WONDER — The Spark of Truth

I’ve been working on a memoir of my sister and me covering the first five years of her life. Struggling with author voice and the art of stringing events together in a cohesive fashion, fellow Scriblerian TJ Akers suggested I read Wonder.

Wonder-by-RJ-Palacio-e1387718254694
Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, is a novel, but it reads like a memoir. In both my story and Palacio’s, the subject matter focuses on growing up in a family where one of the siblings has special needs. My sister overcame several physical handicaps. In Wonder, Auggie must tolerate people’s reactions to his facial disfigurements, and he must have the fortitude to become vulnerable to others if they are to ever know the soul behind the face.

 

 
Published in 2012, Wonder has already been noted as a modern classic, and I can see why. Classic literature takes readers beyond a good story, rich in emotion. It takes us deeper into the meaning of life. Secular or Christian, it doesn’t matter. Humans are made in God’s image, and all of us have been created with kindling in our hearts that bursts into flame at a touch from the spark of truth.

spark to kindling
Palacio’s writing style in displaying Auggie’s courage and honesty is such a spark. She has accomplished what I’m aiming for. I want my sister’s perseverance and spritely spirit to set hearts on fire.

 

 
Many of the books I review here at The Scriblerians fall into the “classics” category. Which children’s books have you read that sparked fire in your heart?

Jeri Massi

As most of you realize by now, I’m a great fan of Jeri Massi’s novels for tweens having posted two book reviews: Derwood, Inc. a year ago, and Hall of Heroes earlier this week. Jeri graciously agreed to an interview. After all, how could any author resist my enthusiasm?

Hall of Heroes

 

Whenever possible, the Scriblerians invite our honored authors to “sign” our slam book.

Nickname (in childhood or now or both): Jeriwho

Genre: I prefer to write fantasy and SF but rarely get a chance to do so. I’ve written across many different genres: Westerns, mysteries, adventures, historical, fantasy, SF, etc.

Favorite scripture: Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.

He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.

Isaiah 53:10-11

Favorite quotation: All warfare is based on deception. – Sun Tzu

In high school, I was… loud, and tall.

 

 

Jeri blog
Jeri, welcome to the Scriblerians.
Thank you, Linda. It’s an honor.

 

 
As you know, I love your Peabody Kids series, especially the first book, Derwood, Inc. The humor is timeless. In fact, I recently spoke with a fifth grade teacher who still uses Derwood in her classroom. She shared with me that the book is her kids’ favorite choice in the curriculum. How have you updated your characters since the Derwood Series was published about – what – 30 years ago?
If a character works in a story, he or she should never need to be updated. Jack will always be the charming leader, and Penny the loyal companion. Scruggs will always be the person in transition. Humor and mysteries alike tend to be built on certain familiar character types, so while their clothing or jargon may change over time, they remain essentially the same whatever the time setting of the story. We see the same characters clearly in Hall of Heroes, which is an exact mirror of the characters from Derwood, Inc.

 

 
While Derwood was fun and adventurous with lessons for the Peabody Kids in each book, Hall of Heroes strikes deep. I took in such themes as: “Love God and enjoy Him forever,” and “Heaven completes our creation.” Have I nailed it, or would you add another theme dear to your heart.
“The Christian life is built on humility.” The humor of the story is built on the fact that the “good guys” think they are always going to be victorious, just because they are the good guys. They’re actually pretty arrogant and full of themselves. In short order, the bullies overthrow them and steal their club house. There is a thematic link to Martha Jenkins, who has done so much good in her life, but is facing certain death while still too young for it. Both groups have to accept their lot with humility. Jean herself notices that Digger seems much more heroic when he is helping around the house for Martha. He fulfills the role of a manly Christian effortlessly when he forgets about acting like a hero and simply offers his work to a suffering person.

 

 
Many of the readers of the Scriblerians blog are also writers, so I’d like to ask questions in relation to how you write your novels. Do you consider yourself a plotter or a pantser? When I think of Derwood, Inc. I assume it had a bare skeleton which you fleshed out with twists and turns that might have surprised you as you were writing. But did Hall of Heroes need a stricter outline?
All of my stories are outlined. I always think of the plot first, then complete it in outline form, and then start writing. If I decide to throw in a new twist, I usually outline it into the main outline.

 

 
While you had several comical moments with the villains in the story, the mature spiritual issues caused my chuckles to subside as I contemplated eternity and how God sees our mission on earth. When your readers finish the last sentence of the book, what do you want them to come away with?
Well, first, that nothing is as it seems. Martha Jenkins had a lot to offer, but she was pretty much ignored by her church. And nobody meant to be unkind to her; they just didn’t look hard enough to realize their Christian duty towards her. The real Hall of Heroes meets in Martha’s living room, three overlooked people who love each other and have fellowship in the face of a great tragedy. Christianity today is blinded by grandeur, and that’s a horrible blindness. We will find the power and the fellowship of Jesus Christ with the least of His brethren, always.

Second, we all die, and yet we all must live. Digger’s joy over regaining the club house is not misplaced. Martha herself had a full life until close to the end. We ought to live joyfully and make our boast in God, and we ought to approach death with humility and willingness to go where He leads us, even there.

 

 
I always enjoy teen and tween fiction when the main characters have GOOD parents, intact families with Mom and Dad loving each other and watching out for their children. Jean experiences growth as she makes her own decisions, and her wisdom comes from the example of her parents. Am I in the minority of adult readers today, or do you find the reading public does want wholesome material for their children?

I think the best readers want the truth, whether that truth is couched in a conventional story with a home and a hearth, or whether it’s couched in science fiction, or fantasy, or talking animals, etc. The reality is that many children do lose one parent, or both parents, and so fiction should also reach out to them. I have given up on figuring out what most readers want. I write what I believe makes a good story. I assume that if it keeps me and my spot readers entertained, it ought to entertain others.

Jeri Massi

Jeri and Ben

 

Want to know more about Jeri Massi? Read her Blog on the Way (www.jeriwho.net), follow her on Twitter (@jeriwho), or like her on Facebook (www.facebook.com/jerimassi).

The Power of Football

Power of Football

Texas A&M vs. Auburn Oct 2015

I’m a Texan. Born here, went to college here, still live here. When the air turns crisp and no one can breathe because of all the ragweed in the air, something magical happens.

Football.

Football is a religion in Texas. You can worship Friday night (high school), all day Saturday and sometime Thursday night (college), and Sunday and Monday (pros). People change which church service they attend depending on what time the Texans/Cowboys play on Sunday. Out of town trips revolve around away games. Children are banished to the upstairs TV so parents can eat chips and queso and yell for their team. And if the game is really big, sometimes you don’t invite other people over so that you can be grumpy and yell at the refs and coaches without anyone to witness your bad behavior.

What is it about football or any other professional sport that inspires such fantastic fanatics?

Coming together with >104,000 of my closest friends.

Coming together with >104,000 of my closest friends.

As creatures, we were created for a purpose–to worship our Creator. To come together as a group for fellowship and to cheer for the good guys. To lend our voices to proclaiming Truth: that in the end, our team will be triumphant.

We need to believe in something larger than ourselves. We crave the camaraderie that comes from like-minded individuals. The Aggies have a saying:

“From the outside looking in, you can’t understand it. From the inside looking out, you can’t explain it.”

That’s a good descriptor for Christianity too, isn’t it?

Some would argue that football is an idol. That can be true, but it depends on the individual. There is a power behind football that, like anything else, can be used for good or for evil.

This past Monday, I went to see the movie Woodlawn with some of our church staff.

Coming off the Aggie’s first loss of the season to the University of Alabama, it was a bit hard to watch such a pro-Bama movie, but who doesn’t admire Bear Bryant?

Woodlawn does a marvelous job of integrating the draw of football with the power of the Gospel to show how Jesus can turn around any situation and person.

The movie is based on a TRUE STORY. This isn’t one of those made-up football teams and fantasy premises. This is how a football team’s conversion healed an entire city in Alabama’s racial wars in the early 1970’s. This is how people in the right position can look past society’s biases and stand up for God’s truth to bring powerful change.

Woodlawn is funny, entertaining, and inspiring. I can’t say enough good things about it. Go and see it while it’s still in the theaters. We need more movies like this.

NOW YOU: Favorite sport? Favorite team?

The Aesthetics of Genre: Horror

deep-sea-anglerfishWhen it comes to the genre of horror, many Christians have pronounced it ugly, sinful, nasty, and won’t give it the time of day. Others may enjoy the adrenalin rush of a good scare from the safe distance of a book or theater seat, but may not admit it to their church friends. Then there are individuals, like myself, that find the genre of horror useful.

 

I like to read things that make me better, challenge me in someway. Good horror, like good science fiction and fantasy, will do that for me.  That’s not to say that contemporary fiction or YA fiction doesn’t do that either, but good horror has a very special way of challenging a reader on deeper topics. Before you chastise me for not mentioning the Bible, remember that you will find all the known genres, including horror, in that Book of books.

People seldom equate being frightened as useful.Like I pointed out in my last blog entry, being afraid of the right things can be helpful. To me, good horror isn’t about inciting blind fear or terrifying an audience. There is horror like that, and I almost never waste my time on that. Good horror it’s about challenging fear in the right way. This is where aesthetics come in. All genres have aesthetics (linked to definition above), it is what happens when an author’s story collides with a readers expectations, imagination, and world view. These are a few that a great horror story will touch on for me.

  • What is beauty?
  • What makes something beautiful?
  • What is good?
  • What makes something bad?
  • What is evil?
  • What makes something or someone evil?
  • If something looks beautiful, is it automatically good?
  • Can God redeem Evil?
  • Should God redeem Evil?
  • Should those given to Evil be redeemed?
  • If something is ugly to me does that make me the monster?
  • What happens when a human tries to play God (you know mad scientists)?
  • What does it mean to be human?

As frightening as a horror story may appear on first blush, it is my response to it that always interests me. Some of the most frightening stores to me portray Evil as banal or everyday. A good example of this is the bureaucracy of Hell in Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.

orange-skull-scary-background_G1jrYw5_

There are several things I find useful in good horror, and it isn’t blood and gore or the fact that a story may give me nightmares for months. In fact, the shock and gore horror is something I rarely care for, much like jump scare scenes in movies. Such tactics are nothing more than a trick at your audience’s expense, tricking an audience is inexcusable.

cartoon-angry-monster-face_fkTFzKhd

All fiction has the ability to challenge and inform. What makes horror so different is it’s ability to challenge specifically the things we fear. When done right, even cause us to evaluate those fears and perhaps strengthen our humanity. For your viewing pleasure, here is a good example of something from a sub-genre of horror. Something that actually hits a little closer to home and current events. The type of horror I find useful (It’s in two parts).

 

 

Would you classify these videos as horror? Why or why not?

 

The next post I do is on the topic of sub-genres of Horror. You might be surprised as to what you find in them.

“Exodus: Gods and Kings” Biblical History or Entertainment?

20th Century Fox Original Movie Poster-Exodus: Gods and Kings

20th Century Fox Original Movie Poster-Exodus: Gods and Kings

Last week I watched Sir Ridley Scott’s new movie, Exodus: Gods and Kings. A cast led by Christian Bale and Ben Kingsley, epic cinematography, a sure formula for success. Right?

 

Colossal statues at Abu Simbel 1

Colossal Ramses Statues 20th Century Fox – Exodus Gods and Kings

 Colossal statues of Abu Simbel by torchlight in their original glory, detailed sets of Pharaoh’s palace, and intriguing portrayals of pyramid-building made my inner archaeologist turn cartwheels.

 

Several character-driven scenes establish the conflict as sibling rivalry (Moses and Ramses) which deepens to a war of of cultures when both men learn Moses was born of the slave cast.

 

Moses and Zipporah.  20th Century Fox - Exodus: Gods and Kings

Moses and Zipporah. 20th Century Fox – Exodus: Gods and Kings

So far so good. Then Moses—exiled and married to a Midianite—attempts to retrieve three sheep from what his wife refers to as the Mountain of God. He stumbles and is partially buried in a rockslide. When the burning bush appears, Moses is lying in the rubble with a broken leg. No voice admonished Moses to remove his sandals while standing on holy ground (perhaps because Scott had Bale lying flat on his back?). Instead, a boy with a British accent cryptically encourages Moses to help his people. Meh.

 

bow training EntertainmentWeekly

Moses showing Hebrews low-intensity-warfare Entertainment Weekly

Back in Pi-Ramses, a most-unhumble Moses returns to train Hebrew men the skill of low-intensity warfare—attacking high value targets and quickly withdrawing. This turn of events surprised me, but I can’t say it’s impossible, given that human nature first strives to solve our problems without supernatural assistance. I’m still pondering that one.

 

Plague of Hail.  20th Century Fox Exodus: Gods and Kings

Plague of Hail. 20th Century Fox Exodus: Gods and Kings

And then the first plague begins. Instead of Aaron jabbing his staff into the Nile and turning the waters to blood, a cadre of giant crocodiles kills several fishermen and animals, enough to turn the entire Nile and all the canals red with blood. In fact, Aaron was largely absent the entire movie. Odd, given that he was the designated spokesman for a stuttering Moses.

After the brutal ‘crocodile’ plague, the rest follow, each shown as a natural consequence of the previous . . . except the Passover. In the evening, a dense dark shadow steals across the city, swallowing up the light one street at a time and stealing the breath of each firstborn who did not have the blood of the Passover lamb in the door. It had the kind of supernatural shock and awe that gives me the shivers.

 

pharaoh chariots

Near the end of the movie, hemmed in between Pharaoh’s army and the Red Sea, Moses despairs of leading the Hebrews to freedom. Frustrated, he throws his gold Egyptian sword into the water. Immediately, the entire sea retracts southward until completely out of sight … huh? Even Disney’s Prince of Egypt got that part right. Are we to believe the sword was imbued with magical Egyptian power?

At the conclusion, the Hebrews were depressed, not joyous as depicted in Miriam’s song, even after the Pharaoh’s demise. And speaking of Ramses … I don’t have enough space here to explain all my objections to Ramses being depicted as the Pharaoh of the exodus. An excellent analysis of the Exodus within the historical context is postulated in the Associates for Biblical Research by Dr. Bryant Wood http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2006/09/Debunking-The-Exodus-Decoded.aspx. The site contains many other valuable resources about the Exodus and Conquest of Canaan.

Bible and Spade Magazine

Bible and Spade Magazine

 

I can enjoy a Biblical movie even if it omits minor details due to production time constraints, but to turn the actual events on their heads and remove the Lord from the equation is another story. I struggled with my final opinion of the movie, due to the well-researched historical settings, but in the end, I remembered John Calvin, who said, “A dog barks when his master is attacked. I would be a coward if I saw that God’s truth is attacked and yet would remain silent.”

If you’ve seen Exodus: Gods and Kings, what did you like/not like about it? Do you think it’s permissible for movie adaptations to take creative license with the Bible?.

Before Harry Potter

Before the craze of J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter, there was Frank Peretti, the true pioneer in catapulting his readers into the supernatural. Rowling wrote seven books about Harry’s adventures. Peretti has eight in his Cooper Kids series and at least ten novels geared for adults.

Am I pitting them against each other? It wasn’t my intention, but if your kids have read Harry Potter, then give them a chance at the more Biblically based Cooper Kids. So many similar books have come out in the past thirty years, yet Peretti weaves Christian truth into the plot more skillfully than any others that I’ve read.

this present darkness

Famous for This Present Darkness, published in 1986, Frank Peretti wrote the first book of the Cooper Kids, The Door in the Dragon’s Throat, in 1985. He introduces Jay and Lila, along with their archaeologist father, in a Middle Eastern setting, the perfect place to launch an epic battle between good and evil. As was more common in the Eighties, Peretti gives quite a bit of back story as characters are introduced, but he does it well, and it reads quickly.

My favorite of the eight is Secret of the Desert Stone. Set in Africa, Jay and Lila become friends with another brother and sister whose tribe is in danger of being wiped out by the megalomaniac leader of a rival tribe, the tribe with absolute power in running the country. Preparations for war keep us turning the pages as fast as we can. Parallels between the tribe’s legends and Bible history keep us enthralled on a deeper level. As all four kids draw closer to learning Truth, the opposition trains its sights on wiping out the village that stands in its way.

desert tree

When my sons were in elementary school, they hated to read. They weren’t all that enthused about being read to, either. But when I started to read aloud This Present Darkness, they begged me to read another chapter. And another. Every day.

Peretti created a spark in them to explore Truth. His books jump started an interest in God, in spiritual warfare, in truth of scripture, and in the realization that a relationship with Christ is not fiction even if Peretti’s stories didn’t really happen. I am grateful for all the dinner table conversations he inspired!

credit to churchmousec.wordpress.com

credit to churchmousec.wordpress.com

What books have you read that inspired family conversations about Jesus and living for Him?

Orwell’s Wall: Moving Beyond The Simple Love or Hate of a Novel by T.J. Akers.

Student Reading Book Shows Research

The first post in my series  started with taking opportunities to express your opinion on the Internet. Specifically, your opinion about novels you think are good or bad. If you’re going to express your views, why not make it an opinion worth reading.

George Orwell said, “…The first thing we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp.” So I mention Orwell’s wall as a way of structuring how we think about works of fiction. This approach can go by other names such as Reader Response or Ethical Criticism, but Orwell’s wall is the best metaphor I’ve found to explain critiquing books. Allow me to explain further.

Wall Demolition Shows Impact And Destruction

You read novel “X” and hate it. You log onto Good Reads, Amazon, or whatever platform to express your opinion to “save” some unsuspecting victim from spending good money on a bad story. Enraged that you wasted your time on a dumb novel, you click one star and set yourself to type a blistering response. All of sudden, the only thing you can think to write is “I hated this.” You may say you hated the plot, you might say you hated the characters, but many reading your response would be unimpressed by a simplistic opinion without offering a reason. If you want to be taken seriously, it helps to form well thought out critical opinions as opposed to full on “rants” or an all out “gush”. Hence, we can use a familiar form of criticism and Orwell’s wall to construct something more interesting than a rant or a gush.

Purdue University’s online writers resource, The Purdue Owl, defines Reader Response as the view that, “… considers readers’ reactions to literature as vital to interpreting the meaning of the text…(Reader Response) can take a number of different approaches…[but maintains]…that a text cannot be separated from what it does [for the reader]…”(Owl). Reader Response, sometimes called Ethical criticism, is used in public schools to teach literature. Students read an assigned book, discussion follows where students vocalize their responses to help them process their opinions to  “think out loud” and then organize their thoughts to express their take on the book. If you said that sounds a lot like “I love it or hate it” you would be close, but not quite there because teachers also want to know why a student thinks the way they do about a book.

Those that ascribe to Reader Response bring to their reading experience the complete subtexts of their life experiences or lack thereof, reading ability, world view, and morality to analyze the merit of a story. This subtext forms a lens in which to judge a work.Keep in mind that those opinions can be shaped by reading and a reader’s comprehension.

Upset Unhappy 3d Character Shows Disagreement Between Couple

Of course, everyone’s life experience can be unique and varied, so much so that a story may garner a variety of opinions. Is an opinion biased? Yes, of course it is, but Reader Response is most useful when you collect a lot of opinions from a good cross section of people of different backgrounds. When you see a lot of readers giving a book four out of five stars, you can count on one of two things: 1) Either a lot of people with the same life biases liked the book, 2) The book managed to catch the favor of a large cross section of different people and would be worth paying attention to. Either way, such ratings become more valuable by the increased number of opinions referenced. The fewer the opinions, the least trustworthy, unless you know the reading habits of the few people expressing that favorable or unfavorable view. This is how professional critics work.

Using Orwell’s mirror you can structure an opinion to make it more useful. You start out with the basic novel construction (is the wall a good wall?). “Does the novel have a beginning, middle, and end. Do the elements of “story” (plot, conflict, setting, theme, character, tone, mood, symbolism, point of view, style) come together in pleasing or meaningful ways? Do you comprehend what you read, or were you tripping over poor writing. Sometimes a poor reading experience is blamed on the author, when it could be the reader’s poor comprehension.

The second half of Orwell’s wall is the trickiest part and embraces the basic idea of Ethical criticism, “…even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp.” Did the novel take you any place worth while? Did you go their willingly, or were you kicking and screaming in misery much the way a bystander is sometimes captivated by a train wreck? Is that place somewhere other readers would like to go, or should they even want to go?”

This is where world view plays into Reader Response, Ethical Criticism, and Orwell’s wall. Many readers want the literature they read to be a mirror of who they perceive themselves to be, or want they aspire to. They want their personal beliefs reflected in their stories. Some readers like to have their self-views challenged, but many don’t, at least not on a regular basis.

Aggressive corporate worker with axe and case

Allow me a personal example. I hate Romance as a literary genre. My writing associates know this and accept this, but don’t share that opinion. I will almost never pick up a romance novel to read no matter how enticing the book cover is. To me, it is usually “stupid trash.” Those of you who do like romance might be saying, “Well who does that guy think he is?” Are you mad yet?

Is my view fair to all romance novels? No. There is nothing fair about my view because I am judging a whole set of unread books by some invisible perception or misperception buried in my psyche. This is the problem with Reader Response and Ethical Criticism. The perception of a book’s quality is dependent on what a reader brings to a story.

There have been some stories I’ve read and liked at certain times in my life, only to reread them later, and ask myself, “What was I thinking when I read this? This is awful.” In other words, the novel didn’t change, I did.

The true value of Reader Response comes from being around like minded readers and finding things that perpetuate personal preferences. There’s nothing really wrong with that, but if you want to grow as a person and a reader, it helps to read things other than just your preferences.

Believe it or not, I read a romance novel every once in a while. In addition, I have specifically read four romance manuscripts over the last several years and I found should these projects ever get published, I would buy them. The authors absolutely defeated my personal biases and silenced my inner credit. I think that’s pretty amazing, and very rare.

So to move to more meaningful opinions start by using Orwell’s wall. When you approach a novel, does it have a beginning, middle, and end. Do the elements of “story” (plot, conflict, setting, theme, character, tone, mood, symbolism, point of view, style) come together in pleasing or meaningful ways? When you, the reader, finish the story; do you understand where the author has taken you and why?

Child Improving His Education By Reading A Book

Next, is what the novel embraces good, bad, or indifferent? Did the novel take you any place at all? Did you go their willingly, or were you kicking and screaming in misery much the way a bystander is sometimes captivated by morbid curiosity when watching a train wreck? Did the novel take to a place you wanted to go as a reader? Did it take you someplace you’ve never been before? Is that place somewhere you and other readers should like to go, or even want to go?” Then write your opinion down and share it.