Last Stands, Custer, General Gordon, and Being a Christian Warrior

What defines a Christian warrior? This article looks at the negative example of Custer–and the positive example of Charles Gordon.
on Jul 2, 2021 · 19 comments

What distinguishes a Christian warrior from any other kind? Is there in fact a distinctly Christian way to fight a war? Or are all war fighters basically alike? And how does the concept of being a Christian warrior affect how we read a book like Last Stands by Michael Walsh? How did the Victorian General Charles Gordon provide an example of a distinctly Christian type of warrior?

Before I answer the questions above, please allow me to indulge in mentioning that I’ve had a long career in the US Army Reserve, which has taken me to three wars (Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan) and plenty of non-combat military work as well, serving in Belize, Guatemala, Djibouti, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, and Germany, among other places. Not only do I have my own wartime and peacetime military experiences, I have met many modern warriors from a spectrum of nations and have heard in person dozens, maybe hundreds, of firsthand accounts of war. I’m also a student of history with a Masters in the subject, who has spent some time in specialized study of warfare (including here on Speculative Faith). So I feel I have some authority to talk about the nature of war, though of course people exist with even more personal experience and more personalized study than me.

Last Stands and Masculinity Defining Warriors

I recently spent a month in a training exercise at the “National Training Center” in the Mojave Desert of Fort Irwin, California. The exercise focuses on armored combat–something I’ve never done in person (I had a medical specialty during the Gulf War). Though my job as a Civil Affairs officer was to deal with role players pretending to be civilians in the battle space, we did work and move with mechanized infantry and armored formations, which again, was a new experience for me. Though the exercise kept us busy most of the time, we did have some down time, during which I read the book Last Stands by Michael Walsh.

Me “enjoying” the triple digit temps of the desert at Fort Irwin in a patch of shade under a truck.

It turns out Walsh’s book has been praised by some in politically conservative media–Walsh himself wrote an article for The American Mind–and the Epoch Times likewise sang the praises of Walsh’s book. That’s in fact why my mother bought a copy of Last Stands and sent it to me (she’s a big fan of conservative media).

Walsh looked at a number of times soldiers fought to the last man, mostly but not exclusively in Western culture, starting with the Spartans at Thermopylae and ending with US Marines in the Korean War (where Walsh’s father fought). He traced a number of common elements among these last stands. While he did mention that men fought for duty, honor, and country, to help and support one another, and at times brought up religious attitudes that under-girded decisions to fight to the last man, on multiple occasions he summarized the reasons men fight much more simply, in one word: masculinity.

War is the normal state of humankind, Walsh said. And men fight because they are men–they fight to protect their families, countries, and honor. Because, being a protector and a man of honor Walsh sees as inherently masculine things. Without such masculine virtues, civilizations are in danger of collapse, Walsh said, and so the book Last Stands is a de facto long laudatory look at the virtues of masculinity. Every battle he showcased, Walsh saw as essentially the same, though he did acknowledge some particular historical differences, basically he saw them asides to his main point. Masculinity!

Custer and His Unplanned Last Stand

Funny thing perhaps is the battles Walsh strung together I don’t see in the same light at all. For example, Custer’s Last Stand is listed among the battles, but Custer never chose to stand and fight to the last man, not really. What he chose was to move in advance of columns led by Crook, Gibbons, and Terry, to refuse Gatling guns offered by Terry, because he wanted to be highly mobile and was afraid the Sioux and Cheyenne would escape him, and also oh yes was a glory hound and didn’t want anyone else but himself to get credit for the victory he anticipated.  He employed rather a rather standard attack but underestimated the numbers and determination and even the armaments of his enemies (many Indians at the Little Bighorn Battlefield had multiple-shot lever-action Winchester rifles, while the cavalrymen had single-shot rifles). He got overwhelmed and was never offered any chance to surrender. Some men under his direct command seem to have tried to escape (from where their bodies were found) but didn’t make it. 212 men dead, the end.

In other words, while Custer was not in fact a complete moron as he is sometimes portrayed, the bottom line was he made some bad decisions, employing a reasonably good tactic at most definitely the wrong place and time. He and the men under his direct command never chose to make a last stand–that’s just what happened.

I imagine a modern feminist might happily agree with Walsh that Custer was a prime specimen of masculinity, though she would probably tack on the adjective “toxic” to that description. She probably would also heartily agree with me that Custer died mostly because he made several serious tactical errors during the battle. That is, he screwed up. Because, she might say, such is the nature of toxic masculinity.

Love of Warriors: a Knee-Jerk Reaction to Feminism?

Why are political conservatives like Walsh celebrating errors like Custer’s or the Roman Varus stupidly walking into a trap at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest? Putting these failures alongside principled stands like the Spartans at Thermopylae or General Gordon’s death at Khartoum in 1885? Why?

It seems it’s a knee-jerk reaction to feminism. And other modern -isms.

Maybe with many feminists shooting rather broadly at anything even close to traditional ideas of masculinity as “toxic,” while at the same time railing against almost any version of male leadership as “patriarchy,” coupled with a sense that traditional ideas of gender are under attack via the transgender movement, it seems at least some conservatives have swallowed whole the opposite view, that all forms of masculinity were and are good. Even though some things Walsh praised were actually thick-headedness dressed up in a uniform.

Like, do we conservatives love all warriors now, as a reaction against feminists et al? Whether they were smart or dumb? Moral or immoral? Christian or not?

Um, I personally am not on board with that.

So What Kind of Warrior Isn’t Specifically Christian?

Let’s return to Custer for a minute–it’s well-established among historians that Custer planned to run for US president, probably in the year of his death (1876). As a pro-South Democrat by the way, even though he fought for the Union during the Civil War. A victory at the Little Bighorn River would have helped propel him along the way. So part of why Custer fought was his own personal ambition.

Custer also fought for his own family–a number of his family members rode with him the day he died, four brothers and a nephew. His purpose of course wasn’t to get them killed but rather to see to their advancement and personally ensure that his family members prospered.

Public Domain image of Custer

In addition, Custer wrote My Life on the Plains, a serialized set of magazine articles during his last years. The articles not only made Custer immensely popular, they earned him some good extra pay on the side. So money also motivated Custer.

We should also note Custer fought to advance the economic and political interests of the United States against Indians of the Great Plains who as a general rule were outnumbered and outgunned by the United States Army (Little Bighorn proved to be an exception to that rule). So Custer fought for his own ethnicity–his tribe as it were–against other tribes, the promotion of his people against other peoples, whether his people were right or wrong.

And even though Custer fought American Indians, most historians believe Custer kept at least one Indian woman as a personal concubine, if not more. Whether he had children by them is debated, but while Custer was fighting, he used his position as an opportunity to please himself–and maybe to increase his potential number of personal offspring.

Wait a minute, am I saying there’s anything wrong with getting paid for your work? Or with taking care of your family? Or making sure you get recognized for a good job? Because I listed those things with having concubines, which I clearly don’t approve of, so I must think these are completely bad things when talking about Custer, right?

Not exactly. Hold that thought, though.

The Selfish Gene and Being a Warrior

Infamous atheist Richard Dawkins wrote what may be his most influential book in 1976, The Selfish Gene. The book looks at human behavior from the point of view of what would genes want people to do if they had willpower. Genes of course would want to propagate themselves, so would want to have large families and as many offspring as possible.

Applied to warfare, Genghis Khan might be the ultimate model of “selfishness” as Dawkins described it. Khan conquered many nations and took as many wives and concubines among conquered peoples as he could. He had something like 40 sons, who were also prolific, to the degree that something like 16 million men today carry Genghis Khan’s Y chromosome. In terms of propagating his genes, warfare clearly worked for Khan.

If we look honestly at history, many warriors to a lesser degree than Genghis Khan were all about promoting their own personal offspring or extended network of relatives or at least their own ethnic group or tribe. Human beings really do instinctively promote their own genes by fighting for people related to them over people not related to them. Dawkins stated this sort of thing is what our genes compel us to do and is not actually virtuous, though it has historically been seen as virtue to fight for family over self.

Is that fair though? Is it inherently selfish to fight for your own family and tribe?

Modern Selfishness and Fighting For No One

The idea that taking care of your own is generally selfish isn’t just an idea from Dawkins. Jesus said that there’s no reward in heaven for loving people who already love you or greeting your own people but not others (Matthew 5:46-47). That’s not to say it’s evil to love your own family or take care of your own people. But what’s distinctive is loving people who do not already love you and greeting (and providing for) people who are not already your people. Loving your own family or people isn’t evil, but it isn’t especially good, either–everyone does that.

Except, of course, when they don’t.

Dawkins words in The Selfish Gene can be used to say people should not have families at all–doing so is inherently selfish. And people should not fight for their own people at all–again, that’s seen as indirectly selfish because your ethnic group is indirectly related to you and so helping them is to a degree helping yourself.

So wait a minute, keeping yourself provided for and no one else is not selfish?

