Five Myths of Cultural Engagement

Blog | | Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Have you encountered any of these myths?
Fact and Fiction

“Fact and Fiction”. Color halftone reproduction of painting by American painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), used as cover illustration for “Leslie’s illustrated weekly newspaper”, vol. 124, no. 3201, 11 January 1917.

In the world, but not of the world. Christians have debated the application of that concept for a long time. As Jesus states in John 17:15-16 . . .

I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.

We are called to be a light to the world, which denotes engagement with it, but not of the world, which indicates being one with it.

On one side are those who call for total separation from the world. Holiness demands separation for fear of contamination. On the other, people will point to verses indicating we are to be witnesses, and we can’t do that without engaging on some level. After all, Jesus ate with sinners, visited their houses. Separation for Him obviously didn’t mean not to befriend them, to not engage them on their own turf.

When we throw Christian speculative fiction into the mix, it becomes even murkier, because we’re no longer talking only about real life, but a fictional world and characters that are perhaps not Christian. The line between being in and not of can seem fuzzier, and where that line is drawn for any one author or reader can vary greatly. Much of our discussions center on this topic in one way or another.

So in my never-ending quest for truth, justice, and the Kingdom way, I offer the following myths of cultural engagement in Christian fiction, in no particular order, for your consumption and consideration.

The Author is God

This happens when the author is expected to have infallible powers in constructing their fictional world so that no theological contradictions exist. Some are prone to classify an author as of the world because they perceive a theological error, by their estimation, reflects the author’s belief.

Truth is, while God is all knowing and created His world perfectly right the first time, no author will catch all world-building conflicts within their work, much less their own theology. Throw in the reader’s theology, which is guaranteed not to match the author’s completely, you have an impossible task to duplicate on paper what God did in our world. Readers should expect not all dots are going to connect.

Stories Must Contain Bible Quotes, Prayers, and/or a Gospel Presentation

Not that those are to be avoided, but there are more ways to shine the light of God into the world than those. Sometimes the most effective way to attract people is with honey instead of a fly swatter.

Not all stories serve the same purpose or intend to reach the same audience. Jesus changed His approach for each individual, just as Paul spoke to the Athenians differently than he did the Ephesians. Using a one-size-fits-all spotlight approach will work for some but send others packing. We’re called to be more like Paul in seeking out as many as possible.

I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. (1Cor 9:22b)

We Are Called to Shine the Black-light of the Gospel

In an attempt to witness to the sinner, we seek to establish some identification between them and our characters. All well and good, but some attempt to do this by unscrewing the light bulb and putting in a black-light. Too much of that, and there isn’t much light left shinning to make a dent in their darkness.

More important than having a story non-Christians can identify with is having one they can respect. Hiding the light might not make them run away, but it won’t draw them either. The goal is to make an authentic story for that audience where identifying with and challenging their world views happen together.

We Must Avoid Any Idealized Characters

The idea is no one can relate to a “perfect” Christian. Granted, some books produce a caricature rather than an authentic person, which is bad, but many secular books have such people.

In the hero’s journey, you often have the mentor/teacher role model. Whether Yoda from Star Wars or Faramir from Lord of the Rings, many books have that person we look up to, even as we know we might not be that good. We innately long for true heroes.

Having a cast of flawed characters with no heroes of inner strength and morals will sabotage an authentic story as surely as a cast of righteous caricatures.

Everything About God Needs to be Allegorized

Often this is done by giving God and Jesus alternate names in the story’s world. The most popular example is Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis.

While there is nothing wrong in doing this, don’t expect this to get God and Jesus into the story under the radar. Few will be fooled. May even perceive it as offensive in some cases. The direct approach, placed in real-life situations, can be more honest and effective many times.

To summarize, stories that engage culture to influence it while not being influenced by it are those that garner respect and authenticity by not merely pointing out the darkness, but effectively shine God’s light into the darkness. On either end you have the extremes: total separation from the world so it is no longer in it, and complete identification with the world that we become a part of it. Neither extreme ends up being a light in the darkness. One hides it under a bushel, the other under their thorns.

What other myths are you aware of?

Reading With Purpose

Blog | | Monday, October 20, 2014
Far too many readers, feeling justified by Tolkien’s words, are content with the escape of the deserter and turn reading into a passive occupation, a form of mindless entertainment.

Expository Listening coverA particular radio ministry is giving away to those who contact them during the month of October copies of Expository Listening by Ken Ramey. I’m not giving an endorsement of the book here because I haven’t read it. I only know that it challenges people who listen to sermons to do so actively, not passively.

But the title and the brief description of the book makes me wonder if readers don’t need to be charged in a similar way.

Certainly the idea of reading as an escape has been examined and re-examined here at Spec Faith. Tolkien best clarified the concept, and proponents of speculative literature have embraced his words:

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. (“On Fairy Stories” by J. R. R. Tolkien, p. 20).

jrr-tolkien -150x150As popular as Tolkien’s view of escape in connection with reading speculative literature has become, I question whether many embrace his intent. His comparison of escape enjoyed through reading to escape by a prisoner wishing to go home clearly illustrates his thought—the escape he advocated has a purpose.

I suggest that far too many readers, feeling justified by Tolkien’s words, are content with the escape of the deserter and turn reading into a passive occupation, a form of mindless entertainment.

I think Tolkien would be horrified at such a concept. Clearly the prisoner who escapes is not only leaving one thing, he is attempting to reach somewhere else. In other words, his actions are aimed at changing his circumstances.

Even when he cannot escape, as Tolkien says, his thoughts rightly go beyond guards and prison walls. He is thinking above his circumstances and focusing on what gives him hope and courage.

Reading, I believe Tolkien is saying, should have a similar purpose.

Certainly writers are responsible for infusing meaning into their stories, but then it is up to readers to suss it out. Those satisfied with entertainment will care for little more than the thrill of the read—the tears or laughter the story evoked, the rush the tension generated.

I certainly believe stories should appeal to a reader’s emotions, but if that’s all a person takes away from a novel, they are more akin to the deserter than the prisoner.

Deserters want to get away from the fight. Readers who read for pleasure alone want to get away from the fight. For the Christian, at least, there ought to be more.

