Category Archives: Church for Writers

Be Indomitable

Master Jeong taught that the Tae Kwon Do spirit (probably not to be confused with the spirit that moves us) is an indomitable spirit.

Sometimes when your world has crashed, it’s wise to tell yourself, “I have an indomitable spirit.” Say it enough, you may believe it. Believe it, and it may come true.

I used to keep a file of rejection letters, thinking once they stopped coming, I would use the collection to wallpaper a room. That was before I realized they may never stop coming. I got one this morning.

Here’s a grim fact of life. If you’re not getting rejected by somebody for something, you’ve probably stopped dreaming, which may be the most dangerous thing an artist can do.

Rejections may come from friends. Suppose you spend a year writing a novel, you give a copy to a compadre, and learn a few weeks later that he has not only put off opening your book, but during that time he’s bought and read two Dean Koontz thrillers. No matter what excuse he gives, your feelings get hurt.

In writers’ groups, we judge the worth of our stories by every remark, sigh, modulation of voice and facial expression. If our feelings don’t get hurt even a little, either we have achieved something like nirvana or become experts at the dubious skill of turning hurt to anger, which sooner or later will either kill us or send our spirits into exile.

Agents and editors sometimes reject us in brutal ways. I once submitted a baseball novel and after about four months received a note, “Sorry you struck out with us.” Either this prominent editor hadn’t gleaned that people who devote well over a year to a project don’t consider their work a joke, or she had a mean streak the size of and a heart the temperature of Siberia.

Suppose that after ten years of dedicated work you publish your first novel and feel you deserve at least a modicum of respect. You’ve gotten fine reviews. Then you pick up another review and think it must’ve been written by somebody who didn’t read more than five pages of your novel and, moreover, mistook you for the guy who stole his wife.

Anyone who has suffered such a review, or had a nightmare about receiving one, should read Tobias Woolf’s short story, “A Bullet in the Brain,” in which a book reviewer who gets taken hostage by bank robbers criticizes his captors until the joyous ending, which I won’t give away any more of than I already have.

In case I haven’t made my point, it’s this: as a writer, you’re going to get rejected. So you’d better protect yourself by learning how to cope with rejection.

Friedrich Nietzsche gave the simple answer to this problem. He wrote, “Creators are hard.”

Okay, but the best creators are also soft. They’re vulnerable, open to a deep and wide range of emotion. They’re pliable, willing to ditch their most cherished preconceptions for new truths and inspirations.

So let’s define “hard” as “resilient” rather than as “solid” or “dense”. Let’s be willing to stretch ourselves even to the breaking point by mustering confidence in our ability to repair our hearts or by trusting that God will repair us.

A few gimmicks have helped me recover from rejection. The simplest is realizing that no one person can determine how other readers will react. Midheaven, my first novel, went to three editors. The first reported that he liked the story but not the narrator. The second liked the narrator but not the story. The third liked both and bought the book.

Still, many times I have needed to wallow in self-doubt and agony until I remembered that critical success may not be as important as the health of my family and friends.

Many times I’ve survived rejection by already having in mind a next book and being so excited about it I can convince myself no sane person could reject it. In this state of mind, I remember my writer friend Don Purviance asking, “Are you in it for the long haul, or aren’t you?”

A Time for Everything

I was considering writing about a feeling that has come over me, as though I think differently from everyone I know and consequently can hardly open my mouth without risking an argument.

While contemplating this predicament, and wondering if this year or era is especially argumentative, if all the warring factions that have either risen or come out of the closet have pushed our society to a new level of interpersonal alienation; if the constant reminders of our differences in gender, race, religion, generation, social class, education and all won’t allow us to consider anyone as simply as a person, meaning they are probably more like than unlike us.

When I was in college, as a literature major, we studied Camus, Sartre, Elliot, Duras and others who tackled the theme of alienation. But though I’m well aware that what I’m feeling is nothing unique or new, I suspect the separation between people has become a sort of disease.

As I reflected upon this gloomy vision, I got inspired to take a look at Ecclesiastes 3:1:

A Time for Everything

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

So, I came away thinking, we writers ought to ask and/or pray about, in this particular and mighty peculiar age, what time is it? What should we be doing, writing about, ranting about, keeping silent about, or going to metaphorical war over?

I suspect for each of us the answer will be different. Which is a very good thing. As my mom, a cliche master, asserted regularly, “It takes all kinds to make a world.”

