What my own book taught me

early-christian-imageWhen The Saint’s Mistress was first published, a fellow author predicted that my readers would teach me surprising things about my book and about myself.

I found that to be true last month when I participated in an author panel at Shaler Library here in Pittsburgh, and the moderator, Bill Rock, asked me what I learned about myself in the process of writing my book.

One of the hardest sections of the book to write was the chapter where my main character, Leona, converts to Christianity.  Like many 4th-century North Africans, Leona was essentially a pagan.  Her father worshiped the old Berber gods.  Her lover, the future Saint Augustine, was first a Manichean and then a neo-Platonist.  Although Christianity was beginning to consolidate its dominance in the Mediterranean in the 4th century, the area was still a swirl of competing faiths.

It would have been easy to write Leona’s conversion as revelation.  But I was writing historical fiction, not a Christian polemic.   Revelation works in theology, but fiction requires motivation.  I wanted Leona’s acceptance of Christ to ring true for her as a character.

You can believe the Christian story (as I do), and still understand that people accepted the faith for lots of different reasons.  For some, like my character Quintus, the Church was a career, a path to power.  In The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark emphasizes social factors.  As more of your neighbors and friends became Christians, it became more familiar and appealing. Moreover, Stark argues, Christians took care of each other.

I had written Leona as a young woman with a strong sense of social justice and a heart for the poor of the Empire, so oppress and exploited by their Roman masters.  Although raised to the middle class by her relationship with Aurelius Augustinus, she began her life in the peasant class and never lost her sympathy for them.

Leona was attracted to the Church by her relationship with other Christians, in the Stark model.  She was impressed by how Christians cared for the poor and the sick.  A Christian priest provided medical care to her son when most doctors were abandoning plague-infested Milan.  But what, I wondered, would finally open her hear to Christ?  I pondered that for weeks before I finally came to an answer that felt true to me:  Christ was a peasant himself.  That, I felt, would be the key to Leona’s heart.

And so, years later, when Bill asked me what I learned about myself from writing my book, I knew what to say.  In writing about what Christ meant to Leona, I learned what is the heart of my own faith.  It is the notion that our God took the form not just of a man, but of a man of the lower class, that he welcomed the children, the poor, the sick, the sinners, the criminals, the most despised.  When I knew what would be most important to Leona, I discovered what my faith most deeply means to me.

Be The Change #7 – Read These Books

If you are angry about the results of the recent election, here’s a link to a list of books that will galvanize you to to action http://lithub.com/50-necessary-books-for-your-anger-and-your-action/.

If you’re a Trump supporter who is really pumped about the election results, I still recommend this reading list, to help you understand where some of us are coming from.  We’re Americans, too.  We care about the direction of the country, too.  And we are in the majority.  You should be interested in what we’re thinking.

If you would rather have solace at this time, I promise to publish a more comforting reading list in the near future.

But by all means, read.  In the current environment, where we have a president-elect who admits –  with no sense of shame at all –  that he doesn’t have the attention span to read, and where fake news is pervasive, reading itself is a revolutionary act.

Here are some other books that I recommend…

When She Woke – a dystopian near future novel, basically a re-telling of The Scarlet Letter by way of The Handmaid’s Tale, with a little Uncle Tom’s Cabin thrown in.

Bonhoeffer – a very well-written recent biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian pastor who resisted the Nazis

American Rust – a heart-breaking novel of white working class despair in Western Pennsylvania

1000 Splendid Suns and The Kite Runner – These novels, taking place in modern-day Afghanistan, beautifully and heart-breakingly portray the suffering of people in the war-torn Middle East, and remind us that they are like us in their feelings, longings and aspirations.

Pillars of the Earth – One of my favorite books ever.  This initially might seem an odd choice for this topic, but there is a strong theme of resistance to corrupt power in this novel, over a very long period of time.

Be the change #6 – This one is easy!

zzbethechangeMany of us feel that the level of civility in our society has degraded, and fear that it will degrade further in the Age of Trump.  Each of us has only limited power to change that, but we are morally obligated to exercise that power – especially when it feels most hopeless.  I don’t by any means minimize the potential dangers of the next four years. But start with yourself.  Start with what you can control. Here’s something really simple that you can do to ever-so-slightly raise the level of civility in our society:  be a courteous driver.  Just try it for a week.

  • Let someone into traffic in front of you.
  • Smile, wave, or flick your lights to thank the person who let you into traffic.
  • Stop when you see the light is turning yellow, instead of speeding through it.
  • You don’t have to lay on your horn if the light has turned green and the person in front of you is sitting there talking on their phone or staring off into space.  Just tap your horn; that will do.
  • OK, this one is a little hard:  when another driver does something stupid, don’t swear at them, even under your breath.  Just let it go.  They’re trying to get somewhere, same as you.  They have distractions, same as you. They are imperfect and make mistakes, same as you.  Take a deep breath.  Let it go.

