That Doesn’t Count as a Hymn

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We usually sing at least one hymn in church every week.

I don’t know, but there might be a hymn quota.  A requirement of some sort that we sing a hymn every week to appease the hymn lovers.

I am one of these, a hymn lover.

But sometimes I am unappeased.

If there is a hymn quota, certain conditions must be met and a specific standard must be achieved in order for a song to meet the hymn requirement.

If there is a hymn quota, certain conditions must be met and a specific standard must be achieved in order for a song to meet the hymn requirement.Click To Tweet

When the Hymn Doesn’t Count

  1.  When you change the harmonies.  One of the reasons we like to sing the hymns, is we like to sing the harmonies.  We know our parts.  Something special happens when we are able to contribute something musically beautiful to the praise and worship of our Lord.  If we sing one of our favourite hymns, say “Holy, Holy Holy,” but I can’t find my part, the discrepancy between the joyful worship I might have experienced and the frustration I actually experienced . . .  Well, it would be better if we didn’t sing it at all.
  2. When you add a flakey chorus or bridge.  Perhaps the fad is over, but for a while there we were always singing hymns with new choruses added.  A few of these were quite good, most added nothing to the song, and some are downright bad.  If we are going to sing hymns with added choruses, they should be only those in the first category.  Otherwise, just toss it.
  3. When it’s not a hymn.  There are songs that sound like hymns, but they aren’t really hymns.  Let’s sing these songs, but they can’t be counted as having sung a hymn.  “In Christ Alone” is one such song.  It’s wonderful, but it doesn’t count.
  4. When you change the lyrics.  The song has already been written.  If you want another song with a different theological emphasis, write it, but you can’t rewrite this one.  It does us no harm to sing in words that are not contemporary–it might do us some good.
  5. If it’s a Sunday School song from decades ago.   Hymns are old Christian songs, but not all old Christian songs are hymns.  It is a condition for many under 30 to lump together anything that happened before their birth into the category ‘old.’  Consequently, a young worship leader can easily conclude that “Pass It On” is a good old hymn. It is not.
  6. If it was ever sung by the Gaithers.
  7. When you change the musical style of the hymn, it’s awesome.

Different Musical Styles

Perhaps you expected me to rail against changing the way a hymn sounds.  That’d be a silly thing to complain about.

 

How to Rock the Literacy 10 Assessment

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I just finished a weekend of marking the brand new Literacy 10 Assessment–brought to you by the Ministry of Education in British Columbia.

As I read through hundreds and hundreds of student compositions, I wanted to talk to the students that wrote them, or their teachers and tell them if only they did this or that little thing, they’d get a far better score.  There are some pretty simple ways you can get better results on this assessment.

Why do well?

But before I get into how to do well, perhaps we’d better talk about why.  This is not one of those “high stakes exams” we hear about. One of those that determine if you get into university or how much funding your school gets. This doesn’t have that kind of baggage–that’s a good thing.  The response of the narrow minded is “then it doesn’t matter.”  This is absolutely correct if having an accurate assessment of one’s reading, writing and thinking does not matter.

If students do their best on this assessment, the results will provide them with some valuable information about what they are good at and what they can work on over the next few years to improve important competencies.  Competencies that, once developed, will certainly be personally relevant.  This is not an English test, it is about literacy–the skills it assesses transcend English class, and reach beyond high school graduation.

The Structure of the Literacy 10 Assessment

Part A

Students are given a selection of texts.  These include graphs and diagrams as well as as various passages including narrative and expository.  Students will answer a variety of questions on these texts–these are not typical multiple choice, but a variety of forms that break the mold of traditional assessments.

There are two writing tasks in Part A.  A Graphic Organizer and a Critical Response.

This section is called “What They Say” in that students write about what other people say about a topic.

Part B

This section is called “What I Say” because here students are invited to enter into the conversation.  Students can chose between Literacy for Information and Literacy for Expression.  Each of these have readings and a prompt for an essay.

How to do well.

Tip #1 — Understand the task.

There are three writing tasks on this assessment.  The Graphic Organizer, a Critical Response and Writing for Information/Expression.  The expectations for each task are very different, so students must understand which task they working on.

