When High Fantasy Becomes Porn Fantasy, Part 1

Porn has invaded fantasy stories, and Christians must listen to warnings from outside and inside the church.

In just the last few years, some of our most popular fantasy stories include material that at one time would have been considered porn.

These include films such as Passengers, Blade Runner 2049, and The Shape of Water, as well as TV shows such as Game of Thrones, Westworld, and Altered Carbon.1

Concerns about content like this are often raised in relation to children and teens, whose emotional and physical development make them more impressionable. When it comes to adults, however, we find little concern expressed.

In fact, a lot of people claim to have no issues watching films with explicit sexual content. The material doesn’t affect them—or so they say.

But is this true? And if so, should it be true?

Let’s give a little pushback and look at four considerations. (This article will conclude in part 2.)

By many accounts, Blade Runner 2049 was brilliant–and yet bristled with images of undressed persons.

1. Criticism of fantasy porn from inside the church

If you asked a fish to describe what it’s like being wet, what would happen? Provided that you could actually speak fish, the answer might be unhelpful. After all, everything about a fish’s life involves water. The inability to detach itself from an aquatic existence would severely limit, if not eliminate, its ability to answer your question with any real accuracy or objectivity.

We need to acknowledge at least the possibility that we are in a similar situation.

After all, ethnocentrism (using the customs of one’s own culture as the standard by which to evaluate all others) and chronological snobbery (asserting that beliefs held by previous peoples are inferior simply because they are older) are temptations for most any given person in any given culture and time period. That our culture is now more lenient toward explicit sexuality only proves that social and moral standards have changed, not necessarily that they have gotten better (or, for that matter, worse).

Westworld season 2 is currently airing. Like many other “prestige drama” shows, the series features human nudity.

It would be wise for us to ask if we have progressed or regressed as a culture: why exactly is it now considered normal, and possibly even defensible, for there to be graphic nudity and simulated sex scenes in our entertainment?

Are we considering other cultures and time periods in evaluating answers to questions like that?

And for Christians, what does the wisdom of ages past have to say about where we are now?

When it comes to entertainment, we have no church fathers commenting on film and television, for these mediums are fairly new. What we do have, however, is thousands of years of commentary on the theatrical arts, and much of that commentary can apply, at least in principle, to the visual arts of our day. If the concerns of men like Tertullian, Lactantius, Richard Baxter, Pascal, and William Wilberforce seem legalistic and archaic, we need to ask ourselves why these giants of the faith were horrified by certain types of entertainment that we find permissible.2

Is it not at least possible that we, as ambassadors from another kingdom, have grown so comfortable with this culture’s norms that we have lost sight of the standards from the eternal and heavenly culture we are called to represent? I would argue that, to a certain degree, we have. To quote author Joe Rigney:

Cultural engagement (and enjoyment) can easily become a cover-up for indulging sinful desires, an excuse to watch trashy movies. We must never forget that worldliness is easy, that plundering the Egyptians is hard, and that many an Israelite has convinced himself that he is absconding with the world’s wealth when he’s merely in the process of going native.3

2. Criticism of fantasy porn from outside the church

Porn is losing much of its original stigma.

In fact, terms like “food porn,” “word porn,” “car porn,” and even “wedding porn” show just how normalized—and even standard-setting—porn consumption has become. It is safe to say that ours is a porn-ified culture. And within this environment, some people, deeply entrenched within our culture, are raising red flags—or, at the very least, pointing out some inconvenient truths.

Game of ThronesConsider the responses to various sexual acts portrayed in HBO’s Game of Thrones. Each time the show pushes the envelope a little more, there’s a backlash of some sort, with cultural commentators asking some form of the question, “Has the show gone too far?”

What I have found interesting—or, more like disturbing—is that most of the genuine and intelligent critiques of Game of Thrones have come, not from Christian sources (those ostensibly “in the world but not of it”), but from within the culture itself (those ostensibly just “of the world”).

Sure, conservatives and Christians have criticized the show, but often with a poorly constructed, knee-jerk reaction that unconvincingly communicates any real depth of thought.

Meanwhile, in articles I read and conversations I participate in, I see and hear Christians excusing and defending Game of Thrones’ sexual content.

Expanding our focus, observers outside religious circles freely admit the gratuitousness of much of the sex and nudity utilized in popular culture today—groups like Beauty Redefined, Collective Shout, and Feminist Current. They have brought pointed, thoughtful, and specific critiques of the sexualization and objectification on display all around us.

In the realm of film and television specifically, here is what Richard Brody, movie-listings editor for The New Yorker, has to say:

I think that very few sex scenes…are ever of use in movies. Most sex scenes simply check boxes for viewers, providing visual confirmation that a relationship has been consummated; the pneumatic heaving and thrusting has no additional dramatic or emotional significance.4

None of the above critiques are coming from those with a strict, let alone a Christian, sexual ethic. Still, they are pointing out what is obvious to them.

So why is this not as obvious to followers of Christ? When Scripture tells us not to be like those in the world, I don’t think the implication is that our standards should be lower than those who profess no love for God’s truth. Should we, as those who have been rescued out of darkness to “walk as children of light” (Ephesians 5:8) and to no longer “live according to the flesh” (Romans 8:4), exhibit standards of moral decency that are more lenient than those who are still conformed to the “elemental spirits of the world” (Colossians 2:8)?

Of course, to ask the question is to answer it. Light should not succumb to darkness—especially in ways that the darkness itself would criticize.

Next week, we’ll look at two other possible answers to the excuse that “explicit sexual content in media doesn’t bother me.”

  1. Editor’s note: This topic is bigger than any one film or show. But see previous Speculative Faith articles more specifically about Game of Thrones‘s role in pushing this envelope: But ‘Game Of Thrones’ Still Has Porn In It, Why We Condemn ‘Game Of Thrones’ Porn and Think You Should Too, and ‘Game Of Thrones’ Sex: It’s Not Just Awkward, It’s Violation.
  2. See chapter three, “What Does the Church Say?”, in Wayne A. Wilson’s Worldly Amusements for a helpful survey of early, medieval, and modern church responses to theatrical performances involving nudity and simulated sex acts.
  3. Joe Rigney, The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts, pp. 147-148.
  4. “Amber Heard and the Artistic Problem with Contractual Nudity,” Richard Brody, The New Yorker, Nov. 23, 2016.

The Car-Universe Without A Motor, part 6

Many people believe dark matter exists, though we’ve never directly detected it. Belief in God makes even more sense.

This article will look at how “dark matter” is a concept used to explain what would otherwise require massive amounts of coincidence to explain, colossally improbable amounts of random movement of quantum particles all in the right direction on a continuing basis.

Scientists who are for the most part forced to accept the highly improbable, very low entropy distribution of matter after the Big Bang (which I covered in part 3), who cannot offer any verifiable explanation for the constants of particles in the Standard Model or the predominance of matter over antimatter in our universe (part 4), are not willing to accept that the current form of the universe in rotating galaxies and clusters of galaxies constitute random events. No, these observed, er, anomalies, have a single rational explanation, according to theoretical physicists.

Enter dark matter.

Dark matter explains a problem observed in astronomy, first defined by the astronomer Fritz Zwicky in 1933. You see, if you start to calculate the mass of the visible stars in the galaxy–well, not “the” galaxy, any galaxy actually–it isn’t nearly enough. Even if you account for dust clouds and oodles of planets so small they can’t be seen in fields of stars, the amount of matter observed in the universe is not enough. Not enough to maintain the gravitational relationships within clusters of stars (which is what Zwicky observed), not enough to keep stars rotating around the center of the galaxy as quickly as they are observed to be rotating out in the far ends of galactic arms, and not enough to maintain galaxies in clusters (all galaxies should therefore be free-ranging loners, but instead are in groups).

