No More

Blog | | Thursday, April 17, 2014
Christians have a hope beyond this sinful age of earth — and beyond even the present Heaven.

Icon of the ResurrectionResurrection Sunday is this Sunday. I don’t expect it to be the only Resurrection celebration on our calendars for too long, eternally reckoning. After all, after the future Resurrection Day when Christ returns and raises His people to life, clothing them in a redeemed Spirit-empowered body rather than a sin-wracked body (1 Cor. 15), how would we celebrate such a day forever if not under the name Resurrection Day? I suspect we might keep the original Resurrection Sunday to refer to Christ’s original, once-for-all resurrection victory.

Either way, I can’t wait. I can’t wait for Resurrection Day, can’t wait for New Earth, can’t wait to have work/play be only rewarding and joyous forever, can’t wait to be free of sin and its consequences — can’t wait to see my Savior and live with Kingdom family forever.

You may notice I did not say, “I can’t wait for Heaven.” This isn’t because I take lightly the current Heaven, a literal location, likely outside our own dimension, to which all Christ’s people go when they die. Yet I think of the present-day Heaven like I think of the rest stops when my wife and I moved to Texas last fall. Those restaurants, stores and the hotel were welcome, but they were not our final destination; they were only waypoints. Our new home — that was the best part.

This kind of hope is sadly missed by movies such as Heaven Is For Real1 and other books, sermons, and anecdotes that focus on the present-day Heaven2 — as if that Heaven is where God’s people will live forever.

Near-death-experience controversies aside, the New Earth is even realer.

Near-death-experience controversies aside, the New Earth is even realer.

If you came for a Heaven Is For Real rebuttal, I am afraid I must disappoint and direct you to the excellent reviews by Randy Alcorn or Tim Challies, or this reminder by Wade Bearden at Christ and Pop Culture. This Resurrection Sunday I have no (further) criticisms of books that try to project Heaven’s wonders based on the word of people who say they won the golden ticket and a grand tour. Instead I feel mostly regret that these materials focus so much on the present-day heaven that will pass away just like the first Earth (Rev. 21:1). I regret that the kind of eternal hope they offer can become as fleeting as cheap utopianism — the kind that embraces this sinful age and promises we can build a kingdom our way.

Against either set of errors I want to cry: No more. Into hopelessness about life or stray notions about a tedious forever, I want to cry: No more. For those who may doubt the promises of Christ, who grieve over this groaning world and the sin and suffering in their lives, and who may have missed the wonder and magic of whatever God has promised for the final-and-forever After-world … Scripture itself in Revelation 21 vows: No more.

No more first heaven or first earth (verses 1–3)

The classic Betty Lukens Sunday-school flannelboard lesson: closer to the truth than we thought.

The classic Betty Lukens Sunday-school flannelboard lesson is actually quite close to the truth — right up to and including the giraffes.

What Jesus did spiritually now becomes physical. God replaces the first heaven and first earth, now “passed away,” with their resurrected replacements. Yes, this groaning world (Rom. 8) passes away, but so does the first Heaven. Where then will God live? Where will we live? Heaven is where He lived and where the saints lived — now the Creator is the first to relocate His home to Earth (verse 2). “Now the dwelling of God is with man” (verse 3).

No more tears (verse 4)

Have you ever cried from an emotion that wasn’t grief? I have no doubt those tears will still be “allowed.” We may gaze into the face of Jesus and weep with joy. But the other tears, the kind that come from God-created tear ducts only during a sinful age, will be wiped away. Can you imagine no more weeping over separation, depression, pain, fatigue, hopelessness, anger over wickedness in yourself or others, or as any other response to sin and suffering?

No more death (verse 4)

Personified Death itself was hurled into Hell a few verses ago (Rev. 20:14). God’s people are beyond all that. What God fixed spiritually in Christ’s resurrection He now fixes physically and completely in our resurrection. His people are eternal. Imagine being set free not only from the spiritual concept of physical death but the threat of real death in everyday life.

No more mourning, crying, or pain (verse 4)

And imagine being set free from death’s consequences. No longer do we need to mourn over God’s people, dear spiritual and physical family members who had died; now they are here with us. Crying has expired. Pain has passed away. And after death itself dies, what in the world would this do to human culture? Entire mourning/crying/pain industries have also passed away. Doctors, nurses, funeral workers, morticians — all can joyously give up the tools they used to ease or bring closure to suffering (included insurance paperwork!) and pursue other callings. Lawyers? Gone, or they will find their professions transformed. Emergency workers? Their ministries are fulfilled. How will they use those skills in the Kingdom? We have all worked in the mourning-mitigation business — how would we?

No more thirst (verses 5–6)

Seated on the throne, God Himself, the Alpha and Omega who speaks only truth, promises for certain: those truly thirsty will receive “the spring of the water of life without payment.”

No more delayed victory; no more separation from God (verse 7)

Members of the Kingdom, all conquerors in Christ, “will have this heritage.” This is as close as you can get to hearing God Himself specifically say, “You have a part in this great Story. I promise you will forever know where you belong. In My Son you share in this victory.”

Moreover, as players in the Story our adoption is complete: we all function as sons of God. This isn’t gender-exclusive language — it’s inclusive. The Father himself says that anyone who conquers becomes an adopted son. Daughters are treated as sons, with all the rank and privilege that comes with that role as perceived by the first-century world. That’s huge.

No more cowards, faithlessness, detestable acts, murder, fornication, sorcery, idolaters, lies, and any other sin (verse 8)

This verse is often included in evangelistic pleas, and it should be. Even a boring-sounding Heaven would be better than a lake of eternal burning fire (a reality that is surely worse than Scripture’s already-horrifying descriptions would indicate). But New Earth is the most incredible, perfect, magical, wondrous place that could ever be conceived, ruled over by the most interesting and infinite Being beyond imagination. That makes the horror even worse.

Yet apart from that sobering truth, this text includes such hope for Christians. Perish all prideful notions that this is a guarantee text that Those People won’t be allowed in the Kingdom. In fact those people will be there — us. When we are beyond all those sins and love Jesus more, we ourselves will never again deal with cowardice, fear, sexual temptation, manipulative impulses (which lead to sorcery), idolatry, lies, or any other sin. All that has passed away. Our whole selves are made new. No more sinful self. Only Jesus Christ. Only His perfect, remade, purified, fantastic world set free: Resurrection Sunday, all over again.

  1. The film released in the U.S. on April 16.
  2. And/or rumors about what Heaven offers, based on subjective “near-death experiences” and not Scripture.

