Neyrey Explains Honor and Shame, Part 1

Jeremey Neyrey Honor and ShameJerome H. Neyrey.  1998.  Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press. (Go to part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

A frequent comment in the church today is the need to stop using all those “churchy” words. While the definition of “churchy” may be up for grabs, the focus of these comments is usually on words that have in the postmodern context lost their meaning. Verses, such as—“Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power…” (Rev 4:11 ESV)—almost certainly be classified as knee-deep in churchy words, because our buddy culture admits no one worthy of praise, glory or honor or of titles such as Lord and God.

Introduction

In his book, Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew, Jerome H. Neyrey states his objective plainly:  “This book focuses on the praise of Jesus of Nazareth as presented in narrative form by the evangelist Matthew.” (1)  Neyrey sees gospel as a type of ancient writing form called an encomium which is a structured biography designed to offer praise (2). The rules for writing such encomium were the subject of rhetorical handbooks, starting with Aristotle.  Neyrey (4) writes:

“Nothing in the exercise of praise was left to chance, for students were instructed concerning the form of speech of praise, as well as the specific content of each element in that form.  They learned to organize their praise according to the conventional manner of presenting a person’s life from birth to death and in light of specific rules for developing praise at each state of life.”

Honor (τιμη) is the “worth or value of persons both in their own eyes and in the eyes of the village or neighborhood”“concern for ‘honor’ as reputation and ‘good name’ was endemic to the ancient world…” (5)

An important, but questionable, assumption in some biblical interpretation is that honor and shame play a same role in our own culture as in biblical culture. Cultural anthropologists sometimes describe American culture today as a guilt-innocence culture where guilt is only triggered when a law has been transgressed and shame, if experienced at all, is trigger when a law is broken and publically exposed[1]. The shame and guilt so important in biblical culture has lost its meaning. Complaints about the meaninglessness of “churchy” words underscore an important cultural shift that renders aspects of the biblical witness out of reach[2].

Organization

Neyrey writes in 10 chapters divided into 3 parts:

Part One:  Matthew: In Other Words

  1. Honor and Shame in Cultural Perspective
  2. Reading Matthew in Cultural Perspective

Part Two:  Matthew and the Rhetoric of Praise

  1. The Rhetoric of Praise and Blame
  2. An Encomium for Jesus: Origins, Birth, Nurture, and Training
  3. An Encomium for Jesus: Accomplishments and Deeds
  4. An Encomium for Jesus: Deeds of the Body and Deeds of Fortune
  5. An Encomium for Jesus: A Noble Death

Part Three:  The Sermon on the Mount in Cultural Perspective

  1. Matthew 5:3-12—Honoring the Dishonored
  2. Matthew 5:21-28—Calling Off the Honor Game
  3. Matthew 6:1-18—Vacating the Playing Field (v).

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and followed by a bibliography and indices.

Assessment

Neyrey is a tough read. Not only is it hard to follow the arguments, the arguments challenge important preconceptions that we hold in reading scripture. What happens if the “Jesus in our head” is not the Jesus of the bible?  What if our kids hear something different than what we do during the Sunday morning service? These are important questions which directly affect our interpretation of scripture and experience of church.  In Part 2 (look for the post on Monday, March 2), I will explore Neyrey’s arguments in more detail.

Footnotes

[1] http://www.knowledgeworkx.com/blogs/knowledgeworkx/item/141-three-colors-of-worldview.

[2] For example, read:  2 Corinthians 7: Godly Grief (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Ba).

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Smith: Speak Postmodern, Part 2

Smith_review_02032015James K. A. Smith.  2006.  Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism:  Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic. (Go to part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Smith offers detailed comments on three, key postmodern authors—Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault—and argues that each is fundamental misunderstood in their usual interpretation.

Derrida

Smith sees hope in the Derrida’s critique, “there is nothing outside the text.” (36), because the modern understanding of the Christian message is itself a distortion of traditional church teaching.  In attempting to frame the Christian message in ahistorical truth statements (God is love), the narrative tradition (God showed his love by sovereignly granting the exodus of the nation of Israel from Egypt) has been lost.  Because the Christian message is contextual in biblical accounts and is interpreted by the church, it meets Derrida’s primary concerns.  Consequently, according to Smith, the church must, however, abandon modern stance and language in order to thrive in the postmodern environment (54-58).

Lyotard

Smith also sees Lyotard’s idea of a metanarrative as misunderstood in its bumper-sticker characterization. Postmodern critics have trouble with the metanarrative or big story of scripture—creation, fall, redemption, and eschatology (62-64).  Smith disputes, however, that the scope of metanarratives is Lyotard’s main concern.  Rather, Smith sees Lyotard’s main concern being the truth claims of modern use of metanarratives—science is itself a metanarrative but falsely and deceptively claims to be universal, objective, and demonstrable through reason alone (64-65). Smith writes:  “For the postmodern, every scientist is a believer.” (68). Lyotard is perfectly okay with the idea of faith preceding reason, following Augustine  (65, 72).  Accordingly, Smith says that the postmodern church needs to abandon modernistic claims to truth (e.g., give up the “scientific” approach to apologetics) and, instead, to value story (narrative), aesthetic experiences, and symbols, such as the sacraments (77).  In this way, Smith takes Lyotard to church.

