A Faith Unafraid of the Hard Questions

I believe very strongly that the Christian faith has nothing to fear from hard questions.  If what we believe is True, then it can withstand even the most intense cross-examination.  In fact, I think we ought to welcome hard questions, because hard, honest questions are often used by God to bring people to faith.  This was certainly the belief of the great missionary and evangelist E. Stanley Jones (1884-1973), friend to Gandhi and missionary to India.  In his missionary work Jones often fearlessly debated with people who were hostile to Christianity, and in his most famous book he explains how he came to be unafraid of even the hardest questions about faith.  Facts, he realized, are faith’s friends.

 

In his best-selling book The Christ of the Indian Road (1925), Jones writes:

“I have found a good many nervous Christians since coming home who are afraid that this whole thing of Christianity might fall to pieces if someone should get too critical, or if science should get too scientific. Many of the saints are now painfully nervous. They remind me of a lady missionary with whom I walked home one night after a very tense meeting in a Hindu theater. She said, ‘Mr. Jones, I am physically exhausted from that meeting tonight.’ When I asked her the reason she said, ‘Well, I didn’t know what they were going to ask you next, and I didn’t know what you were going to answer, so I’ve been siting up there in the gallery holding on to the bench with all my might for two hours, and I’m physically exhausted!’ There are many like our sister who are metaphorically holding to their seats with all their might lest Christianity fall to pieces under criticism!

I have a great deal of sympathy with them, for I felt myself in the same position for a long time after I went to India. The whole atmosphere was acid with criticism. I could feel the acid eat into my very soul every time I picked up a non-Christian paper. Then there came the time when I inwardly let go. I became willing to turn Jesus over to the facts of the universe. I began to see that there was only one refuge in life and that was in reality, in the facts. If Jesus couldn’t stand the shock of the criticism of the facts discovered anywhere, if he wasn’t reality, the sooner I found out about it the better. My willingness to surrender Christ to the facts was almost as great an epoch in my life as my willingness to surrender to him…. I saw that [Jesus] was not a hothouse plant that would wither under the touch of criticism, but he was rooted in reality, was the very living expression of our moral and spiritual universe—he was reality itself….

The only way to kill Christianity is to take it out of life and protect it. The way to make it shine and show its genius is to put it down in life and let it speak directly to life itself. Jesus is his own witness….

I am therefore not afraid of the question hour, for I believe that Jesus underlies our moral and spiritual universe deeper than the force of gravity underlies our material universe.”

from The Christ of the Indian Road, by E. Stanley Jones

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General McChrystal and the Butterfly Effect

In fall 2003, General Stanley McChrystal was appointed the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, giving him authority over what were the best-trained, best-equipped, and most-lethal special operators in the history of the world.  And yet, these elite soldiers (Navy Seals, Delta Force commandos, etc.) were unable to stop impoverished jihadists from using the most basic technology to create mass murder in Iraq.  Why?  McChrystal’s answers have a lot to do with the realities of leadership in the 21st century.

 

Stan McChrystal

Like most Americans, I’d heard of General Stanley McChrystal from his time in the headlines during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I’d seen a TED talk he’d given on leadership, but a few months ago I stumbled across a couple of interviews with General McChrystal on the Tim Ferris podcast that made me think: “This guy is impressive.”  (You can find the long interview here and the much shorter follow-up here. Recommended.)  On the podcast, General McChrystal and his former aide-de-camp Chris Fussell mention a book they’d written called Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World.  I read the book, which confirmed my impression: these are impressive guys.

The Problem with Al-Queda

When General McChrystal became commander of the JSOC in 2003, he was frustrated by his force’s apparent inability to defeat Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.  McChrystal may have had enormous resources at his fingertips, but his special operators always seemed one step behind AQI’s terrorists, and the result was a bloodbath in Iraq, exemplified by the September 30, 2004 bombing of an opening ceremony at a brand new water treatment plant in Baghdad that killed 41 people, including 35 children.

The U.S. military easily defeated Saddam Hussein’s army during the invasion, but, in the occupation, a small number of impoverished terrorists were literally destroying the country.  How?

The answer, General McChrystal learned, had to do with complexity.

Complexity and the Butterfly Effect

In everyday usage, we tend to use the words complicated and complex interchangeably, but in Team of Teams General McChrystal points out that in chaos theory complex refers to situations that are made up of innumerable possible causes and effects such that correctly forecasting or planning for an outcome is literally impossible. Weather, for example, is an example of a complex system.

The famous butterfly effect refers to the idea that, in a complex system, a very small change in input can produce a great difference in output: the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Africa might (but not necessarily) result in a hurricane in Brazil.  The weather man can forecast the next hour’s weather with relative accuracy, but forecasting weather a week from now is just a guessing game, because weather is a complex system: there are just too many variables.

