Planning Like a Monk: Monk Manual Planner Full Review!

20200607_1547042622351051827161473.jpg

“IT’S ABOUT TIME, DAVE!” (I know, right?)

About 8 months ago, I wrote a review of my experience using the Monk Manual journal pages that were available for free from MonkManual.com, and promised at that time that if you readers would help me earn a free full journal, I’d come back with a full review. Well, your patience has paid off because here we are!

This review is long overdue, but I hope it will be helpful to you if you’re considering purchasing the Monk Manual journal (plus, I have a small discount code available, if that helps you decide!). So let’s get into it!

The Initial Experience

20191130_1715213783327958476517274.jpg

First things first: the journal itself. The packaging is pristine, and just the experience of unboxing the journal is a delight. You can always tell when a company loves what they do, when they take care to make all the little details special. The MM folks have done that for sure.

The journal is well-constructed with a leather-like feel to the hardbound cover–smooth and cool to the touch with a green elastic band to hold it closed, similar to a Moleskine journal. The paper is a thick, acid-free stock, and the printing is clear, clean, and light but fully legible. (“Light” may not seem like a good thing, but the aesthetic of the journal lends itself toward subtlety, so from a design standpoint, it makes total sense.)

From a purely tactile standpoint, this journal is delightful to use. The Monk Manual crew have taken the time to make sure they are shipping a quality product. But as with many things, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.

A Counter-Intuitive Solution to a Common Problem

The Monk Manual journal includes some introductory material explaining how you can use the different sections of the pages, and provides some prompts for how to make the journal work for you. But one of the things that sets the Monk Manual apart from other journals/planners is how the pages are arranged.

Typical planners are organized like a calendar: a monthly 1-2 page calender view, then the Week 1 view, followed by Days 1-7, with the pages laid out chronologically. At the end of the first 7 daily pages, you might have another weekly page, followed by the next set of days, and so on. But if you’re like me, this type of journal may only get half-filled, if you miss days, forget to fill things in, or get off track and come back later. The Monk Manual recognizes this problem and provides a unique solution.

20200607_1546575926340300818921935.jpg

As you can see, the journal has 3 ribbon bookmarks attached to the binding. That’s because the pages are arranged into 3 sections: a section of Monthly Pages, a section of Weekly Pages, and a section of Daily Pages. At first, I was a little annoyed that I’d have to check 3 different sections from time to time, rather than just flip a few pages. However, time would provide the answer for why this type of design is brilliant.

The Monk Manual is advertised as a 3-month journal, but I’ve had mine for about 6 months and I still have lots of pages left to use. Rather than leaving dozens of blank pages for missed days, as I would in a typical journal, I was able to just pick up and start using the daily pages right where I left off. Plus, since the Monthly pages have about 6 weeks of “blanks,” I turned the last empty monthly page I had into a “June/July” section, so I could wring out every bit of usefulness from this journal.

 

 

The bottom-line is, the makers of Monk Manual understand that sometimes you miss some days, maybe some weeks, and rather than “penalize” you by forcing you to skip empty pages, you can just pick up where you left off with minimal effort. While there are some unfinished days scattered throughout my journal, I’ve been able to get back on track with using it in a fairly painless manner.

In a sense, I think that’s part of the philosophy behind the Monk Manual system: you aren’t aiming for perfection, but progress. This journal is designed to allow for those rough patches but still give you the opportunity to pick it up again and keep going.

My One Unresolved “Complaint”

20200607_1548132828381821527434260.jpg

That brings me to the one unresolved complaint I have–the Monk Manual, for all of its pleasing design and well-thought-out organization, still doesn’t seem capable of doing the work for me. Those folks over at MM refused to include the self-discipline I needed when they sent me the box with my journal. That’s so frustrating!

Okay, joking aside, that’s really the only downside I can think of with this journal–I still have to do the work myself. As I noted previously, you get out of it what you put into it, and when I’ve been able to devote a few minutes at the beginning and end of each day to plan and review my day, I’ve found it to be a helpful way to think through my schedule and priorities. And then, during those weeks and months when I didn’t make that time, the journal just sat there on the shelf, waiting for me to come back and pick up again.

When I was doing some cleaning in my home office last month, I found a box that contained at least 5 old journals/notebooks, each of which having no more than 20 pages of writing in them. The bulk of those journals were blank pages, because too often over the years, I’d start something, get distracted, and then never pick it up again.

I was worried that it would be the same with the Monk Manual–once it had been months since I filled out a page, I didn’t think I’d really be able to start again. But honestly, it was pretty simple to just turn the page and start fresh. And so I’ve been back to using it for about 2 weeks, and once I run through the last of my daily pages (because I have the highest percentage of those left), I’m going to pick up another Monk Manual and keep it going.

Is it Worth It? Can You Work It?

20200614_1559555334461993629374314.jpg

Admittedly, the Monk Manual isn’t cheap. You could pick up a blank journal at the store or online for a fraction of the cost. Is it really worth more than $35 to get this particular journal?

In a word: yes. I think the Monk Manual is worth every penny.

The materials are quality, the book is well-constructed, and the finished product is pleasing to the touch. The organization of the pages and the question prompts that are provided are unlike anything I’ve seen in a typical dayplanner/organizer. I’ve benefitted from using this journal, and from being able to come back to it after a 4-month gap.

My only recommendation is that you try to break out of the “90-day planner” headspace when you use it. Yes, that’s how it’s marketed, but honestly, I think it may be helpful to fill out all 6-weeks of each monthly page, because if you’re anything like me, you’ll need a little bit of forgetfulness-margin so that you don’t run out of monthly pages with a ton of dailies left.

