Reading Round-Up: March 2018

I have been putting off and putting off writing this post, because I keep thinking that I need to write a proper full post for Culture Making before writing the round-up. But given that it’s mid-April… I think I need to accept that it’s not going to happen. So without further delay, here’s what I read last month:

  1. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Andy Crouch)
  2. Ross Poldark (Winston Graham)
  3. Demelza (Winston Graham)
  4. Jeremy Poldark (Winston Graham)
  5. Warleggan (Winston Graham)
  6. The Black Moon (Winston Graham)
  7. The Four Swans (Winston Graham)
  8. The Angry Tide (Winston Graham)
  9. Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America (Barbara Ehrenreich)
  10. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Malcolm Gladwell)
  11. Meet the Frugalwoods (Elizabeth Willard Thames)

First: let’s talk Poldark! Some months ago our choir director played us a clip from some show I had never heard of (the music ends around the 1:12 mark):

That short minute or so of singing was enough for me to go hunting to find out what this “Poldark” thing was: a BBC/PBS production based on Winston Graham’s twelve-volume series of novels, set in Cornwall in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. My husband and I love watching period dramas together and so we devoured Poldark seasons 1 and 2 before I decided to see if our library system had the books. And they did, and then I was off to the races! I finished the first seven in March, before taking a small non-fiction break as a bit of a palate cleanser. Now, I think that Poldark is fantastic TV. We have really enjoyed watching it and are looking forward to season 4 which is supposed to air sometime this year. That being said: the books totally blow it out of the water. They are phenomenal. At the moment of writing this post I am about a hundred pages into Bella Poldark (book 12 of 12) and Graham has commanded my attention the whole way through. They are absolutely engrossing reading and I would highly recommend the series to anyone who enjoys historical fiction.

As to March’s non-fiction reads —

Like I mentioned above, Culture Making really deserves its own post (that, at this point, it’s not likely to get). Andy Crouch devotes the first part of the book to looking at what “culture” is and isn’t, and detailing four of the Christian world’s typical responses to secular culture: to condemn, to critique, to copy, and to consume. As an alternative, he offers us two paths: that of the gardener (cultural cultivation) and the artist (cultural creation). For me, the most insightful/inspirational part of the book was in the latter half when he looks at the idea of cultural continuance in the New Heavens and New Earth (looking through the lens of both Revelation and some of the Old Testament prophets):

But just as we hope and expect to be bodily present, in bodies we cannot now imagine yet that we believe will be recognizably our own — just as the disciples met Jesus in a resurrected body that had unimaginable capabilities yet was recognizably his own — it seems clear from Isaiah 60 and from Revelation 21 that we will find the new creation furnished with culture. Cultural goods too will be transformed and redeemed, yet the will be recognizably what they were in the old creation — or perhaps more accurately, they will be what they always could have been. The new Jerusalem will be truly a city: a place suffused with culture, a place where culture has reached its full flourishing. It will be the place where God’s instruction to the first human beings is fulfilled, where all the latent potentialities of the world will be discovered and released by creative, cultivating people. (169)


We should ask the same question about our own cultural creativity and cultivating. Are we creating and cultivating things that have a chance of furnishing the new Jerusalem? Will the cultural goods we devote our lives to — the food we cook and consume, the music we purchase and practice, the movies we watch and make, the enterprises we earn our paychecks from and invest our wealth in — be identified as the glory and honor of our cultural traditions? Or will they be remembered as mediocrities at best, dead ends at worst? This is not the same as asking whether we are making “Christian” culture. “Christian” cultural artifacts will surely go through the same winnowing and judgment as “non-Christian” artifacts. Nor is this entirely a matter of who is responsible for the cultural artifacts and where their faith is placed, especially since every cultural good is a collective effort. Clearly some of the cultural goods found in the new Jerusalem will have been created and cultivated by people who may well not accept the Lamb’s invitation to substitute his righteousness for their sin. Yet the best of their work may survive. Can that be said of the goods that we are devoting our lives to? (171)

There is, of course, much more to the book than I can do justice to here — it’s well worth reading.

Speaking of cultural critique, I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s most famous book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America a year or so ago and promptly filled up my library list with her other titles. Bright-Sided looks at the “relentless promotion of positive thinking” as it impacts various facets of American life — most interesting to me were her takes on how enforced positive thinking has become part of our anti-disease regimen, particularly in regards to cancer, and her take on the prosperity gospel put forward in many American churches — especially mega-churches like that of Joel Osteen. It’s an insightful book, although longer on descriptions of the problem than on solutions — those have largely been left as an exercise for the reader.

And finally, Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. I’ve read The Tipping Point and I think Blink was much better. It deals with “the power of thinking without thinking”, or intuition / gut reactions as we might be more used to naming them. A glance at its wiki page reveals that its reception has been fairly mixed, but it’s excellent food for thought. Blink is at its most powerful when discussing implicit biases; as an example, he looks at how the proportion of women playing in professional orchestras soared (from virtually none to near 50%) once screened auditions (where the player is hidden behind a screen so that the music is the only identifying aspect presented) became popular. For those willing to confront their own implicit biases in action, Gladwell mentions the online tests at Harvard’s Project Implicit. Those tests may not provide comfortable results — but Gladwell assures us that our biases can be challenged once we are aware of them. In this case, knowing is definitely more than half the battle.

Meet the Frugalwoods has already been reviewed in its own post.

Becoming Tech-Wise, Part 2: Three Key Decisions

It’s been a few weeks, but I haven’t forgotten my promise to continue the series I started about reading Andy Crouch’s Becoming Tech-Wise: Everyday Steps for Putting Techonology in Its Proper Place. Travel and other circumstances have largely kept me away from the computer lately. But if I’ve been choosing (or by necessity have had to choose) to neglect my digital life in favour of the analog — well, I suppose that’s exactly the point. So without further ado, let’s look at Crouch’s first major section, “The Three Key Decisions of a Tech-Wise Family.”

Choosing Character: “We develop wisdom and courage together as a family”

Before addressing how to regulate our technological involvement, we need to know why we should do so, especially in the context of the family. Which means asking a larger question: What is a family for? Crouch proposes that “Family is about the forming of persons” (52) by which he means not only for the bearing and begetting of children, but for realizing the potential of those children (and their parents!), enabling us to grow into our full humanity. Family, in his estimation, exists to help “form us into persons who have acquired wisdom and courage” (53). Wisdom, here, is not just head-knowledge or book learning,  but “the kind of understanding, specifically, that guides action. It’s knowing, in a tremendously complex world, what the right thing to do is…” (53). Similarly, courage is far more than just being brave. Courage goes hand in hand with wisdom, because “we need not just to understand our place in the world and the faithful way to proceed — we also need the conviction and character to act” (56). A more old fashioned way of talking about courage is to call it virtue.

The family is the crucial place for this sort of growth to take place, because it is, for most of us, virtually the only context we have for life-long, intimate relationships where we are seen for exactly who we are — good, bad, and ugly — and loved unconditionally by those who are committed to us and to our flourishing. It is where we run into the “iron sharpening iron” of personal relationships, where those who love us see both our failures and our potential and work to call us from the depths of the former to the heights of the latter. Some deep and long-lasting friendships are like this; the Church is certainly supposed to be like this. But for most of us, the family is where this happened first and happens most.

