How Many Stars Would You Give this Book?

How do you decide what books to read and which ones to avoid? With so many stories written and so little time to read, how do you know which book is worth your time? For some of us, we have a few trusted “followees” on Twitter whose book recommendations act as our guides. At other times, some books receive great acclaim and mention in the public sphere and this draws our interest. We read them to be in on the fuss or the buzz. And sometimes, we simply skim through reviews, checking out what the reviewers say about the book, who the reviewers are and how many stars the book gets on Goodreads.

ANewKindofChristianIt is this last form of ranking books – the “starring” – that had me stumped after I finished reading Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian. The book is well written, in fact, it is superbly written. McLaren has a way with words and a way with the hearts of the people that read them. He knows how to tug at our human insecurities and manipulate our emotions. He is a master at appealing to our human need for belonging, justice, fairness, equality and freedom. He may not categorize himself as a liberal (since he avoids all categories), but his messages always have that air of being “liberating”.

After I finished the book and marked it “read” on Goodreads, I was prompted, as usual, to review it and rate it. But I suddenly found myself in a dilemma. It is not a new dilemma, but this book made it even more prominent this time around.

So, how many stars would I give this book?

If I was only looking at the way the story is written, the way the narrative unfolds and the way ideas are weaved, I would give the story 5 stars, hands down. Brian McLaren is an excellent communicator. His sincerity and intellectual honestly flows easily throughout the book. You don’t struggle to believe him. He is convincing because he is not trying to be convincing. He is sincere.

What about his message? His claims? His theology? Continue reading

When Goodreads Makes Badreaders

It was the e-mail from Goodreads.com that completed the picture. The message was a link to a review of my “year in books” in 2013. I was surprised to find that I had read 53 books in just a year!

The site suggested I share the enviable achievement with my friends on Facebook and Twitter, and I gladly (albeit unwittingly) complied. I was already in too deep by the time I realized what was happening to my heart.

You see, I was proud of my achievement, and the congratulatory likes and comments on Facebook made me even prouder. I remember at some point suggesting that I will beat that record in 2014. But “God stopped me” (for lack of a more kosher, calvinistic alternative) and I quickly retracted that desire.

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I found myself asking what I was doing. Since when did reading books become a contest? Why all this sudden bibliophile navel-gazing? And while a lot of reading is good for you, who said that reading the most books within the shortest time is healthy, let alone something to brag about?

Reminds me of a joke by Brian Regan, a stand-up comedian: “I started taking speed – reading classes,” he says. “At the end of the course, I could read 20 pages per minute… but my comprehension plummeted!”

Think about it, sometimes keeping tab on some achievements ends up working against those very achievements. It is one thing to give charitably, it is another thing to keep track of your acts of charity. It is one thing to post an encouraging status update, but another thing altogether to start counting and hoping the update will get more “likes” than your previous one.

The human heart is indeed an idol factory, as John Calvin once aptly put it, and mine is no exception. More than once I have found myself clicking on his greatness Tim Challies’ Goodreads page, and wishing I could read as many books as he has (he is at 1,523 read books at the moment, and that’s just on Goodreads). I often find myself secretly praying I will beat his record — not that anyone’s counting.

I seldom I stop to think what difference it will make in my life, or what it will mean to God’s kingdom, that I read more books than Tim Challies. But isn’t that how sin works? It is not rational. It keeps us pursuing (with all our might) feeble vanities and pleasures, pointless distractions of the heart and mind.

May God deliver us from the idolatry of metrics. May we learn to lose count of our good deeds and noble endeavors, not because they have become too many to count, but because we have realized that good deeds and noble endeavors were made to count, not to be counted.

For the fame of God’s name.

