Books on a Plane: Ethics (Bonhoeffer) and Outliers (Gladwell)

During my flight from California to Alabama for the PLANET competition a couple of weeks ago I did a lot of grading. I also finished reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics. Several things stuck with me from the book. The discussion of the balance of the penultimate and the ultimate in the Christian life is intriguing. More specifically the question, how much does this world really matter? I also enjoyed Bonheoffer’s wrestling with truth. (All the more interesting considering he was in a season of life where he had decided to deceive Nazis with the intention to continue his ministry, preserve accounts of Nazi atrocities, and eventually plot to kill Adolf Hitler.) On whether we are bound to obedience to the law or freedom he writes: “Obedience without freedom is slavery; freedom without obedience is arbitrary self-will. Obedience restrains freedom; and freedom ennobles obedience. Obedience binds the creature to the Creator and freedom enables the creature to stand to stand before the Creator as one who is made in His image. . . Obedience knows what is good and does it, and freedom dares to act, and abandons to God the judgement of good and evil.”

In the latter stages of the book Bonhoeffer raises the interesting points that humans are not always worthy of the truth. In fact, there are times when factual truth is very inappropriate. If this makes you pause, think about what unlimited access to truth means (surely you have enough imagination to think of some intimate or personal question you could pose to a stranger that would be massive violations of his or her privacy and accomplish no good).

Ethics is all the more interesting because it was written when Bonhoeffer was imprisoned and is in draft form rather than fully developed and finished. Some of the chapters just halt with a note: “This chapter was not finished.” It is amazing how cohesive the book is considering it was written on scraps of paper and stashed in various locations.

I intend to read more of Bonhoeffer’s writing.

Before my return flight to California departed I walked into an airport bookshop to pick up a book to read. I learned very quickly that most people on planes must read trashy romances and books about vampires, for there were mountains of those. In the anemic nonfiction section I found found Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. I’m glad I bought it. Outliers was a very entertaining book. Gladwell looks at success stories and disasters, tracing the factors that produced these abnormal outcomes. I see life as a massive concoction of factors and consequences, so I found myself delighting in Gladwell’s illustrations and formulas.

To me the book was entertainment, but it spurred a lot of thought. I really like his comments about parenting, date of birth and athletic success, cultural compromise of airplane safety, the influence of language on math skills, and the ties between work ethic and historical agricultural background. Fascinating. It’s always good when a source of entertainment makes life richer.

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