Book Review: The Mountain of Silence by K. Markides

Kyriacos C Markides, The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality (New York: Doubleday, 2001).

Kyriacos Markides, a professor of sociology, spent several years studying mysticism and shamanistic practices in several monastic type communities. He’s written several books on these topics, this particular book is about his experiences with Father Maximos on Mt. Athos.

This book was recommended to me by O_Vivliothikarios on Twitter.

The Bad

The only bad thing about this book is that the kindle edition has no links to endnote content. This will likely change in an update.

One thing that is only relatively bad is that if you are familiar with church history or read the ancient fathers with any degree of thoroughness, many of the ideas that the book portrays as unknown or ignored will already be very familiar to you. But this is not really a flaw because the ideas were new to the author and will be new to 99% of the readers.

The Good

The narrative is engrossing. You want to know more about Mt. Athos, Markides, and Father Maxime the whole time.

The book also offers a great deal of spiritual counsel that, perhaps, many Christians, especially protestants, would be unfamiliar with. In the book you also get off the cuff answers to long standing theological problems and because they’ve rolled off the tongue of a theologians and mystic, the answers are fresh and memorable.

The best chapters are five, ten, and twelve through fifteen. Chapter ten is especially helpful as it discusses the monastic strategies for overcoming logismoi which is the Greek word for thoughts, but it came to mean much more. The most intriguing notion in this chapter is that prayer should not be used, in the moment, to overcome temptation. The reasoning is that it undermines the need for self-mastery, rational interpretation of our inner state, and a sort of resignation to external forces. More on that, here.

It’s worth mentioning the five stages of a logismos (124-130):[1]

  1. Assault – a thought enters the mind urging us to commit a specific sin. The best council is to literally ignore it or distract yourself. This is similar to Martin Seligman’s techniques.
  2. Interaction – at this stage the disciple interacts with the logismos, trying to reason with it, and perhaps entertains the possibility that it’s a good idea. This is not yet sin.
  3. Consent – This is, as it sounds, consenting to commit the act. This is sin, but not yet the same kind of sin as actually committing the act. The book has a great illustration of this principle.
  4. Captivity – This is when one succumbs to the logismos, puts it into practice, and therefore makes committing it easier next time. Think of it like driving a trail and creating wheel ruts.
  5. Passion – Finally, the action becomes an entrenched part of the personality that is difficult to part with and destructive to the self and to others.

The book is filled with other gems of this sort like the threefold path: catharsis, photis, and theosis, the strategies for overcoming sin, and nature of ceaseless prayer.

There are also some theological oddities in the book, especially in the chapter ‘Escape from Hell,’ but the certainly provide grist for the mill.

Conclusion

I highly recommend this book to anybody who wishes to understand ancient Christian spirituality, how to overcome temptation, or the Eastern churches. The biggest problem with the book is that some of the speculative theology might be confusing to new believers, but the fact of the matter is that the Bible itself is confusing, so it’s no big deal in the long run.

Footnotes

[1] It’s worth noting that Father Maximos’ discussion of the stages is has one less stage than the stages outlined in the glossary of the Philokalia.

Book Review Pt 1: The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis

This is part one of a multi-part review of The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis.

The Four Loves: Introduction

Lewis, Clive Staples. The Four Loves. London: Fontana, 1964.

In Lewis’ book on the kinds and nature of love he starts the book by distinguishing between Need-love (like a small child for its mother) and Gift-love (like a man working to leave a legacy for his family which he may never see). Lewis had hoped to write the whole book based on this distinction saying essentially that Need-love is bad and Gift-love is good and Christian. What he found, though, was that this is impossible (7).

Lewis points out that while it is true that the Christian’s spiritual health is gauged by his love for God, “Gift-love” for God is the exception. He uses the story of the publican and the Pharisee from Luke’s gospel to make the point. The observation holds, it’s when the Pharisee assumes that his gifts to God, even his grace inspired gifts (he thanks God for making him good) put God in his debt, that he finds himself unjustified before God. Offering God purely “disinterested love” is impossible because spiritual growth includes a growing “awareness that our whole being is one vast need; incomplete, preparatory, empty, yet cluttered, crying out for Him… (9).”

