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.

calvinandhobbes

Teaser Tuesday: Education Is Not An App

One of my goals for 2017 29389855was to read Education Is Not an App. It’s been sitting on my shelf since late December, so I picked it up and started reading.

It’s more of a call to arms than I anticipated. Poritz & Rees do lay out the effects of technology on education, such as the tendency to “unbundle” professors’ service digitally or to substitute MOOCs for lectures as a way to increase profit profit without having staff, but as you can probably tell from even these bite sized summaries, they lay out the effects in such a way as to motivate action.

I’m about a third of the way through, and so far, the call is not to do away with technology but to be aware of its potential to disrupt the learning process, as well as the work and livelihood of faculty members, and to allow the faculty to retain control over how and when they will use technology. I’m really enjoying the read. It’s a bit dire in places, a bit inclined to predicting the future, but it’s still thought provoking.

Following the rules of Teaser Tuesday, here’s a randomly selected excerpt.

When you host an online course on someone else’s platform, your course isn’t really yours. Professor Jennifer Ebbeler learned this the hard way when she wrote an online version of the Roman History course for her home department, Classics, at the University of Texas-Austin. After two years of work, her department replaced [her as] the lecturer. Professor Ebbeler felt the replacement was unqualified. “They think it doesn’t matter who they put in charge because the course will teach itself,” she told the Chronicle of Higher Education. “And yet I’ve been clear all along that’s not the case” (Kolowich 2015). Imagine for a moment, a department pulling the same trick with a face to face course. Getting her lecture notes from her would be hard enough, let along the rest of the materials and knowledge that make the class a class. However, Ebbeler poured much of her knowledge into the course’s design, which gave her department enough control to determine exactly who teaches it, whether she likes it or not.

I should note, as I bring this post to a close, that I do teach online and I’ve been privileged to teach at an institution that encourages faculty, even adjunct online instructors, to design and control the technology they use in order to promote learning. I’m very thankful for my employer! Yet that doesn’t mean the problem outlined in the excerpt, and other problems, aren’t real elsewhere, and worth considering.

Here’s a link to its Goodreads page.

And in case you missed the last Teaser Tuesday post: This is a (semi) weekly series I’m doing, posting an excerpt from a randomly-selected page in whatever book I’m reading. More info here. Feel free to chime in with whatever book you’re reading!

 

Taking Action on Teaching Evaluations

evalsI received a batch of student evaluations this afternoon (still waiting on a few others).

Some students were positively glowing, giving me high marks on nearly all standards. Yet a handful of students were displeased with my teaching, primarily because my grading was (from their perspective) far too difficult, as though I were assessing graduate students and not students in an online literature course.

This is perhaps the most common complaint I receive, that I grade too hard.

When I first started teaching, it was an accurate one.

Since then, however, I’ve made adjustments to the way I grade. I use detailed rubrics with that spell out the qualities of every level of work, from the lowest right up to the very best. The standards I hold my students to are the usual in my field; in discussions, for instance, my students are expected to quote or refer to what happens in the story we’re discussing, and explain their thoughts on the story. None of this is particularly hard stuff. I am not a hard grader.

And yet.

I’ve been reading The World Beyond Your Head lately, and in one of the chapters I worked through today, Crawford makes an interesting point.

He notes that in considering whether our actions accurately express who we are, “Some will say that sincerity is the key element here; whether or not an act is a true expression of the self is determined entirely by the inner psychological state of the agent” (152).

This passage reminds me of Ender’s ethical formulation in Speaker for the Dead, that an act is moral or immoral based entirely on the actor’s motive; what matters is not necessarily what we accomplish (since acting in the real world can be messy) but what we mean to accomplish.

Under this formulation, I am not a hard grader, because I do not mean to be; it is my students’ fault, not mine, that they misperceive my rubrics and videotaped feedback as excessively hard.

But Crawford (drawing on Hegel) pushes back on this way of evaluating whether our actions are successful.

He writes, in reference to Hegel, “You have not executed an intention successfully unless others attribute to you the deed and intention you attribute to yourself.” (quoting Robert Pippin). Crawford adds that although there are exceptions to this view, “it serves well as a corrective to the cult of sincerity, which perhaps amounts to this: the idea that you yourself can be the source of the norms by which you justify yourself.” (153).

