Category Archives: Historical Fiction

A Wretched Man Movie?

About six weeks ago, I was contacted by a Hollywood screenwriter who expressed interest in adapting A Wretched Man, a novel of Paul the apostle into a screenplayFollowing discussions and negotiations, we have today reached agreement.  The screenwriter, who has been in the movie industry for nearly a decade, shares my vision and passion.  In his first email to me, the screenwriter commented:

I am fascinated by the story and believe that it could make a really intriguing film—something independent, honest, touching … a film that takes these Biblical giants and makes them accessible, human, and endearing.  What I like about your take on the story is that when Paul is wounded—it actually seemed to hurt.  I think a movie like that would speak to many.

Whether A Wretched Man reaches the silver screen or not remains a long shot.  After a screenplay is completed, the screenwriter must then persuade a producer or other monied interests to invest in a film, but I am convinced that the screenwriter has the appropriate experience, expertise, and contacts to give it a good shot.

Indulge me in a bit of fantasy.  For those of you who have read the book, what actor should play the role of Paulos?  Shall I, a la Hitchcock, play a cameo role?  Perhaps the character of Eli the sage?  Or Jubilees, the phantom seer?

Eleven Bravo and LRRP Rangers of Vietnam: First review

Reviews—necessary but scary.  I’m reminded of the analogy told by a fellow writer who compared the process to dropping one’s pants in public and then listening politely and silently as the bystanders offer comments.

Eighteen months ago, the first reviews of my soon to be released novel, A Wretched Man, a novel of Paul the apostle, were published based upon advance reader copies .  They were favorable, and I was relieved, flattered, and more than a little surprised.  A writer may hope, but self doubt is omnipresent.

I am now in the same posture with the release, in serial fashion, of my short stories of Vietnam.  The series is entitled LRRP Rangers Vietnam, and the first three installments have been published as eBooks.  Today, the first review of the first installment was published online, and I am experiencing the same response as earlier–relief and surprise at the flattering comments, and so I boast …

Ms. Sheila Deeth read and reviewed the first installment, Eleven Bravo.  She introduces her review with this summary:

Eleven Bravo, by R.W. Holmen chronicles the beginning of a young man’s experience in Veitnam. With pitch-perfect dialog and stunning descriptions and commentary, he brings a time not too long gone to life and clears the way for a series of literary vignettes to come–short, but bold, dark and intense, so read it with a 5-star coffee.

Her full review is reprinted below.

“Somehow, I felt abandoned and much farther away than the man on the moon,” says R.W. Holmen in his short story Eleven Bravo.

The author conveys that abandonment beautifully, setting the Vietnam war into personal and global context with vivid details and telling comments. Characters and place come to life with the words, dialog is pitch perfect, and there are haunting comments I’ll remember long after the story’s done. From FNG (f** new guy) to savvy vet in twenty-three days, from one land to another with various stops for training along the way, from safety to horror, the author shares the experiences of war, bringing sight, scent, and sound into stunning perspective. Climbing in mud with eighty-pound packs, fools on the march while the “fool killer” trails, clearing brush with machetes, arranging mines… the bond and the folly of immortal combat ring loud and clear from the page, and the story’s told with all the realism, language and pathos of experience.

Eleven Bravo is the first in a series of Vietnam vignettes, autobiographical fiction based on true events and bound by story arc into literary gems. The writing is confident and clear, hauntingly honest, brutally true. The story completes a young man’s transformation and leaves the reader eager for the next installment. If this piece is anything to go by, this will be an excellent series of honest depiction and wise commentary, and I’m humbled to have read this first chapter.

Sheila Deeth, writer, illustrator, and prolific book reviewer

A book review from New Zealand

It’s a small world we live in.  The latest scholarly review of A Wretched Man, a novel of Paul the apostle, comes from the opposite side of the globe—Dunedin, New Zealand.  Dean of Studies at the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dr. Jason Goroncy, offers his review which praises the attempt to reimagine theology through art.  The following is an excerpt, but you can read the entire review at Dr. Goroncy’s blog, Per Crucem ad Lucem.

[T]he communication of divine truth demands the work of the very imagination it is determined to sanctify. So Jonathan Edwards: ‘Unless you use imagination, unless you take a truth and you image it – which of course is art – you don’t know what it means’. Or, citing John Henry Newman:

The ways in which we ‘see’ the world, its story and its destiny; the ways in which we ‘see’ what human beings are, and what they’re for, and how they are related to each other and the world around them; these things are shaped and structured by the stories that we tell, the cities we inhabit, the buildings in which we live, and work, and play; by how we handle – through drama, art and song – the things that give us pain and bring us joy. What does the world look like? What do we look like? What does God look like?