‘Valor’s Worth’: Trusting the Lord With Our Traumas

Reviews | | Wednesday, April 16, 2014 at 8:30 am
Though an exciting story, “Valor’s Worth” is also a journey through the main character dealing with traumas in a realistic manner, upheld by faith.

cover_valorsworthI loved the first two of Rebecca P. Minor’s Windrider Saga books, and had high expectations of this third book, Valor’s Worth. Suffice it to say, Minor did not disappoint.1

As the story begins, Lieutenant Commander Vinyanel Ecleriast and his group are on the way back from their adventures of the previous book when they intercept a letter to representatives of the Elven nation of Delsin (of which Vinyanel is a part). The letter asks if Vinyanel’s people will agree to a meeting with the remnants of the Elgadrim. The Lt. Commander sends most of the rest of his force home while he goes with his dragon friend, Majestrin, the prophetess Veranna, and the former assassin Hridayesh, to meet these Elgadrim.

At the same time, a newly-hatched dragonling, Iriscendra, who was accidentally bonded to Vinyanel while in her egg, goes off looking for him. When she finds him, she follows him everywhere, much to Majestrin’s dismay and annoyance. Of course, the young dragonling’s keeper, the Elf Maiden Raen from the previous book, goes looking for her with another young dragon named Mythrenese. All of these disparate people are together when the evil dragon-kin attack and cause havoc. The party members are in various states of injury and separated. Now they must find each other and set out in time to stop a horrific sacrifice designed to summon an evil force that could spell their doom.

I really enjoyed this story, as I said in the introductory paragraph. The only critiques I had were mainly four-fold.

First of all, the narrative started out really slowly. Until the fateful meeting of Raen and Vinyanel at the camp site, everything seemed to drag on and on. I think that a slightly faster pace amidst the set-up in the first part of the book would have helped enormously in this regard. I encourage anyone bored early on to keep on reading. It is worth it.

The second and third things are related. Mainly I didn’t like how a certain character died, as I liked that character, and I really, really did not like how another character, Raen, acted after that death. Due to the dead is a big thing with me, and Raen’s harsh, unforgiving, uncaring heart, didn’t demonstrate it. It really turned me against her. I know she had reason to be angry, and I’m not saying she isn’t a good character, but her attitude rubbed me the wrong way the rest of the novel to the extent that I just couldn’t care about her. Worse yet, no on called her out on her callousness.

The last part that annoyed me was Vinyanel’s hypocrisy. In the books, he has an emotional, “do the right thing and the rules be damned” attitude, and can be highly disrespectful with superiors. When it comes to lower-ranking folks with him, however, he is all about the respect due a superior and proper military decorum. What?! I can take this as a character failing of his, if it were ever addressed as such. But it’s not really pointed out by others beyond general rebukes over “rudeness.” Only near the end of the book is this mentioned, and even then, he looks like he’ll get off scot-free.

Despite these criticisms, I really was into this story, and think it is Minor’s best effort yet. I would contend that the first two books each had the opposite weaknesses and strengths. The first book, for instance, was written in very beautiful, almost poetic, prose, but was somewhat lacking in details. The second book, meanwhile, was chock-full of information about the world, characters, military, so on, but the prose seemed to be a bit “rougher”, if you will. This third volume had the best of both worlds with in-depth details and elegant writing.

I appreciated in the story how Minor fleshed out and (forgive the term, you know what I mean) “humanized” the dragons. They are not just plot conveniences, but real, thinking, believing, caring people. So many books, treat dragons, even the sapient ones, as glorified, extra-smart horses. Minor is to be praised for not doing this.

Beyond that, Valor’s Worth dealt with some important inter-connected themes, such as faith in God, dealing with trauma, and trusting the Lord to help us to persevere in hard situations in life.

This series is set in a world where the God-analogue (Creo) is there and protects His people, but doesn’t solve all of their problems for them. Instead, He works through people. Just as in the real world, people suffer and die, but their faith in God is what makes them able to withstand this. God has a plan, and we must trust Him to fulfill it. Trust in God is truly a major theme of the work. Not just with our physical problems, but with our emotional anguish, as well. As someone dealing with issues from Iraq, I like that Minor didn’t make Vinyanel’s war traumas either fake or easily gotten over. He has to trust Creo with these hurts (very real hurts) as well. They still hurt him. He is still affected by them, and probably always will be. The answer lies not in magically getting rid of pain, but learning how to deal with it and trusting God to help him do so.

This kind of dovetails into the final theme, from the title, which was knowing why we fight or endure bad things in life, and seeing the right thing through to the end. It connects because of the truth that crises, disasters, and other hard times are (or ought to be) far more bearable for those who truly trust God, Whom the Bible says will never leave or forsake us. He is with us always.

Valor’s Worth was a fun, edifying read. I can’t wait until Rebecca Minor releases her next book in the series.

Highly recommended.

The Plowing of Hades

Blog | | Tuesday, April 15, 2014
When we speculate, it becomes a story. When God speculates, it becomes reality.

Resurrection of Christ and the Harrowing of HellThe resurrection of Christ, which we will celebrate this coming Sunday, is the core teaching of the Christian faith. Upon this reality hangs every doctrine, belief, and truth of Christianity. As the Apostle Paul said:

If Christ hath not been raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also that are fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have only hoped in Christ in this life, we are of all men most pitiable.
(1Co 15:17-19 ASV)

Note the link Paul gives between Christ being raised from the dead and our own hope of resurrection. Without Christ’s resurrection, we have no hope of leaving Hades and avoiding the fires of Hell into which Hades, and all within it, will be thrown into on the day of judgment. (Rev. 20:13-15)

The defeat of death, Hades, and the grave is what the resurrection of Christ accomplished. Likewise, the celebration is also known as The Harrowing of Hades.

For those not familiar, a harrow is a multipronged instrument used to plow the ground. To harrow something literally means to plow it up, or analogically, to disturb it.

Hades is known as the place of the dead. Our term actually comes from Greek mythology, as the Greek god Hades ruled the realm of the dead. In the Old Testament, it was called Sheol. Within its boarders, all who died, both the righteous and the wicked, were held, awaiting the final judgment. Death reigned over Adam and all his descendents until Christ.

The best scripture about Christ going to Hades and harrowing it is the Apostle Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost. Quoting from King David in Psalm 16, he says:

Because thou wilt not leave my soul unto Hades, Neither wilt thou give thy Holy One to see corruption. Thou madest known unto me the ways of life; Thou shalt make me full of gladness with thy countenance.

