Journal like a Monk: My Thoughts on Using the “Monk Manual” for 2 Weeks.

ballpen blank desk journal
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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.

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!)

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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.

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[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!

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#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.

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#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.

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

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

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[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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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[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.

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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.

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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.

#FridayFive: Five Books I Finished in January (2/8/2019)

Happy Friday, y’all! I’m back with five books that I finished reading (or listening to) in January. Hope you find something you might want to check out soon!

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Somewhere A Band is Playing, by Ray Bradbury

I’ve already written about this a bit. Technically, this was one of 2 novellas by Bradbury, published under the title Now and Forever (along with “Leviathan ’99,” a futuristic take on Moby Dick). After finishing Band, I wasn’t eager to keep reading Bradbury’s later work, so I stopped with the first novella. That said, if you like light science fiction, Somewhere a Band is Playing is a pleasant-enough diversion (though you could do better, especially with Bradbury).

The Tech-Wise Family, by Andy Crouch

This short hardcover volume by Andy Crouch is a must-buy if you have any concerns about how you and your family engage with technology. Crouch details ten commitments that he and his family seek to follow, so that they can learn to be more in control of their relationship with technology and social media. I appreciate that the author is also honest about how successful he and his family are at keeping those commitments. Using a large amount of research from the Barna Group, Crouch describes the typical family’s use of technology and helps the reader think through the potential dangers of its “easy, everywhere” promises. This is a book that I’m still thinking about, weeks after finishing it, and I encouraged my wife to read it as well, so that we can discuss how it may influence our household.

Them, by Senator Ben Sasse

In some ways, Senator Sasse’s book Them reminded me of Jonathan Leeman’s How the Nations Rage–a warning that life is more than politics and that we need connection and community to help address cultural issues as individual citizens. While Sasse is a professing Christian, what he proposes is not a theological solution as much as an ideological one: make the decision to see people who disagree with you politically as neighbors and fellow citizens, and work for their good as well. (Could you make the argument that you can’t do that well or effectively or for long without Christianity? I think so, but that’s not what he’s getting at in this book.) Sasse makes some pretty pointed observations about how our national conversation has become fragmented and fractured, and make suggestions about what we can do to try to shift course. I listened to the audiobook (read by the senator) and enjoyed it immensely. He gave me lots to think about and discuss with others. His chapter on political media and the monetization of outrage is stellar. He also suggests pulling back from overuse of technology by not only referencing Tony Reinke’s excellent book 12 Ways Your Smartphone is Changing You but also talking through Andy Crouch’s commitments from Tech-Wise Family. In other words, my favorite senator and I have a similar reading list. I wonder if he likes short stories…

All Things for Good, by Thomas Watson

This short-but-deep volume by Puritan pastor Thomas Watson is a 125-page meditation on one of the most misapplied verses in the Bible, Romans 8:28. However, in All Things for Good, Watson slowly considers each phrase (almost each word) and encourages the reader to meditate at length on God’s sovereignty and kindness. This was a rich and rewarding read, that I consumed a few paragraphs at a time before bed over several weeks. Just a page or so gave me enough to think about in the few minutes before I drifted off to sleep. As someone who struggles with nighttime anxiety, I can’t think of a better cordial (other than the Scriptures themselves) for soothing my worried heart.

Family Shepherds, by Voddie Baucham

I am reminded that there is no greater earthly role for me to take on than husband and father. Voddie Baucham’s excellent book Family Shepherds is a direct and bracing charge to men to be the spiritual leaders of their homes. In the book, Baucham looks at the man himself as a disciple, what it means to be a shepherd, the primacy of a man’s marriage in how he leads his home, how he should raise his children (with both formative and corrective discipline), and how he engages the world as a family shepherd. If you don’t know Voddie, I can’t recommend his preaching and speaking highly enough. Add this book to the list, especially if you are a Christian man who is or aspires to be a godly husband and father. In a culture that is currently debating the value and place of masculinity, it is imperative that Christian men seek to portray and exemplify Christlike leadership and care for their families, and so let their light shine.

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What have you read so far this year? Share your recommendations below in the comments!