We as Christians are bought with a price and no longer are our own. We don’t really have the luxury to be mindless in our approach to stories because we are not deserters. We are prisoners, having some place to go, not just some place to ditch.

But reading as prisoners takes some intention. We need to be on the alert for whispers of truth behind the dialogue of ordinary characters. We should stand as watchmen on the wall looking for potential assault or for the arrival of the kings entourage.

Novelists can include these things, but readers must do the work to uncover them—unless, of course, we miss Tolkien’s point and think escape as a deserter is the same as escape as a prisoner.

Fiction Friday – A Time To Die by Nadine Brandes

Blog | | Thursday, October 16, 2014
There was once a time when only God knew the day you’d die.
Series:

A Time To Die cover

A Time To Die
Out Of Time series, #1
By Nadine Brandes
Enclave Publishing
Dystopian Fantasy

How would you live if you knew the day you’d die?

Excerpt from Chapter 1:

There was once a time when only God knew the day you’d die.

At least that’s what they tell me. I wasn’t alive then—back when life bore adventure and death held surprise. I guess God decided to share the coveted knowledge. Either that, or we stole it from Him. Personally, I think He just gave the world what it thought it wanted: control.

My thin rectangular Clock sits on the carved shelf across the room, clicking its red digital numbers—like blood. Today marks the first day of my last year alive.

000.364.07.05.16

Three hundred sixty-four days, seven hours, five minutes, and sixteen—no, fifteen—seconds to live. I’ve always thought it cruel they include the seconds. But people want absolutes. They demand fine lines in a fuzzy world.

My toes curl like pill bugs when they touch the cold wood floor. I creep to the open window, flick a shivering spider off the sill into the October breeze, and close the shutters. Wind still howls through.

I pull on a pair of wool socks—a frequent Christmas gift of which I never grow weary—and ignore the mirror. It’s the same face every morning: tangled hair, bleary chocolate eyes, and a waspish glare that doesn’t leave until after coffee.

I push through the bedroom door in to the kitchen and just miss a collision with my mother. She sweeps past bearing a mixing bowl of steaming cinnamon oatmeal. Pity her morning greeting isn’t as warm as the breakfast she slams on the table. “Twenty minutes, Parvin.”

“It’s my time I waste sleeping, not yours.”

The rectangular kitchen glows under the heat of the cooking fire on the opposite wall. A metal was tin and a red water pump sit to my left, beneath our only glass window. Cold morning light reflects off the soapsuds. The rough kitchen table crowds most of the walking space unless all four chairs are pushed in tight. I plop into the closest seat.

“It’s already six-thirty.” She blows a stray hair away from her face. “You’ve wasted seventeen years, let’s not spoil your last one.”

Ah, mother-daughter love.

She slides a wooden mug filled with coffee across the table with one hand, and reaches for the creamer with the other. My morning pick-me-up splashes over the rim. I shrug. More room for cream.

Once I’ve transformed my coffee into a liquid dessert, I spoon oatmeal into a dish and calculate my schedule: Five minutes to eat, five minutes to change, ten minutes to walk there. If I stick to my planned detour, I’ll be late for assessment. I don’t care. The hearing is more important.

My coffee turns to vinegar. I force a swallow against my shaking nerves. I won’t be nervous today. I have to be strong.

A life depends on it.

“Get out of those thin shorts.” Mother barks the command as she stokes the cooking fire, then places the blackened kettle over it once more. “And stop sleeping with the window open. No wonder you’re cold at night—you’ve got legs like twigs. I don’t know why you make such impractical clothing.”

“They’re practical in summer.” And more comfortable to sleep in than the wool underclothes she insists on wearing.

“It’s October.”

I take a bite of oatmeal. My sewing fetish is my version of rebellion and independence. At least I’m in control in some manner, although sewing never helped my popularity.

After three mouthfuls of oatmeal, I practically inhale my coffee before going to change into a grey wool shirt and black vest—self-tailored to fit my short torso. I pull on my double-layered cotton trousers and boots lined with speckled rabbit fur. The blend of dark colors makes me feel serious and firm—exactly what I need for the hearing.

Mother brushes my hair into a burgundy-umber fluff. I scowl and braid it down one side before jamming on an ivory cap.

She tucks my Clock into my vest pocket. “Forty minutes.”

No way I’ll be home in forty minutes. “Eighty.” I’ll probably be longer.

I stride up the uneven stone sidewalk of Straight Street. Mother never bids farewell anymore, not now that the real Good-bye is so near.

Weak rays of dawn peek over rows of identical wood-and-thatch houses. Flickering morning candlelight shines through every shutter. In the few homes with glass windows, homemade gadgets or goods line the sills—socks, herb teas, paper notebooks, candles, wax tablets, hair ribbons. Tiny price cards sit beside them.

Still trading.

I scan the sills for an old newspaper, rubbing my fingers over the last coin in my pocket. Crumpled black-and-white paper catches my eye. I stop and scan the headline:

10th Anniversary of Worldwide Currency ‘Specie’ Celebrated with Increased Dividends

My eyes flit to the date to confirm my sinking hopes: October 06, 2148

Three days ago. I’ve already read it. Besides, the price card tells me it costs two specie, and I have only one to spend.

With a sigh, I look between the houses to the horizon still shrouded in shadow. Barely, just barely, the Wallis visible through morning fog. The stone spine looks as menacing as ever, stretching a thousand feet high along the west border of my state, Missouri. It’s hard to imagine it encircles the earth’s longitude, but that’s what they say.

I break my stare and quicken my pace. Red maple leaves fly through the air like autumn snowflakes. I hug myself and cross the narrow, muddy street, nodding to the milkman on the corner as he organizes his various bottles between the wood slats of his pushcart. He waves a gloved hand, which returns to his side as if out of habit, rubbing a square bulge in his trouser pocket.

I’ve seen his Clock—four more years and a thimble-full of days until his zeroes line up. Longer than I have even though I’m younger, but I don’t begrudge him. We’re all a population of walking second-hands, ticking toward the end.

A wooden arrow painted white points toward the center of town—Father’s handiwork from his carpentry shop. My fingers brush across the smooth top of the sign. The black letters glisten, painted to withstand the upcoming winter: Unity Village Square.

