Reading Prompts

Perhaps it’s because maybe a half-dozen times in the past two years I’ve forgotten to click “publish,” or maybe everyone gets this, but WordPress started giving me daily prompts when I open the new post screen.  Everyday blogging questions such as whether you’re where you’d thought you’d be last year at this time, or what’s your favorite holiday food, or talk about your father or a father figure in your life (a loaded suggestion!).  I appreciate the thought, but I do strive for some measure of depth here.  Believe it or not, many of my posts are metaphorical, written about something that’s not the “obvious” subject of the mini-essay.  (Often when people criticize me it’s because I’m posting metaphorically.  Or maybe I just don’t know what I’m talking about.)  In any case, there have been times when a writing prompt might’ve been useful.  I haven’t used any, though.

Writing is a strange avocation.  These days many people make some kind of living as self-published authors.  The internet offers ways to minor fame—in some cases major fame—for anyone who has the time to put into it.  There’s always the question, however, of what to talk about.  This blog began, back in the days when I was fresh out of teaching religious studies, as a place where I could discuss the Bible and culture, or, more broadly, religion and culture.  That in itself limited the appeal.  People are fascinated by religion but really don’t want to read about it.  So it was that initially I had many followers—particularly among the biblical bloggers set—that eventually dropped off when I began writing about secular subjects.  Mostly I tend to focus on books.

There’s an irony to that as well.  As much as the internet helps some of us learn about books, it’s also a place that has diminished them.  Many people focus on social media to the point that there’s little time left to sit down with an actual book.  Interestingly enough, none of the prompts that WordPress now sets for me daily, has asked about what books I’ve been reading.  Perhaps books are the natural enemy of the online world.  If so, I seem to be caught between worlds.  I set aside time each day for reading, offline.  For those of us who write, reading is our food.  It often gives me the prompts I need for writing daily blog posts.  Even the days that I miss aren’t for lack of content—they’re simply forgetfulness because non-reading events crowd the rest of life.  It’s no wonder, then, that I try to engage others by asking, what books have you been reading lately?

The Daily Show

Long ago—over a dozen years now—I decided this blog would receive daily updates.  Some of the more successful blogs out there receive multiple daily updates, but I’m just one guy, and a working stiff at that.  When you do something every day a couple of contradictory things happen: one, you get better at it (if you’re a Gladwellian, it may take almost three decades, but the principle holds), and two, the quality varies.  I’ve long noticed this about daily ventures.  (I’ve also lately begun to realize that even daily shows take time out to refresh.)  I used to stay up to watch David Letterman (that seems impossible to believe in my current time warp).  When he was good he was very good, but when he wasn’t it was painful to watch.  You can’t be “on” every single day.  Emotions are funny that way.

Over the past year or so I’ve taken to occasionally binging on “Good Mythical Morning”—a YouTube daily show starring Rhett and Link.  These North Carolinians are inherently likable.  They’re a couple of guys who, in many ways, refuse to grow up.  They’re smart, and often funny.  And extremely popular.  Their channel has approaching 18 million subscribers.  They have off days, as do we all.  Sometimes I wake up feeling so contrary in the morning that I’m not sure I’m the same person who crawled into that bed only hours before.  Some days I don’t feel like writing a blog post.  On other days I feel like writing several.  What perhaps stands out to regular readers, if only one or two, is that some days you’re off.  So tragically human.  So wonderfully human.

I’ve often wondered if this is just a condition of life.  Pets, for example, have off days too.  I suppose the difference is that those committed to a daily show have put themselves out there so others can see them.  On one of those aptitude tests I took in high school the results suggested I should’ve been an entertainer.  Instead I took a religious and scholarly approach to things.  Maybe because I’m a middle child I always felt that nobody really paid attention to me.  So here I am, a baker’s dozen years out from writing daily on religion, ancient West Asian topics, books, and horror.  And sometimes current events, when I  feel like it.  If you’re taking the daily show route, you need to be aware that, despite the ennui, not every day will be the same.  Even someone as successful as Letterman knew that.

