Fighting Back: Sneak Preview

This week finds me going through my edited manuscript one word at a time, either accepting editorial changes, rejecting them, or adding new material that clarifies concepts or fleshes out characters. My mood oscillates between elated (I’m making a good story better!) and aggravated (will anyone even care if I say waitress rather than server?). I careen between bullishness (can you say million-seller?) and bearishness (no one reads books anymore). But on the average, I’m feeling pretty good about this effort.

I thought you might enjoy a sneak preview. Below is an excerpt, Chapter One in its entirety. You’ll meet the protagonist and see the triggering event that starts the plot rolling. This excerpt won’t give away what the book is about, but will give you a glimpse of who it is about. The book launch will be in December 2016. I hope you’ll want to read more!  Okay, without further ado…

Act One: Transitions

Chapter 1: Eight Seconds

On the spur of the moment, Eddie Caruthers decided to help a damsel in distress, and thus began his long slide into darkness. Of course, that was not apparent from where he stood. Clarity about the genesis of one’s own misery comes mainly in the cold light of hindsight, too late to be of use.

The damsel was a doe-eyed young lady with a melodious voice, a sweet smile, and an astonishingly corpulent build. Rosalyn Pitts and three other women had exited the big stone church that occupied half a block on Union Avenue in downtown Framingham, Massachusetts. Hobbling with the help of a cane in each hand, Rosalyn jaywalked in the spill of the streetlights, talking cheerily and breathlessly over her shoulder to her three friends, who lingered on the sidewalk behind her as they finished their goodbyes.

Her distress arrived in a black SUV, as the driver started spewing invective at her from his open window. She was in his way, forcing him to stop for her as she made her laborious crossing. He loudly bemoaned the size, color, and unsatisfactory forward speed of the lady’s posterior, adding, “Does Old MacDonald know he’s missing a cow? E-I-E-I-Oh my God!” Rosalyn hung her head and tried to move faster.

Eddie saw and heard all this from where he stood in the courtyard of Solid Rock Church. Landscaping spotlights highlighted shrubs and ornamental trees just beginning to shed their red and yellow autumn garb. Eddie had been strolling under those trees, in rapt conversation with his—friend, girlfriend, wife to be? He was still trying to work all that out. But whatever the lithe and lovely Shawna Bell was to him, he enjoyed her company immensely and found that her nearness made the whole wearisome world fade away.

He and Shawna had been last to leave the building after choir practice, hanging back for the few seconds it took him to set the alarm and lock the door. Eddie wasn’t in the choir, but Shawna was, and he considered that reason enough to volunteer to handle building security and lockup on Thursday nights. He’d been doing that for six weeks, just for the pleasure of accompanying Shawna to her car—as slowly as possible—and listening to her small talk.

He definitely didn’t appreciate having the moment spoiled by the sudden stream of insults and profanities he was now hearing. He looked over and noted the make and model of the vehicle, an occupational habit that was now a reflex. Then he focused his attention on the driver who was intruding on his happiness. It was especially aggravating that the target of this onslaught was poor Rosalyn Pitts. Roz, who everyone knew was unfailingly pleasant despite suffering perpetual discomfort from the strain on her joints; Roz, who never showed embarrassment at having to sit on a bench in the rear of Solid Rock’s sanctuary, a bench placed there because she was too big to fit on the cushioned chairs used by the rest of the congregation; Roz, who doubtless had a too-short life expectancy and would probably never, ever be asked out on a date. If anybody deserved a break, it was Roz.

Eddie found himself yelling, “Hey, loudmouth, if you had any class at all, you’d shut up and leave the woman alone!” He fully expected an answering salvo of bluff and obscenities. People always acted tough from inside a car. Being wrapped in a four-thousand-pound steel and glass cocoon had a way of making people lose whatever inhibitions they might normally have had. Well, if listening to some thug curse at him would spare Roz further humiliation, then so be it.

But the driver didn’t say another word. Instead, he slammed his vehicle into reverse and whipped it into a curbside parking space. Eddie was briefly impressed with the maneuver. Not many people could fling a Range Rover around so precisely in reverse, and fewer still would try it while sporting those oversized two-piece chrome wheels. What kind of nutcase would risk curbing rims that pricey? That fleeting question evaporated when the driver got out, slammed the door, and strode toward the courtyard.

Eddie’s pulse quickened. His senses honed in on the approaching man. His first words were to Shawna: “Stand clear.” He glanced in her direction and made a shooing gesture with his right hand.

“Eddie!” Shawna’s normally silky voice nearly squeaked, and when she spoke his name a second time she drew it out to great length. “Eddiiieeee! Don’t get into it with him! Let’s just go!”

But Eddie had already turned his attention back to the lout who had been Roz’s problem and was about to become his. This man was compact, some three inches shorter than Eddie’s six-foot height. “Loudmouth” had an olive complexion and dark hair slicked back. He looked to be in his late thirties, a good ten years older than Eddie. Powerfully built, his broad shoulders and muscular physique marked him a dangerous opponent. The angry stare and clenched jaw suggested he wasn’t coming over to chat. He approached with head up, chest out, fingers curled but not quite clenched into fists.

