‘How to Think’, by Alan Jacobs

fullsizeoutput_8d9aI thought this book was brilliant, and will definitely re-read it and recommend it to many of my friends. It’s short (160 pages), enjoyable, but also challenging and honest.

Here’s the blurb from Amazon:

How to Think is a contrarian treatise on why we’re not as good at thinking as we assume—but how recovering this lost art can rescue our inner lives from the chaos of modern life.
 
As a celebrated cultural critic and a writer for national publications like The Atlantic and Harper’s, Alan Jacobs has spent his adult life belonging to communities that often clash in America’s culture wars. And in his years of confronting the big issues that divide us—political, social, religious—Jacobs has learned that many of our fiercest disputes occur not because we’re doomed to be divided, but because the people involved simply aren’t thinking.
 
Most of us don’t want to think. Thinking is trouble. Thinking can force us out of familiar, comforting habits, and it can complicate our relationships with like-minded friends. Finally, thinking is slow, and that’s a problem when our habits of consuming information (mostly online) leave us lost in the spin cycle of social media, partisan bickering, and confirmation bias.
 
In this smart, endlessly entertaining book, Jacobs diagnoses the many forces that act on us to prevent thinking—forces that have only worsened in the age of Twitter, “alternative facts,” and information overload—and he also dispels the many myths we hold about what it means to think well. (For example: It’s impossible to “think for yourself.”)
 
Drawing on sources as far-flung as novelist Marilynne Robinson, basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain, British philosopher John Stuart Mill, and Christian theologian C.S. Lewis, Jacobs digs into the nuts and bolts of the cognitive process, offering hope that each of us can reclaim our mental lives from the impediments that plague us all. Because if we can learn to think together, maybe we can learn to live together, too.

I have only one thing to add: a hint to people who may be considering reading this book. The blurb above will give you a good idea what it is about, and it will be enough to let you know whether or not it’s a book you’d be interested in. But if you buy it, turn first to the end of the book, the twelve point checklist for better thinking. Reading it through will give you a good idea of where Jacobs is going, and it will give you a clear sense of direction as you then turn to the beginning and read the book in order. In this case, it really is true that it’s good to read the last page first!

Alan Jacobs: How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (Currency, 2017).

 

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We’re getting closer!

IMG_4231Today the proof copy of my book ‘A Time to Mend’ arrived in the mail. Now I have to read through it and check for errors, correct them, reload the corrected manuscript to Amazon, and then hopefully the book will be ready to go live around the first week in October.

It’s getting exciting!

Don’t forget that if Kindle is your preferred platform you can already purchase it here (Canada), or by the same title at your local Amazon website,

The God who looks for the lost (a sermon on Psalm 14 and Luke 15.1-10)

I suspect that when we read our psalm this morning, some of you had a strong negative reaction to it. I’m thinking especially of verses 2-3: let me refresh your memory by reading them again to you, this time in the New Living Translation:

‘The LORD looks down from heaven upon the entire human race; he looks to see if anyone is truly wise, if anyone seeks God. But no, all have turned away; all have become corrupt. No one does good, not a single one.’

Really? No one? Not Jean Vanier? Not Mother Teresa? Not the people who put in hundreds of hours a year volunteering at Hope Mission or Habitat for Humanity? Not the parents who run themselves ragged week by week trying hard to make life good for their kids? Not the counsellors who answer emergency calls in the middle of the night to listen to people who are on the verge of suicide? What on earth is the psalmist talking about? Did he get out of the wrong side of bed that morning? What had happened to him, to give him such a negative view of the human race?

Let me say two things right away. First, to read the Bible with your brain in gear means that you begin by asking yourself ‘What kind of literature am I reading here?’ Obviously, if you go to your local library and pick out a volume of poetry, a copy of the Criminal Code of Canada, a history of Alberta, and the latest novel by Stephen King, you know you’re reading four very different kinds of books. You’ll have to read them very differently if you’re going to understand them and enjoy them.

