Sinful Reviews

Blog | | Tuesday, September 16, 2014
When a Christian reader writes a review, should it not be for the glory of God just as much as the Christian novel writer?
Rome Sistine Chapel Last Judgment

Rome Sistine Chapel Last Judgment

Christian writers often debate and discuss what it means, and strive to write, for the glory of God. We fret and discuss over whether a certain genre, choice of words, or depicted scenes are sinful or not—whether it is sinful to even read them.

Few have discussed whether reviews can be sinful.

Shouldn’t the same standard apply? When a Christian reader writes a review, should it not be for the glory of God just as much as the Christian novel writer?

If you answered “yes” as I expect you did, how can a reviewer sin in writing a review? Here is my top three.

Disclaimer: I’ve not recently read any reviews nor do I have any specific reviews/reviewers in mind in stating the following. So if you’re wondering, “Is he talking about my review?”—no. If the shoe fits, wear it, but I’ve not seen and measured your feet lately. After all, then I would have already committed the first and most common sin in writing this . . .

1. Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged

“But wait!” I hear you say. “The whole point of doing a review is to judge a book. Are all reviews sinful then?”

Nay, they are not. The key difference is this: we are called to judge the morality of an action for our own instruction; we are not called to judge a specific person’s relationship with God based on those actions. Only God knows the heart.

There are several verses that speak to this matter: Matt 7:1, Luke 6:37, Rom 2:1, 1 Cor 4:5, 11:31, and Jam 4:11-12. But the clearest example of this is Rom 14:4 where Paul discusses the issue of eating meat offered to an idol.

Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? To his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand.

Paul had no problem stating it is not righteous to knowingly eat meat offered to idols.

What say I then? that the idol is any thing, or that which is offered in sacrifice to idols is any thing? But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils. Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils.
2 Cor 10:19-21

But when it came to someone judging another over it, Paul declared it out of line. We can judge a certain action to be immoral and sinful; we cannot say a specific person is destined to Hell because of it.

A review can fall into this sin when it goes beyond discussing the pros and cons of a book into speculating on the morality or immorality of the author. Even speculating on the intellectual capacity of the author. It can happen through sarcasm or snarkiness, spoofing or elitism.

The sins listed in Scripture are intended for us to judge ourselves with, not to judge one another.

2. Dishonest Reviews

I’m not saying it is necessary to pick a book apart with a fine-toothed comb and list every error, but one has the obligation to give their honest opinion about a book. Don’t write that it was a page-turner when you fell asleep reading it. Don’t skip over the plot hole sticking out like a sore thumb. Don’t say you enjoyed it when three-fourths of it you struggled with boredom.

Remember, a review is not written for the author or the reviewer, but to the potential reader deciding whether this particular title is worth their time and money or not. Hiding important flaws or not stating your honest opinion does that potential reader no favors. That is a dishonest review and potentially sinful.

3. Revenge

Sometimes a review is written because an author said or did something the reviewer deemed offensive, and they want to get back at them. One way is to create “sock puppet” reviews.

A sock puppet review is when a person creates a fake account on Amazon or other online review sites, for the purpose to write reviews on a product secretly. Authors are sometimes guilty of this, creating a list of glowing reviews for their books.

Some sock puppet reviews, however, are so an author or reader can anonymously write one-star reviews on a competitor’s book, or on an author who has rubbed them the wrong way. Aside from the dishonesty of such a practice (see #2 above), the motivation to write it is personal hate and a disregard for the truth. All of that can lead to a sinful review that does not glorify God.

Those are my top three sources of sinful reviews that do not glorify God. Agree? Have any of your own to add?

Science Fiction And Fantasy?

Blog | | Monday, September 15, 2014
The overall trend seems to be that the general market favors either science fiction or fantasy, but not both—at least not in great numbers.

fantasy sceneCan speculative fiction sustain both science fiction and fantasy?

When I first fell in love with fantasy, a few “big names” captured the genre, which mostly referred to classic fantasy set in a world similar to medieval earth. Star Wars burst on the scene shortly thereafter, followed by the first of the various Star Trek versions. Fantasy faded. In fact, most bookstores had a Science Fiction section and if they carried any fantasy, the books were embedded with the sci fi.

Oddly enough, the pendulum began to swing late in the 1990s. The first Harry Potter book came out and the rumors about movie versions of The Lord of the Rings were confirmed. Along with this shift, science fiction faded from view. Agents, in listing what they were interested in seeing, now included fantasy, but the dreaded “not interested” slid over to science fiction.

BeyondFantasyFictionJul53Eventually another shift took place, primarily within the fantasy genre. Now, with the advent of the Hunger Games and Twilight and Divergent, the swing moved interest away from classic fantasy to urban fantasy or dystopian. Of course, dystopian fiction has a strong futuristic component which means, as part of the worldbuilding, new technology. Perhaps that element sparked renewed interest in science fiction, or perhaps there’s some other explanation. At any rate, it appears that the science fiction door is slowly opening once again.

This overview, of course, covers speculative fiction using a broad stroke, and it certainly is not comprehensive. However, the overall trend seems to be that the general market favors either science fiction or fantasy, but not both—at least not in great numbers.

