Mormons, wherever you are, can we talk? Let's talk about this whole lay clergy thing. Consider your bishop, or say, a a member of your stake presidency.
Here's a guy who has a lot of responsibility, even power. Something in us as humans, especially in egalitarian Americans makes us want to knock the powerful off their pedestals, bring them down to earth.
For example, we have a teacher at school who just loves to find ways to embarrass the headmaster. Nothing major, just take him down a few pegs. In fact, she seems to think it's her mission and comes up with all kinds of mildly humiliating things for him--usually silly skits at faculty events or in her classroom.
I've noticed that we do this in the Church a lot to our local leaders--everything from teasing to more advanced hijinks. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that per se.
But I have a few thoughts to toss out there. First of all, our headmaster applied for the position. It's his job and I assume that he's well compensated. Local priesthood leaders are exactly opposite. They did not apply, did not seek the job, and are not compensated. Frankly, they often do not want their callings. They give up most of their discretionary time and make huge sacrifices in order to respond to a call they believe is from God.
They have jobs and families. Like you, they have bad days and they get tired. They have problems at work, they have problems with their children. Their lawns need to be mowed, their kids have ball games, they have a spat with their wife...regular stuff that everyone does.
Let's just say that a hypothetical local priesthood leader goes to a Church event--a ward party, for example. He's tired. It's been a rough week. He's struggling with some concerns. Nothing major, nothing anyone knows about--but he's feeling weighed down by car repairs and impending orthodontic treatments. He's been away from his home every night this week to do Church work and he hasn't seen his small children in days. He has some big deadlines coming up at work and he isn't sleeping well.
Now, let's say that the party features a talent show and the organizers have planned a special surprise. The local priesthood leader is going to arrive and be expected to be in a silly skit--nothing awful, but something that will be a bit embarrassing/uncomfortable--something like a pie in his face while he wears a silly costume, or getting doused with water. No one asks him beforehand if he's game--it's just an expectation. He's either tricked into doing it without knowing the full deal, or it's sprung on him right there.
What should he do? He wants to be a good sport, but he just doesn't want to play tonight. On another night, he might be game. Or not--he might be a quiet, introverted guy who simply doesn't enjoy doing things like this.
Of course, he HAS to go along with it. If he doesn't, then everyone will think he's stiff and stuffy and a bad sport and probably holier-than-thou. He reaches past the fatigue and tries to respond as graciously as he can.
Everyone laughs and loves seeing him playing the fool. They all say, "Bishop so-and-so is such a good sport." A few people say, with an edge in their voice, "Wow, I didn't think you ever took off that shirt and tie. About time you finally unwind a little" (like he wears that for recreational purposes, because he wants to). A good time is had by all, except him.
He'll get over it. People have worse problems, for sure. But there is something that seems unkind in this situation.
We essentially expect our leaders to be whatever we want, whenever we want. A spiritual giant when we need a blessing or help. A fun-loving fool when we want to do silly skits. A calm and steady presence who's available when tragedy strikes.
But a leader is human and we have to remember that. He doesn't have fewer burdens and problems than we have in his personal life. In fact, he has as many or more because the Lord is constantly refining, testing, and teaching him to be worthy of his position. Plus, he has his Church stuff.
In my experience, our leaders are happy to give as much as they can--and more. But we have to remember their fundamental humanity. Sometimes maybe we need to be the good sports and be gracious enough to cut them some slack.
I’ve been teaching various theatre camps all summer (part of the reason I haven’t been visiting your blogs as much) and last week was Musical Theatre. One of my students was an 8th grader who graduated in June, but she came back to be my assistant and also to participate.
On Friday, we had a performance for the parents. This student was the last one to perform. She sang a very long, complicated song straight from the score of a Broadway play—not a watered-down arrangement, the real thing. And she nailed it. NAILED it! It was perfect musically and dramatically. Not "pretty good for a kid." Perfect. It’s a dramatically demanding song and she sung and acted magnificently. She couldn’t have done it better and if you had heard it, you would not have believed she was 14.
As I stood in the corner listening to her, I got a bit teary and choked up. Not only because it was beautiful—which it was. Not only because it was powerful—which it was. But because I knew what this student had gone through.
I have directed her in plays and taught her in choir and given her private lessons now for three years, so I know her fairly well.
When I first met her in 6th grade, she had a pretty voice. But she had some bad vocal habits that she developed by trying to match the pop stars she heard on the radio. And, while her voice was pretty, it wasn’t terribly strong.
