Words are brutes
Crushing all that is
Words are brutes
Crushing all that is
Sixty feet high and gold with Autumn,
tremble loosened leaves
shower down and gild black-top.
Flannery O’Connor’s personal prayer journal was published in 2013. I do tend to feel uncomfortable with the exposure of personal writings but then I also feel ravenous for new words from favorite authors, so I nearly always read them.
A Prayer Journal is a prolonged plea for closeness to God, humble acceptance of her gifts (even if they must be mediocre), and for the literary excellence O’Connor craves. She is impatient with her own weakness and wary of pretense and ego. Often her prayers simply ask for the ability to want what she knows she should but the overriding theme is the twin desires to become both a saint and a genius.
It is a devotional work and the wrenching honesty and grief in it are steep and nearly tragic.
The books two weaknesses are it’s brevity and it’s clearly private nature. Her creative spelling and casual punctuation could be a distraction but only if you lose sight of the intelligence and clarity of her thought.
A few compelling quotations:
“Dear God, I don’t want to have invented my faith to satisfy my weakness. I don’t want to have created God to my own image as they’re so fond of saying. Please give me the necessary grace, oh Lord, and please don’t let it be as hard to get as Kafka made it.”
“no one can be an atheist who does not know all things. Only God is an atheist. The devil is the greatest believer and he has his reasons.”
“When something is finished, it cannot be possessed. Nothing can be possessed but the struggle.”
“Virtue must be the only vigorous thing in our lives. Sin is large and stale. You can never finish easting it nor ever digest it. It has to be vomited.”
Every year since 2006 I have kept a list of the books I read each year. An interview I did in 2006, in which I claimed to read over 100 books a year (much to my interviewer’s disbelief), prompted me to start keeping track. In 2008 I engaged in a 200 book challenge (and read 201 books), but otherwise I have merely kept track of my “natural” reading progress. I write titles and authors into a journal in the order I read them and “star” new-to-me books (ratings are out of a possible five). Books without stars are re-reads and obviously rate high if I am returning to them. Amazon Affiliate Links for recommended books.
The List of 2016 (with notes):
Furies of Calderon – Jim Butcher **
Gourmet Rhapsody – Muriel Barberry **
The Theory of Everything – Stephen Hawking *** (A Brief History of Time is more readable)
Juvenescence – Robert Pogue Harrison ***** (A fantastically engaging history of intellectual development)
Louder and Funnier – P.G. Wodehouse ***
Anansi Boys – Neil Gaiman ***
Mansfield Park – Jane Austen (A yearly re-read. Deeply moral in a quiet way.)
The Republic – Plato (One I teach each year. )
Realms of Gold – Leland Ryken ***
The Poetics – Aristotle (Another work I teach.)
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen (Another annual re-read. A demonstration of the necessity of mutual respect and friendship in marriage.)
Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen (There is a pattern here… This one is light and funny, especially if you’ve enjoyed any Gothic romances.)
The Nicomachean Ethics – Aristotle (Still teaching.)
C.S. Lewis’s Lost Aeneid – A.T. Reyes *** (Worthwhile only for the student of The Aeneid or the Lewis scholar.)
The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula K. LeGuin ***
American Nations – Colin Woodard **** (A fascinating alternate view of American history that privileges understanding the differences in American culture rather than the commonalities. I found it enlightening.)
Lucky Jim – Kingsley Amis ** (Amusing but light.)
Scipio Africanus – B.H. Liddel Hart **** (A history of the greatest general the world has ever seen – according to Liddel Hart who is a noted expert.)
Livy’s Early History of Rome (Another work I teach.)
Gratitude – Oliver Sacks ***
The Zombie Survival Guide – Max Brooks ** (Greatly inferior to World War Z – also by Max Brooks.)
The Aeneid – Virgil (One of the greatest of the greats of Western Civilization and a book I’m privileged to teach.)
The Enchiridion – Epictetus (We could all use more Stoic Philosophy.)
On the Shoulders of Hobbits – Louis Markos ** (Fine, but pretty basic for any devotee of Tolkien.)
