Haunted By Eden

we live in a world haunted by Eden:
half is ruled by logic
0s and 1s harnessed to make machines
binary codes flicker into modern idols
hooking the mechanical bloodstream to ours
like an IV drip
half is given to wonder
a man can explain his own reality
or call it all illusion
1+1=2 in academic truth but judge not
what a man calls his god

are we algorithms, brushing against each other?
accidental programs of A, G, C, and Ts
we live in a world haunted by Eden:
in ceaseless striving for purpose
yet drowning in self-addiction
a worshipper’s soul chafes against the lies
that cells and galaxies exploded
from an empty inkwell
and the ache for meaning is
a chemical misfire

is it love or mathematics?

functions never parameterized heartbreak
or taught a man to die for another.

Solomon

Son of a warrior-king and his stolen wife,
bloodlines of sin and grace,
who’s God is untamed by man:
choosing Jacob over Esau,
the weak to shame the strong,
the wild branches grafted in.

Your renown sailed from Tyre to Sheba,
author of proverbs and poetry
architect of the temple
hands callused with ink and the cedars of Lebanon
labors of a heart wholly true—
yet how swift to fall from truth.

Wisdom cries aloud in the street
but you threw her off like a scandal
to embrace a harem and their gods
the ark, the cherubim, the Shekinah glory
forgotten, lost as the smoke of burnt offerings,
the blood blackened
the flame vanquished.

You spared a child from the knife,
yet carved a kingdom in two.

Your words taught men through ages,
but a bitter life taught you:
time is a splinter in the plane of eternity
and there is nothing new under the sun.
You did not need to know what a small blue orb
we spin on, to know it is all chasing wind
—wealth, wisdom, women—
the Preacher preaches,
but we are as deaf as a once-wise king.

What good is it to gain the world?
a Savior echoed, centuries later.

Son of a warrior-king and his stolen wife,
bookends of mercy mark your days,
who’s God is untamed by man:
you built Him a house,
though He built your bones,
you filled the Holy Place with sacred things,
and He tore the curtain.

The Shoulders of Giants

TV on Street

“I want to thank the Academy…”

They all share the Oscar with their families, with their colleagues, with the nameless downtrodden of the world. “This is for you.” The golden trophy will sit on their shelf at home, but somehow, in spirit, it belongs also to the ten or ten thousand others he named on that stage.

Other than my middle school math contest fluke and participating in piano recitals, I think its safe to say my trophy days are over. If I ever have such a platform, or an acknowledgements page in a book, you can look for yourself there. I have already imagined that I will put your name in bold script with a paraphrase of Newton’s quote.

“I stand on the shoulders of giants.”

In a world that loves the polished front and saving face, you protect my frailty. My friend’s father says, “If you’re dumb, you gotta be tough.” Unfortunately, I’m often the former, and not the latter, but you always have my back—scraped knees, splinters and broken hearts. You beat up my old dinosaur book when it started screeching in the dark. You brought me McDonalds after I braved the hospital shots. You held me when I cried in a hotel room because I thought my world was ending. You answered the phone when I killed the car battery at 10 PM. I’m working on being tough, but in the meantime at least I can say, “When I’m dumb, my Dad is tough.” Thank God.

In a world that hangs love on terms and conditions, you are steadfast. I have seen children who are a prize, measured by the sum of their awards, the rank of their schools, the letters that trail behind their names. But I am just your little girl, the daughter you said you wanted, in a culture that clamors for sons. I know the rest is nothing to you—some fun but dispensable bragging points at noisy Asian parties—because I don’t think any of your friends would do this: offer to let their kid drop a job and move home because their heart was hurting, in a completely non-medical-emergency way.

In a world of proper-looking photos, we are gangsters, pirates, and kangaroos. Venice canals, Roman architecture, and New Zealand beaches are neither sacred nor safe under the glare of our camera lens. There must be something deep about this—like how we laugh in the face of human constructs of significance. You have my humor (or I have yours), and its runs its thread through our picture albums, in the movie theaters, and at stiff boring parties. It flickers in the pirate pose, in the joke no one else finds funny, in the glimmer of mirth we share amid an oblivious crowd. Our laughter understands in a way words cannot capture.

