Superheroes And Heroes As They Relate To God

In part I think the love of speculative fiction grows from the need in the heart of each one of us for a person stronger, better, more capable, committed, willing to put his life on the line for others. We long for rescue—for ourselves, for our community, for the world. We love the idea that Someone will bring justice when we see no hope, when we are convinced that the bad guys will win, when we see devastation wrecking havoc in the face of our helplessness.
| Dec 31, 2018 | 1 comment |

Speculative fiction of any stripe more often than not, includes heroes or superheroes. It’s part of the trope of the imaginative worlds speculative authors create. For the Christian author, these heroic characters point to God or to Jesus Christ in some way or another.

For example, in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books, Aslan is the author’s answer to “What would God look like in this world?” In other stories such as Superman or Captain America, fans and readers or viewers who are Christian, if not the creators of the narrative, see the Savior depicted by the fictitious savior who does a sacrificial act to rescue those in danger.

Recently in a guest article here at Spec Faith Audie Thacker considered the nature of heroism in her review of My Hero Academia, a superhero manga series written and illustrated by Kōhei Horikoshi. In discussing what a hero actually is, she concludes

In the grand story of the world’s history, a story that paints in blindingly bold colors the realities of original sin and man’s fallenness, Jesus is the only hero.

So I wonder, what do most speculative stories today tell us about superheroes or heroes?

In part I think the love of speculative fiction grows from the need in the heart of each one of us for a person stronger, better, more capable, committed, willing to put his life on the line for others. We long for rescue—for ourselves, for our community, for the world. We love the idea that Someone will bring justice when we see no hope, when we are convinced that the bad guys will win, when we see devastation wrecking havoc in the face of our helplessness.

But is that all today’s speculative stories are telling us?

My superhero power is forgiveness

One kind of story tells us we all have secret powers that we can uncover by looking within. In other words, despite appearances, we actually are the superheroes of our own stories.

Another kind of story tells us that whichever of the superheroes we need at the moment or turn to in our desperation, is the superhero that will save us. If we need the Hulk, then he will save us. If we need Thor, then he’ll come to the rescue. If we need an entire organization, then S.H.E.I.L.D. will band together to protect us from the forces that aim for our destruction. In other words, there is no one hero that will point to God. If anything, this type of story may suggest that there are many gods and any one of them can be our way to salvation.

Recently I was reminded of a verse in Scripture that I as a fantasy fan find particularly meaningful, though clearly it was not meant as fantasy at all. It’s real and in the original context is powerful and comforting. It points to a hero.

The verse I’m referring to is Zephaniah 3:17:

“The LORD your God is in your midst,
A victorious warrior.
He will exult over you with joy,
He will be quiet in His love,
He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy.

Imagine! A Victorious Warrior! And He doesn’t stop with the rescue. He exults and loves and rejoices over those He’s saved. He’s involved, in a relationship kind of way.

What I think is especially powerful is that Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, we are to seek His kingdom—the kingdom of the Victorious Warrior—and His righteousness, as our primary goals.

I have to ask myself at this turn of the new year, what will seeking the kingdom and righteousness of this Victorious Warrior, this One and only real Superhero, look like?

On the Third Day of Christmas…

December 27th is the Third Day of Christmas–which means a few things in the history of Christianity in our world. But perhaps could be much more meaningful in worlds yet to be imagined…
| Dec 27, 2018 | 5 comments |

Wanting to join the general spirit of holiday celebration, I first had in mind that I wanted to dedicate this post to Christmas. But I’ve decided to do something a bit different–instead of looking at the Christmas itself, let’s look at the Christian meaning behind the day this post will first be published, December 27th. But because I think simply following the calendar is a bit dull, I’ve wandered off that topic into some fantasy world holiday speculations at the end of the post.

First, did you know today is the Third Day of Christmas? Everyone from liturgical churches are gonna say, “Of course,” but I in fact had no idea for a long time. I was in church as a child up to about when I was 11 or 12–then my mom withdrew from church (based on some issues) and pretty much never came back. What I had attended was a generic sort of “Evangelical” church and when I started going to church again on my own at age 17, it was a Baptist church. For Baptists and Evangelicals in general, there’s really only one day of Christmas–Christmas itself. Well, maybe a bit of celebration on Christmas Eve, too, but still. So that’s why as a kid I had no idea when the 12 days of Christmas were in relation to Christmas Day itself–did they build up to Christmas, from like the 13th? Or was Christmas Day in the middle of the Christmas season, Day Seven (or 6, or 8)? Or was Christmas Day the first day of the twelve days (which is the actual answer)? I had no clue.

Image Credit: http://www.katechidley.com

Speaking of things I didn’t have a clue about, you know that song that starts out: “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…”? When I was in single digits I used to think that song was additive–so instead of recapping all the previous days, I thought the gift-giver each day gave all the things listed again. That would total out at 12 partridges in 12 pear trees (1 each per day), 22 turtle doves (2 each for 11 days), 30 French hens (3 x 10), 36 calling birds (4 x 9, etc), 40 golden rings, 42 geese a-laying, 42 swans a-swimming, 40 maids a-milking, 36 ladies dancing, 30 lords a-leaping, 22 pipers piping, and 12 drummers drumming. Which seemed more than a bit excessive to me…ahem! (I knew I had to be misunderstanding the song somehow, but I honestly didn’t know how. 😉 )

Saint Stephen. Image Credit: Carlo Crivelli, 1476

By that song, today would be French Hen Day…which doesn’t really make sense. Hens in France come in many breeds just like any other country that raises chickens, donc les poules françaises ne sont pas vraiment différentes de celles des autres pays…but anyway, I’m getting off subject!

