The Stories That Shape Us

We are all shaped by stories, real or imagined. I can testify that I personally have been shaped by stories from the Bible. Even as a kid in Sunday school, when the teacher put the one-dimensional cut-out characters on the flannelgraph board, and read their biblical stories, my imagination was ignited. I could see myself in so many of the characters. I tried to imagine what it took to make choices, and what they might have thought or felt at given moments in their life.

I could certainly imagine myself as David facing Goliath the giant. What kid doesn’t imagine him or herself facing giants and defeating them? We all like to think we are capable of vanquishing foes who appear to have the advantage over us. The chance of victory seems hopeless, but somehow you manage to win in the end. If only that were true. This idea of becoming a hero starts at an early age.

For some time now I have been focused on a series of stories found in the Bible that take place three thousand years ago. These stories are so old that they can seem unreal or so fantastical that they are treated as mythological. Those ancient people are only thought of as quaint or superstitious or ignorant in comparison to our modern age.

But regardless of how we might consider ourselves advanced and enlightened, do we really have a better understanding of our world than those ancient people? Sometimes I get the feeling that they are looking back at us, watching to see if we might have learned anything from their recorded experiences.

The third volume in my historical fiction series is now available. The Singer of Israel is the title of this new novel. We are introduced to the most famous character in the Old Testament. Even before David becomes the second king of Israel, the historical facts of his life easily morph into legendary status.

David is climbing the ladder of success, from shepherd to court musician, to captain in the army, to marrying into the royal family, and eventually to becoming king. But all is not what it seems, and there is much conflict and heart ache along the way. In other words, real life. The Singer of Israel is available in print, eBook, and audiobook wherever books are sold.

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The Force of Story

I approach everything I create, whether the written word or the spoken word, in print or on stage, with the admixture of anticipation and doubt. My desire is to create something of truth and beauty. I feel at once helpless to wrangle the story that is consuming my imagination and at the same time confident enough to stand still and gaze into the beauty of such enormous powers as that of character, plot, and theme and hope to find the language that both lures a reader and compels them to commit to follow the trail.

Storytelling is a force of nature, and a story is told best when the author does not draw attention to him or herself. Yes, there is style in one’s writing, but style is something one is born with, not something you acquire by wealth or education.

Eudora Welty said, “Great fiction shows us not how to conduct our behavior but how to feel.” I would hope that even minor fiction would provide in much the same way.

As a creative person I have endured my share of struggles as I live the life of the proverbial starving artist. Still, I have been blessed with enough opportunities to maintain what might be called a career in the business of making art.

While the act of writing is usually a solo activity, once the story is written you hope a community of people arrive at your door to say, “how may we help?” And by help I mean those who believe in the “force of your story.”

My biblical/historical fiction series entitled The Song of Prophets and Kings required a publisher with vision. WhiteFire Publishing stepped into that role. The first volume of the series, A Voice Within the Flame came out in December of 2020. The second volume, Crown of the Warrior King, appeared a year later. Now I am pleased to announce that volume three, The Singer of Israel, will be released in early December of 2022. And there are more volumes ahead. The saga will continue.

I want to invite any and all who might be interested in following the lives and loves of Israel’s early prophets and kings to enter the force of this story series. For those who have already read the first two volumes, The Singer of Israel picks up right where we left our heroes in volume two. For those who have yet to take the fictional plunge into this series, come on in, the literary waters are fine. Read more about these novels by visiting: www.henryoarnold.com and I’ll see you in the world of books.

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The Ecstasy of the Crowd

How often have we heard someone boast of their “rugged individualism?” The term was coined by President Herbert Hoover, so it’s been around for a minute. The meaning is simple, “the one is preferable over the many.” Yet throughout a single twenty-four hour day, most of us end up going along with the crowd. Neurological science has long since proven what we learned in elementary school when the teacher said, “Class, get in line.”

We all have private moral behaviors that we apply to ourselves. Yet those personal standards can be easily overwhelmed when part of a mob. What we would consider abhorrent conduct and would not tolerate in ourselves, we could justify in the relative anonymity of a crowd. In our age of skepticism and technological high-mindedness, we humans still drink in the intoxicating power brought on by the mob.

This power surge is what Eugene Peterson (author of “The Message” and other books of theology), refers to as “the ecstasy of the crowd.” His reference is to something more primal and dangerous in our human psyche than any inspired emotion or a worshipful experience shared communally.

When you gather enough people who share a single-mindedness and feel they are threatened or wronged somehow by forces not aligned with their way of thinking, then what we might never do as an individual, we would justify doing in a crowd. You find yourself on the wrong political side, or a part of the wrong religion, or rooting for the wrong sports team, and just see how quickly the marshaled power of the mob can go from hostile railing to violent action.

