Saturday, March 30, 2019

Going on my own?


My attention to this blog has been scant, but I’ve had many changes in my life over the past year or so: closing down my independent consultancy and returning to full-time employment, rearranging my life commitments to accommodate that change, helping with an increasing crew of grandchildren, and so many other things that accompany getting older.
One thing I haven’t had much time for has been new creative writing. I was fine with that, though, since the past couple of years (as the tech consulting work was slowing down) afforded me time to pen and edit five full novels – From Afar and the four works of the Watchful Sky series.  Furthermore, I had found a publisher who had agreed to publish them, so for me it was just a question of time and assisting the publisher in getting them out.
Or so I thought.
A little over a week ago I heard from my publisher that they’d changed their mind and decided not to publish the second through fourth books of the Watchful Sky series after all. Needless to say, this was disappointing, but the whys are irrelevant. Having worked with a couple of publishers, I’m better appreciating the fact that publishing is first and foremost a business – publishers exist to serve their market, whomever that may be, and make their decisions primarily on business criteria. In the case of the Watchful Sky series, this publisher decided that proceeding with the later books would not serve their business (they were not the first publisher to come to this decision.) 
One thing this turn of events has me doing is more pondering along the lines of definitions. I’m supposedly a “Catholic” author, and the last two publishers I’ve worked with have identified themselves as “Catholic”, but what exactly is “Catholic” literature? It’s easy to look at theological or devotional works and understand why they would be “Catholic” or “Christian”, but what makes fiction “Catholic”? I think this question gets knottier the more closely you examine it. Let’s examine three well-known writers of fiction from the 20th century, and one lesser known one, and consider whether their works are “Catholic”, and if so, what makes them so?
Probably the most well-known is J.R.R. Tolkien, whose masterpiece The Lord of the Rings nearly invented the fantasy genre single-handedly and changed the course of literature. Tolkien himself was an honest and honorable man, and his works are thick with honor, courage, and many other virtues. But there is not only no mention of Christianity, but no hint of organized religion of any type. Granted, his origin mythology revealed in The Silmarillion clearly echoes the Judaeo-Christian tradition, but that was not published until after his death. But The Lord of the Rings is unquestionably hailed as a masterpiece of fiction that can rightly be claimed as Catholic. But what exactly makes it so?
Another renowned author is Flannery O’Connor. Here was another person of exemplary virtue, whose personal devotion and scholarship was so impressive that I understand there are some who want to start a case for her canonization. Her fiction is masterful, bringing her characters to vivid life and very much putting the reader in the story, experiencing it alongside the characters. Yet the content of her stories ranges from puzzling to shocking. We don’t find a noble Aragorn or heroic Samwise, but rather ordinary people in all their weaknesses, abrading and even abusing each other, even committing acts of base cruelty and treachery. Personally, I can deeply appreciate O’Connor’s literary artistry but have a very difficult time reading her work, not least because it does put me in the story with her characters – only they’re characters I don’t want to have anything to do with. (I am a bit comforted that I’m not the only one with such reservations – apparently T.S. Eliot viewed her work in much the same way.) O’Connor rarely mentions religion of any type, and if she does, it is usually portrayed as a superficial social veneer rather than anything of any depth. Masterful as she is, O’Connor is so subtle that many cannot get the points she is trying to make – yet she is hailed as an author of great Catholic fiction.
Another renowned Catholic author was Graham Greene. Here was a man who did not live the kind of moral life that Tolkien and O’Connor did – in fact, he was something of a scoundrel, enslaved to drink and neglectful of his family. There is no question that his writings were artistically superb, but his characters somewhat reflected his life: struggling with weakness and often immorality. Though some of his characters are related to the Church, such as the “whiskey priest” of The Power and the Glory, they usually fall well short of any kind of heroism or true devotion – in fact, they’re often contemptible. Redemption is only hinted at, and elusive. But for all that, Greene is not only recognized as a Catholic author, but an influential one.
Yet another author of fiction whom I would consider truly Catholic is Russell Kirk. Though mostly known for his political and social writings, Kirk also wrote a couple of novels and some short story collections. Kirk was not raised Catholic (indeed, his family had something of a spiritualist bent, which comes out in some of his stories), but converted later in life and was a dedicated Catholic until his death. His stories didn’t explicitly deal in religious themes, though the morality of them was transparent. Kirk also had a wide variety of characters, ranging from the heroic to the depraved, and had a chilling ability to bring them to vivid life, which was not always a comfortable experience for the reader. Though not as well known for his fiction as his other writings, I don’t think anyone would question the deeply Catholic nature of his stories.
Before exploring what common threads might unite such diverse authors, let me briefly address what we might safely say doesn’t define Catholic or Christian literature.  I have a brother who’s an evangelical pastor and an author as well. He wrote a book and was considering having it published, which brought him into contact with the evangelical publishing world. He was surprised to discover that the biggest money-making arm of most “Christian” publishing is what is known in the trade as “bonnet fiction”. These are romance stories set usually either in 19th century America, often on the frontier, or modern Amish country. The characters, being of that time and culture, are all churchgoers and the women wear bonnets (hence the name.) The advantage of the setting is that the entire story can stay safely away from the unchaste speech and behavior that a more modern setting would involve. But beyond those superficialities, these are simply romance novels with some Christian trappings draped across them (perhaps the heroine is a missionary’s daughter, or the secondary suitor lingering in the background aspires to be a pastor.) There’s nothing specifically Christian about the stories. What is present is a strong dose of nostalgia, a yearning for a time when life was simpler and choices were easier thanks to the innate bent of the culture. And to be honest, it seems to me that there’s a bit of a streak of this in much of what is offered as Catholic literature. Oh, there may not be the exact equivalent of “bonnet fiction”, but there are the stories that yearn for a simpler time, when either the parish or the entire culture were “safely Catholic”. There might be the simple, wise priest (who might even be a detective!) or the hard-headed but golden hearted school principal (always a nun), or the usual parish types with their shenanigans, but what the made the story “Catholic” was the comfort it offered the reader by evoking these familiar characters. Beyond that there was nothing that would differentiate it from a secular detective or school story.
So, if that isn’t what makes fiction Catholic, what does make it Catholic? I think it’s hard to say exactly, but if we examine the four authors mentioned, I think we can cull a few distinctives. One would be that they all held a true theology, however poorly their characters (or they themselves) followed it. Even if theology or religion isn’t explicitly mentioned or plays no obvious role, the presence of God and His order is assumed, and forms the framework for the story. This is why, though the stories might take the reader to ugly and distressing places, there is not the confusion and hopelessness that haunts so many modern novels and movies that lack such a framework.
Equally important is that because their imaginations are informed by a Christian understanding, the authors portray a true anthropology. As a creation of God rather than just a random accident of nature, man has a purpose (a telos) and participates in an order, and problems occur when he defies the order or his purpose. This above all is why I think that the works of these authors ring so true even when they’re difficult to read. Because of these two factors, these Catholic authors could address some of mankind’s thorniest dilemmas and most desperate circumstances without giving in to despair or sensuality, and do so in a way that resonates with the heart of every reader – because of who we truly are.
This is the filter through which I view my work as Catholic. Some of the stories are easy to classify as Catholic or Christian – From Afar was based on a story in Scripture (though it gets a little rough at times). But what about my works such as The Accidental Marriage, or Under the Watchful Sky? Accidental’s protagonists are about as secular as they come, and though there’s a brief scene in a church toward the end, religion doesn’t play an explicit role. Watchful Sky is similar – while it’s true that the faith of the farm community plays a more explicit role and is specifically discussed toward the end, the story revolves around two non-religious people and the moral dilemmas they face. Things get dark and even brutal. The later stories in the Watchful Sky series plunge even more deeply into hard realities of both the seen and unseen real. Bad things happen to good people, and there is pain and loss and suffering. But there is also redemption, redemption that goes beyond someone finding a marriage partner or getting right with God (though there’s some of that as well), redemption that comes at a high cost and demands heroic obedience.
One thing my fiction has never played upon was nostalgia. Readers expecting a comforting visit to a long-gone past, be it parish environment or a national culture, will find themselves disappointed. If anything, I’m trying to do the opposite, particularly with the Watchful Sky books: envision a future that the Faithful might have to face in the very near future, social conditions that are hostile to believers and anything but comfortable. There’s no returning to a familiar parish environment, and one of the tensions of the story arc going forward is envisioning just what the life of the Faithful might look like in such a world. There’s certainly little market for such speculative fiction, especially among those who look to Catholic fiction for a comforting does of nostalgia, but it’s what I write. That gets into the difficult terrain of the personal vocatio, and the user of our gifts and talents in obedience to that.
Which leaves me now with the question of what to do next. I’ve got these manuscripts complete, edited, and nearly ready to go, but no publisher. And given the history and nature of the books, I’m not likely to get one, unless there’s a really daring publisher out there willing to take a risk. Many authors I know are going the self-publishing route, and that’s tempting. But self-publishing has challenges and expenses of its own, and would mean navigating a new world (though I have others I can ask for help.) Many these days self-publish just to see their names on a book, but that’s never been a big motivator for me. I write the works I’m given and get them out there, if possible. Anything beyond that is up to Another.
But even given that, it would might help my decision if I could hear from any of my readers who might have anything suggestions or encouragement (or reality checks) to offer. All prayers appreciated, of course, but practical counsel will not be turned down. My main wish in all this is to be obedient to whatever direction I should be taking.
Thank you all.


