The Agnosticism of Faith

Blog | | Tuesday, September 2, 2014
I’m an agnostic.

I want to believeI’m an agnostic.

Close that dropped jaw. We’re not done yet.

You’re an agnostic.

Okay, now you’re giving me the evil eye and gathering the pitchforks. But hold on for a minute and let me explain.

A simple definition of agnosticism is:

According to philosopher William L. Rowe, in the strict sense, agnosticism is the view that human reason is incapable of providing sufficient rational grounds to justify either the belief that God exists or the belief that God does not exist.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnosticism

The key is in the distinction between knowledge and belief. As the http://atheist.about.com site says:

Whereas atheism involves what a person does or does not believe, agnosticism involves what a person does or does not know. Belief and knowledge are related but nevertheless separate issues.

We could just as easily substitute “Christian” for atheism in this quote. Therein lies my point.

While I have some good reasons to believe in a creator, I can’t know 100% within my own knowledge that there is one.

While I have my reasons for believing that the God of the Bible is that creator, by my own reasoning ability I am unable to know they are one and the same.

While I’ve had some experiences which lead me to believe God is involved in my life—and some that would seem to say not—I can’t rule out those being coincides. I can’t know that God did this or that in my life.

No one can know these things within the limits of human reason. By definition, our knowledge is limited. Without knowing all things, what we don’t know could easily change all our perceptions and conclusions.

Even the Scriptures support this reality.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.
(Isaiah 55:8-9)

Are we getting the idea that what we know is a very small slice of the reality pie? We only see pieces of the picture, like a puzzle only one quarter finished. Our knowledge can only take us so far. In truth, if we are honest with ourselves, we are agnostic in our knowledge of God and who He is.

While we are all agnostics, none of us live without belief.

Life forces us to believe in something, even if it is the default belief that there is no God by not believing in one. One cannot live agnosticism. Life forces us to make a decision based on how we live our lives. Based on who or what we place our faith in.

Since none of us can investigate every possibility and option, we end up placing our faith in a testimony. Like we are forced to rely upon a doctor’s expertise to diagnosis sickness and provide a cure because we can’t all go to medical school, when it comes to God, we are forced to rely upon the testimony of others.

Faith is so often made out to be some esoteric, abstract power we can mentally grab and use to get saved or do miracles. That is an incorrect understanding. Faith is placing one’s trust in someone or something. For Christians, it is placing our trust and life in the hands of Jesus Christ of who the Scriptures testify.

It means to believe in Jesus Christ, the life He gives, and the life He wants us to experience. To trust that what He says is true and live by it. That is faith. It is why James says that faith without works is dead. Faith means belief and follow-through on that belief.

Faith starts when we acknowledge our agnosticism.

And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.
(Mark 9:24)

Because if we know enough to have no need to trust in Christ testified of by the Scripture and countless saints throughout history, then we’d be a god.

How do we come to that trust and faith? How do we know who to trust?

We all have our reasons through either deductions, inductions, experiences, or a combination of them. Even then, in our own reason we can’t know we’ve got it right. We may believe we do, but that is different from knowing.

In the end it is as Paul said,

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
(Hebrews 11:1)

This is not a “God of the gaps” concept which posits God’s activity for what we don’t know. Rather, it posits God’s existence despite our inability to know He does exist. We can’t “see” the reality, but our faith in Jesus Christ provides the evidence we can’t see. We rely upon the Biblical testimony.

Faith starts with acknowledging our agnosticism.

Christian speculative fiction can highlight this struggle. What are some good examples of books that reflect this struggle? What speculative fiction titles have influenced your faith?

Re-imaging Villains

Blog | | Monday, September 1, 2014
The idea in books like Wicked by Gregory Maguire and Iscariot and in movies like Maleficent is that there’s more to the villain of some well-known story, fact or myth, than people know.

Henry_Meynell_Rheam_-_Sleeping_BeautySaturday I saw Maleficent, the Disney movie about the “witch” who cursed Sleeping Beauty (blessings on dollar theaters everywhere! ;-) ). In my post last Monday I mentioned a book by Tosca Lee entitled Iscariot. In combination the two have me thinking about something that may be a trend—the re-imaging of villains.

The idea in books like Wicked by Gregory Maguire and Iscariot and in movies like Maleficent is that there’s more to the villain of some well-known story, fact or myth, than people know. Perhaps the unknown is how the villain came to be so villainous, or it might be the redemption of the villain’s reputation—she wasn’t what the stories have made her out to be.

I suspect this idea first came to the forefront when George Lucas re-imaged his own villain, Darth Vader, by making the young Anakin the hero of the second Star Wars trilogy.

Rochester_with_dying_wife_from_Jane_EyreAt any rate, this re-imaging holds innumerable possibilities for writers to look at old stories and create backstory for the villains, explaining who they became and why. Why not a story about the Big Bad Wolf and how he came to be the terror of Red Riding Hood and her family? Or what about a story telling how the first Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte became the woman locked in the tower. Or how about one recounting Goliath and his road to become the champion of the Philistines facing off against the lad David?

While I see the nearly unlimited possibilities of refreshing stories by making the villain the protagonist, I have to wonder about the wisdom of doing so. It seems to me that choice has possible theological ramifications.

In many respects stories written today are already falling into theological error. In fact, writing teachers set out the importance of following a perspective that contradicts Scripture—that humankind is good, even the most heinous villain.

The reasoning is that villains, if shown only as wicked monsters, will become caricatures and not well-developed characters. Hence, writers are advised to give antagonists “pet the dog” moments which show that the serial killer or assassin or pedophile or wife beater isn’t all bad.

It seems to me that re-imaging villains simply expands this fundamental concept—there’s good in all of us, so what we perceived to be a character’s evil actions have a cause or are misunderstood. If we only knew the whole story, from the side of the loser instead of the side of the winner, we’d see the good or understand the motives or sympathize with the decisions.

