Tuesday, May 26, 2015

You Label-List Me, I'll Label-List You

Remember that scene in the Princess Bride, when Vizzini had Buttercup (before she married Francis Underwood and became the first lady) at knifepoint and he told the Dread Pirate Roberts, “ I can't compete with you physically, and you're no match for my brains,” and the DPR responded, “It would appear we are at an impasse?”

I haven’t done it yet, but I keep meaning to make a graphic of that scene with those words in a meme-ish font to be inserted in just about every social media conversation about anything controversial or principle-related. Because they all eventually end in an impasse with both sides thoroughly unwilling to budge. Best-case scenario, it ends there. Usually, though, it gets nasty. Bridges are burned, nothing is gained, everyone sort of feels self-vindicated, but in an empty way.

And this is not limited to individuals. Whole organizations can get caught up in this sort of destructive impasse, horns locked and flaming darts flying. For example, I recently learned that the American Family Association had branded the Southern Poverty Law Center a “bigotry group.” They did it in the context of a “bigotry map” on their website, which breaks down a long, categorized list of anti-Christian bigot groups by state and lays them out for your information, or perhaps for you to  scorn or avoid, or whatever. Ironically, this is a move they snagged from the SPLC itself, who has their own “hate map,” which looks a heck of a lot like the AFA’s map and predates it by some years.

So, you call me a hate group, I call you a bigot. I’m on your list, but you’re on mine. And, of course, in our current climate, these words are basically the equivalent of F-bombs, in that they are the nastiest labels you can affix to your opponents.

I’m not being falsely humble when I say that I get the impulse. The reason I keep meaning to make the “It appears we are at an impasse” card is that it will give me a quick, clever exit ramp from such exchanges before I do essentially the same thing, only to a human being, not a faceless entity. And yet, I have to wonder if anything is really accomplished or if this is just a symptom of a sick public square, where the exchange of ideas is hamstrung by buzzwords and labels. I’ve got certain reservations about both those groups (although I certainly do prefer one to the other), and I have to say that the move of “You’re on my list,” “Well then you're on my list too” does absolutely nothing to alleviate those reservations.

And of course, someone might point out that Jesus seemed to put the teachers of the Law and pharisees on his own list in Matthew 23. All I can say in response is that, unlike Jesus, I’m an advanced sinner and when I add people to my list, it's usually because I’m striking back, returning evil for evil (I Thess 5:15), and trying to keep a detailed record of wrongs (I Cor 13:5). Which means, at least for me, there’s got to be a better way to deal with such things.

What are your thoughts?

Thursday, May 21, 2015

That Old Story Again? (This Week's Sermons)

As the story of Gideon begins, we find a frightened man, part of a defeated and oppressed people, struggling to survive. Gideon does not want to hear the same old stories of the same old miracles rehashed yet again. Instead, he wants new signs, new wonders, and new information. How does this inform how we think of God’s will in our lives today?

Sermon on Judges 6:1-14, “That Again”
(Click here to download this sermon as an MP3.)

Sermon on Judges 6:11-24; 33-40, “Fleeced” 

(Click here to download this one as an MP3. As always, you can access many more of my sermons on the church website, www.churchlansing.com)



Monday, May 18, 2015

This Present Derpness

My parents recently watched my young son while I was speaking at the Jot Writers Conference in Grand Rapids. When I returned to their place, I saw that they had set aside a few more items from their basement, placing near the door--a subtle hint that I should take them home and place them in my basement. (This has been a slow and steady process since I got married, fifteen years ago).

But this time, it wasn't a box of old toys or school papers. It was one of my masterpieces from my early teen foray into acrylic paints. For a while there in the late-'80s/early-'90s. I churned out a fairly steady supply of Peretti-inspired spiritual warfare pictures. I remember thinking they were pretty awesome.

But they actually looked like this.

(For an in-depth analysis of this work of fine art, click here.)

Friday, May 15, 2015

Praise and Arrows, Redux

A couple years ago, I wrote a gushing review of Cliff Graham’s Lion of War series, about King David’s mighty men. I had read them all in rapid succession and have since read them several more times (as well as literally everything else by Cliff that I can get my hands on).

Cliff is what I would call a true innovator in how he produces and distributes his work. He’s not in any sense a slave to convention, which is truly odd in an industry where convention is something of a demigod. His first couple novels were published by Zondervan and sold through the normal channels for Christian fiction, becoming bestsellers (despite the potential shock value of uber-graphic war novels on shelves next to bonnet fiction). For his next few projects, he established a publishing imprint (or, he would say, a transmedia empire!) and released them himself. Demand did not, it seems, flag. It seems like almost every day, Cliff’s team was giving updates about how they were doing their best to keep up with all the orders and thanks for your patience and sorry for the delay and all that. (I’m guessing that, with the cult following his stuff enjoys, no one complained all that much.)

Here's when this former soldier and youth pastor made a couple of really groundbreaking moves. First, he released an album full of songs about his Lion of War books (especially the first book, Day of War). Only these aren’t written or performed by Cliff. No, these are songs by Trip Lee, Stellar Kart, Audio Adrenaline, and other chart-topping artists. It’s one of my favorite albums and contains the first song to which my six-year-old son spontaneously head-banged. Then the guy (Cliff Graham, not my son) announces that he’s selling memberships to something called the Warpath. What’s that, you ask? It means that you receive advance copy e-books of every single book Cliff writes in perpetuity, including his ongoing (and spectacular) “Hall of Mighty Men” short story series. If you're more of an audio book kind of guy, he's also podcasting these stories. Oh, and he's using a bunch of the money from these projects to go on sting operations to break up human trafficking rings.


Now he’s back on bookstore shelves with a new novel, kicking off a new series about the Exodus and Conquest, through the eyes of Caleb. The first novel is called Shadow of the Mountain: Exodus. I had a chance to read it early and, believe me, it is as good as Day of War, which is crazy-high praise. It came out a couple days ago, and you can pick it up at any bookstore.

I hope I’ve convinced you of how compelling and full of truth Cliff Graham's words are. So let me leave you with a couple quotes of particular interest to me:

1. “This is an exciting step forward for thrillers. Playing Saint grapples with complex themes as well as being richly suspenseful. Highly recommended.”
CLIFF GRAHAM, bestselling author of Day of War
and Shadow of the Mountain: Exodus

(If you don't already have it, you can buy my book Playing Saint at your local bookstore or through Amazon, iTunes, ChristianBook.com, or BN.com)

2. “Hemingway stilled the demons with booze. I still them with the Gut Check Podcast.” 
CLIFF GRAHAM, 4/19/2015

(He said this on the podcast I co-host with Ted Kluck, during one of the most hilariously enjoyable conversations I've had in years. You can listen to it here.)
I’m encouraged that there is more and more good Christian fiction written for men out there, and Cliff Graham’s is some of the best there is. I hope he keeps on writing until he’s an old, grizzled man, like Caleb, telling tales of Good Battle to young warriors.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Join the Team!

Last week, I told you about my forthcoming novel, The Last Con. If you liked Playing Saint, you’ll love this one. If you hated Playing Saint . . . I have to wonder why you’re reading this blog. That’s just weird, man.

Anyway, last week, I also teased my short story Microbes to entice you into sign up for my mailing list. And I promised that I wouldn’t e-mail you more than, like, once every two or three months. That’s still the case and you can sign up by clicking here or going to my website, www.zacharybartels.com.

But if you want to join my Street Team, you'll want to send me an e-mail at streetteam@zacharybartels.com, letting me know that you're willing to help spread the word about the book when it comes out (via facebook, twitter, goodreads, good old fashioned word-of-mouth, etc.).

Over the past four months, a number of people have e-mailed me, telling me they'd be happy to help promote my books however they can. And I've said, “Wow, that's nice of you. Thanks.” But according to the publicist at HarperCollins, I should have been saying, “Well, then join my street team.”Also, I should have a "street team."

(Aside: I kind of hate the term “street team” because it makes me think of Breakway Magazine in the early ’90s with some “radical” neon design on the cover... but apparently, it's an industry standard term, so why mess with it?)

So, what’s in it for you if you sign on? First, you’ll feel a distinctive warm sensation in the cockles of your heart, as you help out a young author with the release of his sophomore book. Also, you’ll get some exclusive content in your inbox from time to time (starting with the first couple chapters of The Last Con and the sample Chapter I wrote for the as-of-yet untitled Playing Saint sequel). But wait—there’s more! Ginsui knives! I’m giving away ginsu knives!

No, I’m not.

But I do have in my possession two Advanced Reader Copies of The Last Con (which comes out July 7) that I am planning to give away in a couple weeks. And they’ll be going members of the Street Team. Click here to e-mail me about joining the street team (clearly I can’t stop saying "street team," despite hating the term, and can't decide if “street team” should be capitalized or not), or just do whatever you do to compose an e-mail and address it to streetteam@zacharybartels.com.

Also, it’s my birthday today. And all I want for my birthday is your unswerving dedication to promoting my books. Or, ya know, some K-cups and a Monte Cristo.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Con is On in Sixty Days

It’s the seventh of May. In two months, my next book The Last Con hits bookstore shelves. I’m really excited about this one and can’t wait for you to read it.

When people hear I have another book coming out, “Is it a sequel?” is the most common question. The answer is, no, it doesn't involve Parker Saint or the Jesuits Militant (although, literally ten minutes ago, I was finishing up a book proposal for a second Parker Saint book). It does, however, contain a lot of the same elements: snarky humor, shadowy societies and religious orders, a conflicted protagonist, and an ancient Christian relic. Add to all that mob enforcers, elaborate heists, con men, kidnappers, and computer hackers.

Here’s the back cover copy:

The Knights of Malta were there when Jerusalem fell, they were there when the Templars disintegrated, and they’re there now . . . waiting in Detroit for a born-again con man trying to save his family.

Former con man Fletcher Doyle is finally home after six years in the pen. He’s working a menial job, regaining his bearings in the world, and trying to revive his relationships with his wife and twelve-year-old daughter. No easy feat.

But when Fletcher and his family go on a mission trip to Detroit—in the company of the condescending church leader who also happens to be his landlord—Fletcher finds his old life waiting for him. Within hours of arriving in the city, he’s been blackmailed into doing a job for a mysterious criminal who calls himself The Alchemist.

A series of relics hidden by the Knights of Malta, as ancient as they are priceless, are in the sights of The Alchemist. What he needs is a gifted grifter with a background in ecclesiastical history . . . what he needs is Fletcher Doyle.

Between hiding his reawakened criminal life from his wife, and trying to hide her from their relentless landlord, Fletcher is ready to give up. But when his family is drawn into the dangerous world he can’t shake, Fletcher is forced to rely on his years in the game to save the only people who mean more to him than the biggest con in history.

If you’d like to receive the first couple chapters in your inbox, and have a chance to win an advanced copy, six weeks before it comes out, check back here on Monday!


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

New Short Story

Hey, I’ve written a short story called Microbes. I want to send it to you. To read it, you need only sign up for my mailing list. (I promise to e-mail you no more than once every two or three months.) You can do so by going to my website (www.zacharybartels.com) or by clicking here

Here are the first few paragraphs of the story, to hopefully whet your appetite:

October 13, 1988

            Doctor Pendleton pounded on the side door of the small ranch house, rattling the flimsy aluminum and Plexiglas. BAM BAM BAM. He wiped the fog from his glasses. It was drizzling out and he was freezing and he wanted to be anywhere but here. BAM BAM.
            “I know you’re in there, Eddie!” he called. “You need to come with me. Okay? You should be in a hospital!” He took a step back and tried to peer through the sheer curtains obscuring his view.
            He felt a gust of warm air as the door flew open and he was suddenly face-to-face with a stocky redhead in his mid-thirties. The man was covered with a patina of sweat and dressed in a dirty flannel shirt and ripped jeans.
            “Oh,” Pendleton said, and took another step back. “It’s you.”
            “Yeah, it’s me.” The redheaded man glared at the doctor. “Come in if you want. Eddie’s upstairs if you have something to tell him”
            The doctor felt his feet pointing involuntarily back toward his car, but overrode the instinct and forced three timid steps into the stale entryway. It was all cigarette smoke and fake wood paneling, a potent reminder of why he did not make house calls. He immediately regretted entering and turned back toward the door just in time to see it slammed shut. He opened his mouth to protest, but found himself slammed against the wall of the small stairway leading up to the kitchen.
            The stocky man growled, “What do you think you’re doing coming here? Huh?”
            The doctor couldn’t find his voice to respond.
            “Maybe I won’t let you leave. Maybe I’ll keep you here against your will. For weeks.” He drew his bushy red eyebrows halfway up his forehead. “Sound familiar?”
            “I’m just worried about Eddie. That’s all.”
            “Bull. I think you’re worried about you. And we know a little more than you think we know, so you should be worried. Got us a P.I.”
            “No, no.” Dr. Pendleton squirmed. “I’m not—” A little voice in his head kept telling him to deck the big flushed face before him, but a more reasonable voice assured him it wouldn’t even faze the bear of a man.
            “I’m telling you,” he continued, “Eddie’s sick.”
            You’re sick.”
            “He’s in need of medical attention.”
            Suddenly calm and articulate, Eddie released the doctor.  “Listen to me, Doc, and understand what I’m telling you: if you ever come near this house or Eddie again, you’re going to need medical attention.”
            Just then, Eddie came shuffling up to the top of the stairs in a bathrobe and slippers, a 12 gauge shotgun under his arm. He narrowed his eyes at the sight of the doctor.  “You shouldn’t be here,” he said, his voice weak and raspy. “You’re in the muck now.” Cough.  “Patrick’s going to teach you a lesson, aren’t you boy?”
            Patrick ran five fingers through his mop of red hair. “I think the doctor grasps the material already. But a little assurance can’t hurt.” He reached his chopping block hand up toward Eddie. “Give us the 12-gauge.” He gave Dr. Pendleton a shove and pushed the barrel of the gun up to his chin.
            “And you—give me your wallet,” he ordered. The doctor hesitated. “Now!” Patrick racked the pump. With his left hand, he accepted and examined the wallet.
            Eddie was leaning on the railing, breathing with some difficulty.
            “Uncle Eddie, go lay down,” Patrick ordered.
            When he’d shuffled away, the doctor said, “He needs help. He’s going to die, you know.”

If you want to read the rest, you have to sign up!

Friday, May 1, 2015

John Owen, John Piper, John Kreese (This Week's Sermons)

The story of Deborah and Barak (which really kind of folds into the story of Jael and Sisera) is one of the most bizarrely brutal accounts in all of Scripture. It's also super-awesome. But what can a 21st-Century Christian take away from this? In these two sermons, we look first at the account itself, and then Deborah's Song recounting the victory, and find words of encouragement, wisdom, and conviction. With a little Kobra Kai action thrown in for good measure.

Sermon on Judges 4, “Deborah”
(Click here to download this sermon as an MP3.)

Sermon on Judges 5, “Life-Song” 

(Click here to download this one as an MP3. As always, you can access many more of my sermons on the church website, www.churchlansing.com)