The Dance of the Pinata

The Chinese lay claim to the origin of a centuries-old whacking of the image of a cow filled with different types of seeds at the beginning of every New Year hoping for a favorable climate for their agriculture. The Aztecs say they invented the practice to honor the birthday of a god with a multi-syllabic name who needed appeasement—perhaps for every battered piñata there was one less human sacrifice.

Once the Spanish monks moved into the Mesoamerica neighborhood, they immediately saw the opportunity to co-opt the ritual and created their own 14th century version called “The Dance of the Piñata.” A seven-point piñata represented the seven deadly sins. The piñata itself represented evil, and the treats inside, the temptations of evil. The individual armed with a club was blindfolded to represent “blind faith.”

When the participant struck at the piñata, it was the struggle against evil, and when a blow landed and the piñata broke open, the treats inside showered down upon the victor as a reward for keeping the faith. So these treats somehow magically turned from nuggets of temptation to a shower of blessing. Those tricky monks. The things we do to placate the gods and ward off evil and be entertained at the same time.

In celebration of a grand child’s birthday, we gathered for the party. There were a passel of neighborhood kids, the median age hovering in the single digits, and we all circled beneath the unicorn piñata suspended from a tree limb. The honor of the first swing went to the birthday child, but alas, it was a swing-and-a-miss, so the bat was passed on to the next guest, and then on down the line.

The cheering continued throughout the game as some swipes landed, but never a deathblow. Finally the birthday child came to bat again and beat the piñata until it gave up the ghost and yielded its candied entrails. The belly of the unicorn burst open and the treats exploded into the air. It became a bacchanal for juveniles.

It was such an odd feeling to witness and yes, participate in this human activity of destroying something in hopes of gaining something. I’m not a killjoy, I know how to have a good time, but such wild and frenzied actions of the young brought with it a loss of innocence. I may be thinking too deeply. Maybe I’m just getting old. Whatever this feeling was/is, I found it unsettling…and still do.

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The Shortcomings of History

I wonder if there is such a thing as “total accurate history.” History is the compilation of facts that help explain events we want to remember. But is it possible to have all the facts, even in today’s world with our advanced technologies? I read a quote recently by a German poet from the Romantic period who went by the pen name Novalis. “Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.” However, too often the novel rushes in and makes a mess of things giving migraines to the angels of history.

Works of fiction are created and designed to fill us with all sorts of human emotions: awe, shock, tears, sorrow, etc. These very real emotions help to secure the characters of a story firmly into our memory. A fine-drawn fictional character may live much longer in the memory than an historical one. Unless, of course, the historical character is given enough human dimension based on historical events that draw the reader into the heart and soul of that character.

This is where one historical character may become a legend. A legend is presumed to have some basis in historical fact with real people or events. But historical fact can easily morph into a legend when the truth has been exaggerated to the point that real people or events have taken on a romanticized, larger than life quality.

In my recent novel The Singer of Israel the historical character of King David becomes an over-night legend the moment he slays a giant. His exploits are even turned into peans of praise. You know you’ve achieved legend status when an entire nation sings songs about you.

Regardless of my shortcomings as an artist, I have diligently attempted to capture the truth of the emotional lives of my characters and give them depth and meaning. History is tumultuous and fraught with misperception and misunderstanding. Even with time and distance the historical events and facts can remain distorted and difficult to understand. But when human emotions are expressed, even those emotions-by-design applied by an author to their characters, then historical characters really may live forever providing generation after generation of readers pleasure and understanding of who they are and who they might become.

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My Day in Prison

Way back in the day I did a film entitled Framed staring Joe Don Baker and John Marley. Joe Don made the Louisville Slugger famous in Walking Tall and John Marley made famous the consequence of refusing an offer from a Mafia Don in The Godfather and ending up with the head of his prize horse in his bed.

Before the old Nashville prison was closed for good it was used for film sets. It still housed legit prisoners, but what Hollywood wanted, Hollywood got, and Hollywood wanted this prison, with its real prisoners, supplemented with actors.

I was cast as a prisoner. My character was lucky enough to have a credited name, “Lenny,” and not a descriptor, “Prisoner #3 lifting weights.” My sole job was to grab John Marley from behind and hold him while another prisoner smacked Marley around. Then Joe Don was to step up, give us his best menacing face and scare us off. Easy right?

The director staged the scene and we rehearsed with the stunt coordinator. Just in case there was a mishap mattresses were placed around us on the ground. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. On the first rehearsal my nerves got the best of me. I grabbed Marley from behind and fell backwards onto the mattress with Marley landing on top of me. Not a part of the scene. The first words out of Marley’s mouth were, “This s.o.b. is trying to kill me.”

Though humiliated, I managed to get through the scene without killing the Academy Award nominee. The real prisoners standing around in the yard found all this amusing. Between shots I was able to strike up some friendly conversations with some of the guys. I’m sure they were more interested in the cigarettes they could bum from me, but still it was fun hanging out with them.

That is until it was time for the next shot and I was called back to the set. Because of my authentic prison costume the authentic guards thought I was trying to pull a fast one when I began to walk past them. The director had to vouch for me. It’s all in who you know. Apparently, he didn’t hold it against me that I almost “killed” one of his stars.

Every so often I get some mailbox money from Framed. The last check came in at $0.03. The gross was $0.05, but the IRS took two cents to cover the cost of…what exactly, I don’t know. It is a mystery, but who says crime doesn’t pay?

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Building a Chicken Coop

William Faulkner once said that “writing a novel is like building a chicken coop in a high wind—you grab any board you find and nail it down fast.” The writing of a novel can be a long-term battle in a headwind. And when you are writing an historical novel, you have a lot of facts flying that you might use to build that literary coop. But alas, the sustained headwinds are so brutal that many of those facts just sail right past you. Even if the coop is missing a few factual “boards,” you hope the story is still complete.