Unity Village. The insinuation in the name is far from the disposition of its people. Seventeen years haven’t been long enough for me to change this. Instead, I’ve conformed to the cold separateness we cling to. The concept of unity is now a nostalgic whim from the past—like gentlemen doffing fedoras, free ice cream on a hot afternoon, barefooted children hoop rolling. Selfless consideration is rare, except from the Mentors. And they only fake it.

Mentor. The word turns my stomach and my shoulders tense.

Twelve Reasons the ‘Left Behind’ Series is Actually Awesome, part 4

Blog | | Thursday, October 16, 2014
Three final reasons I still like the “Left Behind” novels: human journeys, fantastical events, and the return of Jesus.
Series:
Left Behind nostalgia

Yes, that white one at the end made me cry a little.

The Left Behind movie with Nicolas Cage was soulless and slapshod. But no movie can ever reflect my fond memories of the original apocalyptic-thriller novels or their actual themes.

That’s the main point of this miniseries of articles designed to show why the Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins are actually awesome. Yes, I say this despite knowing of the series’ doctrinal and fictional flaws, and the fact that many readers believe the story is how things will “really” happen rather than enjoying them as “mere” fiction.

In part 1, I said the series offers a fantastical story with vivid characters and decent world-building for the pre–, mid–, and post-apocalyptic world of LB. Part 2 overviewed the novels’ action, organic “preachy” content (the stuff the movie bizarrely left out and shouldn’t have), and fandom of even non-Christian readers. In part 3, I said the LB series also contradicts stereotypes about Christian fiction by having badass (can I say badass?) cover designs, an overall epic vision for the story — 12 novels covering seven years of apocalypse — plus an ethnically diverse cast that goes far beyond, say, the film’s awkward attempts at “diversity.”

Now for three final reasons the original Left Behind novels are actually kind of awesome.

10. Many emotional journeys have heart

Soul Harvest offers a surprising emotional step up for the Left Behind series.

Soul Harvest offers a surprising emotional step up for the Left Behind series.

I don’t know a lot of Christian fiction that explores emotional journeys similar to these:

  • Professional evangelical pastor Bruce Barnes spends years covering up his actual disbelief in the Bible while he lives a life of clean-cut, upper-middle-class white-picket-fence sin. Then he misses the “rapture” and is forced to face who he truly is.
  • Pilot Rayford Steele loses his wife in the “rapture” and misses her greatly, but finds healing by marrying her best friend, Amanda White. Then Amanda goes missing on an airplane after a global earthquake, and Ray and his copilot Mac McCullum deep-sea dive in the Tigris River in an attempt to find her. The plane is down there, full of decomposing bodies, and so is Amanda. Ray is heartbroken all over again, driven to despair — and driven to plot vengeance against the Antichrist who lied about her.
  • Buck and Chloe Williams struggle with whether to have a child despite the evils and promised plagues of their world. Finally they do. But Chloe is in anguish over the possibility that the Antichrist’s hordes could capture their son. Finally she concludes that it would be better for her to kill him rather than let him fall into their hands. Dark stuff here, people. Yes, even good Christians have had to face such decisions.
  • Dr. Tsion ben-Judah, a Jewish scholar, converts to faith in Christ. Yet he spends the rest of his life like the apostle Paul in Rom. 11 — almost wishing that he could undo his conversion in order to bring his own people to the Savior he loves.
  • Dozens of other Christians across the world convert and face ostracism or worse.

Despite the sparse writing styles and other flaws in LB, each of these journeys has honest emotional resonance and reflections of in-depth humanity: “realism” like we say we want.

11. Fantastical events are thrilling

In part 1, reason 1, I said the story was fantastical. This springs from that: most of the time the magic/miracles of the LB series are quite amazing. (This is especially true if you are or were a teen/young adult Christian reader who wasn’t yet accustomed to fantastical fiction. Hardcore fantasy buffs may dismiss this as naïveté, but hey, we must all start somewhere.)

leftbehinddramaticaudio_apollyonWith the exception of the “rapture” and then the Antichrist’s mind-altering stunt,1 the first two novels started out slow in the miracles department. Jenkins seemed to have decided that a long warmup was better, allowing more time to focus on important stuff like character development and careful thematic explanation about basic Christianity, along with this whole “Tribulation” thing and where it comes from and why it is necessary.2 But when the magic and miracles arrive thanks to more (literally interpreted) Revelation prophecies, it seems well worth the wait: global earthquake, a rain of hailstones and fire and blood, two massive meteorites, an ice age caused by supernaturally dimmed sunlight, then worse.

I remember especially anticipating the fifth book, Apollyon, because I knew there would be real live demon locusts as in Rev. 9.3 So I was a little disappointed (and remain so today) when it turned out the locusts were swarming in one or two chapters and then kind of forgotten for the rest of the book in favor of Buck Williams trying to get back to America in time for his wife’s childbirth. Buck takes a flight back without so much as a demon locust splatted on the fighter jet windshield.

Headcanon: A prequel to Apollyon.

Headcanon: A prequel to Apollyon.

And what about the fallout from this extra-specially supernatural plague? You would think the world government would have some kind of explanation. Perhaps Nicolae Carpathia, the series’ Antichrist, would concoct a great lie about how these parasites or alien beings have invaded Earth which proves we are not alone, so let’s all unite and put all our faith in our dear leader to save us. It doesn’t happen. LB got bored of the demon locusts — bored of demon locusts?! — and at some point they just sort of all die away in the narrative, literally.

Perhaps the author(s) just weren’t ready for that threshold of the fantastical. The next book Assassins tries to hit a reset by making the next demonic army, this time demon horsemen, invisible to everyone except sporadically to certain Christians. That way the Antichrist and his devotees have plausible deniability about the Christians’ “horsemen” claims and instead can claim the fires and deaths are coming from chemical warfare. And this works, actually better than the demon locusts — though you’d think Antichrist and Co. would give at least some credence to the demon-horsemen belief after those demon locusts a few months ago.

