Two Stories About Bells

Vertigo 02One thing you learn in writing stories is that certain objects have a mysterious and almost magnetic power that defies words. Castles, swords, rings, goblets, buried treasure—the appearance of any one of these in a story is like a radiant stone that vibrates with its own intensity. Perhaps that’s why I became Catholic, because as a storyteller I was naturally drawn to a religion that invests material things with sacramental power: holy water; crosses; bells, books, and candles.

 

Bell towers have fascinated me ever since I saw the movie Vertigo when I was nine or ten years old. Recently voted the greatest film of all time in the once-a-decade Sight & Sound poll, Vertigo tells the story of a retired detective (James Stewart) hired to trail a young woman (Kim Novak) who may be possessed by the ghost of a long-dead ancestor. He pursues her to an old Spanish mission, the Mission San Juan Batista, where, at the very top of the bell tower, tragedy strikes. And then strikes again.

 

The understated use of Hispanic and southwestern folklore in this movie slowly worked its way into my brain, taking root in dark corners. During my first couple of months at Southwestern University, ten years ago this summer, I was enchanted by the beige limestone, the rounded-arch doorways, the old chapel at the heart of campus with a door leading up to the tower, a door that was only unlocked on the rarest of occasions. I remember being struck with a sense of the history of the place.

 

It was there that I had the idea to write a series of children’s books, books that would draw on the cultures and legends of the Celts (my ancestors) and the Southwest (my adopted home). This summer in going back and rereading some of the folklore and mythology of England I’ve been struck by how many stories center around the ringing of bells. In the days before telephones and wireless, sometimes the cathedral bell was the only means of communication between one town and another, or between the church and those in peril on the ocean’s dark waters.

 

One such story from County Surrey tells of a man, Neville Audley, who was captured fighting on the wrong side during the long-ago War of the Roses. Arrested and sentenced to die when the curfew bell tolled on the next night at Chertsey Abbey, he realized that the only hope of being spared was to obtain a pardon from the king.

 

Neville conferred with his girlfriend, Blanche Heriot, and their mutual friend Herrick. Herrick agreed to ride towards London to seek pardon. But on the next day, with only five minutes left before the bell tolled, Herrick was seen flying towards the town from half a mile away—still too far away to save Audley’s life.

 

The minutes passed. The townsfolk awaited the tolling of the bell. But the bell did not ring.

 

Just as Herrick arrived in town, the sexton, accompanied by soldiers, went up into the tower to investigate. There they found Blanche Heriot, dashed against the bell and frame but still clinging to the clapper with a tenacity born of desperation. Luckily she had hung there just long enough to save her beloved, who was spared from death by the king’s timely pardon. The two were married shortly afterwards.

 

Another story with a less happy ending is told of the tenor bell of Burgh le Marsh church. The people of Burgh le Marsh once made a living off the debris of doomed ships, lighting the beacon on Marsh Hill to lure poor sailors to their deaths. Once the sailors were all drowned and the weather had calmed, the townsfolk would scramble ashore to loot the broken vessels.

 

As the story goes, in 1629 the Mary Rose was sailing from Leith, Scotland along the Lincolnshire coast on its way to Flanders. A storm began to gather. The wind howled and the rains beat against the ship, while the people of Burgh watched from the shore with growing excitement.

 

But not everyone was pleased by the buffeting of the storm-tossed ship. The elderly sexton Guymer, when he learned what was being planned, begged them not to light the beacon. No one listened.

 

A crowd made its way towards Marsh Hill and the beacon was lit. Captain Frohock, seeing what he mistook for a lighthouse, called out to his men that they were safe. The crew turned the ship in the direction of the light.

 

Back on shore, desperate to avoid the collision that was imminent, Guymer ran towards the church. Ascending to the top of the bell tower, he grabbed the rope and rang the bell with all the strength he could muster. Captain Frohock, realizing how close he was to shore and certain death, ordered the Mary Rose back to sea, away from the treacherous sands.

