#52Stories: What I Read This Fall.

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

Buckle up, gang. Here’s my “capsule-review-style” run-down of the stories I’ve read this fall that haven’t yet made it into a #52Stories post. This one may take a little while, so pack a lunch.

And I’ll go ahead and tag this with a big [SPOILER ALERT], because who has the time to be coy?

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#30: “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe (1846)

The Premise: Montressor finally gets his revenge on the unsuspecting (and ironically- named) Fortunato.

The Payoff: I read this story in high school and decided it would be fun to revisit. It was…not fun, exactly, but not bad. The narrator, Montressor, begins the tale by arguing that Fortunato deserves revenge for his alleged injuries or insults, though it’s clear that Montressor isn’t looking for equal justice. He’s a madman, a villain in the truest sense, and the little we see of Fortunato gives no justification for Montressor’s dastardly plot. It’s revealed at the end of the story that this wicked deed was done 50 years prior, though the way Montressor obsesses over the slights Fortunato gave him sounds like the wounds are still fresh. While this story doesn’t have the impact of some of Poe’s more famous tales, it’s still worth a look if only to demonstrate how to give the villain center-stage.

#31: “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)

The Premise: A wife is made to take a long rest in a country estate…until she notices something unusual with her room decor.

The Payoff: I missed reading this story in college, but I’m glad I came back to it now. This tale of psychological horror is the story of a caged woman losing her sanity. The nameless narrator is the wife of an authoritarian doctor who infantilizes and controls his wife “for her own good.” The wife’s thoughts and feelings are downplayed or dismissed, and though she is being kept in the country house for the improvement of her health, it begins to take a toll on her sanity. What’s so effective about this story is that it’s not clear if there is actually any supernatural element to it. Gilman gives us a truly unreliable narrator, but leaves just enough doubt that you’re tempted to believe her. At one point, I wondered if her husband John was actually gaslighting her to cover up an affair, or if he was just a know-it-all chauvinist and she was losing her grip as a result. This one was wild, and I would definitely recommend it.

#32: “Something From Nothing” by Phoebe Gilman (1993)

The Premise: This charming children’s story follows the life cycle of a beloved blanket.

The Payoff: I didn’t realize that this was a children’s book until it arrived from the library. I found it to be a delight to read, both for the way the story was written and the detail that the illustrator put into each page. In this Jewish folktale, a tailor makes his baby grandson a beautiful blue blanket, and as the boy grows, the blanket is transformed over and over, becoming smaller and smaller each time. By the end of the book, the blanket is all used up and lost, but the story and memory remains, which is the final point. This is a sweet book. Pick it up at your local bookstore or library, and share it with your kids (or other people’s kids whom you know and like).

#33: “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell (1936)

The Premise: A British imperial officer stationed in Burma must deal with an elephant-sized problem.

The Payoff: In “Shooting an Elephant,” the narrator, a British officer stationed in the British colony in Burma, is forced to address the situation of a potentially wild elephant that killed a man and may need to be destroyed. This essay by Orwell may or may not be be based on personal experience, but it is surely a sobering critique of British imperialism and mob mentality. Orwell describes both the self-hatred of a soldier forced into a task he doesn’t believe in and the hatred he feels for the locals he is tasked with overseeing. Themes of racism and the fallout of imperialism loom large in this story, as the officer is essentially forced to put down an elephant that has already calmed down after killing a man, specifically because the officer feels pressure from the crowd to do so and he’s afraid of what might happen if he doesn’t kill the creature. The narration is in turns self-critical and self-pitying, and while the reader might feel some sympathy for the crowd dynamics at play, the narrator doesn’t seem to be presented as heroic or victimized. At the end of the day, he must take responsibility for his actions (morally, if not legally, as his actions are exonerated by his superiors). The metaphor for Britain’s treatment of conquered nations is transparent.

#34: “Frost and Fire” by Ray Bradbury (1946)

The Premise: Sim is born on a planet where people live only 8 days, but he knows there’s more out there, including a possible way of escape.

The Payoff: Bradbury’s story is about a race of humans who crashed on a planet so close to the sun that their lifespan is reduced to 8 days, birth to old age. While the story is set in a far-off future of space exploration and advanced technology, the new lifespans reduce the humans surviving on this planet to neolithic cave dwellers who can only come outside for a few hours before the deadly heat or deadly cold kills them. The main character, Sim, is described as “the 5,000th in a long line of futile sons,” yet he is born with the collective memory that there might be a way to stop the aging process by escaping the planet. I have to admit, this is the second time in this project I’ve been disappointed by Bradbury. This is an interesting idea, but he doesn’t do anything with it. Sim and his mate Lyte eventually reach the capsule and survive past the 8th day. They go back to rescue others and bring them to the capsule, and the remnant of humanity escapes the 8-day cycle of birth and death. In the end, it feels like a dream. And that’s it. I was pretty disappointed, both times I read this.

#35: “A Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell (1924)

The Premise: A big-game hunter washes ashore on a private island where another famous hunter is eager to introduce him to a new challenge.

The Payoff: This story is one of those tales in which you’ve already heard the twist (General Zaroff is hunting humans!), but it was interesting to see how Connell works out the story. There’s a pretty obvious set-up at the beginning, as Rainsford scoffs at the idea that hunting is not sporting for the prey, stating that the animal has no understanding. When the hunter becomes the hunted (wah-waaah!), his tune changes. Zaroff is presented as a paradox–highly civilized yet showing no value for human life. In the end, Rainsford survives by incorporating skills and traps he learned in his big-game hunts around the world, as well as his experience in the Great War. (There’s a metaphor in there somewhere as well.) His personal mantra was that he mustn’t lose his nerve, though as the prey, he now understands the fear of death in a way he hadn’t before. And while he is ultimately triumphant over the sociopath and his henchman who were hunting him, the ending is still a bit unsettling. In his vengeance, Rainsford is as much beast as man.

