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As a teenager I read the science fiction classics: Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, H.G. Wells, plus a few whose names I’ve forgotten. I stopped in my late teens, thinking that science fiction was nerdy. Having put aside childish things, I later discounted horror writers like Stephen King, lumping his work into the same general category as science fiction. Both genres were fantasy. Because I shunned King’s books, I also ignored movies made from them. I never saw Carrie or the Shining, although I know Carrie made Cissy Spacek famous and Jack Nicholson made The Shining creepy. Then about, 15 years ago, I wanted a book to take to the beach. I wanted a thick and entertaining read that would last all week. Weighing in at 1141 pages, The Stand looked promising. After a long week under an umbrella, I can, at last, admit I misjudged King and changed my mind about on a few things about fantasy, whether it be science fiction or “horror.”
The plot of The Stand may be familiar to you. A super virus escapes a government facility and infects most of the world. A small percentage of people have life-saving antibodies which help them survive in a desolate world. The survivors polarize into two groups. The forces of good make their way to Colorado. The forces of darkness head to Las Vegas. Heroes emerge along the way to the Rockies and villains reveal themselves while responding to the gravitational pull of destruction coming from the desert. Their journeys are arduous and often unclear, but eventually the two camps both reach critical mass, setting up a climactic conflict. Randall Flagg, the ageless agent of darkness, commands the forces of evil. Flagg and other characters with the initials “R.F.” appear in many King novels, always as villains.
King may write in the “horror” genre, but he understands the human heart. Consequently, the Stand’s novel-long apocalyptic battle between good and evil serves as the stage for the characters’ motives and actions. Here are two of King’s insights.
They filed in through the gate that Ralph opened and she felt her sin, the one she thought of as the mother of sin. The father of sin was theft; every one of the Ten Commandments boiled down to “Thou shall not steal.” Murder was the theft of a life, adultery the theft of a wife, covetousness the secret, slinking theft that took place in the cave of the heart. Blasphemy was the theft of God’s name, swiped fro the House of the Lord and sent to walk the streets like a strutting whore. She had never been much of a thief, a minor pilferer from time to time at worst. The mother of sin was pride. (p. 645)
A boy does not need a father unless he is a good father, but a good father is indispensable. (p. 795)
After The Stand, I read several other King novels, including the Dark Tower series. I enjoyed the series, but found the ending a bit disappointing. King’s writing himself into the series as a character seems forced.
The Stand makes Bucket List status for me based on its epic portrayal of good versus evil. I also give it credit for opening up to me literature genres I’d passed by. Recently I was in the bookstore looking over the table of summer reading for high school students. I saw several of the science fiction classics there and skimmed a few that I read decades ago. Remembering the story lines and characters I understood the reason for their presence on the table. The genre doesn’t matter as long as the plot and characterizations are strong. You don’t have to be Sheldon or Leonard from Big Bang Theory to read and appreciate them, particularly when the author captures the timeless fears, conflicts, and aspirations of the human heart. I’ve come to appreciate Orson Scott Card (Speaker for the Dead informs the way I conduct funerals), but I have to admit that I’ve had a hard time with Neil Gaiman, despite his overwhelming popularity. I read every one of The Wool series on Kindle. I thought they were great stories.
Summer is here, why not use it as a time to venture past your normal categories of reading. Perhaps you’ll find something you hadn’t expected.
When I was a pastor in Nashville, a little girl with Downs Syndrome had battled back from near death, following surgery to repair the hole in her heart. Along with dozens of other people, I prayed for her daily. She finally turned the corner in her recovery and all looked well. The next day a brown recluse spider found its way into her ICU crib and bit her.
A spider that lives in the shadows and prefers dark corners came into a brightly lit, clean hospital room, found its way into her crib and bit her. Once again she nearly died. I remember being angry with God, wondering why God couldn’t have stopped that spider. Why didn’t God nudge it to go another direction? And then God spoke to me. Not an audible voice, but as clear as if it were. “Why do you think you love that child more than I do?” Yes, who was I to think that? Okay, God loves her – and God loves each precious child killed this week in Oklahoma. But how do I explain why the spider bit that little girl or why a tornado crushed those children in Oklahoma?
The day that I became so angry with God I settled my understanding of natural evil in the world: creation is broken. Archbishop William Temple once wrote, “It is quite impossible to estimate the amount of harm done by our habitual limitation in the use of the word ‘sin’ to describe deliberate wrong doing. Everything about us is sin if it is not what God wants it to be.” (Christian Faith and Life, p. 61) The world does not work the way God intended when God created the heavens and the earth. The world about us is not the way God wants it to be. Thus, the “fall” doesn’t simply apply to humanity, but to all creation. In Genesis 3:17 God says to Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you…” Paul continues the theme in Romans 8 – “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”
Sin is more than our deliberate wrong doing. It is a power loose in the world, distorting God’s intended order. As a result, cells go crazy and become cancer. A spider bites a child instead of its natural prey. Wind becomes a twisted, consuming storm. Yes, creation is broken. Sin damaged God’s intention and the consequences catch many in its wake.
