History as Fantasy: Netflix’s Barbarians Miniseries

This post reviews Netfix’s Barbarians–what was good and bad? How historical was it? What else is going on with this miniseries?
on Dec 3, 2020 · 11 comments

This week’s post is a review of a miniseries on Netflix–Barbarians–what it’s about, how historic it happens to be, what I think is good and bad about it, and the significance of what it portrays beyond its supposed goal of capturing history. Generally, historical fiction is outside the realm of speculative fiction–but I think Barbarians takes history and in effect makes it into a fantasy tale, including even elements of magic.

Some spoilers of the plot of the miniseries will follow, though I will speak in generalities when possible.

Latin and German

Barbarians grabbed my attention from its opening scenes with a storytelling decision that I really enjoyed that may not matter much to most speculative fiction fans: the Romans spoke Latin, not Ecclesiastical or Church Latin, but Latin as linguists believe it was spoken 2000 years ago, with rolling Rs and Vs pronounced like the letter W in English. The series comes in dubbed versions–I’ll say more about that later on–but only the speech of the Barbarians is dubbed. All versions portray the Romans speaking Latin.

Some Latin-speakers riding in. Image copyright: Netflix.

I watched the original version, not a dubbed one, but with dialogue in subtitles (Spanish subtitles in the version I saw, actually). The miniseries was produced in Germany, though largely filmed in forests in Hungary, so the language the Barbarians speak in the original version is German. For a few minutes I had the illusion that even the German was supposed to represent a re-constructed ancient German. I thought so because of certain particular words. What in modern German would be “king” is König, but in Barbarians is Reik, an older term. And the actors pronounce tribe names in a way I think better matches ancient pronunciation than modern. For example, the tribe of the Cherusci is consistently said as “Kheruska.”

But no, the German of the barbarians in Barbarians is in fact, modern German, without even any regional dialect from what my research on this topic turned up. In fact, my college German I studied more than twenty years ago kicked in more and more as I watched the series, to the degree that by episode six I understood most of the dialogue without referring to the subtitles–and my poor wife had to put up with me saying random things in German for a while.

So, other than reviving my German and pleasing my Latin-loving-language-and-history nerd self, what’s good about this series?

The Good and the Bad in Visual Details

One of the good things stems from small historical touches. Not only the use of Latin in correct pronunciation, but the clothing and uniforms and set design is all quite historical and interesting. I will say more about the historicity of the plot or lack thereof in another point, but in most small details, the miniseries gave an accurate view of what ancient times really looked like based on actual archaeology and known fact.

Germanic wooden building with thatched roof and dirt floors, large wooden barns and storerooms, plus glimpses of Rome, all were extremely historically accurate from what I know of the history. Roman uniforms, including some officers wearing breastplates with artistic musculature and metal masks shaped like a human face added to helmets are based on archeological findings. The Romans really did wear stuff like that–not all the uniforms were perfectly uniform. And German clothing–instead of showing them in animal skins or no clothing as per Conan the Barbarian, realistically showed people wearing simple clothing in natural colors, sometimes with simple plaid patters, as if hand-woven, which is certainly what the Germanic tribes would have worn.

Hairstyles I also saw as good at first. Romans are consistently shown as clean-shaven, with a pretty standard hairstyle. Germanic tribesmen and women are showing with a wide variety of hairstyles. Most of the women have long hair, but some have braids and some don’t. Some men have long hair, but some don’t. Some men have beards but others are clean-shaven. And at least one tribal leader is shown as having a shaved head.

I at first thought that was good because ancient Germans really did have the ability to cut and style hair and certainly did so. But…after a while the variety of hairstyles seemed unrealistic to me. Yeah, the technology to shave a head existed, but it wouldn’t be easy and there’s no evidence I know of that ancient Germans actually ever did routinely shave their heads. And I would expect the hairstyles to follow a tribal pattern, but they did not. In fact, overall, hairstyles simply reflected individual barbarians making individual choices, just as modern people would. I don’t think that’s an accident of how the story was told–it was done to make the Germanic tribes seem more like modern people, I think–but it wasn’t strictly historically accurate.

Another thing I was disappointed with was the actual battle scenes in episode 6. I read a film critic reviewer who complained episodes 1-5 dragged on long for him, but episode 6 was great. I in fact was hoping for some meticulous attention to detail showing how Romans fought versus how barbarians engaged in combat, but nope. The Romans mostly did not even try to hold formation at certain key moments, didn’t raise their shields when they would have (spears flying at them), and mostly swung a gladius (Roman short sword) instead of stabbing with it, which was what it was mainly designed to do.

I also found a particular moment of battlefield flames (Germanic warriors setting parts of a field full of Romans on fire) to make no sense, to even qualify as silly–unless we see the portrayal as a fantasy and not historical fiction. In fantasy you can create any number of concoctions that will burn like gasoline or diesel, especially when magic is involved. Historical reality limits you to what the peoples of the time actually would have had. And what did Germanic peoples have that would burn like crazy? Pretty much tree pitch, which would harden if not kept warm, and rendered fat, which also needed to be kept warm not to gell. Both of which have distinctive smells, are not all that easy to come by–oh, and also don’t burn just like gasoline.

So, if you’re expecting historical reality in the battle scenes, sorry, what Barbarians in fact delivers there is mostly fantasy. (On the other hand, if you’re expecting fantasy, maybe you’ll have a good time watching the battles.)

A Sketchy Plot Overview–OR an Overview of a Sketchy Plot

The actual history behind Barbarians centers around the defeat of a Roman army in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest.  A coalition of Germanic tribes destroyed three Roman legions under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus in A.D. 9. The history we have is entirely written from the Roman point of view–no Germanic versions survive, because the Germans were illiterate at this time. However, archeological digs around the German town of Kalkreise show additional information about the battle, beyond just what the Roman historians said.