Foucault

Foucault’s concern about institutional power structures is hard to reduce to a bumper-sticker characterization, in part, because he resists reductionism in his writing style and focuses on tediously pure description (96).  Smith sees Foucault preoccupied with disciplinary structures, but wonders what his real intentions are.  He talks about two readings of Foucault:  Foucault as Nietzschean and Foucault as a closet enlightenment liberal (96-99).  Smith writes:

What is wrong with all these disciplinary structures is not that they are bent on forming or molding human beings into something, but rather what they are aiming for in that process (102).

Smith sees Foucault offering 3 lessons to the church:

  1. To see “how pervasive disciplinary formation is within our culture”;
  2. To identify which of these disciplines are “fundamentally inconsistent with…the message of the church”; and
  3. To “enact countermeasures, counterdisciplines that will form us into the kinds of people that God calls us to be” (105-106).

It is worth asking in this context:  when exactly did the church relinquish its internal discipline and why?  Smith sees communion, confession, foot washing, and economic redistribution (107) as the kind of disciplines that need to be maintained.  A more normal reading of discipline might ask why the teaching of the church—church doctrine—is ignored and no dire consequences follow for those most engaged in the ignoring.

Discussion

Smith gets it.  Smith is unique in seriously reflecting on how to apply the lessons he sees in Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault.  He asks:  “…is it possible to be faithful to tradition in the contemporary world?” (109)  He opines:

A more persistent postmodern [church]… will issue not in a thinned-out, sanctified version of religious skepticism (a “religion without religion”) offered in the name of humility and compassion but rather should be the ground for the proclamation and adoption of “thick” confessional identities. (116-117)

Smith sees radical orthodoxy as admitting that we do not know the truth, but confessing a mysterious and sometimes ambiguous faith (116-118).  He writes:

A more persistent postmodernism embraces the incarnational scandal of determinant confession and its institutions:  dogmatic theology and a confessionally governed church (122).

This radical orthodoxy involves “affirmation of liturgy and the arts and a commitment to place and local communities.” (127).

Assessment

Having just published a devotional book which reviews the traditional teaching of the church [1], I find much to like in Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism! Perhaps the only real caveat that I would offer up is that the pluriform and variegated phenomena of postmodernism (26) will likely involve a range of responses, not just radical orthodoxy [2].   Some will work; many will fail.  Re-imaged, will the old wine poured into new wine-skins yield  a church able to experience both the immanent and transcendent attributes of God?  Likewise, will the exclusivity of Christ be lost in a church claiming only the right of private beliefs?  It seems likely that for now radical orthodoxy is likely to pose an interesting postmodern experiment, one of many.

Footnotes

[1] A Christian Guide to Spirituality (T2Pneuma.com).

[2] .  Elements of postmodern, modern, and traditional cultures appear to coexist in tension with one another even in small organizations and most certainly in society more generally.  See a serious of articles online:  Can Bad Culture Kill a Firm?  For example: (http://bit.ly/1DeSLse)

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Smith: Speak Postmodern, Part 1

Smith, Whose Afraid of Postmodernism?

James K.A. Smith.  2006.  Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism:  Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic. (Go to part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

It is hard to underestimate the importance of philosophical changes in our lifetime. The movement from modernism to postmodernism has been abrupt and has eroded the foundations of most modern institutions [1].  Yet, the indirect way that philosophical influences affect daily life masks their impact to those unaccustomed to taking philosophy into account[2].  Most of us take note of the culture wars, but have trouble understanding why the heated debate. “Why can’t we all just get along?[3]

Introduction

In his book, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, James Smith Describes post modernism as a kind of pluriform and variegated phenomena (26), an historical period after (post) modernism (19), heavily influenced by French philosophers, especially Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and Michael Foucault (21).  Adding to the confusion, Smith observes that postmodernism does not make a clean break with modernism, but tends to intensify certain aspects of modernism, particularly notions of freedom (26).

Smith starts with the intriguing premise that the basic ideas of these 3 postmodern philosophers have misunderstood. When properly understood, postmodern philosophy and the traditional teaching of the church remain compatible (22-23).  The collapse of the church in our lifetime can accordingly be seen to lay the groundwork for a revitalization of the church around traditional teaching—once purged of its modernistic thought patterns (epistemology; 29).  This re-imaged traditional teaching he refers to as radical orthodoxy and has an incarnational focus which takes time, place, and space seriously and which affirms both the liturgy and the arts (127).  Are you intrigued yet?

Organization

Smith writes in 5 chapters.  Basically, an introduction and conclusion wrapped around 3 chapters focused on Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault.  The 5 chapters are:

  1. Is the Devil from Paris? Postmodernism and the Church,
  2. Nothing outside the Text? Derrida, Deconstructionism, and Scripture,
  3. Where Have All the Metanarratives Gone? Lyotard, Postmodernism, and the Christian Story,
  4. Power/Knowledge/Discipline: Foucault and the Possibilities of the Postmodern Church,
  5. Applied Radical Orthodoxy: A Proposal for the Emerging Church (7).

