Friday, July 25, 2014

The Only Thing to Fear... Is God

"Fear: not that which comes from believing in God, but from doubting whether or not he exists. The right fear comes from faith, false fear from doubt; the right fear is linked with hope, because it is born of faith and one hopes in the God in whom one believes; the wrong fear is linked with despair, because one fears the God in whom one has not put one's faith. Some fear to lose him, others to find him."

Pascal - p293

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Pascal on true and false things

"Instead of concluding that there are no true miracles because there are so many false ones, we must on the contrary say that there certainly are true miracle since there are so many false ones, and that false ones are only there because true ones exist. The same argument must be applied to religion, for man could not possibly have imagined so many false religions unless there were a true one."
Pensees -p.238

Monday, June 23, 2014

Reading and Note Capturing System

Much of this blog is about reading and the joys of reading. One of the main reasons I read is to collect stories and tidbits and information and research that I can hopefully use in my work with marriages and families. And it is sometimes surprising what kind of stories can be applied to the work I do. While reading Plutarch I found this amazing story about Solon and the work he did to reform the entire government of ancient Greece. I condensed the story and included it in a product we developed for men to illustrate servant leadership.

For me, the key to collecting and finding excerpts from these books is a system I developed over the years. Recently I read Ryan Holliday's blog post on this topic, who is a well read young man and an Internet marketing expert. I really like his idea of using note cards, and I've begun to use notecards more frequently to capture ideas, thoughts, and quotes. I learned some helpful tidbits from him, but I thought it might not hurt to post my approach here as well. It's a system I've been using for the last five or six years and it works well for me.

So here's how it works: I start with reading a book, of course, and while reading through the book, this blue pen is always in hand (yes I buy them by the dozen). I don't use a highlighter because I can't write notes in the margins or in the back of the book with a highlighter, and I don't like wasting time switching back and forth between pens and highlighters. Also highlighters have a tendency to bleed through, but my trusty blue pen rarely does. While reading I mark and underlined like mad, and when I see something that seems reference worthy, I make a note on the very last page of the book. Sometimes it's a long note, but usually it's just the page number and a couple of words that point back to the importance of the quote.

Notes from the back page of The Rise of Evangelicalism by Mark Noll

I write it in the back of the book because I write with my right hand, so that allows me to not have to slow down so much that I have to put the book down and open to the front to write in the front. I have noticed that others like to write in the front, but it seems to go faster for me to just write in the back, on the left side. (Publishers, PLEASE leave a few extra blank pages in the back of your books!) Once I've completed a book, and I agree with Ryan Holliday and others here, it's good to put the book down for a few days, and often it ends up being a few weeks or months before getting back to it. A benefit of waiting to go back through the book is the things that once seemed important may not seem so later, thus time acts as a natural editor. In theory two or three weeks would be best, but in practice, when I have time that could be dedicated to capturing notes from a book, the impulse to read often overtakes the window of opportunity. Hey it's a terrible habit; an addiction that is hard to stave off at times.

Books, patiently waiting their turn to be lovingly grafted into the system.

The next step is eventually picking up the book and capturing the notes out of the back page. I used to type these notes, but now, with the wonderful advantage of voice capture on the iPhone, I am able to do this in the car, at stoplights, which really speeds along the process. Once I have the notes from the back of the book captured, I use that set of notes as a guide to work back through the book and capture the individual quotes, all of which I enter into a single word document.

Some of the note files
Once I capture all of this I place the doc in the file where I have all of these various book notes captured. The beauty of having it this way is that it is fully searchable. Ryan Holliday makes a great point that if you are hand writing these notes on notecards, then it makes it more memorable. Even though I'm a HUGE fan of writing, fountain pens, notebooks, etc., I haven't found handwriting on notecards and the potential ability that they might make the ideas more memorable to be worth the trade-off of not having these notes fully searchable on my computer. Inevitably what happens is as I am trying to write something for work or a blog post, a story or a segment of a story will come to mind. To be able to search that on my computer is much more valuable than having it buried in a box of notecards. Although in theory it would be great to have the notes in both places, I haven't figured out how to do that nor could I imagine wanting to take that much time away from actually reading.

