Memories are Fickle

I have begun writing my memoirs, and the number of discrepancies in my source materials is disconcerting. Dad was the main storyteller in my family. Especially when he got loosened up after a few snorts of whiskey, he would go on at length about his early life. At our urging, when he was in his late 70s, he wrote down some of his accounts. He wrote much the way he talked, and I can hear his narrator’s voice in my mind as I read his words. But now that I am carefully reading stories of his youth on the unfenced frontier of western New Mexico in the early 20th century, I am detecting historical time line problems I did not previously notice.

In addition, my memory is not perfect. I am now pondering how accurately I remember the details of stories Dad told repeatedly. Certainly, he introduced variations in the ways he recounted events. He also exaggerated details to make the stories more entertaining. Even if I had made audio recordings of his stories, I would still be dealing with differing details. But I did not record them, and I was not the only one listening. My versions of Dad’s lively tales vary somewhat from what my brother and sister remember.

My memoirs would be easier to write if I took the ploy of modern screen writers: “Based on True Events.” Those words are code for “I am freely writing an almost completely fictional account that finds its origin in a few historical events.” Maybe I should adopt the senseless use of “based off” that I hear frequently spoken by younger people. A base is something one builds on—a foundation. You cannot build something off a base. If my stories are “based off,” then there need be no connection whatsoever between the base (history) and the story (fiction). Of course, every historical account is fictional to some degree. All historians give their own (fallible) interpretations of events they describe.

Perhaps I would do well to adopt the motto “Never let truth get in the way of telling a good story.” After all, memoirs are based on memories; so why not present my memories without being concerned about their accuracy? Why not write a lively memoir “based on true events”? I could invent all sorts of fascinating details, and few would be the wiser. But I simply cannot ignore historical investigation. I have this bothersome need to determine what happened and to present the story as accurately as I can.

When writing the history of my ancestors and my own personal history, I will expend countless hours muddling through historical time lines and puzzling over how it all fits together into an overarching narrative. The stories themselves are entertaining enough. I do not need to embellish the narrative. When I finally piece it all together, it will be as interesting as my last book, The Storyteller from Kalo Chorio. The time I spent separating fact from fiction when telling this life story of Dafnis Panagides extended well beyond what I ever imagined. But, in the end, I believe I captured the essence of this complicated and significant man. Because my own story begins with my parents, I am trying to understand what shaped them and caused them to become so quirky. I have ample material to address these issues, as well as how I developed a strategy to avoid becoming like them. As I search the oral and written accounts, I will employ the historical methods I learned in graduate school and implemented during my career as a biblical scholar. I will use what I learned about oral history when I was untangling the life of Dafnis, whom I interviewed extensively in Cyprus. Someday, I will be satisfied that I have recounted the story as accurately as possible. I am a historian, not a novelist. But I also believe in employing creative non-fiction. Who says a memoir needs to be boring?


Parables turn expectations upside down

To illustrate how parables function, invent ways to turn student expectations upside down

On the day we discussed the parable of the unscrupulous steward (Luke 16:1–9) in my parables class, I began by recounting a news report about wealthy people manipulating the judicial system. I told them I downloaded the following report from a news website.

Bank CEO receives verdict

Haliburton Thompson III appeared before a special Senate hearing on Wednesday to hear the results of a yearlong investigation into his role in the meltdown of the banking system. Thompson sat without expression, waiting to hear the committee chair read the report.

While photographers clicked their cameras and lawyers fidgeted with their reams of reports, the chair rapped his gavel and called for silence. With a grave face he read the following statement:

“Mr. Thompson, after a thorough investigation we have determined the following:

  1. You placed a massive amount of your investors’ retirement contributions into highly volatile funds that made you a very rich man.
  2. You had credible information that these funds were going to crash, but instead of informing your clients of the imminent danger, you delivered a statement on the robust financial health of your firm. Then you withdrew all of your personal investments in the hedge funds and placed them into stable securities.
  3. As a consequence, you walked away with $32 million, and your investors lost a total of $5.2 billion. Many of them had their retirement funds almost completely decimated, reducing them to poverty.
  4. Because you were in the third year of a five-year contract with your bank, the board of trustees of the bank paid you a severance package of $15 million to buy out the last two years of your contract.
  5. Because of your shrewd team of lawyers, we were not able to prove that you actually broke any laws; although it is obvious that you destroyed many of your investors while personally enriching yourself.
  6. Therefore, we on this special investigation committee would like to commend you for your shrewd business transactions. Through your own self-serving maneuvering, you have become a model for all money managers in the USA who seek to take advantage of investors to enrich themselves.
  7. This hearing is now closed. The committee will now adjourn so we may have lunch with Mr. Thompson.

My students were listening to what they thought was an actual news report, but at the end they realized something was amiss. By inventing a report on a contemporary issue, I got their attention and illustrated how the parable of the wicked manager violates any expectations of the listeners that justice will be served. A lively discussion followed. My story, like some of Jesus’s parables, outraged those who heard it. Many parables are like jokes. The punch line surprises or even shocks listeners and elicits a visceral response. But the story needs to address contemporary concerns for listeners to feel the punch in their gut. For more information on parables, see Interpreting Biblical Literature, pp. 319–341.