The problem, as I see it, with this kind of thinking is that evil is in the eye of the beholder. In fact, there really is no evil—just evil circumstances or evil influences.

maleficent-posterSo in Maleficent, [SPOILER ALERT] Stephan wasn’t evil. Rather, he was influenced by the greed of the kingdom in which he lived. In fact, when he went to kill Maleficent, he actually spared her life because he wasn’t at heart evil. But afterward he was haunted by the agony he caused her by stealing her wings, and he was terrified of her revenge. [END SPOILER ALERT]

So even in the re-telling, though there certainly felt as if there was a new villain, he was “explained.”

I can’t help but wonder if this re-imaging isn’t a way of turning evil into good. Contemporary western society has moved away from the concept of a human sin nature. In fact, I’ve encountered people who think the greatest evil is to tell people they have a bent toward sin.

Might not this trend toward re-imaging villains, then, be nothing more than a demonstration that people are not bad?

Not so long ago, a pastor at my church preached a sermon in which he said, No one wants to wake up one morning and realize he’s defrauded people and turned them into slaves because they couldn’t meet their debts. I thought that was so odd. I doubt Hitler would have lost any sleep over knowing how he’d harmed Jews, or Stalin, how he’d harmed anyone who opposed him, or the revolutionaries in France who slaughtered the gentry. That’s just scratching the surface of all the people through history that demonstrate an evil bent.

Does that mean those who act on their evil bent can’t or don’t do good things from time to time? Certainly not. Hitler was apparently good to Eva Braun. But could his story be re-imaged in such a way that his heinous deeds would be anything but heinous? I don’t think so. Unless somehow we call heinous, heroic.

I’m not saying movie-goers or readers should throw away their Maleficent DVD’s or burn their copies of Wicked. I am suggesting, however, that we think through what stories with re-imaged villains are saying about good and evil, then see if the Bible holds the same view.

Woe to those who drag iniquity with the cords of falsehood,
And sin as if with cart ropes;
Who say, “Let Him make speed, let Him hasten His work, that we may see it;
And let the purpose of the Holy One of Israel draw near
And come to pass, that we may know it!”
Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil;
Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness;
Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
And clever in their own sight! (Isaiah 5:18-21)

What are your thoughts about re-imaged villains?

Should Christians enjoy fantasy?

Blog | | Friday, August 29, 2014
As Christian fantasy writers, how do we handle evil characters? How evil can we go? Can we make our dark characters likeable? Should we?

maleficent-posterI taught a workshop on writing fantasy in 2008 at a conference. I opened up for questions at the end and got hit with a biggie. A woman asked if Christians should be writing or enjoying fantasy as the Bible teaches us to avoid sorcery, fortune telling, and other such dark arts. She was genuine in asking as she wanted to write fantasy but felt troubled. I find this a fascinating topic since I’ve always enjoyed fantasy and never had a doubt of whether I should or not.

I believe great truths can be told in a good story. Jesus told stories, many with fantastic elements, like a camel going through the eye of a needle or the vision between heaven and hell (Lazarus and the rich man.) The Bible has lots of speculative images and stories, like Eli riding up to heaven in a chariot of fire and Jacob seeing the angels travel between heaven and earth. And Revelation goes without saying.

I think there’s a difference between using magic and wizards and sorcery to move the plot along, and glorifying the practice of them. As Christian writers, we must be on guard so we don’t make the dark arts appealing to our readers. As Christians who read or watch fantasy, we must be on guard for the same reasons. But a good fantasy includes these things. There has to be something for the hero to fight against, right?

When you hear the word fantasy, what comes to mind? When I think of fantasy, I think of fairies, elves, dwarves, and characters like that. I think of magic and wizards and a quest to save the world from a dark and evil force. Sound familiar to you?

Webster’s dictionary defines fantasy as:

1) imagination or fancy; esp. wild visionary fancy
2) an unnatural or bizarre mental image
3) an odd notion; whim; caprice
4) a highly imaginative poem, play, etc.
5) same as fantasia
6) a daydream or daydreaming, esp. about an unfulfilled desire

Fantasia is defined as:

1) a musical composition of no fixed form
2) a medley of familiar tunes

A term I wasn’t familiar with was caprice, so I looked that up, too. The definitions are:

1) a sudden, impulsive change in thought or action
2) a capricious quality or nature
3) music same as capriccio (a lively musical composition of irregular form)

I don’t see anything in those definitions that fit in with my thoughts of fantasy. But let’s take a look. Any kind of fiction takes imagination, of course, but fantasy even more so. Fantasy writers need to come up with new worlds and characters. My novel, Fairyeater, (Hope Springs Books, Feb. 2015) has fairies, dwarves, humans, a witch, a dark lord, and characters of my own creation. And now that I think about it, a bizarre mental image is needed to picture them. If I write them correctly, my readers will also be able to picture them.

And what about God? Does good fantasy include God? The God of the Bible? Other gods? No god at all? A fellow Christian fantasy author said this about his WIP on my blog: They have the same God that we do, not our God mapped into some other form.

I attended a one-day workshop with SCBWI in 2008 and got the opportunity to talk with a senior editor from Scholastic. We talked about including God in fantasy novels. Her advice to me about having God in the story is to make sure it’s a natural part of the culture, whether fantasy, sci-fi, or futuristic. “Don’t put God in your story simply for the sake of making it inspirational or Christian,” she said. “The reader will know if you’re hitting them over the head with a message.”

DragonKeeper BookplateShe also advised me to give Him another name – I was calling Him “The Most High God” in my story. That was too much like the Bible, and fantasy writers need to keep in mind that there are not fairies, elves, wizards, or dwarves in the Bible. That made sense to me. So, I renamed Him Celtar. I think it works. Since then, I’ve read several fantasy novels where God has another name, but because I’m a Christian, I know it’s the God of the Bible. Donita Paul does this in her Dragonspell books, and it’s a natural part of the story. I just finished reading A Cast of Stones by Patrick W. Carr, and he includes the Trinity with different names, but the same roles. It was beautifully done.

