Old Books Are Good For Your Soul

I grew up in imbibing white evangelical American theology.  It was in the air I breathed.  There is much good in that air.  But there is also much that is questionable.  Like others, there came a time in my life when I began to ask questions.  Some questions were small (How come so much contemporary worship music is focused on me and my feelings?) and others were big (Is God just a superman in the sky ready to destroy whomever crosses him?).

It is possible when such questions are asked to reject Christianity as a whole.  If all you see is one form of Christianity (white evangelical American in my case) and you notice blindspots and problems, the easiest path is walking away.

I am grateful that I realized that Christianity is far larger, deeper, more complex (though perhaps also more simple) than the white evangelical variety.  This realization came to me in numerous ways, one of which was meeting Christians from the past through reading old books.  CS Lewis writes about the importance of old books in an essay in God in the Dock:

“It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another 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 old books” (219)

We all have blind spots and biases.  This is why it is vital to break out of the echo chamber and listen to voices that do not hold yours same background and presuppositions.  One way to do this is to read old books that have stood the test of time.  As Lewis says in the quote above, books from other eras do not share the biases of our time so they can help us see what we may not see and correct what needs to be corrected.  Lewis goes on to say:

“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” (220).

Again, reading books of the past is not magic.  They were written by people as messed up as we are.  Not everything in these books is right and true.  But they do have much to teach us because, again, they do not share our blindspots.  I found loads of beauty and truth in meeting old Christians in their books.  Of course, I found some things that were questionable.  This helped me realize that there is both beauty and blindspots in all forms of faith, even the form I grew up in.

How to go about reading old books?  They are not easy, that’s for sure.  Lewis suggests the following:

“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” (218)

Not bad advice.  I’d suggest starting with someone like CS Lewis himself.

 

 

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Seeing the Propaganda and Breaking Out of the Echo Chamber

Most of us spend time with people who think like we do and we read or watch news that affirms our understanding of things.  This is called living in an echo chamber.  It gets to the point that we feel unable to relate to the other side, because the other side is a mystery.  After all, everyone we know thinks like we do (and we know lots of smart people, of course!).  When we encounter people outside our echo chamber we don’t bother with dialogue and debate but go right for power and silencing.  This is dangerous because in a world where everything is a battle and there are only winners or losers, we are on a track to totalitarianism.

Pessimistic? Maybe.  But look at social media.

I don’t have a lot of solutions outside basic things: listen to people with different opinions, be humble and know you have a lot to learn.  One solution is simply reading.  You might start with a recent book called On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder.  In this book he talks about tyrannies in the twentieth century and steps to take to avoid and oppose them.  One of the primary steps is to read:

Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable, but the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we can draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else. When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework. To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading. So get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books. The characters in Orwell’s and Bradbury’s books could not do this—but we still can…

What to read? Any good novel enlivens our ability to think about ambiguous situations and judge the intentions of others. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being might suit our moment. Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here is perhaps not a great work of art; Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is better. One novel known by millions of young Americans that offers an account of tyranny and resistance is J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. If you or your friends or your children did not read it that way the first time, then it bears reading again

I love that Snyder mentions Harry Potter as a book to read.  In essence, you can almost read anything.  But if you want to go a bit deeper than Harry Potter, perhaps try Propaganda by Jacques Ellul.  While I cannot say I’ve read all the best books on propaganda, I can say I’ve read the definitive one (at least, that’s what perusing lists of books on propaganda tells me).  Ellul argues some surprising things, such as that it is the most educated who are most susceptible to propaganda.  Perhaps the best quote in the book (here, I’ll save you a few bucks) is this one:

“Those who read the press of their group and listen to the radio of their group are constantly reinforced in their allegiance. They learn more and more that their group is right, that its actions are justified; thus their beliefs are strengthened. At the same time, such propaganda contains elements of criticism and refutation of other groups, which will never be read or heard by a member of another group…This double foray on the part of propaganda, proving the excellence of one’s own group and the evilness of the others, produces an increasingly stringent partitioning of our society…Thus we see before our eyes how a world of closed minds establishes itself, a world in which everybody talks to himself, everybody constantly views his own certainty about himself and the wrongs done him by the Others – a world in which nobody listens to anybody else, everybody talks and nobody listens”

If you only watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh or if you only listen to MSNBC and listen to whomever the liberal equivalent of Rush Limbaugh is, you’re in the echo chamber.

