Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Cynicism Criticism

Beware of Dry Minds

Cynics can't always be trusted

There are many circumstances in life to which the proper response is cynicism—questioning disbelief. Easy examples are telemarketers, Michael Moore and internet pop-ups that say “You Are a Lucky Winner.” All may be treated with justifiable suspicion.

However, it would be a mistake to conclude that cynicism is an appropriate way of life. It’s a mistake to apply it like a fix-all, a band-aid for all wounds, a good approach to every question. Unfortunately, our culture’s prevailing mood tends this way. We have a jaded tendency to superficially label things and dismiss them.

"I prefer to go through life bashing anything I don’t understand."

The old straw man approach, the ad hominem attack, is a favorite in the arsenal of modern man: Merely deride your opponent, and then you won’t have to deal with his arguments. (Admittedly, it is fun sometimes.) As a good friend of mine once said, tongue-in-cheek, “I prefer to go through life bashing anything I don’t understand.” I guess there is a certain confidence that comes from knowing that whatever confusion you may encounter, you are prepared.

Nonetheless, becoming a default cynic will not make you a man for all seasons. Rather, it will make you a person incapable of enjoying any of them. We all know that some things in life are not what they seem. But that doesn’t mean that nothing will deliver. There are sources of joy that don’t disappoint (the overarching theme of BitterSweetLife), and we trivialize them at our peril.

Skeptics, deconstructionists, and dry thinkers may chalk up a lot of verbal points, but they are often bankrupt in the joy category. As Darwin wrote for his children, near the end of his life:

Up to the age of 30 or beyond it, poetry of many kinds…gave me great pleasure…formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great, delight. But now for many years I cannot endure a line of poetry… I have also lost any taste for pictures or music… My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive… The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness…

This is a sad reduction of life. And unlike many of us, Darwin (so far as I know) did not pursue cynicism for its own sake, either as a trend or a medication.

So exert cynicism wisely. Apply it when necessary—as a safeguard—not as a default plan. Some assertions may as well be believed, or at least entertained, until proven false. There’s an old adage, based roughly on Paul’s words (1 Corinthians 13:7), that seems fitting here: “Believe the best.” I don’t mean it superficially. Look carefully for the highest promises revealed in life. What, if true, might pay the highest dividends? Many people have stumbled onto Christ this way.

Sometimes the best things are also true.


You may also want to peep: Fluid Brain.

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Monday, February 27, 2006

Sin and Other Four-Letter Words

Sin: Spiritual Graffiti?

I’m not going to pretend that I’m insecure about the truth. I know the truth will make out ok, with or without my kind wishes for its survival. Perhaps it’s embarrassing or unfortunate, but reality has a way of asserting itself. So I can’t make myself act as if I’m on edge. Truth exists, and we can rail at it or get angry, but I don’t see the point in apologizing for it.

For what it’s worth, regarding what I’m about to say, I am sorry. I’m also sorry that gravity works and that marriage takes work. I can be sorry for any number of unchangeable realities but my remorse is somewhat beside the point.

Suppose you saw a crime take place with your own eyes. You saw the killing blow, witnessed its effects, watched the murder weapon driven home. You were horrified, but denial was irrelevant. Calling the murder an “unfortunate accident” held no power to make you or anyone else feel better about it. Refusing to talk about it couldn’t remove the scenes imprinted on your eyelids. Let’s say you saw a murder. In a sense, I did. I saw the killer and I saw the victim and they were us. We’d killed off our one chance for freedom: Simple obedience and clean desire lay there bleeding on a plot of ground, once a garden, now a busy street.

I look around, and the victims and perps are everywhere. The strange thing is, we all fall in both camps. Statistically, the evidence is undeniable—freedom is being violently put down on every side. We inveigle our neighbor and deceive ourselves. We kill and lie and cheat and wonder why. The newspapers investigate the crime scene every day.

People treat sin like it is a four-letter word, but we need to be more careful with our spelling. Or we need to become more comfortable with our truth-telling. When you are diagnosing a broken system—in this case the human heart—accuracy in terms is vital. We may as well start the assessment at ground zero.

We’ve all seen the murder with our own eyes and there is no getting around it. It’s the crime without borders, perpetrated worldwide. Call it ‘disordered desire’ or call it pride. Childlike trust in God took the hit and now we’re taking the ride.

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Saturday, February 25, 2006

Wrestling with Revival

Spiritual Revival

My home church, which is small and not exactly a fuse box of sparking spiritual vitality, has opted to pull the ‘revival’ card—and I’m all for it. “Revival” is one of those words—like “hedonism” or “depravity”—that triggers a visceral reaction. Most likely, you experience a knee-jerk whim to embrace, despise, or at the very least feel curiosity about revival.

I tend to like the concept, which is to say my associations are more good than awful. When someone says “revival,” I think of clear light streaming through the windows of the soul or of the green fields and quiet waters of Psalm 23. In short, my picture of revival is Christ apprehended more clearly.

Stereotypical sweating, spitting preachers grandstanding in overheated tents are a foreign enough picture to me that I feel disgusted amusement instead of agitated animosity. Same thing with obviously choreographed services where polished solos and charismatic frenzies bust out ‘spontaneously.’ I snicker while feeling slightly sick. In other words, biblical revival is more real to me than the hyper-emotive revivalism that a lot of people rightfully hate.