Color photos for The Storyteller from Kalo Chorio

This week, I received copies of The Storyteller from Kalo Chorio. The formatting of the book is nice, but the clarity of the photos is disappointing. I provided clear black-and-white photos, but print-on-demand does a poor job of reproducing these pictures. I wish the photos in the book were better, but by publishing through Kindle, I was able to keep the cost of the book low. To see clear, color versions of the photos, go to the following web site:

Then click on the blue box that says “Full-color versions of the book photographs.” That will take you to the photos page. Enjoy the book. This story of Dafnis will make you laugh, cry, and ponder significant issues of life.

What a delightful read!

Last Summer Boys, by Bill Rivers

One of the best books I have read in years. I commend Bill Rivers for producing a wonderful novel. As my wife and I read it aloud to each other, at times we laughed out loud at the antics of the boys in the book. Narrated by 13-year-old Jack, the story brims full of levity of childhood and the angst rampant in the nation during the summer of 1968. I graduated from high school in 1968 and remember facing the draft and the very real possibility of going to fight in Viet Nam—a major theme in Last Summer Boys. I recommend this novel without hesitation, which is something I can do with very few books—especially those offered in Amazon’s First Reads.

History, Fiction, and Despicable Bullies

Sometimes I envy authors of fiction, who are free to create characters to illustrate whatever points they want to make.

My wife and I are reading a series of novels by C. J. Box about Joe Pickett, a game warden in Wyoming. The stories take me down memory lane. Years ago, I drove most of the highways described in these novels. I see in my mind the high desert and the mountains in Box’s books. I feel the intense cold of winter storms he describes. I smell the sweet aromas of mountain meadows in spring. I hear elk bugling in the fall. I see pronghorn antelope running through sagebrush. And I remember listening to landowners curse the oppressive bullying they endured from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) bureaucrats.

Authority over others too often brings out the primal beast in those who hold positional power. Particularly destructive are individuals who thrive on hassling people who cannot resist because of the power of the Federal Government that enables such bullies. Box’s depiction of a slimy, regional EPA director in the book we just finished elicits a visceral disdain for this despicable man. Particularly satisfying was reading how, in the end, he got exactly what he deserved. Unfortunately, in real life, administrators often get away with abusing people. I have witnessed it too often. Such cruelty in Christian organizations seems particularly egregious to me, because I have higher expectations for standards of ethics and morality in these organizations.

Power corrupts, and I learned the hard way that women can be as abusive as men when they gain positional power. Perhaps someday I will write stories about diminutive tyrants in the academic workplace who gleefully torment those who physically could squash them like bugs. They remind me of my experiences with frail little kids in public schools who ingratiated themselves to playground bullies. Because they knew their bully friends would protect them, these little tyrants enjoyed hassling others. As a kid, I found such behavior to be infuriating and disgusting. As an adult, I never changed my mind on the matter. I have a special disdain for bullies—both for the big brutes who exert their physical power and for the weak little people who flaunt their positional power. If I ever write a novel, such characters in my book will get what they deserve in the end. In that regard, fiction is more satisfying than real life.

Life and Legends of Daniel Boone

Following a discussion of the problems with distinguishing between fact and legend, a historian friend suggested I read Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer, by John Mack Faragher (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1992). My own research into the life of Dafnis Panagides has sensitized me to the obstacles of dealing with the fallible memories of people recounting past events (The Storyteller from Kalo Chorio, 2022—available soon).

Daniel Boone, the son of Quaker parents who were kind to tribal people who stopped at their home in Pennsylvania, liked native peoples and learned much from them. Bored with farming, he took every opportunity to roam the woods, hunting. Faragher points out that in Europe, hunting was limited mostly to nobility; so pioneers in the Americas had to learn hunting skills from local Indians. Boone love to hunt so much that, after he married and started his large family, he would leave his wife and children to take care of their property and be gone for months (once for two years!) on “long hunts” deep into Indian territory where he knew he should not have been—supposedly to make money by harvesting deer for their hides and beaver for their pelts. He ate some of the meat but left most carcasses to rot. Like many pioneers, he gave little thought to how he depleted populations of deer, elk, buffalo, and beaver, or how his actions affected Indian tribes.

As an aside on terminology, I vividly remember a lecture on American Indians a few years ago, delivered by a professor from the Midwest. After the lecture, during the question-and-answer session, a zealous young coed sitting in the front row stood and indignantly demanded to know why he said “Indian” and not “Native American.” This highly educated professor, a member of a tribal group, said, “We Indians do not self-identify with the term Native American.” I suppressed a laugh. In all my dealings with tribal peoples in the West, I never heard them call themselves Native Americans. Typically, they referred to themselves as Flathead or Blackfeet or Lakota, or other indigenous groups. Often they simply said, “Indians.” I suspect that P.C. driven, white academics derived the title “Native Americans,” and others jumped on the bandwagon. I realize that early European explorers ignorantly referred to the indigenous peoples of the Americas as Indians, but I am not uptight about using it—especially in light of the fact that indigenous peoples often refer to themselves as Indians. But I digress.

