Sunday, November 24, 2013

And what about that acorn?

November 24, 2013

Dear friends,

It is an unplanned irony that the issue of intellectually empty calories has emerged during the winter holiday seasons, a time when we make a ritual of eating more than we should while admitting cheerfully that much of what we eat is less than good for us. 

Actually, if I wrote columns in advance as proper bloggers do, I would have scheduled this material for early next year when dealing with diet is the common consequence of holiday indiscretions. Being careful about what we take in is not seasonably encouraged at this time.

However, by dealing with empty intellectual calories it is not my intent to communicate a Scrooge-like attitude toward holiday cookies. Nevertheless, I plan to handle the tricky rascals with caution if they appear, gift-wrapped, at my door.  

My intent is to encourage serious thought about discipleship of the mind, and to consider at a practical level guidelines for choosing what we read and watch.

As you may remember, only the first portion of Chicken Little’s story appeared last week. (You may want to re-read last week’s blog—we’ve all lived a lot since we last met, living that left little energy or time to think about Chicken Little’s adventure.) The next portion of the story appears in today’s blog near the end (a bit of patience, please?). 

I want to revisit two points that the initial portion of Chicken Little’s story illustrates. First, Chicken Little teaches us (I hope) caution in the use of categories to assess the value of content. Chicken Little is a children’s story, a category stereotypically considered beneath adult attention. Considered more carefully, however, Chicken Little’s story centers on an experience that is common both to adults and to children: unexpectedly, without warning, a bad thing happens to a good person in a way that cannot be easily explained. Given this content, Chicken Little, while remaining a children’s story, might appropriately appear on a bibliography of philosophy books dealing with the problem of pain, or on a bibliography of psychological texts dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome. Not all children’s stories are childish either in tone or content. Indeed, some children’s stories deal with the inevitable fallibility of being human with a devastating simplicity that challenges the best of adult thinking.

Secondly, from the beginning, Chicken Little’s story deals with matters that, in the best sense of the term, are characterized by true gravitas (seriousness). This is a children’s story, but the action does not turn around childish things. Chicken Little struggles to make sense of pain, to confront consciously the randomness of life, to act responsibly in the context of community. Are these not serious issues of life-long concern for us all?

As we move on to the next portion of Chicken Little’s adventure, keep in mind these two ideas. One, categories (i.e., children’s stories) are not reliable guides regarding value of content. Two, themes with true gravitas may appear in forms that are misleading: issues of pain and randomness in this example appear as an anthropomorphic chicken’s adventure that begins with the ordinary chicken process of hunting a breakfast bug. 

On with this week’s story.   

Last week we left Chicken Little very frightened, setting out to tell the other animals his terrible discovery: “The sky is falling! The sky is falling.”

If I were to include all of the story here, next you would learn of Chicken Little’s visits to Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, Goosey Poosey, and many other animals all with similarly distinguished sounding names. In this part of the story much occurs that would lead us to think about differing responses both to Chicken Little and to Chicken Little’s news. Additional themes of true gravitas would emerge (the danger of emotional infection, the risks of boredom, the paradox of the danger and the safety of conformity, and others). Eventually, however, Chicken Little, followed by a long procession of animals who (allegedly) believed that the sky was falling, reached the home of the Lion King to tell him the terrible news. Today’s story resumes at this point.

After he had listened to Chicken Little’s story, the Lion King suggested that they all go back to look at this place where the sky had fallen on Chicken Little’s head.

Led by the Lion King (who was wise and powerful and had a great deal of common sense as well) the animals returned to the place where something had hit Chicken Little on the head and frightened him and made his head hurt.

No one could find a piece of fallen sky.

The Lion King, however, found a very large acorn lying in the grass.

If we were a seminar studying the discipline of the mind from a Christian world view, at this point I would give you a mid-term essay question:

In your understanding of Chicken Little’s adventure, what does the acorn found by the Lion King represent? Explain your understanding of the story’s conclusion in the context of intellectual discipleship for adult Christian living.

Thinking with you this week, “Oh, if only it were as simple as asking the Lion King to find the acorn.”

