George Researches her Fiction

George_review_20210330

Elizabeth George [1]. 2004. Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life. New York: Harper Collins.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The corona virus pandemic turned me into a full-time writer and aided my transition from nonfiction to fiction writing. This life behind closed doors has given me time to read a lot of craft books. Among the best of these has been Elizabeth George’s Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life.

George focuses on teaching craft. She believes that art, passion and discipline cannot be taught, but the craft of writing can be (x). In her final words, she writes:

“You will be published if you possess three qualities—talent, passion, and discipline. You will probably be published if you possess two of the three…You will likely be published…[if you] have discipline.” (253). For her, craft is a discipline that must be part of any successful writing career so she focuses on teaching it.

Background and Organization

Elizabeth George was born in Ohio, but grew up in California where she earned a teaching certificate in English at the University of California, Riverside and a master’s degree in counseling and psychology. She has received many honors and awards for her detective stories placed in England written with a literary touch.[2]

Writing Away is written in twenty-two chapters divided into five parts:

  1. An Overview of the Craft
  2. The Basics
  3. Technique
  4. Process
  5. Examples and Guides (vii-viii).

The chapters are preceded by a preface and followed by notes and an index.

Research Plows her Ground

Throughout her book, George includes lengthy excerpts of her writing and the writing of others that sometimes seems excessive, but makes it obvious that she thoroughly researches her topics before sitting down to write. This research method is necessary in writing most nonfiction, but George’s preoccupation with research is much more than other fiction authors usually admit in fashioning their craft books.

This research focus allows her two advantages in crafting her fiction. The first advantage is that she is able to consider more plot, character, and descriptive alternatives before committing herself to any particular alternative. Some authors will run through a litany of alternatives in their mind, but she visits her locations and interviews professionals that she writes about with a journalist’s intensity. She also records her impressions as she goes about her work to pick up the smells and sounds of a place that most of us simply scribble from memory. Where my character sketch might fill a page for my main character, hers can go on for pages and include details about family history, education, and flaws.

The second advantage is that she can focus on her literary expression when she finally writes and it helps her to economize on the number of edits required to create a final draft. She talks about this advantage a bit, but the depth of her writing speaks more clearly of how it aids her craft. It is hard to imagine her winging it through her prose, although it rolls forth unpretentiously, not in labored fashion, like you might envision someone gifted in conversation.

Landscape

One measure of a book is whether I can remember anything from it once I put it down. George’s description of landscape fits this description.

George defines landscape as: “The broad vista into which the writer actually places the individual setting of the novel.” (29). You might image an artist starting by choosing the colors to paint a background for images that populate the canvas later, like maybe a baby blue tint in a Chagall painting.

In my own writing project, Masquerade, the landscape for the main characters is oppression of constant work that demands attention every waking hour. When the two main characters meet, they employ costumes to distinguish themselves on the street. It seems cute or serendipitous at first, but grows into a theme in the book—in part, an exposition of identity.

George calls this sort of thing an “internal landscape,” (35) which resonated with me because I had done conscientiously. Knowing that I had done this gave me a theme to develop more completely.

Assessment

Elizabeth George’s Writing Away is must read for aspiring authors who struggle to develop the descriptions in their settings, characters, and plots.

Footnotes

[1] https://www.elizabethgeorgeonline.com.
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_George.

George Researches her Fiction

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Rozelle Writes Description

Rozelle_review_20210316

Ron Rozelle. 2005. Description and Setting: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Believable World of People, Places, and Events. Write Great Fiction Series. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

When I aspired to being an author in my early college years and read a lot of literary books, I cringed and lived in fear of writing detailed descriptions. Even before I studied a lot of mathematics, learned to program computers, and developed the analytical mind of an economist, I dreamed in black & white and could not remember what I ate for breakfast or be described as chatty. I suffered from typical-guy syndrome. After I started writing on a regular basis, Ron Rozelle’s book, Description and Setting, appeared on my radar.

Introduction

Rozelle describes his purpose in writing with these words:

“We’ll look at various conventions and devices that undergird effective writing (craft), we’ll dissect specific examples of how established writers have provided description and established setting (models), and we’ll look at ways that you can go about the planning, writing, and fine tuning necessary to write quality fiction (wordsmithing).” (3)

For Rozelle, description that does not advance the story is clutter, whether the piece is literary fiction (more description) or popular fiction (less description) (9). Sensory descriptions evoking sights, taste, touch, and hearing help raise the credibility of the writer and help set the mood or tone of a particular scene, anchoring it in time and space (10-11). Striking the right balance between plot, dialogue, and description serves to convey the voice of the author primarily through the emotions brought forward.

Background and Organization

Rozelle is a graduate of Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, a retired writing professor, and the author of numerous books, many with a Texas theme. He writes in twelve chapters followed by an appendix and an index. The chapters are:

  1. The Importance of Description and Setting
  2. Learning to Pay Attention
  3. Using All the Tools in Your Kit
  4. Showing, Telling and Combining the Two
  5. Sensory Description
  6. Description of Characters
  7. Time and Place
  8. Description and Setting in Specialized Fiction
  9. Using Description and Setting to Drive the Story
  10. Working the Magic
  11. Too Little, Too Much
  12. Description and Setting in Writing Process

Other books in the Write Great Fiction series[1] focus on dialogue, characters, viewpoint, and plot & structure. Two that I previously reviewed can be found among the references below.

