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.

All-Star Media

Hey now, you’re an all-star, get your game on, go play
Hey now, you’re a rock star, get the show on, get paid
And all that glitters is gold
Only shooting stars break the mold

I will, I’m afraid, never get that 2012 song by Smash Mouth out of my head. It seems that the coolest thing to do lately–or maybe it was a cool thing several years ago and my grandsons have only just discovered it–is to use that song in strange and unfamiliar settings. In the last few minutes, I’ve been treated to Kermit the Frog singing “All Star.” Before that it was Heath Ledger as the Joker followed by Shrek. So that you’ll share my misery, I’m embedding the original song’s video here.

Yes, this morning, as we wait for it to be time to go to church, as Penny is getting dressed and I’ve already taken care of the dog, Isa is sitting on the couch rocking out to “All Star” memes. It could be worse, I suppose. But then I’m afraid it will get worse.

Recently, in considering my recent 46 hours wasted watching Z Nation, I mentioned Richard Baxter’s four questions for vetting appropriate reading material. Today, I’m tempted to use the second question–“Are there better books that would edify me more?”–with Isa.

I love the fact that Baxter’s implied measurement for the quality of a book is how much it would edify him. Granted, “edify” isn’t a word that we use a great deal, and it’s one that Isa probably doesn’t know at all. What if we tried “build up” or “make me better”? I have to confess that my measurement for most media, whether it be the gardening videos that Penny watches, contemporary novels, or zombie television shows, is not edification but entertainment quality. When the last episode of Z Nation finally wrapped, I was relieved not because I hadn’t been edified but because the overall story of the series had become tedious.

Richard Baxter might not agree with me on the edifying qualities of some of the things that I read or watch without feeling as if I’ve wasted my time. For example, I rather guess that Baxter would not have been a fan of William Shakespeare, who died just three years before Baxter was born. I could suggest that Hamlet carries powerful messages about guilt and sin and stuff like that. Baxter would probably shake his head, perhaps smile condescendingly, and then ask his question again. “Are there other books (or plays or videos) that would edify you more?”

Is my attention to things like Shakespeare or fly-fishing literature or James Fenimore Cooper and the claim that it is somehow edifying really just a rationalization, a way to excuse my guilty pleasures? I’m not completely sure that it is, but I do believe that we need to ask the question.

But what I need to do is take control of the TV from Isa before I have “All Star” etched in my brain for the rest of my life.

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.