Say It in Poetry

I was listening to some Nick Cave the other day, and, as usual, I was quite taken by his lyrics.  I dusted off my poetry notebook and began to try to forge words into an impossible chain, but without much success.  Yes, I do occasionally write poetry.  I used to write quite a bit more.  There are too many “used tos” in my life, I think.  I grew up with two brothers, and a decade later, three.  (I also have a half-sister, but that’s a long story.)  My brothers have very different lives than mine.  One of them is now posting some of his poetry on a WordPress blog at Poetry Random Ramblings and Rants.  You ought to check it out.  (You might also run into a ramble or rant…)

Photo by Amador Loureiro on Unsplash

One thing I’ve learned from my many editorial board meetings is that successful books are often about the author.  My brother has an interesting life story to tell.  As I’ve noted here before, we grew up in a poverty-level working-class family.  We all found our own ways of coping with the stresses that involves.  Religion was my coping technique that become a strange vocation.  I knew, even as a tween, that whatever job I ended up having it would involve writing.  I learned early on that poetry is difficult to publish, but that never stopped me from writing it.  My brother has always been a much better poet than me, perhaps because of his life.  He’s less inhibited.  An authentic human being.  I don’t want to say too much, since that’s not my place.  Knowing the author, however, I know that he should have readers.

We make our way in the world, and when our parents haven’t really prepared, by example, what a life might be, we’ll you’re left second-guessing everything.  I suspect it drives my wife crazy sometimes.  For me every day is like being in a foreign country, unsure of the language.  Sure, I earned a doctorate but that doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing.  I’ve known medical doctors that were, truth be told, not that smart.  No, life is more of a story we tell about ourselves.  Some of us tell it in poetry, some in song, some in prose.  Some of us tell it nonfiction, and others, well, fictitiously.  A big problem with our world is that we don’t take time to listen to other peoples’ stories.  Their lives.  Those we do listen to (such as television and movie starts, sports players) are often dull.  For my money, there’s more to be learned from poetry, and the life it represents. 

Blog Writing

From time to time someone will ask me about my personal writing process.  Those who know that I write at all, primarily, I suspect, think I do mostly blog posts.  I have, however, written five nonfiction books and have completed seven unpublished novels.  Thirty of my short stories, also fiction, have been published.  I also have a few novels and at least four nonfiction books currently underway.  Like other writers, I require quite a lot of alone time.  From at least seminary on, I have carved that out of the early morning hours.  I’ve gone through phases when I slept normal hours like a civilized human being, but when at Nashotah House, where morning chapel was a daily requirement, I began awaking early to write.  When I began commuting into New York City, that writing time got pushed back to 3 a.m., and that is mostly still true today.

It is said that Isaac Asimov had three typewriters in his study, each loaded with a different writing project.  That way he could work on the one he felt like writing when the mood struck.  Yes, we writers use our emotions extensively.  What I work on in the morning depends on which me gets out of bed that day.  Is it the long fiction me?  Is it the nonfiction me?  Is it the short story me?  Is it the academic article me?  Is it the blog post me?  Ah, the blog posts.  They take a lot of time.  And, like most writing, they are driven by my moods.  Sometimes I write about current events, often posted after the fact.  Why?  Because I have other posts that have been waiting to be presented.

There’s a bit of illusion involved in writing.  Apart from the fact that all of my blog posts are written in the early morning, it isn’t evident from the post itself when it was written.  (Unless I refer to something as having happened “yesterday” or “last week.”)  I don’t follow current events closely.  I can get depressed just fine on my own, thank you.  I don’t start out the day with the newspaper.  Writers often live in their own worlds.  Reality intrudes too much, most of the time.  I may never become a bestselling author.  I may never be able to court an agent—believe me, I’ve tried.  I may never have more than a few followers on this blog, but one thing I will do is continue writing.  It wouldn’t surprise me, and in fact I think it would be entirely within character, if I died with my fingers on the keyboard.

Learning to Like

The shout-out is an always appreciated gesture.  Among the guests on The Incarcerated Christian podcast, I’m pretty clearly the one with the smallest following.  That makes me doubly grateful to Robin and Debra for the work they’re doing.  If you want to get a sense of what their initial year involved, please take an unrushed moment or two and listen to their year-end reflection.  Better yet, follow them wherever you follow podcasts.  I’ve been watching some YouTube lately (I know, I know, the world has gone after TikTok instead) and I’ve come to realize that even those channels with millions of views have to remind people every single episode to click like, share, and/or notification.  Nobody knows it’s worth their time if readers/watchers don’t share!

One of the things about writing is that is craves readers.  There’s an almost Hebraic sense in which my writing is intended as a statement, whether or not it’s even read.  Ideas build up until they must be expressed.  You start to get to know other people by their words, written or spoken.  I sincerely wish I had more time to listen to podcasts.  I’m one of those people who can’t write with music or talking going on.  Nor can I work that way.  Those two activities make up the majority of my waking hours (perhaps I’m trying too hard, if there is such a thing).  Even the smallest Who, however, has his “Yop” to express.  In that case, however, he ended up saving the world.  I suspect many people have no idea what this blog’s about.  If you know, please tell me.  (There’s a comment section below.  Don’t forget to click like and share when you’re down there!)

