Category Archives: Series

Advent(ure) Thoughts: I Wanna Know What Love Is

It’s almost here. In fact, by the time you read this, Christmas Day may already be upon us! (Is this week a double feature? Mayhaps!) And now our Advent(ure) of the last several weeks is near its conclusion. On the fourth Sunday of Advent, if your tradition adheres to the church calendar and practices Advent, you and your community lit the last candle. It was probably purple, and it is sometimes referred to as the Angel candle and it is for Love. From Hope to Peace, Peace to Joy, and now from Joy to Love.

I have stumbled through several ideas and partial drafts for this final edition of Advent(ure) Thoughts. What can I say of the Love of God regarding Christmas? We cling to Hope in desperation. We let Peace settle in our guts. And it seems that Joy gives us cause to celebrate. Then what of Love? Do we speak of the Incarnation? Do we speak of the Divine loving the created so much that God poured God’s self into humanity and mortality to be in community and fellowship with the created, only to be executed by it? Or offered up as an atoning sacrifice? To go there in the last week of Advent seems to me like jumping the gun.

After all, Advent is about the waiting. So what of Love in the waiting?

In Matthew 1:18, Joseph is planning to dismiss Mary in private. As far as Joseph is concerned, the woman he is supposed to marry is suddenly pregnant with someone else’s baby. Yet since a public dismissal may very well lead to Mary’s execution under Jewish law, Joseph decides to protect her from such a fate.

And then he has a dream. He has a dream where God’s plan is laid out before Joseph. The angel in the dream makes it clear that Mary hasn’t been sleeping around.  “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (1:20). And now I only have questions. Did Joseph publicly claim the unborn child as his own, even though he and Mary weren’t yet married? Did he attempt to explain to everyone he knew “It’s not what you think. That’s God’s baby?” Surely Joseph and Mary hadn’t dodged the rumor mill entirely. How much scandal was Joseph being called to immersed in? Whatever the case though, Joseph is in deep and now will only press deeper into his love for Mary.

How much of the Love of Advent is reflective of Joseph’s love for Mary? “Joseph, just wait and see how I will deliver on my promise!” says God. “Your love for Mary pales in comparison to my love for my people!”

What if the Love of Advent is anticipating what Love is in store in Christ through examining, pondering, and cherishing the Love we already experience? I don’t know about you, but I often experience Love far more directly from my wife, parents, sister, or friends than I do from God. But when the Love of God is made known to me in ways that are unconventional and unexpected, sometimes to the extent of seeming supernatural, it’s overwhelming.

So maybe that’s what Love in Advent is about: Anticipating God pouring out Love in a way we can only remotely fathom.

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Advent(ure) Thoughts: On Joy (or)The Simpsons Meet Santa’s Little Helper

Tis the season for Christmas movies and television galore! Whether it be How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Jingle All the Way, A Christmas Story, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation or It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart, many of us have our seasonal staples and classics that we burn through between Black Friday and New Year’s Day. But have you ever noticed that these films and television specials are often more like Advent stories building up to Christmas? They all bear the weight of anticipating that glorious Christmas morning, and the characters inevitably suffer many trials as they move closer and closer. Ever notice Christmas Vacation uses an Advent calendar to mark off the days until Christmas amidst the hijinks and mishaps of the Griswold Family Christmas? Surely Ralphie’s wait and anguish over that Red Rider BB gun in A Christmas Story is riddled with the hope that he will unwrap it, the peace that he can be okay without it, and the joy of finally getting to nearly shooting his eye out in the back yard. Of course, the Love is the family gathering around a peking duck for Christmas dinner while being serenaded with some heavily accented carols. But let’s not rush to Love yet. This is a time for Joy. Go light your Shepherd candle for Joy. It’s probably the pink one.

On December 17, 1989, the world was introduced to one of it’s new favorite television families in an episode call “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire.” The inaugural episode of The Simpsons tells the tale of a family who, like many, are financially cramped during the holiday season. Marge has scrimped and saved for gifts, while Homer anxiously awaits his Christmas bonus. However, the bonus never comes thanks to his boss Mr. Burns, and Marge must use all of her savings to have an unfinished tattoo removed from her 10 year old son, Bart. Lacking the heart to tell Marge that he will not receive his bonus, Homer becomes a mall Santa to earn some extra cash, only to make it out with $13 (after taxes, social security, costume costs, and Santa lessons). Homer’s last thread of hope of giving his family a Merry Christmas leads him and Bart to the race track where they bet it all on the promising grey hound, Santa’s Little Helper. The race is highly contested by all racers, except Santa’s Little Helper who comes in an embarrassing dead last. Homer and Bart are left with nothing. And yet they end up taking Santa’s Little Helper home. And inadvertently, they save Christmas! Marge describes it as the greatest gift because the dog is “something that can share our love, and frighten prowlers.” It is a touching scene. And it has something to teach us about the Joy of Advent.

