No Other Gods

I didn’t catch Tom Cruise’s The Mummy in theaters, so I watched it on DVD when it came out last week. It wasn’t as awful as I was expecting, though it doesn’t hold a candle to the Brendan Fraser films […]
| Oct 18, 2017 | 2 comments

I didn’t catch Tom Cruise’s The Mummy in theaters, so I watched it on DVD when it came out last week. It wasn’t as awful as I was expecting, though it doesn’t hold a candle to the Brendan Fraser films (the first two, anyway). In this new film, Cruise Missile does battle against a rag-wrapped Egyptian hottie made immortal by the power of Set, the god of death. In actual Egyptian mythology, Set is a god of disorder and violence rather than outright death, but the fact remains that he was a villain of the Egyptian supernatural world, and it’s no surprise that Hollywood came a-callin’ for an adventure film involving Egyptian mythology.

Image copyright Universal Pictures

Books, movies, film, and stories in general have always been the domain of “gods” (plural, lowercase g). Naturally, they make frequent appearances in comic books and superhero franchises (gods and demigods were the original superheroes, after all). Stories like those that involve Thor and Wonder Woman take substantial liberties with the original source material but the creators’ reverence of that source material is quite evident. Greek and Roman gods get the most screen time but every culture has its mythical heroes and villains doing battle in exotic lands and using supernatural weaponry, usually for the love or control of us mortal weaklings.

This tendency doesn’t occur as often in monotheistic religions like Christianity or Islam, since there isn’t much competition with an omnipotent, omnipresent Creator of the universe. Plus, it’s usually perceived as blasphemous to make God (or even his “prophet”) a character in our entertainment. But in the heavily populated mythical realms of ancient cultures such as Greece, Rome, and Egypt, there is quite a cast of characters to choose from and no one will get particularly upset if you tweak the narrative.

As Christians, we believe in one God in three Persons, the unchanging and eternal God of the Old and New Testaments. He is all-knowing and all-powerful, and all things are created by Him. We know there are no other gods besides Him. Yet there is no denying that other so-called “gods” have acted with great and miraculous power in the cultures that worshiped them. Is the God of the Bible merely the “top god” and the other gods are lesser gods, but still gods nonetheless?

Let’s look at what the Scriptures have to say. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul talks about eating food sacrificed to idols. In verse four, he says that “we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one.” Basically, all of these statues and totems are just inert works of art with no real power in them. Listen the words of God Himself in Isaiah 44:6: “I am the first and the last; besides me there is no god.”

Image copyright Universal Pictures

Pretty straightforward. Yet consider the miraculous wonders performed in the names of these non-existent gods. One of the most shocking examples is in the book of Exodus where Pharaoh’s magicians are able to replicate the miraculous signs done by Aaron to demonstrate God’s power (though we all know who had the biggest snake in that contest). Did other “gods” gives these sorcerers their power?

Deuteronomy 32:17 says that the wayward Israelites “sacrificed to demons who were not God.” The Bible never acknowledges the legitimate power of other gods, and dozens of passages reaffirm the declaration that there is only one God. That means that anything else pretending to be a god is either an impotent creation of human hands or is a demonic power. In my post about magic a few months ago, I laid out the argument that there is no such thing as “good magic” in real life, that all supernatural power comes either from God or Satan. The same goes for gods. While it’s easy for us to sit in our supposedly enlightened throne of rational, Western knowledge and wisdom, we must not forget that there are billions of people in the world who wholeheartedly believe in false gods.

And then there’s the new movie with Thor sporting a boy band haircut and cracking jokes…

The Doctor Doesn’t Believe in the Devil—Should We?

As Christians, what’s the best way to react to stories that are equal parts incredible storytelling and philosophical blundering?
| Oct 17, 2017 | 2 comments

Some stories are special.

The ones that grab our attention and capture our imagination in startling ways and on deeper levels that sink into our core.

They leave us breathless, hearts pounding.

And sometimes, their underlying ideologies are more atrocious than dragon breath. Such as a two-parter in David Tennant’s first season as the Doctor.

What are we supposed to do when confronted by such discrepancies?

As Christians, how can—and should—we filter the dogmas used in secular entertainment?

Note: contains spoilers for episodes 8 and 9 of Season 2.

When the Doctor Meets the Devil

In “The Impossible Planet,” the Doctor and Rose find themselves stranded on, well…the title says it all. A planet that shouldn’t really exist. Where a small Torchwood team is conducting a mining operation. Over the course of the episode, they discover the planet harbors a dark secret more terrifying than they could imagine.

That leads to “The Satan Pit,” where the pieces begin to fall into place. Turns out, the planet is also doubling as Satan’s prison. Cue many complications for the crew, the Doctor, and Rose as well as a launch into the explorations of religion as they’re forced to face the reality of the Devil’s existence.

