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What I Read in October, 2015

I enjoyed a visit from my folks over the week of my birthday in October, and we found ourselves settling into our new place a bit more, which made it possible to read a couple of longer books. In October, I read:

1984 is a classic, and perhaps rightly so. I read it back in late high-school (or was it early college?), and have lately been interested in re-reading some classics that I haven’t read in over a decade. How I got through it the first time, I’ll never know. Apart from the chapters in which the story moved forward, about 2/3 of the book is little more than a series of extended monologues evaluating the benefits and dangers of an authoritarian government. It’s dry and repetitive, and I’m sure it made the point it needed to make, but I ran out of patience with it all pretty quickly.

Still, a couple of ideas struck me as particularly interesting. First, if one has control of the language (or expression) one has control of the people. This is clearly true today, and it is not always bad; for instance it is a tangible good when a change in the language used results in increased empathy and charity. Second, whole divisions of Orwell’s dystopian society were devoted to the production of mindless, lurid, sexed-up and dumbed-down entertainment in order to keep a large percentage of the population distracted and disengaged. This also is clearly true today, though it’s not in the hands of the government.

I’ve included a few quotes that struck me as interesting:

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

“But if there was hope, it lay in the proles. You had to cling on to that. When you put it in words it sounded reasonable: it was when you looked at the human beings passing you on the pavement that it became an act of faith.”

“Sanity is not statistical.”

“Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.”

The Girl on the Train and Dark Places were a fortuitous combination, as both are written in first person, both feature women who have suffered a great deal of harm, and both revolve around how the awful past has affected these protagonists in the still-awful present. However, similarities aside, I think Hawkin’s Girl on the Train would have seemed more impressive were it not placed alongside Flynn’s much better Dark Places. In Flynn’s novel, the characters are more sympathetic, the stakes are higher, the emotions run deeper, the prose is more polished, the twists are better earned, and the conclusion is appropriately tuned (I mean here that it hits the right blend of forward-looking optimism and understandable melancholy).

That’s not to say that The Girl on the Train is bad. It’s not bad. It’s just not nearly as good. And being not nearly as good, it feels much worse in retrospect.

Dark Places is the second book I have read by Gillian Flynn this year, and I think it’s safe to say that she will be on my “to read” list in the future.

Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art is a very quick read, directed to writers. A couple of friends here in Spain (very good musicians, check out their music!) recommended it, and then Jon Acuff recommended it in a video on three books that changed the way he looks at creativity.

Pressfield first identifies a bunch of little tricks creators use to avoid creating (he calls these tricks “Resistance”), then offers suggestions for combating such tricks. I found these two sections helpful and insightful. He has a third, semi-mystical section on the Muses, which I found less helpful. A few quotes on the difference between those who write and those who merely tinker:

“There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.”

“The professional tackles the project that will make him stretch. He takes on the assignment that will bear him into uncharted waters, compel him to explore unconscious parts of himself.”

“The professional has learned that success, like happiness, comes as a by-product of work. The professional concentrates on the work and allows rewards to come or not come, whatever they like.”

“Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. ‘I write only when inspiration strikes,’ he replied. ‘Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.’ That’s a pro.”

And a final, longer quote in which Pressfield taps into what I think is a fairly Christian way of thinking about the gifts God gives each of us:

“Are you a born writer? Were you put on earth to be a painter, a scientist, an apostle of peace? In the end the question can only be answered by action.

Do it or don’t do it.

It may help to think of it this way. If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself. You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.

You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God.

Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”

So that was my reading for the month.

As November races along, I’m only about 10% into a long book on the history of jazz, and I’m realizing I may have difficulty finishing four books this month. Oh, well.

Happy Reading!
Dan J.

What I Read in August & September, 2015

August and September were productive months, and my reading happened in spurts and fits. I read a few books before the move, and a few after:

Bull Street was awful. This book was so incredibly bad that I looked up the order on Amazon to see if I had paid for this ebook. I had. I will regret that for a long time. I could have spent the $2 on a coffee, poured the coffee on my head, and been more satisfied with the results. My review on Amazon (which I’ve pasted here) is titled, “Now I’m a victim of Wall Street too.”