Two prefaces precede these 5 chapters and an Annotated Bibliography follows them.

Philosophy Explained through Film

In explaining the details of these philosophers and other points that he makes, Smith starts 4 of his chapters with a lengthy description of a recent movie.  For Derrida, the movie is Memento (31) which features a man with a really poor memory who wanders through his day taking notes about what he needs to remember.  In the case of Lyotard, the movie is:  O Brother, Where Art Thou which is a redo of Homer’s Odyssey (59).  For Foucault, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (81) exemplifies his philosophy in the story of a small-time con man who pleads insanity to his crime and ends up in a psyche ward.  His final chapter begins with a telling of the movie:  Whale Rider (109).

Philosophers have been Misunderstood

Smith’s premise that these philosophers have been misunderstood because of weak bumper-sticker summaries of them. For example, Derrida’s misunderstood statement is: “there is nothing outside the text.” (36)  The idea that one can simply read a text, particularly an ancient text written in another language, and understand its meaning is to misunderstand the role of language, context, and interpretation[4]. While often said to mean that the Bible cannot be read and understood by just anyone[5], Smith says that this is not what Derrida is saying. Derrida’s point is simply that all understanding of texts requires interpretation—the context and the interpretative community (38-40)—which implies that there is no such thing as objective truth.  Interpretation is always required (43).

Objective Truth

Smith’s point about objective truth poses a problem for professionals, including pastors, schooled in modern methods of interpretation. The search for objective truth is the goal of modern research, a fundamental principle in democracy, and a principal of management. If one, objective truth exists, then we can all work together and with enough time and effort figure it out or at least come closer to it.  If truth is fundamentally contextual, then there is your truth and my truth, inasmuch as our histories differ, making collective action intrinsically more difficult.  For this reason, many professions view Derrida with suspicion.

Assessment

Smith’s writing is provocative and timely. It is also accessible. In part 2, I will examine in more depth his treatment of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism is well worth the time to understand and ponder.

Footnotes

[1] A precondition for modern institutions is the idea that collective action enhances the search for objective truth.  If no objective truth exists, the benefit from discovering it disappears.  If only my truth and your truth exist, then we do not both benefit from working together.  Collective action is simply a power game.  This perspective motivates, for example, deconstructionists to focus almost exclusively on winning power games.  If this is the dominate philosophy, democratic institutions fare poorly because losers in a democratic vote have no reason to support the outcome of the vote.  Rather, they simply continue to argue their position and attempt to undermine decisions rendered.  This makes collective action more costly, slows down decision making, and leads to general unhappiness.

[2] My introduction to the term, postmodern, dates back to the late 1990s. A staff member in my office offended a senior manager who then all-day training as a team-building exercise. After several hours of this pointless training, a colleague from New York City, who moonlighted as a stand-up comedian, reached his limit and began a long rant that included both the words postmodern and deconstruction.  The trainer later filed abuse charges against him.  Curious why she had taken offense, I looked up both words in a dictionary…my colleague aptly described our re-education experience.  Our punitive training was much like the training (re-education) offered by the communists of Vietnam to prisoners in their concentration camps after the war.

[3] Quote attributed to Rodney King (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rodney_King).

[4] In statistics, we are taught that correlation cannot be interpreted as causality.  The analyst must have a theory to infer causality.  For example, sunspots may correlate with crop failures, but it does not imply that crops failed because of sunspots.  A theory must be introduced to show the linkage or causality.  The data by themselves cannot “speak”.  Derrida is making basically the same observation, but only with texts.

[5] This idea is called perspicuity of scripture (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarity_of_scripture).

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Hoekema Examines the Image

 

Hoekema_review_20211028Hoekema, Anthony A. 1994. Created in God’s Image (Orig Pub 1986). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Much of the conflict in society over the past century has been over the doctrine of man, which I refer to as Christian anthropology. Who are we as human beings? What is our nature? Are we truly free? If you think these are trivial questions, consider the question of insanity. If a person commits murder, but is out of their mind or haunted by predispositions, can they be held responsible for a criminal act? What if the people involved differ racially or in gender? Curious minds want to know

Introduction

In Created in God’s Image, Anthony Hoekema writes:

“In this book I will attempt to set forth what the Bible teaches about the nature and destiny of human beings. Central to the biblical understanding of man is the teaching that men and women were created in the image of God. (ix)

Hoekema (1913-1988) graduated from Calvin College (A.B.), the University of Michigan (M.A.), Calvin Theological Seminary (Th.B.) and Princeton Theological Seminary (Th.D., 1953). He was ordained by the Christian Reformed church and retired as a Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary.[1]

Hoekema writes in twelve chapters:

  1. The importance of the Doctrine of Man
  2. Man as a Created Person
  3. The Image of God: Biblical Teaching
  4. The Image of God: Historical Survey
  5. The Image of God: A Theological Summary
  6. The Question of the Self-Image
  7. The Origin of Sin
  8. The Spread of Sin
  9. The Nature of Sin
  10. The Restraint of Sin
  11. The Whole Person
  12. The Question of Freedom (vii)

These chapters are preceded by a preface and followed by references and several indices.

