Bad Seed

Why are the origins of evil so fascinating? Why do we crave stories about corruption?
| May 1, 2019 | 10 comments |

Everyone loves origin stories, especially those that explore the beginnings of beloved characters in greater detail. While storytelling structures of yore would often place the origin story at the beginning of the story – as usually happens in real life – modern audiences like to be introduced to characters who are already somewhat possessed of their unique talents/powers and making their mark on the world. Once these characters become an industry fixture (when there is enough audience demand and profit potential) then prequels are made, delving deeper into the characters’ backstories to plot the course of how they got to where they were when they were first introduced.

Image copyright Warner Bros.

Nearly ever iconic character in modern memory has had their story told in this flip-flopped way: Darth Vader, Batman, the X-Men, James T. Kirk, John Connor, Vito Corleone, and on and on. We are introduced to a memorable character in their full glory and we say, “Wow! How did they get here?” Of course, prequels are also a safe bet because studios and publishers never know how audiences will receive the continuation of a story, but if it’s known that audiences loved the character so far, it’s easier to tell the story that led up the awesomeness. Cha-ching.

Probably the biggest entry into the pop culture prequel library this year will be The Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix. Numerous Batman films and shows have explained how the Joker got to be who he is, but only enough to make him a competent bad guy to trade blows with the Dark Knight. One of the goals of prequels is to make the characters sympathetic and relatable (did you ever think you would see Darth Vader as a chubby-cheeked kid?) and judging from the trailers, The Joker seeks to do that, at least to an extent.

Everyone knows that the Joker is a bad guy, and it would be in poor taste to make the audience cheer for him (though this approach strangely worked for Tom Hardy’s Venom). Since we live in a world that delights in evil, people will cheer for the Joker regardless of his depravity. The movie studio knows this, and I have little doubt they will try to make the Joker as charmingly perverse as possible.

My question is: why are the origins of evil so fascinating? Why do we crave stories about corruption? There is no simple answer, but I think it strikes at the heart of our human nature; namely, that we are all born into sin. This sin manifests itself in countless ways but we recognize that seed of sin in others more depraved than we are and think, “Could that happen to me?” After all, we share the same dark seed. It could grow into a penchant for lying, drug addiction, or a psychotic murder spree. We see a character like the Joker (although he is fictitious, we only have to look at the evening news to find twisted psychopaths) and we wonder if people like us, who would never dream of actually murdering people with a clown smile, could somehow morph into a monster. Origin stories and prequels outline those steps, sometimes with frightening implications.

If we are children of God, we are dead to our sin natures (Rom. 6:11) but we are still living in this body of death, which yearns for its old nature. This is the struggle that Paul talks about in Rom. 7:14-25. As believers, sin no longer reigns over us, yet we are still dragging around its corpse, so to speak. And sometimes, our dead sin nature can still exert a powerful influence over us. Christians have been caught up in depravity and debauchery as perverse and horrifying as anything the secular and pagan worlds have experienced. We need to follow Paul’s command in Rom. 6:11 – consider ourselves dead to sin. In other words, believe it, because it is true.

Personally, I have little interest in finding out how a psychopath became psychotic. I’d rather not dwell on exactly how the seed of evil blossomed into this particularly hideous flower. But if you do enter the warped mind of the Joker, remember that the power that controls him holds no sway over you. You are free. Believe it.

Mission Report, April 25–27, Realm Makers Bookstore in Cincinnati

Homeschool families need great Christian-made fantastical novels, and resources to find the best ones.
| Apr 30, 2019 | 2 comments | Series:

Realm Makers Bookstore just wrapped an amazing weekend at Great Homeschool Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio.

As we mentioned last week, guest stars included novelists Gillian Bronte Adams, S. D. Grimm, Kerry Nietz, and Rebecca P. Minor.

I joined the bookstore to feature Lorehaven magazine for two of the three vendor days. As before, we chatted with homeschool parents and kids. We shared free Realm Makers Bookstore bookmarks with many people, and helped many others find great Christian-made novels in fantasy, science fiction, and similar genres.

From left: novelists S. D. Grimm (Children of the Blood Moon series) and Gillian Bronte Adams (The Songkeeper Chronicles series)

Realm Makers co-founder Scott Minor’s report

The Realm Makers Bookstore contains fiction titles for every age and maturity level by Christian authors, both traditionally and self-published.

With this increasing and ever-broadening selection of books, we have attended twenty-seven events over the last eighteen months.

This includes four secular fantasy cons, four book fairs, two comic cons, seven weekends at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, two Christian conferences, one school book fair, and seven homeschool conventions.

Scott Minor (left) helps Christian homeschool parents explore the Realm Makers Bookstore’s offerings of Christian-authored fantasy, sci-fi, and other books for all ages.

I have learned that most preconceived notions I heard about both markets were not true.

We’ve been welcomed by both secular and Christian events. The negative response we get from each market is about equal.

We are meeting Christians who love fantasy in all of these places. We are also selling the same titles to people who are not Christian.

