Category Archives: Nonfiction

Reading Upward–for Pleasure

Imagine this scenario: someone writes a book called Why Don’t People Read Anymore?

That was supposed to be a joke. 

Actually, NPR published an April Fools’ Day article called “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?” earlier this year. Many people didn’t actually click on the article, instead posting angry comments below it–“I do too read!”–before NPR revealed the prank. The real question, as Jay Hathaway later observed, isn’t why we don’t read. It’s why we comment when we’ve only read a headline.

It was a walk through a bookstore earlier today that got me into this train of thought. There were lots of books on reading–how to read literature like a professor, etc. The bad thing is that I’ve known professors who probably never read anything worthwhile. If you have to read like a professor, don’t read like those professors.

Alan Jacobs, a professor at Wheaton College, doesn’t think you should read like a professor, either. In fact, he says, he began to lose his ability to read for pleasure because he was so used to scanning what he read for important information. His book is The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. It is a mostly pleasurable read, fortunately.

Jacobs takes on people who argue that you should read what is “good for you.” That, he says, is precisely what you should not do. If you only read what’s good for you, regardless of whether it interests you and even whether you can understand it, then you’ll lose the ability to read for pleasure. (You also may not understand what the book in question is talking about. In sum–you’re wasting your time.)

Yet Jacobs also suggests reading upward. What he means by that is, if you like The Lord of the Rings, try reading Beowulf. Don’t read downward, to cheap fantasies that have none of Tolkien’s power. Read for pleasure! Poorly written stuff simply isn’t as rewarding. And if you like Jane Austen, read other novelists of her era. Don’t read downward to all the Jane Austen “sequels.” They aren’t nearly as pleasurable as Austen. If you turn to them out of a love for Austen, you’re cheating yourself.

Above all, enjoy your reading time. Jacobs apparently considers lying about what you have read a lesser evil than never reading anything for pleasure. Personally, I’d rather know someone who forced themself through Plato’s Republic to no benefit than someone who would prefers seeming intelligent to being honest. A comment like that makes me wonder whether Jacobs has ever known a pathological liar. Short version–it makes you hate lying.

So read upward–for pleasure. And if admitting that you read for pleasure embarrasses you in front of your friends, ditch the friends.


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Posted by on August 29, 2014 in Nonfiction


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Travel-Writing, Chestertonian Style

I’ve never been much for travel reading–nonfiction travel reading, that is. (The travels of fictional characters are another matter.) Even this year, when I read two travel memoirs, my motives weren’t exactly pure. Winter Notes on Summer Impressions was written by Fyodor Dostoevsky. What I Saw in America was written by G.K. Chesterton. Yes. Clearly I read these books because of their intrinsic excellence and not because they are by two of my favorite authors.

Accurate travel writing is apparently difficult. Chesterton’s book was good overall, but little governmental tidbits that an Englishman wouldn’t know weakened some of his points. (For instance, in his treatment of the Civil War, he neglects to deal with the legal aspects of secession–which both sides would probably agree are more important than whether the South was a second Ireland.) Dostoevsky’s book told far more about his mindset than it did about the countries he visited. Chesterton could be accused of the same crime, but as his mindset was much more positive (as usual), he remained mostly accurate.

Dostoevsky: Catholics do lots of manipulative missionary work. Anglicans are pompous and won’t do anything at all. Englishmen are stuck up, in general: the French are irrational hypocrites. (Basically, if it’s not Russian, it stinks.)

On the bright side, some critics think that Winter Notes eventually morphed into Notes from Underground–another of Dostoevsky’s very happy books. (Actually, I thought the first half was darkly funny, but I have since been condemned for heartlessness. At any rate, Notes does not end very happily.)

Chesterton was much more generous. Americans don’t mean to be annoying; it’s just that their national spirit is on a permanent high. The English, apparently, have mood swings, and woe betide the American who shows up during one. Also, saying “It’s up to you” brands you as an American right away–or, at least, it did back in 1922. As does exaggerating.

One of the things I found most interesting was Chesterton’s attitude toward the presidency. This was Warren G. Harding’s era, in which the best thing about the president was his middle name. (Gamaliel, in case you’re wondering.) Yet Chesterton considered the American president to have the power of a medieval monarch. Medieval monarchs might have their powers somewhat curtailed, but nowhere near as curtailed as the power of the “king” of England in 1922–let alone today. Chesterton seemed to have little concern about the “imperial” behavior of the president. Most Americans would have an entirely different reaction to that sort of charge.