 

Enraged by the tolling of the bell, the townspeople stormed into the church. Breaking down the belfry door, they found Guymer, still clinging to the rope, his dead body swaying to and fro. His heart had burst open from exhaustion.

 

When Captain Frohock returned to the village a year later and learned what had happened, he bought an acre of land known as “Bell String Acre.” He ordered that rent from the land be used to buy a silken rope for the bell. It’s said that he married the sexton’s daughter.

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“I Just Have To Write What’s on My Heart”: A Conversation with Teryn O’Brien

TerynOBrien_full

Teryn O’Brien

Today I’m thrilled to be hosting a discussion with friend and fellow writer Teryn O’Brien. In addition to blogging, Teryn is a social media consultant who works in online marketing at various imprints of Penguin Random House, LLC, and also does social media, online marketing, and writing / editing consultations for a fee. She’s pursuing publication of a fantasy trilogy.

 

Last year Teryn’s blog, Identity Renewed, placed number 36 out of over 400 blogs nominated in an online survey at Patheos. In November her post 15 Things I Wish I’d Known About Grief went viral and was read by over a million people. However, Teryn has written prolifically on a wide variety of topics, including relationships, fantasy, feminism, self-acceptance, spiritual abuse, and her own Celtic heritage.

 

On Friday I sat down with Teryn to discuss her views on blogging, social media, and finding the courage to do the things you feel most passionately about. The following is a partial transcript of our insightful and inspiring conversation.

 

Tell me a little about the history of your blog. How did you get started?

I personally started blogging at Identity Renewed almost three years ago this month. I started it right after college to work through some of my pain and brokenness. I was only posting twice a month, basically once every other week. I had a list of topics to write about, and then I was going to end it after a year. Honestly, I think it was just a time of experimentation and trying to find my voice. It really wasn’t until getting into the second year that I started blogging really regularly, posting three times a week. The main thing about blogging is consistency, because if you’re not blogging consistently, no one is going to come back to your blog. I kind of just played with a whole bunch of different schedules and ideas.

Then one of my best friends died in October 2012. She was in an abusive relationship inside a cult, and I realized that I had been fighting abusive tendencies in my own life, too. Suddenly, all the brokenness, pain, and struggles toward healing I’d been through began to make sense. So it was probably only after she died that I truly found my voice. And people started listening more. So I started getting a little more traffic and meeting more bloggers. The very first year I blogged, I think I got about 1,000 views. The second year, about 3,000-4,000 views. My goal in 2013 was to get 25,000 views.

The thing you have to realize is this: Blogging is a community, so no one is going to come to your site unless you go to their sites. Especially when you’re just starting out. If you’re not a famous blogger or pastor or speaker or whatever, no one is going to listen to your voice. So just starting out blogging, that’s one of the most important things you can do: Put yourself out there, meet other bloggers, comment on other sites, show a genuine interest in what others have to say. I’ve made some great friends through the blogging world, and we’ve never met in real life (yet!).

So then, in November 2013, I wrote this post about grief, and it got a million views. The thing about going viral is—you can’t control it. There are certain rules you can kind of try, and there’s research about what makes a post go viral, but honestly, at the end of the day, you can’t predict that. It was one of the posts I had spent the least amount of time on. I usually spend hours poring over my posts, and I’m like, “This one will surely go viral!”—but nope! The foundation is just blogging, finding your voice, and not being afraid to be passionate. It’s just finding that unique you, or those topics you feel like you can write completely and utterly passionately about.

Honestly, most bloggers blog for years before they make it big. It’s very rare for someone to have success overnight. Social media takes time, because you’re building trust with an audience. Social media isn’t about selling things; it’s about connecting with people. As soon as you start thinking too much about numbers, you’ve lost what social media truly is about.

 

So how successful do you consider yourself on your own social media platforms? And how do you define success?

