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SCENE: A courtroom. In the middle, a roaring warden.1
Bailiff: All rise. This court is now in session, the Honorable Judge Reid Bookman presiding.
The old wooden pews and even older floor fuss in protest of the people standing up in unison. The judge enters and is pleased with the commotion. As is his habit, he immediately restores his chair to its highest perch, forgiving the weariness of the frame in light of the perfectly molded cushions. It used to extend five inches above the base, but time had whittled its ability to three. To repair the lever would be to risk the bank of the seat, and although he has to crane his neck to see and hear everything, he preferred the tolerably imperfect old to the hassle of auditioning new contenders.
Bailiff: You may be seated. Your Honor, today’s case is The People v. Elsasser.
Judge Bookman: Thank you, sir. Mr. Trendwell, are you prepared to present the case for the prosecution?
Trendwell: Yes, Your Honor.
Judge Bookman: And Mr. Elsasser2, having declined representation from a court-appointed attorney, are you prepared to defend yourself before this court?
Elsasser: Yes, Your Honor.
Judge Bookman: All-l-l-l righty then. Now, given the informal nature of this trial, I want to make perfectly clear that whatever verdict is delivered by this court will have no legal implications on the defendant. This is only the court of public opinion. Therefore, I hereby suspend the formality in favor of a conversational approach and encourage the use of first names from here on out. Everybody good with that?
Trendwell: Well, I don’t know, Judge Bookm—
Judge Bookman: Oh, come on, is this the way it’s gonna be right out the gate, Reub?
Trendwell: And there’s the reason. I may not be the most sophisticated guy in town, but “Rube” negates both my personal dignity and the strength of my case.
Judge Bookman: Okay, okay, Reuben. Just so you know, I don’t spell it that way in my mind. Hey, if I didn’t like you, I’d call you “Ruby.”
The judge chuckles along with the public, the scolding of his gavel half-hearted.
Trendwell: “Reuben” is acceptable. Thank you.
Judge Bookman: Now, as long as mind-spelling is on the table, Greg—is that one g or two at the end?
Elsasser: One, but I can double up if it’ll help my case.
Judge Bookman: Point goes to the defense.
Judge Bookman: And, of course, I’m fine with “Reid.” Reuben, you may present your case.
Convince us of thy case against
Elsasser’s son the Greg.
Is his new book a worthy read,
Or shall his name we dread?
Trendwell: Your Honor— I mean, Reid, the prosecution brings before the court of public opinion The Field Trip, a novel by Greg Elsasser. I contend that his book fails to meet the established criteria for success in the Christian book industry. I submit for review The Believer-per-Unbeliever Ratio & Sales Index. Bailiff, the lights please.
The hubbub during this calculated pause delights Reuben Trendwell. It shows in the timbre of his voice once he continues.
As you can see on the graph, the number of Christian characters is an undeniable correlation to a book’s success. This is no accident. Using more Christian
characters than non-Christian characters allows an author to explore his subject in a more ideal way. The messiness of life is impossible for an author to capture without offending part of his target audience at any given moment. Accommodating the acceptable norms of American Christendom is essential to a book’s palatability, and without a majority of Bible-accountable characters, it’s just too complex to navigate plot lines that don’t transgress against the personal convictions of any given reader.
Elsasser: Excuse me, Reid, but is it okay if I jump in here, or…?
Judge Bookman: Sure, Greg, go ahead.
Elsasser: Reuben was right when he said that life is messy. That’s exactly why I isolated Chasen Derrick, my protagonist. I think many Christians today interact with more unbelievers than believers on a daily basis. The feeling of isolation plays a key role in Chasen’s inner turmoil. Surrounding him with primarily unbelievers and carnal false converts was my way of heightening the intensity without making a social martyr of him.
The lights flip on again, jolting everyone. Amidst the groans, an annoyed Rueben returns from the light switch to his table. He catches the side-eye from the judge and reins in the confidence of his strides.
Trendwell: That may be, Greg, but people read books to escape. Christian readers are too downtrodden enough by their lives to confront their personal struggles in their leisure time. What’s leisurely about that? I mean, it would be different if you had written a nonfiction book of self-help.
Elsasser: You’ve made my point for me, Reuben. I am not at all against the straightforwardness of a nonfiction book, but you said yourself that it’s anything but relaxing. Translate the principle to the world of cinema. Which movies get a greater audience: documentaries or virtually anything else? With a few exceptions and valuable as they are, documentaries just do not compete as well in the market.
Yet, that’s exactly what the industry asks believers to choose for entertainment (barring the “Christian” stories espousing theology weird and wrong). Some people enjoy a dry read, but it’s not for everybody.
I say that fiction can be just as challenging as nonfiction— in a way, even more so. What if the reader can read for knowledge and leisure without compromising on essential doctrine? And why not? Plot lines consisting purely of and-this-happened-and-then-that-happened are flat in a 3-D world.
The one-g Greg hath dealt a mighty blow.
The Trendwell trembles in his knees.
Reid Bookman weighs the testimony long.
We rest perceive.
Judge Bookman: Reuben, back to you.
Trendwell: To Greg’s credit, at least there are plot-organic nods to the gospel. I daresay that this was the surprise of the novel for me.
Elsasser: Thank you, Reuben. Without producing a book expressly about evangelism, I wanted to focus less on converting the reader—not that that’s unimportant— and more on how Chasen navigates the at-times daunting call to evangelism on every believer’s life. I would also like to say that there is a full gospel presentation at the end of the book, completely external to the narrative.
Judge Bookman: Clever.
Trendwell: Perhaps, but I maintain that all of this is a deviation from the industry norm.
Elsasser: Another compliment. Thank you.
Judge Bookman: Reuben, next topic.
