James’s Blog: Memento – Part Two.

James’s Blog:  Memento – Part Two.

Most of us get bruised as we make our way through this world. Sometimes those bruises take a long time to heal, and might leave us tender and scarred beneath the surface. In Memento, Leonard lets his tattoos and notes guide him. He trusts them completely, and they become his truth. In the same way, we sometimes let our wounds control our actions and outlook on life. The world is full of people who let their scars do the talking.

I find it interesting that the risen Jesus still had the wounds from his crucifixion. It makes me speculate: perhaps those wounds that we have suffered in service to God will be a part of our perfect resurrection body. Our images of heaven might feature beautiful men and women with perfect teeth and unblemished skin, but I wonder if the truth might be different. Perhaps Paul, and all those who can say with him that they “…bear on my body the marks of Jesus…” might still have those wounds in heaven and – far from being a sign of imperfection and suffering – they might be a badge of honour.

But, as I was saying, sometimes those wounds are hidden; there are unseen scars. They count too. As I hinted at above, it’s the unseen tattoos that tend to have the most control over us. I’ve acquired a few cuts and grazes on my soul in my attempts to follow Jesus, but I don’t want them to shape me negatively. Instead I try to think of them a bit like Memento tattoos. They spell out words too – words like obedient and owned by God and faithful. After all, I wouldn’t have got them if it wasn’t for the risks I’ve taken in trying to serve Him. I don’t want to ignore them, or try to pretend that they’re not there, but neither do I want to relate to the world out of hurts and disappointments. Paul, the master of being wounded both by and for God, understood, I think, that these internal tattoos were sacraments – reminders of the divine – when he said, “…I delight in weaknesses, insults, hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties, for when I am weak, then I am strong.”

James’s Blog: Memento – Part One.

James’s Blog:  Memento – Part One.

Memento is a film about Leonard’s search for the enigmatic ‘John G’ – the man who killed his wife. The challenge for Leonard (played by Mike from Neighbours) is that he suffers from short-term memory loss. This throws a spanner in the works of his detectoring. He gets around this inconvenience with a collection of Polaroid photographs and a mass of tattoos that remind him of important snippets of information he has gleaned over the years. Of course, him constantly having to make sense of all this information anew is part of where the film’s twists and turns come from.

I have to say that I am quite taken with the idea of having really important things that I need to remember tattooed on myself. I’m aware of my own short-term memory loss that sees me forgetting who I really am, and playing the wrong game. If it was up to me, I’d go full-Memento and cover myself with black ink – FACT 1: You are a Son of God  FACT 2: Remember that God thinks everyone you meet was worth the life of Jesus and so on. Ruth won’t let me do this, and that’s fair enough. It’s one of many reasons why she’s good to have around. It’s a shame though, as my middle-aged weight gain is beginning to show, so I’ve got plenty of room on my slowly-expanding canvas for some really important truths. So, I have to think of other less drastic ways to remember important things, because I really don’t want to forget.

Interestingly though, I think that there are such things as hidden tattoos, but more on that next week…

James’s Blog: Creating Life.

James’s Blog:  Creating Life.

I really needed my character to make that phone call, but it just wasn’t working. The story demanded that he pick up the phone and dial those numbers, but it didn’t feel right. So what do I do now, when I have a story, but a character who doesn’t want to play ball? “All right,” I said to my character, “what do you want to do then?” You can imagine my shock and disappointment when he took that scrap of paper with the phone number on it, scrunched it up and threw it in the bin. “What are you doing?” I said, “I need you to phone that number!” But it was no good. He wasn’t going to make the call.

Once I’d recovered, I realised that it made sense. This character, the person that he was, wouldn’t make the call. Not yet. So he didn’t, and I was left at a loose end. Instead of following the plot, we went on a detour and did something else for a while. Then several pages later, he was pulling that piece of paper out of the bin so that he could make the call, all of his own accord. The story was back on track. We got there eventually, but he had to be ready.

A lot of writers advocate this – you don’t write the story, you write the characters and then let them decide on the story. When it works you have a tale that is internally consistent and compelling, but you have to know your characters. They have to be real people who can tell you what they would say and do and feel. You just listen, and put it on paper.

I know there are some writers who don’t even have a story when they start. They just have a bunch of fleshed-out characters and a starting situation (what Robert McKee would call an ‘Inciting Incident’), and see where it all goes. I’m not quite like that. I like to have an end goal in mind, but it definitely works better when I let the characters get me there, rather than railroad them towards their destiny. Of course, that means surrendering some control.

Letting the life that you have created exercise free will is hard work, and riskier than the alternative, but it creates a richer story and leads to a greater reward.

James’s Blog: Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 5 of 4

James’s Blog:  Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 5 of 4

Flannery O’Connor

“She had never given much thought to the devil for she felt that religion was essentially for those people who didn’t have the brains to avoid evil without it. For people like herself, for people of gumption, it was a social occasion providing the opportunity to sing; but if she had ever given it much thought, she would have considered the devil the head of it and God the hanger-on. With the coming of these displaced people, she was obliged to give new thought to a good many things.”

The Displaced Person, Flannery O’Connor

I won’t be surprised if many of you are asking, “Who is Flannery O’Connor, and is that his real name?” Well, she was an American author. She died of Lupus in 1964, aged a mere 39, yet is regarded as one of the most influential writers to ever come out of the American South.

Her stories are invariably set in that particular region of the United States, and she was quite willing to tackle sensitive themes in an insensitive time – notably racism.  However, what was quite noticeable to me about her writing was that she clearly had a deep understanding of human nature.  As grotesque as some of her characters are, they are not only believable, but also relatable.  That’s some achievement.

The thing about her that I’ve found particularly inspiring is this: Many of her stories contain explicit Christian themes, written about subtly but powerfully. She wrote about a world that, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, is ‘charged with the grandeur of God’. She writes about grace and redemption and the fact that, in her own words, “grace changes us and the change is painful.”

I think it’s clear from her writing that she was dissatisfied with the particular brand of fundamentalist Protestantism she encountered in the Deep South, obviously seeing too little of the grace of Christ and too much godless moralism, perhaps epitomised in stories like The River and The Displaced Person (which, whether she meant it or not, is almost a parable of the gospel itself).  That is to be expected, as she was a devout Roman Catholic, which no doubt put her in a minority amongst the people she grew up with.

I’ve been making my way through her Complete Stories, and although the first few are a bit of a slog, everything from Enoch and the Gorilla onwards has been, so far, fantastic.

I suppose that I admire her refusal to be bullied, neither by her heritage nor by that culture of Western fiction which is much happier when God is either non-existent or the villain of the piece. She is, I think, more proof that the world actually finds something irresistible about the gospel, and will happily sit and listen to someone who communicates it with skill.  She is one of those writers whose work both inspires me and makes me feel inadequate.  She was dead by my age, so I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

James’s Blog: Getting their Attention.

James’s Blog:  Getting their Attention.

An actor and a preacher were discussing their work.

What I don’t understand,” said the preacher, “is why my congregation will come to one of your performances and sit for hours, engaged and alert the whole time, while I can hardly get them to stay awake during one of my twenty minute sermons.”

Maybe,” said the actor, “it’s because I present fiction as though it were the truth, and you present the truth as though it were fiction.” Read more

James’s Blog: For Sale.

James’s Blog:  For Sale.

I’ve written briefly about the concept of Christian horror in my blog on Charles Williams and I’ve also mentioned my dalliance with Microfiction.  The two intersect on a website that I occasionally contributed to – MicroHorror.

MicroHorror is now no longer live, and I hadn’t written anything for it in nearly four years, but buried on there is my one attempt to communicate something meaningful through horror.  It’s a mere 200 words, and it’s called ‘For Sale’.

Come… on… MOVE… you… son… of… a…

Muscles bulged but the jar lid remained unrepentant. This was getting embarrassing. It had seemed like such a good idea at the time, such a simple idea. Offer to open the new jar for the girl in the kitchen. Impress the girl of his dreams. She didn’t look impressed right now. She looked bored.

