Genius: It’s More Complicated than That

I loved watching Genius, the new film about the relationship between novelist Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) and his legendary editor Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth). At the same time, I wasn’t completely satisfied with it.

I admit that this lack of satisfaction may not be entirely the fault of the movie itself. I am a Thomas Wolfe fan and scholar and have loved his work for almost 30 years, so it’s possible that nothing less than about a 9-hour movie would have been enough to satisfy me.

Perhaps my overall reaction to the film can best be summed up by a comment I kept making to my wife as she and I sat in a coffee shop right after the movie and discussed our responses. She has not read Wolfe or A. Scott Berg’s book on which this movie is based, so as she mentioned scenes that stood out to her and asked if that’s what really happened, I kept saying, “Well, yes, but it was more complicated than that.”

Any film on this subject would have to oversimplify some things, of course. Perkins became one of the greatest editors of 20th century American literature, as he helped establish not only Wolfe’s career but also that of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and others. He was a complex figure, as Berg’s book, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, brilliantly shows. Wolfe was equally complex, and the relationship between him and his editor, both when it was working well and when it was crumbling, is hard to capture in any movie of a couple of hours. Throw in other elements such as Wolfe’s tempestuous affair with his lover Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), and Perkins’ relationships with his wife and daughters, and you have enough material for a min-series rather than a movie.

Still, even though as I watched it I kept thinking, “Wait, slow down, there’s more to show about that incident,” I still enjoyed the movie overall and strongly recommend it. Here are a few moments that stand out:

• The opening 10 minutes alone made are worth the price of the whole movie for me. An editor plops the huge manuscript of Wolfe’s O Lost (which would eventually become Look Homeward, Angel) onto Perkins’ desk and asks him to read it. Perkins promises to give it a quick look, but in the following minutes, as we hear voice-over passages from the book, Perkins is mesmerized by the novel over the next few days as he rides the train, ignores the greetings of his family at home, or sits at his desk and combs through page after page. The beauty of the writing itself is what Perkins was masterful at recognizing, and this scene captures it.

• Colin Firth gives the best performance in the film. He embodies Perkins’ reserved but in-control personality that served him so well as an editor and that comes through so forcefully in Berg’s book. Perkins was able to modulate his responses to the needs of the very different personalities of his authors. He did not participate in the foibles of those men, but he didn’t turn away from them because of those flaws either. He was the true father-figure, strong and steady.

• Even though some of the factual details of how Wolfe and Perkins worked together on Of Time and the River are altered, the film brings to life the creative collaboration of these two men as they spend hours arguing and editing and wrestling the manuscript into shape.

• Even some of the small moments make the film memorable—stacks of Look Homeward, Angel appearing in the bookstore window at the novel’s release, Perkins reading the book to his daughter when she misses Tom, the moving reading of Wolfe’s final letter to Perkins (even though some details of its composition and delivery are altered).

For many of us who love Wolfe’s writing, our hope has been that this film would bring Wolfe the renewed attention we think his work deserves. We hope readers will want to go out and read one of his novels. I believe this movie may have that effect. As the film ended, I heard a woman behind us tell her friend she hadn’t read any of Wolfe’s novels, but she sounded as if she wanted to. I hope she does. I was ready to go home and read one of them again myself.

The Need for Factual Fiction

Editor’s Note: Last week I wrote a blog post that touched on the relationship between fact and fiction in Sony’s controversial film, The Interview and in another film from 75 years ago, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. This week I am honored to present this guest post by Alton Gansky, an accomplished author of more than 40 books and the director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. Gansky also examines the relationship between fact and fiction, this time in the classic movie, Inherit the Wind. I think you will enjoy his perspective. 

By Alton Gansky

In January of 2015, Baker Books will release my latest nonfiction work, 30 Events That Shaped the Church. It comes on the heels of the 2014 release, 60 People Who Shaped the Church. Some are surprised to learn that I write book-length nonfiction. True most of my books are novels but I also enjoy and see great value in producing nonfiction books as well.

While preparing 30 Events I went through a long list of possible topics. In the end, one chapter caught my attention and so infiltrated my mind that I’m still researching it long after I turned the manuscript in. As I worked through the centuries I came upon a week long event that most of us have heard of but few of us know much about: The Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925. When I research I try to keep my mind free of bias, which is a difficult thing to do. Still, I thought I knew a fair amount about the “Trial of the Century.” I didn’t.

