The Fine Line

Blog | | Wednesday, October 29, 2014
Here is the question: At what point does a necessary attention to sober facts degenerate into an unhealthy fascination with darkness?

It occurred to me the other day that, although I have been posting at SpecFaith for a few months now, I’ve yet to say anything really controversial. Then I remembered that Halloween is coming up, and that’s always a prime opportunity, what with some Christians getting agitated about the holiday, and other Christians getting agitated with them for getting agitated.

Even Halloween can be innocent.

At the risk of defusing the controversy, I want to make clear that this post is not about whether Christians can or should celebrate Halloween. I regard the observance of all “special days” as a matter of Christian liberty, in which Christians may without condemnation do as they please. My position, roughly summed up, is that everybody can celebrate Halloween and nobody has to, and whether anybody should is based on personal factors, i.e. stuff about your life I don’t know. So I want to talk about something else.

I bring up Halloween because there is one aspect of the holiday that leads me out to a broader and more important issue. As October rolls by, I can’t help noticing, and thinking about, the part of Halloween I really dislike. And it’s not the costumes, or the trick-or-treating, or the origins of the holiday.

It’s the decorations. Cobwebs, spiders, skeletons, ghosts, tombstones, bloodstains, skulls, hearses. It is an ugly holiday. Nor is this entirely accidental. Nobody ever set up cardboard tombstones in the pursuit of beauty; the macabre trimmings of Halloween are chosen because they repulse, not because they attract.

For many people (by no means all), Halloween is an opportunity to indulge in the darker side, to deliberately evoke that shudder that all humans feel at ghosts and cemeteries, and many enjoy. It seems wrong, somehow, to make the emblems of Death, in his ghoulish glory, symbols of a holiday.

Death is, of course, a fact and an exceedingly stubborn one at that; we all have to face up to it sooner or later. But here is the question, and one that applies far beyond Halloween and even death: At what point does a necessary attention to sober facts degenerate into an unhealthy fascination with darkness?

This temptation to wallow is, I think, a fairly common one, and it takes different forms. Horror and other forms of dark fiction can indulge the unhealthy interest, but so can other genres – including romance, which is not quite the opposite of speculative fiction it is sometimes taken to be.

Ordinary gossip, the gossip rags, various fiction, and even respectable nonfiction can satisfy another sort of morbidity: an inordinate interest in other people’s sins and tragedies, in all their sicknesses, physical or emotional. To this kind of curiosity, it’s not the people who are interesting, just their mess.

Christians have had their own versions of this problem, although that is mostly in the past. (These days, churches are more often guilty of shallowness than they are of morbidity.) Teachers’ attempts to detail the exact horrors of hell were inevitably flights of human imagination, going far beyond the scant imagery in the Bible, and it could get rather gruesome. I wonder if even the Puritan fixation with one’s own sins could become morbid – if, instead of remembering that they were meant to rise up from the mud and walk, they sometimes rubbed their faces in it to feel how bad it really was.

Of course, our sin is another of those sober facts we need to face up to. And that brings me back to the question: Where is the line between facing the darkness and simply roving unwholesomely in it?

I suspect that, for different people, the line is drawn in different places; a news report, for instance, could be read with honest concern by one person and with morbid curiosity by another. But we have to remember to try and stay on the right side of that line, and not only on Halloween.

Not of This World

Blog | | Tuesday, October 28, 2014
How does Christian fiction influence our culture?

Rat RaceOne of my favorite comedy movies is Rat Race. If you’ve seen it, you’ll get an idea of what I laugh at. One scene early in the movie has the group of would be competitors meeting in a fancy Las Vegas hotel ball room, waiting to find out what their once-in-a-lifetime prize is going to be.

The character played by Rowan Atkinson exclaims to the others already there as he gazes wide-eyed at the fancy décor, “Oh, isn’t this wonderful? Look at this room, what a beautiful room, have you seen this room?”

As the others look at him with bewildered expressions, Jon Lovitz’s character says, “Yes! We’re in it!”

I got the impression that was some people’s reaction to last week’s column about the “Five Myths of Cultural Engagement.” One person referred to the idea of cultural engagement as a myth itself, as in not a real issue. As if they said, “How can we not engage the culture? We’re in it!”

