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Weekend Java 02.27.15

Apologetics Award: “A Crash Course on Skeptics” – Justin Taylor with a helpful summary of the key anti-faith proponents of the last century, including so far Karl Marx, Nietzsche, Kant, Freud, and others.

Non-Fiction Award: “The Ear Demands Variety” – Short and sweet, courtesy of Gary Provost.

Fiction Award: “The 6 Must-Have Elements of a ‘Wow’ Premise” – An extraordinary condensation of the basics in writing fiction.

Preaching Award: “The Necessity of Christ-Centered Preaching” – Some advice from the man Spurgeon called “the greatest theologian of this century” (um…meaning, HIS century, not ours, unless you know something I don’t).

Christianity and Culture Award: “Christianity and Culture” – Trevin Wax gives a helpful summary and critique of this Christian classic.

Reading and Literature Award:You Think Writing is a Dream Job?” – According to one study, 60% of folks want to be a full-time writer. But it’s not what you’re looking for, most likely.

Spiritual Life Award: “Recovering Joy in Seminary” – David Murray’s post is very helpful, and you don’t need to be in seminary to take away some great principles, from his book.

Blogging and Platform-Building Award: “How an E-mail Publisher Built and Audience of 223,991 Readers” – This is a helpful discussion on the validity of newsletter-style platforms versus blogs.

Theology Award: “Do We Deserve Heaven?” Ligon Duncan talks about the crisis this simple question brings for some.

Motivational Award: “Virgina Woolf on Writing and Self-Doubt” – This is surely the first time a suicidal author won the “motivational” award for anything, so I thought I’d do it for the novelty.

Fun Award: “The Oskarz Nomination Special” – This is Relevant Magazine’s roundup of the greatest youtube moments this year. The award for “Most Inappropriate Drum Solo” had me rolling. Also – Fox bats? They exist, so there’s that.

The Glimpse of Truth Award: “All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.” – Herman Melville, “Moby Dick”

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Four Things to Consider Before You Criticize Christian Films.

Recently, folks have been musing about a question which has plagued us since the inception of film: “Why are Christian movies so bad?”

Film Reel

I’ve appreciated these conversations, mainly because I always like Christians putting their minds to cultural creation and artistic excellence.

That being said, I’d like to offer four gentle rejoinders to the dialogue taking place. We’d do well to mind them before offering up yet another critique of Christian films:

1. First, don’t offer simple correctives. When we punch out articles which easily explain the faults of Christian film, we’re subjecting ourselves to the same mindset that plagues Christian art in the first place: the idea that art is should be easy. Film, and other art forms, are extraordinarily difficult to master, and encapsulating the faults of all Christian films under a single rubric oversimplifies the problems it seeks to solve.

For example, a popular sentiment in the going articles about Christian film goes something like this: “Christians are trying to get messages across, and Hollywood is just trying to create art.” There you have it. The solution.

But the situation is more complicated. In fact, Hollywood screenwriting masters like Robert McKee say the opposite: the problem with most Hollywood scripts, says McKee, is that they have nothing valuable to say. Survey the award winning films of the last century, and you’ll see a theme that sets them apart: they have an agenda – something which is considered a curse-word in the Christian filmmaker conversation.

In reality, having an agenda has nothing to do with why Christian films aren’t on par with others. To chalk up all our problems in the film world to a pithy conclusion like that is like saying the problem in Ferguson is racism. Sure, we can all cheer – but it’s hardly insightful, substantial, or helpful.

2. Second, don’t critique unless you create. There is a world of difference between the view from the arena and that from the stands. We can all be Monday morning quarterbacks, but our value as critics would prove insubstantial were we to step into the field. We would discover, there, that the situation wasn’t nearly so simple as it appeared on television. There are a zillion different decisions to be made, each of which contributed in its own incalculable way to that “obvious” mistake seen from the living room couch.

The truth is, to be frank, unless you create films yourself, you have no idea what you’re talking about. We can all recognize a terrible dish, but we can’t all create one – that is, very few can diagnose how it arrived at what it is, and how to correct it. We can all critique, but only those in the field can diagnose, and prescribe.

3. Third, consider your definitions. One of the articles I read recently defined Christian film as those with an explicitly Christian message, then went on to critique Christian films for that very reason! If I define Christian film as “a film with no aesthetic value”, the game is rigged: Christian films, by definition, will never be good.

But did you know, for example, that the screenwriter for the Christmas movie “Elf” is a Christian? To me, this movie embraces all the principles critics pine for in “Christian” films, yet, it never seems to make the list. Why? Because “Christian films” are, by definition, weak. They’re the skinny-kid on the playground – anyone can beat on him, but it gratifies our ego to do it anyway. There’s no pride in winning a rigged game: we need to either broaden our definition, or abandon the term altogether.

