Invasive technology vs. humans

Many of the recent classics feature invasive technology. 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and The Giver come to mind. The speaker on the wall, the camera in the room, the eye in the sky, always watching.

Today, we live with all of these things. We’re living the classics. The only difference is who’s watching, and why. In the right hands, invasive technology is a welcome convenience. But not all are right handed.

The threat isn’t with the technology, but with the humans who use it. Humans are capable of unspeakable evil. Which means the question of our time (and of every time) is not how to use technology, but how to redeem humans.

Here are a few words describing what “redeemed” looks like in day-to-day life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Dig deeply into any of these qualities and they grow even more appealing (e.g., love).

These are all descriptions of Jesus Christ, whose birthday is marked by Christmas. He was born to redeem humans, and December is a good month to read about Him.

Seven things I learned from The Giver, by Lois Lowry

IMG_64891. Choice creates risk.
With choice come wrong choices, and wrong choices bring harm. Given the harm, it’s tempting to eliminate choice. But choice brings joy and maturity. Better to equip the chooser to choose than to remove the choice.

2. Pain is something we avoid.
Superficial avoidance is easy — simply find something to take your mind off the pain. But pain can last long and run deep. The only way to eliminate that kind of pain is to eliminate feelings. The trouble is, without feelings, life’s color drains away. That’s a bleak way to live.

3. Memories can be painful.
Since we don’t like pain, we choose not to remember. But many things ought never to be forgotten.

4. Choice, pain, and memories bring wisdom.
We learn from the choices we make. From trial and error, risk and reward. And we grow wise by remembering what happened. Or by learning what happened to others. Parents, teachers, mentors, books — these are the relationships and resources that turn choice, pain, and mindfulness into wisdom. The key is not to avoid pain, memories, or choice. It’s to cultivate loving relationships.

5. Enforced uniformity can be well-meaning.
According to a Wall Street Journal interview with Lois Lowry (6/20/2014), the story emerged from watching her aging father forget painful memories. By forgetting, he was spared their sorrow. What if our minds could be manipulated so we would all forget our painful memories? she wondered. Would that be nice? Thankfully, she thought it through, and now we know the answer.

6. Story reveals reality.
It’s in our nature to divert our eyes. To avoid the burden of grim realities. But when someone kills a healthy baby right in front of you, there’s nowhere else to look. Story makes such things possible. It turns knowledge into vivid experience. The Giver is read by schoolchildren around the world. Perhaps they will retain the moral clarity awakened by Chapter 19 when faced with their own life choices. It’s chilling, and not easily forgotten. Nor should it be.

7. Rudeness can be a virtue.
Not the rudeness of dishonor or contempt, but of naming the truth in a culture of lies. It is rude to ask or observe uncomfortable things. But not always wrong. It may be like turning on the light.

Parting Thought: It was wise to write this as a children’s book. Simply told, the story is believable. It’s also powerful, nuanced, and disturbing. Curiously, like other dystopian classics (eg., 1984, Fahrenheit 451), it features invasive technology. The speaker on the wall, always listening. Just like many of us now have in our homes.

I’m glad I read this

As a publishing person, I read books for a living. Great books.

Last Thursday I carried a stack of them into a meeting and revealed that each one was an author’s “life message.” The fruit of careful study and decades of experience. Masterpieces and treasures.

Not everything I read was written for me. Often I read through the lens of whoever the book was written for. This is especially useful when reading across worldviews.

With the exception of fiction, which I read for pleasure (less often than I should), much of my extra-curricular reading is to learn something. I’m fascinated by history and biography, and curious about how things work.

Other than when I’m reviewing manuscripts, I don’t read like a book reviewer. If I’m still reading at page twenty, I’m beyond paying attention to structure, prose, or pedagogical style. I’m along for the ride. Consequently, when I discuss books on this blog, I’m neither writing book reviews or summarizing. Book summaries are useful, but only if you don’t want to read the book. Can you imagine a publishing person helping you not read a book? Me either.

When I write about a book, I’m sharing what I liked or learned. How it informed my life. And how it might benefit yours as well.

