Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Paschal on tensions

"Christianity is strange; it bids man to recognize that he is vile, and even abominable, and bids him want to be like God. Without such a counterweight his exultation would make him horribly vain or his abasement horribly abject. "

"There is no doctrine better suited to a man than that which teaches him his dual capacity for receiving and losing grace, on account of the dual danger to which he is always exposed of despair or pride."

Pensees p110 - folio edition

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Plutarch on the Centrality of Character in Leadership

From Plutarch, on Pericles' (c.495-429 BC) character and leadership in ancient Greece
After this [i.e. overseeing the building of Athens] he was no longer the same man he had been before, nor as tame and gentle and familiar s formerly with the populace, so as readily to yield to their pleasures and to comply with the desires of the multitude, as a steersman shifts with the winds. Quitting that loose, remiss and, in some cases, licentious court of the popular will, he turned those soft and flowery modulations to the austerity of aristocratical and regal rule; and employing this uprightly and undeviatingly for the country's best inters, he was able generally to lead the people alone with their own wills and consents, by persuading and showing them what was to be done; and sometimes, too, urging and pressing them forward extremely against their will, he made them, whether they would or no, yield submission to what was for their advantage. In which, to say the truth, he did but like a skillful physician, who, in a complicated and chronic disease, as he sees occasion, at one while allows his patient the moderate use of such things as please him, at another while gives him keen pains and drugs to work the cure. For there arising and growing up as was natural all manner of distempered feelings among a people which had so vast a command and dominion, he alone, as a great master, knowing how to handle and deal fitly with each one of them, and in an especial manner making that use of hopes and fear, as his two chief rudders, with the one to check the career of their confidence at any time, with the other to raise them up and cheer them, when under any discouragement, plainly showed by this, that rhetoric, or that art of speaking, is, in Plato's language, the government of the souls of men, and that her chief business is to address the affections and passions, which are as it were the strings and keys to the soul, and require a skillful and careful touch to be played on as they should be. The source of this predominance was not barely his power of language, but, as Thucydides assures us, the reputation of his life, and the confidence felt in his character; his manifest freedom from every kind of corruption, and superiority to all considerations of money. Notwithstanding he had made the city Athens, which was great of itself, as great and rich as can be imagined, and though he were himself in power and interest more than equal to many kings and absolute rulers, who some of them also bequeathed by will their power to their children, he, for his part, did not make the patrimony his father left him greater than it was by one drachma.

Plutarch contemplating his letters, a bust of a bearded man in a toga, and a two handled bowl. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Some Reading Goals for 2013 (and how to keep track)

One of the things that helps in reading more challenging works is to set reading goals for the year and put together a plan for achieving them. It especially helps to break those yearly goals down into daily goals to make it happen. Love the quote I heard as a kid (it was plastered all over the walls at church) that goes like this: "You practice daily what you believe. All the rest is just religious talk." Also love the imagery that Andrew Starkowicz shares, of seeing long term goals like the great wall of China, and viewing your daily activities as one brick in that wall. Even if you don't do it perfectly, or don't complete every last part of the goal, you are still adding a brick to the wall, even if it's a small one. And the progress matters.

So here are some reading goals for 2013 and the plan to get there. This isn't every reading goal for the year, but a sampling from one category or reading.

I have a couple of multi volume sets that I want to make progress on this year:
Plutarch - Plutarch's series of short biographies is one of the more influential works in history. It was also one of the the three books that Bonhoeffer had on him at his death. Important to read for it's historical value and for the wealth of hidden anecdotal gems (like the story of Solon that I featured on pages 114 in the Stepping up video series manual). Goal is to finish volume one, which I'm already 200 pages into, and then begin volume two if the rest of the following list is completed.

The Second World War - Winston Churchill wrote this six volume series. Already completed the first volume and 100 pages in the second. Goal is to finish volume two this year.

Josephus - In seminary I asked the greek teacher (who also taught the "Jewish literature" course) what were the most important Jewish works to read. Without hesitation he said Josephus and Philo. So for Christmas that year my father-in-law gave this three volumes series from CBD (Josephus, Philo, and Eusebius ). Goal is to read another 200 pages from Josephus work this year.

Francis Schaeffer - His works have had a huge influence on Julie and I, especially a collection of his letters and his wife's book on their ministry, L'abri. So much so that we're naming our next son after him! Have read volume one in the series and a smattering from the other volumes. Goal is to finish volume four this year.

C.S. Lewis' letters - Own a three volume collection of his letters (each at over 1,000 pages!).  Have read about about 300 pages from volume one, and there are few things that I've read that are as rich and inspiring. Goal is to read three letters a week. That should take me through most of the rest of volume one.

Lastly, I also want to read through the New Testament in Greek this year, which I've already posted about this here.