  1. Graphic Organizer — Here the student is expected to organize ideas found in texts.  They will organize ideas one a graphic organizer–a table, a pyramid,  a Venn Diagram, etc.  Here they show an understanding of cause/effect, coordinate and subordinate ideas, explanation/example, etc.  Students are asked to make assertions and briefly explain.
  2. Critical Response — This section is nicknamed “What They Say.” This is a multi-paragraph response.  For clarity’s sake, let’s call it an essay.  Students must have more than 1 paragraph.  Technically 2 is fine, but I suggest a minimum of 3.  Write an intro that ends with a thesis statement–be explicit.  A minimum of a one-paragraph body that starts with a topic sentence.  And a conclusion.  Most students should try for two or three body paragraphs.  Again, this is “What They Say”;  The instructions say, “With reference to one or more of the texts.”  Students should show they’ve read the texts.  This is important: students don’t offer their thoughts or ideas here–their task in this section is to clearly communicate what others are saying.  Students should write about the texts–not about what they think or know.   This is not a personal response, that comes later.
  3. Literacy for Information or Literacy for Expression — This section is nicknamed, “What I Say,” and it offers students more freedom in what they say and how they say it–they may write an essay, or a story, or even a poem.  In this section, students are given a prompt to which they respond in writing.  Readings accompany the prompt.  Students may use these as inspiration for their own writing, but there is no requirement that students refer to them.   It is important that students answer the prompt and not allow the readings to pull you off of this task.  Tell students to dare to be different–write a story, use dialogue (but know how to format it).  Show their insight and creativity from the first line!

Tip #2 — Be Specific

For all of these tasks, be specific, not general.  Clear, not vague.  Make sure the support is relevant and specific.  Back up all of your assertions with specific evidence or examples.

Tip #3 — Give Students a Word Count

For some reason, the creators of the assessment are very reluctant to give students a word count.  I don’t know what the reason is.  Anyone who has taught grade 10 students knows that most will write a one-sentence answer to any question unless specifically told to write more.  Then most a quite willing to comply.  This will also the case on the Literacy 10 Assessment–if they write a 50-word response to any of the essays, they will do poorly, and there is no need for this.

For the Graphic Organizer, don’t over-write.  The exception is the Graphic organizer.  Two sentences per box will be fine.  A quote doesn’t hurt, but it is not necessary.

For the essays tell students that they should write a minimum of 300 words.  A 600 word response is completely appropriate.

Tip #3 — Exceed Minimums

When then instructions say, “With reference to one or more of the texts,” refer to at least two.  When the instructions say multi-paragraph, write at least 3.  Exceed minimums, but don’t get carried away–don’t refer to all the texts multiple times and don’t write a seven paragraph essay.  Good writers know when their point has been made and don’t need to compensate with volume.

Tip #4 — Read for Main Ideas

Most of the tasks in the assessment revolve around picking up on the main ideas for each text.  Students should practice this in their classes, and they should focus on this as they read the passages on the assessment.

Tip #5 — Capitals and Periods

I’ve marked provincial exams for more than two decades, and have always been baffled as to why so many students consider the caps and periods optional, as if they were some sort of stylistic device that only pretentious professionals employed.

If you know what a sentence is.  Show that you know.

If you don’t know what a sentence is, toss a few periods and capitals into your writing. It can’t hurt.  At least the assessor would get the idea that you’re trying.

Tip #6 Refer to Texts by Name

And put this name in the proper format.

Tip #7 — Read It Over

Typos and spelling mistakes don’t leave a very good impression.  Ideally, every spelling and grammatical error that remains in each composition should only be the ones the student is not aware of.  If they know how to spell “environment” they should not allow “emviromint” remain uncorrected in their essay.

Tip #8 — Paragraphing

Reinforce the importance of paragraphing to your students.  It shows the students understanding of structuring writing, and it makes their writing easier to understand.

So, topic sentences, specific evidence with explanations, and transitions will really boost those marks.  It’s fine if students don’t write in paragraphs, but only if they legitimately don’t understand paragraphing.  That’s one of the things we are assessing.

Tip #9 — Answer the questions even if it’s not relevant to you.

Sometimes students will be asked to give a personal opinion or reflection to an issue or an idea.  They need to put some effort into this, even if they honestly don’t have an opinion, reaction or to describe something they learned or how their opinion has shifted.  They should explain why they don’t have an opinion, or talk about an opinion that a student might have.  A specific response in these cases can bump students up a mark.

Silent Night, Holy Night

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My third-grade teacher taught us how to sing the carol, “Silent Night” in Dutch.  We sang it for the residence of the retirement home.  I still remember the Dutch lyrics, but I never really knew what the words said.

My dad was commenting on the song the other day and complained that the words of the English version of the song have very little of the depth found in the original German or the Dutch translation.

I dropped the Dutch version of the song into Google Translate.  The third verse goes like this:

Silent Night, Holy night,
Salvation is brought.
To a world lost in debt,
God’s promise is wonderfully fulfilled.

Keep in mind that the translator has no consideration for the rhyme, but notice the focused theological assertions.

I don’t need to remind you of the third verse that we sing every year:

Silent night, holy night
Son of God, oh, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace

Unfocused.  A little weird.  Confusing.

I agree with my dad; something has been lost in the translation.

Just for fun, the Original German version has a whole different tone:

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, oh how laughs
Love out of your divine mouth,
For now the hour of salvation strikes for us.

Why Are the Best Books the Banned Books?

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I am doing a “Banned Books” unit in my English 12 class this year.

The idea came to me when I heard that it was Banned Books Week (this year, September 22-28).  This is an annual religious festival in honour of one of our culture’s main deities–Freedom.   More particular, we celebrate the freedom to read.  Because, in some circles, to challenge a book is to challenge a god, the celebration can sometimes take on a “screw you” sort of tone.  But this is a worthy focus week, even for those for those who don’t bend the knee to freedom, for there are worrisome current and dangerous historical attempts to censor books in libraries and schools.  These are often attempting not just to protect the vulnerable but to limit thought.  Most of the books on the banned books lists were not, in fact, banned but challenged by someone somewhere about the use of these books in a classroom or their presence in a library.  I like to use the word banned because, sure, it’s more sensational, but mostly because it alliterates so nicely.  As in . . .

Banned Books or Bland Books

No, we are not reading Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James, not only because the content is inappropriate for young readers, but because it isn’t very good.

That’s the interesting thing, most of the books on the banned or challenged book list are the same books that have been taught in schools for decades.  In other words, most of the banned books are the best books.

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There’s a reason for this: the best books are often provocative.

Books that aren’t banned ask little of readers.  They affirm our values and fulfill in the end what they promise in the beginning.  Books that aren’t banned, are often bland books.

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Books that make demands of its readers are challenged.  Books that challenge readers to look at the world differently are burned.   Books that startle and shock us out of our comfort zone are banned.  These are the books we should be reading.

The books that do this, are the best books, and they are the banned books.

A List of Banned Books

Here’s a list of some books that have been challenged; it’s also my recommended reading list.  Its a list of books that everyone should read before they die, or better yet, long before they die so that having read them may do some good.

  • To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee
  • Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • Catch 22 Joseph Heller
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  • Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
  • The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry

These next three I actually haven’t read, but I’ve read what my students have written about them.  These stories had an impact.  Students understood, in a meaningful way, something more about our indigenous neigbours, systemic racism, and the girl with no hope.

  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  • The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas
  • 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

 

“Worship Christ the Newborn King” or “Coming King”?

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This weekend is the first Sunday of Advent. We sang some advent songs.  That was awesome.  Mine isn’t a liturgical church–it’s more of a Modern one–so there’s not too much attention given to the Church Calendar except the biggies like Christmas and Easter.  I like liturgy and The Calendar, so I like it that Advent gets some attention.

One of the songs we sang was “Angels From the Realms of Glory.”  But the words were different.  Rather than singing “Come and Worship Christ the newborn King” we sang “Come and Worship Christ the coming King.”  Well, I didn’t sing that.  I stuck to the real lyrics, not out of stubbornness; each time we got to the line, I was already halfway through the familiar, so I just forged ahead.
I wondered about this change.  It’s obviously a shift in focus from the Incarnation to The Second Coming.  The verses of the song are about the Bethlehem story, so perhaps the lyric-alterer wants to generate some relevance for the modern worshiper by also anticipating Christ’s future coming.  Maybe he thought this made the hymn a little more well-rounded.  This argument for breadth makes some sense, but if we sing about everything in a single song, aren’t we in danger of singing about nothing.
My view is that there is much to be gained by a focus on the Incarnation during the season in which we remember it.

