Saturday, January 28, 2012

Hamlet's Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age

By William Powers
Harper Perennial, 2010
240 pages

On the weekends I rarely check my e-mail.  It wasn't intentional that I started doing that, it just sort of happened. I get busy with my wife and kids and checking e-mail doesn't seem that important. Seriously, would you rather play with your three year old son, or spend an hour checking and responding to e-mail? It seems a bit of a no-brainer.

You have to realize I'm not some Luddite who hates technology. I've had e-mail for 18 years now. I was the second person I knew to get an e-mail account. I've got an active account on Twitter that I check regularly (@mrpuffin) and Twitter has helped me find a couple of long lost friends with whom I went to grad school. I like what the Internet can do for you.

But the thing is, I like to be in charge of what technology can do for me. I see an awful lot of people around me who are constantly e-mailing, tweeting, and texting. With smart phones you can have the Internet at your finger tips twenty four hours per day, seven days per week almost anywhere on earth. Many people appear to be chained to their phones, computers, or tablets and unable to let them go.

Yet curiously, because of that technology that allows us to open ourselves up to the world, many of us are shutting ourselves off to those around us. We've all seen someone busily texting people at work or school while ignoring the people in the room. We've seen the parent at McDonald's updating their Facebook status while the kids swing from the arm of the Ronald McDonald statue mere feet away. By being available to the world, those people are shutting themselves off to the people right next to them.

Hamlet's Blackberry suggests it doesn't have to be this way. While it's true that we often feel overwhelmed by the rapidly changing world around us, we can take control. Powers surveys several periods in history that were faced with shifts in technology and examines how the people in these times tried to cope with the change. He examines how they embraced the technology, all the while finding ways to maintain a little time and space for family, and for themselves. Though Powers doesn't mention it, that same quietness gives us time to contemplate God and his creation. As Psalm 46 says, Be still, and know that I am God. When all the world is buzzing around us, it becomes awfully hard to enjoy being with God.

Powers ultimately suggests an "Internet sabbath" where we take a break from our computers, phones, and whatever else may be distracting us from the relationships we need to cultivate. In addition to giving us time to build those relationships, time apart from our technology can also lead to greater appreciation of it (and of its ultimate designer) when we return to it.

Powers is not suggesting technology is bad, we just have to be careful how we use it. While texting during a church service would be improper, I've heard of some pastors who encourage the congregants to text them questions during the service. It allows the pastor immediate feedback and he has the chance to answer difficulties in a timely way. Texting can be a negative, but in this case it allows the congregation to work together more effectively.

How do we manage technology? Powers doesn't have all the answers, but he makes an intriguing starting point in any attempt to understand how to manage our digital age.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Betrayal: a novel on John Calvin

by Douglas Bond
P&R Publishing, 2009, 383 pages

If you want to get an understanding of the times Calvin lived in, this novel is better than any biography. Douglas Bond immerses readers in the day-to-day details of living in France in the 1500s by telling Calvin’s story through the eyes of a life-long, entirely fictional, companion named Jean-Louis.

Jean-Louis is born in the same village as Calvin, and for a time goes to the same school. But while Calvin’s intellectual gifts set him apart early, Jean-Louis is an average fellow living an ordinary, though rather brutal existence. Like many in the 16th century, he loses his whole family and his livelihood to the Plague. Left without a home or money, he falls back on his one extraordinary ability: Jean-Louis can lie without shame or qualm of conscience. It is this “talent” that gets him close to Calvin again, securing a job serving the Reformer. And it is this trait that allows him to act the role of loyal servant even as he vows to work against God’s servant.

This is a fascinating read, but it does takes some effort. Though Bond is known as a teen fiction author, the weighty theological dialogues interspersed throughout The Betrayal make this a novel best suited for adult Calvin enthusiasts – for them it would be a really great read. I think I've read a half dozen biographies about John Calvin, but this fictionalized account might have given me the best feel for his life.

P.S. if you know any one whose first language is Dutch, it has been translated, and is available as Het verraad.

You can pick up a copy at by clicking here.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Letters That Got Away

The Screwtape Letters
 by C. S. Lewis

Lord Foulgrin's Letters
by Randy Alcorn
2001 / 208 pages

Normally, we don’t appreciate people going through our personal correspondence. However, from the 1600s on, people have been fascinated by other people’s letters, whether real or fictional. In Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis used the device of the correspondence between two devils to make his own points about the kind of temptations faced by human beings, temptations that may well have been orchestrated by hell itself. (See the description of the tongue in James 3!) More recently, Randy Alcorn, who admits his debt to Lewis, has created his own more involved version of the same story, titled Lord Foulgrin’s Letters.

If you are considering reading either of these books, you may have two questions ringing alarm bells in your head. One is essentially negative: Does anyone have any business looking that deeply into the nature of evil, especially demonic evil? The other is skeptical, but basically positive: What can a look at the topsy-turvy perspective of the evil one tell us about the way life should be?

So, first, is it dangerous to look at evil too closely? The apostle Paul certainly implies that we should not focus on evil, but on good, when he commands us to “think about... things” that are “noble, ...right, ...pure, ...lovely, ...admirable, ...anything... excellent or praiseworthy” (Philippians 4:8, NIV). Paul also tells the Ephesians that “it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret” (Ephesians 5:12).

