Tuesday Teaser: Knowledgeable Volunteers

God calls for volunteers; He doesn’t have a Selective Service System to draft, or force, us into His service. . . . But God doesn’t want us to rashly or hastily answer that call for volunteers. He wants us to be fully informed about what we’re doing and what we’re getting ourselves into. Rather, He tells us to “count the cost” before we volunteer. (From COMBAT! Spiritual Lessons from Military History” by Dennis L. Peterson. Available at http://ow.ly/ZXQ350xX9mx.)

The Open Window

Don’t let the title deceive or mislead you. Although there is a short story titled “The Open Window” by Saki, this post has nothing to do with that story or its author. But it does have to do with an open window.

Someone (I conducted a brief online search to discover who, but I found no definitive answer) once said, “When God closes a door, He opens a window.”

The current (and ongoing for only God knows how much longer) public health crisis has closed not just one but many doors for a lot of people, and I haven’t been immune to that plight. For just a few examples,

  • I speak monthly in the chapel program of a local private Christian school. Now all schools are closed, quite conceivably through the rest of the school year.
  • I’m in the midst of conducting research on a major writing project. Now all the libraries, including the special archives I most need to use, are closed. With stay-at-home recommendations, I’m even reluctant to visit local cemeteries, where I might conduct at least a little of my research.
  • I serve as a docent for the museum of a local historical society. Now the museum is closed indefinitely.

These are just three of the several doors that unavoidably have been closed for me. But, without my doing anything to cut a hole in the wall and install a window, one suddenly appeared via an e-mail. I examined it and, thinking that I saw through it a great opportunity, opened it and stuck my head out for a look to see if it did, indeed, hold promise. Literally within minutes of my doing so, I had my answer, an invitation to take on an important assignment!

I will be working on the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation’s Coolidge Digitization Project, editing and preparing for the public viewing some of that great president’s speeches. Calvin Coolidge has long been one of my favorite presidents for several reasons, not least of which is his conservative, common-sense approach to government and economics. My being quite the introvert makes me appreciate his reticence, too.

Perhaps you’ve heard the anecdote about two women who attended a function at the Coolidge White House during which one lady, upon entering, told the president that she had bet her companion that she could coax the famous “Silent Cal” into saying more than two words that evening. He smiled and then ignored her completely throughout the evening. As she was departing the room, Coolidge shook her hand, smiled warmly, and said, “You lose!”

I also like the embroidered saying that Coolidge allegedly kept over his mantlepiece:

A wise old owl sat on an oak;

The more he saw, the less he spoke;

The less he spoke, the more he heard;

Why can’t we be like that old bird?

I once wrote an article about “Silent Cal” for The Elks Magazine. I also wrote an article for Scouting magazine about the tragic loss of one of his sons while the Coolidges were living in the White House (see https://scoutingmagazine.org/issues/0010/d-wwas.html). So Coolidge has a special place in my mind and heart.

The chairman of the board of the Coolidge Presidential Foundation is author and historian Amity Shlaes. I first became enamored of her writing when I read her book The Forgotten Man. That whetted my appetite, and I was thrilled when she published the biography Coolidge.

And now I have the privilege and honor of working with the Coolidge Foundation to make his speeches accessible to readers almost a hundred years after he spoke the words as president. Several doors closed, but God opened this window. Who knows what I’ll see or discover while sticking my neck out that window? Maybe I’ll even get an opportunity to meet Amity Schlaes!

So what doors has the current situation closed to you? Have you found your open window yet?

Tuesday Teaser: In the Combat Zone

In the Christian life, there are times of heavy combat and times of light combat but never times of no combat! We are always in a dangerous combat zone as believers. . . . With enemy attacks coming on all these fronts, whether sequentially or simultaneously, we must always be on our guard.

(From COMBAT! Spiritual Lessons from Military History by Dennis L. Peterson. Available at http://ow.ly/ZXQ350x9mx.)

Context Is the Key

Some (dare I say most?) history textbooks present “the big picture,” painting a broad impression of what took place in a particular era’s, region’s, or country’s history. Others look at a much smaller picture, focusing on what happened in a specific year, month, or day, or in a specific city or other small (relatively speaking) location. Another way of putting it is that some historians look at historical events through the lens of a telescope, whereas others look through the lens of a microscope.

Regardless of which view one chooses (and each has its unique values), however, the key is always context. Nothing happens in isolation. Everything is affected or influenced by something outside itself. Even people. As John Donne famously wrote, “No man is an island,” etc.