True enough. I apologize for tossing around a common buzz-word without defining what I meant by it. Not too many people really have a clear idea what the term means. It all depends upon how a person defines “culture” and “engagement.”

Rather than spend the rest of the article defining culture and engagement, I’ll put it simply and then give an analogy to make it clear.

For one culture to engage another assumes we’re talking about two cultures. In the context of these articles, we’re assuming a Christian culture and the culture we live in the world.

The question isn’t whether our Christian culture will engage that of the world’s, but how it engages it.

Which culture will change the other? Which culture bears a greater influence over the other? In short, which culture are you merely in it, but not of it?

And no, I’m not talking here of the Evangelical sub-culture bubble either. That is more a reaction to the culture one is in, attempting to redeem those elements of it in accordance to the Kingdom’s culture.

Many times, that sub-culture only changes the surface elements without changing the core of the worldly culture. Too many think if you take out the sex and cussing from a story, it is now Christian safe. Yes, just ignore the secular values behind the curtain.

What is a Christian culture in my definition?

Paul lays it out nicely in Romans 12. After imploring them to be living sacrifices, he says:

And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. (Rom 12:2)

Following that verse, for the rest of the chapter, he goes into detailed examples of how that plays out in everyday life. In short, Paul is talking about our mindset and our lifestyle. It is to be radically different from the world’s.

We engage the cultural elements we live in (books, movies, art, politics, etc.) through the filter of a Christian mindset and lifestyle. If that is flipped—we engage the Kingdom through the filter of worldly values—we are not doing cultural engagement for the Kingdom, but for the world.

This brings up a major myth of cultural engagement that is true for more than Christian speculative fiction.

We engage the culture not by being the same, but by being different.

Often cultural engagement is put in terms of identifying what is popular in a culture and incorporating it in the hope those in that culture will identify with us. Too often in story-telling, some assume this means adding more sex and cussing back in, hoping to sound more “real” to the secular person. Then they’ll take us seriously.

Problem is a light version of what they are used to isn’t going to be that attractive. Shining the black light of Christ into the darkness is not going to get near the attention.

Consider the draw of a good fantasy story.

While there are many elements that go into making a fantasy story a good one, the ground-level core of what a fantasy story has is, well, a fantasy element. Something about the story that makes it radically different from what we experience in our lives. Without that, the story loses its appeal to fantasy fans.

Likewise, if everything in the fantasy story is nothing like our real life, it will be hard to relate to it. A reader needs to be able to identify on some level with the characters and the world, even while there needs to be some facets that are totally not of this world. The story revolves around how these fantasy elements affect the lives of the characters.

Light shining in darkness is a radical change, and will be noticed. Some will run from it, others drawn to it.

You’ll notice the same dynamic when Paul preaches to the Athenians. Paul had been preaching among them for a while. That’s when the philosophers decided to hear Paul out.

Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection. (Rom 17:18)

It wasn’t Paul’s use of the unknown god that gained him a hearing, but because he preached something radically different from what they were used to: Jesus Christ’s bodily resurrection from the dead.

The mindset and lifestyle Paul lays out is radically different from the world’s. Engaging the culture with a Christian one is more than identify with them. It is shining that radical light and life into the secular darkness.

That’s why Christ said that they’ll know we are Christians by our love for one another. (John 13:35) Because that love is different from what the world knows.

How do you see a Christian culture engaging the secular one?

Who Cares About Extraterrestrials?

Blog | | Monday, October 27, 2014
I certainly have no problem with people who write science fiction. I consider it to be a type of fantasy, though.

Milky_way_(8322292662)Author friend and fellow blogger Mike Duran recently posted part two of his series on extraterrestrials and evangelicals. Honestly my first reaction was, who cares?

Disclaimer: I’m not a science fiction person. On top of that I don’t see the value in speculation about things we cannot know.

Oh, sure, I do look at Scripture and form my pet theories on some of the things God did not detail for us, and I suppose that’s what science fictionists do the same, only with science instead of Scripture. For whatever reason, extrapolating from what we know about science to what might exist has never appealed to me.

Consequently, I’m aware that my “Who cares” is probably not reflective of most people. It appears there is growing interest in the question of whether or not we humans are “alone in the universe.”

