When Monsters Change Sides

Some creatures are imaginary. I think of unicorns and heffelumps and vampires and zombies. Or orcs or elves or hobbits. Some of these beings have a basis in history. For instance dragons are mentioned in the Bible. At least one […]

Some creatures are imaginary. I think of unicorns and heffelumps and vampires and zombies. Or orcs or elves or hobbits. Some of these beings have a basis in history. For instance dragons are mentioned in the Bible. At least one is. And they are definitely described in the book of Job. Ghosts also have a bit of tradition, and they are also mentioned in the gospels, though in the instance recorded, Jesus assured His disciples He was NOT a ghost.

Regardless of the origin of the various beasts that populate speculative stories, they generally have had a defined role—they side with evil or they side with good.

But more and more these creatures are changing sides. Or perhaps, more accurately, they are becoming a mixed bag—not all good or all evil as a trait of their species. Perhaps this shift is a result of our wider understanding of the world and a determination not to paint any people group as evil simply because of their ethnicity or their culture or their race.

Of course C. S. Lewis incorporated the monster-changing-sides in Narnia. He had dwarfs that were faithful to the High King, and dwarfs that were not. He also included the Calormene soldier Emeth who forsook Tash and became one of Aslan’s followers.

In other words, monsters changing sides, is not necessarily a recent phenomenon. But what does it mean?

Historically dragons have been evil. They burned and pillaged. They held towns and countrysides under the tyranny of they vicious exploits. They horded their ill-got gain for no apparent reason other than their own satisfaction.

But along with others, Donita Paul flipped the dragon myth in her DragonKeeper Chronicles. Dragons were sometimes cute and cuddly. Dragons were sometimes faithful companions that helped save the day. And dragons were sometimes still villainous, to be defeated.

As near as I can determine, not having read the series, Stephenie Meyer did the same in Twilight with vampires.

Of course, ghosts have been flipped for some time—think of Casper the Friendly Ghost or the ghosts in the very old TV program, Topper.

So monster flipping is not a new endeavor. Back in the 1960s there were two other TV programs that illustrated this point: The Addams Family and The Munsters.

I continue to think about this idea of changing sides. What’s behind it? Does the popularity lie simply in the surprise element such reversal offers? Or is there another reason people want to see or read stories about surviving the zombie apocalypse, as author Greg Garrett suggests in Living with the Living Dead (Oxford University Press).

Do people want to make friends with monsters, as in the movie Monsters Inc. as a way of reducing the terror in the world? After all, people are scary enough. We don’t need to also be afraid of the monster under the bed. Or the one who we might be sitting next to in geometry.

In other words, is the remake of monsters an attempt to cope with fear?

The thing I realize in all this is that flipping monsters is not actually dealing with them.

The people in Israel didn’t become less fearful of the giants in the promised land because they had a plan to turn them, to sway them, to flip them so they’d fight on the Israelite side. They also didn’t pretend they did not exist.

There really were giants in the land. The way God wanted His people to approach that reality was to turn to Him and rely on the fact that He could deal with the giants.

I wonder if monster-flipping is a way of side-stepping that kind of dependence on God.

Guest Post by Chris Morris: Showers, Character Depth, and Chronic Illness

Before I tell this story about chronic illness, you have to promise you won’t picture me naked. Promise? I’m waiting . . . okay, we’re good. I remember the day I knew my seizures were going to be a big […]
| Sep 22, 2017 | 2 comments

Before I tell this story about chronic illness, you have to promise you won’t picture me naked.

Promise?

I’m waiting . . . okay, we’re good.

I remember the day I knew my seizures were going to be a big deal. I was in the bathroom getting ready to take a shower. I was standing at the edge of the shower, about to step in, and the next moment. . .

My head was pounding. My legs were sore. I was on the ground, but didn’t know how I got there. And my wife and youngest son were staring at me with fear in their eyes.

What happened?

We were in the living room and heard knocking. We thought it was the front door, so we checked but nobody was there.

What does the door have to do with me?

Hang on, Chris. We came into the bathroom next, and that’s when we saw you. You had a seizure on the floor. Your head was hitting the wall, over and over again. Your legs were wrapped around the toilet and banging against the tub.

That is when my addled brain realized I was naked. I tried to grab for a towel above my head, but my arm wouldn’t cooperate. Instead I just smacked my arm on the sink. I whimpered and looked down with a grimace.

Reading my mind, my wife put a towel over me and asked my son to leave.

It was about ten minutes before my mind and body were communicating with each other, so I lay on the floor for a while.

I just wanted to take a shower, but my life changed forever in that moment.

Every person who suffers from chronic illness struggles with these same emotions and soul-wrenching questions:

Is it because I am not good enough?

Will she still love me?

What if he fires me when he finds out?

Why can’t my body just WORK?

Why am I so tired, so confused, in so much pain?

What does it feel like to just be NORMAL?

The point of this article isn’t to fixate on my chronic illness though. Rather, I am giving you writers a real story from my own life to highlight something for your consideration. Think for a moment about how you might be able to add some complexity to your protagonist or your plot line if you chose to include a character with a realistic portrayal of a chronic illness.

I don’t mean to suggest some form of cultural appropriation either. Rather, I think it’s time that we see more characters that are depictions of those with chronic health conditions. And not caricatures either, but carefully researched and accurate representations of those who aren’t neurotypical, who aren’t healthy, and who aren’t going to “get better” either.

Imagine for a moment reading a book where hours of the protagonist’s days are lost, every single day. Each time, he has to piece together what’s happened in the time that passed, using cues from his environment like the music playing, how those around him are acting, and the time. This could be a key plot point, or at the very least a fascinating character. And, by the way, it’s also exactly what absence seizures feel like for an epileptic.

Some films and TV shows have explored this dynamic, but I’m confident there’s an audience for this in fresh ways. Most of what I’ve seen has been a serious consideration of a particular chronic illness, in the form of a biopic or even a documentary. It would be fascinating to see characters with chronic illnesses as a part of their life, not as the sole focus. This is a more realistic picture of what life with a long-term health condition looks like anyway.

What do you think about this idea?

– – – – –

Chris Morris is the author of the new book Perfectly Abnormal: Uncovering the Image of God in Chronic Illness. He writes to give encouragement and strategies to people who are dealing with circumstances that feel overwhelming. He believes in redefining normal and rebuilding hope.

He writes at his web site. You can also follow him on Twitter and find him on Facebook.

Do the Bible and Conscience Limit Christian Cosplay?

Your cosplay choices can be shaped by other Christians’ advice, but only God and Holy Scripture should guide you.
| Sep 21, 2017 | 13 comments

This article is in response to Laura VanArendonk Baugh’s two-part series, Cosplay 101 for Christians.

Please note that this is not intended to be a rebuttal. It simply answers the question her article raised in my mind: “Are there any limits to what should be done during cosplay?” (This is a subject I’d never considered before I read her articles on the topic.)

As such this followup article is really a “yes, that’s fine, but …” addendum.

Since whenever anybody talks about limits to anything, doing so may imply rules, and having rules implies to many people legalism or legalistic thinking, let me be clear that’s not where I’m coming from. First, a couple of personal but I hope reasonable definitions:

  • “Legalism” in Christianity represents the idea that it’s necessary to obey a series of rules in order to earn personal salvation and/or favor with God.
  • “Legalistic” refers to churches and Christian organizations which don’t openly state their rules are required for salvation, but insist that you must keep a series of rules nonetheless.

Note that while I am going to talk about rules/guiding principles, I am not saying these rules are necessary for your salvation (or God’s favor), so they do not represent legalism. I also don’t insist you keep my rules, so these rules are not legalistic.

I mean to explain my point of view, but leave it up to you to decide for yourself (between you and God) what you believe is right.

Since I’m talking about me a bit, let me mention I personally spent a significant chunk of my childhood not in any kind of church at all and had a great deal of personal freedom to do what I wanted. It turns out that I knew there were some things I didn’t want to even try—drugs, for example. I made a rule for myself to stay away from them.

I believe that’s something mature Christians should routinely do: decide for themselves what they can and cannot personally accept regarding things not explicitly stated to be right or wrong in Christian Scripture.

I believe for people who were strongly exposed to legalism/legalistic churches and who have escaped that kind of thinking to understand God looks at people’s hearts and not their outward appearance, it may be weird to suggest there should be rules or principles involved in the application of cosplay. That maybe some things might not be a good idea to pretend to be.

But the New Testament has lots of principles it expects Christians to apply. And it expects you to apply them to everything (I Cor 10:31, Col 3:17—do all to glorify God AND all in the name of Jesus). You are to apply them for yourself, not because somebody makes you do so, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit (John 16:13), walking in the Spirit and receiving the fruits of doing so (Gal. 5:16-23).

What happens if somebody else is doing something we believers don’t feel is correct? Things for which there are no explicit Scriptural instructions?

In short, we are to tolerate the convictions other people have as much as possible. (See I Cor. 8 and Romans 14-15.) Which does not mean we never talk about such topics—though we should not argue about anything endlessly (II Tim. 2:23)—but that does not exclude disagreement or stating what we think is important. Romans 15:14 specifically states that we Christians are capable of admonishing and teaching and encouraging one another, in a context immediately after the discussion of Christian liberty, which includes disagreeing with one another at times.

Please note that nearly everything that otherwise can be good has a limit, a point where excess makes it bad. Chocolate is good, too much chocolate can be bad. I think cosplay can be good. I agree it’s essentially an artistic expression, as Laura VanArendonk Baugh said in her second article. I agree artistic expression, like chocolate, is a gift of God and is generally good. But I also believe artistic expression can be abused.

In other words, cosplay, like chocolate, has a limit. That’s normal—almost everything has a limit. Even drinking too much pure water can kill you.

More than anything, that’s what I want people who read this article to embrace—the concept of the existence of a limit on this topic. Where the limit is exactly for your cosplay is something you need to figure out for yourself. The advice of other Christians matters, but in the end God and Holy Scripture should guide you to your own convictions.

Note also when I’m talking about “limits” and “convictions” I don’t mean “personal comfort zone.” Yeah, a comfort zone is a real thing, but I’m talking about when you think something is actually wrong, either sinful or potentially so or dangerous and think you have a solid reason to stay away from it. But you also recognize other people may not see things the same way as you—or have the same issues you have.

To help you understand what I mean by limits and help you consider what your own limits might be, I’m going to share some cosplay costumes I wouldn’t ever wear out of personal conviction. (Also note I am not big into cosplay in the first place, which is perhaps like not being into oil painting—it means I’m not an expert on the subject, but I’m still capable of saying what I would not wear … or paint.

By Sandman-AC at Deviant Art.

1. I would not wear this Conan the Barbarian costume below (it’s not because I don’t have this guy’s abs).

Why not? Because I have a personal concept of modesty this costume violates. I don’t take off my shirt in public, not ever (even swimming I wear a t-shirt unless totally in private). I think it’s wrong (seriously).

Note my concept of modesty doesn’t have to be yours—but if I would never take my shirt off in public as Travis Perry, I am not going to have a different standard as Conan. Since I get to pick the costume I wear in advance, I get to decide if the costume matches my personal values—the fact I’m wearing a costume does not excuse me from my ordinary ideas of modesty. No way I’m wearing that.

From Alibaba.com under “Deluxe Conan the Barbarian Costume.”

2. But I’m not wearing this Conan costume either.

This one doesn’t affect my sense of modesty because of the fake plastic chest. But it hits another issue—while I watched Conan the Barbarian in theaters in 1982 and still think the music is epic, Conan stands for a lot of things I don’t agree with. Yes, I know that wearing a Conan costume doesn’t make me him, but I actually would be more comfortable wearing the costume of the villain of that 1982 movie, Thulsa Doom (played by James Earl Jones). Because most people know when you wear a villain’s costume, you don’t agree with what the villain stands for. But when you wear the protagonist’s costume, people assume you think the protagonist is awesome and are in some kind of agreement with his or her point of view.