#36: “Lady of the Skulls” by Patricia McKillip (2005)

The Premise: Adventurers journey to an enchanted tower in search of treasure and an audience with the mysterious Lady of the Skulls.

The Payoff: This one took me by surprise, because it’s essentially a story about relationships, cosplaying as Lord of the Rings. The lady in question is a woman who was taken from a tavern (by the curse of a sorcerer) and put in an enchanted tower reflecting “the tower in her heart.” When the latest band of adventurers arrives in search of treasure and glory, she critiques and mocks their pomp and bravado. The author satirizes fantasy fiction that treats women as either set-dressing or idealized archetypes (the pure, untouchable maiden; the enchantress; the prostitute). Through the words of Lady Amarynth and the knight Ran, McKillip both critiques and employs fantasy tropes to describe how men and women idealize or vilify each other as a means of self-protection. By focusing this fantasy story on “one of those faceless women who brought you wine in a tavern,” McKillip forces the reader to re-examine the cliches of this genre and what they say about gender. I liked how this story shifted my perspective.

#37: “Raised in Captivity” by Chuck Klosterman (2019)

The Premise: A man finds himself sharing his first-class plane flight with an unexpected fellow passenger.

The Payoff: The titular story of this bonkers collection is short and to-the-point: the narrator is taking his first ever first-class flight on a business trip, and when he opens the lavatory door, he sees a full-grown puma. Once he establishes he’s not hallucinating, he has a conversation with another passenger about how this could have happened. That’s it. And while that description may not sound compelling, this story made me laugh out loud. Klosterman takes an insane premise and leans right into it. The dialogue is funny in an almost self-aware way. It’s unclear over the course of the story if the narrator’s new friend might even be in on it. I just loved this story, as well as this collection–I found myself reading the next six or seven stories, and frequently guffawing or gasping. Klosterman is a TRIP.

#38: “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute” by Grace Paley (1974)

The Premise: A middle-aged woman has a romantic relationship with a non-committal cab driver, to poor effect.

The Payoff: Okay, I’ll say from the outset: I just didn’t like this one. I couldn’t really connect to the main character Alexandra. I thought Dennis the cabbie/rock-singer was a shallow jerk. It’s not a bad story, to be fair. I can see Paley’s skill; she’s not a bad writer, and the characterization was mostly effective. I just didn’t enjoy reading it. I don’t have much more to say about it.

#39: “Tower of Babylon” by Ted Chiang (1990)

The Premise: The men of earth built a tower to reach heaven, and God didn’t stop them.

The Payoff: I didn’t realize, until I saw the cover of the movie tie-in edition of the story collection, that Chiang wrote the story that became the movie Arrival (which I really quite liked). So that set up my expectations for “Tower of Babylon,” which is an alternate-history take on the Tower of Babel. In this version, the tower keeps being built until the people actually reach “the vault of heaven,” a granite ceiling hanging above the cosmos. Once they punch through, the main character finds himself carried upward in a flood of water, but instead of being destroyed by God’s wrath, he is deposited back near where he started. He later compares the physical reality of the world to a cuneiform cylinder, with the top being connected to the bottom. There’s obviously a fantastic element to this story, both in the descriptions of the tower and the resolution of the story. What surprised me was that Chiang seemed rather respectful of the Biblical source material and the discussion of God (YHWH) throughout the story. Once I realized the story was Biblical alt-history, I was bracing for the inevitable blasphemous critique of the God of the Bible. As far as I could tell, that really didn’t happen. Other than the obvious difference between the two stories, Chiang is careful to write this fictional account as ancient near-eastern folklore rather than a 21st-century satire of religious belief. This fact makes me want to read more of Chiang’s work–not because I am looking for more religious stories, but I find myself willing to give him the benefit of the doubt if he dabbles in religious themes again.

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That’s all for now. Thirteen stories left in this project, with one month to go. Coming up this month: my thoughts on stories by Ambrose Bierce, Phillip Van Doren, James Joyce, Isaac Asimov, Truman Capote, Robert Heinlein (again!), Chesterton, O’Connor, Harlan Ellison, and a few others. It’ll be a photo finish, but I’m looking forward to it.

Your Turn: Have you read any of these stories? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

 

 

#52Stories: Changing My Approach.

 

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

So if you have been reading my #52Stories posts, and you have a functioning calendar, you’ll know that I’m just over halfway through my promised reviews with just over a month to go in 2019.

So, yeah, about that…

The honest fact is, I just haven’t been able to devote the time to reading, re-reading, analyzing (“Dave, you actually do analysis? We couldn’t really tell”–shut up, you), and writing posts about these stories.

I’ve got notes on at least 10 stories right now and just haven’t taken the time to sit down and write out the corresponding posts. I’ve got another 5 stories that I’ve read through 1 time, but haven’t yet revisited or taken notes on.

For the month of December, I’m changing things up. My goal is still to read and discuss all 52 stories by the end of the year, but the reviews will not be as detailed as they have been thusfar. Instead, my plan is to provide a one-sentence summary and then a few paragraphs of response without going into the level of detail that I did before. Who knows? If it’s a story I really enjoyed, I’ll gab about it a bit more. If it’s not, I’ll give you a brief description and maybe a reason why I didn’t enjoy it.

