A Twenty Minute Reflection on Change

I’ve been wanting to write something here for the past several days, but I’ve been struggling to figure out what to say. So, as a reward for vacuuming, I’ve set a twenty-minute timer to just write. Let’s see what happens.

I am on day eight of a meandering stomach bug. After two days of rather intense symptoms (I will spare you), things have now subsided into waves of general discomfort and an overall lack of normal tummy behavior. My prayer is that today will be the last such day, because I hate stomach bugs. They’re just unignorable. With a fever, in a pinch, you can take an Advil or something and be on your way. Even if you can take something for a stomach bug to get to a baseline level of function, it’s really not enough. You just have to be patient and wait as your body fights it off and heals after the war. And that is no fun at all.

On the bright side, though, the weather is finally getting spring-like where we are. We had an utterly miserable winter and most of spring in central Illinois, which is the farthest north I have ever lived. Southern California and northern Alabama are both generally warm, with the obvious differences in humidity. I never realized until this year how much I rely on warm weather. I like winter, usually—I like sweaters and tea and rainy, quiet reading days inside. But so cold I can’t venture outside for a 20 minute walk? I can’t do it. (I’m sure that the car/ditch situation didn’t help my overall view of Illinois winters, but that’s neither here nor there.)

I think the tummy bug and crummy Spring have done a lot to challenge my ideas of my own mental and emotional elasticity. People talk a lot about how young people operate under delusions about the own mortality, or lack thereof. I think I also was working with the assumption that I was a lot more able to change, potentially infinitely, than I realized. I’m starting to think that human personalities are actually a lot more stable than we realize.

An at times faltering project of mine these past couple of years has been to try doing things that I enjoyed as a kid, especially things I used to do a lot or even just did casually before school got too hectic. I have not had universal success in picking things up—I would be lying if I said I didn’t have hobby books and supplies sitting on shelves that I really do intend to pick up again one of these days, despite my best self-sabotaging efforts to forget about them. But a lot of things have been good. I remember being maybe 14 or 15 and volunteering to walk our lumbering basset hound on cool rainy mornings in the spring, watching the rain fall under my huge, goofy bubble umbrella while the dog sniffed every single blade of grass on our street—and loving it. I’ve enjoyed resuming these quiet rainy (and sunny) walks with Jonathan, and noticed how much I missed them when we couldn’t over the long, bleak winter. Like I wrote the other day, getting back into reading, especially novels, has been eye-opening.

I don’t know why I stepped away from doing so many of these things. Probably just life getting busy, or getting bored, or thinking it’s a waste of time, or feeling anxious about not doing something else. But despite my conscious and unconscious efforts to change—to abandon a hobby, to get my stomach back to normal, to be okay with sub-zero windchill—I’m a lot less malleable than I thought I was.

Sometimes things just take time. Hopefully, this time next week, my tummy woes will be a quickly-fading memory. Other things, I think, are outside of time. I don’t think any amount of persisting, doggedly, in overwork or dumb forgetfulness, will take away my love of drawing. I don’t think any amount of living in a colder clime will take away my enjoyment of a springtime spent in sunshine and mild rain. And you know what? I think that’s okay.

My timer just went off, so I will leave you with that today.

On Reading and Starting Anew

Jonathan and I have talked at length about reading, especially fostering that love of reading that so many of us experienced in childhood or adolescence. It’s clearly a significant topic, because it’s also cropped up in both of our friend groups. I’ve been sitting on some thoughts about it for a while now, and figured it was time to share with you all.

The Problem

I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read. I remember writing little notes to my parents and hiding them around the house when I was three or four, reading Bob Books and Dr. Seuss, and trying to write the longest sentence in my kindergarten class. I started reading Junie B. Jones books in kindergarten or first grade, and I vividly remember reading my first “big kid book,” The Wizard of Oz, in second grade. I was a voracious reader throughout elementary and middle school.

And then that sort of shriveled up sometime in high school. I’d have little fits of reading for pleasure, like the summer I read Pride and Prejudice, but for the most part, I stopped. I read for school still and, for the most part, enjoyed it, but not much reading happened on my own time. It got worse in college; I read even more for school then, but didn’t feel like I had time to read on my own. I did, of course, but just wasn’t choosing to make time for it.

This reached a breaking point in grad school. I was having to read two, three, four entire books a week (and write on them!) for class, and it was back-breaking. There is supposed to be some method to get through books for academic purposes like grad school. In all honesty, dear reader, I never figured it out. I would just slam a book, skimming or skipping sections in a feverish anxiety to try to force down a thousand pages a week and be able to speak moderately-intelligently about the content. It was driving me batty.

About the time I figured out that a lot of my schooling, intentionally or not, had the result of producing a kind of reading that wasn’t enjoyable anymore. Let me be clear: I had some wonderful teachers throughout all of my education, and I don’t think any one of them was trying to make reading into a chore. But telling a teenager who’s still trying to figure herself out to take a stance of authority over a book, to do a “close reading” with endless notes and commentary before even finishing a chapter, to hold something in a critical stance without really even knowing what makes a book good, bad, or indifferent—it’s just plain not enjoyable. Vivisecting a work of art kills it, and with it dies the possibility of enjoying it. This is very true of books. There’s a time and a place for critical engagement with a text; there’s also a time and place for just enjoying it, gleaning what you can, and letting it be.

The Solution

I hit a wall with reading sometime between my first and second semester of grad school. The words of a friend rattled around in my head: a few years previously, she said that, over the course of grad school, she’d “lost the ability to read for pleasure” (paraphrasing, probably). I was terrified that was happening to me.

I made a concerted effort over the next year to get back into reading. I think it’s been successful. I read 50 books last year, almost all of which were for fun. (In 2020, I read 75 books, though that was about 50-50 for-fun and for-school.) My goal this year is to read 52 books. It’s not really a race, and I actually pick that number intentionally: it’s enough to keep me motivated to make time to read daily (or at least nearly daily—when we had a big and fast trip for a family wedding in April, my reading habit did suffer) but it doesn’t make me feel stressed out. If you are trying to get back into reading for fun, your number will probably look different, which is fine.

To get back to reading like you did when you were young, you have to un-learn a lot of reading habits you’ve picked up along the way. I won’t call those habits “unhelpful” or “bad,” necessarily; some are, to be sure. But a lot of them are probably just unnecessary. Assessing sources, identifying what type of irony is being used, figuring out the scansion in a line of poetry, trying to figure out if something is signified by the color of a room—all of these things can be useful, but, realistically, it’s probably not called for if you’re just reading for fun. If you’re confused about something, go ahead and put your school-cap back on and try thinking about it critically; you might figure out whatever is tripping you up. But it usually isn’t necessary to bring a literary pickax to everything you read. It’s sort of like bringing a hammer to the breakfast table: I guess there are scenarios in which one might need a hammer at the breakfast table, but it’s probably better off left in the toolchest, where you can get it if you need it.

But, let’s get down to brass tacks. Here is my advice for getting back into reading or reading enjoyably.

Pick something you actually want to read

Sometimes, when I fall into a reading rut, I try to force myself to read a book that I think I ought to read. It’s usually heady non-fiction that would be good for me to read. And guess what? I almost never finish it.

If you’re in the reading doldrums, the important thing is getting out. You don’t have to read the Iliad or 5,000 Prooftexts of Trigonometry or something like that. It’s okay to just read the book you impulse-bought a while ago because you thought the title and cover sounded interesting, or go to the library to grab that book that’s been sitting on your to-read list since middle school. I wouldn’t suggest reading harlequin romance just so you can read something, but there’s plenty of stuff out there that is enjoyable and actually interesting. Consider avoiding highly-technical books, books that are within your line of work or study, books that you “need to read” but have been avoiding, and anything that makes you sleepy when reading the first couple of chapters.

Pick something you actually can read

Another problem I see (and something I also struggle with) is reading a book that’s not a good fit for your current spot in life. For example: I would like to get back to reading more German and Latin, since obviously I did a lot more of that in school than I do on a regular, day-to-day basis now. However, it would probably not be a good idea to, say, sit down with some full-length text in German or Latin and try to read it all. My language skills are a little rusty, and it would quickly become a herculean academic chore rather than a fun read. This can also happen by picking up very specialized non-fiction works or fiction books that are arcane or verbose. A historical monograph that frequently uses a foreign language you can’t read in the main body of the text is probably not a good nightstand-book pick.

Again, this doesn’t mean you should avoid this books entirely; I’ve definitely got some “reach” books that I’d like to get to. But you should probably not put that at the top of your “get back into reading” list, and you should probably approach them a bit differently, not trying to chug through it in a week.

If you have a book that you’ve really been wanting to read but are concerned about getting in over your head, read it slowly and read it with a reference handy. When I was first getting into classic lit, I benefited immensely by using an e-reader. I still like doing my first read-through of an older book with either an annotated edition or on my Kindle so I can look up words quickly and seamlessly. This need usually lessens over time, especially if you read a lot in the same genre or by the same author, but it can be a huge help when you’re starting out.

Avoid picking it apart

I think one of the things that kills for-fun reading is picking it apart. We live in such a hyper-critical age, and a great deal of our education revolves around criticism and critical methods, that it can be very hard to escape this mindset. I think it is truly poisonous for reading for fun. I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but let me make it clear that there are appropriate times for criticism; trying to get your “reading mojo” back isn’t one of those times.

I find that it’s easiest to be critical when reading a subject about which we have some expertise. Case in point: I have pretty doggedly avoided reading any history outside of my school reading for the better part of a decade now because I have had to spend so much time tearing apart history books. I’m finally getting interested in reading history “just ’cause” again, but it’s required a very intentional sabbatical. I read a decent amount of theological/Christian doctrine and living books in a year for fun, but again I usually have to take breaks from them, because it can get draining to be always on the look out or at the edge of frustration and annoyance with a book.

If reading is a part of your job or studies, I would highly suggest avoiding reading things related to your work for fun when you are starting back at pleasure-reading. You don’t have to avoid it forever—and if there’s something that really calls to you, go for it!—but giving your brain a rest from debating with a book will help you read more enjoyably in the future. I’m really looking forward to some of the history books I’ve got on my to-read shelf now, but I’m only able to do that after stepping away from it for a time.

Interlude: Why read?

Before continuing, I think it’s important to stop for a second and think about an important, but overlooked, question: why read? Specifically: why read books?

Reading isn’t just about entertainment, nor is it about gaining information. Those can be part of it, but that’s not the whole purpose of the pursuit. I think of reading a lot like I think about listening to music or looking at art. I am frequently moved emotionally; I frequently learn something; I always (provided the book, music, or art is worth my time) experience and understand some small corner of human life in a new way because of it. I understand my place in life better, often by better understanding the place of others, whether that’s imagined individuals in a novel, long-dead figures from history, or the variety of animals, vegetables, minerals and more among which I find myself situated on this earth. Fiction especially is suited to conveying truths about life in a way that has even greater weight by communicating it in a heightened way, like J.R.R. Tolkien expressed in his essay on fairy-stories.

There is also just something refreshing about reading (and being read to, whether by a family member or friend or by a narrator in an audiobook). It’s transporting, even if it isn’t for the purposes of entertainment or “escape.” A capacity for language is part of what makes us human, so it makes sense that it would feel right. Reading (and being read to) requires time and focus and a quiet and non-distracting environment.

There’s something, then, about reading—both the physical activity and the content, and, I believe, both simultaneously, in a way where the one cannot be extracted from the other—that is good and fitting for a person to do, because it affirms what it means to be human. It’s something that can’t be replicated with truly bad books or even other “reading” media—even blogs like this one! I really think there is something about the story, the song, and the artwork—something offered there but not necessarily accessible except through a few avenues of engagement. Which, in my mind, is why we read.

