Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Reindeer on State Street

'Twas the night before Christmas and all through The Loop

the reindeer were shopping for Santa's new suit.

A last-minute short in a Lionel train

had burned the elf's coat - turned it black in the flame.

So now they were desperate and dashed all around

in hopes that a fitting replacement be found.

On Dancer! On Dasher! On Prancer and Vixen!

On Comet and Cupid! On Donder and Blitzen!

They split up on State Street where some went to Field's

and others to Nordstrom's for late season deals.

Alas! All the storefronts were locked for the night.

The windows were dark. Not a tailor in sight.

It wasn't until on the Miracle Mile

that a man with a bottle, a beard, and a smile

saw them shiver. He offered his coat and he said,

"It's from the Good Will. You don't mind that it's red?"

Elated, the reindeer said, "Thanks! You have saved

us!" And they flew away while the man waved

"Bye!" Not til later did they understand

the reason for seeing the hole in his hand.

(c) John J. Desjarlais. This poem previously appeared in The Rockford Review.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Happy Holy Days

One might have thought that the secular-sophist culture's concerted effort to marginalize "Christmas" in favor of the vapid and politically-correct "Holidays" was insulting enough (it's being done in the name of "tolerance," of course). Are there several holidays in the season? Of course. And in a pluralistic society, let's respect them all. What I take issue with, though, is this unknown "Holiday" that merchants want me to buy for. "This Holiday, buy her a-" "Have a Happy Holiday." This started with good intentions, to be inclusive. And generally, I think we all know which particular "holiday" is usually meant, though it is rapidly becoming a merchants' "holiday" characterized by snowflakes, snow figures, elves, bells, reindeer, penguins and polar bears - anything winter, but never anything Christmas. The White Witch of Narnia has cast the land into a freeze where "it is always winter but never Christmas."

There is little comfort in knowing that "holidays" is a short form of "Holy Days," which these days of Advent truly are. In a small act of concession, the television channels are beginning to present programs on the Christian faith just in time for the season. The problem is this: some programs are determined to discredit Christianity. The History Channel ran a piece last year largely meant to dismiss the idea of Christ's physical resurrection (yes, that's Easter, but why miss a chance to bash Christians and disabuse them of their un-scientific superstitions?). Expert after expert on the program argued that Jesus did not physically arise from the Tomb but he "appeared to" devout (and disillusioned, distraught, disturbed) followers in "visions" and dreams so real that they thought he was physically returned. As they reported their dreams, people took it the wrong way, the stories were repeated until Presto! A myth of the resurrection resulted.

OK, let me tease this out: Were the first disciples, both men and women, disillusioned, distraught, and disturbed? Of course - they believed Jesus was who He claimed to be, the Anointed King promised in the Scriptures, except they were expecting the promised Davidic King who would restore a political kingdom, not the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 whose "kingdom is not of this world." Despite His telling them three times clearly about His coming rejection, death, and rising, His betrayal and crucifixion sent them into fearful hiding.

But what's this bit about wishful dreams and hopeful visions? The "experts" believe the followers were overwhelmed by what-might-have-been fantasies. This can sound plausible to the uninformed. The funny thing is, these experts appeal to I Corinthians 15 (this letter of Paul is one of the oldest and certainly one of the undisputably authentic historical records of the Early Church). They assert that the words "appeared to" or "was seen by" is a way of referring to visions and dreams, "a common middle Eastern phenomenon." Granted, it was common. But that can't be what happened here. Why not? Read the text yourself: were such visions experienced by a dozen (or probably more) people all at once (as in I Cor 15:5) or by a large crowd of 500 ALL AT ONCE (as reported in the next line, I Cor 15:6)? Hardly. And this also excludes the extraordinary passages where the risen Jesus tells His followers to touch His wounds and prepare Him a meal which he eats (Luke 24) or where He prepares a beach barbeque in the presence of people who did not expect Him (John 21).

Look - the reason these so-called experts cannot read the historical record plainly is that they don't want to. It is an issue of the will, not the intellect. The resurrection of Christ is an historically verifiable event. How about the Birth of Christ, which we celebrate this season? There are, admittedly, a few more gaps and difficulties in the details of the historical record about it. But there is no doubt about what was involved, as John says: "The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory."

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Golden Compass points in wrong direction

I was in Target the other day and noticed the Christmas push is on. The cashier areas featured DVDs for sale and among them was "The Golden Compass," the so-called children's film released last Christmas in theaters. The irony is this: Christmas is the day Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, Emmanuel - God with us. Mr. Pullman's book, however, is virulently anti-Christian. To disguise this, the film's producers stopped three chapters shy of the book's end, where there is a tedious and twisted discourse about the Fall of Man in Genesis and the effects of the Fall that foreshadows the more openly anti-Christian material in the next two books, where Pullman plainly writes, "Christianity is a powerful and convincing mistake, that's all."

Since people might be drawn to the DVD or the books, here's a plot summary for all three books that, I believe, speaks for itself. Read these and decide if the books aren't visciously anti-Christian and especially anti-Catholic:

Book 1. We meet 12-year-old Lyra who lives in an alternative Oxford that is dominated by a group called "The Magisterium" (Catholics recognize this term as referring to the teaching authority of the Church). It has brutal monks, sadistic nuns, power-hungry priests, bishops, and cardinals but no pope since Pope John Calvin moved the Vatican to Geneva (can you sense the venom already?). The Magisterium's goal is to rule absolutely and crush all 'heresy' and opposition. There is no Christ in its teachings. Just as well, I guess. I'd like to believe that Mr. Pullman is trying to say "This is what any institutionalized church would be without Christ, so it is important to be focused on Christ and not power-driven bureaucracy," - but this really isn't his point. His 'alternative world' church is what he believes the real one to be like. Back to the plot: Like all humans, Lyra has a personal daemon, a personal spirit-self that lives outside her body in animal form that changes for children but is stable for adults. Humans separated from their 'daemons' lose their imagination and will. As you might guess, the religious figures in the film have snakes, lizards, and frogs for their 'daemons.' Lyra uses a magic compass to find her way to the Arctic to rescue her friend Roger and other kids who have been kidnapped by the evil Mrs Coulter and The Magisterium to perform experiments on in order to find out why 'dust' - original sin - doesn't affect kids as much as adults. She is helped by a witch-queen and a talking polar bear among others. The movie ends here but the book continues with Lyra's evil father sacrificing Roger in order to blast open a portal to parallel worlds as part of his own revolt against God, and Lyra follows him through the hole.

Book II: A young boy named Will (no accident) finds his way into the parallel world where Lyra is hiding. There are only children in this world because there are spirits that roam it eating the souls of adults. Will obtains a knife called 'the god-destroyer' that can rip through anything, even the universe itself. Back in Oxford, Lyra finds a friend in a physicist named Mary who is an ex-nun and has dumped her faith (the choice of "Mary" can't be an accident, either). In the meantime, the wicked Mrs Coulter learns that Lyra is, according to a prophecy, the New Eve (this term will be familiar to Catholics, who regard Mary as The New Eve). Mrs Coulter kidnaps Lyra. Cliffhanger end of Book II.

Book III: Assisted by two homosexual angels (I'm not kidding), Will escapes Mrs Coulter and rescues Lyra. The Magisterium tries to destroy Lyra while her father prepares to attack God-The-Authority, now seen as a senile fraud. Using Will's magic knife, Lyra enters the land of the dead, a dismal prison where the spirits of all intelligent beings are tortured. Lyra and Will release the spirits to a blissful oblivion. In the final Armageddon battle, Lyra and Will kill God (The Authority) while her parents kill the Regent of Heaven (hmm- wonder who he means by THAT) and themselves to boot. Lyra joins her physicist friend Mary in another world's paradise where she plays the serpent to their Adam and Eve. The children discover erotic love and the universe is saved. Survivors return to their own worlds to begin building a society that is god-free.

One can see plainly here the agenda of one who believes that religion, especially Christianity, is the problem and must be destroyed. The way Pullman does this is by turning the Christian faith inside-out by saying the rebel angels and Satan were right to oppose the "tyrannical" Deity, and after their defeat, did a noble thing by signing up the first humans to join their campaign of 'self-awareness' and freedom. But this is actually moving away from a true awareness of who we were meant to be - gloriously created in the image and likeness of God with a high destiny - not to be gods, nor to act as though we were, for that is idolatry and only dims what is wonderful in us. It is also moving away from real freedom - the freedom to do what is right in love, not merely to do what feels good to me now. That's being a slave to one's own passion and conceit.

Pullman will fool many people with his erudite Gnosticism by suggesting that God is an oppressor, the real Deity is not knowable, the serpent in Eden enlightened the first human pair with wisdom, and matter and spirit are really the same so we should enjoy sexual pleasure wherever we find it and at death be content to dissolve into oblivion. It sounds a lot like what the serpent said in the tree.