I love writing novels, the ones in progress, and the ones I still hope to write. I love taking the stories from biblical history and using my imagination to bring characters and events to life that have existed in mystery. I am bringing a vanished world to life on a page, inviting a reader into a world rich with human dimensions and dynamics.

I am not an historian. The skill of the historian is to take the verifiable facts as they happened, and while they attempt to tell those facts in such a way that are interesting and give a reader a solid sense of place and time, they can’t make stuff up. That is the rule of the game for the historian.

The novelist need not adhere to such a rule…completely. Certainly, they must assembly the pieces (historical facts) that fly in the headwind so that the chicken coop at least resembles a chicken coop. The reader wants to be secure in the knowledge that the novelist has done the research and has created an accurate and believable setting in which the characters may exist.

But the novelist is free to get inside the character’s heads and hearts and describe what is going on. I allow myself the freedom to invent, and thus, allow myself and the potential to feel a human connection to the characters. Hilary Mantel of Wolf Hall fame says, “If we want added value—to imagine not just how the past was, but what it felt like, from the inside—we pick up a novel.”

This is what I attempt to do each time when I set my fingers on the keyboard and watch the words appear on the screen. I want to know “what it felt like from the inside” in the biblical fiction I have written. I invite all readers to take that journey with me in my series The Song of Prophets and Kings.

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They Gave Their Eyes to God

In my new novel The Singer of Israel, I devote some time to the process of writing the stories of Israel onto the scrolls. There were many stipulations for the scribes to follow as they wrote these sacred texts, but no document containing the words of Yahweh could be destroyed. They were stored, or buried, in a genizah—a Hebrew term meaning “hiding place.” These were usually kept in a synagogue or sometimes in a Jewish cemetery. You will have to read the novel to find where Samuel stored the scrolls that he reveals to David, the future king of Israel.

There are no original manuscripts of the Old Testament today. After Jerusalem was sacked by Rome in the First Century, the process of copying the Old Testament was lost. While a Hebrew version of the Old Testament did exist, the language wasn’t spoken by many, and the Greek and eventually Latin versions dominated.

Beginning in the Sixth Century and into the Tenth Century A.D., some European Jewish scribes continued a similar method for copying manuscripts of the Old Testament in the original Hebrew language as originated by the scribes before Christ.

Until 1948, the oldest manuscripts of the Old Testament dated back to 895 A.D. In 1947, a shepherd boy discovered some scrolls inside a cave West of the Dead Sea. These manuscripts dated between 100 B.C. and 100 A.D. Over the next decade, more scrolls were found in caves and the discovery became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Every book in the Old Testament was represented in this discovery except Esther. Numerous copies of each book was discovered (For example, 25 copies of Deuteronomy).

While there are other items found among the Dead Sea Scrolls not currently in the Old Testament, the OT items that were found have few discrepancies to the versions from the Tenth Century. While not perfect, this is our best measuring stick to how accurate the Jewish scribes were throughout the centuries. A shout-out to historian, Scott Manning, for these concise facts.

The ancient Hebrews were people of the Word. Since we know some of the ways the scribes worked in preserving these texts, I have taken the liberty to construct scenes within The Singer of Israel describing the labors of many who preserved the stories of ancient Israel. One can imagine the damage done to the sight of a scribe after years of such labor. It was a sacrifice to give their eyes to preserve the sacred word.

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I Will Never Do a Christmas Pageant

You ever think you are too good to do something? That your pride would never let you stoop that low? That to do that one thing (fill in the blank) is beneath you? If you say “Never,” I know you’re lying. But that’s okay. Our egos are a fragile thing.

In the late 1980s, we had moved back from Los Angeles. My ego was at an all-time low. I had spent three years in Hollywood racking up a series of film auditions where I was consistently told I was “not right for the part.” That’s the life I chose, so I had to accept being “not right,” and move on, but still, the wounds went deep.

When we moved back to the Nashville area we were broke, and I had no prospects for professional employment. I painted houses, cut and hung tobacco, planted shrubbery for landscaping, anything to make an honest buck. Then I got a call from an actor friend telling me he was recommending me for a job. For two years in a row he had performed in a church pageant and that year he could not do it. It was a paying gig…a well-paying gig.

One would think I would leap at the chance of getting back on stage and not have to climb to the rafters of a sweltering barn to hang sticks of tobacco leaves. But I wavered. Had my career sunk to this point, where all I was offered were church pageants? Not that there’s anything wrong with church pageants, but really…church pageants?

That year it looked like we’d be having a Bob Cratchit family Christmas. Still, the thought of wisemen, shepherds, angels, Joseph and Mary and baby Jesus in a manger, and God-forbid, barnyard beasts, gave my sore heart misgivings. That is, until I told Kay and she gave me that look that said, “What is wrong with you?” I accepted the offer.

It would only be for this one time, I reasoned, and I can do anything once. It did not have to go on the resume. Do the job. Take the money. Buy some nice presents for Kay and the girls, and don’t think about it. But then when you least expect it, there was this Christmas miracle in my heart.

The people I worked with were wonderful. They embraced me and my family with such loving and giving hearts that it broke me. And as for the production, it was really good. So good in fact, that I came back the next year, and the next, for five years in a row. I was even asked by the director to write some of the scripts.

While those five Christmas pageants have not made it onto the resume, they were watershed moments in my life. If you ask me if I believe in miracles, I have to say yes, and this one has stuck with me all my life.

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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: 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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