I may publish more of these note documents here on this blog, as I have done before with Theodore Roosevelt and Bonhoeffer (still two of the most often visited posts). Just be aware that these documents are not  book summaries or a complete analysis of a book, they are simply a compilation of things I thought were interesting in the book and felt might be usable at some point in the future.

In theory it is best to only read one book at a time. That way you do a better job of tracking the argument of the book over time, and retaining a sense of the key thoughts of the book and a collective sense of the overall purpose of the book. However I find myself getting bored if I try to read only one book at a time. I tend to have 3 to 5 different types of books going at any given time. I usually read different styles of books different times of the day. In the mornings I tend to read theology or books that require more thought. Right now I'm going back-and-forth between Jonathan Edwards' Freedom of the Will, and Luc Ferry's A Brief History of Thought. In the afternoon I read business or productivity books, or marriage ministry books. Right now I'm reading What's Best Next by Matt Perman, and What is the Meaning of Sex by Denny Burke. In the evening I read history and/or fiction. I usually like to finish the night by laying in bed and reading, but I try to only read history at that point. I find it to be the best way to wind down the day. I don't usually want to read most fiction then (though I REALLY enjoy a good novel) because I can get too drawn in and stay up later than I should, and I don't want to read something that requires a lot of thought and gets my brain stirred up again. I recently finished a Harry Potter book (I know, contradicts my above statement about fiction, but it was easy to put down, and I was primarily reading it to know what they're about as my son is reading them), and I'm also finishing up a long book on Winston Churchill by Max Gilbert. I tend to read just 10 to 20 pages of history a night, thus it might take me many months to get through a history book, but I enjoy it that way. One other thing I might do is have an audiobook going in the car. This can be fiction or history. Recently I've listened to A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'engle (another my son enjoyed), Shadow Divers, and a Lance Armstrong bio. This week I started listening to a VERY interesting book on the making of the Atomic Bomb that my son has been listening to. Fascinating. I've read Richard Rhodes' epic book on the topic, but this book gives a slightly different and more engaging take (and probably much more accessible).

A tip to reading more for those who have a hard time squeezing it into their schedule: find groups to discuss books with. Right now I'm involved in three different book discussions, nibbling away at a few chapters a week in each of these books. At least two of the books are ones I probably wouldn't take the time to read on my own, even though I know I should. But the discussion groups provides a schedule and motivation.

Now, about E-Books: The above system is the reason why I read very little on a kindle or any other device. E-books are almost completely worthless to me for note taking and referencing. I do read a handful of books a year on a kindle app, but very few of which I highlight at all. The activity of writing in a book, flipping through the pages, and the speed at which I can move around a paper book FAR EXCEEDS that of an e-book. Digital books are too cumbersome to fit with this process. But maybe some day... Amazon, start by REQUIRING PAGE NUMBERS IN ALL BOOKS! Fundamentals...

Let me know if you have any tips or ideas on how to best collect notes from books. I'm always looking to learn.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Pascal on Peer Pressure

"When everything is moving at once, nothing appears to be moving, as on board [a] ship. When everyone is moving towards depravity, no one seems to be moving, but if someone stops he shows up the others who are rushing on, by acting as a fixed point." 

Blaise Pascal, Pensees, p.230

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Summer Reading Recommendations

If you're looking for a summer read, here's a couple of recommendations from my pile of spring reading material:

Shadow Divers: Amazing story of the discovery of a WWII U-boat off the eastern coast of the U.S. The fascinating part was that neither the U.S. or German government had any record of the boat in that location. Thus began a multi-year obsession by the two man diving team to identify the sub. As with any discipline that seems simple on the surface, the more you learn, the more you realize just how dangerous deep sea diving really is. A gripping and inspiring read for sure.

Defiance: Great movie, but the book sheds much more light on the complexities of the work of the Bielski brothers to hide 1500 jews in the Belarusian forest during WWII. These were decidedly manly men, giving of themselves in a time when most were taking. The discipline, rigor, sacrifice, and organization required to pull this task off is mind boggling. If that much energy could but consistently put toward improvement, not just survival, our world would be a different place. Definitely worth reading and reflecting upon.