Part of my preparation was to watch an old movie (1960), based on an older stage play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, Inherit the Wind. I remember it being one of the best movies ever made, made all the more memorable by actors like Spencer Tracy and Fredric March, as well as Gene Kelly (no dancing in this movie), and Dick York (later of Bewitched fame) who portrayed John T. Scopes (Bertram T. Cates in the movie). This time, I watched the movie with a critical eye and was surprised how far they had strayed from the truth.

To be fair, Lawrence and Lee, as well as director Stanley Kramer, went out to their way to alert viewers that they were watching a movie, not a documentary. The movie begins with these words:

Inherit the Wind is not history. The events which took place in Dayton, Tennessee, during the scorching July of 1925 are clearly the genesis of this play. It has, however, an exodus entirely its own. [. . .] So Inherit the Wind does not pretend to be journalism. It is theatre.”

I appreciate the honesty of the writers. Still—and this is the problem with some types of fiction—many took the events as historical fact. To this day, people who have seen the movie think:

William Jennings Bryan was a glutton. (He was a diabetic on a very strict diet at the time of the trial.)

Clarence Darrow crushed Bryan’s beliefs as the latter sat in the witness stand. (Darrow ridicule people of faith but it had no impact on Bryan.)

That Bryan was a buffoon. (He ran for president three times, was a great orator, served as Secretary of State, and was a gifted writer).

That the townspeople of Dayton wanted to hang Scopes from a tree. (Nothing of the sort happened.)

And that Bryan died in the courtroom, the victim of Darrow’s grueling examination and ridicule of biblical stores. (Bryan died five days later from complications of diabetes. He remained active in the days following the trial.)

When I was in college, my psychology professor told the class that the human mind has trouble distinguishing between reality and fiction. It is the reason we jump in scary movies or tear up reading a sad scene.

All of this to say, that we as author’s of fiction need to take care how we represent figures and events in history. Lawrence and Lee went so far as to change the name of the characters (although they also went out of their way to make the actors look like William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow). Despite their efforts, fifty-four years after the movie (longer for the play the preceded it) people still think the movie is trustworthy history.

This realization puts a burden of responsibility on the shoulders of novelists. While the novelist’s goal is to entertain, we in the Christian market also want to edify and to do so we need to be as accurate as we can be when portraying real people.

William Jennings Bryan’s reputation and work was sullied by the play and later the movie, despite the authors’ and director’s efforts to make clear their story was only loosely drawn from the real 1925 court case. Nonetheless, many have taken the fiction and see it as fact.

We novelist take some needed liberties in our creation, but when it involves real people from the past (or worse, vaguely disguised characterizations of living people), then we run the risk of doing harm.


Alton Gansky has written over 40 books of fiction and nonfiction. His latest work 30 Events That Shaped the ChurchLearning from scandal, intrigue, war, and revival releases mid January 2015. He is also the director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. – See more at:



Sony’s The Interview, Citizen Kane, and the Power of Story

The controversy over Sony’s film The Interview and the hacking attack the company endured in response to it illustrates a principle I teach every day as a literature professor—the Power of Story. It shows how a fictional narrative that on the surface does no harm to anyone can still be perceived as such a threat that people will go to extreme lengths to stop it. The incident also reminds me of another instance when powerful people tried to squelch a movie they saw as a threat—Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane in 1941.

First, a few thoughts about Sony. Consider what triggered the devastating attack that cost the company tens of millions of dollars and brought turmoil to the lives of studio executives, actors, theater owners, and many others.

Was it a dangerous new weapons systems pointed at North Korea?

Was it a new round of economic sanctions that caused suffering for that nation or its leaders?

No. It was a story. Not even a true story, but a silly, unremarkable comedy that without the attacks that accompanied it probably would have been quickly forgotten.

 Why Not Simply Ignore the Film?

Some have asked why a dictator or anyone else would care about such a frivolous piece of entertainment like The Interview. Why not just ignore it?

