Recent Reading

The Pursuit of God (A.W. Tozer). This was a clarifying read about the need to seek God personally rather than coast along being a good soldier in church. Tozer argues that evangelicalism promulgates a myth that once you “accept Christ” (an expression not found in the Bible, he points out), you have nothing more to do other than put in time waiting for Heaven. It has been several weeks since I read it, but I enjoyed the astringent quality of Tozer’s writing. He is very clear, and many of the things that bothered him about Christian culture in the 60’s turn out to have been as atrophying to faith as he suspected.

A Man Called Ove (Fredrik Backman). Ove is a 59-year-old widower in a carefully regulated housing development in Sweden. He is the quintessential curmudgeon who, when the story opens, feels he has nothing to live for, but he is surrounded by a diverse crew of neighbors who won’t leave him alone. That’s about all I’ll say in the plot summary department, but suffice it to say the book is often called “heartwarming.” I thoroughly enjoyed it, and thoroughly didn’t believe it. That is, Backman’s characterization is wonderfully truthful in its rendering of details about Ove; but in the real world, I find it hard to believe that others would see through an old grump of his caliber to the heart of gold beneath. It would be nice if it happened, nice enough that the novel brought me to tears at times. But because I’m skeptical that such a thing would really happen, I find myself filing it under “inspiring but improbable fiction.”

The Wednesday Wars (Gary D. Schmidt). Yes, I’ve never read this modern YA classic before. It gives a detailed look at junior high life in a 1967 NYC suburb. The narrator, Holling Hoodhood, is convinced that his teacher hates him, and despite his misadventures under her supervision — escaped rats, chalk-covered cream puffs, various social entanglements, wearing yellow tights and performing in a Shakespeare play — Mrs. Baker actually comes to his rescue in several hugely important ways throughout the story. His parents are dreadful — as self-absorbed and indifferent to Holling as can be imagined — but I really liked the picture of the era this tale gives. I also enjoyed Holling and felt Schmidt depicted a growing, changing 7th grader realistically.

Mere Christianity

Somehow, I’ve never been able to read this book before. I’ve tried a few times but never gotten beyond the first few pages.

Recently I tried again with the help of an audiobook version from the library. It worked, helping me to gain some momentum and push through the spot where I’ve run aground in the past.

I found Mere Christianity to be a timely, clarifying, and inspiring read. It was timely, because I need reminding of the big picture of the Christian faith and what this life is supposed to be working toward. I enjoyed listening with my daughters, too, so we could discuss some of the concepts and the strategies Lewis uses to explain them. The book is a treasure chest for anyone with questions about the Christian faith.

The illustrations Lewis uses to demonstrate theological ideas are unfailingly clear, narrated in accessible language. And no wonder. The original audience (from 1942-44) was the British public, to whom Lewis had been invited to address a series of radio talks on the Christian faith. (Think of it: an era when Christianity would be recognized as a topic worth hearing about by mainstream westerners. Can you imagine it? Neither can I.) Without dumbing it down, Lewis manages to tackle such subjects as the Trinity, moral law, the Incarnation, Redemption, time and eternity, free will, prayer, and the transformative process by which God takes fallen humanity and offers holiness.

With his characteristic wit to keep his listeners engaged, Lewis takes the stance of a friend walking alongside rather than one speaking from on high, systematically and thoroughly peeling away misunderstandings and revealing the shining heart. Here, for instance, is a passage I have heard snippets from but enjoyed hearing in context. It uses banking and war imagery and establishes Lewis’s solidarity with the audience with its reference to “you and I”:

Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.

Lewis is not perfect, of course. Gifted thinker though he is, he is also a product of his time. I noticed this in his attitude toward women. For instance,

There must be something unnatural about the rule of wives over husbands, because the wives themselves are half ashamed of it… The relations of a family to the outer world — what might be called its foreign policy — must depend, in the last resort, on the man, because he always ought to be, and usually is, much more just to the outsiders.

