Mevagissey

Over Sea, Under Stone

11312I started reading Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone aloud to my daughters. But as often happens, our pace was so slow that I grew impatient, carried the book off like a lion dragging prey to its den, and tore through it myself. I plan to finish reading it aloud, but at least I know the big picture now, and have experienced the story at the proper pace.

Over Sea, Under Stone is the first book in the Dark Is Rising sequence, a 4-book series that I missed as a child. Somehow or other I stumbled upon it recently and thought I’d try it as a read-aloud. One daughter in particular is partial to fantasy, and I’m not always sure how she’s processing what she reads. I thought it would be a good idea to work through some fantasy together.

This book is actually more mystery than fantasy. It takes place in a fictional village said to be based on Mevagissey, in Cornwall, and the tale is filled with Arthurian associations, evocations of the ancient past, seaside ambience and in general a sense that we are on the edge of mysteries we only partly understand. The central mystery involves an ancient map (or “manuscript”) three children find in a hidden attic of the old house in which they stay with their enigmatic Uncle Merry. In the process of deciphering its clues, Simon, Jane and Barney discover it will lead them to the grail, engage Uncle Merry as an important ally, and lead them into the path of dark and dangerous enemies. I liked the story’s atmosphere, which balances us at all times between the present and the past, the mundane and the mythic, the material and the fantastic.

OverSeaUnlike Eustace of Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who had read “none of the right books” and did not recognize a dragon till he turned into one, the children of Over Sea, Under Stone bring the right kind of knowledge to the task of interpreting the map and grasping its significance. They know about King Arthur. They quickly intuit how the map — which operates through a sequence of clues — works. They understand natural phenomena, like the behavior of the moon and the tides, and they’ve read enough about Cornwall to know a thing or two about its history. They grasp geography and have excellent situational awareness. (I couldn’t help but think of the book I read immediately prior to this one, The Glass Cage, which discusses how the kind of spatial orientation developed through study of paper maps rather than electronic GPS devices actually strengthens the brain. And in thinking of the breadth of these childrens’ general knowledge, I wondered how a modern-day child’s intellectual toolbox, shaped by a very different concept of education, would compare.)

All in all they warrant the trust Uncle Merry places in them when they confide in him about the finding of the manuscript. He has a role to play, but he considers deciphering the map to be their quest and leaves the responsibility in their hands. The stakes are high, but Simon, Jane and Barney are equal to the task — even though they do commit some of the usual mistakes and make some of the usual naive judgments over the course of their adventure. They face real danger, and I can understand why so many readers have found this to be a page turner.

51NCM9DNnEL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The characterizations of good and evil are vivid and powerful. I wonder if, as a child reader, I would have felt the creepiness of the bad characters’ stalking and spying on the children of the story. I think I would have; I certainly did as a parent. Uncle Merry has a mythic grandeur, all clarity and depth and mystery. And like the best stories, his respect for his young compatriots gives him even more heroic force.

I’d like to read the other books in the sequence, of which several reviewers have said that this first book is the weakest installment. I liked it very much. That bodes well for any future forays into Susan Cooper’s fictional world.

Automation on The Jetsons

The Glass Cage

The-Glass-Cage-book-coverA few years ago, I read Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, which studied the effects of social media on our relationships. Though I really liked the book, I couldn’t relate as well to the earlier portions that focused on the development of robots. “What does this have to do with me?” I wondered.

I feel differently now. A few weeks ago, I saw a headline about developing robot nurses to treat Ebola patients. Last week I saw another headline, this one about a Google computer that programs itself. Drones regularly appear in headlines (and even in YouTube videos when they become the hapless prey of cruising red tailed hawks). More and more, problems I didn’t know I had are being solved through various electronic devices. Where is it all headed?

When I heard about Nicholas Carr’s new book The Glass Cage: Automation and Us in this interview on NPR, I was intrigued. Several times as I read it, I remembered Carr’s comment in The Shallows that he missed his less distractible, pre-internet brain. Clearly he’s found it again. A more thoroughgoing discussion of the inroads automation is making in our lives (even those of us who don’t think of ourselves as “techies”) is difficult to imagine. From the autopilot capabilities of the aviation and automotive industries, to the computerization of the medical industry, to the software used by architects, to the GPS on our iPhones and the auto suggest when we perform a Google search — and more — Carr unpacks the question of what reliance on machines does to us.

There are several things I liked about the book (though the picture it gives us is quite sobering). One is Carr’s balanced perspective. He is not anti-technology, but rather a proponent of thoughtful engagement with it. A devotee of the technology-centric approach to life would be hard-pressed to find reasonable evidence that Carr is a strident neo-Luddite and can therefore be dismissed.

The factual content of the book makes it a fascinating read. Though I felt dismayed by many of the developments discussed in these pages, I learned a great deal and found it unfailingly thought-provoking. Whether I was reading about Inuit hunters, Robert Frost poems, airline accidents, Google Glass, or the contrast between human-centric and technology-centric design,  I kept wanting to put the book down and think about it. Carr’s discussion is insightful and encompasses the personal, intellectual, physical, and moral dimensions of automation, leaving us with plenty to think about.

Some of it made me mad. For instance, I read that the Rand corporation did a study using a simulator around ten years ago and reported giddily that medical care would be greatly improved if it transitioned from paper to electronic records. Millions of taxpayer dollars were immediately poured into the process only to reveal a few years later that it wasn’t panning out after all. We can’t go back. We have to live with that — even though it seems to be resulting in worse patient care and higher costs.

Some of it made me sad. When I read that the younger generation of Inuit hunters, legendary for their navigational skills using cues from nature, are becoming dependent on electronic GPS and consequently experiencing more accidents and even deaths, I thought about how quickly the inheritance of knowledge and wisdom can die out — only to be replaced by something vastly inferior.

Some of it made me feel hopeful because it vindicated my own hunches. For instance, did you know that those who use paper maps (vs. electronic GPS) actually grow more gray matter? Did you know that they age better? Well, okay, those weren’t hunches…. but I have felt that my iPhone’s GPS frustrates me by giving me such a small segment of the picture, and making me a blue dot in the center. (It’s similar to the way my Kindle strands me on a single page, without a tactile sense of the context among other pages or an easy way to flip backward and forward.) I’m apparently not alone in my attachment to paper maps.

Edited to add: Today (Nov. 8), I see a news story about how in 2025, 50% of today’s occupations will no longer exist. Before reading The Glass Cage, I would have probably laughed this article off. But the book does include discussion of the impact of technology in the workplace, and in fact automation does replace people. Maybe I’m glad to be in the humanities after all. Robot humanities faculty would be a contradiction in terms… wouldn’t it? In any case, the article exhibits typically rose-tinted glasses regarding the way technology frees people from the monotonous and the mundane so that their work can be more interesting and creative. We’ll just hope that’s not code for “collecting unemployment.”

I suppose that you could put this book in a nutshell by saying it’s an extended development of the familiar mantra “Use it or lose it.” Highly prized skills and capabilities can atrophy when we are reduced to merely monitoring the screens in our lives. But ultimately The Glass Cage exhorts us to think about what it means to be human, and how we can preserve wholeness, risk, creativity, physicality, moral reasoning, and mastery over the gadgets and systems so solicitous to provide friction-free lives before we even ask. Dependence on technology is really dependence on the human entities behind it — entities that may be quite sincere in their belief that they are improving our quality of life, but that have a strong personal interest in commercial success and may not share our values and beliefs. We are better off in the long run if we interrogate the “improvements” that stream our way and think about what really gives our lives meaning. We may find we don’t want so much labor saved after all.

The Bible Tells Me… What?

So here I am, again, writing about The Bible Tells Me So — which I already reviewed here. I’ve continued mulling over the book, bothered by various things. I wanted to return and complete my earlier representation of my experience with it here.

