The timeless to the timely: Applying Scriptural Truths to Today
3/11/13 at 12:46 PM 2 Comments

Winning the World through Fiction

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Name in the Papers book cover

The accounts of Jesus in the Scriptures are fact. Even details that appear to be fanciful or legendary, like Matthew’s report of the tombs being opened at Jesus’ crucifixion and the dead resurrected and walking abroad (27:51-53), have solid historical attestation. For example, the scholar and apologist Quadratus wrote a well circulated letter to Hadrian, when this Roman emperor who followed Trajan (into whose reign the apostle John lived) was in Asia Minor between the years AD 123/4 and 129. Quadratus explained:

Our Saviour’s works were always there to see, for they were true – the people who had been cured and those raised from the dead, who had not merely been seen at the moment when they were cured or raised, but were always there to see, not only when the Saviour was among us, but for a long time after His departure; in fact some of them survived right up to my own time.[i]

The Christian faith is attested to by factual data. But, at the same time, it is remarkable that, when Jesus himself, God-Among-Us, preached to the people, he did so through the story-telling medium of the parable, according to Webster’s “a short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson.”[ii]

Jesus knew the power that story wields to excite the imagination, stimulate the reason, and expand one’s perspective. His parables are classics – the misadventure of the prodigal son; the tale of the traveler rescued by the good Samaritan, the murder of the vineyard owner’s son, the story of the rebuffed king who opens his banquet table to outcasts, the account of the crafty steward who fudges his master’s accounts to get in good with his creditors, the example of the brave widow who wears down the crooked judge, and more. Jesus spun a good tale with a moral point and people are still listening to and learning from these stories.

Today, we are in an entertainment-driven age, when novels and movies and television serials drive the opinions of our cultures. When we were traveling in the Dominican Republic recently we had the privilege to enter several of the little casitas, the little traditional, wooden homes that house the poor. Every one of them we entered had a television going, some homes with a small satellite dish perched on top. Our stories permeate the world.

In 2001, following Jesus’ example, Bill (who authored what is recognized as the definitive work on fictional clergy solving crimes, Mysterium and Mystery [Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989] has been crafting, an urban adventure/mystery/suspense novel, entitled Name in the Papers. Finally, this month, it was published in electronic form by Trestle Press’s Helping Hands Press, available on Kindle from Amazon, and from and by punching in William D. Spencer, Name in the Papers.

For the enjoyment of our readers, to introduce you to Name in the Papers, here is a vignette from it, one of its parabolic stories with a point, as Bill draws from our real life experiences in prison ministry to spin out a tale of the evangelistic efforts of a newly converted inmate faced with the challenge of defusing the tension between two rival prison gangs:

                                                               GIDEON'S CHESS GAME

The Scout is always sensitive to the distribution of power and the division of population loyalty - or, as he puts it,"who's who and what's what."

The first night he was put in 280 Bed he could see that twogangs controlled the block. Even the guards didn't mess with the leaders. They were there to mark time only and - if they wanted an extra meal or cigarettes or an outside phone call - they got it.

The Scout, who, as it turned out, had not gone to the farm, had one month left to go, as it was May and, if he got out in June, he'd still have the summer ahead of him. He didn't want any screw ups.

Naturally, the two gangs sized him up and wanted a 290 pound San Quentin alumni on their side, especially one who was working out, had already lost ten pounds, and was getting hard again. Scout was 53 years old and faithfully going to Bible study each night and services on Wednesday and Sunday and computer Bible sessions each morning. He was memorizing Proverbs as best as he could. Not that he couldn't crack all their heads and play Jai Alai with them. He just didn't want to anymore. Gang stuff was kid stuff. He was interested in a deeper, more ferocious struggle going on in the heavenlies, not particularly who controlled the underground cigarette trade in this smoke-free facility.

