Lent

On the one hand, we’re warned against publicizing our holy deeds.

On the other hand, I find that having a written record of my plans helps me to commit to them. If I keep my plans in my head, it’s too easy to tweak them based on what I feel like on any given day. I’m more disciplined when I write stuff down.

So here’s my record of what I plan to do for Lent.

One:Every Wednesday, I will give up sweets (chocolates, peppermint candies, etc) and skip lunch, or eat a very light lunch, in order to pray. This year, my church is encouraging members to fast once a week, and my plans are shaped by theirs. I’m excited to be partnering with my church for once, instead of doing this Lone Ranger style.

Two: I plan to read Dante’s Comedy, perhaps the essential Easter story.

Three: I hope to start memorizing 1 John.

Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.

1 John 3:2-3

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The Peace of Wild Things

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

~ Wendell Berry

I stumbled across this poem perhaps a year ago, and while I appreciated it, I didn’t find it particularly artful or deep. It was a nice nature poem about finding peace in the woods, nothing more.

But the poem has been on my mind lately, and the more I’ve read it, the deeper and more beautiful it becomes to me. Berry is like George Herbert, with a knack for writing deceptively simple poetry (I love this kind of poetry.)

Most recently, what I’ve loved about this poem is Berry’s recognition of the grief he causes himself through fear.

Towards the beginning of the poem, he describes his fear: he is afraid ‘for what my life and my children’s lives may be” (3).

Berry’s fear is very human. It is in the nature of human beings to hope that their life will turn out for the best, despite the troubles they face, and it is in the nature of parents to be afraid for their children.

Yet I’m struck by the conditional verb and the vague word choices. Berry is not afraid of any particular thing. That Berry chooses the verb may be suggests that a difficult life for himself and his children is a possibility, not a certainty; it is equally likely that everything will turn out well in the end. Indeed, that Berry is worrying over “what may be” implies that the source of his trouble is not one particular looming difficulty, such as a lost job or an illness in the family. He is concerned in general that the lives of those he cares about will not turn out very well.

I don’t want to minimize Berry’s worry, only to point out that the kind of fear that Berry describes here is one very common to the human race. Sometimes we worry about things that are really happening, as when my identity was stolen several years ago, and I worried about the impact of the extra charges on my credit history. But how frequently do we find ourselves in a relatively stable condition, with a job and good health and friends, and yet (often inspired by all the bad news around the world!) fret that something will yet go wrong, to ruin our lives or the lives of the people we love.

Ironically, Berry suggests that this worrying causes us the trouble that we fear.

Alone in the wild, the speaker contrasts himself with the animals. Unlike him, they are not worried; they “do not tax their lives with forethought / Of grief” (7-8).

The word “tax” stands out to me here. Taxes are very necessary. They pay for public servants who (hopefully) do their jobs with integrity and efficiency; they pay for smooth roads and health care and public education; they pay for the courts to administer justice and the government to administer aid to those who need it.

But although logically we know that taxes are important, nobody really likes to pay them. Many taxes are not necessary; many are misspent. Surely taxes frustrated Berry, known for his belief that big urban areas drain the best parts of local communities. Given this context, the tax referred to his this poem is better seen in the negative, a drain on the resources of our lives.

The thing is, this is a drain that we ourselves cause, through our vague fears for the future. Put simply, such fears buy trouble before it happens. Berry does not deny that trouble may well happen, nor does he deny that we should consider, perhaps with some fear, how we may respond to such troubles.

But his poem insists that we be honest about the consequences of our fear. In choosing to worry about things that may not happen, in choosing to worry when when don’t even have anything certain to be worried about, we drain our life of the very joys that we fear will be taken from us through some future trouble.

This is not to say that trouble will not come. It will. Yet rather than anxiously awaiting such trouble, Berry implies that like the woodland creatures, we are best off rejoicing in what we have today, and letting tomorrow take care of itself.

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Why I Marched

I participated in the local Women’s March yesterday. And I’m proud of it.

While I get that we live in a divided country, and that Trump supporters are unlikely to go march, I’ve still been dismayed by the guff the women’s marches have gotten from conservatives.

I’ve seen claims that the marches are tantamount to whining.

I’ve read comments that suggest the traffic snafus caused by the march are not worth it, and suggestions that we all just accept the new president, pick up, and carry on.

