Monday, March 31, 2014

Callback: Part 3 of 4

When the bus doors folded open at the Harrington stop, Sara hoisted herself to her feet, one hand gripping the seat in front of her. She stepped off the bus and stood there for a moment under the lurid yellow lamp, beside the bus schedule, gathering the energy to walk home. Behind her she heard the muted clatter of the other passengers rearranging themselves on the bus, then the doors shut with a hiss, the bus moved off, and she was alone.

Sara turned to the right, along the main street of the little London suburb where she lived with her aunt. At the far end of the street rose the sharp church steeple, barely visible under the new moon. Clustered about the church steeple were the gabled roofs of the town: brick houses in rows, identical with their white doors and little gardens; specialty clothing shops and pharmacies and grocers and the occasional Indian takeaway; the empty park with two benches and a swingset. Now, long past midnight, all the windows along the street were darkened. Only a few dim lamps shone in attic windows – aspiring writers, perhaps; in a few upper windows, the neon blue-and-purple lights of televisions flickered.

Sara yawned. When she reached home, she thought, she’d cut herself a thick slice of bread, then have it toasted with butter and jam and a glass of wine. Maybe two glasses of wine. Sara started calculating how late she could set her alarm clock and still make her audition tomorrow – when suddenly behind her she heard a tapping, footsteps keeping time with her own.

Even in broad daylight, Harrington was a quiet stop. Almost no one ever got off the bus. Still, Sara thought, the footpad could be nothing more than a local, coming home late and somewhat tanked up from pub night with his friends. Nevertheless, Sara quickened her pace.

The footsteps behind her quickened too.

Sara took a left-hand turn, heading up the street towards the tiny park, and just on the other side, her flat. Still the footpad followed her.

Sara glanced behind her. Perhaps a quarter-mile behind her was a tall and lanky shadow, striding purposefully after her. She whipped back around, and hands suddenly clammy with sweat, tightened her grip on her bag and broke into a trot.

By the time she reached the park Sara was running flat-out, heeled boots clattering on the cobblestones and then on the paved walkway through the park. Only a few blocks past the park, and she’d be safe at home –

Someone grabbed her shoulder, twisted her about so hard she nearly fell, and pressed long white fingers over her mouth. “Hello, beautiful.”

With a shock Sara recognized the dark-eyed young man from the bus. She squirmed beneath his firm grip, tried to cry out, but he simply pressed his long fingers even more tightly against her mouth. “Sh – sh – sh, my darling. Don’t struggle. I have you.”

He bent close to whisper in her ear. “You looked so lonely at the bar tonight. Such a shame for a beautiful girl like you to be alone.” His breath smelled sticky sweet, like candy stored too long in a hot place – some kind of drug, Sara guessed. Again she struggled against his grip, but he simply twisted her shoulders backwards, so that she had to arch her back to stay on her feet and look into his face.

“Do you fancy anyone?” he breathed. “Do you fancy me?” In the dim orange light Sara could just make out his eye cheekbones and bright eyes – bright, crazed. “I’m a handsome man. See?” Though still holding her, he leaned back into the park light.

Sara seized her chance. She shoved her body forwards, then raised her right boot and smashed it down on his foot. Again she raised her right leg. This time, she crashed her knee upwards into his crotch. With a howl of pain he released her, hands cupping at his pants.

Sara spun away, somehow still holding her purse, and bolted across the park.

In a few seconds she left her assailant’s groans behind her, but she didn’t stop running. Past the quiet houses, past a pharmacy, past a block of flats, Sara ran. Not even when she reached the white gate to her house did she stop. She flung open the gate, leaving it unlatched behind her, darted up the steps to the house, fumbling for her key as she went. She jammed the key into the lock, twisted it, pulled the door open, and flung herself inside.


Then she was safe, her back to the locked door, breathing hard. The house was quiet and dark, and there was no one outside.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Story: Callback: Part 2

This is Part 2 of "Callback." Find Part 1 here. Parts 3 and 4 to come.

When Sara at last stepped outside it was nearly half-past one. The night air was crisp and cool. From the narrow cobblestones of the alleway up to the bar door led a flight of six worn wooden steps; Sara stood for a moment on the landing, gazing into the night. Across the street from the bar rose a block of flats, five stories high; someone had left their window open even in the cold October weather, and the white damask curtains fluttered in the cool breeze. On one side of the bar was a shop that offered psychic readings; on the other, a bookstore. Every morning at nine the bookstore’s owner rolled out metal racks filled with dusty books, pages dog-earned, rounded with use. When Sara first started working at the bar, she sometimes stopped on her way to work and purchased a book. After work, she carried her treasures all unopened back to the flat she shared with her maiden aunt. There, she would brew a cup of lemon ginger tea, open a pack of digiestive biscuits, and open her book, drinking in the British spellings, the yellowed pages, the smell of cigarette smoke and coffee that the books carried. Recently, her budget had tightened (life in London was so very expensive!) and even the cheapest of books was a luxury.

Of course, the book shop was long since closed for the night. Sara descended the stairs, turned right past Rachel’s Psychic Readings and headed for the main road, heels snapping on the cobblestones, faint echoes behind her in the narrow alleyway.

She reached the main road as the night bus rolled up. With a hiss of escaping air pressure, its doors folded open; Sara stepped on, swiped her Oyster Card, and found a seat. A forty-minute ride, a ten-minute walk, and she’d be safe at home, in her tiny suburban flat, just before 3.00 – fairly early. Some nights she staggered home, bone-weary, at 5.00 or 6.00. She dragged herself in as the sun rose over the shingled roofs and church spire of Harrington, dragged herself back out four hours later for an audition. No wonder she hadn’t had a callback in months.

Only when the bus doors closed with a snap and the bus jumped forwards did Sara notice among the passengers the young man from the bar. Clearly he had climbed into the bus behind her, since he was just sitting down among the shadows at the back, though staring forwards – in fact, Sara realized with a shock, staring at her. She quickly glanced away, fixing her eyes on the grimy bus windows and the dazzling lights of London passing by outside.

Within minutes the bus had passed into the darkened streets of the suburbs. As they rolled past quiet houses, Sara’s thoughts turned to Ivy, likely at a party somewhere in Piccadilly. By now her friend was probably half-drunk, just enough to be sociable, celebrating her upcoming play. Sullivan would be there too of course, not drinking, ever watchful. His hand on the small of her back, he would guide her from theater director to stage manager to seasoned actor, making sure that Ivy met all the right people to advance her career. Together, Sara was sure, they would go far.

