Reading Time: 8 minutes

Distillation’s been on my mind lately — the art of condensing something ungraspably large into a graspable essence. I mentioned Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar a few weeks ago, a distillation of universal history that instantly focused my understanding of just how recent we are — and how small we are, and how deep and silly our delusions of bigness are.

Distilling space

Here’s another distillation of a sort:

This image, called the Hubble Deep Field, must be the greatest picture of all time, a deep space image by the Hubble Telescope. How much sky does this represent? Imagine a dime held 75 feet away. The portion of the sky that dime would cover is the portion represented here. And it’s a patch of sky that appears essentially empty when viewed by ordinary telescopes. Most of the dots of light are not stars but galaxies. And this is one infinitesimal dot of space.

The Hubble Deep Field is my laptop background, and I sometimes find myself staring at it for ten minutes at a whack. It rivals Voyager’s famous “pale blue dot” photo and the first glimpse of Earthrise from the Moon for the granting of instant and lasting perspective for those who are awake:

You are here: The tiny dot is Earth viewed from Voyager II.

The 1968 paradigm rattler.

I love the particular headrush you get from this kind of distilled reality, the epiphany (sorry, it’s the best word) that can be achieved by snapshots capturing essences otherwise too large to grasp. In a single glance, I GET it.

Distilling time

Here’s another one:
schenkerian graph

That won’t mean anything to you normals, but having spent 25 years studying or teaching music theory, it’s something that makes me swoon. Music is notoriously tricky to get your hands on. Visual art is form and color arrayed across space, so you can snap on the rubber glove and it’ll hold still for the examination. Music, by contrast, is sound arrayed across time. Time is its body, so you can’t get it to hold still without killing it.

“If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works,” said Douglas Adams, “the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat.”

An Austrian music theorist named Heinrich Schenker developed a method for reducing a complex and ever-moving piece of music into a graspable snapshot. The chart above is a Beethoven string quartet movement of nearly 400 measures reduced to its essence. Foreground, middleground, and background, harmony and melody, it’s all there.

And–it’s not all there. Schenker didn’t intend this to replace music, but to give a little window of understanding, another way to GET it. I love to listen to Beethoven quartets, and I love to understand them as well. Then listening while understanding — don’t get me started.

Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar, mentioned above, is another time distiller, of course.

Distilling thoughts

Books are another tough nut to crack. By the time you get to the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, or The God Delusion, or Left Behind #13 — Kingdom Come, the sense of what a given book was “about” can reasonably vary from person to person. A friend reads Dawkins and hears a constant stream of invective. I read Dawkins and hear a constant stream of reasoned argument. No point saying one of us is definitively right or wrong. But there is one kind of snapshot distillation that I think sheds some interesting light — the concordance.

One type of concordance is a list of all the words appearing in a given book. Not the same as an index, which is a list of all concepts, whether or not they appear verbatim in the book. Somewhat subjective, the index. A concordance simply counts and reports. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, for example, includes a long concordance that is misnamed “Index.” In it, you can find the apparent only significant use of the word “maggot-pie” — by Shakespeare, who else — and learn that the great quotesmiths have preferred to go on about love (586 times) more than hate (72 times). That’s nice.

But there’s another kind of concordance, one that can grant a bit of that snapshot distillation I’m on about. This kind records the most frequent words in a book.

If you hate “reductionism” — I myself happen to have a lifelong schoolboy crush on it, dotting its ‘i’s with little hearts as I write its name a thousand times on my three-ring binder — but if you hate it, you’ll hate concordances. They don’t reveal everything about a book, of course. If a concordance says the word MEAN appears 632 times in a book, does that indicate an obsession with hostility, or with significance, or with mathematical averages? And even if it is about hostility, is the book fer it or agin it? Maybe “mean” is always preceded by the phrase please don’t be.

The Hubble photo doesn’t tell us everything about the universe, either. It just gives us an insight, a new way of seeing it. Same with the concordance.

(Okay, the casual readers have long since gone. As a reward for the rest of you, here comes the point.)

I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but for the past several months, has been sprouting new features like a house afire. My favorite new feature is, of course, the concordance. The 100 most common words in a given book are arrayed in a 10×10 block with font sizes varying by frequency. Huge-fonted words appear a lot, medium-fonted words etc. You get a fairly powerful sense of content, approach, and tone at a glance. I daresay I could show you concordances for books by Benedict XVI and Lenny Bruce and you’d know which was which — and which you’d rather read. (No no, don’t tell me, I’m keen to guess.)

Here, for example, is a concordance for one of my favorite recent books. Just looking at those hundred words makes me want to read it a fourth time.