Well, as a Christian, I’ve never wondered whether we are alone because clearly the answer is no. God is with us. Further, there’s a whole invisible realm—“things in heaven,” as Colossians puts it—in which angelic hosts wage war and do whatever else angelic hosts do. So, “alone” we are not.

Of course science people are not asking about spiritual beings; they want to know if there are other physical beings with intelligence inhabiting some corner of the universe. Blogger John Sears posts a compelling argument that there is no evidence for extraterrestrial life in the universe. At the same time, he gives credence to the number of unexplained encounters, beyond the hoaxes and crazies, with flying saucers and/or other beings.

How can both be true?

My first thought is, who cares?

I know. It’s not a very writerly response. I can’t explain my lack of curiosity about life beyond this world. I continue to think that pursuit of the subject is futile because the truth of the matter is outside the ability of man to determine—so what’s the point? Plus, believing as I do that there is a spiritual realm, the encounters people report seem less likely to be with physical beings coming from another part of the universe and more likely to be manifestations of angelic or demonic beings. But that too is unprovable.

Mike Duran’s question, fueled by an article he read, “Did Jesus Save the Klingons?” is related to the spiritual ramifications of the existence of life on earth. Could those beings (creatures, aliens, extraterrestrials) have a recognizable relationship with God as we have?

I’m sure many will consider it blind faith on my part, but I have no doubt that if God placed other life in the universe, He has a plan that is just as good for them and for us as is the one He set in motion directly involving us.

Regardless of my thoughts on the matter, apparently there has been increasing interest in the possibility of extraterrestrial life and its ramifications on religion in general and Christianity in particular (see for example this article and this one).

I certainly have no problem with people who write science fiction. I consider it to be a type of fantasy, though. Yes, I realize that some of the science fiction of the past actually proved to be somewhat prophetic. The same can be said about the futuristic dystopian fiction of the past such as 1984 and Brave New World.

Those stories seem different, however. They were about human inventions or advancing technology or changes in society—things within the inventive capacity of humans or the resulting consequences of our development.

Stories about extraterrestrials seem to have a much less likelihood of being prophetic because the existence or nonexistence of other beings in the universe is out of our control. Hence, in my view, the speculation of such is more comparable to fantasy than to standard science fiction.

A Star Curiously Singing coverC. S. Lewis’s space trilogy, for instance, postulates life on other planets, but it has little feel of the prophetic, though it rings true as commentary on human society.

I can enjoy stories of a similar nature such as those by Kerry Nietz (Dark Trench saga—A Star Curiously Singing, The Superlative Stream, and Freeheads) or Michelle Levigne (The Commonwealth Universe—Azuli Eyes, Scouts Pride and some twenty other titles), but a discussion about the actual existence of extraterrestrials, my eyes glaze over. The speculation on the subject is nothing more than guesswork, so I don’t know why I should care.

So what have I missed? Why should Christians, writers, speculative readers care about what people say about the possibility of extraterrestrial life?

‘There Are No Strings On Me’

Blog | | Thursday, October 23, 2014
Avengers: Age of Ultron’s tyrannical villain boasts of his own freedom.

I had strings
But now I’m free
There are no strings on me

This is the boast of generations.1 It’s the boast of the 1960s sexual revolution. The boast of the 2000s “no religious affiliation” revolution. The boast of the ongoing 2010s sexual revolution 2.0. And so on.

Now it’s the boast of Ultron, the titular tyrannical robot overlord from Avengers: Age of Ultron.

there are no strings on meIn the new trailer he sounds like a hybrid of Megatron and The Joker. But he offers more evil philosophy than either.

“I want to show you something beautiful,” he intones. “Everyone screaming — for mercy.”

There’s kind of a layer here. Like maybe something about the trailer itself.

Because the trailer is beautiful. Hauntingly so. Marvel trailers have always been fun, but this one takes a step up — toward the elevation of the film teaser/trailer as an art form in itself.

Fans of Joss Whedon (I’m more of a casual fan myself) have remarked how he enjoys exploring the ideals of human freedom versus tyranny in his stories. But what happens when someone evil powers his own tyrannical machine with the boasts of freedom?

Avengers: Age of Ultron comes to theaters May 1, 2015.

  1. And originally the glibly performed ode to “freedom” by the titular character of Disney’s Pinnochio in 1940.

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?