The Third Day of Christmas should be special, right? Based on the three-part Trinity alone, not to mention 3 days Jesus was in the tomb prior to Resurrection…but it actually isn’t so much. In Western liturgical churches (Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, etc.) it isn’t really anything. In Eastern churches, it’s the feast day for Saint Stephen–you know, the proto-Christian martyr, whose death is recorded in Acts 7–while St. Stephen’s is Dec. 26th in Western churches. Not exactly a cheery memory is that, not very “Christmasy” celebratory–though someone could write a blog post that discusses in detail how the babe in the manger comes along with the crucifixion and resurrection and even, yes, the eventual martyrdom, first of Stephen, and eventually of many others. That someone would not be me. Not today.

I would like to comment though that Stephen can get associated with Christmas simply because of the date he is remembered–and please note, Acts 7 does not say when Stephen died. December 26th/27th was simply the date some of his relics were moved to a different location–around 400 years after he died. So that’s the date he is remembered. Which seems kinda random, right?

Another (at least seemingly) random date that occurred in Christian history on December 27th was something called today the Flushing Remonstrance. This title refers to a petition drafted in 1657 in the former Dutch colony in what is today the state of New York. This document, which was a reaction against the fact the Dutch Reformed Church was the only official religion at that time in the New Netherlands colony, is credited by some to be the very first time religious liberties were affirmed in writing in North America (only 361 years ago 🙂 ). Which by apparent coincidence, seems to be rather the mirror image of the martyrdom of Stephen, doesn’t it?

The Flushing Remonstrance. Credit: New York State Archives

So what is this day? The Third Day of Christmas, without other meaning? A day to remember Saint Stephen’s martyrdom? A day to remember religious freedom? Trois Poules Françaises Day?

Please keep in mind that as random or opposite the associations of the Third Day of Christmas can be in our world, think of how such associations could be even more unexpected in a fantasy world. If your fantasy world has a savior like Jesus, is the birth of the savior specifically remembered and celebrated every year? It would not have to be. Perhaps in another world, with another set of cultures, they would only celebrate the death and not the birth. Or perhaps they would celebrate over a period of time, every day equally important as the others.

If celebrated every year on a particular day, that day could be associated with other days we don’t associate Christmas with in our world. If there are “days of Christmas” in a story world, the number of them could be a very different than the number of them in our world–say seven, or ten, or forty (and of course “Christmas” should almost certainly have a different name). And…the Third Day might indeed be very special. It might even by the most important day in the season, perhaps because of tying a resurrection back to the birth, Easter in effect coming during the Christmas season.

And this kind of unexpected aspects of holidays isn’t necessarily limited to fantasy–in futuristic science fiction worlds, where planets are inhabited that have years of different length than Earth, perhaps Christmas would be celebrated every 365 days (something I seem to recall Lelia Rose Foreman does in her Shatterworld Trilogy, which I publish in a single volume as A Shattered World), even if a year were longer or shorter. Which would mean a liturgical calendar would be superimposed on a secular one, making Christmas come at a different time every year! (Rather like how Ramadan and Islamic holidays change every year.) And new worlds would of course create their own holidays that could be associated with Christmas by accident–perhaps the Christmas season on a sci fi world would embrace both Christmas and the equivalent of Independence Day!

So when you’re building story worlds, consider your holidays. Use your holidays, even your Christmases (if you have any) to show how unique your story world is.

And by the way, a very Merry Third Day of Christmas to you all!

Wishing You All A Joyous Christmas

May you enjoy rich times with your family and wonderful worship of Christ, our Savior, Redeemer, and Lord.
| Dec 24, 2018 | No comments |

The Spec Faith regular contributors want to wish you a blessed Christmas Eve and a joyous Christmas celebration tomorrow. May you enjoy rich times with your family and wonderful worship of Christ, our Savior, Redeemer, and Lord.

Therefore, since the children [we humans!] share in flesh and blood, He Himself [Jesus] likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. (Hebrews 2:14-15)

Fiction Friday: “Pearla’s First Christmas”-Reprise

“Pearla’s First Christmas” is a short story, written from the point of view of one of the characters in the Angel Eyes trilogy
| Dec 21, 2018 | No comments |

Why not start a new Spec Faith tradition, I think. Consequently, I’m repeating an excerpt of “Pearla’s First Christmas,” a short story by Shannon Dittemore. Enjoy.

“Pearla’s First Christmas”

A short story by Shannon Dittemore

INTRODUCTION
“Pearla’s First Christmas” is a short story, written from the point of view of one of the characters in the Angel Eyes trilogy, and is available as a free download from author Shannon Dittemore.

“PEARLA’S FIRST CHRISTMAS” — EXCERPT

There was nothing silent about that night.

Except perhaps for the boy’s tears. His cloak was drawn tight around his thin shoulders, over his mouth, tears soaking into the cloth. Despite the warm of the night around us, he was cold. The staff in his hand trembled as he prodded a wayward sheep, pushing it away from the outer edges of the flock.

It was the fear that shook him, weighed him down, kept him silent beside the men trading barbs in the night air. The largest of them—a thick, burly man—was relentless in his jabs toward the boy, mocking his size and his youth, poking at him with a rod.

It came in great sticky globs—the fear—through the boy’s clothing and hair. Black and thick, it rolled down his back and onto the ground, pressing its way through the grass, looking for another victim.

I stepped toward the boy, invisible to him of course, my celestial form inherently warm, a deterrent to all things evil. My toes pressed into the vein of fear leaking at his feet. It hissed, sparked, and began to curl into itself. Stifling the spread of fear is easy enough for me and doesn’t violate my orders in any way, but the fear growing in his heart . . . I wanted to stop that too.

A touch from me would ease his sorrow, quell his fear, but I’m a cherubic spy, not a Shield. My job is to observe and report, not to engage. A desperate urge welled inside my chest, working its way to my hands. I balled them into fists at my side.

“Go ahead.” A voice rang inside my head. Deep. Lovely. Kind. It was Michael, Commander of the Armies of Light. “Tonight we bring goodwill to mankind.”

We Cherubs are small, no taller than a human child. One small step brought me face-to-face with the shepherd boy. His gaze was fixed on something beyond the fields, his gray eyes brimming with tears, his lips purple from the chill of fear.