You are in a story I wrote this year, and my professor cried. You are in the pictures I share, and my friends laugh. You are among the people I boast about, and boys say they want to be like you. (Because, I think, of your mastery of travel points and credit cards). It’d be nice to find one who really is.

Love is a debt I cannot pay, a gift I cannot touch. It is in the life you give me, the life you live alongside me. It is in the labor I do not see always see, it is in the words I cannot always find.

Mei you ni, mei you wo.

This is my Oscar speech, overtime and under-read, but its really only written for you, anyway. Cue the commercial break.

Today We Talked About Stories

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Today we talked about stories. “No literature is truly profound,” you said, “that does not gaze upon death and wrestle with it.”

You come from a culture that looks away, hiding behind white garments and doctors’ hushed tones. When you asked after your friend’s mother-in-law, she said they were observing her 100th birthday. I remember, with a flash of humor, that you nearly sent her well wishes before you realized the woman was cold in the grave. There is no soft synonym for death in our mother tongue—she’s gone, passed away, no longer with us—so we say nothing at all. We cover it in silence and dirt, by the millions.

I grew up in a culture that sugarcoats, inventing euphemisms as if an exchange of words can temper our ruthless fate. We listen to a society spin convenient yarns: In our youth, Death is incentive to chase happiness, because You Only Live Once. In our contemplation, Death is dangerous to dwell on long, turning thinkers into maniacs. In polite company, Death has no place in conversation, drowned in teacups and gossip. At a funeral, Death is a sure entrance to A Better Place, affirmed by the man at the pulpit. All of us who are living are also dying, and we convince ourselves it is not so bad.

You read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Hugo and Dickens. Like Greek philosophers of old, the best minds press on the vein of the deepest questions, cut into human nature until it bleeds. But in the end, they also must look away, or sink into despair, or treat it too lightly.

“No literature can bear the weight of death,” you said, “without a right theology of God.”

Martin Luther said, “Every man must do two things alone; he must do his own believing and his own dying.” Thank you for teaching me the True Story, that by God’s grace, I may do both well.

Today we talked about truth. “Every religion is man trying to reach God, or some higher spiritual plane, or some better sense of self,” you said. “But the truth is, we cannot reach God. God reached down to us, in Christ.”

You sent me off to the halls of higher education, a hailstorm of evolutionary theory and existential philosophy, without batting an eye. Maybe it was nothing compared to your college experience—complete with high quality communist movies from North Korea and Russia. But now I know why you were not afraid. The truth is not something fragile, that needs iron bars to protect it from the world. No, the truth is something fierce, that tears down strongholds of lies. That shakes the pillars of the Earth and stirs our blood. That says, with Paul, we are most to be pitied if Christ did not rise from the dead. That dares you to find it false.

Your heroes are not the celebrities, the entrepreneurs, the Nobel Prize winners. Yours are the ones who fought to know truth and fought to defend it, who pursued the glory of God despite the displeasure of men, who counted all things as loss for the sake of knowing Christ.

Charles Spurgeon said, “Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right.” You will not settle for less than that either. When a Man comes into our world and says He is God, who can take that lightly? Thank you for teaching me never to trivialize truth, that it is a hard and holy thing, and that it can set the sinner free.

Today we talked about everything and nothing. “So every year,” you said, “they will make another movie about this fake universe and fake characters and people will pay to watch it? Zhen me wu liao.”

How boring, you said in Chinese, and we laughed. It’s difficult to capture the full-orbed meaning in English—boring, silly, tasteless—and harder to describe why it’s gold coming from you—candid and genuinely perplexed, but not cruel or condescending.

“Of course,” I said staunchly, but I don’t fight back. I gave up long ago trying to convince you why Star Wars was not just for idiots, and sometimes I need your honest irreverence to see the absurdity of our lives.

Our times are in desperate need of people like you. Hence I suggested, with varying degrees of sincerity, that you should record a podcast, host a talk show, or write an autobiography. You laughed at me and said I would be the only listener, follower, or reader—and you continued quietly with your life.

I doubt it, but you made me think. How many mothers do their thankless duties with an audience of one?

