Books read in 2011

St. Thomas Aquinas, G.K. Chesterton
The Magician’s Nephew, C.S. Lewis (read aloud to kids)
The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis (read aloud to kids)
The Essential Kierkegaard (anthology, most of it)
The Ballad of the White Horse, G.K. Chesterton
The Hobbit, Tolkien (Read aloud to kids)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Verse translation by Tolkien
The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry
Bible Matrix, Michael Bull
The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers (again)
The Mythical Man-Month, Frederick Brooks
The Design of Design, Frederick Brooks (half-finished)
Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer
What are People For?, Wendell Berry
Lives of the Saints (Brendan and Cuthbert), Anonymous and Bede
The Silmarillion, Tolkien
I am an Impure Thinker, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy
The Evangelical Movement in Ethiopia, Tibebe Eshete
Defending Constantine, Peter Leithart
The Next Christendom, Philip Jenkins
True Faced (multiple authors, as part of a bible study)
The Truth is the Way: Kierkegaard’s Theologia Viatorum, Christopher Ben Simpson
Parenting the Hurt Child, Gregory Peck and Regina Kupecky
Art and Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland

Back to Ethiopia

Last night (the middle of the day in Africa) I received a note from the United States embassy in Addis Ababa giving us approval to travel and pick up our daughter. Hooray! I was hoping very, very much that this would happen before the end of the year. It did on the last possible day. We’ll be buying plane tickets now for the middle of January. This time, only my wife will go to pick her up while I watch the other three.

We’ve been learning Amharic together using flashcards made on her iPod with the most useful words we could find from a travel phrasebook and a larger dictionary. We are up to 340 that we know now! It’s been a lot of fun – whether it ends up being that helpful for talking to our daughter or not.

Misc. notes on an adoption/parenting book

In just a few days (I know “weeks” would probably be the more appropriate term here, but I’m going to say “days”) we will be adopting a fourth child – this one from an orphanage in Ethiopia. Knowledge is power (says School House Rock) and as much as I’d like to read theology and history all day, at my wife’s suggestion I read through a parenting book that specifically deals with adopting children with rough backgrounds (which is pretty much all of them to some degree).

The book was Parenting the Hurt Child by psychologists Gregory Peck and Regina Kupecky. Each chapter dealt with a different aspect of establishing trust with the “unattached” child. It offered a lot of practical suggestions and frequently included longs lists of things to try. That was all good. I appreciated that the authors didn’t seem to have too many pet doctrines to ride into the ground.

The book as a whole though made me think that nearly everything they were advocating could just be summed up by saying “long-suffering is a gift of the Spirit”. In this sense, adopted children are, once again, no different from the other kind.

As usual, I made some notes – some positive and some critical – as I went along.

In the past twenty years, the idea that therapy can solve all problems seems to have seeped into our collective way of thinking. Even on a professional level, may mental health practitioners claim that they can treat anything. That is probably true – if “treat” means “to attempt to make better.” However, if the definition is “to MAKE the condition better,” it is an untrue and irresponsible claim. Professionals and parents alike need to remember that individual differences in the population of hurt children guarantee nothing but individual results.


I think this is an extension of our insatiable demand for better medical technology. At the end of the day though, there is only so much you can do with a busted knee, less with a bad heart, and very little indeed with a disturbed mind. What that needs is love and no drug or Jedi mind trick is going to substitute for that. Admitting this will ALWAYS be a conflict of financial interests for professional healers.

What troubles are the most difficult to deal with? The ones that are most like our own. Gosh, I’ve seen this again and again while raising my kids. The things that drive me nuts about my son are the things that drive me nuts about myself. I often have a warmer relationship with my daughter because her weaknesses are different than mine. She naturally doesn’t push my buttons as much. The opposite is true for my wife. The third child was a whole different set of things. The fourth will be again. Disconnecting my own failings from the situation will remain a critical step. (This goes for relating to everyone else on earth too.)

