Category Archives: Essay

A Writer’s First Visit to the Holy Land: The Golan Heights and Tell Dan

Introduction

A source of the Jordan River in the Tell Dan Nature Preserve

As I stated previously, before I talk about my trip to the Golan Heights and Tell Dan, I want to talk about the situation we are all facing with regard to the Coronavirus. One of the most helpful things I have heard was a brief interview Ravi Zacharias gave from a hospital parking lot (he was in for a cancer treatment after a recent diagnosis).

He said essentially there are two extreme responses to avoid: great fear and indifference. I think he is right and that middle road is what I want to follow as I take precautions of “social distancing” and yet do not let fear rule my thinking. Here is the link to his approximately six minute interview by Ben Shapiro.

Ravi passed away a few days ago on May 19, 2020. Although I did not know him personally, I have read so many of his books and attended a course of his that I feel as if I do know him personally. Since, as it turns out, this interview was the last message from him that I heard, it is even more significant for me.

Tell Dan and the source of the Jordan

Attribution: Map Data © 2020 Mapa GISreal. Orion-Me. A view of the Tell Dan Nature Preserve

The land given to the tribe of Dan is very different from the country we have seen up to this point. Close to Mount Hermon and the Golan Heights, this country was lush as opposed to arid. We saw some of the streams that formed the source of the Jordan River.

The abundant water reminded me of Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 17, a tree planted by streams of water.

A tree planted by stream of water. Psalm 1:3.

An Ancient Canaanite City

Ancient Canaanite arch predating the Roman arch

One of the remarkable finds in the archaeological excavations in this area was the discovery of a “Canaanite Arch” (shown above) which predates the Roman arch. 

A Canaanite Small City

One of the interesting excavation sites in this area was a Canaanite City (much smaller than what we consider a city today). Notice they do not have freestanding walls but rather back-filled walls. The stone work and foundations required for free-standing walls were apparently not known yet.

Walls supported by earth before free-standing walls could be constructed
A closeup of the fortifications
An altar

In the picture below, one sees the remnants of a frame that held the posts of the sedan chair or throne that would be carried to the outside of the city gate for the king to greet delegations, negotiate with neighboring rulers, or perhaps even hear complaints and charges from his own subjects.

This again verifies the historical accuracy of the Bible as the city gates play such an important role in the historical Old Testament accounts. Meeting strangers outside the city gates also likely served a strategic, military purpose: visitors could not spy out the defenses of the city itself since they were not allowed inside.

The platform for the king’s chair just outside the city gates

Personal Reflection

The past two weeks have seen the passing of two very important people in my life. My father passed away on May 10th, while Ravi Zacharias passed away on May 19th. They were very different people: my father was a private man who influenced his family, his friends and his faith community; Ravi Zacharias was an international speaker who profoundly challenged everyone who would listen (including me) to think carefully and consistently about their faith.

Different as they were, they both impressed me with their commitment to understanding the Bible rightly and living out a life that put trust in the Lord Christ. Seeing the picture of the tree in the middle of the pool at Tell Dan reminds me to do the same.

For the previous post in this series …
If you are looking for something to read during this time of isolation, my e-books (ePub format) are now also available from Walmart … here are the links:

The Halcyon Dislocation

The Battle for Halcyon

The Dragons of Sheol

Questioning Your Way to Faith

A Writer’s First Visit to the Holy Land: Golgotha and the Garden Tomb

Introduction

As, probably for the first time in my life, I celebrate Good Friday and Easter Sunday at home and not in the direct presence of other Christ-Followers, I reflect on the privilege it was to visit Israel and particularly Golgotha and the Garden Tomb only a couple of months ago, a short time before all travel was curtailed and then suspended. Easter is a time when I particularly reflect on the times and locales that were intimately bound together with Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection: the Mount of Olives, Gethsemane, Golgotha, and the Garden Tomb.

Golgotha

Golgotha site photographed in about 1870. With the light optimal so one can see the eye sockets of the skull in shadow.
Same location, February 2020. Earthquake damage has obscured some of the features.

We are not 100% sure of the Golgotha (Calvary) site used for Christ’s crucifixion. We know when the Romans crucified someone, they chose a very public place, near a main road or gate, so that it would have maximum impact on passers-by. This location, along with a nearby burial site seem like a likely spot, particularly if one looks at older photographs when the area was less built up and the sun, at the correct angle throws the skull’s eye sockets into shadow.

The Garden Tomb

Line-up by the garden tomb

Near the site of Golgotha one can also find burial sites. These sites have a rock-sealed chamber where the wrapped body is left to decay, so that the bones can be recovered later and stored with those of other family members in a family ossuary. Sometimes there is also a chamber where mourners can wait.

Personal Reflection

Having visited Israel, I cannot now read the accounts of Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection without remembering places we visited.

One cannot get around it. The death and resurrection of Jesus is at the heart of the gospel and the Christian message. One can disbelieve it, but one can’t legitimately explain it away.

At the end of the Garden Tomb visit, our group had a secluded patio to ourselves where we could sing about the resurrection. We sang one of those songs today as part of our internet Easter service. That song brought the garden musical worship experience flooding back.

Questions

  • With our coronavirus-imposed isolation, how has that affected your celebration of Easter?
  • How have you meaningfully connected with friends and family during Easter, a time when many of us would gather at someone’s home for a meal and family time?

I’d love to hear your answers as comments here or on Facebook.

For the previous post in this series …

A Writer's First Visit to the Holy Land: The Sea of Galilee

Introduction

Sunrise from our hotel on the Sea of Galilee

Before I talk about my trip to The Sea of Galilee, I want to talk about the situation we are all facing with regard to the Coronavirus. One of the most helpful things I have heard was a brief interview Ravi Zacharias gave from a hospital parking lot (he’s in for a cancer treatment after a recent diagnosis).

He said essentially there are two extreme responses to avoid: great fear and indifference. I think he is right and that middle road is what I want to follow as I take precautions of “social distancing” and yet do not let fear rule my thinking. Here is the link to his approximately six minute interview by Ben Shapiro.

