Sunday, November 26, 2017

The heart of light: a reading on the Transfiguration

He didn't tell us why we were climbing the mountain. We were used to that. We trusted him.

We walked and walked; we took goat-paths at first, between the rocks, kicking up clouds of dust in the sun. I couldn't stop thinking about the things he'd said that week—that we would take up crosses, that he'd be killed. Who do you say that I am? He asked, and I answered, The Messiah—and he said I was right, he said I was blessed, and then he started talking about crosses, and being killed. Killed. No, I told him, not you, not you—and he turned and called me Satan. I could still hear the ring of his voice as I climbed that mountain behind him—my Master, whom I loved, calling me Satan. And it stung.

We climbed for hours, till the sun was high. We were sweating, but the air was getting cool. The land was laid out before us, underneath—field and pasture and the paths between them, and rocks everywhere like scattered seed. We had no idea what he meant to do. Show us the land, maybe, tell us what God meant to do for Israel, tell us where we were going next. We didn't know what he was going to do, we never knew what he was going to do, we knew to follow him. That was all. We knew he was the Messiah. And then we reached the crown of that mountain, and suddenly—before we could fling ourselves down on the grass to rest, before I could raise a hand to wipe the sweat off my brow—suddenly we knew something we had never known.

It happened so fast.

At first I thought the sun had come out from behind a cloud, suddenly; there was so much more light than there had been a moment before—but the sun rode high in the cloudless sky, and looked pale as a candle-flame in the sun compared to Him. Him. His face and clothes shining—like the clouds on Lake Galilee after a storm, when the sun catches them from behind and fills them with light—only brighter. If something could catch the sun like a cloud, and fill it with light—that something was him. There was so much light. Oh, I cannot tell you, I cannot tell you what I saw. I can only swear to it, and I will swear to it every day of my life: I saw the glory of the One and Only. If a man stares at the sun, is he not blinded? We stared and stared into the heart of light, and were not blinded. We saw and saw.

When I came to myself there were two men with him, who stood in his light. They were talking; they had been talking, I thought, for a long time. They were—I don't know how I knew—they were Moses and Elijah. My hands were shaking. You are the Messiah, I'd said, but I hadn't known. I hadn't known this. I wanted to throw myself face down on the ground but there they were, standing there in all the glory of the light, quietly talking. And I was afraid it would stop, the light would go, the sun would be all we had left. I started babbling—Master let's stay here, let's build three shelters, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah, as if that light needed a roof over its head against the rain. I was shaking all over. And then I couldn't see—we were inside a cloud that was filled with light, we were inside the light itself—I heard a voice say This is my son, whom I love, listen to him. I heard the voice of God, and I saw the light.

I have been in darkness many days since that day; I have been in the dark heart of life. I have known why he called me Satan. He can call me anything he likes. I have seen the darkness of the grave; but that light has never left me. It is inside me. I am inside it. Until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts, in the darkest hour, still he is in me and I in him. I am still in the heart of light.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

On writing Christian Holocaust novels aka Thank God for my worst reviews, Part II

So I was saying last week why I wanted to continue with the series and write Flame in the Night, despite coming to understand (and sympathize with) why some Jewish people feel so queasy about Christian Holocaust fiction. Because the story of Le Chambon is a story of Christians getting it right for once, and it's a story all of us (very much including me) desperately need to hear in our time. So I wanted to keep telling it—but to get it right, to get every part of it right this time, to draw my Jewish characters with as much depth and texture and vitality and respect as I could possibly muster. And I knew I had a lot to learn before I could.

I started online. I wish I could have walked into a big-city library and started there, but I live in rural Illinois. I went to a writers' forum I frequent, got up my courage and put out a query asking if anyone could tell me about Judaism in the mid-20th century. I confessed to my past half-baked approach, I admitted that I barely knew what questions to ask, and then I asked a long list of questions anyway. Some very kind people answered me almost right away. They went above and beyond for me, writing long posts again and again, coming back and back to answer my gradually less stupid questions; they told me they were glad I was taking the time to try and represent Judaism right.

