Brangelina

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are getting divorced.  Though I don’t know them, I’m grieved at the news: divorce is always painful, and the thought of their 6 children having to grow up without a mom and a dad in the same house makes me sad.  This news of yet another failed celebrity marriage has got me thinking.

 

Our Deepest Problems Are Spiritual Problems

Our deepest problems are spiritual problems.  If this were not the case, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie would not be getting divorced.  If our deepest problems were merely material problems, then money would solve our problems.  If money could solve our problems, then rich people would never get divorced.

Our culture is obsessed with material reality.  We’ve bought into the self-evident lie that the only reality that matters is that which we can see, taste, touch, and measure.  But, this belief is self-evidently false, because material solutions don’t actually fix our deepest problems.  Spiritual reality matters.  Our deepest problems are spiritual problems, and so they can’t be solved with material solutions.  Spiritual reality is just as real as material reality, but because we can’t see, taste, touch, and measure spiritual reality, our culture pretends it’s not real.

Unfortunately, the effects of spiritual brokenness are quite real, and these effects are all around us:

  • War is a result of spiritual brokenness;
  • Divorce is a result of spiritual brokenness;
  • Racism is a result of spiritual brokenness, etc.

Yes, these problems have material results, but the roots of these problems are spiritual.

Again, if our deepest problems were merely material in nature, then we could buy solutions to our problems.  This is the false god of wealth.  If our deepest problems were merely material, we could solve our deepest problems through technological invention.  This is the false god of progress.

If our deepest problems were merely material, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie wouldn’t be getting divorced.

 

What about you?  What is the spiritual brokenness in your heart producing in your life?

Anxiety?

Adultery?

Anger?

These come from our hearts, and their effects can be seen in the material world.  But, they can’t be fixed with material solutions.

This is the human predicament: our problems all have spiritual roots, and we can’t fix ourselves.

But…

This is the gospel: the God who is Spirit entered into material reality and fixed our Problem himself.

 

Do you understand?

 

 

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Social Media: Soda, Wine, Oxycodone, or Heroin?

The following is a guest post (my first ever) from my friend and fellow Mungarian Mike Pratt.  Mike and I have been having a friendly argument about social media: is it mainly helpful, harmful, or neutral?  I’m increasingly of the opinion that it does more harm than good, but Mike doesn’t agree.  Here’s what Mike thinks.

 

Andrew asked me to write a guest post on this blog in response to my taking issue with his argument. It’s not that I think his points in his first post and subsequent follow-up post are entirely wrong, but I’ll argue they have omissions and thus fail to convince. I will counter his argument and offer an alternative framework for viewing this thing called social media.

Before I start I’d like to make one side point: I also think Andrew’s statement:

“What has your attention is what has your worship.  What you think about in your free moments, the topics and places to which your thoughts tend to go, those are your gods.”

is gross generalization of the meaning. As Keller puts it

“What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give…”

To simply have your attention is not necessarily bad or false worship. When it has all of your attention, in place of other, more important things (first and foremost, God) then it becomes an idol of worship. Thoughts can go to many things and not render those things worship. Thank God or my daydreaming is convicted!

Now to the Main Topic

This analogy is by no means perfect but I think it’s a decent framework to look at the issue. As you read each blurb on these four substances, ponder in your mind which one you think is most analogous to social media.

Soda

With a few exceptions, soda is viewed as a relatively benign substance to be enjoyed. In small quantities, it’s clearly harmless and even for regular users, there have been few, if any, documented cases of extreme adverse health consequences. It is accepted that soda is not even remotely hazardous like any of the other 3 substances in this analogy.

Wine

Given the alcohol contained in wine, it’s a step up from soda in that it can be abused and in extreme use cases, is addictive and can have serious health consequences. The Bible celebrates wine in measured doses (wedding at Cana) and also condemns its abuse (drunkenness.) Many people drink wine. Many choose not to.

Oxycodone

This seriously addictive and controlled substance is a ruiner of lives when abused. It is also extremely beneficial in tightly controlled use cases (post surgical pain relief) It is highly controlled because it is so addictive as well as misused (leading to abuse).

Heroin

There are no beneficial uses. Highly addictive. Bad bad bad.

 

So what is Facebook, then?

One man’s opinion:

It’s not soda. I think, to Andrew’s point, there are many people who are hooked on the stuff. “Hooked” in this case being defined as “they use it so much that it takes away from the lives they normally led in a detrimental way or at the expense of basic things”

It’s not Oxy. That implies a very limited, positive use case like Oxy which is just not true. A significant number of social media users engage on their platform(s) of choice in positive and beneficial ways. The government does not (nor should) control use of the platforms to prevent a possible mass wave of harmful addiction because with free use, the facts are that only a minor set of users qualify as “harmfully addictive.”