I’m glad I read this. Here’s why . . . 

Patrick O’Brian for pastors

My pastor friends inspire me. Their work is redemptive — and rigorous. I see them straining at the oars for months at a time, and I see God’s grace in their wake.

When we talk books, this is what I hear: commentaries, theology, and reference. Also, books about the church, leadership, spiritual life, and social issues. Plus business, history, biography. Books that strengthen souls and sharpen skills.

winedarkseaCuriously, only once have I found a pastor who reads Patrick O’Brian. Why is that? Vivid, witty, and keenly insightful, few books better convey the nuances of human nature and relationship than O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series.

For example, here’s an episode that helped me, and I think should be part of every pastor’s mental imagery. It features a season of storm. We’ve all weathered the tempest, and we’ve walked with others through their storms as well. In The Wine-Dark Sea, O’Brian captures the four cycles of difficult seasons in just three pages.

1. All is well. The story begins in the Pacific as the Surprise and her crew chart a course for Cape Horn. They all know tough times are coming, but these are days for covering ground and gaining strength . . .

“I do not like the prospect of this Horn,” said Stephen in a low voice, “or all this haste to reach it. I will need weeks of calm to prepare.”

“Well, Doctor,” said Jack, “some weeks I think I can promise you. The trade [winds] are blowing as sweetly as ever our best friends could wish.”

The promised weeks they had, weeks of pure sailing, with the Surprise slanting cross the prevailing wind and often logging two hundred sea-miles between one noon observation and the next. Weeks of close, satisfying work for Stephen, and weeks of ardent sailoring for Jack, with evenings full of music: fresh fish over the side, and penguins in constant attendance. And when at last the trade winds faltered and left them, within a day the even more favorable westerlies took over.

2. The winds increase. Difficulties are on the horizon, so you order your life and make preparations . . .

Those were idyllic weeks; but how difficult it was to remember them, to call them vividly to mind as an experienced reality, a fortnight after the ship had sailed into the true antarctic — had sailed into that green water at fourteen knots under topsails, fore-courses and a jib, impelled by an almighty quartering wind.

The change was not unexpected. Well before this ominous parallel the frigates’s people had been engaged in shifting, packing and storing her light sails and replacing them with much heavier cloth, with storm-canvas trysails and the like for emergency. Many a watch had been spent in sending up preventer backstays, braces, shrouds and stays and in attending to new rings, robands, reef-points, reef-tackles for the courses and spilling-lines for the topsails, to say nothing of new sheets and clew lines fore and aft. Then again all the hands had rounded the Horn at least once, some many times, and they took their long woolen drawers, their mittens and their Magellan jackets very seriously when they were served out, while most of those who had had any foresight dug into their chests for Monmouth caps, Welsh wigs or padded domes with flaps to protect the wearer’s ears and strings to tie beneath his chin.

3. Hold on! Once the elements let loose you lose track of time, and it’s your deep convictions and wise preparations that make the difference . . .

This serving-out happened on a Tuesday in fine clear weather, a pleasant topgallant breeze blowing from the north-west, and it seemed almost assured: on Friday the ship was tearing eastwards with four men at the wheel, snow blurring both binnacles, hatches battened down, and the muffled watch on deck sheltering in the waist, dreading a call to grapple with the frozen rigging and board-stiff sails.

Presently, in this incessant roar of sea and wind, and in this continual tension, the vision of the warm and mild Pacific faded completely. And after a few days of the first icy blow, when the deathly chill had worked right into the whole ship from keelson to cabin, all hands began to eat with far more than usual eagerness. The roaring westerly storm had sent the ship a great way, at great speed, south and east into the high fifties, a cold region even without a wind: frequent rain; even more frequent sleet and snow; most hands wet most of the time; all of them always cold.

In such very thick weather observation was impossible for days on end, and in spite of his chronometers and well-worn sextant, and of the presence of three other expert navigators aboard, Jack could not be sure of his longitude or latitude, dead-reckoning in such wind and seas being wonderfully uncertain. He therefore reduced sail, and the frigate moved eastwards at an average of no more than three knots, sometimes under bare piles or with a mere scrap of sail right forward to give her steerage-way when the wind blew a full gale from the west.

