Bell: Sharp Characters Spirit Dialogue

James Scott Bell: How to Write Dazzling DialogueBell: Sharp Characters Spirit Dialogue

James Scott Bell.[1] 2014. How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

What dazzles editors? Journeying from nonfiction to fiction writing, I have had to learn new things. Where nonfiction authors write articles, reviews, and reflections, fiction authors focus on writing scenes. While nonfiction authors focus on analysis and description fiction authors focus on plot, character, and dialogue. When I stumbled across James Scott Bell’s How To Write Dazzling Dialogue, I knew that I had to learn how to dazzle.


Bell starts by comparing three manuscripts. The first begins with description. The second begins with descriptive dialog. The third begins with dialog between two people in conflict. Which has the most rapid pace? Which is most likely to get noticed by an agent? Bell describes the third manuscript as “crisp and tense”. It is taken from Michael Connelly’s The Last Coyote (9).

Dialogue Defined

Bell defines dialogue citing John Howard Lawson’s Theory and Technique of Playwriting who described dialogue as “compression and extension of action.” He goes on to say that: “Every word, every phrase that comes out of a character’s mouth is uttered because the character hopes it will further a purpose.” In other words, every character has an agenda. (12) Thus, dazzling dialogue arises from the intersection of two characters’ agendas in opposition. (13)

 Five Functions of Dialogue

The role of compression is important. Bell writes: “Dialogue is not real-life speech. It is stylized speech for which the author, through the characters, has a purpose.” (16) Focusing on the character’s agenda, the dialogue must cut to the chase and reveal underlying conflict, even if in good natured banter. (17) Bell sees five functions of dialogue:

  1. Reveal story information
  2. Reveal character
  3. Set the tone
  4. Set the scene
  5. Reveal theme (22).

In weaving a story, Bell advises the author to act first, explain later and to hide story information (exposition) within confrontation to avoid appearing too preachy. (25) How people talk reveals their character in terms of education, social position, regional background, and peer groups (35-36). Tone is revealed in how characters talk to each other (36). The scene is described through how characters react to it and to each other (37). Theme can be revealed without being preachy by embedding it in the dialogue. (38)

Practicing Dialogue

Bell suggests that the best way to learn to write dialogue is to practice acting out or writing out different roles with a voice journal. He writes:

“How do I know what a character’s voice sounds like? I prompt them with questions and then let them talk. I do this fast, without thinking about it much. What I’m waiting for is the moment when the character starts talking to me in a voice I did not plan.” (40-41)

He advises writers to take time in writing these journals out and reading them out loud (41-42). Another way to practice dialogue is to convert movie scripts into scenes in narrative form. (42). His example is taken from Cool Hand Luke, a film starring Paul Newman (1967), one of my favorite movies.[2] Bell also suggests trying improvisation. (45)

Increasing Tension

Dialogue can also benefit from new agendas, arguments, barriers, and addition of fear. (61) Bell recommends that characters who simply act out who they are in dialogue makes for natural conflict that simply flows out of their personalities.

The classic film that Bell returns to over and over is Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (28-30). In the film, Humphrey Bogart plays a closed mouth private detective, Sam Spade, who interacts with talkative socialites, manipulative millionaires, and sleazy women who have trouble telling the truth. Conflicting agendas break out everywhere because the characters differ deeply from one another. This is what Bell refers to as orchestration because well-formed characters ooze conflict. (62)

Arguments can be playful or serious. Barriers can be cultural—think of someone that thinks so differently from you that communication is difficult—or situational. Have you ever had a job interview where the interviewer was constantly interrupted with phone calls or an assistant breaking in? Sometimes barriers to communication can be downright funny or simply discouraging.


James Scott Bell’s How to Write Dazzling Dialogue is a fascinating read for authors needing tips on how to improve dialogue and follow convention in writing it. Bell writes thrillers, teaches writing, and works as a screenwriter in Los Angeles. His advice on dialogue runs deep.


[1] @JamesScottBell



Connelly, Michael. 2003. The Last Coyote. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Lawson, John Howard. 1936. Theory and Technique of Playwriting. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.


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Marion Roach Smith Writes Memoir

Marion Roach Smith, The Memoir ProjectMarion Roach Smith Writes Memoir

Marion Roach Smith. 2011. The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing and Life. New York: Grand Central Publishing.

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Hiemstra’s rule: once a project is complete, the best cites appear. Sometimes this rule follows from slow snail-mail delivery; other times it follows from inefficient networking; may be new eyes of expertise reveal a diamond in the rough. It is frustrating to find a resource that could have reduced the number of prior drafts by a factor of two. Such is my experience with Marion Roach Smith’s The Memoir Project.

Three Guidelines

Smith offers three basic guidelines for writing a memoir:

  1. Writing memoir is about telling the truth.
  2. Every page must one single story forward.
  3. Just because something happens, doesn’t make it interesting (14-24).

While I have described memoir as an autobiography with a theme, Smith is addressing writers who publish for people that they do not personally know. This marketing imperative burdens every paragraph in the memoir to move the theme forward as in a novel. This is unlike an autobiography that could be written more like nonfiction. The pacing and intensity are different.

Telling the Truth

The nature of truth, accordingly to Smith, starts with writing what you know (14). Actually writing what you know is Smith’s mantra and part of the title of a prior edition of this book. She cites Emily Dickinson’s poem 1129: “Tell All the Truth but tell it slant.” For Smith, slant means writing in your own, consistent voice; your take on the world (15).

