… in a little corner with a little book

36340402484_057b46aa55_o

‘I have sought for happiness everywhere, but I have found it nowhere except in a little corner with a little book’. – Thomas à Kempis

‘There’s a strong impulse in our culture to run away from these little corners. We’re told that society’s winners will be the thinkers who network, collaborate, create, and strategize in concert with others. Our kids are taught to study in groups, to execute projects as teams. Our workplaces have been stripped of walls so that the organization functions as a unit. The big tech companies also propel us to join the crowd—they provide us with the trending topics and their algorithms suggest that we read the same articles, tweets, and posts as the rest of the world.

There’s no doubting the creative power of conversation, the intellectual potential of humbly learning from our peers, the necessity of groups working together to solve problems. Yet none of this should replace contemplation, moments of isolation, where the mind can follow its own course to its own conclusions.

We read in our little corners, our beds and tubs and dens, because we have a sense that these are the places where we can think best. I have spent my life searching for an alternative. I will read in the café and on the subway, making a diligent, wholehearted effort to focus the mind. But it never entirely works. My mind can’t shake its awareness of the humans in the room.

When we read deeply and with full commitment, we enter an almost trancelike state that mutes the outside world. The distance between words on the page and the scampering abstractions in our head collapses. As with the first generations of silent readers, heretical thoughts come and go; we’re stripped of intellectual inhibitions. That’s why we habitually retreat with our book to private spaces, where we don’t need to worry about social conventions, where the world can’t possibly read over our shoulder. That’s why we can’t jettison paper, even though the tech companies have tried their hardest to bring that about’.

– Franklin Foer, ‘How Technology Makes Us Less Free

 [Image: Minoru Karamatsu, ‘Reading’, 9 September, 2017]

 

‘The pastor as theological reader’, by Cynthia L. Rigby

Reading 2Last spring, one of the graduating M.Div. seniors at Austin Seminary asked us professors for a list of books he should read “sometime in his life.” A heartening request, but it got even better. In the last few months, John has made it clear that he does not understand “sometime” to mean an ever-receding future in which he will (he hopes) have the time to read. On the contrary, John seems to think that “sometime” began the day after graduation. Last week, in fact, I received an e-mail which revealed that John is on schedule to complete five classics—by à Kempis, Bonhoeffer, Dillard, H. R. Niebuhr, and Moltmann—by this December. Inspiring, isn’t it? But here’s the catch: he has not yet taken a call. Will he be able to keep on reading, once he becomes a pastor?

Pastors commonly lament that they aren’t able to keep up with the biblical languages. But in my conversations with pastors, frustration with keeping up with the theological literature is also conveyed. Frequent comments include: “There are just so many books out there—how do I know what to read?” “Why don’t theologians write shorter books? When I do have time to work through one, I feel like the author could have gotten to the main point a lot sooner,” and “Why don’t theologians ever write books for pastors?” My sense is that pastors yearn to participate in the wider theological conversation, but do not want to have to fight their way in. Any of us could generate a dozen ideas for how pastors can be helped with their theological reading. Seminaries could provide bibliographies—and, possibly, “book reports” on specific theological works—on-line. Pastors could form reading groups that meet weekly to discuss and encourage one another. Churches could include a weekly “reading day” in pastors’ job descriptions (try not to laugh).

Theology professors might help pastors strategize on how to read particular theologians, given their different emphases, styles, and contexts. For example, a professor might advise: (1) Be sure to keep a pocket dictionary of philosophical terms on your desk while reading Tillich; or (2) Don’t worry, when reading Barth, if your mind wanders, here and there. Let his words wash over you like a piece of music by Mozart . . . eventually, he’ll come back to whatever point you missed; or (3) Don’t immediately assume Gutiérrez is wrong, just because you don’t resonate with his argument. Allow him to let you “see” what theology looks like from a Latin American context.

While any of these strategies might be helpful in managing symptoms of the problem, I wonder if there is not also a need to address what underlies feelings of being overwhelmed, concerns about having too little time, and fears about wasting time on words that don’t have immediate application to the “real world” work of ministry. As helpful as “how-to” advice can be, I have come to believe that the fundamental problem pastors have with reading theology is not a dearth of information regarding what and how to read, but an absence of the conviction that the theological conversation is their conversation.

In the remainder of this brief essay I will propose four points for reflecting on “how to read a theology book” that focus less on the doing of the reading and more on our being as readers. Instead of pushing you to “just do it” (read theology), I reflect on what it means to “really be it” (a reader of theology). The theology of the Reformation, in contrast to our cultural wisdom, teaches us that we don’t create ourselves by doing. Nor does what we do (or not do) always reveal who we are, for we are sinful. Rather, what we do is to proceed from who we are: beloved children of God; brothers and sisters of Christ.

With this in mind, I suggest that the fundamental strategy for reading a theology book is to engage it as those who: remember who we are; revel in the richness of our inheritance; converse with our fellow heirs; and create with Christ as partners in the ministry of reconciliation. Let me explore the four facets of this strategy in greater detail.

REMEMBER.

“TO SIT ALONE IN THE LAMPLIGHT WITH A BOOK SPREAD OUT BEFORE
YOU, AND HOLD INTIMATE CONVERSE WITH [PEOPLE] OF UNSEEN GENERATIONS—
SUCH IS A PLEASURE BEYOND COMPARE.”—Kenko Yoshida

Week after week, pastors remind members of their congregations of who they are. “You are children of God,” we tell them. “You are joined, at this Table, with Christians all around the world—from every time and place.”

But how do these affirmations come into play—practically speaking—when we pick up a theology book and steal an hour to read? If we think of reading theology as something we do outside of community, as a kind of hunting for provisions to bring “home” to our congregations, it is no wonder we’re frustrated when the hunt seems unsuccessful! In actuality, to spend an afternoon with a text like Calvin’s Institutes is not to close ourselves off from the community in order to “study.” Rather, it is to be intentional about creating a space to develop an intimate relationship with a fellow seeker of understanding, a crucial member of the community of faith. As we read, we hold in our hands a tangible link to brothers and sisters in Christ from “unseen generations.” Like the bread that joins us to those who partake in different times and places, so the theology book has a sacramental quality—participating in a reality larger than the sum of the meanings of the words inside.

I wonder if pastors neglect their theological reading because, on some level, they understand it to be in tension with their calling to be with people. If reading a theology book means leaving the community behind or sitting in the proverbial “ivory tower,” it’s no wonder that ministers—and their congregations—are hesitant to make it a priority. But what if we were convinced that to read theology was to sit in the midst of the community, inviting the saints separated from us by time and space to enter into the circle with us? When we read as rememberers of who we are in relationship to others, our communal life is enriched by the physically absent who are really made present.

REVEL.

“BOOKS, BOOKS, BOOKS . . . LIKE SOME SMALL NIMBLE MOUSE BETWEEN
THE RIBS OF A MASTODON, I NIBBLED HERE AND THERE AT THIS OR
THAT BOX . . . THE FIRST BOOK FIRST. AND HOW I FELT IT BEAT UNDER
MY PILLOW, IN THE MORNING’S DARK. AN HOUR BEFORE THE SUN
WOULD LET ME READ! MY BOOKS!”—Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Theological books abound, it seems. Many pastors, like Browning, have inherited box after box of dusty old books. But how many of us have heard them beating under our pillows?

