/ / Articles

Reading Is Worship 5: Identifying Weirdness-Idolatry

Brothers and sisters: loving speculative stories is not about you. Or us. Or the genre. Or, especially, Being Weird. That’s especially vital to recall after last weekend’s controversy over cosplay at the ACFW awards banquet.
| Sep 27, 2012 | No comments | Series:

These columns will be written in honor of, but also as a loving and respectful corrective to, spec-story readers who feel alienated by Christian fiction, aspiring authors who are frustrated by publishers’ skepticism, and recently, ACFW conference attendees who were disallowed from entering an awards banquet while wearing sci-fi-and-fantasy costumes.

Brothers and sisters: it’s not about you. Or us. Or the genre. Or, especially, Being Weird.

In April I dealt with the “I love weird stories because they’re weird” notion more as a petty annoyance. My view was pragmatic. I said: This doesn’t help to promote the genre. But the worst problem is not that this motive doesn’t work. Worse, it distracts from true worship.

I keep seeing the Weirdness notion rear its ugly head. I see it in myself, and am ready to call it for what it is: an idol. Reading Is Worship, as this series says, and that worship can only be of two things: God, or a ridiculous replacement that is not God. “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin,” the Apostle Paul writes with Spirit-inspired authority in Romans 14:23. We can read or write in ways that don’t come from Biblical faith, making idols out of good things like experience, The Cause of Christian speculative fiction, or writing itself.

But this latest idol to roll off the human heart’s assembly line may be the worst of the lot.

First I ask: what do the following attitudes prevalent in Christian cultures have in common?

  1. Cultural “fundamentalists” who measure people’s hemlines or condemn enjoyment of fiction, movies, contemporary music, or television, to be Different from Culture.
  2. Christian “patriarchalists” who insist that the chief end of man is to have as many children as possible (a “full quiver”) and train them to Take Back Our Nation.
  3. Religious fiction publishers who offer clean, moral fiction as a solution that reacts against secular publishers’ perceived obsessions with swearing, sex, and violence.
  4. Speculative story readers or writers who enjoy and promote niche genres such as fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, or anything in between, mainly as reaction against no. 3.

Answer: every one of these is based on reactively beating bad guys, not proactively glorifying our God. Each approach seeks to be “different” or “weird” for no other goal than to look good or seem spiritual, or as real or imagined confrontation of a Majority Culture.

Each is a revolting idol, perhaps worse than other idols because they sound so spiritual.

Idol identified: enjoying “weirdness” for its own sake

“Throw me idol, I’ll throw you the whip.”

Do you love stories mainly because they’re “weird”? If so, you may believe things like:

  • “In the morning I get up and want stories You Probably Haven’t Heard Of. Part of me also wants to ‘stick it’ to stories that ‘normal’ people enjoy. You can have your modern dramatic fiction without magical worlds, and straight-up histories instead of alternate-history steampunk craziness! Give me weird any day! The weirder, the better!”
  • “Christian fiction today is just too safe! I want stories that Push All The Limits.”
  • (After being asked what you’re reading:) “Oh, [speculative novel name], by [name of author].” (Later, silently to yourself:) “You probably haven’t heard of it.”

I recognize these lines (adapted from this) from my own redeemed yet sin-struggling heart. But this week I also saw some of them even more glaringly, in response to a dustup at this year’s American Christian Fiction Writers conference in Dallas. According to John Otte:

I can confirm that some spec fic writers were temporarily turned away from the [Saturday fiction awards] banquet (I was an eye witness). Here’s what happened:

Four spec fic writers dressed up for the banquet. The tamest outfit was a little black dress with a dragonscale choker and special nail/claw things (I’m sure there’s a technical term for it, but there you go).  Another wore a suit but built a cybernetic arm overlay. A third wore funky contacts and werewolf gloves.

The fourth, though, was really awesome. My roommate dressed up as Failstate, the titular character from my book. He faithfully replicated the entire costume, down to the face-obscuring mask. When I saw what he came up with, I was so tickled and humbled that someone would do that as a surprise for me.