I believe God cares more than we do when these things happen. Sin hijacked God’s world, not ours. In the midst of sin’s destruction, God inspires us to respond to those caught in the crush. It is in the response of God’s children that we see the will of God in the storm.
In my family I am known as the careful one. I plan everything and over analyze most decisions. Consequently, the blurbs on the dust jacket of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild got my attention. What woman hikes 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) by herself? Drawn by the author’s impulsiveness, this was a book I wanted to read.
Now, a few months later, my careful nature shows up as I decide whether or not to review this book. Strayed is impulsive and she’s very brave, but what does a pastor say about a book where the lead character describes bluntly her use of heroin, curses her mother’s memory, and exposes her sex life? And when I say “curses her memory,” let’s just say has she been in A Christmas Story, Ralphie’s mother would have washed her mouth out with soap. Plain enough?
I’ve made the decision to review the book here, but here are two things I’d say to you in the beginning. First, now you know about the subjects mentioned above. If you decide to read the book, I provided notice. This is a review, not a recommendation. Additionally, Strayed does not describe her frailties and problems in such a way that anyone would emulate her values or life. In fact, these unsettling circumstances drive Strayed to her hike. Extreme pressures call for extreme catharsis. She goes on an 1100 mile hike because there is nowhere else to go and she goes by herself because she has no one to go with her. Readers may wish they had her nerve, but few will wish they had her life leading up to her hike.
With those observations out of the way, let me say that Stayed was brave, yet foolish. Under-prepared, over-equipped, and informed only by a guide book, she sets out to conquer the PCT. Before she sets foot on the trail, she realizes her backpack is too heavy, but she can’t identify the essential items needed for the journey. Unsure what to leave out, she takes everything. Blistered, sore, and weary from the beginning, she takes step after agonizing step past obstacles that include a rattlesnake, a bull, a bear, a sexual predator, and her closest companions: solitude and hunger. The physical demands of the hike result in her looking like, what Strayed describes as, a combination of Farrah Fawcett on her best day and Gunga Din on his worst. The trail was demanding every day.
I think it was Nietzsche who said, “If we knew the whole truth at once, it would kill us.” Would Strayed have started her hike had she known from the beginning how difficult it would be? I can’t say. But she did keep going when most would have turned back. You have to give this woman credit: she refused to give into fear, loneliness, weather, wilderness, or a lost boot.
For the reader with an unfinished degree, an incomplete home project, or unused exercise equipment cluttering up the house, Strayed’s completion of her goal is an inspiration. She did it. As unprepared and foolish as she was – Strayed hiked the portion of the trail that was her goal. She makes “I didn’t sleep well last night” look like a laughable excuse for any task put off until tomorrow. Reading this book makes me want to undertake a challenge – to start and finish something big. In the end, that’s why I reviewed this book.
Recently while thumbing through my index cards of quotations, I found several with a similar a theme: modern contradictions. But the observations of the various authors were not about the contradictions only; rather they were about the unhappiness the contradictions represented. We live wit ht he illusion that we can have it all, never noticing how foolish our expectations are. People – average people like ourselves – want things which cannot be fulfilled at the same time. And the result is unhappiness. We are reality-challenged and, thus, happiness deprived. Maybe a look at some of the contradictory forces in our lives might help us.
Daniel Boorstin describes the extravagant expectations” of our culture:
We expect anything and everything. We expect the contradictory and the impossible We expect compact cars which are spacious; luxurious cars which are economical. We expect to be rich and charitable, powerful and merciful, active and reflective, kind and competitive. …we expect to eat and stay thin, to be constantly on the move and ever more neighborly, to go to the church of our choice and feel its guiding power over us, to revere God and to be God.
Never have people been more the masters of their own environment. Yet, never has a people felt more deceived and disappointed. For never has a people expected so much more than the world could offer. (from The Image, p.4, written in 1962!)
Leonard Sweet talks about “contradictory consumers” in The Gospel according to Starbucks:
“Contradictory consumers” are going in opposite directions at the same time. We go from Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream or Krispy Kreme Doughnuts to the organic salad bar or raw juice bar. Or we stay at the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino in Las Vegas, where in the evening there is the decadence and extravagance of the Tao Nightclub, while during the day there is the Canyon Ranch Spa Club—both of which are trumpeted as spiritual experiences. (p. 41)
Then comes the crowning, spiritual observation by Pastor Mark Buchanan, who is quoted by Dave Burchett in When Bad Christians Happen to Good People:
They want human closeness without feeling cramped or obligated. They want a personal God who doesn’t ask much personally. They want mystery but in a controlled, non-disruptive way. They want a faith that is fulfilling, practical, earthy, tolerant, transcendent, fun, empowering, morally serious without being morally demanding, a faith that restores wonder and deepens intimacy, and they don’t want it to cost too much or take up a lot of time. (p. 201)
Do you see yourself in those descriptions? I see myself. Maybe we need a few moments of reality that is not shaped by unreal TV, the impossible peer pressure of our friends, or the desires of our children who are responding to their own peer pressure. Maybe we have to choose between 20- hour days and feeling rested; between 4 seasonal events for the children and not screaming at them to get in the car; between all the new opportunities for sports on Sunday and a spiritual foundation for our children – and for us.