Unexpectedly, the picture of Ivy and Sullivan made Sara think of Brandon. In Atlanta Brandon was probably just arriving home after a long day at the clinic. Sara imagined him laying aside his medical notes and charts, washing up, eating a sandwich and drinking a beer with his reading (a physicians’ journal, maybe, or a three-day-old newspaper) propped against a stack of napkins. Later, perhaps, he would check his email. Maybe even send her an email.


With a jerk the bus stopped and its doors swung open. She shook herself in the sudden blast of cold air, gulped back the lump in her throat. Restlessly she shifted in the red vinyl seat, trying to ease the pressure on her aching legs and forget her growling stomach. Only two more stops, then she’d be home.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Story: Callback

My students in Creative Writing are working on stories - so I wrote one too. I thought I'd share it with you. Here's the first part (there are three more after this):

Callback

When the clock above the bar read 11.45, Sara’s evening took a turn for the worse.

Already the evening had been a bad one: nearly six hours on her feet on a creaky wood floor, only a handful of customers. She stood there behind the counter, paging listlessly through the gleaming advertising inserts, her elbow leaning on the countertop.

From time to time she looked up, but nothing changed. At the table near the window sat an aspiring writer, hot toddy cooling in front of him as he stared at his laptop. Stretched out on the leather couch in the back, kissing every now and then, was a lesbian couple. In the corner sat a dark young man Sara had never seen before. Though he held a book in his lap, she could not see that he was making much progress. Mostly he watched the other customers, watched her. She noticed his high, sharp cheekbones, pale skin and long fingers wound about the beer glass he held. His dark eyes made her shiver, so with a longsuffering sigh she shifted her aching feet and turned back to her twice-read newspaper.

That was when Sullivan and Ivy walked in.

Sara’s heart sank. Of course, they were here to talk about Ivy’s play and Sullivan’s. They’d ask about Brandon.

Even offstage, Ivy was an excellent actress, with a knack for filling any room she walked into. As Sara watched, the aspiring writer turned from his laptop and the lesbians from their kiss to stare at Ivy. With a shiver she slid her navy wool coat from her shoulders, baring her tea-length black dress and shining silver jewelry. Sullivan bent down and with a smile whispered in Ivy’s ear, and her laughter sounded like a bell throughout the little bar; when Ivy clapped with delight, Sara saw her red-painted nails flash in the dim light.

In a moment, they were at the bar themselves, Ivy tucking her billowy skirt around her as she slid gracefully onto a stool. Sullivan, tall, blonde, impeccably dressed, stood beside her, his hand protectively cupping her shoulder.

“So?” Sara asked. “How was the rehearsal?”

“Horrid.” Ivy grinned. “You know what they say, though: Bad rehearsal, good performance. Next week we open, and we are going to astonish all of London.”

“All London?” Sara snorted as she dropped two olives into the glass and slid it across the bar. “It’s a local theater. Seats 200.”

“Next week the performance will be standing-room only.” Ivy promised. “Wait and see, darling.” She sipped at her margarita. “Too dry. Still haven’t got the knack, have you? Well, keep practicing.”

“Speaking of practicing,” Sullivan asked, “have you received any callbacks lately?”

Sara just shook her head, not meeting Sullivan’s eyes, looking over his shoulder to where the young man with slender fingers and high cheekbones still sat in the corner.

“When was the last one?” Sullivan asked, oblivious. “Two months ago?”

“Three.” Sara responded.

“That long?” Sullivan raised his eyebrows. “Three months? And you haven’t even had a role in – ”

“Nearly a year.” Ivy chimed in. “You have to get out more, darling. Audition more. More than just once or twice a week.” She went on, jabbing at Sara’s chest with one finger. “And while you’re at it, maybe gain a little weight. Just look at that flat chest. Nothing to see for anyone more than three rows back. And your clothes practically hang off you. It’s not nice.”

Sara didn’t answer, just kept looking over Sullivan’s shoulder. The young man was still watching her, but staring at him was preferable to looking Ivy or Sullivan in the eye. Any moment now, they’d ask.

Ivy asked, “Is that country boy of yours still sending you emails? The one in the States?”

“I’d hardly call him a country boy,” Sara protested. “He lives in a big city. Also, he’s not mine.”  

“Oh?” Ivy asked.

“It’s been nearly two years since I left the States,” Sara said. “Nearly two years since I’ve seen Brandon. He knows my acting is important to me.”

“So important you haven’t had a callback in three months?” asked Ivy, tilting her head. “I wonder.”

Sara was silent. She still auditioned occasionally, but more and more she seemed to find herself as far as possible from the stuffy underground backstages of London: listless in front of her computer, stretched out in the sunshine on a park bench, walking along London’s narrow streets where, above her, men leaned from open windows to smoke their pipes.

“Really, sweetheart.” Ivy put in. “You simply must put an end to this foolishness. Email Brandon and tell him not to contact you anymore. You know your future is here.”

“I know.” Sara said. “He knows. I broke up with him two years ago, when I first came here.”

“Hmph.” Ivy tipped the last drops of the margarita into her mouth, then turned to Sullivan and put one hand on his chest. “Time to go, I think. The Stevensons’ party is starting, and it is the place to be tonight.” She hopped lightly to her feet, and Sullivan slid his hand downwards to rest in the small of her back, guiding her away from the bar towards the door. With practiced hands he helped her on with her coat, and helped her over the doorstep. They disappeared into the night, and the heavy door swung shut behind them.


For a moment, Sara just stared at the closed door. As she watched, the young man from the corner rose and went out as well. Then Sara, with a deep-drawn breath and a shudder, roused herself, and went to lock up. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

I Am Blessed

I'd like to thank my two years of graduate education for a complete inability to start a post without the context of an ongoing public conversation - in other words, without relating my post to some idea that a lot of people are talking about and which lends weight and interest to my writing. To my academic mind, without such context I fear my writing would be pointless. Not true, I know - but I love me some context.

This post has a double context: personal and public.

On the personal side, today has been a grey day, literally and figuratively. After two days of glorious sunshine and fifty-degree weather, the skies clouded over. I paid a $90+ gas bill today. I realized I actually have to pay to file my taxes (this is on top of the $50 I shelled out for tax software).

