Lenten Reading List

Lent begins today, and I’ve prepared a reading list for the next few weeks.

It’s a fairly short list, to be read one book per week or so. I’ve turned to Goodreads for synopses of the books.

The Knowledge of the Holy by popular evangelical author and Christian mystic A.W. Tozer illuminates God’s attributes—from wisdom, to grace, to mercy—and in doing so, attempts to restore the majesty and wonder of God in the hearts and minds of all Christians. A modern classic of Christian testimony and devotion, The Knowledge of the Holy shows us how we can rejuvenate our prayer life, meditate more reverently, understand God more deeply, and experience God’s presence in our daily lives.

  • Sick of Me, by Whitney Capps. I picked this one up in an effort to put my dollars where my mouth is and patronize an independent Christian bookstore. I just started it, and it’s surprisingly astute for a modern book. And I do get sick of me sometimes, so…

Our world is filled with fake facades, from the unrealistic filters used on social media to the “holier than thou” personas seen in certain hypocritical believers.

To combat the fake trends, a new trend has emerged—one that fights the facade with transparency and vulnerability. Instead of being filtered or super-spiritual, we’re told to be real and honest. And rightly so. We should be getting real with each other about our junk.

But should we stop there? Should we gather to simply commiserate about our current version of “me”? Is community about more than just feeling understood by one another in our hard places, or does God have actual change in store for us beyond brokenness

In Sick of Me, Whitney Capps shows us that spiritual growth means being both honest and holy—that we can come to Jesus just as we are, but we cannot stay that way. While virtues like vulnerability, honesty, and humility are desperately needed, we should fight for more. After all, the gospel is a change-agent.

  • Hinds Feet on High Places, by Hannah Hurnard. I’ve been meaning to read this one for quite some time, and what better time than Lent, when we are focused on the holy and redemptive work of Jesus:

With over 2 million copies sold, Hinds’ Feet on High Places remains Hannah Hurnard’s best known and most beloved book: a timeless allegory dramatizing the yearning of God’s children to be led to new heights of love, joy, and victory. In this moving tale, follow Much-Afraid on her spiritual journey as she overcomes many dangers and mounts at last to the High Places. There she gains a new name and is transformed by her union with the loving Shepherd.

Brother Lawrence was a man of humble beginnings who discovered the greatest secret of living in the kingdom of God here on earth. It is the art of “practicing the presence of God in one single act that does not end.” He often stated that it is God who paints Himself in the depths of our souls. We must merely open our hearts to receive Him and His loving presence.

As a humble cook, Brother Lawrence learned an important lesson through each daily chore: The time he spent in communion with the Lord should be the same, whether he was bustling around in the kitchen—with several people asking questions at the same time—or on his knees in prayer. He learned to cultivate the deep presence of God so thoroughly in his own heart that he was able to joyfully exclaim, “I am doing now what I will do for all eternity. I am blessing God, praising Him, adoring Him, and loving Him with all my heart.”

This unparalleled classic has given both blessing and instruction to those who can be content with nothing less than knowing God in all His majesty and feeling His loving presence throughout each simple day.

Are there any books you are planning to dive into as we pray and contemplate during this Lenten season?

 

 

 

 

Word Nerd Wednesday: Epigenetics

One of the many blessings of having intelligent, well-read friends is that you often find yourself engaged in fascinating conversations about all manner of things. Topics wander deliciously from one subject to the next and before you know it, someone stops and says, “Wait. What is that? I don’t think I’ve ever heard that word before.” It was such a confabulation that lead to this week’s word: epigenetic.

Epigenetic:  of, relating to, or produced by the chain of developmental processes in epigenesis that lead from genotype to phenotype after the initial action of the genes

I’m still working all of this out, but researching an answer to the age-old question of nature versus nurture inevitably leads you to the study of epigenetics, and epigeneticists say the answer to the question is that nature and nurture have a huge impact on why each of us is the way we are. As a Christian, I am firmly persuaded that nature plays one part, nurture another, and our own free will as moved by consciences plays yet another. We are a spirit, possess a soul and live in a body.