This is basically Alexander Pope’s line of reasoning when he says, “Whatever is, is right.” Did the fact that many Christian slaveholders did not feel shame mean that slavery was right? Is a man “ruling over” his wife any better than the reverse, given Jesus’s model of servant leadership? Is either party a subject to be ruled over by the other in Christian marriage? Lewis looks at his neighbors and assumes that at that time, in that place, in that social configuration, what he sees reflects the universal ideal for the sexes.  He paints men and women with an embarrassingly broad brush, stereotyping women as irrational protectors and men as the judicious and reasonable sex. I see no such generalities; men can be irrational protectors, women can be judicious and reasonable. These are individual personality traits, not gender traits. No wonder Dorothy Sayers, a friend of Lewis and fellow author, commented that where women were concerned he had “a complete blank in his mind.”

But this is a tiny morsel of an otherwise highly nourishing book. I would add that more than once I was struck not by Lewis’s insensitivity, but his compassion, for readers of all kinds. Here is an example from a discussion on the difference between “niceness” and God’s ultimate goals for Christian personality:

There is either a warning or an encouragement here for every one of us. If you are a nice person — if virtue comes easily to you — beware! Much is expected from those to whom much has been given. If you mistake for your own merits what are really God’s gifts to you through nature, and if you are contented with simply being nice, you are still a rebel: and all those gifts will only make your fall more terrible, your corruption more complicated, your bad example more disastrous. The Devil was an archangel once; his natural gifts were as far above yours as yours are above those of a chimpanzee.

But if you are a poor creature — poisoned by a wretched up-bringing in a house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels — saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion — nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex that makes you snap at your best friends — do not despair. He knows all about it. You are one of the poor whom He blessed. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive. Keep on. Do what you can. One day (perhaps in another world, but perhaps far sooner than that) he will fling it on the scrap heap and give you a new one. And then you may astonish us all — not least yourself; for you have learned your driving in a hard school. (Some of the last will be first and some of the first will be last.)

I think it’s the steady undercurrent of confidence in God’s meaningful and loving work in the Christian, however difficult life may be, that did me the most good. The logic and clarity are wonderful, and the pictures of eternal realities are worth remembering. But sometimes it’s simply the experience of being steeped in an author’s faith that can buoy us up by the time we reach the last page.

God is making us into something — something other, something grander, than we would be in our flesh. This is the point made over and over in Mere Christianity. God’s purpose is not to clear away difficulty, but to forge new creations. I’m left wondering: what is he making me into? Am I cooperating?

Devilishly Clever

The Screwtape Letters. Most of us have read it at one time or another. I reread it this week with my daughters and was struck again by its often disturbing relevance and genius. On the surface, it seems like a good joke: a senior devil’s tutorials as addressed to his younger nephew, an inexperienced tempter. But I can see why Lewis himself spoke of both the ease of its inspiration , and the unpleasantness of its writing. “It almost smothered me before I was done,” he writes in the preface. “It would have smothered my readers had I prolonged it.”

Yes. But he kept it at the right length. And though not all the chapters were relatable for my daughters (some are aimed exclusively at men), Screwtape’s articulateness in describing the many layers of human folly can’t help but raise our awareness of our own inner lives. We read some of the book aloud, and listened to some via audiobook. (If you are interested in a good reader, the reading we listened to was absolutely perfect. Follow the link to hear a sample.)

One way the darkness of the letters made an impression on us was in the diabolical relationship between Screwtape and his nephew, Wormwood. “Your affectionate uncle Screwtape,” the writer’s sign-off in every chapter, has a very different meaning for the inhabitants of hell than for those still under the influence of God’s goodness in the world, and the contrast is at times quite chilling. Even the scene in which Screwtape involuntarily turns into a giant centipede in his rage over Wormwood’s failure to prevent his subject’s relationship with a vibrant Christian woman, though comical in its way, is also quite sinister.

