On the looting--and finding--of national treasures.
|Posted by rjagilbert on June 6, 2020 at 10:55 AM|
I don’t need to gaze into a crystal ball to see that the current period of unrest is going to result in looted museums and lost pieces of artwork, jewelry, and other historical relics. History itself gives enough clues to predict that it would happen. In fact, it seems, a running theme in much of my writing is the loss of national treasures during times of political unrest and instability. Oh, if only mankind were not so foolish as to repeat history again—but then…what would I write about?
To be honest, though, when I started writing Dungeon of Illusion back in 2014 I did not know how the story was going to end. In fact, the story originally was not planned for the TOV series. But somewhere along the way, after hearing from that small voice within me that I have learned to listen to, I began to direct the plot toward that non-traditional ending that so uncannily parallels the first half of the year 2020. Was this a warning from God? Was I supposed to have been more aggressive in passing it on? Maybe it was just my own fascination with lost treasures.
That same fascination inspired much of the character depth for The Binding, which follows the overworld and underworld aftermath of several historical cases of stolen national treasures. A good portion of the plot deals with recent events in Germany’s long, sad history of lost and looted relics. While it makes for great backstory for a romance featuring an art thief and a law-abiding historian, the tragic truth is that most of the treasures that were lost have never been recovered. The German crown jewels, for instance, were absorbed into the criminal underworld and broken down into untraceable amounts of gems and gold. Much of the art and heritage stolen during World War II by the Nazis is also still missing—as are the millions of Jews and Germans who lost their lives during that period of “political unrest”.
But there is still a value in lost treasures—especially the ones that stay lost. Not just for me to write romanticized stories about, but for all of us to learn from. If you’ve read Men of Renown, you’ll be familiar with the legend of a city that became so prosperous that it was destroyed by the bandits and thieves who were attracted to its gold. This fictional city was based on at least one “legendary” gold-rush town near where I grew up that was choked out of existence by a prevalence of thieves (and an absence of law-enforcement). Of course, it’s too late to save that town, but what if—and (insert sarcastic emoji here) I may be going off the deep end here, but—what if there was a way to learn from these stories and maybe never let them happen again? What if there was a way for our current society to avoid the same tragedies that past societies, like their national treasures, never recovered from? What if, somewhere in the past, somebody wrote out a set of instructions that we could follow so that these kinds of losses could be avoided?
I often use the illustration of a “treasure map” to describe how we read and interpret the Bible. Jesus said “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” But what did he mean by that? Consider how a map also has a “way” (the path you are to take to get to your goal), a truth (the degree of accuracy to which the map represents the actual terrain of the area), and a “life” (the goal, or treasure, that you hope to find by reading the map). What if the “truth” you are considering is not as accurate as you think it is? What if there is a mountain where you want a valley? What if the path leads you across a steep, boulder-strewn slope? And what if, at the end of the journey, when you finally get to the place on the map where the author drew a giant, red “X”, you find a ship full of beeswax instead of that chest of Spanish gold you were expecting?
Maybe—just maybe—the reason why our society keeps losing its way (and its treasures) is because the problem is not with the map. The problem is with its readers.
Four Men Face God
|Posted by rjagilbert on May 20, 2020 at 10:15 PM|
Four men from the same community found themselves standing before God at the end of their lives.
God turned to the first and said, “Watch,” as the man’s life was played out like a movie. The men could clearly see God call this man to walk a hard and difficult path, but the man did not ever heed that call. Finally, God stopped the vision and asked, “I called you to follow me. Why didn’t you listen?”
The second man stepped forward and asked for his life to be shown. It was clear, from early on, that he had also been called, but unlike the first man, he had followed. The path was difficult, full of obstacles, often discouraging, and very lonely. By the end of his life, this man died feeling like a frustrated failure. Before God could say anything, the man asked, “I called out to you for help. Why didn’t You listen?”
God did not answer, but instead turned to the third man. It was clear, as his life was displayed, that he knew the other men and interacted with them in their church and their community. Images of the men praying together, meeting together, and talking together played out. Finally, God stopped the third man’s vision and pointed out the second man, always in the corner of sight, always frustrated or discouraged, always struggling in his walk. God asked the third person, “I called you to help him. Why didn’t you listen?”
Before anybody could respond, the fourth man came forward. “Show my life, Lord. I was a success!” Indeed, as his life played out, it was obvious that this man was successful in a great many things: leader of the men’s group, pastor in his church, then church planter and elder. Yet in all the images of this man earning glory and praise for his endeavors, God showed no pleasure. Instead, He told the fourth man, “I didn’t call you to do any of this. You just did it because you wanted to feel important.” Then he pointed into the shadows where the second man could be seen struggling to catch this leader’s eye, struggling to gain approval from the church board, struggling to gain listeners from a men’s group so blindly loyal to their pastor, and then, finally, persecuted and driven from the church by that same leadership.
Turning back to the fourth man, God asked, “Why didn’t you just get out of our way?”
Casting the Net on the Other Side
|Posted by rjagilbert on November 6, 2019 at 9:20 PM|
Jesus was walking beside the sea one morning when he came upon a weary fisherman in a boat not far from the shore.
“Have you caught anything?” Jesus asked the fisherman.
“Not a thing,” came the unhappy reply.
“Throw your net onto the other side of the boat,” Jesus offered helpfully.
The fisherman shrugged, scowled, and ignored him.
“No, seriously,” Jesus said, “Pull your net up and put it down on the other side of the boat.”
The fisherman gave the Son of God a long, cold stare, then replied. “With all due respect, I’ve been fishing all night. Every half-hour or so, somebody like you showed up and gave me encouraging words, telling me to ‘keep trying’ and then suggest that maybe I just needed to throw my net on the other side of my boat. The first few times, I thought maybe there was something to their suggestions, so I tried it. I pulled up my heavy nets, detangled them, and threw them out on the other side of the boat. Then I tried the front of the boat. Then the back of the boat. But each time I followed their suggestions, I still got nothing.”
