About Paul (Kent) Muckley

Paul (Kent) Muckley hopes to spur interest in the Bible for readers of all ages and backgrounds. He has written several books, including Know Your Bible: All 66 Books Explained and Applied (with more than 2 million copies sold), Bible Curiosities, Playing with Purpose: Baseball Devotions, and The Real Force: A 40-Day Devotional. In his day job, Paul edits books for other writers. He and his wife, Laurie, have adopted three children and live near Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Question Everything

4835f5cfdc4709cbd181840ec9e16f16

I wish I could take credit for the internet quotation, “The problem with internet quotations is that you can never be certain they’re authentic.” And who gave us this helpful reminder? If you Google it, you’ll find it was Abraham Lincoln.

Yeah, that’s ironic, doubly so when the quote and attribution are laid over an image of Benjamin Franklin. I’m hoping that second irony was intentional as well.

Some inaccuracies are funny. But bloopers, blunders, and blatant boo-boos in our Christian books aren’t. Certainly in our non-fiction, but even in the background details of fiction, we have a responsibility to our readers to provide accurate, correct information. (We do serve Jesus, who described himself as “the Truth.”)

Today, I encourage you to “question everything.” Why? Well, if you happen to Google that phrase, you’ll see it attributed to Euripides . . . no, wait, it was Albert Einstein . . . no, Socrates . . . or maybe Maria Mitchell. (Who’s that? Let’s see . . . Wikipedia offers two possibilities: an American astronomer or an Australian actress and singer.) There’s even an online forum discussing the question, “Isn’t there a Bible verse that says, ‘Question everything’?”

My point is simply this: Writers have a world of information at their fingertips, and it’s very easy to find an online quotation, fact, date, or story that fits their manuscript perfectly. Unfortunately, a certain amount of that information is just going to be wrong.

I could offer countless examples I’ve run across in my day job as a copy editor. But here are just a few, under two troublesome categories:

Questionable quotations:

Mark Twain was right: “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”

Sixteenth century French theologian and pastor John Calvin wrote, “To make intercession for men is the most powerful and practical way in which we can express our love for them.”

Question every quote attributed to a famous person, especially if you found it on an internet quote site. Or, to put it another way, don’t believe everything you see on BrainyQuote, Goodreads, et al.

Here’s a well-researched article describing the “Mark Twain quote” above: http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/10/26/kindness-see/. And if you search that “John Calvin quote” in Google Books, you’ll find it’s not actually from Calvin, but from a book about Calvin.

Google Books and Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature are indispensable tools for verifying quotations. But even if you determine a quotation is correctly worded and attributed, you should still question its context. Elaboration follows, after this link to a pretty funny article on internet quote sites in general: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2014/05/quote_websites_are_frequently_inaccurate_but_we_use_them_anyway.html)

Concerns over context:

So you’ve found and verified a great quote for your manuscript . . . now take a few moments to “read around” that quote and to look up the author. You may find that the words come from a volume of unorthodox theology, a racy novel, or the pen of a white supremacist (all real-life examples). Those facts don’t necessarily disqualify the quotes, but you should be aware of their source—do you want, however unwittingly, to appear to endorse these writers?

Bible quotations should always be scanned for their larger context, too. What do you think of this one, from Jeremiah 26:14?

 “As for me, I am in your hands; do with me whatever you think is good and right.”

One author used these words as a beautiful example of Jeremiah’s surrender and submission to God. In actual context, the prophet was speaking to the priests and prophets of Judah, who hated his message and were threatening to kill him.

It’s incumbent on writers (and later, editors like me) to ensure every assertion in our book is accurate. And that may take a visit to two, three, or a dozen web pages to get to the actual story. (Not just Wikipedia . . . it’s a good starting point, but double check what you find there too.) If there’s one thing I hope you take away from this post, it’s this: Don’t believe everything you read online.

Why? There are three big benefits to you as a writer. First, you’ll keep your editor on your side. Second, you’ll keep your readers on your side. Third, if you accomplish the first and the second, there’s a greater chance you’ll keep your publisher on your side (and maybe get future contracts).

As an author, you are putting yourself forward as an expert on your topic. Don’t hurt your credibility by believing the first internet page you open. For everyone’s sake, dig deeper. Question everything.

Devotional Essentials, Part 3

glasses-272399_960_720

It’s probably no exaggeration to say that millions of people—maybe even tens of millions—use devotionals as a regular part of their Christian walk. And while many of them are re-reading classic works like My Utmost for His Highest, Morning and Evening, or The Real Force—A 40-Day Devotional (sorry, just a little shameless self-promotion there), many others are looking for brand-new readings that speak to their particular interests or needs. Book and magazine publishers, web sites, and churches all regularly produce new devotional material for this large and hungry audience. If you’re interested in writing devotionals, I hope you’ve found this “Devotional Essentials” series helpful. In this third installment, we conclude by discussing the S and T of the TEST I’ve suggested: Effective devotional pieces move from Topic to Example to Segue to Takeaway.