I’ve tried to understand this progression, if indeed it’s an accurate assessment. Could it be that whatever most popular story comes to an end, there’s a “been there, done that” perception, so that no other story will seem to be as original or vibrant as that one very popular one (which might, in fact, be the only or the primary title many readers/movie-goers experience)?

A second trend seems to be that horror or “dark” quickly follows the shift from science fiction to fantasy and back again. Hence, dark fantasy seems to have superseded epic fantasy and alien monster stories seem to follow space opera. Could it be that the general population turns away from the dark and the monstrous?

And yet horror certainly has its own apologists and seemingly a solid, perhaps growing, fan base. Yet I wonder if the darkness, the fear-inducing elements don’t serve as a catalyst to change to a new and different form of imagination—one that offers more fun, more hope.

Of course there could be bigger issues. Perhaps the influence of postmodernism makes society more open to fantasy elements and less interested in the hard science of modernism. Perhaps a growing anti-religious bias or an increasing belief in relativism is turning people away from a genre based on good versus evil.

Or perhaps there is no trend and my observations are off.

What do you think?

If you agree that there are shifts toward or way from either science fiction or fantasy, and little toleration for the two simultaneously, why do you think these trends exist?

I’d love to know if what I suspect is true and why it might be the case. Any lit majors out there looking for a thesis topic? ;-)

Kickstarting a Book to Life

Blog | | Friday, September 12, 2014
Crowdfunding makes you the reader and the author a team like never before.

The reader and the author win together

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Publishing is a growing and ever-changing industry. As recently stated in a letter from Amazon to its authors, paperbacks revolutionized the book industry many moons ago, then came the eBook revolution, and most recently the self-publishing craze. I believe the rise of crowdfunded publishing is the latest improvement to the industry.

“What in the world is crowdfunding?” you ask. The quick oversimplified answer is, “You make it happen.” You choose a project you like, and you help fund it. The result: exciting new projects, that might otherwise never see the light of day, come to life and provide big payoffs to those who support the project. Crowdfunding makes you the reader and the author a team like never before.

There are many websites that can be used to raise money for causes, events, organizations, and products. But one in particular which has gained a lot of attention in recent years, is KickStarter, and to me it stands above the rest. Creators post projects with numerous support levels that are directly related to a reward.

HowlSageCvrFor example, in my KickStarter someone can fund the project with $35 and receive eBooks of all three titles in the Sages of Darkness series, along with cool digital series art, and the fun of being immortalized with their name in the acknowledgements of each book. Or they can fund the project with $4000 (Yes that says four with three zeros), and I’ll write a book about them as the main character (plus they get a whole lot of other cool stuff.)

BlizzardSageCoverYou see, in crowdfunding, the author or artist needs to motivate you the reader to fund the project, so we dangle all sorts of “once in a lifetime exclusive opportunities” in front of you, as well as the simple “just get the product” rewards. The key is to have something for everyone and to dazzle those who want to get something very unique in return.

CrimsonSageCover.inddWhat crowdfunding is doing, is allowing projects to release that might otherwise not find a publisher or label because they are too costly or the audience isn’t large enough. But when an author goes right to their fans and their friends, amazing things can happen quickly.

For example Andrew Peterson launched a KickStarter to finish his Wingfeather Saga last year after WaterBrook ended the series after two of the projected five books were released. Andrew set his KickStarter goal at $14,000 to fund a fourth and final book, but ended up raising $118,188. He blew everyone’s, including his own, expectations away and set a record on KickStarter.

I asked Andrew why he chose KickStarter as the platform to fund the book, and he said,

When it came to publishing this last book I thought it would be a fun opportunity to raise some extra funds in order to go out with a bang. That meant a fancy hardback edition, tons of illustrations, a fold-out map, an audiobook, that sort of thing.

And “out with a bang” they went. With nearly $120,000 raised, they were able to add a whole lot of awesome stretch goals (more on those later.)

Andrew agrees, KickStarter is about the reader and the author co-creating the project.

This Kickstarter thing gave the readers a chance to express their encouragement and to interact with me as the author. It was wonderful.

And Andrew has worked hard to show his gratitude and fulfill his commitment to the backers. He explains, “One of the perks for backers was a signed set of all four books; that meant I had to sign about 6,000 books in two weeks.” Still he’ll tell you it was well worth it. “I’ve cried quite a few happy tears in the last month.”

Another KickStarter just successfully concluded for Enclave Publishing (Formerly Marcher Lord Press) by Steve Laube. Enclave turned to KickStarter with very specific goals in mind:

We needed a way to allow our readers to pre-order the new books since, at the time, the online outlets did not provide that service. Ironically the last day of the campaign a major online retailer announced they are now offering a pre-order service! In addition we were looking for a way to announce the new books and create anticipation. Kickstarter seemed to be a good method for that type of marketing.

I myself backed this project to see what it was all about and for $20 landed ebooks of their five latest releases, plus helped get more Christian fiction into the marketplace. Crowdfunding brings on the euphoric, “We did it!” feeling and that’s something most of us can appreciate, the way we do the end of an awesome book.

