Short Story: “While We Were Yet Sinners,” part 3

This is the third and final installment of an old short story I’m re-posting, called “While We Were Yet Sinners.” Before you read this, you should also read Part 1 and Part 2. I’d also like to refer you back to an older post of mine about taking a known character and putting a fresh new spin on them as a writing exercise, because if you haven’t guessed already, that’s basically what I did in this story. Thanks for reading, and for those who celebrate, have a blessed and happy Easter.

Joha still remembered the details of how it had all happened the previous day. Now he sat in a cold, hostile jail cell, on the day that he had been told he would be killed. The cell was underground and since he could not see the sun, he was not totally sure what time of day it was now, nor what time of day his execution was to take place. As far as he knew, he could have almost a full day left, or he could have only mere minutes. He had no idea. As Joha sat against the hard, bare wall, he began to think about all that had happened recently. He had killed a man, but he accepted it now. Not to say that he meant to condone it as if it were not wrong, but he realized what he had done, and knew that there was no way to take it back. He felt deep remorse now, and though he knew that the pain of his death would be great, he understood that, if anyone should have died, it was himself, not the innocent man he had killed.

On that note, his thoughts turned back once again toward spiritual things, and what he had learned as a child. He knew that the LORD must certainly hate him now; he had stolen several times, and he had taken a life. He thought back through his past and realized that those were not the only bad things he had done. He lied whenever it suited him to do so, which was often. He had gotten drunk frequently, either from being under pressure or just for pleasure, and he had sometimes spent stolen money on the local prostitutes. He remembered the Commandment about regarding nothing higher than the LORD, and he certainly hadn’t obeyed that one. In fact, he seemed to have broken all of the LORD’s commands that he could remember.

Then he remembered Jesus. Jesus, the most controversial man in all of the Roman empire, possibly in all the world. The man who called himself the Messiah. The man who preached assurance of salvation, and forgiveness of sin. Joha thought about this. He knew he had committed many, many sins and was deserving of judgment. But he remembered from his studies of the Scriptures in his younger days that, though the LORD was righteous and just, He was also loving and merciful. What if this forgiveness thing was true? What if, even now, with only a very short time until his death, he could still be forgiven, and his soul could still be saved?

“You. Murderer,” he heard. He looked toward the cell’s entrance to see one of the Roman guards who had escorted him here in the first place. “Get up. It’s time.”

***

The guards were leading him to where he was to be crucified, a place called Golgotha. Joha had said nothing. Many thoughts were racing through his head, mostly the same ones that he had already been through a thousand times. He felt apprehension and sadness, of course, but he couldn’t ignore the thoughts he kept having about Jesus. He had never even met the man, but he couldn’t stop thinking about him.

What was it about Jesus that kept plaguing his mind? Was he truly the son of God?

As they were walking, the guards were talking to each other, making light conversation as anyone might do with their coworkers. “Another one to be crucified,” one of the guards remarked. “He’s the third we’ve had this week. What do you know?”

“It just shows you what a corrupt world we live in,” the other guard replied. “But at least this one isn’t as bad as the one we brought in yesterday.”

“Most certainly not. Jesus of Nazareth—claiming to be the son of God! What a ridiculous statement. I’ll be glad to see that lunatic crucified.”

At this mention, Joha became alert. “What did you say?” he asked frantically. “What about Jesus?”
The guards both eyed him strangely. It was very uncommon for prisoners to converse such with their guards. But perhaps they felt that the dying man deserved to be granted one last request; whatever the reason, they let him speak.

“You want to hear about Jesus?” the guard asked him. “We arrested him yesterday and brought him to be crucified!”

“But not before He was flogged and whipped,” the other guard added.

Joha was shocked. “What?” he asked. “Why? What did he do wrong?”

One of the guards looked at Joha as if he didn’t know anything. “You don’t know much about the man, do you? He was claiming to be the Son of God!”

“Well, yes, I know that!” Joha continued. “But he was healing people, and doing miracles, and forgiving sins! Those aren’t worthy of death, are they?”

“Look,” the guard said tersely. “I don’t really know, and I don’t really care. It’s your own people who want Him dead—I guess He wasn’t quite the king they were hoping for. I couldn’t care less about the man—I just do what I’m told, and they told me to arrest him.” The guard paused, then added, “Besides, I don’t think you’re in much of a position to be questioning what’s worthy of death and what isn’t.”

Joha ignored the insult to himself and continued inquiring. “But what if He really is the son of God?”
The guards were getting irritated now. They stopped walking and turned back to face Joha. “Why are you sticking up for this man? He can’t help you now, and He is receiving a punishment much worse than yours. If I were you I’d shut your mouth, unless you want them to charge you with blasphemy too!”

“But—”

“Stop!” one of the guards commanded. He gestured for Joha to come forward just a little bit more. Then, when they were in the desired location, the guard said, “We’re here.” He pointed to Joha’s right. Joha looked where he was pointing and saw it. Huge, menacing, a symbol of utmost terror and pain. A tree that had been cut, shaped, and formed into an implement of the worst possible torture. It was the cross.
“Carry it to the hill,” the guard instructed coldly.

***

Carrying Crosses
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

Joha’s journey to the hill was brutal and torturous. A few times he felt like he wouldn’t be able to make it, but he forced himself to press on and complete the journey successfully. He grimaced at the irony that he was making such a journey that would only aid his captors in his death. But, just as before, there was nothing else he could do.

 

They pierced each of his hands with a metal spike, and put one through both of his feet. Joha cried out as excruciating pain surged through his entire being. He was now fastened tightly to the cross. He continued to moan and scream as they raised the cross, with his body still on it, until it stood upright and was securely fastened to the ground. The process, for the most part, was complete. What disturbed him most was the knowledge that he was likely to be left here, writhing in torment, for several hours or even days, when every part of his mind and body was screaming for the pain to be over right now. He knew, however, that at this point he would be dead sooner or later.

