Recent Reading: The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God

Etgar Keret, The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God (& Other Stories)

I’m going to attempt to start writing some ‘recent reading’ posts. The goal of these posts, in the past, was to write down things from the books that I found helpful (think applications).

I was visiting Square Books in Oxford, MS and this book was on a ‘recommended reading’ shelf with a note from a staff member calling Keret ‘like Chuck Palahniuk, but better.’ I was sold. I absolutely loved this book and have already ordered another collection of Keret’s short stories to read.

Takeaways from several of the stories:

  • The Story About a Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God is a good picture of grace over strict legality; how compassion can impact people
  • Hole in the Wall was probably my favorite story int he collection. It involves a lonely man who wishes for a friend (more specifically an angel). His wish is answered, but the angel doesn’t live up to his expectations. The narrator calls him ‘a liar with wings.’ I’ve already used this in a sermon as an illustration of hypocrisy.
  • A Souvenir of Hell is about a town that borders an entrance of hell. Once every hundred years or so, residents of hell are allowed to visit the town. The main character is infatuated with a resident of hell, but after the hole is closed up by the government, she can only go on telling stories about what she had seen.
  • Breaking the Pig tells the story of a boy who chooses to save his friend. The friend happens to be a piggy bank. He values his friendship with the toy more than the money he would gain by breaking the bank.
  • Cocked and Locked is probably my second-favorite in the collection. It involves an Israeli military narrator patrolling the border. He is taunted every day by a Palestinian who doesn’t know that the narrator’s gun is useless. The narrator feels impotent, knowing he can’t use his weapon. The twist in the end shows us that we’re all really impotent in the end in some sense.
  • Korbi’s Girl is another good one. A young man steals another young man’s girlfriend. The other young man seeks revenge. The brother of the first young man (who stole the girlfriend) is caught in the middle. This story involves a lesson/exploration of the nature of justice.
  • Missing Kissinger is another favorite. It follows a husband as he attempts to fulfill his wife’s request to ‘prove his love’ to her.
  • Plague of the Firstborn involves the story of Exodus. It explores the idea that some mercies are actually judgement.
  • Pipes was another story in enjoyed. It involved a lonely man who found a way to heaven by building an intricate pipe. He discovered that heaven wasn’t for good people; it was “for people who were genuinely unable to be happy on earth.”

Double-Efficiency in Reading

In a letter (HERE) based upon Ecclesiastes 12:12, John Newton makes the case that wide reading does not necessarily relate to true intelligence:

An eager desire of reading many books, though it is often supposed to be the effect of a taste for knowledge, is perhaps a principal cause of detaining multitudes in ignorance and perplexity. When an inexperienced person thus ventures into the uncertain tide of opinions, he is liable to be hurried hither and thither with the changing stream; to fall in with every new proposal, and to be continually perplexed with the difficulty of distinguishing between probability and truth. Or if, at last, he happily finds a clue to lead him through the labyrinth wherein so many have been lost, he will acknowledge, upon a review, that from what he remembers to have read (for perhaps the greater part he has wholly forgotten), he has gained little more than a discovery of what mistakes, uncertainty, insignificance, acrimony, and presumption, are often obtruded on the world under the disguise of a plausible title-page.

He is making the point that absorbing vast amounts of information can lead to vast confusion and even, in a sense, vast ignorance. ‘Learning’ or the appearance of intelligence can give an illusion of wisdom as much as a nice title can give the illusion of good content.

He then urges the necessity of reading Scripture.

But should we only read Scripture? His answer is ‘no’:

Allowing, therefore, the advantage of a discreet and seasonable use of human writings, I would point out a still more excellent way for the acquisition of true knowledge: a method which, if wholly neglected, the utmost diligence in the use of every other means will prove ineffectual; but which, if faithfully pursued, in an humble dependence upon the Divine blessing, will not only of itself lead us by the straightest path to wisdom, but will also give a double efficacy to every subordinate assistance.

Notice the takeaway here. If you read all the books in the world, but do not understand God’s Word, you will gain essentially nothing. But if you have God’s word, everything else you read will gain ‘a double efficiency’ in helping to understand the truth.

The Preacher of Ecclesiastes makes this point: “My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecc. 12:12). Wearing yourself out with reading and study serves no ultimate purpose in itself. But if that studying is mingled with the words of the “Shepherd,” it will lead to wisdom, stimulation (“goads”), and longevity (“nails”) (12:11).

Ecclesiastes 12:11 The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd.

At the end of his life, the Apostle Paul makes a request his younger student Timothy: “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments” (2 Tim. 4:13). He wants to read until the day that he dies. But above all he wants to read the Scriptures.

Do you want to be a doubly efficient reader? Do you want to enjoy books more? Do you want your experience with literature to be more deep and rich? Then read and digest the Scriptures and let them form your imagination as you come to other writings.