Using a hypothetical conversation between a young boy (who stole all the cookies from the jar) and his mother, the author introduces the idea that using unpredictability in conversations as a way to break them of the bad habits of not listening and responding quickly with canned answers. For example, if every time the child hears their name, they immediately begin defending themselves against accusations (true or otherwise), what the parent can do is the opposite of what they were expecting. Stability is good, but when they get locked into a bad way of relating to you, then keep them on their toes.

When dealing with difficult situations and children, we need to be dug out of the pit. We desire things to change, but change can be slow or seemingly at a standstill. This is the same whether you are dealing with a kid with Down’s syndrome or trying to get your daughter to pick up her bedroom. Over and over again, what we need is fruit of the spirit (the Holy Spirit), and a MODEL. To expand our imagination. To reach in to despair and navigate a way out.

For kids who have trouble keeping food on their plate and spilling their drinks: use a divided plate and a sippy cup. (Gasp! Uh, we do this for all three (four?) of our “normal” kids already.) 🙂

Taking care of your marriage is ALWAYS more important than taking care of the kids. So easy to forget. The author gave the example of how the some parents he knew were given subsidized babysitting to go to a support group meeting for a few hours. They ended up just going to McDonalds and falling asleep in the car in the parking lot for a couple hours. Exactly what they needed! (Not the support group.)

If parents stay angry, the child will not get well. They can redirect their anger from the child to the adoption agency, to the government, or to the birth parents. This may help somewhat, but the best solution is to stop being angry.


What is “redirecting anger” anyway? Blaming someone else. I’ll bring Girard in for a second and say that this sort of blame-shifting is the root of scapegoating. When there is a problem, how does Satan deal with it? He does the same age-old trick where he gets you to case the problem off on someone else – giving you a temporary reprieve, but destroying the other person in the process. The only way to really deal with our anger, failings and sin is a change of heart. This can not be worked up with mental gymnastics. This is a GIFT. This is the “stop being angry” prescribed by the author here. It’s the only thing that will really work. But money can’t buy this stuff. It’s free though.

The very best therapists are the ones who know that they have attachment issues themselves, like every other human being, and are willing to do their own emotional and psychological work themselves.


Absolutely. We are all screwed up. Even our own perfect little biological kids are screwed up. It is a difference of degrees and qualities, not a “yes” or “no”. We all have “special needs” or “disabilities”. What this also means is that “disabled” people are not special. They are just like the rest of us.

In one part of the book, the author gets on a soapbox about using the acronym “R.A.D.” to refer to children with Reactive Attachment Disorder. He talks about how the abstraction is degrading and demeaning to them. By calling the child a “RAD kid”, you are dehumanizing him and saying that the child IS the disorder, etc.

Though I agree, I found it all highly ironic. The author, being a professional psychologist with a string of degrees after is his name, regularly insists on using the phrase “Reactive Attachment Disorder” (with the capital letters) and other modern terminology. Does he see that he’s doing the exact same thing? By abstracting the kid’s personal situation out to a medical category like that, he is doing the same thing the “RAD” folks are. They just took the abstraction of language one more step and reduced the number of syllables. Now, I don’t actually have a problem with him doing this. We humans HAVE to categorize things. It’s the only way we can have a reasonable conversation about most things. The author is just very comfortable with a certain level of abstraction in this case and critical of people who want to abstract it a bit more. That’s fine, but the sword cuts both ways. Perhaps the words we are using already could be improved, eh? Language that dehumanizes will always catch up with us in some way.

Several times, the author used the phrase “underprivilaged”. I also hear this word tossed around a lot in political debates. Seriously, what the hell is that supposed to mean? What is the “proper” level of privilege you are supposed to have? Who determines the median (Darwin? The Bill of Rights? The New York Times? Wine Aficionado magazine?, your neighbor?, all the people in your country?, all the people in the world?, all the people in the world in all of human history?) Who draws the line? Sounds like a bunch of nonsense. How can this word do ANYTHING except stir up guilt or envy amongst its hearers? Drop it.

I was disappointed to find that for the author, homeschooling was completely and utterly off the radar. The chapter on dealing with problems at school was by far the longest in the book. Ugg. Yet it never crosses his mind that maybe, just maybe, there might be reasons to sidestep ALL of that. It’s especially telling when he tacks one passing paragraph at the very end:

If a family chooses to home school, and they are doing it within the confines of their respective state’s education laws and guidelines, why should professionals who are supposed to help and support families get so upset about where children learn to read and do math?


Oh, as a quick side note, I guess homeschooling could be OK, as long as you are doing it in a way that keeps the government happy. What?! If this isn’t an example of the idolatry of the State, I don’t know what is. Fortunately, in my opinion, he redeems himself a tad at the end:

There are children who do not learn well anywhere, and there are children who would learn quite well sitting in the middle of a field.

Too right!

More good times with your children should reduce their bad times. Dr. Martha Welch, a psychiatrist and author, makes an excellent point and so-called quality time. She suggests that quality time will never replace quantity, because children need both to flourish and develop. Giving your child only quality time would be like giving him five hundred calories of nutritious food each day – ultimately, he would die from malnutrition due to an insufficient amount of food. Even though the child was getting quality, he lacked the necessary quantity. The idea of quality time seems to have developed as the result of people feeling too busy to spend the kind of time they need to spend with their children.


I have a post on the myth of “quality time” coming soon. I draw mostly on some recent writing from Alistair Roberts. I’ll leave it at that for now.

Don’t ask them [kids] what they want to do; they don’t know. They’re unaware of life’s many options, so it becomes the parent’s job to show them – to force them, if you will – to have a good time. We often find that parents who are the most spontaneous, the most creative, the most unusual, the most unpredictable – and therefore, the most fun – are the ones whose children finally “get it”. The adult must take the lead and demonstrate life.

I like this passage a lot. Note that homeschoolers have greatly increased opportunity for this.

The author, on several occasions, shows that he has only ever lived in a large city. For example, one of the light activity suggestions was a game where you drive around town counting fast food restaurants and then stop and eat at the 15th one you see. Fifteenth? That rules out a lot of towns. My city as 25,000 people, but not even close to 15 fast food joints.

“The moments when we ignore or underestimate our child’s “survival intelligence quotient” are our greatest mistakes. Honoring our daughter’s survival skills – instead of seeing them as pathological – helps us to shift our responses to her.”

Passages like this are an example of when things get too abstract to be helpful. Examples and stories are much more useful.

Like other parenting books I’ve seen, the author advocates establishing traditions. Why I wonder? I’ve never actually heard it explained well. I think the answer is that establishing family traditions creates a connection that is outside the whims of the individual. Christmas comes the same time every year whether you fell like it or not. This is stability. We need more “holy days” than we have. (Church calendar for the win!)

Misc. notes on The Truth is the Way: Kierkegaard’s Theologia Viatorum

I found Kierkegaard to be a real grind when I tried to plow through a large anthology of his earlier this year. This boiled-down summary by Christopher Ben Simpson is really quite the accomplishment. I’m very impressed. It still found I could only read it when I was at peak wakefulness though. (Hi-len-ya) That’s why it took so long to finish. These excerpts are from a few good passages from near the end of the book.


On the danger that comes from theology trying to be too much like philosophy. Calvin is also at his weakest when he goes this route on occasion.

When theology tries to model itself after a purely speculative philosophy, theology, as de Silentio [one of Kierkegaard’s many pseudonyms] puts it, ‘sits all rouged and powdered in the window and courts its favor, offers its charms to philosophy’ – theology has lost its way, has lost fidelity to its purpose as leading one on the way [to the truth].

A wonderful conception of creation contra-deism. I love the phrase “the something that is something”.

The wondrousness of creation is not to produce something that is nothing in relations to the Creator, but to produce something that is something. In creation, God lets there be something other than himself; ‘God’s creator-words’ are ‘Let there be’. God’s creation is a coming into existence from nothing. It is a transition from possibility to actuality. This change of ‘coming into existence’ is a change unlike any other -for all other change presupposes existence. This action of God is not necessary, but the actuality it yields – here, actuality as such – is the fruit of decision.