In “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” the concluding section, Lewis offers a discussion of democracy from a demon’s perspective. Screwtape remarks that the fight for Liberty has at the heart “a deep hatred of personal freedom,” pointing to tendencies even in democratic institutions that have been highlighted by authors such as Orwell, Huxley and Vonnegut. The “Toast” was written in 1960 and is eerily on target as a criticism of present-day American society. It focuses on the outcomes of the “I’m as good as you” line of thinking, mainly the forced leveling of human gifts and abilities through political power. Much of this, Screwtape suggests, happens through the educational system. “We shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturbable conceit and incurable ignorance among men,” Screwtape assures the audience at the Tempers’ Training College of young devils. “The little vermin will do it for us.” Interestingly, this is done through making all education public, and making it unthinkable for anyone to send their children to private schools. I couldn’t help but think of the great opposition recently to Ms. DeVos, who favors school choice.

From how to exploit household annoyances, to ways to corrupt sexual impulses and romantic ideas, to uses of church in killing one’s genuine faith, to gluttony in its various forms, Screwtape shines a bright light on the strategems of hell in wooing a human soul away from the good. The best road, he points out, is the gradual one — “the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” By publishing these missives, he has done his cause some serious harm.

Peace Like a River

How could I have forgotten — or did I somehow miss it before? — the power and mysterious beauty of Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River?

I pulled it off the shelf a few weeks ago to read aloud to my daughters, remembering vaguely that I had liked it when I read it over ten years ago. Had I remembered the plot in detail, I may not have chosen it as a read-aloud. But we would have been much the poorer for it.

The book takes place around 1960 and documents a year in the life of Jeremiah Land and his three children: Davy (16), Reuben (11), and Swede (9). Our narrator is Reuben, who tells us about his father’s miraculous healing abilities and close relationship with God, Swede’s obsession with writing epic western sagas, and Davy’s independent spirit and skill as an outdoorsman. The family’s rhythm is overturned when Davy shoots two intruders one night, then escapes from jail just hours before his sentencing. The rest of the tale narrates the remaining Lands’ voyage into the Badlands in search of Davy. (Yes, that’s right: the Lands go to the Badlands.)

Probably what captured the girls initially was the humor of Reuben’s narrative. He speaks with wit and a self-deprecating humor that made the book great fun to read aloud, and his descriptions of people, settings and his own internal drama show a keen eye and an honest heart. Though Reuben praises Swede’s writing abilities and intelligence countless times, we never regret that he is the one telling this story.

The murder — or act of self-defense — caught us by surprise. That was a first here in Read-Aloud World. Yet Reuben relates it realistically, including his unexpected sympathy for the intruders as they die. Sometimes in movies, you can watch whole herds of people die in battles, but Reuben gets it right: it is a terrible thing to see someone die. He gives it the gravity it deserves. Further, the moral complexity of the killings comes through. The questions of whether they are justified, or whether Davy went too far, are handled with grace. If you have to read about someone getting killed, at least in this book it is given its proper weight.

This isn’t the last we see of brutality in the book, but it is told truthfully and from a humane perspective. The story repeatedly juxtaposes the Land family’s actual experiences in the West, and the western romance tradition that so colors Swede’s worldview, celebrating and interrogating our desire to reflect truth, meaning and nobility through art.  Reuben’s effort to work out his response to Davy in a way that honors both love and justice expresses this tendency as well. As in Enger’s other novel So Brave, Young, and Handsome, the world of Peace Like a River is filled with meaning — a “vale of soul-making,” as Keats would say —  and we never doubt the ways the supernatural leaks in, however unorthodox.

Somehow it captivated us. It’s not a kid’s book with a happy ending, as one daughter commented — though the ending is satisfying and moving just the same. Peace Like a River has a realism not restricted to material reality, a severity and beauty that hold it in mind and leave us remembering and pondering its characters. I’d say it was unforgettable, yet somehow I had forgotten… Reading it aloud this time and sharing the experience with others, I suspect it will not slip away again.