Travelling Around The Sea of Galilee

Nazareth, Magdala (near Migdala) and Capernaum [Attribution: Map Data © 2020 Mapa GISreal. Orion-M]

We left Nazareth and Mount Precipice to our hotel on the Sea of Galilee. (Capernaum and Magdala (near Migdala), which I will talk about presently are shown as ellipses on the above map). I was blessed to have an east-looking balcony to capture a beautiful sunrise from my room.

Our day began with a boat ride across the sea and for such a small lake, it had a fair chop. I guess the lake rift valley, surrounded by high terrain. means the surrounding mountains/hills act like a funnel and when the wind changes direction, it can whip up this relatively small lake significantly (reminiscent of the gospels).

Travelling up the west coast of The Sea of Galilee
A view of the rugged eastern shore

Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount

Mount of the Beatitudes

Capernaum

Capernaum, the site of much of Jesus’ ministry, has a church and significant excavations and restorations of a beautiful synagogue. This synagogue dates to a time after the first century, as indicated by the imported light-colored stone, but in a corner, below the newer synagogue, one can find the remnants of the older synagogue that Jesus attended.

The older synagogue from the time of Jesus in Capernaum

Peter/s house in Capernaum has been covered by a church, and the excavation is shown here.

A “homeless Jesus” sculpture in Capernaum

I learned that since the Galilee area is volcanic in origin, the older building from the time of Jesus consist of black basalt. Later when Capernaum became more prosperous because of a Roman road, the newer buildings used imported white or light-colored stone.

Magdala, Home of Mary Magdalene

The church at Magdala

We finished our day at a beautiful church at Magdala, the home of Mary Magdalene. There is a wonderfully restored synagogue from the time of Jesus at this site. Magdala is at the entrance of a pass that is the likely route Jesus would have walked from Nazareth to The Sea of Galilee, so almost certainly He would have used this synagogue after his journey.

Personal Reflection

At the Mount of the Beatitudes, I had the chance to site on a bench in the beautiful church gardens and reflect on Matthew 4:23-5:12.As I reflected on this passage, I focused especially on Matthew 5:7 ” blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.”

It struck me, when our hearts are right, that genuine mercy is always an option to the penalties specified in the Mosaic Law. In Matthew 1:19 when Joseph realized that Mary was pregnant before they had come together, it is written of him: “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her [a betrothal had the same force as a marriage and required a divorce] quietly.”

Presumably, in that society, Joseph could have publicly shamed her or even demanded she be stoned (John 8:3-11). He did not because, as the wronged party, mercy was always an option.

Being merciful is always an option.

I and many others have sometimes wondered if the God of the Old Testament has the same character as the Father God of the New Testament. We know from our teaching that he does. The fact that mercy is always an option, if the people have the heart for it, helps me to look at the Old Testament in a new light.

Questions

  • If you have a particular passage in the Old Testament that troubles you, how might “mercy is always an option” help you understand it?
  • One of the questions put to us at the Mount of Beatitudes: “For you, what is the hardest part of being a Jesus follower today?” How would you answer that question?

I’d love to hear your answers as comments here or on Facebook.

For the previous post in this series …
If you are looking for something to read during this time of isolation, my e-books (ePub format) are now also available from Walmart … here are the links:

The Halcyon Dislocation

The Battle for Halcyon

The Dragons of Sheol

Questioning Your Way to Faith

Sunrise over The Sea of Galilee

A Writer’s First Visit to the Holy Land: Nazareth Village and Mount Precipice

Our route so far: we traveled up the coast from Joppa to Caesarea Maritima, then over to Mount Carmel and finally to Nazareth (see the three ellipses).

Our Route So Far

We began our journey traveling up the coast from Joppa (south Tel Aviv) to Caesarea Maritima. We then headed inland along the the Valley of Yizre’el (also called the plain of Megiddo as in Armageddon).

One of the difficulties in reading maps of the Holy Land is that every place seems to have several different names, each with different spellings as the name gets transliterated into different alphabets.

In the case of the Yizre’el Valley/Plain of Megiddo, both Yizre’el and Megiddo were (and I suppose are) important towns in the valley and it makes sense for inhabitants to name it after the nearest important town in the valley. You’ll see the plaque on Mount Precipice near Nazareth called  the Yizrael Valley, yet its the same valley we saw from Mount Carmel.

Nazareth Village

The wine press at Nazareth Village.

Nazareth is a small city of about 77,000 surrounding the village area of  the Nazareth of two thousand years ago. The original village would have been located close to the springs that made life in this arid place possible.

We visited Nazareth Village, a reconstructed village from the time of Jesus on an archaeological site that used to be a terraced farm two thousand years ago. In the picture above, one can see the wine press itself, a flat, slightly sloped area where the grapes were pressed barefoot and then a channel to a deeper hollow where the grape juice was collected.

A closeup of the flat portion, the channel, and the collection basin of the wine press.

The History of Nazareth Village: “Extensive archeological [sic] excavations show that this remarkably preserved site is home to an over 2000 year old wine press cut into the bedrock. The remains of a vineyard, watchtowers, terraces, spring fed irrigation system and stone quarries tell the story of a working farm area just outside of the original old Nazareth. The hillside was preserved and untouched on the grounds of the Nazareth Hospital, established in 1906 by the Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society (EMMS), now called the Nazareth Trust.

A vineyard watch tower at Nazareth Village (Read the Parable of the Tenants … Matthew 21: 33-46).
A reconstruction of an ancient olive press. The stones on the lever beam were successively engaged to recover three fractions of olive oil from the olive mash. The earliest fraction was purest and most precious.
Scrolls in the reconstructed synagogue at Nazareth Village.
Ceiling beams and ceiling cover of reconstructed dwellings following the ancient pattern. This is the type of roof that would have allowed loyal friends to lower their crippled companion into the presence of Jesus (Mark 2:1-12).

Mount Precipice

The Valley of Yizre’el (Plain of Megiddo) from Mount Precipice, near Nazareth.
According to the Gospel of Luke (Luke 4:16-30) “And they rose up and drove him out of town and brought him to the brow of the hill … But passing through their midst he went away.”