In a postmodern context, telling the truth can be a challenge because philosophically postmoderns have trouble with the idea of objectivity—one truth that we can all agree on. This might sound liberating but for the writer in means being careful to describe not only the physical context for your life but also the social and economic context. Your slant will not only define your authentic voice, but also the prospective audience that will be willing to listen to it.

In my memoir, I write to my family in my own voice. Knowing that others will be eavesdropping, however, I have hired a first-class editor and pay careful attention to her advice.

Moving the Story Forward

Smith interprets theme in terms of case studies. She suggests identifying your theme (what’s this story about) and thinking of your story as an illustration of this theme. This change in focus is helpful because your life is no longer the story; it is the illustration, a case study of the theme. This lifts a burden from the author because, as an illustration, exact details are less important than advancing the theme (23).

At a minimum, this attitudinal shift towards theme and away from autobiography simplifies both the creation of a reasonable outline and the editing of the drafts that follow.

Everything that Happens Isn’t Interesting

Smith writes:

“thinking of memoir as laying out only a few cards from an entire deck, one at a time, each card moving forward the one story that you choose to tell.” (32)

Obviously, what is interesting in a memoir are the events in your life that are consistent with and advance the theme of your book. As someone with a terrible memory and lacking the gift of gab, this guideline seems unduly burdensome. Smith finds solace in focusing on telling big stories with little details.

Dog People

Smith offers some fascinating details about how attitudes about dogs have changed in recent years. Back in the day, dogs used to mind the territories of their owners, often posted in the backyard to keep strangers from jumping. Trips to the vet were rare and pet food consisted primarily of leftovers from dinner. No longer. Today, dogs are treated as members of the family with their own healthcare plans, toys, and exclusive treats. Socially, dogs provide a focus of neighborly interaction and, if you are single, a reasonable alternative to online dating.

In this vein, Smith recounts the story of the death of a neighbor’s dog and how that played out for neighborhood sisters (39). The little details of this encounter offer insights more interesting than a description of the big story of lonely people living in isolation. Her slant on the big story is to notice and write down the defining characteristics of this encounter (a woman wearing her husband’s swim trunks) and a trip with a dead dog to the doggie hospital (40). While a dead dog looks to me like garden fertilizer, Smith’s story provides more insight into today’s culture.

Marion Roach Smith

Marion Roach Smith is a graduate of Saint Lawrence University[1] in Canton, New York and worked for the New York Times. Her books include: The Roots of Desire: The Myth, Meaning and Sexual Power of Red Hair, (Bloomsbury, 2005), Another Name for Madness, (Houghton Mifflin, 1985) and others. She has written for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, The New York Times Magazine, Prevention, Vogue, Good Housekeeping, and The Los Angeles Times.[2]

Marion Roach Smith’s The Memoir Project is a fascinating and helpful book of interest to authors who take memoir seriously.


[2] @MRoachSmith.

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Brooks Structures Story, Part 2

Larry Brooks, Story EngineeringBrooks Structures Story, Part 2

Larry Brooks. 2011. Story Engineer: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books. (Goto Part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In his book, Story Engineer, Larry Brooks focuses on six core competencies which must be mastered to become a professional writer. Those competencies are concept, character, theme, scene execution, writing voice, and structure (23). In part one of this review, I gave an overview of the book and discussed the first five of these competencies. Here in part two, I will concentrate the last of these competencies, story structure, where Brooks focuses the most attention and reinforces with helpful exploration of milestones, how to work with an outline, and other details.


In Brooks’ thinking:

“Story structure is the sequence of your scenes that result in a story well told. Story architecture is the empowerment of those scenes through compelling characterizations, powerful thematic intentions, a fresh and intriguing conceptual engine, and a writing voice that brings it all to life with personality and energy.” (138)

He divides his stories into four parts separated by milestones that drive the plot.

Four-Part Story

Brooks writes:

“The mission of Part 1 is to set up the plot by creating stakes, backstory, and character empathy, while perhaps foreshadowing the forthcoming conflict. Basically, it’s to introduce the hero and show us what he has going on in his life…not for the remainder of the story, but before the arrival of the main antagonistic force (the primary conflict of the story) at the First Plot Point.” (147)

Milestones Separate the Parts

He sees part one as 20-25 being percent of the story and it ends abruptly with the First Plot Point. Part 1 Begins in Peace Ends with Conflict. Part 2 begins with a non-heroic response to this conflict (151). After the midpoint of the story, part 3 shows our hero going on the attack, but ineffectively (155). After information provided in the Second Plot Point, part 4 begins with our hero becoming equipped and emerging as a real hero (156). Brooks summarizes these transitions as the hero starting out an orphan, becoming a wanderer, growing into a warrior, and emerging as a martyr (157).

Brooks writes:

“Milestones are points in your story where new information enters the narrative and changes the direction, tension, and stakes. These milestones appear in the same approximate place, separating the four parts of the story.” (158)

He sees about eighty percent of your story focusing on these milestones, which makes understanding them critical to the structure of the story (159).

Milestones Defined

Brooks cites these milestones: opening scene, hooking moment, inciting incident, First Plot Point, First Pinch Point, Midpoint, Second Pinch Point, Second Plot Point, and resolution scene. He observes:

“If you allow three (or more) additional scenes that setup and surround these milestone moments, that’s at least thirty to forty scenes. Or about two-thirds of your entire story.” (160)

Given the importance of these milestones, virtually everything else in the story focuses on connecting to the next milestone, which makes understanding the story structure important in planning and executing your writing (161). Brooks makes this point repeatedly in his book, distinguishing writers who plan from organic writers who profess not to. Convincing writers to plan their stories is an important theme in this book.

