A Book Review: Lila, by Marilynne Robinson (2014)

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson, is the strangest and one of the best pieces of fiction I have read. Mind you, I do not read much fiction, and I commonly read half of a classic novel and then stop. (I think this disorder is listed in the DSM manual). But Lila is a kind of emotional suspense novel–but never histrionic. At one point I literally turned the page quickly to find what would come next.

The work bewildered me not a few times, given its shifts in time and perspective. I did not always know when something had happened. However, the threads weave together as the book goes on. I had to finish this one.

The narrative is of a woman kidnapped (or rescued) by a pathetic and courageous woman who lives on the margins of society. She takes Lila as her own. Skipping much (to not ruin the story), Lila wonders into a town, Gilead, where she meets and marries an old widower preacher. In touching and unexpected ways, they nurture each other’s faith. Much of the plot concerns Lila’s difficulty in accepting love and trusting anyone outside of her old life on the road with tough, but good, drifters.

The novel profound perspective on life, death, risk, evil, hope, fear, and the development and shape of Christian faith–much of it coming from Lila’s thoughts. There is nothing cliche or preachy about it. Robinson has already won a Pulitzer Prize for Gilead, and is a highly respected writer. On top of all this, Calvin is referred to several times, and the story can be seen as a reflection on God’s strange providence.

This is not a light or easy read. It may take you places where you do not want to go. But no matter, take up and read.

Ideas from David Wells: The Courage to be Protestant

In America, personality (being charismatic, glamorous) has replace character (being virtuous).

We look to the self for meaning, truth, and fulfillment. This is sin. The result is the loss of meaning and the unmooring of the self from reality, which is the Triune God.

Too many churches are trying to sell the gospel through marketing. But the Gospel cannot be changed into a consumer item for empty selves. The Gospel flows the objective and holy nature of God himself.

The postmodern world gives us the context for ministry; it does not define the content of theology, which is based on the timeless truths of Holy Scripture.

The number of fitness centers has increased as the number of church diminishes. Fitness becomes the new holiness.

An Education Manifesto

Teachers are being taken out of the classroom by technologies, bureaucrats,and statism. The teachers may remain on site–although many are disappearing into cyberspace. But the teacher qua living, interacting, breathing, seeing, hearing presence, is vanishing from the scene. How could this happen?

First, technologies are not interpreted for their strengths and weaknesses. Then some technologies–such as PowerPoint–become avalanches to the unaware, who use them (and spend vast amounts of time on them that could be spent in study) often at the expense of embodied presence. Attention goes to the screen and away from teacher and students. Books are left behind, to everyone’s loss.

A particularly egregious and heart-breaking example is that of a proven virtuoso, a master teacher of reading known for taking the worst readers and making them the best readers. That was before the required technology, which forces her to record on a keypad who is saying what and when. We must have the sacred statistics to that the Control Room can know it all. The result, of course, is to take the teacher out of the classroom. Yes, she is there, but she is removed (by the technological mediation and distraction) from the learning dynamic which she had developed over fruitful decades of instruction.

There is a word for this: sin.

Second, because of undue federal pressure regarding accreditation, schools must attempt to quantify education through “assessment.” This means setting up burdensome and unneeded measures such as “metrics,” “rubrics,” and all manner of outcome measuring. Therefore, administrator are politically horsewhipped into becoming bureaucratic enforcers. Besides being pedagogically pointless (teachers should evaluate students by grades and personal counseling), it forces teachers to use a top-down imposed mold. Thus, the teacher, as a responsible thinker, is robbed of her individuality and adaptability. No, she is not to be trusted; rather, faceless and soulless Conditioners (yes, CS Lewis’s term from The Abolition of Man) shape what they do not know in order to know what which matters not: statistics out of context. But that is what the computer wants

What, then, can traditional and unreconstructed teachers do about it all, beside lament? And lamenting is called for.

First, teachers can become interpreters of technology, not its slaves and sycophants. Every communication technology has its trade-offs; it gives and takes away. To begin to identify this reality, start with Neil Postman, The End of Education. Administrators should give their teachers a wide birth in the classroom and not require any particular technology.

Second, what can be done about the statism that drives the impersonal standardization of education? I doubt I will see the political changes necessary to reverse this in my lifetime. (I am 57.) However, only a return to small civil government and a robust sense of the free and responsible citizen can push back the tidal wave of leftism. Before then, teachers can be principled subversives by not letting the official regime and its regimen hijack the classroom.

Most learning–and the deepest learning–is undetectable by objective measures, because it is a matter of skill and character, which only develop through a mentor-mentee relationship and strong peer friendships among students. As teachers reluctantly abide by new rules, however mindless, they may still inspire students to intellectual virtue by their example and through serendipity, something the number crunchers cannot completely destroy through their statistical imperatives. Have class parties outside of the classroom. Allow time in office hours to sustained conversation. (The Conditioners have not yet demanded matrices and rubrics for these.) Interact with students on Facebook and other social media.

In other words, Never give up. There is too much at stake.


Inspired by a speech by Winston Churchill:

1. Christian socialism (inspired by charity) says, “All mine is yours.” This is voluntary and compassionate. Francis Schaeffer spoke of “the compassionate use of acquired wealth.”

2. Leftist socialism (inspired by larceny and envy) says, “All yours is mine.” This is involuntary and requires state coercion.

What is Worldiness?

David Wells described worldliness as

that system of values, in any given age, which has at its center our fallen human perspective, which displaces God and his truth from the world, and which makes sin look normal and righteousness seem strange. It thus gives great plausibility to what is morally wrong and, for that reason, makes what is wrong seem normal. (Losing our Virtue, p. 4)

See  1 John 2:15-17; Romans 12:1-2.