An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living
By Krista Tippett
Reviewed by Shirley H. Showalter
Penguin Press, 2016, 304 pp.
How do human beings become wise?
Krista Tippett, radio host of On Being, has been exploring this question through a delicate process she first learned at the Collegeville Institute: “I walk with people back and forth across the intersection of what they know and who they are, what they believe and how they live—and what that might have to do with all the rest of us.”
For those who have shared in the Collegeville Institute’s common life and who have known founder Father Kilian McDonnell, whom Tippett credits with teaching her “the magic of rooting words about meaning in the color and complexity, the imperfect raw materials of life,” this book will take on layers of meaning unavailable to those who have not learned the art of conversation at Collegeville.
Perhaps, like me, you’ve listened to On Being on your local NPR station or by podcast for years. Perhaps you listen not only to the gracefully edited version of the program but also to the messier, more intimate, unedited versions. If so, you will love this book.
Perhaps you’ve never heard of the author or her program, but, like Solomon of old, you yearn to be wise. You too will find this book a refreshing stream in the desert.
Krista Tippett knows the power of a good first sentence. She has commented on how arrested she was by John O’Donohue’s “It’s strange to be here.” Or Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Man is his own most vexing problem.
Her own first sentence reads, “I’m a person who listens for a living.” She begins with “I,” not with a more distant journalistic third person voice. The felicitous phrase “listens for a living” refers to far more than her job. It announces that she has a calling, one that involves living itself, and that she is seeking “voices not shouting to be heard.”
The search for wisdom can’t be separated from the search for self-awareness. The subject and the seeker are one in this case. Like both of Tippett’s other books, this one is an example of what Michelle Herman calls “stealth memoir.” It is “An Inquiry” as the subtitle states into “Mystery and the Art of Living.” It is also an inquiry into a process of understanding ideas in relationship to human beings who explore them and, at their best, embody them. The gerund “Becoming” (like “Being” in the title of the radio program) can’t be separated from Krista Tippett herself.
Pursuing wisdom in public over the course of the last twelve years could be an overwhelming and confusing experience. After interviewing hundreds of people, reading not only their books but digesting other interviews and videos in preparation for conversation, the author might be forgiven if she never stepped back long enough to look at the whole. And yet in this book, that is what she is doing. Looking back, how does she make sense of all of it? By choosing five themes: words, flesh, love, faith, and hope. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the Bible will hear echoes of the prologue to the Gospel of John (“The Word became flesh. . .”) and the famous “love chapter” I Corinthians 13. However, since these chapters are containers for people of many faiths and of no faith, these words describe no narrow orthodoxy but expand capaciously to fit all of the above.
Each chapter includes large sections of interviews excerpted from the online transcripts of On Being interviews. Again, this could feel cumbersome or repetitive to readers. What prevents that from happening, however, is the personal story of the author doing with her readers what she asks her subjects to do in radio interviews: reflect on how they themselves make meaning, starting with the very first question, “what was the spiritual or religious background of your childhood?”
I’m a lover of the memoir genre and quite aware of the accusations critics have made against it, narcissism leading the way. For that reason, I love “stealth” memoir, the kind that doesn’t announce itself and is quiet. The kind that includes both the author and the reader but provides what Parker Palmer would call a “third thing,” a subject much greater than either, a subject big enough to inspire the kind of humility, curiosity, and resilience that leads to wisdom.
The memoir sections inside this book illustrate one of the most profound truths about wisdom: it can’t be grasped. It’s never once and done. It can’t be extracted or abstracted indefinitely. Like the relationship between grandfather and granddaughter and father and daughter, it keeps moving, changing, and growing. And it ends with hope.
The Power of Talk in a Digital Age
By Sherry Turkle
Reviewed by Betsy Johnson-Miller
Penguin Press, 2015, 436 pp.
It didn’t matter that it was 12 degrees below zero. I climbed into my protesting car and drove to the gym. Dashing inside, I peeled off my layers of clothes and started to walk around the university’s indoor track, cellphone in hand. A tall man, whom I recognized from church, waved and smiled as he jogged past me.
My phone rang. Lost in conversation, I hadn’t noticed the man from church coming up behind me. As he ran past he touched my shoulder and said, “You know, walking is a good time to put your phone down.” I went from anger to embarrassment to the slow realization that had I seen someone walking and talking on his or her cell phone, I would have been thinking the same thing. However, there was a reason—a good reason—why I was talking on my phone. One of my best friends had moved to New York, and one of the things I missed most was our “walk and talks.” We walked together a couple of times a week and had conversations about everything— families, finances, dreams, frustrations. When my friend moved away we tried to stay connected via email, but our hectic lives kept us from being very good at it. So we had decided to do one of our beloved “walk and talks” the only way we could—she would walk in New York, and I would walk in Minnesota while we talked on our cell phones.
This event happened while I was reading Sherry Turkle’s book, which highlights how complicated the bond between technology, relationships, and conversation can be. Turkle talks about how technology can help us connect with people who are thousands of miles away. She also discusses how people turn to technology to “save” them from boredom, uncertainty, or the awkward task of starting up conversations with strangers.
One of the strengths of Turkle’s book is that we hear from real people—usually young people—about how and why they use technology. For example, many of the people she interviewed said that technology has gone a long way in helping them to avoid awkward situations. In addition, many said they love technology because it helps them plan—and edit—what they want to say and, thanks to the delete key, say it exactly the way that they want to say it. One of the reasons people are drawn to this is because many kids—and their parents—work very hard on getting everything right nowadays. One college student said, “When you talk in person, you are likely to make a slip.” The student goes on to say that “our culture has ‘zero tolerance’ for making mistakes.” So why enter into a spontaneous conversation where things could spiral out of control?
One of the trends that Turkle discusses is that some families are now turning to cell phones for family arguments. In this kind of “family meeting 2.0,” families work through their problems by texting instead of having face-to-face conversations. One woman told Turkle that her family does this because these kinds of exchanges “minimize the risk that family members will say something they might regret,” and allow families to “do away with many of the ‘messy and irrational’ parts of a fight.”
Turkle notes another trend: when people continually turn toward technology, they do not learn how to experience solitude and boredom. They never allow themselves to get bored or to daydream. Instead, they depend on an ever-present device to keep themselves occupied. Turkle writes, “When we reach for a phone to push reverie away, we should get into the habit of asking why. Perhaps we are not moving toward our phones but away from something else.” The something else might include anxiety, or an idea that will take hard work. Or we might come face to face with who we really are. For some people, that can be terrifying.
Technology not only helps people plan what they want to say and keeps them busy, it also helps them to plan their exits. Who knows how long a face-to-face conversation might last or how boring it might get? Turkle quotes 26-year-old Trevor, who says, “it still takes a lot to risk having to sit down with each other and just see what happens.” When Turkle asks some 13-year-olds why they don’t just sit down and visit, the kids say that “keeping the exchange online means ‘you can always leave’ and ‘you can do other things on social media at the same time.’”
No matter how much they loved technology, most of the people Turkle interviewed knew how important and vital deep conversations can be. Conversation is where we learn empathy, where we collaborate on big new ideas, where we process what is going on around us—in our lives and in our world. And yet many people can’t seem to tear themselves away from their devices. They know they should, but they don’t want to. Not yet, many of them say.
So what can we do? Turkle says that we can remember that our phone is a “psychologically potent device that changes not just what you do but who you are.” We can slow down and protect our quiet time. And we can “create sacred spaces for conversation.”
That’s one of the things we try to do here at the Collegeville Institute. On the first night that writers arrive for a new writing workshop, we point to the no cellphone signs around the main room. We invite the participants to be present and to talk about things that matter. Many of them accept the invitation, and they say it changes their lives. It reminds them that this kind of talking—deep, face-to-face conversation—is vital to their own human flourishing. And they want to do it more often.
The night after my walk and talk, I heard my cell phone ding and cursed the fact that I had accidentally left it in our bedroom instead of putting it on the kitchen counter the way I usually do. My husband must not have heard it, because he didn’t stir. Opening my eyes, I looked at the clock: 5:24 a.m. I was sure it was a notification that my son, who was in his first year at college, had almost used up all of our data for the month. In my mind I grumbled, “He should be asleep. He should quit using his phone so much.”
I knew I wasn’t going to fall back asleep, so I got up, grabbed my phone, and quietly left the bedroom. The message on my phone was from our son: “I’ve never been so homesick in all of my life.” My son had struggled with homesickness for years. He once told me, “It’s just that home is such a good place to be.” His first year in college had been going better than any of us could have imagined. What had happened?
My kids can text while they look me in the eye—a technique Turkle says is called “phubbing.” But I had to use the delete key six times to construct my simple text: “You okay?”
It turns out my son had the stomach flu and had been throwing up for hours. He was lying on the hard, cold floor of his dorm’s bathroom. I told him how much I wished I could be there for him. Then I texted him a few lines from the lullaby I had made up for him and his sister.
“Thank you,” he wrote back. “I love you.”
My son was sick. I couldn’t be there for him. And yet I could.
What technology means for us and for our relationships is complicated, but until artificial intelligence (or something like it) becomes a reality, technology isn’t good or bad in and of itself. As Turkle wisely indicates, it’s like our relationship with food. It’s the choices we make that matter. Will we use it to connect to other people? Or will we use it to disconnect from them? It’s up to us.
Family Secrets, Memory, and Faith
By Heidi B. Neumark*
Reviewed by Gary B. Reierson
Abingdon Press, 2015, 240 pp.
An American Missionary Comes of Age in Revolutionary Ethiopia
Reviewed by Elisabeth Kvernen
Sightline Books: The Iowa Series in Literary Nonfiction, 2015, 264 pp.
Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God
By Lauren Winner*
Reviewed by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
Harper Collins Publishers, 2015, 304 pp.
Reviewed by Aaron Klink
University of Nebraska Press, 2014, 216 pp.
Finalist for the 27th Annual Minnesota Book Awards, in the Novel & Short Story category.
Six Years in a Zambian Village
By Jill Kandel*
Reviewed by Sari Fordham
Autumn House Press, 2015, 184 pp.
Winner of the 2014 Autumn House Nonfiction Prize, selected by Dinty W. Moore
The Social Lives of Networked Teens
By Dana Boyd
Reviewed by Jarrod Longbons
Awakening Theological Imagination in the Congregation, 2014
Yale University Press, 2014, 296 pp.
This book review was first published in the Autumn 2014 issue of Bearings Magazine, a semi-annual publication of the Collegeville Institute.
By Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew*
Reviewed by Jamie Howison
Writing and the Pastoral Life, 2008
Theology in the Real World, 2012
Short-term scholar, 2009, 2011, 2014
Koehler Books, 2014, 300 pp.
Parting with a Son
By Richard Lischer*
Reviewed by Jenell Paris
Resident Scholar, Fall 2013
Knopf, 2013, 272 pp.
This book review was first published in the Spring 2014 issue of Bearings Magazine, a semi-annual publication of the Collegeville Institute.