On the public side, have you seen this article that Christians should stop designating the material, physical comforts they enjoy as divine blessings? It's a good article. By and large I agree: Christianity is not meant to bring us closer to physical stuff; it's meant to bring us closer to Jesus Christ.

And yet.

And yet, wouldn't it be Pharisaical to neglect thankfulness for the material blessings? Would we not be straining out the gnat of a precise, theologically-accurate definition of divine blessings to swallow the camel of ingratitude?

Indeed, on days like today, remembering God's material blessings is a good exercise. Sure, my wallet is a little thin right now, and my spirit is a little low, but God, good shepherd that He is, knows what His sheep need. (This doesn't mean, of course, that I think those who are in dire straits physically are forgotten by God. Why they suffer we cannot know in this life, but we do know they are no less loved by God.)

Theological precision can only go so far. Sometimes, obedience and love are most important of all.

To that end, I want to make a list of things (both material and spiritual) that I am thankful for. God is taking care of me, regardless of how down I feel, and it's time to remember.

A note: I've adjusted the comment settings, so hopefully some of you will find it easier to comment. I think that thankfulness is a good exercise, so I'd love to have you comment, and to pass the blog along to your friends as you desire.

A second note: As I write this, it occurs to me that perhaps someone could read this as me, gloating about how lucky I am compared to others. This is not my intention. If life is mega-hard for you right now, you have my sympathy. I want to tell what good things God has done for me, but I also want to weep with those who weep.

A third note: I have a few readers who aren't religious. You're welcome to comment as well. While I am grateful to God for what I believe he has given me, surely it is a good exercise for any of us to count up the pennies that we find in our muddy lives, to remember that "even the darkest night shall end / and the sun shall rise."

My List: I am thankful that
  • I have a job. I like my job. My job requires me to think and to be creative.
  • I've been able to use my work computer while I save for a new one (My personal computer died three months ago.)
  • I enjoyed a five-mile run in fifty-degree weather yesterday. The base layer that my parents gave me for Christmas kept me warm in thirty-degree weather this morning.
  • When I accidentally drained my car battery earlier this semester (long story), I was able to recharge it with a 90-minute drive through rural Iowa, instead of paying $100 for a new one.
  • So far the driver's door on my car is still shutting (again, long story).
  • I made a new friend over the last week, a visiting speaker at the school where I work, and had money enough to go out for a meal with her several times.
  • I have loving parents who will let me call them repeatedly with questions about my taxes.
  • I have a kind friend who is willing to take time out of her busy schedule to read and comment on professional projects for me. Another friend regales me with Tennyson's religious underpinnings.
  • I got a coupon in the mail for a free travel-sized shower gel from Bath & Body Works.
  • I am reading two good books right now, Fabricating Jesus and Middlemarch. Thank God for reading.
  • The warmer weather in March means my next gas bill will probably not be $90.
  • Also, the warmer weather means that I am generally happier.
  • The school librarian keeps peanut M&Ms in his office.
  • I've started a beautiful new knitting project, a blanket.
What are you thankful for?

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Patience and Grace

Today I am procrastinating.

Why? 

Partly because Spring Break started for me this week. Partly because I have a weird chest cold, and sitting at home browsing my computer, or reading a book, or knitting, is about the best thing I can do for it (that, and plenty of tea of course!). 

Yet there is one more reason: I am procrastinating because I am between projects. 

Last night I finished a short story I've been working on lately. My literary paper, on the mystic Julian of Norwich and C.S. Lewis, is between revisions and waiting for a friend's feedback. 

The only current projects I have are those I have not yet started: a planned interview with evangelical singles, a planned series on books evangelicals ought to read, a planned series on women of faith. I have the ideas, and I like to think they're good ideas, but I don't want to actually start the project. 

There are two reasons, I think, why I don't want to start these projects. 

First, to start a new project is to court failure. Just because I sit down and make a list of books I think Christians should read doesn't mean I'll ever get around to writing a blog post on it. Even if the blog post is written, there's no guarantee that anyone will read it. It's awfully tempting to simply not start, and never fail. 

Second, the first part of any project is often the hardest and most discouraging. Planning, developing, reworking ideas - all these things take lots of time. If I decide to write a new story, I can't simply sit down and start writing. I spend hours thinking through the story, changing my mind about the characters, writing and rewriting the beginning. If I start a series of blog posts on women of faith, I pour hours into choosing women, and more hours into researching women, long before I actually hit "Publish" on the blog. Planning is hard work, but planning means I have almost nothing to actually show for my progress. 

In other words, starting a new project means I have to have lots of patience. Like a gardener, I need to be willing to sow the seeds, then wait without growing weary for the fruit. 

I do not have much patience. Yet good writing demands patience. Life demands patience, the willingness to wait and work for good things. 

This semester in literature, I am privileged to teach bright, insightful students. Yet I notice they seem frustrated sometimes when they don't understand the poem on the first read, when they come to class still not understanding the poem. I tell them, That's not the way it works. I tell them, It takes time, and a lot of work, to understand literature, I tell them. It's okay to come to class not knowing what the poem means. 

I'm not always sure they believe me. My students are not in the wrong here, simply caught up in the lie that society tells us: real success happens instantly, not gradually. If something is good, it will simply "click". That's not true, but we believe it anyway.

By no means are my students the only ones who fall victim to this lie. I do too, as the fact that I am procrastinating on my writing projects indicates. Teachers and leaders do too. A friend of mine recently told me that years ago when she was in college, only one of her teachers really seemed to have faith that she'd accomplish much in life. She showed up at her conservative college with short, spiky hair. She never fit in with the cool kids. No one knew what to make of her. Certainly no one predicted that she'd be where she is today: a leader in a flourishing urban ministry overseas. 

As a teacher, her story is a challenge to me: I must remember that there are no "bad" students, no students incapable of learning or success. Every single student I teach is simply developing, and if I have patience, I may see her make progress, beautifully. The grace of God is slow, but certain.  

More broadly, I am reassured that patience is the key to life. It is oh-so-easy to get frustrated or discouraged when life doesn't look the way we want it to. When our plans fall through, when family members give us hell or sleepless nights, when we goof up big time again, we think we've failed, that life is a shambles. 

Not true. With time, and patience, and grace, all we find so frustrating now we will find transformed. 

Sin is behovely, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.*

*Behovely: Necessary. This quotation comes from Lady Julian of Norwich, a mystic Christian writing in 1300s England.

Friday, February 21, 2014

What Do We Do With People?