It’s not Heroin. That presumes there are NO beneficial uses of social media and while many do think that, those folks probably think all soda is a mind-control beverage that Pepsi uses in cahoots with the government.

It’s wine. There are plenty of beneficial, everyday uses of Facebook. Can it get out of hand? Sure. Can you “drink too much”? Sure. Should some people give up drinking? Definitely. The key is to look at what you “drink” and why. Does it rule your life? Are you grumpy without a “drink” or do you love a “glass” with a good meal or when out with friends? Andrew posted a picture of everyone in line at an airport on their phones (presuming that it was a “wrong” state of the world) Replace everyone in that picture with a paperback (Google search images and you will find plenty pre-Facebook!) The devices were simply being used as boredom elimination devices. I don’t think that picture was indicative of the eroded state of the world.

A Word on Facebook’s (or Coke’s) Intentions

Coke wants you to buy Coke Zero. Coke Zero is not medically addictive. You may think Coke wants to “addict” you but it doesn’t matter. They can’t. They will do everything they can to get you to buy it. They should. That’s their business. Blaming Facebook for “not caring about the consequences” is like blaming <insert your favorite brewery or winery> for not caring about the consequences of having a glass. They inform you to drink responsibly and it can be argued that Facebook should not need to place a warning label that you might spend too much time in their web app.

So, I’ll leave you with sage advice: Don’t drink and post!

The above was a guest post by Mike Pratt.  (Click here to subscribe to regular updates from this blog.)  Mike is:
  • A Mungarian!  (Member of Munger Place Church.)
  • The CEO of technology startup Panamplify
  • Founder & President of professional org Digital Dallas
  • A former soldier, wall street trader, marketing exec and non-believer
  • Check out Mike on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mikepratt
  • Email Mike: mike@mikeratt.tv

The Limits of Tolerance

Is there a limit to tolerance?  A friend of mine put that question to me this afternoon, in response to last week’s post on tolerance.  My answer: No.  Here’s why.

 

The Roots of Tolerance

Tolerance is simply the social recognition of a fundamental truth: all people are completely free to choose to believe and do whatever they want to believe and do.  There are no exceptions to this principle.  This truth is not dependent on whether laws and governments recognize it; this truth is simply true.

Yes, governments and societies try to constrain the behavior of the people under their power, but they cannot actually remove free choice from their people–all they can do is make it more or less likely that people freely choose this or that action.

As I argued last week, tolerance has its roots in the character of God: God created us as free creatures and allows us to exercise that freedom, for good or ill.

I don’t think there is a limit to tolerance because I don’t think there is a time when God takes away our freedom to choose.

But Actions Have Consequences

We are all free to believe and do whatever we choose, but we are not free to choose the consequences of our actions.  Actions have consequences.  I’m free to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, but I cannot avoid the consequences of my freely chosen actions.  Actions have consequences.

Doesn’t God’s Tolerance Have a Limit?

In the Bible, we read how God eventually allowed the Israelites to be conquered by their pagan neighbors as a consequence of their continued disobedience.  I don’t think this is an example of the limits of God’s tolerance, however.  Rather, I think God’s tolerance never wavered: he always allowed the Israelites to freely choose to accept or reject him.  But, although God’s forbearance (a synonym of tolerance) never ran out, the Israelites’ actions eventually caught up with them.  Their actions led to the Exile.  Certain actions lead to certain consequences, the way day inexorably follows night.

What About Human Law?

As humans, we seek to constrain certain behaviors precisely because we know that people are always free to choose.  When we lock up the serial murderer, we are not suddenly denying his freedom to choose, but acknowledging it: we know that if we do not lock him up, he may very likely continue to freely choose murder.  Actions have consequences and human societies impose various consequences on various behaviors, but those consequences do not change the fundamental fact on which the principle of tolerance rests, namely that people are always free to choose.

Our True Limit

God’s tolerance does not have a limit, but our lives are limited: we are limited by the choices of our actions, and we are limited by our mortality.  None of us can choose to be exempt from the consequences of his choices, and none of us can choose to be exempt from death.

Sooner or later, all our actions catch up to us.

P.S.  Why Does This Matter?