And it’s the same with the Bible. The Bible is a library of books written over a span of about fifteen hundred years. It contains letters, hymns and poems, biographies, historical chronicles, and the criminal code of ancient Israel, to name just a few genres. Reading a poem or hymn is not the same as reading a sermon or theological essay or a law book. And Psalm 14 is a poem. Poets use vivid imagery to make a point, but they don’t always expect you to take their images literally. Sometimes they’re just being imaginative, and sometimes they’re being intentionally provocative.

Secondly, I think I can begin to understand the mood the psalmist was in. I’ve been in it myself for a couple of years now. For a long time I’ve been in the habit of skimming the pages of my newspaper as I eat my breakfast, but lately I’ve noticed that I’m getting more reluctant to do that. It feels more and more like a really negative way to get ready to go to work. I read about Donald Trump and Boris Johnson and Vladimir Putin and all the other political leaders who seem so blatantly unfit to lead their people. I read about corruption scandals and murders, wars, acts of injustice and oppression, and the refusal of so many people to take climate change seriously. I read these things and I say to myself, “Has everyone turned away from virtue and goodness and become totally corrupt? Is there, in all the world, any such thing as a single uncorrupt politician? Is there anyone left who’s in it for other people, not to build their own kingdom?”

But then I look into my own heart and try to face up honestly to what’s there. I think about some of the things I’ve done in my own life, things I’m ashamed even to remember. And I think of the famous story of the writer G.K. Chesterton, who was responding to a newspaper article with the headline, ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ His letter to the editor was very simple. ‘Dear Sir: I am. Yours faithfully, G.K. Chesterton.’

I think this is what the psalmist was grappling with here. I don’t know whether or not he was familiar with the words in Genesis chapter one: ‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1.27 NRSV). But if he was, I’m sure he must have been struck by the contrast between these two visions of human nature. On the one hand, Genesis sees us as the pinnacle of God’s creation: we were the last thing he made, the climax, the thing every other creative act had been leading up to. Here was a being made just like God, like a daughter or son made in the image of their parents! Surely such a being would show the love and compassion and creativity and sense of justice of God? Wouldn’t you think so?

But then, how do you explain the rest of the Book of Genesis? Within two chapters you have Cain murdering his brother Abel. And the rest of the book talks about faithlessness, family intrigues, jealousies, and acts of manipulation and violence. How can a creature like that be made in the image of God?

Today we maybe feel the same way. Our human knowledge has expanded enormously over the past century. It’s now within our power to do all kinds of good in the world, using technologies our grandparents couldn’t even dream about. So why is it that the story of humanity feels very much like it always has? Wars and rumours of wars, thefts and murders, acts of greed and corruption, the rich exploiting the poor, people dividing up by race or religion or skin colour or political opinions—we can find it all in the Bible, and we can find it all in the latest edition of the Globe and Mail. Most people who think the Bible is out of date have never read it. When you read it, much of it feels depressingly familiar.

It seems to me that a Christian who reads the scriptures thoughtfully and prayerfully is forced to discard two simplistic views of human nature: one that says all human beings are basically good, and one that says all human beings are basically bad. If all humans are basically good, how do we explain the acts of evil committed by people brought up in loving homes by good parents who gave them the best possible moral guidance? How do we explain the fact that even the best possible projects for the improvement of the world seem to run aground, over and over again, on the rock of human selfishness and self-interest? But on the other hand, if all humans are basically bad, how do we explain the incredible acts of kindness and generosity we see around us every day?

We humans are made in the image of God, the best of all parents. And like a good parent, God doesn’t force us to do his will; if he wants us to grow and mature, he has to allow us the freedom to make our own choices, in the hope that they will be good choices. Is there any way to offer that freedom without the possibility that humans will make the wrong choices? I can’t imagine any way that could happen. Growth in maturity involves forming the habit of rejecting the way of hatred and injustice, and choosing the way of love and goodness. It has to be a meaningful choice: one in which making the wrong choice has real consequences.