People drive me nuts.

I know, I know. Hardly a Christian thing to say, right? Probably the fact that I am so often annoyed by other human beings is one of my biggest failings (Which of the Seven Deadly Sins is that? Maybe Pride?) 

In any case, I only mention this because yesterday morning, nearly everyone around me drove me particularly nuts. Yesterday morning did not start out with a bang, since within fifteen minutes of waking up I slipped and fell - hard! - on my icy driveway. People problems just made my day worse: I got stuck behind slow drivers on my way into work, I got criticized, I found my students not following my directions. 

By the time I got home, the most glorious thing I could imagine was spending two hours reading a book, exactly what I did.

But sometimes, people are wonderful. 

When I got up this morning, the sun was shining. I did not slip on the icy sidewalks on my way to the gym. Then I got home, went to make coffee, and discovered that my roommate had left a Dove chocolate in the (empty and dry) coffeepot for me, with the note, Hope today is sweeter! 

Indeed it was: My students in Intro to Literature had a great, thoughtful discussion about colonialism; my students in Creative Writing invented some truly fine ideas for their short stories. The people driving in front of me drove at a normal speed. 

The Atlantic published an article tracking murder and suicide rates in large cities. Murder rates go up in big cities, but suicide rates go down. Their conclusion? Sure, people drive us nuts sometimes, but they're also there to pick us up when we fall, help us dust off our knees and carry on with life. 

This, I think, rings true at least with my experience. I am made angry, and disappointed, and upset, and frustrated with other people, but I am also comforted and encouraged by other people. They have sent me notes when I needed them; they have encouraged me when I needed it; they have been honest about what my faults are. (Where would we be without best friends who trust us enough to be honest with us?) My life may be more complicated because other people are in it, but it is also richer and sweeter because other people are in it. 

That got me thinking: I wonder what I can do to make other people's lives richer and sweeter? I am absolutely certain that I annoy other people; surely I can contribute something positive as well? 

When I was in youth group, we had nights that we called RAK: Random Acts of Kindness. Usually these involved picking up someone that hadn't been attending youth group for a while and taking them out for ice cream, hardly the kind of sacrificial love spelled out in the Bible. 

Yet the idea of RAK is a good one: showing kindness to other people, showing them the love of Christ, especially when their life (and the other people around them) might be everything but loving. 

The only question is, how? Putting chocolate in a student's mailbox seems a bit trite, but it's a start. Perhaps I'll try that this weekend. I have a note that I should write to a friend. Perhaps I'll do that. I sponsor a child in India through Compassion International. Perhaps I'll go through the rigmarole of figuring out what the heck my password is on Compassion's website and actually write her a letter. None of these are earth-shattering, but then, neither was the piece of chocolate I found in the coffee pot this morning. It was still very much appreciated. 

At least while we're here on this earth, we're never going to get to the point where people don't annoy us. The question is not, How can we get less annoyed? The question  is, How can we, though annoyed, show love to others?

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Least of These

Let me ask you a question: When was the last time you really looked for the needs around you? When was the last time you saw the needy?

Honestly, I can't answer that question. I am far too blind to the real needs of my friends, far too likely to give offense instead of aid. I hesitated before writing this blog post.

But something needs to be said about how we talk about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, specifically about how much we're talking about his death.

On Sunday, I checked the New York Times and found it thoroughly covering Hoffman's death. On Monday and Tuesday The Atlantic covered concerns surrounding heroin addition. Today is Thursday, and at the gym this morning two separate channels had an announcement about the ongoing investigation; there was also a (presumably related) announcement about the rise of heroin. I hit my breaking point when I logged onto one of my favourite blogs, written by a pastor in Oklahoma who usually shows good sense, and found a post on the tragedy of Hoffman's death, as well as the deaths of other rich-and-famous from drug addiction.

You know what frustrates me about this? I'm not actually frustrated that the media is talking about Hoffman. After all, Hoffman's death was tragic. I'm frustrated that we're showering attention on Hoffman and sparing almost none for those who are not famous, and yet still suffer.

We are doing the very thing St James warned us against, lavishing attention on the needy rich and overlooking the needy poor, the ones whom Jesus remembers.

I write this post from New Beginnings, a center for moms in poverty where I volunteer. Some of our clients are facing the burden of an unexpected pregnancy. Some of them have only a few hundred dollars every month to feed a family of four. Some can't get a job.

Just down the street from us, the Maria House shelters women from abusive situations.

Last week, a colleague of mine lost a close friend and mentor late last week.

Last week, one of my students returned home to be with a deathly ill family member.

A few days ago, an elderly relative of mine had emergency heart surgery.

My point is, all around us real people are facing real troubles. Do we pay attention? Or can we not hear their cries, drowned out by the media hubbub of Hoffman's death?

Henri Nouwen, a world-renowned theologian and lecturer, lived out his final years caring for a mentally- and physically-disabled man named Adam. Adam was not famous; he was not rich. Yet in caring for Adam, Nouwen exemplified Christ. To Adam, Nouwen's caring hands were the hands of Christ, and Nouwen's love was the love of Christ, which reaches from heaven to the very humblest of earth's creatures.

Our Lord was not born in a palace, but a stable; he did not call the wealthy to himself, but the impoverished; he did not choose the Pharisees for his disciples, but uneducated fishermen. St Paul wrote that the very thing which believers were called to do was remember the poor.

Do we really remember the poor? Do we pay any attention to suffering, make any effort to relive it? Or do we only pull our heads out of the sand when the person who is suffering was wealthy?

To our shame, I think we have forgotten the poor. This is to my shame, as well: to my shame that I get more upset when I am stuck behind a slow car on the way to work than when one of my students is hurting, more concerned about how icy weather will affect my heating bill than about the people who are cold and hungry and homeless this winter. I do not write this as someone who has caring for the poor mastered, only as someone who is frustrated by our failure - by my failure - to care for the real poor.

Let us mourn Hoffman, by all means.

But let those of us who are Christians remember that he was rich and powerful, and that around us there are those who are poor, who are marginalized, who are powerless, and that it is these people who desperately need us to bear the light of Christ for them.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

For the Love of Teaching

I've learned, as a teacher, that some days rock; some days, really don't. On Wednesday, I had the second kind. On Thursday, with a good night's sleep between me and my mistakes, I thought of this verse:

Mark 10.17-22
17 Now as He was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?”18 So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Do not defraud,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”[c]20 And he answered and said to Him, “Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth.”21 Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.”22 But he was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
What strikes me about this passage is that Jesus loved the young man.