Maybe those who hacked Sony fear the movie because they know, as I teach in my college literature courses every semester, that stories—whether novels, films, plays or other genres—are far more than “entertainment.” They often shape our perceptions and shape us even more than “reality” does. Stories may inspire, thrill, challenge, and teach, but they also may threaten.

Think of the most powerful films or novels you have seen and read. Aren’t those stories as moving and life-changing as any “real” incident you have experienced or heard about? Think of how stories have shaped your perceptions of places you’ll never visit, historical periods that otherwise would only be hazy in your mind, and aspects of human experience into which you otherwise would never have delved. For example, when I think of what I know about the World War II era and where that knowledge and perceptions came from, I have to acknowledge that far more of it came from fictional stories about the era than from my direct reading of history.

Stories move us and shape our view of reality. So it makes sense that a dictator would believe that the world’s perception of him might be shaped by this film, even if it’s an over-the-top comedy.

Citizen Kane as an Example of a Film that Defined a Real Person

Controversy over another film more than half a century ago shows just how powerful a movie can be in shaping the public’s perception of a real person. In 1941 RKO released Orson Welles’ movie, Citizen Kane, which some scholars have labeled the greatest film ever. The movie is loosely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, whose vast publishing empire made him one of the most powerful cultural figures in America in the first half of the twentieth century.

The movie gives an unflattering (but in my view, not entirely unflattering) portrait of Hearst and his mistress. Knowing the power of story, since that is how he made his living, Hearst and his allies fought the release of the film by pressuring distributors not to make it available to theaters, by ignoring it in the pages of their newspapers, and by other threatening tactics.

As with the hacking campaign against The Interview, the campaign against Citizen Kane was only partially successful in suppressing it. The controversy itself made people want to see the movie, and it did reach the public in a limited way. It got good reviews, but then it essentially disappeared from public view in 1942 and did not emerge again into the public consciousness again until the mid-1950s, when RKO sold it to television.

Is Kane Hearst? Is Hearst Kane?

That’s when something interesting happened. As the film gained popularity and exposure, the memory of the actual life of Hearst himself, who died in 1951, faded from public perception. David Nasaw, who published an excellent biography of Hearst in 2000 and showed what a fascinating and complex man he was, calls Citizen Kane a “cartoon-like caricature” of a man who was actually very different from Hearst.

However, over time, Nasaw writes, “the lines between the fictional and the real have become so blurred that today, almost sixty years after the film was made and a half-century since Hearst’s death, it is difficult to disentangle the intermingled portraits of Charles Foster Kane and William Randolph Hearst.”

In other words, the good story won out over reality. Even though people may be told that Hearst and Kane are different, and even though talented biographers like Nasaw might try to set the record straight, when you mention Hearst to most people, they’ll think of Citizen Kane.

The hacking attack against Sony is reprehensible, but the North Korean dictator may be correct about one thing: the fictional story may be how most people remember him.

Will Novels, Movies and Video Games All Blend Into One?

Is the day soon coming, or has it already arrived, when consumers won’t see much difference between reading a novel, watching a movie, and playing a video game?

Over the past year, I have seen lots of evidence that the boundaries that used to separate these and other categories are breaking down.

For example, until recently, if you planned to read a celebrity’s autobiography, that meant you went out and bought a book, which you would read page-by-page as the author reflected on his or her life.

Now, however, that is the old-fashioned way to do it. Today I saw an article about the actor Neil Patrick Harris’s autobiography, which takes a much different approach. It is an interactive autobiography, which shares similarities to a video game. The description of the “book” on asks, “Sick of deeply personal accounts written in the first person? Seeking an exciting, interactive read that puts the “u” back in “aUtobiography”?” The reader of Harris’s book doesn’t simply read about the actor’s life, but lives it: “You will be born to New Mexico. You will get your big break at an acting camp….Even better, at each critical juncture of your life you will choose how to proceed. You will decide whether to try out for Doogie Howser, M.D. You will decide whether to spend years struggling with your sexuality. You will decide what kind of caviar you want to eat on board Elton John’s yacht.”

All these choices have consequences for the reader: “Choose correctly and you’ll find fame, fortune, and true love. Choose incorrectly and you’ll find misery, heartbreak, and a hideous death by piranhas.” As if that were not enough, the book also contains recipes, a song, and magic tricks!

