Monday, November 4, 2013

All My Exes...



So here’s the saddest thing I’ve seen this week. I was driving up Pennsylvania Ave. yesterday and noticed a big red X on the back of a car, up ahead of me in the turn lane. Human nature being what it is, I was immediately curious what this driver was so "anti-" as to prompt him or her to feature it on the finite space of his or her back window, publicly objecting to its very existence. So I tried to inch ahead in my lane and see what it was.

I’ve always been curious about such things. Remember those tasteless stickers of cartoon Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes fame)...er...relieving himself onto the Ford logo (or Chevy or Ohio State or whatever)? Despite being kind of crass and a blatant violation of international copyright law, they were a fascinating study in what motivates people to go on record—for the world to see—as someone who hates a particular brand, school, city, or even a group of people.

As I drove past the car in question, though, I saw that it was not a group of people but one particular person who was bearing the wrath of this driver. You know those too-cute-by-half little stick people families that people put on the back of their cars (read: minivans)? The kind that show Mom and Dad and Brother and Sister and dog and even sometimes goldfish in stick-form? Well, this car had three people on it: Mom, Dad, and a toddler I’m guessing (I drove by rather quickly). And affixed over either Mom or Dad was the big red X.

That sight killed my good mood with record speed. I began thinking about what could create such bitterness, such that using a razor blade to remove the offending person was not enough. No, this person’s sticker had to remain there with an X over them. I deemed it unlikely right off the bat that he or she had died. More likely there had been a split.  Either the father (or mother) split and left his spouse to raise the child alone, or there had been an angry, toxic split over a disagreement or series of disagreements or something and their parting had been on vicious enough terms to warrant the big red X.

In that moment, I think I would have done anything in my power to reconcile those two people—at least to the point where the X could come down. And I began thinking about whether I’ve ever been angry enough with another person to try and hold them up to public shame—to feature them X’d out (or the victim of an licensed, urinating cartoon Calvin) on the back window of my car. 

Sadly, the answer is yes.

I haven’t actually done it because it sounds like a lot of work and because seminary students and ministers have to stay above reproach and because I wouldn’t want to tip my hand that I’d been that hurt or that affected by someone else...but there have been a good (bad?) number of times when I have burned a bridge so completely that it wouldn’t have been too big a step to throw them up on my back window.

Sometimes it doesn’t take much to kickstart a conflict that will end with such a complete breaking of ties and trust. A little slight on the part of one party, blown up and bottled up by the other. A comment said in the heat of the moment. And before you know it, a big red X has been applied, if not on the back windshield, at least in the heart and mind of the offended one.

And that’s usually how the story ends. My experience is that we humans generally long for reconciliation, but are notoriously unwilling to take the first step. We want to hear someone else humble himself and apologize first. We want them to make the move to cross the chasm between us, even if we know deep down that we are the ones to blame for that chasm.

This is, in a sense, the story of Scripture. It was not a petty spat or mutual squabble that fractured our relationship with our God; it was one-sided. It was all us. We didn’t want to submit to his will. We wanted to make our own rules, find our own way, do our own thing. So we bent our wills away from his and put a big red X over the God who created, loved, and sustained us. And despite that fact, even as the Old Testament relates the unfolding and re-developing of a relationship between God and man, it’s never us who initiates it. God makes the first move—in a burning bush, on the top of a mountain, in the hearts of those he calls. Like a slighted friend or spouse, we sat in our corner, stewing, hardening our hearts all the more, unwilling to even try and make the first move.

And so Christ came to us. He took and flesh and dwelt with us. He fed us and washed our feet. He died on a cross for our sins. And, in Christ, God reconciled the world to himself. He didn’t just remove the red X we’d placed over him; he gave us a new heart so that we could remove it.

And with that new heart, we ought to approach our relationships with each other differently. When Christ has rebuilt our bridge at the cost of his very life, how can we be quick to burn our own bridge with others? How can we collect red X’s in our minds like the tick marks on the side of a WWII fighter plane? How can we be unwilling to make the first move toward repentance and reconciliation when a chasm has grown between us and a neighbor, friend, family member, or co-worker?

I've recently preached on I Corinthians 13 twice (once on a Sunday morning and once at a funeral) and been twice reminded that love keeps no record of wrongs. And as Jesus reminded Simon the Pharisee, whoever has been forgiven much, loves much. When I’ve been forgiven a record like mine, it makes no sense to X out people based on their record with me. I pray that God will continue to give all of us, more and more, the same mind that was in Christ Jesus and give us the grace and perseverance to carry on loving one another.

Do you have a red X you need to remove? If so, the best way is to ask God to do it. And while you’re asking, let him know that you might put another one on without even thinking about it, and you’d like him to take that one off too. And the next one. The good news is that someday, we’ll run out of red X’s.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

You Changed My Title.

So I'm experiencing all this Big Publisher stuff for the first time, firsthand. (My wife works for a major publisher, frequently from home, so I've watched much of the process from a detached distance many times over.) You tell yourself you're going to be ready for the editor's notes and the possibility that they might change your title and not like your cover concept, and you're going to be the least-difficult author they've ever had. 

But then it actually happens. And you feel the little man who lives in your ego poking his head out, saying, "You're wrong; all my ideas are perfect."  <sigh>



The title I wanted for my book was Demoniac. I thought it was punchy, evocative, memorable, etc. They thought it sounded like a horror story (when it's actually a character-driven suspense-slash-action-slash-comedy with supernatural elements). They also thought people would have a hard time pronouncing it (is it a long or short O?) I hated their first alternate suggestion, but tried to get used to it. Then I finally told them I hated it and together we came up with a title we can all love.

The new title is Playing Saint.  It's got layers of meaning (i.e., the main character Parker Saint is acting the part of a Christian and someone else is "playing him" as well). It's punchy, it rolls off the tongue easily, and I think it's fairly memorable.

And here's the thing: it's way better than Demoniac.

The same thing is true about the notes I received from my editor and a freelance editor. Some of them would have changed the essence of the story, so I pushed back on those. Others were obviously great ideas. Still others needed some time to digest and some back-and-forth to refine.  But at the end of the day, it will be far better. The book on bookstore shelves next October will be far and away better than the book that would have existed if I had gone the self-controlled imprint route again.

You may be worried about getting tied to an agent and submitting your work to publishers, afraid that you'll lose control and what comes out at the end of the day won't really be you. But the truth is that it will be the best version of you it can be.

And I think, especially for a Christian, the exercise of letting go and listening to others and letting them improve you, is a vital one and will serve us well in developing our character and refining us as people and as disciples.

Monday, September 9, 2013

I Kissed Lanie Goodbye

Remember that one book that every high school and college-aged Evangelical female read during the nineties, called I Kissed Dating Goodbye? Remember Seinfeld? Ever wonder why no one had tried to combine them?

Us too.

Click here to read our white paper, I Kissed Lanie Goodbye: What Evangelicals Can Learn from the Relationships of Seinfeld’s Elaine Bennes.

 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Dealing with Digital Distractions, pt. 2

In Which I Review, At Length, a Ten-Year-Old Gadget.

Yesterday, I shared my frustration with the constant dings, buzzes, notifications, alarms, reminders, IMs, texts, and e-mails that constantly use the very same device on which you're trying to be productive to distract you and keep you from any real productivity. I promised that today I'd tell you about my new (old) gizmo that has me less distracted than ever when I sit down to write. (Don't worry; it's not a typewriter).

First, a little background on me and my preferences, technologically speaking. I'm still rocking my Palm Pilot from 2003. I don't like learning new devices or transferring all my info and I get very attached to the status quo. Plus, you can get outdated technology on eBay for a song, which is awesome, and all of its bugs are already known and usually fixed, and you deal with almost no learning curve. I was recently told that this is "hipster" of me (collecting outdated tech), to which I replied that I was into obsolete electronics long before the latest incarnation of hipsterism existed. But then I remembered that claiming to have been into things before everyone else is just another sign of being a hipster.

Anyway, for a good ten years, I was getting around any and all laptop-related annoyances by doing 90% of my writing (including seminary papers, etc.) on my palm with an infrared collapsible keyboard, which was very easy to transport (one in each pants pocket), requiring no case, no cords, nothing. But then my keyboard broke and the only one I could find to replace it wouldn't lay flat on my lap and kept wanting to fold in half over my leg. Besides, while the backlight on a palm works fine inside, it's very difficult to read out in the sun (and let's not forget that staring into a blue light for extended periods was helping to cause mine--and everyone else's--insomnia). It was getting to the point where these distractions were more annoying than the Internet itself.

Then, a couple months ago, I happened upon this device:



It's called the AlphaSmart Dana and it reminds me a bit of the old word processor I had my freshman year of college (before laptops were affordable). That thing was a monster keyboard/display/printer combo with no battery, which sat permanently on my desk in my dorm room. It was the opposite of convenience, but I remember getting into the zone on that beast: minimal formatting (italics, bold, three font choices and three font sizes) and no graphics to fiddle with. I was just concerned with the content of the paper. 

Then I think about the challenge of writing papers in seminary on a desktop computer with a T1, four diferent kinds of Bible software, nineteen different windows open at a time. Facebook wasn't huge yet, but there were plenty of other websites and message boards calling to me (IMDb, anyone?), bringing us back to the problem I described yesterday.

Here's why the Dana works for me: it's as much about the neural pathways in my brain as anything else. As I mentioned earlier, I struggle with insomnia. One of the things experts advise is to avoid working, reading, e-mailing, watching TV, etc. while in bed--so that your brain has just one (okay, two) activities associated with that place and isn't all amped up and confused when you lie down at night. Ideally, your mind and body immediately associate laying head on pillow with sleep. Well, my mind associates my Dana with writing...not wasting time screen-sucking, e-mailing, playing games, editing pictures ,etc.  Just writing.

You can get one of these bad boys cheap. Originally about $400, they're being unloaded in lots as part of school surplus sales on eBay for about $25 a piece (a little goo gone and mine was in like-new condition.) Despite being a decade old (which, in tech years, may as well be a century), the Dana has a loyal following among writers and journalists, which is why its Amazon ranking is still so high.

Because I'm me, I made a list of pros and cons, as if it were 2003 and these devices were just hitting the market, and as if there weren't already a hundred such lists floating around tech site archives everywhere.
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PROs
  • Simplicity. There are different levels of simple from which you can choose. From the completely bare (memo pad, with one font, one size, just text) to a little more complicated (Word to Go, with the ability to set margins, rich text formatting, tables, etc.; one can even import true type fonts through a conduit). I prefer to keep it simple.
  • Accessibility. There are several options for how to save and open docs. You can write directly to an SD card (there are two slots), working with native Word and Excel files, or you can plug into your computer's USB port and have the Dana "type" your text into whatever program you like.
  • Generates no heat. Unlike a laptop (and much like a tablet), the Dana is cool on your lap. Unlike a tablet, it's natural to actually use it on your lap.
  • Fairly large display. I'm typing this blog post on my Dana and I can see nine lines of text at a time.
  • Great battery life. As in, twenty-five hours on a single charge.
  • Touch screen. Another shared feature with your uber-expensive (and rather distracting) iPad. But when it comes to ease of use when writing, the Dana has some advantages. For example:
  • Very Rugged. AlphaSmart devices were originally designed for teaching kids typing in the classroom, which means they can survive many drops from four feet off the ground and come off unscathed. Try that with your tablet.
  • Outdoors-friendly. I love to work outside, but if the sun is out, it's almost impossible to see your laptop or tablet screen through the glare and reflection. Not an issue with the simple display on the Dana. (This is also why I prefer my black and white Kindle e-ink device with no FB, movies, etc. over a tablet or Kindle Fire.) The Dana's screen is not in the same league as e-ink when it comes to non-reflectiveness and readability outside, but it's worlds better than a laptop screen or similar backlit color LCD display. Unlike e-ink, you have to get the sun at the right angle to the glass surface of the Dana's screen, but after a minimum of shifting, the big light in the sky is illuminating your text, not obscuring it.
  • Optional Backlight.  Remember "indiglo watches?" Well, the Dana has the same thing going on: a gentle green light that glows behind your text, allowing you to easily read what you're typing in low-light conditions. While writing in bed (yeah, I know; the insomnia), this has the two-fold benefit of not waking my wife with a harsh white light and not jacking up my Circadian rhythm by telling my brain it's time to get up when I'm actually about to turn in for the night.
  • Two SD card slots. And automatic scheduled back-ups so you don't lose anything.
  • Can print directly to most any printer.  Using either USB cable or wireless capability.
  • Super light. Weighs way less than a laptop.
  • No bootup time. Hit the power button and there you are where you left it. You can store eight of your documents in eight quick-load positions that can be brought up with the touch of a single button. This allows you to work on that annual report or short story during the five-minute wait in the doctor's office, whereas your laptop would barely boot up and load your document before you had to turn it back off.

CONs
  • Accessibility, again. The file syncing software for the main word processor is not compatible with Windows 7 64-bit or Windows 8 (however, there are ways around this, such as the keyboard functionality, infrared beaming, and using SD cards).
  • Built-in word processor doesn't like graphics or hyperlinks, so editing existing documents can be challenging.
  • No built-in music player. On one hand, this means fewer distractions, except that headphones can help drown out chatty Cathies in coffee shops and other public places. But once you start getting into semi-vintage electronics and dedicated devices, carrying extra hardware is expected. Anyway, iPods are tiny.
  • People think you're either a hipster or way behind the times. Not sure which is worse, but I don't really care.
  • Dynamic flash memory. If the battery does completely die (which takes another couple weeks of neglect after it refuses to fire up), you lose all your documents.  However, you can do manual and automatic scheduled backups to the SD card, which removes that danger.
Anyway, that's my current preferred solution to the constant annoyances and distractions of the digital world. I hope you find yours. And for twenty-five bucks, you may want to consider picking up a used Dana.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Dealing With Digital Distractions When Writing

I rarely blog about writing and I very rarely blog about technology (honestly, I rarely blog, to the increasing annoyance of both my agent and my publicist), but today I want to touch on both and where they intersect for me. 

Tell me if this is a familiar scenario:  you sit down to write (whether a novel, a report, a dissertation, a love letter, whatever), you minimize everything but Word and look at that beautiful blank, white space in front of you, just waiting to be filled up by your brilliance. You begin to type, slowly at first, but building momentum. Just as you're about to hit your stride you hear, DOO-doot.  Whoops. Facebook was open in one of those browser windows.

I wonder who wrote on my wall, you think. Doesn't matter, but maybe you should just quick check, so you're not distracted. Ten minutes later, you're trying to get back into writing when an e-mail pops up from your boss. Oh, crud. Does he need me to come in early? Did I forget to use the new job codes on my time card? You read the e-mail, then reply. Then some guy who was apparently sitting at his laptop, mainlining espresso, just WAITING for an e-mail to which he could respond, fires off a reply to your reply. You're in it now, because it's obvious you're still at your computer.

Twenty minutes later, that's resolved. You get a page of writing done before an alarm pops up from Outlook, reminding you that your second quarter estimate tax payments are due in two days. You'd forgotten all about that. How can you focus now?  Maybe you should pop over to failblog for a while and just chill out to calm your mind.

You're just about feeling creative again when your spouse asks if you're coming to bed. Word count for the night: 400.

I don't know about you, but the Internet is a huge distraction for me any time I'm near a computer, particularly when I'm trying to writewhether a sermon, a lesson, an article, or  a novel. Trying to write with the Internet right in front of me is like trying to write with a toddler in the room. It's possible, I suppose, but it takes much more time and energy than it needs to and involves little momentum.

Dealing with (and conquering) that distraction is a big part of being a productive writer. I've found several different tools that work well in overcoming the constant distractions of working on a computer that's connected to e-mail, twitter, facebook, a billion blogs, and my schedule and task list for the day and week ahead . . .   I'll tell you my very favorite method for avoiding such distractions tomorrow, but for now let me suggest two (almost) free pieces of software that can help and ask for your input.

The following programs are very effective, especially when used in tandem:

1. Dark Room. This free program describes itself as " a full screen, distraction free, writing environment." Basically, it's like you're writing on a Commodore 64's word processor (complete with monochrome screen); no features, no bells or whistles, just you and your text. It's a clone of a somewhat pricey (considering what it is) Mac program. You can download Dark Room by clicking here.

2. Cold Turkey. You have to buy this one, but the good news is that you pay whatever the heck you want! This program has been a God-send for me. It will temporarily (you set how long) block whatever websites and programs are a distraction for you.  Want an hour of uninterrupted writing? Open up Cold Turkey, set it up to block social networking and time-sucking humor websites, as well as your e-mail and IM programs, and then click "Go Cold Turkey!" It's like going back to the early '90s, but without the parachute pants. (You'll have to turn off your smart phone too, if you have one.) You can get Cold Turkey at...waaaait for it...getcoldturkey.com.

My newest strategy works even better than these two programs and I will share it on Thursday. But for now, what works for you? How do you keep digital distractions from neutralizing your writing mojo? 

Comment below.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Tough Guys and Public Cries...

"Promise Keepers, eh? Nice. Have a good public cry for me."

That was the response from a friend of mine who wondered if Erin and I wanted to hang out last Saturday. I told him I couldn't because I'd be at Promise Keepers in Battle Creek and he responded with the above barb. I have to admit that it did elicit a genuine guffaw. Because it rings true. There is a certain kind of overly open and emotive guy who seems drawn to PK—the kind of guy for whom everything is cause for a big, fat-roll-maneuvering, tear-and-snot-soaked hug. I'm pretty sure these guys think Jesus was constantly making sobby confessions and praying out earnest blessings on every random thing like God was working on straight commission. Having read the Gospels a couple hundred times, I just don't see it.

As it happens, one of my favorite authors, Cliff Graham just tweeted on this very topic today, saying, "It's a shame that men are pressured so hard to be emotional. It's healthy to have emotions, and men should be encouraged to be emotional in a healthy way, especially in their closest relationships. But some men are simply stoic by nature. They're tough. They get things done and don't weep their way through it. Let them be."

All the same, I love Promise Keepers. My dad brought me to my first event at the Silverdome in 1995 and I've gone now to 15 events, including the Stand In the Gap gathering in Washington DC (apparently the seventh largest religious gathering ever). The format and focus of PK has changed through the years (although this year had kind of a "return to basics" thrust), but I still get the same vibe that I did at the very beginning.

However, having spent a decade entrenched in super-sacred academia and almost another decade after that constantly retreating to my ivory tower of exegesis and systematic theology, I approach preaching a little bit differently than I did when I was seventeen. When I listen to others' preaching, I can't help but analyze. I don't mean that I'm counting verbal ticks and monitoring eye contact; I can let that stuff slide. I mean I've got my heresy radar set to "hyper-sensitive." And, believe me, I've heard plenty of heresies at PK over the years. Everything from a former weatherman encouraging the entire stadium full of men to repeat the words, "My heart is not wicked!" with him (shudder) to a retired football coach equating the Gospel with "telling God you want him to be your daddy."

This year's pretty much relatively heresy-free (although an odd emphasis on the nation of Israel, which just seemed . . . arbitrary). I heard one of the best Gospel messages I've heard in years from a retired NFL player named Derwin Gray and at least two hundred men went forward (yeah, I know the altar call smacks of Finneyism, but who can even hear themselves critiquing the methodsology over the roar of Heaven rejoicing for these precious souls turning to Christ in repentance?). The emcee was Propaganda! (Yes, the guy who did the "Gospel in Four Minutes" video...) And Jeremy Camp led worship and played an amazing concert that blew my mind.

There was some Law/Gospel confusion, but you have that in almost every pulpit in the country. My main critique would be that, had everyone simply redacted the word "personal" each time it was used, not only would their presentations have all been tighter, but we'd have left ninety minutes earlier and I'd have had more time to fine-tune my sermon for Sunday morning. Also, PK's comedian-in-residence seems to have forgotten he was a comedian as he ranted and raved and yelled at the crowd, spouting conspiracy theories and political vitriol that make Glenn Beck look like a moderate.

I know it's weird that I, a theologically conservative, Calvinistic, confessional, Reformed Baptist, still love these ubertestosteroned, trying-too-hard-to-be-relevant, revivalist conferences long after the fad has died and its ashes scattered in the river of pop-Christianity. But so what?

I saw the front of the arena swarmed with men seeking prayer for marriages that were hanging by a thread. I saw a hundred men go forward for prayer because they're struggling with loneliness. I suppose they were perpetuating some PK stereotype by crying, but I couldn't care less. I keep remembering one particular fat, awkward guy, waddling his way back to his seat after that prayer. It was clear that he had come to the event all by himself. But he wasn't alone at all after that. The men around him prayed with him, hugged him, exchanged information. And I keep praying for him. How corny, right? Unless you're that guy. Or unless Jesus died for that guy. Which he did.

Sure, Promise Keepers is somewhat contrived. Sure, it's over-produced. Sure, it's full of shows of emotion that would normally be considered embarrassing (I saw some dancing that made the RNC delegates look like Usher). But,hey, Michal was embarrassed by David's show of emotion before the ark too.

If I could change just one thing, though, I'd have replaced just one speaker. I've heard him four times now, and it's been literally the same thing every year. Cincinnati. Cleveland. Grand Rapids. Same sermon. Same video. Same jokes. Same self-aggrandizing. Same do-it-yourself religion.

Who would I replace him with? Oh, I dunno. How about Kevin DeYoung or Todd Friel. Or if those guys aren't free, how about...me.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

From Spurgeon to Bach to the Newsboys...

FYI, you can now pre-buy The Christian Gentleman's Smoking Companion, my latest collaboration with prolific author Ted Kluck. It is a book full of humor, theology, information, and meditation about the gentle art of cigar and pipe smoking.

From Spurgeon to Bach to the Newsboys, you may be surprised at the role that smoking has played in the lives of well-known saints and how the camaraderie of leisurely smoking is even today drawing people together for accountability and Bible study and even leading them into relationships that result in repentance and faith.

Click here to see the pre-buy page.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

. . . And Arrows to Our Enemies

A Brief and Enthusiastic Review of Cliff Graham's Lion of War Series (so far)



I have an inexplicable drive to begin this review with some kind of expletive to hammer home just how insanely much I love these books . . . but of course none of the PG selections that would be appropriate in this space would get the meaning across. So, I tell you whatlet’s just pretend that the words “holy cow” bear exponentially more weight than they do, and I'll begin with:

Holy cow, I love these books! 

Mr. Graham takes his years of experience in the army (as a soldier and chaplain), his obvious passion for biblical research, his pastor's heart, and an amazing gift for telling a compelling story, and combines them to give us an in-the-trenches look at life in King David's army, particularly for David's Mighty Men (with particular attention to Benaiah and the Three).  The result is, at the risk of being redundant, amazing.

In fairness, though, I do wish these books had been written a little differently. 

First off, I wish that I'd written them. Because this is how I envision the Old Testament stories as I immerse myself in them and I wish I'd been able to capture the larger-than-life-yet-accessible scope and feel. Failing that, I wish the timeline would have been different. Not the timeline of the story, but the timeline of the books themselves, such that Mr. Graham would have signed his contract with HarperCollins later or I would have signed mine sooner so that I might have been asked to endorse his work. I would like to have been one of the first people to gush over this series. As it stands, I'm way behind the curve.  

So what's it like reading these books? I'm not going to apply some tired cliché about how they “made the Bible come alive” because that’s been said about countless other books and you’ve never read anything quite like this series. I'm afraid the flannelgraph depictions and Sunday school pamphlets have left us with something of a cartoonized version of many biblical characters and events. It's easy to forget that David and his men would have dealt with PTSD (although they'd have no category for it), with guilt and shame after killing many of their fellow Israelites, with doubt and disillusionment when it came to the God who had made so many promises, and with the temptations that come with life in that setting. Graham's portrayals bring all of this into focus without trading in the supernatural elements or the overwhelming sense of reverence for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

As someone who has studied the Hebrew language and the history and theology of the Old Testament for many years, I was a little tentative upon first opening Day of War, since I've seen a lot of biblical fiction drop the ball when it comes to the language, customs, etc. of ancient Israel, not to mention how many of them are filled with anachronistic weapons, tactics, and titles. Still others are faithful to the history, but come off as remote in every way and inaccessible to modern readers. To my relief, I quickly realized that Mr. Graham was not going to fall into either trap. He's done his research, but he doesn't show his work.

These books come in language we get. Graham describe archers “firing” their arrows (even though no one “fired” anything
at all until the advent of gunpowder) rather than “letting them fly,” as Lawhead (another favorite of mine) insists on putting it. Men are said to “bleed out” and there are at least two references to someone seeking “closure,” but these modern terms are used sparsely and do nothing to detract from the story. Rather, they remind us that David's soldiers were not untouchable superheroes, but real men who could be physically, emotionally, and spiritually damaged.
 
There's apparently a movie in the works right now, about which I'm equally stoked and apprehensive. I mean, this story is screaming to be made into a movie, but you know how it is when you love the book first. Rarely does the movie live up to it. Thankfully, the author seems to be quite involved with the film-making process and can hopefully keep it from being either Hollywood-ized (and robbed of its biblical integrity) or cheesy-Christian-movie-ized (and robbed of its grit and reality). One thing's for sure: if they're true to the source material, it will be rated R.

Speaking of which, some readers might be offended by the graphic nature of the battle scenes.  I get this, and would encourage people with weak stomachs to give these books a wide berth.  (I won't be letting my son read these suckers until he's in his mid-teens.) Others might be put off by the level of poetic license the author takes. I would argue that these readers have no business picking up a work of biblical fiction (seeing as how such license is what makes these books distinct from Scripture itself). The author's notes make sure that we understand what's biblical and what's a fictional device and I, for one, loved the clever back-stories created for Uriah the Hittite and Ittai the Gittite. They really made the Bible come alive. (whoops)

I'm hoping I might be able to briefly chat with Mr. Graham at an event for authors and agents in September and tell him how cool I think his books are. Before that, though, I plan on attending a book signing in August, where I can hear Mr. Graham speak, buy a water bottle that says Cover Me In the Day of War up the side, and then stand in line to get my copies signed with a goofy grin on my face. 


In short, these books rule and I recommend them highly if you're into . . . well, if you're into super-awesome, super-intense biblical fiction with tons of action and compelling characters. This is one of those rare situations where a book truly defies genre. It's not exactly historical fiction, it's not fantasy, and it's very different from most of what we call biblical fiction these days. I've heard this series described as “supernatural thriller,” a label which has also been used to describe my own writing. I can only hope that something I write will affect people as profoundly as these books have affected me.  They really are amazing.

Just amazing.


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Monday, May 20, 2013

So Here's the Big Announcement...

For  a couple weeks, I've been making dodgy references to some big news regarding my novel Demonic. Well, here it is:

Today, I signed a two-book contract with Thomas Nelson Publishing, the first of which (tentatively titled Demoniac: A Novel) will come out in 2014, followed by another suspense novel the following year.

I'm beyond excited to be working with the world's largest Christian publisher, which was founded while George Washington was alive and has, in more recent decades, put out the majority of my favorite fiction. (In fact, now that they've merged their fiction division with Zondervan's, I'd estimate that the resulting entity publishes a good 80% of my favorite novels, including some Lawhead, Peretti, and Cliff Graham).

I'd say it's “humbling” to join such prestigious company, but that would just show that I don't know what “humbling” means. I mean, if my books tank, that'll be humbling. At the moment, though, I'm flying pretty high.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

In the Works...

What you'll see on this blog over the next few weeks:
  1. Two Book Reviews 
     

  2. A Book Giveaway 
     
  3. Return of the satisfyingly snarky Tuesday Supernatural Movie Reviews 
     
  4. Another Gut Check Press satirical white paper  
     
  5. Huge news about my forthcoming novel Demoniac 
     


Thursday, May 16, 2013

Short Film and Being a Renaissance Man

I'm thinking about short film lately, because A.) I just read an awesome screenplay written by my boy Ted Kluck, which is in pre-production and will likely star an actor of considerable note, and B.) I just watched a short film called ...Forgotten Detroit, which I helped (at the lowest level) to Kickstart about a year and a half ago.

So, here's specifically what I'm thinking about in terms of short films: their resurgence is one of the many blessings brought to us by the omnipresence of the interwebs and the ease-of-access that we now have to video in a variety of formats. I mean, think about it: all other things being equal, there ought naturally to be at least as many short films as there are features. Because, just as short stories and novels are related-but-unique literary forms, a lot of stories that demand to be told in an audio-visual format would suffer greatly if someone tried to stretch them out to an hour and a half or two hours. (Heck, half the 2-minute movie trailers I encounter today seem like the trailer is a more fitting length and format for telling the story than the full movie).

But, whereas there have pretty much always been periodicals, anthologies, etc. (not to mention early digital forms like BBS's and dial-up connections) as means of getting one's short stories into the waiting hands of consumers, it's taken the very recent proliferation of high-speed Internet to give any real distribution oomph to short films, because let's face it, with few exceptions (Rob Bell's Nooma videos, for example), most people aren't going to shell out enough money for a fifteen-minute film to turn a profit after all the expense involved in producing it. Even in the aughties, the majority of the short films I saw were all at one film festival, all in one day. Now they can be distributed with ease.

This, I think, is a really good thing for people who love (both making and watching) film.

As to ...Forgotten Detroit itself, it's a very solid 17½ minutes of artistic and introspective entertainment. It's making the festival circuit, so you can't buy a copy at the moment (we Kickstarters each got a DVD by way of thanks), but check out this guy's bio on his website: http://rickboven.com.  That's right, he's a filmmaker, an actor, an indie comic book artist (I've got several of his comics on my Kindle and some day I'm going to commission him to give 42 Months Dry the graphic novel treatment), an author, and apparently dabbles in music as well. Until recently, he also ran a small press out of Chicago, not unlike our Gut Check Press.

What's that like, I wonder? Having that many creative outlets and being talented in all of them? Here's the funny thing: it sounds just exhausting to me. I think I'd feel a kind of creative paralysis that would sap me of all energy and keep me from really exploring any of them fully. I love to try and multitask, but once more than two options appear, I suck at getting things done.

This leads me, much like PBS's illustrious Buddy the Tyrannosaurus (can you tell I have a five-year-old?), to a hypothesis: there are, creatively speaking, two different kinds of people...
  1. Those for whom each additional medium/outlet just fuels his or her creative potential and keeps the juices flowing. My wife is like this. She's a better writer than I am, and also a talented photographer, musician, painter, seamstress, designer of elaborate gardens, and dabbler in any number of mixed-medium artforms. And she's good at pretty much all of them and continually getting better.  I used to be a bit like this--or at least I thought I was. For a good decade (even while the actual writing and recording of music as a hobby became very rare) I sort of considered myself a creative musician in the back of my mind, and I've tried my hand at illustrating, graphic design, and comic book creation as well. . . but in recent years, I've had to come to terms with the fact that I'm one of...
  2. Those for whom each additional form of creative expression just divides his or her available creative energy, until there's not enough left in any given area to do anything. I pour a lot of this (creative energy) into my weekly sermon preparation. What remains, I find, must be rationed carefully. I'm not talking about time here or even energy per se, but limited creative resources
And so, even if I had the talent, skill, and time to tackle them all (I don't), the thought of making a film, painting a portrait, recording an album, and writing my next novel all at once, makes me just want to sit back and watch '90s sitcoms on Netflix instead. But when I think about one project by itself, I feel my creative energy and passion growing. By the way, my next novel is tentatively called The Outside Man and, along with Demoniac, it is a dime's width away from being contracted by a giant of a publisher (but more on that in a week or so).

So, what do you think; is my hypothesis right? And, if so, which of the two types are you? And have you shifted from one to the other during your life?




Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Band Names

Over the past 100 days, I've posted a band name each day on Twitter. Here they all are.  Let me know your favorite or (better) give me your own best band names.

edit: By way of clarification, these are band names that sprang forth from my own imagination or, occasionally, the imagination of a friend. They are not bands that actually exist.

  1. Clipboard Mafia
  2. Flop Sweat and Tears
  3. threat level midnight
  4. Squeezepack
  5. Walnut Grove Punks
  6. Sping
  7. Los Guys
  8. The Cavities
  9. Papa Wobbles
  10. Glutius Minimus
  11. Pinky Finger Extended
  12. Spastic Jackson
  13. (couch.)
  14. husband
  15. eerie godless
  16. Isolation Chamber
  17. Sneak-Thief
  18. Jerkstore Clearance
  19. Pablum
  20. Ghastly Minstrals
  21. The Shrinky-Dinks
  22. The Khaki Lads
  23. The Jammies
  24. Stunning Pompodour
  25. Woot Woot to Boot
  26. Missuz Esterhaus
  27. huxtable massacre
  28. Hatfields vs. Capulets (vs. Grangerfords)
  29. Snug
  30. The Faux Poseurs
  31. Open During Destruction
  32. Belvedere's Revenge
  33. SlapDash
  34. Chump Change
  35. The Jiggwatts
  36. Dwayne Wayne Manor
  37. Fool of a Took
  38. Panzers for Pansies
  39. The Jack Boots
  40. Hardcore Clavinova
  41. Omnibus
  42. Soul Scab
  43. Diwali Nightmare
  44. The Farthings
  45. The Glass Chins
  46. Hester Prynne vs. Benny Hinn
  47. Wheelchair Disagreement HT:My4YrOld
  48. Aggressive Pedestrian
  49. Gimmick HT: Erin
  50. Vamanos Pest Control #SkinnyPete
  51. Sasper-zilla
  52. Friendly Fatwah
  53. Classic Schmoseby
  54. Flowbie Fatality
  55. Super-Sequitur
  56. Boiler Room Hobo HT:
  57. Poor Mister Pamuk
  58. The Habidashers
  59. Sarcastic Yay
  60. Tuna Meltdown
  61. Hipster Happy Hour
  62. Slather
  63. Insightful Tweet
  64. Urban Shamhan ht:Turk
  65. Surf Dumb
  66. Laissez Flair
  67. Percussion Caps
  68. Harbingers of Mood
  69. Semper Super Fly
  70. Mucho Poco
  71. Step-Band
  72. Mega-festo
  73. Barter Economy
  74. Triumphant Synth
  75. Avante Garde Hard Rock Collective
  76. Control-Alt-Retreat
  77. The Victorious Champions of Winning #theyjustkeepgettinglonger
  78. Too Slang HT:My4YearOld
  79. Jibber-Jabberwocky
  80. Brass Tacks & Fat Stacks  #MaybeAlbumName
  81. The Second Humminah  #MyNewFavorite
  82. Wee Baby Seamus
  83. Party Crash Zamboni
  84. Atlas Hugs
  85. Dimestore Platinum
  86. Healthy Dollop
  87. Smirk
  88. Messianic Druid
  89. band dot com (their website is banddotcom.net)
  90. Fanboy Factory
  91. Yank Slater
  92. Jeff
  93. C.S. Lewis Reference
  94. Power Chord Overlords
  95. Inadequate Afro
  96. Terrible Epiphany
  97. The Inscrutables
  98. Muser
  99. The Recurring Gags
  100. Deadly Jazz-Hands


Monday, April 15, 2013

The Infamous Conversion Scene

Christian fiction—particularly Christian suspense—has become a different animal from what it was twenty years ago. It is (with exceptions, of course) less cheesy and formulaic, which is good, but at times less Christian, which is billed as good (more ABA crossover appeal, wider audience) but which gives me pause.

One element that is falling out of favor is the conversion scene, wherein a major character repents and believes in Jesus. You used to be able to feel those coming in decades past (and centuries past, for that matter, going back to Bunyan), even in the work of innovators like Peretti. Now they're considerably more rare. But why? Is it because we've sold out, putting market above principles (not unlike the vague, Bieberish lyrics of many contemporary pop Christian songs)? Is it because the genre is evolving and becoming more nuanced? Or simply because the convention has jumped the shark, a self-parody favored by lazy writers who don't want to develop their characters a little at a time?

Most importantly, do you miss them?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Showdown in Kishon Valley

You thought there’d be a lull in the action? You were wrong . . . Baal may have lost the battle, but his priests are just getting started.

Click the image below to read Chapter 8 of 42 Months Dry: A Tale of Gods and Gunplay.





Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Daylight Savings and Zero Sum



It was one of the most troubling e-mails I’ve gotten in weeks.

It came from my secretary, under the guise of a helpful reminder. “Don’t forget to set your clocks forward one hour this Saturday,” it read. And while I know it was sent with nothing but the most helpful of intentions, I got the distinct impression that somehow the e-mail itself had become sentient and taken on a smug, gloating kind of tone along the way, so that its true intent came though clear as day: “You’re going to lose an hour of sleep this Saturday night. Ha-ha!” Or, in my case, I’ll have one less hour to go over my message for Sunday morning, which is an incredibly important part of the process for me.

In the back of my mind, though, I know it will be well worth it later on, when I “gain” an extra hour in the Fall. I certainly won’t be complaining then, as I receive those sixty precious minutes right out of thin air for free! Isn’t that an awesome feeling? Free hour, no strings attached! 

Except it’s not free. And it’s not an extra hour. It’s exactly the same hour we set aside in the Spring. We know it works that way, but we're still stupid about it. I remember some mornings in high school and college, as my alarm started blaring and I lay there in that mostly-unconscious state, trying to scheme a way to create another fifteen minutes to sleep without running fifteen minutes late. There were times I thought I was on to something, but when I woke up for real, it became all too clear that time is and always will be a fixed commodity.

It’s like with taxes. I’m just about at the point in the year where I stop putting off the task of gathering together all of our tax documents and actually just do it.  It’s such a hassle that I often wait until the deadline starts to loom. But that didn’t used to be the case years ago. I used to love tax time ten or fifteen years ago.  Why? Because I got a big check from Uncle Sam. Free money! I mean, I knew it was my money anyway and I just had too much coming out of my check each week, but it felt awesome to suddenly have a big sum in hand. Then one year, all at once, it dawned on me that I was giving the government a large, interest-free loan every year, instead of earning interest on that money myself—just to feel that little rush of getting something for nothing (when really, it was mine all along).

This zero-sum idea (i.e., to have a bigger piece of the pie over here, you must have a smaller piece over there) really permeates our culture. Back when I used to see television commercials (before Netflix and Amazon mercifully removed them from my world), I remember the big feuds between mega-corporations: MCI and AT&T taking shots at each other, Coke and Pepsi, McDonalds and Burger King, all fighting for a limited number of potential customers. Just like an extra hour in November means an hour lost in March, so one new Big Mac devotee means one fewer Whopper enthusiast—or so the thinking goes.

But we need to be careful with that in the church. The very same day I got that horrible e-mail about that horrible thing with the clocks, I went to a pastors’ gathering, where about twenty of us prayed together for each other, for each other’s churches, and for the spread of the Gospel in our community.  Pastor Kevin DeYoung specifically prayed, “Lord, save us from the kind of thinking that assumes one church must shrink for another to grow. Help us to be Kingdom-minded and remind us that there are so many people in our communities who don’t know You that all of our churches could never fit them all.” 

In my mind, I immediately connected this with the chapter I’d been reading, re-reading, and translating for the past few weeks: I Corinthians 1.  In that chapter we realize that, while Paul addresses his letter to “The Church in Corinth,” there were actually a number of different gatherings taking place each week (after all, most houses wouldn’t accommodate more than about fifty people, and the church was meeting in people’s homes). Add to that the fact that some believers had been baptized by prominent Christians and multiply by our human desire to divide and do battle with each other and “The Church” in Corinth had become a rather fragmented body. And, as Jesus reminded us, a house divided against itself cannot stand.

Today, I met with another group of ministers—this time to plan our inter-denominational community services for Holy Week. As such gatherings always do, it reminded me anew that, when we put aside our natural and cultural compulsion to grow our market share by shrinking someone else’s, we (the Church) are truly at our best in showing the love of Christ to a world that is broken and lost and in desperate need of the Gospel.

So often, we try to use the cold hard math of human limitation when dealing with the Infinite God of the universe—the One who stepped out onto nothing with a handful of nothing and threw it at nothing and called forth everything. We forget that, with no effort at all, he can make an extra hour (Joshua 10) or extra money (I Kings 17) or anything without taking away from someone/somewhere else. He’s the only one who can do this and he happens to be the one who has promised to meet all of our needs. 

As followers of Jesus, let us not try and confine him with our human limitations and our zero-sum mentality. Instead, let us glorify his name and proclaim his Gospel and show the world his love and know that he is limited by nothing at all and all of his promises in Christ are Yes and Amen.