Wednesday, August 24, 2016

War by Sebastian Junger (Book Notes)

I recently finished the book War by Sebastian Junger. I became interested in his writing after hearing an interview with him on the Tim Ferriss podcast. Pretty interesting guy. The book is a collection of his experiences working as a war reporter in Afghanistan. 

I read this book a while back but delayed posting about it because at first reflection it didn’t seem to warrant much comment. But after working back through my notes and reviewing some of the quotes and insights, I realized there's some significant depth here. 

As a book, for pure entertainment value, it wasn't the strongest. There's lots of seemingly random conversation, brutal violence, and a prodigious amount of the f-word (it is a book about war). I wouldn't recommend it to everyone. But along the literary journey there are some powerful quotes, anecdotes, and social observations. There are reflections on the importance of relationships and how community strength is so important to our health and growth as individuals. There are also some powerful quotes on courage, love, and the connection between the two. Junger apparently gets flack for his gender stereotypes. You’ll see some of his observations that have been criticized below. Read and decide for yourself if the criticism is fair or not.

On fear and cowardice
"By cowardice I do not mean fear. Cowardice... is a label we reserve for something a man does. What passes through his mind is his own affair." - Lord Moran, The Anatomy of Courage

On how you still need courage to tell your muscles what to do.
"There are different kinds of strength, and containing fear may be the most profound, the one without which Armies couldn't function and wars couldn't be fought (God forbid). There are big tough guys in the army who are cowards, and small feral looking dudes like Monroe who will methodically take apart a SAW (machine gun) while rounds are slapping the rocks all around them. The more literal forms of strength like carrying 160 lbs up a mountain depend more obviously on the size of your muscles. But muscles only do what you tell them, so it still keeps coming back to the human spirit. Wars are fought with very heavy machinery”  

On Why Nothing is Easy in Life
"'Everything in war is simple but the simplest thing is difficult,' The military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz wrote in the 1820s. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction. That friction is the entire goal of the enemy in the valley. In some ways it works even better than killing." (He's referring to the friction of wearing down the army, drip by drip, and it's amazing effectiveness to clog up the american war machine.)

On the Dangerous Effictiveness of Young Men
"Society can give it's young men almost any job, and they'll figure out how to do it. They'll suffer for it, and die for it, and watch their friends die for it, but in the end it will get done. That only means that society should be careful what it asks for. In a very crude sense the job of young men is to undertake the world their fathers are too old for."     

"And the current generation of american fathers had decided that a certain six-mile-long valley in the Konar provence needs to be brought under military control. Nearly 50 American soldiers have died carrying out those orders. I'm not saying that's a lot or a little, but the cost does need to be acknowledged. Soldiers themselves are reluctant to evaluate the costs of war. For some reason the closer you are to combat, the less inclined you are to question it. but someone must. That evaluation... may be the one thing the country absolutely owes the soldiers that defend it's borders."

On Love
"The coward's fear of death stems in large part from his incapacity to love anything but his own body. The inability to participate in other's lives stands in the way of his developing any inner resources sufficient to overcome the terror of death."
-J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors

On Young men being 5x more likely to die than young women
"Some of those behavioral determinants, like a willingness to take risks, seem to figure disproportionately in the characters of young men. They are killed in accidents and homicides at a rate of 106 per 100,000 per year, roughly five times the rate of young women. Statistically, it's six times as dangerous to spend a year as a young man in America than as a cop or a fireman, and vastly more dangerous than a one year deployment at a big military base in Afghanistan. You'd have to go to a remote fire base like the KOP or Camp Blessing to find a level of risk that surpasses that of simply being an adolescent male back home."

"Combat isn't simply a matter of risk though, it's also a matter of mastery. The basic neurological mechanism that induces animals to do things is called the dopamine rewards system. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that mimics the affect of cocaine in the brain. And it gets released when a person wins a game or solves a problem or succeeds at a difficult task. The dopamine rewards system exists in both sexes but is stronger in men. And as a result, men are more likely to become obsessively involved in such things as hunting, gambling, computer games, and war. When the men of 2nd platoon were moping around the outpost, hoping for a firefight, it was because, among other things, they weren't getting their accustomed dose of endorphins and dopamine. They played video games instead. Women can master those skills without having pleasure centers in their brains - primarily the mesocorticolimbic center - light up as if they've just done a line of coke."  

On Courage as love
"Combat fog obscures your fate, obscures when and where you might die, and from that unknown is born a desperate bond between the men. That bond is the core experience of combat and the only thing you can absolutely count on. The army might screw you and your girlfriend might dump you and the enemy might kill you, but the shared commitment to safeguard one another's lives is un-negotiable and only deepens with time. The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire, and the experience of it changes a person profoundly. What the army sociologists.... slowly came to understand was that courage was love. In war neither could exist without the other and that in a sense they were just different ways of saying the same thing.

