Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Steinbeck Experiment

Happy Boxing Day, everyone!

Yesterday, one of the Christmas gifts my wife opened (and in a few cases, treasure-hunted for) from me was a pack of sketchbooks, one of which was designated for me: on the insides of an unfolding paper box placed under the tree, I explained that I'm going to be keeping a writing journal this year, addressed to Karen.  She's welcome to read from it as she likes during the year, but next Christmas I will present it to her as a (hopefully) completed gift, showing each day how I have practiced this thing that's supposed to be my craft.  She can read intensively, skim, laugh or roll her eyes as she likes -- and while she can ask how my work is going from day to day, the journal frees her from any obligation to do so in much detail, even as it provides me with day-to-day accountability for Getting Work Done.

But Matt, wherever did you get this idea of such surpassing brilliance?  From John Steinbeck, of course.  As he was writing East of Eden in 1951, he kept an epistolary journal of sorts, addressed to a friend and editor.  When one reads it today, it comes across as a proto-blog, as Steinbeck tracks his progress, wrestles with problems of pacing, plotting, and procrastination, waxes on (and on) about his obsessions with finding exactly the right pencil, and occasionally reflects on what's happening in his family life and the world around him.

In my case, the journal idea remains the same, but it's addressed to Karen.  She's not always my primary audience, but as I explained in the first post in this blog, her influence makes me a better writer, not just a better person and a stronger follower of Jesus.

It'll be interesting to see how this gift develops.  I'll try to report in on that occasionally here -- without letting such posts, or the journaling itself, become procrastination.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Of Book Proposals and Invitations

Over the past few weeks, I've been hoping, praying and working toward the goal of having at least one book contract underway in the new year.  Among the various motives -- e.g., knowing that I need external deadlines to keep myself motivated when working, and wanting to be invited to an authors' dinner or two at my next major conference -- let's focus for now on that of professional, vocational development: I want to produce a book to share my thoughts, yes, but also to demonstrate that I can hack it at a whole 'nother level above that of articles and essays.

To wit, I'd been working on a book proposal, on a topic that I'd rather not talk about here just yet.  One major publisher's guide for book proposals suggests the submission of two chapters of the prospective volume, one introductory, the other of more substance, from later in the book.  It was a wonderful surprise when I was able to hammer out a more-or-less-finished form of the introduction in something less than four hours; my usual writing rate is a good bit slower than that.  So now I need to think about which of the later chapters to try next -- once I clear out some current and overdue projects between now and the beginning of 2013.

The big news is that this cleaning-house stage isn't just for that book proposal, but because I may very well be revising my dissertation for publication very soon.  Last Friday, a senior colleague whom I met and evidently impressed at a conference last spring invited me to submit my dissertation for publication in the series he edits, Emory Studies in Early Christianity.  No contracts signed yet, but I have his and his co-editor's blessing to say that I have been so invited and that things "look promising"; over Christmas break, they'll be looking over the diss. as it stood when revised and bound in May of last year, and they'll let me know what revisions they expect early in the new year.  

So hooray!  It's encouraging when someone takes this strong an interest in my work.  In a variation on a habit we've seen modeled by friends, Karen and I keep a collection of glass beads on one of our bookshelves, beads that we label with reminders of recent gifts of God's grace for which to be thankful.  Suffice it to say that the Emory invitation warrants its own newly labelled bead.  Provided that the publication goes forward, I'm sure there'll be times next year when I am less than thankful for the work entailed -- but this is something that I want and need and am called to do.  More than that: it's an answer to prayer, albeit one that will require much more prayer down the road...!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Monday, November 5, 2012

Celebrating the Unfolding Mystery

The Scaffold ( is full.  In fact, the whole TrueCity office that houses our collaborative book room is full -- full of happy people.  About fifty souls have ventured out to James Street North, found their way to our front door (no easy task!) and followed the trail of bread crumbs and homemade signs to the office.  Some of them have known each other for years, through seminaries (most frequently, McMaster Divinity College), churches, camps, TrueCity itself, and various other ministries.  Some meet for the first time tonight, only to find they already have several such communities in common.

