The Up-to-Date Ancient Truth Behind Your Actions

Research into human motivation shows something surprising, yet intuitive. Cutting-edge, yet ancient. This week, I’ve been reading Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us which states that artificial reward and punishment structures are ineffective human motivators; autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the forces that genuinely drive human action forward.

We live in a pretty behavioral society – employers and educators, government and law enforcement expect that offering people money or grades will inspire the actions they want, and punishing will discourage the actions they don’t. It’s so foundational to our society that at first blush, it looks like a truism.

The thing is, it’s false.

According to the research outlined in Drive, rewards and punishments can temporarily inspire certain actions, but they also tend to undermine and kick out deeper motivation. Once an extrinsic motivation is offered, it distracts us from the intrinsic motivation. When children are rewarded for reading, they stop wanting to read once rewards are withdrawn. When salesmen work for commission, they exert amazing amounts of energy finding ways to make the system work best for them, regardless of its effect of customers or the company. When women are paid for donating blood, they become less likely to donate blood. Turns out “A little pain is worth it if I save a life” is more appealing than “A little pain is worth it if I earn seven bucks.”

The pragmatic approach of treating people like machines with simple input and output is unsupported by science. There’s something in the heart of the human that makes altruism, creativity, and purpose better motivators than cash, grades, and employability. Assembly-line life is modern; this idea is both up-to-date and ancient.

Twenty-first century research says, “It is those who are least motivated to pursue extrinsic rewards who eventually receive them” (Drive, Daniel Pink, 44). I hear echoes of Christ, “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it (Luke 17:33, ESV).

Twenty-first century random sampling leads Drive‘s secular author to the conclusion that, “[W]e know that the richest experiences in our lives aren’t when we’re clamoring for validation from others, but when we’re listening to our own voice – doing something that matters, doing it well, and doing it in the service of a cause larger than ourselves” (Drive, Daniel Pink, 145). And Paul wrote, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23-24).

Tossed Salad, Not Melting Pot: Review of American Nations by Colin Woodard, Part 2

This is my second post to review American Nations by Colin Woodard. In this post, I want to look at some implications for the book’s ideas in understanding American Christianity. Woodard brought together a number of things that I already thought about American Christianity, but his book laid such extensive foundations for further deliberation that I did not want to leave just a one post wonder. Christians mix their cultural and national biases and priorities in with their belief in God. We Americans have to understand our own cultural and national history so that we can both recognize our own errors as well as discern the flavors that Christianity develops when it takes root in every nation, tribe, and tongue. Continue reading Tossed Salad, Not Melting Pot: Review of American Nations by Colin Woodard, Part 2

Tossed Salad, Not Melting Pot: Review of American Nations by Colin Woodard, Part 1

America is undeniably one country. You don’t need a passport to go from Maine to California and then to Hawaii. You can even go to Alaska from Hawaii, still without needing a passport. The federal government of the United States of America controls all of it. The country, of course, was not always as big as is now. The most important part of anything with people in it is, of course, the people, in this case the American nation. America is unquestionably one country, but is it so clearly one nation? I recently read American Nations by Colin Woodard, asserting that America is in fact eleven regionally specific cultural blocs, or nations, and I found that these blocs go a long way toward explaining a lot of the tectonic movements in American religion and politics. Continue reading Tossed Salad, Not Melting Pot: Review of American Nations by Colin Woodard, Part 1

Exploring The Hobbit

When most people think of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, they think something like “classic children’s story” or “charming fantasy tale.”  They are not likely to think “serious work of literature”, and in that respect they would find they are in good company with most literary critics.

Dr. Corey Olsen, Professor of English at Washington College, has set out to paint a very different picture of this beloved book, and to help us all think more deeply about it.  At his website, The Tolkien Professor, you will find a wonderful series of lectures on The Hobbit, wherein he delves deeper into the themes and characters of the book as well as the style and intentions of its author.

Recently, Professor Olsen revised and expanded these lectures into a book, Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.  It’s a fascinating read, and is sure to please any Tolkien fan.  Olsen follows The Hobbit chapter by chapter, so it can be read as a kind of exegetical commentary.  He deftly pulls out underlying themes that can sometimes be missed on a casual read.  For example, he points to the many “coincidences”, some absolutely incredible, in the story (the Dwarves find a Troll hoard that just happens to contain ancient Elven swords, the party just happens to arrive at Elrond’s house on the only day where he could have seen the secret moon runes on Thorin’s map, etc.).  Olsen points out that Tolkien is not merely hoping we will accept and ignore these fantastic coincidences (suspending disbelief), but actually brings them to our attention.  Tolkien wants us to see how unbelievable these coincidences are, according to Olsen, so that we cannot possibly believe them to be coincidences.  Tolkien is pointing to a higher power or purpose behind the events of the story, as he will do more explicitly in Lord of the Rings.

