Monday, May 29, 2017

Irresistible

Irresistible: Why we can’t stop checking, scrolling, clicking and watching, Adam Alter

While on the lookout for resources for a seminar on digital technology, I stumbled across this new release. Adam Alter has investigated the alarming rise of behavioural addiction and how it’s been enabled by technology:
“Half the developed world is addicted to something, and for most people that something is a behaviour. We’re hooked on our phone and email and video games and TV and work and shopping and exercise and a long list of other experiences that exist on the back of rapid technological growth and sophisticated product design.” (p317)
Alter first analyses what a behavioural addiction is, showing how easy it is to become addicted to something and the biology behind it.

The second section outlines the ingredients of behavioural addiction and therefore how you would engineer an addictive experience. These include having attainable goals, giving positive feedback (eg. flashing lights and happy faces), a sense of progress, an escalation in difficulty (eg. need to complete more ‘steps’ today) and cliff-hangers (mainly in television shows, or that next level you just ‘have’ to get to). This section illustrates clearly how easy it is to be addicted to numerous behaviours that are assisted by technology – such as binge TV watching, calorie counting, ever increasing fitness goals, gambling, shopping, and games.

He finishes with some comments on the future of behavioural addiction, suggesting that we are only on the brink of seeing how technology could enable addiction, especially considering how virtual reality is being designed. He proposes some solution, such as how to suppress habits, using distraction and removing temptation, as well as challenging designers to accept the responsibility to design technology to be more socially responsible.

He, like Devorah Heitner (Screenwise), has identified many of the current issues with technology and how we need to navigate these paths with wisdom, using caution and consideration before we dive into any and all technology. Of course, I appreciate the extra consideration that Tim Challies (The Next Story) and James & Simon Boswell (Cyber Parenting) bring with their Christian perspective. But it’s good to see secular writers tackling these topics, and raising the flags of caution from other perspectives.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Cousins’ War

The Cousins’ War, Philippa Gregory

Having enjoyed my introduction to the Wars of the Roses through Iggulden’s writing, and feeling like I understood what was going on and who the key characters were, I turned to Philippa Gregory’s novels of the same times (the Cousins’ War series), written from the perspective of the women of the times:

  • The Lady of the Rivers – Jacquetta is married young to the Duke of Bedford, yet kept a maid as he tried to use her for alchemy and needs her ‘pure’. Upon his death, she and his squire Richard Woodville fall in love, marry despite their difference in station, and go on to produce 14 children together. A favourite of Queen Margaret of Anjou, King Henry VI’s wife, she and Richard spend their lives at their court. Her daughter later becomes Queen Elizabeth, married to Edward IV, showing that anyone could change sides in those turbulent times!
  • The Red Queen – about the intriguing Margaret Beaufort. Married at 13, she gives birth to Henry Tudor, the last clear heir to the Lancaster line of the throne. While she would prefer a life of religious contemplation, she goes on to be married twice more and lives at court, serving whichever Queen happens to be there. Margaret is convinced that God’s will is done through her, particularly in putting her son on the throne. Gregory has made her a self-righteous, unpleasant character who will stop at nothing to fulfil her ambition to be Queen Mother.
  • The White Queen – about Elizabeth Woodville (later Queen Elizabeth to Edward IV). This is a love story between Edward and Elizabeth, yet also clear that she with her mother Jacquetta carefully place their family members into the positions and families of power. She is convinced of plots against her, especially by Edward’s York brothers (George and Richard). There is a strong element of witchcraft and magic in this book, as she and her mother do whatever is necessary to look after their own.
  • The Kingmaker’s Daughter is Anne Neville, married to first the Prince of Wales (Henry VI’s son) and then Richard III, who takes the throne after Edward IV from Edward’s young sons (these are the famous ‘boys in the tower’). This is the other point of view, directly against Elizabeth Woodville. The ‘true’ house of York cannot bear the influence Elizabeth has over Edward and are convinced she is a witch, cursing them all and acting to poison several members of the Plantagenet (York) family. It’s an interesting counter to the White Queen with a very different take on the same events.
  • The White Princess covers Elizabeth Princess of York (Elizabeth Woodville’s daughter), married to Henry VII. As the Tudor pretender to the throne under the controlling power of his mother (Margaret Beaufort), he spends his life in fear of a York prince returning to take back the throne. But who is Elizabeth really loyal to?

