A Reading Life (Pt. 4): “…And the Gunslinger Followed”


 

By Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.

I love scary stories.  My first scary story, which my mother read to me nearly every night, was The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree.  I remember hiding under the blanket while Mom read about the Berenstain cubs running through the woods, between rocks, in caves, and up trees, only to return home again.  I remember wondering what lurked in the trees beyond my window; I wondered what haunted the underside of my bed!

As I grew, this feeling stuck.  I enjoyed books that gave a fright and movies that went bump in the night.  I remember where I was when I first watched House (my uncle’s house) and Aliens (my aunt’s house)–the scariest movies I watched as a child.  We stayed up late around Halloween to watch old Vincent Price flicks.  We reserved Saturday afternoons for creature features– Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, Godzilla, and The Blob were popular.

By the time I hit middle school, I stumbled upon Stephen King.  I purchased Pet Cemetery when I was in eighth grade in preparation for a road trip from Florida to New York.  I’m not quite sure why my mother allowed me to purchase a Stephen King novel.  My guess is that my parents were happy that I was reading since that wasn’t one of the things I enjoyed in school.  I read the book, and I was profoundly freaked out.

My love for spooky tales continued into high school.  I did not read anything that my classes required, not for lack of reading, but because I was too busy reading the things I enjoyed.  The high school library contained a number of Stephen King, Michael Crighton, and Robin Cook books.

A flashpoint came in the tenth grade.  A friend recommended The Gunslinger, by Stephen King.  I can still recite the opening sentence: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

I binge-read The Gunslinger and its two sequels over several weeks.  I didn’t get much sleep, and my grades probably suffered.  But those books–the first four in particular–were the best I had read at the time.

I followed The Gunslinger with Dolores Claiborne and Misery (bless Kathy Bates!) and several anthologies, though I never tackled the bigger King tomes such as It.  Nor have I finished the Gunslinger series beyond the fourth book because I’m convinced that the sober King of the modern era is not nearly as good a writer as the King of the 1980s.  I finally read The Stand about ten years ago; and I’m convinced that “The Mist” and “Word Processor of the Gods” are still the best short stories I’ve read.

Michael Crighton was next on my list of favorite authors, and I’m sure I read almost every available in the school library.  I laid on my couch for entire weekends reading Disclosure, Congo, Eaters of the Dead, and Sphere.  When Jurassic Park came out in the theater, racking up millions of dollars, I read the book–and, boy, it did not disappoint!  (I read it again in 2017 along with Dragon Teeth, and it was just as good; Dragon Teeth, not so much).

When I read The Firm, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer.  Seriously, I went to college originally on the pre-law track, double-majoring in history and religion!

All of this brings fond memories, and I’m sure that some readers of this blog will agree that the 1980s was a great decade for books and movies of us horror fans.  I don’t know why I like that stuff so much–my Christian faith never wavered from reading them–but my imagination and those scary times of listening to Mom’s rendition of The Berenstain Bears stuck with me.  And, for all that fun, I never caught a singer slasher movie–to this day, haven’t watched Friday the 13th, Halloween, or Nightmare on Elm Street.  Not my type of sub-genre.

When I had children of my own, I starting telling ghost stories.  We came up with a resident ghost who lived in our backyard, whose full name was, “Flip Flop Flappy Jack, Give-the-dog-a-bone.”  Flip-Flop (for short) was a pirate (and his dog) who haunted our property and ate children who stayed outside past midnight.

We told other ghost stories around campfires with neighbors and friends, and I am proud to say that I had at least one little girl, a 12-year old, who refused to sleep with her light off for six-months after that hearing one such story.  You’re welcome.

My “niece”, my best friend’s daughter, still gets scared when she remembers the story I told of the boy who dug up a toe in his back yard, only to have its owner come looking for it that night (borrowed from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, by Alvin Schwartz).

My children are older now, but the allure of spooky stories linger in the LaGuardia household.  We love sitting down to good, creepy movies.  The Goosebumps TV series (from years ago) is streaming on Netflix and has been a great show.  We just watched the live-action Scooby Doo movies for the first time this past summer–that dude who plays Shaggy is great!

