Disability, Superpower, or Just Life?

Novelist Bridgett Powers: Fantastical stories featuring realistic heroes with disabilities can empower us to conquer our own limitations.
| Nov 27, 2018 | 14 comments |

What makes a science fiction character stand out among the other aliens, starship captains, or brash pilots cluttering the universe? Which quality in a fantasy hero moves you to thrust a fist into the air and yell, “Yeah!” at her smallest victory? The most memorable characters in books and movies are often those who are quirky, funny, or battling the same issues we face. To grab our interest at all, a character must be flawed.

This week we feature Bridgett Powers and her novel Keeper of Shadows. Stop by the flagship book club on Facebook to learn more about this story.

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Whether I’m enjoying epic fantasy, science fiction, or even children’s books, a common theme always emerges:

Light shines brightest through cracked lanterns.

While this statement applies to many areas of human brokenness, physical disability and society’s perceptions about it are subjects close to my heart. I’m overjoyed when books and movies in my favorite genres address these topics, especially if they do so in an authentic way.

How are characters with disabilities portrayed in speculative fiction? What can their stories teach us about overcoming our own limitations?

The superhero and comics genres feature many characters with disabilities (Daredevil, Professor X, and even Iron Man), while such heroes are much harder to find in science fiction and fantasy. (See the end of this article for a brief list of characters with disabilities from movies and books.)

Keeper of Shadows, Bridgett Powers

Explore Keeper of Shadows in the Lorehaven library.

Disability can be a symptom of societal perception, rather than an actual impairment. A character might be considered disabled if he lacks a talent, gift, power, or interest that all others in his world possess. We find this in stories of fairies or angels who can’t fly. It is also portrayed in the animated film Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, whose main character Flint Lockwood, whose intelligence, odd inventions, and complete lack of interest in the sardine canning business make him seem useless in the eyes of his father and community. Finally, this is a central theme of a novel I’m co-authoring, in which one of the main characters grows up on a planet where everyone has psionic powers—telepathy, telekinesis, etc.—while she has none.

For many of the characters I’ve researched, disability is portrayed as either the source of a superpower/heroic gift or the motivation for developing that power.

When good intentions go awry

We need to see people as more than their issues […] Fiction can foster empathy, and empathy can change the world.

—Ardi Alspach: 2017 blog interview with Borderline author Mishell Baker.

Speculative fiction characters with disabilities

This is just a taste of what’s available. Please note: I haven’t read/watched them all.

In superhero and comics

  • Daredevil (blind)
  • Professor X, a.k.a Charles Xavier, from X-Men (paralyzed)
  • Iron Man (I’d consider his shrapnel issue a disabling heart condition.)
  • Hawkeye (deaf, in some versions)
  • Oracle/Batgirl (paralyzed)
  • Strange (nerve damage in the hands)

In fantasy

  • Toothless (broken tail) and, eventually, Hiccup (amputated leg) from How to Train Your Dragon (books by Cressida Cowell, movies by DreamWorks Animation)
  • Merlin (portrayed as blind in some versions of Arthurian legends, including Robert Treskillard’s Merlin Spiral series).
  • MadEye Moody from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling (only has one eye).
  • Millie from the urban fantasy Borderline by Mishell Baker (multiple disabilities, including mental illness)

In science fiction

  • Geordi La Forge from Star Trek: The Next Generation (blind)
  • Miles Vorkosigan from the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold (dwarfism / fragile and prone to injury)

The problem is, of the few fantastical stories that contain—and even fewer that center around—characters with disabilities, many dilute their potential impact by using magic, technology, or superpowers to negate the difficult effects of the disability. To the other extreme, some make the disability the character’s main or sole trait. Still more fail to show the character realistically dealing with a disability’s effects on daily activities.

These discrepancies were part of the inspiration for the title character in my Light-Wielder Chronicles fantasy series. Like me, Lyssanne was born with limited vision. In creating her, I sought to dispel several tropes that not only create unrealistic perceptions, but also sabotage the impact heroic characters with disabilities could have on readers.

  • Characters with limited vision are usually portrayed as totally blind—which is not, in fact, the most common degree of visual impairment. The majority of us have at least some usable vision.
  • Blindness creates superhuman enhancement of the nonvisual senses. I wish! Other senses are heightened through consistent use of and reliance on them.
  • A spinoff of this is the “blind seer” character, who can predict the future, perceive present events taking place elsewhere, or use other forms of perception beyond normal sight.
  • By the end of the book or series, the character’s sight is restored. Heroic impact negated.

Disability is merely one aspect of a person’s life—not a superpower, an insurmountable barrier to her call, nor a problem that must be fixed if she is to achieve her happy ending.

Finding our superpowers

Stories that show characters coping with disability in a realistic way can empower us to do the same. Like the heroes of page and screen, we—their fans—have a choice: To accept a physical or perceived limitation as a disabling factor in our lives, or to use it as the catalyst for developing our own superpowers.

The secret ingredient for transforming disability into power is not green goo from outer space, radioactive particles, or a pile of inherited wealth that pays for a crack R&D team. It’s found in Philippians 4:13 & Romans 8:28. With Jesus, we can become the heroes of our own stories.

While authors and movie creators have a phenomenal opportunity to influence society’s perception of people with disabilities, it is the fans who make real change happen. How? We can support books and movies that portray such characters in a positive but realistic light, share our favorites with friends, and start meaningful conversations (on- and offline) about these stories. When we do so, we help the characters we love, the very real people who inspire them, and ourselves shine a bit brighter—despite our cracks.

“. . . This gentle, imaginative fantasy has magic of its own.”
— Lorehaven Magazine

Explore more about Bridgett Powers’s novel:

Don’t Forget Books!

Through flash reviews, the development of book clubs, and author interviews or discussion or profiles, Lorehaven shines the light on speculative books in ways that allow readers to decide for themselves.
| Nov 26, 2018 | 3 comments |

Thanksgiving is in the rearview mirror, and Christmas is a month away. We are officially in the buying season. Or maybe the spending season, since non-profits have claimed “Giving Tuesday” for themselves, and some are making the big push for end-of-the-year donations. In all the flurry, don’t forget books.

We here at Spec Faith discuss, explore, analyze, talk about fiction, in all its iterations. Movies and DVDs and graphic novels and video games have nudged their way into the attention of our culture, certainly. But don’t forget about books. You know, novels. The source from which many of the movies derive.

Of course, I especially think those who visit Spec Faith and understand that we discuss speculative fiction from a Christian worldview, will be interested in the books that don’t get on the NY Times bestseller lists (often) or have commercials on network TV (here’s looking at you James Patterson).

Just last week I had a Facebook friend request reading recommendations for her seven children! I can’t tell you how happy that makes me. Readers who want their kids to be readers give books so that those young ones have something good to read.

But I realized something disappointing: I don’t know the field of speculative fiction as I once did. When I managed the CSSF Blog Tour and the Clive Staples Award, and before self-publishing took off, I knew the speculative novels that were coming out or ones that had most recently come out. I’ve stayed in touch with the ever growing number of books as best I can, but largely I’m limited to ones that make finalist lists in contests or ones that friends put out. And because the number of published novels is greater and greater, I can’t read all of them. Consequently, I don’t know which of those books need to be brought up to the public for recommendation.

Thankfully we have a resource: Lorehaven, the publication under the direction of Spec Faith’s E. Stephen Burnett, exists for such a time as this. Through flash reviews, the development of book clubs, and author interviews or discussion or profiles, Lorehaven shines the light on speculative books in ways that allow readers to decide for themselves.

We are, after all, in the era of review-promotion. The books at Amazon with the most reviews go to the front of the line when it comes to Amazon promotion. And the reviews that are more than cheerleading, that have some substance, that let me know what the books are about, are the ones that will likely influence my buying power.

My original intention was to start a list of books that I’d recommend. It’s pretty short since I haven’t done as much reading this year. My hope is that visitors will add their own recommendations in the comments. Above all, I want to remind us all to include books for Christmas.

So my short list:
The Button Girl by Sally Apokedak (YA)
Escape to Vindor by Emily Golus (YA)
Growing up Neighborlee by Michelle L. Levigne
The Mapmaker’s Daughter by Joanna Emerson (YA)

Authors I recommend (I’ve read past books, may even have a book of theirs in my TBR pile, may already be part way through one of theirs, and have confidence in their storytelling):

  • Patrick Carr
  • Jill Williamson
  • K. M. Weiland
  • Matt Mikalatos
  • Nadine Brandes

And of course, don’t forget the classic speculative fiction novels such as Narnia and The Lord Of The Rings. Don’t forget books that have been out for a few years like Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga or Jonathan Rogers’s Wilderking Trilogy, Karen Handcock’s Arena or her Legends Of The Guardian-King trilogy.

You may have noticed that my list doesn’t include any science fiction. Sorry. My preference is showing, though I know some good sci-fi writers and want to see their books picked up, too. But because I’m not a sci fi reader, I hesitate to recommend to true sci fi readers these books simply because I’m pretty naive about the genre. For example, is the premise fresh? It might be fresh to me, but what if 25 other writers have already put out stories with the same premise? I wouldn’t know. So I’d rather leave this category and supernatural horror and the like open for you to give your recommendations.

Please add to my list of fantasies, too. I mean, the more we know about the good books, the more we have to choose from, because this year, for Christmas, we don’t want to forget about books!

In Memoriam — Brandon Barr

“So here I am, doing what I love now, writing the kind of stories I love, Science fiction and fantasy with soul.”
| Nov 23, 2018 | 1 comment |

I first met speculative fiction writer Brandon Barr years ago. As I recall, he joined the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour. We exchanged many emails as a result and somewhere in mix I learned that Brandon lived in Southern California as I do. In short order I invited him to join the small group of speculative fiction writers that met approximately once a month, and he eagerly accepted.

We hit it off at once, shared common goals, felt our group could help us develop our writing. But Brandon was unable to join us at the next meeting or the next. After a short time he was diagnosed with leukemia. He went through a battle with the disease, including two bone marrow transplants. When the cancer came back this year, the doctors were not hopeful. They projected that he’d live one to two months. Brandon himself said he thought it felt like it would be one month.

Of course his family, friends, and fans continued to pray. But on Wednesday afternoon, Brandon passed away. Here’s the announcement on Facebook:

Our dear friend, Brandon, is now is the arms of Jesus. He peacefully entered into heaven this afternoon. As he took his final breaths, he was surrounded by friends and family worshiping God. He’d sing “Bless the Lord, Oh my Soul” to his boys every night before bed and we were singing that as he drifted off. He passed at 1:30pm on Wednesday, November 21. Please pray for Amanda and the boys during this time. Please pray for the family and those effected by this loss. Thank you for your love and support. Thank you for your prayers.

Brandon’s author bio from his website reveals a bit more about him:

THE NOVEL LENGTH VERSION:
I began to write stories when I was twelve, the same year I read my first thrilling Crichton book, Jurassic Park. Fast forward ten years–it was my senior year of college, and I was given a creative writing assignment. That project utterly rekindled my love for writing.

At first, I never imagined writing novels. Short stories were my thing, a la one of my biggest inspirations, Ray Bradbury, who was a prolific short story writer. I was also reading a lot of old Hugo and Nebula award-winning short story anthologies. Those served to fuel my love for the speculative genres of science fiction and fantasy.

With more than a dozen short stories under my belt, I ventured into novel writing with a co-author named Mike Lynch. Mike and I spent about a decade honing our craft and wrote some decent boks, and some pretty darn good books, and we were able to publish them traditionally. I also published several short stories in magazines and Ezines that have mostly disappeared out of print.

After a lot of growth as a writer, I finally felt like I’d found my voice. And I discovered that I wanted to write fiction that was both intense and action-packed, but fiction that also could transcend boundaries and reach to the core of our common humanness. Our questions, our pains, and our hungers.

I am thrilled to focus my attention on writing exciting science fiction and fantasy, as well as interacting with readers (I love it!). I respond to every email I receive and am humbled to be where I am at in life, having battled (AML) Leukemia in 2015 to 2016.

When not writing, I love to garden, hike, fish, play softball and baseball, backpack the Sierra Mountains and play board games. I do most of these activities with my wife and three boys. My family and I attend a small church in Southern California which just so happens to be absolutely infested with wonderfully artistic members who cheer each other on.

So here I am, doing what I love now, writing the kind of stories I love, Science fiction and fantasy with soul.
Email Me!

I love to hear from readers. Drop me a line and I’ll email you back 🙂

Interestingly in this bio he doesn’t say much about the specific books he wrote. His Amazon page gives much more information about his writing:

Brandon Barr is a USA Today Bestselling Author who hails from Southern California. He writes in the genres of science fiction and fantasy and often combines the two, preferring stories where the science is soft, the fantastic is vivid, and the flesh and soul characters are front and center.

The Song of the Worlds saga is his breakout, genre-blending science-fantasy drama set in a vast fantasy universe where elements of science fiction are dominated by gods and monsters, visions and gifts.

His pulp fantasy series, Path of Heroes, co-written with Michael Anderle, is a sword and sorcery blend with a post-apocalyptic vibe (and a good dose of bawdy humor). Rogue Mage, book one in the Path of Heroes series was an Amazon #1 bestseller in three categories.

