Wednesday, April 17, 2019

How Does a Cathedral Mean?



Notre Dame Paris, 2013

I've been thinking a good deal about Notre Dame burning in Paris. I know I am not alone. My first of many visits to the most visited monument in Paris (yes, more than the Eiffel Tower) was in 1982; our Armistice Centenary Tour visited Notre Dame ten months ago. I will never forget or ever be able to fully express in words what walking into an 850-year-old Gothic cathedral feels like. It still feels that way. 
To the thousands who participated in building it, what did all the splendor mean? To a world secularizing at warp speed, what does a centuries-old stone church mean? I explore some of these questions in chapter 27 of my WWII historical fiction book The Resistance (available at bondbooks.net). My protagonist downed B-17 pilot and his French Resistance escort are forced to hide from the encircling SS manhunt on the precipitous tiles of a Medieval house directly across the street from another French Gothic structure, Bayeux Cathedral. Here's what happened:


27
HEIGHT OF TERROR

T
he alarm now wailed in Evans’ head, unrelenting, inescapable. Then, abruptly, it was no longer internal.
From the street came the roar of engines, tires thrumming on the cobblestones, brakes screeching to a halt, doors slamming, jackboots clonking on the pavement. Crisp knocking on a door. Silence. Fists beating a door. Shouting in German. Rifle butts pounding on a door five stories below.
“Maybe it is another door,” hissed Andre, his face ashen. “Perhaps for someone else?”
Hasty footfalls came from the stairs, then rapid knocking on the door of Andre’s studio.
Through the keyhole came a breathless voice. “They are coming! Waffen SS!”
“For us? Are you certain?”
“Absolutely. At the door of the shop.”
“How much time?”
“Three minutes. No more,” and he was gone.
Aimée grabbed Evans’ arm. “We must hide you!” He drew in breath sharply. His shoulder was not fully healed yet.
“Forget me,” said Evans. “Hide Ruben.”
“It is you they are searching for,” said Aimée, her green eyes wide and imploring. “You are an American flyer. If they find you, they will arrest all of us, including Ruben.”
She turned to Andre. “Is there anywhere?”
“The roof.” With a sweep of his arm, he cleared the workbench. “Out the window. Climb along the gable. Do not fall. Hide behind the chimney. Be sure they do not see you.”
“I want to go home.” There was a quaver in Ruben’s voice; he tugged at Aimée’s hand.
“Evans, you must hurry,” said Aimée, leaning toward him as if to give him farewell kisses on the cheeks.
“No!” said Andre. “You must hide as well. I will take the boy down. He is my cousin. It will look normal with the boy. They are not searching for a little boy.”
Aimée began to protest.
“There is no time. Go now! Hide with the American. We will stall them.”
Swallowing the lump in his throat, Evans followed Aimée out the window and onto the steep, slate roof. He tried not to look down. The hard cobblestones, he knew they were far below.
Scrambling behind the chimney, Evans drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. He’d flown bombing missions high over enemy-occupied Europe, antiaircraft riddling his Fort, Fw190 fighters swooping in for the kill. Why more raw fear at this?
He heard the SS captain barking orders at his men in German, the harsh commands echoing across the street below and bouncing back at them off the west façade of the cathedral. Dropping bombs from 20,000 feet on munitions factory buildings, dangerous as it was, was detached, impersonal, done with machines. This was close, human, intimate, and—he feared—soon to be face-to-face.
Aimée and Evans pressed against the brickwork of the chimney. It wasn’t much cover, but it was all they had. A soldier glancing up from the street at just the right angle, and they would be seen. They pressed closer together, hard against the ridge and the chimney. Evans heard and felt Aimée’s heart pounding next to him, and the clutching staccato of her breath. Or was it his own?
“All we can do is wait,” whispered Evans, his voice barely audible.
Aimée’s face was pale. “And pray.” She mouthed the words. “I could not bear it if anything happened to my little brother.”
He nodded, trying to slow down the hammering of his heart. Directly across the narrow street loomed the massive cathedral. Evans studied the intricate medieval statuary adorning the west façade. The resurrection of the dead, souls rising from tombs, some to heaven, more to hell. Clearly the stonemason was more interested in the howling torments of the damned in hell.
A spasm fluttered in Evans’ left hamstring muscle. He tried to ignore it. The spasm hardened, constricting and contracting, tightening into an iron fist. If only he could change positions. The pain was excruciating. He tried to relax, but it was impossible, not while clinging to a precipitous roof on a medieval house far above the street. Teeth clenched, a tremor ran through his body.
“What is the matter, Evans?” whispered Aimée.
He swallowed hard and attempted to control the quavering he knew would be in his voice if he spoke.
“Are you ill?”
 “Cramp,” he managed to mouth, “in my leg.”
“I am sorry for you,” she whispered. “Perhaps, pressure directly on the muscle?”
He nodded. Holding on for dear life, how was he going to apply direct pressure to the back of his thigh?
“Think of something else,” she suggested. She bobbed her head at the cathedral façade. “Think of that.”
He looked again at the medieval stonework; the muscle in his leg felt like hard stone. The writhing condemned in the Last Judgment scene looked like he felt at the moment. Evans studied the north portal. It began to make sense. The mason had chiseled stony vignettes from the Passion of Christ. There was the Last Supper, the betrayal, Jesus praying to his father in the garden; and there was the kiss of Judas, the arrest, torture, carrying the cross, brutal crucifixion.
Evans shuddered. The war, the SS bursting into homes, arrests, torture, senseless killing, reprisals, ambush, spies, double agents, secret radio transmissions—being shot down, bailing out, hunted, others in grave danger because of him. How would all that look in stone relief? 
He scanned back through the stone vignettes, the knot in his hamstring subsiding. Why had they done it, carved those scenes in stone, built the entire structure, all in stone?
It suddenly occurred to Evans that from this angle, cowering high atop the roof of a medieval house, he and Aimée were seeing parts of the cathedral others never saw. Statues so high up, so out of sight from passersby, they were impossible to be seen from the pavement. Slowly, he scanned the facade, higher and higher it continued. People had lived in the shadow of Bayeux’s cathedral for nearly 1000 years, and how many hundreds of intricately carved statuary had never been seen by anyone? Yet humble stonecutters had tap-tapped away for years, decades, generations, each successive mason doing his part to create this magnificent place, whether his work would ever be seen by anyone or not. What was so important that centuries of workers would do it?
As Evans mused, the sun began to set and a golden glow radiated from the façade of the ancient edifice. Even if it had been safe to speak aloud, what was on display at that instant was so spectacular, wonder alone would have hushed them.
What had the voice on the BBC broadcast said only a short while ago? “When Christ died, he died for you individually just as much as if you’d been the only man in the world.” Evans wasn’t at all sure what it meant; Sunday School had been long ago; he needed to think more deeply about it. But whatever it did mean, it made him feel that there had to be something bigger, far more important than his own troubles.
Jolted abruptly back to the peril of the moment, Evans and Aimée heard the harsh barking of the SS captain apparently reentering the street below. They could not see anything, but his words echoed from the gulf between the house and the façade of the cathedral.
“Please, God, not Ruben,” whispered Aimée.
Evans nodded in agreement. He wanted to see what was going on five stories below, in the street. He felt so helpless. What good was a flyer without his weapon, his plane? If only he could do something to stop the Germans.
“When will they leave?”
Evans shook his head. He had no idea. How long would they have to hide? All night?
The yelling continued, guttural, harsh, brutal. There was nothing to do but wait. Oddly, as they waited, involuntarily crammed together behind the chimney, high atop the medieval house, they began to feel detached from the commotion, as if their vantage point made them safe, at least for the instant.
“If I tell you something,” whispered Evans, “can you promise not to tell anyone else?”
Aimée looked wary. “Oui, bien sur.”
Evans cleared his throat, loosening the scarf at his neck. “I-I am not a big fan of heights.”
Aimée looked wide-eyed at him, and then her lips twitched slightly, as if she were restraining herself; it was hardly the time for humor.
“You are a pilot. You fly the mighty B-17, the Flying Fortress. The high-altitude bomber of your Army Air Corps. Are you telling me that you are afraid of heights?”
Evans nodded. “Always have been. Never liked climbing trees. Never slept in the top bunk. I told my younger brother it was the best mattress. Until one day he figured it out. I had to pay him off with marbles to keep quiet. And then we got older, but he still remembered.”
“It is courageous to do this.”
“What, to tell you?”
“I suppose. But I think it is courageous to fly high-altitude bomber airplanes when you are afraid of heights, in defiance of your fears.”
“Courageous? Maybe, or maybe just dull-witted.”
Aimée smiled. “You being dull-witted this morning at the checkpoint, it was merely a ruse de guerre.”
Evans nodded. “I get a hitch in my innards just hearing the words high-altitude. I really should have volunteered to do something closer to the ground.”
“Then you would not be here.” Aimée said it as a matter of fact.
Evans stole a glance at her.
Ruse de guerre,” she said. “Comprenez-vous?”
Evans swallowed, avoiding her gaze, her green eyes that looked right through you. Ruse de guerre, he understood. Deception of war. Everyone in wartime engaged in it—generals, prime ministers, spies, deep-cover agents. And so was he.
It was nearly dark. The yelling abruptly stopped. For an instant there was silence in the invisible gulf below them.  Suddenly, vehicle engines roared to life, and the SS sped north down the Rue de Bienvenu.