So, since more matter is needed to explain observed gravitational effects, and more of the matter we actually know about would block light and also have other measurable effects on electromagnetic radiation (which includes light and other things like radio waves), therefore this extra matter cannot be any kind of matter that’s actually ever been observed (according to general scientific consensus). It has to be a special kind of matter that does not react with any of the known forces except gravity (leaving it totally immune electromagnetism and probably to to the strong nuclear force and weak nuclear force as well). It really probably should have been called “invisible” matter, because that’s what it is proposed to be–if something does not react to light, you cannot possibly see it.  But instead, it’s called “dark” matter, perhaps because it cannot give off light.

Note that dark matter is usually assumed to be some kind of undiscovered particle. Certain particles known as neutrinos barely interact with anything and are likewise invisible. They pass right through you and I and everything else without us ever knowing about them or seeing them, slipping through the rather large amount of empty space contained in every atom. But these particles are known to exist from the Standard Model of particle physics, have a role in atomic reactions that have been verified, and actually have been detected by special experiments that make use of the fact that once in a very great while a neutrino hits the nucleus of an atom directly and causes a reaction.

But there aren’t even any genuine hypothetical ideas about what dark matter could be. The Standard Model does not allow for it. It has never been observed, not in the LHC or other particle physics accelerators. And yet, not only is there are lot of it around, there’s supposedly five times as much of it as there is of regular matter. That’s right, 80% of the matter of the universe is invisible stuff nobody knows anything about. Supposedly.

It’s probably evident already that I find the common acceptance of dark matter among cosmologists, astronomers, and theoretical physicists galling. Really? Scientists, who are all about facts and observation,  believe in stuff that cannot be observed or factually verified? For which there isn’t even a likely hypothesis? Really?

Though it is true that sometimes intense gravitation causes a lensing effect that makes images of distant stars or galaxies double or otherwise distort. This so-called “gravitational lensing” is cited as providing direct evidence of dark matter, because regular matter is calculated to be insufficient to explain the real distortions observed. There are also variations in the background temperature of the universe (a.k.a. the CMB or Cosmic Background Radiation) that also are thought to show evidence of dark matter.

I must admit to skepticism–if five times as much matter is dark matter than regular matter, shouldn’t gravitational lensing affect far more distant objects than are actually affected by it? (I mean, shouldn’t gravitational lensing be virtually everywhere in the night sky? Shouldn’t most objects outside our galaxy be distorted or doubled by lensing, instead of just a few?) And shouldn’t there be dark matter black holes? And shouldn’t movement of dark matter in general be towards the centers of galaxies instead of remaining out on the edges, where it has to remain to make the arms of galaxies rotate at the speed they are believed to rotate at? I mean, dark matter should go to galactic centers because gravity pulls things into any gravitational center and dark matter must be affected by gravity to create the forces it that are attributed to it. And if this dark matter is supposedly everywhere, then why doesn’t it cause a spacecraft, say a NASA probe, to ever veer off course? Which hasn’t been documented to happen, not even once–begging the question of how could dark matter could possibly be so evenly distributed, if it is in fact affected by gravity? And aren’t variations in temperature of the universe (the CMB) possibly explicable as previously unknown and unimagined physics at work, instead offering of “evidence” of dark matter? (Note that dark matter requires previously unknown physics–so why couldn’t it be that other unknown physics could affect the CMB?)

There are at least some explanations offered for the questions I raised above (which I won’t cover here), but I don’t find the answers offered wholly satisfactory, since they require dark matter to have a number of special properties which have never actually been observed in nature and which go beyond dark matter merely being invisible. I find the hypothetical ideas behind dark matter to evoke a lot of unobserved principles that really should have been observed if dark matter is everywhere.

Maybe my skepticism is simply a result of not knowing enough physics, but I don’t think so. Some professional physicists have doubted dark matter as well, though not necessarily with my same questions, proposing that perhaps gravity at great distances simply functions differently than the current laws of gravity say it does. One formulation of this idea is called Modified Newtonian Dynamics or MOND (concerning which if you read through the Wikipedia article I attached, you might get the impression that recent measurements of gravitational waves mostly rule out MOND as impossible, but if you read more than just the title of the original highly technical article, you’ll see that isn’t true at all).

I started these posts saying the reasoning they contain would be based on commonly-accepted modern science, which is not the category most people would put Young Earth Creationism in. So I haven’t talked about Creationism at all at up to this point and may not again, but on this topic, a young universe also happens to completely solve these problems (though it causes others, like the “apparent age” problem). Why do galactic arms rotate the way they do? For the Young Earth Creationist, they’ve barely rotated at all and their speeds require no explanation for a period of 6,000 years or so. Why do the galaxies we see seem to be in clusters? Well, first of all the light had to somehow be provided by God for us to know they are there, because there isn’t enough time for it to have traveled naturally–but if you accept that, then the answer to the galactic clusters question is simple. There hasn’t been enough time for them to fly apart.

Though there is another possible explanation that I alluded to in my first paragraph above. If, as far as human-created science currently understands things, quantum mechanics allows for individual particles to assume random motions, if in the very unlikely event that all the particles in all the stars assumed the pattern of rotation we observe and also moved all the galaxies  just right to form clusters, then we could have a randomly forming universe in the clusters and motions we observe without any other principle causing it to come about. (Mind you, this is super improbable, worse than the odds of throwing a thread at a needle from 30,000 feet and actually putting it through the eye. But random quantum fluctuations alone do in fact make it possible.)

Evoking a crazy unseen principle (like dark matter) simply because it eliminates massive improbabilities is something atheist scientists usually avoid–especially if the “crazy unseen principle” invoked is God. But these same people, some of them at least, accept dark matter without any serious doubts or objections. Because without dark matter, the improbabilities of the universe forming itself are too staggering to make any sense.

I would say though that these scientists should give the unseen principle of “God” more serious consideration than they actually do. With dark matter, they are putting  their confidence in another unseen principle, one I think is less feasible than a concept of a creator God. To explain why I say that, let me return to the analogy I established in previous posts of a car moving either up or downhill.

Let’s imagine that on one side we have the mountain of an early expansion of the universe that produced radically improbable very low entropy right after the Big Bang, a time when the “car-universe” more rationally could “climb” better if it had a “motor” (something driving it, such as God) than if it didn’t. Then, as if there were a rough chasm downhill and a rocky climb back up another mountain, this second rise being that of galaxies formed in the clusters we observe and spinning as we observe them to do (i.e. showing signs of greater mass), our observers decide there is no way the car(universe) could have made it up that second climb on its own, since they are sure it’s simply running downhill on its own inertia. It had to have taken a bridge from the first hill to the second (i.e. there must be something that explains the highly improbable arrangement of the “second mountain,” something that makes the transition from the first mountain to the second “natural”).

A bridge, not quite invisible…

But there is no bridge in sight. You might question the observers about this, but they say, “Don’t worry, the bridge is invisible.”

You go to where the end of the bridge is and try to touch it. “Oh, you can’t touch the bridge either.”

“Has anybody ever seen an invisible and untouchable bridge before? What’s it made of?”

“We have no idea. But it has to be there. See where it touches the mountains?” You can in fact see a pair of indentations, one on each side of the chasm, that might have the shape of the ends of a bridge, but you aren’t at all sure what’s causing them.

“So the car climbed the first mountain on its own? Just by the wheels rolling?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Then crossed down the invisible bridge, the one we can’t touch or directly observe, onto the second mountain?”

“Yes, we’re sure.”

“Maybe the car just had a motor it used to find roads to climb both mountains?”

“Oh, that’s crazy talk!”

I hope my illustration makes it clear that those who accept dark matter as real without hesitation but who dismiss the idea of God are actually contradicting themselves. I would say that suggesting that something may be driving the development of the universe, guiding its final form, is actually no more “crazy” than imagining dark matter to be real, because both ideas make use of something that cannot be seen or directly observed (as of now). That’s true even though dark matter has been defined by various observations of gravitational lensing and mathematical modeling. If dark matter is supposed to be where we are, passing through us right now (and it is imagined to be like that), we should be able to directly measure it. If we can’t (and we can’t), we should at least remain skeptical.