Some miracles get repetitive and less thrilling. This occurs particularly when the author(s) seem to fear speculating overmuch and end up repeating biblical events from the Torah, such as plagues, a parting-of-the-Red-Sea equivalent, water bursting out of rocks, and rebels being swallowed whole into the earth. To me it seems that in a series based on an brand-new end-times notion — Jesus will snatch people off the planet for some length of time before he actually physically returns — you really can afford to speculate more.

That aside, the events are thrilling. Especially when you get to the actual Second Coming.

12. Despite all flaws, the series points to Jesus Christ

cover_gloriousappearingThis is why I stuck with the Left Behind series all along. Unlike the movie(s) or many of their fans who seem obsessed with the “rapture” concept and escaping planet Earth, I wanted to anticipate an imagination of the actual physical second coming of Jesus to Earth. All Christians believe in that prophesied return. All Christians long to take comfort in his promise that he will be back. We should be anticipating not some secret “rapture” (whether or not you agree with that), but that wondrous moment when Jesus will return truly and visibly “in the same way as [his disciples] saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).

The final Left Behind novel,4 Glorious Appearing, released March 30, 2004. Really it’s a bit painful when Jesus returns in the middle of your spring university semester but nothing changes afterward and you still have to study for finals.

I enjoyed Glorious Appearing. I found it a fitting if not anticlimactic conclusion to the novels I’d been reading since 1997. But the book isn’t sure how to handle the spectacular return of Jesus Christ. This is big. Really big. At once the novel needs to wrap up a 12-volume story with heroes and side characters and battles and villains even while trying to be fantastical even while trying not to violate Scripture even while trying to synchronize or reconcile all the apparent Old Testament prophecies about the Lord touching down on mountains.

That last leads to three different scenes, first at Petra, then at the Mount of Olives, then finally at Jerusalem, in which Jesus Christ shows up, mass armies of villains fire upon him, he nukes them with the “sword” from his mouth — his spoken truthful words — and they all die horribly. 5 What happens in the meantime? How do Christians respond to this? How do they keep up? And let this challenge your faith a little: if Jesus Christ will return physically and gloriously (after all, to this day our Savior remains a resurrected though incarnate Man!) so that all people can see him, how will everyone in the world see him?

With all these challenges, it’s a wonder that Glorious Appearing managed to pull it off at all. Yet the authors’ chronically sparse style removes quite a lot of the wonder and magic that must accompany anticipation for the Lord’s return. Readers: bring your own longing.

leftbehinddramaticaudio_gloriousappearingI did and that’s why I enjoyed the book. But I wondered if the dramatic audio version would amplify the story’s emotional effect as usual. True to my hopes, the Glorious Appearing drama absolutely sizzles. Jesus himself sounds a little like Steve Green. But it’s the human heroes and their brilliant audio actors who absolutely sell the unrestrained joy of Jesus’s second coming. When I listen to these stories, I am “inspired” and longing for his return in a way that the Left Behind movie(s) have neither the budget nor the motive to explore.

You may not have heard the Glorious Appearing drama. But maybe you have read The Last Battle, the final story in C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia series. And maybe you felt that beautiful, horrible ache for Jesus to return and make all things new. If that’s you, then you know what I mean and you know what I felt when hearing Glorious Appearing.

The end is here

And that’s it, folks. That’s why I ultimately conclude that despite all the nonsense — flawed end-times beliefs, overzealous “rapture”-ready fans, dry fiction style, fantastical fails, etc. — the Left Behind series is actually awesome: because it points to Jesus Christ. That’s why I can’t join the bandwagon of Christians who love to hate on Left Behind. I certainly can’t agree with Christianity Today reviewer Jackson Cuidan when he claims “the Left Behind books were not Christian.” Yes, they were Christian. They reflected Jesus Christ. Yes, they were about overall-realistic people. And yes, they were about an overall-realistic world.

That’s all you need for good fiction, “Christian” or otherwise, that is actually awesome.

  1. On further reflection, I found it strange that author(s) who so strongly emphasize the free will of human beings would explore overtly the notion that Satan or his agents can overrule human free will.
  2. Again, the recent film completely ignored this vital “preachiness,” leaving many viewers utterly confused about the point of the “rapture” and the rest.
  3. I was also glad to find that LB’s version could be in total continuity with Frank Peretti’s exploration of the concept in The Door in the Dragon’s Throat.
  4. Discounting the prequel trilogy.
  5. Even non-evangelical-Christian readers of LB show respect for Jesus’s supernatural killpower. See the TVTropes page for the Left Behind novels that ascribes Glorious Appearing moments comical “trope” names. These include: 1. “Curb-Stomp Battle: When Jesus comes into the scene and slaughters Global Community troops en masse just by speaking the Word of God, it’s a total Game Breaker. He’s also unstoppable, as evidenced in the Dramatic Audio presentation of Glorious Appearing where the Antichrist armies launch rockets at Him with no success.” And 2. “Kung-Fu Jesus: Jesus Himself. He just speaks The Word and people die.”

You Are …

Blog | | Wednesday, October 15, 2014
A book reviewer is not an avenging angel, a warrior in an ideological battle, or a corrections officer.
Series:

There was a time when I actually believed … that as a critic I was an avenging angel with a flaming sword, and that part of my job was to help rid the culture of books that were sucking up more of the literary oxygen than they deserved. Lev Grossman, TIME book reviewer

Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. John Updike

 

As we examine, in this series, the work of reviewing, I would like to consider what a reviewer is, and just as importantly, what a reviewer is not.

If you are a reviewer, you are not an avenging angel; you’ve got no flaming sword to cut down books. No doubt there are books that deserve to be purged from the culture, but that’s not the work of a reviewer. It’s not really the work of anyone. Don’t make it your mission to shape a book’s fate. That is for readers to decide, and whatever influence you have should come on the wayside of your real goal, which is to review well and accurately.

You are not an enforcer of standards, because even if you could enforce any standards, they would only be your own, and there’s no reason one individual’s standards should be imposed on the literary world at large.