Saturday, October 27, 2018

Under the Watchful Sky


I’m still learning how to use this blog to self-promote. I may still be laboring under the idea that self-promotion is somehow noxious or offensive. I guess it’s all in the definitions. Self-aggrandizement, the exultation of self over others, is certainly offensive and even sinful. But if self-promotion is simply calling attention to the fact that you’ve done something, while leaving to others the judgment of how good or worthy that thing is, seems a different thing.

What might the future hold? Authors and poets mine that theme extensively, coming up with answers that range from the intriguing to the highly improbable. But for the most part, such authors place their foretold futures at some remove, a century or more in the future, often after a period of significant change. This facilitates suspension of disbelief, for the reader can allow that circumstances might be different then.

But what about the very near future? How might things look in, say, a generation? What conditions might we find in twenty or thirty years? This sounds like a simple matter, but I’ve found it a more difficult question to address. Conditions would be close to those found today, but not too close. The imagination can wader, but not far, for the world would not be very much changed (though considering how much it has changed in the past thirty years, it may be more changed than you’d think.) Yet imagining the near future provides a superb opportunity to examine the current choices a society is making and project where they might take us in very short order. Some of the great speculative fiction of the 20th century, such as 1984, Brave New World, and That Hideous Strength (in my opinion the greatest of them) all postulated a future that was within the lifespan of their readers.

It was with this in mind that the germ of a story occurred to me back in 2013. Looking where social and political trends seemed to be heading, and considering questions of economics and demographics, I asked myself, “What kind of issues will be percolating in our culture as I approach the end of my life? What challenges will our country and God’s people be facing, and what kind of responses will be called for?” Characters came to life in my imagination and a storyline began to form, and before long, I was outlining Under the Watchful Sky.

This is a hard book to categorize. It’s a thriller, but it doesn’t involve police, military, or secretive government operatives (well…maybe a few). It isn’t set in an exotic locale like Vienna or Shanghai, but in nearly-rural eastern Michigan. Its protagonists are everyday people making what seem like everyday decisions – until those choices put them into desperate situations facing life-and-death choices.  Above all, it is a tale that considers where some trends and choices being faced today may bring us in the very near future.