Notice the importance of the image of God and sin in Hoekema’s chapter headings. Hoekema final chapter focusing on freedom is also interesting. In this review, I will focus on these three main topics.

The Image of God

Hoekema sees the doctrine of man as critically important (1). As belief in God has waned, focus on belief in man (humanism) has increased, but he sees humanism yielding to nihilism, which denies that life has any meaning, and, with it, a new, more viral form of authoritarianism:

 “Manipulation of the masses by the few. Practices such as artificial insemination, test-tube babes, abortion, chemical control of behavior, euthanasia, genetic engineering, and the like raise questions about the dignity of human life.” (2)

 Hoekema sees two, non-Christian anthropologies:

1. “Idealistic anthropologies consider the human being to be basically spirit, his physical body foreign to his real nature.”

2. “The materialistic type …. man is a being composed of material-elements, his mental, emotional, and spiritual life being simply by-products of his material structure.” (2-3)

Notice these anthropologies basically emphasize either the body or the spirit as being dominant. Hoekema sees both as guilty of idolatry—worshipping the creature in place of the creator (4).

In Hoekema’s Christian anthropology, the human being is both a creature, created by God, and a person, someone with the ability to make some independent choices (5). Determinism denies the personhood of human beings, dehumanizing them (7). The tension between being creatures and persons leads to sin, but also points to the possibility of redemption with God’s help.

Hoekema Genesis 1:26-28, 5;1-3, and 9:6 being the only Old Testament passages dealing with the image of God, with Psalm 8 providing an echo of these (11). He sees four passages in the New Testament (Rom 8:29, 2 Cor 3:18, Col 3:9-10, and Eph 4:22-24) that describe Christ’s redemption as perfecting our reflection of the image of God (28).

The Problem of Sin

Hoekema writes:

“The narrative of the Fall … tells us that man was created in a state of integrity but fell into a state of corruption through actual event that occurred in time… This means that sin is accidental, not essential, to man. It means, further, that redemption from sin is possible human beings can again become sinless without ceasing to be human. Since sinfulness is not essential to humanness, Jesus Christ, though sinless, was a genuine man.” (117)

He later writes:

“Original sin is the sinful state and condition in which every human being is born; actual sin, however, is the sins of act, word, or thought that human beings commit.” (143)

Sin pollutes not only our actions but also our reason, will, and appetites leaving us unable to meet with God’s approval or to love God on our own. (150-152). As Jesus said: “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” (John 8:34)

Freedom in Christ

Hoekema writes: “One of the most important aspects of the Christian view of man is that we must see him in his unity, as a whole person.” (203) This is what in the New Testament is referred as the heart (214). Hoekema prefers the term: psychosomatic unity (217).

This unity of the person arises in the context of freedom because Hoekema see true freedom as: “the ability of humans, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to think, say, and do what is pleasing to God and in harmony with his revealed will.” (228) When we sin, this harmony is disrupted (231). Redemption consists of restoring this disrupted harmony (234).

Hoekema’s view is attractive because the polluting characteristic of sin affects the whole persons, not just a person’s actions, thinking, or feeling. If sin is not restricted to only a part of us, then the whole of us requires redemption. Likewise, the whole person, heart and mind, must come together in faith.  This is why emotional experiences alone or clever arguments alone seldom engender a lasting faith.

Assessment

Anthony A. Hoekema’s Created in God’s Image is likely to become a Christian classic on Christian anthropology even if the audience may be limited to mature Christians and seminary students. Myself, I first introduced to Hoekema in seminary, but I have returned to him several times since then as I have grown in my understanding of faith. I commend this book to anyone willing to commit the effort to understand their own faith.

Footnotes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_A._Hoekema.

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Alston Dreams Big, Shares Pain

Dreams_framed_01202015Gary L. Alston.  2011. Dreams—Poems and Short Stores.  Xlibris:  United States.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Pastors love to illustrate their points by telling stories.  Stories communicate—we remember stories—because stories define who we are and why.  We all tell stories[1].

Earlier this month I attended an interesting presentation on non-fiction, Christian narrative[2]. Author Catherine Claire Larson defines non-fiction, Christian narrative as: a story of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he/she confronts and solves[3].

Sitting next to me during this presentation was author Gary L. Alston. Alston lives in Riverdale, Maryland where I grew up and attended high school.  We had an immediate connection. Before the evening was over we had traded books.

Gary’s title, Dreams—Poems and Short Stores, describes his book’s content and structure.  After dedicating the book to his mother, wife, and friends that encouraged him, there is a foreword by Adrienne Felton. Then, Gary provides a series of poem (13-44), a section of personal photographs (44-53), and a series of short-stories.

Gary’s writing is highly personal recording his personal experiences—many quite painful—and maintaining a keen eye to the human condition.  Although Gary is African American (and I am not), I found my own experiences among his poems and stories growing up in Washington DC.  In reading along, Gary’s first love is obviously poetry because even his short stories have a poetic character, if not meter.