While every aspect of a devotional is important, the Segue and Takeaway are truly vital. If your Topic intrigued someone enough to start reading, you’ve already won a small victory—there are plenty of other devotionals that she could have chosen. Assuming your Examples are worthy of your Topic, the “storyline” of the devotional should keep his attention. But now we get to the devotional’s raison d’être: the biblical tie-in and spiritual point of the whole thing. Done well, your devotional will educate, edify, even excite readers. Done poorly, it may convince readers not to come back.

A Segue is a transition, “made without pause or interruption,” in Merriam-Webster’s definition. How do we move from the Example of our devotional—often a “secular” topic such as a sporting event, a movie scene, or some everyday experience—to the biblical teaching and the ultimate spiritual point, the Takeaway?

The Segue will be vary in complexity, depending on how closely the scriptural information parallels your example. If they’re very close, you might not need any transition at all—the connection will be obvious enough. But in most cases, a Segue should bridge the two ideas. It might be as simple as inserting a phrase like “In a similar way. . . .” Or the Segue may need to be developed over a couple sentences. (If you need more than that to explain the relationship, though, you might be trying to connect the wrong Scripture and story.)

Beware of the too-easy transition. In the “Home Run Kings” example of my last post, it would be easy (but cheesy) to come out of details about Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron by saying, “And Jesus will always hit a home run for you!” Give your devotional more thought (and your reader more respect) by developing Segues that are less obvious and more memorable. While devotionals aren’t a place for deep theological discussion, they can and should challenge readers with some fresh perspective on the Bible.

It’s that Bible teaching that comprises the Takeaway, the point of information or call to action you want readers to remember. As with each part of a devotional, the Bible teaching must be concise—the Takeaway will challenge your skills of condensing material, while staying true to the actual context and teaching of your chosen Scripture. Ideally, the Takeaway ends with a pithy, memorable wrap-up that encapsulates the entire entry and sticks in the mind.

Let’s finish today with a sample devotional that breaks out the elements of the TEST in context:

Topic: Major League Baseball

Example:

He was good enough to reach the major leagues, but not good enough to stay long. Yet he’ll always be good enough in the record books.

Confused? It’s a baseball riddle, of sorts.

The answer is Bill Goodenough, who appeared in ten games for the 1893 St. Louis Cardinals. The 6-foot, 1-inch, 170-pound center fielder was a late-season call-up for the Cards, debuting on August 31 for a squad that would finish tenth in the twelve-team National League.

Goodenough’s statistics were as mundane as his team’s performance that year. In 31 at bats, he rapped only four singles and a double for a batting average of .161. He reached base six other times—equally divided between walks and hit by pitches—stole a pair of bases, and scored four runs. And then Bill Goodenough, apparently not good enough, disappeared from the major leagues.

Segue:

We might play off Mr. Goodenough’s story to encourage people to try a little harder, live a little better, strive a little more to be “good enough” to please God. But that really misses the point.

Takeaway:

The apostle Paul wrote to Christians in Rome that, “no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law” (Romans 3:20). Our good works aren’t what please God—it’s what we believe about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. As Paul asked the Galatians, “Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?” (Galatians 3:2).

It’s good to do good, but never think that’s your ticket to heaven. Only faith in Jesus makes you “good enough.”

 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith. For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.

Romans 3:27–28

Thanks for reading. Now go write some devotionals!

 

Devotional Essentials, Part 2

books-690219_960_720

Devotionals come in many shapes and sizes. By “devotional,” we might mean a single piece of writing, somewhere in the range of 200 to 1,000 words. Or we might mean an entire collection of such readings, perhaps in 30-, 40-, 60-, 90-, or 365-day packages. These details vary, but I suggest that the “devotional essentials” fall within the TEST described in my last blog post. Today, we’ll discuss the Topic and Example of an effective devotional; next time, we’ll wrap up with the Segue and Takeaway.

Topic: There are two ways to arrive at your topic: choose it yourself or have someone else choose it for you. That may not seem profound, but it is reality.
If you want to contribute entries to anyone else’s devotional project, you’ll write to their topic—or if not a specific topic, to the general themes and style of the organization. Maybe a book publisher is planning a devotional for mothers of special needs children. Maybe a church denomination wants adventure-themed devotions for its men’s magazine. Maybe your pastor is looking for devotions to go with his preaching series on family finance. If you’re chosen to submit entries in a case like this, part of your work is already done.

If you’re writing your own devotional, you have limitless opportunities for topics—though not necessarily limitless opportunities for readership. Sure, you could write devotionals that draw their points from thrash metal music, but you probably won’t find a huge audience. Whether you publish traditionally, self-publish, or distribute your readings in other venues, you can address whatever topic is near and dear to your heart or whatever topic will help and encourage large numbers of readers. Ideally, both.

