Wednesday, January 25, 2017

This Week's Blogpost: An Exciting Excerpt From my New Novel, THE EMPEROR AND THE APOSTLE

   Over Christmas I started writing the third (and final?) installment in my "Rome" series that began with THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE and is continued in LOVER OF GOD, due to be released in April.  This one is set late in the First Century AD, beginning in the tumultuous year of 79 AD, when the Emperor Vespasian died and was succeeded by his son, Flavius Titus.  The story of Titus and his evil brother, Domitian, is woven in with that of the last surviving apostle of Jesus, John the Elder, leader of the Christian community at Ephesus.
  This excerpt is from the beginning of Chapter 3, where Titus and his brother are discussing the fate of Rome's Christian community when they receive news of a horrific disaster. Enjoy!!

“Well,” said Titus, “this is interesting.”  He stood in the dining hall of the Palace on a beautiful autumn afternoon, reading a scroll that had been brought to him.

“What is it?” Domitian asked.  He was reclining at the table, enjoying a roasted Tiber bass seasoned with garlic and peppers.

“A letter from a man named Linus – no patronym given – who claims to be the leader of Rome’s Christian community,” Titus explained.

“A Christian leader?” Domitian perked up. “What does he want?”

“He wants me to lift Nero’s decree proscribing his faith, and allow the Christians the freedom to worship their god openly,” the Emperor replied.

“I wouldn’t do it,” Domitian said.  “I have heard awful things about these Christians and their rituals!  They are atheists – they deny the existence of all the gods of Rome, and on top of that, they drink cups full of blood and eat human flesh at their orgies!”

Titus laughed out loud.  “You believe everything the old wives tell you, don’t you, brother?” he said.  “Do you remember old Marcus Publius?”

“Yes, he is a retired Praetor, right? Didn’t they used to call him ‘the scourge of the provinces’?”
Domitian asked.

“That’s the one,” Titus said.  “I know something about him not many people do.  He is a Christian!”

Ecastor!” Domitian exclaimed.  “A member of the Senate?  A holder of the Grass Crown – a Christian?”

“He was both of those things, until a few years ago, and he is still a Christian, so far as I know,” said Titus.  “But when Nero stripped him of his titles and decorations, he retired from public life.  But once, shortly before that, I repeated some of the same things you just said about the Christians. Old Marcus set me straight, and told me a little about what they really believed.  They don’t have orgies and they aren’t cannibals or vampires.  They pass around a cup of wine and drink it in memory of the blood shed by their crucified master, and eat small loafs of bread to recall how his body was broken on the cross.”

“Well of course he told you that!” Domitian said.  “I never did trust that man.”

Titus sighed.  “You are altogether too suspicious and paranoid, dear brother,” he said.

“Are you going to do it then?  Will you repeal the proscription of their faith?” asked Domitian.

“Not exactly,” Titus replied.  “I will leave Nero’s decree on the books, as a surety for their good behavior.  But I will inform the magistrates to stop enforcing it for the time being.”

He strode over to his writing table and penned a short letter, and then he sealed it and handed it to one of his Praetorians, who would take it to the Senator who had delivered it.  Titus was debating whether to return to the dinner table or sit at the table and work on his correspondence when he glanced out through the open archway that faced to the south.

“What a peculiar cloud!” he exclaimed, pointing at the far horizon.  An enormous column, black at the base and grey at the top, was rising high into the sky, widening like a gigantic funnel the further up it went.

“That doesn’t look like a cloud,” Domitian said.

Titus paled suddenly.  “It isn’t!” he said.  “That is smoke – but I’ve only seen one column of smoke anywhere near that size in my life, and that was the one rising over the ruins of Jerusalem as we marched away from the Jew’s capitol!”

“But that is so huge!” Domitian said, his voice rising in excitement.  “I’m not sure a single city would produce that much -”

As he spoke, the ground beneath their feet shuddered slightly.  A small crack appeared in the marble floor, running all the way across the building from south to north.

“Earthquake!” snapped Titus.  “Get everyone out!”