This next part is very much in line with Girard’s mimetic anthropology. I’m going to reuse this later for sure.

For Kierkegaard, the world – the established order of the human social world – is structured according to this untruth such that the deformed relation is the norm. The world ‘wants to be deceived’ and is ruled by ‘illusions’. The crowd, Kierkegaard writes, ‘is untruth if it is supposed to be valid as the authority for what truth is’. The crowd’s ‘untruth’ lies in making ‘the numerical’ the authority. The mechanism for the untruth of the crowd or the world is in making ‘human approval’ and human comparison (and thus envy and fear) – ‘the way others regard one’ – to be the criterion for human value, such that one ‘is what “the others” make of him and what he makes of himself by being only before others’ and so ‘sinks under comparison’s enormous weight’.

This view ‘assumes that on average most people, the majority of people, are of the truth’ and thus ‘we are governed, educated, and brought up according to mankind’s conception of what it means to be a human being’. But this view for Kierkegaard, is an inversion: it sees sin as a joke; it does not esteem humanity’s eternal end; it has (relative to Christianity) ‘completely opposite conceptions’ of sanity and wisdom; ‘the noble act is regarded as stupidity, the evil act of sagacity’.


Wow. That’s dynamite. (And not exactly an apologia for democracy either!)

Next up…

I have heard a lot of sermons on hell that were terribly boring. “Hell is separation from God”. OK. Yes, but talk about a phrase falling flat! Someone needs to add some punch to it – like C.S. Lewis did describing his sin as a “harem of fondled hatreds”. Ick! Fortunately, Kierkegaard’s passing reference to hell is a good one:

By wanting to do away with the eternal or reducing the eternal to the temporal, one is alienated from one’s source. This futile human defection from one’s being establishes the abyss, the greatest distance between God and a human being – enclosed  in one’s own private room of sovereignty and torment.


Other religions contain some concept of grace and covering, but none go to near the extreme that orthodox Christianity does. This next point about Jesus is really quite striking.

The profundity of Christianity is that Christ is both our redeemer and our judge, not that one is our redeemer and another is our judge, for then we certainly come under judgement, but that the redeemer and the judge are the same.

-Journals and Papers p.287, Quoted in p.159 footnote

This next passage, commenting on law and gospel (remember, Kierkegaard was a Lutheran!) reminds me of that wonderful quote from Chesterton: “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.”

Inasmuch as there is to be striving, he [Jesus] is the prototype whom one ought to resemble, but the prototype is also the Saviour and Redeemer who helps the Christian to be like the prototype.

-Journals and Papers p. 1963

A great comment on being a disciple of Christ versus a follower of a law or teaching:

For Kierkegaard, following in the way of Christ is often presented in terms of Christian existence as striving to imitate Christ as the Prototype. He writes in his journals: ‘As soon as there is a prototype, there is the obligation to imitation What does imitation mean? It means striving to conform my life to the prototype’. Christians are thus, ‘not adherents of a teaching but imitators of a life‘. Imitation [Efterfolgelse] is to follow – as a ‘pilgrim’ who would follow Christ in his ‘footprints’. As the Prototype, Christ’s life is a ‘summons’ – calling ‘follow me’ – calling one to be a ‘disciple’, one who strives to ‘resemble’ Christ.


Some drive-by comments on the predestination/free will mystery. I like the highlighted part especially.

God’s help is empowering and participatory, not coercing. The Spirit’s empowering and enabling is described as ‘invisible’, such that ‘to be helped by it is to learn to walk alone’, that is help is like instinct in a bird. God’s help co-operates with our own resolution, our own acting. Christ to us alternates between the Prototype for our imitation and the Saviour who is our help. Kierkegaard reflects in his journals: ‘”The prototype”, which is Christ, then changes into something else, to grace and compassion, and it is he himself who reaches out to support you’. In this receptive moment, we are in communion with God, are given God’s gracious presence in the Holy Spirit.