The modern world is a complex world, which means that small inputs can make a great difference.  The problem for McChrystal and the U.S. was that AQI was set up to thrive in a complexity, whereas JSOC, for all its power and wealth of resources, was not.

Team of Teams

On the small level, the individual SEAL and Delta Force and intelligence teams at McChrystal’s disposal were excellent, but the organization of JSOC itself hindered cooperation and made adaptability impossible.  The main strategic advantage of AQI, on the other hand, was precisely in its ability to adapt.  McChrystal’s insight was that if JSOC was going to defeat AQI, it would have to become as adaptable as its enemy.

The individual SEAL and Delta Force and intelligence teams were already capable of adaptability, which is why there were so effective; McChrystal’s reform was to get them working together as a team of teams.  He did this by constantly pushing authority down the chain of command, even when that meant relatively junior officers were making decisions with huge national security implications.  He required each of the various groups in his command to send one elite operator to work with the other groups, so that trust began to be built between teams.  He conveyed a daily briefing that involved hundreds of participants (via video) from all over the world so that information could be shared as widely as possible.  Over time, these and other reforms began to enable the JSOC to effectively adapt to AQI’s tactics, and one of the stories McChrystal tells in the book is how these reforms enabled JSOC to track and kill Zarqawi in 2006.

Conclusion

Team of Teams is an interesting, thorough book (I’ve only referenced a very small part of its content here), but I’m not totally convinced by its argument.  General McChrystal and his co-authors argue that in our complex world, a great team or team of teams is a greater strategic advantage than a great leader.  I agree with that, as far as it goes, and I think the insights in the book about how to create an organizational culture that is adaptable and resilient are helpful.  But, I can’t help thinking that part of the story of the book is also that it takes a great leader to create that kind of organizational culture.  Maybe the kind of leader who could lead that kind of change would end up thriving in any situation, complex or not.  The Admiral Nelsons of the world might just make any team successful.  A team is important, but a team requires a leader.  As Bill Hybels likes to say, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.”  As I said, the more I read General McChrystal’s book, the more I thought, “This guy is impressive.”

 

Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex Worldby General Stanley McChrystal, Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell

★★★         worth reading

 

 

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In Praise of “Deep Work”

As focused attention becomes rarer and rarer in our distracted culture, the people who cultivate focused attention will find themselves becoming more and more valuable.  In other words, you can’t afford NOT to be doing deep work.  This is the thesis of the book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport, a book that I cannot recommend highly enough.  Here’s why.

 

Deep Work: A Definition

Cal Newport, computer science professor at Georgetown University, defines deep work in this way:

Deep Work: professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

In contrast with deep work is shallow work:

Shallow Work: noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

Most knowledge workers spend most of their time engaged in shallow work–email, anyone?–so that, though they may be busy, they are not productive.

The people who are writing the best-selling books, making the blockbuster movies, creating the irresistible advertising campaigns, winning the major tournaments, and leading the market-beating companies, these are the people who are doing deep work (whether they realize it or not).  Deep work makes a difference.

The Deep Work Hypothesis

The prevalence of shallow work in our culture leads to Newport’s deep work hypothesis.

The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy [and becoming valuable because it is becoming rare–AF]. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

Newport also argues that deep work actually makes people happier.  As someone who has certainly spent a day being busy without being productive, I know that he’s right: I’m happier when I’m able to focus.

So, if you want to thrive in our knowledge work economy and if you want to be happier while doing it, you need to learn how to do deep work.

The Deep Work Rules

Newport has come up with what he calls The Rules of Deep Work.

  1. Work Deeply
  2. Embrace Boredom
  3. Quit Social Media
  4. Drain the Shallows

1. Work Deeply

Deep work is something we can learn how to do.  Focused attention is not something you can just turn on or off–it’s something that must be trained and cultivated, like a muscle.  Just as someone who spends his time sitting on the couch eating Doritos and watching television cannot overnight become a marathon champ, neither can someone who spends his time like that be immediately good at deep work.  Deep work requires practice and planning.

2. Embrace Boredom

Internet tools (social media, on-demand video, infotainment sites, etc.) have taught our minds to need constant stimulation, but deep work requires focused attention, and our need for shallow stimulation will undermine our ability to do deep work.  Therefore, we need to embrace boredom.  It’s good to resist the urge to pull out your smart phone when waiting in line at the post office: our minds need boredom.

3. Quit Social Media

You knew this was coming, right?  Newport makes the argument that people who are actually producing deep work (best-selling authors like Michael Lewis, e.g.) produce deep work because they do not allow themselves to be distracted by social media.  I know lots of people believe that social media is like alcohol–to be used and enjoyed in moderation.  I wonder, though, if social media is more like heroin: addictive and distracting for everyone.  (UPDATE: In conversation, I could say something provocative like that and you’d understand from my jocular tone what I was trying to convey, but I realize that, if you just read those words, they come across differently.  My church actively uses social media (and I use it, too) and I have many friends who work in social media marketing; if I really believed that social media was the same thing as heroin, I’d stop using it immediately.  I think social media marketing is necessary in our culture.  My point is just that I think all of us are much more easily distracted than we want to admit.)

4. Drain the Shallows

By “drain the shallows,” Newport means that we should aggressively eliminate the non-essential from our working lives.  For example, he gives practical tips on how to cut down on email, a major source of shallow work for most people.

Why I Need This Book

About 45 times a year, year after year, my professional responsibilities require me to create a brand-new, relevant, engaging, and faithful presentation and then deliver it in front of an average live audience of about 1,000 people, each one of whom is judging me savagely (even if they seem to be nice people!) on that presentation.  In addition to that, I also create multiple smaller presentations and essays through the year that also need to be original, relevant, helpful, and faithful.  In our distracted world, it seems as if everything but the truly important is screaming LOOK AT ME!  PAY ATTENTION TO ME!, and so I’ve come to the following conclusion:

if I don’t learn to do deep work, I’m not going to make it.

Deep Work is one of the most insightful, practical, and challenging books I’ve read about work and creativity…maybe ever.  I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

★★★★ excellent

 

 

 

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My 2015 Reading List

I set a goal to read 50 books in 2015. In September, I revised my goal down to 40…and I hit it! What follows is my reading list for 2015, in chronological order. (Click here to see my post on the best 6 books I read last year.)

My Ratings

★★★★★ life-changing and unforgettable
★★★★     excellent
★★★         worth reading
★★             read other things first
                 not recommended

 

The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience, by Kevin Watson.  Clear, simple book about the most important building block of the Methodist movement.  ★★★

 

Notes from Underground, by Roger Scrunton.  Novel about the dissident movement in communist Prague in the 1980s, and the way freedom was a betrayal and a disappointment for the movement’s ideals. Scruton is a very interesting philosopher and thinker.  ★★★

 

Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell.  I wrote about Outliers in my Best Books of 2015 post.  ★★★★

 

You’ll Get Through This: Help and Hope for Your Turbulent Time, by Max Lucado.  ★★★

 

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell.  My least favorite of the Gladwell books.  ★★

 

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giantsby Malcolm Gladwell.  Some really interesting stories of turning weaknesses into strengths.  I think his reading of the David and Goliath story in 1 Samuel 17 is right on.  ★★★

 

Meeting God in Mark: Reflections for the Season of Lent, by Rowan Williams.  Typically well-written insights from the former Archbishop of Canterbury.  ★★★

 

Mark: the Gospel of Passion (the Biblical Imagination Series), by Michael Card.  I like his creative, faithful thoughts on the Gospels.  ★★★

 

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Differenceby Malcolm Gladwell.  The stuff on “connectors,” “mavens,” and “salesmen” was helpful to me.  ★★★

 

The Culture Code: An Ingenious Way to Understand Why People Around the World Live and Buy As They Do, by Cloture Rapaille.  I think the basic premise–that different objects mean different things to different cultures–makes sense, but I think he really stretches to make some of the points he does.  

 

The Radetzky March, by Joseph Roth.  I wrote about The Radetzky March in my Best Books of 2015 post.  ★★★★

 

The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry Into the Old Testament, by Sandra Richter.  I LOVE this book, which provides a cohesive vision for understanding the Old Testament.  Highly recommended for anyone who has trouble making sense of the Old Testament.  ★★★

 

Every Man a King, by Bill Kauffman.  Vulgar, convoluted, with a ridiculous plot: I hated this book.  (This 1 star review on Amazon does a good job capturing what I disliked–I didn’t write that review.)  

 

Seabiscuit: An American Legend, by Laura Hillenbrand.  Good, not great.  A story about a horse can only be so captivating, and I much preferred Unbroken, which I wrote about last year.  ★★★

 

Little Failure: A Memoir, by Gary Shteyngart.  Really funny, particularly the parts about this Russian Jewish immigrant learning to be a good American.  ★★★

 

To Live Is Christ to Die is Gain, by Matt Chandler.  Based off his sermon series.  ★★

 

Faithful: a Theology of Sex by Beth Felker Jones.  ★★

 

Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive, by Thom S. Rainer.  ★★

 

The Martian, by Andy Weir.  Might be a good movie (haven’t seen it), but not a great novel.  ★★

 

Simplify: Ten Practices to Unclutter Your Soul by Bill Hybels.  Important topic, but I didn’t find the book all that helpful.  ★★

 

Crazy Busy:A (Mercifully) Short Book about a (Really) Big Problem, by Kevin DeYoung.  Helpful, particularly the chapter on acedia.  ★★★

 

An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest, by Alan Fadling.  I wrote about An Unhurried Life in my Best Books of 2015 post.  ★★★

 

Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset.  I wrote about Kristen Lavransdatter in my Best Books of 2015 post. ★★★★★

 

Do Not Live Afraid: Faith in A Fearful World, by John Indermark.  ★★

 

Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, by Francis Spufford.  Although Mr. Spufford and I would disagree on a number of issues, his sincere devotion and creative approach won me over.  Recommended for someone who might want to think about the Christian faith from an unconventional starting point.  ★★★

 

The Searchers: A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt by Joe Loconte.  I really like Professor Leconte’s reading of the Emmaus story.  ★★★

 

The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan.  ★★★

 

Thriving in Babylon: Why Hope, Humility, and Wisdom Matter in a Godless Culture, by Larry Osborne.  Book never really lived up to the promise of the title.  ★★

 

How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, by James K.A. Smith.  People I respect were enthusiastic about this book, and though it offers some helpful insights into Taylor’s work, in general I thought it was poorly written, full of academic jargon and convoluted sentences.  If it were not for the fact that I think Taylor’s insights into our secular age are worth hearing, I would otherwise give this book a lower rating.  Very disappointing.  ★★★

 

Accidental Pharisees: Avoiding Pride, Exclusivity, and the Other Dangers of Overzealous Faithby Larry Osborne.  ★★

 

The Jesus Cow: a Novel, by Michael Perry.  What do I say 2 stars means?  Right: “read other things first.”  Exactly.  ★★

 

Compassion Without Compromise: How the Gospel Frees Us to Love Our Gay Friends Without Losing the Truth, by Adam Barr and Ron Citlau.  Honestly, I don’t remember anything about this book.  I don’t know if that’s my fault or the authors’.  ★★

 

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo.  This lady is weird–we’re supposed to talk to our clothes and books?–but I actually kinda liked this book.  ★★★

 

The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL, by Eric Greitens.  ★★

 

The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem, by Colin Nicholl.  First of all, this is physically a beautiful book: hardback, with glossy illustrations on nearly every page.  An exhaustive study of the topic.   ★★★

 

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins.  I wrote about The Hunger Games in my Best Books of 2015 post.  ★★★

 

Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins.  Better than Mockingjay, worse than The Hunger Games.  ★★

 

Creativity, Inc., by Ed Catcall.  I wrote about Creativity, Inc. in my Best Books of 2015 post.  ★★★★

 

The Means of Grace: Traditioned Practice in Today’s World, by Andrew Thompson.  Good, clear summary of ways people have learned to connect to God.  ★★★

 

Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins.  Not a good book.  But, to be expected: wrapping up complicated plot lines neatly is difficult.  

 

My 2016 Reading Goal

Once again, I’ve set myself a goal of reading 50 books this year.  What about you–do you have a reading goal for the year?

[Here are my 2013 and 2014 reading lists, respectively.]

 

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The Best Books I Read in 2015

I set a goal to read 50 books in 2015. In September, I revised my goal down to 40…and I hit it! What follows is my list of the best 6 books I read in 2015, in chronological order.  (Update: My entire 2015 reading list is here.)

My Rules

I only count books I read all the way through, cover to cover.  I read lots of journals and periodicals, and in my weekly sermon prep read parts of different books and commentaries, but for my reading goal, none of those count.

A book that I keep thinking about, a book that adds enduring value to my life, that’s a book I’ll define as good.  I use a 5 star system in my ratings to signify the following:

★★★★★ life-changing and unforgettable
★★★★     excellent
★★★         worth reading

Books getting less than 3 stars aren’t on my “Best” list, which doesn’t mean they were necessarily bad, but just not books that I’d excitedly recommend to you.

★★             read other things first
                 not recommended

Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell

gladwell

I read all of Malcolm Gladwell’s books in 2015; Outliers is my favorite.  No man is an island; any amount of success we achieve is due to hard work, of course, but it’s also all about right place, right time; success is about our circumstances, our family, and our environment. ★★★★

The Radetsky March, by Joseph Roth

3042014-poster-p-1-behind-the-scenes-of-the-oscar-nominated-production-design-of-the-grand-budapest-hotel

I read because I want to experience life; the books I like best are the ones that evoke other times and other places so acutely that, to paraphrase Robert Frost, they make me remember things I’ve never known.  And, there is something about the vanished places that only exist in memory that are the sweetest and saddest.  Since I first read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s great memoirs (A Time of Gifts and Between the Wood and Water) I’ve loved reading works of nostos for Mittereuropa, that now-vanished world of the Austro-Hungarian empire, dismantled in World War I and disappeared with murder and concrete by World War Two and the Iron Curtain.