According to their questionnaires, the primary motivation in combat, other than ending the task, which meant they could all go home, was solidarity with the group. That far outweighed self-preservation or idealism as a motivator. The Army research branch cites cases of wounded man going AWOL after their hospitalization, in order to get back to their unit faster than the military could get them there. A civilian might consider this an act of courage, but soldiers knew better. To them it was just an act of brotherhood and their probably wasn't much to say about it except, 'welcome back.' Loyalty to the group drove men back into combat and occasionally to their deaths, but the group also provided the only psychological refuge from the horror of what was going on. It was conceivably more reassuring to be under fire with men you trusted than to languish at some rear base with soldiers who had no real understanding of war. It's as if there were an intoxicating affect to group inclusion that more than compensated for the dangers the group had to face. A study conducted in the mid-1950s found that jumping out of a plane generated extreme anxiety in loosely bonded groups of paratroopers. But tightly bonded men mainly worried about living up to the standards of the group. Men were also found to be able to withstand more pain, in this case electric shocks, when they were part of a close group, than when they were alone."

On Group size and community strength (FASCINATING)
"In the early 1990s, an English anthropologist named Robin Dunbar theorized that the maximum size for any group of primates was determined by brain size, specifically the size of the neocortex. The larger the neocortex, he reasoned, the more individuals with whom you could maintain personal relationships. Dunbar then compared primate brains to human brains, and used the differential to predict the ideal size for a group of humans. The number he came up with was 147.8 people. Rounded up to 150, it became known as the Dunbar number and it happened to pop up everywhere. A survey of ethnographic data found that pre-contact hunter gatherers around the world lived in shifting communities that ranged from 90 to 221 people, with an average of 148. Neolithic villages in Mesopotamia were thought to have had around 150 people. The Roman army of the classical period used a formation of 130 men, called a maniple, or a double century, in combat. Hutterite communities in South Dakota split after reaching 150 people because, in their opinion, anything larger cannot be controlled by peer pressure alone. Dunbar also found that the size of human hunter-gatherer communities was not spread evenly along a spectrum, but tended to clump around certain numbers. The first group size that kept coming up in ethnographic data was 30-50 people. Essentially a platoon. Unlike hunter-gatherer communities, platoons are obviously single sex, but the group identification might function the same way. Those communities were highly mobile and kept in close contact with three or four other communities for social and defensive purposes. The larger these groups were, the better they could defend themselves. Up until the point that they got so big they started to fracture and divide. Many such groups formed a tribe, and tribes either fought each other or formed confederacies against other tribes. The basic dichotomy of "us vs. them" happened at the tribal level and was reinforced by differences in language and culture. The parallels with military structure are almost exact. Battle company had around 150 men, and every man knew every other man by face and by name. The molten core of the group bond was the platoon however. A platoon - with a headquarters element, a radio operator, a medic, and forward observer for calling in air strikes - is the smallest self-contained unit in the regular army. Inserted into enemy territory and resupplied by air, a platoon could function more or less indefinitely. When I asked the men about their allegiance to one another, they said they would unhesitatingly risk their lives for anyone in the platoon or company, but the sentiment dropped off pretty quickly after that. By the time you got to brigade level, 3,000 to 4,000 men, any sense of common goals or identity was pretty much theoretical."

On Self Sacrifice
"Self sacrifice in defense of one's community is virtually universal among humans, extolled in myths and legends all over the world, and undoubtedly ancient. No community can protect itself unless a certain portion of its youth decide they are willing to risk their lives in its defense. That impulse can be horribly manipulated by leaders and politicians of course, but the underlying sentiment remains the same. Cheyenne dog soldiers wore long sashes that they staked to the ground in battle so that they couldn't leave the spot unless released by someone else. American militia men at the Alamo were outnumbered ten to one and yet fought to the last man rather than surrender to Mexican forces trying to reclaim the territory of Texas. And soldiers in WWI ran head long into heavy machine gun fire, not because many of them cared about the larger politics of the war, but because that's what the man to the left and to the right of them was doing. The cause doesn't have to righteous, and the battle doesn't have to be winnable, but over and over again throughout history, men have chosen to die in battle with their friends, rather than to flee on their own and survive. While Stouffer (a sociologist) was trying to figure this out among american troops, the psychological warfare division was trying to do the same thing with the Germans. One of the most astounding things about the last phase of the war wasn't that the German Army collapsed by the end, that was a matter of simple math, but that it lasted as long as it did. Many German units that were completely cut off from the rest of their army continued resisting the prospect of certain defeat."

On the Power of the Group
"After the war, a pair of former American Intelligence Officers named Edward Shils and Morris Janowitz set about interviewing thousands of German prisoners to find out what had motivated them in the face of such odds. Their paper, "Cohesion and Disintegration in the Wehrmacht in World War II," became a classic inquiry into why men fight.
     Considering the extreme nationalism of the Nazi era, one might expect the territorial ambition and a sense of racial superiority motivated most of the men on the German line. In fact, those concepts only helped the men who were already part of a cohesive unit. For everyone else, such grand principles provided no motivation at all. A soldier needs to have his basic physical needs met and needs to feel valued and loved by others. If those things are provided by the group, a soldier requires virtually no rationale other than the defense of that group to continue fighting. Allied propaganda about the moral wrongfulness of the Nazi government had very little effect on these men because they weren't really fighting for that government anyway. As the German lines collapsed and the German Army, the Wehrmacht, began to break up, the concerns of fighting began to give way to those of pure physical survival. At that point, Allied propaganda campaigns that guaranteed food, shelter, and safety to German deserters began to take a toll. But even then, Shils and Janowitz found, the men who deserted tended to be disgruntled loners who had never really fit into their unit. They were men who typically had trouble giving or receiving affection and had a history of difficult relations with friends and family back home. A significant number had criminal records. The majority of everyone else either fought and died as a unit or surrendered as a unit. Almost no one acted on their own to avoid the fate that was coming to the whole group. When I asked Hijar (one of the American soldiers the author was following) what it would mean to get overrun he said, 'By a brave man's definition it would mean to fight until you died.' That is essentially what the entire German Army tried to do as the Western Front collapsed in the spring of 1945."

