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Reading Is Worship 6: Curing Weirdness-Idolatry

How can we fight inclinations to idolize “being weird” for its own sake? We must see fantasy “weirdness” as normal in the Bible (and even in our culture), ask God to help us reach out to critics, and remember why we love fantastic stories.
| Oct 4, 2012 | No comments | Series:

In a moment I’ll suggest solutions to the potential weirdness-idolatry I identified last week.

This comes after the conflict over some costume-wearers being kept from entering last month’s American Christian Fiction Writers awards banquet.

As before, I’m choosing to ignore who said what to whom, and whether some costumers were allowed at the banquet and others forbidden. What matters more is how we respond now, and how we may correct wrong assumptions.

But first I have questions for Christian-speculative readers, because even though I am one of you, I am perplexed about you.

  1. How come many readers insist on being “weird” and “counter-cultural” as their prime directive? Dare I say it, but forget for a moment the truth that man’s chief end is not to rebel against perceived majority culture, but to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Even apart from that, what lasting joy is found in emphasizing a clichéd teenage attitude against The Establishment? Don’t we first love these stories for the joy they give?
  2. With “weird” stories firmly established in the mainstream, with everyone computer-literate and brandishing smartphones, with the “geeks inheriting the Earth” — why this old, traditional, backwards notion that fantastic stories are indeed narrow and niche, and that we want this? Why buy the (perceived) assumptions of our critics?
  3. As many of us enjoy saying, many “secular” novels and films do fine in reflecting Biblical truths and beauties. If that’s true (and it is), why do we even need Christians offering even more speculative stories? Non-Christian authors already have this covered, thank you very much — and they may freely and non-hypocritically behave like non-Christians. But especially if professing Christians react to conflict or slights in ways identical to non-Christians’ reactions, what exactly is the point of us?
  4. In many responses I’ve seen to the cosplay controversy, why do many (not all) critics operate on a purely secular level of discussion? Have we really mastered the truth of being like our Savior, not just writing about or for Him, so that now we can move on? And based on that secular level of reaction, why would anyone expect the books we want to market to be any more “Christian” or unique than our own behavior?

Now for cures. They will come in four parts, corresponding with each of those challenges:

1. See “weirdness” as the true Normal, a given element of God’s epic Story.

In April I argued this, in the swatting-off-a-nuisance column Please Quit Calling It ‘Weird.’

The Bible is the most incredible Book ever, full of incredible stories and themes: battles, miracles, the nastiness of sin, rising nations, fantastic creatures, and the central Story of God’s creation of man, man’s fall, and God’s plan to save His creation. Over all of that is the Story’s infinite Author and Hero. He’s infinite, incredible, creative, loving, and holy.

So I would ask why many Christian stories don’t better reflect these themes. At present, most Christian novels are from non-speculative genres that include God as a supporting character. That’s not evil, of course. But they do tend to be detached from the greatest Story of the Bible — the Gospel. They may be fun to read, but how do they help us in our fantastic reality, in which this incredible God is always working, even in small ways, to save sinners and redeem His creation? How do they remind us of the true Story?

This is a more-Biblical perspective than the usual — and, as Mike Duran notes, immature-sounding — approaches of complaining and glorying in any “weirdness” for its own sake. If we do that, why even call ourselves Christians? Not Christian readers, but Christians at all.

2. Recognize that fantasy and sci-fi are the dominant, default story genre.

Since the last time I made this point on SF, superhero-fantasy films The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises have arrived on the top-20 list.

Top-20 film lists constantly show fantasy/sci-fi at the top. The most-read books on Earth include the Bible (the first “fantasy” epic), and fiction such as The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. It is not fantasy stories, but non-fantasy ones, that are new and strange.

So if you pretend fantasy is still a niche, you have stuck your head in the sand. Might as well say a muffled hello to the supposed narrow-minded Christian publishers in there with you.

3. Ask God to help our friendships with spiritual family, not only our stories.

“Lord, open the Christian fiction publishers’ eyes”?

Let’s assume at this banquet, other people were dressing up in Amish or prairie-romance garb, and that the conference does have a double standard. Even if that were all true, do we respond with appeals to Rights, a persecution/victim complex, or secular reasoning that makes no gracious, winsome effort to present our favorite stories as Biblically based?