In reference to my teaching, this means that if imagine myself to be not a hard grader, I am not actually not a hard grader unless my students also perceive me as such. Put more simply, it doesn’t matter if I imagine that I’m a fair grader, unless my students agree with me.

So what should I do about this?

There are two things to be said here, I think.

One, I can adjust the way that I grade. I do not necessarily need to become easier; but I clearly need to become better at articulating why certain grades are assigned and why certain work is expected. This primarily involves providing more feedback: adding notes in the LMS rather than in a Word document I upload for the students, for example, or creating more screencasts.

It also involves providing a different kind of feedback. I could explain more about why the standards I’ve set are necessary, for instance. I could make sure to start feedback with the students’ strengths, not their weaknesses (I thought I did this, but obviously not enough.)

Two, even though I can (and should) make some adjustments, it’s important that I not accept student evaluations are the only valid source of feedback on my teaching. I am prone to self-doubt as an instructor, quicker to see my students’ shortcomings as an error in my instruction than in their work.

Crawford speaks, if not to this doubt as an experienced emotion, at least to the question of whether student evaluations are a sufficient measure of my work’s effectiveness. Developing his example of who judges a carpenter’s work, he writes that “the discrimination made by practitioners of an art respond to subtleties that may not be visible to the bystander. Only a fellow journeyman is entitled to say, ‘Nicely done.'”

In reference to my teaching, I make decisions as an instructor on how I assess students and present the material that may not be entirely clear to my students, who are certainly not English scholars and likely not teachers; they lack, therefore, the requisite knowledge needed to make an accurate judgment of whether my teaching is effective.

This is, of course, all the more reason for me to explicitly walk my students through why I make the instructional decisions that I do.

It’s also an important reason for people to work together in community, with colleagues who can serve as a touchstone for whether a particular pedagogical decision is or is not working. I have certainly been grateful for the input of my fellow instructors in my own teaching; they have shaped my work, helped me figure out what worked and what doesn’t, and made me a better teacher.

 

Books & Movies

In addition to looking back on what I’ve done over the past year, I also like to look back at what I’ve read and seen. Books (and for that matter, movies, which are just another way to present a good story) are important to me, so I like to reflect on what stood out.

Let’s do the books first: 

Most spellbinding: Uprooted, by Naomi Novik.22544764 I picked this up over Christmas break, wanting to indulge in a good story over the holidays. Uprooted reminded me what a pleasure Story is. I had a hard time putting this one down. It’s the story of a girl taken from her family and village by the Dragon, a nearby Wizard who protects the village from a mysterious danger; Agnieszka discovers, once she’s taken, a great world of magic and mysterious.  One of the chief pleasures of this book was the Magic in the story was strange and organic and beautiful; it reminded me very much of eastern Europe, appropriate since the book draws on eastern European folklore.

Best children’s book: C.S. Lewis said once that there’s nothing wrong with adults loving good children’s books, as such books are often the best written stories. I love continuing to read children’s books; if nothing else, it gives me something to recommend to my friends who are parents. I enjoyed many books this year, but one of the most inventive and heartwarming was Circus Mirandus, by Cassie Beasley. A story of discovery and friendship, Circus Mirandus tells of a boy who reaches out to a legendary magical circus in a last-ditch attempt to save his dying grandfather. The characters from the circus, especially the Man Who Bends Light, are interesting and well-developed. Like Uprooted, the magic in this one is different; it doesn’t belong to Narnia’s family tree, or Hogwart’s; it’s unique, and that makes this book worth reading.

Most beautiful book: laurusEugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus. From its gorgeous red and gold cover to its meditative and transformative ending, I found this a beautiful, enthralling tale of grace in a human life. This is the story of Arseny, a healer in 15th century Russia; responsible for the (unshriven) death of his betrothed, Arseny leaves his village and goes on a pilgrimage seeking redemption. Along the way he meets characters who likewise seek spiritual life; in this, the book feels similar to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, being richly peopled and interesting, like a tapestry. Woven into the story are questions about the nature of time (is it cyclical or linear?), what makes us holy, where magic comes from, and  how we handle both death and life.