Brethren, I may say unto you freely of the patriarch David, that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us unto this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins he would set one upon his throne; he foreseeing this spake of the resurrection of the Christ, that neither was he left unto Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption.

This Jesus did God raise up, whereof we all are witnesses.
(Act 2:27-32 ASV)

One of my favorite liturgical text personifies Hades. Hades swallowed Christ, got a really bad case of indigestion from the Giver of Life, and ended up vomiting out all the righteous.

PlowingDeath was plowed with Life.

Sounds fantastical? Far fetched? Like something out of a novel I or any number of people might make up? To our modern and skeptical world, yeah. But there is one big difference between when we create and when God creates.

When we speculate, it becomes a story. When God speculates, it becomes reality.

This is the hope we celebrate this week: Christ entered death and Hades, plowed life into it, flung open its gates through His resurrection so that we too might rise in newness of life.

As Jesus comforted John upon seeing Him in His glory:

Fear not; I am the first and the last, and the Living one; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades.
(Rev 1:17b-18 ASV)

So fear not! Rejoice! For Christ has become our Passover Lamb. If we smear His blood over the doorpost of our hearts and souls, death will pass over us as well.

He has the keys to Hades.

Why Don’t Christian Writers Speculate According To Scripture?

Blog | | Monday, April 14, 2014
We have an infallible, Spirit-inspired revelation of God’s work in the world from the beginning of creation. Why, then, don’t we Christian speculative writers more often take what we know from the Bible and speculate on what the world might look like?

The_Holy_BibleI’ve long contended that Christians can and should include spiritual truth—theology, if you will—in our stories. At the same time, I believe truth about God ought to open up our imaginations as we grasp the ramifications of a world ruled by a sovereign God who can do the impossible.

We also have an infallible, Spirit-inspired revelation of God’s work in the world from the beginning of creation. Why, then, don’t we Christian speculative writers more often take what we know from the Bible and speculate on what the world might look like?

I know, some have. We’ve certainly seen a good deal of speculation about angels and demons and Nephilim. But I’m thinking, for example, more along the lines of what the world as a whole once looked like in light of what Genesis says.

Some writers, such as Brian Godawa, have taken particular people from the pages of Scripture and speculated about their lives and the world in which they live. That’s not quit what I’m suggesting, though. Rather, I’m wondering if we couldn’t imagine the world the way the Bible describes it, and use that as a basis for our stories.

For instance, what would the world look like if people lived to be 900 years old? How would that affect society? What might a person be able to learn in 900 years? Stories with this idea as a basis wouldn’t be Biblical fiction. They would be utilizing a fact Scripture revealed as once true of our world.

Here are a few others: What did the world look like that caused God to say, “Nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them”? What would the world have been like with one language? With only one large land mass? What would it be like to live in a temperate climate year round, with no rain?

What would it be like to hear God’s voice? To have Him warn against sin crouching at the door, to have Him ask, Where’s your brother?

What would it be like to have the earth divide into continents? To have someone violate God’s created order and take a second wife? To have someone live a righteous life and to disappear because he’d been taken away by God?

Understand, I’m not actually advocating for more speculative Biblical fiction. Rather, I’m suggesting that the Bible shows us things that are beyond the accepted norm. However, instead of using those in our stories, we tend to accept what we learn from secular history books and scientific theory, and make the secular norm the groundwork for what we write.

Consequently, since archaeology has no evidence of an advanced early civilization that aimed to reach the heavens, and science theorizes that early man was primitive, having evolved from apes, we Christians think within those boxes rather than beyond them to the world pictured in Scripture.

Oh, sure, we may stand against the ape idea, but we still have early man living in primitive circumstances as Stephan Lawhead does in his imaginative and thought-provoking Bright Empires series.

But what if God’s creation of humans in His image meant that we had a greater capacity to think and create than we have now. I mean ten times greater. Or a hundred times greater?

Adam_and_Eve019What if humans could communicate with the animals? God gave Adam and Eve dominion over the rest of creation, after all. How were they to exercise this dominion if they essentially lived separate lives from the animals?

I’ll admit, some of my thinking on this topic has been sparked by how reviewers have reported the way the Noah movie depicted life on earth.

To be clear, I’ll say again, I don’t think we need a flood of new speculative Biblical fiction—a Christian version of Noah, for instance. That seems to be the knee-jerk reaction to things we Christians don’t like that come from secular pop-culture.

Rather, I’d like to see our approach to fiction broaden. I’d like to see us take the Bible seriously and ask more what if questions about Biblical history rather than secular history or scientific theory.

I’ll move my examples out of Genesis. Psalm 18, written by David, has an incredible verse about God’s response to David’s prayer for protection:

The the earth shook and quaked;
And the foundations of the mountains were trembling
And were shaken, because He was angry. (v 7)

What would the world be like if God answered every prayer by His people with that kind of judgment? What would that do to humankind’s understanding of Him? How would such a world be different from the one shown by the Greeks?

Maybe I’ve not read widely enough and Christians are writing these types of stories. If that’s the case, I hope readers will leave comments with the titles and authors of books that speculate grandly about the world the Bible shows.

Too often, however, when I see speculation about the world the Bible reveals, it revolves around something like half-angels.

It seems to me, those stories aren’t really using the world of the Bible but speculating about what would be if the world of the Bible was different from its revealed existence. That’s one type of speculation, certainly, and it does require imagination. But why aren’t we Christian writers doing more when we have such great source material?

On Raising A Family of Nerds

Blog | | Friday, April 11, 2014
My wife and I grew up nerds but tried to raise our family differently — until our rules changed.
An entire nerd family: the Reinis.

The generations of nerds: the Reinis.

My wife, Becky, and I didn’t set out to raise a family of nerds. But perhaps it was inevitable, given our personal affinity for geek culture. We did, after all, grow up in the Seventies during the golden age of Original Star Wars, and our courtship included reading the entirety of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter series together.

So, yes, we were nerds back when being a nerd wasn’t cool. Maybe it still isn’t, but please don’t tell our adult children. In validation of both nature and nurture, they never really had a choice in the matter.

But, as I said, we didn’t set out to indoctrinate our children in geekdom. In fact, in our early days of parenthood, we faced some interesting theological and practical parenting decisions. While we desperately wanted our children to be able to appreciate a masterpiece like The Empire Strikes Back, we had to prayerfully consider this: Did our love for sci-fi line up with our love for Christ? Did the somewhat “new-agey” worldview of George Lucas, et al., line up with scriptural teachings? And most importantly, as Christian parents, were we comfortable introducing our children to those elements?