I include God in my writing because He is such a part of my life. But there are other characters in a novel: the protagonist, the antagonist, sidekicks, and other secondary characters. Whether you read fantasy or write it, you need to be aware of each and how they affect the story.

What makes a good hero/heroine? They need to be someone the reader can sympathize with or care about right away. How can you create interest right away? My friend, novelist Joyce Magnin, says to put your hero up a tree and throw rocks at him. I can do that because I know how I’m going to get them down from that tree. But as a reader, it makes me nervous at times, especially when the author gives me no clue how they will escape. And some authors, like George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones), kill off many of their main characters. How does this make you feel when you are reading? When I read a well-written novel, I feel like the characters are real. When they die, I will weep and mourn.

What makes a good dark foe? What characteristics should you give him or her? What makes your antagonist different from all others out there? Sauron, Darth Vader, Maleficent—just three examples of fantasy, sci-fi, and animated villains. One was redeemed. Two fell to their tragic deaths.

As Christian fantasy writers, how do we handle evil characters? How evil can we go? Can we make our dark characters likeable? Should we?

As Christian readers, how do we choose a fantasy novel to read for enjoyment? How well do we know ourselves? What can you handle in a speculative novel? Do we only read Christian spec? Is there good fantasy in the general market? How do we know what’s good and what’s not? Once you read something, it’s there in your brain – forever. Scripture tells us to think about “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable …” (Philippians 4:8) Are there fantasy novels like that?
Of course, there are. Lots of them. If you love speculative fiction, do your research. Ask your friends. Read reviews. If you pick a novel and it doesn’t sit right with you, stop reading it. Yes, I heard some of you gasp. Stop reading a novel? Sacrilege! But if the Holy Spirit is poking you in the gut, yes, stop reading. Stop watching that movie. Stop going to that blog or website. It’s really okay.

Now it’s your turn. What do you look for in speculative fiction? As a Christian, where do you draw the line? Let’s talk!

- – - – -

Pam HalterPam Halter was a home-schooling mom for nine years and has been a children’s book author since 1995. She has published two picture books, Beatrice Loses Her Doll and Beatrice’s New Clothes (Concordia, 2001), articles (The War Cry, Fandangle Magazine), and has contributed to several devotional books. Fairyeater (Hope Springs Books, 2015) is Pam’s first fantasy novel. She is a panelist on The Writer’s View, a member of ACFW, is the county branch leader for the NJ Society of Christian Writers, and hosts a blog about writing fantasy. She was selected to attend the Highlights Whole Novel Workshop for Fantasy, May 2010. Pam lives in New Jersey with her husband, two daughters, and one cat. Look for her at her website, blog, on Facebook and Twitter (#pamhalter).

Avatars of Forgiveness, Part 3: Aang’s Avenging

Blog | | Thursday, August 28, 2014
Avatar Aang bends the energy of mercy and justice by respecting life yet punishing the world’s enemy.

avatarsofforgivenesspart3_aangsavenging

One month ago this conclusion to the Avatars of Forgiveness miniseries could have been very different. Its subtitle would have been “Aang’s Mercy” and its theme would have been about how Aang at the finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender (A:TLA) showed conviction and compassion by refusing to kill his enemy.

Then I thought more about what actually happened at the end of the fantastical animated series (all of which you must view via streaming or library DVDs before you read this).

What actually happens is the same as happens in any story in which a good hero chooses not to avenge himself against an enemy and instead rejects his own vengeful desires to kill the villain, and/or seeks to redeem him, and/or lets “fate” take care of him.

In many of these stories, it’s actually no great mercy to spare the life of an unrepentant foe.

Instead, sparing the enemy’s life is the worst thing a hero could possibly do to a villain.

‘There’s got to be another way’

A:TLA turns the story toward a thematic journey that is startling to find in a “children’s show.” In “The Southern Raiders,” Katara takes a “field trip” with Zuko and addresses her impulse toward hateful vengeance (yet concludes the truth that one cannot technically forgive an unrepentant offender). She forgives her repentant enemy, then departs.

Zuko: You were right about what Katara needed. Violence wasn’t the answer.

Aang: (with innocent confidence) It never is.

Zuko: Then I have a question for you. (He turns to face Aang.) What are you going to do when you face my father?

(Aang is suddenly shocked as the possibility dawns on him.) 1

avatarthelastairbender_zukoconfrontsozaiSince the story’s beginning, viewers have learned that Zuko’s father, the evil Fire Lord Ozai, has inherited a ruthless three-generation empire — the Fire Nation. Ozai is a total dictator who not only dominates the world’s nations from a distance, but personally wounded and banished his own son from his homeland. Moreover, Zuko knows how it is to confront the Fire Lord. In “The Day of Black Sun, Part 2: The Eclipse,” the former Fire Nation loyalist and enemy of Aang repents and promises his father will be called to account for his sins.

Zuko: I’ve come to an even more important decision. (He closes his eyes and pauses.) I’m going to join the Avatar, and I’m going to help him defeat you.

Ozai: (Smugly) Reeeally? Since you’re a full-blown traitor now and you want me gone, why wait? I’m powerless. You’ve got your swords. Why don’t you just do it now?

Zuko: Because I know my own destiny. Taking you down is the Avatar’s destiny. (He puts away his swords.) Goodbye.2

Zuko refuses his own vengeance and leaves it to a higher power, in this case the messianic Avatar who represents the world and maintains its moral balance. But now the time has come for Aang to fulfill what everyone agrees is his destiny: to stop the Fire Lord by any means and end the war. But Aang can’t do it. His lost people’s pacifism binds his conscience and he cannot reconcile this conviction with his responsibility as the Avatar to avenge evil.

As the story’s epic four-part finale begins, Aang and his friends are still recuperating in an unlikely refuge inside enemy territory: the Fire Lord’s own beach house on Ember Island.

avatarthelastairbender_ozaibabyportraitKatara: I was looking for cooking pots in the attic, and I found this! (She unravels a scroll that shows a painting of a happy dark-haired baby playing at the beach.) Look at baby Zuko. Isn’t he cute?

(All the others laugh — except Zuko.)