There is no tension, there is no suspense. The bad guys are obviously bad from the first description. The stakes are incredibly low. The protagonist manages to be boring, offensive, immature, totally self-ignorant, and cowardly at the same time. The author frequently introduces important information only when it’s helpful to the plot. Foreshadowing is apparently not in his literary vocabulary. He either forecasts with the subtlety of an elephant, or waits too long to inform us of something critical.

Every secondary character speaks with the same voice: the voice of the narrator. Also, pistachios. Somewhere the author must have read that it’s important to give the characters a quirk. Pistachios can be a great quirk, but I’m tired of reading that a character shelled a pistachio and then “popped the meat into his mouth.” I’m sure that’s a technically correct way to refer to what’s happening, but what’s technically correct and what’s good are two different things.

At least I didn’t pay for The One That Got Away. It was Amazon’s free book of the month for Prime members. This book was so bad. I read this in a night, and by the end, I turned to my wife and said, “You’re never going to believe how bad this book is.” The book was a master-class on terribly developed characters, cops that would get fired in a heartbeat for incompetence, and totally unrealistic motivations. For example (SPOILER ALERT!): the killer is motivated by a desire to punish people who have bad manners. He’s also apparently really bad at killing. I will not read another book by Simon Wood. I am probably going to stop taking advantage of the Amazon Prime Kindle First freebies as well.

Faulkner once advised writers: “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master.” So, since I write, I’m reading a lot of books, and these were two of them. I learned a lot about bad writing while reading this book, but I won’t buy or read anything by David Lender or Simon Wood ever again. Is it wrong to say, “May their tribe decrease?” I mean that in the sense of, “May these types of books never be published or conceived again.”

Then things got a little better and improved dramatically through the next six books.

D.M. Pulley’s The Dead Key was another Kindle First freebie. The thing is, this book is not half-bad. Good character development (not amazing, but hey, not bad), good tension (genuinely tense at a few points, generally tense throughout), goodish, clearish writing, and a more-or-less satisfying conclusion. I thought it wrapped up a little too quickly considering the scope and scale of the villainy involved, but it was still good enough.

And Robert Ellis’ City of Echoes wasn’t too bad either. I was not expecting this book to be much good, and the opening pages were sub-par, but after things started rolling, the surprises kept coming, and the writing kept me engaged. There were a few twists that were way more predictable than they should have been, but on the whole, it was a decent read, and I’ll maybe pick up the next if it’s free.

Kim Stanley Robinson is a very good author, generally, so I was happy to get a collection of his short stories. This collection was like all collections–it had its high points (“Escape from Kathmandu” or “The Blind Geometer” or “The Translator”) and its low points (“Sexual Dimorphism” or “Prometheus Unbound, At Last”). The strong stories are stories. The weak stories are experiments. Though that may say more about my personal philosophy than Robinson’s talent. If you’re in the mood for some solid science fiction, pick up his Mars Trilogy.

Speaking of Mars, The Martian was very enjoyable. I imagine the movie is also enjoyable, and look forward to seeing it someday, probably after Calvin grows up and moves out. (Missions and parenthood = a drastic reduction in movie nights.)

Station Eleven was the fictional highlight of the last two months. The author (is it St. John Mandel or just Mandel?) managed to craft the sort of post-apocalyptic story that slides right past all of the easy material (the moral reproach in the form of some disaster, the disintegration of society, the violence of survival, etc) and delivers a heartbreaking and gently told tale set in the midst of tragedy. She weaves themes of memory, regret, repentance (or unrepentance), hope and artistic joy around a set of characters drawn with the sympathy and humanity that marks an excellent author.

And finally, Art & The Bible is my first Schaeffer book. This was a very short book, containing two essays: “Art In the Bible” and “Some Perspectives on Art”.

A couple of great quotes from the first section:

“Despite our constant talk about the Lordship of Christ, we have narrowed it’s scope to a very small area of reality.”

“About all that [evangelical Christianity has] produced is a very romantic, Sunday school art.”

