All Work and No Play: A Review of a Review

 
shining
 

I keep running across happy references to the book, “Do Hard Things.” This, coupled with a recent re-view of the Stanley Kubrick classic, prompted me to re-post.

Lane Keister seems to have much adulation for the recent book, “Do Hard Things.”

The book and the review are aimed at youth. Maybe it’s just memories of junior high counselors and high school just-say-no rallies, but I get nervous when adults are “given a microphone” and presume to address kids. And when religion is the backdrop I brace myself even more. These things rarely seem to go well. Speaking of doing hard things, it isn’t easy speaking with kids. It’s easier to talk to them. One irony is that the message most often has to do with not living down to low expectations, yet all the sub-text seems to assume kids are indeed fairly moronic. If the review is any measure, the book is no exception to this irony. But if I am being serious about the second greatest commandment and not exasperating children, I am not so sure swapping out a sweaty moralistic-therapeutic deism for a brainy one is any less transparent or patronizing.

It seems rather apparent that much of this, quite understandably, is simply a general reaction against the insipid. Certainly none of us who have made our trek out of wider evangelicalism and into the confessional tradition need to be convinced that dumbness reigns our former haunts. But ultimately what ails in Keister’s review is not only an absence of the eschatological categories that distinguish between the two ages but a confusion between popular culture and that which is merely banal. I am not as sure as Keister that they are really one and the same. And, ultimately, what this brief review reveals is that we Reformed are as vulnerable to cultural trapping as anyone else.

The cultural analysis Keister seems to echo by way of the book by Alex and Brett Harris seems overly reliant on a simplistic taxonomy between high and low culture. With the target audience of teens, there are, evidently, only two options: “slacking off and partying,” or “accomplishing things for Christ.” It is never very clear what is exactly meant by the phrase “accomplishing things for Christ,” but usually it seems to be code for “whatever our quarter of the religious sub-culture deems superior.” To my old evangelical circles this would translate into staying relentlessly well ahead of the “cool” curve, while for Keister it seems to mean filling every square inch with theological tomes. Granted, the latter may have more in common with a truer piety, but when pushed with all the fervency of a revivalist it seems that something has been Lost in Translation. Call me under-realized (go ahead, I’m used to it), but I’m not so sure that the best of our tradition understands the corrective to a zeal without knowledge to be a zeal for knowledge.

If the directive from the revivalist is to dive deeper into one’s experience with the risen Christ, the exhortation by certain Reformed is to dive deeper into one’s mind. But if it is really true that Christ is apprehended by faith alone then both of these tendencies look to be two sides of a skewed coin. If pietism’s legalism is to never let the inner life go un-groomed, certain Reformed are vulnerable to standing aghast at a mind at ease. If the wider evangelical world is about consuming, aping and even creating popular culture, the Reformed and Presbyterian world seems almost as smitten with doing the same only with a more sophisticated culture. Trafficking in a fair amount of stereotype and caricature of one by the other, both seem to have something of an indulgent love affair with one cultural strain or another. But, again, if faith alone is the ordained instrument by which to embrace Christ, it would seem that even cultural preferences are as finally invalid categories as reason, experience, emotion, ideology, etc. Despite what certain Reformed might assume, consumerism isn’t only for those who brandish Icthus symbols on bumper stickers and checking accounts. It can also afflict those who like to read thick books and understand the relevance of nearly extinct languages.

I have no problem with doing—or thinking—hard things. (Can one move from unbelief to the Durham Trail to Geneva without it?) But what about easy things, or those things in between?

I recall an exchange with another Presbyterian minister in which he was bemoaning the Western accent on the institution of work. The so-called “Protestant work ethic” was the culprit. We are “too consumed with work,” he seemed to be saying. Despite his protestations to the contrary, work (and material gain) kept coming off as icky or somehow impious. I couldn’t help feeling like a certain form of legalism was brewing in which I was probably supposed to look upon my own happy pursuit of particular vocation with suspicion. I was finally rendered something of a Little Dwarf with a chronic case of Hi-Hoism.

With Keister, I get the other impression. I get the sense I should feel a pang of guilt for my devotion to King of Queens re-runs every evening at 7, or for the fact that I am not quite sold on the idea of seeing to it that my children are ready for a PhD in high school. I wonder if it is enough that my own catechetical instruction has a six-year-old trying to not only pronounce but understand words like “justification” and “glorification,” even as she darts from the dinner table to take in some Nickelodeon. And if it’s guilt we’re after, I have quite a measure of it every time I walk into a book store and am confronted with all that I haven’t read. (I’m not kidding. It got so bad one time I had to leave my wife stranded at the coffee bar eighty-four seconds after walking in.)

While it would seem that the first minister might have me enjoy my work less simply because he confuses it with idle busyness (or material gain with an intangible form of materialism), Keister and company seem to conflate popular culture with that which is pure piffle. To be fair, he does suggest that none of this is “to say that we should just chuck popular culture entirely.” But one wonders just where in the world that comes from, or on what grounds, when just seconds before he told us that it “is barely worth one listen,” to say nothing of a general sentiment throughout that popular culture is probably best left untouched.  I’ve been around it enough that I like to think I know latent legalism when I read it. In response to both of these ministers, I don’t like my play being demonized any more than my work. And for what it’s worth, everybody knows what all work and no play can do to a body and soul. That lesson wasn’t lost on Shelley Duvall.

I know it is tantalizing to embrace the notion that society at large is being led down the tubes by the boogey-men of “dumbed down culture,” taking the cult with it. But every generation does this, and I do seem to recall something about even the gates of hell not prevailing against the church. And I realize it is to take some wind out of the sails for those who like to think “…it is really gutsy to rebel against the entirety of culture” when I say that a high and hard culture isn’t the solution to low and easy one, as if there needed to be a solution in the first place. But I think the more useful and over-arching categorical arrangement is Paul’s eschatological notion of this age versus the next one. What is “gutsy,” I think, is Paul’s eschatology. Moreover, the Reformed understanding of the doctrine of creation, in which we ascertain the essence of the material world to be “very good” while its condition sinful, is the ground by which we may partake in all things resident to this age, including high and low culture; we understand this age to be evil because it is passing as a result of our sin, not because it is inherently corrupt. It could be that any voice which tries to set up a class system between anything within this age not only misses sight of the correct taxonomy but may also flirt with a form of legalism. If the antithesis is between this age and the one to come then it doesn’t really follow that the antidote to a piety of sustained adolescence is the sanctity of intellectualism. Dualities are a treasured hallmark of the Reformed tradition. But the trick, it seems to me, is to get them right in the first place.

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21 Responses to All Work and No Play: A Review of a Review

  1. RubeRad says:

    Hmm. I haven’t read Do Hard Things either, but an intern at my church is pushing it on our yoots. I do agree with the premise that adolescence is a modern and noxious invention (see also the linkage from this post), but it seems like the Outhouse’s usual response would be in order: What makes this a Christian book, and not merely a second kingdom book? Wouldn’t atheist teenagers also resonate with the imperative to not waste their lives and society’s resources with immaturity?

    Is your beef more with the original book, or with Keister’s additional concept of Think Hard Things?

  2. Zrim says:

    Rube,

    Speaking of noxious modern inventions I’m not much for dichotomizing thinking and doing (I still think there’s room for “adolescence”), so what goes for one goes for the other.

    To my mind, we should understand this temporal life to have a range. I think in the rush to slay modern sloth and stupidity we release friendly fire on the perfectly legitimate categories of trivial, ordinary, routine and mundane. If Jesus really is Lord over every square inch then where are the exhortations on doing easy things?

  3. “With Keister, I get the other impression. I get the sense I should feel a pang of guilt for my devotion to King of Queens re-runs every evening at 7, or for the fact that I am not quite sold on the idea of seeing to it that my children are ready for a PhD in high school.”

    Zrim, that one had me laughing.

    This is one of the best things I’ve read on the subject. The ancients were commended in Hebrews 11 for believing the gospel, not for eschewing the excesses of Philistine culture. Consider this linked from RandR.

  4. Todd says:

    Yes, this book makes me think our children should all be like this:

  5. Bruce S. says:

    One of the hobbies I picked up from the Sr. Settergren was the hobby of collecting hobbies.

    In view of that legacy, I think the “Do Hard Things” mindset as you’ve laid it out here is completely bogus. Zrim, when’s your book “Do Fun Things” coming out?

  6. Brenden says:

    Zrim,

    This is a very helpful and illuminating analysis. I have the book, read some of it, and was too struck with a sense of that moralism you’ve just identified.

    And I agree with you, it seems hardly anyone has been pointing this out.

    The moralistic-therapeutic fog sets in so effortlessly and silently.

  7. Joe Brancaleone says:

    How about “Think Hard Things While Doing Fun Things”

    The “thinking hard” part, for some reason, is supposed to be limited to logic and classic languages and certified classic Western literature. Entertainment is out, because, well, its just too fun.

    But really, why not learn to appreciate and analyze the entertainment mediums in terms of its constraints? Entertainment is entertaining but it can also pluck resonant strings of the imagination, and the imagination is nothing to be shunned.

    Methinks we Christians are always painting ourselves in corners when trying to produce a template for what the Christian life “ought” to look like in relation to the broader culture.

  8. Zrim says:

    What, no comments about Kubrick’s smart horror?

    Sorry, the DVD came with a bonus disc that included all kinds of fascinating behind-the-scenes insights. You even get to see how Nicholson brushes his teeth before a take, as well as how he got psyched up minutes before chopping through the bathroom door. Did you know the conversation in the kitchen between Scatman Crouthers and “Danny Torrance” was 84 takes?

    I love my local library. Er, I mean socialized government bookstore.

  9. joe brancaleone says:

    er, hm, you asked for it…

    Brilliant as far as narrative experiments go. Kubrick essentially makes the Overlook building not just the main character (expected in a good haunted house type flick) but also the “narrator” towards us. As in “if these walls could talk”, but then again how well can you trust talking walls? Any more than an imaginary friend?

  10. sean says:

    My nephews are being forced to digest this book as the “bible curriculum” at their high school. They ,thankfully, eschew the book as so much fodder for the mill. I think I see this type of emphasis (rearing our kids) much how I view homeschooling (nice reference Todd), and much as I view fantasy football, or old men trying to relive high school glory on recreational softball teams or even commitment to things such as promise keepers. So much stems from an illegitimate frustration with how life didn’t pan out for them, or the culture at large won’t acquiesce to their demands; “so i’ll invest that triumphalism into the raising of my kids” ( the whole, “we’ll outbreed the pagans” motif for culture transformation dovetails nicely into this paradigm) . It’s often no more than an exercise of power, we don’t have power at work or over what we see on the evening news or even, maybe particularly the PTA, but by all that is holy I will exercise power within my family. In the end we don’t raise children well acclimated to the tensions and adversities and give and take of the public sphere but instead we invest them with ideologies of culture transformation that renders them as either misfits in the culture at large or simply marginalized fundies who outgrow their faith shortly upon entrance to high school, their first job or even college-if they last that long. Yeesh talk about doing a disservice to your kids.

    Or I could just be cranky because my pastor took Jonah as an example of how national repentance starts as a grass-roots movement. Then we had the lord’s supper. Talk about an rough segue

  11. Todd says:

    Excellent Sean,

    There is certainly a family idolatry going on, which looks at parental instruction much the way Roman Catholics look at communion – participating in the correct means assures a good outcome. It really becomes a baptized Greek sacrifice to manipulate the gods to do good to our children. (I guess I won’t be guest speaking at the next Vision Forum convention.)

  12. sean says:

    (I guess I won’t be guest speaking at the next Vision Forum convention.)

    Todd,

    I think you would be characterized as “part of the problem”, and shunned till your wife had appropriately decorated your house in blue and white gingham and put doilies underneath all the table furniture.

  13. Zrim says:

    Sean,

    My nephews are being forced to digest this book as the “bible curriculum” at their high school.

    I wonder if they attend a CSI? I have it on good authority that the local CSIs here make “comparative religion” compulsory and classes in the Bible elective (so much for parochial schooling supposedly “fulfilling the command to instruct our children”). They thus enter church catechism classes with nary any doctrinal framework to even understand what is being taught.

    The other interesting thing here is how nobody seems to assume it is the home’s duty to instruct (in conjunction with the church, of course). There is just amazement that schools aren’t prepping catechumen, which itself is amazing to me since I thought that was the home’s duty anyway. Someone remind me: on top of taxes for local public schools (vouchers are fubar), what do you pay that much tuition for again?

  14. sean says:

    Zrim,

    Yeah they attend “christian” school. My brother and I have had a number of discussions about the benefit of this education, and of all the benefits that have potentially accrued to them (smaller classes, bro-in-law is superintendent, close by, easy access to the faculty and admin, etc..) One of the things he bemoans is their focus on “character development” which has been tantamount to; good boys and girls don’t do this or that-insert list. Fortunately, my brother catechizes his kids which has, interestingly enough, turned them into the rock in their teacher’s shoe, such that they get a lot of “pay a nickel take your choice” reactions from their religion teachers anymore. Which taking into account our family’s temperment may have less to do with their catechesis and more to do with their orneriness. Still the level of deprogramming that would be/is necessary given their religious curriculum is surprising. If they were paying for catechetical supplementation they’d have sufficient ground to demand a refund.

  15. Steve D says:

    As a pastor, I read this book with an eye toward the youth in our church. Upon finishing, I hid the book on my shelf where none of the youth will find it. I found myself surprised (although I shouldn’t be) at some of the folks penning positive blurbs on the back cover. I wonder how many of them even read the book. It seems to me as if the Harris boys are just riding the fame wagon hitched to their elder brother.

    As far as the book goes, it’s loaded with examples of how the Harris brothers are so fantastic because they tried all these cool things and were successful at them because, well, they love God. It’s Christian pop-psychology rewritten for a new generation. It’s Joel Osteen theology packaged at an adolescent level.

    Besides all that, the gospel is an appendix to the book. It’s as if they wrote the book, then thought, “Oh, yeah, if we want all the famous pastor-types to endorse this, we’d better say something about Jesus’ death and resurrection.” The gospel as an afterthought rather than the forethought, or all-pervading thought, renders this book one I will not recommend to teens or parents in my church. For, while I despise the low expectations of teens in our culture, doing hard things is not the answer – Christ is.

  16. Zrim says:

    Steve,

    Thanks for commenting. You capture my impressions, especially when you suggest that this may ironically be another manifestation of low expectations works like this mean to counter. I can’t help but sense the same premise: kids are pretty moronic and need to be encouraged to not be.

    I recall despising my adults referring to me as a “teenager” when I was one. It seemed to smugly imply all the asinine stereotypes they also blamed kids for.

  17. Arnold29 says:

    What are you advising people to do? ,

  18. Zrim says:

    Arnold,

    First, watch “The Shining” well.

    Second, don’t limit yourself to just hard things.

  19. Sad86 says:

    All this has been rather abstract so far, so I want to sum up with a few concrete proposals about what journalism school needs to do to stay relevant. ,

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