Now, this is BBC we’re talking about. Not exactly known for being a bastion of truth. As such, it comes as no surprise that the underlying philosophy was as strong as a punctured piece of tinfoil.

And the main culprit? Guess who…

To Believe or Not to Believe

As the characters are confronted with more evidence and more encounters that become unmistakable, they find their beliefs shaken. The Doctor remains unconvinced, which leads to this exchange with one of the crewmembers:

The Doctor: You get representations of the horned Beast right across the universe in myths and legends of a million worlds. Earth, Draconia, Vel Consadine, Daemos… The Kaled god of war, the same image, over and over again. Maybe, that idea came from somewhere. Bleeding through, a thought of every sentient mind…

Ida Scott: Originating from here?

The Doctor: Could be.

Ida Scott: But if this is the original, does that make it real? Does that make it the actual Devil?

The Doctor: Well, if that’s what you want to believe. Maybe that’s what the Devil is, in the end. An idea.

He also gives a reason for his distrust:

If that thing had said it was from *beyond* the universe, I’d have believed it. But before? Impossible.

Amusing side note…this image’s size is 666 x 500. #coincidence?

Ironically, his reasoning is as airtight as a spacesuit with a leak. Why? Because at the beginning of episode 9, when he and Rose discover the planet is orbiting a black hole, he says, “But that’s impossible.” Yet he’s staring at proof that he’s wrong.

Given that recent undermining of his belief, his doubt of the Beast’s claim loses potency.

Eventually, after coming face-to-face with the Beast, the Doctor concedes its physical existence. But in his worldview, he can’t admit to confronting the actual Devil, something more than an idea.

The Doctor confronts the Devil.

The Doctor confronts the Devil.
Image via tardis.wikia.com

What, then, does the Doctor believe in? He tells us in this passionate, stirring, hopelessly askew declaration (referring to Rose at the end):

Well, I’ve seen a lot of this universe. I’ve seen fake gods and bad gods and demi-gods and would-be gods. I’ve had the whole pantheon. But if I believe in one thing… just one thing… I believe in her!

Sounds great but really, Doctor? Is that the best you can do?

Which begs the question, how do we reconcile such a fantastic story with such a flawed message?

Separating Story from Worldview

The storytelling in the episodes is superb. Relentless pacing, unique setting, high stakes, impossible situations, mysteries, betrayal, sacrifice, plot twists. Everything you could want from a story.

Except for a strong theme.

What makes this example fascinating is the juxtaposition of storytelling prowess and Truth-based ineptitude.

It’s both inspiring and depressing.

As Christians, what’s the best way to react when faced with a situation like this?

I don’t think you can apply a cookie-cutter approach, where one way is exactly right and everything else falls outside the lines. And I know some people may object to watching or reading stories that stray so far from the true north of Truth. Nothing wrong with that. But for those who enjoy secular entertainment, how do we approach the question?

At the core, it boils down to expectations. We don’t expect Doctor Who to present us with a Christian view of the world. Neither do we expect to derive the foundational pillars of what we believe and why we believe it from the show either. Or any other mainstream entertainment.

We’ll take that from the Bible, thank you.

Can we learn from these stories? Absolutely.

Should we come to them with care? Always.

This frees us to appreciate secular stories for the benefits they do have. However, that leaves the responsibility in our court (or TARDIS). Rather than being passive bystanders, we should constantly filter what we watch and read through the lens of our worldview. One informed by the Truth and able to discern the falsehoods, no matter how brazen or subtle.

When we do that, we can enjoy well-made stories, though they may stray far from the truth. Because even if the Doctor sees the Devil as nothing more than an idea, he’s not always right.

What are some ways Christians should approach stories that blatantly fly in the face of Truth? How have you personally handled such issues?

When Is Horror Too Much?

Believers of old did not shy away from horror. Hardly! Some of our most loved hymns are based on a premise of what we today consider to be horror.

Here at Spec Faith we have, from time to time, had a writer give an apologetic for the horror genre of fiction. I’m thinking of articles by Brian Godowa (a series existing of Parts 1, 2, and 3), Mike Duran (such as this article, this one, and this), R.L Copple (in this, this, and this article), and more recently, Mark Carver. Even I, who do not read horror, have conceded that the genre has its purposes and can lead readers (and writers, alike) into truth.

However, as October rolls on and as more movies of the horror kind appear in ads, I’ve begun to wonder if there isn’t a limit. And if so, what might that limit be?

First, I’m mindful that believers of old did not shy away from horror. Hardly! Some of our most loved hymns are based on a premise of what we today consider to be horror. Take “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” for instance. A close look at the lyrics, especially at the third stanza, shows the very conscious understanding of horror that Martin Luther had:

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and pow’r are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing,
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us;
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly pow’rs, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth;
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

Think about those words for a moment. We have an enemy whose craft and power is great, who is armed with cruel hate and who doesn’t have a match here on earth. Furthermore, the world is filled with devils which threaten to take us apart. The Prince of Darkness is behind it all, and he or his forces may be behind the death of the believer.