Despite the terrible, indescribable pain, he looked around him. There was an incredible commotion coming from the ground to his left. He saw that there were two other crosses in addition to his. All three of them stood in a row, and strangely enough, the man in the middle next to him was still being tortured and taunted by the spectators on the ground. Joha wondered why they would be doing this. Wasn’t the shame and torment of the cross enough punishment for whatever the other man had done? And, if anyone, why weren’t they doing these things to himself? Surely this man’s crimes, whoever he was and whatever he had done, were not worse than Joha’s!

“Save yourself, King of the Jews!” mocking voices cried out from below.

“If you can, then come down from that cross!”

“Some savior,” one remarked, followed by a cruel, scornful laugh.

Savior?, thought Joha. He had been told by the guards that Jesus was being crucified as well. Was this man Jesus, the one about whom he had been thinking and wondering so much, hanging on the cross right next to him?

From this left, past Jesus’ cross, another taunt was heard. To Joha’s surprise and outrage, even the other criminal on the third cross was mocking Jesus! “If you’re really the Christ, then prove it by saving yourself—and why not us too, while you’re at it!”

Despite how much he was hurting, Joha knew that Jesus was innocent, and felt the need to protest this mockery. As much as he was physically able, he turned his head toward the other criminal. Straining his voice and ignoring the pain, he called back, “Do you not fear God even in your death? We both deserve to die for our sins, but this man has done nothing wrong!”

Then it came to him. He had just realized the answer he had been subconsciously seeking all along. The reason that he never had fulfillment in his past life was because he had walked away from God and had been living in sin. The reason that the LORD had never seemed close to him was that he himself had moved away by ignoring the LORD’s commands and following his own path, which had led him to this death. All this time, he had needed to repent of his sins and get back to God. And this Jesus—He hadn’t done anything wrong. He had healed people, and performed miracles, and fulfilled all the ancient prophecies—surely he was the true son of God, just as he had claimed!

“Jesus”, said Joha, finally seeing the truth. Slowly, t

Thief on the Cross
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

he son of God turned his head towards Joha. His whole body was nearly unrecognizable; he had been beaten and tortured so much that he almost didn’t look human anymore. His beard had been violently ripped out and a cruelly wrought crown of thorns dug itself mockingly into His forehead, causing streams of blood to spill out onto His face. It was a face filled with ineffable sorrow that seemed to transcend even the physical pain of the cross, but even so, the hope, love, and forgiveness it radiated were unmistakable. “Jesus”, Joha repeated. “Do not forget me when you return to your Kingdom.”

Jesus smiled, inwardly rejoicing despite all the shame. Struggling against the agony to speak, He responded, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Joha managed to smile. It was true! Even though he had done so much evil, and would never have a chance to make up for it with good works, he was forgiven. Jesus had given him joy and hope, even as he was going to his death.

The rest of Joha’s life is indescribable. He endured much pain as he hung on the cross, pierced and bruised, for hours. He felt his heart almost sink again when he watched Jesus give up his spirit and die—put to death by the ones he had come to save. Joha saw and felt much grief, but he still held on to the renewed hope that Jesus had given him.

After several hours, a few Roman guards came by to make sure everything with the crucifixion was running smoothly.

“Look,” said one of them. “Jesus is dead.”

“Are you sure?” the other one asked, surprised and disappointed. “They usually last much longer than that.”

“Let’s find out,” said the first guard. Maliciously enjoying his work, he thrust his spear violently into Jesus’ side. The man on the cross made no reaction, no further outcry of pain. Instead, a mixture of what looked like water and blood gushed out from the gaping wound as the soldiers looked on, somewhat dejected. “Yes, he’s dead.”

The other guard shrugged. “Might as well just finish off the other two now.” He walked over to Joha’s cross. Taking a sharp, hard weapon, the guard smashed it forcefully against Joha’s legs a few times. Even more pain piled on top of what Joha was already feeling. He let out a shout of anguish. After several blows, Joha’s legs were broken.

Joha knew what this did. As long as his legs were still intact, he could still push up on his chest, and would still be able to breathe. But now that they were broken, breathing would be much more difficult. The guards did this when they wanted someone to die more quickly. Joha struggled to breathe, but couldn’t hold out very long, and he soon drew his last breath.

Suddenly, all the pain was gone. He felt no more hurt, and was no longer hanging from the cross. Instead of total darkness, he saw intense, unfathomable light. And in the midst of it all, he saw Jesus.

“Welcome, Joha,” Jesus spoke lovingly. “I had been seeking you out for quite a while, and I am glad that you finally decided to trust in me and be forgiven of your sins. We were just rejoicing over your repentance.” All the shame had been wiped away from his face. It now bore only a pure, holy love. “Welcome to heaven.”

Heaven
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” -Romans 5:8

Short story: “While We Were Yet Sinners,” part 2

This is the second part of a short story that I first wrote several years ago. Part 1 can be found here.

The next day, Joha returned to the marketplace once again. This time he had no intention of stealing anything; it would be foolish to do so again so soon, since the trader from yesterday would still be suspicious and watchful for thieves. This time, Joha came simply to spend some of his well-earned fortune from the day before. He browsed around the various stalls set up, searching for nice things to buy.

Look at that, he said to himself. A large, plump pig for twenty-six denarii—that could be enough to cover each meal for a day or two. He turned his head in another direction and saw a trader of linen and fine clothes. A very fancy robe, richly adorned and beautifully woven, for thirty-three denarii. Both of them were very fine items. But as Joha looked around at all the activities around him, he noticed something that caught his eye even more.

A man was paying for his trade with a cup. Not just any cup, it would appear, but a fine golden chalice, laced with silver and studded with jewels on the outside. What a nice and valuable cup—surely it was worth much more than Joha had right now, even more than what the trader was selling it for.

Joha wanted it.

Golden Chalice
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

 

He quickly forgot all of his logic about how foolish it would be to steal at a time like this. From a distance, Joha carefully watched the trader, an elderly and somewhat frail man, handling the fortune he had just received. The man polished it, seemed to admire it visually, and then tucked it away inside his cloak so he could resume business. Perfect—he was no longer keeping an eye on it. This would be an excellent opportunity for Joha.

