Star Wars Fans, Don’t Act Like New Testament Legalists

Some “Star Wars” fans, upset with new fans and “The Last Jedi,” sound like legalistic leaders in the book of Acts.
| Jun 22, 2018 | 1 comment |

In the last few weeks, a story has emerged about the toxic behavior of certain segments of the Star Wars fandom.

It was revealed that Kelly Marie Tran, who played Rose Tico in The Last Jedi, had removed herself from Instagram. According to reports circulating on the web, she left due to a flood of sexist and racist bullying from a small but vocal segment of Star Wars fans.

Other people pointed out that Daisy Ridley, who portrays Rey in the latest Star Wars movies, has removed herself from social media for similar reasons.

The backlash was almost immediate. Legions of fans who recognized the toxicity of this minority’s behavior denounced them and their attitudes. Folks rallied to hashtags and memes trumpeting their support for the beleaguered creators who had to endure the online bullying and abusive language.

Now I think this probably needs to be said upfront: I’ve been a Star Wars fan since I was a kid. An obsessive one, even. I consumed almost all of the novelizations up through The New Jedi Order series. I played numerous video games. I thrilled at the interconnectedness of the old EU. I dreamed of being able to write a novel set a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

And at the same time, I personally have enjoyed all of the new Star Wars movies since Disney purchased Lucasfilm. I loved the fan service in both Rogue One and especially in Solo. I think that The Last Jedi is a brilliant meditation on the concept of failure that subverted many of the tropes that had been established by the previous films of the franchise. And The Force Awakens is all right too.

That said, I understand that not everyone shares my opinion. I can see why folks who were invested in their theories about Rey’s parentage didn’t appreciate Kylo Ren’s revelation. After watching The Last Jedi the first time, I too was upset that we never learned Snoke’s backstory (although I’ve come to realize that was never all that important to the overall story to begin with). And the Canto Bight sequence didn’t totally fit for me either.

While I understand why people don’t like those movies, I’m not about to lecture them about why I think they’re wrong. I’ll explain my reasoning if people ask, but I won’t argue with them. If they don’t like it, that’s fine.

So there’s no way that I would ever condone the frankly toxic and sinful behavior of the minority of fanboys with over-inflated beliefs about how important they are to protecting the honor of a fictional world filled with space wizards. But at the same time, as I read the stories and saw the behavior unfold on-line, I realized that I recognized it. I’d seen it before. There’s a Biblical parallel that I think explains why people are behaving the way they are.

To do so, we need to dive into the days of the early church and a sticky question that plagued the leaders of the Way: what do we do with all these Gentiles?

The road to the council of Jerusalem

Nowadays, it’s easy to overlook the fact that in the earliest days of the Church, Christianity was essentially a Jewish thing. After all, Jesus was Jewish. So were all of His apostles. The earliest converts to the faith were all Jewish. The crowds at Pentecost were there for a Jewish holy festival. With very few exceptions, the overwhelming majority of the earliest Christians were Jews first and, as such, they viewed their relationship with God through the lens of their Jewish identity.

And that was fine! It was good and right for them to do so. The Christian faith was an outgrowth, continuation, and fulfillment of Judaism.

Theirs is the adoption to sonship; there is the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.

Romans 9:4-5

Amen indeed! But then, several years after the birth of the Church, things started to change. Non-Jews started to trickle into the Church. The first “official” non-Jewish convert was the Roman centurion Cornelius (whose conversion is so important that Luke essentially tells the story in Acts 10 and then again in Acts 11). But then, with the sending of Barnabas and Saul on a missionary journey through parts of Asia Minor, that trickle turned into a flood. Suddenly folks who weren’t Jewish, who didn’t have the common Jewish heritage of the original Christians wanted to identify themselves as belonging to the Messiah.

And this tripped up many of the “veteran Christians.” How could someone who wasn’t Jewish become Christian? They didn’t keep kosher, they didn’t observe the Sabbath, they weren’t even circumcised, for crying out loud! How could they truly say that they understood and appreciated this whole Jesus business as much as a Jewish Christian did?

Well, some of the Jewish Christians thought they had it figured out: “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5). You Gentiles can certainly become Christian. But before you can do that, you have to become a good Jew first. These folks, who have become known as the Judaizers, often would follow Paul and teach the people he brought to the faith that they weren’t really Christian unless they first became circumcised. They claimed that Paul wasn’t a real apostle, that he was an also-ran who didn’t have the proper authority to teach people what Christianity was all about.

For Paul, this was too much. In his mind, there was no reason for people to be forced to obey the Mosaic Law. After all, none of the Jewish believers could keep it perfectly either. Why would they force others to attempt what they couldn’t accomplish? Was it circumcision that saved or Jesus’ death and resurrection? And don’t even get him started on the whole “fake apostle” business! If you want to see Paul’s passion for this subject, just read the book of Galatians. He gets so worked up about it all that, at one point, he wishes that the Judaizers would just finish the job and castrate themselves (Galatians 5:12)!

Eventually, this debate would grow so contentious that the Church’s leadership would gather in Jerusalem to discuss the matter, which we can read about in Acts 15. The Judaizers were given their chance to explain their side. Peter reminded everyone of what happened with Cornelius. And Paul and Barnabas were able to talk about what they had seen among the Gentiles as well. Eventually, James, the brother of Jesus Himself, weighed in against the Judaizers. The council decided that Gentiles wouldn’t have to become Jewish before they came to faith in Christ.

So why did my mind drift in this direction when it comes to the current crisis in Star Wars fandom? Well, because I’m a theology nerd, of course. But more than that! The story of the Judaizers is an example of what happens when folks appoint themselves gatekeepers for a community. It happened with some of the Jewish Christians in the earliest days of the Church. And it’s happening again with Star Wars.