After watching The Grand Budapest Hotel, I read about Stephan Zweig, whose work was the inspiration for the Wes Anderson movie. Then, in Zweig’s autobiography, I stumbled across a reference to The Radetsky March.  I’d never heard it mentioned anywhere else, but it was one of the best books I read in 2015 and the sense of it will stay with me a long time after.

So, what is The Radetsky March about?  I like Simon Schama’s remark:

‘Read this and your life will change,’ we say, pressing it relentlessly on strangers encountered in Daunt Books who might confuse him with Henry or Philip of the same moniker. ‘So what’s it about?’ they reasonably inquire. ‘Ah, well,’ you say, ‘it follows an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army before the first world war, stuck in a provincial border garrison doing nothing in particular except getting drunk on 180 per cent schnapps and haplessly wandering from calamity to disaster … ‘ ‘Oh, right, thanks,’ they say, looking around for an escape route before you can add: ‘Oh and, of course, all of human life – sex, class, food, music, land, power, and Jews – there’s this scene where Kaiser Franz Joseph runs into an old Hasidic rabbi … ‘ But you’ve already lost them to the Man Booker shortlist table.”

Franz Joseph, Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, 1848-1916.

Franz Joseph, Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, 1848-1916.

The novel is an “elegiac evocation of the slow decay of a way of life that disappeared with the collapse of the multinational Habsburg Empire” and about the soft but irresistible pull of that empire towards destruction, and about one family’s own petty paralysis in the face of that slow pull.

For me, The Radetsky March is all atmosphere, elegy for a world that will never come again. (For a contemporary review of the novel that even then was looking back on a lost world, see this 1933 New York Times piece.)  ★★★★

 

An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest, by Alan Fadling

an-unhurried-life

“If you had one word to describe Jesus, what would it be?”  In An Unhurried Life, Alan Fadling recounts how, when philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard answered that question, he chose relaxed.  Fadling writes, “What took root in my own heart [after hearing Willard’s one word description] was the desire to know Jesus as an unhurried savior.” When I read that sentence last summer, I thought “YES.  Me too.”

I read this book at exactly the right time.  I had been feeling harried and shallow for months, feeling as if I could never find quiet, and feeling that God was calling me to prayer and silence.  Alan Fadling’s book was a blessing to me, and I recommend it to you.  ★★★

Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Unset

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Imagine living in a world in which all of reality–everything you could see and touch and taste and smell–was enchanted with the power of God.  This is the world of Kristin Lavransdatter.

Rod Dreher explains:

The late medievals were heirs to a belief system that regarded the world as enchanted. God was everywhere, and ordered all things to Himself. All of Creation — and it was “Creation,” not yet “Nature” — was a sign pointing to its Creator. It is an anachronistic mistake to think that our late medieval ancestors regarded the world as we do, except with a belief in God added to it. They did not. God and things divine were far more present in the imaginations of the people, who looked around them and saw Him. They lived in a cosmos — a universe ordered by God, pregnant with meaning and divine purpose [emphasis in the original].”

Kristin Lavransdatter is an 1,100 page historical novel (actually a trilogy of novels, published in the early 1920s), written by Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset about 14th century Norway.  The novel follows the life of the title character (Kristin, daughter of her father Lavrans)

first as a young girl enjoying bread, butter, dried reindeer, and mead in sunny alpine meadows with her father; then through her thrilling first encounters with the love of her life, the beguiling Erlend Nikulausson, during which Undset precisely renders the romantic heart of a teenage girl; and finally through Kristin’s adulthood as a brooding but hardworking mistress of a household and mother of many sons.”

Carrie Frederick Frost has an insightful essay at First Things (from which I took the above quotation) about Kristin and motherhood and faith.  I will never be a mother, but I am a son and a father, and I appreciate Frost’s summary of the insight that Kristin gains from motherhood:

It is through reflection on her own experience of motherhood that Kristin is able to understand her parents’ love for her. After a decade of motherhood she considers the character of her parents’ love: “That love had been strong and wide and unfathomably deep; while the love she gave them in return was weak and thoughtless and selfish, even back in childhood when her parents were her whole world.” Kristin realizes that even though she loved her parents, her love for them did not approach the love they had for her, and that she now feels this same “strong and wide” love for her own children. Through her maternal meditation, Kristin understands that she belongs to a lineage of love linking her children, herself, her parents, and all of humanity back to God’s “unfathomably deep” parental love.”