Katara: Oh, lighten up. I’m just teasing.

Zuko: That’s not me. It’s my father.

(The others fall silent. Katara rolls up the scroll.)

Suki: But he looks so sweet and innocent.

Zuko: Well, that sweet little kid grew up to be a monster, and the worst father in the history of fathers.

Aang: But he’s still a human being.

Zuko: You’re going to defend him?

Aang: (calmly) No, I agree with you. (He stands.) Fire Lord Ozai is a horrible person and the world would probably be better off without him. But there’s got to be another way.

Zuko: Like what?

Aang: I don’t know. (He perks up and speaks faster.) Maybe we can make some big pots of glue, and then I can use gluebending to stick his arms and legs together so he can’t bend anymore!

Zuko: (with faux-eagerness) Yeah! Then you can show him his baby pictures, and all those happy memories will make him good again!

Aang: (sincerely and excitedly) Do you really think that would work?

Zuko: (angrily) No!

Aang: (He sighs and paces.) This goes against everything I learned from the monks. I can’t just go around wiping out people I don’t like.

Sokka: Sure you can. You’re the Avatar. If it’s in the name of keeping balance, I’m pretty sure the universe will forgive you.

Aang: (Turns back to Sokka and shouts louder than Zuko.) This isn’t a joke, Sokka! None of you understand the position I’m in!

Katara: Aang, we do understand. It’s just —

Aang: Just what, Katara? What?!

Katara: We’re trying to help!

Aang: Then when you figure out a way for me to beat the Fire Lord without taking his life, I’d love to hear it! (He walks away.)3

Do you believe Aang can save the world?

Do you believe Aang can save the world?

In A:TLA the language, minor themes, and symbols are decidedly Eastern-influenced but the foundation is almost explicitly Christian. Aang rightly recognizes that even the evil Ozai is a human being — and even evil human beings bear the image of God. Aang grew up being taught to respect all forms of life.4 Aang faces a choice even more difficult than that of a sincere pacifist who is drafted to military service: he can’t conscientiously object. He’s the Avatar. It is his duty to save the world.

After his confrontation with his friends, Aang vanishes. He ends up on the back of a floating forest born by an ancient mythological creature: a lion turtle. This fantastical world never shows mystical sentience but does display a sense of fate/justice, and has come to his aid.

‘Now you shall pay the ultimate price’

avatarthelastairbender_aangavatarstateFinally Aang confronts the Fire Lord. The battle is spectacular as the Avatar and his enemy clash in the skies, both empowered with super-firebending granted by a blazing comet.

Repeatedly Ozai appears near victory. Then Aang’s supernatural “avatar state” kicks in. Up he rises surrounded by a whirling mass of all four elements — water, earth, fire, and air — and he pursues the panicked Ozai through another forest, this one of rock columns. At last Ozai is down. The Avatar speaks with the chorus of past Avatars who could be heard as a “great cloud of witnesses,” a heavenly pronouncement of righteous wrath on the evil one.

Aang: Fire Lord Ozai! you and your forefathers have devastated the balance of this world! And now you shall pay the ultimate price!

(As a terrified Ozai watches, Aang prepares his final attack. All four elements combine into a stream of death that spirals through the air and rockets toward Ozai’s heart — then at the last second dissolves. Aang regains control of himself. He slips out of the avatar state and floats to the ground. Ozai is freed as Aang quietly steps back.)

Aang: No. I’m not going to end it like this.

Ozai: (Angrily.) Even with all the power in the world, you are still weak!

avatarthelastairbender_energybending(Ozai moves for one last attack — which Aang senses with his feet as taught by his earthbending master Toph. Aang stamps down. His foot lifts and drags up a pillar of earth, deflecting Ozai’s attack and binding him inside the rock. Aang circles Ozai. He raises another rock to bind Ozai’s other hand. Aang earthbends the rocks lower and forces Ozai to kneel. Ozai attempts one final fire breath attack, but Aang airbends it away. Aang steps closer, puts one hand on Ozai’s forehead and one on his chest.)

[…]

(Aang completely takes over Ozai’s energy. A blazing beam of blue erupts into the sky, then vanishes. Ozai falls to the ground and Aang releases him. Ozai tries to rise and attack — but falls back exhausted.)

Ozai: What … what did you do to me?

Aang: I took away your firebending. You can’t use it to hurt or threaten anyone else ever again.5

Ozai has kept his life, but lost his birthright to master the element of fire. He is emasculated. His humanity he keeps but his gift is ripped away by a righteous hand of justice. Later we see that Ozai himself is banished from his throne. Instead he is condemned to spend the rest of his ways in prison — a pit in which he can rage and hate but never again hurt others.

Yet Aang’s conscience is clear. He hasn’t gone around “wiping out people” he doesn’t like. He has fulfilled his destiny on behalf of a cause greater than himself, and yet honored life.

This is both mercy and justice. It’s mercy because Aang as a human respected the humanity of his enemy and refused to disrespect his life. It’s also justice because Aang as the Avatar listened to his predecessors’ advice and recognized that he must take action to stop the Fire Lord and bring him to account for his evil. Within the story Aang sees what fans outside the story have already been seeing and which honest fans of any story with villains can easily see: that the world, the story itself, the less-corrupt parts of our hearts cry out for justice.

You may already see what I meant about how this shows Aang’s rightful avenging. For even in his mercy, Aang has actually enacted the worst penalty that Ozai could possibly imagine.

Surely Ozai would have chosen death over a lifetime of powerlessness and suffering.6

Ozai would have preferred his own merciful annihilation. But Aang sent him to Hell.

The end

The heroes of Avatar: The Last Airbender show Biblical pictures of repentance, forgiveness, refusal to avenge, and even willingness to enforce civil justice against evildoers in a manner that reflects Rom. 13.

