Friday, June 19, 2009

VIPER trailer on YouTube

The galley proofs for BLEEDER are nearly ready, and I'm about 200 pages into the sequel, VIPER, with Selena De La Cruz as the protagonist (pictured right; photo credit: This week I hit a plot snag, and to stay motivated I produced a video trailer for it even though it isn't under contract for publication yet. I figure that as I get into the broad and terrifying middle of the novel, I'll need to maintain my vision for it. This is one way. You can see it here:

A RELICS Fan Letter

A writer hopes for good reviews for his books but the best ones come from readers. I thought I'd share a letter I received about RELICS:

Dear Mr. Desjarlais,

I have just finished RELICS and want to thank you for an entertaining and enlightening time.

Part way through, I began to chuckle. I realized that though Jean-Michel (the hero) was not the brightest character in the world he was good. As you took him through one scrape after another, rubbing him against one scamp after another (men and horses), he blithely oblivious to God's hand on him, I found myself wishing that I had his same purity of heart.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

BLEEDER Final Cover - almost

I received the 'almost' final version of the cover for my mystery BLEEDER today, in two forms: one uses a beard, one doesn't. I preferred the beard image (the publisher wondered if it was distracting). But the story mentions a beard on the cleric and stigmatics usually have a beard as another way of identifying with Christ who had one, too. There is a dramatic reference to this in one of the Servant Songs of Isaiah, long understood by Christians as pointing to Jesus' passion:
"I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who plucked my beard;
My face I did not shield
from buffets and spitting."
(Isaiah 50:6, italics mine)
So I hope the publisher will keep the beard image. It's his call, though.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Sacramental Reading of the Bible

In my previous post, I considered some reasons why Catholics - devout, practicing Catholics - are largely unfamiliar with the Bible. I must add, however, that when Catholics do read the Scriptures, they read them in a sacramental way, consistent with their approach to Christian spirituality.

What I mean is that, instead of being interested in Bible 'study' per se, they tend to be more interested in a spiritual experience of hearing the Holy Spirit in the sacred 'space' of the page. "Lectio Divina" is an important and ancient practice of reading the Scriptures slowly, line by line, listening for the voice of God there, seeking to encounter the Living Word. It's not about acquiring 'head knowledge' but 'heart knowledge' of the One revealed therein. This isn't to say Protestants don't do the same thing because they do (and more of them are becoming interested in old monastic practices such as Lectio).

Daily devotional guides such as "Magnificat," which are nearly all Scripture, are especially interested in joining the praying person to the rhythm of the overall Church's prayer life. This underscores the Catholic mentality of being part of a community. This sensitivity is much stronger than in Protestant circles, where 'the individual' tends to be more emphasized (A simple illustration of this is the way the creeds are recited in services. Protestants prefer the Apostle's Creed that begins "I believe..." and Catholics use the Nicene Creed that begins "We believe...')

Then there's the praying of The Divine Office, another ancient practice whereby the whole Church, as though breathing together in unison, works through a series of prayers and Bible readings a few times a day. Clergy and 'religious' (people in Orders) do this daily and many laypeople join in. Again, I find it interesting that many Protestants are picking up on this, too, especially Vineyard congregations.

Back to my main point: While Catholics in the pews may be unfamiliar with the Bible, the Church at large is intimately bound to the Scriptures, especially in its worship and prayer life. It would be too much of a generalization to say that while Protestants are studying the Bible, Catholics are praying it. But it wouldn't be far off.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Why Don't Catholics Know the Bible?

My online "Bible as Literature" class begins today and as students introduce themselves I hear a lot of this: "I was raised Catholic and, despite years of private Catholic school education, I have a limited knowledge of the Bible."

I reassure all students that it's ok to come to the course unacquainted with these ancient texts and no one should feel awkward about it. It's very common.

Still, I find it odd that this is so awfully common among 'cradle Catholics' and I wonder why this is so. I have a few thoughts about it.

First, many life-long Catholics see their Catholic ID as more of an ethnic thing rather than a personal faith thing - kinda like being Jewish but not really believing. Lacking some decisive, self-conscious moment in their lives when they made a clear commitment to belong to Christ wholly - apart from baptismal promises made on their behalf as infants - the 'religious' aspect of being Catholic is de-emphasized - except for making sure all the practices are correct. This may result from a lifelong faith education that tended to focus on traditions of behavior and practices, rather than Biblical study, theology and church history. The fervor of the convert wasn't there. This is a somewhat generalized statement, I know, and I apologize for casting such a wide net. But I find that most college-aged Catholics have been poorly 'catechized' and as a result they reject something they never really understood, and more often than not because they had it 'shoved down my throat' - a phrase I hear often. And they certainly never got any Biblical backing to what they were taught.