The key aspects of the battle that the miniseries gets right relate to the Romans under Varus alienating Germanic peoples with wanton cruelty and excessive taxation. Barbarians also agrees with history that the primary person responsible for defeat of Varus was a Germanic tribesman who had been taken to Rome as a captive as a child and who had achieved Roman citizenship and a position of trust as an Equestrian (roughly like being knighted). This barbarian-turned-Roman-who-betrayed-Rome was named Arminius.

The Netflix series goes astray in that portrays Arminius as an adopted son of Varus, which could be true but history does not record it that way. History says Arminius was a commander of auxiliary troops (Germans who fought on the Roman side) and someone Varus saw as a friend. Also, the Roman account of the battle has it lasting for three days, during heavy rain, with a number of specific things happening that are not captured in the Netflix version. And the number of people involved in the battle was much higher than what Barbarians shows. Between 16,000-20,000 on each side in reality in contrast to a few hundred shown and a reference to Arminus having “500 friends” in a snippet of dialogue.

Arminius in Germanic clothing. Image copyright: Netflix.

Whether Arminius will betray his adopted Roman father or not as opposed to betraying his childhood friends and actual father (a Germanic Reik, a tribal king) is what the plot mostly focuses on. It also makes his friends very important to the tale, including a woman (Thusnelda) who winds up leading troops in battle, which history does not record.

I would have instead told the story from the point of view of how the plot was carried out and covered up and how the Germanic tribes in fact beat the Romans. There’s some of that in Barbarians, but the focus really is on Arminius’s decision and it takes him quite some time to make up his mind.

This personal focus winds up with a plot that’s more character-driven than combat or strategy-driven, which makes it seem to me more like the plot of a fantasy novel than reality, especially because it shows particular situations that no historical account records. Again, there’s no evidence Varus adopted Arminius as a son or that he even knew him in Rome at all.

A Look at Religion in Barbarians

Another element in Barbarians which is perhaps is more like fantasy than historical fiction, other than certain battlefield moments and combat in general, is the portrayal of the religion of the German tribes. Though you could say the miniseries is reporting what the Germanic people believed about their religion, I suppose. But I don’t think that’s the actual dynamic.

Because, in Barbarians, a female seerer has no-kidding contact with the gods in which she is portrayed as literally seeing the future by various means, while another woman pretends to have such contact. Several confrontations between the real seer and the fake one happen. If one overlooks the brief moments in which the miniseries actually shows the real seer observing the future, you might think this was an actual historical religious dispute of some kind. But that’s not how it’s actually shown–the real seer has genuine power in Barbarians. And even if we suppose demonic power supported the Pagan priestess in reality, we have no evidence to suggest even demons can genuinely see the future. So, that particular element is more like a fantasy story than any historical account.

Note historians know Woden was the chief Germanic god and corresponds to the Norse god Odin linguistically speaking. But nobody knows–it’s not recorded by history–if the legends of Woden were essentially the same as Odin’s. For example, was Woden one-eyed? As far as I know, that’s unknown. But this god is treated just as if he were Odin in Barbarians and Thor is referenced as well.

And…while many Germanic tribesmen and women are shown being not particularly religious, some are quite religious. Also all tend to reverence forests and nature…and if you know modern German people, a strong connection to nature is very common there. The German Green Party is quite powerful and a sense of connection to nature is definitely a part of modern German culture. So in fact, the Germanic people in Barbarians are portrayed as more modern than the Romans, who are not shown to care about nature at all. (In terms of religion, the Romans are like 20th Century modernists and the Germans are like 21st Century postmodernists.)

In fact, the Romans are not shown to be religious at all. In one scene, a German briefly makes fun of the Roman god Mars, but there’s no acknowledgement other than that moment that at least some Romans were also quite religious, though not yet Christian in A.D. 9, when Jesus of Nazareth was young.

I keep reporting the rise of modern neo-paganism in this forum and elsewhere but feel many Christian readers of Speculative Faith are unconcerned about this issue. But Barbarians in effect represents the religion of modern neo-pagans better than it does ancient Germanic religion…and portrays it as having real power. I don’t think this was deliberately done by the producers with the intent of trying to influence people towards neo-paganism, but rather because their views of ancient religion have been influenced by modern neo-pagan thoughts and practices. Because the process of much of modern culture reverting to a modern version of polytheism is already underway. FYI.

To rephrase what I just said for clarity, I suspect the producers of the miniseries were trying to be realistic about ancient religion. But their ideas about what was realistic in ancient times have been influenced by modern neo-paganism. Because it’s around, people, believe it or not.

Concerned With Right-Wing Extremism

I did a bit of research trying to uncover what the producers themselves said about their portrayal of the past and ran into several bits of data in which they discussed what was on their minds as they created the miniseries. One of their biggest concerns was how to tell this story without supporting right-wing extremists.

Because, the defeat of the Romans at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest has been seized on by German nationalists for hundreds of years as a defining moment in the history of Germany–the first time Germans formed an alliance against an enemy, eventually pointing to the unification of Germany. Yes, the Nazis liked to talk about Arminius and his superiority over the Romans, though Germans were celebrating him long before that, as with heroic statues such as the Hermanndenkmal. But because of the Nazis, Arminius hasn’t been mentioned in modern German history books post-World War II.

A nationalistic German monument to Arminius. Image credit: Hubert Berberich.

So the producers were wondering how they would avoid creating a tale that would be a rallying cry for modern Neo-Nazis, who are the main group today who talks about Arminius.