Professor Olsen uses the “dual natures” of Bilbo as his one guiding thread.  Bilbo is a product of the Took clan, a family of Hobbits so strange and prone to adventuring that there are rumors of a distant Took ancestor marrying an elf.  He is also a Baggins, a family so mundane and boring that the most unordinary thing a Baggins ever did was marry a Took.  Bilbo’s character arc, then, is a war between these two sides of himself, the adventurous Took and the mundane Baggins.  But we are not to think that mundane equals bad and adventurous equals good.  Indeed, the headstrong Thorin, leader of the Dwarves, is all about adventure and at first despises Bilbo for being so ordinary.  Yet this attitude will get the company into trouble time and again along their journey, and ultimately leads to the most poignant conflict of the book.  Indeed, near the end of the story, in what is probably my favorite line of the entire book, Thorin says to Bilbo “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”  This is an affirmation of the value of the Baggins in Mr. Bilbo.   

Professor Olsen teaches Middle English poetry, and so has a special interest in the songs or poems in The Hobbit.  For my money, this is also one of the most worthwhile aspects of his book.  He argues that Tolkien doesn’t merely add the songs as unnecessary dressing that can be skipped over to get back to the “meat” of the prose.  Instead they add a different but still essential quality to the story.  During the unexpected party the Dwarves sing the story of the Desolation of Smaug.  Bilbo then asks for a less poetic explanation of events, and is (grudgingly) given one.  So on the one hand, you can skip the song and still understand what happened.  On the other hand, the song is quite moving, and allows you to enter into the prose version of the story in a more direct and emotional way.  You feel what it was like.  Olsen also devotes a good deal of time examining the riddles of Bilbo and Gollum, and shows us a much more complex and interesting scene than a simple children’s game.

Another nice addition is Tolkien’s own notes and revisions of The Hobbit, showing the evolution of the story in Tolkien’s mind, things that were cut or added, all of which helps to illuminate Tolkien’s intentions at various parts of the story.  And of course Olsen touches on many themes and ideas that have been discussed by others (such as Tolkien’s concept of Eucatastrophe), bringing his own unique insight and expression to them.

The first film of Peter Jackson’s adaptation, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, hits theaters this Friday.  If, like me, you can’t bear the excitement and need a Tolkien fix (and, like me, you have already read and reread The Hobbit and watched and rewatched the Lord of the Rings films) then Professor Olsen’s book may be just what you need.

Review of “Buyer Beware,” by Janet Parshall

Buyer Beware: Finding Truth in the Marketplace of Ideas was not the book I thought it was going to be. I don’t know what, exactly, I thought it was going to be: I just know that I had not expected the Introduction as well as the first several pages of the book proper to be dedicated to John Bunyan and his book The Pilgrim’s Progress, and the surprises continued from that point on. My experience with this book was a mishmash of positive and negative, and so I suppose my review will be the same. Continue reading Review of “Buyer Beware,” by Janet Parshall

Pagan “Northernness”

C.S. Lewis once spoke on the allure of pagan “northernness” and how it ultimately lead to his conversion to Christianity.  He was “engulfed” by “a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northnern summer; remoteness, severity.”  I have come to experience a similar love of this northernness.  Like most Americans, I was introduced to Greek mythology at an early age (it saddens me now to admit that I enjoyed all the “Greek-inspired” pop culture of the 90’s, from Disney’s Hercules to shmaltzy television shows like Xena: Warrior Princess), but I had never read, and barely knew of, the Norse myths until late into my college years.  I was instantly drawn to them, and by comparison Greek mythology seemed less interesting.  Now I am always eager for anything and everything that wades in northernness.  My fondness for The Lord of the Rings approaches the fanatical (and now is a good time to be a Tolkien fan!).  I even enjoyed Marvel’s Thor (despite the narrative problems and the significant departures from actual Norse myth). Continue reading Pagan “Northernness”

On the Merits of Naming Your Main Character After a Day of the Week

The Man Who was Thursday, by G. K. Chesterton, is one of the greatest books many people will never read.