The Hobbit: Book, Movie, or Video Game?

Another example of category-blending that stands out to me is the most recent Hobbit movie, Desolation of Smaug. The category-blending I’m referring to is not the fact that I first experienced The Hobbit as a book, and now it is a series of films. Books and films are still separate categories. I am talking about the blending of categories within the film itself.

As I watched the movie, there were times when I couldn’t help but think I was actually experiencing a video game, especially in battle scenes that felt entirely different from anything I remember from the book. In one part, for example, dwarves rush down a raging river in barrels as orcs (many orcs) attack them and as elves attack the orcs. I half expected the elves to get 100 points per orc or dwarves to get bonus points for making it past certain barriers. It was an exciting scene, but it didn’t feel like a movie in those parts.

Many actions movies have that video game feel now, as bad guys (or creatures, or robots, or other villains) get wiped out in large numbers in battle sequences that seem to go on for a very long time. Think of the Transformers movies or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes or many others. Many scenes could be transferred almost directly into a video game.

As Movies Become Games, Games Become…Movies? Books?

Of course, as films become more like video games, many video games, with their more elaborate plots, complex characters, and lush and realistic visuals, now feel more like films. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say they have begun to resemble television series, like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, with storylines that extend over longer periods and characters that can become as familiar as the real people in our lives.

That depth of character and plot sophistication found in recent TV series such as Mad Men and Downton Abbey remind many viewers and readers of yet another category of storytelling, the novel.

“Reality” now merely another story category

Now, even the category known as “reality” is breaking down. I don’t mean reality television, which is its own category-blending genre, but I am talking about real life itself. It used to be that video games copied reality. You played a game to feel what it was like to fight in a battle, or race a car around a track, or ski down a slope. Now experiences are being created to reverse that, in other words to bring the thrill of video games into real life.

The New York Times reported this summer on an experience called Escape Rooms, in which people are trapped together in a room and are given clues and puzzles and codes to solve in order to escape. It’s a video-game-like experience, but without the video. You’re in a real room with real people, and you’re really trapped (although you’re eventually set free even if you don’t solve the clues).

Not everybody likes these trends. When some people go to a movie, for instance, they don’t want a video game stuck in the middle of it. They want their categories pure. On the other hand, there has never been time when people had more ways to enjoy storytelling in every imaginable form. My prediction is that as time goes on, the categories will break down even further, and more and more viewers/readers/players will come to expect the inventive techniques.

OJ Simpson? Never Heard of Him, Or Johnny Carson Either

When I started seeing the headlines and news segments marking the 20th anniversary of the OJ Simpson murder trial, my first thought was that the whole tawdry saga still felt too recent to be wrapped in nostalgia. My next thought was that, as a college professor, I have seen a big shift over those twenty years in how students perceive the OJ Simpson case.

In the first few years immediately following our culture’s fascination with the Bronco chase, bloody gloves, Johnnie Cochran, Marcia Clark, Judge Ito, and all the rest of it, I could refer to the Simpson case any time I needed an example of an event that captured the attention of an entire culture, an event that you couldn’t get away from even if you wanted to, and that everyone seemed to have an opinion on.

I teach literature, and in one course we read some literary works that sprang from another “trial of the century” about a hundred years earlier. That was when Lizzie Borden either did or did not take an axe and murder her parents in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Borden, like Simpson, was acquitted, even though many people thought her guilty. The Lizzie Borden case still has a big following (the home where the murder happened is now a hotel that caters to fans), and many movies, short stories, articles, and other works have been devoted to it. Why?

It’s just like the OJ Simpson case, I used to say. Why did everybody want to watch it? Why was the trial carried on so many TV stations? Why was it the talk of the nation? Students could immediately see the connection.

Recently, however, teaching the same literature course at the same university, I tried to use the Simpson case as an example, and all I got were blank stares. OJ Simpson? Some students had a vague idea who he was, but not one knew anything about the case.

The 20th Century as Ancient History

The Simpson case is only one of many twentieth century references I have had to drop. A 20-year anniversary of anything means that it happened Continue reading

The Best Five Answers: What Time Period Do You Wish You Had Been Born In, and Why?