I suggest we seek an ecstasy of a different kind…the ecstasy of loving one’s neighbor. I suggest we engage with our fragile and frightened society and create change by means of holiness. It begins with a change of heart, but the holiness of God can do just that. The holiness of God is more powerful than any institution, any human collective or rugged individual.

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Don’t Touch Me

A game my three siblings and I played as kids was poking one another and then making a quick exit. If a threat was even perceived by an approaching sibling, the immediate response was DON’T TOUCH ME! Today we can’t hug each other enough.

A few years ago I was asked to perform a one-man show I had developed from the Gospel of St. John for a chapel service at an organization devoted to serve the homeless population. I had agreed to do the performance months in advance, but when the day came, I regretted having said yes, and struggled to summon any enthusiasm.

On the drive to the Mission, I toyed with a number of creative excuses to get out of it at the last minute without just pulling a no-show. I even grumbled to God, “If I have to through with it, I will, but I don’t have to like it.”

Some level of joy began to seep into my heart as I performed the play, but it was hampered by the constant wheezing and coughing and sneezing and yes, snoring, that echoed in the room during the performance. It was like audible sounds of diseases cultivating in a giant Petri dish.

After the performance the chaplain asked if anyone wanted prayer. So many came forward that he asked for more staff to help with the penitents. The brokenness displayed by those who came forward began to dissolve the crust around my heart…a little.

Then came a surprise. The chaplain announced that if any of the men would like to meet me that I was happy to greet them. I’m an actor not a minister. All I saw were swarms of infections converging upon me.

I shook dozens of hands with a few chest-bumps for extra emphasis. The joy of these men at meeting me was undeniable if not reciprocated. But the sucker-punch came when the last man in line stepped forward: scraggly beard, wooly red knit hat unraveling around his scruffy face, a big smile revealing the evidence of a lengthy hiatus from the dentist chair. I extended my hand, but he swung his arms behind his back. “Don’t touch me, man,” he said. “My hands are dirty. I’m dirty.” Then he gently laid his chin on my shoulder, the one area of his body he thought clean enough for human contact, held it there for a second, and then quickly disappeared into the crowd.

I was brought low, undone by such humility and awkward kindness; a nameless man conscious of his “uncleanness” so as not to touch me any more than was necessary but needed to express his love. May I never recover from that holy and pure moment.

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Read more about the article Live to Write
Surgeons Perform Brain Surgery Using Augmented Reality, Animated 3D Brain. High Tech Technologically Advanced Hospital. Futuristic Theme.

Live to Write

When I am in a reflective mood, I wonder why I became an artist. When I boil
such reflection down, it can look as simple and mundane as “I couldn’t do anything else.”
But when I elevate my leap of faith into such a vocation, it can look like a calling. I
believe I use my gifts to celebrate a passion for God that I hope flows into all that I am
and all I do.
I love the author, Chaim Potok, writer of novels such as The Chosen, My Name is
Asher Lev, and The Gift of Asher Lev. I recently read a story he told at a lecture at Johns
Hopkins University. I share it now as something that helps explain why I write.
Potok said that he wanted to be a writer at an early age, but when he was about to
go to college his mother said to him, “Chaim, I know you want to be a writer, but I have a
better idea. Why don’t you be a brain surgeon. You’ll keep a lot of people from dying;
you’ll make a lot of money.” But he said, “No, Mama. I want to be a writer.”
He came home on a school break and his mother said to him, “Chaim, I know you
want to be a writer, but listen to your mama. Be a brain surgeon. You’ll keep a lot of
people from dying; you’ll make a lot of money.” He replied, “No, Mama. I want to be a
writer.”
This same conversation was repeated so often, finally the pressure was too much
for both mother and son. “Chaim, you are wasting your time,” his mother exploded. “Be
a brain surgeon. You’ll keep a lot of people from dying and you’ll make a lot of money.”
The son exploded in response. “Mama, I don’t want to keep people from dying. I want to
show them how to live.”
I was fortunate to have parents who chose to encourage me in what I believed I
was called to do. And when Kay came into my life, she too was a believer. Even when
we went into the wilderness of those “hungry years,” she remained faithful. The journey
was long and arduous, and we began to understand what it was “to live,” to live in faith to
God and with one another.
I am forever grateful for parents who believed in me and for a wife who has stuck
with me. And I know the world is grateful that I never became a brain surgeon.

