God Damned Tragedies: A Conclusion

My wife edits most of my blogs posts. And she’s really good at it. Sometimes there’s tension over what qualifies as proper sentence structure or what is permissible as poetic license and voice. But she is talented and helps my writing be more concise. Any errors you find are probably because I didn’t take her advice.
Once in a while, she’ll ask me about something I’ve written several days after she read it. And those are the days when I feel like I’ve written something intriguing enough because it is still on her mind. I cherish that.
A couple days after she edited my previous post, she asked me how the Cthulhu Mythos ends. “It doesn’t,” I said. “What do you mean it doesn’t end?” “Well, it’s perpetually the present. The mythos is about living in the shadow of impending doom and horror. There’s no end. Just living in fear.” “Well that’s awful.” “Yep.”
My two posts on horror were tricky to write. Some of my readers may have had concerns as I encouraged Christian writers to engage with a genre that can produce some very disturbing material, and it can be overly preoccupied with the power of evil. I am aware, and that is why this series has grown from four parts into six. “Why Christians Should Write Genre Fiction” has turned out to be meatier subject than even I anticipated. If Christians are to write genre fiction, including genres that I haven’t endorsed in this series, what should set their work apart from the rest of the genre they inhabit?
The majority of Christians throughout history have affirmed the coming of an eschaton. From the greek adjective ἔσχᾰτος, meaning last, eschaton refers to the “last day,” or the culmination of the divine plan. As with any doctrine in the Christian tradition, theologians and scholars have asserted different eschatologies (theologies concerning the end times). Despite the differences of opinion, the gist of Christian eschatology is that the course of history is inevitably moving toward’s God’s final purpose, God’s τέλος. Through some mystery, all of the cosmos is recreated and emerges as all that God has desired for it all along. This is epitomized in Revelation 21 where the author writes that “the home of God is among mortals… Death will be no more. Mourning and crying will be no more.” God’s purpose, the eschatological hope of the Jesus story, is that it ends with the happiest of endings.
Our experience on planet Earth does not lend itself to believing in happy endings. When we turn on the news, many stories do not appear to have happy endings. Our world seems to be hurtling at a break-neck pace towards catastrophic tragedy, with pervasive tragedies along the way.
The playwright William Shakespeare was predominantly known for his comedies and for his tragedies. In their classical origins, tragedies ended with death while comedies ended with weddings. What a distinction! Within the realm of classical theater, the wedding is what stands in direct opposition to death. Jesus used wedding imagery frequently in the Gospels to illustrate the eschaton (check out Matthew 22). To say that the course of history in the Christian Tradition ends as a comedy is to say it ends in a giant wedding celebration. But that is not how we experience our world. We experience tragedy. We experience death in it’s emotional, spiritual, and physical manifestations. Yet, the resurrection of Christ is our glimpse of hope. It is the assurance that the great terror of mysterious death is defeated. The resurrection of Christ reminds us that the eschatological hope is that history ends as a comedy.
So how should Christian authors write? Should we write only happy endings that are void of loss or death? Should we write with a naïvety about our human experience? Not at all. If anything, I worry too many Christians do not take seriously the experience of tragedy in the world. With few exceptions (looking at you, Tolkien), we aren’t inclined to tell stories where evil appears insurmountable. But isn’t that how we experience various seasons of life? Aren’t there periods when the persistence of evil has us believing that history will end in tragedy?
Let’s write that. Write about the bleakest moments of human existence. And then pencil in at least a glimmer of hope. The issue that Christians should take with horror stories (and any story for that matter) isn’t that terror is experienced amidst the story, but that evil is often victorious, or its defeat is tenuous. When we write genre fiction, we should write an ending that is hopeful. Maybe it’s a happy ending that was costly, or maybe there is an ambiguity that shimmers faintly with hope.
In Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, God damned tragedies. God insisted that death and pain would not have the final word. If the eschatological hope that we as Christians cling to, sometimes desperately and foolishly, is that God is writing a comedy, then may we write all genres as comedies. But write them honestly. Write them with all the pain, all the tension, and all the tears, and all the laughter and joy of reality.

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The Life and Times of Jacob Travlers: Chapter 4

Chapter 4: Begins with a Single Step

“You don’t have to leave tonight,” said Esau. Jacob shifted the straps of his pack on his shoulders and adjusted his scarf as a chill wind rose. Margaret hustled and bustled about the kitchen, lighting candles whose glow melded into the orange of the setting sun. She was gathering biscuits, hard cheese, and a skin of wine.
Jacob reached for the door. “No. If I’m going to make this boat, I need to find a ride out of town as daybreak.”
“Right,” said Esau. “I’m, I’m sorry it worked out this way.” Jacob noticed that Margaret had stopped her bustling. He thought he heard a sniffle. Maybe she had a cold.
“I’m not sure if I’m sorry yet,” returned Jacob. “Who know’s what traveling with Uncle will be like.” Esau only nodded. Margaret had joined them at the door, her hands clenched around a sack and wine skin.
“Thank you for letting me stay as long as you did,” said Jacob. “I know this house has felt rather cramped.” He opened the door into the dusky evening.
She lifted her eyes Jacob’s for the first time since that morning. They were were pink and puffy and damp. She sniffled again. “I promise I will miss you, Jacob. Like a brother.” Her arms extended with a jerk, offering him the sack and wine skin.
He embraced his brother and sister-in-law, then turned to the path into town. “I love you both.” And Jacob Travlers started to walk.
He walked as the sun dipped into the east at his back. The cold night air morphed damp patches of mud and slush into ice. Jacob walked with care. He slipped once or twice, but caught himself on gracious branches, which bowed before him under the weight of snow.
Norshire was dark when he entered the village. Everyone was asleep. The night before had been bathed in blizzard and the townspeople must have spent their whole day clearing the streets and salvaging caved-in sheds. The darkened windows of the Drunken Dragon were a far cry from the hustle and bustle behind warm panes, persevering through the storm the previous night. Jacob knocked on the tavern door.  After a moment he knocked again. He raised his fist to knock a third time when he heard Everette Thor’s thick stomping feet thundering across the floor. The locks of the door clicked and Thor threw the door open.
“We are closed! You ingrates emptied every barrel of ale and every sack of flour, you bastards!” Thor then realized who was standing before him and raised an eyebrow.
“Hello!” chimed Jacob.
“Master Travlers. Why are you here?” His eyes widened. “She kicked you out! That icy witch threw you out!”
Jacob shrugged. “If you give me a bed, I’ll tell you the story.” At that, Thor stepped aside and swept a welcoming hand to the interior.
“Well, I have no food or beer. But I have beds. Come, Master Travlers. Let us fellowship as paupers.”
Jacob relayed the events of the day. Thor read Malachi’s letter, accompanied by a dim harmony of hums and grunts and exhales. He could not spare a horse to Jacob for a prompt morning gallop to Nor’Haven, but given Jacob’s lack of experience on horseback it wouldn’t have been worth the trouble. Jacob was in luck, said Thor, because the fellow who had rode into town, to deliver mail throughout the village, was the Dragon’s only other guest. He had gone to bed before sundown to rest well before his journey south. “For a copper piece or two, I’ll bet he’ll take you. His cart and horse are in the village stable. He’ll be leaving town at dawn so you best be awake by then.” Jacob nodded then felt exhaustion fog his mind. Jacob had not noticed how tired he was while amidst all the letters and packing and goodbyes of the day. But, having spent the previous night snowed in at the Dragon listening to stories, Jacob hadn’t slept since the previous morning. “I’ll take that bed now, Master Thor.”
The following morning, Jacob awoke to the knocking on the bedroom door. “Best be moving, Master Travlers! Your carriage should be leaving soon.” Jacob rubbed sleep from his eyes, gathered his things, and marched through the still chill of early morning to the village stables. A man with graying hair and a thin face under a fury cap was tightening the reins of his horse and double checking the cart. He agreed to take Jacob to Nor’Haven and if all went well, Jacob would be there before the departure of the Queen’s Splendor. Jacob loaded his pack into the cart and took a seat next to the fur-capped man. And the cart left Norshire. And Jacob left home.

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Why Christians Should Write Horror (Part 2): The Fear of Cthulhu is the Beginning of Wisdom

In February of 1928, the pulp magazine Weird Tales published “The Call of Cthulhu.”  Written by H.P. Lovecraft, the short story is narrated by the fictional Francis Wayland Thurston as he sorts through the notes of his grandfather who was a professor of Semitic languages at Brown University. Slowly, Thurston finds himself following the paper trail through accounts of strange dreams of terrifying landscapes, human sacrifice at the hands of crazed cultists, and culminating in the awakening of Cthulhu, an ancient godlike being of unspeakable horror and nightmare. Thus began the expansive universe of Lovecraftian horror known as The Cthulhu Mythos.