Now, I admit I am guilty of this.  It is easier to listen to whatever agrees with you, it is fun to be affirmed.  It takes work.  I get a lot of my news from Twitter and I’ve made an effort to follow people on the Left (Shaun King) and the Right (Ben Shapiro).  I find myself agreeing with all of them at times, and disagreeing.

If you want a simpler book to read, Frank Lunz’s Words that Work talks about the power of words.  He has worked on numerous political campaigns and it is amazing to see how the right catchphrase can drive a movement (Hope and Change, Make America Great Again).  Finally, if you want to learn from history, read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.  It is LONG but fantastic as you see how Hitler rose to power, legally, and quickly dismantled freedoms.

After that, perhaps join me in the future in reading The Gulag Archipelego which tells the story of the Communist owork camps.  These two stories, of Hitler and Stalin’s tyrannies, must never be far from our mind.

 

Praying and Working (Thoughts on Prayer Inspired by CS Lewis)

Nearly everyone prays at some point.  Christians, Muslims, Jews and probably even skeptics may ask the heavens or inquire of the great beyond.  Those of us who are Christians address God, our loving Father and Divine Parent, in the name of Jesus Christ in the strength of the Holy Spirit (we pray in Trinity…but that’s another story).

Yet, what is prayer?  Does it affect God?  If God is infinite and all powerful, isn’t God just going to do whatever He, or She, wants?  This is a big question.  Its one of those questions that everyone has an answer for which in reality means no one has an answer for.

CS Lewis addresses this question in an essay found in his book God in the Dock:

“We know that we can act and that our actions produce results.  Everyone who believes in God must therefore admit (quite apart from the question of prayer) that God has not chosen to write the whole of history with His own hand.  Most of the events that go on in the universe are indeed out of our control, but not all.  It is like a play in which the scene and the general outline of the story is fixed by the author, but certain minor details are left for the actors to improvise.  It may be a mystery why He should have allowed us to cause real events at all; but it is no odder that He should allow us to cause them by praying than by any other method” (106)

In other words, just as our actions make a difference so to do our prayers impact real events.  It may be a mystery how it works, but for Lewis, the relationship of God and humanity means prayer, or lackthereof, does make a difference:

“He (God) made the matter of the universe such that we can (in those limits) do things to it; that is why we can wash our own hands and feed or murder our fellow creatures.  Similarly, He made His own plan or plot of history such that it admits a certain amount of free play and can be modified in response to our prayers” (106)

Lewis goes on to address the difference between prayer and work.  He basically says that we humans possess a good deal of power in our work, God has given us freedom.  When it comes to prayer, God has “discretionary power”.  To use an example, you can choose to harm another person and act to make it happen and God, as far as we know, will not intervene to stop you.  But if you pray to kill another person, God will not make it happen.

“You cannot be sure of a good harvest whatever you do to a field. But you can be sure that if you pull up one week that one weed will no longer be there.  You can be sure that if you drink more than a certain amount of alcohol you will ruin your health or that f you go on for a few centuries more wasting the resources of the planet on wars and luxuries you will shorten the life of the whole human race.  The kind of causality we exercise by work is, so to speak, divinely guaranteed, and therefore ruthless.  By it we are free to do ourselves as much harm as we please.  But the kind which we exercise by prayer is not like that; God has left himself a discretionary power. Had He not done so, prayer would be an activity too dangerous for man and we should have the horrible state of things envisaged by Juvenal: ‘Enormous prayers which Heaven in anger grants'” (107)

My take away from Lewis is simple: Pray.  Do not choose between Prayer and Work because both make a difference.  Work hard to do good and pray hard for good to be done.