All that seems to fit into the horror genre, if you ask me. But it’s also Biblical. Nothing that Martin Luther wrote in this hymn is not an echo of the Bible. But Luther wasn’t alone. Other writers of old painted the picture of believers facing spiritual forces.

It seems to me that only in contemporary times are the songs so many churches sing void of this element of conflict with forces of evil. Or maybe I’m not aware of the ones that do so. The ones I’m familiar with are more about the love God give, praise for Him because of His grace and compassion and gift of redemption.

Those songs are also Biblical, but I don’t see a depiction of the horror from which we are saved. There’s no “I once was lost . . . was blind.” Instead songs are more apt to say we are loved, that’s who we are. Not lost, not blind. In other words, much of the horror of life has been stripped away.

Stories in the horror genre replace what much of the contemporary song writers are ignoring.

But how much is too much?

Some of those movies I mentioned that are being advertised on TV this month seem beyond healthy. On the heels of a man shooting an automatic weapon into a crowd of anonymous strangers, I can’t help but wonder if we aren’t creating this kind of monstrous behavior by giving the public so much evil to dwell on.

On the other hand, I also wonder if we don’t now respond to horror with a shrug and a sigh, After all, we’ve turned the classic horror scenario into a comedic ad. We’ve seen the possession movies and the vampire flicks. We’ve experience the adrenaline rush of fear as another monster jumps out from behind the screen. Now we expect what once was unexpected, and we need something more to produce the desired effect.

In the meantime, what had seemed horrific now seems rather common place. We are no longer moved by the zombie apocalypse. Are hearts have become a bit harder to what once used to terrify.

Is that good?

I don’t think so. Rather, I believe this sort of ho-hum attitude to the horrors of life—either on the spiritual plain or the physical—is a symptom of what Scripture refers to as a hard heart. We are no longer moved by that which should trouble us, by that which should caution us. We simply want the emotional rush, at all costs, and no longer bother to deal with the psychological factors, let alone the spiritual repercussions.

So how much horror is too much? Is that an individual thing, a societal concern, something for the church to address?

Surely, creating some kind of taboo is not the answer. I think of harvest festivals replacing Halloween parties, and wonder what we’ve accomplished. In short, isn’t the absence of horror in the church part of the problem, and the appetite for it the other part of the problem?

95 Theses for Christian Fiction Reformation, part 2

Christian-made fiction’s worst errors come from shallow or false beliefs about our faith.

This month, Christians worldwide celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

“Reformation,” in this context, doesn’t mean simply overthrowing old traditions for the sake of novelty or progress. It means a return to a biblical view of salvation and church practice. Martin Luther and other Reformers believed (I think rightly) that the Church of that time had forgotten or rejected these biblical views, and taught dangerous doctrines.

On a smaller scale, Christians should always compare “the way things have always been” with Scripture. Not to their own annoyance with old things. But to Scripture.

In that spirit, and naturally 95-theses-style, I’m evaluating Christian-made fiction:

  1. The purpose of Christian-made stories,
  2. What’s wrong with Christian-made stories,
  3. What’s right with Christian-made stories,
  4. How Christian readers can reform these stories in the future.

Last week we explored the purpose of Christian-made stories. Now let’s explore what’s wrong with them.