  1. Zuko repents of his arrogance and evil against the Avatar and others, and with utter brokenness cries out to his good Uncle Iroh for forgiveness (part 1). This reflects the nature of Biblical repentance in which the evildoer renounces sin and lives a life of continued repentance — a life lived not for sin but for a Person greater than himself.
  2. Katara pursues her desire for vengeance on an enemy to its logical conclusion, and then finds she cannot follow through (part 2). Her story echoes the Biblical truth that vengeance belongs to God alone. Yet Katara and the story are honest about the nature of forgiveness: that while we may release our hate and vengeance and leave an offender to God (or in Avatar, to fate), we can’t yet forgive unrepentant evildoers. Yet Katara overcomes bitterness and genuinely forgives her repentant enemy, Zuko.
  3. Aang’s story reflects a Biblical picture of two perplexingly dual truths: that man is created in God’s image and yet must suffer the consequences for his evil, and that even forgiven people must serve as instruments of others’ consequences for sin.

Now that this series is finished, what did you think? Did you find other interpretations or themes that I may have missed? How does Avatar’s avatars match Scripture’s beauty and truth about forgiveness? How may they differ from Scripture or from our own images of forgiveness?7

  1. Transcript based on “The Southern Raiders” episode transcript at Avatar.Wiki.com. This brings to mind a slight nitpick with A:TLA: Aang had already gone to the Fire Lord’s palace during the team’s invasion on the day of black sun, in an attempt to confront him. Was Aang then unwilling to kill or injure the Fire Lord? Perhaps because of his “try to airbend away from the problem” personality, he truly had not considered it then.
  2. Transcript based on “The Day of Black Sun, Part 2: The Eclipse” episode transcript at Avatar.Wiki.com.
  3. Transcript based on “Sozin’s Comet, Part 1: The Phoenix King” episode transcript at Avatar.Wiki.com.
  4. Aang is also a vegetarian; the story respects this choice yet also the choices of Sokka and other Water Tribe members who enjoy meat.
  5. Transcript based on “Sozin’s Comet, Part 4: Avatar Aang” episode transcript at Avatar.Wiki.com.
  6. I can think of many other story villains who demand death instead of lifetime punishment.
  7. Thoughts are also welcome about the recent heart-wrenching finale to The Legend of Korra book 3.

Cussing Grandma

Blog | | Tuesday, August 26, 2014
When Christian authors make Grandma cuss.

Saving GrandmaBack in 1997 when I worked for a Christian bookstore, the owner expressed his disbelief at how a Christian could write a book filled with cussing. The book in question was Frank Schaeffer’s fictional book, Saving Grandma, the second in a trilogy. It also had a lot of sexual material as well. Confirmed by a review from Amazon:

Most of the humor this time comes from aspects that will make evangelicals raise their eyebrows: Grandma’s profuse swearing, the lampoons of fundamentalist seperatism, and sex, lots of it, sometimes quite explicit (par for the course for a mainstream literary novel–but really hot for an evangelical novel).

I checked the other 31 reviews on Amazon. While the sexual content bothered a few, and several mention the grandmother’s foul mouth, only 1 out of 32 reviews mentions it specifically in a negative way. I was a little surprised. As often as I hear Christians are anti-cussing, I would have expected more than one negative mark on the language issue.

But for my boss, he couldn’t get past how a Christian could write something like that. I’ve heard that sentiment expressed by others as well.

There is a tendency among Christians to associate the morals of the author with his characters, especially if those characters are the good guys.

But only on two sins: sex and cussing.

The protagonist can commit murder, and the reader would not jump to the conclusion that the author approves of murder. The hero can gossip, steal, covet, and readers don’t assume the author does those activities.

Why primarily those two? Why if a novel contains cussing do some then accuse the author of doing the same and doubt his Christianity?

Here’s my list of why I think people tend to take that view.

Vicarious Participation

People tend to read or write about a lot of those sins and walk away not feeling that they have participated in them. Reading about someone stealing doesn’t arouse desires in most of us to steal something. Not so with sex and cussing.

If reading cuss words makes a reader feel like they are cussing, then how much more the one who wrote those words.

For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. (Mat 12:34b)

The characters are fictional. They only exist in the heart and mind of the author. If cuss words hit the page, it must come from the author’s heart.

Other sins are driving the plot in good books. Cussing either is or feels gratuitous.

Yes, there can be times when cussing could be plot related, if not directly, via characterization. But generally, most cussing could be removed and the plot wouldn’t change significantly, if at all.

If it feels gratuitous to the reader, they will perceive it as an author intrusion. They will assume it is there because the author wanted to revel in it rather than being necessary for the story or the character.

Can you think of more?

Sometimes, however, nothing else will work.

As most of you know, I don’t tend to swear much. When I do, it is more as satire than as a serious expletive. I’ve never been much of a cusser.

But in one novel I wrote, I came to a point where a character was frustrated, and I wanted to indicate that. On my first draft, I quoted him as saying, “Damn.” I moved on, figuring I’d evaluate and change it in a subsequent edit.

When I came back to it, I went through a list of alternate words, but none of them seemed to fit. Maybe I could show it without dialog, but the actions didn’t seem to suffice by themselves. It didn’t fit the character.

I considered the, “he cussed” telling option, but my dialog heavy writing style doesn’t lend to that method save for transitions between scenes. It would be jarring to jump to telling about the dialog when I didn’t do that elsewhere.

In the end, I left it as is. My book had a cuss word, mild though it might be for your average general-market reader. It wasn’t because I cuss much, or even that the character did much. But it was the only way it felt believable to the character and situation.

But will the reader perceive it that way? Will they think I run around all the time saying, “damn” because my character said it once? I’ll let you know if it ever gets a negative review on that account or not.

Where do you draw the line in your reading?

 

Story Weariness

Blog | | Monday, August 25, 2014
I’ve had other instances of story weariness, which I guess I’ll define as familiarity with a story to the point that another rendition seems needless and unappealing.

The Amazing Spider-man posterWhen The Amazing Spider-man came out, I was a little bewildered. Hadn’t a movie maker just put out a very good version of Spiderman? I loved the first two movies in that franchise. They were sweet and adventurous at the same time. They gave some time to character building. And along comes another Spiderman, a re-do of the story I loved? Why? And really, nobody else could be Spiderman. Tobey Maguire was Spiderman.

