In preparation for an upcoming talk in church on “trials and their purpose,” I purchased Eastern Orthodox philosopher David B. Hart’s book The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?. Written after the massive South Asian tsunami in 2004, Hart addresses the most common objection to God’s existence: the problem of evil. Instead of intellectualizing, justifying, and rationalizing the evil and suffering we see and experience in the world, Hart condemns it. He reminds readers that Christ was sent to conquer death and all those things associated with it. In short, death, evil, and suffering play no role in God’s ultimate purposes because these are the very things Christ’s atonement and resurrection are meant to be victorious over. Hart movingly concludes his book with the following:
[F]ortunately, I think — we Christians are not obliged (and perhaps are not even allowed) to look upon the devastation of that day — to look, that is, upon the entire littoral rim of Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal and upper Indian Ocean strewn with tens of thousands of corpses, a third of them children — and to attempt to console ourselves or others with vacuous cant about the ultimate meaning or purpose residing in all that misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation. Our faith is in a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin, the emptiness and waste of death, and the forces — whether calculating malevolence or imbecile chance — that shatter living souls; and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred.
…As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes — and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new” (pgs. 101, 103-104).
You can see a brief interview with Hart below discussing the problem of evil below.
Anyone familiar with my posts knows that economics is a major interest of mine. Hence, my interest in UCLA economist Roger Farmer’s book How the Economy Works: Confidence, Crashes, and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies. Farmer provides a nice, succinct overview of the history of major economic ideas, from Adam Smith to John Maynard Keynes to Robert Lucas. He then provides an interesting merge between the principles of classical and Keynesian economics for economic recovery. Ronald Johnson of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics summarizes Farmer’s position better than I can:
He believes that fiscal policy might help, but it should not involve an increase in government expenditures. However, he also believes that fiscal policy acts more slowly than monetary policy, which he clearly prefers. Since 1951, the Federal Reserve has reacted to recessions by lowering the interest rate it charges to commercial banks. Following the 2008 financial crisis, central banks throughout the world engaged in an unprecedented set of new and unconventional policies known collectively as quantitative easing. This strategy involved the purchase of a kind of asset other than government bonds, namely, mortgage-backed securities. Farmer believes that quantitative easing was the right approach, but that it should have gone further. He proposes qualitative easing, which he defines as a change in the composition of the central bank’s assets. Specifically, he would have the central bank prevent large stock movements, both up and down, from adversely affecting the economy. The bank would assert this control by the use of an index fund, the intent of which would be to manage the value of national stock market wealth by targeting the rate of growth of the fund. The Fed would announce a price path for its index funds, and the central bank would stand by ready to buy and sell the funds each day at the announced price.
Farmer concludes his book with the following:
There is much to be admired in the market system. It is the single most powerful engine of economic growth that human beings have devised. But we have not lived in a free market system for at least a century. The question is not whether to regulate the market—it is how to regulate it. As we learn more about market systems perhaps we will understand better not just why they work well but also how they occasionally fail. It is my hope that we can learn to control the economy that we live in without killing the goose that lays the golden egg (pg. 166-167).
I found Farmer’s ideas interesting, if somewhat unconvincing. The book is useful nonetheless.
You can see a five part lecture by Farmer at Pepperdine University below:
I’ve written about James K.A. Smith’s work before, especially his You Are What You Love. According to Smith, that was what he thought he was writing when it wrote Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Instead, he ended up needing to write a popular introduction to the Cultural Liturgies project, the first of which was Desiring the Kingdom. To recap, Smith argues against the modern idea that we are simply “brains on a stick” and that Christian life is achieved by downloading the right spiritual data into our heads. We are not so much thinking creatures as we are lovers, i.e. creatures of desire and habit. He points out the gap between what we think and what we actually want. More disturbingly, he notes that we may not actually love what we think. Our wants are often shaped by what he calls “secular liturgies”: repetitive practices and rituals that orient our desires and shape our habits. Take for example (as Smith does) the mall: the mall doesn’t tell you what to think. It doesn’t hand out a tract with a list of propositions that the mall believes. Instead, it shapes your consumerist desires as it assaults your senses with sights, smells, comforts, etc. This is why Christian liturgy is important and necessary. Christianity is not just a rival worldview, but a rival set of desires. And those desires are shaped through repetition.