Today a strong, independent woman comes with a particular characterization: a feminist empowered to break the chains to societal expectation, religion, institution, and men. To be whatever she wants, to define her own destiny. In pursuit of freedom, we have shackled womanhood to a religion of self-worship. In a march for equality, we have defied divinity to count nothing sacred but the Self: my way, my truth, my life. I wonder, what makes freedom and equality so worth fighting for, if they are nothing but man-made ideals?

Yet if they are divine, we all sit under the judgment of the Creator, and the Maker of its morality.

In a world spinning wild, you show me strength: to forsake what is wrong and hold to what is true. You show me freedom: to think little of self, so I might know a Savior. You show me womanhood: to be gentle but not timid, to have a simple faith but a probing mind, to fear God and not man.

Jim Eliot, echoing the words of Jesus and Ecclesiastes, said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Thank you for teaching me to have eternal eyes, that I might hold these fleeting things loosely, that I might have Christ.

Today we talked about stories. Sometimes you laugh at the ones I read, and I snooze at the ones on your shelf.

Today we talked about truth. We have God-shaped souls, though we are small people, anchored by gravity to a small world, hung on a spiraling, galactic canvas of creation.

Today we talked about everything and nothing. We sit in a quiet corner of the globe, eating breakfast and watching the rain. On the scales of eternity, our lives are but a flicker, and a moment lapses into memory with each breath. But I thank God, that in the time and space he carved around us, He made you my mother.

Malinche in the Digital Storytelling Chasm

I wrote this essay for one of my classes last quarter*. It’s kind of outside my scope of usual work (both in terms of my studies and my general hobby writing), but I really enjoyed it. I got to think about literature+tech and implications of e-books. Rather than letting this gather dust on my hard drive, I thought I’d share it in case it generates any interest. Note it is an academic piece, so I’m not gabbing in my usual, more conversational(?) tone. So here’s a peek into what I’ve been doing at school!

Literature once stood as an intervention in the attention economy, illuminating the pitfalls of the sociotechnical world, but technology is turning it into another competitor. Who will read classics verging on a thousand pages when Facebook, Netflix and Amazon remain a swipe and a tap away? The attention economy runs on the well-oiled wheels of distraction and instant gratification. However, the rise of new media does not herald the death of literature but the transformation of it. Just as music travelled through the mediums of vinyl discs, cassette tapes, CDs, and iTunes playlists without demise, writing faces a similar evolution. The invention of the printing press in 1450 formalized the concept of the book, which is now challenged by the advent of electronic literature and e-readers.

What role will e-books play in the history of reading and writing? Could they eliminate traditional narrative forms, such as lengthy epics, and give rise to new ones? In Malinche and the End of the World, Franco Berardi warns of the conquering automaton, drawing parallels to the Spanish conquest of Mexico. In that historical event, Malinche “is the symbol of the end of a world, and also the symbol of the formation of a new semiotic space of world-projection at the intersection between two different codes” (Berardi 106). E-books are the Malinche of our literary times. They continue to use, with nostalgic reminiscence, understandable signs of the old world—page flips and bookmarks—while translating the printed word into the “superior” code of zeros and ones. They herald the rise of a New World, where story narratives become embedded in an immersive digital experience of humanity.

Much as Malinche bridged the gap between her native roots and the conquistadores, e-books stand between the collapse of the old literary world and formation of a new one, functioning as a translator and marker of the shifting code. The tension in the technology surrounding e-books highlights the conflict between the two worlds. This is prominently seen in the visual book metaphor, which designs the interaction with digital text to resemble physical techniques (Pearson 22). Digital imitations of page flips exemplify one debated use case: the computational cost of rendering page turns is high, and it offers the reader no functional value. Among digital document designers, some believe such embedded book metaphors are effective because of their visual and interactive similarities to printed material. Others judge the long-run model limitations will restrict new possibilities, as “it tends to lead designers away from the potential of new media capabilities, thus meeting with the functions of paper but never actually surpassing them” (Pearson 22). Some might frame the debate as one between traditionalists and visionaries, but a Berardian view reveals an attempt to understand an emerging world on the basis of old code.