(This last portion came from an interview with the author that only appears in the audio book)

Interviewer: "Talk about the connection between courage and love"
Junger: "What I saw out in the Korengal was many acts of bravery all committed in the service of the group or the service of another man. What I realized is that as I became more and more affiliated with this platoon the more I felt like I was more a part of the group. My own fear started to sort of dissolve a bit and I realized that what civilians call courage, in other words, someone risking their life for someone else, the soldiers just consider their sort of minimum duty as soldiers to each other. And that the acts of courage that I saw performed in front of me were actually acts of commitment, ultimately, acts of love towards other men in the unit. And it really came down to the fact that the guys in that unit would rather risk their lives and probably rather get killed than fail their brothers and put others at risk or even get them killed. The shame of causing the death of someone else far eclipsed the fear of death and it really determined everyone's actions in combat."

Monday, August 8, 2016

How to be the most interesting person you can be

Years ago I heard an interview with a young actor who had been in a movie with Harry Connick Jr. He was surprised by how nice, engaging, and kind to others Harry was. He was also mesmerized by how interesting of a person Mr. Connick was to be around. So he sought him out and asked him, "How do I become a more interesting person?" Harry said, "It's simple. When you meet someone new, ask them 5 questions before you ever say anything about yourself." Amazing advice, but hard to believe it came from a movie star, all of which I often (wrongly) assume are completely self absorbed. I love this story because it shatters that assumption.

So did this quote from the book How Proust Can Change Your Life.
(p.120)- it is often assumed, usually by people who don't have many friends, that friendship is a hollow sphere in which what we wish to talk about effortlessly coincides with others' interests. Proust, less optimistic than this, recognized the likelihood of discrepancy, and concluded that he should always be the one to ask questions and address himself to what was on your mind rather than risking boring you with what was on his.
To do anything else would have been bad conversation and manners: [quotes from Proust] "There is a lack of tact in people who in their conversation look not to please others, but to elucidate, egotistically, points that they are interested in." Conversation required an application of oneself in the name of pleasing companions. "When we chat, it is no longer we who speak... we are fashioning ourselves then in the likeness of other people, and not of a self that differs from them."
Though the quotes are from and about Proust, it also sounds like something Jesus would say and do.

This quote brought a friend and his wife to mind, both of whom I know try to practice this Proustian approach to conversation whenever there are at a gathering. I emailed him the quote as a point of encouragement - a sign of solidarity amongst us high-minded-others-centered-conversationalists. His response was not expected, but unsurprising. 
Good stuff.  Thanks for thinking of us.
Hard to practice this "other's interests" because we are all so self centered. Recently during the Christmas break  my wife and I were commenting on how worn out we were by everyone's self talk. She came home one evening from a dinner with a girls group and walked through the door and fell into my arms in tears. When she finally collected herself she said that she feels like she is known by nobody. She went on to say that her closest girlfriends do nothing but self talk and there was no need to ask probing questions about them because its all about them. At a time when her mom is fighting cancer she wanted just one woman to ask about her but it never happened.  
We are committed to keep asking probing questions so as to not risk boring people with our agenda. I think it all starts with a denial of self and a genuine concern for others.  But in a world of self talk this becomes more challenging indeed.
Hard paragraphs to read. Mostly because of the painful reminder of the many times I've played the role of the self absorbed friend that only talks about themselves. 

Proust had an agenda in asking questions - to learn more that would help shape characters in his books. Harry might have had an agenda to merely appear interesting to others (I've been guilty of that as well). But a Christ centered agenda seeks to be others centered for Christ's sake. And when you are others centered in your conversation, it opens a door for pointing others to Him.

Friday, August 5, 2016

New Wayne Grudem Book: "'Free Grace' Theology: 5 Ways It Diminishes the Gospel."

Wayne Grudem has a new book out: "Free Grace" Theology: Five Ways It Diminishes the GospelI'm grateful he wrote this book for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, in Seminary, one of my professors was a big proponent of Free Grace theology. But the way he promoted that view in the classroom was unhelpful. And since he had a sharp wit and a persuasive personality, some students gave this idea more credence than I felt it deserved. 