Going Clear: If you watched TV in the 80's, you saw more commercials for "Dianetics" than you ever cared. You also learned that the author is "L. Ron" Hubbard, not "Elron" Hubbard. The book takes a critical look at Scientology, exposing the nasty underbelly of a hyper-controlling cult. Some of the bizarre antics of Tom Cruise leave one wondering what the group is about - this book will leave you wondering why any one in their right mind would ever be involved. Well written, researched, and infused with a personal touch.

Anna Karenina: Classic Tolstoy work. Difficult to ingest in places because of the moral self-destruction of the main character. But a great study in contrasts to see the comparison to Levin, who  many believe was Tolstoy writing himself into the book. Teddy Roosevelt took great delight in this book, consuming it while floating down a partially frozen river in pursuit of boat thieves in South Dakota. However for most people, I recommend reading it on the couch. Note: Pay the extra for the linked hardcover edition. A good translation is an important part of reading Russian literature. This one is good, and the quality of the binding and paper makes the overall reading experience, especially of a longer work, a greater pleasure.

You can always look at my current reads on Shelfari for ideas, and PLEASE share your favorites with me as well. I'm always looking for a good book.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Importance of Handwritting

Mom and I enjoy reading and sharing good books. She is also one of the very few people I still exchange letters with on a regular basis. Writing by hand is an important discipline to me. I often will write out first drafts of documents by hand, before transferring to the computer. I've long felt there's just something about the act of handwriting that can't be replaced by modern technology. It promotes creative thinking and a linear flow of thought, it slows me down in a helpful way, and it is a physical activity that gets my eyes away from the distraction of a screen.

Many scoff and guffaw at such antiquated thinking, especially with the rapid decline of handwriting curriculum in schools. But finally science is here to back up my assumption. Read this great article on the importance of handwriting to brain development, reading, memory, and creativity:

What's Lost as Handwriting Fades

Here's one quote to whet your appetite:
Two psychologists... have reportedthat in both laboratory settings and real-world classrooms, students learn better when they take notes by hand than when they type on a keyboard. Contrary to earlier studies attributing the difference to the distracting effects of computers, the new research suggests that writing by hand allows the student to process a lecture’s contents and reframe it — a process of reflection and manipulation that can lead to better understanding and memory encoding.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Annual Barnes & Noble Trip With Mom

At least once a year I take a trip to Barnes & Noble with mom when she comes in town. Recently we went through a stack of books see if we might read one or two together.

The Reject Pile

After agonizing and debating heavily over this pile, we narrow it down to two (both are pictured just barely in the background): Command and Control, and The Bully Pulpit. The later has been on my list for quite some time as I've read a number of books on Theodore Roosevelt and am extremely fond of him and books about him. Command Control looked fascinating and indeed was very interesting to read. 

It weaves together two stories lines in alternating chapters. One is the recounting of a missile silo accident that occurred in central Arkansas about an hour north of Little Rock. This occurred in 1980 back in the days when nuclear missile silos were scattered all over Arkansas and Missouri. One of these silos in the small town of Damascus had a fuel leak, which lead to the missile (i.e. the fuel stored in it) exploding, though the warhead stayed in tact and did not detonate. The other part of the book recounts the wide variety of near misses in the nuclear weapon weapons program. After reading this book, it really is astonishing that we have not had a major catastrophe from an accidental nuclear detonation somewhere in the world. Yes, it was a very interesting read, one my 9-year-old son even took interest in, reading the first 70 or 80 pages, and especially interesting to myself since I reside in Little Rock. One of my coworkers actually remembers feeling the explosion from over 20 miles away.

So my mother and I have enjoyed reading and discussing and trading good books back and forth over the years. I made a list the other day of all the books she has purchased for us and that we have read together and the total was nearly 30 different books. I confess that I have not read all of them yet, nor has she, but we are both working through the list and enjoying reading them and discussing them and having the time together.

