Wednesday, July 11, 2018

What to do when getting trounsed, pummeled, beaten to a pulp by your manuscript? INKBLOTS

That's me on the left getting hammered by my writing
Inkblots joke of the evening: "I prefer steak jokes, but they're a medium that's rarely well done." Thank you Patrick. Pass the HP sauce. This evening in the Scriptorium we have six writers, five regulars and one of my Oxford Creative Writing Master Class authors, here for a writing retreat at our lodgings for the week. John brought a bottle of Writer's Block red blend, which I'm really nervous about drinking. What if it's contaminated and I get it? We chatted and bantered longer than usual, in part, because we haven't been together for a while.

BIRTHING A FINAL CHAPTER
Rachel is the designated reader for John since some people commented on John's oral reading sounding like Eeyore was at the mic. John's last chapter where his protagonist is giving birth. Rachel had commented on John's deficiencies in writing a birthing scene when he had never been in the room when any of his kids were born (John was fathering in an era when fathers were banned from birthing rooms, so was Bob). Write what you know, and if you don't know it, research, research, research until you do. "Let me give you a quick check," is, to my ear, overwriting for how a doctor or labor and delivery nurse would speak during hard contractions. "Let's check." Seems like it might be more realistic. Or let me check. She called, she rubbed my back but these were two different females. Clarify pronouns. My heart began to quicken. My heart beat faster. Be concise; four words are better than five, almost always. You have the new mother quoting a Bible verse. Is that consistent with her character and new experience as a young Christian? Can the nurse quote the verse or someone else? The doctor would not hold up a needle and thread for the mother to see, especially a first time mom; doctors try to conceal needles from patients. Patrick felt like this was a significant improvement over the previous versions of this final chapter. Some repetition of words, panting, for example. More description of what a new born baby looks like and the effect it has on the mother. I remember being there and participating in the birth of all six of my children, and the overwhelming emotion, speechless, but felt I must speak, tears of wonder, joy expressed in that mysterious inner swelling that makes you feel you will burst. Anxiety about the baby being healthy? And vigilance in case something happens to the baby.

ALTRUISM AND THE EROSION OF THE GOSPEL
Patrick is up next. He feels overwhelmed at the moment with what to do next, how to get to the next place with his writing. He feels that culturally the church is tending to reduce the gospel down to an altruistic abstraction. So he has written speculative fiction that confronts and exposes social disorder that results from the socializing of the gospel. And now Patrick is working on a short non-fiction book that concisely lays out his concerns about the social gospel trending in the church. This chapter is on legalism, overly zealous emphasis on obedience especially with minute details of obedience. Altruism promises that true and authentic Christianity will fall off the road on either side of the ditch. He is more concerned with conservatives who don't but should have answers, than with liberal progressive Christianity, so called.

Two things I would suggest with this book idea. Until you are a recognized authority (I'm not saying this as an insult but as a simple fact about most of us and most people in the church) you need to demonstrate that you know what those who are recognized as authorities, dead and alive, have written and spoken about on this topic. Give your reader confidence in your research. The second thing I would urge you to consider is to take a less theoretical approach. Take Jesus' approach, which is to illustrate with a specific story example, a case study, or a practical demonstration in a role played story, then interpret in your non-fiction prose. Another method which I would recommend in this piece, is for you to use yourself as an example of these two errors. How have you found them in yourself?

Lastly I wonder about some of the verbiage Patrick used in this excerpt. Is it more obedience not less? Isn't the dialectic here that their minute obedience is externally motivated by pride and a mistaken sense that they can win God's favor by good works, but their hearts are not right. Jesus is exposing that their hearts are not right, not that they need more obedience. They needed true and right obedience, not merely external conformity to a code of law. Hence his "whitewashed tombs metaphor." They don't need "more obedience, not less," more whitewash on the tomb. They need regeneration, quickening, a transformed heart, good works that spring from gratitude and love. Any other kind is "filthy rags" in God's sight. They don't need more self-righteousness, more filthy rags. The hottest spots in hell will be for the "righteous," so called, the ones Jesus did not come to save. He came to seek and to save the lost, those who have despaired in their righteousness, their efforts, their "obedience," their good works. True biblical good works, sanctification, obedience, is of another kind altogether. Just adding more of the old kind, the legalistic self-righteousness kind, only furthers condemnation. Clarify terms like grace, obedience, good works. This is where the literature will help you and citing it will help your potential reader immensely.

FANTASY BOOKSHOP
Avrie, visiting from Houston, is reading a short story (a portion thereof), for middle grade readers. Setting in an eccentric bookshop. Characters are not human; they're characters from the books on the shelves in the bookshop. Contemporary fantasy genre. Not zombies though. Strange Tales. I like how you don't need much attribution, and it is clear to the listener reader who is speaking. Very fluid dialogue. I also like how the books and bookshelves seem to be reacting to the humans and jump into laps. Paper cuts are intentional, given by books that are too full of themselves, like textbooks. Authors are dangerous. We don't need the authors. They're a bad lot most of them.

Love the names, Alias, Read,  Novelette, Peter Strange... Gluten free café. Board of characters will be furious. How does the bookstore smell? One of the charms of bookshops is their smell, old leather, paper, a bit of dust, a pinch of binding glue. You get the idea. Can you describe what your characters look like? How do the characters exist? The characters are like actors that authors hire to be in their books, but the characters actually influence the story more than the author knows. It's all reversed. The characters employ the authors. Bob observed that this story is platonic, in the sense that the characters are derived from virtues or vices maybe. Its a very intriguing and though it is not clear to us where you are going, we are drawn in, fascinated, and want to hear more.

IRON SHARPENING IRON
Then 'Blots did what 'Blots often does, revert to an excurses that sort of took over (and lasted well past 10:pm), but was stimulating, relevant, and left us all chewing, swallowing, and digesting the evening spent together.