Putting it all together

So what does that mean concretely? For me, getting back into reading started with audiobooks and ebooks. I got one of those deeply-tempting marketing emails at the beginning of 2020 for some Audible deal where you get free credits if you sign up for a free trial (and then piggy-backed on some reading challenge they were running where you got free credits for finishing a certain number of audiobooks in a certain amount of time). I did Audible, which is a paid service, because I am in a weird library position: we move around a lot for school and have had a hard time establishing at a public library—we were very nearly denied a library card when we got to St. Louis, and only then were begrudgingly granted a very temporary one, and the library in the city we’ve been in during my husband’s vicarage internship has been closed this whole time, and the surrounding cities won’t let us get cards at their libraries. Additionally, Jonathan and I don’t spend very much on entertainment, so we talked it over and were okay with doing this one. This was especially true when I first started out: my eyeballs were about ready to fall out of my head at the end of every day because I was just reading so much for grad school, but I couldn’t stand not reading anything just for personal enjoyment. I was able to “read” (I am not a purist about audiobooks and these sorts of things) a lot of books I couldn’t have otherwise during a very stressful time of my life because I had them on audiobook. It was definitely a worthwhile investment for my intellectual and emotional health!

I wouldn’t necessarily suggest copying my every move, though, because I didn’t really follow my own advice. The starting point for my reading renaissance was actually Roger Scruton’s Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left (on audiobook). I was chomping at the bit for something, well, critical of the critical methods I was learning in grad school, but I was really struggling to find any. I believe I’ve written about this elsewhere, so I won’t go into it here in great depth, but it was just what I needed at the time. I devoured audiobooks over the next couple of months, especially over 2020 quarantine when we returned to Alabama and I found myself back sitting in the backyard and doing chores at my family home for a while!

When the first 2020 stimulus checks hit, Jonathan and I decided that I was going to use some of mine to purchase a Kindle. I had wavered between being pro- and anti-e-reader for a long time. I had a Barnes & Noble Nook tablet, back when those were popular, which I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with, since it was pretty much a normal tablet with beefed-up e-reader software. I used it for a couple of years in high school and then never touched it again. Jonathan had a Kindle, though, that he really loved, and he thought it would be a good idea for me since it would cut back on our mountainous book collection if some were digital. He eventually prevailed, and I got the Kindle Paperwhite. I was still on my Roger Scruton kick, so I think I read a short book of his first on it, and then I read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. I got Jonathan to read it, too, and we spent a couple of very happy weeks chattering over it in my parents’ backyard. Even though it’s non-fiction, it’s a really fun, weird book that reads like a great southern gothic novel.

I’ve pretty much kept on reading at a steady clip for about two years now, after a really long dry spell in high school and college. I still fall off the wagon every so often, but usually finding a novel or non-traditional non-fiction book gets me back on track again. Sometimes I re-read a book I really loved; other times I pick stuff way outside of my wheelhouse. (I’m currently listening to an audiobook about the science of mushrooms, which is crazy—and not something I would normally read!) I think a lot of getting back to reading is just about starting with something manageable to create sustainable habits.

So, from my own experiences, here are my concrete tips:

  • make a reading goal that is ambitious, but achievable: something that will keep you on track but not be a burden
  • consider non-traditional reading media, like audiobooks or ebooks, especially if you have to read a lot already for your school or work, or if you have time to be read to but not necessarily read (certain jobs, moms and dads with small children, long commutes
  • find things that are interesting and accessible to you, rather than something that you feel obliged to read
  • avoid inciting your inner critic with genres, authors, or books that will encourage “arguments” with yourself, because then reading will get tiresome again
  • read outside your areas of expertise about topics that excite you
  • read fiction or creative non-fiction especially if you can’t read non-fiction without it feeling like school
  • consider reading with a friend, family member, or book group
  • if you get stuck, try something new and atypical or return to an “old friend” book

What about you? Do you have any advice for getting back into reading? What gets you excited to read?

CONFESSING JESUS: Book Launches Autumn 2022

I am absolutely thrilled to announce that I will be releasing my first book with Concordia Publishing House this autumn: Confessing Jesus: The Heart of Being a Lutheran! I have been working on this book in some form for nearly two years(!!), and am so excited that I can finally share it with all of you. I couldn’t have done it without all of my lovely friends over at CPH, or my incredibly patient and encouraging husband, Jonathan.

