Reading for the sake of writing.

My in-laws are here for the weekend. My mother-in-law surprised me with a book: Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great BooksNick Hornby’s collection of 10 years worth of columns from Believer about the books he has read. (My mother-in-law is clearly paying attention, as I only came across this book at a bookstore in Banff a couple of weeks ago and added it to my Amazon wishlist.)

I’m only 65 pages in, with 400 to go, so I may yet lose interest (at any time, really), but so far the book has been delightful. Hornby is insightful and witty in the Bill Bryson and P.G. Wodehouse kind of way, which is the best kind of witty.

This book once again proves that what makes a book great and delightful is not necessarily what it says but how it says it. Or perhaps it’s more a matter of language and peripheral matters redeeming what would otherwise be an ordinary and possibly boring book. You might think that I like this book because it’s a book about books and reading. This does help, and it is what initially caught my attention, but I’m reading it now because I love Hornby’s voice.

It might just be that he’s one of those writers who is such a pleasure to read that it doesn’t matter what the subject; you just want to keep reading. It’s what keeps me buying and immediately reading books by Bill Bryson even when they’re about the evolution of the house or a one particular early 20th century summer. It’s what brings me back to Roy MacGreggor, reading his book on Tom Thomson’s death, even though my interest in art is purely about visual and emotional pleasure, or the biography he wrote about his decidedly not-famous father. (Or maybe it’s what Hornby says in one of his early columns: “Sometimes, in the hands of the right person, biographies of relatively minor figures…are especially compelling: they seem to have their times and cultural environments written through them like a stick of rock in a way that sui generis major figures sometimes don’t.” Yes, I had to look up “sui generis,” too. It means “unique.”) It’s what brings me back to P.G. Wodehouse, even though every one of his novel’s I’ve read has essentially the same plot. It’s what will keep me reading this Hornby book, even though I won’t care about 95% of the books he mentioned.

They are all writers who make me want to write again. I don’t know what this says about their work, because I’m essentially saying, “I don’t care what you’re writing about, but I like how you write about it.” When I read other authors—glancing at the shelf: Tolkien, Kent Haruf, Alistair McLeod—it’s the bigger picture that draws me in: the scenes they paint and feelings they create with their words, the “what” they create. Obviously, they way they create those things—that is, their language—makes all the difference, but their language is hidden or embedded in the work. I don’t know which is better. But Bryson, Wodehouse, to a lesser extent MacGreggor, and now apparently Hornby please me in a way the others don’t.

As a bonus (isn’t the term “added bonus” redundant?), Hornby promises to help me feel okay about abandoning books, even if they’re classics. At least that’s what the introduction, written by someone else, tells me. Let’s hope he does, because The Brothers Karamazov and The Grapes of Wrath are gathering dust, bookmarks firmly in place.

C. S. Lewis anticipates Buzzfeed and Facebook, but not in a good way.

I’m reading J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century by Tom Shippey at the moment. I bought (or received) this book 10 years ago or more, I’m sure. Just getting to it now. Such is my way. The current chapter is on concepts of evil in The Lord of the Rings. As part of Shippey’s argument, he quotes C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters (which I read almost 20 years ago). The quote gave me a bit of a knock upside the head.

Context: Screwtape is a senior demon who writes letters to a junior demon (Wormwood?) about the different ways they can lead Christians astray (in fact, the book is comprised only of his letters). Shippey gives a bit more context before quoting the book directly:

One of the striking and convincing assertions made by [Lewis’] imagined devil, Screwtape, is that nowadays the strongest temptations are not to the old human vices of lust and gluttony and wrath, but to new ones of tedium and solitude… Screwtape remarks that Christians describe God as the One ‘without whom Nothing is strong’, and they speak truer than they know, he goes on, for [he now quotes Screwtape Letters]:

Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them…or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambitions to give them relish. (p. 127, emphasis mine)

Keep in mind that The Screwtape Letters was published in 1942. When I read the portion from the book my mind went immediately to much of what we look at on the internet. I’m thinking of pages like Buzzfeed or Clickhole or the Fail Blog or any number of mindless gathering of entertainment “news” or endless lists. In many ways, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and the like also fit the bill: “a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why.” Precisely how I find myself some days. “Tedium and solitude.” Precisely how I think of the millions of us sitting in offices and cubicles and at hoe computers around the world for hours every day.