Carefully, the thief snuck up behind the trader, preparing to make his move. Fortunately for him, another customer had come already, turning the trader’s attention away from the recently acquired chalice. Joha waited patiently. He watched and waited constantly, searching for the right moment. And then, moving on instinct, his stealing reflexes kicking in, his arm shot out and he grabbed the cup. Then, also almost automatically, his legs started running, carrying him far, far away.”Stop!” Joha heard. “Thief! He stole my cup! Somebody stop him!”

Joha paid these distressed cries no attention. He never did. All he did was to continue running, making his escape as quickly as possible—

“Aha!” came a cry from in front of him. Joha suddenly stopped moving, noticing that his path was obstructed by a large, muscular, familiar-looking man. It was the same livestock trader whom he had stolen from yesterday.

“You!” the trader shouted, grabbing Joha on the arm and holding him with a firm grip. “You’re the same thief who stole from me yesterday, aren’t you?” A mixture of victory and vengeance covered the trader’s face to produce a satisfied grin. He raised his voice and called out to all the citizens around, “Somebody summon the Roman guards!”

Then he turned back to Joha. Joha noticed that the other trader, the one whom the cup had belonged to, had now come up behind him as well. He felt fear well up inside him. He had always escaped before—would he be able to this time? If the Roman guards were being summoned, would he be jailed—or even executed?

His thoughts were interrupted by the livestock trader, still with a firm grip on his arm, speaking once again. “Now, as long as you’re not going anywhere, I’d like you to return that cup to the man standing behind you.” His words were gentle, as a mere suggestion, but the tone of his voice and the strength of his arm left no doubt in Joha’s mind that it was a command. “And while you’re at it, why not hand over the money you swiped from me yesterday.”

Joha had a plan. It was a very rash plan, one that he had just thought of on the spur of the moment, but it was perhaps his only chance at escape. Slowly, he raised his arm, as if he were going to return the cup. The trader’s grip on his arm loosened. Then, acting quickly, Joha reared his arm and flung it forward, thrusting the golden cup into the trader’s head. The large man let out a cry of pain, and instinctively let go of Joha’s arm. The thief took off running once again.

His initial feeling was relief. His plan had worked. He hadn’t been sure if it would work—he didn’t know how heavy or hard the cup actually was—but apparently it was enough to hurt. Joha looked behind him as he ran. Just as he expected, the livestock trader was once again pursuing him, with the other trader following close behind.

They were getting closer. Joha looked behind him and saw that they were probably only a few cubits away. Normally he was a good runner. He had to be, since he always needed to make quick escapes. But from what had already happened, his legs were getting tired, and he was losing strength. Within a few moments he was forced to slow down, and his pursuers caught up to him. The large man came up in front of him, and the older man to his side.

“Now I’ve got you!” said the large man. “You’re tired now—don’t try to escape! And don’t think you can pull that same trick again!”

Joha wasn’t listening, and he didn’t say anything back. He desperately needed to escape, and quickly. Even though the trick had already been used, he once again raised the cup to strike with it—but this time, he struck the older man, who happened to be closer to him. The old man let out a gasp of pain and fell to the ground. Joha once again tried to run away—

“Stop!” shouted a loud, commanding voice from not far away. Joha looked up. Two tall, muscular, stern-faced men stood in front of him, wearing armor and brandishing weapons. Hadn’t someone called for the Roman guards? Obviously, they had come. Joha didn’t know what he would do.

“What is the trouble here?” one of the guards inquired. The large man pointed to Joha and angrily spoke up. “This vile thief has stolen from our marketplace two days in a row now! And just a moment ago, he slew this innocent man!”

“Slew?” Joha repeated incredulously. “What? No, he can’t be dead!”

“He was old and weak,” the large man commented, bending down toward the other man’s limp body. “His heart beats no longer.”

Joha felt a chill rise up inside of him. What had he done? He had only wanted to get rich and get away. He never meant to kill anyone. Despite the ethical codes that he had justified his way around bending or breaking, he knew that murder was most certainly wrong. Wasn’t that a Commandment as well?

Roman soldiers
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

One of the guards looked at him, studied him over, and scowled with contempt. “A dirty little Hebrew, causing trouble in the city. Why am I not surprised?” This vile man shall be brought before the judge, and punished for his crimes!” the other guard shouted, coming closer to Joha. He gestured to the golden cup and asked, “Is this what he stole?”

The large trader confirmed it.

Before he knew it, the golden cup was being torn from Joha’s hand by the strong grip of the Roman soldier. Crestfallen, not so much for the loss of the cup as for the fact that he had been caught, Joha saw the chalice being handed back to the livestock trader. Then the Roman soldiers quite forcefully took hold of Joha. With his mind racing, his heart pounding, and his soul overwhelmed with a sinking feeling, Joha was brought away.

Only a few hours later, Joha stood in a large courtroom, in front of a judge. The Roman guards on either side of the room still eyed him menacingly.

“Joha the Hebrew,” the judge addressed him scornfully. “You have committed theft and murder. Is this true?”

Joha knew that there was no point in trying to escape any more. There had been several people to witness the scene, and any possible routes of exit from the courtroom were blocked by the hostile guards. He was no longer trying to deceive himself, either about escaping or about right and wrong. He knew that his crimes had been wrong and, though he still felt fear gnawing away inside him, he was trying his best to be brave and face the consequences boldly. Feeling irrepressible guilt and shame rise up in his soul, he spoke three simple words. “It is true.”

“Then, Joha, you will be punished,” the judge announced. “Such crimes are certainly worthy of death. Based on the many things you have probably stolen over time, as well as requests from the murdered man’s family and the witnesses of the act, the court has ruled that no punishment less than crucifixion will be acceptable.”

Crucifixion? This was terrible! That was the very worst possible way one could die! Though he knew he deserved to be punished, he had fervently hoped that his sentence might be a light one, at least lighter than this. Only in his darkest imaginings and fears had he envisioned himself being crucified for his crimes. He had heard all the horrible stories about criminals who had been sentenced to such a death, and how they were often allowed to hang on the cross for hours in agony until the last trickle of life faded quietly out of their bodies. The thought of such a thing happening to him made Joha unbearably fearful and nauseous. But what was he to do about it? He had already established that there was no possible escape. And somehow, even though crucifixion was such a terrible experience, he felt that he deserved to die for what he had done. No, he would not try to escape. He would have to endure it, with whatever modicum of dignity and nobility might still be left within him, however terrible it might be.

