Book Review: Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible

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No sooner had I discovered that I’d won a review copy of Vindicating the Vixens than I began to worry. What if it’s too scholarly and I’ve lost IQ points since school and I don’t understand the theological arguments? I haven’t read scholarly work since graduate school! What if it’s a slog to get through and I’m bored and it takes hours and hours and hours to read and process? Why, oh why, did I claim I’d looooove to read the book? I don’t even like non-fiction! (Not much. There are exceptions. My mind has a flair for the melodramatic.)

I shouldn’t have worried.

This book was a delight to read. It was scholarly, yes, but not anything like the stuffy-and-snooty scholarship in the literary criticism of my graduate school days.

First of all, let me say that this is not a book aimed only at women. Men, particularly men in church leadership, should read this book. You don’t have to agree with everything; the authors themselves don’t agree all the time. (More on that later.) But the ideas and information are worth considering.

The premise is simple: many of the women in the Bible have a bad girl reputation (“vixens”) and in many cases, those reputations are undeserved. We all read the Bible through a particular lens, one that combines traditional, often skewed, interpretations and our own contemporary sensibilities regarding these ancient events. But reading the text and considering it within the context of its times, both of the events and of the actual writing, shows that our views are often far from Biblical.

For example, there’s no textual evidence that Mary Magdalene was a former prostitute and Jesus’ lover (or wife), but many people believe this. Even many churchgoers and devout, Bible-loving Christians believe certain incorrect ideas because they’ve failed to consider the context and text. (For example, the belief that Deborah was a judge only because “a good man was hard to find.”) Some Biblical women are vilified because of their sexual activities. Others are ignored.

This anthology serves as a correction to this. But it also serves as a catalyst for personal change and re-examination of our theological assumptions about gender, the gospel, and the nature of God.

The authors are diverse: female and male, white and minority, various denominational backgrounds, all well-educated. (All the authors have a MA, PhD, or ThM degrees from respected seminaries.)

They are united by this:

  • a common desire to take the text seriously
  • a desire to portray the cultural context as accurately as possible
  • a passion for God and his word, which they strive to interpret the way he intends us to interpret it, as a revelation of his character.

They differ on the issue of women preaching yet always show respect for those who disagree with their conclusions.

They are also united in this conclusion: God is concerned for the outsider. The powerless. The marginalized, feared, stereotyped. These women’s stories vividly show how deeply God cares for those whom the world has deemed unimportant. To miss this aspect of the stories is to misunderstand God’s nature.

In the excellent introduction, Henry Rouse discusses hermeneutics and how to responsibly interpret Scripture. Each subsequent chapter discusses a particular woman.

Section 1: the women in Christ’s genealogy: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary.

Section 2: women from Israel’s history: Eve, Sarah, Hagar, Deborah, Huldah, and Vashti.

Section 3: New Testament women: the woman at the well (the one with five husbands), Mary Magdalene, and a woman named Junia/Joanna, who may have been an apostle.

Some of the subject matter overlaps. (For example, the Sarah and Hagar chapters.) Because of the authors’ differing emphases, the assertions contrast and sometimes contradict. This might be disconcerting to some readers. One of the benefits, though, is that the different interpretations drive the reader back to the Bible. Rather than reading the book and passively accepting the conclusions without considering the logic and implications, I had to think harder. This is a book that demands interaction with the contents. (Much like the Bible does.) Time and again, I found myself discussing the ideas and interpretations with my husband and then in my own mind (when my husband wasn’t around).

All the authors stress the importance of the context. I was particularly touched and impressed by Carolyn Custis James’ handling of the patriarchal context in her chapter on Tamar. And Sarah Bowler’s discussion of Bathsheba was timely, considering how many women have become vocal about being sexually victimized. But it was also helpful in two ways.

  1. One, she points out that ancient understanding of rape emphasized physical force and violence, while moderns understand rape as also involving coercion and non-consent; thus, while the Bible does not explicitly call David’s sexual encounter with Bathsheba “rape” (given the writer’s cultural understanding of it), there’s textual evidence that his treatment of her would fit our modern ideas about rape. (See that chapter for details.)
  2. Two, she helps us to consider how we, as Christians–individually and corporately–treat the powerless and victimized, and how we can and must do better.