A personal favorite is his story:  I’ll Be Seeing You (55-57).  In this story with three moves, he starts out by describing eye glasses:  “They come in many colors and shapes” (55). He then describes his first encounter where he noticed glasses—on a young woman in the third grade:  Etta Mae (55).  His final and most lengthy move describes a glasses-wearing cousin, Fred, whose nickname, Puddin, was unappreciated and required a scuffle with bullies to prove his mettle (55-57). Fred’s coming of age story took me back to my youth in an unexpected turn of events.

None of us control the world that we live in, but we control our response to it.  Do we respond to tragedy with God’s grace and dignity or do we melt before the refiner’s fire[4] and become embittered?  Gary’s response has been to welcome us into his world where grace and dignity are lived out.

Footnotes

[1]John Savage makes this point in his book: Listening & Caring Skills:  A Guide for Groups and Leaders (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-4e).

[2]Billy Graham’s writing and preaching make extensive use of non-fiction, Christian narrative (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-52).

[3] Catherine Claire Larson–Author, Reporter, Feature Writer, Script Writer, Monday, January 12, 2015: “Stories of Reality: Finding and Telling the True Stories That Matter” (http://bit.ly/1CVHxq7).

[4]“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.  He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years. (Mal 3:1-4 ESV)

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Ritchie Peers into the Heart of Darkness

Ritchie_06282014Mark Andrew Richie [1]. 2000. Spirit of the Rainforest: A Yanomanö Shaman’s Story. Chicago: Island Lake Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

When I was elementary school, the curriculum emphasized repetition. If one paid attention and got it the first time, then boredom was the big challenge. At first, I spent the extra time acting out in class, but I later learned to keep a pile of library books in my desk and simply read during repetitious lessons. To keep the pilot light running in seminary, I read books from the recommended reading lists or recommended by trusted friends in Christ.  Mark Richie’s Spirit of the Rainforest was one such book.

Literary Views of Prehistory

Understanding why this book is interesting requires a bit of background.  In the early modern era, humanists questioned the divinity of Christ and especially the doctrine of the atonement.  The atonement suggested that Christ died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3-6) and it implied that humans were inherently sinful (Genesis 3:6).  By contrast, the humanists believed that humanity was basically good (and was not in need of Christ’s atonement or absolute moral standards) and they sought to build a utopia without God. In this context, the idea of a noble savage arose—primitive human beings untainted by civilization who were inherently good, not evil [2].

Yanomanö Shaman

Enter Jungleman, a Shaman [3] living among the Yanomanö people of the Amazon rainforests of Columbia who was untouched by the corrupted influence of civilization.  Spirit of the Rainforest is the narrative of his life told from his perspective (8).  Richie writes in his introduction:

The Yanomamö are one of the world’s most mysterious peoples.  Small, rarely over five feet tall, they have the speed, strength, and agility of a jungle cat.  Their woman can tote their own weight up and down a jungle trail that would challenge me even if I were empty handed.  Their men can call, track, and shoot anything that breathes in a jungle that is hostile enough to kill anyone but a trained survivalist (7).

The Spirit World

As a young warrior, Jungleman invited demons from the spirit world into his heart and mind.  These demons offer him knowledge of far off events and strength in defeating his enemies. Jungleman knows these demons by animal names, such as Jaguar Spirit, Monkey Spirit, and so on.  For example, Ritchie writes about Jaguar Spirit, the dominant, warrior or hunting spirit:

“Don’t go in here.” [Referring to a Christian village] Jaguar Spirit told me.  “There’s too much danger here. We are afraid.” It was the first time I had ever heard fear coming from Jaguar Spirit, and it made me feel poor inside. My hands began to flutter and I held my bow tight to make them stop. (97)

But these spirits cannot be trusted and will abandon and turn on a Shaman when he shows weakness (like not following their advice to kill someone—especially children in a competing village) or for growing old.

Violence and Women

Much of the violence among Yanomanö people historically arose in fights over women.  The Yanomanö traditionally practiced polygamy and raided other villages to procure young women.  Such raids were not easily forgotten because people would be killed and families broken up.  Consequently, longstanding blood vendettas existed among neighboring villages.

Jungleman eventually comes to know Christ.  His spirits abandoned him.  In turn, he abandoned his warrior ways and becomes an advocate for the right of Yanomanö women to marry men of their own choosing.

Noble Savage?

Those who want to believe the noble savage myth (or to disbelieve the existence of the spiritual world) will be disappointed with Ritchie’s Spirit of the Rainforest.  Critics question Ritchie’s claim that he simply wrote down what he was told (8).  I was not disappointed and found his accounts credible, in part, because his accounts of Yanomanö life are consistent with accounts of other native cultures.  For example, the purpose of head-hunting in pre-modern Taiwan was:

To gain a head, as noted earlier, was to qualify a young man to gain the young woman he wished to marry.  Revenge for the death of a loved one was also the occasion to take an enemy head [4].

There is also striking consistency in the influence of a Monkey Spirit (a spirit of lust acted out indiscriminately) in jungle culture and our own.

Assessment

Ritchie’s Spirit of the Rainforest is a page turner and a great book to take along to the beach—reality is so much more interesting than fantasy.  As a narrative, this book lends itself to becoming a good screen play [5].

Footnotes

[1] http://markritchie.me/spirit-of-the-rainforest.

