Describing Things (10 – 12)

These descriptions are a little longer. I got caught up talking about some of my favorite finds.

*

The first public school in the city was built in 1908. This one wasn’t the “endowed” school built several blocks to the east, a grand structure with a central portico and dome, where the children of wealthy white citizens attended. Nor was it “the Negro school,” constructed at the north end of the city, a big red brick box. The “public school” was somewhere in between those two extremes, both in location and style. It was three stories high and almost a perfect square, a solid and stolid building. The severe silhouette was softened by rows of arched windows, a decorative ridge along the top, and peaked dormers at regular intervals. The cream-and-burgundy color scheme, including inset brickwork delineating each level of the building, gave the massive block some architectural flair. The school was built to impress the poverty-stricken kids who attended here—both as a sense of pride, and as a reminder of what the city had bestowed upon them.

*

By the time I noticed the house, it had lost all personality. It was the same style as a thousand others built around the same time, a two-story white house with three unadorned windows lined up over an unremarkable front porch. A short, gnarled tree grew in the narrow lawn, stretching cantankerous limbs most of the length of the house. A tall pine stood nearby; almost as if in mockery of the other tree, this one had been sheered of all its branches and was now just a twenty-foot-tall stump.

The homeplace had not always been so bleak. Down the dirt driveway, past a weather-darkened shed, was a small pond and a grassy field that extended to a line of trees. It was easy to imagine a small vegetable garden behind the house, fenced off from the roaming chickens, and girl catching grasshoppers for her cat on a summer day. Like the old pine tree, though, this place had been stripped of its vibrancy. It now just awaited the inevitable end signaled by the large yellow FOR SALE sign posted in its front yard.

I took this picture in 2018. The house has now been torn down.

*

I’d seen the old house for years, every time I drove to the bank or the grocery store. It was a big house, two stories high and three rooms deep, with an extra wing on one side and outbuildings out back. A single slender chimney was set far back on the peaked tin roof; a fireplace in that position would have trouble heating such a large space, suggesting that the extensions were built once heating didn’t depend on fire.

The house was empty, but still appealing. Its siding was painted white, with light-blue trim around the windows and doors. Instead of a front door centered underneath the double-level porch, this one was set into the corner of the house, flanked by two lights and two empty flowerboxes. White ruffled curtains still hung in the glass panes.

When it was announced that the highway was expanding, I knew that the old house was doomed. I went to see it while it was still standing. I wondered if a farming family had lived here—now vanished along with any trace of farmland. Or perhaps it had been a boarding house with a motley collection of residents. I imagined a boarder coming home on a cold winter evening, shivering her way through the front door, and hurrying up stairs, down hallways, and past bedrooms to find the warmest part of the house.

As I walked along the porch, I noticed something scratched into the concrete. 9-25-53. Someone had loved the place enough to mark a date in stone. Even though I hardly knew the house, and knew nothing of the people who had lived here, I was glad I could tell it goodbye.

*

Previous posts: 1-3, 4-6, 7-9

Describing Things (7 – 9)

The more I practice this little exercise, the less intimidating it gets. I still don’t have the easy style that other writers do, but at least I’m enjoying myself now. Any building is more than just the arrangement of windows or the color of the siding; it was somehow part of someone’s life, and that’s what fascinates me about these old places.

Please note, by the way, that I have only the sketchiest knowledge of how to tell when a building or house was constructed, so I just use whatever estimate best suits my purpose. You can’t tell me no because you aren’t my mom. (But my mom has a very good sense of architecture and history and probably could tell me.)

Previous posts: 1-3 here, 4-6 here.

*

The little porch was just big enough for two rocking chairs and a well-mannered dog. Lacy woodwork and elaborate corner columns gave a tasteful flair to the otherwise common-sense framing. The railing, constructed of whimsical cutout designs on teardrop-shaped panels, lined up neatly and in good order. All this decorative woodwork had probably been mass-produced and shipped by train to finish a house built from a kit. But that wasn’t the sort of thing one talked about on this porch.

*

Brighton Avenue was a casual jumble of history. The houses that lined the street reflected every era, from an eighteenth-century daub-and-log cabin, to late nineteenth-century townhouses with more window than wall, to a little 1920s peaked-roof cottage. Twentieth-century power lines crisscrossed the sky, while the street below was full of compact twenty-first century cars hurrying through their busy lives.

