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.

Hillbilly Elegy

hillbillyJ.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is the best book I’ve read in a long time. Google the title, or the author’s name, and you’ll discover that it is making news as a treatise on the white working class. Some call it “an explanation of Trump voters.” But I doubt that Mr. Vance would feel comfortable with the title of “explainer.” (There is also no mention of Trump in the book, though in interviews the author is asked about him.) I got the sense that he, too, is asking questions, mulling experience, and trying to understand. His perspective carries weight because it has all the authenticity of lived experience.

A native of Middletown, Ohio, Vance comes from a family of Appalachian “hillbillies.” His grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, moved from a cripplingly poor county in Kentucky to central Ohio in an effort to improve their chances and those of their children. They largely succeeded, arriving well before the factories closed. But for complex reasons, including an uneasy match between the hillbilly culture they brought with them and their Ohio community, their early financial success not only didn’t last, but was accompanied by a level of personal struggle and family dysfunction that made this author the most unlikely candidate in the world for the life he has attained: a graduate of Ohio State and Yale Law School, a happily married man, and a financially successful member of the professional class.

I admire the way Mr. Vance has been willing to speak for his community before a wider audience. He writes with great honesty, and great love, about the mixed bag of his cultural inheritance: deep devotion to family, yet a broken home and an unstable mother struggling with various addictions and a string of stepfathers; a volatile family life, yet a Scots-Irish honor code that insists on revenge for any perceived slight to you or your family member; a willingness to work hard and a love for country, yet a profound hopelessness in “the system” to ever guarantee success. The picture that emerges is a complex one, and though it brought tears to my eyes at times as I read, the author’s love and concern infused the telling and rendered both reflexive elitism and unfeeling judgment equally impossible. I respect Vance’s clear-eyed refusal to simplify, stereotype, or dismiss his subjects. In no way does he disown his heritage, however many of its hurdles he has cleared.

By far the heroes of the story are Mamaw and Papaw Vance, the author’s grandparents. They became Vance’s unofficial guardians and provided the stability, or as he calls it, the “safety valve,” in an otherwise chaotic and sometimes dangerous personal world. Though they have plenty of rough edges and failures, Vance sees his upward trajectory as directly attributable to them. After his grandfather dies, Vance lives with his grandmother for several years, and her steady encouragement and love enables him to begin redeeming himself as a high school student. He joins the Marines, where he learns discipline as well as a number of greatly needed life skills, and from there he is on his way up.

So why aren’t more from the white working class experiencing the kind of upward mobility Vance is? He offers no all-encompassing answer, but he does point to both systemic problems working on the community from without, and personal agency of those within the community. His discussion includes, among other things, the influence of Christianity, class, family, and politics both left and right. While the book is inspiring and gives me lots to think about, it does nothing to abate the concern I feel for our country or for my own family. On the contrary, it acknowledges some of the great divides among us. But it does so in a way that opens dialogue and advances the discussion in a disarmingly personal, civil way. Hillbilly Elegy does what all the best books do: it unsettles me, it brings others into sharper focus, and it makes me think about how similar and how connected we really are. These days, we can’t hear enough of such reminders.

Recent Reads

booksmI’ve had different degrees of success in my reading this summer. For example, though their premises were interesting and they were in general pretty good, I fell by the wayside and failed to finish Simplicity Parenting and Sarum. After waiting weeks for The Nest to become available at the library, the opening pages turned me off quickly by presenting me with a sordid encounter.

Nevertheless, I’ve had some success. It’s a Beautiful Day, by Renee and Philip Murdoch, details its author’s healing from traumatic brain injury. An American missionary in Rio, Renee Murdoch was attacked by a homeless man who fractured her skull so violently that no one could have predicted she would survive, much less recover without any brain damage. It’s an inspiring story full of encouragement, gripping description, and quirky humor. It challenged me to persist in prayer, no matter how many times the same prayer may be required or how long it takes to reach complete — not partial — fulfillment.