“That is because they were not the Son of God,” Jesus said.
“Fair enough,” the fisherman noted. “But after a while, every time I’d tell them I’d already tried that, they started telling me I wasn’t trying hard enough. Or they told me my net wasn’t strong enough, or my skills at fishing aren’t good enough. But I’ve had enough success with my skills and my net and my resolve to know that their excuses were no more true than their promises of fish if I took their advice.”
“I am sorry about that,” Jesus said, “But I am Jesus.”
“That’s who they all claimed to speak for, too,” the fisherman countered. “The last couple of them got down-right abusive with their accusations. Saying I needed more faith or that I deserved to fail because of some secret sin.” He glared at Jesus. “I hate to say it, but thanks to your followers, I’m not very happy with you.”
“Well,” Jesus shrugged, “I am here now.” He motioned for the fisherman to pull in his nets. “This time, it will be different.”
The fisherman shook his head. “If you are the Son of God, I’m sure you will understand you’re too late to ask that of me.”
“It is never too late,” Jesus insisted. “No matter what you have done, you still matter to God.”
“Fine,” the fisherman said impatiently, “If you still think I matter…” He pointed into the water. “I’ve already proven myself. There is my net. It’s still waiting for you to prove yourself.”
As the Son of God opened his mouth to speak, the fisherman angrily cut him off. “Don’t tell me where to throw my net, Jesus. If you want a miracle this late in the game, you’re going to have to tell the fish where to swim.”
The Judgement of Uriah
|Posted by rjagilbert on June 21, 2019 at 11:15 PM|
I arrived in Heaven to find a row of judges seated before the gates. Jesus was at my side. When asked which saint would judge me, he pointed toward a large crowd gathered in front of a young man who had clearly died in his prime.
“Who is he?” I asked.
“Uriah the Hittite,” Jesus replied. “He will be your judge.”
I was confused. “Am I not to be judged by you?”
“Did you forget that I said the world will be judged by the saints?”
I looked at the young man peering intently down on the crowd from his seat of judgement. “But Jesus, shouldn’t I be judged at least by a Christian?”
The Master shook his head and pointed into the crowd. “Most of your generation will be judged by him.” Putting a loving arm around my shoulder, he guided me closer. “You’ll see why,” he assured me.
As I drew nearer I could see a big, strong man on his knees begging the judge for forgiveness. The judge said only a few words in response, then waved the man away. Angels dragged the man toward the pit of Hell; he was still screaming for forgiveness as they threw him in. The next man in line dropped to his knees immediately, begging for forgiveness in the same ancient language.
“Who were they?” I asked Jesus.
“These are Uriah’s soldiers, whom he led into battle in his lifetime and whom he loved as though each of them were his own sons.”
“Then why is he so heartlessly sending them away?”
Jesus pointed. “Look.”
As the crowd watched, the life of this soldier appeared as though a vision above the gates of Heaven. We all watched while the soldier blindly followed the orders that led to Uriah’s demise. The events were shown, again and again, as each of Uriah’s soldiers relived those moments when they obeyed the general’s command that meant certain death for their captain. I was shocked to see that none of these mighty warriors stopped to ask themselves if they were doing the right thing. A few didn’t even think letting him die was the wrong thing to do. They were simply showing unquestioning loyalty to their king.
After each soldier’s perspective was relived, Uriah would show the same vision—the aftermath of their decision: The corruption that crept into the marriage between Uriah’s widow and the king with whom she was having an affair. The son who would grow up to murder his own brothers in an effort to consolidate power—and who would edit the historical texts to justify it as a holy act of God that few would dare question for thousands of years to come. As the vision continued, we watched the nation these men fought so hard for collapse under the influence of the pagan women whom the corrupted prince took as wives. Then, as the vision would fade, Uriah would point to the soldier before him and speak five words of judgement before waving the lost soul away.
As the last of these soldiers were sent to their final punishment, I turned to Jesus. “Lord, I was not of his generation. Why does he judge me?”
Jesus showed me the other men in line. Some of them I recognized. Men from my church—from my own Bible studies. Men who’d spent most of their lives in the church. Men just like me.
I watched as a man was shown his own life—as he spent thirty minutes every day reading the Bible…but his mind was far from the words on the page that his eyes moved across. Instead, he let his thoughts wander to things more important to him: the football game, television shows, and silly movies he planned to watch just as soon as his thirty-minute reading obligation was over.
I saw one man I knew from a neighboring church looking the other way as the church leadership made inappropriate advances toward one of the children in the choir. The vision went on to show the aftermath play out as pain, rebellion, and eventual disaster in the life of the young child who was victimized by that encounter.
I saw men from my church who claimed to know the Bible, but they were better versed in Game of Thrones lore than the corruption of Israel’s throne in the wake of Judge Uriah’s Death. I saw men from my church who blindly followed the teachings of our pastor. Men who only served the charities our pastor suggested—who only condemned the sins she told them to. Men who openly slandered and persecuted those whom our pastor told them to oppose—who only voted for candidates our pastor endorsed. I saw them stumble blindly through their lives, always thinking they were following God when, in fact, they were merely following the tyranny of a human leader in a position of religious authority.
And at the end of each man’s vision, Saint Uriah spoke those same words of judgment to them and waved them away.
I turned to find Jesus still at my side. “But Lord,” I pleaded, “Are we not saved by our personal relationship to you?”
Jesus replied, “Show me that relationship.”
Suddenly I realized that I did not know what that relationship looked like. As I pondered how to show it to him, Jesus pointed to the next man in line. “Watch him. He had a relationship, too.”