4. Fourth, reject a martyr’s mindset. Almost every article critiquing Christian film winds up saying something like, “What makes Christian films bad is that they’re too Christian.”  But this approach subtly equates anything which distinguishes Christian art from Hollywood as inherently negative. In fact, the opposite is true: being a Christian is an artistic advantage. For example:

  • Christians are free to be honest about our deepest flaws. The gospel frees us from self-protective art, and allows us to create vulnerable work without fear of judgment from the public.
  • The Christian is free from self-justifying art. In other words, we’re free from art that points to our capacities as an artist, rather than the work itself.
  • Christians have clear values that create powerful messages about personal transformation. An “exchange of values” is the core of any protagonist in a well-done story.
  • Christians have the humility to create in community. In his book “Creativity INC” Ed Catmull hammers the point that the key to artistic greatness at Pixar is summarized in a single word: candidness. Mark Hamill once noted that the flaw of Star Wars Episodes I-III was Lucas’s divorce and withdrawal from community. Christians, of all people, ought to know that they are not an artistic Island, but are designed for community.

These four advantages are by no means exhaustive: Christians also have zeal for their work, a desire to honor true beauty, lifelong study of the greatest piece of literature ever created, the Spirit of creativity Himself, etc. There are plenty more. The point is, we need to stop talking about the distinctly Christian aspects of art as a liability – in many cases, being a Christian is an artistic asset.

Where Do We Start, Then?

All of this being said, I do believe something is severely lacking in the Christian film community: conversation. Those of us in pastoral ministry need lead conversations in which we both affirm Christian artists as God’s means of providing beauty to the world, as well as spurring them to think out how their work as an artist is distinctly Christian (see points above).

It takes incredible courage to create, and true artists know all too well that “a work of art is never perfected, only abandoned.” Artists hardly need more critics. They hardly need more vague truth-bombs in the form of, “Your Christian films need to be more ARTSY, DUDE!”

What they need is a place where they can meet with others in the field, and discuss what they do under the umbrella of redemption. In other words, what Christian filmmakers need can be summarized in three words: the local church. This is the hospital in which diagnostics and prognostics are truly discovered, where conversation happens, where Christ’s kingdom is brought to bear on the film medium.

So, rather than “Why Christian Films Stink”, I’d like to see more articles along the lines of, “Five things I’ve learned as a Christian in the Film Industry“, or “6 Unique Challenges For Filmmakers in my Congregation“, or “12 Things my Artistic Mentor Taught me About Christianity in Film”. Articles which flow, in other words, from the bunkers of the local church, and the trenches of the field itself.

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Weekend Java Awards 02.20.15

Apologetics Award: “3 Theses for Integrating Science and Theology” – Justin Taylor helpfully summarizes J.P. Moreland’s work in this area.

Non-Fiction Award: “Robert Frost on How to Read and Write Essays” - Frost’s letter to his daughter takes a bit of chewing on, but read it twice and you’ll latch onto something ;)

Fiction Award: “How to Write Strong Female characters” – There’s some language, here, but the writer is spot on: strong female characters aren’t necessarily macho. Strength is found here.

Preaching Award: “Some Things to Look for in Faithful Preaching”  – The Cripplegrate with 10 wise pieces of advice for faithful preaching.

Christianity and Culture Award: “Spurgeon on Christians Who Rail Against the State of the World” –These thoughts from Spurgeon are incredibly brave and inspiring, thanks to David Prince’s summary.

Reading and Literature Award: “Children’s Books are Never Just for Children” – A wonderful perspective on what makes children’s books so re-readable…and a plea to recognize them for it.

Spiritual Life Award: “An Extraordinary Skill for Ordinary Christians” Challies with some wonderful words on why we don’t need to be wealthy to do great things.

Blogging and Platform-Building Award: “15 Questions for Following Christ on Social Media” – Kevin Halloran offers a nice, thoughtful roundup of scriptures to apply.

Theology Award: “Calvin’s Multi-Faceted Atonement” Derek Rishmawy demonstrates that the Reformed faith does not have a one-dimensional view of the cross…not at all.

Motivational Award: “The Writer’s Roller Coaster” – Joanna Penn offers about 17 different moods she goes through each day as a writer…it’s comforting to know there are others.

Fun Award: “Prankster Adds Hilarious Labels to Bookstore Shelves” – This is pretty fantastic.

The Glimpse of Truth Award: “The Prophetic Voice of Lesley Knope” – CT Magazine on what Leslie Knope (Parks and Recreation) can teach us about being faithful workers in God’s world. Worth a read.

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5 Steps to Creating Mind-Blowing Metaphors

In a recent study, researchers compared the writings of three prominent Christian apologists: N.T. Wright, Tim Keller, and C.S. Lewis.

They ran the books through a computer, and found that Lewis’s writing was utterly distinct from the other two authors, for one very particular reason: images.

Quill

 

Lewis’s writing is filled to the brim with image after image after image. It’s what made his writing affective, lucid, and to the point: he captured the Christian world with our world. He’s influenced millions upon millions of people, based largely on the skill of connecting theology to imagery.

How did he do it?

He was, unlike most theologians or pastors, above all, a poet.

C.S. Lewis: Poetic Theologian

There are two basic components to poetry: terseness and parallelism.

Terseness is the art of condensing thoughts to the fewest possible words without obscuring the point. Think of pulling pieces out of a Jenga tower: the goal is to maintain the essential structure of thought with the least amount of baggage.

Parallelism is essentially the art of metaphor: “This is like that. This is not like that.” It goes hand in hand with terseness, because if a poet can capture his thought in an image, that perfect image saves pages of extrapolation.

The reason Lewis’s writing is unique in its power was his ability to apply the principles of poetry loosely to his writing: his books are about 70% shorter than the average Christian book, with about 10x more imagery. They are, in other words, “terse” and “image-rich”.