[2] The film, The Wild Child (1970) by Francois Truffaut chronicles the story of an abandoned child in 1798 who lived in the woods alone.  When he was discovered, he could not speak and was suspicious of other people.  A French scientist takes him in attempting to educate him and to learn from him as a potential validation of the noble savage hypothesis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wild_Child).

[3] A shaman is a term that replaced the politically incorrect term, witch doctor.

[4] Ralph Covell. 1998.  Pentecost of the Hills in Taiwan. Pasadena:  Hope Publishing House. Page 26.

[5] Another film about Amazon tribal life is:  End of a Spear (2006; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JeEF_3J0ZY0).  This film re-enacts the story of Mincayani, Waodani warrior, who leads the raid that kills Steve Saint’s father and four other missionaries in 1956.

Ritchie Peers into the Heart of Darkness

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Lefebvre Explains Kobo

Lefebvre_review_20211025

Mark Leslie Lefebvre. 2018. Killing It on Kobo: Leverage Insights to Optimize Publishing and Marketing Strategies, Grow Global Sales, and Increase Revenue on Kobo. Waterloo, Ontario: Stark Publishing Solutions.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

When I recently learned that Kobo is a Canadian company owned by a Japanese firm, I was intrigued and wanted to learn more about it. Kobo’s active support for Indie authors just added to my curiosity.

Introduction

In his book, Killing It on Kobo, Mark Leslie Lefebvre writes

“My aim is to leverage my expertise [as Direct of Self-Publishing and Author Relations at Kobo] to help benefit authors and publishers looking to optimize their own engagement with this global retailer.” (13)

Because Kobo internationally to compete with Amazon in markets outside the United States, authors and publishers looking to expand their international sales will naturally want to know more about it.

 Background and Organization

Lefebvre lives in Waterloo, Ontario and is a college graduate and author who first published in 1992. He has extensive experience in the Canadian book world, as evidenced by his having been President of the Canadian Booksellers Association. He has worked for Kobo and organized their online service, Kobo Writing Life—among other things.[1] For those new to international book sales, it is significant that Canadians read more and buy more books per capita than U.S. residents. This makes Lefebrvre’s background and experience interesting.

Lefebvre writes in fifteen chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. My Path to Kobo
  3. Kobo 101
  4. Navigating the Basics of Kobo Writing Life
  5. Optimizing Pre-Order Sales
  6. The Humans Behind Kobo and Kobo Writing Life
  7. Kobo’s Global Sales and Bestelling Categories
  8. Price Optimization
  9. Taking Full Advantage of the ‘No CAP” on 70% Royalties
  10. The Power of Free
  11. Catching a Kobo Merchandiser’s Eye
  12. The Kobo Writing Life Promotional Tool
  13. Additional Revenue Opportunities via Kobo
  14. Other Details and Hacks
  15. Conclusions

Prior to the chapters is a disclaimer; after are resource and readings for more details.

Discussion

Book marketing guides often make interesting reading for their little details and special insights because Indie publishers often need to make business decisions without a lot of guidance.  Advice is often hard to come by in a straightforward way because of the fast pace of changes in online book publishing, marketing, and distribution. Consequently, it is helpful to read case studies of how informed market players approach decisions.

For example, Lefebvre talks about setting ebook prices. He suggests considering three elements: 1. An average among competing titles, 2. Consider the price of your paperback or competing paperbacks, and 3. Consider issues relating to your author brand (120-125). Given these three considerations, a price can be chosen.

My ebooks are all $4.95, a kind of Goldilocks price having heard guidance from Amazon. While Lefebvre suggests that my price is in the right ballpark for the U.S. market, Canadian and Australians might find my prices cheap because paperback books are mostly imported and cost a lot more in those markets. Rounding to the nearest 99 in local currencies makes sense in most markets, but in Europe the nearest 49 or 99 EUR are equally accepted (132-34).

Assessment

Mark Leslie Lefebvre’s Killing It on Kobo is a helpful and readable guide to working with Kobo. It is interesting primarily to authors and publishers wanting to publish in the world market outside of Amazon.

Footnotes

[1] http://markleslie.ca/about/

Lefebvre Explains Kobo

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Trottier Formats Scripts

Trottier_review_20211023

Dave Trottier. 2020. Dr. Format Tells All: Everything You Need to Format Your Screenplay. Cedar Hills, UT: Applewood Arts.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Women read; men watch movies. When I wrote my first novella last year as a romantic suspense, I was told that my male protagonist would not appeal to the primary audience for this genre: older women. One thing led to another and I realized that if my novella were to end up as a screenplay, I would need to write it. This line of reasoning led me to begin studying screenwriting.

Introduction

In the preface to his book, Dr. Format Tells All, Dave Trottier[1] writes:

“My desire is to provide you with guidance to specific formatting and spec screenplay writing topics…I have mainly selected columns and articles prepared for Script magazine.” (iii)

Needless to say, Trottier writes a column in Script magazine entitled: “Ask Dr. Format.” This book is written to complement his other title: The Screenwriter’s Bible (review).

Background and Organization

Trottier has a master’s degree from Goddard College and is a graduate of both the Hollywood Scriptwriting Institute and the Hollywood Film Institute. He describes himself as a screenwriter, script consultant, and teacher. He is the author of numerous books and screenplays.