Personal Reflection

As I reflected on this passage in Luke chapter 4, after having just finished studying the life of Elijah and the confrontation on Mount Carmel, it struck me for the first time that Jezebel was a Sidonian (1 Kings 16: 31).

Yet even in the culture of that time in which the family members and people of Jezebel should be held equally culpable for Jezebel’s deeds, our gracious God sends Elijah to look after a Sidonian widow and her son during a time of extreme drought.

Confirmation Bias

My trip to Israel was much more than confronting and learning about history; it was also a time of personal learning and reflection. On Mount Precipice as we were thinking about the Luke 4:14-30, we were asked to consider the question:

If someone were to follow you for a week and watch how you live, what would they say about who you believe Jesus to be?”

As a scientist, I worry a lot about bias, in particular confirmation bias, the observation that if a person believes a theory or hypothesis to be true, then they leap with glee on any datum that supports their point of view,  but likely relinquish troublesome data points to the “To Be Explained” file with a sigh saying “I’ll have to give those data points more thought to see if I can see how they fit in.”

So “Whom should you ask?” I guess I would say ask someone else who does follow me around and then tell me what they see so that we’ll both know!

Likely there would be some indicators that I think Jesus is who He said He was, mixed in with many attitudes and behaviors that say the opposite (unfortunately).

Questions

  • If you have ever been to the Holy Land, what thought or experience has stayed with you the longest?
  • Did your visit to the Holy Land pique your interest in spiritual things or diminish your interest?
  • If you haven’t gone to the Holy Land yet, and were given a chance to go, what would you hope to see/learn/experience?

I’d love to hear your answers as comments here or on Facebook.

For the previous post in this series …
If you are in Mississauga and interested in checking out Peter’s futuristic fiction … here is the link to his books in the Mississauga Library.
Mount Tabor as seen from Mount Precipice.

A Writer’s First Visit to the Holy Land: Mount Carmel

The statue of Elijah at the Deir Al-Mukhraqa Carmelite Monastery on Mount Carmel, the likely site for the contest between Elijah and the four hundred prophets of Baal.

Mount Carmel, Elijah, and the Prophets of Baal

Elijah served as prophet in one of the darkest chapters in the history of Israel. A weak and wicked king, Ahab had married Jezebel, a Sidonian. Jezebel ran the kingdom in Ahab’s name. She killed, likely with the complicity of the prophets of Baal, pretty well all of the prophets of Yahweh.

We read in 1 Kings 18:3-4 (almost as a footnote or side note) that Jezebel had cut off the prophets of the LORD:

And Ahab called Obadiah, who was over his household. (now Obadiah feared the LORD greatly, and when Jezebel cut off the prophets of the LORD, Obadiah took a hundred prophets, and hid them by fifties in a cave and fed them bread and water.)

Many will likely remember this narrative well, where Elijah challenges the 400 prophets of Baal and the 450 prophets of Asherah that ate at Jezebel’s table to a contest on Mount Carmel. Ahab was urged by Elijah to:

“Send and gather all of Israel at Mount Carmel …” (1 Kings 18:19).

Having been on top of Mount Carmel, it is easy to see how that could have happened. One has the rocky and steep rounded mountain open to the vast Migiddo plain. The leaders of Israel could readily climb the mountain side to be near the summit to see the priests performing their worship ceremony. Yet the summit is so exposed that even people some distance away in the plain could seen the culmination of the sign with fire from the sky consuming Elijah’s offering.

A view of the plain of Megiddo

A Troublesome Question

A troublesome question for me (perhaps not for others) would be “where is the grace in this passage towards the prophets of Baal?”

Having seen the character of Jesus in the New Testament and recognizing that this is also the most complete representation of the God’s character in the Old Testament, I would expect to find some evidence of His desire for grace, repentance, and forgiveness.

For me (and I recognize there is no explicit evidence for this in the passage) I think one of the reasons the Baal worship and the taunting by Elijah went on for such a long time, was to afford some of the prophets of Baal an opportunity to realize that they were serving a false god and repent. There is no evidence they did so, but God’s willingness to accept repentance seems almost boundless.

Even Ahab, after all the terrible things he did and allowed to be done, had his repentance accepted (1 Kings 21:27-29). His repentance only temporarily delayed the deportation of Israel, since the rot was too deep, but it delayed Judgment Day for a time.

Rocks on the side of Mount Carmel present an interesting conundrum from a military perspective. The plain of Megiddo seems to be ideal terrain for tanks (or chariots) while the surrounding mountains with all their rocks would be nigh impassible for any but infantry on foot.

Personal Reflection

The teaching on this epic historical narrative on Elijah left me with the challenge: “How can I apply this to my life. What should I take a stand on, even if it goes against what many around me believe?

As I pondered these questions, it occurred to me how deeply our presumption of relativism in general and Political Correctness in particular has colored our view of every question. Indeed, it seems making pronouncements of any kind (except pronouncing that one shouldn’t make pronouncements) is seen as a statement of opinion or fashion and can only be valid for ourselves and has no universal applicability. Indeed to insist otherwise is seen as bigotry.

In our culture of Political Correctness, it seems that making a statement that ideas, attitudes, and behaviors have genuine consequences is seen by many as capricious and egregious as insisting that everyone must only wear black.

This state of affairs makes application of the Elijah passage quite difficult. As a writer of fiction, I am constantly being told by my writer’s group and editor “show don’t tell!”

For our culture, telling, or making pronouncements is an anathema and keeps the speaker from being heard. If, however, I can construct a fictional character so real as to be believable, let them have ideas, train their own attitudes, and then makes choices that have consequences, then perhaps the reader will see the connections.

This has been a spur to me to strive to be a better writer, avoiding the preaching of sermons (telling) in my books, but letting the reader discover the connections as the story unfolds. I hope I can continue to grow as a writer and do it.

For the previous post in this series …
If you are interested in checking out Peter’s futuristic fiction … here is the link to his books on Chapters/Indigo.

A Writer’s First Visit to the Holy Land: Caesarea Maritima

The Mediterranean seen through an arch of the aqueduct at Caesarea Maritima.