Memorable nonfiction: Nonfiction is a taste I’ve developed as an adult, and I’ve really come to appreciate the way that it can weave its own stories, about who we are and how we live. I read so many good books in this category this year, so there’s a tie: Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft, for one. His argument that we become better people through doing handwork, due to its insistence that we attend to what is around us and follow some law besides my own, has stuck with me, particularly as I’ve pursued my own forms of handcraft this year – knitting, and increasingly, bread baking.

For another, Jamie Smith’s You Are What You Love. His argument that we are more a product of our desires than our brains, and that our desires are shaped by daily rituals in our church, homes, and vocations, also speaks to where I am currently. I have been seeking to establish healthy, enriching, and spiritually fruitful life patterns, and Smith’s book provides a strong justification for this. I am going to try teaching it in English Composition next semester.

And now the movies: 

arrivalBest movie: Among all the good movies that came out at the end of the year, I was planning to see Dr. Strange. Then over Thanksgiving, three separate people recommended Arrival, so I went to see that instead. It was excellent: a moving story with a measured pace, a thoughtful aesthetic, compelling characters. It’s a science fiction movie in the vein of Asimov and Clarke, more interested in thinking about big questions than blowing stuff up.

One of the things that I really appreciated about the movie was that it used its own medium, film on story, to convey the themes; the characters didn’t simply talk about what was most important in the story; the film showed it too, essentially immersing the viewers in one of the key ideas: what makes our lives matter, and whether time is in fact linear.

Most heartwarming: I watched Wild back in May and loved it. I was a little worried that watching a woman walk on a trail for two hours would be dull, but the story weaves in some interesting characters, some bringing tension and fear; others, humour. The scenery is gorgeous. I came off this film with a new interest in through hiking.

Most surprising movie: mad-maxMad Max: Fury Road. When this first came out, I heard it was good, and I added it to my to-watch list. Then, I put off seeing it for a long time, as I also heard it was one long action scene and I was worried it wouldn’t have enough story and character development to interest me.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Yes, it is one long car chase scene, but that improves the story, not weakens it. The constraint of keeping the whole story on the Fury Road brings focus to the story, and pushes the filmmakers to establish an actual rhythm, with periods of action and periods of rest, instead of creating interest by changing settings or blowing new stuff up. Plus, there are some really gorgeous shots of the desert scenery.

Weirdest movie: The Lobster, hands-down. Basically, this is the tale of a man living in a society where single people who cannot find a mate are turned into an animal of their choice (such as a lobster); the story chronicles the man’s successes & failures in romance, if it can be called that. It came to recommended by Eve Tushnet, a writer I’ve really enjoyed, but she also enjoys horror films, and there is something horrific about the nihilistic humor and abrupt cruelty of this film. The Lobster is not a particularly graphic film, and it does perceptively skewer some of our society’s odder hangups with romance and singleness. But it’s also brutal and odd, a parable told in muted neutral colors and leaves the viewer cold.

 

What did you read and watch this year?

Teaser Tuesday

22544764Over Christmas I chose a lighter book to read, Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. How lovely to put aside philosophy and social commentary and read Story again, and find myself caught in its spell!

While I have a few bones to pick with it, I’ve enjoyed the book, a fairy tale that draws deep on Eastern European folklore. It has the feel of Howl’s Moving Castle (the book, not the movie) and, surprisingly, picks up on some themes I’ve encountered elsewhere, about the meaning and importance of being at home, of being rooted.

Here’s my excerpt, chosen (mostly) randomly from page 105:

But there was something watching. I I felt it more and more with every step the deeper I went into the Wood, a weight laid heavily across my shoulders like an iron yoke. I had come inside half-expecting corpses hanging from every bough, wolves leaping at me from the shadows. Soon I was wishing for wolves. There was something worse here. The thing I had glimpsed looking out of Jerzy’s eyes was here, something alive, and I was trapped inside an airless room with it, pressed into a small corner. There was a song in this forest, too, but it was a savage song, whispering of madness and tearing and rage. I crept on, my shoulders hunched, trying to be small.