The second reason surprised me. Of course I would have loved to see someone directly respond to the arguments, but I didn't think a book would garner much interest beyond the seminary classroom. A few years ago Dr. Grudem gave a message on the topic and that eventually led to this book. I wouldn't even be mentioning it here if it weren't for something he wrote in the letter he sent along with the book. 
Although its focus is on the" Free Grace" movement, the book has broader application for how we understand the gospel message today. I'm concerned that evangelicals too often water-down any call for genuine repentance from sin, minimize the need for heartfelt trust in Christ as a living person, and seldom warn people that if their lives have not changed, they're probably not really Christians at all. This book addresses those concerns and calls us back to the kind of gospel presented in the New Testament itself.
So the second reason I'm grateful for this book is that it is such a rich dive into some of the fundamental aspects of the gospel, which makes it an edifying read for all followers of Jesus.

The marks of Grudem's writing that have always impressed me are his extensive use of Scripture and his very careful analysis of sources. I once heard him say that when people make claims that seem tenuous based on obscure references, go back and examine the footnotes, and you almost always find errors, or that some of the context of a passage quoted was ignored. And you see that play out of this book. I think he writes carefully and he seems as to be as gracious as he can be towards the Free Grace position. Of course if you hold to the Free Grace position, I'd love for you to read the book and give me your thoughts as I am clearly biased both for the author and his position.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

George MacDonald on Prayer

This year I've been completely obsessed with reading C.S. Lewis.  It started when I finally wrapped up reading volume 2 of a collection of his letters my brother gave me 10 years ago. But that launched me into volume 3, which at 1800 pages, is no small undertaking.

One of the themes in Lewis' letters that keeps showing up is that of Prayer. And that theme keeps showing up in my life as well. This week at a FamilyLife meeting Crawford Loritts spoke - and he always delivers some zingers. He's like a Gatling Gun for heart penetrating quotes. One that I've heard many repeat since is, "If you're not praying, you're a practical atheist, because you're living life like you don't need God." Ouch. Guilty.

Lewis thought much about prayer and especially the relationship between free will and the sovereignty of God. He wrestled openly with the question, "Why, if God knows everything, if He is sovereign, and knows our needs perfectly, even better than we do, why then do we need to pray? What's the role of prayer?"

One of the things I love to seek out about people I admire are the books and people that shaped their lives. George MacDonald had a HUGE influence on Lewis. So much so that he compiled and published an anthology of 365 readings of MacDonald so that more people could experience his work. I've been reading through that collection and ran across the following quote which is quite possibly the most powerful quote on prayer I've ever experienced. And the quote opens with MacDonald anticipating the skeptics question:

Why Should It Be Necessary?
"But if God is so good as you represent Him, and if He knows all that we need, and better far than we do ourselves,why should it be necessary to ask Him for anything?" I answer, What if He knows Prayer to be the thing we need first and most? What if the main object in God's idea of prayer be the supplying of our great, our endless need - the need of Himself?... Hunger may drive the runaway child home, and he may or may not be fed at once, but he needs his mother more than his dinner. Communion with God is the one need of the soul beyond all other need: prayer is the beginning of that communion, and some need is the motive of that prayer... So begins a communion, and taking  [sic] with God, a coming-to-one with Him, which is the sole end of prayer, yea, of existence itself in its infinite phases. We must ask that we may receive: but that we should receive what we ask in respect of our lower needs, is not God's end in making us pray, for He could give us everything without that: to bring His child to His knee, God withholds that man may ask."

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Surprised by Re-Reading

I rarely re-read books. In general I try to power through whatever is in hand  (except for the Bible, of course) and move on to something new. But I noticed this year that I had re-read a number of books, and many of them have had a significant influence on my life over the years.

Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis - I remember the spot where I was sitting in the hotel lobby when I closed the cover on this book, New Year's even of 1999, (y2k anyone?) and just sat in wonder at God's unique work in Lewis' life. It brought great comfort to realize God had wired him for a specific purpose, and to know God had done the same for me. Picked it up again this year for a piece I was writing for the forth-coming Passport2Identity. Tried skimming through it to find a specific passage, but ended up not being able to put it down. Yes it slowed down the writing, but the re-reading was a great delight.

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry -  I want to be like Jayber in so many ways when I grow up. You should read this to learn about selfless love, connections to a place and a people, and a vision of community. I tossed the audio book in the car this summer. Often lingered in the parking lot before entering the office as a result.

What are People for? Re-read this last year for at least the 4th time. Can't get enough Wendell Berry. A good reminder that people are more important than institutions.

Fahrenheit 451 - For many years it was hard for me to consider reading this book again. It made me rather uncomfortable. but this book also caused me to fall more in love with books and ideas and the preservation of thought. I will likely re-read it annually (though when I've said this before I've not followed through...)

A Brief History of Thought by Luc Ferry- Read this at the recommendation of a friend who quoted Keller saying this was the most important book on culture one could read. Re-read it and discussed it with a group of bros on my back porch a few nights this fall.

The Story of Christianity Church History volumes - read both of these in seminary. Re-read them this year with a group of guys at the office. Most stuck with it. All agreed that the books are tremendous. A recent quote by Churchill reminded me of the importance of reading church history: "The farther one looks into the past, the more distant one can see into the future."

How Should We Then Live by Francis Schaeffer - I've read this once on my own and discussed at least two times with others. Now gearing up to work through it this spring with a group of guys at the office. A great overview of the history of western thought and the influences that have shaped the way we think today.