Interested in the Monk Manual? Here’s A Special Offer for my Readers…

The folks at Monk Manual have agreed to re-up my affiliate link for another month, so if you use the code DAVEM at checkout, you get 10% off your total purchase from Monk Manual, and I get a small percentage back to me.

If you’re on the fence about this, I would encourage you to give it a shot (and not just because I have the affiliate link there). It’s a really neat journal, and I’m enjoying using it myself.

Once more, if you’re ready to check it out, use this link to get your discount and to let the folks at MM know you heard it from me.

And if you DO order a journal, comment below and let me know what you think! Thanks!

Friday Five: The First 5 Books I’ve Finished So Far in 2020!

white book in white table near yellow wall
Photo by Stas Knop on Pexels.com

Happy Friday, faithful reader! Wanted to take a minute and share what I’ve been reading so far this year. Maybe you’ll find something new to add to your hold list or Amazon cart!

=====

The Whole Christ, by Sinclair Ferguson

This book may be an early candidate for top-five reads of the year, because I think it’s one of my favorite books of the last few years. Ferguson uses an event from church history called the Marrow Controversy in the 18th century as the springboard for a discussion of the key theological ideas involved: the relationship between grace and works, assurance of salvation, and the believer’s union with Christ. Every time I sat down to read a bit more of this book, I came away encouraged. Ferguson’s insightful commentary on the facets of this semi-obscure theological debate helped me to sharpen how I think and speak about the love of God in Christ Jesus. I would strongly, strongly encourage you to pick this one up.

A Great and Glorious Game, by A. Bartlett Giamatti

This slim volume of baseball essays by Bart Giamatti, former Harvard president and commissioner of Major League Baseball until his untimely death, is a quick and delightful read. Giamatti’s command of imagery and metaphor was masterful. His essays, especially the most famous entry “The Green Fields of the Mind,” are like rich dark chocolate for the lover of words–roll it around on your tongue a bit, read a few lines out loud, savor the sound of them. Even if you don’t like baseball, you will appreciate the deft and delicate intricacies of Giamatti’s writing.

The Memory Police, by Yoko Ogawa

On an unnamed island ruled by an oppressive regime, random things are suddenly outlawed and immediately begin to disappear and be forgotten. So begins the plot of Yoko Ogawa’s novel The Memory Police, and when I first heard the concept, I immediately put the book on my library hold list. In the end, I found the book to be enjoyable but not as moving as I had expected. I’m not sure if that’s due to occasional stilted writing (perhaps an issue of translation from the original Japanese?) or because it felt very self-consciously *literary,* and I find myself enjoying high-brow literary fiction less and less lately. In any case, the concept is intriguing, and the climax of the book is quite unexpected as it dips its toe into urban fantasy. If you’re interested, it’s worth your time.

The Prayer that Turns the World Upside Down, by Al Mohler

If you are a Christian of almost any tradition, you were likely taught the “Lord’s Prayer” (a/k/a the “Model Prayer”) at some point in your theological training. Many of us who grew up in the church have recited it from early childhood. This level of familiarity might often cause us to gloss over this short but powerful prayer without considering its ramifications. In this fine little book, Dr. Mohler works through each phrase of the prayer and spells out some of its world-shaking implications. The writing is very accessible and approachable, and while some of the content may seem like review, it’s all worth reviewing. The things we’ve known the longest are often the things we need to be reminded of most often.

Budgeting for a Healthy Church, by Jamie Dunlop

Truth be told, this isn’t the type of book I’d have picked up in years past. It’s only on my shelf because it was a giveaway book at last year’s Southern Baptist Convention, and you know how much I love free books. Obviously, being a lay elder at my church makes a book on church budgets a bit more meaningful to me than it would otherwise; much more so that I providentially have this book on my radar as our church is potentially merging with another local church, so the discussion of church budgets is a pertinent one for us. That said, I was surprised how much I enjoyed and benefitted from this short and practical volume. Even if you are “just” a church member in the pews, I think you’ll also benefit from Dunlop’s thoughtful discussion of the “why” of church budgets and his framing of how our church budget shows what our local church values. I definitely recommend this one, especially for anyone involved with church finances or who is interested in thinking through the topic.

=====

There you go, folks. My first five completed books of the year!

What have you been reading lately? Let me know in the comments below!

The4thDave’s 2019 Reading List!

black and white books education facts
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It’s a yearly tradition, so I can’t resist. Here’s a quick list of the books I finished* in 2019:

[*Since I always have several books in-progress, I count finishes and not complete reads in my yearly lists.]

January
>>Somewhere The Band is Playing – Ray Bradbury (novella)
>>The Tech-wise Family – Andy Crouch
>>Them – Ben Sasse
>>All Things for Good – Thomas Watson
>>Family Shepherd — Voddie Baucham

February
>>R.U.R. – the brothers Cajek (play)
>>Extreme Ownership – Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
>>The Gospel and Personal Evangelism – Mark Dever
>>Digital Minimalism – Cal Newport
>>Divorce and Remarriage: A Permanence View – Wingard, Eliff, Chrisman, Burchett
>>Understanding the Lord’s Supper – Bobby Jamieson

March
>>Evangelism – Mack Stiles
>>Mortal Engines – Phillip Reeve
>>Forever and a Day – Anthony Horiwitz

April
>>The Dichotomy of Leadership – Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
>>Civil War: Spiderman – various (graphic novel)
>>The Spy who Came In From The Cold – John Le Carre
>>Family-Focused Faith – Voddie Baucham

May
>>Competing Spectacles – Tony Reinke
>>A Murder of Quality – John LeCarre
>>The Looking-Glass War – John LeCarre
>>What is a Healthy Church Member? – Thabiti Anyabwile
>>Side by Side – Ed Welch

June
>>Enjoying God — RC Sproul
>>Deep Work — Cal Newport
>>Bad Blood – John Carryrou

July
>> Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – John LeCarre
>> Fellowship with God – Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

August
>>The Go-Getter – Peter Kyne
>>Discipline Equals Freedom Field Manual – Jocko Willink

September
>> The Apostles Creed – Al Mohler

October
>>Prayer – John Onwuchekwa
>>The Church – Mark Dever

November
>>Essential Readings on Evangelism – SBTS
>>The Need – Hannah Phillips

Did Not Finish (DNF)
August – Watchmen: The Annotated Edition – Moore/Gibbons (While the annotations were fascinating, this critically-acclaimed graphic novel was just too dark and depressing for me to enjoy, so I bailed about a quarter of the way through.)