This is because Lewis didn’t “illustrate” his points. In other words, Lewis’s metaphors aren’t “off the cuff” – like any poet, Lewis likely spent hours and days and weeks mulling over finding the perfect image to fit his point. Being a professor and writer, he had time for this sort of thing. And being a poet, he had the skill to do it.

5 Steps to Finding the Perfect Metaphor.

None of us will be C.S. Lewis, but we can learn a valuable lesson from how he applied the skills of poetry to that of pedagogy. How? By learning the art of metaphor.

How do we do that?

Let me give you five, simple steps, for starters:

1. Describe your point in abstract terms. Let’s say I’m trying to explain the role of the temple in Israel’s life before Christ. What is it, in its abstract essence? I might say something like this: “It is something that constantly reminds people of God’s plan in redemptive history, calling them to continually reorient their lives around it.” That’s not going to win any poetry awards, but that’s okay: it’s step one.

2. Make a list. This second step is free-form: What are other things that constantly remind us? What other things call us to continually reorient our lives? What other things are symbolic of a larger reality?

3. Is it alike? Now, take each thing on your list and ask: “How is this LIKE the temple? How is it unlike the temple?” This step is key, because it allows you to see how your metaphors work, and how they fall short. It will push you in the right direction, until you find something that is an extraordinary fit.

4. Is it real to your listeners? Jesus wasn’t a shepherd, but he used shepherd imagery, not carpentry metaphors. Why? They were real to his listeners. Historical or literary metaphors are fine, but again, they are a step-removed. Personal metaphors can be powerful, provided you know others can relate. Metaphors about made-up scenarios can be effective, but since they don’t actually exist, they too will be one step removed. The point is: the less likely your readers are to have seen, touched, tasted, felt, experienced your metaphor, the less likely it is to translate into their lives.

5. Is it fresh? Finally, you need to ask: “Has this metaphor been done before?” If it has, you’ve just written a cliche – the whole point of writing is to fatten up the truth. Truth is truth, and writers don’t need to say anything new: but we do need to make fresh connections. When we do this, we turn the diamond of scripture in our hands, allowing new light to reveal its hidden beauty.

The Temple: A Case Study

Let’s practice.

I already suggested the temple metaphor, so let’s go back to our abstract definition:”It is something that constantly reminds people of God’s plan in redemptive history, calling them to continually reorient their lives around it.”

Okay, so let’s begin with a few things that come to mind: a dollhouse, a marriage, the statue of a suzerain king, and a church.

Now, let’s go one by one and ask: “How is it alike and not to my subject?”

A. A Dollhouse – A dollhouse is like the temple because it is a mini-model of a bigger reality: a real house. It could also be argued that it metaphorically points forward to a time in the future, when that reality will come to fruition. However, a “dollhouse” is a little too silly to be compared to the temple of God. We need something more sober. Also, its purpose is not necessarily to “reorient” girls to their future – it’s more for fun. And, finally, it fails test #4: the image only works for half the people I’m speaking with, and even then it is a far-removed memory.

B. A Marriage – A marriage, in a way, is a perfect comparison to what the temple is designed to do: it is constantly present in our lives. We all attend weddings, regularly. It’s meant to point us to a higher reality: Christ and the church. It’s also a call for us to re-orient our lives around that reality. However, the fatal flaw of the marriage comparison is simply this: most people don’t know this is the purpose of marriage. Therefore, this too fails test #4: while people do see marriages regularly, I would essentially have to explain the essence of marriage before I explained the essence of the temple. That creates more work for me, not less.

C. A Suzerian Statue – A Suzerian statue is what an ancient king would place in conquered territory – it was his image, to be worshiped by the nation conquered. In a very real sense, this is what the temple was: it was God’s statue symbolizing his kingship over the whole world. The strength of this illustration is that it is, so far, the most alike to the temple (since they are historically related). But once again, this fails test #4: we don’t encounter Suzerian statues on a regular basis, so I need to explain them before I explain the temple.

D. A Church – The imagery of a church building is tempting, because ancient church architecture is meant to do many of the same things as a temple. It also meets requirement #4: it is familiar to everyone I will be talking with. But it fails test #5. It isn’t fresh. Comparing a church building with the temple is the type of illustration that makes our eyes glaze over. If we’re trying to engage unbelievers, religious imagery won’t work – they have fences built around these images. We need to sneak in.

So, where does that leave me? After going through this process to illustrate the temple, and eliminating each one by one, another popped into my head: a clock.

E. A Clock – We in corporate America are accustomed to measuring our lives by the clock. It is always present before us, and it is continually calling us to reorient ourselves to it. It also represents a higher reality: time. Finally, comparing the temple of Israel with a clock is surprising: it’s fresh. In other words: it meets all of our requirements. It is alike, it is familiar, it is fresh.

So, how might this sound in writing? Maybe something like this: “Like a clock which continually reorients us to our place in the day, so the temple ticked before Israel, reminding her that she lived between the sunrise and set of creation and redemption.”

Not only does this save pages of explanation, it also powerfully infiltrates truth into the minds of those reading, or listening: it unexpectedly connects real-world experiences to the High Reality they symbolize: God, and His Kingdom.

