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Book excerpts, Book Reviews, People we should know, Teen non-fiction

Edith Cavell: a brave guide

Some 150 years ago, on December 4, 1865, English woman Edith Cavell was born. And 100 years ago, on October 12, 1915, during the First World War, she was executed. Instilled with a desire to please her Creator God, Edith Cavell became a nurse; she lived what she professed, and died bravely at the hands of German soldiers. Her crime? Assisting Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium. In a seemingly hopeless situation, she persevered and did not shun the victor's crown. She was a gift given by God to His Son Jesus Christ and, as such, saved for eternal life. Throughout the fifty years of Edith Cavell's life, she was content to work hard and live humbly. She was a godly woman and, therefore, a godly historical example. The Bible instructs us to teach our children about such historical examples. Psalm 78:4 reads: "We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord and His might, and the wonders that He has done." At a time in history when examples of godly women are few and far between, much needed strength and encouragement can be drawn from the life of this lady who put all her trust in Jesus Christ, her Savior. 
 The following is an excerpt from the Christine Farenhorst historical fiction novel of Edith Cavell’s life, called A Cup of Cold Water, (P&R Publishing, 2007). At this point Edith has been helping many Allied soldiers escape out of German territory.

***

December 4, 1914 - Brussels, Belgium Breakfast was generally served at an early hour in the L’Ecole Belge d’Infirmieres Diplomees, the Belgian School of Lay Nurses. Too early some of the nurses said. “It is actually 7 o’clock, you know,” José said at 6 o’clock one morning, as he bit into a thin piece of toast. Puzzled, everyone stared at him and he went on. “The Germans changed our time yesterday. We are now on German time and no longer on Belgian time. All the public clocks have been put ahead.” “Well, I’m not going to pay the slightest bit of attention,” Gracie said, glancing at her wristwatch, “That’s just plain silly.” “Well maybe,” Pauline added hopefully, “we should get up later.” She eyed Edith but Edith was looking at cook in the doorway. “Excuse me, Madame,” the cook said, “there is someone to see you in the kitchen.” Edith got up, wiped her mouth on a napkin and left the dining room quietly after glancing at Elisabeth Wilkins. Elisabeth nodded to her, indicating that she would supervise while Edith was gone. Two more Louise Thuliez, one of the resistance workers Edith had come to know, was waiting in the kitchen. She had come in through the back entrance. Brown hair hidden under a kerchief, the young woman was obviously relieved when Edith walked in. Ushering her through the hall towards her own office, Edith could feel the woman’s tenseness. As soon as the door closed behind them, Louise spoke. There was urgency in her tone. “I have two men waiting to come to the clinic.” Edith nodded. “Fine. Direct them here. I’ll see to them.” Louise nodded, brusquely put out her hand, which Edith shook, and disappeared. Left alone in her small office, Edith passed her right hand over her forehead in a gesture of weariness. Running a hospital in peacetime was not easy, but running it in wartime, with mounting bills for food and medicines which would never be paid by the patients, was next to impossible. She had received some money from Reginald de Cröy and Monsieur Capiau but the men who had been sent to her regularly since Monsieur Capiau’s first appearance all had hearty appetites. Resources were at the breaking point. With a glance at the calendar, she saw it was her birthday and with a pang she realized that it would be the first year she had not received letters from Mother, Flo, Lil, Jack and cousin Eddie. She swallowed. Jack growled softly and she looked out the window. Two men were approaching the walkway. Bracing herself, she smoothed her hair, patted the dog and went out into the hall to await their knock. Although most of the men sent to the school only stayed one or two nights, some of them stayed a longer. As Edith awaited the arrival of the new refugees, she wondered how long she would need to provide them with shelter. If they were ill, they would be nursed right alongside German patients. Many of the nurses in the school were unaware of what was going on. All they saw were extra patients — bandaged, limping and joking patients. The Café Chez Jules was situated right next to the school. To recuperating soldiers, as well as to idle men with nothing to do for a few days, it became a favorite gathering place. The Café served watered-down wine and at its tables the men played cards, chatted and lounged about. But even if the Germans were not yet suspicious, word quickly spread around the Belgian neighborhood that Allied soldiers were hiding in the nursing school. Once again, as she had done so often, Edith opened the door. A short, thickset man looked Edith full in the face. “My name is Captain Tunmore, sole survivor of the First Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment.” He spoke with a heavy English accent. “And this,” Captain Tunmore went on, indicating the man at his side, “is Private Lewis of the Cheshire Regiment. Password is yorc. We’re both looking to get across to border.” Edith shook their hands. They were a little nonplused that this small, frail-looking lady whose hand totally disappeared in their grasp, was rumored to be so tough. Captain Tunmore, noting a picture on the wall, remarked, “Hey, that’s Norwich Cathedral!” “Do you know Norwich?” Edith asked. “It’s my home. I was born on its outskirts.” Edith took another look at the man. The fact that he said that he was Norfolk born, gave her, for just a small moment, the feeling that she was home, that she was looking into her mother’s face. “Well, gentlemen,” she smiled, “I’m afraid you’ll have to spend Christmas here with us as there is no guide to take you until after the twenty-fifth.”

