Seneca, Lincoln, and Sasse: Read Fewer but Really Good Books

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“The main problem behind our insufficient deep reading is a frenzied pace and boundless digital distractions, but we have also passively let the potential for reading quantity undermine the habit of repeatedly reading quality – of returning again and again to a small number of important texts…”

– Senator Ben Sasse, The Vanishing American Adult (New York: St. Martin’s, 2017) 227.

“Both the paucity of books and his own intellectual bent led Lincoln to repeated reading of a relatively small number of books. He did not skim across the top of a thousand books but immersed himself in a dozen or two.”

– William Lee Miller, Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography (New York: Vintage Books, 2002), 49.

“Be careful, however, that there is no element of discursiveness and desultoriness about this reading you refer to, this reading of many different authors and books of every description. You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind.”

– Seneca, Letter II, Letters from a Stoic (New York: Penguin, 2004), 33.

Abigail Adams on Personal Appearance

JQAAs a member of the United States Senate, John Quincy Adams, son of the second president and founder John Adams and himself a future president, received a letter from his mother Abigail Adams saying:

“Seriously, I think a man’s usefulness in society depends much upon his personal appearance. I do not wish a senator to dress like a beau, but I want him to conform so far to the fashion as not to incur the character of singularity nor give the occasion to the world to ask what kind of mother he had.”

– Harlow Giles Unger, John Quincy Adams (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2012), 135.

Senator Obama: We *Should* Want People to Bring Religion into the Public Square

obama speech.jpgMost of us have heard it said that people should not bring their religious views into the public square. At first this seems reasonable, until you consider, say, our own history.

In his recently released book Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America (Thomas Nelson, 2017), Michael Wear who advised candidate and President Obama on faith issues, quotes a speech his boss gave as a senator in 2006 to support his claim that Democrats and progressives should neither ignore nor seek to marginalize faith. The quote offers a compelling reason why we should not ask people to check their religion at the door of the public square – namely, because faith has impelled many to fight for some of the most important and desirable political and social changes in our nation. (Another reason is that there is no such thing as a morally “neutral” public square;  everyone, religious or not, appeals to ultimate values and beliefs. The question then becomes: Whose values, whose morality, should dictate discourse at the public square?)

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“Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King—indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history—were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition” (18).

Read the full speech here.

Barack Obama on Pursuing Common Ground

Obama.jpgIn his book Reclaiming Politics: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America (Thomas Nelson, 2016), Michael Wear, who directed outreach to faith-based organizations for the White House, reminds Christians that their faith can motivate working with others who believe differently but who share common ground. He articulates this using the quote below from President Obama’s speech at the 2012 National Prayer Breakfast.

I like this quote because it is crucial for Christians to remember that our faith does not prescribe a particular political program. There is not a direct line from Scripture to either lower taxes, smaller government, and charter schools, or to higher taxes, a more active government, and more investment in public schools and other public enterprises. (Here I’m borrowing from Robert Benne’s superb book Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics – the best treatment of this topic I’ve come across.)  When Christians forget this, it’s easier for any one party to “hijack” Christianity. This is why some people end up believing, sincerely, that if Jesus were alive today he would be a Republican, or a Democrat. (Admittedly, it is the Republican Party that has fallen into this pit more clearly in recent years and decades; Democrats, on the other hand, have too often belittled, ignored, or even maligned religion, to their fault and loss.) Moreover, whether or not Obama has consistently practiced what he said below, I believe his statement is absolutely correct and worth heeding as our nation grapples with intense division and mutual mistrust.

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“Now, we can earnestly seek to see these values lived out in our politics and our policies, and we can earnestly disagree on the best way to achieve these values. In the words of C. S. Lewis, ‘Christianity has not, and does not profess to have, a detailed political program. It is meant for all men at all times, and the particular program which suited one place or time would not suit another.’

“Our goal should not be to declare our policies as biblical. It is God who is infallible, not us. Michelle reminds me of this often. So instead, it is our hope that people of goodwill can pursue their values and common ground and the common good as best they know how, with respect for each other” (98).