See how much better you feel at the end of the week.  Let me know.

Be the Change #5: Defend the First Amendment

zzbethechangeMy top concern over the next four years is defense of the First Amendment.  President-elect Trump has not only had a lot to say about making it easier to sue the legitimate press for libel (i.e.; for telling the truth); he has also attacked the very concept of truth itself.  We should resist any attempt to weaken our First Amendment freedoms of assembly and expression.

If you feel the same, the organizations listed below could use your time and money.  Please note that I have not carefully investigated all of these organizations.  Be sure to do that before making any donations.  Some of them qualify as charities, so you can start with Charity Navigator: https://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=search.history&orgid=3247.  But most of these organizations are not charities, so you will have to do your own research.  In future posts, I will try to sort the wheat from the chaff a bit better, but this work is so important and urgent that I am posting my full, unfiltered list here for your consideration.   (As I discover them, I will post resources for those of you who are most concerned about other issues such as diversity and abortion rights.)

PEN America: https://pen.org/louder-together

American Civil Liberties Union: https://action.aclu.org/secure/sem-donate-protect-our-civil-liberties-no?s_src=UNW161202SEM&alt_src=UNV161202SEM&ms=gad_SEM_Google_Search-EOY2016_ACLU%20Misspellings_american%20civil%20liberty%20union_p_163229547810

Move On: http://front.moveon.org/

First Amendment Coalition: https://firstamendmentcoalition.org/about/

START resources: http://www.startguide.org/orgs/orgs05.html

Civil Politics: http://www.civilpolitics.org/

Organizations performing investigative Journalism:

Fund for Investigative Journalism: http://fij.org/about/

MacArthur Foundation: https://www.macfound.org/grantees/128/

NPR: http://www.npr.org/

Others (CTL/Click on these ones)

100Reporters, U.S.

Canadian Association of Journalists, Canada

Center for Investigative Reporting, U.S.

Center for Public Integrity, U.S.

FairWarning, U.S.

Food & Environment Reporting Network, U.S.

Fund for Investigative Journalism, U.S.

Global Investigative Journalism Network, international

Institute for Nonprofit News, U.S.

International Center for Journalists, U.S.

International Reporting Program, University of British Columbia, Canada

International Reporting Project (IRP), US

Investigative Fund, U.S.

Investigative Reporters and Editors, U.S.

Investigative Reporting Program, Univ. of California at Berkeley, U.S.

Investigative Reporting Workshop, American University, U.S.

Mongabay.org, U.S.

OpenSecrets.org, U.S.

ProPublica, U.S.

Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, Brandeis University, U.S.

Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, U.S.

Be the change #4 – Advocacy

zzbethechangeI apologize for the length of this post, but the information is so valuable.  It was passed on to me by a friend from her friend’s Facebook page.  Remember: most of these tips apply not only at the level of your federal representatives, but at the state and local level as well. Don’t discount action at the state level.  A lot can be done at the state level on issues such as prison reform, election reform and gun control, for example.

Point #17 is really important:  pick just 1-2 issues that really matter to you and become an expert and advocate.  My top issues are the First Amendment and transparency and accountability in government.  I care about lots of other things, but I have to trust that others will have my back on those.

Post is copied below word-for-word.  Get busy!

Sharing these advocacy tips for getting the ear of our local and national elected officials. Here’s some really helpful advice from a friend who did some training about how advocacy works.