Incidentally, if you want to see what books I'm reading and have interest in sharing the books you're reading, check out my Shelfari profile on the right side of this blog. I try to keep this list up to date and in order of priority (i.e. most active reads at the front of the list). Set up your own profile and I'll follow you.

And so I end this post with a short tribute to my mother that I delivered during the front end of the sermon at our church on Mother's Day. This is obviously a short tribute because it was done on the front end of the sermon and it's not as thorough as one might give to their mother, but I'd like to include here just as an encouragement to my mom. I love you mom!

Tribute to Mom
Thank you for believing in me. For being my greatest cheerleader.
Thank you for pushing back on me. When I tried to bowl you over.
And thanks for not giving up on me when I did stupid things.
Thanks for sharing your love of literature and English. And for all the books we continue to read and discuss together.

Thanks for texting me photos of public mis-punctuation. And for helping to eradicate apostrophe abuses (and yes, I said that without using an apostrophe).

Thank you for loving Dad and singing his praises. You made me want to be more like him. And you made me long for a wife that would speak of me that way to our kids.

Thank you for loving my wife. Not just loving her, but admiring her.
Speaking highly of her.
And for loving my kids.

On a lighter note: Thanks for not getting mad when the door fell off your car. 
I'm still not sure what happened.
And (I can’t believe I’m going to say this), thank you for making me mow the yard.

But finally – and most importantly, Thank you for praying for me so faithfully and for continuing to do so. I really don’t know what my life would be like without your prayers.

I love you mom and I’m grateful for you. I’m glad you are my mom.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Empire of the Summer Moon: Three Stories

I recently finished the book Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne. Wow, what a read. This is the story of the rise and fall of the most dominant Indian tribe on the Great Plains, the Comanche’s, most specifically centered on the story of their last great Chief, Quanah Parker.

The story of the Comanches traces their meager beginnings as Neanderthal-like hunter-gatherers to their radical transformation into dominance upon being introduced to horses. It was at this point that they did what few other tribes had; they mastered the art of breeding horses and warring from their horses. They became extremely skilled at shooting bow and arrow from the back of the horse, and even learning to slide over the side to protect themselves and shoot from under the horses neck, all while maintaining a full gallop and deadly accuracy. A great portion of the book – probably 2/3rds – is given to this tale, but all of it provides the necessary backdrop to Quanah’s story.

One of the things that makes Quanah’s story so intriguing is his half-European heritage. His mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, was captured from her family’s fort as a nine-year old white girl and quickly became a full-fledged member of the Comanche tribe that kidnapped her. She became so ingrained in the Comanche culture that she eventually married a tribal chief, thus leading to the birth of Quanah. Her story alone is worth reading the book, along with some of the other stories that appear of other women who were kidnapped and lived to tell the tale of surviving among the Comanche tribe. I don’t want to give too much away here, but she is eventually ‘rescued,’ yet her response to the rescue and her ensuing circumstances were not as she had hoped.

One thing about the book that is simultaneously fascinating and incredibly difficult to read is the amount of savage brutality that occurred among the many warring Indian tribes. Rape, pillaging, plundering, and all types of creative tortures are described to the extent that would have made Saddam Hussein’s sons blush. Not only are the acts shocking, but the extreme volume at which they occurred and the pleasure with which they were enacted. No doubt there were many peaceful Indian tribes. This book doesn’t focus much on them. And yes, there were all kinds of atrocities committed by the White/European settlers against the Indians. This book reports many of those as well yet interestingly casts very little moral judgment against either side.

That was one of the more intriguing parts about the book for me. Here you have the clashing of two cultures at an alarming rate and with violent consequences. Never before or since on the American continent is there such a gulf between two civilizations, coming together to fight for their existence. It is hard to imagine a time when roaming out west would most likely have meant an incredibly painful death. Yet this summer I walked and biked freely all over the foothills of the Rockies.

But the main reason I want to talk about this book is because of three stories that especially stood out to me, each of which I give greater attention to below.