You are not a corrections officer, of authors or of books – or of the industry. Never review books with an eye toward changing or policing the genre to which those books belong. A book review is not a battleground for a war against the bad ideas, stupid cliches, or low quality of – well, fill in the blank: the romance genre, dystopian YA, Christian fiction …

You are not a warrior in an ideological battle – unless the author starts it, in the book under review. Any philosophy a book shows, any point or statement it makes is fair game; when a book enters the lists, feel free to sally forth to meet it. It is one of the glories of all books, even novels, to fight in the war of ideas. Just be sure you’re not dragging a book into an arena it doesn’t actually enter. We all have our convictions and our pet peeves, but it’s not fair to take them out on books that don’t explicitly cross them. And another thing to hold in mind: Lack of support should not be mistaken for an attack.

You are not the caretaker of any tradition – or the vanguard for any revolutionary cause. There are all sorts of literary traditions and causes, all backed up by honest conviction. Some are worthy, but probably none are worthy enough to be the yardstick by which all books are measured. Even if your cause is that worthy – the purpose of your book-reviewing should not be to fight for it. There’s nothing wrong with polemics, but a book review shouldn’t be one.

There is one principle behind all this, and that is simply to, as far as possible, take books exactly as they are, and review them only for what they are. Don’t pursue any other agenda. Just read a book, try to see it for what it is, and express what you see.

You are a reviewer.

Marital Chaos

Blog | | Tuesday, October 14, 2014
How will homosexual marriages affect Christian marriage?

Gay wedding cake topperOn October 6, the Supreme Court refused to hear the cases of five states on denying “marriage equality” for homosexual couples. While the decision did set back homosexuals’ plans for establishing it nation-wide, it did leave in place lower court rulings permitting homosexual legal marriages.

One possibly fake report tells of a pastor deciding to not do marriages for fear his state will now force him to marry homosexuals. Even if fake, it does play upon the fears of people that this decision will bring chaos to Christian marriages.

Most seem to believe this ruling will accelerate the adoption of more ‘marriage equality” laws. The likelihood is homosexual marriages will become more common in the years to come. They have successfully framed the issue as a civil rights fight. Enough that the general public is accepting the idea.

What’s the beef? Will it do damage to the understanding of marriage?

Yes and no.

No for one simple reason. It is impossible for a homosexual couple to be married.

As I described earlier this year, the Biblical basis for marriage is based on the concept of “the two becoming one flesh.” Paul makes it clear this is accomplished through sexual union. Through that, God joins a couple into one flesh, a marriage.

While some didn’t agree, no one could establish an alternate biblical argument for another model, instead tending to rely upon culturally conditioned ideas overlaid upon Scripture.

Biologically this follows as well. The basis of marriage flows from the reality of family. Without the potential to produce offspring, sexual union would only be a form of pleasure. Sharing a pleasure together is not a basis for marriage. Otherwise eating ice cream together would form a marital union.

Husband and wife unite as one for the purpose of creating a stable environment for raising a family. Without that potential, there is no marriage in the Biblical sense. There is no two becoming one flesh.

Since there is no way homosexual sex can ever produce a child, there is no way it can unite two people into one flesh.

Yes, for two primary reasons.

One, it will affect the legal repercussions for those who believe it is a sin and not allowed. While the state may not step in and force pastors to marry homosexual couples, you can bet any business or other public venue that fails to recognize them will suffer the state’s wrath.

Freedom of religion will take a back seat to freedom of sex.

Two, it will further the lie that the state defines marriage and bestows it upon a couple. It does not. It only recognizes a marriage. This is clear in many state’s common law marriage laws. In Texas, for instance, all a couple has to do to be legally married is to present themselves as husband and wife before witnesses. No license required.

In a homosexual marriage, the marriage is purely a legal status, not a biological reality. Without the reality, it gives the appearance that it is the state that makes one married, not God and biology.

Unfortunately too many Christians have bought into this secular view of marriage. The prevalence and acceptance of homosexual marriages will propagate this unbiblical view of marriage not only among Christians, but society as a whole.

The state can no more create a marriage than the absence of clouds create sunlight.

To believe it can does more damage to Christian marriage than legalizing homosexual marriages.

Speaking of edgy Christian fiction, know of any good Christian speculative (or otherwise) books that have homosexuality as a theme or sub-plot?

Reflecting The Spirit Of Columbus

Blog | | Monday, October 13, 2014
Think what it took for Columbus to set sail, depending on little else besides his idea of what the world looked like. He had to have courage, an adventurous spirit, fortitude, confidence. In miniature I think these are the same qualities writers and readers have to have.

Christopher_Columbus_departureIn the US today we are celebrating Columbus Day (the actual date of the holiday is October 10) in honor of Christopher Columbus who has been credited with discovering America. Oddly, the two western continents are named after Amerigo Vespucci, not the Norse explorer Leif Ericson, who founded the first European settlement in the “new world,” nor Columbus.

Columbus, while not first, and not even aware he’d found a “new” land, deserves a lot of credit for calling attention to the Americas, essentially opening up colonization in places that had previously been unknown. As I thought about his voyage of exploration, I realized there were some similarities between him and Abraham in the Bible. Both took off for parts unknown with no assurance that they’d find a safe haven.

We know from Scripture that Abraham went in obedience to God’s command. He trusted God’s sure word, so unless Columbus had the same kind of guidance or direction from God, the advantage was all Abraham’s.

Think what it took for Columbus to set sail, depending on little else besides his idea of what the world looked like. He had to have courage, an adventurous spirit, fortitude, confidence. In miniature I think these are the same qualities writers and readers have to have.

Courage. Writers must have the courage of their convictions, the courage to spill their thoughts, their understanding of the world, their grasp of the way people interact, their hopes. Readers must have the courage to go where they may not always want to go: into a magical land filled with dangerous beings, into the temptations of a wayward pastor, into the guilt and grief of a mother who lost her child.

Readers are sometimes chastised for choosing their books with the intent to escape. They pick up an author who is familiar, a genre that will give them stories that are safe. Perhaps this escape actually indicates these readers are bringing only a small dose of courage with them. For, any novel takes courage. The reading experience takes people out of themselves and puts them into the skin of someone else. It broadens whoever dares to cross that threshold.

Writers and readers alike also need an adventurous spirit, and those into speculative fiction, more so. Writers create new worlds or turn our existing world on its head, and readers eagerly jump into stories that take them “where no man has gone before.”