First Plot Point

The First Plot Point introduces conflict into the story. Often the external conflict cannot be resolved until the hero’s inner conflict is dealt with. This is one reason the hero’s response in part 2 remains lame and incomplete. This inner conflict provides a starting point for the character arc of the story where the hero grows into someone much stronger than we see introduced in part 1 (93).

Pinch Point

A Pinch Point is a reminder of the nature and implications of an antagonistic force, unfiltered by the hero’s experience (200), which basically suggests that the hero is not making it all up. In some stories, the mental state of the hero may be questioned, because the response may seem disproportionate to observes not familiar with First Plot Point. The Pinch Point makes it clear either to the reader or the hero that the conflict is real.


The Midpoint comes at halfway through the story and occurs when the hero gains important information about the conflict that is being faced. The information is important enough that the hero ceases to be a wanderer and transitions to becoming a warrior.

Second Plot Point

At the Second Plot comes about three-quarters of the way through the story when the hero gains information critical to advancing on the attack. After this point, the hero is heroic and needs no more new insights, advancing from warrior to martyr, if necessary. The story advances into part 4 where the conflict is ultimately resolved (204-205).

Resolution Scene

In the resolution scene, Brooks writes:

[For part 4] “There is no blueprint for it…[and only one rule] no new expositional information may enter the story after the Second Plot Point that commences with it. If something appears in the final act, it must have been foreshadowed, referenced, or already in play. This includes characters—no newcomers allowed.” (210)

In part 4, our hero exhibits his personal growth and vanquishes his inner demons enough to resolve the basic story conflict (211).


Larry Brooks’ Story Engineer is an award-winning book on writing craft that draws on writing both novels and screen plays. Brooks reads easily and he uses examples from numerous well-known books and films. The target audience is authors serious about improving their craft.


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Brooks Structures Story, Part 1

Larry Brooks, Story EngineeringBrooks Structures Story, Part 1

Larry Brooks. 2011. Story Engineer: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books. (Goto Part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In early July as I responded to my editor’s comments on my memoir, a disturbing thought came to mind. I have just written a novel with 98 scenes (from the perspective of a fiction writer) and I have no idea of how properly to write a scene. I scrambled that afternoon to find a writing book to rectify my problem. This search led me to Larry Brook’s Story Engineering.


Of course, Brooks writes about more than how to compose a good scene. He cites his purpose in publishing another book on writing as:

“Interestingly, there are many books on screenwriting that do what most novel-writing books don’t—they show us what to write, when to write it, what follows what, what should go where, and why, and tell us the criteria for ensuring that our creative choices are effective ones. In other words, how to get it done.” (4)

This statement snagged my interest. Yes—I know what the hero’s journey is; no—I am clueless as to how to compose one. My memoir is an example of the hero’s journey, but how to write scenes that use the template effectively is not obvious, having never done it before.

Who is Larry Brooks?

Larry Brooks is the author of three books on writing fiction and has six critically-acclaimed thrillers, including Darkness Bound, Bait and Switch, Deadly Faux, and The Seventh Thunder. He grew up in Portland, Oregon, was educated at Portland State University, pitched [baseballs] for the Texas Rangers, and spent seventeen years in corporate marketing and training business. Brooks lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, and travels frequently as a speaker and workshop teacher at writing conferences.[1]

Outline of Book

Brooks’ six core competencies are: concept, character, theme, structure, scene execution, and writing voice. He structures his book in eight parts around these six competencies plus an introduction (why we care) and conclusion (putting it together). These eight parts divide into fifty chapters with the twenty-two of the fifty chapters devoted to story structure—the hero’s journey. Let me turn to these competencies.


A concept is a fresh look at an old idea. Brooks advises that a concept should ask a question where the answer to the question is your story. He writes: “story about ballet dancers is not a concept.” But, “what if a ballet dancer loses her leg at the knee but perseveres against great prejudice to become a professional dancer?” (31).

Notice the “what if” in this last statement. Drilling down into your concept with additional what if questions can help expand on your story and provide the fodder for twists and turns along the way (42). For example, what if your handicapped ballet dancer is also African America, a war heroine, child-prodigy mathematician, the daughter of the president, or lived in the nineteenth century? The possibilities are endless.


Brooks looks at the character through the eyes of the plot. He writes: “Character is the catalyst that empowers everything else in your story.” (56) Obviously, in order for a character to be larger than life, this character must be alive, at least on the page. Aspects of character that he notes are: surface affections and personality, backstory, character arc, inner demons and conflicts, worldview, goals and motivations, and decisions, actions, and behaviors (54-55).

Brooks’ insight into character comes in defining its three dimensions: outward appearance, the reason for behaviors, and inner person (64-65). Economists talk about firms in terms of their structure, conduct, and performance, which is essentially the same set of distinctions in different words. These dimensions interface with the plot because outward appearance and behaviors are observed with or without conflict. The conflict in the story, which drives the plot, is the only way, however, that you can reveal the inner person (71). Here is Brooks’ catalyst at work.

An important component of character, known as the character arc, displays “what the character does in the first part of the story probably won’t be the same flavor of action or decision that will manifest in the last part.” (93) The interplay with plot comes when an external obstacle in the hero’s quest cannot be eliminated until the hero deals with his own internal obstacles (94). The hero’s struggle with these two conflicts is an important subplot, according to Brooks (101).


