Brief notes on Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection

Is there anything useful in this Brene Brown self-help book or is it all just mental gymnastics? But what’s wrong with mental gymnastics anyway? I wrote down a few notes.

Let go of what other people think…

Having kids with special needs (mental, physical, etc.) will definitely force you to do this. Raising them requires different techniques that will look “wrong” to outsiders and they WILL in turn judge you as a bad parent. Oh well.

Be self-aware of your symptoms and triggers. Write them down.

This is probably some of the best advice I found in the book. Common sense self-awareness help. You have got to write this stuff down because your memory will fail you in the moment.

Ordinary courage vs. heroics (not the same thing)
Ordinary courage makes everyone around us a little braver and the world better.

There is no giving without receiving.

The less we talk about shame, the more control it has over our lives.
Name the shame. Talk about it.

There is no selective numbing.

If you numb one thing, you numb everything. (With drugs, booze, binding TV, whatever)

Deliberate lists of crap to do every day (Like the “AEIOUY” list in one of the chapters) drive my crazy. Stupid acrostics? Check. Impossible to-do list? Check.

Take something off your list and add “take a nap”.

Much better advice. Something I’ve only learned as I near 40.

Joyful people “practice” gratitude.

Daily prayers or journaling gratitude. Execution over intention.

Ordinary does not equal boring. Boring does NOT equal meaningless.

This is one lesson I feel I HAVE learned (more of less) over the last couple decades. A lot of my work really is ordinary and boring. But I’m certain it’s not meaningless. I wrestled with this a lot when I was in my young twenties though.

There is no such thing as creative and non-creative people. There are only people who use their creativity and people who don’t. As long as we’re creating, we are cultivating meaning.

The opposite of play is not work.
The opposite of play is depression.

I’m dying to freak out here! Do I have enough information to freak out! Will freaking out help? THe answer is always no.

Over-functioners try to rescue everyone and get in people’s business.

Not using our gifts leads to distress.

Don’t constrain “meaning” to a short list of acceptable things (like being rich and famous).

Near the end of the book, this classic self-help quote is unfurled:

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – Howard Thurman

I’ve seen this quote lots of times. Sometimes it’s misattributed (like it is in Wild at Heart). I like it, but I also realize it’s a bit Disney-follow-your-heart. I like this guy’s analysis of it.

So overall, not a bad book, but very lightweight by design. I guess it reassured me that my own psychological hangups are not particularly unique or uncommon, which is good. The way forward is long and plodding though.

New ingredients

I’ve definitely been in a rut with cooking for… well the last decade at least. This week, due to a variety of factors, I decided to just bite the bullet and cook four completely new meals for dinner, all of them relatively healthy (lots of vegetables, low fat and low calorie). They all turned out OK, to my relief. It was fun to use new ingredients I had never touched before though. I’d seem them in the produce section of the store for years, but had always passed them by.

New ingredients used:

  • Poblano peppers
  • Frozen unprocessed salmon fillets
  • Tomato sauce completely from scratch (pureed fresh tomatoes and onions, etc.)
  • Hatch chili peppers
  • Ground Pasilla chili powder
  • Frozen riced cauliflower
  • Shiraki noodles


Degrees of freedom

Aphorism model: You can pick your nose, you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.

A long time ago: You can’t pick your race, you can’t pick your wife, and you can’t pick your wife’s race.

Not so long ago: You can’t pick your race, you can pick your wife, but you can’t pick your wife’s race.

Recently: You can’t pick your race, you can pick your wife, and you can pick your wife’s race.

The woke future: You can pick your race and gender, you can pick your wife/husband/whatever, and they can pick their own race and gender.

Post eschaton: “When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the former things have passed away.”

Who’s afraid of Deutero-Isaiah?

Growing up in evangelical America, the evils of high textual criticism of scripture were frequently referred to and dismissed in the course of bible study. The kinds of “insights” (in scare quotes) that these (probably faithless) scholars came up with nearly always served to undermine to gospel – sometimes directly by calling into question some key component of redemptive history, but often by threatening it slowly through eroding traditional confidence in the text. It was usually suspected that these high textual critics were, at worst, doing this kind of sabotage quite on purpose because they hated God. At best, they were Godly men and women who were misguided and stifled from hanging out in the academy for two long.