The Significance of the Incarnation

Advent celebrates the coming of Jesus into the world when God takes human form.  We Modern, Western Christians often fail to fully grasp the significance of the Incarnation.  The ancient Hebrew faith was unique in that there was one God and he was outside creation.  He seemed to make it a priority of being with his people, first as a pillar of fire over the Tabernacle and later in the Holy-of-Holies in the Temple, but his holiness made approaching him problematic.  In the Incarnation, a wholly transcendent God took on flesh–he became one of us.  This is remarkable.  It redefines humanity’s relationship with God.  He’s accessible and present.  At it’s most basic, the Incarnation means that God is with us–Emmanuel, which has been his object all along.  The incarnation also reminds us of our value; when God takes on flesh and remains enfleshed, he’s telling us a little about how he views humanity.
Human beings were special in creation–we were made in the Image of God.  There are tremendous forces loosed upon the world that are degrading human value at every point.  Contemporary idols, Choice, Freedom, Ease and Pleasure demand human sacrifice upon their alters.  Politicians continue to insist on hierarchies and institutions suppress dialogue.  Posthuman ideas whisper into our ears, as did the serpent in the garden so long ago–human beings are not special.  And don’t get me started on the dehumanization of social media.  We need every reminder as to our position in creation and the value conferred upon us by our creator.  We need to be reminded of our Hope.
The Incarnation is a significant part of a long, long story of Redemption.  This story also includes the call of Abraham, the Exodus, King David.  It also includes Good Friday, Easter and the Second Coming.  To reduce this long story and all it’s parts to “Jesus was crucified rose from the dead, and is coming again” is to degrade the story.  We need to delve deeply into each part in order to experience the significance of each.
So, at least for these weeks in December, let us worship the newborn king.

Prophetic Speech from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

I re-read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 this past week.  Montag, the protagonist of the story is a firemen.  In this futuristic world this job entails the burning of books and the houses that contain them.   How did the culture come to this?  Captain Beatty’s speech to Montag explains:

“When did it all start, you ask, this job of ours, how did it come about, where, when? Well, I’d say it really got started around about a thing called the Civil War . . . .  The fact is we didn’t get along well until photography came into its own. Then–motion pictures in the early twentieth century. Radio. Television. Things began to have mass.”

“And because they had mass, they became simpler,” said Beatty. “Once, books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere. They could afford to be different. The world was roomy. But then the world got full of eyes and elbows and mouths. Double, triple, quadruple population. Films and radios, magazines, books leveled down to a sort of paste pudding norm, do you follow me?”

“Picture it. Nineteenth-century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion. Then, in the twentieth century, speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Condensations, Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending.”

“Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume. I exaggerate, of course. The dictionaries were for reference. But many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet . . . was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: now at least you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors. Do you see? Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there’s your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more.”

“Speed up the film, Montag, quick. Click? Pic, Look, Eye, Now, Flick, Here, There, Swift, Pace, Up, Down, In, Out, Why, How, Who, What, Where, Eh? Uh! Bang! Smack! Wallop, Bing, Bong, Boom! Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests.  Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in mid-air, all vanishes! Whirl man’s mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters, that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!”

“School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?”

“Life becomes one big pratfall, Montag; everything bang, boff, and wow!”

“More sports for everyone, group spirit, fun, and you don’t have to think, eh? Organize and organize and super organize super-super sports. More cartoons in books. More pictures. The mind drinks less and less. Impatience.

“Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic-books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! 3 Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God. Today, thanks to them, you can stay happy all the time, you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals.”

“Yes, but what about the firemen, then?” asked Montag.

“Ah.” Beatty leaned forward in the faint mist of smoke from his pipe. “What more easily explained and natural? With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word `intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar. Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally ‘bright,’ did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him. And wasn’t it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours? Of course it was. We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man? Me? I won’t stomach them for a minute. And so when houses were finally fireproofed completely, all over the world (you were correct in your assumption the other night) there was no longer need of firemen for the old purposes. They were given the new job, as custodians of our peace of mind, the focus of our understandable and rightful dread of being inferior; official censors, judges, and executors. That’s you, Montag, and that’s me.”

“You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred. Ask yourself, What do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s all we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these.”

“Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Bum the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator. Funerals are unhappy and pagan? Eliminate them, too. Five minutes after a person is dead he’s on his way to the Big Flue, the Incinerators serviced by helicopters all over the country. Ten minutes after death a man’s a speck of black dust. Let’s not quibble over individuals with memoriams. Forget them. Burn them all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean.”