Faragher’s carefully researched biography of Boone is a treasure trove of information, but he is not a creative a storyteller. I grew frustrated with his grammatical errors and unclear sentence constructions. Perhaps quoting semi-literate sentences written by Boone—often with hilarious spelling of words—proved to be a negative influence on Faragher. Nevertheless, I learned a lot from reading this biography. I became even more aware of how ruthlessly European pioneers pushed indigenous people off their land. They often called Indians “savages,” but their atrocities were as savage as anything the Indians did to European settlers.

Daniel Boone excelled in understanding Indians he encountered, and he was more ethical in his behavior than most of the land speculators who flooded into Kentucky in the late 1700s. But he also sought to get rich by selling thousands of acres of land and was frequently sued by others over land disputes. An inept businessman, he squandered many opportunities and ended up in poverty. When he had money, he purchased slaves to help with his work. In some ways, he was a pathetic individual, not the pioneer hero of the television show I watched as a kid. He excelled at woodcraft, was brave in battle, and at times was a good leader; but he foolishly dragged his family into the wilderness, where they suffered many deprivations, and some died in altercations with Indians who sought to drive the settlers back east. Many times I stopped reading to shake my head and say, “What an idiot!”

In this biography, Boone emerges as a magnanimous individual who was also clueless. His name is well known, but I doubt that most people realize the man’s many weaknesses. Although I am disappointed by the quality of writing, I am glad I read this biography because of all I learned about Boone and his time period—especially the ways European settlers in their zeal to grab land for farming dispossessed native peoples. To be sure, there were sociopathic Indians who hideously tortured and slaughtered white settlers. But the way settlers too often viewed Indians as sub-human provided excuses for revolting treatment of the native peoples. I am not trying to romanticize or idealize tribal cultures. They also had many humanitarian shortfalls. But I do not blame them for growing to hate Europeans.

In the last part of his book, Faragher recounts how writers of cheap novels transformed Boone into an Indian hating warrior against the red savages. Sadly, the reading public in the 1800s too often believed the nonsensical legends that filled these books—although Boone’s descendants condemned the works. As Boone was transformed into an American hero after his death, people used him as a means of promoting whatever views they personally held. Finally, carefully researched books like Faragher’s have corrected this misuse of an American pioneer who died in 1820.

My book on Saint Barnabas does similar separating of fact from fiction regarding the legends that arose centuries after the death of Barnabas when Orthodox clergy used him to advance their own political agendas.

The Island at the Center of the World

The significance of early Dutch Settlers

In my early 20s, I spent a short time in Manhattan, Montana, a small community of Dutch farmers. I found these tall, intelligent, handsome people to be quite interesting. Committed Calvinists, many read every edition of the Reformed Journal cover to cover. Two Reformed churches—alike and yet different—stood a short distance from each other in the village, competing with each other for the soul of the community. Until a few years before my visit, these were Dutch Reformed churches, but the name was changed to Christian Reformed to indicate that non-Dutch were also welcome to their congregations. Not until recently, while reading a book by Russel Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America, did I connect Manhattan, Montana, to Manhattan, New York.

I was simply unaware of the significance of early Dutch settlers in the history of the United States. Reading Shorto’s book was very educational. The blurb on the back cover of the book is quite enticing.

“When the British wrested New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664, the truth about its thriving, polyglot society began to disappear into myths about an island purchased for 24 dollars and a cartoonish peg-legged governor. But the story of the Dutch colony of New Netherland was merely lost, not destroyed: 12,000 pages of its records—recently declared a national treasure—are now being translated. Drawing on this remarkable archive, Russell Shorto has created a gripping narrative—a story of global sweep centered on a wilderness called Manhattan—that transforms our understanding of early America.”

The book lives up to this advertisement. As my wife and I read the story aloud to each other, we often stopped to examine maps to fix in our minds the locations of the events described. We found the book to be carefully researched and well written—a great combination for history books. Few are so well crafted.

The Storyteller from Kalo Chorio

My wife and I read books aloud to each other and discuss them as we read. Recently, we read Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail by Ben Montgomery (2016). At one point as I was reading this fascinating account of a 67 year-old grandmother who in 1955 became the first woman to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, my wife said, “This book is really an interesting example of creative non-fiction. It is almost as interesting as your book on Dafnis Panagides.” That brought a smile to my face. The Storyteller from Kalo Chorio, my book on the life of Dafnis, will soon be ready to order. The print version is almost finished, but the eBook version is more challenging due to the photographs and textboxes in the book. Complicated formatting proves to be much more difficult than manuscripts that are simply text. But soon you can read the story. Soon! I will let you know.