The Seven Heavenly Virtues Tag

The Orangutan Librarian tagged me for this post that applies the “Seven Heavenly Virtues” to the world of our reading.

By the way. The Seven Deadly Sins are easy to remember, in groups of two, three, and two. There’s The World (Envy, Greed); The Flesh (Lust, Gluttony, Sloth); and The Devil (Anger … and the granddaddy, Pride). The seven virtues are the flip side of these.

Once when I was at university, the theme of our homecoming week was the extremely creative “We’ve Got Pride.” I will always love my fellow English majors who named their contribution to the parade “Beyond pride: the seven deadly sins.” They wanted to show that “[our university] also gots Envy, Greed, Lust, Gluttony, Sloth, and Anger.” And of course it was true.


CHASTITY: Which author/book/series you wish you had never read?

Hmm. It’s rare that I go on wishing I had never read a book. Usually if it stuns me with some horror, I hate it at the time, but as my mind assimilates the idea, I’m glad to have encountered it in a book so that I can grapple with that aspect of the world.

A good example is Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. A major part of the plot is a sexual assault. It’s described graphically. The creepy lead-up and the lengthy aftermath include scenes from the point of view of both the victim and rapist. When I read this, it was the first time I’d read a rape described in detail (or, at least, the first time I understood what I was reading). It was very traumatic, and it led to lots of crying and praying for women who were real-life victims. So, as you can see, it bore some good fruit almost immediately.

Later I read another book by Ken Follett in a completely different genre, and it also featured a serial stalker and rapist, with many scenes written from his point of view. At that point I decided that I would not read any more books by Ken Follett, nor would I ever get on an elevator with the man.

TEMPERANCE: Which book/series did you find so good, that you didn’t want to read it all at once, and you read it in doses just to make the pleasure last longer?

I don’t usually show temperance when it comes to serious, emotional reads. … OK, I actually don’t have much temperance at all. I once stayed up all night finishing Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow.

However, with comic series, I find that if you binge on them they can become wearing, whereas if you read one every once in a while, they are refreshing. For example, P.G. Wodehouse’e Bertie Wooster books and Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series.

CHARITY: Which book/series/author do you tirelessly push to others, telling them about it or even giving away spare copies bought for that reason?

Well this question will contain no surprises to anyone who knows me or has followed my blog for any length of time.

The Emberverse series by S.M Stirling: I recommend this often because it encompasses a wide range of interests. The first few books are post-apocalyptic, and then it becomes more of a fantasy series. I’ve recommended it to people because it’s set in the Northwest (Idaho, eastern Washington and Oregon, northern California). Recently I recommended it to someone who is interested in retro martial arts such as sword fighting and archery, because there is a ton of that in these books, including descriptions of how the weapons are made and gripping battle scenes. The research on these books is both wide and deep, from ecology to botany to anthropology to martial arts to Celtic mythology.

Til We Have Faces: A searing, emotional novel about friendship, identity, divided loyalty, and religion. One of C.S. Lewis’s less famous works.

The Everlasting Man (non-fiction): G.K. Chesterton discusses paganism and why it expresses important things about being human … with the cheery paradoxes that only he can bring.

The Divine Conspiracy(non-fiction): With wit and wisdom, Dallas Willard applies the Gospels in a fresh way (which we all need frequently). This is so well-written that it’s a pleasure to read, and you just sail through it even though it’s quite thick.

Now, go forth and read these!

DILIGENCE: Which series/author you follow no matter what happens and how long you have to wait?

Agatha Christie. She has such a large corpus of work that even though I think I’ve read all her novels, I’m never sure.

Also, the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters.

Also anything by Tony Hillerman or Dick Francis.

It looks like formula mysteries are my genre for this.

PATIENCE: Is there an author/book/series you’ve read that improved with time the most, starting out unpromising, but ultimately proving rewarding?

Watership Down. It is gripping from the first, don’t get me wrong, but it is so long. Then when you get to the end, you discover that the author is doing things with it that only a really long book can do.

KINDNESS: Which fictitious character would you consider your role-model in the hassle of everyday life?

Photo by Rene Asmussen on

Any strong, quiet, capable character who consistently takes care of others. Durnik in the Belgariad; Precious Ramotswe in The No. 1 Ladies series; Bardia in ‘Til We Have Faces; Sam Gamgee, Aragorn, Gandalf, Aslan. And, of course, Zillah from my own books.

Unfortunately my gifts and personality are almost opposite from all these characters. But I’ve always wanted to be strong, quiet, calm, and capable.

HUMILITY: Which book/series/author do you find most under-rated?

This is a hard one to answer because I don’t always have a real great idea of what other people are reading. How can I know that the gem I’ve “discovered” hasn’t also been discovered by a bunch of others?

Apparently Thomas Sowell has a bunch of great books about economics and society that have helped the people who’ve read them greatly … but I have not read them, only watched videos of him speaking. There are many such examples.

Now, Discuss

I hesitate to tag people because it seems to freak them out. But if you get inspired by any of the questions in this tag, please answer them either at your own blog or in the comments.