Perhaps most frustrating, I’ve heard at least two people (one our new president) express the belief that the protestors likely didn’t vote.

But I did vote, and the person I voted for did not get elected, and so that leaves the women’s march as an excellent way to make my voice heard at this important point in our nation’s history.

I am not whining. I am standing up for something I believe is critically important, and urging those who think it is important to do the same.

When Donald Trump criticized women and boasted about his sexual conquests on the campaign trail, I was deeply hurt and saddened. I was equally saddened by the reluctance of my fellow believers to stand up and condemn his remarks, and commit to voting against him.

Trump has demeaned women’s intelligence. He has objectified us, commented on the size of our chests and criticized our eating habits. He has freely helped himself to women’s bodies.

So as Trump takes the helm of our nation, then, let’s speak out on behalf of those that he mocked and criticized during his campaign, especially women. I marched yesterday because I wanted to stand up once again and say that women are important.

We are worth more than whether our bodies are conventionally beautiful or whether we are sexually available for men. We are smart and strong. We are thoughtful, capable, creative, and passionate. We too are made in the image of God.

Enough with criticizing women. Enough with objectifying us. Enough with disrespecting us because of our sex.

One of my favourite passages in the Bible is Micah 6:8

He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?

I chose a portion of this verse for my protest sign. It read, “Do Justice. Love Mercy.”

It is neither just nor merciful to treat women as Trump has done.

As believers, we can do better. This is why I marched, not to whine but to join my voice with those who are calling for women to be, not maligned, but treated justly: as human beings, worthy of respect, wonder, and love.

 

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Faithfulness

Jamie Smith argues in You Are What You Love that we have a tendency to reduce human beings to what they are thinking about, as though they are brains on sticks.

In this context, and more particularly, we tend to reduce faithfulness to adherence to a particular set of theological principles.

Yet it seems to me that faithfulness is as much something as we live out as something we believe.

Lately, I’ve been facing a situation that makes me pretty anxious.

It’s not a health issue, nothing life or death, but it’s always there, lurking at the back of my mind. I feel all the time as though I’ve had one too many cups of coffee.

I could choose to bring this thing which is causing me anxiety from the back of my mind to the front. The other day, I was testing the freshness of eggs by dropping them into a glass of water; the eggs caused the water to slosh over the side of the cup that I was using.

Something similar would happen to my life if I focused on my anxiety. It would become unbalanced.

Things that really matter, like my work responsibilities and spiritual life and physical health, would get pushed out of the way by this new thing.

And because I can’t really even do anything about this new thing currently, I’d wind up doing things that don’t matter at all, like reading Buzzfeed posts about what people wore to the Golden Globes. I don’t even care about the Golden Globes, but the anxiety does not let my mind focus on anything more substantial.

Or I’d hover aimlessly in the kitchen, eating way too many chocolate candy melts and then feeling even more unsettled thanks to the sugar rush.

That’s one option.

The other is what I’ve been trying to do: to choose, moment by moment, to focus on what’s important now: planning my lessons for the end of this week, getting my Mac ready to take in for service, taking care of some important things in my personal life. If all else fails, I clean my apartment; if nothing else gets done, at least my floors will be swept.

This, I think, is what faithfulness is: the choice to do what needs to be done, to act as we are called, regardless of how we feel or what we’re facing.

Faithfulness is as much a way of living as a way of believing.

Being faithful does not make the anxiety go away. It doesn’t even make it easier to deal with; it is impossible for me to just get rid of that little niggling worry at the back of my mind, the catch in my breath, the continual turn of my thoughts back towards this thing.

But the fact that the feelings of anxiety do not go away is no reason not to do the things that need to be doing.

Nor is the anxiety a reason to give into despair.

It’s cloudy out today, and snowing a little; the gloomy day makes it even easier for me to feel nervous and down about everything.

Yet I can choose to cultivate gratitude, to be glad for the things which are good in my life.

To name just two that have been on my mind:

I made homemade bread yesterday; I’ve gotten so much better at this since I started working on this last year!

I am blessed with a God who intervenes in my life, forgiving my sin; what more could I ask than to be free from the monsters that haunt me?

This is faithfulness, this moment by moment choosing to think about the things that need to be thought about, to do the things that need to be done.

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Peanut butter & jelly toast with homemade bread. Yum!

 

 

Thanksgiving

2016 has been a hard year for me in several ways, personally and professionally.

But in spite of the difficulties I’ve faced, or perhaps because of them, I am acutely aware this week of some of the blessings in my life.

I record a few here, listed in no particular order, as a memorial.

My computer died recently (I spilled a cup of water on it.) Yet I am thankful I was able to get all the data stored off successfully. (I am especially grateful for the help of my colleague’s help with this!) I am also thankful that said computer works when it is plugged in, as this gives me a few months to save up for a new one.

I bought a car at the beginning of the year. It was a tremendously expensive purchase for me and made me nervous, but the car has chugged along unfailingly through the 15,000 plus miles I’ve put on it since late January. It even survived my first-ever car accident, a fender-bender in a hotel parking lot last February.

I recently had to give up the cat I’d adopted from the shelter, as she was facing some health difficulties I couldn’t deal with. Yet I’m thankful for the month I spent with her, especially for all those cold nights with her curled up against my back or legs as I slept.

My parents too recently lost their kittens, yet I’m thankful for the chance I had to play with them over the summer. Just because a blessing is short-lived is no reason to be ungrateful for it.

While finances are always tight, I’ve had money to cover all my expenses and even some professional development. I am grateful for this.

Over the summer I faced down a few monsters in my life, hang-ups that endangered my spiritual and physical well-being. I wrote about them here. Since then, by God’s grace I’ve seen a few victories, and I’ve seen the monsters retreat a little. I am thankful for this. I am also thankful for the passing of time, which which allows me to see with greater clarity how the monsters in my life are being defeated; this is not something I can easily see in the moment. Grace, as I noted then, is not something easily seen in the moment.

The election was emotionally trying for me, and I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m disappointed with the result. But I’m thankful that God is still sovereign, whoever is president in America. I’m also thankful that in the wake of the election, many people have made a conscious effort to be a little kinder, a little better at listening, a little more willing to speak up for the rights and well-being of others. If it takes the election of someone not known for his empathy to get us all to show more empathy to others, then I am grateful for that.

My life is not as exciting as I sometimes wish. But I’m thankful for some of the adventures I’ve had this year: outdoor art fairs, symphony concerts in the park with friends, and apple cider donuts.

Marilynne Robinson (I noted this in a recent post) observes that “we are contemptuous of transient well-being, as if there were any other kind.” And I feel as though this is sometimes true of us, or at least of me, that we feel as though we have to wait until things are perfect before we can be grateful for them.

She urges instead that we not “devalu[e] present experience because it may be overtaken by something worse.” After all, “Dante,” she notes, “had a place in hell for poeple who were grave when they might have rejoiced.”

And so I am determined, in this moment of thanksgiving, to rejoice. There is much to be grave about, true. But let us rejoice all the more over the flashes of light and goodness which eternally pervade the human experience.

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On Marilynne Robinson

On the day after the election, I wore all blacks and greys to work. (Why, yes. I am dramatic.)

And then I picked myself up, and started reading Marilynne Robinson.

Few writers write as hopefully about human beings as Robinson does. In every soul she sees something wondrous. Nor is her hopefulness naiveté. It is grace, the firm belief that however thorny the world that we live in, behind it and through it, and within us, is the handprint of God, that enables her to see the saintliness of humanity, where others see only sinners.

Of the essays in The Death of Adam, the one that most struck me was “Facing Reality,” in which she pushes back against our gloomy worldview, our anxiety over the health of our bodies and of our 401Ks. This, she writes, is not a reasonable outlook:

When [we] make fear the key to interpretation of history and experience, nothing contains a greater potential for releasing all the varieties of destruction. Fearfulness assumes a hidden narrative – that we are ill despite our apparent health, vulnerable despite our apparent safety. We are contemptuous of transient well-being, as if there were any other kind. Routinely discounting the preponderance of evidence is not the behavior of reasonable people, nor is devaluing present experience because it may be overtaken by something worse.

What I find most fascinating about this passage is Robinson’s thoughts on fear. 