"The Golden Compass" is the first movie adapted from a trilogy by Phillip Pullman called "His Dark Materials."This title comes from John Milton's "Paradise Lost," the epic poem about Satan's expulsion from heaven and the fall of humanity in Eden. "I am of the Devil's party and I know it," Pullman once said in an interview, and elsewhere has said "My books are about killing God."

So he is joining the party begun by other celebrity atheist authors whose work has been popularized lately. But this time, the target is kids. I hear that New Line Cinema has cleaned up the worst of the anti-Catholic propaganda from the book but this is still a perverse attack on people of faith in the way it satirizes sin, mocks the sacraments, and turns the love of God into something oppresive and hateful. The director of the film, Chris Weitz, is a lapsed Catholic who is into pop-culture New Age 'spirituality.' Go fig.

So here we have militant atheism's answer the "The Chronicles of Narnia" and "The Lord of the Rings," fantasy stories that Pullman says he loathes precisely because they embody a Christian worldview and Christian virtues. Let no one be fooled into thinking this is harmless entertainment. Pullman has a virulent agenda to impose upon impressionable children and, perhaps, their poorly-catechized parents. At least the silly "Da Vinci Code" was open to investigation by grown-ups who, if alert, would sense something was smelly about the film's false premise. But children won't be able to recognize spiritual pornography when they see it. Let's hope the adults will.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Ghosts, part 3

Journalist GK Chesterton once said that when people stop believing in God, it isn't that they then believe in nothing, but they'll believe in anything. This is often the case when it comes to ghosts. Having forgotten or discarded or simply not knowing what has been clearly revealed in the Scriptures, people turn to all sorts of notions that suit their personal tastes, or they turn to any person who affirms their notions. This is one reason why people turn to mediums to communicate with the dead.

It is natural, I realize, for a person to want the comfort of knowing a departed loved one is somehow all right, and most people are curious about death and life-after-death. Many people with a superficial upbringing in a church (too often a superficial Catholic upbringing) are easily led to believe that God is somehow working through these mediums - as they themselves claim - to contact the dead. What does the Bible really say about all this?

You may not accept the authority of the Scriptures, but at least you should know what they say - and the Bible clearly and consistently says consulting mediums and spiritists is dangerous.

The danger described in the Older Testament is that people will turn away from God Himself into all manners of superstition and idolatry (since such practices were done for the purpose of divination and seeking the advice of pagan deities), thereby forfeiting their place in the Covenant community. It is a violation of the first commandment to have no other gods.

The danger in the New Testament is similar, but instead of saying what people are turning away from, the description is about what people involved in such practices are turning toward - the great Deceiver and Father of Lies who easily counterfeits spiritual experience and appears as "an angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:14) and his fellow fallen angels and demons. Celebrity mediums usually talk about encountering such a 'being of light'. So trying to contact the dead usually turns into contacting a real spiritual entity, but not the dead.

No wonder this activity - called necromancy - is so strongly rejected in places like Leviticus 19:31, 20:6, 27; Deuteronomy 18:10-11; I Chronicles 10:13-14 and Isaiah 8:19-20, for example. It is - nearly literally - playing with fire.

Moreover, Jesus' parable of the rich man and the poor beggar Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 suggests that the dead cannot contact the living. If anyone can contact the dead, it is Jesus himself, who calls the other Lazarus out of the tomb in John 11 and who says that, one day, "the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear shall come to life" (John 5:25).

What, then, are we to make of the Medium of Endor, whom King Saul of
Israel consulted, according to I Samuel 28:3-23? Saul had properly banned mediums, but feeling desperate in his war against the Philistines, he visited a medium and asked her to call up the prophet Samuel's spirit to give him God's advice for the war. Samuel appears, and tells him that because Saul had disobeyed God by not destroying the nasty Amelekites in an earlier battle, Israel would lose the next battle and Saul and his sons would die in it. There is disagreement over whether or not the spirit the medium called up was actually Samuel or a demonic impersonator. The Bible says Samuel appeared, and his truthful prediction indicates that it is really him, as Deuteronomy 18:22 says that only a real prophet will be 100 percent accurate in pronouncements. And the fact that the medium herself is shocked to see Samuel suggests that God brought up Samuel for this special and specific purpose of rebuking Saul. This appearance of a departed saint of God is no problem for Christians, really, since Moses and Elijah appear in the earthly plane on the mount of Transfiguration to consult with Jesus as he faces the cross (Mark 9). Still, this passage in I Samuel cannot be taken to endorse communication with the dead, since I Chronicles 10:13 declares, "So Saul died for his unfaithfulness which he had committed against the Lord, because he did not keep the word of the Lord and because he consulted a medium for guidance."

There is a difference between this and the Catholic practice of requesting the prayer support of the saints, which is, in fact, a healthy corrective to occult practices. Mediums like John Edward and Sylvia Browne may claim to be faithful Catholics, but their views of humans as "divine sparks" who are part of God and whose destiny is to become perfected through many re-incarnated lives or by passing through ever-higher astral levels is not Christian in the least, but a tempting blend of the Gnostic and neo-pagan.

Finally, what are we to make of their often-correct predictions/pronouncements? Some of it is good generalized guessing, a skilled reading of people's responses to questions, and the eagerness of seekers who interpret readings in the ways they want to. But, as mentioned above, the Deceiver and his minions can disguise themselves as an angel of light (2 Corinthians
11:14) and thereby act as a "spirit guide" to relay information that is correct and therefore convincing to the hearers.

Enough about people turning to mediums here. The one we ought to turn to is Christ himself, who says, "I was dead, and behold I am alive forever, and I hold the keys of Death and Hades." So, for those who depart this earthly life in His friendship, there is a glorious future, and for those left behind, Paul says: "We grieve, but not as those who have no hope".

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Ghosts, part 2

Not all ghosts are dead who haunt the living after a tragic or violent death. Most are not whispy, white vapors, nor disfigured, but look like normal people, fully dressed, who walk around furniture, not through it. And no one is quite sure what to make of the many reports – even if they claim to know for sure. Some ghosts are of the living, seen in one place though you know the person is elsewhere. A few people have seen themselves (in literature, it is called “the fetch” or the “doppelganger,” a living person’s spirit that leaves the body and appears to the person as an omen of their impending death).

What are we to make of all this?

First things first. There are some Biblical premises about human personhood I’m starting with and accept, so you might as well know them.

The first thing is that humans are fully integrated beings of body, mind, and spirit created in the image of God, a theological expression meaning that we share the Creator’s attributes of intelligence, creativity, will, and the capacity for love and relationships. Every human, sharing these qualities, has inherent worth and dignity. Moreover, every mortal is – well, immortal, with a God-given potential to attain glory in a relationship with Christ – or not. As CS Lewis once wrote, “It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours” (from “The Weight of Glory”). The Son of God became the Son of Man that we all might become the sons and daughters of God through Him. So he tells the crucified thief who believes in Him, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” and Paul exults, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord,” and John tells us, “What we shall be has not yet been disclosed, but we know that when Christ appears we shall be like him.” Thus, Christians affirm the survival of a person after death and furthermore in the resurrection of the body, and the eventual re-uniting of the spirit with the body, raised incorruptible – a scandalous thought to the Greeks, who considered the body to be a filthy nuisance and best discarded so that the “soul” could ascend to higher planes. This is not a biblical view. The resurrection of the body is plainly anticipated in I Corinthians 15, Revelation 20 and elsewhere. Christ himself was raised physically, though in a body glorified and changed. His frightened and astonished followers thought they saw a ghost – but he assured them he was not, and asked for a meal which he ate in front of them all to demonstrate he was for real (see Luke 24:36ff).

OK, the reason for this “Introduction to Eschatology (Last Things)” lesson is so say that Christians believe firmly in an afterlife filled with inexpressible wonder – and anything regarding “ghosts” is to be understood in this perspective. Biblical theology doesn’t exclude ghost phenomena – but any explanation for ghost phenomena that excludes the affirmation of biblical basics regarding the afterlife is suspect.

Researchers say there are 6 kinds of ghosts: 1. the dead, seen repeatedly; 2. the dead, seen once or twice then gone; 3. spirits of the dying but not yet dead; 4. spirits of the dead who talk to the living; 5. spirits of the living; 6. poltergeists. Ghosthunters look for 1, 2, and 6. The others find you, according to some. Most people, when they think of ghosts, think of 1 and 2. These are (allegedly) the departed who have some unfinished business who will disappear once their mission is fulfilled. #3, the ghost of the dying, is a ghost that appears at the time a person dies, and the ones who see it learn later the person has died. #4 often needs help to finish a mission, and so is like #1 or #2. Mediums like John Edward and Sylvia Browne claim to act as intermediaries for such messages – ie, as “mediums,” telling clients in effect, “I hear dead people.” More on mediums next time (and the medium of Endor who called the 'ghost' of Samuel to appear before King Saul). Ghost #5 is a kind of bi-location, sometimes as an indication that the person will die soon, as I described above. And #6, poltergeists, are not ghosts at all but the excess energy of a teenager’s angst and anger that causes objects to move and there is nothing “supernatural” about it. It's just a bit creepy and noisy, that's all, and that's what "poltergeist" means: "noisy ghost" - though, as I've said, it's not a ghost at all.