Having said that, I’m not sure my church is down with revival. I suspect that the response to a revival emphasis (preparing our hearts for a deeper experience of God, which he, not we, will have to ‘engineer’) will be fairly low key for a couple of reasons.

First off, people love stability, predictability, and control, and attempt to avoid change at all costs. If this is true in the realm of ‘life stressors,’ it’s all the more true of spiritual experience. We get tired of the emotionally-draining scenes of brokenness, repentance, and horrific realizations of ingrained inadequacy, that we find in the Bible. Few people are exactly eager to get blindsided by a Psalm 51 experience—waking up and realizing that sin has left his fingerprints all over you, including inside your head. But God might be eager for this very thing to happen.

The other reason why many Christians would prefer to ‘eschew’ revival is that biblical revival tends to involve a lot of other people. So you end up being forced to see your friends more frequently than you’d prefer, in situations (like prayer meetings) that require way more investment than can be reasonably expected of people living in the 21st century. Someone might actually expect you to skip the game instead of skipping the service. Or (awful thought), someone might say, Hey, where were you, we missed you, and then what would you say? Uh, sitting at home. Avoiding the dangers of the freeway. Revival is far too connected for most of us.

Ultimately, I think that if anyone (including my church) is going to benefit from a revival focus, we’ll have to shelve our tender feelings for the status quo and adjust to the fact that God enjoys change—he happily utilizes the accompanying stress and emotional mayhem—and his objective is to test and reform and thus transform the heart.

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Friday, February 24, 2006

Careless Brilliance

My Issues with Fabricated Excellence

Writing is hard work

One thing that gets me down about writing, public speaking, trash talk - communication of all kinds, actually, is that to be good you have to be so artificial. That is, you have to try, really hard, and this means altering your output, jumping through semantic hoops, being deliberate, gauging audience response. All these things are less than purely spontaneous.

Maybe I write a decent article, and succeed in saying something eye-opening; but to come even close to what I wanted to say, I had to type a rough draft (how rough? think splinters), edit it, polish it - and then the piece is structurally sound. About that time I start wondering if I started with the right raw materials. This is irritating. But what really annoys me is my inability to effortlessly do things well.

After years of practice, a lot of reading, and way too much coffee, I've arrived at a place where I can occasionally write something arguably worth reading. So what? I'm still nowhere near my goal of creating brilliant works of art simply by putting pen to paper. Let's get this straight: I want to be able to write like Lewis by reflex. I want to be Tolkienesque whenever I tell a story. I want to be as devastating as...well, as a really great trash talker, just by opening my mouth in the general proximity of a hoops court.

It should all just flow. Natural, spontaneous genius: mind-bending truth, spectacular stories and pointed jabs, just rolling out. I have this strange idea that beautiful creation should be as impromptu, as effortless, as breathing. What would that be like, to simply speak and act from the core of your being, and be completely satisfied by the perfection that materializes.

Only one person can know, really. Jesus Christ is capable of careless brilliance. The rest of us can only dream about the day when we will be, at least, good from the inside out. I think I could be happy with that.

In the meantime, I'm confronted by a God whose every word is perfect, whose every act is precisely what he aims for (no more, no less). He may not enhance my delusions of grandeur, but he does inspire my worship.

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

How We Influence God (Blogger Limelight)

Blogger Limelight

In a comment on the recent post, Useless Prayers?, an anonymous reader said,

I would be highly interested in a discussion of the "areas where God invites us to exert our influence with him". It seems like a very interesting topic.

And I agree. Of course, this subject could be virtually inexhaustible, considering verses like John 14:13 ("And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father") and Matthew 21:22 ("If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer"). Apparently we are invited to influence God on all fronts.

Of course, we can add several broad qualifications:
  1. Petitionary prayer will necessarily target unforeseen outcomes. It's no good praying about last week's basketball game.
  2. Such prayers will need to be consistent with God's character and plans, that is, to his glory. So you can stop praying for God to give ulcers to the jerk at work.
  3. And these prayers will need to be made in faith, that is, in the belief that God can and does answer prayer (even though the specific outcome of your prayer is still in doubt).
Now I'm going to go out on a limb and classify this post as a Blogger Limelight discussion with an experiential focus. In what realms have you seen God respond to petitions? Or inversely, in what spheres have you failed to see 'results?' Feel free to speculate as to why or why not God intervened, or explain how he 'answered,' but not in the looked-for way.

Once you've written your post (it can be short, or you can use something you've already written, if it fits), just stick the Blogger Limelight button on it, and link back to this piece. Also, leave a link to your post in the comments (below). I'll go ahead and kick things off...

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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

In Defense of P.D. James

P.D. James gets name-dropped a lot on this blog, despite the fact that I wouldn’t want my 14-year-old brother reading her books. So why all the rave reviews?

Certainly, James is not for the faint of heart. Her writing is like a scalpel. She takes a clinical theological word, ‘sin,’ and dissects it to reveal a toxic amalgam of lurid motives and ugly desires that result in explicit outcomes. Protagonist Adam Dalgliesh, brilliant and self-critical, is keenly attuned to the twisted nature of human instincts, and uncomfortably aware that he can’t absent himself from the equation.