In essence I was experiencing a little Spiderman weariness. I had the idea that once the story had been done well, it didn’t need to be done again. In fact, I didn’t want it to be done again.

Except . . . when I went to see The Amazing Spider-man, I fell in love with the Spiderman story all over again, in a new way, for different reasons. How was that possible?

The writers simply found ways to overcome my story weariness.

There are a few stories and their retellings to which I have a weariness aversion—Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Camelot—but surprisingly, I’ve found stories that do more than an adequate job and overcome my weariness. They’ve pulled me in and given me a love for the tale in a new way. Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast did that for me. The movie Ever After (with Drew Berrymore) became one of my favorites.

But Arthur and his rise to power? I fell in love with the story first when my high school (a large school that did nothing half-hearted) presented the musical. I bought the soundtrack and memorized the songs. I loved that version of the story.

I also had a Classic Comic of the King Arthur story, a retelling of the one Sir Walter Scott had written, and now I read it with new understanding and appreciation. Besides The Lady in the Lake, there were other books such as The Once And Future King by T. H. White. Yes, I knew the Arthurian legend.

Camelot also became a movie, one of many, as it turns out, including Lancelot du Lac, Excalibur, Merlin, and King Arthur.

Imagine how uninteresting a TV series entitled Merlin seemed. Hadn’t everything that could be written about the Arthurian legend already been written? Well, no, actually not. This take, showing Merlin and Arthur’s connection as teens was strikingly different, and incredibly interesting as a tale of “how things came to be.”

But now, surely, there was nothing left to write about, no new way of looking at the oft-told story. And if there was yet one more version, surely it could not manage a fresh approach.

Merlin's NightmareI was wrong again. Despite my story weariness, author Robert Treskillard pulled me into his Merlin Spiral trilogy with Merlin’s Blade. Teenage Merlin is blind and in love. I was hooked. No other retelling showed Merlin in such human terms and so vulnerable.

I’ve had other instances of story weariness, which I guess I’ll define as familiarity with a story to the point that another rendition seems needless and unappealing.

One such was Christian fantasy writer Jonathan Roger’s debut novel, The Bark of the Bog Owl. The problem with that book for me was that I’d read or heard the story was a retelling of the Biblical King David’s life. Except it isn’t. I put aside my story weariness for one reason or another and stepped into the delightful world of the Feechie and life in the swamp.

I’ll admit “Biblical fiction” is almost sure to get me rolling my eyes and digging in with arms crossed and foot tapping. Some authors such as Liz Curtis Higgs and Francine Rivers have taken true stories from the Bible and fictionalized them, similar to what Jonathan Rogers did (without the speculative elements).

Legend of Sheba coverOthers like Tosca Lee (Iscariot, Havah, and due out in September, The Legend of Sheba: Rise of a Queen) and Elizabeth George Speare‎ (Newbery Medal winner The Bronze Bow) retain the historical setting as well as the Biblical characters and storyline. This latter approach is much harder, in my opinion, because history is so unbending, and the Biblical witness so unimpeachable.

What I’ve discovered is that my story weariness can be overcome. I may not want to read one more Arthurian legend, and yet, when I do, I can fall in love with the new version. But there are some things that draw me in no matter how resistant I might be initially.

First, the story needs to develop the character. I already know the events of the story, so I’m not reading to find out what happens—usually my strongest motive for reading fiction.

Second the story can deliver pre-history such as the movie King Arthur accomplished or that Treskillard’s Merlin Spiral has done. By showing what led the characters to the point of the well-known events, the story delivers new and imaginative material.

A third option is to show the story from the point of view of a lesser known, or an imagined, character or even from the point of view of the “villain.” Iscariot takes that tack.

In short, my story weariness can be overcome.

I suppose because “there are no new stories” all fiction bears the responsibility of overcoming reader familiarity, and therefore, the best writers always manage to overcome a reader’s expectations, but some, I think, take on a greater burden because they tackle, not only a well-known type of story, but a particular, existent story.

Those that succeed are well-played! Hats off if they can make me love their rendition, as Treskillard has done with Merlin’s Blade, Merlin’s Shadow, and Merlin’s Nightmare.

How about you? Do you experience story weariness? What authors, books, movies, or TV programs have succeeded in overcoming your familiarity of a known story and made you love the new version?

Mind-Blowing Tech Is No Match for Monster in ‘Forbidden Planet’

Reviews | | Saturday, August 23, 2014 at 8:30 am
What if your most shameful and terrifying impulses took on corporeal form and started walking around?

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Forbidden Planet is special for many reasons.1 It’s the first science fiction film to show humans traveling in a starship of their own making to an interstellar world far from Earth. It marks the cinematic debut of Robby the Robot, who went on to enjoy a rich film and television career and even has his own IMDb page, and stars a young Leslie Nielsen in a serious role as a rational and believable leading man. Considered one of the great science fiction films of the 1950s, it had a huge influence on later science fiction, particularly Star Trek. The story is well crafted and richly layered, exploring humanity’s potential for both intellectual achievement and sinful degradation. Besides all that, it’s wonderfully entertaining, with beautiful special effects, solid acting, and a clever, thoughtful script.

poster_forbiddenplanetThe film came out in 1956, smack-dab in the middle of a decade when science fiction was growing in popularity as space travel began to look really achievable. It was an optimistic time, but with an undercurrent of anxiety. Wages were high, but the arms race kept people on edge; school children practiced “duck and cover” drills in case of nuclear bombing. While Americans loved their technology and the prosperity it made possible, they also feared its potential for destruction. This ambivalence provides much of the tension in Forbidden Planet.

The film is often compared to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and there are striking similarities between the two. A man with secrets, grudges, and mysterious powers—a magician of sorts—is marooned on a strange world with a daughter who’s been raised in such profound isolation that the sight of any man other than her father is cause for marvel. They have two servants—one good and reliable, non-human but anthropomorphic, and another of questionable origin, a violent savage not above murder. And when visitors arrive from the magician’s world of origin, things quickly hit the fan.

The film opens with Commander Adams and crew coming to Altair 4 to check on some colonists who settled there twenty years earlier and haven’t been heard from since. While his ship is still in the atmosphere, Adams is contacted by someone on the planet who tells him everything’s perfectly all right now, we’re fine, we’re all fine here now, thank you, so just move along. When Adams refuses to abandon his mission, his contact on the planet grudgingly permits the ship to land but says he won’t be answerable for the safety of ship or crew.

The contact turns out to be Dr. Edward Morbius. He’s a philologist, a specialist in language and linguistics—no doubt a useful person to have in a party of space colonists, but not one you’d expect to thrive alone on a hostile alien world. Morbius is the sole survivor of the original party. All the others—except his wife, who died later of natural causes—were mysteriously and violently killed by an invisible being not long after arrival, and Morbius fears that Adams’s crew will suffer the same fate. Morbius himself, and his daughter Alta, are “immune” to the creature’s rage.

The name Morbius suggests the Latin “morbus,” meaning mental illness; it was later reused for an unstable renegade Time Lord in an episode of Doctor Who. It’s an apt enough name in Dr. Morbius’s case. Dressed in black from head to toe, sporting a widow’s peak and a neatly trimmed beard, living on a fortified extraterrestrial compound with mind-blowing technology, a robot servant, and a free-roaming tiger, the guy is bound to have some supervillain tendencies at the very least.

Robby the Robot, played by himself, is a delightful character with a dry wit, a plodding gait, and a talent for replicating things at a molecular level. He appears to be programmed with at least the first two of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics: he will not harm a human, and he obeys all his master’s commands except when doing so would violate the first law. When the two do come into conflict—when obeying a command would harm a human—the dilemma sends Robby into a temporary electro-sizzling paralysis.

Both Morbius and Prospero have a second, less tractable servant. In The Tempest, it’s Caliban; in Forbidden Planet, it’s a mysterious, deadly presence, referred to at first as the Planetary Force and later as the Monster. In both film and play, there is some question as to just what this troublesome being is. Caliban is in fact a man, though a coarse and unwashed one, but characters who see him for the first time always express some doubt. He is so weird-looking and bad-smelling that humanity doesn’t want to claim him. Like the Monster, he’s driven by primitive and violent impulses beyond his own comprehension.

In both stories, the master-servant relationship is uneasy, even torturous. Both Caliban and the Monster are referred to as devilish in origin; both are closely associated with dreams. Both have masters who would like them to just go away. At one point Morbius cries out in anguish to the Monster, “Stop! No further! I deny you! I give you up!” But giving it up is easier said than done. Morbius can’t just renounce the darkness and make it go away. It’s as systemic to him as sin itself.

Morbius’s compound sits above an underground laboratory built by the planet’s former inhabitants, the now-extinct Krell. Before their mysterious disappearance, the Krell developed a machine capable of harnessing the imagination to make material projections. It was an incredible intellectual achievement, but exacted a terrible cost. (Imagine a tangible demonstration of Luke 6:45.)

In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul says that wisdom can’t save us. Wisdom is an excellent and praiseworthy thing, as the Bible makes clear elsewhere, but we don’t have all the wisdom, and our sin makes us incapable of properly exercising whatever wisdom we have. It is only power that can save us — Christ’s power over sin.

Often we pretend that knowledge is the only issue. When speaking of someone who is smart but morally compromised, we often add, “Well, I guess he isn’t that smart” — as if it’s only lack of information or comprehension that makes people behave badly, and smart people are never selfish or violent or perverse. We speak euphemistically of “bad decisions” rather than sin. We don’t want to acknowledge that our problem is deeper than ignorance; we want to believe that pure pragmatism can govern our behavior, molding it into something benign and harmless that will never bother anyone. But even if we could be governed that way, we wouldn’t want to, not really. Not making waves, not getting into trouble, isn’t enough for us. We want the twisted excitement of the forbidden. Bland security is boring, a sated inactivity where our darkest impulses are not satisfied.

Who among us doesn’t have something evil lurking in the heart, waiting for the right opportunity to be brought forth? And if the power existed to give physical form to everything the mind could imagine, who wouldn’t have just cause for fear?

Forbidden Planet addresses these questions deftly and thoughtfully, without ever bogging down or getting too heavy. The issue that so preoccupied American society in the 1950s — man’s uneasy relationship with technology — turns out to be a portal to something even more terrifying: man’s relationship with himself.

5 Reasons Why We Love Dystopian Heroines

Blog | | Friday, August 22, 2014
What is it about The Hunger Games, Divergent, and many other similar novels that has spawned multimillion-dollar movie deals, thousand upon thousands of book sales, and rabid fans enthusiastically creating fan art and fan fiction?

jupiter-winds-coverEDITOR’S NOTE: C.J. Darlington knows what she’s talking about when she writes about dystopian heroines. Her latest novel, Jupiter Winds, features Grey Alexander who must cope with the dystopian world of 2160.

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No doubt all of us have heard or read at least one of the hot YA dystopian series hitting shelves in the past few years. And while dystopian certainly isn’t a new genre (think 1984 and Fahrenheit 451), it’s certainly gained a lot of steam with today’s culture. Some might say the genre’s star is fading, but one glance at the bestseller lists, and you’ll still find readers are devouring these YA novels, many featuring strong heroines.

What is it about The Hunger Games, Divergent, and many other similar novels that has spawned multimillion-dollar movie deals, thousand upon thousands of book sales, and rabid fans enthusiastically creating fan art and fan fiction?

I believe it’s because of their heroines.

Let’s face it. We’ve seen many of these plots before, but Katniss Everdeen and Tris Prior (and their like) spark something in readers. Here are 5 reasons why:

1. Their Strength
Today’s readers are looking for strong heroines who can take care of themselves. These gals don’t necessarily need someone to take care of them, though that doesn’t mean there aren’t times when people do.