For quite a few years, I wrote feature stories for the San Diego Reader. My editor, Judith Moore may well have been an angel. At least, she was one of the wisest counselors in creation. When a friend of my cousin Patti got accused of Satanic child abuse in the nursery of a large church and his arrest and trial became a local and national media sensation, Judith asked me to write about the controversy. What I learned infuriated me. I became livid about certain attorneys and therapists who either played the case for their own advantage or were astonishingly ignorant. And I wrote the draft of a feature story with that fury impelling me. But Judith, when she read the draft, simply said, “Ken, you don’t do angry.” And she was right, with a caveat: because I didn’t do angry then doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do angry now.

Maybe my time to write angry has come. I will pray about it.

The Jefferson Attitude

The New York Times ran an article by historian David Williams about Thomas Jefferson’s more or less Christian attitude and how taking a similar stance might allow the Democratic Party to win over those who find Democrats essentially secular and deaf to the concerns posed by their Christian beliefs.

According to Mr. Williams, Jefferson believed in the teachings of Christ but didn’t accept the “mysticism”, by which Jefferson apparently meant the outrageous claim that Christ was God and as such performed miracles including his return from death, thereby providing evidence for his assertion that believers could achieve eternal life.

Now, I would certainly prefer that Democrats took the teachings of Christ seriously, no matter how they feel about “mysticism”. While I spent some time at a seminary in Tijuana, a very intelligent member of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity told me that part of his admiration for the Mexican poor was that even most of those who didn’t believe in Catholic doctrine, having grown up in a mostly Catholic culture, had learned to be humble and selfless, as Christ would have them be.

Would that we all were humble and selfless, no matter what we believe.

But whether or not this Jeffersonian template, based largely upon the Beatitudes and the admonition to love our neighbors, would win at least some swing votes to Democrats, it’s quite a dangerous course to chart. In fact, I would call it hogwash except, perhaps because of my ties to Christian culture, I would rather play nice.
In defense of my objection, I will call upon Feodor Dostoyevski, widely held to be among the greatest novelists ever.

In the recent work of a far lesser writer (Ken Kuhlken, alias me), we find a precocious thirteen year old discussing a criminal case with his attorney uncle:

“Tommy asked, ‘Well, do you want to hear something Dostoyevski thought about bad guys like Luz? [boss of a Tijuana cartel.]’

“’Read on.’

“Tommy’s source was The Brothers Karamazov, which he opened to a book mark.

“’This is Rakitin, who’s pretty much of a nitwit, talking about Ivan, who is mighty smart: “Did you hear his stupid theory just now: if there’s no immortality of the soul, then there’s no virtue, and everything is lawful?”’”

Dostoyevski devoted much of his art to dramatizing this very question: if we remove God from the equation, why should we act in accord with any moral standard other than the pursuit of our own benefit?

If we take a secular stance and dismiss the possibility of what Jefferson deems mysticism, why should we hold anyone’s well being above our own; why should we sacrifice; why should we try to love better?

Over a hundred years ago, that question drove Dostoyevski’s two most profound and compelling novels. Before his time and ever since, some mighty intelligent writers and thinkers have tried and failed to come up with a convincing answer.

So, regardless of the fact that a long lost girlfriend of mine argued that Christianity would be preferable if blood weren’t one of its abiding themes; and my Unitarian friends would have us consider the teachings of Christ in the same category as those of the Dalai Lama; and many folks I know believe that heaven is a swell concept but hell is simply not Christ-like … regardless of the opinions of those good people, the notion that we can legitimately pick and choose from a historically fixed set of beliefs is a fool’s paradise.

Which brings me to the role of us writers in political, social and spiritual discourse.

Sure, those of us who believe in Christ ought to let our readers know that, like Jefferson, we adhere to the values our Lord set down and hope people follow them whether or not they believe in the “mystical” stuff. But if we believe in that “mystical” stuff, we also ought to insinuate our belief that creation is more than what the Bernards would have us believe.

For a definition of “Bernards,” I once again call upon the precocious Tommy. Jodi, The novel’s narrator, is telling about a drive along Highway 395 in the Sierra Nevada:

“Once when Tommy laughed and I asked what about, he said, ‘Dmitri, one of the brothers, he calls science guys Bernards. Bernard was some knucklehead French writer.’

“’Dmitri calls scientists Bernards?’

“’Not exactly scientists, but guys who think science is the answer to everything.’

“’So, Tommy,’ Mystery [Jodi’s daughter] said, ‘if not science, what is the answer to everything?’”

To find the answer to that last and ultimate question, you’ll need to read the novel.

Thanks for reading, Ken

The Answer to Everything

Some folks are no doubt dying to know the story of my writing career, so I’m going to attempt a capsule version. Of course I once set out to write a short story and ended up with 1400 pages. I’ll try my best to make this shorter.

As high school kid and later as a college English major, my choice in novels skewed toward the “literary”, which to me meant novels of character rather than novels of plot.

So my first novel, Midheaven, got labeled “literary”. And though it earned a prestigious award and got well reviewed, it didn’t sell a whole lot.

The next couple novels I wrote were rather experimental. They didn’t find a publisher.

My friend Don Merritt was making decent money writing adventure paperback originals. I needed money, so I wrote what I thought was one of those. But when I sent it to my agent, she said, “Oh no, this isn’t a paperback original. It’s a literary novel.”

I put writing aside, and started teaching too much, at several colleges, on account of needing money. After a year of that, I was a mess. Then some friends who were mystery writers asked to see my adventure/literary manuscript. They read it and urged me to send it to a certain mystery contest. I did so and won.

So I became a mystery writer, for seven books. And though they won plenty awards and earned consistently excellent reviews, they didn’t sell a lot. One reason, I think they aren’t what most readers look for when they buy a mystery, even though I had tried to restrain myself and stay within the boundaries of the genre. I’m just not good at restraint.

At long last, I have decided to forget restraint and write what I most love to read, which is novels about crime but also about character, what people think and feel and act and often do such weird and irrational stuff.

I have completed the third draft and I’m happy about it. A couple more revisions and we’ll see what happens. It’s called, by the way, The Answer to Everything.

Thanks for reading, Ken

Obeying the President

The president has instructed the IRS not to mess with churches who get political. He wants us churches to speak our minds, right?

Here goes.

The other day I was talking to my cousin Patti and feeling impassioned by some action of Trump’s. I forget which one. And Patti, out of left field, calls Hillary Clinton a liar.

Naturally, I respond, “And Trump isn’t a liar?”

And she says, “Not as big a liar as Hillary.”

So I demand, “Who says?”

And she says, “Fox television.”

Suddenly I got the answer to a problem that has plagued me for months now, which is: “Why would 80% of white male “evangelicals” vote for a shallow, unscrupulous, (I could go on but why bother) fellow.”

The answer came because when Patti mentioned Fox, I remembered that I get most of my news from sources such as the New York Times, the L.A. Times, and the Washington Post, all of which are at least inclined toward the liberal, the progressive, and the Democratic party.

I have tied Fox news, Rush, Dr. Laura, James Dobson, but too soon gotten tired of shouting at the tv or radio.

Still, although I consider myself a good critical thinker (having taught that subject for years), I understand the “facts” that inform my opinions come from sources favoring certain agendas. So I asked myself what was wrong with this picture, and here’s my conclusion:

I don’t know of any source for information in any way political that isn’t biased. Perhaps the absence of a bias is humanly impossible.

But, just suppose there was a media source whose only bias was a sincere devotion to framing news and opinion in the context of the teachings of Jesus. A media presence with no attachment to the traditions of any particular church or denomination, with no intention to directly evangelize, or to cater to a congregation, or to demonize anyone, or to make money for any purpose. A source dedicated to nothing but the truth for it’s own sake.

If that wouldn’t set us free, I don’t know what would.

Trump and Assad

“For the son of God became like us so that we could become like him.” Athanasius

On Palm Sunday, Dr. Cherith Nording, a seminary professor, gave a powerful sermon in which she proposed that Christ could live in connection with the spirit of God because he declined to be influenced by the narratives of the world. Likewise, she observed, for us to live in connection with the spirit of God, we need to decline to be the guided by the world’s dominant narratives.

Which are: the quests for fame, power, riches, sensual delights, and ego fulfillment. Now, all those things being quite attractive, many will question why should we decline to pursue them.

The most convincing answer has to be: to find something better.

In its mission to present this something better, the Christian church historically favors offering the promise of what Woody Guthrie called “pie in the sky when you die .” For many reasons, one being our human preference for short term rather than long term solutions, that promise hardly begins to convince everybody. Many people in this scientific age find it laughable. Many others see no problem in following the world’s narratives, at least until they discover the often miserable consequences.

At that point, they may be open to persuasion should the church effectively present to them the benefits living in connection with the spirit of God offers. Benefits such as: peace of mind; freedom from worry; freedom from guilt; freedom from the poisonous need for ego fulfillment

Though her message was honest, wise, and powerfully delivered, what most excited me was — please keep in mind that I attend an “evangelical” church — her comment that our following the world’s narratives leads to the triumph of such followers of the world’s narratives — such power seekers — as Trump and Assad.