I will continue to post updates here (specifically on my page for the book, which you can also access from the menu bar) and on my Facebook author page, which I encourage you to give a ‘like’ and follow. And, if you’re not already, go ahead and ‘like’ the Facebook page for this blog or subscribing for email updates to stay up-to-date, too.

Coming Soon: A Simple Explanation of Church History

My latest contribution to Concordia Publishing House’s stellar A Simple Explanation tract series comes out in a few short weeks! I’m overjoyed to announce that CPH let me tackle A Simple Explanation of Church History, which was a challenge and a joy to work on.

This pocket-sized tract offers a super-fast survey of nearly 2,000 years of church history, from the Early Church to the current postmodern moment, with a special emphasis on the “genealogy” and development of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. With notes on everything from Benedict to to Bonhoeffer, from Odoacer to the Orthodox Lutheran fathers, this zippy little booklet is a great jumping off point for laypeople interested in an introduction church history from a Lutheran perspective.

You can preview and order in print or ebook on CPH’s website here. At the time of writing, there is a 15% off discount while it’s still in preorder!

Meditation on a Painting: Christ with the Peasants by Fritz von Uhde

Christ with the Peasants, Fritz von Uhde, c. 1887–8, oil on panel. Source

I have written elsewhere about the artwork of the Lutheran painter Fritz von Uhde. I find his work absolutely fascinating. He is famous for painting Christ in scenes of everyday life in nineteenth century rural Germany. Some people thought his work was vulgar or ugly for its realistic depictions of poverty and farm life, but he also garnered the interest and respect of the likes of Vincent van Gogh.1 I’m not as big a deal as van Gogh, but I really like his stuff, especially the above painting, “Christ with the Peasants” (Christus mit den Bauern). A plainly-dressed family—perhaps multi-generational, judging by the two couples, the one in the background appearing to be somewhat older—gathers together in prayer around their simple midday meal of soup in their spartan but cozy home. Jesus joins them, facing away from the viewer, a faint halo above His head and His hands gesturing in blessing. The two visible children and one of the women look directly at Him. From the window facing Jesus, it appears to be springtime, though the room is filled with a golden light that does not seem to be coming from the window.

What an image! Maybe this image also stirs something in you, too. What would it be like to have the Savior of the Universe, the eternal Word Who spoke the world into existence, standing in your living room?! As physical creatures with senses, bound in time and space, we crave this literal presence. We crave it with our friends and loved ones, and we also crave it with our God. But for a multitude of reasons, we can sometimes feel impossibly far off, isolated, and unreachable.

But we’re not. And that’s why I like this painting, and lots of others by von Uhde. What the painter depicts here is what we actually experience: Jesus really does continue to dwell with us. He dwells wherever His Word is, in Scripture and in our prayers.

And of course, there is something deeply Eucharistic about this image. I can’t help but see a depiction of Jesus being with people at a meal without going, “Huh, maybe there’s a Communion angle here?” I think there is! Jesus has promised us to be in His Supper, a true participation in His very Body and Blood.2 There, He binds Himself to each of us individually and to one another (hence the communio or fellowship part). There, He forgives us our sin and gives us eternal life—but eternal life that starts now, continues into heaven, and will be brought to its fullness at Jesus’s return to raise all the faithful to everlasting, ever-blessed life.

And because of this gift in the Sacrament, we’re enlivened to see the world a little bit more like Fritz von Uhde did. I find Uhde’s sort of realistic, sort of impressionistic style really complements the concept of the work: we are seeing something that is real but not visible, truly supernatural, and he is inviting us to see our own lives with this same vision. Even in the midst of temporal lack or hardship, Jesus is truly with us. Our normal day-to-day lives are overflowing with divine mercy and love, even if we can’t see it or don’t notice it. Your God hears you, answers you, loves you, redeems you, forgives you, and stays near to you.

“And, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”

Matthew 28:20 (KJV)

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fritz_von_Uhde
  2. 1 Corinthians 10:16: The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? (ESV)

The day I drove my car into a ditch

I drove my car into a ditch yesterday.

We were supposed to drive to St. Louis to tour an apartment we are considering for Jonathan’s fourth year at seminary. There had been some winter weather, but the area around us was clear and the roads looked fine from the Department of Transportation website and local news I checked beforehand.