If not, then frankly we’re no better than unbelievers. We have no reason to read, ask for, or try to write and publish “Christian speculative” stories. Secular stories are all we need.

If we claim God as our Author and Christ as our Hero, then despite any actual dislike by others of Christian speculative stories, we should want to love our brothers and sisters in Christ, find common ground, and reach out to them. Demanding our rights (even if they are legitimate) to dress up in super-suits when we like is a far lesser need, if it’s a “need” at all.

4. Keep clarifying and remembering why we truly love fantastic stories.

I must admit this: much of Christian-speculative rhetoric is not persuasive. Many blogs and other materials advocating more fantasy/sci-fi/etc. in Christian fiction simply assume that need is self-evident. It’s not. There are very understandable, even good reasons against it:

  1. There aren’t enough active readers to make publishers choose a switch in emphasis.
  2. Readers (many of them evangelical women) evidently still want escapism that relates to their desires, including sheltered religious communities, shallow spiritual explorations, and idealized histories — not vast fantastic worlds, heroes, and epic mythologies.
  3. Many advocates seemingly favor promoting their own novels (or at best, preserving the niche market) above growing the genre.

Arguing against all these on secular worldly terms merely compounds the problem. We must prayerfully reject our own impulses to indulge in anti-Biblical “escapism.” Claims that banning books is “legalism” don’t cut it. “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). If we want speculative stories apart from faith, we are sinning.

That’s the negative. Here’s the positive.

Unlike other genres, fantastic stories may more directly present God’s nature.

They better reflect the whole Gospel and Biblical worldview, that our “felt needs” are not all there is, and that even good gifts like human relationships and romance are secondary to the true myth of Christ rescuing His creation.

They remind us that this age is not our home. Rather, we await a true eternal fantasy world, the New Heavens and New Earth (Rev. 21)!

If in conflicts we merely assume these truths, we are either poor communicators or haven’t seriously considered these truths ourselves. Let us saturate ourselves in them. Read and delight more in Scripture, God’s Story. And imitate its Author.

How can we better handle real (or perceived) slights against fantasy fans?

In what ways are you discerning your story-enjoyments in light of God’s Story?

What other “weirdness”-idolatry cures would you suggest?

E. Stephen Burnett is coauthor of a nonfiction book about parenting and popular culture (title TBA), to release spring 2020 from New Growth Press. He also explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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Fred Warren

If we claim God as our Author and Christ as our Hero, then despite any actual dislike by others of Christian speculative stories, we should want to love our brothers and sisters in Christ, find common ground, and reach out to them. Demanding our rights (even if they are legitimate) to dress up in super-suits when we like is a far lesser need, if it’s a “need” at all.

To be fair, I’d say this incident began as a reaching out to find common ground (“Hey, you’ve got costumes! Here are ours!”) that was rebuffed. The response reinforced a long-standing and not-unfounded perception that spec-fic is marginalized, and perhaps not entirely welcome in the ACFW community. Ultimately, it’s a club composed of people with similar interests, and that sort of culture doesn’t readily accept change. This is also true of the folks on the other side of the divide who have their own norms for convention dress and behavior. It might be interesting to see if the situation played out differently if the proportions of the membership were reversed.

I must admit this: much of Christian-speculative rhetoric is not persuasive.

Quite true, but I don’t think it lacks persuasive force so much because it’s the wrong rhetoric, but rather because rhetoric doesn’t apply here. The best-reasoned, most rigorously-biblical rationales in the world will not prevail against this particular status quo, precisely for the reasons you list:

There aren’t enough active readers to make publishers choose a switch in emphasis.
Readers (many of them evangelical women) evidently still want escapism that relates to their desires, including sheltered religious communities, shallow spiritual explorations, and idealized histories — not vast fantastic worlds, heroes, and epic mythologies.
Many advocates seemingly favor promoting their own novels (or at best, preserving the niche market) above growing the genre.

It’s not about the relative merit of different flavors of Christian fiction, it’s about what sells. It’s a business. No matter how saintly the CEO, if he can’t turn a profit on the commodities he’s selling, he can’t keep the company afloat. He will offer products with that reality foremost in mind.