Brandon leaves behind his wife Amanda and three young sons. If you’d like to help the Barr family there’s a GoFundMe account set up for them.

Thankful for the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special?

The 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special is widely considered one of the worst pieces of entertainment of all time. Yet even it leaves me reasons to be thankful.
| Nov 22, 2018 | 4 comments |

In November of 1978, when the now rather infamous Star Wars Holiday Special aired, I was ten years old. I watched the special myself, on CBS. I’d seen Star Wars three times in the theater, in an era in which most people only watched any movie only once (unless a movie was re-released, as the Walt Disney fairy tale stories often were). I was as much a target audience for the TV show as there ever could be, yet at the time I was mostly unimpressed. But I’m thankful to have witnessed it, and think there’s some lessons to draw from the show worth applying this US holiday of Thanksgiving.

Note that at the time, seeing Star Wars (which hit theaters in 1977) only three times as a kid was a bit like Charlie in the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory only buying two Wonka bars–he obviously would have bought more, but couldn’t afford it. I overheard other kids at the time saying they saw Star Wars as many as a dozen times or more. Clearly not everyone was that much of a fanatic, but for those who were not alive then it’s hard to explain how much of a phenomenon A New Hope was (note that nobody back then called it A New Hope–everyone said “Star Wars“). Lots of people saw it far more times than anybody thought was normal at that time.

Furthermore, back in 1978, I lived well outside of the small town of Whitefish, Montana. Cable TV existed back then, but we didn’t have it (we were outside the service zone). Our TV antenna picked up one and only one channel–which was an NBC outlet (on which I’d watched the original Star Trek cartoon as it aired earlier in the 70’s). So in order to watch the Star Wars Holiday Special, I had to spend the night at a friend’s house. It’s sad perhaps, but I don’t even remember which friend I stayed with–but I do remember the Holiday Special, though not in comprehensive detail.

I remember it as a show which focused on Chewbacca’s family, his wife and son and father, as they prepared to celebrate a so-called Life festival that obviously was meant to parallel the US holiday of Thanksgiving. (The parallels with our own place and time struck me as too much to really make sense in context of the Star Wars universe, even when I was ten–but I didn’t hate it for that.) Han and Chewie were eager to come to this celebration, but were blocked for some reason. They eventually arrived, and the various bits of strange Star Wars-themed entertainment that were tucked into the special ended and the viewing audience got the chance to see the main Star Wars actors together. I found that moment to be the highlight of the show and that it more or less justified the rest, which mostly was not very interesting to me.

The main characters assemble in the Holiday Special. Credit: Nerdlist.com

I had no idea then that the special would eventually be considered one of the worst pieces of television of all time. Not so bad it’s good–it’s widely considered to manage to be full-time cringe-worthy, painful to watch, without the enjoyment that comes from laughing at genuinely campy entertainment. (If you are curious as to why the holiday special is seen as so terrible, follow this link to a recent USA Today article about it.)

I vaguely remember an original cartoon that was aired with the special. It made no real impression on me at the time, but it introduced Boba Fett as a character and today, post facto, is considered the best part of the Holiday Special. I just watched this cartoon on YouTube (you can too if you follow this link–it’s a bit over 9 minutes long) and would say it’s only so-so at best. But it isn’t absolutely horrible and it did introduce a character who would prove to be iconic. So even what is widely seen as total garbage as a piece of entertainment had at least one success story.

Boba Fett makes his exit in the 1978 cartoon. Credit: YouTube.com

And that’s what makes me feel thankful about the Star Wars Holiday Special. I haven’t seen it again since 1978, but it must have been pretty terrible to fail to impress me at the time–yet still, it contained one good thing, one positive aspect worth remembering.

It’s just so easy to be critical of entertainment that isn’t our cup of tea, an attitude I’m guilty of plenty of times myself. Unless all is perfectly to our standard, we don’t like it. In a way, that make sense–only one cockroach at a restaurant table normally causes people to call everything they’ve been served in that place into question.

Yet isn’t part of the spirit of Thanksgiving to find the good, even if it’s surrounded by bad? To be grateful for what we have received, instead of griping about what we haven’t?

I didn’t even like the Star Wars Holiday Special at the time all that much, but I’m thankful to have witnessed it in its original context. As a piece of my personal history, I’m thankful for it.

And isn’t it encouraging, for those of us who create stories, to think that even a real stinker of a piece of entertainment can have at least one good aspect? I mean, even if we authors fail to obtain our lofty goals for a story, that doesn’t necessarily mean all is lost. One small thing can make a positive impression on others, even if our critical selves see nothing but our own shortcomings.

So let me end this by calling on those who create stories to give themselves a break from self-criticism. Be thankful you can create at all–to be able to do so is a genuine gift. 🙂

A Day Of Thanksgiving

We wish you all a joyous day of rejoicing and giving thanks to God our Savior.
| Nov 21, 2018 | No comments |

Thanksgiving

In light of tomorrow’s celebration in the US of Thanksgiving Day, we wish you all a joyous day of rejoicing and giving thanks to God our Savior.

Why Bill Maher and Mark Steyn are (Mostly) Wrong about Stan Lee and Superhero Fantasy

Why did two pundits condemn superhero stories because they’re not “sophisticated literature”?
| Nov 20, 2018 | 6 comments |

Here’s a rare display of unity. Progressivist pundit Bill Maher and conservative pundit Mark Steyn both scowled at fans of superheroes and the late Stan Lee.

Of course, they’re both wrong. But not only for the reasons many superhero fans offer.

Let’s take a quick look at what these men said. Note that I will take them at their word. Sure, maybe they’re both trying to be provocative. But I know a little about Maher—and far more about Steyn—to know that they’re fairly principled chaps. They’ll say what’s truly on their mind. Both seem to genuinely support the First Amendment right to free speech, even if their own “side” balks at them.

First, from progressivist Bill Maher, at his own Nov. 17 blog:

America is in mourning. Deep, deep mourning for a man who inspired millions to, I don’t know, watch a movie, I guess. … We’re using our smarts on stupid stuff. I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to suggest that Donald Trump could only get elected in a country that thinks comic books are important.1

Next, from conservative Mark Steyn, also at his own Nov. 17 blog:

So we have [superhero] movies about nothing. You can discern subplot if you wish, but in the end what 99 per cent of moviegoers notice is the stuff that’s not sub-: He has webbing shooting out of his fingers! He can shrink to the seize of an ant! … A world of superheroes leads remorselessly to a world without heroes.2

Both pundits have drastically different philosophical backgrounds. But they came to the same conclusion. They claim comic books and superhero movies may be harmless, but are ultimately immature and pointless. They say audiences should not waste so much time on these fantasies. And they say it’s pointless for grown-ups to waste so much time trying to justify these stories’ philosophical “subtext.”3

They’re not so much talking about Lee or other creators, but about you and me.