Watchers at the gate

In some ways, it’s not surprising that we see such vehemence arise in Star Wars fandom. When George Lucas first crafted the stories set in that universe, he tapped into the power of the monomyth, relying on the work of Joseph Campbell. By doing so, he didn’t just create a story, he created a new mythology, something that could and has tapped into the part of the human psyche that responds to myths and legends. That’s a smart idea. It means that his stories, characters, and themes have resonated deeply with people for decades. That’s why the franchise has such strong staying power.

But there’s a flipside to that as well: that yearning for deeper meaning and mythology is right next door to the part of the human mind that responds to myth and religion with fanaticism. And oftentimes, that fanaticism expresses itself by turning people into gatekeepers. They believe that they have to protect their precious mythology and beliefs from those who don’t appreciate or understand it the way they do. These newcomers are so different from them and don’t fit their ideas of what a true believer looks like, sounds like, acts like, believes like. Threatened with outsiders and newcomers, the temptation is to circle the holy wagons and dictate who can and can’t come in.

I think this helps explain what we’re seeing in the Star Wars fandom. The precious orthodoxy of certain fanboys’ vision has been threatened by girls and minorities (never mind that there have been female and minority fans from the beginning), so they respond with gatekeeping behavior. The newbies don’t “do Star Wars” the right way? Then those heretics have to be stricken from the canon and treated as anathema.

Now all that said, I’m not saying that people have to be absolutely thrilled all the time with the new movies. If you don’t like the movies, that’s fine. If you didn’t like Rose Tico or you think Rey is an overpowered Mary Sue, that’s okay. It’s even fine if you’re still in mourning for the passing of certain stories, characters, and concepts into Legends status. I didn’t like that either. (Although let’s remember, Disney de-canonizing the old EU is not the same thing as Thanos snapping his fingers. I still have those Legends books on my shelf and can read them anytime.)

But if you’re tempted to resort to toxic behavior, then you’ve gone too far. There’s a huge gap between criticism and abuse. It’s one thing to say you didn’t like a fictional story. It’s quite another to decide that gives you license to spew so much hate and bile at another person that they have to retreat from any interaction with fans. And that’s especially true if you claim to be a Christ-follower. That kind of hatred and vitriol over a fictional story is just childish and antithetical to the faith.

So what’s the solution here? I honestly don’t know. More civility in our discussions and interactions, definitely. Calling out toxic behavior when we witness it, certainly. But beyond that? Who can say?

All I know for certain is I can’t wait to see what’s coming up in Star Wars. In many ways, I’m still a kid at heart when it comes to lightsabers, TIE Fighters, and all the rest. I’d just hope that my fanaticism will be tempered with respect and civility.

After all, that’s what the Jedi would want. And so would Jesus.

The Car-Universe Without A Motor, part 10: Life

Life coming from non-life on its own is a staple of science fiction. But is so unlikely in the real world that even recent advances in science are a long way from explaining it.
| Jun 21, 2018 | No comments |

In the imagination of many, Darwin’s Origin of the Species points to lifeforms coming into existence without any need for a designer or planner. Yet Darwin’s ideas actually addressed the capacity of life to change and develop after it’s already in existence. Darwin’s concept of evolution in fact does not in any way address life coming from non-life. That’s a separate issue, one usually called abiogenesis. And abiogenesis research shows there’s a massive hill related to the idea that life came from non-life. Or in the way “natural” has been defined by this series, the origin of life is extraordinarily unnatural.

Though perhaps you wouldn’t think so if you read science news headlines. The title of an article from November 6, 2017 exclaims, “Scientists find potential ‘missing link’ in chemistry that led to life on Earth.” A read through the article reveals that prior to this moment, absolutely no progress had been made in explaining how the basic elements of a cell could interact together at the same time and same place: lipids, proteins, and nucleotides (RNA/DNA). Finally, it may be possible, though it requires verification, that a common chemical could allow an important chemical reaction in these three essential building blocks of any type of cell.

An even more breathless title from 2015 proclaims “Chemists claim to have solved riddle of how life began on Earth,” but if you read the article, what you find is that chemists have found some natural processes that given appropriate precursor chemicals and copious ultraviolet light, can assemble the basic building blocks of a cell: lipids, proteins, and nucleotides.

“Wait a minute,” someone might say. “Didn’t science already establish that life can arise from chemicals back in the 1950s?” No, actually, though the experiments of  Stanley Miller and Harold Urey did show that amino acids, a building block of the proteins required for life, can be assembled from a randomized process of running current and ultraviolet light through the right set of precursor chemicals. It wasn’t until 2015 that an experiment showed that precursor chemicals for all elements of life can be generated randomly.

“But that’s progress, right?” someone might say. “Science is closing in on the answers, making progress.”

I don’t want to begrudge the chemists their interesting results, but there’s a number of things about these headlines that displease me. First, why was abiogenesis already so commonly accepted as true when there wasn’t even any kind of known mechanism for the assembly of amino acids and lipids and nucleotides? When only building blocks for proteins had been produced by the experiment conducted in 1952?

By the way, this idea that life can emerge from non-life and really should do so has been tremendously influential not just in the search for extraterrestrials (SETI) and other sciences but also in science fiction. Science fiction stories teem with aliens thought to have emerged via abiogenesis and evolved on their own just as life on Earth is thought to have evolved, including the monster creature from the 2017 move, Life (a movie I reviewed on my personal blog). Of course even if abiogenesis isn’t valid, that doesn’t mean alien life can’t exist, because if God created life here, it’s possible to think he created life elsewhere. So we can imagine aliens exist without thinking of abiogenesis and evolution–but the main reason aliens are part of modern thinking about the cosmos is because abiogenesis is commonly assumed to be true in out culture. Even if that doesn’t make sense when you think about how living cells really work.

Maybe I should stop for a second here and say that all life, all of it, has a lipid (or fatty) outer wall in each cell, proteins that provide structure inside the cell, and DNA to provide a memory of how to build the proteins (and RNA to provide the connection between DNA and protein assembly and some other cellular tasks). Viruses have less than that, but a virus hijacks a living cell and forces it to make more of the virus–by itself, without a cell to host it, a virus is not alive.