Comanche Manhood Initiation
The first is that of an initiation rite the young Comanche boys went through for their transition into manhood. Gwynne explains it as such: 

“For Comanches it began with a swim in a river or stream, a form of purification. The young man then ventured out to a lonely place where he would see no one, clad only in breechclout and moccasins. With him he carried a buffalo robe, a bone pipe, tobacco, and fire-making materials. On the way to his secluded spot he stopped four times, each time smoking and praying. At night he smoked and prayed for power. He looked for signs in the animals and rocks and tress around him. He fasted. Unlike some of the northern plains tribes, there was no self-torture involved. Usually this lasted four days and nights, but the idea was for the young brave to remain in place until he received a vision…. After they returned, there was singing and drumming and the young men danced, imitating the cry of eagles. The idea was that they were young eagles attempting to leave the nest.”

The interesting part of this for me was the statement in bold. Much has been made by men like Robert Bly (as in his book Iron John) about the significance of the wounds that are given to young boys in their transition to manhood (whether intentionally or unintentionally). Robert Lewis talks about how men can learn to deal with these different types of wounds. I’m sure you’ve read or heard of some of those terrifying ceremonies that that caused painful wounds to boys as they became men. But here we have the Comanches, likely the toughest and most dominant tribe of their time and era, and yet they avoided this approach all together. Instead they sought to build the inner man with a vision that he can embrace and employ. Make no mistake, these boys would have endured many hard times and lived very tough lives, but their initiation moment was centered on a deeply spiritual and reflective experience, rather than an act of betrayal from an older man.

A Comanche Romance

Secondly there was the story of Quanah’s marriage. Much about this story is all wrong (for instance, this was his second of what would eventually be 8 wives), and parts of Quanah’s later life contradict some of the heroic love portrayed here, but the story stands as deeply romantic. I can only imagine that any woman reading this would be honored to be treated in a similar way (other than the whole being traded for horses thing).

“Quanah was in love with Weckeah. They had grown up together. She was in love with him. She beaded his moccasins and bow quiver. [ah… true love] They wanted to marry. There was just one problem: Her father, Old Bear, opposed it. This was partly because of Quanah’s white blood and partly because, as an orphan and thus a pauper, he had no standing in the tribe. Complicating matters was a rival suitor, one Tannap, son of Eckitoacup, who was a wealthy chief. Weckeah did not like Tannap at all. At the heart of Quanah’s problem was that most important unit of Comanche wealth: horseflesh. Tannap’s father, who owned a hundred horses, offered ten of them for Weckeah’s hand in marriage. Quanah could offer only one horse.
Still, Weckeah implored him to try to match Tannap’s offer. So Quanah went to his friends and managed to gather up ten horses. He then drove them to Old Bear’s tipi and presented them. Unfortunately, Eckitoacup had already heard of his plan and had doubled his offer.

Undeterred, Quanah cam up with a new idea. Now he told Weckeah that their only hope was to elope. This was not uncommon in Comanche culture… In such a case the relatives and friends of the boy might supply the necessary ponies to soothe the dishonor suffered by the wife’s parents. Quanah had no such family. Which meant that by taking Weckeah he risked death, as did Weckeah.

But Quanah had something more than simple elopement in mind. Before he and Weckeah left, he recruited what amounted to an insurance policy: a war party of 21 young warriors. Together they rode south for seven hours, not breaking a trot except when crossing streams. This was as fast as Comanches could travel, and could only have been done with a large number of mounts for each warrior. So fearful were they of what might be pursuing them that they traveled by night for two nights, split up and rejoined a number of times, then split again into units of two, coming together at Double Mountain, near the present town of Snyder in west Texas. They finally stopped on the North Concho River near the town of San Angelo and, as Quanah put it, “went to stealin’ horses.”

They stayed there for more than a year, during which time Quanah built the camp into his own power base… With time, some of his young and daring cohorts returned to their main camp, telling tales of riches and adventure, and Quanah’s leadership, returning to the North Concho with their sweethearts or wives, as well as other young men who wanted to ride with Quanah. At the end of the year, Quanah’s band numbered several hundred. They owned a large horse heard.

