How The Very Least Came to Be

I was writing feature stories regularly for the San Diego Reader, a major weekly. As one assignment, the publisher sent me to spend a few days with Mother Teresa’s seminarians in Tijuana, and I found them to be among the kindest and happiest people I could imagine. One fellow, especially bright, gracious, and unique, was Dean McFalls. Even now, though he’s had some troubles, I think of him as an honest image of Christ in the real world, much like the hero of Graham Greene’sThePower and the Glory.

Soon after I wrote the seminary story, my cousin Patti’s friend Dale, who helped in the nursery of an Evangelical megachurch, got accused of exposing himself to children. The accusation landed him in jail for over two years with no provision for bail. When therapists interviewed the nursery children, all kinds of wild stories came out. Bizarre and ridiculous tales about Satanic ritual abuse went public. The church became a subject of daily ridicule in local and even national media.

My Reader editor suggested an article about the church, Faith Chapel. I attended a service, decided to stick around, met lots of people, and found them nothing like the vicious whackos the media portrayed.

From those two experiences came a novel I named The Fat Lady, an allusion to a character in J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, in which a quite unappealing character is revealed as what Mother Teresa called “Christ in his distressing disguise.”

Barbara Peters, my excellent editor at Poisoned Pen Press, insisted she would not publish a book entitled The Fat Lady. I put it aside and later considered calling it The Fat Lady, A Love Story. But my wise sixteen-year-old Zoe suggested I find a less potentially offensive title. So, now it’s The Very Least.

The Reader stories mentioned above, you should find here:

 Mother T’s Seminary

Faith Chapel

How Midheaven Got Conceived

When I was eighteen, I attended a Billy Graham crusade and came away with a sense that the Christian faith was far different than I had previously thought. So I started reading the Bible and tried attending churches. The Bible reading continued, the churchgoing did not, at the time.

Over the next few years, I started earnestly writing, and in King’s Beach, on the shore of Lake Tahoe, I attended a party where, on one side of a large room, a group of kids held a Bible study, while across the room other kids drank and smoked stuff.  And a girl stood between those groups, gazing left and right, looking bewildered, before she dashed out of the house. I followed and watched her run down the road and plunge into the lake.

I saw myself in that girl, often torn between what appeared to offer pleasure and what felt good and beautiful but required sacrifice. Together, the girl and I became Jodi, the narrator of Midheaven.

By the way, for the moment, at least, you could earn yourself a copy of Midheaven by simply clicking here.

And then, after you read, you could have some fun writing a review and posting on Goodreads.

Obeying the President

Someone commented about my apparent attitude toward our president as reflected in less is more. I responded that I preferred not to argue since people’s opinions are generally not open to reason because they are dictated by and dependent upon the media to which they pay attention. This is a theme I have obsessed about since, while researching for my novel The Good Know Nothing, I learned that “government by media” was, aside from making money, William Randolph Hearst’s primary motive. Since then, that motive has become all too commonplace.

So I decided to post what follows again:

The president has instructed the IRS not to mess with churches who get political. He wants us churches to speak our minds, right?

Here goes.

The other day I was talking to my cousin Patti and feeling impassioned by some action of Trump’s. I forget which one. And Patti, out of left field, calls Hillary Clinton a liar.

Naturally, I respond, “And Trump isn’t a liar?” And she says, “Not as big a liar as Hillary.” So I demand, “Who says?” And she says, “Fox television.”

Suddenly I got the answer to a problem that has plagued me for months now, which is: “Why would 80% of white male “evangelicals” vote for a shallow, unscrupulous, (I could go on but why bother) fellow.”

The answer came because when Patti mentioned Fox, I remembered that I get most of my news from sources such as the New York Times, the L.A. Times, and the Washington Post, all of which are at least inclined toward the liberal, the progressive, and the Democratic party.

I have tried paying attention to Fox news, Rush, Dr. Laura, and James Dobson, but too soon gotten tired of shouting at the tv or radio.

