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?
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.
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.
A Lady’s Guide to Selling Out, by Sally Franson, 2018. I read the Center Point Large Print version.
From the jacket:
Casey Pendergast is losing her way. Once a book-loving English major, Casey lands a job at a top ad agency that highly values her ability to tell a good story. Her best friend thinks she’s a sellout, but Casey tells herself she’s just paying the bills – and she can’t help that she has champagne taste.
When her hard-to-please boss assigns her to a top-secret campaign that pairs literary authors with corporations hungry for upmarket cachet, Casey is both excited and skeptical. But as she crisscrosses America, wooing her former idols, she’s shocked at how quickly they compromise their integrity …
When she falls in love with one of her authors, Casey can no longer ignore her own nagging doubts about the human cost of her success. By the time the year’s biggest book festival rolls around in Las Vegas, it will take every ounce of Casey’s moxie to undo the damage – and, hopefully, save her own soul.
How could I not pick up a book that has the former English major main character falling in love with an author? And since Casey was going to “the year’s biggest book festival,” I also hoped this book might teach me something about the industry.
I enjoyed it, it was a page turner, but in retrospect, most of the colorful characters – including the evil corporations, the evil advertising exec, and even the quirky authors – were kind of … stereotype-y? Also, the book kept smacking me in the face with its politics. It was pretty subtly done, but I guess, as author and an avid reader, I could see the strings moving.
First, the good part. Casey herself is not stereotype-y. The author had to write a character who was sympathetic, but unaware enough to participate, for most of the book, in activities that – in the world of the book – are considered “selling out.” So Casey is complex. She’s smart and analytical, has mommy and daddy issues (the mommy issues drive her career path), and does a great job documenting her own self-deception.
She is also, though socially vivacious, an empath and an introvert:
Before I met [my writer friend Susan], I’d spent my whole life feeling a few clicks on the dial away from everyone I knew. Not that you could tell necessarily – I was popular and all that growing up, lots of friends, guys buzzing around like big horseflies – but there was this static in the air when I was around other people. Sometimes I’d even cancel plans, feigning illness, in order to stay home and read novels and fiddle with the antenna in my brain, trying to get a clear signal. Sometimes I’d go days, weeks, without it, the dull hissing unceasing. The static only seemed to stop, or my brain could only tune in to the world properly, when I was taking walks or reading novels. In other words, when I was alone.
Oh well, I’d thought then, sucks for me I only get clarity by myself, everyone else seems to be getting on fine. Weirdo. Probably best to pretend the static doesn’t exist.
pp 14 – 15
The “static” is the way Casey can sense other people’s thoughts and emotions.
This is a terrific description of the inner life of an introvert/empath.
It’s also a good example of how, contrary to what you might expect, feeling other people’s feelings does not necessarily endow a person with good social skills. Quite the opposite. Sometimes it can be quite overwhelming, and the empath will withdraw, or will wildly act out the emotion that’s already flying around the room.
A number of things bothered me about this novel. Let’s start with the reverse sexism:
In the aftermath of our efforts to hold these men responsible, we realized we didn’t possess the power to do that. We were just a couple of nobodies, a couple of ladies. Men were innocent until proven guilty. Women were crazy until they were believed.
Yeah, I don’t know any men who have been publicly shamed on the Internet … who have lost their jobs, been called names, received death threats, been unable to get their side of the story out there, or been unable to recover their reputation.
Sure, powerful people exploit less powerful people all the time. People unfairly get their reputations ruined all the time too. But this does not divide neatly along the lines of sex. Social power is so much more complex than that. Interestingly, the book seems to recognize this sometimes, except when it forgets itself and wants to beat us on the head with its Message.
Then there is the book’s incoherent attitude towards money. In trying to convince Casey to get authors to rep dying companies, her boss tells her cynically, “You’d be surprised what people are willing to do when you put enough money on the table.” And, for most of the authors, they agree to the deal realizing that they are being used, but wanting the money for a noble cause (taking care of an ailing mother, opening an animal shelter, etc.).
But then Casey goes to meet her literary hero, also the book’s villain, and hears him speak at a book festival:
Beyond the obvious problems of his sick wife’s medical bills, Julian didn’t appear to be motivated by money — a sure sign that he’d grown up with a fair amount of it.