In Dalgliesh we find a fallen man tracking down evil perps. The difference between them? Dalgliesh is aware; he owns his selfishness, and carries a burden of self-loathing that drives him to relentless standard of performance. World-weary but spiritually conscious, he always seems to be on the verge of an Ecclesiastes-like realization.

If you haven’t read James before, you may be wondering: What’s the benefit of a front-row view of sin? On at least one front, the benefit is considerable. In the words of Herbert Fingarette:

Were a portrait of a man to be drawn, one in which there would be highlighted whatever it is most human, be it noble or ignoble, we should surely place well in the foreground man’s enormous capacity for self-deception.

C.S. Lewis continues the thought:
We begin to notice, besides our particular sinful acts, our sinfulness; begin to be alarmed not only about what we do, but about what we are.

And John Calvin finishes connecting the dots:
Thus, our feelings of ignorance, vanity, want, weakness, in short, depravity and corruption, remind us that in the Lord, and none but He, dwell the true light of wisdom, solid virtue, exuberant goodness. We are accordingly urged by our own evil things to consider the good things of God; and, indeed, we cannot aspire to Him in earnest until we have begun to be displeased with ourselves.

Does P.D. James take the long way around to reach “solid virtue, exuberant goodness” and redemption? Maybe so. But in our culture, I’m all but convinced that this strategy is necessary and ingenious.

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Monday, February 20, 2006

Boggled Again

Despite Extra Sleep, the Superpower Falls

I won again.

It happened Sunday afternoon, at Lindsay’s grandma’s house. As we were hanging out, waiting for lunch to materialize, I casually asked if there happened to be a Boggle game in the house. As luck would have it, there was, and we found it—buried in a corner of the cavernous basement that is a fixture in virtually all houses belonging to grandmothers.

Lindsay had been feeling sick. In fact, she’d spent most of the morning sneezing, blowing her nose, and sleeping. Of course, the extra sleep was an unrecognized advantage for Boggle, and it could very easily have gone under the radar. Fortunately, I realized what I was up against.

And I wasn’t feeling that well myself. Of course, out of consideration for Lindsay’s feelings, I didn’t tell her. In fact, I haven’t told anyone, up until this moment. But I was having trouble functioning normally. My vision was blurry, and I had to concentrate really hard to bring the Boggle cubes into focus. The whole room was spinning.

But I did what I had to. In between matches (when I wasn’t explaining to Lindsay that “moo” is not a real word) I closed my eyes and put my head down, resting my vision and regaining my stamina for the next skirmish. I also consumed an entire bottle of Tylenol, using 7-Up and lemon tea to wash it down in the most healthy manner possible. I also gave myself a few cortisone shots, just in case.

It’s remarkable that no one noticed all the pain I was in, really. But I wanted the win. And despite the extra sleep Lindsay had enjoyed that morning, I got it. Boggle Victory Number 3 is in the books.

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A More Del.icio.us Blog

spiritual Del.icio.us tags

This blog has become even more del.icio.us lately, if that’s possible.

I went ahead and caved in to the popular trend to use del.icio.us tags for anything and everything, no mater how esoteric. The index system I designed for BitterSweetLife is still in effect, but I no longer use those tags exclusively.

For example:

A ‘stereotypical’ BitterSweetLife post mentioning C.S. Lewis, joy and pain, a hoops game, and an anecdote about my strenuous writing life (powered by coffee) would have traditionally been filed under:


(Each of these tags having been carefully chosen and defined in my tag indexes: One: A – I / Two: J –Z)

But using my new del.icio.us approach, I might also add:

Anytag, in fact, that strikes me. ("Anytag" is a word similar to "anything" that has been created for the blogging age. By me.) Practically speaking, this means that more del.icio.us tags will be appearing under my posts, and that you’ll be able to dig through my index system more efficiently. Several new tags are already collecting multiple posts. Among the leaders are: Time, Prayer, Coffee

Exciting stuff, eh?

To empower you for all the del.icio.us exploring that is no doubt about to transpire, I added a button to the top-right sidebar: BitterSweetLife at del.icio.us This will plunge you directly into the immersive experience known more commonly as BitterSweetLife’s del.icio.us page.


A few of you might be interested in the source of my latest incarnation of del.icio.us tagging, which I obviously did not come up with myself. I found the hack at FreshBlog (hack option 3) and added the little del.icio.us icons with tips found in Fresh Blog's Revised Del.icio.us How-to Post. The beauty of this version is that the tagging process is almost fully automated. If you're not using Firefox yet, this hack requires it. Good luck!

Still trying to get up to speed? Check out these related posts (also accessible through my 'Del.icio.us' tag!)

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Difficulty Charting the Sun

Spiritual light

It would be hard to overestimate the change that takes place when someone begins to know Christ.


One day I woke up, and something had changed in my chemical makeup, or rather, something had changed
me. And I discovered that extremely high temperatures were no longer lethal. So I went on a weekend trip and began exploring the sun. I discovered it was an intriuging place—a lot like earth, except that all the geographical features were made of flame and molten lava.