The Bible tells the story of how so often we humans have made the wrong choice. It’s as if sin and evil is an infection that comes into our systems at a very early age. Some theologians would say we have it before we’re born, although the Bible doesn’t very often speculate about that. But the reality is that humans are made in the image of God, but are also infected with evil and selfishness. We have our better angels, but we also have our inner demons. We do acts of kindness and love, but we’re always tempted to be selfish and angry and judgemental and cruel, and we struggle with that every day.

And that struggle is made doubly difficult if we don’t have God’s help. Our psalm began with the phrase, ‘Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God”’ (v. 1 NRSV). That might give us warm fuzzy feelings about ourselves: we’re not atheists, so we’re not fools! But we need to think again. In the ancient world atheism was almost unknown, so it’s highly unlikely that the psalmist was describing literal atheists here. What he was likely describing is people who act as if there is no God:

‘The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God…Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers, who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the LORD?’ (vv. 2, 4 NRSV).

The fools are the people who tell the census taker, “Yes, of course I believe there’s a god of some kind—doesn’t everyone?” But then they don’t do anything about that belief. They don’t let their belief in the existence of God influence a single moral decision they make. It doesn’t change the way they spend their money. It doesn’t change the way they treat a poor person, or a person of a different race. It doesn’t have any effect at all on the way they vote in an election. And they certainly don’t put any energy into trying to build a relationship with God. They’ll work their fingers to the bone to get an expensive university education; they’ll incur hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to get exactly the home they want, but how much time and money are they prepared to put into learning how to know God? No, the psalmist says, ‘they ‘do not call upon the LORD’ (v.4 NRSV).

And this is where our gospel reading starts. God loves his people and longs for them to know him. He wants them to seek him with all their hearts, but they’ve demonstrated over and over again that they won’t. So what does he do? His people are lost and they don’t even seem to know it. In fact, they refuse to acknowledge that they’re lost. “We’re fine—nothing to see here—move on, please!”

How do we respond to people like that? The Pharisees and scribes have a very judgemental attitude toward them. They’re not at all happy with how much time Jesus is spending with them. ‘And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them”’ (Luke 15.2 NRSV). As far as they were concerned, it was up to the lost sheep to find their shepherd. After all, they were the ones who got lost! It was their fault! Why should God go looking for them? It wasn’t God who strayed away!

But I suspect Jesus saw things differently. He knew that most sheep don’t wander away on purpose. They just aren’t thinking ahead. They keep their heads down, eating grass, thinking only of the needs of the present moment, and then after a while they look up and realize that the rest of the flock seems to have vanished! They were so concerned about the need of the present moment—grass—that they took their eyes off the shepherd.

And that’s the way it is with people. Often, we don’t mean to stray away from God; we just get so tied up meeting the needs of the moment—a bit more money here, a moment of relaxation there—that we lose sight of what life is all about in the first place, and we lose sight of the Good Shepherd who gives our life meaning and purpose. It doesn’t take a big sin to take us out of orbit around God – just a little distraction will often do the job.

And so God doesn’t wait for the lost sheep to find him. He knows that’s not going to happen. Psalm 14 says that the Lord looks down from heaven to see if there are any who seek after God, but there aren’t. Our track record there is not very good.

But fortunately for us, God doesn’t leave it at that. After centuries of trying to get our attention through prophets and preachers, he sends his Son to us, the one who is the perfect image of the Father. The Gospel of John tells us that God himself comes to us in his Son. ‘In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God…So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.’ (John 1.1, 14, NLT).

So Psalm 14 isn’t the last word on the subject. It’s a true word, but by itself it’s not complete. Psalm 14 brings us face to face with the bad news about ourselves—what Francis Spufford calls our ‘Human Propensity to Mess Things Up’ (except that he uses a stronger word than ‘mess’!). We can’t pretend this doesn’t exist; we can see it all around us.

But the Gospel gives us another word: God doesn’t wait for us to seek him. He came among us to seek us. That’s what Jesus was doing. By his life and teaching he was demonstrating for us what a life of love and godliness is like. He was showing God to us through every word he spoke and every action he took. And he was reaching out to the last, the least, and the lost, going the extra mile, doing all he could to bring the love of God within reach to every human being.