=====

Total Read: 35, including a novella, a play, and a graphic novel

The Split: 11 fiction, 24 non-fiction (16 specifically theological books)

Most Read: John LeCarre and Jocko Willink, each with 3; Mark Dever, with 2

Top Five Recommendations from My 2019 Reading:

  • Extreme Ownership, by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin — This memoir/motivational book by former Navy SEALs sounds a little more Rex-kwan-do than it really is. Willink and Babin use real-world military experience as metaphors for best-practices of personal responsibility and individual discipline. While the book is very intentionally geared toward the business world (both men are now corporate consultants in their civilian careers), the ideas and insights are definitely applicable. Willink’s follow-ups are also worth a look, if you appreciate his style of writing, but this one is the must-read of his work.
  • The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, by John LeCarre — LeCarre is rightly considered one of the best spy-genre writers of the 20th century, and this story is one of his best, full of intrigue, betrayal, love, deception, and a moving consideration of the toll that even cold wars can take on the conscience. It’s not as flashy as one of Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories, but it’s certainly more thoughtful and substantial. The ending of Spy will stick with you long after you turn the last page. If you haven’t dug into this genre of fiction, this one is a great entrypoint.
  • Digital Minimalism, by Cal NewportI’ve written about his one pretty extensively already, so I won’t rehash it here. Suffice it to say, this one is a book that I’m glad I read and took summary notes on, because I want to keep coming back to Newport’s idea of intentional, limited digital technology use as a way to limit the negative effects of social media and online life.
  • Bad Blood, by John Carryrou — I don’t often read current-year exposes or true-crime non-fiction, but I first heard about the fascinating freefall of Theranos on a podcast early this year, and the story intrigued me enough to want to dive further in. Carryrou is a reporter who first broke the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, one of the biggest scams in American medicine and technology in the last few years. He details the story of this brilliant young woman whose charisma and drive to succeed helped her to perpetuate a multi-million-dollar medical research scheme that eventually exploded in her face. Some of the events are so outlandish as to defy belief in even a fictional account. I really enjoyed this one. You will, too.
  • Competing Spectacles, by Tony ReinkeI’ve written about this one as well, so I’ll just reiterate that this book is an important one for our visual and digital age, because it not only addresses the artifice of digital spectacles, but it focuses on how it affects our hearts and souls as people made in the image of God. This theological aspect is something missing from many other analyses of the affect of screen culture on human life.

And as it happens, Competing Spectacles is the free audiobook for the month of January over at ChristianAudio.com, so if you are interested in checking it out, you should head over and sign up to get your free download. (No sponsorship/affiliate link there–I just found out about this today and wanted to share!)

=====

Your Turn!

What was the best book you read in 2019? Let us know in the comments!

 

Journal like a Monk: My Thoughts on Using the “Monk Manual” for 2 Weeks. [Updated w/ Discount Code!]

ballpen blank desk journal
Photo by Jessica Lewis on Pexels.com

[June 2020 Update: Full review of the entire journal available here!]

If you do much reading about productivity or personal/spiritual growth, keeping a journal or day-planner is often recommended for daily practice. Whether it’s bounded by 5-minute timeframes, uses bullets, helps you Get Things Done, or just records your prayers or Bible-reading insights, the practice of reflection and record-keeping can be very rewarding. So I was intrigued when I heard about the Monk Manual.

Let’s go ahead and address the name: Monk Manual?

Immediately, my suspicious mind asked, “What kind of monk?” Was this journal coming from a specific religious background? Would it lead the user into certain religious practices? The answer, as far as I have seen, is no–or at least, not necessarily. I get the sense that the creator of the journal, Steven Lawson (not that Steve Lawson), has in mind some sort of mystical monk tradition (and some of the language under the “Grow in” tab of the website sounds a bit New-Agey), but the journal itself reads much more generally than that. The daily and weekly pages I’ve used do not point to any specific religious practice, either, beyond giving a space to record “what God is teaching me” or “what I’m thankful for.” Folks like me who try to be discerning about spiritual subtext and teaching can rest easy, as far as I’m aware.

The designer’s idea here is to follow some of the reflective practices used by monks and apply them to a productivity and planning context. But (at least in terms of the daily and weekly pages) they aren’t presented in a way that encourages specific religious ideas or habits. The user would have to bring that to the table, in this context.

So what’s a Monk Manual? Will it train me to be a monk?

The Monk Manual is a journal/planner system based on the idea of the PAR Method (Prepare, Act, Reflect). However, instead of focusing solely on accomplishment of tasks, the Monk Manual points the user to some bigger-picture questions, like recognizing blessings, thinking about relationships, and considering how they are really doing internally.

I admit, writing it out that way sounds a bit hokey, but it’s actually pretty refreshing. There’s still an element of GTD in the Monk Manual, and it can be useful in that regard. But the journal is designed to help you step back a bit and think about who you are as much as what you do, which may be beneficial for those who are results-driven or who feel guilty for not doing enough in general.