Part 2: What’s wrong with Christian-made stories

  1. Christian-made fiction’s worst errors come from shallow or false beliefs about our faith.
  2. Some Christians think our bodies are eternally disposable; only souls will last forever.
  3. Similarly, many think human creativity is eternally disposable; only truth lasts forever.
  4. Without robust, biblical views of art, Christians will view human stories like they view their bodies: disposable “containers” whose value is only in carrying the “soul” of truth.
  5. This is the worst false belief plaguing Christian fiction. It leads to poorly made stories.
  6. Yes, non-Christian culture also has many badly made things. However, this is no excuse for treating uncreative Christian-made stories as if they are truly creative works of art.
  7. Christian fiction may include poor characters, predictable plots, and limited style.
  8. Christian fiction may refuse to show the world truthfully. Its censored ideas or words often show a “clean” world, in which non-Christians are simplistically nice people (who just need to realize that God truly does love them) or else simplistically villainous.
  9. These stories are not merely bad art because they censor ideas or words. They are even more dangerous because they imply evil is weak—and make the Gospel look weaker.1
  10. Even Christian stories that want to value “truth” over creativity don’t handle truth well.
  11. Some novels may ignore Gospel themes, preferring moralistic or prosperity “gospels.”
  12. Moralistic “gospel” stories replace exaltation of God’s grace with exaltation of manmade laws, which can include religious rules, cultural Christianity, or patriotism.
  13. Prosperity “gospel” stories imply that conversion to Jesus will always improve your life in some way, such as by giving you good feelings, restored relationships, or true love.
  14. In fact, too many Christian novels seem to focus on the plight of nonbeliever characters.2
  15. In the past, too many Christian novels focused on prophecy or “end times” speculations.
  16. Today, too many Christian “nonfiction” books are merely bad fiction in disguise. These include, but aren’t limited to, “heaven tourism” books3 and more prophecy speculations.
  17. Our fantastic faith with God, miracles, and a fantastic eternal future has somehow led to a less-fantasy-minded readership that wants to escape the miraculous/fantastical.
  18. Some Christians have tried to publish more fantasy. But readers do not care for it.4
  19. Most Christian readers want their fiction to affirm uniquely western Christian culture, rather than exploring the Gospel in the lives of people from diverse or fantastic worlds.
  20. This leads to fiction that emphasizes a particular faith “fashion” over transcendent faith.
  21. Many Christian readers apparently believe the myth that finding true romantic love is the highest paradise we can conceive, and this directs their reading preferences.
  22. This leads to less-fantastic trendy genres such as Amish romance or historical romance.5
  23. Some Christians may believe reading fiction is a waste of time, which is best spent doing more spiritual things such as prayer, Bible reading, or supporting missions efforts.
  24. Some of these Christians may still like fiction, but feel guilty instead of robust about it.
  25. Other problems plaguing Christian fiction include, but are not limited to:
    • readers who value novels from “the bench of bishops,” that is, trusted Christian nonfiction-genre authors, pastors, or celebrities, rather than from trained “Christian novelists and dramatists”6
    • readers who ignore or reject truly excellent Christian-made fiction, partly because it’s not as popular in the world as, say, Marvel movies or prestige television drama
    • readers who believe Christians should not have their own separately labeled fiction at all (unlike every other interest group that does often label its people’s fiction)

What other problems have you found with Christian-made fiction, including fantasy?

And more importantly, how would you personally try to help improve Christian fiction?

Continued Thursday, Oct. 12 in part 3: What’s right with Christian-made stories?

  1. Explore more about this problem in A Call For Deeply Real Christian Fiction.
  2. Explore more about the problem of simplistic nonbeliever characters at Fiction Christians From Another Planet! IV: Terror Of The Megachurchians.
  3. Explore more about “heaven tourism” books, and the problematic trends behind them, at Heaven Malarkey: Lifeway, Tyndale and The State Of Christian Publishing.
  4. Explore more at Why Isn’t There More Christian Fantasy?
  5. Explore more at Why Does Christian Romance Outsell Christian Fantasy?
  6. These quoted phrases, “bench of bishops” and “Christian novelists and dramatists” both come from C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. He referred to the problem of people expecting Christian clergy to do all the heavy lifting in culture: “The clergy are those particular people within the whole Church who have been specially trained and set aside to look after what concerns us as creatures who are going to live forever: and we are asking them to do a quite different job for which they have not been trained. The job is really on us, on the laymen. The application of Christian principles, say, to trade unionism and education, must come from Christian trade unionists and Christian schoolmasters; just as Christian literature comes from Christian novelists and dramatists–not from the bench of bishops getting together and trying to write plays and novels in their spare time.”

Once Upon A(nother) Time

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away … fairy tales happen. It’s the best place for it, too; anything can happen there. The classic fairy tale opening, like the classic fairy tale ending (happily ever after), is […]
| Oct 11, 2017 | 1 comment

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away … fairy tales happen. It’s the best place for it, too; anything can happen there.

The classic fairy tale opening, like the classic fairy tale ending (happily ever after), is more than form. It is substance, part of what a fairy tale is meant to be. Once upon a time could be any time, and a land far away could be anywhere, and that is the point. Unbound by specifics, free of all the maps and history books, fairy tales are timeless and universal.

It is easy, in fact, to avoid specifics, though not everyone can do so with equal art. Sid Fleischman managed the fairy tale universality with unusual elegance in The Whipping Boy, which opens, “The young prince was known here and there (and just about everywhere else) as Prince Brat …”

A lesser writer would have said that the young prince was known throughout the kingdom as Prince Brat – “the kingdom” being where every fairy tale takes place, if it doesn’t take place in the forest. The kingdom is invariably ruled by The King, The Queen, and usually by The Prince, even when the heroine marries him. (Names are part of the frivolous small talk dispensed with in fairy tale romance, which goes from first sight to lifelong commitment in less time than it takes the average person to choose dinner off a menu.)