When I returned home on Monday, I was sad for two reasons: 1) I couldn’t take my friends back to visit the sun with me, and 2) none of the photos I had taken had turned out. This was disappointing.

Personally, I was happy. Only regarding other people did things become complicated. Nonetheless, without the help of any precise illustrations of my experience on the sun, I went about trying to explain my new love for, my new passion for, sunlight.

At heart, I hoped that some of my friends would undergo the same mysterious chemical change that I had. I even hoped that my talking about it so much would somehow contribute to the change.

I felt an extra sense of urgency because the sun was so huge, so beautiful, and I knew I could never fully explore it alone.

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Saturday, February 18, 2006

Useless Prayers?

Problems with prayer
It was only after I'd begun to drink the coffee that I realized that I'd forgotten to pray that the caffeine would really work.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard someone pray, “Bless this food to our bodies” and winced. The problem is not only syntactical and logical—where
else is this food going to be “blessed to??”—but causal: Should I start praying for air to be blessed to my lungs?

As Proverbs says, “The poor man and the oppressor have this in common: the Lord gives light to the eyes of both.” It follows that there are some things we don’t actually have to pray for to receive. Like light. Like air. Like biochemistry at work in the laboratories of the stomach and large intestine.

This is not denying that God keep everything in existence by his constant involvement in the universe. If God were to withdraw his creative influence, the earth would collapse back into dust. But it’s not our prayers that keep God from withdrawing his stabilizing presence, and it’s not our prayers that keep him there. These things come down to us gratis, courtesy of a loving, generous God who created us because he wanted to.

That’s why it’s entirely fitting to thank God for food or for a sunrise—and I often do, with sincere wonder and appreciation. But to pray that the food will actually dissolve into nutrients in my stomach, or that when the sun rises I will actually begin to see things by its light—these are ineffectual prayers, I think.

So what's the upshot?

[Unidentified person]: "...so thank you, God, for allowing us to gather tonight, please bless us with your presence, even as we talk with each other, and as we sit down to eat this delicious meal, please bless this food to-"
Me: "NO! Stop the prayer!"

Uh, probably not. Just the same, as awful as it sounds to say it, I think some petitions are a waste of time, and it’s not (surprise, surprise) because God won’t answer them but because he already has or will. He invites us to 'assist' in other things, but he doesn't really need our help maintaining the physical universe.

Despite the fact that I am obviously way too cynical, don't pray nearly as much as I should, and clearly have a silly vendetta against people who enjoy their dinners, I don't find this issue irrelevant. Why? Because prayer doesn't come easy to us, and this is all the more true when we start fooling ourselves as to what prayer actually is.

One thing it's not: placid, repetitive phrases about something that God will do anyway. I find myself wishing we could devote ourselves, with zest and imagination, to areas where God
invites us to exert our influence with him, and remove the repetitive mantras from our topic lists.

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Friday, February 17, 2006

Reality Bytes

Those of you who avidly read the comments on this blog (and toy with the idea of someday posting one yourself) may want to revisit a post from a few days ago, Is Reality Good? Not only has the post continued to attract traffic, comments have also continued to appear. There has even been some (gasp) disagreement, which obviously increases the excitement quotient.

Some of you, if you have an eye for effect, might choose this moment to step forward and be counted as commentators in your own right. Give us your take on Is Reality Good? Now wouldn't that be a great way to start the weekend?

In other breaking news, I have a couple new Jayhawk hoops posts up over at Phog Blog:

Darrell Arthur Decision Pending? and Stopping the Mouth: Jayhawks vs. Stinson
. Here's a quick excerpt from the latter:

During Iowa State’s losing effort Saturday, Stinson talked a big game. His pie-hole became his face’s largest feature, so much so that Brandon Rush commented afterwards, “That boy has a big mouth on him.” And after the Jayhawks blanked Stinson for the second time, he still thought he had something to say, muttering to Robinson about future duels back in New York.
I know not everyone will dig these; but the brighter, more hip among you can make your way over the Phog Blog at your leisure.

I'm out.

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Peaceful Coexistence

Lindsay and I were heading out of our apartment last night when a visitor walked right past us and over to our neighbor’s door. Since it was the obvious thing to do, we both gave him the subtle once-over as he stood in the hall. A few moments later, he disappeared inside the next-door apartment.

Lindsay: “Well, he wasn’t too bad. He didn’t seem thuggy. Did you see how politely he knocked on the door?”

Me: “Yes, I was very favorably impressed by the way he refrained from yelling and smashing the door down. Also, I liked the fact that he wasn’t packing a gun. Not to mention that he didn’t curse. These things make me feel very good about his character. Clearly, this is a good guy…”

Lindsay: “Oh, stop it, Honey.”

I guess you could say the tension between us and our next door neighbors has lessened slightly since we wrote ‘em up.

A little social activism works wonders.

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Pursuing Novelty

Glimpses of literary coherence

Well, the die has been cast. I’ve started reading and revising the early drafts of my novel. The story is an unabashed epic at this point, one of those archetypal hero narratives, which makes writing dialogue a unique challenge. I’ve diplomatically decided to avoid any “thee”/“thou”-type pronouns, along with any verbs ending in “-eth.” What can I say? It’s for my readers.