The judge made one final comment. “The crucifixion is to be held tomorrow, during the Passover feast. Guards, I trust you to keep Joha in prison until then.”

To be concluded…

Short story: “While We Were Yet Sinners,” part 1

Hello, readers! This week I’m filling in for another contributor who is ill and not able to post right now. As such, I’ve dug up an old story from my younger years that I’d like to share with you this time around. It looks like I first published this story on my old Fictionpress account way back in 2009, and I haven’t really done much with it in a long time, but it’s nice to revisit artifacts from the past every now and again and see how one’s writing has changed and grown over time. In any case, this story is called “While We Were Yet Sinners,” and I think it’s fitting to post around Easter week, for those who observe the holiday. I’ll post the story in three installments throughout this week. I hope you enjoy it.

He was running away, ignoring whoever sought him and making every effort to avoid being found.

In fact, it seemed that he was having to do that a lot these days. Every time Joha stole something, the original owner and any other people who happened to be there at the time came running after him to try to bring him to justice. And that was exactly what was happening now; he had just been at the marketplace and helped himself to a handful of gold coins from the livestock trader. It probably wasn’t all that much—Joha hadn’t had time yet to sit down and count it—but it was something, hopefully enough to support him for another week or two.

Roman forum
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

He looked behind him and saw the livestock trader, a large and burly man, close on his trail, his rage fueling his body and giving way to furious shouts. Joha was inclined to snicker to himself; the trader probably thought that he actually had a chance of catching the thief. But Joha knew that he was the best at what he did; he had never been caught, and as far as he was concerned, he never would be.

Still running past the various obstacles that stood in his way, Joha ignored the oncoming opposition and looked ahead. The sight he saw brought him gladness: a large crowd. It wouldn’t be hard to lose his pursuers inside it. Neither his physique nor his face were particularly out of the ordinary, and he was fairly sure that none of them had gotten a good look at him, so once he was among everyone else, they would be hard-pressed to recognize him. He tucked the small bag of coins inside his cloak, and then, running on the last leg of his journey toward safety, he ducked into the crowd of people standing around and seeking to trade their items. As soon as he was among them, he stopped running—running would make it obvious that he had something to hide. Joha smiled slightly to himself. He should be safe now.

Carefully, making sure to be inconspicuous, he peeked above the heads of those gathered and looked in the direction he had just come from. He saw the livestock trader, still standing there, but confused, not sure of where the thief had gone, and no longer able to chase him. In a moment, the trader ran off in another direction—whether to continue the search or to give up and go back to his post, Joha didn’t know.

But he didn’t care. Joha had not been found. He had won.

Now that the immediate threat was gone, Joha slowly and cautiously made his way out of the crowd, trying to blend in and act natural. Acting natural wasn’t too difficult for him, because stealing had become natural for Joha. He carefully pushed past people, throwing out various pleasantries and requests for pardons to make himself seem like a normal, respectable citizen. Once he was out, he continued at a steady pace back to his home on the other side of the city. He mentally congratulated himself at another job well done.

At that point, while he was still walking, Joha had a strange thought, one that rarely occurred to him, and thus was all the more puzzling. For the first time in quite a while, he considered what he had just done. A part of him almost seemed to say that it was not right to steal—but no, that was irrelevant to him. He had done it many, many times now; that was how he had come to be so good at it. There was nothing wrong with stealing. Granted, it put whoever he stole from in an unhappy position, but Joha never thought about them—he needed to steal in order to live, and so it must be all right.

And yet, he still couldn’t shake the feeling. Why did he have this moral sense all of a sudden? He hadn’t followed anything of that sort since—he thought back—since he had been a mere youth. Joha was a Hebrew both by birth and upbringing, and his mother and father had always taken him to the temple on the Sabbath, to worship and sacrifice to the LORD. His mind flashed to the Ten Commandments. They had been recorded in the Scriptures, in the book of the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt, and had often been recited and referred to by the priests. Though he couldn’t remember all of the Ten Commandments, he was fairly sure that one of them specifically forbade stealing.

But it didn’t matter now, he told himself. He hadn’t been to a temple on the Sabbath for years, since he was a child. He wasn’t even sure anymore if he even believed in the LORD. Growing up, Joha had read and studied the Scriptures under his parents’ instruction. He remembered being a young boy, full of childlike faith, whose heart would swell with hope and excitement whenever he read the prophecies about the restoration of the nation of Israel and, even better, about the coming Messiah. As he grew older, a part of Joha still hoped for these things, but he had begun to realize what a cruel and bleak place the world really was. His people were looked down upon by most everyone else, and he himself had failed in every attempt to make an honest profession, which was why he eventually resorted to stealing. His parents had shunned him for such evil things and for no longer practicing the faith on his own, but he maintained that stealing was a necessity and that the LORD had all but abandoned them. He had had a hard life, and he hadn’t seen any of the blessings that the Scriptures had promised to his people. If the LORD really was so good and so powerful, then where had He been all this time?

Since he had taken up the life of a thief, Joha had almost completely ignored all thoughts of the LORD and memories of his religious upbringing. Yet today, for some reason, the thoughts and feelings had come to him out of nowhere, as if someone out there wanted him to remember and had the power to reach out to his soul. Joha still was not certain that the LORD existed, but after pondering the subject briefly, Joha determined that if He did exist, then He must no longer care for Joha. The LORD hadn’t done any good for Joha in his life, and now that Joha had become a thief, the LORD must care for him even less because of all the evil things he had done. Yes, this had to be true.