The Incarcerated Christian has had everyone from evangelical pastors to obscure religionists such as yours truly on their podcasts.  People who aren’t afraid of the dark.  There’s an episode about the divine feminine.  There’s another by a blogger who used to follow my blog and comment on it in the early days until his own efforts took off.  And there are the hosts, Debra and Robin, whose stories are intriguing in their own right.  They approached me not knowing my own history with abusive religions—perhaps it comes through in my writing, or at least my choice of subjects?  There’s a strange comfort in knowing that others have had similar experiences.  Religion can be a monster, devouring people and spitting them out, all in the name of sanctity.  Listen to the Incarcerated Christian podcast, and don’t forget to like and share alike.

Picture This

For a writer with limited time, a blog seems like a good idea.  Years ago WordPress emerged as the premier site on which to host such a venture—it was free (but like all things in the tech revolution it would eventually start charging a subscription fee), easy to use, and friendly to your average Luddite.  Now that I’ve been doing this some dozen years you might think that coming up with daily topics is the difficult part.  Well, it is a challenge sometimes, I admit, but the hardest part is coming up with images.  Occasionally I have an image around which to base a post, but the fact is I’ve discovered several blogs because I was searching for an image.  So I started putting an image in each post.  So far, so good.

WordPress has evolved over the years.  It has become more and more commercial.  After so much space is filled on your site (I pay regular fees for both the space and for the domain name) you must upgrade.  The next upgrade available to me is “Business.”  This blog is purely an avocation.  Any writer who doesn’t offer online content these days, at least according to the marketers and publicists I know, will never write a break-through book.  From my own experience, agents won’t even touch you unless you’ve got a far larger following than mine (and I’ve been faithful for a dozen years).  Anyway, I don’t want to pay for a business plan, so I reuse a lot of images.  That is the most time-consuming part of posting on this blog. 

You see, I post each day immediately before work.  To search over twelve years of images is difficult on WordPress.  Many of my images are my own, and my phone names them “img” (which autocorrect wants to make “omg”).  Searching those in WordPress to find a specific image can easily take an hour.  Considering the time these pieces are posted, you get an idea of when I have to start.  Good thing I’m an early riser!  My relationship with technology is an uneasy one.  I appreciate content.  Producing it is an act of pure creativity and it’s important to me to do it every single day.  But work is non-negotiable.  Metrics apply.  Consequences for not meeting them can be significant.  Where is that image I thought would be perfect for the post I wrote?  I should’ve renamed them before using them.  But just this moment, work’s about to start.  Now, what am I going to use to illustrate this post?

Remember the early days?

Voice of Experience

Trust your publisher.  Well, if you have one, that is.  I’m not the only erstwhile academic to have ended up in publishing, but what constantly surprises me is that academics care little about those who give voice to their ideas.  Now this blog is self-publishing.  It contains my ideas, but they are free for the taking, and here’s a bit of useful advice: trust your publisher.  These days with easy online publication and formatting that makes your posts look like a pro (not here, mind you), it’s sometimes difficult to realize that publishers actually provide more than just an imprint.  They offer services to make your book look serious, scholarly, and also to be useful to others.  Those of us who write books are often far too emotionally involved to see this.

I regularly run across academics who tell publishers how the text should look on the page.  I’m not talking about those weird and wonderful sections of ancient texts with <lacunae>… ellipses… [brackets] and whatnot.  No, there are those who want to control kerning, leading, and all sorts of things.  There are those who want practically every single word indexed, although research shows that most researchers access searchable PDFs rather than wasting their time thumbing through pages to find a reference.  And that traditional chestnut, “written for general readers.”  Publishers have access to book sales figures (at least of their own books).  There’s no need to bluff; if your book is only for scholars (does it have words like “reify” or “heuristic” in it?  Be honest now!), publishers know how to handle that.

We’re all nervous when our book gets through the acceptance process.  Peer review always breaks me into a cold sweat.  Believe me, we understand!  Take a soothing sip of tea.  Go for a walk.  Better yet, jog.  Scholars tend to be precise thinkers.  We get that.  When, however, is the last time someone used a map from a Bible for navigation?  Most of those cities don’t even exist any more!  This strange mix of online savvy and adherence to the old ways of print (which I love and of which I shall never let go) clash in ways that cause publishers great stress.  You can find a YouTube video on how to make your own book.  Those of us in the biz can tell at a glance if a book’s self-published or not.  And believe me, we’re rooting for you.  We want your book to succeed.  Why not trust those who know what they’re doing?