The Christians who I’ve spoken to appreciate all manner of fiction, not just Christian fiction.

That being said, we’ve sold around 1,400 books at the first four homeschool festivals this spring. We sold around 800 books at all the previous eleven events since August 2018 combined.

From left, foreground: author Kerry Nietz, author S. D. Grimm, and Realm Makers co-founder Scott Minor.

Kerry Nietz signs another copy of A Star Curiously Singing.

Kerry Nietz’s report

I found the conference really encouraging for several reasons.

First, even though fantasy rules the speculative market—largely due to J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis—science fiction did well. Not only did I sell books across my list, from Amish Vampires in Space to The Superlative Stream, science fiction books represented a sizable portion of the overall sales.

Second, most of my sales were to underrepresented fiction readers, meaning boys and their dads. We have a large Frayed poster we use, and buyers told me that that was what drew them in. Face it, robots are cool. Both sexes are intrigued by them, but they especially appeal to the Fortnight / Minecraft / Roblox crowd. I love that. Love that I can us my stories, infused by my technical background, to reach an important demographic. (I was able to sell to other demographics too, though. One memorable sale was to a pair of nuns.)

Third, someone I met at a homeschooling conference last year sought me out at this conference to tell me he bought one of my books and liked it. He’s reading the second book in the series now. That’s the goal of the bookstore (and Lorehaven) realized there. Reaching a new reader with books he can enjoy.

Before the bookstore’s Saturday, April 27 opening, Kerry Nietz and I took a chance to survey the mission field at Great Homeschool Conventions in Cincinnati.

E. Stephen Burnett’s report

Once again, I’m led to conclude: the homeschool market is perhaps the leading frontier to find new fans of Christian-made fantastical novels.1

One homeschool mom told us about her historical studies. She was reading books about genocide and domestic segregation. With this material, she planned to share with her children not some kind of “SJW” propaganda, but a balanced perspective on how humans have behaved in history. In short, she was looking for true-life and fictional narratives that would challenge her kids!

Another parent also helped run libraries in a particular area. She believed some of these books would be perfect for their libraries’ collection.

One mother appreciated my and Kerry Nietz’s Lorehaven t-shirts. They sport the magazine’s logo and the tagline Finding Truth in Fantastic Stories | Lorehaven.com. “I’m intrigued by that,” she told us. We provided a free Lorehaven bookmark (see its design here). I also shared the magazine’s mission to help Christian fans: we review the best Christian-made fantasy books, and provide free resources to help fans better explore these stories for the glory of Jesus Christ.

She lit up. And subscribed to the digital magazine for free, of course!

Yes, Christians in homeschool families, who already love fantastical and challenging books, have these big needs.

They need excellent Christian-made fantastical novels.

They also need resources—like Lorehaven with Speculative Faith!—that help us find and explore the best stories for God’s glory.

  1. For another example, read A Homeschool Mom Discovers Realm Makers Bookstore, after the bookstore’s Fort Worth appearance in March.

Where Are The Original Movies?

But I can’t help wondering—is the mad dash to make money squeezing movies into a narrow slot? Must they be movie re-tellings of books or comics . . . or of other movies? Is there no room for a brand new story made originally for the screen?
| Apr 29, 2019 | 6 comments |

I understand that movies need to make money, and that production costs have gone up with the number of special affects, and with the growing size of the cast. Hence, movies with superheroes or super-villians are likely the most expensive.

I also understand that movie makers like to have a sure thing. Hence, when Harry Potter sells hundreds of thousands of copies of the first book in the series, and lines start forming to get copies of the next books, making the stories into movies seems like a fairly safe bet.

But I can’t help wondering—is the mad dash to make money squeezing movies into a narrow slot? Must they be movie re-tellings of books or comics . . . or of other movies? Is there no room for a brand new story made originally for the screen?

I’m not the only person to wonder about this trend:

We all know it’s true. Every single movie that’s overly promoted is what exactly? A sequel, a remake, a reboot, a movie adaptation, take your pick. (“Hollywood’s Need for Original Scripts”)

Since movies are considered an art form, albeit a pop art form, I wonder what having so little original material says about our creativity as culture.

At the least, I’d say our art, when it comes to movies, is subservient to the money it makes. Again, I understand that those who produce movies invest great sums without any assurance of a return on that investment. Movies aren’t like books. When the UK publisher, Bloomsbury took a chance on an unknown debut author, they ran a print run of 500 copies. Five hundred! In other words, their investment was rather small. Sure, they had to pay for editing and layout and cover design and so on, but if the book failed, they likely would not lose thousands of pounds. (As it turns out those first edition copies are now worth upwards of $90,000.)

But I wonder if the movie industry isn’t squeezing itself needlessly. Seems to me there was a time not so long ago that quiet movies with smaller casts were quite possible. In 1968 a movie with an original screenplay became a $56 million success. I’m referring to Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner starring Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, and Katharine Hepburn. Big stars at the time, so I’m guessing this was not a cheap movie.

As it happens, that movie did what art sometimes does: it molded as well as reflected the culture in which it was made.

When special effects gained so much in the computer age, I was right there applauding with everyone else. Now, at long last, movies could depict the magical creatures of fantasy and science fiction in a realistic way. Our imagination came to life on the big screen!

Perhaps this fact alone explains the explosion of speculative movies in the 21st century. On one list of top box office successes, of the 25 movies that made the most money in this century, twenty-one were speculative movies.

I applaud this trend.

I do not applaud the lack of original material.

One site decrying the fact that movies are reliant upon adapted material says the answer lies with moviegoers. The approach is much the same as the one I took fifteen years ago when I longed for more publishers to give Christian fantasy a chance. Since money drives the industry, we consumers of art need to speak the language of those making the art work available to us.

With books, self-publishing has had a huge impact on the availability of speculative fiction, including Christian speculative fiction. A quick look at the library here at Spec Faith should convince a reader of that fact.

Could the same thing happen with movies? Only time will tell. But the task seems rather daunting—finding the actors, the staging, the skilled technicians, and of course the great screenwriters. Making a movie is not as simple as putting up a YouTube video.

I don’t know what the answer is. But I for one, would like to see the art of movie making include original scripts, written for the film media and not dependent on an adaptation.

A Homeschool Mom Discovers Realm Makers Bookstore

At Realm Makers Bookstore, mother and homeschool teacher Ticia Messing found fantastic fiction for herself and her children.
| Apr 26, 2019 | 2 comments |

Going to homeschool conventions can be overwhelming.

I actually had several friends from my local homeschool co-op, who went up to the Great Homeschool Conventions Fort Worth one together and roomed together. I knew that was a possibility, but wanted the downtime of retreating to a solitary hotel room at night.

I say this because bookstores are my retreat, like the empty hotel room. The vendor hall is large, noisy, and intimidating. You want to make the best decisions about where to spend your money, and you want to find books and curriculum that align with who you are as a homeschooler. It can be over-stimulating.

The Realm Makers Bookstore booth was a nice oasis for me at the convention. I stopped by their booth several times during the Fort Worth Great Homeschool Convention to browse their books.

As a Christian who loves fantasy books, you get a couple of different reactions when you talk to other Christians, especially homeschoolers.

There’s the “Not fantasy! What about that whole ‘suffer not a witch to live’!” response.

Then there’s the “I’m okay with fantasy as long as it is Tolkien, Lewis, or a biblical allegory.”

And finally there’s the “You too! Who’s your favorite author!”

Browsing Realm Makers Bookstore, I got to discuss with the authors and the people running the booth the books we love reading, exchange favorite authors, get book suggestions that are like favorite authors, talk about themes we enjoy, and philosophies of parenting and sharing books with kids. (I like to slowly expose them to concepts that contradict the Bible, so I don’t dump them in uncharted territory with no clue other than a few proof-texted verses on what the rest of the world thinks.)

But you know what was the coolest feature for me (aside from filling my backpack with books to read)?

They have a writers’ conference.

My daughter wants to be a writer when she grows up. She has book ideas, and plans. A lot of plans. I got to talk about their writer’s convention, and learn all about the teen track, and hear how the teacher from the writing curriculum she uses sometimes teaches the teen track. I got a bookmark (yay bookmarks!) with a link, which I, of course, looked through when I retreated to my hotel cave that night. I thoroughly enjoyed poking around the website and signing up for Lorehaven, and seeing all the bits and bobs there were.

So far, I’ve read two of the books I bought at Realm Makers. I have two more to read, and then I’ll start ordering sequels. I was restrained and only bought the first book in several series!

Editor’s note: Realm Makers Bookstore is open today and Saturday, at Duke Energy Convention Center in Cincinnati.

Two Kinds of Heroes

Would you be surprised to discover that heroes have been studied–and have been found to come in two distinct types?
| Apr 25, 2019 | 14 comments |

What if someone had done a scientific study on real-world heroes and tried to define what their essential characteristics are? Would it be useful to you as an author to know how heroes actually act–real heroes? That’s what this post is about, a study that found two distinct personality types among soldiers who performed heroic actions during wartime (note this post is significantly edited and adapted from a something I wrote for my personal blog over a year ago, travissbigidea.blogspot.com).

The study I read was based on surveys of World War II veterans, including both “ordinary” vets and those who had been highly decorated for valor. The purpose was specifically to determine what the relationship was between leadership traits and heroism, with the presumption that the WWII survey results would be broadly applicable to heroes in all wars. It may not in fact be true that a study based on WWII would apply to all wars–but I don’t see why it wouldn’t. (Note also this study was based on interviews with United States WWII vets only). The study did find, as I imagined the people who created it expected, that veterans who described themselves as “strong leaders” were more likely to have received a reward for valor than those who did not describe themselves that way. This could be explained in a number of ways, but perhaps the simplest way would be to observe that a certain measure of risk-taking is required to be awarded a medal for valor and that military leaders probably engage in risk-taking more often than people who feel now particular inclination to lead. So this result of the study didn’t really surprise me at all or catch my interest.

What did catch my eye is the fact that among those who won awards for valor, while they in general shared in common a self-description as being good leaders, they otherwise were of two distinct personality types.

Russian Army WWII heroes. Image credit: Russia Beyond

One type the study described as the “eager enlistee.” The eager enlistee had tremendous enthusiasm for joining the military and taking part in combat. The number one personality trait that identified “eager enlistee” heroes is that they were natural risk-takers. They described themselves as having a past record of taking risks that other people do not normally take prior to ever being in combat. They were the kind of people who would ride a bicycle down a cliff face, men who as much as they may have disliked some aspects of war, in general found warfare exciting and stimulating.
The other type the study described as the “reluctant enlistee.” Reluctant enlistees had no particular enthusiasm for war but joined the military because they were drafted (other situations like joining out of financial hardship may also have applied). They were not particularly-risk taking prior to combat. The number one personality trait that identified “reluctant enlistees” who had performed acts of great valor was selflessness. Reluctant heroes described themselves as having a trait that would give them a track record of putting the needs of others first and caring more about other people prior to entering into combat. These were the kind of people who would literally give a stranger their last dollar or in other ways take risks not for the thrill of risk itself, but to help others in need. These heroes performed acts of valor not out of the rush of coming close to death–they risked all out of a deep sense of concern for those they served with.

Note again that both eager enlistees and reluctant enlistees were better leaders than average according to this study. Yet one was eager to fight and kill and the other was not.

These types of heroes appear again and again in fiction in various ways. Achilles was the eager enlistee as a warrior, even though his enthusiasm for war with Troy wasn’t high–while Hector better matches the reluctant warrior, who is forced to fight because of actions of others. While Tony Stark went through various hardships and does in fact show some empathy and self-sacrifice, Iron Man is much more the risk-taking eager enlistee than the other way around. Steve Rodgers was eager to enlist, but he was motivated by self-sacrifice primarily, therefore Captain America is not really a risk-taking personality.

Image credit: Business Insider

So when looking at this study, don’t get hung up so much on the labels of “eager enlistee” and “reluctant enlistee.” I suggest the more important difference is concerning inner motivations. The “eager” hero isn’t any more empathetic than average–but is much more risk-taking. The “reluctant” hero isn’t more risk-taking than average–but is much more empathetic and self-sacrificing. It’s in fact possible to be a reluctant risk-taker (though that isn’t normal) and an eager self-sacrificer (again, not normal, but happens).

May this observation help you to create story heroes with real-world motivations.
(By the way, the study can be found at http://www.mindlesseating.org/pdf/heroism/Heroism.doc.)

For the readers of this post, have you seen any similar studies? Do you know of other motivations for heroes other than the two I’ve mentioned in this article? Have other examples you’d like to add? If so, please mention them in the comments below.

The Last Impossibility

What we end with is a popular culture that will face neither the darkness nor the light.
| Apr 24, 2019 | 6 comments |

Death is the great universal fact of life, as universal as birth. It rings down the curtain on every human play, sends everyone home in the end. We all know this; we are all overshadowed by what G.K. Chesterton called the last impossibility. It’s curious that we don’t take death more seriously than we do. Our popular culture overflows with glib platitudes, all catalogued in our books and movies.

You know the platitudes. He lives in your heart. She lives in your memory. The departed is – well, take your pick: inside you, inside all of us, around us, in the love or legacy or memory she left behind. The dead are anywhere but gone. Our culture, as manifested in popular books and movies, does not look to the blazing dawn of the first Easter, but usually it is equally unwilling to look at the cold finality and ultimate aloneness of the body in the tomb. What we end with is a popular culture that will face neither the darkness nor the light.

I would not recommend, as a curative, that every instance of death in our fiction be expanded to contain the fullness of Christian doctrine on the subject. There is certainly no reason to constantly elide the Resurrection; its riches are too rarely mined, even among Christians. But not every story has space for the doctrine or the riches, and such things are not to be forced. I wouldn’t ask that every story with death be a story about Easter. But I would like to see more books and movies get beyond the standard Hollywood cant.

It is possible to catch some rays of light, to hint at hope or even just mystery. J.R.R. Tolkien hinted at hope when Aragorn, in the face of death, offered this consolation: “In sorrow we must go, but not in despair.” Not that we need such exalted contexts as Lord of the Rings to find the hope and the mystery; they are possible everywhere. Emily Blunt’s “Where the Lost Things Go” dreams of an unknown place, maybe behind the moon, where lost things might be found. Gone, yes, the song concedes, but gone where? – and that hard question is more comforting than the glib answers.

If a story is not to have the light, I would take even a measure of darkness over artificiality. Honest sadness is better than false comfort. I’ve heard the cliches so many times that all I can think, when a book or movie trots them out again, is that nobody wants the people they love to be Inside Of Them. The greatness of love is that it gets you outside of yourself, that it brings you into contact with another soul in this huge universe. No one wants a memory, an image, an echo. It’s not the same and it’s not enough. We want a real, living person.

We don’t need courage to face the darkness. We need hope. Christ’s Resurrection teaches us that death is not to be accepted or dreaded. As we absorb that reality into our hearts, so may it be reflected in our stories. We are not to be driven to the pale ghosts that haunt our hearts for comfort, nor must we pretend that death is not hideous. For Death is an enemy, but a conquered enemy.

Lorehaven Rejoins Realm Makers Bookstore This Weekend in Cincinnati

Lorehaven will rejoin Realm Makers Bookstore, which arrives April 25–27 at Great Homeschool Conventions in Cincinnati.
| Apr 23, 2019 | 1 comment |

I had such a great time last month aiding Realm Makers Bookstore in Fort Worth.

So I decided to do it again.

This weekend Lorehaven, with yours truly, will rejoin this traveling story show this weekend at Great Homeschool Conventions in Cincinnati.

Where

When

  • Thursday, April 25, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. (exhibit hall admission is free this night only)
  • Friday, April 26, 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
  • Saturday, April 27, 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

I myself will be there starting early Friday afternoon, right after my flight arrives.

Online subscriptions are free to Lorehaven magazine.

What

  • Realm Makers Bookstore specializes in fantastic fiction for readers of all ages written exclusively by Christian authors. It is an outgrowth of the annual Realm Makers writers conference which focuses exclusively on the genres of fantasy, science fiction and the many related genres of speculative fiction.
  • 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.

Who

  • Realm Makers co-founder and novelist Rebecca P. Minor (The Windrider Saga series)
  • Realm Makers co-founder Scott Minor
  • Novelist Kerry Nietz (The DarkTrench Saga, Amish Vampires in Space)
  • Novelist S. D. Grimm (Children of the Blood Moon series)
  • Novelist Gillian Bronte Adams (The SongKeeper Chronicles series)
  • Lorehaven magazine editor in chief (and pending nonfiction author) E. Stephen Burnett

Why

  • We’re finding new and eager readers of Christian-made fantastical novels.
  • We’re connecting with families, other authors, and a thriving community that loves these kinds of books.
  • We are loving these real-world conversations about, say, the purpose of these books, discernment challenges, and how to find the best stories for specific readers.

How

Explore our overviews of previous events this year:

Next, Lorehaven will feature again at this summer’s annual Realm Makers conference in July.

But I have an intriguing sense that we’ll have another related announcement sometime even sooner . . .

Godspeed!

Stephen

Tolkien, The Movie

“I’m a little worried the filmmakers will make too many parallels between (1) Tolkien’s early life and (2) imagery that they assume a movie audience—familiar only with Jackson’s adaptations—will find recognizable.” – Jeff LaSala, Tor Magazine

The movie industry has an insatiable appetite for what they know will work. With Tolkien, they have another sure thing. After all, the success of the movie versions of his epic fantasy novels proved extremely successful—and that means, popular as well as lucrative. So wouldn’t all those Lord of the Rings and Hobbit fans be just as likely to love a movie about the author of the stories they love?

On top of this obvious appeal, there’s also the emergence of another popular genre—the “story behind” story, usually dealing with the creator of an imaginary piece of literature rather than with the story itself. So we’ve had movies such as Finding Neverland, the story about the playwright J. M. Barrie who created Peter Pan, and Goodbye Christopher Robin, the story of A. A. Milne and his creation of Winnie the Pooh. Or how about The Man Who Invented Christmas, about Charles Dickens and his creation of A Christmas Carol.

What a perfect storm for a movie about John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, AKA J. R. R. Tolkien, the “father of modern epic fantasy.”

When a story comes to the big screen, there are always questions. The first is, will the movie be faithful to the source material? In the case of a biographical drama, this question seems of highest concern. Tor Magazine, in an article by Jeff LaSala, recommended that fans set a low bar of expectation, simply because the “purists” of Tolkien’s epic fantasies saw what the movie media did to the books.

I’m not sure that’s an adequate reason to assume the worst about a story dealing with a historical figure. Of course, there’s always the danger that the movie creators might want to embellish the life of a man known for his academic pursuits more than they desire to stick with the factual, documented facts of his life.

Now, I expect there will be embellishments to the story, but what matters most to fans of Tolkien is that the filmmakers are true to the man. You can only add so much extra drama without straining credibility. J.R.R. Tolkien was a man of good humor, but it was his imagination that was vast—not a life of adventure. His most defining experiences were in his youth: his upbringing, his losses, his clandestine courtship with Edith, and of course, absolutely, the Great War. So there is a lot of opportunity, and a lot to work with, here. (Ibid.)

Does “a lot to work with” translate into a good movie? I wonder. I don’t think there are the clear lines of connection with Tolkien’s life and the world he created, that there have been in the previous biographical films. Did this place inspire the idea of that imaginary story location? Were these people the reason Tolkien created those villains or that heroine?

I don’t think he left to posterity a statement that can allow us fans to know precisely what motivated him. Except for the obvious. When Tolkien was a child, for instance, he spent time exploring a variety of places, including his aunt Jane’s farm named Bag End. To be honest, I don’t know if his letters and articles and other papers might not have given more information about his prompts and motivations. I haven’t read J. R. R. Tolkien: The Biography by Humphrey Carpenter. But I would hate to find obvious places where the movie writers made stuff up just because they thought it would be cool if it were true. From the Tor article again:

I’m a little worried the filmmakers will make too many parallels between (1) Tolkien’s early life and (2) imagery that they assume a movie audience—familiar only with Jackson’s adaptations—will find recognizable. For example, Tolkien hadn’t conceived of the One Ring as a mighty artifact of evil until he set to write the sequel to The Hobbit, for example. And he hadn’t started that book until the early 1930s. So if we see too much ring emphasis, they’ll be embellishing indeed.

The other big question I have is, how will the movie portray Tolkien’s deep religious convictions? How will they show his godfather and mentor, Father Francis Xavier Morgan? Will the movie people be accurate or will they gloss over this influential, worldview-shaping, part of Tolkien’s life? LaSala agrees.

I also dearly hope they don’t shove Tolkien’s faith aside. I know this isn’t just a straight biography, but it was vitally important in his life and it’s layered deeply in his writing.

Often times I can get a clear idea of a movie from the trailers. In the case of Tolkien my questions remain. Here’s the first one, the shortest of the two, released some two months ago:

And then there’s this trailer, the longer version that gives a bigger feel for the story, released a month ago:

Here’s the official info released by Fox:

TOLKIEN explores the formative years of the renowned author’s life as he finds friendship, courage and inspiration among a fellow group of writers and artists at school. Their brotherhood strengthens as they grow up and weather love and loss together, including Tolkien’s tumultuous courtship of his beloved Edith Bratt, until the outbreak of the First World War which threatens to tear their fellowship apart. All of these experiences would later inspire Tolkien to write his famous Middle-earth novels.

Only In Theaters May 10, 2019

Directed by: Dome Karukoski

Written by: David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford

Produced by: Peter Chernin p.g.a., Jenno Topping p.g.a., David Ready p.g.a., Kris Thykier p.g.a.

Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson, Tom Glynn-Carney, Craig Roberts, Laura Donnelly, Genevieve O’Reilly, Pam Ferris and Derek Jacobi

There’s enough here to intrigue me. Will I fall in love with the historical figure, or will he be subsumed by the fictionalized movie version of a story intended to earn big bucks? I guess I’ll know some time after May 10.

Taste and See

Has there ever been a time you were telling someone a simple truth, but concerning which you met with skepticism?
| Apr 18, 2019 | 14 comments |

Have you ever had something happen in your life that illustrated the power of doubt verses belief? A time you were telling someone a simple truth, but concerning which you met with skepticism? A time when you tasted something and people doubted that you ate? I have, and I’m about to tell the story. (Note this post is a shortened, edited version of something I first wrote about for my personal blog, Travissbigidea, in Nov of 2017.)

I’m in the Army Reserve and in 2017 I and other members of my Army Reserve unit attended a training exercise that lasted a month for my unit (called JRTC) held in Fort Polk, Louisiana. Fort Polk is rather infamous among people in the US Army for not being a very pleasant place. Perhaps some of its reputation isn’t completely deserved, but I personally had a miserable time at Fort Polk.

MRE/First strike field rations. Image credit: According2Robyn

That misery included many particular aspects of my experience, including sleeping in body armor many nights and not having proper bathroom facilities (so I had to go to the woods and dig a hole on numerous occasions) but especially touched on food. Not only had I been in a field training environment for two weeks in which we ate field rations (MREs and and “First Strike” rations), we had been poorly fed during the week prior to going out into what everyone called “the box”–the place where the training exercise took place.

Food served overseas to US Army. Image credit: Thrillist

US military dining isn’t usually bad, not anymore. The modern Army usually has contractors provide meals, unlike the infamously bad Army cooks of the Vietnam War and earlier. And it happens to be true that the contractors feed us very well, almost always. The food I ate while deployed to Iraq was especially good–and I realize that may sound like a joke, but it really was true. KBR (later BR) ran the military dining facilities in Iraq while I was there in 2008 and the food was actually amazingly good at times.

Imagine much more crowding and less food and you’ll get a picture of the 52nd BSB’s meals. Image credit: Army.mil

But in the week of getting ready to go to the field in Louisiana, we had eaten hot food provided by one of the supporting units for our JRTC exercise, the 52nd Brigade Support Battalion (BSB). Which meant that instead of the contractors who usually feed troops in the modern Army, our food was actually supplied by US Army cooks. What they prepared wasn’t very tasty,  plus, the dining area was horribly mismanaged, with thousands of troops trying to pile into the same single fabric-topped building at the same time. The building was large; it sat hundreds, but the demand was in the thousands, so lines were long; sometimes food ran out before everyone ate and the hot portion of the meals usually wound up being cold. Plus there were limited places to sit, so you had to rush through the bit of food you got and the trash cans that filled up with accumulated debris from the cardboard food trays and cups and plastic eating utensils were not quickly emptied out, so piled up garbage in the back of the building became common. It was better than eating grass and dirt, but wasn’t very nice, overall.

So after coming back from the “box” we spent the night at one of the mock bases that wasn’t far outside the training area (i.e. the box). (It was called “FOB Warrior.”) We finally were in the position where we had some freedom back, even though we still were going to sleep in a barracks building that night. Some members of my Army Reserve unit were talking about ordering pizza for everyone.

But I didn’t want to pay for pizza (I’m awfully cheap at times). So I decided to trudge out to the military dining facility this base had and eat whatever food they offered. My expectations were pretty low, but food is food and its primary job is to keep you alive, so I was willing to put up with whatever they served.

Steak cooking at Kunsan Air Base in Korea. Image credit: Kunsan Air Base.

I came to a building with a fabric top, not too different from the place where the 52nd BSB had poorly fed us. But to my surprise, contractors were serving the food. And the meal was steak and shrimp. With fresh salad and fruit. With cheesecake for dessert (chilled cheesecake). The building was clean, the contractors were polite; it was really good food and furthermore, was free.

I returned to the barracks we’d been put in with the good news of how surprisingly good the food was. And I immediately met with skepticism from two soldiers, a sergeant and a captain, who both reasoned with me that what I was saying could not be true.

In fact, they acted like they believed I was trying to pull the wool over their eyes. To make fools of them. And as we talked, I remembered more details than what I had already mentioned. I said, “And they had mashed potatoes. And cans of soda in the corner, Cokes, Dr. Pepper, Sprite, lots of brands. And in addition to the cheesecake, they had chocolate chip cookies, really big cookies, soft, with M&Ms in them.”

“And I bet the woman serving them was a beautiful blonde who had really big breasts pouring out of her blouse,” said the sergeant with obvious snark.

“Yeah, Perry, I can’t help noticing this story keeps getting better and better,” added the captain with a laugh.

Answering the sergeant, I said, “Um, no. But the woman taking our numbers was really cute.” Turning to the captain, I added, “Yeah, I recognize this sounds incredible, but every word is true. Honest.”

The conversation went back and forth like that, never in the exact words I just used, but along those lines. In the end, I failed to convince them that the shrimp and steak meal really existed. But it did.

This struck me after the fact as being something like sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with people. I had a story to tell, a true story, but my story was not believed, because it did not match things the people I told had already seen and experienced themselves. It was easier for them to think I was making it up and dismiss what I said than investigate for themselves.

It would have taken the two members of my unit a mere five minutes to walk down the road to find out if what I was saying about the meal was true or not. But they would not do it. If people won’t even walk five minutes down a road, how much more will skepticism prevent someone from giving the Gospel a chance?

“Taste and see that the Lord is good,” begins Psalm 34:8, implying the God can be known by those who want to find Him. Those who seek out and test the truth about God can find not only that He is real, but furthermore, that God is good.

My experience led me to make a few observations:

  1. Those who disbelieve may in fact be very intelligent people and very convincing in their disbelief. The captain and sergeant I was speaking to were actually very smart guys. I wound up laughing after a while talking about the meal because I knew from their point of view what I was saying sounded ridiculous. Of course, when I laughed, they were only even more convinced I was trying to play a joke on them. I promised them I was not and in fact gave them more details—which should have helped them realize I wasn’t making things up (plus, I’m not the kind of person that plays this kind of joke), but that didn’t actually help. Again, these were not dumb guys—they were two of the smartest guys in my unit. They didn’t manage to convince me the meal I’d eaten didn’t exist, but they did have me doubting my own credibility.
  2. Those who have tasted the meal (or otherwise experienced something good) are in fact under no obligation to explain how it happened. At the time I was talking about the meal I ate, I could and did give more information that should have made the meal make more sense, i.e. it wasn’t the 52nd BSB serving the meal, it was civilian contractors.  Plus maybe Fort Polk wanted to make the experience coming out of field training more pleasant than going into the training. But in the end, I did not know why the change in food happened. I just knew it had happened. I offered my speculation as to why the food changed to the skeptics to help them make sense of the event I was describing. And doing that was actually a good thing. However, all I really knew is what I’d witnessed myself. A meal was served; I partook. Likewise, I experience the presence of God in my life every day. My experience is real—I can attempt to explain logically the role of God in the universe to the doubters in order to attempt to make the path to “tasting” themselves easy for them. But in fact I don’t owe them that explanation. My experience requires no explanation to make it true. And I actually may not be able to explain very well, if at all. It doesn’t matter—what I have witnessed is what I have witnessed. Which leads me to the next point:
  3. Explanations of witnessed events are not required to believe them and it’s unreasonable to expect otherwise. Yes, it’s possible for people to delude themselves. Yes, it could be I imagined the meal I ate, though for me that would be more unlikely than me eating it, since I don’t regularly have delusions of eating imaginary food, no matter what the skeptics thought about the situation (though in fairness, they maintained I was trying to pull a joke on them, not that I was delusional). Yes, it could be I have imagined God’s presence in my life, but other than God, I do not in fact routinely sense people who are not around. I have every reason in fact to believe what my experience tells me, even if I cannot fully explain it. And that’s normal. Not irrational, not weird. Simply how experience ordinarily works.
  4. Getting a detail wrong does not invalidate the entire witness. I realized after a bit that I had misspoken—the potatoes were not mashed potatoes, they were scalloped, though served with the kind of scoop you normally see with mashed potatoes. But getting that detail wrong did not invalidate the overall tenor of what I witnessed. Likewise, a person can be mistaken about elements of their religious life and belief while still in fact witnessing something that’s true at its core. Which leads to my final point:
  5. Disbelief can be a choice. The guys I spoke with about the meal were bright. They knew they were bright. They weren’t willing to be suckered in with false info, which they knew could happen. They may have even noticed a contradiction in what I was saying, that I first mentioned mashed potatoes but later changed to scalloped. But in fact their skeptical reasoning did not and could not trump something that I had eaten myself. Something could happen they had not planned for, something that did not make sense to them. Reality can in fact go in directions they had previously ruled out as “not possible.” But instead of giving the idea they might be wrong a chance, they in effect chose to disbelieve by not even investigating what there was to investigate, by not even walking down the road for five minutes. By ruling out what I said in advance, by deciding in advance not to investigate, they decided to disbelieve. If that happens with something as simple as people disbelieving in a meal, it should be no surprise that some people in fact choose to disbelieve in the existence of God.

So for readers of this post, have you ever had a similar experience in which you were telling people truths that could have been easily verified, but you were treated with skepticism instead? Have you ever been told that something you knew happened, could not have happened? Please share your experience and thoughts in the comments below.

Building Legacies

Architecture is the language of empires, dynasties, and conquerors, in real life and in our stories.
| Apr 17, 2019 | 8 comments |

I love architecture. My tastes lean towards the European medieval and Renaissance eras of structural achievement. Put me in a Gothic cathedral or a Baroque palace and I will see you in a couple of days. On a recent trip to Savannah, Georgia, my family was amused at my excitement at the abundance of Victorian- and Colonial-style homes that were thankfully spared General Sherman’s fiery March to the Sea during the twilight of the Civil War. I devour books and documentaries about historical architectural marvels, and while I appreciate modern steel-and-glass structures (I’ve seen the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, with my own eyes), I feel more in awe of the ornate stone and woodwork in structures built centuries that end with “teen.”

Simply put, architecture is the language of empires, dynasties, and conquerors. Manuscripts can be lost, food and fashion can transcend eras, language changes constantly, but every time a new ruler emerges or a culture shifts, these transitions are clearly delineated in the buildings and monuments that are subsequently produced. It’s a way for kings to leave their mark on their kingdoms during and after their lifetimes. It’s a way for colonial powers to remind the conquered of their masters, even if those masters aren’t present as a significant population. It’s a way to inspire awe and reverence and to instill pride in one’s homeland. Even the smallest village or farm town has a building or structure of note, at least for the locals.

If we look at the Bible, we also see the importance of impressive buildings, particularly in construction of the temple in Jerusalem. The description of Solomon’s temple is glorious, and while we have numerous examples of elaborate structures intended for worship throughout history, none has actually been inhabited by the presence of the Lord itself. The temple in Jerusalem was truly more than just an incredible building, and it represented more than just an imposing space for the Jews to worship. It was consecrated ground with clear boundaries. There was a place for everyone, a place for the priests, and a place for the Holy of Holies.

Image copyright Lucasfilm Ltd.

The rule of thumb for architecture is usually “bigger is better,” and this applies even to fictional structures. The Empire in Star Wars built enormous cruiser ships and of course, the Death Star. The Borg in Star Trek built massive cubes. The Lord of the Rings has a number of structural marvels, such as Barad-dûr, Isengard, the White City, the mines of Moria, Rivendell, and more. Just as real-life kingdoms and empires build things to leave a lasting impression, many realms of science fiction and fantasy devote keen attention to the structures in their stories, which can become characters themselves.

I don’t expect everyone to share my enthusiasm for architecture, but there is far more to a building than just bricks and mortar, especially if it has survived the sands of time. I would encourage you to dig into the history of notable buildings in your area, and I assure you that you will find more than you would expect. And when you come across prominent structures in books or movies, take note of how well (or how poorly) the writers give a sense of historical depth to these buildings, even if it is just in passing.

The old saying goes “If these walls could talk…” As a matter of fact, they do.