Anti-fragile Christianity

Just a little follow-up on yesterday’s post on anti-fragility. Taleb’s book hasn’t gotten to this issue yet, and maybe it won’t, but it occurred to me how this concept could be applied to our own spiritual lives.

The classic question – why does God let bad things happen to good people? To take a specific, famous example from the Bible itself – why does God take the devil’s challenge and allow Job to be tested even if he is a godly man?

The answer isn’t that God is a closet sadist, eager to let his people suffer. Instead, I think it’s tied up in anti-fragility. God knows you need to grow spiritually, and suffering makes you stronger. That, in effect, we need it to be better.

Check out the end of Job, Chapter 42:

Then Job replied to the Lord:

“I know that you can do all things;
    no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
    Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me to know.

Are You Anti-Fragile or Fragile?

Have you ever had a book blow your mind in the first ten pages? Well, I’m seventy or so pages into Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder and my mind’s been blowing up like the last thirty seconds of a fourth of July fireworks show.

Taleb talks about how Antifragility is the one central idea of his life. It is the opposite of fragile, which most people improperly define as “stable, resistant, long-lasting, unbreakable, etc.” Instead, anti-fragile things, such as our bodies, naturally become stronger when they are stressed. Think about our immune systems. They do not break under stress, they improve.

One interesting note, for the Russian language major in me, is that Taleb scans all the major languages and none of them have a word like “antifragile” to capture this concept. It’s a literal linguistic blind spot. (Did I make a half pun there?) And as we’ve sought to lower the stress we experience in modern society, we’ve protected ourselves and become, ironically, more fragile in the process. We have put our happiness and health at risk.

We know about antifragility intuitively. We have the old adage: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” But it’s more nuanced than that. Sometimes a stress will indeed kill you (see knife, directed toward chest). But totally eliminating stress from your life? Extremely bad.

How does this apply to you? How it applies to me is what’s making my brain go kaboom. How often do I avoid risks because I fear pain/loss/backlash/stress? How much more full would my life be if I risked more and received the necessary feedback stress incurs?

Taleb talks about how the antifragile person/system/thing makes many small recoverable errors, is stressed by them, recovers and becomes stronger because of them. So, it’s time to stretch and “stress” myself out.

Judging Others

Does the title of the post make you uncomfortable? Especially if you are a Christian? It makes me uncomfortable. I’m supposed to leave the judging to God, right?

Jesus was certainly judgmental. He offered salvation, but he wasn’t scared to call people out on what they were doing wrong. He didn’t tell the woman at the well “hey, you’re terrific just like you are” after discussing her checkered past. No, he told her to “Go, and sin no more.” He was kind, AND he judged her. Judging her was part of his act of kindness. We like to apply the idea of “What would Jesus Do?” to how we live our lives, but I’ve never heard the idea that judgment is included in that application. The WWJD fad is more about kindness, doing good to others, being the picture of benevolence, as if Jesus was just out there petting animals like a Disney princess, and we’ve got to emulate that.

Christians certainly don’t have a monopoly on judgment nowadays, anyway. It’s a human activity. But I would argue it’s the wrong kind of judgment. Whatever you think of Ryan Lochte, you can’t deny that the man was judged in the court of world opinion. We undeniably live in an era when people are judged, not by God’s standards, but by the world’s evolving standards. In the good old U. S. of A, you can lose your job for the wrong tweet. This weakens the truth of the oft cited, “Welp, it’s a free country” when it’s de facto censorship and people are scared to say the wrong thing.

But whom should we most fear being judged by – God or man? And what happens when we’ve set up a society where we fear the judgment of the tweeting hordes more than the judgment of God?

And who can provide that judgmental (and not always gentle) voice when it’s needed most? We don’t all have a nearby well where we get to meet Jesus face to face. We go to get living water at our local sanctuary. But if a church family does nothing but tell you, “you’re ok just as you are,” and doesn’t advise you to go and sin no more, the church might be lacking in ability to really guide and grow a Christian heart. Adding to the danger, if the church has defined sin down so that nothing qualifies as sinful anymore, what hope does a Christian have of hearing the correcting voice of God?

Questions, questions. I believe it takes courage to provide guidance (judgment, gasp) to your fellow Christian. It wasn’t just Jesus who judged. Paul wasn’t scared to rebuke those who had strayed, and neither was Peter. I don’t believe we should spend our time in church constantly telling our fellow members what we think is wrong with their lives. But I think an important element of what a church actually is is lost if no voices exist to provide the correction God intends.

And even more frightening, what happens when that voice of correction comes at you? It takes even more courage, compared to offering criticism to a fellow Christian, to not be defensive when someone points out sin in your own life. Before blowing up at someone offering loving Christian criticism, hear them out, do some self-examination, and bounce their words off of what you can glean from God’s own word.

Two Books that were a “No,” and Why…

I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but a few years ago I stopped reading a book if I was no longer enjoying it. Taking this approach felt like both a luxury and a violation at the same time. Up to then, I was the good reader doobie who finished anything he started. But, maybe around the time you hit forty, and you start to see the end of the life’s road approaching, you put a premium on your time. Bad books don’t cut it.

Whoa (said Keanu), just went a little existential there…but it’s true nonetheless.

I can’t think of a time when it has happened for two books in a row, but it did recently, and I thought I’d post about why. Usually, I pick up a book because it’s been recommended somewhere, by either a friend or on another blog written by someone I respect or in a writing book. I’m no longer a willy-nilly, “hey, this cover looks nifty, maybe I’ll give it a try,” kind of joe. So, I’ve become choosier about what I even pick up, AND become much more judgmental about what I’m reading as I’m reading it.

I think the basic rule is: if I’m not completely lost in the story within the first fifty pages, the book isn’t for me. But for it to happen twice? Maybe I’m crossing the line into being too harsh… Continue reading “Two Books that were a “No,” and Why…”

Go Read the Chet and Bernie Mysteries

View this post as a love letter to some “easy-listening” books I have picked up at the library starting a few years ago. Ever since listening to the first one, I’ve been on a recommendation rampage. (Yes, I’m a car book fanatic.) I started book number five, A Fistful of Collars, yesterday.

For those of you not yet in the know, the basic premise is a dog (Chet, plain and simple) working with a detective (Bernie Little) to solve mysteries around “The Valley,” which is sort of a stand-in for Phoenix, AZ, although Spencer Quinn, the author, never spills this particular bean explicitly.

The essential charm of the books is that they are told from Chet’s point of view. Comedy and drama spring from this choice, and Quinn never strays from it. Oops, bad pun alert; however, if you liked that pun at all, that’s another reason you’ll love these books.

Chet’s observations about the environment around him (the sights of course, but particularly the smells which are emphasized because he’s a dog) are constantly bouncing off of the reader’s own human point of view. We fill in the blanks left by the dog’s charming naïveté, and all we need are the hints about the human behavior he picks up to gather the complete picture. It is a masterclass in showing, not telling, the reader the story.

Really, you could accept just about anything plot wise when it comes to these books. The lesser of the books, To Fetch a Thief, is about an elephant kidnapping. It closes with a set piece that is outlandish bordering on the farcical, and a resolution that is ultimately unbelievable under the cold light of day. It feels more like the plot resolution from a bad Hardy Boys book. But who cares? If Chet’s involved, ever striving to be a “professional” detective (even if he fails when there’s something interesting to eat on the ground), you don’t care too much as a reader. His love for Bernie, the relationship they have, is unshakeable and makes the whole thing hum. You root for them to succeed.

One other note, Quinn isn’t scared to give Bernie human flaws and foibles that might be more off-putting if Chet wasn’t the one describing them. Bernie is painfully bad with women to the point of being a wimp, horrible with money, and obsessed with environmentalism to the point of being nannyish. All these things would be unpalatable if the books had Bernie as a narrator. But these flaws are softened when they are described by Chet, who is confused about Bernie railing on about the overuse of water to deplete the aquifer, among other things. You end up forgiving Bernie for his foibles. He’s a do-gooder, who isn’t necessarily the smartest human in the room, but Chet thinks otherwise, so bad guys better watch out.