Whoa, and this next passage sounds like something straight out of Larry Crabb. Good stuff.

On the basis of one’s relationship with God, one can come to see that the provision for one’s emotional needs – value, security and purpose – are not dependent upon others but are ultimately met by God. Kierkegaard does not ignore our need and desire, he simply sees that our deepest need is for God. Indeed, this need is ‘the greatest riches’ because it reveals God as one’s true object of love and as the fulfillment of one’s highest happiness. All else will never lead to the fulfillment that we truly desire. True satisfaction, true self-love and true proper pride are only to be found in relation to God. Because of one’s God-relationship, one can know and feel one’s deep value.

God has created us in his own image with a ‘dowry of good nature and of love’. Thus, there lies within us the inner glory of God’s highest creation, and because of this quality present in all people, all people are equally invaluable.


And again in describing the nature of human love – this is like a flashback to MIRROR. (A helpful course developed by the church I attended in college based largely on Crabb’s work.)

Before God, the ravenous lack that haunts our relationships can become the filled chest of satisfaction and fruition that frees us to love others without ulterior motives. Before God, on passes from emptiness, sickness and starvation to fullness, health and overabundance. With this filling, one can love as from a deep reserve; one ‘loves with all his love; it is totally present in every expression; he continually spends all of it, and yet he continually keeps all in his heart’.


And finally a passage about how love “sees the best in others” and through that produces more love. It’s sort of like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Assuming love in the other can, amazingly, create it out of thin air. (Sometimes anyway.)

As we communicate these virtues to others we communicate communication, furthering, continuing, repeating the exchange of community. This ‘communication’ can be seen in the way in which love ‘presupposes’ love in the other. Loving another means seeing the potential for the best in them and so presupposing love to be present within them. In this way love ‘draws out the good’, ‘loves forth love’ by presupposing ‘that it is present in the ground’. Love gives the gift by seeing the other as already in possession of it.


This also happens to be the opposite of scapegoating.

This brownie not for retail sale

Tonight, I drove the family through a strange place I hadn’t been in nearly a year: the Starbucks Drive-through.

In addition to some coffee (that ended up tasting pretty bad), I asked for four “brownie pops” to pass around to the kids. There weren’t any in the display case, so they gave me a box of four from the back, still sealed in its specialized plastic wrap. I don’t think they were supposed to do that. Anyway, I had more fun reading the label than eating the dessert. It’s hard not to be amazed at the flurry of no fewer than 66 ingredients, including:

titanium dioxide (to make the hard frosting whiter)
beet extract (to make the stripes of the crushed candy cane red)
vinegar (presumably to more strongly activate the baking powder)
citric acid (put in nearly everything nowadays)
carnauba wax (for waxing your snowboard?)
flour and cocoa (used for the actual “brownie” part)

It was actually pretty tasty!

Kierkegaard and Girard on the demonic

For Kierkegaard, the “demonic” is always connected to isolation – IS isolation in fact. For Girard, mimetic rivalry is the great demon – Satan himself – who keeps us temporarily glued together by tearing us apart. (By uniting the community against the Scapegoat.) It’s two sides of the same coin. Girard explains what we do with the scapegoats, but Kierkegaard offers of some insight into how they get separated from the whole in the first place.

Like a quick high from a snort of cocaine, the user feels great and can do anything – for about an hour. Then he (we) needs another hit. This is what all our wars and rivalries lead us to – a destructive temporary fix, a false unity. What instead can bring long-term health and happiness to all mankind? Only the agape love of Christ. A nourishing warm loaf and a wine of gladness with the memory of sorrow. This will grow up both a child to an adult and sustain an adult for the ages. This is what the Lord offers us. The devil? Only a flaky stimulant.

Exhortation: Oh man! Discard your anger and jealousy with your fellow man. This is a way that leads only to death. Break bread with him and enter into the breaking of the curse.

Words and the drift of meaning

To give something a word is to categorize it, abstract it, encourage its use – perhaps even for something so different the coiner of the word would not recognize it. Meaning drifts because the object itself drifts, but not everyone’s memory of the drift is the same. This is the root of miscommunication, even when nothing is veiled by the teller and the listener’s attention is undivided.

