Of Donne and Dessert

Every time I have my best intentions to eat a more healthy diet, chocolate chip cookies get in my way. Yes, chocolate chip cookies are my kryptonite. Tonight, I attended a meeting at which one of the marvelous attendees brought cookies. They were still warm from the oven. I ate two, although she urged me to take more home.

What on earth do chocolate chip cookies have to do with Richard Baxter’s questions to guide reading choices? I’ve already gone over questions one, two, and three, so it seemed appropriate to land on number four:

Does this book increase my love to the Word of God, kill my sin, and prepare me for the life to come?

So again, what does that have to do with cookies? Here’s my first thought. I can read any number of things. They’re not terrible. They won’t ruin my life or wreck my witness. But are they beneficial? I’m reminded of Paul’s comments about food.

“Everything is permissible for me,” but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible for me,” but I will not be mastered by anything.–1 Corinthians 6:12

Baxter seems to be acknowledging that he could read a huge range of different things. In his own day, he might have read the works of the poet John Donne. He could read Donne’s mildly naughty early-life poems, for example. Nobody’s going to be cast into the outer darkness for reading “To His Mistress Going to Bed,” even as it goes into a great deal of poetic detail on a woman undressing. But is there a positive good to come from it? Is that poem apt to “kill my sin”? Is it likely to increase my love for the Word? On the other hand, Donne’s later “Batter My Heart,” despite its sexual imagery is a powerful spiritual text. Even if neither of these is a harmful thing–and we could actually argue that–why would I consume the empty calories of the worldly stuff at the expense of the spiritually nourishing?

By the same token, why would I stick a chocolate-chip cookie in my mouth when I could enjoy a nice piece of broccoli? Did I seriously ask that question? Why? I would do it because the cookie is a delight in my mouth while the broccoli is . . . well, broccoli.

But of course there’s a payoff to eating right. My payoff for eating the cookie is right now. Those two cookies I ate a couple of hours back aren’t giving me any benefit or enjoyment now. The broccoli that I didn’t eat, however, could be providing useful nutrients for the long haul.

Similarly, the junk food media that I might consume, whether it be book, film, TV, or something else, is a short-lived pleasure. Do we ever say, “Wow, I’m really glad I watched those twelve episodes of Kimmy Schmidt today”? But what of the things that draw us closer to God, that prepare us for a life here and hereafter dedicated to Him?

Someday, I will manage to say “no” to the well-baked chocolate-chip cookie. Someday, perhaps, I’ll get over my zombie problem. Until then, I suppose, Richard Baxter’s four questions can keep me evaluating my choices.