Sunday, May 08, 2022

The Reader Review Challenge

In some online circles I follow, there’s regular hand-wringing about the state of Christian fiction in general, and Catholic fiction in particular. Some pine for a “Catholic Literary Revival” – which, so far as I can tell, seems to be a wish that Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh would rise from the grave and take up pen again. Others stand in such awe of the towering achievements of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis that they seem to await one or more successors, and will settle for nothing less. Others seem to await the next priest detective to pick up where Fr. Dowling left off, even as Fr. Dowling followed Fr. Brown. Still others seem content with “sanitized” romances, known in some circles as “bonnet fiction”, which simply retell the same set of stock plots with slight variations in locations and names, but always in either eras or locations where the morals are simpler and cleaner – which usually means either at least 100 years in the past, or in Amish country (or both).

As a Christian author with several books in print, I find this discussion a bit disheartening. I know I’ll never measure up to the standard set by a classic such as The Lord of the Rings, because nothing ever will. I’ll forever disappoint the Catholic Literature crowd, because I don’t write literature – I write stories. And I won’t scratch the nostalgic itch of some Catholic readers who long for nothing more than to return to the days when Fr. Scrimby minded his parish and solved the occasional mystery with the help of his grouchy but golden-hearted housekeeper, his multi-talented handyman, and the district detective. My stories tries to examine matters from new perspectives, be they Scriptural accounts, family relationships, or current social conditions. Not all of them explicitly involve clergy, and though I try t avoid writing morality tales with a “message”, I do try to follow the guidelines for good storytelling. I’m doing my best to improve the state of Christian fiction, and most people who’ve read my stories seem to think I’m doing a passable job of it.

I realize that my recent works are self-published, which puts me at a disadvantage when it comes to publicity. But, to be honest, neither publishing house I worked with did a stellar job of promoting my works. I understand this – fiction wasn’t what either one of them majored in – but it means that haven’t lost much by going the self-publishing route. I certainly try to ensure the quality of my books meets publishing house standards, both in content and presentation.

It boils down to is this: the best advertising is word of mouth – “buzz” in modern parlance. Even the publishing houses concede that one solid review, or a smattering of online enthusiasm, can have more impact than either print or online ads. Thus, I’d like to issue a challenge to my readers and followers: I’d like to send a copy of one of my books to anyone who will read it and write an honest review. Publishers commonly send out review copies to those who request them, so I’d like to try it as an author. The review can be an Amazon review or (even better) in an online space such as a blog or website. It doesn’t have to be a positive review, just an honest one. Here are the books I’m offering to send out:

The Accidental Marriage: my love story that’s not a romance. It’s a deeply personal story of the deep meaning of love, marriage, and humans helping one another.

From Afar: far and away the popular favorite, this is Scriptural fiction that reads like high fantasy, yet is firmly grounded in not only the brief account of the Magi found in the Gospel of Matthew, but in historical and astronomic research.

Under the Watchful Sky: the first book in the Watchful Sky series, this near-future dystopian novel examines where our society might be in another decade or so – and has proven alarmingly accurate since it was written ten years ago.

The Ghosts of Midgard Manor: though short stories aren’t as popular now as they once were, they are a good chance to get to know an author’s writing. Interestingly, this work was accepted by a major Catholic publishing house, and I signed a contract for it – they just never did anything with it, so I regained the rights and self-published.

Here’s the challenge: I’m willing to send out review copies of any one of the above books on a first come, first serve basis to the first ten readers willing to write a review. If you, or anyone you know (especially if that person is lamenting the state of Christian fiction), would be willing to accept this challenge, drop me an e-mail at, and I’ll mail you a review copy (sorry, international readers, I can only do this for U.S. addresses). All I ask is that you write an honest review and post it on at least Amazon, and any other online spots that you might control. You can get to the Amazon pages for the books from my author page. Only one book at a time, but if you finish one and want to try another, and I haven’t sent out all ten yet, send me another e-mail and we’ll see what I can do.