Grateful for all that gives life meaning and tomorrow hope, including my weekly gathering with you,



Sunday, November 17, 2013

Reading the Label

November 17, 2013

Dear Friends,

She was a non-nonsense shopper, a lady already on a mission early in the day.

I watched.

She was a skilled driver, wheeling her heavily loaded grocery cart efficiently around end-of-aisle displays. From time to time she paused to consult the list in her hand. Then, with careful courtesy, she would blow by slower shoppers and people restocking shelves, heading straight as an arrow for her destination, no time to be wasted. 

Shopping in the slow lane and savoring my coffee, I soon lost sight of her.

Later, however, when I turned my cart into the aisle where baking goods were shelved, I was surprised to find her stopped, cart parked, peering at the nutritional label on a package she was holding in her hand. As I watched, she reached into her purse and pulled out a small magnifying glass. Sensing my glance, she looked up at me and smiled. 

“Can’t think why I bother,” she said. “Even when I can see what it says, I don’t know what half of it means.”

We laughed together in wry agreement, and, locating the small sack of whole wheat flour I needed, I moved on. However, when I sat down today to think again with you about intellectually empty calories I remembered the woman’s comment. 
Nutritional labels are not always easy to read and understand, and still more difficult to use productively, whether we are thinking about food for our bodies or materials with which to feed our minds. Avoiding empty calories is a tricky business.

We first have to know what we have in our hand (on our plate, on the screen, on the page). Then, a second and quite different issue, we must decide whether to ingest this substance (idea) for nourishment. 

First, step one. 

How can we recognize intellectually empty calories if we see them? Not easily. But from the outset it is helpful to keep in mind that the packaging in which an idea (or food) appears is not always a reliable clue to its nutritional value.

Chicken Little’s story provides a clear case in point.**

Chicken Little’s adventure began on an ordinary morning when in his usual, ordinary way Chicken Little set out to find a fat bug for his breakfast. It was a splendid morning, and Chicken Little was feeling quite pleased with himself and his world until—as it often does—pain came unexpectedly in a way that Chicken Little found difficult to account for.

This is what happened.

Chicken Little bent over to catch an exceptionally fine bug he had spied in the grass. At that instant—POW!—something hit Chicken Little on the head.

This startled Chicken Little, of course, and made him jump. It made his head hurt as well.

Chicken Little became very cross. He looked around to see who had hit him, but there was no one in sight.  All that Chicken Little could see was the sky.

“Ah, ha,” said Chicken Little to himself. “I know what has happened to me. A piece of the sky fell down and hit me on the head. That is what happened.”

Then as Chicken Little thought more about that piece of the sky falling on his head, he began to feel quite frightened.
“A piece of the sky came down and hit me on the head,” thought Chicken Little to himself. “This is terrible. The sky is falling. I must go at once and tell the other animals. The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” And off he went.

This is a children’s story, you may be thinking. Indeed, it is. 

Further, you may think, this story presents an animal as though it had human characteristics (fantasy that misrepresents reality), and the action (a falling sky) entails physically impossible phenomena—the sky cannot fall. Further denial of reality. At this point you might conclude that I am giving you an example of empty intellectual calories.

Not so fast, friends. You are correct to suspect a tongue-in-cheek approach on my part, but don’t be too quick to judge the story or to discount what Chicken Little has to say.

Two important points right from the outset. Categories can be misleading. Not all children’s stories lie beneath serious adult readers’ attention. And the value of fantasy and the importance of reality cannot be assessed by placing them in a competing either/or dualism. 

Does Chicken Little's story actually meet the criteria of worthwhile reading? How can this be?

Thinking with you that nutritional labels are hard to write as well as to read and to act on responsibly.

Trusting too that you already understand that choosing wisely when it feels like the sky is falling is a life challenge that confronts us all.

Chicken Little and I will see you next week (unless the sky falls, of course).


**You may be interested in the way I used the Chicken Little story in my book, More Than an Aspirin (M. Gay Hubbard (2009). More Than an Aspirin. Pp: 240-241. Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House Publishers.)


