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 

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

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Dayton’s Story of Pentecostalism

Donald Dayton, Theological Roots of Pentecostalism

Donald W. Dayton [1].  2004.  Theological Roots of Pentecostalism. Metuchen NJ:  Hendrickson Publishers [2].

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

I stumbled on to Theological Roots of Pentecostalism during a visit to Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC [3] in 2006. Donald Dayton received an award from the faculty that day and he preached in the chapel on the many faces of Wesley. Later, I bought copies of this book and another of his books, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage.

Theological Roots of Pentecostalism appealed to me because I had recently become acquainted with a Pentecostal mission evangelizing Muslims. I was intrigued by the different style of worship and by the dedication of the evangelists that I met who were Pentecostals. I wanted to learn more about them.

Overview

Dayton raises 4 points that were insightful.

  1. The Four Square gospel is very different. He describes a Pentecostal as someone who sees Christ as savior, Baptizer of the Holy Spirit, healer, and coming King (173). A typical Presbyterian confesses Christ only as Lord and Savior.
  2. The Pentecostal reads the books of Luke and Acts with special interest (especially Acts 2). The hermeneutic used is devotional (23). Essentially, each verse should be read as if the words “in my life” were appended to it.
  3. The discussion of the Latter Rain movement was thought provoking. The basic idea is that the gifts of the spirit were especially prominent during the the Apostolic period and would also reappear in the latter days. The reference to Joel 2:28—And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit. (Joel 2:28-29 ESV)—the recent active participation of women in ministry is accordingly taken to be a sign of the Second Coming of Christ.
  4. Dayton links the switch among American evangelicals from Post-millennial to Pre-millennial eschatology to a profound discouragement with following the Civil War. The approaching end was signaled, not by progress, but by decline (163). This transition is important in explaining the attitude towards evangelism and service that we see today. Those waiting to be raptured (beamed up) have less incentive to promote reform than those preparing the world to receive the coming King.

Christians owe a debt of gratitude to the Pentecostal movement which many people date to the 1906 revival on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, California [4].  The Pentecostal movement began with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit which touched all races, ethnic groups, and genders from its inception and it has spread worldwide.  If it were not for the Pentecostal movement, the number of Christians in the world would have declined in the 20th century, much like their numbers have in the United States.

Assessment

I enjoyed this book. Its take away points are likely to color my view of Pentecostals for a long time. I would recommend it to Christians curious about Pentecostalism and interested in the history of religion in America.

Footnotes

[1] Professor emeritus, Northern Baptist Theological Seminary (www.Seminary.edu).

[2] www.Hendrickson.com

[3] www.WesleySeminary.edu.

[4] http://www.AzusaStreet.org

Dayton’s Story of Pentecostalism

Also See:

Tennant Highlights Five Gifts 

Johnson: Prison Ministry in Brazil

Grams: Outpouring of the Spirit

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Bell: The Mirror-Moment Transition

Bell_review_20201216

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

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Coming from a nonfiction background, one of the hardest concepts to implement in writing fiction is to develop a character arc. How exactly does your character grow through the experiences in your plot and why? This is not just a literary problem—many people wander through life never really confronting their issues and moving beyond them. Thinking about life as a transition with three stages, it is the middle stage when uncertainty and when the willingness to try new ideas reaches a peak. When I found a writing book focused on the character arc in the middle of a novel, it caught my attention.

Introduction

In his book, Write Your Novel from the Middle, James Scott Bell writes:

“My purpose in this book is to pop the hood and take a look at the engine, and offer you a way to build your own midpoint intentionally, so you truly can write your novel from the middle.” (29)

In the middle, Bell sees a mirror moment when his character realizes that death (physical, professional, or psychological) will be the result of failing to act and confront a weakness. This implies that the stakes are too high to ignore and rising to deal with the problem changes the character internally enabling the strength to meet whatever external challenge. This change is what the book is really about so authors need to focus on the mirror moment to craft compelling stories (28).

The Stakes

People change primarily when they have to. When you find something broken in government administration, there is usually a reason—insufficient information seldom explains the brokenness because smart people are involved. The same logic applies to personal flaws—people are flawed for good reasons, which is why knowing the backstory is important. Consequently, the stakes have to be high enough to make the fix worth the effort.

Bell writes:

“A great novel is the record of how a character fights with death. That’s right, death. Somebody has to be in danger of dying, and that someone is the Lead character … There are three kinds of death: physical, professional, psychological. One or more of these must be present in your novel if it’s going to work at the optimal level.” (8)

Physical death obviously grabs your attention. Professional death makes or breaks your lead character’s career. Psychological death is like the collapse of a romance or something so critical to the lead character that they will never be able to look themselves in the mirror again if they fail. With professional and psychological death, physical death is often lurking in the background (8-11). One way or another, the lead character looks in the mirror and realizes that life will never be the same again if they don’t overcome their flaw and move forward.

The Emotional Context

For Bell, a novel’s plot focuses primarily on external circumstances while the character’s emotional journey, the internal circumstances, motivate the reader’s willingness to tag along. The structure of this emotional journey he sees outlined in fourteen signpost scenes:

  1. Opening disturbance
  2. Care package
  3. Argument opposed to transformation
  4. Trouble brewing
  5. Doorway of no return #1
  6. Kick in the shins
  7. The mirror moment
  8. Pet the dog
  9. Doorway of no return #2
  10. Mounting forces
  11. Lights out
  12. Q factor
  13. Final battle
  14. Transformation (41-42).

The most important of these is the mirror moment because this is where the lead character finds the courage to carry on. Elsewhere he admits that the mirror moment is only part of a formal scene.

Bell describes his signpost scenes in terms of familiar movie scenes and how different styles of writers—pantsers, plotters,or tweeners—would approach the task indifferent genres (44-47). Outlining what Bell means by these signpost scene descriptors is sometimes obvious—e.g. opening disturbance—and more often not. The Q factor, for example, is an allusion to James Bond’s equipment supplier, code named Q, who provides spy gismos that latter help Bond escape some horrible predicament, functioning like a Deus ex machina, to save the day. By providing a Q Factor scene early in the plot, the latter use of the gismo seems less contrived, just part of the spy job description (43).

The Mirror Moment

The mirror moment ties together the pre-story psychology and the ultimate transformation, making the transition believable.

The pre-story psychology focuses a character flaw. This flaw has to be significant and affect both the lead character’s ability to function and be evident to other people. In the film, Lethal Weapon, Riggs is suicidal, which makes him a super cop, but it also scares everyone he comes in contact with. When he finds a reason to live, his mirror moment, he gives up his super power to become a real person.

Assessment

James Scott Bell’s Write Your Novel from the Middle is a must read for novelists. Using famous movie scenes to outline his points makes Bell an entertaining and memorable read. His focus on the emotional journey of his lead character makes it more obvious what an author needs to accomplish to keep the interest of readers

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. 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: The Mirror-Moment Transition

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Huff Thrills Christians

Huff_review_20210208

Andrew Huff. 2019. A Cross to Kill. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

As a nonfiction author my education as a fiction writer has often been tedious. When I asked how one picks a genre to write, the typical answer is to write what you read. When I asked how one learns the rules to follow in a particular genre, the typical answer is to read more. Ugh! A more complete answer might be that genre are defined by the demographics of their readership and the rules are defined by fantasies of that readership. Basically, readers want to see characters that look like them and plotlines that reflect their own challenges and temptations.

Outline of the Plot

Andrew Huff’s[1] novel, A Cross to Kill, is a Christian thriller. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) contractor, John Cross, rescues a journalist, Christine Elizabeth Lewis, in Jordan who is held captive by the Alliance of Islamic Military (AIM) just as she is about to be beheaded livestream.

Cross is a contractor who undertakes nonlethal covert operations because when he became a Christian he could no longer undertake covert operations involving assassination, as he had previously. Between assignments, he has become a Baptist pastor and tries to live a quiet life in Mechanicsburg, Virginia.

After the Lewis rescue nearly turns lethal, he decides to give up the covert work and simply live a quiet life, but he can’t help thinking about her. Then, one day she shows up for Sunday morning worship at his church to thank him and they become acquainted. Things get complicated that evening after Cross gets ambushed by a Turkish hit squad that followed her to town to settle old scores presumably before moving on to bigger and badder things.

Background

A Cross to Kill is the first novel in Huff’s Shepherd Suspense series from Kregel Publications. Huff is both a novelist and a screenwriter as well as a pastor. He lives in North Texas with his wife and two boys.[2] Huff graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Religion from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia with a Master of Arts in Christian Education from Dallas Theological Seminary.[3]

Assessment

Andrew Huff’s novel, A Cross to Kill, is a page turner that grabs your attention from the first sentence: “Millions of people would witness the murder of Christine Lewis, and not one of them could do anything to stop it.” (7) That is, not anyone except a mysterious Mr. Cross.

This is a book that draws you in and becomes your friend before we learn about Cross’ conversion and the life changes that he makes. I particularly enjoyed the local Virginia and Washington settings. This is good book for young people and those young at heart. If you like action thrillers, it is worth a look.

Footnotes

[1] @andrewjohnhuff.

[2] https://www.AndrewHuffBooks.com.

[3] https://familyfiction.com/andrew-huff-cross-kill.

Also See:

Nouwen: Make Space for Self, Others, and God 

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Blackaby: Spring is Around the Corner

Blackaby_11172014Richard Blackaby. 2012. The Seasons of God:  How the Shifting Patterns of Your Life Reveal His Purposes for You. Colorado Springs:  Multnomah Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

“You have to know when to cut bait and when to go fishing.”

Whoever said it first was certainly a fishing expert. A good friend of mine, who is an obsessive fisherman that actually put himself through school working in fisheries, advised:  the time to fish is at twilight—morning and evening.  I never caught a fish with an artificial lure until the day I followed his advice.  Timing is everything if you want to catch fish.

Richard Blackaby’s book, The Seasons of God, builds on the basic premise of King Solomon (7):  For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1 ESV).  Blackaby (3) writes:

This book explores something that involves getting your timing right for all you do and where you do it.  It’s about being free to really enjoy what you’re doing and where you’re doing—and to make the most of the experience.

Blackaby (13) reminds us also of the Apostle Paul’s observation that: at the right time Christ died for the ungodly (Rom 5:6 ESV).

Blackaby (24-41) summarzes his observations about timing in a chapter entitled: Ten Laws of the Seasons of Life.  These laws are:

  1. Each of us experiences repeated cycles in life that are profoundly mirrored in the seasons we see in nature.
  2. These seasons are more than simply a metaphor for aging.
  3. Each season is unique and adds important dimensions to life.
  4. Our seasons follow a set order.
  5. Our seasons vary in length and intensity—and in what they require from us.
  6. The way we handle one season profoundly impacts how we experience the seasons that follow.
  7. We can—and often do—fail to recognize and understand our particular season.
  8. Understanding our seasons of life requires a vital, open, trusting relationship with God.
  9. We experience different seasons in different aspects of our lives.
  10. We are meant to thrive in every season.

This last point is terribly important—thriving is God’s will for our lives and his guidance is the key to making the most of each season (40).

The four seasons of life are taken from nature.  Blackaby (25-26) describes them as follows:

  1. Spring is about potential, promise, and possibilities.
  2. Summer is a time of growth and maturation.
  3. Autumn is the season of harvest.
  4. Winter is a season of winding down—withdrawal, retreat, and closure.

Problems (47) arise when we are impatient for the next season (season rushers) or refuse to give up the previous season (season graspers).  I am more prone to impatience—friends used to say that I was born 16 years old—but we all know someone who reports their age on their birthday as 29—again.  Getting stuck in a particularly happy season or particularly sad season seems to be a pattern repeated in many unhappy lives.

Blackaby’s book is written in 3 parts:  Embracing the Pattern, Embracing each Season, and Thriving in All Our Seasons.  These parts are composed of 29 chapters.  Chapters 6 through 25 are found in part 2 where Blackaby introduces a classification system:  4 seasons described in 4 areas of life.  The seasons are listed above; the 4 areas of life affected by the seasons are: your identity, your relationships, your roles, and your faith (58-60).  The first and third parts of the book introduce the subject, summarize the lessons learned, and suggest what to do with it.

Many people will want to skip straight to chapter 28:  With Joy Comes Laughter.  Here Blackaby talks about how to have fun.  How do you become a joy-producing person? (238)  Blackaby suggests house decorations (240), a chocolate fountain (241), a costume closet (241), holiday themes (242), and homemade movies (242).  Richard: please invite me to your home sometime!

Blackaby’s writing has been influential in my walk with the Lord.  Although I was exposed to Experiencing God[1] in my church, I actually spent more time with Hearing God’s Voice[2].  It was about a year later that I began to sense a call into pastoral ministry.  Blackaby’s The Seasons of God is a good holiday read and a thoughtful book anytime.  It may change your life.

Footnotes

[1] Henry T. Blackaby and Claude V. King.  1990.  Knowing and Doing the Will of God. Nashville:  Lifeway Press.

[2] Henry and Richard Blackaby.  2002.  Hearing God’s Voice.  Nashville:  Broadman and Holman Publishers.