Clearly Dawkins’s definition of selfishness is flawed. Propagation of your own genes and genes of people related to you (even if distantly) clearly isn’t the only way to be selfish. It’s also selfish in a more immediately destructive way to not provide for future generations at all and to fight for nobody.

In the name of exposing past selfishness as propagation of genes, Dawkins de facto promoted a modern kind of selfishness, where a person fights for no one except maybe self if in a dire emergency and provides for no one other than self, except maybe a non-reproductive sexual partner, if that’s not too inconvenient.

Yeah, clearly in my mind modern self-pleasure-first-selfishness exceeds the selfishness of promotion of family and tribe.

Selfish Warriors?

It bears noting that I personally have offspring and am loyal to my country and have received pay for my work and do at least of bit of making it known what kind of work I have done. Things that have motivated warriors and soldiers since the first warriors came around. I also eat when I am hungry and drink when I’m thirsty and seek shelter when I need it.

Generally taking care of yourself and others around you I would say is a normal thing to do and is good even, even if not distinctively good (the Bible makes the plain statement that not providing for your own is bad, I Timothy 5:8, in addition to commanding to care for strangers, Hebrews 13:2). It only becomes bad to provide for your own if you steal from others or hurt others to take care of yourself and your kin.

So was Custer bad? In some things he was simply a normal warrior, neither distinctively good nor bad–though he did do some bad things. He did ride out against people he believed were unable to defend themselves and took from among them those he wanted to physically please himself, literally taking for himself at least one woman who would have been the wife of another man. And he used his fame stemming from fighting Indians to promote himself at the expense of other people (he was against efforts of the Grant Administration to help black people in the South). So no, not really a good guy. Self-interested at the expense of others. Though that has been very common in the history of the world and among the long list of famous people in history, there have been many worse than Custer.

Self-Sacrifice: What Should Make Christian Warriors Distinctive

Christ’s example of self-sacrifice contrasts with Custer and many other examples of warriors serving themselves. Jesus not only washed the disciple’s feet, abandoning his rights to be served by them as their teacher, but at a more visceral level, he died on a cross for them. That abandonment of self-interest, that self-sacrifice, is what should define a Christian.

It’s of course impossible to be completely selfless. If you gave all the food you could eat to everyone who was hungry in the world, you’d die and not be able to help anyone else. That’s why the Bible standard is to love your neighbor as yourself–the presumption is that you will continue to take care of yourself, though the actual command focuses on caring for others.

That is, it isn’t wrong–it’s entirely normal–to care for yourself, but what should distinguish a Christian is not self-care but care for others. The situation where a man throws himself on a grenade to save his fellow soldier next to him–that’s the kind of behavior we should expect from warriors who march in the name of Christ.

The virtue of self-sacrifice isn’t limited to Christians, of course. The Spartans at Thermopylae believed they would die, chose to die, and did so in the defense of the rest of Greece. Not all of the virtue God put in people has been extinguished–even though a lot of it has. (Self-sacrifice on the behalf of others is rare.)

Thermopylae is opposed to Custer leading 212 soldiers to their death because of bad planning and a burning desire to be president of the United States–rather the opposite of self-sacrifice…

Killing for the Sake of Righteousness

Wait a minute–if self-sacrifice is the ultimate Christian virtue, wouldn’t it be good to refuse to fight others at all, so as to not make other people suffer? Wouldn’t that be truly selfless and self-sacrificing, even if it perhaps cost the lives of your own family, friends, tribe, and nation? Of course, this is the position of Christian pacifism. (As opposed to Utopian pacifism that believes if everyone would abandon war there would be no reason to fight and that fighting is inherently stupid–which rather unfortunately misunderstands human nature.)

As much as I admire Christian pacifism, in fact the fundamental reason to fight as a Christian warrior is not to protect self, family, friends, nation, or tribe. Although those things are very important.

The fundamental reason to fight is the one seen, though often misunderstood, in Old Testament Scripture. Joshua did not seize the Promised Land by right of might in Scripture, but by the power of God. Instead of killing every man and taking every woman and all booty for their own self-interests, at times (such as at Jericho) Israel under Joshua’s command took no treasure and no prisoners as a sign of God’s judgment on the land (a judgment prophetically foretold to Abraham in Genesis 15:16). That was very unusual in ancient warfare, taking nothing for self, killing everyone–and was also unlike the “selfishness” of battling to propagate self or similar genes as described by Richard Dawkins.

In modern times the idea that certain acts merit punishment is falling out of favor. Instead of a model of guilt and innocence, modern people tend to think of illness and wellness, seeking treatment for behavior that a modern person might prefer to call “aberrant” rather than “wrong.”

In fact, the New Testament give partial precedence for the modern view, likewise offering a cure for sin and a chance at a sort of rehabilitation–mercy over punishment. However, nowhere does the Bible step back from the idea that certain acts, such as murder of innocent people, are fundamentally wrong and deserve punishment. It simply commits to God the right to punish them (“vengeance is mine says the Lord,” Romans 12:19). Though it also admits that government may punish wrongdoing in the here-and-now (Romans 13).

There’s been a long-standing debate among Christians if we have the right to join the government in punishing evil, or for certain things we must wait divine judgment to manifest itself. Clearly I believe Christians may join the government and fight–though I nonetheless respect Christian pacifism.

Note though it’s contrary to historic Christianity to believe humanity has no evil to be punished–that God cannot and should not wage war on the evil of this world. As seen in the book of Revelation.

The Dangers of a Self-Styled Righteous Warrior, Checked by Just War Theory

So since the Christians who fight as warriors primarily fight for righteousness and not to protect–though protecting is itself righteous–what is to keep a Christian warrior from overstating what is “righteous” and going to war for any reason at all? Or to go to war for all the ancient reasons of self-gain, including spreading genetic material, but publicly and hypocritically proclaim that all was done for the sake of righteousness?

That’s almost a rhetorical question. It’s happened many times that the role of “righteous warrior” has been abused. Hernan Cortes justified destroying the Aztecs–and seizing land for himself and native mistresses in the name of righteousness. Tomás de Torquemada lead the Spanish Inquisition at one point and seems to have believed he was fighting for righteousness–and he did horrific things in defense of Spanish Catholicism, killing many innocent people. Clearly it isn’t enough for a warrior or other government agent to fight for whatever cause he or she thinks is good. Going to war or engaging in an attack has to be justified by some sort of principles that assure the war is just, principles that go beyond what an individual intuits is true.

Just war theory could well be it’s own article–but in short, war is not considered viable unless performed under the auspices of legitimate authority for the purposes reducing overall suffering. A nation defending itself is the primary reason for war, but even as a war is fought, it must focus on those responsible for aggression. War should not destroy the lives of bystanders and innocent people, even though sometimes that cannot be completely avoided.

War is only righteous if done the right way, for the right reasons, protecting the innocent as much as possible, conducted not for the sake of ambition or gain, but to reduce human suffering. That’s how Christian warriors I admire have thought, checking their own ambition, fighting for the sake of others and for high ideals.

Why Was General Gordon So Great?

I wish space permitted me to discuss every aspect of Charles George Gordon’s life. He of course was in the end human, and not a perfect model in every way. But he distinguished himself as a warrior who cared about righteousness, who fought for what he believed was true, who did not ruthlessly persecute people for being different from him. In fact, he repeatedly submitted himself to people who are not from his nation or ethnicity and fought for the defense of people based on the idea it was right and just to do so–not because of personal gain, not even for gain of his nation or ethnicity.

Major General Charles Gordon. Image: Wikipedia Commons

To summarize some key aspects of Godon’s life: He was a Royal Engineer whose training included making and breaking defensive positions. He gained notoriety in the Crimean War against Russian troops for his always being willing to risk his own life in pursuit of any mission while caring for the lives of his men. At times Gordon’s superiors didn’t like him, but his subordinates followed him with great devotion, knowing his devotion to them.

Gordon became famous after he volunteered to go to China for the Second Opium War, which was over by the time he arrived. One aspect of Gordon’t life was similar to Custer–well, more than one aspect, but mainly neither of the two men liked garrison duty and enjoyed being in danger. (Which is a joy I’ve experienced myself, but can live without.)

While Gordon was in China, the Taiping Rebellion began, led by a Chinese society that halfway adopted Christianity, with a leader who claimed to be Jesus Christ’s brother and who led rebels against the Chinese government supposedly for the sake of Christ.

A man of devout though a bit eccentric Evangelical beliefs, Gordon at first empathized with the Taiping Rebellion. But when he heard of their murder of civilians, rapes, and other atrocities, his sympathies turned against them. Among a handful of European officers assigned to help the Chinese government fight the rebellion, Gordon wound up in command of a Chinese army.