When I Was a Child I Read Books – Marilynne Robinson ***
A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson ** (I’ve enjoyed other Bryson much more.)
Gumption – Nick Offerman*
African American Religion (Very Short Introductions) – Eddie S. Glude Jr. **** (This was the first Very Short Introduction that I read. This series from Oxford is absolutely fantastic and includes over 500 volumes. The six I’ve read were each intriguing in their own way. Those about things with which I am unfamiliar have stimulated my interest. Those about things with with I am familiar have shown themselves to be original and reliable.)
Better Living Through Criticism – A.O. Scott ** (It did not live up to its title.)
Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves – Roy Maynard **** (This is a nicely annotated edition of the first book of Spencer’s Faerie Queene. Occasionally the annotator is a little to full of his own cleverness.)
Innumeracy – John Allen Paulos **** (Ought to be required reading for Elementary Educators for its urgent call for teaching mathematic literacy to young people.)
Storm Front – Jim Butcher ***
The Life of Elves – Muriel Barberry ***
Ben-Hur – Lew Wallace (I’ve been reading this one over and over for 25 years.)
The Roman Empire (Very Short Introductions) – Christopher Kelly ***
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte (Another favorite from childhood.)
The Three Body Problem – Cixin Liu *** (Worth reading if you like your science fiction to be physics-y and odd.)
Meditations – Marcus Aurelius (The Philosopher-Emperor’s reminders to himself. Again, Stoic Philosophy is a helpful antidote to the modern world.)
The Riddle Master of Hed – Patricia McKillip **
Infectious Disease (Very Short Introduction) – Wayne & Bolker **** (Another great Intro.)
Xenocide – Orson Scott Card ***
Fool Moon – Jim Butcher **
Villette – Charlotte Bronte ** (Disappointing for one who loves Jane Eyre.)
Half a King – Joe Abercrombie ***
The Place of the Lion – Charles Williams ***
Kullervo – J.R.R. Tolkien **** (A charming, but short, retelling of a Finnish legend.)
Silence – Shusako Endo (Well worth frequent re-reading.)
You Are What You Love – James K.A. Smith ***** (Fantastic examination of how our unspoken, unconsidered habits shape us.)
How to Grow Old – Cicero **** (Thoughtful, meditative, and challenging.)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy – James B. South **** (An enjoyable combo of pop-culture and philosophy.)
Are Women Human – Dorothy Sayers (A witty and thoughtful examination of how women had been regarded and how they might be better understood.)
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Fault in our Stars – John Green (Ugh.)
Tehanu – Ursula K. LeGuin **** (Original and provocative in wonderful ways.)
The Blade Itself – Joe Abercrombie ***
The Last Unicorn (Graphic Novel) – Peter S. Beagle **** (I couldn’t find the graphic novel to link, so this just goes to the paperback novel.)
Gifts – Ursula K. LeGuin ***
The Mongols (Very Short Introduction) – Morris Rossabi ***
The Telling – Ursula K. LeGuin ***
Till We Have Faces – C.S. Lewis (A longtime favorite that I now get to teach!)
Earth Abides – George R. Stewart **** (A unique post-apocalyptic novel that realistically examines the fate of a minority of humans surviving.)
Grave Peril – Jim Butcher **
The Epic of Gilgamesh (Another book I teach.)
The Book of the Dun Cow – Walter Wangerin ***** (The great modern beast fable.)
The Geek Feminist Revolution – Kameron Hurley **
The Metamorphoses – Ovid (Look at all these cool books I get to teach!)
The Real American Dream – Andrew Delbanco ***
Silence and Beauty – Makota Fujimura ***** (An artist’s appreciation of Shusaku Endo’s Silence. Absolutely exquisite.)
Seveneves – Neal Stephenson **** (The president read it this year too!)
The Shadow of the Torturer – Gene Wolfe (Re-reading The Book of the New Sun tetralogy for book club. Very challenging but very good.)
Mistborn – Brandon Sanderson
Antigone – Sophocles (Teaching again.)
Oedipus Tyrranus – Sophocles (Yup. Teaching.)
