Tag Archives: commonplace book

“TEACH US HOW SHORT OUR LIFE IS”

Today is my birthday.

Fifty-six years ago this afternoon I was born in the metropolis of Athens, Tennessee right in the middle of the McMinn County High School Homecoming Parade.  Ever the multitasker, my blessed mother spent the early hours of her labor making place cards for the evening’s alumni banquet.  My father, who was not present during the birth–men didn’t do that sort of thing in those days–stopped by to meet me and still made it on time to the banquet, along with the place cards and a fistful of cigars.

I’ve spent part of the day telling myself that fifty-six isn’t that old.  Age-wise, I’m in the same neighborhood as George Clooney, Bono, and Antonio Banderas, although I think they’re rather better preserved than I.  I’ve spent the rest of the day thinking that fifty-six is ancient and marveling at how fast time goes by.  Fifty-six is not ancient–that’s the influence of our youth-obsessed culture talking–but there is no doubt that our days fly by.  Furthermore, being reminded of that fact is one of the best reasons to keep track of our birthdays.

Seneca the Younger

Seneca the Younger

In saying this I am reminded of a quote from my commonplace book; I’ve shared before but I think it’s worth repeating.  It comes from the ancient Roman author Seneca the Younger (4 B.C. – 65 A.D.).  A philosopher, statesman, and playwright, Lucius Annaeus Seneca was one of Rome’s leading intellectuals during the first century after the birth of Christ.  He was also as pagan as they come.  The doctrine of common grace tells us that God causes his rain to fall on the just and the unjust, and thanks to His general revelation we can often glean wisdom even from those who reject wisdom’s Author.  I think the quote below is a case in point.

Listen to Seneca’s observation in De Brevitate VitaeOn the Brevity of Life:

The majority of mortals . . . complain bitterly of the spitefulness of Nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live. . . . It is not that we have a short span of time, but that we waste much of it.  But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing.  So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but we are wasteful of it.

Read woodenly, Seneca seems to be denying one of the most undeniable declarations of Scripture, namely that our lives are short.  Time and again, we hear the biblical writers remind us that our lives are no more than a “breath,” a “passing shadow,” a “puff of smoke” (Job 7:7, Psalm 144:4, James 4:14).  But far from dismissing this truth, he is calling us to confront a more haunting one: when our lives are at an end, it won’t be the length of our time on earth but the portion of it that we have squandered that grieves us most.

“Teach us how short our life is, so that we may become wise.”–Psalm 90:12

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: SENECA ON THE BREVITY OF LIFE (RE-POST)

I hope that each of you had a wonderful Christmas.  For me, the pleasure and excitement of the Christmas celebration gives way all too quickly to the introspection of the year’s end.  (You know it wouldn’t be this way if we were living in colonial America.  Until 1752, almost everyone in England and her colonies observed New Year’s Day on March 25th, not the 1st of January.)

At any rate, the close of the year always makes me more somber than giddy. Unlike the revelers who will throng Times Square in a few days, I have always thought of New Year’s Eve as a time for reflection, a time to evaluate the past twelve months and take stock of the course of my life.

Seneca the YoungerThese reflections take me back to my commonplace book, and to a quote from the ancient Roman author Seneca the Younger (4 B.C. – 65 A.D.). I shared this quote a year ago, but I think it’s worth circulating again. Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a philosopher, statesman, and playwright, and by all accounts one of Rome’s leading intellectuals during the first century after the birth of Christ. He was also as pagan as they come.

I have quoted primarily from Christian writers in sharing passages from my commonplace book, but that’s not because we have nothing to learn from unbelievers. The doctrine of common grace tells us that God causes his rain to fall on the just and the unjust, and thanks to His general revelation we can often glean wisdom even from those who reject wisdom’s Author. I think the quote below is a case in point.

Listen to Seneca’s observation in De Brevitate Vitae (On the Brevity of Life):

The majority of mortals . . . complain bitterly of the spitefulness of Nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live. . . . It is not that we have a short span of time, but that we waste much of it. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing. So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but we are wasteful of it.