Scanning my old drafts, I’m finding veins of usable material, some of them pretty deep, running through slabs of extraneous matter that needs to be chipped away. I don’t mind the mining process, though. Here’s a stand-alone excerpt that will give you the flavor of the novel to date.

Death comes in white, sometimes. The only black is the earthen grave, surrounded by the snow and sky. I lay the body of my departed in the ground, and will not say his name. I WILL NOT SAY HIS NAME! Spirit, sky and men, bear witness. I will not mock him with a name, forgotten as you stand. Your eyes have seen a hundred die, your ears close at the muffled cry of “Death.” And this is as it should be. Those who did not know him, forget the man, but not the grave. In spring, you’ll see the mark, and know, and remember where his spirit flew. You will weep, but not remember, and I will not say his name. Only I will remember. I, [ name of protagonist ].

The skeleton of my story is mostly in place, and I’m trying to add flesh as needed, honing the muscle tone at the same time. Strangely enough, I made a lot of progress (ten years ago) on this thing without being really satisfied with my protagonist’s name. Several cognomens have come and gone, none really satisfactory. This seems like one of those crucial details that should be settled early on, rather than, say, as the book is on the way to the printer. So if you have a somewhat tragic-heroic name that’s burning a hole in your, er, tongue, go ahead and let me know. Maybe you’ll earn a place in my acknowledgements page.

Names that will not be considered: Beowulf, Aragorn, Arthur, Gilgamesh, Aeneas, Odysseus... You get the idea.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Questions about Causality


Blind salamanders. Dennis Rodman. Too-tight jeans. For items and beings that exist but did not need to, we ask an obvious question:

I have found myself directing this query toward our canary, Cricket, especially when he starts warbling the melody line from my latest Death Cab for Cutie album without warning. Why does such a soloist exist? He adds humorous nuances to our apartment's atmosphere, but he certainly doesn’t
need to—to sing spontaneously or exist. So why does he?

It is equally appropriate to ask this question about one’s locale, one’s favorite tree, one’s inexplicable taste for dark chocolate, and other obvious subjects of radical curiosity: Aardvarks, Elephants, Spouses, etc.

This curiosity about causality is ingrained in all of us. It’s hard to miss. “Why is Grandma coming over?” asks the child. “And why do I have a grandma?” The harried parent is the first to admit that a necessary cause for Grandma is vital. And short of such a reason, “just because” is not an answer!

Apply this line of reasoning to the universe, and I’m not convinced that materialist reasoning can make a coherent case. Why does the universe exist? Why does my canary exist, or my wife? In a naturalistic framework, these questions ultimately become one and the same; and without a creator, they are equally unanswerable.

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Happy Jayhawk Coincidence

I should have mentioned this on Monday, but better late than never. The Kansas Jayhawks have finally earned a place on the Top 25 Men's AP Poll. Not only will this be good for an eventual NCAA Tournament seed, but the contextual placement of the 'Hawks in the poll is very enjoyable. Scroll down to see what I mean. (ESPN's poll mirrors this trend exactly.) What would make this little victory sweeter? Well, a bigger gap next week and a KU-UNC match-up in the tourney wouldn't hurt. Eat your heart out, Roy Williams.

1. Connecticut
2. Duke
3. Memphis
4. Villanova
5. Gonzaga
6. Texas
7. George Washington
8. Tennessee
9. Pittsburgh
10. Florida
11. West Virginia
12. Ohio State
13. Boston College
14. Illinois
15. UCLA
16. Michigan State
17. Georgetown
18. Iowa

19. Oklahoma
20. Washington
21. N.C. State
22. Kansas
23. North Carolina
24. Bucknell
25. LSU

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Monday, February 13, 2006

The Writing Life - Annie Dillard, A+

A Flash-Review (Am I Juiced to Write?)

The Writing Life - Annie Dillard
, A+

For the last week, I've been toying with the idea of resuscitating a novel that I started when I was in my early teens. As I type this, the printer is powered up to run off the first 40-some pages of said 'novel' so I can try and re-immerse myself in the mythic/medieval atmosphere.

The eventual fate of my story is hard to make out, since I'll have to rediscover the context in which I began to form it ("in search of lost time," ala Marcel Proust). One thing's for sure, though. Anyone hoping to write anything of note should read The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. Computer Science grads have been known to start writing short stories at the mere mention of this book. As well they should:

Dillard'’s metaphorical jaunt is evocative, brilliant and lovely. By turns whimsical and haunting, she made me want to write, even while dreading it. Sometimes reading about writing is merely a despicable delaying tactic to avoid actually writing. But not in this case. The Writing Life is not only highly quotable, it's also one of those rare books that inspire action.

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New Books on the Blog

Over the weekend I spent a little time updating the look and content of the Master Book List. Check it out.

If I find the time, several more reviews will be appearing shortly.

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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Is Reality Good?

Spiritual Reality

On Friday night, Lindsay and I were part of a discussion group with some college students, and the topic of note was ‘truth’—truth about myself, about humankind, about the kind of world we live in.

What struck me in the course of the discussion was that there is a premise that underlies our concern with finding truth and aligning our lives with it. For authenticity or veracity to be at all compelling, we’ve got to agree first that IT IS GOOD TO BE IN REALITY.

Ironically, I could think of a variety of worlds that would fail to meet this criteria. For example: Would the above condition be true…in an ultimately chaotic world? In a purely material world? In an unavoidably doomed world? In a simply agonizing world?

In his renowned essay, “A Free Man’s Worship,” Bertrand Russell encouraged his readers to embellish and soften a “brutal, evil world” with their projected ideals of goodness and beauty. In other words, Russell suggested that in a naturalistic, ‘Darwinist’ universe, it would be better to knowingly perpetuate a fantasy than to restrict oneself to ‘mere truth.’ In some ways, it’s hard to disagree with that part of his argument. Enter C.S. Lewis.

In The Silver Chair (Book 6 in The Chronicles of Narnia), a fascinating confrontation between the story’s nemesis, a sorceress, and the small band of heroes, presents a remarkably similar situation. The scene takes place in an underground kingdom; with a combination of incense, music, and entrancing lies, the sorceress has been weaving a spell, aiming for a singular result—to remove all memory of a sunlit “Overworld.” Then C.S. Lewis’ character, Puddleglum, makes a striking reply—and one that the witch is unprepared to counter:

“One word, Ma’am…one word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one more thing to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one… That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it.”

Now this is intriguing. Is there a point at which ‘reality’ becomes so awful that it becomes more attractive to subvert the truth than to adjust to it? I feel myself leaning (if possible) in both directions.

I am a big fan of Truth. But this is because I believe in a God, Jesus Christ, who blends love and justice with lovely and radical perfection, and who has created this world with a purpose, and plans to redeem it. If I am a hard-core materialist, I’m not sure truth has the same allure.

We’re all just a bunch of molecules interfacing. The person I love is a collocation of atoms who will eventually disintegrate into raw dust (mostly carbon). So what? These 'facts' grate on my mind like nails on a chalkboard. Purposeful delusion might well become a favorite pastime.

What makes all this so interesting is that for many people, purposeful delusion has become a favorite pastime. The naturalistic worldview has succeeded in creating a race of people who would just as soon forget the ‘truth’ about this world (an accident) and our lives (meaningless). Truth has become a null proposition, except in terms of chemical equations, for fairly obvious reasons.

If reality sucks, why should I be concerned with aligning my life with it? It seems to me that one of the insurmountable challenges facing the materialist ‘faith’ is this irrelevance of truth to living. When reality becomes of questionable relevance, there are some screws loose at the very heart of the philosophical machine.

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Saturday, February 11, 2006

Lilith - George MacDonald, A-

A Flash Review: Dying Toward Life

Lilith - George MacDonald, A-

I squeezed in the last several chapters of this book just as the new semester ground its gears and wheezed into shaky motion.


This fantasy suffers from convoluted “action” sequences and dialogue muddied by excessive gusto (!!!), but the rare sense of paradox, which is MacDonald’s trademark, shines through. Some might find Lilith excessively morbid, but in reality this is the last charge one should level at the book. Undeniably, “death” is the central theme; but in MacDonald’s universe, death is life.

attempts to probe the opaque mysteries of eternal life, defiant evil, genuine personhood, and beauty—and thanks to MacDonald’s humility, coupled with an imagination which few can match—it succeeds. One puts the volume down with a healthily unsettled mind. Those searching for the author’s masterwork, however, will want to read Phantastes.

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Friday, February 10, 2006

Soul Correspondence: Lewis & Proust

By a strange and wonderful coincidence
, I was reading Swann's Way by Marcel Proust while in the process of adding some C.S. Lewis quotes to my collection. In a way, I’m just being redundant by pointing out, on this blog, that authors who can use language to effectively talk about the soul—an elusive, intangible thing to describe—immediately earn my admiration. But it’s true.

Here are a couple enjoyable (and unlikely) instances of correspondence between Lewis and Proust.

For even if we have the sensation of being always surrounded by our own soul, it is not as though by a motionless prison: rather, we are in some sense borne along with it in a perpetual leap to go beyond it, to reach the outside, with a sort of discouragement as we hear around us always that same resonance, which is not an echo from outside but the resounding of an internal vibration. We try to rediscover in things, now precious because of it, the glimmer that our soul projected on them; we are disappointed to find that they seem to lack in nature the charm they derived in our thoughts from the proximity of certain ideas…
- Marcel Proust, Swann's Way

[There is a] secret we cannot hide and tell, though we desire to do both... Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter... But all that is a cheat... The books or music in which we thought beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through was longing. These things - the beauty, the memory of our own past - are good images of what we desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
- C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

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Thursday, February 09, 2006

Contra Mundum Vision

Cultivating a Tendency to Turn the World on Its Head

Contra Mundum vision

There’s a certain delight that comes from using an object for a purpose for which it was not intended—thereby achieving a positive outcome.

For example: Turning off your alarm clock with a baseball bat. Opening the fridge with your toes. Watering flowers with your coffeepot. Pumping "iron" with your dog. There’s something rewarding about such defiant improvisation. We should all spend more time flouting the laws of accepted consumer-usage.