A Life Observed

In A Life Observed, author Devin Brown offers a biography of C.S. Lewis for a new audience: “a generation who may know him only through the Narnia films.” Though I don’t fit into this category, I’ve enjoyed this retracing of Lewis’s spiritual development for several reasons.

First, Lewis is one of my spiritual mentors. His books have influenced my thinking and my faith in far reaching ways — quite possibly more than any other writer. His ways of imagining spiritual truths are often the first to come to mind, perhaps because they have moved me as much at the emotional and spiritual levels as at the intellectual level. I’ve read several biographies of him, and it’s always like returning for a visit with an old friend.

In the case of this one, it was like visiting two old friends. Its author was a colleague of mine during my first year as a full-time English teacher, and during that busy and eventful year when I taught new courses, revised a dissertation, and got married, Dr. Brown was always a source of encouragement and friendship. It was good to hear his voice in these pages.

One distinctive of this particular biography is its limited focus on Lewis’s spiritual development. Drawing primarily from Lewis’s autobiographical Surprised by Joy, and supplementing with letters, remembrances, and passages in Lewis’s other books that mirror or further develop some of its ideas, A Life Observed traces Lewis’s journey from unbelief to an astonishingly fruitful Christian life. Brown works to break down and make relatable some of the more abstruse allusions and experiences in Lewis’s book: what Lewis meant by the elusive “Joy” that drew him, ultimately, toward God; some of the esthetic “triggers” of this longing in Lewis; and even the sources for chapter epigraphs. There are still aspects of Lewis’s experience that escape me. But though I don’t react to the “idea of autumn” in Squirrel Nutkin, the “holiness” of Phantastes, or the “idea of Northernness” the way Lewis did, I still liked revisiting these touchstones of his journey. One of the marks of legitimacy in anyone’s spiritual testimony is its personalness — the experiences that move us the most may not be ones that touch others at all. Yet God knows these secret springs within us, and knows how to ripple those waters — a further evidence of his reality, and of the kind of intimate relationship he wants to have with each of us.

I really liked the ways Brown brought scenes from the Narnia stories into his discussion of these movements in Lewis’s deeper life. It gives us a picture of a writer working out his ideas through different forms and over long periods of time. I found myself pleased many times to be reminded of a favorite scene in Narnia as it was set beside one of the themes Lewis was developing in other ways in his own life.

At several points, this biography consciously defers to Lewis’s authority in his interpretation of his own life. It may seem odd that this would be mentioned as noteworthy, but it’s true that biographers often allow their own assumptions and skepticism to override their subject. If this bothers you, you will probably appreciate passages like this one. It appears after noting the contrast between Lewis’s comments that he learned the doctrines of Christianity in his time at Wynyard, and Michael White’s assertion that the sermons there were “largely meaningless”:

There is a kind of biography that looks at what Lewis tells us in his autobiography and, following the biographer’s own set of presuppositions, claims to understand Lewis’s life in ways that Lewis himself could not.

This is not that kind of biography.

If you’re looking for exhaustive detail about Lewis’s life, or speculation about some of the more mysterious areas and relationships, this book doesn’t go into those things (though you’ll glean some other titles Brown recommends). But if you seek an introduction to the man behind Narnia, or a return to some familiar facts from a refreshing perspective,  A Life Observed offers a satisfying discussion of the process of personal transformation that gave Lewis such a compassionate and meaningful understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

Here is a link to other posts about Lewis on this blog, including reviews of several other biographies.

She Can Teach

Part of the reason I wanted to read this book is that the author is from my hometown. Jackie Roese was a year ahead of me in high school. I didn’t know her personally, but I knew who she was. It was a surprise to me when I learned that after high school, she became a Christian and married the son of my 6th grade Sunday school teacher.

She Can Teach tells some of her story, including how in the years since then she attended seminary, became a teaching pastor to women, became a writer, and earned her doctorate. I heard her speak once at a women’s breakfast at my home church, and she was dynamic and engaging. She Can Teach is, among other things, a well-told story about how God turned her life around, and at times it made me laugh out loud.

