adulting, and I got all dressed up and went to The Library and checked out Books That I Like. This past week, I’ve been enjoying a fat book of poems (selected by Garrison Keillor) that includes a variety of poems organized around different subjects like “God,” “Trips,” “Lovers,” “Snow,” and my personal favorite category, “Yellow,” featuring the poem: “Elvis Kissed Me.” (?)

In this collection, I stumbled upon this little Dickinsonian gem:

“We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” by Emily Dickinson

We grow accustomed to the Dark –
When Light is put away –
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye –

A Moment – We Uncertain step
For newness of the night –
Then – fit our Vision to the Dark –
And meet the Road – erect –

And so of larger – Darknesses –
Those Evenings of the Brain –
When not a Moon disclose a sign –
Or Star – come out – within –

The Bravest – grope a little –
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead –
But as they learn to see –

Either the Darkness alters –
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight –
And Life steps almost straight.

No, but seriously, a poem a day is a good thing.

So is peeling myself away from social media and letting myself be engrossed in a book, like my current classic, Great Expectations, which I’m reading for the first time (I knew I had to after I saw the movie). #lameenglishteacher

I absolutely love it. It’s quite readable, compared to A Tale of Two Cities. And I love the main character, yet despise him. I know him because he is human. He is us.

Halfway through the novel, readers understand Pip’s self-serving nature, and the older narrator laments his convenient behavior that in hindsight so obviously served his selfish desires rather than his fellow man, the product of which is quite dismal in any human.

“All other swindlers upon earth are nothing to self-swindlers, and with such pretences did I cheat myself. Surely a curious thing. That I should innocently take a bad half-crown of somebody else’s manufacture, is reasonable enough; but that I should knowingly reckon on the spurious coin of my own make, as good money! An obliging stranger, under pretence of company folding up my bank-notes for security’s sake, abstracts the notes and gives me nutshells; but what is his sleight of hand to mine, when I fold up my own nutshells and pass them on myself as notes.”

Oh, Dickens.

This weekend I also slipped away to Goshen’s art-themed First Friday event and after browsing works by local artists enjoyed a Nutella mocha at one of my favorite coffee shops. I also bought coffee beans from a girl with blue hair who smiled at me. It is so nice to be smiled at.

And of course we had time to browse my favorite Goshen book shop, complete with old, creaky wooden floors, and tall old bookshelves, where I picked up yet another book but refused to feel guilty about it because it’s a genre I rarely read: contemporary fiction. Actually, technically, it’s contemporary nonfiction, but it reads like a novel. I read the first chapter surrounded by my friends who were arguing about the history of Mennonite women as we sat at a small round table shoved between two rows of bookshelves. In the first chapter, this fifty year old guy marries a sixteen year old girl even though he already has a wife. I bought the book because I was so disgusted (yet intrigued at the same time). How does one begin to understand a culture that foreign? Looking forward to reading The Bookseller of Kabul! (Even though it’s written by a Westerner, and the Afghan man that she wrote about sued her, saying she defamed his character, his family, and his country.) That sounds a little complex. Hopefully, I will read critically.

What are you reading right now? What do you WANT to be reading right now?