The great news is, if you go to fund a project, but they don’t reach their goal, no money exchanges hands. You keep your funds, and the author goes on to find another way to finance their work. But when a project meets its goal, and begins to exceed those goals, the creator usually starts to add stretch goals. These promise more perks for the supporters when they reach higher funding levels. For example, though my goal is just $6,000, I have a stretch goal at $20,000 that says, “I will give a digital download of the audiobook for HowlSage at no extra cost.” Andrew had a stretch goal to write an original song for the series at $110,000 (a goal his supporters reached, which prompted him to indeed write the song).

Sages of Darkness - Kickstarter HeaderI myself faced a similar situation as Andrew with a trilogy I was writing. The first book HowlSage was released, but the publisher ended their fiction imprint and the second and third books never saw the light of day. Yet I would get emails, comments on my website, and queries at book signings, “Where is BlizzardSage?” After hearing of Andrew Peterson’s success as well as a $55,000 Potato Salad KickStarter, I decided to give it a try and within two days became a KickStarter Staff Pick, which isn’t an easy thing to do.

So this is your chance to take part in creating awesome fiction. Find a project and try your hand at becoming a backer. You might find some cool one-of-a-kind rewards, and you might just help create a project that changes another reader’s life. You can check out the Sages of Darkness KickStarter, happening now until October 15th by clicking HERE or visit KickStarter.com and search for Sages of Darkness.

– – – – –

Brock EastmanBrock Eastman likes to write. He is the author of The Quest for Truth series and Showdown with the Shepherd, book 5 in The Imagination Station series. He’s been the producer for the Odyssey Adventure Club from Adventures in Odyssey and Focus on the Family. He is the co-host of Adventure’s in Odyssey’s Social Shoutout. He now works for Compassion International.

Popular Culture is an Eternal Gift of God

Blog | | Thursday, September 11, 2014
Christians who critique fantastical stories are often blind to popular culture’s eternal purposes.
popular culture in new earth

Will the new heavens and new earth include renewed popular culture?

When some Christians critique popular culture — including fantastical stories — they demonstrate they are blind to popular culture’s purposes today and forever.1

This may also be the most crucial belief behind parents’ assumptions that popular culture is at best a nuisance and at worst a potential Satanic or sinful infection in their homes.

Is popular culture eternally worthless?

Some parents have long since accepted as settled truth that God has no plans for the physical world. They naturally conclude that anything in culture or popular culture is utterly worthless in the eternal story.

Other parents are slightly more positive when they act as if popular culture is a means to other primary ends — entertainment, moral instruction, and the other purposes we explored in chapter 2.

Either way, parents conclude that popular culture is less “spiritual” than practices such as Bible study or moral parenting. Their conclusion is logical: why shouldn’t we ban something that is ultimately corrupt or useless for eternity, or else restrict stories and songs because they are at best a nuisance? If I believed these things about popular culture, I would do the same.

Does ‘I am making all things new’2 include popular culture?

But such parents are blind to the truths we explored in chapter 2:

  • That God created the world, culture, and popular cultures originally good;
  • That Adam and Eve’s sin brought corruption to these three gifts but not hopelessness for their redemption;
  • That Jesus Christ is redeeming his people to form a counter-culture that changes other cultures from the inside-out;
  • And that Jesus will return to make all things new for a glorious physical Kingdom that will include a resurrected world, cultures, and popular cultures.

All these good gifts will last forever, purged of man’s abuse and sinful corruption. God did not create a world only to throw the world away,3 any more than he created humans only to throw them away!

I have found my own Christian life utterly transformed by this biblical doctrine. I can only say that the Holy Spirit constantly uses this truth to draw me away from my own temptations to abuse popular culture for sinful reasons. Instead he is constantly driving me to receive these good gifts of God with thanksgiving (1 Tim. 4:4).

But when I try to broach this topic with many Christians, I’m met with pushback or at best blank stares.

They have been raised — as I was also raised — on a steady diet of evangelical popular culture with unbiblical definitions, images, and teachings about eternity. They may not accept the old pictures of heaven as a land of clouds and harp-playing angels. But they are certain that Scripture requires that they reflexively deny that eternity could be anything like earth.

Out come partially quoted verses such as “No eye has seen, no ear has heard (1 Cor. 2:9, NIV)4 and poetic phrases such as “time shall be no more” (which is from a hymn, not Scripture) or “only two things in this earthly life are eternal: God’s written word and human souls.”

We must open our eyes.

We must see that we — inspired by myths, slogans, evangelical pop culture and sometimes plain heresy — have blinded ourselves to the glorious truth that God will resurrect a people for himself from every tribe, tongue, and nation, and that he will come down to a new earth to live forever with his people as their God (Rev. 21:1-3).

Culture on our renewed earth may even include popular culture created by non-Christians that includes some incorrect ideas or beliefs, because the artist still reflected God’s creative work in the story or song. If anything we could enjoy these flawed secular stories and songs for eternity because we will have no ability to abuse these things for sin and every ability to discern any of their flaws!

In the forever-world, saints will dwell in holiness and enjoy human culture — not only in books, dramas and poetry, but also popular culture that we may presume is “trivial” such as carnivals, comedy films, comics, jokes and video games.

We must repent of our blindness to such a vast vision of redemption and delve deeper into Scriptures like those we explored in chapter 2 — texts that promise God’s people will be freed from sin forever to worship their Creator in a perfect physical paradise and reflect his image in their acts of cultural creation. And we must teach this truth to our children to help them see creativity and culture not in the darkness of suspicion but in Scripture’s light.

  1. This article is based on a work-in-progress nonfiction book by two coauthors and myself.
  2. Rev. 22:5.
  3. This may seem to contradict Scripture passages that stress the passing away of earth’s sinful ages. Many Christians recall the warning of 2 Peter 3:10 in the KJV that in the end “the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.” But the key phrase “burned up” is a disputable translation based on newer and less-reliable manuscripts. Newer translations based on older manuscripts promise a slightly different fate for planet earth: “the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.” Peter’s language is not that of annihilation but of purification or refinement: purging unwanted elements to refashion something new from the original material. Moreover, if creation will be annihilated, that would render creation’s Rom. 8 “groaning” for redemption futile. Randy Alcorn addresses the “burned up” objection in chapter 15 (PDF) of his book Heaven.
  4. Read verse 10: what we didn’t see or hear before, God has revealed — which isn’t heaven but the Gospel.

Star Trekking Religion by Firefly

Blog | | Tuesday, September 9, 2014
Is portraying religion positively enough?

Is portraying religion positively enough?

Last night as my wife and I ate dinner, we watched two TV space opera episodes. Interestingly enough, both had themes dealing with religion.

Note: there are likely to be spoilers, but most of you have probably seen these before. They aren’t recent shows.

WhoWatchesTheWatchersStar Trek TNG – Who Watches the Watchers

The first show we watched from Season 3, episode 4 of Star Trek TNG, involves the plot-line where a more primitive race, encountering the Enterprise, believe Picard to be a god.

At one point, to solve the pollution of their culture, the suggestion is made that the captain give them a list of “commands” to guide the newly forming religion from devolving into holy wars and religious persecutions. An obvious reference to our own history of religious persecutions and wars.

Picard vehemently refuses to subject the people to superstitions of gods which they had given up 1000 years prior. His solution is to prove to them that he is only a mortal man like they are, except he has better “tools.”

Star Trek is known, especially when dealing with the humans, for promoting a throughly secular philosophy and world-view. The human race by that point has divested itself of religious superstitions. Only various alien races display any religion, but never based upon anything more than legend and myth. Any gods with existence are always alien beings further along the evolutionary chain than humans are just as Picard was compared to those who wanted to worship him.

Religion has no place among the humans of the Star Trek universe.

In science fiction, this perspective has flourished. One of the goals of many a Christian science fiction writer is to paint a picture where religion does still exist and plays a positive roll in that future reality.

Indeed, that aspect is one of the main reasons I felt God wanted me to write science fiction. I felt science fiction needed not only a more positive future for Christianity painted in stories, but to be an influence that the two are not incompatible with each other.

JaynestownFirefly – Jaynestown

Easily one of my favorite Firefly episodes. Out of science fiction, this show has one of the more favorable treatments of religion. While much of the crew isn’t particularly spiritual, the inclusion of Shepard Book along for the ride adds a religious dimension to the stories.

While they never label his religion, clues—like using our Bible—indicate it is some version of Christianity. Based on the later movie, Serenity, Book ends up holding a position of spiritual mentor/conscience for Mel, the ship’s captain. As far as a positive portrayal of a man of faith, Firefly scores above average.

But this episode, for all its charm and good storytelling, shows that might not be enough. While the crew is away in Canton, one subplot involves Book “babysitting” River while Simon is in town. At one point, she is busy correcting Book’s Bible, saying a lot of it doesn’t make sense. How could billions of animals fit on Noah’s boat. It had to go. Rip!

Book, not happy with her earnest efforts, attempts to help her understand. I may not quote this exactly, but he says something along the lines, “The point of the Bible isn’t to make sense, but give us something to believe in.”

Hold that thought. This subplot parallels the main story.

The crew goes into the smelly town of Canton where Jayne believes he has enemies. Unknown to him, he had inadvertently dumped his stolen money into the middle of Canton. The town, ending up with the money, made a Robin Hood-type hero out of Jayne, believing he’d done it on purpose to help them out. His folk-hero status came complete with a statue and a rousing drinking song commemorating the occasion.

As you’d expect, the enemies finally show up, and it is revealed to the people that Jayne didn’t dump the money on purpose. As the man shoots at Jayne, a boy who believes in Jayne jumps in front of him and takes the bullet, then promptly dies. The bad guy is quickly dispatched and they all leave.

As Mel and Jayne discuss it back at the ship in the closing scene of the episode, Jayne repeats River’s words though he didn’t hear them, “It just doesn’t make any sense.” In this case, why the boy would sacrifice himself to save Jayne shortly after he declared no one would do that kind of thing.