The Givenness of Things, by Marilynne Robinson, is a book of essays of which I read a few. One modern trend Robinson explores in her searching, densely packed way is the loss of theological distinction and tradition in modern Protestantism. A Calvinist herself, she seeks to connect our public discourse and sense of politics to what she sees as a lack of depth in our churches. She is politically liberal and a proud proponent of “civil religion,” neither of which persuasions found a sympathetic chord in me. Yet she makes some good points that require a thoughtful consideration. For example:

The word “Christian” now is seen less as identifying an ethic, and more as identifying a demographic… This drift is the American version of a phenomenon that is clearly widespread throughout old Christendom. A ferocious secularism can carry on its internecine wars under the names Catholic and Protestant. Notional Christians can align themselves against actual Muslims in defense of European culture and civilization, which are based on a system of belief that is no longer believed, and are therefore under a severer threat than any they could face from a competing religion…

Who can fail to think of our current election season? Robinson reminds us that this is nothing new, but only “old humankind going about its mad business as if it simply cannot remember the harm it did itself yesterday.” But the fact that it’s not new doesn’t make it less serious. And perhaps, she writes, part of it is new: “There appears to me to be a dynamic at work that is new for us, a polarization of the good on one side and the religious on the other, which will be a catastrophe for American Christianity.”

Seeing the performance of Christians throughout this campaign, and seeing the apparent faith that salvation can be found in the political process, there can be little doubt that there has been a catastrophe for American Christianity. I don’t know if Robinson’s take explains it fully, but there is surely something very wrong.

I’ve enjoyed Wendell Berry’s Imagination in Place, a book of essays that take up literary topics. He has essays presenting his perspective on several authors that I like (such as James Still and Wallace Stegner), as well as those who have been among his longest writerly friends (James Baker Hall and Gurney Norman). As always, I enjoy making my way through these thoughtful essays on art and artists. One of my classmates in graduate school remarked that Wendell Berry’s prose literally slows you down as you read, and in our hectic age this is a gift that grows steadily more valuable.

While I’m sure I read Elizabeth George Speare’s Witch of Blackbird Pond many years ago, I remembered none of it. Rereading it in advance of this year’s American history study, I felt it to be a pitch-perfect YA novel, well paced, sympathetic, and rich in detail of the period. Though the depiction of the Puritans is weighted toward the stern and curmudgeonly, there are a few scenes that show them simply merry and enjoying the life of the community and the beautiful natural setting in Connecticut. The “witch” of the story, a Quaker woman, is somewhat idealized, but ultimately the story shows the faith community growing and learning.

Finally, I revisited Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. My original, more complete review of the book is here. While I feel this book stops short of taking a Marxist view of people, it does offer a critical examination of America’s version of the rugged individualist success story. Taking selected “outliers” who perform with an extraordinary degree of success — in the IT industry, the practice of law, hockey players, pilots, and math students, for instance — Gladwell makes a convincing case for external factors like the 10,000 hour rule, family and wealth, and the occasional once-in-a-lifetime window of opportunity that only comes to some. It’s a fascinating book that will make any parent consider how to help their children succeed — and encourage any individual to take a look around and see what opportunities may be quietly at hand.

One phenomenon Gladwell discusses is the importance of cultural heritage. He begins with a discussion of the Scots-Irish honor culture, and this is part of the subject matter of a book I expect to read soon: Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. (You can read an interview with the author here.) The only catch is that the book needs to arrive — and just this morning I received a notice that it will be delayed. Oh well. I expect it to offer some needed insight into the surrealism of this election season, among other things.


You Have a Brain

yhabWe bought Ben Carson’s You Have a Brain: A Teen’s Guide to T.H.I.N.K. B.I.G. for our kids. We knew a bit of his life story; someone had given us America the Beautiful a few years ago, and my husband had read it. We had also watched the movie Gifted Hands. His seemed like an inspiring story. We actually ended up listening to the whole thing together in one day on Audible. It was the day of our yearly applesauce making extravaganza back in the fall, and Carson’s book formed the backdrop of the day.