But leaving 'cultural' and highly secularized Catholics behind, let's consider those who take their faith more seriously. Even among these Mass-attending, rosary-praying folks, there is very little knowledge of the Bible. Part of this is a religious issue of where the 'authority' lies. For Catholics, it is found in three places:

1. The Bible (although it isn't really taught systematically). For years before Vatican II, laypeople were not encouraged to read the Bible at all, perhaps out of a concern that untrained readers might mis-interpret stuff and get odd ideas, and the Church is big on holding fast with
integrity to a passed-down body of received truths, called "the deposit of faith.' While this attitude has officially changed, there has not been a habit of Bible-reading in Catholic homes for generations, unlike devout Protestant homes.

Even so, there are 4 Scripture readings at every Mass - an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, an epistle, and a Gospel reading. These are carefully chosen and beautifully interwoven according to a theme so they relate to each other. They are selected so that a congregation gets through most of the Bible in a 3-year cycle. However, despite years of exposure, most Catholics don't know the Bible. You can really tell when the readers (lectors) get up to read and stumble all over the passages as though they'd never seen them before. This is astonishing to devout Protestants, who love the Bible, know its books and writers, the historical background, the characters and storylines of narrative sections, and commit passages to memory.
2. The second source of authority is "The Magisterium" of the church, a fancy word for the official teaching that is preserved over the centuries from error. The idea is to keep the 'deposit of faith', received from Jesus and the original 12 apostles, intact and consistent. Study of "The Catechism" is held to be more important, since this is where the teaching of the Church is clarified and systematized. The new version commissioned by John Paul II is elegantly written, by the way. There are loads of great Bible refences in the footnotes. But the discussion of those passages and the ideas in them as explained in the Catechism are considered more important. This is hinted at when 'Learning the Faith' is the phrase you hear most often, not 'learning the Bible.'

3. The third leg of this 'stool' of authority is something called 'sacred Tradition,' a religious term referring to the teaching of the apostles and their official successors under the guidance of the Holy Spirit as promised in John 14:26 (in particular, the successor to the See of Peter, the bishop of Rome). Protestants have a particular problem with this usually because they confuse it with the burdensome legalistic 'traditions' Jesus harshly criticized in Mark chapter 7. Catholics mean something different - as in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 - and this is an unfortunate area of semantic misunderstanding.

Anyway, my point really was this: The Bible is only one of three areas where Catholics derive their understanding of what is true and good in belief and practice, whereas most Protestants (especially more conservative ones) look to the Bible ALONE as their source of spiritual
authority (well, at least their denomination's understanding of it). The Protestant 'battle cry' was 'solo Scriptura' - Scripture alone. As a result, they study it a lot more regularly as individuals and in groups and know it much better. It is the Word of God and it speaks with full and final authority (II Timothy 3:16 is quoted to support this). I don't mean to say that Catholics hold
the Bible in lower regard - they affirm II Timothy 3:16 (if they know it) and regard these texts as inspired and authoritative, too. What Catholics will add is this: remember that the Church was there - and fully authoritative - before the New Testament was put together. The New Testament derives its authority from the Church, which had the final say about which books were genuine and which were spurious. The Bible's authority, historically speaking, rests on the Church's authority. It's an excellent point. But the consequence is this: less Bible reading among Catholics, because the authority is considered to be in the Church, and not so much in the Bible (even though, officially, it is the authoritative Word of God). St. Jerome said "Ignorance of the Bible is ignorance of Christ." The Living Word is found, figuratively speaking, in the written word. I wish more Catholics followed Jerome.

Well, I hope some of that made sense. I'd like to see comments from Catholics about why there is so little familiarity with the Bible among Catholics, besides the fact that way too many of them are 'nominal' and 'cultural' Catholics and simply don't care.

One final thought: even the configuration of church design says something about this issue. Protestant churches have the lectern/pulpit front-and-center, a design change since the Reformation when the "Word of God" was declared to be the only source of authority and so it took center stage. Preaching from the Bible is the central part, often the longest part, of Protestant services. For Catholics, the pulpit is off to the side and the 'homily,' usually a lot shorter than any Protestant sermon (and rarely as good), is one brief part of the Mass. Instead, the altar is front-and-center, because that's the central emphasis of worship - experiencing the atoning sacrifice of Christ as it is 're-presented' there in sacramental elements (not
'repeated,' as too many Protestants misunderstand). So Protestants emphasize "the Word," and Catholics/Orthodox divide their worship into two equal parts, the liturgy of the Word and the sacramental liturgy of the Eucharist.