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The King of Junk

For over three hundred performances in multiple cities throughout the country I was privileged to share the stage with Barry Scott in Jim Reyland’s beautiful two-character play Stand. Once the lights faded at the end of each performance we embraced in a big manly hug. Barry would whisper, “I love you Chip Arnold.” And I would respond, “I love you Barry Scott.”
In those years of working together, we talked about our faith and what it meant to be broken men of God. How the shared stories of our lives were different but the same. How our faith informed our art. How our faith informed how we treat people. How, when we were together, just being in one another’s presence, we were better versions of ourselves.
The last time we spoke just days before his passing he said, “I got a story.” He was energized. His voice was a mere rasp of its former power, but the joy he felt at the moment gave him strength. “You ever hear of the Kings of Junk?” I told him no. “They came to my house today to clean out my garage. Before they were to arrive, I went out to the garage to open it up. I had to climb about three steps to get to the door to unlock it. I got to the steps and I couldn’t lift my leg to start to climb up. I tried and tried, but I couldn’t climb. I didn’t have the strength and my brain wasn’t communicating to my leg.
“I sat down and used my arms and climbed up the steps backward on my butt. But when I got to the door, I couldn’t stand up. I sat there and waited for the Kings of Junk to arrive. When they arrived the man in charge came around to the side entrance and I told him the situation. He asked what he could do for me. I told him I need to be carried into the house. So the King of the Kings of Junk wrapped his arms around me and lifted me up and he helped me back into my house.
“Once in the kitchen, the King held me. He just held me, until he gently sat me down in a chair. Then he knelt in front of me and looked into my face, really looked at me. He saw me, saw inside of me, saw the broken me, and he said, ‘Can I do anything else for you, Mr. Scott?’ I swear, Chip, it was like I looked into the face of Jesus.”
Barry and I concluded that men need to tell their own stories to one another. Men need to hear and know that they are loved by God and that they are loved by others. Men need to look other men in their eyes and ask is there anything else we can do for you? Men need to know that in weakness they have strength, in pain they have power, in sorrow they have joy, and in God they have love everlasting. That is the real story we all share.
Two years ago flights of angels welcomed Barry home. I can hear God saying to him, “I love you Barry Scott. Well done.”

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The Singer of Israel

My parents gave me my first Bible on my eleventh birthday in 1961 with the inscription written in my mother’s hand: “To our son with the hope that this book will serve as your guide all the days of your life. Our love and prayers will always be with you. Mother and Daddy.” It was the standard KJV translation. “If this translation was good enough for the Apostle Paul, it is good enough for us,” was the occasional argument heard among the brethren back then. It sits on my desk: dog-eared, held together with a rubber band and petrified masking tape, with the pages inside marked and worn.
Now do not be deceived. As sweet as my mother’s sentiment might be, I tested the inscribed words. Their “love” was tried and their “prayers” were many when I took a prodigal turn and remained “in the wilderness” for what, I’m sure, seemed like ages to them. I am very grateful to the faithfulness of my parents, and like the prodigal son, when I “came to my senses,” a discovery of an active, loving relationship with God and an intense thirst for Scripture came with it. A devotion to tell or retell stories from the Bible would soon follow.
All artists, whatever their art form, interpret life through a particular lens. My lens just happens to be the Scriptures. I have been asked often how I came up with the stories I have created in my historical fiction series The Song of Prophets and Kings. I usually react by quoting Isaac Newton when he was asked how he came up with the theory of gravity. His reply, “By thinking on it continually.”
Writing is really no mystery, no sleight of hand. It is hard work. It is a constant devotion to a task. It is not a sudden onset of inspiration, that is of course if you are already busy at the work of creating when inspiration appears. I have thought about these stories in this series and how I might compile them in a cohesive whole for a long time. I have invested years of labor and received generous encouragement from Kay and many others all along the way.
The third volume of the Prophets and Kings series will be released in December 2022 and is entitled The Singer of Israel. I devote this volume to the rise of David to a prominent place in the court of King Saul only to be forced to flee for his life and remain on the run for years. Stay tuned. More pre-release information will be forthcoming.

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Truffling For Trauma

Writers are often encouraged to “write what you know,” which usually means delving into the past and writing about it. I recently read an essay by Parul Sehgal where he used the phrase to describe the direction of much of today’s fiction as being “…dispatched into the past, to truffle for trauma.” Some might argue that we are the sum of all our traumas given that personal trauma has become the explanation and excuse for…well, everything.

I believe there is a much broader landscape to expand upon in a literary life. We all might be better off if one’s personal stories were kept to a minimum, told sparingly, and in relation to a much bigger world than the little world we each inhabit. Yes, we all have been abused and sucker punched by life, but do we need to see it on all your social platforms?