By now, many are familiar with his story, thanks to his temporary infamy when the news media raised rumors about his credibility in the early days of his presidential campaign. Having already read/heard the book, we felt sad that he would be targeted in this way. We never doubted Carson’s truthfulness, and we were glad when the rumors, gaining no traction, died away.

This book tells the story of Carson’s indomitable mother, who instilled in her sons a courageous spirit and big dreams even though she had an uphill battle for most of her life. Married to a bigamist who abandoned his family when Carson was a young boy, she worked hard to provide for her sons and preserve opportunities for their betterment. Carson recalls her familiar refrain, “Do you have a brain??” and uses it as a structuring device for his story of discovering his own potential and ultimately rising to become a brain surgeon. The story affirms the importance of reading and education, of persistence and hard work, of integrity. The letters of “Think Big” make up an acronym intended to help teens remember the key ingredients to success. This came off as rather forced. (For example, the “N” in “Think” stands for “Nice.”) I thought of other biographies, such as Frederick Douglass (for whom learning to read opened the door to freedom from slavery) and Ben Franklin (hard work + virtue = success), by turns as we listened.

It may have been because of the experience of taking in the whole book  in one day’s dose, but my only reservation was that by the end it had begun to sound self-aggrandizing. To hear all of one man’s accomplishments in a single day does get old after awhile. It has come back to me in recent days as we’ve seen Carson refuse to withdraw from the presidential race despite barely registering in the polls anymore. He is not someone who has tasted failure much, and maybe he has a hard time facing that this may be something that won’t fit into the general pattern of succeeding at everything he tries. But surely Christians should be the first to recognize when their personal aspirations need to be set aside for a greater good. Our identity is not in our personal success or failure, but in our position as children of God.

Like any biography, this represents the author’s interpretation of his life. Because young people need as much encouragement as they can get to believe in the possibilities available to them, they might find this book to be challenging and inspiring.

The Fellowship

511ximwLEgLWhat then, were the Inklings? Was John Wain right to call them (as we reported on the first page of this study) ‘a circle of instigators, almost of incendiaries, meeting to urge one another on in the task of redirecting the whole current of contemporary art and life’? Were they, rather, just a circle of friends, sharing talk, drink, jokes, and writings? Something in between or something other? The question vexed the Inklings themselves, their supporters, and their detractors during the group’s existence and after its demise.

Philip and Carol Zaleski ask this question at the start of the final chapter of their thoroughgoing study of four of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams. While much of the material about Lewis and Tolkien was already familiar to me, I gained an introduction to Charles Williams (of whom I’ve read a little) and Owen Barfield (of whom I knew nothing at all), and in these pages we also meet several others who belonged to the Inklings’ circle.

My answer to the Zaleskis’ question would be that the Inklings were a circle of literary friends, firing on all cylinders and modeling Christian friendship at its best — thus inspiring one another and spurring one another on in their creative purposes and talents. What I value most about this balanced and well-researched book (“a tome,” the librarian commented when I checked it out of the library) is its depiction of friendships that rise and fall, grow and recede, and mature among the rhythms of life for this group of scholars. The mental picture that might spring to mind when one hears “the Inklings” is of a group of well-educated, brilliant artists having intense literary discussions in a British pub. But there was much more to their lives: families, illnesses, misunderstandings and conflicts and reconciliations, wars, long walks, and many changing seasons in their relations one to another. Ultimately in this book we get a developed portrait of mature friendship — not without its difficulties, but immensely rewarding and life-changing.