Once we were ready, we went down to the banquet and were able to take a few pictures. The others joined us but before we could enter, hotel security stopped “Failstate” and told him that they had gotten some calls about his costume. He showed his badge and they seemed (mostly) satisfied. “Failstate” went into the banquet and was almost immediately pounced on by the conference director and told that he couldn’t enter dressed like that and that he had to go and change into “Sunday best or better” if he wanted to get back in. She then insisted that the cyborg remove his arm and the werewolf remove his gloves (again, hotel security was cited as the motivating factor).

Some reactions to this incident are contagious. On Monday when I heard of it, I also felt like taking up arms. I thought: Those bonnets-obsessed persons are persecuting us again; this is just plain silly; what’s wrong with a Renaissance dress or a Star Trek uniform?

Unfortunately, that’s not the only angle here. Having attended at least one ACFW banquet, I can confirm that the rules, written or unwritten, lean toward formal wear, not cosplay. The online program for this year’s conference specifically stated:

ACFW Annual Awards Gala Dress Code = Sunday best-to-formal

Thus, the issue is not conference organizers who object to acceptable dress for the event. Rather, the issue is likely people who didn’t know the rules, or did and chose to make fudge of them.

Should the banquet mission or standards change? If so, that’s another question. What’s at issue now is those who likely Pushed the Limits. And I must ask: what were the motives? To have fun? To support the genre? That’s great and understandable, but the primary questions are:

  1. Did this action “proceed from faith” (Romans 14:23) to glorify God?
  2. Did it show love to other conference attendees, who were either brothers/sisters in Christ, fellow “characters” in God’s true-life Novel, or potential nonbelievers — all of whom, either way, needed to see us show love and respect for God and for others?
  3. Do our responses to the dustup show desires to make peace or to pick fights?
  4. Does the desire to “cosplay” at a conference and/or its banquet reflect the truth that speculative stories are normal, and that it’s no-speculation-allowed contemporary stories that are newer and “weird”? Or do they reinforce others’ stereotypes?
  5. Shouldn’t we who love speculative stories be “all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22) to win them to Christ, or even to what we believe are more God-glorifying stories?

Of course, I wasn’t there. That’s partly why I’m offering these challenges, which are a mixture of hypothetical and rhetorical. Those serve as ways to diagnose the threat that this “weird” complex is not only inaccurate, unloving, and self-defeating, but the result of idolatry. Next week, with your input, I hope to explore ways we can cure the ill of weirdness-worship.

E. Stephen Burnett is coauthor of a nonfiction book about parenting and popular culture (title TBA), to release spring 2020 from New Growth Press. He also explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

Leave a Reply

Notify of


I think this discussion is one that could to be easy to let get out of hand, so I want to be careful what I say… 

In discussing it with some others who WERE there that same evening (I wasn’t there either, although I do hope to be at future conferences):

1) there has been a blurring of the rules on cosplay: costumes have been acceptable attire at the banquet for a while, especially if they come equipped with full skirts supported with a quantity of  full petticoats, or a bonnet and mutton sleeves. 

The Star Trek contingent at this years’ conference also was left alone and had no idea until later that there had been a problem. Randy Ingermanson in his Victorian tophat and pinstriped pants was permitted entry, along with a friend dressed in the feminine version of a dress kilt and plaid.

2) In years previous, other notables have appeared at the banquet in costumes other than bonnets and full petticoats, Jeff Gerke among them–someone mentioned that he has attended in the past wearing a full suit of armor? And nothing was said then. Someone else confessed that they recently attended in costume with a nerf gun painted to look realistic and a very brightly colored (and obviously fake) bandolier, and no one took any offense or made him get rid of his “bullets” and “gun.”

3) One young man who was up for an award at this years’ conference accepted his award in a t-shirt. Yet again, no one took him to task for his informal wear. 

4) So–the question becomes: why the double standard?