Joha sighed to himself. What had caused him to think of this all of a sudden? Even after reaching this conclusion, Joha couldn’t quite bring himself to shake the thoughts. Things had been so simple in those days; his mother and father had always taken him to worship. They had diligently followed all the ceremonious instructions of the Law (in fact, if he remembered correctly, the Passover celebration was to be held just a few days from now, though it certainly didn’t matter to him anymore). He had basically believed that he was a good person, one of the LORD’s chosen people, and would be going to heaven when he died. But now he hardly knew what to believe.

Things had become especially complicated in recent months, with the appearance of this Jesus person. Joha hadn’t seen him in person, but he had heard of the man’s teachings and doings—who in Rome hadn’t heard of him? The things he had heard about Jesus were very strange, and half of it was probably gossip and lies. After all, nobody had the power to walk on water or to heal sick people simply by touching them, and nobody thinking logically would believe those things for even a minute. But was it true that the man had the audacity to claim himself as the very son of God? Did he really have the boldness to criticize the religious leaders, and the authority to preach salvation and forgiveness of sin?

Forgiveness of sin…

Roman coins
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

Joha looked up. His feet had carried him to his home. Upon realizing this, all thoughts of religious conundrums dropped from his mind, as he made his way inside to count up his new fortune.
Pulling the small bag out from his coat, he spilled the contents out onto his table. Several small metallic shapes, each imprinted with Caesar’s likeness, fell out of the bag and were counted accordingly. When Joha had finished counting, the total came to seventy-three denarii. Seventy-three! It was certainly more than he had expected, more than he usually got. He smiled and mentally congratulated himself on making another week’s wages.

To be continued…

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

So, something that I run into with fair regularity are people who will claim multiple beliefs or philosophies. Some are obviously compatible (such as Christian Republicans) while others are much more questionable (such as Christian Hindus). So, today I want you to think about this issue: how can two different systems of religious belief, philosophical understanding, and/or political thought be combined? What limitations are there? How do you determine when two systems are simply incompatible? For instance, could a person be a Christian Democrat? An Islamic Buddhist? A Christian Confucianist? A Utilitarian Hindu? An Epicurean Muslim? Etc…

The possibilities for combination are virtually endless. However, rather than simply examining two or three particular combinations and determining whether those specific thought systems are compatible, I want you to go deeper and focus on why two systems would or wouldn’t be compatible.

As always, present your answer in the form of a story of 1000 words, and have fun!

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

So, I’m teaching a class right now in the philosophy of religion (something that I don’t get to do all that often since I’m more of an ethics guy, but I do very much enjoy it). In the first week of this class an interesting question has come up: what is the difference between spirituality and religion? We talk about these sometimes as though they were interchangeable and sometimes as though they were entirely different. Specifically, one of the important questions in this area is this: how are spirituality and religion connected? For instance, is it possible to have a completely unreligious spirituality? Or a completely unspiritual religion?

There are, of course, many perspectives on this, and normally I would go into some detail explaining the major perspectives to you. However, my computer is about to die and I’m not actually near the plug, so I will spare you for today. I do want you to consider this question though: what do we mean when we use the word ‘spiritual’ and what do we mean when we use the word ‘religious’? How can the two concepts be distinguished and how are they connected?

As always, I want you to write a story of 1000 words that presents and defends you answer to this question.

Writing for Children (and how to do an at least halfway-decent job at it)

Today I’m talking about the writing project I’ve been working on most recently. I’ve been busy—traveling to visit family and attending to some projects with tight deadlines—so, sadly, I still haven’t made any headway on either of the stories I mentioned in my last post. What I’ve been doing lately is of a fairly different nature. Last week I wrote a series of short skits (that I will also direct and act in) for my church’s upcoming Vacation Bible School.

I know. It’s hardly lofty or literary writing. It’s not a deeply involved sci-fi story, and it’s not even written in the same medium as a novel. (I’d like to talk more about the differences between drama and prose, but that may be a post for another day.) I’ll be honest: as you might have guessed from my descriptions, these skits are geared toward children, and they’re designed specifically for teaching moral and spiritual lessons, in a way that some might understandably consider didactic. I wanted to write a post on this project, because it’s my most current creative writing experience. But I admit I had some trouble with the question of “how can simple skits like these relate to the writing of more ‘serious’ fiction?”

Of course, C.S. Lewis is also well-known for his own series of children's books that are still well-loved by many adults.
Of course, C.S. Lewis is also well-known for his own series of children’s books that are still well-loved by many adults.

But, according to a long-standing principle of writing fiction, a book written only for children is a bad book. A good children’s book (or skit, etc.) will be enjoyable to children but also appeal to adults, because the author hasn’t watered down the quality just because it’s for kids. If I recall correctly, C.S. Lewis espoused this belief on children’s writing (or one like it) in An Experiment in Criticism, and our own Mr. Mastgrave reminded me of it when I asked him if he had any ideas for my post. So now I’m trying to see whether or not my skits can be counted as “good” children’s fiction by appealing to people of all ages.

As I’ve already admitted, these skits I’ve written are not literary or extremely profound. Yes, they are mostly episodic in nature, and yes, they do each feature a “Brady Bunch” sort of ending in which characters verbally recognize a moral, apologize to each other, and resolve their conflicts nicely and neatly by the end. That’s kind of dictated by the nature of doing only a ten-or-fifteen-minute skit for instructional purposes. In fact, I might say that the quick, clean-cut moral resolutions are more due to the time constraints than to the age of the audience. In any case, due to the nature of the beast, these skits inherently have some qualities that definitely seem non-literary and would be seen as bad writing if they appeared in serious fiction.

Nonetheless, that’s not all they have. When I write skits like these, I do make an effort to write for adults as well, because 1) I know that the leaders helping with VBS will also be watching them, and 2) I’m an adult and I like to feel clever to myself with my writing. So, in accordance with the above principle about good and bad children’s writing, here are some qualities in my skits that I hope will appeal to both children and adults:

  • Humor. When you’re writing for children, you’ve got to make it fun. But shouldn’t writing for adults be enjoyable too? I try to fill each skit with jokes that, while still not incredibly clever or original, can be appreciated by both children and adults (as long as the adults like corny puns, which I happen to personally). In fact, sometimes the humor is more for adults than for kids, because the youngest class of children (four-year-olds) doesn’t understand the wordplay. Nonetheless, I still include one goofy, comic relief character who often tells puns. But the humor doesn’t exist in isolation; more serious characters react to the puns but still show off their own eccentricities as well. For example:

Megan: As camp guides, you and I will be responsible for watching over the activities and making sure all of our campers have the most awesome time they can!

Jared: Wow! That sounds pretty intense! [Smiles and points as if he’s just made a hilarious joke.]

Megan: [Confused.] Yes, um…very intense…

Jared: Get it? Intense? Like, “in tents”? [Slaps knee and laughs loudly and obnoxiously.]

Megan and Sam: [Groan and facepalm.]


Megan: A movie, huh? That does sound kind of interesting. What’s it about?
Jared: It’s about a park, not so different from this one, except it’s full of huge, tall giraffes. And then the giraffes escape and go wild and try to eat everyone in the park!

Megan: Oh, that’s silly. Giraffes don’t eat people. They just eat plants!

Jared: Well, in this movie, the giraffes are ferocious hunters with huge fangs, and it’s awesome!

Megan: That still sounds silly. What’s the name of this movie, anyway?

Jared: It’s called…Giraffe-ic Park!

Megan: [Sarcastic.] Oh, wow. What an original idea.

Jared: The first movie has a boy giraffe and a girl giraffe falling in love. And there’s a really cute baby giraffe.

Megan: A BABY GIRAFFE? OH MY GOODNESS! I’VE GOT TO SEE THIS! [Rushes over and sits down with them.] I can’t wait to see that baby giraffe! I bet it’s gonna be sooooooo cute!


  • Morals. Again, the moral messages here can’t be too complex or obscured as they might be in more serious fiction, and that’s just the nature of this type of writing. Nonetheless, the moral principles conveyed apply not just to children but to people of all ages. Furthermore, I tried to bring them away from just a quaint platitude in a Bible verse into the realm of real-life application. For example, one skit is about the dangers of hurtful words. In addition to just quoting Bible sayings about words, I also want to show, in a realistic way through the characters, that hurtful words don’t solve anything, and that encouraging and affirming others is important. Do kids need to learn that? Sure. But so do a lot of adults these days.

Sam: So, you and Jared got into an argument, and you both said some mean things to each other. Is that right?

Megan: Yes…that’s right.

Sam: And his words were hurtful to you?

Megan: Yes! They hurt a lot!

Sam: And did saying mean things to him make you feel better?

Megan: Yes! Well, no. I mean, a little bit at first, maybe. But now I just feel awful about the whole thing!


Sam: Even though you can do a lot of bad things with your tongue and with your words, you can do a lot of good with them too!

Jared: Oh yeah? Like what?

Sam: Well, how about this? Megan, I think you’re a great part of our team! I like that you’re always hard-working and focused on the important things!

Megan: Oh…well, thanks for saying so.

Sam: Jared, I think you’re a lot of fun to be around! You bring a lot of good energy and enthusiasm to our team. Plus, I like your jokes!

Jared: Yay! Thanks, Safari Sam!

Sam: See how much better it feels when you use your words to say nice things instead of mean ones? When you encourage and strengthen each other instead of trying to hurt?


  • Creativity. What I love about writing these skits is that they allow me to be creative and have fun onstage, and this sort of fun (costumes, visual spectacle, etc.) appeals to children and to young-at-heart adults. Here’s a quick run-down of the most creative element I included this year.
  • When performing these skits, I work with high-school or middle-school-aged volunteers. Thus (if I write myself in at all), I usually make myself the older leader of some group, and have their characters be my underlings. For example, when we did a medieval theme a few years ago, I was the king, and the other actors were my knights and ladies. Last year, they were secret agents and I was the commander of their top-secret organization. This year’s theme is some blend of camping, mountain climbing, and an African safari, so I made myself the camp director and made them guides or counselors under me.
  • If including a talking lion worked for C.S. Lewis, then it's got to work for me too. Right?
    If including a talking lion worked for C.S. Lewis, then it’s got to work for me too. Right?

    But, in my opinion, camp guides aren’t quite as exciting as knights or secret agents. So I asked myself, “what can I do to make this more exciting and fun?” And the theme-appropriate answer was to make one of the other actors into not a camp guide, but a lion. Yes, a friendly, cartoonish, anthropomorphic pet lion, with a limited vocabulary about the size of Scooby-Doo’s, who the camp staff has taken under their wing. But a lion nonetheless. Because, adult or child, who wouldn’t rather see a lion onstage than another boring old human?

  • Having a lion as a main character is another source of comic relief to the skits, but also a chance to do a lot of visually fun things, like tackle other characters or chase them around the stage. And I think it adds a nice touch to the skits overall. I anticipate that the kids will love seeing the lion (the youngest ones will likely be ecstatic), and the adults will have fun with it as well.

So that’s what I’ve done to try to make my children’s writing slightly less childish and make it fun for adults as well. Did I do a good job or do I still need some work? Have you ever written for children? What approaches do you use to make it appealing for everyone?

Details: Religion

In the beginning….

The Chinese have a world born from a dragon. Christians, Jews, and Muslims have it created by an omniscient God. Christianity was once unified, but slowly fractured out into different sects of Catholicism. Then it became completely different denominations with different interpretations of the Bible, not simply religious focuses. Buddhism was created when the suffering under Hinduism became apparent to a man of noble birth. Shintoism, I believe the only massively recognized animistic religion in the modern days, continues to evolve and exist, though people from hundreds of years ago wouldn’t recognize it today.

Religions are alive. They are breathing, shifting, shattered things. Whether or not the Divine breathed into it to begin, it eventually makes it the hands of us mortals, and we are a corrupting, self-serving, greedy force. In the darkest of times, we can also be a compassionate, loving, and selfless people. All of these actions influence religion in our world. It should also influence religion in yours.

When you begin, look at your world and how it came to be. It could be anything. Come up with how each culture envisions the world was created, because surely they each have their own interpretation. You don’t even need to decide which one is right, as more than likely it’s academic. Keep it academic unless you are going to reveal the creators. This gives a sense of faith and it’s true to our own world experiences.