A Decade

Please pardon my being sentimental, but today marks one decade of blogging on Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.  I realized, thinking this over, that I used to make some interesting, perhaps even quotable statements back then.  Why not, I thought, farm those older posts to celebrate what I was thinking when I was a tenth-of-a-century younger?  So for today’s post, I’m presenting some quotable quotes from July 2009, starting with one of the zingers from my very first post.  For convenience, I’ve even provided the links to the posts so you can see them in context, if your July has somehow not filled itself up already.

Sects and Violence in the Ancient World, by the way, was the name given when one of my nieces thrust a recorder in my face and asked me what I would call a blog, if I had one.  She subsequently set this site up for me.  One aspect of the title may not have been evident: it’s a quasi-anagram for my initials.  It has been, from the beginning, mostly metaphorical.  Without further ado, then, a few of my favorite lines from a decade long gone:

“He had a sidekick called Cypher (sold separately), and arch-enemies with such names as Primordious Drool and Wacky Protestor. I marveled at the missed opportunity here — they could have called them Text Critic and Doctor Mentary Hypothesis!” First post: Bible Guy, July 12, 2009. <>

“Technology has outstripped reality.” Asherah Begins, July 13, 2009 <>

“Black and white are not in the palette of serious religious studies.”  God is Great (not)?, July 14, 2009 <>

“When he [Aqhat] refuses to release it to the goddess he is unfortunately pecked to death in a hitchcockian demise by a swarm of buzzards with attitudes.” Sects and Violence, July 15, 2009 <>

“Indeed, one may think of them [religion and monsters] as fellow ventricles in the anatomy of fear.” Vampires, Mummies and the Holy Ghost, July 16, 2009 <>

“Better to consider it [weather] human than to face unfeeling nature.” Changing Faces of the Divine, July 18, 2009 <>

“As the gods are drinking themselves senseless (how else can the latest Bush administration be explained?)…” Drunken Moonshine, July 20, 2009 <>

“As usual, we kill off what we don’t comprehend.” Not Lion, July 22, 2009 <>

“A bonobo was recently documented as uttering the word ‘yes’ to a keeper’s question, officially making her more articulate than some clergy I’ve known. Even today there are churches that still call their leaders Primates!” Religious Origins, July 23, 2009 <>

“I never used a computer regularly until I began my Ph.D., and then it was only a glorified typewriter, qwerty on steroids.” Who We Were, July 27, 2009 <>

“I grew up in a blue-collar household where paying ladies for favors was itself considered a sin.” Yes, Mammon, July 28, 2009 <>

Where do you suppose we’ll be a decade from now?


Sects and Violence in the Ancient World is nine years old today.  Not that I’m keeping count.  Really, I’m not.  WordPress sent me a notice, and they ought to know, being the virtual womb whence my thoughts gestate.  The original plan for this blog was to take my abiding interest in the religions of antiquity and give them a more public face.  My brother-in-law, Neal Stephenson, thought I should do podcasts, because, at the time I spoke incessantly about ancient deities.  I can still hold forth about Asherah at great length, but ancient Near Eastern studies is, believe it or not, an evolving field.  You need access to a university library, or at least JSTOR, and a whole sabbatical’s worth of time to keep up with it.  Even though telecommuting, I’m a nine-to-five guy now, and my research involves mostly reading books.

So Sects and Violence began to evolve.  I realized after teaching biblical studies for over a decade-and-a-half that my real interest was in how the Bible was understood in culture.  Having a doctorate from a world-class university in the origins of the Good Book certainly should add credibility.  My own journey down that pathway began because of interpretations of Scripture that were strongly cultural in origin.  I first began reading with Dick and Jane but quickly moved on to Holy Writ.  It has shaped my life since before I was ten.  It’s only natural I should be curious.

Like most tweens, I discovered sects.  Why did so many people believe so many different things?  And many of them call themselves Christians.  And the Christians I knew said the others weren’t Christian at all.  And so the conversations went, excluding others left, right, and center.  As someone who wanted answers, this fascinated me.  The Bible was the basis for many belief systems of sects everywhere.  From Haiti to Ruby Ridge.  From New York City to Easter Island.  From Tierra del Fuego to Seoul.  And not just one Bible, but many scriptures.  And these beliefs led to behavior that could be called “strange” were it not so thoroughly pervasive.  Scientists and economists say we’ve outlived the need for religion.  By far the vast majority of people in the world disagree.  I couldn’t have articulated it that way nine years ago, but since losing my teaching platform, I’ve been giving away for free what over four decades of dedicated study—with bona fides, no less!—has revealed.  Happy blogday to Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.