Eddie figured him for a sucker puncher. The man would probably try to get up in his face, and then attempt a knockout by throwing a sneaky roundhouse punch from out of nowhere. It was an old trick, demonstrated in a thousand YouTube videos. Not a chance he gets that close, Eddie thought. He could see that his own reach was greater, and the guy was leading with his chin. Then, on the edge of his awareness, he saw and heard the passenger door of the stranger’s Rover open and shut as a second man, much larger than the first, exited the vehicle and started toward the courtyard. Two of them. Not good.

Eddie’s heart was hammering under the influence of an adrenaline surge. But this wasn’t the remembered terror of all his childhood confrontations—it was the body’s way of prepping itself for fight or flight. Eddie took two calming deep breaths, as he had been trained, and positioned himself for what was coming next.

Taking two steps backward, he raised both hands slightly above his head, palms out. Most watchers would see the universal gesture of surrender, a posture that says, “I’m not a threat.” Only a careful observer might notice that his hands were not held up in the in the classic surrender pose; instead, they were well in front of his face, ready to be instantly deployed to block, grab, or punch.

“I don’t want any trouble, man.” Eddie spoke loudly enough to be heard by both the advancing attacker and any bystanders who might later be asked who started it. He knew he needed to win not only the physical fight but also any legal proceedings that might ensue from it. It was never too early to lay the groundwork for that court fight.

“Too late now, punk.” The smaller man began to accelerate, closing the gap between them. He kept up a running commentary, declaring what part of Eddie’s anatomy was about to be kicked.

They were about seven feet apart. Eddie took another step backward, and as soon as the ball of his foot hit the ground, he reversed direction and charged. Strike while they’re talking. That was the rule, because an opponent’s reaction times were slower when he was busy spouting off.

The two men closed in an instant. Eddie landed the first blows—it was not far from his already upraised hands to the aggressor’s face. He missed with a straight left, but landed a right and a left in rapid succession as the shorter man raised his arms to block before trying to twist out of the way. None of Eddie’s punches were hard enough to do serious damage, but that was not the point of the initial flurry. The point was to get the man off his plan of attack. A foe who is defending himself from you is not hitting you.

Eddie was somehow more acutely aware of the sounds of the fight than he was of the tactile sensations. He heard the impact of his fists on flesh and the stranger grunting under the rain of blows. Shawna stifled a scream somewhere to his right. The attacker recovered from his surprise, dropped into a crouch, and spread his hands. He hunched his shoulders and ducked his head to protect his face. Lunging forward, he wrapped powerful arms around Eddie and set himself to throw him to the ground. Eddie raked his thumbs across the shorter man’s eyes, making him jerk his head back and loosen his grip. This gave Eddie room to insert his right arm under his opponent’s armpit. By twining his arm under, behind, and back over the shoulder, he trapped the man’s arm and put painful pressure on the rotator cuff, forcing his foe to bend down and twist awkwardly to the side.

The attacker’s face was now at belly level. Eddie palmed the man’s face with his left hand and rushed forward, pushing his overbalanced assailant, who had to scramble backward to stay on his feet. Eddie needed only three running steps. The back of the man’s head met the rough granite stonework of the church with a sickening thud. Eddie might easily have followed up with a knee to the face as the logical finishing move, but he was not inclined to overkill. As he released his arm, the man sank to the ground, where he feebly thrashed and twitched. His eyes were open, but did not appear to see anything. From first punch to lights out had taken around eight seconds.

Eddie spun, looking for the Rover’s passenger. He was standing about fifteen feet away, and not advancing. The large man looked much older than the one on the ground. His hair was mostly gray. He was paunchy, wider at the waist than at the shoulders, and for some reason was wearing sunglasses at night. He shook his head, and almost smiled. When he spoke, his voice was raspy. “I got no beef with you. I just wanna collect my hot-headed friend here and be on my way.”

Eddie nodded, edging over to where Shawna and Roz’s three friends were standing in a little clump. He knew better than to turn his back to the second man, but his caution proved unnecessary. The older man went straight to his fallen friend. He held him still and spoke quietly to him for a minute or two. Then he hauled him to his feet, and half dragged, half carried him back to the Rover. There was definitely some muscle under all that flab. He laid his dazed companion across the back seat before getting in the front and driving off.

Only then did any of the women in the courtyard speak, and they all began talking at once. The voice Eddie focused on was Shawna’s. “You could have killed that man!” She still sounded squeaky. She turned to gaze wide-eyed at the spot where the man’s head had hit the wall with such an awful sound. “What were you thinking?”

Eddie considered the question. He was a little stung that she offered no congratulations  for having successfully defended himself against a dangerous attacker, no words of concern for his own well-being, no thanks for having stuck up for Roz. “I was thinking …” He too turned and looked toward where his attacker’s cranium had met the stone wall. His lip curled. “I was thinking … welcome to Solid Rock.”