I’ve highlighted two chapters as helpful, but all of the chapters could be described this way.

The only times I felt confused were when the authors were discussing traditional views I was unfamiliar with. For example, I felt a little confused in the chapter about Mary as Timothy Ralston wrote about certain traditional ideas, such as her perpetual virginity or her bodily assumption. But I grew up in Reformed/Calvinistic circles and though I’d heard some references to these theological ideas, it was always given a disdainful treatment, almost a “can you believe these people are so stupid?!” attitude, and never treated with respect or with a desire to truly understand the origins of these concepts or the people who believe them. Hence my confusion. I slowed down and re-read those sections multiple times. (Is that a bad thing?) But my ignorance isn’t the author’s fault, nor is it a fault of the book.

This brings up something, though. I don’t think those who are Biblically illiterate would find the book helpful. The text assumes a baseline knowledge of Scripture, that the reader will know the gist of Israel’s history and Jesus’ ministry, and can find her/his way around the Bible. That’s the target demographic.

Note: The Christian reader who doesn’t know anything about the Bible (a new convert from an unchurched background, for example) could benefit from the book, though, if given guidance from mature Christian(s) and the tools to study the Bible, coupled with a fervent desire to spend time learning and praying.

There’s plenty of material for discussion in this book. Each chapter has a few questions at the end to serve as a springboard, but there’s much, much more that could be discussed in a group. It would be best if the group included women and men, as gender dynamics is discussed so much, and the group would benefit from having both male and female listening to God and each other.

Highly recommended.

I received a review copy from Kregel (through the editor, Sandra Glahn, whom I follow on Twitter) in exchange for an honest review.

Here’s my honest, Twitter-sized take: read this book. Seriously, I mean it. It’s available on Amazon. Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible, ed. Sandra Glahn, Kregel Academic, December 2017. Contributing authors include Henry Rouse, Carolyn Custis James, Eva Bleeker, Marnie Legaspi, Sarah Bowler, Timothy Ralston, Glenn Kreider, Eugene Merrill, Tony Maalouf, Ron Pierce, Christa L. McKirland, Sharifa Stevens,  Lynn Cohick, Karla Zazueta, Amy Peeler. Great work, y’all.

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Correct . . . but wrong

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Recently, I’ve been re-reading the book of Job. I’ve read it before–that’s what happens when you attend Christians schools, church, and Sunday school for several decades–but I hadn’t picked it apart and thoroughly examined it. So now, instead of skimming through the rather tedious speeches of Job’s self-righteous friends, I’m stopping, pondering, and making connections between Job’s assertions and his friends’ arguments. And something struck me that I hadn’t taken note of before:

The friends’ theology is correct. Mostly. They recite some creeds and share ideas that, taken out of context, are beautiful. Uplifting, even. True. (For example, in chapter 20, Zophar speaks of the wicked’s future punishment and how they will pay for what they have done wrong; in the light of eternity and future justice from God, yes, that is true.)

Yet at the end of the book, God commands Job to make sacrifices for these three men’s sins. To the eldest man, he says, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (Job 42:7) Not sacrifices for Job, who argued with God, or his wife, who angrily told him to curse God and die. But the ones with the good theology . . . and the wrong application.

Here’s what stood out to me:

We can get our theology completely right but miss the most important thing: relationships. A relationship with God, yes, but also relationships with other people. The friends speak callously. They apply their good theology in the most unloving, uncompassionate ways to Job’s situation. They’d sat with him for seven days in silence; one wonders why they couldn’t have continued to stay silent and listen lovingly while Job grieved and argued with God. Here’s my theory:

Because humans like to correct other people.

We love being right and we think we’re always right.  

It’s not only our theology. Our ideas, our political alignments, our opinions on anything and everything from national security to proper push-up form to the stuffing versus dressing debate each Thanksgiving. Other people must agree with us!

All of our arguments can be completely correct: convincing, eloquent, and designed to drag, kick, slam, or carry the enemy to our side.  Or at least whack them upside the head for standing on the wrong side. For being the enemy. Our enemy.

Once we view the other person as an enemy, we forget that they are human, like us. 

In the past few months, I’ve tried to develop my reasoning and logic skills. I read a book by the late Robert Gula titled Nonsense. After several chapters on various types of nonsense (and why they are nonsensical), he writes about how to argue well. One of his final points was this: the other person is human. Treat them as such. 