***

Captain Tunmore and Private Lewis had come without identity cards. Edith, consequently, took photographs of the men herself and had contacts make identity cards for them. After Christmas, she arranged to have them travel towards Antwerp in a wagon but they were discovered and barely made it back safely to the clinic a few days later. Edith, therefore, prepared to guide them out of Brussels herself. “Gentlemen, be ready at dawn tomorrow. I’ll take you to the Louvain road. From there you’re on your own.” “I was thirsty…” At daybreak, Edith taking the lead and the men following her at a discreet distance, the trio made their way to a road outside of Brussels. Once there, Edith passed the soldiers a packet of food as well as an envelope of money. “In case you need to bribe someone – or in case you get a chance to use the railway,” she said. Shaking their hands once again, she turned and disappeared into the mist. On the walk back, Edith reminisced about how she had walked these very paths as a young governess with her young charges. It now seemed ages ago that they had frolicked about her, collecting insects, drawing, running and pulling at her arm to come and see some plant which they had found. Now she understood that God, in His infinite wisdom, had used that time to intimately acquaint her with this area. How very strange providence was! At the time she had sometimes felt, although she loved the children dearly, that her task as a governess was unimportant – trivial perhaps. Yet it had equipped her for the role she now played. Smiling to herself she thought, “Why am I surprised? After all, does not the Bible say that it is important to be faithful over a few things. A noise to her left interrupted her reverie and she slowed down. A German guard suddenly loomed next to her. “Halt! Papieren, bitte — Stop! Papers, please.” Silently she took them out and waited. He waved her on after a moment and she resumed her way. What would her father have thought about these activities, she wondered? “Out so early, my Edith?” she imagined him asking. “Yes, father. Just a little matter of helping some soldiers escape to the front lines. If they are found, you see, they’ll be sent to an internment camp somewhere, or they might be shot.” “What about you, my Edith?” “Oh, don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine. And besides, what else can I do? These men, these refugee soldiers, father, they just come to me. They arrive on my doorstep and look so helpless, so afraid that I will turn them away.” “Well, my Edith, you are doing right. Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, child: “I was thirsty and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took Me in.” “I remember, father. I remember.” “And in the end ... in the end, Edith, He will say ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’” “I know, father.” No time for childhood Throughout the spring of that new year, 1915, Edith continued to rise early on the mornings that soldiers were to leave for the frontier. English, French, and Belgians – they were all men eager to leave so that they could help the Allies. Between five and seven in the morning, she would accompany the men to the planned rendezvous point with the next guide, generally a tramway terminus or a point in some street. Arriving back after one such venture, in the early days of March, she found Elisabeth waiting for her in her office with a very guilty-looking Pauline and José at her side. “What is the trouble?” Edith asked as she took off her coat. “Would you like me to tell her, or shall I?” Elisabeth’s voice was angry. José shuffled his feet but he met Edith’s gaze head-on. Then he spoke. “I encouraged all the families on Rue Darwin to set their alarm clocks at the same time. I told them to set it for six o’clock in the morning, the time I knew a single patrol would be passing.” He stopped. Edith sighed. “And,” she encouraged, “what happened?” “Well, when all the alarms went off at the same time, the soldier jumped a mile into the air. You should have seen– ” “Was anyone hurt?” Edith interrupted him. “No, no one,” Pauline took over, “everyone only let their alarms ring for five seconds exactly. After that they shut them off at the same time. It was deathly quiet in the streets and all the people watched the silly soldier through their curtains as he looked behind him and around corners and pointed his silly rifle at nothing. We laughed so hard.” Edith sat down. “Do you have any idea what could have happened if that soldier had shot up at a window? Or if he had kicked open a door and ...” She paused. They really had no idea about the seriousness of the times in which they were living. She sighed again and went on. Pauline looked down at the floor and José appeared fascinated with the wall. “You ought to know better than anyone, José, how dangerous it was what you did. After all, you have come with me many times to help soldiers find their way through and out of Brussels so that they can escape to safety. War is not a game.”