Ancient Philosophy (Very Short Introduction) – Julia Annas **** (Annas makes excellent use of her limited space and gives a very engaging intro to the major schools of ancient philosophical thought.)
The Claw of the Conciliator – Gene Wolfe (More Book of the New Sun.)
The Wave in the Mind – Ursula K. LeGuin *** (An uneven collection with some excellent essays in it.)
The Physics of Superheroes – James Kakalios *** (What else do you read when you’re staying with your friend and her husband: the experimental physicist?)
On Friendship – Alexander Nehamas ***
Lexicon Urthus – Michael Andre-Driussi (A companion to The Book of the New Sun.)
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen (Yes. Again. I can’t help it. Austen is perfection, especially on cold winter nights.)
Total: 102 books read, 63 new and 39 re-read. Of course, my to be read pile is still happily extensive.
Here are ample reasons.
“If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.”
“I should have thought,’ said Fanny after a pause of recollection and exertion, ‘that every woman must have felt the possibility of a man’s not being approved, not being loved by someone of her sex, at least, let him be ever so generally agreeable. Let him have all the perfections in the world, I think it ought not to be set down as certain, that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself.”
“Human nature needs more lessons than a weekly sermon can convey.”
Fanny Price is often accused of insipidity, and I do prefer a femininity less retiring, yet the power of seeing the truth so very clearly is perhaps most safely granted to a quiet character; Elizabeth Bennett benefits from being wrong on occasion.
I meant to submit this to Boise Weekly’s Fiction 101. I got busy and didn’t mail it in on time, so here it is.
The Agon of Jason
The doctors claimed they had perfected the process. Jason was the first approved to undergo it. After careful analysis of his bloodwork and brain scans they customized the Personality Correction Serum and injected it at an early morning appointment.
It really almost worked. The despair was gone. His extreme sensitivity dulled just enough. But his face altered beyond recognition. His mother could see the problem the moment she walked into the recovery room.
The doctors should have known how the personality change would change everything. Jason was gone behind his dead eyes. Unknown and unknowable he faded away, starved, and disappeared.
Below is a little talk I gave at school this week.
Love and Service
The Scripture tells us that we are designed to serve.
Genesis 2:15 Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and (keep, maintain, serve) it.
It is interesting in life how often we get things out of order. The cart before the horse is more than a cliched expression, it is our very way of life. In many things we want the consequences or the outcomes of an action to instead be the prompt for that action. This is often simply because we are deeply confused about how God made the world.
One such confusion is the relationship between love and service. If we are thinking about serving at all, we are thinking about serving someone or something that we love, or like, or at least find tolerable. We love children, or babies, or our grandparents and so we are willing to babysit or to teach the Sunday School class or to go and mow Grandma’s lawn. We have a passion for reading so we volunteer at the library. We love the outdoors so we build trails in the foothills. And while there is nothing wrong with any of the forms of service or with the motivation for this kind of service we miss something deeply important about how God made our minds and our hearts if we stop here.
Service, like worship, shapes our affections. Builds them. Creates them.
That which I serve, I will come to love.
I am a neat and tidy person. I love order, cleanliness, and peace. I am very sensitive to strong smells and rough textures. Yes, I am fussy and fastidious. Four years ago my sons began begging my husband and I to get them a dog. Naturally, I was opposed to the entire idea. Dogs smell. They track in mud and leaves. THEY SHED. But…I love my sons excessively. So, when the opportunity came up to give an unwanted puppy a home I said a cautious “yes” and took the boys to pick up Rudy. Alex and Luc were 5 and 4 and were not quite old enough to take full responsibility for a dog. My husband is a busy, busy man. Every day I fed Rudy. I filled his water bowl. I took him to the park to play. Frequently I bathed him – if you have a dog, you know what an undertaking this can be especially when your dog is a hundred pounds of bath-hating fuzzball.