Showing Resemblance

Part of the art of writing is learning to say things uniquely. Rozelle writes:

“One of the most effective ways to convey a particular image to your reader is to show him something that it is similar to. Metaphors, similes, analogies, personification, symbolism, and allusions are all ways to nudge your years towards making the connection that you want them to make.” (45)

An analogy is a carefully laid out comparison. A metaphor is an implied analogy and a simile is more explicit than a metaphor and is prefaced by like or as (45-47). A personification is an object that takes the attributes of a living person (50-51). A symbol is an object that represents something other than itself (52). For example, the cowboy is a symbol of the American west, particularly in the nineteenth century, and of the American spirit more generally. An allusion recalls a famous person, event or written piece (48-49).

Describing people, events, places, and times in clever ways spices up your writing and helps it stand out from previous work.

Assessment

Ron Rozelle’s Description and Setting provides a helpful and readable guide to writing description. He makes artful use of familiar books and films to highlight his points. Writing students and authors polishing their craft will find this book useful.

References

Bell, James Scott.  2004.  Plot and Structure:  Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from Start to Finish. Write Great Fiction series. Cincinnati:  Writer’s Digest Books. (review)

Bell, James Scott. 2008. Revision & Self-Editing: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Finished Novel. Write Great Fiction series. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books. (review).

Footnotes

[1] https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/series/0H6/write-great-fiction.

Rozelle Writes Description

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Bell’s Characters Sparkle

Bell_review_20210311

James Scott Bell. 2020. Writing Unforgettable Characters: How to Create Story People Who Jump Off the Page.  Woodland Hills: Compendium Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The complexity of modern fiction assures that every book must survive multiple edits as ideas, emotions, and characters evolve with each retelling. What makes a protagonist credible, likeable, and interesting; how does an antagonist grow beyond stereotype into a villain? How does a sidekick differ from other minor characters? How do the characters and plot feed on each other?

Introduction

James Scott Bell’s Writing Unforgettable Characters begins with this purpose statement. About a famous book made into a film, Bell writes:

“Every character, even the minor ones, was unique and unforgettable in their own way. They jumped off the page. So began a second major phase in my craft education—finding out how to create jump-off-the-page characters. This book reveals what I found out.” (3)

Bell’s definition of a novel fits right in here: “A novel is the record of how a character, through strength of will, fights against death.” (4) Note how he does not directly mention plot.

Bell sees character and plot as among the seven critical success factors in fiction:

  1. Plot,
  2. Structure,
  3. Characters,
  4. Scenes,
  5. Dialogue,
  6. Voice, and
  7. Theme (126).

Clearly, his definition of a novel places a strong emphasis on character, perhaps because writing has to be personalized to maintain reader interest. We gravitate towards characters that hold our empathy.

For Bell, good characters are complex, unpredictable, resourceful, and passionate and they display grit, moxie, wit, and nobility in the context of the plot. Their drive derives from wounds that motivates them to passionately avoid death, albeit physical, emotional, or professional death.

For background on James Scott Bell, check out one or more of my previous reviews (see below).

Characterization

Bell sees authors using two methods to develop their characterization, paralleling the two types of writers: plotters and pantsers. A plotter outlines characters in a dossier that answers key questions:

  • What is your idea of perfect happiness?
  • Who is the greatest love of your life?
  • What is your greatest fear?
  • What is your greatest regret?
  • What is your motto? (51).

I found this questionnaire method interesting because other writing instructors have focused on physical characteristics, personal history, or even Myers-Briggs types, attributes less pertinent to the actual problem facing fiction authors.

A pantser more likely uses the discovery method that “starts with just enough info about a character to catch a feeling and then start the writing and see what develops.” (52).

Bell actually uses a hybrid of these two methods employing a “voice journal” of how the character might sound and look, a timeline of key years in the characters life, and a description of their profession (53-57). The idea is to develop an image of the character that is modeled after real people, even if the character is a composite of several.

Arcs and Transformations

An important take-home in this book arose in Bell’s description of character arcs. He prefers the word transformation and offers two types.

The first type is the usual arc: the old person is transformed into a new person. In the movie, Casablanca, Rick Blaine is transformed from a bitter, lonely man, who sticks out his neck for no one, into a man on a mission, who sends his true love off with her husband and joins the war effort himself (94-96). Rick must become a better human being or die emotionally.

The second type is more nuanced where the protagonist remains the same person, only stronger, for having removed a serious moral failing. In the movie, The Fugitive, Dr. Richard Kimble does not change, but he must solve his wife’s murder mystery and clear his name while being pursued vigorously by law enforcement and confronting the actual killers (95-96). Dr. Kimble’s challenge is to survive a boatload of people trying to find and kill him.

Assessment

James Scott Bell’s Writing Unforgettable Characters is an entertaining and insightful how-to writing book that fiction authors will want to add to their reading list.