***

After they left her office, thoroughly chastened, Edith sat down at her desk, put her head into her hands and wept. Childhood seemed such a long way off and the Germans were stealing much more than blackberry pie. [caption id="attachment_11944" align="alignleft" width="1280"] Edith Cavell's death was memorialized on propaganda posters like this one.[/caption]

Theology

Should a Christian ever be discontent?

She sat across from me, sipping coffee, her forehead wrinkled with unhappiness. She’d struggled for two years in a job that clearly made her miserable, and which everyone else thought she should quit. But she couldn’t quite agree, wondering if there was a reason God had blessed her with the position. “I’m trying so hard to be grateful,” she said. “I just want to be satisfied with what I have.”

****

My friend’s words hit me right in my chest. I didn’t know what to say, because I’ve struggled with the exact same issues. When is it okay to give up on the path you’re currently traveling on? When is it okay to quit and change what you’re doing? We know God has a reason for everything He brings into our lives, so doesn’t it just make sense that we should figure out that reason – figure out how to glorify Him in this situation – before we think of moving on to something else? But like so many other situations in life, we often don’t understand the invisible plans of God, or know what His goal is for us in our current season of life. And so we can be left unsure if it is okay to move on to something else, or if God means for us to learn contentment where we are. Often, when we find ourselves feeling like I or my friend felt in that moment – recognizing the strain of dissatisfaction running through our lives – we respond with guilt. We might think this discontent points to a lack in our spiritual lives. But is discontent always wrong? Dissatisfaction certainly can be caused by a spiritual lack. We humans never are satisfied with what we have. We never have enough. If we had the power to change everything in our lives, we still would not feel fulfilled. But this does not mean we should never take our discontentment seriously. Discontent might be the motivation to change something in our lives that needs changing. The value of discontent When we look at other people’s lives, it’s easy to recognize what’s causing them unhappiness, and it’s easy to say they should change these things. In fact, we often wonder why they don’t. This person is still young, so why don’t they try a new career? Or this person has the freedom to move, so why don’t they try living in another city? But when it comes to ourselves, we see how hard it is to justify our choices to make changes. Is “unhappiness” really a good enough reason, when we know we’re called to be content? To get here we've struggled, we've prayed, we've relied on God to achieve things – and by the grace of God we have achieved them. We know, because our strength was so weak and we needed God's strength so much to get where we are today, that our current situation is straight from the hand of God. What we need to know is if we can be grateful for God’s gifts while still choosing for change. No wonder people hesitate to make a change! One way forward is to consider when feelings of discontent have value. This is not to say discontentment should be embraced, but that the feeling can point us to areas of our lives we do actually have power over. So let’s look at discontentment a bit more closely. We shouldn’t be content with just this world First, there are some obvious things God intends for us to be discontent about. We are not supposed to be content with the fallen state of the world. We are supposed to be content that all things are in the hands of God, but we are not supposed to look at injustice be pleased about it. Some of our dissatisfaction points us to the new creation we are looking forward to. When we recognize that we never feel fully fulfilled, we also recognize that we are waiting for eternal fulfillment. We live with “eternity in our hearts” – we have a vision of an ideal kingdom this world cannot live up to. This also