Disney is, of course, a passing master of such conventions. In its live-action Cinderella – which is, if you count right, its latest fairy tale – Disney added a new touch of universality that, while probably unintentional, is brilliant. Cinderella, though among the most archetypal of European fairy tales, was gifted with a multiracial cast, and it feels all the more universal for that. Disney followed the same policy in the new Beauty and the Beast, but having haphazardly mixed the fairy tale up with history, the effect is jarring more than anything else.

The creative decision to anchor Beauty and the Beast to history was not necessarily a bad one, but it illustrates the meaning of once upon a time. There is power hidden in fairy tale simplicity. By gliding airily beyond the real world, fairy tales set the forgiving terms on which they are to be taken. They spurn details and outrun cross-examination. Meanwhile, the more factual approach of the quasi-historical Beauty and the Beast begs for cross-examination. It makes you wonder: Is it possible that the French Catholic Church (a state church!) was ordaining black priests three hundred years ago? Were spinsters turned out to beg in the streets, honestly? What made the Prince a prince? If he was collecting taxes, why didn’t anybody notice when he stopped? Shouldn’t the townspeople have been holding parades and throwing confetti in the air to celebrate their tax-free existence? Does anybody in the entire Disney corporation realize that a thousand years before Belle blazed her feminist trail, Charlemagne set up schools in France that educated girls?

A historical film or novel could answer these questions. A fairy tale doesn’t have to. We can wonder if the eighteenth-century France we are seeing is the eighteenth-century France that really was, because there is an answer to that question. There is no answer, and no question, of whether we are seeing a true portrayal of a far-away land, once upon a time.

And so fairy tales, placeless and timeless, tell their stories beyond the reach of such concerns. Once upon a time, Cinderella danced, and Rumpelstiltskin spun straw into gold, and Snow White ate the apple and Rapunzel let down her hair …

Are We Actually More Like the Villain Than the Hero?

Do we overlook something when thinking about stories? Namely, which archetype falls closer to us, the readers, on the heroic-to-villainous spectrum?
| Oct 10, 2017 | No comments

Heroes get all the attention.

They’re the ones plastered on movie posters and book covers. They’re the ones with book titles using their name and storylines told from their point of view. They can have their cake (or Lembas) and eat it, too.

Which means the story’s second-most-important character, the villain, gets left in obscurity.

At times, we get glimpses into the villain’s world, life, and perspectives. But when do villains receive the attention heroes enjoy?

Rarely.

There are plenty of reasons for this:

  • Heroes are, well, the heroes.
  • The heroes fight for goodness and truth and life, while the villains often embody the opposite.
  • Villains are seen as nothing more than the evil mastermind, the one to wreak havoc, display awful morals, and present a compelling challenge for the hero to face.

Generally speaking, heroes get positive attention, while a negative attitude is reserved for villains. Makes sense, given their titles, but should it be this way?

More importantly, do we overlook something when thinking about stories? Namely, which archetype falls closer to us, the readers, on the heroic-to-villainous spectrum?

Housekeeping note: In the context of this article, “villain” doesn’t always refer to the main evil character set against the hero. It can be any antagonist. Example: The White Witch may be considered the villain of the story, but for my purposes, Edmund falls into that category as well.

Are We the Hero or the Villain?

Early on in literature, the line between hero and villain was more distinct, a clear brush stroke dividing white and black on the story’s canvas. Modern stories have taken a different approach. Blending the two, we’re left with lots of muddled gray areas.

The happy home of antiheroes, flawed characters who are still on the good side, and villains with more complex characteristics that run deeper than “out to rule or destroy the world.”

Nothing wrong with that, but it muddies the water and begs the question: where do readers fit? After all, a strong narrative will include relatable characters. Characters who remind us of ourselves—in good ways and bad ways.

Who are those characters?

Heroes, duh.

Hold on. Not so fast.

It’s true we all view ourselves as the hero of our own story. Guess what?

So do villains.

Yep, those rogues, tyrants, and killers all see themselves as the hero. The motivation and thought process behind that depends on the character, but a fleshed-out villain isn’t there just to hurl bombs at the hero. They seek an outcome. One that’s right, even if only according to their twisted worldview.

That leaves us in a conundrum. Because if we’re honest, deep down, we see startling similarities between ourselves and villains. I’m not saying we’re psychopaths like the Joker or tyrant wannabes like Sauron.

But who hasn’t been greedy, selfish, unforgiving, angry, vengeful? Typical villain fare. Who hasn’t felt like two-faced Harvey Dent or shown flashes of Gollum? It has a root cause, a nasty disease that afflicts us all.

Also known as sin.

A Different Kind of Hero

Last week in 95 Theses for Christian Fiction Reformation, part 1, E. Stephen Burnett brought out some fascinating truths:

  1. The greatest stories come the closest to reflecting truth, beauty, and goodness in our world.

  2. The greatest stories also come the closest to reflecting the lies, ugliness, and evil in our world.

A knight in not-so-shining-armor.