He trained his troops so well that they never lost any battles, proving to be key in defeating the Taiping Rebellion. Gordon never hesitated to respect Chinese customs and wore Chinese clothing (though he never mastered speaking Chinese) but at the same time honestly clashed with both Chinese and European superiors when he felt they were making mistakes. He never seemed racist and the Mandarins appreciated that about him, even though at times he offended them, as in one incident he looked up the word “imbecile” in a Chinese dictionary to let leaders know what he thought of their strategy at the time.

Chinese Mandarins of the period often engaged in corruption for their own personal profit, a practice even Europeans in China followed as well–except Gordon, who returned money sent to him in excess of his minimal needs. In spite of clashing with Chinese authorities at times, they found Gordon to be a thoroughly honest and decent man. When his time of service in China was over, the Mandarins offered to hire him to keep them in their service.

Gordon, after a brief return to England where he contributed to local charities, next served in Africa, at the time when the British were in cooperation with the Ottoman Empire. He received the title “Pasha” or “ruler” and wore Ottoman clothes and communicated in broken Arabic and showed himself in many ways free from the racism common in his day. Posted in Sudan, he fought for the elimination of the African slave trade in his region.

He again proved personally incorruptible but found himself surrounded by people taking bribes who undermined his efforts to suppress the slave trade in Sudan. So he  produced little long-term effect. Gordon suffered a breakdown in morale after this realization and returned to England.

Gordon received many offers to serve with many countries in colonial ventures in Africa. He was quite well-known and admired for his ability to work with foreigners, though he felt discouraged about his own efforts to stamp out the slave trade in Sudan.

A messianic figure arose among the Arabs in Sudan, a man who claimed to be the Mahdi, in effect the second coming of Muhammad. This man, Muhammad Ahmad, intended to ride to the destruction of all of British Africa if he could. Gordon managed to get himself posted back in Khartoum, capital of Sudan. His superiors believed he was going to rescue a key group of officials, but Gordon decided to defend the black African Sudanese against the Arab Muslims who wanted to kill them (a conflict that would re-appear in the split between Sudan and South Sudan in the 21st Century).

Gordon fortified the city against the attackers threatening them and promised to hold out until the British sent a relief force.

The frank expression of opinions Gordon engaged in with the press infuriated the British government. Gordon also seemed unstable to many people and while he had admirers, he also had political enemies. So while the government did sent a relief force, they sent a small one, moving slowly.

Khartoum under Gordon’s command held out against Muhammad Ahmad’s army for a year before falling to an attack. Gordon died firing his revolver at enemies.

While it’s true Gordon hoped the British government would rescue him and the people under his command, he declared multiple times he would rather die defending the people of Sudan than surrender. The vanguard of the British relief force arrived two days after his death.

Criticism of Gordon

The report of Gordon’s death shocked the British public in a way similar to how Americans reacted to Custer’s death. Eventually the British response defeated those responsible for killing Gordon, though in fact the problems in Sudan persist until this day. However, unlike Custer who was not criticized until the 1930s, some people immediately criticized Gordon. Including his own government.

One critic from his own time claimed Gordon was frequently drunk–something no one else ever corroborated. Likewise a Twentieth Century writer claimed Gordon was a homosexual. Well, he never married and had no children, but in the Victorian Era that wasn’t considered as unusual as now. There is also a journal entry from when he was 14 and in boarding school stating that he wished he were a eunuch–which someone has conflated to him having some sort of homosexual experience. It could just as well have been he was ashamed of heterosexual desire or masturbation–the evidence he was gay is paper-thin. And no one has ever corroborated that Gordon ever had sex with anyone, ever, let alone gay sex. If he was homosexual, it seems he was utterly celibate.

From a modern point of view someone who never had sex seems a bizarre creature indeed. Certainly I don’t believe that not having sex is in itself a virtue. Still, I would not criticize Gordon for that. It was his legitimate choice to make (Matthew 19:12, I Cor 7:8).

Many modern critics speak of Gordon’s death wish or his extreme religiosity as a handicap. He probably would also be criticized for having a “white savior” complex. But Gordon was tolerant of other Christian denominations, including Catholics, in a period when such tolerance was uncommon. He worked with ethnic groups other than his own without pandering to them or selling them out. He also fought against both a fanatical version of Christianity and Islamic fanaticism, without ever justifying in his own mind any need to the commit atrocities they did.

Conclusion

In a world where warriors of every nation fight for their own family and tribe, where assuring personal prosperity and advancement is common, when waging war to take what others have and cannot defend is common, where spreading one’s own genetic inheritance as much as possible in the wake of war has happened often enough, the Christian idea of warfare is uncommon. Warriors who live the Christian ideal are rarer still.

Charles Gordon was in many ways eccentric and could have used some greater wisdom in some of the things he said that may have angered superiors for no good reason. Perhaps he did have a sort of death wish and his greatest tragedy was his closest followers in Khartoum, who had believed in him, were slaughtered after his death.

But he fought for righteousness, against evil, never for pride as far as what history records of him, for people he had no reason to help other than he believed it was the right thing to do. He was always honest (maybe too blunt at times), always incorruptible, courageous, and faithful to end, choosing to die for the sake of self-sacrifice. Not stumbling into his death foolishly, like Custer.

Was Gordon a symbol of masculinity? For Michael Walsh that’s an important question. For me, it’s not. Gordon was a Christian warrior, the closest to true to type as we are likely to ever see. It would be good to see more people like him–in both fact and fiction.

How Christian Must Christian Fiction Be?

I think the secret the Christian speculative fiction might be the very thing that has made Lewis’s Narnia series so successful.
on May 24, 2021 · 3 comments

For years, perhaps since Spec Faith first became a team blog designed to promote fantasy and science fiction written for the Christian market, any number of our writers have addressed the definition of Christian fiction. One of the earliest posts by a founding contributor, Mirtika Schultz, illustrates the point. The post is entitled “What Makes Christian Speculative Fiction “Christian”, Anyway?” (For other examples, see Stephen’s “How To Fix Christian Fiction: More Christianity” and my own “Christian Fiction Must Be . . . You Know, Christian“). Why, then, would I want to revisit the subject? Largely because “the times, they are a changin’.”

The times change but the gospel does not. The word of God is fixed in heaven, but it is living and active (see Heb. 4:12), meaning that its truth is unchangeable, and at the same time it speaks into the lives of people across the globe, in any culture, at any time.

So culture changes, and with it, the stories we write, including the stories Christians write about life as or for or about Christians. Anyone reading articles archived here at Spec Faith on this topic will know that as a group we do not believe every story labeled “Christian fiction” needs to be evangelistic, with a character or two converting to Christianity. But the stories that do present the gospel, do need to reflect the truth at some level, and not error.

Imagine my surprise when I recently read a novel considered “Christian” which contained something that was far from the Bible. This novel, while fantasy, was set in the contemporary world and identified a well-known religion—let’s say, Mormonism, though it was not that—and formulated the premise of the story around the most “unChristian” aspects of the religion (if Mormonism had been the religion, the idea might have been that Jesus was a created being instead of the Creator, and the whole story hinged on that.) Clearly, I don’t want to reveal the story I’m referring to for multiple reasons. Suffice it to say, reading a story centered on something that is not true to the Bible, and yet flying under the colors of Christianity, caught me up short.

Not long after, I read a science fiction which did not mirror our world at all, and in which the closest thing to God was a plural, unseen group that sometimes interceded with characters by giving them dreams or messages. In other words, you’d be hard pressed to say that this story depicted Christianity as we know it.

Pillar of Christian fantasy

I guess my thought is that Christian fantasy or science fiction can be Christian without giving a one-on-one correlation to Biblical Christianity. To use an example from one of the pillars of fantasy, The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe, Jesus was a lion, not a man, and he died for one person, not for the world. He did so on a stone table, not on a cross. Does that mean Lewis’s book was not Christian? Hardly.

In couching this struggle in symbol and metaphor and pitting Aslan and the White Witch against one another, Lewis literally lionizes Christianity and situates the religion’s central story, the story of Jesus Christ, in a fantasy realm where its miraculous happenings and moral core can be viewed in a new light. (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)

I think the secret to the Christianity in speculative fiction might be the very thing that has made Lewis’s Narnia series so successful:

C. S. Lewis was a religious person who believed in the Christian God and in Mere Christianity; Lewis provides answers to Christian beliefs and moral values. He is not telling us what to do; he is just presenting “what Christianity is” (Lewis 115).

(Christian messages and moral values in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)

“Presenting ‘what Christianity is.’ ” The essay goes on to say,

his novel Narnia provides a solid basis of Christian messages, moral values and lessons which have been woven in perfectly into the characters

That’s Christian fiction. “Presenting” the Christian message, the moral values, should not be preachy. It can be overt. It can be covert through symbolism and nuance. The point is, nothing will fly in the face of the Christian message or of the moral values.

Granted, events in the story may depict unbelievers who reject the message, who have their own idea about what is real. They might have very different values, but there will be no mistake that the story does not promote what is untrue. That, I think, is a standard that works even in changing times.

Gender In Fiction: The Implication Of Failure

Are there still majority cultural ideas surrounding gender that can and should define a character? Or is the best plan to include as few gender specific references, or identifying markers, as possible?
on May 10, 2021 · 13 comments

Can we say any more that a specific gendered character will act in a certain predetermined way, based primarily on that individual’s gender? I once had a guy critic my writing by saying that it wasn’t realistic because my male protagonist admitted to fear and weakness. Guys would never do that, this male critic said. But recently I read a novel in which the main character (or at least one of the point of view characters) did that precise thing—clearly, out loud, in front of other people, admitted his failure. The character proclaimed, in the face of others praising him as a great man, that the only way “great” applied to him would be as a great failure. The problem is that this novel was also written by a woman. Are we seeing writers who are somewhat blind to traits of the opposite gender?

Which brings up a whole can of worms. How does gender influence fiction? The gender of the author, the gender of the characters?

Can women misunderstand and misrepresent men in fiction? Or can male authors do the same to their women protagonists? Should authors avoid featuring characters of a different sex from their own?

At present, our society is so gender sensitive, our current Speaker of the US House of Representatives and her Democratic Chairman of the Rules Committee “introduced the new set of rules for the 117th Congress. It included several changes from the rules package for the 116th Congress, including using gender-neutral language instead of gender-specific language in references to pronouns and familial relationships.” (AP) As I understand it, this rule for the House is not a ban on such

specific terms as mother and father, son and daughter, and aunt and uncle.
Instead, only gender-neutral terms such as “parent,” “child,” “sibling” and “parent’s sibling” would be allowed in the text of the House rules. (New York Post; emphasis is mine)

Although this language applies to a fairly narrow aspect of government, it nevertheless points to the increased awareness of “gender issues,” specifically the idea that people can choose their own gender, no longer “limited” to two, but open to as many as 64 different gender terms that describe a person’s gender makeup (Healthline).

Of course, the discussion includes both biological traits and societal-cultural aspects. Some are imposed on an individual by society—something that has been criticized for some time—IE, girls don’t have to like pink or dolls or tea parties and boys don’t have to like trucks and army men and making loud noises (Vrrrrmm, vrrrmm, vrrrmm being an all time favorite). On the other hand, as is more often the case today, individuals are imposing on society their own understanding of gender. Hence, the House Rules change.

But how does this all play out in fiction?

Some time ago a writing instructor told me that male characters should not be adept at identifying a wide range of colors, such as beige, mauve, or turquoise? Are there still majority cultural ideas surrounding gender that can and should define a character? Or is the best plan to include as few gender specific references, or identifying markers, as possible?

Not so long ago, I read a general market young adult novel in which the main character, a girl, played the part of a boy joining the army. It fulfilled her life-long dream, and oh by the way, it protected her impaired twin brother from being conscripted. But because girls were not allowed in the army, she had to play the role of a young boy. The book was quite frank about the biological problems the character had to navigate, and the contempt some of her companions had for her lack of upper body strength.

I’ve read other books with a similar concept, but I wonder now if such stories that tinker with gender roles will survive. Or how about movies like Some Like It Hot (1959 with Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemon) or Tootsie (1984 with Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Lange)? Are these stories destined to be banned one day, to be looked at as threatening in the same way as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has become in the arena of race?

Of course, for Christian writers, there’s also a need to look at our writing through the lens of Scripture. Some years ago, guest blogger Mike Duran tackled the subject of gender here at Spec Faith in an article he entitled Does Diversity in Fantasy Publishing Reflect God’s Kingdom or Identity Politics? His basic question is this: Is forced diversity really biblical diversity?

Do Christians, then, aim to write to the sensitivities of our culture or to the standards set out by the Bible?

Tootsie photo by Jan Sarkandr Tománek

Making a Story Visual UPDATE: Behind the Scenes of the Animal Eye Comic

The Animal Eye comic, based on the novel Animal Eye, has been an education in how to make a written story visual. This post shares details.
on May 9, 2021 · 2 comments

Whenever I deal with science fiction, fantasy, or horror written by Christians or for Christians, I am struck by how the potential audience for this type of story is much bigger than what authors are currently reaching. This post, while serving a dual purpose to promote a specific project, most importantly explains why the Animal Eye comic exists and how it’s part of the drive I feel to reach a larger audience via visual media. (IF YOU’VE ALREADY SEEN this article, look down to the bottom for some updated information. If you haven’t seen this before, enjoy!)

In that sense the Animal Eye comic is an example or model and I hope it will be part of a full arc of a successful crossing over into other media. I also hope this article will help other story creators decide if comics are a good choice for them—and further, may this bit of written work will help fans of Christian fiction become aware of a medium (comics) that they may not be paying much attention to.

The Animal Eye logo and art showing the human players become animals. Based on artwork by Rowell Cruz.

The Dominance of Motion Pictures–and Moving that Direction

Informal surveys I’ve done on churches I’ve attended yield no shortage of fans of speculative fiction, especially the space opera flavor of science fiction and also epic fantasy. But these genres are mostly enjoyed by a majority of people in movie form. If we throw superhero movies into the mix, I’d guess that well over fifty percent of almost any group of Christians enjoys speculative stories–but only a tiny fraction of them are reading the stories in novel or short story form. Most are watching movies. Some read comics in addition to movies. Another group plays video games and also watches movies. Only a relative few are mainly readers of fiction–but even the reader crowd also watches movies.

So for that reason I’ve thought, for around six or seven years or so, that Christian creators should be getting into filmmaking. However, that’s significantly easier said than done.

I can pull an example of what I mean from my foray into translating stories from English into foreign languages. Hey, that’s something I’m already partially proficient at, because I speak multiple foreign languages (especially Spanish and French) and have actually worked as a translator. But even so, knowing part of what it takes and “translating that” into a business model of regularly-produced stories in foreign languages has proven to be quite difficult for me to pull off. Yeah, I’m still moving forward on getting speculative fiction stories into Spanish, French, and Portuguese (with other languages planned), but it’s hard, harder than you might think, to do it right. And that’s a subject I know.

Making movies I don’t know much about. So naturally there’s no easy way for me to immediately step into movie-making. That is, people like me without the proper training and equipment can’t just make it happen on a whim. Not to mention the budget for special effects and digital art.

So for me, comics are a step in that direction.

Page 2 shows the human player Khin May becoming Ahva the Crow. Would make an interesting scene in a movie!

I don’t want to sell comics short, like they are only a means to an end. They aren’t–however, I suggested to Cindy Koepp we make her Novel Animal Eye into a comic because I want to head in the direction of more visual art. Ultimately I want to get to the production of films. I’m hoping Animal Eye is a good candidate for going in the direction of more visual media.

Drawn by the Idea

The most important thing about the Animal Eye story is it’s in a genre known as GameLit. The story is set within a video game.  (Cindy Koepp and I did an entire blog post about GameLit as an original approach Christian writers could take to speculative fiction and talked about a few details behind the Animal Eye story as well in a previous post for Speculative Faith.) For the purposes of this post, the plot of Animal Eye isn’t that significant–what is significant is the story has a natural connection to visual media.

The story features human beings with the ability to see and do things the way animals would–or better said, the they can see and to the way very-realistically-simulated animals would (as seen by human video game players). For example, the story-set-in-a-video-game describes a dog character seeing words rise from things revealing scents. Such scents could blow in the wind or linger on things like clothing. Which would be a simulated way to perceive the world the way a dog does. Which would bring with it with the drawback of not seeing in as many colors as a human can see—again, as much as possible, showing the world the way a dog experiences it.

Jael

Page 11, scent words rise in the top left panel as Jael the bear not only sees but smells the world around her.

Another example: A bird would be able to see further and clearer than a human–and from an aerial perspective of course. Likewise a cat character could see at night. Animals in general in the Animal Eye story world can perceive human emotions by smell and other clues a human would not detect, even if the person is trying to hide their true feelings. (Which in the story world is shown by emojis floating over human characters.)

Seeing what the animals can see is an inherently cool idea, I thought. What a shame that the medium of written words can only tell what that would be like but cannot show it, I thought.

Entering Into Comics

Cindy, the author of Animal Eye, happened to have befriended a Christian creator of comic books around the time I published Animal Eye in novel form…and when she was filling in for me here on Speculative Faith on one occasion, she wrote an article about that company (Terraform) and their comics. Shortly after that, I asked her if she’d be interested in making her novel into a comic. Because wouldn’t it be nice to actually show the (simulated) animal perspective the novel described.

She agreed it was a good idea. So we set off in pursuit of that goal. Making the novel Animal Eye into a comic.

How to Make a Novel into a Comic–According to an Idiot Who Had Never Done It Before

Well, calling myself an “idiot” may be going a bit far (though not everyone reading this will disagree I’m sure, lol), but in fact I knew very little about comic books. I barely read comics. How do you go from not knowing anything to making a nice-looking final product? Let me detail my method:

  1. Have somebody else do the scripting OR be willing to diligently study how to write a comic book script: Quite honestly, Cindy did the scripting, though maybe I should have, since it was my idea. She also worked at understanding how a comic book script works (in short, you’ve gotta be brief and action-oriented). She asked people about it. She studied. She practiced.