Furthermore, there are two general categories of explanation for #1, 2, and 4: The “Natural” explanation group and the “Spiritists.”

The Natural group holds to a kind of “tape-recording theory” of ghosts, whereby the departed leave a kind of psychic “fingerprint” in a place of strong emotions, a holographic imprint of sorts left over in a space (they call it a “vortex”) that is picked up later by people who are sensitive to such force fields. It is a kind of “energy residue” which can be seen and heard, which is why it is likened to a tape recording that is played over and over in a place, though it sometimes fades out quickly (this, as you can tell, has implications for my mystery novel).

Spiritists, on the other hand, who clearly deny any biblical description of the afterlife, believe ghosts are the spirits of the dead coming back to communicate with the living or to complete an unfinished mission so they can “let go” of the Earth in peace and move on to a higher plane of existence – AND that ALL departed spirits do so, regardless of their behavior on Earth. This is where they differ from Christians, of course, who insist that our earthly choices have eternal consequences (thereby affirming human dignity, free will and justice). As it turns out, the full explanation may involve a little of both views, and neither are completely right. I’ll explain in my next posting.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Ghosts, part 1

Do you believe in ghosts? A mystery novel I'm working on has a ghost element in it, and my amateur sleuth works alongside a “Ghost Detective” (sometimes called a “ghosthunter”) to solve a murder and missing person mystery. As with my first two mystery novels, I’m interested in dealing with “mysteries” on a number of levels.

And since my college is sponsoring an event featuring real 'ghost hunters' later this month to coincide with Halloween, this is a good time to opine. Another good reason to offer a comment is that I've observed so many Catholics who do not know what the Scriptures really say about this subject and the afterlife in general, but seem to drift - like their secular peers - into talk-show superstitions about the unseen.

It should be noted from the get-go that we are right to be healthily uncertain one way or the other on this matter, as there are mysteries we cannot fully know this side of heaven. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” we hear in Hamlet – a famous ghost story. Christians in particular are right to exercise caution, reason and skepticism here, since so many people wander easily into occult practices and psychic hooey on this matter and it is easy to be deceived by what we know are unseen, malevolent personalities out there who are intent on fooling whoever they can in order to lure them away from the truth.

It’s quite understandable, isn’t it, that everyone would like to be assured that there is something else after death - especially for lost loved ones. This explains the popularity of certain TV Shows where mediums claim they can speak to the departed who survive in a spirit form on “the other side.” Moreover, popular films have shaped public perception about the subject, especially “The Sixth Sense” and its TV-spinoff, “The Ghost Whisperer.” But we need not be afraid to seek the truth of the matter, either, as there may be a natural explanation (that is, it is a phenomenon that is part of nature, part of Creation).

For example, poltergeist phenomena, in which objects are thrown around the house, are understood mainly as a kind of electrical disturbance peculiar to households where there are teenagers experiencing anger, angst, or trauma. I've observed this firsthand. It's weird, but not technically "supernatural."

As for "ghosts," there are 6 different categories which I will discuss another day. Suffice it to say in this brief introduction that while most uninformed people suppose them to be surviving spirits who cannot leave the earthly plane quite yet due to some unfinished business, and many Christians are too quick to think they are demons in disguise, the most common occurrences have a more "natural" explanation. My story will revolve around this sort of mystery while at the same time remaining Biblical in its understanding of the afterlife, which contains far more hope and wonder than any popularized idea about “ghosts” and a netherworldly “other side.”

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Tim Russert's passing

The journalism world today is mourning the passing of an outstanding colleague, Tim Russert of NBC News. Russert, 58, was the managing editor of their Washington DC Bureau and was best known as the tenacious, tough-but-fair host of NBC's Sunday morning political talk program "Meet the Press." Remarkably, NBC Nightly News last evening was devoted entirely to remembering this smart and decent man. Russert was up-front (but never in anyone's face) about being a practicing cradle Catholic of working-class Irish roots. It was good to see how his co-workers knew this about him and appreciated how it informed his journalism: with high integrity, a passion for the truth and a commitment to hold those in power accountable -- exactly what journalism should be doing in a democracy. They acknowledged his love for his family and faith, and thought it somehow fitting that he had just returned from a trip with his wife and son to Italy where he had the privilege of meeting Pope Benedict.

There is a great deal of talk in newsrooms about the need for 'diversity' but the discussion is nearly always in terms of gender and racial diversity, rarely in terms of religious representation. It is journalism's big blind spot. The news business needs more people like Russert to hold journalism itself to a high standard of decency and act as its conscience.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Gospel as Thriller

Anyone notice that the "10 Rules for Thrillers" could be applied to the Gospel of Mark?

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Ten Rules for Thrillers

Screenwriter and Edgar-Award-winning novelist Brian Garfield is credited with composing the "10 Rules for Thrillers" that launched John Grisham's career among others. So it's gotta work for me, too, right? I've been sorting through the characters and plotlines for "Venom," the story that follows "Bleeder," with these 'rules' in mind.

1. Start with action, explain it later. Start with trouble, conflict, confrontation, fear, violence. Save the backstory for sprinkled bits later. If the editor doesn't turn the page, no one will. So my story begins with a drug raid that nearly goes bad for my protagonist, Selena (Rosalyn Sanchez, pictured here, could work as my ex-DEA agent). The idea is to get the show on the road and put some of the major players on stage right away.
2. Make it tough for the protagonist. Provide a worthy adversary and difficult complications. Opposing forces must be stacked against the protagonist. So Selena is partnered with men who disrespect her within a Latin community that distrusts her and she carries emotional baggage that nearly disables her. Oh, she's got family problems, too. And the killer is very, very dangerous.
3. Plant it early, pay it off later. The solution must be based on a conflict that is established early in the story. There can't be sudden revelations or new characters at the end, and no cavalry to the rescue. Surprises are necessary but they must seem inevitable, based on what came much earlier. This is what makes those first 30-50 pages so awfully important. I passed page 30 yesterday and I think I've set up my major throughlines. Aristotle said "write with the end in view," and so by having something to write toward, I'm better able to set up the eventual pay-offs.
4. Give the protagonist the initiative. Good writing depends on conflict - interior (alcohol problem, family troubles, a phobia, temperment issues) and exterior (a dangerous enemy, an untrustworthy ally, nature). The good suspense story depends on a protagonist who takes the initiative to achieve a goal against daunting odds rather than just letting things happen to him/her. While Selena is reluctant to get 'back in the game' after a time away in a deliberate attempt to distance herself from her troubled past, she must. That's the next point:
5. Give the protagonist a personal stake in the outcome. The more personal the protagonist's involvement is in the story's central conflict, the better. And the stakes must be high: if the protagonist fails, it will cost her awfully. Her own life or those of loved ones should be in danger - and in my story, they are. In the emotional layering of the story, Selena must also come to terms with her Latina identity, resolve the anger over her brother's death that pushed her into law enforcement in the first place, and atone for the terrible guilt she feels over wounding a little girl in a botched raid that ended her career.
6. Give the protagonist a time limit, and then shorten it. If you can have a ticking bomb, that helps. The 'ticking bomb' in my story is the killer, who is killing according to a schedule that Selena only figures out late and then has it slightly wrong - the last murder is set to happen a bit sooner than she thinks to someone she cares about. And when she figures this out, she is alone and in the greatest jeopardy yet.
7. Choose your character according to your capacities, and hers. If you're writing a police procedural you'd better know about police procedure - enough to make it credible and to stand up to the criticism of real cops. Having watched a lot of TV won't do; real research is required. This is why many successful suspense stories feature an innocent bystander who is caught up in circumstances and is moved to deal with a dangerous opponent. The protagonist's ordinary-ness makes the confrontation all the more scary. This was how my first book "Bleeder" was built. It was tricky, because the protagonist, Reed, needed to be clever enough to figure things out apart from police assistance and succeed against a determined enemy. But Selena has Academy training and DEA experience, so I've had to do a good deal of library work and interviewing to make her real. Her background enables her to work independently, manage an investigation and handle a gun. I probably need to get myself to a firing range and feel the kick of her Sig Sauer in my own hand.
8. Know the destination before setting out. The ending must satisfy and fulfill all the promises set up by the early stages. The worst thing is to have an ending that disappoints or is anti-climactic or feels contrived. An unsolvable problem cannot be solved by some dramatic 'deus ex mchina' rescue. The genre demands a conclusive, decisive ending, not some ambiguous dribbling off. If it starts with a bang (and it must) it should end with a bigger one set up by the first one.
9. Don't get fancy. By this, I mean that a writer - a beginning one in particular - should obey the rules and expectations of the genre. Some unique angle can be exploited, but readers come to such books with a certain anticipation of pleasure - and you must deliver it.
10. Don't write anything you wouldn't want to read. This may sound silly, but some beginning writers try to spot trends and then write toward it. "Oh, westerns are big now - I'll try one." No, don't do it unless you like Louis L'Amour stories. It's always a good sign if you tell yourself that you'd gladly buy your own book. Then your heart is in it.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Authors of Note

Having mentioned The Inklings in an earlier post, and bypassing the prolific and incisive GK Chesterton for the moment, I offer here a brief listing of contemporary writers whose Christian sensibilities are embedded in their work, and who exemplify literary excellence. In any discussion of what "Christian fiction" is about - and it is an elusive term - these are writers to consider (and I present them in no particular order).