I’m doing my best to try to improve the state of Christian fiction. Maybe I’m not a good enough author for the task; if so, I can live with that. But I’d hate for people to bemoan that there are no good offerings when I know full well that there are several good authors out there just itching to be read. Whether that list includes me is for others to judge, but there are certainly candidates waiting to be given a chance.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Rushing to Judgment

The first post of the new year in this poor, neglected blog is going to be rather personal, touching on intimate matters in my second-most intimate relationship: my marriage. Be assured that I write with the full knowledge and approval of my beloved wife. It’s our hope that if this account of some of our struggles made known to everyone can help someone, it will be worth it.

Every couple brings complexities into their marriage, and where these complexities cause friction are found the greatest opportunities for both misunderstanding and growth as individuals and as a couple. This is challenging enough when one member’s complexities simply annoy the other member, but when both member’s quirks tend to amplify and exacerbate each other, matters can escalate to the point of toxicity. Let me give an example.

In the home I grew up in, voices were rarely raised, at least by the adults. Even discipline was attempted in a reasoned, controlled manner, to the degree that was possible in a house with seven children. But matters could never be controlled perfectly, which meant that if voices were raised, it meant that matters were approaching extremis – someone was in real trouble. Since there was a chance that someone would be me, I learned from an early age that when things got close to shouting, I should clam up and ease my way toward the nearest exit, so as to make myself scarce until the trouble had blown over.

My beloved was raised in a smaller family whose members had strong opinions and were not afraid to voice them however loudly. This was done (usually) without hostility (as opposed to my home, where a raised voice would have presumed hostility), and emphatic conversations were assumed to be a part of usual family discourse. However, another facet of that family environment was a lot of indirect, non-verbal communications, such as questions that were veiled accusations, or “innocent” comments which contained suggestions or inferences. Another common tactic was punishment by withdrawal of affection and attention. This wasn’t uncommon in earlier generations, but that didn’t make it easier for a confused child, already upset by being chastised for some offense, to be cut off from reassurance or comfort as part of the punishment. It could (and did) provoke emotional distress that approached desperation.

My beloved and I entered marriage unaware of the significance of such formative events in our respective upbringings. Had someone brought them up, we would have acknowledged that they’d happened, but we had no comprehension of how much and in what ways our personalities had been shaped by them, and how that formation would cause conflict in our marriage. In fact, it was only the problems triggered by those conflicts that would drive us to understand those influences clearly – and even then it would take several years and much difficult communication before we understood how the dynamics of how those weaknesses could feed on and amplify each other.

A typical cycle might unfold like this: most often the triggering cause would be fear (the usual suspect.) My beloved might fear the implications of something I did or said. This fear would drive her to express her opinion or objection in a raised voice, because in her experience, that was how you expressed that something really mattered to you.

But I would not receive the communication in that spirit. To my keenly attuned survival instincts, a raised voice signaled Big Trouble Ahead – things were teetering on the brink of calamity, and I’d better clam up, lie low, and make my escape as soon as I could. That pattern would dictate my response, in the hopes that whatever the actual topic was could be reapproached later, when things had calmed down a bit.

Unbeknownst to me, my beloved had some keenly attuned survival instincts of her own – the ones that had been formed in her childhood when affection had been withdrawn from her just when she’d needed it most – and my response was triggering those instincts. This would cause her to escalate her response in hopes of heading off what seemed to be a Dire Outcome in the making. She’d raise her voice yet more, and sometimes get physically expressive, striking a counter or clenching her fists or making some other display to try to connect with me before I withdrew even more.

My emotions knew nothing of her intents and motives. All they knew was that an already dicey situation seemed to be spiraling out of control, and the best I could hope for was to shut down and escape before things got worse. After all, my emotions told me, I must be the problem, so absenting myself must be the solution. I was oblivious to the fact that I was throwing gasoline onto an already blazing emotional fire. Neither of us were aware of the cyclical and mutually aggravating nature of our behavior in such situations – our responses were instinctive and unconsidered. It took a long time and many difficult discussions before we began to grasp all the factors which were contributing to these relational firestorms.

Any outsider observing these meltdowns would have thought we were abusing each other, apparently deliberately. That’s pretty much what it felt like from the inside, too – like we were being abused. For my part, I couldn’t comprehend why my beloved, who was unwaveringly polite to store cashiers and strove to put strangers at ease, would unleash on me tongue lashings of a severity that my worst offenses in childhood had never elicited. For her part, she couldn’t comprehend why her companion, who had vowed to stay by her through all trials, was emotionally withdrawing, leaving her to face her inner distress alone. From both of our perspectives, it looked like the other was deliberately initiating something to torment us – while we were just reflexively reacting according to long-learned behavior patterns.

I’m glad I wasn’t the kind of guy who had a gang of drinking buddies at the corner bar to whom I could flee with my troubles. I’m sure I could have made a case that I was being abused by my wife, and they would have received it sympathetically. After all, I was a responsible husband and father who paid the bills and helped around the house – what had I done to justify being yelled at like I was a scullery boy? (Not that she would have yelled at a scullery boy.) I didn’t deserve that treatment. For her part, she certainly could have found a circle of friends (or online acquaintances, had such things existed at the time) who would have affirmed her perception of my cruelty at “freezing her out” or “going away”, and how how I’d shut down communications just when things got difficult. Such outside reassurance would have helped neither of us with the actual problems, and could have hardened our internal convictions that the issue was solely with the other person.

The reality was much more complex, touching on some of the deepest weaknesses and needs in both our personalities. We were also under some severe external pressure during those years, and my beloved was in the first stages of chronic anxiety, something she still works to control. They were difficult years indeed, calling for a lot of prayer and patience with each other and with ourselves.

A major corner for me to turn wasn’t convincing my beloved how badly she was treating me, or how much she needed to change, but self awareness. My pattern of handling distressing personal encounters – clam up, lie low, get away – was totally unconscious on my part. I wasn’t even aware I was doing it, so how could I possibly understand how it was affecting my beloved? Communications with her helped me to grasp just how alarming it was for her to have the person she loved the most seek to withdraw just when she needed him. These realizations let to more communications, and deeper understanding of ourselves and each other.

I wish I could say that we’ve put all that behind us, but such deep-seated personality traits don’t uproot easily. Better understanding does lead to quicker resolution, and these days when we find ourselves falling into the familiar pattern, we more swiftly recognize that “here we go again”, which helps us to pull out sooner. What I want to emphasize is how much patience, trust, and perseverance it took to make headway on just this facet of our relationship (and believe me, there are others.) In today’s environment, where personal experience is deemed the final and ultimate authority (“Nobody can deny my experience!”), it would have been far too easy for me to rush to the conclusion that my beloved was an abusive person. After all, her treatment of me sure felt abusive, and I couldn’t see any wrong I had done her that justified that. She could have made the same case against me - how my treatment of her had distressed her beyond any reasonable limit, and how I’d made myself emotionally unavailable to her just when she’d needed it most. But, by the grace of God, we were both able to suspend judgment and keep communicating until we began to see that the circumstances were more complex than they appeared, and what looked (and felt) like abusive behavior was actually the interplay of defensive patterns we’d developed over the years.

I’m recounting this because I’ve known far too many marriages that have broken down because one or both parties have dug into their own perceptions (“What more do I need to know?”), shut down communications, and refused to grow in understanding themselves or their spouse. In some cases this has led to “ossified” marriages, where both parties participate in a superficial manner but give up on any deep personal intimacy. In other cases it’s led to shattered families, broken hearts, and relational damage that spans generations. Persistence, patience, prayer, charity, and giving the benefit of the doubt pay off. As one of my very wise daughters once commented about her marriage, “We’re in this together for the rest of our lives – we may as well figure out how to make it work.”