“A Christian should use these arts to the glory of God, not just as tracts, mind you, but as things of beauty to the praise of God. An art work can be a doxology in itself.”

“God is interested in beauty.”

“The Christian life should produce not only truth…but also beauty.”

The second essay was also fantastic. Schaeffer thankfully affirms the value of art as art–it is valuable simply because it is “a work of creativity” and because in creating, we are imitating our Creator–and he proceeds to lay out some helpful instructions for thinking about art, both as a viewer and as a creator. Perhaps the most compelling sections for me were his “Four Standards of Judgment” and “The Christian World View”.  Some quotes from these:

“We are not being true to the artist as a man if we consider his art work junk simply because we differ with his outlook on life. Christian schools, Christian parents and Christian pastors often have turned off young people at just this point. Because the schools, the pastors and the parents did not make a distinction between technical excellence and content, the whole of much great art has been rejected by scorn or ridicule. Instead, if the artist’s technical excellence is high, he is to be praised for this, even if we differ from his world view. Man must be treated fairly as man.”

“If we stand as Christians before a man’s canvas and recognize that he is a great artist in technical excellence and validity–if in fact he is–if we have been fair with him as a man and as an artist, then we can say that his world view is wrong.”

“The Christian and his art have a place for the minor theme [of our fallen state] because man is lost and abnormal and the Christian has his own defeatedness. There is not only victory and song in my life. But the Christian and his art don’t end there…[And] if our Christian art only emphasizes the major theme [of redemption], then it is not fully Christian but simply romantic art.”

“Even though we may spend most of our time on the judgment of the law, love dictates that at some point we get to the gospel. And it seems to me that in the total body of his work the artist somewhere should have a sufficient place for the major theme [of redemption].”

If you are a Christian and you have not read this book yet, do yourself a significant favor and pick it up. For Christian artists, it’s a wonderful little summary of why we are called to create and how we can glorify God through such activity. For Christians who are not artists, it’s a wonderful discussion on how to interact with art for God’s glory.

Happy Reading,
Dan J.

For Love

I just finished a Scripture reading plan that took me through the whole Bible over the course of about 18 months. It’s supposed to be faster, but I took my time. I tried to stay on schedule, but I realized that it was turning my time with the Word into a “to-do” rather than a time of resting in Christ’s “it is done.” And that’s a recipe for a very crummy cake.

So, I took my time, and read a couple passages one day, four the next, one the next, etc. Sometimes I read several days worth of Job or Jeremiah in one sitting. And after about 18 months, had read through the whole Bible. If you are looking for a “Through the Bible” reading plan, Anna and I both highly recommend it.

I really enjoyed the conjunction of passages, as well as the emphasis on the Gospels as a distinct unit. I grew in my faith and understanding of the Word. I saw beautiful facets of God’s goodness in unexpected places. Anna and I found ourselves talking over the passages and learning together.

You can download a PDF of the reading plan here, or an Android app that gives you all the daily readings here. I used the app, and it was fantastic (though it required internet access to pull up the passages).

So that was last season. The following is a description of my plans for the next season of devotional reading.

A few months back, I ran across a useful article by Joe Carter. The short summary: pick a book of the Bible, read it 20 times, and let it soak into your mind and transform your heart. I also ran across this pair of articles by John Piper (part 1, part 2these are worth a read for any believer). Piper’s first point really stuck out to me at the time. I was in the midst of praying for increased faith and holiness, and Piper mentions Romans 10:17:

So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

Don’t ask me why it took so long to click. I’m not sure. But until that moment, I had never connected that verse with the Christian life. I had often connected it with evangelism, but never connected it with the walk of sanctification. So, I began to open my times of devotional reading with a prayer that God would work through His word to increase my faith. I pray that the Holy Spirit would work in me through God’s Word, and that hearing would produce faith, that faith would produce joy, holiness, assurance, satisfaction, obedience, and so forth. Often I pray specifically that He would increase my faith through the Word and that this would result in an increase of personal obedience in a specific area. Lately it’s been in the battle against grumbling and an unloving, proud, self-centered attitude. (Hey, I’m a sinner.) And I’ve seen God answering that prayer.

So, recently, as I was walking and talking with Anna, these things all came together: I want to grow in love, the Word is powerful, intentional re-reading can be a valuable tool for growth in sanctification, and I’m at a place where I can start a new devotional reading plan. So here’s my idea:

  1. Read 1 Corinthians 13 in the morning.
  2. Read a Psalm in the evening.
  3. Continue until I’ve read all the Psalms.

Not very complicated, but I am excited about it. This plan will have me in 1 Corinthians 13 for 150 days, maybe half a year if I miss a day here and there. And I don’t intend just to read it, but to listen to it occasionally, to slowly commit it to memory, to write out a few verses by hand some mornings (eventually writing out the whole chapter many times), and to pray through it. Is 150 times a lot? Maybe. But again, I’m a sinner, and I could read it daily until I die and suffer no loss. There’s no harm in the repetition, and if the fruit of this approach is more Christian love, there is great gain.

This approach will also take me back through the Psalms, which is good for a dozen reasons: it has always been fruitful for me to read two or more sections of Scripture at the same time, the Psalms fix my eyes on Jesus and expand my worship of God, they fill my heart with hope and joy in Christ, and they train me to express emotion in a God-honoring way.

My hope is that God will work through His Word. I am praying that as I daily meditate on Paul’s description of love for others and daily read the songs of those who love God, I will grow in love for God and others. It’s a pretty confident hope, too, because God’s Word never returns void. It never fails to accomplish its purpose.

This is a time-limited thing. I need and want the whole counsel of the Word of God (and of course, I’ll be reading other passages as a part of corporate worship or in my ministry activity), but for the next 5 or 6 months, I am going to devote my personal time in God’s Word to growing in love. After this season, I’ll do something else. perhaps I’ll focus on another aspect of the fruit of the Spirit. Perhaps I’ll spend a month in the Sermon on the Mount alongside Revelation. Maybe I’ll restart the Discipleship Journal plan. I’ll figure that out sometime in the next six months.

In the meantime, if you are interested in joining me in this devotional approach, shoot me a note and I’ll add you to a Facebook group I’ve set up for the purpose of mutual encouragement and discussion.

Grace & Peace,
Dan J.


What I Read in July, 2015

So, July was hot. And the reading was better than June, certainly. In July, I read:

A few notes:

First, Don Quixote is a classic and deservedly so. Before dipping in, I had heard many authors and teachers refer to Cervantes’ masterwork as the first modern novel, and I think I am beginning to understand what they mean. Within just the first part, we have a variety of storytelling devices and characters that would easily drop into any novel today. The author plays with time and structure, with narrative reliability and voice, with dialogue and plot in a way that echoes in later works (I’m thinking of Conrad, Barth, Heller, etc).

I don’t know that I would be enjoying it nearly as much without living in Spain for a bit before reading it. That’s not a criticism of the book–many have held it up as one of the greatest works of Western literature, and not all of them have lived in Spain. Rather, I mean it as a complement to Cervantes. He manages to capture the mannerisms, behavior, and idiosyncrasies of Spaniards with grace and charity. Passages that would have struck me as mildly amusing left me laughing out loud, and those winding, recursive, indirect monologues that would normally have lost my attention both amused and gave genuine pleasure. I know and love Spaniards that talk and behave like the Spaniards in Don Quixote. It is a testament to his genius that he so effectively captured the cultural quirks that transcend the erosion of time and globalization.

The second part was published as a separate book 10 years after the first, and I will be starting it in August. As a side note, I recommend Edith Grossman’s translation (linked above). It’s easy to read, and the footnotes are usually useful.

Dust was the third book in a trilogy that I started back in January. As I said then, the whole trilogy has been an entertaining read. I delayed finishing it because Amazon temporarily removed the books from its free Prime Lending Library. I was glad to finish the third, and doubly-glad that Howey managed to wrap up the story well. It’s impressive to see what an author can do without a publishing house, and I think that many are going to be tempted by his success to similarly jump into self-publishing. In some cases, that’s great. In others, it’s cowardice. Cal Newport has a great article on the value of traditional, competitive measures here.