Why the change?

Frankly, I’m tired, y’all. This year, and especially the last few months, have been really demanding, personally, professionally, and relationally. And while this project has introduced me to a few new writers to check out in the future (which is excellent!), these posts have turned into another chore I’ve been neglecting, rather than an experiment I’ve been enjoying. And at this point in my life, blogging shouldn’t feel like a chore for me; if I’m not enjoying what I’m doing, I just shouldn’t give any more time to it.

Depending on how things go this week, I may take advantage of a little extra personal time around the holiday to queue up a few #52Stories posts for next week so I can drop as much of my prepared #52Stories material on you as I can. After that, we’ll see how things go. It may be a steady pace to the finish, or a Christmas-week binge. We’ll see.

I’m sorry I couldn’t give this as much time as I thought I could. If you want to see how something like this is done well, check out Jay’s work over at Bibliophilopolis. His “Deal Me In” reading challenges are the boss sauce.

That’s all for me this week. See you next Monday, and Happy Thanksgiving to my fellow Americans (and American-adjacents who love food-centric holidays)!

Message Received.

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Receiving clear and direct feedback is necessary, especially when it’s uncomfortable.

Over the last few months, I’ve been pondering how I can build a readership, serve my audience, and use my writing to build up others, especially fellow Christians. Thanks to Jeff Goins’ recent series about email lists and Seth Godin’s book Tribes, I had a flash of inspiration a few weeks back: What if I put together an email newsletter?

I could focus the content toward guys like me–lay pastors who want to grow as teachers and communicators and faithfully lead their families and churches. I’d be writing as a peer, not as an expert, and would focus on encouraging the brothers. Maybe I’d even throw in some writing advice or Scriptural encouragement.

I was instantly excited about this idea, so I decided the best way to gauge potential interest in this project would be to ask my Twitter follows; after all, they’d be my core audience for such a venture.

I put the question out there as a poll, with the plan that, if I got at least 20 or 25 “yes” responses, I would start brainstorming for an early 2020 roll-out.

I certainly got an unambiguous response.

nope poll

In the words of Alex Hitchens (Will Smith’s character from Hitch))… 

I’ll admit, my pride took a bit of hit. When a brother started asking very specific follow-up questions about what exactly I would include in such an email, I started to get defensive, mainly because I hadn’t thought it all through yet. I had an exciting idea but no plan of how to get there, and no real clear goals. Truth be told, I may have been more enamored with the idea of having an email list than actually serving my readers, which would have been almost instant death to any goodwill if anyone had signed up.

What’s more, this clear response said something else I wasn’t eager to hear: An email audience is earned, and I hadn’t put in enough work to earn that level of trust.

Let’s be real: of the 170 or so “followers” of this blog, there are maybe 20 of you who actually read my posts. (In fact, do me a favor: if you’ve made it this far, reply in the comments with your favorite ice cream flavor. Just humor me–or Good Humor me, if you prefer.) Most of my blog follows are other bloggers looking for follow-backs, or folks looking to sell me something. If I tracked actual engagement via likes and comments, the number is much, much smaller.

As Jeff Goins puts it, joining someone’s mailing list means giving them specific permission to get into your “space” and speak to you directly. This is a closer level of access than a blog post that can be ignored. For an email newsletter list (of any kind) to grow, readers must believe I have something worth saying that is worth their valuable time to read. It’s clear I haven’t done enough to prove that yet.

It may not have come the way I wanted, but I’ve heard my 2020 challenge loud and clear: I need to give my audience a better reason to listen.

AND I need to have a better answer for the inevitable “why” question. Maybe that starts by deciding why I’m really interested in the idea of an email newsletter at all.

Suffice it to say, I won’t be creating an email newsletter in 2020. I’ve heard you loud and clear, folks.

Now, a podcast, on the other hand–there’s an idea…

Five(ish)-minute Update (11/11/2019)

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Setting the timer…ready…GO.

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So I wasn’t planning on November being a “No-Post November” but it’s sure starting out that way! So what’s the story, morning-glory?

Well, it comes down to this: margin.

I don’t have much margin in my life right now. Like so many of you, I have lots of demands, and to be honest, I’m struggling to meet all those demands. And no, I’m not going to cue up the sad violins and run through the litany of what’s on my plate, because that doesn’t help you, and it doesn’t help me.

So instead, I want to talk about stress.

This past weekend, a loved one was briefly hospitalized because he pushed himself so hard that his nervous system decided a hard reboot was in order. This person, in prime physical health in his middle age, gave himself a seizure, due in part to a combination of unaddressed stress, inconsistent diet, dehydration, and high levels of caffeine usage. No matter how otherwise healthy he was, he still hit his limit.

…And I just hit mine, so to speak–there goes my timer. So, I’ll summarize this way:

What this experience reminded me of is that I am not omnipotent. I can’t burn the candle at both ends for long, before I get scorched and the light goes out, as it were.

We human beings are designed to be limited, because this reminds us that we have a Creator God who is not.

So what does that mean for you, practically? It means get some sleep. Be smart about how you fuel yourself. Accept that you can’t carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. Maybe try decaf once in a while.

Come face to face with the fact that you can’t do it all, or run the risk of ending up face-down on your bedroom carpet.

A stark reminder, but a necessary one.

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More posts this week, if possible. Maybe sign up for notifications in the sidebar to the right (or below, if you’re reading on mobile)? Just in case I don’t get back here soon.

–d.

[*merp*]

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Gonna take a zero on this week, readers.

Work, church, life, the usual reasons. You know how it goes.

As recompense, next week, I will aim to deliver 2 #SmundaySchool posts and at least 1 #52Stories post, to make up for my absence and keep those projects on-track.

Until next time, be excellent to each other, and Go Astros!

Friday Feed (10/18/2019)

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Happy Friday, y’all! Here are a few links I’ve enjoyed lately that I hope will be interesting and/or encouraging!

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Have a great weekend, friends! I’ll be back on Monday with the next installment of #SmundaySchool and more #52Stories a bit later in the week. See you then!

52 Stories #27-29: Three Locked-Room Mysteries!

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

This week, I wanted to take a few minutes to discuss briefly 3 “locked-room” mysteries I read. In basic terms, a “locked-room” mystery is exactly what it sounds like: a crime (usually a murder, but sometimes a theft) takes place in a room that appears to be locked from the inside or otherwise inaccessible, and it’s up to the clever sleuth (or in some cases, observant travelling salesman?) to discover who is responsible and how the crime was committed.

I’ll confess that my commentary is going to be pretty light this time–not because I enjoyed the stories any less than others, but because, by this point, I think we’re familiar with the ins and outs of mystery stories. Also, there isn’t a great deal of subtext, so these were easy, quick, fun reads.

All three of today’s tales came from Otto Penzler’s Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries, borrowed from my local library. This volume is HUGE, so if this type of story is your bag, you should definitely pick it up. (Penzler also edited a volume of stories about villains and rogues, which I’ll mention in a later post!) I appreciated the fact that this collection was actually organized by crime committed and/or weapon used, which is a neat approach.

Okay, I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. Let’s pop open the lock and dive in!

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#27: “The Murders at the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe (1841)

The Premise

The brilliant C. Auguste Dupin involves himself in the investigation of a grisly murder scene to repay a service performed by the man accused of the crime.

The Pay-off

I both enjoyed and endured this story. It was written nearly 50 years before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first published “A Study in Scarlet,” and it’s undeniably how much ACD borrowed/stole from Poe’s 3 “Dupin” stories. While the set-up in this story was pure Sherlockian goodness, the ending left…well, a LOT to be desired. Nevertheless, without Dupin, we would likely not have a Holmes (or at least not one in any way recognizable). For that, I am very grateful.

The Takeaways

Here are some story observations for your consideration–and spoilers forthcoming, so go find the story for yourself if you have any interest in reading a proto-Sherlock mystery.

  • Poe spends several hundred words describing the power of deductive reasoning (or as Poe described it, “ratiocination,” the creative imagination and logical prowess that Dupin employs to work out the mystery). The miniature essay itself was heavy reading but instructive–I had to remind myself that this narration/prologue was the invention of Poe, instead of a nonfiction treatise by an actual investigative professional. That alone is noteworthy.
  • If you’re at all familiar with Doyle’s tropes, this story feels paint-by-numbers, to the point at which you begin to resent Doyle’s acclaim for what is transparently a ripped-off character. (Hold that ire a moment, reader.) The narrator is an anonymous “Watson” type who meets the Detective at the library, where they are seeking the same book and become friends. Technically, Dupin isn’t a detective but a former man of means whose family fell on hard times. He does a bit of “Sherlocking” early on, appearing to be able to read his friend’s thoughts before explaining in a perfectly logical way how he came to that conclusion. You almost don’t even need to read this first section of the narrative; just imagine a Holmes and Watson meet-cute and you’ve got it nailed.
  • The mystery presents itself: gruesome murders, shouting in foreign tongues, a locked room. Much of the story’s length is spent in newspaper accounts of incredible and grisly detail of the crime, or detailed recounting of the witness statements (must have been the late edition of the Exposition Times). Dupin involves himself in the case because he owes one of the suspects a favor. He’s not a detective; he’s just smart.
  • The path to the resolution is copied wholesale in Doyle’s stories: interviews, latching on to a random-seeming detail, an action by the “detective” that makes no sense in the moment but eventually becomes the spring to set off the trap for the guilty party.
  • Aaaaaaaand it’s an orangutan. That’s the killer: an orangutan. I nearly dropped the book at this point. The resolution is so silly, so stupid, you could almost wonder if this was meant to be a farce. However, this is where my opinion of the Dupin-Sherlock connection changed. In the end, it isn’t merely that Doyle ripped off Poe wholesale (though he very, very much did). Doyle took the parts of the Dupin stories that worked and improved them substantially. The brilliant hero *should* be a detective. The sidekick isn’t just a cipher, but an actual character whose history can play into the story. Don’t lead off with a treatise on the detective’s methods; show rather than tell. Flesh out the Detective’s story a bit more. Give just enough exposition to give the characters something to do and then let them dig. Doyle takes the formula and remixes it to create literary magic.

It’s undeniable that without Dupin, the world would have missed out on Sherlock Holmes. But it should be equally without question that, without the mind of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the next generation’s “August Dupin” would have quickly faded from memory, rather than having the cultural staying power that he still enjoys.

In summary, good writers steal ideas; truly great writers steal and masterfully improve ideas.

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#28: “The Dream” by Agatha Christie

The Premise

The venerable Hercule Poirot is summoned to meet an eccentric tycoon, who tells of a recurring dream of suicide–a dream that comes true the next day.