Cornell (@cornellngare)

Great Reads (02-01-14)

As 2014 unfolds, I hope that doing more reading (long-reading, not tweet-reading) is among your resolutions for the new year. The following are a few links that I thought might get you started as you fight to gain traction in your new habit. Enjoy:

  1. A NOVEL LOOK AT HOW STORIES MAY CHANGE THE BRAIN: For those who think novels are for high-school teenagers and idle minds, I hope this study will convince you otherwise: “Many people can recall reading at least one cherished story that they say changed their life. Now researchers at Emory University have detected what may be biological traces related to this feeling: Actual changes in the brain that linger, at least for a few days, after reading a novel.” WARNING: The article may be a bit nerdy.
  2. BEAUTIFUL IN ITS TIME: R. C. Sproul Jr, “I don’t remember everything I read. I don’t remember the great names and dates of history. I do, however, remember the layout of the basement of a family’s house we visited once, when I was nine.”
  3. CNN ANCHOR BATTLES HER SKIN AND WINS: Zain Verjee’s story is beautifully written and compelling. Even though God is not explicitly mentioned in the article, those with eyes to see Him cannot miss the strong implicit presence that runs like a thread weaving the whole tapestry.
  4. YOUR MOST COURAGEOUS RESOLUTION FOR 2014: Jon Bloom, “A resolve is not a vague intention, like “one of these days I’m going to get that garage cleaned” or “I’m going to read the Bible through this year,” but without any clear plan to do it. Resolves are intentions with strategies attached to them.”
  5. Finally, as hard and harsh as it may sound, GOD MAY NOT HAVE A WONDERFUL PLAN FOR YOUR LIFE, and that’s okay. Melissa Edgington, “Life is hard, even when you’re a Christian.  Even when you try to love God with all your heart, bad things will happen.  Terrible things will come.  And, this is the danger in telling each other God has a wonderful plan for your life.  Because there are just too many moments and hours and days and weeks that don’t feel like a wonderful plan.  They feel like an awful plan.”

That ought to do it for today. I really do hope and recommend you make reading (books) a lifetime resolution. It is one of those investments you will never regret.

Have a blessed day and a Gospel-driven 2014.

Cornell

His Word, in My Words

Infinity… in 26 letters,

Eternity… in decaying pages,

God’s vocabulary… in man’s handwriting,

The deepest secret… in public pages,

The brightest light… in black ink,

Profoundest truth… in simple strokes,

Greatest treasure… in cheapest paper,

Deepest love… in shallowest phrases,

A masterpiece… in ordinary font,

Immortal words… in mortal handwriting,

Heaven’s blueprint… in earthly pen strokes,

HIDDEN IN MY HEART… TO REVEAL HIS HEART.

Book Review: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

Have you ever made a decision based on a ‘gut-feeling’? A ‘hunch’? An inexplicable sense of what you ought to do? OK, those are largely rhetorical questions. Its more than likely you have had moments when you ‘just know’ what to do (or not do) even though you could not necessarily put our finger on why and, as a result, could not aptly  articulate and defend your position.

blinkWell, blink is about those decisions and ‘feelings’

It’s a book about intuition (Gladwell doesn’t like to use that word – I think a case can be made for its use); about first-impressions; about instinct; ‘judgment’ or what Gladwell terms, rapid cognition.

Gladwell describes it as an intellectual adventure. I think it’s a really good story – the story of our subconscious. Why it works and how it fails.

Rather than launching into a complex scientific narrative of how intuition works, this book sets out to prove that it does work. That contrary to popular and conventional wisdom which suggests that the quality of a decision is directly proportional to the amount of information considered and time taken in making the decision, the truth is that, sometimes, the less we know, and the more intuitively we make our decisions – the better.

I know. That’s a little bit of an uncomfortable hypothesis. However, Gladwell actually makes a rather compelling case. Using a myriad of examples, which you’ll have to read to discover, he demonstrates that decisions made in the blink of any eye can be just as good, if not better, than elaborately thought out, perfectly sensible, decisions.

There’s a catch though.

Actually, there’s couple of catches.

1.  Being an expert helps you make better ‘blink’ decisions’.

Sounds counter-intuitive, right (in light of Gladwell’s basic premise)? Well, not entirely. Gladwell uses three examples from the spheres of archeology, music, and the military, to show that the more exposure you have in a certain field, the more knowledge you have acquired (over time) on a certain subject matter. Therefore, the more likely you are to make a good or accurate ‘blink’ decision when the need arises – in the heat of the moment. I think I’ve experienced something vaguely resembling this (though I don’t consider myself an expert in anything).