Pastoral Ministry and the Paradox of Books

We must not live in the world of books, but in the world of real people. Yet, all that is worth saying to them of lasting value comes from books. But it is all summed up in One who was a real person; and the end is never propositions, theories, precepts, doctrines, but a certain kind of flesh and blood.

-William Still, The Work of the Pastor, Kindle Loc. 1229

We are called to be in the world but not of the world. The reverse is true about reading: we are to be of books but not in books. Our reading informs everything we do, yet we must actually be doing.

Should Christians Read and Quote Non-Christians?

John Calvin on Paul’s reference to a Cretan author in Titus 1:12:

12 One of themselves, a prophet of their own
I have no doubt that he who is here spoken of is Epimenides, who was a native of Crete; for, when the Apostle says that this author was “one of themselves,” and was “a prophet of their own,” he undoubtedly means that he belonged to the nation of the Cretans. Why he calls him a Prophet–is doubtful. Some think that the reason is, that the book from which Paul borrowed this passage bears the title Περὶ Χρησμῶν “concerning oracles.” Others are of opinion that Paul speaks ironically, by saying that they have such a Prophet — a Prophet worthy of a nation which refuses to listen to the servants of God. But as poets are sometimes called by the Greeks ( προφὢται) “prophets,” and as the Latin authors call them Vates , I consider it to denote simply a teacher. The reason why they were so called appears to have been, that they were always reckoned to be ( γένος θεῖον καὶ ἐνθουσιαστικόν)a divine race and moved by divine inspiration.” Thus also Adimantus, in the Second Book of Plato’s treatise Περὶ Πολιτείας after having called the poets υἵους Θεῶν “sons of the gods,” adds, that they also became their prophets. For this reason I think that Paul accommodates his style to the ordinary practice. Nor is it of any importance to inquire on what occasion Epimenides calls his countrymen liars, namely, because they boast of having the sepulcher of Jupiter; but seeing that the poet takes it from an ancient and well-known report, the Apostle quotes it as a proverbial saying. (228)

From this passage we may infer that those persons are superstitious, who do not venture to borrow anything from heathen authors. All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it; for it has come from God. Besides, all things are of God; and, therefore, why should it not be lawful to dedicate to his glory everything that can properly be employed for such a purpose? But on this subject the reader may consult Basil’s discourse (229) πρὸς τοὺς νέους, ὅπως ἂν ἐξ ἑλλ κ.τ.λ

Read the whole thing HERE. I came across this quote in an article by the Calvinist International a while back.

Calvin’s answer (to ‘Should we read and quote non-Christians’) is obviously ‘Yes.’

This is interesting to me for a number of reasons:

1) I like reading non-Christians and quote them regularly. It’s nice when Calvin has your back. (I decided to post this today because I am going to meet one of my own favorite ‘heathen’ authors today at a book reading).

2) It acknowledges common grace in non-Christian authors, which implicitly endorses the reading of non-Christian authors as a source of learning (rather than simply reading with a view toward critique).

3) Calvin explicitly says superstition is the only thing that keeps us from reading such.

4) Paul calls the Cretan a “prophet.” Calvin has no great explanation for this. But if you take G.K. Chesterton’s idea that a prophet is essentially someone who sees the world (under the sun) as it actually is, then there should be no quibbles about some non-Christians having a quasi-prophetic perception of the world. Chesterton put it this way:

…If we see what is the real trend of humanity, we shall feel it most probable that he was stoned for saying that the grass was green and that the birds sang in spring; for the mission of all the prophets from the beginning has not been so much the pointing out of heavens or hells as primarily the pointing out of the earth.

Religion has had to provide that longest and strangest telescope – the telescope through which we could see the star upon which we dwelt…

So then, a worldly prophet is someone who sees the world, particularly the age, with insight, and therefore can accurately describe the state of the fallen world. We are called to learn from such.

This doesn’t bode well for those who would tell us we should only read books from ‘trusted sources’ that will surely never lead us astray. Holding such a position, Calvin says above, is from nothing other than superstition.

Give Credit

If you share the work of others, it’s your duty to make sure that the creators of that work get proper credit. Crediting work in our copy-and-paste age of reblogs and retweets can seem like a futile effort, but it’s worth it, and it’s the right thing to do. You should always share the work of others as if it were your own, treating it with respect and care…

…If you fail to properly attribute work that you share, you not only rob the person who made it, you rob all the people you’ve shared it with. Without attribution, they have no way to dig deeper into the work or find more of it…

Another form of attribution that we often neglect is where we found the work that we’re sharing. It’s always good practice to give a shout-out to the people who’ve helped you stumble onto good work and also leave a bread-crumb trail that people you’re sharing with can follow back to the sources of your inspiration (pp. 84-85).