…If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the Government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely `brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy. Any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again, and most men can nowadays, is happier than any man who tries to slide rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won’t be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely. I know, I’ve tried it; to hell with it. So bring on your clubs and parties, your acrobats and magicians, your dare-devils, jet cars, motorcycle helicopters, your sex and heroin, more of everything to do with automatic reflex. If the drama is bad, if the film says nothing, if the play is hollow, sting me with the Theremin, loudly. I’ll think I’m responding to the play, when it’s only a tactile reaction to vibration. But I don’t care. I just like solid entertainment.”

Beatty got up. “I must be going. Lecture’s over. I hope I’ve clarified things. The important thing for you to remember, Montag, is we’re the Happiness Boys, the Dixie Duo, you and I and the others. We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought. We have our fingers in the dyke. Hold steady. Don’t let the torrent of melancholy and drear philosophy drown our world. We depend on you. I don’t think you realize how important you are, we are, to our happy world as it stands now.”

“One last thing,” said Beatty. “At least once in his career, every fireman gets an itch. What do the books say, he wonders. Oh, to scratch that itch, eh? Well, Montag, take my word for it, I’ve had to read a few in my time, to know what I was about, and the books say nothing! Nothing you can teach or believe. They’re about nonexistent people, figments of imagination, if they’re fiction. And if they’re nonfiction, it’s worse, one professor calling another an idiot, one philosopher screaming down another’s gullet. All of them running about, putting out the stars and extinguishing the sun. You come away lost.” 

 

Best Dystopian novels in order of Awesomeness

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Here are my favourite dystopian novels.  I placed them in order of the pleasure I derived from reading them, and their signficance, and their literary merit:

  1. 1984 by George Orwell
  2. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (1996)​
  3. Feed by M. T. Anderson (2002)​
  4. The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
  5. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2004)​
  6. ​That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis (1945)​
  7. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  8. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008) ​
  9. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)​
  10. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (1957)
  11. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)​
  12. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  13. The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993)​
  14. The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (1955)​
  15. The Running Man by Stephen King (1982)​
  16. A​nthem by Ayn Rand (1938)​

Next on my list is A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)​.

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Come From Away and The Book of Mormon

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This summer my wife and I saw Come From Away.

We also saw The Book of Mormon.

Completely different experiences.

Come from Away tells the story of what happened in Gander, Nova Scotia on September 11, 2001.  When President Bush closed American airspace all the US-bound aircraft needed to land elsewhere.  38 big jets landed in Gander, almost doubling the population of this small Canadian town.  This is a story about real people doing something beautiful in very difficult circumstances.

The Book of Mormon is about a couple of young members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints going on their missions trip to Uganda.  They are naive and unprepared to face the difficulties in Africa including HIV/AIDS, famine, female genital mutilation, and hostile warlords.  It was considerably more offensive and blasphemous than I expected, and I regretted being there almost immediately.

Why go to The Book of Mormon?  I love live theatre and I try to see the good ones.  It won nine Tony Awards and was called “the best musical of the century” by the New York Times.  I also consider it a bit of a responsibility to understand the culture and this play is hugely popular.  And The Prince of Wales theatre was reputed to have airconditioning and it was the hottest day in London’s recorded history–we needed to go someplace cool.

As expected, the show is brilliant in so many ways–the singing, dancing, acting, and production are as awesome as any of the big blockbuster musicals.  But I walked out of it–I don’t know–horrified?

It wasn’t just that it was irreverent and offensive–I understand that art will sometimes challenge our sensibilities.  I don’t mind being challenged, and I certainly don’t mind it when the sensibilities of others are challenged.  The play does satirize the hypocrisy, naivety and even silliness of Mormons, and by extension Christians and all religious people.   Fine.  But when you ridicule good things that you’ve made no attempt to understand . . .  well, then you’ve gone beyond satire.  I was offended by the mockery of good things.  Good things that everyone knows are good.  Things writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone know are good, but they deride them just the same.

And then there’s the laughter of the audience.  It was a completely sold-out show.  And everyone in the audience was apparently delighted by the ridicule and mockery.  As I walked out of the Prince of Whales, which by the way didn’t have very good airconditioning, I was horrified by the laughter.

Four Kinds of Laughter

In the eleventh letter of C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, senior demon Screwtape instructs his nephew, junior tempter Wormwood, about how to use laughter to win his patient’s soul to what they call “our Father’s house.”  According to Screwtape, there are four kinds of laughter, only one of which is truly effective for demonic purposes.