My fists loosened then, the freedom to act—a thrill rushing through my form. I’d not done it before, offered healing to a human. But as my hands pressed into his chest, as I spread my dark fingers wide, I knew Michael was right.

Tonight we bring goodwill to mankind.

The boy’s eyes widened and then fluttered, his lips releasing a sigh of respite. The fountain of fear in his chest gurgled to a stop, but when I drew my hand away, a small pool remained.

“I don’t know why he’s still afraid,” I said.

“And you likely never will,” Michael answered. There was tension in his voice, a strain I rarely heard. My wings lifted me and I turned, rising several feet so I could look him in the eye. His wings dwarfed mine. They arched high above his head, broad and downy white. He was clad in armor now, his helmet covering a head of golden hair that matched his close-cropped beard precisely. He stood with his sword in one hand, javelin in the other, his eyes on the churning heavens above us.

“They’re here,” I said, following his line of sight.

Though the earthly, Terrestrial realm was dark with night, the invisible, Celestial realm was alive with color. Oranges and yellows flooded the world around us, streaked with shimmering gold. Light was everywhere. But as we stared, far above, the heavens changed. From a distance they looked to be nothing more than flecks of pepper seasoning the sky. But they were nothing of the sort.

It was the Fallen. And they were lethal. They could not be permitted to assault Bethlehem tonight.

Michael lifted his eyes to the town in the distance. “Gabriel should be here soon. It can’t be long now.”

But as we watched, the forces of darkness began to take shape, and our hopes of the Father’s Chief Herald making it through them unscathed grew dim.

“He’ll need a guard or he’ll never get through that hoard. Stay here, little one. When Gabriel arrives, tell him my forces and I will keep darkness at bay until—”

“Until the message can be delivered,” I finished.

The message. That was our mission tonight. To see it delivered. To whom, I couldn’t say. Someone important surely. This night’s even was worthy of the grandest audience, but it wasn’t my business to know. I would wait here for Gabriel. I would obey my Commander.

Michael lifted his arms, opened his mouth, and a loud cry rang across the heavens. From the light itself emerged three thousand angels astride their warhorses. Michael’s own steed, Loyal, materialized next to us, a being of cloud and light. With his voice still ringing, Michael swung into the saddle and the two launched into the sky.

I watched as he Commander soared to the front of his forces, as they closed ranks behind him. The Celestial sky above became a sea of white feathers, wind after wing after wing, the brightness of Michael’s forces blotting out the darkness descending on this place.

I turned back to the shepherds before me. To their sheep dozing in the grass and the men exchanging tales. They knew nothing of the battle raging overhead. Nothing of the gift that even now, was being given them.

SHANNON DITTEMORE — AUTHOR BIO

Shannon Dittemore is an author of young adult fiction. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California.

ANGEL EYES was Shannon’s debut novel and the launch of a young adult supernatural trilogy. It was published in the summer of 2012 by Thomas Nelson, followed the next year by BROKEN WINGS and DARK HALO.

Parker J. Cole On Diversity in Christian Fiction

I’m all for including diverse ethnic groups in fiction in general, not just speculative fiction, but when you force diversity, you’re stunting the creative spark.
| Dec 20, 2018 | 41 comments |

When it comes to the topic of diversity, I love referring to Vijay Jojo Chokal-Ingam’s book, “Almost Black: The True Story of How I Got Into Medical School By Pretending to Be Black.” His story is an eye-opener into the complexities of race in the U.S. and in the Western world. It’s a humorous book, considering the source, but it’s quite serious as well.

“I got into medical school by saying I was black. I lied. Honestly, I am about as black as Gandhi.”

One of the things he details is that policies like affirmative action created this opportunity. As his website says, “I shaved my head, trimmed my long Indian eyelashes, and applied as an African American. Not even my own frat brothers recognized me. I joined the Organization of Black Students and used my middle name, Jojo.”

He knew his grades weren’t good enough to get him into medical school but he understood there was a way to get in…by fraudulently saying he was of a different ethnic group. Eventually, while portraying himself to be black, he got into medical school, because he claimed he was black.

Not because of his grades.

Not because of his experience.

Because of his hijacked ethnicity.

Look, if you’re going to be a doctor, I don’t care if you’re covered in green and pink polka-dots – you better be qualified for what you’re doing. Do I really want the student who got into medical school to be my doctor solely because there are marginalized groups of green and pink polka-dotted people? Or, do I want someone who actually knows what they’re doing.

Let’s face it: I’d rather the person who’s going to operate on my heart to, at minimum, know where my heart is located.

In a recent interview on CNBC, Vijay made the comment, (and I paraphrased) “You should get into school based on your grades, your experience, etc. Not on your race.”

Interestingly enough, the interviewer said, “Well, I think we need more diverse ethnicities in the schools like Harvard, Yale, what have you, because I want to see my children grow with different races.”

So, are we looking for qualified people to service our society or are we looking make a colorful mosaic? Which is important?

Let use another example: the movie War Room resonated with a lot of people, Christian and non-Christians alike. People raved about the film. When I went to go see it, it was just something for me and hubs to do. It was either go see War Room or watch another episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

By the time I left the theater, I wished I had stayed home and watched that episode about Data’s Daughter.

See, I’m allergic to bad acting. My eyes roll into the back of my head. I sigh. My legs shift from side to side. And most times, when I am exposed to bad acting, my brain automatically goes to find the schematics of H. G. Wells’ time machine so I can get back the ninety minutes of my life I just wasted.

It wasn’t until someone said, “Well, War Room featured a black family as the main characters,” that I said, “Oh. That’s right.” I honestly hadn’t picked up that aspect because of my allergic reaction to bad acting. “They were all black. But what does that have to do with the bad acting I was forced to endure?”

The only thing that kept me in my chair was the message of the movie, about prayer and its power. And even that got a bit muddied because of the acting. I mean, there were times I sat there praying, “Dear Lord, please let somebody in this movie show some acting skill.” He answered my prayer with the grandmother but that’s to be expected.

So, this thing about diversity in speculative fiction – are we simply throwing ethnic groups in there just to do it?