The Painted Word is a short little book on art (specifically post-modern art and what followed) by the always impressive Tom Wolfe. I had no clue what to make of artists like Pollock and Warhol prior to reading this. My inclination was to dismiss them as a joke. Wolfe did a great job of explaining the philosophy (however vacuous) underlying their work, the effect of art critics on the development of 20th century painting, and the wider popular perception of the art in its time (outside of “Cultureburg”). He’s a little hard on Picasso, but I have a soft spot for Picasso. In the end, Pollock and Warhol are still a joke, I think, but at least they had a reason for being such. For examples of what was considered ground-breaking, critically important art in that time, see here and here. Don’t be surprised if they look like something you might find on Pinterest or in the paint aisle at your local Lowes.

Finally, What’s Best Next. If you can, you should read this book.

I will not say everything here, because I intend to do a few longer blog posts on this book. I’ve been reading Matt Perman’s blog for a while–one of the professors at Phoenix Seminary recommended a few of his posts–and I’ve always found his posts to be helpful, encouraging, and edifying. The book was no less so.

“Productivity,” for Perman, “is not first about getting more things done faster. It’s about getting the right things done.” (p. 43) With that statement up front, he then goes on to make the case from Scripture for productivity, for working hard, for planning carefully, and for using all of our work for God’s glory and our neighbor’s good.

Working as a missionary, I was particularly fond of his final chapter, “The Greatest Cause in the World.” This chapter left me much more thankful for the hard work of all of our various ministry partners, who not only take the gospel into their workplaces, but also commit their prayers and resources to send us out with the gospel.

I have been reading this book for a year, and I have been intentionally taking my time with it. I spent several weeks on the chapters that deal with developing a biblical vision, identifying a personal mission, clarifying my God-given roles and establishing some long-term goals. As I blog more about this book, I intend to go into more detail on these various categories. With the great privilege of working in Spain on behalf of the church, it feels appropriate to devote careful attention to working well as well as working hard. I expect our ministry here will enjoy much additional fruit as a consequence of reading through and applying Perman’s book.

Have a great month,
Dan J.

Thoughts from Ezekiel

I’ve just finished reading through Ezekiel. By any standard, it’s a magnificent book–opening with a mind-blowing vision of God’s holy glory, clearly stating the full horror and grievousness of our sin, and then declaring our Holy God’s intention to save sinners for His own glory (Ezek 36:22ff).

Near the end of the book (chaps 40-48), the prophet is recounting the dimensions of the new temple and restored Israel. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that these chapters–with their cubits upon cubits, their east gates and their west gates, their territories bordering territories–tend to feel drier to me when I read them.

A few thoughts came to mind as I read through these chapters, which I hope prove encouraging for you (as they did for me).

  • My first thought: I found incredible the level of detailed concern God had in designing this temple. The notes in the ESV Study Bible describe this as a concern to “include provision for dealing with the people’s sin so they can survive in the presence of a holy God.”
  • My second thought: “I can be encouraged because this probably gives me a good idea of God’s care in building a new heavens and new earth, with a new Jerusalem in the center.” God really cares about the space in which we come to meet him.
  • Then the third thought: There’s one significant difference between Ezekiel’s restored temple and land, and the new heavens and earth. There are no ongoing sacrifices in the new Jerusalem. Instead, as Revelation 5 reveals, the Lamb “standing, as though it had been slain” is our eternal sacrifice. Through him we are glorified, and because of him, we can survive in the presence of a holy God.
  • And then a final thought: God’s ongoing patience with us and grace towards us is as sure and certain and eternal as the blood of the Lamb. For God to run out of patience with His people, Christ’s blood would have to fail. And it doesn’t. Praise God.

I know that’s pretty basic theology, but I was freshly encouraged by it, and thankful for the way the Holy Spirit can use even Ezekiel’s dry chapters to refresh our dry bones.

Thankful for the Lamb,
Dan J.