We might approach our theology books with dread, rather than joy-full anticipation, because we are afraid they might defeat us in our struggle to read. With no intention to “nibble here and there”—but only to succeed in our mission to conquer—we are back on the hunt. And who can fault us, in our competitive context, for setting our sights high? For wanting to master the material?

Recognizing that it is impossible to read every word of every book, students sometimes ask me to help them formulate an attack plan. Perhaps seminaries should offer courses in speed reading, some have suggested. That way, graduates would have some hope of keeping up once they leave seminary and take a church.

Drawn by Browning’s curious and playful spirit, I suggest that the “divide and conquer” approach to reading theology should be resisted. I wonder, instead, if “remembering” who we are as members of the Christian community can inspire us to approach our books with a spirit of revelry—knowing that the point isn’t to learn it all; loving how much theology there is; immersing ourselves in it. When we pick up a theology book, we might imagine ourselves sitting in a room full of the treasures that are our inheritance, basking in the wonder that we can’t begin to count how much there is. When we engage in our theological reading, we might envision ourselves encircled by colorful friends we can spend a lifetime getting to know. The goal of our reading, then, is not to master, control, or conquer, pleading for understanding whenever we haven’t done what we know we should do. Rather, it is to live into our identity as members of the body of Christ: to enter into relationship; to revel in the possibilities; to open ourselves up to the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us; to hear the pulse.

CONVERSE.

“READING FURNISHES THE MIND ONLY WITH MATERIALS OF
KNOWLEDGE;IT IS THINKING THAT MAKES WHAT WE READ OURS.”—John Locke

As rememberers who sit in the center of the circle and revel in the riches that surround us, one of our greatest joys is to enter into the conversation. To read theology books is not like entering a museum, where we might work our way around from display to display without feeling the need to announce our presence or opinions. On the contrary, if reading a theology book is about developing a relationship with a brother or sister in Christ, our active participation is required and desired. When we read a theology book, we are being called upon to make a thoughtful contribution to the circle itself.

Eager to engage the circle of witnesses who surround us, we should avoid reading theology books Siskel-and-Ebert style. The “thinking” which Locke advocates would shrivel from self-centered declarations about whether we agree or disagree with the author, or whether the book “works” for us. To offer a simple “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” in response to our theological reading is, again, to fall into a “hunt and conquer” rather than a “remember and revel” mentality.

Remembering who we are in relation to the authors of the theology books who surround us, we make theological ideas our own in the context of conversation. “Talking with” our theology books, then, requires committed attempts to understand what the other is saying, even when we disagree. It involves asking questions (OK . . . a bit difficult to do when you are reading a book and not talking to a “live” person . . . but try writing them in the margins and see if the author addresses them later). It respects the other enough to argue, rather than conveniently dismissing.

As we think about what we are reading, conversing with the witnesses who surround us, we will find that we are being shaped and molded in our Christian convictions. We begin, then, to read theology not only with the hope that we will find ideas for our next sermon or lecture series, but with the expectation that we will, indeed, be changed.

CREATE.

“YOU ARE THE SAME TODAY THAT YOU ARE GOING TO BE IN FIVE YEARS
FROM NOW EXCEPT FOR TWO THINGS: THE PEOPLE WITH WHOM YOU
ASSOCIATE AND THE BOOKS YOU READ.”—Charles Jones

We read theology as creatures called to participate in God’s work of creation; as partners in the ministry of reconciliation and as ministers charged to tend the sheep of God.

But the charge to join in God’s ongoing creative work comes with a reminder: We are creators not as God is Creator, for we create only as creatures. Our creative ministerial acts flow not from omnipotence or a never-ending store of Wisdom, but from the reality of our own ongoing creation. The replenishing of our resources that we seek when reading theology will not translate into effective ministry unless we ourselves are replenished. For theology books to get our creative theological juices flowing, we have to be created by them. And if we ask the reasonable question—how can we be created by a mere book?—it’s time to go back to remembering. Theology books are not only books, but vehicles through which we enter into relationship with the communion of saints. Theology books are not to be attacked, and finished, and evaluated, but participated in, and conversed with, and nibbled again and again.

When we read theology in this way, our reading becomes less a matter of “something I work into my schedule because it’s important” and more a reflection of who we are. Reading theology doesn’t make us theologians; we read theology because we are theologians. As those who are called to speak words about God, how can we do otherwise than remember our relationship to the saints, revel in our inheritance, converse openly with one another, and create out of our ongoing re-creation in Christ? However we go about the logistics of our reading, let us seek to live into the truth that theology books are God’s open-ended invitation to join in communion.

October stations …

SAMSUNGReading:

Listening

Link love

Leunig love

Leunig-iPad-The Lost Art

Leunig - Words for mystery

[Source: The Age]

School is No Place for a Reader

readingThis piece by Jennifer A. Franssen rang too many bells to not repost:

A perplexing fate awaits a reader in an elementary school. There is no place for this strange child in classroom, library or playground. Watching my daughter caught in this predicament I find myself troubled by the paradox of an institution charged with teaching children to read that seems unable to offer either welcome or nourishment to the ardent reader within its walls.

With the arrival of the child came the books. From the shelves of used bookshops, thrift stores, libraries and Oma’s house, from the Amazon and Indigo warehouses, out of wrapped packages at Christmas and birthdays the books arrived like an endless small town fair parade – floats, marchers, brass bands, clowns – some finer than others, in crowds bunched together or singly straggling, not well-marshalled, but hanging together somehow. Each met with narrowing, gleaming eyes – what will this one do? Mother Goose, the Grimms, Kipling, Seuss, Beatrix Potter, Edward Lear and the Ahlbergs. A perverse favourite known as “Josh and Jude” that put readers-aloud into hypnotic trance.

By the time the child started school she had taught herself to read. Joining the carnival, she kept company with her favourites as long and as often as she liked. She met Moomintroll and Mary Poppins, Dido Twite and Pippi Longstocking, Loki and Laura Ingalls, Borrowers and Bastables, Swallows and Amazons. Awake and dreaming she gazed on Asgard, Olympus, Canaan, and Camelot. She lived at Willoughby Chase, Villa Villekula, and Greene Knowe. She stopped reading only when the book was pried from her small hands.

The books from school came home in a Ziploc bag with a detailed letter explaining how her parents or caregiver should read with her at home every night for ten minutes. The first small ten-page book was called “Noise,” its recurring line “Yukka, dukka, yukka, dukka, ya, ya, ya.” There was one book to last the week. “Noise” was the beginning of a parade as well. All entries wore the same uniform, had the same number of performers and arrived at precise weekly intervals. The drill lasted ten months a year for four years. In December of the first year, the child said she wanted to get up off the kerb and go home.

I

At the parent-teacher interview, the child’s mother sits in a small chair, knees at her chest.

“I wondered about the reading,” says the mother. She holds up two books – The Borrowers, from home, and A Bad Day, from school. “Do you have any books more like this one she just finished reading? She’d love to bring something more like this home from school, and it might . . . well, make more sense than sending these other kinds of books home.”