About twenty miles into our trip, I started to experience some mild drifting while driving (well below the speed limit) on the interstate. It felt like the wind initially, so I didn’t worry about it. However, I must have been hitting black ice.

As I drove over what must have been a particularly bad patch, a semi truck passed me on the side, which I think kicked up a backdraft that caused my car to begin severely fishtailing. I slowed down and attempted to pull off on the side of the interstate, however the momentum from the back end of the car carried us into the soft shoulder. I managed to regain some control over the car and brought us to a stop in the ditch. Neither Jonathan or I was hurt in any way, and my car suffered no damage.

I am someone who is rarely “in the moment”—I’m usually planning what I need to do next or reflecting on something already passed. There is something surreal and nothing less than terrifying to be thrust so completely into the present, millisecond to millisecond passing at a snail’s pace.

It could have been a lot worse, and I am extremely thankful for the help we received from the emergency dispatcher, Illinois State Police Trooper, and tow truck drivers (the one who just stopped to check on us and the one who pulled my car out of the ditch) yesterday. I am also thankful for the many people who prayed for us before, during, and after our anticlimactic trip.

It could have been a lot worse, but I keep feeling the drifting sensation on the icy asphalt and the rattling stop in the snowy grass. I keep snapping back to the moment I thought “I need to pray, now” but the only words that I came out of my throat were “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” I keep remembering a year and a half ago when I had an ovarian cyst rupture, also while driving, and that same-but-different feeling of an interminable present in which I can only pray for mercy and wait.

Needless to say, we didn’t end up going to St. Louis yesterday. We drove home. I made a pizza and we ate it with some ice cream and watched Frasier. I didn’t ever cry until bedtime, when the adrenaline finally wore off and I felt the body ache that comes after pushing down fear to react to an emergency.

Yesterday morning, I was saying my prayers while looking through an older devotional book we have. I happened upon a prayer for the beginning of a journey, so I prayed it. It struck my how serious it was—I usually am not particularly nervous at the outset of a trip, because by now I am accustomed to driving in a variety of settings and weather situations, and I consider myself a cautious, attentive, and defensive driver. I know I certainly take my safety, health, and wellbeing for granted, and yesterday was a stark reminder of that.

But we are okay, my car is okay, everything is okay. The weather was better today, so Jonathan and I went to a new coffee shop and enjoyed time together.

I’m okay. Really. And I feel better now having written this out.

I know that driving your car into a ditch isn’t the end of the world, but it sure did make me thankful for God’s gift of my family, friends, and my life on this earth, even if it sometimes means you drive your car into a ditch. I am thankful for my God who bends His Ear to all our prayers, even when they’re inarticulate.

“For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let Your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me. Amen.”

A Dispatch in the Quiet

Apologies for my long pause in writing—we have had a very hectic winter season, though with the conclusion of a large, long-term project (about which I hope to share more in the near future), I have hope that things will quiet down again and my writings here will become more regular.

It is winter. I miss springtime. I enjoy winter, most especially Christmas, but winter too—though the cold winds and sleeping trees make me miss warm tranquil breezes and soft pink sunsets at seven. I am in a Jane Austen mood, as a result. Jane Austen and her novels seem to me to be in perpetual springtime.

The last year was surprisingly difficult for me. I started 2021 out quite well, but I feel like I lost the plot around this time last year. I hope to be picking it up again. I am far behind on tidying the house—a fact which will necessarily cut short this dispatch—but I feel that as I catch up, things are beginning to feel right again. You may find your own metaphor in that. And 2021 was not unmixed difficulty: there were quite a number of good and pleasant things, too. And for that I am thankful.

I am thankful for the ability to keep this blog and for your desiring to read it this past year (and, by the looks of it, now, too). So, thank you. For someone who feels so strongly a need to share the things that I love with the world, your willingness to oblige and read and receive is quite seriously indispensable. Again, thank you.

I look forward to continuing to make this a place of rest and joy in the upcoming year, and I look especially forward to sharing it with you.