While the book metaphor remains strong in digital documents today, it marks a transitional phase rather than a permanent stagnation. The inevitable progress of technology reading platforms will make the visual book metaphor more incongruous with the new medium, and document design will be forced to adapt. Consider the stages other technologies underwent, such as motor vehicles.

“For example, in the absence of any better proposals, the first motor cars were designed to look like carriages, which were, at the time, a very familiar sight. Over time, however, these carriage-shaped vehicles were eventually overtaken, and cars now bear little resemblance to the once primitive-looking early automobiles” (Pearson 100).

As a technology enters uncharted waters, its evolution takes it further away from familiar mediums, adapting it to maximize functionality and value within expanded constraints. For vehicles, progress entailed optimizing physical design given new horsepower and speed capabilities. For e-books, designers might increasingly leverage the combined strengths of physical and digital mediums. Potential developments could include: document design for multiple windows, improvements of inputs with no-touch gestures, indexing and linking annotations in fundamentally new ways, and more. As the shift to this new code commences, the semantic voids formed indicate the fast-paced transition that is occurring. E-books maintain terms like “bookmarks” and “pages,” despite their physical absence, in the linguistic scramble to define the current reality. The question is no longer if the old literary world will collapse into a new one, but how that world will look.

One of the markers of immersive digital storytelling will be the inevitable redefinition of the book. While the exact form of future writing remains open to speculation, examining how the medium controls the message offers clues on two levels: first, how the feedback loop between media capabilities and usage informs e-book design; and second, how the position of the e-book on connected devices shapes narrative content. In the case of the former, margins in print books illustrate a historical precedent of the feedback loop. Margins were initially meant to serve a practical purpose, enabling readers to handle books without staining printed parts of the page. As books became commodities, margins became places to write notes, something unheard of when books were a costly luxury (Pearson 13). The design of this medium preceded new usage methods, demonstrating the often-unexpected side effects of technology. Margins remain relevant in books today, and some are even designed for effective note taking.

In a contemporary parallel, research about digital reading patterns shape the design of Web pages. In her study of close reading versus “hyperreading,” N. Katherine Hayles points out the tendency to read web content in an F pattern, which in turn transforms design choices. Important material should never be relegated to the bottom right page corner, for instance. “Canny Web designers use this information to craft Web pages, and reading such pages further intensifies this mode of reading” (Hayles 70). This feedback loop can be extended to e-books as well. The visual book metaphor ensures similar reading habits to print, but as digital documents evolve away from that, designs might morph based on hyperreading patterns. James Sosnoski introduced the idea of hyperreading as “reader-directed, screen-based, computer-assisted reading,” and examples include search queries, keyword filters, hyperlinking, juxtaposing and scanning (Hayles 66). As these concepts solidify, e-book designs might follow with built-in search bars, multi-window layouts and more intentional schemes to match reader habits.

The medium also controls the message in a broader scope: the positioning of the e-book in a world of connectivity leads to massive implications, such as the reduction of narrative length and potential breakdown of the book as a whole unit. E-books primarily reside on wireless tablets, making it a swipe away from games, shows, and social media. The transition from isolated print books to a medium with connectivity forces writers to compete in an attention economy where other digital goods often provide more entertainment and gratification. Ken Wissoker, envisioning the future of the book as a media project, urges authors to remain relevant with the times by adapting their content to the platform:

If, as an author, one assumes readers are reading an e-book on an iPad or other tablet, with their e-mail and Twitter stream constantly a click away—not to mention the rest of the Web waiting nearby too—what would one need to do to keep those readers’ attention? The book should be as tight and compelling as possible. Perhaps the same study that would work as a 280-page paperback should be edited down to 75 pages. What do you really need the reader to know? There might also be more of a premium on narrative and style to make the reading experience a more engaging one. (Wissoker 133)

Without naming it, Wissoker identifies the demands of the attention economy on writers: Conform, or become obsolete. The downsizing of narrative length may appear like an incremental change, but the truncation of a literary work changes the message. Readers have always drawn a distinction between a written piece and its summary, between Shakespeare and the corresponding Spark Notes. At what point does the summary become the message itself? When Wissoker asks, “What do you really need the reader to know?” he implies a fundamental shift in value, from substance and depth to brevity and style.