It is first of all fixated on the physical. Robinson mentions illness and health, vulnerability and safety, suggesting that the fear which drives us is fear for our worldly well-being. Later, she writes that “the true name for what we aspire to is nonfailure,” having our “income and credit shrewdly managed” and thus being comfortably well-off. Whatever challenges this comfort, whatever threatens the perception that we are (by worldly standards) successful, this is the cause of our fear.

Our fear is also illusory. Robinson makes no bones about the fact that she scorns the cause of our fear, this concern with worldly well-being; yet our fears are, like most fears, completely irrational. We appear, Robinson notes, both healthy and safe; the “preponderance of evidence” testifies to the fact that we are as well off as can be expected in a changing world. To expect that we will remain forever well off is to expect far more than this world can give.

Robinson suggests in place of fear, a different way of being:

I think we are not taking responsibility for keeping ourselves reasonable, individually or collectively – that we no longer admire or reward reasonableness, because it has lost its place in our imagination.

I like the strength of will in this passage, her emphasis on “taking responsibility” and on “keeping ourselves reasonable.” The truth is, we are physical creatures, and so fears for our physical safety can run very high indeed; the strong, active verbs which Robinson chooses her suggests the difficulty in laying aside fear, in choosing not to make decisions based on fears for our well-being.

Yet lay aside those fears we must; otherwise, we are not being reasonable; we are not seeing the world as it is meant to be seen, as part of a larger whole and shot through with God’s grace.

Robinson’s writing reminds me of a passage from one of my favorite poems, T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Eliot writes,

 

Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

I find it interesting that Eliot rejects “the wisdom of old men,” for this wisdom is presumably a worldly wisdom, the wisdom of nonfailure. After all, what do old men know best by how to navigate this world which they have lived in longer than any of us?

Rather than the wisdom of old men, Eliot seeks out “their folly / Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession, / Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.”

At first glance, Eliot’s desire to hear the fears of old men seems to contradict Robinson’s refusal to follow the dictates of fear; but the fear which Eliot references here is not the same fear that Robinson refers to in her essay. No, the fear that Eliot’s poem describes is a spiritual fear, the awe and terror of a holy life. This is a “fear of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.” To belong to another is to have that other make claims upon you, claims which threaten your physical well-being; despite Eliot’s provocative phrasing, we enter gladly into such relationships throughout our lives, becoming marriage partners and parents and friends. We become disciples of Christ.

Such commitments are fearful, true. Eliot acknowledges this. Yet the fact that he invites these fears into his life suggests that the thing which he is truly afraid of is having no such commitments. Belonging to others and to God is indeed scary, but it would be more scary to belong to nobody at all.

I am reminded of that passage in The Horse and His Boy, when Hwin offers herself to be eaten by the Lion Aslan, for to her it would be greater pleasure to be eaten by him than fed by anyone else. Being eaten is indeed painful, but to surfeit on the things of this world, and yet find no deeper meaning in life, would be more painful still.

Eliot concludes in the end that “the only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility.”

I love the contrast here between acquiring and humility, for although we usually seek to acquire wealth, wealth is (as Robinson reminds us) impermanent. The only permanent thing is humility: a correct view of our place in this world, which is so much bigger than what we can see; a correct view of our connections to other people and to our divine Maker, on which we depend.

Ultimately, what Robinson and Eliot remind me of, and this is why I’m reading Robinson after the election, is that we must not let our actions be driven by fears of failure. What else did we expect? Everything in this world fails.

Everything, that is, expect the things which are beyond this world, and its profit and loss.

To those things we must cling.

 

 

 

A Word on Fear

As you know, I’m trying to pray more regularly for our country in these last few, insane weeks before the election. I pray that we Americans will be less angry and more compassionate, that we will be less directed by our emotions and more wise; I pray that God will be merciful to us.

I am praying partly because one presidential candidate scares me to death. I fear the cultural anger and hostility towards those we disagree with that may follow in the wake of this person’s election, the predicted economic instability, the threats to our national security.

And so it struck me as appropriate that my daily Bible reading yesterday came around to Mark 4. I want to share it with you now, in hope that it will be an encouragement:

On the same day, when evening had come, He said to them, “Let us cross over to the other side.” 36 Now when they had left the multitude, they took Him along in the boat as He was. And other little boats were also with Him. 37 And a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that it was already filling.38 But He was in the stern, asleep on a pillow. And they awoke Him and said to Him, “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?”