I recognized the man before the judge. It was the elder who led my men’s group. I saw flashes of myself in the room with him as the events of his life unfolded. I also saw Jesus—always behind the elder, tapping him on the shoulder, offering helpful bits of advice or trying to draw the elder’s attention to something or somebody that had been otherwise overlooked. Each time, the elder ignored Jesus’ input and continued making decisions with his own brilliant leadership skills. I remembered how, at the time, I so strongly aspired to be like that elder. To make the same leadership decisions that he made.
Suddenly the elder was on his death bed and the vision shifted to me. I realized that it was now my turn at the seat of judgement. There was that discussion we had right after the elder’s death as we chose the next book for the men to study. Somebody suggested we order copies through our local Christian bookstore, but the costs were much cheaper for me to just buy them all online. Jesus was there, I now realized, tapping me on the shoulder. Reminding me that he had blessed me with that comfortable income for this very reason—to supplement the extra costs of supporting our local Christian outlet.
Then I was leading the group, working to keep the men on track each week as we watched the video curriculum and discussed each topic. But this time I also saw the men at home, leaving their books in the car or on a shelf for six days and then picking them up only when it was time to return to the meeting. I saw the young man who always sat in the back of the class—his week was different. He read the entire book through, along with many other books on theology and spirituality. And he was reading his Bible, too. Jesus was constantly hovering over his shoulder, showing him insights into everything he read…but when he came to our meetings and asked to discuss parts of the book that weren’t covered in the video curriculum, I silenced him. “Let’s get back to the curriculum,” I said, ignoring that gentle tapping on my shoulder.
The visions continued. I watched the local Christian bookstore go out of business, drying up the fountain that slaked that young man’s thirst for spiritual teachings. Eventually he vanished from the meetings—I never remember missing him. I watched the men’s group continue to grow less and less spiritual as the men continued to bluff to each other over whether they had actually done the weekly reading. Instead, the conversation wandered more and more into discussions of current television shows and sporting events. Sometimes we brought up current political issues, but always the decisions we made centered not on wisdom that we might have gleaned from reading the Bible or from listening to that gentle tapping, but from voting exactly how the respected authority figures told us to vote.
Jesus showed me more of my life, as he tapped me on the shoulder, over and over, to show me the growing corruption of my generation—the rot festering in my own church and community. I barely remembered those moments—they seemed like interruptions at the time. And yet here they were, over and over again. A relationship that consisted of one person ignoring the other.
Jesus said to me, “That was our relationship.” And then he left me to face Uriah alone.
I watched as the consequences of my generation played out before us all. As society began to decay until it finally went stark, feral-mad. All the while I continued to make my personal and leadership decisions based on a morality that had come not from my own personal relationship with Jesus, but from the religious authorities I had let lead my life. The same religious authorities I had aspired to become—and, at the end of my life, I had indeed become to others.
As the vision of my life and its aftermath faded, the saint looked at me and said those same five words every other “soldier” in line dreaded the most.
“It Happened On Your Watch!”
Dear brothers, I must ask: What fate do you consider more of a Hell? To be thrown into a pit of fire, tormented for all eternity or burned away until nothing was left? Or to be returned to the world I had allowed to decay? To be born as a helpless child in a society I had blindly allowed to become more and more hostile to them? To try yet again to get my relationship right with my Lord and Savior—not for my reward in the afterlife, but to bring a little bit of Heaven to the world I was hoping so hard to leave behind?
No. Don’t answer that. Not yet.
Perhaps you should pay attention to that gentle tapping on your shoulder first.
Faith and Football: an allegory
|Posted by rjagilbert on April 9, 2019 at 10:30 PM|
Halftime and down by 33 points.
I sat with my fellow teammates in the locker-room while the quarterback tried giving us a pep-talk. Suddenly I could take no more.
“Captain,” I said, “somebody is trying to throw this game.”
“The only throwing is coming from me,” the qb shot back, “Unless you want to count how many times you didn’t catch the ball.”
“It’s hard to catch the ball when you tell me to ‘go long’ and then throw it into the sidelines.”
“You just aren’t following the playbook close enough.”
“I’m following the playbook exactly how I’m supposed to, Captain.”
Another teammate piped up, “It’s like the other team is also following our playbook, Cap. Like they know our every move and exactly how to take us down.”
“Yeah,” said another. “Like they’re actually the ones who wrote this playbook, and all the plays are just ways for us to walk right into their tackles.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” the captain said, turning to the bruised and battered running-back who spoke up. “You’re being tackled because you’re giving the opponent permission to tackle you.”
“The opponent had permission to tackle me because you faked the ball to me!”
“That’s not what happened,” the quarterback defended. Pointing to me, he accused, “I told him to go long!”
“I did go long,” I argued. “But every time you tell me to go long, you throw it short.”
“That’s your fault for not following the playbook!”
By that point I had lost my patience. “Let’s just quit the bluffing and review the tapes.”
“We’ll review the tapes before the 5th quarter,” he insisted.
“There is no 5th quarter, Captain!”
“There is if I say there is,” the captain argued. “My Father owns the team, the stadium…everything. He’s promised that we’ll review the tapes and judge each player for how they played. Then, those whom He deems worthy will be allowed to play the 5th quarter.”
I folded my arms across my chest. “How are we supposed to believe you?”
“Because I am the quarterback.”
“But you’ve been throwing the game!”
The captain shrugged. “Just the first half.” He looked reassuringly at the rest of the team. “Don’t worry. We’ll come back in the fourth quarter.” He turned to me, “At the last minute, I’ll tell you to go long again, and we’ll score the winning point.”
I furrowed my brows questioningly. “Are you going to throw it long this time, or should I come up short like how you’ve been throwing?”
“Just do exactly as I say and we’ll win this game,” he said as though it were the easiest plan to understand.
"I’m starting to think you don’t really want me to trust you.” I counted off the plays on my hand. “When you told me to go long, you threw short. When you faked to the running-back, you pulled his defense so he’d get tackled.”
“That was a strategic act of deception,” the captain explained hastily.