The prime example of textual criticism gone to seed was the work of the Jesus Seminar from the early 1990s. Their conclusion that Jesus didn’t say nearly anything attributed to him in the Gospels was truly eye-roll inducing. But does that mean every last nuts-and-bolts technique the scholars used at coming to this ridiculous conclusion was total garbage? That’s a much larger and more complicated question, but one it seems few are willing to put much effort into answering.

Later in my adult life when I encountered well-read and highly intellectual evangelicals, usually of the Reformed variety, this kind of allergy to archeological or linguistic insights into scripture persisted. Simply the idea that such-and-such a passage may have been added by an editor and not the stated author is still something to be scorned and dismissed as clearly anti-biblical and by extension, anti-Christ.

“If Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!”
– 1 Cor. 15:17

Paul is emphatic that if Christ did not rise from the dead, then all our faith is worthless.

BUT, what if, when the present world is all over and all mysteries are revealed, it turns out that Isaiah chapters 40-55 actually WERE written by a different prophet than the guy that wrote chapters 1-39? Is our faith worthless then? I don’t think so. What if the prologue and epilogue of Job were added later? Does that HAVE to mean they are uninspired by the Holy Spirit and clearly full of lies? I’m always hearing “no, but…” followed by some kind of flimsy slippery slope argument. Better to just not talk about that stuff. One minute you might think Paul didn’t write Hebrews and before you know it, your sleeping with copies of the The Golden Bough and the Nag Hammadi and thinking about voting for democrats.

This kind of persistent fear is obnoxious and undermines our faith rather than strengthens it. We can trust Jesus and God’s gift of scripture without resorting to this kind of dishonesty toward any kind of technique that might have been tainted by the enemy at one time or another. Those things can be redeemed too, and should be.

* Post-script disclaimer: I realize I’m conflating higher and lower textual criticism, but fearful resistance to it often conflates the two as well. Also, it is not my intention to advocate for textual criticism as a deep well of untapped insight that we should all be enthusiastic about. Though I think its utility is limited, censorship is a foolish response.

Believing what the community believes (in Africa)

Back when I last visited Ethiopia, I asked one of the priests I met with if he had any books to recommend to understand African culture and thought better. He said that even though it was kind of old, Mbiti’s African Regions and Philosophy was probably still the best serious place to start. I finally got around to getting a copy and reading it this year.

I didn’t make a lot of notes as I went, so I’m only going to post this quote emphasizing how hypo-individualist (is that a word?) traditional African culture is, across virtually the entire southern part of the continent. It’s the opposite of America. Even in relatively modern African cities, this doesn’t pass away easily from the minds of the people. “I am, because we are; and since we are, therefore I am” is still largely the rule.

[Africans] have no creeds to recite: their creeds are within them, in their blood and in their hearts. Their beliefs about God are expressed through concrete concepts, attitudes, and acts of worship [prayers, songs, offerings]. The individual believes what others in his community believe: it is a corporate ‘Faith’. And this faith is utilitarian, not purely spiritual, it is practical and not mystical. The people respond to God in and because of particular circumstances, especially in times of need. Then they seek to obtain what He gives, be that material or spiritual; they do not search for Him as the final reward or satisfaction of the human soul or spirit. Augustine’s description of man’s soul being restless until it finds its rest in God, is something unknown in African traditional religious life. – John Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, p.67

Books read in 2018

Far fewer books this year and way less blogging. Such is this season of life.

  • Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
  • Christianity Made in Japan: A Study of Indigenous Movements, Mark Mullins
  • The Geisha of Gion, Mineko Iwasaki
  • Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf
  • The Golden Armband, Jeanne K. Norweb (read aloud to the kids)
  • I See Satan Fall Like Lightening, Rene Girard (second time)
  • Six Records of a Floating Life, Shen Fu
  • Small Steps, Louis Sachar (read aloud to the kids)
  • Christian Brotherhood, Joseph Ratzinger
  • The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius
  • Doctors Without Borders in Ethiopia: Among the Afar, Nyla Jo Jones Hubbard
  • Confessions, Augustine (Pine-Coffin translation)
  • At the Back of the North Wind, George MacDonald (read aloud to the kids)
  • Inferno, Dante (Dorothy Sayers translation and notes)

Our allergy to the legendary

The enlightenment has absolutely no use for legends. Any hint of legend is seen as an embarrassment and obviously false in every possible way. False not just as fanciful or exaggerated but in the same category as “wicked lie of the devil”. There is no distinction. There is only cold logic. If it isn’t sufficiently verifiable by scientific method or by contemporary historical research, then it is pure hot garbage, the stuff of the void.

Contemporary Christians in thrall of this sort of epistemology find scripture, especially the early chapters of Genesis to be intensely disconcerting. They smell legendary. How embarrassing! That will not do. They must be reread and conformed into something more palatable for the modern age. The days of creation must be 24 hours, or even 1440 clock-hand seconds in length. Each metaphor or piece of imagery must unlock or at least correspond to some recently articulated piece of geology or astronomy. Later books must be heavily footnoted with as much 20th century archeology as can be dug up and appropriated. Once properly modernized, we can get back to the much more important and comfortable work of expositing the Greek epistles where everything is kept either very practical or philosophical and never mythical thank you very much.

Popular false narratives about the early church and an alternative

1. The Early Church was pure and unified, until Constantine nationalized Christianity. It’s all been downhill from there. We need to throw away the last 1700 years of history and get back to raw early church Christianity!

2. The Early Church was pure and unified and then things got even better as it grew into the Roman Catholic church that covered the Western world. But then some grouchy sectarian and some rotten German and English kings threw a huge monkey wrench in the whole thing with the Protestant Reformation and it’s been a mess ever since the 1500’s.

3. The Early Church quickly drifted from the true teachings of Jesus Christ and it was a mess for centuries until a super bright and prophetic teacher arose to set everyone straight! (Congratulations, you are in a cult!).

As far as I can tell though, from studying scriptures and the apostolic fathers, reality is more like this:

The Early Church was very diverse from the get-go, in language, culture, geography, and even in some finer points of theology. It also had a myriad of ongoing sin problems, which prompted many of the NT epistles, as we well know. Church leaders hashed out some of the most important theological points together, but they stayed diverse in many points of practice all over the globe, from Syria to Libya and from Rome to Ireland. They had different leadership structures, different baptism patterns, and besides being largely unified about who Jesus is, had a variety of beliefs and worship practices shaped by local culture and imagination. The well-documented medieval church in Europe tried to make itself monolithic in language and practice, but that didn’t really stick. Exploration of the rest of the earth from the 16th century onward exploded things even more and that’s where we are today.

This map roughly map shows the widely diverse geography of early church communities. Imagine the implied cultural and linguistic diversity between, and keep in mind that communication was VERY slow and leadership patterns not well established at the time. Suggesting they were unified in practice is just plain silly.

Derrida and the gospel as haunted seed

Sometimes, post-modern boogeyman Derrida asks a really good question or two:

“Every sign, linguistic or non-linguistic, spoken or written (in the current sense of this opposition), in a small or large unit, can be cited, put between quotation marks; in so doing it can break with every given context, engendering an infinity of new contexts in a manner which is absolutely illimitable. This does not imply that the mark is valid outside of a context, but on the contrary that there are only contexts without any center or absolute anchoring. What would a mark be that could not be cited? Or one whose origins would not get lost along the way?”
– Jacques Derrida, Signature Event Context, p.185-86

What would a mark be that could not be cited? What idea would be impossible to rip from it’s context? Or, conversely, what thing COULD you rip from it’s context and find that it remained intact – that it brought the kitchen sink along with it – everything you needed to keep it’s meaning alive even when transplanted?

I’m not sure, but these sound like divine things to me. Has this ever been done? Perhaps in the incarnation of Christ. Perhaps at Pentecost when everyone heard Peter speaking of Jesus in their own languages. They went back to their homes in nations all over the earth, but though they only had a little new knowledge in their head, it flourished and became something much more – colored by local languages and culture, yes – but still consistent with the origin. It’s like they carried home a seed – a haunted seed with an invisible gardener attached to it. The linguistic sign was verbal and ripped from it’s context in Jerusalem, but somehow survived the journey intact through the work of an active agent, the Holy Spirit.

I know these probably aren’t anything like the categories Derrida had in mind, but they are what I have in mind when I hear his questions and I think the Gospel is the closest thing to an answer.