October 20, 2015

The Deadly Sin of Fiction Writing

Category: Literature :: Permalink

In his entertaining book on writing fiction — not great literature, but fiction that will hook the reader and give him enjoyment — H. Bedford-Jones, “The King of the Pulps,” reveals what he considers to be the “deadly sin” that fiction writers often commit.

It’s not the lack of plot.  Bedford-Jones himself was sometimes accused by editors of writing stories that didn’t have plots, novels that consisted of one episode after another, without one overarching plot that linked everything together.  He argues that that sort of plot really isn’t crucial for a story, that there are great stories that lack that sort of overarching plot, though every paragraph of the story should be critical and no paragraph should be extraneous.

But what is the deadly sin?  It’s the “lack of perception as to what must be emphasized, played up strong!” (46).  It is the “lack of proportion in telling the story” (50).  It’s … well, it’s what you’ve experienced from time to time when you’ve read a story:

You read a story, get interested in the characters, find the plot absorbing and good, entertaining.  When you come to the climax, do you want to be told that the hero “knocked the skipper into the scuppers, overawed the crew, and took command of the ship?”  Not much.  You want the details of the knocking and overawing.  You want to be on the inside, learn how the thing was done!  In other words, you want to follow the emotions of the hero in detail.

Never forget that the reader, in general, identifies himself with the chief character of a story.  He desires to see things through the eyes of that character.  When the reader arrives at some crucial point in the tale and finds it glossed over in a couple of sentences, he is bitterly disappointed….

The amateur writer seems bound to commit this sin.  He seldom realizes what points in his story he should lay most emphasis upon, and what points are least vital to his tale.  It is a question of seeing the story in his own mind, of visualizing it, in its proper proportions.  This perception of values, however, is something that he must come to learn unless he is to fail utterly.  It is, undoubtedly, the great essential of fiction writing (This Fiction Business, 46-47, 48).

Posted by John Barach @ 12:41 pm | Discuss (1)

To Be Seen or Not to Be Seen

Category: Bible - NT - Matthew :: Permalink

Commentary after commentary claims that the way to resolve the apparent contradiction between Matthew 5:16 (“Let your light so shine that men may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven”) and 6:1 (“Take care not to do your righteousness before men to be seen by them”) is by focusing on intention. On the one hand, we aren’t to do good works before men to be seen by them, as if that and that alone, were our goal. On the other hand, we are to do good works before men to be seen by them so that they will glorify God.

But what these commentaries all seem to overlook in their exclusive focus on intention is that Jesus is talking about different sets of good works, different kinds of good works. Matthew 6:1 does not stand by itself, or as a conclusion to Matthew 5. It introduces a new section of the Sermon on the Mount.

The earlier section — which includes the works we are to do in order to be seen by men so that they will glorify our Father in heaven — talks about how we deal with anger and lust, with eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth, with the inconveniences that oppressors heap upon us, with our enemies.

The section that 6:1 introduces has to do with the three foundational acts of Jewish piety: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. These acts, unlike the acts of ch. 5, are not to be done to be seen by men.

Jesus does not say that it’s okay to do these things in public, in an attention-getting way, so long as our motive is evangelistic and not self-aggrandizing, so that people will glorify God and not us. Rather, he says to do these things … but to do them in private, to not let your left hand know what your right hand is giving, to shut yourself into your inner room to pray so that no one watches, to look normal — or even as if you’re feasting — when you’re fasting.

That is to say, in his instructions Jesus does not focus simply on intentions (though intentions matter) but on actions that guard against our wrong intentions getting the upper hand.

Posted by John Barach @ 12:32 pm | Discuss (0)
January 16, 2015

Pitter on Narnia

Category: History,Literature :: Permalink

One of Lewis’s female friends (and yes, he did have some!) was the poet Ruth Pitter.  Largely unknown today, Pitter was the first woman to win the Queen’s Medal for Poetry.  She and Lewis met on occasion and exchanged a number of letters.  I expect that she found it rather tiresome, after Lewis’s death, to have quoted to her and to be asked about what Lewis allegedly said to his friend Hugo Dyson: “I am not a man for marriage; but if I were, I would ask R.P.”

She writes about one meeting with Lewis and his brother, Major “Warnie” Lewis.  Pitter had asked if she “might query him about the first of his children’s books,” and Lewis consented.  She reports that the conversation went like this (Ruth Pitter, “Poet to Poet,” in In Search of C. S. Lewis, ed. Stephen Schofield, 113):

PITTER: In the land of Narnia, the witch makes it always winter and never Christmas?


PITTER: Does she allow any foreign trade?

LEWIS: She does not.

PITTER: Am I allowed to postulate on the lines of Santa Claus with the tea tray?

LEWIS: You are not.

PITTER: Then where did all the materials for the good dinner the beavers gave came from?

LEWIS: The beavers caught fish through holes in the ice.

PITTER: Yes, the potatoes to go with them, the flour and sugar and oranges and milk for the children?

LEWIS: I must refer you to a further study of the text.

MAJOR LEWIS: Nonsense, Jack!  You’re stumped.  And you know it.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:46 pm | Discuss (1)

C. S. Lewis’s Full Household

Category: History :: Permalink

When you think of C. S. Lewis, do you think of a somewhat crusty bachelor who would, of course, have little experience of women, let alone of children, least of all of female children?  If your image of Lewis comes from the movie Shadowlands, you might be forgiven for thinking that Lewis had no friends.  There isn’t a Coghill, a Williams, a Tolkien, a Barfield, or even a Warnie hanging out with Lewis in that film.  He’s a loner until the Joy Davidman character appears.

Even in his life, Lewis had something of a reputation as a misogynist, it seems.  In a really rather awful interview with Stephen Schofield, who actually eggs him on, Malcolm Muggeridge proposes that there is some mystery about Lewis, something to do “with his attitude toward women and sex,” and Schofield responds by saying that he was told that “whenever a woman came on the College grounds, Lewis would run as fast as his legs would take him to his room and lock the door” (Schofield, ed., In Search of C. S. Lewis, 128).  Sheldon Vanauken responded to this interview when it was first published and calls this a “rather silly story,” refuting it by pointing to Lewis’s female students (Schofield 164-165), but, while including Vanauken’s response, Schofield still seems to have thought highly enough of the original interview to publish it unedited, thereby perpetuating the legend of Lewis’s dislike of women.

If you read Lewis’s letters, however, you get a very different picture.  Though Lewis did spend weeknights at the College, his weekends were spent at his house, The Kilns.  And what a crowded house that must have been.  For most of his life, Lewis lived with an older woman, the mother of one of Lewis’s army friends who died in World War I.  Lewis regarded her as a sort of surrogate mother and called her his mother in his letters.  He also cared for her teenaged daughter, providing for her education out of his own salary.  His brother Warnie also lived in that house.  And during the war, when children and young people were evacuated from London, several of them stayed at the Kilns.

While I disapprove of Schofield’s interview with Muggeridge, I most heartily approve of his including material from a couple of these girls.  Patricia Heidelberger describes living at Lewis’s house with another evacuee, Marie Jose Bosc.  She says that they were “extremely lively, noisy and giggly.  He never reproached us” (53).  Lewis helped them with their homework, encouraged Patricia to go to Oxford.  She says, he “coached me in Latin, and even taught me a little Greek” (54).  And then he provided financial assistance to both girls to help Patricia with her university dues and Marie with the costs of her nurses training.

June Flewett (better known as Jill Freud) also lived for about two years at Lewis’s house.  She says that Lewis loaned her books. “He told me to go to Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford, anytime, and buy any book I wanted on his account” (57).  She writes:

Lewis was the first person who made me believe that I was an intelligent human being and the whole of the time I was there he built up my confidence in myself and in my ability to think and understand.  He never put me down.  He never made me feel foolish, no matter how small my contribution towards any conversation might be (57).

She recalls Lewis’s attempts to help the houseboy:

For some months we had a young man living at the Kilns.  He worked as a houseboy and general helper.  He was probably introduced by the Social Services Department, and he was what we would now call educationally subnormal.  He had the mentality of a child of eight.  Every evening Jack Lewis taught him to read.  Lewis made drawings and letter cards for him; he went through the alphabet with him and tried to teach him small words, and so on.  I don’t think he had a great deal of success because the young man found it hard to retain anything.  But for more than two months Jack Lewis went through the alphabet with him every evening (57-58).

Misogynist?  Freud quotes the poem Lewis wrote in her copy of The Screwtape Letters (59):

Beauty and brains and virtue never dwell
Together in one place, the critics say.
Yet we have known a case
You must not ask her name
But seek it ‘twixt July and May.

As for female students, Rosamond Cowan, who was one of the first two women students Lewis had, writes,

At first we were a bit frightened as he had a reputation of being a “man’s man.”  We rather thought he would be a bit down on women.  Actually he was delightful.  He told me I reminded him of a Shakespearean heroine — a compliment I’ve always cherished. He certainly treated me like one (62).

At the beginning of chapter 14 of Lewis’s Preface to Paradise Lost, he credits a Miss Muriel Bentley for the thoughts he develops in that chapter.  Who was she?  A Milton scholar?  No, says Schofield.  “She was nothing of the sort.  She was a student, aged twenty-one, of Somerville College” (74), which means she didn’t study under Lewis or write anything for him, nor had she even published an essay on Paradise Lost.  “All he had from me,” she says, “were examination papers” (74).  That’s all — and yet Lewis gave her credit for an insight that opened his eyes to something he might otherwise not have noticed.

Far from the loner-Lewis stuck in a lot of people’s imaginations, then, the real Lewis had a full household — brother, surrogate mother (often and increasingly sick), and a bunch of young women, to say nothing of a houseboy — all of whom he tried to help in various ways.  Far from being a woman-hater, the real Lewis, who may indeed have preferred the company of men to that of women, gave himself courteously in service to a great number of women in his household and in his classes and, as a glance at his letters reveals, in his correspondence.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:40 pm | Discuss (1)
December 12, 2014

Learning to Love Leviticus

Category: Bible - OT - Leviticus :: Permalink

If you’ve ever tried to read through the Bible in a year, chances are you bogged down, if not in the tabernacle instructions at the end of Exodus then almost certainly in Leviticus.  You’re not alone.  But Leviticus is essential reading nevertheless.  In this article, on the Theopolis Institute’s blog, I talk about the benefit of studying Leviticus.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:08 pm | Discuss (1)
September 11, 2014

Samson the Womanizer?

Category: Bible - OT - Judges :: Permalink

Samson, commentaries on Judges 14 tell me, was a womanizer. That’s probably because in Judges 16, twenty years later, Samson visits a prostitute and then gets involved with Delilah … and the commentators then read those events back into Judges 14, twenty years earlier.

But what does Samson do in Judges 14? Is he driven here by sheer lust? Well, he sees a woman, judges that she’s the right one for him, sends his father to negotiate for her, goes and visits her himself and talks to her and still concludes that she is the right one for him, and then proceeds to marry her. Wow! What a lust-driven womanizer, huh?

Commentaries puzzle me sometimes….

Posted by John Barach @ 1:01 pm | Discuss (0)

The “Pagan Origins” Fallacy

Category: Church Year,Ethics,Theology :: Permalink

“Christmas trees have pagan origins, so they’re bad. For that matter, Christmas and Easter have pagan origins, and so they’re bad. The theater has pagan origins, so it’s bad (and so are any other forms of acting).” And so on and so on.

Heard anything like this? Godly people should have nothing to do with anything that (allegedly) has pagan origins.

How about this one: Musical instruments have pagan origins, and so they’re bad. Truly godly people would stay away from them.

Here’s something we’re told explicitly in the Bible: It was in the line of Cain, among the ungodly, that we first find musicians with instruments. Cain’s murderous descendant Lamech has three sons, one of whom, Jubal, is described as “the father of all those who play the harp and flute” (Gen 4:21). So there you have it: According to the Bible, expertise in musical instruments springs from the family of the ungodly.

But does that mean that the godly must never use musical instruments? Certainly not. David plays an instrument. David, under the inspiration of God, designs and commissions instruments for the Temple that Solomon will build. The Levites play instruments from that time on. The Psalms commend the use of instruments, even in the worship of God.

In fact, notice that it’s not just music that the ungodly develop in Genesis 4. It’s also metallurgy and agribusiness. Lamech’s son Jabal “was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock” (Gen 4:20). And Lamech’s other son Tubal-Cain was, literally, “the sharpener of every craftsman in bronze and iron” (Gen 4:22).  As Jubal was the “father” of musicians–that is, the one who taught and trained and developed them–so Jabal and Tubal-Cain trained and taught all those who excelled in their fields.  If “pagan origins” mean that we have to stay away from something, then we ought to stay away, not only from music, but from agribusiness and blacksmithery, too.  But, of course, that’s not what Scripture teaches.

And therefore this argument — “If it has pagan origins it’s bad and godly people should abstain from it” — fails on biblical grounds. It adds to Scripture, setting a standard higher than the one God sets, and therefore ought to be rejected and condemned.   (For more, see James B. Jordan’s “The Menace of Chinese Food.”)

It certainly is true that these skills were developed first among the wicked, and that’s worth thinking about.  One of the patterns we see in Scripture, not least in Genesis 4, is what Jim Jordan calls “the Enoch factor,” which is this: The wicked get there first. It’s in the city of Enoch, Cain’s city, that we first find a lot of wonderful things. That poses a temptation to the righteous, the temptation to intermingle with the wicked and to forsake bearing faithful witness in order to enjoy those good things. But we fight that temptation by remembering what Jordan (somewhere) calls “the Jerusalem factor”: the righteous get there in the end.

So musical instruments and agribusiness and metallurgy may start in Cain’s city, among the wicked.  They may have “pagan origins.”  But they end up in David’s city, even being employed in God’s Temple. As the Proverb says, “The wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous” (13:22).

Posted by John Barach @ 12:50 pm | Discuss (0)

Riddlemasters (Judges 14)

Category: Bible - OT - Judges :: Permalink

In Judges 14 and again in Judges 15, we’re told that the Philistines were “ruling” over Israel.

Given the riddle contest in Judges 14, it’s interesting that the root of the word for “ruling” here (MShL) has a homophone — the exact same spelling, the exact same sound — that appears in other places and means “riddle, parable.”

Is there, perhaps, a play on words here? As Jeremy Schipper (“Narrative Obscurity of Samson’s [HiYDaH] in Judges 14.14 and 18,” JSOT 27.3 [2003] 339-353) points out, you could even render the lines in Judges 14 and 15 as “the Philistines were posing riddles over Israel.” But in Judges 14, it’s Samson who proves to be the true riddlemaster, with dominion over the Philistines.

Posted by John Barach @ 12:26 pm | Discuss (1)

The Nazirite Fetus (Judges 13)

Category: Bible - OT - Judges :: Permalink

Samson’s mother is under the dietary prohibitions associated with a Nazirite vow only because her son in her womb is a Nazirite. Samson was a Nazirite, not from birth on but from conception on. And therefore, according to Judges 13, life begins at conception.

Posted by John Barach @ 12:20 pm | Discuss (0)
September 1, 2014

Chronology of the Samson Narrative

Category: Bible - OT - Judges :: Permalink

How does the story of Samson’s conception and birth fit into the forty-year Philistine oppression?

The Angel of Yahweh tells Samson’s mother that Samson will begin to deliver Israel.  When she reports to her husband, she interprets the Angel’s message as meaning that Samson will die without completing the task of delivering Israel: he will be a Nazirite, she says, until his death.  So the forty-year Philistine oppression ends sometime after Samson’s death.

But it cannot end “well beyond” it, as Barry Webb (350) mysteriously says.  After all, Samson’s death comes after twenty years of judging Israel, and Samson begins judging Israel at a time when he is ready to get married.  Those twenty years as judge didn’t begin when he was a child, but rather when he was a man.  He was probably twenty years old, the age of manhood in the book of Numbers, though my point here still stands even if he was a year or two younger.

Putting twenty years of judgeship together with twenty years of growing up prior to judging Israel gives us a total lifespan for Samson of (about) forty years, which roughly coincides with the entire length of the Philistine oppression.  Samson begins to deliver Israel and accomplishes the greatest part of his work at his death, and then the full deliverance comes.

But not in the time of David, as K. Lawson Younger suggests (287n11: “Samson will only begin the process of deliverance.  The delivering activities of Samuel, Saul, Jonathan, and David are yet future”).  There is simply no way to fit Samson’s youth, Samson’s judgeship, Saul’s reign, and David’s rule until his victory over the Philistines into the space of forty years.  Instead, the most obvious answer is that this particular Philistine oppression ended at the battle of Mizpah (1 Sam 7), when Samuel led Israel to victory.  That, in turn, means that Samuel and Samson were contemporaries and that the battle of Mizpah took place only shortly after Samson’s death.

The battle of Mizpah itself comes twenty years after the fateful battle of Aphek, when the Ark was captured by the Philistines and the high priest, Eli, died (1 Sam 4).  The removal and capture of the Ark is the tearing apart of the Tabernacle of Moses, and the Tabernacle was never put together again.  When the Philistines removed the Ark, it was not returned to the Tabernacle but was kept in Kiriath Jearim for those twenty years (1 Sam 7:2).   As James Jordan points out, this chronology suggests that Samson’s actions in Judges 14-15 may take place just after Aphek, perhaps even during the time when the Ark was in captivity in Philistia.

These calculations are significant also for the beginning of the Samson narrative.  Barry Webb writes about Judges 13: “By the time Samson is born the Philistine domination over Israel is so complete, and the morale of Israel so low, that even the hope that Yahweh might save them has been extinguished. There is no strength even to cry out” (350).  And certainly Israel doesn’t cry out in Judges 13, and by Judges 15 Judah is even willing to hand over its savior to the Philistines.

But if we count backwards from the end of Samson’s life to the beginning, those forty years, we discover God’s grace.  Normally, in Judges, Israel cries out to Yahweh after several years of oppression, and only then does Yahweh raise up a judge.  But Judges 13 doesn’t take place (as Webb may imply) after a long time of Philistine oppression.  It takes place at the beginning of it.  At the very time the Philistine oppression starts and without any mention of Israel crying out for help, Yahweh is already preparing the judge, sending his Angel to announce to a barren woman the conception of the one who will begin to deliver Israel.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:46 pm | Discuss (1)

Samson the Prankster?

Category: Bible - OT - Judges :: Permalink

As with Jephthah, so with Samson. Commentators seem to vie with one another in finding terms with which to vilify him. Robert O’Connell (The Rhetoric of the Book of Judges), for instance, calls Samson a “self-gratifying brute” and “a prankish womanizer,” and says that his “acts of deliverance are rarely better than by-products of his spiteful nature.”

Contrast these descriptions with that of Hebrews 11, where Samson is one of the great examples of a faithful man, one of those “who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.”

These two approaches have implications for what we do with the details of the Samson narrative.  If you view Samson’s actions in Judges 14-15 as “pranks,” then you are spared the trouble of having to interpret them, of trying to see what meaning they might have.  Instead, they’re just a bunch of dumb, destructive, pointless things that a “self-gratifying brute” driven by his “spiteful nature” did instead of actually saving Israel.

But if Samson was, as Judges 13 tells us, “impelled” by the Spirit of God, then his actions are worth thinking about.  In fact, we discover in Judges 14 that Samson tells riddles, which leads us to consider his actions also as riddles, puzzling parables full of wisdom.  Judges 14-15, then, invites us to wrack our brains to figure out what the Spirit — and Samson! — had in mind so that we can grow in wisdom ourselves.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:03 pm | Discuss (0)
August 13, 2014

Expulsion from the Garden (Judges 8-9)

Category: Bible - OT - Judges :: Permalink

Adam grabs for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and in the Bible the knowledge of good and evil is especially associated with the sort of wisdom that kings need. David has it and Solomon asks for it. Adam is grabbing for kingship and ends up expelled from the Garden so that he doesn’t enter into God’s rest.

At the center of Judges, Israel asks Gideon to be their king, thereby rejecting Yahweh as king. They’re grabbing for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And even though Gideon himself rejects their request and calls them to acknowledge only Yahweh as their king, he adopts the trappings of (pagan) kingship and even names his son Abimelech (“My father is king”). He touches the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but the land still has rest.

But what Gideon is tempted by and dabbles in, Abimelech adopts, killing his brothers to become king of Israel. He eats the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And from then on, we never hear again in Judges “the land had rest for X years.” God continues to raise up judges and they “rule” for X years, but Israel, like Adam, having rejected Yahweh as king, is expelled from God’s rest.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:50 pm | Discuss (0)