Rich stories carry truth, beauty and goodness. Yet they don’t avoid the lies, ugliness, and evil that infect everything.

In order to connect with the characters on a meaningful level, we need to relate to them. We need to have them look in the mirror and see our reflections. Going back to the prevalence of gray areas, this is why antiheroes became popular. It’s hard to relate to a knight in dazzling armor whose virtue outshines the sun.

Because that’s not who we are.

If we have any armor at all, it’s probably tarnished. And our virtue has as many frayed threads as Sam and Frodo’s clothes by the time they reached Mount Doom.

It’s not a stretch, then, to say we land closer to the villain’s camp than the hero’s. We wish to be like the Avengers, saving the world and using our power for good. That’s not wrong. However, people don’t usually wish for something they already have.

In fact, only one real life “Hero” has ever measured up to the knight-in-shining-armor standard.

A Different Kind of Story  

Stephen went on to say:

  1. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ shows all of these elements most clearly.

  2. The gospel of Jesus Christ, as Self-revealed by God in the Bible, is the greatest Story of all time.

  3. Jesus “wrote” the gospel, with Himself as the Hero, into reality, so He is the greatest Storyteller.

Part of the reason we love reading about heroic characters is because we know we’re not heroes. We love to strive and imagine and dream about being as principled as Captain America or loyal as Samwise. But we fall pathetically short and look to heroes to fill the gap.

Sure, people can do good—I’m not denying that. So can villains. And in the greatest Story, we’re just that. Enemies of the hero. Villains set against Him.

Major plot twist: it turns out we aren’t actually the heroes of our own story. But for the saving grace of God, our character arc would be much different. Left to ourselves, we’re on the wrong side.

That doesn’t leave us stranded without hope. We may start out like Darth Vader, drawn to the Dark Side. Yet God doesn’t leave us there, and our story turns into a redemptive arc, à la Edmund and Eustace.

So yes, there’s a sense in which we can identify with heroes. But those underappreciated villains? They’re more like us.

Which is why the hope and beauty of redemption gleam like the burning beams of sunrise into a dark and villainous world.

Do you think we’re more like heroes or villains? Why do you think we more readily identify with heroes?

Fantasy and The Depiction Of Evil

In fantasy, choosing against God can look like eating Turkish Delight or keeping a ring you set out to destroy.

“Reality fiction” (as opposed to speculative) requires evil to show up in a known form. The protagonist faces opposition, from things outside himself and from his own wayward heart. The inward conflict in fantasy may look much the same as that in reality fiction, but the external conflict may be considerably different. In this difference lies fantasy’s strength.

External conflicts in reality fiction center on day to day problems: a cheating spouse, job stress, disobedient children, and such. Or on day to day disasters: child abuse, pornography, Internet predators, drugs abuse, serial marriage, same sex marriage, child sex slaves, gang violence, homelessness.

For argument’s sake, suppose a Christian author decides to write about child sex slaves. Does he present Christ as the answer to the conflict he paints? Or as a peripheral subject? Does he show Christ as the comforter instead of the answer? Who then saves the day? Some social service or governmental agent? Or Christian? Can the author realistically show the character’s Christianity as the motive for what he does to solve the conflict?

And what about a story dealing with cultural issues that are widely debated in society such as abortion and homosexuality. Can the author of such a story avoid oversimplifying on one hand, with stereotypical answers, or giving anti-biblical views on the other, with culturally relevant open-endedness.

All the while, can the author avoid the appearance of condemning the sinner instead of the sin?

In contrast, fantasy can have evil show up in whatever imagined form, but inevitably, the real truth about evil comes out: it is opposed to good. That’s the heart of evil.

What was the problem with Adam eating from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Because God told him not to. Adam chose against God.

In fantasy, choosing against God can look like eating Turkish Delight or keeping a ring you set out to destroy. It can look like a White Witch or a roving Eye or a disembodied wizard who too oft remained nameless.

I believe depicting evil with this broader stroke is not only truthful, but it gives the Holy Spirit room to use the story for His purposes in the life of the reader. What was Turkish Delight but a sweet treat? Until it became More. Until it became the the thing that enticed Edmund to choose against Aslan. And as they think about the story, do readers dwell on Turkish Delight or might they consider their own enticement?

In addition, without a reality-sin issue at the heart of fantasy, few readers can assign the problem to Others. (Oh, sure, those Other people—the ones addicted to Turkish Delight—they really need to read this book, but that’s not me!) Thus fantasy depicts evil in a universal way, even as it personalizes the protagonist’s struggle, thus allowing readers to identify with the character, though their own struggles may be with vastly different issues.

In short, fantasy tells the truth about evil—it is a problem primarily because it opposes good. And fantasy depicts evil in a way that makes it understood universally.

Can reality fiction accomplish these things? Possibly. But in my opinion, not as often and not as well.