God, of course, cannot be directly measured either. But like a car which drove by us with its front closed, which is no longer available for us to observe, we can make deductions about whether it had a motor or not based on its behavior (did it climb hills on its own?), even if we can’t get our hands on it. We can likewise deduce that seeing actions of God in the creation of the universe cause it to make more sense than it would without God (and God explains a lot more than just galactic clusters and their rotation).

And I would also say that those things we know we have access to, but we in fact cannot detect, deserve more skepticism than things we do not have access to.  God will not walk into the lab for us to poke and prod him–but dumb, invisible particles that are supposedly everywhere, including right here and now, and which are subject to our instruments, cannot refuse our investigation. If we cannot find them, not even with methods similar to the ones used to find neutrinos and the Higgs boson, we ought to seriously consider that perhaps they aren’t there. Perhaps the effects scientists think they cause are in fact caused by something else.

It may be that dark matter is actually discovered some day. Perhaps someday soon. But as of now, it has not in any way been directly observed, so I remain skeptical about it.

In the analogy I created, dark matter functions something rather like an invisible bridge–a piece of roadway connecting highly unlikely states, making the second “run downhill” from the first. Even though it would have to be made of things that have never been seen or observed and causes nearly as many problems as it solves, it’s an explanation of past events that insists that what happened with the (car)universe is well accounted for “naturally.”

But the universe isn’t well accounted for “naturally.” I think there’s a simpler and more reasonable explanation.

But what are your thoughts on this topic? Please share them below.

Violet Evergarden: Letters of the Woeful Wages of Sin

If you love stories that genuinely make you weep, Violet Evergarden is the series for you.
| May 23, 2018 | 7 comments |

A couple of years ago, anime geeks started seeing a trailer for an upcoming series called Violet Evergarden.

This trailer was only a half-minute long. But it offered enough to catch our interest, by hinting at a very moving story with art and animation quality usually reserved for anime movies. More news and a few more trailers slowly came our way, until, earlier this year, that series was released.1

The story of Violet Evergarden

After years of war, the people of Leidenshaftlich are ready for peace. In this post-war time, many educated young women want to begin work as Auto Memory Dolls–women who can type and take dictation, even writing personal letters, for their clients.

Violet Evergarden knows little except war and life in the military. Now she finds her new peaceful life to be difficult and confusing. But instead of retreating from society, she chooses instead to train to work as a Doll. As time passes and she meets more and more people, she learns to understand them and the messages they really want to communicate.

The series has a very episodic feel, especially in the middle of the season. Most episodes present vignettes of Violet traveling to a certain location so she can type for her company’s clients. Her job often involves writing letters. But she’s also given other writing assignments, such as when she is hired to help a playwright finish his most recent work.

But Violet Evergarden also shares an overall story. Much of this involves Violet’s desire to understand the last command her former commanding officer, Major Gilbert Bougainvillea, gave her during the war’s last battler. After this command, he went missing. Violet was hospitalized and had to be given artificial arms and hands.

Violet Evergarden

Emotional devastation

My summary of the series may have seemed a bit dry, so let’s now state this one great truth:

If you’re the type of person who likes stories that shred your heart into a million sobbing pieces, Violet Evergarden is very much the show you have been waiting for and training for. It’s the series you deserve, and the one you need right now.

No, I’m not exaggerating one bit.

Storytellers like to think that our stories can accomplish many things, including being emotionally moving at the right time. This isn’t easy to do, though.

Getting a reader to care for a character is tricky business. Some stories I’ve come on seem to act on this assumption: if a character is crying, that means the reader or viewer will find that scene very moving. Maybe I’m rather hard-hearted as a reader or viewer, but I usually don’t find that approach very moving. It feels less like the storyteller is inviting me to care for these characters, as if to wring my neck while shouting at me, “You will care about this character!”

Violet Evergarden defies emotional odds by limiting its cast. In many episodes, Violet’s employers usually appear for just one episode. Yet each person is the story’s main emotional focus. This gives the viewer glimpses of how Violet is affected by other people. Her personality becomes less distant and mechanical. She’s better able to feel along with the people around her.

Even if you don’t enjoy or appreciate the series, it can teach you about emotions and storytelling–of course, only after you’ve recovered from the story’s emotional devastation.

Whatever happened to … ?

I can’t help but consider that may of the anime I watch, including Violet Evergarden, take the concept of sin even more seriously than some churches.

When Violet served in the military, she served as a killing machine. She was feared by the enemy and by men on her own side, too. In the series’s second half, Violet begins to deal with the actions she did as a soldier–the many lives she’d taken. She considers how those actions have affected her, even in ways she had not previously known.

But here the story’s main weakness also shows up.

Of course, Violet’s work as a Doll, and the letters she’s written to help other people, will be remembered. However, Violet’s work can only give her limited hope. Consider: Who has decided how many good works she must do to make up for any bad deed? If Violet writes 100 letters, will that make up for one person she killed as a soldier? Will she need to write fewer letters than that? Or, most likely, must she writer many more letters to pay for that one life? And what about all the other people she either killed herself, or had a part in killing?2

For us, even if we could somehow perform enough good deeds to make up for one sin, what about all the sins we commit? What about even the innumerable sins we committed while doing all those good deeds?

As the Bible rightly says, even the works we consider righteous deeds are no better than soiled rags.3

Yes, Violet Evergarden takes sin seriously. But the story can’t help not taking sin seriously enough. Perhaps most of all, this story can’t answer these questions: If we have sinned, who have we sinned against? Whose laws have we violated?

Here, a church that takes sin seriously can also offer real and serious hope. Such a church can point to each of us and say, “Yes, you have sinned, you have broken God’s laws.” Then this church can point to the Cross and say, “Here is God’s response to your sins, the sacrificial death of his Son, Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins. He gives this forgiveness to those who repent and believe the good news of Christ’s death for them.”

Conclusion

With that in mind, however, I can end with this. Go watch Violet Evergarden! Just be sure to bring whatever you need whenever a story hurts your heart (tissues, ice cream, etc.). Then get double of that when you reach episode 10.

  1. Editor’s note: Netflix subscribers can see Violet Evergarden in its entirety.
  2. In brief, I do not think that a soldier killing another soldier in combat is a violation of God’s command not to murder (Exodus 20:13). Even after God gave this command to his people, Israel, they still fought wars. Their warriors often killed the warriors of their enemies, and in response to God’s other commands.
  3. Isaiah 64:6.

What Propels Modern Steampunk?

Jon del Arroz surveys modern steampunk and considers how to bring back the aesthetic’s adventure elements.
| May 22, 2018 | 1 comment |

I once read an article claiming that steampunk is an aesthetic rather than a proper fiction genre.

For a long time, I argued with this assertion, believing steampunk was more than just window dressing. But the more I delved into the genre, I found that in many ways, the claim was right. That aesthetic was something I wanted to see done in a specific way for a story, which is what led me to writing For Steam and Country.

Since the genre has fallen a bit out of the main public eye the last few years, here’s a little primer of what steampunk is and where I envisioned the genre going.

A brief history of steampunk

For Steam and Country, Jon Del ArrozSteampunk is a catch-all term for Victorian-flavored fiction. Whether it’s set in 1800s England proper, or just using the way of dress and cultural flavors, steampunk is flavored much like one would see at a Dickens Faire, with ladies wearing corset and flowing dresses, men in dapper suits and top hats.

The “punk” often comes from leather and brass accessories added onto these looks, with goggles, monocles, holsters for strange contraptions. This all is often paired with alternative technologies developed from steam power, or imagined from various Tesla or Edison experiments. Most depictions of steampunk have some form of airship or dirigible in it.

The genre in fiction really began with Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, with Captain Nemo and his odd steam-powered submarine spurring the imagination of many. The next book to really capture steampunk flavor was much later, with The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, which very much brought about the modern aesthetic we think of a steampunk with its alternate history really giving birth to imaginative alternate technologies.