I've realized that I find a similar joy in defying the “laws of usage” that govern much of our lives—the ones that, with subtle subversiveness, effect morality, personality, perspective, in other words, life formation—not just how you hang up pictures. Such an exercise has benefits, believe it or not, that extend beyond self-gratifying freakiness.

Consider, for example,
monotony. The default response is boredom. But a persistent lack of variety can have a tempering effect on your character when you exploit it. Perseverance, not boredom, becomes the surprising result. Kind of like using dirt on your hands to get a good grip.

Likewise, heaven. For many, the obvious "use" would be a dismissive chuckle at the expense of anyone na├»ve enough to "blindly believe that." To which I reply, Heaven isn’t an afterthought of this life, but a continuation. You’re laying the tracks for “your” eternity as we speak. In light of this, heaven has a variety of atypical uses, not the least of which is death-defying joy.

In a similar way, perfection (natural use: frustration and driven-ness) holds promise. And loneliness. The list could go on.

My tendency to invert common “life-usage,” for want of a better phrase, makes me wonder if there isn’t a redemptive use for the human trait we usually label “difficult” or "stubborn" and repress. Why not channel latent defiance into a really useful pastime: pitting oneself "against the world" (contra mundum) and turning it on its head?

This isn't just against-the-graininess. Rather, this conscious flaunting of appearances reaches toward something better. Not merely different, not merely counter-cultural, but better. True. This isn't rebellion for fashion's sake, but for truth's.

Such a shake-up makes sense in a world where the most obvious use for any given "object" (I use the term loosely) is seldom the right or best one. This is not to say we live on a neutered earth where
everything is actually friendly and cheerful if you crane your neck at the right angle. Rather, it points up some bedrock truths of bittersweetness—that Christ is paramount, even amid suffering, and therefore beauty wracks an ugly world. Even pain has its uses. Evil is evil, but it can be exploited in spite of itself.

In such a context, where Good (God) waits in readiness to throw appearance on its ear, defiance ought to be used constructively. The world as we see it needs to be assertively re-envisioned.

We all have a "mean streak"—whether it's quiet or overt—a core of spiritual metal that, beyond a certain point, will not bend. Abused, it surfaces as ugly hate-all angst, a crisis of misdirected insurgency. What a waste. Channel "defiance" into vision and it's redeemed as contra mundum sight—which could also be known as rebellion with a cause.

Seeing life rightly takes tenacity and knock-down-drag-out perseverance. Devil-may-care verve is also needed, because you are, after all, defying an entire world that lives and dies on common "life usage." Looking past appearances and beyond the edges is a job for rebel-visionaries like Christ, and those who follow in his steps.

What we need is contra mundum vision. In the realm of rebellion, body accessories and bitter rants are child's play. Defiance could be much better employed.

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Upstart Mentality Boggles Wife

Upstart intellect pays off

My increased mental acuity is already paying dividends.

On Saturday, I challenged Lindsay to a game of Boggle. Now you would think that such a challenge would play right into my hands, given that I am an English major and president of the Vocabulary Reclamation Project. But in reality, things have tended to play out quite differently. Lindsay grew up with the game, and she is very accomplished. So much so that it would be misleading for me to say that historically, Lindsay beats me at Boggle.

Instead, honesty compels me to admit that in 4.5 years of marriage I have never won. That's the cold, hard fact, and for almost half a decade I’ve had dance to the music. Let’s just say the grin-and-change-the-subject routine was growing stale. It was only the fact that I virtually always won at Scrabble that kept Boggle on the table. That and my perpetual optimism. And finally, on Saturday, it all paid off.

Lindsay watched my chanting, gyrating celebration with an attitude of bemused tolerance. She was shocked at my victory, but after four years of total dominance she was fully willing to be generous.

But yesterday we played again. Her tune had begun to change.

My approach was pure swagger and confidence as I jotted down word after word, dropping verbal barbs each time the clock elapsed, trying to get inside Lindsay’s head. I was positioned as the Cinderella team, the come-from-behind media darling, the Gonzaga of Boggle, trying to knock off Duke. I smelled blood in the water and was determined to exploit my competitive edge. I had all the jocular energy generated by underdog rascality. Lindsay, meanwhile, was playing stiff, short-arming her pencil, writing words down tersely, playing not to lose.

But she did. Yes, she did. And I won, again. In our home, a new star is rising. And if I can overcome the new anti-Boggle laws for which some are agitating, I intend to nurse this dynasty for all it’s worth.

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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Mysterious Future, Spiritual Prayer

Mysterious Future, Spiritual Prayer

The future,
the future, it’s out there. Kind of nebulous and fuzzy, but we like the way it glitters. Similar to the milky way, you see the light but can’t make out the stars, and it’s soothing if you don’t stare too hard.

Close your eyes for a moment, breathe deeply, and then you can go back to sharpening your pencil or eating pancakes, whatever it was you were doing before you got so forward-thinking. Brief contemplation of the approaching future can cleanse the mental palate: Relax, and say a prayer; it’s coming your way fast, and you don’t need to do a thing about it.

The future is a helpful accessory this way and would need to be immortalized in poetry if only we knew what it looked like. But we don’t, and that’s the point. Save the poetry: the future is totally and beautifully beyond your control. You can guess at its shape all night without penetrating its mystery.