I have always felt that I was born in the wrong era. Like the main character in the film, Midnight in Paris, I always felt I would have fit in better in the era of some of the literary geniuses I admire from the 1920s and ‘30s—writers like Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. This week’s question was:

What time period do you wish you had been born in, and why?

I received some fascinating responses to this, and it was hard to choose the Best Five Answers. A surprising number of respondents said they are content with the era they were born in. The 1800s was a popular era, and so was the future. Will Cook would have been happy to have been born in 2125, when he imagines he would have a “half-synthetic, half-flesh body,” and Kay Smith would like to have been born in an unspecified time in the future “when women are treated as fully human in the church.”

With many great responses to choose from, here are the Best Five Answers, followed by next week’s question:

5. “16,000 BC in current day location of Cyprus. Pretty sure I could have walked to Atlantis and witnessed the true precursor to the pyramid civilizations before global meltdown and flooding covered them. (Yes, I am serious and, no, I’m not a nut!).”

–Robert Green

4. “The same period I was born in, 1983. The reason being is I’ve gotten to see so much technological changes/innovations as I’ve grown up. One of the first things I learned to do was operate a record player. CD’s took off and now digital downloads are the norm. Same goes with music videos, used to VH1 or MTV was the go to place for that, now you can pull up YouTube and see just about any video you want. The Internet also has made it easier to stay in touch, reconnect or make new friends.”

–Nathan Webb

3. “Before watching Midnight in Paris, I probably would have answered the question with the 1840s because of the music, fashion, and historical events. After watching Midnight in Paris I realized, like Owen Wilson’s character, that I wouldn’t want to be born at any other time than I was. He rightly says something along the lines that the present is unsatisfying because life is unsatisfying. This, right now, is my Golden Age.”

–Sara Flores

2. “I wish I had been born in the 2200s because then I would probably be able to teleport. But hopefully the world’s resources wouldn’t be decimated by then….”

–Abbi Mleziva

1. “I would be born in 1935, I would be but a child as the war swelled and then ebbed, just old enough to have been able to look up over London into a rumbling sky filled complete by thousands of USAAF B17 bombers, each guided by diesel propellers leaving four elegant streams of blue trailing behind the formation. Fighter escorts aligned like geese surround the bombers top, bottom, and side. The entire earth would rumble as countless thousands of steel bombers and fighters ripped through the grey London skies on towards Germany–the might of American economies of scale and mass production all slowly growling out over the English Channel to break the back of the Axis. Minutes pass and finally the sky would be empty again for hours before evening when the steel birds would come limping back overhead, bombless and bleeding black smoke. These thunderous fleets of aircraft will never again be witnessed—technology raced ahead so quickly that war waged in the skies is now invisible and supersonic and remote. Men don’t take to the sky by the countless thousands lined as far as they eye can see now. And this I lament because of its ephemeralness. It must have been a strangely harrowing sight to peer up, nine years old, bright blue eyed, and see no sky but only smoke and steel.”

–Brian Kraft

Now I invite you to respond to the question for next week:

If you could improve your life in one way, what would it be?

Five of the Eighteen Reasons I Write (by William J. Torgerson)

Editor’s Note: This post is the third in a series that features former students of mine who have become professional writers. I asked each of them to focus on the topic, “Why I Write.” Today’s post is by Bill Torgerson, whom I first met when he was one of my writing students at Olivet and who is now an award-winning screenwriter, novelist and writing professor. His first novel, Love on the Big Screen, is set at a fictionalized Olivet in the era when Bill and I were there.  (To see the first post in this series, by Dr. Michael Clark, scroll down or click here. To see the second post, by John Small, scroll down or click here.)  

Five of the Eighteen Reasons I Write

By William J. Torgerson

Professor Joe Bentz was the first person I ever knew to be actively working on a novel. When I was his student at Olivet Nazarene University just south

of Chicago, I was an English teacher who wanted to be a basketball coach because I’d long understood I couldn’t play professionally.  I had no plans to write, but I’d heard that Joe’s house was wallpapered with notes for his book.