So, we are selling out if we need some money and are willing to work for it … but not wanting to make money is also, it’s implied, a sign of culpable privilege. It sounds like we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Reminds me of that scene in Time Bandits where Robin Hood and his men are giving bags of gold to a line of poor people. As soon as anyone receives his gold, he takes a few steps crying out, “I’m rich!” … until the next Merry Man punches him in the face and takes the bag away again because, after all, he is now rich, and must be punished.
Speaking of the book festival, when Casey first arrives there,
The crowd at the fair was mixed in the way of gender, and about as mixed in skin color as, say, a gallon drum of vanilla ice cream.
Now, I have never been to the country’s biggest annual book fair (because it’s for actual, published authors). So maybe this racial critique is true. But it feels made-up.
At the one writer’s convention I attended, we had a mix of races, ages, both sexes. The keynote speaker was a woman of color. She got up and told us that when she got to grad school, she found out that all her favorite books from childhood (which included some of my favorites, such as the Chronicles of Narnia), “were racist.” She then showed us this hurtful graphic:
The stats themselves are disturbing, but so is the presentation. In this picture, the kid that looks most like one of my kids (the kid on right) is a horrible little narcissist, reading books for the sole purpose of seeing himself reflected in them. It’s assumed he identifies with any white character in any book, regardless of whether that character is, say, out in space or living 1000 years ago, as long as the character is white … but he can’t identify with a main character of color. Apparently this kid doesn’t want to read about anyone who isn’t racially like himself. Sounds exciting. I guess he is not making the literary choices that I made as a kid, which was to seek out books about Native American kids and passionately wish I could be one.
Meanwhile, the bunny rabbit is joyfully reading a book about himself. I can’t believe that I have to point this out, but … animals don’t read? So, obviously, animal characters are intended to be relatable all children? So, even if we are going to make a chart showing which races are represented in a given year in children’s books, animals should not be on there? Because they are not an interest group in competition with kids of color? But our keynote speaker thought they were. She noted with an eye roll that there were even “more animals” than black children in 2015 children’s books.
I don’t think the most important thing about a book is the color of its characters, readers, or author. Even so, I can understand why we might want more different colors and cultures in children’s books. A book is more than a mirror, but not less than one.
That said, this information could have been presented in a form that didn’t demonize the white kid or imply that kids only want to read about themselves. It could have been presented as a pie chart. Or the graphic could have had a variety of different children, gathered around, reading all the books that are there. That would have been more like real life. The animal books, if they were included at all, should have gone into each category. Also, there are tons of books with a multiracial cast. I’m not sure how this chart handled those, but I can guess.
As it is, the message I got from the keynote speech (not, thankfully, from the whole conference) was this:
“So that readers of color don’t feel left out, we need more books starring characters of color. [So far so good.] But it’s stupid when we have white writers writing about characters of color. [OK, possibly.] Wouldn’t it make more sense to have people write about their own culture?”
Yes, perhaps, with the caveat that writers usually write far beyond their own experience, and that this is in fact a critical part of the writing process and the reading adventure. Also, it’s a fallacy that no writer can really identify with any person who is not of their own tribe. Taking this logic to its conclusion, the only thing anyone can really write with honesty is autobiography. Say goodbye to fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction.
It was a weird feeling being walked through this logic. While I didn’t disagree with the intermediate steps, after doing the math, the unavoidable conclusion is that I am not allowed to write anything any more because I am the wrong color. There are already way too many characters “like me” out there, and I am not allowed to write about anyone who’s not “like me.” (Bwa ha ha … of course, little do they know how weird I am! There is no one like me in the world!)
So, yeah, my experience of a writer’s conference was emphatically not a tub of vanilla ice cream. More like a “Stop writing, white author.”
Ahem. Back to A Lady’s Guide.
Susan says forgiveness is just a philosophical construction anyway, a con put in place by those in power against those who have no power, so that the responsibility of coming to terms with bad shit keeps falling to the latter.
So instead I believe in forgiverness, which to me means waiting for these a**holes who f*cked me up to take some responsibility for their actions. And I, in order to make this practice copacetic, will have to in turn approach those with whom I grievously f*cked, bowing my head and admitting that I, too must take responsibility, and no, I don’t want their forgiveness; I’m just coming around to own up to what I did. If they forgive me, great. But that’s not the point.
What a strange mixture of insight and incoherence.