That’s who Jesus is. That’s what God is like. That’s what the Gospel is. We may be more messed up than we like to admit, but we’re also loved more deeply than we’ve ever dared to imagine. Jesus came all the way from heaven to earth and gave his life on the Cross for us. He says, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ (John 10:11). And not just for the sheep as a group; Paul says in Galatians ‘The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20). You matter to God. So do I, and so does every other individual on the face of the earth. God is out searching for us, and he won’t rest until he has found us and brought us home. That’s what the Gospel story is all about. Human failure doesn’t have the last word. The love of God has the last word. That’s why the Gospel is Good News.

‘A Time to Mend’ is now available on Kindle

timchesterton_A5My new novel, ‘A Time to Mend’, is now available for purchase in the Kindle store.

I call it ‘my new novel’, but I first typed the (now totally unrecognizable) ancestor of this story on a manual typewriter in my study in Aklavik over thirty years ago! Although it follows ‘Meadowvale’ chronologically, it was conceived before ‘Meadowvale’; in fact, I first wrote ‘Meadowvale’ because I was interested in the back story to ‘A Time to Mend’.

The basic story will not be strange to long-time readers of this blog, who will have read earlier versions of it. However, it has been substantially revised from the last version that was published here.

If you have a Kindle (or the Kindle app for your computer or iPad) I’d love it if you’d buy it, and I’d love it even more if you’d write an Amazon review for it afterwards! I will soon be announcing a paperback edition (from Amazon), and also hopefully Kobo and iBooks versions.

Here’s the blurb:

‘Two years after the loss of his beloved wife Kelly, Tom Masefield comes face to face with a new challenge: his father—the one he originally left England to get away from—is dying. For twenty-one years they have lived on different continents and have kept their personal contact to a bare minimum. But now Tom’s conscience tells him he needs to make one more attempt at reconciliation before his father dies.

‘So Tom and his daughter Emma decide to move back to England. Over the next two years, they will find out whether it is possible to mend relationships that have been broken for half a lifetime. And along the way, Tom will make a discovery that will transform his life in ways he never imagined.’

Links:

Canada

USA

UK

Australia

New Zealand

If you aren’t listed above, simply do a search on your local Amazon website.

 

‘What’s In It For Me?’ (a sermon for Sept. 1st on Luke 14.1, 7-14)

The Serendipity Study Bible is an old edition of the New International Version, designed to be used in small groups. For every passage of the Bible, it has a set of discussion questions in the margins. We often use those questions in our Wednesday afternoon study group, and when I’m doing my sermon preparation I often start by working through those questions for the passage I plan to reach on.

When I looked at the Serendipity Study Bible questions for Luke 14.1-14, this was the first question: ‘If you could have the best seats in the house, which house would you choose?’ I wonder how you would answer that question? For me, what I’d like is to go to a small concert hall where a guitarist I admire is playing, and be able to sit right in front of the stage so I can see what he’s doing with his fingers. With some guitar players, I don’t think I could do what they’re doing, but I understand how they’re doing it. But there are others for whom I have absolutely no idea how they’re doing what they’re doing! So I like to get really close, so I can see exactly what they’re doing with their hands. I still might not be able to play it, but at least I can try!

That’s pretty harmless, of course, but in some situations this desire for the front seat might be more insidious. In today’s Gospel, Jesus has a lot to say to people who always want the front seats—people who want the best deal for themselves and don’t care who they displace in order to get it. Whether they’re going to a dinner party put on by others, or throwing a party themselves, they aren’t actually thinking about the other people at all. Their first question is always “What’s in it for me?”

Let’s refresh our memory of the story. Jesus goes to dinner at the house of a prominent Pharisee. There are two things you need to know about these dinner parties. First, these were not private occasions. The doors of the house were left open all the time, and it was common for the curious to wander in and out while the meal was going on—especially if well-known people were there and it was likely there would be interesting discussion and debate. And this leads to the second thing: in the Gospels, these dinner parties are often occasions for teaching and discussion.

