Fool’s Talk: The tyranny of application

Os Guinness observes with dismay that the modern Western obsession with “the magic of technique,” leads us to focus almost exclusively on the application question — what preachers call the “So what?” of a sermon:

“All good thinking is a matter of asking and answering three elementary questions. What is being said? Is it true? What of it? Yet one of the curious experiences of speaking in many places in the West is an almost universal preoccupation with the last question, as if audiences were incapable of answering it for themselves. A speaker must therefore provide ready-made ‘take home values,’ ‘next steps,’ ‘measurable outcomes’ and the like. I sometimes wonder if some audiences raise the first two questions at all, and I am far from certain that such insistence on formulas and recipes for action really leads to more decisive action in practice. But the hosts and chairpersons in many events act as if without spelling out all the next steps, audiences would be cruelly short-changed.”

Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion (Kindle Locations 370-375). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

A use of fiction

Fiction is, among other things, an aid to reflection: a means by which we can more vividly and rigorously encounter the world and try to make sense of it, to confront “the problems of being” as freshly as we can. But we vary in our interpretative needs: the questions that absorb some of us never occur to others. Each of us has her own labyrinth . Every genre of fiction puts certain questions in brackets, or takes their answers as given, in order to explore others. Not even the greatest of writers can keep all the balls in the air at once: some have to sit still on the ground while the others whirl. People who come to a book by Murakami, or Neal Stephenson, or even Ursula K. LeGuin with the questions they would put to a Marilynne Robinson novel are bound to be disappointed and frustrated. But if we readers attend closely to the kinds of questions a book is asking, the questions it invites from us, then our experience will be more valuable. And the more questions we can put to the books we read — in the most generous and charitable spirit we can manage — the richer becomes our encounter not just with the books themselves but with the world they point to.

Alan Jacobs, Reverting to Type: a Reader’s Story, loc. 561-570 (Kindle ed., 2012).

Learning to learn

“Another fantasy of liberal education is that the student who advances to the university should take up the study that interests him most. For a small number of students this is in the main right. Even at a very early stage of school life, we can identify a few individuals with a definite inclination towards one group of studies or another. The danger for these unfortunate ones is that if left to themselves they will overspecialize, they will be wholly ignorant of the general interests of human beings. We are all in one way or another naturally lazy, and it is much easier to confine ourselves to the study of subjects in which we excel. But the great majority of the people who are to be educated have no very strong inclination to specialize, because they have no definite gifts or tastes. Those who have more lively and curious minds will tend to smatter. No one can become really educated without having pursued some study in which he took no interest – for it is a part of education to learn to interest ourselves in subjects for which we have no aptitude.

— T. S. Eliot (1932) reblogged from Alan Jacobs, More than 95 Theses (

If you aren’t already watching out for anything Alan Jacobs writes, you should be.  (This quotation of Eliot’s reminds me of something C.S. Lewis wrote about the test of being well read being whether you could find something to interest you on the discount table at any used bookshop.)