Frederick Buechner (BEEK-ner) is a Presbyterian pastor whose lyrical work brings one to tears and laughter by turn. "Godric" and "Brendan" are historical novels I admire partly because of their ambivalent (and very earthy) treatment of saints, besides the gorgeous prose. His heartbreaking memoirs are even better (especially when he chronicles the struggles of his anorexic daughter). His books built around alphabetical lists of Biblical characters and religious cliches are hilarious and moving at the same time, and serve to make the faith strikingly relevant, especially for cultured unbelievers. He himself hovers at the edge of doubt continually.

Kathleen Norris is a writer like Buechner, a Methodist whose strongest work is in memoir. "Dakota: A Spiritual Geography" is a beautiful work, and her account of coming to genuine faith in "Cloister Walk" is memorable. "Amazing Grace" is similar to Buechner's alphabet books, whereby she takes common religious terms and expounds upon them in a way that makes them new. Her work consistently ends up on the NY Times Bestseller List.

Susan Howatch's Church of England series is exquisite in its stylish exploration of our deepest motives, following a set of smart characters from the 1930s through the end of the 20th Century. Howatch cut her teeth on vast family sagas with a gothic edge. Her latest series, set in the present around the Healing Centre of St Benet's in London, is a gripping and layered portrayal of deeply flawed yet empathetic people groping through the fog of sex-and-power secularism toward genuine meaning in life. It's not everyone who can portray a male prostitute protagonist with such force and psychological insight.

Michael O'Brian's apocalyptic novel "Father Elijah" is part of a brilliant series that is theologically astute and beautifully written. Don't let the 'apocalyptic' part throw you; this is no cheesy "Left Behind" melodrama. O'Brian also paints and does jewelry work, and this artistry shows in the well-wrought prose.

Well, that'll do for now. I must admit that when I read people like this I throw up my hands in despair and say, "I could never write like this - why bother?" But I am encouraged at the same time, to know that there are men and women of faith who bring their worldview to bear on their art, making it both true and beautiful.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

On The Rosary

Hi again, Candace:

This is a follow-up to your earlier question concerning Marian devotion, where you wondered if the Rosary - with all those 'Hail Marys' in it - wasn't the kind of prayer Jesus warned against: that is, the 'vain repetition' He criticized regarding the religious Pharisees' praying.

It certainly appears this way to Protestants, I know. But for those who practice this particular prayer mindfully (for whom it is not rote), it isn't 'vain' repetition at all. In fact, the rhythmic repetition is a means by which the mind and spirit become more focused on what the rosary is really about: praying the gospels and walking through the life of Christ.

The rosary - like any Marian devotion - is Christocentric. The whole idea in this practice is to re-live the life of Christ in one's mind's eye from the perspective of the one who loved him the most on Earth, His mother. Side by side with her, we experience again each important occasion of the gospel story - remember what I said about narrative and story being important to
Catholics. The repeated prayers are a way to detach oneself from the world, to avoid distractions. It is a contemplative practice proven to provide a sacred space, a time set-apart, for thinking deeply and gratefully about the 'mysteries of our redemption,' as Catholics say (a thoughtfully-prayed 5-decade rosary only takes about 20 minutes, by the way). "Mysteries" have two meanings here: first, in the Pauline sense, they are holy truths now revealed, and secondly they are truths that we can understand to a point before becoming lost in wonder. I mean, who can truly grasp the terrible mystery of the Prince of Peace being crowned with thorns?

So the rosary is divided into 4 series of these 'mysteries,' that is, historical events in the gospels that reveal something particular about the saving work of God in Christ - and most of them are events that we experience as though we are standing next to Mary, seeing them through her eyes, feeling them with her heart. So when people pray the rosary properly, they aren't just repeating words over and over. They are doing this as a way to get their minds off of the everyday and to focus instead on one of these 'mysteries'. For each 'decade' of Hail Marys there is one mystery to think about, and there are five in the 'loop.'

Here are the 'mysteries' and I think you can see from the list how, if one were to pray the entire thing - all 20 decades - one would walk through the entire Gospel story and a little beyond to Acts and the hope that all believers share:

The Joyful Mysteries:

The Annunciation

The Visitation (to Elizabeth)

The Birth of Christ (Catholics don't wait til Christmas to celebrate this!)

The Presentation in the Temple (Mary obeys the Law)

The Finding of the Boy Jesus in the Temple (imagine his mother's panic!)

The Luminous Mysteries (Mysteries of Light, introduced by John Paul II, truly emphasizing the Christ-centered nature of this devotion):

The Baptism in the Jordan

The Miracle at Cana (where Mary is present and He does this to honor her)

The Preaching of the Kingdom (guess who taught Jesus much of what He knows?)

The Transfiguration

The Institution of the Eucharist

The Sorrowful Mysteries:

The Agony in the Garden

The Scourging at the Pillar

The Crowning with Thorns (what happened to the Annunciation promise that He would be king?)

The Carrying of the Cross

The Crucifixion (and we experience all this through the eyes of a sorrowing mother - how painful)

The Glorious Mysteries:

The Resurrection

The Ascension

The Gifting of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (where Mary receives the Spirit - again!)

The Assumption (literally, 'the taking up' into heaven of Mary, a promise given to all believers as in First Thess. 4:16-17)

The Coronation of Mary as Queen (from Revelation 12, and a prefiguring of what is promised to all believers in Second Timothy 4:8)

Remember how last time I said that, if asked, "what is the gospel?", conservative Protestants would likely offer a series of propositions and proof-texts and Catholics would likely tell a story instead? This is the story they'd tell - these 20 'mysteries of our redemption.' If you understand what these are all about, then you understand God's plan of salvation - that is, the rescue plan to restore and renew and transform humanity to the full dignity and glory intended from the beginning.

I know some people are skittish about praying the "Hail Mary" at all, considering it to detract from prayer to Christ and verging on worship. I addressed this last time, I believe, but let me add two thoughts here. First, the prayer itself is Biblical, with words taken right out of the Gospel of Luke with a petition attached. Golly, if even an angel addresses her with such respect, we can, too. Secondly, if she is really the Queen Mother so highly esteemed by her kingly Son, she is worthy of our honor, too. There is nothing idolatrous in this. It's just how one properly behaves when in the presence of royalty. Moreover, I think Jesus is very pleased with us when we honor his mother. I am always pleased, as a son, when someone compliments my mother and tells me how wonderful she is. And here's one last thought: When my wife was also struggling with this issue, I asked her if she loved my mother. She said of course. I asked if she loved me any less because she loved my mother. She said no, of course not - maybe more, knowing where I came from. Well, there you go. The strange paradox, Candice, is that the closer we get to Mary, the closer we get to Jesus.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

On Marian Devotion

Dear Candice:

How appropriate that you raise the issue of Marian devotion in the month of May, which Catholics call "Mary's Month." For the benefit of readers new to the blog, I'll repeat your question here and note that I've tried to answer your thoughtful questions about Catholic belief and practice in earlier postings. I invite other readers to submit a sincere question and I'll try to reply as I'm doing today - briefly, Biblically, and honestly.

Here's your question: "I think the biggest setback for me (regarding adopting the Catholic faith) is the apparent idolization of Mary in the church. What can you tell me about this?"

This was a major issue for me, too, and what I once considered 'idolatrous' has now become a central part of my devotional life. There is a great deal of misunderstanding and wrongful practice even among Catholics concerning Mary which doesn't help matters much. Some rather superstitious practices turn people off - including devout Catholics.

The first point to be made is this: All proper Marian devotion is Christocentric. Mary herself is never to be worshipped - for worship belongs to God alone and anything that is like 'worship' would be, as you suggest, idolatrous. Still, she occupies a place of special honor by virtue of her courageous, humble and faith-filled "yes" to God to bear the Christ-child into the world. "Let it be done unto me according to your word" - if only all believers responded to God in this trusting way. So, Christ takes his human nature from her, but without the attending human fallenness or fault. God prepared her as a pure human vessel by which to enter the world as a man (that's what "the immaculate conception" means - it's about Mary's purity, not Jesus' virgin birth). If God Himself honored her so and took her to be "the spouse of the Holy Spirit," should we not also honor her?