Her acting and stage presence were virtually non-existent. I gave her a small, featured solo in a play that year to see how she would do. She stood there stiffly and rigid, singing softly and without any energy.
So, how did she get from that point to where she is blowing audiences away?
Part of it, to be sure, is maturity. But there is so much more than that. This student is one of the most teachable students I have ever had. She wants to learn. That means that she willingly accepted all the criticism, correction, and feedback I have ever given her. She never rationalized, justified, or argued. She hasn’t pouted, had tantrums, or even scowled or frowned when I corrected her. She works to implement whatever feedback I give her.
Because I don’t have to worry about her ego or being diplomatic or hurting her feelings, I have been free to teach her far more than I normally can. She listens and then practices what I tell her until she can apply it.
She didn’t learn by being told how wonderful she was or how great her voice was. She learned by having someone who knew more than she did critique her and tell her what she was doing wrong and how to fix it. That’s important.
Correction and seeing our flaws is not pleasant, ever, but for her, the goal of being an excellent performer is far more important than just getting warm fuzzies.
It has me thinking a lot about the way I respond to counsel and correction from those who are in a position to teach me. Especially, the Master Teacher.
P.S. I'll be up at YW Camp for most of this week, so if you don't see me on your blogs much, that's why.
I thought I’d talk a little about some of the criticism I have received for my book. Understand, I’m not fishing for people to say, “Oh, it was wonderful, don’t worry!” nor am I feeling defensive. But I am trying to learn and thought it might interest some of you as well since I know there are other beginning writers who read this blog.
When I my book was accepted for publication, I knew that some people would like it and some wouldn’t. I knew some reviews would be good and some wouldn’t. Over 20 years in the theatre have left me fairly objective about my work and open to intelligent criticism. In fact, I pay careful attention to the critical reviews and analyze them because that’s how we learn. I’m a big believer in being teachable. I’m new and want to get better. What I didn’t realize was that those good and bad reviews would cite the same things.
For example, the element that I have heard the most about is the characters. Those who like the book feel that they know the characters, that they are real. They care deeply about them and are drawn into their stories. Those who don’t like the book feel that characters are shallow and clichéd, stereotyped cut-outs.
As I said, it surprised me that different people felt so strongly about the exact same thing, and saw them from such different perspectives.
I’ve been thinking about the character issue a bit. This is interesting to me because, there are things I would change about the book if I were to start on it again tomorrow. But I think the characters would be basically the same.
That’s because they are as they appeared in my mind. Changing them just so they wouldn’t be clichéd would see dishonest to me.
Here’s an example: there was a summer camp on our campus this past week. One of the offerings was a robotics class. Two of the students taking the class are girls of Chinese descent. I walked past them and happened to hear them comparing their notes about violin lessons. Incidentally, they have soft voices.
Now, if I were to write a novel about an Asian girl who talks softly but takes robotic classes in the summer and plays the violin, I would be accused of writing a clichéd character. I understand that. And yet…there are Asians who do those things and they are just as real as Asians who do not engage in those activities. So, if I write about a young woman of Asian descent, do I need to studiously make her do the opposite of these real-life counterparts? Have a bad attitude, talk back to her parents and watch MTV instead of studying—just for the sake of not being cliched? I get that this can be refreshing to some extent. But to do it for the sake of just not being regulat seems as contrived and unrealistic as a cliché.
I suppose I could have taken the characters as they appeared in my mind and changed things around. Curtis could have been a poor, grumpy Elder’s Quorum President. Ed could have been a lonely ultra-orthodox conservative. Stephanie could have been a middle-aged woman with depression instead of a young mother. That sounds like an interesting story. But it wouldn’t be my story. I can only write about what I know and what I can imagine. One well-known author/agent/editor/publisher says emphatically that we don’t want to portray regular people in books—we should emphasize the eccentric and show what peopled don’t know.
I understand that. But in theatre, success of characterization is measured by the degree to which an actor or director takes an ordinary person and gives them depth and a credible emotional life. In fact, if one is playing an eccentric character, most actors will try to tone down the eccentricities, or at least ground them in a realistic emotional context. The highest praise for most actors or directors would be that they showed new emotional layers in an otherwise ordinary, common, regular character.
That’s what I tried to do with The Road Show. Whether or not I succeeded is an open question, and one that every reader can answer for his or herself.
Part of what I hoped to accomplish with The Road Show was to take characters that were readily recognizable in Mormon circles and lift the curtains on their lives a bit. I hoped to open the reader’s heart and help see beyond the obvious.