This is true not only in the presentation of history (nonfiction) but also in fictional accounts. Grace Fleming wrote,

Historical context is an important part of life and literature, and without it, memories, stories, and characters have less meaning. Historical context deals with the details that surround an occurrence. In more technical terms, historical context refers to the social, religious, economic, and political conditions that existed during a certain time and place. Basically, it’s all the details of the time and place in which a situation occurs, and those details are what enable us to interpret and analyze works or events of the past, or even the future, rather than merely judge them by contemporary standards.

A danger arises whenever one tries to examine or present a historical event or period in isolation, without regard to its larger context. One cannot examine the history of a single family without including the effect that larger historical events beyond the family’s immediate situation had upon that family and its individual members.

For example, one cannot adequately, accurately, and completely explain one person’s or one family’s twentieth-century history without also revealing how the context of the Great Depression, either of the World Wars, or the assassination of key political figures, or myriad other events affected or influenced them.

Or, to use the example of a town’s history, one cannot simply state that the railroad came through the town in a particular year and in another later year failed and disappeared without also considering to some degree the rise of railroads, the problems they encountered, the corruption involved in their

development, and the consequent regulations imposed on them by the federal government. Similarly, one cannot simply state that the population of a place suddenly declined without giving the broader context of the general economic conditions in the nation as a whole and how they influenced shifts in population.

The same principle is true in the writing of historical fiction, as author M.K. Tod explained:

How can authors bring the past to life without exploring modes of travel, the circumstances of daily life, or the religious beliefs of the time? How can readers learn about a particular time period without seeing the characters of the novel confronting the conflicts and challenges of that era? How can a character’s emotions be relevant for today without appreciating the values and customs or the restrictions of yesterday?

Setting considers all of these and so much more. Without an authentic living and breathing setting, a work of historical fiction fails.

Failing to consider context is a serious error that can lead to erroneous conclusions. Just as dangerous is to pick and choose which aspects of the larger context one will feature. Perhaps the greatest example of this error in American history is the tendency to attempt explanations of the War Between the States as having been solely the consequence of slavery. A careful study of the antebellum period, especially the years immediately prior to secession by the Southern states, reveals that slavery was one of many issues–economic, political, cultural, social, and more. This is not to minimize the role that slavery played in the breakup of the Union. All of those issue contributed in some way to what happened. Picking and choosing which ones to include or exclude simply reveals the historian’s bias and lack of objectivity and attempts to impose on the past a modern standard or understanding that did not exist at that time.

This principle of context is no less true when one is talking about the Bible. It’s easy for one to pick and choose selected verses or passages that support one’s particular view on an issue, but if one ignores the overall context of each of the verses or passages, he’s apt to reach an erroneous, even heretical, conclusion.

For example, one might string together the following verses in an attempt to prove a point: “. . . and [Judas] went out and hanged himself” (Matt. 27:5); “Go, and do thou likewise” (Luke 10:37); and “Then Jesus said, That thou doest, do quickly” (John 13:27). But, ignoring the context of each of those verses, one would reach an incorrect, even deadly, conclusion!

Again quoting Fleming,

Without historical context, we are only seeing a piece of the scene and not fully understanding the influence of the time and place in which a situation occurred.

What do you think? How does context influence the way you write? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.


Tuesday Teaser: Faithfulness in the Least

We must contend for the truth in the small things. If we don’t contend for small things, we’ll never contend for big things. . . . Faithfulness in that which is least shows qualification for being in charge of that which is great (Matthew 25:21, 23).

[From Combat! Spiritual Lessons from Military History by Dennis L. Peterson, available on Amazon at http://ow.ly/ZXQ350xX9mx]

Change and Continuity Revisited

As a former history teacher and author of history curricula, I’m often reminded of a theme that permeates all study of history: change and continuity.

No nation, business, or individual can be static and still thrive. Each must change in significant ways–grow and improve–or die. Yet, some things must and do remain the same: fundamental foundations and principles. For example, over the years, technology has changed dramatically, and people no longer use manual typewriters. They first shifted to electric typewriters, then to word processors, and finally to computers. Even now, they continue with what seems to be ever-increasing frequency to change software programs. Yet, everyone continues to type on the same QWERTY keyboard.

The theme of change and continuity has been evident as well in the steps of my own career path. I have always been involved in some way with education. For nineteen years, I was a classroom teacher of history, writing, and–in pinches–other subjects.