For instance, how I distinguish good writing from ok or sub-standard or simply down-right-‘wrong’ writing. It’s intuitive. There are times when you can’t pin-point exactly what is wrong with a piece of writing, or with someone’s phraseology, or employment of a particular word – you just know that it is wrong. Why? Usually, it’s because you’ve had enough exposure to good writing; correct phraseology; proper parlance. How? Through reading [NB: Even when writers are intentionally using a phrase or word, your understanding what they mean to convey depends upon your sensing that they’ve done something odd (read incorrect) in the first place]. So the more you know about a particular subject (and it appears this needs to be experiential knowledge acquired over a period of time), the better your ‘spur of the moment’ judgment calls will be.

2. Your blink can be all messed up!

This, I think, was the crux of the matter for me. Although Gladwell goes to great lengths to demonstrate how beneficial rapid cognition can be, he concedes that it does have its limitations. That it does in fact fail on occasion (and sometimes in a profoundly epic way) and that it can lead us to make terrible decisions rather than accurate judgments.  I mentioned earlier that Gladwell has a problem with calling Blink a book about intuition. According to him, intuition has more to do with feelings (often unfounded feelings) whereas Blink is a book about reasoning, albeit a very distinct type of thinking. Well, I personally wanted to ask whether such a binary division exists. Whether intuition (feelings-oriented) is not in fact based on associations we have made in our minds, and things we have learned over time (logic-oriented).

In any case the point is that, to me, one of the things that Blink is about is the ways in which our subconscious is shaped and how wonderful it is when it is shaped right and how awry things can go when our subconscious has been misled; when falsehood is a normalized part of our reality.

The thing is; no person is born with innate knowledge of anything. We acquire it: formally or informally. Through our parents, teachers, friends, the music we listen to, the experiences we undergo, the circumstances we live in, the media we are exposed to … Unfortunately, some of the knowledge we acquire is mis-information; false knowledge. But it serves to shape our perceptions – even on a subconscious level. So, as we grow, we learn to make certain associations which could be based on truth or falsehood.

In the book, Gladwell showed that the ability to ‘blink’ well was often hindered by stereotypes. For instance, playing the trombone was once seen as the exclusive preserve of men. This, presumably, was based on very practical considerations. Only men had the lungs, the strength, and the power to handle a trombone! But when screened auditions were held for an orchestra in one instance, a woman was chosen – within seconds of beginning to play. The decision makers were effusive in their praise, convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was the best (although they hadn’t seen her yet) and sent other auditionees packing even before some of them had played.

When the screens were lifted, however, the doubt set in.

Why?

The ‘experts’ knew enough about music to make a good ‘snap’ judgment about a person’s musical ability but when the screens lifted that conflicted with the other knowledge they had acquired over time – women can’t play trombones! What a conundrum!

Another serious ‘rapid cognition’ fail often happens with regard to race and crime. The Trayvon martin case is perhaps an example of how our ‘rapid cognition’ can fail. The American Justice system from the police to the courts has a certain conception of blackness – more specifically, perhaps, young black males. This has been molded over time and is the result of historical-political realities. Nonetheless when a police officer or a judge sees a young black male, what often happens is that they will ‘thin-slice’, based on the wrong kind of information — mis-information.

Gladwell argues that we can therefore do without certain kinds of information – the kinds which interfere with an otherwise pure blink. He asks, “what if a judge could preside over a case without seeing the color of the defendant’s skin?” I add: “What if a company could hold interviews without being privy to the gender, height, weight of the interviewees? What if our voting could be more made more ‘blind’ so that all we have to go with is the ideas a candidate espouses, rather than how they look or what tribe they belong to, or their religious affiliation or their gender?” (Yet even then, we would still be influenced by information just about a person’s voice! The best idea, coming from a high-pitched or squeaky or stammering voice, may still be disregarded!)

Gladwell suggests we would see very different judgments and a very different world. I tend to agree.

At the end of the day, this book left me as Gladwell wanted to leave his reader: more serious about the under-currents operating in my sub-conscious. It made me serious about those ‘feelings’ that constitute my ‘intuition’ – not because my intuition is sacred or an absolute standard by which I should make complex decisions but rather because my intuition tells me something about who I am, something about what I know, something about what I believe and something about the society that has shaped me. So it’s important that I am aware of those instincts, that I question them, and that I don’t always listen to them.