This book primarily takes a question and answer format. The table of contents cites these divisions:

  • Crucial Formatting Information (page 1)
  • Answers to Specific Formatting Questions (20)
  • General and Miscellaneous (214)
  • How I Became Dr. Format (225)
  • Index (229)
  • Screenwriting Resources (240)

The individual sections typically pose a question and offer answer along with screenwriting examples.

Discussion

Trottier writes: “Formatting is the language of screenplays.” (6) He observes that when he taught screenwriting, about half the questions from students had to do with formatting (226). His focus is on writing spec scripts.

Trottier describes the spec script in these terms:

“The spec is sometimes called the reading script or selling script. A spec script … is primarily written for a reader (story analyst).” (2)

Spec is short for speculation, a script written for sell, not one written under contract. Once it is sold, it is typically rewritten as a shooting or production script, where camera direction and other needs of the director are considered. Because a spec script has not yet been sold, it is written in a standard form to facilitate the reader being able quickly to understand and appreciate it. Non-standard formatting distracts the reader and can lead the script to be rejected.

Assessment

Dave Trottier‘s Dr. Format Tells All proved to be a useful read. It focuses on special formatting circumstances that come up and require discussion. After reading The Screenwriter’s Bible I thought that I knew all the conventions, but after reviewing my first script I found that I clearly misinterpreted many of these special issues. Inexperienced screenwriters, like myself, may find this book helpful.

[1] https://www.keepwriting.com.

Trottier Formats Scripts

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Lefebvre Publishes for Bookstores and Libraries

Lefebvre_review_20211002

Mark Leslie Lefebvre. 2019. An Author’s Guide to Working with Libraries and Bookstores. Waterloo, Ontario: Stark Publishing Solutions.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

As an author, I triage my time between writing, editing, and marketing. In each activity, I must constantly learn new things because the writing world evolves quickly and life interferes. In 2014 I sold mostly paperback books in person. Since I took an advertising class in 2017, I have sold mostly eBooks online. When I tire of writing, I often focus on learning new marketing tricks.

Introduction

Mark Leslie Lefebvre’s book, An Author’s Guide to Working with Libraries and Bookstores, focuses surprisingly on marketing your books in libraries and bookstores (11). The surprise comes perhaps because many authors focus primarily on social media advertising or the particular niches suggested by their agents and publishers. Even self-publishers often limit themselves to the Amazon.com in the United States, where most sales online occur. Among the writers that I meet in author clubs, most are unfamiliar with cataloging in publication (CIP) data or worldcat.org, where U.S. libraries cite their collections online, and they ignore much of the world market for books.

Background and Organization

Lefebvre lives in Waterloo, Ontario and is a college graduate and author who first published in 1992. He has extensive experience in the Canadian book world, as evidenced by his having been President of the Canadian Booksellers Association. He has worked for Kobo and organized their online service, Kobo Writing Life—among other things.[1] For those new to international book sales, it is significant that Canadians read more and buy more books per capita than U.S. residents. This makes Lefebrvre’s background and experience interesting.

Lefebvre writes in a conversational style drawing on his extensive bookstore experience. The major divisions in his book are:

  • Introduction
  • Basics of How Libraries and Bookstores Work
  • Working with Bookstores
  • Working with Libraries
  • Tips, Ideas, and Strategies for Successful In-person Book Events
  • Conclusions
  • Resources
  • About

His publication date in 2019 is pre-pandemic so he writes before many retailers closed and before the border between the U.S. and Canada closed—something my Canadian relatives remind me.

Bookstores

While I knew that the largest bookseller in Canada is Indigo books, I did not know that Rakuten Kobo (an anagram of book) is a Canadian business although it is owned by Japanese company, Rakuten. I also did not know that Kobo also distributes books and offers advertising to authors that distribute with them. This is a significant point because it is difficult generating sales without advertising—organic sales are usually meager. Lefebvre convinced me to look closely at Kobo Writing Life where this all takes place. I also bought another of his books, Killing It On Kobo (2018), to learn more.

Lefebvre’s discussion of online booksellers is priceless because it is hard to know from the plethora of online services what to pay attention to. For those of you who have tried to find links to your books online in developing a book landing page, it is hard to get a list quickly. Draft 2 Digital offers those signing up with them a free service, a universal link, that accumulates a number of these links for you (84-85). Myself, I registered and spent a day updating my publishers’ website (T2Pneuma.com).

Lefebvre’s conversational style apparently follows from his extensive bookstore experience, which offers a lot of helpful background information on the industry. I often talk about the difference between offset and print-on-demand (POD) printing (65-66), but most of these conversations are accompanied by blank stares. This distinction, however, drives the differences in traditional and indie marketing because offset printers generate inventory while POD printers do not. Details that your spouse might want to know!

Libraries

If you go to OverDrive.com and search on your name, you will generate a list of your books and the libraries that stock your book electronically. Sadly, almost none of my titles appear on this list because I frankly did not know how to get them there—another item on my to-do list.