If cosplay IS acceptable at the banquet within the context of “Sunday best or better,” and the men with the cyborg arm and wolf paws were, by all accounts, otherwise dressed to the nines, then why was the line drawn where it was?

If cosplay is NOT acceptable, then there needs to be one rule for everyone, and no one should appear at the banquet in costume.

The one concern seems to be that there should not be arbitrary decisions such as “prosthetics are a safety hazard,” or “camo isn’t dressy enough” while a tshirt and jeans is. Having an issue with a masked man is one thing, but he didn’t arrive at the banquet alone–he came in a group of other costumed people, and he cleared hotel security–as you pointed out–and the issue then became the refusal of a certain person within ACFW to allow him and those who arrived with him to attend the banquet dressed as they were. 
As someone else noted, having the masked man take off his mask would have solved the source of alarm for almost everyone who had a problem with his costume. 

The suggestion has been put forward that it might be more reasonable to have a costume event at future conferences separate from the awards banquet so that it is clear what expectations are and everyone can have an opportunity to have fun dressing up in costume without fear of censure.

I think this would be an excellent idea. 🙂 

Kessie Carroll

I think the whole costume argument is ludicrous. So they broke the dress code and looked “terrorist”. So what? It’s the conference’s call on whether or not to permit that. Also, BANQUET. What’s more, AWARDS BANQUET. Best foot forward, people. Scary costumes are not the way to go!
Sounds like costumes permitted previously were all at least semi-dressy. And it doesn’t sound like the conference objected to costumes at the rest of the convention. We just like being discriminated against so we can squawk.
Next year, people, go to ComicCon or one of the big secular conventions and stop picking on the romance con.

Kessie Carroll

Also, Stephen, thanks for taking the time to present all sides of the argument. I’d only heard it from the cosplayers’ side until now.


They should’ve known the rules.
But– I still rolled my eyes. This is why I only go to Christian conferences when they’re dirt cheap for me to attend. I’d rather go to something else 3 out 4 times. I highly doubt that security approached them and was adamant. People wear full Fallout 3 power armor to conventions and hotels and convention centers don’t blink, and someone wears a mask and this hotel panics? Eh…. I just don’t 100% buy that. I’m not saying security was absolutely silent, because I doubt these people are liars, but at the same time they perhaps protest too much. (Comparing one’s event to the academy awards is also kind of silly.)
Anyway– the rest of the article: 
My gut reaction to the questions presented are: no, I don’t think so (that they proceed from a spirit of worshipfulness, per se)… but neither is disallowing them. I don’t see how either is any more proceeding out of a spirit of worship than the other. I’m just sort of puzzled as to how one’s dress at a conference has anything to do with being all things to all people. People dressing all formally with ties and suits and making me wear the same makes me uncomfortable (I have never worn a suit I liked but once, and that one only because I felt like I was an Oxford Don) and I don’t like it.

Diane Graham

You are right, Julius, we should have known the rules. That said, when you have several years go by and many people dress in costumes…Jeff Gerke as a night, Randy Ingermanson in steam punk, Chip MacGregor in a kilt, hundreds of historical dresses, then the blur is there and ACFW allowed them. In doing so, they effectively said cosplay is okay.  Kat Heckenbach made an excellent point on my blog and again on my facebook about what the issue that has caused the rift is. A portion of the body feels spurned. That may be intentional or not but should be addressed. Otherwise, you have people stewing and that is never a good thing.
I don’t think that has a thing to do with self worship. God made us all a little different for a reason and our job is to learn how to love each other in spite of the differences. Celebrate the differences, even.
The simple point comes down to this…If the ACFW allows historical and period dress at the gala and refuses to allow other cosplay, they are wrong. I can understand wanting the gala to be formal and have prestige. That means NO costumes at all and the fashion police must stop people like Caleb from wearing t-shirts to accept his Genesis award. See the problem? Splitting hairs is a messy business.