As a Christian, the most important thing I garnered is why it is important to sift everything through God’s word and to someday teach my children to do the same; why it is important to strive to see things as God sees them – because we are constantly being bombarded with belief-systems which may be based on falsehood, rather than the Truth. And all these things we assimilate into our sub-conscious – all the associations we come to make – they affect the way we live our lives and the decisions we make and they affect our ‘snap judgments’ – our reactions to people and situations.

So, just as an expert’s experiential knowledge on a subject matter enables better discernment: just as the ear of the musician needs training before it can distinguish good playing from great playing, and they eye of the archeologist needs training in order to decipher a true sculpture from a false one, so we all need training and prolonged exposure to and interaction with the truth if we are to distinguish truth from lies. And indeed, by constant training we can distinguish good from evil, we will make better judgment calls. And someday, when the perfect comes, all our ‘blinks’ will be perfectly reliable – because they are based on the perfect; a perfect relationship with perfect knowledge of the perfect truth.

Until then, though, I would trust my Bible (the guiding of the Holy Spirit) over and above my “blinks” when it comes to decision-making.

Surrender Your Story

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The only thing I love more than a good story is a good story worked into song. A story song is a song that tells a story. This is the main reason why I love bands such as Casting Crowns and why “closet” country music lovers can’t stop singing Coward of the County and Gambler in the shower.  Stories are powerful. They have the ability to turn what is mundane into something magical — what is obvious into something surreal. Stories are so powerful because they resonate with our lives, our experiences.

We identify with stories. We don’t just understand them, we relate. We don’t just hear them, we feel them. Stories are more than just a logical organization of nouns, adjectives and verbs; they are living entities. We tend to remember stories better than abstract facts because stories reside not just in our brains, but in our hearts. They become a part of us – or rather, we are a part of them.

Which is probably why stories tend to be even more magical when worked into songs. The only reason I love country music (there, I said it) is because of the story approach many country-song-writers take. But there’s something even more amazing about good stories. You probably didn’t know this, but no writer has ever written an original good story. Not even a fictional one. The beauty of every story lies in the fact that it is grounded in reality. Every work of fiction is worth reading only because it reminds us of something real. The setting may be wonderland. The characters may be talking animals. But what makes the story worth reading is that wonderland is a land and the animals are talking. It is this allusion to reality that makes every work of fiction worth our attention.

education-books-stories-6702200The worst writer is the purely imaginative writer — the one who doesn’t see the need to consult and conform with reality. The best writers are the most unoriginal writers — the ones who bother to create heroes that bleed and bad guys that love their wives. The Chronicles of Narnia are not a pure product of C.S. Lewis’ imagination. We admire Lucy because her innocence reminds us of our own when we were younger. We are not sure what we feel about Edmund probably because he has both a good and bad side — very much like us. We love Aslan because he reminds us of something else, someone else — Jesus Christ. As a matter of fact, we tend to love characters in stories (imaginary or not) because they remind us of real people in a real world experiencing real struggles.

Back to my thesis: no writer has ever written an original good story.

I will use a song by Natalie Grant to illustrate my argument. Make a Way is a sad story about a teenage girl who goes into the city, hoping to make it big as a model and become famous. However, the first man she encounters ends up using her instead of helping her. She sacrifices her pride and dignity at the altar of magazine covers and modelling contracts. But her life never improves. She feels worse, not better. But she encourages herself with the words that drove her down the road of fame-seeking:

I’ll make a way
I’ll do whatever it takes
Even though it won’t be easy
I have a plan and though I may not understand
Someday, I’ll make a way

Despair drives her to walk aimlessly down a street. Natalie Grant captures her state more vividly than I ever could: “Walking down the road, in the city where she’d come with so much hope. Her vision had long died, along with all her pride, and she found herself at the end of her rope …” This is where she comes across a church, with the choir singing about Jesus Christ. The young woman hears the message, is drawn in, and falls down on her knees to pray. Then she hears Jesus telling her words that are very familiar and yet strangely comforting:

I’ll make a way
I’ll do whatever it takes
Even though it won’t be easy
I have a plan and though you may not understand
Today, I’ll make a way

These are the same words she had been telling herself ever since she first came into the city. “I’ll make a way”, “I will do it”, “I have a plan”, “I will survive”. Words that had grown stale and empty over time. Words that had become fossilized into maxims better left to bumper stickers and tweets, words that meant nothing because they had become unrealistic, untrue.