means that life’s frustrations, dead ends, and futility were never meant to be part of God’s good creation. No wonder we react so strongly to them. And yet, while we understand this, we also understand God is still holding all the threads of our lives in His hands. We cling to His promise that in him everything that seems meaningless has meaning. We shouldn’t be satisfied burying our talent There’s another aspect of discontentment to consider. Contentment ought to be separated from passivity. A wrong emphasis on contentment can make us believe we’re not allowed to change anything in our lives. But contentment and passivity are not the same thing. Perhaps discontentment may be a challenge to us. We may hide behind “contentment” because we’re afraid to take the risk of change, because we might fail if we try something new. But our dissatisfaction could hint that we are not reaching for goals that we could try to reach. We are not risking the bumps and falls that might develop our skills. Discontentment might tell us we are meant to challenge ourselves. And if we are taking the easier path without really thinking it through, our emotions may be a sign something is wrong. We should consider whether we need to choose a more challenging goal. If we do not separate contentment and passivity, it can result in a fatalistic determinism. We might conclude that wherever we happen to be, that is where God placed us so it must be where He wants us to be, and therefore we should be content. But this cuts off the possibility that God also blesses us with opportunities. Determinism leads us to say—You’re still single? God must not want you to be married. You’re poor? God must not want you to be rich. Don’t try to achieve anything. Just wait peacefully. Don’t try to change. Everything you’re meant to have will just happen if it’s meant to be. But clearly this is an unbiblical message. Learning contentment from Paul Contentment is still a good thing, and it is a virtue to be pursued in our lives. After much struggle, I’ve realized that while there may be something behind the vague sense of discontent that so often crops up in our lives, and that these reasons can be addressed, contentment is still the goal, not discontent. How, then, should we pursue contentment while avoiding utter passivity? There are a few things to keep in mind. Content even as we strive First, contentment is about where you are in the present moment. It is not a denial of any change in the future. When Paul talks of being content in all circumstances, he was working towards a goal, and the circumstances occurred while he was attempting to achieve it. Having a goal does imply you expect to cause change in the future. So perhaps it is not the goal you’re supposed to avoid having, but the discontent over the difficulties that spring up on the way to the goal. It may in fact turn out to be that the goal is not one you’re meant to achieve, but contentment in all circumstances includes contentment during the deep disappointment that hits when you don’t achieve your goal. In other words – strive! Keep striving! But be ready to be content with what the Lord brings you. Content in suffering Another caveat is that contentment in Scripture, including the contentment passage in Philippians 4 (“I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content”), is mentioned in relation to suffering. It is an approach to situations that are not in Christians’ control. When life is hard, especially when life is hard as a result of being Christians, Christians are to be content. So the intent is not to say, “don’t change your life path,” but rather, “I know you’re suffering, and this is where you can find comfort.” These passages also emphasize that no circumstances of life ever prevent us from being saved by God – whether in chains or free, whether rich or poor – no one needs to be discontent because their circumstances prevent them from truly being Christians. If such circumstances did exist they would surely be reason for despair—but thanks be to God there are none! We can be content because our circumstances do not prevent our