*

The house was mostly windows and rooflines. There were tall narrow windows, large square windows, double windows, single windows, half windows, and corner windows. Two squat windows peeked out from under an upper dormer, and an extra one overlooked the front porch swing. These windows were compassed about by an enthusiastic variety of rooflines. A flat porch roof underscored crested dormers, and all was crowned by a spreading upper roof piled high with peaks and gables and overhangs. What was life, the architect seemed to say, if you didn’t make room for windows and roofs?

Describing Things (4 – 6)

More practice in the art of description, using photos from my walks around town.

#4. The old house was pink. It wasn’t flashy; if one had to paint century-old bricks pink, this was definitely the right shade. Otherwise, the house was rather plain, a rectangular box topped by a peaked roof with a chimney sticking out of the center. It didn’t even have a porch, merely an oversized brick doorstep ornamented by a single urn of mums. Squeezed in among newer homes and an ever-expanding city street, this old home had nothing going for it except its coat of paint. It should have receded into invisibility. Yet it still caught the eye.

**

The three houses marched up Campbell Street in a line. They were built in the traditional style of four windows across the upper story, and three windows plus the front door on the ground floor. A porch below echoed the peaked roof above, and a stubby chimney on either end kept the balance. Crowning the whole well-ordered assembly was a front gable with an arched-and-winged window in the center.

Despite their obvious shared pedigree, however, time had not treated them all equally. The first house was in good repair, with pale yellow siding, burgundy shutters, and a new metal roof. The second house was painted light blue, its shutters a darker dusky blue; it too had a metal roof. These two homes were connected by a small breezeway building between them, and had been converted into apartments sometime in the past.

But the third house was not so fortunate. No one had modernized its roof or repainted its walls. White paint peeled off its wooden siding and its shutters were missing. This third house had not prospered in the same way that her sisters had.

The first house actually has five windows across so doesn’t exactly match the other two; but as fiction goes, I smudged the details so they’d blend better.

**

#6. Just off the busy street was a small triangular courtyard where two buildings clustered close to a towering ivy-covered wall. A wrought-iron gate, flanked by stone topiaries, opened the way to a smooth flagstone pathway that curved through ornamental grasses to a tall, narrow doorway at the other end. There, a pocket of a porch lay hidden away from the anxious city.

Describing Things (1 – 3)

I love writing, and by that I mean, I love creating characters and crafting their interaction with one another. When it comes to description — setting a scene, or (to use that threadbare cliche) “painting a picture for the reader” — I loathe writing.

Describing a landscape, a building, or a even room is hard for me. I haven’t improved much from my thirteen-year-old self, who once described a house as “a cedar house with colums [sic] in front” and a room as having a wall and a chair. The words I need aren’t easily accessible for me. It’s… a house. It’s wood-colored. It’s got windows and a roof. Look, here’s an idea — how about if I just list the elements of the setting in brackets, like this: [a house, some trees, and and red front door]. Now readers can arrange it however they like!

As I’m working on a new story idea, I realized that I would be moving my character to a new location for each story. This meant I’d have to set some scenes and paint some word pictures. Since brackets aren’t an option, I could either labor through descriptions and hate every minute of it, or I could take some time to practice the art and get better at it.

The other day, as spring is settling in around here, I walked a couple of blocks in the old section of our city and took pictures of buildings that caught my eye. Back home, I practiced describing them. After all, if I found them interesting enough for a photo, surely I could communicate why in a paragraph.

I’ll be posting the photos and my descriptions here, because It’s turned out to be an entertaining little exercise, and I do think it’s helpful. Besides, this way I get to show pictures of some of the interesting old buildings around here.

Here are the first three.

**

124 Robinson Street been built as a stylish little duplex many years ago. Two bay windows faced the street, each flanked by a real wooden door. A small square window was set above each door. Everything was painted light yellow and framed with ornamental white trim, giving it an understated charm. Yet time had taken its toll. The brick steps were darkened with weather and grime from the street. Rusting metal awnings shaded the windows and doors; one awning was bent in the middle, and another missing completely. Ground-floor windows, originally allowing light into the basement level, were painted shut with sloppy white strokes. All these years later, the building was just too tired to keep up appearances anymore.

