“Fee and Daniel struggle with decisions as fully formed characters. Descriptions give a you-are-there flavor, and the world presents unique elements.”
Lorehaven magazine (read full review)

‘I Do Not Read Fluff!’

If she’d said, “I’m not a fiction person,” or “I’m not into fantasy,” I would have understood.
| Aug 9, 2019 | 9 comments |

I was signing books at a Christian conference when a woman wandered by and picked up my novel.

“What’s it about?” she asked.

“It’s a fantasy adventure for ages ten and up,” I replied.

She hesitated. “So, it’s—it’s fiction?”

I smiled and nodded, ready to continue the conversation.

It didn’t happen.

“I do not read fluff!” She flung the book back onto the table and marched away.

I was stunned.

If she’d said, “I’m not a fiction person,” or “I’m not into fantasy,” I would have understood.

But she didn’t. She said that she doesn’t read “fluff.”

I suppose I could have asked her to define fluff, but my guess is that her answer would have confirmed what the editor of a Christian publishing house told me: Many Christians believe that reading fiction is a waste of time.

That thought saddens me. All fiction is a waste of time? Some is, for sure, and we each have our own list of what’s not good for us to read, but all fiction is a waste of time. Useless? Fluff? Wow.

Eugene Petersen didn’t think so. Petersen was a pastor for many years, then a seminary professor. He’s the author of multiple non-fiction books. In his introduction to Exodus, he said,

It is significant that God does not present us with salvation in the form of an abstract truth, or a precise definition or a catchy slogan, but as story. Exodus draws us into a story with plot and characters, which is to say, with design and personal relationships. Story is an invitation to participate, first through our imagination and then, if we will, by faith—with our total lives in response to God.

In an interview with Mars Hill, he said that if he were to start a seminary, the students would spend the first two years studying literature:

Even now, in all my courses, students read poetry and novels…The importance of poetry and novels is that the Christian life involves the use of the imagination, after all, we are dealing with the invisible. And, imagination is our training in dealing with the invisible, making connections, looking for plot and character. I don’t want to do away with or denigrate theology or exegesis, but our primary allies in this business are the artists. I want literature to be on par with those other things. They need to be brought in as full partners in this whole business. The arts reflect where we live, we live in narrative, we live in story. We don’t live as exegetes.1

If I had it to do over again, I’d lead off by telling my fluff-hater that my story is about friendship. About choices. That our choices have weight. That we need each other. How can that be fluff?

I’d tell her that I write for the 10 and up crowd because there are questions from that age that I still haven’t finished sorting out. Things like what I believe and why. Questions about belonging. At age fifteen, I was dropped into a foreign culture where I didn’t speak the language. What does it mean to belong in that context? How do you even begin? The question of what it means to belong has continued as I’ve lived almost all of my adult life in a language and culture that is not mine. Or is mine by adoption. Perhaps that’s why I wrote a portal fantasy. Like the characters in those stories, I was thrust into a new world and had to muddle through as best I could.

If the woman gave me the chance, I’d go on to tell her about some of the fiction that has influenced, challenged and shaped me.

Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis would be at the top of the list. I read it for the first time in my 20’s and have read it seven or eight times since then. It has shaped my understanding and experience of God more than any other book outside the Bible.

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin was a friend when my husband and I were going through a difficult situation in our faith community. The images and metaphors in Le Guin’s stories didn’t solve any of our problems, but they helped me understand and move forward with hope.

The list could go on, but I’ll stop there and open it up to comments. I would love to hear how fiction has helped, encouraged, and shaped you.

  1. Michael J. Cusick, “A Conversation with Eugene Peterson,” LeaderU.com.

The Serious Business of Science Fiction and Fantasy

I have friends who don’t quite understand why I think science fiction and fantasy are important. I explain why in this post.
| Aug 8, 2019 | 17 comments |

I have friends who don’t quite get science fiction and fantasy and don’t really understand why I write it or publish it–in particular, friends at the Southern Baptist church I attend. (Note this post is adapted from something I wrote years ago on my personal blog.) By  the way, by “science fiction and fantasy” I mean that broadly, to include supernatural fiction and alternate history and even horror with sci fi and fantasy settings, i.e. what is often but not always called “speculative fiction.”

In 2010-11 in Afghanistan and earlier in 2008 in Iraq I wrote a series of detailed emails about my military experiences, emails I forwarded on to friends and family, who as a general group gave me positive feedback about my ability to write about the experience of being a soldier at war and who praised me for doing a good job capturing what Afghanistan and Iraq are like. A few of these friends suggested that if I want to write fiction, I should be writing military thriller genre, like Tom Clancy or many other writers.

The truth is I could write in that genre. I mean, I’m capable of doing so. I’ve already written a few short stories that deal with modern military matters, which contain some information I know from some personal experience. I’ve also written some bits that relate to ancient and medieval militaries, drawing from both my personal observations about war and studies in history.  And I’ve launched a series of articles that regular readers of Speculative Faith will have seen called the “Speculative Fiction Writer’s Guide to War”–those posts have been put on hold for a while, but I do intend to pick up writing them again until that series is complete, God providing I can find the time to do the research each of those articles requires.

I could do more along these lines of military-related writing and probably will someday. But as much as I’m interested in realistic military themes and in non-fiction, unreal worlds usually interest me more. I have no real passion for writing or publishing military fiction unless it’s also speculative. And on the other hand, I like plenty of speculative fiction with no connection to military themes at all.

Old science fiction magazine cover art with a military flair, now in the public domain.

I think there’s a positive reason why this is so, beyond the fact that I enjoy exercising my imagination. You see, writing science fiction and fantasy is serious business.

This statement may very much surprise friends of mine obsessed with politics or convinced this world is about to end soon…to them (as they only on occasion openly express), speculative fiction is sheer escapism from the world around us and spending time on it is acting like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand. Why be concerned with sci fi or fantasy when the real world around us has so much trouble that clamors for our attention?

I do want to acknowledge they have a tiny bit of a point. For some people, speculative lit really does seem to be nothing but escapism. And the complete pursuit of such escapism really could cause someone to fail to pay attention to what’s going on around them. There are times when it is absolutely essential to pay attention to the moment you are in and not wander off mentally to realms of things that are not. Though a devotion to speculative fiction may be more of a symptom of a withdrawal from the real world rather than a cause.

But I believe worlds of speculation, of the unreal, serve a very important function for most people whether they realize it or not. They remind people this world we dwell in is not the only world that affects our actions. What the world once was isn’t just the stuff of known history, but  lies in the sphere of the unknown and legendary as well…and such legends have the power to live in human imaginations right now, to shape our conversations and thoughts. And the world we see changing around us is headed into a future of things uncertain for us, perhaps leading to a world of advanced technology, or perhaps a dystopian or post-apocalyptic collapse into decay and death. Speculating about what the consequences may be in the future of actions we’re taking now may be able to help us live in the present with greater knowledge and wisdom.

Fantasy and science fiction explore these other realities and help us understand the here and now in context of what could have been or what or could be.

But most important: This world is not all there is shouts speculative fiction, pointing out a void in our human lives. We long for things we’ve never seen as human beings, one of the odd and interesting things about us. And while it certainly can be true that human fiction, including speculative fiction, can be a sin-tainted expression of a corrupt imagination, the void in us longing for something else goes far beyond that. That void truly longs for God and the unknown elements of his created work, the Creator whose imagination far exceeds that of any human being, who has the power to create new worlds at a whim (whether he has exercised that power or not), who has hidden genuine mysteries in the mind-boggling physics of real world that surrounds us, and who will bring to an end most things we humans think are important now and establish his own rule.

Christians may feel we know our future eternity very well from the book of Revelation: pearly gates, throne of God, singing praises, New Jerusalem on Earth, etc. But we have every reason to believe eternity with God has got to include elements we’ve been told nothing about, if for no other reason because eternity is such a long time. And even a simple statement in Revelation that the streets are made of gold but transparent tells us that the the gold there will be significantly different from gold as we know it (assuming literal gold is meant–but a visual representation of figurative gold doesn’t make the future any less unexpected). There are many other details in Revelation like that, things that seem to make no sense but ultimately point to a future that will represent a world unlike our own. Again, there’s every reason to think the actual truth about eternity is that we only know the tip of the iceberg.

Science fiction and fantasy tap into a desire to see and experience things that amaze us, things that boggle our minds–which will be one part of what eternity will be like.

A fantasy world represented in an old magazine cover, now in the public domain.

And not only is the full reality of what world awaits us who have faith in Christ unknown, it’s unknown how long it will be before the end of time as we know it comes. Yes, some people act awfully certain that we are in the “End Times” and the end of this world will come very soon. But while I agree Christian believers should anticipate the Lord’s return, who can say for certain if our world won’t endure for twenty thousand more years before that happens–and what will happen in the meantime? Perhaps our world will become very different than it is now, as is seen in much of science fiction–perhaps we human beings will even explore other starts, only for those adventures to eventually die out, leaving the human race restricted to Planet Earth alone as the book of Revelation seems to indicate.

And who’s to say for certain that God hasn’t created other inhabited universes in parallel with our own, as occurs in most realms of fantasy? Perhaps discovering other universes will be part of what happens in eternity.

In the end, I create and publish the kinds of stories I do, not only to exercise in a positive way the faculty of imagination God gave me, but to reinforce the truth that this world is neither all there is, nor all there is to be. I also desire to spin visions of the unreal that specifically point fingers back toward the creator God, the author of all things. As much as I may engage in flights of whimsy at times, science fiction and fantasy as I know and love them for me rest on a bedrock foundation of this serious purpose.

I assume the same is true for most of you reading this post. But if you disagree or wish to add your own thoughts on the ultimate purpose of speculative fiction, please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Are We Part of the Problem?

What is our responsibility as authors? Do we share any of the blame if our words put ideas into people’s heads or ignite the brittle underbrush that already exists in depraved minds and is just waiting for the spark?
| Aug 7, 2019 | 8 comments |

By now, everyone has heard about the sequential massacres in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. Different shooters, different locations, different motives, different weapons, but ultimately the same purpose: to take as many lives as possible. I’ve written about gun violence in entertainment before and I’m not going to add my two cents to the fray, aside from saying that I don’t expect the government to fix this problem. The failure lies with friends, family, and most importantly, the individual.

As is common after such unfortunately common occurrences is that society tries to identify contributing factors. Besides irrationally blaming the weapon, the media, the government, and the public often points to the glorification of violence which permeates our world, and American culture in particular. This is of course by design, where we the people are given conflicting messages for the sake of corporate profits. “Assault rifles should be banned. Now check out the latest Grand Theft Auto video game!” We see this intentional dissonance in numerous other advertising tracks: “Ladies, your bodies are perfect just the way you are! Now starve yourself to look like this model, who is obviously leading a much better life than you are.” “Being a parent is a dream come true! But why would you miss out on all the fun of your youth by having kids?” etc. etc. etc.

Image copyright Warner Bros.