That is one of the great revelations that comes with being a bishop. Ordinary, average people come to you and suddenly you see that they are struggling with terrible problems and burdens. It may be a cliché that someone struggles with pornography or depression, but it is not a cliché to that person as they experience it first-hand with all the human drama that comes along with it. When a human is suffering they are anything but average, anything but cliched.
My goal was to start with recognizable types, clichés if you want, and hopefully help the reader see that there was a real person there. The idea being that in real life, I think we look at people and quickly assess them and then assign them into our own clichés. He’s a liberal, she’s a conservative, he’s unorthodox, she’s uptight—without realizing that the human emotions they have make them living, dimensional people.
The extent to which I succeed is clearly a matter for individual readers to decide. But I maintain that the goal itself is worthy. That's the kind of LDS fiction I want to write--it's the only kind that interests me.
Ok, does this post make me sound defensive? :)
Bit of a longish post today. Sorry--I couldn't say it in 500 words or less. But stick with me. I think this is kind of cool. I wrote last week about how the early apostles answered the Savior's call--following him "immediately" and "straightway." I noted that because it is the first in what I think is an important pattern.
Consider some of the first beneficiaries of the Savior's miracles: the centurion, the woman with an issue of blood, and the daughter of Jairus.
I am fascinated with these people and what they can teach us. The woman with the issue of blood crawled through a crowd to touch the Savior's robe. I don't think anyone knows for sure what this woman's condition was, but pushing through a crowd must have been at least unpleasant for her. I would assume the loss of blood would have left her tired and weak. So mustering the energy to do this must have been a real challenge. And possibly dangerous: When I was in junior high, we had a girl in our school who was hemophiliac. We were warned very strictly to be very careful of her in the halls since even a moderate jostle could cause internal bleeding that could be fatal.
But her faith was so solid that she risked this for the chance to touch His robe.
Then, there's the centurion. A Roman soldier with authority and at least some degree of status. He most likely opened himself up to mockery at least by consorting with a rabble-rousing prophet of a subjugated people. He was used to giving orders, and the Romans saw themselves as being far superior to the Jews. But still, he came to Jesus himself. He sought the Master out and asked Him to heal the centurion's servant (possibly his son, according to the Greek). Then, he demonstrated his faith in the Savior's power and his own humility by noting his unworthiness and expressing absolute faith in the Savior's word. Again, for a Roman this is not typical behavior.
Then there is Jairus. He was the ruler of a synagogue, a man of status and position in the establishment. But his daughter was dying. It must have cost him something to seek out the anti-establishment Jesus--the one the Pharisees accused of being a blasphemer. But he loved his daughter, so he risked public opprobrium and asked Jesus to come to heal his daughter. When they arrived at the house, the daughter was dead and a huge to-do was being made by mourners and neighbors.
Jesus asked them to move and assured them that the girl was not dead, just sleeping. This was ridiculous and they "laughed him to scorn" (Matthew 9:24). I wonder how Jairus felt. He's brought a man into his home who many of his circle probably mistrust or dislike. Now the man says something that seems outrageous, possibly insane. His peers are laughing at him.
What is he to do?
In the next verse, it says that the "people were put forth" (Matthew 9:25). In a hierarchical society, no one would have been able to remove Jairus' friends--except Jairus. Certainly not Jesus.
I imagine that this was a moment where Jairus was faced with a difficult choice. Does he publicly side with the radical preacher who says difficult things and kick his friends and family out? Translated into contemporary terms, I think that would be a very difficult choice for most of us.
But Jairus cast his lot with Jesus--and his daughter was brought back from the dead.
Here's my point to all of this: if one looks closely, the stunning miracles that Jesus worked came about because the recipients first demonstrated a stunning degree of faith. In their situtation and their degree, they pushed themselves into the unknown, trusting in Jesus even when it was difficult or dangerous. Then the miracle came. Once, I saw this pattern, it became obvious to me--it's all throughout the New Testament. Almost every miracle I can find came about after an exertion of faith. And Jesus, of course, acknowledges this in his standard response: "Thy faith hath made thee whole."
I just finished a fascinating book that I have been thinking about ever since I finished it. Redemption, by Susan Dayley is a historical novel about Jonah. You know, the one who got swallowed by the great fish. (Note: I would have said “whale” before reading this book. However, Dayley’s notes at the end of the book give some interesting insight that have led me to change my terminology).