The Monk Manual is divided into 3 sections: daily pages, weekly pages, and monthly pages. I have not seen the monthly pages yet, but I used the daily and weekly pages for two weeks, with only a day and a half missed–that itself being a minor miracle. Consistency in anything new is a struggle for me.

Taking Time to Reflect.

I found the daily and weekly pages to be a helpful and encouraging exercise because it encouraged me to consider not only what I was doing, but why. Merely the act of assigning a goal-habit and a theme for each week helped to reframe my actions and some of my decisions, so that I was able to look back on them in a slightly-different way.

The act of reflecting at the end of the day is a helpful practice that I don’t do often enough. Some of the end-of-day questions include writing down highlights of the day, times you were “at your best,” and times when you felt uneasy. Taking a few moments to consider my emotions/reactions helped me put some things in context and recognize how certain choices led to consequences I didn’t like. As someone who doesn’t really journal at all, doing that was a benefit that I want to keep going.

When it comes to spiritual matters, you get out of this journal what you put into it. As stated above, there are some vaguely spiritual prompts that a Christian can easily apply in their own worldview without concerns of syncretism. I was able to consider and track some of my personal spiritual disciplines in this journal in an effective way.

Final Thoughts: Like Any Tool, It’s Up to You to Use It.

That’s really what it comes down to: if you decide to use this tool to help improve your day-to-day life and keep you focused, it could be helpful–but it won’t “fix” you and it won’t do the work for you. There are no magical powers in the Monk Manual, and other than providing prompts for consideration, it’s paper and ink just like any other notebook. (Point of fact, I didn’t even use the actual journal that’s for sale–I printed out the free pages and popped those into a folder!)

Would I recommend using the Monk Manual? Sure, if you are interested in trying out a new type of journal and don’t already practice that daily reflection piece. If nothing else, it could encourage you develop a habit of taking a few moments to think about the day, plan for tomorrow, and pray for God’s grace in accomplishing what He’s set before you. That could be a help to you.

Here’s My Pitch

You can try the daily pages of the Monk Journal for free (as a downloadable PDF) from their website by signing up for their email list.

If you use my unique URL to do so, it could help me out by unlocking more freebies for me.

Thanks to a couple of folks who used my link via Twitter, I was able to “unlock” the weekly pages. If a few more folks use my link to sign up, I can “unlock” the monthly pages (and possibly even get a free journal myself!).

So, I’ll make a deal with you: If this sounds interesting, and you don’t mind signing up for MM’s mailing list and getting the free daily pages, once I hit the benchmark needed to get access to the monthly pages, I’ll check those out and then write a follow-up post to let you know what I think of them. Fair enough? You get to check out the daily pages, and you help me get to try out the monthly pages.

Once again, if you’d like to check the daily pages out for yourself, and help me get access to more stuff in the process, use this link to join the MM email list.

I hope it is a benefit to you. Please come back and let me know if you try it out.

=====

11/30/2019 Update #1:

You beautiful lunatics. Somehow, out of nowhere, this post has become my most popular post of the year (upwards of 250-300 views in 2 months!). I hit the “free monthly” pages pretty quickly and then enough of you signed up to push me right through to the “free journal” tier.

Thank you. Sincerely. Thank you for reading and signing up. If you have been using the pages, I would love to hear what you think in the comments.

Thank you, Steve Lawson and Monk Manual. This is a cool program, and I appreciate the beautiful journal and top-notch packaging. (Like a dope, I didn’t take pics of the cool packaging. It was nice–no skimping here. That says a lot.)

I’m going to start using this beauty tomorrow. And I will most definitely report back.

Again, thank you all. Have a happy (belated) Thanksgiving, and I’ll see you soon.

01/28/2020 Update #2:

Hey friends! I have great news!

Your response to this post has been so amazing that I reached out to the Monk Manual team about it.

Thanks to their generosity, I have been given an affiliate link from Monk Manual, so that if you use my special code DAVEM when you check out, you’ll get 10% off your entire Monk Manual order, and I’ll get a small percentage of the sale as well! That’s definitely a win-win!

So if you’re ready to check out the full Monk Manual for yourself, just click on this link and use my special offer code DAVEM on the checkout page for 10% off (and help me out as well)!

I’ll have my review of the physical Monk Manual coming up next week. In the meantime, thank you so, so much for reading, and have a great day!

06/14/2020 Update!

Okay, it only took me 6 months (hey, you’ve been on this roller coaster of a year with me, right?), but my full review of the Monk Manual journal is here. If you’ve made it this far, I’m sure you’re interested.

PLUS, the folks over at MM have re-upped my affliliate code, so you can still get that discount! Check it out!

Why I Like Being a Baker Books Blogger

I have to confess: I have an addiction. I…I accumulate books way faster than I read them.

There, I said it.

Kidding aside, this…this can sometimes be a problem, especially when my to-be-read “shelf” becomes an entire bookcase. I receive books as gifts, I find cheap ebooks for my Kindle, and the library–my goodness, the library!

But one of the best ways I have found to get access to books, especially books about theology and Christian life, is by becoming an online book reviewer. If you’ve been a reader of mine for a while, you know I will post book reviews from time to time that include the disclaimer that I was given a review copy of the book in exchange for my honest response.

Being an online book reviewer is the perfect way to get access to new books without breaking the bank (or sitting in the library “hold” queue for months!).

I’ve been a review blogger on and off for the last 5-6 years. I’ve written reviews for titles from Crossway, Zondervan, Tyndale, P&R Books, and even a few non-religious publishers (via Netgalley). However, my favorite publisher to review books for is Baker Books.

[Disclosure: Why am I writing about this now? Because this post is partially an entry into a contest put on by Baker for–you guessed it–free books. So I want to be upfront with you about that, reader. That said, every word of this post is true, and I stand by it even if this weren’t part of a contest entry. Okay, are we all clear on that? Cool. Thanks.]

