Thursday, July 29, 2010

Discipline and Spiritual Growth

I wasn't looking for Dallas Willard's The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives when I came across it at Borders.  But two things caught my eye.  First, the cover art, showing a spray of pine needles and a pair of small cones.  Second, an endorsement by Richard J. Foster.  Because I know of and appreciate Foster's books on spiritual life, this was no trivial endorsement.

The concept of discipline is not something that appeals to most people.  We either associate it with self-discipline (can I watch my diet and keep up my exercise), punishment (as in corporal punishment), or perhaps a monk from the olden days who lived on bread and water in the desert and never spoke for 40 years.

Dallas Willard is careful to explain how we have misunderstood discipline and its place in spiritual growth.  Is it easy?  Frequently no.  Is it something that includes pain and sadness?  Again, no.  Take a look at Willard's classification of disciplines.  The "disciplines of abstinence" include solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, and sacrifice.  The "disciplines of engagement" include study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, and submission.  Willard backs everything up with sound, Biblical theology.

There is not enough room to go into the details that Willard provides supporting why these disciplines are not only useful but critical for spiritual growth.  I encourage you to read this book as well as Foster's Celebration of Discipline.

But here is one thought-provoking excerpt for you.  Touching on the philosophy of the ancient Greeks and Romans, Willard says that the "inability of classical civilization to produce sufficient people capable of serving as the foundation of good government destroyed the Roman Empire.  Early in human development, races of people are sufficiently under the duress of real needs to exalt the virtues that can make them strong.  But after thy become strong they have no sustaining principle that will allow the further development of virtue to maintain their society.  They lack the tension adequate to maintain character in their citizens.  No stable society can, therefore, be long maintained if it is prosperous.  A transcendental principle and tension is lacking, and that is what is abundantly supplied in the gospel of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom." (pp. 127-128)

I know from personal experience that a busy lifestyle makes it very difficult to find time to practice those forms of discipline which may further my spiritual growth.  I want to say there's not enough hours in the day!  But then Willard stopped me dead in my tracks: "Didn't God give you quite enough time to do what he expects you to do?"  I think maybe God was trying to tell me something.  Within a couple of days I came across this quote from H. Jackson Brown: "Don't say you don't have enough time.  You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Theresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein."  

For further reading:
Foster, Richard J.  Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth.
Foster, Richard J.  Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home.
Foster, Richard J.  Freedom of Simplicity.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Fantasy Art

Fantasy Art Now: The Very Best in Contemporary Fantasy Art & Illustration, edited by Martin McKenna, is a collection of pieces organized by "Brawny Barbarians and Hulky Heroes," "Warrior Women and Fearless Females," "Myths and Monsters," "Sirens and Seductresses," "Witches and Warlocks," "Fairies and Fey Folk," "Scenes and Settings," and "Brawls and Battles."  I don't claim to be an expert in fantasy art, but I didn't recognize the names of any of the artists.  And a very large percentage of these pieces seemed to come from online role-playing games and collectible card sets.  I was neither inspired nor impressed.

A much better place to find good fantasy art and science fiction art is the annual Spectrum collection edited by Cathy Fenner and Arnie Fenner.  (See, for example, Spectrum 16: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art.)  The coverage in these volumes includes well-known artists and up-and-coming stars as well as art in many different media.  While not every volume is stellar, most are very good, and provide both inspiration and the satisfaction of experiencing quality art.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


Abandoned.  Such a terrible word.  It conjures up images.  A baby in a blanket in a basket at the door of the church.  The empty shell of a house no longer wanted.  A vacant lot collecting weeds and litter.  Yet it's the word that comes to mind when I decide to "let a book go."

I used to feel guilty for not reading every book I buy.  It seemed like a waste of money.  Then one day a lightbulb went off in my head and I realized life is too short to read lousy books when there are so many good ones out there waiting to be read.  It's a waste of time to force myself to read something simply because I paid for it.

My rule of thumb is to give the author at least 10% of the length of the book to hook me.  If they haven't succeeded by then, I'm done with the book. This past week I had to abandon Calvino's Six Memos for the New Millennium (see this post for reference).  It was simply too literary, too erudite, for my tastes.  At least I hadn't paid full price for it.  I typically go for the cheapest copy of a book I can get my hands on (as long as it's in pretty good condition).  That helps to mitigate the guilt of letting one go.  (And it leaves more funds for other books.)  Plus, if I can recycle the abandoned book by giving it away, selling it, or trading it, that also helps diminish the guilt.

One might wonder, why not just check books out of the library?  That would be a great solution to the risk of buying boring books if it weren't for the fact that (a) frequently what I want to read is not available when I want it and (b) I usually can't finish a book before it's due back at the library.  I read too many books in parallel, so even if I'm finishing a lot of books each individual book is taking me a good while to finish.

Once in a great while I will abandon a book and return to it at a later date and read it after all.  That's what happened with The Ruins by Scott Smith.  I gave it 50 pages and then stopped, noting "Just couldn't get into it.  A group of stupid people, and not much happening except they don't quite know what they're doing or where they're going.  So what?"  But when I tried again a couple of years later - just before a trip to the Yucatan peninsula - I got engrossed in it and really enjoyed it.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate Cavalry Leader

My great-great-grandfather, Andrew Jackson Lacy, was a lieutenant in the Eighth Tennessee Cavalry (CSA), part of the brigade commanded by General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Lt. Lacy disappeared during the war and I have been trying to piece together every known fact that might help us learn his fate. Naturally, books about Forrest describe many engagements that my ancestor participated in, and they might be able to provide new clues.

I picked up a used copy of Robert S. Chambers' The God of War: When I Rode with N. B. Forrest/The Letters of Henry Wylie, knowing that it was fiction, but thinking I might learn something new, or a different way to think about what my ancestor went through.  I've decided against reading it, however. This "historical interpretation", as the author refers to it, consists of letters written by an imaginary soldier serving under Forrest to his family, describing what he was experiencing. But in skimming the book I realized the soldier writing these letters was not in a position to know many of the details he was sharing with his family. It was as if the letter writer had access to the same books on Forrest as Chambers did when researching his book.

Non-fiction books about Forrest and the battles in which his forces fought include:

Davison, Eddy W. and Daniel Foxx. Nathan Bedford Forrest: In Search of the Enigma.
Henry, Robert Selph. First With the Most Forrest.
Hurst, Jack. Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography.
Jordan, Thomas and J. P. Pryor. The Campaigns of Lieutenant General N. B. Forrest and of Forrest's Cavalry.
Lytle, Andrew Nelson. Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company.
Wills, Brian Steel. A Battle from the Start: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Wyeth, John Allan. That Devil Forrest.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Treasures of Astronomy

I just finished reading Owen Gingerich's The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus. Professor Gingerich, senior astronomer emeritus at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and research professor of astronomy and the history of science at Harvard, spent decades tracking down every known copy of Copernicus' famous book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium libri sex. It was in De revolutionibus that Copernicus proposed the heretical theory that the planets - including the Earth - orbit the Sun. The reigning paradigm had been one in which everything orbited the Earth.

The stories of Professor Gingerich's scientific detective work to find the just-over-600 known copies around the world are fascinating. One has to admire not only his scholarship but his tenacity.

When I saw this book in the bookstore I was drawn to it because of some personal circumstances. Several years ago I was helping a friend clean out his father’s basement. Paul said to take anything I wanted, as it was all going in the trash. There were a number of books, most of them of no interest. But one caught my eye. It was very old, and the cover was not in good shape. The title page was missing as well. The book was written entirely in German but I was able to tell that the author's foreword was dated March 25, 1777. What was most interesting were the tipped-in star charts in the back of this small book. There is one for each month of the year, with the constellations artistically depicted. There is also one showing the orbits of the planets and one showing the face of the moon.

I couldn’t take the book – not when I suspected it might be worth something. But I did some research and discovered that the book is Johann Elert Bode’s Anleitung zur Kenntniss des gestirnten Himmels. I believe because of the date of Bode’s foreword that this is probably the third edition, as the second edition came out in 1772. Subsequently I bought the book from Paul’s father and because of its condition I had it rebound. As far as I can tell it’s not particularly valuable, but the way in which I found the book, and the artwork in the charts, is enough to make me value the book highly.