It’s remarkable that Lewis’ comments are so true in our day and age. Possibly more true than they were in 1942. But one thing has changed and is no longer true: lust, gluttony, and wrath have been wrapped up into the tedium and solitude. Lust can be gratified in so many and easy ways online, whether is it pornography or shopping. Gluttony in our binge-watching on Netflix and hours on social media. Wrath in trolling and shaming and endless online arguments and hatred.

It made me think, both about how I use my own time. And that I should read The Screwtape Letters again.

Solomon’s story is the story of all humanity.

One of the fun aspects of teaching is learning or noticing new things yourself, particularly when it happens unexpectedly in the middle of teaching. This year I started teaching the discipleship/confirmation material in my junior high Sunday school class (we call it “discipleship/confirmation” because for most of the kids in the class it’s not confirmation in the traditional sense, as they were not baptized as infants). We are working our way through the Old Testament and today we talked about wisdom, using Solomon’s story as the context, and I had one of those “ahah!” moments.

We began with Deuteronomy 17:14-20, in which God advises (or gives wisdom to) the future kings of Israel. (So it wasn’t unexpected when Israel asked for a king in 1 Samuel. Noted.) God basically said told Israel that their future king shouldn’t acquire too many horses (and don’t get them from Egypt), wives, or much wealth. Solomon, at one point the wisest of the wise, leaves the path of wisdom and breaks all three of those things exactly: he had many horses, some of them from Egypt; he had many wives; and he amassed so much wealth that silver was as common as stone in Israel.

As we were discussing this, and as I pointed out that Solomon did exactly what God said the king shouldn’t do, it suddenly dawned on me: money, sex, and power! Solomon fell prey to the classic three human vices: horses and chariots (power); wives (sex); and wealth (money). Seems the human struggle has been the same through all time. Perhaps this is obvious to you, but I didn’t make that connection until the middle of class.

Back in Deuteronomy, God also said that the future king of Israel should read the law every day of his life so that he would remain faithful to God. Obviously Solomon wasn’t doing this—if he had, he may not have fallen prey to the temptations of money, sex, and power and not turned away to other gods (which in his case seemed to be mostly because of sex, as it was his foreign wives drew him away).

Even the wisest among can leave the path of wisdom, if we aren’t rooted in the wisdom of God.

Solomon’s story isn’t unique. On some level it’s the story of all of us, of all humanity.

The Giver

Dixie and I just watched The Giver. (Meryl Streep for her, Jeff Bridges for me.) In short, it is a dystopian film. Think Hunger Games (though without the violence) or 1984 or The Dispossessed or Fahrenheit 451 or The Truman Show or Pleasantville or Blade Runner or (apparently) The Maze Runner or (apparently) DivergentThe Giver has elements of all of these films/books as far as I can remember.

On a surface level, it was a good movie: entertaining, good soundtrack, plot develops well (although I called a major plot element of the film within the first minute). Generally speaking I like dystopian books and films, because they are effective in making me think about our world, where we’re going, how we’re going about it, how we think, what we believe. It’s enjoyable genre in that sense.

Yet there is a part of me that is always a bit suspicious of what’s behind the vision. What does the author or director have in mind with the book or film? Who or what is he or she thinking of? As a a Christian and a somewhat cynical person, I tend to assume that modern dystopian films are about organized religion. Now that I’ve written that sentence it sounds a bit silly to assume such a thing, and yet I don’t think it’s that far-fetched.

On the other hand, the “message” of The Giver could be interpreted any number of ways and that’s of course what happens. It could be interpreted in favour of organized religion as the keeper of our true memory. It could be interpreted as an indictment of our society’s “pluralism-cum-homogeneity.” There is a certain “sameness” inherent in pluralism as popularly presented. Someone else might interpret it as being the opposite: an anti-religion film.

So maybe I should stop being defensive and just watch the film and process what I see in the film.

Reading the book after watching the movie. [UPDATED]

I still remember watching the “Lonesome Dove” miniseries on TV in the mid-1980s. My parents let me stay up past my bed time to watch a couple of episodes, although when it got violent I was no longer allowed to watch. I saw enough to be moved emotionally and in my imagination. I was hooked on that story. “Lonesome Dove” follows the story of a handful of old Texas Rangers who decide to drive several thousand head of cattle and horses from south Texas up to Montana, as yet unsettled.

I’ve watched the series a number of times since, having bought it on VHS in university (and since then the DVD version and recently a remastered wide-screen version). About two weeks ago, I picked up the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Larry McMurtry on which the miniseries was based. I’ve owned the book for years, but at more than 900 pages, it’s quite intimidating to start. This time I was immediately hooked and managed to read through the whole thing in less than two weeks. It’s a wonderful novel, with well-rounded characters. A great tale of the trials and tribulation of this motley cattle crew. 

