I gotta have my orange juice.

Jesu, Juva

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Christmas books!

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Written by Scott Moonen

January 18, 2020 at 6:59 am

Posted in Books, Personal

Spirit

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. . . in the tradition of Western philosophy, the capacity for spiritual knowledge has always been understood to mean the power of establishing relations with the whole of reality, with all things existing; that is how it has been defined, and it is conceived as a definition more than as a description. Spirit, it might be said, is not only defined as incorporeal, but as the power and capacity to relate itself to the totality of being. Spirit, in fact, is a capacity for relations of such all-embracing power that its field of relations transcends the frontiers of all and any “environment.” To talk of “environment” where spirit is concerned, is a misunderstanding, for its field of relations is “the world,” and by its very nature it breaks the bounds of any “environment;” it abolishes both adaptation and imprisonment. Therein lies, at one and the same time, the liberating force and the danger inherent in the nature of spirit.

Josef Pieper, The Philosophical Act

Written by Scott Moonen

January 5, 2020 at 5:18 pm

Posted in Books, Quotations

Leisure

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No, the contrary of acedia is not the spirit of work in the sense of the work of every day, of earning one’s living; it is man’s happy and cheerful affirmation of his own being, his acquiescence in the world and in God—which is to say love. Love that certainly brings a particular freshness and readiness to work along with it, but that no one with the least experience could conceivably confuse with the tense activity of the fanatical “worker.”

Who would guess, unless he were expressly told so, that Aquinas regarded acedia as a sin against the third commandment? He was in fact so far from considering idleness as the opposite of the ethos of work that he simply interprets it as an offense against the commandment in which we are called upon to have “the peace of the mind of God.” . . .

Idleness, in the old sense of the word, so far from being synonymous with leisure, is more nearly the inner prerequisite which renders leisure impossible: it might be described as the utter absence of leisure, or the very opposite of leisure. Leisure is only possible when a man is at one with himself, when he acquiesces in his own being, whereas the essence of acedia is the refusal to acquiesce in one’s own being. Idleness and the incapacity for leisure correspond with one another. Leisure is the contrary of both.

Leisure, it must be clearly understood, is a mental and spiritual attitude—it is not simply the result of external factors, it is not the inevitable result of spare time, a holiday, a weekend or a vacation. It is, in the first place, an attitude of mind, a condition of the soul, and as such utterly contrary to the ideal of “worker” . . . .

In the foregoing sections leisure was tentatively defined and outlined in its ideal form. It now remains to consider the problem of realizing its “hopes,” of its latent powers of gaining acceptance, and its possible impetus in history. The practical problem involved might be stated thus: Is it possible, from now on, to maintain and defend, or even to reconquer, the right and claims of leisure, in face of the claims of “total labor” that are invading every sphere of life? Leisure, it must be remembered, is not a Sunday afternoon idyll, but the preserve of freedom, of education and culture, and of that undiminished humanity which views the world as a whole. In other words, is it going to be possible to save men from becoming officials and functionaries and “workers” to the exclusion of all else? Can that possibly be done, and if so in what circumstances? There is no doubt of one thing: the world of the “worker” is taking shape with dynamic force—with such a velocity that, rightly or wrongly, one is tempted to speak of demonic force in history. . . .

There is, however, a fact which from the vantage-point we have now reached must be strikingly clear and significant, and it is this: whereas the “total work” State declares all un-useful work “undesirable,” and even expropriates free time in the service of work, there is one Institution in the world which forbids useful activity, and servile work, on particular days, and in this way prepares, as it were, a sphere for a non-proletarian existence.

Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture

Written by Scott Moonen

January 5, 2020 at 5:15 pm

Critique

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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s three-volume opus, The Gulag Archipelago, which some have called the most important masterpiece of the twentieth century, is subtitled: “An Experiment in Literary Investigation.” Consider how odd that is. No Westerner would call such a work “literary,” lest someone discount its documentary value. Literature is one thing, truth another, isn’t that correct? But Solzhenitsyn insists that absolutely everything included is strictly factual, a claim validated when the Soviet Union fell and archives were opened. What, then, is literary about the book? It is worth noting that Russia’s most recent winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, Svetlana Alexievich, also produced literary works that were purely factual. With these two writers we encounter something essential to the Russian tradition. . . .

Gary Saul Morsen, How the Great Truth Dawned

In Russia, literature critiques you.