So Christ takes his human nature from her, and she is the first person in whom Christ dwelt - literally. She does not appear often in the gospels, but at critical turning-points. Consider the wedding at Cana where she tells the house servants, "Do whatever he tells you to do." These words are spoken to us as well. This is her role, really - to point us to Christ.

And when she suffers as only a mother can beside him at the cross, being one of the very few who stay with him to the end, she is an image of a faithful disciple who shares in Christ's suffering. When Jesus says to John from the cross, "Behold your mother" in John 19, he is saying it to all of us.

That's one reason she is called the Mother of the Church and of all believers in Revelation 12, where she is pictured as "a woman clothed with the sun, and having a crown of 12 stars and the moon under her feet" - hence she is called Queen of Heaven and of the Apostles (the Twelve). I know the language is highly symbolic here and that Protestant commentators prefer to say the woman is "Israel" (the 12 referring to the 12 Tribes). It could be both but the plain reading suggests it is Mary.

The other interesting thing to me in that passage is how, just before the "12 stars" lines, John sees 'the ark of the covenent' in heaven. The ark of Moses has long disappeared. So what ark does he see? It is Mary. In her womb she contains the Living Word, just as the ark contained the written Word on tablets. The words the angel used at 'the annunciation' - "The Holy Spirit will overshadow you" - is an echo of the wording used to describe the glory of God "overshadowing" the ark.

OK, so we can honor Mary's special calling, but why pray to her? Isn't that idolatrous? Not really. Haven't you ever asked a friend or relative to pray for you? That isn't idolatrous. Praying to Mary is like asking that friend to intercede for you. But this is more than a friend. This is Jesus' Mother - in a high place, close to the heart of Christ who loves her. If he loves and honors her so (and he surely obeyed the command to "Honor your father and mother"), shouldn't we also, in order to be genuinely Christ-like?

The clincher for me is this: Take a look at I Kings 2:13-20. Bathsheba, the Queen Mother of King Solomon, Son of David, occupies a royal throne beside her son. She receives requests from subjects and brings them to the king, who welcomes her and cannot refuse her anything. Bathsheba, then, is a 'type' of Mary, the Queen Mother of the Royal Son of David. When our requests are carried by her to the King, they are purified and perfected and presented most lovingly. Do we still pray to Jesus directly? Of course. But there is something tender, non-presumptuous and humble about not blustering into the royal court, but asking our Mother to carry in our poor requests on our behalf.

If Mary occupies such a high place in the Kingdom, why is there little-to-no mention of her in Paul's letters then? Good question. I don't think Paul's silence here means that there wasn't high reverence for the Mother of God in the early days. Quite to the contrary, the letters of other early Christians (the first disciples of the first disciples) speak of Mary often, and by the late 4th Century she was firmly honored as "The God-bearer" (theotokos) as a result of the Church's clearer definition of Christ's comingled human and divine nature. Remember, Paul's audience was primarily Greek, and they would have missed the significance of Mary as the New Eve and The Queen Mother of the Davidic King - very Jewish ideas.

I don't buy this nonsense that the veneration of Mary began in the early Middle Ages as a way to infiltrate pagan cultures that worshipped female deities or "the great goddess" and thus Mary was a convenient substitute. The historical evidence says otherwise.

And I no longer have an issue with the "assumption" whereby Mary was 'taken up' into heaven bodily without corruption, or the "coronation" of Mary as Queen of Heaven and Earth. These ideas are also very Biblical. I've already mentioned the Revelation 12 passage (the woman with the crown of stars) and the typology of Bathsheba, so that's the "Queen Mother" business. And aren't all believers looking forward to receiving "the crown of life" prepared for those who endure, as Paul says? Don't the believers who are already in God's presence glady offer Him their golden crowns, as we see in Revelation? Sure. So in this way, Mary is a 'picture' (or "icon") of the whole church. I hope you're appreciating the sacramental symbolism here.

The same idea applies to the 'assumption.' Don't we read I Thessalonians 4 with great hope about being taken up in a blink to meet the Lord in the air at His glorious Appearing? Again, Mary is the 'icon' of this event that awaits all of her spiritual children. What has happened for her already out of the great love of God for her will also happen to us.

Last point: Mary appears at the earliest part of the Bible, in Genesis 3, where God prophetically announces that a woman will crush the head of the serpent. Sometimes called "the proto-evangelion," or the very first announcement of the Good News, this passage has always been understood as a reference to a woman bearing a savior. Just as humanity fell into ruin via the disobedience of the First Eve (and Adam), so will humanity be renewed via the obedience of the New Eve, Mary. This is why, in many statues of Mary, you'll see a snake under her foot.

And you know what? The Evil One can't stand the thought that he has been defeated by a woman.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Baptized Imagination

Here is the beginning of a list of writers whose work I admire for their aesthetic excellence, astute insight into the human condition, and open Christian commitment (although, like much of their writing, it is understated).

The list is in no particular order and will be continued in pieces later on.

The first group to mention must be The Inklings, the 1930s-40s circle of Oxford/Cambridge intellectuals that included CS Lewis and his chum JRR Tolkien who brought him to the Faith, Dorothy Sayers, and Charles Williams.

Lewis is well-known now for the "Narnia" fantasy novels that are being made into fine films these days (that's "Aslan" in the photo). His science-fiction trilogy made my head spin as an undergraduate (begin with "Out of the Silent Planet"), and his other 'fantasy' work such as "The Screwtape Letters" and "The Great Divorce" are funny yet forceful explanations of the Christian worldview. "Mere Christianity", a series of BBC radio talks delivered during WWII, is a gently thoughtful exploration of Christian claims meant for curious and sincere seekers. The list of his works is long. He is always a welcome companion, especially for those who have come to the Faith later in life, as he did.

Tolkien didn't care for the open allegory of Lewis' Narnia tales, but his own Catholic worldview is evident - though more deeply - in his epic, "The Lord of the Rings." The descent of Gollum into disfigured madness by his addiction to the ring's illusory power is a sign of humanity's fallenness. Redemption is possible - even Gollum nearly emerges from his obsession - but a pattern of choices for power over wholeness leads to his destruction. Tolkien's elaborate mythology is, at its heart, a biblical view of origins and the order of things.

Sayers was troubled in many ways, but her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, was guided by a Biblical concern for justice. Her translation of Dante is, well, divine.

Williams is the lesser-known fantasist of the group because his work is, shall we say, weirder. I call him the Christian HP Lovecraft. His fiction contains occultish elements (which turn off conservative believers), but his interest is always in showing that the worlds of the seen and the unseen are not far apart at all. I think his rather ornate 19-teens style puts off many modern readers who prefer the plainer prose of Lewis or the poetic (but readable) prose of Tolkien.

I'll list more contemporary writers later - and older ones, too. It's a long list.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Why Evangelicals Can't Write

The short answer, according to this article, is that they lack a sacramental life. In other words, the emphasis on 'facts' interferes with the ability to exercise 'fancy.' The focus on 'sign' rarely gets beyond to what is signified. The place where this shows up most obviously is in the approach to the Eucharist. For most evangelicals, the "Lord's Supper" is a symbolic memorial. For Catholics, it is this and much, much more: it is Christ made fully present to His people sacramentally. The sign and the signified are one.

Perhaps Flannery O'Conner explained it well when she described fiction as 'an incarnational art,' whereby the writer is able to observe, in the concrete and tangible, the workings of the unseen. This sacramental approach to life itself makes deep fiction-writing possible.

This whole idea of the importance of story can be approached another way: Consider how Evangelicals and Catholics respond to the question, "What is the Gospel?" Evangelical Protestants - I was one for a long time - are well-versed through diligent Bible study to reply with a set of distilled propositions, often in a brief outline form: God is holy and loving, we are fallen and sinful and this shortcoming results in separation from God and one another, God's merciful answer to our problem is Christ who died for our sins, and we need to believe it and receive the risen Lord personally and live thereafter with integrity by His Spirit. That's all true and good as far as it goes - I wish more Catholics could articulate this.

Now, propositions aren't bad. Catholics also adhere to a set of propositions as articulated in the creeds (Apostle's, Nicene). But even in the creeds, what we get is less a set of proposals and more of a story outline.

That's the difference. Catholics are much more comfortable with narrative. So when asked what they believe, they're more likely to give you the story of the gospels rather than a series of proof-texts from Paul. They're big on the life-stories of the saints. This is similar to Jews: if asked what they believe, they're likely to reply, "Let me tell you a story..."

In fact, Catholics see the Christian life itself as a kind of story with a beginning, middle, and ending that is not entirely certain and contains some suspense. So the beginning is baptism, where one is initiated into the kingdom of Christ and "born anew" into this covenant family. Then there is the middle, a long series of conflicts and complications that test and temper the believer towards holiness. At the end, the one who has endured inherits the fullness of the kingdom - though there are some who forfeit their birthright and end up badly by their own choices.