While Wissoker posits the reduction of length for tablet reading, he also predicts the value of long tomes given text searchability (134). Here, the assumed value is in reader discovery, which can be improved with more available text, rather than reading a work in its entirety. In this case, the influence the medium exerts over the message could foreshadow the breakdown of the book as a whole unit. When Neil Postman addresses the power of the written word medium, he says:

“writing freezes speech and in so doing gives birth to the grammarian, the logician, the rhetorician, the historian, the scientist – all those who must hold language before them so that they can see what it means, where it errs, and where it is leading” (12).

Print locks the original form, structure and flow of content according to the author’s design. Digital media capabilities such as searchability, extraction and re-organization of book segments have the opposite effect, “unfreezing” the writing. This “unfreezing” is already seen in functionality like simple copy-and-paste and Kindle’s ability to extract and present highlighted quotes from various e-books. Taken further, Wissoker envisions the possibility of a playlist model, similar to iTunes or Spotify, where readers customize playlists selected from book chapters and articles (133). Just as the playlist model in music allows for listening to a song without its entire album, it can permit and strengthen the habit of reading only selections from a book. Another potential consequence is the genesis of new vocations. As Postman remarks that writing gave birth to logicians and historians, will digital media give birth to content re-mixers? Just as there is an art to mixing musical tracks as a DJ, a new type of skilled artisan might come into demand, one that mines the digital literary trove and creates thematic playlists.

The changing mediums and literary consequences ultimately have larger societal ramifications. An examination of literature’s digital New World cannot end with technical speculation, but should extend to the cultural impact, such as how knowledge will be consumed and disseminated. Books have been vital in the lifeblood of recent civilization, functioning as both an evidence and advocate of our common humanity. They shape the current “world,” which Berardi essentially defines as shared meaning in a community. As e-books take the stage and point to an evolution in electronic literature, the question becomes: How will meaning and shared values change in this era? In 1997, Richard J. Cox writes about the already heated debate over the future of the book. He concludes:

“Whether the book is a physical object or electronic shadow is almost beside the point. The real matter is that we understand, regardless of what might replace the book, the nature of information and knowledge in our society. It is what any society or culture is held together by, the book being a part of the symbols and memories of a society” (Cox 55).

While he rightly speaks to the heart of the matter, “the nature of information and knowledge,” the evidence does not allow us to dismiss the form of the book. The medium is integral in defining the nature of information. With the digitization of literature, the New World might be the endgame in the commoditization of books, which began with low cost paperbacks. Greater accessibility leading to information fatigue ultimately leads to reduced desirability. As a result, particular types of literature, such as scholarly writing and long novels, become increasingly archaic. Various conjectures about the cultural consequences ensue: the reduced prestige of academia, or a society designed around distraction instead of attention, living from notification to notification.

The path from e-books today to such a bleak world is possible but not definite. It is fitting to echo Berardi’s sentiments, that the collapse of the old world into a new one is inevitable, but the shape and language of the New World cannot be ascertained in this transitional phase. He asks, “Will pleasure, affection, and empathy find a way to reemerge of out their conjunctive framework? Will we translate into human language the connective language of the automated semio-machine whose buzzing is growing in our heads?” (Berardi 109). Berardi ends his essay with these questions, indicating that the conquering automaton might not destroy all that is good in the old civilization. While a mindless continuation down today’s path in digital literature could spiral into distraction and de-valuation of knowledge, another vision remains possible. Though e-books are the Malinche of our literary times, standing in this crucial chasm between traditional books and a digital future, we do not need to be Malinche, defined as either a traitor or victim. As e-books bring together writers, user experience designers, and engineers, thoughtful professionals can collaborate for a higher purpose than grabbing a slice of the attention economy. With more powerful tools at our disposal, we can uphold the tradition of the book as a vehicle of knowledge and public good. The medium might control the message, but we are the ones shaping and designing the medium.