Also, they’re not so much talking about simply superheroes or “comic books” (itself a potentially dated label to refer to these stories). They’re talking about fantasy.

Where Maher and Steyn are (mostly) right

Some fans really are immature about superheroes and other fantasy. We’ve known these fans. Sometimes we’ve been these fans. That’s because the biblical Christian understands that humans like to sin-twist any good gift. Some fans treasure fantasy worlds so much that they leave their heart there (Matt. 6:21), with little time for family or career, to say nothing of living our lives centered on the gift-Giver.

Also, in this age, institutional family breakdown has gone amok. We ought to be aware that fictional families—superheroes and otherwise—can become idolatrous substitutes. Even our knowledge about the intricacies of franchises can give fans a false sense of productivity. We may even feel we have greater “stewardship” over the fantasy worlds instead of the real world.

Steyn, who spends more time sharing Lee’s backstory, is also right to question whether Lee has previously taken credit for other artists’ work (such as Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby). These are long-debated issues among superhero fans.4 Steyn also demonstrates acute knowledge of superhero stories, right down to the simple details such as correct quoting and attribution of film quotes as well as correctly spelling hero titles. (He even hyphenates and capitalizes the name Spider-Man.)5

Where Maher and Steyn are (mostly) wrong

1. Fantasy and superhero stories are not automatically immature or ‘childish.’

Image relayed from TheologyGaming.com (original source unlisted). As Zachary Oliver notes, the apostle Paul is talking about immature use of spiritual gifts, not the enjoyment of recreation that some people merely claim is “childish.”

Maher is laughably wrong when he makes the hackneyed claim that comic books are immature, stupid, and unimportant. Just because a story features a superhero or other fantastical hero/element, or follows a “graphic novel” format of dialogue accompanying illustrations, doesn’t mean the story is beneath mature adults.

To claim otherwise is plain, ornery, subjective highbrow-ism.

It’s ignorant of how popular stories develop, or last for centuries and become classic. Here you can fetch your standard points about how William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens created stories in the popular media of their day. Only later did everyone get together and decide their works were classified as classic.

Maher also seems ignorant of the best purpose of fantasy. These stories are not meant to show “reality” as we see it. Instead, they show reality as it is—our eternal reality that is epic and miraculous, and not limited to our daily chores and “grown-up” cliques and squabbling and dullness.

Here we’re again compelled to quote the childlike-yet-mature C. S. Lewis:

Critics who treat “adult” as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

2. Fantasy and superhero stories are not worthless solely because they’re not ‘sophisticated literature.’ Christians shouldn’t give an inch to this notion.

Marvel's "Jessica Jones" miniseries on Netflix

No worries, hero fans: if the story is made into a gritty crime drama on Netflix, that makes it “sophisticated.”

Maher and Steyn both mock the idea of adults who have “pretended comic books were actually sophisticated literature” (Maher’s words). Both pundits offer casual arguments that don’t engage with definitions or expectations of “literature,” either “sophisticated” or otherwise. They draw basic correlations and assume their joke is made: that all serious grown-ups, ipso facto, just know it’s just silly to suggest we can find all these metaphors in superhero stories. We all know it’s silly to write theses with titles like “Otherness and Heterodoxy in the Silver Surfer.”

Well, we can agree that it’s silly to base our fantasy defenses on metaphor-probing and thesis-writing. Some fantasy defenders may try this approach. For example, some Christian writers who seek Christ-figures, or more likely, “gospel themes” in their “engaging popular culture”–style articles (which get spoofed by The Babylon Bee).

However, these kinds of defensive fans accidentally give away the comic-book store to fantasy critics. How? By surrendering to the critics’ first principle that “the only worthwhile culture is Sophisticated Literature.” But this is not just untrue even based on the secular reasoning that “many classical texts began life as popular culture.” Christians have even greater reasons. We can insist on the fact that God made humans to make stories in many different ways. That means stories made for classic concert halls are no less valuable than stories told around campfires by nomadic tribes. Or stories shared over social networks. Or stories made by thousands of organized artists motivated by profit motive and mass distributed by TV, theaters, or websites.

3. Fantasy and superhero stories inspire good works, such as real-world heroism. But even if they didn’t, Christians can support them as part of godly rest and recreation.

Steyn is also wrong when he suggests fictional superheroes detract from real heroism. Of course, they can in some cases. But this overwrought claim simply doesn’t match our reality. Real heroes—such as emergency workers, but also charity providers—are often superhero fans. Some even cite the heroics of Superman, the X-Men, and Spider-Man as motives for entering hero-type jobs in the first place.6

Still, even this response can give away the store.

Either of these pundits assumes, without argument, that “if the story doesn’t motivate you to some serious work then it’s useless.” Alas, this is the same kind of mechanistic, “mind of metal and wheels” notion that many older Christians have made about fantasy. (And for which Christian fantasy fans must strive to forgive them.) Such notions would make sense if God did not promise his redeemed people an eternal Sabbath, which we can anticipate in today’s times of rest and recreation. But God did give us this promise. So let’s reject fool nonsense about how stories only ought to make us do work (or ministry), as opposed to “useless” things like rest, recreation, or human relationships.

This means that fantasy and superhero stories have a “point” simply by existing, and fantastically reflecting the human struggles with real life as well as good and evil.

Christians don’t need to condemn or justify fantastical stories by claiming they are/aren’t classic literature, or do/don’t support real heroism, or do/don’t actually reflect real-life cultural issues. That’s all surface-level stuff. Just as we explored last week, for Christians, the highest purpose of these stories isn’t to make us into heroes or else morally profitable ministry/social advocates. Their highest purpose is to reflect to us, however dimly, the real Hero whom we worship.

If you don’t get that purpose, it doesn’t matter if you’re a conservative like Steyn or a progressivist like Maher. One way or another, you will drift into secondary and pragmatic justifications against or for fantasy. Even otherwise biblical Christians, who suspect the highest purpose of stories is to teach morals or merely entertain us, will fall into this trap. But especially at this time of year, when we try to list the many ways God has provided for us, let’s not reject God’s gift of fantasy stories—or the people who made them like Stan Lee and his co-creators. Let’s instead thank God for these gifts.

  1. Bill Maher, “Adulting,” Real Time with Bill Maher Blog, Nov. 17, 2018.
  2. Mark Steyn, “Whatever Happened to Non-Super Heroes?”, Steyn Online, Nov. 17, 2018.
  3. Of course, them’s fighting words. See our articles, about subtext and all the rest of it, in the Badfan v Superman series from 2015 to 2016.
  4. See also: publishers ignoring Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and the de-crediting of Batman co-creator Bill Finger. Only starting in 2015 did Warner Brothers begin crediting Finger for his creation of the Gotham detective’s famed tropes.
  5. Unfortunately, other conservative pundits are not so respectful of fantasy genres, and thus utterly disqualify themselves from offering legitimate criticism here. In summer 2012, Rush Limbaugh insisted that The Dark Knight Rises film villain Bane simply must have been based on a then–current political foe called Bain Capital. Limbaugh insisted the creators had planned this, which would have required a sense of prediction more preposterously miraculous than The Joker’s. Of course, Bane the villain originally appeared in a Batman story published in 1993.
  6. One might as well guffaw at science fiction with all its silly stories about spaceships. Ha ha, such escapist nonsense, such the notion that computers can play music in response to voice commands. Doesn’t this distract from real-life innovation? Ridiculous. Sci-fi imagination in fact inspires such innovation. Many inventors cite stories from Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation as inspiration for mobile phones, tablet devices, and digital music.

Does Narnia “Rewrite” Christianity?

When something like Schnelbach’s article comes out, especially from a reputable fantasy source such as Tor, I suspect a number of readers have digested this idea that misrepresents Lewis’s views. Many may have even embraced it, so I think it’s imperative to take a stand against such an understanding that undermines a man known for his Christian worldview. And for his many fiction and non-fiction books that deal with Christianity.
| Nov 19, 2018 | 5 comments |

Interestingly Christianity recently came into the spotlight of a major fantasy outlet, and not necessarily in a good way, but let me explain.

This week we celebrate Thanksgiving here in the US. Also occurring this week is the 55-year anniversary of C. S. Lewis’s death, although the western world does not set aside the day as a holiday. In many respects, the two days converge for me. I am thankful for C. S. Lewis and specifically for his fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia, not only because the stories are compelling, not only because they pried open the door of fantasy for me, but because they showed me that I wanted to write fantasy too and they showed me the way I wanted to write, incorporating God’s truth into story in a natural way.

While I love Narnia, I’m not unaware that some people, both critics and fans, see Lewis as taking a left turn away from orthodox Christianity in these stories. The latest writer to take that position is Leah Schnelbach in an article in Tor.com entitled “Moral Kombat: How Narnia and Harry Potter Wrestle with Death and Rewrite Christianity.” It’s a lengthy analysis comparing and contrasting two of the most influential fantasy works of the last sixty years.

Schnelbach explains the “rewriting Christianity” concept this way:

When the series culminates in The Last Battle, it’s revealed that faith in Narnia/Aslan has allowed all the “Friends of Narnia” to return (and that Susan’s lack of such faith left her on Earth), and that all “good” followers of Tash get to come along to a Heaven that is sort of a deluxe Narnia: “I take to me the services which thou hast done to Tash… if any man swear by him and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.”

In this way Lewis creates a stand-in messiah, twines the quasi-Jesus story around the core of his fantasy series, and riffs respectfully on Christian theology. He takes the somewhat liberal (and controversial, in some theological circles) Inclusivist stance that good works can get people into paradise apart from their conscious faith in his specific savior figure.

As it happens, E. Stephen Burnett addressed this criticism of Lewis’s theology some years ago in a short series entitled Refuting ‘universalist’ slanders of C.S. Lewis He builds a strong case that Lewis’s fantasies are not to be feared as heretical or “rewrites” of Christianity. In the second article in his series, Stephen specifically addressed the scene from The Last Battle that Schnelbach referenced.

Whether reading Lewis’s nonfiction or his fiction, we must stay mindful of the whole picture, following the genre’s rules.

This applies when answering this common accusation about Lewis’s beliefs: Lewis believed universalism, because in The Last Battle, a pagan character goes to heaven. (emphases in the original)

Someone schooled in Lewis’s understanding of how to write fantasy knows that he did not intend to write a “stand-in Messiah” in the way that Schnelbach understands it. He was not writing allegory. Rather, he termed his approach to fantasy as “supposal.” Lewis implied that he came to his stories by asking, How would Christ look and act and live in this imagined world? Meaning, that He most definitely would not be the same in a world with talking animals as He is in our real world.

The stone table, for instance, is not a cross, and Aslan didn’t stay in a tomb for three days and nights. Is Lewis heretically claiming that what the Bible said about Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection is wrong? Clearly not. He was relating the truth of salvation by supposing what it might look like in a pretend world. This most certainly is not the same as “rewriting Christianity.”

When something like Schnelbach’s article comes out, especially from a reputable fantasy source such as Tor, I suspect a number of readers have digested this idea that misrepresents Lewis’s views. Many may have even embraced it, so I think it’s imperative to take a stand against such an understanding that undermines a man known for his Christian worldview. And for his many fiction and non-fiction books that deal with Christianity.

If we Christians who read and love speculative literature don’t stand up for one of the greats in our genre, who will?

No, Lewis was not perfect. Everything he wrote or believed doesn’t completely agree with my understanding of the Bible. But he was not undermining Christianity with his fantasy.

In part he was working out his thoughts and beliefs in every book, as every writer does. And like all other writers, his ideas did not remain static. After his wife died, his understanding of suffering did deepen, for instance.

But in his fantasy Lewis never intended to write a theological treatise. Consequently, reading the stories as if they express his views about God and heaven and salvation in our real world is not accurate. Yes, Lewis believed in God who created the world, who saved the world, who made a way for those who believed to go “further up and further in.”

The specifics, the ways in which the world of Narnia differs from Christianity, are more obviously explained by the fact that Lewis was not writing allegory.

On one hand, secularists criticize Lewis for writing Christianity into his books (and in this case, for writing his own version of Christianity), but on the other hand too many Christians criticize him for not writing enough Christianity into his fantasies.

It sounds very much like the plight of many Christian speculative stories—they are either too Christian or not Christian enough.

Time to take a stand and let the world know, Lewis was writing a Christian message but he was not replicating Christianity in his fantasies. I suggest after saying this, we rinse and repeat because every time this false idea surfaces, it needs to encounter the truth.

The Hidden Message of Salvation

The salvation story of Christ is deeply buried in many epic fantasy classics, such as the Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.
| Nov 16, 2018 | 1 comment |

When most people hear about epic fantasy, they think about long-forgotten worlds that existed in the distant past, ruled by magic and dark traditions.

This concept is reinforced by many modern television series and movies, such as The Game of Thrones. In my opinion, it is quite sad that this genre of fiction has gone down such a dark and cruel path. However, as a Christian and a fan of epic fantasy, I dug a little deeper into this genre. The pioneers of this fascinating genre of fiction, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, were practicing Christians. And the salvation story of Christ is deeply buried in the fantastical worlds envisioned by both of these authors. Please allow me to point out a few comparisons.

This week we feature Aviya Carmen and her novel The White Forest. Stop by the flagship book club on Facebook to learn more about this story.

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1. The struggle of good and evil

The book of Genesis does not state exactly when Satan fell from his glorious state and became the devil who prowls on the earth. Still, it’s clear that ever since Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they were set at enmity with the serpent (Satan). Thus the struggle between good and evil took center stage in humanity. This same struggle has continued for thousands of years, and it is still as real in our time as it has ever been. And this is the central theme of both The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia series.

 2. Heroes who fight to save the world.

We always find warriors and fighters in fantasy stories. They rise up for the sake of goodness, and ultimately become heroes who save the world from the dominion of darkness.

In The Chronicles of Narnia, the four Pevensie children fight alongside Aslan and saved the world of Narnia from the rule of the White Witch. In the heavenly realms, the army of God’s angels led by Michael is diligently fending off the demonic forces of Satan (Revelation 12: 7–10). In the book of Ephesians, Paul urges the people to put on the full armor of God, so that they may be able to withstand the attacks of Satan in the present evil age with the power of God (Ephesians 6: 10-18). Of course, Jesus Christ is the ultimate hero of the Christian faith.

3. Creatures from unseen realms.

Dragons, elves, hobgoblins, mermaids, sirens, demons, and many other mythical creatures all make regular appearances in epic fantasy stories.

Many of these creatures come from folklore and ancient myths, and have been recorded in every known culture. Although modern science views all “unseen” creatures as non-existent, science fails to explain many supernatural phenomena. It is no coincidence that the Bible speaks explicitly about angels and demons throughout both the Old and New testaments. Jesus clearly drove out demons, which plagued people with various forms of sickness.

4. Dark evil forces who oppose the light.

In The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, there are evil antagonists who are strong enough to overthrow the peace of the world for a short time. Until the true king returns and reclaims his kingdom. Isn’t that the case with our world right now? We’re currently under the rule of Satan, awaiting the return of our savior, Jesus, to reclaim his kingdom.

5. A king who ultimately reigns in peace.

The climax of the story is often the last battle fought between the true king and the evil forces who have overtaken his kingdom. Of course, he overthrows the forces of evil and reigns once again in righteousness and peace. This is not only the hope of the Christian faith, but also a recurring theme in many epic fantasy stories.

In the last book of the Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan banishes all evil and returns to rule Narnia in peace. Even some Disney movies have adapted this type of ending, such as The Lion King. As Christians, we have the great promise from God himself that he will make all things right again one day and send Jesus to rule over His kingdom on earth. What a great day of rejoicing it shall be!

What better way is there for children and adults to learn morals through exciting adventures in fantastical worlds! After all, the Preacher arranged many Proverbs to teach the people, and Jesus told many stories in parables. Perhaps, even in dark stories like the Game of Thrones, there is a moral to be learned. Which could very well be this: when men try to live apart from God’s law, there is only chaos and disorder and every form of evil under the sun. Mankind is in desperate need of a savior!

Speculative Fiction Writer’s Guide to War, part 11: Training a Spartan, Samurai, or Starship Trooper

The elite training of warriors as different as Spartans, Samurai, and Starship Troopers show many features in common. These features drill warriors to prepare them to face the harsh realities of combat.

Travis P here. In part 7 of this series we discussed those combatants who are naturally elite in a way most warriors are not (in not suffering harmful effects of combat stress). Spartans, in spite of battlefield courage that implies they are natural-born warriors, were in fact the product of superior training, training that in essence was designed, as much as was humanly possible, to overcome the psychological difficulties a human being experiences in combat. Note that this kind of highly-trained fighting professional is a different sort of fighter than found in warrior cultures who emphasized battlefield rage. This type of elite training was not just a characteristic of Spartans, it was also true of a number of other renowned warriors from times past, such as Samurai. And in spite of the fact that elite troops in our own era tend to recruit those with unusual natural talent for war (intentionally or not), elite training is the primary factor that explains the amazing skills of elite troops of our own era and the imagined future warriors like those in Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.

Samurai: Colorized public domain image of real samurai

Let’s start with Samurai. Their training varied greatly according to social class and time period, but they generally began at the age of 5. Poorer warriors were instructed in the samurai art of bushido by family members, while wealthier families enrolled their sons in special schools. All samurai training emphasized the calmness of mind required for archery and for a period they practiced archery on living dogs running for their lives (this practice was eventually abandoned as too cruel). It also included a great emphasis on horsemanship, swordsmanship, and heavy armor training–including, due to Japan’s many rivers and coastal areas, how to swim in armor. They also emphasized unarmed fighting that developed into many modern forms of Japanese martial arts. In addition, they engaged in acts of physical endurance and resistance to pain, such as standing naked in a snowbank.

Note some of the key features of this kind of training were shared by other professional warrior cultures of ancient and Medieval times, such as the traditional training of European knights. Ancient training methods understood that someone raised into warfare from childhood would adopt the methods of fighting as second nature. They emphasized a person deliberately calming self, facing bloodshed, and enduring pain, all with the purpose of muting natural psychological reactions to these conditions that humans normally experience.

 

Ancient pottery image of Greek warriors, from: http://spartareconsidered.blogspot.com/2011/09/physical-appearance-of-spartans.html

Spartan training shared these features with the Samurai, but did so more systematically. Their training began at age 7, later than Samurai training, but it exceeded them in difficulty, in standardization, in requirements for group training, and in total commitment. Like samurai and other professional warriors of the past, Spartans trained in unarmed combat to include boxing and wrestling, but considered gymnastics and the ability to dance important warrior skills as well. A Spartan warrior would train continuously until age 18, when he would be considered an adult and be expected to marry. At age 20 he would allowed to attempt to join the army–he would only be accepted after being examined and considered fully qualified. Spartans in the army lived together in barracks and continually trained for warfare (an actual war was considered something of a vacation), only visiting their homes on occasion (which were run by the women of the family), serving from ages 20 to 60. Warriors older than 60 returned home, but still maintained the equivalent of “reserve status,” where they could be called upon in the event of a national emergency.

In Starship Troopers, elite warriors were not raised as such from childhood, just as is true in modern militaries. I will let Travis C tell you more about what the society of the story was like below as he uses Heinlein’s novel to illustrate our point, but note troopers lived normal lives until reaching adulthood. In Starship Troopers (the novel contains more of these details than the movie), recruits were subject to vigorous psychological testing (which the story presumes would be accurate) that assigns new troops exactly to those specialties they are most suited to perform–which would clearly put naturally elite troops in front-line combat positions. Recruits were also trained according notions of psychology that include some indirect reinforcement of positive behavior with rewards–but mostly centered on the use of corporal punishment as negative reinforcement. Soldiers could voluntarily leave service at any time, though if they were due punishment, they would need to be flogged first. But by recruiting from those people who most wanted to service, they had few troopers actually decide to leave the service–however, their system included the strictest form of elimination of incompetent soldiers. The novel featured live-fire training and harsh survival exercises that could prove fatal to those troops not performing actions as they’d been trained to do them.

All of these warriors, bot the real and the fictional, not only trained the body, they also trained the mind. Which is probably more important than the specific weapons skills they acquired. Their training shared a number of factors in common to a greater or lesser extent, factors that allowed them to overcome the psychological stresses of combat. Beyond what I’ve already stated, below are some other training features they shared in common:

1. They exposed warriors to the reality of death to such a degree, they would get used to it. Spartans training was so tough that those undergoing it faced the real risk of death. At a phase of their training they famously had to steal food to survive–or starve. Samurai and other ancient and Medieval fighters in training accompanied warriors onto the battlefield, exposing young men to combat violence early on. Hunting was also part of training, because the calmness required in stalking an animal and the ability to kill it relates to the use of weapons against other human beings. In Starship Troopers, life-or-death survival and combat exercises were a normal part of the training cycle.

2. They mentally prepared for death. Samurai philosophy was heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism and they believed in life after death, though they did not emphasize it quite so much as Medieval knights. However, they strove to maintain a state of mind where they continually recognized that death could come in the next minute. Spartans did believe in an afterlife, but it seems they placed a greater emphasis on duty to the city and their unit as the reason to be prepared to die, if necessary. Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers put no emphasis on life after death at all, but like Spartans, they were continually drilled that they had a duty to humanity, a duty that might call on them to sacrifice their lives at any time.

3. They employed as realistic and as difficult training as they could. From actually being out on the battlefield to the best mock-ups they could make of training dummies, all of these warrior societies trained hard not only in their weapons techniques, but they routinely would go without food, without comfort, deliberately expose themselves to pain, and would face physical and mental exhaustion, pushing themselves as close to the breaking point as they could go. Their ability to face and overcome pain was an important part of their training regimen. They would also build up their physical strength in systematic exercises to improve not only their physical, but their mental performance. Facing and overcoming tough circumstances in training made the rigors of the battlefield less challenging. Training until actions are second nature or “muscle memory” also ensures they can be performed when the mind is pushed beyond its normal capabilities.

4. They emphasized the value of the group over the individual and benefited from “collective courage.” This was especially true of the Spartans and to a somewhat lesser degree was the case in Starship Troopers. One of the psychological realities that makes it easier for a human being to perform any difficult act is when other people are doing it at the same time. Spartans trained continually to act as a unit, to think as a unit, to sleep together in barracks to do everything together, for the purpose of them acting as a unified group in a time of crisis. Even though this was less true for samurai–far less true, because they like knights believed in individual honor–warriors of feudal Japan did feel a sense of obligation to their fellow warriors and believed it was a dishonor to let them down. They also swore oaths of loyalty to superiors and while there are plenty of examples in history of warriors breaking their oaths, it was considered shameful to do so and was not what warriors normally did.

5. They were systematically taught to stay calm and maintain a level head. Unlike the movie “The 300,” Spartans admired saying little and keeping their emotions solidly in control. Samurai employed meditation and their focus as Zen Buddhists to maintain calm and control their emotions, though they’d release battle shouts in a controlled way, as happens in modern martial arts. Of these three sets of warriors, Starship Troopers probably placed the least emphasis on emotional self-control, but what we think of as military order and discipline emphasized keeping a level head and was actually the normal way for them to fight.

6. They maintained a personal code that justified them in taking lives under specific circumstances. Killing another human being normally causes psychological trauma to the humans doing the killing as noted in previous posts. But when someone strongly believes that an opponent represents an inherent threat, that the other person deserves to die, the natural trauma involved in killing is easier to overcome. And an assurance that a warrior has that he is living up to a high code of conduct also assuages his conscience. This sort of assurance in the personal righteousness of the warrior was especially key in the training of samurai (and also knights). Spartan training also had an ethical component, but its ethics emphasized supporting the city and other warriors over a code that each fighter could apply to himself individually. Starship Troopers employed a code something like that of the Spartans, which enthusiastically supported war and killing as if it were great fun, as long as it was in defense of the human race. (And as Travis C notes below, their sense of values also included systematic deadening of empathy towards the enemy.)

7. They systematically studied the nature of warfare and carefully employed their thinking minds to the art of winning battles. Actually the Roman legionaries were the greatest ancient masters of this last point, even though I did not pick them as one of the examples above. But this was also true of Spartans and samurai and is found in Starship Trooper training. Warriors of Feudal Japan were expected to be literate and to know and understand pertinent written works of strategy. Spartans were also trained to read and write, even if they did not love literacy and innovation the way their Athenian rivals did. And all the actions in Starship Troopers were directed by those recruits who had be pre-selected as those best able to devise and execute masterful battlefield strategy.

It’s important to note that historic warriors who maintained calmness in the heat of battle (who had faced enough death and suffering during hard training to do that), who fought together as unit, who believed themselves morally superior to their opponents, and who employed their clear, level heads to the use of the best strategy and tactics available, routinely defeated warrior societies who emphasized battle cries and berzerker frenzy. Calm, scientific warriors win, almost every time.

Note the Klingons of Star Trek share a few of these features I’ve mentioned above–they are portrayed as training hard, having a strong belief in the afterlife, and as facing death with equanimity. But they are not shown to stay cool and level-headed, to use sharp unemotional minds to employ clever strategies while fighting. Though in defense of the idea of Klingons, perhaps it is not necessary for them as an alien species to maintain tight emotional control in order to be able to keep thinking clearly. Though in fact, the best explanation for them is that Klingons were not written with a realistic understanding of war in mind. And it happens to be true that they have been written with features that in reality are competition with one another to a large degree. (Or maybe…that’s why the Federation keeps beating them…)

Note though that even these warriors who were trained to an unbelievably high degree sometimes broke under the stresses of combat–even Spartans on occasion surrendered. But those warrior societies that go the furthest to train into men the ability to successfully stand at places like Thermopylae, who can face death without surrendering or breaking ranks even in the midst of enormous psychological pressure, these societies have certain features in common–if the characters involved are human or nearly so. Portray them in stories accordingly.

Credit: Rocketpunk Manifesto

Travis C here with a great illustration for the week, suggested by Travis P. We’re visiting one of my alma mater’s most prolific and controversial graduates, Robert Heinlein and his Hugo Award winning Starship Troopers. You are likely more familiar with the 1997 satirical movie rendition of the story, but for our purposes that will do. The book is excellent and an interesting thought-provoking read, no matter if you share his beliefs or not. (I’m smiling because there’s a huge Heinlein poster in one of our English department rooms next to where I teach).