Before closing, I must note that good storytelling is not completely absent among conservative Protestants. This is clear by many fine novels coming out of CBA circles recently. Granted, much of it is still spiritually and sexually "safe" fiction for a market looking to be entertained and comforted at the same time. But some risks are being taken, and that's coming a long way from the days when fiction of any sort was rejected as a 'lie' unbefitting a believer.

The edgier - and more honest - fare is being published outside CBA, and I'll take a look at some of that work another day.

Friday, May 23, 2008

On Writing "Christian Fiction"

Or "Catholic Fiction," for that matter. I think it was CS Lewis who said that speaking of "Christian fiction" is like speaking of "Christian gardening" and just as unhelpful. Is a "Christan garden" one in which you'd find a statue of St. Francis or stations of the cross along the path? Where all the flowers have religious names like "jack-in-the-pulpit"? Where the gardener sings "In the Garden" while at work in the hope that neighbors will hear her and convert?

This is silly, of course. One might argue, nontheless, that a gardener who is consciously Christian will bring to the work an appreciation for nature, a gratitude for the created order, perhaps even a sense of stewardship ala Genesis 2:15. In a similar way, an artist with Christian sensibilities will bring to the work a baptized imagination (as Lewis called it) with an eye for what is true, good, and beautiful, as per Paul's injunction in Philippians 4:8--

"Whatever things are true, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy - meditate on these things."

Not that everything be sanitized, sentimental, superficial or syrupy, obsessed with the sensational portrayal of demons and End-Times scenarios and covertly committed to winning souls. This is the stereotype and it is, unhappily, well-deserved.

Instead, I think a writer who happens to be Christian naturally produces work that is informed by an honest and full anthropology built on a Biblical premise - a view of humans as imbued with dignity, being made in the image and likeness of God, and yet fallen. Even so, renewal is possible, though not always achieved, given free will.

Christian writers are mindful of the fact that the Bible itself is composed primarily of narrative and poetry. It is telling, is it not, that when God wanted to communicate with humans, He used stories and songs. When Jesus Himself wished to make a point, he often told a short story.

Others have spoken with depth and clarity about this subject: CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, GK Chesterton, Auden, Madeleine L'Engle (in her book "Walking on Water"), Flannery O'Conner ("Mystery and Manners") and even John Gardner's book is useful in this regard ("On Moral Fiction").

And there is an intelligent and insightful discussion on this topic in this discussion area, where I've posted a few comments as well.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

On Writing Mysteries

Here's an interview I did recently with the DeKalb Daily Chronicle's weekly entertainment magazine, Take One. I was promoting "The Throne of Tara" in local bookstores and speaking about my new project, writing a mystery series.

Q: You've been writing historical novels but are now turning toward mysteries. What makes a person want to experience a mystery? As more things become known in the world (say, the composition of Saturn's rings), does the hunger for mystery grow or lessen?

A: Mysteries - classic murder mysteries, I mean - connect with something deep inside us. They are the modern form of the medieval morality play, where the sleuth is Everyman who works against time, big money, a determined antagonist, daunting odds and his own flaws to expose evil and to restore the balance of justice. At the end, readers who identify with the successful hero or heroine feel a little better about the world and about themselves. A critic might say that mystery novels are escapist, since they offer a fantasy word in which justice prevails, right always wins over wrong, and love finds a way. But mysteries, close as they are to the barest human motives and fears, and because they deal so openly with death, have a built-in opportunity to explore life's higher mysteries - both seen and unseen. There will always be a hunger for that. As Aristotle says (and he's a character of sorts in my first mystery), the desire to know is the central drive in all humans.

Q: Writing is such a personal activity. Even with your background in teaching, is it hard to guide someone in how to write? What's the biggest obstacle in those lessons?

A: I like your term "guide" because that is about all you can do. You can show the way, point out features along the path, and explain how some things work. You can't teach desire and discipline, the two most important factors. A writer must have them already. Techniques can be acquired by imitation, experimentation, and habit. But what's really needed is vision, and, as Aristotle might add, a touch of madness.

Q: Your blog uses the name Johnny Dangerous. What makes you so dangerous?

A: My last name can be difficult to pronounce, so my colleagues had a little fun with it. I suppose it suits me, as I dare to interogate the prevailing postmodern dogmas of absolute uncertainty. As Aristotle says, there is truth outside our own subjective persceptions that can be known, if only imperfectly (or as St. Paul might say, "through a glass darkly"), and as Aquinas and Wittgenstein suggest, sometimes we must be told what it is by Someone from the outside.

Q: Your books combine history, religion, and mystery. When you look at the success of Dan Brown's "The DaVinci Code," what do you feel?

A: There's hope for any writer, even for work that is poorly written, badly researched, and built on a spurious premise. But seriously, this reminds us that stories have the power to shape perception. That's why it's important to deal honestly with the material. It's fiction, but we must try to deal with what IS. Serious fiction - even seriously written 'genre' fiction - is interested in the truth, especially in the truth of what it means to be fully human in both our dignity and our fallenness.

Q: The name of a character, especially the one who might be the lead in a series of books, can be quite important. Where did the inspiration for Reed Stubblefield come from?

A: Illinois cornfields at harvest time. On the rural drive to my college, I pass miles of stubbled fields full of shaven stalks, and the brittle, vulnerable remains reminded me of that line in Isaiah 42, "He will not break a crushed reed, or snuff out a smoldering wick; unfailingly He will establish justice." Reed is wounded in body, heart, and spirit, and he slowly, reluctantly recognizes the presence of grace in a story about justice and the possiblity of loving again after a major loss.

Q: Your second mystery, in progress, is set in the same location but features a Latina character, Selena de la Cruz, as the protagonist. Where did she come from?

A: Writers are often cautioned about allowing an intriguing minor character to run away with the story. As soon as she walked on the stage of the first novel, even in a small part,I knew she had a story of her own.

Q: Given your journalism background, have you ever considered the nonfiction realm of writing?

A: I've done some freelance magazine work and publish an essay now and then. But telling all the truth but telling it slant, as Emily Dickinson said, is much more fun.

Q: How many false starts, flame outs, and other aborted attempts currently reside in the dark recesses of your desk?

A: I've had my share. There is a sprawling historical novel set in the Roman Empire of the early 400s smoldering in my cabinet, a prequel to "The Throne of Tara" that is based largely on the life of Saint Patrick. I'm focused on the mysteries for now, but at times I still hear the thunder of hooves, the ring of steel on steel, the chant of monks and the crackle of Druids' fires coming from behind the doors.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

My Favorite Teacher

And lo, when he was seated upon the mount with his disciples, he spake unto them, saying, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall - yes, Peter?"

"Do we have to know this?"

"Well, I - yes, Andrew?"

"Will this be on the test?"

"Um, I think - James, where have you been?"

"I have family issues. Did I miss anything? Can I get extra credit?"

Jesus wept.

(Alright, I got this from somewhere else but so long ago I forget where.)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Poem for Pentecost

In celebration of Pentecost, here's a poem:

If Pentecost was Commercialized

White doves in shop windows, with signs

"Sale! Get in the Spirit!"

Enough fans to blow a wind in any upper room.

Spicy dinners give everyone a tongue of fire.

Songs with lyrics no one understands

but if asked they say

"She rides a Honda in Shandala."

Kids dressed as holy ghosts

sing Happy Birthday to God-knows who.

And in Peter's honor, the drinking starts at 9 am.

(So let's all be thankful that this Christian observance, at least, has not been co-opted by secular consumerism)

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


Here is the German translation of Relics from the same company that translated The Thron of Tara as Der Throne Von Tara. For this novel, though, Schulte and Gerth Publishers changed the title to The Sign of the Cross, referring in part to the sign singed on Jean-Michel's sleeve when he rushed into the burning cathedral to save the relics, and in part to the crusade of France's King Louis IX.

I must say that I like the cover much better than the flowery romance design the American publisher used. At the same time, it is unsettling to see a warrior wielding both a sword and a cross.
These misguided adventures had complex personal and political motives, and religious confusion/illusion was only one of them. It does little good (though it does a little good) to say this 200-year tragic episode of history began as a defensive measure against militant, expansionist Islam. But the urgent appeal of the Byzantine emperor and Eastern Church for help in resisting invasion was answered by landless, ambitious, one-step-from-barbaric nobles of north Europe who had nothing to do since the Western Church had banned their violent tournaments. Gee whiz, if vast private feifs could be had with the help of greedy merchants from Venice, Genoa and Pisa (to secure wealthy trade routes) and the blessing of the Church (in the name of rescuing holy places from desecration and protecting pilgrims from bandits and terrorists), then let's go for it, said Boehemond and Tancred and the others, scoundrels all.