As a country kid from Indiana, I found Professor Bentz’s ambition exotic, as if he were a space traveller who’d gone to Mars and come back to tell me about it. Professor Bentz was the first person to encourage my writing. I wrote an essay in his class about a bad date, and he told me I should send it out for consideration for publication. Over fifteen years later, a revision of that essay appeared in my first novel. Upon receiving Joe’s request to write this guest post, I was quickly able jot down eighteen reasons I write. Here are five of them:

  • To Stand Out. Even when I used to think of myself as worth noticing because I could shoot a basketball from a long distance and make it go through a hoop, I was an everyday writer.  At first, I wrote because it was a way in addition to basketball that a girl would take notice of me. Even though I’ve always thought of myself as a latecomer to writing, I realize that even as a middle school student I wrote (by hand on paper!) regularly for a specific audience: a girl I liked. I revised like an obsessive-compulsive madman.
  • For Mental and Physical Peace.  I have a high-octane mental and physical motor.  There’s something about intense workouts and at least a page a day that allows me to get as close as I can to relaxing.  When someone asks me what I do for fun, one of my first thoughts is that I run. Writing gives me a mostly positive act toward which to direct my addiction prone energy.  When I write, I am somehow able to empty my mind just enough to get some sleep.
  • Because I Can’t Stop.  I received Prof. Bentz’s request to do this guest post via my iPhone at 5:08 PM when I was wandering around an outlet mall and my family was doing some school shopping. I could not stop Continue reading

Is Literature Necessary? (Part 4) “Consumed by Story”

Note: This is the fourth in a series of posts that will consider the question:

What does literature have to offer (if anything) that no other art form or media (such as video games, social media, movies, TV shows, etc.) can match?

To view the first post in this series, scroll down or click here. To view the second post, scroll down or click here. To view the third post, scroll down or click here.

Consumed by Story

By Kate Sullivan, APU Honors Student

Throughout all of mankind humans have connected with stories. As Renita J. Weems says in an essay on the womanism movement, “Stories offer readers an inner script to live by, glimpses into the way things are, and more importantly reason and a way to talk about things ought not to be” (Weems 36). We were not simply content with knowing we live on the Earth, instead we make up stories to explain why we are here and make sense of the universe in which we are immersed. As humankind has evolved, the love for stories has not dissipated. Quite the opposite outcome has occurred. Instead of a vanishing media for story telling, a plethora has showed up. A challenge now arises as we go forward: where does literature fit in this high tech era? I hold that literature will always remain important and unique because it captures the imagination in a way different from any other type of media.

Literature connects with the imagination on a deep level because as a reader we dream up a story that is uniquely our own. Although the words are the same for each reader, the characters and imagery are unique to the possessor of the story. This is a quality no other media outlet can really claim, for in movies, TV shows, and video games the character and scenery are created by the authors, and the viewer simply joins their world. The limitation of such media is the viewer only imagines what is set before them. Literature is free from this problem for in reading, the imagination is only led by the words and the rest is entirely within the discretion of the person enjoying the story. This connection gives the reader a type of ownership to the story that surpasses other media sources.

This ownership gives literature its greatest asset that no other media can capture. The deep connection to a body of literature drives a passion for the story and the ideals held in that story. William Jong comments, “Literature preserves the ideals of a people; and ideals–love, faith, duty, friendship, freedom, reverence–are the part of human life most worthy of preservation.” (Jong). The more I connect with a piece of literature, the greater it consumes me and begins to affect my life. Literature has such a tremendous power to consume a reader as they read and as they carry the story on in everyday life.

There is no question that literature will continue to survive in the high tech era that surrounds us, the question is why does it continue to be a favorite medium of so many. It will always be my favorite because literature offers a way for me to escape the reality around me and enter a completely different world. Unlike other media where I am only a visitor, in stories on paper I am the co-creator with the author. No other media has the power to make me stop, think, cry, smile, and laugh quite as well as novels. Socrates’ writings did not survive because of the special effects and sound track, they survived because they captured the mind and heart. The power of literature will always be that the author never truly owns a story; it belongs to each person who sits down and is changed by what they find.

(Note: Kate Sullivan blogs at


Works Cited

Jong, William J., PH.D. English Literature: Its History and Its Significance for the Life of the English Speaking World. N.p.: Gutenburg Ebook, 2004. Gutenburg Press, 6 Jan. 2004. Web. 21 Aug. 2012. <>.

