In His Steps

In His Steps, Kindle Edition, by Charles M. Sheldon. Originally published in 1896. 156 print pages.

In His Steps is the classic Christian novel by Charles M. Sheldon. It is, I think the first fictional work I’ve read in quite some time that ran counter to my usual experience of reading fiction much more quickly than nonfiction. In fact, I’ve spent a couple of extra weeks both reading this book and contemplating my review of it.

I know what I think of the book, and I know what I am supposed to think of this beloved and renowned work and its author, and my challenge is reconciling my two warring perspectives of the book. Last night, as I was falling asleep, it hit me. Dubois’ theory of double consciousness strikes at the heart of my wrestling with this book. In reality, this inner conflict is hardly isolated to the realm of race in America. I am increasingly able to see how, given our history of merging the political and the religious, the American Christian, sans vigilance, can be afflicted by this same phenomena of double consciousness. We’ll get back to that in bit.

Since I both liked and struggled with In His Steps, depending on the scene it which it was set, we’ll start with a brief synopsis of the plot of the story.

The Rev. Henry Maxwell, pastor of First Church of Raymond, experiences a crisis of faith after a homeless man enters his church and challenges him and his congregation concerning the veracity of their faith in action. A few days later Jack, the homeless man, dies. Maxwell grapples with everything the man said to his congregation that day, and begins to earnestly pray and reconsider his and his congregation’s comfortable, self-satisfied faith. Not only is it void of personal sacrifice, but it is more of a merit badge signaling class and decency than evidence true, Christian discipleship.

The next Sunday, Rev. Maxwell enters the pulpit a changed man, with a renewed passion for Christ and the gospel message. After shocking his congregation with a sermon and prayer lacking the rehearsed polish and poise they have become accustomed t, he ended the morning’s worship by challenging his congregants to embark with him on a new journey. Specifically, he has resolved to filter every life decision through prayer and the answer to the question, “What would Jesus do?”

So WWJD wasn’t just a 90s slogan that looks good on t-shirts and rubber bracelets!

Initially, about 50 of his congregants join him in prayer and resolve to do nothing without prayerfully and earnestly considering whether Jesus would do the thing in question. The results are remarkable, and many of the players involved encounter situations where their commitment to living as they believe Jesus would come at great personal sacrifice. Some lose jobs, some lose money, and others find that relationships are tested. However, having pledged wholeheartedly to embrace the Christian promise that every one that has forsaken houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundred times, and shall inherit everlasting life, they forge on in faith.

There were a few who fell away when difficulties arose, but overall, the town itself was reinvigorated with all that was taking place. I especially appreciated the way that the congregation of First Church of Raymond left their cushy, prosperous lives and donated time and energy to minister to the people in the roughest, most obviously sin-scarred parts of their town. It was a picture of revival that any Christian can’t help but be moved by.

In addition to the self-sacrifice and commitment to being the hands and feet of Jesus outside the four walls of their brick and mortar edifices, there were others who were committed to transforming their entire city for the glory of Christ. Commitments to be more active in promoting Christians in politics and shutting down saloons to curb liquor consumption was a theme that ran strong throughout the book. It’s also where my wrestling began until I recognized that this is not a new problem and that W.E.B. DuBois had expressed it well describing the freed slaves in America trying to reconcile their American citizenship with an oppressive culture constantly reminding them of their foreignness. Before I explain further, here’s a portion of DuBois’ original quote:

“One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Now I’ll rework it to show how it directly relates to the conundrum of the American Christian, particularly in light of our traditional intertwining of our faith and our governing principles:

One ever feels his twoness, — an American citizen, and a citizen of heaven; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one fleshly body, whose strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

As I read the portions of In His Steps from my current spiritual (and political) vantage point, I couldn’t help but fell a sense of wariness at the notion that Christians can somehow “Christianize” the dominant culture as many of the well-meaning actors attempt to do in Sheldon’s city of Raymond, and later as the book’s setting moved to Chicago. The whitewashing of external unpleasantness can make it easy to become complacent about our need for repentance. The temptation is strong to believe teetotalling, calf-length dresses, and sin locked away in the dark is evidence of our spiritual fitness. Michael Horton expands on this way of thinking in his piece on American captivity of the church.