The real reason to read this book? Chesterton’s writing is punctuated with his characteristic flashes of  insight. “Generally speaking,” he wrote, “men are never so mean and false and hypocritical as when they are occupied in being impartial. They are performing the first and most typical of all the actions of the devil; they are claiming the throne of God.”

This, before the postmodernists deconstructed supposed modernist objectivity. Take that, Jaques Derrida. Chesterton wins.

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Posted by on July 31, 2014 in Nonfiction


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Actors, Artists, and A.W. Tozer

C.S. Lewis wrote, while introducing a new translation of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, that people ought to read two old books for every new book they pick up. People’s worldviews change. Not their opinions; their entire way of understanding reality. To paraphrase Lewis, there are places where Barack Obama and George W. Bush are in shockingly close agreement—shocking, that is, to Socrates. We wouldn’t notice very easily, because we share their basic assumptions.

We share many things in common with people who lived fifty or sixty years ago. Certainly there isn’t a gap of the sort that would occur between Obama and Socrates. But there are still some things that we find very difficult to understand. Those were my thoughts while reading A.W. Tozer’s essay, “The Menace of the Religious Movie.”

I’m not a movie fan. My go-to source of relaxation is books, not movies. (A secret vice: when I’m tired, I have a habit of going to poorly written children’s books to let my mind vegetate. I suppose it’s my version of junk television.) I have read and admired Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death, and I agree with Marshall McLuhan that “the medium is the message.” Film has its problems. Emotional manipulation is a major one—and that isn’t even to bring up the damage that some movies have done in religious contexts. Like Postman, I do not believe that any medium is neutral. Tozer, on the other hand, did believe that film was a neutral medium—which makes his attitude toward movies seem even stranger.

Tozer was opposed to religious movies. All religious movies. He quipped that they were making poor attempts to do what what Hollywood could do better—a fair claim, especially at that time. But evidently he considered all Hollywood movies off bounds for Christians as well. A professor of mine told our class that when he was growing up out West, all evangelicals frowned on going to movie theaters. Not fundamentalists—mainstream evangelicals. I guess some of Tozer’s attitudes reflect his time.

Others seem strange, even for the mid-1900s. Tozer opposed acting, period. Pointing out that our word “hypocrisy” comes from the Greek word for “actor,” he argued that all acting is hypocritical. I had thought that attitude had died with the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Apparently not.

Some of Tozer’s concerns, however, are legitimate—even if I do not agree with all of his reasoning. He worried that people were paying more attention to natural gifts than spiritual gifts, treating Christian actors as superior to Christian teachers, pastors, and evangelists. Given our media-obsessed culture, that remains a danger. Or, worse—those teachers, pastors, and evangelists may try to reinvent themselves as media personalities. As Neil Postman worried, the end result of that will be a nation that takes Christianity less seriously. If a pastor is as good as a movie star, he probably won’t be any better.

But, coming more from the perspective of a writer than of a theologian, I worry as much for the Christian actor in that situation as I would for the pastor. Artists of any medium—film, visual arts, the written word—are vulnerable to forces that the church leaders may not understand. Artists do need to be respected, to have their natural talents affirmed within the context of the church. The church, however, must be careful. I recall reading of a church that had a writer-in-residence. That situation—giving someone a prominent church office based on his or her natural talents—made me uneasy. True, churches have secretaries, musicians, and janitors. Those positions are necessary for the church to function. Is a writer-in-residence? And if he or she is, then shouldn’t he be treated as an equal counterpart to the secretaries, musicians, and janitors?

Celebrity is dangerous. Those in holy orders—pastors, deacons, etc.—have higher positions than others in the church, and Scripture itself recognizes that they are extremely vulnerable. That was long before the TV preachers that so concerned Neil Postman, let alone Internet-based megachurches. People in high positions need to be careful. So does anyone, whether an artist or not, whose calling puts him in the public eye. Churches need to reach out to artists, as they need to reach out to everyone. Artists should feel that the church welcomes their gifts. But Christians should be able to conduct outreach without treating artists as a special, “higher” class. As pastors know very well, “higher” can mean “endangered.”