Conan is attributed to have answered, “What is best in life?” by saying: “To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women!” I could not agree less with that point of view. I don’t want people to think I approve of things I actually don’t, because I don’t want my good motives to be seen as evil (Romans 14:16), because I don’t even want to give an appearance of evil on my part (I Thes. 5:22), and because I want to be an example to other Christians (Titus 2:7).

Note I shared a personal conversation between Laura and E. Stephen Burnett in which they saw everything I had to say here in advance. Laura commented that this second point of mine contradicts me saying I had no issue with what she said about playing villains. To a degree she’s right, though I just said it’s bad heroes that bother me more than villains. Though it’s true what the character represents matters to me and she basically said it should not matter. But then in the PM I used the example of the Gor sword-and-planet series (which routinely praised sexual slavery for women), saying I would not ever dress as a character from that world—and she agreed she did not support that series. Therefore, if I came as a character from Gor, I’d be guaranteed to make her angry—fictional character or not. So in truth, even Laura has a limit on this topic.

This means for me I would rule out in advance dressing as a protagonist who believes things I can’t stand. What that means for you, I don’t know—you have to make up your own mind between you and God.

From the Comics Alliance under the title “Cosplay: Gender-Swapped Wonder Women Are a Wonder, Man [NYCC 2011] by Laura Hudson October 16, 2011”

3. I’m not wearing this costume either:

Clearly this is a joke. I actually think it’s a little bit funny, albeit perhaps insulting to the entire Wonder Woman franchise. As a costume, it’s also a trifle immodest for my taste, but my main reason for me not wearing it is not immodesty and not that I disapprove of Wonder Woman as a character (she’s mostly pretty good, actually, though the Greek goddess thing of the recent movie annoys me), but because I would not dress as a woman. Not even as a joke.

The Bible lays down quite a lot of verses about separation of male and female. I’m not going to quote them here, because in the end I recognize it’s an interpretation on my part to say: “God means male to be in the male category and female to be female. God created binary gender and honors it.” I could pile on a stack of verses to support my interpretation and probably defend it pretty well—though it would be a bit harder to defend the idea that a natural consequence of that interpretation is I would not wear clothes intended for women, not even in a costume.

But my interpretation here is in fact based on Scripture. I am in fact entitled to oppose cross-gender dressing as a personal conviction. I’m also entitled to defend the idea that “crossplay” is something Christians should not do.

But I recognize that is my conviction for me and cannot be transferred to you, unless you look at the Scriptures yourself and find you agree with me.

Note this is a conviction based on Christian concepts and not a matter of my squeamishness or comfort zone. In high school I dressed as a woman for a Montana State University film project based on Some Like It Hot (for those of you who know the film, this is the role Tony Curtis played). I was honestly uncomfortable in women’s clothes. But I oppose crossing that line not just because this feels “icky.” I was able to dress like a woman in high school when I had very little Scriptural knowledge. It’s because I know more now, not because I’m more squeamish, that I think the division of genders is real, intended by God, and have noticed we are living in a culture that’s quite confused about that—a confusion I believe we should alleviate as Christians, not add to.

Therefore, I wouldn’t engage in “crossplay” and don’t recommend you do so, either. But in the end, that conviction is between you and God.

So, I’m not wearing a costume that shows too much of my skin; I’m not going to wear a costume of a protagonist character whose personal philosophy I loathe; and I’m not going to dress as a woman. Note—that still leaves a vast array of potential costumes I could wear without violating my own conscience.

These are my thoughts on the limits of cosplay, shared as examples to help you develop your own concepts, if you haven’t already done so.

What are your thoughts?

Down With the Sickness

(Any Disturbed fans in the house? *crickets*) This past Sunday, the series finale of the action/horror series The Strain aired after four seasons. The show was based on a trilogy by Guillermo Del Toro (the movie director) and Chuck Hogan. […]
| Sep 20, 2017 | No comments

(Any Disturbed fans in the house? *crickets*)

This past Sunday, the series finale of the action/horror series The Strain aired after four seasons. The show was based on a trilogy by Guillermo Del Toro (the movie director) and Chuck Hogan. The basic premise is that a blood-borne disease turns people into daylight-shunning vampires, but they don’t bite with fangs; rather, they have a snake-like appendage that shoots out from a hole in their neck and latches onto their victims like a leech and siphons away their blood while transferring the disease which turns the victims into “munchers.” It’s a fairly complex tale with a CDC disease specialist as the main protagonist, and there is a diverse cast of supporting characters, along with an ancient book, Nazis, very unbelievable explanations of vampire lore, family squabbles, and a “Master” that needs to be killed to stop the plague, because every sentient attack on the human race follows the anthill hierarchy: kill the queen and the foot soldiers will scatter.

Image Copyright FX

Despite the story’s ambition, the books were just this side of ludicrous, and while the TV show did change a few things and simplify many others, it was more grounded and coherent as a whole, in my opinion. I can’t say that I’ll miss it but it was a good run while it lasted, and thankfully it ended as planned rather than being abruptly cancelled. And I do have to say that it was a unique take on the vampire phenomenon, making it a medical condition rather than something supernatural or sexy. The “munchers” are sub-human monsters that just want to feed. No goth fashion or underground raves or secret covens. The whole Master/slaves aspect aside, the breakdown of society and individual tensions would manifest in any horrific plague scenario, as other movies and shows have depicted.

It’s interesting how the biggest threat to human existence rarely gets news coverage. It’s not North Korea or global warming or white privilege; it’s disease. The rapid advancement of technology has seen a corresponding boom in medical breakthroughs, and we have been spared the population-decimating scourges of ages past. I remember feeling literally nauseous as I did research on the Black Death plague for my medieval fiction novel Nikolai the Penitent. The outbreak of the Spanish flu a century ago, which killed between 50-100 million people, and even the more recent SARS and Ebola epidemics remind us that the threat is always at the gate. With more than seven billion people on the planet, the opportunity for rogue viruses to find abundant hosts increases every day.

