Tuesday, March 25, 2008

I have only...

My absence, either in total or in part, these last two weeks, stems from a combination of things that either must or do take precedence over this blog. The last week has been consumed by getting ready to teach a series in my adult Sunday School class (new style life groups). Titled "The Dynamic Duo: Lessons from the Lives of Elijah and Elisha", this is a class I developed myself, not ex nihilo, but sans a study guide. So, from the pages of 1 Kings and 2 Kings, I pulled together ten lessons, more or less chronological through the lives of these prophets. I could have had about 14 lessons, but decided ten was a good number, and so skipped the better known events and the very minor events. The work to get ready to teach, after the basic lesson series was outlined, was to 1) intensely study the scripture, including cross references where I could find some; 2) prepare a specific outline for the class; 3) prepare a handout for the class; 4) prepare my own teaching notes; and 5) go through it all well enough that I would barely have to refer to my teaching notes. I finished this for the first week on Saturday morning, and so was able to avoid the last minute rush that often happens with these things.

But to my main point: This week's lesson was about the widow at Zarephath, and how she responded to Elijah's requests, first that she give him some water, then that she give him some bread. She responded well to the first, at once leaving what she was doing to get the water. The second, however, gave her trouble, as she could not see how she could deny herself and her son their last meal and feed this foreigner, this prophet of a foreign God. So she focussed on what she had [I...have...only...a little]. She seemed not to think that feeding this foreigner man of God meant, from her limited perspective, the difference of one day in her life span--one day. By focussing on the little she had, she was not able to grasp the blessings of service or the blessings of God.

Fortunately for the widow, she believed Elijah's explanation, and did what he asked. And "the rest of the story" is well-known, for the little she had, though it remained little (for I doublt the jar and jug ever filled to overflowing), was sufficient to keep three people alive and allow God's timing for Israel to play out.

As I said in a previous post, there's a lesson in this for us.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Hard Work of Evil

[Sorry for my absence of late. As I said in my last post, work was particularly busy, but I have just passed that time. Plenty to do at home, but maybe I can be more regular in posting. But hey, this week I have "captured" three writing ideas, put them on paper, and put them in the notebook.]

On CNBC, Wednesday nights at 8:00 PM Central Time is a show American Greed. I don't know how long it's been running. I've seen three or four episode, each one about someone in the corporate/financial world who got ahead by cheating/milking their company, but who were eventually was taken down. Tonight was the CEO of Tyco, Kovlowski.

Last week was the founder/chairman of CyberNet Engineering Group, a Grand Rapids, MI company. I don't remember his name, though I might look it up and edit it in. He had earlier in his career embezzled money from his own companies or otherwise cheated investors out of much money. He dodged prison, plea-bargained down, moved to a new city and set up his evil shop again. He did this three times, ending up in Grand Rapids. There, he co-founded CEG, a value-added reseller of computing systems. In the 1990s the business was perfectly positioned to make money from the burgeoning computer market. What did he do? He set up a small legitimate business, and a huge fake business, complete with fake invoices for fake inventory for fake customers. The deception was an incredible web of deceit. Moreover, the deception must have taken just as much work as a legitimate business would. The work of doing evil was not less than the work of doing right, and might have been more. So why did he do it?

For now, evil pays more than doing right--most of the time. I believe doing right--i.e. doing good does pay well compared to doing evil, especially if you take a wall-to-wall view of costs and benefits. However, those who are evil have trouble seeing it. It appears the internal evil blinds them to the good, the right. They see the apparent huge payoff for doing evil, and they go there.

Somewhere there is a lesson in this for us.

Friday, March 14, 2008

To my loyal reader(s)

Sorry for my absence these few days. I've been extremely busy at work. A couple of projects in the city where I serve part time as city engineer have demanded much attention, taking more than half the day today.

My paper to be presented at a conference in Orlando FL in August is due on Monday, and I've been working evenings trying to complete that. I finished the basic paper last night, and will be editing it this weekend. The conference is StormCon08, and the title of my paper is "A Water and Wastewater Engineer Retools for Storm Water".

Then, this coming Tuesday, March 18, I will take part as one of three trainers in a Lorman training in nearby Springdale, Arkansas. The other two on the panel are attorneys. The subject of the seminar is "What to do when construction projects go bad". I think it it tailor-made for me.