Walking from Joppa to Caesarea

In the previous post in the Holy Land series, I spoke about Joppa and an appeal by Cornelius, a Roman centurion situated Caesarea, for Peter to visit him. Peter traveled to the city of Caesarea (or more precisely Caesarea Maritima to distinguish it from other cities in the Roman Empire honoring Caesar – you may remember for example Caesarea Philippi), a distance of approximately 33.6 miles (63 km). Our guide spoke of an average walking distance of 15 km per day, so that would suggest it would be a four-day journey one way.

I think the 15 km/day walk was a leisurely trek that took into account the penchant of travelers of that day to be news-bearers as well as news-acquirers as they stopped along the way.

Cornelius’ servants were legionaries. The Roman army had three walking paces with full kit that had to be achieved by every legionary. Stragglers were unacceptable because they divided the army and put it at risk.

  • A standard march: regular step or military pace – about 18.4 miles (29.6 km) per day with full kit
  • Faster step: about 22.1 miles (35.5 km) per day
  • Forced march: up to 30 miles (48 km) per day

Thus given that Cornelius’ emissaries were likely traveling without full kit and the distance is easily achievable given legion requirements, the New Testament account of roughly four days round trip is easily achievable.

Herod the Great

A view of the harbor destroyed by earthquake and tsunami. Much of the coastline has been altered by these calamities and the jetties are submerged.
Cormorants roosting on ruins close to the sea in Caesarea.

Caesarea Maritima was built by Herod the Great over about twelve years (22-10 BC). He was an audacious builder and we will encounter his work again, in the temple renovation in Jerusalem, at Masada, and at the city of Herodion (his burial place).

Herod’s construction was impressive: he built a breakwater and jetties to achieve a deep water port on a coast with no natural protection. he also built a Roman city complete with theater, hippodrome (horse and chariot races), and an amphitheater (gladiatorial events) as well as Roman baths, statues and temples. It became a major Roman base in the area, consistent with the New Testament teaching.

Paul also also was imprisoned in Caesarea, the governor’s residence (Acts 23:23-Acts 26:32) and made his defense before King Agrippa there.

Alas, Caesarea was built in an earthquake zone and was severely damaged by quake an tsunami sometime in the 1st and 2nd century. By the 6th century, the damage was so great the harbor was unusable. This can be seen from the pictures.

Personal Reflection

A replica of a stone found at this location bearing an inscription referring to Pontius Pilate.
The description accompanying the Pilate stone.

Caesarea, like so many sites in the Holy Land is replete with archaeological evidence that complements and corroborates the data historical data found in the New and Old Testaments.

As a scientist who has spent a good fraction of his life conducting research in chemistry and physics, I am well acquainted with the careful distinction that science makes between data and explanatory interpretations of the data (by that I mean hypotheses, theories, and laws).

One is taught that data is to be taken as correct and true and cannot be dismissed lightly. Even if one suspects an error was made in a measurement, one does not delete the offending datum, but one remeasures it and keeps both old and new.

In contrast, one works to disprove hypotheses in order to avoid confirmation bias.

However, to an outsider, it seems these rules are abandoned when it comes to the Old and New Testament. Indeed it seems to me they are often treated not like data but hypotheses and so analysts feel free obligated to disprove their reliability.

 

Yet coming to the Holy Land, one finds hundreds, likely thousands of pieces of evidence: places, people, landmarks etc. which are referenced in the Bible.

Both Old and New Testaments are ancient documents with an excellent documentary pedigree. Yet it seems, these documents are often put on trial and assumed to be fictitious until proven otherwise.

For me this is reminiscent of some of the shoddy police work one sometimes reads about, where an officer is so convinced that a defendant is guilty that he automatically adds any witness with a potential alibi for the defendant to the list of co-conspirators.

This process is helpful if one is only interested in getting convictions, but not if one is  looking for the truth. In the same way, if one treats the biblical texts as hypotheses and not as data, then one is not giving the texts the recognition they deserve.

If you are interested in checking out Peter’s futuristic fiction … here is the link to his Amazon Author page.
For the previous post in this series …
Remains of the aqueduct that once brought water to Caesarea.

A Writer’s First Visit to the Holy Land: The Port of Joppa

Introduction

As a writer and a Christ-Follower visiting the Holy Land for the first time, it became apparent my trip cannot help but change the way I read the bible, look at history, and see one of the places that formed, in large measure, the civilization in which I live.

As someone pointed out, it is like going from a black and white picture to a three-dimensional color picture: the details are essentially the same but are seen in a wholly new way.

The bell tower of Saint Peter’s Church as seen from the steps of Kikar Kedumin Street in Joppa
A closer view of Saint Peter’s Church and bell tower.

Joppa

Joppa (also called Jaffa, Japho or Yapo) has been the port for Jerusalem from well-before King David. According to Wikipedia its use as a port dates back to 1800 BC.

It was captured from the Philistines in the time of David and used by Solomon as the port for the building materials used for the first temple  (2 Chronicles 2:16).

I saw Joppa on a windy day. The architecture is from different periods, given that port has been taken and retaken. It is an interesting mix of older architecture from successive periods standing along side modern art.

The new in the midst of the old. Modern iconic art in Old Joppa.
Although the original house of Simon the Tanner has almost certainly been destroyed, it would have been a house similar to this one, overlooking the shore. The flat roof was for guests and even though it is winter one can see that the vines on the roof, in summer, would have provided shade in the heat of the day.

Personal Reflection

In Acts Chapter 8 and 9 (Acts 8:36-9:48) we read the account of Peter and Cornelius. The latter, as a God-fearing centurion in Caesarea, after a vision, sends for Simon Peter in Joppa. Peter, himself, as an observant Jew needs convincing through a separate vision, that he ought to make the long journey to Caesarea and enter the house of a gentile. Peter does so and we have the first occurrence of the grace of the Christian message being extended beyond a Jewish audience in the New Testament.

As I read this, and I pondered Peter’s dilemma in being told, against his own background and inclination, to extend the gift he and his people had received through Christ, to not only others, but members of the oppressor’s class, it made me reflect on my own time and what it might mean.