If we accept Crouch’s premise that the family is the chief context in which we develop wisdom and courage/virtue, what does that mean for the way we choose to use (or not use) technology? First, that we recognise that technology makes our lives easier and perhaps more fun, but that it can also work against us as we seek to develop wisdom and virtue:

Let’s honestly compare ourselves, and the society we currently inhabit, with previous generations who did not benefit from modern technology’s easy everywhere. Without a doubt, compared to human beings just one century ago, we are more globally connected, better informed about many aspects of the world, in certain respects more productive, and — thanks to GPS and Google Maps — certainly less lost. But are we more patient, kind, forgiving, fearless, committed, creative than they were? And if we are, how much credit should technology receive? […]

In countless ways our lives are easier than our grandparents’. But in what really matters — for example, wisdom and courage — it seems very hard to argue that our lives are overall better. […] this is exactly what we would expect if the things that really matter in becoming a person have nothing to do with how easy our life is — and if they have a great deal to do with how we handle the difficulty that comes our way. (63-5)

In saying this Crouch is not arguing that we should throw out our computers, trade our  modern refrigerators in for ice boxes, and go back to washing laundry by hand. Technology “is good at serving human beings. It even — as in medical or communication technology — saves human lives” (66). These are good things. But in terms of forming us as human beings, Crouch writes that it is “at best a neutral factor” in this endeavour, and its constant presence means that often “In the most intimate setting of the household, here the deepest human work of our lives is meant to take place, technology distracts and displaces us far too often, undermining the real work of becoming persons of wisdom and courage” (66).  “Distracts” and “displaces” — those words definitely resonate with me. There are things I love about our technological world but I also know that the tech I use distracts me — distracts me horribly, some days — and on my worst days it displaces not only my attention but even my affection. But Crouch gives me the remedy:

We are going to have to commit to make every major decision, and many small decisions, on the basis of these questions: Will this help me become less foolish and more wise? Will this help me become less fearful and more courageous?

We will have to teach our children, from early on, that we are not here as parents to make their lives easier but to make them better. We will tell them — and show them — that nothing matters more to our family than creating a home where all of us can be known, loved, and called to grow. And then we’ll have to make hard choices — sometimes radical choices — to use technology in a very different way from people around us. (68-9)

Okay. But how?

Shaping Space: “We want to create more than we consume. So we fill the center of our home with things that reward skill and active engagement”

Crouch opens this chapter with the statement that “The best way to choose character is to make it part of the furniture” (71). That means filling the center of your home (that is, the place where you most often gather, not necessarily the physical center!) with items and activities that reward personal engagement, imagination, growth, creativity, etc. — with things that draw us in toward each other the way gathering around the hearth would have in the age before central heating. That can mean candles instead of overhead lights at dinner;  real instruments instead of stereos; bookshelves and craft stations instead of TVs; cooking from scratch instead of microwaving; and the list goes on. That doesn’t mean never choosing to watch TV or microwave dinner — but rather, that as we fill the social/emotional center of our homes with activities that require active engagement (with the world, with each other), it becomes easier to substitute them for passive technological activities as a default choice. If you remember the last post in this series, we’re talking about setting up nudges that inch us away from our screens and toward each other.

Crouch lays out a challenge here:

So if you do only one thing in response to this book, I urge you to make it this: Find the room  where your family spends the most time and ruthlessly eliminate the things that ask little of you and develop little in you. Move the TV to a less central location — and ideally a less comfortable one. And begin filling the space that is left over with opportunities for creativity and skill, beauty and risk. […] This simple nudge, all by itself, is a powerful antidote to consumer culture… (79-80)

I really like the sound of this. We are, I must admit, somewhat hampered by the fact that we live in a small, two-bedroom apartment — there’s nowhere for the TV to go except the living room, for example, since we certainly aren’t going to move it into a bedroom! But there are small steps we can take in the mean time, like making sure that our toys, books, and board games are visible and accessible. And when we have a house of our own, one day, I would love to fill its center in the way that Crouch invites us to envision: that it would be a space and a home filled with beauty and creativity, warmth and light, order and wonder.