Part of how they did that was by casting the lead role of Arminius not as a typical blond “Aryan” male, but as a Germanic person who happens to be darker than average and who is not particularly tall. Arminius in fact looks like he really might be Roman in this miniseries.

Arminius also does not in fact rally all the Germanic tribes very well. Some join him, yes, but many of those who do are not committed to unity in any way, including one of the key characters in the tale. So there’s not much to celebrate in the way of German unity in the way this story is told.

A Dash of Generational War?

Though the fact the producers say they did not want to support the vision of right-wingers says something about them. They themselves are from the point of view of modern people comfortably safe from extremism, which probably means they’re at least a bit left-leaning.

And there’s in my mind a clear non-right-wing way to interpret this story. The clean-shaven conservative Romans could be seen as representing the old-fashioned past from the point of view of modern culture, the stalwarts of the 20th Century. While the younger, more individualistic, more tattooed and more modern Pagan-nature-worshipping Germanic tribespeople could be seen as a rebellion of the youth against the old guard. In fact, only one of the Germanic kings or chiefs is shown to be older than around 30 or so, Arminius’s father. The rest seem quite young, certainly younger than Varus, who is the oldest figure in the main cast, followed in age by Segestes, a German supporter of the Romans. While all the rebels are young.

Certainly rebellions are often led by young people, but I think what is known about the historic past would suggest tribal leaders were older, proven warriors. Young leaders did come into power sometimes, but was the exception, not the rule.

Sympathy for the German Barbarians

Seeing a hint of generational war in Barbarians is of course an interpretation of how the story could be taken, not now the miniseries clearly is. Note though the story clearly does intend for the audience to root for the Germans and not for the Romans.

Only the Romans are shown to be cruel in the beginning of the tale. And as slavers. Certainly Romans were cruel and kept slaves, but Germanic tribesmen were not exactly nice-nice and they had slavery, too. In fact, the story shows Germanic cruelty, but not until the aftermath of the battle, which makes it seem like mere retaliation for past injustice rather than something that was a negative characteristic of Germanic culture. And no hint is dropped that ancient Germans kept slaves.

Note that the dialogue of the Germans comes in various dubbed versions, English, French, Spanish, etc. But the dialogue of the Romans is never dubbed. It’s always in the original Latin, representing a time long past and a people not our own. Clearly, we are intended to see the Germans as ourselves, no matter what our language is. And the Romans as foreign oppressors.

Conclusion

Clearly I found this miniseries worth some critical analysis. In that sense it was interesting to me. But did I like it? Do I recommend it?

I think a lot of people might agree with the reviewer who got bored with the first five episodes but thought the sixth was awesome.

I was the opposite. I was interested in the storytelling and the degree of historicity of the first five episodes, but felt the battle scenes missed key details by deviating from history, by showing Roman tactics incorrectly–plus some magic fire a-la Game of Thrones and some other moments I thought were silly. Plus the post-combat cruelty I did not enjoy.

**Note this series contains some nudity and sexuality, though limited, in addition to graphic violence. The violence was at its worst in the last episode but happened throughout the miniseries. For many people this miniseries wouldn’t be worth watching at all because of these negative elements.

Latin-loving nerds might really like it though. Just don’t expect real history beyond that and the costume design and architecture. Certain key details were spot on, but overall, Barbarians is a fantasy story, with an apparent cultural axe to grind, not a genuine look at history of the past.

Has anyone else seen Barbarians? Or similar historical series like Vikings or The Last Kingdom? If so, what are your thoughts about these series and their relationship with fantasy fiction?

Speculative Fiction Building Blocks

Remakes are only one aspect of this interest in early speculative fiction. More than one TV channel airs the “oldies.”
on Nov 30, 2020 · 3 comments

I’m sorry if the title of this article is misleading. I do not plan to discuss the elements that go into creating a piece of speculative fiction. Rather, I want to think about early examples of speculative fiction in our culture, largely because there have been various re-makes. Besides Star Wars, for instance, there is a thoroughly 2020 version of Wonder Woman (and I can’t help but wonder if she wears her mask all the way through the movie).

Remakes are only one aspect of this interest in early speculative fiction. More than one TV channel airs the “oldies,” and one station in particular replays a host of those early shows every Saturday. Shows like Buck Rogers, Lost In Space, Land Of The Giants, The Time Tunnel, Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, and others.

Some of these TV shows are to speculative TV like H. G. Wells novels were to speculative novels.

Since those early efforts, special effects, thanks to the digital age, have improved the quality of the speculative. Just as we saw with movies—say, King Kong—when the other-worldly can be depicted with an element of realism, the story becomes much more believable and . . . interesting.

Certainly we’ve seen a revival of the early fantasies of Tolkien and, in part, of Lewis. We’ve seen some effort to take Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek TV concept to the big screen. We’ve seen speculative comic books become TV programs and movies. All because talking lions and space travel and Death Stars and men of steel from other planets all seem realistic because of the computer generated possibilities available today.

Without a doubt, this ability to make the speculative—what once existed only in a person’s imagination as he read the words of an author who created these worlds and creatures from his own imagination—has broadened the speculative audience. People like me who never read science fiction suddenly became fans of Star Wars and TV programs like StarGate SG-1 and the Star Trek series.

After the success of the first Lord of the Rings movie, TV rushed to embrace fantasy as well, particularly the “new” fantasy, made from Terry Brooks books and the like.

Perhaps the most successful, however, has been the development of comic book stories and characters into graphic novels, TV programs, and movies. How many remakes of Spiderman have there been? I’ve actually lost track.

None of these developments would have been possible without those early efforts to bring speculative fiction to TV and film, including some “soft speculation” such as a movie like The Shaggy Dog (Disney, 1959).

