Pretending to Be Moses: Why Writing Biblical Fiction is Hard

Who am I to take on the voice of Moses, or Joseph, or Joshua, or other people whose stories are told in the Bible?

That question was foremost in my mind when I was asked to write six chapters for an innovative small group curriculum series that brings to life significant figures from the Bible by telling their stories through a combination of historical fiction, biblical commentary, study questions, and audio and video segments.

The series, which is called Named, is divided into four six-week studies: The Patriarchs, The Unnamed, The Disciples and The Women. I was assigned to write chapters for Moses, Joseph, Joshua, Andrew, the Gadarene Demoniac, and the Man Born Blind.

Although I have written four novels, I had never written biblical fiction and had never given much thought to some challenges of that genre:

• The Bible gives stories of these people in a compact, efficient way that leaves out many details. Even with a major figure like Moses, only a few highlights of his life are given, with entire decades left out. For the more obscure biblical figures, such as the Man Born Blind, even fewer details are given, including his name.  As a Christian I believe these people in the Bible are not just stories someone made up, but they were real people. How could I bring these people to life but also be true to Scripture? I had to add details of plot, dialogue, motivation, setting and so on. I faced the challenge of making the stories engaging but also keeping them true not only to the history of the period but also to the spiritual message of the story.

• I had a limit of about 1,500 words for each story. For major figures like Joshua or Moses, that meant I could present only one scene out of many presented in the Bible. How could I choose the one that best captured essence of who each person was?

My approach was to carefully research the various figures through their biblical accounts, commentaries, and books about the historical periods. After that, the stories emerged pretty much the way my novels emerge: I began to see the scenes play out in my head, like little movie clips. As I read about these men, they came to life for me. As I wrote, and even as I went about my daily life, the movies in my head became more and more vivid, until I was able to live the story and “hear” the voice of the person telling it.

I wrote far beyond the word limit for every person, and then I had to relentlessly cut until I got at least close to the proper word count. It was a true privilege to be allowed to delve into the lives of these men and tell their stories. Small groups are now using this material as a way to study Scripture. More information about this series is available at www.iamnamed.com.

Here is an excerpt from one of my stories, “The Man Born Blind”:

The Man Born Blind

I had heard rumors about Jesus, none of them good. I heard the authorities almost stoned him for blasphemy, but he slipped away. He was dangerous. He was espousing all kinds of radical ideas. Some even claimed he was of the devil.

Even before I met him, I was skeptical of those malicious stories. I was more inclined toward the rumors that people had the courage only to whisper, like maybe he was a prophet, maybe even the Messiah. He did miracles, healing people and freeing people from demons. As a blind man, I was attentive to anything that even hinted at healing. Nothing I had ever tried had worked, but I still fantasized what it must be like to see.

Most of the Pharisees and other Jewish authorities didn’t like Jesus, and all but the bravest people were afraid to cross those powerful men and give Jesus a chance. I didn’t like the Pharisees, and they certainly had no use for me, a man blind from birth, which to them meant only one thing: I was steeped in sin. So be it. I stayed away from them, and I stayed away from Jesus. If any of them wanted to give me a few coins, I would be grateful. Otherwise, they were not my problem.

Then came the day when I could no longer avoid Jesus or the Pharisees. As I sat begging in my usual filthy spot by a wall along a busy road close to the temple, Jesus walked right up to me. I don’t know why he stopped and focused on me. Most people ignored me. And Jesus certainly had plenty of other things vying for his attention. I heard a big crowd pushing in all around him. I expected the whole big group to pass me by pretty quickly. I hoped only for a coin or two from some of them.

Instead, Jesus stopped, and so did everybody else. I didn’t welcome the attention. When any powerful person paid attention to me, it usually meant trouble. They usually yelled at me to get out of the way or move along to a different spot.

Jesus didn’t say anything at first, but then one of his disciples, who was probably also confused about why they had suddenly stopped to stare at a blind man, asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

That seemed like rather a rude question, considering that I was sitting right there, but it was nothing compared to other things people sometimes said. They often talked about me as if I weren’t there, as if being blind meant I must be deaf, or at least not very bright.

I expected Jesus to agree with their idea about sin causing my blindness. I’ve been hearing that all my life. Instead, he gave an answer that I loved. He said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

Ha! I wanted to shout. Finally, somebody not blaming me for being blind. I was ready to stand up and cheer him right then! Everybody was talking over everybody else in response to what he said, so nobody bothered to ask me what I thought. And honestly, in my own mind I couldn’t get past “neither this man nor his parents sinned.” I had no idea what he meant by my blindness happening so that the work of God could be displayed or the part about his being the light of the world.

Before I could think through any of that, he leaned down right in front of me. He spat in the dirt right there by the road and made little globs of mud out of it. Then he reached up and spread it over my eyes. Did he really mean to heal me? Did he have the power?

I hoped that his next words would be, “Now open your eyes and see,” but instead he told me…

The rest of this story is contained in the book, The Unnamed, one of four books in the Named series, available at www.iamnamed.com.

Poetry and Conversation with Katie Manning

Most poets are thrilled when one of their books of poems is published, but Katie Manning, an outstanding poet who also teaches in the English Department at Azusa Pacific University, gets to experience that joy three times this year, as three of her chapbooks are being published by three different publishers. This success did not come easily. She has been sending out manuscripts for more than five years, so it is a happy coincidence that all three books are now coming out within months of each other. To celebrate these publications and to introduce readers to Katie Manning’s poetry, I am happy to interview her for the Life of the Mind and Soul.

1. Congratulations, Katie, on your poetry chapbooks that are being published this year. I have read some of your poems and have appreciated not only their depth, but also their warmth. I would like to start with The Gospel of the Bleeding Woman, published by Point Loma Press, through Wipf and Stock Publishers. This book follows the unnamed bleeding woman from three of the gospel accounts in the Bible. You give her a name and let her tell her own story. Why did you choose this particular story for your book?

Thank you for taking the time to read my poems, and thank you for your very kind words. I have been curious about the bleeding woman since I was a little girl. What was her name? Why was she bleeding? What was her life like when she was ritually unclean for 12 years? What was her life like after she was healed? Her story is so brief. It is really just a quick aside; in all three accounts, Jesus is on his way to heal a synagogue leader’s daughter. The bleeding woman interrupts Jesus. She reaches out and touches him when she shouldn’t, and she’s rewarded for having faith. The more I thought about her, the more I became fascinated by the idea that reaching out in a final act of desperation can be a demonstration of faith.

2. How challenging was it to enter into a woman’s story when so few details about her are given in the Bible? Did that lack of detail give you more freedom to shape the story the way you wanted to, or did it make your job as a poet more difficult?

Although it was initially difficult to imagine a life for this woman, I think the lack of detail ultimately gave me more creative freedom. I read commentaries of all sorts to give me a better grounding in the possibilities of her life, but then I set those things aside and wrote freely. Many commentaries talk about the bleeding woman as though she was elderly, but I enjoyed imagining her as a young woman who had begun bleeding in early adolescence and never stopped. This choice was partially because of the way Jesus calls her “daughter,” which has always sounded to me like she is younger and somewhat identified with the girl whom Jesus is traveling to see, and partially because I was writing this in my mid-twenties and felt closely connected to her. I also felt free to get very, very strange after her healing and let her travel outside of her original time and place.

3. Could you give us a sample poem from this book and tell us a little about it?

The final poem in this collection is one of my very favorites. (Is it okay to pick a favorite poem? Is that like picking a favorite child?) The bleeding woman, who I’ve named Nura (“light”), ends up eating lunch with Jesus at a café in present day New York City. While I was completing this chapbook, I read Quarantine, a disturbing and beautiful book of poetry by Brian Henry, and I echo a couple of his lines in the title and text of my poem.

Where Death Is Not an Is
          after Brian Henry

I met Jesus the next day
at the Life Café. “Call me
J now,” he said. “People
lock me up when I say

I am God.” He pulled
back his sleeves to show
the marks on his arms
from recent shots. I asked

what I could do. “Just lie
low,” he said between
bites of falafel. ”Dead
is the way the world wants

us. People hate to feel
alive.” We ate in silence
for a while. Then I asked,
“What happens to us?”

He wiped his young hands
and stood to leave. “We are
finished,” and kissed my cheek.
I put my hand on his arm

and told him the scars would be
beautiful when they healed.

 

4. Where can readers find this book?

The Gospel of the Bleeding Woman is now available on Amazon and through Wipf and Stock.

5. You also have two other books coming out this year. Tea with Ezra is published by Boneset Books and I Awake in My Womb is forthcoming from Yellow Flag Press. How can readers order these books?

I Awake in My Womb is available for pre-order from Yellow Flag Press. The first edition is due out in August, and the second edition will follow immediately.

Tea with Ezra was published in a limited edition by a brand new micro-press, and it was done with a hand-sewn binding. The book itself is a lovely piece of handmade art. It sold out in pre-order, but Boneset Books is planning to do a second edition in the future.

6. I love your poems about motherhood. Could you give us a sample from Awake in My Womb?

I’m glad you enjoy them! These poems are based directly on vivid dreams that I had
immediately before, during, and after pregnancy. They are some mix of funny, terrifying, and revealing; they give readers a surreal glimpse into the fear and wonder of impending motherhood. The following poem’s first line became the collection title.
The Outside In
I awake in my womb.
I’m cradling you
so gently, so
as not to break
your see-through skin.
You are half
head, half
body. Your eyes are sealed
shut, but through the cloudy dark
your heart blinks
visibly. I wonder
if it loves me yet.
I hold you close to my face
with both hands
(though you’re smaller than one)
and watch.
We breathe fluid together.
I press
my ear to your chest.
Your heart gallops away.

7. I am intrigued by the title of your book, Tea with Ezra. What does that title refer to? Could you share a poem from that book?

This chapbook contains poems that respond to familiar texts: fairy tales, biblical narratives, poems, songs, novels, etc. The title of the collection is taken from the final poem. Ezra Pound has a poem called “The Tea Shop,” in which he observes that a waitress is not as pretty as she used to be, and he repeats twice that “she also will turn middle-aged.” I felt immediately angry the first time I read this poem because of Pound’s objectification of the waitress. I like to express my anger through humor, so I wrote a parody of his poem. In my poem, I have tea with Ezra Pound, and I am critical of his appearance and his work. When he tells me that I’ll also turn middle-aged, I take my revenge.

Tea with Ezra

                  after Pound’s “The Tea Shop”

He told me that only he and Whitman
had gained immortality,
and he took a bite of his lemon pound cake.
I reminded him that he’d already been dead
thirty years. I tried not to stare through
his decaying jaw at the jostled pastry.
He looked me up and down and said,
“Yes, you also will turn middle-aged.”
I simply shut his book
and drank his tea when I’d finished mine.

 

8. Thank you for giving us a look at your poetry. If readers would like to find out more about you and your poetry, do you have a website or Facebook page they can follow?

I do have a website and an author page on Facebook.

Thanks for your interest in my poetry!

Why Bible Writers Would Have a Hard Time Finding a Publisher Today

It is often said that the Bible is the all-time bestselling book, but it achieved that status in a much earlier publishing era. What would happen if the Bible were submitted as a new book to a publisher today? I imagined how an editor trained in today’s publishing realities might respond to it:

Dear Writer:

I have read your manuscript that you are calling “The Bible,” and I wanted to offer you a little feedback before I inform you of our decision about whether to publish. I admit that I didn’t read all of it, and I frankly doubt that most of your readers would either. I mean, it’s looo-o-ong. Do you know the attention span of the average reader today? Will anyone have the patience for this book?

Not only is it long, but the subject matter is rather diffuse, to say the least. This book has poetry, history, biography, theology, prophecy, parables, hymns, proverbs, and probably a few other genres I’m forgetting. Doesn’t that seem a bit—overwhelming? Who is your audience?

Not to nitpick, but I also have a little trouble understanding your organizational structure. For instance, do you really want to put that hymn book right there in the middle? 150 songs? And those sections you call Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Aren’t those a little repetitive? Have you thought of just combining those into one?

I don’t mean to discourage you, but I wouldn’t be surprised if quite a few readers are offended by this book. It can be a little polarizing. It’s so violent, for one thing. Stonings, crucifixions, wars, a flood, a woman turned into a pillar of salt. For goodness sake, children may read this! And what about that story where the woman drives the tent peg through the man’s temple Continue reading