I can’t help but wonder if the only thing keeping us from falling prey to a sweeping pandemic is God’s providence. Considering that more than two and a half billion people don’t have access to basic sanitation, the likelihood of a mortal disease suddenly appearing is nothing short of terrifying. Science and medicine have worked tirelessly to keep that from happening, but the Book of Revelation tells us that plagues will once again fall upon the Earth. The two witnesses in chapter 11 wield plagues at will, and seven plagues descend in chapter 15, along with even more plagues in chapter 16. Unlike warfare or terrorism, there isn’t an enemy to fight against in an outbreak, and social order can break down frighteningly fast. H.G. Wells saw the power a germ can wield, having his alien invaders fall prey to the tiniest microorganisms despite standing tall against our mightiest arsenals.

I’m not a doomsayer or fearmonger. All I’m saying is wash your hands, thank God that you have clean running water, and pray that the horrors we read about in history, fiction, and the Bible won’t manifest themselves in our lifetime.

Entering Storyland: Why We Become Immersed in the Tales We Read

Stories have a common thread running through them. They’re not real, but in our minds, it’s as if they are.
| Sep 19, 2017 | No comments

He was a simple hobbit whose uncle happened to possess a decent fortune and enjoy longevity.

So why do we care about Frodo? Why does the unfolding narrative of his quest to destroy the One Ring enrapture us?

Image via lotr.wikia.com

Or think of Harry Potter. An unremarkable English kid with a tragic past, terrible relatives, and a penchant for disobeying the rules. Yet he’s one of the wizarding world’s most well-known names, and the tales of his years at Hogwarts have captured the imaginations of millions.

I could go on, listing story after story, journey after journey. Some written better, more entertaining, or more thought-provoking than others, but all with a common thread running through them.

They’re not real, but in our minds, it’s as if they are.

In her article last week, Becky Miller discussed the theme of victory in speculative fiction, and concluded with this:

Speculative fiction…reminds us of what we hope for.

There are many reasons we enjoy stories.

  • The plot.
  • The characters.
  • The themes.
  • The world.

However, these don’t dig deep enough. They don’t reach to the core of why stories hold such an enchanting sway upon us. The reason, as Becky alluded to, is simple.

They show us what we hope for.

In many ways, fictional stories are scattered pieces of glass, each shard a different color, broken off from some real-world source and then reassembled into a mesmerizing stained-glass masterpiece.

It’s the echoes of hope, those intersections of fiction and reality, that drive the storytelling engine. After all, if we’re not invested in a character, in what they do and what happens to them, then the story’s power dies.

How does this idea of “what we hope for” play out in stories? Why does it provide such a potent appeal?

Phase 1: Entrance

Excluding the continuation of a series, in which case many elements and characters are already familiar, this is where the reader starts. Square one. Jason Bourne before he learns anything about himself or his situation.

At this point, we’re inching our way down the gentle slope into the shallow side of the pool, feeling our way forward and seeing where the next step will take us. Will the story engage our minds? Present a compelling story arc? Introduce a relevant theme? Provide relatable, likeable characters?

If the answer is yes, we move forward with more confidence. Each step builds our trust and reveals more of the world we’ve entered, giving details, hinting at background, fleshing out the characters and plot.

Phase 2: Familiarity

Once the foundation is laid, we begin connecting with the story on deeper and more meaningful levels. We start to relate to the characters and care what happens. And parts of their journey become mini mirrors, reflecting our own journeys in familiar ways.

Returning to the Harry Potter analogy, we all know what it’s like to be involved in difficult relationships. We know what it’s like to be disliked, bullied, mistreated. We empathize with his situation, and suddenly, subconsciously, we’ve taken a thread of our story and woven it into the fabric of what we’re reading.

It happens again and again, sometimes in small, unnoticeable ways. Sometimes in ways that resound with the clarion call of truth such that we wonder if we’ve actually become the character in the story.

That’s where “what we hope for” bounds in, and where we enter the deepest phase.

Phase 3: Immersion

No more tiptoeing into the shallow end of the pool now—we’re diving to the bottom of the end that’s 10 feet deep. We root for Harry, not because he’s good looking or is one of the “cool kids” but because we’re relating to his story in personal ways that tie back to our own stories.

And we hope.

We know the importance of winning that final Quidditch match of the season, so we hope Gryffindor triumphs.

We know the beauty of having close friends, so we hope Ron and Harry and Hermione stick together, and we find it fulfilling when they help each other and laugh together.

We know what it’s like to have enemies, so we hope Harry can overcome his.

But secretly, I think, we’re not only hoping for Harry. We’re hoping for ourselves, too. We’ve become invested, involved, immersed in the story. And we hope. If things turn out all right for Harry, maybe they’ll turn out all right for us, too.

On a broader scale, we encounter the end of the tale…where the villain is vanquished and good wins out. We look to our own lives, and we hope.

Such is the power of storytelling. It resonates because deep down, we know it’s true. Maybe not in the same ways fictionally as in reality, but true all the same. The reason?

Our lives are a continuous string of stories. We understand story, even if we don’t realize it. When we cross the magic threshold into the fictional realm of storyland, we’re getting a glimpse—albeit unique and different—of our stories.

Thanks to that correlation, stories can, and constantly do, remind us of what we hope for in our stories.

Why do you think we connect with stories?

For Me . . . Examining Our Focus

We live in such a “me” era, which started with the “Me Generation” back in the 1970s and has only escalated with the Generation Me of the following decade. So I hesitated to feature the words “For Me” in the […]

We live in such a “me” era, which started with the “Me Generation” back in the 1970s and has only escalated with the Generation Me of the following decade. So I hesitated to feature the words “For Me” in the title of this post. On one hand the phrase seems quite contemporary, but does it fit with what God’s word has to say?

Actually “For me” is the beginning of one of the Apostle Paul’s most well-known statements recorded in the Bible: “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Phil 1:21 – Most translations say, “For to me . . .” but the difference doesn’t seem to affect the meaning). In other words, the concept of focusing on the individual has a place in Scripture. Essentially Paul was making a declaration about his life—what he valued, what was of utmost importance to him, and the short version that encapsulated the focus and direction of who he was, could be summarized in one word: Christ.

Recently I heard a sermon that turned that question back onto the hearer, or onto those reading Paul’s statement. If I were writing the line, when I came to, “For me, to live is ___,” how would I fill in the blank?