You know, I've seen a lot of arguments online about representation of minorities or the “Other” in fiction, about cultural appropriation, exploitation, all the rest. The conversation goes like a sort of pendulum, back and forth: complex discussions of the subtle, uncomfortable shadings that push a work over the line from representation to exploitation, then suddenly writers throwing up their hands in despair, feeling judged, their best efforts judged, wondering if it's even possible to get it right or if they should give up—either by abandoning their manuscript or by deciding this whole cultural sensitivity thing is a crock. Because you do feel judged, in a discussion like that. As a writer representing the majority culture, all the pressure is on you to walk that tightrope, neither to exclude nor misrepresent people whose experience you do not share. But—it's amazing, it's amazing how different it feels to have this other discussion: tell me about your experience. Tell me about your culture. I don't know much about your religion. I want to learn.

It's walking in as a learner, I guess. We're so scared of being judged for being ignorant. But learners are supposed to be ignorant. If you confess your ignorance, it turns out people are kind.

And eager to teach you. It surprised me, and yet I should have known it. It's been when someone on the forum has asked a question like “So what is a Baptist church service like anyway?” that I've thrown out the rest of my afternoon plans and written them 1000 words on the subject. Of course it feels good to teach.

(I mean, it doesn't always. I know some people get asked the same questions a million times about their background and that can drive you nuts. You have to be polite and roll with where people are. But I was grateful to find people who were there in the forum ready to teach.)

We had a long, fascinating discussion—mostly me and two Jewish writers. I read the resources they pointed me to, I summarized scenes for them and asked them if a detail made sense; they were incredibly kind and generous with their time, and—simply kind. Not once did I feel judged. They shared family history, stories they had heard or read, links, basic knowledge about prayers and services, nitty-gritty details of keeping kosher. (And oh my word it is hard, if you don't have your own kitchen—as Elisa, my Jewish character in Flame, does not. Very hard. But she's a determined young woman. I can't wait to introduce you to her.) And I learned.

It turns out that I find Judaism fascinating. And, frankly, impressive. Naturally, growing up Christian, I received the impression that Judaism was legalistic; that notion didn't survive the first few days of research. A far more appropriate word than legalism, it seemed, would be loyalty. A loyalty that they've held onto for millennia. I got absolutely no sense of (as Christians generally define legalism) anyone trying to earn their way into Heaven (which by the way is explicitly de-emphasized in Judaism--Heaven I mean, and the afterlife in general.) Rather, that the commandments are obeyed because they are commanded. By God. That's impressive. I'm not saying I want to convert. But—basing your whole daily life, big and small, around loyalty to God. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself. How can I, or any theist, not respect that?

Frankly, it's been a privilege to write about this. It's been a privilege to write Elisa Schulmann, her courage and her loyalty. She doesn't make every choice as I would make it—because she's a person in her own right. And she's a person I respect.

The other week I finally got my first response from a Jewish fellow writer who's read the book. He pointed out a small inaccurate detail, suggested I put in a little more about holidays, and then told me this: that many non-Jewish authors get the details right but miss the “feel,” but that I had grasped it, that Elisa's Judaism felt real. I can't tell you how my heart expanded in happiness and relief.

Of course, it's only one person's response, and an incredibly nice guy at that. I am seeking more opinions, as I said last week. But I'm seeking them much more happily now.

Still it's for each person who reads the book to judge how I have done. As it always is. As the song says, it's not me, it's not my family—other people have far more right over this story than I do. But I'm deeply grateful to the people who were kind to my ignorance.

And I want to say this to my fellow writers. I know what it's like to feel judged. When I enter a new writers' forum I hint so carefully, so nervously, that I write Christian fiction. I ask myself what will be the consequences if I choose to claim the label evangelical—because I remember what happened last time I failed to ask myself that. I know what it is to have people assume I'm coming in ready to trample everybody—because others with the same labels on them really did do that. But still, here in my white evangelical Christian-fiction-writing skin—people were kind to me. I came in as a learner, and they thanked me. I learned that it's all right to be ignorant, as long as you listen rather than speak. I want to tell my fellow writers—it's all right, or at least it may be all right, I haven't read your book, but it really just might be all right if you step into the skin of a learner, if you take that leap and confess what you don't know. If you sit down at someone's feet and listen hard.