Here are 3 reasons I enjoy being an official “Baker Books Blogger”:

  1. They publish books I actually want to read. Some Christian publishers send out their list of books for review, and as I glance over it, I find myself making a “disgusted Clint Eastwood” face. But Baker Books are often right in my wheelhouse, touching on issues that I find intriguing or areas I know I’d like to grow in understanding. Sometimes, if I’m in a busy season, I’ll just delete other reviewer emails unread, but I always open emails from Baker.
  2. They send actual physical books! Most online book review programs will send you a PDF or maybe an epub file that you have to figure out how to upload. There will be conversion and formatting errors, making the draft difficult to read. They often don’t integrate easily into the Kindle bookshelf. If you’re excited about the book, you just deal with it, of course, but most of the time, it’s a bit irritating. By contrast, when you review for Baker, you can request physical books. There are real, honest-to-goodness, paper-and-ink books on my shelf that I’ve received from and reviewed for Baker. The willingness to pay extra to print and ship books to reviewers puts Baker Books in a different class altogether.
  3. They are more relaxed about timelines. Okay, admitting this may not make the Baker folks happy, but: I’m sometimes pretty late on these reviews. With other publishers and platforms, that is a huge no-no. You can get locked out of the platform, or lose the ability to request any more review books. With Baker, it’s more relaxed, which I really appreciate, since there are times when you request a book and then run into a really busy patch at work or at home. Truth be told, I currently owe Baker a handful of reviews from books I’ve received but haven’t read yet. (Those are coming, y’all, trust me.) What I’m saying is, being a Baker Books Blogger doesn’t feel like a job or a chore. It’s sometime I enjoy doing, when I have the opportunity to do so. I appreciate that.

If you are interested in reviewing books on your website, Amazon reviews, or other social media outlets, I think you should check out the Baker Books Blogger program.

I’ve enjoyed being part of it, and hope to continue doing so for as long as they’ll have me. (As long as I catch up on my back-log of reviews, I guess!)

=====

Have you ever been part of an online book review program? I’d be interested to hear about your experiences in the comments below!

52 Stories #14-15: Two Stories about the Problem with Utopia.

people on road
Photo by Vitor Gusmão Shimabukuro on Pexels.com

[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

Whew! I’m a bit behind, aren’t I? Well, today we will be considering two stories about the underbelly of Utopia–“how the sausage is made” when it comes to “perfect” societies.

The first story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” was recommended to me more than 15 years ago by my friend Ben Doudt, and the second, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” was a surprising discovery of mine as I hunted for new short reads.

Obligatory spoiler warning: If you haven’t read either of these stories, skip over the “Takeaways” sections to avoid plot details.

Okay, no more chatter–let’s go!

=====

#14: “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula LeGuin

The Pitch

The writer presents an idyllic vision of a peaceful and advanced society, and then reveals why anyone would think of leaving.

The Payoff

This isn’t a story so much as a fable or vignette (much like Bradbury’s “August 2026”). There isn’t a plot in the story proper; it’s all description and one-sided dialogue, as the narrator escorts the reader through the scene, providing commentary and clarification. In the end, when the final twist is revealed, the reader is left to question whether they would want to live in Omelas themselves–and whether they currently do.

The Takeaways

I first read this story about 15 years ago and then again this spring, and to be honest, then as now it didn’t leave much of an impression on me. The descriptions are beautiful, vivid and full of color. The reader can “see” the scene quite clearly. But it’s little more than a moving painting. The narrator is openly non-committal on details of their societal advancement, which is smart if you’re trying to make a story timeless; however, it also becomes more abstract, like a parable. It almost feels as if she’s making it all up on the fly, more than describing something with a history and weight to it.

LeGuin paints the picture of a humanist utopia, without king or creed, where the sun is always shining and everything is perfect–but that’s the problem. It’s too perfect. (My mind went immediately to the plot of “The Matrix”–we naturally reject a dream world that is too perfect.) So she introduces the child–a “feeble-minded” child, locked away–“born defective…or become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect.” A child whose pleas are ignored. “They all know it’s there, all the people of Omelas.” All the perfection of their utopia relies on keeping the broken child suffering. “Those are the terms.”

Here, LeGuin pulls her final trick. She presents “the terms” and leaves the reader to grapple with the question: can such a society be considered good, just, or perfect? Can the suffering of a single child be tolerated in exchange for a utopia in which everyone else thrives?

But here’s my problem with the climax of the story: these “terms” are utterly arbitrary. LeGuin never seems to clarify why these are the terms: is it that all children born with disabilities are “put away”? She only mentions the one child–she specifically describes him/her as “the” child, one single child. It’s the knowledge of this one child that drives some citizens to abandon this utopia in pursuit of something else, something that provides more peace of mind, perhaps.

I don’t know. This story is hailed as a classic, but it just doesn’t land for me. An interesting concept, but if it’s trying to be a morality tale, the premise is stretched to a breaking point.

=====

#15: “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” by N.K. Jemison

The Pitch

The writer presents an idyllic vision of a peaceful and advanced society, along with the hard choices required to protect it.

The Pay-off

I decided to read this story as soon as I found out it was written as a kind of response to LeGuin’s, but I have to admit I was not quite prepared for what awaited me. Jemison’s story is a counterpoint, a challenge, a provocation. While it could be read as a stand-alone story, I think it’s best taken in concert with LeGuin’s original. “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” is a well-written tale that leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. It was unclear as I read it if it was meant to be satire or straight-forward, cautionary or aspirational. And there’s the rub.

The Takeaways

There is a LOT to unpack here.

“It’s the Day of the Good Birds in Um-helat!” NKJ opens with this line and unspools a beautiful description of this African jewel of a city. The name of the city is an obvious wink at Omelas, but NKJ exceeds LeGuin in terms of vivid descriptions. My imagination was transported. For a little while.

The author emulates the narrative voice of ULG’s story, but takes it to the next level. There is also a great deal of fourth-wall breaking, making the narrator another character in the story. However, rather than the narrator being a guide for the reader, the narrator quickly becomes an antagonist to the reader. There is frustration in the narration, anger, resentment. When describing the disparity of pale-skinned executives and dark-skinned workers and the policies implemented to address that, the narrator says this is not to promote diversity, “a grudging pittance of respect.” The narrator disdains such passive change. The narrator describes “the treason of free speech” by saying “We hesitate to admit some people are [expletive] evil and need to be stopped.” (Yet, the narrator never clarify who defines what is evil.) Later: “This is Um-helat after all, and not that barbaric America. This is not Omelas, a tick of a city, fat and happy with its head buried in a tortured child.” Yowsa.

At this point, the narrator turns her attention to the reader, declaring any feelings of recoil or provocation as evidence that the reader actually approves of the evil of Omelas, or even our own world. The narrator assumes the reader is responding, “How dare you…”

And this is where I actually got annoyed–not at the society being described (as the narrator suggests), not at all–rather, what irritated me was the unbearable condescension and accusations of the narrator.

According to the narrator, our world is a “benighted hellscape” compared with the bright and shining Um-helat. And just how is the utopia of Um-helat preserved? Essentially, there are “caretakers” who look for people consuming or spreading hateful or wrong ideas, and then the caretakers murder them. Yep, that’s it. “They will bury him in a beautiful garden…[that] holds all the Um-helatians who broke the law. Just because they died as a deterrence doesn’t mean they can’t be honored for the sacrifice.” So, a mass grave of social dissidents executed by the agents of the state? Cool.

The narrator justifies this behavior as being a necessary “blood sacrifice to keep true evil at bay.” The story ends with the narrator calling the reader to join the dream and build Um-Helat in our world, even if that means war and the “purging scourge.” And that’s it.

There’s part of me that really, really hopes this is just masterful satire of a totalitarian progressivism…but I doubt it is. While some reviewers and readers online rightly call this a cautionary tale, others defend it, saying that a just society must be fought for by any means necessary. Yeesh.

My 3 biggest takeaways from this story (and to a lesser degree from “Omelas”) are as follows:

  • The problem with Utopian visions is that they are built on a faulty understanding of human nature. To the humanist/materialist mind, man is perfectable with the right social settings and the right information. This is a flawed premise. Mankind is by nature corrupt, selfish, sinful. We need new hearts, not new societies.
  • Utopia requires conformity at all costs. No outside voices are tolerated, no dissenting views are allowed. Thought and speech must be policed and controlled in the name of freedom, tolerance, inclusiveness, and justice. Utopia is a prison without bars and locks, but a prison nevertheless.
  • A very astute observation from my beloved, as I was discussing both stories with her: In order for man to create his perfect humanist society, someone always has to die for “sin.” This statement gobsmacked me. See the wicked parodies of the Passion in the death of the innocent in Omelas, the slaying of the subversive in Um-helat. See in our own “hellscape” as the Molech of Freedom and Autonomy fed day and night by the broken bodies of the unborn. Whenever mankind seeks to build a perfect world, they always lay their bricks upon the bones of those who stand against them or get in their way.

The evidence of good writing is sometimes that it evokes strong responses, either positive or negative. If that’s the measure, then N.K. Jemison is a talented writer.

=====

Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

52 Stories #13: “Catch That Rabbit” by Isaac Asimov

starry sky
Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Pexels.com

[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

For my second selection today, let’s take a look at story from Asimov’s classic 1950 short-story collection I, Robot, at the recommendation of Dave Hunt over at the “GOLiverse” Facebook page.

=====

The Pitch

On a distant asteroid, two employees of “US Robots” try to diagnose a peculiar glitch in their mining ‘droids that results in sudden work stoppages and impromptu dancing/marching.

The Payoff

“Catch That Rabbit” was pretty good, if a bit thin. The fact that it’s part of a collection of connected short stories makes me wonder if reading it in context would add some missing heft. (Then again, maybe not.) As it stands, this one was still a good read. The resolution of the “mystery” was funny, and I enjoyed the interactions of the main characters more than the plot itself.

The Takeaways

The best thing about this story really was the dialogue. The patter between Mike and Greg reminded me of the classic comedies of the 30’s and 40’s–that quick-firing, slang-filled dialogue that established immediately how familiar and comfortable these two were with each other. You get a bit of an “Odd Couple” vibe from these two, and it was fun to see them work out the problem they faced. In other words, the dialogue felt natural, not staged for exposition. It’s a good reminder that your characters are “real people,” not just authorial mouthpieces.

There was a nice level of humor in a story set-up that could have easily turned into a “menacing robot attacks” tale. From the sarcastic comments about the company’s tolerance of mistakes to the fact that the head robot “Dave” (DV-5) has enough personality to be a third character, the overall feel is playful. Even when the engineers get themselves trapped in a cave-in, I was never concerned that they wouldn’t get out okay (though that would have been the perfect point for the plot to turn). The tone was consistent throughout, which I appreciated.

Asimov also manages to tie this piece back into the overall story collection, not only by re-using these characters (who appeared in the previous story in the book, if I recall correctly) but also by maintaining the Three Laws of Robotics as a prominent discussion point. It didn’t feel forced, either. Fears about a potential robotic uprising were easily dismissed, because these rules still apply. As I’m thinking about my own plans for an interconnected short story collection, this idea of having consistent “in-world” rules/elements is a good reminder of how these stories hang together.

