One unicorn alone in the wild may be a figment of your imagination. Many unicorns together, however, form a blessing upon your Saturday. So grab some pie for breakfast to go with your coffee, because that’s what all the cool kids are doing this Saturday after Thanksgiving (be like Harold, I reminded readers earlier this week, and have at least 9 favorite kinds of pie in your life!).
This roundup is extra-long and a good bit of it is about orienting our loves and our reading towards the good, the true, and the beautiful–many things we can be thankful for or should think more about during this season.
Chris Hutchinson, a PCA pastor with a love for words, has a beautiful reflection at his Substack this week: “In Search of Our Shire: finding beauty in every place we’ve lived.” A taste:
Later, we traveled to Europe with our girls and no place was more beautiful than Switzerland. We had promised Geneva that we would take her to the city of her namesake, and I am glad we did not name her Tuscaloosa or Lubbock. I loved driving around Lake Geneva to Château de Chillon, which jutted out into the lake. The bright blue water reflected the rainbowed hang gliders soaring around the snow-capped mountains above. On balance, I doubt that there is a more beautiful country in the world than Switzerland, a swirl of mountains, water and peace for centuries. I am glad that we experienced its beauty together, a memory to cherish for a lifetime.
Geographical places are more or less beautiful. Some people love the desert. Some people love the plains. Some people love pine trees and sand. I love hills and water, side by side. That is my shire. But there is no shire without the people we love. That is a beauty that no mountain, no stream, no beach can match.
One place whose beauty I am learning to appreciate as a new resident is the Midwest. Our first Thanksgiving in Ohio was wonderful! You can catch John Haas’s review of Jon Lauck’s book about the Midwest, The Good Country, this week at Current (although John is less excited about this region than I am) and also see Jon Lauck’s own new essay on “The Endangered Ecosystem of Midwestern Studies.” With the latter, do hurry—it’s outside the paywall for just a couple of weeks.
On the same theme of loving people and places well, Rachel Anderson’s 2023 Kuyper Lecture for the Center for Public Justice asks the important question: “Who’s Caring for Children?” This is an issue of orienting our priorities towards the eternal.
Whenever our priorities are not oriented towards eternity, we see the effects manifest quite clearly in the here-and-now. And so, over at Providence Magazine, James Diddams examines “The Holocaust, Hamas, and the Post-Christian West.” Why have so many college campus protests taken the side of Hamas following the horrifying attack on Israeli civilians? The answer is, at least in part: the post-Christian ethos.
Switching gears to issues related to reading. Over at Front Porch Republic, Arena regular contributor Dixie Dillon Lane has thoughts on “Learning to Read in 2023,” inspired in part by the success of her third child learning to read this year. A taste:
What makes this miracle happen, this awakening to the queer and quixotic relationship between concept, symbol, and sound? For this particular little loveable scamp, a boy whose pockets are full of rocks and sticks and yet whose heart and mind run deep with thoughts on God and Man, it was an additional year of growth, a lot of hearty play, and a patient parent holding him close while they looked through Noah Webster’s simple blue-backed speller and drew on a small white board with dry erase markers.
This is what my third child needed in order to learn to read. Yet of the many factors going into this process, the only one that anyone ever seems to talk about is the one represented by Webster’s speller: the curriculum (in this case, one based on phonics)…
For many of these kids, reading remains a chore—although they can read, reading never becomes easy. It remains instead something that stands in between the child and a story, and so they do not come to love or embrace it as a pastime.
I sometimes suspect that just such a hidden lack of facility with reading underlies many college students’ increasingly low threshold of tolerance for reading assignments. When I first started teaching young adults over a decade ago, I got complaints for assigning 150 pages in a week to upperclassmen. But nowadays, I sometimes hear students complaining about twenty-five.
And on a related note, many thanks to Jon Schaff for recommending this depressing but important read: “The Decline and Fall of the Classroom Novel.” A taste:
…fewer students are reading books — real, physical books with printed text — from start to finish, because fewer schools are requiring it.
When I taught high school, most of my colleagues assigned only excerpts from To Kill a Mockingbird or Romeo and Juliet, because reading the whole book just “wasn’t that important,” they told me. Instead, they supplemented the books with excerpts from the movies. Finishing a book was irrelevant so long as students could practice critical thinking skills — this gauzy phrase goes undefined but is nonetheless wielded against anything that whiffs of classical schooling.
Sadly, almost despairingly, the most influential institutions in American education want to remove the book from our classrooms. In a statement that could be mistaken as satire, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) proclaimed that it is time “to decenter book reading and essay writing as the pinnacle of English language arts class.” Apparently, they don’t teach irony anymore either. Instead, teachers should incorporate videos, memes, gifs, selfies, and contemporary news. Finishing books is less important than discussing “immigration, xenophobia, police brutality, racism, and environmental degradation.”
Over at the Anxious Bench, Adam Renberg makes the important case for academics and non-academics alike to read across genres and periods, in what may be my favorite of his Anxious Bench essays yet: “Gregory of Nyssa and C.S. Lewis: On the Need to Read (And Write) Across Genres.” A taste:
If different genres might be utilized for developing theological points, we might dwell on the strengths of specific styles for conveying certain truths: specific genres are able to instruct and convey theology in unique ways… Reading across genres allows us to see and experience God in unique ways—different trees convey unique (but related) truths.
We might also consider not only what we read, but what we write and create: how we should be planting our own forests. Which trees are we planting, in our understanding of God? Are we creating a forest or a tree farm with a monoculture? Someone who might be a great example in resisting the urge to use one genre alone is C.S. Lewis, who wrote Christian works across many genres. Lewis did not intend his theological vision to begin and end in Mere Christianity—he conveyed truths in God on the Dock, The Silver Chair, Til We Have Faces. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, for instance, Lewis sought to show the depths of God’s sacrificial love, which is not as easily conveyed in a philosophical work on the atonement. If we take any lessons from Lewis, we might consider how some genres are better mediums to experiencing and understanding God. The recent work of Jessica Hooten Wilson, Reading for the Love of God, is a great starting place for anyone seeking practical guidance on how to do this well.
Speaking of C.S. Lewis (for whose writing so many of us are deeply thankful!), Joel J. Miller offers fruitful reflections this week in honor of the 60th anniversary of his death, which took place on the same day as the JFK assassination. A taste:
I haven’t checked, but I would guess I quote Lewis more than any other single author. I have more books by him than any other (except maybe St. Augustine). And I keep returning to them. I’ve probably read Till We Have Faces five or six times at this point. I particularly enjoy rereading his essays.
Lewis was always a serious rereader. “I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once,” he once wrote a friend. Rereading “is one of my greatest pleasures.”
Speaking of JFK, we had a fabulous two-parter about the JFK assassination here at Current this week (with many thanks to David Head and Patrick Lacroix. In addition, I enjoyed Peter Thuesen’s reflections about JFK and his Catholic funeral: “The Day the Mass Became American.”
One last reading-related piece, particularly important in light of the fact that you are reading all these recommendations online. And, of course, I read all of them online myself. The digital world has been shaping our reading habits, and this is fraught with complications, as Jeff Bilbro notes in his review for Christianity Today of Samuel James’s Digital Liturgies: Rediscovering Christian Wisdom in an Online Age. Jeff’s conclusion and exhortation is to prioritize embodied relationships and interactions over digital ones:
Just as leading car-centric lives affects our sense of self and community, accessing the internet involves real moral risks, ones that many of us won’t be able to avoid entirely in a world where these technologies have become what theologian Ivan Illich terms “radical monopolies.”
Christians need to say no to unfettered, frequent engagement online—very few people really need an internet-enabled smartphone—and yes to counter-liturgies that conform our souls to reality by inculcating disciplines and virtues.
Finally, this week’s recommendation from Current’s vault: Evan Kutzler’s “Three Evenings in Plains.” It is a beautiful tribute to the life-long commitment of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter to their tiny town of Plains in south Georgia.