At first, we weren’t. For family entertainment, we turned, instead, to Christian-based dramas like Adventures in Odyssey. (Fantastic, intricate nerd-level storytelling in its own right, it turned out.) Rather than watching television, we read books—a LOT of books—out loud as a family. The kids grew up on a steady diet of Stevenson, Twain, Lewis, and Ingalls-Wilder. It’s not that we had some grand master plan—we were just doing the best we could at the time. But without realizing it—or even having a clue as to what we were doing—we ended up inadvertently planting a seed, sowing a love for a well-told story that would bring our entire family a tremendous amount of joy in years to come, along with countless two a.m. rants about why Pixar is infinitely better than Dreamworks.

For our children, the rules changed one night when we left them in the care of a trusted baby sitter. Looking for some entertainment, he pulled a VHS copy of Star Wars off the shelf.  (No, we hadn’t thrown it away—we were young parents, not idiots.)  The kids knew it wasn’t something we let them watch, so of course they were apprehensive—and mesmerized.

onraisingafamilyofnerds_playingxwingminiatures

Two second-generation Reinis in full nerd mode.

When we discovered this grievous infraction of our house rules, we were more relieved than upset. We began to realize that our children were getting older and their ability to process the difference between fantasy and reality had matured, as had our own personal faith. We weren’t so much afraid of “hurting” our kids with exposure to alternative worldviews as we were excited to see them applying critical thinking to allegories, morality plays, and studies of good versus evil. But who are we kidding? We were mostly excited to be introducing a new generation—our children—to the characters, the stories, and the genres that we had grown up loving.

We had no way of knowing at the time how much this nerdy interaction would permeate and bless every element of our family life. One night, I overheard our four year old humming the Trench Run passage from the Star Wars score, exactly, note for intricate note. He, his brother, and his sister, would all go on to become all-state vocalists in choir and small groups. We would listen, with great joy, as they would passionately debate and prove, empirically, that The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars film, and that, while the prequels were bad, it was the “Special” Editions that were the greater sin against everything good and holy. As a family, we probably drove friends and relatives crazy with inside jokes—every other sentence between us a quote or reference from a film or novel. All of this just served to draw us closer as a family. None of the kids was ever in serious trouble (to our knowledge), they were always well behaved (in public), they all, as adults, still love to spend time together, and yes, the inside jokes and references still dominate every conversation.

Aaron and Allen Reini, coauthors of Flight of the Angels.

Aaron and Allen Reini, coauthors of Flight of the Angels.

So, we are proud to have raised a family of self-professed nerds. We’re proud of the adults, and the people of faith, that they have become. We’re proud that all four (and spouses) are actively involved in ministry, and I am proud to have co-authored a sci-fi novel with our eldest.

But perhaps our greatest joy has come from seeing the impact this life has had on the next generation. Becky and I remember the day we were babysitting, and our six-year-old granddaughter walked into the room, DVD in hand.

“Papa,” she asked, “Can we watch Star Wars? We want to watch this one. It’s the good one.”

I could have wept.

She was holding The Empire Strikes Back.

 

‘Captain America’ Sequel Fights for True Freedom and Salvation of Enemies

Reviews | | Thursday, April 10, 2014 at 1:07 pm
The latest Marvel film proves fans will follow a true hero across genres and into serious explorations of freedom.

banner_captainamericathewintersoldier

Two-thirds through Captain America: The Winter Soldier1, the story brings a Big Reveal that about half the audience must have expected given spoilers from the original story, reviews, even the film’s IMDB page. Yet as soon as the story had given this revelation … and slowed for impact … the theater was filled with reactions. People shouted, “Oh!” Hands clasped to mouths. Other mouths swore, the kind of swearing that does not mean, “I am a sinner who wants to sin by saying this” but, “I have been drawn completely beyond myself and now feel overwhelmed by an Other and simply don’t know what to say.”

I’ve never before seen anything like this in a movie theater.

Yes, this was a good crowd, as if the very same crowd with whom my wife and I enjoyed Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Viewers were captivated by both Captain America stories with an intensity I don’t recall perceiving even among audiences for The Avengers (2012). Why is that? Something particular about this hero’s story has captured fans to the point of making them want to “follow” Cap and his adventures across genres.

Captain America: The First Avenger was set in the hero’s original era, World War 2. The Avengers brought him to the modern age in time to join other heroes and fight an alien invasion. Winter Soldier follows Cap and his new friends on a different kind of journey, weaving a complex and even elegant blend of real-world battles and action-heroics.

Cap: a true hero

poster_captainamericathewintersoldierRecently I read that Captain America is the only superhero not to receive a big reboot even in the comic-book story-world. Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and entire hero universes have been revamped at one time or another. For instance, Superman came to Earth in the 1930s (original story), then again in the 1950s (Superman: The Movie in 1978), then again in the 1980s (Man of Steel, presuming it is set in its release year of 2013). But the story of Steve Rogers, Captain America, must be tied to his World War 2 origins.

What does this mean? It means we get a hero grounded in history, or at least an idealized history — a history when right was right (Allies) and wrong was wrong (Nazis). And in an era when some storytellers (with justification) wish to explore the nuances of things, to show that even heroes are flawed and villains have redeeming qualities, Cap is exceptional.

Cap knows this. In Winter Soldier’s story he doesn’t have a single moment of self-aware “angst.” He knows himself and his values even in this strange modern world, but he doesn’t yet know what he can do for it. The iconic super-soldier suddenly finds himself beyond the victory he spent the rest of his 1940s life to win. So from where does the drama come? Not from self-doubt but from the clash of true hero versus flawed world. Other hero stories can well learn the lesson: Not everything needs a Gritty Reboot. This already seems to be a slogan scrawled in large letters on Marvel producer Kevin Feige’s office wall.

Of course with only 2.5 hours, you can’t see everything Steve faces or spell out his code of honor. Instead you must fill that in yourself. Actor Chris Evans doesn’t tell you Cap’s beliefs by pledging allegiance or waving flags; he simply does his job and shows what he said in the first film: “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies; I don’t care where they’re from.”

But let political conservatives who reflexively label this “liberal/Big Hollywood”2 take note: Captain America is on their side. In fact, he and his friends and his story are truly on the side of anyone who fights bullies, no matter where they’re from.

