Thursday, December 20, 2012

I heard a terrific story about Albert Einstein a week or so ago. Seems that Dr. Einstein was working as an adjunct professor at Oxford University and had just given a physics exam to one of his senior classes. As he and his teaching assistant were walking back to Einstein’s office, the young assistant asked, “Dr. Einstein, wasn’t that the same exam you gave to the class last year?”
               “It was indeed,” said Einstein.
               “I don’t understand,” the assistant said. “How could you give the same class the same exam a year later?”
               “Well,” said Einstein, “that’s easy. The answers have changed.”
               I found that a compelling little story. It is indicative of the world in which we now live. Think about it … I wake up to a country that on so many levels is alien to me. What was once virtuous is now a vice; what was once evil is now good; and the church of Jesus Christ, once considered even by unbelievers as a positive thing, is regularly maligned with impunity. In our society, the questions are the same, but the answers have changed.
               Mercy. The claim that it is somehow a sign of a healthy, free society that by the way of a vote we can rewrite our language, turn our morals upside down, and trash our time-tested traditions is a sign of how lost we are.
               Some may consider this and despair. Don’t do that. The tomb is empty and the throne is occupied. Either God is sovereign and rules over the affairs of man, or He doesn’t. I can assure you He is not perched in the heavenlies, wringing His hands, wondering what He is to do next. “I’ve got this,” He wants us to know.
               I wouldn’t presume to try to predict what He is up to. I do know this: We don’t give up hope. One day, God will visit us. He may visit us through revival. I’ve been reading about the 1904 Welsh revival, and man alive, what a joy to see how God worked in those days! And one day, He will visit us in His return, when all wrongs will be set right and all the fierce little kingdoms of this world – including ours – will be reduced to nothingness. The kingdom of God has already come in Jesus Christ, but the final consummation of kingdom is not yet here. That is our blessed hope. We realize that we are pilgrims and sojourners here, because this is not our home. But we are still to engage with culture. If we simply conform to the culture, we would not be salt and light to the culture. If we don’t conform at all, the salt would remain in it the salt shaker and the light under a basket.
               So, don’t let’s give up hope. If you have an unconverted brother or sister, son or daughter … if someone in your family is far from God, don’t give up hope. The Lord could visit tomorrow and they would be saved.  Don’t give up hope in your church. Don’t give up on those who once seemed to seek after the things of God and are now absent from the faith. Let’s work together, and love each other, and strive for good together, because one day our great God and Savior will certainly visit us. He did so in a manger centuries ago, and will again one day soon enough.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

More than chicken.

I’m offering my last thoughts on Chick-fil-A. Maybe this is therapeutic for me.

This past Wednesday I ate at CFA three times. Several other folks ate there, too. I’d be way afield if I tried to interpret the “why’s” – there may be a doctoral dissertation or two that comes out of this phenomenon. Without empirical evidence, my guess is that what began as a show of support of the chain, the Cathy’s, and an affirmation of centuries of orthodox traditional marriage became something that transcended chicken. It became a recognition that we are all Americans, and we have the right to hold our own values and speak our own minds. My engagement in Wednesday’s event was primarily because I felt that a significant line had been crossed. When you go beyond being repulsed by the views someone else holds, and seek to silence their voice – well, I have some real problems with that.

The events of Friday were an interesting, even paradoxical reflection of Wednesday. Because free speech was exercised Wednesday, free speech took place in like fashion Friday. If one group had been silenced, then the rights of the other group would have been threatened, too. I’m grateful to live in a country where these rights are still available to all of us. And as much as I hesitate to use such a loaded word … for mayors of major cities to suggest they would disallow the opening of a business primarily because they disapproved of the business owner’s ethical stance – well, that’s fascism, even by the loosest definition of the word.

Regarding the use of words … it would serve us all well that before we use words like “bigot,” “intolerant,” “hate,” etc., we spend some time gazing in the mirror. It’s easy enough to stand off at a distance and lob firebombs at folks we disagree with. But I can disagree with you passionately and “hate” never be a part of the equation. I have a hunch that the overwhelming majority of the people patronizing Chick-fil-A Wednesday didn’t hate anyone.