The first and second books are the best to-date (as I said, I just started the fifth). But for pleasure reading, you can’t do much better. Start with Dog On It and enjoy.

Reading Ender’s Game with My Daughter

My daughter (10) has outgrown me reading to her. Man, one of those dreaded transition times has hit. I get that same sad/happy feeling all parents experience in those moments as the child disappears and the young adult begins to emerge. She also asked recently to stop going up to the front of the church for children’s message. I tried not to show it, but ouch.

We finished Watership Down at the beginning of summer, and I had started reading The White Dragon to her by Anne McCaffrey – a favorite of mine from around eighth grade. But it was a slog. Busy schedules, mine with work travel and hers with being a typical ten-year-old meant that we had a hard time finding the time and there were big breaks between readings. Finally, about half way through, I asked her if she was over this whole “Dad reads to me” thing. She’s a sweet one, so she tried to break it to me gently, not looking me in the eye, she said, “Well…” I wanted to save her from her awkwardness so I told her it was fine, that whatever she chose was not going to hurt my feelings. The answer was she was done.

But she’s a book nut, like me, and I wanted us to keep that connection fresh.

So, I’m currently conducting a little experiment that I’m enjoying and so is she. We’re reading the same book together, and I’m preparing discussion questions on the latest couple of chapters we read, and we are discussing them in the evenings. I’m also listing a few vocabulary words because I don’t expect her to know the word “fastidious” at this age and because I want her to remember me fondly always.

The book I chose is Ender’s Game, a favorite of mine from around the same time I read The White Dragon. Fun fact, I was once in a play with Orson Scott Card‘s daughter when I was acting in LA. He came to a performance and I geeked out.

Like I said, she and I are enjoying this little experiment so far, and she’s had some thoughtful answers to share. One of her most interesting answers involved bullying. I asked her what she thought about how Graff and the other adults in the novel allow Ender to be bullied to the point that he gets in situations where it is either kill or be killed, and how our current school system is vastly different. I followed that up by asking if our current school system, with its zero tolerance policy to bullying with adults constantly intervening in situations, would ever produce a child like Ender. She said she didn’t think so, but that that wasn’t necessarily bad. She told me, “Sometimes you should get the teacher, but mostly you should try and work it out yourself.” I asked her if we would ever need someone like Ender, someone ruthless who was able to do whatever needed to be done to save himself and the people he protects. She wasn’t sure, but her wheels were spinning.

Here are a few more of the sample questions.  Continue reading “Reading Ender’s Game with My Daughter”

Review: The Ruins by Scott Smith

After reading A Simple Plan years ago, I was very much looking forward to reading The Ruins. And besides, Stephen King didn’t just endorse it – you practically have to wipe the saliva off the cover from the tongue bath the maestro of horror gives this book. The Ruins popped up on my reading list because I was bored one day and googled best horror novel lists, so I added it to my own.

To put it simply, the book is worth a read, particularly if you like horror. Would I recommend it to my wife who enjoys mainstream fiction? No. Her book club ladies would not enjoy this alongside a glass of wine and their buffalo chicken dip.

But let’s take the book from a strengths and weaknesses perspective. If you think that the strengths outweigh, it’ll solidify your choice about whether to read it, although this post may function better as a discussion forum for others who have already read the book. Be warned, some spoilers below. Continue reading “Review: The Ruins by Scott Smith”

Stung is out and available for purchase!

My first book is out and available on Amazon. You can find it here. Check out some of the reviews:

“If you like Koontz, you will LOVE this book! Full of fantasy and supernatural! The relationships between the characters was complex and made the story more appealing. I can’t wait for Olson’s next book!”

“Now that was a great read. I was so wrapped up in it that I wound up finishing it in a single sitting. Started at roughly 9pm, closed the Kindle and realized it was now 4:00am!”