“Whatever it was,” the running back inserted, “it didn’t work.” Pointing to the bruises and swelling on his arms and legs, he added, “And it took me out of the game way too early.”
“And it broke the bond of trust a lot of us have in you,” I added.
The captain scowled at me. “This isn’t about trust, player. This is about obedience.”
Holding a pack of ice to his injured leg, the running-back gestured toward me, “I think he’s got a point, Cap. This is as much about our trust in you as it is about your trust in us.”
The captain’s jaw dropped. “Of course you all trust me. I’m the leadership of this team. I’m the one who has brought you the winning playbook. I’m the Son of the Owner of this League!”
“Are you?” Another player suddenly asked. “Or is that just another deception?”
“I don’t lie,” the captain said simply.
“But you faked the ball,” I pointed out. “And when you said go long but threw short—that’s like a lie.”
“That’s just a promise I didn’t keep.”
Shaking his head, the running-back asked, “What difference is there between a lie and a promise that isn’t kept?”
“I’ll keep it,” the captain insisted. “Just wait until the 5th quarter!
“You keep promising us a 5th quarter, Captain, but that promise is only as strong as every other promise you make. If you can’t keep the promise of a defensive screen when you pass a player the ball, and if you can’t connect a long throw when you tell your players to go long, what good is your promise of an extra quarter—or even another whole game?”
“But those are the promises that matter!” The captain waved his hands angrily toward the collection of tapes he insisted would be reviewed after the game. “All these other plays don’t matter. Just the ones at the end of the game, when I tell you to go long and you obey and we win.”
“No, Captain,” I said with both certainty and finality, “the promise that mattered was the first one you broke. The first play that mattered was the first one you fumbled. That first time, we thought maybe you needed to warm up. After a few more, we started wondering if you weren’t playing your best. Then, when you kept breaking your promises, we started wondering if you were trying to throw the game. At this point, captain, we have every right to wonder just who you are and how you and your twisted playbook have managed to infiltrate this team.”
I’ve been writing since I was a teenager. It’s something I’ve always loved to do.
I didn’t think God had an interest in my writing until the summer of 2004, when a powerful spirit of inspiration brought the message to me that would eventually become Men of Renown.
Inspired, I threw myself passionately into my writing. I put my family second. My church and work responsibilities suffered. I truly thought that God needed me to “run with that ball” and bring that message to the world. As I finished up my manuscript and started looking for a publisher, I began to realize how much opposition had mounted against me. Even my family did not want to support me any longer—after all, the entire premise of the book was based on a man and his priorities. Still, I thought God would pull through—that I would “go long”, make the catch, and win the play.
My, how differently the real game went.
In the years since finishing Men of Renown and my several other self-published works, I have learned that God has no intention of supporting my decisions to “go long” with His inspiration.
I’m not saying God has sat on the sidelines, anthropomorphic arms folded across his chest, and done nothing. Through it all, He has sustained me—even provided the funds I requested to promote my work in the online marketplace. But success, like a ball thrown into the sidelines, is still hopelessly out of reach. For all the funding I spent trying to promote my writing, none of it resulted in anything that could be closely described as success.
And all around me I see the situation getting more desperate. As the “game clock” ticks down, I see my team beginning to lose hope. I see good players taken off the field much too early due to injuries they should have been protected from. Even my own body has suffered such brutal “tackles” by the Adversary that I am left wondering if I want to go back onto that field for another play.
None of my physical or financial woes compare, however, to the psychological assault that has come against me since I first started sharing my writing with the world. Each message I present has come back at me in some way as though to make my words a hypocrisy. With Men of Renown, it was my family turning against me. With the Sarian’s Sword it was a sudden twist of legalities that robbed my family of our private property and financial prosperity. After writing the Lucky and the Strong, I suddenly found my own physical strength stolen from me. How can I continue preaching discipline and strength when at any random moment I might find myself lying on the floor or collapsed into a wheelchair?
A few weeks ago, I discovered that a young woman whom I had tried to counsel on her marriage was now divorced. The blow struck me extra hard since I have been working on a romantic-thriller meant to convey to young readers the joys of a long and successful marriage. When I learned she was having marriage difficulties, I offered some of the perspective I had put into the book in hopes that it might help her hold her own marriage together. Sadly, my words did not help.
At the same time, one of the women who inspired The Lucky and the Strong was murdered as a direct result of the character attribute I applauded in the book. Do I want to promote that kind of behavior? Or is the Adversary merely twisting the truths I teach so that I can no longer present them with conviction? I find myself asking, “How can I promote this teaching if it didn’t help these real-life people in their real-life situations?”
The issue is one of tested teachings. I have long seen other Christian leaders promote untested teachings that did not age well. Much of what we consider “modern” Christianity is, in fact, untested doctrine that may very well lead many of our flock to their eventual destruction. I often preach about this—the main premise of The Sarian’s Sword is based on this message. Yet it is also one of my greatest fears; I prayed before every class I taught for God to keep me from teaching or saying anything that might lead my students down a false path.
Now I find that the Adversary has come to test my own teachings—using my own life as an example. Will I maintain the stoicism I taught through Renaud in the Lucky and The Strong now that my physical body has been damaged? Can the friendship and peace-seeking attitude I presented in Dungeon of Illusion truly win out against the corrupted church and political leadership? Will the perspective I share on marriage have any real effect for struggling couples?
As I ponder all of this, I am also aware of a rather prominent Christian Writer’s Conference on my calendar, beckoning for me to take a few days off from my day-job and to pursue my love of writing as though it might, one day, become a full-time occupation. I am forced, however, to ask myself why. Why would I quit the one stable, dependable thing God has blessed me with—my day job? Why would I “go long” this late in the game, running after a dream I’ve been chasing since the very early days of my life, if I have no reason to believe God will ever actually throw me the ball?
At this moment in my life…none of these questions have been answered.