This article first appeared here in 2008

95 Theses for Christian Fiction Reformation, part 1

500 years ago, God’s church needed reformation. Now Christian fiction needs reforming.

500 years ago, God’s church needed reformation. Now Christian fiction needs reforming.

This month brings us the 500th anniversary of Reformation Day on Oct. 31, 1517.

In honor of Martin Luther’s famous posting of 95 theses on the church doors of Wittenberg, I’m sharing 95 more theses. These focus specifically on the need for a similar reformation of Christian-made fiction, including fantastical-genre novels.1

Part 1: The purpose of Christian-made stories

  1. Humans need stories because God created us in His image—He creates, and so should we.
  2. Stories are not a mere bonus for life, pleasant if you can get them but technically only optional.
  3. Rather, stories are part of human culture, which God told humans to make in Genesis 1:26-28.
  4. Culture, with stories, is an essential part of our humanity, as necessary as food, water, and air.
  5. God’s call for humans to make culture, with stories, continues even after humans’ fall into sin.
  6. God’s call to make culture (called the cultural mandate) is enslaved by humans’ corruption.
  7. However, God’s common grace keeps humans and our culture from becoming absolutely terrible.
  8. God’s common grace gives us sunshine, rain, laws, and culture that reflects His original purpose.
  9. The greatest stories come the closest to reflecting truth, beauty, and goodness in our world.
  10. The greatest stories also come the closest to reflecting the lies, ugliness, and evil in our world.
  11. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ shows all of these elements most clearly.
  12. The gospel of Jesus Christ, as Self-revealed by God in the Bible, is the greatest Story of all time.
  13. Jesus “wrote” the gospel, with Himself as the Hero, into reality, so He is the greatest Storyteller.
  14. Other stories, even by non-Christians, can reflect explicit gospel truths (such as sacrificial heroes).
  15. Only in the gospel can we find salvation for our souls, which redeems us from enmity with God.
  16. Only in the gospel can we rediscover the original, God-exalting purpose of human storytelling.
  17. Only in the gospel can we find freedom from sin, to pursue our original callings to glorify God.
  18. Christians are called to spread this Story explicitly as the Church: preaching, praying, and more.
  19. Christians are also called to illustrate Gospel-redeemed life with our original purpose of worship.
  20. We see God’s older cultural mandate in light of Jesus’s newer Great Commission, and vice-versa.
  21. Due to sin and other limitations, we can’t perfectly make culture with stories, but we should try.
  22. Due to sin and other limitations, we must work to enjoy culture/stories in ways that glorify God.
  23. God gets glory from story creators who don’t know Him, but Christians can glorify Him by intention.
  24. Stories don’t just honor God by repeating truths, but by showing us joy and delight in good things.
  25. Stories don’t just honor God by making us feel joyous or delighted, but by illustrating the truth.

Continued Thursday, Oct. 12 in part 2: What’s wrong with Christian-made stories?

  1. Read more from this earlier series, Why Christian Fantasy?

Guns. Lots of Guns.

Guns are fun to shoot in real life and fun to watch on-screen. But they are just a tool.
| Oct 4, 2017 | 7 comments

By now, everyone has heard about the tragedy that took place in Las Vegas. Sadly, it is an all-too-familiar part of the American experience and always leads to soul-searching, hand-wringing, and pleas for change. The perpetrator was not an Islamic terrorist (culprit: radical ideology) or an inner-city gangbanger (culprit: drugs, crime, overcrowded prisons); he was a middle-class white guy, and in such cases, the culprit is usually guns. I’m not going to wade into the hyperbolic and hyper-emotional bog of gun control arguments, but I’d like to look at guns in speculative entertainment and what the Bible might have to say.

Fantasy as a rule has hardly any guns, so let’s look at the other half of the speculative pie: science fiction. It would be impossible to imagine the genre without guns, though the further we go into the future, the more energetic the weapons become (projectiles are so 21st century). I don’t know about you, but a phaser or blaster or other energy-beam weapon seems far less intimidating than a cartridge weapon. They’re cleaner, smoother, quieter, and the wounds are usually less bloody. The phasers on Star Trek look about as scary as a flashlight. They’re much more “civilized” than the bulky, brutish weapons of today.

Image copyright Activision

In fact, this “clean and smooth” look applies to weapons across the board. You’ll find a handful of fantasy movies or games with sleek, slender katana-like swords but you’ll find plenty of skull-adorned hilts and heavy, jagged blades that would be very cumbersome to wield. Bulky and chunky looks more savage, and savage is more frightening.

How about video games? I confess that I’ve been out of the gaming loop for more than a decade (though I rocked Angry Birds when that came out a few years ago). During the days of CRT computer monitors and LAN parties, however, Half-Life, Counterstrike, and UnReal Tournament were my jam. The bigger and boomier, the better. And from what I see in the advertisements for Call of Duty, BioShock, Destiny, and other big-budget FPS games, the trend continues. FPS games, like the gun world itself, is largely a male-driven culture, and guys like their toys big and loud. There’s a reason the “pew-pew” sound effect gets so much mockery.

The “coolest” sci-fi shoot-’em-up remains, after nearly twenty years, The Matrix. Black trenchcoats, black sunglasses, entire arsenals at the touch of a button – don’t tell me that didn’t give you goosebumps the first time you saw it. The Matrix almost immediately found itself in the social crosshairs when the Columbine High School massacre took place only three weeks after its theatrical release. We will never know if or how much of an influence this film had on the shooters but there is no question that it made gun violence look “cool.”

Image copyright Warner Bros.

What does the Bible have to say about all of this? Obviously there are no direct references to guns in Scripture but it is clear that weapons do have a purpose and place in society (Matthew 26:52, Luke 22:36). However, peace is emphasized repeatedly throughout the Bible and is clearly God’s wish for His people. How does this affect our entertainment? I don’t have a one-size-fits-all answer, but for me personally, when I’m watching an action film, I’m not enjoying watching (fictitious) people get killed; I’m enjoying watching bad guys get what they deserve. I have no problem watching Stallone mow down enemy commandos by the dozens, but I don’t want to watch innocent people get cut down as they run for cover.

Guns are fun to shoot in real life and fun to watch on-screen. But they are just a tool. How they are used makes them good or bad. If someone enjoys watching massacres or blowing away random civilians in a game like Grand Theft Auto, that is borne out of sin. But if someone locks and loads the BFG in the video game Doom because of its massive demon-stopping power, then fire away.

3 Reasons We Need to Read About Evil In Stories

Evil’s not a topic we like to face. We want to keep it safely locked away where it can’t cause discomfort. But we need to have it in front of us, to be reminded it exists. Especially in stories.
| Oct 3, 2017 | No comments

We live in a broken world.

Just watch the news for five minutes or following trending topics on social media and you’ll be reminded of the sobering truth: evil surrounds us.

It’s not a topic we like to think of or discuss. It lives in the dark recesses of the bottom drawer, safely locked away. It’s too uncomfortable, too repelling.

But we need to have it in front of us, to be reminded it exists. Especially in stories.

Here are three reasons why.

1. The presence of evil doesn’t allow any room for sugarcoating.

Too often, stories told from a Christian perspective stumble into the “clean” trap. And by clean, I don’t mean a lack of swearing, violence, or any other triggers.

Rather, I mean a world stripped down from what we know to be true from experience. An insulated world where the fangs and claws of evil become afterthoughts. Things not to be touched with a ten-foot pole.

This approach to storytelling is like eating too many sweets. Lots of delicious taste to make our “feels” tingle, but ultimately lacking any significant substance.

Putting evil in stories doesn’t allow room for us to overindulge in the sweets. It forces us to face those fangs and claws instead of burying them beneath an avalanche of cotton candy.

2. The presence of evil presents an accurate picture of our sinful world.

Once we confront evil in stories, those stories ring more true. Instead of wandering through a make-believe world where everything’s seen through the rose-colored tint of pleasant thoughts and happiness, we find ourselves in a reality that reflects our own.

Our connection to the story becomes stronger, more meaningful, more compelling. No deceiving ourselves here.

That doesn’t mean we glorify evil and say, “Well, this is how the world actually is, so we have every right to bathe the story in it.” There are limits, and evil needn’t be detailed in all its gory vileness in order to drive the point home.

The goal is—or should be—to craft a narrative people can relate to. And to do that, we need to include evil. Villains, monsters, tragedies, disasters. Not for the sake of having evil, but because it makes for a more convincing tale.

Once we’re invested, we become immersed in the story.

  • We identify with Spiderman (and most other heroes) because he’s lost his parents.
  • We feel Batman’s anguish when Rachel is killed.
  • We weep with Sam at the wounds and pain of his beloved friend Frodo.

Image via lotr.wikia.com

And through it all, not only do we come to see the evil in our world through a new lens, we experience a richer, more moving story.

3. The presence of evil allows us to highlight the contrast of good.

Without evil, how can we revel in the good a story presents?

Without the depths of night, how can we bask in the piercing rays of a flaming sunrise?

Without villains doing terrible things, why do we need a hero to save the day?

Yes the shadows are dark, so very dark sometimes. We wonder how the characters will ever escape. We see evil rear its ugly head for the world to see and we shudder.

It repulses us and causes us to yearn for something better, something purer. Something filled with goodness and hope. Without evil shown for what it is, the things that are noble and upright lose their potency.

You can’t have one without the other.

This quote, attributed to G. K. Chesterton, sums it up nicely:

Why do you think stories should or shouldn’t shy away from showing evil?