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?

An Existential Bit of Birthing Video

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

It was THE DAY OF THE BIRTHING VIDEO.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben
Aunt life: our brand-new baby Ben.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and finally,

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

Happy Summer!

Make it count.

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.

Extroverts Are More Likely to Commit Adultery, and Other Facts

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

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

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

Here are some things I learned:

We Are the 33%

One-third of us humans are introverts.

How We Act

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

Wait, What’s the Definition?

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

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

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

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Introvert: *poses calmly with Big Ben* Extrovert: OHMYWORD LET’S TAKE A JUMPING PHOTO!

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

Introverts and the Church

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

Born This Way

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

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

Small Talk Vs Deep Talk

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

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

Shyness and the Animal Kingdom

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

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

Guilty Guilty Guilty

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

Extroverts Get More Jollies

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

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

Vocation: Introverts Need to Look Out for Themselves

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

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

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

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

Interesting, But Who Cares?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essential Summer Reading for Christian-College-Bound Kids

Got this in my inbox:

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

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

Theology Nearly All Thinking Christians Have Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Classics That You Should Have Read in High School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The New World was relatively unpopulated.”

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

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

“Cities didn’t exist.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selected Poetry, Because You’re Not a Caveman

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

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

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

 

Online Resources (Including News Sites) for Thinking Young People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*books that aren’t written by white males

 

How to Know Your a Grammar Stickler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Destroying DEVOLSON

If I take a month-long break from blogging, you know two things happened:

  1. Life got insanely busy, and
  2. I spent important time fixing life.

I’m done now!

In the last month, I’ve:

  • Had my car in and out of the shop
  • Suffered an Achilles strain after working to improve my average mile time
  • Been teaching Pride & Prejudice, Macbeth, like a gazillion Spanish verbs, Thomas Paine, Creveceour, and a little bit of Poe just for funsies
  • Wrote a syllabus (from scratch) for the AP Rhetoric and Argumentation class that I teach in order to send it to the College Board for approval (oh, hello, American rhetoric, speech, and Transcendentalists)
  • Rehearsed music to record for Blue Sky Music last weekend (check out my composer friend Lyle Stutzman’s new website: https://blueskymusic.net/)
  • Took a much-needed travel break to Virginia with dear friends in which I took in a livestreamed Gospel Identity Conference by Tim Keller and saw a show at the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars playhouse, the world’s only recreation of the original indoor Blackfriars Theatre in London circa 1655! (We saw The Fall of King Henry; it was tragic.)
  • Practiced problem-solving. Back story: you know how the world’s funniest blogging teacher, “Love, Teach” has coined the term DEVOLSON to describe the Dark Evil Vortex of Late September, October, and November? To be honest, I’ve actually never really understood the term because for me the Vortex (that is, the most deplorable winter blues) doesn’t come until January, February, and March. (You’ll remember last year’s tearful post about the drudgery of winter weight sessions.) Friends, DEVOLSON has arrived! October was brutal! And November’s evil time change? What in the samhill is a 4:30 sunset? #extremelygrouchyrunner.  In the midst of all childish whining, I stumbled upon two fantastic articles about mental and emotional health (which, if you are wondering if you have, means you might have some adjustments to make). I discovered I have room to improve when it comes to managing stress because, in fact, more often than not, I *don’t* manage stress. I just complain about it. (Not exactly the most emotionally healthy thing to do.) I’m learning that it’s necessary to *deal* with stress and work to remove it. This requires grit, determination, and flexibility.
    IMG_1623So in the interest of knocking DEVOLSON in the teeth, I’m developing all kinds of goals for January, February, and March in order to practice the emotionally healthy habits I’ve learned about, including but not limited to:
  1. finding balance between work, rest, and activity by increasing daily prayer and Bible reading, and by exchanging empty activity for more restful, renewing activities like reading (lots of great titles on my Christmas list and current bookshelf)
  2. continued problem solving around large and little daily stresses
  3. minding physical health by developing a winter workout regimen (which I created while eating a giant piece of chocolate cake from my friend). Ugh. Guys. This year’s Thanksgiving morning run was a fantastic, sun-lit jaunt over flat Mid-western plains (oh, how I’ve missed you, Ohio!), and the joy I experienced during that run reminded me why activities of discipline are so important for my life. Anyway, winter running goals for me include (guess what) more problem solving! Particularly around Achilles injuries and what to wear on windy winter runs. I think eccentric single-leg calf exercises and Black Friday deals will do the trick for me!
  4. practicing thankfulness in order to be more positive (which actually brings health benefits!) Today’s thankful list:
    • my car is out of the shop,
    • what Achilles pain?
    • my syllabus is on its way to the College Board,
    • a brand new Tim Keller book for the mornings and Psalms for the evenings,
    • the poem I saw on Sunday, driving home from our concert after recording, during the most storybook of purple dusks in Lancaster County, as two dark, slow cyclists crested a hill, and I wound through quiet farmland, past farm ponds still as glass, lavender mirrors, with carols ringing in my head, and bare scrags and gray trees silhouette against the good, good sky.