Trump and Assad in the same sentence. Thank you, Dr. Nording

Happy Endings

Lots of us pray the Lord’s prayer fairly regularly, thereby requesting that, “Your will be done.”

Recently I heard a pastor quote a Christian writer’s prediction that anyone who can pray with perfect sincerity for God’s will to be done is guaranteed eternity in heaven.

Regardless of what we believe about salvation, weighing our sincerity in light of that comment could be a valuable tool for self-discovery. So I asked myself: can I, in perfect sincerity, pray for God’s will to be done? That would mean I could be okay with God’s will even if it included my getting melanoma, dying in a month, and leaving my fourteen-year-old Zoe to face a tough world without my help. And it would give my approval even if God’s will included my family dying by torture.

Not likely.

Remember Abraham and how God told him to offer Isaac as a sacrifice? I’ve heard preachers argue that Abe was okay with following instructions because he knew God would surely intercede and stop the sacrifice.

Phooey.

That view of Abraham may be in accord with prosperity gospels. But why then is Abraham regarded throughout the Bible as an example of faithfulness. If he felt so sure God was only testing him and wouldn’t let him go through with the act, his faithfulness was no big deal.

Here’s another take on Abraham, from Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”:

God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son.”
Abe said “Man, you must be putting me on.”
God say, “No.”
Abe say “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but,
the next time you see me coming you’d better run.”

I suspect Mr. Dylan, rather than advocating that view, was poking fun at an attitude common amongst fundamentalists. I taught at a fundamentalist college where the dean of the seminary convinced even some bright students that to achieve salvation, we needed to believe correct dogma.

Double phooey.

Here’s yet another view of Abraham, this one promoted by 19th century thinker Soren Kierkegaard:

Abe, whom Kierkegaard regarded as the Knight of Faith, wasn’t any more convinced that God would relieve him of the call to sacrifice than Jesus was convinced he wouldn’t actually get crucified. Rather, Abraham, like Jesus, simply believed that whatever God asked of him, he would do.

Because God asked.

Period.

After all, to refuse would be as ridiculous as if my brain told my hands to swing at a pitch and my hands on their own decided not to. Because Kierkegaard was a brilliant philosopher, I’ll call this perspective a philosopher’s view of Abraham.

Christian writers, especially those who target Christian readers, had better decide whether they trust (a) the prosperity view, (b) the fundamentalist view, or (c) the philosopher’s view.

Because the ending to most every story will imply one of the three.

Suppose you hold to (b) and yet you write a romance novel in which the hero and heroine live happily ever after. Might you be promoting (a)? And if so, aren’t you lying?

I don’t mean to accuse or condemn, but to suggest we writers question whether our stories are true to our beliefs.

Because writing is a sacred vocation, we should worry about the fate of writers who willingly lie for bucks or for the pride of publication.

A couple novels I enthusiastically recommend that deliver view c (philosopher’s view) endings are Midheaven and Newport Ave.

Joan of Arcadia

Zoe took a trip with her mom and left me alone for five days. Every one of those evenings, my entertainment was Joan of Arcadia, a television drama that aired for two seasons about a dozen years ago. The premise is: at least once each episode, God appears to Joan in the person of a stranger and gives her an assignment such as join the school orchestra, keep your eyes open, clean out the garage. Usually Joan argues, almost always she misunderstands the purpose of whatever God proposes, and always by the end of the episode, the happenings caused by the assignment deliver an important message, a new way of understanding herself or the world.

I can’t recall ever being so fascinated by a television series. What captivates me is that we not only, along with Joan, learn about the world and ourselves; we also come away with new perspectives about God.

I just bought a DVD set of the two seasons to give to a friend, because it seems to me that when smart, generally open-minded and imaginative people can’t grasp why I or anyone with a modicum of common sense would believe in God, the problem is often that they won’t allow their imaginations to roam. It’s as if using one’s imagination to speculate about God is not only heretical but perhaps illegal, and surely cause for a stay in a rehab center like the one where Joan spends the summer between her junior and senior years.

I have often been asked, and occasionally have wondered on my own, why I’m writing this story instead of that one when that one would be more likely to make serious money. I think next time anyone poses the question, I will suggest they watch Joan of Arcadia. Because I see the show’s premise as a metaphor for the way artists are guided by something beyond their comprehension, often assisted by random people they meet or happenings they observe, or by wisdom or questions that arise out of their daily experiences.

I have decided to create a Perelandra College class around Joan of Arcadia as an elective in the Writing and the Spirit MA program. I’ll probably teach the class because it will give me an excuse to watch the series again and again. The thoughtful stuff it offers make it worth many viewings.

 

 

For the Love of Money

If you’d prefer, listen to the podcast.

1 Timothy 6:10 NIV:  “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”

Luke 16;13 NIV: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

I’ll call my friend Roy. He’s my best golfing buddy, also a novelist, and a firm California democrat. He plays the stock market, and the other day he told me that he was selling off his green stocks and buying oil company stocks. The gist of his rationale was, since Trump’s cabinet is going to be a sort of oilman’s club, oil would be (or would remain) king.

After I bawled him out for betraying his green principles, he argued that he was only looking out for his future, and his family’s.

I’m quite fond of Roy, but it seems to me that such thinking will be the ruin of us all.

If I’m clear on one of Christ’s teachings it’s that there is no good justification for compromising with the ways of the world.

As writers, we encounter the temptation to compromise every time we sit down to write. For instance, my current project can be called a legal thriller, and though I don’t much like tags, I have chosen to try to make this one fit the genre. And I’m finding that to live up to the word thriller, the book needs to have pretty much constant tension. Tension can often be sustained by putting sympathetic characters in danger, but after some pages the danger needs to elevate or the tension will fade.

My current plan is to add another couple murders and render more graphically a certain massacre. Now, to justify these additions to myself, I need to believe that they not only make the story more gripping but that they are consistent with the worldview I want the story to present and with an attitude toward violence I hope the reader will assume.

One of the victims is a seriously bad fellow. But I don’t want anyone to jump for joy at the death of anybody. Relief is okay, as long as it contains at least a morsel of sorrow on account of our world being in such a condition as to require murder.

I mean, we ought to take life and our role in it seriously and recognize that at every intersection we have a choice; do what we believe in; or follow the way of the world.

Only rarely do those two roads go in the same direction.

 

How Did Trump Win?

The day after the recent election, Zoe asked me, “How did Trump win?”

I said, “Ask your grandma,” because her grandma had voted for the fellow.

But that was only an easy answer I gave because I felt too dismayed to talk and because the answer I would have otherwise given was too complicated for her fourteen-year-old patience.

Some reasons I am dismayed are: Trump appears to be a classic narcissist, and narcissism and pure evil are closely linked (for a wise study of this issue, read M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie); many good people are now in danger of being deported; and far too many others are likely to get sick and sicker or become destitute or die, for the lack of health insurance.

Trump won because he allowed himself to be human; the natural man, possessor of all the faults flesh is heir to, and a personification of at least five of the seven deadly sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, wrath, and a sixth, gluttony, when we recognize one of its meanings as over-indulgence in the trappings of wealth. The seventh deadly sin, sloth, he does not appear to suffer from. These traits helped him win because all of us humans, if we bother to look, can glimpse parts of ourselves in him. So we can identify with the man.

What concerns me even more: Trump won because some years back, the Republican Party recognized that Christian fundamentalists were a viable demographic and easy prey as long as they could be swayed with arguments that would cost them little to nothing. To oppose abortion and homosexuality are easy and arguably in accord with the Bible. On the other hand, to expect Christians to do any of what Christ modeled and gave as his mission — to proclaim good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty those who are oppressed. — is harder than hell. And it’s all too human to choose the easy over the hard.

Trump won because those who came to prepare his way — Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, the Fox network folks and the like — learned what newspaper and magazine tycoon William Randolph Hearst discovered about a hundred years ago, that the most effective way to govern was by controlling the media. So we have spent at least the last twenty some years witnessing what William Butler Yeats prophesied:

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Because of their passionate intensity, the worst can mouth lies without apparent shame, probably believing that the ends they desire, on account of their pride, greed and envy, justify the means.

These people prepared the way for a shameless liar to label his opponent a liar, for a boss who refuses to pay his workers to label his opponent a criminal, for a sexual abuser to condemn his opponent for aiding in the defense of her husband, which, by the way, is what most Christian fundamentalists would have advised her to do.

I’m not so worried about Trump as about what he and those who prepared for him have unleashed. I wonder:

…what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

But since I’m incapable of living without hope, I dream some good will come out of all this evil. Maybe folks with sense will recognize that those who admire the proud, greedy, and wrathful are, no matter what they call themselves, not Christians.

Maybe there is a different sort of revival on the way, one that will reflect the attitude of Leonard Cohen, about whom a dear friend of his wrote: “His attitude of acceptance was not founded on anything as cheap as happiness.” I believe he meant that Cohen’s belief in a loving God wasn’t based on how easy or bountiful his belief would make his own life.

He was more like Job who vowed, “Though he slay me, I will trust him.”