Fortitude might not be a word we usually associate with reading, but strength of mind and a bit of moral fiber is of utmost importance when dealing with ideas. Writers need to stand firm on their convictions, because writing a story challenges what we believe as well as how we should show it.

Readers need fortitude, too. Because stories take readers into the minds of others and into worlds and times that are very different, our lives bump up against different worldviews. Whether we realize it or not, we are constantly challenged by what we read.

Fortitude can help us both to stand firm on a true foundation rather than shifting from idea to idea and to stand against a fear of change or anything new. Fortitude facilitates both discernment and conviction. It provides what we need to maintain a healthy balance so that we’re neither stuck in cement nor wandering aimlessly from new thought to new thought.

Finally writers and readers need confidence. I’ve known writers who lack confidence, and ultimately very few people ever see their stories. To put a story out for agents and editors to consider, for readers to ignore or review, takes courage. A piece of the writer goes into every story, and it takes courage to stand before an audience of strangers stripped of pretense.

Columbus_Arrivind_Readers need confidence too—confidence that they’re spending their money or their time in a wise way. Reviews and endorsements and recommendations contribute toward building reader confidence: they provide information which allows a reader to try an author he’s never heard of or to read in a genre he didn’t think he would like.

For both writers and readers, then, stories afford us the opportunity to reflect the spirit of Christopher Columbus, if only in miniature. Perhaps with some practice, we’ll step out in a bigger way one day—something that reading certainly encourages.

– – – – –

In keeping with the holiday spirit, Happy Thanksgiving to our Canadian friends and visitors.

Fiction Friday – Rebels by Jill Williamson

Blog | | Friday, October 10, 2014
Levi woke to the sounds of chaos. Footsteps thumping through the house. Giggling children. Screeching children. Women shushing.
Series:

Rebelscover

Rebels concludes Jill Williamson’s dystopian trilogy entitled The Safe Lands.

– – – – –

Levi woke to the sounds of chaos. Footsteps thumping through the house. Giggling children. Screeching children. Women shushing.

Not that the children seemed to be listening. The noise came through the closed door of the bedroom Zan had given to him and Jemma for the the night. He rolled over. No sign of his wife. She must be up already and keeping the children out of the room.

It all came back then: Mason and Omar had been captured. Mason had been shot in the leg. Omar had been beat up by General Otley.

At least Otley was dead now.

What would become of his brother?

Outside the room, someone banged against his bedroom door, followed by a screeching giggle.

Levi wondered what time it was, but this room had no clock. This was no way to remain inconspicuous to neighbors. Not in a place where children lived only at the boarding school.

When he finally lay down that morning—after having seen his brothers captured and after Nash had brought Shaylinn, the medic named Ciddah, and Kendall’s baby boy to Zane’s house—there had been over fifty bodies crammed into the small dwelling in the Midlands. They covered the floor, sleeping side by side and head to toe.

Now all of them seemed to be wide awake and filled with energy.

Levi slid out of bed and opened the door. Three little girls ran past, nearly knocking him over, filled with the shrieking giggles of pure joy. They all met at the end of the hallway, colliding like cornered chicks.

Then, “Give it back!” one yelled.”I found it!”

They ran back toward him.

He reached out and caught the first. It was Eliza’s Kaylee, pinching a rhinestone butterfly between her fingers. The other two stopped behind her, and she stretched out her arm to keep her treasure away from her pursuers. “No running in the house, Kaylee,”Levi said. “And you must keep your voices down.”

One of the other girls pushed up against Kaylee, snatched the butterfly, and ran off.

Kaylee’s eyes flashed wide and she tried to pull away from Levi. “It’s mine!” she yelled. “Give it back!”

“Shh!” Levi turned Kaylee to face him. “We have to be quiet.Do you want the enforcers to come here and take you away?”

“No!” Kaylee jerked away from Levi’s grasp, and he barely kept hold of her. “Don’t send me back there, Uncle Levi, please!” Her bottom lip trembled.

Maggots. He was no good with children. Where was Jemma? He scanned the house and caught sight of her brown hair in the kitchen. He looked back to the little girl. “No one will take you away, Kaylee, but you must try and be quiet. Quieter, at least.” He released her, and she ran after the other two girls—silently, for now.

Levi closed the bedroom door and walked into the kitchen where Jemma and Shalinn were putting together sandwiches. Peanut butter and jam, by the looks of things.

“Hi, Levi,” Shaylinn said.

Jemma spun around, a smile on her face. “Levi! Sleep well, my love?” She set down a knife and embraced him.

He held her close, breathing her in, suddenly overwhelmed by the stress of their situation. He wished the first few months of their marriage had gone differently, that they might have lived in the cabin he’d built in Glenrock. “What time is it?”

“Five thirty.”

“At night?”

“You slept all day.” She kissed his cheek and pulled away from him.

He released her reluctantly. “You should have wakened me.” He couldn’t believe he’d lost an entire day. There was much to be done.

“It was a stressful night for all of us. You needed rest.” She picked up the knife and kept cutting.

Other things came to his mind then. The move from the cabin. The birth of Jordan’s son. “How is Naomi?”

“Doing fine. The baby too. ‘Harvey,” Jordan called him this morning.”

After Jordan’s father. “Nice. Where is Ruston?” he scanned the house. “Where are the other ladies?”

“Ruston tried waiting for you, but there were just so many people in here that he had to start taking them below. The other women, plus Jordan and the Jack’s Peak men, went down with him to see the new homes. He also took two of the little Safe Lands boys to his wife.”

“How long have they been gone?”

“They left after lunch. Ruston said that when they got back, the adults would know the way to the new homes and could guide the rest of us. Said it was better than all of us going down at once and frightening the people who live there.”

“The Kindred.”

“I think it’s romantic.Just hearing about it makes me think of the Amish.”

“Who?”

“People of Old who chose to live apart from society and didn’t use modern conveniences like electricity or motor vehicles.”

“Why?”

“They felt it weakened the family structure and got between them and God. And they preferred to live lives of hard work the way people did thousands of years before the Industrial Revolution. I heard Ruston explaining the Kindred to Eliza and, I don’t know, I just thought of all my Amish books.”She set down the knife and sighed. “I miss my books. I miss reading.”