salvation. Content when we have choices and when we don’t We all suffer in some way, but in comparison to many Christians in the Bible we are faced with an endless array of choices – we can choose a career, we can choose a spouse, we can choose where we want to live, we can choose to travel, we can choose our level of education. It’s not a surprise the Bible doesn’t predict that we in the future would be faced with this array of choice, and advise us on how to wrap our minds around the dizzying display. And therefore it is not a surprise when we try to apply biblical principles to our choices instead of our sufferings, and end up at the conclusion that we should never desire anything, and never try to achieve anything. But rather than arriving at this conclusion and automatically accepting it, we should think about whether this is really correct. We are to be content in situations we can’t change, including those which are really, really hard. But our contentment in the present moment doesn’t prevent us moving from one choice to another in the future. Second, we often think contentment means being stationary unless we’re sure God means for us to move. But Paul did not always sit and wait until absolutely sure that God was sending him somewhere else. If he was called by the Spirit he followed, but he continued to work and preach in all places while waiting for the Spirit’s call. He often made plans to go to different places, or to start new missions. When the Spirit of God prevented him from preaching throughout Asia Minor, he continued trying in place after place until he reached the sea – only then did he realized he was being called to Macedonia. In other words, sometimes we are not sure what we should do, but we do not necessarily have to wait for a firm confirmation from God before every action. Content in the day-to-day faithfulness Lastly, we are often discontent with our lives not because of the goals but because of the mundane tasks and the drudgery. Our actions seem so little, and so dull. We cry, like me and my friend did when we were having coffee, “I just want to work in God’s kingdom!” But perhaps the cathedral builders did the same, as they painstakingly placed stone on stone for hundreds of years, unable to see the buildings we’d gasp at in wonder today. Perhaps our grandparents did the same as they struggled to get their children to listen to a Bible story, not knowing if the generations who’d follow would do the same. When we ask God to use our lives according to His plans, we sometimes suppress a fear that God doesn’t want us to go anywhere, or do anything. This is our fear when we walk into the office and face a mountain of paperwork that needs to be done but hardly seems worthwhile – am I really contributing to God’s kingdom, we wonder? But our God is not a God of waste. If we are to be ordinary, it will be worthwhile. Our call to contentment brings us to a new understanding, where ordinary labour is not undervalued. We are not pressured to all conform to the mould of world-changer. We can put our hand to the task in front of us without fear our efforts will be washed from the earth, because we know they’re seen by the eyes of God. Conclusion What, then, is contentment? First, it is a focus on the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of the world. It shifts our focus from yearning for the things of this world, such as money, fame, or power. We can trust there are eternal things that we are building, and contentment means that we can rest. Second, it is not a struggle with God over what can’t change. While we are not called to passivity, in our lives we will sometimes be told “no.” This is where we are most often tempted to fight, not necessarily with our actions, but with a rebellious spirit that insists on despising the situation forced on us. Only by looking to God in His Word and in prayer will we find the strength to turn back to contentment again. When my friend and I left the cafe, our lives were still the same as when we had come in. Yet somehow Christian company and very good coffee gave us new capacity to rest in the goodness of God.