All three things, lipids, proteins, and nucleotides (DNA/RNA) are required for life, as is the ability to process chemicals for food, commonly carbohydrates. If you can’t bring all three structural things together in the same place at the same time, then a cell is impossible. Kudos to the 2017 discovery of a chemical that reacts in a helpful way with all three cell elements–instead of destroying some elements while working with others, as all previous experiments with these kinds of chemicals revealed.

If science is ever to establish that abiogensis is “natural,” that is, chemicals just doing what chemicals do, the 2015 and 2017 results are important first steps to even beginning to think life could spontaneously leap forth from non-life.

But there’s still some problems that show the spontaneous origin of life if far from likely. Not minor gaps that need to be worked out, but massive, cavernous holes.

One such issue is that amino acids come in two varieties when produced by natural chemical reactions, 50 percent with a version with a chemical group on the left and 50 percent another version with the group on the right. Left and right cannot be mixed in making a protein–all has to be right or all left. It turns out all life uses exclusively left-handed proteins.

Nucleotides also show handedness (a.k.a. chirality). Random processes of generating them produce equal amounts of left and right versions. Yet all life only uses one version, in this case, right-handed nucleotides. Simple probability shows that generating all twenty amino acids used in proteins and all the nucleotides required to code for proteins in the right sequence in the right place quickly becomes astronomically improbable.

For example, a bacterial cell averages around three hundred amino acids per protein. So even if we imagine a process that assembles proteins randomly (no known process for this exists–building blocks of proteins, amino acids, assemble randomly but don’t attach themselves to one another to build whole proteins randomly that I have ever read), if they are being assembled out of 50/50 left/right amino acids, the odds of getting a single protein to self-assemble with only left-handed amino acids are .5 multiplied by itself 300 times. Or  about 1 chance in 4909000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000. (4.909 10^91). And how many individual proteins does a single simple cell have? About 2 million. Even if we imagine the first cell only had a tenth or a hundredth as many proteins, the complexity of single cell is astoundingly high. And extremely improbable (to put it mildly) as a random event.

RNA is commonly thought to have originated first and then doubled itself to make DNA over time. Yet RNA without the protection of a cell wall or protein is fragile and easy to destroy. So it’s not only true that the problem of assembling an RNA strand is hard because of handedness (like assembling proteins), it isn’t as if they could just keep trying and accumulating themselves until one gets lucky–since chemical processes would also destroy RNA strands as they are forming. The whole thing has to come together as a system at the same time in order to self-propagate.

Scientists in this field are of course looking for ways that chemistry could have come together and made the astronomically improbable more likely. There are numerous hopeful ideas that the first life could have started out a lot simpler than any known life and gradually have become more complex. These ideas don’t really work now, but perhaps they will someday (is the thought of researchers in this field)–and that’s what the 2015 and 2017 results represent, scientists trying to work out chemistry to show how such ideas could possibly function. And they are making a few small steps forward (not that they have already solved everything, as the headlines of science reporting implied). Which is exactly what scientists should be doing, looking for proof that the hypothesis of spontaneous abiogenesis actually was likely. Or if they fail to find such evidence, they ought to admit they are left with a highly, highly improbable chain of events.

So far, they are nowhere close to showing life coming from non-life is anything other than astronomically unlikely. Which the public should know, but somehow mostly does not.

When confronted with such massive improbabilities, one answer given is the same as the one evoked for cosmology. The multiverse + the anthropic principle (check out the third paragraph under “RNA world” in the linked article to see the multiverse used to explain abiogenesis). Given essentially infinite dice rolls, this all could have worked itself out–life could have come from non-life, given enough chances. That’s the thinking.

In the analogy of this series of blog posts, the origin of life from non-life, abiogenesis, represents a massive hill of improbability. We can imagine the “car” of the universe threw itself over the hill somehow without a motor to move it. But it’s much simpler to think of the universe having a designer (that the car has a motor pushing it) who planned the elements of life and put them together. Instead of imagining a universe that wins the cosmic lottery over and over and over and over, just to avoid talking about God.

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

Show Your Hand

Beliefs about God, the universe, and right and wrong have a way of becoming apparent, even when left unspoken.
| Jun 20, 2018 | 3 comments |

When I first heard of Triplanetary, recommended as one science fiction’s great space operas, I caught the copyright year 1997. When I actually got the book in my hands, I realized 1997 was the copyright renewal, 1948 was the original copyright, and much of the book had run as a serial in 1934. Triplanetary is, in a word, old. Old books are often the best to analyze; they come unhindered by current debates, unfiltered by current assumptions.

Triplanetary, an epic clash of four intelligent species framed as an even more epic struggle for galactic destiny, presents an excellent case-study of how a creator’s stories reveal his beliefs. In the first place, it has actual ideas; in the second, it is not a book with a message, so what comments it makes on philosophy or religion are subtle and, perhaps, unconscious. The novel opens with the chance meeting of two alien races hundreds of millions of years ago. The races, super-intelligent and practically immortal, are about equal in ability but polar opposites in nature. Multiple galaxies are not big enough for the both of them, and the benevolent aliens, thinking long-term, hatch a plan: They will find some promising planet and, over the course of thousands of generations, “develop” a new race to outstrip their rivals and finally take the place of Guardians of Civilization.

Not that I imagine it’s a spoiler, but that race is us.

With this idea, the author tips his hand regarding his essential worldview. A Christian author could easily write a secular book, but even there – even in a sci-fi novel nobody believes anyway – he’s unlikely to portray humanity as the product of aliens monkeying with the evolutionary process. The aliens’ “program of genetics” – managing blood lines and human mating, through means that are never described – hints at eugenics; it’s ambiguous, however, whether the aliens’ genetic program advanced the evolution of humanity or created a master race within it.