Meanwhile, Weckeah’s elopement had not stopped gnawing at Eckitoacup, and he finally decided he would mount an expedition to get her back. By now everyone knew where Quanah was. Eckitoacup rode south with a war party and arrived at the renegade camp on the river. It is not clear what he expected to find, but what he and his warriors found themselves confronting was Quanah’s entire band, armed and painted and drawn up for battle. Shocked by the number of warriors, Eckitoacup became alarmed for his own safety. Instead of fighting, he decided to settle.. After much smoking and haggling, a deal was made. Eckitoacup would receive nineteen horses, the pick of Quanah’s heard. In exchange Quanah would be granted the right to return to the tribe. (Quanah observed, after the deal was concluded, that he knew a ranch were he could steal 19 horses in a few hours.) The deal was sealed with a night of feasting and dancing. Because Quanah’s band had by this time become too large to be left in peace in that part of Texas, he followed Eckitoacup back home the next day, where he found that he enjoyed new status as a fully fledged war chief.”

Like I said, all kinds of issues with this story, but there is certainly something that speaks to his intense love of Weckeah to take that kind of risk and put forth that much effort.

An Epic Reversal

Lastly there’s a story that has garnered the greatest amount of my attention over the last few weeks.

“Quanah Parker… became the most successful and influential Native American of the late nineteenth century and the first and only man ever to hold the title Principal Chief of the Comanches. His rise was doubly strange since he had been the hardest of the hard cases, the last holdout of the last band of the fanatical Quahadis, the only band of any tribe in North America that had never signed a treaty with the white man. At the time of his surrender he was twenty-seven years old. He was known as a fierce and charismatic warrior, a true killer, probably the toughest of his generation of Comanches, which was saying something. He had killed many Indians and white people in his short life, a statistic that will remain forever unknown because in the reservation years he quite intelligently refused to address the subject. He had led his own band in the wilderness after his elopement with Weckeah and was famous for having done so… he was the most prominent and the fastest rising of the young war chiefs. His surrender to Mackenzie in June 1875 ended such traditional career prospects forever.

But it also marked the beginning of something. His attitude toward his captivity had completely changed by the time he arrived at Fort Sill. He would take the white man’s road. He would leave the glories of the free life on the plains behind and he would not look back. Just as important, he would strive to lead his often recalcitrant, retrogressive tribe down that road. That meant the white man’s farming and ranching, white man’s schools for the children, white man’s commerce and politics and language. The void that loomed before the pitiable remnant of the Comanches was for Quanah Parker a grand opportunity. He would remake himself as prosperous, tax-paying citizen of the United States of America who dressed in wool suits and Stetson hats and attended school board meetings. And he would try to haul the rest of the Comanche nation along with him. In the dreary, hopeless winter of 1875-76, the notion of bourgeois citizen-Comanches was just short of ridiculous; no one would have wanted it anyway. But Quanah saw the future clearly. On the high and wild plains he had been a fighter of jaw-dropping aggressiveness; now he would move just as resolutely from the life of a late Stone Age barbarian into the mainstream of industrial American culture.

Wow. Such a radical shift, and almost overnight. This stands out as solid leadership. He saw where
things were headed. There was no going back. A new path had to be blazed. And boy did he blaze it. He slowly amassed a small fortune and built the largest home of any Indian on the plains, all while continuing to give toward those in need among his tribe. Tons more to this story, but a great picture of leadership on this account. Sometimes there is great wisdom in giving up and leading those under your care to embrace a new direction. In fact, sometimes this requires changing everything you though you knew in order to survive in a new world.

Great book. Worth picking up if you have the time. I borrowed the audio book from my library. You can also listen to an interview with the author on NPR here:

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Power of Redemption in a Broken Marriage

This is an unbelievable story. A couple, active in marriage ministry, even hosting their own TV program. And then the unthinkable happens. The wife has an affair. But wow, what happens after that is mind blowing. Take the time to listen to these interviews with Bob and Audrey Meisner this week. You will not be disappointed.