**

The hulking building had been built for dreary governmental business. About forty years ago, some enterprising developer renovated the interior into apartments. It was a smart use of existing space, although it never quite shed the feeling that one’s neighbors might stop by at any time with a question about the Hodson file. The exterior of the building remained unchanged; the only disruption of its utilitarian symmetry was a twelve-foot wall that jutted out from the side of the building in a warped semi-circle. Usually the gate was closed, but today it stood partially ajar. The opening gave a glimpse into a grassy courtyard, a startling oasis of nature within a desert of brick and concrete.

**

A row of three brick townhouses stood along the sidewalk. Matching sets of five concrete steps led up to three small square porches, each framed by brick and wooden posts. The single ground-floor window suggested a bay window without quite committing to it. Across the upper story, three windows across the flat façade mimicked eighteenth-century colonial manors. Each window featured a pair of shutters, painted dark green to contrast with the cream-colored window trim, and—to their credit—each with a real mechanism to shut them. The roof was steeply pitched, with a squat dormer window in the center. At the back of the last unit, a brick chimney rose above the sharp peak of the roof. It was hard to tell if it had been a real chimney, or was just added for effect. In all honesty, the townhouses looked a lot like modern buildings dressed up in historical costume.

More will follow as I work through my photos. I’ll probably never paint pictures for my readers; but maybe I can learn to dash off a quick sketch for them.

The True Spirit of Writing

About a year ago, after giving me the bad news that my novel needed a lot more work than I expected, my editor added, “I know you know this, but it’s just a reminder — you can write just for fun. It doesn’t always have to be a big and important idea.”

Well, I shelved the novel, and found myself with nothing to write, important or otherwise. Eventually I produced the mini-collection A Bowl of Pho just to prove to myself that I really could bring a project to fruition, but it wasn’t really enough. Then I stumbled on a book that turned everything around.

It purported to be a collection of recipes transmitted to the author by ghosts. The book was transparently fiction although it claimed to be real, and all the recipes sounded like they came from the Mt. Olive Baptist Church Women’s Bible Study cookbook from Centralville, Ohio, circa. 1963. It was a terrible book and I loved it.

I’ve always been a fan of ghost stories, which is connected to my longing to be able to see and know the past. According to this book, some ghosts stayed on earth because they were attached to something and couldn’t let go. Obviously all of these stories involved recipes of some kind, but it fired up my imagination. What if a ghost was attached to a baby who had her name? What if a ghost never realized that her shift at the diner was over? What about somebody who was sure she was so essential that she had to stick around and make all the right decisions?

From that seed of an idea, a new project flourished. Not only did I write ghost stories, but I was able to put together a collection of stand-alone stories with a unifying thread that tied them together into a larger story. I’ve wanted to write this kind of thing for years, and in 2021, I did it.

In tone, they’re much closer to Go Right and A Bowl of Pho than The Fellowship. Yet I do still touch on themes of women’s empowerment, racism, and faith — not because I feel I need to, but because my stories deal with humans (both alive and dead), and those are human issues.

I’m still deciding exactly what to do with my ghost stories, but rest assured that you’ll see them in some form sooner or later. I can’t wait to share them. Not because I think it will change the world, but because they were born from the sheer joy of writing.

Offensively Nerdy

You are the reason why people laugh at homeschoolers.

Someone recently informed me of this fact. And that wasn’t all! I was also informed that my family is an embarrassing stereotype, that we aren’t diverse enough, and that we are “cringe.” It was certainly an enlightening afternoon on the internet.

It started with a post about Teacher Appreciation Week. DJ and I were featured as part of a series on homeschooling parents. We answered a few questions (years we’ve homeschooled, favorite book, a piece of advice, favorite memory, etc.), and our answers were posted with a family photo.

It was the photo that did it.

In the picture, we’re all posing with books or plushies or other items that reflect our interests. It’s a bit goofy, but that’s part of the fun. At just a glance, you get an idea of the different personalities and interests that make up our family. You also get the idea that we’re a nerdy bunch of people. We are, and we embrace that fact. It’s a pretty good picture of us and we figured others would enjoy it too.

