Category Archives: Series

Advocate for Net Neutrality

I tend to be a fan of the internet, and I am sure I am not alone. While the internet may have much unwholesome or offensive content, it is where many people find their news, gather recipes, post pictures of cats, and watch videos of teenage boys shooting fire works at each other. What’s not to love?

The world wide web is an expanse of information, entertainment, and innovation. It is here that many find outlets for their passions in the form of blogs, visual art, and crafts on sites like Tumblr and DeviantArt, and Etsy. It’s where aspiring musicians share their talent and seek exposure on platforms such as SoundCloud. And it is where many have sought to find financial support for their passion projects, or even physical needs, through crowd funding.

It stands as the only space where any individual can carve out his or her own niche. The beauty of the internet is that it is largely not owned by anyone. It is predominantly an unrestricted space for the exchange and sharing of ideas, art, information, and knowledge. Sure there is garbage and false information, but it is our responsibility as individuals to sift through that mess ourselves.  The internet is a near infinite resource!

In 2014, Kester Brewin re-released his book Mutiny!– Why We Love Pirates and How They Can Save Us for free online here. Originally published in 2012, Brewin made this work accessible online, no charge, in the interest of “enriching the commons.” His decision to release it into the public domain was to be in keeping with the premise of his book. The book covers the social and economic history surrounding piracy, the intent and development of copyright law, and the implications of sailing under the mark of a dead man. While I encourage you to take the time to read all seven chapters, it is Brewin’s discussion of the internet that spurred me on to tracking down Mutiny! this week. Brewin describes the internet as being the new “commons,” a space for the free exchange and cross-pollination of ideas and innovation. Brewin’s discussion mostly concerns Facebook and Google’s selling or sharing of their users’ personal information, and the development of algorithms that cater ads to one’s surmised personal interests. But today, I believe the greatest threat to the commons internet is not Google and Zuckerberg.

This Thursday May 18, 2017, the Federal Communications Commission will vote to move forward with rolling back net neutrality. The proposal comes to floor on behalf of chair of the FCC, Ajit Pai (who previously worked for Verizon). For those of you who are not aware, I’ll let John Oliver explain it best (warning: obscenities do ensue).

In brief, should the FCC remove the Title II classification from ISPs (Internet Service Providers), ISPs would be able to adjust internet speeds based on what you, the consumer use the internet for. For example, if you prefer to stream your favorite shows through Netflix rather than Hulu, and your ISP is Comcast, you may find that Netlix drags and doesn’t load at a viewable speed, while Hulu is lightening fast. Why would this be? Because Hulu is owned by NBC which is owned by Comcast. Your ISP would be able to inhibit you from surfing the web outside of what benefits that ISP. Similarly, if you’re a gamer, an ISP could slow your internet connection and then charge you more so you can play World of Warcraft.

“Dan, isn’t being concerned with your internet speed kind of a first-world gripe?” Fair enough. And my examples certainly pertain to leisure and luxury. But should ISPs no longer fall under Title II, what is to stop ISPs from charging outlandish prices to low income neighborhoods or regions, effectively stifling access to information and knowledge in those areas? Those in economically depressed areas such as rural Appalachia or inner city Philadelphia could be hindered from resources they’d otherwise have access to. ISPs would have to the power to prevent networks and online communities from developing. Imagine if Verizon effectively killed social networks and online communities like Facebook and Reddit because they refused to be bought out by the ISP.

I can’t say this enough. We should be wary of any thing that potentially prohibits the general populace from accessing information. Watch for those policies that would preserve ignorance among certain demographics.

It has been argued by those in favor of these rollbacks that the removal of Title II classification would stimulation competition among ISPs in the “free market” fashion. In light of this, I have an experiment for you:  Call an ISP that is other than the one you currently have and ask for quotes to service you area. Give them your address and what not. I suspect you will find that this other ISP does not service your address. Why? Because often times, regions and neighborhoods only have one or two ISPs. Verizon and Comcast rarely service the same city block. Where is the alleged “free market” when where you chose to live effectively selects your ISP and that ISP has no reason to offer competitive rates?

If you use the internet, and here you are reading my online blog, you should research net neutrality. I’ve added some links to help you all out.

 

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Messiahs… I’ve Followed a Few: What Movie Should You Watch on Good Friday?