(Also, free bonus – I noticed while editing that a lot of my points here could also double as great author pseudonyms: E.A. Clock, anyone? D.A. Church? A.A. Dollhouse? I’ll take 10% commission on that, thanks).

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The Weekend Java Awards 02/13/15

To help me narrow things down this week, I decided, in my head, to give an “award” to the best article I found in all my favorite categories. I figure this will help you find what you like quicker, as well. Plus, if you get chosen, now you can put it on your resume. Here they are. Enjoy:

Apologetics Award: “Yeah, Well What About the Crusades?” K. DeYoung on the Obama incident and others.

Non-Fiction Award: “I Believe in Magazines” - A wonderful article containing proverbs for writers and editors, by James K.A. Smith.

Fiction Award: “How to Get Readers Into Your Story…And Keep Them There.” I found a lot here that I had to learn the hard way. Read this. 

Preaching Award: “The Biggest Mistakes Preachers Make” – Here are parts two and three as well.

Christianity and Culture Award: “Why Mike Witmer Thinks You Should Be a Worldly Saint” – A helpful interview with the recent author of “Becoming Worldly Saints”.

Reading and Literature Award: “Why You Should Read a Book 100 Times” – from a man who’s read both P.G. Wodehouse and Hamlet over 100 times.

Spiritual Life Award: “Are You Fighting the New Greed?” An extraordinarily convicting article about the role of technology in our lives.

Blogging and Platform-Building Award: “I Thought the Long-Form Was Dead.” Statistics show that there’s actually a “dead zone” word count, and it’s better to write longer articles as far as social media is concerned.

Theology Award: “Do You Literally Interpret the Bible Literally?” Justin Taylor borrow from Vern Polythress to declare a Moratorium on the word “literally”. I agree, for more than the reasons given here.

Motivational Award: “The Churchill School of Adulthood: Thought + Action” – The first half, about Winston Churchill’s determination and self-education, is absolutely fascinating and motivational. Christians are at war, too.

Fun Award: The Best Talking Animals in Books. Short and sweet – what would you add?

The Glimpse of Truth Award: In Search of The Great American Bible – This article isn’t written from a Christian perspective, and obviously gets some things wrong. But it is friendly toward those who are, and it’s mainly a critique of the Book of Mormon and other religious works that try to imitate the beauty of Biblical literature. Worth a read.

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Hannibal Lecter Changed My Views on Salvation.

When I was in college, I came to a faith crisis.

I’d had until then a somewhat flaccid view of salvation: people who believe the right things about Jesus will go to heaven. People who don’t believe the right things about Jesus won’t. The blood-test for Christianity, I thought, was located somewhere in the brain. Our mission was to inject this knowledge, so people could have the proper DNA to enter heaven.

Faith, I thought, also had something to do with obedience, since James says “faith without works is dead.” To me, that meant that while salvation was a gift, it had strings attached. I spent a lot of time saying things like, “You need to believe that Jesus is God, AND obey him as Lord over your life!” If not, the implication was, God was taking the gift back to Heaven R Us.

Suffering, Evil, and Salvation.

Then, I went off to college. I saw more of the world: things like AIDS, poverty, sex trafficking, Joseph Kony’s Invisible Children, homelessness, etc. Seeing all of that suffering surfaced a question I couldn’t shake: “How could a good God send these poor, suffering masses to hell, just because they don’t come to the same conclusions as I do?”

That, to me, seemed evil: God was rewarding my intellect and circumstances, and, apparently, ignoring the masses who weren’t fortunate enough. That’s when I asked myself the question that changed my life forever. It was the Hannibal Lecter question.

How Hannibal Lecter Helped.

No, I didn’t watch “The Silence of the Lambs” in college. But I did watch it a couple of weeks ago (mainly because every writing book I read references its plot-line – I don’t necessarily recommend it). And in it, I found a profound little piece of philosophy.

Lecter, speaking about the motives of a serial killer, says: “He covets. That is his nature. And how do we begin to covet, Clarice? Do we seek out things to covet?” In other words: “Do we choose what we desire, Clarice?”

The answer Clarice gives, obviously, is “No.” If I like bananas, it’s not because I CHOSE to like bananas. It’s just, as Lecter says, in my nature. In other words: the reason I would ever choose anything isn’t because I chose to choose it – it’s because it’s in my nature to choose it.

Changing Natures.

What does this have to do with salvation? Look at how John applies this same logic to the truth of the gospel: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” (John 3:19-20, italics mine)

Why don’t we choose Jesus? According to John, it’s this: we hate the light. Our deeds are evil. In other words: it’s in our nature. As I began to pour over these verses, my view of salvation transformed. John was saying salvation wasn’t about intellect, obedience, or some conflagration of the two. It was about receiving a new nature – a nature which loves God, and because of that, runs to Jesus as its bread, and water, and life.

Salvation was less like adding up a math formula and getting the right answer. It was more like being born again. In fact, that’s how the chapter starts (John 3:5-7). Like being born, this process had nothing to do with me: “Do we choose what we desire, Clarice?

It had everything to do with God.

3 Ways Rebirth Thinking Changed My Life

Did this solve every question I had about evil and suffering and salvation in the world? No – I don’t think anything does. Do I still struggle with it? Yes – we should. Am I accustomed to borrowing theological insights from psychopathic cannabilistic serial killers? Not usually. Instead, what this process did was three things:

1. It eliminated my legalism. I stopped saying, “Make Jesus Lord!” And instead said, “Believe in Jesus – really believe. James, as it turns out, wasn’t saying “Faith + Works = Salvation.” He was saying: “Faith IS rebirth. It regenerates you. It changes you. It gives you a new nature. So claiming faith without rebirth isn’t faith at all.”

2. It stopped my self-righteousness. Rather than seeing any inherent morality or intellect that led me to Jesus, I saw that salvation really had nothing to do with me: it had everything to do with Jesus. The only thing I’d contributed to my salvation, as one theologian put it, was the sin that made it necessary. 

3. It allowed me to entrust others’ salvation to God. Salvation was no longer a chance concurrence of intellect, circumstances, and inherent moral leanings. God was in charge. Rather than preventing me from sharing the gospel with others, this truth propelled me forward in gospel proclamation: I didn’t need to convince people. I just had to plant seeds. Preparing the right soil was up to Him.

That would be bad news, of course, without the cross. The cross is the water that makes the pill of God’s sovereignty swallowable. There, I see Jesus is the supremely wise, just and loving King I want to be in charge of salvation. I don’t understand why some people are reborn and not others. But if King Jesus – the King who died on a cross – is the one who chooses, then I’m okay with that choice, whatever it is. He’s got it figured out – not me.

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Weekend Java 02.06.15

I tried to narrow this down to seven jaw-dropping articles from the week, but I ended up with ten…there’s a lot of good stuff out there. Each of these challenged me personally, or sharpened my thinking, made me laugh, surprised me, or genuinely changed my perspective on something – I hope they benefit you as well:

Harper Lee to publish new novel, 55 Years After To Kill a Mockingbird – If you haven’t read up on this yet, this article is the place to start.

Baptizing “Masculinity”: The Real Reason Men are Leaving the Church -“Too often, when we talk about “attracting men” to church, what we mean is tricking men to walk in the door by baptizing whatever infantilized conceptions of masculinity the broader culture has invented. At best, we give away free steaks and guns; at worst, we hire pastors who curse and play grab-ass with waitresses. Like a marketing campaign for Big Macs, these tend to grab attention and make “sales” for a few years, at most.”

Can a Novel’s Plot Be Reduced to Data Points? I thought this article was fascinating. A researcher is compiling 2,000 great novels, running them through a computer with key-words, and has reduced all of their plots to six, basic stories. How is that possible, even with “plotless” books? Hint: there are no plotless books.

Why Authors Walk Away from Big 5 Publishers – This is one writer’s story of moving away from the big publishing houses to go self-published.

6 Principles for Redemptive, Effective Communication - Justin Taylor borrows some of David Powlison’s thoughts from an article he wrote for Psychology Today.

 7 Ways to Level-Up Your Morning Coffee Routine – The is the ultimate guide.

Should I Write in First or Third Person? – Some great advice on what it takes to do both.

What it Takes: Art and Polarity. I’ve obsessed over this article this week, mostly because I plan to take it apart piece by piece as a sermon illustration. All good art requires moral judgment – that’s the premise. And it’s not written by a Christian conservative, either.

Five Ways Writers Can Become More Productive - A few of these articles have run this week, but this is my favorite.

How Playing Music Benefits Your Brain More Than Any Other Activity – I guess it’s time for me to pick up the guitar again. (PS: “Playing” does not mea “playing on the radio”, but “physically holding an instrument and creating music from it).

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7 Reasons I Need to Slow Down.

Take one look at the consummate blogging wisdom, and you’ll find a single thread running through: “Blog every day.”

It’s in my own e-book.

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The reasons are well developed. First, it provides SEO results. Translation: google finds you better. Second, it helps you take your job seriously. Blogging doesn’t happen when you feel like it – you learn to treat it like a job. Third, it makes a statement: you are serious about your craft.

And so, for two years, I’ve recommended and obeyed the consummate wisdom: blog every day. I still recommend it. I wouldn’t do my first two years any other way.

But in the past week, circumstances have forced me to rethink this wisdom. So, I set to researching the topic: “Is blogging every day really all that helpful?”

And the answer I received was, “Yes (see above reasons), but…”

The Pitfalls of Everyday Blogging

Several things suffer when I blog everyday. I can attest to that experientially as both a writer and a reader. That, taken with the experiences of others, has forced me to re-evaluate. In doing so, I’ve discovered seven simple reasons to slow down:

1.Reader Requests.

Over the years, I’ve been blessed, more than I deserve, with many readers who’ve allowed me into their most private of digital spaces: their e-mail inbox. If you’re reading this, and you’ve allowed me in – Thank you. Really. I don’t do that for many people. I know you don’t either.

Since starting with Aweber (it’s what I use to collect e-mails, and send them out), I’ve had the opportunity to hear your voice. Many who’ve unsubscribed have left helpful comments, and so far, everyone’s been kind. But the #1 comment – the comment that 99.5% of readers leave – is, “It’s too much.” Or something similar.

Like the new professor who, in his zeal, imagines his niche ought to be the center of our academic universe – so we bloggers forget how we add to the clutter of people’s lives. I want to acknowledge that I’m only a piece of the puzzle of your world, and accept it.

