AT AGE 44, author James L. Ferrell is perched on the bridge between youth and age. And he uses that vantage point in his books. In both "The Peacegiver" and "The Holy Secret" two LDS blockbusters published by Deseret Book Ferrell shows us a young man who turns to an older man for wisdom. That's an age-old concept that shows up in everything from "Tuesdays With Morrie" to the "Karate Kid" movies. The key is the old man must deliver, he must have something fresh and eye-popping to say to the boy.
Ferrell's old guys deliver in spades.
I spent an afternoon with Ferrell earlier this week. He's a youngish 44, with piercing intellect and engaging enthusiasm. He's also very at ease when talk turns to personal spiritual experience. He seamlessly weds the mind with the soul.
But then, as I said, he's a bridge builder.
"Stories of reconciliation matter to me," he said. "I think they are the most powerful stories. So that's why I write stories about people coming together."
Making connections, then, blending opposites not just in subject matter, but in his approach to writing itself.
"Actually, I think one of the reasons that 'The Peacegiver' seemed new to people," he says, "was it was a doctrinal book in a story format. What happened was I'd never really written anything in my life but legal briefs until in my professional work we needed a book to explain our ideas to the world. So a partner and I began working on a book called 'Leadership and Self-Deceptions.' And we wrote it as a story. That kind of awakened me to that way of doing things. Writing a story allows me to create characters who are changing at the same time the reader is changing. The other thing is some doctrines are difficult to understand, especially the first time through. So having characters who either fail to understand, or who fight it, allows me to come back at doctrines a second, third or fourth time from a different angle."
And how does he find those stunning connections between scriptures that make his insights so startling?
"What I typically do with a scriptural passage is pull it out of the form I'm used to," he says. "If you're used to looking at things the way you always have, you'll always see what you've always seen. So I'll lift the text out and arrange it by paragraph. And just that simple act helps me see a passage differently. Then I start asking questions. I have a conversation with the text. And because the scriptures are deeper than other texts, you can have deeper conversations with them. The thing you have to keep in mind is the gospel is not afraid of any question. The scriptures aren't afraid. So you can put any question to them and see what happens."
Born and raised in Seattle, Ferrell ended up at Brigham Young University where under Terry Warner he learned to reconcile philosophy and theology. In his first religious book a book with the working title "The Hidden Testament" that will be released in 2009 he found ingenious ways to blend the message of the Old Testament with the message of the New Testament. In his current work with his business, the Arbinger Institute, he teaches people ways to link hands amid political and cultural tension.
But if Ferrell is slowly becoming the consummate "peacemaker," he doesn't shy from giving credit to the consummate "peacegiver."
"In the gospel," he says, "everything is fundamentally about faith in Christ. My books are about hope hope that my relationships can be better, hope we actually can be sanctified and changed, as the Lord says we must be. And we can only find that hope by having faith in Christ. It's why the scripture says faith, then hope, then charity. If I find I don't have a lot of hope, the answer is not to do what we do in modern culture, which is go out and find a way to feel good about myself. The answer is to have increased faith in Christ and realize what he has done, is doing and will do for us."
His wish for his books?
"I hope that what I write," he says thoughtfully, "will increase hope."Anyone who's read them knows they already have.
Jerry Johnston is a Deseret News staff writer. "New Harmony" appears weekly in the Mormon Times section.