Do we really wonder, given our choices, why there is no more silence in our lives? Why we have so little with which to be generous? So little time for God? Why we have full calendars and unfulfilled lives?
Read the contradictions again. We want it all. But it really isn’t possible is it? Too many of our desires are mutually exclusive. Therefore, Consider these three observations:
From City Slickers
Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? [holds up one finger] This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean ****.
Mitch: But, what is the “one thing?”
Curly: That’s what you have to find out.
From Kierkegaard’s Purity of Heart: “The Purity of Heart is to will one thing.”
From Jesus: “Seek first the Kingdom of God…”
Happiness does not come from having it all; rather, from knowing what is worth having.
I’ve spent a major portion of my life trying to understand people, which, of course, includes trying to understand myself. The single-most helpful book in this effort is Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence. In this book, Goleman not only explains what makes up emotional intelligence (EQ), he also explains why being a reasonably smart person (IQ) does not necessarily correlate to being relationally healthy. We have all heard the cliché about an individual who is “book smart, but has no common sense.” Goleman’s book includes information about people who are “book smart,” but who have limited awareness of people’s feelings or nonverbal cues. They may even have no awareness of their own motives, feelings, or how they are perceived. They have low EQ.
Would you like some examples of how EQ plays itself out in daily life? Here are some real examples from people no one can identify, plus they are deceased or in another state. A man is beet-red in the face and gritting his teeth as he talks to me about his wife. My response is, “I can tell this conversation makes you angry.” His reply to me was, “I – AM – NOT – ANGRY!” Whoa. He was very angry; he was just in a state of denial. A woman I know did not get her way and kept telling me how hurt she was. She, too, was angry. But convincing herself she was hurt, rather than angry, allowed her to play the victim instead of dealing honestly with the issue. She was well-practiced at the art of manipulation, and she could have passed a lie detector test denying anger.
Both of those examples deal with failure to understand self. Other situations Goleman describes include people who cannot accurately read emotions in others and people who are oblivious to another person’s legitimate boundaries. Ever had someone invade your emotional space or get in your business without an invitation? Then you’ve dealt with low EQ situations.
Here are a couple of quotations from the book:
College students in a psychological test were told, “Although you set your goal of getting a B in a class, when you get your first exam score worth 30% of your final grade, you discover you have received a D. It is now one week after you learned about the D grade, what do you do? Researchers found that hope made all the difference. The response by students with high levels of hope was to work harder and think of a range of things that they might try to do to bolster their grades. Students with moderate levels of hope thought of ways they might bring up their grade but had far less determination to do so. Students with low levels of hope gave up altogether. The test giver discovered that hope was the better predictor of first semester grades than were scores on the SAT. [p. 86]
A psychological thought line is common to rapist, child molesters and many perpetrators of family violence alike. They are incapable of empathy. The inability to feel their victim’s pain allows them to tell themselves lies that encourage their crime. For rapists, the lies include: women really want to be raped, or if she resists, she is just playing hard to get. For molesters: I’m not hurting the child, just showing love. [p. 106]
As I entered a restaurant on a recent evening, a young man stalked out the door, his face set in expression both stony and sullen. Close on his heels, a young woman came running, her fists desperately pounding his back while she yelled obscenities saying, “Come back here and be nice to me.” [p. 130]
Marlene Lenick had a dispute with her husband, Michael. He wanted to watch the Dallas Cowboys-Philadelphia Eagles game. She wanted to watch the news. As he settled down to watch the game, Mrs. Lenick told him she had had enough of football, went into the bedroom to fetch a .38-caliber handgun and shot him twice as he sat watching the game in the den. Mrs. Lenick was charged with aggravated assault and freed on a $50,000 bond. Mr. Lenick was listed in good condition recovering from the bullets that grazed his abdomen and tunneled through his left shoulder-blade and neck. [p. 142]
Being prone to anger is a stronger predictor of dying young than are habits of smoking, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. [p. 170]
One survivor of the Holocaust said, “If you’ve been through Auschwitz and you don’t have nightmares, then you’re not normal. [p. 202]
Emotional Intelligence was selected by Time as one of the 25 most influential management books ever. Goleman followed it with other books, such as Primal Leadership (on leading with EQ), Vital Lies, Simple Truths, The Psychology of Self Deception, and a number of others. Primal Leadership is one of the best leadership books I’ve read, and the issue of self-deception is one of the most critical issues many people face; I highly recommend both of those books. You may also want to take a look at Goleman’s website.