The steampunk aesthetic in modern fiction

In the early 2010s, steampunk exploded in the cosplay scene, with people holding entire “punk” Victorian balls at large conventions such as Dragon*Con. The costuming gave birth to Girl Genius, a web comic which received a lot of success. Fiction soon followed with popular series.

However, there wasn’t a clear style developing in the genre to match the aesthetic. Most of the books at the time fell into one of two categories: horror or romance. The first is best exemplified by Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, which brought zombie fiction into a steampunk aesthetic. The latter was apparent in Gail Carriger’s Soulless or Cassandra Claire’s The Clockwork Princess. While both had fantastical elements to them, they at their core were romance novels.

But steampunk fell as an aesthetic into different genres. These were the settings used to tell tales that were clearly horror or paranormal romance. There wasn’t anything to define steampunk as a story itself.

I also wanted something a little different from the genre conventions. Thinking about Verne and the exciting costumes I was seeing around at different conventions, I was hoping more for swashbuckling fantasy adventures. I wanted exploration, airship battles, a use of the steampunk technology in a fantasy setting. The only place I’d seen steampunk used in this manner was in anime, with Studio Ghibli films such as Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle, or in the series Last Exile.

The birth of Zaira Von Monocle

Seeing nothing like that in the book market, I wanted to create that adventuring feel.

For Steam and Country was ultimately born out of a desire to see a different type of steampunk on the market, to present the adventure first and foremost. I wanted to capture the feel of what I’d seen in the costuming, as well as the feel of old video games like Final Fantasy VI, which also utilizes the steampunk flavor in a lot of its elements.

I crafted a coming of age story within a fantasy world with late 1800s technology. A kingdom that has a fleet of airships, where steam-engine powered horseless carriages are just starting to pop up. The airship is central to the story, the travel and the wide-eyed feel of exploring the world for the first time. I think those are the hallmarks of great fantasy and perhaps I just applied an aesthetic to a coming of age story and a hero’s journey, but For Steam and Country is what I always wanted the genre of steampunk to be.

Is Black Panther too Pagan for Christian Fans?

Fans can discern Black Panther’s mysticism to find a story that celebrates human heroism, royal beauty, and African culture.
| May 18, 2018 | 24 comments |

The movie Black Panther, just released for home viewing, has broken all kinds of records. It’s passed the billion-dollar mark worldwide.

For myself, I enjoyed the movie twice in theaters. Perhaps it has something to do with the eye candy in this movie.1

Yet, Black Panther also problematically showcases the pagan practices and rituals. These practices go against my beliefs as a Christian.

For instance, there is ancestor worship, necromancy, and occultic–dare we say “witchcraft”–ceremonies in the movie. After all, if you’re going to do a movie about a fictional country name Wakanda in Africa, these things should and must be portrayed.

I saw a YouTube video not too long ago about why Black Panther was not:

  1. A black movie
  2. Not for black people
  3. Not for Christians

Ouch, right? I kinda knew that going in, but to have such things blatantly stated, I kinda shook my head.

Part of me wanted to say, “Can I just watch a movie without having to have this stuff in my mind? I just want to see Michael B. Jordan fight Chadwick Boseman with his shirt off!”2

Joking aside, should I really be thinking about my faith and my beliefs when it comes to movies I enjoy that are completely against it?

Does my enjoyment of the movie make me a supporter of those things?

This is such a hard question to answer because I don’t think it’s a “yes” or “no” answer.

Or maybe it is. I don’t see my enjoyment of a movie that have these elements in it, and believe me, there’s a lot of them, as my supporting it.

To take it a step further, in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ultron, the sentient global defense-system-turned robot villain sings:

I once had strings, but now I’m free … There are no strings on me!

And later, Ultron, sitting in a Sokovian church, says:

This church was built in the middle of the city, so everyone could be equally close to God. I like that, the symmetry, the geometry of belief.

So now we have a singing, philosophical robot villain who used quasi-scripture-like ramblings to suggest helping mankind is to simply destroy them. (Not unlike Hollywood’s Noah who thought saving the animals was more important than people.)

My good friend Marcia Montenegro, from Christian Answers from the New Age3 wrote an extensive article on the movie Avatar, showing its occult bends, worship of a nature goddess, and other pagan elements. Marcia pointed out how so many Christian enjoyed a movie with pagan elements in it.

How many of the Speculative Faith community and contributors enjoy Harry Potter?

Oh my gosh, there’s all kinds of uproar among the saints with that. There those who say they’re good books or movies. Other say, “You’re letting Satan take control of your mind when you make light of these things!”

What about some of us who enjoy darker tales?

I always pick on Jess Hanna, author of Road to Hell, and the short story, “If It Causes You to Sin” performed by Untold Podcast. I found a fellow lover of horror when I met him. Once he wrote an article in which a commentator harshly criticized him for even postulating the idea of Christian horror, much less saying it was okay.

To take it a step further, in February, Mike Duran an article about Christians and horror at The Gospel Coalition. The comments! Let’s just say I hurried to give him support to show that not everyone thinks he’s a lunatic.

I’ve used a variety of examples to show divided the saints are about belief and entertainment. Does the entertainment we enjoy show our hearts? If we enjoy good clean wholesome movies, does it mean our hearts and good and clean?

I grew up watching Aliens, Predator, and other monster movies. Does it mean I’m looking forward to the day where we land on a planet, eagerly searching for the Alien queen to lay eggs and give birth to facehuggers who come to Earth to eradicate mankind? (By the way, that’s a no!)

This does not mean we can just ignore what movies we watch. Not at all. You do have to guard your mind. Going back to Philippians 4:8, thinking on these sorts of things help to guard our minds. We certainly won’t lose anything if we only watch movies which only align with our beliefs (although they may be incredibly cheesy, boring, and snore material). And we all know some movies and shows take the disregard of our faith too far.  Shows like Preacher, some episodes of Rick and Morty, Family Guy, Lucifer, and I’m sure dozens more, can be downright blasphemous.

And then again, some of us watch the shows and say, “What’s the big deal? I like the show. I don’t believe in their philosophy!”

Which is why I think this ultimately comes down to a matter of the individual and personal preference.

I don’t think enjoying a movie against our beliefs will makes us abandon the faith.

Circling back to Black Panther, some positive elements I enjoyed was the world building of the Afrofuturistic country.

I loved the portrayal of blacks as kings and queens instead of gangsters and baby mama drama. I walked out the theater with a renewed sense of recognition that I come from the line of earthly kings and queens. However, of more importance is that I am the child, the princess of the Highest King, Jesus Christ, my Lord, my Savior, and my Redeemer!

I loved T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). But although his power can be taken away by drinking a heart-shaped flower, my Lord’s power remains forever!

I loved seeing dark-skinned actors as opposed to light-skinned actors, Michael B. Jordan as a black and brilliant complicated villain, and the film’s portrayal of tribal-based technology.

To end my thoughts, I’d simply say, “Hey, if a movie disturbs you so much that you can’t sit through it, then I would suggest leaving. If you can divorce the movie from your beliefs, then go for it.”

Perhaps I’m wrong. What do you think? What do you do when you see a movie you enjoy that goes against your beliefs?

  1. The particular eye candy which whets my appetite is the villain Eric Killmonger, played by the oh-so-fine actor, Michael B. Jordan.
  2. Now I can hear the modesty group talking about how men and women should dress a certain way so as not to incite lust. But … what would be the point of going to see the movie if I can’t see Michael B. Jordan take off his shirt? When Clark Gable took off his shirt in Gone With the Wind, T-shirt sales plummeted! It’s fascinating how well the Lord knows His creation. Philippians 4:8 states: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” I can easily rationalize every part of this verse with accolades of how true it is that Michael B. Jordan is handsome. Honestly. A just thing for man who has pure, smooth, pecan-brown skin, and lovely, bulging muscles. A man who stays in good shape, which is certainly a virtue and worthy of praise. I will think on these things!
  3. This ministry is dedicated to showing New Age practices and occult in the Church.

