From Celebrity to Criminal

Monday, March 19, 2018

This post is reprinted from April 2, 2012.


No, this post isn’t about Lindsay Lohan or Mike Tyson or Paris Hilton. A hundred years from now, they will have faded from the public memory.

That’s something they don’t share with the man who rode into town to cheering crowds on a Sunday, only to be mocked and executed as a criminal before the week was up. Events we are still talking about 2000 years later.

Talking about and celebrating. My father took this picture while my family was attending the Palm Sunday festivities in Jerusalem in 1958.

Lindsay and Mike and Paris didn’t lose their celebrity status when they were convicted of their crimes, and neither did Jesus of Nazareth.

But here is the crucial difference: Jesus was sinless. He had no guilt to convict him.

Well, that isn’t quite true.

He was guilty of love. A love so great that he paid the penalty for the sins of all humankind.

His heart was heavy and he died in anguish. But he did it by choice.

For me. For you.

And that’s something to remember not just during Holy Week but every day of the year.

The Importance of Sound Theology

Monday, March 12, 2018

I belonged to six Presbyterian churches as I grew up, but I had only one minister. And Daddy was a strong Christian whose sermons were firmly grounded in the Bible.

When I went to college, I visited several churches and ended up attending Third Reformed (in Holland, Michigan). Like the churches from my childhood, Third’s teaching was rooted in solid theology.

So when I moved to Chicago for graduate school, I expected to find more of the same. Unfortunately, not all churches and ministers are alike, even within the same denomination.

I visited two or three churches in Chicago looking for a place to belong. It was probably my second time at Fourth Presbyterian Church when I heard an announcement that they were still looking for Sunday School teachers. Although I hadn’t heard the senior minister preach yet, it was a Presbyterian church, so how could I go wrong? That’s what I thought at the time, anyway.

I’m not sure how long it was before I began having doubts. I remember taking an evening class from the senior minister and disagreeing with his Biblical analysis. The incident that stands out most was the day he said sins were always black and white, never gray. So I asked about 1 Corinthians 8, which talks about food offered to idols. According to Paul (as I read the passage), mature Christians who understand that the meat is just meat don’t sin when they eat it privately or with other equally mature Christians, but those who think that eating food offered to idols is a sin actually sin when they do so. I was willing to be persuaded that I had misinterpreted either the passage or the senior minister’s words. But he gave me a brusque “it doesn’t mean that” and moved on without explaining why not. If it was simply a matter of not liking his personality, however, I would have swallowed my pride and lived with it. But I had also heard several of his sermons by then, and they always made me uneasy.

The turning point came on Easter Sunday, when I sat through his entire sermon and didn’t hear him mention Jesus once. The next week I began visiting other churches and found one that was rooted in solid theology, although I didn’t join until I had attended long enough to be sure of that. Then I got married and joined my current church, which is also Biblically grounded.

Fast forward 45 years.

I went to a writers’ conference in Chicago over the weekend. I couldn’t attend services at my own church without missing some of the sessions. The conference was just down the block from Fourth Presbyterian, however, and its 8:00 a.m. service worked with the conference schedule. So although I had some trepidation, I went. The sermon was short on doctrine, but at least it included references to Jesus. The liturgy had a bigger impact, and it was uplifting. Fourth Presbyterian may still not be a church I want to belong to, but it sufficed for that one visit.

This isn’t a denominational issue. I’ve been to other Presbyterian churches in the last 45 years—either on vacation or while visiting family—and come away feeling satisfied. And every denomination has its renegades. In the end, it comes down to the individual churches and their pastors and whether they espouse solid Biblical teaching.

I believe in working from within when there are political or personal differences in a congregation. But if the teaching found there doesn’t feed my faith, I need to find a church that does.

I’m just glad I learned that lesson 45 years ago.

Diaries, Diaries Everywhere, and Not a Drop of Ink

Monday, March 5, 2018

I apologize for the cutesy title, which isn’t even quite true. But it almost is.

Many Southern women kept diaries during the Civil War, and they ran into shortages of paper and ink. They improvised by writing on scrap paper and filling their quill pens with berry juice.

So when I decided to write a story about the Siege of Vicksburg, I considered using the diary format that has been successful for many middle-grade historical novels. Scholastic’s Dear America series, with books written by various authors, is the best-known. Then there is the American Diaries series written by Kathleen Duey, who is one of my favorite writers of middle-grade historical fiction. The first books in both series were published in 1996, so it is unlikely that one copied the other. (The time between conception and publication can take several years.) The two series ran in tandem until the early 2000s and faded almost in tandem, as well. Scholastic also issued a series for boys (My Name is America) and another for younger children (My America) published around the same time. The Dear America series recently saw a resurgence with both new offerings and re-releases of some of the original books.

But that’s part of the problem. Fashions come and go, and that is as true for writing styles and formats as it is for clothing. Not that all trends are fads, and a well-written diary story will never go out of style. But I prefer to write what works for me rather than chasing a trend.

The main reason I rejected the idea of writing my book in a diary format is simple: it limits my options for dramatizing the story. First, although some real-life diaries contain vivid descriptions, the writers rarely describe those places and events that are part of their everyday lives. Even the backstory is simply assumed. Second, real-life diaries rarely set up a scene or contain dialogue. To put it in literary terms, diaries tell rather than show.

Obviously, that isn’t always the case, and some authors have found ways around the limitations. Of the many Dear America books that I have read, a couple have made significant use of dialogue, but it only works with the right protagonist—one with a good memory or a strong dramatic sense. Or there is the way Kathleen Duey does it, where diary entries are fleshed out and accompanied by much longer sections written in a more traditional third-person style.

Still, not every Southern woman or girl wrote a diary, and I would rather have my protagonist spend her time reading. That gives me more freedom to write the story I want.

And I don’t have to worry that she’ll run out of ink.


The photo at the head of this post shows three of the Civil War diaries in my collection. From left to right, they are My Cave Life in Vicksburg (Mary Ann Webster Loughborough), The Civil War Diary of a Southern Woman (Sarah Morgan), and Vicksburg, A City Under Siege (Emma Balfour). Emma Balfour’s entries end on June 2, 1863, a month before the siege ended. Her subsequent entries are probably just lost. But who knows—maybe she ran out of ink.