I have been absent from my blog for several weeks now, and a note of explanation is in order. A good chunk of my time recently has been devoted to applying to seminaries. The amount of time it takes—contacting people to write recommendations, ordering transcripts and test scores, putting together essays, etc.—is daunting. But my part of the work is done, so now comes the waiting. In some ways, this is the hardest part because it’s the part over which I have no control. I visited one school a couple weeks ago and am visiting another one this coming week, and that part of the process is a lot of fun. As soon as I hear “yea” or “nay” from any schools, I will let you know! In the meantime, I’d better go check my mailbox…again.
Yesterday I recommended some online people who inspire me. Now it’s time for the flip side. Many of the YouTubers I enjoy watching are half my age. They live in fancy big-city apartments and drive luxury cars and maintain lifestyles beyond far beyond my means. On one hand, I find them inspiring; on the other hand, I am seething with envy that is probably not healthy.
Every bit of advice I’ve read on how to be happy includes a warning to not compare yourself with other people. This is advice I have a very hard time following. How do you not compare yourself to others? How do I not watch a 20-something driving a Tesla and not resent my entry-level Ford? How do I not let a video on home decorating depress me when I’m wondering how to make next month’s rent on my tiny apartment?
Way back when I was in my own early 20s, I wrote and recorded two songs that have since taken on a bitter irony. “I Hate My Apartment” and “I Wanna Be Rich” were written when I was certain better times were just around the corner. A combination of bad luck, poor timing, and bad decisions has held those better times at bay. Don’t get me wrong; I’m certainly better off than millions—if not billions—of the world’s desperately poor and hungry people (and yes, I also wrote and recorded a song called “Hungry People,” but that one’s not online). Things, as they say, could be worse. But they could also be a lot better.
So please excuse this whiny blog post. My struggle is one I suspect I share with many people of modest means. It is also not entirely about money, though let’s face it: That’s a biggie. But even if all those talented young YouTubers were stripped of their high-price accessories, I would still be envious of their accomplishments. Ah, there’s the ticket! I may not be able to control what people pay me, but I can control what I do and how I do it. Focus on doing good work.
“Make good art.” – Neil Gaiman
And if anyone want to gift me a Tesla, that’d be cool too!
Yes, I have accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Tumblr. And I do interact with them—probably more than I should—but I also spend a great deal of time ignoring much of what comes my way via those channels. There are better ways to spend my time online. Here are a few of them:
I’ve promoted the many online endeavors of John and Hank Green before, and I’m about to do it again. Hank’s latest YouTube project is Journey to the Microcosmos, a relaxing and informative look at the microscopic world around us. Hank is much mellower on this channel than his regular viewers may be used to, and he proves he can deliver even at a slower tempo. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCBbnbBWJtwsf0jLGUwX5Q3g
If someone had told me even two months ago that I would be listening to and recommending a podcast by a former megachurch pastor, I would not have believed them. Yet here I am plugging Rob Bell’s RobCast. Although his main focus is matters of religion, the pod casts a wide net (see what I did there?), and you won’t be bored! It’s not hard to see why Bell’s preaching attracted large crowds; he’s very good. https://robbell.com/portfolio/robcast/
Another religious podcast that has been bringing me much enjoyment comes from Peter Enns and Jared Byas. The Bible for Normal People takes up the many issues, problems, and controversies surrounding the Bible. Though many people claim the Bible takes center stage in their lives, too often they haven’t really given it the thought and in-depth reading it deserves. Enns and Byas tackle even the thorniest issues head-on, chatting with a varied company of scholars, writers, and bloggers, all the while keeping the tone accessible and entertaining. https://thebiblefornormalpeople.podbean.com/
While we’re on religious subjects, Austen Hartke approaches the Bible from a transgender perspective, which is refreshing and needed. The subtitle of his webpage is “Theology – Identity – Education,” and that pretty well sums it up. (I’ll be doing a lot of this business of approaching theology from different and sometimes surprising perspective in upcoming posts.) http://austenhartke.com/
“Life is an art. Make it your masterpiece.” This is the headline of Lavendaire, the website and YouTube channel by Aileen Xu. Some folks may find here a bit too New Agey, but I enjoy spending some time with her online. Creative Lifestyle Guru is perhaps an abused job title these days, but Lavendaire’s optimistic, helpful, and healthy advice is…well…optimistic, helpful and healthy! https://www.lavendaire.com/
“You know when I leave and when I get back;
I’m never out of your sight
I look behind me and you’re there,
Then up ahead and you’re there too—
Is there anyplace I can go to avoid your Spirit?