After posting my thoughts on Job, I revisited Thursday. I often do this: I have it on my computer, on my kindle, and a physical copy (although that never gets used anymore). I’ve read it more times than I can count, whether from the first page to the last, or just random bits and pieces here and there. And I wanted to talk about it, because I think you should read it: Yes, you. I don’t care who you are, I don’t even care if you’ve read it before. You should read it. Continue reading On the Merits of Naming Your Main Character After a Day of the Week

The Luke 10 Manual by Steve and Marylin Hill: Additional Thoughts

This is part two of my engagement with The Luke 10 Manual by Steve and Marylin Hill. In this post, I will summarize the conclusions that I presently hold after thinking more about the book. The danger of reading any single book is that you will mistake it for the final word in a conversation composed of books. To save yourself from imbalanced reading, you condemn yourself to a life of reading — but I digress. I want to deal with this in five questions. Unfortunately, to keep this post to a readable length, I will have to make a variety of wild and unproven assertions. The only thing I really insist upon right now is the conclusion. Enjoy. Continue reading The Luke 10 Manual by Steve and Marylin Hill: Additional Thoughts

The Luke 10 Manual by Steve and Marylin Hill: Book Review

What is a house church? A high-power Bible study to replace your friendly neighborhood Baptist church? A Chinese thing that Christian sinophiles like to copy? I’m not really into revolution and radical excitement, and professional prophet types inspire me to special sorts of loathing. When I discovered The Luke 10 Manual by Steve and Marilyn Hill, I found not a florid rebel leaflet but a battered army handbook from an old and venerable war. It can be sharp and edgy, but it bears a practical focus on the essentials. Continue reading The Luke 10 Manual by Steve and Marylin Hill: Book Review

Earthen Vessels: Matt Anderson, Meet Bob.

A friend of mine once named his own body. He called it Bob, joking that, as it was separate from his soul, it deserved a name of its own. If he didn’t want to do something, he could ‘tell Bob to do it’ for him.

This may have helped him clean his apartment more regularly, and it surely gave his friends a few laughs. But it didn’t help him understand what the relationship between body and soul is actually like—in fact, it revealed that he didn’t understand his own makeup very well.

It’s no wonder. We in the twenty-first century, despite our unprecedented medical knowledge, understand the interactions between body and soul little better than our oldest ancestors did. While many of us have benefitted from Pope John Paul II’s invaluable Theology of the Body, and while philosophers like J.P. Moreland have written on the state and nature of the soul, Protestants have done relatively little to work out just how the soul relates to the physical body. Matt Anderson tries to unpack such interactions in his new book, Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith.

Moderns, argues Anderson, tend to envision the body as a sort of soul-filled machine—an image that may be traced back, to among other things, a misreading of Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, a misunderstanding of some of the Apostle Paul’s teaching, and the unfortunate Gnostic leanings of some strains of Evangelicalism. Though the machine image leaves much to be desired, Protestants in particular have done little to refine and replace it with a more accurate understanding of the way body and soul work together.

Worse, some have actually described the body as a prison for the soul—John Calvin, for instance, uses the unfortunate description several times in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, though his overall teachings about the body are quite orthodox.

Such images are particularly unhelpful to the physically handicapped, especially those people whose bodily limitations have dramatically shaped the way they think about, experience, and react to the world around them. Anderson uses his own grandfather as an example of this—though childhood disease left the man with the use of only one of his arms, he learned to approach the world with a strength and determination not easily found among the untested. “What the body is”—argues Anderson—“shapes what the body does.” And as the body does, the person does:

As human persons, we live, communicate, and move in the flesh and bones that we indwell. Our bodies are not instruments for us to operate, as though we were driving them about like captains of a ship. They are not tools for us to communicate with others, or pieces of property to dispose of as we wish.

Sometimes, Anderson points out, God changes a person by working directly with his soul. Those whose sins Jesus forgave in the Biblical accounts fit in this category. Other times, Jesus chose to reach the soul by means of the body:

The same God who forgives sins shapes and reshapes human bodies. In Matthew 9, Jesus forgives the sins of a paralytic, and the scribes and Pharisees grumble. In response, Jesus reveals the fullness of authority: “ ‘But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he then said to the paralytic—‘Rise, pick up your bed and go home’” (v. 6). Jesus does not associate paralysis with sinning, nor should we. But his authority to forgive sins in connected to his authority over our human bodies.

Anderson’s book is necessarily limited. At 255 pages, Earthen Vessels is an all-too-brief introduction to the problem at hand, and Anderson raises more questions than he answers. That’s not a bad thing. The questions raised in this book would take scores of volumes to answer. Anderson makes it clear that, rather than offering a definitive treatment of the issue himself, he hopes to draw others into a conversation about the proper role of the body in life, in worship, and in culture.

He means that literally. If you’d like to join the conversation yourself, ask Matt Anderson to join your reading group–but hurry, his time is limited.

It’s a conversation worth joining—just ask my friend Bob.