He rubbed her shoulders. He wanted to promise that they’d get out soon and that she could read all the books she wanted, but he was tired of showering his wife with empty promises. They were going into hiding. That almost seemed further away from freedom.

Another shriek turned his head to the living room. “These kids are being too loud.”

“We’ve been doing the best we can. Lunch kept them quiet, so hopefully dinner will too.”She handed Levi two plates, then took two herself.

Levi helped Jemma pass out the plates with sandwiches. The kids sat cross-legged on the floor, which left room for Levi, Jemma, and Shaylinn to eat at the table.

“Did Zane go with Ruston?” Levi asked.

“I believe he’s down in the nest, monitoring enforcer radios or something,” Jemma said. “I’ll have Shaylinn take him a plate when we’re done.”

“No need.”

Levi turned in his chair at the sound of Zane’s voice. His friend wasn’t alone. Ruston, Nash, Jordan—everyone had returned.

“Is there enough for us too?” Jordan asked.

“Yes, of course,” Jemma said. “You can help yourself in the kitchen or wait until I finish.”

Jordan wandered into the kitchen. “Where’s Naomi?”

“Lying down with the baby in the other bedroom,” Jemma said. “Ciddah was in there with her for a while. Elyot and Kimi finally fell asleep, so hopefully Naomi is sleepingtoo.”

Jordan pulled out the chair on Levi’s left and sat down. “Harvey didn’t sleep very well.”

“New babies rarely do,” Aunt Chipeta said.

“Tell me about the new living arrangements,” Levi said, just as Jordan took a huge bite of sandwich.

Jordan chewed a few times, then spoke over a full mouth. “It’s weird. A bunch of tunnels hook everything together. And there’s a park with real grass.”

A park? “How do you have grass underground?”

“We have special lights that enable plants to grow,” Ruston said. “There are ten empty homes below. The list you and Beshup created only utilizes eight of them. Are you sure you don’t want to spread the people out a little more? The houses are quite small.”

“There aren’t enough adults,” Levi said. “As it is we had to divide up three families of Jack’s Peak’s children.”

“We will try it this way,” Beshup said. “Once we are down there for a few days, we will discover what works and what does not.”

Levi didn’t like how vulnerable he felt with everyone inside this little house. Once the women and children were settled in the basements, he could focus on other things, like finding Mason and Omar and helping Beshup free the Jack’s Peak women from the harem, the Safe Lands’ compulsory in vitro program.

“When can we go?” he asked.

“Right away,” Ruston said.

Twelve Reasons the ‘Left Behind’ Series is Actually Awesome, part 3

Blog | | Thursday, October 9, 2014
Three more reasons the Left Behind novels (not movie) work: cool covers, epic vision and diverse cast.
Series:

cover_leftbehindIf you came to read about how awful the Left Behind movie was, I touch on that today at Christ and Pop Culture. My intent there is not to run the movie into the ground (again), but to perform a postmortem on this cinematic tragedy. Over there I say:

Any adaptation of the novels could have been sincere about the series’ evangelical themes and its chosen genre, an accessible potboiler thriller. But the Left Behind movie had another aim: to sell itself. And not even as a movie, but as rapture-insurance.

When I saw the film’s quiet opening with gentle canned 1990s piano melodies and peaceful shots of a community airport, I could tell this wasn’t the world of the Left Behind novels — not even the first novel. Instead I was seeing an entirely alien universe.

Forty-some-odd minutes later, I was in a fetal position. The movie took all this time merely to introduce its versions of the characters in plodding methods that Left Behind novelist Jerry B. Jenkins would have never attempted even on a slow writing day. In five different ways the movie painstakingly told me what the first Left Behind novel easily accomplished in 11 words: “Rayford Steele’s mind was on a woman he had never touched.”

But like any fan of a fantastical novel series whose movie version(s) are terrible, I still have the books. And I still have my original reasons for why the books are actually awesome. That is, what the Left Behind series wants to be, it is with excellence: a series of evangelical-themed apocalyptic thriller novels that explores what-if speculations about an “end times.”

Oh, and by the way, the novels do way more than flash a few sentimental less-than-G-rated scenes of a sweet peaceful pre-rapture world and then show weeping folks. Even despite the novels’ sparse writing style, its creativity easily beats the movie, starting with this fact:

7. The cover images are boss

cover_apollyonWe all say, “Never judge a book by its cover,” and we all do this anyway. The first Left Behind novel had a fairly boss cover. The fifth book Apollyon’s flaming lava pit (note: not actually seen in story) kicked it up a notch for the series’ later volumes. I haven’t seen many Christian novels — even the fantastical stuff — with covers that are this boldly designed.

The Indwelling has a creepy dead body on front. The Mark features a microchip-like surface and sinister eye. An Antichrist-like silhouette cameos a third time on Desecration, followed by The Remnant’s desert wasteland and Armageddon’s stylized horses.

cover_gloriousappearingAll these are cast in variant colors over the series’ uniform black-matte surface. But as I had previously hoped, the final novel Glorious Appearing switched to white shiny finish over black matte, with a gorgeous illustration of the glorified(?) planet Earth. It was a creatively excellent conclusion to the series’ 12 cover designs. And by the way, this showed that even the Left Behind series was really all about the actual wonderful second coming of Christ, Christians’ actual blessed hope.1

8. An epic series vision

Speaking of movies we won’t talk about here, I think people keep forgetting the actual point of the Left Behind series: the Tribulation, and Jesus Christ and his actual return.

Certain movies and evangelical tropes have ignored that vision entirely — particularly the actual-Second-Coming part. This conveys that the point of LB or its end-times teaching is to scare people about a “rapture” and/or sell rapture insurance so they won’t be left behind.

But guess how much of the first novel actually focuses on the tragedy of the rapture itself, unmanned vehicles and all? Almost exactly 42 pages. The rest explores the consequences of being left behind while hastening quickly to set things up for the Antichrist and Tribulation. That’s seven years of material to cover. And sure, you may disagree that the series did its own premise justice.2 But that is an epic vision for any author(s), evangelical or not: to explore seven years’ worth of story complete with a global dictatorship, plagues, several different levels of dystopia; and accessible pre, mid–, and post–apocalyptic speculation.