39 Then He arose and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace, be still!” And the wind ceased and there was a great calm. 40 But He said to them, “Why are you so fearful? How is it that you have no faith?” 41 And they feared exceedingly, and said to one another, “Who can this be, that even the wind and the sea obey Him!”

When we talk about this passage, we usually talk about its resolution: Jesus calmed the storms! Jesus can get you out of your troubles! You will be safe with Jesus!

And that’s true, as far as it goes. Jesus does calm the storms in the story, and He can rescue us from the storms of life.

But a lot happens in the story besides Jesus rescuing His disciples.

The disciples shake Jesus awake and tell him they’re all drowning. We usually seize on this as evidence of the disciples’ lack of faith, but notice that Jesus does not contradict them. They are, in fact, about to die.

Thus, having Jesus in our boat (so to speak) does not mean we are not in trouble. Things may get very bad indeed, and although the disciples are rescued, Jesus does not promise to rescue us. Jesus will rescue us is not even the disciples’ takeaway from the whole adventure; they do not learn that they will be safe with Jesus; they learn that Jesus commands the winds and the sea. They learn that Jesus is in charge. And being in charge, Jesus could presumably have slept on, and let the whole boat drown. The disciples didn’t drown, of course, but we may: The winds and storms we face are in His command, and sometimes He lets them rage on. Sometimes we do perish.

And yet Jesus tells us to have faith, to trust Him.

I am not easily comforted simply by knowing that the Lord is in command of the storms. I want the storms to cease. I want that great calm which the Lord gave to the disciples.

Yet I have been realizing lately that our faith should not be in one of the candidates to save our country, but in the Lord alone.

Donald Trump cannot make America great again.

Hillary Clinton will not restore balance to the country after a turbulent election.

And so, our only hope is Christ. He will not calm the storm, though I pray that He will do so; He is not a political candidate, to promise us job growth and a strong economy and a sure national defense.

But He is in charge, and we can find that reassuring.

I pray that we may have the faith to do so.

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Prayers for Our Country, Week 2

This week, I pray that God through Christ will redeem us from our anger, even viciousness, towards each other, and make us peaceable people. From the Book of Common Prayer:

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us
through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole
human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which
infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us;
unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and
confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in
your good time, all nations and races may serve you in
harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ
our Lord. Amen.

Peace, of all things I am praying for this last month before the election, is perhaps the most needed.

Personally, I have tempted time and again towards arrogance, even anger.

One of my colleagues at work has a sticker outside her office for the candidate I am not supporting. Every time I pass that sticker, I resist the temptation to yank it off her door. A friend of mine makes a snarky comment about the candidate I am voting for, and again I bite my tongue.

I am thankful for the Lord’s grace towards me, in helping me keep silence when I am tempted to speak unkindly. But this is not enough. I pray that I will not feel unkindly, either. I pray the same for you, and for my colleague and my friends, and those of us in the United States who seek to walk with God at this time.

Whatever our differences, may we be one in Christ.

And I pray that those who are not in Christ may find Him, so that they too may share in our unity – if not now, then in Heaven.

Even so come, Lord Jesus.

 

 

Prayers for our Country

As a college student, I was a proud Republican. Freshmen year, I told my RA that my favourite chapel all year was the one announcing that George W Bush won the 2004 presidential election. (She looked slightly horrified.)

Like other Midwestern Republicans, I bemoaned the loosening moral fibre of our country. I attended conferences calling for a national revival, and I eagerly read books published by conservative talk show hosts.

Since then, I’ve become much more politically moderate. (It’s complicated.)

Yet during this election season, I find myself again concerned for our country, for our culture. My heart is heavy whenever I see how divisive and polarized our conversations are. I am deeply troubled by the misogyny, the threats, and the vitriol on all sides of the campaign. Ignorance, not wisdom, is celebrated. Nobody is willing to be honest and transparent; nobody is willing to be gracious.

And the campaigns’ tone, I feel, simply reflects the broader spirit of the country. We are quick to share our own opinion, and slow to listen; quick to point fingers, slow to accept blame; quick to bully and harass and kill each other, slow to turn the other cheek. We are more likely to slam the door in someone’s face than we are to welcome and help them.

