Ordinary Legends: A Review of T.S. 44 – The Button Tree Prophet, by William Spires

One of those unfortunate traits of any generation is the tendency to ignore our elders. Those who take time to talk with and listen to parents, grandparents, and other older people often come away with unexpected blessings. After all, they have lived through experiences that everyone must encounter at some point, and thus have acquired valuable lessons to share with younger people who have yet to go through those experiences. Of course, that is what we expect. What surprises us is that the ordinary life experience of our elders frequently turns out to be the stuff of legends. Will Spires discovered this in conversation with his father. What he learned about his father’s childhood in Columbia, South Carolina, during World War II inspired him to build a coming-of-age story that resonates with readers on many levels.

Spires’ first novel, T.S. 44: The Button Tree Prophet, investigates the world of an ordinary boy from a working-class family. But then, what is ordinary about a boy losing his father on the eve of his tenth birthday? Perhaps that is what makes this novel so compelling from the first page. Travis Shipley’s life is already what contemporary readers would describe as underprivileged. His family is poor, his parents are uneducated, the Great Depression has drained his country of much of its vitality, and global war is redefining every facet of human interaction. In a world where everything that once was normal is now in transition, the merciless scythe of cancer snatches away the greatest source of stability in his young life. All that he has to help him find the right direction is a button his father gives him just before his death, charging him with the task of finding out what it means to be a button.

How Travis adjusts to this new reality is the vehicle by which Spires conducts us on a captivating journey through the convulsions impacting the urban, industrial, segregated American South of the mid-twentieth century. The fact that this Southern society is decidedly Christian – at least culturally – explains why this is a story of faith. Few stories of the South in that era could be otherwise. Christianity defines the culture for all the characters, regardless of their color, economic status, education, or even religion. That is where we find the first unique point of Spires’ novel. As Travis moves through the fog of grief and the daily reality of grinding poverty, he encounters help from unexpected sources. Chief among them is Jacob Meadows, a disabled World War I veteran who serves as the local truant officer. We quickly learn that Meadows, an observant Jew, is somehow able to move comfortably between the Jewish and Christian communities. This is surprising on several counts. First, the average reader likely is not aware that the Jewish community of South Carolina has ancient roots, going back to the earliest colonial days. Spires provides the historical background, establishing credible reason for Meadows to be simultaneously Jewish and Southern. That helps explain the next unusual point: how Jews interact with Christians in the American South. It is actually not so unusual. As a minority in every place where they have lived through the ages, Jews have learned to interact with the larger community, and simultaneously find space to be Jewish. Jacob Meadows helps us understand how that worked out in South Carolina. But then there is the strangest point of all: how this Jewish man can interact with Christians on their own terms. Spires provides not only a plausible explanation, but a very strong one. The answer comes from Meadows’ experience on the battlefields of France in the First World War, where differences of belief and practice fade in the presence of a brotherhood born of sacrificial love extending beyond the grave.

That is what makes Jacob Meadows the perfect mentor for young Travis. As unlikely as it may seem, it is he who is best equipped to help the lad through the inevitable questioning of and anger at God for the hard trials he endures. Meadows comes in at precisely the right moment, helping not only Travis, but his mother. Sarah Shipley is a woman already worn down by the ordeal of caring for her dying husband. Her new role as single parent of a precocious and willful son is all the more difficult because of her long hours at work earning just enough to pay the bills. The Shipley family needs stability and normalcy, which Meadows is willing and able to provide it in good measure. Others assist him, although not always by design. One is Alfred Patterson, a hard-nosed journalist who learns of Travis’ story, and another is Annie Wright, Travis’ classmate and neighbor, who is dealing with her own father issues. Then there is the Ragman, a black shoeshine artist whose long career as a railroad porter and as a pastor give him just the right words to speak into Travis’ life at the moment he needs them.

The encounter with the Ragman stands as one of the most poignant episodes of T.S. 44. This is where Spires deals with one of the ugliest features of the American South: segregation. Spires does not hit it head on. In fact, he does not hit any issue head on. Many aspects of life in that era are uncomfortable and even reprehensible by contemporary standards. The secondary status of African-Americans is but one. So also are the divisions between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, the powerful and the weak, men and women, and Christian and Jew. Moreover, the ubiquitous presence of cigarettes is something contemporary readers will find uncomfortable and even disgusting. Yet all these are part of the reality of mid-twentieth century America. Spires incorporates all of that reality into his story without judgment. That is one of the strengths of his work; had he engaged in judgement, his novel would be nothing more than a shrill cry for social justice that would bypass the deeper human truths he conveys. Thus we see the poignancy of the Ragman’s meeting with Travis: an old black man and a young white boy connecting on very human terms, even in defiance of the color barrier and other realities that otherwise would keep them apart.

In time, Travis finds an answer to the question of what it means to be a button. The Ragman is one of those who help him find that answer. Along the way, Travis not only receives help from unexpected sources, but finds himself helping others in unexpected ways. In the end, a tragedy that should never befall one so young imparts a life lesson that few learn even in old age: every one of us impacts multitudes of others in ways we usually do not realize. What Travis Shipley learns is that it is better to make that impact a good one by easing the burdens of others whenever possible. This opens him to what may only be described as a miraculous encounter with his Creator. Is that miracle believable? By the time Travis is ready to walk it out, the question is turned on its head. He has already come through improbable circumstances just by making himself available for God to use as He pleases. In a sense, his very survival to the age of ten is miraculous. Why, then, should he question Divine intervention at all? If it comes in small things like responding with compassion to the presence of a mouse in his room, then surely it is there in moments of great need. And that is how Travis Shipley, the unlikely Button Tree Prophet of Columbia, South Carolina, teaches us what it means to be human.

T.S. 44: The Button Tree Prophet is available at Key of David Publishing (https://www.keyofdavidpublishing.com/).


© Albert J. McCarn and The Barking Fox Blog, 2018.  Permission to use and/or duplicate original material on The Barking Fox Blog is granted, provided that full and clear credit is given to Albert J. McCarn and The Barking Fox Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Understanding the Seed of Abraham: A Review of Redeemed Israel – Reunited and Restored By Batya Ruth Wootten

One of these days, the people of God will be amazed to learn that any power Satan retains is only that which God allows him to have, or that God’s people themselves give to him. That is the testimony of Scripture (Job 1:6-12, 2:1-10; Isaiah 14:12-20, Colossians 2:8-15; Ephesians 4:7-10; Psalm 68:18-19). It is a testimony lived out in recent centuries as Christians and Jews of all denominations and sects cling tightly to their own unique perspective of the Creator’s work, while questioning the inclusion of others with them in that work. The result is a terminal fragmentation, evident in the declining effectiveness of the church (at least in the West), and a Judaism split between an assimilated Diaspora and an internally focused observant segment largely concentrated in Israel.

The stumbling block, of course, is the Messiah – the one Christians call Jesus Christ, but whom Jews for the most part disregard. Even those who fall in between these two major elements of God’s people have their issues. Although Messianic Jews and non-Jewish Hebrew Roots adherents agree that Jesus (whom they call by his Hebrew name, Yeshua) is the Messiah, and that the Torah (teaching, instruction, direction, law) of God are still applicable to Yeshua’s followers, the agreement tends to stop at that point. Thus the terminal fragmentation persists even in this expanding space that is filling the gap between Judaism and Christianity.

Where is the remedy for this sad state of affairs? Batya Ruth Wootten offers an answer in Redeemed Israel – Reunited and Restored. Her answer rests squarely on the question of identity, a question that leads her to ask, “If our God is the God of Israel, and the Jewish people are Israel, then who is the Church?

Please click here to continue reading

Pictures for Pondering II

Connecting the dots in Scripture can be lots of fun – and challenging. The fun part is the “Aha!” moment when something finally makes sense. The challenging part is when that “Aha!” moment presents a different picture from what we have learned all our lives. Do we take that new revelation and run with it, knowing it can make waves, or do we set it aside and hope that it never comes up again?

This second offering of Pictures for Pondering may be a challenge. As with the first edition, posted last spring, these are images from Bible passages prepared originally for posting on YouVersion (the Bible App). The first edition presented some interesting perspectives on the Kingdom of Heaven, Law and Grace, and prophecy, but also some whimsical illustrations. This time there is an attempt at a unifying theme. Part of the challenge is identifying that theme. The other part is investigating it from Scripture to see if it is so.