“Better” Christian Entertainment

Does better artistic quality mean better Christian entertainment?
| May 16, 2018 | 2 comments |

The Pure Flix movie Samson comes out on DVD this week. I haven’t seen it yet but the trailers certainly caught my attention. If I didn’t know anything about the story from the book of Judges, I would say it looks like another Conan the Barbarian remake. I can’t speak about its acting or storyline but the production values look quite well done.

Especially for a Christian movie.

Image copyright Pure Flix Entertainment

Gasp! Yes, I said it. Despite continuing progress in delivering higher quality entertainment, the stigma remains. The instinctive reaction from Christians and the secular world alike is that Christian entertainment is inferior to the mainstream stuff. That’s usually because it is, at least from an artistic viewpoint. The reasons for this are myriad, not the least being more money being thrown towards secular studios and publishers, the fact that there are simply more secular than Christian entertainment creators, the sometimes-real, sometimes-perceived apathy of the church towards Christian art and entertainment, moral and spiritual boundaries that Christians are hesitant to cross, etc.

We could talk about what makes good art, whether Christian or secular, all day. We could also talk endlessly about what makes art “Christian.” Does it have to point to the Gospel somehow? Is art made by a Christian automatically “Christian art”? Is historically Christian art actually “Christian” considering its abundant errors, heresies, and the artists’ moral failings?

These topics are better left for other conversations. Here is what I want to consider: every Christian entertainment creator I know, myself included, would love to put out books with more expensive cover art, or produce movies with blockbuster-quality action scenes, or record music with higher production values. But does better artistic quality mean better Christian entertainment?

Since this article will reach more of the reading and writing crowd, let’s use books as our rubric. What writer hasn’t looked with envy at a beautiful cover image on someone else’s book? I’m not just talking about Christians envying secular books. There is a wide variety of cover quality within the Christian literary world as well. Everyone would agree that a better cover is one ingredient of a better book. A writer (and reader) will take greater pride in the finished product with that vibrant, glossy cover grabbing everyone’s attention. From a sales and marketing standpoint, this is certainly a wise move to make. The book itself, the content inside the cover, is not affected, and that’s what truly matters, but it would be dishonest to say that a reader’s enjoyment of a book, and the author’s pride, is in no way affected by the attractiveness of the cover.

Does this make it a better product from a Christian perspective? It will most likely reach more readers with a flashy cover. It will make people pay more respect to the book, the author, and perhaps to Christian publishing as a whole. It may get attention from secular sources that otherwise wouldn’t look twice at a Christian book. So naturally, a bigger budget and a better produced product means better Christian entertainment, right?

In many cases, yes. But not automatically. The key difference in Christian and secular art is the reason why it is being created. A secular artist wants to make a statement, or achieve fame, or impress people. A Christian artist should create primarily for God’s glory. How that is manifested is different for each person, but every Christian artist, if they are being honest with themselves, knows why they wrote this book or directed that film. If it was for secular reasons, then it doesn’t matter how flashy or well-produced or well-received their product is. God’s glory must be the primary, not secondary or incidental, motivation behind its creation.

This doesn’t mean that Christians shouldn’t strive for success or should be ashamed of spending lots of money on their creations. However, Psalms 127:1 tells us that unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain. More money, more fans, more likes – these are the world’s measurements of success, not God’s.

Unraveling ‘Frayed’

A new short story and the memoir “I Was Saddam’s Son” brought Kerry Nietz back to his fictional future world ruled by sharia law.
| May 15, 2018 | No comments |

Frayed began as flash fiction.1 What is that, you ask? Flash fiction is an extremely brief story, typically of a thousand words or less. It is written for those who like to read, who often don’t have time to. The sort of story you could read in a single bathroom break. (Maybe it should be called flush fiction?)

Shortly after Amish Vampires in Space was released, the editor-in-chief of Splickety magazine, Ben Wolf, encouraged me to write a story for his speculative fiction magazine, Havok. He stipulated that the story had to be a thousand words or less.

The challenge intrigued me. I hadn’t written a short story in quite a while, but I was a little stumped with how to start. A thousand words wasn’t a lot of canvas to work with. It certainly didn’t lend itself to another Amish story. Every time I go into that universe a ton of characters come out, bringing wagonloads of words with them. I can’t go low tech and not use a lot of words. Strange, but true.

Kerry Nietz, author of Frayed, is this week’s featured novelist in Lorehaven Book Clubs. Stop by the flagship book club on Facebook to learn more about this story. You can also join our ongoing book club selection this month, reading through James L. Rubart’s novel The Man He Never Was.

So where would my flash fiction story come from?

The only thing that felt right was to craft something in the world of my first novel—A Star Curiously Singing (ASCS). Written in first-person-present tense, and centering around a single character, those books tended to be smaller. Plus, since much of that trilogy was set in space, there was still a good deal of its future Earth left unexplored. There had to be a million short stories there.

I didn’t want to use the characters from that series of books, though. The story of Sandfly, HardCandy and DarkTrench felt complete in my mind. Well enough, and best left alone.

So who should the story be about?

The debuggers of the DarkTrench Saga are, to me, the most interesting part. Techno-slaves fully connected to their information stream and to each other through an implant in their head. They’re introspective, sarcastic, and able to fix nearly anything. Fantastic and fun.

I needed another debugger. Someone equally intriguing, and with an equally cool name.

I read through the first chapter of ASCS and discovered this young, troubled debugger named ThreadBare. Perfect! Then I got to thinking about what Thread did when he wasn’t out in a storm with the rest of the debuggers. I saw this dim, smelly garage on the edge of a dusty battlefield. Then I realized Thread worked on battlefield equipment (heavies) and wished for a better life. I had the makings of a story. I started to write.

Twelve hundred words later I was done. I figured it was close enough to a thousand. Shouldn’t matter in a magazine, right? They can squish it all in somehow. Use a smaller font.

Nope. The editor of Havok, Avily Jerome, told me the story had to be under a thousand words or they couldn’t use it. Being the sensitive writer that I am, I threw my hands up in disgust, and went back to work on another Amish book. Who needs that sort of pressure! All my words are important!

Months went by.

Finally, I finished the second Amish story (Amish Zombies from Space…because, why not?) and had a chance to look at ThreadBare again. I started trimming—a couple descriptive words, a backstory sentence there—and slowly marched my way to 1012 words. And the story still made sense!

Wasn’t quite short enough yet. Argh.

I went over it again and again. I’d already cut nearly two hundred words. Everything that remained seemed essential to the story. Then I found a sentence that referenced HardCandy and Sandfly. I liked that sentence because it showed that Thread wasn’t alone. That there were other debuggers in his world with him. But for the purpose of the Havok story, it didn’t add much. I selected it in my word processor to get a word count. It amounted to 14 words.

Cut!

I sent my flash-sized story off to Avily and it was published in Havok a few months later.

I couldn’t leave ThreadBare like that, though. All alone on the edge of Delusion? I had to know what happened to him. What was his life really like? He started in a garage and went…where?

A few years back, I read a book entitled I Was Saddam’s Son. It is the memoire of Latif Yahia, an Iraqi soldier who became the body double for Saddam Hussain’s son Uday. It gives a unique glimpse into that brutal and dictatorial regime. It is fascinating reading, but also unsettling—like the story of any tyrant. It stuck with me, and in many ways its portrayal of Uday inspired the prince in Thread’s story. (Uday would eat Aadam for lunch, however.)

ThreadBare was also inspired by a fan question. A person once asked me if I ever intended to tell the story of the “remnant” that survived on Earth following ASCS. Many significant events had to happen, and while later books touched on some of those, there was still plenty of details to fill in.

Frayed is my attempt to start doing that. I hope you find it enjoyable.

“This slow-burning psychological drama holds rich rewards for those who unravel its thematic threads.”
— Lorehaven Magazine

Explore Kerry Nietz’s award-winning newest novel Frayed in the Lorehaven Library.

Read our full review exclusively from the spring 2018 issue of Lorehaven Magazine!