Also See:

Bell, James Scott.  2004.  Plot and Structure:  Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from Start to Finish.  Cincinnati:  Writer’s Digest Books. (review)

Bell, James Scott. 2008. Revision & Self-Editing: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Finished Novel. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books. (review).

Bell, James Scott. 2009. The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises. Cinninnati: Writers Digest Books (review).

James Scott Bell. 2014. Write Your Novel from the Middle. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press (review).

Bell, James Scott. 2014. How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press. (review)

Bell, James Scott. 2015. Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story. Woodland Hills: Compendium Press (review)

Bell, James Scott. 2019. The Last Fifty Pages: The Art and Craft of Unforgettable Endings. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press. (review).

Bell’s Characters Sparkle

 

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Butterfield Journeys from PC to JC

Butterfield_review_20210113

Rosaria Champagne Butterfield [1]. 2012.  The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert:  An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith.  Pittsburgh:  Crown & Covenant Publications.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

What is conversion?

In postmodern thinking, conversion is an act of treason.  The modern thinker believes in objectivity—a single, objective reality exists which we can study, understand, and agree on.  By contrast, the postmodern thinker believes truth is socially constructed. There is not one objective truth; there is only your truth and my truth. The interpretative community (the social group) in power determines reality. Therefore, the convert from one worldview to another is accordingly a traitor (or heretic) to the interpretive community (social group) left behind.  Because community boundaries are vigorously defended, conversion can be accompanied by significant costs to the convert.

Introduction

In her book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Dr. Rosaria Champagne Butterfield writes about her conversion from lesbianism to Christianity.

Dr. Butterfield’s use of the word, convert, in her title suggests the vast distance that she traveled.  One converts from one religion to another, not from one hobby to another.  Lesbianism is a secular (atheistic) religion with its own philosophy (deconstructionism), cultural markers (hair-style; clothing; vocabulary; 8), public testimony (x), evangelism (8), and social networks (50).  She writes:

When I became a Christian, I had to change everything—my life, my friends, my writing, my teaching, my advising, my clothes, my speech, my thoughts.  I was tenured to a field that I could no longer work in (26).

A change in worldview requires a world of change.  She refers to lesbianism as a sin of identity (23).  What this means is that when we establish our primary identity in anything other than Christ, we commit idolatry—sin that violates the second commandment [2].  Workaholism is another common sin of identity.

Exploring Sin

In her biblical exploration of her sin, Dr. Butterfield focuses on an interesting passage:

As I live, declares the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.  They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it. (Ezekiel 16:48-50 ESV)

The sin of Sodom was not just immorality but more importantly pridea focus on self, entertainment-driven lust, love of money, and neglect of the poor (30-31).  Does this description sound familiar?

Conversion

The details of Rosario’s conversion experience are fascinating.  Her spiritual journey began with a research project.  She decided to write a book on the hermeneutic (interpretative principles) used by the Christian Right—people such as Pat Robertson.  Her research involved studying the Bible 5 hours a day (12) and led her to begin studying Greek (the New Testament is written entirely in Greek; 7).  A newspaper article that she published critiquing the gender politics of Promise Keepers [3] generated a lot of mail, including a thoughtful letter from a local pastor, Pastor Ken, who invited her to call and discuss the article (7-9).  She called. They began a conversation that extended over a period of years as she pursued her research. But the book was never completed.  From her own study of the Bible (aided by Pastor Ken’s non-anxious pastoral presence and biblical interpretation) Rosario became convinced that what the Bible said about God was true (13, 8).  Baptized and raised Roman Catholic, Rosario began attending and later joined the Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPC) [4].  She later married an RPC pastor (94).

Leader in the Gay Movement

Rosario’s claims to be a leader in the gay rights movement (4) are not lite fluff.  To see this, just check out her reading list in preparing her proposed book on the Christian Right.  For example, she read Augustine’s Confessions (50), John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (17), and Kevin Vanhoozer’s Is There a Meaning in This Text? (87-89). These are books that challenge most seminary students—if they have read them at all—and they are required reading in understanding Christian hermeneutics (study of interpretation) and epistemology (study of knowledge).  If you think that English professors sit around reading Emily Dickson all day, you vastly underestimate Dr. Butterfield’s academic bona fides [5].

Subversive Spirit

A key takeaway from Rosario’s conversion testimony is that it was the subversive activity of the Holy Spirit, not a clever evangelist, that led her to Christ.  Like many converts from Islam, her conversion began with study of the Bible [6].

Another important takeaway concerns Pastor Ken’s ability to be a non-anxious presence for Rosario.  The RPC has a strong intellectual grounding in Calvin’s systematic theology.  Systematic theology is holistic which implies that no aspect of life or faith is doctrinally neglected—its strength lies in its completeness.  A non-anxious presence begins with emotional intelligence but requires intellectual rigor.  Lesbians, like Muslims, ask tough questions.  One earns their respect by being able to field the questions credibly, honestly, and humbly without fear.  Pastor Ken’s RPC background helped him keep up his end of the conversation.