The two protagonists, Derek and Janice, are casual friends who encounter circumstances that take them on sharply divergent paths. Though an unusual encounter, Derek is drawn into a world rich with the love and belonging that his life has lacked – but the deeper he goes, the more he learns of the secrets that world hides, and the terrible reason for them. Janice, also lost and lonely, gets lured into a different world, one that at first seems glamorous, attractive, and compelling. Only as she’s drawn further in does she learn the real reason for this world, and the high price she must pay to belong.

Under the Watchful Sky follows the two as they walk their different paths, facing challenges and making choices. They encounter friends and enemies, people both wonderful and atrocious, until a series of calamities brings it all crashing down around them. Derek is forced to flee for his life, only to have to walk right back into danger to rescue Janice from the foes whose hands she had delivered herself into. Trapped by the cunning of their enemies, only a feat of towering heroism can free them.

Fortunately, there’s a hero right at hand.

Under the Watchful Sky is intended first to be a good tale, a solid example of the art of storytelling. I hope it achieved that goal, though if reviews and feedback are any indication, it is at least that. It is also intended to provoke thought, to help the reader look at life from a different perspective, without being preachy or engaging in sermonizing.  In this sense, writing stories about the near future is easier, because you can use current-day situations and assumptions and project just a little bit so that people can see where their attitudes could easily lead them.  

My publisher has billed the work as “dystopian”, though that is a little misleading, because that genre makes people think of works like The Hunger Games or Children of Men. Watchful Sky doesn’t reach that far in the future, or postulate such a radically changed culture, but it is intended to engage and entertain readers, as well as get them to think about things they perhaps haven’t considered before. I hope it will do well, because it is the first in a four (so far) book series, and if Watchful is reasonably successful, the others may be published.

 "This is by far, the best 'Catholic' novel written since Michael O'Brien published FATHER ELIJAH 20 years ago. This is an absolute page turner, gripping the reader from beginning to end. Combine the intelligence of early Tom Clancy with the wit of Flannery O'Connor and the symbolism of Tolkien (there are Tolkien references throughout the book) and you'll come close to Roger Thomas. I was upset when I finished this, as I wanted to second in the series, NOW!" -  Dr. Brad Birzer of Hillsdale College.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

The Lucifer Ego by T.M. Doran


If you like your intrigue brewed hot and your skulls well duggered (is that a verb?), then place your order for T.M. Doran’s latest work, The Lucifer Ego. This colorful novel is a sequel to Doran’s debut novel, Toward the Gleam (Ignatius Press, 2011), and is as rich and fast-paced as anything he’s written so far, including his remarkable Iota.

The story picks up in the current day, when protagonist F. Lyle Stuart (the “F” is for Frodo), a professor of archaeology, is called by his uncle to investigate a theft. The uncle, as it happens, is the  abbot of a monastery, the very monastery that is the setting for the beginning and end of Toward the Gleam. The stolen item is the manuscript left in the custody of the monks by author “John Hill” forty five years earlier – the manuscript purported by some to be the basis for the most renowned and well-loved fantasy tale to come out of the twentieth century. The manuscript is of unspeakable antiquity, and has been taken by parties unknown, with the theft not discovered until months after the fact. The abbot uncle wishes Lyle to undertake the recovery, if possible, of the treasured artifact.

This task Lyle is unwilling to undertake, partly out of skepticism about the veracity of the claims about the manuscript as well as (one suspects) a desire to distance himself from the story in question (there’s a reason goes by his middle name.) But undertake it he does, however reluctantly, with the help of his brother Sam (you guessed it - “Samwise”) and his canny and devout girlfriend Beatrice. Both of these supporting characters have depths of experience beyond Lyle’s ken, and both serve him well as the tale unfolds. As Lyle reluctantly pursues the missing manuscript, he finds himself running afoul of a tangled web woven by a poisonous personality, one closely tied to the antagonist of Gleam and even more merciless.

The reader should be prepared for two things: first, this is a time-hopping tale, with the author interweaving events that happen decades apart to form a compelling story. Fortunately, events that happen at the same time are grouped into chapters, which are identified by dates, so pay attention to the chapter headings. Secondly, this is a tight sequel, so if you have a copy of Toward the Gleam, you might want to re-read or at least skim it while waiting delivery of Lucifer Ego. Many of the scenes in Ego directly allude to events in Gleam, and having those fresh in your mind will make the story more enjoyable.

Doran’s style might seem abrupt and choppy, but it indicates roots in the detective writers of the classic era such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The fast-moving, staccato dialog keeps the reader on his toes as it propels the story along. It’s quite suitable for the tension that slowly builds as the reader realizes that Lyle and his companions find themselves ensnared in schemes that reach decades back, and the target of a cunning mastermind who has spent his life polishing the art  of manipulating people, even to the point of murder.

If you enjoyed Toward the Gleam, you’ll certainly appreciate The Lucifer Ego. Doran has developed as a writer and teller of tales, and this one won’t disappoint. I anticipate his next work eagerly.

Tribute to an old friend

I heartily agree with the principle that we should love people and use things. But occasionally there are things that we've both used and loved, and when it comes time to say good-bye, there's a twinge of sadness.

So it is with heavy heart that we say farewell to one of our old and faithful servants, our 2000 Saturn SL2. We acquired him in June of 2000, one of only two new cars we’ve ever purchased. We promptly named him Samwise Gamgee, because he wasn’t flashy or elaborate, but a plain, simple servant who would give good service. And so he did – he was primarily my car for commuting and other business travel, but he was useful for many other things as well. Our daughters in particular, who were in or approaching high school when we acquired him, loved having a zippy little car (with a working CD player!) that they could occasionally borrow to drive around on errands. He’s gotten good mileage to the end, and though he has some chronic problems, he’s still reliable for around-town driving. With eighteen years and over 320,000 miles under his belt, he’s been one of the most reliable and cheapest vehicles we’ve ever owned.