It’s always interesting to read different authors versions of history.  It clarifies that you are reading fiction – for although it is based in fact, there are limits to what is really known. Gregory has shown two very different perspectives well with Anne Neville and Elizabeth Woodville. Iggulden and Gregory also portrayed King Henry VI very differently – I wonder which is closer to the truth? If I had not read Iggulden’s first and used the family trees extensively at the front, I suspect I would have been much more lost in this series!

I enjoyed my time in the 15th century. Now I have moved on to the rest of Gregory’s books – covering the Tudors, into the 16th C. As all the characters in these books overlap, it’s really worth reading them in their chronological order, helpfully displayed on Gregory’s website.

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Princess Bitchface Syndrome 2.0

The Princess Bitchface Syndrome 2.0, Michael Carr-Gregg and Elly Robinson

This fully revised version of Carr-Gregg’s book caught my eye - its bright pink cover and arresting title tends to do that.   Which also meant I kept it hidden from the prying eyes of my own children.

He outlines the main issues with teenage girls, particularly the ones he defines as ‘Princess B’s’ – the somewhat more extreme version of the teen female.  He charts stages of adolescence and the current pressures at home, school and in cyberspace.

Then he helps parents to think through how to help their teen grow and mature.  He outlines various styles of parenting, concluding that authoritative (rather than permissive or authoritarian) is the way to go.   He has common sense tips and strategies to help with all the main issues, and then some detailed chapters on sex, bullying, alcohol, illegal drugs and mental health.

In the end, it’s a helpful, all-encompassing guide to the main issues girls face and gives practical wisdom and tips for parents.

A couple of things that were helpful:
  • When considering the online life, present choices in terms of four ‘P’s’ – people that your daughter should be OK with people seeing about them online – that is - parents, police, school principal or a paedophile.  If you wouldn’t want those 4 groups to see what you are doing or saying online, don’t do or say it.
  • There were many references to other resources, such as how to talk with your children about pornography (itstimewetalked.com.au) and helpful tools for mental health (eg. MoodGym, Brave Program, etc)

One of the things I find with secular parenting books is the lack of an overall reason for the parenting strategies, or an overall goal to where you are headed.   It was highlighted most clearly with the questions that girls ask themselves at different ages:
Ages 10-14 – Am I normal?
Ages 14-17 – Who am I?  Where do I belong?
Ages 17-20 – Where am I going?
We need to acknowledge these are questions young people ask, but parents are left a little stranded if they have no worldview that helps them to enable their daughter to answer them.

As Christians, much of what we teach our kids speaks to these issues.  “Who am I?”  Well, I may be a teenage girl, but I am also a beloved child of God.    “Where do I belong?”   In a community that loves and cares for you.  

In the end, the authority of these books lies with the author, and parents need to decide whether they agree with the principles and strategies proposed.  No higher or wiser authority is cited.  As believers, of course we appreciate the wisdom of parenting experts, but also want to seek the complete wisdom of the author of the universe.

So, this is a great resource for non-Christians who are parenting teenage girls.  Christian parents could find it helpful and practical, but perhaps want to supplement it with other resources as well.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Time for Everything

Time for Everything, Matt Fuller

“Wouldn’t it be lovely to wake each day with the thought: God has given me time to enjoy and serve him with today and I’m looking forward to that?”

From the first chapter Fuller has us thinking about the time we have, how we use it and the relentless feel of weariness and burden in our lives. Whether it’s because we try to follow religious rules, we feel the need to prove ourselves, we try to meet other’s expectations and needs, or we are trying to be secure; most of us feel the burden of a lack of time and a busyness that pervades life.