Rosario and Augustine

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert reads like Augustine’s Confessions.  As a young man, Augustine also struggled with sexual sin.  And, after converting to Christianity, he played an important role in the monastic movement which encouraged candidates for ministry to practice celibacy.  Augustine’s deep theology particularly influenced a young monk in the 15th century—a certain Martin Luther whose work was at the center of the Protestant Reformation.  Protestants all owe a debt of gratitude to Augustine, who struggled with and overcame sexual sin.  The Apostle Paul writes:  And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28 ESV)

Organization

Rosario’s book is short having only 5 chapters:

  • Conversion and the Gospel of Peace;
  • Repentance and the Sin of Sodom;
  • The Good Guys: Sanctification and Public Worship;
  • The Home Front:  Marriage, Ministry, and Adoptions; and
  • Homeschooling and Middle Age.

These chapters are preceded by a forward and acknowledgments and followed by a bibliography and other resources.

Rosario’s confession is likely to become a classic, in part, because it is timely and, in part, because it can be read on multiple levels.  On the surface level, it reads as a reinvestment story [7]:  there I was; here I am.  For the surface reader, she provides lots of interesting details about her life both as a lesbian and, later, as a pastor’s wife and home-school teacher.  Beneath the surface, however, lies Dr. Butterfield, the intellectual.  What is a presuppositional problem? (8)  What is the ontological fallacy? (13) What does it mean not to believe in objectivity? (14)  I was intrigued and was sorry that Rosario did not write and explain more.  In particular, why did she become a lesbian? [8]

Copernican Revolution

What is conversion?  For Rosario, it was like the Copernican Revolution. The earth went from being the center of the universe to being a planet rotating around the sun.  The Copernican Revolution simplified the mathematics of planetary motion.  It was much the same for Rosario. When she displaced self with the Triune God, her life was simpler, more joyful, and kingdom focused [9].

Assessment

What are the implications for the church?  For the surface reader, Dr. Butterfield’s conversion is incomprehensible and terribly inconvenient for those that have been co-opted by ardent lesbianism and related postmodern philosophies.  For deeper readers, this review only scratches the surface.  Bottom line?  Read and discuss the book.  It is worth the time for those who believe in the resurrected Christ.

Footnotes

[1] http://RosariaButterfield.com.

[2] You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me (Exodus 20:4-5 ESV).

[3] www.PromiseKeepers.org

[4] RPC adheres to the Westminster Confession which does not permit ordination of women.  http://ReformedPresbyterian.org.

[5] By contrast, her academic specialty, Queer Theory, is a topic that I have no background to evaluate (2).

[6] For example, read or listen to the testimony of Khalil (www.MoreThanDreams.tv/Khalil.html).

[7] See John Savage.  1996.  Listening and Caring Skills:  A Guide for Groups and Leaders.  Nashville:  Abingdon Press, pages 82-84.

[8] The only real hint in the book arises when Rosario write:  I had not always been a lesbian.  But once I had my first girlfriend, I was hooked and I was sure that I found my “real” self. (14)  This description reads as if one who, having tasted blood, desired more—an addiction consistent with deconstructionism’s focus on power.

[9] One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven– for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Luke 7:36-47 ESV)

Butterfield Journeys from PC to J

Also See:

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1.

Augustine’s Confessions, Part 1—Overview

Gagnon: Bridging the Bible and Gender Confusion, Part 1

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McKnight: 1 Peter Explained

McKnight_commentary_reviewed_08092014Scott McKnight. 1996. The NIV Application Commentary: 1 Peter. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The NIV Application Commentary has been my default commentary over the past several years because the series takes the narrative of scripture seriously. Once I am acquainted with an orthodox interpretation, I can judge a book from other dimensions. I have taught from the series the Books of Romans, Luke, Genesis, Revelations, John, Matthew, Galatians, and 1 Corinthians (I may have forgotten some books). The series takes seriously John Stott’s division of the homiletical task into 3 things: the author’s context (original meaning), the reader’s context (contemporary significance), and the need to bridge the two (bridging contexts) [1].  This background in the series led me to consider Scott McKnight’s commentary on 1 Peter.

McKnight sets out the goal of “to study 1 Peter in such a way as to highlight Peter’s proposals for Christian life in a modern society” (22). In his overview, he breaks Peter’s message into three points: salvation, the church, and Christian life. Peter describes salvation through Christ’s suffering (1 Peter 2:24). The church is pictured as the family of God. In the Christian life, Peter exhorts his readers to practice hope, holiness, fear before God, love, and growth (32). What caught my eye was McKnight’s observation that 1 Peter is the most popular NT book among Christians living with social marginalization and suffering outside the Western context (35). That would include many Hispanic and Middle Eastern people that I know.

Suffering. It is my own observation that the suffering in my own life–a wife with cancer, a child on dialysis, and a younger sister who died suddenly–has enabled me to witness more effectively to those around me. In like manner, we are drawn to the cross of Christ. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). McKnight’s rendering of 1 Peter and his focus on the role of suffering convinced me that I need to spend more time with this book.

McKnight spends a fair amount of time trying to unpack the social position of Peter’s audience. He views 1 Peter 2:11-12 as a pivotal passage. Are his readers “aliens and strangers”? Is the pursuit of holiness especially important because of their low social standing? If they were literally aliens and strangers—the illegal immigrants of their day—how do we, who are not, read this book? Interesting questions.  In the new, downwardly-mobile, post-Christian context in which most Americans live today, 1 Peter becomes more relevant with each passing day.