But it is also a direct, practical challenge to the notion common in evangelicalism that women should not be in church leadership or teach the Bible. Tracing a brief history of the church’s views of women, starting with Tertullian and extending into present day spokesmen like Bruce Ware, Wayne Grudem, and her peers in seminary, Roese concludes,

The message that I was receiving was the same one that women continue to receive and embrace, softer though it may be: “Woman, you are inherently less capable of handling the serious issues of theology and the Bible.” In whatever way that message is phrased, whether it’s spoken or unspoken, whether we realize it or not (and most of us don’t), the result is a perception of ourselves as “less than.” The theological ghost attacks our motivation to acquire the skills we need to handle God’s Word well.

That last sentence captures Roese’s motivation in writing. Her purpose is not to get locked into the debate about gender roles, but to encourage women to learn how to study and teach/preach the Bible, and then to equip them to do it well. Research indicates that in the evangelical tradition, which grants such primacy to the preaching of the Word,  women are the least likely to acquire skills in teaching the Bible.

I liked the historical documenting of attitudes and teachings about women.  This aspect of the book encourages us to think about our experiences and level of belonging in the church. It has taken me many years to realize there are limitations; it can be very hard to see “atmosphere.” In addition to the discussion of attitudes, the chapter “Know Your Audience” offered some interesting statistics about women — both in and out of the church — that really intrigued me. It’s an information-rich book that expanded my awareness in several ways.

But ultimately what I appreciated most was the book’s case for women teachers, and its second half, which offers a very thorough and specific series of “how-to” chapters in studying and preaching. I’m a teacher by trade, but it was refreshing to read the many useful pointers here — kind of like attending a conference or seminar.  Roese covers everything, from identifying a main idea, constructing an outline and developing illustrations; to how to dress and use your vocal range; to the necessity of waiting on the Holy Spirit. Probably my favorite section was about building a preaching team, particularly the creative team (the “creatives,” as Roese calls them). She describes a typical meeting involving large sheets of paper taped to the walls for notes, craft and art supplies scattered over the tables for participants to work and play with, and a level of creative interaction and energy that simply sounded like a ball. I read that section to my artistic daughter, and her reaction was, “I’m in!”

If we feel “less than” or disqualified from some part of God’s kingdom, it isn’t him who’s doing it. I’ve noticed that in the Bible, God is generally much more egalitarian in his treatment of women than the culture at large. (I wrote about one example in this post. There are plenty of others.) But humans are a different story, bound as we are to traditions and, as Roese calls them, “theological ghosts.” Ranging through Scripture as well as church history and more recent scholarship, She Can Teach reminds us that women too can be gifted and called to preach, and her book’s treatment of the why and how makes for lively, informative reading.

Life Reimagined

I discovered Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife in this article about how our experience of our faith changes as we mature. The book explores that long stretch of years we call middle age — from around 45-65 — and the perspective shifts, professional landscape, brain chemistry, and changing values associated with it.

I really enjoyed the book, despite a few aspects that bothered me. Do you want the good news, or the bad news, first? Since my overall experience was good, I’m going to get the complaints out of the way first, and save the best for last.

  • Though it’s possibly a minor point, Hagerty gets Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers totally wrong. She makes mention of it when discussing Eric Ericsson’s research about the importance of practice. In a note, she adds this qualifier: “See Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, which argued that talent is unnecessary as long as you practice ten years or ten thousand hours.” Sorry, but I’ve read Gladwell’s book twice. It doesn’t say that at all. It simply explores the factors in addition to talent that pertain to highly successful people. Her erroneous summary made me wonder how many other things she may have gotten wrong that I wouldn’t happen to know about.
  • The book never confronts the dilemma of causation vs. correlation. It points to many factors relevant to aging well, and the implication seems to be, “Do these things to achieve the same result as these people.” But do the habits — exercise, ongoing learning, novelty in marriage — cause the experience, or are they results in the life of someone who’s already aging well? Ultimately one’s quality of life boils down to our choices, and here we are in the realm of mystery. The title points to “science,” but while brain chemistry is an interesting factor, will may be the true rudder.