-Austin Kleon, Show Your Work, pp. 84-85

This picks up on my post from yesterday. By giving attribution for an idea, you are allowing other people to go search out the source. It allows people to search what Kleon calls ‘family trees’ instead of just one person. If I quote somebody, you can search out that person and find out about them; if you like them you can find out who influenced them and keep digging deeper.

Remember that we are not called to spread our own fame and apply that to everything.

Share Your Influences, Spread Fame

Your influences are all worth sharing because they clue people in to who you are and what you do – sometimes even more than your own work.

-Austin Kleon, Show Your Work, p. 77

I appreciate people who share their influences. I can’t tell you how much I’ve been helped by a couple of people who simply took the time to make a recommended reading list. That’s why I put one on this blog. I once threw a book across the room because it kept quoting people but didn’t give references for the quotes. By giving credit to the people that influence you, you allow others not only to see what has shaped you, but to dig deeper and maybe be shaped themselves.

There’s a C.S. Lewis quote that I would give a reference for if I knew where it came from (I got it from John Piper). Lewis is talking about the author of the Canterbury Tales. He says, “Poets are, for Chaucer, not people who receive fame, but people who give it.”

We should want to bring fame to those who have helped us. Don’t take other people’s ideas and simply make them your own. That makes those ideas die with you. Tell people where you got the ideas so that they can visit the source and be helped when you’re not around.

When you’re at a party, tell people about what your reading. Tell them about the people who are helping you. This way you’re not talking about yourself, but you’re letting them get to know you nonetheless. Share it on social media. Kleon says, “Don’t show yourself, show your work.” Instead of posting a selfie, recommend a book. Brag about a book or an author instead of bragging about yourself. More on this to come…

More on this to come…

Amateurs

Kleon notes that the French word ‘amateur’ means ‘lover.’ He quotes Clay Shirky:

On the spectrum of creative work, the difference between the amateur and the good is vast. Mediocrity, however is still on the spectrum; you can move from mediocre to good in increments. The real gap is between doing nothing and doing something (pp. 15-16)

-Austin Kleon, Show Your Work, pp. 15-16

An amateur is a lover. That’s not a knock. More professionals need to be amateurs. Love something.

Scenius

There are a lot of destructive myths about creativity, but one of the most dangerous is the ‘lone genius’ myth…There is a healthier way of thinking about creativity that musician Brian Eno refers to as ‘scenius.’ Under this model, great ideas are often birthed by a group of creative individuals – artists, curators, thinkers, theorists, and other tastemakers – who make up an ‘ecology of talent.’ If you look back closely at history, many of the people who we think of as lone geniuses were actually part of ‘a whole scene of people who were supporting each other, looking at teaching other’s work, copying from each other, stealing ideas, and contributing ideas.’ Scenius doesn’t take away from the achievements of those great individuals; it just acknowledges that good work isn’t created in a vacuum, and that creativity is always, in some sense, a collaboration, the result of a mind connected to other minds.

-Austin Kleon, Show Your Work, pp. 9, 11

To be a part of a ‘scenius’ you have to recognize what is happening in your field and be a part of the give and take. You then have to figure out what is lacking in what is happening and see if you can contribute to fill in that gap.

You might replace the idea of scene with ‘movement.’ Folks are fond, especially within Christianity these days, of calling things movements, though I’m not really a fan of that term. The idea is to figure out the big movements, take what you can from them, and contribute what you can based on what you’ve seen to be lacking.

If your a writer or artist or even preacher, do you have a scene? Are you a part of something? Biblical theology is a major scene at the moment. Have you looked at that scene hard enough to see what’s lacking? Everyone recognizes the need for narrative-makers. What’s lacking in that? How can you take other people’s ideas and contribute what’s lacking?

The idea is that you may not, and don’t have to be, a genius. But you can be part of a scenius. You can make a big contribution if you can read the times we live in and contribute something that is needed. And you don’t have to do it alone. If there is an ‘ecology of talent,’ then adding one little thing to it can change the environment, just as adding frogs to a frogless habitat can change the environment. What can you add?

Blogging Through ‘Show your Work’

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-Austin Kleon, Show Your Work

I have a lot of posts sitting in my drafts to get through before the end of the month (I hope). I have to try to do some blogging as the next few months will be frantic with work, my last semester at RTS (staring Feb. 1), seeking a church-call, graduation, etc.

I have been reading a lot of short stories (of the minimalist variety) and a lot of essays and interviews about writing. I need to write about those. But at the moment I am going to start posting some select quotes from, and thoughts about, Show Your Work by Austin Kleon.

I found this book to be extremely helpful. It scratches a major itch I’ve had for a while: how do you share what you’re doing without being a self-promoter? That’s a major question for any Christian, but especially for a preacher, and a preacher who really likes to write at that.

I have barely begun applying the ideas of the book, but writing through them will be a part of the process. If you’d like an idea of what the book is about, you can watch a talk the author gave HERE.