Marriage Undercover
Day One
Day Two

Monday, January 6, 2014

Pascal, the "Vileness" of Man, and Primo Levi

"The vilest feature of man is the quest for glory, but it is just this that most clearly shows his excellence. For whatever possession he may own on earth, whatever health or essential amenity he may enjoy, he is dissatisfied unless he enjoys the good opinion of his fellows. He so highly values human reason that, however privileged he may be on earth, if he does not also enjoyed a privileged position in human reason he is not happy. This is the finest position on earth, nothing can deflect him from this desire, and this is the most indelible quality in the human heart.

And those who most despise men, and put them on the same level as the beasts, still want to be admired and trusted by them, and contradict themselves by their own feelings, for their nature, which is stronger than anything, convinces them more strongly of man's greatness then reason convinces them of their vileness." (Penses - p159)

Pascals words are especially poignant after having just finished reading Primo Levi's book If This Were a Man

The brutalities endured in Auschwitz is incomprehensible, and of course, the stories have been heard and recounted in many different books. But the thing that stood out to me about Levi's experience is what he noted about the prisoners' transformation that occurred. By the time they left the camp (for those that did) they had completely forgotten how to care. This he noted was the brilliance of the prison camp structure by the Germans. For in this environment it made revolt nearly impossible. Because one had to care in order to revolt. One had to hope in order to revolt. But all that had been taken away. 

Thus this becomes the most perplexing part of the final solution as it converges with Pascal's quote on the "most indelible quality in the human heart." That the Germans could demand to be admired by those they despised shows how there is an inane basis for human morality implanted in the soul of every person. And it is this: I expect to be treated as a person, even from those to whom I do not extend the same honor. 

The lesson for my heart is simple: when I find myself tempted to 'despise' another human, it is a good exercise to simply stop and ask myself how I would want them to look upon me. I never desire to be despised. So how can I learn to love those that i'm tempted to vilify? One thing I've noted about myself over the years is a ready willingness to judge others. This often leads to a subtle disdain in some relationships. But I've also noticed that those once disdained have also eventually become some of my closest friends. I must call upon the power of the Holy Spirit to fight the vile temptation to vilify others, and trust that the Spirit will do an amazing work in that relationship.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Top Books of 2013

Here are my top 10 books of 2013, in no particular order of preference, just as they came to mind. This was probably a more diverse reading year in terms of literature, but as you can see, not as many deep theological works were completed (though many were started and nibbled upon).

The Heart of Darkness: I was blown away by the literary quality of Conrad's work. I listened to this in the car to/from the office and on numerous occasions needed to stop and capture a phrase I heard to share it with others that would appreciate it. Here's one of my favorites: "The servant came running.'Look at those flies, brother;' and he pointed to the horrible mass that hung from the ceiling. The nucleus was a wire which had been inserted as a homage to electricity. Electricity had paid no attention, and a colony of eye-flies had come instead and blackened the coils with their bodies." I've since learned that the classic Martin Sheen movie, Apocalypse Now, is a modernization/retelling of the story line of this book.

127 Hours: Almost didn't pick this one up, as it seemed too obvious. Guy gets trapped by a boulder while hiking in the wilderness, cuts off his own arm, survives. Amazing, but how do you string that one out into a book? But then my son blazed through it, necessitating a thorough review on my part. Though skeptical, I was surprised by what I found. This guy was well read and thoughtful. And he wasn't some careless hiker who strayed from the trail to get a photo of an albino mouse. No, he was a seasoned high caliber mountain climber (he has since become the first person to solo-winter climb all 14K+ mountains in Colorado). How he ended up stranded was quite a bit of a fluke, but his personal drive and character that allowed him to survive is astonishing and inspiring.

My Reading Life: Great little book on the influence of good books in the life of a well known writer (Pat Conroy). His account of the influence of his English teacher on his life as a writer was humbling and inspiring. And his passion for reading and its affect on his life as a writer was equally contagious. He also shares some details about his life and habits as a writer (i.e. the daily discipline) as well as his reading goals (tries to read 200 pgs/day) and other interesting stories from experiences like his time spent writing in Paris, or from his neighborhood bookstore in Atlanta.