Finally, regarding boycotts – this is an easy one. Don’t patronize a company or organization you don’t care for. It is acceptable for you not to put one cent into the coffers of Chick-fil-A, Hobby Lobby, Forever 21, Interstate Batteries, Tyson Foods, In-N-Out Burgers, etc. Granted, the executives of these companies may not be on the public record standing for traditional marriage in the same fashion as did Dan Cathy. But it’s entirely possible, even probable, that they give a tithe to a church that supports traditional marriage. (It occurred to me just this week that, in the eyes of some, I belong to a church that espouses “hate speech,” simply because the church and denomination defines marriage as being between a man and a woman and not between a same-gendered couple.) In like fashion, if someone chooses to not patronize Starbucks, Apple, JC Penney, the Home Depot, etc., that’s fine, too. None of this has squat to do with being bigoted, intolerant, or a hater. It’s simply holding to one’s convictions, and this is the United States – so far, we can still do that. If your convictions preclude you from eating a chicken sandwich or buying craft supplies at Hobby Lobby, or using an iPhone or having AT&T as a service provider, or shopping at Kroger because they sell alcohol, or buying gasoline from Shell because of their connection to OPEC (remember Muslims take an unabashedly hard line against homosexuality), that’s perfectly fine. On a personal level, if someone accuses you of being a bigot, intolerant, whatever, recognize that they have a right to feel that way about you, whether it’s justified or not. Not everyone is going to like you. Imagine that.

All this is sociological talk. But to take it into the Christian realm (and non-believers, feel free to tune all this out) …

I’ve said and written plenty about this already; the blog entry prior to this one was my stab at articulating my beliefs. There is a tendency to play “dueling Bibles” in this discussion … as in, “Your interpretation of scripture doesn’t coincide with my interpretation of scripture.” Indeed. Even now, my denomination is all a-stir over the issue of Calvinism – free will, predestination, all that. That particular debate has been going on for centuries, and it’s not going to be settled in the next couple of weeks. Controversy over interpretation is nothing new.

But if you’re going to use scripture as a means to carry your points, beware. There are right ways and wrong ways to interpret the Bible. Once upon a time, it was the responsibility of scholars, judges, theologians, preachers to find the fixed meaning of a text (the Bible, the Constitution, a thesis), justify it with grammatical and historical arguments, and explain it. It was a matter of integrity to determine what a writer intended. But NOW, it’s common to say that meaning is whatever you see, not what the author intended. From where I stand, based on the best tools I have on hand to interpret scripture, I have concluded that the whole counsel of scripture points toward a definition of marriage as being between one man and woman, in a monogamous relationship for life … and Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:4-6, should you care to isolate one passage, are just about as clear on this matter as one could wish for.

So, with a desire to speak the truth in love, I have long since resolved this issue in my mind and heart. And as I have stated before, I try to balance the conviction of scripture with the compassion Christ Himself showed. He had some pretty harsh words for the Pharisees who were on the verge of stoning the woman caught in adultery, but He also told her to go and sin no more. He loved her, but He judged her, too.

I’ve talked this to death, I know, but I still hear the question, typically couched in terms like – “How can you impose your religious views on others?” I simply have to say that every law on the books is evidence of imposed morality – morality based on a conviction growing out of a particular worldview. Laws are convictions imposed on culture. My conviction comes from God as He has revealed Himself in scripture. Your conviction may come from somewhere else.

Finally, just reiterating a point here for my fellow sojourners: We can anticipate spending the rest of our earthly lives increasingly out of synch with culture. Change is coming, as unstoppable as the tides. It is change that will run counter to all we have held dear. The state may continue to adopt policies that hurt us deeply and devalue us and our beliefs. But we don’t lose heart. We love and we minister in the midst of pain with hearts of joy. We hold fast to our faith, with that blessed hope that one day all the misery in the world will be made right and creation will be redeemed.

In light of this, we stand firm. We don’t back down. And while it’s tackily presumptive to put ourselves in the shoes of Martin Luther, his words carry significant weight as we face our culture, and the temptation to capitulate becomes more attractive: “Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures or with open, clear and distinct grounds and reasoning—and my conscience is captive to the Word of God—then I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God.”

Monday, July 30, 2012

Chick-fil-A and the Christian's paradox

What a week. At first blush, you'd think that the Apocalypse is upon us, and all over fast food.

Unless you've been vacationing on Uranus for the last several days, you are well aware of the firestorm over CFA's Dan Cathy's comments in favor of traditional Christian marriage. (And I'd encourage you to read them in their original context as found on Baptist Press, and not some truncated version from another source.)

While you're at it, note, too, the responses from elected officials. Wow. It has come to this: "Not only do we disagree with you, we want to silence you."

As a Christian, I'm trying to glean from all this something redemptive, while at the same time acknowledging a paradox (and thanks to John Piper who helped me sort all this out.)

We Christians are commanded to not be conformed to this world, but to be transformed. On  the other hand, we are shown that we are to "become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some." See, we live in the middle of a fallen, failing American culture. We aren't to conform to that. But - we are not to give offense, try to please, and become all things to all people so as to save some.

Here are the facts for believers: This country is not our home. We are out of synch, out of step with the  culture. The world recognizes that, and that brings on scorn. We are the ultimate outsiders and pilgrims. On the other hand, we are called on to take on some of the traits of the culture ...if we don't conform at all, then we are the salt trapped in the shaker.

The challenge is to describe homosexuality as sinful while at the same time be willing to lay down our lives in love for homsexual persons. That is what Christ did. To take this thought into even more radical realms, we MUST believe that homosexual behavior is sin in order to love homosexual people. According to First Corinthians, "Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth." If you deny the truth that homosexuality is a sin and instead approve or rejoice in it, what you bring to a homosexual person will not be love, no matter how affirming, kind, or tolerant.

The whole issue, it seems, has found its nexus in the relationship between homosexuality and marriage. Jesus confirmed God's will in creation in Matthew 19:4-6.

The argument which must be considered, if we're to be intellectually honest, is when someone asks, "Why do you impose your religious beliefs on American culture?" Well, all laws impose convictions on culture. All convictions come from worldviews - they don't come out of nowhere. People argue for laws on a basis of a particular view of the world. It follows that Christians should be involved in the business of lawmaking. We should pray and work to shape our culture so that it reflects the revealed will of God, even if that reflection is dim and external. Goodness knows others will be attempting the same thing. So we pray and work that marriage would be understood and treated in our land and government as a lifelong union between a man and woman.

But believers, we do this knowing that we do this with brokenhearted joy. Joy because God is God, sovereign over all, and He will establish justice in His own time in this fallen world. But we are brokenhearted because we will experience pain and misery because of the pain that sin has brought into the world. That should not make us cynical. The salt of the earth does not mock rotting meat. Where it can, it saves and seasons, and where it can't, it weeps.

Look. We can't get all bent when evil triumphs for a season. We don't whine when we don't get our way. We shouldn't be hardened with anger. What's happening isn't new. The early Christians were terribly out of step with their cuture. Jesus Himself said, "You will be hated for my name's sake ... Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you."

We don't own culture, and we don't rule it. We serve it with brokenhearted joy and longsuffering mercy.

Friday, May 4, 2012

When the story gets out of hand.

What do you do if you're writing a story,and it gets out of hand?

It's a bizarre thing. I've been investing pretty heavily putting together the new book, The Fixin' Place. I've been in a nice, tidy place with it. The little story engine was chugging along nicely.Then, last night, I'll be danged if I didn't get gobsmacked in the middle of a thought. I'm not at a place to do any sort of "reveal," because the idea is still pretty raw. Still, I can't help but be excited. I've never really experienced writer's block, but there have been times when I thought what I was writing simply wasn't very compelling - it was loose and disjointed and didn't propel the story along at all.

Now I'm really intrigued at this delicious twist, which has opened the tale up to possiblities I hadn't seen. It makes it darker, scary dark, Darth Vader dark. Still, TFP is a fun story at its heart. At least, it was ...

I thought I'd share an excerpt from an event earlier in the book. Here are my protagonist Thomas and three of his buddies - Button, Danny, and Chuck. They have a camping spot on the shores of a local creek they've claimed as uniquely theirs. It's a Friday night, and they've built a fire, and are just talking in the way that only a bunch of 13-year-old boys can:

            So much of life in those days was of no consequence. What at the time we thought were crises were never that much of a big deal. Of the four of us, I'd had the most life experience, as it were … I'd lost a parent, and while these three guys and others had been by my side, and showed awkward sympathy in their own way, I knew that inside each one of them was saying "thank the Lord it didn't happen to me." We very seldom talked about Daddy's death. What was there to say that hadn't already been said?

            And we were starting to really talk about girls. Danny had a girlfriend, which fascinated the rest of us. Pam wasn't especially cute to me; her eyes were too large for her face, and her ears tended to poke through her long brown hair. Still, she was still a girl, and Danny's girlfriend. It wasn't like the rest of us had to fend off the women. Button had designs on Sarah, and of course there was no chance of that working out in any fashion. Sometimes, when he was over at the house, Sarah would maliciously flirt with him, just to watch him get flustered. "Don't lead him on," I'd tell her, and she'd tell me he was too stupid to know that she was simply messing with him. Maybe he was stupid. Girls can make guys stupid, and it's easier than they think.

            After changing out of our wet shorts into dry clothes, we unpacked our humble little supper. Sardines and potted meat and saltine crackers were the main entrees - potted meat looked like cat food, and I imagine tasted about the same, but we ate it anyway. The pimento cheese sandwiches were a hit. Chuck, who never contributed food, shared a couple of bags of M&M's, which vanished in no time. So did the Golden Flake chips. I hid the Oreos for later that night.

            As soon as the sun began to set we gathered firewood and Button, our Boy Scout, began obsessing over arranging the kindling in just the right pattern in the fire pit. I'd enjoyed Scouting myself, but our scoutmaster died a year earlier and the troop just wasn't the same. So I'd quit. Button had brought a mayonnaise jar full of gasoline to get the fire started - "Boy Scout miracle water" he called it - and a few judicious drops on the dry wood did the trick. How we survived our campouts is a mystery to me.

            There is nothing silent about the forest at night. In the background was the gentle rush of flowing water. More in the foreground were all the bug noises - cicadas, grasshoppers, katydids, and the whine of mosquitos. Then, as a bonus, we'd hear that eerie call of a barred owl … no matter how many times I'd heard it, it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

            "Who cooks for you?" said Danny, mimicking the sound of the owl. "Who cooks for you-all?"

            We huddled a bit closer to the fire, grinning at each other. We'd never admit that we were scared, but truthfully, we never camped out without being scared. I'd look at the woods on the opposite bank of the creek, and every shadow, every movement was something unearthly bent on killing us.

            Button was the raconteur of our group. "Indians used to camp here," he said. "I've never found any arrowheads, but my brother has a coffee can full of arrowheads he's collected from the creek banks." 

            Button then launched into a monologue about the Creek Indians who once lived in the St. Helena area, talking about their history and folklore. We were intrigued. Button was by far the smartest one of our group, and his mind trapped the most trivial of details. So he talked about Creek myths, about how they taught the world was created by a crawfish flipping mud out of a river bottom, and how an eagle flew over and the wind from its wings dried the mud into dry land. I thought it was all really fascinating.

            It was when Button started talking about the wendigo that all three of us perked up. "Whenever an Indian lost his mind and went crazy, his people would say that he had ‘seen the wendigo.'"

            "What's a wendigo?" asked Danny, walking blindly into Button's trap.

            "Well," Button said, leaning in close to the fire as though drawing us into a conspiracy, "the wendigo is an evil forest spirit, a manitou. It looks like a starving man, with gray skin pulled really tight over its bones. What lips it has are all ragged and bloody, and the wendigo smells like rotted meat."

            We loved this.

            "And they are cannibals," Button continued, his eyes glinting in the firelight. "They are always hungry. And an Indian could turn into a wendigo if he ever ate another person."

            What we didn't know at the time was that wendigos were not part of Creek culture at all. Wendigos were a common myth among northern and Canadian tribes, in places where it was much colder and starvation was a constant threat. Button, who was of the mind that the truth should never get in the way of a good story, had us right where he wanted us.

            "I wonder how much truth there is to those old stories," he said.

            "It might have been truth to the Creeks," I said, "but there aren't any Creeks around here now."

            "Still," said Button, "those old stories had to start somewhere."

            Danny wasn't finding this too funny. "C'mon, y'all. Knock it off." He looked uneasily from side to side.

            Danny's increasing unease wasn't wasted on Button. "I know this sounds crazy," he said, "but my brother was camping out down the creek from here last year and he found a big ol' kettle over a fire pit on the banks. And there were cat bones in it."

            "What to cat bones have to do with wendigos?" asked Chuck. He was getting a little creeped out himself.

            "Well, if someone would eat cats, they'd eat anything," said Button.

            "There's a big difference in eating cats and eating people," I said. "And it's not exactly like the woods are crawling with Creek Indians who've been messing around with a wendigo."

            "That's not entirely true," said Button, smiling slyly. "What about the Littlefoots?"

            We all knew the Littlefoots. This was a family of Creek Indians who had lived in St. Helena for as long as anyone could remember. They weren't full-blooded; there had been plenty of generations of intermarriage, and the end result was that the kids - a couple of them were classmates of ours, and the girl, Marie, was in the homecoming court last year - were just like the rest of us. But the grandmother, known only to St. Helena as "Sister," was still very much the full-blooded Creek. She was seldom seen in public, but when she was, it looked like she'd stepped out of a painting.

            "So what you're saying," said Chuck, "is that the Littlefoots come down here to the creek every so often and cook up some cats. And they'd cook white folks if they could get ahold of any."

            "No, I'm not saying that, idiot," said Button in mock anger. "I'm just saying we still have Creek Indians around, and that Sister might believe in all those old myths because there's some truth in them." Button was laying a whopper on us. There was something, though, about being in those woods, away from civilization (if only by a mile or so), that tended to add weight to his wild tale.

            "Wendigos in the woods right now. Riiiiiight," said Chuck. "And crazed Indians. Good Lord, Button. We aren't stupid."

            "Never said you were," said Button. "I just think that there are a lot of things we think are just made-up stories that might just be kinda true."

            "This is all stupid," said Danny, trying to sound brave. His eyes were like saucers - he was anything but brave. "Ain't nuthin' gonna get us."

            "Danny," said Button, with a sigh, "you are so right. Nothing is gonna get us. I'm just telling a story, and I'm just telling you what my brother found. That's all."

            Even though I knew Button was trying to scare us, I didn't want him to know that he was succeeding. "Tell you what," I said. "Tomorrow, when it's good daylight, you take us to that place on the creek where Johnny found that iron pot. Maybe this time we won't find a cat. Maybe a thigh bone or something."

            "I don't know exactly where it was," said Button.

            "That's because you're making all this stuff up," said Chuck, trying to dredge up a little courage.

            "No, I'm not," said Button, "and you know it."

            I thought I needed to intervene. "Button, geez, it doesn't matter if you're making all this up or not. It's a cool story, and I don't care if it's true. And I don't want to find a pot, with cat bones or anything else in it. Danny, don't get all weirded out. Button is just messing with you. Aren't you, Button?"

            Button smiled a little. "We're just talkin'."

            Everyone got quiet for a little while. Chuck got up and threw a couple of bigger logs on the fire. Sparks and embers flew. I hoped they didn't land in the Spanish moss and set the woods on fire.

"What was that?" hissed Button.

            I was sound asleep. It had taken a while. After clearing my sleeping space of sticks and leaves, I'd scooped out some sand to make an indentation in the ground for my hips to wallow down into. I lay there awake for the longest time, hearing the night insects, and shivering at the sound of owls hooting and answering each other.

            "What was what?"

            "Listen. That."

            I didn't hear "that." The other guys were snoring away, effectively drowning out any other noise.

            I tried not to breathe, straining my ears. I couldn't hear anything at first.

            Then I did. Somewhere in the woods, out away from the creek and back down the trail toward my house, I heard a definite animal sound.

            Uff. Uff. Uff.

            Button scooted toward me like a little child. "What is that?"

            "Shhhh," I said. Then -

            Uff. Uff. Uff. It was a deep, guttural noise, much closer.

            "Thomas …"

            "Shut up." I was trying to figure out what to do. I didn't have any sort of weapon, and I was pretty much pinned into my sleeping bag.

            There was a rustling in the underbrush, and I had to fight an urge to close my eyes. I heard Button suck air between his teeth.
(to  be continued)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What scares you?

I think most, if not all, of us have things that give us chills. Your particular fear might not be classified as a full-blown phobia, but it might be enough to cause you to develop sweaty palms, at least.

Me, I'm afraid of heights. I don't mind being way off the ground if there is a rail for me to hang onto, but put me close to some sort of ledge where there's nothing between me and eternity but air, and I'm in a real fix. I don't do ladders. Don't put me on the roof. I don't even like writing about these things.

YMMV, as they say. Public speaking puts some folks into a gibbering panic. Others have problems with snakes. Or spiders. Fill in your own blanks.

What happens when you scare yourself? Where does that come from?

One bizarre phenomenon I've experienced is that I can become afraid of my own words. When I was writing my first book ("Reign of Silence," of course - what do you mean you haven't read it yet?) there were a couple of times when I had to stop and physically shake off the heebie-jeebies. As I think I've shared before, I wrote a huge chunk of it in an old farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere, and there was one night in particular when I heard every noise in the house. Whew.