This is precisely why I welcomed reading Obie Holmen’s A Wretched Man: A Novel of Paul the Apostle. Holmen seeks to … situate Paul in his geographical, social, historical and psychological landscape, and gift us with a creative way of hearing afresh the letters that make up the bulk of the New Testament.

According to Holmen, prior to his fire-side conversion-encounter with Yeshua (Jesus), ‘Paulos (Paul), the defender of orthodoxy, had acquired a proud identity and a status; self-righteousness became the dressing for his wounds, masking his inner torment’ (p. 75). Indeed, ‘the wretched man wandered the streets of Tarsos, lost and alone, accursed and condemned’ (p. 54). Thereafter, Holmen paints Paulos as one who is seeking to carve out the implications – for Torah, for Jewish privilege, for our understanding of God, etc. – of this radical encounter with Yeshua. The entire story takes place, markedly, against Paul’s own conflict – the ‘inner torment’ – between his inherited (and then reconstituted) theology and his homosexuality, the latter manifest in his relationship with Gentile friend Arsenios. Augustine once suggested, to the shock of some of his fellow bishops, that St Paul may have been ‘greatly tainted by sexual desires’. In his portrait of the gay Apostle Paul, Holmen exploits this suggestion beyond what the old bishop of Hippo may have had in mind, and some readers may well lay the book down because of such. But such action would, in my view, represent a premature judgement.

… Holmen is a gifted writer, and his well-researched yarn is certain to encourage readers to read the Bible in a new light, with a deepened awareness of the groundedness of its message, with a new appreciation of the real humanity of its figures, and – I suspect most importantly for the author – a renewed wonderment of the magic of divine grace.

Was Paul the apostle gay?

A week ago, I spent the weekend in Milwaukee promoting my novel to the 2,000 participants of the Roman Catholic Call to Action Conference.  One of the keynote speakers was retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong.  The Bishop is an outspoken proponent of progressive Christian causes, and he has published a dozen or so books in the last several decades that have attracted a huge liberal readership.

I was greatly pleased to have the opportunity to visit with the Bishop for a short time.  For those unfamiliar with my novel, A Wretched Man, a novel of Paul the apostle, the characterization of the man from Tarsus suggests he struggled with homosexual urges, which he characterized as his “thorn in his flesh”.  Bishop Spong shares this view, and we briefly discussed our common impression.  Bishop Spong said he first read of this idea in a 1930’s treatise by the British theologian Arthur Darby Nock.  I offered the bishop a copy of my book as a gift, which he graciously accepted and asked me to sign it for him.

A video of the bishop explaining his rationale has appeared on You Tube.  Watch and enjoy:

The bones of James the Just on trial

James, the brother of Jesus, sometimes known as James the Just, is in the news.  A dealer in antiquities, Oded Golan,  is on trial in Israel.  It is alleged that he fabricated the evidence of the authenticity of an artifact possibly connected to James.

A bit of background is in order. 

Many are surprised that Jesus had siblings, and some would deny it altogether, but the Bible contains several clear references.  Here’s a partial list, which includes references in each of the four gospels, Acts, and Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

  • Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Mt 13:55-56
  • Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us? Mk 6:3
  • Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd Lk 8:19
  • After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples Jn 2:12
  • All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers Acts 1:14
  • but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. Gal 1:19  

Acts and Paul’s letters make it quite clear that James became leader of the Jerusalem based, Jewish followers of Jesus after the crucifixion, and he remained in charge until his unlawful death over thirty years after the crucifixion, an event recorded by the contemporary historian, Josephus.

Finally, Acts and Paul’s letters also report the ongoing disagreement between James and the apostle Paul over the question of Gentile inclusion into the movement.  James was reluctant to allow Gentiles unless they agreed to follow Torah, including circumcision, dietary rules, and calendar observances.  This ongoing conflict between these two leaders forms the plotline of A Wretched Man novel.

Now to the current news of James.

Defendant and the ossuaryIt was the Jewish custom during the 1st century (among the Pharisees and others who believed in the resurrection of the dead) to rebury the bones of deceased family members a year or more after death.  The bones would be carefully placed in a stone box, called an ossuary, and placed in the family tomb.  Nearly a decade ago, an Israeli antiquities dealer claimed to possess an ossuary with the inscription, “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus”.  No one questions that the ossuary and the bones date from the correct time period, and it also appears that the first part of the inscription is authentic.  But, prosecutors claim that the defendant skillfully added the words, “brother of Jesus”.