We watch The Twilight Zone every now and then (also on Netflix).  I recommend to bibliophiles the episode, “Time Enough at Last,” staring Burgess Meredith (pictured above), who survives a nuclear blast by taking cover in the bowels of his local library.  I am looking forward to watching The Haunting and The House on Haunted Hill– both Netflix originals–some time soon.

Horror books (what my family likes to call “Mystery Stories”) still play a very small part in my recreational reading.  Recently, I discovered Mabel Sheeley at our local used bookstore.  Her book The Listening House is a classic, published in 1938.  Its a pot-boiler about a young writer who stumbled on a mysterious series of murders.

I have another of the “Madame of Mystery” (as Sheeley was known) books, The Crying Sisters, on my “to read” pile.  I thank a certain Mr. George L., who acquired them in 1941, (or his family!) for donating them to the Friends of the Library bookstore.  It brings me back to my King days–late nights huddled under blankets, reading deep into the night, waiting for a bony hand to reach out of the blackness to give me the fright for which I’m still hunting–and I am grateful.

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“A Whispering Call” now available in paperback

In A Whispering Call, Joe LaGuardia explores the treasure of God’s unfolding drama of salvation from the earliest pages of Genesis to the advent of Jesus Christ.  It is a celebration of scripture and a plea to take a renewed interest in the First (Old) Testament.

“By way of neglect,” LaGuardia writes, “the church has lost the ability to read the Old Testament independently from the Jesus whom Christians serve…The breadth and depth of the Old Testament solicits as much, and begs a closer reading by Christians, various faith groups, and people of no faith at all.”  A Whispering Call seeks to let the Testament stand on its own, to hear ancient voices for a new day, and rediscover the hope that launches the greatest story ever told.

A Whispering Call is LaGuardia’s second anthology of essays on sacred scripture, and it is sure to encourage, challenge, and inspire readers in the journey of faith.  It promises to bring biblical principles to life and affirm God’s mission in the world.

Every essay pays careful attention to biblical research and cultural insights, and each includes a series of study questions perfect for private devotions or public use.  Read them for group discipleship, incorporate them in the classroom, peruse them to prepare for that next sermon.  They promise to enlighten and entertain.

Order your copy today!

Here are some excerpts from the book…

On scripture…

God’s Word is not a sounding board that reinforces our cliché beliefs about Jesus; nor it is an echo chamber as cheap as social media platforms sometimes assume…Regardless of contemporary, common arguments about the nature and inspiration of scripture, the ancients believed that the Bible was a dangerous book, one that beheld the mystery of God and reinforced the fragility and myopia of God’s people. 

Its radical message had the power to transform lives, communities, institutions, and nations.  In the words of Barbara Bowe, savoring scripture makes the difference between admiring the flame of a candle and touching the flame of a candle so as to engage that which is dangerous, purifying, and–in many ways–scathing.

On sexual abuse and #MeToo in the Old Testament…

Although forgiveness [in the Bible] breaks cycles of violence, forgiveness does not exclude speaking out, protesting, and resisting personal or systemic abuse.  It does not condone violence or look in the other direction.  Jesus’ forgiveness does not give us an excuse to continue to see, seize, and subdue like Shechem did with Dinah.  Rather, the act of forgiveness calls us all to holiness, restoration, and healing.  It gives the oppressed a voice–all who are at the center of our texts of terror–and empowers those of us on the sidelines, that we might intervene…It is not enough to say “I’m sorry,” we must right wrongs so that reparations can prevent future abuses and exploitive practices.

On the state of the church…

Many people claim that today’s church is worse off than ever before and in need of reform…Some Christian scholars believe that this is not the end of the church, but only another beginning–the Holy Spirit is moving the church from the laurels of comfort and inspiring a new movement of outreach and missions that pivots God’s people from an inward-focused ministry to an outward-focused missional agenda.  Fundamentalism will collapse in on itself, exposing the false gods of nationalism and tribalism, while the God of Pentecost–always breaking boundaries of ethnicity, gender, race, and economics-is moving well beyond the walls of the church.