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For Those Who Want to Change the World

The pen is mightier than the sword.  At least it used to be. Today I’m not so sure.

Writers and other lovers of literature often speak of the power of words. My editor has stated, “I have always believed that good writing and clear communication can change the world.” My own noble ideal of writing is “changing the world one mind at a time.”  That said, I am repeatedly reminded of how difficult that mission is.

The Facebook Factor

Persuading people is hard. One reason for this is because we have so little practice. I blame social media.

Consider the way we typically use Facebook. Pew Research tells us that Facebook had a billion users in 2014, and that the median number of Facebook friends per user was 200. I’m right in there with 215. Like most FB users, I’ll occasionally publish an opinion as my status update. Maybe it’s something like “Guns are not the problem; evil is the problem.”  Those of my 215 friends who are Libertarians, Conservatives, avid hunters, or who are licensed to carry a firearm for self-defense will “Like” my post. They’ll make supportive comments. They may share my post.  But what about those of my friends who hate firearms, who think that only agents of the state should possess them, and that society would be peaceful and peachy if we’d just eliminate civilian gun ownership? My post makes their blood boil.But they won’t debate the issue with me, because that’s considered poor Facebook etiquette. So they will just ignore it. And that’s assuming they even see it in the first place. Because the more often I post things they disagree with, the more likely they are to “unfollow” me, so that my posts no longer show up on their news feed. And I do the same thing to people whose posts disturb me. After a while, our FB walls only have content from people who think like us and agree with nearly everything we say. Our status updates are greeted with automatic affirmation (86 people Like this) and little, if any, dissent.

Look at your own Facebook wall. Do the posts all take the same tone on the news of the day?  Do you see an even mix of liberals and conservatives, or is it all one or the other? Is it the same small circle of people commenting on each others’ updates? If so, you are preaching to your personal amen corner and have shut out everyone else. You can proclaim without having to persuade.

Novel Ideas

Writing a book is not like posting to social media. When I release my novel, it will be read by (and maybe reviewed by) people who are not in my FB tribe. Many of them don’t think like I do. They have different life experiences than I had. They come at things with different beliefs, different assumptions. They won’t automatically affirm everything I say. They may not even understand what I’m talking about.

Imagine a 25-year-old white male from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, is discussing policing issues with a 25-year-old black male from a housing project in South Philadelphia. What are the odds of Grosse Pointe guy convincing South Philly guy of the proposition “all policemen are heroes”? I’d say they’re about the same as the odds of the inner city man convincing the wealthy suburbanite of the proposition “cops are the enemy.”  These two come from such different worlds and have such different experiences that neither can really imagine what leads the other to think as he does.

I like to imagine that both of them  will read a copy of my novel. I ask myself: What preconceptions and assumptions will they harbor that might make them resistant to the messages I am conveying?  And what preconceptions and assumptions did I bring to the writing?

What I Learned From an Editor

There is a scene in my current book where one man dies at the hands of another. (I’m deliberately being a bit vague here to avoid spoilers). The death is presented as a justifiable homicide. My editor asked me to focus more on how this character felt about having “murdered” someone. My initial reaction was to hit the roof. “Murdered? What are you talking about? No one was murdered. All murders are homicides, but not all homicides are murders. The legal definition of murder is an unlawful killing.  The moral definition is the deliberate killing of an innocent. This was neither. If the killing was ruled justifiable (that is, lawful), and the deceased was not an innocent, then it was not murder, either legally or morally. That’s not a mere technicality. If you doubt this, ask a combat soldier how many enemy soldiers he’s “murdered.” I was angry on behalf of my poor slandered fictional character.

After I calmed down a bit (you knew writers get emotionally invested in the worlds and people they create, right?) I began to realize I needed to revise the text some. Yes, the editor was wrong to label the scene as murder. But she can’t be the only person on earth who thinks that way. Think of all the picketers holding “execution is murder” signs at rallies against capital punishment. Whether the death penalty is right or wrong, execution is by definition the state-sanctioned (that is, lawful) killing of someone who is not an innocent. It cannot be murder. But the protesters feel that it is, dictionary definitions notwithstanding.

If only 3% of my readers conflate the concepts of homicide and murder, and I sell a million copies of the novel, then 30,000 people will judge this character to be a murderer. That’s a problem, because I want readers to see him as one of the good guys. So I have two choices here. I can “unfollow” my editor and forget about the opinion she expressed. Or I can write the scene in a way that attempts to persuade readers who do not hold a view that I take for granted: that someone who kills because he is in imminent danger of death or grave bodily harm at the hands of another is not a murderer.