Read all of The Resistance by Douglas Bond

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Riches to Rubbish--Van Gogh's Unstable View of the Bible

Vincent Van Gogh self-portrait
"Theo, woe is me..." On my flight home last night I became engrossed in Dear Theo, the unvarnished letters of Vincent Van Gogh to his attentive younger brother Theo. Penned by a desperate man, writing to a brother whom he deeply loved and implicitly trusted, Van Gogh exposed every tattered thread of his tormented soul. It is many things, but one is a chilling psychological study of the artistic temperament and culture, which compelled Vincent to caution his brother, "you must beware of getting your young family too much into the artistic setting."

What sobered me the most while reading was the gaping contrast between the desires and aspiration of Van Gogh in his early twenties and what he became at the end of his short life (he died at thirty-seven). Growing up in a Dutch Reformed family in the Netherlands, surrounded by the Bible and the gospel, his father a pastor, Vincent wrote, “...it is a delightful thought that in the future wherever I shall be, I shall preach the Gospel; to do that well, one must have the Gospel in one’s heart; may the Lord give it to me.” His appeared to be a single-minded vision for his life's work. “Theo, woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel; if I did not aim at that and possess faith and hope in Christ, it would be bad for me indeed.”

By all his earlier accounts of his father and family, the Van Gogh household was no nominal Christian home; there is no sense whatsoever that his father led them in merely perfunctory expressions of religion. While in England, he wrote of his parents, “...so strong is the family feeling and our love for each other that the heart uplifts itself and the eye turns to God and prays: ‘Do not let me stray too far from them, not too far, O Lord.’” What parents would not want their son or daughter to feel this way about the home and family? 

Vincent's passion for his family concurred with his passion for the Bible. “You do not know how I yearn towards the Bible. I read it daily, but I should like to know it by heart, to study thoroughly and lovingly all those old stories, and especially to find out what is known about Christ.” This seemed to be a young man who not only read his Bible, but read it christologically, eagerly searching to find the Lord Jesus in its pages. 

I read on. Long and minutely detailed letters, covering months, several years. And then something began to change. My gut lurched (not simply from the turbulence as we bounced over the Rockies toward Seattle). Whole letters contained an obsessive fixation on his painting and on being successful as an artist. Repeatedly throughout the autobiographical account those letters form, Vincent begins to reveal a systemic shift in his values, his priorities, his passions, his aspirations. 

In one sense, Van Gogh's letters form a chronicle of poverty; he was in perpetual need of fiscal bailouts from his family, and the dependence frustrated him. “I hate not to be quite free." Meanwhile, his attitudes toward his parents, especially his father, incrementally shifted. "Father is not a man for whom I can feel, for instance, what I feel for you. He cannot sympathize with or understand me." Vincent felt his father owed him the money he needed to survive as an artist, but he resented his father's Christian beliefs. "I cannot be reconciled to his system, it oppresses me, it would choke me." 

The most tragic change I observed in the letters, however, was Vincent's attitude toward the Word of God. "I too read the Bible now and then, but in the Bible I see quite different things from those father sees, and what father draws from it... I cannot find in it at all." He goes on to explain his new way of reading the Bible. "When I read-- and really I do not read so much--only a few [biblical] authors, I do so because they look at things in a broader, milder, and more lovable way than I do, and because they know life better, so that I can learn from them; but all that rubbish about good and evil, morality and immorality, I care so very little for it. For, indeed, it is impossible always to know what is good and what is bad, what is moral and what is immoral.”

What a dramatic shift! From yearning for the Bible, getting its truths down in his heart, knowing Christ revealed in its pages, Vincent was honest enough to admit that he now rarely read the Bible, and only very selectively, dismissing much of it as "rubbish." In one sense, Van Gogh was a man ahead of his time; his moral relativism was well formed long before post rationalism. 


Throughout the rest of the letters, perpetually destitute Van Gogh is obsessed with perfecting his craft, and with making money from his artwork. "I am a devil for work... I consider myself decidedly below the peasants... Very difficult, very difficult." In an artistic frenzy, Van Gogh created over 900 paintings and 2,000 drawings.


Soberly, I read on. Theo's heart must have broken as he watched his beloved brother slip further below the line of despair into insanity. Van Gogh described his increasing fits of madness, the "abominable nightmares," the frequent "terrible fits of depression" that came over him, his regrets, his "self-reproach about things in the past," his grinding unhappiness, his toying with the idea of giving up painting, "which costs me so much and brings in nothing." But he is forced to conclude, "at my age it is damnably difficult to begin anything else." 


By this stage in his art, Van Gogh's subject matter had altogether changed. "Of course, there is no question of doing anything from the Bible." Though he feared his own derangement would land him in the old cloister in Arles where lunatics were housed, he was, nevertheless, drawn to painting the inmates at the asylum. Plunged more deeply into despair after a violent argument with fellow painter Paul Gauguin (scholars disagree about how it happened), Van Gogh resorted to self mutilation; he took a straight razor and sliced off his own ear, sending it to a prostitute at the local brothel. Whereupon, he found himself for a time confined in the asylum.


In between bouts of derangement that became more protracted, he wrote, "my life too is threatened at the very root, and my steps too are wavering." The man who would be heralded as the greatest post-impressionist painter--now impoverished, lonely, his skill as yet undiscovered and unappreciated--two days before he died July 29, 1890, in his last letter to Theo Van Gogh wrote, "What's the use?"


Van Gogh's story is shot through with complexity, and I do not intend to over simplify it, but one compelling question must be asked. How did a man who was in his youth so earnest for the Word of God, for the gospel, for Christ, for devoting his life to serving God--how did he come to such a miserable end? Perhaps Van Gogh himself told us:  “Theo, woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel; if I did not aim at that and possess faith and hope in Christ, it would be bad for me indeed.”


And so it will be for you. "Little children, keep yourselves from idols" (I John 5:21).



Douglas Bond is author of twenty-eight books, conference speaker, church history tour leader, Oxford Creative Writing Master Class tutor. Listen to Bond's podcast The Scriptorium for a version of this blog post. Follow him on social media, and subscribe here and at bondbooks.net




Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Vastly Immeasurable Value of Few Words--Inkblots

Oxford Creative Writing Master Class nearly filled for April!
Five Blots this chilly evening (with more snow predicted for the morning), and chatting about final editing, dangers of "find and replace all" (beware, something will always glitch), better to find next and inspect carefully; make the Word program do what you want it to do rather than be the patsy of grit (sand). John is in final editing on Saving Grace, a labor of love for some years, great cover art, the final push to publication, and a real book in hand, more important thematically now than ever. John has said over the years of writing this book and learning his craft in the process, that if one abortion-minded young woman reads it and does not consent to killing her baby in the womb, he will be happy. May it have this effect on many. There's a lesson in this about how a writer measures success. 

I want to briefly distill the important elements of good writing that we explored and honed this evening (below are pasted notes more relevant to the specific writers who penned the words). Cheyenne is entering a UK unpublished novel contest and must write a 350 word synopsis as part of her entry process (you can read her first draft below). In a synopsis, be concise, every word must have work to do. Avoid proliferation of names, especially if there could be any confusion. Keep the main character and the main plot in the forefront. A synopsis is often the debut of a writer's ability to a publisher, contest judges, potential distributor, and reader, hence, one must spend careful time writing, rewriting, revising a good synopsis. Rules that are important in your manuscript are equally, or, if possible, more important in a synopsis: Show don't tell. Avoid vague language. Be concise. Use action verbs. Diagram your entire plot on an anatomy of fiction timeline (status quo, inciting moment, rising action, etc.). Try writing your synopsis in sonnet form, fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. This will do many things for your writing, but it will certainly force you to be brief and to choose words that are loaded with meaning and purpose. 

Next, we discussed when to end a chapter or episode. Hannah wrote a frightening ending to an episode, but added a touch more than was needed. Keep your reader in suspense. End a chapter with the protagonist uncertain, off balance, teetering. Don't stabilize the situation or character at the end of a chapter (there are exception to this). Generally, if a chapter begins in stability and certainty, it must end in uncertainty. If the episode begins with uncertainty, it should end with something else, either more uncertainty, or a interlude of certainty (or perceived certainty).

We also discussed shifting points of view within a chapter, when there is no obvious break. This can throw readers off balance, confuse them, lift them out of verisimilitude; it is so unlike the way we experience reality. If the shift in point of view is necessary (they are not always necessary), then signal your reader that the shift is happening with a chapter break, or an internal division of some kind, extra space, *** in that space (which I used to use but don't really like anymore), or, as Daniel Silva does from time to time, create an internal chapter break with space and a drop-cap first letter to the new point of view. I return to caution with shifting points of view. It is not for the novice and can have perilous results. There is a reason for the rule to stick with one point of view, your protagonist's. Break it to your peril. 

I concluded with a brief word about the non-fiction book I'm beginning. I’m calling it tentatively God Sings, comparing and contrasting how God and his people sing in the Bible (there’s tons of this) with how we are attempting to do so in the glare and glitter of an entertainment ethos. More coming on that front, God willing.

Register today for the final spots available in my writing intensive literary tour of middle England, Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, April 2-9. "The Oxford Creative Writing Master Class was above and beyond my wildest dreams. I learned so much about writing, history, theology. OCWMC has truly changed my life," so said one of my recent OCWMC grads. Check it out today, but do not delay, bondbooks.net or email me at bondbooks.net@gmail.com. 

Desperate for adventure, or anything to distill the monotony of her life, JULIET [why caps?] goes hiking, and finds a sprawling, upside-down tree. [Can you make us hear the chomp?] It swallows, transporting her, and she wakes in a different [sounds too vague, bland] place where she arrives at the town of [I wouldn't use the name in the synopsis] Umi no Machi: a Japanesque town with a medieval [can you use more specific language? what makes her feel like it's medieval?] feel. 
[keep us in Juliet's point of view] There, a woman named DAYNA warns of impending doom [specific kind of doom? Sun will die... invading army...], but the townspeople pay no heed. Raiders attack in the night, but Juliet evades their clutches. She, Dayna, and the UNKNOWN begin a quest to rescue the townspeople.
While on the trail, Juliet slips up [slips up how?], causing Dayna to demands answers concerning Juliet’s past. 
[under cover of darkness] Finally, they catch up to the raiders and rescue the townspeople under the cover of darkness, but Juliet is ambushed and captured. The Unknown [is he called this or his name?] rescues her, and she learns his name—ADNAN. 
During an attempt for Juliet to return home, the three are taken prisoner and led to TRISTAN, who forces them to help in his uprising against KING JAIIN. 
They are separated during an attack. Seeking refuge, Juliet meets HANIEL and MARI, two of Tristan’s trusted rebels. She embroils herself within the uprising, while dealing with conflicting feelings concerning Tristan, the uprising, and all the secrets surrounding her. 
Aware of how she is looked upon by the rebels, Juliet accuses Tristan of using her, and he agrees to let her leave on a foray with Haniel, but the king’s men take her. She escapes and, on foot, makes it back safely on the verge of collapse. 
Juliet urges Mari to go be with her niece [too many people in this sentence] who is expecting a baby, and soon after realizes Tristan cares for her [which her?]. Without Adnan to counsel her, Juliet decides to commit to the uprising, but when Tristan asks to court her for the sake of his people, who see her superstitiously as the Otherworlder, she turns him down. 


Juliet and Haniel leave to warn his and Mari’s village of wandering raiders, but they’re too late; everyone is dead and there are no survivors. Angry at what she has seen, Juliet agrees to fight with Tristan, and agrees to his courtship proposal.

In general, I would strongly suggest that you kill names, tighten prose, ramp up the dilemma that Juliet finds herself in with Tristan making advances. Draw the anatomy of fiction and place each episode of rising action on the diagram. This will clean the story arc in your own mind and help with writing the synopsis. Additionally, you could write the whole plot in iambic pentameter 140 syllables, a sonnet. This forces you to choose your words careful, each having important work to do.

Hannah read next, a romp in the forest. “Mommy, look at the flowers!” Charlotte ran off the trail and darted over to a cluster of small pink flowers surrounding the base of a nearby [what kind of tree?] tree. Amber stopped and slipped her backpack off her shoulders to dig around in it for the book she’d brought to identify plants with.
As she thumbed through the pages, she occasionally glanced up to watch her daughter. Another few pages and she stopped.
“Hey, Charlotte, those are-” Amber froze when she looked up and didn’t see her. She turned around in a circle. “Charlotte?”
No answer, except for the wind rustling the firs and cedars around her. “Charlotte, answer me,” Amber said, moving further up the path. “Charlotte!”
She checked behind a rhododendron shrub. Nothing. Her stomach twisted.
Could the Woodsman have gotten her?
Amber shook her head at the sudden thought. “It’s just a fairytale,” she told herself, her steps and heartbeat quickening. “Charlotte!”
She wasn’t behind the huckleberry bushes either. Amber didn’t bother to pause even for a second to grab the backpack as panic propelled her off the path.
Her prayers became more desperate as time passed quicker than she wanted. When sunset came, there was still no sign of the curly-haired little girl.
Amber tried to force herself to continue despite her legs feeling like jelly and the fact she didn't know where she was.
But one more step and she stumbled onto her hands and knees. Her shoulders heaved as hot tears dripped down her nose onto the dirt.
She remained that way for another few [be specific on time] minutes.
A rustle in the bushes startled her and she sat up, wiping at her red-rimmed eyes as a sliver of hope ignited. “Charlotte?”
A doe and her fawn appeared, and her shoulders slumped. The animals seemed to regard her for a moment, then turned and walked away.
Amber’s throat tightened, her eyes refilling with tears. A sudden squeal startled her and her head turned.
“Charlotte?”
Another squeal. Amber scrambled to her feet and rushed forward in the direction she thought it had come from. She batted at branches which tugged at her clothes and hopped over moss-covered logs. Her ears picked up more squeals. If they came from Charlotte, it sounded like she was happy.
           The trees became sparse, eventually ending at the edge of a small [small is not a helpful adjective here] slope leading down to a meadow full of [specific] wildflowers.
Among them was Charlotte, running to and fro, picking as many as she could. Amber nearly collapsed from relief. She opened her mouth to call, but was stopped short not just by the sight of her daughter running up to a newfound companion, but that person’s appearance as well.
Her eyes darted from the gas mask to the trench coat to the work boots and back to the mask.
Charlotte had found the Woodsman...or had the Woodsman found her? [leave off this final line and end the chapter]
Dave reads next. Rewriting older manuscript.
Steven laughed out loud inside his car as he watched [could you name him so the pov shift is more natural down the page?] his prey walk into the jewelry store. This is going to be more fun than I thought. I get rid of this big ugly guy, then take his girlfriend as the spoils. He wiped a bead of sweat from his brow. He hated humidity, and here he was stuck in a small car in Knoxville. Even in the middle of October, the humidity was still bad until late afternoon. He looked back at the store, the big guy was still in there standing at the counter yakking with the clerk. Come on, how long does it take to pick out a stupid ring? He turned the key in the ignition and turned the air conditioning on full blast. Steven re-checked his guns. He wanted to be sure there was plenty of tranquilizer darts for the girl. From what he’d been told, she was a feisty one and he didn’t want to deal with fighting her after possibly having to fight the big guy. A slight glint caught his eye. The first target was on the move. He came walking out of the store with a smile on his face and a small bag in his hand. Ugh. This guy’s got it real bad. Steven slipped the car into gear and followed him up S. Central street. He let out a groan when his target turned into a diner just a couple blocks later. He pulled the car over and left the engine running. Five minutes went by and Steven started banging his head on the steering wheel. He picked up his guns for the third time and started to get out when they both came bouncing out the door. Finally! He watched with baited breath as they walked down to a Suburban parked on the street. He smiled as he saw them climb in and pull into the light Thursday afternoon traffic. With shaking hands, he pulled out a few car lengths behind them. [these shifts in pov can be moments where readers get confused, and confused readers usually stop reading] Bruce swerved a little as he pulled into traffic, making Alexis laugh. “What’s up? Your arm still not healed up all the way?” “Nah, it’s fine, my hand just slipped a little.” He smiled sheepishly as he rubbed his left arm. It was still a little weak after being in a cast for six weeks.
...“Alrighty, I won’t be long.[this should be a coma]” S[this should be lower case s] he said as she walked away. Attributions are not capitalized. ...“Hmmm. Must have been a S[no cap]quirrel or something[coma and lower case s].” Said Bruce.
...Just a few minutes [Moments later--be concise] later, they were all [a]lone in their favorite spot, right next to the lake. The sun broke through the morning overcast and warmed them up a little as they set up their [little twice in same sentence--find a better adjective] little picnic.
I felt like the proposal scene was stalling a bit, then the brother assassin appeared. John suggested changing the girl's name so it wouldn't make readers think of chatting with cutting edge technology. Gunfire would have been heard by other hikers on the trail. Silencers maybe?


Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Snow and the Best Laid Schemes of Mice and Men

I took this after sitting on the tarmac for two hours
Most of us keep our composure just fine--as long as things are going just fine. We plan things out and have this odd expectation that the million-and-one variables (and people) out there will simply comply, fall in line with out plans, do as we have ordained. You know, "My will, not thine, O Lord, however foolish it be." We do this--we?--I do this almost everyday. Even when my declared theology shouts otherwise in my ear.

I was musing on this from sunny Central Valley Fresno California this past weekend where I was keynote at the Christian Writers Seminar hosted by Fresno Pacific University. Between my two plenary addresses, a TV interview on the importance of teaching history to our children, two Sunday morning messages on 7 Biblical Reasons Every Christian Ought to be a History Geek, and an evening exhortation on Psalm 46--I kept watching the weather in Snowmageddon Puget Sound. My wife was reporting to me about the 18" of snow that had dumped on our farm, how pretty it looked, but how much more work it was to keep all the animals fed, watered, and warm. She had not even tried to drive down our steep driveway onto the icy roads. Schools were all closed, as were many roads. Trees snapped under the weight of the snow and ice. Power lines were down throughout the region. Law enforcement urged people to stay home, do not drive unless it is an emergency.