In truth, the young man is not being very lovable right now. He's self-righteous, self-centered, and greedy. He asserts, probably loudly, how well he's kept every commandment; he keeps his wealth instead of giving it to those who really need it, and walking with Jesus. Jesus has every right to be frustrated, even angry, with the man, and we know from the incident at the Temple that Jesus could get angry. 

Yet Jesus does not get angry. He does not even get upset. All we are told is that Jesus loved the young man, for no observable reason whatsoever. He simply looks at the young man, and loves him.

No matter what the young man does, no matter how he hurts Jesus here, he cannot sin himself out of the love of Christ.

Graham Green writes in The Power and the Glory, "It was for this world that Christ had died; the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater glory lay around the death. It  was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or a civilization - it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and corrupt." In the end, this is the message of the cross: that beyond all our expectations, beyond anything we have actually earned, Jesus loves us. 

This is a reassuring, comforting truth of the Gospel. 

It is also a challenge to me as a teacher. 

Sometimes, my students are easy to love, like when they write notes telling me that my class has changed their life, or purchase purple shoes as an in-class joke. Sometimes, they're not, like when I catch them on Facebook in class, or whey they blow off homework assignment after homework assignment.

How do I respond to this? Unfortunately, all too often I do the opposite of what Jesus does to the young man: I do not look at my students and love them; I look at what they are doing, and get upset.

This, I think, is the key difference between Jesus's love and my lack thereof: I get distracted by what my students do; Jesus, not one to get distracted, sees only the young man, created in the image of God inherently valuable, distinct from all his poor choices. Nothing the young man does can erase the fact that he was meant to walk with God, and nothing my students do should erase my love for them.

This doesn't mean, of course, that I should be a pushover. They deserve, and often desperately need, their teachers' love, but sometimes what they need most of all is tough love, the kind that doesn't take late homework so that they learn to respect deadlines, or the kind that gives out that F when needed so that students actually learn to write well. Nor does loving students mean I let them get away with whatever they want in class. A student using Facebook may be distracting to the other students, for instance; loving students means loving all the students, making sure that everybody thrives in class.

Honestly, though, reminding myself to be strict is really a reminder I do not need, like telling a child that it's okay to have a cookie every now and then, or like telling a couch potato that it's okay to have a day without exercise. The reminder I really need is this: The most important thing I can do as a teacher is love my students, regardless of whether their behaviour pleases me or frustrates me.

Because in the end, it's not about me.

This, I think, is what trips me up. I make class about me: need to rock this lesson, need to get them interested in this 1600s essay, need to earn their respect. Class is performance, and I am the starring character. How different from Jesus's love, which went to a cross on which he could win no glory, simply for the love of half-hearted and corrupt humanity. How different from what class is meant to be, a journey in which students become better writers, better readers, better and holier thinkers.

Sometimes, we Christians pour scorn on those who say they believe that Jesus was a great moral teacher. He was the Son of God, we exclaim!

True, but He was a great teacher, the very best. In the same way that humanity is made in his image and meant to be like Him, I want my teaching to be made in his image.

Teaching made in his image is not, ultimately, about doing thorough research or understanding Milton's Areopagitica; it is not about whether I have the students' respect or their attention. Teaching in the image of God is about whether I love the students. If I can do that, everything else will fall into place. Will every day be perfect? Absolutely not. Jesus was the perfect teacher, and yet Judas betrayed him. But regardless of what my students do, I will be doing what Jesus did: looking at my students and, by the grace of God, loving them.

May it be so.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Scandal of the Gospel

The great scandal of the Gospel is that God forgives people like Jeffery Dahmer.

I’ve recently been reading Philip Yancy’s book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? There, Yancy tells the story of Dahmer coming to faith in Christ. Whether Dahmer was sincere, no one can say but God. Yet the truth is, the gates of heaven are flung wide for people exactly like Dahmer.

Scandalous.

When I was a child, I always heard there was something scandalous, something offensive about Jesus, but I never figured out exactly what the scandal was. I assumed it lay in how we presented Jesus. If people were meant to find the Gospel scandalous, surely that was because we were meant to be on the offense in witnessing, getting in people’s faces a little, berating them for their sins? A friend of mine, as a child, rode her bike up and down her neighborhood streets, yelling fire and brimstone at the top of her lungs. This, clearly, was the scandal of the Gospel.

No. The way we share Jesus with others may be offensive, but the real scandal is Jesus Himself. Too often, this is not the Jesus we talk about in church. Too often, the Jesus we talk about in church “offends no one at all”, as Michael Card sings in his song “Scandalon.” The Jesus we talk about is busy inviting children onto his lap, feeding the hungry, heading out for a fishing trip with his disciples – all true, but hardly scandalous. The Jesus we don’t talk about is the one hobnobbing with whores and corrupt tax collectors, the one who rescues an adulteress from her just punishment and sends her away, scot-free.

The truth is, the scandal of the Gospel is grace. Do we really believe in grace? Do we really believe in free access to God for anyone – anyone –who comes to him through Christ? We say we do. We name our churches something like “Grace Baptist Church” or “Grace Community Church.” We print the sinner’s prayer at the back of every church bulletin and post it on church websites.

Then someone like Dahmer cashes in on God’s unending grace, and deep inside we are shocked. How could God’s grace possibly stretch far enough to cover someone like Jeffery Dahmer? Deep inside, something whispers to us that we are more worthy of God’s love than Dahmer. After all, he murdered people; we do not. He ate people; we serve juice and animal crackers at children’s church. We take a summer missions trip, we hold back snarky comments about Aunt Ethel at the family reunion, and we vainly imagine that our actions earn us a larger share of God’s love than Dahmer could ever receive.

Yet this tidy little myth of our own goodness is blown to bits when someone like Dahmer is saved. In someone like Dahmer there is absolutely nothing that could merit God’s love, yet God loves him unreservedly. However many animal crackers we serve in children’s church, however kind we are to Aunt Ethel, such love cannot possibly be earned. This is the scandal of the Gospel, that we stand exactly where we have always feared to find ourselves: as sinners, desperately in need of the no-strings-attached grace of God.

Realizing that we are in the same boat as Jeffery Dahmer need not be a downer. On the contrary, to remember how greatly we stand in need of God’s grace is to take the first step towards tasting that grace ourselves.