Sources
[1] Berardi, Franco. “Malinche and the End of the World.” e-Flux: The Internet Does Not Exist, Apr. 2015, pp. 100-109.
[2] Cox, Richard J. “Taking Sides on the Future of the Book.” American Libraries, vol. 28, no. 2, 1997, pp. 52–55.
[3] Hayles, N. Katherine. “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine.” ADE Bulletin, 2010, pp. 62-79.
[4] Pearson, Jennifer, George Buchanan, and Harold Thimbleby. “Designing for Digital Reading.” 2014.
[5] Postman, Neil. Amusing ourselves to death: public discourse in the age of showbusiness. London, Methuen, 2007.
[6] Wissoker, Ken. “The Future of the Book as a Media Project.” Cinema Journal, vol. 52, no. 2, 2013, pp. 131–137.
* Originally written for Critique of Technology at Stanford, March 2017.

eleven strangers: in haiku

eleven strangers
meet in winter’s bluster and
peel away their masks

she stitches stories
from silence and fleeting lives
this is her halo

he meets the world in
the curve of an integral
day breaks above sea

kindness is a word
he whispers through the marble
cutting the granite

double-spaced essays
dance in the base of his throat
breathed into new life

home is an anchor
where a mother strokes her hair
and makes the world flee

a little girl’s dream
paints too small a fantasy
for her new canvas

earth, wind, air and fire
she builds her castle in the
California sands

life is a labyrinth
but wings lift her above walls
a view from the skies

he walks in bare-faced
challenging the masquerade
the stage vanishes

learning stirs their souls
her classroom is a voyage
into the unknown

Trinity

I’m tired
of bleeding verses for the ones I lose
and I ask God
when will it stop? Because I
wish-wish-wish I could love you.
And maybe I do:
to feel the fragility and forget it
long enough to dream
of telling make-believe stories
and laughing at absurdities
and asking you to
stay.
These reveries are hollowed out
by the loss of things that never were,
anyway.

I’m afraid
of where your empty paths will lead
and I ask God
for a miracle. Because I
wish-wish-wish I could save you
from restless unbelief.
But in my helplessness, here I
find my peace:
That my God makes the blind to see
in Christ
He is more than our small fantasies
of what a god is like.
Majesty-meekness-holy-lovingkindness.
And though I
miss-miss-miss you
His ways are higher than mine.

I pray
that He meets you on a Damascus road
where the darkness dies to light
and you might know the God
who loves us more than life.

golden thread

You said You made foolish
the wisdom of the world
and I see, all around me, this mad race
to leave immortal imprints:
social good, politics and technology
to concoct hollow philosophies:
sealing God out of our closed-system
universe, like a vacuum,
trying to make sense of life without
the One who breathes spirit into dust
knit bones and flesh and soul
puts purpose in our being
what is teleology without theology?

we ask, what is God?
and the blasphemy of men shout
but at a sight of Your glory
the Psalmist asks,
what is man?
that You are mindful of him

yet You have loved the fools
redeemed the rebels
there is none who seeks You
but here is an alien grace:
You pursue, You purchase, You perfect
You wrestled with Jacob for a night
and met Moses as a friend
You loved Israel like Hosea loved a whore,
faithful to the faithless
You made the denier a martyr,
the chief of sinners, a prince of preachers

and You came after me:
it must be I can’t comprehend
the wisdom of God, that You would
make this wretch a vessel of mercy
to strip away all the empty things
so I might know Love that reached
from eternity
through the Garden, the Flood,
the Exodus, the Exile
through silence and blood, You never leave,
though all of us should have died
grace is a golden thread,
like a genealogy of outlaws crowned
in Christ

Top Reads of 2016: The Shortlist

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I’m a bit late to this game, but in case you’re looking for a few good books to add to your docket, I put together a shortlist of some favorites from 2016. These weren’t necessarily written last year; that’s just when I read them. In no particular order, here are my top 3 in non-fiction and fiction. Tolle lege!

NONFICTION

  1. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

This book is making waves, and it deserves its acclaim. Kalanithi was as skilled with words as with a surgeon’s knife. He writes of his ambition and incredible academic and career success without pomp or arrogance, and of his terminal cancer days with unflinching honesty. As his patients benefitted from his medical expertise, we too have benefitted from his personal story and reflections. Read it, and walk with him through the euphoric highs and bitter lows of his too-short life, and think hard about how we are living ours.