This kind of idealism is shocking and even disturbing, demonstrating the audacity of Cap’s character and narrative. Can there truly exist such a person? Yes, such a Person exists, and Cap might fly His battle flag without knowing it. And when the story takes a strangely-not-predictable heroic-narrative turn toward the other truth — of our hero showing mercy for someone he loves who had become his enemy — I lost it. Already Marvel films reflect John 15:13 when Tony Stark is willing to sacrifice himself to save New York City or even Thor fights to save the planet of the evil Frost Giants from being destroyed. Stark would die for his friends; Thor would die for a race of his enemies. But this is an even more iconic, close-up version of the truth: Cap would give himself for his personal enemy, to save his enemy’s life. More than many other Christ-figure-like heroes, this action shows Him clearest.

Colorful allies

Winter Soldier made me a new fan of returning heroes such as S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury and Agent Maria Hill, a new fan of new heroes such as Sam Wilson (the Falcon), and all over again a fan of returning heroine Black Widow. In The Avengers, Fury and Hill served basically and understandably as placeholders; in Winter Soldier both of them, especially Fury, have their own stories to tell and new journeys to show. And Wilson’s story parallels Cap’s and his own more-recent military service naturally leads to the two men’s tangible friendship. From the moment Cap can’t help repeatedly lapping Wilson in the park and Wilson can only laugh at his own comparable physical inferiority, you love this new hero.

captainamericathewintersoldier_capandblackwidow

Black Widow’s and Cap’s differences are about truth and humanity, not gender and sex.

But Black Widow nearly steals the show. Gone are my earlier wonderings3 about whether she would be another character who exists to check off a box on a memo and then slavishly follow the whole desperate-sounding “anything men can do women can do better” shooting-up-heroine nonsense. As in The Avengers, neither Black Widow nor her writers are so silly. Instead here is a heroine that anyone can emulate, someone eager to be redeemed. Super-soldier serum may not exist, but Marvel has found the “secret” formula for strong, sexy and capable heroines who are completely unaware of the supposed feminism of the whole thing, and who are human, vulnerable, complex, and not merely sex-objectified.

Pairing Widow with Cap for much of the film was pure genius. You get little romantic wink-winks, but that’s all there is. I love how Cap continues to respect her with such ease as a total equal, yet he also literally shields her from harm as he did in The Avengers. Despite their different pasts — he the truly good super-soldier, she the spy with a dark past — they both dig in and perform their duty against hideous evil as soldiers for a righteous cause.

Real world on super-serum

Several reviewers have remarked how effortlessly The Winter Soldier springs between only slightly updated comic-book tropes, such as decades-old artificial intelligences and a man with a winged jetpack, and sobering contemporary concerns, especially the question of how much freedom people may need to sacrifice in order to avoid harm and live securely.

The cost of security?

The cost of security?

Given Cap’s statement in the trailers when he sees new massive military ships made to stop threats beforehand — “This isn’t freedom, this is fear” — I thought The Winter Soldier might be loading up with some nuance. I also expected this take in the concurrent Marvel television series “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”, something like: “These are sobering questions, and we will explore them as part of the story but not technically take a side because we’re more interested in how our heroes respond to these challenges.” Well, throw that notion out the window and then jump out after it with a fiery explosion at your heels because that’s not happening. The Winter Soldier takes a side and hoists colors for it, then wraps itself in that flag and fights. How much freedom must you sacrifice for security? Cap says: None. Ever.

Once again the story imitates its hero’s straightforwardness. Cap never varies from his view, never once wonders if freedom is really worth it. So how is that not merely fiction-as-propaganda? Answer: because the audience does wonder. The story challenges Cap’s belief and poses tough questions of other characters: might security matter more than freedom? Then the story answers them not with philosophy telling but heroes showing. Cap will not sacrifice others’ freedoms but will lay down his own life. Black Widow makes an almost greater sacrifice. Nick Fury is brave enough not to flip that switch. And good civilians and S.H.I.E.L.D. agents reject any “I was just following orders” excuses and take their stands.

This heroic inspiration and fleshed-out truth has haunted me to this day. Once again it gives the lie to ignorant “it’s just a movie” cultural-carelessness. It also gives the lie to myths that “Big Hollywood” is only filled with evil double agents. Sometimes they are agents for truth. Sometimes heroes are truly heroic. And sometimes that is all we need.

  1. The ninth Marvel Cinematic Universe film released in the U.S. on Friday, April 3.
  2. I tire of the dehumanizing term “Hollywood.” Conservatives, especially if they are Christians, would do well to avoid this kind of subtle verbal “eugenics” against visual storytellers, most of whom see any cultural “agendas” merely as means to tell great stories and/or become rich and famous.
  3. Sex in the Story 1: Shooting Up Heroine on SpecFaith, Feb. 9, 2012.

Agenda Fiction Is Alive and Well

Blog | | Tuesday, April 8, 2014
The purpose of fiction is to experience the truth lived out in real life. Even if that real life is in the future, past, or a fantasy world.

Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe movieChristian Fiction has often been accused of being so agenda/message driven that story quality suffers. Michael Trimmer quotes author Mike Duran in the Christian Today article, “What’s Wrong With Christian Fiction”:

Christians are so desirous to get the gospels out there, that we tolerate mediocrity. I think that does a disservice to the gospel. We tolerate mediocrity for the sake of the message.

He is probably right in many cases, but because of that, the solution often tends to be to get rid of the message to improve quality. But it’s not that simple. It isn’t the presence of an agenda that is the problem.

Agenda-driven fiction has a long history and not by just Christians.

There are college classes offered on how to use the arts in getting the message out about “climate change,” as reported in the New York Times article, “College Classes Use Arts to Brace for Climate Change.”

Whether you agree with “climate change” claims or not, the article list fiction titles going back into the 60s that focused on climate change. The article ends on the following quote:

“In this sense,” he (Shane Hall) said, “climate change itself is a form of story we have to tell.”

Sums up what most Christian writers would say about the Gospel.

That is just one example. How often did the Star Trek TV series illustrate an agenda, both the original series and The Next Generation? The list could go on.

The answer isn’t to get rid of our messages. The real problem comes in two areas.

One: Treating Fiction Like Non-fiction

This is the cause of Mike Duran’s concern above. What do I mean by it? I’ve mentioned it in a guest post many months ago on SpecFaith and most recently last week in talking about the dynamic behind the debate on the movie Noah.