The Pay-off

Until now, my familiarity with Hercule Poirot has been mostly the book-length mysteries (or the Masterpiece Theater teleplays, which I suspect may be based on shorter works). This bite-sized Poirot mystery works, but feels very quick and thin. In my experience, Poirot needs time to chew on a puzzle before working it out. This story was almost over before it began, and while the ending was satisfactory, it wasn’t resonant.

The Takeaways

A few scattered thoughts on this one (from memory, since I failed to take notes):

  • I have to admit, as I read this story, I kept thinking back to one of the Thin Man films (either the second or the third), in which Nick Charles is threatened by a man who has dreams of his enemies dying in horrible ways, but always has an alibi when one of them dies. (Sidenote: if you’ve never watched the Thin Man movies [the original being an adaptation of a Dashiell Hammett novel], I cannot recommend them strongly enough. Truly great stories, both as detective/mystery stories and as 1930’s comedies. Nick and Nora Charles are one of my all-time favorite screen couples, and it’s just a delight to watch them solve cases together.)
  • A point in the story’s favor is that Christie makes it easy for the reader to accept everything as presented at first. The whole situation feels a bit unusual, and the author noting that even Poirot is bemused by some of the theatricality helps the reader ease in and take things as they come.
  • I think what I like best about Poirot stories is that you can watch him slowly work out the answer to the mystery. He’s methodical, asking careful questions and keeping his cards close to his vest. That’s where the short story length starts to lose me as a reader. It happens so quickly, there doesn’t seem to be time for Poirot to figure the mystery out. On the other hand, the list of suspects is short, and the action and dialogue are pretty pared down, so it suits the format better.

In the end, the puzzle is solved and the death is proven to be murder, not suicide. Some of the details seemed like a bit of stretch, but the main twist worked for me. I think I’d like to read more of Christie’s shorter Poirot tales before making a decision about whether or not I prefer the novel-length to the short-story format. It’s hard to judge them all by just reading one.

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#29: “The Poisoned Dow ’08” by Dorothy Sayers

The Premise

A travelling salesman revisits a former customer to discover his wares may have been involved in the man’s murder.

The Pay-off

This one…worked, I suppose. I think I had the most trouble connecting because the protagonist was a random door-to-door salesman. It was tricky to get a bead on his character, so when he provided perceptive commentary and insight, I was more confused than intrigued.

The Takeaways

A few comments on this one as well, bereft of detail but capturing the essence:

  • As I noted, the main character seems to be a one-off (and if I’m wrong, you Sayers fans should certainly correct me in the comments!), providing no connection points for the reader. While the level of “Sherlocking” this character does is kept to a minimum (and makes sense, given his particular expertise), it just seems out of place. The police inspectors give him entirely too much leeway in these conversations, making the whole thing feel a bit convenient and taking me out of the moment.
  • The resolution does seem a bit rushed and was tricky to visualize as I read. The final clue that the salesman says tipped him off still sailed right past me, even upon re-reading his explanation. The whole venture seems a bit rushed, as if Sayers had a good idea but was murky on the details and just wanted to push through to the end. While there’s something to be said for trimming unnecessary detail down to the bare bones of the plot, the atmosphere and location seemed like sketches rather than settings.
  • If I had my druthers, a much stronger ending might have been for the salesman to actually have been the killer, who uses his quick thinking and on-the-spot explanations to dispel the detective’s suspicions and put him on the wrong track. Obviously, that’s a bit off-brand for Sayers, from what I know of her work. Nevertheless, I would have found that a bit more interesting.

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That’s all I’ve got for you this week. Check back tomorrow for either a #FridayFeed post or perhaps some current-events commentary (depending on how feisty I feel).

Your Turn: What’s your favorite mystery short story? Let me know in the comments!

S(Tu)nday School: What’s the Deal with Joel?

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[You can find the introduction to this #SmundaySchool series here.]

Sorry for the brief delay; yesterday was my birthday, and I was otherwise occupied at the car repair shop for much of the day. (#Adulthood!)

But we are BACK with the next installment in our #SmundaySchool discussion of the Minor Prophets! This week, we’re taking a brief look at the key themes and ideas in the Book of Joel.

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The Background and Context of Joel

The book of Joel was written by “Joel, son of Pethuel” (1:1), a prophet of Judah. It’s hard to put a date on this book, because there are no clear context indicators. There are a couple of theories about when to date the events Joel describes. Some take the descriptions of divine judgment as describing a post-Babylonian-exile scenario (mid-500s BC), while others argue that certain context clues and literary characteristics, plus the lack of naming specific nations, leads to a pre-Assyrian-exile date (placing Joel’s ministry in the same general era as Hosea, Amos, Obadiah, and Isaiah). Some scholars argue it was likely written during the reign of Joash (as recorded in II Chronicles 23-24). At any rate, the timeless quality of the book doesn’t take away from the main message.

The Content and Message of Joel

Joel is composed of 3 chapters that can be broken down as shown:

  1. Judgment on Judah (1:1 – 2:17)
    1. Locust Invasion (Chapter 1)
    2. Military Invasion (?) – (2:1-17)
  2. Salvation through Judgment (2:18-3:21)
    1. Mercy on God’s People (2:18-32)
    2. Judgment on Their Oppressors (3:1-21)

There are 2 key interpretive challenges when it comes to the book of Joel. I’ll note them without going into much detail, but it’s good to be aware of the different ways to read this book:

  • Is Chapter 1 describing literal locusts?
  • Is Chapter 2 describing a literal army?

While scholars argue both ways from literary context, I think the best reading is YES to both questions: that God used natural calamity as a warning of coming military conquest.

The Key Themes and Applications of Joel

There are 3 key themes in Joel’s message to God’s people in this period:

  1. The day of judgment is coming. Joel repeatedly uses this phrase “the Day of the Lord”–a phrase that is repeated throughout the writings of the prophets. This “Day of the Lord” is a day of both judgment and blessing, and Joel shows both aspects of this day in his prophecy.
  2. God uses calamity to chasten His disobedient people. Again we see that God is sovereignly controlling the natural world for His purposes. He sends the locust plague to His people in order to get their attention and cause them to turn from sin and call on Him for help. When it is clear they will not, He must up the ante with more painful and difficult circumstances.
  3. God promises to forgive and restore His repentant people. We see this repeated theme as well in the Minor Prophets. Though God disciplines, He also shows mercy. What He takes away in His wrath, He can also restore in His kindness.

So how does the book of Joel apply to Christians reading it today? The same themes carry forward pretty easily:

  • Even the locusts are God’s locusts. God is sovereign over both natural and man-made calamity, and uses them both for His ends. (2:10-11)
  • God is just and wrathful–but He is also compassionate and merciful. (2:12, 13, 25) If we are being disciplined for sin, we can repent and find mercy and even at times restoration of what has been lost due to our waywardness.
  • No injustice or wickedness will escape the judgment of God. We can take comfort that final justice is certain. (3:1-3)

The Gospel Arrows in Joel

As in all books of the Old Testament, we can see arrows and hear echoes that point us ultimately to the promised Messiah. Joel is no different. A few ideas for your consideration:

  • The mercy of God is demonstrated to His people, even though they are just as guilty as the nations around them. This is a clear reminder that when God saves an individual, it’s not because of the good they have done or the favor they have earned, but solely because of God’s gracious and unmerited favor.
  • God promises to dwell in the midst of His people again. This is glimpsed in Jesus, the Immanuel, who tabernacled among us (John 1:14). This will be culminated in the New Heavens and the New Earth, where God will live among His people and be their light (Revelation 21:23).
  • God promises in Joel 2 to pour out His spirit, and says that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved (2:28-32). Peter quotes this prophecy at Pentecost in Acts 2, saying that it has been fulfilled with the giving of the Holy Spirit at the birth of the New Testament church.

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That’s all I’ve got! Short and sweet this time, but I hope it helps to give context to you as you read the book of Joel this week! (Hint, hint!)

#SmundaySchool will be back next week (Monday, hopefully!) with a discussion of the book of Amos!

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Your Turn: Do you have any thoughts or observations from your reading of the Book of Joel? Are these overviews helpful to you? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

 

S(m)unday School: What’s the Deal with Hosea?

Photo by Jose Aragones on Pexels.com

[You can find the newly-updated introduction to this #SmundaySchool series here.]

You may be familiar with the basic outline of Hosea–at least the first couple of chapters: God tells the prophet Hosea to marry a “woman of ill repute” (depending on the translation, this could be referring to an adulteress, a prostitute, or just a woman who is prone to be unfaithful). He does so. And it’s about…God and Israel, somehow?

Yes. But it’s about so much more. Let’s get into it.

The Background and Context of Hosea

The author of the book is Hosea, son of Beeri, likely from the tribe of Issachar and probably lived in the Northern kingdom of Israel. The book was written (as all the Minor Prophets were) in the era of the Divided Kingdom of Israel. Hosea would have been a contemporary of the prophets Isaiah and Micah in Judah. Hosea’s ministry was long; it covered the reigns of Uzziah/Azariah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah in Judah, and the final several kings of Israel (starting with Jereboam II) until it was conquered. The length of Hosea’s ministry is not exactly known, though likely at least 35 to around 70 years (around 755ish to 680ish BC).

A lot happened in Israel and Judah during this stretch, and it informs how we read Hosea. (You’ll find the Biblical record of this period in II Kings 14-20 and II Chronicles 26-32.)

In Israel, Jereboam II had military success against Syria, and “brought political peace and material prosperity, along with moral corruption and spiritual bankruptcy” (MacArthur). When Jereboam died, he was followed by a succession of bad kings, one of whom joined with Syria to attack his fellow Jews in Judah. Four of the six kings that followed Jereboam were killed by their successors or their supporters. Along with all this political upheaval, the nation of Israel was corrupting the worship of YHWH with pagan practices and idolatry, including Baal worship (the pagan god of sun, storms, and fertile crops, among other things).

This were only slightly better in Judah. King Uzziah developed leprosy after wrongly assuming the role/duties of the priesthood. Jotham followed YHWH but condoned/allowed the idolatry to continue. Ahaz reached out to Assyria for help when Israel and Syria attacked, and then basically imported a lot of Assyria’s religious practices into the worship of God in Jerusalem (even as far as copying some of their temple architecture and designs). Hezekiah led a revival of true worship of YHWH that held off the destruction of Judah for a while, and during his reign was miraculously rescued from Sennacherib’s army by the angel of the Lord.

The major event that occurred during Hosea’s ministry was the conquest and fall of Israel in 722 BC. The writer of II Kings provides some stark but insightful commentary on this event. Take a moment and read that.

The book of Hosea, then, is a warning of judgment that went unheeded, yet contains glimmers of hope.

The Content of Hosea

The big idea of the book of Hosea is: “The unfaithfulness and rebellion of God’s people cannot outlast God’s faithfulness and compassion, even after incurring His righteous judgment.”

The narrative breaks down into 2 main sections:

  1. The Unfaithful Wife and Faithful Husband (Chapters 1-3)
  2. The Unfaithful People and Faifthful God (Chapters 4-14)

The first section is likely much more familiar than the second, but I’ll summarize as a review:

  • God tells Hosea to marry Gomer (as we’ve discussed, a “woman of adultery,” however you define that), as a living metaphor for God’s covenant relationship with Israel.
  • She has children (some of which may not be Hosea’s) and their names reflect God’s promise of impending judgment.
  • Her unfaithful wandering reflects Israel’s idolatries, and God describes how He will chasten His people in order to woo them back.
  • God tells Hosea to go redeem and rescue his captive bride.

In the rest of Hosea (chapter 4 onward), Hosea and Gomer are not the focus. God lays out His charges against Israel and Judah:

  • Their idolatry is spiritual adultery–they are breaking covenant with YHWH to seek the favor of false gods.
  • The priests and spiritual leaders have led the nations astray.
  • Their corruption is deep: bloodshed (for example, the betrayal/assassination of rulers), fickleness, mixing of pagan worship with the worship of God, and looking to pagan nations like Assyria to be their rescuers.
  • Baal worship is a major theme: Israel has rejected YHWH and set up altars to Baal (possibly seeking fertility rites for a good harvest).
  • Israel is arrogant in its sin, and it’s influencing Judah to do the same.

Take a moment to read Hosea 8 and see if you can trace these themes throughout.

God promises that judgment is certain, though He still calls His people to turn back and repent. In the midst of His judgment, however, God still loves and has compassion for His covenant people–He is chastening them so that they will return to Him and be restored. Once God’s judgment of His people is complete, he will in fact restore them. The book ends like Psalm 1 does–with a description of 2 paths to take, one of righteousness that leads to life and the other of sin that leads to destruction.

So what does Hosea mean, and what can we apply today as followers of Jesus?

The Meaning and Application of Hosea

Hosea had 3 key themes for the original audience:

What about now, centuries later? What can Christians learn and apply from this prophetic text?

  1. Don’t miss the scandal of the marriage OR the scandal of the covenant. God covenanted Himself with a sinful and stubborn people and made us His bride. Meditating on His compassion and our unworthiness should make us grateful and humble.
  2. We who have tasted this New Covenant in Christ Jesus are still tempted to chase after other loves and serve other masters. We should regularly consider where we seek our comfort, our safety, and our confidence, to make sure we are not “looking to Assyria for aid instead of to our Lord.
  3. God sometimes uses hardship and even devastation to pull us back from spiritual ruin; but His discipline is always for our good. We see in Hebrews 12 that we are disciplined to sanctify us and to warn us.
  4. We dare not presume on our salvation by taking sin lightly or dismissing or downplaying God’s holiness or wrath–lest we demonstrate we are not, in fact, part of His people.
  5. God is longsuffering–He will never turn his back fully on His chosen people.

Please hear me, reader: If you are right now in rebellion against God, I implore you to repent and seek His mercy and grace right away. Do not wait! While there is yet time, turn back in repentance and cry out to Jesus for mercy!

Gospel Arrows in Hosea

Finally, how can we see glimpses of the Gospel in the book of Hosea? Here are a couple of points for consideration:

  • In Hosea, we see the faithful husband who redeems His unfaithful bride and makes her His own. This is certain what Jesus does for His blood-bought people: He rescues from bondage, pays the price of our freedom, and takes us into His house to be His bride.
  • You may notice in reading Hosea that a familiar phrase is found in Hosea 11:1–“out of Egypt, I called my son…” While this text is looking backwards to the Exodus, the gospel writer Matthew notes that it is also fulfilled by the flight of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to Egypt to escape the ravages of Herod, and then their eventual return.

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So there you go, a quick summary of the context, content, and themes of Hosea. I would encourage you to read the book of Hosea this week with some of this information in mind, and I pray it is a blessing and encouragement to you.

If you have questions or comments, please leave them below. Otherwise, I’ll be back on Wednesday with the next round of #52Stories reviews!

A Few Tips for Fighting Dragons.

black steel helmet near black and gray handle sword
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Last week, I saw the following on Twitter, and shared it favorably:

Tweet

I received some pushback about how helpful this tweet actually was, and I appreciated the engagement that followed. To summarize my responses that afternoon, I took this comment to be a general statement that we should be careful not to ignore our pet sins as we take to social media to do battle for the sake of theological precision. In my mind (and I think, perhaps, that of the gentleman above), it was akin to tithing the dill and cumin while neglecting the weightier matters.

In the midst of that discussion, another friend asked for practical recommendations about how to battle the temptation to use pornography. I told him I was happy to try to oblige but didn’t have the time or space to do so fully at that point.

Today, I hope to provide a bit of insight into my own battle.

[Note: I’m writing here to Christians–followers of Jesus. If you’re not one, some of these recommendations might be helpful to you, but you won’t have victory over lust without first submitting to the One who came to free us from bondage to sin. If you want to talk about this, I’d be thrilled to do so. Hit me up.]

The Story So Far

Without belaboring the point, I was (like, statistically, many men in the church) secretly harboring an addiction to pornography for many years before I got married. Even as a Sunday School teacher and young adult ministry leader, I had a dark corner in my life where I both cherished and hated my secret sin. Finally, by God’s grace and the support and encouragement of faithful brothers and a loving fiancee, I was able to stop using porn. But that didn’t stop the battle against lust.

When you’re addicted to lust in a culture that bathes in it, you never leave the front-lines of the fight. The fight comes to you, at any time of day or night, when you least expect it. You could choose to cloister yourself away, cutting off all inputs of illicit imagery, but you can’t turn off the screen inside your head, the one you’ve fed for so many years, the idolatrous flesh that craves more. Even behind a monastery wall, you’d still have to mortify that rebel flesh–all the more so when you live out here in the world, trying to dodge messages and images of sexual enticement like Neo dodging bullets in the Matrix.

For over five years, I have been winning this battle, praise God. Not perfectly but faithfully. Not easily but determinedly. Grace upon grace.

Battle Tactics

“So what do you do?” my friend asked on Twitter.

The first and best answer is a spiritual one–truly facing what pornography addiction is. It’s sin, which is a small word with all of the torment and guilt and shame and destruction of damnation bound up in it. Sin against God, sin against the men and women who are both enslaving and enslaved in the porn industry. Sin against your spouse if you’re married. And to be honest, it’s this last one that drove home the rest of it in a flesh-and-blood practical way: looking into the weeping eyes of my then-fiancee/now-wife and confessing my sin to her just gutted me. Sinning against my wife wounds me in a way I didn’t anticipate as a single man.

So, if you are seeking freedom from lustful addiction, my brother or sister, run to Jesus. Look full into his wonderful face. Seek what Richard Baxter called “the expulsive power of a new affection,” the love for the things of God that pushes out the love of sin. Pray for God’s help. Meditate on and memorize the Scriptures. Devote your mind and heart and time to the things of God.

While reading a book about sexual purity isn’t a silver bullet (by any stretch–I’ve read an arsenal full of purity books), I can say that Heath Lambert’s Finally Free is far and away the best I’ve ever found–primarily because he centers the strategies on the realities of the Gospel. If you haven’t read it and you’re in this fight, you should grab it and work through it with a friend or accountability partner.

But I’ve got to be honest with you, reader: for me, most days, the spiritual practices I’m describing here–the “right answers” to this question–aren’t enough on their own.

This may be proof of where I need to grow in sanctification–likely it is. But in addition to seeking spiritual weapons to address this truly spiritual battle, I need additional help, in the temporal realm.

So here’s what I do to support that battle:

I have to be honest. That means when I sin sexually, I confess it to God, and then I tell someone–usually my wife. I look her in the eyes, and I tell her what happened. And when I do, I don’t use mealy-mouthed language or softened terms. I use biblical language, biblical categories. I use the words “sin” and “repent.” And admittedly, this is hard on the spouse who hears it. (My wife actually recommends a book for wives of men fighting lust called Reading Your Male by Mary Farrar. She says it was very helpful in understanding my perspective and experience.)

I have to be transparent. I don’t use web-access devices that aren’t monitored by some sort of software, and the weekly reports go to my wife. I made the decision that there can be no dark corners of my online life. My wife knows the password to my phone, and has access to the passwords of all my profiles. There is no need for “privacy” when it comes to my wife. I don’t see this as oppressive or stifling–it’s freeing. I know that I’m not alone, and I have someone watching my back. (This also requires that I trust my wife’s heart and intentions toward me. If you don’t have that trust, then there may be other things you need to address as well.)

I have to be discerning. This is the tactic that I think lots of guys struggle to employ the most. If you know you’re an alcoholic, you stop spending time in bars. If you struggle with addiction to food, you can’t hang out in dessert bakeries. And if you know you are tempted to lust, you have to stop feeding your hungry eyes with images that excite them. What this means in practical terms is that there are LOTS of things I don’t watch or listen to. I pass on the TV shows that everyone in the office is excited about, because I know that no matter how well-written or fascinating the story, I don’t want to see sexual content. I check the IMDB “Parents Guide” for content warnings before renting or going to a movie that I’m not sure is safe for me (even if it means accidentally finding out spoilers). Anything that is close to the line, I try to avoid. Do I miss out on stories that intrigue me? I sure do. There are TV shows and movies that sound exactly like the type of art I love, but I’m never going to watch them because it’s not worth it to me. It’s like the old parable: two wolves battle within you, but the stronger one is the one you feed more often. I make the choice, movie by movie, book by book, program by program, which wolf to feed.

I have to be self-aware/humble. This one is sometimes the hardest. Part of success in battle for me is recognizing when I’m weak. Actually, this is where transparency is also helpful, because sometimes it’s a comment from my wife or another friend that clues me in on a blind spot in my life. But in those seasons when I know I’m facing more temptation, and I sense those first signs of weakness in my resolve, I immediately ask for help. I ask for prayer. I invite people to check in on me more often. Let me caution you, though: don’t only use this tactic at the exclusion of the others, because you aren’t always going to catch yourself early, especially early on. You need other people around you. But over time, you’ll start to recognize patterns. You’ll sense things in your heart and mind that are possible warning signs (like anger, secretiveness, pulling back from community, lingering over those fluttering impure thoughts that pop in your head from time to time). If by God’s grace, you notice that you’re starting to slip in your mental purity, that’s the moment when you go on the offensive, pray for deliverance, and ask for help and support to fight all the more.

A Final Encouragement

I’ve already gone too long here, but I want to leave you with an encouragement:

God is not a liar. 

Seems obvious, right? But this truth is your rock, your firm foundation, as you fight this battle. Jesus will never leave you or forsake you. His will for you is your sanctification, and He will complete His work in you faithfully and fully. So, do not fear when you face hard days, even days when you stumble and fall. Get up, righteous man, righteous woman–dust yourself off and start running after Jesus again. Learn from your mistakes, guard against sin, and battle the dragon, for lo, his doom is sure.

And know that we’re running with you.