There's delicious Venezuelan food.  Here's James Wallace, busily taking photos (hopefully coming soon!).  There are people asking me about how we got this whole thing -- the Scaffold itself, as well as tonight's event -- started.  The hubbub and even some of the people have spilled out into the hallway.  And here and there, through the crowd, you can find glimpses of the reason we've gathered.  Dr. Michael Knowles is signing copies of his book, hugging longtime friends, leading toasts, and every now and then, just grinning, quietly and happily overwhelmed, both by the journey involved in finally getting The Unfolding Mystery of the Divine Name: The God of Sinai in Our Midst published, as well as by the sheer number of folks who wanted to come, to celebrate, to bless him -- not least because of how much God has already used him to bless them.

I invite everyone to find seats; there are almost enough.  I explain a little about what the Scaffold is supposed to be, and I tell a quick story, a few jokes and a few details about our speaker.  We welcome him and he tells us about this book's journey.  He reads a page or two from the book.  We ask questions; he tells us what he's learned during the writing of it, and how pivotal it is that we understand and imitate (as best we can!) the character and characteristics of our gracious, compassionate God.  He points to the effects that this theology of encounter has had not just in his own life but in those of his students.  There are nods and perhaps a quiet "amen" or two.

We stack some of the chairs to give ourselves more room to spread out and talk, and the evening begins to wind down.  We've sold about 30 copies of Michael's book.  (He's still grinning.)  We've been blessed and we've been a blessing.  

Finally, the few of us left stack up a few more chairs, clean up, carry books and leftover food back to cars, and close up shop.  It's been a good night.  So we keep the homemade signs.  Hopefully we'll have the chance to use them again soon, to encourage Michael and other local authors who want to get their books into the hands of ministry leaders and friends who can use them.  That's what this place is all about.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Marathon Continues

Karen and I referred to the past month as the Apoc-tober-lypse, on account of how busy it was: Thanksgiving, several major church and family events, helping one couple to move and another to get married, plus the usual barrage of church and life stuff, and setting up The Scaffold in anticipation of the coming book launch event.

And then there were the conferences and conference preparations.  The Canadian Evangelical Theological Association and McMaster Divinity College hosted the "New Voices in Canadian Evangelical Theology" conference on Oct 20; I presented a paper on reading Paul's images of presence and calling in Romans over against the Roman Empire's propagation of Caesar's image and its practice of evocatio (inviting an enemy's patron god to abandon his city in favor of better worship, bigger temples, etc. in Rome).  The paper was well received, my friend Sylvia Keesmaat gave a wonderful response to it, and the themes of both the paper and the response resonated very nicely with the plenary talk given by Brian Walsh, an extended re-wording of the entire book of Romans along the theme of homecoming (vs. the home-wrecking, or "domicidal," ways of empire).  And a senior scholar, in thanking me for my involvement in the conference, tells me that he's going to be citing my dissertation in a forthcoming book.  ...The other conference, still on the horizon, is the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, where I'm presenting two papers.  One I was preparing for the advance deadline of the 31st, when suddenly the other session announced that they had a deadline, too -- retroactively!  So the last two weeks have meant a lot of writing, note-checking, and so on.  Not that I didn't deal with deadlines like these in school, but those projects weren't usually for such public presentation, critique, and publication.

Now that both papers have been turned in, it's time to catch up on a lot of things that had to be shelved until after the deadlines.  And to remind myself that if I want to call myself a writer, then this is not a time to rest, at least not for very long: there are other things that tell me they need to be written, and soon.  The past ten-days-plus were something of a sprint, but the marathon is far from over.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Go for Launch

One of the coolest things about the planning and founding of The Scaffold has been what we might call a convergence of hopes and visions: at several stages along the way, as soon as I've voiced a new idea, I find out others in Hamilton were/are planning (or hoping for) something beautifully similar.
  • I suggested something along the lines of a bookstore or shared book room; it turned out two friends had envisioned similar initiatives but either hadn't gotten a response or hadn't had time or space to implement their ideas.
  • The Scaffold began to take shape and found a temporary home; and I learned that a church in Hamilton was exploring the idea of a Christian library and coffeehouse downtown.  Will that plan coincide with The Scaffold's need for a new home at the end of 2013?  Too soon to tell, but it's cool that God is drawing things like this in close parallel.
  • Perhaps coolest of all: I wondered whether my doctoral supervisor and friend, Dr. Michael Knowles, was planning on having a book launch for his long-anticipated new book; when I asked, he got really excited, as he's been hoping to have a launch/party to celebrate, but wasn't sure where or how to plan it.  Hmmmm.
Enter The Scaffold -- because while it's primarily a space to plan and work on kingdom-building projects, it can also be a place to share thoughts together, and to celebrate the release of books full of really important thoughts.  And no sooner had we begun to plan for this event than four or five more potential launches or author chats began to pop up and fall into place.  Suddenly, this could be a regular thing, encouraging, celebrating, and learning from local authors who have something important to say that Christian leaders in Hamilton need to hear.  That doesn't mean there are no challenges involved.  There are logistics to work out in each case, and finances, too.  And of course there's the tension of asking folks to come to a space designed for sharing books in order to buy their own copies of a new book.  But I think the chance to do that encouraging-celebrating-learning-from thing makes it worthwhile to work within that tension.  It's an exciting new part of this experiment.

Oh, and speaking of, if you haven't already been invited: come to The Scaffold, 500 James North, Suite 200, Hamilton, on Sunday, November 4, at 7:30.  Michael will talk a little about his book, we'll toast its publication, you can ask questions, get yourself some refreshments, and buy yourself a shiny new autographed copy of The Unfolding Mystery of the Divine Name: The God of Sinai in Our Midst, a wonderfully deep meditation on the attributes of God as outlined in Exodus 34 and other texts in the same tradition.  Come hang out and build something with us.

Monday, September 24, 2012


Most of my writing is nonfiction, but I've experimented at odd intervals with fiction, too.  The latest interval has actually met with a little success and might well turn into something really cool, not to mention remunerative.  But before we get to that, let's review:

Late in high school, I read the Worst Star Trek Pulp Novel Ever and decided I could write something better.  I succeeded, barely: I produced a novella about a human who becomes accidentally entangled in an interstellar organized crime network.  It wasn't completely original, and it was often cheesy, but it was better than that pulp novel, and helped me to realize that I could write this kind of stuff, when I put my mind to it.  A seminar in my senior year also helped me to look critically at my own work and to try out other forms of fiction.

In my second year of undergrad, I took an advanced fiction-writing course from a professor who asked that we learn by imitating techniques modeled by famous novelists.  The exercises could have been excruciating if he hadn't also given us some freedom to continue to seek our own writing voices in the process.  The results, for me, were some interesting short stories, little thought-experiments, some of them derivative -- there's one that reveals, in retrospect, how many of Piers Anthony's fantasy novels I'd read up to that point -- but again, each was a chance to break new ground.

During my twenties and early thirties, I kept coming back to short story-crafting, writing more originally, but still struggling to find the writing voice I'd been looking for since high school, with mixed results.  (It should come as no surprise that this period overlapped with some particularly difficult stages of development in my doctoral dissertation.  Writer's block can be contagious that way.)  I showed a story or two to friends; I entered a public library's all-night story-writing contest; but I was still looking for that One Really Good Idea.  Maybe that's especially important for those who write and hope to publish science fiction -- there's so much, and so many good ideas (and more than a few bad ones!) already out there, that the finding of one's voice is inextricably bound to the discovery of a distinctive feature that nobody else (to one's knowledge) has yet developed.

That brings us to the recent past.  In trying to "write what I know," I had been kicking around ideas about an artificial intelligence (or "A.I.") as a narrator, ever since I had first encountered narrative transmission models in the field of literary criticism.  Without going into exhaustive detail, some critics have suggested that reading is a communication process that happens not just between author, text, and reader, but between imagined folks within the text itself: the "implied author" as s/he is represented in the text, the narrator who relates the story, the narratee to whom the story is told, and the "implied reader" for whom the text is intended (the model can get much more complicated, though we don't need to go into that here.  But I know a guy who wrote a dissertation about this stuff.)  For example, in the case of this blog, a real author with flesh-and-blood fingers is typing it, and a few (presumably) fleshy readers are reading it, but within the blog itself, one could posit that there's a Me as I present myself in here, and a You, an "ideal" reader, that will get and appreciate everything I have to say.