Stories in non-fiction, whether true or made-up, exist to serve one main purpose: to illustrate a point in an emotionally engaging manner. The story does not exist for its own sake, but is subservient to the message being conveyed. Consequently, the stories tend to be simple, black and white realities that make a clear, unambiguous point. They don’t want the reader to wonder, “Hum, I wonder what he meant to say?”

Christians who write fiction often make the mistake of treating their story as an expanded, non-fiction illustration. As a result, characterization tends to be shallow. Plots exist to drive the reader to one conclusion. Anything like real-life ambiguities that would muddy the message are avoided.

This in direct opposition to what Jesus did. He didn’t give illustrations to make a point. He taught in parables. He was fine letting the hearer figure out the meaning for themselves. He didn’t offer conclusions/interpretations except to the disciples. He trusted that those who were ready to hear the truth, would.

When we move into fiction stories, the purpose of the book can no longer be to illustrate a truth as in non-fiction. Rather, it is to experience the truth lived out in real life. Even if that real life is in the future, past, or a fantasy world.

In fiction, the message and the story take on a symbiotic relationship.

The message, to be effective, is dependent upon the story to have the ring of authenticity to it. To be an engaging, emotionally impacting, and entertaining story. If the quality of the story fails here, few will experience the message lived out.

For the story to amount to more than a good time, but to have meat on its bones, requires a living message/theme running through it. The stories that impact us most are those that open our eyes to see truth lived out in a character, and then in us as well. Any book, no matter how entertaining, that doesn’t say something to us, is quickly forgotten.

Two: Getting Sucked into the Niche Whirlpool

Overt agenda-driven, non-fiction, illustration-styled fiction stories, Christian or not, are primarily red meat for the faithful of that niche. Few outside that niche care to read it. The above “climate change” books and films highlight that. Few who disagree with their agenda are going to plunk down money to partake of that story.

The overwhelming majority of people who will enjoy those stories are those who already agree with them.

This is the irony of the Christian whirlpool effect. The drive to present as clear and unambiguous of a Gospel message as possible ensures few who are not already saved and in the fold will ever read it. The tighter into the niche it falls, the less chance it has of transcending that niche to become truly evangelistic. The story gets sucked into the niche whirlpool.

By creating a symbiotic relationship between story and message, the story can gain a following and those who have ears to hear and eyes to read will get the message. For that to happen requires them getting lost in a world and characters to the point they live the message through them.

The more the quality of the story supports the goal of fiction instead of non-fiction, the more likely that story will change someone’s life.

Agenda fiction is not the issue. Tossing the message is not the answer. Reading stories that marinate us in truth experienced through characters is the goal.

 

Satan Is For Real, Or What Became Of The White Witch?

Blog | | Monday, April 7, 2014
Above all Satan wants people to shrink their view of God. That’s his great lie: God is not so great after all.

SauronThe Horned King, Lord Foul, Sauron, the White Witch. Fantasy literature is ripe with supreme antagonists who fight against good, in the same that Satan fights against God. Unless it’s my imagination, however, we’re seeing less of Satan in Christian speculative fiction. His minions still make frequent appearances, but he’s not as visible as he once was.

As it happens, this trend mirrors society. Fewer and fewer people in the West, including Christians, believe Satan exists. According to a 2009 survey conducted by the Barna group, only 35% of those professing Christ also believe Satan is a real person:

Four out of ten [self-described] Christians (40%) strongly agreed that Satan “is not a living being but is a symbol of evil.” An additional two out of ten Christians (19%) said they “agree somewhat” with that perspective. A minority of Christians indicated that they believe Satan is real by disagreeing with the statement: one-quarter (26%) disagreed strongly and about one-tenth (9%) disagreed somewhat. The remaining 8% were not sure what they believe about the existence of Satan. (“Most American Christians Do Not Believe that Satan or the Holy Spirit Exist,” emphasis mine)

How convenient for him. It’s hard to fight an enemy you can’t see and even harder to fight one you think is merely a symbol of the wrongs of the world.

A more recent, 2013 survey shows the number of Americans who believe in Satan to be somewhat higher than the Barna Group’s findings, though what these people mean by “Satan” is not defined.

The survey by YouGov found that 57 percent of respondents believe that the devil exists . . . Sixty-three percent of people with a high school education said they believe in the evil spirit compared to 48 percent of college graduates. (“Majority of Americans believe in the devil – especially Republicans, blacks and women”)

Satan002Even those who believe in a real devil may not have an understanding of him that’s consistent with Scripture. Apart from the red tights, horns, and pitchfork, a popular notion of Satan is that he is the ruler of hell. In contrast, the Bible teaches that hell is the place God will send Satan as punishment for his rebellion.

What Satan is up to, what he’s trying to accomplish, remains under a greater cloud of confusion. Culture has him pictured as an evil influencer, the worst side of our nature, the one behind demon possession. These contain some truth but are limited in scope. Satan’s great goal from the beginning has been to overthrow God’s rule. In other words, he’s a rebel who wants to take God’s place.

His first strategy after his removal from heaven along with the angels who followed him remains his greatest ploy—to wrest God’s creation from His control. Hence, his temptation of Eve in the Garden continues to be his greatest temptation of us today. In short, Satan calls into question God’s word. His question to Eve was, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” (Gen. 3:1b). His question to us today is, Does the Bible really mean . . .

In the same way that Satan attacks God by questioning His word, he calls into question who Jesus is, the One who Scripture identifies as God’s Logos or Word (John 1:14). Not a coincidence, I don’t think, that Satan is called the father of lies. His “chief end,” if you will, is to distort God’s truth.

Book of Three coverGod’s creation, for example, was good, by His own testimony. So Satan perverted it. God says He loves the world so much He gave His only Son. Satan says God actually is an unjust tyrant or an uncaring, distant force or an impotent bystander or irrelevant or nonexistent—certainly not a Lover of the souls He created.

Above all Satan wants people to shrink their view of God. That’s his great lie: God is not so great after all.

The corollary that accompanies that lie suggests God’s creatures are worthy of worship. Satan tried to bargain with Jesus for His worship, which is the epitome of what he wants. But he also suggests humans do the same thing. Hence he told Eve if she ate of the forbidden fruit she would be like God.

That temptation is with us today in the relativistic interpretations of Scripture. By isolating verses from the whole, the Bible can be made to say whatever a person wants it to say—resulting in precisely the kind of “Did God say . . .” questioning Satan introduced to Eve, and the “you are God” control he suggested.

Lion, Witch, Wardrobe coverSatan, of course, also stands against the Church of God and particularly against the spread of the gospel. He fights to prevent answers to prayer, puts obstacles in the path of those preaching God’s Word, gives thorns in the flesh, encourages believers to lie to the Holy Spirit, accuses the brethren before God, and is behind false teaching in the Church. He is, after all, prowling like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.

It’s a little troubling to me, then, that Satan, who is not equal to God but is surely opposite, has taken a back seat in much of our Christian speculative literature. Yes, demonic forces or their equivalent serve as antagonists, though corrupt or evil humans seem more prevalent. But Satan? Off hand, I can only think of one series that has a credible White Witch to oppose its Aslan. But perhaps I’m forgetting others or have missed reading them. Or perhaps we’re not writing about Satan because we no longer believe in him. What do you think?

Fiction Friday: Captives by Jill Williamson

Blog | | Friday, April 4, 2014
You may read the Prologue to Captives and the rest of Chapter 1 at Christianbook.com. You can obtain a copy from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Christianbook, or wherever books are sold.
Series:

Captives, a young adult dystopian fantasy, is the first in the Safe Lands series.

CaptivesSafeLandscover

Chapter

1

June 2088

Father invaded Mason’s bedroom like a hornet. He yanked the psychology textbook from Mason’s hands and tossed it on the floor. “You hear me calling for Omar, boy? Stop wasting time, and go find your broher. And don’t take all day doing it.”

“Yes, sir.” Avoiding eye contact, Mason jumped off his bed and darted into the dark hallway, heading for the front of the house. He had indeed heard his father bellowing Omar’s name. But since it was Omar’s name and not his own, Mason had made the logical assumption that the solicitation was not for him. But such logic had never been Father’s companion.

Father’s footsteps clomped behind him, and Mason walked faster, not wanting to become the focus of Father’s anger. Three more steps to the door . . .

“Now that Levi’s getting married, it’s your turn.”

This announcement stopped Mason completely. He turned around in the living room, glanced at his mother, who stood at the kitchen table, drying jars for canning, then looked at his father. “Me marry? Now? I’m only seventeen.”

“Why wait?”

“Because there’s no one I feel particularly drawn to in Glenrock or Jack’s Peak.”

"No matter," Father said. "I've made arrangements with Mia's mother."

Mason felt as if his father had slammed him into a brick wall. He glanced at his mother, but she turned her head back to the jars before he could make eye contact. "Father, there's no sense in my marrying Mia. I'd be more compatible with any other girl, in fact. We should exhaust all options before making such a rash pairing."

"Everyone else is too young."

"I can wait."

"Mia needs a husband. Her mother needs a son." Father shrugged. "No reason to wait."

"But she and I would be terrible together. We're not even friends."

"Focus on her pretty face." Father slapped Mason on the back and stepped toward the front door. "Now stop arguing, and go find your brother. I may have managed to marry him off as well, but it's no good if I can't find him. And I don't want to keep Elsu waiting. Need to leave now if I want to get to Jack's Peak in time."

Mason stared at the open door, listening to Father's footsteps pound across the porch, down the steps, and crunch across the rocky path that led to the village square. His cheeks burned with fury over the nonsense of Mia becoming his wife. "I don't want to marry Mia. I won't."

"Mason," his mother said, "you're smart enough to find a way to make this work."

"But she despises me. And from what I gather from the books Levi brought me, and from my observations here in Glenrock, marriage is difficult enough when the pair have strong affections for one another. I don't want a future of misery for myself or for Mia."

"It's been two years since Mia's mother lost her husband. This marriage will mend the hole in their family. They'll have a man in their home again."

He stared at her. "But Mother, I will never love Mia." He couldn't even force himself to like her.

"Since when has love ever been important to your father? He values strength. Show your strength by making this work." Mother went back to drying the jars. "You'd best go find your brother before your father catches you dawdling."

Mason pushed out the front door into the afternoon heat and crossed the porch in three steps. He jumped off the side and kept moving, the wild grass and flowers tickling his bare feet. Grazer's claws scraped over the plank porch as he dog chased after him and was soon bounding alongside.

Mason leaned over to scratch behind Grazer's ears. "Where's Omar, huh, boy? Go fetch Omar."

The dog panted and squinted his eyes, in no apparent hurry to lend assistance. Mason swallowed the tightness in his throat.

Mia? Really?

* * *

Glenrock consisted of a dozen log homes scattered in a forest of pine around the village square's clearing. Their house faced the entrance road that ended at a roundabout in front of the square and the meeting hall. On the distant road, Father was a mere puff of dust as he headed up the mountain trail to meet Elsu.

Mason strode toward the hall, his gaze sweeping over the village, searching for the Old Colorado State Patrol hat his little brother Omar always wore. The sun lit the square and illuminated billions of dust motes. This was the time of day when everyone tried to remain indoors to keep cool, and Mason saw no one else besides his older brother Levi and Levi's friend Jordan.

Both were sitting on their ATVs, which were parked in front of an elevated plank stage. Levi and Jemma's engagement celebration would happen tonight on this stage, and members of the village would sit on the long, split-log benches that surrounded he area and cheer he future union. All hail perfect Levi and his perfect fiancée, the future elders of Glenrock.

Mason had on desire for perfection. But . . . Mia?

He walked toward the stone ire pit at the center of the square and soon was close enough that he could hear Levi and Jordan mumbling. Mason wasn't surprised they didn't acknowledge him. Typical behavior for the heir to the patriarchy of Glenrock and his loyal adherent.

With a long breath, Mason entered the meeting hall, which was easily ten degrees cooler than outside. Jemma, Jordan's sister and Levi's intended, was decorating tables with wildflowers. Some of the younger boys were playing a scavenged Old video game on the television in the far corner. No sign of Omar.

"Hi, Mason." Jemma looked up from the flowers and smiled. "How are you today?"

"Fine. Looking for Omar." Unlike most people, when Jemma asked, "How are you?" she truly wanted to know. But if Mason had answered truthfully, Jemma would insist on more information. And Mason had no time for Jemma's compassion today. "Have you seen him?"

"Not since he harvest field this morning," she said. "I hope you find him. Levi says your father might have made him a match."

"Yes, well, my father and Levi's enthusiasm in this matter only enforces my skepticism."

"Mason." After staring at the centerpiece for a moment, Jemma pulled a mule's ear from her hand and threaded the flower into the arrangement. "You should be happy for Omar. Getting married would be wonderful for him."

"I'm not unhappy. I simply see no point in celebrating that which has not yet taken place."

Jemma practically sang her reply. " 'You can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will.' "

Mason frowned, pondering her words. "That's not yours, is it?"

