"If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced that there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe . . ."

- John Steinbeck, The Paris Review
'The Pirates Laffite," by William C. Davis



I love history because I love romance (by which I mean, not novels by Barbara Cartland, but romantic adventure – swashbuckling and gunplay in long-lost times and distant places). I picked up The Brothers Laffite: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf, by William C. Davis, to get some of the facts behind the legend of Jean Laffite and his brother Pierre. I knew what I was getting into, and was already aware of their sordid side, so I read it with interest.

Most of us know the Laffites as “the pirates who helped Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans.” And they did that, though they weren’t quite as noble as the movies make it seem. They were operating a smuggling operation out of Barataria Island, taking advantage of political instability and the difficulties the US government had enforcing its laws in the newly extended territories of the Louisiana Purchase. When the British fleet sailed in, they seem to have tried to play both sides against the middle (a recurring theme in their story), but the Americans got their hands on them first, so they helped them.

Like most criminals, they never actually got very rich, although they tried to live like it. They seem to have been rather courtly with their (white) prisoners, but at bottom their reality was pretty ignoble. They violated America’s ban on importing slaves through a clever manipulation of the law, first importing the miserable captives illegally, then turning them in as contraband and collecting the reward (Jim Bowie partnered with them in this scam). They were also “filibusters,” a term which originally referred to adventurers, mostly Americans, who set up bogus “revolutionary republics” in Spanish America and then issued letters of marque giving their acts of piracy a cloak of legality. But the Laffites added a characteristic twist of their own – they informed on their fellow filibusters to the Spanish, for pay.

There’s little heroism to find in this story, but what it does offer is a fascinating look into a formative but little-known era of American history. The book is very long, but half of it is footnotes.

What Exactly Does the Bible Tell Us?

According to Michael J. Kruger's review of Professor Peter Enns' new book, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It, the Bible doesn't tell us anywhere near what we might think it does. Kruger says he always notes the cover endorsements on a new book, and some gave him pause.

But perhaps most illuminating was the inside flap, where the publisher describes the book’s purpose: “In The Bible Tells Me So, Enns wants to do for the Bible what Rob Bell did for hell in Love Wins.”

Not until after I read the book in its entirety did I realize how accurate this comparison actually is. Of course, Bell’s book (also published by HarperOne) challenged a core historical tenet of the Christian faith, namely the belief that hell is real and people actually will go there. Christianity has just been wrong, Bell argues, and we finally need to be set free from the fear and oppression such a belief causes. Bell positions himself as the liberator of countless Christians who have suffered far too long under such a barbaric belief system.

Likewise, Enns is pushing back against another core historical tenet of the Christian faith: our belief about Scripture—what it is and what it does. The Bible isn’t doing what we think it’s doing, he argues. It doesn’t provide basically reliable historical accounts (instead, it’s often filled with myth and rewritten stories). It doesn’t provide consistent theological instruction (about, say, the character of God). And it doesn’t provide clear teaching about how to live (ethics, morality, Christian living). Although Christians have generally always believed these things about Scripture, Enns contends that scholars now know they simply aren’t true. And when Christians try to hold onto such beliefs, it only leads to fear, stress, anxiety, and infighting. Like Bell, Enns is positioned as a liberator able to set believers free from a Bible that just doesn’t work the way they want it to.
In the end, Kruger says Enns' book wants it both ways. Discover God in the pages of Scripture while understanding most of what's written there is imaginary and contradictory. Repent and believe in Christ on the cross, but the Bible's morality is untenable and inapplicable to you.

Storytelling & Christian Habits

Mike Cosper, pastor of worship and arts at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky, has a new book on the stories we tell and our longing for truth. Here are some quotes of his ideas carried in Christianity Today.

"When people, against their better judgment, find themselves hooked on a show, we can trace the line back to find the hook in their imagination."

"Our most perfect creations—our efforts at playing God— always stumble into the inherent problem of human weakness, creation’s unpredictability, and the impending threat of evil."

"If we believe the Bible to be true, we must admit that there is more to this world than we perceive. Powers and persons that we can’t see or comprehend are at work, but somehow we intuit them. That intuition works itself out in our imaginations, and we tell stories that try to explain what we feel and comfort us from fear of the shadows."

One of his chapters is entitled "Honey Boo Boo and the Weight of Glory." That's probably worth the price of the book alone.

Watch the Writer in Action!

Here's an amazing in-the-moment video of an actual writer working his craft!

Marilynne Robinson's Humble America

Aaron Belz offers this snapshot of Marilynne Robinson's America, that land where the least of us can become great by the Lord's grace:

As unpopular as it is, the Calvinist/Puritan doctrine of total depravity shares ground with the philosophes’ and founding fathers’ view of humans. Read Candide, a violent satire full of rape, bestiality, and murder designed to supplant European aristocratic classism with individualism and equality. Though Voltaire loathed organized religion and outright rejected Calvinism, he depicted the human race in a Pauline way, each misguided soul awaiting a humble revelation of its own worth. And remember that it was Thomas Hobbes, also a philosophe, who famously described human life as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."
(via Prufrock)

Happy Birthday, Plum!

One of our favorite authors, P.G. Wodehouse, was born on this day in 1881. In honor of the day, we link to McSweeney's for a bit of Plum parody from Rhian Jones in "P. G. Wodehouse's American Psycho."

I had, on the morning in question, breakfasted as usual on the old bran muffin and decaffeinated herbal tea before completing a thousand physical jerks and setting off downtown to Pierce & Pierce. Whilst performing my ablutions I’d gained the fleeting impression of there being something distinctly odd about my reflection, as if I wasn’t quite there, but I put it down to the previous evening’s indulgences at the club and paid it no mind.

Beneath the old six-button double-breasted tailcoat, I was sporting shoes by Susan Warren Bennis Edwards and some frankly tremendous trousers, which allowed me to feel inordinately pleased with myself. This happy state of affairs had of course as much likelihood of lasting as the early grace enjoyed by Milton’s Satan. I realised as much upon entering the meeting room, where I beheld my chums engaged in conversation with Paul Owen, a chap whose company I must admit I struggle at the best of times to tolerate.

Needing a History to Properly Enjoy

Patrick Kurp says he couldn't have read Max Beerbohm at a young age, because he requires a personal depth or history to draw upon while reading. He notes, "In another small masterpiece from And Even Now, 'The Golden Drugget,' Beerbohm describes a rather drab, undistinguished inn near his home in Rapallo, overlooking the Gulf of Genoa, in Italy:

“By moonlight, too, it is negligible. Stars are rather unbecoming to it. But on a thoroughly dark night, when it is manifest as nothing but a strip of yellow light cast across the road from an ever-open door, great always is its magic for me. Is? I mean was. But then, I mean also will be. And so I cleave to the present tense--the nostalgic present, as grammarians might call it.”

How Lovecraft Has Influenced Too Many People

Does Lovecraft still matter? A new annotated volume argues in favor of this old horror writer. Lovecraft, who died five months before his 47th birthday, also “shrewdly created an American pantheon of horror,” Klinger said of the hardcore New Englander. “He was the first writer of supernatural literature to understand the psychological consequences of the generations of Puritanism and the warping of the human psyche that resulted.”

I always get a chuckle out of accusations that Puritans twisted our civilization. Where would America or the world be without the Puritans of England and its New World colonies? Nowhere. They would be unrecognizable to us, if we could see such an alternate history.

Speaking of Alt-history, Lars' Death's Doors is tons of fun. You should read it. For real. (via Prufrock)

New Catholic Literature Prize

The new George W. Hunt Prize, sponsored by America magazine and Yale University's Saint Thomas More Chapel, will recognize a variety of accomplished literature from Roman Catholics. The judges appear to be looking for good, expressly Catholic works by authors who lead moral lives.

“We’re trying to promote new creative thinking,” Beloin told The Washington Post's Ron Charles. “Catholic theology is a very wide umbrella — or at least it’s supposed to be.” The Hunt Prize will be awarded to an author who is “trying to write things that are true — to bring a fresh language to theology, to bring real creativity to intellectual life and Catholic imagination.” (via Literary Saloon)

'Lying With Memes,' by Ori Pomerantz



Ori Pomerantz is a personal friend of mine, and of this blog. So my endorsement of his new e-book, Lying With Memes: Quick, Concise, and Wrong, might be a little suspect (I got a free review copy, by the way, so you can factor that in). But I thought it was a valuable and entertaining little book.

Memes, those short messages pasted on art, like digital posters or vertical bumper stickers, are part of my life, and probably of yours too, if you're reading this blog. If you use a service like Facebook, you've probably laughed or done an arm pump on seeing some, and promptly shared them. Sometimes you learn later that they're false or misleading, and feel embarrassed. You've probably also been angered by some memes, and they may have even sparked arguments and lost you friends.

Ori's short book is an explanation of how memes are constructed (with how-to instructions), and also a plea for more rational, decent memes. He provides a simple short course in logic (something much needed in our time) and admits that the information he gives may be used or misused. "I hope you will use this knowledge for good," he writes, "to identify when people try to cheat you, rather than for evil, to cheat people yourself."

A quick read and not expensive. Recommended.

Writing Courses Are Ruining Literature

A judge for the Noble Prize for Literature said professional writers suck and are dragging everyone down with them. Judge Horace Engdahl remarked, “Previously, writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries and waiters to make a living. Samuel Beckett and many others lived like this. It was hard - but they fed themselves, from a literary perspective.”

They soaked in Parisian culture too, which I assume is important to the world of letters. Honestly I can't tell if Engdahl is making a great point or a silly one. On the surface of it, he seems to be the voice of the establishment complaining that the establishment is cannibalizing itself.

Observer critic Robert McCrum said: “Engdahl’s bracing remarks reflect quite a lot of informal comment within some senior parts of the literary community, especially those grey cadres that are anti-American. At face value, these comments are an odd mixture of grumpy old man and Nordic romantic. I’m not sure that the author’s garret is the guarantor of excellence.”

Must All Sentences Be Short?

Remaining in the deep pockets of the short-sentence lobby for years was enough incentive to prevent Roy Peter Clark from writing this piece in favor of the long-sentence opposition party.

"When I fight this anxiety," he writes, "when I advise writers to 'Fear not the long sentence,' my encouragement inspires looks of alarm from teachers as if I were advocating taking all the garter snakes out of high school terrariums and replacing them with anacondas."

Or a natural fear of powerful, short-sentence lobbyists, who might leave conveniently unedited documents on reporters' desks which could embarrass their former supporters. Clark appears to have no fear, however, spilling the beans with items like this:

By my count, there are three main reasons to cast a long sentence:
  • To take a journey through a physical or emotional landscape.
  • To create a catalogue or inventory.
  • To build a mosaic of logic or evidence.

Teaser for Brad Bird's "Tomorowland"

Things Turn Out Best For Those Who Make the Best Out of the Way Things Turn Out

Balancing FunThis has made my day. In one of the books I edited this summer, the author attributed this quote to Coach John Wooden, "Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out." I searched for verification that Coach Wooden said it or came up with it himself, but could only find it widely attributed to him without citation. I found it attributed to Art Linkletter too, also without citation.

If I said known Wooden (1910-2010) was as old as Linkletter (1912-2010), I might have let it go, but I thought Linkletter was much older and consequently in a better position to have said something like this before the coach. So I kept looking, and finding nothing, asked The Quote Investigator to help. With his workload, I didn't expect an answer right away, but in today's email, I received word that he had posted his report:

(Great thanks to TygerBurning and Phil Wade whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Wade pointed to the 1979 citation and noted that Linkletter credited Wooden.)

Your desire to explore the genuine provenance of quotations is admirable. I appreciate your visiting and asking about an interesting saying.

Best wishes,
Garson O'Toole
When I wrote to QI, I told him I had found the quote attributed to Wooden without citation in Yes, You Can by Linkletter, so that ruled out one name, but that's as much as I could discover. Seeing the final QI report, I don't believe I could have found the answer.
In May 1965 an instance of this aphorism using the word “folks” was published in a newspaper column in Ada, Oklahoma together with miscellaneous sayings. No attribution was provided:

Things turn out best for folks who make the best of the way things turn out.

... In the following years, close variants of the adage were published in numerous newspapers. No individual was credited with the remark, and QI believes the statement should be labeled anonymous.
So chalk this one up to folk wisdom, friends.

Automatic Ordering and Payment for Coffee Drinkers

Pink metal clockwork robot maid - Naked Espresso BarHave you ever been waiting at a counter or restaurant, wondering why they haven't taken your order or seated you for a few minutes? They look busy, so there must be other customers, but you're the first one in line. Now the mobile-payment company, Square, is rolling out an coffee-buying app to allow more people to jump ahead of you in line without actually standing at the counter. Partnering with Blue Bottle Coffee, the Square app will allow coffee drinkers to place their order from their phone or tablet and pick it up within twenty-four hours. The store will receive the order and be warned when we approach the store so they can have your beverage ready when you walk in. No wait. No payment. No tip possibly. No personal interaction. All of that is handled online. So you could be standing at the counter for fifteen minutes while other customers walk in to pick up their orders.

Bach's Metaphors of Instrumentation in St. Matthew Passion



Barrymore Laurence Scherer writes about the beautiful oratorio, St. Matthew Passon by J.S. Bach:

For more tender contemplations Bach employs the softer veiled tone of the oboe d’amore, pitched a third below the oboe. In the soprano aria “I will give Thee my heart,” a soothing pair of oboes d’amore help suggest Christ’s loving relationship with mankind.

But Bach scores one of his most telling effects by eliminating certain instrumentation: Whenever Jesus sings his portions of the narrative, his bass voice is enveloped in a gleaming tissue of sustained triads played by two violins and viola, known as a “halo of strings.”
(via Prufrock)

From Tolkien's Masterpiece, the Danger of Words

Adam Roberts notes about The Lord of the Rings, "The repeated theme is the danger of words; their slipperiness but also the ease with which they can move us directly into the malign world of the text. One ring to bind us all. Books are bound, too."

A Presbyterian Walks Into a Baptist Chuch

Mark Jones writes about the differences between open and closed communion, meaning whether people in your church are allowed to take the Lord's Supper with you regardless of the mode or theology of baptism.

During a conference last year at SBTS, I was treated to an excellent paper by a young Canadian scholar (Ian Clary) on Andrew Fuller's communion practice. In the Q. and A. I asked (ipsissima vox):

"If you aren't baptized by immersion, then you can't be a called a Christian (in any meaningful ecclesiastical sense). And if you can't be called a Christian, then you can't take the Lord's Supper. Is that the implication of the closed communion view of Fuller?"

The room was silent: here a Presbyterian was asking a Baptist (in a room full of Baptists) to admit they can't call me a Christian.

My friend admitted that he believed/felt I was a Christian. But I countered: "Fuller's theology of communion and baptism doesn't allow you to call me a Christian in any official (ecclesiastical) sense. It is merely a private judgment." My friend, had to (uncomfortably) concede my point.
This, friends, is one of the ways good doctrine matters. Are Presbyterians actual followers of Christ? Is closed communion a good way to govern your local church?

Authors Union Seeks Investigation into Amazon.com

The Authors Guild met with the Justice Department in August to request a federal investigation into Amazon.com's actions against Hachette Book Group in their ongoing dispute over ebook prices and service fees. They say the earth's largest bookdealer is using anti-trust tactics against publishers like Hachette. Authors United is also preparing to ask the DOJ to get involved. Does this make you want to find other bookseller options, or is this all so inside baseball you don't care?

Writing as Product Development

Barnabas Piper reminds writers that their ideas are their products, so they should work through product development before launching them. "It means that you are probably the worst judge of whether your idea works."

Aaron Armstrong also has a bit of encouragement on writing better.

Self-Publishing: Too Many Little Fish in a Huge Sea

Ron Charles, editor of The Washington Post's Book World, asked Roger Sutton, editor in chief of Horn Book magazine, about reviewing self-published books.

Charles asked, “What do you say to the indie writer who reminds you that Walt Whitman was self-published?”

“You are not Walt Whitman,” Sutton said. “The 21st century is different in so many ways from the 19th that the comparison is meaningless. No one is forbidding you from self-publishing, but neither is anyone required to pay attention.”

Charles reviewed Sutton's recently expressed concerns over the glut of self-published books vying for place in our hands. Are there bound to be some great books out there? Yes, but there are too many bad one that look like it from a professional reviewer's outpost. The school of the self-published will only grow, and perhaps a new system of reviewing and judging will be organized to help readers find good books. Sutton isn't convinced it will matter. "People are more interested in writing self-published books than in reading them."

Ouch.

The Green Ember by S.D. Smith

Sam Smith answers a few questions about himself and his upcoming book, The Green Ember.

I love what C.S. Lewis called “dressed animal” stories. He loved them and kids usually do too, if they haven’t been talked out of them. One thinks of Lewis’s well-known statement about children getting “too mature” for fairy tales. “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”
He's using Kickstarter to presell the book and generate buzz. Watch for it this Friday.

Ask a Southerner to Pray for You

Because God answers more prayer in the southern United States than in other states, according to a new Lifeway Research survey. Wealthy people are far more likely to pray that bad things will happen to bad people than are those who have low income. Nearly half of respondents said they pray for those who mistreat them or their enemies.

D.G. Myers, the Lion

Tributes to D.G. Myers from Friends & Colleagues

John Wilson wrote, "Like Samuel Johnson, David Myers was not a clubbable man, but he was the best of friends. Our friendship took place almost entirely under the umbrella of Twitter (where Doctor Johnson also would have flourished), yet in a lifetime blessed with friendship his was among the most precious to me."

George: "No Longer Tolerable"

Robert George believes we are at a tipping point with many opinion-makers. “Christians, and those rejecting the me-generation liberal dogma of ‘if it feels good do it,’ are no longer tolerable by the intellectual and cultural elite,” he says. The individualism of modern liberalism has become like a national religion for these elite, so our views on personhood, community, God, and everything else are heretical at best. They are in a position to punish us for holding these views, as George explains in two videos.

Professor, Critic D.G. Myers Has Passed Away

Micah Mattix says D.G. Myers was one of our best critics. Last Friday, Myers died of the cancer he endured for the past few years. Patrick Kurp is organizing a Festschrift for him to be hosted by Gregory Wolfe. Terry Teachout described him in an essay only a few days ago.

Kurp has written a few posts on Myers. Here he remembers a story of a dying man by Henry James. Here he passes on information from the family.

In a talk Myers' gave at Congregation Torat Emet on July 17. 2014, he said:

Several years ago terminal cancer called to me and I answered Hineni, “Here I am.” The religious language may seem blasphemous, as if I were claim­ing to be a prophet, but that’s not what I mean at all. What I mean is Hashem places you in your circumstances, and even the most ordinary of persons can discover his unique role in life, his calling—he can help to complete creation—if he recognizes and accepts where he has been placed.

The Lake Superior Mysteries, by Tom Hilpert



If Chesterton’s Father Brown had been a Protestant, and in better shape, and a man of action, he might have been something like Pastor Jonah Borden, hero of three enjoyable novels (to date) by Tom Hilpert.

Pastor Borden serves the parish of Harbor Lutheran Church in Grand Lake (a stand-in, I assume, for Grand Marais), Minnesota, on the North Shore of Lake Superior. He is a widower, a gourmet cook, a coffee addict, and a martial artist. He once killed a man in self-defense. He holds court a couple evenings a week at a local tavern, where he listens to people’s problems while sipping soft drinks.

In the first book in the series, Superior Justice, one of Jonah’s parishioners is arrested for the murder of the child molester who killed his daughter. Under the seal of the confessional, the accused man gives Jonah a rock-solid alibi, but it’s an alibi he wants to keep secret. In order to clear him, Jonah has to identify the real killer. Along the way he begins a romance with Leyla Bennett, a beautiful TV news reporter. Read the rest of this entry . . .

Possibly an Overreaction to Banning Books?

simple thingsAlan Noble says that Springs Charter School story may be an overreaction. In fact, the school says, "We can and do provide educational books with religious perspectives, including Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place."

The school statement continues: "However, like every other public school in the State of California, we cannot legally maintain religious textbooks on our warehouse shelves for distribution to our families. Donated items are made available to our families at no cost. Any and all donated items are not incorporated onto the shelves of our Curriculum Warehouse. The only materials we maintain on the shelves of our Curriculum Warehouse are items we have purchased ourselves in accordance with the laws of our State."

Noble asks, "Did the Superintendent make this clear in the letter she sent to PJI? That much is not clear, since PJI didn’t actually post her letter online." But the Super does appear to be a practicing catholic, not a opponent of faith.

Lazere: Colleges Should Be Full of Leftists

If the government-sponsored drought doesn't drive people out of California, the education system should. One California English professor (that's a professor of California English, not just one who lives in the state) argues in his book that students should be exposed to liberalism in college. Johnathan Marks reviews Donald Lazere's Why Higher Education Should Have a Leftist Bias.

Stephens College Students (MSA)

Here's the idea: "Neither mainstream liberals nor mainstream conservatives question the 'unmarked norm' of capitalism, and consequently students don’t question it either. 'Isn’t there something to be said,' then, 'for … preserving in the human imagination … socialist ideals,' and 'mightn’t college liberal arts teachers … be indulged in this role, like the monks who preserved the manuscripts of classical humanists?'"

Marks goes on to destroy Lazere's arguments with facts, which I won't repeat here. "Lazere’s great narrowing of the aim of higher education encompasses more than his wish that it occupy itself with preserving the thought of the left. Because Lazere thinks that not only 'unmarked norms' but also the deliberate efforts of a 'conservative attack machine' have prejudiced students against the left, exposing that machine becomes an important aim of 'general education.'" (via Prufrock)

The Hiding Place Should Be Read in Public Schools

Joel Miller explains "What banning this book says about the future of our society," talking about the Springs Charter Schools removing Christian books from their circulation. That book is Corrie ten Boom's The Hiding Place.

Rod Dreher describes a bit of how it changed him. "Reading The Hiding Place as a kid dramatically affected me. The moral heroism of the ten Booms sensitized me to the effects of anti-Semitism, and taught me what Christians must do if ever we are in a situation where persecuted people rely on us for protection."

Miller writes, "Given this Christian impulse to identify with the oppressed and save those in danger, to remove The Hiding Place from library shelves betrays a sort of societal self-defeat, and similar examples multiply as our culture fumbles toward a more rigorously enforced secularity. We’re like the cannibal committing suicide one nibble at a time." (via Prufrock)

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