There’s lots more that could be said  If you’re interested, my friend Tim just preached a sermon on prayer this past week: Negotiating With God.  Give it a listen.  I’ve posted on prayer in the past, here are two that might be helpful.

Spiritual Disciplines: Prayer and Fasting

Thoughts on Prayer – Bonhoeffer’s Life Together

Finally, if you’re into books you could always try Lewis’ Letters To Malcolm on Prayer or Philip Yancey’s Prayer or Andrew Murray’s With Christ in the School of Prayer.  Of course, there’s the book of Psalms in the Bible which is filled with prayer.

And there’s the act of praying.  Since prayer is not about reading and learning but mostly about doing.

 

 

Politics, Parties, Means and Ends: A Political Post Inspired by CS Lewis (yes, politics, but its okay)

I am slowly working through God in the Dock, a collection of some of CS Lewis’ essays, and a few days ago read the essay “Meditation on the Third Commandment.”  In this essay, Lewis discusses the desirability of a Christian political party.  I’m not sure if this was something people wanted in mid-century Britain, but the idea would be that all Christians come together in one, explicitly Christian, political party.  Lewis begins by discussing ends, or goals, and means:

“The Christian Party must either confine itself to stating what ends are desirable and what means are lawful, or else it must go further and select from among the lawful means those which it deems possible and efficacious and give to these its practical support.  If it chooses the first alternative, it will not be a political party.  Nearly all parties agree in professing ends which we admit to be desirable – security, a living wage, and the best adjustment between the claims of order and freedom.  What distinguishes one party from another is the championship of means.”

Lewis assumes that all Christians agree on the ends.  I am sure Christians do not agree on every end, but I will be optimistic and say that for the most part, agreeing on the goals remains true today.  That said, part of the challenge with having political discussion is that our political climate is so divided that we have trouble assuming the best of the other.  We righteously assume that only our side cares for people having enough to eat or decent housing or freedom or whatever.

Lewis shines the light on something important that can only help our political dialogue.  If we are going to argue politics, we should pause before the yelling starts and figure out if we are discussing means or ends.  For example, and Lewis alludes to this one, but I assume all Christians agree that the goal is for all people who work to make a living wage.  How to get here is the debate: do we increase the minimum wage? Allow competition in the market to drive up wages?  Those are discussions where Christians may agree, and those are discussions on means to the same end.

Lewis is writing this essay to discuss whether there should be a “Christian” political party.  He thinks it is a bad idea, arguing that putting all the Christians join in one party would end up backfiring.  This is because Christians are naturally going to disagree on the means, even while agreeing on the end.  Such disagreement will lead some to leave the party.  Then the so-called Christian party will include only one sort of means to the end, and this party will think they are the only Christians:

“But there will be a real, and most disastrous, novelty.  It will e not simply a part of Christendom, but a part claiming to be the whole.  By the mere act of calling itself the Christian party, it implicitly accuses all Christians who do not join it of apostasy and betrayal”

A Christian party that not only agrees on goals but is not open to more than one idea on how to reach those goals will do more harm than good.  Lewis imagines worse can happen than just some Christians leaving the party:

“The demon inherent in every party is at all times ready enough to disguise himself as the Holy Ghost; the formation of a Christian Party means handing over to him the most efficient make up we can find. And when once the disguise has succeeded, his commands will presently be taken to abrogate all moral laws and to justify whatever the unbelieving allies of the ‘Christian Party’ wish to do. If ever Christian men can be brought to think treachery and murder the lawful means of establishing the regime they desire, and faked trials, religious persecution and organized hooliganism the lawful means of maintaining it, it will surely be by just such a process as this.”

When one party is baptized as Christian, Lewis fears they won’t have to worry so much about actually seeking a Christian ethic.  They can even go along with the less than Christian elements in the party who are now emboldened by their holiness. Assured they are correct, being in the only “Christian party” after all, they will commit all sorts of crimes in the name of the good.

This essay reminds me that we need Christians in different political parties.  Not all political parties, for some parties represent ideas (ends) far beyond anything relating to a Christian ethic (Nazis, Marxists).  But in America, we need Christians in the Democrat and Republican parties.

We need Christians who remind us that individual freedom is vital to a functioning society and that government will encroach on that freedom, as it has done since forever. 

And we need Christians to remind us that individuals are fallen and will take advantage of their fellow men and women so we need institutions, including government, to work to keep the peace and ensure fairness.

America, like any nation with Christians in it, can only benefit from Christians speaking from Christian principles – primarily humanity as created in God’s image and broken by sin – in both the Democrat and Republican parties.  Hopefully, Christians in those parties can also lead the way in talking to one another – which requires recognizing the other might have something good, humility is also a Christian virtue.

At this point in our country, just talking to people convinced of different political means may be the place to start.

 

The True Myth and Challenge of Belief

871832The Christian faith has a lot in common with other religions.  We find story after story of dying and rising gods in ancient literature.  Isn’t the story of Jesus just another mythical story?

Well, yes.  And no.

CS Lewis writes in his essay “Myth Became Fact” (found in the book God in the Dock):

Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth.  The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact.  The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens – at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical person crucified it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate.  I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from religion they professed.  To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary then the other (God in the Dock, 58-59).

Of course Christian faith has much in common with other faiths, myths and stories.  Truth, wherever it is found, whether in religion or philosophy or a good novel, points to the ultimate truth.  The difference, Lewis argues, is that in the story of Jesus Christ the shadowy unhistorical myths become real and true history.  Jesus’ resurrection took place in a real time and place.

Believing that such a thing really happened is not easy.  It is difficult to believe in fantastic things, as I wrote about recently.  Yet “belief” itself needs some sort of definition.  For some Christians, including me at various points in my life, belief merely meant assent.  To believe then was to assent to a series of statements.

Did Jesus rise from the dead?  

Yes, I consider that to have happened.

Did Caesar cross the Rubicon?

Yes, I consider that to have happened.

The problem here is that merely assenting to things does not affect your life much.  I fear that often what goes by the name “Christian apologetics” has its goal to convince people to assent to the truth of Christian faith.  So we defend our view and offer arguments targeted at the rational mind.  Can we get them to flip their vote from “no, of course Jesus did not rise” to “yes, it makes sense to say he did”?

Lewis goes on to write, “A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it.”

Yes!  It is not that Lewis thinks believing it to be fact is unimportant (read the first quote up above again).  But he recognizes that simply believing does not count for much.  How does it change your life?  If Jesus is risen then everything is different.

Life has the last word, not death.

Hope has the last word, not despair.

Love has the last word, not hate.

 

Stephen King, CS Lewis and Believing Fantastic Things

51s5tovoubl-_sx302_bo1204203200_Stephen King’s novel Salem’s Lot is the story of how vampires destroy a small town.  In the midst of this, some characters figure out what is going on and try to rouse the town to fight back.  They run into many obstacles, such as skepticism.  At one point a priest, Father Callahan, is trying to convince a family their son is targeted by the vampires:

“Let’s talk a little more first. I’m sure your witnesses are reliable, as I’ve indicated. Dr. Cody is our family physician, and we all like him very much.  I’ve also been given to understand that Matthew Burke is above reproach…as a teacher at least.”

“But in spite of that?” Callahan asked.

“Father Callahan let me put it to you. If a dozen reliable witnesses told you that a giant ladybug had lumbered through the town park at high noon singing ‘Sweet Adeline’ and waving a Confederate flag, would you believe it?”

“If I was sure the witnesses were reliable, and if I was sure they weren’t joking, I would be far down the road to belief, yes.

Still with a faint smile, Petrie said, ‘That is where we differ.”

“Your mind is closed,” Callahan said.

“No – simply made up.”

When I read this I could not help but think of CS Lewis’ children’s story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  In this story a young girl named Lucy discovers a secret door into the land of Narnia.  Her brothers and sister do not believe her.  Then one of her brothers, Edmund, goes through the door too.  Lucy is ecstatic.  Finally her story will be believed!  Yet Edmund, in a moment of sheer meanness, says he saw nothing and that he and Lucy were just pretending.  She’s just a dumb kid, after all.

The older siblings go to a wise old Professor.

“How do you know?” he asked, “that your sister’s story is not true?”

“Oh, but – ” began Susan, and then stopped. Anyone could see from the old man’s face that he was perfectly serious. Then Susan pulled herself together and said, “But Edmund said they had only been pretending.

“That is a point,” said the Professor, “which certainly deserves consideration; very careful consideration. For instance – if you will excuse me for asking the question – does your experience lead you to regard your brother or your sister as the more reliable? I mean, which is the more truthful

“That’s just the funny thing about  it, Sir,” said Peter. “Up until now, I’d have said Lucy every time.

The Professor encourages them, in light of her past trustworthiness, to trust Lucy now.

The idea is the same as that in Salem’s Lot: it is possible to believe impossible things if trustworthy people share them.  If we do not rule out certain possibilities at the outset we may come to see that fantastic  things could be true.

Lewis would draw a real world conclusion from this.  Certainly humans do not usually rise from the dead, everyone knows that.  But if people we can trust report to us that once someone did rise from the dead and if we can think of no ulterior motives or other possibilities for what happened, then it makes sense to believe them. This is what happened with Jesus.

Do you buy it?   

I do.  Of course, I can see how others wouldn’t.  Its fantastic.  Heck, believing in vampires and magical worlds through doors may make more sense.  But what if the reports that have been passed down through the ages are true?

It changes everything!  It changes how we look at the world.

Is the world hopeless or hopeful?  Well, what if the story of the world is not one that ends in death but one that ends in the hope of new life?  What if, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, the arc of the universe truly is curved towards justice?  Not because humans are so great and can work really hard and build something (I think history shows us that’s too optimistic) but because there is a Being we call God working behind the scenes to ensure that in the midst of all the hopelessness and death, there is hope and life.

I’ll take the fantastic and hopeful explanation.  Its all that can get me out of bed in the morning.

 

Devotional Recommendations?

Students and friends often ask me what books I would recommend for devotional reading.  I admit I am not entirely sure what sort of book they are looking for.  If by devotional they mean a book they can read a few pages each morning that will provide spiritual reflection throughout the day, then nearly anything can be a devotional!

One thing I have found helpful for devotional reading is Prayer Books, such as the classic Book of Common Prayer.  Such books provide prayers to read each morning, noon and night as well as scripture.  Or you can just use the prayers and then read whatever scripture you like.  Recently I’ve been using Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer: Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.  Rather than reading the suggested scriptures, I’m reading my own bible passages of choice (two chapters of Exodus and one of the Gospels right now, if you’re curious.  Another prayer book I’ve appreciated is Phyllis Tickle’s Divine Hours.

IMG_3949

If you want to go a different direction, in the last year or so I discovered a whole series of devotional books that come from the work of some of the best spiritual writers throughout the history of the church.  All the books in the series are “Praying With…” someone and I’ve prayed with the likes of Julian of Norwich, Thomas Aquinas, Benedict, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Catherine of Siena and Francis of Assisi.  I’ve long liked reading history and these sorts of works.  These books are nice because they give good background on each author as well as commentary on their work.  Each day includes scriptures, prayers and questions you can journal about or think on during the day.  Plus, you can get them used quite cheap!

Ultimately, this series points me to the best of what “devotional” literature can be.  It does not replace reading scripture; engaging with scripture should always be a part of our spiritual practice. Yet we recognize that we are influenced by our own culture and experience, so we look to spiritual guides from past places and times in whom the Spirit has worked.  Sitting at their feet, reading their words, helps us to grow.