We are wrestling with hard social questions, from police accountability to racism to freedom of speech to drug usage and poverty among the working poor.

We are distracted from what is truly important. In love with our own stuff, we accumulate material goods and map out own own lives, unmoored from community, and we do not notice that we are on the broad road which leads to destruction.

I realize that the situation is not so bleak as I paint it. I’m a glass half empty person; can you tell? Yes, there is a lot of good in the world.

Yet the fact remains that this summer and autumn have been uniquely stressful for our country, and have exposed deep and painful wounds in our cultural fabric.

And so I come to the purpose of this post: We are four Tuesdays out from Election Day (including the day itself), and I have decided to devote time every Tuesday to praying for our country.

I invite you to join me.

Every Tuesday, I will post a prayer for our country, likely taken from those written by church leaders but perhaps also from the Psalms. In the evening, I will spend time in prayer for our country.

I do not presume to dictate the subject of your prayers. We who follow Christ are scattered all over the political spectrum. Some of us will vote for one presidential candidate; some for the other; some will not vote at all. We do not even share the same burdens; some of us will pray for racial reconciliation in our country; some for unwed mothers; some for an end to homelessness.

The point is not to pray about the same things but to pray to the same God, our Father who carries our burdens with us, who cares for us, and who has promised that He will work mightily if we approach Him together.

Please join me in praying every Tuesday for our country for the next month. If you are so moved, you are welcome to share this post with your friends and family, that they too may join us in praying that our country will know God’s redeeming, healing love.

I want to close with Jesus’s words to His disciples, from Matthew 11.28-29:

Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

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Patterns of Reading: A Defense of Reading Widely

Shock_doctrine_coverAs you know, I’m currently reading The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein: an expose of how free market capitalists exploited (or created) geopolitical crises in order to transform developmentalist economies into capitalist ones, giving big corporations a huge payout in the process.

It’s a convincing and angering read. Klein has thoroughly documented, through primary sources and detailed research, the role that free market supporters played in the economic downfall of Latin American countries. Having visited Argentina a few years ago, I’m personally familiar with its poverty and financial difficulties; I understand the cause of these difficulties better since reading Klein’s book. In today’s uneasy global economy, The Shock Doctrine adds evidence to the pile that when the corporations are set free from government control in the name of the free market, it is primarily the corporations that benefit. Citibank and Ford Motors are not inclined to be generous.

This isn’t to say that I’ve suddenly turned socialist, nor even that Klein’s book is altogether convincing. Because one of her assumptions has caught my attention.

Early on, Klein notes that although Argentinian people consistently elected leaders who supported a progressive, developmentalist economy, the Argentinian corporations were frustrated with governmental limits on how high prices could be raised: “They were outraged,” Klein notes,”to see their profits being diverted to build up other sectors [of the economy], their workers demanding land redistribution, and the government keeping the price of their crops artificially low so that food could be affordable.”

This is a theme that Klein returns to throughout her book, that developmentalist economies more than capitalist ones impose price checks on basic necessities, so that even the poor can be well fed and housed.

The thing is, price limits are not the unadulterated good that Klein assumes they are. Even on basic necessities like food, price caps or government subsidies often cause more harm than good.

In the United States, government farm subsidies keep the cost of corn and meat (especially beef) artificially low. This is why corn syrup is in almost everything, because farmers have been producing and producing and producing in order to take advantage of federal funding, and so we are literally awash in corn. Hence, it gets turned into syrup, added to our foods, and there contributes to the ongoing health crisis in the West.

Similarly, cows are raised en masse on huge factory farms with little protection for the workers, health of the animals, or the consumers, beef corporations taking advantage of super-cheap corn for feed; this leads to poor quality and diseased beef. Beef that is sold for its actual value is much more expensive, yes, but the animal is healthier and happier, and those who raise it are not mistreated.

To give one more example: the government has also subsidized milk and dairy in the United States. At the same time, people have demanded lower-fat dairy products. As companies skim the fat off the huge quantities of milk produced, they wind up with a large amount of milk fat solids they have no purpose for. So in order to turn a profit, they turn the fatty solids into cheese, then add cheese to other products: cheesy-crust pizzas, cheese crackers, even cheesy cat food! Do price caps and government subsidies keep food affordable? Sure, but it’s bad food: bad for people’s health, bad for the environment, bad for the animals.