What struck me was that the miniseries—at least, as it exists in my memory, since it has been about a decade since I watched it last—was incredibly faithful to the book. So much so, in fact, that right from the beginning, in my mind the characters in the book looked and sounded liked depicted by their respective actors (Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones in particular). In some cases, a book is spoiled by watching the film version first, but I can think of a number of cases where I’ve read the book after its film version and thoroughly enjoyed the book. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if the film was one I particularly enjoyed, my experience of the book is enhanced by the viewing.

Lonesome Dove. As I read I began to realize that both Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones played their roles perfectly, but I don’t know if I can say that retrospectively. I might think this simply because I’m reading their performances into the novel.
– Pride and Prejudice. I don’t know if I would have read this one if I hadn’t seen the A&E miniseries (the Colin Firth one) first.
A Prairie Home Companion. There is no novel version. But there is a screenplay published in book form. I read it after watching the movie and loved it.
True Grit. I’m about a third of the way through this one. The recent Coen Brothers’ version is what’s in my mind as I read (in fact, my copy of the book is the movie tie-in version). I’ve read that the Coen Brothers’ version is more faithful to the book than the 1969 John Wayne version.
– No Country for Old Men. Another Coen Brothers film, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel. Also a very faithful adaptation.

I used to insist that it was better to read the book before watching the film version. But looking at the above examples, I’m inclined to say that reading a book after watching its movie version is a much better experience than watching the movie version after reading the book.

The Lord of the Rings films were good adaptations of the books, though as the years pass I think less and less of the performances (with the exception of Saruman and Denethor). That’s because they don’t live up to my mental vision of those characters. The Hobbit films are terrible adaptations of a childhood favourite, but are otherwise well done and for the most part entertaining (although I can’t stand all the battles). The Da Vinci Code is a unique instance of me being neutral on the film vs. book question. I could say that the film wins by a hair because the writing in the book is terrible. But then the book was an incredible page-turner, which the movie didn’t match with engagement/tension.

And then there’s Simon Birch, the atrocious “adaptation” of John Irving’s wonderful A Prayer for Owen Meany. (Although, reading up on the film a bit more now, I realize that the film doesn’t bear the title of the book because Irving thought it was too unfaithful an adaptation, but because Irving didn’t think the book could be successfully adapted to the screen and therefore sold the rights with conditions about the name. In which case, perhaps I should take it a little easier on the film.)

UPDATE: As it turns out, reading the book has in a small way ruined the “Lonesome Dove” TV miniseries. In an unexpected turn of events, my fond memories of the miniseries which were revived and relived through the reading of the book took some of the “magic” away from the miniseries.

The two worlds of the introverted pastor

I recently saw a meme about how tired we are of hearing about introverts. There’s been a lot of that going around lately, so I apologize for carrying on about it here. I do this not because it’s the thing to do, but because I’ve been reading and thinking about it lately. It has been a great exercise in understanding myself more and in identifying strengths and weaknesses.

One of my seminary professors once told our class that the majority of pastors are introverts. A useful, but shallow, definition of an introvert is someone who is energized by solitude (and its related activities) and whose strength is drained in crowds (and their related activities). Desiring solitude is not the same as shyness; an introvert is not necessarily shy, however. As I say, this is a very shallow definition of introversion and really doesn’t do justice to the nuances and spectrum of the trait. But it’ll do for now.

If my professor’s statistic is true, it’s an interesting one to consider. On the positive side, an introverted pastor is suited to the calling of preaching and teaching, which requires significant time studying in solitude. On the potentially negative side, an introverted pastor is nevertheless required to spend significant time with people. I say potentially, because to be an introvert is not to say that one doesn’t like people or spending time with them. Rather, it means that a good portion of the introverted pastor’s work is work that drains rather than energizes. I am not a pure introvert (I assume that few people, if any, are), so I find Sunday mornings, for example, both energizing and very draining.

But I’m thinking of this at the moment in terms of the introverted pastor (me) at home. At church and youth functions, I am relatively lively and energetic, making a point of interacting with people. At home, I tend to be quiet and solitary (as far as that’s possible with a wife and kids). That doesn’t mean I’m pretending at public functions, acting like something I’m really not. It just means that I’m drawing on a different part of who I am, or like a rechargeable battery, at public church functions I’m a battery plugged in and making the bunny walk and beat its drum, whereas at home I’m a battery plugged into the charger.