Catholics really ought to become more familiar with the Bible and I'm glad to see earnest Catholic students in my class. My tone will remain objective and academic and they are free to take away whatever religious value they want. Becoming basically "Biblically literate" is important for any educated person and that's all I'm really after.

You know, there are notable efforts to get Catholics to read and understand the Bible; Dr. Scott Hahn, Jeff Cavins, Marcus Grodi and others have active ministries trying to get Catholics to read and study the Scriptures.

It isn't surprising that these guys are all former evangelicals.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"But is there spiritual content?"

I visited a local Lemstone/Parable book store today to say hello to the book buyer and inquire about a possible author event in late summer or fall to promote my medieval thriller/romance RELICS. She knew and trusted the publisher (Thomas Nelson Inc.) but it didn't seem to matter as much as the answer to her question: "But is there spiritual content?"

I said something about the protagonist struggling to be accepted by his father and in the process learning what it means to be accepted by the heavenly Father. And it's true. But the themes are much broader and deeper than some simple spiritual "lesson"' the reader is supposed to take away from a 320 page novel.

Isn't there "spiritual content" to any thoughtful novel? If done well, novels are about what it means to be truly human -- made in God's image, but fallen. Crime novels like RELICS (and BLEEDER, due out in August) in particular are "spiritual" in content not because they have a not-so-subtle religious message or moral or trite "Biblical basis" but because they deal with greed, fear, revenge, anger, hope, grief, suffering, justice and injustice, social tensions and sometimes redemption. They present homo extremis -- human beings at the extreme of emotions and choices. That's spiritual.

But I knew what she meant by the (innocent) question and she surely meant well. She wanted some assurance that the book was authentically "Christian fiction," inoffensive to conservative customers who come to the store with certain expectations: That it would be as 'safe' as the row of Amish-heroine romances on the shelf behind me in the store, and that it would be inspiring in a way to reinforce one's faith.

What I told the woman was true. But I hope the book is more emotionally complicated than what I told her. The old saying holds true for "Christian" writers as all others: "If you want to send a message, use Western Union." A novel that tries to do so ends up as an illustrated lecture.

I just wanted to tell a heck of a story. Any 'spiritual content' as a take-away value is up to the reader.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

BLEEDER Trailer Revised

Since some images in my draft version were low-resolution and therefore fuzzy, and there were too many medical pix, I adjusted the BLEEDER video trailer yesterday and came up with this:

And this is Selena De La Cruz, a minor character in BLEEDER - a Latina insurance agent who will be the protagonist in the sequel. Yes, she's nice to look at but don't mess with her. She learned a few moves at Quantico and can kick your butt. And her car - a juiced-up '69 Dodge Charger - can kick your car's butt.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

BLEEDER chapter 1 excerpt

by John Desjarlais
Chapter One Excerpt

My Volvo’s windshield wipers slapped away spots of mid-March drizzle, chanting shouldn’t, shouldn’t, shouldn’t. The traffic thinned, the road narrowed to two lanes, the sky turned gun-metal gray, and the Chicago music stations crackled away into static.
The patchwork fields of rural Illinois rolled away from the ditches in soft waves, with snow laying in stripes across the rows of cornstalk stubble, like a lathered but unshaven face. The rusted road signs became harder to read through the chilly mist. When I saw more cows than cars, I wondered if I’d taken a wrong turn. To err is human, to forgive bovine, I told myself, checking the cell phone. Was the signal too weak to reach any place civilized? Even if it could, I’d wait a long time for Triple-A to show up out here in the boonies if I had any trouble.
I imagined the operator saying We need a street address, sir. There isn’t one, I tell you; I’m in the middle of nowhere. What is the nearest address, sir? I’m near a barn with a faded Mail Pouch Chewing Tobacco ad. Community college teachers can’t afford a new car with a global positioning system or the monthly fee to have the service on a cell phone Even I have that, sir. That’s great; maybe it can tell you where I am. Very funny, sir. The truck will still need a number.
I glanced at the torn Triple-A map, draped on the passenger seat. The blue capillaries of county roads spidered out from the state roads’ red arteries. The towns pimpled the white page like blackheads on a freshman’s face. A muscular pick-up truck hissed past, spitting into my windshield. Gun control means using both hands, snickered the bumper sticker. Distracted, I ran over a dead raccoon and the thump of it turned my stomach.
That’s when a familiar heat arose in my chest and my breastbone pressed into my heart, crushing it. The double yellow lines in the road writhed like serpents. I slipped my foot off the gas, angled the wheel, and rolled to a stop in the gravel shoulder. Breathe in, breathe out. In, out. Focus on something. That sign up ahead—the one with the big red star.
It’s not uncommon for gunshot victims, the doctor told me. Anxiety attacks can be a response to a stressful event: an act of violence, a job change, the loss of a spouse by divorce or death. Lucky me: I had all three. I was shot. I was on a Leave Of Absence from the college. And Peggy died when the leukemia came out of remission two years ago.
Breathe in, two, three. Breathe out, two, three. Wait quietly. It will pass. You are not going to get lost. You are not going to die in this lonely place.
The sky lightened. My breastbone released its grip. A pick-up with a horse trailer whooshed by and the Volvo shuddered. My heartbeat returned to a trot from a gallop. You are going to be OK. Keep going. The roadkill and that bumper sticker set you off.
Gun control means using both hands.