Fun stuff. If you’re into magic, puzzles, sea monsters, and an unrelenting sense of impending doom, Lovecraft is the writer for you. Lovecraft was a philosophical nihilist and he was plagued by nightmares for most of his life.  Having grown up on the New England coast he also had a deep fear of the ocean and sea creatures. These influences are ever present in his work, whether they be the role of dreams in the mental instability of the narrators or the description of squid-like monsters lurking in the depths. While this may not sound scary (tentacle monsters aren’t really in fashion now), Lovecraft uses first person narration to deliberately create both a sense of unreliability on the narrator’s testimony and a sense of foreboding peril.5b1d071c622d3bb26b6c26a80d80534e

The terror of this otherworldly being is inescapable and all of creation will suffer. It is all quite ominous and unnerving. The horror of The Cthulhu Mythos hinges on the unfathomable power of the “The Great Old Ones” (Cthulhu and other demigods in Lovecraft’s pantheon) and the inevitability of their dominion. Yet the narrator never witnesses Cthulhu for himself. Instead, he can only conceive it as others recount their experiences. What is horrific about Cthulhu are the testimonies of those who have already witnessed it and the subsequent societal responses. People of lesser intellect and civility (Lovecraft was a racist so these are often minorities) join cults that seek to expedite the coming reign. Those of the academic persuasion succumb to insanity because they cannot conceive the vastness and terror of Cthulhu. These beings are beyond comprehension and ontologically malevolent. And they are coming.

Cthulhu, in all of its horror and unfathomable-ness, appears to be the exact opposite of the loving God professed in Christianity. But is it? If Cthulhu’s horror stems from it’s inconceivability, then maybe not so much.

You may be familiar with Job in the Old Testament. Job loses everything as part of a bet between God and Satan (I can hear your questions and objections seething up, but read the prologue to Job. That’s gist the of it, albeit in need of nuancing). The book is composed of these long speeches between Job and his three friends as they try to explain and systematize the suffering Job has undergone. And none of their answers are sufficient. Finally, God answers Job. And the answer is one of terrible power, not merely in word but out of a fierce torrent of storm. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?…Who shut the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb? (Job 38:4, 8)” The divine speech at the climax of Job is God challenging him to comprehend that enormity, the majesty, and the unfettered power of the Creator. cthulhuThere’s even sea monsters: “Can you draw out Leviathan with a sea hook? (41:1).” God keeps hammering at Job with a challenge that could be paraphrased as “Can you conceive the awesome might that has bounded the chaos of the cosmos?”

Go read Job 38-41. Read it and try to forget for a moment any notion that God is Love. The benevolence of God (towards Job at least) is predominantly absent from the divine speech. Isn’t the speech awesome and powerful and terrifying? Perhaps not too far from the inescapable might of Cthulhu?

The whole divine speech reinforces God’s ontological inconceivability. Much like Cthulhu. So what’s the difference? While resisting the temptation to get preachy, let us remember God’s benevolence, the reality that God is Love. It is only God’s love that makes the inconceivable more bearable as to not drive us to insane. But God without Love…

Well, my friends, I think that’s a Lovecraftian terror.

Christians should write horror, and they should write it well. And Christians should engage fear.

“But, Dan, what about 2 Timothy 1:7? About God not giving us a spirit of fear?” Good question. What about in Proverbs? “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10).” There’s some contextual stuff to flesh out in both cases. So let’s agree that such excerpts merit further discussion. But fear is a universal experience. For some reason 2 Timothy gets used to tell Christians why they should never be afraid of anything, ever. But we know fear. Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom because fear is a natural instinct. Fear helps us know our limits. Growing up, I was told the “fear of God” is more appropriately understood to mean respect for God. While that is not untrue, it is lacking. If you have ever been in the presence of a wild animal (or watched The Revenant), you have likely experienced some healthy fear there. Sure you want to respect the creature, but you respect it because you know this bear could really eviscerate you on a whim.

We should write horror because many in the church as of late have denounced fear as lack of trust. But fear is real. And God can be terrifying. Actually, I think it is by the grace of God that God is not more terrifying. Let’s use horror stories to illustrate that it is natural, and often good, for finite beings such as ourselves to have fear.

To at least be in fear for a moment or a season.

But that’s not the end. There’s love and grace.

But that’s for next week.

Happy October, folks.

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