As a novelist, I don’t do this through polemics. I do it through storytelling. The problem is that people with different core beliefs will react differently to the same story. A scene involving a pleasant police interaction with the public might seem perfectly believable to the man from Grosse Pointe.  But it might seem like fantasy to the man from South Philly. It is hard to foresee every potential difference of perspective among readers I’ve never met.  It’s not usually easy to discover the reasons for other people’s assumptions. Many people never try. That’s why we talk around each other, and even shout each other down, over Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Bruce Jenner, climate change, same sex marriage, income inequality, NPR,  the NRA, and a thousand other things. Shouting people down is fine if my goal is to look tough in front of a mob of my supporters. Talking around people is fine if all I want to do is post memes on Facebook for my tribe to Like so I can feel validated. But if I am trying to persuade people to my point of view, I have to do the hard work of uncovering and examining their most deeply held convictions.  Only then will readers reconsider those beliefs. When that happens, the pen is truly mightier than the sword.

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So How Many Scovilles is This Novel?

When it comes to reader reviews, authors of Christian fiction have it bad. Fantasy writers have it easier. So do writers of thrillers, suspense, whodunits, and historical fiction. It’s not common for someone to give to give a one-star rating to a Stephen King novel and explain the low rating by saying, “Well-written and scary, with very well-developed characters. But I hate the horror genre, and would never knowingly read a horror novel.” Yet this kind of thing happens to Christian fiction all the time. In reading a few hundred reviews of Christian books by Charles Martin, Ted Dekker, Dee Henderson, and others, I found that quite a few people panned books precisely because they were Christian fiction. These reviewers were mostly non-Christian readers who dislike the idea of any book with explicitly Christian characters or themes. Why bother reading and reviewing them? That makes as much sense as a vegan reviewing a steakhouse.

But that’s not even half the problem. Far more numerous than negative reviews by unbelievers are those reviews by believers who can’t agree among themselves about what Christian fiction is even supposed to be. [Why is this not surprising?] There seem to be three main schools of thought.

The Hold My Messages School
Devotees of the first school of thought see Christian fiction as clean and simple. By “clean,” they mean there is no cursing, no sex, and no violence. There is no dark subject matter. These people want books they can show to their preteen daughter or their pastor without misgivings. But they don’t want any preaching with their purity. They are quite clear about not wanting “message fiction” or a story designed to get them to think deeply about anything. As one reviewer put it, “I just want a good, clean mystery or suspense novel. I don’t want to feel like I’m in Sunday school.”

The That’ll Preach School
Followers of the second school demand more than clean content. They want explicit Christian messaging on top of the clean. A woman expressed her disappointment with one of the novelists by opining that all his protagonists have the same traits; they are strong, and noble, and faithful, and have a well-developed sense of right and wrong. But they don’t rely upon God. They are strong and noble in themselves. Their activities and decision-making are not guided by any apparent relationship with God. They have a good building with no foundation. For readers like her, books like that fail the litmus test for Christian fiction, no matter how clean they are.

The Save the World School
Members of the third school of thought are stricter still. Not only must there be Christian messaging, it must be evangelistic. Its purpose must be to move the non-believing reader in the direction of conversion. If it doesn’t attempt to do this, it’s not Christian fiction.

So people come at Christian novels with widely divergent expectations. And there is no way a novel can meet the expectations of all three schools of thought. Many of the one-star and two-star reviews I read stemmed not from poor writing, but from the reviewers’ surprise that the novel was not what they expected of Christian fiction. Whether or not the story was well told seemed of secondary importance to them.

What’s needed is an objective rating system, one that eliminates the unpleasant surprise of unmet expectations. People of every school of thought (and no school) will know at a glance whether or not they might enjoy a given book. I propose a three-part rating.

Maturity Rating
Part one would be a maturity rating, just like the MPAA film ratings used at the movies. Something rated G is for General Audiences; the material is fine for all ages, and contains nothing that should offend parents of young children. PG means Parental Guidance Suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children. PG-13 means some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. Parents should be cautious. This may be due to mature subject matter, disturbing imagery, or instances of harsh language. There’s probably not much potential for finding R-rated material in Christian fiction, but you get the idea.

Messaging Rating
Part 2 would be a messaging rating. Is there a theme or a message the author is trying to get across to readers? What is it? I rate messaging E for Evangelistic if the obvious goal of the author is to convert the unbelieving reader. I rate it P for Pastoral if the author’s goal is to bring Christian readers into a clearer or deeper understanding of some aspect of their faith. And I’d rate it NPR for Not Particularly Religious (See what I did there?) if the author’s goal is simply to tell a good tale, with no underlying religious agenda.

Christian Intensity Rating
Part 3 is the cutting edge part. It’s a rating of Christian intensity in the text. I use an index of Christian Heat Units to describe this intensity much as Scovilles are used to measure the relative pungency of hot peppers. You’ve heard of Scoville Heat Units, right? They’re named after Wilbur Scoville, the pharmacist who created the index. A bell pepper rates zero SHUs; original Tabasco Sauce is 2,500-5,000 SHUs; hot wax peppers are 5,000 – 10,000; super chilies are 40,000-50,000; and the vaunted Habanero is 100,000-350,000. Pepper spray (civilian) is about 2 million, while police-grade pepper spray is about 5 million. The scale maxes out at 16 million Scovilles, and yes, you can buy bottles of pure capsaicin that are that hot.