  1. Your elected representatives are totally available to you. Their local district offices, especially, are often empty and very willing to have meetings with their constituents – that’s you. You can and should develop a relationship with your elected representatives and their staffers over the next few years – which will be a marathon, not a sprint. This is going to be the best long-term way to use our democracy and maximize your influence in it (short of running for office yourself!). It’s because of building respectful, trusting relationships that staffers may come to rely upon you for information and see you as a resource when issues they know you’re interested in come up. Eventually they may be calling YOU to ask what you think before considering legislation related to an issue that you’ve been discussing with them!
  2. We’ve all read that series of tweets from a congressional staffer saying that phone calls are more effective than emails. Totally true. But those are what’s called “tally” phone calls. They are probably being answered by an intern. They are important, but if you’re trying to build a relationship with your elected official and their staff, you can also call and ask to talk with the staffer assigned to that issue. If there isn’t one, at the very least there’s a staffer assigned to “constituent issues” – ask for that person. That staffer is going to be your new best friend!
  3. Go to your elected representative’s website. Read their bio and look at their “issues” page. You will find out the issues they really care about. Do they overlap with the issues you care about? That’s your sweet spot. You need to meet them where they are.
  4. On their website, you will also find out what committees your elected official is on, plus subcommittees. This is where they have the most influence. Find out what that committee does. Are they the chair, or the ranking member? Even more influential. Again, meet them where they are. If your congressperson is the chair of the Energy subcommittee, that’s a great person to lobby about environmental issues.
  5. Caucuses are less important but still indicate where the elected official has interest, though not necessarily where they have responsibility. A big exception, however, is anywhere a Member took a leadership position, by either founding/co-founding or chairing/co-chairing a caucus. In that case, that probably IS an area where they have influence. Caucuses are also a great way to hold folks accountable for what they SHOULD care about: “hey, you’re a member of the Congressional Algae Caucus (that’s a real thing), I would expect you to care about rising levels of acid in our seawater!”
  6. While you’re at the website, sign up for your elected representative’s newsletter. You will find out about their town hall meetings. Attend, and maybe bring a friend/neighbor who looks different than you.
  7. What about the issues that are at the top of your list, but your elected officials don’t seem to care much about them? Find out the Senate and House committees in charge of those issues. The chair and ranking member are answerable to all Americans, not only the ones who are their direct constituents.
  8. I thought that if I’m a Democrat and my representative is a Democrat, there’s no point in reaching out because they already agree with me. Not true. Your visible support of their actions makes it more likely for them to go out on a political limb for your mutual interests. And there are many things you can ask them to do:
  9. Things you can ask your elected officials to do include: Vote on specific legislation; sponsor or cosponsor legislation; make a statement about an issue; speak out more forcefully about an issue; talk to another elected official they’re close to about the issue; talk to their co-committee members about the issue.
  10. Partnering with a local organization for both policy support and clout is very important. A nonprofit already working on an issue should be able to help you with policy points, even if they aren’t able to join you in organizing/attending a meeting – call them up and ask. But working with a community group can also do a lot of good – a synagogue, school, church, community center, rotary club, whatever. You want to have the power of a network behind you, because your elected officials need to know that YOU are influential in your community.
  11. Nonprofits are not all the same. Some, like the Sierra Club, are 501c3 organizations. Donations to them are tax-deductible, and they can only spend 5% of their budget on lobbying elected officials, i.e. advocacy. Others, like the Citizens Climate Lobby, are 501c4 organizations that are focused on advocacy. Donations to them are not tax-deductible. Both have a purpose, and 501c3s often have an advocacy arm. If you find an organization working on an issue you care about and you haven’t heard of them, call them up and ask some hard questions about their impact before you commit to volunteering with them or representing them to your elected official.
  12. If you’re interested in learning more about how best to lobby your elected officials regarding a certain issue you care about, call up an organization that’s already doing work on that issue and say “I’m interested in building a relationship with my elected officials regarding this issue. Do you have materials that could help me? Do you offer advocacy training for your volunteers? Do you have other interested people in my area with whom I could be matched up?”
  13. In preparation for meeting with your elected officials, think about how you can get personal and therefore memorable. Think deeply about one issue you care very much about – what personal thing makes you care about that issue? We did a great exercise in the advocacy training – we had a minute to write down our personal reasons for connecting with a certain issue, and then take 2 minutes to tell them to another person. That person then had to say “That’s so interesting! Tell me more about [one compelling part that stood out].” So then we had to dig deeper and tell them more, and we repeated the process twice. By the end, we had dug deeply and come up with a very personal, much more compelling and memorable pitch than we had in the beginning.
  14. Once you schedule your meeting: a) Send the elected official or the staffer a summary of your presentation at least a day before. Do NOT blindside them; b) Invite someone who is directly affected by your issue, such as a senior citizen dependent upon Medicare if you’re talking about Medicare, c) Ask an organization already working on this issue to supply you with talking points, d) Prepare a short pitch, knowing that you have 10-30 minutes total, including your personal connection to the issue, maybe also asking the elected official about THEIR personal connection to the issue, r) Prepare two copies of any materials you bring and give one to the elected official and one to the staffer, e) Talk about a maximum of 2 issues and 3 policy asks total, something that can fit on one sheet of paper, f) Leave all your “asks” on that one sheet of paper and give a copy each to your elected official and the staffer at the end, g) You don’t have to be an expert on the issue; it’s enough to be a constituent who’s passionate about it. If you don’t know a fact, say so and offer to find out and follow up with the staffer later (and then do it!). It’s a great excuse for a follow up!
  15. Know that at least one staff member will be there, possibly in addition to your elected official, possibly by themselves. It’s okay if it’s by themselves – they are awesome, informed on your issue, and influential. When you take a photo at the end, which you should absolutely do and post/tag it everywhere, make sure you include the staffer.
  16. Follow up a LOT. Every week is good.
  17. There is so much work to do over the next few years, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. That’s why we ALL are going to have to jump in and do our part. Pick one or two or three issues that are the most important to you and concentrate on those. Others will have to pick up the slack on the rest. We’re going to need all the help we can get.

Copyright 2014 Kathryn Bashaar | Design by | Adapted from PureType