Because of my tendency to inwardly squirm with discomfort at the idea, I had to remember that books are written relevant to the time and place in which they were written. Once I was able to remember that, I was able to relax and enjoy In His Steps a lot more and understand why it has remained a beloved book, touching the hearts of generations of Christians new and old for over 100 years. We would all do well to ask ourselves “what would Jesus do?” in our day to day living, and then act and love others accordingly. Against such things there is no law.

4 out of 5 stars

Quotable Literary Quotes: Marcus Aurelius

Marcus

Marcus Aurelius was Rome’s emperor from 161 to 180 AD, but my interest in him is largely confined to the superb number of quotable literary -and life- quotes found in his famous collection of meditations.  In an age where things often seem upside down, many of his thoughts are worthy of dissemination and contemplation.

On the choice to ignore the noise:

You always own the option of having no opinion. There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control. These things are not asking to be judged by you. Leave them alone.

On the silliness of being obsessed with the impressions we make on others at the expense of personal integrity and character:

I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.

But if you want to leave a good impression, here’s how:

If it is not right do not do it; if it is not true do not say it.

A good rule of thumb in a world gone mad:

The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.

I hope you enjoyed these gems from the meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

Leisure: The Basis of Culture

leisure culture

Leisure: The Basis of Culture, by Josef Pieper. Originally published in 1952. 145 pages.

This book had been on my reading list for several years, but kept getting pushed down the queue. Thankfully, a friend of mine was reading it recently, and as she referenced what she gleaned, my interest in it was piqued enough that it moved to the top of my reading list. Before I offer my thoughts on this thoughtful book of essays, I’ll share the Goodreads promotional description of the book:

One of the most important philosophy titles published in the twentieth century, Josef Pieper’s Leisure: the Basis of Culture is more significant, even more crucial, today than it was when it first appeared fifty years ago. Pieper shows that the Greeks understood and valued leisure, as did the medieval Europeans. He points out that religion can be born only in leisure – a leisure that allows time for the contemplation of the nature of God. Leisure has been, and always will be, the first foundation of any culture.

He maintains that our bourgeois world of total labor has vanquished leisure, and issues a startling warning: Unless we regain the art of silence and insight, the ability for nonactivity, unless we substitute true leisure for our hectic amusements, we will destroy our culture – and ourselves.

These astonishing essays contradict all our pragmatic and puritanical conceptions about labor and leisure; Josef Pieper demolishes the twentieth-century cult of “work” as he predicts its destructive consequences.

This is book is a collection of essays exploring the meaning, significance, and implications of leisure on the soul of a culture. As I read it, I needed to keep that in the forefront of my mind. Rather than each chapter building upon the one prior, many of the ideas in the various essays overlapped. Once I was able to adjust to that, it was much more engaging and enjoyable to me. I was inspired on many levels as I read it.

In a culture as results oriented and productivity obsessed as ours, where the idea of the “Protestant work ethic” is etched into all of our DNA (even the most irreligious), Pieper offers a revolutionary thought:

The original meaning of the concept of “leisure” has practically been forgotten in today’s leisure-less culture of “total work”: in order to win our way to a real understanding of leisure, we must confront the contradiction that rises from our overemphasis on that world of work.

[…]

The very fact of this difference, of our inability to recover the original meaning of “leisure,” will strike us all the more when we realize how extensively the opposing idea of “work” has invaded and taken over the whole realm of human action and of human existence as a whole.

At first glance I questioned whether or not our culture, which seems thoroughly obsessed with being entertained, could ever be described as “leisure-less”. However, as I continued to read Pieper’s understanding and definition of leisure based on historical writings and philosophies, the situation became clearer. More than culture on a constant search for leisure, we are most accurately described as one in the grip of a sort of acedia; chiefly characterized by spiritual apathy and mental sloth.

The opposite of acedia is not the industrious spirit of the daily effort to make a living, but rather the cheerful affirmation by man of his own existence, of the world as a whole, and of God — of Love, that is, from which arises that special freshness of action, which would never be confused by anyone [who has] any experience with the narrow activity of the “workaholic.”

[…]

Leisure, then, is a condition of the soul — (and we must firmly keep this assumption, since leisure is not necessarily present in all the external things like “breaks,” “time off,” “weekend,” “vacation,” and so on — it is a condition of the soul) — leisure is precisely the counterpoise to the image for the “worker.”

