Living with Purpose, Dying with Same

I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand character deaths that mean nothing. All too often, especially in modern books, characters seem to be killed simply because there are too many for the author to keep track of. It shouldn’t be this way. The character’s death should be proportional to their importance in the story. If their life hasn’t mattered, their death doesn’t have to. But if they matter in life, let their death matter.

The other day I was talking with a writing friend, and, though the topic was not writing good death scenes, I started thinking about that afterwards. She is writing a fantasy where the gods/goddesses compete with one another instead of cooperate within their pantheon. This reminded me of DragonLance, and I told her how the three subpantheons work. She has never read DragonLance, so the information was new to her. Though some things aligned with how things work there, several important things do not.

But the magic system isn’t what I want to talk about here. The second book of the Chronicles, Dragons of Winter Night, has one of the best death scenes I have ever read. If you have never read but plan on reading Dragons of Winter Night, you should not read further. There will be spoilers for the trilogy.

In the first novel, we meet Sturm Brightblade, a tragic hero. We are given clues from his first appearance that he is a tragic hero. Sturm is a Knight of Solomnia, an old and honorable order. Everything he does is guided by the Oath and the Measure. He will not break his word. He will not leave a friend behind. But there is something about him, he is despondent as if he has a major secret. Through the course of that novel and the next, we learn that Sturm is one of the last valiant knights. Oh, there are plenty of knights still on the roles (not as many as they used to be, but still a respectable number), but the valor that defined the group is gone. Where they once stood for truth and justice and were beloved by the people of Solomnia, the knights are now divided, gold seekers, holding on to their last few scraps of land.

Justice no longer drives the knights. Now, they obey the exact letter of the law, all the while breaking the spirit to bits and pieces. The lessons of Huma and the founders, gained through blood, sweat, and tears, have been forgotten. All that remains are the rules they made.

The knights are divided into numerous factions. Knights of the same rank scheme against one another, vying for power in the hierarchy. Knights of different ranks seek like-minded knights to solidify their positions against one another.

Sturm, by his actions, reminds them that this is not the way things are to be. Vinas Solamnus, their revered founder, created the Oath, “my honor is my life.” Those five words were to define every action a Knight took. The Measure was a multi-volume set explaining how the Oath applied in different situations. No matter the cost, a knight was not to break his honor. Even if this cost was his life.

In the first book, Sturm’s death was foreshadowed. A forest spirit told the adventuring companions not to mourn those “who die fulfilling their destiny” and looked pointedly at Sturm. I missed that the first time.

Sturm made a “mistake” in the second novel and got on the wrong side of one faction. He refused to play politics and so was brought to trial on charges of which he was technically guilty. Contrary to what he let others think, Sturm was not knighted when first introduced. He was only a squire. Yet, as a squire, he showed us a better knight than those who had taken the Oath and claimed to live by the Measure.

Accordingly, Sturm could have run at any time. He was not bound by the Oath and Measure. Once he saw the threat posed by the dragon armies, he could have quietly taken off his armor and melted into the populace. Sturm did not. He considered himself bound by the Oath and Measure.

For one to live by the Oath and Measure meant one was to be judged by the Oath and the Measure. The leader of the knights, a friend of Sturm’s father and also one of the knights who remembered honor, found Sturm guilty to the letter of the law. He then prescribed a punishment to the letter of the law. Sturm had to take off his father’s armor and command a squad at the High Clerists tower which the dragon armies would have to pass to invade. It was a suicide mission. The knights were too weak from their infighting to win. However, the punishment also meant that Sturm had to be knighted–a squire could not command a regiment of full knights!

On the journey to the tower, Sturm earned the trust of his regiment. They joined together as a unit. When the armies approached the tower, Sturm went to the top of the tower and challenged the Dragon Highlord to a duel. Armed only with his father’s sword (which he had been allowed to keep), Sturm fought and lost.

It was a beautiful Xanatos Gambit. Had Sturm won, the armies would have retreated. But his death brought unity to the knights. When they saw that Sturm was so committed to the Oath and the Measure that he would face impossible odds to fulfill his orders, they rallied. The pass was held. The armies routed. Sturm’s actions had bought time for other heroes, and they now controlled a relic that drove most of the invaders insane.