  1. A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis

Pain turned into words. This is not the mind of the apologist, but the heart of the broken. I can’t agree with all of his theology, but I love his honesty and humanity. Yes, he questions if God is there, and if his faith is real at all. I don’t think Christians should balk so much at that: Lewis may have been a great Christian thinker, but he was also human, and writing in the face of heartbreak and loss. Our own faith shouldn’t rest on the strength of his faith or personal experience. I respect that he was not afraid to write hard and clear about what scares many of us.

  1. The Reason for God by Tim Keller

He’s called the modern day C.S. Lewis by some, and after reading this, I would actually choose The Reason for God over Mere Christianity as the book to give to my skeptical friends or seekers. Keller isn’t saying anything new, per se. Apologetics has been around for ages. But the way he addresses common objections—especially the most relevant ones of our times—and clearly presents the reasons for faith is top notch. He writes with sound logic, intellect, accessibility, and graciousness, all while standing firm on the Gospel truth.

FICTION

  1. Tales of Goldstone Wood by Anne Elisabeth Stengl

This might be cheating, because this is a series with seven full novels and a couple novellas. Chances are, you haven’t heard of it, because it’s not mainstream. I know, unknown Christian fantasy series… really? I actually can’t stand much of the Christian fiction genre—poor writing, heavy-handed, etc. And as a fantasy aficionado, I’ve progressively read less in the genre because it seems filled with copycats or gratuitous violence and sex. BUT this series was a delightful surprise. The world-building and characters are rich. There are definite Christian overtones, but it’s not preachy or forced, and Stengl isn’t afraid to get dark. There’s a fairy tale-like quality to the books, but its never shallow, and don’t expect the stories to wrap up with a bow and happily-ever-after.

Note: Personally, I think the first book is the weakest, but don’t let that turn you away. It gets better and better. Starflower (book 4) is probably my favorite. I would read them in order if you can, though!

  1. Winter by Marissa Meyer

For all the terrible finales to popular YA books we’ve seen (not naming any names), Marissa Meyer does her series a solid with this conclusion. Fairy tale retellings are not new; in fact, they’re kind of the rage now. The Lunar Chronicles takes it to the next level—fairy tales, space, dystopia, politics, etc. Meyer had quite a task tying up all the storylines she created, and she did not disappoint. It was epic and sweeping, with clever parallels to the original fairy tales. Imagine Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Snow White (with upgraded IQs) falling in love with their respective men (who actually have some flaws) and fighting the evil queen of the moon. I mean, she did something right, cause I was sold.

  1. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

You have spies and suspense, but the heart of this story is sisterhood. The plot was clever, the emotions raw and genuine, and Wein plumbs the depth of a spectacular friendship between two girls, put to the ultimate test. So many props to her for writing a beautiful, intelligent, and historical YA drama. I’m not a feminist, but there is some legit girl power going here—I’m tired of both the whimpering, helpless damsel in distress and the unrealistic assassin lady who can take out armies singlehandedly. Wein’s characters are brave but broken, fierce but flawed. She proves that friendship is just as, if not more, potent than romance in storytelling.

Eternity On Our Hearts, VI.

And we have reached the end of this mini-series. Some further conversations and thoughts have prompted other ideas since writing this, and I may revisit them in the future. But consider this the finale for now. Thanks for reading, and I welcome any thoughts or feedback!

Previously:

Part I: An Existential Crisis
Part II: What Pontius Pilate Asked
Part III: Assumptions, Axioms and Authority
Part IV: In the Beginning was the Word
Part V: The Word Made Flesh

Part VI: Beyond Wishful Thinking
What is faith?

Many modern, psychological views of faith see it as wishful thinking we commit to and internalize. Hence religion is also seen as a ‘crutch’ for the needy, people who want to believe in a God and greater power to get them through life. (The cheeky Christian response to faith being a crutch is, “Well, who says you aren’t limping?” Or even better: “Actually, it’s a life support system. Cause we’re basically dead.”) The wishful thinking explanation seems to make rational, human sense. But I think our society has a way of and proclivity to explaining everything psychologically, and just because they can overlay a framework on a phenomenon, doesn’t nullify that there is a greater spiritual reality they can’t explain.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)

Assurance and conviction extend beyond wishful thoughts—there is a solid sense of certainty there. Faith is not the same as feelings, and it is only as good as the object of that faith. We can be very sincerely wrong about things.