Humility, according to G.K. Chesterton, is the central virtue of Christianity. Indeed, in the Bible humility marks nearly every person’s journey towards God. Naaman is cured because he lays aside his pride and bathes in the Jordan, David the great king dances before the Lord, heedless and happy in his tightie-whities, and Zaccheus apologizes publically and promises to restore four times what he has stolen.. Whenever people come to God, they come to Him on their knees. Whenever they see God, they see Him best when they are not blinded by the phantasm of their own goodness. Whenever people are blessed by God, they are blessed because they are humble.



When we are humble, C.S. Lewis assures us, “the Mercy will receive us.” I would add that when we are humble, we will finally allow ourselves to receive mercy. Yes, Jeffery Dahmer’s salvation is scandalous. Yet that scandal is our saving grace. In the face of such scandal we are at last able to let go of our collective fantasy that we are somehow worthy of God’s mercy, able to bend our stiffened knees and in humility discover the endless grace of God. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Why Write?

Author's Note: On Friday, my Creative Writing students will be turning in their Statement of Purpose for the year. In solidarity with them, and to help me write the rubric, I am writing my own Statement of Purpose. Do enjoy!

Writing as a Spiritual Gift

Whatever St. Paul says, the church has persisted in idolizing some spiritual gifts. Intellectually, we acknowledge that all spiritual gifts, all talents, are necessary to the healthy functioning of the body of Christ, but publically, we latch on to certain gifts as the coolest in the Kingdom of God. In the early church, the cool gift was speaking in tongues; in evangelical America, spiritual encouragement. We pair up with fellow believers to mentor them; we group up with cell groups, grace groups, life groups, and Bible studies; we attend Sunday-morning coffee hour regularly, holding a doughnut and ready to affirm fellow believers that are struggling; we ask people, "How are you?" and wait for them to emote to us so that we can support them. 

Don't get me wrong: I'm not complaining. Far better that we support each other in the faith than tear each other down. Here's the problem, though: I am notoriously bad at encouragement. I've never mentored anyone in my life, or for that matter, been mentored. Almost no one emotes to me, which means there's rarely someone for me to encourage. Especially since my hope is to not only teach my students writing but also teach them about Christ, this failure to launch as an encouraging mentor can be discouraging. 

Last October, I shared my discouragement with a friend, someone who excels at encouragement. What she said stuck with me: Stop worrying about a gift you don't have. Work on the gifts you do have.

I later mentioned this advice to another friend. She, in turn, told me about her sister Laura, a writer. According to one of Laura's writing teachers, not writing when you can is a breach of social responsibility. Do you have good ideas? Yes? Then share them, so that other people can benefit from your thoughts.

This way of seeing writing stuck with me. For far too long, I've seen writing as a hobby, something to be indulged during the long hours of a snowy afternoon, practiced after dark when the whole house settles down. Yet after dark, I'm tired. I'm more likely to hop on Facebook, read up on the Mars One mission, scroll through Buzzfeed drooling over pictures of delicious desserts that I will never make. I've always known I was wasting time; I've never thought that I was wasting my spiritual gift. I may not be gifted in giving spiritual comfort, but dang it! I'd like to think, at least, that I'm gifted in writing. 

By this point in the 2014, many people are starting to give up on their New Year's resolutions. Yet just because New Year's resolutions don't work that well, doesn't mean that we should never make goals, that we should drift through life aimless, terrified of setting a goal lest we fail in our attempt to reach it. 

Here's mine: I want to write more this year, and all the years subsequently. 

For me, that mostly means writing non-fiction: more blog posts, more essays submitted to online publications (Relevant, Converge, Gospel-Centered Discipleship). Six years of writing literary analysis for my bachelor's degree, my master's degree, and my master's thesis means that non-fiction is far and away my strength. (And yes, non-fiction can be creative.) But just because we have a weakness doesn't mean we need to succumb to it. Therefore, I also want to write more poetry, more fiction; I especially want to try new things with poetry and fiction - more structured poetry, more frequent poetry; more fiction altogether. I want to stop worrying about the gift I do not have and focus on the one I do.

Writing in the Church

St Paul reminds the Corinthians in his first letter that the church does not function properly unless every gift is being used; stress any single gift too much, and you threaten its well-being. A car won't run correctly if we put on brand-new tires, snazzy hubcaps decked out with bling, and forget to change the oil. Why should we expect the church to run correctly if we polish one gift and neglect the others?

Right now, the church is excellent at forming relationships. What else do all those life groups, cell groups, or grace groups do besides build relationships between believers, providing them a space to come together weekly and share each other's spiritual and personal burdens? What else does the stress on mentoring do, but remind people that they need a confidante to help them get through hard times, and remind people that they need to care about others going through the hard times?

Unfortunately, what the church is not excellent at is reflection. Adam McHugh and Susan Cain, both of whom have written extensively about introversion, point out that almost nothing about church promotes deep reflection. The meet-and-greet at the beginning of the service, the doughnut-and-coffee hour, the Seven-Eleven songs that replace deep theological hymns and liturgies - all these favour emotion, not thought.

Here is where the gift of writing comes in: While believers who are good at dealing with emotion can do so, we who do not excel at dealing with emotion can trade in thought. We can, by our writing, draw our fellow believers back to issues we need to contemplate, back to reflection on our God and our relationship with Him. In many ways, the role of a writer in the church is similar to the role of a single in the church. We who are single are a symbol to our married peers, reminding them that human relationships are only for a time; the highest and best of all relationships will be with Christ in heaven. Likewise, we who write, we who reflect, are a symbol to those who do not, reminding them that life in Christ is not meant only to be experienced but to be thought about carefully.

Is it possible that to some extent, we writers even do the thinking for our brethren, a kind of heavenly division of labour? In St. Paul's words, some believers speak in tongues; some teach; some organize and direct; some show mercy; some pray. Could it be that some of us minister to the emotions; others, to the thought? That when our relationship-savvy brethren come to what we write and think about, they discover there something not germane to their own spiritual life?

Obviously, the question is a tricky one, all the more so because not having a particular spiritual gift does not excuse us from spiritual responsibilities (I may not have the spiritual gift of prayer, but I should still pray, for instance.) All the same, my hope as a writer is to supplement the church's focus on relationships with analysis and reflection, to remind my fellow believers that we love Christ not only with our heart but also with our mind.