“Sequential levelled readers” are making their punctual way to the house in the backpack, one every week. The teacher leans forward and says, mysteriously, “There is a difference between decoding and comprehension. Perhaps she is decoding that book, but she isn’t comprehending it.” Raised fingers twitch around his words.

II

From junior kindergarten to Grade 2, the child’s classes march linewise down the hall to the school library for a weekly visit. Pre-selected books in a box wait to be grabbed and checked out at the end of library period. The students file in and obediently sit down. The librarian dims the lights and presses play on the DVD player. The child reads in the dark as the videos play. The librarian confiscates the book. “Stop reading and watch this movie.”

III

During library period in grade 4 the librarian teaches the children computer skills: making their names appear in various colours and fonts on the screen and designing brochures. At the end of the period there are a few minutes to check out two books. Most children decline the offer. The child sees a book she wants high on the top shelf and asks the librarian to reach it for her. “No. You can’t have anything with a yellow sticker. They are too hard for you. You might be able to read it, but you wouldn’t understand it. Pick one of the books with green stickers.” Green stickers mark the spines of The Magic School BusThe Babysitters’ Club and The Pokemon Guidebook. The book the child has just finished reading, Oliver Twist, is not in the library at all.

IV

It is the first day of school in grade 3. All morning the child looks forward to recess. The pavement is still warm in September. She will make a pillow of her jacket and lean against the brick wall, reading. The bell rings. The teacher pulls her from the line on the march downstairs, “Give me the book. You have toplay outside during recess.”

That afternoon, the child tucks The Two Towers inside the sleeve of her jacket before she makes her way outside. Vigilant against unauthorised reading, the teacher looms in the stairwell. She puts her hand out. “Give me the book. That’s sneaky – hiding that book under your jacket.” Then, very slowly and clearly, “Don’t – be – sneaky.”

V

The teacher calls the child’s mother. “She has to stop talking in class about the books she’s reading. It’s very insensitive. She’s making other students feel bad.”

“They feel bad? Why? What is she saying?”

“She said that Harry Potter isn’t hard to read.”

* * *

School is no place for a reader. An object of suspicion and a source of discord in the classroom, the reading child is a threat to school harmony. Her act of reading is itself a provocation to authority. She must be stopped and made to play team games or gaze dumbly at a screen. The silent reader dangerously escapes supervision and the escape is most threatening when the content of the book is unknown.

But reading boosterism is everywhere. Notices in the hallways advertise the Book Fair. Slogans abound. “Reading Rocks!” “Reading is Cool!” “I ª 2 Read!” Oracular posters prophesy “TODAY A READER, TOMORROW A LEADER.” A spurious promise. Reading seems at least as likely to undermine a desire to “lead” as to encourage it. In the act the reader retreats from the world, makes herself absent from the forum. When I think of “readerly leadership” Tolstoy’s General Kutuzof comes to mind – observing, waiting, delaying action, frustrating the ambitions of courtiers and counsellors. His was a leadership prone to doubt, aware of the vagaries of chance, and the unpredictability and frequent futility of action – “When in doubt, don’t.”

The Book Fair tables are filled with things that aren’t books – pencil sharpeners, stamp art kits, novelty pens – and things that only look like books – video game character guides, Lego sets packaged in a book form, One Direction Fact Books, Power Rangers and Angry Birds advertisements disguised as “Early Readers.” The Book Fair is a hoax.

Not only does school present a shallow conception of what reading is, the experience of school offers almost no opportunity to read with pleasure. Readers need relatively quiet libraries and classrooms well-stocked with excellent books, tended by well-read teachers and librarians always ready to suggest a book or to read out loud with enthusiasm and familiarity with the story.

The judgement of teachers and librarians putting books in the hands of children should be formed through wide reading, experience and appreciation of written language. Instead a member of one school library committee in Ontario can say that he doesn’t see any difficulty at all in consolidating two school libraries into one, smaller, space. After all, he never has any of his students check a book out of the library. “What’s the point? They should be using Wikipedia.” His fellow member (two of this type, on one small school board committee!) concurs, “I have taken loads of courses over the years – upgrades, professional development, content courses – I have never needed to read a single book. No one reads books anymore. It’s all articles and PowerPoint.”

School libraries are filled with computers and the shelves are filled with dreck based on video games, cartoons and movies. It is said that this is the only way to tempt children away from screen to page, but these book impostors are created to foster and capitalize on an appetite for a product. Is it likely that “Barbie in a Mermaid Tale,” printed out as sixteen pages of dull and disjointed summary, will increase the odds of the child reading Alice in Wonderland or Swallows and Amazons? Whatever the market may cast before consumers, school should not be its enthusiastic accomplice in corrupting the taste and abilities of the young. We must know these things for what they are. The Pokemon Character Guide is not a book, it is a toy. Children ought to have toys, but they should also have books.

Chances for reading in school are too frequently squandered on something else – computer training (a ludicrous idea equivalent to teaching students how to operate a DVR or a microwave oven), fundraising, and, most egregiously, watching mainstream commercial movies and television programs. Why, if reading is universally agreed to be essential to learning, if we all “ª” reading, would teachers choose to fill those inevitable unplanned 50-minute periods with a movie rather than have students read to themselves, or hear a book read aloud? Every child in school lives in a world throbbing with noise and the constant flickering of video display. Why would a movie ever displace the chance of a quiet hour with a book in school?

Sitting in waiting rooms with children over the years I have had the same experience time and again: when I open a book and read out loud every child in the room wanders over. They stop complaining, leave behind their iPod or NintendoDS. Children are transfixed by books read aloud. They should hear books and poetry often. Even if we adults rarely, or never, speak well, through reading out loud our children will hear the cadence of beautiful language. Children will listen to words, will imitate purely for the pleasure it gives them. Even the youngest children in the schoolyard parrot insidious pop song lyrics like “So here’s my number, so call me maybe.” Surely this has less meaning for them than Jabberwocky? And unlike Carroll’s nonsense, the pop lyric is devoid of the invention and impact of language shaped by formal considerations.

I have read a great deal in these pages and elsewhere about the demise of a literary sensibility and the dwindling number of discerning and independent-minded readers, not only among the population at large, but also, and more inexcusably, among university students, professors, publishers and critics. We are reaping a crop sown in the soil of elementary school, fertilised with Scholastic pseudo-book order forms, literacy texts, and reading logs, and grown in the glass house of bookless classrooms and school libraries converted into computer labs.

Lest we think the Ziploc reading bag a local phenomenon, here is poet and children’s writer Michael Rosen on the British “reading scheme” (in his 2007 Patrick Hardy Lecture):

Schools want and need parents to be partners in the education of the children. . . . But in this matter of reading – how should parents be partners? When? Where? And with what? Is the parents’ role to be a matter of reading the book a child comes home with? More times than not, in more schools than not, I have a pretty strong feeling this book isn’t actually what I’d call a book. It’s more a kind of pamphlet or booklet that tells some strange inconsequential tale about a group of people who don’t say things in any kind of recognisable, nor indeed utterly fantastical way. They seem to talk mostly in short statements in the form of instructions, intentions and conclusions, ‘I am going out.’ –  ‘I am happy.’ Is this what the teachers mean by reading with your children?

MatildaThat fierce and erratic writer for children, Roald Dahl, created in his eponymous heroine Matilda the archetype of the avenging autodidact book lover. She discovers her uncanny powers in the rage provoked when her father tears her book apart. She first comes to the attention of the nightmarish headmistress Miss Trunchbull as the impossible child reader of Nicholas Nickleby, a book the Trunchbull praises for the liberality with which the “admirable” headmaster Wackford Squeers uses his stick on his pupils:

“A fine book, that. But I don’t suppose this bunch of morons we’ve got here will ever read it because by the look of them they are never going to learn to read any thing!”
“I’ve read it,” Matilda said quietly.

“Read what?”
Nicholas Nickleby, Miss Trunchbull.”
“You are lying to me madam!” the Trunchbull shouted, glaring at Matilda. “I doubt there is a single child in the entire school who has read that book, and here you are, an unhatched shrimp sitting in the lowest form there is, trying to tell me a whopping great lie like that! Why do you do it? You must take me for a fool! Do you take me for a fool, child?”

Dahl’s own schooldays were remembered bitterly in his autobiographical story, “Lucky Break.” He felt the only worthwhile learning in his long, expensive and brutal English boarding school education came during two and a half weekly hours spent with one Mrs O’Connor, who supervised the boys while the teachers made their Saturday morning outing to a country pub. To each boy, she gave a copy of her six-page list of the most significant works of English literature and she talked about and read aloud from one of these books during each of her visits. “And the result of this,” wrote Dahl, “was that by the age of thirteen I had become intensely aware of the vast heritage of literature that had been built up in England over the centuries. I also became an avid and insatiable reader of good writing.”

Matilda’s Mrs O’Connor appears as the village librarian, the kindly Mrs Phelps, whose very great service is to aid and abet Matilda’s precocious reading while rejecting the prohibitions and ignorant judgments routinely pronounced against child readers:

“Mr Hemingway says a lot of things I don’t understand,” Matilda said to [Mrs Phelps]. “Especially about men and women. But I loved it all the same. The way he tells it I feel I am right there on the spot watching it all happen.”
“A fine writer will always make you feel that,” Mrs Phelps said. “And don’t worry about the bits you can’t understand. Sit back and allow the words to wash around you, like music.”

Dahl gives us a vivid image of the misfit child reader in school and the antipathy she can provoke in teachers. He also shows us the ease with which a sympathetic adult can make a place for the child – Let her read books.

Why should school be such hostile territory for readers? Why this ambivalence toward reading?

In part, at least, a difficulty is thrown up by the imperative to pursue a “literacy agenda” – the teaching of reading as a functional skill and the concomitant concern about testing results has left little place in school for literature.

In the fulfilment of the literacy agenda – enabling functional and useful reading – it really doesn’t matter what books kids are reading, so long as they’re learning how to read. Levelled readers, The Magic TreehouseThe Ninjago Guidebook, Barbie movie derivatives – the texts are disposable and fundamentally interchangeable. Because it is easier to test and assess based on a system of sequential readers, because it is easier to trick students into picking up a book because it looks and sounds like a television programme, the shelves are stocked with such things in the name of efficiency. The way that literacy is pursued in schools has profound implications for books. Readers of CNQ – writers, editors, publishers, critics, booksellers – take heed. Children’s education in literature and, but more often or, literacy prepares the field on which you carry out all your endeavours. The literacy agenda has resulted in the near elimination of actual books from schools. Peter Hunt describes the situation in Children’s Literature: “[A] utilitarian culture sees the ability to read and write as paramount and looks for simple methods of achieving it. . . . The teaching methods . . . eliminate fiction on the overt grounds that it is too complex, and on the covert grounds that the unrestrained imagination is not politically malleable.”

Arguably, the literacy agenda is a limiting approach that ill serves all children in schools. It is inarguable that it ill serves those who are already readers.

Does it make any sense for the child who is reading fluently, far beyond her grade level, to spend hours in school learning “strategies” for sounding out words, completing phonics worksheets and reading basic introductory texts? Is it wise to have her sit in school for years waiting for a time when she will be taught, when she will be challenged and drawn deeper into her ability? What might be done for this reader? Teachers already have a great deal to do in addressing the many problems and challenges in the classroom, but does that absolve schools from doing what they might for readers?

Perhaps a talent for reading is more easily and readily overlooked than a talent for mathematics. Certainly it seems widely felt that identifying and fostering talent in math is essential to national economic success. Millions of dollars in government funding are available for Science Technology Engineering and Math (so-called “STEM”) initiatives from kindergarten to grade 12 with the goal of “developing the next generation of STEM leaders to fuel business innovation.” A plethora of specialist math and science programs are available in schools – Scientist in the School, Science Fairs, Math Olympiad, FIRST Robotics competitions, among others – programs that recognize the importance of students interacting with knowledgeable practitioners in the field.

In my experience, the usual approach to talented readers is to keep them busy with extra writing assignments – book reports, independent study projects and worksheets. Asking them to make predictions before, during and after reading, to explain how predictions help them understand their reading, to make connections between text and text, text and self, text and world. I instinctively dislike this approach. I might be persuaded that it is an attempt to break down the actual engagement with literature into teachable component “skills,” but it produces only a parody of thinking. And applied to a ten-page, 60-word text it is just nonsense.

The earliest version of writing about reading in school is the reading log. The kindergartener draws a face in the box beside the title to show how she felt about the book – the mouth curved up or down, or sliding across the face in a straight line, resisting, I think, the demand that she make a judgement. The reading log expands and continues through the grades and the smiling or frowning faces must become prompted opinions: “I liked/did not like this book because . . .” Virginia Woolf thought giving an opinion of a book forced the reader to “get outside that cloud of fertile, but unrealized, sensation which hangs about a reader, to solidify it, to sum up. . . . [The reader] says it is a great book or a bad book. Yet, as he knows, when he is content to read only, it is neither.” Doesn’t that “cloud of fertile but unrealized sensation” sound like childhood? Let it linger for the child reader.

In searching for something to offer young readers in school, perhaps we ought be guided by those most experienced and able of readers – writers.

Eudora Welty remembered in One Writer’s Beginnings her mother instructing the public librarian that the 9-year old girl had permission to read “any book she wants from the shelves, children or adult.” Eleanor Farjeon rejoiced in her family’s “Little Bookroom” – filled with the precious dust of ages – “a lucky dip for a child who had never been forbidden to handle anything between covers.”

Let the books work on the reader, and let the reader do work that will make her consider and become more familiar with the form of written language.

She might study Latin – a language not for conversation or writing, but for reading. Again, Welty: “It took Latin to thrust me into bona fide alliance with words in their true meaning. Learning Latin . . . fed my love for words upon words, words in continuation and modification, and the beautiful, sober, accretion of a sentence.” Our own John Metcalf regretted in his memoir not having learned the ancient languages from his elementary school years. This would indeed be a gift to the young reader. If this seems far-fetched consider that in the UK and the US the study of Latin in primary schools is growing rapidly through programmes developed by classics organizations outside the school system, and being met with eager appetite by students and parents.