Basically, I think it reflects some degree of scholarly hubris on the part of its author, Peter Enns. I have a lot of respect for him, and I believe his intentions with the book are good and God-honoring. But the overall result is to make the Bible into a book that’s not so much a human-divine hybrid as a human recasting of the divine. It never really deals with the resulting elephant in the room, which is: why bother to read it? There are plenty of other ancient stories regarded as fairy tales. Why read this one as anything more? Somehow, the recommendation to defer to tradition and read in faith rings hollow (quoted in my review) after all that’s gone before.

For instance, after a discussion of how troubling it is that God would order genocide, it suggests that God simply didn’t tell the Israelites to attack and destroy the Canaanites; they just thought he did. Archaeology hasn’t confirmed the story either. Same with the story of the dramatic exodus from Egypt. No archaeological evidence unearthed of Pharoah’s army, and no extra-biblical accounts of the tale. Just stories, then, says Mr. Enns. But that’s okay, because God likes stories. He likes for his children to make stories about him, even when they are filled not with occasional factual errors based on the knowledge limitations of the time, but with grand misconstruals of God’s character and communication with human beings.

It takes the point too far. One wonders how the author feels so confident making a pronouncement of this scale after so many centuries.

One of the main thrusts of the book is that it has been wrongly read — and defended — as a literal historical or scientific “manual for living.” We should not project modern questions and concerns on to an ancient text written by people with a tribal mentality. True enough. It doesn’t reward efforts to wring geology and biology and physics and astronomy out of it. Still, it claims to be “inspired by God.” In the passages about Israel’s history — tales that are not offered as mythical — we can expect to see a flat earth as the conceptual framework, different concepts of time, imprecise numbers, some exaggeration. But assertions of things that never happened? That’s a little different.

I wonder if the author is committing the very error he warns against: bringing a modern sensibility to an ancient text and saying, “This can’t be true. God can’t be like this.”

I’m not saying I don’t struggle with the Bible. There’s plenty there to stop us in our tracks and make us struggle and question and pray and seek answers. I struggle with the violence too, and the many supernatural events recounted matter-of-factly in the Old Testament.

But the fact that I struggle with it doesn’t mean I can make it disappear. In the end I am much more comfortable concluding that somehow, the ancient writers didn’t get it totally wrong. They did capture some aspects of God, however mystifying to me. And even if they exaggerated, the didn’t make up historical accounts out of thin air.

My faith can accept the uncertainty of this. But the seeming certainty of The Bible Tells Me So — a certainty that doesn’t even stop short of proposing that the Son of God “creatively interpreted” the Scriptures he himself inspired — seems to overreach. I was listening for a humility that should accompany study of the Bible, but I had a hard time hearing it in The Bible Tells Me So.

John on the Island of Patmos (Gustave Dore)

John on the Island of Patmos (Gustave Dore)

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Lessons from a Sheepdog

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17654_w185Phillip Keller’s Lessons from a Sheepdog was a read-aloud over the summer. All of us — my daughters, husband, and I — loved it. For me, it was a second reading of this classic by the author who’s perhaps more well-known for A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. More recently, I’ve been working my way through the latter on my own, but Lessons from a Sheepdog remains my hands-down favorite. It recounts the tale of Keller’s border collie Lass, which he rescued as a young man just starting a sheep farm in Vancouver.

When he first came upon Lass, she belonged to a city-dweller, and she was reduced to a life of being hobbled on a short chain because of her chasing habits and general unfitness to be a house pet. The very qualities that made her a poor house dog had the potential to make her a fabulous sheep dog — the vocation for which border collies are bred. But there was no guarantee at the beginning that she would work out. She was three years old, untrained, snarling, and fearful when Keller brought her home. The tale of the relationship that developed between her and her master, and the transformation brought about by a life of purpose, brought tears more than once as we read it.

Maybe it’s because we have always had border collies. Currently we have Lucy, who’s just a few weeks shy of a year old now. We recognized her in Lass.

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But more likely it’s a combination of this enthusiasm for the breed, our memories of our own dogs, and the deep spiritual insight Keller brings to his story. He learned a lot about God through his relationship with Lass, and each chapter explores a different facet of his discovery. The illustrations are vivid and memorable, seasoned with Keller’s knowledge of farming and appreciation for the natural world. The book is a truthful and wise recounting of his spiritual journey.

I’ve reread the first chapter, which tells of the first meeting between Lass and Keller, many times. It’s just… powerful. But this is the first time in many years I’ve reread the whole book, and it was all the more meaningful sharing it aloud with my family. Highly recommended.

Rosace nord de la cathédrale de Chartres

Mere Churchianity

mere_churchianity-198x300You won’t find many whole-hearted endorsements of this book by evangelical heavy-hitters. But it’s the best book I’ve read since we left our church about a year ago, one that I resonated with in almost every respect and that gives a needed and truthful critique of institutionalized evangelicalism. Written by Michael Spencer (a.k.a. the Internet Monk), who died just a few months before it was published in 2010, Mere Churchianity focuses on the contrast between what he calls Jesus-shaped spirituality, and church-shaped spirituality. The former puts Jesus at the center without a whole lot of intermediaries; the latter puts the church with its programs and building funds and pastor-centrism and Christian subculture practices at the center.

His critics would argue that when he acknowledges that those who leave the church are doing so because it’s the only path they see toward authentic spiritual growth, he’s being too soft on wimps who have unrealistically high expectations and who just want to be able to sin more easily. (I’ve read a couple of their reviews. And I’ve been around evangelicals long enough to have heard this a time or two… and more.) The faithful, they say, stay — because the institutional church as evangelicalism defines it over the last 50 or 60 years is really the only legitimate forum for authentic spiritual growth.

I would respond that doubtless such “wimps” exist, but this book is not addressed to them. And if they read it, they will find themselves seriously challenged. It’s not a book for game-players. The author’s honesty and devotion to Jesus is much too real. No one looking for a feel-good justification of lip-service Christianity will be interested.

I’m in my late 40’s, and I’ve been an active member of evangelical churches all my life. I’m a committed disciple of Jesus. But over the last decade, my confidence in the institution has evaporated. We left our church with fear and trembling, and though we’ve visited several over the last year they all look like the same cereal in different colored boxes. Most of our spiritual growth is occurring as we follow Jesus here, outside the walls. It’s not always easy, and our journey is not over. But our family is coming to life spiritually in new ways.

Mere Churchianity is the first book I’ve read that represents neither a diatribe against the institutional church (Michael Spencer is a trained pastor who served in ministry at a Christian school for 17 years) nor a vilification of “deserters” such as myself. It maintains an admirable balance, rightly condemning the artificiality of much that goes on in church but acknowledging that staying (as he himself has stayed) is a viable option. It’s just not the only option. He affirms that God is not confined there, and that spiritual authenticity and ministry and fellowship and sacramental living are just as possible outside the walls.

Some have faulted the book for not giving a detailed description of what “unchurched church” (for lack of a better name) should look like. Spencer chooses to conclude that those who are on the brink of leaving, or have left, to follow Jesus, have a number of options. It’s as wide open as one might expect with an infinitely creative God at the helm. To hand people a new program after so thoroughly facing all the limitations of program-based faith would have been untrue to the rest of the book. Finding Jesus-shaped spirituality involves listening to the Holy Spirit and trusting him to show you the next step. Substituting “the Michael Spencer plan” would turn this into just another religious self-help book — of which there are already far too many.

The writing is highly readable, unpretentious, funny at times, and always truthful. Spencer had the gift of speaking the truth in love, and he is able to talk about the failings of the church, somehow, without bitterness or condemnation or superiority. His insights are deep (I loved his reading of the story of the prodigal son) and he consistently directs our eyes to Jesus. I felt that the book was a blessing — a last blessing, as it turns out, from Michael Spencer — on all seekers of Jesus, whether inside the church or outside.