Writing for Me

Still, these dreams are somewhat grandiose. Is it not presumptuous to think that I by my writing can change the church? Perhaps. I am, somewhat unexpectedly, reminded of the safety instructions delivered on an airplane right before take-off. "In event of cabin depressurization," they warn, "Put your own mask on before helping those around you." Only a foolish sense of heroics would violate these instructions: Try to help someone else with their mask first, and you may run out of air. You may endanger not only yourself, but also the person you were trying to save. 

I wonder whether it is only my foolish heroics that hopes my writing may draw the church back to reflection, supply the deep thought necessary for life in Christ to thrive. Perhaps the real reason for my writing is much simpler: When I am writing, I am reflecting. 

Remember those Buzzfeed articles I mentioned earlier, with all the beautiful dessert pictures? Scrolling through those is not conducive to deep reflection. Not even my newest intellectual hobby, reading the New York Times online every morning, really promotes reflection. Reading the articles may give me stuff to reflect on, but so long as I am reading what someone else wrote, I cannot be alone with my own thoughts. Not until I write, or at least until I sit and think, like Descartes in his window, can I reflect. 

Perhaps this is a selfish reason for writing, but it is nonetheless important: I want to write more so that I can reflect more, so that I am spending my mind and intellectual energy not on an endless array of food pictures on the Internet, but on things that matter. Like the scientists of the 1600s, I want to think God's thoughts after Him, and to do that, I need to think, and write.

Poet Dorothy Parker is said have to claimed, "I hate writing. I love having written." The same is true for me: Is writing hard? Absolutely. It's much, much easier to just read Buzzfeed articles. It's much easier to email a friend than to write a poem. I spent nearly two hours on this blog post alone, without editing. Yet the benefits from having written are endless: Having written means that I have reflected, that I have thought about the world I live in and the God who designed it - and that is a treasure worth all the work.

Monday, January 20, 2014

How Are You? Be Honest, This is for Posterity

When I lived in the Czech Republic, I was warned that Czechs answer the question, "How are you?" honestly. Don't use it as a greeting, people told me. Only use it if you *really* want to know how someone is doing. 

The same apparently goes for Russians, according to an article in the New York Times this morning. According to op-ed writer Alina Simone, Americans's pat answer - "Fine." - would never fly in Russia. In Russia people give you a rundown of their medical history, delivered in an appropriate tone of longsuffering. Americans, she writes, are shocked by such honesty.

I would add that Christians are equally shocked. Face it: We're as guilty of fineness as any other American. In fact, we've spiritualized fineness. The usual responses, "Fine," "Doing good," or "Okay," aren't enough for us. Asked how we are, we say, "Blessed" or "Better than I deserve."

True, "How are you?" is just a greeting and doesn't always need a detailed response. Yet leaning too heavily on this chipper call-and-response may keep us from recognizing real hurt as a normal part of a spiritually-healthy life.

Maybe Russians, Simone wonders, answer the question "How are you?" more honestly since "As a citizen of a Communist utopia, you were pretty much supposed to feel fine all the time". To describe your ailments in detail, then, is less about complaining, more about making a political statement. Or maybe, she writes, it's simply a spiritual reality for them, that (quoting Dostoevsky) "suffering [is] ever-present and unquenchable, everywhere and in everything".

Either way, the Russians' honesty has something to teach the church.

I wonder, does the church sometimes fall into the same error that the Soviets did? Do we expect believers, as citizens of the kingdom of heaven, to pretty much feel fine all the time? Isn't this what the expression, "Better than I deserve!" implies, that  whatever happens to us on this earth, we should be fine with it since by rights we should be in Hell?

Yes, we believers are supposed to rejoice in suffering. At the same time, rejoicing in suffering is not the same thing as pretending it doesn't happen, and our pat, slightly-too-cheery answers to "How are you?" are meant to gloss over suffering quickly, not rejoice in it.

Even the way we Christians respond to people who aren't fine implies that in the church, fineness is normal; grief and suffering, abnormal.

A perky colleague, told I was "Fine," to my surprise asked me what was wrong. I wasn't interested in having a heart-to-heart with a man I barely knew, so I brushed him off with a polite nothing and went on about my business. Yet his assumption that there was a problem, and his his insistence on knowing what it was, struck me as curious, even invasive. In fact, there was no problem; I was simply not brimming with delight that morning.

Several months later, I told a friend who greeted me that I was "Okay," and was pulled up short when she too asked me what the matter was. Again, I told her that there really was no problem; my mind was occupied with leaving work and stripping off stiff, uncomfortable work clothes.

Of course, my colleague and my student both meant very well. I am grateful that the people around me do care about my well-being. What I am concerned about, though, is that my less-than-stellar pat answer to the greeting, "How are you?" prompted two very different people to assume that there was something wrong with me. That assumption, I think, further illustrates that in the church, we are all pretty much supposed to be fine. Anything less than fineness is abnormal, a problem to be solved or at least prayed over.

By all means, pray over the problem. But let's not pretend that prayer will restore us to fineness.

The truth? Jesus wept, so surely we can weep. Jesus prayed before He went to the cross, but He also dreaded the cross, so surely we can experience dread too? Surely we can be discouraged, tired or upset? Surely we can simply be okay without people wondering what in the world is wrong with us?

The truth is, at least in this life we are made to experience a wide range of emotions. God designed us for joy, but he also designed us for grief, weariness, anger, frustration; he designed us to be distracted by problems, sunk in thought, mellow. Admitting this does not make us less spiritual. It makes us human.

Ultimately, Simone suggests that Americans take a page out of the Russian playbook: "Take a vacation from fineness," she suggests, listing off more realistic alternatives to "Fine": "So-so," "the usual," or "eh."

In other words, be honest. 

Good advice. We Christians would do well to heed it.

Credit to Coffee With Jesus, "Just Chill"

Monday, January 6, 2014

Book Picks (2013)

Part of the reason I enjoy social media is all the good book recommendations I discover. On a blog I follow, the writer has posted a long list of cheap, good books on Kindle. On Facebook, an old college friend has listed the books she most (and least!) enjoyed this year. For most of my life, I read books faster than I could find recommendations for new ones, so book recommendations are a goldmine for me.

It's time to return the favour. In this post I want to describe the two best books I read in 2013, one fiction and one non-fiction. I read a lot of good books, books that I enjoy during the reading and books from which I learn something. The truly good books, however, stick with me: I find myself talking about them weeks and months later, bringing them up again (and sometimes again and again) in conversations with friends; such books touch, and may even change, my life. What I want to do in this post is try to capture what I found so thought-provoking about each of these books. 

At the bottom of the post, I'll list a few honourable mentions from the last year

. Feel free to chime in in the comments, or via email: Per my confession, I love hearing what you are reading!

Science fiction is a genre, a grouping of similar books, in the same way that apples is a classification, a grouping of similar fruit. There are many different kinds of apples - some you like, some you don't. There are also many different kinds of science fiction - some don't work for you, some do. I cannot get invested in Isaac Asmiov's novels, nor am I interested by the pop science fiction with the bodice-ripper covers. Thankfully, The Sparrow is neither of those: it belongs to that rare class of novels: religious, contemplative science fiction. 

The Sparrow is about a doomed Jesuit mission to the planet Rakhat, the first that humanity makes contact with. Out of the perhaps eight people who leave Earth for Rakhat, only one returns. The mission is drawn to Rakhat when the planet's piercingly beautiful music is picked up by SETI equipment. Two Jesuit priests and several non-religious scientists, they go to Rakhat wanting not to colonize, not to exploit, but only, as the dust jacket notes, "to know and love God's other children". This, unfortunately, is not what happens. 

What touched me most deeply about The Sparrow was its gentle but unflinching honesty. At its heart the novel is a religious exploration of suffering, how the loving God of Jews and Christians can not only let suffering happen but lead us directly to it, as into a trap. The question of suffering is one of the thorniest in all our faith, and so the temptation is to hurry past it with easy platitudes.

The Sparrow does not do that. Its answer is longer, many-sided, cloaked in the complexities of narrative form; whether there is an answer at all I leave for you to decide. I, however, remember the graciousness with which the novel handles the question, acknowledging both the undeniable truth of God's care and also the equally undeniable truth of real suffering:

"There's an old Jewish story that says that in the beginning God was everything and everywhere, a totality. But to make Creation, God had to remove Himself from some part of the creation, so something besides Himself could exist. So He breathed in, and in the places where God withdrew, there creation exists." 
"So God just leaves?"
"No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering." 
"Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine: Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it." 
"But the sparrow still falls."

Sometimes we believers use God's care for the sparrow to gloss over real hurt by reminding the suffering soul that God is caring for them. Absolutely God cares for us. Yet His care doesn't, or at least it doesn't always, make us feel better; our suffering is real. This is The Sparrow's genius: In its narrative of suffering, the storyteller tells both sides of the story, the pain and trouble of real suffering, and the unending goodness and sovereignty of God. 

Besides this, The Sparrow is simply a well-written novel. Its characters are expertly drawn, with several rounded characters; there are rich descriptions of food, smells, and scenery. The plot is very tightly woven: Though some readers (not me) find it slow in the middle, nearly everything in the plot has a purpose; there are no loose threads. 

Cautions: Some graphic description towards the end. (There's a bit of a plot twist, which I won't spoil for you, but be aware that it's a dark twist.)

Best Non-Fiction: Salt Sugar Fat, by Michael Moss

Non-fiction is a newer pleasure for me. Unfortunately, Moss's book spoiled a great deal of lesser non-fiction. Salt Sugar Fat is a gem: thoroughly researched and descriptive, carefully organized, and most important of all, thoughtful and well balanced.

Salt Sugar Fat is about exactly what it says: the enormous quantities of added salt and sugar and fat which make processed food possible. Yet it's also about the way that food is marketed, with public attention diverted from the additives so that consumers can purchase more, and still more, of a particular product. Moss's point is not that readers should give up processed foods altogether. No, what Moss does is akin to what happens at the end of Wizard of Oz: Pulling back the curtain, he exposes and therefore weakens the magic of the food processing and marketing system.

When I was a child, I was fascinated when school related directly to my personal experience. I learned one day how the bones in the arm twist over each other when I turn my hand palm-up, and since then, I find it interesting to turn my hand palm-up, and then palm-down, and then palm-up again, thinking about how, underneath my skin, my arm bones keep crossing each other. I find Salt Sugar Fat memorable for exactly the same reason: Every one of us buys food from supermarket shelves, so the book is personal for every one of us. In some sense, it is about every one of us.

Take one example: Line extensions. Line extensions, Moss explains, are specialized versions of a particular product: cherry Coke or mint Oreos. When line extensions are available, people are not only more likely to purchase the specialty product, they're also more likely to purchase the original. Now, I see line extensions everywhere. I pick up candy-cane flavoured Hershey Kisses for a recipe I'm making, and I think about line extensions, about more money lining the pockets of Hershey executives.

Take another example: Cheese. In America, we add cheese to things: to a chicken dinner, to pasta, to a salad, even to dessert. In Paris they eat it plain, after dinner, in place of dessert. Turns out, there's a reason for why Americans eat cheese the way they do, and it has nothing to do with cheese tasting good. When Americans began to prefer low-fat to high-fat milk, the dairies had a lot of extra milk fat on their hands. They turned it into cheese, and then they had a lot of extra cheese on their hands. So they started a marketing campaign designed to get people to eat cheese. That's right: the American taste for cheese is manufactured. Savvy advertising, not the great taste of cheese, convinced us to eat as much cheese as we do. See how well Moss's book relates to real life? And are you still sure you need cheese in your salad, especially if you can't taste it among all the various vegetables?

You may still eat the same things when you finish Moss's book (I still like cheese, for instance), but you will think differently when you purchase them. Or you will eat them in different ways (I rarely add cheese to my salad anymore.) Salt Sugar Fat, in other words, will change how you think about food.

Cautions: None

Honourable Mentions: I would be up all night blogging if I described every single good book I read in the last year, and there's no way you would make it through the book-length post. I did want to list some of the books I enjoyed besides these, however:

  • Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Rosaria Butterfield. An agnostic lesbian professor converts to Christianity. Describes how she came to accept the Christian faith, and also describes how believers can learn from the GLBT community.
  • Real Sex, Lauren Winner. A defense of chastity as a crucial part of faith for non-married believers. Based on what we learn about Christ from chastity, and a good alternative to the courtship drivel a la Josh Harris
  • Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton. Describes and defends the habits of thought and assumptions that make orthodoxy possible. Extraordinarily witty. 
  • Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg. Practical advice for how women can become more prominent and happier in the workplace.
What about you? What have you read in the last year? What will you read next year?