The questions keep coming, more and more relevant as my search for an agent to promote my latest work comes up flat on all fronts. At the same time, I find myself wanting to spend more time with my family. My kids are almost all out of the house. I'm never going to get this time in my life back. Why would I want to spend it pursuing a dream that God has never made an effort to show support for?
I have to wonder, though. How many other Christians out there stop and reflect like this? How many actually measure the "success" that God has given them in their pursuit of whatever dreams they are chasing? Does it come to a point in their lives, as it has in mine, where they start to wonder if their faith is just a delusion? Do they ever stop and look back to see if there was some point, hopefully not to far into the past, where they strayed from the path God set them on?
And do the, like me, start to wonder just who it was that set them on that path in the first place?Â
The Arrogance of "Wise Men"
|Posted by rjagilbert on March 21, 2019 at 9:55 PM|
I’m looking for a word to describe what arrogance is not.
It’s not that attitude somebody gets when they’ve tried a hundred times to explain an injustice and are dismissed as “complaining”.
It’s not the frustration a thinking mind experiences when he has studied something for many years but is unable to explain it to his colleagues because they are “educated” and therefore do not have to listen.
It’s most definitely not the anger an entire village worth of mothers must have felt as they buried their murdered children—children who would have still been alive if not for the arrogance of a group of men that, two thousand years later, are still celebrated as the heroes of the story.
But oh, yes. When I try to express how they must have felt, the number one word used to describe me…is “arrogant”.
Two thousand years ago, a group of “wise” men arrived in Judea to celebrate the birth of a new king. We all know the story—at least, the story as it has been told…with all its grand descriptions of gold and myrrh and songs about “We Three Kings”. But let’s look a little further at the injustices that these Magi brought upon a sleepy, innocent little town. And let’s look at how easily those injustices could have been avoided.
Having studied the layout of the “Holy Land” in which this story takes place, it becomes immediately apparent that there was a point, between five and ten miles from their destination, where the “Wise men” would have noticed that the star was not leading them to the shimmering, splendid city of Jerusalem. It’s such simple geometry, any “star-watcher” with half an old man’s experience would have had to have noticed the difference. The humble city of Bethlehem lay beneath the star, and, unless they were arriving from Egypt (to the south and an entirely different continent), the city of Jerusalem would have been off to one side, quite obviously not the intended target of their celestial guide.
And yet they chose to go to Jerusalem.
Now some (actually, most) people will choose to defend the Magi with such suppositions as “maybe they were required to stop first in Jerusalem and get diplomatic permission to visit Bethlehem”. I’ve heard it argued that “maybe they didn’t realize the political climate within Jerusalem” or “maybe they were just tired from their long journey and wanted to stay someplace nice before that less-than three hours’ walk into the dirty little town of Bethlehem.” Some have even dared to suggest that maybe the star was lost behind a cloud that day.
In response to the first three: any “Wise” traveler would have known the particulars of the Jewish throne at that time—especially the very obvious fact that Herod, who resided within that Jerusalem palace, was NOT a Jewish king. Even were they forced to visit Jerusalem (perhaps intercepted along the road and escorted to the city against their will) they would have—no, SHOULD have—had the guile to be discreet in their true motives. Any “wise” traveler who had read half of Solomon’s proverbs would have known to keep his mouth shut. And yet they let slip their “enlightened” tongues and gave it all away.
The fourth suggestion is the most absurd. Reading further in the story from the Bible, we find that the “Wise men”, following their side-trip into Jerusalem, found the star exactly where they had left it before the shiny lights and warm inns of Jerusalem called to them. As soon as they returned their attention to it, they were led straight into Bethlehem and to the location of the King they were searching for. Obviously, the star was efficient at doing its job—that job being to guide those who sought the King of the Jews…straight to the King of the Jews. Do you honestly think God let slip with His miracles for a day, just for a few hours, perhaps, when the Wise men were approaching their destination? Do you honestly think that, at that distance, the “Wise men” would have watched the star vanish behind clouds, then turn to the city off to one side and think God had something “better” for them to discover there?
No. There is only one reason the Wise Men turned aside from their divine guidance and made a mess of things in Jerusalem. That reason: Arrogance.
After all, Bethlehem was not what they had expected.
These were the elites of the East. The “wise” men. They didn’t travel thousands of miles just to muddy their boots in a glorified sheep-farm. They were looking for a king. Kings belonged in palaces. Looking from the star in front of them to the palace off to one side, it made perfect sense to them that “God must have made a mistake”. And so they chose the option that most accurately matched their expectations.
As a writer, I have presented manuscripts and query letters to agents and publishers for more than twenty years. And for twenty years, I have had my submissions denied. Most often, I never got a response back, but sometimes, I would get a letter letting me know that my submission “did not fit the expectations” of the publisher or agent I had sent it to. In short: it was not what they were looking for.
As an indie author, I have published my own writings and presented them to the people I was never able to reach when publishers held the only path to putting my messages into print. Yet again, I have been told time and again that my writing was not what the reader expected. I am not the shimmering city of Jerusalem, and my message does not herald the birth of a king in a palace. I am like that star, patiently waiting for “wise” men to notice me again and turn away from the shiny city that is merely a distraction.
Except that Jerusalem was not just a “distraction.” It cost many children their lives. It terrorized an entire village. And yes, the “main characters” of the story escaped, and I suppose we’re all supposed to be happy with that and not bother with the rest of the body count, but that’s not how it works for those of us who actually “follow the star” without getting distracted. We notice those kinds of things.
And yet we are the ones who are called “arrogant”. Why? Because the message we teach—a message that does not present itself in the form of a shining city or a luxurious palace—is not the message others expect. Because those who opt to turn aside to that shimmering city simply MUST be right—and anybody who teaches a message to the contrary must be “arrogant”.
A time will come, when true Judgment is released upon this earth, when those of us who followed the star will have our final word against those who turned aside. And our word will not be “Arrogant”.