The first kind of laughter arises from Joy.  Screwtape and fellow devils don’t understand this one any better than they understand music.  They usually observe joyous laughter “among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday.”  But they are puzzled by this kind of delight because the laughter is disproportionately bigger than the “smallest witticisms” that produce them.

Fun generates a second type of laughter.  It too is useless to the demonic powers in that “it promotes charity, courage, contentment, and many other evils.”

The Joke proper, “which turns on sudden perception of incongruity” will cause the third kind of laughter.

Before we get to the fourth kind of laughter, let’s talk about the laughter of the audience at Come from Away.

Come From Away and Laughter

The audience of Come From Away laughed. We laughed often. We laughed long. We laughed hard.

We also cried, and winced, and clapped our hands with delight.  The laughter occurred in the context of a wide range of human emotions.

The theme of this whole story is that life can be very difficult and what we do as individuals and communities can make a  significant difference in the lives of others as they navigate life’s disappointment and challenges  It shows us that by giving of ourselves, we can be profoundly blessed.  The play shows us what it means to be, and experience, good neighbours.

The laughter came from joy and fun and jokes; it came exclusively from the first three of Screwtape’s three forms of laughter.

And though it all, Come From Away praises what is good.

Flippancy and The Book of Mormon

The most useful form of laughter to the minions of hell is Screwtape’s fourth–Flippancy

One reason flippancy is “the best of all” is because of its economy.  “Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue.”  Flippancy requires no cleverness, for it assumes the joke has already been made.  The laughter arises not from delight or fun or an incongruity, but from the mockery and ridicule itself.  Thus, the good can be laughed at as easily as can something which is actually funny.

I experienced each show with audiences of hundreds of people, but the feelings I carried for my fellow patrons through the exits were very different.

In Come From Away, we had shared in the celebration of something good–something we want more of, something we need.  We shared a commitment to be better people.

The only thing we shared in The Book of Mormon was derision for someone else and a twisted delight in our own superiority.

It is as Screwtape said, the fourth kind of laughter “deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.”

In Come From Away, we had shared in the celebration of something good--something we want more of, something we need. The only thing we shared in The Book of Mormon was derision for someone else and a twisted delight in our own superiority. Click To Tweet

Liberal or Conservative: How does the Devil vote?

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Does God want us to be liberal or conservative?

How do the demons vote?

We get a pretty clear answer to the second question in C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.   The book takes the form of a series of letters that have been written by a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew and junior tempter, Wormwood, on the best means by which to bring a soul to dwell for all eternity with “Our Father below,” as they refer to him.

In the seventh letter, Screwtape explores the question of whether to make Wormwood’s patient an “extreme patriot or an extreme pacifist.”  This was the question on everyone’s mind when the Letters were published in 1942.

Screwtape is quite clear that the devils are not interested in whether Christians support or oppose World War II.   Neither side is inherently Christian, it seems.  As a matter of fact, Screwtape seems to see more possibilities to lead him astray through pacifism.

Today, the specific circumstances are different, but Christians are still struggling to answering the same general question.  The contemporary question has us wondering between liberal or conservative, Trudeau or Scheer, Democrat or Republican, Trump or someone else?

If Lewis is correct, the minions of hell can use our conservatism just as easily as our liberalism to gain possession of a soul for all eternity.

If Lewis is correct, the minions of hell can use our conservatism just as easily as our liberalism to gain possession of a soul for all eternity.Click To Tweet

Screwtape explains the process:

Step 1:

Whichever he adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion.

It is clear that the position the Christian takes is of no consequence; the goal of the forces of hell is to erroneously connect our position on the political spectrum with our faith.  From much that I read from Christian writers on the internet, it is apparent that the devils are having a very easy time of it.  We are very willing to take the first step.

Step 2:

Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part.

Again, it doesn’t appear as if we are having the demons work very hard.  I’ve heard many stories of people who can no longer associate with, let alone fellowship with, brothers and sisters in Christ who occupy a different position on the political spectrum as they.  The “camp” to which we belong is so obvious and it is not coloured by any qualification involving all the other dimensions of the Christian faith.

Step 3:

Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the “cause”, in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war-effort or of Pacifism.

C. S. Lewis never read a single blog post or online article, and yet it is as if he’s read the same religio-political diatribes and tirades that I can only escape in the shower.