On the whole, I liked “Catch That Rabbit” but I think it may suffer a little by being read out of context.

=====

Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

The4thDave Reviews: “Competing Spectacles” by Tony Reinke

competing-spectacles-book

In a culture wholly driven by the moving image, we feed on spectacle every moment of the day. We are awash in the blue glow of screens almost from the moment our eyes open in the morning, until we collapse into sleep at night. While a library of books has been written about the good and bad (mostly bad) of a digital or image-driven culture, there have been considerably fewer authors in the last half-century who have focused on the deeper spiritual ramifications of constant spectacle.

In recent months, I have enjoyed (and discussed) books by Andy Crouch, Cal Newport, and Senator Ben Sasse, regarding the need for distance and perspective when it comes to digital media, but these arguments have been overwhelmingly pragmatic and relational. As I noted in my review of Digital Minimalism, I was keenly aware of Newport’s lack of spiritual perspective; that is, he had a good sense of the effect of digital obsession on the mind but no sense of how it bends the soul.

This is why I am thrilled to recommend Tony Reinke’s latest work to you: Competing Spectacles: Treasuring Christ in the Media Age.

In Competing Spectacles, Reinke fills in that missing piece in the important discussion of screen addiction and digital distraction by focusing on the cumulative effect such diversions can have on our spiritual life and growth.

In this follow-up to 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You, Reinke examines the prevalence of “spectacles” in our culture, and how spectacle saturation affects the spiritual appetites. The good news is, he doesn’t simply take the anti-tech position of “screens bad, stay away!” Rather, in the first section of the book, Reinke examines the nature of spectacle in several facets of cultural life, the power that spectacles have on us, and the way our appetites for such entertainment are developed.

In the second section of the book, Reinke considers what Christianity has to say about spectacles–particularly, which spectacles can and should capture our eyes and minds. This section really sings, as he applies the transforming truth of the Gospel gently but directly to our tendency toward amusement and distraction.

Near the end of Part 2, Reinke provides “Summations and Applications” that help the reader think through how we can put these truths to work in our hearts and daily lives. He concludes with a beautiful vision of what happens when our gaze is rightly fixed on a Spectacle worth observing.

Throughout the book, I was struck by by Reinke’s eloquence, recalling the proverb about words fitly spoken being like “apples of gold in settings of silver.” Had I been reading a paper copy, there would be several sections with entire pages highlighted, underlined, and starred. Once in a while, I had to just stop for a moment to appreciate a perfectly crafted sentence. Reinke outdid himself in the mechanics and construction of his prose in this book.

Final Recommendation

In the very first chapter, Reinke calls Competing Spectacles “a theology of visual culture,” and the description is apt. This isn’t just a book about screen time and self-control, social media addiction and the degradation of societal decorum. This book is inherently and blessedly theological in scope, and as such, it fills a glaring gap in this important discussion.

I heartily recommend Competing Spectacles to all my readers, and particularly those who (like me) have been wrestling with the effect of digital media and entertainment on their hearts. This book should be part of every Christian’s library, where it can be revisited from time to time for reconsideration and reflection.

=====

Note: I have been provided an advance copy of the book, in exchange for an honest review. The preceding thoughts are entirely my own.

52 Stories #9: “The Baptism” by Ron Rash

branches cold conifers environment
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

This week, let’s take a step back from sci-fi (I promise, not *every* story I read will be sci-fi… just, ya know, most of them) and talk about something written in the last few years. I picked up a copy of The Best American Short Stories 2018, edited by Roxane Gay, and flipped through it to find something different to read. Truth be told, some of the stories in that collection weren’t really my bag. Several of them, in fact. But the title of today’s story caught my eye (understandable, being a Baptist myself). As it happens, “The Baptism” is a western, so no matter how I try to avoid genre fiction, I can’t stay away!

I looked briefly and couldn’t find a (legal) link for you to read the story online, but you can find the collection at your local library, if you’re interested.

===

The Pitch

A Protestant minister in a small prairie town must decide if he can baptize a very wicked man in order to protect the man’s fiancee from harm.

The Payoff

Rash’s story challenged me to put myself in the position of the minister and answer the question: To what extent can I hold to fidelity in doctrine or practice, if doing so brings direct harm to another? (This question is more deeply and brutally examined in Shusaku Endo’s powerful novel, Silence.) Reverend Yates is challenged by Gunter’s open malice and arrogance, wrestling with his role as a protector of the flock. In the end, the plot resolution was a bit too clean, although the final paragraph or two leaves the reader with some lingering questions.

The Takeaways

(Spoilers ahead, FYI.)

  • Rash might be charged with pulling his punch a bit, as he uses a “Deus ex Remington” to remove Reverend Yates from his impossible choice. By doing so, he left the question of Yates’ decision open and difficult to answer, given how little the reader knows about the preacher.
  • That said, I half-expected Yates to push Gunter under the frozen water during the baptism and then hold him there until he drowns, allowing his body to float away under the ice. No doubt, the townsfolk present who were already alarmed at the possibility of Gunter and Pearl’s marriage would all agree it was an accident and walk away (much as they did in the actual resolution of the story). Part of me would have preferred that ending–something more decisive. Ambivalent protagonists can be frustrating. (Yes, yes, Hamlet, yada yada yada.)
  • Yates’ uncertainty about what to do made me uneasy, especially when he was making counter-arguments to the town elders. Rash effectively muddies the waters (pun intended) so that the reader isn’t sure what to expect when morning comes.
  • FWIW, I can understand wrestling with the hope that Gunter *could* change his ways, but obviously I disagreed with the minister’s suggestion that the waters of baptism could have any spiritual effect on an avowed sinner. (I can’t remember what denomination Yates is supposed to be a part of, but it’s not Southern Baptist!)
  • In the end, Reverend Yates seems to decide to accept the burden of guilt for his actions–whether that’s the guilt of providing apparent absolution to an unrepentant abuser and possible murderer, or allowing the man to destroy himself without a word of warning.
  • The story has as “happy” of an ending as it can, but even then, it comes at the cost of a dead man in a river. Depending on the story you’re writing, sometimes there’s no other way for justice to be done.