Her research materials included Scott McCloud’s trilogy: Reinventing Comics, Making Comics, Understanding Comics; and some sample scripts supplied by comic book writer and novelist Brian K. Morris. It took time and effort. THEN, she asked my idiot self what I thought about her script for issue and I managed to stammer out a few words about inconsistencies I noted in the story, gave some ideas guiding the best approach to take in certain scenes, and looked for spelling errors. But let’s be clear–while I helped with the comic book script for Animal Eye, Cindy Koepp did the heavy lifting.

  1. Make friends in the genre: Maybe I should have listed this as step one, because it affects so many other steps here. Friends in the comic genre have helped us with advice on scripting, art, promotion, distribution, and many other things. However, you could learn to write a script without having any friends who are into comics if you referenced the right resources. So you could in fact start the script first. But you will need friends to help with other things. Cindy paid attention to comic book writer friends, messaged groups of authors, offered corny jokes, gave support to people and in many ways, by being friendly, got the help and advice she needed. (I also contributed a small bit here–I know a guy at my local church who is a comic book store owner–he gave us some helpful advice as well.)
  2. Hire the right artist! I mean it! It’s important!: So at some point you will have to hire a comic book artist if you are a crafter of words and want to make a comic. Somebody has to take your ideas and make them into pretty pictures. In this, Cindy knew from friends where to look for artists (she publicized on broadcasts like Clever Title Pending and Nevermind the Furthermore, and Facebook groups like Comic Related Madness and Rising Tide Publications). Artists sent in portfolios and Cindy and I together made a decision on whom to hire. I think it’s fair to say I took the lead in this decision and one of the factors that mattered to me was cost per page. The artist I wound up hiring is from outside the United States. Less expensive art wasn’t the specific reason I hired him, but it helped me make the decision (Rowell Cruz, our artist, is from the Philippines). HOWEVER, cost cannot be the main factor. You have to like the art you get when the project is finished. I at first was thinking I wanted a more realistic style but Rowell’s anime-like style won me over. While the Animal Eye comic is an adventure suitable for all ages, it will probably appeal more to younger readers. Rowell’s style is perfect for appealing to that age group. Thank God that even though didn’t fully understand what I was doing, I believe we picked the right guy.

    Page 18: I really like Rowell Cruz’s handling of a battle scene, Nagheed the dog and his human companion verus story monsters (“maniacs”).

  3. Have knowledgeable people give feedback: Here’s where friends came in handy again. People who knew the comic book industry, people Cindy had made friends with, gave feedback on both the script and the artwork. Overall, they were impressed with what we had done, but gave important tweaks.
  4. Figure out Kickstarter: It’s industry standard–I mean in the comic book industry–for a project to cost more than indie creators can swing from their own pocketbooks. Rowell was relatively inexpensive, but his artwork still cost well over 1,500 dollars. Hey, you can’t get something from nothing and even at the lowest possible cost, good artwork will cost some $$$. So that’s why getting to know Kickstarter (KS) is important. Optimizing a KS campaign is somewhere between an art and a science and there are lots of elements involved. You have to offer rewards for people who donate to your campaign but those rewards should not cost more to provide than about 1/3 the amount people donate. The rewards come in tiers and levels and not every idea works equally well. You have to do mockups of rewards offered, you need to create a video introducing the project, and a number of other matters. It takes work–you have to study how to do it right. (Cindy actually paid to take the ComixLaunch course from Tyler James.)
  5. What’s next…er…? I wish I could offer a perspective of years of experience at this and tell you for sure what will work and what won’t beyond what we’ve already done. In truth, I’m not 100 percent sure. I’m still learning. But what I’ve learned so far, I’m sharing with you.

And Next, a Video Game…?

It so happens that in an online group, I ran into a video game creator who was asking questions about his storyline. I offered some free help. Then I asked him about creating a video game. He directed me to a Christian game creator’s group on Facebook. I asked there, and now Cindy and I are having a conversation in which we will get an estimate on the creation of 2 different possible types of video game.

Hey, that’s very, very, very preliminary. I am making no promises of any kind. But, God willing, we will push forward to the next step with this story. A video game in which the player can take on the role of an animal character who is a companion to humans in a fantasy role-playing type adventure.

Again, will this happen? I don’t know. But we are working in that direction. (A story set in a video game seems a natural choice for a video game, right?)

If the comic succeeds, it will give us a reason to continue on the path to the video game. If a video game succeeds, then we will look into making a movie. Can I guarantee any of that? Absolutely not. But this is the aspiration we have for Animal Eye.

By the Way, French, Portuguese, Spanish Animal Eye

An arrangement of the Animal Eye logos in English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese.

By the way, I’ve already produced translations of the comic into French, Portuguese, and Spanish versions. However, I haven’t been able to pay our artist to put the foreign words into foreign-language versions of this comic, because that requires adjustment of the art in many places. But if we get enough in the KS campaign, that’s one of the things we will do.

Will foreign-language versions of the Animal Eye comic (or Oeil D’Animal, Olho Animal, Ojo Animal) sell well? I don’t know. We have got some positive feedback concerning the Portuguese version having sales potential. But we don’t in fact know. However, it’s something we will try–broadening the net we cast, so to speak, hoping to catch something along the way.

Please Help Us if You Can UPDATE

Note that when I first published this article I flubbed its timing so that it did not go out to social media links via the automatic means Speculative Faith uses. So some Speculative Faith readers may never have seen this before at all. Which is one reason to re-publish it today.

However, there’s another reason–our Kickstarter campaign is now at 99 percent funded, already as of 19 May, which is sooner than we anticipated (the campaign runs through early June). However, do the all-or-nothing nature of the funding as set up, Cindy set the bar low for the funding of this comic alone and did not in fact include any costs of a second issue (and we would like to do six). Nor did she plan for costs of foreign language translations of Animal Eye in her budget. So we could use some help beyond the initial goal and in fact have rewards planned for donors beyond our full funding level, rewards I hope you will find interesting.

So, if what Cindy and I want to do with Animal Eye sounds like a good thing to you, please consider supporting our Kickstarter campaign (bit.ly/AnimalEyeKS). BY THE WAY, if you follow the link I just shared to the KS campaign, you will see the image I just copied with “print screen” to put into this post, right below this paragraph. On the actual KS page you will see a “play” button that actually works, which has a two minute video used to describe the Animal Eye project for KS linked to it. That two minute video is actually a mini-movie, God willing not the last one Bear Publications produces. Check it out, I think you’ll like it!

The opening image for Animal Eye on the Kickstarter page…mockups based on the front cover by Tabatha Catalan.

If you would like to find out more about how to do a KS campaign or a comic, please feel free to mention what you’d like to know in the comments below, and I will do all I can to help you. (Cindy and I actually have learned a thing or two as of now!)

What Does “Woke” Culture Have To Do With Christian Fiction?

It’s hard to believe that a novel which has both praise for its treatment of a bi-racial situation and criticism for it, is preachy. One thing that’s true about preachy fiction: readers don’t miss the point.
on Apr 26, 2021 · 7 comments

The term “woke” has been around for a while, but its wide-spread use burgeoned last year with the Black Lives Matter movement. To what does it refer? According to the Urban Dictionary “woke” means “being aware . . . knowing what’s going on in the community (related to racism and social injustice)” (as quoted by “What does ‘woke’ mean?“).

As I understand it, this “being aware” is closely aligned with “agreeing.” In other words, a person is not “woke” unless they agree that racism is systemic in America, that whites have advantages minorities don’t have, that Blacks should receive “reparations.”

It’s pretty extreme, but because it is tied to the idea of “racial justice,” it has gained a great deal of traction in the US.

I could build a case of pros and cons, but my intention is not to analyze this idea of “woke-ness.” (For a great discussion about racism here as Spec Faith, see Travis Perry’s 10-part series on the subject, starting with his August 2020 article “Let’s Talk About Race and Racism. Part 1: The Bible.”) Rather, my question is, how does this ongoing idea affect Christian fiction?

I see three broad, general responses. First, authors can ignore the subject. I can see this approach especially in books that don’t lend themselves to dealing with such a contemporary understanding of race relations. A romance for instance, or a historical that is set in 18th century France. That sort of book. To force a contemporary understanding onto the unrelated subject would be the height of preachiness.

But preachiness is a second option. I’ve seen it. The issue is not personal actions or responsibility, but group blame. The problem, as I see it, is that people don’t act consistently with the stereotypes we force on them, and to pretend that they do, doesn’t make any story seem true to life. In addition, these kinds of “message driven” novels can become transparent and predictable. Without going very far into a story, the reader can already know the desired outcome.

In this regard, novels dealing with “woke culture” are no different from any other novel that exists to pound out an agenda as opposed to telling a story.

Jesus loves the children of the world. Without irony, image copyright by Scientific American.

The third response Christian fiction can take is to expose readers to race issues or ethnic diversity. I’d even suggest that some might call this a “Biblical approach,” since the Bible advocates over and over for multinational and therefore multiracial equality in God’s sight and within His family.

Interestingly, readers have similar choices as writers have. First, readers can seek out books that, by their nature, do not address the contemporary “woke” ideas. Second, readers can accept a new kind of novel: one that has a clear message that the writer wants to deliver—either pro or con—regarding the “woke” culture. These books will be thinly veiled messages with predictable outcomes, and the reader can see through the story to the advocacy of a position, without much effort. Third, they can purposefully, and patiently seek out books that tell a story which aligns with the truth of Scripture about God’s attitude toward multi-racial issues.

To illustrate these points, I’ll hold up the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (understanding, of course, that Mark Twain did not profess Christianity or write Christian fiction. Nevertheless, we can learn lessons from his work.) First, choosing to read a book set in the American South during slave years, means that there is likely no hiding from some aspects of the subject of race. But is the novel preachy? Does it have an agenda? I’d answer No, and Yes. Most novels have an agenda, known in the literary world as the theme. Having something to say is not a problem. Saying it in a transparent way that makes the novel predictable, is a problem. Is Mark Twain’s novel preachy or predictable? I don’t think so. As evidence, I’d suggest that the “woke” culture is largely responsible for having the novel scratched off any number of school reading lists and banned by any number of libraries.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn explores themes of race and identity. A complexity exists concerning Jim’s character. While some scholars point out that Jim is good-hearted and moral, and he is not unintelligent (in contrast to several of the more negatively depicted white characters), others have criticized the novel as racist, citing the use of the word “n___” [edited] and emphasizing the stereotypically “comic” treatment of Jim’s lack of education, superstition and ignorance. (Wikipedia)

It’s hard to believe that a novel which has both praise for its treatment of a bi-racial situation and criticism for it, is preachy. One thing that’s true about preachy fiction: readers don’t miss the point. But apparently “the point” of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not as crystal clear to today’s culture as it would have been if Mark Twain had stripped away the complexity and made his point obvious and transparent.

Clearly, Mark Twain took an approach that exposed readers to race issues and ethnic diversity. Through this novel readers discover attitudes about slavery and about people, expressed by both the white character, Huck, and the black character, Jim. While race wasn’t the main focus of the novel, it was certainly a vehicle for Mr. Twain’s thoughts about morality and conscious. In fact, there is room within the novel to agree with parts and to disagree with parts, to understand individuals as well as institutions, to approve and to disapprove. In other words, readers are allowed, and encouraged, to think for themselves.

As far as I see it, this is the best kind of Christian fiction, whether dealing with “woke” culture or any other topic.

Featured photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

The Symbolic Nature of Sci-fi Apocalyptic Disaster Films

The symbolic nature of apocalyptic sci-fi movies point to an underlying thread of biblical precepts.
on Apr 14, 2021 · 8 comments

Who doesn’t love a good disaster film? How often have we sat on the edge of our seat in a theater and watch as carnage and destruction decimate our planet? The more deadly and vicious the threat, the more we want it. Film has a unique way of putting us in the thick of things as we are surrounded by crashing tsunamis, exploding volcanoes, off-course asteroids, virulent viruses, alien invasions, or any number of phenomena destined to destroy our way of life.

Disaster films generally utilize an ensemble cast with each character bringing a bit of their story to the overarching one. This aspect is important to the success or failure of a film. Recently Warner Bros. released the monster disaster movie Godzilla vs. Kong. Critics faulted the movie for failing to develop its human characters. (Perhaps I am too simple. I didn’t care about the human element. I just wanted to see the lizard fight the monkey.) Whether one agrees with the sentiment, a successful disaster film appeals to our concerns about the humans involved.

Many films in the disaster genre explore unique symbolism. Given all the disaster film subgenres—manmade, apocalyptic, natural disaster, epidemics, and pandemics, and more—I’ll limit this article to the analysis of a selection of apocalyptic disaster films.

Apocalyptic films explore humanity’s purpose and desire for existence

Armageddon (1998) explored humanity’s potential end via an asteroid.

According to my mom, the plot is similar to 1978’s Meteor, with the added intrigue of Cold War politics with the United States’ favorite enemy, Russia. Humanity’s salvation rests on the eclectic motley crew of an oil rig who are tasked with drilling into the asteroid to break it apart. Scientific inaccuracies abound (according to those who care about such things), but the movie appealed to audiences because of the relatable characters.

In the movie, the world’s hopes rest on this crew. Within the movie, people of all different religious beliefs come together to pray for this crew’s success. Ultimately, they succeed when Bruce Willis’s character sacrifices himself at the end to save the world, a definitive parallel to Christ’s sacrifice. Praying to God represented people’s understanding that if this plan will succeed, the people need divine intervention. I don’t recall anyone heckling the thought of God intervening. In fact, this was welcomed.

Armageddon had more comedy than probably is warranted. However, laughter goes a long way in making dark news light. Deep Impact (1998), Armageddon’s fraternal twin, also explored the potential destruction of Earth via an asteroid. This film was more of an emotional story with potential survivors being chosen by a lottery. Deep Impact dealt with water, an allusion to Noah’s flood whose waters God used to cleanse the Earth. At the end, Morgan Freeman’s character stares at the camera saying, “The waters receded,” indicating God had spared his full judgement on Earth.

While I wouldn’t call both movies Christian, they had themes and precepts that fall in a Christian worldview. Our existence is completely dependent on God. Irrevocably. Anyone who believes different is welcome to…but it doesn’t make it true. Any illusion of control is simply that…an illusion.

Apocalyptic movies highlight our desire to prevent self-destruction

Recently my Granny and I watched a movie called Crack in the World (1965). In this movie, scientists send a nuclear missile into the Earth’s crust to access geothermal energy and release a crack that travels around the world. After the experiment succeeds, one scene shows all the animals running away. It made me laugh. (“Stupid humans,” you could hear the animals say.) This movie obviously showed how man’s consistent need to manipulate nature points to his own self-destruction.

Just like other impossible science fiction from the 1960s, the crack around the world is stopped by some secret underground laboratory and a big red button. The crack releases a giant chunk of the Earth, which glows and turns into a second moon.

The Core (2003) also digs into the Earth to depict our own self-destruction. In this film, our planet’s core, believed to be a Mars-sized chunk of iron in rapid motion, has stopped spinning. This affects the Earth’s electromagnetic field which affects life. Dangerous microwaves pierce through the atmosphere in lethal doses. Bizarre weather destroys cities. Devices affected by the electromagnetic field’s volatile change cause loss of life.

Our motley crew of terra-nauts have constructed a ship made from an improbable element called Unobtainium. They inform us that America’s enemies created a device that could create directed seismic disasters. Because one good turn deserves another, the main scientist of the project says, “They [our enemies] built it first. I built it better. M. A. D.! Mutually Assured Destruction.”

In The Core, one member of the crew dies. An argument ensues and the commander explains the cause of death as, “Fate or God—” But the science teacher screams. “You leave God out of this.” In the movie, the commander chooses not to save his friend and instead reluctantly chooses to save the world. This dialogue mirrors that it wasn’t fate or God, but man who caused the demise.

At the end, with help from nuclear bombs, they restart the Earth’s core.

These films are like Aesop’s fables about man’s arrogance. In both movies, scientists are responsible for the planet’s approaching destruction. In the name of defense, they create weapons to capitalize on power.

Apocalyptic films reveal that humanity cannot stop its own judgment

Can you remember the fervor over “Mayan prophecy” that predicted the world’s end on December 21, 2012? I’m so glad I didn’t set my watch. That fervor exploded into several movies, such as 2012 (2009). The apocalyptic end, caused by the shifting of the Earth’s crust, was spectacular.

I’ve watched the movie many times. Each time, I’m struck by its symbolism.

Water once again points to God’s judgment. 2012 shows most of the United States being destroyed by earthquakes and tsunamis. However, the story’s disasters shifts in subtlety, from a nominal spiritual element that all experience to a subjective emphasis.

Consider this: In the scene where the president speaks gently to the terrified masses, he begins to recite Psalms 23—but he is cut off. Fear ensues and volcanoes erupt. Here in a nation purporting to be Christian, the words of the Lord are superficially comforting.

A giant tsunami wave hurtles toward the cool, collected façade of the Dalai Lama who faces his end with serenity. In his last effort, he rings the bell of the temple before the wave crashes upon him.

The crazy prepper disc jockey who embraced the truth of the end joyfully accepts his fate, laughing and smiling in the face of death as a fiery rock burns him to a crisp.