However, it’s no accident that I am generally comfortable in 80-degree heat while my friend of Scottish descent finds it particularly stifling. African genes tend to prefer warmer climes. Or that regardless of how much I work out, my arms are weak and wobbly compared to those of a 15-year-old boy, even if he never worked out. Men and women are different. The website What is Epigenetics describes it this way:

Here’s an analogy that might further help you to understand what epigenetics is, as presented in Nessa Carey’s Epigenetics Revolution. Think of the human lifespan as a very long movie. The cells would be the actors and actresses, essential units that make up the movie. DNA, in turn, would be the script — instructions for all the participants of the movie to perform their roles. Subsequently, the DNA sequence would be the words on the script, and certain blocks of these words that instruct key actions or events to take place would be the genes. The concept of genetics would be like screenwriting. Follow the analogy so far? Great. The concept of epigenetics, then, would be like directing. The script can be the same, but the director can choose to eliminate or tweak certain scenes or dialogue, altering the movie for better or worse. After all, Steven Spielberg’s finished product would be drastically different than Woody Allen’s for the same movie script, wouldn’t it?

Now you know a little about epigenetics.

 

The Lady With the Little Dog- Short Story Review

The Lady With the Little Dog, by Anton Chekhov. Originally published in 1899. Translated into English in 1903. Available to read for free at this link. It’s roughly 30 minutes to read in its entirety.

If you prefer reading stories in which virtue wins in the end, this is not such a story. It’s actually quite vexing, and if not for a particular portion that has remained with me, I’m certain I would not recommend it. However, the writing is beautiful and Chekhov’s descriptions of human nature are both poignant and direct.

This is a story of infidelity, plain and simple. Chekhov certainly alludes to the heinous nature of the offense here, but he doesn’t preach or bang a metaphorical fist on the table. The aggrieved spouses are not satisfied with retribution or expressions of remorse, and the guilty parties never experience profound epiphanies that fill them with regret. In other words, this is realistic Russian literature, which differs greatly from American literature where good always wins and virtue is unearthed from the recesses of the darkest human heart. I’ll try to offer a synopsis without spoiling the story.

Dimitri Gurov is a married father of three who travels frequently in his business endeavors. Any infatuation he once felt for his wife has long faded, and he routinely engages sexual liaisons of various durations with women when he is away from home:

He had been married young, when he was a student in his second year, and by now his wife seemed half as old again as he. She was a tall, erect woman with dark eyebrows, staid and dignified, and, as she said of herself, intellectual. She read a great deal, used phonetic spelling, called her husband, not Dmitri, but Dimitri, and he secretly considered her unintelligent, narrow, inelegant, was afraid of her, and did not like to be at home. He had begun being unfaithful to her long ago — had been unfaithful to her often, and, probably on that account, almost always spoke ill of women, and when they were talked about in his presence, used to call them “the lower race.”

On one of his trips, he notices a young woman walking along the seafront with her little dog and begins to strategize how he might make her acquaintance. The two eventually meet, and after a customary period and pretense of casual conversations,  an affair begins. The young woman who is also married, experiences various degrees of angst over what she has done, but not without rationalizations:

“Forgiven? No. I am a bad, low woman; I despise myself and don’t attempt to justify myself. It’s not my husband but myself I have deceived. And not only just now; I have been deceiving myself for a long time. My husband may be a good, honest man, but he is a flunkey! I don’t know what he does there, what his work is, but I know he is a flunkey! I was twenty when I was married to him. I have been tormented by curiosity; I wanted something better. ‘There must be a different sort of life,’ I said to myself. I wanted to live! To live, to live! . . . I was fired by curiosity . . . you don’t understand it, but, I swear to God, I could not control myself; something happened to me: I could not be restrained. I told my husband I was ill, and came here. . . . And here I have been walking about as though I were dazed, like a mad creature; . . . and now I have become a vulgar, contemptible woman whom any one may despise.”

