The Most Powerful Choices

The most powerful choices we will make in our lives are not about specific decisions but about patterns of life: the nudges and disciplines that will shape all our other choices. This is especially true with technology. Technology comes with a powerful set of nudges- the default settings of our “easy-everywhere” culture. Because technology is devoted primarily to making our lives easier, it discourages us from disciplines, especially ones that involve disentangling ourselves from technology itself.

If we want a better life, for ourselves and for our families, we will have to choose it- and the best way to choose it is to nudge and discipline ourselves toward the kind of life we most deeply want.

~Andy Crouch, The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Placepage 37

Lest you think that Crouch is just crabby about technology:

Please understand: I’m not saying technology is bad. In fact, I would say it is very good… Technology is the latest, and in many ways most astonishingly good, example of the fruit our image bearing was meant to produce. But technology is only very good if it can help us become the persons we were meant to be. Pages 62-63

Crouch is balanced- technology is not an evil to be avoided but a tool to use for our most important tasks. This is the central challenge of the book:

For technology, with all its gifts, poses one of the greatest threats ever conceived by human society to the formation of wise, courageous persons that real family and real community are all about.

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It is for your life- John Wesley on Reading

John Wesley read loads of books riding horseback. 250,000 miles.* Imagine the hours spent in solitary (and bumpy) reading and prayer. My back hurts just thinking about it.

Why all the effort? Wesley explained in a letter to a pastor why he should be reading more and how he could do it:

What has exceedingly hurt you in time past, nay, and I fear to this day, is want of reading.

I scarce ever knew a preacher read so little. And perhaps by neglecting it you have lost the taste for it. Hence your talent in preaching does not increase. It is just the same as it was seven years ago. It is lively, but not deep; there is little variety; there is no compass of thought.

Reading only can supply this, with meditation and daily prayer. You wrong yourself greatly by omitting this. You can never be a deep preacher without it any more than a thorough Christian. O begin! Fix some part of every day for private exercises. You may acquire the taste which you have not; what is tedious at first will afterwards be pleasant.

Whether you like it or no, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way: else you will be a trifler all your days, and a pretty, superficial preacher. Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer. Take up your cross, and be a Christian altogether. Then will all the children of God rejoice (not grieve) over you, and in particular Yours, &c.

~ John Wesley in a letter to John Tremboth, August 17th, 1760

Wesley explains why he should read- who wants to be pretty and superficial? He also shows how to get there- meditation and daily prayer.

Your reading will stick with you if you think and pray over it. Sticky reading reciprocally makes you a better reader and a clear-headed thinker. Do that twenty minutes every day for three years and you’ll be a different person. Reading is the gateway to mental depth and focus that we all wish for in our age of distraction. Read to learn, read to think, read to pray- it is for your life!

*Oakes, Edward T. (2004). “John Wesley: A Biography”. First Things.

BL

Habits of the Heart

In 2009, N.T. Wright managed to write a book dedication that both challenges and invites further reading. It’s a peek into the quality of the book. You can get it on Kindle for $4.99

My wife deserves particular gratitude for her tenacious enthusiasm for my writing and her ready willingness to put up with the usual domestic consequences at a time when other unexpected pressures were crowding upon her. One cannot write about virtue without thinking about love, and I cannot think about love without thinking about her. I have dedicated two other books to her, each of which marked a serious turning point in my life and work. This one comes, as ever, with love and gratitude, but with both of those qualities formed, over further years, into a still deeper habit of the heart.

~N.T. Wright,  After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters 

Think about it- a Conversation

I believe I can help those who want to think better, but—I need to say it before taking one more step—no, it’s not because I’m an academic. My fellow academics, taken as a group, are just as reluctant to engage in genuine reflection as the less highly educated person in the street. Academics have always been afflicted by unusually high levels of conformity to expectations: one of the chief ways you prove yourself worthy of an academic life is by getting very good grades, and you don’t get very good grades without saying the sorts of things that your professors like to hear.

~Alan Jacobs, How to Think (pp. 23-24)

I read this in bed a few weeks ago. Academics are not immune to peer pressure, Jacobs says. Over the next few days, similar ideas from a variety of authors floated to the surface of my mind. A kind of conversation emerged:

First voice, John Locke

Michael Shermer wrote for the Scientific American about speaking with narrow minded people. I considered here that his advice was sound, but his article seemed too lax on his own atheistic tribe. I brought in John Locke, who said we tend to think and argue in favor of our desires, rather than our reason.

Second voice, Allan Bloom

In what oddly became the most commonly visited post on this site, I reflected on Bernie Sanders’ popularity and his supporters use of the term ‘Revolution’. I mention Allan Bloom:

Freedom of the mind requires not only, or not even especially, the absence of legal constraints but the presence of alternative thoughts. The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside.

~Allan Bloom, Closing of the American Mind, (emphasis mine)

When we remove the voices that challenge us, we should beware the ecology of ideas we’re creating. Locke and Bloom reinforce Jacobs’ concern.

Third voice, Rosaria Butterfield

I remembered a counterpoint to Jacobs. Rosaria Butterfield, wrote on the benefit of university culture. Describing her entrance into the church after conversion:

I miss being in the company of risky and complex thinkers, people who are invested in our culture and who challenge me to think to the edges of my comfort zones. I believed then and I believe now that where everybody thinks the same nobody thinks very much.

~Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, Secret Thoughts of An Unlikely Convert, pg. 7

Butterfield argues that the Academy is a fitting place for the exchange of ideas. See how her statement echoes Bloom? There’s tyranny afoot when other perspectives are edged out. Jacobs, however, says there’s more insularity in the Academy than Butterield acknowledges. Professors aren’t immune to the peer pressure and temptations to desire Locke mentioned.

Maybe Butterfield is issuing a statement of faith in what the university should be.

Finale, Matthew Crawford

Matthew Crawford, the philosopher-turned-motorcycle-mechanic, agrees:

Getting things right requires triangulating with other people. Psychologists therefore would do well to ask whether “metacognition” (thinking critically about your own thinking) is at bottom a social phenomenon. It typically happens in conversation— not idle chitchat, but the kind that aims to get to the bottom of things. I call this an “art” because it requires both tact and doggedness. And I call it a moral accomplishment because to be good at this kind of conversation you have to love the truth more than you love your own current state of understanding. This is, of course, an unusual priority to have, which may help to account for the rarity of real mastery in any pursuit.

~Matthew Crawford, emphasis mine. The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (p. 63).

Rare indeed. This is my favorite kind of reading. Continuing Crawford’s argument, guiding your books into a conversation is indispensable when learning to think. The kind of freedom that emerges is what a liberal arts education is all about. Think about it.

BL