We live in contradictory times. In school we are taught that we are biochemical machines that are the product of billions of years of mutation and selection, with bits of genetic code (genes) acting like puppet masters directing our every step to maximize our self preservation and reproduction so that our particular gene sequence comes to dominate the pool.

At the same time, in the same schools, we are also taught the contradictory assertion that we are held responsible for the past acts of our immediate ancestors, our clan, and our tribe even though we were not even alive to participate in the decisions (whether good or bad) that were made on our behalf.

For me the teaching in Acts 9 brings harmony to our modern contradiction. We owe duty and allegiance to family, clan, and tribe. However, Acts 9 teaches us to look beyond with a duty to those outside since they are also our brothers.

Acts 9 teaches me to care for, and do my duty toward family, clan, and tribe. Yet life is not a zero sum game where we only win, by pushing outsiders down, but rather, in the end, there are no outsiders.

Looking north toward Tel Aviv from Old Joppa. The little dots in the water are surfers.
A zoom lens closeup of the surfers waiting for the next big wave, north of Old Joppa.

I’m often asked: “Can you make money as an indie author?”

When people ask me this question, they are usually asking because they or someone they know is active or will be active in writing a book, and they are wondering what to expect. Others ask it because they are skeptical that it is even possible to make money without going through a traditional publisher.

My answer is usually a qualified “yes” it is possible (but certainly not guaranteed) to make money through an indie or as I prefer to call it, a micro-publishing endeavor.

Why the qualification? There are three basic reasons.

Indie or Micro-Publishing is a Small Business Endeavor

The first thing that one has to remember: Micro-Publishing is a small business. Like other small businesses, this means you will likely not be making money out of the starting gate. Rather, like other small business start-ups, you will have to put in long hours with little remuneration, and finally there is significant risk that you will run out of money, patience, or interest before the business begins to pay off. This comes with the territory of starting something you own.

A case in point, many writers that try to find a traditional publisher also spend a great deal of time writing with no remuneration and then attempting to convince a publisher to take on their manuscript (also with no remuneration). This start-up time when taking the traditional route is often excluded from pay-back calculations. The writers who run out of money, patience, or interest choosing this route are ignored leading to a “survivor bias” when comparing traditionally published authors with indie authors.

Many writers augment their early cash flow with writing-related income, for example, editing, free-lance magazine submissions, contract writing for trade journal or instruction manuals. In my own case, since I write Science Fiction, I tutor in physics and chemistry, as well as provide chemistry consulting as a way of staying connected to science.

Indie or Micro-Publishing is an Annuity Business

Secondly, Micro-Publishing is an annuity-driven small business. When you publish your first book, there will be an initial flurry of interest and then slower sales over the long term. Long-term sales depend on how many people hear about your book and hear enough good things to take a chance to buy it. You may also get copyright remuneration or some remuneration for library usage. These long-term sales are your annuity.

The key point: as you write more books, this annuity stream will grow, but often in the initial stages, the up-front costs of writing and publishing more books will grow faster than the annuity stream.

Most Writers Care About the Art as Much or More than They Care About the Business

Finally, writers are artists as well as business-owners. They have a message or art they wish to develop which is often more important to them than the money. I’ve often been told, “If you wrote Science Fiction more like mainstream SF, you would sell more books.” I think that’s true, but I wanted to write Science Fiction that I would like to read but no one else has bothered to write. For me that means I explore worldview, spiritual, and philosophic questions as well as maintaining a strong science component in my novels. Not optimizing only for the money, probably puts one on a slower growth trajectory, but through it I hope to connect with kindred spirits who long for the same kind of story that I seek.

So What Should I Worry About as an Indie Writer?

1. Scalability

First, ask yourself what happens if my next book goes viral and hundreds, even thousands of readers want it at once? Can your distribution system handle it? If you only sell personal copies or mail them yourself, the answer is probably “no.” If some other organization handles the sales, then the answer is likely “yes.” In other words, make sure your distribution channel is scalable in case the breakthrough you hope for happens.

2. Marketing

Writers are often taught to market aggressively. I won’t do that for two reasons: (1) I don’t want to approach anyone in a way that I would not want to be approached. I don’t like aggressive tactics so I won’t use them. (2) I started to realize that when friends would see me, they would immediately think “I haven’t bought Peter’s book yet.” I don’t want that either. Their friendship is much more important to me than a sale. They need to know that they don’t have to like or buy my books to be my friend. That thought should not even come up.

As a consequence, most of my “advertising” or marketing is low-key on social media, by email signatures, or by magnetic signs on my vehicle. Word of mouth, without my intervention, is still the best form of advertising. Improving my writing craft so that readers will enjoy my books so much that they will give them as gifts or recommend them to friends and family is my long term objective.

3. Things Change Unexpectedly

When I published my first book, it was still possible to use Canada Post to mail books to customers at a reasonable shipping charge. Now so many surcharges, special charges have been added that even with a small-business discount, it can cost me $17.50 to ship one book to a nearby small town. Who can afford to pay that much on a book worth $20-30? the answer is “no one.”

This unexpected change has shut down one potential channel for reaching readers. These kinds of changes that are beyond a writer’s control have a major impact on the business. Like all small businesses, one has to adapt and make sure there are several ways to get your books to your readers.

Final Thoughts

Above all, keep writing, connect with like-minded readers, and connect with other writers who share your passion to communicate with others and bring a little beauty and inspiration into their lives.



Disclaimer

I do not offer publishing, small business, or other financial advice. I offer my own history, observations, and comments up in the hope they will stimulate thinking and discussion.



A CREEPING OF HERESIES. A Guest Essay by Mark Jokinen of Peterborough

Picture yourself walking along a path

        Picture yourself walking along a path of many steps, but a path where you can see clearly only one step ahead. You can’t see the end destination. It makes sense to you  to take that one step, and you take it. After that, you can now see the next step ahead, and so on. The thing is, after you have taken many such steps, you look back to where you had begun, and realize that if you could have foreseen the end of the path at the beginning you would not have begun it. What has happened here?

         What I believe happens is that the path changes you. Each step on its own changes you a little, and each seems no big deal. Or each step makes sense on its own if you don’t know the final destination. It is that sum of all the little changes, that you didn’t foresee at the beginning, that concerns me here.

         I see that process in many places. It is part of everyday living, the unavoidable experience of everyone as we age, and ask ourselves, ‘What happened? Where did the years go?’ It happens as we become desensitized to pornography or violence in the media and advertising. It happens with controversial issues such as homosexuality, or divorce, or abortion, where adjustment gradually becomes acceptance, and then approval, and then there is a  new normal. It happens in Christians as we interact with non-Christians socially, intellectually, legally.1  We may change them, but interaction

1 I should state that I consider myself a traditional Christian. My wife 
and I attend a Baptist Church. I am comfortable with Roman Catholicism,
Protestantism, Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and so on.
I have not formally joined any denomination. I accept the Apostle’s Creed
as a statement of faith.

with them also changes us. The changes may be good, or worthwhile, or not, but we should  be aware of the process so that we can choose to assent to it, or not, from the beginning. The two areas I will examine here are (1) the process where many young, university age Christians lose their faith, and (2) the tolerance of heretical ideas, of old heresies returning, such as Gnosticism.

         The important thing is to become aware as soon as possible of the overall effect of the path, and decide whether or not and on what terms to continue. I can see three things to do when one is somewhere on the path. The first is to look back to the  beginning, to recover one’s vision from there. The second is to take one step back as a test; and the third is to take a step sideways, off the path entirely.  (To actually go back to the beginning of the path is usually very difficult, or impossible, and the changes to that point are usually a mixture of good and bad.)

          An example of the first, for a Christian, is reading the Bible, or asking oneself what would Jesus do, or Paul, or Peter. What would they say about this path you are on, the changes in you? Would they approve? How do you feel about their reaction? (Not… ‘what do you think about that?’). Praying. Returning to your root experience as a Christian…

         The second thing one can do is to take one step back. Find out how easy or hard it is, compared with stepping forward. The step back could be easier, or more difficult, or no different. An example of it being easier is a person trying to break an old, long-established bad habit, where backsliding is easy. An example of it being more difficult is when a Christian is alone or in a minority among non-Christians, where it is easier to go along with the crowd. There could be unspoken goals or beliefs among  the majority that are not made clear until that backward step is taken. And if the steps  forward  and back are about equal in difficulty, one could at least stay there until things become clearer.

         The third thing to try is the sideways step, off the path entirely. This is the most difficult of the three because it is the most original response, thinking outside the box. It is seeing the steps, the path, from a different and new viewpoint. From there, one could set off on a new path or direction, or return to the original one with new understanding.

          A great many young Christians leave the faith they were raised in, especially when  they go away to university. I believe one reason for it is exposure to the secular environment, perhaps actively anti-Christian, without the counterbalancing of home and church. The result is a slow leaching away of meaning, of habits and religious practice, to where their faith seems ridiculous, dubious, and restrictive. And their loss of faith feels like liberation to them, which makes it very hard to resist or argue against.

          A change we grow used to becomes the new normal, and each small step can be a small surrender. But each step is also a small confrontation, asking if this path is right, with each person on their own in trying to answer that. Being a religious person in a secular environment is not the same as being a religious person in a different religious environment. A Christian interacting with Hindu or Buddhist people is challenged with a different religious truth. A Christian in a secular environment is challenged by an absence of religious truth, by ‘what’s the point of believing it?’ Key beliefs such as the Resurrection begin to seem ridiculous, irrational, unnecessary, and eventually untrue. Rational argument and scientific reasoning are compatible with  and can support both Christianity and atheism, but somehow atheism has become the default position in secular society.

         The person has to want to stay Christian, has to want it strongly. Without that desire, everything else in their faith is useless. With that desire, the three things to do on the path when in secular society make sense. Returning to one’s roots could be reading the Bible, or ‘practicing the presence of God’.  Taking a step back could be doing a short  prayer at meal-time, both with others and alone. Doing it visibly, not just secretly or silently. And leaving the path entirely could be going on a spiritual retreat to refocus; or starting a craft or art or physical activity that is neither religious nor secular, getting you  completely away from the issues for a while.

          Loss of faith is often perceived or felt by the person as a gain in freedom, but that feeling is a temporary illusion. It is easy for believers  to not face that issue of feeling  and to concentrate on the authority of the Bible, or on belief in the Resurrection, or the Creeds… But the feeling of freedom will undercut any argument. Freedom from feels like freedom to, whether it is sexual freedom, or gender identity freedom, or not having to read the Bible or go to church, or abortion freedom, or freedom to choose what laws to obey, beyond society’s laws. It feels like liberation from a Christianity seen as narrow, constricting, and nonsensical, and into a wider society of more choices.

            Each step taken must be seen instead as a small surrender, not as a step of liberation. To return to the beginning of the path could be to focus on Paul’s gospel of grace, of the ‘Apostle of the Heart Set Free’2 , and then choosing a different path from that point. We must address  the difference between  freedom and license directly, and do it rationally, patiently, respectfully and humbly.

2Bruce; Paul: Apostle. Pages 119 and 141. Also 2 Cor 3:17-18.

         I see a similar path at work in scholars whose ideas become more extreme and provocative as time passes. There is excitement and joy in generating and exploring new ideas, especially radical ones. Developing arguments, marshaling evidence, engaging in intellectual combat: the academic is trained for this, and our culture sees the exploration of radical ideas as heroic. And it is. Jolts of creative pleasure and  intellectual satisfaction are addictive, as they should be. But also addictive are the rewards of public attention and recognition, and the regard of one’s peers. The outsider is seen as heroic. The academic’s earlier ideas become part of his or her mental furniture, and cease to be exciting. The excitement in exploring new, forbidden ideas, new possibilities, more radical and revolutionary ideas is also addictive. Each of us has a secret yearning to be the next Galileo, or Newton, or Einstein. But the scholar may be confusing the pleasures of discovery, and of motivation, with the truth. Our brains are inherent pattern recognition machines, and that of the scholar is trained to be even more so. A friend of mine is of the opinion that modern scholarship, especially in the social sciences, has institutionalized the goal of heresy.3

3Kazmaier, Peter M. Personal communication.