What I’ve wondered about it when the two worlds collide: when someone from the church or a one of my youth is over for non-“official” reasons. What does is it like for them to experience me recharging at home—not very talkative, reading, keeping to myself? Can those two “sides” of me coexist in their minds? Should I plug the battery back into the bunny when people come by? Sometimes I do, but not always.

It’s one reason I think understanding personality can be very important in communities like the church. We live in a world in which extroversion is generally assumed to be the ideal (see Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain). Misunderstandings can occur when we don’t understand how people are wired, or more specifically, how each person is wired in a unique way. Our expectations of others can easily be shaped by either the ideal or dominant personality within a community (and extroversion is by nature dominant).

Something I’ve been pondering.

The dusty Old West

Sometimes at meal times, particularly if we’re at a restaurant, our family likes to play games. Usually it’s the alphabet game (name a category, and then we go around coming up with words that belong to that category for each letter of the alphabet). Last night, however, Madeline started a “favourites” game—favourite song, favourite book, favourite movie, etc.

I find favourites like this are often difficult to determine, as things like favourite album or movie are constantly in flux as time passes. But tonight, as I was looking up something mostly unrelated, I came across the classic closing scene of Clint Eastwood’s film, Unforgiven (spoiler alert), which reminded me how much I love that movie. Last night over supper I named Dances with Wolves as my favourite movie, but Unforgiven comes pretty close. It occurs to me now that I have a thing for films set in the “Old West” (or if not in the “Old West” as such, then in dusty corners of the U.S.). Consider some of these favourites:

  • Dances with Wolves
  • Unforgiven
  • There Will be Blood
  • No Country for Old Men (dusty corners, not Old West)

Well, that’s only four. My mind’s gone blank. I was sure there were more. At any rate, these movies have consistently remained favourites over the years. And it’s not westerns that I like—in fact, most Westerns I don’t like, and those Sergio Leone “spaghetti westerns” like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly never did it for me. It’s more about setting and feel than genre.

(Thought of some others, though they’re not favourites on the same level: Lonesome Dove [tv miniseries, but still…]; The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford).

Films of other types come and go from my lists of interest. There are the comedies I’ve loved, but they boil down more to nostalgia (in the form of quoting large portions of the scripts) than anything else.

Anyway…

The Swedish Reckoning

I want to keep the following thing I wrote from disappearing into the nether-regions of old Facebook posts, so I’m copying it here as well. This won’t make a great deal of sense to most people who come to this blog, so I will give a bit of explanation.

Last week, our youth group met at a different church (that is, not our church). During our meal together, one of the youth at my table noticed a clock that had the regular twelve-hour dial as well as the numbers 1-31 in a smaller size on the outside of the regular time circle. One of them wondered what those numbers were for. I immediately suggested that because of Sweden’s northerly latitude they had a different way of reckoning time than we do—that their day has 31 hours, rather than 24 (several of our local churches are of Swedish heritage).

This story kind of blew up from there (and I didn’t resist): I hammed it up during announcements, coming up with the phrase “Swedish Reckoning,” suggesting that there had been a great coverup by their parents and grandparents, and noting that the Dutch had been joking about the Swedish Reckoning for generations. Youth were searching Google for verification of the existence of the Swedish Reckoning and the 31-hour day. Of course, they couldn’t find anything because Sweden has sensored all Swedish Reckoning information and records, much like China exercises some control over the internet. 

The next day I posted the following on the youth Facebook page. I was quite pleased with what I wrote. Some people thought I was sharing facts—at least until the bit at the end about socks and sandals, which is a long-running inside joke at youth, and is the clue for them about the veracity of this story. In fact, to end on the words “socks in sandals” was perhaps the most satisfying part of writing this story. (One person jokingly [I hope] said I was abusing pastoral trust!)

* * *

Last night at youth, during dessert, I told the youth about the Swedish Reckoning (SR). They had no idea what this was, which doesn’t surprise me, as the history of the SR has long been covered up and distorted by half-truths and misinformation.

There is a remnant of SR at the New Sweden Church, where we met last night. There is a clock that has both the regular twelve hours on it as well as, in smaller numerals, the 31-hour clock, which was historically the Swedish breakdown of the day. In recent years, this has been denied and some have tried to explain the 31 numbers on the clock as denoting days of the month. Of course, this is a thin line of reasoning, as this would not account for nearly half of the months of the year.

No, owing to local Swedish mythology, which quite naturally grew out of their extreme northerly latitude, a day was divided into 31 hours. The clock at New Sweden reflects the desire of Swedish settlers to be able to communicate and engage effectively in non-SR cultures by including the 12/24 hour system. Today, SR is not observed anywhere in the world, other than for ceremonial purposes and at heritage sites, as well as a small sect which lives in a commune in the north of Sweden.