Your assessment of the value of those stories that are selling may be a bit harsh, and I’m sure devotees of those genres could spend hours talking about their spiritual benefit. Yes, ours may be better. I like them better. Who knows?

If we want speculative stories apart from faith, we are sinning.

Perhaps, but you could substitute anything for “speculative stories” in that sentence and make the same (valid) point in the proper context. It also sets an almost unreachable bar for the reader/viewer. Am I really jazzed to watch the next episode of Doctor Who because it’s going to benefit me spiritually or provide me an opportunity to worship God in my enjoyment of its transcendent themes?  Maybe I should, but the idea that I’m sinning because I mostly want to see how the Doctor’s going to cope now that Amy and Rory are gone would make me reluctant to watch at all.


Me too. That’s why I was dreading the mid-season finale so much…because I didn’t want to see what it would do to him. Because no matter their fate, he’d blame himself and….
okay, enough off-topic for now. 

Fred Warren

Oh, not so much off-topic, I think. When a story creates characters we’re drawn to and care about in a similar way to real people, it’s doing something right.

Kessie Carroll

This weirdness-idolatry concept is still completely foreign to me. I’ve read all sorts of genres from Christian and non-Christian writers alike, got them at the library or bought them at the bookstore.
The only place I see people screaming about being marginalized are people who are trying to publish through the wrong publisher (the big Christian houses). So they go indie-pub, with all of its limitations, and scream about being marginalized there. It makes me scratch my head in bewilderment. Do they WANT to be marginalized? Because they’re sure going about it right.
Over on the Kill Zone (a thriller/mystery writers blog), they talk about how to market your books, how to write better books, all that jazz. Nobody wails about being marginalized over there. Their answer is to write more books, and write them better.

Fred Warren

Sure, “marginalization” is meaningless when you’re talking about the entire literary world, where you can now publish anything you want in infinite quantities and market it globally at minimal cost. You don’t have to network with anybody if you don’t want to.
This is a different problem. ACFW is an insular community of
Christian authors with a disproportionate preference for a very narrow set of genres. They are heavily invested in the traditional brick-and-mortar model for publishing their books, not in small measure for its perceived status. To “arrive,” you have to sell an agented manuscript to one of several established Christian publishing houses. Anything less is, well…less.
Enter a group of writers who don’t conform to expectations. They employ innovative publishing models that bypass conventional gatekeepers, and they write in unfamiliar, often disconcerting, genres. This threatens to upset the entire tidy apple cart. What sort of welcome can they expect? At least initially, there’s going to be some wariness, some suspicion, maybe even some disdain and veiled ridicule. These aren’t real writers, like us.
We’re talking about Christians, so we’d hope there wouldn’t be much of that, and at least as many hugs as cold shoulders. If you’re the person who doesn’t get the hug, you might feel a little…marginalized. You came for fellowship and information-sharing with other like-minded writers and got something much different than you expected.

Fred Warren

…and Sue Dent’s article today illustrates how this culture plays out in practice.

D. M. Dutcher

Good questions. Let me reply.

1. How come…? I don’t think people are using weirdness as a club to beat the muggles with. Usually it seems an identity is formed as a reaction to being a square peg in a board of round holes. Contemporary Christian and church culture has grown insular and reactionary, and even when anti-establishment feelings do come, it’s more of a defensive mechanism against a mindset that wants all people to have the same tastes.

 I’m not sure of your cure. The real cure is for Christians to stop being over-afraid of the corruptive power of books, music, and other forms of art. This has bred an artistic culture where being safe and approved is more important than being good, and it creates the reactions you decry.

2. With speculative…? You’re moving the goalposts some here. Spec fic is niche in Christian published fiction, and that is the basis of the argument. However, don’t oversell how dominant fantasy and science fiction is in modern culture. Keep in mind that fifty to seventy years ago the western was dominant in pop culture to a staggering degree, and it’s all but vanished as a serious genre. What’s fashionable now may change.

There’s also a looming problem. How much of what is mainstream is really speculative, as opposed to nostalgic or identity-upholding?  The Avengers uses fantasy and science fiction themes, but you could change it easily to a western and nothing is lost, and had it started out as one the reasons why people would watch it would be the same. It’s not speculative, just geeky, and there are geeks in every genre.