Kristin Lavransdatter is not just about motherhood, though: like other great epic novels (e.g. War and Peace or Island of the World) it is about all of life: marriage, adultery, hatred, war, forgiveness, and the grace of God.  I love this novel.  ★★★★★

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspirationby Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace

buzz

I had an insight last year: my job (or at least the most public aspect of it) is essentially creative.  Every single Sunday, 47 weeks a year, I am personally and alone responsible for a 30 minute presentation that is supposed to faithfully convey Christian doctrine, bring the Bible to life, appeal to outsiders and skeptics, nourish the faithful, and, if possible, be both humorous and poignant.  And then do it again in 7 days.

How is it possible to make that kind of creativity and excellence routine?

Catmull_-Ed_940_529_72-ppi

Ed Catmull is a computer genius in his own right, but he is also a business genius, and as a co-founder and president of Pixar he has been obsessed with creating a culture of creativity since 1986.  Creativity Inc. is Mr. Catmull’s attempt to put what he has learned down on paper.  The result is a business book unlike most business books, and I found myself underlining sentence after sentence as I read.  ★★★★

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

the_hunger_games_book_by_soulflie-d4xme8q

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins’s dystopian young adult novel, surprised me: it was much better than I expected it to be, and I still find myself thinking about it frequently, months later.  The basic story line–how a ruthless elite amuses themselves to death while exploiting the general population in order to maintain their wealth and comfort–strikes me as chillingly similar to life in modern America: we live in The Capital.  I think Katniss Everdeen is a totally believable heroine, and I am impressed with Ms. Collins’s creativity and vision.  ★★★

My 2016 Reading Goal

Once again, I’ve set myself a goal of reading 50 books this year.  What about you–do you have a reading goal for the year?

 

[Here are my 2013 and 2014 reading lists, respectively.]

 

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Best of 2015

The editors at www.andrewforrest.org (best blog on the internet™) have been working long hours and our fingers to the bone to get our 1st annual best-of list together.  Yes, we didn’t make it by 12/31, but it’s not too late to look back at 2015, right?

 

Best Book I Read in 2015

 

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The Amazon description calls Kristin Lavransdatter “the turbulent historical masterpiece of Norway’s literary master.” I agree that it’s a masterpiece (though certainly an overlooked one): Sigrid Undset’s 1100 page historical novel is a book that will stay with me for years to come.  It’s about the life of the title character in 14th century medieval Norway, and I can honestly say I’ve never read anything like it.  Highly recommended.

Best Movie(s) I Saw in 2015

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[https://lisathatcher.files.wordpress.com/2015/07/71-1.jpg]

Here’s what I wrote in April about the brutal war thriller ’71:

Walking down the stairs of the theater afterwards, I realized that I’d been keeping my entire body rigid and tense throughout the movie–it’s that kind of film.  It’s really well done: terrifying, honest, brutal, and resists the urge to clean-up everything at it’s end.  Highly recommended, though not for the faint of heart.”

Thinking back on it 9 months later, I stand by that assessment.  ’71 is one of the best movies of the year.

Meanwhile, on the complete other end of the movie spectrum….

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[telegraph.co.uk]

On the complete other end of the spectrum, the British claymation film Shaun the Sheep: the Movie is also one of my favorite movies of the year.  It’s wordless, really funny, and touching and sweet as well.  Recommended.

Best Reason Not to Visit Seattle

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Yes, I do know the difference between San Francisco and Seattle….

Kathryn Shultz wrote a long article in The New Yorker‘s July 20 issue called “The Really Big One,” about how the Pacific Northwest is overdue for a massive earthquake.  One of the memorable quotations from the piece comes from the region’s FEMA director when he says (and subsequently stands by his remarks): “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”  Her follow-up piece 8 days later addressing some FAQ’s won’t make you feel any better.

I’ll stay in Texas, thank you.

Best App

"All packed...." (The kind of pic we shared on Togethera in 2015.)

“All packed….” (The kind of pic we shared on Togethera in 2015.)

My wife and I made a decision to never share pictures of our son on social media.  However, our extended family is far-flung and lives on 3 different continents, and sharing pictures is an important way to feel closer.  Enter Togethera, a photo sharing app that allows you to create closed groups.  We’ve been using it since the summer and love it.

Best Sermon

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That’s like asking me to choose which one of my kids is the best.  The answer is obvious: I like them all, except the ugly ones.

Best Everyday Carry Accessories

I never leave the house without the following in my pants pockets:

Best State Fair

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Too easy: The State Fair of Texas, fool!  (September 30 will be here before you know it….)

Finally: Best Hanukkah Song

I know, I know: with so many to choose from, how do you narrow it down to just one?  But, this year’s winner (which, being held hostage by our house’s resident kindergartner, we played on repeat in our household 1,000 times in the month of December) is Jewish reggae rapper Matisyahu’s 2012 single “Happy Hanukkah.” The video ain’t my favorite, but I defy you not to be happy with the audio turned way up.