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Posted by on July 23, 2014 in Nonfiction


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How (Not to) Kill Your Imagination

I can be rather vindictive in my entertainment. Like the time I read one of Richard Weaver’s anti-Dewey screeds during off-time in my educational practicum. Sitting in that huge public school, with all the echoing tiles around me, I found it rather delicious to enjoy Weaver’s taking the entire system apart. His comments, at this point, apply to private schools as well as public, universities as well as grade schools. Three years of constructivism had worn me down, and I had begun to decide that I had no interest in teaching high school, unless I found my way to a classical high school somehow. Weaver had a lot of thoughtful criticisms, and to me–bored and tired of being force-fed popular educational theory–they were a relief. I wasn’t crazy.

But Weaver’s criticisms were written a long time ago. Things have gotten worse since then. Not simply test scores, either. The atmosphere in schools has changed. They are now Big.

Anthony Esolen’s recent book, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, is a delightful attack on how modern children are being raised. Satirically, he pretends that he actually wants to destroy the imagination of children. Of course, we can easily tell that he doesn’t. But the slight satire allows him to turn what might have been another dull book about how The Sky Is Falling into a delightful romp through basically everything.

Esolen hits on some of the points we expect from conservative cultural critics. There are places I disagree with him, or think that he doesn’t offer enough explanation. For instance, he warns against denigration of heroes, including the American military–a rather damning indictment of the modern anti-war movement. The indictment is deverved, I believe, but it doesn’t address the conservative anti-war movement, which can be quite enthusiastic about heroes and unenthusiastic about foreign wars. Because of the book’s focus, he also doesn’t offer solutions to some of the problems he unveils. So librarians are turning into philistines. But why? How can we fix the problem? And kids are stuck on the Internet. But the Internet isn’t going away. How can we use it without–as Esolen puts it–destroying children’s imaginations?

But these problems are fairly minor compared with the overall value of the book. Esolen isn’t so much trying so offer a set of solutions as he is trying to set a fire. And in that, he succeeds. His book encourages parents and educators to let children explore, to protect their sense of wonder, to let them dream, to leave them alone, to give them the gift of silence. After reading, I want to go and do some of those things myself. And I’ve been looking at the night sky with a little more pleasure and a lot more understanding. (His praise of some folk music also motivated me to get my guitar out again. I got a little excited playing “The Easter Rebellion” and ended up sporting a huge blister on my thumb.)

Yes, Esolen’s book definitely could set a person ablaze. And it proves what C.S. Lewis said–that people who often stare into the night sky or frequently meditate on the distant past are less likely than others to be “ardent or orthodox partisans.” Mainstream conservatives have praised Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, but without Esolen’s knowledge of the humanities, I wonder how much they understand it. Esolen, meanwhile, sees deeper than than most of them. Some of my favorites among his observations:

  • Structure is the key to imagination. Modern educators argue that students shouldn’t be so focused on learning facts that they lose the ability to be creative. What they don’t talk much about is that you can’t be very creative without any facts in your head.
  • Memorization can lead to creativity. Yes, we can Google things now. But you can’t Google something if you don’t know what it is. And what you memorize shapes your imagination, allowing you to synthesize unrelated things. Google can’t do that, either.
  • Bigness kills the imagination. Large schools are among the culprits. You become narrower, not broader, in your understanding of humanity when the only students you get to know well are your close friends. Being around a lot of students doesn’t amount to socialization.

I could go on. Esolen’s book is worth it. But supper is waiting. And food, of the non-packaged variety, is another way to stimulate your imagination. Who knew?


Posted by on November 12, 2013 in Nonfiction


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When Book Trails Lead to Chesterton

Book trails can be interesting. Toward the end of the summer, I semi-innocently read the His Dark Materials series—to see what all the fuss had been about. Well, I found out what the fuss had been about. The series drove me nuts. But it also made me curious about Philip Pullman’s background. So I did a little research.

Gilbert_ChestertonWhich led me to more Pullman. Which led me to William Blake. Which led me to G.K. Chesterton. Whom Pullman doesn’t like.

I had read some of Blake’s poetry before, mostly some of his Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. His Marriage of Heaven and Hell was a pretty different experience. That is where Blake makes the claim that John Milton turned the Devil into the hero of Paradise Lost. I’m still not sure how seriously to take that claim, since Blake wrote his work as a satire of the Swedenborgians—one of those slightly odd nineteenth-century sects that have been mostly forgotten, and for good reason.

So, at a friend’s suggestion, I turned to Chesterton for enlightenment. Chesterton’s biography of Blake doesn’t put any intense focus on Blake’s literary works, but it does offer a critique of his personality and thought. As a poet himself, Chesterton greatly admired Blake while strongly opposing some of his beliefs.