         So what can the scholar (and the creative artist too) do when on a path into the unknown? He can think  back to the beginning, back to first principles in his questions. We are all human: it could mean having to get to the root of one’s motives. For the scientist, how would it feel  to let others have the personal rewards, the professional recognition, the verdict of history for your ideas and work?  For the artist, perhaps the joy of playing/practicing his art with absolutely no audience for it, ever. Would each of them still walk that path, if joy of discovery was the only reward?

         What would taking one step back entail? I see it as a test of resistance and a test of rightness. These are empirical tests, rather than logical ones, for logic alone will keep leading you forward along the path. See if you can reverse the chain of reasoning, which could make just as much sense. Find out what makes it difficult to take that step back. Public embarrassment about changing your mind? Afraid of being called inconsistent or erratic? Listen for a ‘still, small feeling of rightness’ and nurture it. Try to put aside the allure of novelty, of new possibilities that may be illusory. Compare the two steps, forward and back. When you turn and face the other way, the path looks completely different.  And what would be an example of a sideways step, off the path entirely? Perhaps getting an opinion on your situation from someone in an entirely different discipline or craft. (Artist? Musician? Parent with small children?  Manual laborer?)  How well could you convey your situation to them, in their language?

        Another area where this path of many steps effect is at work is in the tolerance of, or indifference to, heretical ideas. I see a deadening or desensitization similar to that to violence or pornography in the media, in our culture generally. The new, the exciting, the offensive becomes in time the new normal. An example of a heretical belief is that Jesus was just a man, a very good man, who didn’t rise from the dead. It is a coherent and persuasive belief that will lead to other beliefs and ideas. Traditionally, it is called Arianism and is a heresy that keeps returning and recurring in the history of the Christian Church.4  (An interesting side question: why do some heretical beliefs keep returning?)

4It is named after its Fourth Century advocate Arius, and has no
relationship to Aryanism, a completely different word.

         There are two dangers in dealing with heretical ideas: the danger of intolerance and the danger of tolerance. The danger of intolerance is clear and obvious from our history: persecution of heretics, book burning, the Inquisition, religious wars, the importance of freedom of thought and expression. The danger of tolerance is more subtle. The issue with heresy is not one of different equal beliefs, but of right versus wrong. It is not a debate with a person of a different religion, but with a person of the same religion who you believe is wrong on a fundamental belief that is accepted as fact. That person is free to believe whatever he or she likes, as are we all, but if we believe the other person is wrong we must be clear in that, and hold to it. A debate format over a belief implies the two sides are equal, are to be treated equally, whether in a formal debate between two people, or in the informal debate within one’s own skull. Any idea should be considered with respect, but a debate about it ends with a choice, and we go on to other things. And we must. But there is a long term ‘wearing down’ or erosion if a debate keeps returning. A wearing down of the older generation having to keep refighting old debates, and of the younger generation not valuing the tradition, rejecting it for the new, the exciting, the different. Both the old and the young must each find their own way back  to their common roots in order to better understand the common path they are on.5

5Two people opposed to each other could each consider their own beliefs to
be orthodoxy,  and the other’s heresy. They would have much to discuss and
clarify. What concerns me is the many-steps process likely at work within
each of them.

         As a society, and in the Church, we have both gained and lost. We have gained in freedom of thought and expression, but we have also lost by becoming less serious in our thinking. It is as if we believe the ideas we think and express have no consequences for us or for others. But they can have consequences, for us in our own personal lives, and for society.

         Consider Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the most influential philosophers. Perhaps his ideas contributed to his insanity, or they resulted from it, or both. But the Nazis took his ideas and misused them. And he continues to be influential and popular. Does he not bear some responsibility for his ideas? Or the scientists who helped develop the atom bomb, and who felt guilty for it afterwards. Or Marx, Darwin, Freud: They are intellectual heroes, role models, shapers of our world, and their ideas are part of us. Their ideas are so influential that we can’t go back in our thinking to before they existed. We can’t unthink  their ideas, we can only agree or disagree with them, challenge them, build on them. We can’t remove their ideas from our heads. An idea, an image, even a powerful photograph, can have a long term effect, one for good, or for corrosive ill. If it is for ill, how best can one resist it?

         If we are responsible for what we think and express, responsible at least to ourselves, and to others if we communicate, we must become aware of the little steps in the path of our thinking, our experience, all the little changes and acceptances we make, and to be prepared to stop, to wait, to reconsider and perhaps choose differently.

         If the path of many steps is an intellectual one, leading perhaps to a heresy or unbelief, what could be the three responses I suggest?

          The first, going back to the beginning of the path: you can’t unthink a thought or idea, once it is in your head, but you can consider other paths from where you are, perhaps other philosophical approaches or directions.

         The second, taking one step back as a test, means facing the other way. A path looks quite different when you face the other way,  and a common unexamined assumption our society has is one of faith in inevitable progress. What resistance is there to taking just the one step back?

The third response, stepping off the path entirely:  perhaps concentrate on the non-intellectual feeling of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps doing  some ordinary, everyday good thing that brings you back to Christ. As Brother Lawrence put it, practicing the presence of God  is more to our essence as Christians than intellectual ideas about Christ  and Christianity are. (Though how difficult the simplest things can be to do!)

         The title, which I coined, is called a ‘venereal’ term6. There were many such terms in late medieval English, and knowing them was considered part of being an educated person  A few such terms have survived into modern English. The best have a richness of  meaning, of poetry and illogic to them: a pride of lions, a murder of crows, an unkindness of ravens, an exaltation of larks… Perhaps a creeping of heresies  can help us each understand our own paths better.

6Lipton; Exaltation. Venery is an archaic word for
hunting.

                                                    Bibliography:

Bruce, F. F.  Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free.
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977.
Lawrence, Brother (Nicholas Herman). The Practice of the Presence of God, With Spiritual Maxims. Grand Rapids: Spire, 1967.
Lipton, James. An
Exaltation of Larks, Or The Venereal Game. New York: Viking,1979. Second Edition.

(c) Copyright Mark Jokinen, 2019

A Christian SF Writer Comments on the Challenge: God is Either Loving or Weak

Is there a contradiction between the theological claims that God is omnipotent and that He is love?

A short time ago my teaching pastor, Bruxy Cavey was teaching on Three Beautiful Words (God is Love) from I John 4:8 (if you’re interested in this critical message you can download the podcast for free).

After the message, as is the custom in our meetings, the floor was opened up for questions. A query was texted in by Peter (not yours truly) and from memory the gist of the question was:

A speaker on TV said that God being loving and being omnipotent was a contradiction. If God were loving, he would fix the world to take away evil and suffering. Since he doesn’t that means either he can’t (therefore he’s not omnipotent) or he won’t (therefore he’s not loving). This has bothered me a lot. How would you answer this?

Now when I encounter challenges like this, I like to think through them and this is the reason for my post.

Thinking about the definitions

Omnipotence is a theological term that describes God’s power as creator and sustainer of all things. I don’t believe it is ever used in the bible but rather is used by theologians to describe the sum of the teaching on God in the bible on the subject of His power and sovereignty.

Before one can examine the claimed contradiction, I think it is useful to understand the word “omnipotent.” The TV speaker and I likely agree that omnipotent means “all powerful” but does that mean that there are no actions that are inherently impossible even to an all-powerful being?

I think the answer to that question is “no;” there are actions inherently impossible even for the omnipotent.
For example, the following actions are inherently impossible or necessarily limit the scope on omnipotence:

1. Actions that violate the law of non-contradiction: God can’t make it rain and not rain on the same spot, in the same sense, at the same time. Choosing to make it rain means He has already chosen against making it “not rain.” The decree and its complement come as a single package.
2. In any creative process, full omnipotence is limited to the first decision. After that, all future decisions are constrained by what has already been chosen. Often subsequent choices are impossible because they violate earlier choices.
3. Omnipotence tells us what God can do, not what He will do.

Allow me to elaborate on points 2 and 3.

In any creative process, full omnipotence is limited to the first decision

As a writer I see this principle in effect whenever I start a novel. When my page is blank I may write anything I like. Perhaps:
“In a galaxy far, far away …” or
“He found the body after midnight on the moor.” or
“When Dolores opened the letter, she knew her life would never be the same again.”

After the first line, my omnipotence as a writer has shriveled enormously. I can no longer do what I want. Everything I write afterwards has to be consistent with what I wrote before. I think God faces the same limitation of particularity. When he chooses a certain course in creation, the contingent choices have to be self-consistent. When He steps into time, what He can do now, is constrained by the choices already made.

Omnipotence tells us what God can do, not what He will do

Omnipotence argues that God could lie. What prevents Him from doing so? He could put the lying words together, but choses not to because of His character. We have the same kind of power: we can all formulate a lie, but in our better moments we chose not to. This argues that there are some things God could do, but does not do them because they conflict with His essence or character.

Okay so why doesn’t God end all wickedness and suffering right now?

I think this is really the heart of the question that bothered the texter, Peter, and I don’t have a full answer. Here is what I have: what would God need to do to fix all wickedness and suffering right now? I think we would have to change the role we currently play on this planet and wrest from us all impulses and desires contrary to His will whether we want to give them up or not.

One of my favorite fantasy book series is Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time®. In it a group of gifted people, called channelers, have enormous powers over their fellow humans. One power they have is called compulsion. With compulsion they can make subtle changes the thinking in the ungifted or even the gifted they have overpowered. For example, a channeler might compel a highly competent general to make subtle mistakes in a battle that to lead to disaster. On the other hand, compulsion can be used to completely take over a person’s mind so that the compelled must worship the compeller and be willing to kill or give up their lives for him. In the books, compulsion was rightly seen as a great evil in all its forms because it turned humans into automatons.
If my memory serves me correctly, there was a vision in the last book in which all people were compelled to be kind, productive, generous etc. But their humanity was sacrificed to make them that way against their will. They were no longer human. The protagonist saw this compelled change as a great loss to evil.

I think this is the fundamental flaw in having God fix things right now—it would have to be done against our will and our nature and that action itself would be an evil even if the end were good.

So where does that leave me?

I believe God is fixing things (perhaps it might be more correct to say He has fixed things in Christ) but the full effect of the cure has not fully spread through the system yet. The need for the means and the end to be true and good means the process will take some time, but it encourages me enormously that God in Christ came down into creation as a man and suffered right along with us. He was born into a poor family, of an oppressed people. His father likely died when he was a young man. Finally, he was crucified as an innocent man, while dying for His enemies who did not value His death at the time. This gives me great hope that God deeply cares about our (and my) condition in this flawed and marred world filled with flawed and marred people.

One of my favorite pictures is the one shown at the head of this blog taken of a framed print in my home. In Michelangelo’s fresco of The Creation of Adam, God is seen as touching Adam’s finger ever so slightly. Through this lightest of touches, He is communicating His love, but also His gift of independence and free will. The touch is there so Adam can choose to move toward Him or away from Him. Alas, we have moved away. He pursues us, but the touch continues to be light to preserve our free will. It is always my choice whether I move toward the touch or away from it. If I have to choose between becoming automaton or having God work the process to bring us home when we are willing to move towards Him, I choose His timing and process.

A final comment on theologically-skeptical snipers

I must end this blog with a protest about theologically-skeptical snipers. I can’t directly complain about texter Peter’s TV speaker because I never saw the program, but I have seen many others like it. The speaker, in criticizing theism or Christianity trucks out some challenge and then leaves it hanging. In my experience, they never go on to say: “This is my world view and this is how I answer this question that I have just asked.” That would reveal that their own answers are at least as problematic as the Christian’s and thus leave them open to challenge. In other words, these skeptics are often not skeptical enough because they don’t challenge their own views along with the Christian’s.

In my mind, these speakers are like snipers who are happy to lie hidden in the brush taking pot shots at their opponents. As long as their own position is undiscovered they can happily fire away without taking any return fire.

If you are interested in these kinds of questions and you find the musings of a non-theologian, Science Fiction author helpful, why not check out my book Questioning Your Way to Faith? In story form, it discusses questions I have wrestled with, in the context of a respectful conversation between friends who profoundly disagree on the answers. ©Peter Kazmaier 2018