My favorite part is the “Lion of Juuuuudah” part of the refrain.

Auld Lang Syne

2015 was a great year; here’s to an ever better 2016.

 

 

 

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The Most Important 236 Words You’ll Ever Read

The following 236 words are among the most insightful, prescient, and terrifying words I have ever read.

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good–” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.

G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, 1905

This is the culture in which we now live.

 

 

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What I Read

What do you read on a regular basis?  We are what we eat, and that includes the words we consume.  Today’s post (part 3 of a 3 part series) is about the magazine, journals, and books that make up my media diet.

Print Subscriptions

In addition to The Dallas Morning News (mentioned in part 1), I subscribe to the print editions of the following periodicals:

  • First Thingsa magazine founded by the late Father Richard John Neuhaus that, while including Protestant writers as well, tends to come at things from a conservative Roman Catholic perspective.  First Things is hit or miss for me: some of the long essays are just first-rate, while others are either over my head or boring.
  • The Atlantic, a magazine that I’ve been reading since I was in middle school and that used to be much better than it is.  (I guess I subscribe out of loyalty.)  In the 90s and early 2000s when Cullen Murphy and then Michael Kelly (who was killed in Iraq in 2003) were editors and William Langesweiche and James Fallows were writing frequent longform pieces for the magazine and Benjamin Schwartz (especially Benjamin Schwartz!) was editing the Books section, The Atlantic was one of my favorite magazines.  I’d receive a copy in the mail and read the whole thing, almost in one sitting.  In recent years, though, The Atlantic (founded in 1857!)  has seemed to me to foolishly chasing “relevance” and adopting the perspective of the sort of 25 year-old secular graduate student in the humanities who gets his wisdom from The Daily Show.  (This is not a perspective I share, if you couldn’t figure that out.)  Although The Atlantic published some great longform pieces from time to time, I get each new copy of the magazine out of the mailbox with much less enthusiasm than I did 20 years ago.
  • Outsidea glossy adventure magazine.  I wish Outside devoted more space to book reviews, as I’ve ready some really excellent novels the past couple of years that I first read about in Outside, e.g., The Dog Stars and The Abominable.
  • Texas Monthly, which has enough ads to fill JerryWorld™, but also includes in each issue something I find worth reading about my adopted home state.
  • Plougha small Christian journal that, while ecumenical, draws on the Anabaptist tradition.
  • Books and Culturea newspaperish magazine that covers, from an evangelical perspective, exactly what the title suggests.  Like First ThingsBooks and Culture is hit or miss for me, but I recently resubscribed because I really believe in its mission.
  • The American Conservative, a magazine that I discovered from reading Rod Dreher’s blog.  I don’t know of any other place online or in print that is similar to TAC: small c conservative, isolationist, contrarian, and realist.  (I was pleased when Benjamin Schwartz, whose work at The Atlantic I referenced above, joined TAC last year as national editor.)  For a good example of the kind of stuff TAC covers that no one else does, see this piece from April on suburban sprawl and walkable cities called “Cities for People–or Cars?”.

The Dallas Public Library

Where would I be without a good public library?  Well, I’d have a lot more shelf space, that’s for sure.  Here is my current library shelf in my home office:

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Don’t be impressed–I have a habit of hearing about a book, placing it on hold at the library, and then stockpiling a bunch of great books I haven’t yet and probably won’t ever read.

And Most Importantly, Real Books!

I love reading, and I love reading physical books.  I have aKindle and I use the Kindle app for iPhone; I like the way I can quickly annotate an ebook.  But, despite the convenience of the ebook, I still think the regular old book is a pretty great form of technology, and reading a good book can quiet my mind better than just about anything else.

I read books on theology and leadership for my job, but what I really like reading are books on history and especially long novels.  I try to vary up the books I read: something on one topic, and then something completely different.  (As an example of something really different, I read a very long novel this summer, completely unlike anything else I’ve read in years: Kristin Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset’s 1100 page masterpiece about a woman living in 14th century Norway, and one of the best books I’ve ever read.)

In Conclusion: I Need to Make Some Changes

As I’ve been thinking about my media diet these past few weeks, I’ve once again been confronted with the fact that I fritter away too much of my time on unimportant online content that cuts into my time and ability to read books that matter.

My goal is to read 40 books this year, which would be more than I’ve managed in the previous 2 years.  My current total: 29.

Maybe I need to stop watching so much Arrested Development.

 

 

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My Daily Media Diet

What are the books, podcasts, websites, blogs, and newsletters that make up your media diet?  You are what you eat, and that includes the information you consume.  Today’s post is about what I read daily as part of my media diet (part 1 of a 3 part series).

What Is a “Media Diet?”