4. Through the storm. Often without warning, you wake up one morning and realize you’ve made it through . . .

And then there was calm.  The sky cleared and Jack had a series of perfect observations of first the sun, then Achernar, and later Mars himself, positions that were confirmed by the other officers and that showed that in spite of this dawdling their initial zeal had brought them almost to the rendezvous far too soon.

Weathering a storm is a milestone experience. It makes you a different person. Stronger, leaner, wiser. Toughened, yet gentler. Children know you’re safe. Others respect you. They realize you’re less tied to this world.

It also helps to know what to expect, which is why I’ve dog-eared my copy of The Wine-Dark Sea.

And what are those preparations that bring you through the blinding gale? Each of us has our own list. Learning to trust God, investing in genuine relationships, dwelling in the Word, taking care of your soul, casting off entanglements, eliminating distractions, and so on. As Scripture often says, deep roots bear fruit.

You can read about such things in leadership books, but it’s tough to assimilate them without experience — or story. Thank you, Patrick O’Brian.

Seven reasons to stop reading a novel

Randall Payleitner reads more than I do, and the books he recommends are always worth reading. Here are his thoughts on what’s not worth reading.

(1) It has sustained periods of boringness. Plenty of good books have slow spots, but if you’re fighting sleep or reading pages at a time without retention — maybe it’s time to move on!

(2) It’s offensive. If you don’t want unhealthy moral or spiritual content filling your brain space, don’t let it.

(3) The argument or storyline is weak. Whether the author lacks perspective or rigor, it’s not your problem. If it’s poorly put together, find a better argument elsewhere.

(4) It’s not living up to its billing. When you discover a book isn’t what you signed up for, feel free to let it go.

(5) It’s too long (without good reason). Some of the best books ever written are really long — but they have to earn every word!

(6) It’s irresponsible. There are typos. Half the text is bold or ALL CAPS. The design is confusing. It’s an obvious money grab. When the creators of a project don’t take it seriously, why should you?

(7) You keep thinking of things you’d rather be doing. Unless you’re studying for something, reading is voluntary. If your “gut-feeling” says, I wish I were done with this, grant your own wish.

How to stop reading a novel

A novel may be a friend, companion, and traveling partner — but it’s not a person. If it isn’t working out, let it go! No one will be hurt, and you’ll have more time for the next one.

Here are two ways to walk away from a novel — and tomorrow we’ll explore seven reasons why you should stop reading one (a guest post from Randall Payleitner).

The slow fade . . . 
When a story doesn’t interest me, the characters are artificial, or the writing is vapid, I wander off. Readers can be drawn into anything — even a giant, floating peach. But if the peach isn’t floating your way, drift elsewhere.

Rejection . . . 
I’m patient man, but we all have boundaries. When my good faith interest in a story is violated by a celebration of the intolerable, I don’t drift off. I walk away. Fiction is not theoretical — it’s experiential. The reader lives in the story, and if the story repeatedly violates my convictions, I choose different company. Which is OK. That author probably wouldn’t choose to spend time with me either.

What to do with racism in novels

The Last of the Mohicans. A tale of adventure, resolve . . . and scathing invective heaped upon the Hurons!

Racial derogation isn’t easy to read. When some character in a novel slurs a people group, it makes you wince. That doesn’t mean the story isn’t worth reading. It means we need to know how to process racism in novels.

Here are three suggestions:

  1. Discern the author’s point. Is she making a point? Setting up a situation? Exposing a character (or the reader)? Or is it simply gratuitous?
  2. Take inventory. Is there any hint of this attitude in my own soul or social group? When the abrasion of reading racism provokes you, review your own assumptions.
  3. Learn from example. All characters are learning opportunities. Aspire to what’s honorable and repudiate what is not. Grow in wisdom by considering the warp and weft of others.

The more time I spent with the Mohicans, Hurons, French, English, and Colonists, the keener my insight into the character of man. By the end, I aspired to a higher standard. May every book we read leave so positive a mark.