Finally, if you aren’t sold on that series, I can think of lots of books that have been helpful to read a page or two a day.  Basically, a list of some of my favorite books!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Cost of Discipleship

Philip Yancey – What’s So Amazing About Grace

Richard Rohr – The Naked Now

Barbara Brown Taylor – An Altar in the World

Thomas a Kempis – Imitation of Christ

CS Lewis – Mere Christianity

 

 

Problem of Evil and Suffering, Sandor Clegane Style

Why does God allow good people to suffer?

Why is God silent in the face of suffering?

Why does God not step in and stop evil?

Why do the wicked survive and the good perish?

These are as questions as old as time (see the book of Job and Psalms).  The first episode of season seven of Game of Thrones tackled them too.  Sandor Clegane, “the Hound”, has been around since the beginning of the show.  First he is bodyguard to the king, then he is a wandering fighter.  Filled with anger and contempt, Clegane is not afraid to tell it like he sees it.  Recently though his character-arc has started to turn towards redemption and he has fallen in with a group who worship the one true God (Sidenote: the world of Game of Thrones is filled with different religions but the specifics need not concern us here).

In the season premier Sandor is talking with Beric.  Beric has been killed in battle numerous times, but the Lord of Light keeps giving him his life back.

SANDOR: So why does the Lord of Light keep bringing you back? I’ve met better men than you, and they’ve been hanged from crossbeams, or beheaded, or just s*** themselves to death in a field somewhere. None of them came back. So, why you?

BERIC: You think I don’t ask myself that? Every hour of every day? Why am I here? What am I supposed to do? What does the Lord see in me?

SANDOR: And?

BERIC: I don’t know. I don’t understand our Lord.

SANDOR: Your Lord.

BERIC: I don’t know what He wants from me. I only know that He wants me alive.

SANDOR: If he’s so all-powerful, why doesn’t he just tell you what the f*** he wants?

The question is simple: if Beric’s God is so powerful, why doesn’t he just make himself known and be a bit more explicit in what he wants?

This conversation is happening in a farmhouse.  The previous residents of the house, a father and his daughter, are dead.  A few seasons ago Sandor had visited the same farmhouse and robbed them.  Though he did not kill them with his sword, his actions certainly put them on the fast track to death.  Witnessing their decaying bodies, he seems remorseful, in his own hardened way.  The remorse is more profound as he knows they were better people then he, that he should be dead, as should other killers, and the family should be alive.

SANDOR: There’s no divine justice, you dumb ****. If there was, you’d be dead…and that girl would be alive.

Why do innocent children die and murderous warriors survive

Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? – Psalm 10:1

I’m not interested in discussing answers to this question right now, as pointing out how great it is to see the question raised in such a popular television show.

Not only is Game of Thrones master storytelling, but it brings up these sorts of ethical questions (for some it is whether to watch the whos in the first place!).  That is one of the reasons I taught a workshop at the Student Conference on Game of Thrones and Tolkien, comparing the hopeless world of Thrones where evil seems to triumph with the hopeful world of Tolkien where powerful forces bend the arc of the story towards justice and goodness.  Along with that, I encouraged them to keep their minds and hearts turned on when they watch television and movies so that they can engage with their peers around the questions, messages and worldviews found and expressed within those stories.

In other words, how do we answer Sandor Clegane’s question in the real world?

Journeying to the Dark Tower (Reflections on Stephen King’s magnum opus)

Last year I read The Gunslinger by Stephen King.  Published way back in the 70s, this book tells the story of the last Gunslinger, Roland of Gilead, pursuing the demonic man in black across the desert.  Roland’s goal is to find the mythical Dark Tower, the center of all existence.

I love fantasy stories so I was hooked.  Over the next nine months or so, I read the remainder of the series as well as some of King’s other books and short stories that tie in.  I won’t bother summarizing them here; if you want to read that sort of thing you can find such summaries all over the place.