Lewis makes one more very valuable distinction in the chapter. He distinguishes between likeness to God (by nature) and nearness to God by approach. Likeness to God, by nature, is something which every created thing shares to one degree or another. Rocks have being, animals have life, angels have intellect, will, and immorality, mankind has will, rationality, and so-on. Nearness to God by approach is the intentional conforming of the human will to the divine will. Likeness to God is a fact of nature, Lewis observes and can be received with thanksgiving or not acknowledged at all. Nearness to God by approach is what grace enabled creatures must do (11). This is similar to what I’ve written elsewhere about positional vs progressive elements in the Christian life. One of the best observations Lewis makes in the book is that since human beings have the incarnation to look to, “our imitation of God…must be an imitation of God incarnate: our model is the Jesus, not only of Calvary, but of the workshop, the roads, the crowds, the clamorous demands and surly oppositions, the lack of all peace and privacy, the interruptions. For this, so strangely unlike anything we can attribute to the Divine life in itself, is apparently not only like, but is, the Divine life operating under human conditions. (11)”

 

Book Review: Gorilla Mindset by Mike Cernovich

Introduction

Mike Cernovich is a civil rights lawyer, though I do not think he practices any longer. He’s considered a controversial figure. I don’t really care about that. A person could be utterly terrible, but it does not change the merit of their arguments or the truth value of their claims. I first came across Mike Cernovich a couple of years ago when I had found a study on ebsco about cabbage juice and heart burn symptoms. When trying to find more information about the constituents of cabbage and what it contains that might increase mucilage production in the stomach lining, I came across a blog called fit-juicer which cited the same article. While the site was clearly designed to sell his books on juicing, it had excellent recipes for juice (my wife brought a juicer into our marriage…I never would have considered one, but I’m glad we have it). Not only were his recipes tasty, but he typically cited scientific literature related to the consumption of juice or plant constituents in relation to the benefits he claimed for his juices. It was interesting. I literally went through his website using in-article links and never read the comments. I had no idea that the guy was a lawyer, a figure or controversy, or even his name.

Anyhow, well over a year later, I was working on a writing project (still am) and was looking for a more practical application of Carol Dweck’s mindset ideas that I had found in her book on motivation in education. In the process, I came across Mike Cernovich’s book Gorilla Mindset. It had a title that seemed cheesy, although most people want the things it claims to provide. I found, a preview on Scribd (or was it a pirated version?). After I looked through the exercises at the end of each chapter and saw how similar they were in design to the ones I was writing for something else, I went ahead and bought a kindle edition of the book. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the book. It didn’t merely provide a model for what I was trying to do myself, but it provided legitimately helpful insight into improving one’s life and happiness.

The Good

  • Cernovich writes in a terse, no-nonsense style that is easy to absorb and does not leave the reader with so much theory that they cannot act on the principles he explains. Example, when talking about the way you make plans in life, he writes, “Maybe this, maybe that, maybe I’ll be a contender. Mr. Maybe is the ultimate seducer. Mr. Maybe whispers honey in your ear.”
  • Cernovich’s advice on health is actionable and the mindset shift he offers on health makes sense. Particularly his comment that a sick body leads to a sick mind. While it is true that some bodily ailments cannot be changed through exercise/nutrition (I have a genetic bone disorder), it is true that nutrition and exercise can shift you into a more positive frame of mind about such things. Not only that, but when I lift weights regularly, I have significantly less chronic pain than I have after just two or three weeks out of the gym.
  • Each chapter has helpful and actionable exercises that one could actually do to improve himself or herself.

The Bad

  • The kindle version had several typos, he could have used an editor (or a better one).
  • I wish he had cited more sources…but getting his readers lost in secondary literature probably wouldn’t have helped them the way he intended to, so while this is a bad in relationship to my preferences as a reader, it is probably a good with regard to his goals as a writer.

Conclusion

I have nothing to say about Mike’s more controversial endeavors. But he’s a helpful writer and 9.99 for the kindle edition of his book Gorilla Mindset is a good price for people who struggle with being stuck in life, feeling ineffectual, or who have persistent and powerful bouts of self-doubt the prevent them from achieving a measure of emotional or moral happiness in life. I recommend his book.

Disclosure: I wrote this review after buying the book because I enjoyed it.

Review of Mindset by Carol Dweck

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck

This is a review and appreciation of Carol Dweck’s book on mindset. The topic of mindset is important to me because I’m a teacher and I often struggle with my own sense of melancholy and of having a static self.
The negatives:
The worst part about the book is that Dweck never properly defines what mindset is. There is never a sentence or paragraph in which she says, “the technical definition of mindset is…” She associates mindset with beliefs (1) and a way of seeing the world (244). From reading the book I did manage to come up with my own technical definition of mindset: the beliefs, attitudes, and processes a group or individual uses to respond to the world around them.
The other part of the book I didn’t like is that it gives too many examples. I’d give a long list of evidence to prove this, but I’d be doing the same to you in my review. In all seriousness, I prefer things to go this way: explanation, evidence (enough to be convincing), followed by how-to. In some cases, the evidence given by way of examples makes the book too clunky. But I’m not the one who wrote an excellent book on mindset, she did!
A final negative is that Dweck leaves out a lot of information about the importance of IQ. While I suppose that most of the people reading the book would have an above average IQ, any book on the relationship of mind and achievement ought to mention the importance of IQ. I do see why she left it out: 1) she wants people to succeed, so supplying them with self-limiting beliefs is the opposite of her goal 2) it’s bad marketing to psyche people out of the lessons you intend to teach them.
The positives:
The key distinction Dweck makes is between a growth and a fixed mindset. The growth mindset is a set of beliefs, attitudes, etc, that tend toward personal growth and the growth and improvement of those around you. The fixed mindset is simply the opposite. Because these are beliefs, ultimately, about the self they have wide ranging implications. Dweck applies mindset principles to school, romance, friendship, business, coaching, sports, and parenting. If you read the book, the chapters that don’t directly apply to you can be safely skipped. The relationship chapter is particularly good. Recently my pastor told me that he was impressed by the ‘stoic culture’ my wife and I had developed for problem solving, fighting, and disagreement in general. While I hadn’t read Dweck’s book when we were trying to learn to approach life that way, the flawed mindsets she outlines in her book are roughly similar to the patterns we explicitly tried to avoid and the positive mindset she recommends is our own almost verbatim, “To me the whole point of marriage is to encourage your partner’s development and have them encourage yours” (160).
Another major positive for educators is that Dweck sees that education is not merely about information nor about social programming. Instead education is about training people to take ownership of their own learning while providing a nurturing atmosphere for the inevitable difficulties and failures they will experience (201-202). A good teacher provides extremely high standards and criticizes the students’ work with a view to improving it, not the students themselves.
I would suggest that the most powerful chapters in the book are “Parents, Teachers, and Coaches: Where do mindsets come from?” and “Changing Mindsets: a workshop.” These two chapters are really worth the price of the book.

Conclusion:
I highly recommend this book to teachers, parents, managers, and ministers. The positives far outweigh the negatives, especially because most people like having books with several examples included.

Review: The Curse of the High IQ

The Book
Clarey, Aaron. The Curse of the High Iq. , 2016.

This was an interesting book. I read it after a recommendation by Ed Latimore, who said that the author really helped him.

It was good, but I was frustrated by it for two reasons:

  1. It described a lot of my life experiences and so reminded me of them. This frustration was good.
  2. Sometimes it felt too nihilistic.

The Good

Ultimately, this book must be read by parents who suspect they have a gifted child.  All teachers ought to read it. Why? It so effectively describes the struggles had by those who are above average, that it could help mentors avoid wasting the time of their charges.

Gifted youngsters could benefit from the last two chapters on limiting greatness and solutions, they’re quite good.

Throughout the book, the author makes interesting observations about the broader economy (if more people were allowed to do computer jobs from home then the world would be a more efficient place in terms of fossil fuel use, employee happiness, and family stability).

The major negative to the book is the author’s anger at people he perceives to be stupider than himself, but he admits that he’s not religious. So if IQ, personal greatness, or economic impact are your heuristics for judging people, it makes sense to be frustrated at people you feel can’t keep up with you. Incidentally, the Bible teaches that one of the dangers of wisdom is being frustrated (Ecclesiastes 1:18 and Ecclesiastes 7:16)!

The book could encourage some cynicism. But many young people of high intelligence already feel trapped but they don’t think it’s because they’re being held back. They think it’s because they’re stupid or too easily bored or some other nonsense. This book can help them.

The Recommendation

The book does utilize foul language, watch out for that if that sort of thing offends you.

So I recommend it.

Quotables

“The second tragic loss is the fact that school measures CONFORMANCE not INTELLIGENCE.”

“Nihilism is a dark philosophy in that it makes you realize you may not only be mortal, but you won’t be immortal in the afterlife.”

“It doesn’t matter if history remembers you fondly, or remembers you at all. Just as long as you get to exercise your intellect and achieve your own personal standard of greatness.”

“As a parent of a high IQ child you need to convey precisely what being abnormally intelligent means and mentor them so they make the most of it.”

“The biggest waste of time for abnormally intelligent people will be their educations.”

Ancient Sexual Ethics

“For traditional societies, social justice, and not sexual conduct, is the basis for morality. Consequently, teaching dealing with virginity, marriage, divorce, infidelity, adultery, promiscuity, and rape are concerned not only with the sexual relationships of individuals or couples, but also with the social and economic relationships between the households in the village as a whole.”
Victor Mattews. 
The Social World of Ancient Israel 1250-587 BCE (Henrickson), 31.

Ancient forms of ethics/law were concerned with the integrity of the whole group rather than the rights of individuals. It is not that individuals did not have rights, it is just that individual desires (the desire to sleep with whomever you wish) were to be regulated on the basis of the impact those desires would have if fulfilled. 

The modern ethic of authenticity (the idea that what I want is uniquely best for me if I seek it in the way that I know best because I am me) leads to a vision of virtue that I predict cannot be sustained in the long term. If everybody gets what they want then only some people can get what they need. And if everybody’s sexual impulses are equally good, then nobody’s are particularly bad or dastardly. This is playing out in a big confusing way in the entertainment and political realms right now.