Holy Week is upon us! Tomorrow, those of us who identify with the Christian tradition will contemplate the execution of Jesus of Nazareth by crucifixion, at the hands of the Roman Empire.
In 2017, we are quite removed from the world of first century Palestine. While many of us church goers are confident we know what the Roman world was like in Jesus’ day, there are some important political and social details that are often neglect in the average Sunday sermon. After all, it was 2000 years ago and half a world away.
But Fear not, friends! There exists a film that captures all you need to know about the history surrounding Jesus’ ministry, arrest, and execution. And no I am not talking about Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Forget that violence-and-gore glorifying movie with all of its historical inaccuracies and Anglo-looking first century Jews. Oh no, the film I suggest you all watch is so much closer to the realities of first century Palestine… with a slight flair of dry British humor.
Friends, before you attend that Good Friday service, I suggest you all watch…
The Life of Brian.
Monty Python’s The Life of Brian is a rich satire that follows the life of… well, Brian. Brian, born on the same night as a baby named Jesus, is a young man growing up in first century Palestine in the shadow of Roman occupation. Upon finding out that he is the result of his Jewish mother’s romantic entanglement with a Roman centurion, Brian retaliates by joining “The People’s Front of Judea,” which is not to be confused with the “Judean People’s Front.” Through various flukes and misadventures, Brian is mistaken for the Messiah, and a movement grows around him.
The film is full of the irreverent humor that is to be expected from Monty Python and I for one think it walks a very a delicate line. But the brilliance of The Life of Brian is rooted in the historicity of Brian’s mistaken messianic title. At one moment in the film, Brian is surrounded by his crowd of would-be disciples and protests vehemently that he is not the messiah. In response, character played by John Cleese responds “I say you are, Lord. And I should know, I’ve followed a few.” The line reflects Monty Python’s thorough knowledge of first century Palestine, which I suspect can be attributed to most of the troupe having received a classical education at Oxford and Cambridge. But for the rest of us, let’s get caught up to speed with Eric Idle and the gang.
During the first century, the Jews lived under Roman occupation. Romans were only the most recent in what had played out as six centuries of a rotating door of empires conquering and oppressing the Jewish people. The clearest representation of this oppression was that the Romans built Antonia Fortress immediately adjacent to the Temple. Not only that, but the walls of the fortress were such that Roman soldiers could observe what was taking place within the temple grounds. The Temple was the center of Jewish life, and three times throughout the Jewish year the Jews were supposed to make a pilgrimage to the Temple. With such a multitude of oppressed and disgruntled people all gathering at their holiest of locations on their holiest of festivals thrice a year, the position of Antonia Fortress was both tactical as well as symbolic. The towering walls seemed to proclaim “Remember who is really watching you, and it ain’t your god.”
As the Jews were conquered and re-conquered by the Babylonians, Persian, Greeks, and finally the Romans, there developed a notion amongst the Jews that God would send God’s people a divinely empowered leader; God would send them a Messiah (I should write on this development in later post!). While in the twenty first century, we instinctively attribute the “Messiah” with the Incarnation of God, the Jews during the Second Temple period (beginning in 530BCE with the reconstruction of the Temple) made no such association. For the Jewish people, the Messianic expectation meant looking forward to a powerful monarch and military leader that would rise up and rally God’s people, then kick the Romans out of Judea. This same Messiah would re-establish Israel to its glory days as an economic and military super power under Kings David and Solomon.
As this was the case, by Jesus’ day, there had been many self-proclaimed messiahs. These individuals were freedom fighters who sought to liberate their people from oppression. In Acts 5:33:-39, while advocating for letting the Apostles live, the Pharisee Gamaliel describes two such leaders who were executed and their movements scattered. Gamaliel says “If this plan or undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.”
Self-proclaimed Messiahs were not uncommon, which is why I laughed until I hurt at Cleese’s remark “I’ve followed a few.”
Is it any wonder then why Jesus counted one Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15) as a disciple? When the Jews heard Jesus of Nazareth proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, they had a very concrete idea of what that kingdom was going to look like and how it would be brought about. There would be a revolution, and the Romans would get clobbered out of Judea! How glorious it would be!
Only it wasn’t.
Only, Jesus spoke of loving enemies.
Only, when this Messiah was arrested and one of his own drew a sword and cut the ear from one of Jesus’ captors, this Messiah rebuked his disciple and healed the wounded one who would arrest him. This Messiah was not the
On the first Good Friday, the Jews bring Jesus before the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, and insist he be charged with treason for calling himself King of the Jews. “He stirs up the people all throughout Judea” (Luke 23:5). Jesus, they imply, is another messiah that is dangerous to Roman power.
Pilate gives them a choice: free Jesus or free Barabbas. According to Luke’s gospel, Barabbas has been thrown in prison for two things: starting an insurrection in the city, and murder. Insurrection? Could Barabbas be a freedom fighter, a patriot of Israel? Is he another Messiah? Could it be that on the first Good Friday, God’s own people were choosing which Messiah they wanted to lead them?
I think so.
It seems to me that when given a choice between a Messiah who insisted on loving and praying for His enemies, and a Messiah that would swing the sword in bloody revolution, God’s people chose a violent Messiah.
How often do we desire the same? How often do we want to forget that Jesus did not wage war as other revolutionaries waged war? How often do we want Jesus to be more like this messiah Barabbas?
Tomorrow, on Good Friday, I want to reflect Christ’s crucifixion. And I’m sure with many others across the Church, I’ll sing the words of that famous hymn “It was my sin that held him there/ until it was accomplished.”
While those lyrics are all well and good, I do not want to forget that 2000 years ago at a Roman trial, the specific sin that sent Christ to a Roman crucifixion was that God’s people chose violence. The people that were blessed to bless other nations chose a revolutionary carrying a sword and raising clenched fist over a servant carrying a washing basin and offering a healing hand.
Messiahs… I’ve followed a few. But only one told me to drop my sword.