What we didn’t expect was that a few people on the internet would find it completely baffling. Despite the fact that the Q&A clearly identified us as the family pictured, a couple of women thought it was a stock photo of a “stereotypically nerdy 90s homeschooling family.” They were insulted that they, real homeschoolers, might be associated with this embarrassing fake family photo. They commented as much.

DJ and I quickly entered the thread to let them know they’d blundered. Not only was it a photo of a real family, but that family was reading the comments. We were gracious about it. After that, their only real recourse was to make awkward apologies and drop the subject.

Oh, hang on, my mistake. It seems there was one other option: double down on their opinions. All of them responded by expanding on the fact that our photo was embarrassing. They explained that we were the kind of stereotype that they had to push back against. People like us made life harder for people like them. We were the reason why people laughed them.

At the same time, they didn’t think that DJ and I had any reason to get upset about their opinions. After all, all of them said things like, “I’m sure these are lovely people, but…” and “I’m not judging the people, just the photo.”

One commenter even stood her ground on principle. She “refused to deny the reality” that we were an embarrassment to everyone else. I’m sure she thinks we’re lovely people, though.

It stung, I won’t lie. Yet like Elizabeth Bennet in my favorite novel (as identified in the Q&A that none of these commenters appeared to read), I saw the humor in it. Along with Lizzie, I could laugh at these people echoing Darcy’s dismissive, “She’s tolerable, I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me.” These people were comically obtuse. They continually insulted us… oops, I mean our photo… without understanding that they were making themselves, not us, look bad.

But it could have gone very wrong.

Firstly, I’m at peace with who I am, but I wasn’t always that way. For years I disliked myself, hating being “the dorky one” and wishing I was prettier or more interesting or—yes indeed—cool. Had this happened to me in those previous seasons, it would have devastated me. No matter what dream I tried to pursue, I’d have those nasty voices in my head telling me I was a nerdy stereotype, and that others resent me because I make people laugh at them.

Secondly, what if any of our kids had seen these comments? Sure, I could explain that these commenters appeared to have deep insecurities, and the problem was theirs, not ours. But how much of that would a teenager really take in, when they could actually see the unkind words being hurled at them? There’s no humor in that situation. We would be furious, and rightly so.

As it was, the situation resolved much better than it could have. Our friends weighed in, commenting on how much they appreciated our family. Complete strangers jumped to our defense. And other complete strangers ignored the drama, instead reading our Q&A and responding with their own favorite books or memories. Meanwhile, the admin of the post stayed busy all afternoon, hiding the astonishingly rude comments.

Gradually, things calmed down. The trolls, having gnawed on our egos enough to assuage their gaping hunger, disappeared. So did their comments, thanks to the admin.

Yet one woman hung on. She’d been one of the first to comment, saying that “she was sure we were lovely people, but…” that it was a silly photo. DJ cheerfully agreed, adding that he kept it in his office and he enjoyed it. You’d think this would have taken care of the matter, but no. Every time someone would post their dismay at the rude comments directed at us, this lady showed up to clarify that all she said was that the photo is silly, that it was an odd choice, that she questioned why it was chosen.

Even when I responded to her directly, she clung to the thread like a bug on a windshield. (She shouldn’t be upset by that comparison because I said she was like a bug, not that she was a bug. I’m sure she’s a lovely person.) When the admin pinned a general comment reminding everyone to interact with grace and kindness, this woman replied again.

So I addressed her: You have now stated that opinion four times. The choice of a photo doesn’t affect your life, but your continued insistence that it’s “odd” and should be removed does in fact affect mine. We like this family photo, and if you don’t, feel free to move on. Your opinion has been seen. Please stop now.

Surely, I thought, she’ll let go and let the wind take her away. See if you can guess her response:

  1. I am very sorry. I didn’t stop to think how it made you feel.
  2. I don’t know why it bothers you so much, but fine. I have other things to do.
  3. I WAS DEFENDING MYSELF AGAINST THE SCOLDING ABOVE

Yes, it was 3, ensuring that everyone understood the truth: that she obviously did think she’d put her foot in it, but was unable to admit who tracked in the bad smell. At this point, I had to laugh again. The admin brushed her off the windshield, and I could relax. By the next day, it was over—a little Facebook tiff over the fact that our family photo triggered a few people’s “bully the nerds” response.

One of the reasons why we chose to homeschool was because we knew some of our children wouldn’t conform to traditional expectations. We didn’t want them to be targets simply because of who they are. Well, what do you know—here were fellow homeschoolers coming for us because they didn’t like how we looked.

There are bullies in every community. Fortunately, many more people in our community were quick to run to our side when we needed it.

I’ll probably never encounter these trolls again, either online or in real life. That’s fine by me. But if by some chance it does happen, I know what I’ll do. I’ll straighten my shoulders, blast Taylor Swift singing Mean, and I’ll see all those lovely people…

…right out the door. Good riddance.

Handle Men With Care

On Facebook, I came across a question from a wife (I’ll call her Melissa) whose husband (Blake) makes demeaning jokes. You know, hilarious “clean” humor like this:

On the original post, a woman did point out how demeaning it was to women. A man responded, “Take a hike.”

Melissa explained that she’s asked Blake not to make these remarks. His reply is, “It’s just a joke. It’s not a big deal.” It embarrasses and frustrates her, and she wanted to know what she could do about it.

Lots of women had lots to say. Many pointed out that if it “wasn’t a big deal,” then he could stop since it obviously bothers his wife. But he won’t stop, meaning that there’s more behind it than lame attempts at humor.

One woman said that she and her husband set aside regular times to discuss their biases and figure out problems in their communication. They work on a puzzle together while doing this, keeping their hands busy and making it easier to talk.

Another woman said she asks the jokester to explain why, for example, #13 on that list is funny. (“It’s funny because the woman is lazy because it’s her job to wipe the dust off the T.V.” Ha ha.)

But one woman weighed in with some advice straight from the “godly marriage” teachings I got as a teenager and young wife. The details can change, but one basic principle remains: the worst thing a woman can do is make a man feel bad about himself.

I mean, sure, he’s the head of the family, has the final say in major decisions, and is — no exaggeration — responsible before God for his wife’s spiritual health. But at the same time, he’s as fragile as a glass ornament. A wife can destroy her husband by contradicting him, disagreeing with him, or communicating anything less than devotion to him.

Therefore, in this conflict, Melissa must approach it carefully. As follows:

Let’s discuss.

  1. When your husband continues to do something that you’ve told him you don’t like, the first step is to figure out where you are wrong. Your attitude probably isn’t 100% pure, which means you’re partly to blame. It’s always very important to establish the wife’s blame in the situation.
  2. Approach your husband and ask him to discuss your reflections when he is ready. This is about you and your issues now.
  3. Don’t expect a massive change immediately. Obviously you’re aiming for a complete overhaul of his attitudes and behavior… even though your stated goal is merely for him to understand why jokes that cut down women aren’t funny and it embarrasses you when he tells them.
  4. Continue to ponder and understand your own beliefs, even though your husband isn’t required to think through why he won’t stop telling demeaning jokes.
  5. You must gently and respectfully state your disapproval if he makes these jokes around you. If you’re snappish or sarcastic, go back to #4, do not pass Go, and do not collect $200.
  6. You can respect your own convictions, even though he doesn’t have to. Also, note that it’s “doing what what you believe is right.” Avoid implying that your husband’s behavior has larger social consequences and this isn’t about your hurt feelings.
  7. You don’t have to speak up every time. Don’t overdo it.
  8. Keep praying! God will keep growing you! Because the problem here is… you?

It’s not that this whole thing is bad advice, taken in parts. It’s good to think through your own reaction before approaching your spouse. It’s also impossible to change someone who doesn’t want to change, so all you really can do is draw your own boundaries and know your own mind. But that’s not really what this is saying. Instead, it shoves all of the emotional work onto Melissa and requires nothing of Blake. There’s not even the expectation that he should change his behavior out of regard for her.

In patriarchal thinking, a man is the strongest protection a woman can have; but she has to handle him with the utmost care or she’ll damage him. A woman who stands too firmly on her own personhood is a woman who can destroy her marriage, her man — and by extension, herself.

Better for her to focus on her own fault, turn the conflict into her own “issues,” and keep praying that he listens to God better than he listens to her.