The most important idea in the novel is Civilization (capitalization from the original). It’s curious that Civilization is never defined; perhaps the author assumed that people would know what he meant by it, and perhaps, back in 1948, he was right. Probably what he meant was Progress in every way the word can be understood. Triplanetary presents a long history of malignant aliens engineering the destruction of civilizations, from Atlantis to Rome to the United States, and an equally long history of benevolent aliens raising up newer, better civilizations in their place. One sees, in the long panorama, a climb out of chaos and violence, a march toward science and technology. You might even call it the long arc of history, bending toward justice. This unexamined optimism, with its touching idealism and materialistic faith, is old and widespread.

The ethic of Triplanetary is not our modern ethic. It’s too archaic in its reverence for womanhood, its definition of manhood by courage, resolve, and physical heroism; its casual assertion of moral principles above love is bracing. At the same time, it is not a Christian ethic. The sense, felt sometimes in the pages of the book, that Civilization matters more than the millions lost along the way is cold and foreign. The ethic of Triplanetary is, moreover, divorced from God – amicably divorced, to be sure, but divorced all the same.

Triplanetary is revealing of its time and its author. Beliefs about God, the universe, and right and wrong have a way of becoming apparent, even when left unspoken. We all show our hands in the end. It’s only a matter of how.

Which is Greater: Faith or Truth?

Biblical fiction novelist Brennan S. McPherson: “Without human imagination, faith, worship, and pleasing God are impossible.”
| Jun 19, 2018 | 10 comments |

If you worship truth, you’re a heathen.

In the West, many times, self-proclaimed Christians unknowingly worship verifiable fact.

But reliance on verifiable fact is entirely opposed to faith in God, whose appearance as a human is a ludicrous impossibility but for the simple exercising of faith.

Hebrews 11:6 (ESV) says:

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

What is faith? Faith is the exercising of the imagination on God’s promises. Without the human imagination, faith is impossible, worship is impossible, and pleasing God is impossible.

This week we feature Brennan S. McPherson and his novel Flood in Lorehaven Book Clubs. Stop by the flagship book club on Facebook to learn more about this story.

Jesus said that if we’re nice only to those who are nice to us, our niceness is meaningless (Luke 6:32-36). In the same way, when we believe only in what may be proven, our belief is nothing.

Children believe implicitly. They do not find faith a hard concept to grasp. Only after being indoctrinated with scientific thought does faith become difficult.

We take that to mean children are naïve and easily fooled. But here we must caution ourselves. Because across the board, four year old’s have an easier time following Christ than thirty-year-old science majors.

Can’t you see? Isn’t it obvious?

I’m not saying we need to reject truth or verifiable fact. Accepting those is necessary and easy.

The difficult part is moving past truth and verifiable fact to actual faith in an intangible, infinite God who knows things we can never wrap our minds around, and uses them to order a universe that mostly lies beyond the cold grip of science.

If you don’t prioritize faith over knowledge, the first calamity will pummel your faith.

When pressures rise, and pain increases, reliance on intellect will be the sand you built your house on.

Flood, Brennan S. McPhersonThis is why I write fantasy. To remind myself that the mysteries of God are greater than the little I actually understand of him, and that I must have faith in God to follow and honor him.

This is why my writing fantasy is an elaborate prayer and a form of worship. Because it is a tool I use to set my heart on the mysteries of Christ.

Western adults are so terrified that fantasy will confuse children. But anyone who’s ever played make-believe with a four year old child knows that this is a silly fear.

Children know that make-believe is not real, and that is precisely why they enjoy it. Like irony, to know that something is not true and yet to act as though it is provides the purest of joys.

Until we grow older, and everyone tells us that make-believe is unhelpful and dangerous. That the imaginary worlds we loved when we were children are not only distasteful, but a waste of time.

At first, we don’t listen. But demands pile on top of demands, and we trade a sense of wonder for practical engagement with everyday life.

It’s not all bad.

We need to be diligent and faithful in our daily duties. But sometimes the dust of this world weighs heavy, and we forget that through everything, God has strung his beauty like a master weaver at the loom.

This, I think, is the primary strength in Christian fantasy: that it can so powerfully re-awaken our love for, and fascination with, God’s beauty.

If you ever wonder why certain church groups seem stale, rude, or resentful, search for a fascination with the wonders and beauty of God’s person. You won’t find it. Search for a vibrant, daily personal practice of prayer and worship. You won’t find it.

You can find theologians among the spiritually dead.

It’s not about knowledge, it’s about faith.

Without the human imagination, heart-level worship doesn’t exist.

That’s also how Christian fantasy can broaden our capacity for worship, because it broadens our imaginations.

That’s why I read it. That’s why I write it. That’s why I love it.

“Flood comes at you like a storm. There’s a simplicity to its tumult, a feral edge to its beauty.”
— Lorehaven Magazine

Explore Brennan S. McPherson’s novel Flood in the Lorehaven Library.

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

Where Do You Find Your Speculative Fiction?

This post is really my effort to understand the state of speculative Christian fiction as it stands today. Any thoughts you care to share would be greatly appreciated.
| Jun 18, 2018 | 21 comments |

Last week when I invited commenters to list Christian books in the speculative genre that they would add to the number I had mentioned, we received a grand total of . . . one. One. So I started wondering, are we still reading? Are we reading Christian fiction? Are we reading general fiction? Are we reading independently published books or those published by small presses?

If the latter, all the more important that we tell each other about the good books we’ve found. Traditional publishing has a number of ways of getting the word out about the books they put out. Small presses and individual authors have less resources and fewer options.

And the truth is, with the number of books available now, there really is no way to read them all. I’m a member of a Facebook group for speculative authors (actually more than one, but in this case, I’m thinking of one in particular), and I’ll be frank: though I know many of those authors, there really is no way I can read all their books. I’ve bought some, but the number I can actually read is not large. Still, I would expect some of those names to appear on a list of good books you’d recommend to others.

That wasn’t the case.

I understand some people simply prefer books put out by the general market. I’ve bought some of those, too. I mean, I totally get why people love Brandon Sanderson. His writing is fresh, intriguing, innovative.

I also understand that there are a lot of speculative story options on TV or movies, including Netflix. From horror to fantasy to science fiction, and all of the permutations of those genres, it seems like some venue is showing the stories that land in the speculative fiction lover’s wheelhouse.

But I have to come back to the Christian part of the equation. Some 15 years ago, I insisted that there was a market for Christian speculative fiction, if we would only produce it. Now I’m starting to wonder. Was I wrong? Did we Christian speculative fiction writers miss the window of opportunity? Or are people actually reading but not writing reviews, not telling others about the best books? Or have our writing skills not caught up to our storytelling skills, so that “best books” are elusive?

I wish I had some definitive answers here. But I’m honestly at a loss to know why, when prompted to share with others the books we love, we don’t have Christian speculative fiction titles to pass along. So I guess, this post is really my effort to understand the state of speculative Christian fiction as it stands today. Any thoughts you care to share would be greatly appreciated.

Plus, if you could help me out by participating in this poll, I’d really appreciate it.

Blood and Guts

I’ve enjoy plenty of creepy and ghoulish tales, and I know that everyone has different tolerances and sensitivities. But when I see some of the descriptions and covers of these insanely brutal stories and films, they can look positively nauseous.
| Jun 15, 2018 | 2 comments |

Let’s be honest about something: we all have questionable tastes. Whether it’s music, movies, food, or fashion, something that we enjoy would make most people turn up their noses. I’ll use myself as an example. I absolutely love Michael Bay movies. I also have a soft spot for rapcore and nu metal. My fashion sense, if it could be called that, is stuck squarely in the 1990s. And I’m old enough now that I don’t care at all.

Let me be honest about something else: as a creative person, I am connected with many other creative types on social media. Yet hardly a day goes by when I don’t come across something that makes me think, “Ugh! How can you like that?” This thought often enters my mind when I see something related to the extreme side of the horror genre, such as torture porn, splatterpunk, cannibal horror, etc.

I’m not dissing the horror genre as a whole. I’ve enjoyed plenty of creepy and ghoulish tales, and I know that everyone has different tolerances and sensitivities. But when I see some of the descriptions and covers of these insanely brutal stories and films, they can look positively nauseous. I haven’t read any books that would be considered “splatter” but I would say that American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis contains several passages that dive headlong into the gruesome pool (and make the movie look tame by comparison).

Now you might be saying, “Well Mark, look at the books you’ve written.” Yes, my books often contain quite a bit of graphic content. My first trilogy, set in a world where Satanism has replaced Christianity, contains numerous scenes of theatrical and eye-popping violence. I will contend that my medieval plague epic, Nikolai the Penitent, is one of the most graphic Christian fiction books in recent decades. My imagination has always been excited by fictionalized violence, which is also why I am drawn to action movies and heavy metal music. So even though I am shocked by how some people can be entertained by the horrors of torture porn and splatter stories, I can empathize at least on some level.

But something’s been changing within me recently. I’ve become more diligent in my walk with the Lord, spending more time in His word and prayer and trying to be more intentional about witnessing. And as I am trying to align my heart and my mind with God’s, I find myself less drawn to these forms of entertainment. I still enjoy a cheesy action movie and I still headbang to a solid metal riff, but I feel disturbed if the violence is sadistic or the lyrics are aggressive. I’ve never been an angry person so horror movies and metal music were never a means of escape or mental catharsis for me, but the power and aggression were captivating.

Not so much these days. This is also reflected in my own writing. Many of you know that I’m taking some time off from writing as “Mark Carver” in order to write contemporary Christian Western books under a pen name. It was only meant to be just a short break to let my imagination recharge, but when I look back at some of my old books, I don’t know if I can write like that again. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not ashamed of anything that I’ve written. Yes, I have some shocking material, but it is all firmly under the banner of Christian fiction, even if some people don’t see how that’s possible. However, I won’t deny that a part of me took perverse delight in writing those horrific scenes, just like many people get a kick out of a particularly “cool” kill in a movie, or how others enjoy watching helpless victims get fictitiously but realistically tortured on screen or in a book.

So does this mean I’m getting soft? Legalistic? Boring? No. As I said, I’m proud of my books, even if they are a little messed up. I’ve just noticed a direct correlation between my walk with God and my entertainment and creative inclinations, and this is why I can look at people who revel in stomach-churning horror and see that what they need is prayer. This is also why books that are both Christian and horrifying are still necessary because they can be a way to reach out to unbelievers who otherwise wouldn’t pick up a Christian book. But if you are a believer, I would encourage you to pray about what entertainment you enjoy. Listen to your conscience, because that is the voice of the Holy Spirit within you.

Personally, I’ve started enjoying bluegrass and Southern gospel along with my heavy metal. Want to fight about it?

The Car-Universe Without A Motor, part 9: Boltzmann Brain Matrix

The multiverse + anthropic principle blows itself up. It doesn’t give us the universe we see, because starting with randomness leads to Bolztmann brains, to a self-generated Matrix.

This post talks about Boltzmann brains, which are an interesting, self-generating version of the Matrix. Which also throw a wrench in a number of common ideas about a random, self-generating universe.

Before we return to Boltzmann brains, let me mention the analogy of a car going uphill or downhill that launched this series. Said analogy rather breaks down when we start talking multiverses as I did in the last post–which at best would be something like the entire track for the car to travel reproducing itself a near-infinite number of times until a car by random forces alone had enough momentum to go up all hills in its path by inertia alone (even if that had it doing the equivalent of moving faster than the speed of sound).

