“In” the Culture, but not “of” it

A Man's Guide to WorkPart of my morning routine at work is to read a small passage from Patrick Morley’s book, A Man’s Guide to Work. Jared, my brother-in-law, gave it to me over Christmas, and while I’m not very far into it, the book has had some really interesting thoughts about how we should approach the work place.

I read a sentence today that really stuck out to me, so I’m processing what it means.

It is not our assignment to create a Christian business culture. Our assignment is to represent God within the work culture—to bring salt and light into the workplace.”

It is so easy for Christians to think we need to create our own version of things. We have Christian fiction, or Christian movies, or Christian music. Each of those areas have their sets of rules about what is acceptable or not, and rarely does something break into the mainstream culture. In fact, we often absorb the mainstream and make our own version of it.

Is this what Jesus was thinking of when he prayed to the Father, “As You sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (Jn. 17:18)? Paul didn’t change the gospel or who Jesus was, but he still became all things to all people.

What if we approached our work not with the mindset of changing it, but of representing God and all his virtues? How could we not just create our own movie industry, but instead be in mainstream movies and be an example of Christ’s character, mercy, grace, righteousness, and love?

It’s not an easy question to answer. Maybe that’s why we go to the simple version of just being outside of it. Rather than wrestle with the intricacies and paradoxes of being “in the world but not of it”, we come up with rules and molds that everything has to follow. But it’s a worthy wrestle.

51kceyawg5l-_sx329_bo1204203200_J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, was one such example, I feel. He was a devout believer, and “our Lord” was a frequent subject of conversation when people visited his home. It isn’t obvious that he was a believer by reading The Lord of the Rings, but his writing puts on display the values of the Kingdom of God.

I don’t know how to walk out this idea, but I feel compelled to search out how.

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Books I read in 2017

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Another year of reading has passed! It feels like just a few weeks ago I was writing up 2016’s reading list and now here’s the next one upon me ;) But the good news is, I’m way ahead of the curve for next year’s list!

This is the eighth list I’ve put together, starting in 2010, and I have really enjoyed doing it. It makes my reading throughout the year feel a bit like a challenge, and it also serves as a catalog of books I liked, new authors I found, and books I’m looking forward to reading. I’m excited to keep doing this for a long time.

So without further ado, here are the books I read in 2017:

  1. 2/15–6/30: Date Your Wife, by Justin Buzzard
  2. April: Cherish, by Gary Thomas (audiobook)
  3. April: The Coffee Break Novelist, by Kevin O. McLaughlin (ebook)
  4. 5/13–8/9: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling (ebook)
  5. 6/2–6/28: The Ghost Box, by Mike Duran (audiobook)
  6. 6/28–11/1: Scoundrels, by Timothy Zahn (audiobook)
  7. 7/18–8/9: The Juggling Author, by Jim Heskett (ebook)
  8. 7/18–12/3: Invest Like a Pro, by Jesse Mecham (ebook)
  9. 8/10–8/29: How to Write a Damn Good Mystery, by James N. Frey (ebook)
  10. 8/30–11/13: One Thousand Gifts, by Ann Voskamp (audiobook)
  11. 9/14-10/29: Four Seasons of Marriage, by Gary Chapman (ebook)
  12. 9/29-10/17: When Work & Family Collide, by Andy Stanley (ebook)

New Things In Reading

2016 was amazing because I got to experience reading with my wife, and in 2017 I got to experience it with our daughter! I didn’t list all of the kids books we read together, although maybe I should have. And while I don’t have any specific parenting books on my list, Katie and I were constantly reading articles and different things to become better parents. I’m so thankful for all of the resources available these days! I can’t imagine trying to learn all of this before the internet.

One other thing you may notice on the list is the prevalence of digital books. Most of my reading is now done on-the-go, whether during short breaks at work or sometimes in bed after the family has gone to sleep. Because of that, it just made sense to read Kindle books—and even more so when I rediscovered the library! I’ve used the library for years, but have really gotten into the digital part of it, via Overdrive. I stinking love libraries and I was able to read several books this year because of them.

My favorite part of reading this year was getting to do it next to my wife and daughter once we had gone to bed for the night. I have spent hundreds, if not thousands of hours reading in bed since I was a kid, but now when I do it I get to hear the gentle breaths of my family beside me. When I finally turn off my phone for the night and roll over, its their faces I get to see. It feels amazing, and I am so thankful.