It will be “Damnation!”
It has also been argued that “all this had to happen for the prophecies to be fulfilled.” Of course, the prophecy referenced by this was from Matthew 2:18, which begins “A voice heard in Ramah…” Sadly, most people who do not closely study their Bibles do not realize that Ramah and Bethlehem are two very different locations.
Jeremiah spoke that prophecy against the two half-tribes of Israel (descended from Rachel through Joseph) located East of the Jordan River, which is where Ramah was located. It was fulfilled when Ramah was sacked during the invasion of Babylon and the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh were essentially lost to the rest of history.
I must add that the presence of this mis-cited scripture within the Gospel of Matthew further supports the suggestion that, even in the first century there were some who remembered this injustice…and some who felt the need to twist scriptures in a (mostly successful, unfortunately) attempt to justify it.
Fallout 76, Gun Game, and "Bad Sportsmanship"
|Posted by rjagilbert on January 8, 2019 at 11:10 PM|
When I was a kid, Dungeons and Dragons was the game that I was told to avoid. My family, my friends, and my church all said it was “evil” because a few people who played the game took it too far. Kids were being pressured into committing suicide because their characters died in the game. Some kids were being pressured into murdering homeless people as a way of carrying the game into reality.
This was only one of many examples as to how depravity can work its way into a group and rot all whom it touches. An even better exhibit, however, is the game Monopoly. Initially designed to frustrate players as a means to illustrate an economic point, it was instead embraced by a certain psyche of gamers—those who liked to dominate their fellow players. These days, the rules for Monopoly are meant to allay as much frustration as possible—players who want to quit are allowed to walk away from the table without being forced to keep playing or shamed by the winners. The same cannot be said for the ever-evolving world of Online Gaming.
Within the online gaming community, there are two very different kinds of players. Mainly, there are those who play for the experience of playing—who most enjoy following the game’s story, interacting with team-mates amid the adventure, or just exploring the game’s immersive, online world. But there are also those who play because they need to feel a sense of domination over the other players. These are the players who prefer the competitive mode to gaming—who prefer Player-Verses-Player modes over co-op or adventure modes. This is the population of players from which overwhelmingly come the griefers, trolls, and cyber-bullies. And this is the population that software developers work feverishly (most of the time) to develop ways to keep them from ruining the gaming experience for everyone else.
In 2018, Bethesda Software announced a long-awaited sequel to its Fallout series. As Fallout 76 neared its release date the potential for clashes between the two types of gamers was a very real discussion on the internet. Bethesda software announced an in-game dueling system meant to deter cyber-bullying. Essentially, those who sought to kill other players would find themselves at such a disadvantage that they would be expected to think otherwise about their intentions. A major example cited for their intervention was the chaotic and (literally) criminal gaming experience that Grand Theft Auto Online had come to be known for—many servers had degenerated into murder sprees among the few players still depraved enough to enjoy that kind of gameplay. Bethesda wanted to avoid this, and hoped that their innovative new system would provide a solution. The reaction was exactly opposite what they had expected. But why?
In 2011, Blizzard Software introduced a mod to their Call of Duty franchise called “Gun Game”, the market they were aiming for was obvious: those who wish to assert domination over their fellow gamers—what some call “competitive gaming”. The premise of this mod is that all players start with the least effective weapon, then progress to the next most lethal weapon each time they kill another player. To most undiscerning players, the idea sounds fun. In reality, it plays out like the history of a third-world country. Eventually, the players most skilled at killing are equipped with the most effective weapons, and the remaining players are just target practice. This, to a historian, is what we call Tyranny.
Who do you think that environment appeals to? The bullies, of course. Those who cannot accomplish their own dictatorship in real-life can at least, while the server is running, feel a real sense of control over all those who are foolish enough to remain within that server during their reign. You would think that, under ordinary circumstances, sane people would simply stop playing this kind of game. (I certainly put those kinds of PVP shooters down for a good part of my life—not just because they frustrate me, but because I do not enjoy that kind of violence.)
What I’ve discovered, of course, is that the online despots have developed a social mechanism to keep their victims in the game. Obviously, the occasional bully will leave a server when he is no longer on the giving side of the pain, but the servers never empty of victims because of the social pressure implemented against players to “be a good sport”. Being a good sport, of course, means playing multiple rounds against more skilled players who consistently deny you a chance at ever being anything more than target practice. And being a victim this time means you are more likely to log in tomorrow with hopes of achieving domination over another population of victims using the same system of social pressures and weighted rules. Often all it takes is the mocking of one "rage-quitter" to keep the rest of the victims from leaving that server until they can come up with another excuse (bedtime, Mom wants me to take out trash, etc.).
My own experience with this kind of online gaming illustrates not only the gaming mechanisms that enable bullying, but the social pressures that sustain it. Invited to an online server for a comic-book-style variation of Gun Game in which my own family and friends were playing, I quickly found myself among the lesser-armed caste, while my more skilled children dominated the map. When I explained how this game was weighted poorly (not to mention the “stickball” rules that granted a period of immunity to the players most skilled at killing others), I was accused of being a “poor sport”. When I said that I did not want to play another round, I was accused of “rage quitting”…by my own children.
I should pause to point out that I’ve made a few of my own games in my day, and arguing about the rules is nothing new to my family. I’ve even made a few games with rules that were intentionally meant to be frustrating as a means to illustrate a point. Yet my family reacted to my criticism of their rules with a downright demonization of my character. I wondered where they learned these reactions, then realized that these are social behaviors passed on to them from their own experiences in other servers, where others who had picked them up had instilled them with that same, warped sense of duty. These reactions had become so ingrained in their gaming experience that it seemed only natural for them to employ them against their own father when he dared to notice the cracks in the game’s seemingly innocent facade. Sadly, the only reason my own children felt the need to “dominate” their father came from them having been dominated by somebody else in another server; ours was only the latest of a vicious abuse cycle that has been circulating on the internet for years.