Among the NIV commentaries in this series, the McKnight commentary on 1 Peter is a gem. He struggles with interesting questions. His reading of 1 Peter is both balanced and insightful. After reading about Peter’s response to suffering, McKnight convinced me to look also at Paul’s treatment of suffering in 2 Corinthians—a study that I have taken up this summer.

Footnotes

[1] See:  John Stott. 1982.  Between Two Worlds:  The Challenge of Preaching Today.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.

McKnight: 1 Peter Explained

Also See:

Nouwen: Make Space for Self, Others, and God 

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McManus: Risktakers for Christ

McManus_review_20201210Erwin Raphael McManus. 2002. Seizing Your Divine Moment.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

If you are the kind of person who encourages your child to take a swan dive off the roof of your house and into your arms, then you really need to read Erwin Raphael McManus.[1] If not, perhaps you should think about it.

Introduction

McManus writes:  The divine potential of a moment is unlocked by the choices we make (18).  The Greeks call this kairos time—a moment of crisis or decision.  Kairos time contrasts with chronos time—calendar or clock time which just plods along. When God created Adam and Eve, he placed them in a “garden of choices.”  They choose badly and everything changed (19).  Later, God set choices before the nation of Israel.  Moses wrote:

See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.  If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.  But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. (Deuteronomy 30:15-18 ESV)

Likewise, God asks us to make choices (21).  Even the life of Rahab, the prostitute, was redeemed by her choices both a physical and spiritual sense [2]. In joining the Nation of Israel, Rahab became the great, great grandmother of King David which also means that Jesus himself was her descendant (23-24).

McManus warns Christians against getting trapped in passivity.  He writes:

We have put so much emphasis on avoiding evil that we have become virtually blind to the endless opportunities for doing good…the great tragedy is not the sins we commit, but the life that we fail to live…There is a subtle danger of hiding apathy behind piety..If there is one secret to seizing your divine moment, it is that you must take initiative (34-35).

McManus focuses his message on 1 Samuel 14:1-23 which is the story of Jonathan, King Saul’s son and friend of David.  This is a saga of competing discernment stories.  King Saul slept under a pomegranate tree with 600 men waiting for a word from God; Jonathan took his armor bearer and went out to challenge the Philistines to a fight asking God to bless his efforts. God not only blessed his efforts (the 2 of them killed 20 Philistines; v 14), God also set off a panic among the Philistine army that resulted in them suffering a huge defeat—the Philistines were so confused that they ended up killing each other (v 20).  Apparently, God is not the god of sleepy Christians.

McManus writes:  I have seen the pomegranate dilemma again and again.  Those who hold the authority and resources of the kingdom are all too often more motivated to make sure that they do not lose them rather than to make sure they are used properly (38).  He concludes:  The more you move with God-given urgency, the more God seems to bless your life.  The more God blesses your life, the more you have to lose… The more you have to risk, the higher the price of following God (39).  Still, McManus observes:  when you are passionate about God, you can trust your passions (47).

Organization

McManus is lead pastor and cultural architect of Mosaic in Los Angeles, California [3].  Erwin comes originally from El Salvador and holds degrees from the University of North Carolina, Southwestern Theological Seminary, and Southeastern University.  Seizing Your Divine Moment is written in 9 chapters which divide, like an earthquake, into sections entitled foreshock, epicenter, and aftershock.  The chapter titles are:

  1. Choices—Choose to Live;
  2. Initiative—Just Do Something;
  3. Uncertainty—Know You Don’t Know;
  4. Influence—Breathe In, Breathe Out;
  5. Risk—Live Before You Die, and Vice Versa;
  6. Advance—Unless You Get a No;
  7. Impact—Leave a Mark;
  8. Movement—Ignite a Reaction; and
  9. Awakening—Wake the Dead (v).

These chapters are preceded by acknowledgments and followed by a write up about McManus.

Assessment

Seizing Your Divine Moment played an important role in my pastoral formation.  In 2005 when I read the book, I was working full-time as an economist and did not enter seminary until 2008.  It helped shape my view of what church can and should be and kept me from despairing about how it often turns out.  I recommend the book to those considering seminary or simply desiring to jump start their faith.  It is a book for the young and the young at heart.

Footnotes

[1] Paraphrase of a story from a sermon.  See: Erwin Raphael McManus 2005. The Barbarian Way: Unleash the Untamed Faith. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[2] Her testimony is striking:  I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you.  For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that, as I have dealt kindly with you, you also will deal kindly with my father’s house, and give me a sure sign that you will save alive my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death. (Joshua 2:9-13 ESV)

[3] http://mosaic.org.

McManus: Risktakers for Christ

Also See:

Nouwen: Make Space for Self, Others, and God 

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Baker Loves Characters

Baker_review_20210118

Nicholson Baker.[1] 2009. The Anthologist: A Novel. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Back before the Iron Curtain came down I had a friend named Yuri from Siberia, whose friends called Yuri the spy. As any good spy, he spent his day reading everything available and his nights throwing wild parties.