Were otherwise decent and devout people caught up in the excitement? Sure - pious men like Bernard of Clairveaux and Louis IX, for example. But going to war in the name of the Prince of Peace is absurd. This is why Thomas Merton, a 1960s Trappist monk and poet I admire once wrote:

"The Christian faith enables - or should enable - a man to stand back from society and its institutions and realize that they all stand under the inscrutable judgment of God and that therefore we can never give an unreserved assent to the policies, the programs and the organization of men or to 'official' interpretations of the historical process. To do so is idolatry, the same of kind of idolatry that was refused by the early martyrs who would not burn incense to the emperor. The policies of men contain within themselves the judgment of God upon their society, and when the Church identifies her policies with theirs, she too is judged with them, for she has in this been unfaithful and is not truly The Church."

(from Dancing in the Water of Life: The Journals of Thomas
Merton, Vol. 5)


Here is the German translation of Relics from the same company that translated The Throne of Tara as Der Throne Von Tara

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

My Books Part 2

In the writers conference I'm in this week, there is much talk about 'branding' and building a 'platform' for one's work as part of a marketing strategy. My historical novels consider major cultural collisions. The Throne of Tara (discussed yesterday), for example, is about the Dark Age collision of nascent Christianity in Ireland and Scotland with animist Druidism -- and a hero whose poetic and scholarly side is in conflict with his warrior heritage and savage temper.

Relics (Thomas Nelson 1993), set in High Medieval France and Crusader-occupied Palestine around the year 1250, considers the collision of Europe and the Levant and two major world faiths. This is personified in the equally devout passions of the protagonist and antagonist: Jean-Michel d'Anjou, a young, disinherited knight on a quest for a holy relic and -- more impossibly -- a lady's hand, versus Nazim ad-Din, a dedicated and supremely pious member of the hashishiyim, The Assassins, a fearsome sect committed to driving out the defiled oppressors from their lands. In the book I'm planning where St. Patrick is a major character, the collisions are broader, even sweeping: barbarian and Roman, Church and state, Christian and pagan, Orthodoxy and heterodoxies of every sort.

So that's my historical brand, I guess: cultural collisions personified in deeply conflicted characters.
The mysteries - ah, that's another story.

Monday, May 5, 2008

My Books

Since I'm participating in an online writers conference this week, I thought it might be helpful to say a word or two about my novels. Welcome to anyone from the conference who may be visiting here!

My first novel, The Throne of Tara (Crossway 1990), was a Christianity Today Readers Choice Award nominee. It retells the thrilling true story of Saint Columba of Iona, the hot-headed Irish monk who was the best man the 6th Century could produce: a poet, scholar and warrior, destined by his bloodline to be High King of Ireland, a man with a prodigious memory, booming voice, and - it is said - the gift of Second Sight. His temper got him into major trouble. In what may be the first copyright dispute case, he went to war over a book and its copy - the Battle of the Book in 560 AD - in which 3,000 men were slain. In remorse over those killed, Columba exiled himself among the savage Picts of Scotland, promising to win as many souls to Christ as were lost on the battlefield. He dueled the Druids - miracles versus magic - proving the power of God (and encountered the Loch Ness monster along the way).

When the book had a decent run and went out-of-print in 1999, I had it re-issued through, a print-on-demand service that, at the time, had a special deal for out-of-print titles. The book still sells modestly after all these years, and I continue to schedule book signings and such to promote it.

I've gathered quite a bit of research on Saint Patrick and the late Roman Empire, and I expect to produce a 'prequel' at some point (it is tentatively titled The Light of Tara). I'm working on mysteries now, but from time to time I hear the clang of swords, the chuff of horses, the chants of Druids, and I smell the peat smoke and salmon stirabout from the cabinet where my notes are stored and think - Aye, sure and it will be time soon to travel back there, lad.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Golden Compass points in wrong direction

I teach the science fiction and fantasy literature course at my college. It's that time of year when students write Final Paper proposals and one student is interested in examining religious aspects of children's fantasy. She is fascinated by Pullman's "The Golden Compass" and, while somewhat aware of the controversy around the book and the recent film adaptation, she seems to regard it as harmless fun and even inspirational for young girls, and cannot grasp why it has caused such grievous offense to Christians and Catholics in particular. And the fact that some have called for banning the book and boycotting of the film hasn't helped at all - such cries only confirm to her (and other secular folk) that Christians are narrow-minded and anti-art.

As a writer and literature professor, I have little patience for censorship of any sort and I believe the call to boycott films to be ill-considered. And I certainly will not silence the student - especially since I believe in academic freedom and that an honest appraisal of the book will expose its mean-spirited agenda.

Since many others will be drawn to the books because of the first film -- ironically released during the Christmas season -- and think it is simply more Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or Narnia fare, here's a plot summary below for all three books in the series that, I believe, speaks for itself. Read these and decide for yourself if the books aren't visciously anti-Christian and especially anti-Catholic:

Book I. We meet 12-year-old Lyra who lives in an alternative Oxford that is dominated by a group called The Magisterium. As every educated Catholic knows, 'the magisterium' is the term for the official teaching office of the Church. This fictional one has brutal monks, sadistic nuns, power-hungry priests, bishops, and cardinals, but no pope since Pope John Calvin moved the Vatican to Geneva (sounds like a swipe at Catholics to me). The Magisterium's goal is to absolutely crush all 'heresy' and opposition. There is no Christ in its teachings. Just as well, I guess. I'd like to believe that Mr. Pullman is trying to say, "this is what any institutionalized church would be without Christ, so it is important to be focused on the love and mercy of Christ, and not on bureaucratic power" -- but this isn't his point. His 'alternative world' church is what he believes the real one to be like. Back to the plot: Like all humans, Lyra has a personal "daemon", a personal spirit-self that lives outside her body in animal form that changes for children but is stable for adults (students of the occult will recognize this as akin to one's "familiar"). Humans separated from their 'daemons' lose their imagination and will. As you might guess, the religious figures in the film have snakes, lizards, and frogs for their 'daemons.' Lyra uses a magic compass to find her way to the Arctic to rescue her friend Roger and other kids who have been kidnapped by the evil Mrs. Coulter and the Magisterium, who have performed experiments on the children to find out why 'dust', or Original Sin, doesn't affect kids as much as adults. Lyra is helped by a witch-queen and a talking polar bear among others. The movie ends here but the book continues with Lyra's evil father sacrificing Roger in order to blast open a portal to parallel worlds as part of his own revolt against God, and Lyra follows him through the hole.

Book II. A young boy named Will (no accident) finds his way into the parallel world where Lyra is hiding. There are only children in this world because there are spirits that roam it eating the souls of adults. Will obtains a knife called 'the god-destroyer' that can rip through anything, even the universe itself. Back in Oxford, Lyra finds a friend in a physicist named Mary who is an ex-nun and has dumped her faith (slap forehead here). The choice of "Mary" as a name can't be an accident, either. In the meantime, the wicked Mrs Coulter learns that Lyra is, according to a prophecy, the New Eve (this term will be familiar to Catholics, who regard Mary as The New Eve, "the Mother of the Living" who have new life in Christ her Son). Mrs Coulter kidnaps Lyra. Cliffhanger end to Book II.

Book III. Assisted by two homosexual angels, Will escapes Mrs Coulter and rescues Lyra. The Magisterium tries to destroy Lyra while her father prepares to attack God-The-Authority, now seen as a senile fraud. Using Will's magic knife, Lyra enters the land of the dead, a dismal prison where the spirits of all intelligent beings are morbidly tortured. Lyra and Will release the spirits to a blissful oblivion, absorbed into the Oneness of the Cosmos (kinda pop-Buddhist-New-Agey). In the final Armageddon battle, Lyra and Will kill God ("The Authority") while her parents kill the Regent of Heaven (hmmm- wonder who he means by THAT) and themselves to boot (might as well get rid of all authority, while we're at it). Lyra joins her physicist friend Mary in another world's paradise where she - Lyra - plays the serpent to their Adam and Eve. The children discover the higher knowledge of erotic love and the universe is saved. Survivors return to their own worlds to begin building a society that is god-free.

An honest reader should be able to see here plainly the agenda of one who believes that religion, especially Christianity, is the problem and must be destroyed. The way Pullman does this is by turning the Christian faith inside-out and saying the rebel angels and Satan were right to oppose the tyrannical Deity, and after their defeat, did a noble thing by signing up the first humans to join their campaign of 'self-awareness' and freedom. But this is actually moving away from real freedom - the freedom to do what is right in love, not merely to do what feels good to me now. That's being a slave to one's own passion and selfish conceit.

What GK Chesterton said years ago is still true: When people stop believing in God, it isn't that they believe nothing - but they'll believe anything. Pullman will fool many people with his stylish prose and erudite Gnosticism by suggesting that God is the oppressor, the real Deity is not knowable, the serpent in Eden enlightened the first human pair with Wisdom, and matter and spirit are really the same so we should enjoy sexual pleasuring wherever we find it and at death be content to dissolve into oblivion.

Don't be suckered. Pullman, a militant atheist, believes the wrong side won the war in heaven. "I am of the Devil's party and I know it," he said in an interview, and elsewhere has said, "My books are about killing God." He is joining the trendy party begun by other atheist authors elevated to celebrities lately. But this time, the target is kids. His work is an answer to Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" and CS Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia," fantasy stories that Pullman says he loathes -- precisely because they embody a Christian worldview and Christian virtues.

Let no one be fooled into thinking this is harmless entertainment. Values and worldviews are conveyed primarily by a culture's stories. And Pullman's story is driven by a virulent agenda imposed upon impressionable children and, perhaps, their poorly-catechized parents. With all the color and action and apparant heroism in the story, children will not be able to recognize it for the spiritual pornography that it is. Let's hope the adults will.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Sign of the Cross

(For those just tuning in: I'm replying to a series of questions from a student about Catholic beliefs and practices. She'd heard that I recently became a Catholic and, reassessing her own faith journey, visited a Catholic church and sent me a long list of questions)

Is there a right and a wrong way to cross oneself? And why do people touch their forehead, eyes and mouth at one point in the service?

Yes, there is. Roman Catholics use the right hand fingertips to touch, in sequence, the forehead, chest, left shoulder, then the right, while saying "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." It is, in a way, a brief Trinitarian prayer that also affirms the centrality of the cross. It can be a challenge for left-handers like myself! Greek Orthodox Christians touch the forehead and chest, but then the right shoulder first, then the left, and then bow deeply.

The use of the body, by the way, in kneeling, crossing, standing and so on is a way to get the entire person involved in worship - just like in the Old Testament. It is this continuity with the practices of the ancient Hebrews that I find interesting.

The other touching you describe comes with the announcement of the Gospel reading. It shows particular reverence for the Gospels where we read about Jesus and hear His actual words. Notice how only the priest is permitted to read it (the lay lectors can't), and how he carries the Book of the Gospels aloft from the altar to the podium while the congregation stands and sings "Alleluia". In some parishes, the altar servers flank the podium with lit candles, another symbolic act that displays special regard for the Gospels. People respond to this precious opportunity to hear Christ Himself by touching the right thumb to the forehead (an act that asks for the Word to illuminate our minds), the lips (that we may speak the Word aright to others) and the heart (that the Word of God and the Living Word, Christ, would dwell in our hearts). These parts are not just touched with the thumb tip but the thumb makes a tiny sign of the cross on those three places and the person says, "Glory to you, O Lord." As with all practices, many do it rotely without much thought. But for converts and anyone who is aware, it's a deeply meaningful prayer.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Holy Water

Is one supposed to use the holy water before entering the chapel or after? I only saw people making a sign of the cross with it on themselves as they left the service.

Either or both. I do both. You should know, Candice, that I used to think of 'holy water' as one of the silly superstitions of Catholics. But I see it now as a sacramental act of receiving a blessing from Christ while entering a sacred space where Christ Himself is present, and taking His blessing with me when I depart. There's no magic in the water. But it has been prayed over ("blessed") and consecrated (set aside) to a sacred use. The sense of it is almost that, as you apply the water to yourself, you are applying the blessing too. The Biblical precedent for this is in the use of sacramental anointing oils and cleansing waters in the Old Testament. Catholics make great use of 'sacramentals' like this - physical objects with a holy meaning and, being more than symbolic, carry a real blessing with it. The crossing of oneself with the water is, in a way, a remembrance of the baptismal waters, too, whereby we were first cleansed and united to Christ and His Church.

Thursday, April 3, 2008


Does one have to confess their sins regularly, or before they are allowed to take communion? And why confess to a priest at all? Can't I just go directly to God in prayer?

The only requirement, as I understand it, is to participate in the "Sacrament of Reconciliation" -- and isn't that a nicer way to say it? -- once a year, in the Easter season. It is done before one's first communion as a new Catholic. It is not required before every communion (in fact, the reason there is a corporate confession in the Mass near the beginning is to sacramentally prepare everyone to receive Christ with a clean conscience). More frequent use of this sacrament - this 'contact point' with Christ - is encouraged. Some go every week, some monthly. I'm not there yet.

There are some who object to this practice completely, as you suggest, pointing to First John 1:9 and declaring that there is no need for a human priest or intermediary to hear a confession. While Catholics affirm the wonderful truth of that First John verse, they also take seriously Matthew 16:19 and John 20:22,23. These are verses I had always overlooked and avoided. But the meaning is plain. Christ entrusted to the apostles and their successors the authority to forgive sins in His name based on His all-sufficient merit. When a person meets a priest in this sacrament, he/she is meeting with Christ sacramentally. It is a scary - and powerful - and healing - encounter.

Historically speaking, early Christians were excluded from communion if they fell into sin (in keeping with First Corinthians 11:27 - you ARE looking up all the verses, right?) but upon repentance and restitution (if needed) they then proclaimed - ie, 'confessed' - to the priest that they were ready to participate once again. "Confession," in the way the ancient church used the word, was to PROFESS God's mercy.

The emphasis has changed over the years from imposing a 'penance' (like the rote reciting of a few memorized prayers - how empty) to assigning a positive action to heal any hurts caused and to improve one's plan to virtuously live the excellent life (a phrase Aristotle would have liked), and to grow toward Christlikeness. The idea isn't to somehow 'make up for' the sin - we can't - Christ paid the full price. The idea is to demonstrate a resolve to improve.

This is another good thing about the Church: there isn't this 'once saved always saved' attitude that can lead to bad behavior. Instead, there is a practical recognition that we still sin and fail and need to participate fully, cooperate fully, in the process of our full salvation. We must admit that there is a poor attitude among some Catholics that it's ok to sin as you please, since it can always be 'confessed.' These folks never read Romans 6, I guess. It's just as bad as the 'once saved always saved' business.

Maybe the sticking point is the religious word "salvation." This word appears next to the word "salvage" in a dictionary. Think of how a ship is salvaged, or a vintage car that has been left in a junkyard a long time. We have been salvaged from the depths of our ruin by the proper owner in a singular action (the cross and resurrection), but now we are in the longer process of being renewed to the beauty we were meant to have and restored to usefulness and our original purpose. This takes grinding and polishing - the grinding off of rust and mold and imperfections so we may be transformed into our intended state. That is what is going on in this sacramental practice.

"Salve" is the other word next to "salvation" in the dictionary, meaning to bring healing and wholeness. That's the other thing going on in this sacramental practice. I think it's a lovely thing.

Can you go to God directly? Yes. And we should. The Psalmist prays to God directly; King Hezekiah did; the publican did in the back row. But Christ Himself established this sacramental means by which we experience reconciliation with Him, and we who love Him - and wish to obey Him fully - take part in this practice with humble gratitude.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

On the papacy

How do you feel about the pope? I was taught from childhood that God and "Man" don't need a middleman.

It's true, Candice, that we don't need a 'middleman,' as Christ is our only Mediator (First Timothy 2:5). Remember how, at the moment He gave His life as our Passover, the veil that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple was ripped in half, symbolizing the opening of heaven to us and access to God for us all through Him. Catholics affirm this vigorously.

However, Jesus Himself gave authority to Peter to be the visible, human 'head' of his Church (Christ Himself is 'the Head' of His mystical Body, of course). There's just no getting around Matthew 16:18. Protestants parse and translate this in ways to avoid the plain reading, as I did for years. But it portrays the clear conferring of authority on Peter, the leader of the Church in Rome (though Peter began in Antioch, where the Gospel of Matthew was written - which affirms Peter's authority even more).

Matthew is the most "Jewish" of the gospels, where the "kingdom of God" Jesus proclaims is presented as the fulfillment and complete continuance of the Old Testament Covenant and kingdom. So there's a very interesting and important connection to the idea of 'giving the keys to the kingdom' in Isaiah 22, where these 'keys to the kingdom' are given by the Davidic king to the overseer of the Household of God. That is what is going on in Matthew 16. The Davidic king, Jesus, is giving Peter the ultimate human authority and stewardship over His Church, the visible aspect of His kingdom on Earth. And the unbroken line of apostolic succession from Peter to Benedict 16 is a testament to the authority vested in this position and the authority that resides in the Church. Have there been bad popes? Yes. But consider how there are outlaws and scoundrels in Jesus' own lineage - see the list in Matthew 1.

I happen to like this Holy Father, a gentle pastor at heart who is a fine scholar writing killer theology. The choice of "Benedict" as a name was purposeful, pointing to a saintly model of scholarship and a balanced approach to life. His first major letter, "God Is Love," blew everyone away, even his critics who meanly called him "God's Rottweiler." The media were kinder to John Paul the Great, who impressed everyone (the media focused on his political role in opposing communist rule in Europe). Maybe the fact that he was a pretty good poet and playwright made me pay more attention to him. His heroic suffering at the end of his life was - well, Christlike.