My Reading Life by Pat Conroy- Wow. What a book. Read through it a couple of years ago, and listened through it this year, some parts twice. Inspired me to read Gone With the Wind, which was better than I imagined, but not nearly as epic to me as it was to Pat Conroy's mother. His chapter on the bookstore in Atlanta made me long for an experience like that. His chapter on the influence of his english teacher made me want to quit everything and teach english. I've got a work by Thomas Wolfe on my nightstand because of him. His chapter on writing in Paris made me want to write a lot more, though not in Paris. Great writing and story telling.

Monday, January 25, 2016

C.S. Lewis Recommends Books to a Seeker

I've been reading through a collection of C.S. Lewis' letters and recently ran across a section where he recommends a number of books to a woman, a former student of his, who was exploring Christianity. Lewis wrote the following to his brother about the exchange:
This week I received a letter from my former pupil Mrs. Neylan... who is trembling on the verge of Christianity — admits that the issue 'can no longer be avoided' — and asks what to read and (more difficult still) who to see. I felt almost overwhelmed by the responsibility of my reply, and naturally the more because the two other people whose conversion had something to do with me became Papists!.... The letter's gone now. I suppose if God intends to have Mrs Neylan it won't make much difference what I've written! — yet that is a dangerous argument which would lead to its not mattering what you did in any circumstances.
Here's what he recommended for her to read:
On this whole aspect of the subject I should go on (since you've read his Orthodoxy) to Chesterton's The Everlasting Man. You might also find Mauriac's Life of Jesus useful... By the way, if childish associations are too intrusive in reading the New Testament, it's a good idea to try it in some other language, or in Moffatt's modern translation. 
As for theology proper: a good many misunderstandings are cleared away by Edwyn Bevan's Symbolism and Belief. A book of composite authorship and of varying merits, but on the whole good is Essays Catholic and Critical ed. E.G. Selwyn S.P.C.K. Gore's The Philosophy of the Good Life is rather wordy but taught me a lot. If you can stand serious faults of style (and if you can get them, they are long out of print) George Macdonald's 3 vols. of Unspoken Sermons go to the very heart of the matter. I think you would also find it most illuminating to re-read now many things you once read in 'English Lit' without knowing their real importance — Herbert, Traherne, Religio Medici.
Mary Neylan wrote an article about her friendship with Lewis, published in The Chesterton Review in 1991 (available to purchase here). Of the books he recommended, one still widely read today is Chesterton's Orthodoxy. My son is now reading the Space Trilogy for the first time, which reminds me that I need to re-read it, having not read it since college.

In the letter he also recommend two of his own works (at her request), The Pilgrims Regress and Out of the Silent Planet. In an interview Eric Metaxas, Walter Hooper said Lewis told him That Hideous Strength was his favorite book of all he had written (or, as he made the distinction, the "one he liked best"). One would think he would have recommended Mere Christianity to her, but the letter was written in 1940, a few years before he gave the lectures upon which the book would be based. Who knows, maybe this conversation helped him see the importance of writing such a book?

Thursday, January 14, 2016

How Proust Can Change Your Life - [Book Notes]

Not my high school photo
I've heard the name Marcel Proust many times, have heard his work spoken well of, and have often thought I should be reading him. Alas, I have never picked up one of his works. But after listening to an interview with Alain de Botton, I read his book called How Proust Can Change Your Life. Of course the title is probably a bit of an overstatement, yet the book is worth reading, if only for the chapter on learning how Proust dealt with a life of sickness, how he even saw it an advantage to help him focus on writing.

I would not have understood how this could even be possible until recently going through a season of sickness myself. And though there was much about that I did not like, I can now see how it focuses the mind and the body on the essentials and crowds out distractions. Proust  seemed to take greater delight in the very mundane things of life as a result. The whole book is worth the chapter on how to suffer well, but his insights on friendship, and thoughts on reading books make it a valuable read. 

What follows below are my notes from Alain's book. And who knows, I might even read some Proust now.

See all caps for major themes.

36 - The more an account is compressed, the more it seems that it deserves no more space than it has been allocated. How easy to imagine that nothing at all has happened today, to forget the 50,000 war dead, sigh, toss the paper to one side, and experience a mild wave of melancholy at the tedium of daily routine.

44- a similar spirit appears to have guided Proust in his reading matter. His friend Maurice Duplay tells us that what Marcel most liked reading when he couldn't get to sleep was a train timetable. The document was not consulted for practical advice; the departure time of the Saint Lazare train was of no immediate importance to a man who found no reason to leave Paris. Rather, this timetable was read and enjoyed as though it were a gripping novel about country life, because the mere names of provincial train stations provided Proust's imagination with enough material to elaborate entire worlds, to picture domestic dramas in rural villages, shenanigans in local governments, and life out in the fields.

