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Culture Q&A

Randy Singer

Randy Singer: In layman's terms

A pastor, lawyer, and author says fields of ministry aren’t confined to church walls 

Randy Singer: In layman's terms

Randy Singer (Tyndale House Publishers)

Randy Singer is a man of many talents, three of which stand out. He’s a lawyer who heads his own firm, a pastor of Trinity Church in Virginia Beach, and an award-winning author of 15 books, most of them legal thrillers.

Do you feel equally called in all three? Yes. I believe that the next Great Awakening in America will take place when laymen and laywomen wake up and realize that ministry is everywhere—not just within the walls of the church, not just “full-time Christian ministry.”

How are the three fields similar? They all require skills in persuasion, in telling stories to illustrate things.

You joke on your website about pastor and attorney as Jekyll and Hyde … In reality I try to be the same person. Some of the best lawyers I know are not some of the meanest lawyers I know.

Surveys show a lot of dissatisfaction among lawyers. Why? The whole practice of law has degenerated in many ways to pitched battles about minutia. If you can rise above that, you’ll be a much better lawyer. 

Some Patrick Henry students here wonder if Christian lawyers are different? I see more satisfaction among Christians than non-Christians because Christians look at it as a ministry. A lot go into public interest law, or are prosecutors, or work in international justice ministries.

Do good writing and good legal work go together? One of the big misconceptions is that lawyers run around the courtroom like they do on TV, waving their arms and making objections. Really, the best lawyers are the best writers. A lot of cases are decided on the briefs submitted to the court and the written submissions before you ever get to court.

Your first novel, Directed Verdict, won a Christy Award for the best Christian suspense novel. It centers on a lawsuit against Saudi Arabia when an American missionary is killed, and it brings out persecution of Christians in the Middle East, a very contemporary issue, but you developed the book before 9/11 … God put on my heart this idea of the persecution of the international church: How do you wake up Americans to realize how horrific this is?

‘When your only desire is to tell the story so people don’t even notice the wording, at that point you’ve become a fiction author.’

Did you have an agent? No, but after about three or four months a publisher called and said, “We really like the idea, but we don’t want it to take place in the Middle East. Let’s do it in China.” I turned down that opportunity and said it needed to happen in Saudi Arabia. Publication was in 2001, the year of 9/11, and afterward a pastor who had been in Saudi Arabia told me how he was tortured in the same way it was described in the book.

What type of research did you have to do in order to have that degree of authenticity? The Web is a wonderful thing, so I started there and did a lot of legal research. I talked with missionaries who work around the world and are involved in church planting movements. For any book you want to do a lot of interviews of people who live that life.

Some college students who are good writers go into MFA—Master of Fine Arts—programs. They learn about particular techniques and maybe look deep into themselves, but they don’t really know anything about the world, so the plots tend to be very internally focused. When I started I was a poor writer but a good storyteller, because I’d lived, I understood the stories, I practiced law. Somebody helped me become a better writer, but I don’t think anybody could have helped me become a better storyteller. That has to be lived out in the real world. 

What did you learn as you wrote more novels? First, that you don’t have to hit readers over the head with the points you’re making. You can be more subtle. Second, how to write spiritual themes that are more organic to the story. Third, to be less verbose and let the action carry the story instead of thinking, “What are some really flowery and cool phrases and words that I can weave into this?” 

You have the advantage of years in the law, and many writers like Ernest Hemingway got their start as newspaper writers. I’d like to see an MFA program that involved working as a lawyer or a journalist for a couple of years, so as not to be a hothouse plant. When you lose the desire to be known as a great wordsmith and have somebody say, “Oh, look at the way he phrased this,” when your only desire is to tell the story so people don’t even notice the wording, at that point you’ve become a fiction author. 

Your most recent novel, The Advocate, is not set in contemporary America but in Israel and Rome 2,000 years ago. Tell us about the plot. As a storyteller it seems to me that the book of Acts ends in a most unsatisfactory way. Paul, who has been the hero, is now imprisoned in Rome, waiting to stand trial in front of Nero, the world’s most notorious emperor. Wondering why Acts would end that way, I came across a theory that Luke and Acts were actually legal briefs written to Theophilus, who was the Apostle Paul’s lawyer—a Greek-trained, Roman lawyer who had visited Paul in prison and asked about this illegal new religion. Paul and Luke started saying, “Jesus did all these miracles, then he was crucified,” and Theophilus said, “Wait a minute, just write it all down, and let me take it from there.”

And you have Theophilus as a young lawyer serving as Pontius Pilate’s law clerk, standing behind him and coming up with the bright idea to offer Barabbas … The Theophilus idea captured my life. The other books take a year to write, this one took about five years. Theophilus feels responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, an innocent man. His lawyer’s life is forever changed by witnessing the shambles that Roman law was at the time.

Do you have another contemporary legal thriller in mind? I’ve been impressed by how much power the federal government has in America today, and how much of that power rests in the hands of prosecutors. We have theoretical advantages for the defendant, but in reality, when the federal government puts a target on your back, 98 percent of the time you’d better plead guilty and take whatever they offer.

But you’re also thinking about more historical fiction … Theophilus’ son would live through the age where the nascent Christian movement was suffering intense persecution but at the same time spreading throughout the Roman Empire, taking over in a society that’s very much like America today. 

Which way will you go? I really don’t know. I’ve been asking people, “What intrigues you more?” because I don’t write for my own self-satisfaction. I try to write things people will read.