My goal here isn’t a takedown of Klein for her apparent support of price caps. I’m not an economist. I can say that obviously, it’s good when people can afford to purchase food. Beyond that, I’m not qualified to talk about the methods for keeping food affordable versus keeping food good.

My goal is simply to point out that I noticed this conflict between affordable and good food, this flaw in Klein’s assumptions, because I read wisely. Books like Michael Moss’s Salt Sugar Fat, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma convinced me that well-intentioned as government farm subsidies may be, they don’t work, or at least they don’t work anything like as well as we want them to.

When we read, we tend to read books we already agree with; it’s nice to have our beliefs affirmed. And we tend to read very few books, imagining somehow that one book is sufficient education on a topic.

But the conflict between Klein’s book and others is interesting, because it suggests that to be truly educated, to really get how the world is working, we have to read a lot of books, books that we disagree with and books that disagree with each other.

The world is not homogenous. Its problems are not simple. Think of a tapestry, woven from threads of contrasting colors. Just the orange thread, or just the green, by itself is lovely; but only when the two are brought together are we able to see the picture clearly.

Likewise, when we read books, we have to resist the temptation to admire a single thread of thought; it’s when two thoughts come into contrast with each other that we see the picture clearly. 

I was talking with our school librarian the other day, and he mentioned something similar, in reference to religious history: that history is like a kaleidoscope, that everyone who looks at it sees a different pattern.

Endlessly varied and open to multiple interpretations, a kaleidoscope is also the perfect guide for understanding how we read for information, and read well. If we read only a book or two, then we are essentially raising the kaleidoscope to our eyes without turning it at all, seeing a single pattern: the perspective of one author, likely one that we agree with. The pattern may be pretty, but we don’t come close to seeing all the truth.

Only when we turn the kaleidoscope do we see all its variously-shaped, multicolored pieces falling into a new pattern. Likewise, only when we “turn” our reading practices, picking up books that we disagree with, and that disagree with each other, do we see the world fully. Each author’s thesis is a new pattern, and each new pattern shows us more of the world. 

And this brings me to a pet peeve of mine, books intended to help Christians engage with the culture, books that (purport to) lay bare the gaps of the secular worldviews and suggest how a Christian worldview may fill those gaps. I’m thinking of things like Tim Keller’s The Reason for God or Russell Moore’s recent Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel. 

On the one hand, these books have a place in teaching believers that their faith is strong and can be intellectually defended. On the other hand, all these books do is show a single pattern: that of American evangelicalism, which most readers already believe and which is (for all its virtues) a very narrow slice of Christian history. 

By the law of opportunity cost, every time somebody chooses to read one of these books, they are choosing against reading a book which offers up a new pattern, a new way of seeing the world. If you choose to read The Reason for God, you are perhaps choosing not to read George MacDonald’s Lilith, a Christian universalist text; or you are perhaps choosing not to read Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus, gloriously medieval in its vision of the world.

Of course, we may not agree with MacDonald’s theology, or Vodolazkin’s. But when we refuse even to read their novels, to see in this world the patterns that they see, we miss out on many great beauties and truth. Our experience as American evangelicals is only a small thread in the great tapestry of the Christian faith, and when we follow other threads, we understand our own faith better. 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with Christian apologetic texts. But they take up headspace that could perhaps be better used by taking time to see the world through a different set of us, to see in it another pattern.

I’ve rambled long enough about reading (an error to which we English teachers are especially prone), and I should probably go do something productive. But I want to close with a short passage from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Here, Eliot reminds us of the end of all our knowledge: that “the faces and places” we know are passing away; given that we orient ourselves by recognizable human faces and geographical location, the poem implies that not only the physical world but the way we make sense of it is vanishing.

Redemption, Eliot gently suggest, lies in accepting the retreat of our human knowledge, and letting ourselves be made again, woven into the pattern which God is creating. Ultimately, this is the best defense for reading books which do not follow a single pattern. As we read varied books, and find in them pattern upon pattern, we remember the transience and limits of all human knowledge, and we wait all the more eagerly for God to reveal his all-encompassing pattern:

See, now they vanish,
The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,
To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.
Sin is Behovely, but
All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well.