KLMNOPShe might commit poetry to memory. Clive James wrote that what “we need to make explicit, for the benefit of our children if not ourselves, is that the future of the humanities as a common possession depends on the restoration of a simple, single ideal: getting poetry by heart.” Through memorizing she will acquire a feel for metre and might be taught to scan poetry and be introduced to a vocabulary of form that has the taste, delicious to the child reader, of the esoteric and encoded. In encouraging child readers to think about what they are reading perhaps we cannot do better than having them memorize and perform it. Reading a poem or play out loud is, in fact, a retelling and a work of understanding – one that does not require a reductive judgement.

If we can imagine a school that allows children to read widely for pleasure, spreading before them a large and varied collection of excellent books; that makes time for them to read and to listen; that instructs them in the form of words and written language; that fosters their imaginative engagement with reading and teaches them to resist facile judgements; if we keep before us Woolf’s idea of the reader, who –

must check the desire for learning at the outset; if knowledge sticks to him well and good, but to go in pursuit of it, to read on a system, to become a specialist or an authority, is very apt to kill . . . the more humane passion for pure and disinterested reading. . . . For the true reader is essentially young. He is a man of intense curiosity; of ideas; open-minded and communicative, to whom reading is more of the nature of brisk exercise in the open air than of sheltered study.

– then we will have begun to imagine a place for a reader in school.

On reading Moby Dick

Moby Dick

‘It is generally recognized that the canons of the ordinary novel do not apply to Moby-Dick. If we applied them we should be forced to put it down as an inept, occasionally powerful, but on the whole puzzling affair. This was the opinion up to two decades ago. During those decades we have discovered Moby-Dick to be a masterpiece. What caused this shift in perspective? To put it simply, we discovered how Moby-Dick should be read. We must read it not as if it were a novel but as if it were a myth. A novel is a tale. A myth is a disguised method of expressing mankind’s deepest terrors and longings. The myth uses the narrative form, and is often mistaken for true narrative. Once we feel the truth of this distinction, the greatness of Moby-Dick becomes manifest: we have learned how to read it’. – Clifton Faldman, in The Atlantic Monthly 172 (July, 1944), 90. [HT]

[Image: Clara Drummond, ‘Cape-Horner in a great Hurricane’. Oil on board, January 2012]

July stations …

Jayber CrowReading:

Listening:

Watching:

Reading Gillian Rose

There is something healing about happening across a volume so intimate, so heteroclite, so linguistically unwasteful and conceptually unselfish, and so intelligently mature – both philosophically and emotionally – that you feel not only that you are reading the world’s only available copy but also safe enough to weep in the author’s presence, to dwell in the broken middle, and then to emerge hopeful of being a better lover. It is, ironically, probably not the kind of book you would ever loan to anyone else, but you simply know that you will spend your remaining days both promoting and betraying its gift. Gillian Rose’s memoir, Love’s Work, is everything like that. Here’s a few lines on the book’s main theme – love:

‘However satisfying writing is – that mix of discipline and miracle, which leaves you in control, even when what appears on the page has emerged from regions beyond your control – it is a very poor substitute indeed for the joy and the agony of loving. Of there being someone who loves and desires you, and he glories in his love and desire, and you glory in his every-strange being, which comes up against you, and disappears, again and again, surprising you with difficulties and with bounty. To those this is the greatest loss, a loss for which there is no consolation. There can only be that twin passion – the passion of faith.

The more innocent I sound, the more enraged and invested I am.

In personal life, people have absolute power over each other, whereas in professional life, beyond the terms of the contract, people have authority, the power to make one another comply in ways which may be perceived as legitimate or illegitimate. In personal life, regardless of any covenant, one party may initiate a unilateral and fundamental change in terms of relating without renegotiating them, and further, refusing even to acknowledge the change. Imagine how a beloved child or dog would respond, if the Lover turned away. There is no democracy in any love relation: only mercy. To be at someone’s mercy is dialectical damage: they may be merciful and they may be merciless. Yet each party, woman, man, the child in each, and their child, is absolute power as well as absolute vulnerability. You may be less powerful than the whole world, but you are always more powerful than yourself.

Love is the submission of power …

To grow in love-ability is to accept the boundaries of oneself and others, while remaining vulnerable, woundable, around the bounds. Acknowledgement of conditionality is the only unconditionality of human love.

Exceptional, edgeless love effaces the risk of relation: that mix of exposure and reserve, of revelation and reticence. It commands the complete unveiling of the eyes, the transparency of the body. It denies that there is no love without power; that we are at the mercy of others and that we have others in our mercy. Existence is robbed of its weight, its gravity, when it is deprived of its agon’.

– Gillian Rose, Love’s Work (London: Chatto & Windus, 1995), 54–55, 98–99.

Italo Calvino on re-reading

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been doing quite a bit of re-reading lately. And then, with great delight and while engaging in some non-re-reading, I came across this wonderful little opening to Italo Calvino’s essay Why Read the Classics? (a book which I will probably re-read at some stage):

1. The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: ‘I’m rereading…’, never ‘I’m reading…’

At least this is the case with those people whom one presumes are ‘well read‘; it does not apply to the young, since they are at an age when their contact with the world, and with the classics which are part of that world, is important precisely because it is their first such contact.

The iterative prefix ‘re-’ in front of the verb ‘read’ can represent a small act of hypocrisy on the part of people ashamed to admit they have not read a famous book. To reassure them, all one need do is to point out that however wide-ranging any person’s formative reading may be, there will always be an enormous number of fundamental works that one has not read.

Put up your hand anyone who has read the whole of Herodotus and Thucydides. And what about Saint-Simon? and Cardinal Retz? Even the great cycles of nineteenth-century novels are more often mentioned than read. In France they start to read Balzac at school, and judging by the number of editions in circulation people apparently continue to read him long after the end of their schooldays. But if there were an official survey on Balzac’s popularity in Italy, I am afraid he would figure very low down the list. Fans of Dickens in Italy are a small elite who whenever they meet start to reminisce about characters and episodes as though talking of people they actually knew. When Michel Butor was teaching in the United States a number of yean ago, he became so tired of people asking him about Émile Zola, whom he had never read, that he made up his mind to read the whole cycle of Rougon-Macquart novels. He discovered that it was entirely different from how he had imagined it: it turned out to be a fabulous, mythological genealogy and cosmogony, which he then described in a brilliant article.

What this shows is that reading a great work for the first time when one is fully adult is an extraordinary pleasure, one which is very different (though it is impossible to say whether more or less pleasurable) from reading it in one’s youth. Youth endows every reading, as it does every experience, with a unique flavour and significance, whereas at a mature age one appreciates (or should appreciate) many more details, levels and meanings.

The Novel-Reading Disease

Every historian can testify that one of the real stimulants in their field of study is happening quite unexpectedly upon amusing choice morsels, even if they come via the help of Google Books. Here’s one that I happened across today on the dangers of engaging in that most womanly of contemporary vices – reading novels!

‘The Novel-Reading Disease’ and ‘Novel-Reading and Insanity’ both appeared in The Sabbath School Magazine, designed for the use of teachers, adult scholars, and parents (ed. William Keddie; Glasgow: John M’Callum, 1872), 34.

Critics, writing, Sudoku and some other interesting stuff …

Oscar Wilde, T. S. Eliot, Matthew Arnold, Randall Jarrell, Lionel Trilling and Walt Whitman.

The New York Times recently ran a fascinating multi-author series on criticism, and on why criticism (still) matters:

An interesting wee piece by Ed Park on The Art of the Very Long Sentence.

Richard Bauckham has a very witty piece on ‘Reconstructing the Pooh Community’ wherein he has a swipe at some of the speculative sociological readings of the NT that some in the guild are want to become obsessed with.

Ben Myers continues to enthral us with his own fiction, this time with ‘a short story’ called The Shakespearean Death.

Benedict Carey tells me why I’m a Sudoku- and crossword-junkie (and more recently a jigsaw-puzzle-junkie) in his article on Tracing the Spark of Creative Problem-Solving.

Michael Jinkins posts some Nominees for Today’s Niebuhr.

The latest edition of the Journal of Reformed Theology is out. It includes articles by David P. Henreckson (‘Possessing Heaven in Our Head: A Reformed Reading of Incarnational Ascent in Kathryn Tanner’, pp. 171–184), Paul Helm (‘Reformed Thought on Freedom’, pp. 185–207) and Meine Veldman (‘Secrets of Moltmann’s Tacit Tradition: Via Covenant Theology to Promise Theology’, pp. 208–239).

‘Read the old …’

Ben Myers’ latest post, Reading and Progress (which is a wonderful follow-up to his post on writing), reminded me of CS Lewis’ fine ‘Introduction’ to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation: De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, and particularly of Lewis’ advice to ‘read the old’:

‘There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why – the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” – lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

I myself was first led into reading the Christian classics, almost accidentally, as a result of my English studies. Some, such as Hooker, Herbert, Traherne, Taylor and Bunyan, I read because they are themselves great English writers; others, such as Boethius, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Dante, because they were “influences.” George Macdonald I had found for myself at the age of sixteen and never wavered in my allegiance, though I tried for a long time to ignore his Christianity. They are, you will note, a mixed bag, representative of many Churches, climates and ages. And that brings me to yet another reason for reading them. The divisions of Christendom are undeniable and are by some of these writers most fiercely expressed. But if any man is tempted to think – as one might be tempted who read only con- temporaries – that “Christianity” is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all, he can learn beyond all doubt, by stepping out of his own century, that this is not so. Measured against the ages “mere Christianity” turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible. I know it, indeed, to my cost. In the days when I still hated Christianity, I learned to recognise, like some all too familiar smell, that almost unvarying something which met me, now in Puritan Bunyan, now in Anglican Hooker, now in Thomist Dante. It was there (honeyed and floral) in Francois de Sales; it was there (grave and homely) in Spenser and Walton; it was there (grim but manful) in Pascal and Johnson; there again, with a mild, frightening, Paradisial flavour, in Vaughan and Boehme and Traherne. In the urban sobriety of the eighteenth century one was not safe – Law and Butler were two lions in the path. The supposed “Paganism” of the Elizabethans could not keep it out; it lay in wait where a man might have supposed himself safest, in the very centre of The Faerie Queene and the Arcadia. It was, of course, varied; and yet – after all – so unmistakably the same; recognisable, not to be evaded, the odour which is death to us until we allow it to become life: “An air that kills From yon far country blows.”

We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity. I know, for I saw it; and well our enemies know it. That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age. It is not enough, but it is more than you had thought till then. Once you are well soaked in it, if you then venture to speak, you will have an amusing experience. You will be thought a Papist when you are actually reproducing Bunyan, a Pantheist when you are quoting Aquinas, and so forth. For you have now got on to the great level viaduct which crosses the ages and which looks so high from the valleys, so low from the mountains, so narrow compared with the swamps, and so broad compared with the sheep-tracks …’.

– C.S. Lewis, ‘Introduction’ in On the Incarnation: the treatise De incarnatione Verbi Dei (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993), 3–7.

Stretching the Zonules: 100 years ago today, and more recent exploits

‘The question of providing religious services for summer holiday-makers in the country was before the Dunedin Presbytery at its meeting yesterday in relation, particularly, to the growing popularity of Warrington and contiguous seaside resorts.

A report submitted recommended that a tent be procured at Warrington, but this proposal did not seem to find general favour although the point has not been settled, the matter having been referred to a small committee.

The Rev. J. Chisholm said it seemed to him that more attention should be given to these seaside resorts in the future.

The churches were almost empty for a few weeks in the year, and unless more attention were paid to the young people they would form habits which would doubtless be confirmed, and that would be to the injury of their church.

The Rev. R. Fairmaid brought the matter nearer home than the northern coast by referring to Broad Bay and the Peninsula.

A young man had told him that a kind of pagan life was lived thereby the young people who gathered for week ends.

This was a deplorable condition from the moral point of view, and, so far as he understood, there was no service provided by their people in these quarters.

The committee appointed could perhaps attend to this matter, too.

It was pointed out by the Rev. W. Scorgie, in concluding the discussion, that there was a Methodist Church at Broad Bay and a Presbyterian Church at Portobello’.

[First published in the Otago Daily Times on 7 September 1910. Reprinted in today’s ODT]

Also, there’s some good reading around the traps at the moment:

  • William Cavanaugh on Christopher Hitchens and the myth of religious violence.
  • Matthew Bruce reviews Matthias Gockel’s Barth and Schleiermacher on the Doctrine of Election. [BTW: my own review of this book is available here].
  • Richard L. Floyd shares an appreciation of Donald Bloesch.
  • Kim Fabricius shares a wonderful Call to Worship.
  • Steve Biddulph on fatherhood.
  • Robert Fisk on ‘honour’ killings and on the pain of satisfying family ‘honour’.
  • Ben Myers shares a note on misreading.
  • Robin Parry (shamelessly) plugs a forthcoming book on universalism: “All Shall Be Well”: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann.
  • Luther is still bugging the locals.
  • Simon Holt shares a nice prayer from Ken Thompson about pigeon holes, compartments, and other places.
  • And Ken MacLeod offers a brilliant solution for distracted writers: ‘One of the major problems for writers is that the machine we use to write is connected to the biggest engine of distraction ever invented. One can always disconnect, of course – there’s even software that locks out the internet and email for selected periods – or use a separate, isolated computer, but I think something more elegant as well as radical is needed. What I’m thinking of is some purely mechanical device, that took the basic QWERTY keyboard with Shift and Return keys and so on, but with each key attached to an arrangement of levers connected to a physical representation of the given letter or punctuation mark. These in turn would strike through some ink-delivery system – perhaps, though I’m reaching a bit here, a sort of tape of cloth mounted on reels – onto separate sheets of paper, fed through some kind of rubber roller (similar to that on a printer) one by one. The Return key would have to be replaced by a manual device, to literally ‘return’ the roller at the end of each line. Tedious, but most writers could do with more exercise anyway. Corrections and changes would be awkward, it’s true, but a glance at any word processor programme gives the answer: the completed sheets could be, physically, cut and pasted’.

BTW: I haven’t abandoned my series on the cost and grace of parish ministry. If all goes to plan, I’ll be back posting on it this week.

You are where you read

Internet‘Too much internet usage fragments the brain and dissipates concentration so that after a while, one’s ability to spend long, focused hours immersed in a single subject becomes blunted. Information comes pre-digested in small pieces, one grazes on endless ready meals and snacks of the mind, and the result is mental malnutrition. The internet can also have a pernicious influence on reading because it is full of book-related gossip and chatter on which it is fatally easy to waste time that should be spent actualy paying close attention to the books themselves, whether writing them or reading them’. – Susan Hill, Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home (London: Profile Books, 2009), 2.