Proust argued that enjoyment of such wayward reading matter was typical of a writer, someone who could be counted on to develop enthusiasms for things that were apparently out of line with great art, a person for whom "a terrible musical production in a provincial theater, or a ball which people of taste find ridiculous, will either evoke memories or else be linked to an order of reveries and preoccupations, far more then some admirable performance at the Opera or an ultra smart soiree in the Faubourg Saint Germain. The names of Northern Railway stations in a timetable, where he would like to imagine himself stepping from the train on an autumn evening, when the trees are already bare and smelling strongly in the Keen Air, an insipid publication for people of taste, full of names he has not heard since childhood, may have far greater value for him then fine volumes of philosophy, and the people of taste to say that for a man of talent, he has very stupid tastes."  Or at least, unconventional tastes. This often became apparent to people who met Proust for the first time and were quizzed on aspects of their life which they had previously considered with all the meager spiritual attention usually paid to ads for household goods and timetables from Paris to Le Have.

64- Robert Proust, two years younger than he, the surgeon like his father ( the author of an acclaimed study of the surgery of the female genitalia), and built like an ox. Whereas Marcel could be killed by a draft, Robert was indestructible. When he was 19, he was riding a tandem bicycle in Henryville, a village on the Seine few miles north of Paris. At a busy junction, he fell from his tandem and slipped under the wheels of an approaching five-ton pull wagon. The wagon rolled over him, he was rushed to the hospital, his mother hurried from Paris in a panic, but her son made a rapid and remarkable recovery, suffering none of the permanent damage the doctors had feared. When the First World War broke out, the Ox, now a grown-up surgeon, was posted to a field hospital... where he lived in a tent and worked in exhausting and unsanitary conditions. One day, a shell landed on the hospital, and shrapnel scattered around the table where Robert was operating on a German soldier. Though hurt himself, Dr. Proust single handedly moved his patient to a nearby dormitory and continued the operation on a stretcher. A few years later, he suffered a grave car accident when his driver fell asleep and the vehicle collided with an ambulance. Robert was thrown against a wooden partition and fractured his skull, but almost before his family had had time to be informed and grow alarmed, he was back on the road to recovery and active life.

So who would one wish to be, Robert or Marcel? The advantages of being the former can be briefly summed up: immense physical energy, aptitude for tennis and canoeing, surgical skills (Robert was celebrated for his prostatectomies, an operation henceforth known in French medical circles as proustatectomies), financial success, father of a beautiful daughter, Suzy (who uncle Marcell adored and spoilt, nearly buying her a flamingo when she expressed a passing desire for one as a child). And Marcel? No physical energy, couldn't play tennis or canoe, made no money, had no children, enjoyed no respect until late in life, then felt too sick to derive any pleasure from it (a lover of analogies drawn from illness, he compared himself to a man afflicted with too high a fever to enjoy a perfect souffle).

However, an area in which Robert appeared to trail his brother was in the ability to notice things. Robert did not show much reaction when there there was a window open on a pollen rich day or 5 tons of coal had run over him; he could have traveled from Everest to Jericho and taken little note of an altitude change, or slept on 5 tins of peas without suspecting that there was anything unusual under the mattress.

Though such sensory bindness is often rather welcome, particularly when one is performing an operation during a shell barrage in the First World War, it is worth pointing out that feeling things (which usually means feeling them painfully) is at some level linked to the acquisition of knowledge. A sprained ankle quickly teaches us about the bodies weight distribution; hiccups force us to notice and adjust to hitherto unknown aspects of the respiratory system; being jilted by a lover is a perfect introduction to the mechanisms of emotional dependency.

In fact, in Prousts's view, we don't really learn anything properly until there is a problem, until we are in pain, until something fails to go as we had hoped.

"Infirmity alone makes us take notice and learn, and enables us to analyze processes which we would otherwise know nothing about. A man who falls straight into bed every night, and ceases to live until the moment when he wakes and rises, will surely never dream of making, not necessarily great discoveries, but even minor observations about sleep. He scarcely knows that he is asleep. A little insomnia is not without its value in making us appreciate sleep, and throwing a ray of light upon that darkness. An unfailing memory is not a very powerful incentive to study the phenomena of memory."

68- "happiness is good for the body" Proust tells us, "but it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind."

These griefs put us through a form of mental gymnastics which we would have avoided in happier times. Indeed, if a genuine priority is the development of our mental capacities, the implication is that we would be better off being unhappy than content, better off pursuing tormented love affairs than reading Plato or Spinoza.

It is perhaps only normal if we remain ignorant when things are blissful. When a car is working well, what incentive is there to learn of its complex internal functioning? When a beloved pledges loyalty, why should we dwell on the dynamics of human treachery? What could encourage us to investigate the humiliation of social life when all we encounter is respect? Only when plunged into grief do we have the Proustian incentive to confront a difficult truth, as we will under the bedclothes, like branches in the autumn wind.

76- psychoanalytic literature tales of a woman who felt faint whenever she sat in a library. Surrounded by books, she would develop nausea and could gain release only by leaving their vicinity. It was not, as might be supposed, that she was averse to books, but rather that she wanted them and the knowledge they contained far too badly, that she felt her lack of knowledge far too strongly and wanted to have read everything on the shelves at once - and because she could not, needed to flee her unbearable ignorance by surrounding herself with a less knowledge laden environment.