The most fascinating bit of information that remained with me from this little book was the realization that the word leisure itself has its etymological roots in the word we translate today as learning, or more accurately, school. Whether one learns in most modern schools is a topic for another day, but it becomes abundantly clear that leisure, rather than an opportunity to engage in idle disconnection from work, was originally an opportunity to refresh our souls and expand our minds. Pieper put it this way:

Leisure is a form of that stillness that is necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still, cannot hear. Such stillness is not mere soundlessness or a dead muteness; it means, rather, that the soul’s power, as real, of responding to the real — a co-respondence, eternally established in nature — has not yet descended into words. Leisure is the disposition of perceptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion — in the real.

Given our recent discussion here on the reality of leisure as something other than idleness or physical rest, having the added building block of Josef Pieper’s insights about the effects of leisure on the soul was an welcome addition.

I would give it 5 stars but there were moments when it took me longer than usually to piece together the direction in which Pieper was headed. Whether this was a result of my stunted post modern ability to focus or his writing style I do not know. Nevertheless, because of it I am giving this book

4 out of 5 stars.

Note: Beginning tomorrow (3/6/2019), I will be logged out of WordPress until at least 4/22/2019. It is my sincere prayer and desire that those of you who commemorate the Lenten and Easter seasons have blessed, worshipful celebrations.

 

Thomas Sowell Invites Us to Think.

I am currently reading Thomas Sowell’s latest release, Discrimination and Disparities. I feel completely comfortable saying that Dr. Sowell is one of the greatest economic and political commentators of the 21st century. He has an unrelenting commitment to the truth and his insistence on looking at the logical conclusion of ideas makes him a rare breed among commentators of the day.

The fact that a thing sounds good, compassionate, or helpful must -according to Sowell, and I agree- be held up against empirical, factual information to determine if it is indeed going to produce the results promised. Usually, utopian intentions turn out to be little more than a Super Highway to Hell (I ripped that from Sowell).

He recently sat down with Dave Rubin of The Rubin Report to do an interview discussing his life, life’s work, and this new book.  Below is the 46 minute interview in its entirety. He mentions the propensity of so many people to spout off with very little idea of what they are talking about. Good stuff, worth the 3/4 of an hour:

Have a great weekend!

Digital Minimalism

digital minmalism

Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport. Published February 5, 2019. Hardcover, 304 pages.

This highly anticipated new release from Cal Newport arrived at my doorstep promptly on February 5, and I read through it at a speed which is highly uncharacteristic for me. That might mean that my anticipation propelled the momentum of my study, but I suspect it is best attributed to Newport’s engaging tone. It also helps that the topic he is covering is a hot topic of the day.

It seems every where you look, you can find discussions of the perils of social media, online distraction, and the lurching menace of the world’s largest technology companies as they encroach into every area of our lives. The result is making privacy rare and more zealously guarded by many, such as this woman who disconnected from all services connected to the “big 5” tech giants. It is into this atmosphere that Cal Newport actually manages to offer a fresh perspective.

I hesitate to say that he offers a new perspective, because he doesn’t. He actually draws on the wisdom of those who have gone before, beginning with Aristotle and moving forward to more modern minds such as Wendell Berry. I am a great admirer of Wendell Berry, so the invoking of his unique and uncommon wisdom made this book all the more alluring to me.

Newport doesn’t use an abundance of pages offering tips on how to better manage your online life (although he does present a few). Neither does he use his megaphone to condemn any and all social media. Instead,  he calmly and methodically makes his case for a more intentional way of living, using an engaging and conversational tone. When he finishes, the reader is left to draw her own conclusions about the value or disadvantages of technology and online distractions in her life.