My Christian Heat Index scale runs from 0-100. The exact formula is a trade secret, extremely hush-hush. But I take into account questions like these: Does the book have Christian characters? Are they shown engaging in activities like praying, attending church, or reading the Bible? Do they talk with other characters about God or Christian principles? Is their decision-making influenced by their faith? Is their Christianity integral to the plot or incidental to it? Does God intervene in the lives of any of the characters, or does He stay entirely offstage, being believed in but not doing anything definite? Just how much of a Christian feel does this book have? Please note that this rating does not deal with author intent about messaging: it just tells you how high a concentration of Christian content is in a book. Let’s rate a few examples so you can see how it works.

Title: Jane Eyre
Author: Charlotte Bronte

Maturity: PG; Messaging: NPR; Christian Heat Units: 60

It’s a “clean” book, but it deals with issues that aren’t small child-friendly: abusive relationships, an insane woman that sets fire to her house, etc. So it gets a PG rating. There are no overt religious themes or messaging, so it gets an NPR in that category. However, there is quite a bit of Christianity in the backdrop of the book; people believe in God, discuss scriptural principles, and expect to live their lives according to scriptural precepts. There is no attempt to evangelize or instruct the reader. Religious belief is just a feature of the setting, like birds are a feature of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, or short beings are a feature of The Hobbit.

Title: This Present Darkness
Author: Frank Peretti

Maturity: PG;  Messaging: E; Christian Heat Units: 100

This is also a clean book. But with so many demons literally flying around and possessing people, it’s not for small children. I would tend to rate most books aimed at adults at least a PG – just like the movies. There is messaging here, including strong attempts to evangelize one or more of the characters, and through them, the unbelieving reader. One of the main characters is a church pastor who tackles every obstacle with prayer. The necessity of prayer is a major theme of the book. From start to finish, nearly every human action is seen to be an extension of something going on in the battle between angels and demons. There are constantly people praying, people sharing the gospel, casting out demons, and so on. There is no plot separate from the spiritual warfare story. So by definition, this one is 100 on the CHU scale. Atheists would get the hives. So might Christians who feel that a proper Christian book doesn’t deal with “heavy” themes like demon possession.

Title: The Screwtape Letters
Author: C.S. Lewis

Maturity: G; Messaging: E,P;  Christian Heat Units: 100

This is that rare G rating for content. It may be too sophisticated for very young readers, but it’s not inappropriate. Its obvious goal is to enlighten believers about how things work in the spirit realm, as well as to convince unbelievers to embrace Jesus. So it gets both an E and a P for messaging. Every chapter is a spiritual precept, albeit told from the point of view of the demon who apparently wrote the letters. It is entirely about the Christian life and the struggle for the souls of people. That’s why this gets a 100 on the CHU scale.

Title: Back on Murder
Author: J. Mark Bertrand

Maturity: PG-13;  Messaging: NPR;  Christian Heat Units:10

It’s a clean book in that it contains no cursing and no sex scenes. The book follows a homicide detective in a case that involves both murder and sexual assault (neither event actually shown). The circumstances of the crime account for the PG-13 rating. The protagonist is not a Christian. His wife becomes one, which is a source of annoyance for him. She is a relatively minor character in this book. There is no religious messaging or religious agenda on the part of the author. Some scenes are set in the offices of a church, and characters include staff members of this church. But there is relatively little overtly religious content, and faith is not a primary driver of the plot. So we’ll give it a 10 on the CHU index.

See how this works? It’s important to point out that none of the ratings for maturity, messaging, or Christian Heat Units measure how good a book is. You’ll get that from the body of the review, and from the star-rating assigned. The ratings we’ve been discussing are designed only to give a meaningful snapshot of a book’s contents, not its quality.

Armed with this information, the reviewer who objected to a certain Christian novel because it had one scene set in a bar could choose to read only G-rated novels. [If I were feeling snarky, I might suggest Christian Fantasy for her, because in the real world, not everyone lives like a member in good standing at her church.] Sensitive atheists who feel “hit over the head with religion” by any novel that mentions God more than once would prefer books with the lowest number of CHUs. [Again, if I were feeling snarky, I’d say “Toughen up, Cupcake: you are surrounded by millions of believers in the real world, and knowing a little something about them won’t hurt you a bit.”] The devotees of the Hold My Messages School will be able to easily avoid books that preach to them, or that encumber the plot with Meaning. And those who insist that every story must have a moral can confirm both the presence and the type of said moral.

In other words, in the few seconds that it takes to read the ratings grid, you can determine if any Christian book is potentially one you’d enjoy. How cool is that?