There are those who are truly traumatized by cruel situations and malevolent circumstances that defy imagination. Treat those sufferings with care and compassion, giving the one who suffered the dignity and healing they deserve.

What I am referring to is that most of what we “truffle” up from our past does not necessarily reach a level worthy of literary examination. The showbiz world cranks out these stories by the boatload. Our social media fascination with “the next big trauma,” gives such impetus to the purveyors of entertainment.

Perhaps we think that reveling in our traumas gives us identity and thus connection to the wider world. When a person’s story of trauma is so oft repeated it threatens to become sentimentalized. With repetitive telling we begin to believe this is truly who we are as a culture or a society: this is how we choose our stories; this is how we tell our stories; this is how we interpret our stories. Throw all this into a pot and out comes a crazed shadow of what it means to be human.

The question we ask ourselves then is what became of us? Do the stories we craft that supposedly reflect who we are, are they really a grand delusion? Or are they grounded in a truth of the human need for and capacity to give love? It is impossible to insulate our lives from suffering, but we can construct stories around those moments that give real meaning to who we are and who we want to become.

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Know Thyself

To “Know Thyself” is attributed to Socrates and was inscribed on the frontispiece of the Temple of Delphi. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” is also from the great philosopher. The Socratic method in its simplest form is a dialogue between a teacher and a student. Or on a deeper level, between your soul and yourself.

We look for instruction. We look for ways of illumination. We look for guidance. We look for revelation. It is way too easy to have others tell us what clothes to wear, what food to eat, what entertainment to absorb, or to explain to us a reason for our existence on this planet; what does it mean if it means anything at all. We are a needy people and dependent on something or someone greater than ourselves to help us navigate our lives before the onset of rigor mortis.

What does it mean to be human? To have the good life? By what standards of measure to we use to know if such a life is achievable? I recently read a quote from Os Guinness’ book Fool’s Talk that says, “What Socrates called the ‘unexamined life’ that is ‘not worth living’ now seems to be the life more people have slipped into than ever before. Most people, in other words, are happily diverted, but not conscious of it.”

What are the mirrors we hold up that might give us insight and entryways into who we are or who we might become: social media? Political parties? The Kardashians?

We are so easily distracted by the shiny bauble, or drawn to the rancorous rhetoric, or give in to the desire to accumulate, to pleasure, to materialism, to power. Maybe all these mirrors reflect back are the worst representation of ourselves.

If we are seeking only what brings pleasure and there is no higher value to our life than self-satisfaction, are we not Dr. Faustus insisting that our highest good is found only in a preoccupation of ourselves? We must be careful of the bargains we make and with whom.

To know yourself is to give yourself away. Live in such a way that people’s eyes light up when they see you approach, that your tongue speaks kind words, that you slow down as you navigate through life. And from time to time, when you enter a metaphorical “wilderness,” remember it can be for the sanctification of the soul. Don’t try to avoid it, don’t seek distractions, and do not waste time railing against it. There are deeper truths ahead, and deeper meaning to knowing yourself once you emerge on the other side.

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Often Wrong/Never in Doubt

For years I have proved our family motto with my sometime slippery command of facts and history. From the everyday settings to the wider world, I have no limits when it comes to being “Often wrong, but never in doubt.” I perform such self-inflicted ignominy before audiences large and small, and have become so accustomed to those moments, that I am no longer embarrassed by them. I simply quote the family motto and take a bow.

This just proves that we all need fact checkers. My siblings, my wife, my daughters and sons-in-law, my fellow friends and artists, yea verily, many of the members of my entire community have done the honors of busting my “never in doubt” bloviations with the truth, not indulging my “alternative” facts. It always brings laughter and pleasure.

Dr. Oliver Sacks once wrote of a panel he was on where the topic of discussion was information and communication in the twenty-first century. An internet pioneer was proud of the fact that people, including his daughter, had access to information no one could have imagined a few decades before. Sacks said that while one might be “…stocked with wide-ranging information, that was different from knowledge.” And I would add that such knowledge and information does not guarantee a gaining of wisdom.

We humans are easily bewitched. We prefer perceptions over facts and truth. Too often we gather around us only those who say what our “itching ears want to hear.” And how we humans “turn our ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”

I want people around me to tell me the truth, speak truth into my heart and mind, even when it is painful to hear and perhaps more painful to correct. An ancient Hebrew proverb says it best, “Better an open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.”

The impermanence of life is all around us, and at the end of the day what we are left with are memories. May our memories be full of truth, truth that corresponds with reality and honest relationships, truth that provides a balm to our soul and gladness to our heart.

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