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Imagination for Resistance: An Incomplete Pseudo-Syllabus

My goodness, friends, it has been a good while since I last posted. And much has happened. Here we are in a new year with a new president and administration. And like everyone else, I have thoughts, opinions, and furious tirades. And we may get to those in the coming months. But today, I have some cool news.

If you check out the side menu to the right of this post, you’ll find… wait for it… a subscription box!!! That’s right folks! You can now subscribe to Noggin Squall and get the latest posts sent right to your inbox! Exciting stuff. Go get yourself subscribed.

As I look towards 2017, I am not filled with much optimism. I do not have any inspiring words about new beginnings, resolutions, or existential sentiments about what the future may hold. No, dear readers, I have some concerns.

The Trump administration has sat in the White House for several weeks now, and in that span, Time.com released a list of the federal agencies which the Trump administration is hoping to defund. At the top of the list are the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (the entity that funds PBS and NPR). And as recently as February 3 (the Friday prior to this post going live), the new Chairmen of the Federal Communication Commission Ajit Pai halted investigations concerning net neutrality violations on the part of AT&T and Verizon.

From where I sit, these are signs of an administration that is determined to impede the masses’ access to information, free educational resources, and the means for each individual to think for his or herself. Such announced intentions on the part of an administration that insist we swallow “alternative facts” is disconcerting at best. Or perhaps they are the textbook motions of fascists undermining the average citizen’s ability to see through the bullshit. Call me paranoid. Call me a conspiracy theorist. Call me a crazed, sore loser of a liberal (this last one would make my liberal friends smirk, I’m sure).

In light of this potential disempowering of the 99%, Noggin Squall will largely be concerned with sharing the resources that help us see the world differently. A public composed of individuals capable of seeing the world beyond political polarities is threatening to those who walk the halls of power. To put a finer point on it: Imagination breeds Resistance.

With that in mind, I would like to introduce you all to…

Imagination for Resistance: An Incomplete Pseudo-Syllabus

Over the course of this year, I will be interacting with books, films, and people that (I hope) will prompt us to expand our perceptions, feed our imaginations, and appreciate how folks from the margins have interpreted their context and experience through genre. If you’ve taken a college course, you’ll soon realize that the syllabus I am assembling is flexible, incomplete, and not necessarily a true syllabus. C’est la vie. But let me take a crack at it.

Purpose: To provide fodder for the imagination through alternative perspectives. Let’s learn together to think critically, creatively, and passionately.

Textbooks: These texts are divided into two sections. First are sci-fi/fantasy books written by folks who are not white men. And the second section are different theologies within the Christian Tradition that are largely outside the mainstream theologies of Protestant churches.

Section 1:

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed, 2012; science-fiction from a Muslim perspective.

God’s War: Bel Dame Apocrypha by Kameron Hurley, 2011; science-fiction from a feminist perspective.

King Maker by Maurice Broaddus, 2010; fantasy from a black perspective. (Specifically, this is retelling of the Arthurian legend in the context of inner-city Indianapolis).

The Book of the New Sun and Urth of the New Sun, both by Gene Wolfe, 1994/1997; (while Wolfe is another white male fantasy author, he is phenomenal. I’m compelled to include him because his perspective as a convert to Catholicism informs arguably one of the most well-crafted works of sci-fi/fantasy in existence).

Section 2:

The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel by John Howard Yoder; 1985.

A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation by Gustavo Gutierrez; 1971.

Heart of the Cross: A Postcolonial Christology by Wonhee Anne Joh; 2006.

There’ll be some films and books beyond this list. Some posts will be specifically designated as Imagination for Resistance, while others will be Minor Spoilers or Slice of Life, Salt of the Earth. Yet I hope all of my posts will be that imagination fodder.

If any of you have any suggestions, reflections, or comments, I would appreciate hearing them all. I will be reading these books throughout the year, and then some.

Thanks for reading.

P.S. Maurice Broaddus’ Buffalo Soldier is being released in April of this year, and it is his take on the steampunk genre. Sound intriguing? I think so too.

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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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