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.