Mel’s answer, paralleling Book’s but expanding on it, is that it isn’t about making sense, but it is that the people needed a hero to believe in. Their belief isn’t based on the truth of what happened, but upon what they need to give them hope. For all its positives on including religion in a positive way, the underlying view of religion isn’t much different than in Star Trek.

So I ask again, is portraying religion positively enough?

While there is a place for more subtle seed-planting, if it portrays a false picture of Christianity, what will those seeds grow?

Christianity claims to be more than just giving hope in the midst of life’s drudgery, it is about giving life in the midst of death. The former may require inaccurate stories that are more about symbolism than truth, but the latter requires real seeds with accurate ability to grow the divine life in our souls.

No, basis in reality, no basis for life, no foundation for hope.

Or to put it in Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:14,

And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.

Great Art And Story

Blog | | Monday, September 8, 2014
We must grapple with the demands of our culture when it comes to realism in Story and the greater demands of Scripture to obey God in all we do and say.

"Free_Will"_by_Marendo_Müller

“Free_Will”_by_Marendo_Müller

I don’t know about the rest of you, but Friday’s guest post “Actually, Fantastic Films Don’t Require Sex and Nudity” by Cap Steward got me to thinking.

At one point he said

It’s at least a possible sign of danger when we approach a controversial topic with appeals to a Higher Power that is not God. In this case [what is acceptable in fiction regarding sex and nudity], the needs of the story are trotted out in an effort to eliminate any objections, as if the discussion is over once the story has spoken.

Add to this the oft repeated accusation that Christians no longer produce art but “tracts,” and I begin to wonder, what’s so great, so necessary about producing art?

The thing is, “art” is a word with transient meaning. The definition of art in the Oxford American Dictionary is helpful, I think, in making this point clear:

the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power

“Beauty” we say, is in the eye of the beholder (though that may or may not be true), and certainly what moves one person to tears may or may not affect another person in the same way, so if art is human creativity appreciated for its beauty or emotional power, then it seems apparent that what one generation or culture reveres as art may not be revered universally.

Once, pictures of plump cherubs fluttering over figures with halos was considered great art. Hundreds of years later, paintings of common objects such as soup cans became cutting edge art—a sort of rebellion against the art of abstraction that focused on shape and shade with little thought of beauty or emotional power.

Alexej_von_Jawlensky_Variation_Glorreicher_Abend_-_Sommersegen_II_c1917And yet from Picasso to Monet to Warhol, from the Renaissance painters and the Greeks that inspired them to the Modern artists who rebelled against them, from the statue of David to Andres Serrano’s profane picture of his own urine, works of questionable beauty or emotional power have made their way into museums of art.

Now the cry goes up—where’s the great Christian art of today? Most people asking the question are referring to more than visual art.

In connection to stories, the implication is that “great art” must meet some acceptable standard which includes a degree of realism. I find this odd in the day of animation and computer-generated images. Why would Christians want their artists to revert to a former artistic style?

But greater than this question is the one that Cap Steward raised: should the demands of Story rise above the demands God places on His people?

Yes, demands. God’s grace is free. He recognizes we cannot earn salvation. We are incapable of what it takes—a pure life. Consequently He offers the pure life of His Son in our place, a substitution reminiscent of the various substitutions pictured in the Old Testament (such as God taking the Levites as His in place of the first born of all the people of Israel—see Numbers 8).

But once we come to God, He doesn’t turn us loose to do whatever we want. Rather, He lays out for us the path of discipleship. We are to follow Him in obedience.

So do the demands of Story ever conflict with the demands of obedience? I don’t doubt that some people would say, No—Story is about showing this world as it is, so there is no conflict because there is no question of obedience. A novelist, in essence, is simply holding up the camera and clicking.

Other people would argue, of course there is a conflict because the novelist can determine where to aim the camera—if toward sex, nudity, graphic violence, then obedience is very much in question.

The “where is Christian art” crowd claims that to make great art, the Christian must show the world as it is. Anything less is dishonest and a form of Kincaid-ism—painting with words only that which is beautiful, nostalgic, and evocative of warmth and security.

But that brings me back to the question: what’s so necessary about the Christian producing art? After all, the Great Commission is for Christ’s disciples to go and make more disciples, not great art.

Often people with a perspective like mine are chided for requiring a utilitarian function to what we create. We should do good art because God is glorified in good art, the thinking goes, and our purpose is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

As it happens, Scripture doesn’t spell out this “glorify God and enjoy Him forever” purpose, though it certainly can be assumed from various passages. However, I’ve been taught that “the plain thing is the main thing” and that we aren’t to re-interpret clear Scripture based on more ambiguous passages.

It is clear that followers of Jesus are instructed to go and make disciples. It is also clear we are to walk in a manner worthy of God, of our calling, of the Lord (1 Thess. 2:12, Eph. 4:1, Col. 1:10). It is clear we are to be holy (1 Peter 1:15-16), that we are to take up our cross and follow Jesus (Matt. 16:24), that we are to love God above all else, then love our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10:27). But make great art?