And here’s the book’s Goodreads blurb:

“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.”

Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.

Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.

The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.

But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.

And in case you missed the last Teaser Tuesday post, which was way, way more than a week ago: This is a (semi) weekly series I’m doing, posting an excerpt from a randomly-selected page in whatever book I’m reading. More info here. Feel free to chime in with whatever book you’re reading!

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.

 

 

 

Sci-Fi to Read When

a-fire-upon-the-deepAbout a month ago, I guested on a podcast with the Sectarian Review, on science fiction & theology. As I wait for the episode to drop this Thursday, I wanted to put together a short list of some of my favourite science fiction stories. (In fact, depending on when you get around to reading this post, the episode may already by out!)

These are stories that have stuck with me, their themes lingering at the corners of my consciousness. Some are funny; others, thought-provoking. All are memorable. I’ve included novels I mentioned on the show (they’re just that good!), but I’ve tried to include a few I didn’t get a chance to mention, as well.

I’m not very good at writing those little “hooks” that are meant to sell stories. So instead, I’ve listed the books below, using the “to read when” blurb to provide a clue to the themes of the novel and then simply adding a note about what I appreciated.

In no particular order, here the novels are:

To read if you’re new to science fiction: War of the Worlds, by HG Wells. To be fair, when I taught a course in science fiction, my students didn’t altogether appreciate this story; they found it dull. But this was the first true science fiction novel I ever read (I was about fifteen at the time) and the slow dawning of strangeness in the novel, the utter alienness of the Martians, horrified and fascinated me. I could not, I found, read the novel at bedtime, lest I be unable to sleep for terror, but the gulf here between what was real and what was imagined whetted my appetite for science fiction. Delightful.

To read if you want more alien aliens: A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge. This is a seriously underappreciated novel; I almost never meet anyone who has read it. But when even the bulbous Martians of Wells’s novel are prosaic, the aliens in Vinge’s novel are thrillingly different. One is a hive mind. Another is (I kid you not!) shaped like a bush, and uses a voder for a voice. The cast of characters reads like they were recruited from the Star Wars cantina.

Along with its really alien aliens, the novel has some impressive world-building, essentially creating a tiered or ringed universe, along with a brand-new planet for its characters to explore and survive.

More seriously, the novel raises some really good questions: Are we created good or evil? If we are created evil, can we escape our destiny? How do we treat those who are different than us, especially if (we imagine that) they are responsible for destroying parts of our civilization? I read this novel when the debate about accepting refugees kicked into high gear in the US, in December 2015, and I found the novel very relevant to that debate.

the-eyre-affairTo read when you need a laugh: The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde. (Yes it’s spelled with two Fs.) Full of British humor, full of literary puns, this novel is set in an alternate-timeline version of 1985 England and follows the adventures of literary detective Thursday Next, as she tries to rescue Jane Eyre when the heroine is literally kidnapped from the pages of her own novel.

One of the things I appreciate the most about science fiction (and fantasy, for that matter) is creative world-building. This novel had creative world-building in spades. The whole set-up is strange, and hilariously so: There are vending machines that dispense Shakespearean verse, it’s against the law to impersonate Byron, literal bookworms allow you to enter into (and exit from) your favourite novels, and people travel back and forth in time arguing about what colour to paint the walls. The novel has some thoughtful themes, but honestly? You can’t think seriously all the time, and this novel is a nice break from some heavier reading material.

To read if you’re a book-before-the-movie person: Children of Men, by PD James. I have both read the movie and seen the book, and despite the praise heaped on the movie, I find the book better. More nuanced, better characterized, the novel, through the growth of the central character Theodore Faron, tries to explain what makes humankind worth saving, and where our inner moral compass, particularly courage and hope, comes from.

I especially found the novels’ fertility motif interesting. Obviously, the whole premise of the book is that humanity cannot have children and therefore stands on the brink of (a passive) destruction, but its sterility crops up other ways, too: people’s inability to maintain real relationships, their preferences for animal over human companionship, and the difficulty in committing to faith, in the presence of doubt.