This breed of tyranny is not contained to the online world. I experienced similar abuse from my own church, and only by walking away was I able to free my family from the fear of being labeled the over-worked volunteer’s equivalent of a “poor sport”. In both gaming and church ministry, the tactic is the same; the tyrant, fearful of losing the targets of his tyranny, uses psychological means to keep them under his thumb. This behavior is then learned—even by those who are dominated—so that it becomes the social norm within that community. Questioning this system or the rules that maintain it is out of the question. In a sense, “rage-quitters” today are the same as those who were once accused of “heresy” during the Middle Ages. For hundreds of years, few questioned that the “heretics” might have actually had a reason to challenge the rules by which the Church was playing.
As I mentioned earlier, the reception for Fallout 76’s bully-deterrent mechanism was poorly received. …But by whom? Is it possible that those who complained the loudest were, in fact, those who most wanted to ruin other players’ experience in the game by bullying them? Has anybody noticed that the same “rage-quitters” who did not like being bullied by unfair domination-favoring games were not the ones demanding a “fix” for Fallout 76? Could it be that the loudest voices against a well-balanced system of rules—rules that prevent cyberbullying and unpleasant gaming experiences for others—are the very players who want to engage in those practices? What is more disturbing than these questions is the noticeable lack of comment on the problem from the gaming journalism community. It’s as if most of the gamers who write reviews and articles for these games were…among the disappointed.
This presents a much deeper, more disturbing series of questions. How can something like domination-gaming, that appeals to mankind’s most depraved nature, proliferate so well and for so long in a society without being noticed? And, more importantly…what else might we find, if we only look, within our society that we should not be so proud of proliferating?
From a Biblical perspective, I am reminded of the days when Israel demanded a king. They wanted somebody to lead them in battle, like the other nations around them. Of course, this was not something God wanted. Samuel, speaking for God, warned the people as Moses had, that a king would lead to a whole new kind of depravity within the nation. But they would not listen to his reasons. They continued to insist, and eventually got what they wanted. It was not long before that line of kings began to lead Israel into its own period of civil war and unrest from which it never fully recovered. But the people never stopped to ponder whether they had possibly made a mistake. They had what they wanted—or at least, the people on top did. Few noticed the subtle injustices, the murders, the adulteries. Nobody questioned whether God was pleased with the way things were going. Why not? Those who were on top didn’t care about the people they hurt because “they were winning.” The few who dared to speak for God on the matter were usually put to death; the rest just bucked up and kept playing the game.
Here’s my point: in the end, God only got Israel’s attention by destroying the entire nation.
He had to make them lose before he could make them listen.
And if He has to, God will do this again.
Because depravity is still winning, still warping God’s Will, and those who dare to speak up against it are still being condemned as “poor sports”.
How It Should Have Ended: The Book of Job
|Posted by rjagilbert on December 17, 2018 at 8:35 PM|
I should point out, before I am accused of “re-writing God’s Word”, that Job is one of the most controversial books of the Old Testament. Biblical scholars may argue that it is an ancient piece of literature originating somewhere in the Middle East, but the style of literature is spot-on with the Classical Greek style of written dialogues and tragic plays.
Job is also one sun-pulling chariot away from several other books that have since been removed from Judeo-Christian canon due to being obviously fictional in their description of God and the Heavens. The god of Job is clearly contrived to serve as a “god in the machine”—a common mechanism also found in Classical Greek literature. Despite this obvious mechanism, many readers have used this description to serve as their own vision of what God looks like (and, consequently, what God is limited to in terms of space, time, and presence).
That being said, I have spent a great many years arguing the point of Job to fellow Christians who claim to have read it, but very obviously show their lack of understanding. For that purpose, I have re-written the ending with a more concise description of the truth.
* * *
Up in Heaven, “Jehovah” listened intently to Job’s words of praise. At last, he turned to Satan, who had been sitting beside him, and handed him twenty bucks. “Okay,” he said, “the bet’s off. You win.”
Satan replied, “But Job has not cursed your name. Through all of this, he continues to praise you.”
Old Jove repeated some of the praises Job had said about him “Suspending the Earth over nothing? Marking out the horizon on the face of the waters?” He shook his head. “He is praising the Creator of the Universe, and…that is not me.” Seeing Satan raise an eyebrow, the Zeus wanna-be explained, “To be honest, I’m just another petty demon-god up here on Mt. Olympus putting on a show to try to get people to worship me.”
“A lot of good that did you,” Satan said, pointing to Eliphaz and his three friends. “These guys are now afraid of you. They think you’re just a god who punishes everybody who makes you mad.”
Jehovah hung his shoulders wearily. “I suppose I could go down there and tell them all that I numbered the stars and built the mighty Behemoth from the DNA up, but I’d just be making myself more of a liar.”
Satan shook his head and handed the twenty bucks back to Old Jove. “I’ll be honest, too. This was never about the bet.”
“It wasn’t?” Jehovah exclaimed, showing an unnaturally high level of surprise for his supposedly immortal nature.
“Nope,” Satan confessed. Pointing to Job, he explained, “Didn’t you notice how much influence that guy had over his friends because of his success and good health? They listened to him, considered him a role model, and all of them worshiped and revered You because of Job’s example. Now look at them. They have not only turned on him, but they will never again follow his example or take his word seriously. They are convinced that he is hiding a secret sin, and not even your intervention will change their opinion now that I’ve made sure it has been so deeply rooted in pride. He’s done as a role model.”
Cackling victoriously, Satan casually tossed the bet money at the astonished Jehovah and saw himself down off the mountain. As he passed through the imitation-pearl gates, he could be heard to say, “As long as there are fools down there who think like that, this trick will never get old.”
A Fight That Will Not End
|Posted by rjagilbert on February 26, 2017 at 11:15 AM|
I originally posted this entry in late January, during what I had hoped would be a short-lived period of political unrest. Today, as I try (once again) to re-post this excerpt from my latest Tales of Vantoria book, my local left-wing politician has made front-page news telling his followers that they need to "keep fighting." It's not just scary. It's sad. In my own family, there are relatives who have not talked to each other since before the November 2016 election.
So, in the spirit of trying things again, I would like to re-post this incredibly relevant excerpt in which the main characters, preparing for another dangerous mission into a city torn by civil war, discuss the ways in which words can be used as weapons.
A thoughtful expression had come over Wenchel’s face. He set the wand down gently on an end-table and seated himself on the couch. “Haiyamm’s taught me a lot of things. Not just about magic.” He looked up to his friends. “I think the more important things were about how to be a king.”
Luciana reminded him, “You have several friends who wish to help you rule.” She gestured to Renaud and herself.
Wenchel smiled gratefully at her. “Thank you,” he said, “I can use all the help I can get.” Then he leaned forward, hands clasped together as if in prayer, and said, “There’s something else I’ve been thinking about, though. Since we came here. A story Haiyamm told me about my own world.”
“About Magic?” Mary inquired.
“About being a king,” Wenchel clarified.
Renaud coaxed, “Do tell.”
“Haiyamm once told me that there’s no difference between a castle and a dungeon. They’re two words for the same building—from different languages, but used to describe the same structure.”
Mary looked confused. “What do you mean?”
Wenchel began, “The story tells that a kingdom on Earth was once invaded by two armies. First, an army from the north came to burn villages and take the people hostage. From his castle, the king rode forth with only a handful of his best warriors. In five days they marched nearly two-hundred miles across the land, all along the way sending out riders to call for more men to join them. And men did join them; gathered from all corners of the kingdom to defend their fellow countrymen from the northern invaders. By the time they confronted the enemy, they were a great army, a sea of armor. They drove the invaders back, freed the captured cities, and restored peace.”
Renaud asked, “So what about the other invasion?”
Wenchel’s eyes grew sad. “News of the second invasion came while the king was still restoring order in the north of his kingdom. He gathered what forces he could from the weary countryside and marched the long distance—and then some—to confront the second invader on the southern border of his land. Unfortunately, this battle was lost, and he died.”
Luciana sat beside him on the couch. She put a gentle hand on his shoulder. “That doesn’t have to be you.”
Wenchel shook his head. “That’s not the point of the story.”
“What is the point?” Mary asked insistently.
The young king continued, “The new conqueror did not have the support of the people who had so freshly fought with their king to defend their land. To maintain control over the conquered kingdom, he built new castles—fortified structures—in every region he took possession of. In his language, he called them dungeons, and from them he asserted his authority over the people until they dreaded the very word used to describe those buildings.”
Renaud grunted. “I get it. The only difference between the old king’s castle and the new king’s dungeon was how they were used.”
Wenchel nodded. “One is used to build up and protect. The other to oppress and control.” He unclasped his hands and leaned back against the couch cushions. “I suppose the same could be said of anything, really. How we use it determines what it means to those who see it in use.”
“Especially for those who fight with words and ideas,” Renaud said, thoughtfully stroking his chin.
Luciana considered the idea for a moment. Finally she said, “That’s the best description of my mother anybody’s ever come up with.”
* * *
Dungeon of Illusion was published in 2015, a full year before the political unrest that began when Donald Trump announced his run for the white house. Neither of the opposition parties described in that book are based on the real-world political candidates. However, the lies, the deception, and the political antics described in this book all come from historical figures who used those tactics to gain and retain control. Unfortunately, as a wise person once said, those who do not learn from history...are doomed to repeat it.
The Opinions of a Princess
|Posted by rjagilbert on July 19, 2015 at 2:50 PM|
I spent Saturday at a book fair for indie writers. Most of the tables were romance novels; there were a lot of jokes about lingering too long at the tables featuring an array of shirtless men. There was one or two other fantasy authors there—writing to more of the grown-up, teenage crowd—but I was pretty much alone in my genre and my age group.
A few hours into the event, two children approached my table. A boy, about four, and a girl, aged five. Wearing a frilly dress and a dazzling, blue butterfly painted upon her face, the young lady began to talk to me about books. She was learning to read, she explained, so that she could one day read a special book she keeps in her room. When asked what it was about, she explained that she liked to think it might be about butterflies and princesses. Wow! What a wonderful opportunity to segue into my illustration of the old Bible found at the beginning of the Sarian’s Sword! But before I could begin, her younger brother opened up with his own line of questions.
The boy was more curious of the old-looking roll of parchment sticking out of the leather-backpack display I had set up for the Tales of Vantoria series. Was that a treasure map? No, I explained. It looked like a treasure map, but in reality it was…well…as I unrolled it to reveal an old wall-decoration depicting the ten commandments, I could not help but muse that, yes, some folks did consider that to be a map. Again, I began to explain how some people can mistake an old poster for a treasure map and miss out on the real treasure map right in front of them…but they had already moved on to the next thing on my table. It was the small square of chain-mail I wove a few years back just to see how hard it would be (it was hard). I like to tell people that it is genuine, Mythril chain mail (since some historians believe that Scandinavian legend originated from a Persian word referring to the glimmer of light on steel), but I knew better than to try to explain that line of information to my two young guests.
Attached to the chain-mail was a “lucky charm”, an old necklace with a four-leaf-clover encased in glass that I’d found at a craft bazaar several years ago. As I showed it to my visitors, I explained the function of chain-mail armor in battle—how it could stop swords from cutting and arrows from piercing through it. Then I asked: “If you were going into battle against goblins and trolls and all kinds of monsters…which of these two items would you want to protect you?”
The princess with the butterfly on her face did not hesitate to answer: “I think I would want the necklace.”
And that, dear readers, is a wonderful illustration all its own.