I will return as soon as I can, possibly this weekend for a post, but not too much before next Wednesday.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Disagreeing with the Scholars, Part 2

Well, after having upset all the scholars yesterday (see how many made negative posts in response?), here I am with part 2.

Continuing in Bart D. Ehrman's The New Testament, I want to look at Jesus' return to Nazareth during his adult ministry. In the Gospel of Mark, this occurs in Chapter 6, after the woman with bleeding is healed and before the sending of the Twelve and the death of John the Baptist. In Matthew, this occurs in Chapter 13, long after the woman is healed of bleeding but before John the Baptist is beheaded. John doesn't cover this. Luke describes a trip Jesus made to Nazareth in Chapter 4, long before the woman with bleeding is healed and the Twelve are sent out. I've thought long and hard about this discrepancy, and come up with a conclusion. But first, let's see what Ehrman has to say about it.

"For Luke, the message of God's salvation comes first to the Jews...Luke's Gospel...is oriented toward showing how this salvation comes largely to be rejected in the city of God by the people of God, the Jews themselves...[and] leads to its dissemination elsewhere...among the non-Jews, the Gentiles. In Luke, Jesus' ministry begins with a sermon in the synagogue that infuriates his fellow Jews, who then make an attempt on his life...In order to begin Jesus' ministry in this way, Luke narrates a story that does not occur until nearly halfway through both Mark's and Matthew's account of the ministry.... This is the famous narrative narrative of Jesus' sermon in his hometown of Nazareth, a story that is much longer and more detailed in Luke than in the other Gospels and that, as the opening account, set the stage for Luke's overall portrayal of Jesus..."

So according to Ehrman, Luke changed the story from what Mark and Matthew said in order to make his point about Jesus' ministry.

Does anyone besides me see something wrong with this? If Ehrman is correct, and Luke is changing stories to suit his purpose, then his whole gospel is called into question. We can't believe anything he tells us, because he is not revealing history; he is just making points according to what he wants us to believe. And if we can't believe him, we surely don't have to listen to him.

But I see another possibility, one not even mentioned by the scholar, or by any other scholarly work that covers this. The simple explanation is Jesus made two trips to Nazareth. The first is documented in Luke, and the second is documented in Mark and Matthew. The activities that took place, and the general tenor of the accounts are so different it seems somewhat obvious these are two separate visits. If I, as a layman who has no formal training in the scriptures (except what I've picked up from sermons and my own intense readings), can figure this out, why can't they? It's so obvious.

Why can't they? They don't want to. If they did, they might have to believe the gospels and respond to their message, instead of tearing them apart.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Disagreeing with the Scholars

I just lost a long post, once again technologically challenged. All I was doing was copying text to save it to the clipboard to prevent losing it, and in that process I deleted it all. Madness, madness, all technology is madness. I'll try again, but don't know if I have the strength and time.
You know you're in trouble, as a layman, when the books you are reading have heavy doses of words like docetism, ascetecism, gnosticism, redaction, etc. Recently I have been reading various scholarly books about the formation of the New Testament. I began doing this about three years ago as research for my book Doctor Luke's Assistant. And, it proof of Frost's contention that "way leads on to way," I've gone way beyond that to looking at other books of the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers, thinking of sequel upon sequel. But I digress.

As I read these scholarly works, I can't get away from the feeling that the purpose of these scholars is to denigrate the New Testament and, by extension, Christianity. It seems like the scholarship is done with an end in mind, to prove something harmful to the acceptance of the book. For example, these scholars seem determined to prove that certain books could not have been written by the apostles to whom they were attributed. Why is that important? Because as the canon of the New Testament was being agreed to over a period of a few centuries, one criteria was that the books in the canon had to be written by an apostle or by one who knew Jesus or by one like Paul, to whom God spoke directly in the era of the apostles. So, if the scholars can prove the apostles didn't write the books attributed to them, they prove the canon was criteria was not adhered to, the canon is thus flawed, the New Testament is flawed, and the foundation of Christianity is brought down a couple of notches. To me, the scholarship seems structured toward that specific conclusion, either purposely or as part of a mob mentality, a conclusion that will not help Christianity. I say this realizing I don't have the credentials, have not read all the manuscript fragments, have not read many of the attestations of the early church writers. Possibly I'm discerning this in my spirit, or possibly it's pseudo scholarship on my part. Nevertheless, this is my impression, so I'll write about it. This will take me several posts to get through and, hopefully, make my point.

Case in point: The book I have at hand is The New Testament by Bart D. Ehrman, a professor at the University of North Carolina. Oops, if he's a professor, I probably should call him Doctor Ehrman--although nowhere in the book is he called Doctor, so maybe not. Ehrman seems determined to bring down the New Testament. An example is how he treats Jesus' use of "Son of Man". Ehrman would ask, when Jesus said, "And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven," to whom was he referring? Here's a quote from the book.

"It appears that Jesus expected the kingdom to be brought by one whom he called the Son of Man. Scholars have engaged in long and acrimonious debates about how to understand this designation. Is it a title for a figure that Jews would generally understand...? Is it a general description of "a human-like being"? Is it a self-reference, a circumlocution for the pronoun "I"? Moreover, did Jesus actually use the term? Or did the Christians come up with it and attribute it to Jesus? If Jesus did use it, did he actually refer to himself as the Son of Man?"

I'm sorry the debate of the scholars has been so long and acrimonious. The laymen haven't had any problem understanding that Jesus was talking about himself.

This is just an example. I have at least two others in mind to discuss. I'll use Ehrman's book, and perhaps a library book if I can get to the post before it's due. I'll probably make the scholars angry, but since they are not likely to be flocking to this blog, I don't really care.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Capturing the Idea

Over at the Absolute Write Water Cooler, my current Internet writing hangout, a recent threadbrought up the subject of documenting ideas. As I wrote previously, Carlyle didn’t worry about capturing the many ideas that went march-marching through his head. Maybe his writing list was enough to last a lifetime without trying to capture those stray thoughts.

I have to capture them, however. How do I know but that a stray idea will be the one that gives me a magazine article writing credit? Or that possibly one might be a better novel or non-fiction book than the one I’m currently working on? That happened to me recently. I’d been working mostly on getting ready to market Documenting America, and writing for this blog, when an idea for a non-fiction book hit me. This idea was strong enough that no documentation was required. After a week, I discussed it with my wife and she encouraged me to write it. So all other writing projects are dropped, save for the sporadic posting to this blog, so as to get four chapters, a table of content, and a proposal done before the May conference. I’ve completed the four chapters in first draft, and will tonight begin the editing process. I’ve begun working on the proposal, but only barely. The TOC will come in due course during the proposal.

Monday night another non-fiction book idea came to me, I think it was as I was driving home. The idea was in response to something someone said on a news or talk program. An idea for a book loosely related to that came to my mind. By the time I was home, the idea was gone, lost behind a nuked baked potato and veggies. Yesterday it came back, so I decided I’d better do something with it. I took a sheet of re-use paper and wrote a single line: a proposed book title. Tonight I’ll take a few minutes to hand-write a short paragraph, discussing what the book will be about, and will stick it in my newly created Writing Ideas notebook. When will I get to this idea for actually developing an outline, and maybe writing it? I don’t know. It will take some research to write, for it’s something I have strong opinions on but am not familiar with historical details that I’ll need. So this might not be any time soon. But who knows? Maybe my current non-fiction book will sell in May. If so, a follow-up book might be needed at some point. This one doesn’t follow that one in subject matter; the following is only that they are both non-fiction. But, since non-fiction outsells fiction something like 8 to 1, perhaps that is the way to go.

Then again, it might be years before I get to this idea—or never. I might get into the research and realize it was a stupid idea (the word “stupid” is in the title), and not worthy of a book. Maybe it’s just magazine article length, not book length. Or maybe the idea is valid, but I have many better ideas to pursue. Or maybe my fiction takes off, and I abandon non-fiction for a long time.

Whatever, for once I have correctly documented the idea, in a three stage process (or, if you want to say “remembering” the idea was a step, then it’s a four stage process). Either way, I feel I’ve come a long way.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Critique Between Friends

Just one more post from The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 2, before I move on to other things.

These two giants of literature, unkown to the general public in the 21st century (though Emerson has a following in American acedemia), regularly sent writings to the other, for reading and criticism. This wasn't for critique, since these were published items. Emerson took over as publisher and editor of The Dial magazine, and sent each issue to him. Carlyle had some interesting thoughts about it:

"I love your Dial, and yet it is with a kind of shudder. You seem to me to be in danger of dividing yourselves from the Fact of this present Universe, in which alone, ugly as it is, can I find any anchorage, and soaring away after Ideas, Beliefs, Revelations, and such like,--into perilous altitudes, as I think; beyond the curve of perpetual frost, for one thing! I know not how to utter what impression you give me; take the above as some stamping of the fore-hoof. Surely I could wish you returned into your own poor nineteenth century."

Well, that is heavy criticism, to say a good friend has his head so far in the clouds that his writing, and the publication he edits, lacks grounding in the current times. I've been active on some Internet writing boards where this type of criticism would cause a massive flame war. That is harsh criticism. How did Emerson respond?

"For the Dial and its sins, I have no defence to set up. We write as we can, and we know very little about it. If the direction of these speculations is to be deplored, it is yet a fact for literary history, that all the bright boys and girls in New England, quite ignorant of each other, take the world so, and come and make confession to father and mothers,--the boys that they do not wish to go into trade, the girls that they do not like morning calls and evening parties. They are all religious, but hate the churches; they reject all the ways of living of other men, but have none to offer in their stead. Perhaps, one of these days, a great Yankee shall come, who will easily do the unknown deed."

Most interesting. Emerson acknowledges the criticism, seems to be somewhat in agreement with it, and then says he doesn't care. They will go on writing as they do, for the writing is better than other activities they could do. If they are unconnected with the current age, so be it. Again, on some Internet writing boards, this rejection of criticism would be a call to fightin'.

But Emerson and Carlyle remained friends, and continued to write each other for thirty more years, seeing each other on two visits Emerson made to England. That is a kind of relationship I would like to have: to be able to be honest about another's writing (and to be open to their honest criticism), to accept or reject it as best suits the author's intentions for the piece, and to be friends for decades hence.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Flight of the Unwinged, Part 2: The Misuse of Poetry

Continuing from where I left off yesterday (and, for those who may have read that post before, as soon as I finish this post I'm going to edit something in there), I want to think about Carlyle's comments as it relates to creative writing, especially poetry. Here is the essence of what Carlyle wrote.

- "Poetry" is a most suspicious affair for me at present!
- as if, when the lines had a jingle in them, a Nothing could be Something, and the point were gained!
- Let a man try to the very uttermost to speak what he means, before singing is had recourse to.
- "No, we cannot stand, or walk, or do any good whatever there; by God's blessing, we will fly...."

By jingle I believe Carlyle refers to rhyme and meter. By "speak" and "singing" I believe he refers to the difference between prose and verse/poetry. Many people prefer to distinguish verse from poetry, with poetry being the greater writing. I've never done that, for to my way of thinking this is just bad/fair poetry and good/great poetry. It would seem to be semantics. I think Carlyle, by using the word "jingle", means bad poetry, or verse. He is saying too many people who write poetry are writing bad poetry, with rhyme and meter (making it like a jingle) being the dominant or only devices to distinguish it from prose. Prose is the equivalent of speaking; [good/great] poetry in contrast is singing. But so many poets try singing before they can speak, try flying before they can stand, walk, or do any good whatever.

Poetry is the most difficult type of creative writing, its demands for excellence far exceeding those of prose. Yet so many people write poetry because they think it is easier. In cummings-esque style, they think ignoring punctuation, ignoring grammar, seemingling breaking lines at random, and not making sense is what poetry is made of.

Carlyle would disagree; I would too. Of course, I've been convince that more bad poetry is being written these days than ever before (some of it by me), but maybe that's not the case. Carlyle seems to think most of what he saw was bad. Maybe it's just easier to find it now. And maybe most of that slush-thaw poetry from the 1840s has simply disappeared, as much of what is written today will not be found 170 years from now.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Flight of the Unwinged

I'm still finding nuggets to write about in The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson Volume 2. Today the excerpt comes from a letter by Carlyle, on 17 November 1843. The text is somewhat difficult to understand; I had to read it several times. Here's a somewhat lengthy quote from it.