The sign ahead was for Red Star Gas and I decided to swallow my city pride and ask for directions. The concrete was veined with cracks and the weeds reached up from them like the hands of buried men clawing their way out. One pump, shrouded in silvery spider webs, was out of service. Discolored paint flaked off the building like scabs. A man with high Indian cheekbones and black hair spraying from a White Sox cap reached my window before I gathered the nerve to unbuckle my seat belt and get out.
“Hey, meester?” He knocked at the window with a gold ring. Tik tik. “You want fill ‘er up?”
His corn-colored teeth spread in a two-octave grin and the dark eyebrows undulated like caterpillars. I checked the gauge, nodded and popped the gas-cap lock.
While he circled to the back, I shouldered open the door and swung my cane into position. The film instructor gave it to me in the hospital and we joked that it should be called Citizen Cane. I dug the rubber tip into the cement, gripped the brass head, and rehearsed how to get out. For six weeks after the hip surgery, my physical therapist Paula taught me in the transfer training how to sit up, how not to twist or cross my leg, since the pin was screwed in, not cemented. She said I’d be OK to drive after two months, provided I kept up with the treadmill, the isokinetic leg presses with ankle weights, and the balancing exercise where I walked through the rungs of a ladder laid on the floor. I’d been good about it, all so that I could retreat to my brother Dan’s hunting cabin by mid-March and get started on the book I’d always wanted to write on Aristotle in peace and quiet. I just expected to do it during a sabbatical leave. Not like this.
The ideal man bears the accidents of life with dignity and grace, making the best of circumstances, Aristotle reminded me.
I levered out.
“You Chicago, eh?” the leathery attendant called.
He aimed the gas pump at me like a pistol.
“Yes,” I replied.
“All the way out here?”
“Visiting relatives.”
“Yeah, sure.” He lowered the nozzle, pumped gas and pointed at Citizen Cane. “What’s wrong with the leg, señor?”
“I was shot. In December.”
The eyebrows turned into Mexican jumping beans. “Ay, caramba,” he said with a whistle. “An accident, no?”
“A college girl with a touchy 9 millimeter in her purse. She pulled it on a rival in a hallway catfight over a boy. I broke it up and—”
When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of Peggy. Is this what it feels like to die, not in pain, really—the shock prevented that—but in wide-eyed surprise, that it should come so soon and so stupidly? Once the second shot shattered the head of my right femur where it forms step in the acetabular groove of the pelvis and I dropped to the tiles with my blood fanning across the floor, I wished Peggy could have gone like this, not by having her blood poisoned by leukemia, draining her life away.
“¿Señor? Then wha’ happen?”
“Well, I got in the way, that’s all,” I concluded.
“Anyone else hurt?”
I shrugged. “Just me. Some guys have all the luck.”
“So you are here to see the healer, eh?”
I squinted at him. “The what?”
“The healer in River Falls? You know, for the leg.”
“I’m going to River Falls,” I conceded, “But I’m not going to see any—”
“Ees ok,” the man said with a cackle. “I talk to a dozen people like you today who are lost. The only reason people from Chicago are on this road is to find him. I hope, señor, you have made your motel reservations.”
“I’m staying in my brother’s hunting cabin in Tall Pines Park.”
“That is good, very good,” the man said with a wag of his head, “for there are no rooms for twenty miles around.”


A miracle? Or bloody murder?

Coming August 2009

Sophia Institute Press
for more information, visit

Monday, June 1, 2009

RELICS trailer on YouTube

I posted a video trailer on RELICS today at YouTube. You can see it here: