A photo of a poster showing the Golden Rule in the sacred writings of 13 faiths.

The Distilled Wisdom of the Human Race

Hillel was a great rabbi of ancient Judaism. Scholars believe he lived sometime between 110 BC and 10 AD. He founded a school, and his name was well-known to Jews then and even today. One story says a Gentile came to Hillel and said he would convert to Judaism if he could teach him the entire Torah while he stood on one foot. Hillel said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another. That is the entire Torah; the rest is its interpretation. Go study” (Talmud, Shabbat 31a).

Can’t you see him stand on one foot, and a few seconds later, he’s like, “What just happened?” For Hillel, this is a mike drop moment, because he’s won a convert. Then eight days later, a moyle shows up to the Gentile’s house and says, “I’m here to perform your circumcision.”

Aah!

Poor guy just had no idea who he was messing with when he challenged Hillel.

Don’t Do Bad = Do Good?

If you’re familiar with Hillel’s teachings, it’s obvious Jesus learned a thing or two from him. It may have influenced him when he said this: “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you. This is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

You probably heard this called the Golden Rule. Some people might say Jesus stole this from Hillel, but they are not exactly the same. One is stated negatively, and the other positively. One says, “Don’t do anything bad,” and the other says, “Only do good.” To not do bad, you can just stay at home watching TV. You’re not doing anything hateful to anybody. But to do good, you have to, you know, do something. It requires you to be active, not passive. Unless we’re in a pandemic. Then, staying home and not spreading it is doing good.

I’m not knocking Hillel’s way of saying it. It is likely a distillation of commandments like, “Do not kill; do not steal; do not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Is it hateful to you if someone steals from you or lies about you (especially in court) or kills you? Then don’t do it to another. If you manage to get through life without doing anything harmful to anyone, you have done very well.

But in my view, you really can’t say anyone stole this idea, because it shows up in every major religion. Some express it negatively, and some express it positively, but all of them have this concept of treating others the way you want to be treated.

Golden Rule Poster by Paul McKenna of Scarboro Missions.jpg
By <a href=”//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Boyd_Reimer” title=”User:Boyd Reimer”>Boyd Reimer</a> – <span class=”int-own-work” lang=”en”>Own work</span>, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Many Religions, One Golden Rule

Hinduism: This is the sum of duty: Do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you (Mahabharata 5:1517).

Buddhism: Do not offend others, as you would not want to be offended (Udana Varga 5.18).

Taoism: The successes of your neighbor and their losses will be to you as if they were your own (T’ai Shan Kan Ying P’ien 13:18).

Confucianism: Is there any rule that one should follow all of one’s life? Yes. The rule of the Gentle Goodness: That which we do not wish to be done to us, we do not do to others (Analects 15:24).

Islam: None of you shall be true believers unless you wish for your brother the same that you wish for yourself (An-Nawawi’s Forty Hadith 13).

Sikhism: I am a stranger to no one, and no one is a stranger to me. I am a friend to all (Guru Granth Sahib, p. 1299).

Baha’i: Lay not on any soul a load that you would not wish to be laid on you, and desire not for anyone the things you would not desire for yourself (Baha’ullah, Gleanings 66:8).

Zoroastrianism: Do not unto others whatever is injurious to yourself (Shayast na-Shayast 13:29).

Jainism: One should treat all creatures in the world as one would like to be treated (Mahavira, Sutrakritanga 1.11.33).

Unitarian Universalism: [We affirm and promote] the inherent worth and dignity of every person (First Principle; cf. Second through Fourth Principles).

Stoicism: “Treat your inferior as you would wish your superior to treat you” (Seneca, Letter 47).

Native American: We are as much alive as we keep the earth alive (Chief Dan George).

One Rule to Follow

I want you to notice not just that this idea appears in every religion but how important they say it is. Confucius said it is the one rule you should always follow. The Hadith says you are not a true believer unless you follow this rule. The Mahabharata says it is the sum of duty. Hillel said it is the entire Torah, and Jesus said it is the Law and the Prophets.

You might be thinking it can’t really be that simple. All of these religious texts have a lot more commands than just “treat others the way you want to be treated.” But do they assign the same importance to the other commands as this one? Hillel said, this is the Torah. Everything else is interpretation. In other words, everything else in the sacred texts is there to teach you how to treat others the way we want to be treated.

Why do we need to be taught? This rule is as simple as it gets. Yes, it’s simple but not easy. If everyone followed that rule, we wouldn’t need 99% of the rules and laws we have, religious or secular. But as Paul said, laws increased because transgressions increased. Do not kill. Do not steal. Do not bear false witness. Do not commit adultery. Do not covet what is your neighbor’s. Do not take a bribe. Do not commit fraud. Do not take away food, clothing, shelter, water, medical care, or any basic necessity someone needs to live. If we all just treated everyone else the way we want to be treated, we wouldn’t need any of those laws, because we wouldn’t do those things.

But people’s selfish desires compete with the Golden Rule. So every society and every religion creates more laws to identify transgressions. But it all starts with the Golden Rule. Every major religion or philosophy has recognized that is the one rule everyone needs to follow, regardless of religion, nationality, race, or politics.

Can We Start Over?

Huston Smith, a renowned scholar of world religions, once said, “If we take the world’s enduring religions at their best, we discover the distilled wisdom of the human race.”

Is this not the distilled wisdom of the human race? The Golden Rule? The rule of Gentle Goodness? The sum of duty? The entire Torah and the prophets? The one rule that makes you a true believer? Treat others the way you want to be treated. You don’t even have to be part of any religion to do that. What if instead of arguing about which religion is right or wrong, we started with that?

Think about how all these different people—Buddha, Mohamed, Hillel, Moses, Zoroaster, Confucius, Jesus, and others, separated by thousands of miles and thousands of years, most of whom did not know of each other—dedicated their lives to finding the best way for humans to live, and all came to the same conclusion. They may not have agreed on everything, but they did agree on this: Treat others the way you want to be treated.

What if we all worked on getting that right first? Then and only then will we talk about what makes us different. I don’t know about you, but that is the kind of world I would like to live in.

Now at the risk of contradicting myself, I believe Jesus did something with this rule that no one else did, at least as far as I can tell. That will be my next post.

Sheep with wolf's head

A Cult Checklist Got Nearly 13,000 Hits in One Day

Yesterday, one of my blog posts—published eight months ago—got nearly 13,000 views.

Screenshot of stats for views on this blog
That spike is from April 26. 13,062 views overall, 12,896 were for the one post “Word of Faith and a Cult Checklist.”

About 20% of that came from this post on Reddit, which showed a list of crazy rules at some church called the Word of Faith Fellowship.

r/awfuleverything - When you violate a “don’t”, you will be told “we don’t do that”.
https://www.reddit.com/r/awfuleverything/comments/ubuc8o/when_you_violate_a_dont_you_will_be_told_we_dont/

For some reason, it seems to have driven a lot of traffic to one blog post titled “Word of Faith and a Cult Checklist.” It was not about that church in particular. I was involved in a movement called the Word of Faith back in the 1980’s and 90’s. Today, it is more likely to be called the Prosperity Gospel. I have written a lot on my blog about the Word of Faith/Prosperity Gospel. My sister once thought it was a cult, and I wanted to know myself. I found a cult checklist in an article called “Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups” from the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA). I edited it a little for clarification on some points.

The idea for the post was to go through the checklist and answer according to my experiences with the Word of Faith movement. I cannot comment on the Word of Faith Fellowship, because I have no experience with that particular church. But their “do and don’t” list above sounds very cult-like. Just saying.

Nonetheless, it seems people who are interested in cults or the Word of Faith Fellowship are finding their way to that post. If you are wondering if you or someone you know belongs to a cult, here is the checklist.

Number 1: The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.

Number 2: Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

Number 3: Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).

Number 4: The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).

Number 5: The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and its members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).

Number 6: The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.

Number 7: The leader is not accountable to any authorities.

Number 8: The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before they joined the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).

Number 9: The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.

Number 10: Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and to radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before they joined the group.

Number 11: The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

Number 12: The group is preoccupied with making money.

Number 13: Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

Number 14: Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

Number 15: The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.

If you want to see my answers and conclusions about the Word of Faith movement, here’s the link. https://davidandersontheauthor.com/2021/08/18/word-of-faith-and-a-cult-checklist/

I also recommend another post I mentioned, “My Sister Thought I Was in a Cult (And I’m Not Sure She Was Wrong).”

Finally, you can find more resources on recognizing and freeing yourself from cults from the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA).

Lent Series: Peter, the Rock and the Stumbling Block

When I was twelve or thirteen, I thought Jesus’ personality was probably like Mister Rogers. If you don’t remember, he had a popular children’s television show in the seventies, eighties, and nineties.

His manner was always gentle and kind. He never raised his voice. He was always sympathetic and compassionate. If you were feeling sad, angry, hurt, or frustrated, he could offer some constructive ways to cope with it. The way things are going in America now, I think we need someone like that, not just for kids but for adults, too.

I’d like to nominate Jesus for that, but I can’t. He is called compassionate in the Gospels, and most of the time he was. But as I first started studying the Bible seriously, it felt like he could be a little mean sometimes. Like when he said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!”

Did he just call Peter the devil? If Peter needed to be reprimanded, Mister Rogers would have found a more tactful way to do it. I remember the first time I read it, at the tender age of twelve or thirteen, how hurt I would be if he said that to me. I didn’t see what happened before and after that. All I could see was Jesus equating his most faithful follower with his worst enemy.

As I’ve grown older, I have gained experience to help make sense of it. And also, I learned to read not only this but everything in the Bible in context. That has taken the sting out of it, and I think I’m beginning to understand where Jesus was coming from.

Who Is He?

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

(Matthew 16:13-15)

This sets the scene. They are at Caesarea Philippi, a city at the base of Mount Hermon in the northernmost part of the traditional kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon. Philip the Tetrarch built the city in honor of Caesar (Augustus) and administered it as part of the territory he inherited from Herod the Great. That becomes significant later, but for now let’s just focus on this particular interaction.

Presumably, the crowds following Jesus have been sent away, and he is alone with the twelve disciples. His first question is who do people say he is. Easy enough to answer. They just have to repeat what they have heard. John the Baptist was executed, which means some people thought he had returned. Elijah was supposed to return to prepare the way for the Messiah. Jeremiah or one of the prophets also would have had to return from the dead. It is extraordinary that they would attribute any of these personalities to Jesus. But they had seen him make the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, and heal all kinds of diseases, and perform miracles that other miracle workers of his day could not duplicate. Is it really impossible? Still, I wonder if any of the disciples laughed dismissively at these conjectures.

Then he asks the difficult question. “Who do you say that I am?” I imagine there was an uncomfortable silence then. They probably had some ideas about who he was but were afraid to speak up. Maybe they thought their ideas sounded as crazy as one of the prophets being reincarnated. When no one else will speak up, there is one you can count on to break the silence, Simon (Peter).

I Tell You, You are the Rock

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

(Matthew 16:16-19)

Can you imagine how Simon, son of Jonah, felt? Today, we call him Peter, and this is why. What better endorsement could Jesus have given him, saying “On this rock (petra in Greek) I will build my church”? There were no churches at the time, which is why many scholars think this saying of Jesus was added later (compare Mark 8:24-30, which does not mention any response to Peter specifically).

Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican

Be that as it may, this has been an important part of church tradition. As the church grew, and the hierarchical structure with it, they used this saying to claim Peter as its first pope. I wonder if any of the others thought the same thing and wished they had spoken up. And that makes the contrast in what Jesus says next all the more startling.

Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

(verse 20)

This is a secret Jesus has been keeping. He knew speculation about him was rampant, and he had to be careful who he revealed his true identity to. To stop the disciples from getting caught up in the speculation, he told them but ordered them to keep it a secret. It would be revealed, but it was not yet time.

You Are a Stumbling Block to Me

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

(Matthew 16:21-23)

So this is what tripped me up some decades ago. The elders, chief priests, and scribes had already been plotting against Jesus. Isn’t it natural for Peter to want to protect Jesus from them? He was willing to die for Jesus, and Jesus called him Satan for that? So much for Mister Rogers.

I wasn’t sure what to think of Jesus then. But now, I see the similarity with when the devil tempted him with all the kingdoms of the world. “Away with you, Satan!” he said to that. I’ve said before I believe the devil was tempting Jesus to be the conqueror his followers wanted. This was Peter repeating that same temptation. That was why he could not accept the truth of Jesus’ mission. That was how he went from being the rock to the stumbling block in just two verses.

One common theme of this Lent series is that Jesus’ first followers believed he was (or might be) the Messiah but did not understand what that meant. It happened once again as Jesus tried to explain what following him means.

Are You Sure You Want to Be My Disciples?

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

(Matthew 16:24-28)

Peter expected Jesus to be the righteous king who would defeat all his enemies, and he would be right at his side for his glory. And he was not alone. The other disciples expected that as well. That was why they kept arguing about which of them was the greatest (Matthew 18:1-5; Luke 22:24-30), and who would sit at his right and left hand in his kingdom (Mark 10:35-38). Even when he called that path the path of Satan, they still did not give up on it.

You have to remember for Jesus, there were two sides to being the Messiah, like a coin. Heads was the conquering king, the Son of Man who would come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and … repay everyone for what has been done. Tails was the suffering servant, as Isaiah prophesied (52:13-53:12, et al), the one who said they must follow him by denying themselves and taking up their cross.

They thought he would defeat Rome, the Imperial Beast, and execute God’s judgment for all the injustice they had inflicted on the Jews. In their minds, God gave Jesus a coin that was heads on both sides, like Two-Face before his transformation. Heads is the only possible result, they thought. Jesus kept telling them this flip would be tails, but they did not get it. At least, not until after his resurrection.

Both sides of a two-tailed coin

That was why, when Peter had the chance to make good on his promise to die for him, he chickened out (Luke 22:54-62). He was willing to die for the glorious king, but not the suffering servant. We pick on Peter for this, but all the others did the same. After the authorities took him, they abandoned him, too. They thought the world was theirs because they were his disciples. Jesus told them instead, What will it profit … if you gain the whole world but lose your soul? [The word “life” in Greek is psyche, which can mean life, soul, or mind. I think in context, soul is the best translation.]

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

Eventually, the disciples understood the Messiah came to save lives, not destroy them. They would never become rich or powerful. They would never conquer the world. They would see him take his throne—in heaven—but not on earth. They would all die as martyrs, just as their master did, losing their lives but gaining their souls. They would find eternal life by participating in God’s plan to redeem the world, not conquer it.

Is it weakness to embrace love and peace over force and vengeance? There is someone who probably knows the answer to that better than any of us, one who accepted the devil’s temptation to conquest and empire. Here is what he said.

“Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded His empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for him.”

-Napoleon Bonaparte

He may not have been Mister Rogers. But he understood what it meant to take up his cross, to sacrifice for others. He built a kingdom by becoming a servant to everyone, even his enemies. And that kingdom still stands today. The disciples understood that (eventually). Napoleon understood it. And for anyone who says, like Peter, that they would die for him, does that mean you will be a rock or a stumbling block?


Thanks for reading. I hope you will come back for the next post. Until then, remember these words from Matthew 7, verse 12.

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

Grace and peace to you.

Three scenes with the devil tempting Jesus, devil leaves, angels appear

Lent Series: Temptation in the Wilderness

Let’s talk about the Temptations.

The Temptations publicity photo. Clockwise from top: David Ruffin, Melvin Franklin, Otis Williams, Eddie Kendricks, and Paul Williams.
The Temptations 1964 publicity photo by Kriegsmann

No, not these guys. Well, maybe another time. I’m talking about the temptations Jesus experienced just before beginning his ministry. He has just been baptized by John, and he went off “into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” It says he fasted forty days and forty nights (Matthew 4:1-2).

I would not have passed that test. The longest I ever fasted was three days. But Jesus was tougher than I am in a lot of ways. It says the Spirit led him into the wilderness to be tempted, but it does not tell of any specific temptations until after forty days and nights. I wonder if he was tempted during that time, or if the fasting was to prepare for the temptations.

If you know your Bible history, forty days in the wilderness recalls Israel’s wandering in the wilderness for forty years. It is also one of many parallels with Moses, who also fasted forty days and forty nights as he received the Torah from God (Exodus 34:28). Many commentators believe the Gospel writers wanted to present Jesus as “the prophet like Moses” who was promised in the Torah.

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like [Moses] from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.

(Deuteronomy 18:15).

You could literally write a book on all the connections the Gospels make between Jesus and Moses. But for now we will just look at how the devil tempted Jesus.

Three scenes with the devil tempting Jesus, devil leaves, angels appear
Temptations of Christ (mosaic), Saint Mark’s basilca, Venice

Turning stones to bread

The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

(Matthew 4:3-4).

The first temptation is obvious for someone who has been fasting for forty days. Turn these stones to bread. What harm could it have been? He was starving. Why not make a little bread so he could eat?

I’ve written before about how I believe one of the purposes of the Incarnation was so God could experience what it is like to be human. If he went around magically making loaves of bread every time he was hungry, he would not know what it was like for someone who had to work all day for that loaf of bread.

To counter that temptation, he quotes from Deuteronomy. He only quoted part of the verse, but I think it would help us to see all of it.

He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

(Deuteronomy 8:3).

In Deuteronomy, the Israelites are about to enter the promised land. Moses is recalling for them the entire forty years’ experience of being delivered from Egypt and wandering in the wilderness. In this verse, he reminds them how they had no food, and God fed them with manna. But first, God let them go hungry.

Why would God let them go hungry? Two reasons are given. First, to humble them, God let them go hungry before feeding them. This would teach them not to panic when they look around and see no food but to trust God to provide for them. Second, this experience should have taught them that they do not live by bread alone but by the word of the Lord.

But come on, Jesus. You’re close to starving. Anyone would have understood if you made a loaf of bread.

Yes, and even under those circumstances, he did not give in to the temptation for the quick fix. As Jesus would tell his followers a few chapters later,

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?… But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

(Matthew 6:25, 33).

Easy for you to say, Jesus. You’re the beloved Son of God. You don’t know what it’s like to starve. You never came close to starving to death.

Oh, wait. He does, and he did. If he had given in to that temptation, he could not have spoken this with authority. Like I said, I would not have passed that test. That’s why I’m glad Jesus did.

Throw yourself down. God won’t let you get hurt.

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

(Matthew 4:5-7).

The first temptation was about whether he would trust God, even when he was starving. This one is almost the exact opposite. It’s like the Devil is saying, “Okay, I get it. You trust God to take care of your needs. So I’ll give you another opportunity to trust God. Throw yourself down from this pinnacle. You’re God’s beloved Son. Surely, God will protect you. He even promised it in the Bible.”

This was probably the most insidious of the devil’s temptations, because he quoted scripture. I will probably say this a thousand times if the Lord lets me live long enough. Just because they are quoting the Bible does not mean they are speaking the word of God. The devil quoted scripture. Do you need any more obvious sign than that?

The devil comes at him like, “It’s right there in the Bible. ‘He will command his angels concerning you. On their hands they will bear you up, so you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ You could throw yourself off this pinnacle, and you won’t get hurt. After all, you are the Son of God. If the angels will protect anyone, it’s you.

“What’s this? I see you hesitating. Are you telling me you don’t believe the Bible? This is the inerrant, infallible word of God. God promised you in the scriptures you won’t get hurt. This is the word of God, who cannot lie. Go ahead. Jump.”

Jesus quotes again from Deuteronomy, which says,

Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.

(Deuteronomy 6:16).

Massah is one of many instances when the Israelites tested God (Exodus 17:7). Moses warns them not to do that anymore. Jesus sees the connection there. Jumping off the pinnacle to prove he is the Son of God would be putting God to the test. If his forty days in the wilderness symbolically recreate Israel’s forty years, he passed this test where Israel failed.

If you are the Son of God…

Notice that the devil prefaced each of these temptations by saying, “If you are the Son of God…”. It seems he is trying to get Jesus to use his divine privilege to get out of difficult situations. As the Son of God, he could turn stones to bread. He could ask God to command the angels to protect him from harm, even if he does something stupid. Oh, what? Throwing yourself off a pinnacle to rocks below wouldn’t be stupid?

What do you think would have happened if he had thrown himself off the pinnacle? Would the angels have caught him? Maybe, maybe not. We can only speculate. But either way, that would have been the end of his mission. If the angels didn’t catch him, he would have died. If they did, it would only be because he claimed something as the Son of God that is not available to us. Both times he refuses to claim any privilege he could as the Son of God. He will live fully as a human, vulnerable in the same ways we are. Because he had a clear understanding of his mission, he did not fall for any trap that would sabotage it.

All the kingdoms of the world I give to you

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

(Matthew 4:8-10).

The devil could not appeal to him as the Son of God here. “If you are the Son of God, bow down and worship me.” That would make no sense. But he makes an offer that many people would have given in to. He offers all the kingdoms of the world, and all their wealth and splendor.

All of Jesus’ scripture quotes come from Deuteronomy, so he uses this verse to answer him.

The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear.

(Deuteronomy 6:13).

To fall down and worship the devil could mean literally bowing to him and declaring, “All hail, Satan, ruler of this age.” But I think this temptation was more subtle than that. Jesus would never have worshipped the devil in such a blatant fashion, and he knew that. So what did he mean?

Remember, at his baptism, God already announced Jesus was the king God had chosen. What kind of a king would he be? That is what the devil is challenging him about. He could take over the world if he wanted, just like Alexander or Julius Caesar. They built their kingdoms through conquest, violence, and bloodshed. That was how all kings of the world took and maintained power. Still is. Was he going to be a king like them? Or would he be different?

Then the devil left him…

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

(Matthew 4:11).

To review, the devil has tempted him to take advantage of various privileges he could claim as the Son of God, for legitimate needs and for just showing off. He tempted him with power and glory, the likes of which would have made him the envy of the greatest conquerors in history. He even tried to bribe him into worshipping other gods (himself), a temptation the nation of Israel gave into over and over again.

The devil has finished tempting him. For now. But these same temptations would continue to dog him through the most well-meaning people, his followers and even the twelve apostles. They had been watching and waiting for centuries, eagerly awaiting the promised Messiah, the son of David, who would free them from Roman occupation and restore the glory of a united and free Israel. And if he went on from there to conquer the entire Roman empire and enslave it to Israel, and Rome had done to them, so much the better.

Going through these temptations, in private, mano a mano with the tempter himself (literally or figuratively), helped prepare him for when the crowds pressured him to be the Messiah they wanted. We should look at some of the ways his followers tried to tempt him. Who knows? We might be making the same mistakes today.


Thank you for reading. I hope this Lenten journey is meaningful to you. Until next time, remember these words from Matthew 7:12.

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

(NRSV)

Grace and peace to you.

Note: Bible quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) unless otherwise noted.

John the Baptist dressed in red baptizes Jesus, dressed in a white loin cloth. Two other people watch, one to the right and one to the left. The Holy Spirit is represented by a dove above Jesus.

Lent Series: The Baptism of Jesus

Instead of the tradition of “giving something up for Lent,” I’m reflecting on passages in the Bible that best portray its meaning. First on the list is when Jesus was baptized. Each of the Gospels portrays it slightly different. For simplicity, I’ve chosen Matthew. Unless otherwise noted, all biblical quotes come from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

(Matthew 3:16-17 NRSV)
John the Baptist dressed in red baptizes Jesus, dressed in a white loin cloth. Two other people watch, one to the right and one to the left. The Holy Spirit is represented by a dove above Jesus.
Andrea Mantegna, Baptism of Christ, ca. 1505

A voice from heaven. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that’s God. There is a lot packed into what God says. Three scriptures are echoed here that together paint a fascinating portrait of Jesus and his mission.

“This is my Son…”

Son is not capitalized in all translations. Like most Christians, I think it is appropriate in this case. In a sense, I could call myself a son of God, but not Son (with a capital S) of God. We reserve that title for Jesus alone.

This echoes a line from a coronation psalm.

“You are my son; today I have begotten you.”

(Psalm 2:7b)

This psalm was recited, or likely sung, at the coronation of a new king. In ancient Israel, the king could be called a son of God, but not Son (capital S) of God. It extols the king for his power and assures him he has God’s blessing. Even other kings and rulers better beware of him. God is ready to punish anyone who crosses him or defies his authority. That is exactly the attitude we expect God to have toward God’s anointed, right? “Touch not mine anointed.”

But does that truly reflect the kind of king he would be?

“…the beloved…”

This recalls God’s word to Abraham.

“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…”

(Genesis 22:2a)

Just as Abraham had one son (of his wife, Sarah), God has one Son, whom God loves. So far, it sounds like Jesus has it made in the shade. He is a king, God’s only Son, beloved of God, probably more than any other person on earth. Just as Abraham loved Isaac.

“…and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”

(Genesis 22:2b)

So if God is referring back to the Abraham and Isaac, that means at the same time God affirms him as the “beloved Son,” God also says he must be sacrificed.

“…with whom I am well pleased.”

This comes from a passage in Isaiah about a figure called “the suffering servant.”

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

(Isaiah 42:1)

With whom I am well pleased recalls In whom my soul delights. God also says, I have put my spirit upon him. The Spirit of God descend on Jesus like a dove. Again, it sounds like things are going good for Jesus. Who wouldn’t like to hear God say God is well pleased with them? But in context, it means he will be the chosen servant who suffers for the redemption of others. That becomes clearer in another passage from Isaiah.

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.

(Isaiah 53:10a)

Some translations say, “Yet it pleased the Lord to crush him….” I think the NRSV is more accurate. It’s not like God is a sadist who gets pleasure from seeing people tortured. But in this case, it was God’s will for him to suffer as he eventually did. But by using pleased instead of will, it is easy to see the connection with God’s pronouncement. Let’s continue.

When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

(Isaiah 53:10b-12)

He will be crushed as an offering for sin. He will live as a servant, and in the end, he will suffer in ways most of us cannot begin to comprehend. None of us knows what it is to be crucified, but it was a torture designed to totally humiliate and inflict as much pain as possible. The word excruciating derives from crucifixion. No one would go through it voluntarily. But that is exactly what God would call him to do, to suffer not for his own sin but for the sins of others. In doing so, he would make many righteous.

We know how his story goes. He will be crucified, dead, and buried, and on the third day, he will rise from the dead.  He will descend into darkness, but then he shall see light. But as I read it, I try to put myself in the shoes of people there who witnessed the Spirit of God descend on him like a dove, who heard what God said about him. Did they really understand it?

Could he be the Messiah?

The text does not say who heard the voice. I think it’s safe to assume Jesus heard it. I’m approaching it as if John the Baptist and the others who were there heard it as well. They would not have to recognize all those scripture references I gave to know this guy must be special. But if they did recognize those echoes of prophecy, they would be thinking, “Could he be the Messiah?”

That question dogged Jesus throughout his ministry. You might think he would be happy to say, “Yes, I am.” But the title Messiah was fraught with political and religious tension. He had to be careful who he revealed it to. When King Herod found out he was destined to be “king of the Jews,” he tried to have him killed. The Romans knew the legend of a coming Messiah, a son of David, who would throw off the yoke of Roman occupation and re-establish the Davidic kingdom.

The Jews lived for the hope that they would see that happen. They believed Elijah would return just before the Messiah.

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.

(Malachi 3:1)

Those who were with John believed he was the messenger, the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah. If the forerunner was here, surely the Messiah could not be far behind. And then they hear God call this man “my son, the beloved, in whom I am well-pleased.” The hairs on their necks must have stood up.

What did they hear in that message? He was a king, probably from the Davidic line. The Spirit of God rested upon him. God called him his beloved Son. God is well-pleased with him. I’m sure more than one of them thought, he must be the one. If they thought of the song in Isaiah 42:1-4, they would have thought of the last line,

he will bring forth justice to the nations.

(Isaiah 42:1)

Justice for them began with defeating Rome and making Israel a great nation once again. If he was God’s anointed, no power on earth could stop him. And the vast majority who followed him, including the twelve, wanted to be at his side when it happened. When they thought of the Messiah, they thought of glory, power, dominion, and freedom. They thought of the victories of Moses, Joshua, and David over God’s enemies that built the nation. They thought it was about to happen again. They would have had a lot of questions for him. They wanted to be sure they understood what they had just witnessed. But before they could ask any questions, he left immediately to wander in the wilderness for forty days (Mat 4:1-11). I guess he was not eager to answer those questions just yet. He knew how hard they were to teach.

One recurring theme in the Gospels is how people keep wanting to call him the Messiah, but they don’t understand everything that comes with it. The glorious king was just one side of the coin. The flip side was the suffering servant. He did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. He would not overthrow their enemies. He would submit to death at their hands. All those people who followed him as the “Son of David,” how many of them continued to follow him to the cross?

A stiff-necked and stubborn people

When I see what passes for religious programming now, I can’t help but wonder, are we any different? They talk about victory, health and wealth, divine protection from enemies and pandemics, dominion over the earth, and personal freedom. “Don’t mess with me! I’m one of the King’s kids!”

You don’t hear about God’s power being made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9). You don’t hear that having the mind of Christ means a willingness to serve and sacrifice for others (Phil 2:5-8). You don’t hear that you share in his glory by sharing in his suffering (Rom 8:17). Their message is resurrection without crucifixion.

What does it mean to follow a Messiah who came as king, Son of God, servant, and sacrifice, all at the same time? If you have any thoughts, please leave them in the comments below.

Next, what happened to Jesus when he went into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil? (Mat 4:1-11).

-Grace and peace to you.

International Women’s Day 2022: Ukraine Edition

March 9 is International Women’s Day. It is meant to honor the gifts and contributions of women around the world that too often go unnoticed. This year, however, Ukraine is on my mind more than most other places, as it probably is for you. Despite an army eight times the size of Ukraine and advanced technological weaponry, Putin’s army has so far only been able to take over a few cities. Perhaps he underestimated the difficulty of urban warfare, especially when the population is so united against you. Most of the army is made up of men, and I have mad respect for the resistance they are putting up. But let’s just take a moment to honor the many ways Ukrainian women are contributing to this resistance.

Proud Ukrainian-American Mila Kunis and husband Ashton Kutcher raising funds for Ukraine

Ukrainian Women on the Home Front and War Front

Ukrainian women are making protective gear and gathering supplies for fighters on the front lines, traveling hundreds of miles on foot to get their children to safety, giving birth in bomb shelters and refugee camps, and doing everything they can to support both the men who are fighting and the children left behind. Those are the traditional roles for women there and around the world, and it is vitally important work. Hats off to the women who are doing this under dire circumstances.

But that does not mean women cannot serve their country and families in nontraditional ways, including making and using Molotov cocktails, and even joining the fighting on the front line. One woman said while she was packing for her husband, she made the decision. If he is going to war, so is she. Another is reported to have taken down a drone with a jar of pickled tomatoes.

Russian women are also gathering in protest to pressure Putin to stop the war. One woman in Saint Petersburg was arrested while holding her baby. Other footage shows an elderly woman who survived the Nazi siege of Leningrad in World War 2 not backing down from Russian police.

Trevor Noah of The Daily Show highlighted all of this in honor of both International Women’s Day and the resolve of Ukrainian and Russian women in the face of one of the worst dictators the world has ever seen.

Women of Ukraine Take On Russia – The Daily Show with Trevor Noah (Video Clip) | Comedy Central US (cc.com)

GoFundMe with Mila Kunis

I always thought Mila Kunis was Greek. That’s how her name sounded to me. But it turns out she was born in Ukraine and immigrated to America in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. As you can imagine, the war is hitting a little closer to home for her than most Americans, and she is doing something about it. Along with husband Ashton Kutcher, she started a Gofundme campaign with a goal of raising $30 million for assistance in housing and supplies to Ukrainian refugees. They even committed to match the first $3 million in donations dollar for dollar. As of now they have raised almost $19 million. The campaign is still active, so if you want a tangible way to help, the link is below.

Fundraiser for GoFundMe.org by Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher : Stand With Ukraine

What Can the US and NATO Do?

This invasion never should have happened, yet it is totally in character for Putin. But I think he underestimated how far Ukrainians would go to defend their country. They are an independent, democratic, and sovereign nation, and they are determined to stay that way.

It remains to be seen how long Ukraine can hold out against Russia. The US and NATO are in a difficult position of supporting Ukraine while not wanting to start a nuclear war. It’s similar to when Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1980. We did not want to engage the Russians directly, but we provided weapons, training, humanitarian assistance, and any other support we could short of direct confrontation with Russian forces. Like the Afghans then, if you give Ukrainians weapons, they will fight. And if the resolve of the Ukrainian people, both men and women, is any indication, even if Russia takes over the capital, the resistance will not stop until Russia goes back home.

Future Woman of Ukraine Inspires People Around the World

And to end on a high note, here is a future woman singing “Let It Go.”

“Oh, I’ve heard that song a million times. I don’t want to hear it again.”

You haven’t heard it like this. A little Ukrainian girl sings it in a bomb shelter in Kyiv. No matter how many times you’ve heard it, I guarantee it will melt your heart.

Ukrainian girl sings ‘Let It Go’ in Kyiv shelter (yahoo.com)

Happy International Women’s Day. Again, the link to Mila Kunis’s fundraiser is below.

Fundraiser for GoFundMe.org by Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher : Stand With Ukraine

Crown of thorns highlighted on purple background

Lent and God Becoming Human

It might surprise you to know that not all parts of the Bible are theologically correct. For example, most people consider God omniscient, meaning God knows everything. I’ve even heard an atheist say, “If God existed, then he would know everything.” Omniscience, along with omnipotence and omnipresence, are three of the main attributes that make God God—at least in most traditions. So why would God say something like this?

I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.

(Gen 18:21)

What do you mean you will know? Aren’t you God?

In this scene, God is speaking to Abraham to discuss plans for Sodom and Gomorrah. God has heard people cry against the rampant injustice and violence there but apparently needed to come down to visit there and see if it was as bad as God heard. How can God talk as if God doesn’t already know? It might not make sense logically, but I think there could be a reason for this.

First, let’s start with what it means to know something. The word for “know” in Hebrew is yada`. It has many different nuances, like “know” in English.

  1. Intellectually. You know it as a fact, like 2+2=4.
  2. How to. It’s possible to know 2+2=4 simply as a fact you memorize and store in your brain. But if you know how to add, you understand it at a deeper level.
  3. Experience. Maybe you have several duplexes that are each rented by two couples. You can observe that four people live in each of those houses. From that experience, you know 2+2=4.

God knows there is injustice in Sodom and Gomorrah, but that knowledge seems to be intellectual at this point. But before executing an extreme judgement, maybe God wants to know through experience if it is as bad as God has heard. As Abraham said to God a few verses later,

“Far be it from you … to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”

(Gen 18:26)

So God suspends judgement until God knows in the truest sense that they deserve it. That speaks to God’s justice. If God does not rush to judgement before gathering the facts, then neither should we. Just a thought.

But doesn’t God already know the facts? Yes, but as I already pointed out, there is a difference between knowing things intellectually and through experience. We see here God’s desire to know our pain through experience, which in a way foreshadows Jesus.

Crown of thorns highlighted on purple background
Heavy is the head that wears the crown

God’s Experience as a Human

I think one of the most important purposes of the Incarnation was for God to experience what it is like to be human, in all of our frailty, suffering, and limitations. God may have known intellectually the pain and struggles of being human. But through Jesus, God experienced it.

This could be why Jesus did not give in to the Devil’s temptation to turn stones into bread or throw himself off of a pinnacle and trust that the angels would catch him. If he went around magically turning stones into bread whenever he was hungry, he would not experience what it is like for someone who had to work all day for that loaf of bread. If he invoked supernatural protection from harm, he would not experience the limitations and fears that come with mortality. When it came time for him to die, he did so in the most torturous way possible, scourging followed by crucifixion. As a result, he knows what pain and suffering are, not just in some abstract sense. He knows because he experienced it. Therefore, the author of Hebrews was able to say in Jesus,

… we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.

(Heb 4:15)

A Different High Priest

The role of high priest was important in the Old Testament. The high priest lived in the Temple complex and never left it. He was shielded to a great degree from human weakness, especially death and anything that symbolized death. Even looking at a corpse could disqualify him from performing his duties, so the other priests and the people had to assist in keeping him pure. This was necessary, so he could perform the sacrifices that would atone for the sins of the people. However, there was a lot there was a lot about being human, i.e., death, loss, and brokenness, that he just could not sympathize with because he could never get close enough to see the pain and suffering ordinary people had to endure.

After the Temple was destroyed, the high priest could no longer atone for people’s sins. Some Jews at the time believed there was no point in praying. Without the Temple and the sacrifices, they thought they had no more access to God. Imagine what it would have meant to them if they heard and believed, along with Christians, that Jesus has been given the mantle of high priest.