Sure, it short-circuits communication and lets unresolved conflicts fester. But if it gets too bad, just make a few jokes. That always lightens the mood.

New Short Story Collection: A Bowl of Pho

A Bowl of Pho: very short stories by [Sara Roberts Jones]

I’ve written some short stories for your reading pleasure. Well, to be honest, I wrote them for my writing pleasure. But I hope you like them too.

A Bowl of Pho is a collection of ten very short stories. When I say “very short,” that’s what I mean. The whole project began with a challenge to write a 300-word story. Since I recently had to shelve my 131,000-word novel, telling any kind of story in 300 words seemed both trivial and impossible. I was half-wrong — and fortunately it was about the impossible part.

It turned out that writing these vignettes was therapeutic. I let myself go beyond the 300-word limit, but I still kept them all short. It was fun, low-pressure, and got me excited about writing again.

As my catalogue of “mini-stories” grew, I wanted to prove to myself that I can still bring an idea to completion, despite the smoking wreckage of a novel behind me. So I did it. I didn’t overthink anything (as in, I’m pretty sure the art on the front is ramen, not pho). I just I wrote the stories, designed a cover, and put the collection up on Kindle Direct Publishing.

The stories are similar in style to Go Right: they’re warm, fun, and perfect to read over a cup of coffee. I didn’t tackle anything very weighty. I wrote what I liked and called it done.

It’s currently available on Amazon for $2.99. A “pocket-book” size paperback will be coming soon. I hope you check it out!

Found Things

I’m still emerging from the long dark tunnel of winter. It’s taking longer than usual because this year, instead of having a completed second novel as I expected, I’ve just got a shambles of a story that I have to rework from the ground up. That isn’t to say that I’m not writing at all. I have another little project in the works that I hope to say more about soon.

Meanwhile, here are a few writing-related things that have crossed my Shire lately.

By the way, I utterly despise inserting links. It’s tedious. So while I’ll link a few of these items, some of them I’ll just trust that you can cut-and-paste search terms.

Possessed by Passion. A friend, Tracy A. Ball, contributed to this collection. Full disclosure, this isn’t a genre I enjoy. Instead of finding the characters and the situations exciting, I just want to recommend counseling to everyone involved. But you might like it. Click through to the site and you’ll know instantly whether it’s the kind of thing that appeals to you. You should check it out.

Half a League Onward Press. I haven’t read This Do in Remembrance by Dave Dentel because, again, it’s not a genre I enjoy. However, Dave is a friend and I’m very excited that he’s putting his work out there. It might be something you like. You should check it out.

The Legend of Zare Caspian by Abigail Cossette is a web serial with adventure, intrigue, romance, and a “strong female character” who actually is strong and female — not just loud and obnoxious, and not just a man with boobs. While I haven’t read every episode, I have seen the behind-the-scenes work she puts into her stories. (As is possibly apparent by now, I happily support friends even when I’m not a dedicated fan of their genres.) Abigail, by the way, also does all her own artwork. You should check it out.

How Not to Write a Novel, Mittelmark and Newman. A friend sent me this book with the caution, “It’s pretty frank in places.” Well, yes. Definitely an adult audience. But said audience should enjoy the book’s ironic angle. It purports to be advice on how to remain an unpublished author, and goes through some of the best ways to derail your story. I’ve had this book for many years, so it didn’t exactly come to my attention “lately” — except that I recently cleaned up my bookshelf and rediscovered my TWO copies of it (one to lend, one to keep). It’s my favorite writing-advice book. You should check it out.

Go On Write. This is the best site I’ve found for pre-made book covers. He also does custom work—in my case, the cover to my short stories, Go Right. I drop in on the site periodically to see what new offerings he has. You should check it out.

Dominic Noble on YouTube. He’s a young Brit in California whose channel compares books-vs-movies. I found him a couple of years ago when he did a long series on Fifty Shades of Grey, which was highly entertaining, informative, and chock-full of profanity because of his passionate objection to the series. He doesn’t just take down books, though; he sometimes dedicates a video to books he loves. His appreciation of Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted — one of my all-time favorite books — convinced me that we’d get along. You should check it out.

Bad Movie YouTubers. These channels aren’t specifically related to writing, but it’s informative to discuss why some stories don’t work. That’s my excuse, anyway. The truth is that I just love a good takedown of a bad movie. Jenny Nicholson, Kennie J.D., Fanboy Flicks (Weird Movies with Mark), and Good Bad Flicks — you should check them out.

My own books. Okay, this isn’t something I just “found lately.” But maybe it’s a discovery waiting for you! I’ve written a novel, The Fellowship, and short stories, Go Right. Both are linked to the right and also under the “Writing” heading at the top. I, too, am supported by friends who very possibly haven’t read the books — but you should because they’re really good. As mentioned above, as I mourn at the graveside of my ruined second novel, I’m also working on a new project which I’ll definitely update you on. You should… well, you know by now.

Book Review: Jesus and John Wayne

“Hey, guess what,” DJ said to me last week. “Jesus and John Wayne came in!”

What he meant to say was this: “Remember you asked me to look for the book Jesus and John Wayne for you? The library called to say it came in today.” But my first mental image was of Jesus and John Wayne popping in to DJ’s office, as if they were in the area and decided to come by and say hello.

But I was glad to hear it, even if the reality turned out to be less exciting. I was looking forward to reading it, in my ongoing to attempt to understand exactly how the white evangelical church got to where it is now.

Jesus and John Wayne by Kristen Kobes Du Mez wasn’t really a revelatory book for me. I grew up Southern Baptist and spent my teenage years in Bill Gothard’s ATI program. Our house was full of material from Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, Rush Limbaugh, and Eagle Forum. During my introduction to HSLDA in the late nineties, I brushed shoulders with pre-Vision Forum Doug Phillips. I wasn’t just familiar with the white evangelicalism that this book talks about, I was one of those white evangelicals.

What this book does, however, is lay out my own religious history in a way that I never understood before. It showed me patterns of ideas and behaviors that still hold true today. And it also showed me just how far I drifted from my roots in the early 2000s, which was why I was shattered by the white evangelical church’s overwhelming support of Donald Trump, instead of expecting it as an inevitable outcome.

In fact, if I’d read this book before the January 6 breach of the Capitol, I wouldn’t have found that event nearly as shocking.

The book isn’t a dense read, especially for someone already familiar with most of the major players. Yet every time I try to discuss it, I get tangled up in so many thoughts that it’s hard to have a conversation. So what I’ll do here is highlight the patterns that struck me as significant.

Pattern #1: Evangelicals have always courted political power. I was taught that a real Christian doesn’t “put confidence in princes,” that we trust that God will work His own will no matter what. In practice, however, the leaders in my life were all about currying favor at the White House. It’s why Ronald Reagan is practically a saint in evangelical circles — he was very cozy with the powerhouse of influence, James Dobson, and other church luminaries. Billy Graham was instrumental in getting Richard Nixon elected. Both Bushes knew to appeal to the evangelical vote. Had I known all this, I’d have known that when Dobson, Franklin Graham, and other leaders fell over themselves to line up at Trump’s feet, they weren’t selling out principle for power. Their principle is power.

Pattern #2: Evangelicals create and then believe myths. From the first, John Wayne has been an evangelical icon of “real manhood.” The strong, rugged cowboy lives by his own code of honor, is indomitable in battle, doesn’t take guff from wimpy men or any woman, and earns the respect of everyone he encounters. He’s a real man. Of course, it’s a completely fictional construct. Wayne himself wasn’t a cowboy, never served in the military… heck, even the name “John Wayne” was fiction, replacing the much less craggy “Marion Morrison.” Yet the fact that the ideal has no roots in reality does nothing to diminish it. This myth is so strong that the evangelical concept of Jesus himself has been shaped to fit into this mold.

Similarly, ideal womanhood is built on the same myth-making process. The two examples of great evangelical women in my younger years were Phyllis Schafley and Elisabeth Elliot. Both were outspoken women, household names, and inspiring to young evangelical women. Both pushed hard the idea that a woman’s highest calling is as a mother, wife, and homemaker. Yet neither of these women lived up to that ideal at all. Schafley poured her energies into politics, not “staying home and baking cookies,” as Hillary Clinton was famously reviled for saying. After her missionary husband was killed, Elliot spent her life writing books, hosting a radio show, and traveling around the country to speaking engagements. She married twice more, but never took those men’s names for her professional life. In both cases, these women were able to fulfill their obvious gifts for leadership by reinforcing the idea that they supported “traditional” women’s roles. And just like in the case of John Wayne, evangelicals agreed to believe the myth instead of the reality.