Gurov felt bored already, listening to her. He was irritated by the naive tone, by this remorse, so unexpected and inopportune; but for the tears in her eyes, he might have thought she was jesting or playing a part.

When the time of their particular travel in that city ended, their affair ended as well. Atypically, however, Dimitri is unable to shrug off his attachment to the young woman the way he had done with countless others. The more time elapsed, the more her visage haunted his dreams and memories, and he eventually pursues her. You’ll have to read the story for yourselves to find out what happens, but Chekhov does a masterful turn of describing the nature of life such as Dimitri’s, which has a private side which is unknown, even to those closest to him:

He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth — such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club, his “lower race,” his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities — all that was open. And he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night. All personal life rested on secrecy, and possibly it was partly on that account that civilised man was so nervously anxious that personal privacy should be respected.

I presume my readers, most of whom are far more intelligent than I, can see the parallels between Chekhov’s description and life in the digital age of this 21st Century.

Overall, this story, even with its beautiful writing, left me thoroughly dissatisfied and even a little melancholy. I’m not certain if I loathe it or love it, or both. I suspect its both, albeit for completely different reasons. You’ll have to read it for yourself to see what I mean.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

*I was motivated to read this story after hearing Joshua Gibbs reference it in the latest installment of his Proverbial podcast.

 

 

In Which I Wax Political- Take 2

I’m not really sure if this is political, but given the current state of things, political climate, and discussions of what Americans deserve, it may have political implications. I have spent an unseemly amount of time listening to Mike Rowe of late, and it occurs to me that Mr. Rowe is a fount of a lot of excellent counsel. He’s a whole lot more than just a pretty voice.

This little blog is just a reminder to me that there is someone of note out there offering, in a non-political context, the kind of advice that my father gave us. It’s fallen out of vogue, but it needs to make a comeback.

I swiped Mr. Rowe’s S.W.E.A.T. pledge for the edification of my few faithful readers. You can find out more info on his website, MikeRoweWorks.org. S.W.E.A.T, stands for Skill and Work Ethic Aren’t Taboo. The pledge:

1.I believe that I have won the greatest lottery of all time. I am alive. I walk the Earth. I live in America. Above all things, I am grateful.

2. I believe that I am entitled to life, liberty, andthe pursuit of happiness. Nothing more. I also understand that “happiness” and the “pursuit of happiness” are not the same thing.

3. I believe there is no such thing as a “bad job.” I believe that all jobs are opportunities, and it’s up to me to make the best of them.

4. I do not “follow my passion.” I bring it with me. I believe that any job can be done with passion and enthusiasm.

5. I deplore debt, and do all I can to avoid it. I would rather live in a tent and eat beans than borrow money to pay for a lifestyle I can’t afford.

6. I believe that my safety is my responsibility. I understand that being in “compliance” does not necessarily mean I’m out of danger.

7. I believe the best way to distinguish myself at work is to show up early, stay late, and cheerfully volunteer for every crappy task there is.

8. I believe the most annoying sounds in the world are whining and complaining. I will never make them. If I am unhappy in my work, I will either find a new job, or find a way to be happy.

9. I believe that my education is my responsibility, and absolutely critical to my success. I am resolved to learn as much as I can from whatever source is available to me. I will never stop learning, and understand that library cards are free.

10. I believe that I am a product of my choices –not my circumstances. I will never blame anyone for my shortcomings or the challenges I face. And I will never accept the credit for something I didn’t do.

11. I understand the world is not fair, and I’m OK with that. I do not resent the success of others.

12. I believe that all people are created equal. I also believe that all people make choices. Some choose to be lazy. Some choose to sleep in. I choose to work my butt off.

On my honor, I hereby affirm the above statements to be an accurate summation of my personal worldview. I promise to live by them.

Mr. Rowe currently has $650,000 in scholarship money available to train people in jobs that actually exist, pay the much-ballyhooed living wage, and do not require a four-year degree. In order to get access to it, however, applicants must sign the S.W.E.A.T. pledge.

Not everyone appreciates that condition, and some people have accused Mr. Rowe of espousing right-wing dogma by extolling the value of hard work. he categorically denies the charge, and I agree with him.

 

The Slow Destruction of Fantasy Fiction.

I’m not a huge fan of fantasy fiction, as I’ve explained here before, but the state of things in all corners of the publishing world interests me. They interest me not only as an aspiring writer but also as a lover of classic literature. I previously expressed my concern about the recent trend of denigrating older books. Most of the increasing animosity directed toward those books is due to their alleged racial and cultural insensitivity, a problem you’d think might be all but eliminated with those publishing in our postmodern, politically correct zeitgeist.

Lately, however,  it seems that even progressive authors are falling prey to the increasingly broad swath of culturally inappropriate or racially triggering offenses. It’s gotten so bad that even fantasy fiction, which by definition isn’t concerned with realistic portrayals of events and people, is being routed by the political correctness brigade. The result is that many authors are having to postpone the releases of their books to make edits of appeasement lest they offend the masses of people who were never going to read their books anyway. From The Spectator’s Even Fantasy Fiction is Now Offensive:

It was Lionel Shriver who saw the writing on the wall. Giving a keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival three years ago in which she decried the scourge of modern identity politics, Shriver observed that the dogma of ‘cultural appropriation’ —which demands no less than complete racial segregation in the arts — had not yet wrapped its osseous fingers around the publishing industry. But, she warned: ‘This same sensibility is coming to a bookstore near you.’ Reader, it has come.

Indeed it has, and the outrage isn’t being directed solely at authors of European descent, as many people might automatically assume and sadly, be perfectly okay with. Oh, no. This is an equally opportunity scourging:

Next month a young, Asian-American author called Amélie Wen Zhao was due to celebrate the publication of her debut novel Blood Heir, the first in a three-part fantasy series for which Zhao was reportedly paid a six-figure sum by Delacorte Press, a children’s imprint of Penguin Random House. Set in the Russian-inspired ‘Cyrillian Empire’, Blood Heir tells the story of a magic-wielding princess who is forced to flee her kingdom following her father’s murder. ‘In a world where the princess is the monster, oppression is blind to skin colour, and good and evil exist in shades of grey… comes a dark Anastasia retelling,’ blurbed the publishers.

Can you spot the problem here? It’ll all be clear in just a minute:

Before the manuscript had even reached the presses, however, a furore erupted when Zhao, a 26-year-old banker born in Paris and raised in Beijing, was accused of racism. Armed with merely the blurb and a handful of excerpts from the book, her critics — many of them fellow authors, editors and bloggers in the Young Adult genre (known as YA) — repeatedly tore into Zhao on sites such as Twitter and Goodreads, outraged by, among other things, the novel’s depiction of indentured labour. For despite Blood Heir’s Slavic setting, her detractors assumed the plot was inspired by American slavery and thus something Zhao had no business writing about because she is not black. In a tirade that might surprise students of Russian antiquity, one critic reportedly raged: ‘[R]acist ass writers, like Amélie Wen Zhao, […] literally take Black narratives and force it into Russia when that shit NEVER happened in history.’

I was tempted to leave aside the minor detail that slavery was actually a thing in Russia right up until the mid-late 19th Century, but it occurs to me that it would be a grave mistake to do so.More:

One prominent writer even claimed the very premise of a fictional world in which ‘oppression is blind to skin colour’ was racist and joined others in pillorying Zhao for creating — and then killing — a ‘black’ character in the novel. No matter that the only discernible evidence for the character’s ethnicity was a vague description of dark curls and ‘bronze’ skin. Another YA author, Ellen Oh, who joined in the fray by piously tweeting ‘colourblindness is extremely tone deaf. Learn from this and do better’, was herself forced to issue an apology after being castigated for using the phrase ‘tone deaf’, a turn of events that would be comical were it not so preposterous.

Stabbed by her own pitchfork. It is both comical and preposterous in my opinion. The utter ignorance of the woke brigade is the issue here. The fact that people so ignorant are wielding the  the power to influence and impact an industry which should be -at its heart- driven by educated people with literary and historical knowledge does not bode well for the future of publishing, literature, and literacy.

One wonders when peak absurdity will intersect with a plurality of people willing to display the courage to declare that enough is enough.

 

 

 

 

Culture Counts

culture counts book

Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged,  kindle edition, by Sir Roger Scruton. Originally published in 2007. 120 print pages.

This is the first book I’ve ever read by the recently departed Sir Roger Scruton, and I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. I was expecting to find ideas that I’ve read in any number of Scruton’s essays over the years; simply expanded and better fleshed out. What I found here was partly that, but also an opportunity to think more deeply about the importance of culture and beauty on us as individuals, and on the generations left behind when we are gone.

Scruton makes a strong case for understanding the importance of knowledge as something to be passed on. That this understanding is of greater value than our modern, ravenous appetite for increasing bits of random information. Anyone who has engaged in an online discussion can relate to being bombarded with links providing “pertinent” information offered solely for the purpose of winning an argument. Once the point is made, further opportunity for understanding is discarded in favor of the checkmate. There’s the pretense of knowledge where none truly exists.

It is sometimes said that we now live in a “knowledge economy,” and that “information technology” has vastly increased the extent and accessibility of human knowledge. Both claims are false. “Information technology” simply means the use of digital algorithms in the transference of messages. The “information” that is processed is not information about anything, nor does it have its equivalent in knowledge.

Scruton noted that this way of being and living leaves little margin for passing along true, practical knowledge that will be of value to our progeny :

it is true of practical knowledge, too, that we educate people in order to conserve it, and if we ever lose sight of this truth, then we are sure to lose what practical knowledge we have.

The true purpose of education, Scruton asserts, and I agree with him, is to transfer the kind of knowledge that isn’t acquired by a few clicks of the mouse. But first, he notes, we have to do away with the silly idea that education exists solely for the benefit of the student:

I emphasized that we make a mistake in believing that education exists primarily to benefit its recipient. I suggested, rather, that the goal of education is to preserve our communal store of knowledge, and to keep open the channels through which we can call on it when we need to.

This is a very hard sell in the postmodern West, which doesn’t even pretend to preserve the tension and delicate balance between individual liberty and the common good. We have gone so far that we absolve ourselves and our own children from any sense of familial duty. The idea that education is bigger than its recipients is gone.

At the core of all this, Scruton’s focus is defending the necessity of teaching the canon of high Western culture against those who are part of the current culture of repudiation. The culture of repudiation seeks to discount the value of classical Western culture as elitist at best and racist at worst. This repudiation is apparent in nearly every postmodern art form.

One of the things Scruton did here, which I was not expecting, was to give an appropriate nod to the originality and value of musical genres such as jazz. He doesn’t hold them in the same category as Mozart, of course, but he does acknowledge their value when compared to the popular music of today. He offered a theory on the connection between the downward trajectory of musical culture and what it tells us about the cultural zeitgeist of today.

Pop music, which presents the idealized adolescent as the center of a collective ceremony, is an attempt to bend music to this new condition—the condition of a stagnant crowd, standing always on the brink of adulthood, but never passing across to it. It shows youth as the goal and fulfillment of human life, rather than a transitional phase which must be cast off once the business of social reproduction calls. For many young people, therefore, it constitutes an obstacle to the acquisition of a musical culture.