Sunday, November 10, 2013

Full Disclosure--the beginning

November 10, 2013

Dear friends, 

In the old cartoons when the villain’s actions had been unmasked, his crony in crime would be shown reporting the dangerous state of affairs by hissing frantically in the villain’s ear, “All is discovered! Flee at once!!”   

The villain and his crony would then be pictured running wildly toward the door outside of which (in the next frame) the police would be shown already standing on the doorstep preparing to ring the bell.

 I would have titled today’s blog “Flee at once!”  had I thought any of you readers would remember those old cartoons and smile at the allusion. In reality I have not been charged with either a misdemeanor or felony, and, thankfully, have no need to flee. Nevertheless (tongue in cheek), “All has been discovered.”

A previously private component of my reading life has been exposed.  (Smiles.)

Since the existence of these books has become public knowledge, rather than fleeing I have made today’s blog the beginning of “full disclosure.” 

The whole matter came to light—or at least, came to blog—by way of the good deed of a friend who last summer helped clean the garage. This friend is a good friend indeed—she not only helps with the garage (and many other chores) she also reads my blog. 

After last week’s post, remembering her summer experience, she said to me, “I read what you said this week about ‘intellectually empty calories.’  What I want to know is: what about all those books in the garage? Is next week’s blog going to talk about them?”

Yes—with pleasure. In doing so I hope both to clarify a point I think is important, and acknowledge (happily) a reader who holds me accountable in life for what I say in print.

The shelves in the garage to which my friend referred hold a large collection of paperbacks, many of which are yellow with age, coffee spotted, and have covers coming unglued. These are murder mysteries and spy novels which show evidence of long ownership and continuing use. 

My friend knew this from her experience of the rather odd behavior of a number of these books. Frequently one of these books (for example, perhaps Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers) that had been restored to the garage last summer would mysteriously appear again in my upstairs study, or (tricky business) appear in the garage but found lying carelessly on the ledge, no longer occupying its alphabetically proper place on the shelves. 

There is no evidence that Annie has taken up reading in her leisure time, so this activity clearly points suspicion toward Gay Hubbard. It appears that Hubbard has purchased and read these books, and continues to do so. Can it be that Hubbard’s fuss about intellectually empty calories is a case of do what I say, not what I do?

Suppose, in the best tradition of fictionalized law, order and fantasized court procedures, you, my readers, are selected to hear the following charge against me. 

The charge:  Blog readers, distinguished people of the literary jury, the prosecution will show that the collection of used spy stories and detective novels housed in open shelves in the defendant’s garage provide evidence that the defendant regularly and secretly consumes large amounts of intellectually empty calories while hypocritically adopting the blog pose of weekly scold of the culture at large. 

In movies, at this point, serving as my own lawyer, I would say something like, “Your honor, the defendant grants that the evidence in display was purchased by the defendant and is at this time knowingly in her possession, and is housed openly on her garage shelves. The defense will show however that this material serves as legitimate tools appropriate to the disciplined life of the mind.” 

The issue more seriously rephrased becomes: what provides “good” intellectual nutrition? What makes a book worth reading? For those of us who become conscientious about intellectual discipleship, by what criteria do we learn to judge the books we read, the films we watch, and the music to which we listen? In this information-flooded era the question is neither trivial nor easy to answer. It merits serious thinking time.

However, I am thinking of the challenge this morning with a smile. What fun in trying to explain seriously the value I find in Lord Peter Wimsey, Travis McGee, Nero and Archie, and Smiley (John LeCarre’s hero in his Cold War spy series)?  And think of the fun in trying to describe the ways in which Brother Caudfel has enriched my thinking about the end stages of life? 

What have you read lately that has engaged you deeply but does not necessarily meet the criteria of christianly politically-correct thought?

See you at court next week.


P.S. If you find a used copy of Tears of the Giraffe please snag it for me. I loaned and lost my copy of this report of the activities of Mma Ramotswe, Founder of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Gaborone, Botswana (Alexander McCall Smith).