Reading through the posts about diversity and speculative fiction, I want to thank Mike Duran, Travis, and Dan for sharing their input on the topic. I’ve met Mike personally, and have sat in front of him, thinking about how my hubs would kill to have all his thick, luscious, black and silver locks of curly, vivacious hair. Travis, I’ve badgered and stalked over the years because the poor man doesn’t know how to get rid of me. Dan I’ve never met before but from his post, I saw a certain sensitivity to the subject that I connected with.

Mike Duran’s article on Speculative Faith pointed out something that others commented on: when you force diversity, you’re stunting the creative spark. In fact, what begins to happen is that this thing called writing becomes REGULATED by someone else who determines what you, the creator of your own artistic work, should write. This particularly struck me as a very important aspect to this discussion. Are we promoting diversity because we truly need it? Are we promoting it for a political agenda?

Some readers may stop here and say, “But Parker, you’re black! You should be on our side!”

Well, here’s the thing: according to some black people, I haven’t been black in years. Heck, according to this rather humorous (raunchy, Rated R for language & whatnot) clip, putting hot sauce on your food is the deciding factor of being the blackest.

I actually prefer siracha but that’s neither here nor there.

Mind you, this doesn’t mean I haven’t experienced some prejudice, or backlash. But I’m one of those people who have, over time, come to really embrace people as individuals. Yes, there are cultural aspects of different groups that have been marginalized in the past that I feel should be explored in fiction. Yes, it’s great to want to highlight them but to demand them at the exclusion of all else? That’s a problem for me.

Travis’s article (and for those who know me, I’m one of his biggest fans!) pointed out that if everyone is simply writing the same thing like everyone else, just in different ethnic groups, then it’s not really diverse, is it? He makes an excellent point about this. If art and creativity are used, not for expression, but for an agenda, then how is that ‘diverse’?

What if it gets worse: what if a major publisher wouldn’t publish your book because it didn’t meet the diversity checklist?

Publisher: “Parker, I don’t see any representation of green and pink polka-dotted people in your story.”

Me: “It takes place in Korea during the Joseon dynasty. They didn’t meet any green and pink polka-dotted people back then. Green and pink polka-dotted people didn’t become noticeable until after the Fruit Loop virus spread, altering the melanin DNA of humans, causing the—”

Publisher: “Unacceptable.”

Me: “But…I don’t WANT to write about green and pink polka-dotted people. I want to write what I want to write. Do I have to have green and pink polka-dotted people in my story?”

Publisher: “If you don’t, then you’re a polkacist.”

Me: (shivering as the politically correct knife hovers over me) “I’m not a polkacist, I swear. I have two green and pink polka-dotted friends.”

Publisher: “This isn’t about you or your story or your talent. It’s about those green and pink polka-dotted people who don’t have enough fiction written about them.”

Look, I’m all for including diverse ethnic groups in fiction in general, not just speculative fiction. My major works are romance but in my contemporary romances, I write multicultural because that’s what I LIKE to do. I also received backlash and criticism from CHRISTIAN publishers who wouldn’t even touch my interracial love stories because they were interracial. Heck, they wouldn’t even consider it.

However, I know of some authors who don’t want to write multi-cultural and guess what? THEY DON’T HAVE TO.

Diversity should be a choice of the artist. It should not be included just so someone could pat themselves on the back and say, “See? I added green and pink polka-dotted people in my story. I’m better than Parker.”

That’s all well and good, until you hear the publisher say, “I’m sorry but we don’t see representation of the striped and glittery people. Where’s their story?”

I’m glad folks are talking about breaking color barriers. I’m happy that we’re getting more dialogue about it. Lord knows it’s about time. I have to agree with Dan Whyte on that – diversity is a wonderful look into eternity.

However, I’m not oblivious to the long road ahead. I mean, after all, we writers of today are the descendants of history. To make my point, let’s look back at history. There was a time when African tribes sold other defeated tribes into slavery to the Dutch. There was a time when Native Americans owned slaves. There was a time when Japanese doctors during World War II killed thousands of Chinese people and tried to cover it up. There was a time when Irish people were killed for being white slaves. There was a time when Jews were burned in ovens.

If I were to go back in time, I wonder what other sort of racial and ethnic crimes would I find that another ethnic group has done to each other? My point being that no ONE ethnic group holds the banner of hate. We all have carried that thing.

This is the backdrop of our writing. The fact that people are sinners and ALL have come short of the glory of God. EVERYBODY. It’s the one thing we have in common and that we all need a Savior to rescue us from damnation.

That’s a bit more important than what you look like.

Lorehaven Magazine Preview: Explore the Eternal Magic of Christmas

Magic and memories of Christmas make me long for New Earth.
| Dec 18, 2018 | No comments |

This month, I discovered I haven’t been associating Christmas first with biblical images such as Nativity scenes, shepherds, and stars.

Much of the time, the holiday makes me imagine the time after Jesus returns.

I found myself daydreaming about the eternal era after Jesus has brought Heaven to New Earth. (I believe New Earth will be this selfsame, physical planet, which is judged by fire, then lasts forever under King Jesus. See Revelation 21: 1–5, Isaiah 65: 17–25; Romans 8.)

Today’s article is a free preview from my Captain’s Log feature in the new winter 2018 issue of Lorehaven Magazine.

Subscribe for free and download the winter 2018 issue today!

From many of the creatives at Speculative Faith, Lorehaven serves Christian fans by finding biblical truth in fantastic stories.

To be sure, imagination of Jesus’s past or future arrivals must be based on biblical truth. Put that right, and the best fantastical images and emotions will follow.

Most of my imaginings aren’t based on specific texts, but biblical speculation.

I think of warm, divinely built mansions snuggled among cold snows.

I imagine family from across generations reunited to celebrate that ancient Advent.

I dream of all the best parts of Christmas—the joy, wonder, and pure anticipation—all redeemed for eternity. And in this dream, there’s no room for any idolatrous abuses of Christmas gifts. No more greed, materialism, covetousness, or stress.

Instead this sinless earth is filled with our Lord’s knowledge as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9). Or as the third verse of my favorite carol “Joy to the World” says:

“No more let sins and sorrows grow / Nor thorns infest the ground / He comes to make his blessings flow / Far as the curse is found …”

Isaac Watts’s song isn’t actually about Jesus’s birth, but his second coming to our (literal) Earth. Scriptural prophecies often similarly conflate the Messiah’s first and second arrivals. So does the original New Testament phrase “Maranatha.”

Of course, for many of us, the Christmas season isn’t only about joy and wonder. This time can also carry memories of suffering, separation, and death. All the cold darkness that bleak midwinter represents. The winter Jesus came to end forever.

In this era between his arrivals, we can grieve and celebrate. We rejoice in his first coming, and groan as we await his second coming and the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:23).

Merry Christmas—and maranatha!

Speculative Or True?

I suppose a good number of other passages in the Bible also read like speculative literature, but the Christmas story seems to have compacted a number of speculative tropes. There are several angelic visitations, for example. Joseph had a conversation with an angel, and so did Mary. But before them was Zacharias, John the Baptist’s dad, and his encounter with the angel of God in the temple. Most dramatic, and perhaps most well know, was the visitation of the shepherds, first by a single angel, then by “a multitude of the heavenly host.”
| Dec 17, 2018 | 2 comments |

Nativity_Scenes004

It’s Christmas, or nearly so, and naturally my focus turns to the Christmas story. The true, Biblical story. I understand that many people in the world look at the accounts recorded in Luke 1 and 2 and Matthew 1 and 2 as myth. And with good reason. Those passages read like speculative fiction.

I suppose a good number of other passages in the Bible also read like speculative literature, but the Christmas story seems to have compacted a number of speculative tropes. There are several angelic visitations, for example. Joseph had a conversation with an angel, and so did Mary. But before them was Zacharias, John the Baptist’s dad, and his encounter with the angel of God in the temple. Most dramatic, and perhaps most well know, was the visitation of the shepherds, first by a single angel, then by “a multitude of the heavenly host.”

Dreams come into play in the Christmas story as well. Joseph’s encounter with the angel was apparently in a dream, but there was a second dream that apparently saved Jesus’s life. When the wisemen snubbed Herod and didn’t return to Jerusalem to tell him where the Christ child was, he sent a military force to kill all the babies, two years old and younger, in the environs of Bethlehem. Jesus would have been swept up in that infanticide, but for Joseph’s dream that he should take his little family and escape to Egypt.

Speaking of wisemen, their part in the Christmas story is also mysteriously speculative. Wisemen is probably a more palatable term than magicians in this day and age, but they were magi—people schooled in reading the heavens as if the story of humankind has been written in the stars. Hence, afar off in their eastern home, they looked into the night sky and saw a star that told them a king was born in Judea.

Again, undoubtedly by way of erasing some of mysterious from the story, songs and paintings and retellings portray this star as particularly bright. But nowhere in Scripture is such an idea presented. In fact, if the star had been bright, it seems likely that many more people, not just the magi, would have found Jesus.

But there’s more amazing things about this star. First, the wisemen didn’t follow it to Jerusalem where they encountered King Herod. They simply saw the star and proceeded to the most logical place where a king would be born—the seat of power of that country. But not finding him there, they left and the star appeared again. Just appeared. One night it wasn’t there, the next it was. And this time it moved at a perceptible rate so they could follow it. And then it stopped. Right over the house where, by this time, Jesus was.

Mysterious? Magical? Miraculous? Whatever you want to call it, it has the ring of speculative fiction.

But that’s not the half of it. Remember those wisemen? When they, in bafflement, prodded King Herod about the newborn king they expected to find in his palace, he turned to the chief priests and scribes who in turn went to Scripture. They quoted to Herod a version of Micah 5:2.

But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Too little to be among the clans of Judah,
From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel.
His goings forth are from long ago,
From the days of eternity.”

Prophecy, then, also played a part in the Christmas story. Specifically the angel who appeared to the nameless shepherds predicted where they could find the Christ Child—in Bethlehem—and under what conditions they’d find him—wrapped in cloths and lying in a feeding trough. As odd as it sounded, those men acted on what they’d been told and went to Bethlehem where they found Jesus just as the angel had said.

Of course, the bulk of prophecy connected to the Christmas story comes from the Old Testament, not the least of which is Isaiah 7:14:

Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.

Virgin. A woman who had not had sex. And she was pregnant.

Of course Zacharias’s wife Elizabeth was barren and she was also pregnant—with John the Baptist, as it turned out.

This impossible pregnancy was the announcement the angel had given Zacharias in the temple—the announcement he didn’t really believe. Consequently the angel gave him a sign, too, to convince him this birth was a miraculous movement of God. Zacharias would not be able to speak until John was born.

Sure enough, when he came out of the temple, he was unable to tell anyone about the message he had received from the angel. But nine months later, when he wrote that his newborn son’s name was John, his tongue was loosed and he could speak again.

A barren woman, pregnant. A virgin, pregnant. A healthy man, mute. These physical impossibilities were perhaps the greatest elements that seemed speculative in the entire story. But there were neighbors and family members and town gossips who witnessed each one.

Undoubtedly a number of people thought Mary was simply a sinner who had engaged in premarital sex, possibly with Joseph, but perhaps with some mysterious lover they didn’t know about. So they could explain away the impossibility of Jesus’s conception by their own imagination and suspicions.

But what were they to do about Elizabeth? Or Zacharias? How many years had they lived as a childless couple? Long enough to provoke his own doubt. And there was no hiding Zacharias’s inability to speak. As the priest he was to come out of the temple and bless the people. But he couldn’t do it. His public incapacity to speak was not something he could hide. Nor was the immediate restoration of his speech.

wonderful-words-of-life-119318-mThere’s more: Simeon, speaking prophecy over baby Jesus when his parents brought Him to be circumcised. John the Baptist, yet unnamed, jumping in his mother’s womb at the sound of the just-pregnant Mary’s voice. Elizabeth, blessing Mary because she “believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord,” though apparently Mary had yet to tell Elizabeth about the angel and his message.

Yep, speculative fiction, for sure. Except for one key point which has to do with God and His nature. The angel said it to Mary:

For nothing will be impossible with God. (Luke 1:37)

If nothing is impossible with God, then all the mysterious, “magical,” miraculous events were His doing, and they really happened. The Christmas story might read like speculative fiction, but it is far better because it is true.

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas!

This post is an edited version of an article published here in December, 2016.

Valiant Explores Destiny versus Free Will

In Merrie Destefano’s new novel Valiant, free will and destiny work hand in hand.
| Dec 14, 2018 | 2 comments |

I’ve always loved classic science fiction, where in the midst of a terrifying adventure, the author reveals an eye-opening, breathtaking theme. Philip K. Dick is one of my favorite authors, so I may have fallen in love with Minority Report, which was based on one of his short stories. I was spellbound while watching that movie, which so eloquently dealt with an almost impossible-to-understand concept—that free will and destiny can both exist.

That movie and The Adjustment Bureau (also based on a Philip K. Dick story) both influenced and inspired me when I was writing Valiant. I wanted to build a world and write a story that had all the chills and thrills of classic science fiction—from time travel to an invasion of horrible aliens to an end-of-the-world scenario—and I wanted to include that very delicate balancing act between free will and predestination.

I confess, this was a difficult subject to convey and the fact that theologians have argued about this for centuries did not make it easier. Arminianism (free will) and Calvanism (predestination) both have biblical scriptures that prove their point. (I know I over-simplified both of those doctrines.) I happen to be one of those people who believes that both of these concepts are true and that they coexist, so this was the approach that I took while writing Valiant.

Excerpt from Valiant, Merrie DestefanoIn the book, these concepts are shown most clearly in the way the Xua (the invading aliens) use time travel to their advantage. The good aliens (Aerithin and his rebels) are trying to save the human race from extinction; the bad aliens (let’s call them the Military Xua) want to take over Earth, claim it for themselves, and kill any human who gets in their way. Although their motive is not explained in book one, it will be revealed in book two and, trust me, the Military Xua have a creepy motive.

Since the Xua are adept at time travel, they know this: Some events can not be changed, no matter how hard anyone tries. These events are called cascading events. Think of a row of dominoes, all lined up and standing. If you push the first domino over, all the others will fall down too. But you must set that first domino in motion. That’s how cascading events work—they are the predestined events that set all subsequent events in motion. They cannot be changed or prevented, no matter how many times someone travels through time and tries.

One cascading event mentioned in Valiant is the launch of the rocket ship Valiant, which is bound for Titan. Unfortunately, that’s where humans will first encounter the Xua and it’s all downhill for us after that. Since no one, human or Xua, can stop the Valiant from launching, the Rebel Xua have taken a different tactic.

They continually try to save Sara, the main character in the book, because they know she will then, in turn, try to save her younger brother, Gabe. Why must she save him? That’s not explained until the end of the book and won’t be completely explained or shown until book two. But suffice to say, Gabe is a key element in accomplishing the goal of the Rebel Xua—that of saving Earth.

Isn’t that how destiny seems to work?

It must happen, it will happen, but we don’t always know why or how. It’s like an act of faith. Sara doesn’t know why she has to save her brother, but she doesn’t need to—she loves him and therefore she will do anything to keep him alive.

On top of that, somehow, saving her little brother will save the world. Sara doesn’t understand how it works or if it’s destiny for her to succeed. She only wants to make sure that Gabe survives to see tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that.

Free: Valiant prequel short story

Available as a free digital download to Merrie Destefano newsletter subscribers.

Taken, my free novella sequel to Valiant, is told from Gabe’s point of view and it reveals even more of how free will and destiny work in this world. When traveling through the Corridor of Time, Gabe sees that some of the hallways and doors are collapsing and disappearing. He realizes that these were paths that led into possible futures—but those futures are no longer possible.

So, some possible futures have a time limit. Certain things need to be done in a certain amount of time or the outcome you were hoping for will no longer be available.

Let’s just say that in the Valiant series, there’s a cosmic ticking clock working in the background. All of the Rebel Xua know that they only have a certain amount of time to save Earth. If they fail to accomplish this in the allotted amount of time, it’s game over for every lifeform on our planet.

In Valiant, free will and destiny work hand in hand. But the greatest element in the entire equation is love, and this is shown in the relationship between Sara and her brother. Both of these characters will do anything to protect and save the other. That story element is based on 1 Corinthians 13:13. But that’s another article for another day.

Taken, Merrie Destefano

I have Jumpstart, a free short story prequel to Valiant available as a free digital download to anyone who subscribes to my newsletter.

You can subscribe to my newsletter here.

Also, for anyone who has purchased, read, or reviewed Valiant, I have a free novella giveaway, Taken.

You can find out more about that giveaway and read an excerpt here.

The Individuality of Diversity

As we deliberately include writers that fall into superficial categories of diversity, let’s bear in mind that real diversity is individual.
| Dec 13, 2018 | 33 comments |

Recent posts to Speculative Faith by Daniel Whyte IV and Mike Duran have addressed the topic of diversity among fiction writers in general and Christian fiction writers in particular. This post I’m going to offer my own thoughts on the topic of diversity, which I believe are different from both Mr. Whyte and Mr. Duran. My ideas of course are my own and do not reflect any official position of Speculative Faith.

While serving with the US Army in Djibouti, Africa in 2012, I remember meeting the Ethiopian liaison officer to the US military command there (Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa or CJTF-HOA). I don’t remember the Colonel’s name, but I do remember noticing something distinctive about him. He was missing half of his right index finger, just like I am. His story of how he lost the finger was very similar, too. He was helping to cut wood for the winter (the Ethiopian highlands get cold enough to need it) when he was a small boy and a relative accidentally cut off his finger. He was five and I was seven and his cousin chopped his finger off and for me it was my sister. But both our stories spoke of hard childhoods in rural poverty–a poverty that made he and I more alike in that regard than I am with the majority of any ethnic group from the United States, no matter what their race is.