So much for criticism. What I liked far outweighed these niggling negatives.

For one thing, the book affirms common experiences, alleviating potential isolation. Age discrimination and financial struggle seem to be common experiences for those in mid-life, for example. Hagerty reports on an informal study conducted through the NPR website, one in which she simply asked, “How’s midlife treating you?” Many, many of the responses, even from the educated professional class that makes up NPR’s audience, testified to huge financial losses and job losses. Our tiresomely unanimous, uncritical news media keep insisting that this is a strong economy, the best we’ve had in years. But this is not borne out in the experience of many actual people.

For another thing, I enjoyed reading about the many factors that relate positively to aging: exercise, new learning, incorporating new experiences in marriage, volunteering, attitude, social life, purpose. The midlife crisis, it seems, is more myth than reality, and not necessarily a common experience for the majority. It was inspiring to read about the people Hagerty interviews as well as the ways she participates in her own research. In the course of the book, Hagerty

  • becomes an avid cyclist and enters the Senior Olympics (exercise/purpose);
  • participates in a brain study that involves working on particular mental tasks for a period of time and demonstrates measurable growth (neuroplasticity and memory);
  • rents an RV and goes on an extended camping trip with her husband (marital exploration) and another couple (social life);
  • and, ultimately, takes an NPR buyout and switches careers from reporter to author (finding purpose/meaningful work).

Structurally the book intersperses research, interviews, and personal experience in an engaging way. Hagerty is an entertaining writer who can explain technical material in clear and interesting prose.

As someone with Alzheimers firmly established in my genetic inheritance, I was delighted to learn that there exist people whose brains have the “plaques and tangles” of the disease, but none of the symptoms. I had no idea! What better testimony that it isn’t exclusively an issue of genetic determinism, but of lifestyle choices as well, whether a person falls victim to this tragic disease.

While I was glad to discover that I’m already incorporating a number of the “good habits” of productive midlife, there is one glaring weakness: friendships. I have a healthy marriage and family life, but when it comes to friends, well…. I would say I have many acquaintances, but few real friends at this point in my life. Much of this has to do with time and energy, most of which is focused on my family. But as my children grow older and more independent, this book reminds me that it’s important to look for opportunities to develop friendships. This isn’t what I’d call an area of natural strength for me; I’m definitely an introvert, which doesn’t mean I’m antisocial, but does mean I’m comfortable alone. Yet interestingly, Hagerty’s discussion reminds us that cultivating friendships is a major factor in physical and mental well-being — one worth the risk and effort necessary.

Finally, the book inspires me to “reimagine” a professional direction for my own life. Hagerty focuses on the professional class: those who climb the ladder of success in their careers and then change course in mid-life. I’ve been outside of any professional structure for some time now; I didn’t get very far up the ladder before changing course 15 years ago, leaving a tenure track teaching position at the beginning of my academic life to marry, then become a parent, then home educate my kids. I reach mid-life with education, experience and skills, yet when it comes to any clout in my professional sphere, well… I’m not sure how to make it translate. I was just starting out in academia when family rose to prominence. I have loved the transitions:

  • from academic publication to blogging;
  • from college level instruction to  educational jack-of-all-trades with pre-college-aged students;
  • from a teacher:student ratio of 1:25 or 1:50 to 1:1;
  • from uncovering themes in American and British lit to reading all kinds of books together with my kids, noticing and thinking about literary elements together in the process;
  • from an “expertise” to omnivorous reading.

But none of this has occurred in a professional sphere with LinkedIn contacts and professional evaluations or promotions. As the end of my homeschooling era comes into view a few years down the road, I find myself mulling how to identify and channel the strengths I’ve developed in new directions.

If you’re somewhere on the long road of midlife, I recommend Life Reimagined. It’s a source of enjoyment, information, and enlarged perspective that I savored. It provides its target audience with some useful materials to think about quality of life, goals, and dreams, and Barbara Bradley Hagerty makes a great guide along the way.

The Listening Life

There are several great reviews of this book around, including this one that convinced me I wanted to read it. Ironically, I believe it was the idea of a listening God that interested me. Finishing the book, it’s the idea of a listening Janet that inspires me.

How many of us listen well? Recently I commended someone for being a good listener, mainly because the person keeps quiet while others talk. This is one attribute of a good listener, but not the only one. It’s even possible to keep quiet while others talk and not be a good listener at all. You may be judging them, or internally rephrasing everything they say in terms of your own personal grid of meaning, or simply waiting for them to finish so you can wrench the conversation down a completely different path, or — perhaps — not even listening to them at all.

The Listening Life helps to guide its readers into a fuller imagining of what it means to listen well. The first five chapters explore the way God listens, and how we can listen in return — for instance, through prayer, scripture, and creation. These chapters are illuminating, but the ones I liked best came when author Adam McHugh turned to how we listen to others, to people in pain, to our own lives, and to our culture. I had two favorite chapters. The first, “Listening to Others,” offers some fine insight into the ways we might be listening less well than we think we are, and what we may be missing. “Character building is always expensive to the ego,” writes McHugh, just before offering some questions to help us evaluate our motivations in conversation. He points out, “The opposite of a listening heart is not a talking heart but a selfish heart.” I have grown stingy about book purchases, relying on the library whenever possible, and often reselling books I am forced to buy. In this chapter, I gave up and started underlining and bracketing passages I wanted to remember. This book is a keeper.

My other favorite chapter is “A Society of Reverse Listening.” To give you a whiff of what it’s about, it begins this way:

Our church signs lay out the usual pattern. Come this Sunday for our message: “Where Is God When It Hurts?” This week’s sermon: “Abraham and Isaac: The Untold Story.” Sunday morning at 9 and 11: “Your One True Love.” The expectation is clear: if you come to church, you are going to listen. The church’s job is to preach, to teach the Bible and to share God’s opinions on the issues of the day, and your job is to listen to our message. We have a pulpit, and you have ears.

Imagine if the pattern was reversed. What if, instead of coming to church to be preached to, people came to church to be heard? What if the body of believers was known less as a preaching community and more as a listening community?

This struck a chord with me. No matter how good the preaching, the Sunday service is largely an exercise in being a passive audience. Of course, McHugh is talking not just about worship services, but about Christian culture at large, which is often perceived to have much to say, but not much time or interest in listening. It’s not built into our structures because, perhaps, it’s not built into our values. But this last chapter offers an inspiring vision of how we could become better at listening instead of talking.

I recommend The Listening Life. Reading is, after all, an experience of extended listening, and this book offers any number of insights that are both deep and useful, related with gentleness and wit. It has already had an impact on my responses to the small circle of people who share my life, and it is inspiring despite McHugh’s acknowledgement that

The honest truth is that there is no glory in listening. There is more glory in talking about listening than there is in actually doing it. It is the New Year’s resolution of relationship disciplines. It is not glamorous, charismatic or dynamic. People who have been heard well aren’t even aware of it half the time.

Yet when you commit to go deep into listening, you will find that listening “speaks” in ways far more powerful than talking ever could.

Rogue One (with spoilers)

It’s a little known fact in this corner of the blogosphere, but I’ve seen all the Star Wars movies. So even though I hardly ever review movies, I’m going to attempt to now, because in what may be becoming a tradition, we went to see Rogue One this week. But in contrast to last year’s experience with The Force Awakens, which left me unequivocally approving, this movie left me ambivalent.

To its credit, Rogue One depicts war with some degree of realism. The characters suffer and sacrifice to achieve the gain realized in the movie’s closing scene. Characters in the midst of battle experience fear and confusion, and with good reason.

Similarly, the Rebel Alliance is not the unified, unanimous force it appears to be in other movies. It betrays some of the characteristics of political groups in the present day, in a galaxy close at hand: opposing viewpoints, double-speak, and willingness to use an ordinary person like Jyn Erso without telling her the truth.

But though I have a certain appreciation for these realistic elements, mostly the film left me unmoved. For one thing, the Star Wars world is unremittingly bleak and colorless. I was delighted when the closing scenes, which take place in Imperial territory, were going to take place in daylight; all the rest of the movie is dark and claustrophobic. Even the opening scenes, in which a young Jyn watches her parents trying fruitlessly to resist the Empire, take place in a gray industrial landscape. I was surprised to hear that her father was a farmer, as his land bears more resemblance to a modern dump with its tube-like smokestacks protruding from barren earth. It’s an unappealing world that inspires little sympathy or understanding.

The script was equally colorless. In last year’s Force Awakens, the repartee between characters lightened the mood and demonstrated the chemistry among them. But the dialogue in this film was, as critic Robert Mondello notes, “flatfooted.” He writes, “With Stormtroopers lurking ’round every intergalactic corner, director Gareth Edwards hasn’t much time for such other Star Warsian charms as character, grace, whimsy and, most of all, fun.” I agree.

While the Force in previous movies was left vague enough for different faiths to see parallels, in this movie it seemed to me to be linked closely to Tibetan Buddhism through its chief spokesperson, a blind monk at the kyber temple (kyber crystals, used in Jedi lightsabers, are a new preoccupation in this movie). In this sense its depiction was less universal.

Finally, the ending left me wondering how futile the actors felt their roles to be. We won’t see any of them again. What does it matter that we may like some of them? This movie is on the one hand participating in the Star Wars community of characters and conflicts, and on the other hand a totally stand-alone enterprise. Ultimately it leaves me with a sense that it was just okay. I liked The Force Awakens. It left me wanting to see what would happen to the characters, and wanting to know more about them. It revived the nostalgia of the original episodes, made when I was a teen. Rogue One left me neutral.

On silence

Although we are tempted in times of agonizing silence to think of God with an icy stare on his face, refusing to make eye contact, I have found it comforting to think of God simply sitting with us in our pain, quietly listening. Maybe what feels like awkward and anxious silences to us are actually full and gentle silences. We are reminded that listening is not inaction. When God is listening to us, even if we do not experience the results we hope for, he is actively disposed toward us… (Adam S. McHugh)

At first when I came upon these sentences in The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World Of Distraction, I liked them. I don’t picture an “icy stare” so much as an unsmiling countenance and hands folded across God’s chest — as if he’s saying, “You work it out.” The idea of companionable and compassionate silence is much better.

Yet… sooner or later, we need a response, don’t we? Even the best of friends do not fail to respond eventually with a word. Silence is great for a time, but not for too long.

Maybe the problem is that an eternal God’s concept of “too long” differs radically from mine.

Nevertheless, I have grown skeptical, almost cynical, of what sound like rationalizations of what McHugh later calls “the dark night of the senses. The ‘sense’ of God’s presence has all but disappeared… What was once a raging love affair becomes a lukewarm marriage, a couple sitting at a nice restaurant on their anniversary with nothing to say.”

If the married couple never do find anything to say — if the silence goes on for too long — it stops being a marriage. Conversation is one strong thread tying two people together. Same with God.

This is not doubt speaking. Not anymore. I have noticed that no matter how difficult life may be, or how “hopeless” the outlook may seem, I wake in the morning with hope. I believe that God is at work. I trust him to provide and care for us. I recognize this perspective as a fruit of my Christian faith.

The question is not, for me, whether God is there. The question is why we so often speculate and explain away his quietness. Wouldn’t it be something closer to wisdom to fall silent ourselves when we are tempted to offer such explanations of a phenomena we really do not understand?

We are exhorted to “pray without ceasing” because God wants to hear from us. And we want to hear from God. It goes both ways.