2. Quality Work.

There are bloggers out there who can produce high-quality content, day in and day out, 5, 6 or 7 days a week. I’m not an expert, but I imagine that sort of thing takes two hours a day. Probably more.

I’ve never devoted two hours a day to my blog, and I don’t necessarily plan on it. So if I’m producing an equal amount of content as others, either 1. I’m a genius, or 2. I’m sacrificing quality. The honest part of me says, “I’m not a genius.” Which means, I need to work harder on less.

We learn to write by writing, it’s true. But we learn just as much from re-writing; something which I have increasingly less time to do, as the demand increases.

3. Transitioning from “blogging” to “writing.”

This past year has been exciting for me. I’ve had the opportunity to write for in-print magazines, online magazines, and publishers. Most exciting of all, however, has been turning the corner on projects I’ve been working on for some time. These are my babies, my darlings, my little chiclets. I’m protective of them.

And at some point along the journey, I need to decide who needs more of my devotion – the blogging beast, or my babies? For some, that may be a false dilemma. But for me, with essentially two full-time jobs and two kids, it’s not.

And, although like Tolkien’s “Niggle”, I’ll never quite achieve what I’m aiming at artistically, at some point I need to decide where my affections lie. Blogging and writing books are, really, two different skill sets, like being a weekly cartoonist and painting the Mona Lisa. I don’t think C.S. Lewis, Chesterton, or Tolkien could have been bloggers. It would have frustrated their artistry to no end. I find it increasingly frustrating mine.

4. Focusing on Sharing.

For a relatively unknown blogger like me, I’m not going to write something every day that is going to ride the viral waves on its own. I need to spend time promoting, sharing, tweeting, etc.

My current approach, given the amount of time I have, has been a bit like cutting down a forest with a dull axe. I’m putting in the work, but I don’t have time to promote the work – which means, generally, it’s overlooked. Writing less = sharing more. From an up-and-comer standpoint, that simply makes sense.

5. Information Overload.

We live in a society of information overload. We aren’t able to think critically when we read. We whizz through articles like it’s an Olympic event, not as though we’re savoring a good meal.

My fear is that in producing my own work daily, as well as linking to several others, I’m contributing to the information overload. In fact, I’m promoting it in myself. The more I need to produce for you, the more I need to read digitally. And the less time I have to savor the riches found between real pages of real books.

6. Stewarding My Platform.

I believe, as a teacher at heart, that I’m not only responsible for what I mean to say. I’m also responsible for how you hear it. In an age of article scanning especially, I need to work hard to speak with clarity, concreteness and concision.

Over the last couple of months, in the rush to produce, I’ve often not said things as wisely as I could. Now that my platform is growing, there is a real part of me that trembles at that truth. It is my responsibility to steward words: to be clear, and careful, as much as I’m able.

7. The Golden Rule.

Finally, in the heaps of advice articles and statistics, we bloggers often forget the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

And while blogging wisdom tells me I ought to produce daily, I know in my own heart that I generally avoid daily bloggers in my inbox. I especially appreciate those who take their time, and give me something juicy. That’s not statistically verifiable, but it’s true for me. And while there are a few who are able to do both, I need to be candid with myself: “I’m not.”

Where do we Go, Now?

For now, here is what I plan to do: I will work very diligently to produce 1-2 articles for you every week. Good articles. Juicy articles. Thoughtful articles. I think that’s probably the most I can muster.

Besides that, rather than giving daily “Breakfast Blends” – and I know this will be a disappointment – I’ll select the best-of-the-best articles each week, and give them to you in a weekly “Breakfast Blend” (I guess I’l have to call it “Weekend Java” or something). These won’t be merely “useful”, but, hopefully, “profound” and worth reading carefully.

That might seem like an anti-climactic PSA, I realize, but since many of you are writers, I wanted to invite you alongside me in own journey. And in the process, I hope to serve you better.

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50 Micro-Book Reviews from 2014

I realize I’m way late on this, but this post has been in the burner for a few weeks…and I’m sure I’m still missing some.

But here are 50 micro reviews of the books I read last year, starting with my favorites and descending to my least favorites….although, the ones I really didn’t like I didn’t include at all.

1. Overcoming Sin and Temptation – John Owen, Justin Taylor. I’ve read this before, but reading it again was just gold. I highly recommend reading through it with Tim Challies’ notes beside you – it will change your life.

2. The Holiness of God – R.C. Sproul. Again, this was another re-read, but I read it for my book “Faker.” Sproul is a great theologian, great thinker, and great writer. If you’ve never picked up this short read, do it this week.

3. The Temple and the Church’s Mission – G.K. Beale. This was a difficult read, but Beale traces the theme of the temple from Genesis 1 (yes, you read that correctly) through to the Book of Revelation…and it’s a work of astounding genius. If you’ve never studied Biblical theology before, start here.

4. Christ-Centered Preaching – Bryan Chappell. Yes, yes, another one I’ve read before. But there’s so much wisdom in here – just so, so much. I need to soak it up again every couple of years. Just to let you know how good it is – THREE classes right now at Gordon Conwell currently require this textbook. So, like, they really REALLY want you to read it. As well they should.

5. Center Church – Tim Keller. Keller’s book is as phenomenal as expected. Some people get clogged up near the beginning – DON’T. Keep it moving, because every chapter is soaked with experience and scriptural wisdom.

6. God in the Whirlwind – David F. Wells. This was my first David Wells read, and it was great. It’s a nice summary of the type of teaching the local church needs if it’s going to be the church Jesus meant it to be.

7. Paul and the Faithfulness of God – N.T. Wright. This was my first encounter with N.T. Wright, and the man is astounding. How he can write so well, with so much research backing him, and so prolifically, is just way beyond me. This book never touched on some his views of justification, which I know are controversial. But the way he places us back in Paul’s world is so intensely helpful for us as modern readers, at least in this volume.

8. Walking with God through Pain and Suffering – Tim Keller. If you’re interested in the “problem of evil” in the world, pick up this book. Keller addressed both the philosophical and emotional aspects of suffering, and I wish more people would pick this one up. Not one of his most popular books, but it should be.

9. Paul, The Apostle – Thomas Schreiner. Schreiner’s outlining of Paul’s thoughts are rigorously thought through and thoroughly exegetical (say that ten times fast). I rarely found myself in disagreement with his conclusions, although it was very difficult to assess them, since the book does a lot of jumping from text to text, rather than taking one at a time.

10. Jesus on Every Page – David Murray. This is the best introduction to the Old Testament I’ve ever read, especially for lay-people who aren’t interested in the technical stuff. Pick this one up.

11. When People are Big and God is Small – Ed Welch. This book is an extremely helpful and practical guide to the issue of “people-pleasing” from a Christian perspective. I found his work very helpful as I wrote my own book, “Faker”, but at times I thought he could have been simpler and a bit less clinical.

12. The Reformed Pastor – Richard Baxter. What does it mean to be a pastor? This account by Richard Baxter shows it in all of its glory – and really, it looks not much like the way we pastor today. Read this as a challenge to your perceptions of pastoral ministry.

13. Extravagant Grace – Barb Duguid. I liked this book. But, it was one sided. Very one sided. Duigud’s basic message is that God’s allowing sin in our life is actually forward progress in sanctification, because it humbles us. Yes – but read this with John Owen, who leans the other way. Both are true.

14. Story Engineering – Larry Brooks. This book totally changed the way I think about stories. It totally changed the way I think about writing. It even influenced the way I think about preaching. If you’re a fiction writer, this is the first book you should pick up – it’s a great, simple summary of the things you need to know to make a story work…and trust me, you probably don’t know them.

15. The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness – Tim Keller. Another great one to read while writing “Faker”. More like a sermon than a book, Keller tackles the issue through the lens of justification. Reading this alongside Welch was helpful – Welch emphasizes the fear of God, and Keller emphasizes God’s grace. I think both are needed.

16. Write from the Middle – James Scott Bell. This should be the second book on story writing you should read. Very short, astoundingly simple, and makes so much sense. The middle of your story is the heart.

17. The Attributes of God – A.W. Tozer. Tozer is a great writer – many of his thoughts were helpful to me in thinking about God’s majesty and holiness, especially.

18. Plot and Structure – James Scott Bell. After you’ve read Larry Brooks, pick this one up. It goes into a bit more depth on how plots work…and if you’re not plotting currently, it will convince you otherwise.

19. Justification Reconsidered – Stephen Westerholm. This was another I read for “Faker”, since justification is a huge theme in the parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector. A good rebuttal to some of N.T. Wright’s stuff. Concise, and exegetical.

20. The Doctrine of Inerrancy – G.K. Beale. This is more of a documented conversation between scholars than a book…but it’s especially helpful for those exploring the “We’re, like, so much more obsessed with history than the dumb – I mean, er, ancient – Hebrews.”

21. The Reliability of the Old Testament – K.A. Kitchen. Okay, admittedly, this was probably the most boring book I’ve ever read. But for someone who’s interested in how the OT fits historically, archeologically, anthropologically into the way we understand things…hand this one to them. Then run.

22. Creativity, INC – Ed Catmull. Catmull goes behind the scenes to show us Pixar’s conception and philosophy. I would want to know more, but Catmull gives us the basics…and the basics are, “Be candid.” That’s about it.

23. 2,000 to 10,000 – Rachel Aaron. Aaron describes her process of transformation, from being able to write 2000 words a day to 10,000. I was skeptical about this at first, but what she says totally makes sense…but in trying her method, I found my writing was really lacking. I ended up using her method, but handwriting my work. It will make sense if you read it.

24. Insourcing – Randy Pope. A really great and practical introduction into how discipleship can work in a church. I’ve used this structure with my students this year, and seen much fruit. Highly recommended.

25. The Art of Pastoring – David Hansen. I’m still not sure what to do with this book. It was very well-written. Hansen seems like a very good pastor. I’m not sure what I learned from it…nor am I sure that I’m really a “parable of Jesus” to people, as a pastor. I really, really appreciated his honesty.

26. Your First 1,000 Copies – Tim Grahl. A great introductory guide for those selling their first book!

27. Untamable God – Stephen Altrogge. This was another one I read for “Faker”. Alltrogge is a good writer, but he’s too cheeky. Especially when handling the doctrines concerning God’s severity, we need to be gentle and humble…I found Alltrogge sarcastic and degrading…and I agreed with him! His best chapters are at the end, on God’s grace.