Harma-Mae Smit blogs at  HarmaMaeSmit.com. 

In a Nutshell

Tidbits – March 2020

It’s so easy to get things wrong While doing evangelism, Christian apologist Ray Comfort will often ask his conversational partner a series of quick trick questions. The goal is to provoke a little humility by highlighting how easy it is to get things wrong. So take this quiz (or better, yet, give it to a friend...who can take a joke) and then look at the bottom of this page to see how well you really did. How many of the unclean animal did Moses take onto the Ark? What is the name of that raised print that deaf people use? Spell the word shop. What do you do when you come to a green light? It's noon. You look at the clock, and the big hand is on the three, and the little hand is on the five. What time is it? You are the driver of a train. There are 30 people on board. At the first stop, 10 people get off the train. At the next stop, 5 people get on the train. Here is the question: What is the name of the driver of the train? Spell the word silk. What do cows drink? And here’s one Comfort doesn’t use, but should:

What mouse walks on two legs?   I don’t know. Mickey Mouse! What dog walks on two legs?   Goofy? Right! And what duck walks on two legs?   Donald Duck! All ducks walk on two legs!

Troublemaking Bruce Jenner, who now goes by the name of Caitlyn, was an Olympic decathlete in the 1970s, and his personal best in the 400-meter is still better than any woman has ever run. If feelings can determine a person’s gender, then why doesn’t Caitlyn own the women’s 400-meter world record? Lies and statistics, and spanking... Every now and again the mainstream media will splash news of the very latest spanking study, which will report that spanking is "linked to aggression, antisocial behavior, mental health problems, cognitive difficulties, low self-esteem, and a host of other negative outcomes." That study will then be used as evidence that spanking needs to be banned. But if we look beyond the headline we'll find that whatever the latest study might be, it makes two fundamental errors. First, it will label as "spanking" anything physical that a parent did as a punishment for their child. That a child who is regularly beaten by his drunken father will have problems at school, is presented as evidence that a child who sometimes gets three smacks to his behind will also have trouble at school. Second, despite knowing that correlation does not imply causation, the press will report as if this is the exception to the rule, instead of looking for any sort of possible alternate explanation for the findings. What might an alternative explanation be? If I were a betting man I would put all my fortune down on this: were we to do a study of children who crayola the hallway wall, and then go outside to make mud pies so they can feed them to their napping, open-mouthed big sister, we would find that they are more likely than their peers to get spanked. In other words, it might well be that spankings don't lead to these "negative outcomes" but rather that a child's disposition to negative outcomes requires a parent to spank them more often. As any parent with two or more children can tell you, one of their kids will require more discipline than the others. And it isn't the especially good one. Get ready to be reviled "Pastors need to teach their people about how to handle with grace being looked down on more then ever before. I heard of John Stott reflecting that as a young man at Cambridge when people said ‘O he's a Christian,’ what they meant was that he was a goody-two-shoes. But now to be called a Christian means that you are viewed as a morally-deficient person, because you have not swallowed the gay agenda.” – Dr. John E Benton, Evangelicals Now, July 2012, on how the world will change as gay marriage becomes the norm. More troublemaking Our culture is insane, as is on clear display with what they think about sexual education. To put that insanity on better display here’s an idea from frequent RP contributor Rob Slane that lays out a couple of pointed questions a brave troublemaking Christian could ask university professors or sex-ed teachers.

"I imagine a teenager in a sex education lesson asking the following question: 'Miss. Assuming I take precautions, would it would be safer for me to have 3 partners or 300?' No brainer of course, and even the most progressive of teachers would have to admit that 3 is 'safer' than 300. Simple mathematical probabilities this one: the lower the number, the 'safer the sex.'

"In which case a really mischievous teenager – a true rebel you might say – might ask the following question: 'Miss, is it safer to only have 1 partner for life, or multiple? And if it’s 1 – which it is – and if this is a safe-sex lesson – which it is – why do you not advocate it?'”

Faint heart never won fair lady “Many a man has known a great woman, yet did not win her because, out of fear, he failed to pursue her.  Every man understands this, both the brave man who has risked it all (and won or lost) and the timid man who did not dare.  The battle to take the great action required at these ‘make it or break it’ moments is won or lost privately, deep in the heart.” – Patrick F. Fagan Answers for "It’s so easy to get things wrong" Moses didn't take any animals on the ark; Noah did. Deaf people don't need special raised print; Braille is for the blind. You certainly don't stop. We told you, it's noon. Remember, you are the driver of the train. While calves might drink milk, cows drink water.