Chesterton’s biographies are not biographies in the traditional sense. (Chesterton—traditionalist though he was—did very little in the “traditional sense.”) The biography is less about the events Blake’s life than it is about an effort to understand him. But understanding him was what I wanted to do anyway.

Chesterton left me with a lot of thoughts about William Blake. But—in typical Chestertonian fashion—he left me with more thoughts about life. About education, even.

“People say that specialists are inhuman,” wrote Chesterton, “but that is unjust…. The trouble with the expert is never that he is not a man; it is always that wherever he is not an expert he is too much of an ordinary man.” Supporters of a liberal arts education, please stand up.

You know the stereotypes…the university professor who knows everything to know about his subject but doesn’t care two bits for his students. The medical student whose rudeness grows in proportion to his knowledge. The increasingly ruthless businessman. Chesterton says that the stereotypes are all bunk. The real problem isn’t intelligent people who turn into machines. The problem is intelligent people whose learning makes them so narrow that they can’t function outside of their specialty.

A professor of mine sometimes told a story about a stellar English student in Britain. She went to Oxford, if I recall correctly, and a group of visiting American students invited her to a meal because they had heard about her and thought she would be interesting to talk to.

She wasn’t. And not because she was rude or socially awkward. She simply didn’t know how to participate in the conversation. The Americans might not have her raw intelligence, but they had enough general knowledge to talk about a wide range of subjects. She could talk intelligently about English and very little else. So she sat through the evening in near-silence, the product of an overly specialized education.

“Wherever [the specialist] is not exceptionally learned,” Chesterton argues, “he is quite casually ignorant.” Chesterton mainly applied his contention to scientists, but, as my professor’s story shows, the problem is not confined to scientists. And I’m fairly sure it isn’t only confined to Europe. American support for the liberal arts is waning. We would do well to listen to Chesterton’s warnings:

In short, the danger of the mere technical artist or expert is that of becoming a snob or average silly man in all things not affecting his peculiar topic of study; wherever he is not an extraordinary man he is a particularly stupid ordinary man. The very fact that he has studied machine guns to fight the French proves that he has not studied the French. Therefore he will probably say that they eat frogs. The very fact that he has learnt to paint the light on medieval armour proves that he has not studied the medieval philosophy. Therefore he will probably suppose that medieval barons did nothing but order vassals into the dungeons beneath the castle moat….People talk about something pedantic in the knowledge of the expert; but what ruins mankind is the ignorance of the expert.

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Posted by on October 22, 2013 in Nonfiction, poetry


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A Summer of Books

Someone asked me a few weeks ago if I would be reading much this summer. I was stunned at first. Finally I managed, “That’s like asking me if I am going to breathe much this summer.” I think my initial shock is probably the sign of a severe book addiction. My family would certainly agree.

My room is dominated by bookshelves. Four of them. There’s the little one that I’ve had since I was in "Bookshelf," Tom Rustebergelementary school, the heavy one with glass doors, and the two matching shelves that are six or seven feet high. There are also books on my chair, books on the floor, and books on the night table.

As of right now, I’m in the middle of It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God. It’s a fabulous book if you’re a Christian who is at all interested in the arts. It covers the biblical philosophy behind art, as well as an interview and chapters written by Christian artists. Also, it has pictures. (That is, color photographs, of artwork, in this case—unusual to find in a paperback book, especially one meant for adults.)

The book includes chapters that deal with theatre, music, and writing, but its focus is largely on the visual arts. I’m no artist, of course. Thankfully the book uses very little technical jargon. The book builds on some of the concepts outlined by Gene Edward Veith in his book State of the Arts.

As for the rest of the summer? A friend took it upon herself to get me addicted to the Les Misérables musical, so I’m hoping to read the book this summer. I need to finish The Iliad, which classes forced me to abandon. And I want to get into Dostoevsky.

Most likely, however, those books will get read very slowly. Having four bookshelves in your bedroom is wonderful. And their contents are a horrible distraction.


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Introverted Christians…an Oxymoron? (Pt. 2)

Roommates are interesting, and an extreme extrovert rooming with an extreme introvert can be even more interesting, particularly when the extrovert is a relatively new Christian in a leadership position who wants to see lots of rapid spiritual growth. That happened my sophomore year of college. There’s nothing quite like being told (among other things) that not having meals with more than ten people weekly means you are limiting your ministry opportunities. But it can indeed be frustrating for an introvert to sit down and compare the number of people he or she knows to the extensive social networks of many extroverts. It isn’t that close friendships aren’t more rewarding. I tried to expand my friendship network at school in response to my roommate’s urging, and I ended up feeling stretched and ineffective. Still, there’s something magnetic about the idea of moving about in an ever-expanding circle of friends. Maybe it’s caused by the American ideal of perpetual growth, and maybe not. Anyway, introverts are left with an awkward situation—to choose between having their preferred few friends (and feeling ineffective because of cultural pressures) or forcibly developing a large circle of friends (and feeling ineffective because of their introversion).