On justice in the Bible…

If there is any voice for justice crying in the biblical wilderness, it is the prophet Isaiah. Throughout his message to Israel, he called for people to “do justice” (1:17). Echoing other prophets, such as Micah and Amos, he challenged people to have mercy. This was not only for personal enrichment, it was a community ethic in which relationships were set straight, economic injustices repaired, and people long-neglected were protected and honored. Justice was not about having one’s head in the clouds, but about making space for others in one’s own living room. It was not a reach beyond community, it was a diligent plan to make community one of integrity and compassion—an organic, living model built on the theology that all people are part of God’s creation, even if some people do not believe in that fact.

For Isaiah, justice means caring for the refugee, widow and orphan. It means insuring economic opportunity, minimizing debts, sustaining land ownership, and understanding that if things are not right between neighbors, then things with God will not be right.

For the Love of the Bible

By Joe LaGuardia

Some time ago, I wrote a column on the Christian sub-culture (or underworld?) of premium Bibles.  In it, I uncovered a whole new community made up of folks who love, review, purchase, swap, and talk Bibles.  These are not just any Bibles, mind you–rather, they run the gambit from hand-bound, high-priced Bibles to reviews of Bibles you can get at the Dollar store.

I became ensconced with these videos because I, too, have always loved Bibles.  When Cokesbury had a storefront in Atlanta, I would spend hours perusing all of the Bibles, Bible helps, and Bible gadgets (highlighters, rulers, maps, you name it).  I did not know that others liked Bibles like I do.  You know all of those introductions and translator’s notes that are found in the beginning of Bibles?  I read those for fun.

There is, however, a big difference between reviewing and loving Bibles to actually reading the Bible.  Smelling the leather of a newly, cracked-open Bible may be therapeutic, but only by reading the Bible–spending time with the Bible, studying God’s Word, listening to the Holy Spirit, and responding to the Spirit–makes any difference.  The rest is just for fun.

My friends and I are not alone in this.  A recent survey published by the Barna research group shows that the Bible still plays a central role in American households.  Nearly half the people in our nation engage the Bible at least four times a year, and a third do so on a weekly basis.  Over half of Americans say that the Bible informs their values, and nearly half say that the Bible has transformed their lives or have led to positive outcomes in the spiritual growth.

The Bible is also a way to witness to others: Over 60% of people claim they are interested in what the Bible has to say about current events, God, and about their lives or the lives of those around them.  Christians should capitalize on this trend and bring up the Bible in conversation with non-believers–people want to talk about the Bible, wrestle with its content, and inquire about the good, the bad, and the ugly that one might find in its pages.

Christians who study the Bible and communicate its contents can be pivotal in helping people overcome their preconceived notions about Scripture and experience the Bible as the Good News God intended it to be.  Christians also have an opportunity to correct the misinformed along the way.

There are times when I ask whether the love of Scripture can go too far.  In a recent Youtube video, one of those Bible reviewers expressed their love for their Bible, even going so far as to say that they love their Bible as much as they love Jesus.  As Bible-believers, we should never lose sight of what the Bible says about the Word–Jesus is the Word made flesh, and it is Jesus who has authority over us.  The Bible, according to the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message, is the record of God’s revelation to us.  And, as Arun Gandhi once noted, we who are People of the Book should never place the Book above people.

Our love of Scripture should not be an end to itself, and our study of Scripture should not be for the sake of studying alone, but to draw our hearts towards Jesus, our mind towards the things of the Spirit, and our actions towards helping our neighbors.  There is such a thing as “Biblolotry,” and I have seen people who have abused others by taking the Bible out of context or failing to follow the Holy Spirit beyond the pages of scripture.

Barna’s research is a good reminder that we need to engage the Bible: It is good for us, it helps us grow in Christ, and provides the Holy Spirit with an opportunity to shape our values.  It can also be a tool to help others experience Christ.  We can love our Bibles–we should use them often and know them, inside and out–but our love should never exceed that love we have of the Lord and of the people He has placed in our lives.  So read it, then minister; pray, then walk the walk, don’t just talk the talk.