Honestly, I was not a fan of these early efforts because I found the imagination a much better tool for turning other worlds into realistic places and fantasy creatures into heroes and villains. But I have gained a much greater appreciation for them as I find these oldies re-aired.

For one thing, I’m impressed with the quality of the story telling. In many ways they are far more intriguing than the predictable “follow this formula” fare we have become accustomed to of late. They are far less transparent in their themes, and the acting is not bad. Only the special effects suffer in a comparison with newer works, in my opinion.

How about you? Have you seen any of the old shows or movies? Do you watch them because the special effects make you laugh, or do you like the stories? And of course, the most important question: which is your favorite?

Revisiting the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special

The 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special wasn’t great, but it had one good thing–it inspired the character of Boba Fett…which brought us The Mandalorian…
on Nov 26, 2020 · 6 comments

Two years ago I wrote an article about the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special. For this post I’ve touched up the previous post with an edit and a few new observations. Including a brief comment on The Mandalorian.

In November of 1978, when the now rather infamous Star Wars Holiday Special aired, I was ten years old. I watched the special myself, on CBS. I’d seen Star Wars three times in the theater, in an era in which most people only watched any movie just once (unless a movie was re-released, as the Walt Disney fairy tale stories often were). I was as much a target audience for the TV show as anyone ever could be, because I loved Star Wars that much. Plus, I was a kid without very sophisticated tastes. Yet at the time I was mostly unimpressed.

My opinion hasn’t really changed, but still I’m thankful I got to see the special as it aired live. And there’s one good thing that came from it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s just so easy to be critical of entertainment that isn’t our cup of tea, an attitude I’m guilty of plenty of times myself. Unless all is up to our standard, we don’t like it. In a way, that makes sense–only one cockroach at a restaurant table tends to spoil a meal for most people.

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

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

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

And isn’t it interesting, that the launch of Boba Fett came in the middle of an otherwise failed production? And that this particular character, one in the middle of an awful mess, inspired The Mandalorian, which is really quite good? If not great?

It’s hard to believe it, but the 1978 Holiday Special ushered in this character type (image copyright, Disney)

So let me end this by calling on those who enjoy speculative stories to be less critical (I’m including myself here). Let’s be thankful for those things in stories that are good, even if they’re in the midst of elements that fall short. 🙂

Give Thanks for Fantastic Stories, Even If They Are ‘Purely For Fun’

Scripture doesn’t speak directly about creative works, but it does speak about how God’s word and prayer can transform gifts that we receive with thanksgiving.
on Nov 24, 2020 · No comments

“Does a poem about a rose, with no mention of God or any direct indication of Truth, not glorify God?”

Short answer: yes, absolutely such a poem can glorify God. Even better: we have direct Scriptural evidence for this idea, and for this we can thank God for these stories. Next: the longer answer.1 In our recent Fantastical Truth episode, we had interviewed Seventh City author Emily Hayse. Then Zack Russell and I took this podcast question from listener David Corder:

I enjoyed this episode2 about C.S. Lewis and his thinking in regards to creating story, and how it was talked about how you don’t “preach” in a story. Doing so doesn’t make it a story anymore, as you two pointed out.

But I find myself a little confused. I agree that fiction is a medium for conveying Truth, but I also got the impression from this podcast that that is all it should be used for, especially in terms of Christian creatives, which makes me question some of the work I write. Some of my fiction is just purely for fun, with no intention to have any subtle points directed towards God, which I don’t think necessarily is a bad thing. Does a poem about a rose, with no mention of God or any direct indication of Truth, not glorify God?

In reply, Zack and I shared our thoughts about, first, how creative works such as stories glorify God based on biblical texts and themes, and second, how Christians respond to these joys with thanksgiving to our Creator. Here’s a transcript, edited for clarity, of what we said.

Do ‘purely for fun’ stories glorify God?

Zack: This is a great question. What do you think, Stephen?

Stephen: It is. It is. And I think that example of the rose is a perfect lead in, too.

You could get a whole podcast series out of just this question, about what glorifies God. Is it teaching? Is it exposition of doctrine? Does it have to be a sermon or something nonfiction in order to bring the most glory to God?

Let’s say that God’s glory is the 100 percent level. And fiction is 20 percent glorification of God, if you’re not sinning any more than usual while doing the thing. But maybe nonfiction or sermons are 50 or 60 percent?

Yet God himself, when God is giving his people in the Old Testament specific directions for building the Tabernacle—that’s certainly an instrument for glorification of God, where the people would be doing sacrifices and following ritual law in order to show themselves who God is, and who they are by comparison, and what they need from God. They need their sins to be carried away in the form of animal sacrifice. They need to show that they know that God is perfect and they are not.

God is teaching through these things, nonfiction teaching. But he’s also building in symbols in the construction of the Tabernacle, including these floral designs and these sculptures of fantastic creatures. Even the minerals included and the tapestries and the textures—all of those implicitly point to who God is, and the wonders of his creation. Some commentators say that the Tabernacle that is prescribed in the book of Exodus, after the Ten Commandments, is actually meant to be a reflection of Eden, the garden of Eden as it once was. All its imagery of God’s creation there, the minerals, the animals, the plants, the imagery of the skies, the seas, and the land—all of that is meant to reflect God’s original creation.

So it is, I think, with a story. A poem about a rose doesn’t need to mention God in order to bring glory to God.

The person who is bringing glory to God is you—if you’re writing that poem about a rose.

As we like to say, this is not a writers’ podcast. There are are plenty of other resources designed to help you as a creator, if you are a creator, do that in a way that most glorifies God, with particular attention to excellence in craft.