52 Stories: 3 Stories about the Tyranny of Smart Tech

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Today, let’s take a look at 3 science fiction stories about “smart tech” and the danger of AI that becomes a bit too independent.

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#4: “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury

I remember reading this story back in high school (more than 20 years ago!), specifically the concept of an autonomously-running house, so I decided to revisit it for this project. You can find it online here.

The Set-up

A “smart house” springs to life, in the stillness after war.

The Pay-off

My memories of this story were solely of the idea of an empty, automated house, but I had forgotten the actual reason why the house was empty. The line that most clearly explains what happens is almost a throwaway, but its simplicity and starkness caught me off-guard. This was part of Bradbury’s themed short-story collection The Martian Chronicles, which is an undeniable classic and a must-read for anyone interested in 20th century science fiction.

The Takeaways

  • While there were some limits to Bradbury’s imagination (would a robotic house still use film reels and spools of audio tape?), you have to credit him for foreseeing the popular uses of personal tech. (“Hey Alexa…”)
  • The idea of personal automation continuing to run after the demise of its owners is both tragic and a bit chilling. Plus, you factor in the contrast between an “easy, everywhere” life of household convenience and the sudden horror of atomic war, and it’s hard to see the future with quite as rosy a lens.
  • “August 2026” isn’t a story as much as a scene or vignette, a stack of photos (do anyone besides hipsters use actual film anymore?) depicting a society after its downfall. There is no plot or movement of action–just a description of slow collapse at the end of an era. If there is a message, it’s a warning against the threat of atomic war and the idea that no civilization is so advanced that it cannot still destroy itself.

#5: “Autofac” by Phillip K. Dick

My friend Leann K. on Facebook recommended this one to her feed, in light of our current cultural discussions on advancements in AI within social media. I had never read it, but I was a little familiar with the author, so I thought I’d check it out. I found it in a collection of Dick’s stories from the library, but you can find it online here. (And thanks to Leann for the link!)

The Set-up

A group of people seek to stop a factory on auto-pilot.

The Pay-off

Most PKD stories I’ve read are great ideas that never quite landed. It always seemed to me that he concocted great scenarios or set-ups, but they were better fleshed out by others. (Minority Report and The Man in the High Castle stand as evidence.) However, I have to give him credit on this one (and another story I’ll review soon): “Autofac” was a pretty effective yarn — lean, kinetic, and comes complete with that Rod-Serling-style gut-punch at the end.

The Takeaways

  • In the war of Man vs. Machine, PKD seems to argue that machines will win because they are single-minded, relentless, and unaffected by hope/disappointment. In “Autofac,” humans try to throw off the rose-petal shackles of a machine-run economy by force, by reasoning, and by subterfuge, but in the end, the machines’ innate drive toward self-perpetuation wins out.
  • I don’t know anything about PKD’s politics (and might just be scandalizing his devotees in saying this), but “Autofac” feels like a pretty effective allegory of statism’s eventual choke-hold on economic freedom. (For example, the machines say they will relent when the outside (human) forces provide the same level of  product output as theirs–yet they control all the materials for production.) Money quote: “We’re not children! We can run our own lives!” Throw in a “taxation is theft” meme and a Gadsden flag, and you’ve got a Libertarian protagonist.
  • Nanobots! How cute and absolutely terrifying! But seriously, though: PKD is writing about nanotech in 1955. Either he knows Dr. Emmett Brown, or he was WAY ahead of his time. Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman wasn’t talking about nanotechnology until 4 years later.

#6: “Digitocracy” by Andy Weir

I recently read a great piece by N.A. Turner on Medium about reading short fiction, and he mentioned how new short fiction is being written and shared on Medium, including new work from authors like Andy Weir, who wrote The Martian, one of my favorite novels from the past few years. Here is the short story by Weir that Turner mentioned.

The Set-up

A man on a mission to destroy the electronic “brain” controlling his city.

The Pay-off

…Eh. “Digitocracy” has a plot, such as it is, but again is little more than a scenario: a lone man stands against an “all-knowing” artificial intelligence, seeks to destroy it, and fails. I was looking forward to this story, based on my appreciation for the author’s longer works, but either the format didn’t give him space enough to flesh this out fully, or he didn’t have enough of a story idea to run with yet.

