Peace On A Troubled Earth

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. (Luke 2:8-14)

Peace is a fitting topic for the Advent season, because the angels’ Christmas announcement was, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace....” But this is often the least peaceful time of year, even for a Christian. As Christmas approaches our thoughts can turn to loved ones who are distant or departed, and that can make it difficult to find “peace on earth.” Surely God knew this would be the case, so what did His angels mean by “peace on earth,” exactly?

Most of us know the Hebrew word for peace is shalom, of course. In Greek, it’s eirene. In both languages of the Bible the meaning of peace is much more than a simple feeling of tranquility, or the absence of war. Theologians say the Biblical ideas of shalom and eirene can be defined as wholeness, or completeness. Also honor. Integrity. Community. Righteousness and justice, maintaining healthy relationships, living out the golden rule, and loving our neighbors as ourselves.

But is all of that what the angels meant by “peace on earth”?

On that first Christmas Eve, Israel and most of the western world groaned under brutal Roman oppression. Between twenty and thirty percent of the people in Europe and around the Mediterranean were enslaved. Public entertainment involved fights to the death in coliseums. The government had people beaten, stripped naked and nailed to crosses where they were left to die of exposure, asphyxiation and dehydration. Forty years after Jesus was himself nailed to a cross, all of Jerusalem was leveled by the Romans, and the Jewish people were enslaved and scattered throughout the world. The so-called Pax Romana was nothing but peace by the sword.

So much for wholeness and completeness and integrity and honor and righteousness and community and the golden rule and loving your neighbor as yourself. So much for peace by any earthly definition, really. Jesus himself said, “In this world you will have trouble,” and he said, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.”

But still, on that first Christmas Eve, the angels did say, “Peace on earth.”

It’s understandable that so many unbelievers think the angels got it wrong. But you know, words have meaning, and we really need to stop and think about the words these angels used.

Did they say the world was at peace?


Did they promise the earth would be at peace?


Their exact words were, “Peace on earth,” and they were angels after all, so we can assume they said exactly what they meant. When they appeared to those shepherds saying, “Peace on the earth,” they meant peace had arrived on the earth, right then, right there, and the shepherd could find peace if they wanted to, lying in a manger.

To fully understand this, we must ask, “Who and what is Jesus Christ?” People compare him to Confucius or Buddha or Muhammad, as if he was a wise teacher, a religious leader, or a holy prophet, but none of that is accurate. Consider what Jesus said about himself:

Jesus didn’t say “I know the way.” He said, “I am the way.”

Jesus didn’t say “I’ll tell you the truth.” He said, “I am the truth.”

Jesus didn’t say “I’ll teach you how to live.” He said, “I am the life.”

So when the angels appeared to the shepherds saying, “Peace on earth,” they didn’t mean Jesus had arrived to teach us about peace, or to lead us into peace. When they said, “Peace on earth,” they meant Jesus has arrived. Period. “Peace on earth” was just another way of saying, “Jesus is on earth,” because Jesus Christ is Peace.

You can find this all throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament, Micah said the Messiah would be our peace (5:5). Isaiah called him the “Prince of Peace” in a scripture we hear put to glorious music every Christmas in Handel’s Messiah (9:6). And writing about Jesus in Ephesians, Paul said “He himself is our peace.” (2:14)

This means when we talk about the ideas of shalom and eirene, we’re really talking about Jesus, and that adds a whole new dimension to Jesus’ own teaching on the subject of peace. For example, in the Gospel of John, on the night of his arrest, when Jesus tells the apostles how they can have peace he doesn’t give them a philosophy to follow, or a religion to practice, or a ten step process, or any kind of a to-do list at all.

Instead, Jesus simply says “Abide in me,” or “Remain in me,” and then he says, "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace” (16:33).

Jesus doesn’t offer a kind of peace, or a way to peace. Jesus Christ is peace, period. So it makes perfect sense that authentic peace is only found in Jesus. The way to be at peace is very simple. Abide in Jesus. Remain in Jesus. In Jesus you’ll have peace.

Maybe for you that doesn’t sound so simple. Maybe talk of being “in” Jesus sounds too vague and mystical for you. Fair enough. If you’re the practical kind, try thinking about it this way: you may not understand how it’s possible to be in Jesus Christ, but you do understand how a person can be in love, right? Well, Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, is deeply in love with you, so the way to be at peace is to simply love him back. Be in love with Jesus, and you will be at peace.

Being at peace really is that easy, and that hard. It’s hard, because you can search the whole wide world and you won’t find peace on your own. It’s easy, because peace a free gift. Jesus said so himself, many times. He said, “God loved the world so much he gave his only son, so that anyone who believes in him would have eternal life.” And since Jesus Christ is peace, “God gave his only son” is just another way of saying God gave peace. It’s a gift. All you have to do—all you can do, if you want to be at peace—is accept the gift of peace.

Even Christians can forget this sometimes. Even Christians sometimes need to be reminded that you can’t be at peace by figuring things out. You can’t be at peace by being good. You can’t buy peace with money. The pastors at your church can’t give you peace, and you won’t find peace in your friends or family. And this is very important: you might be alone in life; you might be sick; you might have no money and no job, but whatever kind of problem you’re facing today, the solution to your problems will not give you lasting peace. After these problems will always come more problems, because we don’t live on a peaceful earth, so while a solution to your problems might be wonderful, what you need even more is the kind of peace that makes it possible to face your problems peacefully. You need peace with God, just like the familiar Christmas carol promises:

Hark! The herald angels sing.
“Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild;
God and sinners reconciled.”

This carol stands the test of time because it get things right. “Peace on earth” is about God and sinners reconciled, not about a peaceful earth. To the world, hanging on a cross is the opposite of peace on earth, but peace between God and us is only possible because Jesus Christ became that peace by hanging on a cross in place of you and me.

Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.” What irony! You can pay a horrible cost in blood, sweat and tears for worldly peace, but it can vanish in an instant. Or you can simply accept the peace Jesus wants to give, and it will last forever.

Jesus went on to say, “I do not give to you as the world gives.” Because Jesus Christ is peace, he gives a different kind of peace, a peace that is all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present and eternal, a peace on earth that’s anything but earthly, as we find in yet another wise old Christmas carol everybody knows,

Silent night, holy night.
All is calm, all is bright
‘round yon virgin mother and child,
Holy infant so tender and mild.
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Sleep in heavenly peace.

No matter what kind of challenge, pain or suffering you face today, you can have heavenly peace on earth right here, right now. It’s a Christmas gift for everyone. Just fall in love with Jesus.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 6:50 AM 5 comments  

The Opposite of Art, first draft

Hey, remember me? I've been gone a while. On Wednesday I sent a good first draft of THE OPPOSITE OF ART off to the editor. As always, in the final months of work on a new novel it becomes impossible to even think about keeping up with this blog. Wish I could do both, but there's only so much energy in this little brain of mine. Anyway, the hard part's over now, so I'm back.

I'm excited about this new novel. After moving further into "magical realism" territory with LOST MISSION, this one continues the momentum in that direction. Most readers seem to think RIVER RISING is my best work so far, but I suspect they're about to change their minds. Here's a taste from the first draft:

The sirens called him from his dreams. When the racket stopped, he rose and crossed the little bedroom of his hotel suite to lean naked out into the night, trusting his life to the freezing wrought iron railing just beyond the window so he could gaze down into the alley where a couple of New York’s finest had thrown some guy up against the bricks. Even from five floors up, even in the dark, Ridler recognized the lust for violence and the fear down there, but that was nothing compared to the play of the police car’s lights on the brick wall across the alley.

Shivering, he watched the blood and bruises rhythm of the red and blue, red and blue, the flashes regular against the motionless pattern of the dirty terra cotta colored masonry, worlds colliding in the two configurations, lights ethereal and fleeting, bricks stacked earthy and unchanged for generations. In the time and space created at the intersection of those patterns Ridler saw deep shadows slash across the wall, carved out of the light by the few bricks which had resisted the usual linear fate of their kind, standing out a little, casting empty voids across their fellows like witches conjuring a pitch-black portal to a future or a past. Lately he’d been interested in voids, in portals. He sensed a presence waiting beyond time in them, something no one else had painted. Gazing at the blank brick wall Ridler ignored the policeman down below pummeling the screaming fellow’s kidneys with methodical jabs, left, right, left, right. Although that too was a pattern in its way, there was no color in it, and certainly no transcendence.

When the screaming stopped and the guy dropped face down in a puddle of oily rainwater, Ridler tucked his long black hair behind his ear to better consider the rotating lights rippling in the glistening pavement around the body. Steam arose like ectoplasm at a manhole cover, transubstantiated from ghostly grays to primary colors by the police car’s flashing lights. It occurred to Ridler they would switch off the lights at any moment.

Turning from the window with a curse he ran into the sitting room, which he used as a studio, easel standing on a paint-splattered tarp in one corner, finished paintings hanging everywhere, stacks of waiting canvases against the walls. From the dining table he gathering his sketchpad and some pastels. Seconds later he was back in the bedroom, bare haunch against the window jamb, half in, half out, colored chalks and charcoals on the sill beside him, fingers dashing back and forth across the pad, eyes mainly on the wall across the alley, ignoring the cold in his desperation to memorize the image in case he couldn’t get it down before they killed it off forever.

The lights went out. The brick wall was just a wall again. Ridler leaned dangerously far out into the frigid air beyond the wrought iron railing, teetering five stories up to scream, “Turn your lights back on!” The policemen down below ignored him, focused as they were on dragging the inert man over to their car. Ridler’s breath turned into clouds, drifting off into the night. “Give me back my lights!” The policemen drove away without bothering to look up. Pulling back in from the brink, Ridler muttered, “Pigs.”

(Opening paragraphs of the first draft, THE OPPOSITE OF ART, which will be published in the spring)

Posted byAthol Dickson at 8:45 AM 5 comments  

Commit Literature

When I began writing my first novel in 1993, I made a decision that still guides my work today. I would not try to write “great literature.” I would instead content myself with a simple little story, but I would write it to the best of my ability, and work hard to improve my skills to assure that what I wrote, while no masterpiece, would at least reflect well upon my Maker. I believe the most important words a Christian can apply to any kind of work are these, which were written to slaves by a man in chains:

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as if working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” (Colossians 3:23-24) NIV

So I wrote slowly and painstakingly, carefully considering every word from many different standpoints. I sought out the opinions of intelligent acquaintances, and was never too proud to make constructive changes when suggested. Then, through a series of remarkable events (which I hope to write about one day in this column) to my very great surprise that first novel was published. But what surprised me even more was a comment made about that novel by an editor at a major newspaper. He said it “verged on committing literature.”

How strange it was to hear that word, when “literature” was the very thing I told myself I would not do.

Since those days Providence has seen fit to let me finish eight more novels, with six of those in print so far, and one memoir which may outlast them all. At the risk of seeming immodest, there have been several literary awards and many not uncomplimentary reviews, all of which when taken together have tended to imply that others see in me a puzzling habit of producing “literature.” This has caused me some confusion, for not once in all the years of writing—a million words or more—have I gone back on my original decision. Never have I consciously attempted literature.

Literature was for the academy. It was dense, impenetrable, lofty and apart. I simply wanted to tell unusual stories that might entertain readers, might enchant them through the characters and images brought to mind, and might perhaps leave them with a useful thought or two. How did that amount to literature?

For help in thinking through this question I looked to that ever-faithful writer’s servant, Webster’s. It turns out “literature” might not be the stuffy snob I once suspected. It is only “writings in prose or verse; especially: writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.”

Well. That didn’t sound so bad. In fact, this was a fair description of what I expected to read in every novel worth my time. It’s what one should expect from any gifted novelist who does his best to write “with all his heart, as if working for the Lord.” Indeed, now that I think about it, this is what every novel in the Christian Fiction genre ought to be: “excellence of form or expression, and ideas of permanent or universal interest.” For what is the alternative? Mediocrity of form and expression? Unimportant and uninteresting ideas? As an inheritor of the greatest story ever told, what kind of Christian storyteller would I be if I was satisfied with that?

Since I am indeed a Christian truly serious about the faith, I have finally decided to accept this fact: whether I try to write a Transcendent Masterpiece or simply keep on trying to amuse, my underlying goal must be to “commit literature” as it is defined above. If that is not my goal, if I am satisfied with less, then I am not writing for the Lord with all my heart, and in that case I would do best to stop writing altogether and seek some other kind of work.

In exactly the same way, whether you are a home schooling mother, a scientist, an assembly line worker or a lawyer, if you are a Christian you are called to work with all your heart as if working for the Lord. No job is too mundane for that calling; no task is too trivial. Those words were first meant for slaves, remember, written to them by a man in prison. I cannot help being a writer; this gift was given without asking if I might prefer another. Similarly, a slave by definition cannot choose his work, but in following St. Paul’s admonition he can most certainly redeem it. Perhaps life has assigned you only ditches to be dug, but in the way you dig them you decide if you are making literature or pulp. Every task, from the most denigrated to the most celebrated, becomes a form of praise and worship if it’s done with all your heart as if for the Lord. That choice is always yours.

Praise the Lord with excellence in whatever work you do, and prepare to be surprised when others call it something more than you dreamed possible.

The original version of this post was was first published on July 15, 2010 at Novel Journey.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 7:28 AM 1 comments  

On Beauty III

Do you know what beauty is? For fifteen years now I've been trying to create it in my novels, and although the finished product never seems to measure up to what I had in mind, I think it's important to keep working toward it consciously and passionately. Not everyone agrees. In this post I wrote about the strange fact that many novelists rarely think of beauty as a goal in their work. In this one I discussed the reason why a Christian of all people ought to do exactly that, which brings me to the point: when you’re in hot pursuit of a thing, it’s important to understand exactly what that thing is.

So what is beauty, anyway?

It’s a difficult question to answer. Everyone has an opinion on how to define beauty, and our opinions vary widely. Like love or the taste of water, it seems beauty is the kind of thing one can’t quite explain. Webster’s defines it as “the quality attributed to whatever pleases or satisfies the senses or mind,” but notice this describes beauty in terms of its effect and not in terms of what it is. One simply knows beauty when one senses it, and as is often the case with intangibles, this means when we ask, “What is beauty?” it may be simpler to explain what beauty isn't. So I've compiled a little list of what beauty is not. Here goes:

"Beautiful” is not a synonym for “pretty.”

This fact is embedded in the language. While “beautiful” comes from the root noun “beauty,” there is no root noun for “pretty.” On the contrary, “pretty,” an adjective, is the root of “prettiness,” a noun. This means we can describe a thing as pretty, but pretty in itself is not a thing to be described. On the other hand, beauty requires no object. Beauty is a thing itself, and it is not necessarily pretty.

Nature offers countless examples of the difference. The perfect contours of a great white shark are easily an aesthetic match for any sculptor's masterpiece, and it moves with an effortless grace that any prima ballerina would envy. Surely “beauty” is not too strong a word to define such complete balance of form and function, but who would call that awesome predator “pretty”? Not all beautiful things are pretty, therefore the two are not the same.

Beauty is not relative to anything.

Certainly we are conditioned by our cultures to prefer one form of beauty over another in some cases. Many Japanese men think geishas are beautiful. With respect, I prefer less makeup. But that kind of disagreement exists only when we compare what we ourselves create. Everyone on earth agrees sunsets are beautiful. That fact means cultural distinctions are irrelevant when it comes to beauty found nature. Natural beauty—primal beauty—is an absolute which transcends nation, race, gender, religion, age, social mores and language. It is not relative to anything.

Beauty is not always comfortable.

Consider forest fires and lightning. Think of the summit of Mount Everest. Are they not beautiful in their own ways? Yet aren’t they also terrifying? Remember the great white shark again, or a black widow or a lion. Some beauty makes us so uncomfortable we feel the need to set ourselves apart from it. And our desire for distance from some kinds of beauty isn’t only due to danger. We were created to care for the garden. To work it. To organize it and arrange it. This explains the impulse many of us feel to make some kind of change in nature. We trim hedges. We separate flowerbeds from lawns. But what of those who take that impulse further? Who set fire to forests simply to destroy them, hunt for animals they do not eat, and fence off land they do not use? Beauty sometimes makes us sense our smallness. It reminds us we are not in control. It whispers “You are only mortal, and none of this is really yours.” Beauty is not always comfortable.

Beauty is not halfhearted.

Sometimes I fail to write beautiful words because of a momentary lack of enthusiasm, a distracted mind, or a prideful hidden agenda, but there is no pretension, no confusion, no uncertainty and no shortage of exuberance in anything of beauty found in nature. Every beautiful insentient thing from the smallest one-celled organism or slightest grain of sand to the greatest sequoia or the highest mountain is completely and sincerely what it is. Indeed, it is only when this is not true—when the purity of nature is polluted—that we call it ugly.

Similarly, no crow ever wished it was an eagle. No leopard ever wished it was a lion. Everything of beauty with a consciousness is absolutely determined to be completely what it is, everything that is, except sometimes for man.

Even man is the exception that proves the rule, for who could rightly call a man “beautiful” while he is pretentiously pretending to be something he is not? Such a man may still be lovable (it's best to love him anyway, for we are him from time to time) but it is not possible to think of him as beautiful. Beauty is not halfhearted.

Beauty is not slipshod or substandard.

As long as it lives, a mighty oak will always grow leaves in the spring. It never forgets. It never grows leaves partway, or poorly. It never makes the mistake of growing toads or daffodils, nor does it grow leaves on its roots or over in the next county. Mighty oaks are beautiful in part because they can be relied upon to do what oaks do perfectly, each and every time they do it. In the same way, doves are beautiful in part because they always sing their mournful song without missing a note. Ocean surf is beautiful in part because waves always come, one after the other, on and on with never one that fails to do its duty and surrender to the beach. All beauty in creation must fulfill the promise of itself completely. Beauty is not slipshod or substandard.

Undoubtedly there are many other things which beauty is not, but I have only time and space enough to mention one thing more:

Beauty does not exist for our entertainment.

Just as the Rocky Mountains were not raised up for snow skiing, and the Bible was not written to help readers avoid boredom, beauty may fascinate or even hold us spellbound, but that is not its purpose.

Entertainment can be pretty. It can be funny. It can be tragic. But if a moment comes when we suddenly realize a pretty painting, a funny movie, or a tragic novel has somehow become beautiful before our very eyes, we mean it has become something more than merely entertaining.

Entertainment is always inward focused. Its sole purpose is wrapped up in us, but beauty exists either with us or without us, and often, sadly, in spite of us. Think of the violent and profligate life of Caravaggio, or the egomaniacal Frank Lloyd Wright. Think of their beautiful paintings and architecture. The fact that base and selfish men can produce beauty proves that beauty is true, transcendent and sublime in and of itself, and not dependent on us whatsoever. Beauty is not about our entertainment.

But what does it mean to say beauty is true, transcendent and sublime? I could write a book to explain and add no further understanding to that statement. In the end, there's only one thing I can say in the affirmative about beauty without fear of contradiction:

Beauty is mysterious.

And it is because of this quality of mystery that beauty is most easily defined by looking elsewhere, at the negative. The loss of mystery becomes the loss of beauty.

Practically speaking, this means the best chance of finding beauty in one's work is to concentrate on avoiding all the things that it is not. To create a work of beauty, I cannot write merely pretty words, or comfortable words, or entertaining words. I cannot slavishly conform to culture. I cannot tolerate mediocre craftsmanship, and I cannot write halfheartedly.

Beauty is a mystery, so a novelist (or any kind of artist) in pursuit of beauty must never look for it directly. If we do that, we will find beauty has escaped us, much as soap bubbles pop when they are touched and flowers wilt when they are plucked. No one can define the mystery of beauty, but everybody knows it when they sense it. Indeed, beauty is a mystery so powerful it’s blinding. It’s like looking at the sun. I must gaze off to the side, to a place where beauty is not, if I hope to glimpse it as it is, for as the Source of all beauty once famously said, “You may see my glory, but no one may see my face and live.”

The original version of this essay was was first published on June 17, 2010 at Novel Journey.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 1:38 PM 4 comments  

On Beauty II

It was a bad week. My last living aunt had passed away. Her name was Liz, and she was a hoot. If you’re old enough to remember Phyllis Diller or Carol Channing you’ll have a general idea of how much fun she was. I’ll miss her so. Then the next day I had lunch with a friend whose wife had just filed for divorce. My friend has a drinking problem, and his wife decided she couldn’t take it anymore. After lunch I spent time with another hurting friend whose only child was down to one last hope—an experimental therapy—to beat his cancer.

Meanwhile, I had to write 1,000 good words that day, and do it again the next day, and every other day until September if I was going to meet the deadline on my next novel.

The word count wasn’t the real problem. I’ve been at this writing game a long time. I’ve written amidst the distractions of airports, coffee shops and shopping malls. Even with all of this emotional turmoil I could probably still deliver 5,000 or even 10,000 readable words a day. But good words . . . aye, to quote the Bard, there’s the rub.

It’s tempting to lose focus and begin to wonder why I bother. In a world like this, excellence in the arts can seem like such a trivial pursuit. Indeed, never mind excellence, the reason art matters at all is sometimes questioned. With grief, loneliness, addiction, pain and fear all around us, what’s the point of literature? Why paint? Why sculpt? Why dance, or act, or sing? Why not devote oneself to something practical instead?

Near the end of the book of Job, after that unfortunate man has lost his children, his fortune and his health, after he has suffered the interminable counsel of well-meaning friends who insist he somehow brought disaster on himself, after he has come perilously close to blasphemy while demanding an accounting from his creator, after all of that, Job finally encounters God. Strangely, when God appears it is not with explanations. Job learns nothing of the reason for his suffering. He gets no answer to Rabbi Kushner’s famous question, ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ Even so, in the end Job is satisfied. God appears, and Job says, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” God appears, and his appearing is enough for Job.
My friend Brad, a professor at a well-known college of fine art, tells me it’s been fashionable for many years in the art community to question the existence of beauty. Not to question beauty’s definition or value, understand, but to question its very existence. One person finds Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon lovely, while another person thinks it’s ugly. In the world of art theory this divergence of opinion has sometimes been taken to mean beauty is nothing but a social construct.

It is an old idea. It is the lament of Ecclesiastes. Everything is meaningless under the sun. Yet not everything, for Job saw God and that was enough.

Once I suffered from severe depression. Like Job I cursed the day of my birth. I was saved from the temptation of suicide by snowcapped mountains, golden birches, and the sparkling Milky Way. I was saved by reflections of God’s beauty.

I don’t mean to say God is beautiful. No mere adjective applies to him. St. John tells us “God is love.” God is beautiful in exactly the same way. Like love, beauty is God’s essence. Beauty does not describe God; it is the fact of God. It is his glory, his weight, the very thing the prophet Moses begged to see on Sinai.

The gospels tell a story of a woman who poured very expensive perfume on Jesus. His disciples were indignant. "Why this waste?" they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor."

And what was Jesus’ reply?

"Why are you bothering this woman?” he asked. “She has done a beautiful thing . . .”

Beauty exists because God exists. To reveal beauty is to reveal God. Therefore, if our art is beautiful, if we struggle to write good words instead of merely readable ones, then sometimes, just for an instant, God appears and God’s appearing is enough. In a world of grief, loneliness, addiction, pain and fear, no act of man could be more practical than that.

The original version of this essay was first published May 20, 2010 at Novel Journey

Posted byAthol Dickson at 6:54 AM 8 comments  

On Beauty I

It was an obvious mistake. Long ago during my life as an architect I designed a restaurant’s floor plan with the front doors swinging inward. If there had been a fire and a crowd rushed out, those who got to the doors first would have been unable to open them because of the press of people coming from behind. In the years since then as a full time novelist, I have spent a lot of time with other authors exploring the best practices of plotting, characterization, theme, setting, and craftsmanship. Strangely, I cannot recall a single conversation about beauty. This is remarkable omission for professional writers, easily as inexplicable as an experienced architect who draws a pair of entry doors that swing against the flow.

When I first realized what we were missing, I thought perhaps it was because the goal of beauty in a novel is so obvious we think conversation is unnecessary, much as people rarely talk about the importance of air.
Yet that can’t explain it, since we spend so much time discussing other aspects of good fiction which are also obvious. If we feel characterization is worth our consideration, or plotting, or theme, why not beauty, too?

Next I wondered if we might ignore the topic due to the mistaken belief that beauty is the end result of every other aspect of a novel. If we do those other things well, beauty will—so the theory goes—follow naturally. But it seems to me this makes no more sense than a pair of tourists who plan a journey to the last detail without ever mentioning their destination. To arrive at a place, one must set out for it. To set out for it, one must have it in mind.

Maybe we’re embarrassed by the idea of discussing beauty in our work. Maybe we feel it is immodest to admit pursuit of such a goal. Or maybe we’re intimidated by the subject. Maybe we fear open talk of beauty makes us more accountable for its absence from our words.

Whatever the reasons, I think it strangest that I didn’t notice this omission earlier. When novelists get together to talk about their work, beauty (or the lack of it) is the elephant in the room, the emperor’s new clothes, the front doors swinging inwards. This is particularly odd for Christian authors, who write in service of the One who “shines forth in beauty” as the Psalmist said, and who are commanded to pursue an unfading beauty which “is of great worth in God’s eyes.” We create because we were created in the Creator’s image. God called all creation “good,” which is to say, beautiful. Since beauty was God’s end result, it must have been His intention in the beginning. Should it not be so with us?

The modernist movement in architecture, guided by Louis Sullivan’s famous statement “Form ever follows function,” brought us those boring glass boxes that now pass for good design among the skylines of our cities. But consider something like a rose. Certainly its scent and color serve a purpose, but does the rose exist in all its glory simply because form follows function? I think not. Surely nature could have achieved the same effect without going to so much trouble.

We are taught to focus on grace and good works will follow. So it should be in a novel. Beauty ought to be an intentional focus, and from that focus will come excellence in craftsmanship and characters, plots and settings. If our work is an offering to God, let us not rely on accidents to make it worthy. Let us search out the finest words deliberately with beauty as our goal, as shepherds once searched through their flocks for lambs without a blemish.

Perhaps some will object that they find glass box buildings beautiful.

If so, far be it from me to disagree. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder, if I may fall back on cliché to make the point. What I am concerned with here is not some universal standard that makes a novel beautiful. I am simply saying a novelist should strive for beauty with all his heart and soul and mind and strength. If lust equals adultery, and anger equals murder, surely the principle works in the positive. What matters most as people and as writers is what we hope for, what we dream, what we strive to do. Even the most discriminating art collector would find a misshapen lump of clay beautiful beyond compare if it was formed as a gift by the small hands of a loving son or daughter. If a Christian author’s novel is her offering to God, let her strive to make it beautiful however she defines the term, and it will be so to God.

Commercialism, fads and apathy toward the subject are perhaps the worst enemies of beauty in fiction. Commercialism begins with the wrong motive, when motive is a fundamental quality of beauty as I have just said. The pursuit of fads, while popular with some marketing professionals, yields nothing more than slavish imitation, when nature’s infinite variety reveals beauty and originality as inseparable. And apathy is the opposite of love, when love is the underlying purpose of all things beautiful. An author who cares about beauty in her work will rigorously avoid these things.

The best friends of beauty in a novel are deep contemplation, honesty, intentionality, originality and love.

Deep contemplation, because lasting beauty is never superficial. Honesty, because duplicity is ugly. Intentionality because true beauty comes only from beautiful motives. Originality because again, nature’s variety proves it inseparable from beauty. And love, because it is both the purpose and the Source of all things beautiful.

Sadly, our culture values instant gratification above everything, even at the cost of ugliness and mediocrity. Television, fast food restaurants and tract houses testify to this. Even more sadly, Christian readers are as guilty of it as anyone. The popularity of simplistic answers to the many paradoxes in the scriptures is one proof of this.

Only pride or money could explain why a novelist would pursue readers who demand easy answers to the vast enigma of the Godhead, who have no time for sunsets, who find an ocean view too empty, who barely see the roses, much less stop to smell them.

We are told no one can serve two masters. Write for pride or money, and you do not write for love or beauty. Yet we are also told our novels must burst upon the reader’s mind with all the urgency of a fire drill. We must hook them. We must do it right away or they will rush off to the next shiny lure, and we must keep them on the hook, wiggling like a dying fish until the bitter end. But beauty does not operate that way. Beauty demands nothing. It does not insist. Beauty whispers. It entices.

For those who love in spite of the unknown and unknowable, for those who gaze in awe at sunsets, ocean views and roses all ablaze with color, there is another sort of hook.

Just to pick one fine example, consider One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Marquéz. I found little in the plot to justify so many pages, and today I do not recall a single character’s name, but the words . . . the words! Contrary to the usual advice, for me it was no page-turner. Instead my mind lingered, dreading the coming end because each page turned meant one page closer to the ceasing of those beautiful, beautiful words. The joy they sparked within me will not die until I do.

How I wish the world was filled with novels of such beauty! How I strive and strive to write such words, every single one an offering without blemish to the Source of beauty. And how I search for those who also strive to write that way, that I might have a chance to read them when the Lord is done.
This essay was first published March 4, 2010 at Novel Journey

Posted byAthol Dickson at 2:10 PM 4 comments  

Proof of God

Jesus didn't pick His metaphors lightly. Jesus is the Word after all, so every word he spoke was chosen with complete precision. He could have picked any symbol in the universe, yet he said “turn the other cheek.” Why? Clearly He intended us to think in terms of being willing to allow another slap. Does that mean He wants us to be slapped? Of course not. But Jesus does want us to remain within arm’s length—slapping distance—of each other.

At this point, some people always want to fly to worst-case scenarios, so please understand I do not mean that an abused wife should continue to allow herself to be beaten. But real forgiveness always involves some level of engagement—as much as possible within the confines of good sense. This is true because God is love. Everything God does and every command God ever gave can ultimately be traced back to a desire to nourish loving relationships between us and our neighbor, and between us and Him. The one thing that makes a loving relationship impossible is to push a person completely out of your life. The entire point of forgiveness is remaining open to reconciliation. Anything less than that is a counterfeit forgiveness, which is to say, a lie.

If Jesus’ metaphor means anything, it means you cannot forgive a person from beyond arm’s length.

Another important aspect of forgiveness is the fact that it’s a choice, not a process. We may need to make the choice a thousand times, and that choosing and re-choosing may look like a process, but in fact it is not. We are commanded to forgive. The command came with a promise and a warning, in order to teach us it is not an option, not a suggestion. It is a sin to disobey. To call it a “process” is tantamount to calling obedience to any other command a process. “I’m working on being faithful to my wife.” “I’m working on leaving other people’s possessions alone.” “I’m working on telling the truth.” These are morally identical statements to “I’m working on forgiving.” There is no middle ground, no process involved. There is only the choice to obey Jesus in this area in this moment, or not.

Finally, at no time has God ever commanded anyone to do anything impossible. This means God’s will for us is never contingent on God’s will for someone else. Forgiveness is a choice. Repentance is a choice. The two choices are completely independent of each other. I have no moral right to wait on your repentance before I forgive you. On the contrary, I am commanded to forgive you, period. I am commanded to forgive whether you repent of what you’ve done or not. The same is true of repentance. I must repent of my sins against a neighbor, whether that neighbor will forgive me or not. These are clear commands. But reconciliation is not commanded, because such a command would be beyond any individual’s ability to obey. Reconciliation requires not only my obedience, but also yours. Again, God never makes one person’s obedience contingent on another’s. Relationship is what we get when forgiveness meets repentance, but forgiveness and repentance each stand alone as the moral obligations of the parties involved. Both are commanded; neither is contingent on the other, and both are pleasing to the Lord.

Forgiveness may well be the most difficult of all of God’s commands, because it demands a total denial of pride and it leaves no room whatsoever for illusions or half measures. Why does God expect so much? As Dale Cramer wrote in his beautiful novel, Levi's Will, “God is love. Love is the proof of God, and forgiveness is the proof of love.”

Posted byAthol Dickson at 8:11 AM 9 comments  

Saved and Lost

What can we do about this filthy church? The short answer is...nothing. No matter which way we turn, which path we choose, we ourselves can only contribute to the mess. On the other hand, God might have a plan...

In her comment on the “Filthy Church” post, Dianne made such an important point. She wrote, "...many confuse justification with sanctification, which is where the "working out" part is supposed to start..." For those who are unclear about the theological terms “justification” and “sanctification,” here’s the gist of Dianne’s point: Too many of us in the American church today view Christianity as a single act of belief, a one time leap of faith which gets us “in,” with no further obligation ("justification"), but if that faithful moment is sincere it will be the first leap of a lifetime lived in obedience, which is to say, a lifetime lived in love ("sanctification").

“The man who says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” (1 John 2:4) Many of the people in the “filthy church” are not truly Christians, of course. As John said, they are liars. Mostly I think they are lying to themselves.

But there are others whose belief is sincere, even though their lives show little sign of their belief. I know, because I was once one of them. And since that is true, since there truly are believers living life like pagans, what can be the matter?

The problem starts with a terrible misconception about God's grace. “Grace” is God stooping down to save us from ourselves, even though we don’t deserve it. That’s the definition. Unfortunately, many Christians seem to understand God’s grace only in terms of justification (God stooping to the cross to get us “in”) but not in terms of sanctification (God stooping down to guide us ever closer to Him). In other words, we think our need for God’s grace was over when we trusted in the cross. We think, “Grace has done its work, now it’s up to me...” as if Christian life were a relay race, and God has passed us the baton. But we are weak, so of course in trying to take over for the Lord, we are bound to fail.

Then comes the guilt and shame. A terrible burden, and so painful, because we know we do not measure up. Usually we slip into denial as a form of self-defense, unable to obey, and unable to be honest about our disobedience because of the way it makes us feel. We fill our lives with distractions, making little gods out of possessions or other people (often our own children). We cover ourselves with them the way the first man and woman clothed themselves with leaves. We pretend we think these things please God. They are “blessings.” Yet we do know better. We know our attention and devotion has slipped down from the Creator to the mere creation, and in knowing this, deep within we live in misery.

Paul wrote eloquently of this to the early church in Rome. He says, "What I want to do, I do not do—no, the evil that I do not want to do, this I do." So even Paul—a true believer if ever anybody was—even that same Paul, still sins. He goes on to say, "What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" And here the word to focus on is rescue. Think about this: powerhouse believer though Paul is, still he needs to be rescued. What can “rescue” mean to Paul if not the ongoing work of God’s grace in his daily life? And this is proven with his very next words: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ, our Lord!” followed quickly by those most welcome words in the entire Bible: "There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."

Jesus said, “If anybody loves me, he will obey my teaching," yet how can we obey Him while we are in these wretched bodies of death? Obedience is the only right response to the grace of the cross, yet only through God's grace is obedience possible. It’s no good pretending. Since God knows us better than we know ourselves, we might as well admit there’s something in us which still longs to sin sometimes. Our desperate need for rescue did not end at the cross. On the contrary, for a true believer, the cross was only the beginning. Something in us remains out of balance with the cosmos. The cross only makes us more aware of it, aware of how wretched we remain without God’s grace—without God’s stooping down to us—and how desperately we still need His grace every second of every minute of every day.

This then is the paradox:
“ have been saved, through faith...not by works...” (Eph 2:8-10)
Yet also...
“...a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24)

Paradox is exactly what we should expect when striving to draw near Almighty God, whose mysteries are “beyond tracing out.” And as always, when faced with such a paradox concerning Him, the answer is never to pick one side over the other, but rather to say, “Yes” to both. “Yes” to God’s grace working through faith in the cross, and “Yes” to God’s grace still working through faith even now, to rescue us from our bodies of death, to guide us as we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in us to will and to act according to His good purpose.”

If you have tried to live a Christian life and failed and failed again, here is my advice: stop trying.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His Glory and Grace.

(Helen Lemmel)

In trying so hard you are only looking to yourself, your puny efforts, your little plans, your hopeless strategy. Or you are hiding behind those tiny idols you have made in life. Step out from behind there. Be naked before God so God can clothe you with his Son. Look to Jesus. Look only to Him. Focus on His love for you, and let His love reignite that glorious flame of love you felt when you first believed. Christian, it simply is not possible to be rescued by His love while you are so distracted. So stop already. Just stop, and look to Jesus...

Posted byAthol Dickson at 7:57 AM 15 comments  

Filthy Church

The American church is dying. The signs are everywhere: rampant hedonism, materialism, infidelity, superficiality, mediocrity, cowardice, compromise...the list goes on and on, but the one charge we must not level at the church is the one which seems most common.

Hypocrisy is the favorite explanation given by people who claim to follow Jesus and yet will not go to church. But it misses the whole point.

This lovely photo is what I used to think of church. A place. A thing. Now when I think "church" I think people. Not “people” in a general sense, but specific people. Names. Faces. People I belong to. I am theirs and they are mine. My place in the cosmos--my designed purpose--is to serve them, which is to say to do love to them or be love for them in a sacrificial way. My purpose and place does not change if they are prideful, hurtful, or hypocritical. As Jesus said, they are my family. Most families have their dysfunctional side. Even so, most families are deeply committed to each other. Most of us have at least one family member who drives us crazy sometimes, yet we would die for them. In exactly the same way, my role is to love the church--these particular people--just as they are, just as Jesus does.

Church is just that simple, just that wonderful, just that hard. Love in spite of everything. When it comes to ideas about organized religion, all else is a human construct and a lie.

Because “church” means people, it is possible to maintain a humble and hopeful spirit while obeying the command which is “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.” And make no mistake; it is a command. Yet some who claim to follow Jesus treat it as a suggestion. Jesus said, "If you love me you will obey what I command." Could He be more clear? We follow Jesus by obeying his commands. And what is his greatest command? To love the Lord with all our hearts and souls and minds and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. So who are the hypocrites? People at least trying to live together in relationship even with their flaws, or those who claim to follow Jesus Christ but will not even try?

I wrote my most recent novel, Lost Mission, out of a sense of revelation, an understanding I have gained. It expresses an old hope I had, a desire to find a church (a place, a thing) where I could experience God without distractions. It explores the depth of meaning in the fact that those distractions end up being the very places where the Lord awaits me. Human frailty is the stuff of God on earth. Whose image are we made in anyway, if not the image of a man upon a cross? God does His best work through the feebleness of human hands, the superficiality of our prayers, and the inadequacy of our offerings. When I am weak, then I am strong. The Lord creates His church whenever and wherever flawed believers come together intentionally to praise and worship Him. God doesn’t need perfection. He doesn’t expect it. He knows us better than that, yet He stoops down to us anyway. Should we not do the same to each other?

It is not good for man to be alone. We were created to worship God in community. It is part of why God came to earth in a manger, why He endured temptation, why Jesus partied with us and grieved with us and fought with us and chose the gruesome mess that was the cross. He showed us that the Way is pure and holy, but it is not clean and easy. We can praise the Lord in solitary moments, but anyone who prefers the false perfection of solitude to the mess (and filth, sometimes) of church deludes himself. God will not be worshipped in that way, because it is not possible to love the Lord with all my heart unless I love my hedonistic, materialistic, cheating, superficial, mediocre, cowardly and compromising neighbor, who is so often a reflection of the me myself whom I so love to love.

So yes, the signs are truly everywhere: the American church is dying, and to save it we must join it. There is no other way.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:34 AM 9 comments  

Well Isn’t That Special?

Irony sometimes cracks me up. I belong to several email lists (loops, whatever) and on one of them recently I wrote a comment about Christians who claim to read fiction, but who actually seem to enjoy it mainly for the chance it offers to be offended. Most novelists working in the world of Christian fiction have received outraged letters from these people. In my email comment I referred to them as “dreaded blue haired church ladies.” Of the 1,000 or so other people on the list, most understood exactly what I meant (probably they were Dana Carvey fans), but a tiny and very vocal group took me to task for using that phrase. They responded to the entire loop, saying one should not reinforce negative stereotypes; one should be more sensitive to other people’s feelings. Oh, you would have thought I’d called Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton the “N” word!

One of the funny things about irony is the way it’s usually lost on those who need it most. How I laughed when I realized these people had been so easily offended by words I used to describe people who are easily offended! But then I started getting private emails. People I had never heard of wrote to say they had stopped speaking their minds on the list out of fear that they too would be slapped down. Soon I realized there was a deeper problem than simply a few folks who wear their feelings on their sleeves. The situation wasn’t funny anymore. To understand why, I think we have to start with this:

The Bible is not a rulebook for life; it’s a book of higher principles, which are illustrated by examples we too often mistake for rules.

Consider the Internet and especially email, for example. They can be wonderful things. I don’t know how I got along without them before. (Just think of how much money it would take to buy a stamp for every note you email today!) What a blessing to be able to fire off notes so quickly...and what a curse. Sometimes emails can be as difficult to control as our tongues.

Take a moment to read what the Bible has to say about this problem, and notice that it offers no rules about emails. Instead it gives a principle which applies perfectly to a technology the author never dreamed possible.

This can cut both ways. I believed my words were innocent, of course. I believed the offended people were just oversensitive. But what if they were right? Should I have been more sensitive with my words, in case they reached some actual old lady with blue hair and very strong church affiliations, who might have had her feelings hurt because she thought I was referring to her? Well, maybe. Humility is not thinking less about yourself; it’s thinking more of others. So maybe I wasn’t thinking enough about the real “blue haired church ladies” out there.

If so, it leads to another principle that applies.

"If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17) NIV

If we are offended by someone’s words in an email, taking them to task for it and copying an entire list of others is like stepping up behind the podium in a church sanctuary and accusing someone by name of a sin before the entire congregation. How strange that people who would never dream of doing that except as an absolute last resort can be so quick to do it via email. What a shame we don’t apply Jesus’ principle instead.

Similarly, in any public exchange of ideas such as an email list (or a blog comment), we Christians ought to guard our words as closely as we ought to guard our tongues. While the Bible says a lot about controlling speech and nothing about how to write an email, the principle applies equally to both. “In your anger, do not sin” as Paul commanded the Ephesians. He might just as well have written, “In your offense, do not email.”

The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit. (Proverbs 18:21) NIV

Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:48 AM 14 comments  

It's Torah Time!

Where do you live? If you're anywhere near Laguna Beach, CA, I'd love to meet you. I'll be teaching a 13 week series on my book, The Gospel according to Moses, every Thursday night at 7:00. We're meeting at The Little Church by the Sea. You can get directions here. Once you arrive, go around behind the sanctuary and through the gates into the courtyard. Look for us in the large meeting room (it will be the one with the lights on). Be sure to introduce yourself!

The Gospel according to Moses is a bestselling memoir about my five years studying the Torah with the rabbis at the nation's second largest Reform Jewish congregation. I was the only Christian in regular attendance among about 100 Jews. During the first six months of so, only the senior rabbi and the man who asked me to attend knew I was a Christian, so I got a brutally honest peek at what Jews really think of Christians. After I "came out," I was warmly welcomed, and the next few years revolutionized my faith.

The subtitle is What My Jewish Friends Taught Me About Jesus, and that pretty much sums up the content of the book. I learned more about Christianity from Jews during those five years than I've learned from Christians in my entire life, not because the Jews taught me intentionally, of course, but because they challenged me to dig so deeply into the doctrine that were discussed every Shabbat. Here's an excerpt from the introduction:

"Being a conservative Christian at a liberal Jewish temple has never been easy or painless, but I have accepted the cost because my religion teaches that constructive growth is worth a little pain. (James 1:2) Key positions of Christianity have been strongly disputed almost every week at Chever Torah by highly intelligent people who know the Scriptures well and find very different truths there. At first I responded to the challenges with dogmatic inflexibility, experiencing a range of unpleasant emotions from anger to anxiety. Only God’s subtle prodding can explain why I kept returning. Then somehow—again, I believe this can only be explained as an act of God—I found the ability to set aside my preconceived notions and truly hear the new ideas these Jews tossed back and forth. From that moment on, the people of Chever Torah began to coach me in that decidedly Jewish pastime: wrestling with God. Now, after years of Bible study among them, I have learned to think about important things like faith and obedience, justice and mercy, and rebellion and redemption in Jewish ways, and in so doing I have found deeper meanings within every word uttered by Jesus and his apostles."

Copies will be available for you at my cost, and of course I'd be delighted to autograph yours.

The study I experienced among the Jews was unlike anything I've ever known in a church. It was passionate, intellectually challenging, sometimes irreverent, and above all, inspiring. In the series I'll be teaching, I'll do my best to recreate that powerful experience. I hope you can come!

Posted byAthol Dickson at 7:21 AM 8 comments  

God Laughs

It’s so easy to forget the way of things. Months ago I began to ask God to “enlarge my territory.” It’s the prayer of Jabez, which many will recognize as the title of a best selling book. I haven’t read the book, but of course I read the Bible quite a bit and there it says...

Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, "Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain." And God granted his request. (1 Chronicles 4:10) NIV

This, it seems to me, is an excellent prayer, and the fact that God answered with a "Yes" seems to indicate he thinks so, too. As Jesus said just before giving us his famous Golden Rule, “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?”

So “Lord, enlarge my territory” has been on my lips for months, and I have been confident that God would answer. But forgetting the way of things, I made a big mistake.

I’ve mentioned here before that there was a terrible error made in the launch of my latest novel. In the publishing business, the usual path to success lies in building anticipation for a book before it hits the stores, but in this case no advance copies were sent to critics or to bloggers, so for the first time in my career a novel received no print reviews whatsoever. Most of my fellow bloggers didn’t even have a chance to read the novel and review it until it had already been published. When added to the fact that 2009 was perhaps the worst sales year on record for the entire publishing industry, this meant the novel was pretty much dead on arrival. Not the direction you hope your career will take after seven books in print.

It seemed prayer was the only marketing plan that could possibly yield results. Remembering Jabez, I began to ask God for more territory. And here is where I made my big mistake: what I really meant was, “Let me sell more books.”

Over the months as I prayed, I began to ask myself if I was ready. A sad story hit the headlines of a man with the wonderful name of Abraham Shakespeare, whose life was ruined and then lost when he won $31 million dollars. It’s common for lottery winners say the money ruined their life. I began to wonder what would happen to me if God worked a miracle and this latest novel sold a million copies. Could I handle it? Could I withstand the temptation to take the credit? Or would my territory become too large? Would my pride get me lost in all that extra space?

In asking these questions, I remembered why I started writing in the first place. “Write what you know,” as the common wisdom goes, and when you get down to the heart of life, I know nothing that really matters except “Christ, and him crucified.” So I write about the Lord, for the Lord, in the hope that people who don’t know how beautiful he is might be moved a step closer to falling in love with him as I have, and people who do know him as I do might be moved to love him even more. And suddenly one day I realized I had been praying for the wrong “territory”.

I could have asked God to let me spread his love far and wide. I could have asked him to let me share eternal life with people who are lost and dying. I could have asked for those wonderful, amazing things and left the details up to him, but there I was, praying to sell books. Such a petty little prayer!

“Man plans; God laughs” as the old Yiddish saying goes. It’s so easy to forget the way of things, so easy to ask God to bless my plan, instead of asking him to reveal the blessings he has planned.

When I quit praying with book sales in mind and started simply asking the Lord to enlarge my territory any way he wished, some interesting “coincidences” began to happen. A pastor at my church told me the elders want me to start preaching there soon. I was asked to teach a series based on The Gospel according to Moses, thinking maybe ten or fifteen people would come, but when the series was announced, twenty percent of the entire congregation signed up. My latest novel may be D.O.A. (or maybe not...who knows?) but now that I’ve remembered the true way of things, my territory seems to grow a little every day.

How about you? Are you asking God to bless your puny plans, or are you asking for the kind of miracle only God could plan?

Posted byAthol Dickson at 7:41 AM 13 comments  

Bad Theology

They say a blog entry should be short, but what can you do when a man like Pat Robertson causes such a mess? Some things take a while to clean up. Hopefully you’ll bear with me.

If you somehow missed it, you can read the text of Pat’s comments and see the video here. To be fair, he said these things in the context of a broader report in which he expressed sympathy for the Haitian people, and it was part of a fund raising segment for earthquake relief, so I’m not going to comment on his intentions. Pat Robertson may have genuine love in his heart for the suffering people in Haiti. But what he said was very wrong.

Many people have slammed Pat, of course, and I hate to pile on too, but to my dismay, some friends of mine—well-known Christian authors who should know better—seem open to the idea that Pat was right. “Look at all the times God punished other nations with disasters in the Old Testament,” they said to me. “It’s Biblical!”

Well, no actually, what Pat Robertson said is not Biblical. On the contrary, it’s heretical.

Before I mention a few of the many theological arguments against this grave error in thinking, let’s ponder the human cost. If we allow ourselves to start believing any specific natural disaster is the result of any specific nation’s sins, we need not go much further along that same path before we find ourselves calling a specific case of cancer (for example) a punishment from God. After all, in the same way the Bible shows God using disasters to punish nations, so it shows Him physically punishing individuals for their sins. Think of Nadab and Abihu, or Ananias and his wife. The Bible does indeed teach us God has sometimes supernaturally entered history to physically punish both nations and individuals for their sins. It also says God will do it again one day. But how heartless it would be to use that as an excuse to tell a woman she just lost her breast to cancer as a punishment from God!

That is essentially what Pat Robertson said to the Haitian people the other day. Maybe he simply has a very inappropriate sense of timing. Maybe the love is there. I don’t know his motivation, but I do know there are grave dangers in what he said. Judgmentalism. Legalism. Isolationism. Fatalism. So much evil can flow from the prideful notion that we are equipped to know a disaster on any level, national or individual, is a particular punishment or admonishment from God.

Ask yourself: after we have moved from attributing God’s wrath to nations to attributing it to individuals, what is the next step? Why, imposing divine wrath on God’s behalf, of course.

Nineteen men and women were hanged and one was crushed to death in Salem because of a natural extension of this theology. Here’s how the logic went: “The Bible says God blesses good people in this life, and curses bad people, and I am being good yet bad things are still happening, so the neighbors must be devil worshippers.” After all, the same Bible that tells us about God’s use of natural disasters also says, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” And sure enough, following exactly that same logic after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson famously blamed their neighbors, their fellow Americans who are “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians.”

So much for the human cost. Let’s look at this heresy of Pat’s from a Biblical perspective, beginning with the fact that the Bible says “In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness.” Certainly there are places where the scriptures tell us the righteous will be blessed and the wicked will be cursed, but elsewhere it says the righteous sometimes get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked get the rewards of the righteous.

This is not a contradiction. It simply means we don’t know nearly enough about God’s intentions to be able to connect any person’s behavior with the earthly blessings or curses he receives. God has his own reasons for giving easy lives to some and trials to others. We can never fully understand those reasons.

This should be especially obvious to Christians. After all, Jesus taught us that our righteousness will often lead to suffering. We are told we must pick up a cross to follow Him, and “In this world you will have trouble.” If God-fearing believers are guaranteed suffering in this life (and we are) where is the logic in Robertson’s statement that Haiti’s suffering is a curse for devil worship? Isn’t it just as possible, based on what the Bible says, that this earthquake is a cross for the faithful Haitian Christians to bear?

In the wake of Robertson’s comments, some have pointed to passages such as this one, this one and this one to assert that humanity’s sins can “defile” the “land” though sins such as sexual immorality, the wrongful shedding of blood and idolatry. Read those scriptures carefully and you’ll see it’s a giant theological stretch to apply them to any "land" except the promised land of Israel, but never mind that for now. Let's pretend "the land" means any land, anywhere, just for the sake of conversation.

If any land could still be "defiled" by sexual immorality, the wrongful shedding of blood or idolatry, then every land on earth would be pretty much equally defiled. After all, what nation can claim it is innocent of those sins? Yet few nations have ever suffered a natural disaster on the Haitian scale. In fact, many nations which have been "defiled" by those sins have been richly blessed on the whole, including the USA of course, despite our rampant adultery, homosexuality, history of genocide against the American Indian and the African slave, and widespread worship of the almighty dollar and all the idols it can buy. So while the idea of cursed land makes for a great scenario if you’re a novelist, it just doesn't have any basis in observable history.

Another flaw in this theology is found in the root of the word translated in all those verses as "defile." That root is tame, the same Hebrew word translated elsewhere as "unclean" to describe houses where a person has died, bowls which have contained unclean food, chairs where an unclean person has sat, and of course unclean foods, among many other inanimate things. We know from Peter's famous vision of the sheet filled with animals that God has made all foods "clean." That's one of the proof texts used in support of the doctrine that Christians are no longer required to observe the letter of the Mosaic law. Funeral homes, dishes, chairs and pork are no longer "defiled" for us. Would this be true of everything inanimate except "the land" itself? Of course not.

The idea that the land of Haiti was somehow “defiled” centuries ago in a way that caused an earthquake here and now runs counter to everything the New Testament teaches about the law.

If we apply those Hebrew verses to "the land" of Haiti, then we have no consistent justification for disobedience to anything else the Mosaic law has to say about cleanliness and uncleanliness. Are we really prepared to return to that? Or do we agree with Paul that "...through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death"?

Moving on, consider a similar discussion that once took place between some Jews and a rabbi. Rather than comment on it I’ll just quote the conversation, with a few minor modifications to make it more obvious how it relates to the topic at hand (please do compare my version to the original):

“Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the New Yorkers whose blood Osama bin Laden had mixed with their office building. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these New Yorkers were worse sinners than all the other Americans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those thousands who died in the earthquake in Haiti — do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in the Caribbean? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.’”

If we ever had any doubt what Jesus meant when he warned us “Do not judge,” this conversation should remove those doubts. Don’t let anybody tell you different: Jesus doesn't want Christians saying the kind of thing Pat Robertson said the other day.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 6:28 PM 14 comments  

You Can Be a Winner!

Win autographed copies my novels! Tim George, over at Unveiled, has a great contest going. Here’s a quote from his blog:

“To kick off 2010, Unveiled is going to give an autographed library of Athol Dickson novels to one lucky winner. Each week two questions will be added to this page. Points will be given for correct answers and comments left at appropriate reviews posted throughout January. Just follow the link after each question to find the answer. Email your completed list of answers no sooner than Feb 1st and no later than Feb 5th, 2010. Be sure and leave a comment to let us know you plan on entering the contest.”

So far there haven’t been many comments, so I’d say your odds are good... Have fun!

Posted byAthol Dickson at 3:49 PM 2 comments  

God of Discipline

Do you worship discipline? Two days before the Christmas that just passed, I had the privilege of giving a kind of commencement speech to a group of men who were graduating from a Salvation Army rehabilitation center. All of the men had been at war for six months against the powerful urge to drink or to do drugs, and all of them were about to leave the program to continue the battle in a hostile world. I was asked to speak because several staff members of the center had read The Cure, and thought I might have something useful to say to their graduating residents. That novel has now become a favorite in several rehab centers that I know of. Probably they like it because it rings true. I wrote it from personal experience. In the heady flower child days of my late teens and early 20’s I did a lot of drugs and drinking, and developed a serious “problem” with amphetamines. I was also homeless for a time. But since I don’t struggle with alcoholism and it’s been decades since I had the urge to do drugs, some might wonder what makes me think I can offer meaningful advice to people in a rehabilitation program. The truth is I fight the very same battle every single day, for I am just as deeply addicted as any of those men, and you know what?

If you have a pulse, you’re an addict, too.

Sin is nothing more than the original addiction. It reveals itself in countless ways, but make no mistake about it: we’re all in the same condition, one way or another. So here is what I said to those brave warriors, a few words about the cure, offered in the hope that it might help you, too...

Everything I’m about to say assumes you men who are about to leave this place are Christians. If you are not a Christian, then what I’ll say won’t make much sense to you, and all I can offer you in the way of advice is, come to your senses and submit yourself to Jesus Christ. You do not want to be on your own when you walk out of here.

It may be that some of you were not Christians when you first walked into this place, so you may only recently have learned about God’s amazing grace. In that case, let’s make sure you fully understand the thing that saved you. Many people think grace is mercy, but they aren’t the same at all. Mercy is when you’re guilty and the judge decides not to throw the book at you. Mercy can actually be a bad thing, if it comes at the expense of justice for the wife and child whom you abandoned for cocaine, or the pedestrian you hit while driving drunk, or the shopkeeper you robbed to get a bottle or a fix. But grace is always good. Grace is when the judge does the right thing, when he goes ahead and throws the book at you because you’re guilty as charged, but then he comes down from the bench and suffers your punishment for you. And as every Christian knows, that’s exactly what Jesus did for us. That’s the whole point of the cross. God sentenced us to death for what we’ve done, which was only right and just, but Jesus took our punishment, so we are innocent in God’s eyes now.

Now, what does God expect from us in return for this? Absolutely nothing. God’s son died for us. How could we ever pay that back? We’d have to die to make it up to Him, and what good would that do when the whole point of the cross was to save us from our punishment? So it makes no sense to think we could do anything “in return” for this amazing grace. We can accept it. Period. That’s all. We can’t repay God. We can’t serve him. We can’t even obey him.

Yes, you heard me right. I just said we can’t obey God. But before you start thinking they let some kind of a pagan in here to talk to you, some kind of wolf in sheep’s clothing, let me quickly mention that the Apostle Paul said exactly the same thing in the Bible. He said, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do...I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do, this I keep on doing.... What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

See? Paul said it a long time before I did. We cannot obey. I don’t know if Paul was an alcoholic or addict, but he sure sounds like it when he says, “What I hate, I do.” I hear that, and it’s like he’s quoting from the Big Book (although of course it’s really the other way around). He’s saying, “we admitted we were powerless over alcohol.” He’s saying he “made a searching and fearless moral inventory of himself,” and he came up short. So if you’ve ever secretly felt guilty because it seems like obeying God is still impossible for you even though you’re a Christian now, if you think you must be weaker or more flawed than other Christians, damaged goods, then I want you to remember this: even the Apostle Paul agreed with the first step. Even Paul found his life unmanageable. Does that mean he was an alcoholic or a drug addict? No. But Paul was an addict all right. We’re all of us addicted to some kind of sin, one way or another, and as far as God is concerned there are many secret sin addictions which are just as bad as doping or drinking.

So, Christians, since we were powerless over our sins before we trusted Jesus, and we remain powerless over our sins today, obviously it’s a waste of time to ask, “What can I do?” But did you notice that question Paul asked at the end? He asked, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” That’s the smart question to be asking. Who will rescue me? Because if there’s no way you can win a fight, you need to be rescued. And praise the Lord, when a Christian begs for help, he will indeed be rescued. Every Christian believes along with Bill and Bob that there is “a Power greater than ourselves [who] could restore us to sanity.” Every Christian knows our Higher Power is not some wimpy little god “as we understand him,” but a mighty god we could never understand. Every Christian knows God personally, because we have met our higher power in the flesh on the cross. And if Jesus saved us then, He will go on saving us now, unless we start putting faith in our own will power instead of having faith in Him.

Listen now, this is important: Jesus didn’t give us power over sin. Jesus is our power over sin. What this means is, God’s grace wasn’t finished at the cross, it remains available for us right now, this instant, in every moment that we live. We were saved by grace through faith in Jesus, and not by our own works. We continue to be saved in exactly that same way. What good news this is! What a relief!

The secret to a happy Christian life is not to work harder at being sober. In fact it’s just the opposite. It’s to let Jesus do the work for you.

What does this mean in the day-to-day challenge to be sober? It’s very simple. When the devil sends that first little tickle—you all know the one I mean—you have just two choices. You can put your faith in your own willpower, or you can put your faith in Jesus Christ. If you tell yourself “Be strong,” if you put your faith in willpower, you will surely fall. But if you start praying, if you say “Jesus, I can’t win this fight! I’m too weak! Rescue me!” then the Lord will surely step right in to rescue you.

Does this mean Jesus will remove the urge to drink or use completely? Usually not. But you know what? If God leaves that urge in us, it’s because—hear me now, this is really important—if God leaves that urge in us, it’s because that urge is what keeps us turning back to Jesus.

We don’t know exactly what drove Paul to cry out, “Rescue me!” but we do know he wrote in the Bible about having something he called a “thorn in my flesh,” and a “messenger from Satan.” Sounds like an addiction, doesn’t it? Paul says, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” Was Paul disappointed that God refused to take away his thorn, his Satan’s messenger? No. On the contrary he wrote, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses.” But why did Paul boast about his weaknesses? Here’s the answer in his words again: “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Hear that famous line again, Christians. “When I am weak, then I am strong.” There’s your key to a successful life, regardless of your sin of choice. Probably most of you have begged and pleaded with the Lord to take away your addiction. Since you’re here, that means God said “No” to you, just as he did to Paul. And like the Apostle Paul, you should praise God for that answer. Think about this carefully.

Do you really want to put your faith in discipline instead of in Jesus Christ?

If God took away your sin addiction, would you really be a stronger person, or would you be tempted to think you don’t need Jesus quite as much? Would you be tempted to pray a little less? Read His word a little less? Worship Him a little less? Spend less time with other Christians? Focus on yourself a little more, until you are alone again just as you were before you met him at the cross? Sober, but alone and terribly, terribly lost? Is that really what you want? Is sobriety worth that?

Now it’s time for the next battle, and as you prepare to go, I hope you will remember that your weakness makes you strong if you embrace it. Your weakness is a blessing. Don’t fight it; celebrate it, as Paul did. Boast about your weakness and take delight in it, because if you will do that, then your weakness will always point you back to Jesus.

Think about this carefully: your weakness is a blessing.

Don’t ever feel sorry for yourself because you have to fight this battle. Instead, pity the person who seems to find it easy to be “good,” who looks like they have life under control. Pity the poor Christian who is “only” addicted to gossip, or “only” surfs porn on the internet in secret, or “only” lusts for money. Those Christians may look clean and sober on the outside, but because their sin addiction is well hidden they can go for years—for all their lives in fact—without ever getting past the first step, without every going beyond the entry-level grace they found on the first day they were saved. You, on the other hand, have a particular thorn in the flesh that’s impossible to ignore, so you’ll always find it easier to embrace your weakness, easier to put your faith in Jesus instead of in your own will power, and easier to walk deeper and deeper into the amazing grace that’s always there to rescue you.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 3:20 PM 7 comments