3. Why do…? Because those secular authors can’t or won’t deal with Christianity in their works, and don’t write from that view. This can lead to a pretty sterile and bland future which ignores how religion in general interacts with things, and makes it hard for people to enjoy. I’m not sure why Christians reacting to slights in a public arena makes the need for specifically Christian views on fantasy or SF tropes. 

You’re arguing that if Christians can’t behave we don’t need them to write specifically Christian works.  And the behavior in question is that we look down on the muggles and keep ourselves apart. I’m not really getting how the two flow together, and per #1, I’m not even sure how much anti-muggleism even exists.

4. Why would…? By this criteria, no one will ever write a Christian book again. No one on this side of the veil will ever master being like our Savior, or even a part of it.  There’s a reason why the old heaven and old earth must pass away, after all. 

You also are overselling spec fiction a bit much. Not all spec fiction will always be high concept, and many are strong because they use fantastic means to shine a light on humanity as well as God. I agree with you on spiritual things having priority, but we’re also human, and there’s an old saying that you can be so heavenly minded that you are no earthly good. It’s tough, but there’s a measure of balance to both that needs to be held.

Good post. A lot of meat to chew on, and even with these responses I still need to think on your points.

Paul Lee

However, don’t oversell how dominant fantasy and science fiction is in modern culture. Keep in mind that fifty to seventy years ago the western was dominant in pop culture to a staggering degree, and it’s all but vanished as a serious genre.

My understanding of the point Mr. Burnett made in “Please Quit Calling it ‘Weird'” and elsewhere is not so much that speculative fiction actually is the cornerstone of literature or of contemporary culture, but that speculative fiction tends to be more human and ultimately more true, because all of religion and mythology — the human need for something greater than ourselves — is based on ideas that would be called “speculative” in fiction today.
I actually don’t like the term “speculative fiction” very much. I prefer the broader designation of “epic stories.” I freely admit that some non-speculative fiction can be and is epic in the same way that good speculative fiction is epic, perhaps the occasional historical epic or a rare romance that touches on the deeper implications of love. However, I think epic stories naturally have no barrier between what we perceive as literal every-day reality and what we know to be — or need to be — Ultimate Reality. I think this is why things like magic or other worlds or time travel are perfectly natural material for epic stories.
As a genre, “speculative fiction” is relative young, dating only from the late 19th century. The Big Point that I’m trying to make is that the source material of speculative fiction is as ancient as humanity. As Christians, our Epic Story is infinitely older than humanity, rooted in the Eternal Word. The Victorians really had a cultural deficiency in their dislike for the fantastic. They were really wrong to think that fairy tales were only for children. Despite all the bad things that have happened to mainstream culture since then, a greater acceptance of the fantastic and of epic stories was a good thing.


The “square peg in a round hole” is a likely element in a lot of “that’s weird” cases.  Another element I just thought of is the ratio of introverts to extroverts in a genre. I’d love to see some stats on that, especially with the popular perspective of speculative fans as loners. 

Austin Gunderson

I must state at the outset of this comment that I have next-to-no knowledge of the events which incited this blog post.  I’m here neither to condemn nor to defend anyone’s specific actions; I’m weighing in because I, as a “Christian-speculative reader,” have been asked to contribute my perspective.  And that perspective is:

1)  A false dichotomy is being set up between the ideas of “glorifying God and enjoying Him forever” and “rebelling against perceived majority culture.”  What if the majority culture does, indeed, need to be rebelled against?  What if it’s impossible to glorify God without hazarding the consequence that you’ll be derided as a rebel?  This isn’t to imply that rebellion against majority culture equals the glorification of God, and I’m not now condoning an approach that revels in rebellion for its own sake and only later looks to justify itself through an appeal to Christianese catch-phrases.  But the opposite of that extreme is also an extreme.  The idea that Christians ought to focus solely on their own personal joy in the things of God else they be in danger of courting idols seems to me passive at best, paranoid at worst.  When Christians hold themselves aloof from the cultural fray – when they obsess over their personal fulfillment in Christ at the expense of confrontation or witnessing or “hand-dirtying” – then the whole world picks up speed down the slippery slope.  While it’s true that rebellion against majority culture may distract from the glorification and enjoyment of God, it’s not true that this is necessarily the case.  Indeed, the former may prove material to the latter.  It all depends on context, and on the direction given by the Spirit of the Living God.

2)  An assumption is being made that Christians ought to write speculative fiction solely out of a desire to accomplish something (even if it’s nothing more than “to give spec-fiction readers something new and different”).  But this idea that Christian writers shouldn’t be interested in inhabiting a genre that’s already “covered” by non-Christians unless they plan to somehow shake everything up seems like a baseless premise to me.  Tolkien didn’t create Middle-earth because he was a Catholic bent on glorifying God; he built his world primarily because he was a speculative writer.  Since he also happened to be a Catholic who took his faith seriously, it permeated his worldview and therefore his writing.  He wasn’t concerned with agonizing over why he, as a Christian, “needed” to offer the world his fiction.  And yet just look at what he’s given us.  As Christians, we are to do everything for the glory of God.  Writing is, in that sense, no more special or mystical or lofty than accounting or farming or soldiering.  We don’t need to approach it with some Grand Master Plan to Set Ourselves Apart and Do Awesome Things for God.  If we’re truly grateful to the Creator Incarnate for buying us with His Own blood, then our glorification of Him will come.  No need to force it.

Austin Gunderson


Thanks for your thoughtful reply.  I’ve been agog watching this comment thread balloon over the past 24 hours, so hopefully I’m able to accurately interpret your viewpoints and respond to them in relevant ways.  It appears that the bulk of our disagreement is founded on miscommunication and semantic discrepancies, but I think there’s still some stuff we can argue about.  😉

 You seem to be making what I view as an unwarranted connection between Christians’ personal social interaction and their occupational calling.  You assert in your response to D.M. Dutcher that “if Christian readers and authors don’t behave like Christ when faced with cold shoulders or conflicts, there is no point in us professing to show truths in our books that secular authors really do not show. They can behave like jerks or egomaniacs and yet tell great stories. If we’re jerks, even if we also tell great stories, what would set us apart? Why do we say we’re unique?”  In your reply to me you again ask, “if we don’t have something Christlike to show in our behavior, even if not specifically in our stories but at least ourselves, then what is the point of us? Implicit answer: not much.”

But that answer is not, in fact, implicit, for the rhetorical question it purports to complete is itself founded on the false premise that the fiction written by Christians must have a “point,” and that’s a premise which, in practice, assumes writing to be a means instead of an end.  But if writing’s a means, then it cannot be worship.  If I try to “accomplish” something with my writing – if I attempt to “make a difference” or “change the world” or “give God a good name,” then my writing ceases to be a personal expression of praise and instead becomes a mere tool.  Pure worship wants nothing; it’s the recognition of reality, not the advocacy thereof (here’s hoping that definition makes sense).

My point here is this: immature Christians have just as much reason to write speculative fiction as the most Christlike amongst us.  If writing really can be worship, then it’s unthinkable to crack open its gate only to the “deserving” – to those who’ve achieved a level of sanctification sufficient to dispel fellow Christians’ fears of that they’ll indulge in some kind of embarrassing display.  That’d be akin to the asphyxiating idea that a certain level of sanctification is necessary before a believer goes out into the world to witness or minister or serve others’ needs.  The Body of Christ will atrophy into emaciation if we all feel we’ve gotta get buff before we can show up at the gym.

To clarify: I’m not now arguing that writing should be always an end and never a means.  That’d be a rather ridiculous assertion, especially for professional authors (among whose ranks I’ll likely never fall).  In my own writing, I’m driven to accomplish very specific things in the minds and hearts of my readers.  My writing is (I hope) deeply thematic, and I never put words on a page without my ultimate message in mind.  That’s just the way I think.  And I agree wholeheartedly with your disparagement of shallow, shortsighted Christian fiction.  But that doesn’t mean I can transmogrify my personal predilection into a general rule.