MY MANUSCRIPT BEATING ME TO A PULP
I didn't bother reading from my WW II French Resistance yarn. It would have been unkind. I care about my fellow 'Blots too much to inflict it on them. The characters are dominating the ring. I feel like I'm wrestling wholly on the defensive, cornered, against the ropes. Writing this book right now is like sparring, gloves-off MMA fashion, and I'm getting pounded, head spinning, vision clouding over, on the verge of plummeting face down, never to rise again. Jeering and mocking me from its corner, the manuscript and it's thugs have clearly won the opening rounds, and I'm swollen-eyed and bloodied. And that's all before a glass of Writer's Block red blend. So what do I do? I go back to the gym and work on my fitness, more jumping rope, more cardio, more strength fitness, and do my level best to master that left punch to the jaw. I'm going to beat this thing, show it who's boss, lay it flat on the mat--a grandiose-sounding triumph, of which there is not a shred of evidence at the moment. I'll post another chapter on this blog. That way you can weep with he who weeps. And then unsubscribe and follow a living author who still has a pulse.

Friday, June 1, 2018

The Death of Meaning and the Death of Art



"Life doesn't mean anything."
Meaningless goodness?

More than twenty years ago I ducked out of a San Francisco rain shower into a doorway, as it turned out, the doorway to a steep staircase leading up five flights to an artist’s loft. I entered and saw the strangest sight.

One entire wall was spanned by a wooden frame stretched with a canvas. But not just any canvas. This one was a hodgepodge of old clothes: jeans, t-shirts, overalls, zippers, buttons, and snaps--a sort of grab-bag, thrift-store canvas. I watched in amazement as the artist smeared paint on his canvas, dipping randomly from a variety of paint cans.

“Unusual canvas,” I ventured at last.

“Pretty cool, huh?” he replied, grinning at me as he continued to apply paint over his shoulder with a large brush.

After several moments of chat about his creation, I asked if his artwork was didactic.

Di—what?” he replied.

I tried again. “Does it mean something?”

“Mean something?” he snorted, flicking a wet brush at a pair of paint-stiffened trousers. “Of course it doesn’t mean anything. Life doesn’t mean anything.”

“So why do you bother doing it?”

“Because I’m good at it.”

Curious about the criteria he used to come to this absolutist conclusion, I probed further. How could life be meaningless and he be good or bad at anything? If it was meaningless wouldn’t it be impossible to measure goodness or badness? He frowned.

Believing that life doesn’t mean anything, after all, is an evaluative perspective, a belief. As C. S. Lewis observed, “If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning.” Thus, by denying that life means anything, he unwittingly, admitted that meaning does exist--absolutely. If it didn’t we would never have had the discussion, nor would he bother creating art that attempts to mirror his nihilistic philosophy of life. At this point, the intricacies of his painting seemed to require more of his concentration. So I left.



Art as religion

In the same breath that many artists and academics declare that there are no absolutes, they say things like, “Art is a means of giving order to the chaos of experience.” “Art represents the source of human values.” “Art gives meaning to life.” Cultural Editor for World magazine, Gene Edward Veith, suggests that these statements are various ways of placing “art and the artist squarely in the position of God—as creator, lawgiver, and redeemer.”

Listen to almost any artist or art critic speak about art and you will hear the terminology of religion: creation, inspiration, transcendence, vision. In this pseudo-religious milieu, artists are the high priests, works of art are the equivalent of relics, the elite appreciators are the worshipers, the adulations uttered are the responses prescribed in the liturgy, taxes to support artists are the forced tithes, grand museums are the temples, and the baffled masses scratching our heads are the equivalent of the heathen unbelievers. Absurdly, all this in a world that demands a separation of church and state!

The resulting “chronological snobbery,” as C. S, Lewis dubbed it, can have the effect of making you feel unsophisticated, a sort of aesthetic atheist. You may begin to feel like your world view is pretty out of touch, not very intellectual. You may even be tempted to feel ashamed of being a Christian. At the end of the day, however, all this is merely another form of idolatry, another way of putting something else in place of the grandeur of truth and making truth look silly. It takes first-rate deception to pull it off, but, then, that’s what the devil is so good at. 



Laws governing freedom in art

There is one constant for the Christian young man trying to sort out what he is to think about art: artistic fashion changes constantly. Ironically, as artists speak in religious terms about their art, a form of self worship, they venerate something that is inherently changing, something that in a very short time will be sneered at by the next generation of artistic gurus.

Art reflects the temper of its culture,” wrote Gene Edward Veith. And a culture that is constantly being shaped and reformed by the transient appetites of people groping for the next amusement, for the next entertainment thrill, for the latest technology, the newest fashion in clothes, or music, or cars, or coffee—will produce art that reflects these flighty, laser-light-show changes.

Still there is another unchangeable law among the artistic elite: the more innovative the better. This rigid law leads immediately to another: the more bazaar, the more shocking, the more valuable the art.



Art in a culture of death                                                                      

Perhaps there is no better example of this than the sensational “death art” of German doctor, Gunther von Hagen, who has developed a technique whereby he can turn human tissue into plastic and shape corpses into “art.” With the help of his father, a retired Nazi SS sergeant, Hagen set up a plastanation factory in Poland where on his father’s last visit he sent sixty human beings to death camps during the war.

Hagen’s art features a dead man riding a skinned horse, the man’s corpse positioned holding both the horse’s brain and his own. It gets much worse. With the aid of US taxpayers, human corpses, skinned and contorted into grotesque life-like, sometimes provocative poses, have created a freaky sensation in American art and science museums.  Since 1997, his “Body Works” art has been viewed by 17 million museum goers, including thousands of school children, raking in some $200 million dollars in the bargain.

For the Christian, this should not be a close call. In Holy Scripture we are taught that our bodies are not our own, that they are temples of the living God. When man made in the image of God dies his body is to be buried, there to await the resurrection of the body; it is not to be burned, mutilated, or desecrated—not even in the all-excusing name of art. Hagen’s morbid creations seem to epitomize what Gene Edward Veith calls “art in the culture of death.”  



Beauty and the beholder

            A former student, frustrated at the ugliness all around him while deployed on board ship during the Global War on Terror emailed me with questions about art and beauty. He wrote: “Being surrounded by the people I have been around for the last few months has started my mind on a question. What makes some people capable of enjoying beauty and others not? Why am I able to enjoy literature, poetry, and J. S. Bach and my shipmates are not? Secondly, what makes something beautiful? I know we talked about this in high school. I’m ashamed to say that I probably wasn't paying good enough attention, but I was hoping for a refresher.”