But, even though he could kick every butt in the unit individually, he also knew he couldn't do so collectively.Six stays in maximum out of eighteen times incarcerated had taught him that a pack can fix a lone eagle. They could doyou in a pajama party. Creep up on you when you're asleep and throw a blanket over your head, after which they beatyou senseless. A pillow party was lethal. They smother you with a pillow while four guys hold your arms and legs and afifth guy straddles your chest. No, you don't brush off any gangs or spit in anybody’s stew. You just have a pleasant nodfor everybody, but you don't take any crap either. You do it all with expressions - smiles, frowns, intense stares and,if you need to, you flex your triceps and nod meaningfully,pinning the offender with your eyes to a future calendardate of promised action. It doesn't have to come. It's all in the unspoken promise. That's usually enough.

In 280 Bed the Scout was given care of the feeding of the hole. The guys in solitary had their food shoved through a slit in the door. The Scout was popular with them because he always left the slit cracked open to ask how they were and pass a quick pleasantry or communication from someone else inside. Just a pleasant "hello" and "how was last night?" and "how you feeling?" and "you need anything?" was a high point to a guy in solitary. It provided a focal point for the day, an ordering moment like the daily visit of the doctor in a hospital stay. Like a "good morning!" telephone call from one's child each day at the nursing home. Like Scout's own prayer and a chapter of the Bible each morning, a routine he'd just begun.Twenty-three hours in solitary, one hour out a day to walk alone in the yard of the prison compound, was enough to break any man. The arrival of food became a sanity ritual like the synecdochical introduction of normalcy in the rite of the airplane meal, 30,000 feet above the Mindanao Deep. The quality of the airplane food is irrelevant. It's the communal ritual of the comestible experience, the assurance that, though eternity lies above and beneath one, normalcy rests in the center.

Scout had picked up the phrase "human touch" from an old Bruce Springsteen song. It gave what he felt its articulation."I try to make the guys feel normal," he explained to Jim, his visiting pastor, "give them a little of the human touch."

"Yes, human contact is extremely important."

"It's a lifesaver in this screwy place. Everything else is upside down."

So the Scout passed his pleasantries and messages in with the plates of chicken and potatoes and tried to keep peace. Everything in there, of course, was about head games: the head games the prison played on the inmates trying to make the experience so psychologically unnerving no inmate would ever want to come back; the head games the inmates played on each other; the head games the gangs wielded in their never ending struggle for control of the block. Few actual fights ever broke out. The penalties were too serious. One shot fired in the air, if armed guards were called in, sent everyone prone on the floor, knowing the next shot blew off your head. The resulting triplicate report was never questioned. For those who did survive a fight, time was logged on your sentence and a six month stay could stretch out to ten years for a trouble maker. Besides, screwups upset the balance for everybody, so it was easier for the inmates to cord him in the shower room and restore peace to the facility. If he had been enough of a nuisance, then, in the absence of witnesses, a cooperative guard could simply report that that inmate had an accident and died by hitting his head and snapping his neck. Who cared? In fact, everyone was relieved. There were many ways to end up dead in the pen and the Scout was intent on avoiding all of them. And, in fact, so were the gangs.

In 280 Bed, the two chief factions were an insular Cambodian second generation gang of tough twenty somethings calling themselves the Khmer Tigers. Their leader was a 35 year old lifer named Luong. In reality, he was half Cambodian, half Vietnamese. For the most part the Vietnamese did not gang up as the Cambodians did. Their population was also vastly smaller.

The other faction simply called itself La Familia. It was actually named La Quisqueya Familia, but its members tended to shorten its name in tribute to a large and notorious west coast gang that was legendary to them and with whom they hoped to be identified. The Richfield echo was a basic Dominican street gang that controlled the Hispanic drug trade in the city and moved in prison under a flashy immigrant from San Juan de Macoris called Nuñez. Nuñez had tattoos of the contours of the Dominican Republic, the Virgin Mary and El Morro, the famous Puerto Rican fort in the Old San Juan district. He was conscious to represent his entire constituency. He had even had the map of Chile tatooed on his shin.