You might think this is about how much I love my boys – and I really do love them – but no this is about how much I came to love Rudy. Rudy smells like a dog. His dog food smells bad to my sensitive nose. He sheds long dark hair EVERYWHERE. If he isn’t getting pet enough (and there is never “enough”) he puts is rough paws up on my lap and scratches me, nosing his face under my hand until I finally begin to pet him. But a few months into owning him I discovered one day that I loved him. It was entirely unreasonable. He’s cute in a doggy sort of way, but I’m not really susceptible to that kind of thing. I’ve met many a cute puppy who left my heart entirely unmoved. I still hate the hair. My nose is definitely still assaulted by the smells. But I love the fluffy mutt anyway. I want him to be healthy. I want him to be happy. The very definition of love is caring for the well-being of the beloved and by that definition as well as by my emotional state, it is clear that I love Rudy.
By serving Rudy every day my heart turned from indifference to love. You’ve probably heard that “Love isn’t a feeling, it’s an act of your will” or “Love isn’t a noun, it’s a verb” or some other such expression that is trying to get at the idea that Love – True Love – Caritas – is about far more than just what your emotions happen to be doing at the moment. Love is an emotional response to someone or something but love requires activity. Love requires service. And just as surely, the natural fruit of service is then love.
The maternal bond is famously strong. A mother’s devotion to her children has been the subject of much art and literature. The bond is not very mysterious though. A mother spends nine months with her body serving her unborn child. Then she spends the next year being that child’s primary source of food and comfort. This daily service fuels her affection which fuels her service which again stimulates more love until the mother-child bond is so strong it comes as close as anything on earth can to being unbreakable
Kids and pets are all well and good and may be part of your life. But this means something more for you. What and who you love is much more under your control than you think. It is much more a matter of responsibility than it is of fate. You get to choose when and where and how you serve. You get to choose who and what you cultivate love for. You are not a passive recipient of emotions. You are an active cultivator of them. You are not being dictated to by your “heart”. You are daily dictating, by your actions, what your heart will feel. You are designed by God to serve and love and then love and serve.
Feeling irritable with an annoying sibling? Find a way to give them service and you will love them more and better.
Feeling indifferent toward your school, church, community? Find a way, large or small, to serve them daily and you will come to feel what you ought toward them: affection, devotion, enthusiasm.
Frustrated by a parent, a sibling, an administrator, a teacher, or a classmate? Give. Them. Service.
Your emotional state is not the boss of you. Your feelings, your attitude, your mood are not in charge. I remind my cross – country athletes that when they are in the last third of a race and their legs are screaming at them that they should walk: your body is not in charge – you are. And so I remind you: when you are grumpy, tired, indifferent your emotions are not in charge of you. Use your will, use your knowledge, and offer service to that which you should be loving. The feeling will follow. Put the horse before the cart.
James 1:27 Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.
Scripture makes it clear that we have a considerable number of responsibilities to serve. We are first and foremost to serve those who are most in need and least protected. In the ancient world the widow and the orphan were even more vulnerable than we might realize. With no husband or father to provide, women and children had few options. Certainly, we must serve actual widows and actual orphans, but let us remember to extend that service to any we find in need of service. The weakest, the most lost, the least lovely, the most reviled by our culture stand in greatest need. We stand against the evolutionary idea that our lives are about “survival of the fittest” and live instead as Christians lifting up the weakest, knowing we are designed by God to serve and ultimately to always and only be serving Him and not ourselves.
We teachers know a lot about teaching children. It is our profession after all. Most of us have thousands of hours of experience in the classroom, hundreds of hours of training, and are subject matter experts in our fields.
Still, we must avoid the temptation – common in my experience – to believe and act as though we always know better than parents how they should be raising our students.
This is a child given to them. They are not ours in the way they are theirs.
And yes, in addition to our expertise we do spend many hours a day with our students. We see a lot of their behavior. We hear a lot of their words. We do very often have insight into problems, strengths, and strategies.
However, our language is too often loaded with the hubristic assumption that if parents would just listen to us, everything would so much better.
“If only those parents didn’t give their 4th grader a phone! What could they be thinking.”
“If only his parents would discipline Johnny better.”
“Sam has way too much screen time. His attention would be so much better if only they would limit him. What could his parents be thinking?!”
What is this but frustration that we are not in charge of everything? Combined with a selfish desire to have everyone do and say and believe exactly what we think would make our lives easier?