The Bible gives numerous examples of faithful men and women, parables of what faith is, and principles for a life of faith. It’s hard to summarize succinctly when we need all of them for a full picture of genuine faith in the genuine God of the Bible.

But it is also crucial to get faith right. The Bible teaches that we are saved and justified before God by his gift of righteousness in Christ, and we receive that righteousness through faith. During the Protestant Reformation, the Reformers identified three key aspects of saving, biblical faith, so I will defer to that and present them here:

Notitia: intellectual awareness 

There must be an object to our faith, whether content or a person. Our faith must be informed, and genuine faith must be informed by truth. Sincerity isn’t enough to make the cut – if I believed Satan is God, that’s not going to save me.

Assensus: intellectual assent

We need to know the truth first, but then we must believe it. There must be an intellectual assent to the truth claims of Scripture – that I am a sinner, that Jesus is God and came to die for my sins, and the He rose from the dead.

Fiducia: personal trust

The Bible says that even Satan and the demons intellectually assent to the fact that Jesus is God, and they know the Word of God is true. That assent doesn’t save them. A crucial element of true faith is personal trust in Christ, in who He says He is, and trust in Him alone for salvation. This encompasses the mental and intellectual, but extends to the heart and will also.

The Bible teaches faith is not just a posture of the mind and intellect, but of the heart before God. It is an exercise of intellectual belief, but it is also a posture of the heart before God that acknowledges our intellect is limited, our desires are selfish, and our works are futile before a holy God. It acknowledges our faith is easily shaken because we are weak, but we know deep in our hearts that we are made for more. Logic and reason will present a strong case for Christianity, but it will not give you everything because we are called to faith.

What about doubt?

“Christ never failed to distinguish between doubt and unbelief. Doubt is can’t believe; unbelief is won’t believe. Doubt is honesty; unbelief is obstinacy. Doubt is looking for light; unbelief is content with darkness.” –John Drummond

I think one of the great stories of faith wrestling with doubt comes in a very simple cry a man makes to Jesus. He brings his demon-possessed son to Jesus and asks for healing, after Jesus’ disciples are unable to castle the spirit out.

“And Jesus asked his father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘ ‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’” (Mark 9:21-24)

This man came to Jesus with faith. If he didn’t believe Jesus could do anything, he might as well not have shown up. But his initial request, if you can do anything, also reveals the weakness of his faith—of course Jesus can cast out the demon. Christ gently rebukes him, and the father very honestly, very humbly, with genuine but imperfect faith, says, “I believe; help my unbelief.”

No one has “perfect faith.” Nowhere does the Bible give a percentage, or bullet points, or ratios of head knowledge to heart acceptance, to indicate how much faith is enough faith. Faith does not believe perfectly, but it does believe humbly. We do not pick and choose what we like from God’s Word, but we accept it wholly. And the Word teaches that there is no other name under heaven by which we are saved except through Jesus Christ.

The life of faith 

Faith in the gospel restructures our motivations, our self-understanding, our identity, and our view of the world. Behavioral compliance to rules without heart-change will be superficial and fleeting.” –Tim Keller

The life of faith is not a life of cheap grace, which says because I am forgiven in Christ, I can now live however I want. Nor does it say, I will try harder to obey God so He will be pleased with me. These mentalities reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the Gospel. They reflect a mentality that is still conforming to one of those two paradigms—of moral conformity or self-discovery. Ultimately, it reflects a heart that has not grasped the depth of the love of God, or an understanding that while forgiveness is offered to us freely, it came at a costly price.

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:1-4)

Jesus Christ, God Himself, left heaven’s glory to walk this Earth and suffer for our sins. When we really acknowledge the depth of our sin, and the cost of our salvation, we begin to understand the boundless love of God. How can we live for ourselves, or anything else for that matter, in light of that truth? Living by a paradigm of fear or control manipulates externalities, but only love transforms the inner heart.

John Newton, who wrote “Amazing Grace,” also penned these words:

Our pleasure and our duty,
though opposite before,
since we have seen his beauty
are joined to part no more.

S.D.G.