Read woodenly, Seneca seems to be denying one of the most undeniable declarations of Scripture, namely that our lives are short. Time and again, we hear the biblical writers remind us that our lives are no more than a “breath,” a “passing shadow,” a “puff of smoke” (Job 7:7, Psalm 144:4, James 4:14). But far from dismissing this truth, he is calling us to confront a more haunting one: when our lives are at an end, it won’t be the length of our time on earth but the portion of it that we have squandered that grieves us most.

At its best, to quote historian David Harlan, the study of history invites us to join a “conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.” From across the centuries, the pagan Roman admonishes us: “It is not that we have a short span of time, but that we waste much of it. . . . The life we receive is not short, but we make it so.” Not a bad reminder as another year comes to a close.

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: TAYLOR AND POSTMAN ON THE POWER OF STORY

It’s been a long time since I shared something from my commonplace book, so I thought I would pass along three extended quotes that I recorded just last week. For you new readers, a commonplace book is essentially a quote journal, and in keeping one I am following a practice that was common in the 17th-19th centuries. Mark Edmondson calls it a “life thickener.” I keep one in order to be more intentional about living an examined life. In its pages I write out the concepts and ideas, arguments and assertions that I want to reflect on regularly as I live out my vocation.

The quotes below all have to do with the power of story. You may find their assertions obvious, but I’ve come to them slowly. If I’m ever asked to write the history of my life, I’ve already picked out a title. It’s going to be “Well Duh: The Autobiography of a Slow Learner.” I can’t even begin to list all the ways that this applies to me. But when it comes to my failure to appreciate the power of story, I know my thick-headedness isn’t unique within the Academy. The Academy was where I learned it.

For most of the time since Herodotus took up his pen, historians have been story tellers. Even as history evolved into an academic discipline in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many of the most respected academic historians were still masters of narrative. In the archives they were meticulous scholars, painstakingly poring over ancient manuscripts, but when they returned to their offices they became writers, aspiring to craft true stories that would make the past “come alive” for their readers.

This ideal did not fare well in the twentieth-century Academy, however. The reasons for this are complicated and debatable, so I’m not going to pretend to tackle them here. Suffice it to say that narrative history gradually fell out of favor. When I began graduate school in the early 1980s, I quickly learned that it was viewed as naïve, outdated, and amateurish. It’s taken me nearly three decades to unlearn that lesson.

Wheaton College’s fall semester began this morning, and in the first meeting of my U. S. history class, I tried to alert my students to the power of story. We’ll return to that idea in our next class meeting, and my plan is to begin our time together with the first passage below. It comes from an essay by retired Bethel College English professor Daniel Taylor titled “In Praise of Stories.” (If you’d like to read it yourself, you can find it in The Christian Imagination, an anthology edited by my Wheaton College colleague Leland Ryken.) Over the coming weeks I’ll bring in the two quotes that follow. Both are from a short review essay in the Atlantic by the late Neil Postman titled “Learning by Story.” See what you think of them.

“We are drawn to a story because our own life is a story and we are looking for help. Stories give us help in many ways. They tell us we are not alone, and that what has happened to us has happened first to others and that they made it through. They also help us see, however, that our own story is not big enough, that the world is larger and more varied than our limited experience. They help us be more fully human by stimulating and appealing to all that we are—mind, body, spirit. They help by calling us into relationship—with other people, with other places and times, with creation, and with God. They help by giving us courage to be the kinds of characters we should be in our own stories, and by making us laugh, empathize, and exercise judgment. But most of all, stories help us by telling us the truth, without which we cannot live.”—Daniel Taylor

*******

“Human beings require stories to give meaning to the facts of their existence. For example, ever since we can remember, all of us have been telling ourselves stories about ourselves, composing life-giving autobiographies of which we are the heroes and heroines. If our stories are coherent and plausible and have continuity, they will help us to understand why we are here, and what we need to pay attention to and what we may ignore. A story provides a structure for our perceptions; only through stories do facts assume any meaning whatsoever. . . . Without air, our cells die. Without a story, our selves die.”—Neil Postman

*******

“Nations need stories, just as people do, to provide themselves with a sense of continuity, or identity. But a story does even more than that. Without stories as organizing frameworks we are swamped by the volume of our own experience, adrift in a sea of facts. Merely listing them cannot help us, because without some tale to guide us there is no limit to the list. A story gives us direction by providing a kind of theory about how the world works—and how it needs to work if we are to survive. Without such a theory, such a tale, people have no idea what to do with information. They cannot even tell what is information and what is not.”—Neil Postman

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK–“RESIDENT ALIENS”

It’s been a long time since I shared with you from my commonplace book (or “life thickener” (to borrow a phrase from Mark Edmundson’s book Why Teach?), so let’s correct that right now.

As I was chewing on Andrew Delbanco’s argument on The Real American Dream (you can read my reflections here), my mind kept returning to the book Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, by Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon.  (I’ll explain why shortly.)  Resident Aliens was one of the first books that I copied from into my commonplace book, and I think it still wins the prize for the most entries.

Resident Aliens

I first came across it while I was working on my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History, and the authors’ concept of Christians as “aliens” resonated strongly with the self-conscious sense of pilgrimage that I was getting to know in the writings of William Bradford.   I’m confident that I wouldn’t agree with Hauerwas and Willimon (both professors at Duke Divinity School) in all the finer points of theology and ethics, but I consider Resident Aliens wonderfully stimulating and challenging.

Below are just a few sample quotes to give you a taste of the work.  Andrew Delbanco argues in The Real American Dream that over the past half century the Self has replaced either God or Nation as the focal point of the American story.  Listen to Hauerwas and Willimon on American individualism:

* “The primary entity of democracy is the individual, the individual for whom society exists mainly to assist assertions of individuality.”

* Our society, in brief, is built on the presumption that the good society is that in which each person gets to be his or her own tyrant.”

* “Our society is a vast supermarket of desire in which each of us is encouraged to stand alone and go out and get what the world owes us.”

* “Most modern ethics begin from the Enlightenment presupposition of the isolated, heroic self, the allegedly rational individual who stands alone and decides and chooses. . . . Growing up, becoming a mature, functioning adult is thus defined as becoming someone who has no communal, traditionalist, familial impediments.”

What I found even more haunting in The Real American Dream was Delbanco’s lament that we Americans now tend to live our lives “locked in a soul-starving present.”  At its best, the church should offer a  striking contrast to such debilitating present-mindedness.  Hear Hauerwas and Willimon:

“When we are baptized, we (like the first disciples) jump on a moving train.  As disciples, we do not so much accept a creed or come to a clear sense of self-understanding by which we know this or that with utter certitude.  We become part of a journey that began long before we got here and shall continue long after we are gone. . . . Faith begins, not in discovery, but in remembrance.  The story began without us, as a story of the peculiar way God is redeeming the world . . .”

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: SENECA ON THE SHORTNESS OF LIFE

In forty-eight hours another year will have come and gone, and that almost always puts me in a somber mood.  Unlike the revelers who will toot on their noisemakers in Times Square and elsewhere, I have always thought of New Year’s Eve as a time for reflection, a time to evaluate the past twelve months and take stock of the course of my life.  That tendency is even greater this year because my firstborn just got married on the 27th.  As I listened to my daughter and new son-in-law exchange their vows, one of the many thoughts that flooded my heart and mind during that brief moment was that it had been more than twenty-nine years since my wife and I repeated those same promises.  That’s just not possible—and yet it’s true.

These reflections take me back to my commonplace book, and to a quote from the ancient Roman author Seneca the Younger (4 B.C. – 65 A.D.).  A philosopher, statesman, and playwright, Lucius Annaeus Seneca was one of Rome’s leading intellectuals during the first century after the birth of Christ.  He was also as pagan as they come.  I have quoted primarily from Christian writers in sharing passages from my commonplace book, but that’s not because we have nothing to learn from unbelievers.  The doctrine of common grace tells us that God causes his rain to fall on the just and the unjust, and thanks to His general revelation we can often glean wisdom even from those who reject wisdom’s Author.  I think the quote below is a case in point.