Now, as I'm in the throes of writing "The Fixin' Place," I've had a couple of moments of the same thing. While TFP is a totally different book from "Reign of Silence," there have been a couple of sequences that, while not exactly frightening me, have had me typing at a gallop, pulse pounding. It's as though my synapses can't fire fast enough for me to keep up with what I want to say. Yeah, I know how odd that sounds, but I'm just trying to keep it real.

I don't know how to explain it other than that my divine muse showed up. Those moments are transporting. And for you ... you might be at a place in your own life where you're struggling with some issue, some project, some relationship that is wearing you down. Well, here's the good news. Fear not. It's going to be OK.

Monday, March 12, 2012

A couple of book recommendations if you're ambitious ...

... and paralyzed.

Both of these are by Steven Pressfield, perhaps best known for "The Legend of Bagger Vance," but who also writes killer historical fiction.

First is "Do the Work," and the second is "The War of Art."

I'm passing these gems along to any of you who are dreaming of doing "something." While they're both pitched toward writers, they're just super for anyone who is going after conquering some creative endeavor. I think the principles here would apply to anyone who is trying to get physically fit, recover from a broken heart, or going after any objective that would move you to a higher plane of work. Any act that calls for a commitment of the heart fits in here.

The demon he addresses is "resistance"... or, if you prefer, fear, self-doubt, procrastination, addiction, distraction, timidity, ego and narcissism, self-loathing, perfectionism, etc.

Pressman encourages us to be stupid. He says, "A child has no trouble believing the unbelievable, nor does the genius or the madman. It's only you and I, with our big brains and our tiny hearts, who doubt and overthink and heisitate."

In other words, when faced with a task, especially a creative one - don't think. Act.

I live for stuff like this. I'd recommend "Do the Work" first, which is kind of a greatest hits version of "The War of Art." Pressman doesn't sugarcoat anything, and sometimes a kick in the nether regions is just what we need.

Check 'em out.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

As good as it gets.

From time to time, I'm asked what my favorite book is.

My totally non-commital answer is "it depends." For many years, I read "The Lord of the Rings" every summer, and I spent months and months reading the whole trilogy to our son Jeremy. Honestly, Tolkien may not be the best writer, but he is an amazing storyteller. For him to create Middle Earth and populate it with such an amazing cast of characters - man alive. The book(s) are full of their own internal logic. While some might grouse about the difficulty of keeping up with all the people and places and things, and might get bogged down in the history/mythology of the Third Age - well, quitcherbellyachin. Maybe Tolkien isn't for you. But I love it.

Pin me down, though, and I'll tell you that my favorite work of fiction is "To Kill a Mockingbird." I just re-read it last week, and immediately followed that experience by watching the film version.

Harper Lee is one of those people the Almighty blessed with insane talent, and He went on to bless the rest of us by allowing her to come down and walk around among us mortals. I read the book last week at a gallop, and it was still fresh. Were it published for the first time today, it might be positioned as a Young Adult novel (although I'm still vague about what that really is.) What a cast of characters! I loved Scout Finch so much that I wanted to call our daughter Amy "Scout." You can imagine how far that got. Watching Jem go from being a kid to a young man is one of the best character arcs ever. And - no kidding - I just think Atticus Finch is the greatest literary hero of the 20th century. He is a man full of grave dignity. He's just "decent." And a prisoner of conscience.

Part of the appeal, too, was the setting in Maycomb, Alabama (a thinly veiled Monroeville.) I knew the town and I knew the people. Whatever else you might say about Miss Harper, she knew how to write truth. She paced her story perfectly, and it is full of wry observations on life. It also has one of the most subtle yet powerful explorations of race relations I've ever seen. The book is simply transcendent.

I aspire to writing something like that. The problem that challenges many authors, I'll wager, is whether to write commercially or whether to write your heart story. Well, can't you do both?

Listen. I'm working like a dog on "The Fixin' Place" these days. When I don't worry, at least in the first draft, whether it's any good or not, magic happens. It's as though angel midwives congregate around me when I'm just being a slave to the story. This is serious ju ju. I can't explain it, but I do embrace it. So will it be as good as "To Kill a Mockingbird?" That's just about the most ignorant question anyone could ask. How dare I be so arrogant! Candidly, to compare what I'm doing to what anyone else is doing or has done is just stupid. But here's what I can do: I can assure myself that what the fininshed product looks like will be the very best I am capable of producing. I can do nothing less.