Since talking about the multiverse isn’t very helpful in that analogy, I departed from it and talked about the multiverse on its own. Note that it was important to talk about the multiverse, because that plus the anthropic principle mentioned last week are how most cosmologists argue that it’s not significant that the origin of the universe as they discuss it calls for very extremely improbable events. So what if it does–they in effect say–multiverse means random forces have had enough shots to randomly create all that is (even if the universe is unbelievably improbable) + anthropic principle means of course we live in a universe where things just happened to work out–otherwise we would not know about it.

Though I actually talked about only one version of the multiverse. Many different types have been proposed, as I explained in one of my personal blog articles from 2012 that you can check out of you’d like to know more. What I didn’t talk about in my blog post was the basic shortcoming of all theories of self-generating universes, including all multiverse concepts–the Boltzmann brain.

Ludwig Boltzmann, Austrian physicist, did not actually invent the so-called “brain” named after him. What he did do in 1896 was attempt to advance what was in effect his own version of the anthropic principle. He argued from classical physics (quantum mechanics had not been discovered yet) that if we can imagine atoms moving randomly in some kind of free state like a gas, given all eternity to do so, eventually they could combine to create a whole universe like the one we see, out of that gas. It would be a random event, a mind-boggling improbable random event, but (Boltzmann reasoned) it didn’t matter if the event was wildly improbable, because only after it already happened would people have brains to notice it happened. Or to repeat how the Wikipedia article linked above says it, “The Universe is observed to be in a highly improbable non-equilibrium state because only when such states randomly occur can brains exist to be aware of the Universe.”

This might sound convincing or at least like an idea worth proposing at first glance, but it wasn’t long before somebody noticed (I haven’t been able to find out who the first person to notice this was) that actually, if you imagine random events creating the universe out of nothing, what is simpler: That an entire universe, including billions of brains, would be formed randomly out of nothing? Or that a single brain would be formed out of nothing? And then, what if that single brain simply imagines that it sees the rest of all that exists?

That’s what a Boltzmann brain is–it’s an idea that if we are talking about a hugely improbable multiverse that rolls the dice over and over and over until it gets it right so life can exist, that it’s actually much more likely random action would create a single brain that imagines a universe than a universe that generates billions of brains. 

Note that the idea that any one of us could be a Boltzmann brain right now is strikingly similar to the idea behind the Matrix, though even more extreme. In the Matrix movies, at least some people were real and aware the Matrix is fake. If you are a Boltzmann brain, you will never be able to leave the Matrix of your own strange imagination–you will never be able to confirm or deny that anyone else actually exists.

Cosmologists generally hate the idea of Boltzmann brains and they should. First, to suppose we’re in a Boltzmann brain invalidates science. What’s the point in studying a universe if all that exists in it is imaginary?

Second, this idea acts like a logical proof to show that random self-generation of many, many universes until you get the right one is inherently self-defeating. Unless such a universe is “natural” as I’ve defined it elsewhere in this series, that is, unless (in my analogy) the car rolls downhill from the start without any special fine-tuning or highly improbable randomness along the way, then it’s far more likely that we’re in a Boltzmann brain matrix than any universe we can perceive actually exists.

Multiverse + anthropic principle blows itself up. It doesn’t work, and Boltzmann brains show why.

An idea that does work is starting with one admittedly inexplicable Creator, who put a universe in order and then later put humans in that universe. The universe and therefore science are real because the God of the Bible created the universe separate from both himself and our imaginations. It really exists and so do we. It’s worth studying. Science makes sense if you start with God.

But if you start with immense randomness, unless you can show initial conditions can “naturally” make a universe (which cannot be shown to be true as of now, not even close), you don’t get a universe that can be studied scientifically. You get Boltzmann brains.

Welcome to the Matrix, atheist friends. That’s where your presumptions actually lead–to the destruction of science. To an irrational universe. (Which of course means something is wrong with your presumptions.)

Next time we’ll return to the subject of the universe being unnatural to make the case presented in this series stronger. But for now, what are your thoughts on this topic?




Creating Literature that Leaps the Spiritual Divide

Sci-fi novelist Gray Rinehart: “What does it take to cross the spiritual divide effectively in a literary or artistic work?”
| Jun 12, 2018 | No comments |

The conventional wisdom is that authors shouldn’t read reviews of their own work.

If the reviews are good, they can inflate already outsized egos, and if the reviews are bad, well–egos don’t always just deflate. A hot-air-balloon-sized ego, pierced by a bad review, might slowly settle into a mass of hard-to-wrangle canvas, but a smaller, more fragile ego might burst into shreds that are impossible to reassemble.

Nevertheless, some of us are drawn to reviews like moths to flame. If we’re lucky, the flame is a gentle candle and we just get singed if we get too close. If we’re unlucky, it’s a napalm-spewing flamethrower and we get terribly burned.

This week we feature Gray Rinehart and his novel Walking on the Sea of Clouds in Lorehaven Book Clubs. Stop by the flagship book club on Facebook to learn more about this story.

Sometimes we just get confused, as I was at two contrasting reviews of my novel, Walking on the Sea of Clouds.

First, an Amazon reviewer gave the novel three stars and noted that it was a “good story” with strong character development but was “a bit bible-preachy [sic] for [their] tastes in hard science fiction.”

Then the first issue of Lorehaven included a brief, positive review that warned those seeking discernment that the story “only briefly referenced Christianity.”

Same story. Bible-preachy. Only briefly referenced Christianity.

I think this illustrates the fact that every reader brings their own experiences, attitudes, and expectations to the stories they read. Orson Scott Card told us in his writing workshop that whatever we’ve written is not the story, because the real story is in the reader’s head–and what’s in your head when you read a story is different from what’s in another person’s head when they read the same story. You might agree on some points, but you’ll disagree on others, and that’s okay.Walking on the Sea of Clouds, Gray Rinehart

In the case of my novel, someone who was not used to reading about believers and faith in the context of hard science fiction was put off by it. I have no way to know whether that person is a believer who was just surprised or a nonbeliever who was repulsed, and that really doesn’t matter. Their reading of the text is just as valid as anyone else’s–including the Lorehaven reviewer who might have been looking for more overt Christian themes.