In order to put these yearly goals in measurable, daily goals, I added up all the pages of these volumes and figured out that I need to read about 10 pages a night to work through all these this year. pretty simple, eh?

To keep track of all this, I came up with a form to help me record daily progress on reading these books, along with the Greek New Testament, exercise (goals for miles swimming, running, and biking), and number of words written. Thus I've broken down a few annual goals into daily, measurable categories that can be measured and recorded on one sheet of paper. And at the end of each day I can know exactly how much progress I've made toward my yearly goals.

So do you have any reading goals for this year? I'd love to hear about it in the comments if you do.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Lit: a book

This week I powered through a little book called Lita short survey of how to read more, especially Christian works, written by Tony Reinke. There were a few quotes, anecdotes and tips worth passing along. For instance, why is it that people seem to find a hard time to read the good stuff? Check out this stat:
In 1964, Robert Lee calculated the leisure time available to Americans... "it is a striking fact to note that the working man of a century ago spent some seventy hours per week on the job and lived about forty years. Today he spends some forty hours per week at work and can expect to live about seventy years. This adds something like twenty-two more years of leisure to his life, about 1,500 free hours each year, and a total of some 33,000 additional free hours that the man born today has to enjoy!" (p. 131-132)

It always amazed me, when working with college students, that some would say they couldn't find time to read the Bible. During college? Please. These same folks EASILY carved out two or three hours during finals week to "wind down" with a movie. But 15 minutes for Bible reading could not be found? It came down to priorities, as the following stat reveals:
"Nothing squanders time more than pursuing things without a purpose. Given that the average American adult (18-34) invests only 10 minutes each day reading, yet watches 116 minutes of television, I think many of us have time that we can spend differently." (p134)
As a follow up to this stat, he offers a helpful formula for squeezing in an hour of reading a day: 15 minutes in the morning, 15 at lunch, and 30 in the evening. He also gives the summary bullet list on how to make reading a higher priority:

  • Expect resistance from your heart (i.e. when it's time to do something of value, your heart will tug toward something meaningless, especially if you are tired).
  • Make time to read, not excuses for why you don't read. We all have good excuses.
  • Cultivate a hunger for books by reading (and rereading) great books (Stay with the rich stuff because just like with broccoli, you can develop a taste for something new over time).
  • Set your reading priorities, and let them drive your book selections.
  • Stop doing something else in order to make time to read.
  • Try reading three (or more) books at a time and take advantage of your environments (p 136) - a great tip that has helped me so many times to stay motivated on a difficult book. When you read more books... you read more books. Hmmm....

As far as distractions go, the Internet gets a bad wrap today, for making us stupid. But the Internet wasn't the first medium to face such criticism. Ironically, the cutting edge technology of books was slammed by one of the greatest, Mr. Socrates himself:
"If men learn this [i.e. how to read and write], it will implant forgetfulneess in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they will rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within theselves, but by means of external marks; what you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder." (139-140)
[Reineke states] "I'm not sure if Socrates was aware of the tremendours benefits of books - including preserving his own words about books (ironic). But it was clear that Socrates saw the dawn of books as the dusk of human memory." (140)
Of course what Socrates says seems absurd, but think of it this way: how has your ability to spell survived since the advent of spell check? Shoot, I used to know the phone number of all my friends. Now? I'd be lost without my phone. I even remembered every locker combination I had (school, personal locks, everything) through college. No longer. Some would say it's age.... but I'm so young!

All of this certainly says something about our ability to concentrate this day and age. When it comes to concentrating on reading, it seems to me that one of the biggest challenges one faces today is that of distractions.
Christian Philosopher Douglas Groothuis writes: "The compulsive search for diversion is often an attempt to escape the wretchedness of life. We have great difficulty being quiet in our rooms, when the television or computer screen offers a riot of possible stimulation. Postmodern people are perpetually restless; they frequently seek solace in diversion instead of satisfaction in truth. As Pascal said, "our nature consists in movement; absolute rest is death.' The postmodern condition is one of over saturation and over-stimulation, and this caters to our propensity to divert ourselves from pursuing higher realities.'" (141)
But until you remove distractions, it's nearly impossible to focus on something of depth. That's why I gave up my cell phone completely for about six months in 2011. Man, that was a rich experience that I might write about sometime this year.