From day one the Scout had felt the pressure to identify with either side. Being indian, Nuñez argued, Scout was closer to mestizo and should belong to those who were in effect themselves mestizo. Besides, Nuñez argued persuasively, he himself was intending to have the flag of Mexico tatooed on his thigh as soon as he got out and the indian-Mexican connection was age old and of common knowledge. The Scout smiled, nodded respectfully and made no commitments.

"We could use a big guy like you," Luong confided, grinning congenially. "They won't let us in this land and they tookit away from you. We got a lot in common." The Scout saluted him, listened intently and stayed reverentially aloof, friendly but not chummy. Tensions periodically mounted in the cellblock and one particularly stifling week of the full moon in late May they were boiling over.

The men were sitting around in the common room divided by prison tattoos and loyalty into their two sides as strictly asa Shaker Sunday service dividing the sexes when the Scout lumbered in from a visit at the chaplain's office with a boxand what looked like a checker board.

As even a sneeze was interesting on a long hot summery afternoon, all eyes shifted toward the Scout. He sat downat the table in the center of the room, spread out the board and set down the box. He didn't look around. He pausedreflectively a moment and then opened the lid. The guys strained slightly to glimpse what was inside without, of course, appearing to have any interest at all.

The Scout took a black pawn out of the box and set it on the board. Then he looked at the crowd and said, "This is Adam." Everybody stared at him, baffled. Then he took out a white pawn. "This is Eve," he said, grinning. Nuñez got it and laughed.

"Whoa!" shouted Nuñez. "Mama's going cho-co-lá-te. That's how we all got here!" The entire Familia side appreciated the humor and laughed appropriately. The uncommitted did not, but smiled deferentially.

The Khmer Tigers, however, met Scout's joke in utter silence and Nuñez's outburst with unspoken scorn, since Familia had gotten it first. And the few Tigers who laughed were stared into frightened sullen abeyance.

Now the Scout pulled a little white horse head out and said directly to Luong, "This is the bad knight - like the Rouge all over again, but this time they want your soul."

"Last time they only wanted your land, your money, your wife, your children, your last breath - your soul wasn'tnegotiable." The Tigers chuckled politely, but it really wasn't funny and several of them did not laugh. Nothingwould ever be funny about the Khmer Rouge. It was all too painful.

"Jesus, the King of Heaven," said Scout, pulling out the black king. "And this is his enemy, the King of Hell."

"Yes, the white king," approved Nuñez. "That, my friend, is appropriate." He glanced toward Luong, who gave the slightest nod of agreement, and the Scout smiled slightly and went on.

"Demons and angels," he explained and popped out the rest of the pieces. "The guardian angels surrounding Adam and the archangels." He plopped down the rooks.

"Who is the black bishop - the Pope?" asked Nuñez, fascinated by the analogies.

"Yeah, except we got two of them," puzzled the Scout.

"How about the Archbishop of Canterbury?" offered an interested guard who was himself episcopal, but everyone ignored him. The other black bishop remained unnamed - just one more inconsistency one learns to put up with behind the wall.

"The queen is the Virgin Queen of Heaven," announced Nuñez, sweeping the room with challenging eyes. Everyone let that stand.

"And the white queen is Pol Pot," announced Luong.

Nuñez, having gotten all his concessions on Mary and the Pope, was content to let the Tigers console themselves by naming the enemy.

"Assorted demons," said the Scout, placing the white rooks and the demoted bishop into place.

"Which one is the warden?" asked someone in the back and everybody chuckled and glanced nervously at the guards.

But, the guards laughed too, because a little fear of the administration was a good thing in keeping order. Chumminess breeds too much contempt.

"Eve, I'm afraid, goes on the bad side for now, but Jesus will come and capture her, just the way he's got Adam here," explained the Scout carefully.

The men leaned forward now to see the whole game set up.