Lewis emerges as the central figure of the group, not only for his vast literary output but for his gift of friendship. He was an extremely social person, quick to value people of all kinds and draw them into a constellation organized around his gravitational force. Tolkien, a less genial and more exacting personality, would surely never have finished his “legendarium” (which he worked on steadily for many decades) without Lewis’s encouragement. (When asked near the end of his life about their relationship, Lewis explained, “I don’t think Tolkien influenced me, and I am certain I didn’t influence him. That is, didn’t influence what he wrote. My continual encouragement, carried to the point of nagging, influenced him v. much to write at all with that gravity and at that length. In other words I acted as a midwife not as a father.”) Owen Barfield, noted for his writings on Rudolph Steiner and anthroposophism, seems to have found his debates with Lewis in the days before Lewis converted to Christianity as the spring from which the major currents of his intellectual life flowed. Charles Williams joined the Inklings at Lewis’s invitation, and though he died young and left a legacy of anything but unanimous acclaim, Lewis never ceased to honor him and look for ways to bring his work before a wider audience. The Inklings met regularly on Tuesday mornings at the Eagle and Child pub, and on Thursday nights in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen, and Lewis and his brother Warren were its most faithful members — the only two attendants at the last Thursday night meeting. The impression of Lewis as someone whose enormous influence grows as much from his deeply social orientation and love for people as from his intellectual energy is one of my strongest impressions from The Fellowship.

I found new details of Tolkien’s life and writing here, and though it was absorbing reading it didn’t change my impression of him as a brilliant, somewhat prickly perfectionist. A devoted Roman Catholic, his role in C.S. Lewis’s conversion is central, but after that it seems the two were more at odds than not in their Christianity; Tolkien strongly disapproved of Lewis’s theological writings, which arguably brought him before his widest audience, and Lewis was critical of Roman Catholicism. Tolkien also disliked Lewis’s use of figures from classical mythology in the Narnia books. His feelings toward Lewis seem a complex mixture of deep loyalty and love (he described Lewis’s death as an “axe-blow near the roots”), and irritation (in a letter to his son he referred to Lewis’s “ponderous silliness”). Their friendship ebbed and flowed over the years, but it lasted; one of the central accomplishments of The Fellowship is its depiction of relationships growing, accommodating and maturing. I could relate to many of Tolkien’s attitudes and his strong responses — for instance, to the onslaught of the machine and to some aspects of modernity. His core world seems to have been made up of Catholicism, family, and his legendarium.

I’ve read a few novels by Charles Williams, and they were “stretching experiences”: The Place of the Lion and Descent into Hell. They stretched my imagination and introduced totally new ways of seeing my faith. This seems to have been his effect on others and his main gift. The literary value of his contributions is debatable, but as a personality he was an unforgettable force to those who knew him. I found him hard to get my mind around as I read The Fellowship; he seemed to me fundamentally odd with his simultaneous passions for Christianity, the occult, magic, and idealized romantic love. But his influence on others in the literary world of his day is undisputed.

About Barfield, I knew nothing at all until The Fellowship. In some ways I find him the most inspiring figure, for after an early start as an academic, he took a job in a law office and plugged away at it for 30 years supporting his family and feeling its stifling effects. Late in life, he dove back into writing and produced among other things an important book about Coleridge. In the last few decades of his life he became a well-known literary figure in America for his views on language, anthroposophism, and the evolution of consciousness. His conversations as a young man with the pre-Christian C.S. Lewis were important in his refinement of his own ideas, and he was deeply hurt by Lewis’s refusal to continue their debates (dubbed “The Great War”) after he became a Christian. He comes across as strangely preoccupied with Lewis all his life, almost what a later generation would call codependent. But he certainly came into his own.

Having written so much already, I have to concede that there is no way to fully represent all the ground covered in The Fellowship. There are themes here I haven’t even mentioned: the literary influence of the Inklings in contrast to the Bloomsbury Circle, the hostility toward Lewis for his Christian views, the effects of war on the Inklings. We may  think of these men as protected gentlemen in flannel and tweed, yet several of them served in battle and then returned to academic life. This typifies what I enjoyed most about The Fellowship: the Zaleskis give us a sense of these literary figures as minds and as men in the fuller contexts of their world over a lifetime. Part biography and part critical study, this would be an ambitious project to undertake for a single figure, but Philip and Carol Zaleski have undertaken it for four whose lives and influences are interwoven. This is why The Fellowship leaves me thinking about friendship, history, the nature of genius and influence, creativity, and love. This is a book well worth reading and savoring.