I… can’t… believe… this… is… happening…

Still no movement. Not even a fraction of a fraction. The girl had stopped looking bored and was now beginning to look faintly amused. He didn’t know which was worse.

She’s… laughing… at… me… please… open… please… I’ll… do… anything…

Suddenly a hissing, slithering voice whispered in the silence, in the deepest backdrop of his mind.

“Anything?”

***
In the darkness of the under realm, the two demons put the finishing touches to the contract.

“…for the ability to open a jar of sun-dried tomatoes? Really?”

The first demon sounded shocked and a little disgusted. The second demon nodded dolefully.

“There’s no challenge these days. It’s just not fun anymore,” he moaned. The first demon finished the document with a flourish of his pen, and slowly shook his head.

“You know what I reckon? I reckon those humans have stopped taking their souls seriously.”

James’s Blog: Tolstoy’s Greedy Farmer.

James’s Blog:  Tolstoy’s Greedy Farmer.

There’s a story by Leo Tolstoy about a peasant farmer who had done well in life, but wanted more. One day someone made him an offer. For 1000 Roubles the farmer could have as much land as he wanted, provided that he was able to walk around it in a day. The only condition of the deal was that he must be back where he started from by the time that the sun set.

Of course, he set out early the next morning moving as quickly as he could. At midday he decided that he would keep walking, and simply make sure that he moved faster on his return journey. By mid afternoon he had walked a great distance, but he realised that he would lose it all if he didn’t get back and that he hadn’t left himself much time. He retraced his steps, running and running, trying to return to the starting line before the sun went down.

Just as the sun was beginning to dip below the horizon he came within sight of where he had started, so he pushed himself for the final few minutes, despite his complaining body. He staggered across the line, just as the sun set, and then promptly collapsed and died of exhaustion.

His servants dug him a grave, about six feet long by three feet wide. Tolstoy called his story ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’

James’s Blog: Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 4 of 4

James’s Blog:  Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 4 of 4

Charles Williams.

Poor old Charles Williams. An amazingly talented scholar, poet and writer, and he gets no love just because he happened to be a lesser-known member of the Inklings and an Oxford contemporary of glory hogs C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

I certainly hadn’t heard of him myself, not until I moved to Australia and he was mentioned by a chap called Les Follent. Les talked about a series of, what he called, ‘Christian Horror’ novels that Williams had written. Well, my ears pricked up because the closest I had come to that genre was the Left Behind series, which I found horrific for all the wrong reasons. A few years later, when looking for a book to read, I got hold of the first of the six novels that he had written, War in Heaven.

Williams himself described the books as ‘Spiritual Shockers’, and they would probably be classified today as ‘Supernatural Thrillers’, though because they were written in the 1930s and 40s by an Oxford lecturer today’s modern, desensitized natures may be tempted to turn their collective noses up at his work.

To be honest, his stories are best described as ‘a mixed bag’, but when he’s good then he’s very good. There are some brilliant high-concept plot ideas here. War in Heaven is about a rural parish priest who discovers that an old communion chalice that has been gathering dust in a cupboard in his church is actually the Holy Grail, and that a secretive practitioner of black magic is on its trail. That’s an idea that’s just waiting to be ruined by Hollywood. The Greater Trumps is about what happens when a selfish, manipulative Romany fortune-teller gets his hands on the original Tarot deck. The Place of the Lion is about what happens when a cult summons Platonic Forms into existence that begin draining reality from our world. That last one might sound a bit confusing, but if you have a basic grounding in philosophy then you might be thinking, “That sounds like the plot for the best film EVAR!!!”.

Despite the sinister subject matter, each one is grounded in the assumption that God, and the cross, are the ultimate reality. Indeed, there’s so much wisdom in the message of each book that you know that you are in the presence of a master. Williams avoids the gore and perversity-for-perversity’s-sake that characterizes much of the genre these days, and injects subtle horror into his work. I remember reading a Stephen King comment about how the most terrifying horror is when the writer manages to twist the everyday aspects of life into something else; to turn the mundane into the malevolent. Williams manages this by capturing how our eternal character depends on those tiny daily decisions that we make; how tiny seeds of hate can eventually kill us; how little strands of lust or jealousy can grind down our souls until we cease to be human. Beware those mundane, everyday things! Indeed, Descent into Hell contains the finest temptation scene I have ever encountered, and demonstrates perfectly how our essence can hinge on the smallest of nails. This is the kind of truth that should chill and unsettle our modern, desensitized natures.

Williams has influenced me by showing that it can be possible to write intelligent Christian literature in all genres, and that it can be done in such a way that it can cross over into the mainstream. The truth speaks to everyone.  If I ever attempt anything that approaches a ‘Supernatural Thriller’ then I guarantee you that it will be done with Charles Williams in mind.

James’s Blog: Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 3 of 4

James’s Blog:  Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 3 of 4

Fred Craddock.

I’m cheating a little bit here. Fred Craddock has influenced me not so much by what he has written, but rather by the way that he has said what he has said.

I hadn’t heard of the diminutive American pastor until my preaching classes at Spurgeon’s college, where we were exposed to one of his uniquely crafted sermons. For me, it was love at first sight…well, at first hearing anyway. He was, beyond doubt, one of the greatest preachers of the twentieth century, and many of you have probably never even heard of him.

There’s a collection of his sermons (The Cherry Log Sermons), the style of which I slavishly attempted to emulate for my long-suffering congregation during my later years at Hayward’s Heath, but it’s the volume Craddock Stories that has shaped my own writing. The book is a collection of stories that Fred used in some of his sermons over the years, and they’re fantastic. Not just the stories, but the way that they are told and the truth that is drawn from them. Fantastic. He tells countless anecdotes from his rich life, but if he ever lacked a suitable story he would just make one up. I don’t mean “Did I ever tell you about the time I had dinner with the Archbishop of Canterbury…” made-up, I mean a skilfully constructed parable of the imagination made-up . Let me give you an example:

I remember one night, sitting in a little rural church on a Sunday night. It was a summer meeting, so it was hot, and the window was open beside my pew. The minister was preaching on his favourite text, “Be not the first by whom the new is tried, because a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and it’s better to be safe than sorry, because fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

I was listening to him drone away when a man came by the church building and stopped by the window and said, “Psst, psst.”

I said, “What is it? I’m listening to the sermon.”
He said, “Come with me.”
I said, “Where are you going?”
He said, “I know where there is a pearl of great price that’s more valuable than all the other pearls in the world.”
I said, “There’s no such thing.”
He said, “In fact, where I’m going, there is treasure buried in a field.”
I said, “You’re kidding!”
He said, “Where I’m going, bums are invited to sit down at the king’s table.”
I said, “That’s ridiculous.”
He said, “In fact, they give great big parties for prodigals who come home.”
I said, “That’s stupid.”

Well, I listened to the rest of the sermon and after it was over, I told the preacher about how I was disturbed and that I hoped it didn’t upset him during the sermon.

He said, “Who was that?”
I said, “I don’t know. Telling me all this fancy stuff.”
He said, “Well, was he getting anybody?”
And I said, “Well, none of our crowd went, but I noticed he had about twelve with him.”

I had never heard anything like this before, at least not in a sermon, and therein lies Craddock’s influence on me. Stories make good sermons all by themselves but imaginative stories make powerful sermons. Let us try harder than to just pull out the same tired old illustrations that have been doing the preaching rounds since year one. Let us let our imaginations run rampant. Why should the devil have all the good flights of fancy?

Of the four writers that I am mentioning in this blog series, Craddock has had the most blatant impact on The Listening Book. There would probably be no book if it weren’t for him. It contains more than one tale where I am self-consciously trying to ape his style of storytelling. Hopefully you won’t be able to spot them! I’m finding my own voice now, but I don’t want to ever forget the influence that Fred Craddock had on me.