Would a truthful answer be something like, For me, to live is being a writer? Or since I’m such a sports fan and am so excited for the beginning of the new NFL season, would the truthful statement be, For me, to live is football. There are lots of options. For me, to live is my family. For me, to live is fiction. For me, to live is reading.

Obviously there are many good things that can fit into the blank, but none more significant than Paul’s original statement. Nothing is better than Christ. Not good story telling. Not art. Not speculative fiction. Not any of the things we so often make our focus, the things we write about and value.

Paul’s statement, instead of encouraging us to fit Christ in with our passion (I can fit Christ into my passion for football by praying for the players, for example), challenges us to live in such a way that Christ becomes our main focus.

Narrowing our focus in that way can be hard. We love our family. We love our pet. We love our job. We love our community of people who think as we do and have a passion similar to our own. In short we love our speculative world.

We love creating and pretending. We love cosplay. We love all things fantasy or all things science fiction. We love superheros. We love vampires and werewolves and zombies and dragons and orcs. We love the Borg and we love Dr. Who.

The question is, do any of the things we love become the thing we live for? For me, to live is ___. Where does our love for speculative literature fit into the eternal scheme of things? Would I rather have Christ than fantasy? Than science fiction?

I don’t believe for one minute that imagination is evil or that speculative stories, by nature of their inventiveness, are evil) see Friday’s guest post by Mike Duran). Otherwise, we’d have to believe that Adam and Eve, who were part of the world that God called “very good” had no imagination, and there’s nothing in Scripture to tie the fall of humankind to acquiring an imagination. So I have to conclude that our imagination is God-given.

On the other hand, we know from any number of passages, that sin changed the color of our life. We don’t simply have a dirty spot that needs to be erased. Instead we are scarlet, and it colors our will and our intentions and our preferences and, yes, our imagination. But ditching our imagination does not deal with the problem. Only Christ’s blood shed on the cross can wash us so that what was scarlet becomes white as snow (Is 1:18).

He didn’t wash only our will. Or only our preferences. He washed even our imagination. But just as our will must be brought under subjection to Him, so our imagination must be brought under subjection to Him.

In fact, if we can say with Paul, For me, to live is Christ, than there’s nothing that we ought not bring under His rule and sway. In other words, for me, I’d rather obey Christ than read fantasy, than write fantasy, than watch fantasy, than promote fantasy. Or at least that’s where I should be.

‘Apologetics and the Christian Imagination’ Explores Why God Gives Us Stories

Professor Holly Ordway shows how God gives us both reason and imagination to help us find His truth.
| Sep 15, 2017 | 2 comments
Mike Duran is a novelist, blogger, and speaker who writes urban fantasy, horror, and overly-thinky pieces on the intersections of culture and religion. He is the author of The Ghost Box, selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the best indie novels of 2105 and first in a paranoir series. His titles include Requiem 4, a Lovecraftian military sci-fi, Wickers Bog: A Tale of Southern Gothic Horror, and a non-fiction exploration on the intersection between the horror genre and evangelical fiction entitled Christian Horror. You can learn more about Mike Duran, his writing projects, philosophical musings, and arcane interests, at MikeDuran.com.

Theology and fiction have a notoriously uneasy relationship. In fact, some would even say they shouldn’t have one at all. For example, I recently encountered a homeschool group that was debating whether or not to let their kids read fiction. One mother summed up her refusal with what is the common objection:

“Fiction – by nature – is simply not true. God says to stay away from anything that is not true, so we do.”

Even though this response is relatively fringe, it nevertheless encapsulates the tenuous relationship between Truth-telling and Story-telling in the minds of many well-meaning believers.

The subtitle of Professor Holly Ordway’s new book, “Apologetics and the Christian Imagination,” is “An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith.” Part of the “integration” Ordway is seeking to achieve is between similarly (potential) disparate elements, in this case Reason and Imagination.

Reason and Imagination are twin faculties, both part of human nature–and both given to us by God our Creator!–that, together, allow for a further grasp of the truth. (pp. 10-11)

Though “given to us by God,” imagination has typically been viewed with suspicion by evangelicals (a development which uniquely applies to fans of speculative genres). Rooted in the word “image,” evangelicals often associate the term with idolatry, as in “graven image” (which is one reason Protestants eschew icons and sacramentalism). Compound this with verses like Gen. 6:5, “…everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil” (NLT) and II Cor. 10:5 “Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God…” (KJV), and a case could be made that imagination should indeed be suspect.

On the contrary, Ordway suggests that cultivating and engaging the imagination is critical to our apologetics and our “grasp of the truth.” Part of this requires returning to a more classical understanding of the imagination. She writes,

For Aristotle, and for St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, and other medieval scholars and theologians, the imagination has a cognitive function: it mediates ‘between sense and intellect’ by conveying ‘data to the intellect’ . . . Imagination is the human faculty that assimilates sensory data into images, upon which the intellect can then act; it is the basis of all reasoned thought as well as all artistic, or what we would call ‘imaginative,’ exercise. (p. 16)

So in the classical sense, imagination is more than just daydreaming and conjuring up fanciful places and characters. Rather, the imagination provides the raw material upon which the intellect can then operate. Images create the stuff upon which Reason can engage.

For the Christian fiction fan (and Christian fiction writer), cultivating this God-given faculty means more than just permitting ourselves to be wildly creative. It involves recognizing that fiction can impact our “sense and intellect,” and that we engage fiction differently than we engage a sermon or propositional arguments.

By way of example, Ordway uses C.S. Lewis (and herself) to describe what she calls “a two-step conversion” (p. 10). The first step in Lewis’ conversion was “a conversion to Theism, not to Christianity” (p. 7). He moved from strict atheism to a belief in God. It was an inability to grasp certain doctrinal issues, namely the Atonement, that prevented Lewis from taking the next step and embracing Christianity. This changed when Lewis’ Imagination was engaged. Specifically his love for myth and how Christ was “the true Myth” or “Myth become flesh.” Ordway summarizes,

When Lewis realized that he could connect his imaginative response to the story, to the factual reality of the Christian claim about the Crucifixion and Resurrection, the final barrier to belief fell. He could become a Christian as a whole person, with both his imagination and his reason fully engaged. (p. 8)

In a similar way, Ordway testifies to how, even as an atheist, Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” so powerfully prepped her for the Gospel.

