Resolutions

Last year, for the first time in my adult life, I set a series of resolutions. You can read the whole list over here, at my old blog.

My hope was that they would provide structure for my life, keep me from perpetually vegging in front of the Internet and focused on a goal, even if it was somewhat frivolous.

My plan worked, kind of.

I didn’t accomplish every goal.

I vegged in front of the Internet, especially towards the end of the year when the days got cold and dark and I got tired.

But I did accomplish some goals.

Here are some things I accomplished this year:

I read 40 books.

I watched The Lion King. (And I didn’t turn into a New Agey spiritualist!)

I knit a hat. I knit a tiny Christmas ornament: a little evergreen tree (sweaters are beyond me.)

I ran another half-marathon (Actually, I ran two).

I read Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God.

I ate at Magoo’s Pizza in Dubuque and Otto’s Place in Galena. I recommend both very highly.

I climbed a 7th 14er: Mt. Sherman.

But there was a lot I didn’t do, either:

I never finished Lost. I never watched The Shawshank Redemption. 

I never made challah or babka.

I never re-read Dante.

I tried to read the whole Bible, but I couldn’t make it out of Deuteronomy. (I skipped ahead and read John and Romans, two of my favourite books.)

Looking back, I see several reasons why I didn’t accomplish my goals.

Partly I was lazy. I didn’t want to upend my weekend schedule to bake bread. I didn’t want to put down the PD James novel long enough to pick up Dante’s poem. Yet sloth is perhaps my besetting sin; I dislike upending my routine, getting out of my comfort zone. And so I keep setting goals, to encourage myself to do just that.

But some goals I didn’t accomplish because I developed different goals. I may not have watched The Shawshank Redemption, but I did make it a point to watch more than just reruns of Castle; among other movies, I saw V for Vendetta, Shakespeare in Love, and Ex Machina. I may not have managed challah and babka, but I made an excellent chocolate cake with strawberry frosting. Switching goals like this is okay (I tell myself) because at least I’m accomplishing something, and something I enjoy. And so while I will keep setting goals, I won’t fret too much if I miss some of them.

Sometime within the next week or so I’ll set a post or a page (haven’t decided which yet) with my New Year’s Resolutions for 2016: goals I set because I believe that working towards them will enrich my life and reinforce its purpose. I believe that working towards them will keep me from frittering too much time away on the Net. Will I accomplish all of them? Nope, but at least I will try.

 

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Best Of My Bookshelf

Last year, I did a blog post naming the best books I’d read all year. It was a lot of fun because, hey! Who doesn’t like to talk about books?

So I thought I’d do it again. I read 42 books this year. Of those, many were quite good, a few were meh, and several were outstanding. These are the outstanding ones.

Best Fiction

a-fire-upon-the-deepWith Hollywood’s corner on the entertainment market, creativity is in short supply in science fiction & fantasy novels; so many books and movies stress action at the expense of characterization, plot at the expense of playfulness. A Fire Upon the Deep is not one of these. There’s action in it, yes, but also plenty of creativity, compelling characters, and a real sense of fun.

When a rogue and powerful AI threatens the galaxy, the main characters embark on a mission to find the weapon which can destroy the AI. But the weapon is hidden with two children on a tiny planet in the backwoods of space, difficult to locate and embroiled in a civil war.

Yet summing up the plot of A Fire Upon the Deep doesn’t do the novel justice, because there’s so much more to it than plot. One of the chief delights of A Fire Upon the Deep is its extraordinarily creative aliens: a sinister race with the bodies of butterflies, a race with bodies that resemble tiny bushes that ride around on sleds, a doglike race which shares a single mind among five or six different members of its pack, and of course the AI race. With all these different races perpetually intermingling and threatening each other, and with human beings somewhat on the periphery, the world built feels a little like the world of Star Wars. 

A related delight is the novel’s detailed, inventive world-building. Vinge gives us the Net, which different races use to send messages to each other and make comments – hilarious, bizarre, chilling – on galactic events; he gives us the Zones of Thought, in which the galaxy is so ordered that the further from its center one flies, the better technology works and the more developed races are, so that at its very edges are the Transcended races.

But what makes a novel truly worthwhile (for me, at least) is that it gives not only a good plot but good thinking material, and A Fire Upon The Deep does so, raising questions about AI and our use of technology, the nature of and response to evil, and the interactions between individuals and the community. Some of these questions are not as fleshed out as they could be, but if the novel doesn’t develop them as much as it could have, it also doesn’t overdevelop them, providing easy answers to what are truly difficult questions.