  1. This article is edited from Kerry Nietz’s afterword from Frayed.

Getting The Most Out Of Conferences

What an opportunity, then, for writers to pick the brains of these professionals at a conference, starting with a presentation—a pitch—of their own work. How else can writers find out if they have an idea that captures the interest of those who are experienced?
| May 14, 2018 | 2 comments |

Often this time of year, writers are gearing up to attend one of the various conferences—or perhaps they’ve just recently come home from one. Others may be thinking, why attend a conference? After all, there are writer instruction classes and webinars online which are considerably cheaper than conferences (see for example, Udemey classes and Writers Digest tutorials or webinars).

Certainly online classes, workshops, tutorials, webinars by industry professionals and even writing retreats are helpful, even necessary, in this era of less editing and more self-publishing. However, there are benefits to conferences and the savvy writer will take advantage of what’s offered.

Some of the Christian writers’ conferences you might consider include Mount Hermon, SoCal, Realm Makers, Maranatha, Florida, Northwestern, Blue Ridge, Colorado, and Oregon, ACFW. But what makes the expense of traveling to a conference, paying for tuition and room and board, spending two or more days away from family and the regular routine of life, worth it?

Instruction. Despite what I said earlier about online learning opportunities, I don’t want to minimize the instruction aspect of a conference. The truth is, too often we don’t know what we don’t know. How do you take an online class to learn how to deepen your characters’ point of view if you don’t know you need to do so? Conferences often introduce writers to topics they’ve not thought about before.

Sometimes these instructional topics come packaged in an ongoing workshop. For instance, in my first conference at Mount Hermon, I sat in an extended class on fiction co-taught by Randy Ingermanson and Brandilyn Collins. These wonderful instructors covered any number of topics, including ones I hadn’t realized I was weak in.

Networking with other writers. SpecFaith webmaster guru, E. Stephen Bernett reminds me from time to time that we met at an ACFW conference years ago. Little did I realize at the time that we would be working together in this online venue.

At conferences I’ve met writers who critiqued my work, who became subjects of an article I’ve written, who write guest articles here at Spec Faith, whose books the CSFF Blog Tour has featured, who are currently judging for the Clive Staples Award, who endorsed my writing ebook. In other words, writers help writers, and often those contacts begin at writers’ conferences.

Opportunity to pitch to editors and agents. Critique sessions, online classes, and webinars can put writers in touch with a limited number of editors and agents. Writers conferences make it possible to meet face to face with a greater number of industry professionals. These are the people who know about this volatile and ever-changing business from the inside. They are the ones receiving hundreds of manuscripts each week and seeing the caliber of writing. They have insight into what books are selling well and who is buying what.

What an opportunity, then, for writers to pick the brains of these professionals at a conference, starting with a presentation—a pitch—of their own work. How else can writers find out if they have an idea that captures the interest of those who are experienced?

Inspiration and motivation. Often hearing about the writing journey of those who have gone on before is an incredible encouragement. Further, believers can share the ways in which God uses struggles and successes to form us into the image of His Son. These stories might come from writers we meet during informal gatherings or from the keynote speaker.

I’ll never forget the year Ted Dekker spoke at Mount Hermon and shared how he had reached financial bottom when God opened the door to his writing. His story was moving (he himself was choked up as he told it) and inspiring. It was a reminder that God’s timing is not our timing, that He has plans we most likely don’t see in advance, and that we can trust Him with our writing.

Get away. Some times the best thing about a conference is the chance to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday and focus on writing. Many conferences offer places where the writer can be alone and think or journal or (shockingly! 😉 ) write. Conference venues can prompt ideas for story settings or even plot lines. And there’s a wealth of people from which to draw ideas for characters.

Fun. I can’t remember laughing harder than I did at the general sessions at Mount Hermon the year Liz Curtis Higgs was the keynote speaker. But apart from the humor speakers bring, conferences can be fun when writers prank each other as Randy Ingermanson did Steve Laube (ask either of them about it some time) or as writers hang together in the evenings over coffee. Of course there are also meals and banquets (sometimes including costumes) and award presentations and focus groups—all fun activities.

Prayer support. For the believer, conferences offer opportunities to pray for and receive prayer from other writers. And not just for writers, but for the editors and agents who often are on the front lines trying to get the best stories in print. Some from indie houses may be operating on a small budget. Some may have a small number of support staff. Others may face the task of breaking down resistance from those in house who are so concerned with the bottom line they aren’t eager to try something new. Whatever the case, we can pray for those we connect with at conferences.

So what do you think? Are conferences for you?

If so, you might take the plunge and register at a conference near you today.

This article is a revised reprint of one that appeared her in May, 2014.

Let’s Talk About Sex

Authors shouldn’t fear writing about sex any more than they should fear writing about violence or the occult. There is a place for all of those things in fiction.
| May 11, 2018 | 16 comments |

Sex is a difficult topic in the Christian book community. A lot of readers demand pure, PG or even G rated content, and understandably so. But does sex have no place in Christian-authored work?

Often, Christian readers come out with pitchforks when the topic of sex is remotely broached in fiction.

I read a book where a male character in a female’s bedroom was described as shirtless, as a protagonist walked in on his girlfriend at some stage of the act of cheating on him. There were no lewd acts described, but the implication was clear. It was also clear that the fornication was a negative thing. The cheating girlfriend was villainous, the protagonist was hurt and scarred by what was going on—it was in many ways a lesson that fidelity is crucial. What happened? The book received numerous scathing reviews because the mere topic of sex was broached, though in a way that could be seen in any PG-rated film.

In science fiction and fantasy, books are often more concept-driven than character relationship-driven, which means that as authors, we can avoid the subject by relying on plots that steer far away from sex as possible. The readers tend to expect more of us as Christians in the speculative genre, as evidenced by the incident above. But as sex is a very human condition, sometimes it can’t be danced around. What are we supposed to do?

As Christian authors, we not only have to tell great stories, but we have a secondary duty to present characters and conflicts as a moral alternative to secular culture. Presenting heroes who value chastity is certainly one aspect of this, but the vast majority of humans on the planet, from Adam and Eve to now, were certainly not chaste, or we wouldn’t be alive to discuss this topic.

As Christian readers, we want to fill our minds with what is right, and what is good. In the context of science fiction and fantasy, however, we can get into a number of concepts that, if we were to open that can of worms to its full and logical conclusion, we would have to throw away almost every book we’ve ever read—Christian or not. Most genre books have something creepy, magical spellcraft, or, at the very least, violence. Even the Bible has some pretty graphic violence and strange sexual scenarios. Genesis 19 still gives me the creeps to this day whenever I read it. With that being in one of the opening chapters of the Bible, I find it hard to believe that God’s intention is for us to wholly ignore human intimacy in our reading.

So why are we so afraid of examples like the above?

It’s more of a psychological backlash to current modern secular culture, and readers perhaps being overly-aggressive toward Christian authors in warning them not to become like their secular counterparts. It’s understandable that we as Christians don’t want our literature to look like Game Of Thrones, but by putting limits on authors like the example at the beginning of this article, we are potentially shaming authors into not taking risks with their art—which in turn creates works that feel cheesy, subpar, and watered down. And that’s because, often times, the works are watered down intentionally as to not risk offending sensitive readers.

Authors need to be able to be free to write the story calling to them. Now this is not advocating for the same in children’s books, as I wouldn’t let my child read either Game of Thrones or Genesis 19, but for adults who understand the world. Authors shouldn’t fear writing about sex any more than they should fear writing about violence or the occult. There is a place for all of those things in fiction.

I tackled the sex topic in my most recent novel, The Stars Entwined. There’s a heavy romantic component to it (spoilers), and actually, the sex in the book is so crucial to the plot and concept, it actually can’t be removed without heavily detracting from the book. I made a twist around it, though—-which is an alien culture where fornication and divorce are biologically impossible. Sex was intended by God to be an act of pure intimacy and love between husband and wife, and that is all that can possibly exist in this culture that did not have such matters corrupted by Satan and human sin. The result is both a compelling science fiction concept and highly-charged romance for readers to relate to characters’ very real human conditions as characters become besotted with one another.

Several people told me they wouldn’t read the book because there was sex in it, and they didn’t want that as Christians. It’s not a complaint, as that’s a reader’s right, but I still think it’s important to present alternatives to secular culture that can show a God-designed function in our lives as it was intended, as a juxtaposition to its debased and loveless depiction in much secular work. The sex in my book is born out of a covenant of eternal love between two people, which is what we as Christians want to promote for our society.

Some people will always be opposed to any reference to sex in works, but hopefully some adults will read this and consider with an open mind as Christian authors do their best to realistically portray human conditions and create compelling fiction we can read without feeling like we ourselves sinned.


Jon Del Arroz is the leading Hispanic voice in science fiction. He is a multi-award nominated author, popular blogger, and journalist. He contributes to The Federalist and Milo Yiannopoulos’ Dangerous.com. In the summer of 2017, Superversive Press released his YA Steampunk novel, For Steam And Country, to critical and reader acclaim. His most recent novella, “Gravity of the Game” is an exploration of baseball’s future as humanity expands to the stars. His triumphant return to Military Science Fiction comes on March 20th, 2018, with the release of his new interstellar war epic, The Stars Entwined. He releases monthly short fiction and more on his Patreon.

He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and can be found at his website and at Twitter .

The Car-Universe Without A Motor, part 5: How God Stopped Being the Creator

The history of science is supposed to show how the idea of God makes less and less sense. But it doesn’t.

The phrase “How God Stopped Being the Creator” refers to the thinking of many people today, including most scientists. This post looks at how it happened that they currently do not think of God as the Creator of the universe, even though a belief in a Creator God used to be common. This is actually a big subject, worthy of its own book. This post unfortunately will fly through some topics I’d like to dwell on, even though it winds up being long. But it will lay out the bare bones of what happened–because our current scientific culture is, like everything else, a product of history.

I’m mentioning this now because it’s important to recognize as we go forward that an increasingly atheistic orientation of science isn’t a product of science steadily progressing more and more, finding less and less room within its discoveries for God. Because that has never been entirely true–and certainly hasn’t been true in the last century or so of scientific discovery.

The oldest recorded history of science comes from astronomical observations of ancient Sumeria, records starting roughly at 3500 B.C. Which is about as old as the first writing itself (though sites like Stonehenge in various pre-literate societies that are concerned with astronomy are even older).

The Sumerians and the Babylonians after them noticed numerous patterns regularly occurring in heavens. And even though they saw that these patterns are regular and orderly, they usually attributed these actions to various gods and goddesses, whose motivations could be and often were in conflict with one another. Which should have caused the heavens to behave irregularly, but does not (though sometimes they seem to, such as when a new comet passes by Earth).  Though sometimes these ancients saw order in the world of the gods being imposed by a chief of the gods (An/Anu, later Marduk) or a council of gods, working together, their view of the universe allowed for a level of chaos in natural law (as should have been seen in astronomical observations) that’s actually foreign to nature.

The Persians, who took control of Babylon in 539 BC, believed in a single good God, Ahura Mazda, responsible for the order in the universe. While the evil “God” Ahriman was likewise responsible for chaos, destruction, and death (anything that ever goes wrong), with the two Deities locked in struggle since the beginning of the universe (both served by a host of lesser spirits).

The Ancient Greeks who were in contact with both Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt, learned basic principles of mathematics from them, studied their astronomy, and at first shared with them a polytheistic worldview of a universe inherently in conflict with itself, as seen in the gods and goddesses in Homer’s epic poems quarreling with one another over which person on earth they intended to bestow favor. (The Greeks also ended up adapting Persian concepts of dualism, applying them mainly to notions of mind/spirit and real/ideal, rather than seeing dualism as limited to that of good verses evil.)

The Greek philosophers soon began to reason beyond what they had learned from the civilizations that came before them and branched out in their thinking in many diverse directions. Many questioned polytheistic religious ideas.

Some wrote as if there were only one God or a primary god who mattered more than all the others (e.g Xenophanes of Colophon and Aristotle’s discussion of a divine prime mover, among others), while others questioned the existence of all the gods either partially or wholly.

To summarize a complex issue, the most important concept of ancient Greek philosophers that relates to atheism is the concept of atomism, which held that the universe was composed of accidental encounters of particles that could not be broken down any further (“atom” comes from Greek words meaning “not divisible” or not consisting of any simpler components). As for the origin of the atoms themselves, they were seen as having always existed, though the form they accidentally gave the universe we experience now (by crashing into one another randomly) at one time did not exist (note that some Eastern Religions such as Jainism also developed similar concepts of an eternal universe).

Theists who believed in definite gods had usually believed that at some point in history that God or the gods created all that exists. The first atheistic answer to this presumption-of-creation was simple–no, the universe has actually existed forever and always had the ability to simply arrange itself by (also eternal) random forces. Epicurus, who did not actually teach the gods were non-existent, held that they were meaningless. They did not create the world, offer no guidance in life, and do not judge the dead–since there is no afterlife. This is essentially an ancient version of modern atheism.

The official adoption of Christianity in the Roman Empire some seven centuries later would solidify the idea that a single Deity was responsible for the order in the universe (as expressed in the Hebrew Bible centuries before Xenophanes’ birth). God’s plans may be beyond our understanding and may be subject to change if God so wills it, but essentially followed order in the minds of pre-Renaissance Christian thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas–order derived from the rational nature of the mind of God. Ancient Greek philosophers were reinterpreted as having spoken about Christian concepts before Christ was born, through the indirect revelation of God through nature (which sometimes certainly seems to be true, in my opinion–but other times not so much).

Medieval times brought a tremendous loss of ancient knowledge as mostly illiterate Pagans tore down the structures of the Western Roman Empire. But the Medieval period eventually produced the first universities in Europe, which were among the first anywhere in the world. These benefited from some copies of ancient Greek texts preserved by Islamic scholars (and to a certain degree, Islamic thoughts on science) and contrary to popular belief, taught that the Earth is round. And though most Medieval thinkers believed that the Earth was the immovable center of the universe, some challenged that idea (i.e. Nicole Oresme). Roger Bacon and William of Ockham (both friars), among other thinkers of the late Middle Ages, laid some of the intellectual foundation that paved the way for the development of modern science.

Renaissance thinkers however are responsible for rediscovering Ancient Greek and Roman texts in a major way and saw themselves as causing the spirit of ancient times to be “reborn” into a new age (“renaissance” means “rebirth” in French). They generally held Medieval scholars in contempt (though they borrowed some of their best ideas) and are partly responsible for the fact that to this day many people don’t know how advanced the thinking of many Medieval philosophers actually was.

The Reformation also contributed to a disdain for the Medieval, since Protestants believed the Medieval Catholic church had lost its way–and a dedicated study of the text of the Bible (a text from ancient times) could restore true religion. Just as Renaissance philosophers saw the thinking of ancient times as restoring true freedom of thought and artist expression. (Note I would agree the Medieval Catholic church was in many ways off track–I’m definitely a Protestant. But everything Medieval was not nearly so bad as some people claimed both then and now.)

A real clash between scientific discovery and a religious institution occurred over the Geocentric model (the Earth at the center of the universe or at least Solar system) verses the Heliocentric model (the sun at the center), leading to the famous trial of Galileo Galilei. But note this clash can rightly be seen as over one ancient Greek text on the nature of the universe (Ptolemy’s), which was officially adopted by the Catholic Church (yes, in part because they believed it was more compatible with the Bible), verses astronomical observations that lined up with another set of ancient Greek observations (by Aristarchus of Samnos).

Heliocentricism won because of the data gathered to support it was much more simply explained from the point of view of the Earth orbiting the sun rather than the other way around. This led practically all Christians to eventually adopt the point of view that any of the relatively few Biblical references to the sun moving across the sky are merely referring to what it looks like from the ground, not to a Geocentric model.