It appears that the academic community is split over the authenticity issue.  The judge in the case is now considering his verdict, but the scientific controversy will hardly be settled by his decision in the criminal trial of Oded Golan.  In a later post, I will offer a book review of The Jesus Dynasty by James Tabor which considers the James ossuary controversy in depth.

 

A Wretched Man Website tweaks

Recently, the novel’s website, www.awretchedman.com, received a couple of adjustments.  The two obvious changes were the addition of a product purchase page which enables direct purchases of the novel in either paperback or eBook format, and the second was a revamping of the “reviews” page.  Actually, the reviews page has been broken down into four sub-pages: Scholarly Reviews, Blog Reviews, Reader Comments, and Online Comments (from either Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble).

Late last night, I received another comment from a reader via email that will soon be added to the website but which warrants special mention here.

Last Saturday, I was the guest of the Gustavus Adolphus College bookstore prior to the Gusties homecoming football game with St. Olaf.  A man named Jim stopped by and browsed a bit before moving on, but he took a book flyer with him.  Ten or fifteen minutes later, he returned and purchased a copy of the book.  Another ten or fifteen minutes passed, and he returned again to report that he had read the prologue and first chapter, and he was hooked.  Yesterday, three days after he bought the book, Jim sent me an email, and he said the following:

I just finished the book and congratulate you! Like all good books, it entertained. Like all really good books, it taught and expanded viewpoints. Like the few downright excellent books I have read in the past several years, it challenges me to think and motivates further study.

As you can imagine and have probably heard from others, your thoughts have created some discomfort that I now feel compelled to address. This, to me, is the mark of a truly significant work. This splash will produce ripples to keep me busy for a while and I thank you for what you put into it.

I suppose I’m like most authors—I thought my book was pretty good, or at least hoped, but I also wrestled with doubt.  So, when I receive comments like these, I am more than gratified, I am flattered and more than a little surprised.

Paul the apostle, the man from Tarsus

Tarsus map Although Paul never mentioned his city of origin, the Book of Acts reports that Tarsus, in modern day Turkey, was the home of the diaspora Jew.  In the first century, Tarsus was a major city, home to a Greek University of the Stoic school of philosophy, and the capitol of the coastland and plains province of Cilicia.  Churning out of the rugged mountain pass known as the Cilician Gates (Alexander’s army passed this way), the Cydnus River rushed toward Tarsus before slowing and ribboning the last ten miles to the sea.

In A Wretched Man novel, this city and the river provided the setting for many scenes (the names are in the Greek language of the times).

A caterpillar rafted down the river aboard a silvery olive leaf. The larvae had not yet become a moth, a butterfly, or whatever it was destined to be. Speeding through the ripples, slowing in a pool, and spinning in an eddy, the hairy pilgrim drifted with the current.

Perched on a rocky outcropping along the River Kydnos, the teen-aged boy named Paulos dangled his feet in the cool alpine waters, coursing toward the sea from the nearby mountains. Snow-capped peaks loomed over the Cilician plain and the city of Tarsos like white-haired eminences in vigil over their domain. Here was the young man’s sanctuary: a maze of rocks, pools, and small waterfalls just upriver from Tarsos, his home.

Cydnus river Much changes in two millennia.  Tarsus is now a small city wedged between the greater burgs of Mersin to the west and Adana to the east.  Rivers silt in, dams and levies altar God’s creation.  Do modern day pictures of Cydnus river rapids depict the spot where Alexander bathed and nearly caught his death of a chill?  Does the slow river beneath Tarsus where Cleopatra’s barge entertained Marc Anthony now follow a different course?

And the centuries spawn myths and legends—here is Cleopatra’s bridge and there is the church of St Paul, the site of his childhood home according to local tradition.  Turkey is now Islamic, and St Paul’s church is merely a museum, but that may change if the head of the Religious Affairs Directorate gets his way:St Paul church garden

Bardakoğlu called for the reopening of the Saint Paul Church in Tarsus, a district of the southern province of Mersin, comments he reiterated at the iftar. “I find it more correct if the Saint Paul Church in Tarsus serves as a church than in its current role as a museum,” he said.