… although I was not interested in Christianity, I had, without knowing it, been experiencing the work of grace through my imagination. As a child and young adult, I read fantasy, fairy tales, and myths, and especially fell in love with the Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord of the Rings. I didn’t know that I was encountering God’s grace through those books, but in fact I was. (p. 9)

That a work of fantasy fiction could have such a profoundly redemptive influence on a reader may come as a surprise to some. However, it is just such a realization that often motivates the hopeful Christian creative. Because of this, Ordway sees art and fiction as part of a larger, integrative approach to apologetics. While preaching and propositional reasoning are integral elements of presenting the Gospel, they are just part of “a spectrum of engagement” (p. 31) — engagement aimed at “three transcendentals,” namely, goodness, truth, and beauty.

Ultimately, the coherence and soundness of Christian teaching (truth), the witness of the Faith lived out faithfully in individual lives, families, and communities (goodness), and the experience of the aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual riches of the liturgy and the arts (beauty) are all connected. Our faith is deeply rooted and fully nourished only if we have all three transcendentals in our lives: goodness, truth, and beauty. Likewise, our apologetics and our evangelization will be most attractive, compelling, and convincing if we draw on all three. Truth, for the intellect; goodness, for the moral sense and the will; beauty, for the aesthetic sense, the emotions, and the imagination. In this way, our apologetics can touch mind, heart, and will, not in isolation, but in harmony with each other. (pp. 167-168)

None of this is to suggest that straightforward declaration and defense of the Gospel are inadequate. Ordway is clear to assert the need for teaching about doctrine. Her turn is to broaden our understanding of this “spectrum of engagement,” one that includes both Reason and Imagination. In such an approach, architecture, art, music and literature can all be tools in the evangelist’s hands.

Literature and the arts have much to offer us in our apologetics work. It is not the same thing as making an argument on the form of a story; rather, at its best, it shows the truth and helps us desire it. It is not a substitute for teaching about doctrine, but it helps us see what doctrine means, and suggests that we might want to discover whether it is really true. (p. 146, emphasis in original)

In this way, effectively communicating the Gospel involves a balance of both narrative and propositional arguments. The Bible itself is an interesting balance of both. Jesus, for example, told evocative, imaginative stories. But he also preached the Sermon on the Mount. We can go to the Bible for numerous rich, compelling stories. But we can also go to it for explicit commands and principles. It has narrative and propositional power. Likewise, Christian storytelling should not be seen as an end in itself. It serves a specific function — one that moral argument cannot necessarily accomplish — but is incomplete without a balance of propositional arguments.

In the past, I have lamented about the need for a more theologically rigorous approach to Christian speculative fiction. Evangelical readers were often too busy debating about whether witches, spells, or zombies were appropriate fictive archetypes to dig into a broader, more substantive theological vision. Thankfully, Holly Ordway has done a great service to Christian creatives by providing us with such a theological undergirding for our imaginative efforts. “Apologetics and the Christian Imagination” is a valuable tool for the Christian speculative fan and a great reminder how a good story can do much more than just provide mindless entertainment; it can evoke beauty, prick our consciences, and point us toward Home.

Suddenly, ‘The Tick’ Bounds In and Brings Back Goodness

Mild-mannered accountant Arthur suffers from mental trauma in a grim world, until The Tick comes bounding in.
| Sep 14, 2017 | 1 comment
Adam Graham is a recovering politician and journalist, living in Boise, Idaho with his wife and fellow author, Andrea Graham. He is the author of the superhero comedy Tales of the Dim Knight (November 2010) and the follow up books Fly Another Day (March 2013), and Powerhouse Hard Pressed (May 2013). His current projects include the next book in that series, Ultimate Midlife Crisis as well as his first mystery novel Slime Incorporated. Adam also hosts The Great Detectives of Old Time Radio and Old Time Radio Superman podcasts. You can follow his blog, Christian Superheroes, and follow him on Twitter @Idahoguy.

Goodness is a virtue that many modern heroes can’t afford. Darker heroes and anti-heroes have dotted the media landscape in recent years, and this has spilled into real life. Whether it’s in business, politics, the media, or even the church, you can see this “ends justify the means” morality playing out in a thousand different ways in our modern society.

Despite the darkness, people still gravitate towards fictional heroes that radiate goodness. However, work featuring these heroes often set them in a story world reminiscent of an older comic book, cartoon, Saturday morning serial. Darker situations require darker heroes. You wouldn’t drop a hero who represented unabashed goodness and decency into a world as gritty and dark as those inhabited by Marvel’s Netflix heroes.

Yet that’s what Amazon Prime’s The Tick does. It takes the beloved comedy character from the 1980s comic and 1990s Cartoon series and drops him into the midst of a world full of foul-mouthed, violent thugs. If anything, The Tick (Peter Serafinowicz), is full of more buoyant goodness and decency than prior takes on the character, if for no reason other than The Tick’s world needs a lot more of it.

When The Tick came to “The City” (the only name given to the city The Tick is sworn to protect) in the 1994 animated series, he found it already teaming with zany heroes such as American Maid, the Human Bullet, Die Fledermaus, Sewer Urchin, and the Civic-Minded Five. When teamed with ex-accountant Arthur, the two formed an unbeatable crime-fighting duo.

In the same way, The Tick’s animated series arrived at a golden age for superhero series with Batman and Spider-Man leading the way. In terms of lighter takes on the superhero genre, there was already Darkwing Duck, and Freakazoid would be added to the mix in the The Tick’s final season on the air. The Tick was a memorable part of the 1990s cartoon scene, but with so many great and goofy shows around, it can only stand out so much.

In the Amazon Prime series, The Tick arrives to a City that’s haunted by a tragedy fifteen years before and Arthur Everest (Griffin Newman) was at the center of it. He grew up loving superheroes and his father, only to have the Terror drop a plane containing his favorite superheroes, the Flag Five, on top of his father. The trauma emotionally shatters Arthur, who struggles into adulthood with mental illness. The world believe the Terror was destroyed in a battle with Superian, but Arthur believes the Terror is still alive and pulling the strings of the City’s organized crime. Unfortunately, everyone attributes this belief to Arthur’s mental illness.