For those unfamiliar with Starship Trooper’s backstory, there is a war going one between a Federation made up of earth’s former democracies and an alien arachnid race from the planet Klendathu, affectionately known as “the Bugs”. As society evolved in the aftermath of a global war, certain rights of participation in the government are reserved for those who have completed Federal service, typically in a branch of the military. While free speech and assembly remain protected for all, certain government jobs, elected positions, and the right to vote are only for those who have served (hence the controversy created by Heinlein’s work). Enter our main character, Juan “Johnny” Rico, the son of two non-serving, affluent members of society who do not want their son to participate in the military. When Johnny enlists for service he is ostracized but resolute in his path, encouraged by his former infantry-serving history teacher Jean Rasczyk (in the movie played by a very gritty Michael Ironside).

We get to experience Johnny’s training alongside fellow grunts of the Mobile Infantry. We experience his efforts to put aside personal desires for the good of the team. We watch him and his peers going through simulated combat training in full kit with modified weaponry (and painful consequences) to prepare them for the realities of the battlefield. We experience the frosty personality of Drill Sergeant Zim as he breaks the recruits down in order to instill a new set of values and operating frameworks within them.

Sadly, Johnny also experiences the painful loss of a comrade in the midst of training due to his own leadership failure. He learns the challenge of decision-making in the midst of combat and the consequences, intended or otherwise, of failure.

Throughout the movie (and book, though maybe not as over-the-top displayed) is the dehumanizing of the enemy and subsequent conditioning of the soldier to kill without hesitation, by rote memorization, with all the lethality one is capable of, for the greater cause. The only good bug is a dead bug, and “the noblest fate that a man can endure is to place his own mortal body between his loved home and war’s desolation.” Starship Troopers shows an environment that prepares soldiers to take life (arachnid life, at least) for a noble cause and with full moral authority.

Lastly, we see the efforts of the support organization like military intelligence to learn as much as possible about Bug culture and tactics. This information is used to better prepare the military to fight and win. A warrior culture is always learning and perfecting its craft, and the members of Mobile Infantry are no different. Any opportunity to exploit the enemy and achieve victory is explored and pursued.

Like Travis P, I can point to my personal experiences through two forms of high-intensity training (USNA’s Plebe Summer as both participant and trainer, and much later in a combat pre-deployment program for combat environments) and confirm many of the principles we’ve discussed. Individual success is certainly praised, but never at the expense of team success. If the team fails, everyone fails. While many view components of basic training as a form of brainwashing, a good training program does not preclude individual initiative, daring, and independent thinking. It just puts those things in a framework of teamwork in support of larger purposes, often through sacrificial actions and attitudes.

Can you train a person to achieve different results? Certainly, but also expect there to be consequences. A program based on a “Winner Takes All” attitude will produce warriors who know nothing other than internal competition with one another, and one would expect team efforts to fall apart or be extremely challenging. Similarly, a training program that reinforced self-sacrifice for others as the ultimate virtue may experience higher-than-average death rates as soldiers put themselves into high-risk situations to save others, maybe even against common sense.

How do we show all of this as writers? Heinlein and many others dedicate significant time to showing these experiences through the eyes of the characters undergoing them. It might be in the form of character flashbacks or reminiscing. It may be tangential to the actual story and witnessed through other observations from the society and culture, even if not explicitly explored. For example, maybe a family is discussing messages from a son/daughter or sister/brother who is going through training and out of the picture but still connected via their words? Lots of possibilities. It’s also very common in modern military settings for troops to discuss basic training experiences while conducting more advanced training scenarios, offering another possibility to explore the formative experiences of a warrior in the context of a more mature, experienced character.

The Nature of the Beast

How does the idea of monsters fit into the Christian walk?
| Nov 14, 2018 | No comments |

The fourth short story anthology from The Crossover Alliance released this past Halloween. I don’t have a story in it but several of my friends do, and one look at the cover tells you this collection is intense. The theme is “Monsters,” but as the cover image indicates, monsters often come from within. So how does the idea of monsters fit into the Christian walk?

Everyone has their own concept of monsters, but they generally have common characteristics: large, grotesque, vicious, wild, hungry, predatorial, and scary. Movies like Monsters, Inc. capitalized on these characteristics with humorous intentions, but even a cartoon acknowledges that monsters terrify us. It’s not the same fear that snakes or spiders inspire, because those creatures are much smaller than humans but are creepy and crawly and slithery and darty. Monsters aren’t usually associated with speed or stealth (the xenomorph in Alien is a notable exception). The source of their terror is their hulking size and giant claws and dripping fangs.

Animals with monstrous qualities exist today (lions, tigers, sharks, squid), in pre-history (dinosaurs), and mythology (Hydra, Cyclops, dragons, Godzilla, Cthulhu, etc.). TV and movies allow us to watch city-flattening behemoths wreak havoc from the comforts of our living rooms, but for the longest time, stories about monsters were passed down over village campfires, and people believed they were true. Man’s footprint was much smaller before the Industrial Age and the mountains, the forest, and the seas sheltered terrifying creatures that would gobble up any reckless villager at a moment’s notice. As technology advanced, we discovered what monsters were indeed real and which were fantasy, and our weaponry gave us the upper hand. Now we get the popcorn ready for Shark Week and watch Chris Pratt turn into the Raptor Whisperer.

As Nature’s monsters have diminished, there is still one realm which we have not conquered: that which is inside ourselves. Monsters like addiction and rage and psychopathy still wreak havoc in human hearts and decimate families, relationships, careers, and futures. It would be folly to speculate on whether these monsters are getting worse today compared to ages past, but with more people on the planet, the opportunities for monsters to arise has undeniably grown. Like the monsters of lore, these inner demons are massive, ugly, and destructive. We often feel powerless as we watch these monsters destroy the things we love.

Yet despite the hopelessness we may feel, we are children of a God who is bigger than any monster, real or imagined. Contemporary Christian kitsch often portrays God as our pal, walking along the beach with us. While this is true, He is also the Creator of galaxies and the Smiter of stars. He knows every iota of our being and there is no monster within us that is too strong for Him to defeat. Now, He may not show up with a blazing sword and slay the dragon in dramatic fashion. Perhaps He will allow the monster to roam free within us for a while to strengthen our faith or teach us a lesson. But as His children, we are promised that all things will work together for good for those who are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28) and that through Him, we are more than conquerors (Rom. 8:37). We may walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, but we need not fear any evil, for He is with us (Ps. 23:4). We may feel that the monsters we face are too much for us, and we are right. But they are not too much for God. The only weapon we need to do battle is faith.