In Praise of Small Talk

In Scripture, when Jesus wants to communicate about the kingdom, he talks of rebellious children and thieves, pesky weeds and farmer’s fields, investment strategies and sheep. In the same way, these “small talk” conversations that happened in homes all around our parish became doorways to evangelism and discipleship. … “If we avoid small talk, we abandon the very field in which we have been assigned to work.”

This is a compelling reflection by Julie Canlis. I crave deep conversations and connections with people, but we sometimes fail to remember that those kinds of relationships tend to spring from the soil of small talk and grow over time.


Slow Internet

Critics of the big tech companies are often told, “If you don’t like the company, don’t use its products.” I did this experiment to find out if that is possible, and I found out that it’s not…

These companies are unavoidable because they control internet infrastructure, online commerce, and information flows. Many of them specialize in tracking you around the web, whether you use their products or not. These companies started out selling books, offering search results, or showcasing college hotties, but they have expanded enormously and now touch almost every online interaction. These companies look a lot like modern monopolies.

I went through the digital equivalent of a juice cleanse. I hope I’m better than most dieters at staying healthy afterward, but I don’t want to be a digital vegan. I want to embrace a lifestyle of “slow Internet,” to be more discriminating about the technology I let into my life and think about the motives of the companies behind it. The tech giants are reshaping the world in good and bad ways; we can take the good and reject the bad.

Some excerpts from an interesting piece of experimental journalism by Kashmir Hill. She spent 6 weeks eliminating each of the big five tech-giants (Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple) from her life and then on the last week eliminated all of them and reported on the experience.

It seems to me that experiments like this and the questions she is asking seem more pressing to Millennials and Gen-Z’ers than they do to Gen-X’ers and Boomers. I can only speculate why this is (assuming I’m even right), but I think that Gen-X’ers and Boomers are fundamentally more optimistic about technology. Could it be that older generations survived their formative years, education, and early career without new media/tech giants so they feel dispensable, while the digital natives feel trapped in a brave new world that they have to learn to navigate or die?

The Serpent Gets Pushy

But the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, God has said, “You shall neither eat of it nor touch it, or you will die!” (Genesis 3:3). Thus it is written, “Do not add onto God’s words, or God will punish you, as you will be a liar” (Proverbs 30:6). Rabbi Chiyya taught: That means that you must not make the fence more than the principal thing, lest it fall and destroy the plants. Thus, the Holy One, blessed be, has said, “But of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, you must not eat, for on the day you partake of it, you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17). Eve did not say this, but rather, “You shall neither eat of it nor touch it” (Genesis 3:3). When the serpent saw her exaggerating in this manner, he grabbed her and pushed her against the tree. “So, have you died?” he asked her. “Just as you were not stricken when you touched it, so will you not die when you eat from it.”

From Bereishit Rabbah 19:1

Bereishit Rabbah is a midrash on Genesis that was composed in Israel and Babylon about  AD 500. Midrash is a method of imaginative exegesis where you draw out stories and make connections between Scriptures that “fill in the gaps” in logic or answer questions left open in the text. It is a hallmark of ancient Jewish interpretation.

Philosopher Rabbis

The truth is that Scripture mentions the heavens and the earth because they form one globe, with the heavens like the circumference and the earth like the point at the center. Now the earth was covered with water from all sides, as it is written “they will not return to cover the earth” (Psalms 104:9), and the wind surrounds the waters. These are the four elements, namely, the heavens, earth, wind and water, for the heavens correspond to fire. Similarly we find “To make a weight for the wind and He counted the waters by measure” (Job 28:25), “For He gazes to the edges of the earth, under all the heavens He sees” (ibid. 28:24). Similarly, “Who measured the waters with his fist and counted the heavens with a span, and all the dust of the earth in a measure… who counted the wind of God” (Isaiah 40:12–13). Again, “Who ascended to the heavens and descended” (Proverbs 30:4), and the other three follow the word “heavens.” Also, “The sun shines” (Ecclesiastes 1:5) corresponds to the heavens, “and the earth remains forever” (ibid. 1:4), “round and round goes the wind” (ibid. 1:6), “all the rivers go to the sea” (ibid. 1:7). Since the circumference, which is the heavens, and the center, which is the earth, were created, so too all that is between them was created.

From Ibn Ezra’s Sabbath Epistle (composed in London, 1159 AD).

If you will take a good look at this paragraph and at the paragraphs following them, you will realize that there is an overall pattern to the sequence in which they have been written. They correspond to the four basic elements of the universe which we explained in connection with Genesis 1,2. Here the Torah proceeds in an ascending manner. You are aware that in Genesis they appeared in a descending manner. The four basic materials of terrestrial earth are: fire, wind (atmosphere), water, earth. This is also the order in which Solomon arranged these four basic components of our terrestrial universe in Proverbs 30,4. He writes: “Who has ascended heaven and come down? Who has gathered up the wind in the hollows of his hand? Who has wrapped the waters in his garment? Who has established all the extremities of the earth?”