Lastly, one of his more encouraging tips is to try reading with a group of friends. Discussing theology give accountability and true camradarie and helps motivate you to work through some more challenging works, like some of the Puritans, or Calvin, or even some soul edifying church history works.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Promise of Future Love

Timely words for our culture from The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller, p 86-87.
Years ago I attended a wedding in which the couple wrote their own vows. They said something like this: “I love you, and I want to be with you.” The moment I heard it I realized what all historic Christian marriage vows had in common... The people I was listening to were expressing their current love for each other, and that was fine and moving. But that is not what marriage vows are. That is not how a covenant works. Wedding vows are not a declaration of present love but a mutually binding promise of future love. A wedding should not be primarily a celebration of how loving you feel now – that can safely be assumed. Rather, in a wedding you stand up before God, your family, and all the main institutions of society, and you promise to be loving, faithful, and true to the other person in the future, regardless of undulating internal feelings or external circumstances.
When Ulysses was traveling to the island of the Sirens, he knew that he would go mad when he heard the voices of the women on the rocks. He also learned that the insanity would be temporary, lasting until he could get out of earshot. He didn't want to do something while temporarily insane that would have permanent bad consequences. So he put wax in the ears of his sailors, tied himself to the mast, and told his men to keep him on course no matter what he yelled. 
Studies reveal that two-thirds of unhappy marriages will become happy within five years if people stay married and do not get divorced. Two-thirds! What can keep marriages together during those rough patches? The vows. A public oath, made to the world, keeps you "tied to the mast" until your mind clears and you begin to understand things better. It keeps you in the relationship when your feelings flag, and flag they will. By contrast, consumer relationships cannot possibly endure these inevitable tests of life, because neither party is "tied to the mast."

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Top books of 2012

Here's a few of the top book enjoyed in 2012. These are in no particular order:

2000 Years of Christ's Power by N.R. Needham - The first of a three volume series on the history of the church. Very accessible, though the "looping" structure takes a bit of adjustment if you are used to a real clear, linear progression. More info on the book in this previous post. Another great church history work that is short and pretty focused is Turning Points by Mark Knoll.

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard - Story of the assassination of President James Garfield and the ensuing attempt to save him from the gunshot wound. Interesting unpacking of the challenges associated with going against the establishment in any field (in this case, the medical field). Tragic in that Garfield would have most likely lived if the doctors would have just done nothing. Also a good reminder that doctors don't know everything. This same author wrote another favorite (from last year) The River of Doubt, about Theodore Roosevelt's exploration of a previously uncharted river in the Amazon. 

A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards by George Marsden - This title is a bit of a play on words, as Marsden first wrote a longer bio on Edwards (640 pages) before this version, which comes in at a much more accessible 176 pages. Great summary of his "short" (died at 54) and remarkable life. Listened to this one as a free download from Christian Audio while building book shelves. Yes, that really happened.

The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner - All of Stegner's works have been a literary delight. Grab any of his books and curl up next to the fire with a steaming cup of earl grey tea.

The Art of Non-Conformity by Chris Guillebeau - Great book about how to live life to the fullest without jumping through all the traditional hoops of society. For instance, the author went to college without a high school diploma, finished college while working in a remote part of Africa, and completed a Masters in record time. All this while fulfilling his goal of visiting every country in the world. Very inspiring and practical in terms of thinking through the major goals you hope to accomplish in life and how to break them down practically into every day steps.

Fearless by Eric Blehm - First heard about this story from my neighbor, who was a fraternity brother of Adam Brown's. Inspiring story of a guy who lived his entire life on the edge and struggled through drug addiction to become an elite Navy Seal. He's also from a town just down the road from us, Hot Springs (Bill Clinton's birthplace and home of the first national park). Listen to a three part interview with his wife that aired on FamilyLife Today.

The hardest part of reading this book is feeling pretty stinking worthless in comparison to Mr. Brown. Definitely Inspiring.

Imitating Jesus by Lewie Clark - A good friend wrote this book about his approach to discipleship. A great, short summary of how the church should be thinking about ministry today.

Born to Run by Chris McDougall - I've never really been much of a runner, but couldn't put this book down, primarily because of the fascinating story of the Mexican tribe that embraces running as a central part of their culture. McDougall also emphasizes the value of running for the sake of the love of running alone, more than any other reason or motivation. Reading this book had the unintended consequence of renewing my love of exercise and motivating my lard butt to shed 10 pounds this year.

Here are a few other books I'm working on and hope to finish soon that are worth mentioning:

The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller - Every person who is married or thinking of getting married some day should read this. Keller paints an amazing picture of what marriage is and what it is not. The back cover copy is worth the price of the book alone.

Thomas Jefferson by Jon Meacham - John F. Kennedy once said, during a dinner hosted at the White House for all living recipients of the Nobel Prize, "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." Jefferson was a fascinating mix of entrepreneur, musician, philosopher, and politician unlike any other man in the history of the United States. As I read more about him, it seems that his thinking, more than anyone else at the time, gave the greatest shape to what America became.

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neal Postman - American culture is overly addicted to entertainment (can you be 'overly' addicted? Is that not excessively redundant?). Postman wrote the definitive work on the issue over 30 years ago, and it reads like it was written yesterday. We need better thinking on the topic in the church today, instead of just riding the wave of the cultural current that flows around us. Reading this book will help you see what's floating in the water we're all swimming in.