The Takeaways

  • I thought the idea of the city-computer-hivemind-entities taking the names of their locations (Wichita, Madrid, etc.) was fun, as was the fact that the cities discussed the events of the story after the fact as if they were a funny little anecdote.
  • I wonder if “Wichita” manipulating the events of Damak’s life to increase his “happiness” is Weir’s critique of the idea of a sovereign god. I have to admit, reading the story through my own theological lens, I couldn’t help but see Wichita’s dialogue about incorporating new events into an unfolding plan to bring happiness or satisfaction to its citizens as mimicking an “open-theism” style of Arminianism. On the other hand, Wichita’s grooming of Damak as a happy rebel could be argued as a weak critique of compatibilism. (I’m not sure Weir had any such thoughts beyond the conflict between free will and determinism, but hey, you ask a theology student to read science fiction… wait, you didn’t ask? Huh.)
  • Oh good, extended discussion about an unseen character’s same-sex relationship. Mark your social awareness bingo cards, kids!
  • The story left me a little cold. Damak was a cipher, and “Wichita” didn’t have the time or material to develop into a true menace like “HAL9000” did in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Rather, it was a little too “aren’t-I-clever,” even as it started monologuing like a Bond villain. You could strain and draw an idea that Weir might think the war over control of technology has been lost, but that would be reading way more into the story that what was likely intended to be a fun little bit of scary-AI fluff. Judged on that standard, then sure.

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Agree? Disagree? Do you welcome the smart-tech overlords? Let me know in the comments!

52 Stories #3: “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” by Neil Gaiman

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My third story in this series is “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” by Neil Gaiman. (Thanks to Pedro Jorba on Facebook for the recommendation!) It’s part of Gaiman’s 2007 short story collection Fragile Things (and was apparently made into a motion picture).

The Set-up:

Two teenage boys crash a house-party hoping to meet some new girls and have a fun evening, but end up getting much more than they bargained for.

The Pay-off:

Wow, there’s a lot going on in this story. It begins as an everyday “boys being foolish on a weekend” tale and then slowly morphs into something else entirely. The protagonist’s matter-of-fact naivete is both funny and sad, as the reader picks up on what’s going on long before he does. In the end, this story is haunting, strange, and incredibly effective.

The Lessons:

  • This is a story that pays to read at least twice. Gaiman seeds the story with clues about the twist from the very start. When you begin to pick up on the references throughout, you have to shake your head at the author’s cheekiness.
  • What makes this story so effective is that Gaiman uses the science-fiction genre to explore the inscrutability of females to young men of a certain age and maturity level. The cliches about “Mars and Venus” are true in some sense when it comes to teenage boys who are both confused and intrigued by the fairer sex. Strip away the fantastic elements, and this is still a story about feminine mystique and masculine mistakes.
  • The title points to the recurring theme of talking without listening. The narrator’s inattention adds to the slow-burn reveal of the plot twist. Even when it seems almost incredible that he isn’t picking these clues up, I’m reminded again of how foolish boys are in high school. (And while I *hope* I wasn’t that clueless, I can’t be too sure.)
  • Although this collection of stories was published in 2007, you could probably draw some takeaways regarding the current #MeToo conversation, as well as discussions of masculinity and respect. But I’ll leave that to more skilled analysts.
  • I was just thumped by the sentence, “I bet an angry universe would look at you with eyes like that.” Well done, Mr. Gaiman. Wow.
  • The ending, and the implications of the ending, are well-served by what is left unsaid. I’ll admit, while I have an idea of what is implied by Vic’s comments, I’m not 100% sure. Truth be told, I’m happy to keep it that way, because what I’m imagining is bad enough.
  • Here’s the thing, though: not every story should be made into a movie. After reading this one a few times, I’m convinced that any movie treatment of this short story would likely destroy what makes it effective by adding anything to it. And though I have not seen the 2017 film adaptation, seeing descriptions of it that include the words “romantic comedy” and watching just the first 30 seconds of the trailer is enough to prove me 100% right. What a bizarre and lousy transformation it seems to have had.

In the end, “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is a surprising and slightly-unnerving story about the dangers of not listening. If you’re looking for a quick read that’s creepy and strange, it’s worth a look.

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