Brooks explains that “Theme is the relevance of your story to life.” (118) Your story is essentially a case study illustrating a greater truth.  In the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), for example, Jesus illustrates how we should treat our neighbors. The theme is neighborly love and the story illustrates this love. Theme has a sacramental characteristic in the sense that a sacrament is outward sign with an inward meaning. Developing a theme requires careful preparation of context.

Scene Execution

A scene is a dramatic scenario in one time and place that moves the plot (or character) along. It is a transition with a beginning, middle, and ending (229-230). Interestingly, Brooks sees scenes that illustrate character being the primary focus of literary fiction and scenes that move the plot along being the primary focus of commercial fiction (241). Obviously, if the purpose of a scene is motion towards an objective (either character or plot), the context of the scene in the wider story must be known in advance (238-239). For the sake of clarity, a scene should only make a single point. Changes in time or place motivate writing of a new scene (233).

Writing Voice

Writing voice is the attitude that you display as you write. Brooks makes the point that your attitude should be professional, clean, crisp, natural, efficient (247-248). It is a bit like a writer’s personal hygiene—it either goes without notice or it stinks up the place. It is most noticeable in dialogue, in part, because dialogue tends to mark your social position and flexibility.

Brooks notes that “Dialogue is also specific to variables such as age, culture, geography, relationships, and agenda.” (250) Like speech itself, it is hard to fake, prompting Brooks’ watch-phrase: “less is more.” (247)

Because Brooks spills most of his ink on story structure (the hero’s journey), in part 2 of this review will focus on structure.


Larry Brooks’ Story Engineer is an award-winning book on the craft of writing story that draws on writing both novels and screen plays. Brooks reads easily and he uses examples from numerous well-known books and films. The target audience is authors serious about improving their craft.

[1] @StoryFix.


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Smith Models Jesus’ Lifestyle

Stephen W. Smith, The Jesus Life

Smith Models Jesus’ Lifestyle

Stephen W. Smith. 2012. The Jesus Life: Eight Ways to Recover Authentic Christianity. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the most perplexing problems in postmodern American is the breakdown of healthy boundaries between public and private, church and state, between work and leisure, and even between male and female. Lacking healthy boundaries, Americans have become anxious, sleep-deprived, eating too much, using too many drugs, and suicidal, as life expectancy declines due to these self-inflicted wounds. With the decay of reasonable boundaries, young couples flinch at the idea of bringing children into the world, preferring to keep pets that are cheaper and offer unconditional love. How should Christians respond in their lifestyles to this dystopian reality facing perhaps seventy percent of the population?


Stephen W. Smith’s book, The Jesus Life, starts with a promise: “This book will help you recover your life.” (17) Smith (30) commends these verses:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:28-30 ESV)

He starts by asking three questions:

  1. What do you need to recover from?
  2. Has someone or something stolen the life you wanted?
  3. What’s not working for you in your life? (30)

He finds his answers not in the teachings of Jesus, but in the cadence of the sustainable life that Jesus actually led (33, 36).

Luke’s Gospel Outlines Jesus’ Lifestyle

Smith finds Luke, the Greek doctor, particularly helpful in sorting out the Jesus’ lifestyle. Unlike other New Testament writers, Luke was not Hebrew and the assumptions of a Jewish lifestyle were new to him. Only Luke, for example, writes:

“And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read.” (Luke 4:16)

A Jewish writer would not need to say that Jesus’ custom was to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath—all good Jews do this and would not need to observe it. So Smith writes something important for our gentile ears to hear:

“As a boy, Jesus was raised in a culture of sustainable rhythm. His soul was shaped by the cadence of Sabbath keeping and seasonal festivals that were intended to help him and all people to remember God’s faithfulness, protection, and provision.” (36)

In contemporary jargon, Jesus did not grow up surrounded by people burning the candlesticks from both ends; he grew up knowing the boundaries of Sabbath, prayer, and religious festivals pointing to God (36). Here we find an outline of answers to Smith’s three questions cited above.

Rhythms of Life Remain Key

Smith advocates developing a new rhythms of life that will: “sustain and replenish our lives” (41) We start by keeping the Sabbath (44), because tired people love neither God nor neighbor, but Smith looks to us to develop our own rituals of life to remind us of God and who we are. His chapters end with suggestions on how to implement this suggestion, such as “Ask a group of life-giving friends to join you once a month for a meal.” (46)

Smith focuses attention on Luke’s insistence that we see the rhythm—engage then disengage (54)—of Jesus’ ministry. This pattern is repeated seven times in Luke—4:38-42, 5:16, 6:12-19, 9:10-12, 9:28-36, 11:1, and 21:37-38 (56-60). In this last two verses, for example, we read:

“And every day he was teaching in the temple, but at night he went out and lodged on the mount called Olivet. And early in the morning all the people came to him in the temple to hear him.” (Luke 21:37-38)

If Jesus took time to rest and observe the Sabbath, why don’t we? Clearly, we need to do this.

Who is Stephen Smith?

Stephen Smith describes himself on his website with these words:

“Co-Founders, President and Spiritual Directors of Potter’s Inn.  Steve was educated at Lenoir Rhyne College, NC, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, KY; Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, IL. Steve has pastored churches in KY, NC and the Netherlands. As a speaker, spiritual director, author and companion, Steve offers soul care and spiritual care through many avenues.”[1]

 Smith is the author of numerous books, including The Lazarus Life, Soul Custody, and Soul Shaping. He and his wife, Gwen, live in Colorado.

Eight Ways to Recover Christianity?

What are the eight ways to recover authentic Christianity? These are outlined in separate chapters in part 3 of the book:

  1. Living the Jesus Life Every Day.
  2. Choosing Obscurity to Cultivate Life.
  3. Living the Life with Our Family and Those Closest to Us.
  4. Cultivating Friendships in Reality and Truth.
  5. Savoring a Sacred Memory.
  6. Extending Life to Others.
  7. Creating Signposts as We Journey through Life.
  8. Understanding the Role of Pain and Suffering (11-12).

Part 1 of the book defines the problem and part 2 outlines Jesus’ lifestyle. Part 4 provides an overview of the good life, building on what was previously said.


Stephen W. Smith’s book, The Jesus Life, interprets the lifestyle of Jesus in simple English with many examples taken from daily life. Unlike many authors, Smith focuses on applying principles taken from Jesus’ example to contemporary life. Underscoring this focus on application, Smith quotes scripture primarily from Eugene Peterson’s contemporary translation of the Bible, The Message.

[1] @pottersinn


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Dreher Sees Flood, Offers Ark, Part 3

Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option

Dreher Sees Flood, Offers Ark, Part 3

Rod Dreher.[1] 2017. The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. New York: Sentinel. (Goto part 1; Goto part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the signs of brokenness in the church today is the near total absence of application in pastoral sermons. In seminary, no sermon is complete without a sermon application. Today’s sermons are delivered more with an attitude of nice-to-know, not critical for salvation or the practice of our faith. In our buddy culture, the idea of a pastor actually offering advice is not-politically correct. The same holds for books about faith.

The Monastic Connection

Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation starts with the application up front: Benedict is short for Benedict’s rule which is a structured approach to daily life. He writes:

‘A Rule works that way, to channel your spiritual energy, your work, your activity, so that you’re able to accomplish something,’ Father Cassian said.

‘Monastic life is very plain,’ he continued. ‘People from the outside perhaps have a romantic vision, perhaps what they see on television, of monks sort of floating around the cloister. There is that, and that’s attractive, but basically, monks get up in the morning, they pray, they do their work, they pray some more. They eat, they pray, they do some more work, they pray some more, and then they go to bed. It’s rather plain, just like most people. The genius of Saint Benedict is to find the presence of God in everyday life.’ (52)

Making Room for God

What Dreher is proposing for postmodern Christians is to focus on “finding the presence of God in everyday life.” While this objective is simple enough, it is hard to apply. Consider his advice:

Here’s how to get started with the antipolitical politics of the Benedict Option. Secede culturally from the mainstream. Turn off the television. Put the smartphones away. Read books. Play games. Make music. Feast with your neighbors. It is not enough to avoid what is bad; you must also embrace what is good. (98)

If you think these prescriptions are easy, try turning off the television set. I attended a funeral about two years ago where the man was buried with a television remote in his hand. Or how about the smartphone suggestion? My wife, who teaches in the public schools, cannot get through to her students because they are distracted by cellphones constantly and refuse to study. These seemingly simple suggestions represent radical departures from American culture today.

Order in Disorder

Dreher writes: “If a defining characteristic of the modern world is disorder, then the most fundamental act of resistance is to establish order.” (54) Monks establish order, in part, by praying liturgy of the hours, which is seven times daily (58-59). By regularly returning to prayer, they are better able to reflect on God presence at each point in the daily routine. Dreher notes that “ascetical practices train body and soul to put God above self” (63) and provide an antidote to the spiritual sloth of our time (64). He notes:

A church that looks and talks and sounds just like the world has no reason to exist. A church that does not emphasize asceticism and discipleship is as pointless as a football coaching staff that doesn’t care if its players show up for practice. (121)

One of the things that I enjoyed most about interning as a chaplain in Providence Hospital’s Alzheimer’s unit was that I got to take the Catholic residents to mass every morning.

Monastery as School

Dreher places a special emphasis in his writing on education as a spiritual practice and cites Benedict’s rule which refers to the monastery as “school for the service of the Lord.” (148). He notes that “The classical Christian does not ask, ‘What can I do with this learning?’ but ‘What will this learning do to me?’” (160) Christian formation is the objective, not learning facts and figures that can easily be forgotten. He is particularly a fan of a classical Christian education which he prefers, because students learn to appreciate the history of the faith.

Reiteration of Argument

Dreher reminds the reader that:

If we don’t take on everyday practices that keep sacred order present to ourselves, our families, and our communities, we are going to lose it. And if we lose it, we are at great risk of losing sight of the One to whom everything in that sacred order, like a divine treasure map, points. (236)

While I know people who have ordered their lives by Dreher’s objectives, I know precious few and most have paid a hefty cost.


Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation ties together numerous concerns about the church and culture. He then offers the development of new schools and community as necessary components to maintaining a vibrant faith community in the face of the coming secular deluge.

In part one of this review, I outlined Dreher’s book. In part two, I looked at his definition of the problems facing the church and, in part three, I looked at his recommendation for dealing with those problems.

[1] @RodDreher,

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Dreher Sees Flood, Offers Ark, Part 2

Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option

Dreher Sees Flood, Offers Ark, Part 2

Rod Dreher.[1] 2017. The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. New York: Sentinel. (Goto part 1; Goto part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

For those of us active in church leadership, the hollowing out of the Christian faith is nothing new. Biblical illiteracy has reached the point that seminaries routinely test their new students on their biblical competency and about 90 percent of incoming students are required to take remedial work in biblical studies. Because it is hard to apply biblical knowledge to solving life’s daily challenges if the Bible is largely unknown even by the clergy, it is small wonder that the church has not prevailed in influencing postmodern culture.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

In The Benedict Option Rod Dreher makes the point about biblical illiteracy citing sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Denton who define the religion of American teenagers as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD).  MTD has five basic tenets:

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to solve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die. (10).

