James Brown on AccuRadio

I can’t confess to being a fan of James Brown, but I feel compelled to pass on this link to AccuRadio’s Classic Soul channel, which is playing a tribute to James Brown this month. “Throughout the month of January, we’re featuring dozens and dozens of songs by the Godfather of Soul, spanning the entire amazing career of The Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” reports one of the best, if not the best, internet radio sites.

Sincerity is overrated

I’ve started taking up my personal devotions more systematically lately (fortunately I started this just before I lost my meal ticket… er, renter, so I can’t accuse myself of doing it just to curry favor in Heaven. My mind does work this way. Really). I’ve switched from my old NIV Study Bible (great notes) to an English Standard Version Bible.

I like it. I’ve been reading Dynamic Equivalency Bibles for decades now, seduced by the argument that if you really want to convey the sense of the original you’ve pretty much got to rewrite everything. Moving back to a more literal translation, I get a pleasant sense of solidity. Nobody’s telling me what they think the text says. They trust me to be a grownup and be able to read books written for grownups.

My first Bible was King James, and then I got an RSV (the old one, before they went all PC and started fiddling with gender and stuff). The ESV is a direct descendent of the old RSV, and so far I’m pleased and comforted.

The following almost feels as if it’s connected, but I can’t think how.

When I was writing song lyrics in an obscure Christian singing group, there was one thing I never did (actually I never did lots of things, notably make time with girls, but that’s another story). I never claimed that “God wrote this song.”

I saw it way too many times. Some sweet, sincere kid with a guitar would say, “God wrote this song. It just came to me while I was laying in bed, and I got up and wrote it down in fifteen minutes. So I know it came from God.”

Then he/she would play the thing and it would be repetitious and clichéd, and you could always count on the word “strife” being employed in contexts where you’d never use “strife” if you didn’t have a desperate need for a rhyme for “life.”

And I wanted to scream at them, “Don’t you realize what you’re saying here? You’re saying that God’s a lousy lyricist!”

I never did, though. I’m too kind-hearted. And cowardly.

I thought of that today when a book crossed my desk at work. It was a novel written by a man whose shoes I am not worthy to polish. He’s one of those unsung saints the newspapers and magazines will never profile, someone who’s given his life in sacrificial service to Christ and his neighbor, living from hand to mouth and enduring a fair amount of danger along the way.

He wrote a novel.

And it’s lousy.

I want to tell people (I’m telling a few right now) that the fact that you have something to say, and a story to tell, and spiritual insight, doesn’t make you a writer of fiction.

Sincerity won’t do it. I might be very sincere about wanting to build a church, to the glory of God. I might pray over every nail, and work with a heart full of devotion.

But that won’t make it a good church building.

Because I’m not a competent carpenter.

Writing fiction is a craft, just like carpentry. It has its own tools and skills, protocols and shortcuts. Regardless of how good your basic idea is, the nuts and bolts have to be properly tightened, the corners squared.

I’m not telling you to stay away from fiction if you’re not a “professional.” I’m not saying I belong to some priesthood which alone is privileged to touch the holy written word.

I’m just saying if you want to get into the guild, you’ve got to learn your craft. And that will take time and diligence.

Thoughts from a mule-headed protagonist

How am I today? Better, I think. A little better.

For one thing, the long-awaited third volume of The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis finally arrived. Each volume has been longer than one before, and this one tallies in at 1,810 pages, including the index. It’s going on the shelf for now, but the next time I’m laid up with a multiple fracture of the leg, I’ll have my reading material ready.

I know it’s silly to look for divine signs in the day’s events, but on the way to work this morning I tried to fill up with gas at The Station That Usually Has the Lowest Price. I noted that the toll seemed to have gone up from yesterday, but I was there, and they’re usually the cheapest, so I assumed everybody else had jumped too, and I tried a fill-up. But the lock on my locking gas cap was frozen, and I didn’t have any spray to loosen it, so I drove off in a huff (actually I drove off in my Tracker, but you know what I mean).

This afternoon I stopped at Another Station That Sometimes Has the Lowest Price. Not only did my gas cap open (it was a little warmer today, so it probably melted in the sun), but the price was a full dime a gallon lower than my previous stop.

This undeserved bounty pleased me inordinately. I took it (for no rational or biblical reason) as a sign that God isn’t against me. Not completely, anyway.

Perspective is important, but it’s not my strong suit. There are probably people reading this entry who face the loss of loved ones, to disease or war. What are my problems compared to theirs? I’m sure they’d gladly have a mortgage foreclosed on them if it meant the restoration of their friend or family member.

And when I think it out, my situation isn’t so awful. I got notice in time so that I can still place an ad in the February issue of the Minnesota Christian Chronicle. That means it’s possible I could have a replacement sometime next month.

In storytelling, the dynamics of plot are always the same, whether it’s a literary story about an intellectual with writer’s block (unless it’s something experimental and self-indulgent), or a thriller about international counterterrorists and nuclear devices. The point of the story is always to change somebody. And the change always comes through pain and struggle.

You never read a story where somebody gets good advice, from a friend or from a book, and decides, “Hey, that’s right! I’m going to change the way I handle my life!” and everything is resolved right there.

The change always comes through conflict and hard times. I don’t think that’s only because it makes for a more interesting story.

I think it’s because it’s the way life is for real people.

God is trying to teach me something. So He’s doing what I’d do if I were writing my life—He’s making things hard for me.

Hope it works.

Aspirations and expirations

Blast.

My nice quiet renter is moving out, due to a personal crisis. There goes my economic security, until I can find another one.

Another opportunity to put my faith in God. He’s always taken care of me before. Why should I worry?

I hate living by faith, by the way.

Phil asked if I’d care to do the following meme. I’ll try it, but he’ll probably be sorry he asked.

0) What’s your name and website URL? (optional, of course)

My name is Lars, and… you’re here.

1) What’s the most fun work you’ve ever done, and why? (two sentences max)

The job I have now. Working with books, pottering about with old Norwegian volumes, what could be better?

2) A. Name one thing you did in the past that you no longer do but wish you did? (one sentence max)

Amateur theater, which I wish I had time for nowadays.



B. Name one thing you’ve always wanted to do but keep putting it off? (one sentence max)


Getting married.

3) A. What two things would you most like to learn or be better at, and why? (two sentences max)

I’d love to play the guitar. Unfortunately, I know from experience that I have no (zero) talent for it.

B. If you could take a class/workshop/apprentice from anyone in the world living or dead, who would it be and what would you hope to learn? (two more sentences, max)

I’d like to have taken one of C. S. Lewis’ literature classes. He’d probably have chewed me up and spit me out, though.

4) A. What three words might your best friends or family use to describe you?

Lazy, depressed, self-absorbed.

B. Now list two more words you wish described you.

Happy and thoughtful.

5) What are your top three passions? (can be current or past, work, hobbies, or causes– three sentences max)

I used to be passionate about the Body of Christ, spiritual adventuring and Norway/Vikings. Now I’m too bludgeoned to get excited about much of anything, except maybe live steel, and it’s the wrong season for that.

6) Write and answer one more question that YOU would ask someone (with answer in three sentences max)

Me ask a question? No, I don’t think so.

Who’s got the Remote?

The snow started last night and left about three inches behind. Nothing to compare to the kind of weather they’ve been getting further south and west, of course, but enough to turn the landscape into the sort of scene Walt Kelly said cartoonists loved—all that snow makes it very easy to draw. And, in classic fashion, the clouds rolled out to make way for clear skies and rapidly dropping temperatures. The high today was about 10 above, and tomorrow should be cut from the same climate.

I drove to work cautiously, tense with the secret fear that haunts my winter commute—that I’ll stop at a red light on an uphill grade and not be able to get traction to move again, listening to the horns of equally frustrated drivers behind me. All of them would be saying to themselves, “That idiot’s in an SUV! Why doesn’t he switch it into four wheel drive?” And I’d have no way of explaining that my 4WD doesn’t work, and it’s too expensive to fix.

But I made it in OK. I even got up the driveway at work, a stretch that’s stymied me more than once in the past. Fortunately our crack maintenance team had risen with the roosters and plowed it out.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if I’d gotten stuck there, though. The head maintenance guy is the one who discovered my drive deficiency in the first place. It’s nice to work somewhere where they know your failings and accept you anyway.

By way of Mirabilis, here’s a story on how scientists have reconstructed the poet Dante’s face. He turns out to have been a little less formidable looking than we’d all thought.

I finished Stephen White’s mystery Remote Control last night. This isn’t a review, though I might mention that I found it kind of hard to follow, and thought the ending seemed a little contrived. I have a question about White’s books.

I’m quite sure (though I’m beginning to doubt myself) that I first heard of White in a column at National Review Online. Somebody wrote about mystery writers conservatives could enjoy, and I’m sure I wrote down the names of Jonathan Kellerman and Stephen White.

Kellerman didn’t disappoint. In spite of having a continuing homosexual character, the Alex Delaware mysteries have become steadily more anti-PC as time has gone by.

But I’ve read three White books so far, and I fail to discern any evidence of conservative views, either political or social.

Remote Control begins with the murder of a saintly abortionist by a fanatical pro-lifer. In the course of the book, association with Operation Rescue is just assumed to be a sign of utter moral turpitude.

Did I write down the wrong author name? Do the books get better later on?

Give me the benefit of your experience.

What Hath Joanne Rowling Wrought?

Middlebury College students are playing quidditch with a few adaptations for non-magical folk.

Harry Potter fan fiction, La Septima M or The Seventh M, has been published by young author Francisca Solar of Chili. She says, “All the things I know about literature, about writing, I learned in the fan fiction world. I owe it everything.”

The Christopher Little Literary Agency, who represents J.K. Rowling, has announced a £1,500 prize and possible representation “to students on the creative writing course at City University in London. The agency said it wanted originality, talent and ‘not a Harry Potter clone,'” reports BBC News.

Reviewing ‘Normal’

As she promised, Mindy Withrow has reviewed Andrée Seu’s Normal Kingdom Business, a collection of essays. I jumped to buy her first collection and am taking my time (putting off with no good reason) buying the second. I need to buy it for myself and maybe a few friends.

Mindy praises this new collection and pull out some quotes: “Story is how we learn theology…Reminding yourself of the real story is good for what ails you. If you’ve gotten too high and mighty, it reminds you that you are ‘dust.’ If you’re feeling like dust, it reminds you of your glorious destiny.”

Teachout on Five Best Playwright Bios

These biographies of theater luminaries outshine the rest,” writes critic Terry Teachout of his Five Best column in today’s WSJournal. He recommends

  1. Park Honan, Shakespeare: A Life
  2. Michael Holroyd, Bernard Shaw (the one-volume abridgment)
  3. Simon Callow, Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu
  4. Moss Hart, Act One
  5. John Lahr, Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton

In related news, can you guess which movie version of a Broadway production my wife and I saw last night. Here’s a line from it: “_________, that should have been my name, cause you can see right through me, walk right by me, and never know I’m there.”

Best Contemporary Theology Book Meme

Ok, you Lutherans, here’s a theological book meme from a couple sources:

Name three (or more) theological works from the last 25 years (1981-2006) that you consider important and worthy to be included on a list of the most important works of theology of that last 25 years (in no particular order).

There’s the added caveat that the books should not be works of biblical exegesis, historical studies, etc., unless these are of special theological interest.

The above comes from sacra doctrina who recommends Lesslie Newbigin’s The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, Richard B. Hays’ Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theo-Dramatik, Oliver O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics.

Joel H. also throws out some titles.

I don’t know squat about any of these books. What do you, intelligent readers that you are, think about these titles and ones you would recommend?

Personally, I’m against winter

Winter again.

I know. It’s been winter for months. But our snow cover is spotty, and temperatures have been teasing the freezing point for weeks—sometimes above, sometimes below. Weather as cold as that would have seemed awful back in October, but in January it’s not so bad.

Today the bottom dropped out. And by “the bottom dropped out,” I don’t actually mean record-breaking low temperatures. I just mean the playing field has moved south to zero-to-fifteen Farenheit territory, wind chills down below zero.

And it feels miserable.

Later, sometime in February, it won’t seem so bad either.

I don’t handle the cold well. I’m fairly sure I’ve told you that. When hardier souls are clapping their unmittened hands and saying, “Ah, this is good! This is bracing!” I’m trying to find another sweater, and calculating whether I can conserve more body heat by jamming my hands in my pockets or using them to cover my ears.

Cold induces physical pain in me, quickly following exposure. My ears hurt. My fingers hurt. My brother Moloch informs me (relentlessly) that it’s all psychological. It’s a failure of my character. If I had a better attitude, he says, I’d enjoy the cold as much as he does.

I’m not convinced. I think I know as much about bad attitudes as anyone, and although I spend enough time in Depressionville to qualify for resident status there, I’ve never been able to make a bad mood deliver actual, physical pain.

And where does Moloch get off talking about character, anyway? He lives in Iowa. It’s practically tropical down there.

Sort of an Aspirations Meme

Bill on his Out of the Bloo blog copied a personal meme which basically asks the same question a few times over: what do you like to do most? He has tagged me. Now, I’m faced with a real conflict between how I think of myself and what I am. But let’s go through this:

0) What’s your name and website URL? (optional, of course)

Phil at brandywinebooks.net

1) What’s the most fun work you’ve ever done, and why? (two sentences max)

I think editing my college newspaper, though not a job, has been the most enjoyable assignment I’ve ever had. I remember feeling larger than myself, unrestrained by my hat, while walking across campus at 3:00 a.m. after finishing the week’s paper.

2) A. Name one thing you did in the past that you no longer do but wish you did? (one sentence max)

Write stories–I mean, I don’t write fiction regularly enough to say that I do it now, but that will change.

B. Name one thing you’ve always wanted to do but keep putting it off? (one sentence max)

Write stores–Ok, maybe I should choose something else: study drawing or sketching.

3) A. What two things would you most like to learn or be better at, and why? (two sentences max)

This gets at fiction writing too, but I blog instead (and complain and sometimes read). The second thing–no, it’s the first thing–I’d like to learn is loving the Lord with all of my heart, mind, and strength.

B. If you could take a class/workshop/apprentice from anyone in the world living or dead, who would it be and what would you hope to learn? (two more sentences, max)

This is a hard question, but I think I could take a chance on being Shakespeare’s apprentice. Realistically, I’d like to sit under Walter Wangerin.

4) A. What three words might your best friends or family use to describe you?

philisophical, giving, and artistic (my wife helped me with this)

B. Now list two more words you wish described you.

prolific and joyful

5) What are your top three passions? (can be current or past, work, hobbies, or causes– three sentences max)

Words and literature; honest, biblical worship for myself, family, and friends. I can’t pick a third.

6) Write and answer one more question that YOU would ask someone (with answer in three sentences max)

Name something that makes you angry? Injustice

I need to write a meme one of these days, though I doubt I could write anything better than this one on books.

Great Writing Advice for the New Year

Want to be a creative writer? Stop waiting for the ship of inspiration to come in and start writing something–anything. Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence points to Samuel Johnson as an example of writing by choice and skill, squelching the worry that you aren’t doing something original.

How many young and not-so-young people torment themselves with writerly dreams only to end up working at the dollar store or in media relations? We tend to write what others have already written – this is both inevitable and not always a bad thing. How often are new genres created or old ones revived?

Thanks to Frank Wilson for pointing out this post and throwing in a poem on Prince Charles and the new Mrs.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture