Why Christians Should Write Horror (Part 1): There’s Something About Carrie

Hey folks! I can’t thank you enough for staying on board for this series. You may have read “Part 1,” in the title of this post and are now slightly confused, and maybe a little irritated. Why make the last post of the Why Christians Should Write Genre Fiction series into a 2-parter? Because I may have bitten off more than I can chew, but I’m stubborn so I’ll make it work.

This week and next I will be writing about the genre of Horror, and why Christians should write it. I suspect I’m in precarious waters because horror often involves the most explicit portrayals of evil, whether that be ghosts, demons, or masked, crazed killers. And many Christians feel wary at best at the prospect of horror. I grew up being very wary myself. “Should I expose myself to horror stories? How will they influence my mind and imagination and spirit?” Precarious. Yet I’ve been fascinated by monsters and the supernatural since I can remember. The question of what horror is or isn’t appropriate for Christians to absorb is complex and too nuanced for me to tackle here, but is it worth discussing. But in high school English I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and my cautious dabbling in horror literature began. So let’s talk about horror.

Last spring I read Stephen King’s breakout work, Carrie. Read it. If you only read one work of King’s, make it Carrie. For those of you haven’t read it, the book retells the events of a small town in Maine that is recovering from a hellish catastrophe. A 16 year old girl named Carrie, who is mercilessly bullied at school and lives with her fanatical “Christian” mother, discovers she has telekinetic abilities. She is humiliated at her prom where she is elected prom queen in an elaborate ruse and then she snaps, raining mass murder and mayhem upon the town. There’s much more that could be said, but this isn’t an edition of Minor Spoilers. Frankly, the book is terrifying. King’s use of multiple narrators to reveal the events which culminate in “the Carrie White incident” is captivating and eerie. The reader is informed almost immediately that something horrific has occurred, and as the pieces fall together the reader sees the events slowly building to the book’s inevitable climax.

And herein the terror lies. Not in the chaos and murder, not in the telekinetic destruction–the terror resides in that we should all recognize Carrie.  Carrie is the girl who is abused at home and bullied at school. Her clothes are look frumpy and are not at all in vogue. She refrains from social interaction as much as possible and receives little help from school administrators and guidance counselors. In his memoir, On Writing, King admits that Carrie was an amalgamation of two girls he attended high school with. As I read Carrie, I could think of no less than three girls who were the archetypal Carrie in my school. What is terrifying about this story is that Carrie pours out revenge on her classmates for the abuse many of us have witnessed, experienced, or participated in throughout our adolescence. I, for one, asked myself “Would I have been complicit in the fostering of Carrie’s madness and destruction?” And I’m afraid I could have been.

Horror often includes questions or cautionary tales about consequences. Ghost stories, when done well, have more to say about the characters’ own past and what haunts them than it does about a supernatural being seeking revenge. Stories such as Carrie should cause us to reflect on how we’ve treated others. Horror should scare us not because it contains gratuitous gore or a preoccupation with the demonic, but because it can illustrate what grows in the darkness and beneath the surface of ignored social oppression or pathological abuse.

Christian should write horror because the genre can remind us that things like our actions, our treatment of others, and our secrets which remain unconfessed, all have consequences. The Book of Proverbs is full of this notion of cosmic causality, a kind of natural karma amidst human interaction. “Whoever sows injustice shall reap calamity and the rod of his fury will fail” (Proverbs 22:8). The apostle Paul echoes this in his epistle to the church in Galatia (check out Galatians 6:7).

I by no means want to imply that the death of Carrie’s classmates was “deserved,” or that Christians should write horror that is cold and callous to tragedy. Quite the contrary. The bright side of horror, or the positive spin on the cautionary tale, is that much of the horror we witness in our lives may be preventable.  Horror helps us consider what seeds our actions are planting in another human being. What horror stories can implicitly acknowledge is that we are communal beings designed for fellowship. And when we resist that communal nature, convinced that our interactions have no effect on the proverbial other, or when we disregard those effects altogether, we abuse others. And we nurture hate.

There is a challenge for Christians in writing horror, however. What of grace? What of forgiveness and mercy? As Christians, we should be very vocal about grace, but grace is not without it’s own causality. As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount “Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.” There’s a moment of grace in Carrie. I won’t spoil it. But it is grace born out of kindness and empathy.

Christians should write horror because our tradition and our sacred text offer us that tension between grace and consequence. And we should long to explore that. Because sometimes grace and consequence coexist. And when there is no grace, it is horrific. But grace can spread from one person to another.

Maybe we can see the handprints of grace, while being scared witless.

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Did the Jews Invent Sci-Fi? Why Christians Should Write Science Fiction

“The fall of the Empire, gentlemen, is a massive thing, however, and not easily fought. It is dictated by a rising bureaucracy, a receding initiative, a freezing of caste, a damming of curiosity-a hundred other factors. It has been going on, as I have said, for centuries, and it is too massive and majestic a movement to stop… The Empire will vanish and all its good with it. Its accumulated knowledge will decay and the order it has imposed will vanish.”

What you have just read is not an excerpt of a 7th century letter evaluating the decline of Roman or Byzantine power, nor is it the closing statement from a sociological paper presented at an Ivy league university. No, friends. These are the words of Hari Seldon, the central figure in Isaac Asimov’s novel Foundation. Originally published in 1951, the novel and its sequels chronicle the collapse of a galactic empire which has ruled uncontested for twelve thousand years.  Seldon and his colleagues predict its collapse, as well as the course of action needed for societal recovery, through the fictional science of “psychohistory.” Psychohistory is a mathematical sociology using laws of mass action, particularly with populations in the millions over the course of several millennia. The predictions made by this science are inevitable and Seldon hypothesizes that it will be 30,000 years before a new Empire rises. In light of this evidence, Seldon creates a secluded colony of engineers, scientists, and craftsmen to preserve humanity’s collective knowledge through this galactic Dark Age. Seldon refers to this colony as called the Foundation.

Asimov’s psychohistory is the essence of science fiction. Sci-fi at its best looks at the present and imagines where it all evolves from there. Sometimes the imaginings are utopian (Star Trek) and sometimes they are bleak (Terminator). It is a genre that questions our contemporary (usually Western) culture, philosophies, and technological advancements. Ray Bradbury’s 1951 novel Fahrenheit 451 predicts televisions that occupy full living-room walls and headphones that fit inside peoples’ ears, known in his novel as “seashells.” Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson was published in 1992 just as the internet was spreading from companies and colleges into private homes. Stephenson’s lead character Hiro Protagonist is immersed in programs nearly identical to Wikipedia and Google Earth a decade before those platforms were launched. The ethical implications of cloning, genetic engineering, space travel, and clean energy have filled the pages of science fiction novels for over half a century. The Foundation series and other works like it use a futuristic setting to echo the events of history that should inform the present. Some such works question whether the course of the present age should be continued, while others, in the vein of Hari Seldon, wonder if the future consequences can be prevented at all.

If we agree that science fiction is (at its best) characteristically focused on the trajectory of the present as it moves forward into the future, one might argue that the Hebrew tradition began writing sci-fi over 2,000 years ago. In 586 BCE, the Babylonian Empire invaded the city of Jerusalem, marking the fall of the kingdom of Judah and the beginning of the Hebrew period of exile. The Hebrews were scattered throughout what is now Syria and Iraq, far from the land God had promised to them through the patriarch Abraham. It was during this period that the tradition of apocalyptic literature developed. The texts of Ezekiel and Daniel in the Old Testament, as well as others found in the Apocrypha, reflect on the history of God’s people and their current state of exile. They often incorporate imagery borrowed from their Babylonian captors, much of it otherworldly and descending from the heavens. The book of Daniel even includes Daniel’s engagement with Babylonian rulers, warning them of the fate their empire is moving towards in light of the political atmosphere of surrounding nations and the ecological conditions of the day. The book of Revelation in the Christian New Testament continues the apocalyptic tradition as John of Patmos observes the conditions of seven churches in Asia Minor and the growing hostility brewing in the Roman Empire. What follows a direct address to these churches is a series of visions describing the time of tribulation and suffering to come, while also ensuring that the eschatological hope of the Christian faith is on the horizon. Apocalyptic literature was written to remind its readers of the rhythms of history in light of contemporary experiences, always affirming the sovereignty of God while warning of the consequences of the present.

This is why Christian writers should write science-fiction. The Christian tradition sets forth not only an alternative understanding of the rhythms of history, but also calls its followers to actively engage with the contemporary zeitgeist. What are the implications of certain societal trends or cultural ideals? What are the far reaching effects of popular political policies or movements, and who falls into the margins as a result of these policies? Not only does the Christian tradition call us to such queries, but it also calls us to imagine what hope lies at the end of such a trajectory.

Simply put, Christians should write science-fiction because it is the apocalyptic literature of our day, embracing the art of narrative to examine what we have done, what we are doing, and where could it be taking us.

See ya later, space cowboy.

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Beyond Aslan: Why Christians Should Write Fantasy (or Why I’ve Decided Dragons Are Real)

Thank you for returning to my second installment of “Christians and Genre Fiction.”

Do you remember the first time you saw a dragon? Maybe it was an illustration in a book of fairy tales, or animated in a Disney movie (or maybe you were watching Donkey romance one in Shrek). Or maybe you were lucky enough to hear one described to you, and your young imagination pieced one together with the body of a lizard, the wings of a bat, and the horns of a goat. The first instance of “witnessing” a dragon is awe-striking.