Throughout the series, like in any good series, the world of the story expands.  New characters are introduced, new environments are experienced and the story becomes richer.  King resists introducing too many new characters though and succeeds in keeping the focus on Roland and his companions (his ka-tet).  There’s not really a final grand battle such as you see in many fantasy stories, from Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter.  Such final battles are fine, but I appreciate how King went a different route.

Without giving too much away, what strikes me most as I reflect on the series is how it is much more about the journey then the destination.  The ending is even kind of disappointing.  In a post script, King admits the difficulty with ending such a series.  Nearly any ending, with all the build up of Roland reaching the Dark Tower, would fall short of people’s expectations.

Of course, this is how real life is.

You look forward for months to a new movie and it does not live up to the hype.

You work hard to graduate college in hopes of landing your dream job and struggle to find work.

My daughter has been begging all summer to go to Chuck-E-Cheese and when we finally took her she was ready to go home after about twenty minutes.

Maybe the value in life really is the journey more than the destination.  That sounds clichéd.  Yet if we who call ourselves Christians scoff at this idea, perhaps we should pause.  This idea is not new.  Look at John Bunyan’s classic work, Pilgrim’s Progress.  The entire story is about the pilgrim’s journey through the world.  It is the journey that draws us in.  Sometimes the ending is satisfying (such as Lord of the Rings) and sometimes it might not be.  But the story, the journey, is what compels us.

It is in the journey that we are shaped.

It is in the journey where we are faced with choices that will define us.

It is in the journey where we meet companions who will help us.

Life after death is a great mystery.  Christians and other religious people can say some things about what this life will be like, though no one really knows for sure beyond a few vague generalities.  But as we look towards that future goal,

as Roland did towards the Dark Tower

as Frodo did towards Mt. Doom

As Christian did towards Heaven

as Jesus did when he set his face towards Jerusalem

We can find strength to journey on in daily life.

All that to say, if you want to read a great story, check out the Dark Tower series…

 

 

Trading Anger for Sympathy

A couple weeks ago my family and I went camping and left our dog with my sister and her husband.  When we returned home we stopped to pick up our dog.  We opened the door and our dog unceremoniously ran right past us and up the street!

While my wife ran after him, yelling his name, I went in the house to grab his leash and a few treats in the hopes of luring him back.  By the time I caught up to my wife, Skippy had stopped running.  He peed on a bush and ran back to us.  We were about three blocks up the street from my sister’s house.

Then I heard a voice.

“What’s your address?”

I turned around and there was a man sitting in his truck.  My initial thought was that he was lost and thought he’d ask for directions.  I told him we weren’t from this town.

“I was just wanting to know so I could bring my dog to go to the bathroom in your yard!”

Oh, now I get it.  We were standing in this guy’s yard!  He magically got home at the exact moment we caught our dog.  I immediately sought to clear up this misunderstanding.  I told him that our dog had run away and we had just caught him.  Further, my wife had checked and he had not pooped in the yard.  But the man was not deterred.  More gruff words followed.

Again I tried to explain how our dog ran away.  He didn’t want to hear it.  With a bit of fear of the stranger creeping in, we walked away.

I was struck with anger.  WHAT A JERK!

But soon my anger turned to something else: questioning.  What had happened in this man’s day, or life, to cause him to see two parents and two little kids with their dog and automatically assume the worst?  He didn’t see us and ask if we needed help.  He didn’t take time to question what we were doing.  He jumped directly to the worst case scenario: that we had taken our kids out to show them how to teach a dog how to deface property.

Maybe if I was a teenager, alone or with a buddy, then I’d expect someone to assume the worst.  And my own white privilege has certainly trained me to expect to get the benefit of the doubt.  But I am haunted by this question:

What happens to a person to make them assume the worst motives in others?

Honestly, it made me sad.  It made me sympathize with whatever forces brought this man there.  It made me desire to assume the best towards others for my own life.

How do our assumptions and biases shape our understanding of reality?