Written by Scott Moonen

January 4, 2020 at 9:46 am

Posted in Books

A third difficulty

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There is first to note that, whereas in other businesses the ambition of the customers and the insolence of the laborers only have to be contended with, the Roman captains of industry had a third difficulty in having to put up with the cruelty and avarice of their shareholders, a matter so beset with difficulties that it was the ruin of many; for it was a hard thing to give satisfaction both to shareholders and laborers; because the laborers loved peace, and for this reason they loved the unaspiring CEO, whilst the shareholders loved the warlike CEO who was bold, cruel, and rapacious, which qualities they were quite willing he should exercise upon the laborers, so that they could get double dividends and give vent to their greed and cruelty.

With sincere apology to Niccolò Machiavelli for misappropriating The Prince, Chapter 19

Written by Scott Moonen

December 31, 2019 at 7:51 am

Posted in Books, Quotations

Prudence

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Never let any Government imagine that it can choose perfectly safe courses; rather let it expect to have to take very doubtful ones, because it is found in ordinary affairs that one never seeks to avoid one trouble without running into another; but prudence consists in knowing how to distinguish the character of troubles, and for choice to take the lesser evil.

Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter 21

It is not unknown to me how many men have had, and still have, the opinion that the affairs of the world are in such wise governed by fortune and by God that men with their wisdom cannot direct them and that no one can even help them; and because of this they would have us believe that it is not necessary to labour much in affairs, but to let chance govern them. This opinion has been more credited in our times because of the great changes in affairs which have been seen, and may still be seen, every day, beyond all human conjecture. Sometimes pondering over this, I am in some degree inclined to their opinion. Nevertheless, not to extinguish our free will, I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.

Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter 25

Written by Scott Moonen

December 31, 2019 at 7:41 am

Posted in Books, Quotations

A Failure of Nerve

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For several years now I’ve appreciated and benefited from Edwin Friedman’s book on leadership, A Failure of Nerve. I enjoy thinking about big ideas that help to make sense of God’s world. For example, it is helpful to think of all sin as being a form of idolatry, or a form of pride, or arising from a kind of covetousness. We look for a structure of conflict and climax in most of our stories. René Girard teaches us to look for imitation and scapegoating in all of the crises of story and history, and points us to the one scapegoat who alone can cover mankind’s sin.

Edwin Friedman’s organizing big idea revolves around anxiety. He was a student of organizational behavior, ranging from families and churches to businesses and nations. He suggests that all of the ways that an organization can break down involve a kind of anxiety on the part of the group or the leader or both. And from this he draws a program of non-anxious leadership.

Friedman sees anxiety behind how a group or organization becomes stagnant, resistant or even hostile to change and growth; and also behind leaders’ addictions to either quick fixes or to data rather then decisive action. He suggests that a non-anxious approach to leadership is crucial, that the “calm presence” of a leader matters more to calming an organization’s anxiety than almost anything else the leader says or does. He develops this into an idea of what he calls “differentiation,” which is the leader’s own focus on his integrity and stability. Out of this non-anxious differentiation, he charges leaders to allow their organizations to experience a healthy dose of their own learning experience and even pain so that they can mature; what you might call a sort of non-anxious “tough love” that is appropriately sympathetic but does not devolve into the kind of empathy that is powerless to help others grow. In Friedman’s model, the leader functions both as a kind of anxiety absorber and also an immune system.

Although Friedman was not a Christian, many of his ideas have Christian parallels. Jesus charges us not to be anxious, and the fact that Jesus himself is not anxious is perhaps the greatest boost to our own faith. It is faith, after all, that is the true antidote to fear and anxiety, and Jesus invites us to bring our cares to him. Perhaps a way of expressing Friedman’s differentiated self is to say that it is a faith-filled, wise, mature, patient, and Spirit-governed self. This integrity of a leader includes the careful watching of his life and doctrine, and the taking of logs out of our own eyes before we address the specks in others’ eyes.

There is a superficial way of reading Friedman that suggests that leaders should be aloof and uncaring. I don’t think this is what he is saying, but in any case we want to be careful not to swing the pendulum that far. And while anxious leadership may be the problem of our time, we should also be on guard for a sinful complacency.

Additional reading:

Written by Scott Moonen

November 17, 2019 at 5:54 pm

Posted in Books, Parenting, Vocation

Hear Ye

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My friend Michael and I exchanged our recent listening. Here’s what I’m listening to these days:

Written by Scott Moonen

October 29, 2019 at 1:12 pm

Posted in Books, Miscellany, Music

Knowledge of good and evil

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As part of a men’s group at church, I had to devise an outline for a class for young men. My first inclination was to structure it around the fruit of the Spirit. I eventually ended up with: (1) love for the Bible, (2) basic doctrine, (3) dominion and vocation, (4) fruit of the Spirit, (5) Kuyperian Chestertonianism (about which see more below), (6) wisdom and leadership. But I’ve just finished rereading J. C. Ryle’s Thoughts for Young Men; I wonder if I was reaching too high and should have stuck with the fruit of the Spirit.

I’ve been searching for a pithy quote from Lewis on the kinds of readers and books that read or are read repeatedly. I’m not sure there is a single quote that catches it all; looks like I am going to have to read An Experiment in Criticism, which is not such a bad thing.

Reflecting more on the topic of wisdom and leadership, as well as some books I could read repeatedly, here is a partial list of things I’ve learned and which I want to pass on to my children:

1. Devote yourself to Scripture. Invest time in it; cultivate your understanding of it and your love for its stories, poetry, and truth. Some men who have helped me here are Dad (by example), Geerhardus Vos (Biblical Theology started me on the road of covenant theology with a striking vision of just how much the Old Testament is shot through with grace), and James Jordan (whose complete audio collection was the best $100 I ever spent, introducing me to the deep typological poetry of scripture and reality). For basic doctrine, J. I. Packer’s Knowing God is an excellent start, and Calvin’s Institutes is hard to beat as a far ranging and pastoral introduction. Peter Lillback’s The Binding of God does a great job spelling out a biblical covenant theology from Calvin’s writings.

It is difficult to summarize just how much Jordan has helped me. He ranges from grand typological patterns down to delightful detailed insights. For example, one fruitful model he develops is a series of exodus patterns from one end of scripture to the other. He identifies a progression of priest, king, and prophet in several contexts. Another great organizing pattern is his idea that Scripture and history have three themes rather than just one. You can observe these themes by considering the two great falls in Genesis 3: (1) if there had been no fall, God’s purpose was for the maturation and glorification of humanity and creation; (2) once Satan fell, God additionally purposed to wage holy war against sin; and (3) once Adam fell, God finally intended to redeem humanity and creation.

2. Wisdom. One of the Bible’s terms for wisdom is knowledge of good and evil (Compare 2 Chron 1:10 with 1 Kings 3:9), which should ring some bells. Relative to Adam and Eve, this points to a connection between wisdom and maturity. Relative to Solomon, this reminds us that wisdom has partly to do with exercising judgment (a la 1 Kings 2:9). James Jordan has impressed on me, partly from his work on the lives of the patriarchs (see his helpful book Primeval Saints) that wisdom, faith, patience, maturity, and what he calls a “long time sense” are all closely linked with one another. I think this is true and bears much fruit upon reflection. See also Hebrews 11.

3. Trust and obey. I have found it tremendously helpful and freeing to look at a situation through the lens of trust and obey. What parts of this situation do I have to entrust to God, and what parts of this am I responsible for? Part of maturity is accepting that a great part of your life and circumstances are beyond your control or authority to change, and may never change.

It goes deeper as well, for there is a way in which trusting must cover all things and also a way in which obeying must cover everything. Our trust must be obedient and our obedience must be full of faith.

4. The fruit of the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit is the picture of the mature Christian. It is especially important to pursue all of the fruits of the Spirit, lest we become joyful busybodies or self-controlled stoics. It is also important to work hard at cultivating the fruit while we pray for the Spirit’s help. The times you feel least like you are walking effortlessly in the fruit are precisely the times that you have the opportunity to grow in it.

We speak of sharing our “real” or “authentic” selves as if this were a virtue. Certainly there is a place for confessing our fears and temptations one another for the purpose of fighting them. But much of what passes for our “real” selves is the indulgence of our fears and temptations. In fact we are always making a choice how to reveal our selves to the world; we are always wearing one kind of mask or another. We must wear the right mask; we must choose the fruit of the Spirit. It is strange to think that we should be less gracious to those who are close to us.

C. R. Wiley helpfully summarizes much of what a leader must put on as gravitas. See his helpful books Man of the House and The Household and the War for the Cosmos. As part of your work on the fruits of faithfulness and self control, you should be working on knowledge, competence, and even strength and endurance. At the same time, cultivate the fruit of humility, remembering that all these, and leadership itself, are in the service of Another.