Favorite Books

Fiction

I only read three fiction books this year. I got through the middle of a fourth, Den of Thieves by David Chandler, but I wasn’t able to finish it. I think because it was a print book and I rarely had time to sit down and read like that. I just got Den of Thieves from the library for Kindle, so I’m planning to finish that in 2018.

Scoundrels by Timothy Zahn was the first Star Wars book I’ve read and it was great. It also had the best narrator I’ve ever heard. Marc Thompson did at least 15 different voices and somehow they were all unique. Shout-out to my brother Garrett for giving me that audiobook.

At first I was hesitant to read Mike Duran’s The Ghost Box, as it’s a supernatural thriller, something I don’t normally read. He nailed the L.A. detective noir feel, though, and it was a fun listen.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was the biggest book I’ve ever read on my phone, but it was definitely enjoyable. My only hang-up with the book is I don’t get the significance of _______ being the half-blood prince. It didn’t seem to change anything in the story—but I’m sure that’s been debated already ad nauseum.

Family & Marriage

There is a treasure trove of books out there on marriage, family, and being a dad, and I just ate them up this year. Basically I recommend all of the books I read this year. Here are a few thoughts on them:

Cherish by Gary Thomas is a must-read for any marriage. Through the paradigm of cherishing your spouse, Gary calls us even deeper than simply loving our spouse. The Lord used it multiple times after listening to the book to strike my heart and force me to ask, “Am I cherishing my wife in this moment?” So good. I think this is going to become one of my read-every-year books.

When Work & Family Collide was a timely book for me to read. In being an employee and also having personal projects to work on, while also being a husband and dad, having things in the right priority is really important. Andy Stanley nails that discussion by giving a challenge to men to keep their family first and practical ways to do it. I have a feeling I’ll come back to this book a lot over the years.

Four Seasons of Marriage was a very practical and helpful book from Gary Chapman. Knowing what season you’re in as a couple is really important and Gary gives tools to change it or stay in it is really important.

Date Your Wife by Justin Buzzard is a small book about the need for and how to craft a game plan for pursuing our wives, and it’s fantastic. Growing deeper as a couple isn’t automatic, especially in our busy society, and Justin gives a provoking call-to-action for men to purposefully pursue their wives, along with practical steps on how to do so.

Others

My wife recommended One Thousand Gifts to me, and while it was a bit flowery for my male brain, it presented a really great paradigm of thankfulness that was such a good reminder. The big thing that stuck out to me was seeing communion, a frequent practice in the Christian life, as giving thanks to Jesus. I had always seen it as remembering what He did on the cross—which of course it is. But coupling that remembrance with thankfulness creates a heart of gratitude that I want to continue to cultivate. (I also want to continue to ask my wife for recommendations:)

How to Write a Damn Good Mystery (pardon the swearing) was the best writing book I read last year. I’m exploring how to write adventure stories, good adventures always have mysteries at the heart of them. James gave helpful tips on how to think about characters, plots, and clues that will be helpful in my writing.

Books to Read in 2018

Over Thanksgiving, my older brother Jeremy mentioned he keeps a list of books to read. I’ve usually had a few in my head but I’ve decided this year to keep a running list of books I plan to read. So far there are over 20, which given my record from last night year might be impossible, but you never know till you try, right?

I’d like to read more books on parenting and especially raising girls. Marriage of course will be a continuing topic, as well as writing books to keep growing in my craft. I’d also like to read more history and theology, which I haven’t done as much in recent years. And lastly, maybe a fiction book or two. I’ve been thinking about reading a Clive Cussler book, because he does a lot of real world adventure and I’ve never really read anything from that genre. And Brandon Sanderson has released the third Stormlight book in his epic series, Oathbringer, so I’m looking forward to reading it.

I suspect I’ll read more ebooks and audiobooks this year. It helped tremendously in 2017, and while I love a physical book, the practicality of digital helps me actually get books done (case in point: Den of Thieves). Also, my wife got me a Kindle Paperwhite for Christmas, so bring on the reading! (Thanks so much, babe :)

So there you have it! Another year down and another to come. And it’s not even January February March yet :)

Here’s to more reading!

Books I read in 2016

img_0170.jpgWell look at that, it’s almost time for 2017’s list. But these posts are my archive of not only what I’ve read, but also my thoughts on the books and what I’m looking forward to reading. (That last part may be hard to recall and differentiate from what I’ve ended up reading.) So regardless the time of year, I still wanted to get this written up.

Better late than never, as they say. So here is what I read in 2016:

  1. January: Vertical marriage, by Mike & Anne Rizzo
  2. January: Letters & Life, by Brett Lott
  3. February: Love & War, by John & Stasi Eldredge
  4. January-March: The Bands of Mourning, by Brandon Sanderson (audiobook)
  5. May: The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Henri Nouwen
  6. August: How To Make a Living As a Writer, by James Scott Bell (ebook)
  7. November: The Cassandra Project, by Jack McDevitt (w/ Katie)

A Year of Marriage

2016 brought a big change to my reading: I married the most amazing woman in the world! It was an incredible year full of getting to know my wife and spending time together. All those years I had been alone and reading books, but now I could spend that time with Katie! Thus, the list was shorter than previous years—and so worth it :)

There were a few other changes: first, I started reading marriage books. There is an incredible wealth of experience and knowledge from wise Christian leaders, and their books have been invaluable in learning how to be a better husband and partner to my wife.

In Vertical Marriage, Mike and Anne Rizzo (who did our marriage counseling) walk through great topics that you need to discuss in marriage and give a strong biblical foundation for the covenant that marriage is. One of the biggest points Katie and I took away from the book and our time with the Rizzos was that Jesus has to be the first priority for both of us. It feels counter-intuitive that something should be of more importance than my marriage (and Jesus is the only thing that is in that category), but putting Jesus first enables us to love sacrificially and pursue one another through his strength.

John Eldredge’s Love & War is another great a marriage book that I would definitely recommend. With his customary style and depth, John and his wife Stasi talk honestly about their journey together and what has helped them walk closer together. I continue to think how much I need to read his books at least once a year.

The second great thing about reading while married is: I got to read something Katie recommended! She has a great collection of theology books and knows them very well, and her recommendation of The Return of the Prodigal Son struck my heart to the core. Henri Nouwen’s classic look at Rembrandt’s painting of the prodigal son connecting with my journey from start to finish, and I can remember multiple times thinking, “This is me!” as I wiped away tears. I can so easily slip into the role of the older son, and this book gave me language to see it and turn toward the Lord. Again, definitely a book I need to read regularly, and I’m excited to read more recommendations from my wife.

The third great discovery I had was reading with Katie! On a road trip for Thanksgiving we read Jack McDevitt’s The Cassandra Project. It was so fun being able to read the book and talk about what was happening. It was like a TV show, only we were able to be buried in a book together! The book itself is classic McDevitt and written so well. Our only quibble was that he somehow managed to carry out the mystery until literally the last few pages. If it had been any slower we would have given up, but he kept the tension going so well that we just had to finish. We still talk about it a year later!

Other Books

Brandon Sanderson’s The Bands of Mourning was another good Mistborn book, though I like the original trilogy much better than the Wax & Wayne trilogy. I’ll probably keep reading the series whenever he gets around to writing another book, but my interest waned (eh? eh?) a little with this book.

How to Make a Living As a Writer was a fantastic book by James Scott Bell. His disciplined approach to writing really resonates with me, a lot more than some of the fluff, write-a-bestseller-in-five-days kind of books out there.

Lastly, Letters & Life by Brett Lott was a welcome surprise. I’m always on the look-out for books about writing and the Christian faith, and Brett wrote some really great essays on the subject. The surprise part was a multi-chapter essay about his father’s death, which having lost my own father thirteen years ago really connected with me. It was an unexpected journey, but welcome.

Books in 2017

It’s a bit funny to write this section with 2017 nearly done and (spoiler) I’ve read almost 18 books, but if I remember right, I was hoping to read more marriage books, some writing books, and a little more fiction. It ended up being a great list for the year, and especially since there’s a new addition to the family: our baby! So that added some good books to the list.

So at last 2016’s list is posted! Archive complete.

RogerEbert.com compares lightsaber duels

A while ago I wrote an article searching for the best lightsaber duel. Thanks to a 1-hour compilation of all the duels (which sadly is no longer online), I was able to watch them all back to back and in the end determined, in my own opinion, that the final duel between Luke and Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi was the best one.

In a similar vein, Andrew Clark from RogerEbert.com just published an article that compares how duels are treated in the original trilogy versus the prequel trilogy, as well as how The Force Awakens approaches them. It’s a great comparison and reveals many of the same character notes I found when watching the duels.

Andrew sums it up well when he writes:

If the original trilogy’s duels can be defined by character development and thematic resonance, the prequels can be conversely defined by their lack of purpose or depth.

Action should never just be action for action’s sake. The best action scenes reveal character along with adrenaline.

Head on over to The Dance of the Lightsabers: Duels in the Original “Star Wars” Trilogy vs. The Prequels to enjoy the geeky discussion.

Fueling My Words

Sites post 2015At the start of 2016, my fiancée and I started Whole30. It’s a diet that focuses on eating only natural things, such as meat and vegetables, and cuts out grains and added sugar. As a bachelor I had eaten the same thing for… gosh, who knows how many years? It consisted mostly of chicken, rice, bread, apples, cheese, and cookies. But food is fuel for your body, right? While tasty, those six things may not have been the best for me, so I was excited to switch things up.

I had a similar realization last year with the websites I visit. In a post titled “A Change of Intake”, I listed the handful of sites I routinely read and asked the question, “What if I spent my time reading websites that wrote about the things I’m directly involved in?” I am a filmmaker and a writer, and I like to process life through reading and writing, and I wanted to read things that encouraged and fed those areas of my life.

Thus, 2015 went from four tech sites to this list:

  1. Fifty Foot Shadows, thoughts on life and photography
  2. Analog Senses, thoughts on life and photography
  3. Prolost, thoughts on and products for film
  4. The Dissolve, film editorials and reviews—great content here!
  5. Jamie Todd Rubin, the writing life
  6. Janice Hardy’s Fiction University, consistently insightful writing advice
  7. Backchannel, a new addition with well-written, in-depth tech articles
  8. Suggestion of Motion, in-depth articles about film, specifically the Panasonic GH4, which I own
  9. Garrett Koepke’s blog—my brother is writing some great stuff about travel, with beautiful photographs
  10. The Music Bed Community—at first just a stock music site, TMB have become so much more

Now that it’s a year later, I wanted to (you guessed it) process through writing how that list has changed and if I’ve noticed anything different in my life.

Retrospect

PROCESSING LIFE

The first thing I’ve noticed is that the list gathered into three categories: processing life, film, and writing. Sites that fit the first category were Backchannel (edited by Steven Levy and hosting several writers), Analog Senses (written by Alvaro Serrano), Fifty Foot Shadows (written by John Carey), and Garrett Koepke’s blog (written by my youngest brother!).

The first two fell off over time: Steven’s articles for Backchannel are incredibly personal and insightful about technology today, but I don’t connect as much with the other writers and I can find out about Steven’s articles by following him on Twitter. Alvaro’s writing and curation for Analog Senses attracted me because of his love for analog film cameras, but it has become more Apple/tech-centered, which is the content I was trying to leave.

That leaves Fifty Foot Shadows and Garrett’s blog. I love their thoughtful way of approaching life and pointing out things that are important to enjoy or cherish in life. Combined with wonderful photography, each post is a pleasure to read visually and intellectually.

I kept my eye out over the year for other sites to read, and the two that caught my attention were Lindsay Crandall and articles by Craig Mod.

Lindsay is a photographer and mom who gives snapshots of how she handles the pressures of being a parent and an artist, and I really appreciated her honesty and insight into her process. Unfortunately she doesn’t write too often (probably that whole parent thing), but I still check her site now and then with the hopes of seeing something. One website she does frequently update is a shared blog with a fellow parent called Hello there, Friend. They write short, daily letters to each other about life and when I have time to read them they are really enjoyable, if not helpful.

Craig is photographer and writer who lives in Japan. I found him on Twitter over the last year and his articles about technology and life are so good. One of my favorites from him this last year was Future Reading, an article about the important place of printed books in our lives. His thoughtful approach is really inspiring to me, not to mention his photographs. Unfortunately he is published more through other sites than his own, so I usually find out about his new writings through Twitter.

FILM

This category ranged from reviews and editorials to technique and gear talk. Prolost (written by Stu Maschwitz), Suggestion of Motion (written by Sol March), The Dissolve (reviews and editorials), and The Music Bed Community (written by various authors and staff at the fantastic stock music site).

For technique sites, Prolost and Suggestion of Motion have been invaluable. Stu at Prolost is a leading filmmaker and not only talks about gear and software but also his approach to creativity and filmmaking. He doesn’t post as often as I would like, but it’s always worth reading when he does. Suggestion of Motion was also a fantastic site about cameras, particular the Pansonic GH4. I was the owner of one when I found Sol’s site and tried to read as much as I could in order to learn how to work with the GH4. Late last fall, though, I purchased a Sony A7s II and haven’t had as much need for Sol’s writing. He did just say he bought the same camera as me, so I’m hoping he’ll start posting articles about that camera as well.

The Music Bed community has shifted over the past year, but it still remains a great place for thoughtful articles about the filmmaking process. They have transitioned a lot of the content into the Film + Music magazine, which has been a fantastic resource.

The only new gear site to make it onto my list was Noam Kroll. Like Stu, he’s a great filmmaker and posts frequently about his gear tests and projects he’s working on. Mixed in with it all is his approach to storytelling, the gear market, and the future of filmmaking.

In the realm of film literature, this year sadly saw the death of two of the best websites I had found about film and pop culture: Grantland and The Dissolve. The reviews and particular the editorials by The Dissolve were a step above anything I had seen online and I was really sad to discover one day that it was ending. I had hoped Grantland, with its witty commentary and exhaustive pop cultural essays, could take it place—only to find shortly after that it was closing too.

Thankfully, over the course of the year I found Decent Films, the website of Steven Greydanus, who is the film critic for the National Catholic Register. Secular film reviews often focus on the story and technique in judging a film but don’t take into account the spiritual or moral aspect, whereas Christian film reviews usually only focus on the spiritual. As a filmmaker who is a Christian I wanted both, and Steven does that splendidly. Not only is he steeped in film history and what makes a great film, but he has a great theological perspective as a Catholic. He has helped me be more of a thoughtful film-goer, and shown me some of the good and helpful perspectives of Catholicism. The only downside is he is just one man, so it takes a while for new reviews to come out. But when they do, you better believe I’m going to read it.

WRITING

The writing category of my list is an interesting beast. On one hand, I want to grow as a writer. But on the other hand, I only have so much time to read online. Consequently, when I do have time I have to decide if I want a thought-provoking article or a technique exercise.

When I felt like the latter, I turned to Jamie Todd Rubin and Janice Hardy’s Fiction University. Jamie inspired and encouraged me to write every day through his blog, and it has been helpful to see his process of writing, revision, and publication of his stories. And I can’t say enough about Janice’s website. If you want to learn anything about writing, read her stuff. Nearly every article is so helpful and about every part of writing.

The new writing websites to make it on the list were from Christopher Paolini, author of the Inheritance trilogy, and David Farland, author of Runelords. I’ve followed Christopher’s career since I first read his self-published book just out of high school, and it’s been fun to get an inside-look at his process and stories. As for David Farland, I actually just realized he was on the list; guess I forgot about his site! But I do know he is a fantastic writing teacher and I need to check his site more often.

The New List

That was probably all more information than anyone needed to know, but as I said at the beginning I like to process life through reading and writing, so there you go. The big question now is, what have I learned from all of this? Did changing my intake help in any way?

The first thing I noticed is that I like writers who are also photographers. I think that’s because there is something slower and more thoughtful about photography; you have to think about what image you are going to take, which image to use, and how it illustrates your writing. I haven’t been good at doing it, but I would love for the creative exercise of photography to be a bigger part of my life. I’m about to move into a new house when I get married, and I just had the thought that the basement could work for a dark room—hmm….

The second thing that comes to mind is, I feel like I become a more thoughtful person when I take time to read things like this on a regular basis. Doing that helps me formulate what I think about situations or topics or processes, and helps me be a better storyteller and artist.

For me, I really think it’s all about a blank piece of paper and a pen, an empty document and the keyboard before me. Life can be so hectic sometimes, so unorganized, so disorienting. The words I eat are fuel for my own words, and the act of recording them—even just the act of it—helps bring clarity and order to what I’m experiencing.

It’s funny, really. I’m almost 31 and still discovering how I approach life. There are a lot of people and influences that are helping that journey (my aforementioned fiancée above all), and what I realized over last year is that the websites I read can also help.

So the list for 2016 stands as such:

  1. Fifty Foot Shadows
  2. Lindsay Crandall/Hello there, Friend
  3. Garrett Koepke
  4. The Music Bed blog/Film + Music magazine
  5. Decent Films
  6. Noam Kroll
  7. Prolost
  8. Jamie Todd Rubin
  9. Janice Hardy’s Fiction University
  10. David Farland
  11. Christopher Paolini

Before I end, let’s go back to Whole30. It’s halfway through the month and while I haven’t noticed a huge shift in energy I have noticed two big things: I’m always hungry and I’ve lost weight. While that might not be a glowing review for Whole30, I think it still works as an example for the things I read. I shed the weight of putting things in my brain that don’t apply to my life, and it makes me hungry for more good content.

So if you’ll excuse me, I need to go make a salad. Or eat a steak. With eggs on it. Lots and lots of eggs.

What kind of sites do you read? If you have any suggestions, leave a comment below!