His sister Dot (Valerie Curry) responded to the tragedy by working to save lives, becoming a paramedic and going to medical school, while also trying to take care of her brother. Yet, the death of her father has left its mark as evidenced by her declaration that they’re just “collateral damage.”

It’s into the midst of this brokenness that The Tick comes bounding in. He takes a moth supersuit from the Pyramid gang and gives Arthur both the key to his destiny and a clue to the truth behind the Terror. He also unintentionally paints a big target on Arthur as the villains want the suit and will stop at nothing to get the suit back.

The plot of this first season is about Arthur’s journey to becoming a hero. The show is so blatant about being based on the hero’s journey that The Tick references it aloud twice. Newman’s take on Arthur is weightier than the previous versions. There is still some comedy as he fumbles to understand how to use the suit and tries to find his way out of this mess, but we do see the tragedy, brokenness, and hidden strengths of the character as he embraces becoming who he always wanted to be. The mid-season finale, “Rising,” has Arthur taking a big step forward with one of the most epic scenes in Tick history.

The Tick is both the driving force of the story as well as its heart and moral center. This character is as zany and lovable as previous takes on the character, but also has a little bit more compassion and understanding of the human condition. Compare this to Patrick Warburton’s 2001 take on The Tick, who thought death was only something dead people had to worry about. In the latest take, with his new understanding, he arrives with no memory of his life prior to arriving in the City, but with an unshakable belief in Arthur and his theory that the Terror still lives.

He pushes Arthur along the road to destiny, offering endless encouragement even as Arthur’s fears have him ready to surrender the suit to the villains in hope of getting back to his normal life. The Tick also serves as a voice of moral righteousness when the murderous anti-hero Overkill (Scott Speiser) tries to tempt Arthur to adopt his methods. Tick tells Arthur, “Murder—it’s just not cool,” and warns him that Overkill “wants to make a murder salad out of your hero’s journey.”

This new take on The Tick may be an enemy to evil and to anti-heroes, but he’s a friend to anyone else. He makes friends with Arthur’s neighbors and lets a homeless man use Arthur’s shower. He’s a delightful guest at Arthur’s stepfather’s birthday party, which I couldn’t imagine the animated Tick being. Even when The Tick says or does things he’s done in previous series, it has a different feel. For example, when The Tick told Arthur in the animated series, “You’re not going crazy, you’re going sane in a crazy world,” it just felt like a goofy line. But in 2017 and in the world of the new Tick series, it feels surprisingly on point.

The rest of the supporting characters are well written and improved from previous takes. Dot shows a lot of interesting and nuanced character with plenty of reasons for her initial reluctance to keep Arthur out of the hero games. She undergoes her own mini-arch during the first few episodes as she has to decide how to handle the new developments in her brother’s life.

The villainous Terror (Jackie Earle Haley) is the most evil person with a murderous career that goes back decades. Haley’s performance is solid, he manages to convey the type of menace that would traumatize someone for decades, while in other scenes showing the sociopathic charm we’ve come to expect from big villains. Miss Lint (Yara Martinez) is more nuanced. She and her powers project real menace, but they also lend themselves to comedy given her tendency to constantly attract lint. In addition, she’s clearly in a bit of a funk, as she has to have her ex-husband as her roommate. When the Terror tells her in a complimentary way that she’s “pure evil,” I don’t quite buy it. Ramses IV, an Egyptian-themed villain from Minnesota who wears eyeliner, rounds out the villains. He’s pathetic with a total lack of competence that provides cheap laughs. But we learn in “Rising,” that there’s a reason such a weak villain is in charge of the biggest gang in the City.

Overkill is your typical gun-toting anti-hero, but there are some interesting hints about his past as well as a potential past relationship with Miss Lint. The best thing going for Overkill is that he has a sarcastic talking boat (voiced by Alan Tudyk) as his headquarters and sidekick.

The series is not without its faults. There’s an ever growing, naked man about the size of Godzilla innocently roaming the countryside for some reason.1 No doubt he’ll feature in the second half of the season, and teasing that for a few seconds wouldn’t have been a bad idea, but it’s teased in several episodes including an extended scene in the sixth episode. It’s pointless padding at this point in the series.

In addition, despite the series’ positive messages, parents should use discretion. The series stretches its TV-14 rating to the limit with a couple of quick scenes of graphic violence as well as some strong obscenities including a smattering of F-bombs. If you’re okay with your kids watching Daredevil then this is fine. If not, discretion and discernment is advised.

In an interview with the Fan Carpet Extra, Serafinowicz, who is also one of the show’s producers, expressed hope that Amazon would release an edited version (without the language) that kids could watch. This could be done fairly easily and without losing the show’s edge as the most objectionable moments are brief and not essential to plot or tone.

Still, even with its problematic elements, the first half of The Tick offers a good, enjoyable series with great lead characters and an engaging storyline. Most importantly all, it suggests goodness is the key to overcoming evil. Here’s hoping that tone and message stand firm when the second half of the season is released next year.

  1. Editor’s note: the poor confused man’s personal region is pixelated, but otherwise you see a lot.

An Unheralded Significance

Show me a person who thinks that the Old Testament is only tales for children, and I will show you a person who hasn’t read the Old Testament.
| Sep 13, 2017 | 1 comment

Show me a person who thinks that the Old Testament is only tales for children, and I will show you a person who hasn’t read the Old Testament. I am not referring principally to the fact that a lot of material in the Old Testament isn’t exactly family-friendly, though that is true. The larger point is that the Bible has far beyond enough to challenge and satisfy a grown-up intellect. Even the stories, the straightforward part of the Old Testament, hold more complexity and depth than is quickly unlocked.