I can relate to this. Despite having fully embraced my adult life and all of the responsibility which it entails, I still feel a certain nostalgia for the popular hits and R&B music of the 1980s and 1990s. There is a sense in which much of the music of my adolescent and young adult years serve as a sort of soundtrack of my life. When I listen to those songs today, however, rather than simply being caught up in the catchy beat, I am incredulous of the vapidity in the lyrics and that I’d never noticed them before. Scruton also notes that the perpetual adolescence induced through popular music and culture, in general, undergirds an ever-present attempt to de-contextualize important rites of passage. He uses, for example, one result of the sexual revolution:

The ritual transition from the virgin to the married state has all but disappeared, and with it the “lyrical” experience of sex, as a yearning for another and higher state of membership, to which the hard-won consent of society is a necessary precondition.

Scruton didn’t only see the assault on Western culture as an assault from within due to the cult of adolescence and the repudiation of tradition, but also from without via multiculturalism, including the increasing encroachment of Islamic culture in Europe. As an Englishman, Scruton was especially attuned to those happenings in his home country.

There are myriad topics to explore in Culture Counts, far more than I can summarize here. Even if you don’t agree with Scruton on all counts, he at least raised pertinent questions that have been mostly ignored in this generation which purports to know better than all of our ancestors who have gone before.

Time will tell, I suppose.

4 out of 5 stars.

 

 

 

 

 

The Case for Re-reading

My nature isn’t inclined toward re-reading books. The primary reason for this is that there are so many books I want to read but haven’t read. Re-reading one book necessarily means not reading one of the literal thousands of books in my “must-read” queue. It is still an occasional struggle for me, but I’ve gradually overcome my resistance to re-reading books, and here are a few reasons why:

~ We grow and mature over time. The most rewarding re-reading I have ever experienced has been in the context of revisiting a book that I first read -or more likely- was assigned in high school. There was such a difference in mentality and experience even between my teenage years and when I became a wife and mother, which in my case was only a few short years later. You don’t really get things such as the sacrificial nature of love, parenthood, and friendship until they put real demands on you. When they do, you can better appreciate the struggles of protagonists in literature.

~ Our knowledge of issues and languages changes over time. Simply by virtue of growing older, which we forget is a literal best-case scenario, our exposure to more ideas, new environments, and even expanded vocabularies makes it easier for us to grasp concepts that were foreign to us when we are very young or have been relatively sheltered. I confess that I have not yet been able to read Moby Dick in its entirety, and don’t know if I ever will, but I know for sure that these sentiments are lost on a high school student:

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul;

Only a world-weary adult begins to touch upon a realization of what it means to experience a damp, drizzly November in one’s soul. This is true for any number of classic books that are most impactful only when we are old enough to *get it*. None of this is to imply that these books should not be read or assigned in school. Many of them should (albeit not Moby Dick!). This is simply a case for re-reading them later rather than writing them off because we weren’t psychically formed enough to appreciate them upon first reading.

~ The opportunity to process and analyze ideas in nonfiction is easier on the second -or third!- reading. Reading through a biased lens is as natural as breathing. After all, each of us is the sum total of our experience, and our experiences often form our thoughts. On more than one occasion, however, I’ve judged a book harshly, only to re-read it and see some merit in it. I’ve also really liked a book at one stage of life, and then wondered what on earth I was thinking after reading in another stage. I once read that nothing helps a person discover their conservative side so quickly as when they become parents, and I think a variation of that theme can apply to any number of perspectives.

Those are just a few of the reasons that I have had to tamp down my impatient quest to check off my literary bucket list. For one thing, it is was never likely that I would finish the list before kicking the bucket. For another, the literary life is about feasting on ideas and digesting the beauty, truth, wisdom, and artistry as communicated through what we read.

As much as it might satisfy me to be able to check off 100 books read by year’s end, and I have always loved a good checklist, that’s not really why I read, nor why I love books.