What I am saying is that Christian writing – especially if viewed as worship – doesn’t necessarily need to have a “point.”  “Points” can be great – even life-changing – but they’re not requisite for the creative decisions of Christian writers to have value or worth.  To run yet again the perpetual risk of dependance upon the example of a “Patron Saint”: Tolkien never once characterized his works’ existence as being justified by having a “point” that anyone here would accept as “Christian.”  His stated purpose was not to glorify God or “show truths,” but rather to create a “mythology for England.”  Neither do we read Tolkien because he lived an exemplary life (though an argument could be made that he did); we read Tolkien because his works speak to us in deep and profound ways.  To demand more from each other than we demand from Tolkien seems to me profoundly unfair.  (The operative word there is “demand.”  We should by all means exhort, encourage, and edify one another further into personal sanctification and professional craft.  But the idea that we should go home and rethink our lives if we don’t meet some arbitrary standard of personal maturity constitutes an unreasonable ultimatum.)

Regarding my assertion that Christians who overthink the purpose of their fiction are “forcing it”: I absolutely agree with you that, as Christians, we should make “active, intentional, meaningful-choice efforts at being holy.”  But my intention was to target that comment at the third question your original blog post lobbed to Christian spec-fic readers: “if … many ‘secular’ novels and films do fine in reflecting Biblical truths and beauties, … why do we even need Christians offering even more speculative stories?”  My argument that Christian writers shouldn’t “force it” (“it” being the glorification of God) kinda assumed you were thinking of glorification in terms of “making a difference in the world.”  After all, your attempt to provoke thought on the matter consisted of comparing Christian writers to secular writers.  How else can one interpret that approach other than as an appeal to external results based on the assumption that God is only glorified when some cultural “need” is being addressed in a uniquely Christian way?  In contrast to that definition, I quote John Piper: “God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in Him.”  When my writing streams from my satisfaction in and worship of my Maker, I no longer need concern myself with why the world “needs” my book: its impact is in God’s hands.  In my limited experience, “need-based” writing leads to stilted, inorganic, and, yes, “forced” prose.  That’s what I was trying to say.  Hope I managed to make it a little more intelligible this time around.

P.S.   You gained +100 acerbity for comparing Joel Osteen to the Joker.  That put a smile on my face.  😉

D. M. Dutcher

Too much to reply to, man, so I’m going to have to probably skip a lot of your well-made points. Let me try and reply to pressing ones.

So my open question, for “research,” is this: when you heard a claim that “the purpose of Story is to glorify God,” what meaning do you hear? 

 To be honest, I’m not sure there is a meaning we can hear. In the Bible it’s honor, praise, celebrate, to make illustrious. To glow. But these are active traits, and the sense I am getting both from my ideas and your reply further down is that this glory is instead part of a thing where it’s sort of like a right relation. Like we talk about the night being glorious because it reminds us maybe of the harmony of the world and God before the fall.

I’m not really mystic enough to set this down in words. Glorification of this type I’m not sure I can even define well. I get from the sense of your later clarification that it is a glory based on harmony and the right purpose of mankind.

As for “changing the world” or “giving God a good name,” again we seem to have definition differences. I’ve argued that glorifying or worshiping God can indeed be a “subconscious” activity.

Quoting this more as a marker to that passage. That passage is important, but I think there’s something to it that might help clear a difference.

You list three types of glorification in that. One of them would be right relation, or the glory that comes from the thing itself. A well-crafted anything glorifies God, come it from sinner or Christian, provided it doesn’t cause sin. Kind of like the night again.

Then you go on to say that next is another form. When a Christian creates specifically, there is glory due to the expression of his redeemed nature. If I get this right. I don’t think it’s a matter of always expressing God-honoring traits. Maybe it’s more glory in submission to God’s will, while not contemplating him directly in the work. Otherwise there’s no difference at all.

Finally, there’s glorification in works that actively glorify or contemplate God, or act in specifically Christian ways. You are defining different spheres, but your argument about Christians and behavior presupposes the first sphere or second as default. I think the problem is that many Christians choose to actively write in the third sphere, and then we’d have to go into the question is one sphere higher or more valuable than the other. Which would make all of our heads hurt.

 Last point would be that the “speculative” definitions are kind of creeping still with your expanded definition. Maybe “mythic” might be a better word, as myths embody those traits better without confusion. That’s pretty much all I have: it took me a few days to  ponderthe whole glorification thing, and I agree with much of the rest of your points. I’ll get to some of those books you’ve listed eventually, and thanks for listing them.