To be out of your sight?”
– The Message
The words of the Psalmist are calming, but also cautionary. On the one hand, it’s nice to know I am not alone. What greater comfort could there possibly be than to be assured that an all-powerful God is by my side? It’s like having the ultimate bodyguard!
But there is a catch. This constant companion knows me and my secrets, even the ones I would rather remain unknown. No, there is nowhere I can go to avoid the Lord. I am never out of the Lord’s sight. Those little things I think will not be noticed? They are noticed! Little transgressions I think I can get away with—I can’t.
I am reminded of Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant musical, Into the Woods. As has been the case with me and many Sondheim shows, I didn’t care for Into the Woods the first time I saw it. (I’m talking about the stage production, not the movie, which I still haven’t seen.) But I knew from experience that Sondheim sometimes requires repeated watching-listening-reading-thinking. You could easily see Into the Woods and come away with little more than, “Well, that was a fun retelling of some classic fairy tales!” That’s not wrong, but that’s also not all there is.
Take these lyrics:
“No one is alone
No one is alone”
Nice, right? Yes, but…
“Careful the things you say,
Children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
Children will see.
We are not alone, and that comes with a responsibility. Our words and actions act as guides to those around us, so we must be careful. No one is alone. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “We are who we pretend to be, so we must be very careful about what we pretend to be.” Children see. The Lord sees.
No one is alone. Be comforted, but also be careful.
There are those who agree with Ned Flanders that the Bible is made up of two parts: the Old Testament, and the New AND BETTER Testament. There are people who would like to do away with the Old Testament altogether. But even though some of it is rough going, the Old Testament is worth keeping. And since nearly ¾ of the Christian Bible is devoted to it, plenty of other people must have thought so too.
There is no question that the Old Testament has its difficulties, or rather WE have difficulties with parts of the Old Testament. There’s the violence, which is seemingly everywhere, but here is one sample: “With their swords they killed everyone in the city, men and women, young and old. They also killed the cattle, sheep, and donkeys.” (Joshua 6:21). The mind-numbing strings of names (1 Chronicles devotes NINE chapters to this). There are the bits which are morally questionable in every way (Judges 19). And there are long sections that are comically repetitious. Numbers 7 gives a detailed list of the offerings brought by the tribe of Judah to the newly anointed Tent of the Lord’s presence, then follows it up with lists of the offerings from each of the other eleven tribes…even though all twelve of the lists are identical!
And everyone who has attempted to wade through Leviticus knows that it is sheer torture.
BLOFELD: “So you have decided not to cooperate, Mr. Bond. Well, read Leviticus in its entirety!”
JAMES BOND: “I’ll talk! I’ll talk!”
In spite of all this, we need to see the Old Testament as more than a lengthy introduction to the New Testament. The breadth and richness of the writing alone is staggering. The Bible has come down to us as a whole, and however messy the process of putting it all together most assuredly was, we need to accept it as a whole. It’s all there for a reason: the good, the bad, and the ugly. When confronted with a passage that seems pointless or just plain yucky, don’t skip over it Ask yourself why it’s there. What role does it play in the work as a whole? Who put it there and why? I come back again and again to the questions posed by Peter Enns and Jared Byas in their podcast, The Bible for Normal People:
What is the Bible, and what do we do with it?
The Old Testament is full of treasure—start digging!