Although it’s still astonishing how quickly the John Wayne myth sprang up around Trump, now I can see why so many evangelicals eagerly believed and invested themselves in it. It’s part of a long pattern.

Pattern #3: Evangelicals feed on fear. There’s always got to be a bad guy for these John Waynes to fight. In fact, I remember the moment when I was 18 and listening to David Barton (a problematic “historian”) at a Bill Gothard conference in Knoxville. We’d spent all week being reminded that America was on a path toward destruction because we, the small remnant of faithful, couldn’t keep her true to her Christian roots. Barton was telling how the Library of Congress was transitioning to digital files, and “destroying hundreds of books.” He implied that it was an Orwellian book-burning designed to erase the Christian foundation of the US, allowing evil people to snatch the country away from us. And all of a sudden my exhausted mind shut down and I thought, “I am so tired of being scared all the time.”

But like any subculture, evangelical leaders need something to keep their followers focused. For many years, the Communist threat was enough to keep the troops galvanized. Yet when the Soviet Union collapsed, it left the army at a loss. So evangelical leaders focused on domestic threats, such as feminism, homosexuality, and religious liberty. Not saying that there are no reasons to be concerned on any of these issues (have you read 1960s feminism? It has venom-dipped fangs), but evangelicals aren’t famous for their nuanced take on issues they oppose.

Then came the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Evangelicals quickly coalesced around this new external enemy. Anti-Islamic panic was high. Reading this section of the book, I realized that these were the years when I was drifting away from my roots. I was vaguely aware of what was being said and passed around as facts about Muslim beliefs and behavior (much of which was highly exaggerated or sensationalized), but I rejected it as unChristian prejudice and racism. I suppose I assumed that most other people did the same. I was wrong, which I found out painfully enough about fifteen years later.

Du Mez keeps a narrow focus in this book. In describing the evangelical response to various events, she doesn’t give much room to presenting a well-rounded view. For instance, she discusses the evangelical distaste for Hillary Clinton, both as a First Lady and as a presidential candidate. Briefly she touches on concerns about Clinton’s policies and possibly corruption — which are valid, non-sexist, non-partisan considerations for any candidate — but she mostly focuses on the overblown rhetoric and rumors that evangelicals passed around among themselves. If you want more than just the evangelical reaction to any given person or incident, you’ll have to go back and fill in the gaps yourself.

I found this a helpful book on a very personal level. Intellectually, I left evangelicalism years ago. I gave up on political activism because I don’t like rallies and canvassing for votes and writing emails to Congress. DJ and I revamped our entire understanding of the “essential” doctrine of creationism. Once we saw the damage that “traditional” gender roles (man = leads, woman = submits) inflicted on our marriage, we cultivated a relationship based on mutual submission. Early in our marriage, we considered joining the Catholic church, but ran into too many theological roadblocks; instead we made our way into the Anglican church, with its focus on liturgy and social awareness. I’ve become sharply aware of the national sin of racism, and the need to for the white church especially to repent. I haven’t voted Republican in a national election since I opted out of the 2008 election (and now I wish I’d participated in the historic event of electing a black president). I’ve revisited and refined many opinions which, in my evangelical days, came pre-packaged with inflexible answers.

Yet I still love the people I came from, and I didn’t realize how far away I’d traveled until the rift became impossible to ignore. That’s why I have so many knots and tangles when it comes to discussing my thoughts on this book.

Your experience reading this will vary. The book might enlightening, uncomfortable, or disturbing depending on your relationship with white evangelicalism. I think it’s valuable regardless. If you’re at all interested in understanding the white Christian Republican devotion to Trump, then you should read Jesus and John Wayne.

Just be aware that you have to say the title very carefully. Not only does this dynamic duo make the rounds at DJ’s office, but I found myself asking, “Did anybody see Jesus and John Wayne in the living room?”