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 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.