Beauty and Christ: A Reflection on What it Means to Be Human

We inhabit a culture of terrible ugliness. Not only metaphorically—though there is plenty of ugly behavior, ugly politics, ugly thoughts and words—but also literal, physical ugliness, ugliness to which we have become desensitized and comfortably numb. I won’t dishearten you by parading out examples or generalizations; if you’re still reading this, you likely already know what I’m talking about. Many of us know, at some level, even if not in a conscious or articulate way, that there is something degrading, dehumanizing, wrong in so much of what surrounds us on a daily basis.

Beauty, in contrast to ugliness, tells us that it is good to be physical creatures.

Throughout my adolescence and early adulthood, I had an unsystematic checkerboard of things that just bugged me. I felt like a lot of things were ugly, even though I couldn’t always articulate why. I was teased (mostly good-naturedly) for being contrarian, and I gained a reputation for being picky about books, music, and art (including visibly rolling my eyes and complaining at most of the stuff in the contemporary wing of art museums). I didn’t have much in the way of an explanation for these opinions, which, really, were more feelings of discomfort, feelings that something was off, than coherent stances at that point.

These feelings of discomfort crescendoed during my first year of graduate school. I disliked almost everything I was reading, especially the stuff that was supposed to be foundational to understanding history or human nature or power. It all just felt ugly, if that were possible. But again, I had no way of articulating my distaste for these things, and no way to explain what I wanted instead. I got frustrated. Finally, I took the advice of a friend (I am forever indebted to you, Moacyr!) and started reading some work by the English philosopher and writer Roger Scruton. Slowly, I felt like I was gaining the words I needed to explain not only my distaste for Foucault and other postmodern theorists, but also all those other, seemingly unrelated things that had been bugging me.

Roger Scruton has written and spoken about beauty and its importance in our lives in a number of places, but if you’ve never read anything by him, this three-minute video, which is a series of quotes from lectures and things strung together against an atmospheric lofi music piece, is probably as good a place to start as any.

Beauty, in contrast to ugliness, tells us that it is good to be physical creatures—persons who exist as mind, soul, and body. The cult of ugliness tries to repudiate our physicality, to belittle it and make it horrible, evil even, in order to isolate ourselves from our own bodies and from one another, an isolation and hatred that will inexorably pull us away from the God who lovingly created our bodies. But there is a reason that most Christian philosophers throughout the centuries have stressed the importance of the Three Transcendentals: truth, goodness, and beauty. God did not create us as formless spirits—no, He created us each as human beings, a human being whose individual soul is miraculously bound together with an individual body, and, although separated at death, to which body the soul will be reunited at the return of Christ at the end of time. A thought or statement is good when it is true; a physical being or object is good when it is beautiful.

“Ah,” you may object, “but standards of beauty are always changing, and they can be so limiting!” Is that actually the case, though? If we step away from our dehumanizing and ugly world of pop culture, if we shut the TV off, put our phone down, and just walk around our block, is that really true? Can you honestly tell me that you don’t agree that the mourning dove tending her nest, the elderly woman waving from her doorstep, the Madonna with Child aren’t beautiful? That all of these beauties of nature, humanity, and redemption aren’t echoing, in some small and imperfect way, the “very good” spoken by the eternal Godhead at the creation of this physical, beautiful world?

The Resurrection of Christ (right wing of the Isenheim Altarpiece)
Matthias GrĂĽnewald
c.1512 – c.1516

Of course, we only see this beauty through a mirror clouded by sin and death, but we nevertheless ought to give thanks to God that we are allowed the peace and transcendence felt when we see newborn animals in the springtime, a mother playing with her baby, or a painting of the Resurrection of Christ. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, in some small way, these experiences of beauty can point us to Christ. Christ is the ultimate affirmation of our identity as embodied creatures, as Jesus, true God, absolutely divine, became man—took on our flesh and blood, walked and breathed like any other human being, stepped out from the unfathomable chambers of absolute transcendent divinity in order to bind Himself in time and space to be our Brother, Friend, and Redeemer. What greater blessing could be given, what sweeter word could be said about our bodies than that God Himself would deign to dwell among us, incarnated, embodied, fully human, fully man?

Beauty is good, even when the world ignores it or tries to stamp it out. God has created our physical world, a world of sights and sounds, a world where we can watch, listen, even create, whether that is through art, practical crafts, homemaking, work, or childbearing, and He has called it very good. And though that reality has been damaged, all is not lost. Out of His bountiful mercy, God has given us a world where we can cherish and give thanks for the beauty he pours into our lives—and even better, He has given us His Son, whom we can truly confess as “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ beside me” as a fellow man, not an abstract or anthropomorphic spirit, but the fullness of divinity indwelling in the flesh—our flesh—in order to redeem us forever.

Pop Music, Taylor Swift, and Storytelling

If you are a woman or know any women between the ages of about 18 and 35, odds are you’ve heard about Taylor Swift re-recording and re-releasing her old albums. (I don’t fully understand the legal reasons, but the short version is she didn’t have ownership of the original master tracks of her songs.) Last week, she re-released her 2012 album Red, along with some previously-unreleased songs and a 10-minute (!!!) expansion of the track “All Too Well”.

Like most women my age, I have paid attention to Taylor Swift for about the last ten years (I was late to the “Swiftie” party). Now, don’t get me wrong, I have very strong feelings about the Reputation and Lover eras (in short: they were awful), but I’ve been happily surprised at both her return to her older music and her more recent work in folklore and evermore. But, when a recent business project gave me a couple of hours in the car to spend scanning the pop stations, I realized something else: Taylor Swift seems to be the only well-known female pop artist who still writes songs that are actually stories.

I could spend a lot of time talking about how Taylor Swift still actually writes songs with physical instruments and seems to avoid the excesses of autotune that overload most of the Top 40 songs right now. And this is true. But I was more shocked at how different she is lyrically from the stuff I was hearing on pop radio. I don’t listen much to the radio—I’m not in the car by myself for long stretches of time, and I usually just camp out on the classical station for jaunts about town—and I listen mostly to playlists, audiobooks, or the occasional podcast if I’m listening to anything at home. But with about seven-ish hours total in the car, I decided to just see what they were playing on the radio. Not only is a lot of female pop music shockingly vulgar—if you need an example, you can find them on your own—but it’s also just…dull. It’s not a story, it’s not about characters, there’s no plot or problem or anything.

Here’s an example off the album evermore:

Taylor Swift has a good voice—she’s not doing anything vocally insane, she just performs car-singable songs. And no, the instrumentals aren’t baroque, but it’s so much more interesting that the dull guitar lick or synthesized hook played over claps/snaps equation that dominates everything else on the radio right now. But she paints a really evocative mental image. Her writing has always been really good; she’s got a knack for picking the right word or crafting a great line to capture an emotion, and the “plot” of songs like this one is compelling.

She also captures something uniquely feminine in her music that I think a lot of other female pop singers fail to. Taylor Swift is (in)famous for break-up songs—but they are almost all about fragility, regret, and loss from a distinctly female perspective. She taps into a lot of the same topics that we see treated in literature: the intensity of female emotions, especially in love, and how these can be redemptive or ruinous, productive or destructive, beautiful or tragic. Maybe she doesn’t have the same ability and literary complexity as Austen or Shakespeare when it comes to depicting this, but the themes are still there.

I think this is why Taylor Swift has managed to have more staying power than some of her contemporaries from the late-2000s/early-2010s. I’m no expert on this, but it seems like her more recent endeavours (even the ones I disliked) have been more popular than those of Katy Perry or Lady Gaga, who were equally popular a decade ago. The cloying, forced-peppy banality of “Firework” (with my least favorite lyric in all of music: “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag?”) has more or less disappeared from the popular mind, but you see teenage girls singing “You Belong with Me,” and “Fifteen” still resonates with the excitement, hopes, and tragedies of adolescence today and always.

If you haven’t yet, you should check out Taylor Swift’s more recent work and re-releases, especially if, like me, you’ve felt burned out on pop music for the last several years. There are some really cool tracks, really creative lyrics, and really compelling storytelling on the albums she’s put out in the last year or two.