The book is excellent and one of my favorites so far this year. It is far more in depth; the academic approach to the ideas found in You Are What You Love. As someone who is drawn to religious liturgy, but often bored by my own faith’s offerings of it, this was a much-needed read on a personal level.
When it comes to management research, Stanford’s Robert Sutton is someone I often look to. I follow his blog (which has unfortunately been dormant for some time) and take his book recommendations seriously. A year or so ago, I read his The No Asshole Rule. The main idea is that bullies and other toxic people–you know, assholes–negatively affects worker morale and productivity. I’ve written about his follow-up book Good Boss, Bad Boss here at Difficult Run. Needless to say, I like Sutton’s work. So when I read his Amazon review of Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace by Georgetown’s Christine Porath, I knew I had to check it out. Sutton writes,
In the name of full disclosure, I read an advance version of this book and wrote an endorsement. That said, because I wrote a related book on “”jerks” a decade ago, I’ve since read many books on workplace jerks and what to do about them, and related matters, over the years– and I’ve endorsed a lot of them too. Mastering Civility is the best of the bunch. It is the most useful, most evidence-based, and the writing is delightful– Porath’s voice is strong and engaging. The blend of stories and studies and advice you can use right away are pitch perfect. If you like books by Adam Grant or Robert Cialdini, you will like this as Porath is one of those rare top-notch researchers who is devoted to making people’s lives better, and making our organizations more effective too. She also presents one of the most compelling arguments against treating others in rude and disrespectful ways that I’ve ever read. It’s a gem.
Porath’s survey of the research finds that rudeness and incivility can decrease creativity, disrupt attention, and increase errors. However, leaders and co-workers that practice civility a viewed more favorably by others, have more engaged employees, boost creativity and performance, help create a reciprocal, civil organizational culture, and improve decision-making. All those who work–which is pretty much everyone–should take note.
Brown’s approach to shame and vulnerability has had a significant impact on my worldview, including how I interpret my religion…The book is a fantastic mix of research, anecdotes, and application. The insights within it are themselves therapeutic, providing a language capable of capturing many of the turbulent emotions we experience. The result is better self-understanding and increased self-awareness. A paradigm shifting book.
I also devoured her The Gifts of Imperfection after finishing Daring Greatly. But when Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution. was released, I asked my therapist if she had read it and if it was anything new compared to her previous work. My therapist said that it was largely more stories expanding on her previous themes. Being one who is largely interested in hard data, the idea of additional anecdotes with few new insights didn’t appeal me. However, when I came across it on Audible and remembered that Brown was the narrator, I decided to give it a listen. My interest was further peaked by some brief research I was doing on boundaries and relationships.
Rising Strong was well worth the read. While my therapist’s description was accurate, my disinterested reaction was due to my failure to remember how much I enjoyed Brown’s anecdotes and how well she weaved them together with her professional research. It’s actually one of the major strengths of her books. In Rising Strong, she puts this strength toward describing a framework of
Accepting failure and becoming curious about the emotions that come with it (the Reckoning).
Honestly engaging the stories we tell about ourselves (the Rumble).
Turning the process of reckoning and rumbling into a practice that leads to transformation (the Revolution).
One of my favorite insights, however, was about boundaries. According to Brown,
[T]he most compassionate people I interviewed also have the most well-defined and well-respected boundaries…They assume that other people are doing the best they can, but they also ask for what they need and they don’t put up with a lot of crap…Boundaries are hard when you want to be liked and when you are a pleaser hell-bent on being easy, fun, and flexible. Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment (pgs. 114-115).