The Great Santini: After reading My Reading Life, I wanted to read some of Conroy's fiction. This story is based on his experiences growing up with a hard driving marine corps pilot as a father ('Santini' was his nickname for his father). Fascinating read. There's a section in here I've quoted a few times on identity to co-workers and friends where his dad lectures at length about what it means to be a descendent of his. Powerful stuff (though a bit over the top at the same time - which was Conroy's point). I've since seen that Conroy has written a follow up, just released (which I've not read) called The Death of Santini

The Long Ships: This is the most fun I've had reading a book in a long time. It's the story of one Viking's journeys and adventures in his homeland, the middle east, and pushing westward. The combination of the adventure and the authors clever wit makes for loads of fun. There is a fair amount of plunder, pillaging, and feminine conquest (nothing graphic) in the book, so not for the young. Overall I think this was my favorite read of the year.

The Meaning of Marriage: Keller at his best on an important topic (one that I carry a bit of a bias toward). A Christ centered teaching on marriage. Very, very helpful. A must read this year. He puts marriage in its proper biblical and historical context (though in a way that is 100 times more interesting than I just made it sound). Without that, I'm not sure you can really understand what your own marriage is about.

Journal of a Novel: Last year I read East of Eden, by Steinbeck, and thoroughly enjoyed it (a modern take on the Cain/Abel story with some very interesting discussions of human nature and the meaning of a Hebrew word). This book, also by Steinbeck, is the daily journal he kept while writing East of Eden. So I don't think the average person would care much about this work, as it is everything you imagine a daily writing journal would be (an accumulation of the mundane details of life, such as an internal debate about the superiorty of certain types of pencils). But I found it fascinating for this very reason. I'm not a 'writer' in the sense that I sit down and hammer out novels or articles every day, but writing is a key part of my daily work, and it is often the hardest part. So reading some of these similiar sentiments from one of the greatest writers of the 20th century was wonderfully encouraging.

All the Pretty Horses: I'm ashamed to say that I've never read Cormac McCarthy before this year. And I was blown away by the quality of his writing. His style was like the perfect nexus of Hemingway and Stegner. Sparse, intense, and out in the old west.

Amusing Ourselves to Death: This is a must read for every person that ever looks at a screen of any kind for any reason. Though written in 1985, it is scary relevant to today's world. He tracks the progression of communication from oral to text to image based and the affect these mediums have on the way the information is interacted with and consumed. In an age where technology overwhelms the conversation, his frank insight is a good reminder of the basics of communication and brings some sanity to the conversation.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: This book was first recommended to me by a Southern Baptist pastor in rural Kentucky. Even the title struck me as odd - not your normal "must read" from that stereotype. I'm still not sure why he recommended it but I did find it to be an interesting read. The author (Robert Prisig) weaves together a story of a motorcycle trip with his son and his own philosophical ramblings on the topic of "Quality." There's a subplot to the story that gives it an extra edge of interest. Any one of these literary structures in and of itself would not make for much of a read, but the way he weaves them together makes it quite engaging. The book has inspired many to follow his journey on their own bikes. One disciple, who made the journey 30 years after Prisig, wrote about his experience in the book Zen and Now. This account also provides more biographical information on Prisig and reflects on the importance of the book in his own life and the importance of making the journey as a middle age man. I know that sounds thrilling to those 28 and under. I apologize. Yes, I turned 40 last year. No matter your age, Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance is worth reading, though not everyone will be able to endure the philosophical ramblings. I found myself skimming some segments at times to get back to the story of the journey and his interactions with his son.

Others to finish in 2014
I started the following books in 2013 and hope to finish them this year.

The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Picked this up because of John Piper. He responded to a tweet by Mark Driscoll, who was raving about a Piper book by saying "Sell all your Piper books and buy The Meaning of the Pentateuch." Bold statement. I can already say that I think every Christian should read the Introduction. That alone is worth the price of the book. But you can read all 50 pages of the intro, for free, right here.

Here I Stand: Classic bio on Luther. Pretty good. Helped to watch the recent movie, Luther, in the middle of it (in honor of Reformation Day).

Penses: by Blaise Pascal. Nibbling on this a few pages at a time (and posting excerpts on it occassionally). So rich. So rich. And loving this classy folio society version.