Was that person disappointed not to find them, or just surprised? I have no way of knowing, and again it hardly matters because however they read the story was the right way, for them.

Same story. Different readers. Different results.

It reminds me of what the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, about the message of the cross seeming foolish to the lost, but representing the very power of God to those of us who believe (1 Corinthians 1:18). Same message. Different audience. Vastly different results.

Even within the body of believers, though, we can differ in our interpretations of Scripture. How much more should we expect to differ in reading science fiction and fantasy stories?

What does it take to cross the spiritual divide effectively in a literary or artistic work? Is it foolish even to try? I hope not, because in this age of growing doubt and disbelief I believe that Christian ideals, values, and themes still have a place in literature and art, whether science fiction, fantasy, or more mundane creations. And not just Christian principles, but Christian characters belong in fantastical stories, even in technology-heavy hard science fiction, just as surely as Christian people belong in every profession.

Unfortunately, sometimes the Christian characters in these stories end up being caricatures more than characters, reflecting the authors’ preconceptions rather than being portrayed as individuals, as people. I’ve found this to be true in stories by believers and nonbelievers alike, and it was something I tried to avoid.

That is, I tried to cross the spiritual divide by including Christian characters where they’re not always found and by representing them as individual people with their own virtues and flaws and even with different attitudes toward and expressions of faith. Some talk about it, some hide it, some deny it. Some ignore it, some sneer at it, some question it. That seemed realistic to me, and above all I tried to make the story seem realistic. And maybe those two contrasting reviews–too much Bible to some people, not that much to others–show that I struck the right balance after all.

“This novel’s style is literary, its pacing episodic, its science hard as a vacuum.”
— Lorehaven Magazine

Explore Gray Rinehart’s novel
Walking on the Sea of Clouds
in the Lorehaven Library

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

The Myth That Will Not Die

Good speculative novels, written from a Christian perspective, by Christians, or about Christians, are out there. The myth that Christian fiction is like a soiled diaper, that it is only for elderly ladies, is simply a myth.
| Jun 11, 2018 | 3 comments |

To be honest, I have to admit that the myth of which I’m speaking once upon a time was more than a myth. In other words, there was truth involved in the claim. It was not a myth someone merely fabricated.

I’m having yet another discussion about Christian fiction, this one with someone in a speculative Facebook group. The original post was innocent enough—the group member asked what genre besides romance was most popular in Christian fiction. Not content to research the question or to give an opinion, one commenter took a direct shot at Christian fiction in general by responding that what was popular was “anything non realistic that old ladies like to read.” He shortly following that comment up with “Christian Fiction stinks like an old ladies Depends all around.”

I’m not sure what this guy’s issue with old ladies is, but what was worse than these comments, as far as I’m concerned, is that he later said he’d stopped reading Christian fiction.

My question is simple: if you don’t read Christian fiction, how do you know it stinks?

I feel like I’ve been an apologist for Christian fiction for lo these many years. Once it was in its infancy and it did need to improve. When the writing showed notable growth, the complaints still came: it was too unrealistic.

This Facebook commenter made that same accusation. The characters in Christian fiction “don’t sin” according to him. Which I think is laughable. I didn’t take the time to give him an exhaustive list of sins that protagonists in Christian fiction face, but I did use Patrick Carr’s A Cast of Stones as an example to refute that notion. After all, in that book the main character starts out as the town drunk.

Of course I’m not saying that every book which falls under the Christian fiction umbrella is realistic and well-written. Another commenter said that 90% of Christian fiction is poor, but 90% of general fiction is poor, too. That’s a valid point, I think. The proportion of good Christian fiction may not exceed that of general fiction, but neither is it non-existent.

I guess that’s why I think sites like Spec Faith and Lorehaven (especially the latter) are important. They serve as a filter so that readers can not only know what books are out there in the speculative genre, but what books actually are worth reading.

We need to know what people think. We need to know how to compare books with the greats and with the general market fare. We need to know the strengths and the weaknesses.

There are a couple ways we can evaluate books. One is to pay attention to what books are winning awards. There are a plethora of awards available to Christian fiction, some like the Realm Award, attached to a conference. The Oregon Christian Writers’ Conference awards both published and unpublished works in a number of categories. So does the Blue Ridge conference, the Florida conference, and of course the ACFW conference. Then there is the ECPA (publishers association) award known as the Christy Award.

Books that win one of these awards have been vetted by judges who know something about writing. Some have gone through several levels of judging. Chances are, these books are a cut above the rest. As an example, I’ll mention the young adult novel that Spec Faith featured last Friday, Escape to Vindor by Emily Golus. What the introduction does not mention is that this novel won one of Blue Ridge awards called a Selah:

YA Fiction

Escape to Vindor by Emily Golus
Taberah Press
Mary Beth Dahl & Vie Herlocker, Editors

Another way to find the best books is by paying attention to reviews. Amazon is helpful, but this is where Lorehaven comes in as such a valuable tool. The site is still new and has only just put out the first copy of the review magazine, so there is lots of reason to expect growth. It will undoubtedly become a go-to place for those looking for the best speculative novels to read.

And good speculative novels, written from a Christian perspective, by Christians, or about Christians, are out there. Besides being an insult to old ladies, who by implication are accused of having no discernment, no ability to recognize good literature,the myth that Christian fiction is like a soiled diaper, that it is only for elderly ladies, is simply not true. It’s insulting to the hundreds of writers and editors who work hard to improve the quality of both indie and traditionally published novels. We simply cannot let that false notion persist. It needs to be refuted whenever it pops up.

Stand for truth! Stop the myth that Christian fiction is worthless if you want good novels.

As it turns out, I was not alone in my support of Christian fiction. A number of others added names they thought the commenter should read. What authors or titles would you put on that list?