I take practical and theological issue with this pattern. First, we don’t know nearly as much as we think we do. Parents have been with their kids every day for YEARS. We see them almost daily for almost a year. Our knowledge does not extend to being the expert on Jack or Sam or Evan or Sara. Many causes and effects are necessarily outside of our experience. We must keep this in mind when we are frustrated by some behavioral issue.
Second, this child is simply not ours. Assuming that a particular parent doesn’t happen to be a depraved monster, they are far more invested in their child’s well-being than we are. They will be in the child’s life forever, we are a passing stage. God has ordained this child to these parents and apart from truly destructive (as opposed to simply sub-optimal) parenting, they are the ones who will be dedicated to understanding what is truly best for this little person.
Teachers must treat their own expertise, their relationships with their students, and their advice to parents with great humility. If we have knowledge or insight it is to be placed at the service of parents and not hurled at their errors. Our frustrations with things that make our jobs more difficult must be understood as the temporal things they are. Sure, we can imagine a teaching utopia of perfectly behaved, perfectly intelligent, perfectly sweet robot students with perfectly wise, perfectly invested, perfectly balanced parents. But this means nothing. We teach actual flawed children, with actual flawed parents, and we are actual flawed teachers tempted to believe we are the only ones who are perfect.
I finally read the Francis Schaeffer classic. It has been on the “to-read” list for quite some time. Schaeffer is very highly regarded in some of the circles I travel in and I’d never read anything of his. Sadly, I’m a bit disappointed.
How Should We Then Live? is a whirlwind tour through Western History featuring frequent generalizations, authoritative pronouncements on the goodness or badness of things, and appeals to authority. While I agree with at least half of Dr. Schaeffer’s assessment, I can’t appreciate his book. Where I was looking for reasoned arguments and thoughtful insights I got appeals to authority, unargued conclusions, and simplistic summaries. I wouldn’t pass much of this writing in a freshman composition class because of the failure to properly support assertions.
Again, I do agree with many of his conclusion. However, I fear that much of his popularity comes from readers hearing what they already believe or hearing what they want to be true. He argues that Christianity is good for the world and Christians are likely to already think that or to want it to be true. In such a short book, how could an author give a fair description, much less a fair analysis, of all of Western art, philosophy, and science? Without questioning or even acknowledging his own presuppositions how could Dr. Schaeffer hope to give his readers a reasonable basis for further study? I fear that reading this kind of work would tend to leave the Christian reader complacent rather than challenged: complacent in the essential goodness of the Evangelical worldview and without any answer to the title question other than living with the assumption that Evangelicals have it right and the Secularists have it wrong and with no clear understanding of why or how and, thus, no way forward.
As former coffee shop owners my husband and I are a little snobbish about our coffee. We have used everything from a basic flat-bottom brewer to a French Press and even, on occasion, a Keurig. The French Press had become our preferred method, but it still left us with some dissatisfactions. We prefer a sweeter taste to our coffee, and really just wanted espresso most of the time. However, as we really wanted an expensive plumbed-in machine, we were out of luck.
At the recommendation of some casual acquaintances, we bought ourselves an Aeropress about six months ago. They praised the sweet taste of the very strong coffee it produced, the ease of use and clean up, and the portability of the set up. Because it only cost about 30 bucks we were happy to give it a go.
We really, really like it. It makes a delicious – nearly espresso – shot of strong coffee. You can make one serving in about 45 seconds. The device is incredibly simple and so it is easier to clean than your coffee cup. You can drink the strong coffee straight, add hot water to it for an “Americano”, add milk for a latte, or pour it over ice in the summer. The only downside is that it is not great for making large quantities of coffee quickly. If we were having 15 people over for breakfast we might run into trouble. Fortunately, that never happens!
You can heat the water you need on the stove or in the microwave, but we like to use a nice electric kettle with temperature pre-sets to get just-the-right-temp water for brewing. We also have a small burr-grinder for fresh espresso-ground coffee. We also have a unique situation where our pastor roasts us fresh coffee every week. Not everyone is quite as blessed as we are…