Then he takes us through some ideas about time – how we are made to rest and how we must take time to trust God. He points out the two easiest ways to waste time – in idleness or distraction, and in focussing on the wrong things.

He then develops his framework – essentially that we can operate in freedom so long as we stay within two boundaries. The low boundary (the floor to obedience), which we don’t want to drop below – leads to neglect – not doing what we should be doing. The high boundary (the celling to obedience) leads to idolatry, when we start valuing the thing itself rather than the gift that God has given. Before he gets to the specifics of work, family, church and leisure and how all might operate within his framework, he gives some guiding points:

  1. We are to serve the Lord in every area of life
  2. The ‘ideal diary’ doesn’t exist – life exists in different ages and stages where different commitments are required
  3. Christians have more commitments that their peers. This is really helpful to acknowledge and accept.
  4. We need to choose our role models carefully. You might be better not choosing to follow the person who seems to be able to do it all.
  5. You can’t do everything you want.
  6. We need to pray for wisdom.

Some comments that I found helpful throughout:

  • Busyness has (wrongly) become a mark of success both in secular and church circles.
  • All our work must be neither ‘eye-pleasing’ (obedience only when being watched) or’ ‘people-pleasing’ but ‘Lord-pleasing’.
  • Work idolatry can sometimes be seen in the desire to find meaning in our work. But, this is something only a very small, privileged part of society can even consider. Most people just have to work a job, whatever job they have. It could be a warning to those who really love their jobs (especially those in the caring and serving professions that consider their jobs ‘noble’) that it could become an idol if you find your meaning in your work.
  • When we consider ‘leisure’ time there are numerous categories that are different for different people. For many households, housework and home management has to come out of ‘leisure time’. But that is different to reading for pleasure or going to a sports game. Similarly, the person who cooks for enjoyment will see that as leisure time, much more so that the person who regularly caters for large groups, but does not find it refreshing. He concludes there is a lot of freedom in how we should view leisure time, as long as we are being neither negligent or idolatrous.

This book contains many of the same ideas that were in Tim Chester’s The Busy Christian’s Guide to Busyness, which was much more detailed, and the shorter Crazy Busy, by Kevin de Young. If you read either of those, there is not much new here, but the regular reminder of these truths every few years is well worth it. For me, the most helpful part was his framework of freedom lying between neglect and idolatry and how we can think about applying that to our lives.

So, all in all, a helpful, wise book with sound principles and some good examples of how it could look in real life. We know many people who have made major changes to their lives as a result of reading this book.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Journey to the Cross

Journey to the Cross, Will Walker and Kendal Haug

I have read numerous Easter devotionals over the years.   Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross by Nancy Guthrie has been a favourite, with her 25 readings from different thinkers.  Similarly, Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die by John Piper makes you stop and ponder the vast depths of the sacrifice that Jesus made.

Journey to the Cross is now added to my collection as a great choice of reading in the lead up to Easter. Walker and Haug has designed a set of readings to cover the Lenten period, from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday – 6.5 weeks. Each week focusses on a different theme: repentance, humility, suffering, lament, sacrifice and death.

Each day has a reading that calls to worship, a confessional prayer, a section from Mark’s gospel (starting with Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ, to the end) and a prayer of thanksgiving.   Then there is a devotional based on a Scripture passage relevant to the theme.  This ends with some reflection questions and a closing prayer.  Each Sunday is a shorter reading, of a hymn or profession of faith, as a way of celebrating the truths of the gospel.

I have benefitted so greatly from this resource. My heart was turned more towards Christ in the lead up to Easter.  The sobering themes enabled me to reflect on each for the whole week, enabling more sustained thoughts on things like lament, which I would rarely take the time to do normally.