A Precondition of becoming knowledgeable maybe a resignation and accommodation to the extent of one's ignorance, an accommodation which requires a sense that this ignorance need not be permanent, or indeed need not be taken personally, as a reflection of one's inherent capacities.

83- The lesson? To respond to the unexpected and hurtful behavior of others with something more than a wipe of the glasses, to see it as a chance to expand our understanding, even if, as Proust warns us, "when we discover the true lives of other people, the real world beneath the world of appearance, we get as many surprises as on visiting a house of plain exterior which inside is full of hidden treasures, torture chambers or skeletons."

Compared to these unfortunate sufferers, Proust's approach to his own grief now seems rather admirable. Though asthma made it life threatening for him to spend time in the countryside, though he turned purple at the sight of a lilac and bloom, he did not peevishly claim that flowers were boring or trumpet the advantages of spending the year in a shuttered room.

The moral? To recognize that our best chance of contentment lies in taking up the wisdom offered to us in coded form through our coughs, allergies, social gaffes, and emotional betrayals, and to avoid the ingratitude of those who blame the peas, the boards, the time, and the weather.

(JCM: note that Proust knew how to make the most of his sickness and do what he could and to take advantage of his constraints.)

85- There may be significant things to learn about people by looking at what annoys them most.

88- The problem with clich├ęs is not that they contain false ideas, but rather that they are superficial articulations of a very good ones

120- Given the effort and strategic intelligence he devoted to friendship, it shouldn't surprise us. For instance it is often assumed, usually by people who don't have many friends, that friendship is a hollow sphere in which what we wish to talk about effortlessly coincides with others' interests. Proust, less optimistic than this, recognized the likelihood of discrepancy, and concluded that he should always be the one to ask questions and address himself to what was on your mind rather than risking boring you with what was on his.

To do anything else would have been bad conversation on manners: "There is a lack of tact in people who in their conversation look not to please others, but to elucidate, egotistically, points that they are interested in."  Conversation required an application of oneself in the name of pleasing companions. "When we chat, it is no longer we who speak... we are fashioning ourselves then in the likeness of other people, and not of a self that differs from them."

129- More interesting than the letters we send our friends may be the ones we finish, then decide not to mail after all. Found among his papers after his death was a note Proust had written to Gregh a little before the one he actually sent. It contained a far nastier, far less acceptable, but far truer message. It thanked Gregh for the house of childhood, [a Book Greg had written and asked Proust for feedback on after criticizing one of Proust's works], but then limited itself to praising the quantity, rather than the quality, of this poetic output, and went on to make wounding reference to Gregh's pride, distrustfulness, and childlike soul.

Why didn't he send it? Thought the dominant view of grievances is that they should invariably be discussed with their progenitors, the typically unsatisfactory results of doing so should perhaps urg us to reconsider. Proust might have invited Gregh to a restaurant, offered him the finest grapes on a vine plant, pressed a 500 Frank tip into the waiters hand for good measure, and begin to tell his friend in the gentlest voice that he seemed a little too proud, had some problems with trust, and that his soul was a touch childlike, only to find Gregh turning red in the face, pushing aside the grapes, and walking angrily out of the restaurant, to the surprise of the richly remunerated waiter. What would this have achieved, aside from unnecessarily alienating proud Gregh? And anyway, had Proust really become friends with this character in order to share his palm readers insights with him?

Instead, these awkward thoughts were better entertained elsewhere, in a private space designed for analysis too wounding to be shared with those who had inspired them. A letter that never gets sent is such a place. A novel is another.

130- One way of considering In Search of Lost Time is as an unusually long unsent letter, the antidote to a lifetime of Proustification, the flip side of the Athenas, lavish gifts, and long stemmed chrysanthemums, the place where the unsayable was finally granted expression..

168- the Duchess fails to appreciate her dresses not because they are less beautiful than other dresses, but because physical possession is so easy, which fools her into thinking that she has acquired everything she wanted, and distracts her from pursuing the only real form of possession that is effective in Proust eyes - namely, imaginative possession (dwelling on the details of the dress, the folds of the material, the delicacy of the thread), an imaginative possession that Albertine already pursues through no conscious choice because it is a natural response to being denied physical contact.

179- it is one of the great and wonderful characteristics of good books (which allows us to see the role at once essential yet limited that reading may play in our spiritual lives) and for the other they may be called "conclusions" but for the reader "incitements." We feel very strongly that our own wisdom begins where that of the author leaves off, and we would like him to provide us with answers when all he is able to do is provide us with desires.... That is the value of reading, and also its inadequacy. To make it into a discipline is to give too larger role to what is only an excitement. Reading is on the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it: it does not constitute it.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Amazing Interview with Walter Hooper

Just listened through an epic six part interview with Walter Hooper, who played a key role in keeping C.S. Lewis' writings popular after his death. Eric Metaxas does the interview on his radio show. Click links below:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, and Part Six.

Listening re-invigorated my interest in the volume of C.S. Lewis letters (vol. 2 of 3) I've been nibbling on for a few years now. It also inspired me to pray for Wayne Grudem, who was recently diagnosed with Parkinson's, that God would bring someone alongside him, much like Walter Hooper came alongside C.S. Lewis, to assist him with writing. I attended seminary in Phoenix to get time around Dr. Grudem, and it was taking his course on Ethics that inspired me to do so. Since taking the course, I've wished he would put the material in book form, but he has always had other writing projects stacked in front of it. Now he is planning to finish writing an Ethics text in the coming years, so please join me in praying that the Lord gives him energy, help, favor and health!

Friday, January 8, 2016

Top Books of 2015

Some years reading is so-so, just plugging along or not going very deep. This year it seemed there was a greater than average variety of reading and some surprises along the way. Below are my top 9 books of 2015 in no particular order, except the last one was my favorite.

Sea Wolf by Jack London - One of my all time favorite books is Call of Wild, which I probably read the illustrated classic version over 100 times as kid. But I've not read much else by London and hardly any as an adult. Recently Ryan Holiday recommended Sea Wolf, so I picked it up, and I'm glad I did. Not only is it a fun read, but it's surprisingly thoughtful. The development of the two main characters and the criss-crossing arc of their character is both mesmerizing and maddening. It felt like a bit of a mash-up of Hemingway (in its bleakness) and Steinbeck (in its action). Definitely worth reading. And I'll for sure be reading more London this year. My daughter began asking me to read it aloud to her at night by the fire. I was so shocked because the language is not kid friendly. She even became very interested in the fate of Mr. Wolf. Go figure.

The Story of Christianity (Vol. 1 & Vol. 2) - These 2 volumes of church history are the best church history books I've read. Discussed them with a group of guys at the office this year and we had a rollicking good time (yes we did). Worth reading. Note that the Kindle version does not have page numbers. (Why oh why amazon can't you figure this out?)

Preaching by Keller - The beauty of this book is that it's not about how to preach, but how to think about communicating with an audience and connecting to their deeper heart issues. Important for every Christian to read if you want to know more about how the world thinks and how to bridge that gap to the message of Christ.

Junius and Albert's Adventure in the Confederacy - Two Union reporters are captured by the Confederacy after a battle on the Mississippi river. The book is the story of their prison stay, escape, and journey back to Union safety. The byline sums it up well, calling it a "Civil War Odyssey." A fascinating story in and of itself, but I also learned much about the war, especially the complexity of the warring allegiances in the southern states, which grew especially complicated in the mountains of Tennessee, where few slaves were owned due to the lack of plantations. So pro Union factions were fighting pro Confederacy groups, both of which were at odds with the "home guard" seeking to protect Tennessee's interests, and throw in fractured groups that just wanted to protect their isolated mountain freedom. Reminded me a bit of the complex political situation that developed in Italy during WWII, which I learned more about through the amazing novel, The Red Horse. If you like Civil War history, Junius and Albert is a great read. If you like WWII history and good literature, The Red Horse is a must read.

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus - A former Muslims describes his journey from the faith of his family to following Christ. It's a powerful illustration of the enduring influence of friendship. It also calls all persons of faith to examine carefully their long held dogma, giving credence to fact over emotion. A great read to learn more about Islam and more about Christianity and the differences between the two.

The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up - I've always loved to keep things organized. This book gave more of the why behind the importance of keeping your home tidy. Primarily because of the joy it brings. She gives one very helpful pointer to determine if something is worth keeping or not: ask yourself, "Does this bring me joy?" Great read. Revolutionized my sock and T-shirt drawer. If that doesn't excite you, I don't know what will.

The Happiness of Pursuit - Loved the title. Picked it up because of how much I enjoyed the author's previous book, The Art of Non-Conformity. This book talks about having big goals in life (he traveled to every country in the world over a 10 year span) and how to get there. Also chocked full of stories of people who went after big goals. Conclusion: it's the pursuit of the goal that brings about the most joy and meaning in your life - even more than accomplishing it.

Fahrenheit 451 - One of the more haunting books I read in high school. For years I wouldn't even look at the cover in the bookstore. A book about burning books? Horror. But for some reason I overcame my fear and re-read it this year and I'm so glad I did. So much more depth here than I remembered, as we watch Montag question his occupation and moved by the sacrifices of those that would rather be burned with their books than live life without them. I used to think the book was condemning a society that would ban books. But I now see it was condemning a culture that grows so shallow in its thinking that they demand books be censured. Bradbury was more prophetic on this theme than I ever could have imagine. Here is evidence. (PS - I love the cover on this edition). I had my son read it, and I think I will re-read it every year.

JRR Tolkien bio - Of all the books read this year, this was hands down my favorite. I'll definitely be re-reading this in future years. His story was so incredibly inspiring. Made me want to quit my job and become a professor of middle-earth, I mean middle English. Fascinating person of great depth. My favorite part of the book was when he explained that he had to write LOTR/Hobbit so he could discover the back-story to the languages he had invented. Of course. Who wouldn't. I previously posted my notes from the book here. I picked up a collection of his letters by the same author and hope to read through those this year.

I'll soon publish a list of books I re-read this year. I rarely re-read books, so I was surprised when I looked back over this year's books to discover I had re-read quite a few from previous years. I also noticed that all of these books had significant importance for me. So keep an eye out for that list.