C.S. Lewis and Bottoming Out

It seems to us that he went from being a formidable atheist to a formidable Christian right away, but he didn’t. There really are about ten years that we really don’t know very much about. When Lewis was in one way God, I think, was preparing him. These are the thirties when he was just venturing gradually into Christianity. He wrote a few poems, but during that time Lewis realized that he would never be a great poet; all the plans that he’d made for himself were coming to nothing. He might not ever do anything really worthwhile. And I think he reached the Valley of Humiliation that Bunyan wrote about where you have to just give up everything and realize you don’t really have anything to present before God. You know, you may be a tutor in an Oxford college — but so what? You’re just a teacher, still. You haven’t really done anything. And I think he was brought down to the absolute bottom, so you could say, “God is my all,” and mean it — and not think, “God is my all, but I’ll also have my books to my credit and when I leave the college everybody will know who I am.” No, it wasn’t that way. He had nothing except God. (Walter Hooper, Day of Discovery, “The Life of C.S. Lewis” Part 2)

It’s encouraging, isn’t it, that a Christian who has had such an incredible impact on so many of us may have felt this familiar sense of personal crisis. This was roughly halfway through his life. He was converting to faith in God and had written only a couple of books of poetry. All of his future books were yet to be written: books providing us with imaginative terms for comprehending God’s character and work; books providing deep encouragement and honest struggle in pain and grief; books wrestling with the intellectual difficulties of faith; books that simply bring joy, the window into Heaven that illuminated his own path.

But before all that came this — something very close to despair. It’s a state of mind I can relate to, this feeling that time is passing, and you’re not amounting to anything. He couldn’t have imagined what God would do with his life once it was entirely surrendered. Neither can any of us.

Pioneer Girl

pgSo you feel like you’ve lived an interesting life, maybe a life that illustrates one of the archetypal American themes — Manifest Destiny, for example. How do you go about writing your life story for public consumption?

For Laura Ingalls Wilder, the process involved writing a long, seamless, sequential narrative to her writer daughter, Rose Wilder Lane — complete with personal notes (“You remember the dress…”) and directions indicating an awareness of a public audience that might one day read her story. Some passages are boxed with strict instructions to keep them secret. Others seem to dwell excessively on mundane details while racing right over more intriguing fare that’s left undeveloped.

The contrast in content between this heavily annotated draft and the famed Little House books for young readers didn’t catch me altogether by surprise. Some of the details of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life outside the books were familiar to me from Miller’s Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder. I knew about the little Ingalls brother who died, the rather depressed chapter of the family’s life spent in Iowa, the fact that the Ingallses were in Indian territory illegally. And some of the rougher experiences of pioneer life were apparent already from the books, even though they aren’t dwelt on: tornadoes and blizzards that take lives, a wife who threatens her husband with a butcher knife, alcoholism, and racism.

But more of these details are provided in Pioneer Girl, written matter-of-factly, with only occasional passages of the description Laura’s character develops in the novels as Mary’s “eyes.” Pioneer Girl gives us glimpses of domestic violence, drunkenness, even one episode where a very young Laura is nearly molested.

Even the Ingalls family comes out looking a little less saintly. Pa skips town with the family without paying rent; they show little concern for laws or treaties in their attitude toward the west (despite Pa’s stint as justice of the peace on Silver Lake); even their care of Laura seems somewhat lax in the way they send her to stay with others as a companion, even as a child. Mary comes across more realistically, less perfect than in the novels (though even in them we see her bossiness and, at times, narcissism). Laura herself is every bit as feisty and determined as in the stories — and then some. Sometimes she comes across as manipulative and overbearing. But in the essentials of resourcefulness, faithfulness to one another, neighborliness, and civic duty, the family remains consistent with their fictional counterparts.

There are plenty of surprises in details — the sequencing of the family’s travels westward, for instance. Characters are sometimes compilations of real people. In some matters, Wilder’s memory is simply unreliable, as the annotations point out by reporting on the degree of correspondence between Wilder’s memory and historical fact. All of this raises interesting questions about the process by which life is converted into fiction — or even into autobiography. When I mentioned to my daughters that Jack the brindle bulldog was actually traded away with Pet and Patty, they felt betrayed — as though Laura Ingalls Wilder had deliberately lied to them! But the Little House books are fiction. We know this — yet we develop such an attachment to the cast of characters that it’s difficult to accept the ways the books differ from reality.

The books, Wilder said, were not pure history — but they were true. Truth vs. accuracy. Certainly one dimension of the stories’ truth that came through to me as I read Pioneer Girl was Laura’s feeling as she sits with Almanzo on the doorstep of their home on the night of her marriage and feels grateful that she will never have to live among strangers again. She has a place of her own. There is a sense of danger and insecurity emanating from Pioneer Girl that I never felt in the Little House books. Its release to a public audience after all these years supplies a fascinating and necessary context to the series.

Other posts on Laura Ingalls Wilder:

Steve Jobs

jobs-cover-250Though I’m neither an especially tech savvy person nor an Apple devotee, lately I’ve been hearing about Steve Jobs everywhere. He seems to be the one people like to quote, especially his comments about designing not the products people want, but the ones people would want if they knew they existed. When my husband watched a documentary about Jobs a few weeks ago and told me about it, that settled it. I had to read this bio by Walter Isaacson.

The book offers a readable portrayal of a very complicated personality. Jobs is in some ways the quintessential American hero. He’s an orphan, not a child of royalty. His adoptive family was middle class, not a place of privilege. He dropped out of college. He made it big using his brains and ingenuity, without any help from an Ivy League transcript or a famous benefactor. Though he died of cancer a few years ago, the company he co-founded (with Steve Wozniak) is still tremendously successful. When it comes to fitting the pattern of the self-made man, Jobs pretty much nails it.

But there is a dark side to this mythology, too. Jobs was equally famous for his brutal honesty and explosive temper. Even those closest to him wondered at times if he simply lacked the filters that bear witness to shared humanity, but his use of meanness was so strategic that it seems to have been intentional. He was legendary for his intensity and drive for excellence, and he forged a company the goal of which was to create great products. His success at building an “A Team” despite his often boorish behavior testifies to what many have called his “reality distortion field” — his insistence on what seemed an impossible standard of performance that, through the sheer force of his personality, he enabled others to believe in and achieve.

I admired Jobs’s simple, elegant design aesthetic, but he came across as the ultimate control freak with his belief in end-to-end design — creating every element of a product from the design of a device to its operating system and software to its user interface. Though he started out as a hacker himself, he scorned “open system” philosophy that promoted licensing products to multiple users. Though being able to “mix and match” elements of a product encourages competition and gives consumers more choices, the idea of contaminating any Apple product with “outside” elements was heresy to Jobs. He viewed the world in binary terms; people were either villains or heroes (his terms are more profane than I want to quote here), and products were either amazing or total garbage. It’s hard not to hear a contempt for consumers: “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” he declares. He was so protective of his creations that eventually even the screws were hidden and the batteries were inaccessible in his devices. No one could even look inside and see how they worked.

I found myself disturbed and angry at how much this controlling tendency translated into megalomania. It’s sobering to consider how much our lives are affected by people we don’t know at all, whose beliefs and values don’t represent us. Jobs transformed six industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing. This affects how countless Americans experience their lives every day. But more troubling is the glimpse we get of his influence into politics, news, and education. Isaacson provides us with an extended experience of the world of an industry giant operating in a sphere most of us don’t get to see.

I was struck again by how the power base in our country seems no longer to be elected political office, but big business. A college drop-out, Jobs was not well educated himself, and he was filled with intellectual eccentricities. What business does he have advising the president on what American education should look like? (Not surprisingly, Jobs’s view involved eliminating the human element as much as possible: “All books, learning materials, and assessments should be digital and interactive, tailored to each student and providing feedback in real time.”) What business does any single individual have advising Rupert Murdoch on what news venues should exist or not? (Jobs advised him to give Fox News the axe.) What business does a CEO with personal interests have offering to create the ads for the president in his 2012 campaign? (He grew annoyed and didn’t do it when the president’s chief of staff was not totally deferential.) We didn’t elect Steve Jobs — or for that matter, any of the other tech giants who met with Obama in February 2011 to strategize about what was best for the country.