To begin with, let me tell you to read this book. It was interesting, thought-provoking, and uplifting. The author has woven together a compelling story from the scriptural record, historical sources, rabbinic tradition, and her own imagination. These additional sources were important since the scriptural record about Jonah is fairly sparse, and one of Dayley’s great achievements with this book is her skillful blending of scriptural narrative with these other elements.
For example, I didn’t know that the Jewish Midrash identifies Jonah as the son of the Widow of Zarephath, the one for whom the prophet Elijah performed the miracle of the barrel of meal and cruse of oil (1 Kings 17: 9-16). That was just one of the fascinating nuggets I picked up from this book.
Ultimately, Dayley’s imagination had to fill in most of the blanks in this story and again, she did an admirable job. Jonah’s rise to his prophetic status and his journey to Nineveh seemed absolutely credible to me. Dayley used enough details to create a rich and textured backdrop for the story. The combined effect of these details was to add a layer of credibility (I should add that I’m not a historian, so I’m not situated to discuss authenticity—just how I reacted).
I was particularly intrigued by the way Dayley handled one of the inherent challenges of telling Jonah’s story: why he ran from the Lord. This is a vexing question as one would assume anyone with the spiritual maturity to be called as a prophet must also know that he can’t run away from God—and wouldn’t try.
Over the years I’ve heard various rationales and explanations for Jonah’s behavior suggested. Dayley’s motivation for Jonah’s behavior really intrigued me. I’m not going to say what it is, because I don’t want to spoil anything and I do hope you’ll read this book. However, I thought Dayley’s idea came closer than anything I’ve heard to explaining it. It’s a difficult circle to square, but she did so in a way that at least satisfies the motivational problem for this character.
Dayley is a very proficient in developing the book’s thematic elements. The title of the book expresses what this story is about: redemption. Jonah’s, as well as the people of Nineveh, and several others along the way. This theme provides a unifying structure for the book and provides a welcome interpretation of God’s love for His children—even in Old Testament times.
One other thing I enjoyed about Dayley’s book was it’s leisurely pace. It is interesting, but pays the reader the compliment of assuming that the reader does not need to be pulled in with a gimmick at the beginning. Rather, Dayley’s story unfolds with direction and motion, in a stately and unhurried pace but with growing urgency—perhaps like the aged Jonah himself would have walked on his travels.
Although this was written by a Mormon author, there is nothing that seemed inherently Mormon about this book. I would think it would be interesting to anyone who believes in the Old Testament.
The story is marred occasionally by some mistakes that probably happened in the typesetting process. I wish that an editor had looked over the final proof more carefully. That is a minor quibble, though—and one out of Dayley’s control.
This is a lovely book about a fascinating story and I hope you will read it. I am very glad I did!
I took the chance to ask the author a few questions:
BB: How was it that you got interested in Jonah?
SD: While teaching at American Heritage School, among the literature curriculum was the book of Jonah from the Bible. In preparing the lesson, I needed to research background and setting as well as other elements such as themes. It was then that I became introduced to the power of the Assyrian Empire, the magnificence of Nineveh and Ships of Tarshish. I put my notes aside, and years later I went back to them and began to research Jonah even more.
BB: What were some of the most interesting things you learned?
SD: I loved the details of each of the cities: the purple dye trade of Sidon, the chaos of Damascus, the caravansaries that were in every major city along caravan routes, the orderly planning of Harran, and ultimately the vast, terrible city of Nineveh. I was fascinated with the details of the sea trade, the caravans, the pagan worship, and finally the meaning behind the scene with Jonah, the booth, and the gourd.
BB: Tell us about the process of researching this book. How long did the research take and how long did the writing take?
SD: After I revisited my initial notes, I wrote up the story with additional research and submitted it only to find it was too short. My publisher asked me to lengthen it and within another three months I had resubmitted it to them. All in all, it took about 7 months to write.
BB: This was your first book and you are working on another manuscript. Can you tell us something about it?
SD: I have finished the story of King Hezekiah. As much as I enjoyed the story and world of Jonah, I have come to admire and appreciate Hezekiah far more. He comes to the throne when his nation is held in suzerainty to Assyria, the tribes of Israel to the north have been taken captive due to their wickedness, refugees are swelling the cities of Judah, the Temple of the Lord has been desecrated and closed, the feast days and sacrifices have ceased, all through Judah people worship false gods, Jerusalem is vulnerable and the treasuries are empty. Hezekiah is faced with some very hard choices, and though he makes some mistakes, he learns that ultimately it is God that saves.
My next project keeps changing. But it will probably be about historic people who trust in God.