Good hunting!

bfb160928a-hebrews-3_16-4_2

Please click here to continue reading

Remembering ALL Our Roots

This is a season of reflection at The Barking Fox.  Part of the reason is getting settled at last in our new home in North Carolina.  There is no hiding the fact that I am a Southern boy, with roots growing to a depth of 200 years in Alabama and nearly three centuries in the Carolinas.  Hopefully I will have opportunity to explore those roots and share any findings that would be of interest to others.

bfb160918-keith-greenWhat has reminded me of a central part of my roots has been the opportunity to listen to worship music that has ministered to my soul for as long as I have been on this earth. Recently I shared one of those songs by the late Keith Green.  Now I share another:  an old hymn made new again as I pondered its meaning.  

In the Baptist Hymnal on my bookshelf its is called There Is a Fountain.  The lyrics come not only from Scripture (Zechariah 13:1), but from the life experience of William Cowper, an Englishman who penned these words in the same era that my Scottish-American ancestors began their contribution to the history of this continent. 

There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains
Lose all their guilty stains
Lose all their guilty stains
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains

The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day
And there may I, though vile as he
Wash all my sins away
Wash all my sins away
Wash all my sins away
And there may I, though vile as he
Wash all my sins away

Ever since, by faith, I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply
Redeeming love has been my theme
And shall be till I die
And shall be till I die
And shall be till I die
Redeeming love has been my theme
And shall be till I die

Please click here to continue reading

Finding Israelite Identity in the New Covenant

©Harper Collins Christian Publishing. Used by permission.
ReverendFun.com.  © Harper Collins Christian Publishing.  Used by permission.

Language is a perilous thing.  It can unite us, but quite often it does the opposite.  That, by the way, was God’s intent.  We know that from the story of how He created the different languages of the earth as presented in Genesis 11:

Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words.  It came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.  They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.”  And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar.  They said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”  The Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built.  The Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language.  And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.  Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”  So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city.  Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.  (Genesis 11:1-9 NASB, emphasis added)

Ever since then that curse of language has been with us.  And, by the way, so has the curse of nations.

Curse of nations?  Yes, it does seem to be a curse.  It would seem that the Lord did not intend for humanity to be scattered and separated across the face of the planet in competing factions.  Nevertheless, nations were His idea.  The story of the Tower of Babel explains why.  You’ll notice that mankind also had an idea of uniting themselves as one people, but their idea was not the same as the Almighty’s.  They wanted to be a single, unified power that could challenge YHVH for sovereignty over this planet.  Since these people lived in the generations immediately after the Great Flood, we can suppose that some of them harbored a little resentment at God’s destruction of the pre-Flood civilization.  Maybe they thought they could do things better than their ancestors, perhaps by building a strong defense that could ward off any further Divine intervention in human affairs.  Now since our God does not change (Numbers 23:19; I Samuel 15:29; Malachi 3:6; James 1:17; Hebrews 13:8), and since the eternal governing principles of the universe which He established do not change (Psalm 119:44; II Kings 17:37; Matthew 5:18, 24:34-35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33), He had to do something about this blatant rebellion.  There can only be one God, after all. 

The problem with sin is that it seeks to create many gods – in fact, as many as there are human beings on the earth.  That is at the heart of Satan’s insidious deception spoken to our mother Eve:  “For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  (Genesis 3:5 NASB)  Tragically, the way our Creator dealt with the deception before the Flood was to destroy humanity.  I would surmise He had little choice in the matter since all of humanity apparently was united as a single people, most likely under satanic leadership (not unlike the world we are anticipating at the end of this age when Messiah returns).  To make sure He did not have to make a complete end of the human race this time around, the Lord God created nations and then scattered them across the earth.  If they were divided in language, they would soon be divided in every other imaginable way, and the resultant wars and rumors of wars would ensure that a united human empire would not arise to defy the Living God until the end of days.  In the meantime the Living God could go about the process of cultivating His redemptive work in human hearts while they remained in the nations.

Please click here to continue reading