At one such party, a professor and Russian ex-pat marveled reading from Pravda, the official communist party newspaper: How could a country that produced such brilliant thinkers as Goethe, Braham’s, and Freud also produce such villains as Adolf Hitler and the SS?

What’s the big deal? I asked.

He explained: In a country where it is dangerous to speak the truth, everyone speaks in code so Goethe, Braham’s, and Freud translate as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Stravinsky and Hitler becomes the party leader and the SS becomes the KGB. So in Russia even the street drunk is easily an accomplished poet, while in democratic countries where people expect the truth, poets are rare and usually eccentric.

Introduction

In Nicholson Baker’s novel, The Anthologist, we meet an eccentric poet named Paul Chowder. An obviously educated man, Paul is a pathetic figure. He pales before his one task in this narrative: To write an introduction to an anthology of poetry that he has assembled. His cowardice in not rising to the task provokes his girl-friend to leave him. He is too proud to teach and the college where he previously taught refuses to take him back so he is unemployed and is forced to do odd jobs to earn money to support his poetry habit. He spends most of his time contemplating poetry while sitting in a plastic white chair in the barn behind his house. If that weren’t enough, many of his favorite poets lose heart and end up committing suicide.

Let me try to unpack what is going on here in terms of genre, the task, and the context.  This is a work of art, which implies your mileage may vary.

Genre

Some readers may wonder why an author would use the novel form to introduce the audience to the history and mechanics of poetry. This is a reasonable question.

The Anthologist presents itself as a cross between two interesting books: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder.

The first book comes to mind because it follows the daily life of Ivan Denisovich with such detail that would not be expected. Denisovich is essentially condemned to live out his last days in a freezing death camp, like millions of others before him. He is special only in his dignified persistence in not dying. We might infer that Solzhenitsyn pictures Denisovich as the image of God. We care about Denisovich because he could be any one of us and, as God’s image bearer, his life is precious. Paul Chowder is no different, except for the observation than he is named for a favorite seafood item carried by every Boston restaurant.

The second book comes to mind because Sophie World chronicles an introduction to Philosophy, much like Paul Chowder provides a treatise on poetry. Being a novel means that the structure and history of poetry is revealed, helping to move the plot forward and to develop Chowder as a character. For most readers, this is a fresh approach to an otherwise dry topic.

The Task

The task of writing an introduction to an anthology might on the surface seem to be a rather straightforward writing task. We get a clue to the problem presented as Chowder is told that he must write forty pages. His proclivity to review in his mind the social context of many previous anthologies provides another clue. Anthologies make or break the poets included and he knows all these poets personally. He never says it directly, but his role as kingmaker clearly bothers him. Why else casually mention the vast number of poets that have committed suicide?

Social Context

Paul Chowder provides a window into the despair of the postmodern era.

While Catholic art focuses on sacred events and traditions, Protestant art pictures God in everyday people and items of life. Where Catholic art features the Madonna and Child, the cross with Jesus still on it, the communion elements, and baptismal pictures, Protestant art introduced the beauty of landscapes, still life, and peasants at work that all point to God as creator. Secular art obsesses about physical things and strips away the reference to the creator. Madonna is stripped naked and stripped of her relationship to God to become mere pornography. In poetry, words no longer point beyond themselves, have meaning only relative to one another, and become hollow symbols. Despair and suicide are a natural consequence of such meaningless art.

In such a world, Paul Chowder’s task becomes a deconstructionist’s power play—the quality of poetry that points nowhere is completely in the eye of the editor: The anthologist. Chowder is like the father driving his two kids who is confronted with an accident and is given Sophie’s choice—give up one child or the other—and unable to decide he freezes. Worse, he describes his own poetry as a plum, because it does not often rhyme. So constitutionally unable to play the kingmaker, Chowder sits in his white chair in the barn and stares into space.

Assessment

Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist is a fascinating book. One need not unpack the social critique to enjoy the artful descriptions. Baker was born in New York City, studied at Eastman School of Music, and received a B.A. in English from Haverford College.[2]

References

Gaarder, Jostein.1996. Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy. Translated by Paulette Møller. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. 2009. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Orig pub 1962). New York: Penguin.

Footnotes

[1] @nicholsonbaker8. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/authors/1229/nicholson-baker

[2]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicholson_Baker.

Baker Loves Characters

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Bell: The Emotional Journey is the Journey

Bell_review_20201118

James Scott Bell. 2015. Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story. Woodland Hills: Compendium Press

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Words take new meaning in a new context.

I used to imagine a thought experiment in which a man sits of stool in a small room. Each of the four walls around have a different scene painted on them. One scene might be a beach; another a desert; a third a burning city; still another a dining-room table set with Thanksgiving dinner. Even though the man on the stool does not change, our perception of him does as the camera moves to picture him against a different backdrop.

As I gain more experience as a writer, my perception of writing books changes like the man being photographed on the stool. Points previously glossed over take on new meaning. So I keep reading new writing books.