The best and most compelling arguments in the book are in the chapter dedicated to the importance of high quality leisure.  In this chapter, we find a most concise and piercing synopsis of why the subject of leisure, along with the role of the Internet in our daily lives, are such vital issues to confront. While discussing an example of a man whose time without access to the constant connection of the Internet, Newport notes that the man wasn’t missing any one specific digital activity. Rather, he was most uncomfortable with the general lack of access he was used to. Here is the linchpin of his presentation:

The more I study this topic, the more it becomes clear to me that low-quality digital distractions play a more important role in people’s lives than they imagine. In recent years, as the boundary between work and life blends, jobs become more demanding, and community traditions degrade, more and more people are failing to cultivate the high-quality leisure lives that Aristotle identifies as crucial for human happiness. This leaves a void that would be near unbearable if confronted, but that can be ignored with the help of digital noise. It’s now easy to fill the gaps between work and caring for your family and sleep by pulling out a smartphone or tablet, and numbing yourself with mindless swiping and tapping. p.168

Newport doesn’t assert that this instinct is a a new thing, of course. If it were he wouldn’t be able to draw on Aristotle in his quest for solutions. Whether through drinking, television, or any other number of alternatives, man has always been tempted to revert to low-level distractions to divert ourselves from the pain of physical, emotional, and spiritual realities we’d rather not face. The difference today of course, is that it is so much easier to avoid these realities than in times past. Our comfortable, easy physical existence makes us ripe to be mined by the masters of the new attention economy.

The best parts of this book are the chapters which chart the economics and psychology behind this new way of living, and later the importance of being careful of how we use our leisure. Most importantly, the reader is admonished of the importance of leisure activities that stretch us and grow us as human beings rather than viewing leisure as a time to indulge a mindless, vegetative state via screens.

As I read the examples given, I was reminded of the scene at our house on Super Bowl Sunday. Our kids -as they always do whether we have company or not- made great food, and turned on the set mainly for the purpose of ranking the commercials. There are two people in our house who know enough about football to sit through a game and maintain interest. I am one, and one of my daughters is another. My husband, having played high school football, knows the game, but is not at all interested in watching. My interest has steadily tanked in recent years as well.

While the girls watched commercials, and chattered in between, my husband was working on a project he started for me a couple of weeks ago but which has taken a lot longer than it might have if he hadn’t begun a new job this year. As he cut, sanded, measured and worked with his hands (I offered some help as well with staining), it was a prime example of what Digital Minimalism described. Rather than sit and watch the game, which would have drained the energy from someone like him, the time was spent doing something infinitely more satisfying. In the book, Newport referenced the difference between being able to point to something -anything- produced as a result of proficiency and effort being infinitely more satisfying than a nebulous number of likes in response to a saucy tweet or a photo of your plate at a trendy new restaurant.

In addition to stressing the importance of high-quality leisure, the book also emphasizes the importance of meaningful, in-person socialization. I especially appreciated those parts of the book.

In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport turns on a light rather than simply railing against the darkness. As more and more people awaken to the reality that their overly connected lives are out of control, they will be looking for constructive counsel and directions out of the digital wilderness. Digital Minimalism provides both of those and does it well.

4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

My Final, Personal Conclusions of The Feminine Mystique

This is a more personal exposition, but because my Feminine Mystique posts may have been a jumble of ambiguity to those who wondered what I really think, I want to break it down a bit. I have learned the hard way that nothing goes without saying anymore. Everything which follows is offered from the perspective of my Christian worldview.

The book was pretty much what I expected. Liberals are quite predictable. They identify a thing that rightly needs to be addressed, and then offer a poison pill as the answer to the problem. Having had only secondary knowledge of the book mostly presented from the perspective of devoted feminists or devoted anti-feminists, I wanted to read it for myself. I’ve learned to mistrust the assertions of rabid ideologues.

What Friedan got right: It is silly and anti-Biblical to relegate women to a domain solely related to what they produce sexually. The notion that a woman is designed by God, filled with His Spirit, endowed with gifts, and no one except husband and kids is supposed to reap the benefit is nuts. When you look at Friedan’s source material, it’s easy to see that something had gone terrible wrong. After WWII, women reverted almost to a Disney Princess existence, where all of life -including attending college!- was about snagging a husband. Then upon marriage, nothing mattered but keeping the house perfectly clean and the husband perfectly happy. I’m all for clean houses and happy husbands, but stay with me.

What Friedan got terribly wrong -and feminists today, including Christian feminists get wrong- is this notion that women were unfulfilled at home because they were excluded from the greater world, and that the way to bridge that gap was to leave their homes and go to work. WRONG!