Friday, July 16, 2010


Imprinting in the psychological sense - not the publishing sense.

Parents are encouraged to read to their babies long before the little ones can talk or even show they're listening somehow.

So does it work? Consider the evidence ...

When our daughter Kendra was a newborn I placed her lying down in my lap and gently rocked her from side to side while I read the Bible out loud to her. When she was a toddler we took her with us to bookstores. When she was a teen (or tween?) I bribed her into reading the Narnia series by C. S. Lewis. (I bribed her by promising her I would buy her more books.)

Now Kendra is a middle school English teacher and an author of several books (The Stone Garden; Reflection; Drachen), she reads more books and buys more books than I do (if that's possible), and a Narnia-themed library has led her to the right church.

Cue the Twilight Zone theme, please!

And yes, I'm very proud of her.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Discipline, Rationalization, and Bibliomania

In the past few days I've added several more books to my personal library, despite having enough books on-hand to keep me reading for at least a couple of years if I stopped buying. My excuse? Coupons at Half Price Books!

Self-discipline is so hard. I've tried everything from budgeting book money to rationing purchases so they never exceed the rate at which I'm reading to telling myself that I have to finish the last book I bought by a given author before I buy another one by the same author.

Nothing works for very long. Here are several ways to rationalize ignoring self-discipline when it comes to buying books:

1. Wait for this hardback to come out in paperback and it will be cheaper? But this price for a used copy is cheaper than the paperback will be when it comes out! (Ahem. But not as cheap as a used paperback copy will wind up being.)

2. If I don't buy this used book now, and decide to think about it, it will very likely be gone when I come back. And then I've wasted time and gas! And contributed to global warming!

3. I'm going to buy this book someday anyway so I may as well take advantage of this price and get it now. (But by the time I get around to reading it a cheaper copy - maybe a paperback - will probably be available.)

4. Half Price Books just gave me $25 for the books I sold them. So if I turn around and spend $25 in the store, I'm no poorer than when I came in, and I have some books too! (But if you walk out with the $25, you'll have more money than when you came in.)

5. Amazon will give me free shipping if I order at least $25 worth of books. I was intending to spend $15. But I can justify spending another $10 because I'll save several dollars just by avoiding shipping! I was going to get that $10 book someday anyway ... (Yeah, and Amazon's laughing all the way to the bank.)

There's no cure for bibliomania. And I hope no one's going to find one.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Knights Templar

The Knights Templar: Discovering the Myth and Reality of a Legendary Brotherhood, by Susie Hodge, is a well-illustrated overview of the origins of the Templars, the Crusades, the success of the Templars, and their eventual destruction - not by the hands of the Muslims but by the French crown and the Papacy. One detail of their story that I was not aware of is the belief that the Templars may have reached Nova Scotia in 1398, well before Columbus. I was also not aware that the Shroud of Turin has been linked to the Templars. The claim that the Templar fortress known as Krac des Chevaliers, in Syria, "is considered the greatest fortress in the world," certainly tempts me to put visiting the fortress on my "bucket list."

The Crusaders: Warriors of God, by Georges Tate, is also well-illustrated but provides more background regarding the Crusades. I remember when I finished reading this having a better understanding of "how the bloody 200-year confrontation between two worlds [Christian and Muslim] resulted in a mutual hostility and lack of understanding that persists to this day."

Of course many many novels have been written about the Templars and their secrets. Last April I read Raymond Khoury's The Last Templar and enjoyed it as an intriguing piece of escapist fiction. On the other hand, when my 9th-grade English teacher, Miss Spell, assigned Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe for me to read, I struggled through it somehow. I couldn't have told you, as Susie Hodge says in The Knights Templar, that Ivanhoe "reinforced the idea that the Templars were arrogant and overbearing and the possessors of esoteric anti-Christian secrets."

Finally, an excellent movie that deals with the Crusades and the Knights Templar is "Kingdom of Heaven." If you like movies directed by Ridley Scott ("Gladiator", "Robin Hood"), you'll like this one.

Friday, July 9, 2010


When I was about 12 years old, my parents enrolled me by mail in the Science Fiction Book Club. After getting the initial set of books that came with membership, every month a flyer would arrive and I would peruse the books that were available. Through SFBC I read Asimov's Fantastic Voyage, J. G. Ballard's eerie novel The Crystal World, Fred Hoyle's October the First is Too Late, and D. F. Jones' Colossus. Colossus was my first exposure to the concept of artificial intelligence. In this story the eponymous computer, responsible for U.S. defense, becomes self-aware and very dangerous to its creators.

Since the time Colossus was published there have been many science fiction stories and novels of self-awareness arising from the collective action of otherwise simple "non-intelligent" components of a system. Recent examples include M. M. Buckner's
Watermind and Frank Schatzing's The Swarm, as well as Daniel Suarez's Daemon and its sequel, Freedom. While we have yet to actually see true self-awareness arise in real life, there are many real-life examples of self-organization, a concept of key importance in the work of Ilya Prigogine (see last post). Self-awareness is the ultimate example of self-organization as an emergent property.

So what have I done? You guessed it. Bought another book, Robert J. Sawyer's WWW: Watch. This is the sequel to WWW: Wake, in which a form of consciousness arises across the millions of nodes on the Internet and only a blind girl is witness to it. Enjoying the first book as much as I did, I'm looking forward to the sequel.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Discipline, as in, "a lack of discipline in buying books"

Because of a severe case of bibliophilia, I have never succeeded for very long at any disciplined way of buying books. I always have more than I can read. I always find another I want. But perhaps there's another possible cure: force myself to blog on every book I buy. So here goes.

Today, at a local Half Price Books store, I bought the following.

Calvino, Italo. Six Memos for the Next Millennium. I've read virtually every piece of fiction Calvino has written that has been translated into English. My favorites are his more surreal works, like If on a winter's night a traveler and Invisible Cities. This collection of lectures addresses the question, "What should be cherished in literature?"

Hart, John. The Last Child. This mystery simply looked interesting to me.

Prigogine, Ilya. The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos, and the New Laws of Nature. Prigogine was a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry. I enjoyed reading (and trying to understand) his book From Being to Becoming: Time and Complexity in the Physical Sciences as well as Order Out of Chaos: Man's New Dialogue with Nature. If you want to impress someone by being able to discuss nonequilibrium thermodynamics, read Prigogine's work. (And the answer is no, I can't explain it. Just appreciate it.)

Wondrous Strange: The Wyeth Tradition. In recent years I've come to appreciate famous illustrators, especially Frank Frazetta (discussion of whom I will save for a future posting). There's something exciting about N. C. Wyeth's work - it says so much about adventure.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Civil War Diary of William R. Dyer

The Civil War Diary of William R. Dyer: A Member of Forrest's Escort, is a transcription of the terse diary entries made by a member of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest's escort. The transcription is in two parts: an exact transcription and a slightly edited transcription.

It is unfortunate that Dyer generally wrote a sentence or two on any given day. There is some detail, but not much. Consequently, what he wrote will be of primary interest to scholars following Forrest's movements, but there is likely nothing of major interest.
I would've liked the transcriber to have provided context and descriptions. And only the edited transcription was needed in this book; having both versions really served no purpose I can see.
Also see Michael R. Bradley's Nathan Bedford Forrest's Escort and Staff.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Pirate Latitudes

Finished reading Michael Crichton's Pirate Latitudes today. A fast, easy read, fun, lots of adventure, very enjoyable.

A number of characters from various walks of life - lawful and unlawful, highborn and low - makes for an interesting story. Action - including sabotage, naval engagements, piracy (of course), sharks, unfriendly natives, escapes, a hurricane, treachery, violent death - permeates the novel. I kept wondering, okay, how are these men going to get out of this danger?

Pirate Latitudes was found as a completed novel in Crichton's papers after his death. In some ways, though, it felt incomplete. There were a number of plot elements that were not exploited very well, that came and went too quickly. I think any one of them could have been utilized to build the action and suspense even further. Even so, this book would make just as good a movie as so many of his other books have.

Anyone planning a vacation to the Caribbean should read this book. But be warned: this is not Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean.

Also recommended: James Burney's
History of the Buccaneers of America.