It really might.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

On writing Christian Holocaust novels, a.k.a. Thank God for my worst reviews

I dialed the number, then hesitated before pushing “call.” I was calling a friend of a friend—in other words, a total stranger. I've always hated calling strangers since I was a child more mortally scared of embarrassment than of any actual danger. But this might help my work. My friend had referred me to this lady, saying she was Jewish and had very worthwhile constructive criticism for me about my first book, How Huge the Night. I pushed the button. I stammered my way through my inquiry about her feedback. Lay it on me, I didn't quite smoothly say.

“The French boy's story was a very fresh look at World War II for me,” the lady told me. “And I appreciated that your book wasn't trying to convert me. But it's your Jewish characters. They're a little… generic.”

Let me make this clear right now: she was 100% right--and being nice about it.

Honestly? Seven or eight years later, I kind of squirm thinking about it. Gustav and Nina, the Jewish brother and sister, in their very first scene have packed to flee Austria and are about to go out the door, and I have them pause to say the Shema together. Why?

Um. It's what Jews say, right?

I'm actually not positive it wasn't something they would do. It probably is in the realm of the possible; my kind critic didn't mention it as a ridiculous moment. What embarrasses me is that I didn't check. I didn't make even the slightest attempt to find out whether this was considered an appropriate prayer for the circumstance. Nope. I just blithely sailed on.

“I couldn't tell what kind of Jews any of them were, what their backgrounds would be.” Well of course you couldn't, lady. Judaism has only three major denominations, to my own religion's approximately one gazillion, and at the time I couldn't have told them to you. I'm just lucky she didn't ask me where I got off—I couldn't have told her!

Now some people may be nodding along to this and some people may be asking why I'm beating myself up for being a little vague in a novel. For the latter, I'll give the answer in three words.

Christian Holocaust fiction.

I didn't realize at the time that this was even an issue. It took me awhile to figure it out, even after my phone conversation. It snuck up on me slowly. Then a Christian romance between a Jewish woman and a concentration camp commandant made finalist for a major romance award, and it started sneaking up on me very fast.

There were rants all over the internet about it for awhile. (Why a concentration camp commandant? Well, it was supposed to be a retelling of Esther—he was King Xerxes, her love changed him, he liberated everybody. There were issues on all kinds of levels, all the way down—click on the links if you're interested.) People were furious. I was down that rabbit-hole for days, following link after link. Yes, there was some morbid fascination there, but I could tell there were things here I needed to know.

I hadn't made most of the mistakes that author made—casting a Nazi as the romantic lead, trying to spin a concentration camp commandant as “not a real Nazi,” etc. But I saw that I had made her first mistake, the one all the others came from. I had failed to realize I was rushing in where angels feared to tread.

My narrow escape took my breath away.

Allow me to link you to my two worst reviews.

My first reaction to both of these was just what you'd think. What the heck? The Tablet magazine one in particular confused me. The man's brief remarks about my book (one of many in a themed multi-book review) boiled down to “It's a Christian Holocaust novel for Christian teens and also it's Christian,” to which he affixed the verdict: creepy. Creepy?

The other review, when I finally stopped focusing on its couple of errors (nobody forces any Jews to go to church in the book, but I do understand how she might have gotten that impression,) actually put the heart of the issue really well. There was the “generic” quality—my Jewish characters sounded, she said, like “Christians who spoke a different language”—there was the lack of any genuinely researched Jewish worship or practice (there were reasons, but they weren't good reasons)—and finally there was the worst part. The reviewer accused me of “using the background setting of a people being persecuted, tortured, and killed for their religion to glorify another religion”—i.e. Christianity.

I certainly didn't intend to do that. I didn't set out to use my Jewish characters only to glorify the faith of my Christian ones. But it's true that I understood my Christian characters' backgrounds far more than those of my Jewish characters, and that I was not uncomfortable enough with that to fix it. Intentions are not the only thing.