As I boarded the Alaska flight (bumped up to first class), the pilot told us that SeaTac Airport was covered in compact snow and ice and more snow was falling. The flight attendant mouthed to us to be prepared to land in Portland since she thought there was no way he would try to land in the middle of a winter storm. Who would do that? He did, expertly, one of the smoothest landings ever. Then we sat on the plane for two hours, just sat, waiting for a gate to open. And sat some more. As it would turn out, that was the simplest part of the next twenty hours for me.

Ordinarily the shuttle from the park and ride near our little farm to the airport took one hour. This was not ordinarily. The shuttle never showed up. So I took public transport to Tacoma, but many routes were closed, so had to detour to get the connection that would link to bus 100, the Narrows Bridge, and homeward. Bus 100 never showed up. I was dressed for seventy degree CA weather. It was dark and cold. My finger was shaking so much I was having trouble texting. And my phone had 6% battery. Then 5%. Then 4%. There were no Lyft cabs moving anywhere. Finally spent the night on my son and daughter-in-laws couch; I'm several inches longer than that couch.

In the morning, my daughter-in-law dropped me at the bus 100 stop again. I waited, in the cold, chatting with an older woman who was waiting in the cold for the same bus across the Narrows to the Peninsula and home. It never came, again. I checked my Lyft app. There were only three brave drivers crawling the city streets. But I had a 50% discount special on weekday Lyft rides. So off we went.

Meanwhile, my adult son was plowing our steep downhill driveway so he could take my tractor down the road and plow his steep uphill driveway and get his truck out and pick me up. The valve stem on one of the tractor tires sheered off. Another part broke in the cold. I'm drinking London Fog Lattes at Cutter's Point Coffee in Gig Harbor, wondering if I was ever going to get home. My wife reported that in all the flurry to dig out of the snow, a gate was left open and the cows were out belly deep romping in the white stuff, two dogs nipping at their heels. Somehow along the way I had forgotten to eat anything.

Robbie Burns was right. The best laid schemes of mice and men often do go awry. The writer of Proverbs put it better still: "The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps" (16:9). Looking back, there were so many components of this adventure over which I had no control. The plane, the weather, the shuttle, the transit cancellations. I was powerless to change any of these things. But my God is sovereign and all powerful, and he presided over all, the minutest detail--sparrows falling, hair falling from ones head--precise orchestration of all things for his ultimate glory and his expansive kindness to his children. What a marvel.

After confessing my sins of frustration, I now meditate with Horatius Bonar on the mysterious and wonderful ways of our Sovereign Lord.

  1. Thy way, not mine, O Lord,
    However dark (or cold, or snowy, or disrupted) it be;
    Lead me by Thine own hand,
    Choose out the path for me.
  2. Smooth let it be or rough,
    It will be still the best;
    Winding or straight, it leads
    Right onward to Thy rest.
  3. I dare not choose my lot;
    I would not, if I might;
    Choose Thou for me, my God,
    So shall I walk aright.
  4. Take Thou my cup, and it
    With joy or sorrow fill,
    As best to Thee may seem;
    Choose Thou my good and ill.
  5. Choose Thou for me my friends,
    My sickness or my health;
    Choose Thou my cares for me,
    My poverty or wealth.
  6. The kingdom that I seek
    Is Thine: so let the way
    That leads to it be Thine,
    Else I must surely stray.
  7. Not mine, not mine the choice
    In things or great or small;
    Be Thou my guide, my strength
    My wisdom, and my all.
  8. (Horatius Bonar, 1857)

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Doctrines of Grace: Particular Redemption and Irresistible Grace (part 4 podcast on Dort)

Doctrines of Grace: Particular Redemption and Irresistible Grace
Ephesians 3:14-21
From my visit to Amsterdam, 2007 

World means world?
“Absolute sovereignty,” wrote Jonathan Edwards, “is what I love to ascribe to God. But my first conviction was not so.”
Let’s be honest. Our first conviction is more accurately to hate absolute sovereignty. And if we hate and cavil at absolute sovereignty in predestination, we really get our back up and gnash our teeth at Jesus dying only for the elect. 
A young man, however, who cares more about what the Bible means than how it at first makes him feel will search and know what it teaches about particular redemption. Called “The Calvin of England,” John Owen offered three options for the Bible’s teaching on the atonement: Christ died for all the sins of all men, or for some of the sins of all men, or for all of the sins of some men. There are no other rational options. So which is it?
Many insist that it is the first: Christ died for all the sins of all men. For them, when the Bible uses the word “all” and “world” it means every man, woman, and child that has existed or that ever will exist. The locus classicus of this position is I John 2:2 where it says that Jesus is “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”   
Honest Arminians recognize the problems with this conclusion. For example, an Arminian does not think that “propitiate” in I John 2:2 means that Jesus actually satisfied the wrath of God for every man, woman, and child. Scrupulous as they are about “world” meaning “world,” here they insist that “propitiation” doesn’t mean “propitiation”; here it means “potential propitiation.” Obviously, if Jesus’ atonement satisfied the wrath of God for all without exception, there’s no more wrath; he sends no one to hell. Since propitiation is a legal term meaning complete satisfaction, the reader who wants to know precisely what the Bible means, closely examines the various ways the Bible uses the word “world.”  
A. W. Pink points out that in the New Testament “world” or kosmos, “has at least seven clearly defined different meanings.” So when Jesus prays in John 17:9, “I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me,” clearly by “world” he means unbelievers, and by “them” and “those you have given me,” he means believers, his sheep, the elect. Here, even Arminians must agree that “world” does not mean all men throughout all time.
Similarly, when Moses records that “all mankind” perished in the flood (Genesis 7:21), no Arminian insists that “all” means “all” and “mankind” means “mankind.” Clearly not every man, woman, and child that ever lived or would live died in the flood. “All mankind” didn’t include any of us, nor did it include the eight humans who survived the flood--including Noah.
But what about “For God so loved the world” in John 3:16? Did Jesus mean that his Father sent him to actually ransom, redeem, pardon, atone for, and propitiate—to actually pay the sin debt of every man, woman, and child in the universe? Return to the context. Jesus was speaking to a Jewish scholar who believed the Messiah was coming just for Jews. Here Jesus was declaring to Jewish Nicodemus that the Messiah has come not just to save ethnic Jews, but the elect from all nations—the world.
Given the varying use of “world” in Scripture, careful readers will interpret passages that, on the surface, sound universal in light of passages that speak more specifically. Comparing John 3:16 and related passages with Revelation 5:9 helps bring clarity: “You are worthy… because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nations.” Notice how particular and specific the language is. Jesus actually “purchased men for God,” and he did so without ethnic or racial distinction, pitching his love on men from the whole world.

Sheep means sheep                                                          
John Owen’s second option, that Christ died for all the sins of all men, except the sin of unbelief, is favored by other non-Calvinists. This interpretation relieves God of being charged with unfairness, and the only condition of salvation that man contributes is belief. Believe and you have set yourself apart from the rest. But there are serious problems with this view. For starters, the Bible in many places says plainly that the wrath of God is coming for a laundry list of sins, not just for unbelief.
Calvinists believe that Christ actually atoned for all the sins of some men—the elect--that he actually did as he claimed in John 10:11, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” The language Jesus uses has no hint that he meant he was only potentiality or conditionally laying down his life. The words indicate an actual, definite act, accomplished for and applied to specific individuals—the sheep. Sparkling clarity follows when Jesus says to unbelievers a few verses later, “you do not believe because you are not my sheep” (10:26). The sheep believe because they were ordained to eternal life (Acts 13:48), and because Jesus actually—not just potentially--laid down his life for their sins.
In a variety of ways, the Bible answers the question, “What must I do to be saved?” It clearly states: “Believe, seek, come, call.” But it answers a second critical question about salvation, “Why did I believe?” It answers with equal clarity--we just don’t like the answer.
Jealous to protect God’s fairness, many nonsensically answer the second question with a variant of the answer to the first. “Why did I believe? Because I just believed.” And then they plug their ears. Real men don’t read their Bibles this way. The Bible relentlessly answers the question why a sinner believes, so we must hear it: Sinners believe because God chose them, Christ redeemed them, and the Spirit called them.
There’s not a lack of clarity here. We proud sinners simply don’t like the debasement required by the answer. We don’t like hearing that we’re dead in trespasses and sins, that God predestined some to life and others to damnation; that the elect are redeemed by Christ, their debt paid in full, their guilt and punishment borne on the cross by their good shepherd. Nor do we much like hearing that what makes us differ from a lost sinner is the Holy Spirit effectually calling us out of darkness into the splendid light of the new birth. Believing all that is high-demand. It costs us our pride.
           
Dead made alive
“Born, as all of us are, an Arminian,” wrote C. H. Spurgeon, “when I was coming to Christ, I thought I was doing it all myself, and though I sought the Lord earnestly, I had no idea the Lord was seeking me. I do not think the young convert is at first aware of this.”               
Arminianism, like the flat-earth theory, draws ultimate conclusions based on immediately observable evidence only. Thus, someone who believes in a flat earth does so because what he sees from his observable vantage point looks flat. As Spurgeon suggests, many mistakenly conclude that when a sinner hears the gospel and chooses to believe, his choice is the cause of forgiveness and salvation.
But what makes one man hear, repent and believe in Christ, while another hears the same sermon but snorts in derision and persists in unbelief? After one such sermon, Luke records that, “All who were appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). All heard the same sermon, but not everyone believed. This text and many others explain why: God mercifully predestined some to eternal life. That alone is why they believed.
Jesus used the metaphor of the wind blowing where it wishes to explain the mystery of the Holy Spirit’s work in salvation, and he used the metaphor of new birth. Just as no one has anything to do with his first birth, so the sinner is born again by the mysterious working of the Spirit, not by anything the dead sinner can will or do. Correspondingly, Paul tells us that we are “dead in trespasses and sins,” but that it is God who makes us alive in Christ by his Spirit.
“Dead men tell no tales,” so say pirates, nor can dead men will or do anything pertaining to their salvation. We must be born again, made alive, given the gift of faith by “the Spirit penetrate[ing] into our hearts,” as Calvin termed it. Anything short of this gives man credit for the divine work of regeneration in our hearts.

We call or he calls?
Though C. S. Lewis was an extraordinary Christian apologist, there were some holes, shall we say, in his theology. One of these reoccurs in the form of philosophical arguments favoring freedom of the will over against divine sovereignty. Put simply, Lewis was probably more of an Arminian than he was a Calvinist.
Nevertheless, writers are sometimes at their best when writing poetry or imaginative fiction, so in the Narnia books Lewis wonderfully illustrates the sovereignty of grace and the effectual calling of God’s Spirit. In The Silver Chair when Aslan tells Jill that he called her out of her world, Jill disagrees. “Nobody called me and Scrubb, you know. It was we who asked to come here. Scrubb said we were to call… And we did, and then we found the door open.” Jill, like most, mistakenly thought her calling was what opened the door. Lewis’s Lion wisely replied, “You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you.”
Similarly, in The Magician’s Nephew, Lewis has Aslan utter “a long single note; not very loud, but full of power. Polly’s heart jumped in her body when she heard it. She felt sure that it was a call, and that anyone who heard that call would want to obey it and (what’s more) would be able to obey it, however many worlds and ages lay between.”
As it did Jill, the power of this call ought to fill us with the deepest wonder at the grace of our God, who alone elects, redeems, calls, and keeps all his sheep so that not one of them is lost.

Flat earth
Arians in the early church had trouble figuring out how God could be three and one at the same time, so they rejected the biblical doctrine of the Trinity, and, thus, the deity of Jesus Christ. When we frail mortals have trouble grasping high and grand doctrines concerning God, our inclination is to reduce things down to the puny level of human understanding. Error always follows. 
From our flat-earth vantage point, predestination makes God not behave as nicely toward all sinners as we think fairness requires of him. Call these systems what you will, adherents insist that it wouldn’t be fair of God to do anything more for those who will believe than he has done for those who won’t. Thus, they insist that Calvinism can’t be right because it violates God’s fairness by making him act with favoritism toward some. Consequently, modern evangelism has created several extra-biblical jingles that have become inviolable.

Love and voting
The first well-intentioned jingle goes like this: “God loves the sinner, but hates the sin.” I wonder. After all, it’s not the sin that gets thrown in hell. It’s the sinner. Nobody wants to be “loved” like that. If God loves in the same way and to the same degree both the man who is saved and the man who will be damned, then “love” and “hate” have no meaning, and we’ve made a mingle-mangle again.
The Bible, however, uses these terms in precise ways. “Jacob have I loved. Esau have I hated.” So in Psalm 5:6, God declares that he “hates all those who do wrong.” Though “all” means “all” to Arminians, “hate” here just can’t mean “hate.” They insist that God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit are obligated to love all sinners exactly alike and leave the rest up to the sinner. Though heaps of biblical evidence suggest otherwise, the measure of God’s love, for them, is its extent not its effect; it must extend to everyone who ever lives or it’s not real love because love is fair.
But is this an accurate understanding of love? No wife would measure the worth of her husband’s love by how widely it extends to all women; does her confidence in his love for her come from her knowledge that he loves all women without exception? Of course not! On the contrary, she measures his love by how exclusive, individual, and particular it is, by how he lavishes it on her alone. So Christ’s love for his bride is particular, individual, and definite, and is savingly lavished on his bride, the church. Nevertheless, Arminians insist that Christ’s love isn’t real unless it is the same for all—even the already damned.
The other jingle often used in modern evangelism goes like this, “God cast a vote; Satan cast a vote, and the sinner casts the final vote.” Anyone with his Bible open ought to see through this like a ladder. Aside from the obvious problem of placing God and Satan on equal terms in their hand-wringing passivity, nowhere does the Bible give man such ultimate self-determination. In all the evangelism recorded in the New Testament, I recall no such nonsense. Though zealous, well-meaning Christians say things like this, we do well to stick with the evangelism of Jesus and the apostles.

Cavils at Calvin
A frequent cavil at Calvinism insists that men who believe it will not care about evangelism and missions. But what of Paul, the quintessential world missionary, who taught these doctrines systematically throughout his epistles? Oft-maligned Calvin had a ministry marked by deep concern for the lost, wherein he established an academy precisely for training preachers and missionaries. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were all established by Calvinists as theological training grounds for Christian preachers and missionaries. What’s more, nineteenth-century missions were largely pioneered by a long list of Calvinists. 
Another favorite cavil goes like this. If predestination is true, then why pray for the lost? Perhaps no one has more succinctly turned this cavil back on the detractors who raise it than J. I. Packer when he asks how you pray for the lost:

Do you limit yourself to asking that God will bring them to a point where they can save themselves? I think that what you do is to pray in categorical terms that God will, quite simply and decisively, save them. You would not dream of making it a point in your prayer that you are not asking God actually to bring them to faith. You entreat him to do that very thing. Thus, you acknowledge and confess the sovereignty of God’s grace. And so do all Christian people everywhere.

            Something about the kneeling posture helps us proud sinners get things right.  Perhaps there’d be less mingle-mangle about predestination and sovereign grace if we spent more time on those knees, humbly appealing to God on behalf of dead sinners whom he alone can save.

Does it matter?
Then comes the final cavil at Calvinism: Calvinism is merely theological wrangling that has no relevance to a Christian’s life and calling. But if we truly believe that all Scripture is God-breathed and so profitable for doctrinal belief and for training in righteousness, then the Bible’s teaching on the sovereignty of God must be important for us to understand.
So how ought believing the doctrines of grace, in the sovereignty of God, in total depravity, predestination, definite and particular atonement, and the effectual calling of the Spirit, how ought all this to affect a young man’s faith, devotion, and worship of Christ?
John Bunyan, perhaps said it best when he at last saw his sin as a “most barbarous and a filthy crime,” and that in his depravity he “had horribly abused the holy Son of God.” Seeing the depth of your sin and the corresponding depth of electing love and of Christ’s substitutionary atonement applied to your miserable life by God’s Spirit, ought to prompt in you a burning love for the Lord Jesus. Bunyan put it this way, “Had I a thousand gallons of blood within my veins, I could freely have spilled it all at the command and feet of this my Lord and Savior.”
Stand fast on these high truths, and feel the force of them. Hold fast to truth, and walk humbly with your God, working out your salvation with fear and trembling. And so make your calling and election sure by gratefully pursuing holiness, without which no young man will see the Lord.   

Douglas Bond, author, speaker, tour leader, hymn writer, publicist. Listen to Bond's podcast at bondbooks.net/the-scriptorium-podcast