  MTD is especially prevalent among Catholic and mainline Protestant young people, according to Dreher. The problem is that it has little to do with the God of the Bible and focuses on the worship of the self and material comforts (10-11).

If the church has lost the culture wars, the lost emanated from inside the church outwards. Therefore, the hollowing of the church is the problem, not barbarians at the gates. Still, Dreher sees barbarians anxiously taking advantage of the church’s lost vision (16-17).

How Did We Get To This Point?

Dreher sees five landmark events over seven centuries rocking Western civilization and stripping its ancestral faith:

  1. In the fourteenth century, the loss of belief in the integral connection between God and Creation—or in philosophic terms, transcendent reality and material reality.
  2. The collapse of religious unity and religious authority in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.
  3. The eighteenth century Enlightenment, which displaces the Christian religion with the cult of Reason, privatized religious life, and inaugurated the age of democracy.
  4. The Industrial Revolution (ca 1760—1840) and the growth of capitalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
  5. The Sexual Revolution (1960—present) (22-23).

It is interesting that Dreher reverse-engineers the antecedents of the postmodern era. The enchanted world that he sees prior to William of Ockhams (1285-1347) development of nominalism or metaphysical realism. This world distinguishes God from his creation (not realism which keeps them united, according to Dreher) can actually be traced to the first verse of the Bible. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (23-27). In order to create the universe, God had to have been separated from it.

Commentary on Worldview

As a conservative Catholic, Dreher begins his march towards postmodernism with a Middle Ages world view, not a biblical world view, as might be more typical of a Protestant writer. Dreher’s starting point is important because it colors his view of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. In my own thinking, for example, I have often referred to scientific discoveries as “God’s Easter Eggs” which he hides from us in such a way to assure that we would find them. If all of knowledge is God’s knowledge, our faithfulness is not necessarily undermined by what we know so much as our attitude about it.

The more corrosive problem that arose in the nineteenth century was not so much the Industrial Revolution or the Enlightenment, but emergence of the Romantic movement. Dreher writes:

The Romantics, as they were called, found many aspects of the new rationalist, mechanized society distasteful but had no interest in returning to the Christian world. They prized emotion, individuality, nature, and personal freedom. (38)

Here attitudes about God and his relationship with human beings and the created order clearly changed. If Christians came to believe that God primarily worked through our feelings, not our minds, then it was a small step to insert the self in place of God. This is because no one outside the self can mediate our feelings, which ultimately undermines the authority of the church and scripture.

The Sexual Revolution

Sexuality might easily remain the domain of family life within the community. However, if the self mediates feelings, sexuality takes on a completely new role. Dreher writes:

‘Eros must be raised to the level of a religious cult in modern society, not because we really are that obsessed with it, but because the myth of freedom demands it.” Says political philosopher Stephen L. Gardner. ‘It is in carnal desire that the modern individual believes he affirms his individuality.’ The body must be the true subject of desire because the individual must be the author of his own desire. (43)

If this comment appears oblique, think of it as a creation story for the individual. Much like Marx banned Bibles because his communism lacked a valid creation story, postmoderns deny God’s sovereignty through the worship of desire and must have their own creation story, which however unlikely places the individual at the center of the universe [of desire].[2]


Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation ties together numerous concerns about the church. He then offers the development of new schools and community as necessary components to maintaining a vibrant faith community in the face of the coming secular deluge.

In part one of this review, I outlined Dreher’s book. Part two looks at his definition of the problems facing the church. In part three, I will look at his solution to those problems.


Gardner, Stephen L. 1998. Myths of Freedom: Equality, Modern Thought, and Philosophical Radicalism. Greenwood.

Smith, Christian and Melinda Lundquist Denton. 2005. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. New York: Oxford University Press.

[1] @RodDreher,

[2] This is why gender advocates express no interest in hearing about the problems—disease, drug abuse, suicide, depression—created by the risky behavior that they advocate. To recognize these problems, they must admit that they have no credible creation story and that God is sovereign.

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Dreher Sees Flood, Offers Ark, Part 1

Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option

Dreher Sees Flood, Offers Ark, Part 1

Rod Dreher.[1] 2017. The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. New York: Sentinel. (Goto Part 2; Goto Part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Benedict of Nursia, Italy (480 –547 AD) is a Christian saint established a rule for daily life and a new monastic order.[2] The rule stipulated seven prayers each day (the hours) and ordered every aspect of life in the monastery. Benedict’s rule helped the Christian church survive the fall the Roman empire. It later served as a model for universities in the Middle Ages and the corporation in modern times.


In his book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, Rod Dreher sees the church today facing a challenge similar to the fall of the Roman empire and Saint Benedict’s response, establishing a monastic order, as providing a template for the church’s dilemma today. He writes:

“The idea is that serious Christian conservatives [can] no longer live business-as-usual lives in America, that we have to develop creative communal solutions to help us hold on to our faith and our values in a world growing ever more hostile to them.” (2)

Why the Apocalyptic Response?

Dreher sees the 2015 defeat of a conservative initiative in Indiana, The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, at the hands of Gay rights activists and major U.S. corporations as a watershed event. It was quickly followed by the U.S. Supreme Court declaration of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage (the Obergefell decision). In this new environment, he writes:

Dreher sees the 2015 defeat of a conservative initiative in Indiana, The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, at the hands of Gay rights activists and major U.S. corporations as a watershed event. It was quickly followed by the U.S. Supreme Court declaration of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage (the Obergefell decision). In this new environment, he writes:

“Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists.” (3)

Dreher declares that the culture war is over and Christian conservatives lost. The election of Donald Trump as president has given the church more time to prepare, but little hope of a revival. Dreher paints a grim picture of a hollowed out church that needs to build an ark for the coming flood (238).

Background on Dreher

Who is Rod Dreher? He describes himself as a senior editor at The American Conservative and an author of several books including: Crunchy Cons, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming [his sister], and How Dante Can Save Your Life. He and his wife have three children and live in Southern Louisiana, which may account for his interest in floods.


Dreher writes his book in ten chapters preceded by an introduction and followed by a conclusion, acknowledgments, notes, and an index. The chapter titles are:

  1. The Great Flood,
  2. The Roots of the Crisis,
  3. A Rule for Living,
  4. A New Kind of Christian Politics,
  5. A Church for All Seasons,
  6. The Idea of a Christian Village,
  7. Education as Christian Formation,
  8. Preparing for Hard Labor,
  9. Eros and the New Christian Counterculture, and
  10. Man and the Machine (vii).

Dreher writes like a conservative Catholic. Still, he balances his examples between Evangelical and Orthodox Christian sources. He even throws in examples from Jewish communities (130) and the Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons; 135). The theme, decline of the American Christian church, led me to expect Dreher would take shrill tone, but Dreher studiously avoided this temptation through use of research and helpful case studies.

Monastery in Norcia

One case study that stands out was his visit to the Monastery in Norcia, Italy, where Saint Benedict was born. The Norcia monastery dates from the tenth century, but was closed in 1810 by Napoleon Bonaparte who worked hard to devastate the Catholic church throughout Europe. Dreher writes:

“Legend has it that in an argument with a cardinal, Napoleon pointed out that had the power to destroy the church. ‘Your majesty,’ the cardinal replied, ‘we, the clergy have done our best to destroy the church for the last eighteen hundred year. We have not succeeded, and neither will you.’” (49)

American monks helped recently to re-establish this monastery (48-49). Dreher’s visit inspired lessons that he enumerates throughout his book.


Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation ties together numerous concerns about the church and culture, and offers the development of new schools to maintain a vibrant faith community in the face of the coming secular deluge.

In part one of this review, I will outlined Dreher’s book. Part two looks at his definition of the problems facing the church. In part three, I will look at his solution to those problems.

[1] ,


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Beechick Outlines Biblical Learning Method

Beechick Outlines Biblical Learning Method

Ruth Beechick. 1982. A Biblical Psychology of Learning. Denver: Accent Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the most insidious assumptions of modern and postmodern people is that the current generation is the most intelligent, most perceptive. It is as if everything that came before was prologue to this fantastic new beginning. Not only is this assumption not true; it is idolatrous because, like original sin, this assumption presumes the role of God, who is the true source of all knowledge. This is why as we grow in our faith and learn about it, we find the Bible increasingly interesting. Books that help us understand the Bible in new ways are especially interesting.


In her book, A Biblical Psychology of Learning, educator Dr. Ruth Beechick starts noting that: “we need a theory of learning based on the Bible.” (8) The reason for Beechick’s interest is that in studying learning theory more generally, she was frustrated that the behavioral theory explained primarily the behavior of rats (stimulus-response) and other theories likewise focused on only one dimension of learning. Surely, human complexity required a more complex understanding of learning, she thought (9).

Learning Starts with the Heart

In her attempt to develop a biblical understanding of learning, Beechick observes:

“When we look to the Bible one inescapable fact about man is his heart. The word is used more than 800 times.” (12)

Beechick goes into a long discussion of how modern people understand the biblical concept of heart, but I suspect that, because the heart has a much wider scope of meaning in Hebrew and Greek, heart would translate as a range of emotional and intellectual meanings, which Beechick argues do not all begin with cognition in the mind. She argues from biblical, historical, and scientific evidence that the heart has its own autonomous influence (39).

Biblical Learning Model Uses More Information

Beechick makes an interesting chart comparing sources of input into three learning theories—behaviorism, humanism, and biblical—with their view of man and basis of study. Behaviorism views man as a personless body; humanism views many as a biological organism; and the biblical view of man is that we are created in the image of God. Behaviorism studies laboratory animals; humanism studies mankind; and the biblical view considers animals, people, and the biblical experience (26). From her review, she concludes that the biblical view is better informed than behaviorism or humanism because it takes into account more information (33).

Beechick’s core learning model is built on a model from John A.R. Wilson, Mildred D. Robeck, and William B. Michael called Psychological Foundations of Learning (New York: McGraw Hill, 1969) and has five components:

  1. Wise self-direction (creativity),
  2. Concept Learning,
  3. Information learning,
  4. Heart-set (self-discipline), and
  5. Parental love and discipline (54).

Each of these components interacts with the others and combines influences from both the head and the heart. The remainder of the book focuses on explaining each of these five components.

Example of Psalm 78

Beechick walks through this learning model that she finds illustrated in several verses in Psalm 78 through wisdom and foolishness applications of the model (example and counter-example). The wisdom application is found in verses one, six, and seven (70):

  1. Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
  2. that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children,
  3. so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments; (Ps 78:1, 6-7 ESV)

The foolish-learner application is found in the verses that follow (72). Proverbs 10 provides another application of the model through example and counter-example. In walking through these illustrations, Beechick notes that learning starts with the orientation of the heart (heart-setting) and that God disciplines his people with both anger and love (69). Because our hearts are not always naturally set on learning, discipline plays a key role in biblical learning, which the Psalmist likens to the growth of a palm or cedar tree (Ps 92:12).

Who is Ruth Beechick?

Her Amazon author page reports the following biography:

“Dr. Ruth Beechick spent a lifetime teaching and studying how people learn. She taught in Washington state, Alaska, Arizona and in several colleges and seminaries in other states. She also spent thirteen years at a publishing company writing curriculum for churches. In ‘retirement’ she continues to write for the burgeoning homeschool movement. Her degrees are A.B. from Seattle Pacific University, M.A.Ed. and Ed.D. from Arizona State University.”

Ruth has written numerous books and curriculum materials for homeschooling, but she passed away in 2013 and does not have her own website.


Ruth Beechick’s A Biblical Psychology of Learning is an interesting for anyone interested in biblical teaching methods, which explains why she has been so influential in the homeschooling movement. Her learning model is complex which seems appropriate because we are complex people, but it also suggests that rigorous study is required to apply it.

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Bauckham Writes Theology of Revelation

Cover Bauckham's Theology of Revelation

Bauckham Writes Theology of Revelation

Richard Bauckham.[1] 2017. The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Orig pub 1993).  UK: Cambridge University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Revelation captures the imagination like no other book in the Bible. Its popularity among Christians is almost a striking as the reluctance of pastors to teach it. Who wants to initiate a discussion that is likely to grow heated as participants defend their own favorite interpretations? Yet, what other biblical text elicits such passion on a regular basis? This is both the attraction and the risk of Revelation.

Richard Bauckham’s The Theology of the Book of Revelation with this overview:

“Revelation is seen to offer not an esoteric and encoded forecast of historical events but rather a theocentric vision of the coming of God’s universal kingdom, contextualized in the late first-century world dominated by Roman power and ideology. It calls on Christians to confront the political idolatries of the time and to participate in God’s purpose of gathering all the nations into his kingdom.” (i)

The series that this text embodies strives to offer a theological commentary rising above the usual focus on exegesis of individual verses, which is limited to historical, textual, grammatical, and literary commentary according to the series editor, James D. G. Dunn at University of Durham (xi). As someone who has spent a lot of time reading commentaries, I find this series highly attractive—one goes to seminary to study God, not just to analyze an ancient text with the modern scientific tools of a skeptical mind, as is the usual fare in commentaries.

In his introduction, Bauckham asks a fundamental question: what kind of book is Revelation? He writes: “Revelation seems to be an apocalyptic prophecy in the form of a circular letter to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia” (2). In other words, we see three genre (or classes of literature): apocalypse, prophecy, and letter. I will borrow these three genre to structure the remainder of this review.


Bauckham follows J.I. Collins in using this definition of apocalypse as a literary genre:

“Apocalypse is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in  which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another supernatural world.” (6)

Bauckham sees John’s revelation as both highly contextualized to the first century church’s situation and a visionary disclosure of God’s perspective more generally on the human condition (7). Bauckham writes: “It is John’s readers’ concrete, day-to-day world seen in heavenly and eschatological perspective.” (8) What makes John unique among apocalyptic writers is that he writes in his own name and timeframe—more typically apocalyptic writing takes the name of an historical prophet and is set in an historical period (11).


Bauckham sees John’s prophecy arising out of a vision that he has written down with great care and intense study within the tradition of Old Testament (OT) prophecy (2-3).

For those unfamiliar with OT prophets, the OT prophet worked, not so much as a visionary, but as someone who called his audience back to faithful commitment to the Mosaic covenant. Frequently this involved reminding the community of faith of the blessings and curses found in Deuteronomy 28. Because covenant non-fidelity remained a theme in the OT, the curses tend to get the most show time and they represent, not so much a prediction in time and place, but a verdict rendered in the heavenly court.

Bauckham sees Christian prophecy having three elements. First, the prophet discerns the contemporary situation in lieu of God’s nature and purpose. Second, the prophet predicts how the current situation must change if God’s kingdom is to come. Third, the hearer of this prophecy is then expected to respond in faith, which leaves room for the individual or community to participate freely in God’s purpose for the world. This why, for example, Nineveh was spared after Jonah prophesied its destruction. The destruction of Nineveh was contingent on its citizen’s rejecting God’s purpose for them (148-149). God is slow to anger precisely because he truly wants us to repent and accept salvation (Exodus 34:6).


Bauckham writes:

“The whole book of Revelations is a circular letter addressed to seven specific churches: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea (1:11; cf. 1:4; 22:16). They are probably named in the order in which they would be visited by a messenger starting from Patmos and travelling on a circular route around the province of Asia.” (12)

Each church is called to be conquering as their part of a general eschatological battle. Bauckham sees these specific letters being both tailored to the particular problems of those church, which John clearly understands in great detail, and representative of wider problems in the church. This wider application becomes obvious when you ask—why only these seven churches (there were many more) mentioned?

Bauckham’s answer is that these seven messages are used by John as seven different introductions to Revelation, reflecting seven different ways that the book can be read (14).  While I have personally always seen the letter to Laodicea being especially pertinent to the modern church, I would be curious how to read Revelation in view of the others—Bauckham does not offer these tantalizing details. However, we recognize that the number seven is the biblical number reflecting completeness (16).

Richard Bauckham’s The Theology of the Book of Revelation is a fascinating read and of interest to anyone having an interest in understanding the Book of Revelation. I bought my copy during a visit to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s bookstore in Charlotte, NC knowing that I would find it useful in teaching. Still, Bauckham writes with surprising clarity about this complex subject.



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