Behold the Worst Contemporary Christian Song Ever Written!

Ok. I don’t know whether it’s really the worst. It’s the worst one that I know of.

This song has been around since I was a kid. Listen to it, and if you can get through it without throwing up, we will discuss.

“Thank You” by Ray Boltz. Here are the things I hate about the song:

It gives a false impression of heaven.

Heaven is not going to be about finding out how wonderful we are.  It is going to be about finding out how wonderful He is. 

We already spend way too much time trapped in the world of our own efforts, our own talents, our own flaws, our own accolades.  Everyone knows that this self-focus is not in any way heavenly.  It is hellish! 

Gee whiz.  We go to heaven to get away from this stuff.  To finally be free to focus on something truly worthwhile.  I can’t think of a more depressing lie than being told that heaven will consist of finding out that it’s all about “you.”

It gives a false impression of service.

This is a very minor point compared to the fact that the song makes “you,” instead of Christ, the hero of the story.  So please, don’t take this second point as being nearly as important as the first. However, having once engaged in idolatry, the song then compounds the error by making it sound as if it’s easy to earn all this adulation. 

What did the hero of the song do in order to create all these wonderful effects?  He gave some money to missions when he didn’t have much wiggle room.  (Sounds like it was just one time, after a presentation, perhaps – forgive my cynicism – to make himself feel better because the missionary’s “pictures made him cry.”) 

And he taught Sunday School.  This is admittedly hard, as it involves dealing with kids.  But, in the song, the thing that made such a big impact was the simple act of praying an opening prayer.  Something that takes less than a minute.

Both of these examples make it sound like you can do an act of service once, at relatively low cost to yourself, and – boom! – lives are changed. 

Real service is very different.  It consists of years of effort that often feels futile.  For example, the act of getting up day after day, providing for your family, sticking with your spouse, staying in relationship with your children, is far more impactful than either of the examples in the song. 

As for “giving to the Lord,” as someone who has actually tried it, let me tell you what it is more like.  You start out trying to do something good.  Then you find out that your motives were all wrong.  You repent.  Then you find out (maybe years later) that even with right motives, you were undertaking your labors in the wrong way, missing critical bits of information.  In many cases, you discover that you have done more harm than good. (For more information about this experience, see the book When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett et al, and the novels No Graven Image by Elizabeth Elliot and The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.)

In my personal version of the scene above, I arrive in heaven and eventually get an opportunity to ask forgiveness for my grievous mistakes from the people I once started out so confidently trying to serve. And I find out to my relief that despite my inadvertent efforts to keep them from entering, they are there anyway. And they are no longer ticked about my mistakes because Jesus got to them directly, without my “help,” and they are just so thrilled to be there.

But none of this would be the first thing that happens. It’s heaven. The Lord is there. I think we will have higher priorities right at first than sorting out who did what to whom.

It gives a false impression of the Christian life.

My worst nightmare would be that someone who does not believe in Christ would hear this song.  (And they probably will, now that it’s on my blog.)  It paints a repellent picture of what it means to be a Christian.  It makes it sound like the life of faith is all about going around patting ourselves on the back, rather than about progressively recognizing and repenting of our faults, and coming to admire and depend on Christ more and more.  If we are engaged in back-patting, then we have not yet embarked on the path of Christ.  We are still stuck in Pharisaism, with all its attendant miseries.  This is already the impression that many people have of Christianity.  The last thing we need is a song like this to further obscure the Gospel.

The Grain of Truth in the Song

Having said all this, I have to be fair.  There is a grain of truth in this song. 

I mentioned that people who attempt a life of service usually find themselves engaged in years of work that seems fruitless and sometimes actually seems to do more harm than good.  Human efforts are futile.  “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:1, 2:11, 2:15, 2:17, etc.)  That’s in the Bible too.

It is one of the ironies of the universe that often a person can put in intense labor without achieving the desired result, only to have some small, random thing that they did turn out to make a huge impact.  That may be the phenomenon that this song is trying to capture.  (I think it does a really lousy job of it.  Perhaps we shouldn’t try to capture years of wisdom and experience in a 5-minute song.  But there is truth in this insight.)

Jesus said, “When you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” There is humor in this statement (Jesus’ humor is under-appreciated).  Dallas Willard has pointed out that when our hands do things automatically, without us having to think about it, it is because we are engaged in some routine process such as brushing our teeth.  Our hands automatically coordinate themselves, and the whole thing runs on muscle memory.  And this only takes place with things that we do often.  Jesus was saying that our giving should not be the kind of thing for which we pat ourselves on the back, but rather a completely normal part of life that we hardly notice we are doing. 

So perhaps what this odious song is trying so clumsily to capture is the truth that it will be small actions, ones we hardly notice we are doing, that will turn out to have blessed others the most.  I could see that would be an encouraging message if it were better expressed. However, there has got to be a more nuanced and less idolatrous way to point this out, so let me go on record as saying that I still hate this song.