You can’t know the future’s form until it arrives, and this should break your heart or send shivers down your spine. Ideally both. If these symptoms are missing, you have anesthetized your sense of adventure, of wonder, and your faith will need to be revived.

The future is a reminder that only God is God—the one who holds time in his hands. Thus, we are reminded of a redemption that God is unwinding day by day, an eternity that approaches hour by hour.

The future, the future, it’s coming. It advances inexorably, and we can’t make out its shape, not yet. But Christ makes this fact a cause for worship.

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Monday, February 06, 2006

The Truth About Lies

Lies: they're self-delusional

I had the realization recently that there is some necessary fine print that should be applied to self-deception. A caveat with falsehoods we tell

You can’t talk yourself out of your own lies.

Oops—and we had assumed that the things we wrongly believe might be self-refuting at the appropriate moment. But they’re good lies for the very reason that we believe them. Usually, someone else has to shake us awake.

This fact casts some light on the illogical indignation people feel when they are told that they believe something without adequate reason. Lies, held tight to the vest over long periods of time, sink roots into people.

It’s not that we want to be hoodwinked. It’s the thought that we could be that drives us up the wall. Conclusion: we should defend our positions with humility, and probe potentially malignant perspectives with care. Moreover: In a world where self-delusion tends to thrive, other-worldly revelation is all the more vital.

Filed in:

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Saturday, February 04, 2006

Cunning Light

Spiritual Light

I like the way that light leaks down
Through canyon strata
Or, if it comes to this,
Through cables jumbled under a computer desk.
Light illuminates the rocks and outlets,
Light navigates the tricky corners,
Light finds a way,
Light filters through.

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Friday, February 03, 2006

Land of the Living, World of the Dying

Spiritual Reality

“I would have despaired
Unless I had believed
That I would see
The goodness of the Lord
In the land of the living.”
- Psalm 27:13
At times, the realization creeps in, slightly haunting, but less so that I might expect: this is not the land of the living. This is a dying world. Vitality has yet to fully arrive here. We are still not really alive.

To admit, at least in the privacy of my own thoughts, that this world is peopled with corpses in various degrees of animation, should and does have considerable emotional impact. (“I see dead people…”) But the reaction is different than I would expect. I feel myself recoiling, as from something that you’re ‘not supposed to say,’ something unpleasantly ‘morbid,’ distastefully ghoulish—but not, in essence, untrue.

When I’m driven to the point of honesty, I find myself agreeing with king David’s assessment, even though I know it’s uncool. This world can be realistically pictured only through the lens of the next one. And in light of heaven, no one I see around me is really alive—let alone me. This world of the dying makes a kind of sense only when stacked next to the “land of the living.”

The present earth, “this dying life, or should I call it living death?” (Augustine), is a system whose inequities cannot be comprehended without additional conditions. But the ‘sanctifying’ provision does, in fact, exist. David calls it the land of the living. Add this reality to the world we see around us, and something altogether transforming emerges.

We live in a mysterious atmosphere where death, in the end, can be good, where people rise from funereal sleep and awake into unbearable glory. For some people, death will confer a deathless vitality. As George MacDonald puts it in his novel Lilith:
On some faces lingered the almost obliterated scars of strife, the marrings of hopeless loss, the fading shadows of sorrows that had seemed inconsolable: the aurora of the great morning had not yet quite melted them away; but those faces were few, and every one that bore such brand of pain seemed to plead, “Pardon me: I died only yesterday!” or, “Pardon me: I died but a century ago!”

Death will have its uses. Because the fact remains: this is a world where death may not be avoided, despite all efforts to the contrary. ("If your thoughts should turn to death, gotta stomp ‘em out like a cigarette;" Bright Eyes.)

This fact of death, supposedly the trump card of the anti-theist, is actually the ace up the sleeve of the Christian. This is where, metaphysically, we unabashedly cheat. Because death is not what it seems.

We don’t see the whole panorama yet. But the day will come when the temporal picture frame of this life will break up, disintegrate, as all makeshift things do—and then we will spill out into the untapped land of the living. This will be a kingdom without borders, where death has already served its turn.

In the land of the living, death will be denatured. In the land of the dying, death is essential—and not only in its physical form. As Augustine says paradoxically, “One who has not died and risen may live on but he lives evilly—and if evilly, not really living. Let him die, lest he die. How can he die lest he die? By undergoing conversion lest he undergo damnation.”

In a dying variety of world, you had better die. And you had better do it quickly (and often), before ‘death’ steals from you the chance. A death to self, and a yes to Christ, repeated throughout life, subdues the apparent morbidity of this world to a hidden reality.

And so we bend our lives to this death-shaped mold, and by doing so, we find that the mold has already been shattered. Broken by Christ. Why do we tolerate this deathly pattern at all? In the words of Paul, the brilliant theologian and martyr:

“…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).

We die in order to defeat death entirely, and live with Christ. Therefore, appraising this dying world honestly leads not to despair, but to the vision that sees beyond. In this land, we die. In the living world, we will have a new preoccupation.

In the meantime, remembering the address of our current residence can make all the difference.

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Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife