Book Reports and Nudges

I’m having trouble finishing books. I always have.

I love books. I spend more money on books than any other form of entertainment in my life. Even my student loans are pretty much just me paying for books that I read years ago. I’ve been very glad to not be paying student loans through the pandemic, but I am afraid that I haven’t used the savings wisely to knock down the cost, although I did pay a huge chunk off right at the beginning of the pandemic because in my mind I knew I would be pausing them through december. Anyway. None of that matters. This is a new leaf, a new page, a new start, etc.

That’s what the book reports are about. I love books so much, yet when I finish there is no fanfare, there is nowhere I can really sit around and talk about them. The closest I can get is poker night but none of those deadbeats are really interested in hearing about whatever 1990s technothriller I just picked up at Aesop’s Treasury, which is only two blocks from where I live and where I’m writing this.

I think part of the problem of focus, particularly for the last few months, is that I live directly above where I work. So, I can maybe bang out a few chapters, but there is always stuff I can be doing literally right beneath my feet. I’ll remember some task that I should check on, or some conversation I’m supposed to have, and I just won’t get the required focus to bang out a novel in a couple days.

The worst part is that my ambition is to be a shockingly prolific writer. Ever since I started distributing ideas on the internet, which I began to take seriously around 2014 or so when I started a podcast and tried to develop a niche around my twitter thoughts, I have assumed that the only successful online strategy is to be churning out gobs of content. This led me to move away from what I would have assumed was going to be my hotspot of content — theological commentary. Even though we kept that conversation pretty informal and light, it still required a constant finger on the pulse of Christianity and general spiritual thinking which, over time, is just an exhausting field to keep in touch with. It’s hard on a person to have to weigh in every time some famous pastor posts pictures of his pants down with a college student. Sometimes it is fun to weigh in, other times I don’t want to comment and I don’t care.

I need to take some responsibility for riding the wave gleefully. I haven’t parsed out exactly where my heart was during my 20s. I was really angry, particularly at some evangelicals, some ways of thinking about faith and grace. I had found something that I knew to be better and more healthy and more helpful to self-expression and mental peace. I was really convinced. A lot of things happened, though, after those breakthroughs that made those breakthroughs seem, i don’t know, not as pure ecstasy and a little more metallic, a little more base, a little more covered in dirt and buried somewhere. I lost a lot of friends that I just couldn’t hang with anymore, something had changed in me and the words we exchanged were drained of their weight.

When Darrin died, I knew I couldn’t just shut up anymore. I have really spent the last five months imagining the way forward. Darrin wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, to live with intentionality. He had an aesthetic and spiritual mission which emphasized community. Darrin said one time, the point of church is not “the mission of community” but instead to be “a community on mission.” He also said, one time at an event for seminary students: “It comes down to this, should you plant a church or not: well, can you live in a world that you didn’t create?”

It’s amazing how much that guy is in my head. He was a pure entrepreneur. I used to sell yoyo strings for 50 cents a piece out of an Airwalk shoebox when I was in 4th grade. I made actual money doing that, because yoyos were hot af then. It’s amazing how much I hear Darrin’s voice in my head and forget to attribute it to him. I had it in me to constantly be building businesses and “missions” out of life as it happened around me, and Darrin was that except with a whole different upbringing and 20 years into the future. It is amazing how fragile my heart was in my early 20s that I left that job more offended than grateful for the time I got to be around him.

The last meal I shared with Darrin was at a Vietnamese place in South Florida, during the very first Liberate conference. I don’t remember any of what was said there, but I know that he had just bombed on his message. He was there to preach an in-your-face baptist sermon, and Liberate was rapidly branding as the in-your-face radical grace for all message, almost as different as you can be in the Christian homiletical space. Darrin was preaching to 20 somethings with a lot of gas in the tank, but the world that was being built around Liberate and Tullian was one of exhausted Christians who had been cut off from the promises of the gospel by preachers who were a bit too excited to homilize a pressurized mission to the heavens.

As an entrepreneur, having a mission is good. It is critical. I think what got difficult is the ability to iterate within those missions. Obviously, in practice, Darrin’s church had iterated a million times into a million different spaces. I mean, they owned property all over the place, they had an art gallery (with studio space), a music studio, three or four or five sanctuaries, a school, a mission to the impoverished with its own executive director, a counseling ministry with an incredible facility, the list goes on. But, I guess it is difficult when you are aligning with different baptist/christian groups that each have an obsession with the private behavior of average Christian folks to avoid the microsope eventually ripping apart your life. You can’t iterate around that type of scrutiny. Obviously, we are all responsible for our own conduct, but there is really a sense among these Christian groups that every man is for himself in times of much needed grace, and forgiveness as a concept is reserved solely for the altar call.

Another moment has driven home the sadness I feel about the world losing Darrin. It happened while I was in my Grandma’s drawing room. She was the only person in my family when I was really young who pushed me to identify as an artist, which seems trivial except it’s not. Just that little nudge allowed me to lean into the impulse to see the world not as it is but as it could be. I think the secret of hope is in this identification, and I think it is sad that our world has pitted the “rationals” against the “creatives”. I am glad that the entrepreneurial world that I inhabit today is founded on thet collision of these two mindsets — the artists have figured out science, or the scientists have figured out art, either way. My grandma and grandpa have built many beautiful houses in their life, and this was one drawing room of many that I had stood in with my grandma and talked about drawing and making things. Their house is now in Webster Groves, which was a few miles from where I used to have an office when I worked from Darrin and where Darrin’s house was where I spent tons of time as his assistant. Something just overtook me in that moment about how artists have to pretend to not be artists for some reason, yet art is our only hope — it is the only way forward. Art is the divine in each of us who finally gets us out of our own way to get something out for the world to have for free, forever.

I think the reason to keep going is because we can consume more meaningful ideas, we can dream more ideas into reality, we can execute projects that will change the world. We can help nudge entire generations towards a more stable mental space with simple things like helping children learn to love reading, writing, and creating things.

I remember the Journey, Darrin’s church, had a slogan that was on their sign for a long time at Tower Grove. It said: Love God. Connect People. Transform the World. I remember a friend and I drove past, before I knew the church or knew Darrin, and he said: I hate when churches have overly ambitious slogans like that — I mean are they really going to transform the world?

I have come to believe that transforming the world usually comes about in a different way than simply obsessing about transforming the world. But without the underlying desire to transform the world, without the belief that if you put something out there then the world might change, well it is hard to move the needle at all. It’s hard to get out of bed just for the EAT SLEEP WAKE routine. You have to graft yourself into something bigger and try to take a bite out of life while you can still chew.

On the ground, where I’m at now, is Augustine’s summation of the Christian life: Love God and do what you will. Or, as some have clarified for emphasis: Love God and do whatever you want. I think the Christian mindset that I’m striving for is to have a bedrock awareness that the point is to nudge this world closer to hope and health with the conviction that it can be done, while embracing the artistic soul which wanders around where it pleases to find the way forward. Going forward without measuring forward progress. Dancing, skipping and singing rather than simply taking steps. Although, sometimes it doesn’t feel like a dance, it feels like a trudge, and at these times is when the bedrock conviction must be accessed, you must remind yourself that the point of the mission is the nudge.

Frightened Rabbit said it well:

When it’s all gone, something carries on
And it’s not morbid at all
Just when natures had enough of you
When my blood stops, someone else’s will not
When my head rolls off, someone else’s will turn
And while I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to earth

I can’t believe this post was supposed to be about book reports. I have an idea to review any and every book as I finish it on this blog. I wanted to articulate the rules that I have been thinking about lately. I have a few books that I’m just a couple chapters from finishing, and I wanted to write very informal reviews where I just capture any interesting idea/connection that went through my head while reading. Not overly academic, but something to have a good track record of what I’ve been thinking about and any “nudges” that I might be feeling during such a weird time in everyone’s life. I have a lot of nonfiction that I think is more of the expected stuff for someone who tweets and talks about what i do, but then I also want to review some of these pulpy technothrillers or mystery books or golden age scifi or whatever else — every story can be life-changing for someone. Every story can nudge your life in a whole different direction.

Furthermore, as I almost articulated earlier, I have the goal to write a lot of these pulpy stories and self-publish them with an office printer and a long-reach stapler. It is super bizarre, but this art-form (zines) is the culmination of my convictions about how information is ideally shared from one person to another. I have only made one-off zines here and there, but the goal for what I want to create is a sustainable system which allows me to consistently write immersive stories that are intended to be read on paper, in the real, analog world. That isn’t meant to say that things shared on the internet aren’t meaningful — I wouldn’t waste the time with this blog if I didn’t think true connection can occur online — but it is about building up an analog connection between the writer and the readers that has memorable artifacts to attest to it. I could go way deeper into zines and I will in another post soon. But the old saying goes that if you aren’t able to write it’s because you aren’t reading enough. So the point of the book reports is to keep my brain in that state of flow where I can pop off 10-20 thousand words per week. I don’t know if that is even possible, but I wrote a ton of papers in school and while working as a ghost writer on stupid deadlines without doing adderal so it must be in me somewhere. Also, L. Ron Hubbard popped off so much serialized pulp fiction that I might never surpass him but he was an actual psychopath who didn’t have the internet to constantly steal ideas from, so I think I can win this in the long run if I get started really soon. Maybe I’ll found my own religion along the way, too!