Emperor, Praetorians, clerks, and slaves were all in the open-air courtyard moments later, fear abolishing the badges of rank. Everyone stared to the south in horror, wondering what sort of conflagration could have generated such a massive amount of smoke and soot.  Titus ordered riders dispatched southward to see what the source of the fire was, but the answer was not long in coming.  They met riders an hour south of Rome, coming north hard and fast, their horses plastered with mud where the soot that covered them had melded with their sweat.   Three hours after Titus noticed the column hanging in the air, one of the messengers – a soldier of the Fifteenth Legion - was ushered into his presence. 

The man was exhausted, his features smudged black, his eyes red, his breath rasping and short.  His horse was so worn out it had collapsed after Titus’ Praetorians stopped him, and he had finished the journey to the palace on a borrowed mount.

Although anxious to hear the news, Titus first saw to it that the man was given a flagon of water, followed by a goblet of wine to soothe his throat and help him gather his wits.  The legionary gratefully swallowed the cool liquids, but when he was done, the first sound to escape his lips was a sob. He tried to speak, but his throat was still clogged with emotion.

“Calm down, Legionary,” the Emperor said.  “Tell us what happened.”

“It’s gone, sir.  All of Pompeii, Herculaneum, all the villas on the slope of the mountain – all destroyed.”  He coughed and spat out a gobbet of blackened saliva.  “Just about everyone is dead.”

Cries and moans came from the surrounding crowd.  A few began to weep, others shouted questions.

“How?” Titus asked him.  “What could destroy such a large district?”

“Mount Vesuvius exploded,” the man said.  “Fire and lava came pouring down the slopes, and ash rained down from the heavens.  As I looked back, I could see that much of Pompeii was already buried, and the ash was still falling.  Waves of heat came from the mountain – so intense my first horse died of it, and my exposed skin turned red as if I’d spent a day sleeping naked under the summer sun!  I was a league distant by then; I  imagine that the people in the city must have been roasted where they stood.  One man I encountered said that he saw hundreds diving into the bay, trying to escape the heat, only to start screaming and die almost immediately – the water in the bay must have been near boiling.  The gods have surely poured out their wrath this day!”

As Titus listened, his blunt and honest features seemed to crumble, replaced by the rawest of grief.  He balled his fists up in the front of his tunic, and when the soldier was finished speaking, he slowly sank to his knees, ripping his tunic and toga open with his bare hands, and howling with grief.  He rubbed dirt on his forehead and cheeks, and then slowly stood.

“Ah, my people!” he said.  “All those poor people, to die so horribly! Praetorians – send messengers out to all the merchants and vendors of Rome.  All who sell clothing and food will be required to donate a tithe of their inventory, all others a tithe of their coin.  Rent wagons, and purchase tents and bedding.  Gather all you can that the refugees will need, for we set out for Pompeii on the morrow!”

With that he turned and strode quickly back towards the palace.  Under the archway he paused a moment, facing the crowd again.

“Summon the Senate for an emergency session! We shall be there within the hour!” he snapped.

Inside his quarters, the Emperor stripped out of his toga and donned his military attire – cuirass, leggings, and boots – and strapped on his sword.  He left his torn tunic on, and did not wash his face or comb his hair.  He was so intent on his dress that he did not notice Domitian standing in the doorway until he was fully attired.

“Why are you standing here watching?” he snapped when he saw his brother. “Get dressed for marching, and make sure you bear the marks of mourning!”

“Mourning for who?” Domitian asked.  “I don’t know of any family members we have in Pompeii.”

Titus’ face turned red with anger.  He advanced on his brother, slapping him in the face, hard, three times.  The blows echoed like thunderclaps down the marble hall, and Domitian recoiled, too stunned to resist.

“YOU SELFISH BRAT!” roared the Emperor of Rome.  “An entire district lies buried in ash and ruin, and your response is nonchalance because your relatives weren’t involved?  You are the brother of Rome’s Emperor, you fool!  All of Rome is now our family!  These were our subjects, our children, and you WILL show all the proper signs of grief and respect.  Now get out of my sight, and when I see you again your clothes had better be torn and your face smeared with dirt.  Am I clear?”

“Yes, Princeps!” Domitian stuttered, fleeing before his brother’s wrath. He had seen Titus angry, more than once, but this was the first time since they were children that the anger had been directed at him, and he did not like the prospect one bit.  It was too easy for him to forget that his brother could order him to death on any pretext, because Titus made a point of treating him as an equal and a valuable colleague.  But the threat was there, he knew, and moments like this were a stark reminder of the scope of his brother’s imperium.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

ARCHEOLOGY AND THE BIBLE: Where Science and Faith Collide . . .

  First of all, a quick follow up to last week's blog post:  my friend David finished getting my new gaming PC all set up for me and I beat DARK SOULS 3 the same night, and my shout of triumph was heard throughout the land!  That done, I immediately set about playing through the game again - just so I could experience it at the speed it was meant to be enjoyed, and also so I could finally enjoy co-op play!

  Now, on to tonight's topic . . . Saturday afternoon I was invited to appear on the Parker J. Cole show, broadcast on BlogTalk Radio, and discuss a topic near and dear to my heart - archeology and the Bible.  I'll include a link to the show below, in case anyone would like to go back and listen to the podcast.  But what I thought I would do is hit on some of the highlights that we covered in this week's blog post.

   First of all, what exactly is archeology?  There are lots of misperceptions out there.  Archeologists don't dig up dinosaurs (that's paleontology), nor do they run through Amazon temples dodging giant boulders rolling after them.  They don't generally care about mammoths or sabretooth cats (unless those remains showed evidence of human interaction).  Archeologists study the physical remnants of past human cultures, in order to better understand how ancient (and sometimes not so ancient) peoples lived.

   There are two broad divisions of archeology.  Historical archeologists study the remnants of cultures who also left us a written account of their doings; prehistoric archeologists study cultures - like the Celts of Gaul or most North American Indian tribes - that had no written language.  Those peoples can ONLY be understood by the physical relics they left behind, and as a result there are some things about them that we simply may never know - pottery shards and arrowheads cannot resurrect a dead language or tell us the names of their kings, priests, and heroes.

   One of the divisions of historical archeology is Biblical archeology.  This is a discipline that focuses entirely on discoveries from the ancient Middle East that relate to the events narrated in the Old and New Testament.  Discoveries of Biblical artifacts and manuscripts have been found in Israel, of course, but also in Italy, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and many other areas mentioned in the Bible. 

   It's important to understand that there are some things archeology cannot do and has not done.  Science of any sort cannot confirm the theological claims of the Bible - archeology cannot prove that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God, or that faith in Him is necessary for salvation.  What archeology CAN do, and has done in hundreds of instances, is confirm the historical details of Scripture.  While there are many gaps in the record and many discoveries yet to be made, it is truly astonishing how often archeology has proved the Scriptures to be historically and geographically accurate.

   The Hittites described in the Old Testament were dismissed as legendary for most of the nineteenth century, but then evidence was found that they were indeed a real people who ruled a considerable empire - exactly where and when the Old Testament described it.  John's description of the Pool of Bethesda was dismissed as a fairy tale, since no other ancient source ever mentioned such a place existing in Jerusalem - but then, in the 1950's, excavation of a street in Jerusalem uncovered the pool exactly where John described it - surrounded by five porticoes, near the Sheep Gate.  Ancient graffiti even confirmed John's claim that the pool was believed to have healing powers.  For years, historians disputed the Gospel's claim that Jesus was nailed to the Cross, but then an ossuary (a box for storing human bones after burial) was found in Jerusalem containing the ankle bone of a crucifixion victim, still transfixed by the iron nail that held him to his cross.

   Place names, official titles, and even individuals mentioned in the Old and New Testaments have been confirmed through archeology.  While there are some significant gaps - no hard evidence has been found of the Exodus yet, for example - it is also worth noting that not a single discovery has been made disproving any detail of the New Testament.   When you stack the evidence confirming the historical claims of the Christian Scriptures against those of other faiths, one thing becomes clear - the Christian faith is rooted in real, historical events, not in myth and legend like the other Middle Eastern "mystery cults" Christianity is often compared with.

   During my trip to Israel last year (has it been that long?  I suppose it has), I saw the flagstones of Simon Peter's house in Capernaum, a fishing boat from the lifetime of Jesus recovered from the muddy bottom of the Sea of Galilee, a "high place" built by King Jeroboam II, the gates of the ancient Israelite city of Dan, the oldest inscription referencing King David, and the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were recovered, and dozens of other archeological sites and artifacts from the Old and New Testament era. (See the March 2016 blog posts that I made during the trip for daily descriptions!)  It was a faith-affirming journey buttressed every step of the way by the academic disciplines of history and archeology.

   Want to learn more?  Listen to my recorded broadcast on the Parker J. Cole show at this link:

   Want to read my novels about (admittedly fictitious) Biblical archeology discoveries?  Find me on Amazon!!

    Till next week, be blessed, and, as always, thanks for reading!

Sunday, January 8, 2017

From Defender to Dark Souls 3: Confessions of a Video Game Junkie

  I am 53 years old.  I pastor a church, write novels which really ought to sell a lot better than they do, and teach at a Christian school.  I'm a husband, a father, a rancher, and a collector of ancient artifacts.  I've traveled from Australia to Israel, I've served in the U.S. Navy and rated a Top Secret security clearance - and I am a hopeless video game addict.

  When I was in 8th grade, my girlfriend and I were at a movie when I saw a small, glass-topped table a chair on either side, and lights and sounds coming from it.  I walked over and realized that this was one of those "Asteroids" games I had been hearing about.  I waited till the current player was done, then I sat down and plunked in a quarter, and my addiction was born.  I kept spinning that tiny spaceship around, hitting the fire button so fast my finger was sore, trying to prevent those little chunks of space debris from destroying me and my vessel - and always, eventually, failing.

   Not long after Asteroids, the next generation of arcade games began to emerge - Pac-Man, Defender, GORF (the first video game that actually talked to you, and it was a real smart aleck, too - "You will meet a Gorfian doom, Space Cadet!!"), Dig-Dug, Galaga, Joust, and a dozen or more others.  Every convenience store had a game or two, sometimes a small room full of them.  Video arcades sprang up everywhere. Even my home town of Quinlan (sometimes called the "shallow end of the Hunt Count gene pool" by those of us who escaped its clutches) had an arcade, "Big John's," run by a rather obese senior citizen who loved to talk about how this younger generation was going to hell in a handbasket - even while he raked in our quarters by the bagful.

  Most restaurants that catered to teens also had an arcade game or two, and this leads into a funny story.  My girlfriend (yes, that same longsuffering 8th grade sweetheart who stood at my shoulder and watched me blow a whole dollar on "Asteroids" that first night) and I would go to karate practice together every Monday and Thursday.  Afterward, we would usually go to Pizza Inn and enjoy some beef and mushroom pizza with our friends.  I would order my drink and pizza, and then get a dollar's worth of change and go match wits with GALAGA, one of the more fun arcade games out there.  They invariably brought our drinks out first, and I would get a quick sip of mine before heading to the back of the restaurant to play my game.  I usually got blown up for the last time right as the pizza arrived, so I would head back to the table, eat that first hot cheesy slice, and then slug down about half of my glass of Dr. Pepper before noticing that my sweet, demure girlfriend had dumped about half a shaker of salt in it.  EVERY TIME.  You would think I would either A, get a clue and take a tiny sip of the drink to check its salinity, or B, realize that she was sending me a not-too-subtle message about leaving her at the table while I played a game for 10-15 minutes as we waited for our pizza. But, nope, video games, pizza and heavily salinated soda became my Monday tradition.

  In college, I discovered GAUNTLET, the first game that let you choose between four possible characters to play through.  I got so good at that one that I once played for eight hours on one quarter! Of course, by now my girlfriend was my wife, and it turned out she had no idea where I was - I still say it should have occurred to her to check the video arcade in the student lounge, since I spent at least an hour there every day.

   Eventually, we got our first PC.  It was an ancient beast that still took the 5.5" floppy disks, but it had a neat little game called Robot Hunter - not nearly as good graphically as an arcade game of the era, but hey! I could play it at home, and that made my wife happy.  It also had its own versions of "Pong" and "Asteroids."

  We came into the modern world of internet capable computers around 2000 or so, and along with arrowhead chat rooms and Email, I discovered the next generation of fantasy RPG's.  I played the original DIABLO, an entertaining knockoff of DIABLO called DARKSTONE, as well as WARCRAFT II and III.  I also played several hundred hours on a World War I flight simulator called RED BARON 3D, which had actual film clips from World War I worked into the cut scenes.  You could earn medals, match wits against the great aces, and even become a prisoner of war if you weren't careful!

  But all those games began to get old, and in 2003 I was complaining that I really wanted something new to play.  One of my students, Timothy Smith, suggested that I might like a new game he had just gotten called MORROWIND.  That was my introduction to the wonderful world of The Elder Scrolls.  Although MORROWIND was actually Elder Scrolls 3, it was light years ahead of its predecessors.  A huge, open world to adventure in, fascinating monsters, a complex and well-crafted storyline and mythology - as well as graphics so realistic (for 2003) that you could actually watch weather patterns form overhead, watch bubbles break on top of lava pools, and even levitate far above the landscape.  I was delighted, and frustrated ("Tim!!  WHERE is that stupid Dwemer Puzzle Box?? I've searched the entire ruin and I swear it isn't there!"), and charmed.  Then, in 2006, Bethesda introduced the sequel to MORROWIND, OBLIVION, and I was even more enchanted.  Elder Scrolls V: SKYRIM, is still my favorite game of all time,  In fact, I got so addicted to the Elder Scrolls series I really didn't play any other games for a long time. I tried and failed to get into Assassin's Creed 3, and while I loved the graphics and the storyline, I bogged down in an early mission and never progressed any further.  ELDER SCROLLS ONLINE was a huge disappointment - I simply could not get into it.  One of my students summed it up neatly: ESO was "too much of an MMO for Elder Scrolls fans, and too Elder Scrolls for MMO fans."

  But this spring my dear friend Ellie told me about a game her husband was playing called DARK SOULS 3.  On her recommendation I got it, and found it to be the hardest video game I have ever played in my life!  (It also taxed my aging PC to its limits, so the frame rate lagged and I never was able to do co-op play.)  Ghoulishly awful monsters, hidden chambers, deadly ambushes, and insanely difficult boss fights made me fall in love with this game right away.

   So as I type this, on the table behind me is my brand new PC with 24 gigs of RAM , a 2 terabyte hard drive, and a brand new graphics card.  And while this old machine is indeed slow, laggy, and all the other functions I do will work a lot faster on it, the main reason I invested the dough in this new PC is so I can game better.

   Why do I do it?  Why does an otherwise rational middle-aged man waste time and money slaying digital monsters and seeking imaginary treasures?  Well, the short answer is that it's just fun.  I may never get to kill a dragon in real life, but I have slain hundreds in SKYRIM.  I may never have six digits in my checking account, but I have amassed fortunes into the millions of septims in OBLIVION.  I'm not allowed to taunt people I don't like into attacking me, then kill them and loot all their treasures and move into their houses, but that is acceptable behavior in MORROWIND.  It's old fashioned escapism, pure and simple, folks, not that different from watching a movie or reading a fantasy/adventure novel - except that video games give you a greater level of personal participation than those other formats.  Instead of watching Indiana Jones or King Arthur, you get to BE them.

   So if you hear a blood-curdling yell emanating from Northeast Texas in the next week or so, you will know that I have finally slain the "Soul of Cinder" and beaten DARK SOULS 3. Next, I'll go back and play the original DARK SOULS, perhaps, or explore the world of FALLOUT 4.  So many adventures await!