What I had begun to wonder about was the prospect of an AI as an implied author and/or narrator: how a computer would present itself and relate a story to an audience, who that audience would be, etc.  This led to a story about an archival computer from Earth, recounting the manner in which Earth was attacked and incorporated into a vast empire called the Magistracy.  Other stories followed, and ideas for more pop up all the time.  This unfolding universe is at least as much a philosophical thought-experiment as that of others whose work I've enjoyed; Ursula Le Guin, for example, draws on her father's work in anthropology when she writes sociologically rich stories about the worlds of the Ekumen, while Robert Sawyer has speculated that so much of "sci-fi" is philosophical in nature that it could be just as accurately called "phi-fi."  Well, welcome to "A.I.-fi."  Certainly fleshy creatures, humans included, are involved in this batch of stories, but the accounts themselves belong to machines who live among them, pilot their ships, etc.  Part of the fun of creating and writing these characters lies in imagining how differently they might see their world(s), and what they make of ours.  And of course a fair amount of my background in ancient-imperial ideology and biblical theology comes through, too.

The Magistracy stories completed so far received some very positive feedback from my sister, a (recovering) English Major now well-versed in the publishing world, and from one Karen Elliott Lowe as well.  Finally, with fear and trembling, it was time to submit a few for publication.  Last week, a small Canadian publisher wrote to congratulate me on the upcoming publication of one of my stories in their very short story collection (contest entries were limited to 750 words.  You try it.  It's fun and frustrating by turns) this coming December, with second-round contest results TBA.  And I'm still waiting to hear back from Asimov's, one of the premier SF magazines, about what they think of another, much longer story.  But hooray for external, blind-review validation, and here's hoping for more to come!

I'll keep you posted.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Constructing the Scaffold

Hamilton's TrueCity movement of churches ( will shortly be announcing the formation of The Scaffold, a book room intended to serve as a resource for pastors and ministry leaders.  

I think it's an exciting project, but I'm a bit biased; I'm managing it.

But Matt, you finished your Ph.D in something ending in "-ology."  Shouldn't you be teaching somewhere with pomp and circumstance and stuff?

Maybe.  I've tried to.  I'm still trying to.  I'd still like to.  But that avenue is very crowded right now, and there's a need here that involves stewarding my teaching and research skills a little differently.  The Scaffold, as friends and I have envisioned it over the past few months, will be a space where we can work on sermons, papers, and other projects,  A space for working individually or together.  With maybe some coffee.  And possibly some cookies.  I wouldn't be a very good Baptist if sharing food wasn't in the vision somewhere.  It's a place that I and others will be able to work productively and cooperatively, hopefully sharing books we don't need to keep at home -- and hopefully getting more and better work done, and maybe even learning from one another, in the process.  And this may well offer opportunities to teach, consult, etc. in related capacities, outside the academic settings to which I'm accustomed.

Some details, for those who are interested (specialists in redaction criticism will note that the language of these and other features of this post overlap with the TrueCity announcement.  I would posit that the author and the TrueCity site shared a common source.  Feel free to write a paper about this.)...
  • The Scaffold will be housed in the TrueCity office (2nd floor, 500 James St North, Hamilton).
  • It will be open Wednesday and Friday mornings (9 AM - 1 PM) to start with, beginning on Oct 10, 2012; more hours may be added later on.
  • Its library will be comprised primarily of books in missional, theological, and biblical stiudies, all on extended loan from those who participate in it -- so it will grow as more of us join in (probably from TrueCity churches, to begin with, though I'm a notable exception to that rule right now).
  • You can learn more about how to get involved on the Facebook page,; visit the online library profile and catalog at and; and contact me officially at
  • Oh, and the name: well, the space itself is probably temporary -- so this is just a simple platform, designed to facilitate building, maintenance, and other activities.  Granted, it's almost interchangeable with scaffolding, the material(s) one uses to build a scaffold; but the metaphor doesn't need to bear that much weight.  As I said, it may only be temporary.  But it's still worth doing.  So come check it out and get involved.  Your brain and your ministry will thank you.
So this is something of an experiment in what I've seen labelled (and have practiced myself) as "intellectual hospitality": space created for the welcoming and honing of reflections and those who share them.  It's something that I and others have prayed over a good deal, in this instance -- desiring to go where God's Spirit leads, without trying to guess too far ahead where the Spirit will lead next.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Writing about Writing

I've been reflecting lately on writing as a vocation and a discipline.  Certainly I was doing so before I read and responded to my sister Chandra's post, "Going Public," on her excellent blog, "several drafts & a loving Editor" (which you should go and read as soon as you're done reading this..., and more so since then.