Yet, Jesus comes to her and says those very words, and the paradigm shifts. Suddenly, there’s hope. A new light shines into her life. It is not because she heard a different story. The only difference is that she heard the same story from a different person. She heard the words from the only person who had the power and will to make them come true, and – to reiterate my argument – the only person who ought to have said those words in the first place — Jesus.

By surrendering her story, the young woman gave life to her story. By giving up her story to Jesus, she owned the story even more strongly. Her words may have sounded original, deep, motivational even. But they were coming from the wrong lips. She thought they were her words, her resolve, her determination. Yet, the reality is that we have no resolve, no passion and no determination apart from Christ.

LivingStories

So, here’s an assignment for you. Go and look up every song, every movie, every novel that has ever moved your heart and welled you up. Examine it carefully and you will discover this amazing truth; it is always a plagiarized, distorted version of another person’s story. A grander story. God’s story.

Do not settle for mediocre stories. Let God’s story be your standard. Yes, those love songs may make your heart melt, but they are coming from the wrong lips. Learn to re-purpose your stories — whether you’re the one writing them or the one reading them. Let God redeem your stories.

Every good story points to a better story because it flows from a perfect story – God’s.

No human writer has ever written an original good story because only one writer is good, and only one story is original.

In the beginning was the Word.

For the fame of His name,

Cornell.

Journalism in the Bible: Crafting the Truth

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He rummages in the deep pockets of his lab coat for something to write on. His fingers feel out the shape of a notebook and he pulls it out – it’s a prescription pad.

It will have to do.

He pulls out a chair and, with his elbow, pushes aside the mountains of medical books to create some space. Taking off his lab coat and hanging it on the back of the chair, he sits down and begins to write.

“In as much as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us … it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus,”  (Luke 1:1 & 3).

Luke begins what will end up being a 24 chapter letter to his friend.

Dr. Luke is not a trained scribe, but he loves to write. He is certified to fiddle with a stethoscope and write prescriptions, but here he is, employing  his doctor-sharp memory in the task of penning out a biography of Jesus.

The physician has done his research: he has double-checked the facts and cross-checked his sources. Now he writes.

The doctor is doing what scribes do (or ought to do) best, relaying the truth to the masses in writing. Of course, when Luke penned his letter, he had only one person in mind – his friend Theophilus. But thanks to God’s providential orchestration, the whole world is now privy to this treasure chest of God’s Good News to the world.

I can’t help but relate to this First Century doctor. I am a trained Engineer, with a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering plus several months of working experience in the bag. Yet here I am, training and working in a leading media house in East Africa and bearing the title of Journalist:  interviewing people, double-checking facts, cross-checking my sources and writing stories.

To the casual eye, it may seem like I wasted my five years of Engineering training. Plus it’s not like the money in Journalism is anything to write home about. So, why am I doing this? What would compel me to leave the multi-million shilling construction projects and settle for spending hours at boring press briefings and scribbling on tattered notebooks?

Two word: Passion and Mission

A passion for the Word and a mission to the world.

I believe I am called to write, commissioned to tell stories and compelled to relay the truth. If I was Harry Potter, the pen would be my magic wand; I just slide the tip across my notebook and I make news; I just tap on a keyboard and watch lives get transformed.

I love to write, and I am persuaded that I best express my love for the society around me through writing. So, I write. Like Dr. Luke, I have laid aside the pomp and flair of a well moneyed career and opted to plant my rear at the corner of an office and “bang copy”. I love what I do. I love to tell stories and most importantly, I desire to tell the truth. What better place to do it than as a journalist?

Daily Nation’s slogan is “The Truth.”

Echoing the words of Luke,

“In as much as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us (The Truth) … it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent readers.”

My definition and understanding of “The Truth” may not be exactly like that of my bosses and most of my colleagues. But like Luke, I too have an opportunity to tell the truth that will outlive all others – through my life and, as opportunities arise, my writing.

It may seem implausible at first, but the Bible is actually the product of journalism – the product of men observing events, double-checking facts and cross-checking sources; under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. You can call it divine journalism.

And that’s The Truth.

For the fame of His name,

Cornell