Who’s buying this?

[HT: Jim Gordon and Amazon Reader]

Reading Twentieth-Century Reformed & Presbyterian Thought

Man readingSome months back, I posted a list of suggested novels, plays and collections of poetry that I thought theology students and pastors ought to read, and in response received a number of excellent additional suggestions. Thanks heaps to those who offered such! Now, I am putting together a wee course on twentieth-century Reformed & Presbyterian thought for interns training for ordained pastoral ministry, part of which means offering some pre-reading suggestions. So far I’m considering selections from some of the following:

I’m also considering some of the following essays:

Am I missing anything really obvious here, particularly stuff that would be important for Presbyterian ordinands to engage with? Keep in mind that this is only one module of seven in an entire course dedicated to Presbyterian and Reformed studies, and that there is a separate module that attends to key New Zealand figures.

So what other texts ought I consider? And – to make it broader – if you’re a Pressie/Reformed minister, or even one from some lesser tribe, what twentieth-century reformed theology do you wish you had read when you were training?

Your Baby Can Read

Trevor Cairney has posted a helpful (and encouraging) review of the ‘Your Baby Can Read!’ program developed by Dr Robert Titzer. While I was unaware of Titzer’s thesis, the concerns Trevor outlines make real sense to me. As I noted in a comment on his post, I spend all day with a 2-year-old. We cook, play, dance, listen to music, read, count the dongs on the grandfather clock, paint, sort through food, and eat leaves in the garden, among other things. It’s learning all the way, and the resultant growth in her is obvious. I can’t imagine how spending an hour a day sitting in front of a TV (which she is not interested in at all) watching DVD’s can compare with sitting on dad’s knee reading, or kicking a football or counting flower buds in the garden, or learning to share toys and attention with friends. I’m keen to hear from others who may have had experience with Titzer’s program, and whether or not their experiences echo any of Trevor’s concerns.

On choosing books

Trevor has posted a helpful piece on The challenges of choosing books for children.

What criteria do you use for selecting books for your kids?

Sure we need to ask about reading levels, enjoyment and appropriate content regarding the child’s development. I also want to be asking questions about …

  • How does this book foster my child’s imagination?
  • Does this book support or undermine some of the values I’m trying to instill in her?
  • Is the artwork good, beautiful and true?
  • Is this a book that she might enjoy reading on their own?
  • Will I enjoy it? Will I look forward to reading it the 30th time?

What criteria do you use for selecting books for your kids?

How children’s books evolved from morals to madcap fun

During the 18th century and for much of the 19th, there wasn’t a whole lot of American literature for children. And when children’s books did get published, they weren’t designed for pleasure. Books were for schooling or for teaching religious and moral lessons—with properly serious illustrations chaperoning the text.

In what became the United States, this somber mode continued through the American Civil War. And then it went poof, dispelled by artists who became children’s illustrators by happenstance. By the end of the 19th century, the art in kids’ books had become madcap and zany and irreverent. From the postwar period, one can trace the imagery and style that are familiar from the classics of one’s own childhood.

(HT: Slate)

Conversations with Poppi about God: A Review

Robert W. Jenson & Solveig Lucia Gold, Conversations with Poppi about God: An Eight-Year-Old and Her Theologian Grandfather Trade Questions (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006). 158 pages. ISBN: 97815874321613. Review copy courtesy of Brazos Press.

When was the last time you had a conversation about baptism, temptation, purgatory, time, economics, the Nicene Creed, creation, the Trinity, Christmas, metaphysics, church calendars, evil, indulgences, the Holy Spirit, liturgy, Lucifer, hamsters, a ‘really stupid’ bishop, the disestablishment of the Roman Church, the imago Dei, and a host of other things, all with the same person? When was the last time you did so with a person who just happens to be a world-renowned Lutheran, and ecumenical, theologian? When was the last time you did so with an eight-year-old who knows more about Dante than not a few philosophy undergrads?

In this remarkable book, we are invited to eavesdrop on a spontaneous and unscripted conversation between elementary schoolgirl Solveig Lucia Gold and her septuagenarian grandfather affectionately called ‘Poppi’, more formally known as the Reverend Canon Professor Dr. D. Robert W. Jenson, B.A., B.D., M.A., D.Theol., D.H.L., DD.

The book comprises the verbatim transcripts – with minor editing of ‘Ums’, ‘Well, buts …’ and ‘You knows…’, etc – of conversations recorded on a Radio Shack cassette recorder over a series of weekends in which Solveig visited her grandparents (‘Poppi’ and ‘Mimi’) in Princeton. After each session, Mimi typed it up.

The authors invite us to read their book ‘as you would a Platonic dialogue, though in this one, the role of Socrates goes back and forth’ (p. 10). Their discussion is more wide-ranging than most systematic theologies, and is filled with wit, warmth and wisdom.

Time for an example:

Solveig: How can God pick who goes to heaven or hell?

Poppi: By looking at Jesus, who loves you, Solveig.

Solveig: Can you show me?

Poppi: One way of saying what happened with Jesus is that Jesus so attached himself to you that if God the Father wants his Son, Jesus, back, he is stuck with you too. Which is how he picks you. (p. 20)

The young Episcopalian and her ‘sort of half Anglican and half Lutheran’ (p. 70) Poppi return to some themes a number of times over the weekends. One such theme that offers some of the book’s richest insights concerns the Spirit, or ‘God’s liveliness’ (p. 38), as the good Professor Dr Poppi likes to remind his granddaughter. Solveig tries on more than one occasion to argue a case that the second and third articles in the Creed ought to be reversed not only because ‘all of us share in the Spirit’ (Father and Son included), but also because that’s how you cross yourself. Poppi agrees, ‘Father, Spirit, Son is probably a better arrangement’ (p. 146). The Spirit is also ‘God’s own future that he is looking forward to’ (p. 42). They compare God’s liveliness with Santa Claus who is ‘sort of like a messenger from the Holy Spirit – in a way’ (p. 100), before coming to discern the spirits to see if they are from God, for whom to have Spirit means that he ‘doesn’t stay shut up in himself … but that the goodness and mercy – and wrath, when it comes to that – that is in God blows out from him to hit you and me. And that means that just like your spirit is yours and not mine, even though your spirit effects me, so God’s Spirit is his and not a spirit like Santa Claus’ (p. 101).

In between laughs, they talk about what it is about Holy Communion – Solveig’s ‘favourite part of going to church’ because she gets to ‘stretch and walk around a little’ (p. 31) – that means that ‘the wine should be the very best’ (p. 33) and that dissolvable bread should be banned. The meal should be appetising, and not like those baptisms ‘when they just dribble a couple of drops on the baby’ (p. 34). They also talk about a confirmation service led by ‘this weird bishop guy’ who is ‘really stupid’ (p. 34).

While I’m trying to resist the temptation to share every gem in the book (and there are lots), allow me one more, this time on heaven, purgatory, and hell:

Solveig: Do you think of where you might go after you die as two places or three places? I think of it as three places.

Poppi: What three is that?