The Temple on earth is gone, but the Temple in heaven endures forever. Jesus serves there forever as high priest, and he is our access to God. And unlike the high priests of old, he was tested in every respect as we are. He did not hide from any of the pain of being human and mortal but experienced it himself. Therefore, he is able to sympathize with us in a way none of the prior high priests could. Furthermore, he is able to stand before God on our behalf, because he did it all without sin. His purity before God does not depend on us or anyone shielding him from death. He experienced death and conquered it through his resurrection.

A Parable

Here is a story I heard in church that I think really drives this point home, a sort of parable. One day, people of earth got angry with God and decided to put God on trial. They felt God had made life too harsh, and the reason God was not doing more to make things better was God lived up in heaven in his ivory tower with streets of gold, where there was no pain, hunger, greed, or suffering. What did God know about life on this earth?

It was time God experienced what it was like to live as humans in this world God created. Let him be born into a poor working family without the privilege of being God. Let the legitimacy of his birth be questioned. Let him experience hunger, thirst, cold, pain, exhaustion, fear, and suffering. Let him know what it is to mourn close friends and family. Let him be tempted with wealth and power as a mortal and see if he can refuse it. Let him come under the scrutiny of powers greater than him. Let him live under threat to life and limb. Let them capture him, torture him, and kill him in the most excruciating way possible for crimes he did not commit. And when that moment comes, let him die alone and forsaken, with crowds mocking and humiliating him, and abandoned by even his family and closest friends.

Then Jesus entered the courtroom and stood before his accusers. He showed them the scars on his hands and feet, the stripes on his back where he had been scourged, and the scars on his forehead from the crown of thorns he had received. One by one, from the oldest to the youngest, they left the courtroom.

“Where are your accusers?” the judge asked.

“They have left.”

“Case dismissed.”

Confession and Lent

Ash Wednesday is here, which means we are in the season of Lent. This particular season has become more meaningful over the years, especially Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. I know we end with Easter, which is the most important holiday for Christians. But this Lent I suggest you not skip over the hard stuff Lent calls us to remember: our vulnerability, our sinfulness, and our mortality. What does it mean that Jesus knows what you’re going through in life right now? Again, I don’t mean he knows because he’s God. He knows because he experienced it: hunger, thirst, cold, loneliness, despair, pain, and suffering. And he is present now to walk through it with you.

Thanks for reading. Until next time, remember these words from Matthew 7:12.

“In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

Grace and peace to you.

How to write a novel: 1) Write. 2) Edit. 3) Get Feedback. 4) Revise. 5) Repeat.

Writers’ Questions: Contradictory Advice and Tips for a Newbie

I’m doing a blog series now where I find questions on FB writer groups, like Fiction Writing, answer them, and post the Q & A. Eventually, I’m hoping I can collect these into an ebook. Here are a couple of questions, one about how to handle conflicting advice from critiques, and one from a writer just starting her first novel.

How to write a novel: 1) Write. 2) Edit. 3) Get Feedback. 4) Revise. 5) Repeat.
My most succint writing advice.

Question:

…I wrote a series where witches work with law enforcement. It’s not the premise of the stories, but it is a strong recurring element. I shared a scene with a group who hadn’t read it, with two witches coming to an active crime scene, after having been called to it by a federal inspector who had been working with them for roughly five years.

I was told it made no sense to have them there, furthermore that they should argue with the witches about coming. Even after explaining their partnership I was told it didn’t matter and to apply the suggestions. I changed the scene to be more of an clash and when my betas read it, they were confused and upset that after all these years the Inspector changed her tune.

What’s the best way to mitigate this kind of feedback? Since most writing communities shun the author defending their choices, should you do what others say even if they don’t have full context, or is it best to stick with people who’ve followed the story?

Answer:

If your beta readers are familiar with the overall story, you should listen to them. Nothing takes me out of a story quicker than when characters do something that makes no sense given what has happened in the story so far. If I had been one of your beta readers, I probably would have had the same reaction.

On critique groups in general, I am getting ready to self-publish my first novel, and I never would have gotten to this point without them. However, this is the kind of problem that can happen when critiquers see only one scene without having read the story leading up to it. You can explain the situation to them, but sometimes they still don’t get it. I shared my chapters in order, so I knew if they said something didn’t make sense, they had the context to make that judgment.

Anytime you solicit advice, you have to separate the good from the bad. Mostly what I have found is advice falls mostly into three categories.

  1. I know they are right.
  2. I know they are wrong.
  3. I don’t want to use that, but their suggestion points me in a direction that is more interesting than what I have.

If you’re not sure, then try out what they suggest and ask yourself one question: Does this make it a better story? The answer to that is subjective, but that is what it means to be an author: You get to make that call.

Question:

I am just starting out as a writer.

I want to write fun somewhat surreal tropical paradise like stories and also tropical paradise murder mysteries. I have read some of both and am currently on a trip in French Polynesia.

I am a big fan of Agatha Christie and see her series stories as inspiration.

I am learning Polynesian culture and also more specifically Hawaiian culture and history.

I have just entered my 60s, and my career is and has been Information Technology. That might be some I might incorporate as well.

But I am at the very beginning!

So how does one start?

Answer:

Read current bestsellers in your genre. Agatha Christie is considered cozy mystery, so you will need to know what that audience is reading now. Beyond that, join a writing group. Learn the craft: plot, characterization, dialog, point of view, etc. Write. Edit. Get feedback. Revise. Repeat. And welcome.


Both these posts came from a FB group called Fiction Writing. If you would like to see the original posts and other answers, here they are. Given your interests, cozy mysteries set in Hawaii would be the best thing to read. You will probably have to request to join the group. But if your serious about writing fiction, it’s a good place to get some feedback and questions answered.

I wrote a series where witches work with law enforcement.”

I am just starting out as a writer.”

Happy writing!

Writers’ Questions: Should I Open with an Extended Flashback?

This question is about jumping into a flashback in the opening of your novel.

Question:

What’s your guys opinion on a beginning that starts with a cold open, then flashes back to what led to it—Breaking Bad episode one for example: starts with Walt diving the RV violently through the desert with two (presumed) dead bodies sloshing around in chemicals behind him. Crashes the RV in a ditch, gets out in his undies, points a gun toward the approaching sirens, and then boom were taken back to his normal life, cancer diagnosis, and ride along to a meth lab bust which gives him his bright idea, etc., etc., until we lead right back into the opening scene. Works well for tv, movies too, but generally do you find that to be attractive when reading?

Or would it be more plausible to hook the reader, then just keep the story rolling, sprinkling in backstory over the course of the narrative?

Like I said, just a general question. I’ll end up going with whatever I personally enjoy reading/writing the most and what I feel works best for the story but I was just curious about your thoughts on it 🙂 thanks!

 I bring it up originally because I reread Live By Night by Dennis Lehane, and he opens on a scene that happens like 10 years after the story unfolds. Only touches on it for a paragraph. Thought it was an interesting take on getting us into the story—linked the pic of the first page below.

Dennis Lehane jumps quickly into a flashback to explain how his main character, Joe Coughlin, ended up in a tubboat with his feet in cement about to be thrown overboard.
The opening of Dennis Lehane’s novel, Live by Night (2012).

Answer:

A few thoughts.

  1. It is good that you distinguish between writing for visual media, i.e,, TV and movies, from writing novels or short stories. Some things work better for one media than others.
  2. From what I’ve seen, most bestsellers take the second approach: Hook the reader, keep the story moving, and sprinkle in backstory at opportune moments. Jumping almost immediately into an extended flashback happens more in literary fiction. Commercial fiction is much easier to get published than literary fiction, especially for a new author.
  3. If you really have your heart set on flashing back, make sure you have a clear transition between the story opening and the flashback. In the example you give, Lehane did this well with the last sentence of the first paragraph, and the first sentence of the second paragraph.

One more thing to consider. I took a course on writing memoirs. In one of my assignments, I used the same technique. I started with a phone call from a former crush who told me she was getting married, flashed back to when I knew her, my love was unrequited, and she moved away, then back to the phone call and going to her wedding. My teacher told me it made the story interesting in a way. But by saying at the beginning that she was marrying someone else, it took away the suspense the reader would have felt in wondering, “Will he win her heart or not?” I had never thought of that.

Try to understand what you will gain or lose with either choice.

That post came from a FB group called Fiction Writing. This was my answer. If you want to see the original post and other answers, here is the link. You will probably have to join the group if you haven’t already. https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=1628589800828232&set=gm.2377342689075120


What do you think? Do you like it when novels jump into a flashback after a brief introduction? Is it something that works better on TV than in books? Have you read anything published in the last three or four years that has an opening like Lehane’s above?

You're a writer. Claim the title. Writers write, so make time for it every day. Set realistic goals. Embrace the ecstasy of writing. Read, read, read, read, read, read, read. Follow your heart, not the market. Don't just start stories; finish them. Dream big. Learn the rules. Follow the rules. Break the rules. Constructive Criticism: Solicit, Accept, Manage. Put your ego in your back pocket and sit on it. Writing is a journey, not a destination. Enjoy the scenery. Give back to the writing community. Write scared. Remember you are the master of inspiration, not its slave. Set your stories free. Send them into the world. Don't slack on the hard stuff: Outline, Research, Rewrite. Build a lifestyle that nurtures and supports your writing. Love what you do. Write with joy. -A Wordplayer's Manifesto

Writer’s Questions: What if My POV Character Does Not Understand the Language Others Are Speaking?

Point of view (POV) is an important consideration in how you write your stories. I came across this question in one of my Facebook Writing Groups.

How to write about characters speaking in a different language?

Hey guys, hope ur all well! So I’m working on a ww2 story and in one scene, the British mc gets captured by the enemy soldiers. He is laying on the ground at gun point while the other men are arguing with each other in German about whether to kill him or not

How should I go about this since the POV character doesn’t understand what they’re saying? But I also want to show the readers the intentions of the soldiers arguing with each other (some want to take the boy prisoner, but some want to execute him as a lot of their friends got killed in a recent skirmish)

I was thinking maybe ‘they shouted in German’ or actually translating and writing the German dialogue down. Any suggestions please? Thanks!

My Answer

If the POV character does not understand it, don’t translate it. That takes the reader out of your character’s point of view. He probably can’t even make out the words they’re saying, much less understand them. The character can get a sense of what they are saying through their actions and tone of voice. One of them puts his boot on his back, shouts something angrily in German, and presses the gun muzzle to his head. The other shouts, “Nein,” (most people understand that even if they don’t speak German) and pushes him away. Then they argue. The character knows which one wants to kill him and which is trying to save him.

Remember, only 7% of verbal communication is in the words we say. The other 93% is body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. The POV character does not have to understand the words to get the gist of it.

Omniscient vs. Character POV

I gave this advice because the poster said the British MC was the point-of-view (POV) character. If he/she was writing in an omniscient POV, it would be fine to give the words in German and translate them, e.g., “Wollen Sie mit mir kommen?” (Do you want to come with me?) the man asked. In an omniscient POV, you have a narrator who knows everything, so they can tell you anything they want you to know.

But if your POV character does not understand German, you can’t give the exact words. So you have to communicate the soldiers’ intent in a way the MC will understand, i.e., body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice.

Most novels today are not written in omniscient POV, and I think for good reason. Here is another example that I think clearly shows the difference. Jerry Jenkins used it in one of his writing tutorials.

In this scene, Mary has just won some election. Here is a brief snippet you might write in omniscient POV.

“Congratulations,” Bob said.

Mary did not believe him.

We have an omniscient narrator telling us what Mary is thinking. But let’s say you are writing the scene from Bob’s point of view. Bob does not know what Mary is thinking. You have to show it in a way Bob will know.

“Congratulations,” Bob said.

“Oh?” Mary raised her eyebrows. “I thought you wanted your wife to win.”

Don’t you feel the tension much more that way? In the omniscient POV, we know Mary does not believe Bob, but Bob does not. In Bob’s POV, Mary shows her disbelief clearly, so Bob knows along with the reader. This is the difference between telling and showing. I added a little body language with Mary raised her eyebrows. But you could have just written Mary said, and it still would have been clear.

“Show Don’t Tell” and POV

Show don’t tell is one of those rules you hear all the time but can be difficult to explain. I think the best way to learn it is to practice using POV characters instead of omniscient POV. In omniscient POV, you can tell all day and get away with it. But if you filter everything through one character’s POV, then you have to show it.


What do you think? Do you have a way of handling characters dealing with foreign languages? Do you prefer to write in omniscient or character POV? Why? Do you agree that character POV makes it easier to show and not tell? Let me know in the comments.