Licking the Chocolate Off Poison Pills: A Comment on Cultural Engagement

Is there any potential risk in enjoying arts and popular culture? Is anything out there poison to us? How should we react to things we enjoy but know are harmful to us?
| Jul 18, 2019 | 53 comments |

This bit of writing will first post of the first day of Realm Makers, a writing conference I have attended ever since its beginning. I had loosely planned to post about the conference (like I did last year)–but there’s a bit of a problem with that. As of my time of writing, I haven’t attended the conference yet! I’ve only experienced one thing that relates to it. Which is, my drive from my home to Saint Louis in preparation for tomorrow. So maybe it would be better to post about the conference next week.

However, something that happened on the drive inspired a thought, which relates back to post by Cap Stewart and E. Stephen Burnett concerning cultural engagement just a few days ago. Please allow me a minute to work my way around to my point.

So driving on the road, I happened to be surfing through radio stations. I actually don’t do a lot of listening to the radio when I drive, generally speaking, but I do sometimes. On a oldies channel, I ran into an early ’80s hit: (I wish I had) “Jessie’s Girl.”

I surprised myself by knowing almost all the words–I always was disconnected from most of popular culture, even of my own supposed time–the loner and oddball type of person, who read more books than watched TV and movies. Of course I was into speculative fiction culture: science fiction, some fantasy and some horror, but that was a long time before being a nerd or geek became a stealthy form of cool. So there were icons of popular culture from my own supposed formative years that I had little exposure to. However, I did actually listen to a lot of the top 40 music of the era (and I did watch MTV!).

So while I was listening to “Jessie’s girl” and enjoying the song, especially because of my memories of hearing it decades ago, I suddenly realized the song in effect normalizes what the Bible classifies as sin–covetousness. Oh, I’m not claiming that listening to the song makes you someone who covets automatically or that it’s not possible to enjoy the tune without absorbing the attitude the song reflects. Which is, desiring someone who is definitely in a relationship with someone else. The song treats that like stuff that just happens–you might feel ashamed of it, but it’s normal, it happens. There’s even a song about it!

I said to my wife, “This song is like a chocolate-coated poison pill. It’s fun to listen to, but it has a toxic message.” Of course not enough poison to kill, not in a single song, but enough to make a small effect, a little bit of “liver damage” as it were. A song that contributed to pushing the culture a tiny bit further from a Biblical view of covetousness than it had held previously. But of course, a fun song. As fun as a chocolate coating.

If “Jessie’s Girl” were a solitary phenomenon, it probably wouldn’t be significant. But there have been songs and media that normalize pretty much every item on any Biblical list of sin. I just recently watched an episode of a horror/science fiction series on Netflix (The Mist) which portrayed homosexuality in a way clearly intended to reflect the writer’s view of reality, but if it happened to be the case you did not agree with the writer (as I don’t), the story tend to have the effect of normalizing that behavior (because in general, people get used–desensitized to–whatever they are exposed to).

Am I perhaps wrong to suggest “normalizing” sin is a bad thing? Could it be that in fact, what I’m calling “normalizing bad behavior” is a good thing, because it’s more realistic? I am actually in favor of realism in general. And I agree it may be necessary in some instances to portray a sin to show how empty and fruitless sin can be–but portraying a particular sin in a negative light does not seem to be what the writer of The Mist episode I’m talking about intended–if anything, the story portrayed a person denying he is gay in a bad light, not homosexuality itself.

Or could it be what I’m calling “normalizing bad behavior” is essentially neutral, because such portrayals affect different people differently? Look, just because some people may not be affected by something has nothing to do with whether it’s potentially damaging in a general sort of way. To draw from the poison pill analogy a bit (in what someone may complain is a logical error of “reasoning by analogy,” but which actually applies), not everyone is effected by non-metaphorical, i.e. literal, toxins in the same way. Some people can absorb more particles of, say lead, than other individuals before experiencing ill effects. But not being affected personally doesn’t actually mean the poison isn’t there. And not being affected at first doesn’t mean an effect can’t grow stronger with exposure over a longer duration. As is the case with exposure to lead–or radiation–or many other things.

This can be a slippery discussion, in part because the analogy of poison pills starts to break down, so let me drop the analogy for a second (I’ll pick it up again in a bit, though) and appeal to a Biblical statement, Philippians 4:8 (NKJV): “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.” It happens to be the case that the Bible recommends thinking about virtue over thinking about vice. Note I have no problem seeing that verse as a general admonition and not as an absolute prohibition of anything that could be seen in any way as negative. The Bible itself often portrays sin! Though the Bible includes things like consequences and Divine judgment, stuff that human arts and expressions of culture often skip over when on the topic of sin. (In fact, denying that sin is “sin” that comes with inherent consequences seems to be the main component of normalizing a sin in human culture.)

So why am I saying this? Am I singing the praises of creating a list of sinful stuff in popular culture and then metaphorically whacking other people over the head with our rolled-up list, telling them they need to straighten themselves out? No, that’s not what I’m saying, first of all because we need to embrace the responsibility to police against sin in our own lives, not create lists that have the true purpose of bossing other people around. It’s up to me to guard myself from sin, not up to me to guard you–which of course doesn’t mean I can’t warn you about potential problems. But does mean in the final analysis, you stand before God to answer for yourself, so I have no obligation to control your behavior. Offering a warning or a bit of advice is sufficient.

But assuming you are generally like me, dear reader, some things in human arts, literature, and popular culture have to power to be like poison pills for you. Maybe you won’t be affected by the same toxins to which I’m vulnerable, but still, I’d say the poison tuned to affect you the most is out there somewhere.

And it is more than possible such a thing that has the power to hurt you might be enjoyable. Like a chocolate-coated poison pill.

It makes sense to me that it’s possible for us to develop a skill of extracting the pleasure out of entertainment without being affected by the negative messages it contains. But that would be a little like licking the chocolate off pills we know are poisonous. Most people would not do that–most people would avoid the poison pills and instead chose pills they know are non-toxic.

“Oh, but the chocolate on the poison pills is so tasty, soooo good!” (Please bear with my dry observation at this point that Satan is not a figment of the Christian imagination.)

Image credit: Homdor.com

Maybe we ought to collectively prefer seek out what are in my metaphor “non-toxic pills.” Maybe part (part, not all) of our role in being sub-creators is to produce art/popular culture that celebrates virtue, rather than us delving into popular culture around us in a way that’s rather like licking chocolate off poison pills.

Believe it or not, I’m not actually saying anything profoundly different here than what Cap Stewart and E. Stephen Burnett said this week. I agree that God intended humans to create culture and that being sub-creators is something with a tremendous power to honor God–and I agree that participating in the culture we live in is to a degree normal. I also do not automatically classify all of popular culture as sinful–not every 80s song was oriented towards numbing a person to a Bible-prohibited sin!

I’m making a call in part for discernment concerning culture, which was not the topic Cap and E. Stephen were covering, but which I am certain they personally embrace.

What I’m trying to make clear is that it’s actually normal to embrace a type of sorting process for popular culture and refuse to engage in areas we know are potential problems for us. Maybe that’s more like avoiding foods we know are unhealthy than avoiding poison, but we should in effect produce our own nourishment in entertainment and recognize it’s a good idea to eat from it whenever we realize what is being offered up from the world around us will make us sick.