How much I did or didn't exploit my Jewish characters, I will leave it to each person who reads How Huge the Night to decide. I know I didn't do it nearly as much as others have, I know I didn't do it enough to spark a viral series of internet rants. But let me put it this way: I'm no longer saying What the heck? I hear what these people are saying now. I don't think that writing a Christian Holocaust novel is inherently, automatically wrong or creepy (or I would have stopped) but I don't think the Tablet reviewer was a lunatic, either. I understand now why he could make that judgment without taking the time (or the wordcount) to back it up, and expect his reader to agree.

I understand two things I should never have gone into this series without understanding. My two worst reviews started to teach them to me. Someone else's thirty worst reviews hammered them home.

The first was simply what the Holocaust still means to some people alive today. If you click one link in this post, click this one. Fair warning, it's a rant. There's no language, though. Just raw, intensely personal emotion and truth. The part I have never forgotten is the writer's description of visiting the nursing home week after week as an eleven-year-old, hearing people's stories, seeing the faded numbers on their arms, running her shaking arm up and down an old lady's back as she sobbed and relived the terror of thinking she was going to die in a camp. Reading that, and other posts—but mostly that—I heard the voice of reality whispering in my ear what I'll repeat to any author who's treading where I'm still treading today: this is not a story, okay? World War II is not your fiction background—or playground—it's not “instant drama, just add water.” Write with respect for the real people it happened to, or go somewhere else and make your own drama.

For some of us, it's a terrible historical event; for others, it's the reason why their parents don't have any older relatives. Once I started interacting with Jews online about this, one of them made the simple statement, in a discussion of the culture of Jewish communities in the mid-20th century, that she didn't know much about her mother's side of the family because “none of them made it out.”

None of them made it out.

I knew the Holocaust was terrible, right? But there's knowing and there's knowing.

Here's another story one of the same people told me. We were discussing the experience of Jewish children hidden during the Holocaust, and what they remembered. The (true) story is this: there was a rabbi who was tasked, after WWII ended, with finding Jewish children who had been hidden in monasteries during the Holocaust. Why finding? Well, sometimes the monasteries didn't want to give them back—in fact, some denied having any Jewish children there. To verify, he would call out the Shema—and any Jewish children who were there would run to him, their deepest memories stirred by the words.

Why didn't the monasteries want to give them back? They wanted to raise them as Christians.

I was shocked by this story. But I also felt something else, something—shall we say creepy? I felt recognition.

I'm a Christian. So I understood why they wanted that.

But hearing it from a Jewish person, I also understood how she would feel about it. How the children's relatives would feel about it. How anyone Jewish would feel about it.

That was the second thing I learned.

Anti-Semitic medieval art
We American Protestants, we don't feel that the Middle Ages has anything to do with us. There's the early church, the Reformation, the Great Awakening, and then there's all that Catholic stuff, which is not our stuff. But Catholics were simply Christians, the only Christians there were, when the Spanish Inquisition coerced tens of thousands of Jews into converting. Make no mistake: they remember. The old, cold history of medieval Christian Europe making it clear to the Jews they were really not very welcome—but they could be! If they converted! (or maybe not depending on the country…)—is one the Jews have not forgotten, even if we have. The slanders about poisoned wells, the murders, the pogroms, they haven't forgotten those either. They don't consider the Holocaust to be an inexplicable exception. Simply the climax of a terrible story. I haven't heard many of them online blaming Christians for the Holocaust. It's generous of them, or perhaps polite. But we should be the first to admit, at the very least, that it happened on our watch. On our turf. That if every Christian had risen up, it would not remotely have been possible.

And then we have the good Christians. The ones who hid and rescued Jews. Some of whom also went ahead and used the power they'd been given over Jewish children—given, remember, indirectly but most surely by the Nazis—to obtain conversions that stank of coercion. The good ones.

So yeah. Christian Holocaust fiction.

I had no idea what I was getting into.

Now at least I've got the first clue. Thank God.