Note: I received a PDF copy of this book to review and the author of Redemption also reviewed The Road Show. I was not compensated in any other way, nor was I under any obligation to write a favorable review.
Redemption was released February 2010 by Walnut Springs Press. Susan's website is susandayley.com. Her blog is here and you can see the trailer for Redemption here.
I am getting behind lately! It's summertime but the livin' is not easy. Or at least not mellow.
There have been two more reviews of The Road Show. Cami Checketts and Patty Ann Pitterle were both kind enough review it. You can read Cami's review here and Patty Ann's here.
So, here's a question: would anyone be interested in being part of online book club? Or, or you all already comfortably ensconced in your own book clubs in your neighborhoods and church groups?
No pressure--but if you are, why don't you drop me a line here. I thought it might be kind of fun since an online format would open it up to a. Let me know if you are interested and enough people are, we'll work out the details.
It has been a busy weekend. And a busy Monday so far. I am working on a few book reviews of really interesting books and I'm excited to post them in a few days.
Meanwhile, I got my first email today from a reader that I didn't know at all either through blogging or a past life. That was fun. This wonderful reader had no purpose in writing except to tell me something cool about her experience with my book.
But, enough about me. I wanted to talk about something I've noticed as I've been reading the New Testament this last time around. I have a completely new and enhanced picture of the Savior and I've really learned some cool things.
The first clue to what I'm talking about is found in Matthew 4: 18-22. This is where Jesus called his first apostles, Peter, Andrew, then James and John. The text is interesting. Jesus saw them and said, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." The text then says, "And they straightway left their nets, and followed him" (vs. 19-20)
The same thing happened with James and John: the Savior saw them and called them, and they followed Him. In their case, the text says "They immediately left their ship and their father and followed him" (vs. 22).
The words "straightway" and "immediately" are in my mind as I read these accounts. I know I'm not the only one to notice these modifiers, but I am interested to think about what they mean--and what they mean about the Savior's expectations for our service. But more on that later.
I just got an email from my publisher. The first print run of The Road Show is sold out!!! Gone. Done. Don't worry, though, they plan for this kind of thing so you can still get your copy. In fact, I understand it is beginning to show up in Deseret Book and Seagull Book outlets. If I were you, I'd rush out right this very second and snag your copy. Or, you can order directly from the publisher here.
Seriously, thanks for all your support, everyone.
I’ve mentioned that one of the greatest things about writing a book is that it inevitably leads you to meet people that you would not have met otherwise. That continues to be true for me and is really a great joy. This particularly true when you meet cool people, who also happen to write good books.
The person to whom I refer, of course, is Heidi Ashworth (although I am confident that any number of my other friends will be publishing in the near future as I have met some wonderfully talented folks). Many of you beat me to the punch and have already read Heidi’s historical romance, Miss Delacourt Speaks Her Mind.
If you haven’t, you ought to. Set in the Regency period (think Jane Austen), Miss D is a delightful way to spend several hours.
Barring some Austen and Bronte, I have never read a historical romance (or a contemporary romance, for that matter) before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Ashworth is skilled enough as a writer that this book didn’t feel like a romance. It felt like a good book about interesting characters that had some romance in it—which is one reason why I think Austen is such a good writer.
Another thing that I enjoyed about this book was that it felt authentic to me while also being familiar enough to enjoy. Ashworth put in enough details. time-period terms, and conventions that I felt I was there. At the same time, she made the book accessible to a contemporary reader.
Another thing I really enjoyed was the underlying sweetness in the book. The characters, even when they are flailing through love’s misfortunes, are never hateful, either to each other or just inside. They are sympathetic, if flawed. Consequently, they can be brought around to falling in love by being made vulnerable and slightly softened, not humiliated.
The heroine is, as one would expect, witty and plucky. Her problem—which is a big problem in high society—is that she’s too frank and candid. But she’s not obnoxious. The hero, likewise, has a flaw—he’s too mannered and composed. But he’s not a fraud. I liked both of these characters at the beginning—by the ending, I loved them both and was cheering for them to get together.
Finally, I thought Heidi was quite deft and skillful in the way she slowly but surely wore them down and put them in situations where we could see that these weaknesses were changing gradually, in credible ways. Oh yes, and the other great thing is that this book is quite clean.
This really is a lovely book. I understand that Miss Delacourt 2 will be coming out at some point in the future and I shall look forward to that day. Until then, if you have not yet read it, pick this charming book up and enjoy some pleasant hours. You may purchase it here. I understand that many libraries also carry it.
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