First, note the assumption that there are only two kinds of people in this world: those who “have power,” and those who don’t. That these categories never shift. That sin is never committed by those who have less power.
But the really odd thing is that this book, and even this passage, does seem to understand the need for forgiveness. Casey realizes that she has wronged other people. There are several relationships in the book where, indeed, she does need to be forgiven in order for the relationship to proceed.
I think at the bottom of this passage is a misunderstanding of what forgiveness means. Susan (and Casey) seem to think it means passing over wrongdoing, doing nothing about it, not calling the person to account. Offering forgiveness to those who have not repented. That is not what it means, at least not in Biblical categories.
Casey realizes that forgiveness without repentance won’t do, because in the very next paragraph she describes her own need to repent to those she has wronged (she calls it “taking responsibility.”) But then she adds, “I don’t want their forgiveness.” This might be true in the case of some people, who are enemies, whom, after repenting, she might have no desire to see again. But I can’t believe it’s true about her best friend, or about her love interest. The whole point of forgiveness is so that the relationship can continue. This is why it’s not just about power. Every person, powerful or not, has intimate relationships that they need to continue long-term. Every person wrongs people within those intimate relationships. Therefore, every relationship has to proceed on forgiveness if it’s not going to stall out.
And In Conclusion
So, I’m not quite sure how to land this plane. Lady’s Guide was a fine book, well-written, lots of insight about the little things plus some big lies about the bigger ones. I went back and forth between feeling that the book loved me (I’m a woman, an author, an introvert) and that it hated me (I’m white though not wealthy, a Christian, and a social conservative).
I guess the best way to sum it is up is that my reaction, on nearly every page, was,
Philanthropic: Not in the sense of charity, but in the literal sense of loving + people. The opposite, in other words, of mis-anthropic.
Of the decade: The decade is drawing to a close, so everything we post in the next few days can legitimately be called of the decade! What a fun opportunity.
At Christmastime, Christians like to quote Isaiah. That’s because this Old Testament prophet has several passages that are clearly Messianic and, in retrospect, clearly prophesy Christ. Like many prophetic passages, they have at least a triple meaning. They are prophesies about God restoring Israel from the Babylonian exile … they are prophesies about the coming of Christ, which happened several hundred years later … and they are prophecies about the ultimate golden age of the world which Christ will eventually bring about (although not, as it turns out, immediately upon His first coming, though his life on earth did get the process started). All these things are telescoped together in a breathtaking poetic sweep.
This is the most often quoted passage from Isaiah at Christmastime:
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. …
Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom,
establishing it and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time and on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.
Isaiah 9:2, 5 – 7, New International Version
This is the go-to Christmas passage.
Another one that you sometimes hear quoted is this:
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him —
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of power,
the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord —
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
and the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the hole of the cobra,
and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Isaiah 11:1 – 9, NIV
There. That ought to keep you going for days.
But Isaiah is a big book (66 chapters), and these two passages are only from the beginning of it. Tomorrow I will post some lesser-known quotes from Isaiah that are among my favorites.
In the meantime, Merry Christmas! “God bless us, every one!”
Apollyon does NOT like people. He is the ultimate misanthrope.
Apollyon: Where have you come from?
Christian: From the City of Destruction.
Apollyon: By this I perceive that you are one of my subjects. For I am the Prince of that city. Why then are you running away from your prince?
Christian: I was indeed born in your dominions. But I have given my allegiance to another, who is the King of Princes. How can I now, with fairness, go back on this? … Besides, to tell you the truth, I like his service better than yours.
Apollyon: You have already been unfaithful to him. You fell in the Slough of Despond. You slept, and let fall your parchment. And in all you say and do, you are inwardly desirous of vain-glory.
Christian: Too well I know it. Yet the King whom I serve is merciful and ready to forgive.
Apollyon: I am the enemy of this King. I hate his person, his laws and his people. Give him the slip, and work for me, and your wages shall be doubled.
Christian: I know your wages, you destroying Apollyon. They are not such as a man can live on.
Adapted from Dangerous Journey, US. ed., Eerdmans, 2012
G.K. Chesterton has addressed the important question of what paganism really is and how it relates to being human in his book The Everlasting Man. So I was going to do a brand-new post about paganism drawing on that book. I was going to discuss how not everything in pagan practice is what we would strictly call religion, because it includes local history, genealogy, cosmology, entertainment, medicine, etc., etc. I was going to mention that all human beings need rituals, ways of dealing with illness, ways to mark the seasons, times of mourning and times of play, that literally every human practice was developed first by pagans and blah blah blah.