Perhaps therefore we should look on abstainers with a bit more favor–if someone thinks he or she needs to avoid as much as possible all the metaphorical foods at the supermarket and only eat from his or her metaphorical garden, OK, maybe he or she is making the exact right choice for that person. Which doesn’t mean I am obliged to make the same choice–still, I very well know I shouldn’t eat just any food sold at the market, willy-nilly.

However, if we are going to try to extract the pleasure out of things we know are hazardous for ourselves (which nothing I’ve said prohibits you from doing, even if it isn’t the best idea, because I know it’s possible to be exposed to sin without sinning yourself), let’s at least be honest with ourselves that we are taking a risk. There is the possibility we will become so drawn to the pleasure aspect that we eventually don’t even care about the poison. In effect swallowing the pills whole, even though we know the poison is there, like smokers who know what they are doing is bad for them, but struggle to quit.

“But oooh, the chocolate on the poison pills tastes soooo good! So goooood!” 🙂

The Arc and the Epilogue

In the beginning, Pixar made Toy Story, and it was good.
| Jul 17, 2019 | 3 comments |

In the beginning, Pixar made Toy Story, and it was good.

Then Pixar made Toy Story 2, and it was very good.

And Pixar made Toy Story 3, and it was good enough until the last twenty minutes, when it became very good.

And Pixar said, “Let us make sequels, for therein lies boatloads of easy money, plus we have no ideas on the drawing board except one about a ‘newt’, which is apparently a lizard that looks we assume much like other lizards, except the ones that prey on tourists in Australia.” And so Pixar made Toy Story 4.

And Toy Story 4 was …

… Good.

And this was surprising.

I had no faith when Toy Story 4 was announced. I marked it, without any particular emotion, as another sign that Pixar had sold its birthright for a mess of pottage. Nonetheless, I went to see it when it came out. Even Pixar’s mediocre efforts are solidly pleasant, and just because I know their game of nostalgia doesn’t mean I won’t play. I got more than I came for; I thoroughly enjoyed Toy Story 4. It is true, though possibly faint praise, that Toy Story 4 is easily the best Pixar movie since Inside Out.

I have two principal convictions regarding Toy Story 4, not entirely congruous or contradictory. The first is that Toy Story 4 is a genuinely good movie, more enjoyable in most ways than Toy Story 3. The movie is bright, spirited, clever. Forky, its most ingenious creation, perfectly binds existential dilemmas with sunny humor – a flash of the old Pixar brilliance. It reuses ideas from the older Toy Story films, notably the villainous unloved toy and the sinister organization of Sunnydale. Yet it reuses the ideas with such virtuosity that the earlier incarnations seem like first drafts of this final, perfected version. Toy Story 4 possesses a fleetness that even Toy Story 3 lacked.

My second conviction is that Toy Story 4 demonstrates conclusively that the arc of the Toy Story films is finished. More, it demonstrates that the films, in moving beyond Andy, have lost something central and irreplaceable. The toys spent the first three films on adventures away from Andy, but the point was always to get home to him. What united the three movies into a trilogy was a thematic idea and an emotional arc. Toy Story drew the first, straightforward line: the purpose Andy gave to his toys, and the love they returned. Toy Story 2 drew the curve: the purpose would inevitably end; the love, probably also. Toy Story 3 finished the arc: the purpose completed, the story ended.

Toy Story 4 throws nostalgic glances back at the story, but it can’t connect to it. It can’t continue the arc. A better movie than Toy Story 3 through most of its runtime, it never achieves the emotional power of that movie’s best moments. It even seems a testimony to the orbital pull of Andy’s love that in this, the first film without him, the toys drift away from each other. Toy Story 4′s disconnection from the arc of the preceding Toy Story movies might not be a loss. But it is a lack.

If you view it in the right mood (probably a generous mood), you can take Toy Story 4 as a kind of epilogue to its predecessors. No, there won’t be another Andy for Woody. But there will be other things. Whatever view you take, the cleverness and sheer fun of Toy Story 4 are winning. I enjoyed it, and that’s all you can really expect from the theater.

Still, I have a conviction that if Pixar makes Toy Story 5, it will not be good. It’s time to let Toy Story rest in peace. Even the epilogue has been written, after all.

Should We Be Against Christians Who Are Against Popular Culture?

E. Stephen Burnett and Cap Stewart explore the truth and challenges of Brad East’s recent Mere Orthodoxy article “Against Pop Culture.”
| Jul 16, 2019 | 23 comments |

Last week a little piece at Mere Orthodoxy went semi-viral, at least among my smart Christian friends.

No surprise there. The article was titled, simply, “Against Pop Culture.”

Well! We can’t have that. Right? Especially when writer Brad East just came right out and said things like:

Reading, cooking, gardening, playing a board game, building something with your hands, chatting with a neighbor, grabbing coffee with a friend, serving in a food pantry, learning a language, cleaning, sleeping, journaling, praying, sitting on your porch, resting, catching up with your spouse or housemate: every one of these things would be a qualitative improvement on streaming a show or movie (much less scrolling infinitely on Instagram or Twitter).

There is no argument for spending time online or “engaging” pop culture as a better activity for Christians with time on their hands than these or other activities. Netflix is always worse for your soul—and your mind, and your heart, and your body—than the alternative.1

Understandably, this opinion came across like a big ol’ foot stepping right on a few culture-engaging Christians’ wireless earbuds.

Why this ‘popular culture’ topic matters to us

In theory, I should feel the same negative response. After all, I’m writing a book (with Ted Turnau and Jared Moore) on a related topic. It’s about how gospel-hearted families can raise their kids to engage popular culture for God’s glory. (Release target: spring 2020.)

For Christian fans of fantastical stories, this issues also matters.

We need to have some biblical and rational response to ideas like this, rather than simply sneer, “Ho-hum, another legalist.”
— E. Stephen Burnett

After all, our favorite stories make up this thing called popular culture. So if these stories are a waste of time, we’d best learn this early. And we need to have some biblical and rational response to ideas like this, rather than simply sneer, “Ho-hum, another legalist. Just like those nasty parents/church/youth leaders I learned to ignore.”2

Instead my response is more mixed. Just as it would be—and I think should be—to any popular culture trend.

Joining me to explore our mutual response is Cap Stewart. He’s a contributor to the new book Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues.3 Cap has also written often, including here at SpecFaith, to challenge our assumptions about popular culture. Neither of us are strangers to Christian critiques of popular culture. But we also have some rebuttals to any re-reactive sort of “against popular culture” critique.

What ‘Against Popular Culture’ gets right

E. Stephen Burnett:

Okay! So I can finally sit down and jot out a few positive responses to that Mere Orthodoxy article.

Without getting into the author’s crucial follow-up, here’s what I did like about this “Against Pop Culture” piece:

(1) Diagnosis of the popular culture “lovefest.”

Some Christians have this lovefest when they grow up, move out, go to school, try a new church, and then realize, “Hey, folks, there’s a lot of pop culture around here. And get this: It’s not. All. Terrible. Like the Sunday school teachers/mom-n-dad said it would be!” (Well, on the one hand, I’m not sure Mom and Dad or the teachers actually said that. And I wish we’d be a little more discerning with our own memories.)

(2) A recognition that this leaves out some people.

All this “engaging popular culture,” as in the kind that goes on with young Christian thinkpieces and such-like, actually leaves people out of many conversations, rather than drawing them in.

Honestly, I skip maybe 80 percent of these thinkpieces for this very reason: I don’t actually follow all that much of what’s ragingly popular in our culture (e.g., America). The internet and specialized fandom/interest groups is a cause of this. I’ve found my favorite genres and stories and franchises, at least in visual media, and by and large, I stick with those. It’s actually rare that I branch out.

(3) A basic observation that popular culture consumption can become a waste of time.

This is, frankly, a monster-lurking-in-plain-sight that many articles and books with titles like Finding the Gospel in XYZ just don’t address explicitly. If they do, it comes off as more of a “Now, of course we don’t want to overdo this …” type of disclaimer. It sounds like the reverse of the kind of thing a genteel legalist would say when he says, “Now, of course we know that ‘entertainment’ can be harmless …” before following it with a great big “Buuuut …”

Cap, what did you like about the article, and/or think that it began to approach well?

Cap Stewart:

After reading the piece several times, and trying to view it with as charitable a position as I can, there are a few points I can appreciate.

First is the acknowledgement of extremes: how overprotective guidelines for children (whether provided by parents or some other authority structure) can lead to a pendulum swing later in life that is too far in the other direction. If one grows up under a strict art-aversion paradigm, art indulgence might feel like the proper solution. Or, to put it another way, when one is told not to engage with pop culture in any way, they may eventually feel that the proper stance is to engage with pop culture in every way.

A second element I can appreciate is East’s well-meaning but ill-suited push-back against indiscriminate indulgence in entertainment. If our Christian subculture is leaning in error, I think it is toward the indulgence end of the spectrum rather than the avoidance end. And if indulgence is the main problem, it should be addressed more often and more readily than it is. Addressing the dangers of avoidance when indulgence is the prevalent is dangerously myopic.

Our enthusiastic embrace of pop culture can be a sign of outright idolatry. We are quick to follow entertainment as our own personal pied piper.
— Cap Stewart

A third element, closely related to the second, is the idea that our enthusiastic embrace of pop culture can be a sign of outright idolatry. We are quick to follow entertainment as our own personal pied piper, even if said entertainment leads us right off the cliff of banality (to paraphrase a different, and much more godly Piper).

What ‘Against Popular Culture’ seems to ignore

Cap Stewart:

The problems I have with the article, however, outweigh the positives. All of the above points are either only hinted at or buried under much needlessly hyperbolic language. East paints with such a broad brush that he fills his article with the wrong color. His sweeping generalizations distract from the heart of his message.

I have no problem with click-baity titles if they aren’t deceptive and actually deliver the goods. As a rare exception, “Against Pop Culture” is problematic because it does deliver the goods: it actually makes East come across as (basically) being opposed to all forms of pop culture. There are “no good reasons,” he says “for why Christians (or anyone) ought to be enthusiastic consumers of pop culture.” He also says, “Netflix is always worse for your soul—and your mind, and your heart, and your body—than the alternative.” Elsewhere, he says to care about engaging with pop culture is “a silly thing to believe, and the silliness should be obvious.” None of these are helpful statements.

There’s also the confusion displayed in the article about what exactly constitutes pop culture. According to East, we are to forsake pop culture and do other, more important things, including (among other things) reading and playing board games—not to mention activities like chatting with a neighbor, grabbing coffee with a friend, and catching up with your spouse or housemate (all of which could very well involve discussions about popular culture).

When all is said and done, this article, as it stands by itself, seems tailor-made for the phrase “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Yes, there’s a lot of dirty water here, and we need to drain the tub (so to speak). Yet if extreme and indiscriminate indulgence in pop culture is unhealthy (and it is, and it must be addressed), so is the extreme and indiscriminate opposition to all pop culture. We can’t be just wise as serpents or innocent as doves; we need to be both.

Cultural Engagement, editors: Joshua C. Chatraw, Karen Swallow PriorI am all for exercising temperance when engaging with pop culture. A large portion of my research and writing over the last several years has been cautionary in nature. Heck, my essay in the recently released anthology Cultural Engagement is entitled, “When Art Becomes Sin.” It appears that East and I agree that the church’s standards on pop culture engagement have been severely compromised. I just think there’s a lot of collateral damage with the approach East has chosen to take in this piece.

What Christian popular culture writers also seem to ignore: a biblical argument for popular culture’s purpose

E. Stephen Burnett:

I agree with your positive reading and yet also your “baby with the bathwater” concerns. But some of the critiques I’ve read seem to come from a position of reaction based on personal experience. In other words, people may say things like, “I grew up being taught (or catching from the evangelical cultural winds) the notion that popular culture = evil, and this article is just more of the same.”

Well, this doubles down on a very flawed approach to anything, based on personal experience and personal association. Either the “against pop culture” or the “against religious legalism” folks are starting with the same word: “against.” In other words, their beliefs begin with a subconscious assumption that something has gone wrong with this “world” and we must fix it. In a gospel paradigm, however, that starts too late. You’ve missed a  “chapter 1” of the story. Instead we must go back to that first chapter and ask, “what was originally right?” That’s an argument based in proactive truth as defined by our Creator, rather than reaction to “the bad guys.”

In this case, East (both in his original article and in the followup) seems disinterested in the origins of popular culture in the first place. There’s no effort to engage with popular culture’s biblical purpose (if it has one) or popular culture’s place in God’s economy.

Unfortunately, though, some of his critics make the same flawed judgments. So we end up circling the same questions of whether engaging/not engaging popular culture will endear us to certain persons or help us be better neighbors with them in order to affect our culture.

These are vital questions, but they are secondary. Only if the Christian’s “chief end” is “to evangelize the lost” would these questions be of utmost importance. But this is not our chief end. Instead, our chief end (per the Westminster Shorter Catechism) is “to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” This leads to the highest priority when engaging with anything in this world: how ought we do/not do this thing to the glory of God?

East’s followup article offers a lot of important clarifications. He makes this vital point:

I’m rejecting the case made by far too many Christian writers, academics, and pastors that their fellow Christians should be engaging pop culture. As I wrote, that is silly, and its silliness should be dazzlingly apparent to all of us.

If we as Christians write about popular culture—that is, human stories and songs, usually delivered via technology—we must insist on putting the “biblical purpose of human culture” material up front. We must show our work.
— E. Stephen Burnett

On this I agree. In fact, some writers’ pro–popular culture materials carry a tone as if to say, “Hey hey you guys popular culture ISN’T EVIL!1!!” These also tend to ignore any biblical purpose of culture, and strike me as at best happily sophomoric, or at worst willfully naive about the idols and vapid trends pervading popular culture.4

Here, perhaps East has explored the “biblical origins of culture” question elsewhere, and it’s at the back of his body of work. But at this point, I don’t think we can afford to limit this concept to the footnotes. If we as Christians write about popular culture—that is, human stories and songs, usually delivered via technology—we must insist on putting the “biblical purpose of human culture” material up front.

We must show our work:

  1. That we have considered the biblical origins of human culture-making (based on the cultural mandate) of Genesis 1:28,
  2. God’s original purpose in giving us this gift,
  3. How this gift is affected by the Fall,
  4. How the Old Testament saints built culture (even popular culture) for God’s glory.

Even more importantly, now that Christ has come and we live in the Church age, we must explore how Christians see popular culture in light of Christ’s redemption. This will include (but isn’t limited to) popular culture’s role in the Great Commission. Finally, we must see in light of eternity, the future and physical New Heavens and New Earth, what role popular culture may have in the Kingdom. Because, frankly, if we don’t at least suspect that some popular culture may (literally and physically) last forever, why bother with it now?

However, I do think these themes will challenge East’s original audience more than folks like him who purport to be “against pop culture.” E.g.:

I had at least two audiences in mind with my original piece. One was the group criticized directly: those who believe, and write, that Christians ought to “engage” pop culture. And the reaction of at least some folks proved, to me at least, the point: there is a kind of nervous insecurity on the part of folks who “love” pop culture and who therefore need it to Be Meaningful . . .

Regarding this, we are on the same team. You don’t need popular culture to Be Meaningful in order to fit in with the Joneses—even if your intent is to evangelize the Joneses.

However, the first flaw here isn’t in such a well-meaning Christian’s over-baptism of popular culture.

The flaw appears in the Christian’s insistence on trying to be the good-cop Christian, that is, the Christian who will not condemn popular culture (like all those bad-cop Christians that he and the unsaved neighbors surely know about, right?). And the flaw is in the Christian’s belief that his chief end is to represent Jesus to his neighbors. Not so. His chief end is to glorify God and enjoy God forever—which includes representing Jesus to the neighbors. He who would be a great and non-legalistic Christian, to help lead the unsaved masses, must first be God’s servant. And this primary role must lead us back to those old and un-hip questions based in personal piety and purity.

All things streaming on Netflix may be permissible, but not everything is beneficial (1 Corinthians 10:23). In that text, Paul isn’t primarily interested in how we participate in cultural activities based on our witness to the watching world. He’s interested in whether we are being personally idolatrous or holy.

Are Christians always ‘counter-cultural’?

Cap Stewart:

You make some good points. And it is right that we need to go back to “chapter 1” of God’s story in order to better understand what was true and right and good about God’s created order before we can effectively critique.

It’s much more easy to be “against” something without doing the legwork of appreciating what to be a proponent of. (I can be guilty of this myself, as much of my cultural commentary is on what is wrong with certain aspects of it. Even in my opposition, I need to make sure I communicate what I am for as well as what I am against.)

Not to be too dramatic, but that’s actually a Satanic strategy. He can’t create anything good to begin with. He can only work against the good that God has created by perverting it. Satan’s whole identity, in fact, is wrapped up in what (or, rather, who) he is against. He’s not for anything.

E. Stephen Burnett:

Amen! And speaking very frankly, living this kind of anti-based life is no way to train for eternity.

And this tendency is behind any argument based on “counter-culture.”

Former generations of Christians were “counter-culture” versus, say “Big Hollywood,” or MTV, or boycotts against Disney.

Now, their children (having become adults) happily adopt that “counter-culture” mindset, but mainly turn it against Christian cultures.

Either way, the starting point remains the same: “Let’s not be bad guys.”

Rather than, “Let’s be worshipers of God according to his holy revelation.”

Cap Stewart:

Indeed. And the thing is, on the surface, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between the two. After all, a properly robust Christian worldview will be quite counter-cultural.

E. Stephen Burnett:

In some ways, yes. In other ways, perhaps not.

For example, have you noticed how “the culture” is at once still encouraging promiscuous dress but also resisting the sexual exploitation of female heroes in fantastical movies? A Christian with an ethic of “Look at what The Culture is doing, then do the opposite” would be very confused here. Because human culture is like many humans themselves–hopelessly (apart from Christ) mixed up. A hot mess.

Cap Stewart:

Yeah, C. S. Lewis (via Screwtape) pointed out that humans have the capacity to adhere to conflicting views/convictions without even realizing it. It’s something we all do–to a certain degree, at least.

How then should Christians critique popular culture?

E. Stephen Burnett

On that note, let’s strive to treat Christian critiques of popular culture—and critiques of “Christian popular culture engagement”—in the same way. Let’s consider them carefully and thoughtfully, rather than reacting as if to say, “Oh, no, here we go, another legalist on the scene.”

With that in mind, and with your recent published essay in Cultural Engagement in view, how do you think that Christians ought to critique popular culture?

What are some healthy worldview tenets, holiness guidelines, and any other principles to follow?

Cap Stewart:

Those are good questions. As a partial answer, I think your point earlier, that we must discern God’s original intent for all of creation (including popular culture), is important to remember.

In his manifold wisdom, God created man in His own image to reflect and glorify Him. Part—though certainly not all—of our image-bearing work includes creation: the development of industry, arts, customs, and the like (i.e., culture). As image-bearers of our creator, we can express His redemptive purposes through cultural development.

Yes, the Fall has affected all areas of our lives, and sin taints even our best efforts. But God’s original intent for his gifts remains, and it can be viewed through expressions such as hard work and recreation, faithful pursuits of singleness and marriage, expressions of justice and mercy—and the development of culture through such means as the arts, entertainment, and technology.

Based on an eternal perspective, it is reasonable to assume that our mandate to share and reflect God’s image will continue in the new heavens and the new earth.
— Cap Stewart

The cultural mandate is just that—a mandate. It is a divine commission. We cannot adequately reflect God’s image apart from it. And based on an eternal perspective, it is reasonable to assume that our mandate to share and reflect God’s image will continue in the new heavens and the new earth.

To be sure, it is foolhardy to extrapolate that all forms of culture making (and culture critiquing) are equally valid and equally admirable. (They are most certainly not. Some deserve to be praised and some deserve to be condemned.) It also foolhardy, however, to condemn all forms of culture (including pop culture) as inherently invalid and irredeemable. The Christian’s endgame should be informed by the endgame of the kingdom of God. And in God’s wisdom, He advances his kingdom in part through the advancement and development of culture.

Toward that end, I think it’s imperative to remember our Savior’s encapsulation of the Christian’s duty: to love God with our whole being, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Mark 12:28–32). This can help us both as we look inward (to evaluate our own heart’s posture) and as we look outward (to praise or critique aspects of pop culture). There are legitimately complex areas that require a nuanced approach (although I think there are fewer such instances than the current consensus permits). Still, if we don’t start with Christ’s summary of the law, the eyes of our hearts will incorrectly perceive a plethora of shades of gray, and will miss many of the vibrant colors and stark black/white contrasts revealed to us through Scripture.

Cap StewartCap Stewart is an independent business owner and freelance writer. He’s been a fan of speculative fiction ever since picking up This Present Darkness in fifth grade, and his beloved gamer bride makes up for whatever nerdom he lacks. Cap is a contributing writer to the book Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues (Zondervan, 2019). He also blogs at Happier Far.

  1. Brad East, “Against Popular Culture,” Mere Orthodoxy, July 9, 2019. East clarified in a followup article that he’s more speaking about Christians who say we must engage popular culture.
  2. “Ho-hum, another legalist,” etc. is itself a very legalistic response. For more, see David Strain, “Our Attitude Toward the Pharisee,” Tabletalk (June 2016), also readable online.
  3. Editors: Joshua D. Chatraw and Karen Swallow Prior. (Notice I have not included the Amazon link. We need to figure out what to do about Amazon, folks. Our solution may need to involve multi-adaptive shielding.)
  4. I note that these articles often have plenty to say only about the idols in The Evangelical Church, conservative politics, and so on. This emphasis only affirms my working theory that these critiques have a lot to do with the writer’s personal history or lingering conflicts with church or family backgrounds.

Favorite Authors

Authors can captivate a reader, maybe more than a genre does, but to keep their loyalty, an author needs to keep delivering.
| Jul 15, 2019 | 13 comments |

Speculative fiction readers often have favorite genres. Fantasy lovers, love fantasy; sci fi readers love sci fi, and so on. But what about favorite authors?

I find myself gravitating to authors I love, and generally gobbling up anything they’ve written. Until I find a clunker or two.

I read Narnia as an adult and fell in love with the world but also its author, so I began reading everything I could by C. S. Lewis. That’s how I discovered books like The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, his space trilogy, and Til We Have Faces. At one point I even read as many of his nonfiction books I could get a hold of. Notice, I was willing to cross over from fantasy to science fiction (and from fiction to nonfiction) without batting an eye. I cared more about what the author was saying than what tool he was using to say it.

At one point, I began a search for “another Lewis.” I think that’s how I came upon A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. The thing was, when I read the next two in the series, I didn’t find then of the same caliber and never sought out the last two of the quintet. Nor did I discover any of her other, many books.

In my quest for another Lewis I also found Lloyd Alexander and his Chronicles of Prydain—like L’Engel’s series, a five book set. This one I stayed with and loved and thought I’d found what I was looking for. But when I finished, what came next? I read one other, or bought it and started it. I don’t remember which because that was the last of Alexander I read.

The point is authors can captivate a reader, maybe more than a genre does, but to keep their loyalty, an author needs to keep delivering.

Here’s another example. After I read J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, I began a search for another author, similar to the one who had penned a story I loved. This pursuit was particularly necessary because there were no other Tolkien books on the horizon at that time. A friend suggest I try Stephen Donaldson’s Wounded Land trilogy. After a false start with the first book, I was hooked.

When that series ended, however, a second trilogy came out. Because I was a Donaldson fan now, I dived in. And kept reading because the trilogy was like one long story. But I was disappointed with those books and especially the last one. So when I heard, years later, that an author I’d loved had a new trilogy, set in the same world, I was enthusiastic, but not so much that I’ve done more than read a bit of the first book, then put it down.

So what about you? What series of books have you fallen in love with and consequently followed the author into another novel or another speculative world? And what about the ones that initially grabbed you but didn’t live up to the promise in the next book or so? Any of those?

Or maybe you’re not a reader that particularly cares about the author. You want to follow the characters or dive into the worlds (so, for example, Narnia written by anyone else would be just fine, as long as there was more Narnia).

How important is it for authors to Keep getting it right? Are you willing to overlook one clunker? Two? Are you like me, looking for authors who write in a way that reminds you of another you’ve loved?

I’m curious what you all have to say in the comments or at Spec Faith’s Facebook page or at another site where this article is shared. Let other readers know your thoughts.

Fiction Friday: Paranormia By Paul Regnier

A great balance of comedy, action adventure, and the supernatural, Paranormia is a quirky, heartfelt adventure that is both enjoyable and uniquely engaging. — Jill Williamson
| Jul 12, 2019 | 4 comments | Series:

Paranormia

by Paul Regnier

INTRODUCTION—PARANORMIA

A nerdy nobody is heaven’s newest hero. It’s too bad that the devil fights dirty . . . Paranormia is an enthralling urban fantasy adventure.

Chris Loury is penniless and painfully geeky. So when the struggling illustrator makes a wish that grants him supernatural visions, the lines start to blur between his comics and reality. After he crosses paths with a protector who calls himself an angel, Chris must decide if being a hero is worth the danger.

When his newfound confidence helps him connect with the girl-next-door, he hopes he can balance a relationship and a superhuman secret. But after a devilishly gorgeous woman with money and an ulterior motive tempts him with career success and fame, he puts his crush, his town, and his life in jeopardy.

Will Chris fulfill his destiny and save the city from destruction?

“Paul Regnier has penned a refreshingly different kind of story. A great balance of comedy, action adventure, and the supernatural, Paranormia is a quirky, heartfelt adventure that is both enjoyable and uniquely engaging.” — Jill Williamson, Christy Award-winning author of the Kinsman Chronicles and the Blood of Kings trilogy.

PARANORMIA — EXCERPT

Chapter 1

Greatness eluded me. It wasn’t for a lack of effort or potential, as far as I could tell. I just couldn’t shake the feeling I’d taken a wrong turn somewhere and couldn’t find my way back.

As I lay on the mold-scented linoleum, peeking through the gap under the front door of my apartment, waiting for Amber to come home, the correlation between how I spent my time and what I’d accomplished in life became all the more apparent.

“You’re gonna need a tetanus shot,: my roommate Steve called over his shoulder. “That floor has a pulse.”

I shifted my weight, and my arm rubbed against a greasy buckle in the linoleum, as if to confirm his point. “She’s worth it.” The floor wasn’t my favorite spot to recline, but it offered the best view of Amber’s arrival, and I had to time this perfectly.

“Let it go, man.” Steve spoke with little conviction. He knew I was too far gone.

Life had thrown some brutal curve balls this week. Losing my job at the movie thearer and passing a kidney stone—a man’s equivalent of giving birth—had constructed a sturdy wall of despair around me. People were always saying that at twenty-one life had just begun, and there was plenty of time to make things happen. This hopeful advice blew right out the window of my crummy little apartment in downtown Long Beach.

I needed something to boost my morale, and I hoped Amber would be it.

“I’m pretty sure I heard her car.” I strained to hear her approach on the stairwell leading to our third-floor hallway. Either her footsteps or the bell from the elevator would signal her arrival. “She’ll be here any minute.”

Steve grunted. He had his back to me, nestled in his makeshift art studio wedged in the three-foot space between the living room couch and the kitchen counter. Beyond his tweed fedora that caged a smoothed, black pony tail, a dark paint brush struck mercilessly against his latest art piece. Swirling layers of thick black and grey oil on canvas grew more devoid of hope by the minute. A lone figure with an inner luminescence walked through his painted darkness toward a keyhole-sized beam of light in the distance. I held little hope he would make it.

“Chris, this is stalker territory,” Steve said. “She’ll see right through it.”

Being referred to as a stalker definitely soured the romanticized view of my plans. “Staging a run-in doesn’t qualify as stalking. It just shows that I care and I’m a planner.”

He finally put his paint brush down. “Just wait till you see her at Shimmer Fitness and say hello. That’s what normal people do. Your plan is weird.”

“My plan rules. I already waved to her on the elliptical last week. That’s phase one. Phase two is when I ‘accidentally’ run into my hot neighbor and ask her to go to the gym. It’s like a date without the pressure.”

He laughed. “And you wonder why you’re single. It’s supposed to rain. No one wants to go to the gym in the rain, especially late at night. Abort mission.”

“You suck. I need this. You know that.”

Steve’s art stool gave a metallic squeak as he spun to face me. His eyes were serious behind prescription Ray-Bans. Whenever he got that sober expression, he resembled an Asian version of Johnny Depp.

“Who keeps trying to get you out of this apartment?” He motioned to the low-lit, pea green wallpaper of our prison. “Who told you to submit your comic book to a publisher?”

“Graphic novel.”

“Whatever, man. It’s good stuff. What are you waiting for?”

“I already sent out submissions. They got rejected.”

“Twenty rejections is nothing.”

“Twenty-four.”

Steve adjusted his glasses, his jaw clenching. “Everyone gets rejected at first. If it’s your dream you gotta keep going. Or just do it yourself. Do that self-publishing package you told me about.”

“It’s eighteen hundred dollars,” I said. “I’m broke.”

“Okay, fine. Future goals. Meanwhile, you gotta get out of this apartment. You should come with me to Bible study this week. You haven’t been there in months.”

“Maybe they can lay hands on my wallet.”

Steve pursed his lips. “You know, my cousin Miyu was there last time. A woman who actually wants to talk to you. No stalking required. She said you remind her of Daniel Radcliffe.”

I sat up. “Really? Harry Potter?”

He nodded. “So now that your kidney stone is gone and you’ve spent plenty of time home with your video game recovery program, what’s your excuse?”

“I’m busy.”

“You’re unemployed.”

“I’m busy thinking.”

“Come on man, don’t neglect the spiritual. Showing up is half the battle.”

I sighed. “Well, maybe God could show up a little more and inspire me.”

Steve put his hands up. “Thin ice, man.”

“Sorry. Long week. I need something on a Biblical level to turn things around. If there was ever a time for divine intervention, it’s now.”

Steve took a squeaky turn back to his brooding art piece. “Careful what you wish for.”

The elevator bell dinged. I laid back down, and my eyes narrowed toward the space under the door. Thin shadows broke the light at the far end of the hall. Someone was coming. I sprang to my feet and made sure my earbuds were tucked in tight and straightened my black Adidas branded T-shirt. I checked my phone. Ten-thirty. Was it too late? Was my fake run-in idea desperate and transparent?

I turned to Steve for a confidence boost. “How do I look?”

Without a glance he shook his head, his shiny black pony tail giving a lazy swoosh. “Sad. This whole idea is just sad.”

“Sad like that depressing painting?” I pointed to the maelstrom of darkness dominating his canvas.

“That’s cold-blooded, bro.”

I opened the door and strode into the hallway with an energetic pace. I kept my eyes on the ground, bobbing my head to imaginary music from my earbuds. I too a quick glance between head-bobs. Someone was coming closer. Definitely her.

PARANORMIA AUTHOR BIO—PAUL REGNIER
Paul Regnier is a speculative fiction author perpetually lost in daydreams of spaceships, magic, and the supernatural. He is the writer of Paranormia, an urban fantasy/supernatural comedy, and the Space Drifters series, a sci-fi/space opera comedy.

Paul is a technology junkie, drone pilot, photographer, web designer, drummer, Star Wars nerd, and a wannabe Narnian with a fascination for all things futuristic. Paul lives in Treasure Valley, Idaho, with his wife and two children.

‘Warm Bodies’ Portrays a Vivid Yet Grotesque Gospel Image

Actor Nicholas Hoult and the “Warm Bodies” cast help show the many emotions we experience while searching for life’s purpose.
Marian Jacobs | Jul 12, 2019 | 5 comments |

After many supporting roles over the last two decades, Nicholas Hoult finally has our attention.

He’s claimed a starring role in two major motion pictures this year—the biopic, Tolkien (2019) as J. R. R. Tolkien, and as Beast in recent X-Men films, including Dark Phoenix. With such a unique face—likely helping him land his break-out role in About a Boy in 2002—it’s easy to see why he’s so frequently cast in speculative films.

Although his role as Tolkien may be his new claim to fame, is it his best work to date? I found the biopic to be sufficiently heartwarming and even inspiring at times, but I wouldn’t say the role was particularly suited to him. Nor was it in any way a story of faith as one would hope.

In stark contrast stands the zombie romance, Warm Bodies, staring Hoult as “R” and Teresa Palmer as Julie. Although not a story of faith per se, Hoult aids in the painting of a vivid, albeit grotesque, gospel image for viewers. This film may not appeal to all audiences due to it’s graphic and literally heart-stopping violence, but I can’t help but come back to it time and time again. The acting is en pointe, the soundtrack amazing, and the theme of redemption palpable.

It may sound as though I love a good gore-fest, but in reality, I’m pretty squeamish. I’ll even look away from the screen during particularly grotesque scenes, depending on my husband to tell when it’s safe to look back. But there are times in life when a film is just worth it. I even read the book by Isaac Marion afterward, but, surprisingly, found the movie preferrable—probably due to some necessary plot changes and, I would argue, Nicholas Hoult’s best performance yet.

I have heard time and again that Warm Bodies is zombies meets Romeo and Juliet. But although there are some obvious references to the Shakespearean tragedy—such as the main character’s names—this story is much more akin to Beauty and the Beast than Romeo and Juliet. For one thing, it’s not a tragedy. Like Beauty and the Beast, it’s a story of redemption where love is the catalyst.

I have heard it said by Christians, who like undead tales a good deal more than myself, that zombies are the perfect metaphor for life before Christ. Ephesians 2:1-5 can explain it best.

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously lived according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit now working in the disobedient. We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace!

It wouldn’t be surprising, then, for a Christian-made zombie story to end with the dead literally coming back to life as a picture of the gospel. Yet this story was not written by a Christian and it is romantic love that brings the dead to life again. Yet, even with the romance, there is something still so captivating for the Christian. It’s one of the reasons we often find Beauty and the Beast so alluring, isn’t it?

Disney illustrator Glen Keane expresses it best when describing his process of illustrating the Beast’s transformation.

“For me it’s really an expression of my spiritual life. There’s a verse in the Bible that says, ‘If any man is in Christ, he’s a new creation. Old things have passed away, and all things have become new.’ And I wrote that on my exposure sheet as I’m drawing, because it’s really about an inner, spiritual transformation that’s taking place with the Beast. I saw it as a parable of my own life” (2 Cor. 5:17).

In Warm Bodies, Hoult perfectly depicts the wide chasm of emotions one goes through in the search for meaning in life. The arc from bondage to an empty blood lust into pure joy at finding love and being set free from his former passions is nothing less than beautiful.

Some may argue that the world doesn’t need more zombie stories—and even I hit my threshold for gore rather quickly. But I can’t help but think that a story such as this would be all the more glorious if the love of Christ had transformed R’s lifeless heart. What if that look of pure joy and freedom on his face was the look of being free to pursue righteousness for the first time?

Although the story and acting falls short in that regard, the beauty of common grace—of the non-believer capturing the truth of redemption in their telling—is still inspiring.

Warm Bodies is rated PG-13 for violence and mild sexual content. For details, see the IMDB parents guide.

Beatitudes and Woes: A Groundbreaking Anthology

The Beatitudes and Woes anthology uses speculative stories to illustrate well-known statements Jesus made. Perhaps this method will prove to be groundbreaking–used by other anthologies in the future.
| Jul 11, 2019 | 11 comments |

Why would anyone identify himself or herself as a Christian writer of speculative fiction? Is it because Christian writers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror simply want to associate with other Christians who write these genres (sort of like a social club), without any expectation that their personal faith would change the stories they write? Or do speculative fiction writers who self-identify as “Christian” (like I do) mean they will write the same sorts of things that other speculative fiction writers produce, minus a “naughty list” of things they think should be excluded (such as graphic sex and/or violence, profanity, witchcraft, etc)? Or is there a positive meaning of being a “Christian writer of speculative fiction”–“positive” as in we intend to break new ground, to approach topics that the world around us isn’t interested in–or to approach them in a fresh way? This post suggests the soon-to-be-released Beatitudes and Woes anthology offers what I hope will become a model for the type of groundbreaking I’m talking about.

Beatitudes and Woes is built around an inherently simple but innovative idea. Imagine famous sayings that Jesus used, which unlike many of his principles don’t come already illustrated with a story (in a parable). Imagine making those sayings the foundation for a set of stories. An anthology of tales linked to well-known passages of Scripture–that seems truly groundbreaking to me, because if anyone has done that particular idea before, I haven’t heard of it. (Though of course many, many stories have been inspired by the Bible in various other ways.)

It’s a simple concept, but brilliant. Of the “why didn’t anyone think of doing this before?” kind of thing.  Also, not my idea. CW Briar came up with this notion and posted it on the Realm Makers Consortium Facebook page. A lot of people were immediately excited, including me.

Before I knew it, I found myself having volunteered to collect all these writings from a diverse group of authors who volunteered to participate, edit their tales, and put it all together into this anthology. I had no way of knowing how much I was biting off when I committed to this project, nor how busy I would be with matters not related to the stories around the time submissions started rolling in. It’s 13 stories after all, since there are 9 beatitudes or “blessed are” statements Jesus made in Matthew 5 and four woes (as in “woe to those who”) in Luke 6. (You just can’t process 13 stories in only a few minutes…well, I can’t, anyway.)

I hoped to get finished much earlier than what has actually happened–that is, we’ll be doing a book release party on Saturday July 13th on Facebook (the date matching the number of authors), with announcements to be posted various places, including the Realm Makers Consortium page. But I’d originally shot for March.

I wound up over-promising on what I was able to do, embarrassing myself, but it also was true that two authors who had initially volunteered dropped out for reasons I don’t need to go into detail about here. I appreciate them having sent stories in the first place but it took some time to get replacement stories written and edited. Thanks so much to Randy Streu and Parker J. Cole stepping in to provide those replacements.

When I mentioned a “diverse group of authors” above, I wasn’t really talking about diversity of ethnicity or gender (though 8 of the authors are women and 1 is African American), but rather diversity of writing experience, writing style, and focus.  Though I was as surprised by parallels among the stories as I was by unique features. Beatitudes and Woes has a comedic superhero story, two tales of outer space adventure (with a third being outer space horror), two examples of intense religious/ethnic persecution, two stories featuring island societies (and one featuring a desert people in their own kind of oasis-island), an extraterrestrial courtroom drama and a post-apocalyptic detective story, a Hunger Games-style tribal competition, and a quest to slay a dragon.

Only a few of the stories have straight-out happy endings that sometimes it seems Christian authors are addicted to. Even when the protagonist triumphs, it usually costs something, at the very least, anguish and grief. But a number of the stories end with the protagonist still a prisoner either literally or of circumstances–or with the worst thing the main character could imagine happening having taken place.

And there’s self-sacrifice, too, plenty of it. But there’s also the guilt-ridden act of selfishly sacrificing others. Not all of the most important characters make it out of their stories alive.

It’s really been a great experience putting these stories together. Some of these tales will rattle around my brain for years to come.  Some of them really do make the Bible verses that inspired them take on new meaning for me.

Yes, I said “some”–yes it’s true some of the stories affected me more than others. I suspect the same thing will happen with you if you experience the blessing of reading this book. Though the ones that affect you the most may not be the same as the ones that I will always remember. I think this anthology has that kind of diverse mix–one that will have a positive impact on a wide variety of people, but in differing ways for different people.

Please note that I’d like to make special mention of Cindy Koepp, who volunteered to help me edit and get this book finished and is helping promote it. I’m also grateful for Mary Campagna Findley, who made a great cover, and the extra work Parker J Cole and Rachel Kimberly Hastings have done to promote this book in addition to being authors. (And as always, I grateful for the amazing support from Tabatha Catalan Guerrero de Perry, my wife.)

Of course, now that Beatitudes and Woes is about to be released, it may be that many books after it will link verses to an anthology of short stories as a way to make a uniquely Christian approach to writing speculative fiction. I hope so.

If so, Beatitudes and Woes will have paved the way for that kind of anthology. Preparing the way for others to follow. Groundbreaking.

Readers of this post, do you have any questions about the anthology? Any comments? I’d be happy to answer or respond.

Children Don’t Need Magic: A Response to Joshua Gibbs

Magic is fun in fiction, but children don’t actually need magic to experience the awe of the Creator.
| Jul 10, 2019 | 15 comments |

I read Joshua Gibbs’ clickbait-titled article Children Need Magic on the Lorehaven Facebook page and decided that I would write my own equally-clickbait-titled response. So buckle up, friends—the tattooed fuddy duddy is out to rain on parades again.

First things first: I have no problem with fictional magic. I read The Chronicles of Narnia series at least half a dozen times when I was a kid. I loved The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I read the entire collection of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. As an English major in college, more than half of my academic reading centered around fantastic tales of yore. I can draw a pretty gnarly dragon in just a few minutes. Magic can be fun, cool, exciting, even inspirational.

I also want to be clear that I do not oppose magic in our entertainment, especially children’s entertainment. As an adult, I can attest to the fact that my fascination with magic has waned as I have discovered other genres of books and movies. Yet for many people, magic is a lifelong enchantment, and when they spring from a Spirit-led imagination, magical stories can be very powerful.

Yet when I saw this article, my spider sense tingled as soon as I saw the title. The Socratic conversational format was a pleasant surprise, but what was even more surprising was the lack of sound logic in Mr. Gibbs’ arguments. He uses the traditional Christian scapegoat of Harry Potter as his tentpole around which to raise his defense of magic. His argument essentially boils down to this: magic leads to a sense of awe when beholding the natural world, which in turn leads to a sense of awe for God.

If Gibbs simply mean that children need a sense of wonder and curiosity and excitement, and that these sentiments are manifested in words like “magical”, “enchanting,” etc., then I wholeheartedly agree. Yet Gibbs brings up Harry Potter, which contains detailed depictions of magic craft (i.e., sorcery). In essence, he is saying that stories like Harry Potter are necessary for our children because of their attachment to magic, which leads to awe, which leads to God.

He first examines the pagan roots of magic and explains how magic as a concept has become innocuous today. He says that:

“…the devil does not care about magic anymore, at least not where you and I live. He is far more interested in convincing people that neither magic nor miracles is possible. For that reason, I imagine the devil is even more opposed to the Harry Potter books than you are.”

I agree that the devil does not want anyone to believe in miracles, because those are caused exclusively by God’s divine power. However, he would gladly want people to believe in “magic” in any form, because magic in the real world is supernatural power which does not come from God. As I outlined in another article several months ago, all supernatural manifestations of power which do not come from God come from Satan. There is no such thing as “good magic” in real life.

Gibbs goes on to compare the diluted meaning of magic with the Olympic Games, which were once held in honor of Zeus, but this is clearly not the case today. If we’re just talking about reading words on a page, then it’s no biggie, but the practice of magic, if it goes beyond playtime, is flirting with the occult. There is absolutely no glory given to Zeus when someone runs an Olympic race, yet even the most innocent summoning spell, if it is done with serious intent, is an invitation to demonic influence.

Of course, Gibbs doesn’t believe that people are actually using Harry Potter as magic manuals, and rightly so. But crediting the Harry Potter books for “…restoring children’s delight in school after the materialists and secularists turned schools into godless factories” is downright silly. He claims that “[m]agic is now a weapon of joy for fighting Darwin, Dewey, and all the other prophets of doom who have lately tried to strip the wonder from the world.” I call pure BS on that. Fictional magic has about as much power in the real world as the Star Fleet Federation has in the UN. And if we’re crossing over into actual magic, then that is demonic, pure and simple.

Children don’t need magic to experience the awe of the Creator. It is not a gateway to channel their unfocused wonder at the incomprehensible complexities of the world that then coalesces into divine worship once they’re older. The glory of God is manifested in nature quite clearly, and to obscure that glory under the veil of “magic” is a sin. So by all means, read and write magical stories. Share them with your children. Thrill them with tales of dragons and wizards and the ceaseless struggle between the powers of good and evil. But direct their awe and wonder at the natural world towards God alone. He deserves the totality of our awe and wonder.

For Fans, Your Family, and the Church: Get the New Issue of Lorehaven Magazine

Shawn Smucker delights in magic at life’s margins, we review great new Christian fantasy, and fanservants seek the Psalms and discern YA’s allure.
| Jul 9, 2019 | No comments |

Subscribers can now download Lorehaven magazine’s summer 2019 issue.

If you haven’t already subscribed, it’s free. (Also be sure to add Monday–Friday updates for the SpecFaith portal.)

Here’s a preview of what’s inside, along with great sponsored ads showcasing the best in new Christian fantasy:

Captain’s Log

Wow. We really get all kinds of amazing books at Lorehaven.

A lot of these challenge my assumptions about Christian-made fantastical novels. . . .

Logic's End, Keith A. Robinson.Sponsored Review: Logic’s End

Have you ever tried to fathom the unfathomable number of stars and planets? Then guess what: life is rare. Thus, when NASA does discover another habitable planet, scientist Rebecca Evans is shaken by the possibilities. . . .

Book Reviews

  1. Ralene Burke’s Armor of Aletheia
  2. Jes Drew’s The Bachelor Missions
  3. Joan Campbell’s Chains of Gwyndorr
  4. K. Berklund-Pagé’s The Caves of Fire
  5. Ted Dekker’s The 49th Mystic
  6. Janelle Garrett’s The Hidden Queen
  7. John A. Pretorius’s Living in Times of Dragons
  8. Meg MacDonald’s Oath Sworn
  9. Esther Wallace’s The Savage War
  10. C. R. Flamingbush’s Speed of Sight
  11. Christa Conklin’s Tranquility
  12. Merrie Destefano’s Valiant

Light from Distant Stars, Shawn SmuckerFeatured Review: Light from Distant Stars

Light from Distant Stars is a Godsend. In the real world, we need more than platitudes or devotionals to help us heal. Instead, to start imagining our way through any family trauma, in the light of our Father and his truly good gifts, we need more fierce and compassionate stories like this one. . . .

‘I’ve Always Loved the Magic at the Margins’

“As a kid, you wonder if there really are gnomes or fairies, and you think you see them,” [novelist Shawn Smucker] said. “I really enjoy reading and writing stories that could be true, even though they’re fantastical . . . creating something that happens in this real world, but challenges the boundaries between real and magical or fantastical.” . . .

How the Psalms Reflect our Heart Desires

This biblical book of songs and poetry was written by contemplative, agonizing, creative people. Their passionate thoughts of anger, praise, despair, and joy were all given God’s stamp of approval. The psalmists get real, and God both welcomes and invites this realism.

Some psalms stand out to me as being especially applicable to geeks, given our strengths, weaknesses, and temperaments. . . .

Let’s Guard Against Temptations in YA Fiction

Many parents who don’t read the same books as their children aren’t aware of the amount of sexual content in modern young adult (YA) fiction.

Christian freedom allows for us all to draw the line in different places. But regardless of where your family places that barrier, books’ themes about sex and lust can challenge us about what we worship—either God or our own passions. . . .

About Lorehaven

Lorehaven serves Christian fans by finding biblical truth in fantastic stories. Book clubs, free webzines, and a web-based community offer flash reviews, articles, and news about Christian fantasy, science fiction, and other fantastical genres. Magazine print copies are available by request and at special events.

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Realm Makers Conference Facts—From The Writers’ Tool Chest

There are two things to keep in mind: 1) look for blog posts and pictures on social media about the Conference; 2) plan now to attend next year’s event.

You may already realize (because we here at Spec Faith mention it with some frequency) that the premiere (only?) conference for Christians writing speculative fiction is the Realm Makers Conference, to be held this year in ten days. Yes, ten! Count them. Ten. The gathering, which has been in various places since its inception six years ago—in Pennsylvania and as far west as Nevada—will take place in Saint Louis, MO, from July 18 through July 20.

What the RM Conference offers

The RM Conference 2019 keynote speaker is Brent Weeks, whose claim to fame comes from having one of his books on the New York Times best selling list back in 2012. His first books were The Night Angel Trilogy and the series that is (apparently) just wrapping up is The Lightbringer Series, consisting of five books and wrapping up with The Burning White, due out in October. According to the Conference schedule, his keynote address will be on Thursday at 4:15 and he will take part at other times as well.

In addition, this year RM is featuring a special guest: Terry Brooks, author of the well-known The Sword of Shannara series.

The course offerings at this RM Conference seem more than the previous conferences. On staff are some well-known Christian speculative writers: Patrick Carr (published by Bethany), Morgan Busse (published by Enclave and now Bethany), Brian Davis (published by AMG and now independently published), Wayne Batson (published by Thomas Nelson, AMG, now independently published), and others.

Topics at the Conference range from marketing to editing, world-building, self-publishing, agenting, screenwriting, and more. It sounds like a broad range of subjects, so writers at various levels of experience can find something helpful.

Of course, the classes are only part of the whole RM Conference experience. One of the very helpful options is for conferees to receive a paid critique or to meet for a “specialty appointment” or with a mentor. The website describes each of these:

Looking for someone to look over the first few pages of your manuscript and give you some feedback? Try a PAID CRITIQUE!

Need some information on taxes, social media, marketing, etc? Try a SPECIALTY APPOINTMENT!

Have some general questions about the publishing world, but don’t know who to ask? Try a MENTOR APPOINTMENT!

A host of authors and agents will be available for these services. To see the list, visit this page.

And still there is more. Besides optional meals with faculty, the Awards Dinner will be held Friday night. Not only are the winners of various contests announced but conferees may dress in costume.

And still more. There are agent and editor panels, a book festival Saturday night, a closing address from Mt. Weeks, special Q & A sessions with the special guest, and pre- and post-conference workshops.

Why does anyone need this information

I mention all this, not to encourage anyone to attend. I think it’s too late for that. If I read the info correctly, “walk-ins” were only able to register until June 30. Rather, there are two things to keep in mind: 1) look for blog posts and pictures on social media about the Conference; 2) plan now to attend next year’s event. I don’t know how they will top this one, but I have the feeling that’s exactly what they will try to do. At any rate, attending puts people of like mind together and provides encouragement, if nothing else. But looking at all that’s offered this year, I think there is a whole lot more available than encouragement.

Still, that element shouldn’t be overlooked. Writers can be isolated. Family and friends may not know or understand the worlds we live in, and speculative writers, more so.

The dates and place for the 2020 RM Conference haven’t been announced yet, but I’m guessing it will be made public at this year’s event. Likely, the announcement will be shared in those social media venues that carry Conference news, so keep a look out for the info and start planning today.