Fred Warren

I think there’s a danger here of conflating unproductive preoccupation or distracting enthusiasm with idolatry, in the same way the word “porn” has been used to defame anything that falls into the category, “Everybody likes this, I can’t stand it, why-oh-why won’t they shut up about it?”
Idolatry is taking something that isn’t God and treating it as God. Examples might include attributing omniscience to science or omnipotence to nature, or trusting in wealth to solve our problems. “Here, O Israel, are the gods that brought you up out of Egypt.” Stephen, I think you were closer to the truth with your initial assessment of the behavior you were seeing. It boils down to a failure to read thoughtfully and prayerfully. Sometimes we settle for whatever gives us an emotional buzz. You’re challenging us to read in such a way that our reading experience can become elevated to the level of worship. This is an ambitious goal, and a worthy one.
However, I think it’s going too far to say that imperfect worship, in the sense you’re using the word, equals idolatry. Can idolatry begin that way? Sure. The golden calf incident began with a petty gripe about Moses taking his time coming back down from Mt. Sinai, and it ended with a quickie god and an orgy.


While I have not been to a conference, I have a full-length cloak made to the top-left pattern in this image (sans hat, purple velvety fabric)that I wear around college sometimes.  Other “cloakers” exist on campus and we sometimes plan to all wear our cloaks on the same day. I can pin down three reasons I wear it.

It’s warm–especially nice when I wear shorts and it cools down.
It makes me feel cozy, kind of like wearing a bathrobe around the house. 
It makes people do a double take and smile. 

In fact, one of my professor’s little girls was absolutely entranced by the clasp when I wore it to a department picnic.Here’s a full picture</a

Jenni Noordhoek

You met the cloakers! (On my visit to campus last semester I met one of them too – she was awesome. :D) 

Kat Heckenbach

I just discovered that I was quoted in a couple of comments on here (thanks, Diane) and figured I might weigh in. I am not, however, going to reiterate ideas I’ve posted elsewhere. What I want to do is say, as I said on the blog post I just put up on my own site, the thoughts that have popped into my head regarding this accusation that we are purposely setting ourselves aside as weirdos:

So, some still say the line should be drawn. No “monster” costumes, or even accessories. That those things go too far. There is a part of me that began to doubt my stance because of those statements. Maybe a set of monster hands somehow negates the dressiness of a Sunday best suit and tie.
But what has recharged me is the accusation that “we are setting ourselves apart.” We’re fostering the idea that we are oddballs who can’t be taken seriously.
Wait. Hold the dang phone.
First, could I not say the same thing about the women in petticoats and bustles?
Second, this was NOT an attempt to segregate ourselves or showcase our weirdness and inability to fit in. It was actually, as I see it, an attempt to join into an established tradition and find common ground with authors we don’t share much in common with genre-wise.
Third, it wasn’t done to disparage the historical costumers. The spec-fic crowd saw the historical romance crowd dressing up and thought, “Wow, how cool! Me too!”

(end quote) 
I also address the whole professionalism thing on my blog as well. It was pointed out to me that it would have been unprofessional for authors to dress up at editor meetings and such. Well–no one did! All the spec-fic authors, from what I have seen and heard, behaved completely professionally throughout the conference. The ONLY thing they did to upset the AFCW balance was match historical costumes with costumes of their own at an event which has traditionally been open to costuming regardless of written rules. 

Anyway, I’m not spamming my link here, but ya’ll are free to find my post on your own. It’s not hard with my name :P. 

Sue Dent

Classification of policy? Really? It’s the ACFW.  The “C” is representative of a very specific brand of “C.” It’s their way or the highway. It would be nice if a more specific label were attached to describe their brand of “C” but, well, it is what it is. I’ll be discussing this in more in my Speculative Faith Guest Column on October the 5th. By the way, I wouldn’t attend any convention if I couldn’t show up as a vampire. Oh, and I’m a “C.” Just not that kind of “C.”


[…] inspired by the great discussions in part 5 and part 6 about why we love stories at […]