Weems, Renita J. “Re-Reading for Liberation: African American Women and the Bible.”Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World. Ed. Sugirtharajah, R. S.  Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2006. 27-39. Print.

Is Literature Still Necessary? (Part 2) “Literary Labor”

Note: This is the second in a series of posts that will consider the question:

What does literature have to offer (if anything) that no other art form or media (such as video games, social media, movies, TV shows, etc.) can match?

To view the first post in this series, scroll down or click here.

Literary Labor

by Bethany Wagner, APU Honors student

After a long, exhausting day in the classroom or at the office, a book offers what no movie or TV show or video game can: the chance to kick back on the couch with a steaming mug of tea…and get to work.

Work? Who would want that at the end of the day when The Bachelor is on? Yes, reading is work, oftentimes hard work. But it is not the tiresome work of scrubbing food off plates or hauling stacks of dirty clothes to the Laundromat.

It is the work of figuring out what Dickens meant by that mysterious allegory, and deciphering exactly what apozemical means, and trying to solve who killed so-and-so before Sherlock Holmes does. Most of all, it is the work of finding how your story—where you come from, who you are, what you believe—fits into the story you hold in your hands.

Would I have been able to refuse the White Witch’s Turkish delight? Would I have been unselfish enough to make the ultimate sacrifice like Sydney Carton? Do I agree with this character’s philosophy? Do I agree with that author’s depiction of religion? Some questions are harder to answer than others, one book more difficult to place yourself in than the next, but all pull the reader into the story, and all call the gears of the mind to work—not to monotonous drudgery, but to a joyous, satisfying work that engages the imagination.

Compare the feeling of finishing a movie or video game to that of finishing a piece of fine literature. At the end of the average movie, I might think something along the lines of, Well that was cool…I guess it’s time for bed. A particularly good, thought-provoking movie perhaps leaves me with stronger feelings of contentment or conviction. Finishing a video game might leave me feeling a bit more accomplished, although there is always the nagging thought in the back of my head that maybe…just maybe…all those hours in front of the screen pressing buttons might have been better spent elsewhere.

But after turning the last pages of A Tale of Two Cities, The Great Divorce, Paradise Lost—even books like Harry Potter, a little bit less of a “task” to read—I have no regrets. I did it. I read the words, entered the world, took my part in the story, added my voice, and thoroughly enjoyed it (even when I came across words like apozemical).

As I write this I am sitting on the floor in between bookshelves in one of those buildings that are testaments to the wonders of literature—a library. Books of all sizes and colors and topics, each with its own story, surround me, and though I will sadly never read them all, I feel a sort of kinship to each one. I know that if I were to pick up any one of them, crack open its cover, and begin reading, that book would allow me to enter its world as a partner in its authorship.

A movie is a two-and-a-half-hour performance where I can tune out the world and relax. A video game lets me in a little bit deeper by allowing me to press a few buttons that result in the death of an Orc or a sword fight here and there. But it is the book…and only the book…that fully engages the mind, calling me to enter into its story, and at the same time allowing me to work at telling my own.

“Pieces of Heaven” Is Released!

My publisher, Beacon Hill Press, announced this week that my new book, Pieces of Heaven: Recognizing the Presence of God, is now available. This book has been a major focus of my writing and thinking for the past two years. For those who are interested in knowing what the book is about, I am posting the introductory chapter. More information is available by clicking the “New Releases” or “Books” tabs above and choosing the Pieces of Heaven page. I also wrote a Study Guide for the book that small groups may wish to use. It is available on the Pieces of Heaven page. I hope you enjoy the book. If you do, please consider spreading the word to others and posting a review on Amazon and elsewhere. 

Chapter One

The Thin Place in the Veil

God doesn’t behave the way I wish He would.

Even though I’ve been a Christian for many years, I still have a hard time explaining to someone who is not a believer why I can’t help but be a follower of Jesus Christ. It’s not that I lack the words to describe the doctrine or to tell the story of how God got hold of me. But how do I describe God’s powerful but invisible presence that keeps pulling me toward Him?

It would be easier if God chose to be more visible and obvious about how He inserts Himself into people’s lives. I would love to be able to say, I am a Christian because God appeared above my house in the form of a radiant fireball and summoned me outside. In view of all my neighbors, who recorded the whole thing, He declared (in a booming voice, of course) that Jesus Christ is the way to salvation and that I should follow Him.