I doubt even an astronomically high-budget film series could do that vision justice. Perhaps this is why it’s audacious for any movie even to feign an attempt. Such an effort will always get stuck barely hours or months after a “rapture.” (Imagine making a version of The Hobbit that never even exits Bilbo Baggins’s front door — or for that matter, his sitting-room.)

Since the LB novel series, has any other fantastical fiction attempted such a vision? Again, I’m not saying all the novels fulfill this premise. I’m only saying: the goal was impressive.

9. Characters are ethnically diverse

Left Behind

So many colors.

If you say the LB series is boring to read, is creatively subpar, or explores wrong end-times beliefs, we will likely have an argument that you’ve half already won. But let’s not have any nonsense about how the books are only about white middle-class evangelical Christians, etc., etc. Yes, you need to show a kind of “progressive for its time” charitable interpretation, being aware of the authors’ and genre’s limitations. But the later LB books especially took great pains to explore different cultures and expressions of Christianity and other religions.

Yes, the first book is set exclusively in the U.S. with a quick jaunt to fantasy-UK, complete with pub and Scotland Yard detective. The sequel Tribulation Force attempts to break out of its home culture and goes to fantasy-Israel. But by books 4 and especially 6 the LB series has achieved some American-evangelicalism escape velocity.

Non-American heroes outnumber American ones. Christians come not only from Western backgrounds but from Native American, Jewish, Arab, Chinese, African, and Pacific Islander people groups. And as for women, they more often faithful than men. Women run large corporations. Women fight alongside men with big guns. Again, such efforts might seem explicitly obvious: Look at us, we’re being Inclusive™. But again, show your “progressive for its time” charity. Obvious inclusivism is better than subtle “Eurocentrism”/racism/sexism.

Next week: we’ll wrap this series by exploring LB’s fantastical events, emotional journeys, and the ultimate point of the whole story — the actual, physical return of Jesus Christ.

  1. Unlike, say, the utter disregard for Jesus’ Christ’s actual second coming in favor of a scary secret “rapture,” as in some movies I could talk about.
  2. But please, don’t be a shallow critic and fault LB for failing to reach a goal its authors never set.

Glamorizing Sin

Blog | | Tuesday, October 7, 2014
Does your fiction glamorize sin? You might be surprised.

Paryż_magdalena_nie_cudzołóżOften lost in the debate between “realistic” and “clean” fiction, is the overall message a story conveys about sin.

On the one hand, proponents of “realistic” fiction can fall into the error of glamorizing sin. In their attempts to portray a realistic depiction of sin’s life in this world, often to contrast it with the grace and hope of God, the message that ends up being sent is that some sins are minimal, normal, or not all that bad.

On the other, advocates of “clean” fiction can end up glamorizing ideal characters, situations, or simplistic solutions that have no bearing in reality. They end up with the Barbie effect: establishing a perfection of character, which instead of inspiring, creates a negative spiritual self-image that is debilitating.

Either approach can end up painting an unrealistic picture of sin from God’s perspective.

Let’s use an infrequently discussed but important sin: marital infidelity.

The media industry tends to glamorize cheating on one’s spouse. Often infidelity of some kind is used to increase the drama. While it is generally not viewed in a positive light, rarely does TV and the movies show its real impact of such betrayal on all involved. Frequently, there is minimal fall out from cheating. It either is shown to be benign—the demands of “love” trump the responsibility of self-giving love—or even in some cases it is depicted as a good and positive event.

The cheater is more often shown to be the victim than the betrayed.

Christian fiction is not immune from this problem. Oh, there may be the understanding it is wrong, but the author, unless they’ve been through it themselves, tends to gloss over the magnitude on all involved. It serves as a plot device to increase tension, but is portrayed as an easily solved problem with no lasting repercussions.

Likewise, on the “clean” fiction side, cheating will never play into a story line. Despite the fact that statistics say over 50% of people will experience infidelity during their life, even among Christians, “clean” fiction pretends it doesn’t exist.

If it does come into the story line, the simplistic solution tends to focus on the betrayed forgiving the betrayer, making everything okay again. Not only is that not a realistic depiction of an affair, it is a perversion of what forgiveness is about.

By failing to address the sin realistically or at all, our “clean” fiction enables sin.

First, by hiding it from us. We come at sin thinking we’re immune from it rather than fearing that “sin lieth at the door” (Gen 4:7). Too many Christians marry believing it will never happen to us. We love each other. He or she is a moral, strong Christian man or woman. They would never violate their vows.

I know. I considered my wife a strong, moral Christian. We loved each other. Though we had areas we could have improved in, we both expressed happiness and satisfaction with our relationship—for 29 years of marriage. I trusted her completely. I knew it wasn’t impossible, but I felt immune from it happening.

But the unthinkable happened. She fell to temptation. For seven months she lived a secret life. When I discovered it, my world fell apart. I questioned the reality of our past, and the future was up in the air. The person I thought I knew, who I’d shared 29 years of life with, became a stranger. It is by far the greatest upheaval and trauma of my life.

Because we thought it would never happen to us, because we never gave serious consideration to the possibility, we both became complacent in guarding against it. None of the marital books we’d read, fiction or non-fiction, prepared us for the reality of what we would encounter.

Fortunately, we’ve been able to rebuild from that devastating loss, and develop a better marriage. So much so that we wrote a book about our experience, Healing Infidelity. But our story isn’t in the majority. Most end up divorced or in unhappy marriages.

Books like mine should be required reading for premarital counseling. Newlyweds should be required to join an infidelity support group for a while and lurk. Being ignorant of fire increases your chances of getting burned by it. Books that ignore the topic or give unrealistic pictures of its effects end up glamorizing and enabling sin, whether secular or Christian.

A truly Christian book, whether fiction or non-fiction, will not ignore the presence of sin, nor will it paint an unrealistic picture of it from God’s perspective.

It will, however, present it as something that will destroy us—the definition of sin—while guiding us to the way of escape.

Glamorizing sin is more than making it shiny. It is lying about its reality on either end of the extreme.

What ways have you seen sin glamorized in fiction? How do we avoid it? Should we avoid reading such books?