Lefebvre suggests targeting reviews to library-centric publications: Booklist, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and Voya (147). I have actually done this for Living in Christ, albeit unaware! He also suggests perhaps coming out with a large-print edition, something that I never really considered, but which be done with distributors like Ingram Sparks.

Assessment

Mark Leslie Lefebvre’s An Author’s Guide to Working with Libraries and Bookstores is a fascinating read for Indie publishers wanting to publish wide. It is helpful to read this book in front of a computer because many of the references offer immediate online application.

Footnotes

[1] http://markleslie.ca/about/

Lefebvre Publishes for Bookstores and Libraries

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Trottier Introduces Screenwriting

Trottier_review_20210826

David Trottier. 2019. The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script. Los Angeles: Silman-James Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Over the past year I wrote my first novella as a romantic-suspense. As a career-long nonfiction writer, this was a significant milestone for me, but it was not without a few hiccups. My first editor informed me that a male protagonist would not appeal to the primary audience for romantic suspense—older women. Meanwhile, my second editor described my work as simply a thriller—guys write thrillers; women write romance—my daughter informed me. When my critique group suggested my writing style was more like a screen play than a novella, I decided that I needed to know more about screenwriting.

Introduction

In his introduction to The Screenwriter’s Bible, David Trottier writes:

In this volume, I help you begin the screenwriting and script-selling journey and guide you along the way…every aspect of screenwriting is covered in this work. That’s why I call it The Screenwriter’s Bible (xi).

At 462 pages, Trottier faithfully completes this objective better than any writer’s handbook that I have seen and he does a reasonable job of distinguishing screenwriting from other writing genre, as the designation of seventh edition attests.

Background and Organization

Trottier has a master’s degree from Goddard College and is a graduate of both the Hollywood Scriptwriting Institute and the Hollywood Film Institute. He describes himself as a screenwriter, script consultant, and teacher. He is the author of numerous books and screenplays.[1]

The Screenwriter’s Bible divides into five books:

  1. How to Write a Screenplay: A Primer
  2. Writing & Revising Scenes: A Script Consultant’s View
  3. Seven Steps to a Stunning Script: A Workbook
  4. Proper Formatting Technique: A Style Guide
  5. How to Sell Your Script: A Marketing Plan (ix-x)

The first book is preceded by an introduction and the final book is followed by a challenge, list of resources, and an index.

Difference between Screen and Novel Writing

Contrast clarifies. Trottier writes:

A novel may describe a character’s thoughts and feelings page after page. It’s a great medium for express internal conflict. A stage play is almost exclusively verbal; soap operas and sitcoms fit into this category. A movie is primarily visual…it is primarily a visual medium that requires visual writing. (4)

This distinction between novels and screenplays may help explain why women tend to be more avid readers while men consume their fiction primarily through movies.

Knowing this distinction can help authors lean into the strengths of their genre both in writing and marketing. In a novel, one might easily express the thoughts of a protagonist by simply writing in italics, but in a screen play someone would need to mouth the words, something like an aside or soliloquy in a Shakespeare play.

In marketing, one might easily think to rewrite a screenplay swapping the gender of the protagonist to match the strengths of a particular “talent” (Trottier’s word for an actor or director). While fiction writers will often talk about their “what if” scenarios, I find this exercise easier in the screenwriting context because the medium is inherently more applied, more adaptable. Imagine trying to sell your favorite actor (or actress) on your script in an elevator. Your drama might easily morph into a comedy once the gender is swapped, a transaction easier to make at least in my mindscape.

Formatting a Screenplay

Trottier’s description of the writing process is innovative and helpful in expanding one’s toolset as a writer in any genre, but my only connection to acting arose when I dated a thespian in graduate school. Trottier’s guidelines on formatting a screenplay changed all that.

Trottier describes a spec script as “speculation that you will sell it [a script] later; in other words, you are not being paid to write it.” (237) Previously, I thought that a spec script described the format, not the marketing, of a particular type of script. This is an important ah-ha moment because marketing is baked into script writing much deeper than other genre, a distinction lost on other author books that I have seen on screenwriting. Later, when he talks about copywriting (328-29), the marketing problem again presents itself as a clear distinction in screenwriting. Most authors do not need to register a copywrite because no one is likely to steal a book that does not sell enough copies to pay for the editing—I registered my first book mostly out of ignorance. A script is different because more money is potentially at stake.

Script formatting fits into this discussion of marketing because the immediate audience for a spec script is the reader (story analyst), an assistant to a producer who does the actual evaluation of your script (237). After you have read several hundred of such scripts, formatting distractions are an annoyance. Trottier simply says: “The spec script is the selling script.” (238)

The annoying 12-point Courier New font style performs the function of making it easy to translate script pages into screen time, one page per minute. New characters are introduced in all CAPS. Dialogue is indented. Trottier convinced me to purchase screenwriting software almost immediately as I read through this section in his book.

Assessment

David Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible requires an investment of time to read through it. Having finished it, I am convinced that I am a better writer for having spent the time and I will likely convert my novella into a screenplay as a result. Trottier’s movie suggestions are also worth the ticket of admission. This is a book that belongs in every author’s library.

Footnotes

[1] https://www.keepwriting.com/davet.htm

Trottier Introduces Screenwriting

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