It’s no stretch of the imagination that glorification of violence has its strongest effect on-screen. There is a visceral thrill in watching our hero mow down the enemy hordes with superior firepower and this sensory bonanza is best experienced on the big screen, and this is easy to latch onto as an instigating factor. Remember the outcry against The Matrix, which was released just a couple of weeks before the Columbine shooting? Black trench coats were as scary as assault rifles.

But what about books? As with movies and video games, pinning a massacre on a book is difficult and often unfair, but there have been some distinct connections between works of fiction and real-life slaughters. Some famous examples are the Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh, who was inspired in part by the anti-government novel The Turner Diaries, as well as a number of school shootings and hostage incidents where the perpetrator was a known fan of Stephen King’s book Rage, written under the pen name Richard Bachman. Stephen King actually took that book out of print following the 1997 school shooting in West Paducah, Kentucky, where the shooter had a copy in his locker.

The question I’m leading up to is this: what is our responsibility as authors? Do we share any of the blame if our words put ideas into people’s heads or ignite the brittle underbrush that already exists in depraved minds and is just waiting for the spark? Personally, my books contain a wide range of violence, such as terrorist bombings, Satanic ritual slaughter, racist attacks, anti-Semitic massacres, public executions, domestic abuse, and more. How would I feel if someone directly referenced my books in connection with a similar act of violence? Honestly, I couldn’t say, though I would surely feel some degree of guilt. Yet there is a distinct line between the depiction of an action and the encouragement of an action. Yes, Neo and Trinity look “cool” as they march into an office lobby and blow everyone to pieces, but there is nothing that would make me want to commit a similar act, because I know that murder is wrong (and we don’t live in the Matrix, so this sort of action in real life would be actual murder). No one of sound mind would read the horrors that I describe in my books and think, “I think Mark is telling me go to out and do likewise.” Of course, it’s rarely people of sound mind that commit these horrific crimes, and in their warped perceptions, they may in fact feel that a particular book or movie was the catalyst for their explosive reaction.

So to answer my question in the title of this article, I would say, “No, as long as we walk by the Spirit.” As creative people, and Christian writers specifically, we have the unique charge of glorifying God in everything we do, and we must follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit through our conscience when we depict acts of violence. We should not revel in bloodshed, nor should we want anyone to come away from our books thinking that violence is cool, regardless of whether it is right or wrong. I know that I sometimes went too far in my own writing, but those mistakes are part of my writing journey and I would not want them to be whitewashed. As with all things, the main issue is the heart. Does what you write – and read – lead you closer to God?

For ‘PG-13-Rated’ Content in Stories, How Far is Too Far?

God’s word gives us the tools to address the errors of both legalism and leniency.
| Aug 6, 2019 | 5 comments |

When will we know the answer to the question, “How far is too far to delve into secular culture and adult content in stories?”1

When Christ returns.

No, that’s not a cheesy youth pastor joke. We’ll never stop talking about these things. There will always be another caveat to add, another angle we haven’t explored yet, another cultural development that throws a wrench into our precisely-drawn lines in the sand concerning swearing, violence, and sex.

Why? Because we all need to draw the line somewhere and suggest that others do the same. And if we do this with intellectual humility, that’s perfectly okay. It’s good—even a blessing to share perspective and wisdom. As long as we are truly trying to honor God with our lives and stories, some variance will take place. Christian freedom allows for it. James calls this the “law of liberty” (James 1:25, 2:12).

But let’s talk about the elephants in the room: legalism and leniency. I believe these are two things that we do have the ability to avoid in this life since the Bible gives us the tools to address them. I’d like to suggest some principles that may help us all show one another more grace as we try to locate the balance between the extremes of legalism and leniency.

Legalism usually takes two forms. First, it is the belief that following a set of rules makes one righteous before God. Example: Even through they have an unhealthy marriage, a Christian married couple may feel right with God because they aren’t divorced like all their friends.

One example from Scripture: the rich young ruler from Matthew 19.

Second, legalism is the making of new rules that do not appear in Scripture. This is often done when we move away from biblical principles directly derived from the Bible and make law from mere application of scripture. Example: “Read your Bible every day.” That is not a command in the Bible but usually derived from verses such as Psalm 1:2, “. . . and on his law he meditates day and night.”

Here’s an example from Scripture: Matthew 12, where the Pharisees criticized the disciples for picking heads of grain on the Sabbath which was misapplied application of the Old Testament command to keep the Sabbath holy.

In the first example, the couple had right action with sinful motive, and were dependent on their actions alone for righteousness. In the second example, someone created what they thought would be a helpful tool for sanctification, but ended up becoming a law for modern churches that is sometimes obeyed only to make people appear righteous before God (as in the first example).

(Note: I am not saying you should get divorced or that you shouldn’t read your Bible every day. After all, the fruit of the Spirit can spring from even the smallest seed of habit.)

Leniency is the rejection of the law—whether set down by God or man. Often times the lenient Christian makes an idol out of their own freedom. This can happen when one has a low view of scripture and the wisdom of people who appear to them as too traditional. Example: A man believes the gospel has set him free to smoke and drink freely, which dulls his conscience from seeing when those habits become sinful.

Example from Scripture: 1 Samuel 28, when Saul consults a medium against God’s explicit law to seek help from a deceased Samuel.

So what does this have to do with reading and writing fiction? Everything.

We wrongly think that people who are more restrictive and traditional are the true legalists. If someone reads Harry Potter and sends their kids to public school, there’s no way that person is a legalist, right? Well no, not at all. That’s how we fall into accidental legalism. We think we’re “safe” from Phariseeism because we’ve managed to avoid specific stances such as teetotalism.

But in reality, it isn’t the position held on topics such as this that signify legalism, but the attitude. Do you have enough intellectual humility to admit you could be wrong? By this measure, even the most lenient PG-13 storyteller could fall into legalism due to pride.

Of course we can keep talking about why we have specific restrictions on PG-13 content. That can be edifying to the story maker and consumer alike. Yet I think this conversation would greatly benefit from more often speaking of these things on a principle level. This will draw the discussion away from the what of the content to the why. It will turn the focus from man-made law to God-given fruit and virtues.

How do you know you’ve accidentally fallen into legalism or leniency? Ask yourself these questions.

  1. Do I look down on others that have different standards regarding the use of PG-13 content? Feelings of pride can mean you are unknowingly relying on your actions to make you righteous before God and man.
  2. Do I feel prolonged guilt when I watch or read something that offends my conscience? Although there is more than one source, lingering guilt could possibly mean you are relying on your own ability to keep the “law” for the sake of right standing before God. It lingers because you cannot keep this law perfectly, and you are not relying on the gospel of Christ that has already set you free.
  3. Do I keep rules such as “Do not read or write anything with swear words,” in the same way I keep commands that are actually written in Scripture? Keeping man-made laws casts sin upon a person who may not be in sin—whether yourself or another.
  4. Do I overlook wisdom and commands from Scripture when it doesn’t line up with my agenda for my story? Glancing over or twisting the Bible when it is convenient for us signifies a low-view of Scripture and is a dangerous slippery-slope away from God’s revealed truth.
  5. Do I choose to read or write PG-13 content because I feel entitled to that freedom? A feeling of entitlement to do as we wish without consulting God’s word may be spiritually harmful to yourself and others. It also creates an idol of certain kinds of freedoms God has not given us.

I hope you were able to pick out a theme through those questions: pride. It is the quintessential counting, “equality with God a thing to be grasped,” (Philippians 2:6). Let’s strive for true intellectual humility in these discussions, being ready to listen and admit when we’re wrong.

Look for a “sequel” to this article in the next Lorehaven magazine issue, fall 2019, where I will discuss my personal standards for PG-13 content.

  1. Thanks to Marian Jacobs for stepping in for E. Stephen Burnett this week. He’s adjusting to foster-dad life. And book-editing life. At the same time. We hope to resume the Realm Makers 2019: One Hundred Graces series next week.

Spec Faith 2019 Summer Writing Challenge – Evaluation Phase

We want all of our 2019 entries, even those that came in towards the latter part of the week, to have a fair shot at the finals.

The Spec Faith 2019 Summer Writing Challenge is now closed to new entries. We received a nice selection of submissions, both stories and story openings, and the evaluation phase is now underway.

We want all of our 2019 entries, even those that came in towards the latter part of the week, to have a fair shot at the finals, so please take time to read and give your evaluation of the ones you haven’t read yet. I’m speaking to myself here, because I have not had a chance to read and give feedback to all of them.

Remember, to indicate which you like best (no limit), reply to the entries with helpful comments as you see fit, and give a thumbs up. In your replies, tell the authors what you like about their story or give them constructive criticism which might benefit them (whether you choose to give a thumb up or not). Remember, no minuses, please. Such negative feedback doesn’t help a writer know what they need to work on, so it is not helpful.

Next week I’ll announce the three finalists in the 2019 Summer Challenge, based on your thumbs up during this evaluation phase and the feedback offered last week as the submissions came in. From those three, I’ll create a poll, and we’ll vote for a winner.

The drawback of a readers’ choice challenge is that it might turn into a popularity contest. On the other hand, we need reader feedback for the challenge to be successful. With both these facts in mind, I think the best answer is for Spec Faith visitors to connect with family, friends, and followers (our share buttons make this quite easy) and encourage their fair and unbiased feedback (as opposed to, “Vote for mine—you don’t really need to read any of the entries,” which I’ve seen from some other contests).

Thanks ahead of time for letting others know that their feedback is a helpful part of the contest.

And special thanks to each of the authors who shared their work with us. The group of intriguing entries will make choosing a winner a tough call. To find the entries, follow one of the links in this article (such as this one)—the 2019 Summer Challenge entries are in the comments section of that post. You might consider reading them last to first.

“This story spins a perfect array of delightful characters living with complex magical abilities in a truly unique world.”
Lorehaven magazine (read full review)

Grace Through ‘The Story Peddler’ Helped Me Find Healing from Trauma

Lindsay A. Franklin: While creating The Story Peddler and its sequels, I found a safe place to pour out the emotional turmoil of my own story.
| Aug 2, 2019 | 6 comments |

Readers of The Story Peddler have told me about its heroine, “She felt so real.”

It’s a compliment for an author, I know. And when people tell me my character felt real, or that her struggles resonated, I smile. Say thank you. And I mean it.

But I don’t always reveal the full truth in that moment—the truth that she feels real because she is real. She is me.

Not every character I write is a direct reflection of me as a person, of course. And perhaps no single character is exactly like me. But the story people I get the most comments on are the ones in which I have buried a piece of my heart—the ones I’ve chosen to help me process something dark and difficult from real life.

This may seem somewhat obvious—that authors include themselves in their work. But here’s a strange expansion of this phenomenon that’s true for me and perhaps other authors: the intersection between my writing and my true story is the sharpest, most painful, and most poignant in my fiction.

In one of my devotional books, I explored the story of Tamar and Amnon. I wrote devotionals about sexual assault, abuse at the hands of a family member, consent, agency, finding God in the midst of that particular kind of suffering, and putting the pieces of a shattered life back together through God’s grace. I have written an essay with a stark description of the first time I experienced sexual assault as a preschooler. That essay is published in a book, and my name is attached to it.