I had a copy of The Children’s Bible as a kid. Every kid I knew had a copy of The Children’s Bible. It had all the good bits (and pictures!) without any of the controversial stuff. I thought of it as just another collection of bedtime stories.
I knew the Bible was a big deal. I went to Sunday school and church every week as far back as I can remember. The minister read a few tidbits of scripture as part of every service. There were copies of Good News for Modern Man in every pew. But even at church, we mostly got the good bits without the controversial stuff. I’m not sure exactly when it was, but sometime before I left high school I acquired a Living Bible (read letter, with concordance), and it was this Bible I decided I would read cover to cover, which I did.
Since then, I have read other Bibles cover to cover. My trustworthy RSV, The Message, most recently the Catholic Study Bible. Just this past week I started in on the massive CEB Study Bible with Apocrypha. I already have Robert Alter’s even more massive Hebrew Bible with Commentary on my Amazon wishlist. I guess I’m a Bible glutton.
Now simply reading the Bible cover to cover does not constitute Bible study. Digging into the Bible in depth is a worthwhile activity, and necessary if one is to even begin to truly understand this sprawling mess of a book. I should add here that simply memorizing select passages also does not count as Bible study. It might be an impressive parlor trick, and could potentially help on Jeopardy, but memorizing and understanding are not synonymous. People who can rattle off dozens, or even hundreds, of out of context Bible verses remind me of Dustin Hoffman’s character, Raymond, in the movie Rain Man. Raymond is profoundly autistic. He has an astounding memory but no sense of what it is exactly he has memorized. When stressed, he recites Abbott & Costello’s famous “Who’s On First” comedy sketch word for word, over and over. People who quote Biblical passages with no knowledge of the context or meaning of those passages are like that.
I love the Bible. I love reading different versions of it. I find something new in it every time I dip into it. I love reading it, and I also love studying it—reading commentaries, footnotes and cross-references; listening to podcasts and speeches from Biblical scholars; discussing it with other Bible fanatics. Too many people who claim to base their faith on the Bible have only a superficial knowledge of the book. Treat it simplistically and you will miss the best parts. If you stay in the shallow end, you’ll never discover the riches in the deep end.
I am a glutton. Not with food—well, not usually—but with books. I look at the books on my shelves, many of which I still have not read, and I want to dive into all of them at once. When I pick up a hefty book like Kristen Lavransdatter, War and Peace, or Bleak House, I want to devour it in huge chunks. I want to fill myself to the brim with all the delicious words I just know are waiting for me between the covers. I recently made the plunge into George R. R. Martin’s massive Song of Ice and Fire (five volumes and counting). Proust’s complete In Search of Lost Time (4,211 pages according to Amazon), has been sitting by my bedside, waiting patiently for at least two years now. There are literally hundreds of classic books I have not read in the world, not to mention those old favorites that I want to re-read. Every year a new batch of great books is published, both fiction and non-fiction. I don’t want to read some of them; I want to read all of them! Right now I have four books going at once, which even by my standards is a bit much. Happily, they are all dissimilar enough that I am unlikely to confuse them.
In an effort to consume as many books as possible, I am tempted to read too quickly. Though I have never been and never intend to be a speed reader, I often gobble down more than I can comfortably digest. Just as I can be overwhelmed at a large buffet (remember, I said I’m not usually a glutton with food), the sheer quantity of great books tempts me to overfill my plate. I have to remind myself that I am not in a contest of quantity. I must remind myself to slow down. As author John Green says, “Being a slow reader can in some ways make you a better reader.” His brother Hank follows this advice up with, “An important part of reading is not reading.” Put the book down and contemplate what has just been read. Spend some time thinking, musing, and engaging the text through questions, thought experiments, and creative writing.
“Instead of rushing by works so fast that we don’t even muss up our hair, we should tarry, attend to the sensuousness of reading, allow ourselves to enter the experience of words.” – Lindsay Waters
So tonight after supper, when I pick up a book (I’m not sure which one it will be yet), I will endeavor to savor the experience. Instead of counting pages, I will swim in them. If I drown, I can’t think of a better way to go.