Structuring Time: “We are designed for a rhythm of work and rest. So one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year, we turn off our devices and worship, feast, play, and rest together”

For me the most interesting part of this section was the distinction that Crouch draws between the two things we as humans were made to do (work and rest) and their more common, and far less healthy and satisfying, counterparts (toil and leisure). Work, he writes, “is the fruitful transformation of the world through human effort and skill, in ways that serve our shared human needs and give glory to God” (83). Toil, on the other hand, is “excessive, endless, fruitless labor — the kind that leaves us exhausted, with nothing valuable to show for our effort” (85). Don’t make the mistake of thinking “toil” is limited to menial jobs, either: toil happens in the sweat-shop environment of technology startups, in the white-collar world where you can never un-tether yourself from your company phone, and when the technology that lets us complete more work in less time doesn’t free us from that work but instead increases its demands upon us.

The distinction between work and toil is fairly straightforward, I think. What is more interesting as a new idea to me is Crouch’s distinction between rest and leisure:

If toil is fruitless labor, you could think of leisure as fruitless escape from labor. It’s a kind of rest that doesn’t really restore our souls, doesn’t restore our relationships with others or God. And crucially, it is the kind of rest that doesn’t give others the chance to rest. Leisure is purchased from other people who have to work to provide us our experiences of entertainment and rejuvenation.

A game of pickup football in the backyard can be real rest …But watching football on TV is leisure, and not just because we’re not burning many calories. It is leisure because we are watching others work, or indeed toil, for our enjoyment. It doesn’t really matter whether the workers are well paid, like professional football players, or paid minimally and indirectly, like college athletes. From the point of view of the Sabbath commandment, it’s still work. (87)

I have been accustomed to categorizing rest and leisure according to how restorative they feel for me. Reading books is restful to me, so is crocheting; they’re real rest. Pointlessly dicking around on the internet is leisure — it may be physically restful in that I’m usually sitting down to do it, but it doesn’t leave me feeling any better afterwards, and often makes me feel worse. But the idea of evaluating rest/leisure in terms of what it demands from others is intriguing. I mean, I’m still going to watch movies, and I reserve the right to order dinner in every once in a while. But the question of who, if anyone, has to work/toil for what I want to do is a helpful one in evaluating an activity’s potential rest, or lack thereof. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with leisure… except when, as happens so often, we confuse it for the real thing.

What does this mean for the home? One thing is that we need to guard against the infiltration of toil into our home life: the work email that “needs” to be answered, the project that “needs” to be finished outside of regular hours. Not all of us have jobs where we can be truly off the clock — but I suspect that more of us do than think we do, if you follow me. And perhaps if more people were willing to stand up for their time off from work, some of those cultural expectations around always being reachable might start to change.

Another important aspect of limiting toil and leisure’s creep into our homes, so far as we are able, is being aware of how they can affect our views of one another:

One of the most damaging results [of when the home becomes a leisure zone], as the philosopher Albert Borgmann has pointed out, is that children never see their parents acting with wisdom and courage in the world of work. Even if if adults’ jobs still require skill and insight, even if those jobs are quite meaningful and rewarding, that work now [post-industrial revolution] takes place far from home. […] when the art of cooking is replaced by meals warmed up in a microwave — something a five-year-old can do as well as a fifty-five-year-old — then children no longer see their mothers or fathers doing something challenging, fruitful, admirable, or ultimately enjoyable. Instead, the family’s life together is reduced to mere consumption, purchasing the results of others’ work or toil. No wonder children at the “peak leisure-home” stage of the 1960s and 1970s stopped admiring their parents. They never saw their parents doing anything worth admiring. (90-1)

Ouch! Andy Crouch, tell us how you really feel. Now, we are fortunate in that I’m able to stay home with our kids, and so they see me work all day long — and my husband’s profession means that they see him work regularly too. But it’s the next part of this section that we’re not very good at: the principle of Sabbath-taking.

The Sabbath, Crouch writes, is “rooted in the loving and creative purposes that brought the world into being” — but it is also “of all the commandments… the most persistently and casually broken” (93). Yup, guilty as charged. But at least, he adds, “there is a silver lining in the way technology has clouded our lives with nonstop toil and leisure — it gives us an amazingly simple way to bring everything to a beautiful halt. We can turn our devices off” (94). It says something about our culture that most of us will read that — “we can turn our devices off” — as a radical suggestion. What if we miss an important email? What if we miss something going on in the world? What if, what if, what if?

