How to Be Unlucky, part 2

how to be unlucky

How to Be Unlucky: Reflections on the Pursuit of Virtue, by Joshua Gibbs. Originally published in 2018. 246 pages.

Part 1 of this review touched a lot on the spiritual characteristics highlighted in the book’s reflections on the pursuit of virtue. Another aspect of it is that it is also highly concerned with the role the teacher has -in this case the Christian classical educator- in helping his student to pursue virtue.

To that end, interspersed between all the deep burning questions and conundrums Boethius poses to Lady Philosophy in The Consolation, the author treats us to a sampling of the discussions he has with his students. Discussions in which he reminds them of many things, one of which is that adults are no more virtuous than they are, and with it the importance of understanding that now is the time to cultivate goodness.

In the chapter titled On Pedagogy, Gibbs keeps me pretty well riveted (and convicted) from beginning to end. In the chapter he makes the distinction between the three parts of our being which must be rightly ordered for us to be truly virtuous, drawing from C. S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man. Regular readers here are not unfamiliar with the brain as the icon for what we know, the heart for what we love, and the stomach for what we want, our appetite for pleasant things. He argues that stomach holds more power than the brain, and that the heart and the brain must work together to subdue the stomach. This is the reason I so relate and appreciate Mr. Gibbs’ commentary. He isn’t afraid to get real:

Early in my marriage I came to realize that Scripture is no talisman for warding off sin…

On the other hand, when I was tempted to the degradations of lust, I typically found that imagining my wife’s face distorted by tears was such a talisman. Any man battling the temptation to lust will do far better changing his computer desktop to an image of his wife than some artist’s representation of the Ten Commandments. This is not because a man loves his wife more than God (though most men do, in my experience), but because a wife is the living embodiment of the seventh commandment; a spouse is the incarnation of an abstract moral precept. p. 148

Perhaps it’s because I’ve always stood a little in awe of my husband and have also always battled to keep my love of God and my love for my husband in the proper order, but this speaks to me. Deeply, and I cannot remember a time in the last two decades when I’ve read an author or heard a preacher get real this way about well… almost anything. The connection between the physical, living embodiment of a spiritual principle itself is almost unheard of in modern Christian thought. It’s as if admitting that we struggle to do what is right and that it isn’t oh-so-easy simply because we’re head over heels in love with God whom we cannot see makes us bad Christians.

So we pretend. Gibbs doesn’t, and I liked that.

In the chapter titled On Pleasure, Gibbs gets into the confusion and cognitive dissonance that has gripped American Christians as we have designated just about every solitary act as either sinful or not sinful. In doing so, we’ve equalized things that are not equal even though they are not sinful. We’ve also freed ourselves to be perpetually amused and superficially sated, yet without guilt.

Earthly pleasure can lead to sanctification and epiphany, and we should “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8), as the Psalmist says; however seeing that “the Lord is good” is not a result of every taste, and an over-abundance of tasting distracts from our ability to see that the Lord is good. p. 193

In the chapter On Metaphysics and Freedom, Gibbs hits some topics that I am still turning over in my mind. The first is that Adam and Eve didn’t have a sin nature when they sinned, yet the first things we utter when confronted with our sin or someone else’s is that it is our sin nature. Now that alone is enough to stir debate all the livelong day, isn’t it?

His point isn’t to dismiss that Adam and Eve brought sin into the world, but that Christians are so quick to *go there* that we often miss opportunities to address real issues and concerns rather than spout off pat religious answers that we think are super spiritual. Sometimes the answer is simply, we don’t know everything, nor can we.

The title of the final chapter is Why Do Anything? In it, Gibbs closes by making the point that what we do in our mundane daily lives in less important than how ( I’d also add why) we do it.

If a man is willing to become common and to live a common life with times and seasons which God makes common to all, he will submit himself to a mysterious, transcendent reality. p.230

I completely agree, and that is one of the beautiful takeaways of this book in a world and church which is yelling at each of us that we are not common, are not subject to the law of averages, and in so doing makes us perpetually discontent with normal, anonymous daily living.

If I’d offer any negative criticism of the book, it’s that on occasion the flow left a little to be desired. It felt disjointed at a few points, but the overwhelming amount of wisdom and opportunity to for this reader to examine herself and her motivations far outweighed that minutiae.

5 out of 5 stars

You can read a sample of the first chapter of How to Be Unlucky at this link.

12 thoughts on “How to Be Unlucky, part 2

  1. Elspeth says:

    Monologue time, πŸ™‚

    I’m thinking this morning about duty vs. love, which I don’t see as separate but our culture often does. And similarly about doctrine vs. emotion.

    I realized now how bad this review might seem to people who are gifted with the kind of faith that produces in them a deep desire to do what’s right simply because “the Bible tells me so”.

    For me, that is a starting point, but in American evangelical life, the fact that we might receive good results from an action or the fact that we love our spouses, children, or friends is supposed to be secondary to obedience based on Scripture alone. We often worship the Book more than the God who inspired it, which has always bothered me, and here’s why:

    Prior to Gutenberg’s press in the 15th century, the church somehow managed to live and walk in faith without each member of the body being in possession of a Bible. How were they able to do that? By faith, and by experiencing God in the wonder of everyday beauty: Family, nature, fellowship, and the Truth that they had access to through the Church.

    I’m a strong advocate of knowing and obeying Scripture and am very thankful for it. It is the primary way that God speaks to me because I rarely hear still, small voices or experience strong promptings. 95% of the time, a verse of Scripture is what is brought to my remembrance when moral dilemmas or situations arise. So I am so thankful for Scripture, else I’d really be lost! If I feel “led by the Spirit” to do this or that, and we can find evidence in Scripture that this is clearly a bad decision, I’m quick to call that thing off. So don’t misunderstand me here.

    I find the “worship of the Book” spirit problematic for many reasons, but not the least of which is that knowledge of Scripture alone doesn’t offer us much if we have a materialist view of the world, which most westerners, including Christians, do.

    I like that Gibbs reminds us that our faith is not only belief in the recounting of the Book; that without an understanding and appreciation for the manifestation and evidence of what our faith points to in daily life, we have no real reason to be good or to do good. This goes double for those with a Calvinist approach to the faith.


  2. smkoseki says:

    a spouse is the incarnation of an abstract moral precept

    The book Dissent From the Creed was the first book that really drove Gibb’s “incarnation” concept home for me (I should have just read my dang catechism but am too thick for that!). The whole incarnation thing, Christ perfecting the earth and making it good is really disturbing for linear thinkers like me, but it’s good to know I wasn’t alone all those centuries; nearly all Marian doctrine is merely the chaff of perplexed Christians trying to grasp how God can “really” become man and Mary can truly be the mother of her own creator. And I think God was painfully clever making men transcendent and then women immanent.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Elspeth says:

    @ smkoseki:

    I think I needed that example, which is why I included it in the review. A large part of evangelical teaching kind of dismisses the physical in ways that don’t make sense to me.

    I don’t think it’s intentional, because as Gibbs notes early in the book (see the book sample at the link I posted), when not feeling compelled to sound spiritual, many Christians inherently see the point in doing good in the temporal realm and how it connects us to the eternal economy.


  4. smkoseki says:

    A large part of evangelical teaching kind of dismisses the physical

    Not just evangelical; incarnation skepticism is so rife in US RC circles it’s practically a cliche & <1/3 US RC believing in the real presence must be at John 6 levels…


  5. Elspeth says:

    Not just evangelical; incarnation skepticism is so rife in US RC circles it’s practically a cliche &

    Really? Color me surprised! No, really. I assumed that the members of a Church which teaches transubstantiation of the Eucharist would have no problem with the idea of appreciating the physical representation of an abstract or macro spiritual principle.

    To be honest, before I started reading this book, I hadn’t given the principle much thought. I mean, even the very obvious Scriptural admonition and example of marriage as representative of Christ and His church was a thing I didn’t really lay hold of until recent years.


  6. hearthie says:

    So, I’m about 1/2 way through, and although I want to pat the author on the head, I disagree with some of his core premises.
    1) Treasures in heaven? Yes. Every time I give to charity – aka someone in need. But my snack food is not going to be provided in eternity by skipping meals now. That’s *not* what fasting is for (and I can prove it, biblically). I refuse to get in that headspace, I think I do more good for God, for other humans, and for my eternal future in the headspace of “love others as you love yourself” and not “invest in good works now, reap benefits later!” Err… yeah, but the benefits are spiritual, metaphysical, not .. yeah, not like that. Dude.
    2) Wow he’s depressed about Heaven. Has he researched for himself? I mean, obviously there’s going to be loads of worship time. Hello. (I expect a wide variety from silent adoration through chant and into dance and beyond). But we’re also promised rather a lot of other stuff in the next life. I’m excited about getting there. I’m not jiving with his, “you have to be depressed about life in order to be okay with death”. DUDE. I’m not planning on being DEAD. Have you read the whole Book?
    Off to sit in kid pickup and read a bit more. πŸ™‚


  7. Elspeth says:

    I think I saw that slightly differently. Namely, that a core premise of American Christianity is that we SHOULDN’T do good in the here and now with thoughts of treasure in heaven. That, we should offer every good act as an act of pure selfless altruism or as unto God, pretending that we get nothing from it. And if we do, we should renounce those thoughts and feelings immediately.

    That said, Gibbs is Orthodox, with all that it entails. Tradition of the church fathers and settled church doctrine reign supreme and all that good stuff.

    I filtered accordingly. But then I approach nearly everything from a place of eating meat and spitting out the bones.


  8. hearthie says:

    I am a bit squick about my good works = stuff in heaven. But I’ll admit that and that it’s not Biblical.
    Oh, I think I’m going to enjoy his conclusions about goodness, but DUDE cheer up.


  9. Elspeth says:

    Okay, now that I have a little more time to ruminate.

    “depressed about heaven”: Have you ever heard the old saying that “if you don’t like being in church all day, you’re going to hate heaven”, or similar?

    If you aren’t all gung ho about church now (and I imagine a recovering pop culture junkie like Gibbs sometimes struggles to fully appreciate an Orthodox church service), that thought might be a little depressing, LOL.

    We are at a church that is a cross between charismatic and baptist. There are some Sundays when I struggle with my flesh to stay engaged for any number of reasons.

    I have a hard time believing that will be the case in heaven, but if I did believe that old saying, the bad Sundays would unsettle me as well. Thankfully, I *get* that what we see here is a murky foreshadowing of what is to come and worship in heaven isn’t going to be any more earthly than our new bodies as compared to this corruptible one.

    He is a melancholy fellow, but he is also writing a book in a culture (and church!) which largely teaches that following Christ reaps a lot of comfortable rewards in the here and now.

    Being able to put this world in its proper perspective tempers suffering (I think), and what I got was a bit of that whole “life is suffering” thing that some personality types linger on more than others.


  10. hearthie says:

    Oh yes, “struggle to stay engaged” for sure. But… that’s not how Heaven will be. I mean, worship will be WORSHIP – I’m looking forward to it. (And variety – there will be lots of variety).

    Meh, I’d prefer to say “this is as close to Hell as I’ll ever get”.

    I wouldn’t be so nitpicky, but it was a lot of the first half of the book, and he seems to base his premises on the whole “and then someday you dieeeeeeeeeeee” fugue. I’m in the second half now and enjoying it much more. I do quite like his theory that kids should have stuff to dig in and think through, even if I would like to qualify it a bit.


  11. hearthie says:

    So, I just finished it.

    I *love* that he’s asking the question, “why bother being good” even though I think the answer is obvious, it really isn’t. And I lovelovelove the fact that he pushes his HS students to really chew on that. To work through sin and consequences etc.

    It’s just… I feel like I’m in another universe with the answer. Like, we’re not quite having the same conversation.
    “why should you be good?”
    “to be more like God”
    “why should you avoid sin?”
    “Because sin separates us from God”
    I DON’T LIKE FEELING SEPARATED FROM GOD. I don’t like to make God look bad.

    Some of this book gave me some really great mental meals, chewing over the dichotomy of flesh vs. spirit and which one I’m feeding. But I couldn’t finish in the same place as the author.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Elspeth says:

    I’m not surprised you ended up at a different conclusion. I ended up with different conclusions from him on a couple of things as well.

    But the opportunity to think deeply about things modern Christians don’t often express thought about was very exciting for me. I also enjoyed the introduction and journey through Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy which I haven’t decided I’m learned enough to read for myself. Maybe I will one day?

    Whatever Gibbs gets wrong here, he’s at least giving this thing some thought rather than simply parking on “The Bible tells me so”. Don’t misunderstand or think I would EVER discount Scripture. That approach is not without its merits, but the Christian faith is far deeper, rich, and meaningful than the letter. God does not want automatons, and often in the church, fear of *getting it wrong* compels many believers to deny the need or use of thinking.

    Liked by 1 person

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.