After 12/7/2011, this blog will no longer be updated, although content will remain. Please visit my new blog at Hidden Latitudes.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Man and Art

Lost somewhere in the enormous plains of time, there wanders a dwarf who is in the image of God. who has produced on a yet more dwarfish scale an image of creation. The pigmy picture of God we call man; the pigmy picture of creation we call art. — G. K. Chesterton, Lunacy and Letters

Why I Write

I used to
write to remember
as if
by putting words on paper
I could at some point in the
future reconstitute flesh, heat, light
like adding water to orange juice concentrate
or thawing out an embryo. But
I found
I could often recognize
only the words written about a thing
with no more depth than the typeface
on an old-fashioned business card.
I could not remember the thing itself.
Certainly not the deep beneath the words.
for a while I wrote to chronicle,
with spare and lean prose
drawing fine-line portraits of what
I had seen and heard
with the India ink of consonant and vowel.
But as
my eyes grow dim and
motes swim across my vision
like diaphanous fairies in the slanting
evening light through the blinds,
as the voice of a friend and the
burble of a mountain brook
begin to sound disturbingly similar
to my failing ears, I find that it seems
to write of things
which my senses will tell me are not so.
So now
I write not what I remember,
or see, or hear.
I write
to be
at least for a moment
in the deepest part of me
   the prophecy in a sun breaking over the sea
   the love in the salty tasting skin of her neck
   the persistence of a full moon scudding between clouds
   the eloquence of a tear rolling down a young boy’s face

No longer
depending on my synapses,
my eyes, my ears
victims of a life lived
with a continuous diminuendo.


Sunday, August 30, 2009

Paul, John & Paul

I am a rock. I am an island.* --Paul Simon, I Am A Rock.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. --John Donne, Meditation XVII.  

Bear one another's burdens, and thus fulfil the law of Christ. --the Apostle Paul, in his Letter to the Galatian church (6:2)  

*Yes, I know Paul Simon was being ironic. But we all know people who could sing this line unironically.

Friday, August 28, 2009

On being truly free

Traditional gospel presentations assume that the people want to be “good.” But our kids’ generation wants to be “free.” Luther said, “Look, you want to be free? Good. It’s good to be free. But you’re not. You are living for something and, whatever that something is, it enslaves you.” If a person lives for reputation, then he is a slave to what people think. If a person lives for achievement, then he will be a workaholic. As did Luther, we should tell such people, “You want to be free? Fine. But you’re not going to be free unless Jesus is your salvation.” When post-everythings rejected Christianity they thought moralism and Christianity were the same thing. But we can show post-everythings that the two are not the same, and that freedom really is in Jesus. --Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dancing on the head of a pin?

I can believe in an angel who dresses like a long-haul truck driver, and who occasionally chews tobacco.
A couple of years ago, I had an idea for a novel with a novel idea. To tie together four disparate lives in a small town, I wanted the narrator to be the only one who could really see what their lives added up to—God. However, despite the potential, the idea soon collapsed under the weight of its own imponderables. Writing third-person omniscient is a valid, effective way to tell a story. But true first-person omniscient? I don’t think it’s ever been done. Now I know why.
While rummaging about for a suitable narrator, I read a remarkable little novel by Markus Zuzak entitled The Book Thief. Set in Germany during WWII, Zuzak tells the story of a young girl via a most unusual narrator—Death. And as you can imagine, during the Holocaust, Death is busy.
So, I considered the idea of having an angel narrate my story. The angel tasked with the responsibility of caring for these four souls. Soon after I began my effort, Nancy Miller brought to TNT an amazing new TV series, Saving Grace, about a last-chance angel named Earl who is charged with bringing the protagonist, hard-living police detective Grace Anadarko, to faith. (For more insight, read Cathleen Falsani’s interview with Nancy Miller at The Dude Abides.) Earl, (pictured above, and played by Leon Rippy) while not exactly what I envisioned, nevertheless has opened up my thinking. And research has shown me many things.
Angels are fascinating creatures. They can be found in all three major religions. In Judaism, they flourish—an angel stayed Abraham’s hand just as he was about to sacrifice Isaac. Another stood between Daniel and some very hungry lions. In Christianity, an angel told Mary that the child she was carrying was God come to earth. Muslims believe angels are messengers assigned at birth, who keep track of rights and wrongs. Even smaller religions, such as Zoroastrianism, believe in angels. Suffice it to say, most people of faith believe in angels.
But what are they like? In my writing, although I am writing as a Christian about characters who are either nominally Christian or agnostic, I have resisted any theological weightlifting, preferring, like Nancy Miller, to focus on the uniqueness and doggedness of their nature. And here are some things I have realized:
  • Angels narrate in first-person almost omniscient. Angels don’t know everything, but after living a few millennia, they know a lot. They cannot read minds, but they can read faces, posture, and behavior like the best detective ever. In performing their tasks, they don’t always know why they are doing something, but they trust the Boss, and do it with only a modicum of curiosity.
  • Angels are not omnipresent. They are not always with us, or everywhere at once. That attribute applies only to God. However, angels are called beings of light, and light is very fast (186,000 miles per second—it’s the LAW). Therefore, if the greatest distance between any two points on the earth is approximately 12,000 miles, an angel can get anywhere in roughly .064 seconds. Between the time you step down from the curb into traffic and the moment Earl grabs you by the collar to jerk you back, he could have circumnavigated the globe three or more times.
  • Angels are rational and emotional. In the Christian scriptures, man is described as being “a little lower than the angels.” In my writing, I have taken that to mean that the differences between men and angels are corporeal, not spiritual or emotional. Although they lack a body and a brain, they can think, decide, understand. While they may not laugh or cry, lacking a voice box and tear ducts, they can be joyous or sad. One emotion which I believe is common in man but absent in angels is fear. The most common phrase they utter in the Bible is, “Fear Not!” And although they are faithful to their roles, they don’t have to be. In fact, we know that—
  • Angels sin, too. There are two truisms among the nominally religious—they believe in heaven, but not hell, and they believe in angels, but not demons. Yet, why would there be one without the other? What sense would it make if there is all this struggle and spiritual bloodshed here on earth, while everywhere else in God’s creation there is none? There are no stories of encounters with demons in my novel (yet), but my narrator hints broadly about those among the corps who have turned away, and how he’d rather not talk about it. Somehow, I get the feeling that, in pondering it, he becomes more susceptible to it. That sounds familiar.
  • Angels serve God, not man. While we are the primary beneficiaries of angelic assistance, they don’t work for us. They do what the Boss says, not what we say. Which means sometimes they do things contrary to our wishes. And sometimes, they stay their protective hand, and the worst may happen (at least it seems worst to us). This is when I know angels have emotions. But in this, they seem to have learned something the human rarely learns—not only is it fruitless to wonder why, it is unnecessary. Perhaps the closer you get to the One who does know why, the more you trust.
  • Angels have names that end with "-el." That’s because el, in the Hebrew, means “of God.” And they are servants of God. Only two are named in the Bible: Michael and Gabriel. However, in Christian tradition and, curiously, in the traditions of other faiths, many of the names of angels still end with –el. Even Superman was called Kal-el on Krypton, and his father Jor-el (Superman being an angel in the symbolic sense). My narrator is yet unnamed. Earl-el, perhaps?

There are so many other “facts” about angels that can play in my novel. How many are there? Who knows, but there many, many, many. Do they talk to one another? If they need to. Do they live forever? According to the Bible, they do, although they were created at some point, just like you and me.
Perhaps the most persistent question about angels is this one: How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? I will let my narrator answer:
“Angels don’t dance. We play in the band.”

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Lennon and Eliot

Imagine there's no heaven. It's easy if you try. — John Lennon  

I had far rather walk, as I do, in daily terror of eternity, than feel that this was only a children's game in which all the contestants would get equally worthless prizes in the end. — T. S. Eliot

Friday, August 21, 2009

Good fiction is like a life of faith...

This is precisely what readers are saying: that reading good fiction is like reading a particularly rich section of religious text. What religion and good fiction have in common is that the answers aren't there, there isn't closure. The language of literary works gives forth something different with each reading. But unpredictability doesn't mean total relativism. Instead it highlights the persistence with which writers keep coming back to fundamental problems. Your family versus your country, your wife versus your girlfriend. --Shirley Heath, quoted in Jonathan Franzen's book of essays How To Be Alone.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Sin Boldly

"If you are a preacher of Grace, then preach a true, not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly. For he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here we have to sin. This life in not the dwelling place of righteousness but, as Peter says, we look for a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. . . . Pray boldly-you too are a mighty sinner." --Martin Luther (Weimar ed. vol. 2, p. 371; Letters I, "Luther's Works," American Ed., Vol 48. p. 281- 282)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Say it

"Why do so many people have such a hard time saying, "I love you"? They ration those words, as if their meaning could be somehow cheapened or diminished were they said too many times to too many people. Is it possible to love too much? Too recklessly? Unconditionally and indescriminately?
"No. There is nothing better in life than knowing you are loved. There is no more precious gift, no sweeter burden." --Cathleen Falsani, in Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace

Thursday, August 13, 2009

"It's all about grace."

"You can call it what you like, categorize it, vivesect it, qualify, quantify, or dismiss it, and none of it will make grace anything other than precisely what grace is: audacious, unwarranted and unlimited. In the end, it's all about grace. — Cathleen Falsani, in Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace

Wednesday, August 05, 2009


It has long been my belief that "Christ plus anything cheapens Christ." Does that mean that the truest thing about me is Christ in me? I think it does. And if I carry the unsullied Christ in me, it seems to follow that He will be most useful to others through me when there is the least of me. 

I also believe that "Anything plus Christ redeems anything." That means me first, my family, my friends and neighbors, even my country. 

The trouble is, I am pressed, from within and without, to adopt other labels. People don't often understand what a Christian is, but are quick to define a conservative, or Republican. Many, usually unbelievers, conflate the two. Past actions by many (including me) make that easy. 

I have come to think over the years that these labels cheapen Christ in me, and I find myself sloughing them off, and speaking (when asked, mostly) about the issues, not the labels. I find myself more and more entering into conversations, situations, even confrontations that I would not have approached before, and having real dialogue, exhibiting real love. I come as a lover of Christ and His world, not a representative of any ideology. I want to hear a name that is not mentioned much in political discourse: Jesus.