I bring this up because this weekend is the time change, where here in Alberta and across much of the world, we set our clocks back an hour on Saturday night/Sunday morning. Interestingly, the time change in SR was a little bit different than ours, and a lot more confusing. There was no simple “Spring Forward” or “Fall Back” for them, with a an easy adjustment of an hour. Instead, under the SR, in the fall their clocks would be turned back by three and a quarter hours and then three hours later, turned forward by an hour and twenty minutes. The procedure to move the clock forward under SR in the spring was so complicated that a 350 page book was published by the Swedish government.

Now you know!

As an interesting side note, twice each year a small community in northern Sweden celebrates the Swedish Reckoning in a ceremony involving 31 baked pies, a complicated dance sequence (“3.25 steps back, 1.3 steps forward”), and a public reading of Guidelines for Time Adjustment at Vernal Equinox Under the Swedish Reckoning, which has become a sort of religious document for this sect. Their ceremonial garb includes colourful robes, clock hats, and socks in sandals.

Spotify or Rdio

Was it a month ago now that Spotify became available in Canada? Or longer? It hasn’t been very long, at any rate, but it has received a great deal of attention. It was an “event.” It’s not clear to me why it was an event, as Rdio, which is essentially the same service, has been available in Canada for a couple of years (I’m a subscriber). Clever marketing on Spotify’s part, I suppose.

Nevertheless, I jumped on the Spotify bandwagon: I gave them my email address and waited for my invitation. When it arrived I was initially impressed by their artist selection, but after some comparison I realized that except for a few exceptions (at least in terms of my taste in music), Rdio has more or less the same selection.

In fact, after a week or two of using only Spotify, I drifted back to Rdio and nearly forgot about Spotify altogether until tonight. What drew me back to Rdio was its mobile app, which is far superior to Spotify’s mobile app. Rdio’s mobile navigation is much more intuitive and it doesn’t force me to shuffle an artist’s songs. Perhaps this is simply an issue of me not understanding the interface, but it was enough to put me off, as I use Rdio most often when I’m driving.

Spotify’s one strength (that I can see) is its playlists. Rdio has recommendations and radio stations, but they are hit and miss. Spotify’s playlists are consistent in their sound. Right now I’m listening to a playlist called “Mellow Dinner” and that’s exactly the feel I’m getting.

But good playlists are not enough for me to give up my Rdio subscription.

In favour of simple and direct prayer (we don’t need to be heroes).

Dallas Willard on simple prayer, which I found very helpful:

“Prayer, like all of the practices into which Jesus leads by word and example, will be self-validating to all who will simply pray as he says [that is, the Lord’s Prayer] and not give up. It is much harder to learn if we succumb to the temptation to engage in “heroic” efforts in prayer. This is important. Heroism, generally, is totally out of place in the spiritual life, until we grow to the point at which it would never be thought of as heroism anyway.

“There are, of course, people who pray heroically, and they are to be respected for what God has called them to… But that is a special calling and is for very few of us. To look to this calling as the ideal for our prayer life is only to assume a burden of uncalled-for guilt, and, quite surely, it is to choose an approach that will lead to abandoning prayer as a realistic…aspect of life in the kingdom. There will be heroic periods as they may be called for, but with no intention to be heroic. Always, we are simply children walking and talking with our Father at hand.

“…Prayer is never just asking, nor is it merely a matter of asking for what I want. God is not a cosmic butler or a fix-it man, and the aim of the universe is not to fulfill my desires and needs. On the other hand, I am to pray for what concerns me, and many people have found prayer impossible because they thought they should only pray for wonderful but remote needs they actually had little or no interest in or even knowledge of. 

“Prayer simply dies from efforts to pray about “good things” that honestly do not matter to us. The way to get to meaningful prayer for those good things is to start by praying for what we are truly interested in. The circle of our interests will inevitably grow in the largeness of God’s love.

“What prayer as asking presupposes is simply a personal…relationship between us and God, just as with a request of child to parent or friend to friend. It assumes that our natural concerns will be naturally expressed, and that God will hear our prayers for ourselves as well as for others. Once again, this is clear from the biblical practice of prayer. It is seen at its best in that greatest of all prayer books, Psalms.

Accordingly, I believe the most adequate description of prayer is simply, “Talking to God about what we are doing together.”

~ Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, pp. 241, 242, 243.