From Rabbeinu Bahya on Vayikra 11:2 (i.e., Lev 11:2) by Rabbi Bahya ben Asher (1255-1340 AD, Spain).

Discovered these bits of medieval Jewish commentary while I was researching Proverbs 30:4 the other day. Fascinating to see how these medieval rabbis marry ideas from Greek philosophy (stoicheia, i.e., the four elements) with their interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in ways that would probably not occur to us. Ibn Ezra was born and educated in Muslim Spain so his approach to everything from grammar to astronomy was influenced by the Greeks through the Arabic Jewish tradition. Same with Bahya ben Asher.

Email and the Death of the Mind

Society has been engulfed by a crisis of concentration that has hit higher education particularly hard. Our time and attention have gradually shifted from the specialized intellectual tasks that directly produce value to busywork, such as managing our inboxes and tackling nonessential administrative obligations.

Instead of giving in to this reality, we should reaffirm the importance of the life of the mind by reforming the academy as a beacon of concentration in an age of distraction. Higher education can lead the way in turning back the tide of electronic chatter that threatens to overwhelm us. Do we have the will to protect what’s important against the pull of what’s easy? Will we stand for the power of concentration over the shallowness of rapid communication? And if not us, then who?

Cal Newport in “Is Email Making Professors Stupid?”

I am looking forward to Newport’s new Digital Minimalism.

For my part, reading his Deep Work was a game changer about a year and a half ago. I realized that when stress about difficult and large-scale projects would overwhelm me, the tendency was not to face the problem head-on but to try to feel productive and in control by accomplishing little, manageable things. Email was a great go-to. Clear the inbox. Help some people out. Check, check, check. I realized two things through reading Deep Work. (1) I was distracting myself rather than solving a problem. (2) I had made my fast response time and reliability on email into something of an idol because I believed that it showed that I was more responsible and productive than co-workers or friends who responded slowly-to-never. Since then I have learned to send less email, respond more slowly, and batch the whole process into dedicated times. The result is that I have to face the complex challenges of research, writing, and lesson planning head-on. The productivity gains can be difficult to measure. It isn’t that I am able to teach twice as many courses in a year, but rather than I am able to teach the courses that I do teach better, with a few fewer hours in preparation, and a lot less vague anxiety. One thoughtful lesson on a complex topic is worth 1,000 emails.


Mercy in Perspective

When we loose our perspective—when we loose the ability to number our days—we loose hope. This lack of perspective on ourselves and God’s wrath threatens to destroy any shred of meaning and joy in our lives. The request in Psalm 90:12, then, is a prayer for perspective in light of God’s wrath and our mortality: “So teach us to number our days / that we may get a heart of wisdom.” The idea is not just that we need simply to keep our mortality in mind because this makes us uncommonly wise or intellectual—the idea is that we will not be able to survive this life unless we have some assurance that an end to God’s wrath is coming. Tell us how much longer we have to hang on, O LORD! We are counting down the days.

I preached a sermon on Psalm 90 last weekend at Christ Community Church in Daytona. You can download the audio and/or the manuscript after the jump.

Five Seriously Excellent Books about J.R.R. Tolkien: A Birthday Appreciation

On this day 127 years ago, J. R. R. Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa. The amount of fan literature and criticism that has grown up around Tolkien is dizzying (even a little off-putting), however, The Lord of the Rings remains my favorite book and a case can be made that Tolkien is the author of the 20th century. Here are five books about J. R. R. Tolkien that are very much worth reading. In their complementary ways each one opens up the depth and genius of the man and his mythology. Taken together, I think they make a comprehensive introduction to the man and his world. (Although I am assuming that you have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings before approaching this list, for a certain kind of reader, perhaps even an incredulous one, these books may help you appreciate Tolkien’s arcane genius.)

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1. J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter
This was the first full-length, authorized biography of J. R. R. Tolkien and to this day it may be the best. Tolkien is a difficult man to chronicle because, with the exception of his military service (see pick 4 below), he lived, quite honestly, a very boring life. He never left Oxford after he arrived, rode his  bicycle to work every day, published relatively little academically speaking, loved trees and landscape and place, vacationed in the same town every year on the seashore in England, hated French cooking, struggle chronically with finances, was a faithful—if slightly distant—husband and father of four, and lived well within his own head. Carpenter, with the assistance of the Tolkien family, has done as good a job as anyone is likely to do turning the bare facts of Tolkien’s life into a story and a picture of the man. He is undeniably a fan, so the biography is laudatory but not entirely uncritical. This is the best place to start to appreciate Tolkien, his context, his mind.