It may seem a waste of time to get sentimental over a machine, but when you’ve spent as much time in a car as we’ve spent in Sam, it’s hard not to have some pleasant associations. He took Ellen and I for our weekend getaway in Stratford for more times than we can count, and several trips to and from Ellen’s homestead in Pennsylvania. He’s long been our most reliable car, until recently, when years and miles have caught up with him. Ellen and I both had the same thought: we wish we could just bury him and set some kind of monument over him. But getting rid of cars is slightly complex – our last private sale incident did not end well – so we’ve decided to donate him to a local car donation program. It’s not that the tax write-off will be of much use to us, but it’s as clean and easy a way of seeing him off as we can find.

Sometime this week the tow truck will come for him, and I’ll return from work to find his spot in the driveway empty. Life will go on, and our two current cars will serve us well. But we’ll always fondly remember the “Sam years”, as I imagine our children will, when the sight of a little blue Saturn sedan pulling into their driveways meant that Grandma and Grandpa were here. May he serve some other family well until he’s unable to serve at all – but someone else can make that final call.

Friday, April 13, 2018

What We Can Expect


File this under “things I never expected to see in my life.”

(Along with a great many other things that I’ve seen recently.)

This brief article  recounts how a cheerleader for the Miami Dolphins has filed suit against the cheerleading team organization because she felt that she’d been discriminated against for her decision to not engage in sex with anyone but her future husband, and then only after marriage. The issue came up in the course of a conversation where her teammates pressured her to provide details about her sexual practices, which she couldn’t because she didn’t have any yet.

It’s the fallout from this that is telling. According to the lawsuit filing, in her next “review” with the cheerleading team management, the cheerleader was told by the team director that “As far as [the team] is concerned, you have taken something that was once upon a time pure and beautiful and you’ve made it dirty.”

If this is an accurate account of what was said, then it’s one of the finest examples of moral inversion that you could hope for. Keep in mind that this young woman wasn’t trumpeting her virginity, or seeking to persuade her teammates to emulate her, or in any way “shaming” them (for the uninitiated: “shaming” is one of the only mortal sins recognized by our culture.) She’d made what our culture would call a “lifestyle choice”, a choice that just a couple of generations ago would have been considered normative. Furthermore, we’re not talking about the Vegas stripper circuit or the Hollywood starlet culture. These are performance dancers for a professional football team, a group of amateur women drawn from the hometown area and in some measure trading on the wholesome girl-next-door image. Yet in their midst, apparently, someone who made what was once considered a normal and commendable choice is now branded an aberrant freak and a source of tension.

This example is noteworthy because it illustrates what Christ’s disciples can expect as the culture around us grows darker and our testimony becomes clearer. No matter how “non-judgmental” and inoffensive we try to be, if we are obedient to Christ we will give offense. The very witness of our obedience will be like fingernails on the chalkboard of the souls of some. The contrast of our obedience with the disobedience of those around us will be abrasive, not because of anything we say, but because of the voice of their conscience. We will see Wisdom 2:12-20 in action.

This is important to keep in mind as we explore ways to more effectively speak the Gospel to our culture. While practicalities such as better service times and innovative use of communications channels have their place, we need to acknowledge from the outset that there will rejection, which at times will be fierce, that will have nothing to do with the sophistication of our message or the elegance of its delivery. The witness of holiness is to some fragrant perfume and to others a harsh stench, depending on the state of their soul. There’s nothing we will be able to do about that.

May the Holy Spirit strengthen us to continue our witness despite opposition, and obey in clear conscience that we seek to give offense to nobody – but offense will inevitably be taken, because of the nature of the Gospel message.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Why I wrote another book

I guess I’m still learning how to use a personal blog for promotional purposes (as I’ve said before), so here I am a good nine months after the release date to let everyone know that I had another book published! Yessir, in November of 2016 Tumblar House of Los Angeles released my book From Afar, a fictionalized account of the journey of the Magi.

Wait – the Magi? Those three guys on camels that hang about the edges of Nativity sets? The people remembered on or about the Epiphany (traditionally January 6th)? Why write about them?

First of all, because it’s been a long-held dream of mine. I’ve studied ancient times, particularly the Hellenistic period, and the sparse account of the Magi has always intrigued me. The account given in the 2nd chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t even provide names or number how many there were – it simply says “astrologers” arrived “from the East”. All the rest of the traditional trappings, such as the fact that there were three of them, and they were named Melchior, Gaspar (or Caspar), and Balthazar , their countries of origin (Persia, India (or Armenia), and Arabia), are all cultural accretions. In fact, there have been so many legends and tales wound around the Magi that the “facts of the case” have been nearly forgotten. People have looked at the Magi through the lens of salvation history, assuming that the mysterious visitors understood things that were only fully understood decades or centuries later (such as the fact that the newborn Babe was in fact God Himself.) They forget that these visitors, whoever and however many they were, came at the beginning of the story, and were only seeking the King of the Jews, for whatever reason, and however they understood that.
Thus, my purpose in writing the story was to strip away all the legendary accretion and examine the Magi as they were: scholars and seekers of wisdom of the early 1st century AD who would have probably operated out of the assumptions of Hellenistic polytheists. I wrote the story with an eye to addressing two main questions: what did these men see in the skies that impelled their journey, and why would they wish to seek the King of the Jews, anyway?
The first of these questions has been the source of rich speculation through the centuries, but I chose to use the research of Rick Larson from his site bethlehemstar.com as my point of departure. I’ve learned that his conjecture is but one of several, but since nobody really knows, I figured they were as good a guess as any. The website doesn’t give the full presentation – you have to drop the $10 on the DVD for that – but it’s good research, if you’re interested.
The second question is the less obvious one, again because we tend to view the Epiphany event through the lens of what followed: the life of Christ, His sacrificial death, and His redemption of the world. In fact, it is in light of this that we see the central role of the Jewish people in history (as He said, “Salvation is from the Jews.”) But that perspective was anything but obvious in the 1st century Hellenistic world. Sure, the Jews were ancient, but they were also peculiar and made questionable citizens. Most importantly, in a world that measured people and gods by standards such as political and military power, the Jews weren’t very impressive. They barely had a homeland, had no king to call their own, and were scattered throughout empires ruled by others.  So this opens the question of why these mysterious wise men (or anybody) would care about the King of the Jews.
So that’s where the story begins: with three friends who are men of their times, but are each searching for something greater.  I address the question of what they saw in the skies, and how that ties to the Jews and their mysterious foretold King, and how the journey begins. I make use of elements of the legendary framework, but the main purpose is to get the reader to empathize with the Magi. The truth is, the cultural and religious atmosphere of the Hellenistic period had many parallels to our own. People were making up their own morality and using whatever gods they could find to justify it, violence and other immorality were common, cynicism was rampant (in fact, the original Cynics were a Hellenistic school of philosophy), and politics was seen as the most important thing. I admit: it is an adventure story (because I love writing adventure stories), but I try to flesh out the humanity of these searcher and those who travel with them. They encounter many dangers during the journey, because the Hellenistic times were dangerous, and each has an opportunity to turn aside from the quest, but they all stay true until the end.
The trickiest part of the whole story was the encounter of the Magi with the Holy Family in Bethlehem. Since this has been the subject of so much bad art over the years, I wanted to avoid syrupy sentimentalism, yet still wanted to retain the spirit of reverence that would have been part of the unexpected meeting. I tried to convey a spirit of “slow uncovering”, as the Magi even approach the door of the hut with mixed feelings (“Has the House of David fallen so far as this?” one muses), yet once they’re inside and meet Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus, they find their questions answered and a greater wonder than even their wildest imaginings. I hope I conveyed both the humanity and holiness of the Holy Family, as well as both the curiosity and reverence of the Magi.
The book was reviewed at the CatholicUnderground and at Martha’s Bookshelf. There was an article run in the Michigan Catholic, which is more about me as an author than about the book. It is fiction, so if you’re looking for scholarly research about who the Magi might actually have been, you’ll have to wait for Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s  upcoming book on the topic (which is excellent, and I will review here when it’s released.)  It is available on Amazon and at the Tumblar House website.

My greatest hope for the book is that modern readers will identify with the Magi and their search – what they lacked, what they hoped to find, and how much it cost them to find it. If anyone is encouraged in their personal quest by the story, then I will have achieved my goal.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Confessions of a recovering activist

As I approach old age and look back on my life, the more clearly I can see how little my indignation and outrage have ever accomplished.

If that seems like a strange thing to meditate upon, understand that I consider such things in light of what some might consider a life of activism in the public arena. There are many causes out there; for me it's been pro-life work, the protection of human life from conception to natural death. Nor do I consider this an unworthy cause - in fact, I can find few more important ones in our current cultural and political environment. It is not the cause or the strategy that I'm reconsidering, but the tactics. I'm coming to realize that in all my activities spanning decades, the ones that were motivated by indignation and outrage, and executed in strident activism, were the least effective.

This seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom. After all, aren't indignation and outrage the fuel for effective public activism? Isn't that how things are done? Raise "awareness" (whatever that is), provoke indignation, and encourage outrage as the force to align wills to effect political and social change.  I've seen this pattern offered as the formula for success in many venues, including the pro-life movement.

One problem is that indignation and outrage make poor foundations for lasting change, partly because they're so transient - like all emotions, they fade over time. Maintaining a certain level of indignation is like feeding an addiction: you need more and more stimulation to attain the same result. Also, outrage-driven activism often simply spawns outrage-driven response, until the discourse turns into a win/lose contest that often loses sight of the importance of the core issue. We can never admit that "they" have a point, because that would be yielding ground to the enemy.

But most of all, I've observed that activism driven by indignation and outrage simply doesn't work. I remember a pro-life colleague of mine boasting of how he accosted the staffer of a prominent pro-abortion politician at a public event. My colleague ended up screaming in the man's face about how vile and damnable the politician's stand was before storming off in high dudgeon. This was related to me as if it had been a major victory and evidence of what a courageous pro-life warrior this colleague was; all I could think was that he'd accomplished nothing other than to confirm in the staffer's mind what unreasonable radicals pro-lifers were.

This is an extreme example, but it seems to encapsulate the problem with outrage-driven activism. It seems to make short-term gains in the sense of setting back "opponents", but in the long term it often works against the goal it purports to work for. The payback seems satisfying - the administration conceded the point, the official apologized for the lapse, the staffer was rendered speechless, or whatever - but the gains are superficial or short-lived.

It seems to me that the root of strident activism is impatience. We want tangible, measurable results now, and will push until we get them. But this goes against even personal experience. Looking back over my life, I can see many times that my immediate wishes were thwarted, only to discover later that things would not have turned out as I'd wished, or there were factors in that situation that I was unaware of which made my choice imprudent. In fact, most of the regrets I have in my life stem from decisions I made and things I said in impatience.

At the root of impatience, in turn, is lack of trust in God. Impatience is what caused Ishmael and the Golden Calf. Impatience cause the destruction of Jerusalem (twice). Impatience got Jesus crucified - He just wasn't demonstrating his Messiahship quickly enough. Impatience is us seizing the reins of a situation to take charge because God isn't working quickly enough for us.

I'd always been a bit mystified that one of the attributes of the Messiah was that "He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street." (Is 42:2) I've come to understand that this means he would not be a rabble-rouser, seeking to goad people to indignation and outrage. By modern standards this would make him a weakling, ineffective or uncommitted. In our activism we imagine ourselves more fervent than Jesus Himself, more sensitive to the needs of the suffering, more willing to effect change than He is. This is a common complaint of modern times: if God is so omnipotent, why is there so much suffering in the world? Either He's not powerful enough to stop it, or doesn't care enough to get off His divine duff and get active.

If we trust what the Lord has revealed about Himself, we know this view is flawed. Nobody is more aware of human suffering than Jesus is. Every struggle of an unborn child seeking to escape the vacuum aspirator, every moan of a sex slave kidnapped from her family and imprisoned in a filthy brothel, every tear of a child whose family has been torn apart by the selfishness of her parents, every hunger pang of every forgotten old person in an understaffed care facility - Jesus hears them all. But He is patient, and awaits when the Father puts all enemies under His feet. He's the one who encourages us to work to rectify all those injustices, but we need to follow His example of perseverance and patience. It takes patience to work diligently but be willing to entrust the outcomes to the Lord, even if that means we don't get to see what they are. That's what it boils down to: if we work, will we insist on seeing the outcome of our efforts, or will we entrust the final outcomes to the Lord?

I wish I could say that coming to understand all this has fundamentally changed me, and I've given up stridency in favor of steady, peaceful, trusting effort. In truth, I've only begun to recognize the problem, and how much I'll have to change to become like Jesus. It's humbling to realize how much of my indignation and outrage stems not from my charity and strength, but from my character flaws. But knowing the problem is the first step toward seeing it resolved, is it not? May God grant me the peace and patience to reflect Him to a darkened and dying world. That is the only activism that ultimately endures.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Making a home

When Ignatius Press published my novel The Accidental Marriage, I anticipated that at least some of the reaction would be negative. After all, the premise was unusual to the point of shocking – a man and a woman, both of whom consider themselves gay, conceiving a child and then marrying for practical reasons, only to find that the relationship they share growing deeper and richer as they face life's trials. It never becomes a romance, but it is a story of deep friendship and commitment, and self-sacrificial love. I knew that would hit a few nerves.

And strike it did. Though most of the reaction was positive, some was negative to the point of scornful. I was not surprised by those who reflexively piled on because the story refused to bow to the modern idol of homosexuality, not portraying it's “gay” protagonists as super-human heroes leading the race to an enlightened future, but rather as sinful and sin-damaged humans in need of hope and redemption that can't be found in perverted sexual expression.

But what somewhat surprised me was what garnered even more scorn than that: the idea that work to make and keep a home was demeaning, especially when (oh, scandal!) a woman did it. To judge from the reactions of some, the story was a deplorable apologia for female subservience, some kind of glamorization of the Ozzie and Harriet days (those useful targets!) Even some who didn't object to the same-sex portrayal were hesitant about that.

This was interesting because I deliberately set out to not write a story that did that. When the book opens, both protagonists, Scott and Megan, work. When Megan is laid off, she attempts to look for work, but economic and other conditions preclude her finding any. She and Scott share his apartment on a roommate basis, splitting the work evenly. When she moves in, she cleans his grody bathroom, not because she's a stereotypical woman and he a stereotypical man, but because he's a thirty year old adolescent who needs to grow up (a critical driver of the plot). When she can't find a job, she turns her hand to the available work, squaring away the household, which Scott has kept in adolescent disarray. But he still helps, both with the housework and with the baby when she comes. If looked at objectively, the household arrangement in the story is very modern and egalitarian, considering the circumstances.

Clearly certain readers weren't seeing this, as they sneered at the idea of Megan doing any work around the house (apparently not noticing that Scott was doing work as well). The derision was usually a rehash of tired feminist arguments, but the more it went on, the more apparent it became that the real acrimony was for the idea that homemaking was legitimate work.

This caught my attention. Having raised six children, I'm keenly conscious that building and running a home is serious work that needs constant attention. A home, understood as the loving order that is brought to the physical surroundings of a dwelling, is critical for raising children to properly love themselves and those around them. Nothing can substitute for a home – no educational institution, no community effort, no government programs. Homes are necessary for people to be loved and to learn love, and they are not built without effort – diligent, conscious effort. Furthermore, it takes everyone to pitch in – not just Mother, but Father and children as they get old enough to take on responsibility. Around our house, even though Ellen was a stay-at-home mother and homemaker, she was far from the only one who made the home. Being a self-employed consultant with a home office for the majority of our childraising years gave me plenty of chances to make the home as well, and our children were taught the same. None of this was seen as us “doing Mom's work”, but as everyone pitching into the common effort of building and maintaining our common home. In that regard, our household was a pinnacle of feminist sensibility.

Or it would have been, if equal work about the home were truly the feminist desideratum. But the more the contemptuous commentary piled up, the more obvious it became that the offense was not that Megan did housework, but that the home needed work at all. Apparently the simple, necessary effort required to have a home was considered demeaning drudgery, unworthy of attention by anyone of consequence. Perhaps it could be contracted out to some service firm, but was definitely beneath the dignity of anyone worth anything. Or if not that, show the man doing it. But to have a woman doing it? Why, that would be downright stereotypical!

This concerned but did not surprise me, for it reflects a societal attitude of contempt toward the idea of a home. In a time when outsourcing your life is a societal trend, the idea that anyone should expend effort to make a more loving environment for anyone else seems passé. Particularly offensive, it seems, is any kind of work that would be demeaning, such as cleaning bathrooms or washing dishes. Yet, such work is necessary if there is to be a home at all, because there's more to effort than getting a job done. Direct effort by a person on behalf of another person sends a message: specifically, you're worth it. I love you and my work for you is my gift to you. Here, let me show you how to love your sister (or whoever) by giving your work for them. That's what building a home is – and that's what no economic or commercial substitute will ever be able to replace.

The fact that a portrayal of the work necessary to build a home engenders scorn is disturbing. Either people are not aware that homes need deliberate, constant effort, or they think that such effort is scut work, unfitting for mature and dignified people. In either case, it forebodes a social environment when there will be no homes. I think we're beginning to see this, as people live their lives elsewhere – work, the club, the gym, the restaurant, wherever. They have houses and apartments but no homes. Professional are hired for difficult or unpleasant jobs, such as raising children. As I read the negative reviews about my story, it occurred to me that some of the reviewers may have never seen a home, and only know of them through negative portrayals in books and films. But humans require homes – they're the center of our existence. Without a home, we have no center, no grounding, no place to, well, come home to. And sadly, we're seeing situations where people have no center, living life on the peripheries, be it their work or their vacation condo or their regular bar.

Ironically, that's where The Accidental Marriage begins. Neither Scott nor Megan have true homes. Scott has a bachelor pad with a roommate, which is how he's lived for years. Megan is involved in an abusive relationship, in effect a living doll to her partner, who likes to dress her up and show her to her friends. Both Scott and Megan have a place to sleep, but neither has a home. It's only when circumstances throw them together do they begin to build one. It's not conscious or planned, in fact it's somewhat accidental, but it grows out of them loving each other and expressing that love in productive work. The fruit of that work is the home they build together.

Building a home is a noble and honorable thing. Homes do not accidentally happen, they are built by expressing love in works of service. There is no task that is beneath anyone, if it is undertaken in love and completed diligently. No man, woman, or child was ever diminished by working to build a home.  

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The World is Listening

There has recently been a bit of – ah – discussion in the world of Catholic online presence about what constitutes acceptable speech by writers known publicly to be Catholic. Much of the discussion I've read has taken place along the axis of personal freedom of expression vs. what is proper and suitable for people who are published in Catholic periodicals. While I doubt that anything I say is going to bring that dispute any closer to resolution, I wanted to share from my personal experience an aspect that isn't getting much attention in the discussion; specifically the aspect of evangelical witness.

I was raised in a home that had what you might call a high propriety level – my father had been raised a Southern gentleman and rarely used “strong language” at all, and certainly not around ladies. I followed suit, but when I left home it was into the military service, specifically one of the floating ones, where my immature and malleable personality was constantly exposed to people who swore like, well, sailors. Initially I began to follow suit, but since this was also a time when I was seeking to more consistently live my Christian commitment, it wasn't long before my newly acquired vocabulary faced the question, “Is this kind of speech honoring Me?” Since it wasn't yet an ingrained habit, it was an easy one to drop, and I continued through my career speaking as I'd learned at home.  This differentiated me from nearly all my shipmates, but I never thought twice about it. I didn't consider myself as “The Sailor who Didn't Swear”, nor did I dream of censuring my shipmates for their salty language. I simply lived, and spoke, in an environment where foul language came as naturally as breathing – I was just careful not to pick up any of those habits.

It was a while before I began to notice that my unconscious abstention was impacting those around me. I was astonished once when a shipmate next to me swore at something and then promptly apologized – to me! I was hardly such a fool to think that I could stop sailors from swearing! But I began to notice that they did swear less when speaking with me. I also noticed that if I was alone on the ship (which was often), some would seek me out just to converse – conversation that was almost devoid of foul language, no matter what the shipmate's verbal habits normally were. I began to see that talking with me was, for some of them, something like a verbal oasis, or a calm patch in the midst of the steady gale of profanity that was normal conversation aboard the ship. The conversations were rarely about anything noteworthy – how things were going at home, or hopes for their next duty station, or how their career was progressing, that sort of thing. Just casual talk, but it was conversation, not a stream of profanity.

It took me a while to perceive that my verbal habits were to these men a signal, a public and audible statement that I was different. Speaking with me could be at the least a gentler experience than dealing with the sandpaper edge of profanity-laden conversation. Furthermore, the change in the nature of the medium usually impacted the content. Speech thick with profanity is more commonly used to express criticism, cynicism, and contempt. One can express those things without cursing, but it's more difficult. But mostly I think it was simply the absence of the foul language that was a relief, like breathing fresh air after being trapped in a smog-laden valley for months or years.

The recognition that I was different in that way led to recognizing that I was different in other ways, too – specifically that I was a Christian who sought to live my faith seriously. Some may have expected that to be expressed as censure of their verbal habits, but when I didn't do that, they got to wondering just how I managed to avoid picking up this most obvious and contagious aspect of my environment. Nobody was proud of the fact that they swore, as evidenced by where and how they sought to curtail it (e.g. when they were trying to impress some girls, or around children.) I sensed that everyone wished they could swear less than they did, yet the habit had them in its clutches. They would have thought it was inevitable, but there I was (and a few others aboard with me), not succumbing to the tidal pull toward toilet mouth. I think it gave them hope. I know it ultimately provided me the opportunity to share with some of them why it was I didn't curse, and where they could find the strength to follow suit, if they wished.

From what I've seen, this aspect of public witness has been missing from the discussion of how we should be speaking. In my experience, even (and perhaps especially) in environments where profanity was not only unsurprising but as common as wall paint, people who do not conform their verbal habits to that environment are distinctive and noteworthy. What they do with that distinction is up to them. If they choose to emphasize how different they are, and how others should follow their example, it might send a different message than if they simply offer an alternative, a quiet witness that speech does not have to be profane to be effective. It may even open doors, as people seek refuge from the rising tide of caustic verbiage found in more and more places. Maybe St. Paul knew what he was speaking of when he says “Let your speech be gracious” (Colossians 4:6), because as I learned, our very patterns of speech can be a channel of grace to those around us – or not.

I realize this goes against the cultural flow, particularly for those who equate profanity with some kind of emancipation. Our speech isn't just about us, what we want to say and how we choose to say it. Our speech is about helping others, hopefully toward grace. Maybe this isn't what is common in popular music, or what's found in popular Broadway musicals, but if we're to be God's people, we need to be conscious of what is forming our speech patterns, and whether what comes out of our mouths is gracious.


Because the world is listening.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Till everyone is blind

Someone I love dearly recently posted a link to an online article, praising it as profound wisdom. When another whom I love also admired the article, I clicked through and read for myself. Sadly, what I found was not wisdom. I found arguments that sounded reasonable, but at the heart of which lay deadly poison. I am so concerned for those whom I love, and for the author of the article (who is but expressing a popular sentiment), that I feel compelled to respond. But I didn't want to do it in bits and pieces in comment boxes, so I'm writing a post of my own.
You can read the column here. The author, ever so gently, excuses the sin of unforgiveness in the name of speaking for justice. She uses the example of Irish pub songs to springboard to the racial tensions in America. The reason this is so wrong is that unforgiveness is a deeper, more pernicious sin than racial injustice or cultural oppression. Unforgiveness can never be excused no matter how noble the rationale, and those who indulge it will ultimately lose all other goods, including justice, as bitterness and hatred consume their minds and souls.
We need to remember that justice is a minimum standard for treatment of others. Ideally, we'll be charitable to each other, but failing that we can be generous, and if we can't manage that perhaps we can be kind, but at the very least we should be just. Of course, it's also true that justice is foundational – without justice, expressions of kindness or generosity ring hollow, empty expressions of sentiment. But if justice does not lead to the higher goods, it remains stunted, a truncated foundation for human relations. Just as foundations were meant to be built upon, not moved into, so justice points to the greatest good, which is charity.
Forgiveness is essential to charity. I cannot be charitable toward someone against whom I am holding a grudge. Neither is forgiveness optional, as if it were some lofty goal that only saints can achieve. As Jesus makes clear in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matt 18), our not forgiving others can get our own forgiveness rescinded. Forgiving as we are forgiven lies at the heart of the central prayer of Christianity. As Peter Kreeft observes, if we refuse to forgive, we speak damnation on our own heads every time we pray. Forgiveness does not negate wrongs (the Unmerciful Servant was truly owed, and justly deserved repayment), and neither does it negate the requirements of justice. But neither does it become optional when a certain victim count has been exceeded. Unforgiveness in the name of an oppressed nation or group or race is merely whitewash, because ultimately all these things are abstractions. Only individuals are moral agents, and individuals are commanded to forgive.
The cruel irony is that while the sin of unforgiveness is excused in the name of promoting justice in some arena, be it political or economic or whatever, bondage to sin is the deepest bondage of all. Ultimately it doesn't matter how “free” you are economically, or how much “justice” you've obtained in the political arena: if you're in thrall to sin, you're a slave. In her column, Ms. Weiss refers to “songs about killing the English” as “a trope, not an emotional reality”, and excuses singing them because “we root for the underdog.” She acknowledges that “hating people is wrong”, but then neuters her own statement by saying that “telling oppressed people to 'stop that hating' doesn't work too well.” Odd how Jesus stood in the midst of a people who'd been oppressed for centuries and told them to do precisely that. Those who did were freed even though the political and economic yoke of Rome remained. Those who refused to remained enslaved in every sense.
The truth is that the “tropes” which Ms. Weiss considers harmless because they are “not an emotional reality” are not harmless at all, but poisonous seeds that have sprouted and borne bitter fruit in Ireland through the generations. Perhaps the parish priests of Ireland tended to excise Matthew 18 from the Mass readings when it came around, or maybe they taught that it didn't apply to the English, or that it was applicable to individuals but not nations. I don't know, but I do know that the Church in Ireland, as well as the Irish people, are now paying a bitter price because the Church there chose to be a cultural institution interested in preserving its power rather than the impoverished Bride proclaiming her Divine Spouse's message of charity – including that difficult part about forgiving. “Tropes” that keep alive unforgiveness are anything but innocent. In Balkan Ghosts, Robert Kaplan recounts how the Serbs commemorated their crushing defeat at the hands of the Turks at Kossovo Polje in 1389:
On June 28, 1988, the year-long countdown to the sixth centenary of Lazar's martyrdom at Kossovo Polje began when his coffin began a tour of every town and village in Serbia...The coffin drew huge, black-clad crowds of mourners at every stop... “Every [Serbian] peasant soldier knows what he is fighting for,” noted John Reed, at the front in World War I. “When he was a baby, his mother greeted him with, 'Hail, little avenger of Kossovo!'” (Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts, p. 38, emphasis added)
Six hundred years.
In light of these “tropes”, this “rooting for the underdog” (which Serbians would certainly consider “rooted in a longing for justice”), does anyone think it coincidence that Slobadan Milosevic was able to appeal to this bitterness lying at the core of the Serbian soul? Does it surprise anyone that these same Serbs are now resisting the flow of refugees across their country – refugees who are victims themselves, and who have no relation to those who oppressed the Serbs – simply because the refugees are Muslim?
Unforgiveness is never innocent. Regardless of the argument used to rationalize it, it always bears poisonous fruit. Dr. Martin Luther King recognized it, which was why he always preached forgiveness alongside justice. Gandhi recognized this, and though the Muslims and Hindus had a record of mutual oppression that went back centuries, and both had suffered under the British occupation, he stood in their midst and dared proclaim, “stop that hating!” (How many heeded his call can be seen in the ongoing violence between Hindus and Muslims.) Unforgiveness never liberates. To hear a powerful testimony to just how innocent those tropes sung in Irish pubs are, listen to Irish poet Tommy Sands' song There Were Roses.

And another eye for another eye, till everyone is blind.”

That's where unforgiveness leads. Period. Those who condemn forgiveness as weakness, who refuse to leave offense behind, who fan the flames of indignation in their breasts in the name of justice, are but chaining themselves more tightly to a crueler master. There is no freedom down that road, only more slavery.

Stop reciting the tropes. Stop that hating. Forgive. It's the only path to freedom – for an individual, a family, a clan, a race, a nation. For Irish and English, black and white, Serb and Turk, Hindu and Muslim – it doesn't matter who. Forgiveness is the only way to freedom. All other paths lead to slavery.