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.

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 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.