But I wasn’t able to get access to G.K. Chesterton’s book so as to write a brand-new post on all of this. Besides, conveniently, I have already written one.
Several years ago now, I found
myself sitting in a house in a jungle somewhere in Southeast Asia, among a
small ethnic group whose name has been redacted so I can write about them. Although I knew Christian believers in that
group, on this night I was sitting across from a devotee of the local
We sat cross-legged on the ironwood floor, and he had a cigarette pack on the floor in front of him. He was very passionate about our topic of discussion. He didn’t raise his voice, but I could tell he was worked up. Whenever he was making an especially important point, he would pick up the cigarette pack and slam it down again.
He spoke thus:
“Don’t ever let anyone tell you
that we [of this local religion] don’t believe in God. That’s a slander. We do
(slam) believe in God. But we also
(slam) believe in (slam) His bureaucrats.”
This is a very Southeast Asian view of the spiritual world: the heavenly bureaucracy. You can see it presented visually in some Hindu temples that resemble a tall, pointy mountain, and this mountain is covered with little niches, and in each niche is a statue of a divine being. They are not placed in there randomly. There is a place for each of them, and each in its place.
This view is also reflected in the
governing structure of the country in which I was sitting at the time. At the
top is the President. Below him (or her) are the governors of the provinces.
Below these, in descending order, are five or six additional ranks, each
responsible over a smaller geographical area, until you get down to Village
Head (or mayor). And below him, in each village, are the heads of families.
It’s an elaborate bureaucratic system, but everyone knows the names of all the
ranks. They have to deal with them daily. And of course, you always show
respect to anyone with a rank anywhere above your own.
My pagan friend went on,
“Think about it. You wouldn’t expect
the President to attend your wedding. Maybe not even the Governor. But you
might get [the next rank down], or [the rank below that]. Now think about how
many weddings must take place on a given day, all over the world. God can’t possibly
be at all of them. He would send His bureaucrats.”
His point was that showing
disrespect to the local spiritual “bureaucrats” would be akin to dishonoring
Now, clearly this person’s concept of God was anthropomorphic. He thought of Him as a big President in the sky, not omnipresent, not capable of (or even probably interested in) attending all the weddings. However, my main point with this story is that this person, out in the jungle, subscribing to a spiritual view of the world that most readers of this blog might find strange or even comical, had a concept of God as distinct from lesser gods. As he would be the first to tell you, he knew about and honored God.
This people group had no problem grasping the concept of “the Creator.” They had a beautiful, polysyllabic name for Him [again, redacted in exchange for the privilege of writing about these folks]. When individuals from this ethnic group became Christians, that name was the name they used in their prayers.
Local Religions Ground but also Divide
I have a lot of sympathy for local deities and mythologies. It is good for people to have their own culture and mythology, to feel grounded in something to which they legitimately belong. But in a cosmopolitan culture (and we are not the first cosmopolitan culture to discover this) there is a problem with just following our ancestors’ lead for the totality of our religion. The problem is that ancestral religion and identity politics don’t mix. I probably don’t need to elaborate on this. You can find your own examples of the impossible dilemmas it creates. The world is bristling with them.
United by One God
I could probably write another
1,000 words about this problem and cast no more light on it. So instead, listen to the words of Paul,
Apostle to the Gentiles, as he spoke to a group of sophisticated pagan
“People of Athens, I see that you are very religious.
For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even
found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an Unknown God.’ Now what you worship
as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
“The God who made the world and
everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples
built by hands. And He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything,
because He Himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one
man He made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and
He determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should
(You wouldn’t think “He determined
the exact places where they would live” is very surprising, but I have heard
that it brought one group of native translators to tears. They had thought that
no one, human or divine, cared about them; that they had been forgotten.)
“God did this so that people would
seek Him and perhaps reach out and find Him, though He is not far from each one
of us. For in Him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own
poets have said, ‘We are His offspring.’”
(By the way, notice how he alludes to the
wisdom already found in their own culture. But Paul, who was bi-cultural, isn’t
finished. Now he is going to call them to a purer, more direct worship of the
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent. For He has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all people by raising him from the dead.”
Men of Athens, I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘to an unknown god.’ Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.