Lastly, the Indian scientist, who discovered the changes within the Earth, dies in the disaster he predicted along with his family.1

This film and many others depict the inevitability of humanity’s end. We understand our flawed, wicked nature. We don’t have to look very far to see humanity’s tendencies toward destruction. We must be stopped—and if we’re stopped by worldwide destruction, so be it.

Biblical prophecy points not only to a certain end, but a new beginning

If you want to start an eschatological fist fight, talk about the apocalypse according to Scripture. Christians share two popular points of views on the popular prophetic passages of Daniel, Ezekiel, the four Gospels, and Revelation.

The futurist view

This centers the apocalypse on the person of the Antichrist who develops a one-world government, with the Mark of the Beast as a way of separating true believers from the damned. It involves a complex aligning of geopolitical events to bring about the end in which the Rapture will occur, the reign of the Antichrist, then a global war between Satan and his demonic forces and God—who will ultimately win. The judgment ends by the purification of fire. 2

The Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins explores this view.

The preterist view

In this concept, the apocalypse is the breaking of the old covenant with Israel and the forging of the new one. The language of Revelation is metaphorical with allusions that first-century Jews would have understood: for example, the Antichrist being Nero, the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., and other geopolitical events of the known world during that time frame. Most proponents of the preterist view believe that not all events mentioned in Revelation have already happened but that some are still yet future.

The Last Disciple series by Hank Hanegraaf explores this scenario.

Either way, God writes the ending

Regardless of one’s view, apocalyptic films mirror this biblical end-times imagery. However, most apocalyptic films stop at humanity’s end, where only a remnant of people are saved. Or, worse, everyone gets wiped out. Humanity dies away into stardust.

Thanks be to God, that’s not the end.

God’s judgment unleashes His righteous wrath that He has held back for so long. Yet, instead of utter destruction, He will restore creation to perfection: a New Heavens and New Earth where sin will have no reign.

That’s different even from supposedly hopeful endings like in the movie Knowing (2009), where we find Nicolas Cage running around trying to figure out end-times stuff. At the last end, mysterious beings (angels?) collect his children and a few others and take them to another planet (another Earth?) where they run by a tree, implied to be the tree of life. The problem with that scenario is that all the kids get saved—but they’re still stuck in their sins. Eventually, their descendants will make the same mistakes as their forefathers. In that movie, man’s destructive cycle continues.

Our Lord will end that cycle and bring a new beginning that will last forever.

What are some of your favorite apocalyptic sci-fi movies or series? What are some other underlying themes I missed? Share your thoughts!

  1. I wasn’t sure if this scientist’s death is a nod to his release from the karmic cycle of reincarnation. I tend to think that it was, because he essentially saved the remnant of the world at the cost of his life.
  2. I’ve listed the events as I’ve heard them but not in any particular order.

Introduction: Hunger by Jill Williamson

Jill is a prolific writer. Besides her dystopian Safe Lands books, she wrote a straight science fiction story about cloning called Replication, a young adult series suited for younger teens called The Mission League books, two co-authored (with her son) children’s stories in her RoboTales series, and several fantasy series.
on Apr 12, 2021 · No comments

I’m a fan of Jill Williamson’s writing. I haven’t read every single book she’s written, but close. In fact, I just bought her latest release, Hunger, the second book in the Thirst duology, prequels to her Safe Lands dystopian trilogy. This is one I’ve been especially eager to read. When news came out that she’d be releasing the book this April, I made a special effort to jump right in and get my copy ASAP.

Some might be skeptical, thinking if you’ve read one dystopian, you’ve read them all, but that’s not the case with these books that serve as prequels to Williamson’s Safe Lands trilogy. For one thing, the timing of the books about a virus—albeit, one in the water instead of one passed by human secretion—is eerily prescient. For another, Jill exposed the underbelly of human behavior in the midst of panic, painting pictures that are all too reminiscent of store shelves stripped of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, canned products, fresh fruits and vegetables, and more.

Of course, the over arching goal of these books aims to show what happened that brought about the circumstances in the Safe Lands books in which the majority of people lived in a walled section of the world, while a much smaller group lived more like survivalists apart from the majority. How did this happen? That’s the driving question behind Thirst and Hunger.

Here is the description of Hunger

In the wake of a pandemic, Eli and his friends find a thriving community that offers free housing, food, and thankfully, safe drinking water. But something is amiss. The residents spend most their time partying and attending concerts. No one seems concerned that the virus is still out there. When Eli tries to leave, he discovers a fence has been built to keep him, and everyone else, inside.

Hannah is tired of running. When she is conscripted to work in the hospital, she hopes she’s finally found a place to belong, but Admin’s disregard for a doctor’s pledge to “First do no harm” is unsettling.

As Hannah starts to wonder if she will ever be safe again, Eli clings to his hope for freedom. In a world filled with lies, can they learn to trust each other? Or will their hunger for safety trap them in a world that’s not so safe after all?

Clearly, Hunger is the Part 2 of this two-book explanation for the existence of the world a reader will discover in the Safe Lands trilogy. For those who have not read the Part 1—Thirst—I strongly encourage you to start there. The really good news is that the book is available on Kindle for $2.99. That’s a steal. This book is fast-paced and highly entertaining. No one should worry that they will arrive at a cliffhanger ending, though it’s evident at the conclusion of Thirst that there needs to be more story. (See “Fiction Friday: Thirst By Jill Williamson”). And of course, the other good thing is that “more story” has now arrived!

As a refresher

Jill Williamson is weird, which is probably why she writes science fiction and fantasy novels for teenagers. She grew up in Alaska with no electricity, an outhouse, and a lot of mosquitoes. Thankfully it was the land of the midnight sun, and she could stay up and read by the summer daylight that wouldn’t go away. But the winter months left little to do but daydream. Both hobbies set her up to be a writer.

Also Jill is a Whovian, a Photoshop addict, and a recovering fashion design assistant. Her debut novel, a medieval fantasy called By Darkness Hid, won an EPIC Award, a Christy Award, and was named a Best Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror novel of 2009 by VOYA magazine. Jill has since published thirteen books.

Finally, she loves working with teenagers and encouraging them to respect their dreams. Jill speaks and gives writing workshops at libraries, schools, camps, and churches. She blogs for teen writers at www.goteenwriters.com. She lives in Oregon with her husband, two children, and a whole lot of deer. You can also visit her online at www.jillwilliamson.com, where adventure comes to life.

Jill is a prolific writer. Besides her Safe Lands dystopian books, she wrote a straight science fiction story about cloning called Replication, a young adult series suited for younger teens called The Mission League books, two co-authored (with her son) children’s stories in her RoboTales series, and several fantasy series. If you haven’t jumped on the Jill Williamson bandwagon yet, now is as good a time as any to dive in and find out what you’ve been missing.

The Beauty of Short Horror Films

Short horror films use a bare bones approach to storytelling to craft films to send chills down your spine.
on Mar 31, 2021 · 9 comments

Looking for something to entertain me horror-wise, I traveled to YouTube. Finally, I found what I was looking for.

Unlike their big budget or low budget longer counterparts, short horror films work very quickly to tell a story. The story doesn’t have to be completely flushed out, but you need to get the gist of what’s happening. Some of the short films are anywhere from three minutes to ten. Some a little longer like twenty minutes.

The movies I’ve listed below are on YouTube. If you decide to click on them, the thumbnail will reveal the scary image of the film. This is to attract viewers to the channel and entice potential subscribers.

The Beauty of Short Horror Films

Simple storylines.

In the short film titled, Polaroid, which is only three minutes long, we follow a young man who just moved into an apartment. He finds an old polaroid camera. Bemused, he takes a picture with it. And what he sees starts his journey in horror.

Within the first maybe five or ten seconds, without any dialogue, you pick up on these cues. The director staged everything so well that even the most passive viewer can see it.

Plot driven acts.

In these short films, it’s not necessary to know about the characters’ entire personal history. Depending on the type of story it is, we only need to know enough to follow their path. The purpose is to build tension within a short time frame. In She Knows, a five-minute film, we don’t know much about the main character. We only see the results of his actions as he hides the body…and what happens after that.

Sound effects, lighting, and space.

I think sound effects in these short films can really amp up the creepiness. Hearing a maniacal laughter in the background, crying, the creaking and cracking of bones, wind shrieking, a timid voice, a deep growl, all of those bring forth visceral reactions. In Reflection, another three minutes short, we have no idea who the woman is brushing her teeth. We don’t care. All we do care about as she’s doing something completely innocuous, we see the edge of something strange behind her in the mirror. Throughout the short is this weird laugh throughout that adds another level to strange to it.

The lighting and spacing in the movie created a claustrophobic feel. Evoking that sense brought you deep into the film. Tight spaces, darkness, and shadows are a recipe for creepiness.

Jump scares are a stable of horror films. Something jumps out at you when you least expect it. This technique can be overused to the point you no longer feel the impact of the scare.

Interpretative.

Due to the limited nature, some shorts have the capacity to craft a well-rounded story that leaves the viewer to guess what it means. This ambiguous aspect adds to the tension but in a more subtle way. “Make Me a Sandwich” explores domestic abuse and its psychological effects on the victim. The special effects weren’t the greatest, but the acting really made the film standout. As we follow our abused wife as she hurriedly answers her husband’s constant calls for another sandwich, we start to wonder at the happenings between this couple. The disgust factor in this three-minute film adds that weirdness to it. the husband chomps, and chomps, and chomps on the sandwich – no matter what’s in it. When we arrive at the end of this film, we find ourselves wondering about our own state of mind.

In “Lili”, an excellent eight minute film, it’s entirely dominated by two people. A man who remains mostly off-camera and a woman, an actress auditioning for a role. Her acting skills are phenomenal to anyone listening and watching her…but the guy behind the camera wants her to do a bit more. Echoing sentiments of the MeToo movement along with feminine empowerment, when we get to the end, it’s not what you think.

Predictability.

These films are predictable – that’s why we like them! We know someone’s going to get it. We know something dreadful is going to happen. We want to be the ones safely ensconced behind our monitors or our TVs in the living room and holler at the screen. “Don’t go in there!” “Don’t open the door!” “Stay away from the ancient demonic artifact!”

When you look in the comment section on YouTube, the commentary can get hilarious. In Lights Out, the not-even-three-minute film that became a full-length feature that grossed 150 million dollars, we’re screaming at the lady to ‘Keep the lights on!’ She does that. Then we heard creaking footsteps and we’re like, “Get out of the room!”

But we know she’s going to stay there. Ultimately, we really don’t want her to get out the room. We need to see the monster, the goblin, the ghost, the alien what have you.

This doesn’t mean that all short horror films are good. Due to the limits some are pretty bad. But why spoil it for you?

Looking through these short horror films, I noticed something a few things about them. There are more knowledgeable people about the film industry than me so please take these below ideas in a general sense of someone on the outside looking in.

  1. Many of them were amateur movie makers. The makers weren’t well-known directors or had thousands of dollars at their disposal. They had a vision and worked at executing it.
  2. Many of them used what was available. This means they called in friends, used their own vehicles, houses, borrowed clothes, and other favors. Many of them are scaled back in production design.
  3. Those moviemakers who continued to make movies got better at making movies. Practice makes perfect. With the kind of technology out there, some of it free to download, use, share, and connect, more people are going at it.
  4. Movies is an art form, not just entertainment. Most like to tell stories.
  5. There is a community working together.

The Advantages and Examples of Horror Writing through a Christian worldview.

Mike Duran got into a lot of trouble about advocating for this, but I contend that he’s right. Horror is an excellent vehicle that depicts the human condition, and the need for salvation vs. survival. I am reminded of Frank Peretti’s The Oath, a thoroughly enjoyable book that took a literal and symbolic view of sin and Satan in the form of a dragon and black goo.

Most people think of horror as gore. It’s not. Horror has many sub-genres like any other. Sometimes it’s psychological, mysterious, comical.

I’ve seen Christians bully Christian writers out of exploring in this genre because of their own dislike for it. Well, admittedly, not just this genre but any speculative fiction genre. Folks have a knee-jerk reaction and because they don’t like it, you shouldn’t either.

The best book I’ve read in a long time is Nate Allen’s Death is not the End, Daddy. This psychological thriller explores the story of two men – a young girl’s father and the serial killer who kidnaps his daughter. Through dark storytelling, Nate Allen explores themes of sin, spiritual warfare, forgiveness, and possible redemption through a Christian lens. I told Nate it’s the best book I’ve read. I’ve enjoyed many, many books and it’s hard to pick ‘the best’ but I picked it because it’s a powerful piece of fiction looking at God’s grace through the eyes of someone the rest of us would give up on.

Another dark novel I’ve enjoyed is Jess Hanna’s Bright Lights, Dark Skies. Exploring the nature of alien abductions and speculating if they are extra-terrestrial or something much darker. When you listen to the stories of victims of alien abductions, they’re quite frightening. They aren’t first contact with a Klingon. They aren’t aliens asking for you to ‘Take me to your leader.’

There’s something sinister beneath these incidences.

In Deborah Alten’s Mrs. Shackles, this short collection of flash fiction pieces is reminiscent of the Twilight Zone with the recurring character of Mrs. Shackles. I told Deborah I wanted to see more of this woman who acts as judge, jury, and executioner. By the time you’re finished reading it, you begin to wonder why Mrs. Shackles is the way she is.

I wouldn’t call the book horror, but it does have somber, moodier stories. Hopefully, she continues to write more.

I sense there are those in the community of Christian speculative fiction writers who want to explore topics in this genre. Why not? It’s not always about demonic entities but psychological thrillers, cover-ups, manipulations and so much more. In fact, forget the demonic forces at large. What people do to each other can be quite frightening. Maybe you don’t want to go the spiritual or monster route. You don’t have to. The creep factor is what you make of it.

Horror is an excellent canvas to explore good vs. evil, light vs. dark, survival vs. salvation and a whole host of themes. I think it would be even better written within the context of a Christian worldview.

Banning Books

I think the most dangerous piece of this puzzle is the involvement of a state government which has moved the needle toward actual censorship in the form of banning books.
on Mar 22, 2021 · 11 comments

In the US, with the First Amendment protecting free speech, I have not imagined a time I would be discussing banning books, but here it is. I’ll be discussing some of the books that I read during my enforced time away from the computer, but another matter has more urgency, I think.

With little notice, society has taken upon itself the banning of certain books. I looked at lists from 2019 and from 2020 listing the top ten banned books, usually by some library. School libraries were the most apt to ban the books. Technically taking a book out of a library is not “banning,” because presumable people can go elsewhere and find the book or perhaps buy their own copy.

It is troubling that books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain ( a Bantam Classics, published in 1885); To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (publised by Harper Perennial in 1960); and Lord of the Flies, make these lists, but the idea that they are banned is not quite accurate. Rather, more often than not, concerned parents who found the content of certain books, often required reading, to be offensive, complained to their school and their library or administration removed them.

However, in 2019 the US moved a step closer to actually banning a book:

In 2019, two New Jersey lawmakers introduced a non-binding resolution calling on school districts in the state to remove the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—considered to be one of the greatest in American literature—from their curricula.

Government, “suggesting” to schools what people can or can’t read.

More recently, however, “cancel culture” has influenced the withdrawal of six Dr. Seuss books from publication. Complaints caused the organization to rethink the books they put in print:

As adored as Dr. Seuss is by millions around the world for the positive values in many of his works, including environmentalism and tolerance, there has been increasing criticism in recent years over the way Blacks, Asians and others are drawn in some of his most beloved children’s books, as well as in his earlier advertising and propaganda illustrations.(ABC news report)

Finally, last year the organization holding the reins of the Dr. Seuss legacy, decided to stop publication of a select number of titles.

Dr. Seuss Enterprises, working with a panel of experts, including educators, reviewed our catalog of titles and made the decision last year to cease publication and licensing of the following titles: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer. These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong. (from the Dr. Seuss Enterprises statement, as quoted by Deadline)

And so the dominoes begin to fall.

The canceling of books in a little confusing. For instance, some of the books on the 2020 list of “banned” books were removed because Christian parents objected to graphic sex portrayed in the book, some because of vulgar language or similar questions about age-inappropriate material. Should parents be allowed to make those decisions for their children? Should they push for what they believe to be inappropriate books to be removed from their school library?

On the other hand should the hypersensitivity of a culture in the 21st century remove books written earlier, often with the very intent to eliminate the objectionable behavior about which people complain?

No matter where people stand, I think the most dangerous piece of this puzzle is the involvement of a state government which has moved the needle toward actual censorship in the form of banning books.

How can we discuss ideas if we are not allowed to read anything about those ideas?

As I see it, the same “banning” approach is being employed by the “legacy” media and the tech giants that control social media. How else is a story published by the fourth largest newspaper in the US squelched? If our approach to news stories comes under the control of those holding only one view, how are we not turning our those reports into propaganda? I have to admit, I am strongly reminded of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in which the protagonist has the job of rewriting the past to suit the needs of the Party in control of the government.

In other words, I see books as key elements of our society—on one end giving a prescient look at our society, and on the other end, receiving the brunt of criticism caused by a climate of offense. The latter should concern readers and writers alike. Even when no harm is intended, when humor and caricatures are widespread such as in the canceled Dr. Seuss books, when the subject of a book is purposefully to expose a wrong attitude which has become “sensitive,” books are subject to negative treatment, if not actual banning.

To be honest, I’m surprised that Gone With The Wind is not on a recent banned book list. I’m pretty sure that Uncle Tom’s Cabin found its way on one such list not long ago. These books show life in the South during the era of slavery. To Kill A Mockingbird showed life in the segregated South during the 20th century. How are we to talk about the whys and the needed changes if we don’t have some look at what those times were like?