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.

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.

Stealth Reader

I’ll sneak to the library tomorrow, carefully concealing my cargo so that no one can easily identify it. Sidestepping nonchalantly, I’ll approach the book return slot and slide the item in. Glancing furtively to determine if anyone suspected me, I’ll escape the building, head down to avoid any eye contact.

What, you might ask, have I been reading? Actually, the question is “What have you been hearing?” The audiobook in question is American Pravda by James O’Keefe, the guy behind Project Veritas, the undercover video creators.

Frankly, working in an institution of higher education, I’d feel more comfortable carrying around a book called Confronting Your Doughnut Addiction than this one. The school’s library, not surprisingly, doesn’t have a copy of the print book. The audiobook selection is leased in a group, so the librarians didn’t choose O’Keefe’s title.

Just to spread the love, I looked at my local public library. They own four copies, system-wide, of American Pravda, all in print. By comparison, they own 66 copies of Hillary Clinton’s What Happened. Plus large print copies. Plus ebooks. Plus audio CDs. Now to be totally fair to the Mid Continent Public Library system, of those 66 copies, 14 of them are currently in use while O’Keefe’s four copies languish on the shelf.

All of this is not meant to descry the evils of the liberal academic-library complex. It is meant instead to emphasize a truth of the human mind. By and large we are the media that we consume at least as surely as we are what we eat. James O’Keefe argues that the mainstream media attempts to control what we consume to shape what we’ll believe. I tend to agree, although he, not surprisingly, oversells his position.

But as a believer, we have to question the stuff that goes into our heads each day. Look at how stridently God made the case for control of media in Deuteronomy 6:4-9:

Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. These words that I am giving you today are to be in your heart. Repeat them to your children. Talk about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them be a symbol on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your city gates.

Capital One has used the advertising tagline, “What’s in your wallet,” for years. The question that we should ask ourselves, as people who claim to follow Christ, is “What’s in your attention box?” If the podcasts or the songs or the books or the newspapers or the movies or the websites or anything else we take in are not at least potentially God-honoring, then how can we expect the words of our mouth and the meditations of our heart to please Him?

So if I should be ashamed to take American Pravda back to the library tomorrow, it ought to be because I know that I could have been reading something more edifying and God-honoring.