Tolerance recognizes that it’s never too late for anyone–all people can choose to turn towards God or away from God up until their last breath.  (And maybe beyond their last breath–who knows?)  Because I can’t take away someone’s free will–even by force–it means that the pressure is off: I can’t force anyone to believe what I believe.  I can’t make anyone believe anything, but I can persuade her through my words and actions to freely choose the Truth I’ve chosen.

Which is a sacred privilege, when you think about it.

 

 

 

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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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Further Thoughts on Facebook

I wrote a post last week suggesting that, in its quest to capture our attention, it’s almost as if Facebook wants our worship.  I meant the post to be provocative, and at least for me, it was: the post has provoked some further thoughts, which I share below.

My Name is Andrew and I’m a User

I have a Facebook account and a Twitter account, I use YouTube, and I carry around an iPhone that enables me to be connected whenever I want.  It’s precisely because I’m a user that I’m concerned about what Cal Newport calls “Internet tools” (search engines, social media sites, online encyclopedias, etc.): I see their effects on my own life.   It is because I’ve seen what these tools are doing to me that I’m calling into question our naive and uncritical adoption of Internet tools.

Facebook Is Shorthand

For me, Facebook functions as shorthand for all the other Internet tools.  I don’t have anything against Facebook per se.

Social Media Is Different Than Television

One commenter wondered if I should have included television in my critique.  I don’t think television and Facebook are apples to apples, for several reasons:

  • Television goes in one direction only: I receive it.  Facebook, on the other hand, allows me to transmit messages to the world, and the very act of transmitting those messages in that medium promotes narcissism: it’s all about me.
  • Television isn’t one thing, but a grouping of many things: networks, advertisements, writers, actors, etc. Facebook is a for-profit monolith.  It’s ubiquity and power make it more dangerous than old media.

Social Media Promotes Narcissism

The very nature of the social media promotes narcissism, because they encourage me to make everything about me: my updates, my likes, my reactions.

Social Media Isolates

For all the talk about connectivity, I find that social media and the other Internet tools are more likely to isolate than connect us together.  The more time we spend looking down at our blinking smart phones, the less able we are to cultivate presence and mindfulness.

Social Media is the Enemy of Patience

Everything about Internet tools is about immediacy: immediate reactions, thoughts, and gratification of desires.  If I want something, I buy it on Amazon; if I have an opinion about a current event, I share it to the world.  This immediacy keeps us from developing the virtue of patience, and patience matters because the important things in life require that we wait.

Social Media Trains Me to Need Constant Stimulation

It is shameful how often I find myself in a line somewhere, only to pull out my iPhone.  The way Internet tools have trained us to need constant stimulation is what scares me the most about these tools.

Social Media is the Message

If the medium is the message, then it’s not the content of the various social media platforms that ought to worry us, but the very nature of these platforms themselves.  In other others, it could be the case that even if we eschew all the destructive and evil things on the Internet (pornography, terrorist death videos, etc.), these tools might still warp our minds and twist our wills.

At least, that’s what I’ve started to worry about.

 

 

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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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My Thoughts on “Spotlight”

I went to see the movie Spotlight on Friday afternoon.  Here are some quick thoughts.

Every now and then I’ll go to the movies by myself on Fridays.  I tend to do a lot of my sermon preparation on Fridays, and from time to time I’ll go to a movie for sermon research.  (I’m not kidding.)  I’m preaching on Judas this Sunday, and it struck me that the movie Spotlight might give me some insight into the idea of betrayal.

Spotlight, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture on Sunday, is about the investigative reporting the Boston Globe did in 2001 that blew the clergy sex abuse scandal wide open.  It is a serious, earnest movie that thankfully avoids the self-importance and self-regard in which these sorts of “Important” Hollywood films sometimes indulge.

At one point in the film, one of the reporters, for whom reporting on the story has been an emotional ordeal, shouts: “They knew and they let it happen…to kids.”  That line really struck me, and I just started crying quietly, in the dark.

How could you betray that trust?

But that’s the way it always is, isn’t it?  Spotlight does a good job of showing how the real scandal was not that hundreds of priests preyed on the vulnerable, but that thousands of people let it happen, covered it up.  As one of the characters says, “It takes a village to molest a child.”

The movie very clearly takes on the Roman Catholic Church, but I don’t think Spotlight is either anti-Christian or anti-clerical.  There was never a point while watching the movie that made me say, “I don’t think you are being fair.”  Rather, I found the film to be a spotlight on the inevitable tendency of the strong to hurt the weak, and the invariable human tendency to knuckle-under, close ranks, and deny ever seeing anything.