That session appears to have had an effect. The suggestion the president liked best was Jobs’s idea of producing more “engineers”:

These factory engineers did not have to be PhD’s or geniuses; they simply needed to have basic engineering skills for manufacturing. Tech schools, community colleges, or trade schools could train them… If you educate these engineers, we could move more manufacturing plants here.

“Engineers”? Or worker bees? In any case, I read this against the backdrop of the president’s recent proposal of taxpayer subsidized community college for everyone, and it’s not hard to connect the dots.

We didn’t elect these business leaders to run the country — or did we? It strikes me that we vote more with our consumer choices than with our ballots. What we buy — and perhaps become dependent on — is more powerful than who we vote into office when it comes to shaping the future. We know crony capitalism exists, but in these pages we get a closer look, and I found it deeply offensive.

“Like many great men whose gifts are extraordinary, he’s not extraordinary in every realm,” Jobs’s wife explains. “He doesn’t have social graces, such as putting himself in other people’s shoes, but he cares deeply about empowering humankind, the advancement of humankind, and putting the right tools in their hands.” One admires the evangelistic zeal of a person who seems not to be in it for the money. But ego isn’t much better as a motivation, and it makes me uneasy to think about what “advancement of humankind” means to a man who seemed unable to recognize the fundamental value of individual human beings or the richness of a diverse, free world.

The sad thing is that Jobs originally saw himself as a revolutionary. This 1984 ad for the Macintosh depicts his company as the sole independent spirit in a world dominated by influential, established businesses that turn out mediocre products. His company was the hope of the world, the only one empowering the average person to own an elegant and effective pc. But by the end, one wonders if the face on the screen is a better fit.

A Love Observed

991883Now 14 years old, this book doesn’t represent cutting edge scholarship on the marriage between Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis. I saw it on the shelf at the library, and as a perpetual student of Lewis I was immediately interested.

A Love Observed: Joy Davidman’s Life & Marriage to C.S. Lewis was apparently written to fill in gaps, and correct misimpressions, in the movie Shadowlands. As a former director of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, author Lyle Dorsett brings considerable knowledge to bear on his topic.

It makes for interesting reading. I finished the book quickly, gaining a much fuller perspective on Joy Davidman’s life. She appears in other biographies I’ve read of Lewis, yet now that I’ve read this book I realize that she has always been presented as a peripheral figure, and a somewhat stereotyped one at that. Yes, her New York style and assertive manner were part of who she was. But she was many other things as well over the course of her life, and there is much here about the forces and experiences that shaped her from her childhood health issues and parental relationships, through her brilliant scholarly achievements, to her literary development and troubled marriage, her period of committed communism, her conversion, and her eventual relationship with C.S. Lewis.

If I take anything away from a consideration of Joy Davidman’s life, it’s her unapologetic individualism. She was who she was, difficult for some people to deal with, sometimes explosive, but always faithful to her sense of what was true and good. She did not lapse into habit, or into prescribed roles, and she certainly endured her share of hardship and pain.

While there is a sense of great fulfillment for both her and Lewis in their marriage, there is also a curious mutedness to her life’s impact beyond her significance to him. She was an author in her own right, a fiercely intelligent thinker, a force to be reckoned with. Yet if not for her marriage to Lewis, few would know of her. I puzzle over this, and remember Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers with its argument that more than mere talent is required for success; one must have certain other personal qualities and interpersonal connections before raw giftedness can achieve its full outcome.

Like any Christian life story, this leaves me with a vivid impression of God’s endless creativity in loving his children and revealing himself to those who truly seek him.

Lessons from a Sheepdog

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.


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.