You know, it means different things for different people. When you’re just starting out blogging, it’s really easy to look at people who are really, really popular and get discouraged. So it’s important to set your own goals. The goals should be goals that you personally define as successful and not necessarily what other people define as successful. Because people are really obsessed with large numbers. It’s a sickness in our society—even I do it! But the thing about it is, you can’t really control large numbers (unless you pay for it or already have a huge platform to begin with). You can’t make thousands and thousands follow you right away. It builds over time. A lot of it is about the work you put in.

For example: Last year, I decided I wanted to have 800 Twitter followers by the end of the year! So I started following people and engaging more, and I got at least 800. I just set another goal last week, “I want to get over a thousand Twitter followers!” So I just followed more than 200 people in two days’ time. So it’s just little goals like that, and hopefully over time those goals will add up. Honestly, probably none of us are going to be the next Rachel Held Evans, and it’s kind of hard to reconcile yourself to that fact. But making measurable goals that you know you can achieve, setting new and higher goals next time, is the way to go. 

 

When you look at the Christian market, the people who are doing the reading and blogging and tweeting, what are they looking for?

Social Media

Photo credit: Dusit

Well, it honestly depends on the type of Christian you’re trying to reach. Because there are different tribes within Christianity. And there are lots of messy people in between. But I really see—especially in younger Christians—a real desire for genuineness and authenticity and vulnerability. Just honesty about the Christian faith. So not necessarily just saying, “This is the right answer!” but a truly honest exploration of faith.

Of course, again, that depends on the tribe. The more conservative groups, they want more answers. They like to have things tied up in nice theological boxes. The more liberal, kind of progressive religious people, they want more of a dialogue. They don’t want people to tell them, “This is exactly how God is!” They want more vulnerable, real stories about people who have been in hard places, and who don’t sugarcoat things, but who can give hope in the midst of that.

But again, there’s a lot who are falling into the middle right now. And they just want hope. Hope that in some way, we can love each other even when we disagree. That Jesus is bigger than political and theological debates.

 

Are there topics you’ve forbidden yourself from blogging about because you were afraid it might offend your target audience? Have you lost followers because of things you’ve written or posted?

That’s a really interesting question, because I have been wrestling with that lately. The downside to success is that your people, your fans, your followers tend to have certain expectations for you. When you have more of an audience, you are called out more, or you feel their wrath more.

So yes, ever since I launched my new website, I’ve been losing subscribers. I think the reason is because a lot of followers thought they were subscribing to a grief blog. Once my blog post on grief went viral, everyone thought all I should talk about was grief. So after it went viral, I felt all this pressure to blog about grief all the time, since this is where I found success. Success can be stifling.

But this year, I’ve been in a place where I just haven’t had words to talk about grief. The grief has been much too deep, too angry, too volatile. I’ve written one post about grief, and it got quite a few shares, but ultimately, I’m not just a grief blogger! Recently, I came to the realization that I might lose all subscribers I had gained during my viral post success. I think I’m in a weird spot right now. I’m always really struggling about what to write about and share. When it starts becoming about success and numbers, you start to lose who you really are. I just have to write what’s on my heart, and it’s been a struggle lately.

 

If you could consult with your younger self, just starting out in social media, what advice would you give to her and why?

I think I would’ve just told myself: “Don’t be afraid. You will not have any regrets two, three years down the road.” When I first started down this road, I was terrified. I would spend hours agonizing over a post, because it was the first time I was being honest publicly. There were many times I almost quit blogging. I mean, I almost quit blogging a few weeks ago. It’s always a struggle.

But that’s the main thing I’d say to my younger self: “Don’t be afraid, and it’s going to be worth it. Pouring your heart out is going to be worth it. Not even that you’re necessarily going to be popular, but you are going to find your voice. God is preparing you for things in the future.”

If I hadn’t already had things set up when my friend died in October 2012, I wouldn’t have had that small voice to express all the things I felt and learned in the months following her death. Then again, if I hadn’t had everything else set up in November 2013, that post wouldn’t have gone viral. So I don’t regret anything. It’s hard sometimes, because social media is draining, but I don’t regret it. So that’s what I’ll continue to tell myself: “Keep doing it! Trust that God is going to use your voice. Just jump in.”

Story Structure in Harry Potter

Harry_Potter_wandI read this great series of articles on the Write like Rowling website.

 

It’s based on the concepts presented in Larry Brooks’ book, Story Engineering.

 

In the section on story structure, Brooks says that in order to be successful, a story needs to have each of these five pivots:

 

  1. The first plot point, when the hero receives her marching orders and sets out on her journey

 

  1. The first pinch point, when the hero is given a reminder of the nature and power of the antagonistic forces arrayed against her

 

  1. The mid-point, when a crucial piece of information is discovered

 

  1. The second pinch point, which again reminds the hero of the antagonistic forces

 

  1. and the second plot point, the final injection of new information into the story that gives the book a kind of forward momentum as it speeds towards the end.

 

Brooks even tells us at what percentage of the way through the book each of these pivots needs to make its appearance.

 

The first plot point occurs 25 percent of the way through the story;

 

the first pinch point occurs 3/8ths of the way through the story;

 

the midpoint occurs at the midpoint;

 

the second pinch point occurs 5/8ths of the way through the story;

 

and the second plot point occurs 75 percent of the way through the story.

 

Interestingly, in Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone, Rowling lands four of these five pivots on the exact page they need to be on according to Brooks’ model of story structure (he excludes the prologue as not being part of the main plot). C. S. Plocher on the Write like Rowling website gives us a rundown:

 

Harry boards the Hogwarts Express on page 90 of the 259-page plot;

 

He gets his first glimpse of Snape (and, even more crucially, Quirrell’s turban) on page 126;

 

He realizes who has the Philosopher’s Stone at the end of chapter 9, exactly halfway through the book;

 

He catches Snape with a bloody leg 5/8ths of the way through the book.

 

The only exception is the final plot point (Harry realizing that Dumbledore has departed for London and the stone is going to be stolen), which is 25 pages later than it would normally be because Rowling is setting up a seven-volume fantasy series and has a lot of world-building to do. (Moreover, I would argue that the true second pinch point in the first novel is the scene with the unicorn in the Forbidden Forest).

 

So if I made it my goal to write a 300-page book:

 

the first plot point would occur on or around page 60;

 

the first pinch point would occur on page 113;

 

the mid-point would occur on page 150;

 

the second pinch point would occur on page 188;

 

and the final plot point would occur on page 225 (or perhaps a bit later in a story of this scope).

 

I have this crazy dream to write a novel according to a strict formula. In the past I always thought I could free-wheel it; but I’m realizing, I really love formulaic writing. It’s so structured. I love following the rules. I love learning the science and craft of storytelling.

 

Why You Should Stop Freaking Out about “NOAH”

Here’s what’s fascinating about all the controversy surrounding the NOAH movie:

In Jewish tradition, Noah is *not* considered one of the heroes of the faith. The Scriptures tell us that he was “righteous in his generation.” It’s a measure of how bad the world had gotten that Noah was the best of the lot.

When God revealed to Noah that he was going to destroy the whole earth in a flood, Noah showed no compassion for his fellow human beings. His only concern was to save himself and his own family.

He’s not a role model of our faith.

You know who is a role model? Someone like Abraham. Who when God said he was going to destroy Sodom, raised his voice in protest and said, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” A man who flagrantly questioned the decisions of the Lord, who challenged his idea of justice.

A man like Moses who, when God offered to wipe out the whole Israelite line and make him the father of a great nation, begged him with tears to spare the people.

The word “Israel” means “he who wrestles with God.” Abraham and Moses are Jewish heroes because they loved others, listened to the voice of reason, and fought with God. That ought to make them Christian heroes, too.

How Reading C. S. Lewis Changed My Mind About Hell

FrankcoronationI’ve been thinking about the dangerous group I was once a part of and trying to understand how so many innocent Christian people could be tricked into following a predator.

And the truth is, we were pre-disposed to trust him because of the spiritual culture we were raised in.

Growing up, I was taught to make a clear distinction between people of the world and other believers. A Christian was someone who believed in Jesus, prayed, read his Bible, didn’t drink or smoke or sleep around. It was easy to tell when you met a true believer. You could *trust* those people.

But you couldn’t trust unbelievers. They were all depraved and damned and on their way to hell.

And of course, I thought this was all scriptural. Because once I got an idea in my head, I could find it throughout the Bible.

*          *          *

But everything began to change for me when I read the Chronicles of Narnia. In The Last Battle, a character who had served the evil god Tash his entire life is welcomed by Aslan into the new Narnia. To his own surprise, he realizes that he had really been pursuing Aslan this whole time, although he didn’t know it.

“If any man do a cruelty in my name,” says the Great Lion, “then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.” And, “Beloved, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”

And it makes me wonder. Because the Bible doesn’t actually have a lot to say about people being saved on the basis of their “profession of faith.”

But it has an awful lot to say about how we treat the poor, showing mercy to others, forgiving our enemies, resisting injustice, standing up for the abused and oppressed.

Jesus says that the ones who do these things are the true sons and daughters of his father.

But in our churches, we don’t evaluate people based on the quality of their love. We evaluate them based on whether they conform to our idea of what a Christian should look like. Do they have all the “correct” beliefs? Do they listen to Christian radio? In short, do they look like us?

And the sad truth is that this way of evaluating people makes the church painfully vulnerable to predators and abusers like Tyler who can so easily adopt the language and rhythms of the Evangelical culture. Anyone who speaks against them becomes an “outsider” and carries a taint of distrust.

We should never allow tribalism to replace our moral judgment. There are *bad* people who profess the name of Jesus and *good* people who don’t. Rather than judging everyone based on the group they belong to, get to know them. There are atheists who are nearer to the kingdom of God than many Christians because what they’ve really rejected is a false Jesus. There are undoubtedly thousands of zealous, radical, “Bible-believing” Christians who are creating a hell for themselves by the god they worship, a proud god, a god who despises learning and beauty and exalts violence and hatred.

On the day we stand at the judgment, there will be some surprises. I suppose where we all end up is measured by what we loved truly, even if we didn’t know its name.

10 Verses That Scandalize Many Christians (Until They Learn They’re in the Bible)

Jesus at S Sophia Apr 00 ARAs Christians, we all read the Bible with selective lenses. Some folks are willing to admit it, and some folks aren’t. One of the reasons it’s so important not to keep yourself trapped in a bubble is because you don’t want to make the mistake of thinking that the way your group reads the Scriptures is the only way it’s meant to be read. Otherwise you might end up not even being aware of the existence of a number of tantalizing passages:

1. “We are God’s Offspring” (Acts 17:29)

 But really, the entirety of Paul’s speech on Mars Hill. The apostle off-handedly quotes a line from a great pagan writer to tell the Athenians that they’re all children of God. He says, “God is not far from each one of us” (v. 27). He says, “In him we live and move and have our being.”

Many teachers try to get around this passage by saying it’s an example of how Paul tried to be “cultural” and “humanistic”—and how he failed miserably.

2. The Fast that God Chooses (Isaiah 58)

“Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?”

The contemporary American church, having invented a gospel of saving souls from hell, is scandalized by the idea that the Bible might have more to say about this life than the next one. Yet there are countless passages in both Old and New Testaments where God is more concerned about how people treat one another. Fighting for justice is kind of a big thing for him.

3. “Everyone Who Loves is Born of God and Knows God” (1 John 4:7)

You could throw in most of the first letter of John here. But the winner is arguably this passage, where John says that, well, everyone who loves is born of God. Beware of saying this in church unless you make it clear that you’re quoting the Bible.

4. “All Those Who Use the Sword Will Die by the Sword” (Matthew 26:52)

Spoken by Jesus to his disciples on the night of his arrest, this statement epitomizes his ethic of compassion and non-violence even in the face of imminent death. Yet it’s rare to hear these words quoted in many of our contemporary churches where this is the preferred image of Jesus:

5. Paul Wishes That People Would Castrate Themselves (Galatians 5:12), Is Racist (Titus 2:12)

Am I putting words in Paul’s mouth? No, it’s right there in the text:

“I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves.”

I’ve seen King James-only defenders cite this as an example of how all the modern translations are demonic because they quote this verse accurately.

Paul also employs his extensive knowledge of pagan writings to make racist remarks about the Cretans in Titus 2. Oddly, I haven’t heard many people complain about this.

6. Paul Urges the Colossians Not to be Obsessed with Angels, Visions, and Burdensome Regulations (Colossians 2:16-23)

The problem with a lot of the longer passages on this list is that if you read them to someone who’s living in contradiction to the message of the verses, they’re not even likely to hear what you’re reading. I once read this passage from Colossians (and the one below, from Matthew) to a group of people who were obsessed with angels, visions, and making up lists of things they weren’t allowed to do. I thought it might have some effect, but when I finished reading, it was like I hadn’t even spoken. Bizarre.

7. The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25)

This is a fun one. Jesus tells his disciples a story of how he’s going to judge the nations when he returns. He’ll sit on his throne and divide the nations before him “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats”: the sheep on the right hand and the goats on the left.

The sheep ultimately go into eternal glory because they fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and imprisoned. The goats are thrown into eternal fire, “prepared for the devil and his angels” because they neglected to do these things.

Notice anything strange? Yes, those are all works. These people are judged solely on the basis of their works. As Keith Green so succinctly put it in an old song, “The only difference between the sheep and the goats, according to the Scriptures, is what they did—and didn’t—do!

What’s more, many of the sheep didn’t know they were sheep. Many of the goats didn’t know they were goats.

There are going to be some surprises.

8. “Those Who Eat My Flesh and Drink My Blood Have Eternal Life” (John 6:54)

As Peter Kreeft points out, this is one of the very few images in the Scriptures that literalists don’t interpret literally. I knew it was there, but pretty much ignored it until I decided to become Catholic.

9. Ezekiel 23:20

Don’t read this verse to your kids. Don’t read it in church. You will be thrown out.

10. Love is the Fulfillment of the Law (Romans 13, Galatians 5)

Trying to sum up the message of Jesus in a single sentence might be a fool’s errand, but Paul takes a good crack at it near the end of his letter to the Romans:

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8).

Jesus all but stated that this was the core of his message when asked to name the two greatest commandments. Without hesitation, he said, “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:36-40). He expanded on this idea in the story of the prodigal son and the story of the good Samaritan, one showing the super-abundant generosity of God’s love towards us, the other modeling how we should love others, regardless of their race, religion, tribe, or ethnicity.

You might even say the most shocking and offensive aspect of Jesus’ message was this, that he taught us not just to love those who love us, but to embrace all humans as brothers and sisters. As Paul says in Galatians: “In Christ neither circumcision nor un-circumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). Faith, hope, and love. We love to make things more complicated than they have to be, but Jesus, Paul, John, and the other writers of the Bible are there to remind us—these are the things that matter. Do these, and the rest will take care of themselves.

The Riddles of Tom Bombadil

[ Because The Hobbit comes out this week and I can’t think about anything else, all week long on my blog I’ll be posting meditations on some of my favorite moments from The Lord of the Rings, both novel and film. Today we venture into the Old Forest. ]

In September 2002, as I was beginning my junior year of high school, my best friend called me up on the phone.

“Boze, I have the most amazing movie,” he said. “You have to see it.”

I was immediately skeptical. Eric Booth and I had vastly different taste in movies. I preferred mystery-thrillers from the 1950s and ‘60s, which put him to sleep. And his one attempt to show me The Matrix hadn’t gone over well.

“What’s it called?” I asked, more out of politeness than genuine curiosity.

Fellowship of the Ring,” he said in a tone of wonder. Continue reading