And possibly quite scary. My first dragon was none other than the ferocity of the sorceress Maleficent in Disney’s adaptation of Sleeping Beauty. I can’t recall anything more specific than the dark monster surrounded by green flame. It became the template against which every dragon would be measured for most of my childhood and into adolescence. They were creatures of power and mystery, menace and hellfire.

And at some point in grade school, a wet blanket of a human being took the time to emphasize that dragons did not exist. It was not merely explained that they were not present in our material world, but it was emphasized that such things were “make-believe.” Made up. Complete fantasy; not grounded in reality whatsoever.

And that biased paradigm that has plagued the genre of fantasy for fifty years. ‘Care not for fantasy because it is a thing of foolishness and disconnected from the real world. Feel free to bully the kids playing Dungeon&Dragons because they are escapists who can’t handle the real world. They would rather use dice to pretend they are paladins, wizards, and elves slaying a ferocious Minotaur at a labyrinth gate.’

Was it ever considered that perhaps it was the bully symbolically present in the Minotaur guarding the gate? That the kid faced far fewer repercussions as a valiant paladin dueling a mythological creature than if he or she drove a knee into the bully’s groin, with the gusto of Bruce Lee?

Fantasy offers a reinterpretation of reality. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien responds to the critique that fantasy is a lower art in comparison to nonfiction. He speaks of fantasy wrestling with the “inner consistency of reality,” which is otherwise difficult to produce on paper. The intricate realities of violence, hate, love, human relationships, etc. are not captured in the pages of psychology and sociology journals in the same way that they are illustrated in the symbolic world of fantasy. It is important here to speak of a symbolic world as opposed to merely a symbol.

A symbol represents something else. An object represents an abstract idea or characteristic. However, I argue that a symbolic world is the reinterpretation of our material world with all of its systems, relationships, and chaos into an imagined cosmos.

C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia are beloved books, and I adore them. But it seems to me that Lewis is far more concerned with the inclusion of individual symbols for the purpose of his illustrations than his developing of the world of Narnia as a whole. Aslan is God-in-Christ. Edmund is Judas. The White Witch is a deceptive, Devil character. Lewis has a specific agenda in his use of symbols, which is not a criticism necessarily, but highlights that even in his fiction old Jack Lewis remains a Christian apologist at heart.

However, when we crack open The Hobbit and take our first steps into Middle-earth (and then into The Lord of the Rings, and if we are bolder still into The Silmarillion) we find that Tolkien has built, or in his words, “discovered” a whole world. It is a world that raises questions such as “Is this an allegory for World War I?” or “Is Gandalf Jesus?” These questions seek to pin down what Tolkien’s agenda was in writing these epics and ignore the cornerstone of the fantasy genre. Tolkien was reinterpreting the world by way of his imagination as informed by his world-view. This is why we see elements of a war ravaged Europe, or several recurring Christological themes. Tolkien served in WWI and was a devout Roman Catholic. His experiences and beliefs bleed through his world-building because they are ingrained in him. A symbolic world is created because Tolkien is writing the truths he observed and experienced in the material world into a world of his creation.

This is why Christian writers should write fantasy: in writing fantasy, in the art of world-building, the Christian’s beliefs, experiences, and psyche bleed through. When there is not a single formulated agenda such as “Aslan is Christ,” a character may appear Christ-like but bear the nuances of the writer’s doubt and speculation about what that could entail. The interpretation of material reality into a fantasy world creates the space for exploration.

Fantasy is unapologetically honest about the incoherence of our reality. The popularity of Game of Thrones has far more to do with the political intrigue, betrayal, and chaos of warring nations than it does with George R.R. Martin’s fantasy world. Yet it is the fantasy world that shows us these facets of reality in a new or more stark fashion.

Sometimes I think Christian writers, particularly fiction writers, limit themselves because they fear they may write poor doctrine or stray beyond the bounds of orthodoxy. This is a shame. There are some doctrinal issues that lend themselves to ambiguity and Christians need to be honest about them.

Fantasy offers space for the exploration of the ambiguous. Middle-earth offers ambiguity. If the One Ring represents temptation and sin (if it represents anything!), why is it not hazardous for Samwise Gamgee to wear it when Frodo is consumed by it and Gandalf refuses to touch it? In writing the communal activity of divine beings in the creation narrative of Middle-earth, is Tolkien endorsing a polytheistic creation or exploring an image reflecting the cooperation of divine wills? Ambiguous! And the text lends itself to the query but refuses to answer it.

Dear fellow writers, especially those of faith, please take courage and write fantasy. Explore a world of your creation and/or discovery. We may all be surprised about how our worldview bleeds through. And maybe those who read our fantasy will ask new questions.

Maybe the Holy Spirit will be there on the move too. But we do not write fantasy for that–we write fantasy because the mysterious facets of reality require an alternative medium for interpretation, a different picture.

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Christians and Genre Fiction: An Introduction and Some Thoughts on Imagination.

Happy “the holiday weekend is a distant memory in this cubicle” Day! I genuinely hope you all enjoyed the Labor Day weekend. Maybe you did some hiking, camping, or just sat around the house enjoying not having to be anywhere. Good stuff.

Alas, fall is on the horizon and school has started up again. The academic year is here once again and in honor of school, I will be spending the month of September sharing a series related to my favorite high school subject: English! Genre fiction to be more precise! And why Christians should want to write it. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring what makes genre fiction (specifically fantasy, science fiction, and horror) so intriguing, and why Christian writers and readers should engage with these intentionally, passionately, and creatively.

As a qualifier, I’d like to emphasize that there is so much that can be said about each of these genres. Thousands and thousands of words could be devoted to the specifics of each. However, as a blogger, brevity is my ever-lasting frenemy. I hope to keep my discussions concise and in the ball park of 600-700 words. Your time is precious (and attention spans online wane. No judgement). This means that despite my desire for concision, I will be speaking in some generalities and I will be leaving the nuances of sub-genre out of the conversation, if only for this series. Fun times ahead!

Let us jump right in, shall we?

I do love genre fiction. Genre fiction is largely defined by a story’s plot-driven style that roots itself within a particular genre of literature. A genre carries certain themes, settings, and tropes (mysteries have detectives, westerns have bandits, fantasy involves a quest, etc). When you open a novel or begin a movie, you can usually determine rather quickly what genre it identifies with. And by and large we as a society soak genre fiction up. We can’t get enough of it. Even when academia scoffs at genre fiction (I’ve included a video below of Patrick Rothfuss responding to such scoffing), Game of Thrones and the Walking Dead are still cultural phenomenas as pervasive as the image of Mickey Mouse.

Why then do Christians not seem to write more genre fiction? Isn’t the Judeo-Christian tradition rooted in the act of story telling? Don’t the gospels describe Jesus teaching in figurative language and narrating parables? The vast majority of the biblical text is written as narrative (or poetry, which is often carrying a narrative). The closest Scripture has to theological treatises are the New Testament epistles which are largely circumstantial in their origin. The apostles are engaging a narrative.

The early church told many stories. Prior to the fourth century, stories of those martyred in the gladiatorial games grew in legend and renown. The tradition was largely oral for decades prior to the writings of Paul. Preaching was story telling.

So when did Christians give up telling stories in favor of theological essays and philosophical apologetics? I suspect that we can first thank the incorporation of Greek philosophy for that. And once the Enlightenment occurred, the Church swallowed the idol of empirical evidence hook, line, and sinker. I could write more to unpack that lineage within church history, but suffice it to say the Church became more concerned with explaining theology rather than illustrating theology.

“But Dan, what about C.S. Lewis?”

Have you read much of Lewis’ fiction? I think the Space Trilogy is brilliant, but the vast majority of those books is dialogue and speeches outlining Lewis’ apologetics and theology. He more or less writes essays and then has characters read them aloud to other characters. Not awesome story telling.

Certainly we can name decent Christian authors, but they’re few and far between. Fiction illustrates. Narrative invites the reader or hearer to experience the story, to find his or herself as a character in that story. It requires someone to use his or her imagination and engage with abstract possibilities. Much of apologetics and theological essays are preoccupied with asserting a definitive truth (often a very specific truth that the Tradition has argued over for centuries), and is hell-bent on the reader’s agreement and adherence.

Rarely does the polemical and apologetic writing of the last century or so evoke any need for imagination. Why need the imagination? Because it is only with the imagination that one can begin to see the world differently, to begin to see the potential or possibilities beyond the present. The imagination allows human beings to approach that which is beyond their comprehension.

Without imagination, God remains too big for us to wrap our minds around.

Even with it, we do not “understand” theD in its entirety. But imagination plays with the “What if…?” questions. An imagination poorly used leads to anxiety, but an imagination excited about possibilities is exhilarating. Maybe the fundamentalist church in America would be far less anxious (bordering on paralyzing fear) if it embraced the art of fiction again. Maybe the progressive liberal church in America would not succumb to pretentious elitism when faced with moments in the biblical text which seem impossible or supernatural. Maybe we’d all be okay with mystery if we gave our imagination permission to play and explore all the Divine has to offer.

Let’s see what bubbles to the proverbial surface this month.
Thanks for reading.

Enjoy my favorite author, Patrick Rothfuss.

[If you’d like to read up on some of the authors and materials I’ll be referencing, here’s an overview:  J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu Mythos, the biblical texts of Job, Revelation, and others]

 

 

 

 

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