5. Mimesis and scapegoating. The imitative scapegoating process is how humans seek justification apart from Jesus (for that matter, it is how we are justified in Jesus). Understanding scapegoating and its tremendous prevalence in our world will help to inoculate us from participating in it, rob it of its ability to surprise and threaten us, equip us to expose and defuse it, and strengthen us to resist it. You should go to Rene Girard; start with his book, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.

6. Do not be anxious. Anxious leadership is the rock on which many families and institutions have foundered. Edwin Friedman treats on this in A Failure of Nerve (see Alastair Roberts’s helpful summary). If you can fight these subtle forms of anxiety, while also avoiding the errors of apathetic and aloof leadership, all while calmly and confidently resisting anxious and even scapegoating sabotage, then you are well on your way to effective leadership.

7. Torn. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s cross of reality has been a fruitful picture for me. He pictures life laid out on one axis from past to future, and another axis from inside to outside. Families, churches, nations, and businesses are all laid out upon this cross in different ways. For example, in the church, you have the concerns of orthodoxy (past), reformational growth in development and understanding and holiness (future), discipleship (inside), and evangelism (outside). These two dimensions fit together, so that there are inside and outside aspects to past and future, and vice versa. Most people gravitate in particular directions, but it is crucial to any family or institution that all of the directions be adequately represented (sales and engineering depend on each other; every institution is a “body” with eyes and and ears and hands and feet). This means that we must welcome and appreciate a diversity of interests and skills in our families, churches, nations, and workplaces. It also means that in some ways we must be willing to experience internal tensions within ourselves so that these various bodies remain whole. We are torn in little ways along the lines of this “cross” of reality so that the body itself is not torn apart. Love does not insist on its own way. Not every part of family, church, or business life will cater to our interests or stir up our hearts. In fact, it’s best for us that we are surrounded by friends who tug us in different directions.

8. Kuyperian Chestertonianism: two portly men whose work I greatly appreciate. Kuyper I appreciate because of his vision for Jesus’s exhaustive lordship over all of life; his Lectures on Calvinism is a good introduction. There is no sacred and secular; everything belongs to Jesus who is reigning at this very moment on his throne. Chesterton I appreciate for his similar delight in the goodness and glory and surprising freshness of every aspect God’s world. Taken together it really is a thrilling vision.

Jesus is lord of everything, including history, and so I am postmillennial. (He’s lord of our families too, and so I am a paedobaptist as well.) However, Jesus’s world is not just a world in which Proverbs is true, but also Job, and Psalms, and Ecclesiastes. It’s a world in which victory comes through suffering and sacrifice, and resurrection life comes through death. Grappling with the reality of toil and mist is important, but at the same time we are sustained by an inexpressible joy that can only be a gift from God. Doug Wilson’s Joy at the End of the Tether was my first introduction to this hopeful reading of Ecclesiastes. So we die to ourselves gladly, on account of the joy set before us. N. D. Wilson’s books Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl and Death by Living capture this vision together with an exuberant Kuyperian Chestertonianism.

Written by Scott Moonen

October 6, 2019 at 4:31 pm

Creed

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Truths turn into dogmas the instant that they are disputed. Thus every man who utters a doubt defines a religion. And the scepticism of our time does not really destroy the beliefs, rather it creates them; gives them their limits and their plain and defiant shape. We who are Liberals once held Liberalism lightly as a truism. Now it has been disputed, and we hold it fiercely as a faith. We who believe in patriotism once thought patriotism to be reasonable, and thought little more about it. Now we know it to be unreasonable, and know it to be right. We who are Christians never knew the great philosophic common sense which inheres in that mystery until the anti–Christian writers pointed it out to us. The great march of mental destruction will go on. Everything will be denied. Everything will become a creed. It is a reasonable position to deny the stones in the street; it will be a religious dogma to assert them. It is a rational thesis that we are all in a dream; it will be a mystical sanity to say that we are all awake. Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four. Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer. We shall be left defending, not only the incredible virtues and sanities of human life, but something more incredible still, this huge impossible universe which stares us in the face. We shall fight for visible prodigies as if they were invisible. We shall look on the impossible grass and the skies with a strange courage. We shall be of those who have seen and yet have believed.

Chesterton, Heretics

Written by Scott Moonen

September 2, 2019 at 5:03 pm