Sturm died at peace.

The ramifications of his actions were shown in later books. Not only did those knights rally to unity, the rest of the knighthood put aside their divisions. In times to come, Sturm was counted one of the three greatest knights: Vinas Solamnus, Huma Dragonsbane, and Sturm Brightblade.

Sturm lived a life of honor and died the same way. His death was important and served a greater purpose.

What’s the best death scene you’ve read?

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Disagreeing with an Author

I know some people who have a list of authors they refuse to read not because they don’t like the writing style or stories the author creates. No, instead they refuse to read them because they disagree with the author’s politics, religion, or anything else that has nothing to do with the story. This reasoning is ridiculous.

Now, I do have authors whom I no longer read, but I can’t think of any that I’ve stopped reading because of the aforementioned reasons. In both fiction and nonfiction, I regularly read authors whom I disagree with. If I only read those whom I agreed with, I would never learn.

Here are some of the authors whom I read but aren’t like me in thought.

Richard Burlew. I heartily enjoy Order of the Stick. The characterizations are spot on. It isn’t often that I care for the characters the way I do Roy and company. I’m watching with glee as Belkar Bitterleaf finally exhibits character growth. Sure, it started out as fake, but it appears genuine now. I’m eager to see where Rich takes it.

Now, I don’t know for sure Richard’s political standings. I do know that he’s to the left of me, but that isn’t hard to accomplish. I have less knowledge of his religious beliefs as I do not recall them being stated. If I had to guess, I would say he is an agnostic based on his statements of “the [OOTSverse] has a verifiable afterlife.” That doesn’t stop me from enjoying the stories.

John C. Wright. I devour Wright’s fiction and nonfiction. He’s an exception writer, the kind that comes along only once a generation. But he’s Catholic while I am a protestant pastor. He has said some things regarding protestant theology that rather make me blink.

Lloyd Alexander. With the Chronicles of Prydain, Mr. Alexander blessed the twentieth century with it’s best coming-of-age story. Taraan’s journey from childhood to adulthood is shown in his physical body and mirrored in his thoughts. If you haven’t read the series, you are missing out. I disagree with Lloyd as he was a nihilst.

Brad Torgersen. He’s Mormon, and that means he and I have many differences in theology. But The Chaplain’s War promises to be a fantastic piece of fiction. It’s on my reading list, but it will be a while before I get to it. I have to read EMP: Heading Home and Death’s Doors before reading it. Somewhere in the mix, I’m looking forward to reading Sarah Hoyt and Kate Paulk.

L. Jagi Lamplighter. The little I know of her outside her writing comes from her husband’s blog. She’s a Christian Scientist married to a Catholic. I am enjoying the Rachel Griffen series and was considering the Prospero series. However, I will not be buying the books from Tor. Any company that allows one of their high-ranking editors to berate, swear at, and bellow at one of their own authors for any reason does not deserve my reading money. Let alone that this man yelled at a woman because he was mad at her husband.

Naturally, I don’t agree with any writer 100%. However, many of them whom I enjoy, our differences are too minor to list here.

In the last few months, there have been Hugo voters bragging about how they weren’t going to read some works on the ballot because they were nominated by the wrong people and the authors might be presenting badthink. Say what? You are so insecure of your beliefs that reading a piece of fiction that was merely nominated by the wrong people can cause you to change it?

There are writers whom I refuse to read their works. How is that different? Is it different? Yes, in several ways. First up, I am not refusing to read them based on their religious or political beliefs. In others, I have read their work and found it underwhelming. There are too many good books out there to waste on the mediocre ones.