As does Mary the Mother of Jesus. The Magnificat of Mary can be found in Luke 1:46-55. The mother of Jesus sings this wonderful song that proclaims the wonders of who God is and what God is doing in this miracle.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,

my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;

for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant…

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,

and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich he has sent away empty.”

 

Mary’s whole song overflows with the Joy of the unexpectedness of God’s ways. Because God being born as a baby, into poverty, to a single teenage mom is exactly that: unexpected. The God of the Most High becomes human through the lowly.

And it is this inversion of our expectations that should cause us great Joy. The Joy of Advent follows the Peace that comes from Hope, because the Joy should take us off guard. In Peace, we find ourselves susceptible to the unexpected. In the Peace of God’s promise, we are overcome with Joy when we realize that this Hope is coming from what the world desires to cast aside. Even Joseph desired to divorce Mary, albeit in secret, and needed the assurance of God to see the Joy in what was happening inside the woman he loved.

The Joy of Advent lies in that God is providing for the whole of the cosmos out of the lowliest of circumstances, much like the Joy the financially-broke Simpsons find in a race dog that can’t finish a race. If you’re a fan of the series, you know that Santa’s Little Helper is there to stay, and that the joy he brings to Bart, Lisa, and rest of the family is persistent. The Joy of Advent is persistent. And out of that Joy, we soon find Love. But that is for next week.

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Advent(ure) Thoughts/Minor Spoilers: The Peace of Dr. Strange

I know I am several weeks behind the film critics’ reviews on this one, but this past week I finally saw the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe… Dr. Strange. And it was good; easily one of my favorite films in the MCU, besides Guardians of the Galaxy, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Yes, this post running double duty as… Advent(ure) Thoughts/ Minor Spoilers!

Dr. Stephen Strange is one of the world’s most talented neurosurgeons, and he knows it. The esteemed doctor lives the life of a New York City socialite, while having the privilege to pick and choose which patients to operate on. The result is that Dr. Strange has a perfect record because he never takes on patients that he believes he can’t successfully stitch up. Most importantly, the man cherishes his hands. His hands are what have made him the legendary surgeon we are introduced to in the film. But, when a car accident, brought about by his own hubris, results in severe, irreversible nerve damage to his hands, the reality sets in that he will never be able to perform surgery again. Strange exhausts every experimental treatment he can find. When he is unable to requisition the funds for these treatments, Strange embarks on a mystical journey to Nepal in search of an ancient miracle cure. Instead, he finds himself caught on a journey into deep mysticism, multiple realities, and immersed a war that threatens an entire multi-verse. Cool, trippy stuff.

Strange’s hands are the tools of his profession, the vessel of his prestige, and the fount of his pride. Once they are damaged, his whole life is thrown into uncertainty and chaos. The Doctor’s journey is to find peace. And at the outset, it seems the only thing that will bring him peace is reestablishing his identity as a supreme surgeon. But under the tutelage of Tilda Swinton’s superbly acted, Ancient One, Strange finds peace as he grows into the Sorcerer Supreme.

The second Sunday of Advent (by the time this is posted, it will have been two Sundays ago) is commemorated with the lighting of the Bethlehem Candle, or the candle of Peace. For those of you keeping track at home, we are in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary, and the Old Testament passage for Second Advent is Isaiah 1:1-10. If you’ve ever seen those cheesy water-colors in the church office of lions and lambs having a cuddle in the grass, that image is derived from Isaiah 1. Personally, my favorite bit is about a toddler playing with over the den of an asp or cobra. It’s loaded with connotations of the serpent in Genesis 3. Not only that, in antiquity, the “asp” was associated with the power and royalty of Egypt, from whom God liberated the Israelites. A Hebrew baby will play carefree in presence of those who oppressed and enslaved his or her ancestors. Crazy. And the crazy continues as the passage closes… “In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.”

My last Adent(ure) Thought elaborated on why Hope was the first essence we take with us on the Advent journey, moving towards Christmas and the birth of Jesus. So why is Peace the next essence on the journey? I think it is because it is only through internalizing the Hope of Christ that we find Peace. If Hope is what spurns us forward with each weary step, then it is Peace that allows us to take those steps with composure and a sense of serenity. Isaiah’s image of peace should feed Hope, as it was intended to feed the Hope of God’s people in the face of impending exile. As Hope is fed, perhaps peace grows out of it. Not the cosmic Peace of reconciliation between oppressed and oppressor as witnessed in Isaiah, necessarily, but maybe it’s the inner peace of recognizing ourselves reconciled to God in and through Christ.
Dr. Stephen Strange only really starts to find the peace to his chaos when he becomes oriented outside of himself. While training and studying under the Ancient One, Strange’s world expands beyond his profession and prestige, beyond his hands. It becomes oriented to the needs and hurts of the cosmos. Spoiler alert: his hands are never restored to what they were. Yet he is more at peace than he was at the film’s start.

Perhaps this is what Paul means in his letter to the Philippians when he encourages them with “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:7).

Take Hope. Go in Peace.

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Advent(ure) Thoughts: “It’s Dangerous to Go Alone! Take This.”

Ah! Advent! No longer Thanksgiving, but not yet Christmas. And the “not yet Christmas” part is important because Advent is about the anticipation of Christmas. It is about the waiting and anticipating of the birth of God enfleshed in Christ. It is looking forward to that point in the church calendar when the Creator burst into Creation as never before and in a way no one could predict. But let’s not jump ahead to stables and shepherds and angels. The anticipation comes with reflection and preparation. Over the next four weeks, I’d like to share some of my own reflections on this season in a series I like to call Advent(ure) Thoughts.

While some of us sit in contemplative anticipation of the birth of Christ, many youngsters (and some not-so-youngsters) anticipate something a little different this time of year: presents. And I have little doubt that video games are at the top of many of those Christmas lists (Confession: it’s on mine).

I have a love/hate relationship with video games. At best, they’ve been an elaborate, immersive medium through which I’ve experienced some wonderfully crafted narratives. At not-so-best, I’ve abused them as an escape from the responsibilities and pressures of reality. I’m sure I am not alone in this nerd-related tension.

I still remember the first video game I ever played. It wasn’t Pac-Man, or Duck Hunt. No, friends, the first time I fit my palms around the sharp corners of an NES controller, I the_legend_of_zelda_-_golden_catridgeventured into the land Hyrule with the lustrous, gold cartridge of The Legend of Zelda (circa 1986!). The one that started it all! It remains one of my favorite games of all time.

Here’s opening to the game.


If you didn’t pick up on it, that old man just gave the hero, Link, a wooden sword. A wooden sword!? How reassuring is that? “It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.” Not only are you, the player, still alone but you have a wooden to sword to fend off “danger.” Fabulous…

I once had a friend explain Advent to me this way: “Advent is to Christmas as Lent is to Easter.”  It is about longing to see what God will do. The Advent wreath, given to us from the Lutheran tradition, marks each Sunday until Christmas with a candle that signifies a different element of the Advent journey (dare I say… the Advent-ure?). This past Sunday marks the lighting of the Prophet Candle, or the Candle of Hope.

The prophets in the Old Testament often wrote of hope. Not only that, they wrote of hope in the bleakest of circumstances. Most scholars agree that the Babylonian Empire conquered Jerusalem in 586BCE. A whole people group became displaced and dispersed into a strange land that is not their own. Israel no longer resided in the Promised Land. The people of God were no longer home. Yet, the prophets write about Hope. Isaiah is the prophet most often quoted this time of year.

“and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.”
-Isaiah 2:4 (ESV)

Naive words for a man who has witnessed, and will continue to witness, the conquest of his people and the destruction of his home. How can Isaiah speak of the absence of war when war is consuming the prophet’s world?

I think it is because true hope, the hope we cling to with fathomless desperation, is often naive. And that is why hope can get you laughed at, or scoffed at.

But Hope is the first candle for a reason. Hope moves us forward. It keeps us lifting our heads off of the pavement and brushing the dirt from our knees.

Henri Nouwen, in The Wounded Healer, writes “Hope prevents us from clinging to what we have and frees us to move away from the safe place and enter unknown and fearful territory” (77).

When we look towards Christmas and the birth of Christ because, first and foremost, there is the Hope of the world. The Hope for change. The Hope for the whole of the Cosmos to be as it was intended to be.

The funny thing about that wooden sword in The Legend of Zelda is that it’s your primary weapon for most of the game. Fighting monsters in a strange land with a wooden sword is ridiculous. Yet, when that is all you have, it becomes everything. It becomes the most important tool in your pack to persevere on your adventure. It becomes hope. You say to yourself, “If I have this, maybe I can still make it.”

It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this.

Take Hope.

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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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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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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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