From these creation beliefs, and using the cultures of your societies, form the religion of the time. A group of nobles may try to kill their ancestral religion, becoming monotheistic or polytheistic to buck the old trend. A bunch of villages scattered and without an abundance of learning are likely more animistic, worshiping hundreds of individual spirits.

The chances of there being no religion is minimal. There will always be faith in something. There will always be something science can’t explain, whether simple anomalies or straight out miracles. Religion may not have been big in Star Wars, but it was there. Even Mass Effect had religion, Enkindlers bless the Hanar.

At this point you have a general sense of religion in your world. Check which are simple and which are complex. Simpler religions will have a more personal edge, less doctrine, and so there really aren’t splinters in how people worship, but there are different focuses and most (though they still have taboos) are good. The hunter prays to the great stag, while the weaver prays to hemp. Worship is respect, and because of how they live they respect different aspects of life.

The more complicated the religion, the more ability for interpretation, the more likely it is for spider-webbing and eventually a complete shattering. Christianity began under harsh persecution. The people did not have the luxury to have divisions. While there were some debates as to proper attitudes and behaviors, even what Christ meant, the body of followers remained one. It’s difficult not to when your people are being burned to light city streets or they’re being fed to lions as entertainment.

Onyx cross? Wait, no, just stylized. http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=1859&picture=cross&large=1
Onyx cross? Wait, no, just stylized. http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=1859&picture=cross&large=1

In the Byzantine Empire, everything changed. Constantine, when faced by an insurmountable horde, had a vision of a cross and was told to conquer in that image. When they were victorious, he found it was the sign of Christianity. So began Christianity’s acceptance.

In the coming years it gained favor, but there were disputes. Greek Orthodox broke off due to interpretations, such as if it’s right to use images. In the Middle Ages, the Holy Roman Empire maintained solidarity through ignorance, guilt, and fear. Unity was not out of fear from the outside, but fear from within. People were discouraged from reading, especially the Bible, and scripture and liturgy was always said in a language the peasants couldn’t understand, so they could not question.

Until Luther. Appalled by the way a merciful God was turned into a tyrant, he fought the church, and from him the protestant movement spread like wild fire. Lutherans, Calvinists, Puritans, and many more branched out almost immediately. The Bible was one of the first mass produced pieces of literature through the Gutenberg printing press.

Today Christianity is a cluster of faiths, heretics, heresies, cults, and depending on which group you belong to depends upon which groups fall into which categories. This is just one religion in the world, each one being just as complicated and multifaceted. Each one filled with tenants we cannot possibly understand, some we do not want to understand, and others we will cling to as if the world would end if the sin was committed. Each one completely altering history and culture.

Give your religion these details. Make it so there is confusion and debate. Scripture is rarely airtight, especially after a thousand years and most people can’t even read the original texts, let alone understand the nuances. Wars are fought over religion, either because of different religions or interpretations within the same one. Families are ripped asunder, people are exiled, politicians are condemned and lose all ranking. Gods shift in and out of importance. The Hindu pantheon changed regularly as far as who was powerful and well known and who was obscure.

So go create your own religions. I generally keep this in the same book as my history, and usually enjoy making them alongside each other, as religion should be influencing history, and history influencing religion.

How do you go about religion in your writing? Do you prefer mono- or polytheism? Either way, happy writing, writers!

Writing Religion

noaa_globe-oceansWell, Neal’s busy this weekend, so I’m afraid that you’re all going to have to contend with a couple of extra posts from me.  On Tuesday Paul wrote an excellent post about how he’s using Religion in his own world, G’desh, that inspired a fair amount of conversation. One of the questions raised in this conversation was whether we should be using religion in speculative fiction at all. There were two major concerns raised 1) the risk of creating offense to those whose religious beliefs might be similar to a religion that seems to be negatively represented, and 2) the fact that so much fantasy religion seems to be too close to Christianity. So, I want to give any newer writers sharing these concerns a few guidelines on how to write religion effectively in speculative fiction. However, first I do have to say that I find the second concern somewhat surprising. The vast majority of fantasy that I’ve read, from Steven Erikson and George R.R. Martin to Ursula Leguin, Glenn Cook, David Eddings, and to a degree even J.R.R. Tolkien draw much more heavily on polytheistic religions (Greek, Norse, Celtic, Egyptian mythology) than on Christianity. While there are clear Christian ideas present in Tolkien’s writing, and C.S. Lewis is quite obviously attempting to write a Christian allegory, I can’t say that I’ve seen an overwhelming Christian influence in the high or dark fantasy Genres. So, if someone could provide some examples of this influence, I would be most appreciative. Now, a few guidelines when writing religion in speculative fiction:

-1) Religion exists: I know that some people try to take religion out of the world entirely, but this doesn’t generally work well. The reason for this is that it is human nature to believe in something. While the question of whether God exists can, and has been, argued ad infinitum, the simple fact that the Great Spaghetti Monster has worshippers should prove that, even if God doesn’t exist, we as a race want him to. At a fundamental level humans need something to base their lives on, and religion is simply the most accessible foundation available. Whether any particular religion is true is relatively unimportant for this point. It is simply easier for most people to believe that God or some set of gods exist that brought everything about than to live in a state of constant skepticism or attempt to formulate a rational metaphysical belief that is not founded on something… else. This is even true in the speech of modern Atheist scholars. Even though these scholars do not believe in any deity, and some even believe that they can prove that no such deity is reasonably possible, they talk about the universe as though it were a deific, intelligent, willful entity. So, in my humble opinion, an attempt to simply excise religion entirely isn’t realistic. It would be kind of like trying to write a world without math or without people.