Listen to Seneca’s observation in De Brevitate VitaeOn the Brevity of Life:

The majority of mortals . . . complain bitterly of the spitefulness of Nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live. . . . It is not that we have a short span of time, but that we waste much of it.  But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing.  So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but we are wasteful of it.

Read woodenly, Seneca seems to be denying one of the most undeniable declarations of Scripture, namely that our lives are short.  Time and again, we hear the biblical writers remind us that our lives are no more than a “breath,” a “passing shadow,” a “puff of smoke” (Job 7:7, Psalm 144:4, James 4:14).  But far from dismissing this truth, he is calling us to confront a more haunting one: when our lives are at an end, it won’t be the length of our time on earth but the portion of it that we have squandered that grieves us most.

At its best, to quote historian David Harlan, the study of history invites us to join a “conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.”  From across the centuries, the pagan Roman admonishes us: “It is not that we have a short span of time, but that we waste much of it. . . . The life we receive is not short, but we make it so.”  Not a bad reminder this New Year’s Eve.

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK–THE HISTORIAN’S VOCATION

Hello, All!

I have been away for far too long.  Somehow, the beginning of a new school year always seems to catch me off guard, as if I didn’t see it coming.  I have been struggling to get on top of things–trying to find the emotional and physical energy for the new year–and was also away for part of last week paying a visit to Little Rock, Arkansas.  I was down there to tape an interview for “Family Life Today” on my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.  It felt strange to be talking about Thanksgiving at the beginning of September, but I enjoyed the interview, and I also had the opportunity to experience some fine Arkansas cuisine–first at a restaurant named “Slim Chickens,” then at a swanky establishment called “The Whole Hog Cafe.”   Great beans and cole slaw.

At any rate, I’ve missed writing for you and hope to make more time for that from here on.  To get back into the swing of things, I thought I would share a favorite quote from my commonplace book.  My commonplace book is my “life thickener”–to use a phrase that I first heard from Mark Edmundson in his book Why Teach?  Writing in it helps me to slow down and reflect on enduring questions of calling and purpose, questions that are immensely important but too easily crowded out by the demands of daily life.

I like to re-read regularly the quotes that I have written down, especially at the beginning of each semester.  In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him.  He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth.”  In a figurative sense, my commonplace book embodies something like what Bonhoeffer was describing.  When I open its pages, I encounter numerous Christians who encourage me by reminding me of what is true.

Below is an example from someone you probably haven’t heard of unless you are an academic historian.  Arthur S. Link (1920-1998) was a long-time historian at Northwestern University and then at Princeton University, where he served for more than three decades.  During his lifetime, he was widely recognized as the leading authority on the presidency of Woodrow Wilson.  He edited Wilson’s personal papers and also authored a five-volume biography on the president.  Overall, Link wrote some thirty books, and along the way he twice won the Bancroft Prize, which is essentially the “book-of-the-year” award given annually by the American Historical Association.   In 1984 he received the highest honor that a U. S. historian can receive by being elected president of the that organization.

Link was also a man of faith.  In 1962, he wrote a piece for the journal Theology Today titled “The Historian’s Vocation.”  As you read the excerpt below, try to imagine such a nationally prominent, Ivy League professor making a similar claim in 2014.  In context, Link is reflecting on the difference that belief in God makes for the historian’s sense of vocation.

The historian will no longer say with Descartes, “cogito, ergo sum” [“I think, therefore I am”].  He will now say “Deus est, ergo sum” [“God exists, therefore I am”], ergo creation, being, truth, history.  Think what this means to the historian in so vital a matter as his methodology.  It means that historical truth exists not in his imagination or because of his whim, but because God himself, the Creator of the universe, has brought human history into being and has himself lived in human history.  Man, a finite creature, can know and understand truth only partially, imperfectly, corruptly, it may be.  But by God’s grace he can at least honor, respect, and treasure it.  That is to say, the historian, while readily acknowledging that only God knows all historical truth, can now affirm, profess, and confess that he stands in the presence of something far greater than himself, something that gives meaning to his life and work.