One might well ask why C. S. Lewis and Randy Alcorn did not write more about angels instead of focusing on demons. Lewis himself felt that it was impossible for him to write authentically about angels, since he, as a sinful man, could not well portray the absolute submission of angels to God’s will, while (sadly) we all know far too well what devilish thoughts and desires must be like, since by nature we are also in rebellion against God. Alcorn, on the other hand, does include a letter from one of God’s angels in his book, but you’ll have to read the book to find out whether or not this "works."

Lewis’s words do give us an idea of why looking at devils might be useful for a Christian. To realize that temptation often has a demonic source may help us take our own sin and misery more seriously, something the Heidelberg Catechism points out is all-important knowledge (Lord’s Day 2). And while it may be shameful to self-righteously focus on others’ sins (see Matthew 7:1-5), we must be aware of our own sinful weaknesses, lest we fall prey to them. Lewis and Alcorn’s books echo the great truth of Ephesians 6:12, that we are in the midst of a “struggle... against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

The Screwtape Letters and Lord Foulgrin’s Letters may even be seen as obeying the command of Philippians 4:8 when we realize that Lewis’s and Alcorn’s devils cannot help speaking about “whatever is noble, ...right ...pure, ...lovely, ...admirable, ... excellent or praiseworthy.” Of course, they speak in enmity rather than awe, but as long as we accept whatever they reject, we can learn much from their malicious advice.

Alcorn’s book is particularly interesting, because it carries Lewis’s premise just a little further. Whereas Lewis sticks to letters written by a senior devil to his protege during World War II, Alcorn alternates letters with chapters of narrative about the family targeted by Foulgrin, and sets the story in our own time, with references to e-mail and teenage despair. Even more importantly, while Lewis’s account takes us up to the moment of conversion of a non-Christian, Alcorn deals with the demons’ reaction to the conversion of the central human character, especially their attempt to make him an ineffective Christian.

What this means is that Alcorn deals with two issues that Reformed Christians also struggle with now: how to react to the “world,” and how to respond to God in our spiritual life. For instance, at the same time as Foulgrin extols the danger of pornography on the web, of broken families, of consumerism and materialism, he also rages against the “sludgebags” whom God gives physical bodies. Through Foulgrin’s words and the narrative chapters, we see both the temptations of worldly pleasures and the true beauty of the pleasures God gives us in this physical life: the taste of a fine meal, the touch of a loving husband in a foot massage for his pregnant wife, the sight of a sunset, and the smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Alcorn thus attacks both the attitude of Christians who mistrust enjoyment in life and the foolishness of those who think that we can experience the world on the world’s terms, and not be influenced by that world. Foulgrin gleefully mocks the stupidity of Christians who know that viewing someone else’s nudity and sexual intimacy is wrong, but do not flinch from seeing the same in a movie. He is, of course, immensely pleased also by parents who keep poisonous household products on the top shelf to protect their children, but who pay no attention to the toxic ideas their children ingest through the Internet and the music they listen to.

Alcorn also uses Foulgrin’s warnings to his student Squaltaint to show what the demons shudder at in the Christian life. Foulgrin advises Squaltaint to keep his human charge Jordan Fletcher away from “the forbidden Book” (the Bible) and “the forbidden squadron” (the communion of saints in the local congregation). He warns Squaltaint not to let Fletcher draw close to God in prayer, not to let Fletcher read good Christian fiction, not to let Fletcher think of his life (his time, his thoughts and emotions, his money) as belonging to God rather than himself.

CAUTION and CONCLUSION: Are there still problems with reading about life from a demonic perspective? Any concerns with this way of writing about the spiritual and moral life of a Christian may be allayed by the fact that both Lewis and Alcorn show their demonic title characters losing in the ultimate sense. The only other problem that Reformed Christians might have with both these books is that they seem to imply that conversion is a matter of man’s free will - the error of Arminianism. Whether this Arminian tendency is simply the devils’ mistaken understanding is not clear, but Lewis at least seemed to be Arminian in his other writing (even while demonstrating that his own conversion was a result of God’s persistence rather than his search!). Despite this quibble, I would recommend both these books to any Christian who is open to considering just how effective and consistent his or her own Christian walk is, and in what areas he or she needs to plead for God’s Spirit to work “against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

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Sunday, January 1, 2012

Pocketful of Posies: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes

by Sally Mavor
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2010, 72 pages

I've always really enjoyed good children's books - for the good stories, the sense of fun, and especially for the pictures.  The best picture books are works of art.  And this particular book is a great example of that.

In this book, Sally Mavor has used her considerable skill to illustrate favorite nursery rhymes - in fabric, embroidery, and collage.  The artist uses wood for faces, acorns for hats, beads for flowers and fruit, and quite a variety of stitches and fabrics to create shapes and patterns.  Each page is a lush, detailed depiction of one or more rhymes with plenty for readers to examine and find.  As someone who once dabbled in fabric arts, I wish I had more spare time to try what she has accomplished here (and I notice she has also written another book to tell us how!).
I like the book for other reasons, too.  Nursery rhymes are great for enjoying with very young children - they rhyme, they have rhythm, they often lend themselves to actions, they're short, and they allow you to start the book on any page.  They're also important for everyone to know as part of our English literary heritage - they reappear throughout our lives as readers, and contain a variety of ideas, from nonsense to history to nuggets of wisdom.

The layout of this one is very appealing - just the right amount of words on a page, allowing little ones to listen and share, and slightly older children to read for themselves. 

This would be a great gift book for a young family - ours is enjoying it very much, and I suspect it will be a favorite for some time to come.