Now, none of this made me want to stop writing the “Night” series. No way.
Because if there's anything that the story of Le Chambon has to say to all of what I've written above, it's that it is not inevitable. Le Chambon, and what happened there during the war, stands as a proof that it doesn't have to be this way, that all the bone-bleak history between Christians and Jews, the awful dynamics, the excellent reasons for people's suspicion about what I do, were not inevitable then and they are not inevitable now—that we can obey our God much better than that, and we must.

Children arriving in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon
The people of Le Chambon did not use the people they rescued to prove their own virtue—they considered their own virtue little more than common decency, what “anybody would do.” They did not use their position of power, with desperate, hunted refugees and children utterly dependent on them for survival, to put pressure on them to listen to the message of Christianity. They respected them too much for that. They quite simply acted toward them according to both the Torah and the Gospels: Do to others what you would have them do to you. Love your neighbor as yourself. They lived the kingdom of God in their here and now—not the supremacy of Christianity, but the kingdom of God.

I knew in my bones that was still the story I wanted to tell—more than ever. But I wanted to do it right this time.

But this is far too long already… so, Part II next week.


But—I have a query for you all. Part of the end of the process by which I hope to be doing it right: consulting Jewish sensitivity readers. I still need one or two more. If you are Jewish, willing to read my book, and able to advise on whether I've rendered the experience of a devout young Jewish woman, and the Jewish experience in my book in general, accurately and respectfully, I would be very grateful and glad to reciprocate with any writing feedback or editing work you might need. You can contact me at

Saturday, November 4, 2017

It's okay to be white

So I got lured into interacting online with a white supremacist. Real smart, I know, I know. He responded to an anti-racist tweet I was looking at with a link to an article on a site whose actual URL proclaimed "white privilege isn't real." I gave in to temptation and made a sarcastic comment about how "real news" his website sounded. With a magnificent break in logic he responded with this macro:

I said "Sure is. Your point?" He never replied.

But since then 100% of my notifications on Twitter are to helpfully let me know how many people liked and retweeted this reply to me.

Thanks, Twitter. Thanks for reminding me what I did.

Well, I wish I hadn't done it. I suppose giving them chances to argue in public is what they want, though I still don't see what it is about what I said that inspired that particular response. But what on earth does it mean? They think anti-racists are saying it's not okay to be white?

I've seen this before. It's a very, very common aspect of the public face of these people--it seems like it's the first facet you see. I've written about this before, because whenever I run across it I can't seem to get it off my brain.

We see them in a heroic defensive posture, protecting whiteness. "It's okay to be white!" they say. "White people do have a culture that's worthy of preservation!" (Yes, yes we do. At least if you remove the ridiculous "a" and add an S to "culture," because no genuine tribe or culture in the world has ever been defined by its skin color--cultures come from places. Generations, tradition. And whose cultures are being preserved? I've been to a Swedish heritage festival, I've been to a Celtic festival, I've walked through a Ukrainian neighborhood filled with very interesting bakeries; I've never been to an Ibo festival nor walked through a Hausa neighborhood. Not in the U.S. There's a reason for that. Africans were the only ones to have their cultures deliberately destroyed in the process of being brought to this country. From the moment they were imprisoned on the slave-trading ships, enslaved Africans were never allowed to be near people who spoke their own language if the masters could help it, lest they organize, rise up and escape.)

Apparently we have shamed people for being white. Apparently by telling people that white people are still privileged in this country--likelier to be hired for jobs, less likely to be shot by the police--we have told them that it's not OK to be who they are, that they should not exist. Out of the pain of the shame we have imposed about whiteness has come a new generation of white supremacists. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

That's what they want us to think.

But it's a tactic. I know. I've used a very similar one myself. Not that I'm proud of it.

First, here is why I don't believe people are genuinely feeling shamed for being white. (For one thing, these people's whole demeanor shows it, but that's another story.) I'm a fiction writer. Human nature is my whole study, the instincts and desires and responses of human beings. We lie to ourselves about human nature a lot. We lie to ourselves about the role of pride.

I'm afraid nobody is ashamed of being on top.