658px-Belief_Venn_diagram.svg2) Write what you believe: I firmly believe that every story is and should be a teaching tool. So, be aware of what your fiction is teaching. I’m not saying that you sacrifice story for the sake of lesson, but your world should reflect your beliefs about the real world. When I read your story, it should teach me something about the world as a whole. So, when you are creating religions for your world, do it in a way that you can actually agree with. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be a theologian and get every detail exactly right, but if you believe in a naturalistic world filled with elemental spirits and creatures, why would you write a world in which a monotheistic God sent a savior to redeem the sins of man? In opposition, if you believe in a God who sent a savior to redeem the sins of men, why would you write a world with no concept of monotheism or redemption? Consider the work of Steven Erikson here: Erikson’s Malazan world is very humanistic. The gods were once men, and to some degree still are. Similarly, men can become gods, and men can kill gods. While Erikson’s religions are many and complex, as is religion in the real world, he makes it clear that man must save himself. In Erikson’s world a man is responsible for his own life, he cannot simply rely on some god to come and make everything better. One of the reasons that my own world of Avnul emphasizes the concept that the gods are above men, beyond them in every way and not reliant on them is that I disagree with the common humanistic arguments in modern fantasy and want to provide a counter to them.

Religions_4x53) Write something that reflects reality: How many religions can you name? Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Wicca, Shintoism, Ba’hai, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness, Paganism, Norse Religion (yes, people actually still worship Odin and Thor), The Great Spaghetti Monster (yes, he has a few actual worshippers now), Tenrikyo… Honestly, I’ve barely scratched the surface! In the history of the world there have been hundreds of religions (at least), and if you break down all of the different cults, sects, etc, there have been thousands. They range from sensible to insane, from historically realistic to having no basis in evidence at all, from ancient to only a few years old, from believable to utterly and completely unbelievable. If you’ve written a world where there are only two or three religions then you’re missing the mark. You may decide to write a world where there is one true religion and hundreds of false religions. You may decide to write a world where all religions are false, or write a world where all religions are true (see above), but write something that actually reflects the way the world is.

map_4414) Write something that is fundamentally yours: Perhaps, like myself, you are a Christian. If you are going to write an allegory 1) make it obvious and 2) make it accurate. I believe I’ve mentioned before that I have serious problems with the concept of redemption presented in Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. The Christian religion is, in part, about the redemption of wicked men. However, in Lewis’ fiction all the wicked men die horribly and go to Tosh. If you are not trying to write an allegory, then make the religions in your world your own. Tolkien is an excellent example of this, as is Erikson. Both men write worlds that have clear elements of their own beliefs. If you read Tolkien (especially the Silmarillion) concepts of monotheism, angelic beings, creation, the fall, and redemption of the wicked are all very clear. However, Christianity does not exist in Tolkien’s world, nor does any direct cognate for Christianity. Similarly, as I mentioned above, Erikson’s world is distinctly humanist, but there are still real gods with real power.

When we write the ultimate goal, as Aristotle said, should be to both educate and entertain. Pay attention to what you’re teaching people and write a world that reflects the real world and allows you to say something real about that world, but that is also thoroughly your own creation. It’s a careful balance, but when struck well it’s what makes stories great.

G’desh: Using Religion

First, when it comes to fantasy, religion is going to exist. Many writers create actual gods which walk among men and say “This is right, this is wrong, I do exist, and these are the curses and blessings you may expect.” If there isn’t that, there will be ancestral worship, animism, or a number of other simple religions at the least. You can even make it complex with a number of rituals, gods, and other facets.

Religion should be reflected by something which exists. These provide the best foundation, and from there it’s pretty easy to manipulate to the needs of the story. There are some obvious differences, though. Sometimes in fantasy the gods can actually exist. It’s possible in science fiction to reveal those gods as not real. Perhaps they were even killed. There are a lot of variations you can use. Just make sure it matters to your story. This could be a main plot line, a foil or parallel, or setting for what is to come.

If religion will add nothing to your story, mention it briefly from time to time, but then move on. Song of Ice and Fire had set up the the religion of R’hllor as early as the tournament when they talk about Thoros running out into the tournament with his flaming sword. We can’t even tell that this was a sign of the religion until season three. I’m only on the second book.

Why wouldn’t Martin tell us about R’hllor in the first book? It didn’t matter. Until we see Melisandre and Stanis, the religion would only detract. He simply left us enough hints so we could see that it existed already on the peripheral. The same as the Drowned God. Until we reach the second book, he really doesn’t matter. So even if you have a religion, unless it means something, hint at it lightly and otherwise ignore it. Just like R’hllor.

Old school book images.
Old school book images.

In my own story I called upon Judaism and Islam, with a point of origin and a point of extremism. The point of origin is a peaceful religion that believes in true tolerance. From there, one faith believed in the purification of blood. Only man could live (there are other races), and the soul and body must be put through fire. If one does not believe, fire will consume their doubts.

From this, another religion is created. When the Purifiers start taking land through war, some of those who were peaceful take to violence, creating the Followers. They believe they are right and pure, but in time motives are corrupted. Mimicking the Crusades, they become blood thirsty, while alienating the peaceful origin of the religion.

Religion is used to show the nature of man overall and to show the corruption of ambition. It’s also used to move along the story in ways I do not want to tell you quite yet. So use religion in your own to further the story, to show generalizations, and to give information overall. Next week I’ll talk magic.

How have you used religion and what have you come up with for your own stories?

 

Story Challenge of the Week

modern-prophetWell, it’s Monday again, and that means it’s time for another Story Challenge! Oh, I should let you know that I have more miniatures (from the Godslayer line put out by Megalith Games) that I’m going to be putting up at some point in the next couple of months. Anyway, let’s get straight into the exercise today. You’ve done this kind of story challenge before, but it is fairly complicated. I’m going to give you a series of criteria including genre, theme, some character archtypes, etc. Your job is to write a story that includes all of the features required in the challenge. If you intend to post it here, please keep it short. However, the complexity of this challenge often requires a longer story.

Theme: Religious Persecution

Genre: Modern Fiction, Urban Fantasy, Science Fiction

Setting: A very large city (think New York City, Mexico City, Paris, or Beijing)

Character Archetypes:

1) A ‘mad’ ascetic prophet

2) A super-intelligent turtle

3) A quantum physicist

4) Harry, the hard-ware store owner

Items:

1) An ancient religious text

2) A ‘staff of power’

3) A finger bone… possibly from a long dead religious figure… possibly not