Wrong Clothes at the Wrong Show?

Fashion Report: This morning, I’m wearing a muted green plaid shirt over khakis. Add Rockport shoes and I could pass for a mall walker. At the same time, I’ve had my music playing the “Celtic Punk” playlist. I enjoy the energy of the Dreadnoughts and Flatfoot 56, but I would never fail to stick out at their concerts. People would look at me and ask, “What is that old guy doing here?”

It’s a fair question, I suppose, and one that comes up as I continue thinking through Richard Baxter’s four questions for evaluating reading material. Having considered questions one and two, it’s time to proceed to the third:

Are the lovers of such a book as this the greatest lovers of the Book of God and of a holy life?

If I’m reading the question properly, then Baxter would accompany me to a Dreadnoughts show, complete in his 17th-century garb, and ask, “What sort of creatures are these who repeatedly shout ‘Oi!’?” As I try to explain the subtleties of this odd genre of music, I imagine him interrupting me. “And, pray tell, do such roustabouts love our Lord and the holy life?”

Here I would pause. How do I answer that question? I enjoy this music and I can answer “yes” to these last inquiries. But then I don’t exactly fit in with the whole Celtic punk scene. Some of the others bouncing around to “Sleep is for the Weak” probably have a high view of the Bible. Most probably don’t. It’s hard to tell.

It’s at this point in my imaginary conversation with Richard Baxter that I’d have to ask myself why I’m hanging out in whatever club is hosting the band. Why do I want to spend time with these people? But I like the music. “Oi!” indeed.

Tim Challies, who wrote about Baxter’s questions some 12 years ago, commented (in a more controlled tone than mine) on the challenge of this question:

This is a difficult question. I sometimes read books that are popular, but favored by those who do not hold high the Word of God. While I do believe there is value in reading books for the purposes of research (for example, to understand what 22 million people are reading in The Purpose Driven Life), I need to prioritize good books that are loved by godly men and women.

Challies is a pastor. I’m a professor of English. That makes it my job to read all manner of things not beloved by the “greatest lovers of the Book of God.” Don’t I need to be current in all the things the kids are reading and hearing and watching? Don’t I need to be up to date on Game of Thrones and Marvel and the latest dystopian YA fiction series?

Richard Baxter, who has been quieting sitting in my office all this time, shakes his head. He never said that reading Twelfth Night puts us on a fast track to hell or that the church should shun those who read Gargantua and Pantagruel. He offered these questions not as a series of “thou shalts” but as a diagnostic tool.

If the answer to question number three is “not exactly,” then number four will help us to know how to properly evaluate the book.

I Have a Zombie Problem

I’m pretty much convinced that the zombies are after me and that they want to eat my brain. Yes, I know that you think I have a zombie problem, what with my “Easter Zombies” and observations on Night of the Living Dead. But bear with me.

Not too long ago, I accomplished something truly worthwhile, finishing the entire run of the now-cancelled TV show Z Nation. Think of this program as a less somber, less serious The Walking Dead. I’m not sure exactly when I started watching Z Nation, but I do know that I wrapped it up about two weeks ago. I’ll assume that I ran through the series in about two months, but I rather suspect it was quicker than that.

There were 69 total episodes of this program, spanning five seasons. With each episode weighing in at about 40 minutes, that’s a total of 46 hours of my life that I dedicated to Z Nation. What a great investment of my time those 46 hours represent!

What could I have done with those hours? At my normal reading speed, I could have read six 300-page books and still had time to watch Avengers: Infinity Wars to make my Netflix subscription seem worthwhile. At my normal writing speed, I could have probably gotten somewhere near 40,000 words on the page. Instead, I watched a ridiculous TV program about zombies.

What if I invested that time in reading? If I did, I could read three more books each month. That’s 36 extra books a year. Who could I be if I processed 36 extra books each and every year? What could I accomplish?

I ask this because I’ve been thinking over my Netflix subscription and feeling uneasy about it. The Puritan writer Richard Baxter proposed four questions to consider when deciding on reading material. (I find these questions repeated in numerous online spots, but I haven’t located the original Baxter source.) While all four of these questions seem relevant, I just want to focus on number one:

Could I spend this time no better?

How many better things could I have done with those 46 hours than to have watched Z Nation? I’ve already mentioned reading several books, but are there some other things I could have done? How about these:

  • Study Latin
  • Refresh my Spanish skills
  • Create several teaching videos
  • Work on the ramp from my deck
  • Build steps into the root cellar
  • Meet my neighbors
  • Perform some genealogy research
  • Write a bestselling novel

These are some crackerjack ideas. I know they aren’t your ideas, but they are perfectly good. And having watched Z Nation, I have allowed the opportunity to achieve these things to fade forever into the past. I can always do them next week or next month, but that’s not the point. My Z Nation side-trip sets back my accomplishments and leaves me with pretty much nothing to show for the time.