I realized that I often forget that. I forget that all people are made in God’s image, not only the ones I find sympathetic.  While that image is a broken and shattered one, warped and distorted by evil, it is still there because God made that person.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the person is guiltless of wrongdoing and shouldn’t be brought to justice, whatever form that needs to be. It doesn’t mean that we can’t judge another’s actions as wrong. It doesn’t mean that we can’t stand with the victims or fight unjust systems wherever they are found. We can and should.

It does mean that we don’t treat that guilty person with contempt or scorn. Granted, this is very difficult to do. It’s much easier to ridicule and stereotype people we disagree with. To turn them into caricatures. To treat them as an enemy. To see them as less human than I am. I do it far too often.

This summer, I read lots of great novels and one horrible one. It will remain nameless, as there were multiple problems with the story. One of the worst was this: the villain was two-dimensional. He was your standard, run-of-the-mill serial killer. A stereotype. The kind of creep who’s easy to hate and view as inhuman.

We never got a deep view into his perspective, nor did we get a good explanation for his actions. It was all stereotypical explanations: he’s got this weird physical disfigurement (hypertrichosis, aka, werewolf syndrome), a bad childhood, a low IQ, and an evil (but wealthy) family. That didn’t explain his motivation. Not for this reader, anyway.

It was the easy way to create a villain: rely on stereotypes and the readers’ presumed preconceived ideas of how the “bad guys” act and why.

Even as I write about the book, I’m rolling my eyes. Why, oh, why, I think, did a bestselling author resort to this? C’mon, couldn’t she have dug deeper into her antagonist’s internal state and seen him as something more than an object of ridicule and scorn?  

Yet isn’t that what I often do when I interact with others?

I see only the wrong-headed views or the external appearance or their words. I read their arguments and think how laughable they are. Sometimes the arguments are truly laughable.

It would be far better to ask deeper questions.

  • Why does that person hold that view?
  • What informed their position? Who are they listening to?
  • What life experiences have they had that made them think this way?
  • How can I disagree with them while still treating that person with respect, dignity, and kindness?
  • Even as I disagree, take a stand, or fight for justice, how can I respond to those in disagreement without contempt?
  • In this disagreement, how can I hold in tension these two principles: loving others who are wrong and upholding goodness?
  • How can I see this person as God sees them?

Deeper questions. Challenging questions. Ones that sometimes I hesitate to ask from fear of what might happen. But maybe that’s exactly why I need to ask them: something good may happen. Like Job, we never know exactly what God’s doing or why or how or who or when. But he is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Willing to die?

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Recently, I had the dubious pleasure of re-reading The Man Who was Thursday, by G. K. Chesterton. I call it a “dubious pleasure” because, while the story is staggering and profound, it is bewildering. I’m not even certain where the sense of profundity derives from, only that it’s there, somewhere, beneath layers of anarchists and undercover policemen, dreams and symbols, balloon rides and accusations and costumes. Driving the entire story is a man named Sunday who is accountable to no one but himself. Is he God? What the heck is Chesterton getting at?

I read this book years ago. I scratched my head and recommended it to people who asked for book recommendations. (They usually didn’t ask a second time.)

I re-read it again, struggling for comprehension. It’s still elusive.

But one scene stopped me. I read it, re-read it, and slowly nodded.

Gabriel Syme is a detective has been engaged as a “philosophical policeman” to thwart a group of anarchists. He’ll end up going undercover and being elected as “Thursday” to the Central Council of Anarchists, a group of seven–all named for days of the week–headed by the mysterious Sunday. As it turns out, every other man/day of the week is also an undercover police detective posing as an anarchist and all of them have been hired by an extremely large man in a darkened room. None of them see that man’s face until the end. It is Sunday.

(Y’all, it’s fiction. Suspend your disbelief.)

In a flashback, Chesterton tells of Syme’s recruitment by another police officer and then his “interview” with a man in Scotland Yard. He enters a dark room. Another man, who has his back to him, asks if he is the new recruit.

“Are you the new recruit?” said the invisible chief, who seemed to have heard all about it. “All right. You are engaged.”

Syme, quite swept off his feet, made a feeble fight against this irrevocable phrase.

“I really have no experience,” he began.

“No one has any experience,” said the other, “of the Battle of Armageddon.”

“But I am really unfit–”

“You are willing, that is enough,” said the unknown.

“Well, really,” said Syme, “I don’t know any profession of which mere willingness is the final test.” 

“I do,” said the other– “martyrs. I am condemning you to death. Good-day.” 

–G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who was Thursday, chapter 4

Those final two lines of dialogue stopped me. Martyrs require no other qualification than a willingness to die for what they believe. I’ve heard stories of martyrs (usually early Christians) all my life and never considered that they did not have to be perfect or especially saintly or knowledgeable or hard workers or whatever; they only had to be willing to die.

Then I wondered: Would I be willing to die for what I believe? 

Then I wondered more: What does a “willingness to die” look like?

It could mean actual death, of course. Beheading. Stake-burning. Crucifixion.

But could it also mean a willingness to set aside

  • my own agendas?
  • my obsession with my opinions?
  • my own inclination to talk too much and listen too little?

Could it also mean

  • loving my enemies?
  • forgiving the unforgivable?
  • curtailing my spiritual freedom if it causes others to stumble?

Those aren’t things that I can do on my own. I definitely wouldn’t do them if left to my own desires. I’d sit around taking selfies and making certain every item on my to-do list is checked off and sharing my opinions on everything, including things on which I know nothing, and interrupting others every time they speak. Yuck.

But I know that my fitness for any God-ordained task doesn’t derive from my own innate abilities but from God himself. So I also have to conclude that any willingness to die for God–whether that’s physical or not–comes from him. And any ability to live for God–whatever form it takes, whatever task he gives–also comes from him.

So I’m neither unwilling nor unfit for whatever work God calls me to do.

In the eyes of other people, I may look like a very unlikely candidate for that job, and I may believe that myself at times. 

In the eyes of God, unlikely-looking is no deterrent. Those same people end up doing unimaginable things. He equips. He grows. He does the impossible. He gives me himself so I can be used by him for his work.

Who should I listen to: other people or God?

Chesterton’s novel may leave me with other unanswered questions, but even I know the answer to that one.

If God’s called me to a task, He’s already given me everything I need to do it. He’s given me himself. And that is enough.

 

 

 

Passion, Perseverance and Grit

file-5Currently, I’m midway through two books. One’s fiction (The Lay of the Land, by Richard Ford) and the other is nonfiction (Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance, by Angela Duckworth). I first encountered Duckworth’s research in one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, so when I saw the cover of Grit at the library, I snatched it up.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of grit, then here’s the gist.

Passion + Perseverance = Grit

As she explains to a young entrepreneur early in the book, it’s not just doing what you love (passion). It’s doing what you love and staying in love with it. It’s consistency over time. That’s not easy. (Ask any couple who have been married five or six decades.)

I suppose that most people, if asked, would like to be gritty. But . . . those distractions. Setbacks. All that hard work. I’m just not good at that, they lament. “That” could be math homework or writing or a particular sport or an aspect of their job. And because I’m not good at it now, I’ll never be good at it.

On the flip side, there are people who are wondrously talented. No challenges get in their way through childhood or adolescence; people gush over their talent. But then something comes along and–wham! Failure. And they give up. They don’t know how to continue.

Duckworth, drawing on the work of Carol Dweck, says that this is a “fixed mindset.” Both sets of people think that their innate ability/inability to do (whatever it is) is fixed. It can’t grow. They’ll always be as bad or good at that task as they are now.

Recently, my daughter, who is on the varsity tennis team at school, told us a story at dinner. We were discussing two of the boys on the guys’ team. Let’s call them X and Y. Both are the same age, both were new to tennis last year, and as you’d expect, they were ranked low on the team. Only the top 6 players get to play official matches. X, who was slightly better, was ranked #6. Y was #7.

My daughter said that X never worked hard at tennis: he didn’t like running, ditched practice at least once (this year) because it was “crap”, and barely made it on time to his match for sectionals. In contrast Y worked hard. He took lessons outside of practice; he got better. (His balls still go over the fence, yeah, but not as much as before!) But X has a fixed mindset.

“He takes for granted that he will always be seeded higher than Y.”

-my 13-year-old daughter’s complaint

My daughter and another tennis friend urged Y to challenge X to a match in hopes that Y could be moved up a seed. Alas, the match was cut short. But my daughter maintains that Y could’ve beaten X. As Y took lessons all summer, I imagine that he will.

People become better at things through deliberate practice.  That’s not just any old practice: hitting the ball over and over without improvement, for example. It involves intense, often painful, practice that works on a particular component that is just a bit beyond their ability (call it a stretch goal), gets feedback, and seeks to improve with each repetition. Recognizing and applying this are key to having a “growth mindset.”

So perseverance is a huge part of this grit equation. But so is passion.

We don’t necessarily recognize our passion when we first encounter it. There’s spark: hey, that looks interesting. Then comes practice. And more practice. After a while, we seek to do this thing not just for ourselves but because we see how it benefits others. And then, finally, we find hope that these efforts can make us stronger. That when we fail, we can get back up. (We often need help with getting back up.) That out of those failures–the missed shots, the rejection letters, the setbacks–can come success.

There’s so much more in this book: about helping others develop grit, for example, and developing it within ourselves.

As for myself, I’ve decided to apply the principles of Grit to my own writing. I’ve often told myself that I’m a lousy blogger: too inconsistent in posting, too interested in writing fiction to bother with non, too focused on maintaining momentum in novel drafts to hit pause and type up anything of substance. Besides: my depression! my fatigue! my mania! I’m not a great blogger.

Fine. I’m not a great blogger yet. But I can improve. There is a definite skills set in successful blogging, just as there is in fiction writing, non-fiction writing, poetry. I have to learn, and that means deliberate practice: a clearly defined stretch goal (look at what skills I lack); full concentration & effort (no peeking at Pinterest!); getting informative feedback (listening to the advice of more successful writers); repetition with reflection and refinement (do it again, only better).

How about you? Have you read Grit? What things have you persevered at and improved in your own life? What skills would you like to develop? 

And, hey, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, what blogging skills can I improve? I love–okay, need more than love–feedback. 

When evil appears to win

ab351a672de44766956840771490c1f5Don’t you hate it when evil wins?

Recently, I read a novel where the antagonists win in the end. Actually, scratch that. “Read” isn’t accurate. “Began to read but felt uneasy as certain themes developed, skipped to the end, read the conclusion, and thought, ‘What the–?’, then skimmed through the rest of the book to find that if I had actually read the book, the way the author intended me to read it, page-by-page, then I would have come to the unsettling conclusion that the antagonists win.” Now that’s accurate.

The antagonists–the very people the protagonists are fighting, the evil ones, the ones you are supposed to suspect and dislike–those people win.

And the protagonists–the leading couple, the parents of two children, the ones you were supposed to be cheering for–they not only lost, but they succumb to the evil forces themselves.

I wasn’t the only reader unsettled by the conclusion. Multiple reviewers on Goodreads mentioned the ending as problematic. Some felt that it was appropriate for this particular novel. Others believed the author wrote him/herself into a corner and saw no other ending. Still others wrote that they would never read another book by that author again.

Mind you, this wasn’t just an unhappy ending. My first novel has a bittersweet ending: the couple reconciles but their child still dies after a suicide attempt. Happy ending? No. But I tried to give this couple hope through both their faith in God and their love for their daughter’s newborn child. I think that’s a far cry from the bad-guys-defeat-good-guys ending.

I’ve read variations on the “evil wins” ending over the years, and I believe I understand why authors use it. They’re trying to reflect reality, and the reality is that human nature is evil. (So far, I agree.) Sometimes it appear that the ending of a life-story ends with evil (whatever form that takes) overcoming the good.

Again, I agree that sometimes in life, that’s how stories appear to end. Sometimes reconciliation doesn’t happen. Sometimes terrorists blow up a building and kill hundreds of people. Sometimes the justice system doesn’t work correctly and the murderer, the molester, the corrupt and unjust and predatory people in this world go unchallenged, undeterred, unpunished. And more people are hurt.

But appearances are deceptive. 

Here’s the reality: this world isn’t all there is. There is a world beyond this one. What appears to be the end in our world–death–is only a beginning there.

In The Last Battle, Aslan tells the children that in the Shadowlands, this world, they are dead. Now they will live in Aslan’s kingdom forever.

Lewis writes,

“And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

Does evil win on earth? Sometimes, yes. 

Does evil win in God’s kingdom? No. Emphatically, no. Those evils of this world–the injustices, the depravities, the sufferings–will be fully and justly dealt with there, regardless of whether they were here. God wins. Every. Single. Time.

We must continue to fight for justice here. That is right and good. Knowing that God will be triumphant doesn’t excuse us ignoring injustice in this world. But we can do so with the encouragement that we are not fighting in vain.

With God, there is always hope. The most realistic novels I’ve read, while they may have bittersweet or sad endings, also include some element of hope. It may be only a flicker of a candle on a starless night. But it is there.

A novel that ends without hope and with evil winning? Now, that’s unrealistic.

 

 

How a non-writing-related non-fiction book helped me pitch a novel

The writer’s conference was terrific. The month leading up to it was, alas, not. Let me explain.

I was pitching an agent for the first time, so I wanted to spend most of February concentrating on developing my pitch and practicing it. I had cleared my writing schedule and tried to whittle down my personal obligations to the bare minimum. Then life happened. And the “bare minimum of distractions” became a multi-headed beast of stressors.

  • There was a lice epidemic at my daughters’ school. (Neither girl got it, but it was stressful dealing with the possibility.)
  • One child got in trouble at school—which has never happened before—and we had to do the tough parenting job of disciplining her (cancelling her upcoming birthday party) and dealing with why she’d made such a foolish choice.
  • I spent hours on the phone with the health insurance company, dealing with an issue from the last calendar year.

(That was the first week of February.)

  • My car battery died in the carpool line.
  • One child had an out-of-town field trip.
  • Her tennis uniform arrived two days before the first match, and the skirt turned out to be too large, which required last-minute alterations by my mother.
  • Our younger daughter had a slumber party at the house of a friend who had not been as lucky in the lice-epidemic as we were; by this time, she was back at school—her mom freaked out, just like I would’ve, and apparently washed the entire house—but I was still stressed at the possibility of . . . well, you know.

And there was cello practice. And tennis matches and practice.

And I was exhausted. Not the normal exhaustion from the above stresses, but the type that signals that something is wrong in my body. My iron levels were fine. My thyroid was fine. My allergies weren’t misbehaving. The doctors still aren’t certain what is wrong. And I was having insomnia.

It was the week of the conference before I wrote my pitch. A writer friend told me to practice on anyone who would stand still. “It’s better to sound silly now than when you’re with the agent,” he told me. So I practiced in the mirror, on the selfie-video function on my cell phone in the carpool line, and on my husband.

The day of the conference, I almost wimped out. I had to drive 1 ½ hours to Birmingham, and I’d had horrible insomnia the night before. Everything seemed to have conspired to distract me. What was the point of trying?

I went anyway.

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Wonderful book! Ya’ll, you really need to read this.

I’d been reading L.L. Martin’s book Positively Powerless, in which she seeks to show that “the power of positive thinking” isn’t true and to reconnect the Christian to our true source of power: Christ. It’s a terrific book, though it was sobering to realize how easily I fall into the trap of thinking that I am the source of my own power.

After that month, I wasn’t feeling positive, empowered, or even physically strong. Certainly not enough to talk to a literary agent about my novel. I was weak. I needed Jesus.

On the drive to Birmingham, I listened to Nichole Nordeman’s music. There was one song on her Woven & Spun cd that particularly struck me that morning. She sings about various points in her life and how Jesus was always there for her, from when she fell off her bike or won the softball game or had her heart broken or got married or had two kids screaming at two a.m. (Oh, did that resonate!) And all along, Jesus was there.

My pitch was at 10:40. By the time 10:20 came, I slipped from the main conference room and took refuge in a bathroom stall. I was sweaty, chilled, and terrified. There, between the stall door and the toilet, I leaned against the wall and had a little chat with God.

Normally, it would’ve been easy to cheer this:

Rah-rah-go-Laura-go, you can do this, girl!

Only I know that I can do the most unprofessional things possible; I’ve done them before. That wasn’t going to work, and after reading Martin’s book, I knew why: I needed to rely on the truth.

My little talk with God went something like this.

I need you. And I know you’re there. You were there for me during every depression, when I was anorexic and bulimic and manic and desperate, and you’re going to be there whether this ten minute meeting goes well or badly, whether I am coherent or babble or cry.

A verse came to mind.

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“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

It wasn’t a positive power affirmation. It was a reminder that I was weak—only the weak need strength—and that the source of strength is Christ. And as Nordeman’s song reminded me, He is always there.

The meeting went well. The agent liked my novel premise and my next novel’s premise, too. She asked for a full manuscript of one and a synopsis of the second. In addition, two other agents read my first page and asked for partials. That was far, far more than I’d expected (although my writer friend says he wasn’t surprised.)

None of that is a guarantee that I’ll get an agent or get published. All three may say no. But I walked away with an even better guarantee: Christ will always be there for me. His strength is what I need, whether or not my novel is published. And that’s better than a book contract any day.

P.S.: I will blog about another aspect of the conference later, one that will be of particular interest to novelists. 

Feeling like an Impostor

A few weeks ago, my editor at Ruminate asked if I’d be interested in reading submissions for their annual non-fiction contest.

Anyway, I agreed. Reading fiction submissions has been beneficial, so I looked forward to learning more about non-fiction writing. What I didn’t anticipate was this:

Feeling like an impostor.

Who was I to say what’s good non-fiction? What if a piece is simply not to my taste? What if I cut a strong essay that some other, more knowledgeable judge would put on their top ten list? What if I’m not a good enough judge? I know fiction so much better.

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Sometimes I think I came from the this factory!

I knew exactly where this sense of inadequacy was rooted. Years ago, someone (let’s call her Gretchen) used to pal around with me. When people heard that I was a writer and Gretchen was there, she would say,

“Laura’s a good fiction writer.”

That sounds complimentary.

But there was this slight emphasis on the word fiction, a delicate inflection of tone, one that conveyed a different message. Yes, Laura may be a good fiction writer but she’s not good at non-fiction. In her unstated but clear opinion, non-fiction was harder to write; writing a novel was all very well and good, but writing a scholarly book was harder and more important.

(Incidentally, both types of writing are difficult to do well. One is not inherently harder or easier than the other, though they require different skills. What’s easy is writing badly.)

I resented that. I wanted to grab the attention away from her—pluck the megaphone from her hands—and yell,

“I’m a damned good writer. Period. Scratch that, exclamation point. I can write anything I jolly well please!”

(Except poetry. It’s a beast of a different species. Anyone who can tame that wild creature has my admiration.)

Gretchen probably didn’t even realize there was an inflection in her voice. I also don’t think she ever read much of my non-fiction: not my blog, and certainly not my narrative essays, nor my master’s thesis or other academic works.

(One paper was published in an online undergraduate journal. The journal is defunct, but I believe my paper survives as a resource on a site that sells academic papers “for research purposes.” Yes, for $29.99, you too can download my paper on feminine identity in Sophocles’ Antigone and turn it in to your professor. I hope she gives me an A and flunks you. Just sayin’.)

My professors liked my work. And if writing a 100-page thesis (roughly 25,000 words, or one-third of my current novel) on annihilation in Moby-Dick couldn’t be considered difficult, then I’m not certain our definitions of “difficult” are the same, and maybe you haven’t read Melville’s masterpiece, either. Whales are scary.

In regard to her statement, I think I’ve gotten over the resentment—mostly—but the insecurity has remained. The fact that I had to prove my non-fiction credentials to you, my loyal readers, by citing a paper I wrote 16 years ago shows that I’m still dealing with it.

So when I began reading non-fiction submissions, I doubted myself. I read all of the assigned submissions, took notes on each one, intending to sort them into Yesses and Nos later. It was tough. But yesterday, as I was compiling my final top ten picks, I realized something.

Most of the essays were narrative. They told a story.

What makes a piece of narrative writing compelling is the same for both fiction and non-fiction. Polished writing. Original ideas. Emotional depth. Strong voice. A hook, a conflict, a turning point, a resolution (in tone, if not in the conflict).

The same problems in a weak short story were present in the weak essays. Misspellings. Odd punctuation. Confusion. Clichés. A sense that the piece wasn’t quite finished at the end; the last line didn’t have a finality to its tone.

Realizing this gave me a boost of confidence. I’m still more comfortable in the realm of fiction, but I’m not feeling quite so much like an impostor.