In today’s gospel Jesus tells the dinner guests two parables; the first is about not taking the highest place, and the second is about who you ought to invite when you give a dinner party. In each parable, self-interest is Jesus’ target. In the first parable, he warns against using the banquet as an opportunity for others to see how important you are. In the second parable, he warns against issuing invitations to your party out of self-interest: “If I invite Lord Caiaphas, then I’ll get an invitation to his party in return, and everyone will be able to see that I move in the best social circles in the city.” In both cases, gatherings that ought to be occasions for human companionship and fellowship are being spoiled by people’s self-interest.

So let’s think about what Jesus has to say about lining up for the last place.There’s a story told about St. Francis of Assisi, of a time when he was invited to a meal with the Pope and many other important church dignitaries. In those days before photo technology, people were a lot less familiar with the faces of celebrities, and when Francis turned up at the door of the Vatican in his ragged brown robe, the doorkeepers thought he was a beggar. So they sent him round to the kitchen to take his place with the other beggars. Francis didn’t complain; he went joyfully as usual, and was soon having a good time with the folks in the kitchen.

Meantime there was consternation at the high table; where was the guest of honour? Eventually it was discovered that Francis was in the kitchen with the beggars, and a message was sent that he should come to the banqueting hall. He did as he was told, sat down with the guests at the high table, and immediately began to share with them the scraps he had gathered on his beggar’s plate!

Obviously Francis was a person who had no problem taking the last place in the pecking order – in contrast to the people Jesus is aiming at when he warns us in his parable: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour” (v.8a). Nowadays we don’t often see this happening in a literal way. I’ve attended lots of wedding receptions and I’ve never seen someone marching boldly up to sit at the head table, only to be told a few minutes later “Madam, I’m afraid this seat is reserved for the wedding party!” But the attitude Jesus is talking about is still common. Let me point out two common examples of it.

The first is the inability to sit back and be part of the crowd. You know what I mean: there are some folks who have a deep-seated need to be up front all the time. They can’t just be ordinary members of the group; they have to be visible, they have to be leaders, so that people can look up to them and they can feel important. Don’t misunderstand me: real leadership, offered genuinely, is a real gift to a group. But the hunger for leadership, so that we can be recognized and looked up to, is poisonous and dangerous for the group and also for the person who wants to be a leader.

The second example of this attitude is less obvious; it’s when we’re always wondering what others are thinking about us. Many people are constantly worrying about whether others will like or approve of them. It’s as if they’re constantly checking a mental mirror, to see how they look in the eyes of others. The root cause of this is usually insecurity and a low sense of self-worth. We have an empty, aching space inside; we’re not sure if we’re loved, if we’re valued, if our life has any significance. We need others to reassure us of these things. But the trouble is, we can’t rely on them to do it, so we have to engineer situations that prompt them to do it for us.

What I want to say to you this morning is this: the Gospel of Jesus Christ comes down like rain on the dry field of our insecurity. The vital word in the vocabulary of this Gospel is the word ‘Grace’. Grace is God’s free and unconditional love for you and for everyone else he has made. You don’t have to earn it, you don’t have to deserve it; it comes as a free gift, and nothing can change that. As Philip Yancey says, grace means that there is nothing you can do to make God love you more, and nothing you can do to make God love you less; God already loves you infinitely, and nothing can ever change that. As another friend of mine likes to say, “God loves you, and there’s not a thing you can do about it!”

Jesus is inviting us to trust in God’s love for us, and relax in it. You don’t have to rush to get first place. And of course, you don’t have to rush to get last place either, if your motive is to get someone to invite you up to first place in the end! No—the Gospel way is not to think about precedence at all. Rather, you can relax, enjoy the feast, and share God’s love freely with the people who happen to be around you, in the secure knowledge that you are loved by God and nothing can ever change that.

Let’s now go on to think about Jesus’ second parable, in which he discusses invitation as a form of grace.