It turns out that I do have a zombie problem. By wasting my time on mindless video, I’m turning myself into a zombie.



Getting Advice from the Dead

I know a woman who wants to avoid going to the doctor until after she loses weight. “I know what he’s going to tell me,” she protests. “He’ll say you need to lose weight.” Does she then act on this knowledge and begin to control her weight? Of course not. Instead, she grabs a doughnut or three.

Occasionally I give advice to my students, and it’s almost always super profound advice. “Get your work in. Come to class. Read the instructions.” These are not new things. They don’t need somebody with a doctorate to bring this piece of wisdom from Mt. Olympus. They’ve heard the advice before, probably even knowing that it’s right. Do they then act on that knowledge and begin to start owning their education? Of course not. Instead, they catch up on the urgent developments on Instagram.

When Saul, facing yet another attack from the Philistines, doesn’t know where to turn, he goes where you or I would go: to a dead person. He enlists a medium to conjure up Samuel to get advice, because, you know, when God stops talking to you, the best way to get Him to start talking to you again is to do something that’s He’s expressly forbidden.

Samuel appears to the medium, which apparently freaks her out a little. It’s not completely clear whether Saul could see Samuel or not, but the Bible does indicate that directly or indirectly Saul was at least conversing with the man. Before we dismiss Samuel as needlessly cranky in the exchange, we should walk a mile in his shoes. This would require being dead, so that will be difficult. His response is blunt and unrelenting:

Since the Lord has turned away from you and has become your enemy, why are you asking me? The Lord has done exactly what he said through me: The Lord has torn the kingship out of your hand and given it to your neighbor David.–1 Samuel 28:16-17

Samuel had to be thinking, “You didn’t listen to me when I was alive, so why are you asking me for advice now?”

Like the overweight woman, like my students, believers have a tendency to hear only the advice that they want to hear. They ask for help, hoping that they’ll get a word different from the one that they already know is what they need. When that unrealistic advice isn’t forthcoming, they check their social media and eat a doughnut or three.

So the bottom line here seems to be this: If you need to lose weight, don’t go for advice that you’ll just ignore. Instead, do your homework, attend class, and maybe eat one doughnut. Okay–I’m not the source for any good advice.

¡No Va! La Segunda Parte

How many Internet Trolls does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Forty-seven. One to screw in the lightbulb and forty-six to opine about the various conspiracy theories that explain the lightbulb. (Yeah, I just made that up. Sue me.)

A few days ago, I mentioned, in passing, the old Chevy Nova story, about how the cars apparently didn’t sell in Spanish-speaking countries because the name means “Doesn’t go.” I also mentioned that this story, although reproduced in any number of places, is a complete fabrication, probably an invention of disgruntled Ford executives.

It has shown up in marketing texts to emphasize the perils of not knowing your audience. It has been used to underscore the hubris of American corporate types. It has been used to show the danger of cultural ignorance. Finally, it pops up as a joke without any motivation beyond laughter. Probably no vehicle ever built has gotten better mileage than this false story. Like the old Energizer Bunny, it just keeps going and going.

I don’t believe that the original motivation behind the Nova Conspiracy can be known, but I can point to a host of people who have helped to keep it alive and spreading, most of them not people who wanted to attack Chevrolet. How many untrue stories (or true but unhelpful ones) circulate in our churches with the vigor of dandelions in an untended lawn?

People start rumors for various reasons. They might want to seem more important or to inflict harm on someone else. We can’t stop people from starting the next Nova Conspiracy; however, we don’t have to help the story to spread.

In Exodus 23:1, we read

You must not spread a false report. Do not join the wicked to be a malicious witness.

It’s the first half of this that I want to zoom in on. The second half suggests that a person might spread a  lie for potential gain, but the first half is absolute. Do not spread a false report, regardless of your motivation.

“But I didn’t know it wasn’t true!” you protest. If we’re taking Exodus seriously, then ignorance is no excuse. If you don’t know it to be true, then you don’t spread the thing. The more potentially hurtful that the story might be, the more we need to cling to this prohibition on spreading false reports. If the report is “I think Laney likes cats,” then it is probably not too important, but if the report is “I think Laney eats cats . . .” You get the difference. And of course, which sorts of questionable stories do we like to repeat?

In the long run, I don’t think the Nova Conspiracy did any harm to anybody, but the spread of false reports–of Fake News–can cause harm within families, within communities, within churches, and within the nation.