I have written about the topic of sexual trauma in a factual, straightforward manner, no holds barred, no pseudonym in which to shroud myself and no buffer with which to protect myself. It’s out there, black and white, for anyone who wishes to read about it.

So how is it that pouring this sexual trauma history into a fictional character for the first time in The Story Raider was more difficult, more taxing, and yet more healing than any writing I’ve previously done on the subject?

Story is powerful—perhaps more powerful than we realize.

The Story Raider, Lindsay A. FranklinShortly after The Weaver Trilogy was contracted, my editor and I had a discussion about the books’ titles. He loved my title for book one, The Story Peddler, and wanted each book in the series to contain the word “story.” That was the magic of the concept, after all.

While we have since changed the titles of books two and three for a variety of reasons, his original suggestion for book three, The Story Thief, spawned the creation of a supporting character in my mind almost immediately. And, almost immediately, I gave her my own real-life backstory.

The particulars were different, of course. But the emotional story is the same. Her character is a bleak study on the aftereffects of prolonged sexual abuse on a young person.

And as I drafted the sequel to The Story Peddler, called The Story Raider, under intense time pressure and during a very dark season in my life, I found myself deep in the heart of this very broken character—this very broken part of me.

I recall telling my best friend that I wasn’t sure if this character was going to be okay because I wasn’t okay.

How could I possibly write something happy or hopeful or remotely uplifting while simply trying to survive the real-life emotional onslaught myself? I cried my way through her scenes in Raider, became angry with myself when her storyline in book three was just one big cloud of fog I couldn’t decipher, and wondered more than once if I had a made a mistake to include her.

But that’s where the magic happens.

Through wrestling with her story, I was given a safe place to pour out the emotional turmoil of my own story. I got to try on different futures for her—different choices, different ways of processing the trauma. I got to experience interactions with her through my other characters’ eyes, and I began to understand what watching from afar must feel like for my loved ones.

I began to desperately seek hope for my fictional girl in a way that felt too risky, too big to first seek for myself.

Within the safe confines of fiction, through the distance of story, I was able to get closer to my trauma than I ever had before. And in that closeness, my past began to knit itself together in a way I hadn’t truly believed possible. My heart began to hope again.

Book three is written now. The fictional story begun by The Story Peddler is complete. Ultimately, my character had to make her own choices, deal with her own consequences, and struggle to find herself in a journey apart from mine.

But I know that through her story and the stories of countless other characters by countless other creators, people will discover the same healing I did. That is, perhaps, the sweetest twist of all: the gift of story is not meant only for the story’s author. In fact, it is not even meant primarily for the author.

Stories exist to entertain, to teach, to welcome the reader into a wondrous space to experience an emotional journey. Through the safety and wildness of fiction, through its simultaneous distance and closeness, readers are invited to process their own triumphs and heartbreaks. These stories—all stories—are for you and me and us.

Your invitation awaits.

That Time a Serial Killer Confessed to Me

Once upon a time, an ordinary conversation slipped into a killer admitting horrific crimes. I’m sharing this story to talk about the nature of evil and also because…
| Aug 1, 2019 | 38 comments |

Those things we’ve experienced ourselves inevitably shape what we write about. I’ve had many experiences that are uncommon–which I’d say is a mixed blessing, because while many of those events were horrible, all of them give me interesting things to write about. And one personal story relates to a serial killer, which I’m about to share here.

When I graduated with a BA in “Modern Foreign Language” from Metropolitan State College of Denver in 1995 (I studied Spanish, French, and German), I felt I had enough of living in Colorado. Though for me, “Colorado” was actually the Denver metropolitan area, the specific place in “the Rocky Mountain state” where I lived. I’d had enough of traffic, enough smog, enough bad driving in Denver the first serious snowfall of every winter, enough crime, etc. Etc.

I was eager to get back to my home state, Montana, which I was to a degree seeing through rose-colored glasses after 6 ½ years in CO. I mean, after all, it was a lack of a job in MT due to a generally poor economy there that had been one of my prime motivations for moving to Colorado in the first place.

In a combination of that rose-colored view along with some Evangelical idealism, I decided I would start a Christian school in Montana. Not that I’d ever taught full-time. Or even been certified as a teacher. Or had been an administrator. But I had energy, plans, and a lot of optimism (and an innate risk-taking personality).

Note that my plans included a lot on curricula and what to teach and how, but not a lot on how to pay the bills to make ends meet. So, after 2 years, the school I began in Dillon, Montana—picking that town not because I had ever lived there before, but because my brother-in-law was a pastor there—closed down due to a lack of funds. Sad for me, but true.

So, paying the bills for my family after that time meant working what jobs were available. Since I’d been trained as a medic in the Army, my best paying opportunity in Dillon was to work in a nursing home as a CNA, Certified Nurse Assistant, a.k.a. an orderly, a.k.a. a professional bottom-wiper. 😉

My last comment reveals some of my humor about what I did—I actually did hate it at first, in part because of a sense of pride in how supposedly bright I am with so many big ideas, and there I was doing that. While failing at the school taught me some of the humility I was lacking (some, because I can always use some more humility), working at the nursing home eventually had an even stronger positive effect on me.

I learned how to really love people in a way I’d never experienced before. To show kindness. To extend mercy.

The nursing home industry (and the nursing profession in general) was and still is dominated by women. I was one of the few men to work as a CNA in Dillon, Montana. And the one clear advantage I had over every woman I ever worked with as a Nurse Aid was I could lift more weight with less strain. Very handy when dealing with heavy patients.

So after working there for three years or so (I spent five years total working in a nursing home and as a home health aid in Dillon), I sometimes was put on a shift for the sole purpose of giving baths. I could get nursing home residents in and out of the tub quicker, with less risk to me and less risk to the resident than pretty much anyone else who worked there.

Bathing residents was a different experience that working the nursing home floor–there, we CNAs were usually in pairs and most of the rooms had multiple people in them. It was not all that often that I was truly alone with a patient. But in the room I bathed patients, we were there by ourselves, the resident and I, with a type of bath that had jacuzzi jets. Nobody outside heard anything we said in there.

One of the residents in the nursing home had the exact same name as an entertainer who had been famous in the early part of the 20th Century (and he’s still a household name). He of course joked about his name often. For the sake of telling this (true) story, let me call him “Jimmy”–which wasn’t his actual name, but was close enough.

I was giving Jimmy a bath and he’d mentioned to me previously that he was a veteran of World War II. And since I had learned to engage the people I worked for in conversation and to get to know them as people (and also was curious about the Second World War), I was asking Jimmy questions about his war experience, where he had been, what it had been like, things like that.

Jimmy wasn’t extremely talkative with me in general, but after a bit on that particular evening, he opened up and spoke about his time in France, including shortly after the Germans were defeated there. I don’t in fact remember his exact words, but I’m going to recreate something he eventually said as best as I can recall it:

“So you know that after the war, we realized that a lot of those French girls had been with the Germans.” He said all this in a gruff, raspy voice shaped by decades of smoking (the consequences of which eventually killed him).

“Ah, yeah, I suppose they were…you know, doing what it takes to make it in the world. But how did you know for sure?”

“Well, I slept with one of them French girls. And afterwards I saw she had a whole bunch of jewels. And those French people were so poor then, I knew she had to have been with one of them Germans. They gave her the jewels.”

“So then what happened?”

Not what “Jimmy” looked like, but close enough. (Russian serial killer Mikhail Popkov, image credit, www.rt.com)

“I killed her! Strangled her. And then I took the jewels.”

I didn’t know what to say. Though I imagine my mouth was open.

“Yeah, she had it coming, helping those damn Jerries! But then I found other girls the same as her. Those that had no jewels I knew were good, but the rich ones I knew had been collaborating with the Germans. So I killed them. And took their jewels. But they deserved it!”

I still had no words.

Public sentiment against women who had consorted with Germans ran high in France in 1944. The typical response though was to forcibly shave their heads, so they’d be known in public. Image credit: rarehistoricalphotos.com

“When I come home, I had a whole duffel bag full of jewelry. And when my folks saw it, they wondered where I got all those jewels. When I told ’em I killed French girls to get them, they looked at me, eyes all wide.” He demonstrated a shocked expression. “But then I told them what them girls had done. And they said, ‘Well all right then–if they were sleeping with Germans, then it was okay. You did good.'”

Then he looked at me. Stared at me. I think he was waiting for me to tell him I thought it was all right, too.

Some part of my mind was wondering if he was really telling a true story. But there was absolutely no reason for him not to tell me the truth. Nothing to gain from this kind of lie. But if I were to offer him understanding as a military man myself (at that point I was already a veteran of the Gulf War and had mentioned that to him), then, well then the conversation had a purpose, a reason. Only if it were true.

I’ve been rather confrontational in my life, speaking truth when it isn’t pleasant, often enough to have had a reputation for it. But I became that way moreso after this particular encounter than I was beforehand. At that particular moment, I said something like (with a dry mouth):

“Well, Jimmy, it’s time to get you out of that tub.” And that’s what I did, got him out of there. And I toweled him off and dressed him and took him back to his room, him for a change speaking more than me, I having fallen silent.

But then I thought about what he told me. Should I tell someone? But who would I tell and how? And was there even a purpose in telling? Jimmy was only a few years from his death (which yes, was pretty evident at the time).

So in the end I did nothing. I didn’t even tell anyone in the nursing home about it. I’m not even really telling them now, even if one of them should read this, because there were two male residents in that place and during that time who had the exact same name as a famous entertainer of the past.

I’m not sure even now why I’m not saying his actual name. It might be because of his family–his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Should they actually know? But couldn’t they just say they didn’t believe me if they heard?

How many more crimes have been covered up by simple inaction? People not knowing what to say or do. Even people who are normally bold risk-takers like me.

And how common is this sort of thing? How many other ordinary-seeming people have in fact committed horrific crimes? More than most people suspect, I think. Because even most people who do evil know it’s evil and cover it up–or seek to justify it. (Though in fact it’s almost always easier for people to do wrong when they have something to personally gain from evil–in Jimmy’s case, easier to kill and take the jewels than simply kill. And it’s also easier to do evil against people the public looks down upon.)

Note I’m not against portraying evil–I think some of my remarks two weeks ago about the way evil can affect people when portrayed, when normalized, seem to have been mistaken for me saying I am against ever portraying evil. No, I’m fine with showing evil as it is–just not with pretending evil is not evil, for the sake of justifying ourselves (as even Jimmy did). For what it’s worth, I hope my slice-of-life true account benefits someone. At least those of you who sit down to write fictional stories which may include serial killers.

But benefiting others honestly isn’t the only reason I’ve written this. Because like “Jimmy” himself, I’ve been holding onto that story for a while now…

Two Streams of Thought

I am in favor of fandoms. But sometimes I wonder: How much do any of them matter?
| Jul 31, 2019 | 10 comments |

I am, in the abstract, in favor of fandoms. Star Wars, Star Trek, Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Marvel, Disney, Pixar, and a thousand others – why not? They’re diverting and human and, on occasion, profound. In the concrete, I have adopted a few of my own and gotten uncounted hours of enjoyment out of it. But sometimes I wonder: How much do any of them matter?

I have not decided what to think about that. How I lean depends on varying factors, such as my most recent reflections and how long it has been since I was last on Facebook. I want to insist that it – your fandom, any fandom – doesn’t matter at all when I encounter those indefatigable people who cannot encounter a criticism or a joke against their fandoms without lodging a deadly-earnest objection. There are people who react to any criticism of their beloved fandoms as if someone had insulted Jesus; people who launch endless comment threads to defend them; people who can never see the point of any contrary argument, or the humor of any joke, or even just let it pass. They are indefatigable, but they are exhausting.

Worse yet are the infuriating people, the sort of people who drive celebrities from social media through their viciousness. There are fans – far too many on the Internet – who act as if the fictional objects of their passion matter more than real people. There are people who throw kindness to the wind on the feeblest provocation, but there is absurd blindness in throwing it away for the sake of fandom. And, really, how do people get the energy to care so much that someone doesn’t like what they do?

Fandoms matter a great deal less than some people think – or rather, feel. But that fact doesn’t fix the measure of their true value. When I am in a philosophical mood, or have been reading the commentary of people who are, I am more inclined to see the value of fandoms. I think there is something after all to the idea of sub-creation, that even our fictional worlds are part of our heritage as God’s image-bearers. Even the apparent superfluity of fandoms, when seen through different eyes, can be charming. Touching, even. Those things that seem least necessary are often the most human.

I am conscious, too, of the significance of stories as the expression of imagination and thought, and even of fear and aspiration. Stories are a revelation of humanity, both the good and the bad. They are also an educator of humanity, for better and for worse, and probably more is learned through stories than through school.

And fandoms are based on stories. So these two streams of thought: fandoms possess genuine significance and are annoyingly (sometimes noxiously) overvalued. Unsurprisingly, I haven’t worked out any conclusion as to how much they matter. Perhaps this is the sort of question that can’t be conclusively answered (who is to say?) and it doesn’t even matter (would it make any difference to peg the exact importance of fandoms?).

But this much we can say with scientific certainty: Regardless of exactly how much fandoms matter, it is not enough to justify a social media war.

Realm Makers 2019: One Hundred Graces, part 2

E. Stephen Burnett steps back to those days of yester-week and recalls twenty-five more graces God gave through Realm Makers 2019.
| Jul 30, 2019 | 4 comments | Series:

All right, that’s enough about Joshua Harris and apostasy and “purity culture” for one lifetime.

Now I’m eager to step back to those days of yester-week. And I’m more eager more to remember twenty-five more graces that I enjoy, thanks to God’s work through Realm Makers. (See the complete set of one hundred graces, once I’m done.)

Realm Makers 2019: One hundred graces, 26–50

  1. We loved meeting people at the Lorehaven magazine booth. Here we recruited free subscribers, sold copies, and shared about the magazine’s book reviews and advertising. Next year, we’ll have even more, likely including my book.
  2. Catherine Jones Payne and her husband, Brendan. The former is a great author and conversationalist; the latter was one of my roommates, and a darn good one. I hope he’ll be back next year! Catherine and I both love Jesus (and often critique fundamentalist subcultures). Also, Catherine has a new book in the furnace. Mermaids, avast, and beware Fire Dancer. The cover is boss.
  3. Travis Perry and his (still new!) wife, Tabatha. For this year’s costume banquet, they dressed as sort-of devil-and-angel figures. I was afraid I’d have to talk with Travis—friend and colleague at SpecFaith—about the perils of portraying evil. But no, this was actually a tribute to the themes of Travis’s new anthology, Beatitudes and Woes. I think his devilishly red makeup clung on the rest of the weekend.
  4. During his writing classes, Wayne Thomas Batson really knows how to work a room—and draw in a by-phone cameo from one of his own children.
  5. Realm Makers, and all the great people there, is one of the best places to work through controversial subjects. This includes (lately) omnipresent issues, such as the announced divorce of one Joshua Harris.
  6. During my last night, the chap in the room next door was playing his stereo. Loudly. The bass notes: loudest of all. I had to call down to the front desk. They sent a security guard, who let me know that hey, it’s okay, the guy next door is really nice and he had no idea that bass was that powerful. Per the guard, our neighbor wanted to apologize to whomever complained. Common grace for the win! (Our hotel neighbor was all about that bass, and I didn’t have to get him in treble.)
  7. My other roommate, Jonathan Clay, was also great.
  8. Costume banquet, in no particular order: Jill Williamson’s White Witch, formed in part from a gown left over from her previous wedding-design business!
  9. All the Wonder Women.
  10. Steampunk Justice League-ers.
  11. Kerry Nietz was Professor Hulk, or as I like to call this version, the Credible Hulk. (He backs up his rage with facts and documented sources.)
  12. The universally recognized perfect cosplay of Johnny Depp’s Edward Scissorhands.

From left: Michael Ban and Wesley Fulkerson.

  1. Junyan Wan, a.k.a. Michael Ban, who dressed as Aragorn, finally re-using his suit from his and his wife’s Lord of the Rings–themed wedding! Also, he came all the way from Singapore for his first Realm Makers.
  2. Sitting between us at the costume banquet was Wesley Fulkerson. Like me, he’d forewent a costume this time. Also, he recently signed with Enclave Publishing. Expect his debut novel, For Whom the Sun Sings, to arrive March 2020.
  3. After the costume banquet, I walked into the hospitality suite. I was just in time to hear the native population begin to share all the reasons The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010) was a rotten perversion of all that’s good in Narnia. Yes. I am so there for that discussion.
  4. In the bookstore layout, the Lorehaven booth was number 42.
  5. The next day, during my first lunch at Fuzzy’s Tacos, my order number was also 42.
  6. Ronie Kendig, whom I’ve known since I was attending the American Christian Fiction Writers conferences. She had just gotten her advanced review copy of her upcoming book, sci-fi Brand of Light, and she was thrilled.
  7. Bethany Jennings—always a great conversationalist and advocate of beauty and truth, great stories and biblical doctrine.
  8. Author Bryan Davis, whom I’ve seen at every conference this spring, despite his battle with back pain and surgeries.
  9. All the Realm Makers Bookstore volunteers, who man their posts without being distracted by all the other graces (as I would be).
  10. Michael Howell and his faithful companion, Dr. Ted Baehr (or is this the reverse?). I had some great conversations with Michael, particularly about the pros and cons of Big Hollywood. I also enjoyed meeting Dr. Baehr. However, I may have disappointed him by apparently being the one aspiring writer guy who literally has no dreams to Make it Big in Pictures.
  11. Those “Realmies” who stay up late, I think each day, to play geeky card games. No, I never joined them. Yes, I was invited several times. Sorry, folks, but thank you so much! Regardless, I enjoyed hearing all the next day’s references to crazy things that were said.
  12. All those folks who cosplayed as various Doctors, and at least one Master. I heard that someone was in need of a sonic screwdriver, particularly the Eleventh Doctor variety. Naturally, as I heard, one of the props was rather easily procured.
  13. This cosplay, though it’s a bit inside-jokey: in which Mary Schlegel portrays the cleaning lady of one agent/publisher Steve Laube, and carries a sack full of unfortunate wads of rejections.

Next time: twenty-five more graces, though at some point I will move into anticipation (and a little promotion for) the 2020 conference in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

2019 Spec Faith Summer Writing Challenge

As has been the case for the last several years, Spec Faith’s 2019 summer writing challenge comes with rewards. First, there’s feedback.

As we approach the 2019 “dog days of summer,” a term adopted by baseball players to describe the hot days in August when the season became a real grind, we at Spec Faith offer a writer’s alternative: our summer writing challenge!

Summer ought to be the time when you do what you love—go on a family vacation, relax by the pool or at the beach, read good books. For writers who recently returned from the Realm Makers conference, the challenge might be the perfect writing exercise to try out something you learned, or to get you back into the writing flow after all the fun and games. For the rest of us, it might be a break from the usual. And of course it might be the spark we need to get our creative juices flowing. Besides, I know of at least one book project that has developed as a result of a Spec Faith challenge. You never know!

As has been the case for the last several years, Spec Faith’s 2019 summer writing challenge comes with rewards. There’s feedback from other Spec Faith visitors and there’s the potential for a $25 gift card from either Amazon or Barnes and Noble. And for readers, there are stories or story beginnings to enjoy. It’s all very win-win!

As a refresher, here’s how this summer writing challenge works:

• I’ll give a first line, and those who wish to accept the challenge will write what comes next—in 100 to 300 words, putting your entry into the comments section of this post.

“What comes next” may be the opening of a novel, a short story, or a completed piece of flash fiction—your choice.

In keeping with Spec Faith’s primary focus on the intersection of speculative fiction and the Christian faith, writers may wish to incorporate Christian elements or to write intentionally from a Christian worldview, but neither is required. Likewise, I’d expect speculative elements, or the suggestion of such, but entries will not be disqualified because of their omission.

• Readers will give a thumbs up (NO THUMBS DOWN, PLEASE!) to the ones they like the most (unlimited number of thumbs up), and, if they wish, they may give a comment to the various entries, telling what particularly grabbed their attention. They may also wish to critique other entries in a positive way that would benefit and/or encourage the writer.

By the way, I’m hoping we get lots of those type of responses—it’s always helpful for entrants to know what they did right and what they could have done to improve.

After the designated time, I’ll re-post the top three (based on the number of thumbs up) and visitors will have a chance to vote on which they believe is the best (one vote only).

• I’ll again sweeten the pot and offer a $25 gift card (from either Amazon or Barnes and Noble) to the writer of the entry that receives the most votes (as opposed to the most thumbs up). In the event of a tie, a drawing will be held between the top vote-getters to determine the winner.

And now, the first line:

Jag couldn’t be a part of the rebellion any more—not with what he knew now—but could he convince the other rebels to lay down their arms?

Finally, those silly little details we all need to know:

  • You must include the given first line without changing it. (IE don’t switch verb tenses, don’t write in first person instead of third, don’t add description, or make any other changes to the first line. Pour your creativity into what comes after this line).
  • Your word count does not include this first line.
  • You will have between now and midnight (Pacific time) this coming Sunday, August 4, to post your challenge entries in the comments section below.
  • You may reply to entries and give thumbs up, this week and next. To have your thumbs up counted to determine the top three entries, mark your favorite entries before Sunday, August 11.
  • Voting begins Monday, August 12.

Feel free to invite your friends to participate, either as writers or readers, and even those who have participated before. The 2019 challenge is open to published or unpublished authors, those who have won the award before and those who are just starting out. The more entries and the more feedback, the better the challenge.

However, please note, the 2019 challenge is NOT a popularity contest. We want to give writers a chance to find out what readers actually think of their writing. Consequently, please do not ask your social media followers to give your selection a vote unless they read the other entries as well. Thanks for making this little exercise a valuable help to all who enter.