To be fully known by God – that is to speak to him without this divide of minds. When the renewal of ours is complete the words that pass between us will be so clear, so violently lacking in obfuscurity, beams of light may come from our lips to anyone within earshot.

Attaining the resurrection of the dead (or not)

According to N.T. Wright, the rabbis said of the Sadducees, “those who don’t believe in the resurrection won’t attain it.” Really? Isn’t that convenient. SO the people you don’t agree with can’t possibly make it to heaven. In fact, they just stay in the ground. Bah – as if you are saved by getting a high score on the theology quiz at the pearly gates and not by the holy immortal Son of God who actually raises everyone from the dead all by himself, whether they like it or not. Yes, they will be judged, but when he blows that terrible trumpet blast, NO ONE will be sleeping any longer. Not even the Sadducees. This sort of thing is why I don’t like the opening line of the Athanasian Creed. Sorry.

Merry Christmas

Yesterday, I heard “Merry Christmas” from everyone I met – at the office, from the bartender, even from the checker at the notoriously pagan Food Co-op (which I love). Who refused to say it? (Even when addressed with several Merry Christmasses themselves?) The tech consultants on the phone from Chicago. It was far from their lips – strictly business and buzzwords.

The second “nature” of sin

For Kierkegaard, sin is an independence that is a slavery. In it one seeks independence (to not be dependent, to be secure and sufficient unto oneself) – one ‘wants to entrench himself’, but ‘in this entrenched security he is living – in a prison’. This entangling is the ‘sophistry of sin’. For sin gains an ‘impetus’, a momentum in the wrong direction and so one is bound, enslaved to it. Thus sin is like a sickness that, if untreated, gets worse, of itself. The leap of sin then enters one into the ‘circle of the leap’ in which ‘sin presupposes itself’. Here sin become a ‘coherence’, and ‘encompassing nature’, a ‘second nature’, a corrupted disposition. This ‘weed of corruption…that…sows itself’ – ‘the rust’ that ‘can consume the soul’ – degrades and corrupts the aesthetic, the sensual, the temporal – making them incorporated functions of sin’s coherence.

-Christopher Ben Simpson, The Truth is the Way: Kierkegaard’s Theologia Viatorum, p.119

I find this idea to be remarkable helpful. It explains the twisted “logic” of sin in more satisfying way than simply classifying it as some sort of foolish rebellion. Foolish rebellion it is, but this implies the person is a fool – someone who is stupid. If they could just wrap their head around the big picture, take in the eschaton, they would clearly get smart and refrain from doing something so destructive to themselves and others in the short run.

This doesn’t work though. Many of the greatest sinners are very smart. They have high IQs and strong wills. Can they not apply their logic to sin and comprehend something of the larger picture of God’s order and holiness? I don’t think that simply “lack of self-control” is a good enough explanation for why I “do the things I hate” as Paul puts it.

But what happens? When you plant the seed of sin, it grows and becomes, as Kierkegaard puts it, a “coherence”, a “second nature”. It creates it’s own little virtual world inside your head. Here, all your strength of thought are bent like light through a lens. You think the beam is still traveling straight, but in this little alternate universe a little evil seems to make sense. Our own powers of perception and logic turn in on themselves and feed the lie. Self-justification abounds (when viewed from the outside), but it just looks like common sense, the laws of nature, on the inside of the cycle. But it is a new SECOND nature, a world where your sin makes sense.

This model also helps explain how sin grows and matures (“and when fully grown produces death”). We feed it ourselves, not from some well of nasty twisted depravity within us, but with our good faculties of logic, reason, and “emotional intelligence”. It gains momentum the longer we build on it. We keep the tree of sin growing in a way that makes sense to us, but as Proverbs tell us, “in the end it is death”.

The law has the power to burst our bubble and show us what the real nature outside our shadowy simulation really looks like. Only the kindness of the gospel has the power to actually pull us out of that cycle though.