In June 1990 the Boston Globe told the story of an unusual wedding reception. A woman and her fiancée had arranged to have their wedding reception at the Hyatt Hotel in Boston, and as they had expensive tastes the final bill on the contract came to over $13,000, which was a huge amount of money twenty-nine years ago!

But then something unexpected happened. On the day the invitations were to go out, the groom got cold feet and asked for more time to think about things. When his angry fiancée went to the Hyatt to cancel the reception, she found she could not, unless she was willing to forfeit most of the money she had paid.

How here’s where it gets interesting. It turned out that ten years before, this same bride had been living in a homeless shelter. She had been fortunate enough to get a good job and get back on her feet, but now she had the idea of using her savings to treat the down and outs of Boston to a night on the town. So in June of 1990 the Hyatt Hotel hosted a party such as it had never seen before. The hostess changed the menu to boneless chicken—“in honour of the groom”, she said—and sent invitations to shelters and rescue missions throughout the city. That summer night, people who were used to eating out of garbage cans dined on chicken cordon bleu. Hyatt waiters in tuxedos served hors d’ouevres to elderly vagrants propped up by crutches and walkers. Bag ladies and drug addicts took a night off from the hard life on the sidewalks outside and sipped champagne, ate chocolate wedding cake, and danced to big band melodies late into the night.[1]

For this jilted bride to be, this unusual dinner party was an angry response to the collapse of her wedding plans. For us, however, Jesus is inviting us to embrace it as a way of life. Look again at verses 12-14:

“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous”.

This parable cuts me to the heart, because I have to admit that most of my social interaction is chosen on the basis of my own enjoyment. “I’ll go and visit so and so—that’s always enjoyable for me.” But Jesus is inviting me to make those decisions on the basis of unconditional love. I don’t think Jesus is literally condemning every family party or quiet dinner between friends. I think he’s challenging us to look for creative ways of reaching out to those who have no friends and no status in society at all. I find it interesting that the literal meaning of the word ‘hospitality’ is ‘love for the stranger’.

Many years ago when Marci and I were living in Aklavik in the western Arctic, we happened to read this gospel passage, and we were especially gripped by verses 12-14. I knew there were many parts of the teaching of Jesus I’d done a poor job of putting into practice, but I had to admit this was one passage I’d never even tried to put into practice! So Marci and I talked about it, and then we invited a particular family from the community to come and join us for dinner. The husband had been in and out of jail—in fact, we strongly suspected he committed a crime every Fall so as not to have to spend the winter in Aklavik. Both husband and wife were from families with a very high incidence of alcoholism and criminal activity of one kind or another. But they came, with their kids, and we had a meal together.

I have absolutely no memory of how the evening went, but it sticks out in my mind because it’s the only time I’ve tried to literally practice what Jesus says in this gospel reading. I don’t know if any of you have tried it; I’d be interested to hear if you have!

And to think of a less dramatic example, I wonder who you know who could benefit from a social invitation—perhaps for a cup of coffee, or an invite to dinner? It might not be someone you would naturally think of inviting, or someone who could pay you back. What might be the best way for you to reach out to that person?

Fund raisers discovered a long time ago that it’s easier to raise money if people can get their name on something – a brass plaque on a pew, or a list in a book. In this passage Jesus is offering us a vision of a different way—a way of freedom from slavery to self-interest. If we learn to live by his vision, we can interact with the people around us without quietly asking ourselves “I wonder how I can get them to admire me”. Instead we can concentrate on listening to them and loving them. We can initiate relationships with others, not for what we can get out of them, but for what we can give to them.

For some of us it might seem an impossible dream to think we could ever be that free. I put myself in that category. I’m well aware that my fundamental sin is self-centredness, which is why these parables hit me so hard. But on the other hand, I’ve met people who live the way Jesus is inviting us to here, and their lives challenge and inspire me.

We don’t always have to be silently asking the question “What’s in this situation, this relationship, for me?” Rather, because God loves each one of us out of pure grace, we can learn to live our lives in the same spirit, and discover in it the way of freedom, joy, and love.

[1]I first read this story in Philip Yancey’s book What’s So Amazing About Grace?