Fiction

1. The Island of Dr. Moreau – H.G. Wells. This H.G. Wells novel was just…stunning. Wells understands human nature, and what we’re capable of in a world where technology gives us unlimited power, unlike any secular writer I’ve ever read. This was my favorite read this year.

2. Gilead – Marilynne Robinson. Robinson creates beautiful art. Read her, and you will see the beauty in places and people around you like never before.

3. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen. “Was this your FIRST TIME READING THIS, NICHOLAS MCDONALD?” Sheepishly* “Yes.” And Jane Austen is as brilliant as we all say she is. She is one of those writers who knows herself so well that she convicts me.

4. Les Miserables – Victor Hugo. This was a hefty tome. Way too hefty, actually – this book REALLY didn’t need to be this long. But it’s truly beautiful, and I found myself aching again and again as I experienced the “behind the scenes” reality to which the musical points. So painful. So good.

5. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis. Read it again this year, with Caleb. Had to stop when Aslan was on the stone table, because I started weeping. Again.

6. Northern Lights – Philip Pullman. I’m refreshing on these as well. Pullman is a mad genius. His work is everything I love, aesthetically speaking…but his characters, while interesting, are value-less. Which means, there’s no transformation. Which means, there’s no heart. But heck, it’s an atheist trying to create a worldview out of nothing. What did you expect?

7. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – J.K. Rowling. I’m sorry. I just love Harry Potter – I wish people wouldn’t scoff at Rowling. If you’ve read enough other stuff, and if you REALLY understand writing, you’ll see that Rowling is something special. She really is the total package.

8. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – J.K. Rowling. And…surprise ending, because I totally forgot everything about this book, since I vowed never to watch the movies after the first.

9. The Time Machine – H.G. Wells. I loved this. It’s not shallow – it’s philosophical. And it’s haunting – I forgot to mention that. And full of imagination, and really creative dialogue, and interesting concepts. Wells is just a pro.

10. Moby Dick – Herman Melville. This took me all summer. Okay, so, right off the bat – I didn’t understand this book. Maybe there’s nothing to say after that. Melville’s style is incredible – truly, incredible. And this whole book is SO genius. I think I get it. But I haven’t processed it.

11. A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller Jr. As with most sci-fi…the concepts were interesting, the characters were too dull for me to enjoy. The ending was…kind of gross and profound?

12. Elmer Gantry – Sinclair Lewis. This was really painful for a guy in the ministry to read. It’s a hard, hard, look at what American hypocrite revivalist Billy-Sunday style religion was back in the day. And it’s not pretty.

13. The Reptile Room – Lemony Snicket. Fun. Funny. A little one dimensional.

14. The Bad Beginning – Lemony Snicket. Ditto.

15. Clear Winter Nights – Trevin Wax – I liked T. Wax’s debut novel. It was warm, and cozy…and I will probably read it again sometime in the future. He handles the apologetics issues nicely.

16. Dune – Frank Herbert. This was staggering genius. The writing style was a bit too much for me, at times. The philosophy is SO 70’s. But overall, I see why people love the series. It’s not really for me.

17. Coraline – Neil Gaiman. How does Gaiman get away with writing horror books to children? Gaiman has an inimitable style, which in and of itself is worth reading. I felt like the plot-line to this one dragged. I didn’t want a false ending. I wanted it to be over.

18. Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens. Commonly accepted as the least liked of Dickens’ classics, I found it to be the least liked of Dickens’ classics.

19. American Sniper – Chris Kyle. I read this last Spring. It’s a fascinating look into the mind of military. This is about as American a book as an American can read. Grab a beer and a hot-dog, and chow down on “popping ‘bad-guys’”. Yes, that’s the going term in this book. Still – I was very entertained.

20. The Mysterious Visitor – H.G. Wells. This is about an angel who is shot with a shotgun down from heaven. He comes to live with humanity, and the whole book is about how we react to him. It is, once again, very perceptive.

21. The One and Only Ivan – Katherine Applegate. I grew up on Animorphs, so, what can I say? I’m an Applegate fan. The most attractive thing about this book was the style – Applegate perfectly combines poetry with clarity. The story, on the other hand, was recycled, over-hyped Californian cowardice.

22. Prince Caspian – C.S. Lewis. Reading this with the family, now. Lewis gets a little carried away with this one, to me. His descriptions of scenery aren’t as lively as Tolkien, and there’s a whole ton of it in comparison to the Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe. Some great characters, to be sure, and Aslan as always is a boss. Overall, though, I don’t think it’s Lewis’s best.

23. Divergent – Veronica Roth. I read this because my high-schoolers read it. It was okay…I have a hard time reading from the perspective of teenage female angst. I get annoyed. The concept was interesting, but not very fleshed out. I’d be interested to see what the movies do with it.

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Breakfast Blend 01.29.15

At Last You Can Read Harry Potter in the Gryffindor Common Room – Yes, at last…wait, were we waiting for this?

My Baby’s Heart Stopped Beating – “How come she gets to keep her baby but I don’t? She seems to hate kids. I love them. This isn’t fair.”

Bill Hicks’ 12 Principles of Comedy – A little crass, as expected…but I think these apply to all kinds of communication forms.

Disciple-Making on Their Turf – David Matthis argues from Philippians 4:8 that cultural analysis is a gospel imperative.

Music, Fiction, and the Value of Attention - Is novel reading no more than aimless distraction?

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