Solveig: Heaven, purgatory, and hell.

Poppi: So you hold to the doctrine of purgatory?

Solveig: Yes.

Poppi: You know that is very controversial.

Solveig: Why? It’s in Dante, isn’t it?

Poppi: Well, it’s in Dante, yes. But of course, Dante isn’t exactly in the Bible.

Solveig: No. But he’s still …

Poppi: The thing about purgatory is that it’s a very reasonable idea. It’s just that we don’t know if it is true.

Solveig: Except … Maybe God thinks that you should just go to two places. If you are bad, he has no patience with you at all, and he will just sort you to go to heaven or hell. I think that is reasonable enough.

Poppi: That God is impatient?

Solveig: Yes.

Poppi: That’s where I think the notion of purgatory is reasonable. I don’t think the Bible talks about God’s being impatient in quite that way.

Solveig: If he isn’t impatient, maybe he doesn’t want us to spend time thinking about where we should go.

Poppi: You know that plate that your mother and father gave us that hangs on the wall in the dining room?

Solveig: Yes.

Poppi: Remember what it says on it?

Solveig: I don’t remember what it says.

Poppi: It says, ‘I desire not the death of the wicked.’

Solveig: ‘As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.’

Poppi: Right. So the biblical God takes no pleasure in sending people to hell, and that’s why I think that purgatory is a reasonable idea. The problem is we don’t have any way of knowing whether the purgatory idea is true or not.

Solveig: It’s just Dante’s idea.

Poppi: Well, it was older than Dante.

Solveig: It was?

Poppi: Yes.

Solveig: Yes. Well, see, I think of Dante as a theologian, in a way.

Poppi: He was a very great theologian.

Solveig: Yeah, I know. I’m saying that he kind of liked to make up things he wasn’t quite sure about, if you know what I mean.

The delightful exchanges in this album offer us a model of how good theological dialogue can and should take place: with mutual respect and humility which delights in both the giving and the receiving; with an eye on the scripture, an eye on the tradition, and an eye on the world (for those who possess at least three eyes); and within an environment of safety in which no idea is too whacky and no avenue of enquiry cut off prematurely.

Carl Braaten’s words regarding this book are worth repeating,

Robert Jenson has created a new medium, with his granddaughter Solveig, to teach the basics of the Christian faith. Just as Martin Luther wrote his Small Catechism for children, this book of conversations covers the beliefs and practices of the Christian church – among them the commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the sacraments – in a way that parents, regardless of their denomination, can confidently read and discuss with their children. Robert Jenson has translated the core convictions of his two volumes of Systematic Theology into simple truths that his eight-year-old grandchild can understand in the course of their unrehearsed and lively conversations. If you want to know what a sophisticated theologian really believes, listen to him explain the mysteries of the Christian faith to a child in simple terms without being simplistic.

Holiday Reading

I will be taking a break from blogging over the next fortnight because I’ll be away enjoying what will probably be my last wee break for a while. I leave my desk with not only a thesis to keep working on (with its related reading), but also a stack of books to read and review. Among the latter (some of which will accompany me) are the following:

Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology, by Gregory A. Boyd and Paul Rhodes Eddy

An Introduction to Torrance Theology: Discovering the Incarnate Saviour, edited by Gerrit Scott Dawson.

On Being the Church of Jesus Christ in Tumultuous Times, by Joe R. Jones

Protestant Nonconformist Texts: The Nineteenth Century, edited by R. Tudor Jones, David W. Bebbington, and Alan Ruston

Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue, by William A. Dyrness

What Does It Mean to Be Saved?: Broadening Evangelical Horizons of Salvation, edited by John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Review: Peter Baylies, The Stay-at-Home Dad Handbook

I’ve just finished reading Peter Baylies’ The Stay-at-Home Dad Handbook. Like every book on fathering, this one’s fairly hit and miss in terms of what I found most useful.

Baylies largely treats fathering as a ‘career move’, and the book is shaped to that end – that is, helping fathers enjoy their ‘new career’. While it’s not the way that I like to think of fathering, there are strengths in this (that will no doubt appeal to other personality types), such as helping new father’s approach their responsibilities thoughtfully, purposely and seriously. Adversely, although the book is clearly set out, and somewhat ‘practical’ (including a somewhat useful appendix of resources), it often lacks the personal warmth, and focus on the parent-child relationship, of many parenting books.

Whether it is just cultural or personality or values (and I suspect it’s all three and more), I found Baylies’ book just too basic. Although much of the ground that he covers is useful (the section on playgroups and networking with others for example), it is difficult to believe that most fathers have not thought through most, if not all, of the issues he raises. If you’re after a ‘Fathering 101’ handbook, this one may well be what you are looking for, though it wouldn’t be my first choice. If you feel that you could skip ‘Fathering 101′ and move up a grade or two, you would be better served to look elsewhere.

One of the strengths of the book, however, is that Baylies has clearly spent much time listening to other fathers. Although at times I was left wondering if he has spent too much time doing this – as the inclusion of copious fathering stories betrays – it does give the book a sort of common-sense, communal wisdom (or ignorance?) feel. Of course, it’s easy enough to navigate your way around the material and jump to the next section if you want.

In talking to at-home dads over the last ten years, Baylies has asked dads what they have changed for themselves that made for a more stress-free family. Here are ten useful things that he lists (pp. 152-3) that one can do to make the household a more pleasant environment:

1. Talk to them and listen to them. When your kids know you are listening to them, it makes them realize their input matters, and gives them a feeling of control and self-worth.

2. Treat them with respect. When you respect them, they will respect you back.

3. Give a lot of hugs and kisses. A feeling of being loved gives your kids a feeling of self-confidence.

4. Show you love your spouse in front of your kids. Seeing Mum and Dad show affection toward each other gives them two role models.

5. Allow kids to be self-reliant. Let them try things for themselves, no matter how foolish it may seem to you (provided it’s safe). For example, my kids liked to do experiments by mixing water with several objects and putting it in the freezer to see what happens. They couldn’t wait to see what it would look like the following day. After a while, when we trusted them with the toaster, we encouraged them to make toast. (My oldest son is twelve and is making a pretty good ham and cheese omelet now.)

6. Communicate with your spouse and agree on parenting styles. To avoid a public argument and mixed messages, make sure you and your wife agree on your children’s behavior.

7. Get to know your kids’ friends. As your children get older and a few neighborhood kids start to visit, listen to them and learn what they are like and how mature they are. This will give you better judgment when they start asking to do more outside the house.

8. Don’t expect too much, but don’t be a pushover. Pick your battles: some disagreements may not be worth the argument. For example, if your children want to walk to school without a raincoat, let them do it, and see if the consequences will help
them make a better decision next time. But if you have a serious issue, stand by it.

9. Avoid yelling at them at all costs. Always discipline with reason, not fear. When you don’t like a decision or action your children are making, calmly ask them why they are making the decision. Have them explain what might happen; sometimes they will see why you might be right.

10. Create as much adventure as possible for your kids. Creating adventure, although it may not be a popular pastime for the mums, is one way that many at-home dads deal with burnout. This does not mean taking the kids skydiving or white water rafting. It is amazing what adventures you can find within a few blocks of your house. In fact, many dads find that every time they take their children out of the house it can be an adventure.