Robert Sawyer. Over a decade ago, I read one of his books-Humans. It stands as one of the few books I couldn’t finish. The books was written from the view of an alien outsider encountering the United States. Sawyer  felt the need to continually scream that anyone who disagrees with him is stupid. Every single idea in Western Civilization was wrong. While the plot idea was fascinating (a parallel earth where Neanderthal came to prominence instead of Homo sapiens), the continual cudgel of “you’re wrong, you’re so stupid” made me throw the book down in disgust. This is the only book I’ve ever done so with. I can take a few eyerolls here and there, but when the entire book is a thinly-veiled screed (and a poorly written one)? No. But, I did attempt the book. I had no ideas of any of Sawyer’s views before I began. After a few chapters, I concluded he was an atheist and a hard leftist. I have never seen anything from him that counters either idea, and I looked. I did read reviews of his other books. Both those who rated them high and low had drawn the same conclusions.

Larry Correia. I find Correia has a great imagination and can tell a great tale. However, Correia’s characters swear heavily. I don’t want to read that. He says it’s realism. I say be creative with the characters expressing their displeasure. Until then, I’ll give others my money. As for his politics, he’s on the right probably as far as I am.

George RR Martin. This is one of the giants in the field whom I do not recall ever reading. I plan on never, ever reading GRR Martin. People whose opinion on books I trust have said the Song of Ice and Fire or whatever is not worth reading. To a man, they have said it glorifies evil. Any character with likable traits dies in gruesome ways. They have also said the number of rapes in the books are stomach turning. Yes, bad things happen in war, but I don’t want or need to read about them in graphic detail. (And someone has said that for all the rapes, there is not a single loving act of congress.) I have no idea on his religion as I have never seen fit to look it up. I do know that he’s a leftist, but I had already decided to never read his material before I found that out. I certainly had suspected it before it was confirmed to me.

Besides, if realism is Martin’s thing, why is he writing a FANTASY series? Mythic creatures. Magic. Yeah. Things you won’t find in the world we call reality. Most people read fiction to escape the realism of their lives for a little bit.

When I write, I don’t expect to make everyone happy. In fact, I lost at least one star on an Amazon review because I made the character “too Catholic.” Near the end of Rebirths, Derke goes to confession. The reviewer did not like that at all. However, the story was set before any kind of Reformation was happening, and it would have been out of character for Derke to forgo confession after the sin he had committed.

That review is actually a point of pride for me. As mentioned, I am a protestant pastor. That I was able to write a character unlike myself so convincingly makes me smile.

So what authors do you disagree with but still read?

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Pay Attention to the Context

As discussed, the first rule of hermeneutics is “pay attention to the text.” The second is like unto it, “pay attention to the context.” (Because if you take the text without the context, you have a prooftext for a subtext.)

Context is the surrounding pieces of text and taking into account the time it was written in and the problem Scripture seeks to address. If you are working with a particularly hard word to determine meaning, then the words in the verse around it can help. From there, the words in the passage impact the meaning of the word in question. And go outward to the chapter, the book, other books by the same author, other books in the same same genre by a different author, different author in the same testament, and then how words are used in the other testament. Finally, events from outside the Bible may impact the passage. It might help to line them up differently. Let’s work with the word “kill” in Luke 12:4.

Other books by the same author
Other books in the same genre by different authors
A Different author in the same testament
The other testament
Events from outside the Bible

A good presentation on using circles of context in light of John’s statements regarding Jesus’ divinity can be found here.

A phrase I have used before regarding context is “right sermon, wrong text.” Just the other night, I was reading to my children from their devotional. The devotion was about children keeping their rooms neat and orderly. I thought this was a good thing but remained curious as to how the author was going to bring it to the Bible as the focal verse is always at the end. That focal verse was 1 Corinthians 14:40 “Let all things be done decently and in order.” That was certainly to the point, but what? I checked the surrounding verses (you know, for context). Verse 40 ends the paragraph. The paragraph is about how prophets at a church service should be eager for the gift and it should be conducted in an orderly manner. The devotional had used the verse out of context.

So how can you ensure you are working from the right context? Doing so is fundamental to doing good interpretation. You will find everyone thinks they are working in the context. Many aren’t, but with some studying, you can be.

As the two testaments were originally written in different languages, for most people, this step of the study will involve working from English translations or other translation. Personally, one of the best tools for this step is the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. The Septuagint was translated within centuries of the New Testament being written. It was also heavily used by Jews outside of the Land during the time of Jesus and immediately following. The words and phrases used in the New Testament are often filtered through the Septuagint. Often, when the New Testament authors quote the Old Testament, they will quote the Septuagint. An odd Greek phrase may turn out to be worded that way because it is coming from the Septuagint. For example, in Romans 3:4, Paul uses “and prevail when thou dost enter into judgment.” That phrase comes from the Septuagint of Psalm 51:4 where the Hebrew has “and blameless when thou judgest.”

The absolute minimum context you should work with is that of the book. To that end, I suggest that every student of the Bible have at hand a fact sheet about the book of the Bible they are studying. It might look like the below.

Book: Daniel
Author: Daniel
Date Written: Done by 536 BC
Major Events: The Babylonian Captivity Begins, prophecies of the future
Major Themes: Standing with God through it all. The coming future.
Famous Passages: The Daniel “fast.” Daniel interprets the dream. The fiery furnace.
Summary: Daniel and three friends are taken captive by King Nebuchadnezzer of Babylon. through several trials and tests, they prove that even though they are captive, they are still loyal to the “God of Heaven.”

A useful book for this would be Fee and Stuart’s How to Read the Bible, Book by Book. You can also make your own sheet for each book by studying different commentaries and Bible survey or introductions. As you can see, doing this yourself will help gets the items in your mind. I suggest conservative authors as they are more likely to be taking the Bible as both divine and human. Also, good conservative authors will address the criticisms made by liberal writers whereas liberal authors rarely address the arguments raised by conservatives.

One thing that knowing the context helps with is the charge of contradictions. While finding verses that appear to be contrary to one another is easy, examining the verses for context shows they are not. For example, I once heard an atheist point out that Matthew 10:10 records Jesus telling the Disciples to take nothing extra when they go on their missionary journey. However, he pointed out, Luke 22:36 has Jesus telling them to take extras when they travel. “So which is it?” he asked, thinking he had an unsolvable contradiction.

Honestly, this is a laugh out loud contradiction. This is, in fact, quote mining of the highest order. The two are not the same event. In fact, Luke 22:35 says, “When I sent you out before without purse…”

Using context keeps us from isolating verses for a proof text and keeps them in line with the rest of Scripture. Some might argue for polytheism, incorrectly, from 1 Corinthians 8:5 “…as indeed there are many gods and many lords.” However, Scripture clearly teaches elsewhere that there is only one God who is Lord. Paul refers to these as “so-called gods” in 1 Corinthians 8:5 and repeats in 8:4 and 8:6 that there is but one God. Using context brings in another rule of hermeneutics: the unclear is interpreted in light of the clear. Individual phrases and verses must be interpreted in light of the whole of Scripture.

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If it’s so hard, why do it?

I originally intended to start writing about the second rule of hermeneutics: Pay Attention to the Context. However, after writing the last one, I realized I needed to explain something else first. A question many of you probably have is “If it’s so hard, why do it?” That’s right, last time I wrote about some of the things to remember when interpreting the Bible such as “The Bible is divine and human,” “the Bible is inspired,” “remember the unity and diversity of the Bible,” “different genres have different rules,” and “remember that it is translated from three different languages.”

If there are so many things to remember, who can hope to interpret it correctly? Why should we even try if we don’t have specialized training? There are several reasons we should interpret the Bible.

The Bible is Authoritative

As discussed in part 1 of the first rule, Christians do agree that the Bible is from God (of divine origin) and inspired. Even though we may not be able to give a detailed definition of inspired that all Christians will agree on that does not in any way reduce the fact that it is inspired and of divine origin.

As an inspired work from God, it has an authority over our lives. This is the same for both Jews and Christians, though the Jewish believer will view only the Tanak as inspired and authoritative. For the Christian, both Testaments are authoritative. Jesus taught from the Old Testament and referred to it positively quite often. He taught His disciples from it and taught them how to apply it. He has rules and techniques, and in a future essay, we will examine them.

The early Christians followed His example and made it authoritative in their lives. Of important note is that at first they had only the Old Testament. They understood it to be authoritative because Jesus did, and so should we. It is sheer arrogance and folly to say the Christian has no need of the Old Testament. Not only did Jesus preach from it, but every book in the New Testament contains numerous references to the Old Testament.

As Christians, we are to follow the example of Jesus. Since He viewed the Scripture as authoritative, so should we. Jewish readers will have similar reasoning: namely, that their leaders and prophets have viewed the Tanak as from HaShem and authoritative.

One very important rule of Jesus bears discussing here. Jesus did not view the Tanak as a set of rules to be followed blindly. Indeed, He taught against that (Matthew 23:23). We will have to do the same.

This brings us back to where we started. We dare not treat the Bible lightly when attempting to interpret it. What we teach will have great impact on those who listen to us. We must not stop until we have a good reading of the Bible. God expects no less than our best.

Our Responsibility

God gave humanity the Bible with the express purpose that people would read it, interpret it, and apply it to their lives. Remember we talked briefly about how it is inspired. God would not give it and then make it impossible to understand. With work, the whole things opens to you. Anything important is worth putting work into. The more important it is, the more work you should be willing to put into it.

There is nothing more important than understanding the Bible and applying it to your life. Understanding it properly is absolutely necessary to your walk with God. Likewise, when you tell the meaning to others, it is absolutely vital that you have the correct interpretation. You are teaching another person and those who teach are held to a higher standard than those who do not (James 3:1).

Failure to study the authoritative Word of God when available to you is a failure of stewardship. We are to be ready at all times for the hope within us when people ask (1 Peter 3:15). However, if you have not studied the Word of God, you cannot be ready. You would be like a farmer who at planting time goes to the field but has not just left the seed in the barn but forgotten to buy it beforehand!

In the days when few people could read and fewer had access to a Bible, ignorance of Scripture was a valid excuse. Those had to take their priests word for it. That is not the situation today.

You may think that you can just avoid teaching the Bible, but every action you take shows your interpretation. People will see it and know how you interpret. My mother used to say that you may be the only Bible some people ever read. Think about that. Your faith and actions determine not only where and how you will spend eternity, but where and how others will spend eternity.

That’s a heavy responsibility, but there is also great reward! How you interpret the Bible leads directly to how you apply each verse. That application determines how you will lead your life. Those actions will show other people.

Knowing how to interpret the Bible properly should never be a source of pride. Proper interpretation and application should lead to humility.

The Opportunities of Study

Not only are there responsibilities for studying Scripture, there are great rewards.

First, we grow spiritually when we read and study the Bible. Doing so wrongly leads to malformed growth or even stunted growth. Only when we have studied can we help others grow when talking to them.

Secondly, those in ministry, whether pulpit, Sunday school, or cell group have an opportunity to lead corporate growth on a regular basis. Pastors and teachers who see their congregation go from babes in Christ to mature spiritual beings know the feeling that comes from seeing that. It is a great blessing and joy. One thing it should never be is prideful. With this reason and the first reason, it is obvious that others rely on you for their spiritual growth. Taking them to a deeper understanding of God blesses you.

Thirdly, finding more of God’s will for your life can only happen when seeking Him. Yes, He speaks to us through prayer, but He has given wisdom to those who came before us.

Fourthly, the blessings of a job well done are its own reward. However, you cannot attain that blessing without preparation beforehand. The task seems daunting at first, but once you start, it becomes easier and more fun. Personally, I have never found Bible study to be boring. Like any other skill, the more you work at it, the better you become.

Fifth, as you study and work, God will expand your ministry opportunities. As you study to show yourself approved (2 Timothy 2:15), God will reward you with more people to teach and influence. Those who grow in Christ are more enthusiastic.

Finally, the reward of good interpretation is that it shows the folly of bad interpretation. For years, pastors have complained that their congregations are still babes in Christ and do not grow. This is because the congregations do not study for whatever reason. Failure to study allows unsound doctrine to enter the church. Without proper methods, a person remains spiritually immature. Applying proper methods they grow and can stop problems in the church before they take root.

Good interpretation is demanding but also rewarding beyond measure.

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