The Point

Below are concordances for two parenting books, with the 100 most common words in order of frequency (in batches of ten for easier reading). One is about raising kids using biblical principles; the other is about raising kids without religion. See if you can tell which is which, and whether the concordances reveal anything about content, approach, and tone:


1-10: children—parents—god—child—love—own—husband—family—lord—word

11-20: wife—teach—heart—sin—christ—father—need—life—things—even

21-30: kids—should—man—must—son—proverbs—parenting—mother—does—scripture

31-40: kind—wisdom—evil—first—church—shall—may—home—fear—authority

41-50: marriage—obey—christian—ephesians—law—work—right—come—principle—means

51-60: take—truth—wives—woman—time—true—good—himself—solomon—give

61-70: live—men—let—paul—role—society—duty—honor—commandment

71-80: obedience—responsibility—teaching—against—gospel—know—therefore—verse—discipline—people

81-90: submit—something—themselves—jesus—want—women—wrong—world—day—think

91-100: instruction—faith—always—attitude—command—ing—certainly—spiritual—genesis—now


1-10: children—god—parents—religious—time—people—child—good—things—life

11-20: family—religion—world—think—believe—secular—know—even—beliefs—may

21-30: years—questions—own—right—kids—human—death—reason—first—school

31-40: idea—need—day—should—ing—moral—see—live—want—new

41-50: book—help—now—find—say—take—work—answer—others—something

51-60: church—come—wonder—bob—values—age—friends—get—go—little

61-70: does—without—long—often—true—thinking—feel—stories—must—love

71-80: exist—part—give—important—really—animals—two—great—kind—might

81-90: humanist—best—look—seems—still—atheist—few—thought—mean—mind


Book A is

Book B is

The first observation is among the most interesting: that these two books, though different in many, many ways, have the same top three words. Even more interesting is that the secular parenting book mentions God more often. Not entirely surprising if you think about it. The top four words in Quitting Smoking for Dummies are SMOKING, SMOKE, TOBACCO, and CIGARETTES.

Next we notice a few surprises, like the fact that the concordance program promotes the suffix ‘ing’ to the status of a word, and that a dialogue in my book ends us up with the speakers’ names — Bob and Kobir — at #54 and #91, respectively.

Right, right…the point

One of the first things I noticed in comparing the two is the relative importance of obedience. What the Bible Says About Parenting uses the word OBEY 66 times and OBEDIENCE 49 times, while the same words appear only six and four times (respectively) in Parenting Beyond Belief — even though PBB is almost exactly twice as long. As a percentage of text, these words appear twenty-two times more frequently in the religious parenting book than in the non-religious one. I find that revealing, though not exactly surprising. I want my kids to know how to obey, sure, but it’s sixth or seventh on the list of my hopes for them (as I’ve written elsewhere). Seems a tad higher on the list for What the Bible.

What about parenting books in-between? I looked at two current mainstream bestsellers, Parenting From the Inside Out and I Was a Really Good Mom Before I Had Kids — neither of which includes OBEY or OBEDIENCE in its concordance. Religion and obedience seem particular stablemates.

I’m dismayed, but again unsurprised, that love is #5 in WTB and #69 in PBB. To tell the truth, I’m relieved it’s in our top 100 at all. Freethinkers love no less, of course, but we spend most of our time talking about truth and generally let love take care of itself. Religious folks often do the opposite, talking of endless love and letting truth tag along if it can keep up. And lo and behold, THINK is #14 for us and #89 for them. Also high in our list are the lovely words QUESTIONS (#22) and IDEA (#31) — neither of which appears in the other list.

The presence of words like HUSBAND, WIFE, SON, MOTHER, and FATHER high in the WTB list might indicate that role divisions are important. None of these appear in the PBB hit parade, which I think indicates less emphasis on divided roles. Perhaps I’m reading too much into these things. (READER: No no, I think you’re onto something!)

The presence of EPHESIANS on the WTB list makes some sense, since the end of Ephesians lists several familial duties — ‘Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord,’ (5:22) ‘Husbands, love your wives’ (5:25). But the fact that EPHESIANS appears 64 times just baffled me — until I remembered one of the most chilling verses in the NT:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother — which is the first commandment with a promise — that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth (Eph 6:1-3).

The conditional phrase “that you may enjoy long life” is no metaphor: It refers directly to Deuteronomy 21:18-21:

If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them; Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city…and they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice…And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die.

(For those who insist the OT is no longer in force, that it was replaced by a “new covenant” in the NT, Jesus wants a word with you. Now.)

Neither Ephesians nor Deuteronomy appears in the PBB top 100. Phew. We write about how to talk to kids about death (#27), but these guys threaten them with it. Okay okay, not directly…but by quoting the hell out of Ephesians, some (not all) religious folks show their enthusiasm for ultimate punishments in no uncertain terms.

I could go on and on, pointing out the high frequency of words like SIN, DUTY, EVIL, FEAR, AUTHORITY, DISCIPLINE, COMMAND, COMMANDMENT, SUBMIT, LAW, and INSTRUCTION in WTB, and the absence of any of those in PBB’s top 100, and the wholly different brands of parenting implicit in such observations. I could. But it seems equally important to point out that not all religious parenting books share the numbingly authoritarian quality that the concordance of What the Bible Says About Parenting seems to bespeak. In fact, I’d like to show you another Christian parenting book that has almost NONE of the sad and disheartening earmarks of WTB, James Dobson, and the rest of that ilk. But I’m sleepy. Next time, then.

(Here’s the link to PBB’s Amazon concordance, btw.)

Avatar photo

Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.