2. The Road to Middle Earth: How J. R. R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology by Tom Shippey
To dig deeper below the layers of Tolkien’s mind and particularly his influences you need to read the works of Tom Shippey. Shippey is perhaps the most academically credible critic and commentator of Tolkien’s work because he is himself a trained Medievalist who once taught the same curriculum as Tolkien. Shippey’s book focuses on teasing out the influences and origins of Tolkien’s creative process in the literature of “the North,” i.e., the Germanic and Scandinavian languages and literatures of old. The names of the twelve dwarves in The Hobbit can all be found in ancient Finnish epics. The name Gandalf means “staff elf” in Old English, which Tolkien imagined into the figure of a wizard. What Shippey skillfully shows is that the roots of Tolkien’s entire mythology lie deep in the collective memory and fossilized language of the Northern peoples. What Tolkien accomplished was a genius personal renovation of the cultural memory of Northern Europe by imagining a common linguistic and mythological past beyond the shores of history. Shippey proves that nothing else like this has ever been attempted, let alone accomplished to the tune of more than 100 million copies sold.


3. The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip and Carol Zaleski
Famously, though he was intensely private, Tolkien did not live and write in a vacuum but in a close-knit literary community at Oxford—the Inklings of lore and legend. Many hopelessly fawning books have been writ about this circle, but Zaleski and Zaleski’s is probably the best and certainly the most sophisticated (Humphrey Carpenter’s is just a pace behind, but it focuses more narrowly on C. S. Lewis and is less ambitious in scope). A massive work of collective biography and literary criticism, this engrossing, critical, yet imminently respectful study is a deep dive into Tolkien’s friendships with the men closest to him during the most creatively productive decades of his life. Although they spend equal time on C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, and J. R. R. Tolkien, the Zaleski’s put Tolkien into context and develop the particularly literary aspects of his thought and his biography in a careful, nuanced, and even poignant way. What emerges is the debt of encouragement that Tolkien owed to this circle of friends, his singular and unflagging personal literary vision, and his lifelong, craftsman-like dedication to his own inner world. “No one ever influenced Tolkien,” Lewis once quipped, “You might as well try to influence a bandersnatch.”


4. Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-Earth  by John Garth
Before the Inklings there was the TCBS—the Tea Club and Barrovian Society. This group of four bosom friends came together in secondary school, stayed thick as thieves through university at Oxbridge, but was shattered, torn apart, and killed on the mud-rutted fields of France at the Somme. “By 1918,” Tolkien wrote, “all but one of my close friends were dead.” Can you imagine? Tolkien finished university under a death-sentence. Oxford was a ghost town turned drill-yard in 1915 when he wrote his graduation exams with just eight other men. Tolkien graduated, married his high-school sweetheart, went on a honeymoon, then reported for duty expecting all the while never to come home (42 classmates from secondary school were killed in twelve months). Under this cloud and in this circle of companions his mythology first began to take shape. He invented languages, wrote his first epic poems, and in a convalescent hospital while the War raged on in France he wrote the first real stories that would become the legendarium of Middle Earth. John Garth has written an incredibly well-researched and intelligent account of Tolkien’s early years from University through the Great War. Blending careful biography, painstakingly reconstructed military history, and insightful literary criticism, Garth crafts the most compelling and compassionate account of how these early friendships and this shared set of traumatic experiences shaped Tolkien and his imagined world.


5. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien by J. R. R. Tolkien, selected and edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien
My favorite window on Tolkien are his own letters. Especially against the background of the biographical works above, Tollers comes to life through his own pen. His dry wit, intellectual prowess, cantankerous nature, persistent struggles, sentimental tenderness, deep faith, perfectionistic tendencies, and creative flair are nowhere more clearly displayed. Most of these letters are addressed to close friends and family, especially his wife and children. In some of the most fascinating, he writes to the likes of W. H. Auden and his publishers to unpack his own personal vision of Middle-Earth in the fullest detail that he probably ever put down on paper. At least one of these letters amounts to a ten-page philosophical and theological essay on the meaning of Middle-Earth. In some of the most poignant letters he encourages his son stationed on the front lines of WWII with his own traumatic memories from the front lines of WWI. In the end, I found most moving the memories of his wife, Edith, that he sent to his children just after her death. Here we get a rough self-portrait of the husband, father, and friend as those closest to him must have known him.


Postscript pick: The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays by J. R. R. Tolkien
Tolkien was not a prolific academic, mostly focusing on his own mythology and his teaching responsibilities, but he did write at least one influential essay about the poem Beowulf, which gives its name to this collection. Tolkien’s allegory of the tower from that selfsame essay is just a paragraph but worth the price of the book. It not only explains what is wrong with Beowulf studies in Tolkien’s own day, but with English departments in 2019 and the entire discipline of Biblical Studies for the last 200 years to boot. Another must-read is the essay “On Fairy-stories,” Tolkien’s classic exposition of his philosophy of art, creativity, and fantasy literature. Other essays speak to topics like translating Beowulf, making up languages, and the Middle-English epic romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. You can almost hear Professor Tolkien mumbling his way through a rapturous lecture.