But there is hope.  Screwtape reveals the means by which we might reverse our steps toward the eternal flames.

The attitude which you want to guard against is that in which temporal affairs are treated primarily as material for obedience.

This is Lewis’ real point.  Whether left or right, we ought to treat our political positions as primarily material for obedience to our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Our position on the environment, taxes, deficits, size of government, guns, immigration, abortion, LGBTQ, education, is secondary to obedience.  In the fifth letter, Lewis makes this point, through Screwtape:

The Enemy [God] disapproves many . . . causes. But that is where He is so unfair. He often makes prizes of humans who have given their lives for causes He thinks bad on the monstrously sophistical ground that the humans thought them good and were following the best they knew.

It is more important for us to be obedient than it is for us to be right.  And yet, because we have allowed the faith to be slave to the cause, we find it easy to hate our political opposites.

Back to the seventh letter:

Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours-and the more “religious” (on those terms) the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here,

And here we have it.  This is a dire warning for those who have made faith a means to an end.

God Shaped Hole?

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A lot of Christians talk about a void in every person that can only be filled by God.  We are compelled to fill it, but we will never achieve peace /fulfillment /wholeness unless this space is filled with God.   This “God-shaped hole” is an innate human desire to connect with the transcendent.

It’s a cliché.  And like most clichés, it’s an oversimplification, but it carries some truth.  Human beings have desires.  Besides physical needs and desires–we were created for relationships, we were created for community, and we were created to be in relationship with God.  To say that all we need is God is to deny the other good things he created us to desire and enjoy.  These ought not to be tossed aside, but understood as good gifts from a loving Father.  But, yes, our most profound desire is to know and be known by God.

For this post, I am borrowing from Tim Keller, particularly his book Counterfeit God’s and a lecture of the same name that he delivered at Cambridge Passion.

In his exploration of idolatry, Keller differentiates good things and ultimate things.

Good Things and God, The Ultimate

God created everything, and he declared them to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31).  The list of good things is obviously very long and it includes:

  • work,
  • romantic love,
  • family,
  • pasta,
  • baseball,
  • acclaim,
  • reason,
  • beauty,
  • self-expression,
  • justice,
  • pleasure,
  • and cherry trees.

The list goes on and on.

Above all these good things, God places humanity.  Humanity occupies this place above the good things because we alone were created in God’s image.   Here’s the text which articulates humanities special position in creation, above all the good things.

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

–Genesis 1:26

Innate value has been conferred onto human beings by God.  Our value is linked to God.  In a properly ordered life or society, God is the Ultimate thing.  Human beings occupy a position above all the good things because they were created in God’s Image.  All the other good things are good, but they do not have more value than God or humanity.

“Disordered Loves”

Augustine called sin “disordered love.”  Sin is, in essence, replacing God with something else.  We take a good thing and make it the ultimate thing; we replace the Creator with the created.  The good thing in the ascendant position is an idol.

Career advancement is a common idol in our culture.  There’s nothing wrong with career advancement–it is a good thing–but when it becomes an ultimate thing, all other things must give way to it.  The marriage and the children will be sacrificed to it.  “Friends” becomes a name for those who can be used to aid advancement while others will be treated as rungs on a ladder.  Idols are very demanding overlords, they take and they want it all.

Beauty is a good thing.  And it is another common idol.  it demands huge amounts of money and often ones dignity, and it always fails those who worship it–we cannot stop beauty from fading.

Family is a good thing, but it is a terrible master.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace is one of my favourite books.  It could only come from a brilliant and tortured mind.  His “This is Water” commencement speech to Kenyon College class of 2005, presents some of the wisdom Wallace has aquired through his struggles.  In this passage he explains the problem with false gods:

You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship… Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship-be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles-is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things-if they are where you tap real meaning in life-then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already-it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power-you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart-you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.  Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings.

(If you listen to the whole speech, you will hear Wallace come dangerously close to pointing to a realignment of our loves under the transcendent god, for our sake and for the sake of others around us.)

Whatever your idol, it will eventually eat you alive.

God-shaped hole?  We should maybe stop using the phrase, but behind this cliche is the idea that everything you desires will destroy if they are put into the position of a god.  Conversely, if you subordinate all your desires to Christ’s Lordship, you will achieve the peace and fulfillment and wholeness you seek, because it was for Christ you were made.

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