Economics, Movie Reviews

Wait till it's free

Documentary 2014 / 82 minutes Rating: 9/10 Why would Canadians be interested in watching a Scotsman take a look at the American healthcare system? Because this examination, of how capitalism and socialism impact healthcare costs, is very relevant for us too. The film’s director and producer, Colin Gunn, is Presbyterian and consequently a capitalist. If that seems an abrupt connection, then consider that we Reformed folks know that the heart of man is wicked. So we are well aware that if an economic system needs men to be angels, laboring for no personal benefit, then that is an unworkable economic system. So we know better than to be socialists. But for some reason, we don’t seem to think that holds true for healthcare. This comes out most strongly when Canadians, even the Reformed ones, start talking about healthcare with their American cousins. Then we seem to be quite proud of the socialistic nature of our healthcare system, which “costs us nothing, and is free for everyone.” But, of course, that isn’t really so. It certainly isn’t free – the costs are simply not seen, paid out in taxes, so that Canadians have very little idea of how much their healthcare really does cost. And that everyone is covered doesn’t distinguish it all that much from American healthcare, where everyone can get emergency care, and where more and more of the population is covered by the government-run Medicare. As Gunn points out, the American system is almost as socialistic as the Canadian. Gunn’s main argument is that a good dose of capitalism would be good for what ails the American system. His most telling observation was that in the American system no one knows what the costs will be beforehand. There is no public pricing chart, and so no way of comparing what one hospital might charge versus another. And without an awareness of how much things might costs, there is only a pretense of competition. You won't have innovation if you don't have competition so if we want to reform healthcare, this might be the first place we need to start: make all the prices public! I highly recommend this documentary – it is a brilliant argument by a Christian filmmaker who has perfected his craft. The content is superb: Gunn has assembled an impressive cast of experts from around the world to make his case. And the presentation is even better: there are fun little animated bits, and great narration, and a wonderful story arc – this is packaged up nicely, and tied up at the end with a bow. Who should see this? Anyone who thinks socialism is the answer to our healthcare needs. You can watch the trailer below, and watch the rent the full film by clicking on the "$4.95" link in the trailer below. The Wait Till It's Free YouTube site has a lot of extras that are also worth checking out.

AA
Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews
Tagged: Christian biographies, Christian fiction, Christian non-fiction, featured, reading

3 ways of confronting the problem of diminishing attention spans through the Great Books

How many books do you finish? How many blog posts do you really read? I am guessing that you, like me, are busy and are tempted to skim just about everything. In a world of touch screens and endless entertainment, our attention spans atrophy into something that might look like childishness to our ancestors. But how can we build up the attention spans that we need for sustained thought in the modern age.

Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay said that the audience that they contemplated while writing their masterful defense of the new US Constitution in The Federalist Papers was a farmer in Upstate New York. In our day, it seems that most every time a politician opens his mouth, we find that he could not match that 19th-century dirt farmer.

Our attention spans are diminished and might, it seems, be extinguished completely, but I want to recommend a course of treatment. It is simple: read the Great Books [editor’s note: “Great Books” is a term for the classics of Western Literature – for more see the endnote below].

Here are three ways reading these books helps us confront the problem of diminishing attention spans.

1. The Great Books are a mirror that helps us see the problem

The Great Books hold up a mirror that helps us see the extent of the problem (which is the diminishment of our capacity for sustained thought). Reading the Great Books is challenging. The first book I teach to our seniors each year is Milton’s Paradise Lost. It is a challenge! Deep concepts, archaic language, demanding expectations (because Milton expects that you have read the other Great Books written before his – particularly the Bible).

This is difficult, but we need to understand one powerful fact: people in every generation prior to ours have mastered these books because they are so important! What is the mirror saying about our generation?

2. The Great Books reward sustained contemplation

The Great Books reward sustained contemplation where the reading of “chapters” is necessary. Have you ever read a page or two, or a paragraph or two, of a book only to get distracted? You retain almost nothing.

Emily and I had an embarrassing situation like this early in our marriage. We decided to read The Lord of the Rings together. So far, so good, right? Wrong! We decided that we would read it to each other when we went to bed. Our first daughter, Maddy, had just arrived. I was working hard at the school. We were both exhausted. It did not go well. We actually dreaded the elf poetry and songs that Tolkien inserts. That knocked us out every time. Because of the brokenness of the reading, we missed so much.

The Great Books reward sustained concentration and punish flighty drifting. Each year when I teach Paradise Lost, I tell the students that reading this book is like weightlifting. Reading it grows you. You leave it stronger than you began, but unless you devote yourself to reading a section, book, canto, or chapter your reward is diminished. This means that these books challenge their reader to make them a priority. They grow our attention span and by this they grow us toward fuller humanity.