Foreign liaison officers at CJTF-HOA. Credit: United States Africa Command.

Likewise I’ve sat across the table from Afghans from remote areas of Farah province. While they and I were different in numerous ways (in many specific ways my life had more in common with the Ethiopian officer), most especially in our religion, these tough ethnic Pashtuns lived lives mostly without electricity, without running water, with “outdoor plumbing,” with their main energy for work provided by animal power. I too lived a portion of my life in a similar way. We usually had electricity (but it failed often) but as I child I passed extensive periods without indoor plumbing and living on a farm in which animal power was the primary way to get things done. Again, this is something about myself that showed more in common with foreigners than with most of my fellow US citizens, no matter what ethic group they come from (though rural Mexicans and Central Americans often have similar experiences to mine).

By the way, I found the Afghans were living rougher lives that most Africans, overall. Mostly because wartime pressures are worse in Afghanistan than most (but not all) of Africa–but note most Afghans are classified as (believe it or not) “white.” And they are desperately poor as a nation, overall. Though in fact, experiences vary in Afghanistan–some Afghans have lived relatively cushy lives, especially those who grow up in the families of urban professionals. Yes, even Afghanistan has urban professionals. And yes, even a nation that is essentially made up of one race can have sharp ethnic splits and class divisions.

For those of you who might be familiar with the history of Afghanistan, you might find it noteworthy that the East-Asian-looking Hazara of Afghanistan’s central Hindu Kush mountains have been picked on by most of the other groups in Afghanistan. You might be tempted to call that racial discrimination. But there’s a group in Afghanistan called the Aimaqs that are every bit as East-Asian-looking that are not especially discriminated against. Why not? Because they are Sunni Muslims like the majority of Afghans–while the Hazara are Shia Muslims. Surprise, racial discrimination is not really a worldwide thing–sure, it exists in many different countries, but in places removed from Western culture ethnicity (marked by language) usually matters more. As does religion. Actually, this is true in Western cultures, too. Though the modern conversation about discrimination based on race seems to miss that.

How do you suppose Afghans are treated that move to the United States? Maybe OK if nobody knows where they are from. But their accents and attendance at mosques tend to set them off–and from what I hear, they tend to get a little extra loving tender care from the TSA when they fly. Probably far more than those of you reading this receive. From what I’ve heard, that’s true even if they worked as translators for US troops and put their lives on the line shoulder to shoulder with us. And what race are they? Usually “white.”

Any intense focus on race I see as an ideological virus. It’s first of all a moronic notion–the idea that all of everyone from Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia have something in common making them essentially alike, just like everyone from sub-Saharan Africa supposedly has something that makes them alike, just as all Native Americans were supposedly alike and all East Asians alike. Nonsense. Individual differences are much bigger, much more important that real racial differences. Even benchmarks a racial theorist might think are reliable such as Africans having darker skin than Europeans isn’t always true–some Africans have relatively light skin (and not because of being so-called “mixed race”). While some Europeans are quite swarthy.

History mostly doesn’t reflect even Europeans fully believing this hokum–the English thought they were inherently different from the Irish, the French from the Germans, the Italians from the Greeks, etc, etc. It was only colonialism and a relatively-late desire to justify colonialism that caused the latter half of the 19th Century to become the heyday of racial theory, where people for the first time actually proposed that all Europeans have something in common and really meant it.

By the way, yes, these racial theorists did a great deal of harm to society. True. Yes, some of their idiotic ideas linger and even have a small effect in the direction of being self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, by believing that race was real and really matters, they created institutions that enforced racial divisions, especially in regard to African Americans, but also against other ethnicities at various times. But it’s never actually been true that all white people are alike. Nor all blacks not all Latinos nor all Asians or Native Americans or nor all whatever.

It is not a sign of actual diversity to represent two people who grow up in the same middle class suburb of a major American city, speak only English, attend the same quality schools, but one of the two has dark brown skin and is called “black” and the other has light pink skin and is called “white.” While the two people no doubt have different experiences to a degree, these differences are essentially pretty small. Both have about as much chance of success in life. I’m not quoting stats here, but it’s true. Neither of these people will face prejudice so crippling that they cannot get ahead in life in the United States.

However, if you are a black person who grows up in a neighborhood with high crime and terrible schools, you are at a significant disadvantage to both white and black “I grew up in a middle class suburb” person. The real issue is not race–it’s place. It’s more what the schools are like and unemployment and the substance abuse situation where you live than anything else (many but not all of America’s reservations are especially terrible places in that regard). This type of depressed ethnic neighborhoods was to a large degree caused by historic racism–and a person coming from a situation of dire urban poverty really does have a different perspective on life than a middle-class person. But it’s a situation that is only influenced a small amount by current racism. There are many very successful people from all ethnic groups in the United States. And not every black person is actually from the “hood”–not even close!

My use of “small amount” to refer to the influence of current racism may offend some people, and I’m sorry, but I think that’s fair. I say that from the perspective of having spent significant time in foreign countries and having observed how divisions can line up in foreign non-racial patterns, ones that still produce haves and have-nots, advantaged people and disadvantaged. Without racism being a significant factor.

You wanna talk real diversity without making a bunch of presumptions about race? How about someone being different from most other people by missing fingers? 🙂 Losing a finger in an accident changes your perspective on life, I’m telling you–people chopping vegetables on a cooking show probably generates winces in me that ten-fingered folk do not feel. Yet if we were to create a panel of people who are missing fingers, to include both the Ethiopian Colonel I referenced earlier and myself would not represent diversity simply because he’s from Africa and I’m from North America. We both lost the same finger in the same way, making us essentially the same in the context of missing fingers…losing a thumb in a different way, now that would be an example of diversity in that context.

It may seem that I’m rambling here but I hope I’m doing so with a purpose. If you have a panel of writers, all of whom only speak English, all went to similar universities, all doubt the existence of God, and all have similar writing style, is that really a diverse panel if fifty percent or better are women and there are plenty of blacks, Latinos, and Asians? In relation to the subject of writing, diversity should actually center around different writing style, different themes, and different underlying convictions that under-gird what people write. Do people from different ethnic groups (as in racially based ones) automatically have vastly different perspectives from one another in all cases which will mean their writing is totally different? I would say, “no.” In particular in regard to modern ideas about sexuality as expressed in writing, it seems to me there is a high degree of uniformity among modern winners of the Hugo and Nebula awards. Pretty much all are libertine–and that reflects in their writing.

Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not against deliberate efforts to include people of differing superficial groups, including people belonging to various categories hatched up by 19th Century racial theorists. Though that’s just to make people feel welcome–the racial categories themselves are essentially meaningless. People are not their race–race is not destiny–that was a lie hatched up by self-serving racists. They never succeeded in making it wholly true, even though they tried. And it certainly isn’t true now. And thinking that race is somehow deeply significant is perversely very Western-centric and United States-focused–my experience meeting Africans, Central Americans, Middle Easterners, and Afghans has led me to believe that America’s perspective on race doesn’t reflect the whole world.

So if we as Christian writers wish to be welcoming to people different from ourselves, does it make sense to celebrate human diversity based on outward appearance or other superficial criteria? Sure, there’s no downside in doing so as long as we don’t think we just solved the world’s problems by mixing people from different groups. It’s kind to let people know they will not be excluded based on superficial criteria–but to imagine there is something actually different about writing or writers based on such superficial things–c’mon now. Real diversity is diversity of ideas, of character, of experiences–and nothing about race or other similar superficial criteria determine that in advance.

Each individual is in fact an island to himself or herself in most ways. Like me and my Ethiopian Colonel, every single person has the chance to meet someone of another race who because of individual experiences is more like them than anyone else in the world. Ethnicity is not destiny. Individual differences matter more than ethnic groups.

And the Church that Jesus built, while it should be welcoming for all who will repent and enter it–while churches absolutely are diverse in race, ethnicity, and gender, it all started with twelve Jewish men. You’d be making a big mistake to think those twelve men were not a diverse group–they were diverse in profession, education, and personality. For example, the disciples included a zealot, a group who swore to kill the Romans, yet also a former tax collector, who had collaborated with them. That’s a more significant diversity than if one of them had been born in Africa and one had been born in Europe but both believed the same things and spoke the same language.

Diversity in fact is most importantly reflected in inner traits and experiences. Real diversity is individual. As we deliberately include writers that fall into different superficial categories (as we should do), let’s not forget that. Let’s also seek diversity of experiences, styles, and beliefs.

Seeing Red

It’s not the concept of a manned Martian mission, or even a Martian colony, that I push back against. It’s the idea that things would somehow be better if we could just get off this crowded, polluted rock called Earth.
| Dec 12, 2018 | 5 comments |

Mars is back in the news in recent weeks. NASA’s InSight lander has been snapping hi-res selfies and delighting the world with stunning views of the Martian landscape. Well, as stunning as a wasteland of red rocks under a dusty red sky can be. Still, it’s pretty amazing that a robot assembled here on Earth is now scooting along on another planet more than 33 million miles away and beaming back photos that are clearer than the pictures I take of my kids.

Image copyright NASA

As with any Martian mission, speculation and curiosity are in abundance. Will this mission detect surface water? Will we finally find signs of life? Will we bring Matt Damon home? I noticed that Amazon Prime released the Tim Burton goof-fest Mars Attacks to coincide with the excitement. In that movie, Pierce Brosnan’s scientist character tells Sarah Jessica Parker’s ditzy journalist that the reason we hadn’t yet detected Martian life is because their civilization developed beneath the surface. With the InSight lander expected to drill a full five meters into the red dirt, who knows what wonders we will uncover?

Along with the scientific hoopla that accompanies all interplanetary missions, especially those to our red neighbor, the general public becomes enamored with the possibility of manned Mars missions looming on the not-so-distant horizon. When Silicon Valley demigods like Elon Musk turn their attention to Mars, it’s hard not to get carried away on a wave not unlike the one that swept pioneering wagon trains westward. A bright and vibrant future awaits those brave enough to take the leap into the unknown and forge a new world out of the cold rocks of a hostile planet.

The only problem is, we’re a long way for anything like this happening in any form or fashion. I’m quite cynical about space travel, considering how little progress we’ve made over the last 50 years after man first walked on the moon. I place a lot of the blame on Hollywood for making space travel seem a lot easier than it really is (along with hand-to-hand combat, shooting guns, surviving an apocalypse, and finding true love). Getting a human into geostationary orbit is a massive undertaking; sending one to Mars and keeping them alive is literally astronomical. Of course, with enough brains and resources, history has shown that the impossible can become possible, and I would only be moderately surprised to see a manned mission to Mars in my lifetime.

It’s not the concept of a manned Martian mission, or even a Martian colony, that I push back against. It’s the idea that things would somehow be better if we could just get off this crowded, polluted rock called Earth. How many times in history have people ventured out into unknown lands in search of a better life? There is hardly a patch of unexplored land in our world today, and what do we find in every one of these previously unknown places? Greed, lies, jealousy, laziness, corruption; every vice that afflicts the human condition. What makes anyone think that a colony on the moon or Mars or Europa would be any different?

The problem is sin. No matter where a human goes, there goes sin along with them. And no matter what humans try to do or build or conquer, it is all in vain unless their endeavors are blessed by God (Ps. 127:1). Sure, going to Mars might solve problems like overpopulation for the select few that journey there, but that isn’t the real problem, is it? Pollution, waste, pillaging of resources, etc. are merely symptoms of the evil nature that resides in the heart of every person that has ever lived. Unless God reaches into that heart and restores it through His divine favor and grace, there is no hope for us, no matter how far into the stars we go.