Blackaby: Spring is Around the Corner

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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Nouwen: Mastered by the Holy Spirit

Nouwen_review_20201208

Henri Nouwen.  2007.  The Selfless Way of Christ:  Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

My first ministry as an adult in the early 1980s was a summer program for high school and college age students.  As my kids began graduating and taking up life as adults, I noticed a disturbing trend.  The majority of them—those not disciplined enough to stay in school to earn a professional degree—had to leave Northern Virginia because the cost of living was simply too high. I coined the phrase, downward mobility, to describe the generational schism this dilemma caused.

Introduction

Until I heard about Henri Nouwen’s book, The Selfless Way of Christ:  Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life, I had never heard anyone else use my phrase—downward mobility.  For Nouwen, downward mobility is conscious decision to resist the idolatry of a lifestyle focused on upward mobility (27) and simply to imitate Christ (38).  Nouwen writes:  The Holy Spirit leads us on the downward way, not to cause us to suffer or to subject us to pain and humiliation, but rather to help us to see God present in the midst of our struggles (47).  The Apostle Paul summed it up this way:

I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:11-13 ESV).

At one point, my church used this last sentence (I can do all things through him who strengthens me) as a tie-shirt slogan for our Vacation Bible School camp.  These words are powerful encouragement for those of us traveling the downward way.

Leadership Temptations

Satan tempts us daily to return to the path of upward mobility.  Following Luke 4, Nouwen (49) sees Satan’s three primary temptations in ministry as:

  1. The temptation to be relevant (turn stones into bread);
  2. The temptation to be spectacular (throw yourself off the temple); and
  3. The temptation to be powerful (rule as king) [1].

Relevance

This first temptation can be the source of a lot of pain.  Nouwen (50) observes:  Doctors can heal; lawyers can defend; bankers can finance; social workers can restructure; but what can you [as Christian,  minister, or pastor] do?  Our natural tendency is to fix things; not to trust in God’s transforming power.

Draw Attention to Ourselves

The second temptation is to focus on ourselves and serve our own needs for attention and acceptance.  Here we need to make space for God in our own lives so that he can use us to be present in the lives of the people around us (58).  Nouwen commends a life of intimate communion with God through the disciplines of solitude, silence, and prayer (59).  If our ministry is not about God, it will ultimately become tiresome and pointless.

Power

The third temptation is to be powerful.  Nouwen observes that:  Power can take many forms:  money, connections, fame, intellectual ability, skills (61).  We want to be in control.  To be a servant of Christ, Nouwen reminds us, is to be a [humble] friend of Christ (65).

Discipline

Nouwen observes that the tension between our vocation as Christians and these temptations is a lifelong challenge (69).  Discipline is required but:  The discipline of  the Christian disciple is not to master anything [like an athlete, student, or professional] but rather to be mastered by the Spirit (70).  Nouwen highlights these 3 disciplines:

  1. The discipline of the church;
  2. The discipline of the book; and
  3. The discipline of the heart (71).

Church

For Nouwen, a Catholic priest, the discipline of the church is to re-enact, to be, and to celebrate the Christ event.  Liturgical discipline focuses on the Christ event—God breaking into human history (73).  We must create time and space in our lives for God.  In this sense, the church is our spiritual director (74).

Scripture

The discipline of the book is for Nouwen necessarily an act not just of reading but of mediating on scripture.  The phrase, Christ is the word of God, is not just high rhetoric; Christ is the word become flesh (77-78).  We must chew the word (78).  The angel tells the Apostle John:  take and eat (Revelation 10:9).  It must become part of us.  Otherwise, the mere words of scripture will become an instrument of Satan (82).

Prayer

For Nouwen, the discipline of the heart is personal prayer (82). The discipline of prayer leads us unromantically, ceremonially to the heart of God (87). This is not about rewards, personal acclaim, helpful projects, or even inner peace (83); this not about personal revelations or sensations (89). Time with God strips all of this away. In prayer, our questions over time morph into our answers (87).

The point of each of these disciplines is, of course, to walk the path of downward mobility to preserver in resisting temptation.

Assessment

I return to Nouwen’s writing periodically as a personal reminder to make time and space for the Holy Spirit in my busy life.  Reminders are imperative for me.  The fact that Nouwen abandoned a comfortable life as a Harvard academic in 1986 to work with special needs individuals in a D’Arche community gives his advice on downward mobility unique credibility.  Spirituality is not a hobby-horse of convenience; it is a life commitment.  I commend this book to your own reading and mediation.

Footnotes

[1] Also see:  Henri Nouwen.  1989.  In the Name of Jesus:  Reflections on Christian Leadership.  New York:  Crossroads Book.

Nouwen: Mastered by the Holy Spirit

Also See:

Nouwen: Make Space for Self, Others, and God 

Books, Films, and Ministry

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

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

 

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