Go there as a pilgrim and ponder; or join me in my wonderings as I imagined my way onto the shores of first century riverbanks, pricked my ears at hawkers in boisterous marketplaces, and meandered through back alleys as Roman legionaries lurked in the shadows.  One reviewer said it this way:

a stupendous novel about Paul … the book is beautifully written full of descriptions of the Holy Land’s landscape and Agriculture … made me read further, stop reading, begin reading and so on throughout the book … I questioned, I discovered, I began to see with a better lighting … birthed in me a desire to know more.

Lutheran response to A Wretched Man

Feedback to A Wretched Man has come in many forms: critical reviews, online bookstore comments (Amazon & Barnes/Noble), private emails, and book blogs.  Recently, a new medium has chimed in—the Lutheran blogosphere.  Those who are familiar with my other blog, Spirit of a Liberal, a blog of progressive, religious themes, may also follow the ELCA news blog of Susan Hogan called Pretty Good Lutherans and ELCA Pastor Brant Clement’s blog called Both Saint and Cynic since we all link to each other regularly.  Each of these Lutheran blogs offered articles about the novel within the last week.

Pastor Brant offered a book review.

Holmen gives flesh to his characters. They eat, drink (sometimes too much) and void waste. They feel love, anger, jealousy, joy and sorrow. They fight and make up. Or not. These Apostles are not Sunday School flannel-graph cut-outs, but complex, three-dimensional human beings.

It is clear that Holmen has done his homework. Everyday life in the first century Mediterranean world is evoked with detail and description. The author has also digested a great deal of current New Testament scholarship and woven it seamlessly into his narrative.

Most importantly, Holmen spins a good yarn.

Susan Hogan provided insight through a question and answer session with me.   Here’s a sampling:

Q. What challenges do you face in marketing Christian fiction?

A. For a lot of people, the word “Christian” means evangelical or conservative Christian. That’s the popular conception. My book is written for a more progressive readership, and it is best characterized as historical fiction with religious themes because it doesn’t fit the popular perception of the genre of Christian fiction. It is edgier than most Christian fiction.”

Thanks to both Susan and Brant for your interest in my novel and for helping to publicize it.

More blog attention for A Wretched Man

Another review appeared recently on a book blog, and last week I was interviewed on blog talk radio.  Stephanie, at Curling up by the Fire, wrote the following:

Mr. Holmen was able to show Paul’s struggles with his own spiritual self as well as with the political world in this novel, to the point where I felt I was right there along with the people involved.  I felt a connection with the people (I can’t use the word characters as these people were actually alive and existed) and a great empathy for their belief and what they were trying to accomplish, putting themselves in great danger.

The world in Mr. Holmen’s book is also brought vividly to life and I enjoyed reading about the daily life of the people involved in the New Testament.  Even simple things like what they ate for breakfast and descriptions of the homes, boats, clothing, jobs, and traditions were very enjoyable.  I loved learning about things like where and how they slept, what they used to transport materials, what was used for currency in different parts of the Roman world; it was all so fascinating.  It added a rich element to Paul’s life that made it so much easier to understand and made the characters so much more real.

And here’s a link to the half hour radio interview conducted by Cyrus Webb on Conversations Live!

Flattering reviews

Two new reviews of my novel, A Wretched Man, came in over the weekend.  Both offered 5 star ratings.  Here are snippets and links.

Leola Harris, aka “Tea”, offered this from “I Love to Read”:

a stupendous novel about Paul, The Apostle …The book is beautifully written full of descriptions of the Holy Land’s landscape and Agriculture … made me read further, stop reading, begin reading and so on throughout the book. My mind was being cleared for new knowledge vs. old knowledge …I questioned and examined myself … I questioned, I discovered, I began to see with a better lighting … birthed in me a desire to know more.

Jess, a student in New York, writes at Spine Creases.  After first posting a teaser comment on Goodreads, calling the book “A phenomenal novel”, Jess wrote the following:

It is well-researched; Holmen clearly has a solid background in early Christianity and religious history. It is also well-written … I felt that I had a more personalized understanding of who Paul was … [Holmen] presents Paul as human. Paul is as subject to human desires, human complexities, and human experiences as the rest of us. The best kind of book, in my opinion, is one that prompts you to think more, to pursue more knowledge. This book definitely incited that curiosity in me. (emphasis added)

I found this book to actually be quite a good accompaniment to my studies of Jesus as a social revolutionary, upsetting the status quo. I felt like I gleaned a new understanding of the early Judeo-Christian world, which is pretty astounding after having taken four years of academic religion classes.

Thanks to the reviewers for their generous comments.