Fiction Friday – Escape To Vindor By Emily Golus

For as long as she can remember, Megan Bradshaw has imagined herself as the heroine of Vindor, her own secret world populated with mermaids, centaurs, samurai and more. When school pressures and an upcoming move make life unbearable, Megan wishes she could escape to Vindor for real. And then she does.

Escape To Vindor

by Emily Golus


Young Adult fantasy.

For as long as she can remember, Megan Bradshaw has imagined herself as the heroine of Vindor, her own secret world populated with mermaids, centaurs, samurai and more. When school pressures and an upcoming move make life unbearable, Megan wishes she could escape to Vindor for real.

And then she does. Megan finds herself trapped in a real-life Vindor, containing flesh-and-blood versions of her imaginary characters. But dreaming about being a hero and actually fighting monsters are two very different things—especially when the Shadow, the frightening creature now tearing Vindor apart, is one Megan doesn’t remember putting there.

Playing the role of her alter-ego Selena, Megan embarks on a dangerous journey, accompanied by a know-it-all centaur and a goblin she’s not sure she can trust. Will the Shadow destroy her before she can find a way to save her world?


From Chapter 1
The Riddle

“Who’s there?”

The gray fog swallowed the words. Wispy tendrils of mist swirled around the horses and riders, muffling the clink of chain mail and the thud of hooves against soft soil. The fog pressed up against faces and necks, cold and clammy, like fingers ready to strangle.

The broad-shouldered officer at the front of the group removed his helmet. His ebony brow wrinkled as he surveyed the misty shadows. “Is anyone here?” he asked again.

No sound.

“It’s just buildings.” He turned his nickering horse to face the small group of mounted soldiers. “No sign of life—the village is abandoned.”

“No, Captain Okoro,” came a girl’s voice behind them. She stepped out in front of the party, the mist curling around her long white gown and straight red-brown hair. A pendant with an enormous purple jewel hung from her neck, and a silver circlet rested on her forehead. The girl closed her eyes for a moment, listening. She turned to the men on the war horses. “She’s out there.”

“Are you sure, Guardian Selena?” asked the broad-shouldered Captain Okoro. “The report wasn’t clear if—”

“Did that building just move?” a soldier interrupted.

The party turned toward a great shadowy structure. Something wasn’t quite right about its shape.

“I think it’s just—” Okoro began.

At once the structure sprouted wings. With a shriek, it leapt into the air.

–X X X–

from Chapter 2
Crossing Worlds

Around eleven o’clock Megan navigated through the crowded lunchroom to the table in the far corner as she always did. But as she passed the drinking fountain, her skin prickled as though she were being watched. Not just watched, but seriously stared at.

Sh turned around and found herself looking right at the table where Shari Wilson and most of the other girls from her homeroom sat. Shari stopped mid-whisper to Christy and glared at Megan.

You have a problem, Bradshaw?”

Megan felt herself turning red. “N-no.” She made a swift about-face and hurried toward her table.

Shari and the rest of the popular girls had let Megan hang out with them at the beginning of the school year. But once they got to know her, it became clear she was no longer welcome at their lunch table.

Megan couldn’t blame them. Why would they want to hang out with mousy, quiet Megan? Shari was thin and gorgeous, while Megan wore loose shirts to hide her flat chest and chubby middle. Shari’s posse flounced into school each morning like they’d stepped out of an issue of Seventeen, while Megan still couldn’t manage her impossibly thick red-brown hair, which usually hung loose with little bits flipping out in random directions.

And even if she did get her act together, Megan would alwqays look so different, thanks to her Scottish mother’s reddish hair and freckles combined with her Japanese father’s tan skin and dark eyes—the only lasting traces he’d left in her life.

Megan set down her tray at her usual table and sat quietly, resigning herself to a rectangular slice of sausage pizza.

The prickling feeling returned. The skin on the back of her neck almost stung now, but this time Megan resisted the urge to turn around.

“Ice,” said a voice behind her.

Megan nearly jumped out of the plastic seat.

Her friend Audrey Lloyd clunked down her Return of the Jedi lunch box with a triumphant flourish. “The answer to your riddle. It’s ice.”

“Oh, yeah.” Megan tried to sound calm and normal, put the prickling feeling remaind. “You guessed it.”

“Are you two still going on with that riddle contest?” Megan’s next-door neighbor Kiara sat across the table as usual.

“Yep, and I’m on a roll.” Audrey grinned as she unwrapped her bologna sandwich. “How about the one I gave you?”

Megan reached into her pocket and pulled out the folded piece of paper. She opened it and glanced at the first two lines written in Audrey’s favorite sparkly blue ink:

It moves the stars and worlds unknown,
Soft as rain and firm as stone
. . .

“I have no idea what this means,” Megan said. “And I’ve thought about it a lot—I’m pretty sure I’ve memorized it.”

She didn’t mention the fact that it had inspired that morning’s adventure in Vindor—the world which, of course, Megan’s friends knew nothing about. Megan was pretty sure even Audrey would find the fact that Megan had invented her own fantasy world complete with geography, cultures, and politics to be a bit too weird. She didn’t want to scare away the few friends she had.

–X X X–


Emily Golus has been dreaming up worlds since before she could write her name. Her childhood drawings featured mysterious mermaids and well-dressed mice on grand adventures.

A New England transplant now living in the Deep South, Golus is fascinated by culture and the way it shapes how individuals see the world around them. She is passionate about helping teens better understand their value in this great big world, and helping young storytellers find their voice.

Golus has worked as a professional web writer and marketer for more than a decade and enjoys helping adult writers leverage the power of the Internet to spread their ideas.

She lives in Taylors, South Carolina, with her rock-climbing husband and a cat named T.S. Eliot, who walks over her keyboard at the worst possible moments. When she isn’t writing, you can find her cooking up soup, tending her blueberry garden, or exploring the forests of the Carolinas.

Learn more about her writing and speaking at her website.