Or, still in the book-before-the-movie vein, you could read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by PKD, the basis for cult classic Blade Runner. Again, I’ve seen the movie and read the book, and I got more out of the book. The Sectarian Review episode prior to mine addressed the social critiques that this book levels, against consumerism and social media (over)usage, against our lack of empathy, but what I found truly interesting were the religious themes of this novel. At the heart of the characters’ spiritual lives is Mercerism,  a kind of mashup between Buddhism and Christianity founded by a guy named (duh) Mercer. People who follow this religion get in touch with Mercer through one of the technical devices available in the time period; but its not clear how real this faith actually is. Regardless, the novel wonders whether the religion can do its characters good, even if it turns out to be fake? Can faith be justified even if we suspect that the object of our faith is misplaced?

Since the main character of the novel is a self-described bounty hunter, the novel also argues that sin is pervasive, an inescapable part of being human:

“You will be required to do wrong wherever you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature who lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all human life.”

To read with Wendell Berry: Feed, by MT Anderson. The title of the novel does not (as I originally thought) refer to animal feed but rather to the feed of the Internet, which has been implanted in our brans. Impressively, the novel invents and consistently maintains a peculiar speaking style for its protagonist Titus, a teenager; broken and filled with advertising blurbs, the style complements the novel’s themes of thoughtless consumerism, and wealth inequality. Darkly humorous.

imagesTo read when Amazon debuts its newest drone: The Circle, by Dave Eggers. This novel follows Mae Holland in her first months at a new Internet company, a mashup of Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Twitter. I already worry that the Internet’s arms have grown too long, and this novel simply fed that worry. In particular, I appreciated its suggestion that the Internet’s greatest tools – the ability to track things, the ability to provide complete transparency – are perhaps not the pure goods we imagine they are.

To read whenever you think humankind is about to destroy itself: Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller. Set in the world of post-nuclear war, this novel follows the fortunes of an abbeyful of monks entrusted with the safekeeping of humankind’s accumulated knowledge. I loved the black humor and abrupt style of this novel, its suggest that perhaps scientific knowledge is not all its cracked up to be, and that for all our wisdom, we are prone to destroy ourselves. Delightfully, tantalizingly, Canticle ends with a touch of magical realism, a hint that our salvation lies not in science but in the incomprehensible divine.

To read for a good AI: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein. The novel is set on the Moon (now Earth’s penal colony and its chief supplier of ice and water) and charts the political revolt that the lunar inhabitants engineered, to defend themselves against the rapaciousness of Earth.

Like Feed, this novel creates and maintains an impressive slang for its (criminal underclass) lunar characters; the slang seems to be loosely, and appropriately, based on that of Australia, similarly a penal colony. But the best part of Moon is its AI, the supercomputer who makes the entire revolt possible: funny, and more human than nearly any other character, the computer is the star of the show and makes what could be a grim political tale a heartwarming one.

To read when you want to know more about science fiction: Of Other Worlds: Essays & Stories, by C.S. Lewis. This was some of the first literary criticism I ever read, let alone the first literary criticism on science fiction. Lewis does an excellent job articulating the qualities that makes science fiction, science fiction. He divvies the genre into several different categories (for instance, dividing mechanical science fiction such as Verne’s novels from stranger ones like David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus) and he amply defends the value of a genre devoted to exploring the strange and otherworldly.

For what it’s worth, Lewis packs his essays full of examples, and so for someone looking to dig up more science fiction, particularly very early science fiction, his essays are a good place to start.

To read when you’re feeling down: The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. I reference this novel, a longstanding favorite, on the show. It’s a first-contact novel, always a delight, and peopled with an interesting cast of characters who I wish existed in real life so I could befriend them, eat with them, and explore with them.

But it’s also refreshingly honest about what suffering feels like. We Christians, knowing that God has a purpose for our pain, all too easily gloss over genuine suffering. Faced with someone who is in pain, we reassure them that God’s sovereignty will make all well in the end, skipping over the very painful experience they are living right now. 