But at bottom "Poetry" is a most suspicious affair for me at present! You cannot fancy the oceans of Twaddle that human Creatures emit upon me, in these times; as if, when the lines had a jingle in them, a Nothing could be Something, and the point were gained! It is becoming a horror to me,--as all speech without meaning more and more is. ...Let a man try to the very uttermost to speak what he means, before singing is had recourse to. Singing, in our curt English speech, contrived expressly and almost exclusively for "despatch of business," is terribly difficult. ...If Channing will persist in melting such obdurate speech into music he shall have my true wishes,--my augury that it will take an enormous heat from him! Another...sends me a Progress-of-the-Species Periodical from New York. Ach Gott! These people and their affairs seem all "melting" rapidly enough, into thaw-slush or one knows not what. Considerable madness is visible in them...they say, "we cannot stand, or walk, or do any good whatever there; by God's blessing, we will fly,--will not you?...And their flight, is as the flight of the unwinged,--of oxen endeavoring to fly with the "wings" of an ox!...I am terribly sick of that."

I read this four or five times before it made sense to me. A little context will help. Emerson had sent Carlyle a book of poems by W.E. Channing, with a recommendation. Specifically, Emerson wrote, "Lately went Henry James to you....He carried a volume of poems from my friend and nearest neighbor, W. Ellery Channing, whereof give me, I pray you, the best opinion you can. I am determined he shall be a poet, and you must find him such." Carlyle was not much for poetry, and yet he was bombarded by friends and others sending him things to read. What he saw of poetry tended to distress him. All of it was pretty much worthless in his mind--twaddle and thaw-slush, as he described in this letter. He says it seems that people think, just because the lines rhyme, Something can be made of Nothing. But Carlyle says the words must stand on their own, without the rhymes to prop them us.

Carlyle also seems to say that poetry is often mis-used, the equivalent of conducting business in song. Speak before you can sing, says Carlyle; write strong prose before you try poetry.

I am not really finished with this, but have run out of time. I'll come back tomorrow and either edit this or make another post on the same topic.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Saved from Chaos

In the Thomas Carlyle quote I wrote about yesterday, he said that the ideas, once snatched from the ragged rank and dressed and drilled a little might have been saved from chaos. I love this expression, saved from chaos. I suspect, however, that the word use now is different than what Carlyle intended. I think of chaos as disorganization, things totally disconnected from each other, without any kind of order. That seems somewhat strong for what Carlyle was talking about.

Chaos describes my work areas. I have never been a neat person. My cubicle at work is a mess, and seems to be getting worse as the years go by. My writing desk in The Dungeon (as we call our downstairs computer room) is about as bad as my space at work, with piles of papers and stacks of folders and mounds of paid bills, all waiting, not to be snatched from a ragged rank, but rather to be put into a rank of any kind. Every so often I get a slight handle on things, then a couple or three days go by, and I look up and find a bigger mess than I had before. Part of it is never putting something away after it is taken off a shelf for a few minutes of reading or research. Part of it is difficulty getting to the unpleasant task of filing. Part of it is having things that seem more productive--until the piles become unmentionable.

Thursday night, spurred on by this thread at the Absolute Write forums, I established a Writing Ideas notebook. I planned how things are going to be filed in this notebook, and created a couple of dividers. A few pages have already been filed, and when I find the other twenty or so scattered between the house and the office and my portfolio, I will have a place to put them. At that time I will consider them already saved from chaos, though obviously dressing and drilling are still needed.

In other fits of organizational inspiration, I did the following in February:
1. I printed out a writing diary sheet, and actually filled it in for most days. I see it on the table next to me, with its last entry dated 26 Feb, so I have some work to do tonight.
2. Created a Correspondence/Miscellanies notebook for 2008. I have correspondence notebooks for pairs of earlier years, but none for this year. Now, when I send a letter or e-mail, or write a blog post or essay--something short, I have a place to immediately file them.
3. Having that notebook ready, I organized all my correspondence for February, and many of my miscellanies. I was amazed to see how many letters I had written, even with not including some of the minor ones. I was even more surprised to see how the miscellanies added up, again leaving out some of the inconsequential ones.

Thomas, thank you for your words, written 166 years ago; they have helped me immensely.