Introduction

In his book, Super Structure, James Scott Bell begins:

“In Write Your Novel from the Middle, I provide a brief outline of Super Structure. This book fleshes out each of those steps, and provides tips and techniques for incorporating them into your own writing.” (1)

After a few pages, he writes:

“I like to think of Super Structure as signpost scenes or beats … [Driving down the road] if you know what the next signpost is, you won’t get lost or drive off a cliff.” (7)

For Bell, some aspects of structure have to do with the plot, as with a three-act play (8-9), while other aspects have to do with emotional transitions, like Bell’s LOCK system or his fourteen sign posts.

Lead, Objective, Confrontation, and Knockout (LOCK)

Bell’s LOCK acronym summarizes his sign posts: Lead, Objective, Confrontation, and Knockout. The writer must bind the reader with the lead character, make the character’s objective (a struggle with physical, professional, or psychological death) obvious, show the character overcoming an opposing force in confrontation, and resolve the conflict in a final knockout battle (19, 23).

Fourteen Sign Posts

The fourteen sign posts offer make the emotional journey in a novel more obvious:

Act 1

  1. Disturbance
  2. Care package
  3. Argument against transformation
  4. Trouble brewing
  5. Doorway of no return #1

Act 2

  1. Kick in the shins
  2. The mirror moment
  3. Pet the dog
  4. Doorway of no return #1

Act 3

  1. Mounting forces
  2. Lights out
  3. Q factor
  4. Final battle
  5. Transformation (39-40).

Of particular interest to me was his description of a care package. No villain, however villainous, is completely devoid of attachments. Showing that he cares about someone or something close to him (an existing relationship) is important to demonstrating that he is an emotionally complete individual and bonding the reader to him. A pet-the-dog moment reinforces this point, but with someone or something not so familiar (a new relationship). A pet-the-dog moment is one way, for example, to introduce a new character (78-79).

Explaining all of the allusions here is beyond the scope of this review. Needless to say, Bell does a good job of bringing in memorable movie scenes to illustrate his points. The term, pet-the-dog moment, arrives from a scene in a Dirty Harry movie where Cliff Eastwood’s character withdraws from a gun fight to pet a stray dog. It is a totally unexpected move on his part that shows his humanity—we learn that Callahan may hate criminals, but he is not totally heartless—he loves dogs. The scene also dials down the heat on what would otherwise be a fairly intense moment.

Background

On his website, we read:

Jim has taught writing at Pepperdine University and at numerous writer’s conferences in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. He attended the University of California, Santa Barbara where he studied writing with Raymond Carver, and graduated with honors from the University of Southern California Law Center.[1] 

In addition to his writing books, he is known for writing thrillers, television appearances, and legal work.

Assessment

James Scott Bell’s Super Structure is a helpful guide to writing a novel, particularly thrillers. His writing style is light and lively accented by his frequent allusion to scenes from well-known movies. As a longtime Bell fan, I found the book a helpful reminder of many of his points, my way of internalizing his writing method while picking up material unique to the book.

Footnotes

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

Bell: The Emotional Journey is the Journey

Also See:

Bell, James Scott.  2004.  Plot and Structure:  Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from Start to Finish.  Cincinnati:  Writer’s Digest Books. (review)

Bell, James Scott. 2008. Revision & Self-Editing: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Finished Novel. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books. (Review).

Bell, James Scott. 2009. The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises. Cinninnati: Writers Digest Books (review).

Bell, James Scott. 2014. How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press. (review)

Bell, James Scott. 2019. The Last Fifty Pages: The Art and Craft of Unforgettable Endings. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press. (review)

Books, Films, and Ministry

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Worsley’s Polar Shipwreck

Worsley_review_20210306Frank A. Worsley. 2000. Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure (orig pub 1931). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Humility is a lost art. While each generation holds its own accomplishments most dearly, ours tends to write off history altogether and to puff up today’s cultural icons. Part of the reason for our generational myopia arises from ignorance, but most of it stems from valuing feelings over reason. Recent pains sting more than those of our parents and grandparents. One cure for this myopia is to read memoirs from prior generations to hear firsthand about their challenges and responses

Introduction

Frank A. Worsley’s memoir, Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure, is an excellent place to start. Worsley was captain of the Endurance under the command of Sir Ernest Shackleton that attempted to reach in the South Pole in an expedition in1914-16. After recounting the story of the Endurance, Worsley goes on to describe other adventures, including recapping his military service later in World War One.

The Endurance became trapped in pack ice and ultimately sank on July 13, 1915 leaving the expedition in the dead of the southern winter stranded eight hundred miles from the nearest whaling station at South Georgia Island. What began as a gallant attempt to reach the bottom of the earth had morphed quickly into an epic survival story against odds few would gamble. The most recent film (2013) made of the Endurance story, entitled Shackleton’s Captain, is available on Netflix.

Worsley’s account has all the trappings of the later story of Apollo 13’s attempt to reach the moon in April 1970 that failed due to an accident leaving the crew unable to complete the mission and making their survival problematic.