Loose lips sink ships, the old posters said. They can sink relationships and trust and organizations just as readily. That’s why we need to determine that regardless of where the story began, it will not go beyond us. ¡No va!

Cheated of Cheesecake?

Today was one of those good days when my employer fed me lunch on their dime. A guest speaker, Joshua Neufeld, the artist behind such graphic creations as The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media or A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge (Pantheon Graphic Library), a graphic account of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, had given a lecture. We gave him a luncheon (and presumably a wad of money).

As I sat down to the table, I found the usual fare, including glasses of water and tea. We’re swanky at JCCC! But then I saw the precise slice of dessert pictured here lurking just past my super-healthy grilled chicken salad. Not only were they tempting me with cheesecake, but they’d drizzled caramel or somesuch all over it. I knew that, given my October Resolve to control my eating, I could not indulge in this delicacy. It would be colossally hard!

That’s what I told Penny when I got home. “It was hard.” Then I thought about it for a moment and realized that not eating that marvelous confection really had not been that hard. I looked at it. I saw Beth to my left eat about half of hers. Maureen to my right ate most if not all of hers. Mine never moved.

That’s when I found myself reminded that resisting temptation is not the incredibly difficult thing that we make it out to be. Temptation came my way not by the hand of Satan but my the hand of JCCC Food Service. The desire for it might have been nudged forward by Satan, but for me to truly be tempted, to find it hard, I would have to turn that desire over in my mind.

James 1:13-15 describes the process by which temptation develops. It starts with an idea, but it only moves from desire to sin to death when I allow myself to be “drawn away and enticed by [my] own evil desire.” It’s not the cheesecake’s desire. It’s not Satan’s desire. It wasn’t the desire of Beth or Maureen. It was mine. All I had to do to win the moment was not to feed–either literally or figuratively–that desire.

So You Want to Win the Lottery?

All that glittersI’d love to have a bucket full of money come my way. Wouldn’t you? Every day, it seems, I watch people clog the checkout at QuikTrip as they agonize over their Lottery ticket purchases or gleefully collect the $25 they “earned” after buying $50 in tickets. (And they typically give that “winning” back for more tickets.)

In case you’re tempted by the lure of easy money, consider the fates of 21 Lottery winners who wound up being Lottery losers. This one is typical.

David Lee Edwards split a $280 million Powerball jackpot with three others, a win that came while he was unemployed and living in his parents’ basement. After taxes, he received a lump sum of $27 million. He bought a $600,000 house, a $1 million fleet of cars, a $78,000 watch, a $1.9 million jet, 200 swords and other medieval weapons, and a $4.5 million fiber-optics installation company. He also married a woman 19 years younger than he was.

Within a year, he had spent $12 million. The house was soon lost to foreclosure, his wife was arrested for stabbing a boyfriend, and David died at age 58 in 2013.

A jet and 200 swords? Wow. Beware of what you hope for. Jesus warned his followers about the lure of wealth: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Luke 16:13). In my experience, when we serve God, the money, though not in epic quantities, will come along for the ride.

Is This Really Women’s Health

Eyes CoveredI recently added Women’s Health magazine to my RSS feeds that I review to find materials for this blog. (What? You thought I just came up with this stuff out of thin air?) While I immediately spotted a couple of articles that had good potential, I was bothered by something.

Over in the right-hand column, Women’s Health places a number of links to other articles, complete with little thumbnail photos. In a recent column of ten such links, I found four that were downright uncomfortable for their sexual content and a fifth that I knew would be (and was) if I read the article. A sixth link made me squirm for the anatomy it discussed, but I reminded myself this is Women’s Health.

So here’s my question. Is the health of women really this centered around sexual practice or is this just a way of selling magazines and provoking page views (and thus ad views)? Do women (or easy-blushing male bloggers) really need to have sex thrust in their faces this often while reading about groceries or yoga?

Of course, male-oriented magazines are probably no better, although I haven’t done a statistical analysis there. Either way, I’ll probably be linking some to Women’s Health, so be careful when casting your eyes down the right column.

Another Reason to Run

Tony Reinke points us toward a great question: Are you willing to run? This question is not a call to physical exercise. Instead, it is a call to run from temptation–especially sexual temptation.

Some of life’s most important decisions are not complex. Yes, there are layers of affections to address and complex motives to uncover sometimes, but in the moment of temptation (especially sexual temptation) we must be willing to simply run.

In the animal world, we talk of the “fight or flight” response. Psychologists have broadened the possibilities to include freezing and fawning. In the case of temptation, the third “F” should probably be Fold–as in give up and give in to the temptation, whether it be sexual, substance-based, or something else.

As someone who has thought he was strong enough to fight certain temptations in the past only to find himself folding, I have to argue here for flight, for running.