A New Look

I beg the indulgence of my regular readers as I post a public service entry today. As I noted a few weeks back, I have filled the allotted free space on WordPress. That meant I had to move to a paid plan and what with all the extra space in here I hired a professional web-designer to help me spruce the place up a bit. This note is to let you know that within the next 24 hours the appearance of this website will change dramatically. Don’t worry, Sects and Violence in the Ancient World will still be part of it. I hope that, if you subscribe, you’ll be willing to move that subscription to the blog page because I’ll continue to use it. The new home page will allow me to attempt to bring my books to the attention of the world while continuing to do whatever it is I do on a daily basis here at the blog. Since you’ve been kind enough to read this far, I figured I could share a little of my thinking about the blog in an exercise in meta-narrative.

First of all, the title. Why do I call the blog “Sects and Violence in the Ancient World”? As much as I’d like to say it was an intentional quasi-anagram involving my initials and other key letters of my full name, that wasn’t actually it. This blog began as a summertime conversation with my extended family while on vacation. I hardly knew what a blog was then (and some would argue I clearly don’t know what one is even now!), but but brother-in-law suggested it as a place to do some podcasting. (I did, until I started working in New York City, which ate up virtually all of my free time during the week.) One of my nieces said “What would you call your blog?” Off the top of my head I said “Sects and Violence,” well, you know the rest. I originally had hopes that my career teaching ancient West Asian religions would continue some day. Indeed, I still post in that area, but my interests have shifted a bit since then. The main theme of the blog has remained religious studies, broadly conceived. I don’t limit myself to that, but I do use it as a personal pole-star.

Writing is its own reward. And besides, WordPress told me I’d run out of space. The next time you check in here, things will probably look a bit different. The blog will still be there, but there will be some other pages and features. Thanks for coming at least part way on the journey with me. And when I run out of space again, we’ll see where it goes from there.

Taking Time

Good writing is hard work. One of the mixed blessings of the internet is that it makes publication so easy. Get yourself a blog and nobody has to approve anything! Ideas come tripping across your fingers onto some electronic substrate and, viola! You’re an author! The problem is that being an author’s not the same as being a good author. Writing well (and I make no such claim for myself—after all this is just a blog) is hard work. A piece has to be written, and then read again and again. I’m reminded of the story of a convicted murder whose name I’m forgotten (call it a defense mechanism). This was early last century. The murderer was caught, initially after having been found wandering, disheveled, in public. As a respectable man (he was a doctor, I think) part of his defense was that he’d never have left his house without being presentable. He would have on a collar and hat. People would see him, and he had to convince them of his presentability every single time he walked out that door. (This isn’t an affliction that I share, by the way.) Writing for publication is like that—you need to take care to look respectable every single time.

I can’t speculate about how other writers do their thing, but for me the main requirement for this is time. Any piece that I want anyone else to see, has to be written. Read. Edited. Re-read. And probably edited again. All before the public sees it. This is just for the informal stuff. I’m currently writing a book (which is pretty much a constant state with me). The draft was finished months ago. I started thinking about a publisher. Then I read it again. I couldn’t believe I’d ever thought it was ready for a publisher. Several rewrites followed. I’m in the midst of another one at the moment. I think of it like my ill-used rock tumbler. You want shiny rocks, you’ve got to send them through with finer and finer grit. If you do it right, they’ll come out looking like they’re wet, and they’ll stay looking that way. Polished writing takes time.

Some things can’t be hurried. As a middle-schooler I had a summer job with the school district. One of my assigned tasks was painting bus shanties. Many of these were, as you’d expect, way out in the middle of nowhere. I’d be dropped off with a couple other teens and we’d paint the shelter inside and out. One day I got tired of the constant, boring, and repetitive task of filling a paint pan with white paint, carrying it into the shelter, using it up, and then doing it all over again several times. I decided to pour the paint directly on the plywood floor of the shelter. All I’d have to do would be to roll it out and who’d be the wiser? I only did it once. Little did I consider that the best painting, like the best writing, is a thin layer over the substrate. You need to go over it more than once, leaving time between layers. More importantly, I didn’t realize that you can’t gauge how much paint you need this quick way. The best thing is to run out and refill. Then you can pour the remainder from the pan back into the can. The floor took hours and hours to dry. Not only that, but the top surface dried first, so when I stepped in, I pulled up a thick layer of paint off on the bottom of my shoe. Tom Sawyer I was not. I had to redo it. What I learned that day, though, was a lesson about writing. Take your time. But you don’t have to take my word for it. I just write a blog.