We can be homemakers, full time housewives, and make a difference in the world through the use of our gifts and talents. I will use my life as an example. I have been at home 24 years. When our older girls were in school, I volunteered at their school two mornings a week. I taught several struggling students how to read, offered them love and encouragement, and it only cost me three hours a week. My home was not neglected. This was before we entered the glorious years of homeschooling.

A Christian friend of mine from our neighborhood taught a parenting class in the school based on the book “Boundaries with Kids” and I helped facilitate it. I was on both the PTA and the SCA.  I served in the greeter’s ministry at our church two Sunday mornings per month, and authored and published the monthly newsletter for the helps ministry.

Later, our entire family, led by my husband, served in our city’s men’s homeless shelter twice a month for over 10 years. We cooked for those men, served them, prayed with those men, and our children from earliest ages were right there with us. When our 4th and 5th children arrived, my life slowed down tremendously, but we still worked with the homeless although my role moved farther into administrative stuff through the outreach ministry until the two youngest were tall enough and coordinated enough to fill ice glasses and roll silverware. They were 4 and 6.

During the slower years, I started taking my babies with me to visit a couple of elderly widows in our subdivision, and boy did they love being able to play with my cute little babies!

Now we homeschool, but we also utilize a classical group two days a week. I teach a literature and writing class there in exchange for a tuition break. Again, no career, but I am contributing to a community. Not to worry though. My house is clean and my husband is happy.

Who in their right mind would say I hadn’t contributed to the world outside of my home? Who would claim that my contributions would have been greater if they were offered in the form of a career? Friedan certainly would, but a decent chunk of traditional Christian teachers of women might argue that I dedicated too much energy outside of my home, even though I was doing exactly as my husband directed, and even though my kids and home were well taken care of. Americans, including Christians, have almost completely abandoned the role of women as community builders. What better way to use our gifts?

This is why I get disturbed by and perturbed with people on both sides of this argument. One wants woman to abandon her home and the other wants to imprison her in it. Neither is what God intended.

Currently, I am considering classes to prepare me for what I hope is a book that serves as a much better Christian approach to femininity for a group of women who are by and large, in a very tough spot on these issues. Many of my females relations and friends, even those who love me dearly, view me as either highly privileged or very weak for situating my life so fully dependent on my husband.

You see, we don’t have these “to stay at home or not to stay at home” debates among black women. It is largely accepted that most black women cannot stay home. I want to talk about how we can change that for our daughters’ generation besides simply saying, “Marry a man of a different race!” which is basically the prescription being offered to single, childless black women right now. When I write it, I want it to be readable, hence school.

I thought it was only fair when I reviewed the book to be honest about the fact that even a broken clock is right twice a day. Acknowledging that Betty Friedan raised some very good questions isn’t to say I think her conclusions or prescriptions were correct.

 

Because I don’t.

Blogging through The Feminine Mystique

feminine mystique

The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan. Originally published in 1963. Hardcover. 592 pages.

In an effort to be less inclined to have strong opinions about things I know little about yet have the ability to know more about, I have decided  there are a few books I should read for myself. These are the books that are referred to frequently by people for ideological reasons to promote their agendas. The kinds of books where the sum total of the view being presented is forever cemented in our minds based on the 10 well worn quotes that we’ve all read hundred of times over the years.

One book I decided to read -and blog through- is Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. I don’t expect reading it to alter my perspective, conviction, or beliefs regarding feminism. In fact, I am certain that it won’t. The results on the experiment of radical feminism are in, and they speak for themselves.

What I am most interested in is dichotomous experiences to the women Friedan references (in her first two chapters, for instance) when compared to women in less pampered circumstances. I also want to see if Friedan noted how the Industrial Revolution, whatever it added standard of living in aggregate, drastically changed the nature of the domestic sphere and the intrinsic value it added to the bottom line in the years when our economy was more agrarian.

In other words, I want a full picture of the alignment of family life and life for women in the 1950s leading up to the time of the publication of The Feminine Mystique. Even a cursory bit of research reveals that family life for most Americans was a far cry from the television portrayal of The Andersons and The Cleavers. This was especially true for my parents and grandparents, yet we are constantly presented that narrative of the 1950s as indicative of mainstream America.

I have reasons for this interest which may or may not be revealed in 2019, but let’s see if there are any unheralded surprises -at least surprises to me- to be found in The Feminine Mystique.