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Beheading Hydra

“The poison was brewed in these West lands but it has spat itself everywhere by now. However far you went you would find the machines, the crowded cities, the empty thrones, the false writings, the barren beds: men maddened with false promises and soured with true miseries, worshipping the iron works of their own hands, cut off from Earth their mother and from the Father in Heaven. You might go East so far that East became West and you returned to Britain across the great Ocean, but even so you would not have come out anywhere into the light. The shadow of one dark wing is over all Tellus.”

C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, “They Have Pulled Down Deep Heaven on Their Heads”


Beheading Hydra by Fr. Dwight Longenecker (Sophia Institute Press, August 2021) can be considered a companion volume to his Immortal Combat (Sophia Institute Press, May 2020), and I recommend they be read together to fully appreciate Fr. Dwight’s timely message. Honestly, the content of Hydra was more what I’d expected when I first read Combat, but the sequence of the two works is appropriate and complementary. A point I made in my review of Combat is even more applicable with Hydra: these are pastoral works, not primarily apologetic or catechetical. Fr. Dwight has the heart of a pastor. His concern is for human souls, he wants to see everyone safely home, and these books are an expression of his concern. Fr. Dwight does engage in some apologetics and catechesis, but as pastoral tools.

Immortal Combat primarily addresses sin at a personal level, exploring the trials and struggles we all face as fallen humans. In it, Fr. Dwight discusses some of the external, social manifestations of human sinfulness, but most of his focus is on helping each reader see how his own sin needs to be dealt with. This is why I suggest that Combat is a vital preface to Hydra, and that the works should be considered a unity.  To read Hydra by itself (or, for that matter, any of the array of socio-political commentary available from numerous sources,) would make it easier to think our problems were rooted in “Them Out There”, while Combat helps us to grasp that it’s primarily “Us In Here.”

That said, Beheading Hydra is a succinct and accessible survey of how human sin manifests itself in a society, especially when those constructing that society have cut themselves off from even the awareness God and divine revelation (as we see in post-modern Western culture.) He details how modern errors such as Materialism, Utilitarianism, Utopianism, and the like can be seen in the world around us, and what their dangers are. But rather than using theoretical abstractions, he uses examples such as popular music and toys to make his points. He discusses the characters who popularized these notions, such as Jeremy Bentham or Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but doesn’t leave the reader feeling like he needs a Masters in History or Philosophy. Fr. Dwight diligently connects the dots so the reader can see the foundational unity of the deception.

Having detailed the breadth of the problem, Fr. Dwight doesn’t leave us to despair in the face of this challenge, or merely strapping on our armor and weapons for a brave but ultimately futile battle against this foe. He lays out a plan for exterminating the rot and bringing renewal in the midst of this overwhelming decay. This plan turns out to be…the Gospel, as understood and lived by Christians since apostolic times, but expressed in a manner that makes it applicable to the problems detailed in the first half of the book. Taking the errors point-by-point, he explains how God’s people living in radical faith and obedience to the Gospel can undo the damage caused by these false teachings.

Here lies part of the vital tie-back to Immortal Combat: because the problem is rooted within each person, the solution must begin there. Only a disciplined, obedient army can triumph over such a dangerous foe, but obedient, disciplined armies are made up of obedient, disciplined soldiers. We cannot fight the hydra-headed errors of our times until we’ve engaged in our own immortal combat. It’s true that neither the internal battle nor the external one will be finished until the White Rider appears (see Revelation 19), but every generation must engage the foe of its time. Fr. Dwight’s pair of books offers keen insight and clear direction on how to execute that engagement in the circumstances we find ourselves in.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

On useless vines


I’ve shared before about the lessons I’ve learned about discipleship from being an amateur vinedresser. This year I got another lesson, and a very timely one.

Our vines seemed to be doing well this year, almost flourishing (except on the side that is regrowing, but even that was doing well enough.) I noticed that some vines were intertwining among the forsythia that grows nearby, even extending through the pine that stands over by the road. The vine was reaching almost two stories up the branches! I’d known that the vines had grown wild around the property before we moved in, and figured that some roots had sprouted. I thought little about the rogue vines – I had no intention of trying to cultivate them.

When the clusters ripened on the tended vines, I was a bit surprised at how modest our harvest was. The grapes were all good, with little lost to mold or other damage, there were just fewer clusters than I’d expected. Even last year we’d been able to get three jam batches out of fewer vines; this year we just made two.  It was good jam, there just wasn’t as much as I’d been expecting.

It was when I was doing one of the last lawn mowings of the season that I almost tripped (literally) on the issue with the scant yield: a rather sizable stem shooting from the roots of my cultivated vines over into the base of the forsythia. I’m accustomed to roots and low-running stems around the base of the vines, but this seemed like a much longer stem. I examined the stem, and thought about how relatively few grapes I’d harvested, and considered how bountiful and flourishing those rogue vines were, and then went for my axe.

My vines had sprouted a fruitless offshoot that had gone mad all summer. It wasn’t the wild growth that was the problem, it was the fact that the wild growth had taken place at the expense of the crop. Those vines are cultivated and tended to produce fruit, not to grow as many leaves and stems as possible in the neighboring hedge. Water and nutrients that had been supposed to grow grapes had instead been wasted on useless growth. Of course, the vine can hardly be blamed – plants grow wherever and however they can – but I certainly learned a lesson, and will be much more vigilant about excess growth in the future.

But the incident made me mindful of Isaiah 5 – the song of the vineyard. The Master of the vineyard is no rookie like I am. He knows how to expertly watch and trim vines so there is no rogue growth. But we humans are not like vines – we have free will. If we choose to, we can send the “shoots” of our imagination, our resources, or effort off into fruitless realms, neglecting the fruit of good deeds and moral effort that is expected of us.  So, as I splintered the stem that had been feeding the wild vine growth, I wondered how much of my life is like that – parts of me sprouting off to do what I want to do, even thinking I’m doing well because Look At All My Leaves!, but totally missing what I’m supposed to be doing with my life. Where is the fruit of charity that the Father expects when He comes for His harvest? Will it be bountiful because I was diligent, or scant because I was distracted doing other things that I found more immediately rewarding?

I spotted the rogue vine today, withering among the forsythia branches. I had no sympathy for it – it had been worse than useless. But I also thought of John 15:2, and wondered what kind of branch I was, and would be judged to be.

Sunday, June 07, 2020

Refusal to pray


About six or eight years ago, I remember being astonished and dismayed to learn that some of my fellow pro-life workers refused to pray for then-President Barack Obama. There weren’t many of them, but there were enough to leave me dumbfounded. These people were mostly devout Christians of various traditions, who were familiar enough with their Bibles to have come across 1 Timothy 2:1-2 (“I desire therefore, first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men: for kings, and for all that are in high station: that we may lead a quiet and a peaceable life in all piety and chastity.”) The Holy Spirit speaking through St. Paul makes clear that prayer for those in positions of authority in government should be prayed for, which was why I included prayer for the president in my morning and evening prayers every day.

(Scott Olson/Getty Images)

But even beyond the Scriptural command, there is the issue of empathy. I disagreed with much of what President Obama stood for and most of his policies, but he was still a fellow human being in a position of tremendous responsibility and associated pressure. Regardless of how much or little I agreed with him, I wanted him to know God’s blessing and come to see His face for all eternity. And though most of my pro-life friends shared that viewpoint, the few who didn’t were distressing.

They were certain that they know all about Barack Obama. He was one of Them. He was one whose policies and appointments we were fighting (which was often true). He was the Enemy, not to be tolerated or accommodated in any way, even in prayer. Obama was evil, and there was even some question about whether he was the Antichrist himself. He opposed everything we stood for, and as such was outcast, wicked, and (essentially) beyond redemption.

What these people (again, a small but vociferous minority) had done was to start viewing the world through the lens of their politics – a very easy thing to fall into when you spend more time listening to cable news than immersing yourself in Scripture. They knew all about Obama, having been informed by their preferred news feeds and online columnists, and were convinced that he was not to be supported or favored in any way. They might have mouthed a cursory prayer (“We pray for all in civil authority…”), but they would not have prayed for President Obama by name, and certainly wouldn’t have truly intended God to bless him.

The most tragic thing about this situation was that these people didn’t realize the degree to which they were imperiling their souls. They were engaging in the very thing Jesus forbids in the Sermon on the Mount – i.e. judging the heart of another. While it is true that some of what Obama did and promoted could be rightly judged as opposed to God’s moral law, to extend that judgment to presume to know his motives and the state of his heart before God was to sit in the seat of God Himself – something that Jesus strictly forbid. Furthermore, to presume that Obama was beyond redemption, effectively damned already, was the highest kind of presumption.

What these people were forgetting was that when St. Paul wrote those instructions to Timothy, as well as verses like Romans 13:1, the “high authority” in question was the Roman emperor Nero. Yeah, him. If there was any party who did not deserve prayer by his actions and attitudes, it was Nero. Yet the Holy Spirit inspired St. Paul to write that anyway, and St. Timothy certainly obeyed, and Christians have been obeying ever since.

That’s the important thing. We live in contentious times, and judging the heart and motives of others is the stock in trade of much public commentary. These few people I mention had been so swayed by all they were taking in that it had eclipsed what the Lord had clearly instructed them to do. I took it as a reminder to me of where my primary responsibility lies, and to entrust all judgment to the Lord. What evil Obama has done, he will answer for – but the witness of Scripture is that I should be much more concerned about the evil I have done, and the answering I will do. In light of that, there should be nobody on the face of the earth I refuse to pray for.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Fr. Dwight Longenecker's Immortal Combat

Immortal Combat

Confronting the Heart of Darkness

Sophia Institute Press, Manchester, NH 2020


I’ve been familiar with Fr. Dwight Longenecker for several years. I enjoy his online columns and articles, finding him quick-witted and incisive in the style of C.S. Lewis and Peter Kreeft. Thus, I was excited to hear that he had a new book coming out, Immortal Combat. I ordered a copy as soon as I could, and eagerly awaited its arrival, even though I was a bit unclear as to the focus of the book. Would it be about spiritual warfare, or address the moral sickness which plagues our culture, or some other topic? Understandably, I was expecting something along the lines of what I’d seen in his columns.

When the book arrived, I found that it was not what I’d expected – but it turned out to be just what I needed. I had anticipated something catechetical or apologetic in tone, and while Immortal Combat contains elements of these, that is not its major focus. This is primarily a pastoral work. In it you meet not Fr. Longenecker the scholar or the articulate writer, but Fr. Dwight the pastor (though not without scholarship or articulation.) He follows in the tradition of priests like Bishop Fulton Sheen, whose pastoral heart showed through in every show and talk he made, despite being a prelate of the Church and a media sensation in his day. For me, this was the foremost attribute of Immortal Combat: it is pastoral, and I felt pastored as I read it.

What, then, is Immortal Combat about? Drawing on classical scholarship, theological training, and a lifetime of pastoral experience, Fr. Dwight lays bare the root of the world’s problems, which is precisely what G.K. Chesterton identified: myself. Me. Us. Using images and stories from sources as diverse as classical mythology and modern movies, Fr. Dwight illustrates our condition: the monsters that lurk beneath our personalities and the toxic, destructive ways in which they manifest themselves. He draws on divine revelation to explain how we got where we are, what it means to have a sin-damaged nature, and the implications of having an ancient enemy prowling around. From images such as the Minotaur, Cerberus, and the Gorgons, Fr. Dwight makes clear that the problem is as universal as it is hideous. While reading these grim descriptions, I found myself saying things like, “That’s me! He’s describing me!” and “I do that all the time.” Furthermore, Fr. Dwight doesn’t write from a position of academic detachment – he puts himself squarely in the middle of the circumstances he describes. It isn’t “They” who have these problems, or even “You”, it’s “We” – all of us, every Son of Adam and Daughter of Eve.

But Fr. Dwight doesn’t leave us as hopeless sinners in the hands of an Angry God. We may be tainted but we are dearly loved. Again making use of imagery from tales ancient and modern, he presents the story of salvation in a fresh light. Using an imaginative style reminiscent of Bunyan and Lewis, he sets the tale of redemption against the dark background of the opening chapters, so we can see the reality in sharper contrast. It turns out I’m not Nice. I am a Bad Person. I’m as much in need of salvation as that pimp or cartel hit man or abortionist. The root of my problem isn’t “Them”, it’s me. But I am not left forgotten or forsaken. The Secret Son, the Hidden Hero, comes for me. What He did for the Sin of the World, He can do for my personal sin – if I’ll cooperate. Fr. Dwight sites my primary battlefield right where it belongs: at the center of my will.  Before I can fight the dragons Out There, I must battle the monsters that lurk beneath the surface of my personality. I won’t do this alone, the Hero will assist me, but the fight is mine. Yes, I have the victory, but it’s victory amidst struggle as long as I draw breath. I am loved, but it’s up to me to not be a wandering sheep or a foolish virgin. Life is a battle that calls for constant vigilance.

Fr. Richard Neuhaus once defined optimism as a matter of optics, that is, what we choose to look at. Too often in our time and culture we think we’re being hopeful when actually we’re just being selective about what we’re viewing. “This will all pass and things will get back to normal.” “Our best days are ahead!” Fr. Dwight strips away our rose-colored glasses and forces us to gaze on the stinking sewers of our own sinful natures, not because he hates or wants to distress us, but because he loves. He’s like the doctor who must deliver the grim diagnosis. Once we understand our condition, the condition we all share, we’ll be able to truly cooperate with the treatment, and to explain it to others.

Fr. Dwight closes the book with some advice, based on his description of the problem and the solution. Most of these tips involve shifting our perspective on our own attitudes and motivations, but there are many practical hints as well. They reminded me of the principles I had to learn while living aboard ships, which weren’t there to bind or oppress me, but to keep me constantly aware that I was living in a different, and somewhat more precarious, environment than what I’d been accustomed to. Fr. Dwight is trying to warn us: given that the world isn’t what our senses and conditions would have us believe, we need to be aware of the peril and live accordingly.

From beginning to end, I found this book very pastoral. Yes, Fr. Dwight wants his readers to be educated and mentally agile, but mostly he wants them home. He has the heart of a shepherd who knows that there are hungry wolves and rocky gullies out there, and that sheep will wander. He wants everyone to make it safely home to the fold.  If he had time, he’d surely want to sit down with every one of his readers for spiritual counsel and prayer. Since that’s impossible, this book is the next best thing. It’s not only useful for our own spiritual nourishment, but also for giving to someone seeking answers. There are too many lost, despairing people out there who don’t know they need good news. Immortal Combat isn’t written in religious jargon, but uses themes and imagery common to all human experience. It’s a good book to give to a friend, even one who isn’t Christian, when you don’t know how to speak to their struggles.

Immortal Combat belongs on many bookshelves, probably including yours. I plan to order many copies to hand around, being sure to keep a copy nearby to review from time to time. The Lord has blessed His Church with many wise and experienced pastors like Fr. Dwight. We’re fools if we don’t avail ourselves of what they have to offer.

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.