Boundaries are an important part of generosity and integrity. “Generosity,” she says, “is not a free pass for people to take advantage of us, treat us unfairly, or be purposefully disrespectful and mean…[A] generous assumption without boundaries is another recipe for resentment, misunderstanding, and judgment. We could all stand to be more generous, but we also need to maintain our integrity and our boundaries” (pgs. 122-123).
These kinds of insights can help us all be our better selves. You can see a brief interview with Brown below.
Essentially all of my writing—for the General Conference Odyssey, for blog posts, in fiction that very few people have seen—is about connections. Some times, however, I don’t fully understand the connections myself. This may be one of those times.
One of the books I read recently that really stuck with me was Robert Leckie’s World War II memoir, Helmet for My Pillow. The conclusion to his book is haunting, and I want to quote some of it here:
It is to sacrifice that men go to war. They do not go to kill. They go to be killed, to risk their flesh, to insert their precious persons in the path of destruction… That is why women weep when their men go off to war. They do not weep for their victims. They weep for them as victim. That is why, with the immemorial insight of mankind, there are gay songs and colorful bands to send them off: to fortify their failing hearts, not to quicken their lust for blood. That is why there are no glorious living, but only glorious dead. Heroes turn traitor. Warriors age and grow soft. But a victim is changeless. Sacrifice is eternal.
This is the exact quote that came to mind as I read Elder Hales’ talk, A Question of Free Agency. It is one of the most unusual General Conference talks that I have ever read, even by the standards of the often-awkward first talks from the newly-called. What I found most remarkable about the talk was the bittersweet tone that pervaded it. It seems to me that many Mormons look to high leadership calling as a kind of badge of honor, a privilege to be dreamt for, but obviously that was not Elder Hales’ attitude. When he got the call—out of the blue—to give up his career and serve he was clearly devastated. As he put it, “The call was clear. I had to let go of everything that I had known and what I had been striving for in my life to become an Assistant to the Twelve.”
And so his talk touches on the law of consecration and even laying down your life:
I have learned from Joseph Fielding Smith, and have talked to young people, about the law of consecration. It is not one particular event; it is a lifetime, day by day, in which we all strive to do our best that we might live honorable lives, that we might live the best we can in the service of others, as President Joseph Fielding Smith talked about—not as his grandfather, Hyrum Smith, gave his life when he was with the Prophet, but giving our lives each day.
These are not the sentiments of a man who has achieved a life-long ambition. They are the sentiments of a prisoner on his way to the slow-motion gallows. A calling that plenty of Mormons have coveted—and still covet—was a sacrifice for Elder Hales, leading him to say, “It is not in death or in one event that we give our lives, but in every day as we are asked to do it.”
Lots of newly called leaders ask “Why me?” The question usually arises from humility: how can I live up to this great calling? But Elder Hales’ “Why me?” is more raw and visceral, much less “How can I do this?” and much more, “Why did this have to happen to me?” Thus:
One cannot ask the question “Why me?” and dwell on it. But I will do as the prophet has said, to put behind me my past life and dedicate and consecrate all my time, talents, and efforts to His work.
I think that’s why it reminded me so much of Leckie’s sentiments about sacrifice in war. I’m not equating the two; they are very different. Elder Hales said as much himself. But there is a common thread, and that thread is sacrifice. Giving up dreams. There’s one more quote that comes to mind, this one from J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan,
Mrs. Darling: There are many different kinds of bravery. There’s the bravery of thinking of others before one’s self. Now, your father has never brandished a sword nor fired a pistol, thank heavens. But he has made many sacrifices for his family, and put away many dreams.
Michael: Where did he put them?
Mrs. Darling: He put them in a drawer. And sometimes, late at night, we take them out and admire them. But it gets harder and harder to close the drawer… He does. And that is why he is brave.
There’s been a lot of hubbub recently about the fact that General Authorities receive a stipend. For the most part, I consider the entire conversation unworthy of reply. (I did engage once on Facebook. Of course I regretted it.) I’ll talk about transparency and accountability—and why such principles have nothing to do with our relationship to the Church—another time. For now, let me just point out the obvious: in accepting this calling Elder Hales was not fulfilling an ambition or securing an easy paycheck. He was giving up on every dream he and his wife had had for their lives. There are very few sacrifices more precious than our dreams, and that is precisely what Elder Hales was asked to lay upon the altar. And yet he did. And then he went out and spoke before the world of the importance of consecration. He was called, and he was answered. To denigrate his service—or the service of the other General Authorities—as somehow corrupt, or unseemly, or embarrassing is foolishness. And, as the Lord told Moroni, “Fools mock, but they shall mourn.” The Lord’s “grace is sufficient for the meek, that they shall take no advantage of your weakness.”
That’s what I see in Elder Hales’ talk, the meekness and weakness of someone whose hands shook as he lay his offering on the altar. There was nothing majestic or grandiose in his sacrifice. It was quiet and one could easily dismiss it as inconsequential compared to the sacrifices that others have made.
But I, too, have dreams. And when I think about what it would take for me to voluntarily abandon all of them, my heart quails in sympathy with Elder Hales’. He was meek. He was weak. He was definitely a hero in the Samwise Gamgee mold rather than the Aragon or Faramir mold. But when he abandoned his dreams, he became God’s.
Let the fools mock, and bear them no grudge. Elder Hales’ reward wasn’t of this Earth and—if we are able to follow his example—neither will ours.
I bought Shūsaku Endō’s classic Silence in early 2016 when I discovered that Martin Scorsese would be bringing it to the big screen toward the end of the year. I’d heard nothing, but praise for the novel. However, given that I’m not much of a fiction reader, the book sat on my shelf until December. But once I cracked it open, it struck me as the kind of fiction that Christians need to read. Much of what is labeled as “Christian fiction” (whether in print or film) is superficial fluff reminiscent of God’s Not Dead or the Left Behind series. But Silence tackles subjects like faith vs. doubt, discipleship vs. orthodoxy, and the problem of evil. In essence, it’s what lived religion looks like.
The novel was powerful as was its recent film adaptation by Scorsese (in my view, one of the best films of the year). You can see a trailer for the movie below.
As some of my past writing should indicate, the concept of meaningful work is a major area of interest for me. What management researchers have found is the prevalence of both intrinsic and prosocial motivation when it comes to constructing meaning at work. As Wharton professor Adam Grant explains, “[P]sychologists have demonstrated that prosocial and intrinsic motivations involve different reasons for expending effort. For intrinsically motivated individuals, effort is based on interest and enjoyment; for prosocially motivated individuals, effort is based on a desire to benefit others.” Psychologist Barry Schwartz highlights this kind of research in his short TED book Why We Work. For example, Schwartz explores the impact of “job crafting” and viewing one’s job as a “calling”:
It is people who see their work as a “calling” who find it most satisfying. For them, work is one of the most important parts of life, they are pleased to be doing it, it is a vital part of their identity, they believe their work makes the world a better place, and they would encourage their friends and children to do this kind of work. People whose work is a calling get great satisfaction from what they do (pg. 17).
This outlook is not necessarily brought about by the job description provided by the company, but often through aligning one’s values and job performance with the ultimate purpose (the Aristotelian telos) of the organization. It is especially motivating to be in contact with those who are positively affected by your work. While I at times quibbled with his economic reasoning (or the absence thereof), I was pleased to see Schwartz acknowledge the “positive-sum structure” of market transactions in which everyone benefits:
What this market logic means is that virtually every job that people do can be seen as improving the lives of customers, even if only in small ways. And what that means is that virtually every job that people do can be made meaningful by focusing on the way sin which it improves the lives of customers, as long as it’d done right and done well (pg. 30).
For those unfamiliar with the research behind meaningful work, this book can serve has a nice introduction. You can see Schwartz’s TED talk below.
I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this before on here, but, as some of you may have guessed, I go to therapy. I haven’t as of late for various reasons, but for a solid two years I went pretty much every other week. My interest in shame and vulnerability has been largely due to my personal work in therapy. This is why as soon as I heard of psychologist Louis Cozolino’s book Why Therapy Works: Using Our Minds to Change Our Brains, I immediately picked it up. Granted, like most of my books, it sat dormant for quite a while until I finally finished it up toward the end of last year.
Cozolino walks the reader through the findings of cognitive neuroscience, discussing the “fast” (i.e., “primitive systems, which are nonverbal and inaccessible to conscious reflection, [that] are referred to as implicit memory, the unconscious, or somatic memory”, pg. 5) and “slow” (i.e., “conscious awareness…[which] eventually gave rise to narratives, imagination, and abstract thought”, pg. 5) systems of the brain. Because of this “fast” system, we often have negative internalizations that we’re not even consciously aware of. This is what Cozolino calls “core shame”:
Core shame needs to be differentiated from appropriate shame and guilt that emerge later in childhood. Appropriate shame is an adaptation to social behavior required by the group. Core shame, on the other hand, is an instinctual judgment about the self, and it results in a sense of worthlessness, a fear of being found out, and a desperate striving for perfection. In essence, core shame is tied to our primitive instinct to be a worthy part of the tribe; it is a failure to internalize a deep sense of bonded belonging. As a result, people with core shame feel damaged, unlovable, and abandoned. Thus, core shame becomes a central factor in the perpetuation of insecure attachment and social status schema (pg. 10).
The brain, according to Cozolino, “is a social organ” and “we can leverage the power of human relationships to regulate anxiety and stimulate learning” (pg. xxii). This makes the relational nature of therapy all the more important and effective:
The reasons for our struggles often remain buried in networks of implicit memory, inaccessible to conscious reflection. Psychotherapy guides us in a safe exploration of our early experiences and helps us create a narrative that associates these early experiences with the ways in which our brains and minds distort our current lives. In the process, our symptoms come to be understood as forms of implicit memory instead of insanity, character pathology, or plain stupidity. This process can open the door to greater compassion for oneself, openness to others, and the possibility for healing (pg.9).
The book is comprehensive and excellent for both laypersons and scholars. You can see short interview clips with Cozolino below.
I’ve been a fan of British philosopher Roger Scruton ever since I stumbled on his BBC documentary Why Beauty Matters as an undergrad. I picked up his Oxford-published Beauty at the UNT library soon after. I found Scruton’s ideas to be powerful and provocative, even if the writing was at times difficult or lackluster compared to the concepts.
Viewed through the lens of scientific reductionism, all existence is fundamentally the bouncing around of various material particles, some arranged in the form of gene-perpetuating machines we call humans. Mr. Scruton almost agrees—we are, in fact, gene-perpetuating machines, and the finer, higher aspects of human existence emerge from, and rest upon, biological machinery. As he points out, though, it’s a long jump from this acknowledgment to the assertion that “this is all there is.” The jump, according to Mr. Scruton, lands us in “a completely different world, and one in which we humans are not truly at home.” A truly human outlook involves the intuition of intangible realities that find no place in even our most sensitive systems of biology, chemistry or physics.
For Scruton, this reductionism “overlook[s] the aspect of our mental states that is most important to us, and through which we understand and act upon each other’s motives, namely, their intentionality or “aboutness”” (pg. 4). The theism presented by Scruton is a kind of general classical theism, one that could be embraced by someone outside a specific religious tradition. His last few chapters discussing art, music, and the faces of others are especially enlightening. Just as no one would reduce the Mona Lisa to mere pixels on a canvas or the music of Bach to random sounds, to reduce humans and nature to their mechanical functions is to misunderstand reality and suppress our own daily experiences of the world. Thought-provoking stuff.
You can hear a brief snippet of an interview with Roger Scruton below.