I have personally written full books of devotions on baseball (180 readings) and the Star Wars films (40 readings). I’ve also contributed to collections about movies in general, football, literature, the outdoors, fatherhood, and memorable Bible verses. Please note the focus of these collections—each book is centered on a clearly identifiable theme. If you’re shopping a devotional book proposal, you’ll probably get farther with a narrower theme (for example, running) than a collection addressing all your varied loves of running, coin collecting, Seinfeld, cats, and grandparenting. Sometimes “all things to all people” is tough to market.

What do you most like to read, watch, create, collect, or do? Do you ever find your mind connecting aspects of your favorite activity with portions of scripture? Maybe that’s your topic knocking.

Example: This is a micro version of your Topic, where you narrow the larger galaxy down to some individual stars. Say, for example, the Death Star.

In my Star Wars-themed devotional book The Real Force, I drew upon the Empire’s fearsome space station for an entry about pride. If you’ve seen the original Star Wars film, you know that this metallic menace, in spite of its awesome size and power, did have a small vulnerability—a “thermal exhaust port” the rebels exploited to blow the whole thing out of the sky. The Death Star exemplifies a dangerous human tendency to shrug off temptation and the “little sins” that can blow our lives sky high (see Song of Solomon 2:15 and Proverbs 16:18).

Or take the larger galaxy of baseball, and narrow it down to some individual “stars”—like Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, the original “Home Run Kings.” Here’s an example of success and achievement, and the human desire to be recognized as important . . . perhaps a king (or queen) of your chosen field. But no matter how far we rise, we’re wise to remember One who is always and much higher, the “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:16).

It would seem, if your Topic is broad enough, that a little thought should yield plenty of Examples—ideally, with some related Scriptures (as noted above). Now, you need to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and actually start writing. Once you have a clear, concise, and compelling description of your particular example, the challenge becomes the Segue (transitioning from the example to the Scripture) and Takeaway (what you ultimately want your reader to learn/remember/do).

We’ll talk about those next time. Until then, think about your favorite Topic and see what Examples (and Scriptures!) may come to mind.

Devotional Essentials, Part 1

devotionals

A well-written devotional can remind readers of key truths of the Christian faith, spur thinking that leads to a positive life change, actually draw people closer to God. A poorly-written devotional? Well, God can use anything for His purposes . . . but let’s consider some ways to “do devotionals right.”

Just think how popular devotionals are—they comprise some of the best-selling and longest-lasting books in the Christian realm (for example, Charles Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening, Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest, and Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling), and they represent entire ministries (like Our Daily Bread, The Upper Room, and Living Faith). It’s no exaggeration to say that new devotional material releases every single day, in books and magazines, on-line, and in outlets like church bulletins. How can we best meet the needs of this hungry readership?

I’d like to propose a TEST for you—that’s Topic, Example, Segue, Takeaway. Nail down these four elements, in this order, and you’re on your way to an effective devotional reading. In two blogs to follow, we’ll consider each element in greater detail . . . but we’ll wrap up today with an overview from my own experience.

My full-time job is editing books, but I’ve written or contributed to numerous devotional projects over the years. My most recent is The Real Force—A 40-Day Devotional, published by Worthy Inspired in Nashville. Here’s how the TEST applies to it:

Topic: Star Wars. About a year and a half before the release of Episode VII: The Force Awakens, I envisioned a book drawing parallels between characters, events, and themes in the first six films to characters, events, and themes in Scripture. Happily, a publisher also caught that vision.

Example: Here’s one of the forty in the book—the trash compactor scene of the very first film, later called Episode IV: A New Hope. I give a quick rundown of the rescue of Princess Leia from the Death Star, by Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca. Escaping from Imperial stormtroopers, the four jump down what turns out to be a garbage chute, ending up in a dank, smelly mess far below . . . and shortly, the walls start closing in. It struck me as a metaphor for life: in a world that’s already scary and dangerous, we sometimes end up in a really tight spot—and, frankly, it stinks.

Segue: Now we turn readers’ attention to God’s Word. In this case, I point out that three Bible characters—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—found themselves in a similar situation. As Jewish men exiled in Babylon, they were already in a scary and dangerous place. And when they chose not to bow to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue, they found themselves in a tight (actually a hot) spot, the “fiery furnace.”

Takeaway: What does all of this mean to readers today? God saved the day for S, M & A, but He delivered them through, not from, the flames. I point out that Jesus himself hoped to avoid the pain of the cross (Luke 22:39–42), but “for the joy set before him he endured” (Hebrews 12:2), and that James wrote that “the testing of your faith produces perseverance” (James 1:3). Ultimately, readers walk away with some sympathy and some encouragement: “Tight spots aren’t fun. Sometimes they stink. But God has reasons for them, and He’ll always be right there with us.”

Have some devotional ideas knocking around in your mind? Jot them down and watch for Part 2, as we’ll consider a devotional’s Topic and Example in greater detail.