A lot of people miss it, and not only children. One reason for this, of course, is that many people don’t really read the Bible. Another reason is that the style of the narrative (as opposed to the poetry and the prophecy) is concise and businesslike and occasionally so understated you can only marvel. You have to work harder reading it because many things will not be spelled out. It’s plain, for example, that Esther and Xerxes did not have a monogamous marriage – if you catch the devil in the details. (Many people don’t. This contributes to the popular misbelief that the Book of Esther is a beautiful love story.)

One of my favorite examples of this unheralded significance comes at the very end of 1 Samuel. It concerns King Saul (as so much in 1 Samuel does) and how he was buried by the men of Jabesh Gilead. Saul and three of his sons died in a battle with the Philistines. The Philistines – this is pretty much the textbook definition of being a bad winner – then pinned their bodies to the wall of a city. And this is how the story ends:

When the people of Jabesh Gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, 12all their valiant men marched through the night to Beth Shan. They took down the bodies of Saul and his sons from the wall of Beth Shan and went to Jabesh, where they burned them. 13Then they took their bones and buried them under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and they fasted seven days. (1 Samuel 31)

And you know at once that it was kind of them, but there is more beauty here than is readily apparent.

Jabesh Gilead played another, much earlier role in Saul’s story. His first true act as king was rescuing the people of Jabesh Gilead from an invader who had planned, after conquering the city, to gouge out the right eye of every man in it. Most debts are forgotten after forty years, but the men of Jabesh repaid the debt of the kindness Saul had shown them. Saul’s bread finally returned to him on the waters.

There is poetry in the fact that Saul’s reign, which began with him showing kindness to Jabesh Gilead, ended with Jabesh Gilead showing kindness to him. And it is all the more poignant because it is the last word in Saul’s story. There are few stories in the Bible darker or more tragic than Saul’s – the long descent, into murder and insanity and futile clawing to keep what God had given away. He had the peculiar torture of knowing the truth and not being helped by it. His last few chapters are filled with horror and despair, with the sense of being finally rejected by God and going helplessly into the end.

And then, to finish the story, the brave gratitude of the men of Jabesh – an act that looked wistfully back to a better past, a repayment of an old, old good deed that murmurs that Saul hadn’t wasted quite everything after all.

It is not redemption, not so little and so late. But it is a note of grace, at the very end.

10 Movie Clichés to Drive a Sane Person Crazy

We all have them. Pet peeves that drive us crazy. When it comes to movie clichés, some warrant a special place in the storytelling dungeon. Here are ten of the worst.
| Sep 12, 2017 | 2 comments

We all have them. Pet peeves that drive us crazy, ranging from eye-roll status to hair-pulling territory. At times, they drive us to the ice cream bowl or cookie jar to cope with the stress.

Which can be a good or a bad thing. 😉

I read a fun post by my writing friend Nadine Brandes, in which she talked about pet peeves in books. I enjoyed it so much it inspired me to write a sort of companion post about annoying clichés in movies.

Note: I’m going to pick on sci-fi and fantasy type movies.

Painfully Annoying Movie Clichés

1. Excessive Fight Scenes

*cough* first-scene-of-Agent-Carter-season-two *cough*. Also, every fight scene in a Jason Bourne movie. Ever.

Let’s not get started on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Or Arrow. 

Yeah it looks cool, but do we really need to see people smashing each other into walls and over tables for two minutes? Or five? Don’t know what vegetables they eat, but shouldn’t they be unconscious after the first thirty seconds?

2. The Terrible Shooting Skills of the Bad Guys

Almost as bad as the excessive fight scenes. Seriously, did NONE of these people ever learn how to aim? And if they didn’t, why in the world does the villain use them? The convenience of such terrible marksmanship is worthy of causing hives in sensitive viewers. You’ve been warned. 😉

3. The Utter Uselessness of the Police Force

Common in superhero movies, where it makes at least some sense. I mean, we all know the cops are inferior to the Avengers. But still, can’t they ever do anything right?

4. Impossible Survivals by Ordinary People

I get it. Our culture feasts on the thrill, the adrenaline rush. But not every character is an indestructible superhero. The car flips across the parking lot, and the person still gets up and walks away. I know eating your Wheaties is important, but come on.

5. World-ending Destruction

*headdesk*

Sooo old. Sooo predictable. Commence internal weeping. Don’t get me wrong—I love sci-fi and fantasy, which are often most culpable. But if anyone’s listening, please come up with a new twist, a different motivation, a unique end goal.

After all, how many times can the world be nearly destroyed?

6. The Need to Make Everything Bigger and More Explosive

Schemes that put the entire world at risk. Explosions. Chase scenes that seem bent on going on…and on…and on. Again common in sci-fi and fantasy, this formula is a nasty plague that needs to die. Not every movie needs to be louder and more impressive than the last.

Looking at you, Hobbit Trilogy.

7. Overuse of CGI

CGI can do incredible things. Too often, though, it becomes a crutch, an excuse to make everything too flashy. And unnecessary flashiness = GRRRR! Let the storytelling shine, not the fancy tech skills.

8. Overly Protective Heroes

This one is difficult, because at one level, you’re like, “Okay, tell the person already and stop lying to protect them.” Yet the desire to protect those we love is universal. I just wish these situations were handled in a way that added twists to make them less predictable. Because we know how it goes:

Hero keeps secrets. Eventually people find out. Much emotion and drama (melodrama?) follow. Wash, rinse, repeat.

9. Slow-motion Henchmen

I’ve noticed this a lot. The hero is fighting off a swarm of the villain’s men, who, despite their elite training and supposedly kick-butt skills, flail helplessly at the hero. Forget combat etiquette. Why not rush the guy all at once instead of conveniently taking turns?

Unless we’re talking amazing superpowers on the part of the hero, the henchmen shouldn’t look like amateurs wading through waist-deep molasses.

10. The Chosen One

As a fantasy fanatic, this one hurts, but it also makes me want to cry a river of anguished tears and binge-eat chocolate.

Too many repeats. Too many rip-offs. Watchwords like “destiny” and “calling” are prove to induce pangs of annoyance. It’s waaaay too popular in movies for characters to discover (or be told) that they’ve been chosen for greatness. Or destined for some future.

How about we try something new for a change?

What are some movie clichés that make you cringe?

*This post appeared in original form at zacharytotah.com in February 2016*