The Sparrow does not do this. Rather, it captures well the unresolvable tension we feel between knowing that God loves us and finding ourselves in the midst of great, and sometimes unbearable, suffering:

There’s an old Jewish story that says in the beginning God was everywhere and everything, a totality. But to make creation, God had to remove Himself from some part of the universe, so something besides Himself could exist. So He breathed in, and in the places where God withdrew, there creation exists.”

So God just leaves?”

No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering.”

Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine: Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.”

But the sparrow still falls.”

And I’ll leave you there.

If my busy semester (grading, lesson planning, designing one online course and taking another!) leaves me time, I will post a list of recommended SF films in the next few weeks.

Till then, happy reading!

Teaser Tuesday: Driftless

3154783Last Saturday I was terribly irresponsible and instead of writing lessons like all good teachers do on weekends, I drove two hours north, into the Driftless. There, I visited a you-pick apple orchard, stopped by an art fair, and ate a cider apple doughnut. Yum!

The countryside was gorgeous, little farms peeking out from the hollows between the rolling hills, narrow roads winding through the last of the wheat and along the rivers. The trip inspired me to start David Rhodes’s novel Driftless. 

Rhodes writes of life in the Midwest better than any writer (I know) save Marilynne Robinson. I started with Jewelweed, his most recent novel, buying it at Eighth Day Books last summer even though I’d never heard of it; it had a gorgeous cover, the bookshop owner recommended it; and it was set in my area of the country. Since then, I found Rock Island Line at a used bookstore and bought that too, so Driftless, set twenty years after Rock Island Line was the natural continuation.

Here’s an excerpt:

Jacob lay on his back. The stars looked back at him from ten million years ago, their light just now arriving. He wondered if there were other places in the universe where the rules of living did not require feeding on each other – where wonder could be discovered without horror and learning the truth did not entail losing one’s faith.

Unwilling to go back home and face the ordeal of trying to sleep, Jacob continued in the direction the youth coyote had taken, west.

He often walked at night and was familiar with the woods, streams, and valleys for miles around, including the heavily forested area inside the reserve. He knew which families owned dogs, where coon hunters hunted, the narrow ravine with a corn mash still boiling in late summer, and where the local militia – forty or fifty armed men – held meetings at night.

Here’s a link to its Goodreads page.

And in case you missed the last Teaser Tuesday post: This is a (semi) weekly series I’m doing, posting an excerpt from a randomly-selected page in whatever book I’m reading. More info here. Feel free to chime in with whatever book you’re reading!

Teaser Tuesday: The Last Dragonslayer

13316328I’m still working on The Shock Doctrine, but since books about global economic policy aren’t the best bedtime reading, I picked up something lighthearted this weekend: Jasper Fforde’s The Last Dragonslayer. 

I fell in love with Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair and while this novel doesn’t quite approach the glorious literary geekiness of the first, its tale of dwindling magic and looming dragons is a good one: strong, likable characters, a creative plot, and brimming over with British humor.

Here’s an excerpt, from page 87:

Tiger was thirty feet up in the shabby atrium, perched high upon a chandelier. “How long have you been up here?”

“Half an hour” he answered crossly, “with only a lot of dust and Transient Moose for company.”

“You’ll have to take a few jokes in good humor,” I told him, “and consider yourself lucky that you have witnessed both passive and active levitation in the same day.”

“Which was which?”

“Carpeteering is active; heavy lifting is passive. Could you feel the difference?”

From the Goodreads blurb:

In the good old days, magic was indispensable—it could both save a kingdom and clear a clogged drain. But now magic is fading: drain cleaner is cheaper than a spell, and magic carpets are used for pizza delivery. Fifteen-year-old foundling Jennifer Strange runs Kazam, an employment agency for magicians—but it’s hard to stay in business when magic is drying up. And then the visions start, predicting the death of the world’s last dragon at the hands of an unnamed Dragonslayer. If the visions are true, everything will change for Kazam—and for Jennifer. Because something is coming. Something known as . . . Big Magic.

And in case you missed the last Teaser Tuesday post: This is a (semi) weekly series I’m doing, posting an excerpt from a randomly-selected page in whatever book I’m reading. More info here. Feel free to chime in with whatever book you’re reading!

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.