A Poem: Teaching Heart Beats

I’ve been working on portions of this poem every spring over the last three years of teaching here in Indiana. It’s deeply personal, and for my students.

There are things left unspoken inside a teacher’s heart. After the grading is done and the lesson plans are printed and the meetings are over, some of us teachers go home, and myriad thoughts whirl around in our heads, long after the sun sleeps, and we lie in darkness praying for tomorrow.

In “Part I: Memories,” you’ll meet several students that are characters created from parts of students’ personalities from the past three years, collected into single characters. “Part II: Lament” grieves students’ loss of innocence, and “Part III: Credo” is a charge for Christian teachers. “Part IV: Invocation” is a prayer for my students.

I’m not particularly fond of this poem (obviously, as I’ve been continually revising it). But sometimes revisions are never done. So I’m putting it out here, meaning, it’s good enough, and it’s what I want it to be for now.

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Teaching Heart Beats

Part I: Memories

Once,
I saw you reach out.
Once, I saw you pray.
Once, I saw you put an end to the mocking.
Once, I saw you listen.

I see you.

They told me, “His name is Learning Problem.” “He calls himself Attitude.”
I try to see potential.
And buried in your sporadically-done homework, I once heard a quiet moral opinion from you.
I whisper-cheered through clenched teeth, at my desk, at 9:00 p.m.
“Yessss.” He thought today.
My hope is that you will think tomorrow.
And the next day.
And the day after that.

I see you.
You’re the one who demands A’s.
But I gave you a B
To teach you to think.
Writing is the measure of thinking,
Not silly test scores.

I see you.
You’re all alone at lunchtime,
The others gathered around in desperate cliques, animatedly eating.
And my heart aches for you.
I pray for you.
I think you are special. I think you are unique.
(If I were 14, we would be friends!)

I see you.
You’re the intellectual one.
You keep me on my toes when you fact-check me.
Your assignments are almost chilling in their brilliance.
You will be taking a road that not many of your peers will.
My advice: keep your social life and go play some volleyball. Get the B.
(Learning the art of friendship is also a lifelong study.)
Teaching you is one of my biggest tasks.
I feel a huge responsibility to guide you toward the big “c.”
College.
You will go.
Will you become bitter at your uneducated subculture?
When will you realize that Mennonite pastors and deacons are fallible humans?
Will you notice the uncommon fellowship of our subculture?
Will that fellowship be important enough for you to stay?
Will you find community, acceptance, love, or romance outside our culture, leading you away?
Will that acceptance change your morals?

I see you.
Wasting time.
Staring
At
The
Clock.
Creatively taking a long time to do anything besides your work.
Throw away a tissue.
Get a drink.
Go to the bathroom.
(I snicker at you.)
Know why?
Your vocab words still aren’t done. Even after all that.

I see you.
You had to stay in from recess.
Again.
You glance up from your book
And with your inquisitive face
You inquire
What this verse means
And how to deal with an angry friend.
Your thirst for wisdom is deep.

I see you

I see you all.

Do you know
…that your radiant face in 8 a.m. Bible class is inspiring?
…that your seriousness and bold attention in literature is startling?
…that your hard work and goodwill are so convicting?

You are skillful students. You clean, cook, work, and play with such excellence.

(Who do we think we are, trying to exercise your minds?)

To the students at UCS:
Your faces and lives stretch before me
like a promising Midwestern sunset

And I weep
on my knees
for the lives you will live.
I thank God for the pain you will endure in the next five years,
pain being the only thing God can use to empty you of yourself so that you cling all the more to Him.

What token, what gift, can I give to you who have given me so much?
This poem
is my photograph.
Keep a copy to glance at sometimes
and remember a teacher who saw you in this way.

Part II: Lament

I am weeping for you.
My heart is bleeding for you.
Oh my students.
The pain in your lives.
The hurts from your past.
Your broken families.
Your lost childhoods.

Part III: Credo

We will be strong.
We will be pure.
We will stand in the gap.
We will sacrifice our lives.
We will build up the church.
We will love each other.

We will not back down.
We will be good role models.
We will love Jesus more.
We will be disciplined.
We will be difference makers.

We will not be down-hearted, cynical, or hopeless.
We serve the God of all comfort.

Our task is not our task.
Our task is God’s task.
To bind up the broken hearted, to heal their wounds, to love.
God is our hope.

Part IV: Invocation

The wind whips and whistles through the early spring sunshine
Tries to dry the wet land and white lumps in the fields.

I know that spring is coming.
We are not surprised.
It always does.

So like spring
comes the enduring work of God.
And wherever His Word goes
It is not wasted.

Oh Jesus
Ravish us with the spring-dream of your unending faithfulness and blessing.
Amen.