I found the challenge of how to observe Lent helpful.  Lent is a way of giving up something so that we focus on God.  Not something that draws attention to itself, but something that draws us into fuller dependence on Jesus. Perhaps it is an acknowledgement of that take us away from Jesus.  So, having never having given up anything for Lent before, I did this year.  I gave up Facebook, and it was both remarkably freeing and enabled me to see again how it does not help me in my walk with God.

The prayers throughout were very encouraging, and since I love written prayers I may choose to incorporate some into my own private prayers.  Many were sourced from The Worship Sourcebook.

Here are just a few of the observations I found encouraging along the way:
“Ultimately, suffering is about learning to receive whatever God has placed in our hands as his goodness for us today.” (p95)  
“Lament is not about getting things off your chest. It’s about casting your anxieties upon God, and trusting him with them.  Mere complaining indicates a lack of intimacy with God.  Because lament is a form of prayer, it transforms our complaints into worship.  Anyone can complain, Christians can lament.”  (p101)  
“The norm in our culture is to sacrifice whatever we have to get what we want.  The way of true sanctification is to sacrifice everything we want because of what we already have in Christ.  This is the heart of Lent.  We are decluttering our lives, inside and out, testing the vales and habits and desires that have become our acceptable norm. We are considering what Jesus gave up for us, and it is changing us” (p146-7)  
“Repentance, humility, suffering, lament, and sacrifice do not come naturally.  Indulgence and self-righteousness do.” (p157)
It is a sobering way to spend six weeks.  Yet it’s also filled with praise and worship and wonder at what Christ has done.  In the busyness of first term and the complications of life, this had me dwelling in Jesus and God and their marvellous plan of sacrifice for the whole world.  Time very well spent.


Monday, April 17, 2017

Screenwise

Screenwise, Devorah Heitner

What a great book! Discovered at random at the local library, I’m so glad I picked it up. Heitner’s goal is the clear subtitle of the book: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World.

Anyone currently raising children are raising digital natives – people growing up in the digital world, connected by technology and unaware that there was any other way.  In contrast, we, their parents, are digital migrants – we can clearly recall a childhood without social media, email, a mobile phone or even a computer.   I recall welcoming our first computer into our home (I would have been about 10).  It was a very early Apple and all four of us sat around it playing family games, with no images at all, just descriptive text.   No wonder many parents feel like they are playing catch up today!

Heitner encourages all parents to be mentors to their children.  She reminds us that while our children may have tech savvy, we have wisdom. We should not mistake digital proficiency with good digital citizenship (p2). True screen wisdom is about relationships (p4). 

She encourages parents not to be threatened by the digital issues around us, but to be digitally literate ourselves and to be tech-positive, seeing the benefits of what’s available. She encourages parents to get involved with the tech our children use, helping them to ask questions of it. As a result, we had a very interesting dinner conversation about the good and potentially unhelpful things about Minecraft.  I was also able to have a similar conversation with a goddaughter about her social network apps.

One of her strongest encouragements is to use mentoring over monitoring. Don’t rely on websites, blocking devices and apps to control your children, rather teach them good digital citizenship. Show them how to write emails. Illustrate unhelpful use of texting. Show them how tone can be read wrongly from text. Ask permission before posting any photos of them. Get them to explain why they like an app. Encourage them to consider what about an app might be unhelpful. Ask them what worries them about tech use.  See if they think what their friends do online is worrying or helpful, and why.

Going through various topic areas in detail, she covers how this digital age affects family life, friendship and dating, school life, and the issue none of us ever had to deal with (unless our parents were famous) – growing up in public. These are peppered with sage advice and helpful comments, almost all common sense, but sometimes in the midst of it all we can forget! Things like – when in doubt take it offline (in relating to people), how conflict can be a spectator sport online, that distraction is a major issue now in education (something we are becoming increasingly aware of in this house), and that we must be trying to ensure any content we produce online is positive, constructive and sensitive. As a real challenge – she suggests we ask our children which of our own tech habits are their least favourites. 

This is highly recommended reading for all parents of digital natives.  To get you more interested, you might like to start with her website - http://www.raisingdigitalnatives.com