"Who wants to defend hell against heaven's warriors?" asked the Scout and surveyed the room with his own challenging gaze.

"Ah, Cochise, the warrior of the plains rides again!" exclaimed Nuñez with gusto.

"The sport of chiefs," added Luong and the Tigers laughed.

"I can play," said Nuñez and he sat down across from the Scout as the men all crowded around. "What are the stakes?" he asked.

"What do you want?" asked the Scout.

"If I win, you sneak me a extra meal from the hole meals - you always got extra and I'm hungry!" The Familia laughed uproariously because prison portions are all the same and to most men they are far too small. Of course, they reasoned, that's the way the commissary makes its money off the $25 credit donations of the wives and girlfriends working as waitresses and domestics when they visit bringing their babies every four days.

"Okeydoke," agreed the Scout, "and - if I win - you give me a dozen pushups."

Nuñez stared a minute and then burst into appreciative laughter. "The gang of one!" he hooted. "The Chief Jesus gang! All right, my friend, you're on."

From the first move the game was one sided. Nuñez poured all his crafty wiles into his strategy, but eighteen stretches in prison had seen the Scout beaten by the best. Each time he'd analyze the game afterward with his victor and learnanother gambit, another move. Now, as he played, he poured out his commentary like a priest into a communion cup.

"King Jesus sends out his warriors to fight the forces of evil!" and the Scout's bishop sneaked through a hole and three rows away put the white king in check. Nuñez quickly countered with a block from his knight, but that was a drawing of first blood. Soon, while Nuñez was picking off pawns and other lower pieces to the shouting and exclaiming of delight of his compadres, the Scout was setting up an airtight checkmate. The end came swiftly and decisively.

Suddenly, Nuñez found he could neither move his king nor block the checkmate. The game was over.

A hush fell on the crowd - a tense, crackling, electrically charged stillness.

"Give me a dozen," said the Scout, smiling respectfully, regretfully, but firmly.

Nuñez leapt up, paused for one moment and then burst into the generous response that made him such an effective and inspiring leader. He laughed appreciatively, ordered a space cleared in front of the table and went down for twelve crisp pushups, his triceps, trained for years in the yard weight corner, rolling and tensing under undulating tattoos.

The guard shift had changed and the new arrivals, unaware of the bargain, stood open mouthed to see this cell block don down on the ground doing pushups before a single, unattached, somewhat overweight, 50+ year old Indian. Wonders never ceased on this job!

When Nuñez was done, coming up with a snap, the Scout stood up and shook his hand and offered to show him how he'd checkmated him, but after he'd trimmed Luong.

Luong was not a great chess player and he glanced around nervously. But, he could not back down. His men expected him to try and Nuñez's "why not you, brother?" gaze was enough of a challenge. He sat down behind the white pieces.

The Scout hadn't survived Quentin and Joliet for nothing. He smiled warmly and extended the game, letting the fumbling Luong win a number of pieces, in fact, as many as Nuñez won to his men's brightening approval. When he felt Luong had gained enough self confidence and approval, he poleaxed him.

Luong went down for twelve, light and lithe, pumping like a street dancer.

When he was back up, the Scout fixed the two leaders with his eyes. "I used the same gambit on both of you," he explained to them. "Exactly the same one. You want me to show you both what I did?"

"Yeah," said Nuñez.

"Of course," agreed Luong.

"Sit down," said the Scout and sat down himself. And then, waving to both gangs, he said, "Y'all gather around."

The men crowded in.

"Tomorrow," he grunted, "I'll get the chaplain to bring in a dozen chess sets."[iii]

- Bill

[i] Quadratus, cited in Eusebius, The History of the Church, trans. G.A. Williamson, rev. Andrew Louth (New York: Penguin, 1989), 106 (4.3).

[ii] “Parable,” Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (Random House Reference, 2001), 1405, col 3

[iii] Excerpt from William David Spencer, Name in the Papers (Trestle Press/Helping Hands Press, 2013).

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