Background and Organization

Frank Arthur Worsley (February 22, 1872–February 1, 1943) was a New Zealand sailor who served as captain of the Endurance. During the First World War, Worsley captained the Q-ship PC.61 that rammed and sank a German U-boat, UC-33. After the war he became a popular lecturer.[1]

Worsley’s memoir is written in fifteen chapters, preceded by a preface and foreword, and followed by an index. The chapters are:

  1. We Lose the Endurance
  2. Looking Back
  3. On the Pack-ice
  4. We Reach Elephant Island
  5. On Elephant Island
  6. The Boat Journey Begins
  7. We Reach South Georgia
  8. The Crossing of South Georgia
  9. The Rescue
  10. Northwards Again
  11. The Ross Sea Party
  12. In Northern Waters
  13. Southwards Again
  14. Shackleton Looks Back
  15. The Death of a Hero (xi)

Judging from the page numbers, about half of the book focuses on the Endurance. Other chapters recount Worsley’s wartime experiences, time as captain of a merchant schooner, and the second attempt to reach South Pole. He also recounts some of the stories told him by Shackleton and gives a lengthy description of the differences between the Arctic and Antarctic regions in terms of climate, animal and plant life.

 Arctic and Antarctic

Worsley sailed seas in both the Arctic and Antarctic regions and writes at length about the differences between the two. Having visited neither, I generally assumed the two to be roughly equivalent, although I would never confuse where to look for Santa’s residence!

Worsley observes: “Antarctic is a continent surrounded by ocean, whereas the Arctic is an ocean almost surrounded by continents.” (247) “The Antarctic average yearly temperature is probably twenty-five or thirty degrees cold than that of the Arctic.” (248) Unlike the Arctic, Antarctica poses

“no trees, no real soil nor vegetation, no land animals, land birds, winged insects nor human beings. There are only herds of seals and flocks of sea birds along the coast and on the pack-ice, schools of whales where there is enough open water for them to blow in, and fish in the sea.” (251)

The Northern seals are smaller and different species than in the South. Unlike in the South, the North has no penguins while the South has no polar bears (253). In addition to studying the wild life in both regions, the explorers needed to hunt and live off local animal populations in order to survive.

Assessment

Frank Worsley’s memoir, Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure, is a fascinating book to read during pandemic times to gain some perspective on suffering and personal sacrifice. Worsley has an expert eye for his surroundings and a key insight into the human condition. His seamanship skills are repeatedly tested and displayed, which proved interesting to the novice in me.

Worsley writes in the midst of the Great Depression primarily to inhabitants of the British empire. His writing is mostly devoid of the class and cultural criticism. This point is raised in the 2013 film where Shackleton’s decision to push the expedition forward despite unfavorable weather is criticized as poor judgment and self-serving. In a society and at a time when loyalty was prized above all things, one could not expect Worsley to offer such observations about his self-described boss and best friend.

Footnotes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Worsley.

Worsley’s Polar Shipwreck

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Parks: Mentoring Matters

Big_review_07212014 New York:  John Wiley & Sons.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

As the father of three 20-somethings, I have frequently been torn between repressed anger, guilt, and a feeling of total inadequacy as a parent. Thanks to the influence of Sharon D. Parks, Big Questions; Worthy Dreams, I have found mentoring to be a reasonable response to my parenting situation.

Parks makes two points that clarify the mentoring task at hand.

The first point is her definition of a young adult. She asks: When does one cross the threshold into adulthood? The response of North American culture is ambiguous (4). Finding work and a spouse are still important, but the time required to become educated and increasing problem of downward mobility make it harder to become settled. The ambiguity and instability of the young adult situation in society are reflected in the greater challenge facing mentors, including parents.

The second point is reflected in her title. Young adulthood is a life-stage where the formation of meaning is particularly important. Parks writes: in the years from seventeen to thirty a distinctive mode of meaning-making can emerge, one that has certain adult characteristics but understandably lacks others (6).

The importance of challenging the young adult to take new faith steps is captured in her prescription–develop and expand a worthy, young adult dream. Parks writes: If the young adult Dream is to have mature power and serve the full potential of self and world, then it must be critically reexamined from time to time throughout adulthood (219). The role of mentors is to help the young adult craft, refine, and be true to this dream.

Parks writes Big Questions, Worthy Dreams in 10 chapters:

  1. Young Adulthood in a Changing World:  Promise and Vulnerability;
  2. Meaning and Faith;
  3. Becoming at Home in the Universe;
  4. It Matters How We Think;
  5. It All Depends…;
  6. …On Belonging;
  7.  Imagination:  The Power of Adult Faith;
  8. The Gifts of a Mentoring Environoment;
  9. Mentoring Communities; and
  10. Culture as a Mentor (vii).

These chapters are bracketed by a preface and various references at the end.  At the time of publication, Parks was an associate director at the Whidbey Institute near Seattle, WA [1].  She is now involved with an effort called the Leadership for the New Commons [2].  Formerly, she was with Harvard Divinity School and other noteworthy institutions.

The scope and depth of Park’s scholarship suggests that this book targets graduate students and professionals focused on counseling young adults. Most readers looking for advice on parenting are likely to find this book a challenging read. The gap between these two ready audiences suggests an opportunity for a follow up text focused on aid and comfort for the typical parents of young adults.

Footnotes

[1] http://whidbeyinstitute.org.

[2] www.newcommons.org.

Parks: Mentoring Matters

Also See:

Friedman: Families Matter 

Turansky and Miller: Hope for Parents 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

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