Well — what if we didn’t? Or what if, if we do, it doesn’t matter? What if we put tech on hold so that we could live our lives, instead of the other way around? Will the world really end if nobody can call me for the next hour? Can it possibly matter if I don’t look at facebook today?  Crouch sets out a challenge for us: to unplug for one hour a day, for one day a week, and for one week a year. I don’t know if I’m ready to unplug for a whole week at a time. But there are steps to take before that — and as this article from Brave Parenting points out, it starts with dinner.  No phones at dinner; we can build from there. Again, this comes down to a deliberate embrace of freedom through discipline. “The beautiful, indeed amazing, thing about all disciplines,” Crouch writes, “is that they serve as both diagnosis and cure for what is missing in our lives. They both help us recognize the exact nature of our disease and, at the very same time, begin to heal us from our disease” (102). If I get jittery at the thought of turning off my computer and phone for a whole day — all the more reason to do it. Likewise with the idea of going offline for a week. But the disciplines aren’t an all-or-nothing affair; we can start small. We can start with dinner.

[Other posts in this series: part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5]

Becoming Tech-Wise, Part 1: Setting the Stage

I am currently reading through The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place by Andy Crouch. It’s a challenging read, but a timely one; while I appreciate the ease and utility that things like smartphones have brought to my life, I also resent technology’s hold over me. (This resentment stems in no small measure from my perpetual disappointment with my own lack of self-discipline in these matters, as well as the fact that much of our technology seems designed to create dependency in us.) The questions that Crouch asks about the role of technology in our family life — about how we use it, and how we allow or don’t allow it to form us and our relationships with each other — are penetrating, and have given me much food for thought. It’s a small book, but one that I am reading slowly — and will be blogging about each section as I finish it, in part to help me digest his ideas and refine my own.

The book is divided into three main sections: “The Three Key Decisions of a Tech-Wise Family”, “Daily Life”, and “What Matters Most”. Those will be addressed in my next three posts on the book; for today, I’m just tackling Crouch’s preface and introduction, which set the stage for what’s to come. They are capped by what he calls the “Ten Tech-Wise Commitments” (each of which is addressed in a subsection of one of the three larger divisions named above).

So, let’s begin.

In the preface, Crouch talks about his stated aim of putting technology “in its proper place.” This doesn’t meant that technology is bad and should have no place in our homes; rather, that its pervasive default presence demands that we set limits in place around its use. He notes that this will not look the same for every family, and that even in one family it will look different during different seasons of life (as it may make sense to completely prohibit television for a two-year-old, but not for a twelve-year-old, for example). He doesn’t provide a hard-and-fast list of what technology we should have, or how to use it (which would be fast out of date, anyway), but rather offers a series of guiding principles to help us discern how we want to interact with our tech:

Technology is in its proper place when it helps us to bond with the real people we have been given to love. It’s out of its proper place when we end up bonding with people at a distance, like celebrities, whom we will never meet.

Technology is in its proper place when it starts great conversations. It’s out of its proper place when it prevents us from talking with and listening to one another.

Technology is in its proper place when it helps us take care of the fragile bodies we inhabit. It’s out of its proper place when it promises to help us escape the limits and vulnerabilities of those bodies altogether.

Technology is in its proper place when it helps us acquire skill and mastery of domains that are the glory of human culture (sports, music, the arts, cooking, writing, accounting; the list could go on and on). When we let technology replace the development of skill with passive consumption, something has gone wrong.

Technology is in its proper place when it helps us cultivate awe for the created world we are part of and responsible for stewarding… It’s out of its proper place when it keeps us from engaging the wild and wonderful natural world with all our senses.

Technology is in its proper place only when we use it with intention and care. … [I]t doesn’t stay in its proper place on its own; … If we aren’t intentional and careful, we’ll end up with a quite extraordinary mess. (20-1)

So far so reasonable. But how do we set those limits? In his introduction, Crouch begins by laying out some statistics about technology use — not just who is using what, but how it makes us feel. The vast majority (78%) of American parents, we are told, think that raising kids today is more complicated than it was when they were children. The number one reason given for that perception is “technology and social media” (65%). I believe it. The recent technological revolution/explosion/whatever means that we’re in fairly uncharted waters when it comes to managing our children’s encounters with technology. It’s hard to know how much to intervene, or how to do it if we have determined to begin. But Crouch gives us two helpful tools here.

The first is the “nudge” (here he is drawing from Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness). A nudge is a small way that we make certain choices easier or more likely. A nudge helps guide us toward the choice we want to make (at least, that we want to make when we are at our best) by either making the good choice easier or the bad choice less convenient, which helps us preserve our “precious limited supply of willpower, leaving it available for the moments when we really need it” (33). In terms of technology use, a nudge might be something like disabling facebook notifications, so that you’re more likely to check your newsfeed because you’ve made a conscious choice to do so, rather than because you were summoned by the imperious ding. A nudge toward healthier eating might be putting the apples at the front of your fridge and the chocolate way back behind the pickles somewhere. You get the picture. Having the apples at the front of the fridge won’t stop you from eating the chocolate if you really want it, but the minor inconvenience of digging it out — and the relative ease of grabbing an apple — makes it more likely that you will choose the apple. That’s a nudge.

The other tool addresses what nudging can’t: the development of our moral character. Crouch writes that

… nudges will never, on their own, build the wisdom and courage we need — partly because we often can’t control our environment, no matter how much we’d like to. We need to change something inside of us as well: to develop the strength to make good choices even when everything around us is nudging, or pushing, us in the wrong direction. And for that we need disciplines. (35)

The disciplines, Crouch writes, gradually strengthen us, move our limits further out, “move us toward being the kinds of people we were meant to be and want to be” (37). And disciplines, take, well, discipline! They are “not about specific decisions but about patterns of life” (37) that will, by their nature, shape our choices. As the capstone to the introduction, Crouch offers us his list of “ten commitments” for starting and shaping the discussion around technology’s proper place in our families. Not all of them will apply to everyone; not everything that we need to consider is covered. But they are a good catalyst for further thought and discussion:

  1. We develop wisdom and courage together as a family.
  2. We want to create more than we consume. So we fill the center of our home with things that reward skill and active engagement.
  3. We are designed for a rhythm of work and rest. So one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year, we turn off our devices and worship, feast, play, and rest together.
  4. We wake up before our devices do, and they “go to bed” before we do.
  5. We aim for “no screens before double digits” at school and at home.
  6. We use screens for a purpose, and we use them together, rather than using them aimlessly and alone.
  7. Car time is conversation time.
  8. Spouses have one another’s passwords, and parents have total access to children’s devices.
  9. We learn to sing together, rather than letting recorded and amplified music take over our lives and worship.
  10. We show up in person for the big events of life. We learn how to be human by being fully present at our moments of greatest vulnerability. We hope to die in one another’s arms. (41-2)

Anecdotally, I have had success — so far — with implementing a simple nudge of my own. I removed the shortcut to the app that I waste the most time on from the home screen of my phone. I still have the app; I just have to page through all of my apps to get to it. But the simple change of no longer having it right there in front of me whenever I pick my phone up has meant that I have spent way, way less time using it than I was before. Do I still use it? Yes. But now I’m opening it up deliberately, not just because of habit or absent-minded default behaviour. Nudges work.

The disciplines, of course, will take more effort … but I look forward to seeing where Andy Crouch takes us in the discussion of how to develop them in the context of our current (over-) reliance on technology. The next post in this series will tackle Crouch’s section entitled “The Three Key Decisions of a Tech-Wise Family,” which looks at items 1-3 above. Stay tuned!

[Other posts in this series: part 1 |  part 2 | part 3 | part 4 | part 5]