I can’t compare Spotlight to any of the other Best Picture nominees since I haven’t seen any of them, but it is exactly the sort of movie that is worthy of that designation: tautly constructed, about an important topic, and a moving story.

Recommended.

 

2 Brief Thoughts on Elections

Christians make two mistakes when it comes to elections.  Either we are triumphalist, thinking that because our candidate won, all will be well, or we are defeatist and despairing, thinking that because our candidate lost, all will be lost.  Both reactions are mistaken.

Elections Are Important

Don’t get me wrong–politics matters.  I voted yesterday, and I think it matters who is elected, from dog catcher to president, and I want our leaders to lead and our government to run well.  It matters whether the trains run on time and the roads are paved and the trash picked up.  But as important as all that is, politics is not ultimate, and political power is not most important.  There is something more important than politics, and therefore Christians shouldn’t make the mistake of believing that our hope depends on how the election returns come in.

But Political Power is Not *Most* Important

Faithfulness is more important than politics and election results.  David Watson is the Dean of United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, and he wrote a blog post yesterday about the temptation the church faces to value political power over faithfulness.  Professor Watson’s article is worth quoting from at length (though you should read the whole thing):

My fellow evangelicals, let me state this clearly: the “system” will never serve us, because the “system” is not of Christ. The “system” is a political machine beholden to special interests, lobbying groups, large corporations, financial contributors, and other entities, many of which are not the least bit concerned with anything remotely resembling Christian values. The idea that you can tear down the “system” and reshape it to serve you is, and always has been, a lie. It has been a lie since the time of Constantine. The “system” is about power, but Christ’s power is the power of the cross, and God’s power is made perfect in weakness. Christians must always stand outside the “system,” even when it is ostensibly Christian. As Christ taught us, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24). Christians willing to compromise core tenets of the faith in order to bend the political process to their will may win in the short term, but it will be a pyrrhic victory. In the end, they will lose far more than they gain. “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Mark 8:36). It’s not worth it. It’s not even close….

His ending makes our choice clear:

Who will we follow? Will we follow Christ and rightly understand ourselves as a countercultural family of faith, or will we baptize an idol of crass materialism, place a crown on its head, and call it Jesus?

Good stuff.

 

 

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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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Everybody Wants To Be The Same

Everybody wants things to be different, but nobody wants to be different.  It is the different people, though, who make the biggest difference. The people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon were always different, which is why they made the difference they did.

Le Chambon Was Different

Le Chambon is a small town in southwestern France, and for centuries it had been the home for a population of French Protestants called Huguenots.  The Huguenots had been influenced by John Calvin and had been persecuted by the Roman Catholic French state during the wars of religion.  The Huguenots, therefore, knew what it meant to be different and knew what it meant to suffer.

André Trocmé, wife Magda, and their children [https://extravagantcreation.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/pastor-andre-trocme-wife-magda-and-children63.jpg]

André Trocmé, wife Magda, and their children [https://goo.gl/8vfEGN]

André Trocmé and the Jews

When World War II began, Pastor André Trocmé led the people of Le Chambon in welcoming and sheltering refugees and fugitives, many of them Jews.  The people of the town refused to declare allegiance to the collaborationist government in Vichy and devised ingenious ways to disguise the Jewish population around them.

In August of 1942, the police came to the town and demanded that Le Chambon give up the Jews they were hiding.  On August 30, André Trocmé ascended the steps of the pulpit in his packed church.

The church in Le Chambon [http://goo.gl/bnFsv6]

The church in Le Chambon [http://goo.gl/bnFsv6]

The pastor told the people to “do the will of God, not of men.”  The authorities left the town without making any arrests.

In 1943, however, Pastor Trocmé was arrested and detained for 5 weeks, and after his release he had to go into hiding until the end of the war.  His wife Magda carried on his work and provided leadership to the effort to shelter and save Jewish refugees.

Approximately 5,000 Jewish refugees were sheltered in Le Chambon (a town of only 5,000 people) over the course of the war; not a single Jew was given over to the Nazis.

There is a memorial to André and Magda Trocmé at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Yad Vashem [http://goo.gl/sr6tkR]

Yad Vashem [http://goo.gl/sr6tkR]

If You’re Not Different, You’re Not Any Good

Nobody wants to be different, which is why the world is the way it is: everybody is just like everybody else.

It’s like salt.  Salt is meant to flavor and preserve, but if salt loses its saltiness, it’s good for nothing but to be trampled underfoot.

The people of Le Chambon were different, and so they made a difference.

 

In memory of the people of Le Chambon, the salt of the earth and “righteous among the nations.”

 

 

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