"Anne of Green Gables, on of my favorite Old books. And Anne is right. So go find Omar so you can celebrate."

Mason left without offering a reply and made his way back across the square to the stage. He suspected his brother would have many baffling encounters with his new bride. How women could find joy in the marriage of complete strangers, Mason would never understand.

The ATVs now sat empty. Levi and Jordan sood on opposite sides of the stage, throwing a little ball to one another so fast it passed through the air as a blur of red.

"Find Omar yet?" Levi asked, walking toward Mason and pitching the ball at Jordan.

Mason stopped in front of Levi. "I thought I'd check the square again, but the only ones out here are you two not helping me."

Jordan flung the ball, and it bounced off the side of Levi's head.

"Ow, you maggot!" Levi chased after the ball and tossed it back at Jordan, who was laughing so hard he barely managed to catch it before it hit the ground.

"Forget Omar. Let's take Mason instead." Jordan threw the ball over the stage.

"Levi ducked, letting it fly past the side of the meeting hall. He slouched and sighed, hands on his hips the way Father did when he was disappointed. "Mason's not a good trade."

"I'm standing right here," Mason said.

Jordan ran around the stage. "No, listen. They're all about nature and healing up in Jack's peak. They'd love Mason. Then I wouldn't have to worry about him messing with my wife."

"Jordan," Levi said. "I mean that Mason is too valuable to trade."

"I never imposed upon anyone's wife," Mason said. "And what happened last week had nothing to do with yours. Cody gave Mother, a doctor, permission to allow me, her assistant, to observe his wife's labor process for educational purposes."

"For edu -- Well, you're never going to educate my wife, let alone observe her."

"Your comment is backward," Mason said. "And it was for my education, not--"

"You're backward."

"I won't belabor my point." Mason started to walk away. He might have to take his father's abuse, but he didn't have to take it from Jordan.

"I don't even know what that means," Jordan yelled.

"Not surprising," Mason said.

As he stretched the distance between him and the square, Mason heard Jordan ask Levi, "Did he just insult me?"

Mason chuckled and whistled for Grazer, wondering where the dog had gone of to. Jordan wasn't the only man in Glenrock who disliked Mason training to be a doctor. The village doctor had always been a woman. Mason found their fears ridiculous and insulting. Some of the women went hunting, and no one treated them any differently.

He passed by Mia's house. The house that would become his if Father got his way. Women's clothing hung on the line in back. A flower garden ran along the side of the house, and bees buzzed softly as they drank nectar. Mason walked a little faster, entered the forest, and continued down the river path, scanning for his brother. Grazer returned to Mason's side, head down, sniffing the ground.

Mason and Grazer traversed all of Glenrock in their search for Omar, the dog nibbling grass at each stop. They passed by the waterwheel and the generator as it purred along. They searched the garden and greenhouse, doubled back to the smokehouses where Omar sometimes sketched from the rooftops, checked the kissing trees and the outhouses, cut through the woods and the graveyard, co=rossed the cattle field, and finally walked out of the village.

No Omar. And no clue to his whereabouts.

- - - - -

You may read the Prologue to Captives and the rest of Chapter 1 at Christianbook. You can obtain a copy from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Christianbook, or wherever books are sold.

View a short trailer of the novel.

Faerie Tales of Gold

Reviews | | Thursday, April 3, 2014 at 9:02 am
Truth bursts to life in the award-winning “Tales of Goldstone Wood” fantasy series, full of characters mirroring ourselves.

review_thetalesofgoldstonewoodseries

“It’s the truth that counts! And you’ll rarely find more truth than in Faerie tales.”
— Eanrin from Dragonwitch

While hopefully searching through various books in need of quality clean fantasy, I stumbled upon a Wood. Though I first perceived it as a book, it soon revealed itself to be an entire other world.

Anne Elisabeth Stengl introduced Goldstone Wood to me in her debut fantasy novel, Heartless, a delightful fairytale that paralleled Christ’s love for us. I was surprised by her excellent writing and powerful story-telling, and eagerly continued on to Book 2, Veiled Rose, which gave me a new perspective on characters and events of the first book. And when I continued on to Moonblood, I realized I’d discovered a fantasy series unlike any other I’d read before. With the creativity and insight of C.S. Lewis, the epic scale of Tolkien, and a vivid voice all her own, the author drew me into deep adoration of The Tales of Goldstone Wood series.

Certainly, her world-building is fantastic, connecting the Far Faerie demesnes with the mortal Near Kingdoms through a mysterious and dangerous Wood, along with the spiritual realms of the Netherworld and the Farthestshore, I haven’t encountered other worlds so vast, complex, bizarre, and intertwined. Throughout her stories, delicious hints are dropped and legends are whispered, only to be later fully revealed in future novels. And the books keep coming! Though Book 6, Shadow Hand, just released, and book 7, Golden Daughter is due for release in November, many more novels, plus novellas, are promised. It’s enough to make my fan-girl heart squeal!

Each book, though a satisfying story of its own, is intricately connected to the others, so it is certainly best to read them in the order published. This certainly isn’t chronological order, for Anne Elisabeth Stengl has created a world where Time is a fickle thing, and her books sometimes range a thousand years apart … and sometimes side by side. It’s complicated, but completely worthwhile.

But above all the beautiful writing, endearing characters, and surprising twists on familiar fairy-tale themes, I was most deeply struck by the heart and truth woven in each story. For though only the first book might be considered an allegory, the characters come to life with startling reality.

This is what causes these books to be so greatly praised and so heavily criticized. For the characters are written with truth. From Una, spoiled, slightly silly, blinded by her misconceptions, to Lionheart, aching to be a hero, but fallen under intimidation, to Eanrin, haughty and selfish, these characters reflect our own fallen nature with painful clarity. Many readers don’t like that. They prefer their heroes and heroines to, sure, have struggles, but ultimately to kick the bad guys down and conquer their own problems with surety and triumph. These characters don’t. They fail. Horribly. To the point, that readers despise them. And that’s where the truth comes in.

Grace.

The undeserved grace, love, and power of Christ. There is a Prince always calling to us, no matter how we might ignore him like Una and Rosie, ready to defeat the Dragons and Dreams that are anxious to destroy our lives. Though we are weak and looked down upon like the Chronicler and Foxbrush, He sees us as something magnificent. He sees our true names, even if we’ve become like wolves. He longs to take us, His fallen, weak creation, call us His own, and transform us into the heroes we so long to be.

And that’s what makes these tales truly golden.