Trendwell: Okay, Reid, I’d like to discuss the second major shortcoming with Greg’s novel: loose ends.
Elsasser: Now, wait a minute. I was assured that there would be no spoilers in this trial.
Judge Bookman: He’s right, Reuben. Tread carefully, but proceed.
Trendwell: Of course. It’s practically a non-point. By Christian book standards, the novel is, well, unfinished.
Judge Bookman: You mean, you haven’t finished reading it? You can hardly blame Greg for that.
Trendwell: No, I finished what he supplied, but the last couple of pages were just so. . . open-ended. All he did was raise new questions. How is a reader supposed to walk away with any sense of closure? Is it a cliffhanger? Is it rhetorical? Are you writing a sequel?
Elsasser: I cannot make a public statement at this time.
Trendwell: But you do concede that there are some un-dotted I’s and uncrossed ts by the novel’s end.
Elsasser: Personally, I believe that only enhances the purpose of the book.
Judge Bookman: Greg, maybe you had better explain to the court how his complaint is your triumph.
Elsasser: Sure thing. It’s kind of like how the Bible—
Trendwell: OBJECTION! I can’t even believe he admitted to such arrogan—
Elsasser: No, no, no. The canon’s closed. I meant in terms of scope. The Field Trip zooms in on one chapter in one man’s life in light what we know from the Bible about the rest of time, including the end of time. Naturally, because we are in the middle of time unfolding, the story is bound to collide with certain unknowns. By the way, those unknowns are also one reason why some conspiracy theories, whether likely or ridiculous, rival the credibility of the official narratives. The book has fun with that, too, but again, the reader walks away examining his own attitude more than anything.
Trendwell: Do you hear yourself, Greg? I may as well segue into my final contention. The flagrant controversy! Of all the topics you could have chosen, you picked one of the most intense, explosive, mysterious—
Elsasser: Hey, that’s good. Mind if I quote you on that?
Trendwell: —divisive can of wo— be my guest! Slap it on as a CAUTION sticker!
Surprised by this sudden change of pace, the room is again abuzz. Gavel bang, gavel bang, gavel bang. . .
Judge Bookman: Whoa, guys, back up. Remember that nobody else besides you two have actually read the book, yet.
Trendwell: Your Honor, ladies and gentlemen of the public, the author Greg Elsasser has written a novel about eschatology!
The court collectively gasps. There is a pause, like the moment between a seeing and hearing lightning electrify the sky. And thunder they do, talking to and over anyone and no one, some in excitement, some in panic. Judge Bookman does not hold back with the gavel this time as he eyes the bailiff, commissioning him to patrol the aisles and calm the most animated.
Double, double, burst a bubble;
Eschatology is trouble.
Judge Bookman: The court will come to order. I want to remind everyone that although this trial is on the casual side, the nature of our business is nonetheless important. A man’s reputation as an author is at stake, and we owe him the due diligence of patience, thoroughness, and sobriety of mind.
Trendwell: Reid, maybe the public should be shielded from such volatile ideas.
Judge Bookman: While people are at liberty to test their own theories with dynamic concepts or abstain, outright censorship is unhelpful at best and destructive at worst. Neither will I allow the intelligence of the public to be insulted in my courtroom. That said, those inclined to hysterical outbursts are encouraged to excuse themselves from this court.
The judge surveys the room. No one stirs in the slightest lest movement be mistaken for intent to leave.
Now, Greg, an allegation of sowing discord is serious, and for all his quirks, I have never known Reuben to make things up. The floor is yours to defend The Field Trip against what I think we all agree is the chief grievance voiced by the prosecution so far.
Elsasser: Certainly, Reid, and I want to assure everyone that I, too, appreciate the dangers of sinfully causing division within the Body of Christ over nonessential doctrine. My novel is by no means intended to advocate one eschatological position over another. Rather, I use those positions merely as a plot vehicle. The underlying assumptions are nothing beyond what every orthodox denomination would agree upon: Jesus Christ is Lord, and the world as we know it will not last forever. The details of what that looks like? That’s when a documentary or a commentary or whatever else shines. The Field Trip is about a believer’s attitude toward eschatology without asking him to draw any sort of eschatological conclusions.
The prosecutor, too exasperated to rebut, needlessly reorganizes the papers on his table. Swiveling behind the bench, the judge realizes that his chair has disappointed him again, the stress of the low seat taxing his knees. He gets up to readjust the height and silently begs the chair to hold up, well aware of the expectant gaze of every eye in the room. Reid Bookman ignores them as he eases into old comfort ever so gingerly just once more, but the bald and weary lever gives way, and he freefalls a full three inches before bouncing in impact echoes.
The judge slowly rises again. He is the tallest freestanding feature of the room, towering even over the tops of the windows. The new perspective is unparalleled, and though he knows that a judge cannot hear cases without a chair indefinitely, he now admits that the old perch he had come to love had been bested long before this day.
He considers everything for a moment.
Judge Bookman: Has the prosecution made its case in full?
Heads turn to Reuben Trendwell, but he does not look up.
Judge Bookman: Any parting remarks, Greg?
Elsasser: No, I think that about sums it up.
Judge Bookman: Okay. I will now retire to deliberate.
Bailiff: All rise.
How shall Reid Bookman, judge of honor, rule?
Hath Reuben Trendwell wrought a victory?
Or shall Elsasser, Greg prevail?
Thou art the judge, fine reader. See3?
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1Scene set and choruses patterned after William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (http://shakespeare.mit.edu/macbeth/full.html)
2Comments attributed to Greg Elsasser are made up by Kari Atalla based on how she imagined he would answer any of the questions submitted by the fictitious characters in this article. To read an actual interview of the author, click here.