But then my career path led me into writing articles about education or the various subjects I had taught. My published writing opened the door to technical editing for seven years, at the historic Oak Ridge, Tennessee, nuclear weapons plant where the supersecret Manhattan Project built the first atomic bomb. During those years, I also taught writing classes in a thriving homeschool cooperative while continuing to write about education and history. The end of the Cold War closed one leg of my career and ushered in the next–independent editing and writing, much of it for educational organizations and about historical subjects. All of those life experiences combined to open the door to what I did for the next eleven years–writing history curricula for a major textbook publisher. And when that was over and I entered the retirement era, I again shifted gears and focused totally on freelance writing, which I’ve been doing ever since.

My journey along the career path of life has been exciting and full. Full of change and continuity. Although I’m now nearing the end of my career, it isn’t over yet; change and continuity proceed apace. Some things change; yet, other things remain the same. I’ll still be writing materials that will (I pray) educate, inform, edify, entertain, and (I hope) delight readers. These are things that I can do while testing the waters of retirement one toe, one foot,  and one leg at a time. And I’m sure that along the way I’ll continue to see the theme of change and continuity at work in both my life and the world around me.

In what ways are you seeing change and continuity displayed in your own life and world?

Tuesday Teaser: Confidence

We are in a war. . . . We have access to the best training by the best instructor–the Holy Spirit. We are equipped with all the best and right weapons for the conflict–God’s Word, which includes everything we need for godliness. We have the best commander and the best plan for our assigned operations–Jesus Christ, and His plan is infallible. And we can be confident that the victory is already ours. . . . [From Combat! Spiritual Lessons from Military History by Dennis L. Peterson, available from Amazon at http://ow.ly/ZXQ350xX9mx]

Static: Incorrect Punctuation

In the previous post about static, we discussed the importance of logical organization to producing clear, static-free writing. Today we delve into a subject that might revive for you long-forgotten nightmares from the by-gone days of junior high English class: the perils of punctuation. As frightening as it might be, we must each grapple with it and win if we truly want our writing to be static free.

Perhaps you’ve read this example of poor comma usage. A little boy who, attending a concert with his grandparents, has been condemned to silence during the performance. Getting hungry, he tries to slip a note to his grandmother, but his grandfather intercepts it and, instead of passing it over to his wife, he reads it: “Isn’t it about time to eat Grandma?”

Horrified, the grandfather abruptly jerks the startled youngster from his seat by his arm and sails him to the nearest exit. In the lobby, he lectures him in no uncertain terms. “In this family, we do not practice cannibalism!”

Had the youngster inserted a comma at just the right place in his query, he might have been enjoying lasagna at Louie’s Lunch Counter instead of listening to a lecture while licking his wounds. There’s a world of difference between “Isn’t it about time to eat Grandma?” and “Isn’t it about time to eat, Grandma?”

A similar scenario is seen in the title of Lynne Truss’s best-selling little work Eats, Shoots and Leaves, which prominently features a pistol-wielding panda. And that brings up the whole controversy over the Oxford comma, but we won’t get into that. I’ll just say that I’m solidly for it because it prevents a lot of misunderstandings and “static.”

Other punctuation problems that increase static in one’s writing include missing or misused quotation marks (does the terminal punctuation go inside or outside them?); colons and semicolons, which no one ever seems to understand; and apostrophes, which are always complicated when you try to combine them with plurals, plural possessives, and surnames that end in -es.

Then we have those confusing dashes and hyphens. And what is the difference between an em dash and an en dash?

Because blog posts are expected to be merely a few hundred words rather than tens of thousands of them, there’s no room here to address all those conundra (is that really the plural form of conundrum?). Let me just say that if you struggle knowing when to use (or not use) a comma, a colon, a semicolon, a hyphen, an em dash, or an en dash, you need to consider investing in a refresher course in punctuation. It could only help your writing. Short of that, I’d recommend a few good resources to help you with these and other punctuation problems, puzzles, and predicaments.

For starters, you can’t do better than these:

  • Chicago Manual of Style,
  • Merriam-Webster’s Manual for Writers and Editors, and
  • The Elements of Style (Strunk and White).

Two resources meant specifically for those writing for Christian publications, I recommend

  • The Little Style Guide to Great Christian Writing and Publishing (Leonard G. Goss and Carolyn S. Goss) and
  • A Christian Writer’s Manual of Style (Bob Hudson and Shelley Townsend).