Still, although I consider myself a good critical thinker (having taught that subject for years), I understand the “facts” that inform my opinions come from sources favoring certain agendas. So I asked myself what was wrong with this picture, and here’s my conclusion:

I don’t know of any source for information in any way political that isn’t biased. Perhaps the absence of a bias is humanly impossible. But, just suppose there was a media source whose only bias was a sincere devotion to framing news and opinion in the context of the teachings of Jesus. A media presence with no attachment to the traditions of any particular church or denomination, with no intention to directly evangelize, or to cater to a congregation, or to demonize anyone, or to make money for any purpose. A source dedicated to nothing but the truth for it’s own sake.

If that wouldn’t set us free, I don’t know what would.

So there, Mr. President, I have obeyed.

The Jefferson Attitude

The New York Times ran an article by historian David Williams about Thomas Jefferson’s more or less Christian attitude and how taking a similar stance might allow the Democratic Party to win over those who find Democrats essentially secular and deaf to the concerns posed by their Christian beliefs.

According to Mr. Williams, Jefferson believed in the teachings of Christ but didn’t accept the “mysticism”, by which Jefferson apparently meant the outrageous claim that Christ was God and as such performed miracles including his return from death, thereby providing evidence for his assertion that believers could achieve eternal life.

Now, I would certainly prefer that Democrats took the teachings of Christ seriously, no matter how they feel about “mysticism”. While I spent some time at a seminary in Tijuana, a very intelligent member of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity told me that part of his admiration for the Mexican poor was that even most of those who didn’t believe in Catholic doctrine, having grown up in a mostly Catholic culture, had learned to be humble and selfless, as Christ would have them be.

Would that we all were humble and selfless, no matter what we believe.

But whether or not this Jeffersonian template, based largely upon the Beatitudes and the admonition to love our neighbors, would win at least some swing votes to Democrats, it’s quite a dangerous course to chart. In fact, I would call it hogwash except, perhaps because of my ties to Christian culture, I would rather play nice.

In defense of my objection, I will call upon Feodor Dostoyevski, widely held to be among the greatest novelists ever.

In the recent work of a far lesser writer (Ken Kuhlken, alias me), we find a precocious thirteen year old discussing a criminal case with his attorney uncle:

“Tommy asked, ‘Well, do you want to hear something Dostoyevski thought about bad guys like Luz? [boss of a Tijuana cartel.]’

“’Read on.’

“Tommy’s source was The Brothers Karamazov, which he opened to a book mark.

“’This is Rakitin, who’s pretty much of a nitwit, talking about Ivan, who is mighty smart: “Did you hear his stupid theory just now: if there’s no immortality of the soul, then there’s no virtue, and everything is lawful?”’”

Dostoyevski devoted much of his art to dramatizing this very question: if we remove God from the equation, why should we act in accord with any moral standard other than the pursuit of our own benefit?

If we take a secular stance and dismiss the possibility of what Jefferson deems mysticism, why should we hold anyone’s well being above our own; why should we sacrifice; why should we try to love better?

Over a hundred years ago, that question drove Dostoyevski’s two most profound and compelling novels. Before his time and ever since, some mighty intelligent writers and thinkers have tried and failed to come up with a convincing answer.

So, regardless of the fact that a long lost girlfriend of mine argued that Christianity would be preferable if blood weren’t one of its abiding themes; and my Unitarian friends would have us consider the teachings of Christ in the same category as those of the Dalai Lama; and many folks I know believe that heaven is a swell concept but hell is simply not Christ-like . . . regardless of the opinions of those good people, the notion that we can legitimately pick and choose from a historically fixed set of beliefs is a fool’s paradise.

Which brings me to the role of us writers in political, social and spiritual discourse.

Sure, those of us who believe in Christ ought to let our readers know that, like Jefferson, we adhere to the values our Lord set down and hope people follow them whether or not they believe in the “mystical” stuff. But if we believe in that “mystical” stuff, we also ought to insinuate our belief that creation is more than what the Bernards would have us believe.