Like Chandra, I call myself a writer, and again like her, I do not write enough.  If writing is (one of) my vocation(s), one of the things for which I am made and to which I am called, then in a sense I am neglecting that which I was created to do when I am not thus engaged.  If I do not consistently practice this as a discipline, it is difficult to say with any integrity that I pursue it as a vocation.

That doesn't make the writing easy.

Part of what I have been thinking about is that it seems to be easier to write about writing than it is to write otherwise.  Writers whose books I otherwise skim through turn suddenly engaging, insightful, and even funny when they write about writing.  Two examples:

Mark Buchanan (The Holy Wild [Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah, 2003], 9) recounts that God made him “a monk’s failed cousin, a writer. Both callings render you slightly odd, a man alone in a room, denying one part of his manhood in order to awaken another. Both force you to shape silence and darkness and waiting into prayer. Both teach you the agonies of silence and of speaking, and the way God’s voice can brim in each. Both require you to listen much, pray much, study much, plow much. One demands you drink much wine, the other much coffee. I’ll let you figure out which is which. Both are lonely vocations.”

Mitt Romney (No Apology: The Case for American Greatness [New York: St. Martin’s, 2010], 195), remembering the solid foundation in compositional skills he received in junior and senior high, desires for the U.S. a “national rededication to the practice of writing,” but adds parenthetically, "Those who read this book may quarrel with the success" of his school's writing program "in my case.  But at least I gained the confidence to give it a try."

The urgent need for a renewed focus on writing is one of the few points on which Romney and I agree; and of course that commitment to better writing needs to be personal, not just institutional.  Buchanan's description of the writing life as a lonely vocation is one part of what sparked this blog; others have applied the same descriptor to writing, as well as teaching, public service jobs, and other careers (so saith Google, in all its oracular wisdom).  It's a helpful reminder of the solitude, and with it the focus and dedication, one needs in order to call oneself a writer, in order to be a writer.  But for me, it isn't quite as lonely a vocation -- for at least three reasons.

First, whether in my nonfiction writing for academic journals, books, and conference presentations, or in my tiny-but-hopefully-growing record of published fiction, writing and the study that informs it are forms of worship.  As long as I am deliberate about it, then time and energy so spent are spent with and for my Creator, in his presence and for his glory.

Second, all my vocations -- or all the facets of my vocation, singular -- are intimately tied to my role as husband to my wife, Karen.  If I am a helpful resource for pastors and other Christian ministry leaders, it's because I learned (and continue to learn) much of how to do that by discovering what is most helpful to her.  If a point in my teaching or nonfiction writing is clearer and more accessible than it might otherwise be, it's often because I ran it past her first.  And if the artificial intelligences that frequently serve as narrators and principals in my short stories seem more credible, more human, easier to relate to, it's often because she's encountered them first and made suggestions that flesh out the stories and those who relate them.

And third, as this blog's description indicates, writing has company in my life; it's never complained about being lonely.  I am an editor, in freelance capacities for an academic publishing house (hopefully with more to follow) and for projects authored by friends, family, and colleagues.  I am a professor/teacher, both informally and in lecture halls whenever I get the chance.  And lately, I am becoming a manager of The Scaffold, a missional/theological book room affiliated with the TrueCity movement here in Hamilton.  On paper, as it were, that last facet will give me more time and space to write, once it gets going over the next few weeks.  But as with the worship aspect, that will happen only if I am very deliberate about it.  My prayer is that this blog will be, among other things, a means of holding myself publicly accountable to my overall goal -- to pursue my not-so-lonely vocation(s) passionately and wholeheartedly.