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All the Lonely People

Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name
Nobody came

As much as we authors like to imagine that our words are for the whole world, they’re not. Only a certain subset of readers will enjoy any given writer. To be effective, a writer has to know his audience. He has to have a clear picture of the person who will get something of value from his prose, and then write with that person in mind. I write for Eleanor Rigby, among others. Yes, she’s an imaginary character in the Beatles song that is named for her. And yes, she’s dead. But she is a convenient placeholder for me, a stand-in for all the hurting real people whose names I don’t know, but whose stories I can intuitively sense.

A Facebook friend recently shared a post about “virtual living.” The post talked about how people so often substitute virtual experiences for real ones; watching TV instead of getting out and doing something; interacting with virtual friends online instead of visiting a real friend in person. I’ll ignore the obvious irony of someone posting this to their 150,000+ Facebook followers, and concentrate on the responses the post got. Several of them brought Eleanor Rigby to mind. Two especially stuck out at me:

A woman with the initials JDN said: So true. It’s heartbreaking. While this scenario is without any connection, it may be all some people are afforded in certain seasons. Church is one of the loneliest places I go. I love the Body, but it hurts to be there many times.

And a man with the initial MH added this: Maybe it is because a lot of folks have been damaged by real people, so they prefer to avoid the pain and live in isolation. I’ve attended many churches through the years, and as a result of it, decided I would rather steer clear of “well meaning Christians” that have no idea how to treat others with compassion, love, and understanding. I finally found a church that “gets it”. There are a lot of hurting people out there. Some of them are struggling to just get through the day. I don’t fault them for it…

The church is an organism. It’s the body of Christ, composed of all the people who are part of it. But many of us experience the church more as an organization than as an organism. It can seem to be all about hierarchies, budgets, and programs rather than people in an organic relationship. It can be full of folks who are busy, and harried, and yes, lonely. Sometimes the relationships in a congregation aren’t much deeper than the virtual relationships we have on Facebook.

I’ve begun to understand that most of my ministerial and artistic endeavors are aimed at people like MH and JDN. And Eleanor Rigby. On the surface, Fighting Back is a novel about what happens when a young man named Eddie gets into a fight while sticking up for a harassed woman on the street. The brief fight puts Eddie in the cross-hairs of some very bad people. Complications and consequences ensue. But there is another story here, one I think many Christians will relate to: the question of why churches like Eddie’s sometimes grievously injure the very people they exist to help. It’s a very real problem. Fortunately, I believe there are real solutions to it. They’re also part of the story.

If you love God, but haven’t always loved church (or felt that church loved you), then you are my audience. If you have ever joined a church hoping not to encounter the issues you encountered in your three (or more!) previous ones, you are my audience. And if you can relate to the expression “there is no hurt like church hurt,” then you are my audience. I wrote Fighting Back with you in mind. It might even help you heal.

 

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Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury

When I received the envelope stamped “Jury Service: Your Civic Duty,” I rolled my eyes. Like almost everyone I know, I’ve been getting these summonses for years, and I am never chosen to be on a jury. So the notice usually just means I have to get up early, slog through rush hour traffic, and sit for four or five hours in a crowded room before being sent home. In the unlikely event that my number is called and I go stand before a judge, I am always rejected by the defense attorney. This is because I have a family member who worked as a law enforcement officer. Defense attorneys always assume that I’ll be biased in favor of the prosecution (nope), or that I will grant a police officer’s testimony more weight than another person’s (not at all). Their false assumptions in this regard always got me out of serving.

So when I arrived at Superior Court, I paid fleeting attention to the little propaganda film about the importance of jury duty. It talked about how founding fathers like John Adams regarded the right to a jury of one’s peers as equal in importance to the right to vote. One commentator pointed out that when you vote, your voice is one among millions. When you serve on a jury, your voice is one among just twelve, giving you an outsized impact on the lives and property of your fellow citizens. That caught my ear.

The court officers called for potential jurors holding numbers one through seventy to report to a courtroom. I was number 48. Once in the courtroom, there was an undercurrent of good natured grumbling until a judge entered and explained that this would be a criminal case. The defendant was charged with nine counts of forcible rape of a child, plus one count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The charges were very specific and quite graphic as to the acts alleged; I could not list them here without grossing out the readers and probably violating the terms of service of this site. When the charges were read, the mood in the room instantly got very sober and serious.

We were all called before the judge in numerical order, beginning with number one. Since twelve jurors and two alternates would be needed, I hoped against hope that they could fill that number before they got to me. No such luck. When I stood before the judge, I answered the question about having family members in law enforcement and waited for the inevitable objection from the defense. It never came. The judge also asked me if I would give a police officer’s testimony more weight than a civilian’s. I answered truthfully, but deliberately hesitated a second or two, as if I needed to think before saying no. Again, no objection was raised.

Then the judge asked me something truly interesting: Did I have any religious convictions that would prevent me from rendering a fair verdict in this trial? I thought about that. I certainly didn’t want to spend days listening to explicit descriptions of sex organs and unnatural acts. And I certainly didn’t like the idea of having to discuss details of the crime in mixed company. Perhaps I could invoke my personal standards of propriety to get myself out of what was sure to be a very disagreeable task.

But I couldn’t bring myself to take that route. The complainant was a young girl who was fourteen years old when she was allegedly gang-raped. If the charges were true, then someone needed to step up and provide justice for her. And if the charges against this defendant were false, then the reasoning ability of twelve people was all that stood between an innocent man and the deep pit over which he now teetered. Someone had to do the dirty work of sifting through the evidence, deciding the facts, and rendering a just verdict. How could I refuse? I wasn’t about to become that guy who demands that justice be done, but declines to get his own hands dirty doing it. So I told the judge the truth: I would not be happy deliberating on this jury, but I could render a fair verdict. I was chosen as juror number seven.

Over the course of the next week-and-a-half, I observed a number of things. In no particular order they include:

Juries aren’t as dumb as people think. The judge’s instructions to this jury were read aloud, and the process took an hour. There were precise instructions about what could or could not be considered evidence. Many things we would have wanted to know were not admissible at trial. We were to avoid discussing the trial with anyone outside the jury room, avoid all media accounts, and avoid any online research about any aspect of the trial. We could not be moved by either sympathy or animosity. Only the evidence that had been admitted at trial could be considered in arriving at a verdict. By contrast, when the general public follows a trial in the media, there is lots of speculation and assertions that are not admitted at trial. The court of public opinion is more freewheeling than a court of law. When a jury reaches a verdict different than the public’s, many conclude the jury members were stupid or corrupt. They are neither. But they are severely constrained, and this is good.

If the administration of justice were a business, it would be big business indeed. The day this trial began, there were fifteen other trials scheduled to take place in the same courthouse. In my little home state of Massachusetts there are 20 Superior Court locations and 62 District Courts. That’s a veritable justice factory churning out trials and verdicts, with monetary damages, jail time or prison time for the losers. This is high stakes stuff, and except for high-profile cases, it goes on quietly in the background, unnoticed and unremarked by most people. But for the people caught up in the system, it is a big deal. The defendant in my case was a young man in his twenties. He tried to look stoic throughout the trial. But when the jury found him guilty of seven of ten counts, he sat with his face in his hands. Each count carried a potential sentence of fifteen years to life. His bail was revoked, and he was remanded to custody pending sentencing next week.

Since this blog is primarily about writing, allow me these two observations: First, real life is intense. So there is no excuse for writing sterile, emotionally flat fiction. This was a gut-wrenching trial for the complainant, her family, the defendant, and the jurors. . Furthermore, there is intense drama around all of us; people experiencing unspeakable joy, or shattering grief, or blinding rage, or crippling fear. We need only take the time to look around and see it. If our fiction doesn’t provoke strong emotion, it’s because our characters and/or their stories aren’t real enough.

Second, answering the judge’s questions during jury selection reminded me of what I like about lead character Eddie Caruthers in Fighting Back. He’s deeply flawed in many ways (aren’t we all), but he is always willing to wade into a bad situation to help someone. He knows that to make the world a cleaner place, he sometimes has to get his hands dirty. This he willingly does, and it’s one of the things I admire about him. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I hope you’ll agree!

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What Clean Means, Part 2

We ended Part 1 of this two-part post by asking a question: How is it that scripture is clean and holy, despite containing a long list of scenes and situations that wouldn’t make it past the editorial standards review at most modern Christian publishing houses? The answer is that scripture is clean because of whose word it is, not because it adheres to a convenient list of taboos to avoid mentioning. It’s holy because of whose Spirit it exudes. It’s pure because its author is pure. This is true of the whole Bible, even the parts that make us uncomfortable.

When the Bible writers chronicled unholy acts, they did not do it with unholy purpose. They didn’t portray violence for its shock value. They didn’t include sexual content to provoke readers to lust. You can read about vile sins in scripture without fear that you will somehow be dirtied or defiled by the reading. Even the ugly stuff is in there for your benefit. God had the writers include what was needed to accurately portray the truth, and to convey its emotional and spiritual impact. This is the only effective way to teach the lessons that need to be learned.

The fear of the Lord is to hate evil. An author who shares God’s abhorrence of evil can write about evil people or evil deeds without conveying either approval or unwholesome fascination with that evil. That’s what scripture does. But when authors filter a story through a list of prohibited words and topics, they risk writing something that is not merely clean, but sterile. If the goal is to avoid having any character think, say, or do anything that a Bible Belt deacon would not approve, even Christian readers will get bored. The writer has bleached the soil to get rid of all the germs, and now nothing will grow in it: no conflict, no passion, no pathos, and certainly nothing powerful enough to resonate deeply or stir the soul of the reader. A sterile story is emotionally unsatisfying.

Worse yet, a sterile story fails to tell the whole truth, or even enough of the truth to matter. When your most hardened  characters talk like Boy Scouts; when single men aged 18-35 go through their days with nary a lustful thought, either not thinking of women at all or thinking of them with nothing but sisterly affection; when the ministers in the story are perfectly wise, perfectly patient, and perfectly loving; none of your characters seem to be real people. If the prodigal son had done nothing worse than miss a few synagogue services, it wouldn’t have been much of a story. We need to see from whence he was redeemed. It’s only because he wound up in the metaphorical gutter after squandering his money on riotous living and prostitutes that we understand the depth of his Father’s love and grace. To sterilize the story is to bleach away all its power.

So like many things in life, defining “clean” turns out not to be as simple as it first appears. It is not merely a matter of avoiding prohibited topics on The List some committee compiled. I’ve seen and heard artistic creations that did not violate the strictures of The List, but still struck me as unclean. And as we’ve seen with scripture, it’s possible to run afoul of The List and yet be holy. What’s needed is something less convenient but infinitely more useful than The List: discernment, exercised on a case-by-case basis.

 

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What Does “Clean” Mean?

“Just in time for Christmas! Clean, powerful, fun.” An author friend of mine wrote these words to potential buyers of his several published books. That, along with several similar ads by other Christian authors, got me thinking: What does “clean” mean to readers of Christian fiction?

At first blush, the answer seems self-evident. We all know what “dirty” means, as in dirty jokes or dirty movies. It refers to indecent, obscene, or grotesque material, especially as it relates to sexual content. So “clean” must refer to any material that does not contain such objectionable things, right? Most Christian readers would define clean this way, and might also expand their idea of clean to include a longer list of prohibited items. For example, one major Christian publisher has posted its editorial standards for authors on its website. Among other things, these standards expressly prohibit:

• Acts of violence against any institution or person
• Profanity
• Gratuitously violent or sexual content, including non consensual sex
• Descriptions of the sexual act; double entendres; sex outside the biblical definition of marriage

The publisher will reject any manuscript that violates these guidelines. I understand. They want to publish clean material, and they are defining clean as the absence of the things they have listed.

Now imagine an author submits a manuscript with the following plot points: A young married couple is staying as overnight guests in someone’s house. Suddenly the house is surrounded by a gang of perverts who demand that the husband be sent out to them for group sex. The master of the house refuses, since he has obligations of hospitality to the man. But the husband inexplicably sends out his wife instead. She is brutally assaulted all night, and is discovered dead on the front steps in the morning. Upon finding her body covered with marks of torture and abuse, the husband dismembers her corpse and ships a piece of it into every legal jurisdiction in the country as evidence of the crime committed. The outraged citizenry rises up and demands that the perpetrators of the crime be handed over for punishment. The locals refuse the request, and the resulting civil unrest kills thousands.

Would anyone publish such a lurid tale? Before you say no, consider that this is the tale of The Levite’s Concubine — a Bible story from the nineteenth chapter of Judges. Nor is that story a solitary aberration among Bible narratives. For graphic violence, refer to the prophet Samuel’s treatment of a prisoner of war; 1 Samuel 15:33 records that he “hacked Agag in pieces.” Or there is the assassination of King Eglon of Moab. Judges chapter three tells us in graphic detail how this fat king was killed by a two-edged dagger, around eighteen inches in length; the assassin stabbed him with such force that the whole dagger, handle and all, went into his body, and he was disemboweled.

In other places there are frank descriptions of the sexual act (Genesis 38:9), double entendres (Song of Solomon, 8:9), descriptions of drunkenness, rape, murder, incest, prostitution, STDs, bodily functions and any number of other things that wouldn’t pass muster with a publisher’s list of prohibited items. I’m sure many Christians squirm a little when reading these parts of scripture. Many no doubt skip them entirely, trying to pick and choose the verses they find uplifting. But the presence of these things in no way renders scripture unclean!

God’s word is pure (Psalm 12:6). And I don’t just mean on balance, as if it matters that inspirational verses like “Love never fails” or “The Lord is my shepherd” far outnumber those verses that we find embarrassing. No, scripture is clean in its entirety; so clean that it is able to cleanse the hearts and minds of those that immerse themselves in it (Psalm 119:9, John 15:3). In fact, the nature of God’s word goes beyond “clean” all the way to “holy.” (Romans 1:2; 2 Timothy 3:15). So how does scripture manage to be clean and holy while relating so many stories of shocking violence and human depravity?

Perhaps some readers are thinking that a different set of rules should apply to historical narrative than to fiction. After all, the Bible is just reporting the facts of what happened, however unpleasant they may be. But it must surely be wrong to include such content in a creative work. Shouldn’t the product of our imaginations contain only wholesome words and images?

Actually, Christ Jesus answered that question for us. He was perhaps the first to demonstrate the aphorism that fiction tells the truth. He taught using parables, which were short fictional stories with a moral point. And He peopled His fictional stories with managers who stole from their employers; tenants who murdered their landlord’s representatives; and a prodigal son who was into riotous living and consorting with prostitutes.

So again I ask: How is it that the scripture is pure, clean, and holy, when it contains so many narratives that run counter to our instinctive definition of clean? And how might understanding this impact modern Christian fiction? That’s next in part two.

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