Very few people do things just because they are difficult – and most of those people need help. Hard things should be hard for a reason. They should eventually result in happiness or the hope of happiness. The Great Books can be challenging, but they reward those who discipline both their tastes and abilities. The experience of the Great Books makes everything else better and sweeter. Every time I am watching a movie where a husband stands between his wife and evil men, my mind starts drifting off to Odysseus stringing the bow and restoring order to Ithaca. Your life is richer for reading The Odyssey. So, the discipline that reading the Great Books rewards actually makes life sweeter and better.

3. The Great Books measure us 

The Great Books measure us. We need to grow up to read them. We need to do this thoughtfully and with a sense of the frame of our students, but we should celebrate with them when they become men and women who complete the Iliad or the Aeneid or Moby Dick. As they accomplish this, they become a member of a community that stretches back in time to the beginnings of this civilization. They begin to love the same words that their grandparents and great-great-great (etc.) grandparents loved. Of course, the Scriptures are at the core of this “way of viewing the world.” In them, we find the stories that encompass our lives.

A number of years ago, Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio was speaking at a conference and he made this point in a profound way talking about music, he said, “Tradition is something we have to live up to.” His point is mine. The great music of the past, measures us. It is not that we cannot add to it, but to add to it, we should first master it. Mastering it prepares us to find our own voice and to find that we have a voice worth heeding. The Great Books are a tradition like this. We speak best when we are disciplined enough to master the tradition.

My hope is that you kept reading this post and that, hopefully, this post will encourage you to set aside some time to devote yourself to reading the Great Books. Start by doing the reading. It will stretch you and grow you, but you will find yourself stronger and wiser as you devote yourself to this worthy task.

Ty Fischer’s article first appeared on the Veritas Press blog and is reprinted here with permission. Veritas Press has a number of homeschooling resources built around a Great Books curriculum. 

Editor’s endnote

What are the “Great Books”? There is no one list, but the term is meant to describe a compilation of classics from Western Literature. Some lists are very long, topping hundreds of books, while others limit themselves to as little as 50, but the idea behind all of them is that these are foundational books – read these and you will have a better understanding of some of the key ideas shaping the world today. A Christian list would look different than a non-Christian, though a Christian list should contain non-Christian books. Placement is as much or more about a book’s influence as it is about its genuine insight, so pivotal infamous books do make their appearances. So what exactly might be on such a list? Here is an example:

  1. The Unaborted Socrates by Peter Kreeft
  2. The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
  3. Chosen by God by R.C. Sproul
  4. Macbeth by Shakespeare
  5. Beowulf
  6. The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
  7. The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom
  8. The Heidelberg Catechism
  9. Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
  10. Time Will Run Back by Henry Hazlitt
  11. The Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther
  12. The Epic of Gilgamesh
  13. Divine Comedy by Dante
  14. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  15. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  16. The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
  17. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  18. Christianity and Liberalism by John Gresham Machen
  19. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  20. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  21. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  22. Art and the Bible by Francis Schaeffer
  23. Desiring God by John Piper
  24. Aesop’s Fables by, well, Aesop
  25. Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie
  26. City of God by Augustine
  27. Here I Stand by Roland Bainton
  28. The Prince by Machiavelli
  29. 1984 by George Orwell
  30. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
  31. 95 Theses by Martin Luther
  32. Knowing God by J.I. Packer
  33. The Brothers Karamazov by Fydor Dostoevsky
  34. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
  35. The Republic by Plato
  36. The Koran by Mohammad
  37. The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
  38. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  39. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
  40. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
  41. The Odyssey by Homer
  42. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
  43. The Westminster Confession of Faith
  44. Competent to Counsel by Jay Adams
  45. Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
  46. John Adams by David McCullough
  47. Hamlet by Shakespeare
  48. A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift
  49. Ivanhoe by Walter Scott
  50. Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin

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