I understand, many will say, when we make a beautiful thing, we glorify God because He is the Creator who endowed us with the ability and our doing what He has gifted us to do proclaims His greatness, His glory, in the same way that the heavens proclaim who He is.

I don’t think I buy that explanation. God made the heavens. He didn’t make my story. He made me with the ability to make a story, and my ability to do so is a glory to His name, but that still doesn’t mean my story glorifies Him. Not my story, or any story.

Quite frankly, art is too ephemeral to be a great means of glorifying God. Today someone may praise a work as great art and tomorrow others will cast it into the remains bin or deleted from their iPad.

What’s more, God Himself seems to put more store in our relationship with Him and in how we treat others.

Lampstand_Book_of_Exodus_Chapter_26-6_(Bible_Illustrations_by_Sweet_Media)True, as many point out, God did go to great lengths to give Moses detailed blue prints for the tabernacle and all its furnishings, and even the priestly garments. He said more than once that these objects were created for beauty (e.g. Ex. 28:2). However, none was exclusively for that purpose. The lamp, the incense altar, the table for the bread of presence, the ark, the priestly garments, all had a function in the worship process.

But back to fiction. If all this “great art” talk is missing the mark when it comes to what God tasks Christians to do, should we care about the quality of stories, or are we making artificial judgments that don’t need to be made and are better left alone?

I’m of the mindset that God cares about all we do, so we certainly ought to care. I think we should grasp the truth of Exodus and make our stories both functional and beautiful. To do that, we must also grapple with the demands of our culture when it comes to realism in Story and the greater demands of Scripture to obey God in all we do and say.

In the end, because fiction is first a form of communication, I think stories should pay attention to what Scripture says about our correspondence with one another. A good start might be this:

As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. (Eph. 4:14-16, emphasis added)

Above all, stories show, so in the Christian novelist’s “speaking” he is to show truth and to do so in love—love for his reader.

If novelists all wrote stories from that perspective, would they all look alike? Not at all. Would they be whitewashed? I don’t think so, though I think Christian stories would be distinct.

At the same time, if readers came to stories with that same perspective, I think they’d be a lot less concerned with what words offend them and more concerned about what truth the novelist is showing.

Actually, Fantastic Films Don’t Require Sex and Nudity

Blog | | Friday, September 5, 2014
Might we end up justifying idolatry or sexual sins by believing “the story made me do it”?
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Photo credit: astrangegirl via photopin cc

As a mid-level Christian film fan and videographer nerd1, I find myself in a dilemma.

You see, I’m troubled by some Christians’ acceptance of sex scenes and nudity in otherwise good movies.

I’m also troubled by excuses I’ve often heard that go like this: “That sex scene was pivotal to the needs of the story.” Or, “The story had to use such blatant sexuality in order to make its point.” Or, “That kind of in-your-face nudity is what the story called for.”

Sometimes the argument is used by the filmmakers themselves. On other occasions, Christian critics and audiences use it to defend stories with problematic content. In both cases, I see two potential problems with their line of reasoning: 1) it can be an excuse, and 2) it can be idolatry.

1. It can be an excuse

Photo credit: Joe in DC via photopin cc

Photo credit: Joe in DC via photopin cc

Do you really need to see two nude actors simulating copulation in order to understand that their characters are committing immorality? Do you really need to see a rape in order to know and/or feel that rape is evil? Do you really need to view the objectification of a human being made in God’s image so that you can rightly abhor the objectification of human beings made in God’s image? There’s a difference between showing sin and showing the consequences of sin. When filmmakers emphasize depictions of sin rather than its consequences, viewers can get conflicting messages.

What about the stories that pornographers tell? Their narratives (which, admittedly, are overtly simplistic) require graphic sexuality. If anything, that only proves that some stories don’t need to be told.

When we use the excuse that explicit sexuality is needed in order to tell a story, methinks it says more about the state of our culture than it does the story—that we “need” such content in order to be appropriately affected. I submit that the inundation of sexual imagery in our society has served, not to hone our discernment regarding sexual vice, but to weaken and deaden our conscience to the sin around us (and in our own hearts).

In many if not most cases, the “necessary” skin parade isn’t necessary at all. You can tell practically any story without having to resort to pornification. Just look at the films from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Heck, look at the Bible itself.

“Throw me idol, I'll throw you the whip.”2. It can be idolatry

It’s at least a possible sign of danger when we approach a controversial topic with appeals to a Higher Power that is not God. In this case, the needs of the story are trotted out in an effort to eliminate any objections, as if the discussion is over once the story has spoken.

Look, I love stories. My wife and I are both freelance writers. I’ve participated in films and documentaries, both behind and in front of the camera. I’m amazed by the human capacity to move audiences so powerfully through storytelling.

But since when did stories become the gods we worship? Seriously, what Biblical principle requires us to bow to the demands of a story? If a story told you to jump off a cliff, would you do it? (Sorry, I know I’m not your parent.)

For those of us who profess Christ, only one Story has a right to demand absolute allegiance: the Story of the Redeemer dying to save that which was lost. And this glorious story does, of necessity, place upon us a binding imperative: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).

‘The story made me do it’?

Cap Stewart

Cap Stewart

Through we’ve been talking about movies, the above dangers exist in our approach to books as well. The mediums of film and literature are different (for one, books require no actual human beings to undress), but both can be used for titillation. Perhaps a good place to begin evaluating what is appropriate in written fiction is to see how the Bible itself handles sexual material.

Whatever the case, it’s never wise to take a gift from God and elevate it to a position equal to God.

As lovers of speculative fiction, when did we decide that stories were above reproach and beyond the reach of scrutiny or critique? What gives a story the right to demand whatever it wishes with impunity? In our fallen world, how does “the story” rise above all else and declare itself incorruptible? Nothing save God’s own testimony can make that claim.

May we imitate God’s nature more effectively by rejecting what is false so that we may more fully enjoy that which is true and lovely and admirable.

  1. I’m not a serial Comic-Con attendee with more cosplay in his closet than regular clothes, but I do have my Jedi outfit from acting in a Star Wars fan film, and my wife and I purchased Star Trek shirts for Halloween (although we’re still trying to figure out who should wear blue and who should wear red.

Kathy Tyers: Defeating Gnostic Forces in Fantasy Fiction

Blog | | Thursday, September 4, 2014
While Lucasfilm revised the “Star Wars” world, Star Wars Expanded Universe author Kathy Tyers was rebooting her theology.

Kathy Tyers has more reasons than most to track the development of the new Star Wars films.1

While Disney may be the franchise’s new owner, able to continue its story in film, Tyers was among the first authors to explore that world officially after the (chronologically) final film, Return of the Jedi. At the recent Realm Makers conference for Christian fantasy writers and fans, she wonders aloud: Will the new films keep Luke Skywalker’s marriage that Tyers happily supported, and her role as Mrs. Skywalker’s literary “midwife”?

Ever wonder what (could have) happened after Luke’s duel with Darth Vader and the fall of the Empire in Return of the Jedi?

Ever wonder what (could have) happened after Luke’s duel with Darth Vader and the fall of the Empire in Return of the Jedi?

Tyers says she doubts it. The new films will likely consider the Star Wars novels’ events as alternate timelines, bypassing Tyers’s The Truce at Bakura (1994) and Balance Point (2000).2

But Tyers is no stranger to rewriting her novels. During her 30-year career, she has adapted two of them for Christian markets. But more recently, she says, she is revising even more after God — through the teaching of J.I. Packer and others at Regent College in Vancouver — rebooted her real world.

From Firebird to Star Wars

In the 1980s, Tyers — a musician, microbiology major, and teacher — took up writing. Her first stories based on Star Wars soon grew into her own world; she brightens at the mention of writing for Luke Skywalker. But “I like my own hero better!”, she quickly adds with a laugh.

Bantam Books published Tyers’s first two Firebird novels. Those follow the journey of Lady Firebird, whose lower birth order on the planet Netaia condemns her to honorable death in combat. But she is rescued by her enemies and challenged to leave her own rigid society.

Tyers wrote other space operas and “hard” SF, and was eventually invited to become a Star Wars author.

Later a Christian agent also suggested republishing Firebird for evangelical markets. Tyers expanded the conversion storyline and themes of a special people awaiting its messiah, and followed those themes in a third Firebird book from Bethany House, Crown of Fire.

Shadows and spirits

cover_onemindseyeBut Tyers is more critical of her other novels that she’s now rewriting. She explains that in One Mind’s Eye,

[W]e find out that a parasitic alien race actually exists on this higher plane of imagery, and there they spend all their time in this inner world, singing and dancing and giving glory to God in their own way. They’re totally unbodied.

I had no idea how Gnostic I had become, as essentially a person coming of age spiritually in North American consensus evangelicalism, until I got to study at Regent College.

For Tyers, the term “gnostic” meant valuing “spiritual” concepts over “physical” ones in her novels. But it also refers to her own escape into fantasy worlds during heartbreaking trials.

“I had my fiction, I had my imaginary universe,” she explains. “To me it was just as real or just as significant because after all, God is Spirit, and we worship Him in spirit. Spirit, spirit, spirit!”

Tyers now laughs at that notion. And when recalling her time at Regent, she lights up again.

Packer and the other Regent teachers “started challenging some of my assumptions,” she says. “I basically had my theology deconstructed right down to the rock bottom of what’s in the pages of the Bible, and a whole different way of looking at it.”

That included re-evaluating her views of what Christians expect in eternity. “As a new widow, it was important to me to know… God exists in heaven permanently, all right? But is that our permanent dwelling?”

Finishing the Story

“My time at Regent gave me a better confidence in… the imagination’s part of what God has given us,” she continues. “And that it’s okay to be speculative if it’s done reverently.”

That renaissance inspired Tyers to resume writing, now with her worlds transformed.

“I had thought that my calling post-Regent was going to be a crusader for fine poetry or something else about which I know nothing,” she says. “And to feel very strongly called instead to write a fourth book in the Firebird trilogy… I was delighted because there was nothing that I would have liked to have done better.”

cover_daystarTyers wrote that fourth Firebird novel as a master’s project. “The first priority for Wind and Shadow was to make it good art,” she says. “Not just a sermon masquerading as a story.”

