August 2012


Moonwalking With Einstein is about a journalist who covers the U.S. Memory Championship (yes, there is such a thing) for a story he is writing.  The journalist – Joshua Foer – becomes drawn into the art of memorization and how the mind works and he ends up competing in the same event a year later.  A movie is now in the works.  He writes about his research into memory techniques, especially those associated with the ancient Greeks, and how many of the competitors in the world event are not simply brilliant people, as you might at first suspect.  Rather, they are committed to memory techniques that have only recently been reclaims from several thousand years ago.  He also peppers this account with anecdotes regarding the science of the brain, memory savants, and diseases that affect the mind.

Thus, this book is much more than a simple “how-to” manual on memorization.  It explores the subject from many different angles, including Foer’s own experience expanding his ability to capture and store information.  I enjoyed this book for a couple of different reasons.

  • I have never been that strong in committing ideas to memory and retaining them for any length of time (usually long enough to pass a test).  I always wished that I could read a book about, say, the Roman emperors and then be able to commit a timeline of names and dates to memory for future reference.  By using some of these age-old techniques, I am finally understanding that this is possible.  By placing names, dates, and events to a “memory palace” in my mind, I have been able to retain far more information that I have previously experienced.  My evening walk with the dog has become a walk through 500 years of Roman emperors.  My bike ride to work has become a ride through the kings of Israel and Judah.  As odd as all this may sound, I have been both surprised and pleased with my improved retention.
  • You have probably heard of oral tradition, as opposed to written tradition.  Oral tradition is how ancient cultures could pass down a story for hundreds of years and yet retain the integrity of the original story.  It is how myths were circulated and passed on for generations before they were ever written down.  It is how Jewish rabbis could recite the Torah from memory.  A better understanding of these memory techniques lends credence to the ancients ability to accomplish such feats of the mind.
  • Finally, with all the wonderful technology we now surround ourselves with, we must be cognizant of the consequences of – as the author puts it – downloading so much of our information on to external devices, rather than using our own minds as storage devices.  It is one of the paradoxes of our modern world that we have access to more information today than all of previous history combined.  Yet can we say that we are becoming wiser, more disciplined people because of it?  Are we allowing all this information to shape us into becoming better human beings?

It was an interesting and thought-provoking read.  Hopefully a month from now, I can remember it!

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In the opening chapter of Ten Essential Words, I argue that the fight over the display the Ten Commandments in public spaces misses the point.  I recently ran across this quote from the late comedian George Carlin that takes a different angle:

The real reason that we can’t have the Ten Commandments in a courthouse: You cannot post ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery,’ and ‘Thou shalt not lie’ in a building full of lawyers, judges, and politicians. It creates a hostile work environment.

Perhaps he was on to something!

If the Ten Commandments are mentioned in the news today, it is usually in reference to a legal fight over whether a religious document should be displayed in a public forum.  But do these battles miss the point?  Another excerpt from the opening chapter of Ten Essential Words.

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A friend of mine recently forwarded me a YouTube video clip of popular television host Stephen Colbert interviewing a congressman regarding this very issue of displaying the Ten Commandments. The congressman was reportedly the one who sponsored a bill that would require the Ten Commandments to be displayed in Congress. In the video clip, the congressman explains the importance of protecting this document and states that without it, we would lose our sense of direction. Colbert then asks the congressman to name the Ten Commandments. He begins with a couple easy ones, but then pauses, realizing the awkwardness of the moment. He finally admits that he cannot name them all.

To be fair, numerous surveys conclude that most of us could not name them all either. Quick – list all ten (and don’t flip to the table of contents). I have been studying them for a couple years now, and I am not sure I could list all ten if I was stopped on the sidewalk and a microphone shoved in my face.

It has come to represent the quandary that many well-meaning, religious people find themselves in: trying to uphold the value of something they consider to be sacred, while being unable to recite the very thing considered sacred. You can almost understand why the secular world scratches their collective heads, asking “Is this important to you or not?” For people of faith it should be both a valid point, and at the same time, only scratching the surface of a bigger issue. Are we expected to live these commandments out in our lives today? Again, is it more important that we display the Ten Commandments, have them committed to memory, or that they are actually an embodiment of the way we live?

I will be posting chapter previews over the coming months so that people can get a better idea of what Ten Essential Words is all about.  If your interest is piqued, click on the book cover or here for more download options.  If not, then stay tuned for more sneak peaks!  Here is an excerpt from the first chapter.

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I had not given much thought to the Ten Commandments, myself.  I probably could have recited most of them if I was ever given a pop quiz and some time to think.  So while reading a book one day I was caught off guard when I ran across this quote:

So in the new church, in spite of the unsolved dilemmas of abortion, homosexuality, and the like, we may just find ourselves united as never before in trying to help our people toward moral living, in public and in private.  We will realize what wonderful assets we had in the Christian tradition all along: the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, the Love Chapter (1 Corinthians 13).  And maybe, just maybe, we’ll accept this modest proposal: that for, say, the next twenty-five years we will dedicate 95 percent of our moral effort toward living these basic, unarguable elements of our moral tradition.  Then we can reevaluate and see whether the other issues – the trivial questions and the big dilemmas alike – have taken care of themselves.

(from Brian McLaren, The Church On The Other Side)

I started wondering if this could actually be the case.  I wrote in the margin of that particular book the words “sermon series”.  At the very least a sermon series on the Ten Commandments would take up about two to three months of Sunday sermons (unfortunately sometimes pastors think this way).  But I wondered if there was enough material out there.  After all, you probably do not need to spend 30 to 45 minutes to convince most people that things like stealing and murder are not the paths to a virtuous life.  Other questions crossed my mind as well.  Would people respond to what seemed like a high moral call?  Would I end up turning into one of those “fanatics” protesting outside a courthouse to keep the Ten Commandments on display?

Apprehensions aside, I decided to take the challenge of spending a considerable amount of time trying to understand what might have been lost to us down through the centuries.  After all, my own questions revealed that I could use some brushing up on something that I considered important to my faith.  So at the conclusion of a three month sermon series on the Ten Commandments, I found that there was much more life to an ancient document than I ever could have imagined.  The response from the church revealed the hunger people had for gaining a better grasp of those commandments.  Visitors wanted to know how they could take the material back to their own small group or spiritual community.  Those ten statements would end up becoming the ten values of our church because we believed in the power they still held.

I ran across a review of this book in an old magazine and thought it would be an interesting read for a couple of reasons.  First, my next project has to do with Paul’s letters in the New Testament.  Second, I hope to travel to Turkey in the near future.  So when I read about a professor who bought a boat and retraced Paul’s missionary journeys throughout the Mediterranean, my interest was peaked!

To be honest, when I began reading Sailing Acts, it wasn’t fully what I expected.  I was looking forward to the many cultural insights the author, Linford Stutzman, might have extracted from visiting sites like Corinth, Ephesus, Miletus, Malta, and Crete.  A couple of chapters into the book Stutzman was still trying to purchase his boat and bring together all the details of his trip.  But what the book lacked in detailed scriptural commentary, it made up for in drawing the reader into he and his wife’s year and a half adventure on the Mediterranean.

Stutzman does infer some interesting insight from his travels and succeeds in drawing the reader a little more into the outlook of the Apostle Paul.  He writes often how the experience changed him personally and notes that the Paul that arrived back in Jerusalem had to have been quite different from the Paul who set off several years earlier.  It was an interesting observation that in Italy, so much revolved around the person of Peter, while Paul’s legacy was celebrated in Greece.  Sadly, most in modern-day Turkey – the land where Paul arguably focused much of his attention – know little, if anything, of the Apostle Paul.

Stutzman only scratched the surface at what I believe are a plethora of cultural layers present in Paul’s letters, yet he affirms my belief that those layers are there waiting to be uncovered.  I’ll conclude with one of Stutzman’s own observations regarding Paul’s message and methods:

I began to recognize a pattern of communication for Paul as he traveled throughout the pagan world.  He spent very little time condemning the brutality and debauchery of paganism, or the oppression and injustice of the Roman system.  Instead, recognizing the inadequacies of religion and empire, Paul offered an attractive message of hope, morality, and life – the good news of the abundant and eternal life of the living Jesus.

Good words, even for today!  Paul may have been on to something.