But as fans, we can appreciate that fact that a Christian author who wants to be in the word, wants to be in the gospel: his or her chief end, her highest purpose, is not just to teach. Not just to evangelize. But as we were talking earlier with Emily Hayse, we want to give a taste through stories. To give an idea, to communicate this truth directly to the imagination. It’s a shortcut to the heart, to help us feel and experience, to “taste and see” that God is good. A poem about a rose can do that. And a ‘purely for fun’ story can do that. In that case, you still have a point. You still have a purpose as a human, as a citizen, in making that story. That purpose, as the old confession says, your chief end is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

Do stories that don’t mention God glorify him less?

Zack: I think that’s a great answer, Stephen.

I’m going to sort of answer a different question that is just the mirror opposite of this question: Is it okay to read a novel that has no mention of God or any direct indication of truth?

Stephen: Absolutely.

Zack: Does that glorify God?

Stephen: If I could temper that a little bit—I think that most Christians, certainly most people responding to this podcast, would say: “Yes.” If it’s a binary answer, yes or no, is it okay? they’d say, “Yes.” But at the back of our minds, we would have that faint suspicion about glory percentages.

Wouldn’t it be 5 percent better to read a story that has “God-talk” in it? That drops in a “John 3:16” or at least has some reference to deity?

Whereas if I go over here and just read a “Calvin and Hobbes” book, there’s no mention of God in there. Does that bring less glory to God?

I think that’s more of the question. It’s a question of “more or less,” rather than “yes or no.”

Zack: Yeah. I have a very good friend who refers to fantasy novels as a “guilty pleasure.” I think about that all the time. I’m not going to “out” this friend! But is that how we look at books, whether we’re reading them or writing them? Do we look at them as kind of a frivolous enjoyment?

I would say: no. Here’s why I would say that.

As a reader, I don’t think the value of a book comes from how much truth is in it, or just how much truth is in it. I think beauty and goodness also point to our Creator. Romans 1 talks about this: how the invisible qualities of God have been clearly seen by what has been made, by what is visible. I think that’s what a lot of stories do so well. A story makes the intangible experiences of being a human, it makes that tangible. It shows you what sin looks like. It shows you what fear and hope and desire and redemption can look like.

I don’t know if we need to rename our podcast to the “Fantastical Truth, Beauty, and Goodness” podcast. But this is a good point. We don’t just have to find the truth in a story. We can find the other aspects that, like in Romans 1, point in their own way toward God.

When you look at a sunset, does the sunset have “John 3:16” written on the sky? Hopefully not. You may need to talk to your doctor if you see that.

A sunset in its own way points to God, but in a very different way than “truth from the mouth of babes” would speak to God.

I think that it’s totally fine to glorify God in different ways, in what we write and what we read.

How do Christians thank God for stories?

Stephen: This theme is all throughout Scripture.

Of course, Scripture doesn’t speak specifically to novels or poems, or how specifically Christians are to enjoy them. But the idea—as we’ve explored multiple times in this podcast, and as I hope to explore the rest of my life—the idea in Scripture is that God has given us these very human gifts for a reason. Those didn’t arise by accident. They certainly weren’t hacked into the universe by the Devil or some malevolent human sin-presence there.

The idea is that God has given us imagination to do these things as a means of reflecting God back to him.

That’s glorifying God. That’s his idea, not our idea.

Therefore, any time Scripture is talking about gifts and the redemption of gifts of God, things like food, or holidays, or friendship, or fellowship, building things, making culture, tilling the earth, turning grapes into wine, baking food, bread, any of those things—fiction, I think, art, culture, storytelling—all of that falls into the same category of cultural goods that God has given to people.

In that case, that is why I apply the wisdom of the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy chapter 4. Here, in a letter that Paul is writing to a younger pastor—who’s having a lot of trouble with people who want to be so spiritual—then as now, the apostle Paul says to Timothy: “Hey, watch out for the people who are going to question the intrinsic goodness of God’s gifts. They’re not actually holier than thou. They’re the ones who are actually missing the purpose of these gifts.” And the apostle Paul writes:

For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.

1 Timothy 4:4–5

There’s a word there, too. It’s going to be trending here in a couple of weeks after we record this: thanksgiving.

Maybe we need to say more about that.

That is how thanksgiving works with stories. You don’t just take them and say, “Well, thanks God.”

There is a specific process there, that the apostle Paul alludes to. A gift of God is “made holy by the word of God and prayer.”

The word: God’s word, reading the Bible, Scripture study. And prayer.

Those are the two things that we suspect are more important than the other things. Yet here we see that, yes, those practices are more important, but because it is through those things that God is working in us to, in some way, redeem these gifts, make them holy for our enjoyment and for the glorification of God.

  1. I’m blessed to break my incidental SpecFaith article “fast” to bring you this.
  2. He refers to Fantastical Truth episode 35: Did C. S. Lewis Say It’s ‘Pure Moonshine’ to Create Stories that Teach Christian Truth? We excerpt David’s longer note both in the podcast episode and here.

Thanksgiving Day And Speculative Fiction Revisited

In many respects, we’re witnessing in the US the change in the Thanksgiving Day celebration from a major holiday to a minor one.
on Nov 23, 2020 · No comments

A number of years ago, I wrote an article reflecting on how holidays and celebrations deepen the worldbuilding in speculative fiction. Later, I zeroed in on Thanksgiving specifically. I want to again bring that article to Spec Faith, with some additions based on comments.

– – – – –

I know a declared Thanksgiving Day is not a universal holiday. Canadians, for example, celebrate Thanksgiving on a different day than we do in the US, and many countries don’t have a specific Thanksgiving Day. Harvest Festivals are a different story.

Places as diverse as Australia, Egypt, Barbados, India, Korea, Portugal, Greece, and China have harvest festivals, either locally or nationally.

So what about the worlds in speculative fiction?

I can understand why dystopian and/or post-apocalyptic fantasy might not include Thanksgiving Day. Along with the death of much of civilization, celebrations such as Thanksgiving might become a think of the past.

In many respects, we’re witnessing in the US the change in the Thanksgiving Day celebration from a major holiday to a minor one. The presence of Thanksgiving or harvest day celebrations seem more apt to be important to a culture if the people are in tune with the growth cycle. As our urban society has become divorced from the way food gets to our table, we seem less thankful and more inclined to take for granted the food we eat.

As a result, Thanksgiving Day is losing its special-ness. For instance, most fast food places remain open on Thanksgiving Day, as do a good number of restaurants [in places that allow restaurants to be open in the year of Covid] and grocery stores. In the past few years, “black Friday”—the day after Thanksgiving when retail stores slashed their prices to induce consumers to begin their Christmas shopping in earnest—has gone from “open at midnight” to “open on Thanksgiving Day at 6” or 5 or whenever the businesses think they can woo people out of their homes [and which will not take place in may states with strict “social distancing” protocols—without, of course, returning the special-ness to Thanksgiving].

Add in the fact that football has become an integral part of the celebration so that it’s reduced to Food, Family, and Football, and fewer people are commemorating the holiday as a day to give thanks.

Even my church, which has a rich tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving, including decades when we held a service in the morning on Thanksgiving Day, didn’t so much as sing a single Thanksgiving hymn a few years ago or focus the sermon on what the Bible says about Thanksgiving.

All that to say, if Thanksgiving is fading before our very eyes as a major holiday, it’s understandable that worlds set in the future, especially if that future is bleak or dominated by a heavy-handed, perhaps Godless, government, would be less inclined to have a Thanksgiving or harvest day celebration.

On the other hand, if these futuristic societies are a return to a more agrarian way of life or if the world of an epic fantasy has a rural setting in which people are dependent upon cultivating the soil and growing their own food, then perhaps a harvest festival would be appropriate.

Undoubtedly our urban-centric society has influenced the devaluation of Thanksgiving. But probably the attitude toward God has the most to do with the changes. That and the inability to commercialize it enough. I mean, it’s too close to Christmas to do much—promote cards, give gifts. And because of a lack of concern for God, that period of US history in which God was the motivating factor for coming to a new land and establishing freedom to worship, may be uncomfortable for those who don’t believe in God. They’d just as soon turn the day into Turkey Day as anything.

Add in the recent rewriting of history that paints the Puritans as at war with the native Americans, many people not only rework Thanksgiving as Turkey Day, they ignore it all together. Even churches—we who ought to be at the forefront of thanking God for His continued blessings.

In speculative literature, then, Thanksgiving can be much more than just a celebration. Whether or not a story world holds harvest festivals and how they are celebrated can define a culture and make it come alive.

Does this place recognize God as sovereign over the provision of daily food? Are there gods, with one particular god controlling fertile soil and sun and rain? Or are each of those under the purview of a different god? Must they all three be in agreement if the harvest is to be plentiful? How do the people express their thanks for what they receive?

Or is this world self-sufficient and so advanced in their technology that they can make the skies pour rain at their command? Perhaps they’ve put all food growth inside in the equivalent of gigantic greenhouses, and they have no understanding of nature being independent of humankind’s manipulation.

In such a culture, sentient beings, then, would think of themselves as gods. They might have forgotten the one true God, living with no thought other than meeting their own needs and pleasures. In their eyes, they are the highest authority, the ones in charge.

All these varied storyworlds and the peculiarities of their cultures can be established by the presence or absence of a Thanksgiving Day or harvest day celebration.

Such a brief holiday, easily over looked, and yet as full of potential in fiction as in real life.

This article is a revised version of one that appeared here in November, 2014.

Science Saving the Bible from Theologians

The Bible has long been subject to “higher criticism” from theologians and other specialists in Biblical Studies. But science often counters the critics…
on Nov 19, 2020 · 7 comments

The title is more an attention-grabber than the most accurate way to say what I really mean. More accurate would have been something like this: “Contrary to what you might expect, some of the biggest doubters of the Bible are theologians and doctors of divinity–yes, of course of the liberal sort who engage in “higher criticism”–while some of the evidence backing up the chronology of the Bible against these naysayers comes from straight from scientific data, in particular studies of linguistics and archaelogy.” But that’s not as catchy as: “Science Saving the Bible from Theologians.”

I expect that many Christians who are speculative fiction fans will not be especially aware of this particular issue. IF science hits our radar, it will be for those of us who are science fiction fans–we might follow debates over the origin of the universe, in which atheist scientists critize the idea God exists supposedly based on what’s known from science, a criticism we may feel the need to answer (I wrote a series answering atheists, in fact). Or we might think about the likelihood of aliens existing and how that might relate to our understanding of God (I wrote a series about what aliens teach us about God, too). Or, how Christian writers might choose to employ aliens in stories, in spite of some Christians objecting to the existence of aliens at all–objecting based on the idea that writing aliens would be caving in to evolutionary science (sorry, no series on that, just an article).

We see in the examples above that science and relgious belief seem to be at odds. Science pointing one way, Bible believers another. (Though of course my articles above treat science seriously and while I disagree with atheist assumptions, I don’t disagree with the validity of science itself.) But science and belief are not at odds everywhere–as this article is pointing out.

Note this article cannot possibly cover all the instances of where science has in effect wound up defending the Bible verses a type of academic scholarship that sees it as late and non-literal. But it will highlight some particular issues: The dating and authenticity of the Pentateuch (first 5 books), of Isaiah, and John’s Gospel.

The debates over the origin and nature of the Bible may not be on our radar as much, because the topic doesn’t have as direct a connection to speculative stories. Thought the topic does have some connection to such stories–the question of “What was the world really like in Bible times?” can have a speculative element, especially if we choose to include time-travel to Bible lands via fantastical tales.

So I’m highlighting the nature of this debate, pointing out how science can serve serve as a defender of traditional views of the Bible, even though that’s not normally how we think of science interatcting with Biblical Studies.

The Academic Consensus On Bible Chronology

Traditional Chronology

Not all Speculative Faith readers may not be aware of it, but the vast majority of academics in Biblical Studies do not hold to what we might call the traditional view of Bible chronology (though of course some scholars defend this view). The traditional view would be that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, then each book after that was written more or less at the time in which it was set. So the book of Joshua would have been written right after Deuteronomy, Jonah would have been written by Jonah after the events the book describes, Isaiah would have been written by the prophet Isaiah, etc.

The traditional chronology would of course date books set during the Persian Empire, like Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, much later than Genesis, with books like Kings being written somewhere in between. In New Testament chronology, the traditional view was Matthew was written first and Revelation last (though the epistles are not in chronological order), all complete by the end of the First Century A.D.

Late 19th Century Chronology

By the late 1800s, the spirit of the age (Zeitgeist) in academic circles was not in favor of seeing the Bible as anything special, especially in terms of its decription of origins. The origin of the universe had been explained long ago in Greek philosophy by the idea the universe had always existed and even if one granted that it came into being at one point, scientist and mathematician Ludwig Boltzmann taught that it could come about as the result of random fluctations, given enough time (Bolzmann’s idea is disproven by the thought exercise of what’s called a Boltzmann Brain–a “universe” self-generating by random fluctuations would more easily produce a single mind than a universe). Couple the notion of an already-existing or already-explained universe with known laws of physics and moreover Darwinism, and then literally everything was believed to be explicable in non-miraculous terms.

Given that philosophy, it was only a matter of time before a dose of skeptical treatment about its origins would become the standard way to see the Bible. Even though the philosopher Spinoza doubted Moses authored the Pentateuch and Jean Astruc speculated the authorship of Bible passages could be determined by the name of God used and Johann Karl Wilhelm Vatke argued for evolution of relgion in the Bible, it’s Julius Wellhausen who is generally credited with creating the definitive academic hypothesis which convinced most scholars that Moses did not write the first five books of the Bible. That hypothesis is known as the Documentary Hyptothesis.

The Documentary Hypothesis, which dominated the academic consensus on the Pentateuch, held that modern critical scholars can detect the layers of writing of the Bible by the names of God used. First, there was a writer who liked to use the word “Jehovah” (יחוח), followed by one who liked to write “God” (as in “Elohim”–אלוהים), followed by the writer of Deuteronomy, followed by a writer who was interested in customs of priests. These separate sources or “documents” were designated “J” for Jehovah, “E” for the Elohist, “D” for the writer of Deuteronomy, and “P” for the priestly writer. The earliest of these texts was seen to be written around the time of King Solomon and the latest, during the Persian Era.

Likewise when looking at the book of Isaiah, the late 19th Century view was that it was fragmentary, the work of two or maybe three authors, largely but not exclusively between differences in theme in Isaiah 1-39, 40-55, and 56-66. Not based on any discoveries of ancient texts, but rather a presumption that the message of the latter part of the book had historical references and spiritual themes that could not have come from an earlier time, when Isaiah would have lived. Naturally, the question was eventually asked if Isaiah was a historical person at all. (40-66 was generally dated to the Persian period, long after any historical Isaiah would have lived.)

Q not Q!
(Copyright Paramount)

The Gospels also were treated to a documentary view. Mark was seen as original and Mark and Luke copied from it. But instead of seeing Luke referring to both Mark and Matthew and other unnamed sources, scholarship invented a source called “Q” that both Matthew and Luke had independently drawn from in addition to Matthew. There was controversy over the book of John, but it increasingly was seen as unhistorical, a product of evolution of religious thought of Christianity, much later than the other Gospels (some claims had it that John could not have been written any earlier than the end of the 2nd Century, though the 3rd or 4th Centuries were favored by some).

20th-21st Century Chronology

The dating of the Gospel of John underwent a radical shift with the discovery and 1934 publication concerning of a scrap of papyrus, the ancient Egyptian paper pressed together from reeds. P52 contains a small portion of John’s Gospel and is widely seen as the oldest fragment of any Biblical text, in terms of time-of-writing-to-copy-we-have. The original date of the fragment, based on handwriting style, was A.D. 100 to 150. In recent years, this date has been challenged by some to be possibly as late as the 3rd Century, but with plurality of scholars accepting a date of A.D. 125-175.  Note though that the fragment comes from Egypt. Presumably John’s Gospel would have already existed for decades prior to being found on an Egyptian papyrus, which strongly implies a First Century date for John.

The concept of a Deutero-Isaiah or even a third Isaiah is still with us in the modern consensus opinion of Isaiah, in spite of the discovery of the Dead Seas Scrolls (DSS), first published in 1947. Why would the DSS affect a scholarly view of Isaiah? Because the first whole scroll of a Bible book found among the DSS, and the one to this day which is most complete, is a copy of Isaiah, with all the chapters we know combined into one book, just the way we have it. Over a thousand years older than any other copies of Isaiah anyone ever had. Clearly if there was a complilation of multiple authors of Isaiah, it happened hundreds of years before the DSS were tucked away into their caves.