2. Their Skills
Katniss is a skilled archer who can shoot a bow better than anyone else. Tris learns to fight hand-to-hand effectively. When we read about these girls, we want to be like them, whether it’s realistic or not.

3. They Have Vulnerabilities
An error some authors make in creating their heroines (and heroes for that matter) is to write a perfect person without any weakness. While Katniss and Tris are indeed strong, they aren’t perfect. This three-dimensional aspect is what allows us to suspend our disbelief easier when reading their stories. Plus we relate even more since who among us is perfect?

4. Their Hearts Aren’t Hard
Most of the evil in these books happens to the girls. They are thrust into situations against their will. If they kill, it is in self-defense. To survive. And both of them face at least one situation that nearly breaks them. After all, they are girls (both sixteen at the start of their books) thrust into a world most adult men and women couldn’t handle.

5. They Don’t Have Time for Bull
Excuse the language, but these are no-nonsense girls (and the novels are general market fare). Katniss and Tris say it like it is, the things we wish we could say. It gets them in trouble sometimes, but we cheer them on.

If you’ve read these stories, what about the heroines did you like? Why do you think the novels are so popular?

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cj darlingtonA homeschool graduate, C.J makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs and a paint horse named Sky. C. J.’s newest novel Jupiter Winds is a YA/dystopian/space adventure.

To learn more about her, see her web site, and find her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Goodreads.

On CAPC: Exodus: Gods, Kings, and Evangelical Headcanon

Blog | | Thursday, August 21, 2014
When we react to Bible movies, do we confuse Scripture for our often-nostalgic memories of its details?

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Christians wreaked a lot of destruction in their ignorant/inconsistent critiques and praises of the recent Noah film.12

That’s what I suggest in my Tuesday article at Christ and Pop Culture. Now with Exodus: Gods and Kings and many other Bible movies on the way, I also suggest: can we not do that again?

This Christmas we’re getting another Bible epic film, Exodus: Gods and Kings, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Christian Bale as Moses. The teaser is intriguing, especially thanks to the spectacular closing shot of the Red Sea being parted as described in Exodus 14.

[…] When the Exodus teaser appeared, popular creation advocate/evangelist Ken Ham started early with the requisite Concern-sharing. I have been an overall fan of Answers In Genesis since before it was un-cool, but I find Ham’s posture toward popular culture inconsistent (occasionally Ham seems to slip up and show his inner geek). In his July 12 post, Ham said Exodus will “distort the truth and not be evangelistic,” perhaps reinforcing a made-up doctrine that truth-distortion and “failure to be evangelistic” are equivalent movie sins. Several commentators’ responses and Ham’s own July 21 follow-up also showed that many Christians who claim a movie “distorts the truth” are relying not on discernment but on assumptions that “movies must be family friendly” and plain old nostalgia.

[…] Are we sure we’re not confusing Scripture for our evangelical “headcanon” of its details?

Read the rest at Exodus: Gods, Kings, and Evangelical Headcanon.

  1. Read Austin Gunderon’s review here at SpecFaith: Judging Noah.
  2. Also, other deadlines keep postponing my conclusion to the Avatars of Forgiveness article miniseries, about how the wonderful animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender portrays biblical repentance and forgiveness. I also need to portray this by repenting for my seventy-times-seven delays.

What It Profits a Man

Blog | | Wednesday, August 20, 2014
“Return of the Jedi” is a profound film about spiritual danger and spiritual triumph.

Last week I re-watched Star Wars. This looks like a good place to talk about it.

My focus is primarily on Return of the Jedi. For although it is criticized as the weakest of the original trilogy, I find it the most profound. Like the other films, it’s an epic fight against evil and for life and freedom. But it’s also something more. It’s a fight for the soul.

To be fair, this began in The Empire Strikes Back, where our hero first met the temptation of the Dark Side and the villains plotted to turn and not merely to kill him. Darth Vader’s cat-and-mouse duel was as much a spiritual menace as a physical menace. Death was always in the cards, but it wasn’t the worst one to draw. That’s why Luke, when he was as beaten as he could be, chose it.

The Empire Strikes Back raised the specter of Luke Skywalker becoming Darth Vader, and Return of the Jedi invoked it as quickly as it possibly could. That’s why Luke entered the movie wearing all black and Force-choking guards. They were trying to remind us of someone, and it wasn’t even subtle. The father-son dynamic, limited and even sweet when the father was a dead Jedi Knight, turned into something more complicated and a whole lot darker. For an idea of how much darker, consider that it took real faith for Luke to insist that his father wouldn’t kill him for not going over to the Dark Side. (And you thought you had parental issues!)

But Vader was more than a walking, (mechanically) breathing warning of what happens when you lose yourself to the Dark Side. His soul was at stake, too. He struggled between good and evil, as his son did, and both exacerbated the other’s conflict – Vader trying to convince his son to join him in the Dark Side, Luke trying to convince his father to join him in the light.

There’s a dark intimacy to those scenes aboard the Death Star. Evil never seemed more personal than in the Emperor, or in the Dark Side threatening to consume both your father and your very self. What strikes me about the whole sequence is the sense that this is the greatest danger, this the worst thing. Death recedes before a greater evil. Nothing could be worse for Luke than to fall to the Dark Side.

And nothing could be better for Darth Vader than to come back from it. Those words at the end – ‘I’ve got to save you.’ ‘You already have’ - show that even he knew the salvation that mattered most. It’s the spiritual danger and the spiritual triumph of Return of the Jedi that make me think of it as a profound film.

I don’t think Return of the Jedi is an allegory or a metaphor or a Christian film. I’m not looking for God in Star Wars. Whatever I think watching the movie, I know the people who made it were often thinking something quite different. And it doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of Return of the Jedi as not only a fun movie, but also a heroic and even deep one.

 

Question time (this is traditional). What is your opinion of Return of the Jedi? Are there any movies, either good or bad, that you think are mislabeled as Christian? Yes, Your Honor, I’m leading the witness because frankly, I think some Christians are too free with that label.