Too Much Jesus?

Kelli Standish just told me about an interesting blog over at BJ Hoff's Grace Notes. If you were interested in what I wrote last week about the publisher who wanted me to substitute "the more generic God" for every reference to "Jesus" in my first novel, you should go over and see what BJ has to say.

Now that secular publishers are no longer pushing quite as hard for us to make our work "less overtly Christian," how ironic it would be if we began to censor ourselves.

It seems to me there are two extremes to this question for a Christian writer, and they can symbolize mistakes on either side of a balance every Christian ought to strike in life. On the one hand, writers could fill pages with one sermon after another, so that every book is really propaganda. On the other hand, we could take care not to mention Jesus lest we cause offence. As with most things in life, the Jesus Way lies in the middle.

You will not find a single example of Jesus forcing himself on anyone with thinly disguised trickery. From all appearances, he was not a man with ulterior motives. When he went to a wedding party, he really went to party. When he sat down to dinner, he was really there to eat. When he went to temple, he intended to worship. But neither will you find a single example of him watering down his message to avoid offense. Whether he was at a party, at the dining table, or at a temple, if Jesus thought of something important to say about the Lord, he came right out and said it on the spot. So it ought to be with us.
Let there be no trickery and let there be no fear. Let us be honestly and overtly whose we are.

Jesus is not some horribly deformed or insane family member we must keep chained down in the basement, someone we need to reveal carefully, and only to those who have previously proven they have stomachs strong enough. Jesus is perfectly presentable. It is those not healed by Jesus who are deformed and too insane within their lostness to know it. (I know, because I was once insanely lost myself.) So whether a Christian is an author, housewife, plumber, doctor, lawyer or Indian chief, whether a Christian is writing a novel, cheering at a ballgame, or having friends over for dinner, she ought to live life in the moment, sincerely, with no ulterior motive whatsoever, including evangelism. But when the subject of Jesus comes to mind, a Christian also ought to speak or write of him without concern, freely and naturally, just as she would speak or write of anyone she loves.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 3:12 PM 1 comments  

RIVER RISING -- Background & Further Reading

If you’re a fan of my novel, River Rising, you might be interested in learning a little more about the background for the story. The setting I chose, way down past the end of the road on the Mississippi delta, was based on one of America's strangest places. Read about Pilottown, Louisiana in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and see some photos of the town and the river pilots in action by visiting Nat Stone’s excellent photographic account of his amazing kayak trip. Surf Nat’s site a little. Admire his beautiful shots of Cajun country. I went to most of those same spots by car and by boat while I was researching River Rising. What a fascinating part of the world! While you’re looking ot over, notice how nice the houses are in the picture of Pilottown, and how sturdy the raised walkway appears to be.

They say Pilottown has electric lights these days instead of kerosene lanterns, and fresh paint, and even ice cream. Hale Poser would be amazed.

It’s a lot more civilized than the town Hale visited in River Rising, but then, that story takes place 80 years ago. As the Times-Picayune article says, things have changed. Nowadays almost everyone in Pilottown is a non-resident pilot, waiting half a day (or two at most) until they are called to take command of a ship out on the Gulf or along the Mississippi. Back in the day, there were 200 full time residents, a school, grocery store and a couple of bars. Photos I have in my private library show no paint on the buildings, and certainly no steel handrails on the walkways. But one thing remains the same. Look closely at the photo at Nat’s site and you'll see buildings standing high on stilts. Time may pass, but the Mississippi will be respected, one way or another.

You might also be interested to know that the Papa DeGroot character in River Rising was (very) loosely based on a real person. His name was Leander Perez, and my, oh my was he something. Perez ran Plaquemines Parish with an iron fist for many years. You can read about him in a Time magazine article from 1960, and if you really want the nitty-gritty, check out the FBI’s official file on him.

South Louisiana always has been a world unto itself, with a different culture, different history, different ethnicity, even a different language. It’s a great place to set a novel. If River Rising left you hungry for more swamp stories, I strongly recommend The Clearing, by Tim Gautreaux. It’s extremely well written, one of the best novels I read last year, and bound to please a River Rising fan.

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Posted byAthol Dickson at 9:28 AM 0 comments  

Profiles, Novels and Film

Publisher’s Weekly interviewed me recently for a profile piece. You can read the online version here. My friend Angie Hunt and Tracey Bateman are also profiled. In fact, this edition contains an entire section on Christian fiction, and for those who enjoy novels with Christian themes it’s worth examining. For example, you can find out about five brand new novelists, and there’s a very informative article on the surge in Christian films since Mel Gibson’s phenomenal success with The Passion. Looks like we can expect quite a few more film adaptations of Christion themed novels in the near future. I just hope the quality is there, having seen some poor reviews of a few recent offerings, which apparently did not rise to the level of the novels.

Speaking of motion pictures, let me recommend two fairly low budget films, both of which have recently hit the shelves at my local video store:

First, there’s Copying Beethoven. Ed Harris does a remarkable job in this picture. It might be the best work he’s done, and he’s a fine actor so that’s really saying something. I think he should have gotten as Oscar. And the script . . . oh, my. There’s a scene where Beethoven describes music as God’s voice, and musicians as those who take down His dictation. As a writer, I loved that perspective on art.

Beethoven describes his relationship with God, saying they were two grouchy bears in a den too small for both. How many of us feel that way sometimes? I certainly do.

And there’s a fabulous scene near the end when Beethoven lies on his death bed and dictates a fugue to his assistant, beginning in strictly musical terms and ending with a lyrical description of entering heaven . . . it’s just pure magic on several levels. I don’t know anything about Rivele or Wilkinson (the screenwriters) but someone behind this picture knows the Lord. (For those who might be uncomfortable with such things, there is one scene in Copying Beethoven where a bottom is briefly exposed, but it’s certainly not gratuitous.)

Then, there’s Ten Items or Less. While it doesn’t touch on humanity’s relationship to God as overtly as Copying Beethoven, it may do a better job with that whole “love you neighbor as yourself” thing. Ten Items or Less stars Morgan Freeman as you’ve never seen him before: light hearted and playful. The female lead is Paz Vega, who is also very good, and it was written and directed by Brad Silberling, who has a long TV directing career but only one other picture to his credit, that Lemony Snicket thing. It’s about an actor with a career on the skids who meets a clerk in a Latino grocery while checking out a location for a film. The clerk and the actor are from totally different worlds, but they end up spending the whole day together, and because of the chemistry between them (not romantic, just a connection, you know?) they inspire each other to step up and do something about their lives. That’s it; the entire plot. But the acting! The dialogue! Wow. I was alone when I watched it. I gave it a round of applause anyway.

Do yourself a favor. Read the PW online articles and rent these pictures.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:49 AM 4 comments  

Count Your Troubles Over Again

I’ve received some interesting feedback via email and comments here on my earlier question from The Cure, so here’s another, sort of a follow-up, which I also spent a lot of time considering as I wrote that novel:

If you could take a pill to eliminate all your troubles—your insecurities, ailments, weaknesses and moral failings—would you still need Jesus or the Holy Spirit?

Of course Christians believe we need Jesus because everyone has something inside that drives us to sin. We are “weakened by our sinful nature” and cannot rise above our sinfulness, so only Jesus’ blood on the cross can cure us of our sin disease. And Christianity teaches that the sin disease causes all the heartache in the world, one way or another. But say there was another way, a pill to make the badness go away? Could we then bypass the whole cross and resurrection thing? Would it be a kind of “Passion Lite,” which gets results without producing all the excess weight and messy stuff?

And the Holy Spirit, as our “counselor,” spends a great deal of time training us to avoid temptations, or to overcome them. He gives us wisdom to see sins for what they are, and he fills our hearts with a desire to keep them at a distance, to live righteous, holy, sinless lives. So, after this pill has cured me of all the things in life that tempt me to sin, and after I have no more moral failings, would I need a counselor?

Some may say these are silly questions, like asking “what if I could breath underwater?” Because of course there is just one way to deal with our insecurities, ailments, weaknesses and moral failings. That way is Jesus, and there will never be another. But silly or not, asking these things has helped me think through the reason for my troubles, and helped me be a bit less eager to be rid of them. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between a blessing and a curse.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:11 AM 0 comments  

God, the Generic Character

I asked Sue (my better half) what I should write here and she said, “Tell about how you got your first novel published. People seem to think that’s interesting.” Lest I be accused of asking for her advice and then ignoring it, here’s a link to an interview with Gina Holmes on Novel Journey, where the story is already told.

Since the whole story is out there in the blogosphere already, there’s no point in repeating it here. But one thing deserves a little more background.

If you read Gina’s interview, you’ll note that a major New York publishing house wanted to get my first novel into print, but only (according to my agent at the time) if I was willing to tone down the references to Jesus. Specifically, they asked me to replace “Jesus” with the “more generic God.” They claimed it was necessary to reach a wider market. Making the main characters overtly “Christian,” wouldn’t sell. Especially since the characters were (shudder) evangelical Christians in the south.

Now, imagine if a publisher today asked Herman Hesse to tone down the Buddhism in his classic Siddhartha (Buddha’s given name, and an excellent novel). I can hear it now. “Let’s change his name to ‘Everyman,’ or maybe ‘Bob,’ and then even the Jews and Christians will like it.” Or what if someone had suggested that Chaim Potok make his wonderful novel, The Chosen, a bit less Jewish? “I don’t know, Chaim. Maybe you could set the story in…just thinking out loud here…say, Omaha?”

What would people call such outrageous suggestions? Surely the words “prejudice” and “discrimination” apply. Yet in the early 1990’s, acquisitions editors at major New York publishers felt quite comfortable making such demands to Christians.

Why the change since then? I think it’s pretty obvious. They figured out their prejudice against my form of Christianity is costing them a lot of money. To understand the amount of money involved, check out a few of the industry statistics on the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association website.

Wow, huh?

It’s easy to see why the New York houses have been falling all over themselves to put out Christian imprints lately. I doubt the same publisher would ask me to replace “Jesus” with the “more generic God” today. So evangelicals have won a battle against discrimination in the years since I got started writing. I just wish I could say it’s because the publishing establishment got a conscience, or even better, it's because we evangelicals have improved our reputation. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure it’s just about the money. And that’s something everyone should think about.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 5:07 PM 3 comments  

Count Your . . . Troubles

The Cure, my next novel, comes out in just over a month. Like any decent novel, it asks a question. Without giving anything away about the plot, the question that got me thinking about The Cure is this:

If you could take a pill to make your troubles go away—your weaknesses, your insecurities, your ailments and your moral failings—would you do it?

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? But wait, before you answer, stop and think a moment about what your troubles are here for. That’s not a point of view we often hear considered anymore, is it? The idea that trouble could be “for” something? Yet it’s really worth a moment of your time (or perhaps enough time to read a novel—hint, hint) because after all, there is no pill to make your troubles go away. So if you’re stuck with them—and in many cases you probably are—you might as well figure out a way to make some use of them, putting them to work for you, so to speak.

Make a list of your favorite things about yourself, and then consider every item on your list. How many of those things would be there, just like that, if you had never faced a serious problem?

If self-confidence is on your list, do you have good reason for your confidence, a history that says, “I know I can do it,” or is confidence merely on your list because you’ve never had to face real trouble? Does your list include perseverance, integrity, character, hopefulness, self-control, discipline, or patience? If so, are you kidding yourself about yourself, or do you have good reasons for including attributes like those? What’s behind the best of who you have turned out to be? Might you have known some troubles?

Imagine again, if somebody handed you a pill and said, “Take this, and all your troubles will vanish in an instant.” Would you take it? Would you really?

Posted byAthol Dickson at 2:50 PM 7 comments  


Let it not be said I entered the blogosphere with cliches or timidity. Instead of all the usual remarks in this, my first ever blog, I think I'll dive right into comments on the biggest news in North American Christendom today: Jerry Falwell's battle here on earth is done.

I am interested in the disrespectful way those outside the church have responded to the news, and what is says about his approach to ministry. Consider, for example, Christopher Hitchens (Contributing Editor of Vanity Fair, author of current bestseller God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and professional atheist) in an interview with Anderson Cooper, saying among other things:

“I think it's a pity there isn't a hell for him to go to…. The empty life of this ugly little charlatan proves only one thing, that you can get away with the most extraordinary offenses to morality and to truth in this country if you will just get yourself called reverend. Who would, even at your network, have invited on such a little toad to tell us that the attacks of September the 11th were the result of our sinfulness and were God's punishment if they hadn't got some kind of clerical qualification?”

How very, very sad. Apparently it doesn’t matter to Mr. Hitchens that Dr. Falwell made a very public apology for his words. And of course, if Dr. Falwell hadn’t said that about 9/11, people would still have found something to condemn him for, because he took such strong public positions on political and legal issues.

This is just the latest example of why it’s so vital for evangelical leaders to refocus our attention on the Gospel, and nothing but the Gospel.

I disagreed with some of Dr. Falwell’s public statements (about AIDS and 9/11 as God’s judgment on America, for example) but I know people well who knew Dr. Falwell well, and I trust them when they tell me he was a deeply dedicated Christian, both in his very public life and when he was off-camera. I also think the record shows he did untold good throughout his life in the name of Jesus Christ. I believe he was correct far more often than he was wrong. Yet the Hitchens quote above is how most unbelievers will remember him, and it is how they’ll think about Christianity as a result.

Consider Billy Graham as one example of the alternative. He learned this lesson during the Truman administration, when he spoke before the cameras about a private conversation with the president, and was banned from Truman's White House. He has largely avoided taking high profile political or social positions ever since. Graham certainly cares about politics (having spiritually counseled every president from Truman to George W. Bush) but his ministry has never been about politics. His position, I believe, is that a saved person will eventually vote the right way on the issues, whereas someone who votes properly can still go to hell. So Graham has remained tightly focused on the main thing, preaching the Good News. As one result, I believe there will be few, if any, high profile unbelievers who condemn Billy Graham when he passes, because even those who disagree most strongly with his theology must admit he is a man of love, a legacy that can only add to Jesus’ reputation.

It must be said that not all unbelievers have responded as Mr. Hitchens did. Larry Flynt, the founder and head of one of the world’s largest pornography empires, spoke in surprisingly respectful tones. But while Mr. Flynt’s words prove that Dr. Falwell was a loving man even toward his self-professed enemies, I’m afraid Larry Flynt is in the very small minority of unbelievers. (If you doubt this, see this tragic blog entry, and be sure to read some of the comments.)

Christians who believe our Lord wants evangelical leaders to be pastor-politicians should ponder Dr. Falwell’s legacy outside the church very carefully, especially in light of the old adage that one can win the battle and lose the war.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:35 AM 6 comments