Sunday, January 29, 2012

Fiction Writing: Character

The credentials I bring to this subject are one published novel, two novels under contract, and two I am working on.  There are at least ten others in my head.  I also read very widely in different genre, specifically chick lit, some fantasy, literary (men's and women's), detective, "Christian" (not sure about what that is, exactly, but I know it if I see it) and classic (currently reading Little Dorrit by Dickens, what a delight.)  I don't read romance and Western or much scifi.  I also have an M.A. in Writing.

Whenever someone sets out rules about fiction writing, the rules cannot be hard and fast and usually anyone who reads very much can readily and easily point to an example of successful and even well done writing (not always synonymous) that violates the rules.  (did you notice the parallelism in that sentence?  That's for another post.  There was, intentionally, way too much, yet Dr. King does it brilliantly in Letter from a Birmingham Jail.)

Rule 1.  You have to like your characters.  I see the point of this rule, but would rephrase it to "you have to see the humanity in your characters."  Since we don't like all the people we know, why should be like all our characters?  If we liked all our characters, might they not be somewhat like ourselves more than representative of all humanity?  To me, fiction is about human experience, about what it means to be human.  I think what "advice givers" mean by this advice is that your characters should not be all good or all bad; every very bad person has some good, every very good person has some bad.  Our characters should not be paragons of virtue, ideals, without flaws.  The flaws can be big or small.  In my novel, the main character is somewhat headstrong, which is not a bad thing, but she is also somewhat naively self-righteous because of her upbringing, her world view, and her position in life.  She doesn't mean to be, and would be aghast if someone told her she was, but her naive, unintentional self-righteous is what drives the story and makes her think she is doing the right thing and causes her not to listen. It is what causes her downfall.   In another novel, a character can be an adulterer or have committed some terrible act yet be hiding it, be living the consequences of it, or be influenced irrevocably by it.

In reading Little Dorrit, I find that Dickens doesn't necessarily like his characters and really lampoons some of them, but they are real.  Flora is crazily funny, but I have no trouble believing her as written (how she is portrayed in film versions is another story and another art form; it is very important that we make the distinction here between written characterization and dramatic, cinematic characterization, which depends on the actor and director as much as the script.)  And although Dickens finds her annoying, clearly, I think he also feels for her.  So perhaps it is not "liking" we need with our characters; it is empathy.

Rule 2:  Flat versus round characters.  This is the standard differentiation between characters who stay the same, the control group if you will, in the story, and those who change.  The flat characters may be the impetus of the story, as may be the round characters.  The round characters should be written about more, essentially more developed, although just spending more ink on them is not the point.  Too many flat characters crowd the story; too many round characters confuse as well; it is far too difficult to balance out more than a handful of people who change, who drive the story.  This rule is probably the central one to fiction writing that is supposed to be character-driven (see rule 3).

When you introduce a character, the amount of time you spend on the initial description is a clue to the reader how important he/she will be to the action.  If you spend a page or two on a character's appearance or backstory the first time the character is mentioned, the reader will expect to see the character again.  If he/she disappears, there is a problem.  It is, of course, more important to show, rather than tell.  Also, it is better to telegraph information for the reader to figure out what the character is like.  For example, in my novel I introduce an African-American woman on the second page, but I don't say, "Esther is black."  Her husband's name is Maurice (and I don't apologize for using what some would call a stereotypical name; it's not like Chiniqua or something).  She thinks of people in Georgia as crackers, and she has left south Georgia; and when she sees the new inhabitants of the house across the street, she says to herself, "They will be white, of course."  White people do not see other white people as white people.  Esther is very likable but she has opinions, some of which are mine and some of which are not.

Which brings us to the question, can a white person write a black character?  Very carefully.  I've done it several times, and I don't worry about it.  Can a black person write a white character?  Why not?  It's all about how well it's done, how believable, not some unwritten rule.  But I know people who would argue passionately that we cannot cross race or gender in our writing.  I'm in big trouble then, if I can only write stories with all white females.  That would make for some pretty boring fiction.

The best way to describe by the show, don't tell rule is to, well, tell a story.  Give an example we can see and live through.  It's easy to say the character is kind; a scenario of their being kind is much better.

Rule 3:  The distinction between character-driven and plot-driven is not a dichotomy where a piece of fiction is either one or the other.  I see it on a continuum, with a story moving toward one direction or another (and even at different times within the novel); I also see it as a perception of the reader, and that readers can disagree.  I'll use Ron Rash's Serena as an example.  He has very real characters, but he also is playing with the mythic stories of Abraham and Sarah and MacBeth.  At the same time, it's happening in a specific historical period, the opening of the Smoky Mountain National Park.  So some of the plot has to "match up" with the Biblical and Shakespearean story, and some of the plot has to fit in the timeframe of the opening of the Park, and some of the plot is driven believably by the decisions and nature of the characters.  So, where does it lie on the continuum?  I would say it moves back and forth.

There is a prejudice that plot-driven fiction is bad and character-driven fiction is good.  That is far too simplistic.  In my own novel, I created a character and situation and then had to decide how it would end.  To me, the ending is purely logical; I could have ended it another way but 1.  it wouldn't have opened up more possibilities for the story in the future (something I didn't realize at the time) and 2.  it wouldn't have been as dramatic and may have been kind of lame.  What happens?  Despite several persons warning her, the character goes to a pro-life protest and gets trampled in a riot and dies.  She is not a martyr; she is Antigone, dying in a good cause but not for a good cause.  Her husband and children and others are left with the pieces.  I could have had her go to the rally, come home, tell her husband she was sorry and would stop being so involved, and la di da, that's the end.  I really don't know how else I would end it, because I ended it the way I did.  I can understand if people don't like it, if people think it's a downer, but I don't believe it's an unbelievable, out-of-nowhere ending, because of how I set it up.

Which brings me to

Rule 4:  Verisimilitude vs. the world you have created.  In literary and realistic fiction, such as detective, there has to be a correspondence with the real world as we are living in it.  There are certain rules you just can't break.  Characters can't fly.  This is one problem I had with Peace Like a River.  I liked the book, and the prose is beautiful, but the father was some kind of miracle worker who walked on air, which was just plain weird, and the eight-year-old daughter wrote poems about Butch Cassidy that were far beyond her years.  This was played against a prodigal son story.

However, it worked because he had the audacity to make it work!  More to the point, he created a world, which is usually more what scifi and fantasy writers do.  In that case, the characters do not have to always act truly like humans as long as you set up the parameters of how they normally do act.  Even their motivations could be different; as long as you have made that clear.  This is one area where I can see it better than I can describe it.  In the Lord of the Rings, many of the characters don't act like humans (and they aren't human) but they are not incongruous to the world Tolkien constructed.

These four observations are only a way to look at what you have written as you revise.  Each of us has his or her own method; mine is to dump, then sift.  Get all of it out on paper (or screen) and then after time has passed, read it like someone else wrote it.  Sometimes research has to be done beforehand; in my novel under contract, a character lived through the Rwanda genocide, so I read two books and articles about that. I think all fiction needs some level of research, personally, or else a lot of life experience behind it.  Other people write in little bits and pieces, and are constantly self-censoring after a page or two.  I can't work that way, since the characters are fighting to get out of my head once I start giving them a voice. 

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Writers Group: My take on how to run one

In September I began a writers' group.  Well, I can't take total credit for it.  I belong to the writers guild of a local semi-large Southern City.  I attended one of their established writers groups and found it too large for my taste.  Because there was not one in my "neck of the woods" (whatever that means; for me it means my county which is a suburb of that semi-large Southern City), I decided to say we would have one.  I arranged for it to meet in a library and away we went.  The first meeting had six people; we are up to maybe ten now.  It has gone through some evolution and probably still will. 

To let you know what I've learned, here goes.

Our group is multi-genre.  That will not work for everyone; it works for us right now.  I think if everyone is writing the same genre there may be a tendency toward turfism and jealousy, as in "that's not the way I would do that."  If the group were full of professional, multi-published writers, maybe not.

Our group has a lot of talent.  I enjoy reading what we share.  We are also nice people.

People should have the freedom to read aloud if they like or pass around manuscripts if they like.  Because I write to be read (not heard), I want it to be seen on paper.  But some forms of poetry and some writing needs to be heard.

Food always helps.  It gets people in a better mood.

People should not be allowed to critique if they are not consistently writing and submitting. 

Each member should get an equal amount of time, so use a stopwatch for the ten or however many minutes each person gets. 

Someone has to be skillful in watching that someone doesn't get overly criticized or overly critical.

Every group needs a leader.   That may mean taking some criticism for how one leads. 

I have told my members to indicate on their emails (when they send around manuscripts) what they want help with.  Otherwise you get a lot of people obsessed with spelling.  I don't care about my spelling.  My main concern is character, clarity, and diction.  I am an academic and we write a certain way that is antithetical to good fiction writing.  I want to know if I am getting obscure in that way.

Finally, flexibility as the group grows and progresses is needed.  We have had to revisit ground rules at least three times, for various reasons.

Everyone needs someone else reading their writing.  The market, especially e-book market, is being absolutely glutted with crap that is not being edited or vetted.  Potential writers aren't submitting their work to the stresses of critique out of pride and laziness.  To Kill a Mockingbird was in editorial processes for two years.  It shows. 

Child Rearing

My son is an adult now.  I have to remind myself of that everyday.

I still like to read about child rearing, though.  Yet one thing that puzzles me is what I hear all the time, "This is so hard."

Why is it so hard?  OK, I only had one, go ahead, tell me that I wasn't really a parent because I only had one.  Whatever. 

Every minute was awesome.  He was so much fun.  He was funny.  He was learning.  He said such interesting things.   Even when he had a seizure disorder, threw up all the time, had to take meds for seven years.

He was never hard to raise.  Others were always saying, "wait til he is two."  "Wait til he is a teenager."

Parents just have the wrong perspective.  First, they are too worried that their children should experience every sport, event, instrument.  Second, they are worried about what other people will say about them.  The competitiveness among parents amazes me.  "I am a better parent because I cosleep." (Stupidest practice ever).  "I am a better parent because I am still breast feeding after a year."  "I am a better parent because ......"  I think this is mostly mothers.  Third, they are too worried about balancing their own needs and wants with their children's.  They want to have a full-time job, go to school, and raise children. 

Get over it--you're a parent.  You don't get to have it all.  You are responsible for a child now.  Enjoy the child.  Quit pushing him to be the number one kid in the school.  Let him be who he is; let her enjoy being herself.  Good grief. 

A former AWANA director said the wisest thing I ever heard.  "The greatest privilege is to teach children about God."  That's what we get to do.  WOW.

Circumcision: The Elephant in the Room

Note on July 21, 2012:  I have noticed this post gets a lot of traffic and that there is another website with the same title.  This one is about the biblical meaning of circumcision.  It has nothing to do with the medical practice as done today on male babies.  However, since you're here, we did have our son circumcised because we believed it to be healthier and cleaner, and so he would not see himself as looking unusual if it came to that.  He would kill me if he read that!  Anyway, if you're looking for information on the medical practice, this is not it.

That's a really silly title but I have been thinking about this subject for a long time, which is also a silly thing to admit to.

I have taught a women's Bible class for many years, and although I have taken a break, I'll be teaching tomorrow.  This subject isn't technically in the passage but sort of.  Anyway, it comes up quite often in both the Hebrew Bible (I am trying to be politically correct here and not call it the Old Testament, which is incorrect from the Jewish point of view) and the New Testament (which from the Christian point of view might be called the Applicable Testament?  The Gentile Testament?)

How often has the word circumcision come up in my teaching?  I am committed to dealing with the text and not skipping over matters that are clearly there despite their causing discomfort.  So this post is about the subject and how it fits into our understanding of the Bible today, and what to do about it if you are teaching such a passage.

As a side note, I realize that the whole subject is even humorous to some, although I have no idea why.  Of course, I am not a male, and males tend to cringe when they think about it (let them get a mammogram every year!).  The debate over whether it is healthier for men to be circumcised (or healthier for their wives) is over; of course it is.  Calling it genital mutilation is offensive, even though they did so in San Francisco.  All the males in my family are circumcised, and I'm glad of it.

Circumcision and covenant are two related terms in the Old Testament.  Covenant has to do with a word related to "cut."  When the LORD (I don't use the transliterated version of that name from the Hebrew letters, because Jews and Catholics don't) made His covenant with Abraham, He cut the animals and walked between them while Abraham was asleep (Genesis 15).  As a sign that the Jewish males were in the covenant, their foreskin was to be cut.  This made them personally aware, in the most intimate physical sign, that they were in the covenant.

Now the questions that arise are, what about the women?  and was this something they ever showed?  On the first question, I don't know.  On the second, since the HB had very specific rules about nakedness, I would guess not.  But the man knew, his family knew, his community would know because he would have gone through the ceremony as an infant, and his wife would know.  That's all that mattered, really.

But prophets and others emphasized that the covenant sign was not only physical but should have a spiritual component.  One's body could be circumcised but it did no good if one's heart (in HB thinking, the inner person of will, mind, emotions, and affections) were not also cut, open as it were, to the law, to God's direction, and to obedience.  If your foreskin was cut but you disobeyed the moral law of God--through idolatry, greed and indifference toward neighbors or the poor, etc.--you were not living up to the covenant and therefore not really circumcised.

This is especially clear in Paul's New Testament writings, such as Col 2:11.  In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ.  Here Paul is writing to Gentiles, who probably thought the whole act of circumcision so important to the Jews was kind of barbaric.  He also wrote to the Romans in 2:2,  A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical.

The circumcision of the HB that pictured the cutting of the covenant is spiritual in the New Testament.  Christ's flesh was cut for us; he is the mediator of a new covenant.  Our hearts are circumcised and our outward life should flow from this open heart, which is no longer stony and  hard to God in faithlessness and disobedience but open and pliant to the things of God.  We live under a covenant as well.  We can choose to live under the covenant (which is totally up to God and not to us; we were "asleep" in a sense just like Abraham was) and enjoy the blessings of it, or we can choose to live like the covenant isn't in force, and suffer as did the Jews in the HB.  I am of the opinion that a person who continually chooses to live as if the covenant is not under force isn't under the covenant in the first place.

When I was in the Presbyterian church, when the babies were sprinkled they said that was the sign of the new covenant as circumcision was of the HB period.  I have a lot of respect for Presbyterians and prefer their way of doing things, but there are a few disagreements I have that are just too hard to get past.  This idea that baptism is like circumcision is one of them, and that the Jews are no longer under a covenant is another.  When did God start breaking covenants?  However, I could accept that the new covenant has supplanted the former, since this one is better:  it is spiritual (inward), it is everlasting, it is apolitical, it is for everyone.  (see Hebrews).

This is one of the oddest blog posts I have done, and in some ways far more esoteric than I usually get into.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

White Privilege

In my first iteration as a doctoral student in 2006 at Georgia State, in a discussion in a communication education class, I was told I was oppressed.

"No, I'm not."  To me, that was as absurd as telling me I had green hair or a million dollars in the bank.  My interlocutor was an African American gentleman whose face and conviction I remember well but whose name I have forgotten.  He was a fellow doctoral student, further along in the program, and even older than I was (in his mid-fifties).  He had been in social services work, confessed to be a Christian.  I believe he was a sincere, fine man.

But today that conversation is as vivid as if it happens last week, as is my perplexity as to why I--American, middle-class, healthy, white, educated, professional, homeowner, voter--is considered oppressed.  It's because I'm female.

I let him know that I rejected that self-identification.  "Tehre are millions of women on the planet who are oppressed," I said, "but I am not one of them."  However, his world view dictated that I was oppressed and just didn't understand or recognize it.

Not long after that, I was seated next to a young woman at a dinner held after a professional conference.  She and I approached the same subject.  I had heard her say that day in a presentation, "Women cooperate in their own oppression."  In other situations, I have read Pablo Freire and bell hooks and about critical pedagogy.  If education can empower others to change their circumstances, that is one thing.  Whether that is the whole purpose of education, that is another. 

What is oppression?  If I am oppressed, what does non-oppression look like?  Are men naturally non-oppressed, simple because they are male (if I am oppressed because I am female?) 

All of this backgroud brings me to the theme, white privilege.  Am I a beneficiary of white privilege?  Of coure.  I don't deny it.  And I refuse to feel guilty about it.  I had no control over my parentage, my race, my acculturation, my parents' choices, my early education, the region of the country I was born in.  It does no good to feel bad about such things; to do so would only be a waste of time and energy.

At the same time, it would be foolish to ignore my white privilege.  I have no patience for white people who deny their white privilege and even have the nerve to assert that African Americans (especially) are getting some privileges or breaks.  This is not a comment on affirmative action (that is a whole different subject), but a comment on the reality of our culture and world system.

We whites cannot deny that there is an advantage to being white.  All we can do is decide how we will respond to it.  What might those choices be?

We cannot stop being white, nor can we change the past and how we have benefited from being white.

We can try to give up some of the accoutrements of our privilege.  For example, wealth; less hassle from authority figures who have bad attitudes.  If one follows Christ absolutely, to give all to the poor.  But that won't change the fact you are white or that you have been privileged.  But it will mean you are obeying Christ, who is not interested in your white privilege but in your obedience. 

We can work to change the "system"--the cultural system, the political system, or the church system.  I say start with the last; it should be most susceptible to change because it is full of people who know they should be counter-cultural, whose very job is to be counter-cultural.  We can start by courage, speaking up whe someone denigrates those who are not recipients of white privilege. 

How have I benefited from being white?  Simply by not being other. 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Power of Touch

Recently I have seen a number of video "clips" of service personnel returning from Afghanistan and especially Iraq.  God bless them, and their families.

What I notice is that the first reaction is not to talk, not to get a good hard look, but to embrace, touch, caress. 

Skype is wonderful; we can see who we are talking to on the other side of the planet. I know it has been an encouragement to millions, especially those who have been and are fighting in the Middle East.   I attended a Skype baby shower this summer.  The couple was in San Diego, where they live.  The husband, a chaplain, will soon be deployed for ten months.  He will be able to see his baby girl frequently.

But Skype is not presence.  Presence is validated by touch; touch is only possible in one's presence. Touch is the realest of the senses, followed by taste.  You can smell without physical contact, you can also see and hear, but only within inches of each other can you feel and touch and know the reality.   No wonder the first reaction after long separation is to touch, to hold.  It doesn't matter if the person has gained or lost weight or grown gray--they are physically real.  We have all read about the babies in the orphanage who died due to lack of touch, and how that is still going on in the developing world.  Touch is life, more than we recognize.  I often tell my communication students that touch separates the cultures more than anything, and to be prepared in another culture and wary about touching or not touching based on Western standards, or even southern standards (we are a tad touchier than Yankees, but not much--it's mostly the grandmas). 

Unfortunately, we associate physical contact too much with sexuality, and that ruins it too often.  Yet, with some validity, touch is controversial; we are touchy about touch.  Where, when, who, how.  Don't go below the shoulder blades; don't hold the handshake too long. 

There is one reason I respected Princess Diana.  She had no fear of touching those HIV babies in Africa.  No wonder people loved her.  It is the one way she was like Jesus, who in an age of taboos and rituals, especially about Gentiles and lepers and other "uncleans," he touched freely.  I often touch a person on the shoulder; I might be risking something, but it's worth it.  They may just think I am a little more human.

Email etiquette

Someone just wrote me an insulting email.  The person probably thought they were making a point and it would hurt my feelings.  Joke's on them.  I have been accused of so much evil in my life, it's amusing.  I am the most innocuous person in the world, yet people (usually men) find ways to try to bring me down. 

Remember, persons who insult you, especially in an email, is only revealing their own true colors.  If they truly care and have something worth saying, they will come along side in the spirit of Christ and take the time to admonish, not just use invective.

Whither Republican politics?

Hunstman and Perry out this week.  Big surprise.
 
Newt Gingrich?  Really?  Seriously?

And we're upset Romney has money?  Do they think a poor person can run for president?  If he was a failed businessman and didn't have money, would it make him more qualified to run for president? 
Why do these same people think Trump would be all right? (both, by the way, come from moneyed families; at least Romney doesn't act like he was raised poor.)

Romney didn't break any laws to make or live off his money.  I'm not crazy about him, but in the absence of some others coming forward, he's the best the Republicans have. 

I like Santorum, but he's unexperienced.   But he's a good man.

Why is there a double standard in the media for Democrats and Republicans?  It's so obvious, it's frighteningly amusing. 

And then there is Ron Paul.  OH MY GOODNESS.  Who is actually voting for this guy?  (Actually, I know of several who are or would.) 

Church Relationships with Pastors

These seem to fall into six categories:

Adulation:  the congregants are far too in awe of the pastor's persona and/or gifts
Subjective:  the congregants are subjects of the king
Combative (Adversarial):  Us-them/We-him(her)--never good
Collaborative:  shared leadership/nonadversarial/mutual respect
Cooperative:  pastor leads, congregation agrees to follow and cooperate
Tentative:  not just time-sensitive; uncertainty

However, this is in no way a criticism of a pastor or pastors, just a conclusion from many years of observing.  I could put names behind each of these categories, but I'll refrain.   The pastorate has to be one of the hardest jobs in the world; any kind of leadership is.  Sometimes a leader has to just do what his/her lights tell him; sometimes he/she can collaborate with those being led. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Serena, by Ron Rash

My son bought me a Kindle for Christmas.  I love it!  I didn't think I would, but I do.  Unfortunately, I am really swamped with reading for work right now.  I am reading Little Dorrit.  It was free! 

But the first book I downloaded (and it wasn't free) was Serena, by Ron Rash.  I had not read any of his work before but had read reviews of this book. 

If we have to talk about books or movies in reference to other works, I would call this "the story of Sarah and Abraham and Hagar meets MacBeth meets Cormac McCarthy meets ....well, something Appalachian and environmentalist.  I like that he puts the story against the backdrop of the establishment of the Smoky Mountain Park, and his writing is impeccable.  Beautiful.  But as a friend said, it's rough.

A Bostonian, Pemberton, owns a lumber operation in the North Carolina mountains.  He brings home his new bride, Serena.  She is beautiful but mannish; a horsewoman; the daughter of a lumberman from Colorado; ruthless and cruel.  She rapes the land and rapes the lives of everyone around her who gets in the way.  She saves the life of one of the workmen who becomes her henchman; her henchman's mother has mysterious powers of second sight.  Her goal is to cut every tree in western North Carolina, make as much money as she can, and then move herself and her husband to Brazil to destroy those forests, too.

She becomes pregnant but loses the baby, almost losing her life in the miscarriage.  She will not have another child.  But there is another strain to this story of ambition.  Before their marriage, Pemberton impregnated a poor mountain girl who manages to survive the killing of her father (by Pemberton) and great privation to raise the baby, a boy who looks just like Pemberton. 

I thought the story would go that Serena would try to get the baby from the young girl.  Was I wrong.  So I won't go any further.  I would recommend the book for its gripping story and beautiful invoking of character themes from earlier literature, and because of the historical accuracy (I recently read a well-documented book on the opening of the park).  But it is rough.  Serena's cruelty and impunity stretches believability at time, but we are not in Serena's mind--we are in her husband's mind, whose ambition does not match hers and who finds himself being swept away, and in that of her "rival," the young mountain girl. 

It's a wild ride, and justice, in a sense, prevails. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Jesus, Religion, and the Facts

This is a fine response to the common "Jesus hates religion" truism.  

http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2012/01/13/does-jesus-hate-religion-kinda-sorta-not-really/

It's a short trip from Jesus hates religion to Jesus hates religious people.

I especially like Kevin DeYoung's comments that we Christians need to stop blaming ourselves and buying into the lie that we have somehow caused all the problems in the world.  Yes, we could do more, lots more. But we are not causing the problems.

Dr. King was a Republican? Who'd have thought it?

This seems to be well documented.

http://www.humanevents.com/article.php?id=16500

However, I am not sure Dr. King would be happy with some aspects of the Republican party today.

Traveling Through: Video

video

Dr. King's Day

I was glad to see on Facebook that a number of my "friends" had posted quotes from Dr. King.  Quotes are nice, but I prefer big pictures.  The best is A Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which I teach in a rhetoric class.  http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html  To me no one should graduate from college without having read it and internalized it.

I am off today, as most government employees are, and feeling a bit guilty/cynical/uncertain about why we get this day off and ignore it or give lipservice to it.  Most white people, and I am afraid some African Americans, just use it as an excuse to sleep late on a Monday.  I do know that some colleges, for example, Bryan College in Dayton, TN,use it for service learning.  I hope that is more true than I realize.  Of course, we get Labor Day and Memorial Day off too and pretty much ignore their meaning, so I suppose it is a reflection of the self-centered times we live in.

To me, Dr. King was a prophet in the Old Testament sense of calling a people to a higher ideal.  He was a flawed man but his assassination makes him a martyr in most of our eyes.  His words are more important than his life, in a sense, because he reminds us of what we should be if we call ourselves Christians and if we call our country just.  That is not to say his actions were unimportant--absolutely not, because he lived his words for the most part, especially when it came to a willingness to be an example of civil disobedience or nonviolent protest/action. 

He is a blank slate to some people--they can paint on him what they want, and make him greater or lesser than he was.  That's why I think it is critical to read his longer, more philosophical works, like Letter (above) to truly understand his philosophy and appreciate his gifts, rather than just taking quotes out of context, no matter how inspiring they are.  I don't think he wanted to make white people feel self-satisfied because they could quote him on Facebook.  I think he wanted to see a color-blind justice and civil liberties system in our nation, unlike Malcolm X (whom he criticizes in the Letter) who wanted separatism, and I believe he wanted us to live up to our billing as a Christian culture.  Remember, this was 50 years ago, when it was ok to say we are a Christian nature, or at least Judeo-Christian. 

Dr. King did not want to raise more differences between the racial groups, but more awareness.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Tim Tebow, Sanctity of Life Sunday, and the Value of Human Life

I rarely sit down and watch football with my husband, who watches it constantly.  But last week I did sit down at the end of the Broncos/Steelers game for a few minutes.  I saw the Steelers not get a score at the end of regular time and the game go into overtime; I saw the world’s shortest overtime period.  The play was so amazing that it seemed staged.  But it was beautiful and a lot of fun to see Tim Tebow throw a pass when all I’ve heard about him is that he can’t throw the ball (which means of course, not that he can’t literally throw the ball but that he doesn’t get touchdowns that way.)

I have been home a lot for the last four weeks and have had to listen to Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith scream at each other because of Tebow.  Of course, the Broncos lost decisively last night to the Patriots, as was expected, so maybe some of those tirades will calm down.

Also of course, Tebow is not just controversial because he may or may not be one of football’s greatest players.  He probably isn’t, although it is clear few have his drive or determination or physical strength (he’s a monster, a beast, a machine).  Tebow is controversial because he uses football to honor Christ, or believes he does, and because his parents are outspoken about their decision not to abort Tim after his mother became sick during pregnancy.

It’s a wonderful story, and I am thankful that they have the hutzpah and boldness to tell it when whiny pro-choice advocates want to silence them.  If there are over 3,000 abortions a day, over 1.3 million a year, are these people afraid there aren’t enough abortions?  Geesh!  What’s enough for them?  And I am thankful Tebow bows and thanks God from his heart for his ability to play football.

Media have called him one of the most divisive players in the game.  Oh, please.  These writers/talkers obviously just need something to say and keep the controversy brewing.  The Christian community is not without its debate over Tebow, either, but we all get to have our opinions.  I just fear that we let our concern that a potentially wrong message could be sent (or simply perceived) that we don’t enjoy what is.

Sure, I have some concerns about Tebow’s exuberance.  For one, I don’t think God cares who wins a football game.  i don't know why believers who are supposed to be followers of Christ are more concerned about a football game than the needy world.  But I believe Tebow, as Fran Tarkenton said on NPR the other day, is simply thanking God for the opportunity to play what he loves.  Why can’t we just take pleasure in something beautiful instead of finding pragmatism in it?  He plays well, leave it at that.  It’s just a game, for goodness sake.   (Tarkenton said he was raised by a Pentecostal preacher dad and was charismatic back before it was cool.  I like that.)  Tebow is young, he’s energetic, he’s in love with Jesus and life and his family.  Would that we all bowed and thanked God for what he allows us to do well and to enjoy in the doing of it.  I should bow to God after every class period that I was allowed to teach.

Second, I have a concern about the message of Tim Tebow’s not being aborted.  Being about as pro-life as anyone on the planet,  I see this as such a vindication that this huge physical specimen came from parents who were told he wouldn’t make it or would be disabled.  HA!  But you know, not every non-aborted child is  going to be Tim Tebow.  He or she may just be average Joe or Joann; he or she may actually be disabled.  The average Joe or Joann or the disabled child who didn’t get aborted because of the parents’ decision to value the image of God in every human being—those humans beings are as valuable as Tim Tebow.  Praise God Bob and Pam Tebow chose life; praise God for all parents who do.  Praise God for every baby, because every baby is a promise, whether he or she is an athlete, a scholar, a musician, or just himself or herself.

Finally, I have concern that this is just one more example of our celebrity cult culture.    There is so much  of it in the church I despair.  In another post I am going to write about what makes us a servant leader for God, and it isn’t fame or celebrity or talent or a blog or a radio program or a megachurch, and we are too given to such farces.

I am hoping that the Tebow mania dies down a little, for his own sake.  I hope he gets married soon.  He will have too much temptation otherwise (and I don’t think it will be Katy Perry!) 

But this is sanctity of human life week, and any message that promotes the dignity of being human is needed.

Update on my 2011, two weeks late


My son has been saying that he’s had a bad year, although he is not seeing the forest for the trees.  He graduated from college, got to go to Florida for a very enjoyable spring break,  has no debt, is healthy, and has a place to live.  He just can’t find the kind of job he wants (I have to avoid comments such as “Join the club”). 
But since I went on blogging hiatus for three weeks after Christmas, and have returned, I wanted to update on my 2011.
  • We experienced tornadoes in our town of Ringgold, Georgia.  While the damage was nothing like that of Tuscaloosa, AL, and Joplin, MO, last spring, tragedy is not relative.  If you lose your home, or a loved one, from a swirling wind coming down from nowhere; if you see clouds moving faster across the sky than you ever thought possible, and then an explosion on the horizon where you know the town is; if your son calls you four hours later frantic because the news has shown what the town looks like and he hasn’t been able to get through to you because the power is out and the cell towers down; if you drive past the places that have become a part of your life and existence, where your child went to school, where you have voted and played tennis,  and they are no longer there, or twisted, or flattened; if you look up at the ridge behind the town and see where the tight funnel of wind skipped over a ridge leaving the woods looking like a razor mowed them down; then you know what a tornado is like.
  • My brother died.  I watched him.  I held my mother as she watched him.  After that and the tornado, nothing else seems very hard.
  • A family member was diagnosed with aggressive cancer and then went, quite unexpectedly, except to God, into remission.
  • My son graduated from college, in four years, debt-free.
  • Two family members divorced.
  • We met a large branch of my husband family we didn’t even know about, his great-grandfather’s other descendants.
  • We goy two dogs, at different times.  I took one to two obedience courses.  It is amazing how quickly all that training can disappear if you don’t stay on top of it.  Both are rescue dogs and they totally run our lives.
  • A dear friend, John Economidis, passed away.  It seems like so many people I respect and love are going, and I am only 56.  I am thankful for friends.
  • I learned that I need to use H.R.Block for my tax preparation.  The processor found me over $10,000.
  • I was nominated for two awards at the college and lost both competitions, but I appreciated that my colleagues would be kind enough to nominate me.
  • My novel was republished as the first of a trilogy, but I am iffy on the status of the other two parts of the trilogy.
  • I wrote two other novels; one I am shopping around, the other I am revising because it was done in one month and the hastiness shows.
  • I came out of the “closet” (hating that expression) about my Kallman’s Syndrome.   People do not understand when I talk about it, but I connected with other people on Facebook who had it.
  • Places I went:  Orlando for the SACS annual meeting; Baxley, Georgia, for the Campbell Family Reunion; Gainesville, GA, for a conference; Atlanta several times; Nashville to visit the Cheekwood Museum; Jefferson City, TN, to see my son graduate; Upstate South Carolina to visit my husband’s family.   I guess I need to get out of the region.
  • I heard Garrison Keillor in concert, one of his last, I think.
  • I taught two new classes at the college; gave up my Sunday School class for a while; gave up nursery work for a while.
  • I applied for doctoral work at the University of Georgia.
  • I participated in a course redesign effort, led the QEP efforts, took on more of a role in the Baptist Collegiate Ministries at the college, and presented at two conferences.
  • I joined the Chattanooga Writers Guild and started my own group in Catoosa County (fourth Thursday of month, 3:30, Colonnade Library).
  • I stopped getting perms and decided to keep a short hairstyle for the rest of my life (which means more frequent haircuts).
  • I attended Confluence, a BCM conference.
  • We proposed a communication major, which meant I wrote five or more syllabi.
  • My husband and I bought a Volvo and gave away a truck.
  • I blogged almost five times a week but gave it up for a while. 
  • I read some phenomenal books, especially spiritual classics.  These helped me spiritually with peace, acceptance, stress, forgiveness.
  • I gardened.
  • I found a doctor for my husband.
  • I saw two cousins whom I haven’t seen in years.
  • And I don’t think I accomplish much!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Hymns and Hers

I listen to two radio stations:  the local NPR one (even though I had vowed to give up NPR for their hypocrisy, I fell away from my vow) and the local Moody station.  On one I get news, on the other music.  Today I heard Fernando Ortega sing one of the most common hymns of American experience, "Come Thou Fount."

I know all the words by heart, (well, the first, second, and last stanzas--Baptists are notorious for not singing the third stanzas).  However, I only remember them to music, so I had to look at another website.

Come Thou Fount of every blessing
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I'm fixed upon it,
Mount of God's unchanging love.

2. Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Hither by Thy help I'm come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood.

3. O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I'm constrained to be!
Let that grace now like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here's my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

The words have been changed from the original text to be more singable and modern; some hymnals don't use Ebenezer anymore (what does the song have to do with Scrooge?).  But the verse that stings me, bothers me, and which I won't sing, is "Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love."  Otherwise, I like the song, but I don't think some of the words of the last stanza are Biblical. 

I do not believe in steps of sanctification.  Yes, we grow, but there is no second blessing, etc.  We are sealed at conversion, not later, unto the day of redemption.  So to sing these words as a Christian makes no sense to me. 

You might say I am nitpicking, and you would be right, because quite a few of our songs are not really doctrinal.  We sing some really off the wall things in church because we are caught up in the moment and the tunes are nice and everyone else is singing.  We ask God to save us again when he already has; we focus too much on the experience and not the author of the experience; we talk too much about ourselves.   Even worse, we promise God actions we will never keep and we know we won't.  This is true of older songs as much as newer ones.

But now I am just complaining and sound curmudgeonly.  The gift of music is joyous, although we let it distort our thinking sometimes. 

Friday, January 13, 2012

Human Creativity

I am fascinated by the subject of creativity.  What I must remember is that creativity is
  • not bound to the arts
  • not necessarily lucrative 
  • won't necessarily get you noticed
  • a gift from God because of his nature within us
  • to be enjoyed
I find creative in many places; I liked to be surprised by it.  Today I heard of an album title:  "The stars are indifferent to astronomy."  That is so apt, and reminded me of the Walt Whitman poem, "When I heard the learned astronomer." (below) A poet in my writers' group has a line "I looked for the ocean where it should have been."  So much there.  Creativity makes something that hits us immediately and yet stays with us and that we stay with, trying to plumb its depths.

I don't consider myself creative, even though I write fiction.  I consider myself more of an observer and recorder; it just that I record human experience in a different order than where it might have happened.

WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer; 
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me; 
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them; 
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, 
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;         5
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself, 
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, 
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars. 
   
As can be seen, I have returned to blogging after three weeks off.  I come back hoping I will get more attention to this blog than spammers from Russia.

Fresh Look at Matthew: Matthew 28:1-8, second pass

The passage is unclear as to whether the two women saw the resurrection here, but I don’t think so.   They would probab...