Monday, February 23, 2015

Reflections on a Snow Day . . .

    We Texans are complete and utter wimps when it comes to freezing precipitation.  We admit to it and are comfortable with the fact, primarily because we get so very little snow or ice down here.  As a schoolteacher, we might get one or two days off for freezing conditions every school year - and you need to understand, we cancel school at the sight of a snowflake!  So on the rare, joyous occasion when accumulated ice and snow give us a day off work, we take great joy in the opportunity for relaxation that a snow day provides.
    This winter, the meteorologists have been teasing us with forecasts of snow or sleet that haven't come to pass.  Two or three times they have put it in the five day outlook only to take it out again as the promised day grew closer.  So last week, when they said we might get a winter weather event come Monday, I took it with a grain of salt.  But as the promised day grew closer, the probability began to increase rather than decrease, and I began to get my hopes up.  Saturday was gorgeous - I went walking along the lakeshore in my shirtsleeves and was completely comfortable the whole time, even as the sun began to set.  In fact, I was a bit hot when I got back to my trusty Nissan Xterra, because I'd been hustling to get there before it was completely dark.  But Sunday dawned cold and rainy, and the temperatures kept dropping all day.  That evening Patty and I watched on the news as the freeze line began to approach from the west and the thermometer neared the 32 degree mark.  Around 9 PM I got the much-awaited group text from my school - classes canceled tomorrow!  An hour later, Patty got the same message from her campus.
    So what do two middle aged teachers do when they get a whole day off, socked in by terrible weather?  (And it was yucky - it began sleeting at 6 AM and continued through this afternoon!)  Well, the obvious answer is "Sleep in!"  That was my full intent, but at 6 AM my wife had to get up, and when she came back to bed she TURNED THE LIGHT ON for a moment, its scalding brightness searing my eyeballs as I had just raised my lids to see what she was up to!  Then she lay down and began scrolling through text messages on her phone.  The LED screen really isn't that bright, but in my sleep-befuddled condition it felt like Nazi storm troopers were interrogating me with strobe lights and rubber truncheons.  After a half hour or so of this, she decides to roll over and go back to sleep - while I am totally wired and unable to doze off, no matter how hard I try!
    So I got on up and went downstairs, hopped onto my faithful desktop PC and checked out my various social media and discussion forums, making sure to gloat at those who were having to go in to work today.  Then I went to my relic room and catalogued my most recent artifact finds (my collection is up to almost 8800 catalogued Indian artifacts, the vast majority of them personal finds).    After that I went upstairs and took great pleasure in waking my wife on up.  She made French toast for the family, and I completed two of my winter weather rituals:  dashing outside and running a complete lap around the house in T-shirt, shorts, and bare feet (don't ask me why I do this), and then later in the afternoon, after watching a really terrible B-movie called LOST LEGION, I got in my SUV and drove to the end of the road and back to see what conditions were like (pretty bad still). 
    By now it was 3 in the afternoon, and time to do the one chore I had been dreading the most: feeding my goats.  I bought two 50 lb sacks of goat food on my "stocking-up run" (a mandatory tradition in the South anytime there is the remotest chance of the slightest accumulation of freezing precipitation - you are required to go to your local grocery store and/or Wal-Mart and buy enough food and sundries to last you through a mid-sized zombie apocalypse) the day before, but had left them in the back of my vehicle because it was getting dark when I got home with them and I had no desire to carry them down to the barn in the very cold rain.  But now the ground was mostly frozen and I had boots on, so I grabbed a sack over my shoulder and headed down to the barn.  The goats (we have 27 of them at the moment) were ravenous, and I tried to beat them into the barn and shut the gate so I could empty the sacks and fill their troughs in peace, but five of them slipped in ahead of me.  I emptied the sack into the grain bin and had to run back to the car for the other one, this time pushing my way through goats outside AND inside the barn, all clamoring for food.  So I finally got the feed in the troughs and did a quick count of all our new kids - all about 6 weeks or so old - and came up one short.  They are just entering what we affectionately call "the stupid stage" where the young goats discover that they can stick their head through the goat wire to graze on the other side of the fence, but their little horns don't let them fit their heads back through quite so easily.  I had visions of a poor, half-frozen kid shivering in the cold with his head stuck in the fence, so my daughter Rachel and I walked the entire perimeter looking for the missing baby - only to find him in the barn with his mom when we got back!  We figured he must have been hidden in the pushing, shoving clump of goats around the trough the first time we counted.
   So here I am back at the house, and I really need to get to finish the next chapter of my work in progress, a novel called LOVER OF GOD, since I left my main character, Marcus Quintus Publius, in the middle of a tense interview with the High King of the Parthian Empire - but my muse is snoozing on the job today, so I wrote this blog entry instead.  I hope you enjoyed it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Christianity, Islam, and Violence - What is the Connection?

   I'll just say this at the very start: The vast majority of the world's Muslim population have never killed anyone in the name of Allah and probably never will.  What most Muslims want is to be left alone, to raise their children and practice their faith in peace.  Many of them are appalled, embarrassed, and ashamed of the things that have been done in the name of Islam in recent years, and are not afraid to say so.  Their culture contains many traditions that cherish kindness, loyalty, and hospitality.
    And I will even go so far as to agree with the basic accuracy of President Obama's comments at the National Prayer Breakfast last week: that many terrible things have been done throughout history in the name of Christianity.  The Crusades, the Inquisition, the conquest of the New World, and slavery have all been carried out at one time or another under the banner of the cross.  But most of the examples he cited are hundreds of years in the past.
    On the other hand . . . since World War II, only Communism has racked up a death toll in excess of the numbers killed by Muslims in the name of Allah.  Every day, all around the world, the cry of "Allahu Akbar!" is uttered as a radical follower of Muhammad ends the life of someone who does not share his faith.  Unfortunately, the majority of the victims of Islamic violence are not Westerners or Christians, but other Muslims.  It is a problem that is felt throughout the Muslim world to some degree, and to an epidemic level in the Middle East, where followers of ISIS, in the last few weeks, have burned a Jordanian pilot alive, beheaded 21 Coptic Christians from Egypt, and crucified or beheaded many others for religious reasons - either because they were Christians who refused to embrace Islam, or because they were Muslims who refused to accept the new Caliphate that ISIS seeks to establish.  While jihadists can be found in every branch of the Muslim faith (I would define a "jihadist" as any Muslim who is willing to kill for the purpose of his religion), it seems as if the radicalized Sunnis are perhaps the most bloodthirsty - but that may be because they are simply the most numerous branch of their faith.
    Christians, too, occasionally commit acts of religious violence, and in some parts of the world, most notably Africa,  there are Christian militias who are waging good old fashioned religious warfare against their Muslim or animist neighbors (most of these militias, I will say, were formed in self-defense after the Christian communities became targets of violence).  But there is no such thing as a global "jihad for Jesus" to compare to the epidemic of bloodshed that seems to perpetually flourish in the Muslim world.  Why not?
   Stripping aside all bias, I think that in order to understand the problem, you must return to the roots of each faith.  With no disrespect intended to the founder of either religion, and relying on their own holy Scriptures for information, it is immediately apparent that Muhammad and Jesus of Nazareth were two very different people.
   Jesus of Nazareth worked for some thirty years as a carpenter before becoming an itinerant preacher.  He taught a Gospel of love - love for God and for one's fellow man.  He never once advocated violence of any kind against any person or sect.  He told his followers to love their enemies and pray for those who persecuted them.  As far as the canonical Gospels testify, he never once held a sword or deliberately harmed another person.  When he was betrayed, arrested, tortured, and crucified, he not only refused to defend himself but rebuked his disciples for attempting to do so.  In a violent world, he was remarkably non-violent figure, and taught his followers to be the same.
   Muhammad as a young man escorted camel caravans through bandit-haunted deserts, defending his clients' property with the sword. After receiving his visions from Allah, he became a militant religious leader, never putting aside his blade.  He led raids against caravans from Mecca after the city turned him out; he ordered the executions of his political and religious enemies, and commanded his followers to make war on unbelievers, and expelled Christians and Jews from the territories he controlled.  He was a man of war, a violent product of a violent culture.  While he also spoke on topics of love and forgiveness, and many other commendable virtues, he still commanded his followers to wage war on all other faiths, until all men embraced Allah or at least submitted to Muslim rule.  Muhammad was a Prophet to his followers, but he was also a man of war throughout his entire life.
   When Christians kill in the name of Jesus, they do so in direct violation of the teachings and example of Jesus of Nazareth.  The more closely a Christian follows the teachings of Christ, the less likely he is to be a violent person.  When a Muslim kills in the name of Allah, he is actually obeying the teachings of Muhammad and following the Prophet's personal example.  There are many progressive Muslims worldwide who have rejected violence altogether and are seeking to reform their faith into a more modern and tolerant mold, and they deserve the support and praise of every civilized person. But it is wrong to think of groups like ISIS as having "hijacked" Islam when a study of the faith's history shows that they are actually trying to return to the roots of Islam, and make it - once more - a religion of conquest under the banner of the Prophet.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


I can't really speak for any author besides myself, so when I answer these questions that people pose to me, I am simply giving you MY answer.  Every writer's answer may be quite different.  But since I published THE TESTIMONIUM last year, several people have asked me this question, so I thought I would repeat it here and give you my answer.

NOTE: This entry contains a number of spoilers regarding my novel, THE TESTIMONIUM.  If you have not read my book yet, please go immediately and purchase a copy, then finish reading it before returning to this entry. You will be glad you did.

(Also, let me know if the cheap marketing ploy above actually works!)

The question is this:  When you begin a story, do you know how it will end?  And how long it will be?

   The answer is pretty simple: NO.  At least, not entirely.

   The idea for THE TESTIMONIUM occurred to me when I did an Easter monologue about ten years ago, with Pontius Pilate dictating a letter back to Tiberius Caesar trying to explain what had happened during that fateful Passover in Jerusalem.  I began to think and turn over the idea in my head: What if that letter really existed?  And what if we found it today?

   And that was it.  The idea sat dormant in my head for several years, until one day during GCS chapel the first chapter suddenly sprang up in my brain.  I frantically began writing on a piece of scratch paper I had in my Bible (sorry Trent Brown, I may have missed the gist of your message that morning).  At first, I recorded nothing but names.   "Joshua Parker" - a combination of the names of two seniors I was teaching that year, Josh Collins and John Parker.  "Isabella Sforza" - my daughter Rebecca was (thankfully) leaving her TWILIGHT phase behind, but the name Isabella was indelibly engraved in my brain.  "Sforza" was a powerful family in Renaissance era Italian politics that I knew from teaching world history.  Giuseppe Rossini - Rossini from the composer, Giuseppe because, well, it's an Italian name I happened to know. Father Duncan MacDonald - Duncan was my sister-in-law's maiden name, and as for MacDonald - well, I was getting hungry for lunch, OK?
    An earthquake.  Damage to the ruins of Tiberius' villa.  A secret chamber.  I had NO IDEA where I was going with this.  I knew that there would be a romance between Josh and Isabella, but I had no idea they would wind up getting married.  I knew the scroll would be discovered, translated, and published - and I had a sinking feeling that it might be destroyed before it could be fully authenticated.  But how I did not know.
   But the following storylines I had no concept of until they just, well, HAPPENED as I was writing: the truck bomb, Rossini's death, Josh's parents coming to Italy, Luke and Alicia Martens becoming major characters, and Josh getting shot.  In fact, I wasn't really sure if that was how it would shake out until I was writing the penultimate chapter and that HORRIBLE cliffhanger popped into my head - you who have read the book know the one I am talking about, I have gotten actual death threats over it!
   In short, I had a vague idea where the story might be going, but at the same time, I had no idea how many twists and turns it would encounter along the way.  I'm glad I kept writing them down as they popped into my head, and I hope you enjoyed reading them as much as I loved writing them.
   Right now I am about two thirds of the way through my fourth novel, LOVER OF GOD, and I have no idea how it's going to end.  But I intend to keep writing and find out!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Darwinism, Evolution, and Ethics . . . my FB Firestorm!

Last weekend I posted these thoughts on my FaceBook page.  They started a long and involved debate between several of my friends that is still going on, four days and fifty posts later.  I'm going to paste my original post below, and add a few of my subsequent thoughts to it.  Here is what started it all:

    If you ask a room full of 100 people how many of them believe that Darwinian evolution rather than divine creation is primarily responsible for man's presence on earth, most would probably go for evolution - even here in Christian friendly America. If you asked how many of them believed Darwinian evolution was solely responsible, with no creator, no guiding hand, no "Prime Mover" at all - you would still get a very large percentage, although some would dissent (many American Christians like to think that evolution was one of the tools in God's hand in shaping life on earth, a topic we can discuss another day).

     Now, take that group that claimed nothing but pure Darwinian evolution created humanity by chance - and ask how many of them would like to live in a society that governed itself by purely Darwinian principles - with no law other than survival of the fittest.
How many would raise their hands, I wonder?

    I'd bet none.
    And that's funny - from a purely Darwinian point of view, we have way too many people in this world using up our precious resources, and many of them are seemingly too poor and ignorant to contribute anything to the advancement of the species. Some thinning of the herd would be to the advantage of all those strong enough to survive it - yet our minds recoil at the prospect!
The existence of a moral compass, however damaged it may be in some individuals, is a powerful argument that we are a product of something more than pure natural selection.

After a couple of people had replied, I added this comment:
Darwinism as a scientific theory contains enough merit to be worthy of consideration and debate.  Darwinism as a social philosophy, however, leads inexorably to the gates of Auschwitz.

Since then, a number of my friends who are either skeptics or non-believers have tried to argue that natural selection could cause human beings to develop a sense of morality.  Books have been written on the subject, in fact.  I still find it unlikely.  And here is the kicker - even if you could argue that moral values are an evolutionary development to facilitate the stability and survival of our species, that would still lead you to one conclusion - that right and wrong are purely relative, and defined differently by different cultures.  And once you deny that the terms "good" and "evil" have any meaning beyond what society places on them at the moment, you are still prone to wind up hanging a sign that reads "Arbeit macht Frei" over a camp whose showers contain gas nozzles . . . .