Which is worse--to know that your ancestors were respected by their society and committed great wrongs, or to know that your ancestors were put in chains and forced against their will their entire lives, forced to swallow their pride and their rage if they wanted to live? Which is worse, to be told that your inheritance was not acquired justly, or to inherit a culture and a literature written by people who simply assume you are a lower species of human being?

Throughout history, tribes and nations have made war. Throughout history, it has been the conquered, not the conquerors, who were ashamed. We say we love justice, we say we love the good and the right and the true. But our first love is power and always has been. That is human nature ever since the Fall.

I know that my ancestors, or at least their relatives, participated in the system of slavery, in the great wrongs of their time that have done so much evil. Does it keep me up at night?

I'm afraid not.

I know what shame is. It's a burning behind your breastbone. It's a restless pain, never gone, driving you, burning you till you can run to someone who will put it out--someone who will tell you it's not true. I remember when I felt it. I felt it when books I read, pastors I heard, people I met, told me I was a lesser species of human being and should not be allowed power. Because I was a woman.

(I am not trying to say that all who hold to non-egalitarian views of gender are saying this exact thing. But you know, old books are still around, or quoted. I knew Augustine believed women are not made in the image of God. Which was going to affect my feelings more--that, or the polite hedgings of the complementarians?)

(I believe now that Jesus calls us to renounce power. But the difference between renouncing it and having it taken from you is night and day.)

That is why I don't believe these people are, or have ever been, ashamed of being white. They may be ashamed of other things in their lives. They may feel forced into disrespected roles as low-wage workers, they may feel looked down on by cultural elites or simply by the people in their lives. So they seek a different source of pride. No-one has ever been ashamed of whiteness in this country. But many have been proud of it, actively proud of the color of their skin, truly believing it made them superior. These people are looking to restore that time.

And they're using this tactic to get it out there, to give it appeal--this heroic defensive posture, loud and dramatic: NO! YOU WILL NOT ABUSE US ANYMORE! It's an effective one. I've seen it in other places: respond dramatically, emotionally, to a thing that has not been said--and every listener will assume that it was said. Even, sometimes, the speaker himself--the one who didn't say it.

I remember once when someone came to visit me, for the stated purpose of discussing a certain volunteer job I was doing. I knew they were coming to criticize me. I knew that while I put great effort into it and did it well, my work didn't suit their notions and they were coming to tell me how to do it better. I was angry, but I didn't want a fight. I wanted the whole thing over with as quickly as possible. I picked my tactic: I would go into the meeting actively, energetically responding as if (though I knew it wasn't true) they had come to offer actual help with the work. I would thank them for their kind offer, ask how much experience they had, explain my approach, ask what role they were interested in--I would interview them. Nothing would, of course, come of this. But at least the interaction would not become irritating enough to me that I'd be tempted to say things I should not.

In a word--it went great.

Like I said, I'm not proud of this particular interaction. (Or am I? I told you all about it, didn't I? Oh, human nature.) But it works. It works well. Break the logic of the conversation, make your response a rushing torrent going in the direction you want the dialogue to go, and people are wrong-footed, they find it very hard to go back to their original intent. Or taking the tactic to an extreme, as the white supremacists do--shout in the street at some poor unsuspecting friend or stranger to stop insulting, abusing, or hitting you, and who will believe whatever they say in their defense?

Why am I writing about this again? I know you all aren't going to fall for this kind of thing--not from these people. I guess I just couldn't get it off my brain.

But just in case anyone shows up who might think these people have a point, here is the thing.

It's okay to be white. No-one ever doubted it. It's okay to be black. It's okay to be Hmong, it's okay to be Inuit, it's okay to be Italian, it's okay to be Rukuba. (Rukuba? That's the Nigerian tribe a friend is from.) It's okay to be half black, a quarter white and a quarter Native American. All cultures are precious and worth preserving. You are precious and worth preserving.

But if you are telling other people that they are lesser human beings (which this guy was, in so many words, I visited his site)--if you are doing that, don't go taking a defensive posture, don't cry oppression, don't yell in the street or on the internet that you are the one being shamed.

We won't believe you. Because it isn't true.