Best Nonfiction

41ah93ZzQOL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_I read some really good nonfiction this year, including Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, a history of the United State’s difficult-to-control and often poorly controlled nuclear development program

But top prize goes to The Heresy of Orthodoxyby Andreas Kostenberger and Michael Kruger. Scholars such as Bart Ehrman have suggested that in early Christianity, there was no single sacred book and consequently no single orthodox faith; people held different texts sacred, stressed different parts of their faith, and basically practiced different Christianities, all loosely related but not bound to a firm set of doctrine.

According to Kostenberger and Kruger, this thesis is the result of our contemporary culture’s emphasis on diversity. Kostenberger and Kruger do an excellent job demonstrating that the writers of Scripture and the earliest church leaders were committed to a set doctrine and a set canon of sacred text, from the very first years of Christianity; there was, in other words, only one faith.

Yet Ehrman’s belief that there were many equally valid faiths is increasingly common; I just read a summary of it over in an Atlantic article on Hobby Lobby’s Museum of the Bible. So The Heresy of Orthodoxy is very relevant, complicating the notions we like to hold about the past and insisting that we understand and commit to what is true.

Best Surprise

the-eyre-affair

Set in an alternative-timeline version of 1985 England, The Eyre Affair is technically a suspense novel: When the villainous Acheron Hades kidnaps Jane Eyre from the page of her own novel (yes, really!), Literary Tec Thursday Next ventures into the novel herself to rescue her.

But saying that’s what the novel is about is like saying Star Wars is about a son who discovers his long-lost father. The real delight of The Eyre Affair is that it brims over with literary puns and inside jokes: literal bookworms and vending machines that dispense Shakespearean verse, among other things.

I had never heard of The Eyre Affair or its author Jasper Fforde until a book-loving friend of mine recommended it to me. But I loved it. I find that since my job is fairly intellectually demanding (I’m a college instructor), a comedic book is always a delight in the evenings; and good comedy is hard to find. The Eyre Affair was perfect.

Advent & Politics Don’t Mix

When I was a child, I was raised in a very political community. (I was a homeschooler. Being political is par for the course.) Unsurprisingly, being surrounded by political zealots, became political, a strong Republican with libertarian leanings.

Zealot as I was, my favourite chapel message during my freshmen year at Bible college was the one that reported that President George W. Bush had been elected to his second term. I recall announcing this to my RA, and when she heard why that message was my favourite, her face just fell. 

More than ten years later, I’ve changed. I’m as political as ever, though my positions have shifted somewhat. But I also feel strongly that church and politics don’t mix.

Don’t get me wrong: I do believe faith should inform our politics. But when we believers come together on Sunday morning, we’re coming together to remember Jesus, not join a political rally.

On Sunday, my church talked about politics. I want to share what happened here not to shame my church (you’ll notice I never use its name, and only one or two of you who read the blog know which church I attend) but to meditate on how we believers are to live in an unbelieving culture.

The service started well. We celebrated Advent by lighting a candle and praying together for divine peace. We read the text, a few verses from Mark 1. The pastor, based on those verses, affirmed the reliability of Scripture.

But then (I cannot recall how) the sermon took a strongly political turn.

This Sunday, the second in Advent, was also the one immediately after the San Bernadino shooting. It was only a few weeks after the Paris attacks. Radical Islamic violence was at the front of our minds, so it must have been very easy for the pastor to get sidetracked (if the topic wasn’t already part of his sermon) into sharing his thoughts on Islam:

He explained that Islam was a cult of Christianity, created when Mohammed heard and rejected the Gospel (1). He asserted that it was a violent religion and voiced his frustration that people ignore Islam’s violent tendencies; he urged his listeners that even when people urge them to honor Islam, they pay that faith no honor. He implied that accepting Middle Eastern refugees willy-nilly was a bad idea.

He said more, I believe, but I cannot recall it. (Likely at some point, I stopped listening and focused on the dishcloth I was knitting.)

Whether the speaker’s political positions were correct is not a question I’m interested in. What I’m interested in is the fact that he commandeered Sunday morning time, during the Advent season, to address American politics and our ongoing cultural conflicts. These topics are important, but when we use Sunday morning to address them, we’re neglecting Jesus, who is of far greater importance.

Conservative political writer Rod Dreher has suggested that American Christians adopt what he calls the “Benedict Option”: not a withdrawal from the world altogether, but a withdrawal from the enormous effort we’ve poured into the culture wars, to rebuild our communities and retell the stories which are central to our identity: the stories about who Jesus is and who we are in Him.

During Advent, that story is one of extraordinary hope. Right at the darkest part of the year we celebrate the birth of Jesus, who invites us out of the darkness and into the light of God.

When Jesus was born, those who welcomed him were living in great darkness under the heel of the Roman Empire and of Herod the King; his coming brought them new light and hope. To those of us who celebrate His coming two thousand years later, he brings that same hope and light in the middle of the dark world in which we live.

There’s no denying that my pastor was right on one level at least. Radical Islamic violence has been in the news a lot right now, and it’s scary.

But the thing is, for us who follow Jesus, the story doesn’t end there. We have no business telling scary stories about the dark world around us, when we live in sight of the light of God. We need to be telling the whole story, that though we dwell in darkness we see in Jesus the Light of God.

This, and not radical Islamic violence, is the Christmas story, the one we need to remind ourselves of at this time of year. If we neglect this story, we risk losing the hope and joy God has called us to in Christ; we risk losing sight of our redemption in Christ.

This is why the Benedict Option is important; by turning from politics and the culture wars to the essential stories of our faith we remember our connection in Christ and are able to live authentically as Christians.

But more broadly, this is where our mind should be fixed this Christmas. Yes, the world is a dark and scary place these days. But honestly? It’s winter; what else did we expect? The thing we must remember is that Aslan is coming: and Advent is a perfect time to be telling ourselves that. When we tell ourselves anything else, we cheat ourselves of the joy of the season.

(1) Re. the origins of Islam, I’m assured by friends of mine who have actually studied Islam and lived among Muslims that Islam is not a cult of Christianity; it’s an outgrowth of the Middle Eastern pagan religions.

it-came-upon-a-midnight-clear-1024x791

 

Advent Fast

I’ve started this post three times, trying to get the cute, confessional tone that so many blogs maintain. It’s not coming out right.

So I’m not going to beat around the bush: I feel as though I am spending too much money on myself.

I bought two china teacups today, and a pullover at Target. I bought a cake pop. There are three twenty-dollar expenses from last week in my “Miscellaneous” budget that I have no idea what they were for, except I know they were not gifts.

Christmas is to be a time to give to others, out of love for family & friends and remembrance for God’s great gift to us.

But somehow, I wind up giving more to myself than I do to others.

I’ve long been aware of the sinister quality of American advertising, and I like to think that I’m above the consumerist fray, happily living a simple life and ignoring the siren calls of marketing.

That’s not as true as I’d like it to be, apparently.

Advent seems to be a good time to fix this.

Advent has always struck me as gorgeously symbolic. The weather is getting colder. The days are darker. But in the middle of this darkness, the Light of God has come.

At Advent, we remember that we dwell in darkness, and we wait in hope for the Light. We rearrange our lives so we are looking forwards towards that light, rather than back into the darkness.

And for me, that means spending less on myself.

So I have planned a mini Advent fast: For the next week, from daybreak on Sunday, December 6 through daybreak on Sunday, December 13, I am not going to purchase anything for myself. I can buy things for others (Christmas is coming, after all, and I love buying gifts!), but nothing for me.

That means no books or movies I cannot rent from the library. It means no clothes purchases, no new things for my apartment, no jewelry, no home decorations. There are a few things I’ve been looking at: a bedside clock, new knives, another strand of Christmas lights, but all these can wait a week or two.

Food is the one exception to my fast. Still, here too I am going to exercise some restraint: no candy unless I’m specifically going to use it for a recipe. That means no little Dove chocolates or truffles, my great weakness. I can eat what I already have, but I cannot buy more if I run out or even if I just see something delicious.

To keep this from being just a fancy way of budgeting money, I am going to also going to read my Bible and pray every day. Especially at the end of a busy semester, it’s easy to let daily Bible reading slip away. Not this week.

My hope is that over the next week, as I limit what I purchase, I will see myself less, and see Jesus more. I wait in hope for His coming.

Turn your eyes upon Jesuse253237dfc174974b3022a7fb38e37f4

Look full in his wonderful face.

And the things of earth will seem strangely dim

In the light of his glory and grace. 

~ Helen H. Lemmel