When Hollywood portrays God, they often do it in this more readily graspable, visual way. Who comes to mind when you think of a Hollywood-created God? A kindly, cigar-smoking George Burns? The wise and unflappable Morgan Freeman? Or maybe you prefer it when the special effects kick in and you get something like the God of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Do you remember how the presence of God is portrayed in that movie?

The Nazis want the Ark of the Covenant because they think they can use the power of God’s presence in it for their own evil purposes. When they finally get it, they lift up the lid and watch as bright white waves of smoke rise up from the box. The light swirls round and round, dozens of ribbons of it flying high in the air, with awe-inspiring beauty and power. Then majestic columns of fire rise from the Ark and extend high into the air. The Nazis are triumphant.

But then, because God is apparently smart enough to know that these guys are Nazis and therefore bad guys, the whole scene turns ugly for them. The fire forms into huge daggers that stab right through the center of the soldiers’ bodies and kill them.

But that punishment is only for the low-ranking Nazi soldiers. The top Nazis suffer an even worse fate. The heads of the two leaders begin to melt, and they scream in pain. As if that were not gruesome enough, the head of the most villainous, whiny-voiced Nazi leader explodes in blood and gore like a smashed watermelon. Then all the fire and smoke comes together in one gigantic column that shoots high above the island. Finally it collapses back down into the Ark, with a tremendous slam of the lid.

Beautiful. Smoke and fire and melting heads. That may not fit everyone’s concept of God’s presence, but at least it’s something people can see and understand.

In my own life, the Holy Spirit doesn’t work that way. He is not flash and spectacle. He is not a booming voice. Nor is he a crusty but affable old man. He is not anything a Hollywood camera could capture.

He is a loving, abiding Presence. More than anything else, I am a Christian because of God’s powerful, pursuing Spirit. As Romans 8:16 says, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” I can also discuss my faith in terms of doctrine and theology and biblical principles, but God’s presence is what keeps me tied to the faith even through crises of doubt, discouragement and my own failures. How can I describe that presence? It’s the most important part of my faith, but it’s also the hardest to talk about and the easiest for skeptics to dismiss.

The idea for this book was sparked by an overheard conversation about the presence of God. It was a simple moment, but I couldn’t get it out of my mind. As my friends in the Christian writers group that was meeting in my home were getting ready to leave, I walked into the kitchen to hear one of our members, Lynn, speaking to another member of the group. Lynn was describing a recent worship service she had been part in which the people powerfully sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit. She said it was one of those times when the veil between us and eternity seemed very thin, and almost disappeared. I can still picture the way she held her palms together as she said this, as if she were touching this thin, almost transparent barrier that she was describing.

That thin place in the veil is what this book is about.

God is always with us, I believe, but often the barriers are so thick—because of noise, disbelief, indifference, daily responsibilities, and other distractions—that we often pay little attention to Him. He is easy to ignore. Popular entertainment mocks Him, the political world is wary of Him, much of the intellectual elite denies Him, and a frenzied online social media loses Him in a flurry of trivia. It’s easy to leave God out of our conversations and thoughts—at work, at school, in social settings, and unfortunately sometimes even at church. How can we open our eyes to His presence?

This book will consider “God in the Ordinary” and “God in the Extraordinary.” In the Ordinary, His Spirit is powerfully present in music, in nature, in the intellect, in prayer, and in Scripture. We may find God’s presence in our relationships, not only with those we love, but also in those who cause us problems. In the Extraordinary, He also manifests Himself at rare times in more unusual ways, in powerful revivals, in people’s encounters with angels, or in the moments before death.

I wish reaching the thin places was all in our own power, but it isn’t. As this book will explore, God reveals and conceals His presence in His own timing for His own purposes, as He has always done. The temptation, when God seems distant, is to fill the space with a counterfeit god. You don’t even have to choose one—they will choose you. Many people are worshiping multiple counterfeit gods right now without even knowing it.

I wrote this book because I want to do all I can to strip away the barriers that hide God’s presence. I long to get as close as I can to the thin place in the veil that my friend was describing.

If you long for that too—for a deeper connection with the Holy Spirit—then I ask you to join me in these pages.