This was an interesting tale. Nothing that will stick with me for years, but Rash presents an interesting and complex situation, in terms of both justice and faith.

=====

Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

The4thDave Reads: “Digital Minimalism” by Cal Newport

We’ve seen the blog posts and editorials for years: “How I Gave Up Social Media for 30 Days and It CHANGED MY LIFE!” “Why I Quit Facebook and Got My Life Back” “Quitting Instagram Helped Me Lose 40 Pounds and Run The Boston Marathon!!!” (Okay, maybe not that last one.) Hand-wringing posts about the dangers of online culture, social media addiction, and how often we contemplate quitting (or quit and then come back) are almost becoming a cliche lately. (Guilty.) But no matter how many productivity gurus talk about the power of “digital detoxing” and the benefits of set fasts from social media, many of us are still struggling with this form of addiction. (Yes, us, I’m a junkie just like you.)

I read these types of posts constantly. The most clear-headed thinker I’ve found on this topic is Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown and author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work. I’ve shared the link to his TED talk about quitting social media in the past. I heard sometime last year that his next book would deal with the idea of “digital minimalism” and was immediately intrigued. Well, it was well worth the wait.

Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in A Noisy World is a persuasive call to reconsider the choices we make about our digital lives.

Newport challenges the reader not to throw away all technology–he’s no Luddite seeking a purely analog life–but rather to ask very pointed and thoughtful questions about why and how we use technology. He challenges the notion that a mere potential benefit of a device or service is a good enough reason to adopt its use, or that having more features is automatically better. He draws the reader’s attention to the fact that we are the product being sold by social media corporations, and that our time and attention have been monetized for someone else’s benefit.

Beyond a Simple Detox

Newport suggests a 30-day challenge: an intentional digital fast (with common-sense provisions for certain necessary work/life demands), followed by a slow and deliberate re-integration of tech. During this post-fast period, he suggests that we ask 3 questions of our devices and apps: Does using this tool support a belief or priority that I deeply value? Is this the best way I can pursue that ideal or value? Can I optimize the way I use this device or program in pursuit of that value?

For example, if we use social media for keeping up with our family, Newport would argue that what we’re doing when we like or share or comment is mere connection, and it doesn’t take the place of real communication. Instead, while we might still use social media in a very limited way (both in time and scope) to catch up on news about our loose circle of acquaintances, we should also pursue actual communication with people who matter to us via in-person visits, phone calls, or even video chats (for far-flung loved ones). The complexity of face-to-face and voice-to-voice communication, Newport writes, is what provides the richness of human interaction–a complexity that text-based communication falls short of providing.

Don’t Click “Like”

Throughout the second half of the book, Newport gives recommendations of practices one can pursue as part of the “Attention Resistance” pushing back against screen consumption. Some of these ideas are pretty simple (make time for solitude, go for walks, pursue an analog leisure activity that requires physical exertion), while others are a bit more challenging, at least for me.

One such challenge Newport makes is to stop clicking “like.” He talks about how social media introduced the “like” button as a way of providing a minimal amount of feedback that still stimulates the user (the “digital slot-machine” idea of irregular positive feedback conditioning). I struggle with this, because I use the “like” button a LOT (as those of you on my socials can attest). However, I see what he means. A real-world example: I just posted on Facebook 42 minutes ago that we were having another baby. As of right now, 3 people have actually commented (2 of which said “congrats!”), and 20 people have hit the “Like/Love/Wow” emoji. [Update: I’ve gotten more comments since then, but the ratio of reactions to comments is running about 4-5 to 1.] Now, I do appreciate that these folks reacted to the news (that’s how Facebook describes it–reacting), but the vast majority so far have only reacted enough to click a mouse or tap a screen and then likely moved on with their scrolling. And I can’t fault them; that’s just what we do, isn’t it? But Newport suggests we stop, because this isn’t actually communicating anything. It’s one bit of information, a blip on the radar. And it’s a far cry from actual human community.

(And for the record, if you are one of the “likes” on my FB wall right now, this isn’t a slam against you. Thanks for taking a moment to read this. But hey, gimme a call sometime, so we can catch up, yeah?)

One Weakness

The only critique I have of Digital Minimalism is a worldview issue. Newport is writing from a secular perspective, so when he talks about the evolution of man as a social animal, he is missing a glaring clue as to why we are social creatures. Mankind was created by a personal, social, communicating God, a God who speaks and interacts with His creation, and because we bear the imprint of His image, we are social and communicative beings. That’s part of the reason why this reduction in human interaction is so unnatural; we were made by God for community, but our community is being undercut by a digital counterfeit that steals time away from incarnated interaction. The spiritual element of this whole idea is missing from Newport’s thinking on this subject, which is why other books by authors like Tony Reinke and Andy Crouch are necessary and helpful supplements to the ideas Newport presents.

Final Review

Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism does more than simply point out the problem of digital addiction and social media enslavement. Newport helps the reader consider how to use these tools in a way that is healthier and more intentional than simple consumption and constant attention. While I think there are some blind spots in his argumentation due to differences in worldview, I would happily recommend this book to anyone who struggles with the idea of giving up digital tech or social media but still wants to reconsider the way he or she approaches these tools.