In Introverts in the Church, Adam McHugh describes how American churches can be unfriendly places for introverts. Often they tend to couple unceasing activities with an overemphasis on extroverted evangelism methods. A person’s spirituality, or at least their personal maturity, may be judged by how forthright they are in discussing their feelings about God, or even by the size of their social circle. (I was once passed up for a leadership role at my Christian college solely because of my introversion. Oddly, the role was such that it focused mainly on one-on-one relationships, in which introverts are more likely to excel.)

Under the pressure of my roommate, I tried to behave in a more extroverted way, and did, but only for a time. The next year, she (in typical extroverted fashion) had moved on to form newer friendships, and I (in typical introverted fashion) mostly reverted to my old patterns of behavior, trying to deepen the friendships I already had. For people with strong tendencies in either direction, attempting to act as if we had a different personality is not an effective long-term solution.

But what should you do if you are an introvert who realizes that the American ideal of a “model Christian” will never fit? First, focus on your strengths. Face it—your social network will not be as broad as that of an extroverted Christian. Use that. Cultivate depth in your relationships. That saying—“To the world you may be just one person, but to one person you may be the world”—is particularly relevant for introverts.

Second, develop a servanthood mindset. You can become a good leader, but you will never be a charismatic leader. Nor should you try to be. Lead by serving, whether that puts you in the pulpit or in the church kitchen. Reach out with a purpose—focus on meeting the needs of others, not on merely being known by others. Anonymous service is still service.

Third, learn to listen. This isn’t an easy skill for anyone to learn (I have to be careful not to let my inner dialogue block out what other people are saying), but many introverts develop it into one of their greatest strengths. Don’t interrupt other people because you feel the need to “counsel” them. Encourage them to talk. Listen. Ask relevant questions. Your advice will be more on target if you get the whole picture first. And also realize that sometimes other people will feel you have ministered to them even if you offer no advice at all. Sometimes people just need to talk. Let them.

Finally, evaluate your attitudes toward evangelism. Do you tend to consider only extroverted methods “real” evangelism? Don’t. Paul had no tracts. And what he did excel at—synagogue debates—may be an unrealistic model for many introverts. We think deeply, but we don’t do it on our feet. And that’s all right. Remember Timothy, Paul’s introverted ministry partner and “son in the faith.” Paul was certainly the more visible witness, but nowhere does the Bible record Paul telling Timothy that if he really cared about souls, he would spend more of his time arguing with Jewish rabbis. Acts 17 records how Paul’s very visibility shortened his ministry in Thessalonica. When the Jews stirred up the people, Paul was forced to leave, while quiet Timothy remained behind with Silas to continue Paul’s ministry. In the Body of Christ, both extroverts and introverts have a place. Later Paul would remind Timothy to boldly exercise his spiritual gifts, but the Bible doesn’t record Paul trying to change Timothy’s personality.

How should an introvert approach evangelism? McHugh offers some good suggestions. Focus on people you already know. Don’t try to be the all-knowing Christian; approach people as another person who is also struggling to understand spiritual things. Humility, and a willingness to ask questions, can reach places that the greatest interpersonal skills cannot.  If you aren’t sure how to respond to someone else’s legitimate questions about God, ask if you can get back to them about it. Be careful about the environments where you witness—never debate just to debate. Rather, try to launch discussions. Encourage people to ask the important questions. And don’t be afraid to partner with extroverts who may be more effective in initiating encounters with others. In the Body of Christ, we not only compliment one another’s strengths, we also cover for one another’s weaknesses.

The refreshing truth is that there is no such thing as a “model Christian.” And Christ—our true model—is a God who delights in diversity. That includes diversity of languages, of class backgrounds, of cultures, of genders, and also of temperaments. We can all improve, becoming more like Christ. But we won’t all look the same. Our very existence as humans places limits on what we can do or become. And–in contrast to American ideals of limitless growth–our very limitations glorify God. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.


Posted by on November 29, 2012 in Nonfiction


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