For a definition of “Bernards,” I once again call upon the precocious Tommy. Jodi, The novel’s narrator, is telling about a drive along Highway 395 in the Sierra Nevada:

“Once when Tommy laughed and I asked what about, he said, ‘Dmitri, one of the brothers, he calls science guys Bernards. Bernard was some knucklehead French writer.’

“’Dmitri calls scientists Bernards?’

“’Not exactly scientists, but guys who think science is the answer to everything.’

“’So, Tommy,’ Mystery [Jodi’s daughter] said, ‘if not science, what is the answer to everything?’”

To find the answer to that last and ultimate question, you’ll need to read the novel.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

Trump and Assad

“For the son of God became like us so that we could become like him.” Athanasius

On Palm Sunday, Dr. Cherith Nording, a seminary professor, gave a powerful sermon in which she proposed that Christ could live in connection with the spirit of God because he declined to be influenced by the narratives of the world. Likewise, she observed, for us to live in connection with the spirit of God, we need to decline to be the guided by the world’s dominant narratives.

Which are: the quests for fame, power, riches, sensual delights, and ego fulfillment. Now, all those things being quite attractive, many will question why should we decline to pursue them.

The most convincing answer has to be: to find something better.

In its mission to present this something better, the Christian church historically favors offering the promise of what Woody Guthrie called “pie in the sky when you die .” For many reasons, one being our human preference for short term rather than long term solutions, that promise hardly begins to convince everybody. Many people in this scientific age find it laughable. Many others see no problem in following the world’s narratives, at least until they discover the often miserable consequences.

At that point, they may be open to persuasion should the church effectively present to them the benefits living in connection with the spirit of God offers. Benefits such as: peace of mind; freedom from worry; freedom from guilt; freedom from the poisonous need for ego fulfillment

Though her message was honest, wise, and powerfully delivered, what most excited me was — please keep in mind that I attend an “evangelical” church — her comment that our following the world’s narratives leads to the triumph of such followers of the world’s narratives — such power seekers — as Trump and Assad.

Trump and Assad in the same sentence. Thank you, Dr. Nording

A Time for Everything

Note: I posted this a while back, but on a different site, I think. If you have read it before, apologies.

I was considering writing about a feeling that has come over me, a sense that I think differently from everyone I know and consequently can hardly open my mouth without risking an argument.

While contemplating this predicament, and wondering if this year or era is especially argumentative, if all the warring factions that have either risen or come out of the closet have pushed our society to a new level of interpersonal alienation; if the constant reminders of our differences in gender, race, religion, generation, social class, education and all won’t allow us to consider anyone as simply as a person, meaning they are probably more like than unlike us.

When I was in college, as a literature major, we studied Camus, Sartre, Elliot, Duras and others who tackled the theme of alienation. But though I’m well aware that what I’m feeling is nothing unique or new, I suspect the separation between people has become a sort of disease.

As I reflected upon this gloomy vision, I got inspired to take a look at Ecclesiastes 3:1: A Time for Everything

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

So, I came away thinking, we ought to ask and/or pray about, in this particular and mighty peculiar age, what time is it? What should we be doing, writing about, ranting about, keeping silent about, or devoting ourselves to?

I suspect for each of us the answer will be different. Which is a very good thing. As my mom, a cliche master, asserted regularly, “It takes all kinds to make a world.”

For quite a few years, I wrote feature stories for the San Diego Reader. My editor, Judith Moore, may well have been an angel. At least, she was one of the wisest counselors in creation. When a friend of my cousin Patti got accused of Satanic child abuse in the nursery of a large church and his arrest and trial became a local and national media sensation, Judith asked me to write about the controversy. What I learned infuriated me. I became livid about certain attorneys and therapists who either played the case for their own advantage or were astonishingly ignorant. And I wrote the draft of a feature story with that fury impelling me. But Judith, when she read the draft, simply said, “Ken, you don’t do angry.” And she was right, I’ll admit but with a caveat: because I didn’t do angry then doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do angry now.

Maybe my time to write angry has come. I will pray about it.

Should you care to read the article mentioned above, here’s a link.

Hope and Bob Dylan

A couple weeks ago, a mighty powerful thought came to me. I had been talking to a friend about the way we often distort our thinking. Suppose a loved one appears to betray us and we begin to think people in general aren’t worth trusting, or we wave to an acquaintance and she doesn’t wave back and we believe she has for some reason decided not to like us. And so on. Many of us think like this now and then or every day. Long ago, I read a fine book about such “cognitive distortions”, and I still recommend it: Feeling Good, by David Burns.

The powerful thought came when I woke up feeling lousy and didn’t particularly want to roll out of bed because a voice like a dementor from Harry Potter told me that the day promised nothing worth rising for. Then out of nowhere a voice like an angel told me, Hey, something good is going to happen today.

I jumped up (well, maybe not jumped), eager to learn what the good thing would be.

Every day since then, as soon as I awake, I tell myself that something good is going to happen. And when I look back at the end of each day, I realize something good has happened. Today, for instance, Zoe pitched masterfully and her team almost beat a great team from a national championship organization.

That day when the angel first urged me to look for the good that would happen, Bob Dylan won the Nobel prize for Literature. Now the only way the Nobel committee could have pleased me more is if they had chosen me, and not only was that not likely to happen, it would’ve have seemed quite right.

I don’t attend a lot of concerts, but I have gone to watch Bob Dylan about a dozen times, in venues small and large. The best ever was in Tucson, Arizona when he performed all Christian songs backed up with a group of six or seven gospel singers. I returned for the second performance the next day.

For at least two reasons, I’m delighted that Mr. Dylan won the Nobel prize. One, he has done wonders for America by adapting several American art forms, our folk tradition, our topical (protest) song tradition, and the blues, and made them his own, which is what artists do best, build on what’s come before. Also, he has given us an honest Christian voice.

During his “Christian” period, surely, (I think of it as his churchgoing period, before he probably got disillusioned by churches as many of us do), but also before and after.

The best way to make sense out of one of his earliest hits, “Blowin’ in the Wind” is to view the wind as the Holy Spirit: “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8; “And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.” Acts: 22

Here’s a deft analysis of “All Along the Watchtower”: “… a riff on the prophecy from Chapter 21 of the Book of Isaiah, where two watchmen on a watchtower see two riders approaching. ‘There must be some way out of here,’ said the joker to the thief. ‘There’s too much confusion/ I can’t get no relief.” The first stanza is about existential angst, about the futility and violence of the modern world. “Businessmen they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth./ None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.” In this consumerist world, we drink, we steal, we work, but nothing seems of real value.

“’No reason to get excited,’ the thief he kindly spoke.’ Who is the thief but Jesus Christ who describes himself as returning to Earth “like a thief in the night’? Indeed, ‘the hour is getting late,’ the thief informs us, another Biblical catchphrase about the return of Christ. [He continues]‘There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke./ But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate.’ The seeming futility of life is something that we need to rise above… “Which takes us to the third and fourth stanzas: “…Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.” This is a prophecy from Isaiah 21. The two messengers are announcing the fall of Babylon…. also a theme in the Book of Revelation, referring to Christ’s Second Coming.”

One of my favorites of Mr. Dylan’s later songs is “Highlands” in which he sings in accord with W.B. Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium”, a poem I consider strikingly Christian in its preference for pursuing the eternal over clinging to the earthly. If you haven’t read it, please do. You might want to augment it with a movie (from a novel) that played off the poem’s opening line: “That is no country for old men.”

As this is about twice as long as most of my messages, I’ll end it here with the hope that you haven’t already, you will now click some of the links. The linked version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” is most excellent.