P. S.  In their book Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon write that “Christians can survive only by supporting one another through the countless small acts through which we tell one another that we are not alone, that God is with us.”  Thanks to the many of you who responded to my last post with kindness and encouragement.  I appreciated it greatly.

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: SEEING MORE CLEARLY WHOM WE SERVE

Sociologist Christian Smith–a believing scholar at Notre Dame, formerly at UNC–has spent most of his career systematically surveying American religious beliefs.  A prolific author, he is perhaps best known for his 2005 book (coauthored with Melinda L. Denton) Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Less well known outside academic circles is his 1998 study focused specifically on the values and beliefs of evangelical Christians in the U. S.–American Evangelicals: Embattled and Thriving.

The book’s title nicely captures its main argument.  After undertaking extensive polling and conducting thousands of interviews, Smith and his team of researchers concluded that American evangelicals were thriving  in large part because they were embattled.  Evangelicalism was growing rapidly, in other words, “very much because of and not in spite of its confrontation with modern pluralism.”  Evangelicals see themselves as taking part in an ongoing struggle with an unbelieving culture, Smith found, and that sense of struggle has given evangelicalism much of its religious strength.

The sense of cultural struggle Smith alludes to has surely had its benefits for the life of the mind.  Most notably, as Smith points out, it has kept American evangelicals from either blandly blending into the secular mainstream or wholly withdrawing into fundamentalist ghettos.  That’s a good thing.  But when it comes to our engagement with the past, our sense of being engaged in a cultural struggle has been a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, it has led countless believers to value the past, to believe that it is vitally important that American Christians not lose touch with their religious and national history.  Although we historians often bemoan our culture’s “chronological snobbery” and relentless present-mindedness, every time I attend a home-school gathering or speak to a private Christian school, I am reminded that there is an enormous population of American Christians who take history with the utmost seriousness.

On the other hand, the embattled mindset that Smith writes about has encouraged countless Christian leaders and thinkers to study the past with an agenda in mind.  The most influential contributors to the popular view that America was founded as a Christian nation are also among the most egregious practitioners of what I call the “history-as-ammunition” approach to the past.

Although their intentions may be honorable, those who adopt this strategy are more interested in proving points and winning arguments than in gaining greater understanding of a complex past.  They know in advance what they want to find in their investigations, and they can already envision how their anticipated “discoveries” will reinforce values that they already hold.  I cannot overstate the costs of such an approach.  When we employ the history-as-ammunition approach, we predictably find what we are looking for, but we rob history of its power in the process. History loses its potential to surprise and unnerve us, ultimately to teach us anything at all. We learn nothing beyond what we already “know.

Conceiving the Christian CollegeHere is an extended quote from my commonplace book that calls Christians to a different standard.  The author is Duane Litfin, who for seventeen years (1993-2010) was president of my current institution, Wheaton College.  The passage is from his 2004 work Conceiving the Christian College.  In context, Litfin is exploring the possible motivations for Christian scholarship and challenging Christians engaged in the life of the mind “to see more fully whom we serve.”  Listen to what he has to say:

I am highly motivated to be about the business of cultivating our minds and our learning, but it seems to me that our first motives must be intrinsic rather than instrumental.  In other words, we must learn to love God with our minds, to use our artistic gifts for Christ, to embody him in serving our neighbor and our society.  But our primary motive for doing so must not be the transformation of our culture.  Our prime motive must be obedience to Jesus Christ.  Then, if the living Christ graciously chooses to use our efforts to mold our culture into more of what he wants it to be, we will be grateful.  On the other hand, if he does not so choose–and let us be clear about it, he does not always so choose–and the culture remains resistant, even hostile, to our Christian influence, we must not be cast down.  Our motivation is not dependent on the acceptance and approval of our culture; in the end we care preeminently about the approval of Jesus Christ.  Our goal is to love God with our minds, whether the culture comes to appreciate our efforts or not.