My reply: “Confusion results when postmoderns shape the argument by insisting that everything, including beauty, is simply a matter of taste: like favorite flavors of ice cream. It is critical to their argument that there be no universal qualities of beauty. Their insistence notwithstanding, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. Though art seems subjective, any thoughtful Christian is reality-bound to disagree with the elitists here. Why? Because there are universal non-cultural, non-ethnic agreements about beauty.

“Few would attempt to disagree that all peoples, wherever they are in the continuum of civilization, find beauty in a sunset, in a mother tenderly caring for a newborn, the vastness of the ocean, the music of the breaking surf, sunlight sparkling on a mountain lake, the soaring of an eagle —all this creates a sublime wonder in everyone regardless of culture, ethnicity, or gender. The things that are truly beautiful imitate the parts of our world less tainted by the fall, or they create a sense of longing for those things. When art features sin it ought to be in a way that unmasks fallen-ness for what it is. In the end, all true art is redemptive; it lifts us above the base things and gives us a longing for the perfections of heaven.

“So why do the guys on the ship not appreciate Bach and beautiful things? One explanation is that they have been so bent by pop culture and the need for immediate gratification that they have no appetite for transcendent beautiful things. They are enslaved to immediate and tactile gratification in the music they listen to, the pornography they devour, and the games and videos to which they have made themselves willing slaves.

“Real beauty represented in fine art lifts us out of ourselves, elevates us above our desires for twisted gratification and shows us a glimmer of what a world would be like if it were not wrenched from its original design into something barbaric and crude.



Hell on the ship

“It is all very tragic, Stuart. The people on your ship are lost, and their indifference or disdain for true beauty is simply an expression of their lostness. I hope this will deepen your compassion for them and your appreciation for a mother who introduced you to art and beauty when you were very young. Moreover, I hope it will create a deeper longing for heaven and eternity where all that is bent and ugly, the rap, pornography, drunkenness will vanish and Bach and Rembrandt—and a host of other great artists--will be loved by all!

“The fact that beauty has survived, even in our fallen world, is further demonstration of the truly great artists’ eternal conception of beauty. Perhaps Bach has outlived the vicissitudes of the centuries because he struck the chord of eternity in his music. His is music that must endure. And what’s true of music must also be true of visual art and the rest. Raunchy, throw-away music, like raunchy visual art, twists goodness out of shape and then celebrates the deformity instead of the eternal beauties.

“The pounding ugliness of what your shipmates listen to does not strike the chord of eternity, perhaps because what they prefer has broken the instrument with chaos and a celebration of all that is unworthy. Unworthy and ugly, it celebrates not the hints of heaven in this fallen place; it celebrates the relentless foretastes of hell that are strewn all about us. Hell will be many things, but one thing it will be is the absence of beauty. There will be nothing to lift a man above the ugliness that litters hell. I don’t doubt that the ship may sound and look like hell, but your job, Stuart, is to flood that floating Hades with the light of truth, beauty and the love of Christ. Press on, Sailor!”



Art as imitation

Everyone wants to be original--especially artists. But herein lies the problem and the great challenge. All art is imitative. Art by definition is not the real thing; it is the artificial thing—thus, the source of the name “art.” So art that imitates dark and sinful things in non redemptive ways is imitating the wrong things. Like the “art” preferred by sailors on Stuart’s ship, that art will inevitably be an ugly imitation of hell.

It all starts with theology. Only in a world severed from moral absolutes can art be anything the artists wants it to be, but not so in the real world. In our world an artist can bag up his own excrement, dub it “art,” and send it to museums to be displayed at the expense of the grossed-out, but dutifully un-protesting public. In God’s world--the real world--this is non-redemptive and ugly--and therefore not art.

            It is perhaps not surprising that man’s theological rebellion against, God the ultimate original Creator of all beauty, finds virulent expression in art. Many artists are affronted that they cannot be ultimate originators of anything. Desperate to assert their authority over creative expression, they are driven to innovate. They don’t want to be seen as imitators of anything or anyone—especially not the Creator God of the Bible. Thus, in a world devoid of absolute values, the value of art is measured by individual expression, innovation, and the bazaar. And artists continue to insist that their “Art represents the source of human values.”

Play by the intellectual elitists’ rules and you will no longer be able to define beauty or art. Accept the cultural elitists’ supposed authority over art and that authority will encompass every other area of life. It’s what they want. Remember how expansively they speak about art: “Art gives meaning to life.” Accept their authority over art and eventually things like truth, liberty, justice will also be defined by the elite. Tyranny in art leads to tyranny in everything else.

When political leaders see themselves as “the makers of manners,” as Shakespeare’s Henry V quipped to his battle-prize bride, law and justice are redefined for the self-gratification of the tyrant. So in matters of art. The elite are not the makers of artistic manners, though they work very hard at intimidating us into believing this. Art, like truth and justice, must be guided by universal absolutes, otherwise we live in an inconsistent world, a world none of us can count on, a world without gravity, a chaotic and ugly world.

Socrates, on a quest for the source of wisdom, discovered that Greek artisans, though skillful with stone, were unwise because they projected their skill with the chisel into the notion “that they also knew all sorts of high matters.” Socrates concluded his inquiry with the words, “God only is wise,” or put another way: Man’s skill, his wisdom, in any field is the gift of God, the great originator of all skill.

A wise ancient poet put it still better. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10). Do you want skill (wisdom) to appreciate or create beautiful art? Fear the Lord; he alone is the “beginning of wisdom.”

A wise man, then, acknowledges that his skill is not innate but derived, given to him from above, a gift of God, regulated by his laws. So throughout the Bible, art is a means of reflecting the glory of God, the originator of all creative beauty. However unsophisticated it sounds to the world’s ears, God, de jure, by right, defines both beauty and art.



Gaze on ultimate beauty

Perhaps the advice biblically informed Shakespeare has Hamlet give actors helps shed light on these questions about art. The Bard wrote that the purpose of his art was “to hold the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature.” Shakespeare’s summary of the imitative purpose of art sounds odd in a world that is morally, intellectually, spiritually, and aesthetically adrift. When the world rejects absolutes it loses the capability of showing “virtue her own features” in art, or in any other dimension of life.

Though it is possible for an artist to create a worthy image of something that is not at first blush beautiful (crucifixion is not beautiful), all artistic endeavor must be regulated by the light of God’s word. Paul in his letter to the Philippians gives us the final word about art and life: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Therefore, the Christian young man will only set before his mind and eyes art that leads to truth, purity, and loveliness. Art worthy of the title must be excellent and praiseworthy. But not according to the transient opinions of elitist critics—excellent and praiseworthy according to God’s definition. And know this, in the Bible, “excellent” and “praiseworthy” are not subjective terms. 
Vast and wonderfully varied as human creativity and art is, a subject worthy of a lifetime of enjoyment and discovery, how does a young man keep his way pure in matters of art? Be like the Psalmist: “One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord…” Live your life gazing on the beauty of the Lord and you will have little difficulty defining beauty, appreciating beauty, or creating beauty.    

Douglas Bond is author of more than 25 books, conference speaker, European tour leader, award-winning teacher. This post is an excerpt from his book HOLD FAST In a Broken World, in his Fathers & Sons devotional series. Subscribe to his blog and his website bondbooks.net.  

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Hands of Time--A Tribute to My Father-in-law


Jerrell Wayne Lewellen May 29, 1935—April 30, 2018

I will never forget my first encounter with Jerrell—it was 35 years ago this month. Rather, I will never forget my first encounter with his hands, in that first handshake. As his massive, work-hardened hand closed around mine, I thought, “This man could crush every bone in my hand, if he had a mind to.” Glancing nervously up from our clasped hands, I looked into his blue-gray eyes, sparkling with life and good humor, the dimple crater in his cheek as he smiled at me—and I felt somewhat more hopeful about the bones in my hand.

I thought I had callouses on my hand, some callouses, sometimes—they weren’t entirely soft. But Jerrell’s hands had a ready-to-grab-and-work look and feel, as if they had been formed and shaped by hefting bars of iron—which, of course, they had been. Sure, my hands had some degree of harder skin, in places, that might pass for callouses. But Jerrell’s hands were callouses, living, flexing monuments to a man who had made work into something akin to a sacrament, a useful, joyful, holy activity that had shaped not only massive steel buildings, and young apprentices, but had shaped his entire life.

How did those hands get to be that way?

Jerrell was a man of tools and work, a man of steel, a block of iron ore with arms and legs—and hands, hands with callouses. Jerrell was certified to weld every ore on the planet, a man of cultural dominion who took raw materials and shaped them into useful forms, a man who tamed steel, made it do what he needed it to do to get the problem at hand solved, to get the job accomplished.

And he did all this with a full-bodied grin on his face (most of the time). Jerrell had fun doing it; and it was contagious, even if you were the butt of the practical joke (ask Paul K for the details; there are many details).

Jerrell could multi-task. He could be about to flip down his welding hood, but just before striking an arc, pause to tell a story. Nobody could tell a story like Jerrell. And he had stories to tell. Hear the stories of his youth, and the wonder is that Jerrell lived long enough to get Alzheimer’s. Stories of his childhood on the ranch, in the mountains near Northbend, hunting, shooting, blowing things up (including the outhouse—while his brother Garry was using the outhouse), stories about pranks with wildcats, thugs, carburetors, gunpowder and cannons, boating adventures. Jerrell was an endless source of entertainment for his grandkids. When he wasn’t around, my kids would try to retell Grandpa stories, but they never quite worked unless Jerrell was telling them. He “remembered with advantages the feats he did that day.” 

But being an ironworker was dangerous, had its hazards. I’ll never forget receiving the phone call some years ago, that Jerrell was being rushed from the job site to the hospital; a 1,500# steel I-beam had fallen on him. Fearful of the worst, when Cheryl and I arrived, there was Jerrell sitting up in the ER gurney, as I recall it, telling a story to the ER nurse, animated, full-bodied grin, big calloused hands gesturing as he spun the yarn, dimple in all its splendor. For a moment, I felt sorry for the steel I-beam. My guess is it had a permanent Jerrell-shaped crook in it and was good for nothing but the scrap heap after attempting to crush Jerrell Wayne Lewellen.

Though his hands were hardened with callouses from work, it would be an enormous mistake to think of him as calloused, in the sense of hard, detached, unfeeling. This block of iron ore, was a man of tender feeling, a lover of his wife, his children, his grandchildren—and he was a lover of books, and reading; a lover of Shakespeare, but especially a lover of reading the Bible.

Though his hands were hard, there was nothing hard and unfeeling about the man. With those same hands, Jerrell milked a succession of cows—by hand, no machine needed or wanted—the last cow named Lucy. It was yet another way he could provide for his family, and, as he grew older, milking a cow by hand, twice a day, served as therapy, not only to ease the arthritic pain in his hands, but as a spiritual activity, a time of calm, of prayer, of quiet and tender reflection on the God who provided so abundantly for Jerrell and his family, on the God he loved and served with those hands, and that big, big heart.

Jerrell was a complex individual. Hammer-and-tongs ironworker that he was, picture with me the man holding court at lunch hour on the job site, young apprentices, who just that morning had learned yet another trick of the trade, a better way to do it right, now gathered around to hear Jerrell recite from his beloved Shakespeare. The man who had decided that formal schooling was overrated a few weeks before he would have graduated from high school, had later in his life discovered Shakespeare, one of the early bonding moments for Jerrell and this son-in-law. Listen in as Jerrell held court with those tough men, this passage one of his oft-recited favorites:

The quality of mercy is not strained; 
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven 
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest; 
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: 
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes 
The throned monarch better than his crown… 
…mercy is above this sceptred sway; 
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings, 
It is an attribute to God himself; 
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s 
When mercy seasons justice. 
Therefore… 
Though justice be thy plea, consider this, 
That, in the course of justice, none of us 
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy; 
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render 
The deeds of mercy.
From this man, these ironworkers heard some of the most profound and ultimate truths expressed in the most beautiful words, words rendered with such gusto and feeling by Jerrell. During these Shakespeare tutorials delivered to those, no doubt, bewildered ironworkers, he would pause to savor another bite of his beloved Pat’s incomparable apple pie. Jerrell and Pat had a mutual understanding. She would make all the pies Jerrell could eat, so long as he picked and peeled the apples. Though Jerrell had selective hearing loss, he heard and heeded this message. Nobody peeled apples like Jerrell.

Picture the man, hunched over the bucket, those hands again, hands deftly wielding one of his many razor-sharp pocket knives, methodically peeling another Granny Smith, green curly-cue peel trailing from his knife like a lacy work of art. I think of Jerrell peeling those apples—and Pat baking them with such loving skill—as something of a metaphor of their life together, of Jerrell’s life. It wasn’t finally about just getting the job done, accomplishing another task. Peeling apples slowed the pace, became another opportunity to pause and reflect, to take captive every thought, every activity to the obedience of Jesus Christ. Life was imminently important to Jerrell, but not just the big parts, planting the flag on the newly completed skyscraper. Every cut, every weld was important. Peeling the apples was important and to be done with artistry, and care, and love. Peeling the apples was to be enjoyed as much as sinking his gold-filled teeth into another scrumptious piece of Pat’s apple pie.

Building a house by his own unique design, every brick laid with those same hands, or building a steel fishing boat, a shop, the King Dome—building his family, whatever Jerrell was building, whatever problem he was solving, he did it with gusto, with laughter, with enjoyment. Jerrell lived out “Man’s chief end… to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.” By the grace and mercy of Christ, this was Jerrell’s life—and now his forevermore life.

A final word from Jerrell’s beloved Shakespeare, lines he would sometimes recite as he watched the tide in Dutcher’s Cove, his cove:
There is a tide in the affairs of men 
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; 
Omitted, all the voyage of their life 
Is bound in shallows and in miseries. 
On such a full sea are we now afloat, 
And we must take the current when it serves, 
Or lose our ventures.

By the grace of Christ, Jerrell did not omit this all-important tide in the affairs of men. For him that tide was the Water of Life, the only Savior of we broken and lost sinners, Jesus Christ. Jerrell would not want the voyage of one of your lives to be bound in shallows and in misery; he would not want one of you to lose your ventures. There is only one way to die well, as Jerrell did. Take Jesus at the flood. It is a full sea. The current now serves. Today—Jerrell’s memorial day—is the day of salvation. Jerrell Wayne Lewellen, knowing and experiencing firsthand what heaven is, I know Jerrell would want you to lay hold of Jesus Christ—today.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Sneak preview of my forthcoming WWII historical fiction set in French Resistance Normandy




French Resistance fighter's false identity card WWII
Opening chapter from my WWII historical fiction in progress. Memorial Day seemed like a good day to post this draft of chapter one. 

1

Bombs Away



R

iley Straight flexed his gloved fingers on the controls of his B-17. His breath quickened, condensation trickling around the edges of his flight mask, then freezing. He glanced from the instrument panel of his Flying Fortress, then out the cockpit window.

“Approaching target.” The steady, good-humored voice of Riley’s navigator, 2/Lt. Charles Dudley, came through the interphone.

“Here comes the wrath o’ God, Jerry,” said Riley through the interphone so all his crew could hear.

“Maybe this’ll be a milk run after all.” Riley heard Freddy Ferguson his copilot’s voice crackling in the interphone in his headset.

He glanced at his copilot. “Fred, you’re new at this?”

The RAF only flew their bombing missions at night. But not the American Army Air Corps. Riley leaned forward, peering left and right out the cockpit windows. He had to admit, the view was better by day.

Far below, bordered by hedgerows, lay fields of wheat, rolling meadows, and pastures with specks of white—sheep or were they French beef cattle? At this altitude it was too hard to tell. His Fort chattered through a turbulent cloud hillock, then broke clear again.

The aerial tidiness of the pastoral scene below—it was part of the allure of flight for Riley. He swallowed hard, doing his best to ignore the clutching at his insides. Part of the allure and the curse. If only there had been some way to get the scenery and the thrill of flying, but without the dizzying nausea that always went with it. No amount of self-berating had solved it. If he couldn’t be rid of it, at least he’d become expert at hiding it—so he hoped.

“Rollout!” the squadron orderly had barked at 0430 that morning. “All pilots, briefing in twenty. Maximum effort!”

Twenty minutes later, Riley’s squadron leader had given the order: “Mr. Straight, you’re flying tail-end Charlie.” It seemed like forever ago. But here he was flying, “Coffin corner,” as flyers called it. Last bomber in the formation, the one the Luftwaffe went after first.

“Keep it tight, Mr. Straight,” bomb group commander Mills had said into the radio just after takeoff.

Riley never forgot his first time in the pilot’s seat, flying in tight formation, sitting left seat, his hands on the controls. The other B-17s were so close, he felt he could reach out and touch their wings. And some of the other pilots in the squadron were still teenagers. Unlike so many, he’d lived to turn twenty, leave his teens behind him; his birthday was just last week. Flying in tight formation and all it took was a split second of distraction, a slight deviation in course or speed.

Flying so close—Riley felt the inexorable compulsion to get clear. At speeds of 310 miles per hour, it demanded nerves of steel to fly tight. Scattered formation, just what the Luftwaffe was waiting for, and German fighters would dive in like wolves on straggling caribou.

Hence, his group commander’s reminder that morning: “Keep it tight, Mr. Straight.”

Another bank of cloud passed underneath, gray and heavy. Riley held steady as his Fort lurched in the turbulence. Visibility restored, the rural scene far below gave way to a drab industrial landscape, stark concrete blocks with gaping chimneys belching smoke heavenward. Their target, a French automobile factory, now a German munitions factory. And heavily guarded with antiaircraft guns—German guns.  

“Milk run?” Riley raised an eyebrow at his copilot.  

Glancing from the instrument panel out the window, Riley watched the first antiaircraft batteries springing to life. Bursts of white flame erupted far below. But there was no exploding sound, not audible above the rumble of four Wright R1820-97 air-cooled 1,380 horsepower engines. He didn’t know why, but rehearsing his bomber’s powerplant specifications calmed him, reassured him.

He braced himself. It was coming. When he could hear the Flak explode above his engines, it meant trouble.

“German 88s,” he murmured. Riley knew the damage Hitler’s high-velocity, antiaircraft cannons could inflict on his fortress. Twenty-pound shells fired in rapid succession, calibrated with German precision for their flying altitude, didn’t even have to make a direct hit to cripple a Flying Fortress.

Riley gripped the half-round steering control of his Fort till his fingers hurt. Bursting in grim black clouds on all sides of the squadron, Flak could send deadly shards of shrapnel ripping into the fuselage, wings, fuel and oxygen lines of his bomber—and through the flesh and bone of his crew. He had counted over one hundred holes in his plane after his last mission. In spite of their Flak vests, his tail gunner and flight engineer had both been strafed by molten shrapnel from the 88s. By the time his bombardier had released their load, and his navigator had calibrated their return course, the two men were bleeding profusely from their wounds. When Riley finally landed his crippled Fort on the runway and taxied to a halt, his tail gunner and flight engineer had bled out. They were dead.

That was last week’s mission. Because he and part of his crew had survived, here they were again over France, but with a new tail gunner and flight engineer, the latter just promoted from ground maintenance.

 “Two minutes to target,” drawled Riley’s navigator, Charles Dudley. Charles was from West Virginia, born and reared. For his perpetual grin, the squadron called him Chuckles for short. Even his voice through the interphone, engines roaring, Flak exploding, sounded like he was grinning, on the verge of a good chuckle.

“Keep it tight,” Riley told himself. He knew that any change in altitude or speed at this instant and 6,000 pounds of high explosives would entirely miss the factory, destroying, instead, the nearby village.

A black cloud of exploding Flak erupted with a roar at nine o’clock. Riley felt and heard it rattling against the fuselage of his Fort. The muscles in his abdomen tightened. He hated Flak. It was so random, exploding and sending molten shrapnel scattering throughout the bomb group. You couldn’t shoot back at Flak. It just seemed to erupt out of nowhere. He knew how it worked: German antiaircraft gunners on the ground calculated the squadron’s altitude and speed, then calibrated their 88s and let fly. Evasive action, irregular alterations in course, was all any pilot could do. But flying 310 miles an hour in tight formation with a squadron of B-17s meant evasive action had to be coordinated precisely—or else.

Another burst of black smoke, his B-17 lurching with the explosive impact; more molten shrapnel pummeled Riley’s bomber. Germans were good at trigonometry. Their calculations were getting better.

“That was close!” yelled the chin gunner.

“Danged Flak, tore off my headset!” shouted the tail gunner in the interphone.

“Tore off whose head?” The new flight engineer’s voice sounded near panic.

“Hardy-har. Not my head,” said the tail gunner. “My headset.”

Riley heard Freddy his copilot checking with each member of the crew. “Waste gunners? Ball turret gunner? Bombardier?” If they didn’t respond, they’d either been hit by Flak or their oxygen line had been severed. Or it could be something as simple as condensation freezing and clogging the line. Either way, without oxygen at this altitude, a man would pass out in minutes, and his 0.50 caliber Browning machine gun would be silent when the Luftwaffe closed in for the kill.

All ten crewmen reported in. No one had been hit—this time.

“Eyes peeled.” Speaking to all his crew by interphone, Riley forced his voice to be steady, confident, unafraid sounding. “Guns ready.”

He knew that every man, from tail gunner to chin gunner, was already scouring the sky for German fighters, finger on the trigger, ready for action. The fighters would come, sooner or later, usually sooner. If only they could deliver their bomb load first. 

Riley glanced at the altimeter: 20,000 feet, bombing range. More black clouds of exploding Flak. More clattering and rending of shrapnel against the aluminum fuselage of his Fort.

“Approaching target.” From the navigation table, Chuckles voice was pleasant and steady, then he added, as he often did, “‘How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors.’”

Riley gripped the steering controls as another burst of Flak made the bomber shutter. He hoped Chuckles’ Bible verse was for the Jerries and not for them. More Flak.

Forget the Flak, concentrate, he told himself. There was no dodging Flak. And B-17s could take more beating than any other aircraft in the Army Air Corps. Riley knew he had one job, keep his bomber on course, precise course. Begin his bombing run too early and he exposed his Fort and crew to more Flak; begin too late and they’d miss their target. Three-and-a-half tons of high explosive could land on the nearby village.

The thought of killing innocent women and children, grandmothers and grandfathers—the Nazi brutes did it intentionally every day—but it was something about this air war Riley hated even more than the Germans.

“Bearing one-four-seven degrees.”

“Roger that, bombardier,” replied Riley in the interphone.

Nothing else mattered. Every target they hit slowed the German advance. Every bomber the Germans downed slowed the Allied advance.

“Thirty seconds to target.”

“Roger that, bombardier.” Riley was determined to hit their target. It troubled him that some of the workers in that factory might be conscripted labor, local French pressed against their will into building the German war machine. Some he’d heard were French Resistance saboteurs working in those factories—men and women—doing their bit to frustrate German manufacturing.

“O God, not at this target,” he murmured.  

Suddenly, Flak burst red at ten o’clock and a dense black cloud engulfed the cockpit windows. Blinded for an instant, Riley felt the shrapnel tearing at his Fort, and fourteen tons of airplane and armament lurching with the force of the explosion.

“I’m sorry, Sir.” It was the voice of the more taciturn of his two waist gunners. “I’m hit, Sir.”

“We’ll get you patched up.” Riley tried to sound more confident than he felt.

“Number two engine’s in flames!” shouted the flight engineer. “Cut fuel selector!”

Riley flipped the number two engine fuel selector switch to the off position. He flipped it again. No response.

“She’s still burning!” yelled the flight engineer.

Fire would spread. Riley knew if they didn’t drop their bomb load they would go down in an apocalyptic inferno.

“We’re nearly over the target.” Ralph Coleman his bombardier knew the same. “Ten seconds.”

“Level.” Ralph’s voice came steady and ominous through the interphone.

“Roger, that.” Fighting with the controls, Riley did his best to feather his three good engines to compensate for the lost one. He studied his instrument panel: altitude, speed—any deviation would throw off the gyro of his bombardier’s Norden Bombsight—and they’d miss their target and do collateral damage to civilian population. Hold steady, and he knew that Ralph could drop their bombs into a pickle barrel from this altitude. If the pilot held her steady. Wrestling with the controls, Riley clenched his teeth till his jaw hurt. His injured Fort had a maniacal mind of its own.

Suddenly, the antiaircraft 88s fell silent, no firing flares from antiaircraft guns, no erupting clouds of Flak, no strafing shrapnel—it could only mean one thing.

Fighters. Germans weren’t about to shoot down their own fighter planes with their own antiaircraft cannons. German fighters—they’d dive in for the kill any second.

With the numbing realization, as the bomb bay opened, Riley felt a blast of freezing air rending its way through the cockpit. He glanced back at his bombardier; Ralph’s eyes were steady on his bombsites. 

“Bombs away!”

I will let you in on another piece of the puzzle: This book will be a companion to War in the Wasteland set in WWI. Give me your comments and thoughts on the excerpt. Follow progress at bondbooks.net and subscribe to my blog to get more sneak previews of The Resistance [working title].

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Wait Makes Weight: Implication or Explication in Creative Writing--Inkblots

Weary French Resistance fighter WWII
Inkblots on this warm, blue sky, green pasture evening, five die-hards this evening, including Hannah, for the first time, and we hope not the last, daughter of long-time Blotter, Dave. Rachel (who has been before but not read yet) joined us again this evening because she says she needs culture (I hope we don't disappoint over much).

John leads off--after grumbling about me making him re-rewrite the ending including all the sights, sounds, and, yes, smells of new life, baby in arms, in wonder that she could have ever considered taking this precious life--he leads off with a rereading of the last chapter, after multiple rewrites, where the protagonist in Saving Grace is delivering her baby, Grace. "I blurted," all in first-person point of view. How do you transition in the book when your protagonist is not the point of view? Remind me. I think you will improve this chapter enormously by going back through sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph looking for ways you can save the most weighty words and ideas for last. "Wait makes weight," as John Phillip Souza put it.

Rachel, the only mom in the room who has delivered a baby, felt that John had gotten most things accurately (thanks to John's careful research from his and my friend Michael, family practice doc who has delivered many babies over many years of practice). This is a redemptive story, where a girl gets pregnant, considers abortion, but through the loving kindness of many, she comes to this final chapter, through devious and anguished ways, to the point of delivering this baby, all alone. Rachel points out that the reader should be aware and affected by her loneliness in such a life-defining moment, delivering her baby, without a husband. The conclusion: she is now repentant; all is not easy and well, but she is doing the right thing. Dave pointed out that she would not be left alone for two hours during birthing.

A discussion of child birthing followed, only one mother in the room, but several fathers of multiple children who had been there at numerous births. We discussed implying rather than baldly stating something, for example, the young mother realizing that this was a living human being, a baby she had been planning to kill. How best to convey this without baldly stating it? We talked about the roles of doula.

Dave puts us back in context (after three years!), second civil war in America, futuristic story, the president of each division of the not-united states, are half brothers. Genetic engineering assassins, with cloning and other futuristic phenomenon. Each new metamorphosis increases the malevolence. Stephen, ten hours had flown by, try another verb maybe as time flying is somewhat cliché. Alexis is drugged in the elevator. Robert and Stephen are half brothers. Can you make more clear which of the brothers is the dominant perspective? Robert flexes his hands, but is Stephen seeing this and interpreting the meaning of it, or is it being felt by Robert? This sounds like a script for the screen. That's not a criticism, necessarily. Maybe it is vivid, visual. Do you have a virtuous character or one who is becoming so? I'm curious who is the protagonist, in the sense of good guy or woman? Is anyone confronted with the ethics of what is going on, morally outraged by the genetic engineering. It seems to me that Alexis is the character who is the redemptive one. That becomes more clear as Dave read on. I felt like there were some inconsistencies in some of her responses (Jerk).

John commented that he can't see anything, room, relationship of space. Include smells, sights, sounds, all senses banging. figure out ways to make the contrivance work, is it after hours so he isn't seen carrying Alexis over his shoulder, entering by service elevator. Make it work.

Hannah is twenty-one, Dave's eldest daughter, going to read a short passage, the first time she has ever read her writing out loud in front of others. Scotland, 1718. A good deal of detailed description of place and context. It seemed to me that you shifted from your female character to Jamie's perspective. Hannah explained that this is a shorter version of a longer passage. I applaud Hannah for having a healthy writer instinct to cut unnecessary words and give us the shorter version. One of the first things I do when self editing is to look for words that do not have work to do and kill them.

And now I must take my own medicine. I read chapter one of The Resistance (working title), B-17 pilot over occupied France in WW II. Some very helpful Inkblots critique, as usual. Shorten opening chapter (which I had been bothered by myself), and introduce nervous humor, different men trying to cope with the stress of air combat. Sample reading coming soon here on the blog...

Monday, May 7, 2018

Resolution and Mystery--The Writer's Dilemma at Inkblots

Inkblots gathering in The Scriptorium on a warm spring evening (the heat pump shifted to AC on its own volition), record breaking temp for Western Washington (not the highest standard of temperature, I realize that).

Rachel leads off with a return to her Russian cuisine yarn that makes me salivate, especially at all her descriptions of fine cheese. Trusov, the maître de of maître des. Narrative, fluid, delicious, specific details (Chanel no 5). I like it when you enter with confronting dialogue, a waiter confronting a presumed guest who was out of dress code, but he was an agent coming for government reasons. Short but very intriguing. Patrick comments about writing episodic, epic like, overarching story told in episodes, strong clash of cultures, starkly different elements, gesture toward the unopened door, the big story. He likes the epic feel of this story, following the cheese across Russia, gaining substance and steam as it flows, maybe, ages is the better word.

We discussed the incompleteness of a good story, per Flannery O'Conner and Tolkien, story's action is complete but there is still mystery. This side of heaven there is still incompleteness, mystery. The Bible reads this way: David's history ends but without contextual resolution. Something bigger is coming, more perfect, more wonderful, more complete. But even in Christ and the incarnation, there is a now and not yet element. Mystery and resolution still resides in the future.

Patrick has decided to stop working on the zombie book. Not to abandon the project but to get an editor and perspective on the work. So he is rewriting the graphic novel in conventional novel form. He is also working on a critique of modern Christianity in non fiction. But he decided to read from his work on the Mongol (pagan) and the Puritan (Christian). Drawing heavily from Babylonian mythology, names and cult. Does the opening serve as a prologue? Then you moved into an excerpt from ancient mythology. I hear your love of epic in this, especially the clash of cultures and starkly different elements. I felt this went from big and epic to specific, familial and warm, a good strategy. I love the way you make observations about history and the interaction of the powerful and the subjugated: Farmers are easier to tax.

Bob commented that it has a saga like tone, very suitable.

John's new last chapter, that Doug made me write. What a guy. Rewritten to include an actual baby, since the book, Saving Grace, is all about an unwonted pregnancy. A baby must appear, and be the instrument of changing everything. The interaction between the doctor and the mother seemed stilted. The labor and delivery nurse would do something at this point, reposition her, massage, something. What the doctor and the nurse are doing seems too vague. A moment of final suspense where the baby seems not to be breathing, her mother. And Rachel thought that having her say I was going to kill you, seemed too preachy. Have her stroke her soft cheek, kiss her forehead, show the reader the baby. Bob (Hemmingway) Rogland liked how John used very few adjectives and the simplicity of the narrative.

I finished off with reading three character sketches for my protagonists in The Resistance (working title), my WWII espionage historical fiction. I'm getting more excited about the research an preliminary writing on this companion novel to War in the Wasteland (set in then-atheist CS Lewis's platoon in WWI). How is it a companion, you ask? In The Resistance, the French and SOE agents received their coded instructions on BBC broadcasts. CS Lewis was the voice of faith in the war years on the BBC, hence the French Resistance would have heard his voice in all likelihood, and they certainly will in this account. So much fun, getting to choose the particular words they will hear throughout the various episodes of the yarn! Would you like to read an excerpt of the forthcoming WWII novel? Stay tuned to a forthcoming blog post and reading on The Scriptorium, my podcast at blogtalkradio.com/thescriptorium

  

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Literary Banking: Investing In Your Imagination

Oxford Creative Writing Master Class
with author Douglas Bond
How is a literary tour of middle England like making deposits in the bank of your imagination? Let me show you by giving you a window into the most recent Oxford Creative Writing Master Class.

I wrote the first draft of this post while unwinding with Stilton, Hojiblanca olives, and Languedoc, in drenching London after an invigorating week of guiding seven aspiring writers on a literary tour of middle England (or is it middle earth?).

Let me nudge the door ajar and give you a peek at one brief episode of that inspiring week just concluded. Join me as I rehearse our opening day's literary adventure together:

  • First stop, Martyrs' Monument, rooting our literary tour in history, in this case, the tragic history of the Bishop martyrs of 1555-56.
  • Then off to climb Anglo-Saxon St Michael's Tower (c. 1054) and view Oxford from above, get the lay of things.
  • In the 13th c nave of the City Church, we discussed liturgy, the Reformation, transubstantiation, the rediscovery of biblical truth, Lewis's first communion December 4, 1914, where he "ate and drank condemnation to myself," as an atheist coerced by his father to be confirmed in the Church of England.
  • Then strolled past Christopher Wren's 17th c Sheldonian Theatre where Lewis, still raw from the trenches of WW I, read his winning essay May 24, 1921, placing him squarely on the rising academic radar of Oxford.
  • Dinner at The King's Arms, the eatery with the highest IQ per square inch of anywhere in Oxford.
  • Stop over at the doorway of one of JRR Tolkien's houses, and onward to Merton College Chapel for Holy Week evensong, sung by magnificent college choir (ranks with King's College Chapel Choir, Cambridge, in my opinion), music by William Byrd, with texts by Martin Luther, and concluding with our joining the choir singing Isaac Watts, When I Survey (to Edward Miller's Rockingham Old, the proper tune, not the Lowell Mason ditty we Americans sing it to).
  • Then country drive (on the wrong side of the road) to Banbury Hill Farm, near Blenheim Palace in the nearby Cotswolds, and cheese and chocolate as we launch into our first of many tutorial times together. 

Each day was filled with wonderful and memorable literary experiences that are designed to give expansive breadth and substantive depth to the writer's mind and imagination. We cannot write well if we do not have a well-nurtured mind, heart, and imagination. I sometimes refer to what we are doing as making deposits in the bank of our mind, imagination, and heart, there to be drawn out as we mature, develop our writing skills, and are presented with opportunities orchestrated by the kind providence of our good God. Think of it as literary banking, and now is the gathering, saving, storing up season of life. What a week of literary banking lay ahead!

After experiencing that first evensong at Merton College Chapel (think Anglo-Saxon scholar JRR Tolkien) with my Oxford Creative Writing Master Class writers (think unforgettable intensive writing experience on location amidst the vaulted splendors where so many greats honed their writing craft), on our second day, I had my scholars settle into the hushed majesty of an Oxford college chapel, rain pattering against the stained glass, and write to a prompt.

Decades of teaching have taught me to require nothing of my students that I don't equally require of myself. Hence, I wrote a sonnet for them to parse and scan, and to use as a working illustration of just what iambic pentameter is and why it is so valuable for a writer to submit to the conventional forms of poetry:

I sensed that there were angels here, 
With awe-filled bowing, wing beats drawing near--
Or is it Merton's choir that I hear, 
Mosaic tiles pressed hard beneath their feet?

Amidst the splendors grand, I take my seat, 
Agape at Gothic grandeur, soaring high; 
My mind awhirl with wonderment, I sigh
As choral songs arise and ancient stones reply.

The tapers bow as lyric praise redounds, 
Mute hearts, yet feeling voices, heavenly sounds 
Of Anglo-Saxon accents, blithe and strong, 
Lift glory, laud the Father, with their song. 

Ennobled for the moment, I belong, 
But it's for endless anthems that I long.

(Oxford, March 24, 2018, after evensong at Merton College Chapel).

I am podcasting more details from the recent OCWMC at The Scriptorium. Browse the archive of The Scriptorium for writing tutorial, vignettes of Church history, interviews with other authors, and more, then follow and share.

Join me on the next Oxford Creative Writing Master Class. There are two OCWMCs in 2019 but they will fill fast:

Spring: April 2-9, 2019

Summer: June 15-22, 2019

Space is limited so visit  bondbooks.net and contact me today to reserve your place. #oxfordcreativewritingmasterclass