Advancements in the methods of observation and mathematical methods led to the discoveries of Isaac Newton, who revolutionized four fields of study (more than any other scientist before or since): optics, calculus, laws of motion, and laws of gravity. Newton saw the universe as a finely crafted watch, created by God but now running by its own mechanism, the laws of nature running from the past forward across the entire universe, operating without any direct interference by God. Newton very much believed in a personal God, by the way, as did almost all other scientists of his era.

Newton’s discoveries (and other scientific discoveries of that time) would transform how people thought about the universe. The concept of a single orderly God expressing himself in nature was well over two thousand years old in Newton’s time–but the Biblical concept of an orderly God always allowed for God to make exceptions, to perform a miracle when and where he chose.  Once Newton’s works captured the popular imagination of his day, the miracles of the Bible were mocked as impossibilities and many Europeans began to think of God as being like the Aristotelian “prime mover,” with the rest of the universe being strictly determined by the laws of nature working since the initial beginning of time. The “prime mover”began the universe and established that it has order, but then had no further interaction with it afterwards, certainly not ever working any miracles, because miracles are a violation of natural law and thus impossible (meaning Christ had never resurrected–an idea in opposition to Christianity). As a religious position, this was called “Deism,” a view shared by U.S. president Thomas Jefferson.

Though there also was a surge in atheism around this time–atheists of this period simply affirming like the ancient atomists that the universe had existed forever, that it required no prime mover since it had always been running. While stating that a belief in God contributed positively to human morality, the French philosopher Voltaire mocked religion, especially Christianity, especially the miracles of the Bible, in thousands of essays that contributed to a surge in Europeans concluding there are no gods or God at all.

Voltaire once mocked the miracle of the sun standing still in Joshua chapter 10 on the basis that the sun standing still might seem plausible to a bunch of ignoramuses who thought the sun was small and passed through the Earth’s atmosphere, but “modern” science has discovered that the Earth actually rotates on its axis to produce days, so Joshua’s miracle would require (as far as Voltaire was concerned), the entire planet to come to a sudden halt, an event the entire world would have been aware of, and which due to the inertia Newton discovered, would cause everything on the planet to go hurtling forward into a nasty high-speed crash (like when you suddenly mash down hard on automobile brakes).

Some but not all Christians (and Jews) attempted to distance themselves from the idea of miracles as much as they could at this time, attributing blessings to “providence”–the laws of God working in our favor at any moment–rather than any kind of direct intervention by the Almighty. But they strongly maintained that the universe was inexplicable without God creating the order of the universe in the beginning (via the laws of nature).

Other believers strongly maintained miracles were a reality in nature and sometimes cited the diversity of life as a sign of God working miraculously with plants and animals. And of course, nothing in the laws of nature discovered by Newton directly addresses anything to do with life, so this was a point atheists of this period (the “Enlightenment”) could not directly answer.

Though in fact the Romantic literary movement after the Enlightenment probably did more to convince people of the truth of religion than any specific line of reasoning against atheism did. Romanticism stressed emotion and the importance of individual experience (and was a reaction against the rationality of people like Voltaire). During this time (up to about 1850), Christian religious revivals that stressed the importance of an individual being convicted of sin and coming to Christ through a personal salvation experience swept through the United States and the UK (though more in the US).

But in 1859, Charles Darwin published The Origin of the Species, the book that argued that laws similar to Newtonian laws operated within life–that the diversity of nature isn’t a miracle at all, but simply a natural occurrence, everything about life deterministic (once the laws of nature were understood) and non-miraculous. Some Christians in response doggedly held on to defending the concept of a prime mover, maintaining that life itself had to come from somewhere, as did the basic organization of the matter in the universe. But other thinkers were already extrapolating the idea that if species could have a strictly “natural” origin, so could everything else.

In 1896, the Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann declared that random fluctuations in particles could eventually produce the world we know through nothing but variations of matter through sufficient time (Boltzmann’s theory has a significant flaw, something called a “Boltzmann brain,” which I’ll talk about in a later post). This notion was much like that the ancient Greek atomists–an eternal universe that eventually made itself what it is today via random chance. Which made the idea of a prime mover unneeded (since the universe was presumed to have always existed).

Around 1900, while many Christians were not engaged in the debate over the nature of reality at all (being more convinced by personal experiences of God’s existence than interested in reason–or believing that science and faith operate in separate spheres from one another), scientists as an overall group felt increasingly certain that they understood all the mysteries of the universe, that all was definitely self-creating, with only a tiny handful of issues to mop up (such as the observation of Mercury’s procession of perihelion not quite matching what Newtonian physics indicated it should be).

That’s when the idea that the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition has an important role in the making of the universe died for most intellectuals. It’s this period that also planted the idea that scientific progress is eliminating more and more “space” for God to operate, that knowledge continues to grow unchecked–and less and less about the universe is mysterious.

Data, Newton, Einstein, and Stephen Hawking–where the history of science and sci-fi meet.

But by 1920 or so, both relativity and quantum mechanics had been discovered (Albert Einstein was crucial to both). These scientific realities are actually in profound contradiction with one another as to whether the universe is essentially random or essentially deterministic. Literally no human being knows how they are supposed to fit together for certain–and scientists have not been able to figure this out for over 100 years. (Stephen Hawking in his book The Grand Design speculated that Relativity and Quantum Mechanics perhaps never will be reconciled with one another).

Relativity also shows that any point of reference is as good as another, so in fact the Planet Earth is as much the center of the universe as any other place–meaning it is not really incorrect to say the sun revolves around the Earth and the Earth stands still–this is actually true if you make Earth your reference point–a completely legitimate way to think according to Relativity. (A point of view completely unanticipated in the days of Newton).

And time does not have a single clock that the entire universe answers to, as per Newtonian thinking. In fact, time can and does flow more rapidly in some places than others. So for the miracle in Joshua 10 to be true, all that needed to happen was for time to flow slowly in the world outside of where Joshua’s army fought–which would freeze the apparent position of both the sun and the moon in the sky (both of which are mentioned in Joshua 10)–and which would produce an effect that no other part of the planet would be aware of. Voltaire’s mockery is dated–the miracle makes more sense now, scientifically speaking, than when Voltaire penned his attack.

Quantum mechanics asserts a certain level of randomness is part of the universe, which means highly improbable events referenced as miracles in the Bible don’t actually violate the strictly deterministic laws of physics (because at some level, they are not strictly deterministic). The Resurrection is no longer an impossibility that would run in violation of universal time (as Voltaire and others saw it), but is actually allowable under the known laws of physics–if every particle in Jesus’ body just happened to arrange itself just right. (Though this is extremely, extremely improbable in terms of particles simply rearranging themselves without a purpose or plan, quantum mechanics actually scientifically allows for this kind of miracle.)

And the ancient atheistic notion that the universe always existed? Cosmologists have demonstrated that this universe had a definite beginning. While their timeline does not match that of Young Earth Creationists, let’s not miss the key point that the simplest and most logical way for the universe to exist for an atheist–that it always been around–has mostly been eliminated from scientific discussion due to observations of the universe (the Big Bang et al).

While science has made enormous gains in knowledge and that knowledge has been applied to technology that affects our lives every day, basic concepts of how the universe works, what it’s made of, where did it come from? are actually more mysterious today than they were in 1900 (from the point of view of what scientists know that they don’t know).

Serious discussion of God as a Creator has been eliminated from the minds of most modern scientists by a chain of events that are almost an accident of history. Surprisingly perhaps, it actually makes more sense today, much more, based on the most recent science, to propose that the universe had a Creator with a purpose and will, than seemed to be true over a century ago. Or even than seemed to be true in the days of Newton.

The rest of the posts in this series will continue to demonstrate why the idea of God makes sense–why it’s clearer in terms of explaining the universe we see than the concept of a self-generating cosmos.

So what are your thoughts on the history of science or related topics? Please comment below.