“Media diet” is a phrase I came across several years ago in a web series by The Atlantic.  A reporter would interview public figures about how they stayed informed and what they regularly read and watched and make a simple post out of it.  (I still remember Malcolm Gladwell‘s comment about his daily reading habits: “Since my brain really only works in the morning, I try to keep that time free for writing and thinking and don’t read any media at all until lunchtime.”  I totally identify….)

In part 1 of this series (parts 2 and 3 coming on the next two Mondays) about my media diet, I’ll focus on what I read daily (or at least regularly).

What I Do First Thing in the Morning

I’ve written before about the importance of the First 15, i,e., spending at least the first 15 minutes of your day in prayer, scripture, and silence.  So, I’ve been getting up really early recently in order to have an unhurried time of prayer first thing, before I workout.

Currently this is what I use in my prayer time:

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Breakfast: The Dallas Morning News and NPR

After working out and while eating breakfast and getting ready:

  • I get the print version of The Dallas Morning News delivered at home, and read it every morning (except Sundays, when I don’t get to it until late afternoon, if at all).  I have come to really like The DMN and get more locally-focused and sports news from it than anywhere else.
  • I listen to NPR’s Morning Edition radio program most mornings.

Blogs: Rod Dreher (and Not Much Else)

I used to read Andrew Sullivan’s blog almost every day.  Now that he has stopped blogging, almost the only blogger I read regularly is Rod Dreher.  Rod Dreher is a fascinating and unique writer: a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy living in his native rural South Louisiana who writes about culture from a social conservative point of view.

One of the topics Rod Dreher writes about that I find most intriguing and persuasive is the so-called “Benedict Option”: the idea that Christians in the West today may need to follow the 5th century example of St. Benedict and spend less time participating in politics and the culture wars and more time deliberately cultivating the practices that will “thicken” our faith and deepen our witness.  Here is a post from Rod’s blog in July that summarizes his thoughts on the Benedict Option.

Websites I Read Almost Daily

  • I read The New Yorker almost every day.  I like the short form pieces from folks like John Cassidy and Amy Davidson, but I really prefer The New Yorker for its long-form essays like this one about Northern Ireland that I wrote about in April.
  • I also browse The Atlantic‘s website regularly, though I believe that The Atlantic is a much worse magazine since it expanded its online footprint.  Many of the online articles seem to be merely a slightly (sometimes very slightly) more serious version of the kind of thing that I suppose you find on Buzzfeed or The Huffington Post, and I do not mean that as a compliment.  The Atlantic these days seems to feature quick-reaction pieces on hot-button topics that lack nuance and wisdom.  (I’ll say more about my complaints with The Atlantic in part 3 of this series.)
  • I browse the Yahoo! main site and scroll through the headlines, particularly about sports and politics.
  • I check out the BBC Sport’s soccer page almost daily.

Online Newsletters and Other Sites

  • I read movie reviews on Plugged In every few weeks or so.  I’m interested in movies, but I like reading reviews from a conservative Christian perspective (a perspective you don’t get from mainstream reviewers).  I rarely have time to see movies in the theater anymore, so I find myself reading many more reviews of movies than actually seeing movies.
  • I’ve recently discovered Book Notesa free newsletter from Byron Borger, owner of Hearts and Minds bookstore in central Pennsylvania.  Through Book Notes, I’ve stumbled across books that I would never have heard of elsewhere–it’s a great resources.
  • I read articles and watch videos the videos on the CrossFit main site several times a week.

Coming in Parts 2 and 3….

Parts 2 and 3 will be about what I regularly listen to and watch and read in print.  The above is what I read online on a  regular basis.  What about you?  What makes up your daily media diet?

 

 

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The Real Root of Our Dissatisfaction

“It’s no wonder we often find ourselves looking for satisfaction in all the wrong ways.  You and I are deluged from every side by advertising designed to foster dissatisfaction with our current lives.  From what I’ve seen on television, my life would be much more satisfying if I were to eat Special K for breakfast, buy my car insurance form GEICO, and wear a Breitling watch.  No one is impervious to advertising’s influence….

The real root of our dissatisfaction goes deeper than our response to the blitz of media advertising.  It resides somewhere deep in our souls and traces its origins all the way back to Eden.  The serpent’s question to Eve strikes home in all of our hearts: ‘Did God really say, “You must not eat from any tree in the garden”?’

Before this, Eve had delighted in God’s provision, but now she wants more.  She decides that the only fruit that will satisfy her hangs from the branches of the one tree God forbade her to eat from.  But upon partaking of the fruit, she finds–as we all have–that living outside of God’s boundaries and provision leads to fatal dissatisfaction.  Once humanity crossed the threshold into a broken relationship with God, we’ve been dissatisfied ever since.”

from Simplify: Ten Practices to Unclutter Your Soul, by Bill Hybels (pp. 256-257)