Monthly Archives: February 2014

The System

I read a masterful analysis of how corruption worked in Los Angeles during a certain period: business interests needed organized crime because crime bosses rented their buildings, used their construction companies, and provided goods and services they prized. Politicians needed business people whose support won them terms in office. The legal community, district attorneys, police commissioners, and judges  needed the politicians, who could hire and fire them at will. Cooperation benefitted them all.

I’ll describe the contemporary Christian community with a similar analysis.

Churches need book publishers and journalistic media to promote their ministry and to validate their messages. Christian publishers need churches as a platform through which authors can promote books. And Christian media supports itself by promoting the publishers and appealing to the generosity of believers nurtured in the faith by churches. Cooperation benefits them all.

The similarity of these systems doesn’t mean the Christian community is corrupt. My reason for pointing it out is to reveal that, though intentions may be pure and noble, the alliance of churches, publishers, and media effectively suppresses the freedom and vigor of Christian art and culture. Currently, the only voices or views that get widely proliferated are those in accord with and beneficial to churches. The System acts as a censor.

Though I love my home church and wish all churches well, I know that among their motives are some more practical than spiritual. A church needs to pay the bills, keep the doors open, and provide the parishioners with what they came looking for.

Churches do wonderful service. What they don’t do is shed light on many critical issues or make room for strikingly original, provocative, or simply alternative voices.

Perelandra College exists to do what churches don’t, to invigorate Christian culture and to free artists and thinkers restrained or discouraged by the system. This by no means limits us to serving only Christ followers. Rather we welcome everyone and are vigilant to ensure that beliefs of all sorts are honored and valued.

Still, the college was founded as a non-profit religious corporation, essentially a church whose target congregation is artists, whose primary mission is to empower believers with skills and courage, to help them become free and able to write and publish the truth as they see it.

Sylvia Curtis, a wise friend, sometime mentor, sometime antagonist and the basis for a character in several of my novels viewed humans as either people of good will or the others. Lately I also find myself dividing humanity and especially believers into two categories: answer people and question people. Though hardly anyone is all one or the other,  in most of us one of those categories dominates. Perelandra College is a church for question people, which artists must be.

Olga Savitsky is the college’s eternal poet laureate. She and I used to imagine the sort of church we wanted to create. Lots of poems and stories would be read or performed, and crazy drama like Christina Roseti’s “Goblin Market” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”.  Over the front door would hang a big sign: “No B.S. allowed.”

The Scoop, our monthly e-magazine, now features a section called stuff you probably won’t hear in church, the point of which isn’t to criticize or expose but to offer a Christian perspective from outside the System. Please visit us. Subscribe and get the Scoop.

•• Time travel with detective Tom Hickey, at:

Clerks and Errand Boys

The other day I read about a writer for Guns and Ammo magazine who was abruptly fired after an article of his questioned the notion that any regulation of guns was unconstitutional. Apparently advertisers suggested that if the writer stayed, they wouldn’t.

One Friday evening I attended church and heard the pastor utter a phrase that astonished me, given his evangelical audience. He said, “Look, if you think ‘My country is always right and the enemy’s always wrong,’ you’re not getting that from the Bible.”

On Sunday, I returned to see if he repeated the phrase to the much larger and generally more traditional audience. He didn’t. For a couple weeks I was furious, until I began to look at the log in my own eye and realize that I, like everyone who speaks or writes for a living, to one degree or another plays to his or her audience.

As do we all, whether our audience be a public, a boss, or an institution.

Still, whenever I’m reminded of how much our careers depend upon not only upon what we do or say but also upon what we don’t do or say, I recall the Marlon Brando character Kurtz in the film Apocalypse Now.

A soldier named Willard has been sent into the jungle to terminate Kurtz, a renegade American army captain who appears to have gone mad and resorted to the most savage tactics.

Here’s the scene:

Kurtz: You are an assassin?

Willard: A soldier.

Kurtz: You are neither. You are an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.

I had the privilege of meeting the author Kurt Vonnegut when I was studying at the University of Iowa and he came for a visit. At a party, a few of us were in the kitchen when Mr. Vonnegut offered some theories about how the world works. A big issue at the time was the price of gasoline. He said, “Suppose you work at a gas station and I come to buy gas and you charge me a dollar a gallon, and I argue that you’re out of line charging so much, and you say ‘I have to charge you that much, because that’s the price my boss set.’ You see, that’s a lie. You don’t have to charge that much. You don’t have to keep that job.”

Certainly there are rebuttals to his argument, but they all are pragmatic, and they lead me to think about another fine author, B. Traven (who, by the way, appears in my upcoming Tom Hickey novel The Good Know Nothing). Traven argued that we always have a choice. If, with a gun barrel pressed to our temples, we are commanded to do something, we can refuse, and die.

Which makes me think of our challenge as writers, or students, or employees of any sort. Because the degree to which we cater to our audience, even though the effort may oppose our own aesthetics or values, may well determine our material success or failure.

I’m not advocating that we should approach our work idealistically, pragmatically, or with a moderate dose of each attitude. That has to be a personal decision.

But I am suggesting that we would do well to recognize our freedom and now and then stop to ask “Am I an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill?”

Or what?