Then came Daystar, in which (slight spoiler) the long-awaited savior finally arrives.

But in her years of fiction criticism, she has read many poor fantasy-fiction-messiahs, often with clichéd miracle checklists: walking on water, raising people from death, and such. She was eager to avoid those evangelical tropes.

“The theory behind the messiah in Daystar is: If the same God appeared under very different circumstances, and was expressing the same character, the same personality, how would He express [Himself]?” Tyers says.

Still, “it was scary to put words in His mouth. And if I blew it, forgive me! I think He will.”

Future journeys

With the Firebird world concluded, Tyers wants not only to revise her existing stories, but explore new ones. Her next project involves a diverse group of Christians and a hidden “unfinished angel,” a phrase that brings “oohs” from the conference’s audience, myself included.

profile_kathytyers_flutemaster“I do not believe in putting preachiness in my books,” Tyers tells me. “But I do believe that the themes that come from me, the ideas and the characters and the ways they behave, will grow out of my Christianity.”

I reply that even Star Wars echoes God’s truths, such as “Vengeance is mine … saith the Lord.”3 When Luke refuses to be vengeful like his enemy, the story itself steps in to punish evil.

Exactly, Tyers says, and adds that in George Lucas’s own childhood, good-versus-evil themes were strong in the World War II movies he loved — enough to overrule other religious impulses. “Culture was so permeated with [Christian themes] that you were really taking a risk by even speculating on a different direction,” Tyers says. “Now we’re kind of taking a risk by going back to speculating in a more biblical direction.”

  1. Originally published at Christ and Pop Culture, Aug. 21, 2013.
  2. Since the original version of this article, Lucasfilm confirmed April 25, 2014 that the Star Wars Expanded Universe novels would be rebranded as “Legends” — alternate realities of the fantastical story.
  3. Rom. 12:19.

A Pot of Message

Blog | | Wednesday, September 3, 2014
The use of stories in service of messages is an old and diverse tradition, stretching from Jesus Christ and Aesop, through Harriet Beecher Stowe and H.G. Wells, down to Aronofsky’s “Noah” and “How to Train Your Dragon 2″.

One of the complaints commonly launched against Christian fiction is that it is all so laden with messages. The artistic defects of this have been dissected, along with the grave insights it offers into our contemporary Christian culture. (Hang around long enough, and you will learn that just about everything offers grave insights into our contemporary Christian culture.)

But it’s worth remembering that using stories in service of messages is an old and diverse tradition. Jesus Christ, Aesop, and many long-forgotten originators of folk tales did so without compunction. Even the novel proper – a relatively newfangled art form – has quite a history of mixing art with messages.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin rendered an emotionally powerful and politically explosive portrait of the “peculiar institution”; it’s not without reason that the historian Paul Johnson called it the most successful propaganda tract of all time. It was the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century.

Charles Dickens, like Harriet Beecher Stowe, was not in his novels shy about his political and social views. Everyone can see that in his most famous creation;  A Christmas Carol explicitly jabs at the workhouses and the Poor Law, and even takes aim at Thomas Malthus when Scrooge despises the poor as the surplus population. The backhand to Malthus is even clearer in the Ghost’s rebuke: “Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle told the story of an immigrant who worked in a Chicago meat factory. The novel helped to usher the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, a landmark in the federal government’s expanding scope. But this was an accident on Sinclair’s part: He was trying to set forth the evils of “a system which exploits the labor of men and women for profit”. As he put it, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

H. G. Wells made plain in The Time Machine that the Morlocks were evolved from the Have-nots and the Eloi from the Haves, their division a result of “the gradual widening of the … social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer”. He went religious with Mr. Britling Sees It Through in 1916, and then in 1917 explained himself in the nonfiction God the Invisible King. It got to the point that G. K. Chesterton remarked, “Mr. Wells is a born storyteller who has sold his birthright for a pot of message.”

It’s an interesting criticism from Chesterton, who wrote The Man Who Was Thursday in response to the pessimism that brooded over some literature in the 1890s; whose The Napoleon of Notting Hill is, upon analysis, an exposition on patriotism; who in The Flying Inn created a courageous, intellectual villain whose raison d’être was the prohibition of alcohol.

George Orwell survived the bloodbath of the Spanish Civil War and in 1946 wrote an essay entitled “Why I Write”. There he stated: “The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” Three years later, he published 1984.

To bring the discussion into our own day, Darren Aronofsky said regarding Noah, “There is a huge statement in the film, a strong message about the coming flood from global warming.” Dean DeBlois, director of How to Train Your Dragon 2, explained the insertion of homosexuality into a kids’ film this way: “I think it’s nice. It’s progressive, it’s honest, and it feels good, so we wanted to keep it.”

So when I hear people criticizing Christian fiction for all its messages – and especially when I hear grave insights into American Christianity on account of all the messages – I wonder: Do they think we’re the only ones who do this?

And also: Why can’t we do this?

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?