 

Reclaiming Politics

recl-hopeIn his just-released book Reclaiming Hope, Michael Wear writes about his time working in the Obama White House as Director of Faith Outreach (including for the 2012 reelection campaign), and the reasons people of faith should engage in politics. (We should get involved, says Wear, as a matter of fulfilling the command to love our neighbors and seek the well being of society.) In the excerpt below, Wear discusses how politics can affect (and has affected) the state of our souls to our detriment given the division and toxicity marking so much of our political discourse. This is the first in a series of posts featuring excerpts from the book I think are worth sharing.

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“One lesson from my time working with the president and religious leaders is that politics is a central influencer of the cultural health of our nation. This book focuses on politics because political institutions create and drive culture, and we can no longer ignore this aspect of how politics functions. As I have talked to pastors around the country, I’ve come to understand that many of those who refrain from political engagement do so not because they believe it is unimportant, but because they know, for too many of their congregants, politics is important in all of the wrong ways. If we are to reclaim hope, we must understand our nation’s political life and our role in it. Politics is causing great spiritual harm and a big reason for that is people are going to politics to have their inner needs met.

“One dictionary defines ‘reclaim’ this way: “to bring (uncultivated areas or wasteland) into a condition for cultivation or other use.” This book takes that process quite literally” (xxix).

Abraham Lincoln: Telling Jokes, Collapsing in Laughter

lincoln.jpgDon’t take yourself, or others, so seriously that you cannot abandon yourself laughter or keep in high esteem those who do. Take Lincoln, for example:

“…not only throughout his life but on out into his posthumous fame and glory his penetrating mental activity would be obscured by his reputation as a teller of jokes, by the greater thread of humor that ran through his life and being. One can’t tell jokes and stories like those, and collapse in convulsions of laughter, and have humor as an essential constant part of one’s being, if one is an intellectually serious person” (5).

– William Lee Miller, Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2003), 5.

And the Award for Best Christian Goes To…

newton.jpgWho are the “celebrities” of Christendom?

We might think of important historical figures like Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Aquinas, Joan of Arc, and Luther, and run up to the present day with people like C.S. Lewis, John Henry Newman, Francis Schaeffer, J.I. Packer, John Piper, and Pope Francis (who of this group probably comes closest to true celebrity status).

But we know the dangers of too highly exalting someone and forgetting that all they were and did was given by God, the Giver whom we dare not take our eyes off even as we thank and praise him for his gifts. And besides, it is appropriate and biblical to remember that true greatness usually lies where we least think to look – in the lives of suffering and weak saints whose childlike trusting and leaning on Christ for succor and comfort amid life’s troubles may seem unremarkable to us but is in God’s eyes precious. So look not to the famed preacher who’s written dozens of bestsellers and whose ministry reaches every corner of the world, but to the woman at church sitting in the back who feels socially disconnected and is struggling with depression but who comes to church anyways because she knows that God intends to use the preaching of his word and the fellowship of his people for her good, even when she doesn’t see immediate results. This is what Tony Reinke calls “gospel simplicity” in his book John Newton on the Christian Life (Crossway, 2015):

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“Newton supposes that if he could search out the world to award a man, woman, or child with a trophy for being the most godly Christian on the planet, the award would not go to an eminent Christian, or even to a public Christian—not to a pastor, seminary professor, or author. The greatest Christian in the world, Newton supposes, is most likely a man of faith who just barely survives in this world thanks to a homeless shelter and the meager employment he finds on the lowest rungs of the social ladder. Or perhaps, Newton speculates, the greatest Christian is a bedridden old woman in a mud cottage who has learned through years of trials to adore Christ and trust him and his timing in everything. Low thoughts of self and high and admiring thoughts of Christ are the sure marks of the godliest Christian, even if such a Christian is likely unnoticed by the world and overlooked by most Christians. The best models of gospel simplicity are the poorest and the weakest Christians who have been emptied of all self-sufficiency, and who have learned to fully submit their lives to the lordship of Christ, his will, his wisdom, and his timing” (105).