Isaiah chapter 1 in the DSS. Courtesy: The Israel Museum

In the late 2oth Century and early 21st Century, the Documentary Hyptothesis is still followed by some people, but has largely been replaced by the Supplementary Hypothesis and similar concepts–which dates the Pentateuch even later than the Documentary Hyptothesis, making Deuteronomy the first book written and all other parts of the first five Biblical books coming from the period of the Babylonian exile and the Persian period. (In fact, some modern Higher Critics date all or almost all the Hebrew Bible from the Persian period.)

Science to the Rescue (well, sort of…)

Archeology

I’ve already mentioned how P52 changed the view of the Gospel of John. Let’s talk a bit about the modern re-interpretation of the archeological discovery of P52 by a minority of scholars. The minority view that P52 is possibly as late as the Third Century is a 21st Century claim that I personally am not able to evaluate–I can’t myself identify the details of Greek letter-forming style by time period, even though I’ve looked into this topic a little bit. But I can’t help but notice that atheists, fans of the religious-evolution-of-Christianity idea, and other general doubters of the authenticity of John (such as a Muslim site I’m linking here) have embraced the later dating…whereas more neutral observers have not. Science, as in people objectively looking at the available data and determining what it indicates, still leans in favor of P52 being the oldest flash-to-bang of any Bible text. In spite of controversial claims otherwise, the available science still seems to back up the idea that John comes from the First Century, based on P52.

Likewise I’ve talked about how the DSS shows that Isaiah was seen as a unified book around the 2nd Century B.C. (a likely date for the Isaiah scroll in the caves of Qumran). However, I didn’t mention the discovery of seals that provide historical evidence (via the science of archeology) that Isaiah was an actual person, a contemporary of King Hezekiah, as talked about in this 2018 National Geographic article.

Yeah, just because this bit of a seal that seems to say “Belonging to Isaiah the Prophet” is from the right time period as the Biblical Isaiah and was found less than ten feet away from a find with King Hezekiah’s name on it, doesn’t completely prove it was the same Isaiah as the one mentioned in the Bible. And of course it doesn’t prove who wrote the book of Isaiah. But as these discoveries are made, over and over, people mentioned in the Bible who were once considered legendary or doubtful are discovered to have existed. Or at least, there are very ancient references to the people which really seem to indicate they existed. (Another example: the Tel Dan archeological find referencing King David, found in 1993.)

In all of this, actual scientific findings continue to chip away at ideas that stemmed from hypotheses on the evolution of religion and how thematic changes in the Bible and differing word uses required different authors. That is, facts are eroding hypothetical notions of whether or not the Bible is reliable. One drip of scientific data at a time, moving incrementally in the direction of science supporting the chronology and authenticity of Bible texts.

Linguistics

The study of the Hebrew Bible by linguists has long yielded two basic layers of Hebrew in the Bible. The first is Early Biblical (or Early Classical) and Late Biblical Hebrew. Unlike handwriting analysis of ancient Greek by time periods, this is a subject I have personal knowledge of.

It turns out that Early Biblical Hebrew matches those inscriptions and fragments from pottery that are available in the time before the 6th Century B.C., that is, before the Babylonian exile. While Late Biblical Hebrew, which has changes in vocabulary including Persian and Aramaic loan words, a number of spelling and grammar changes, dates from the time after the Babylonian exile/the Persian period. And, linguistic analysis repeatedly shows that the Pentateuch, all of it, belongs to the Early type of Hebrew. Books like Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, and Esther, are, surprise, surprise, late Hebrew.

Books fall in line, generally speaking, with the time period they are portrayed to have been written. There are a few exceptions to this–for example, the Song of Solomon has a number of linguistic late features (which doesn’t really prove it wasn’t written in the time of Solomon at all, because it could have been re-written later, as a sort of NIV update of the original work).

Oh, and Isaiah, which once was thought to have a significant separation of time between the latter half of the book and the former? It’s Early Hebrew. The whole thing. And while that doesn’t prove the same author wrote the whole thing, linguistics does damage to ideas about the second half being a lot later.

Note there have been challenges to the liguistic data, mostly arising from theologians. This topic is a matter of debate to a degree, with (let it be fairly said) some linguists arguing that the differences in early and late Hebrew could reflect stylistic choices and scribes deliberately faking the style of the past in places…in effect arguing that all Biblical Hebrew comes from the Post-Exilic period, with “early” Hebrew being a stylistic choice or an expertly-crafted fake.

The linguists-who-support-the-Hebrew-Bible-is-all-late also point out that while Aramaic words are much more common in Late Biblical Hebrew, they also exist in Early Biblical Hebrew…though science answers this, too, with discoveries that show Aramaic was a key language in the region starting around 1000 B.C., and existed as a language long before the first written texts which have been found in Aramaic, which are from around 3,100 years ago (1,100 B.C.). So it isn’t surprising that Early Hebrew would have some Aramaicisms, though Late Hebrew would have more, and it certainly doesn’t prove the entire Hebrew Bible was written after the Babylonian Exile.

Personally, I’m much more used to Early Biblical Hebrew and so find Late Biblical Hebrew more difficult to read…and I also find the idea that all Hebrew represents one time period a bit silly. All languages change over time–the simplest and clearest explanation of the differences evident in the Hebrew Bible is it changed over time, too. And, an examination of those changes argue that Bible books of the Old Testament are more or less written in the time period the Bible claims they come from, with very few exceptions.

Conclusion

There are many more discoveries that could be added to the list of things that chip away at views first made widespread in the late 1800s and only modified somewhat by the majority of higher critics of the 20th and 21st Centuries. But I’ve shared enough to get the idea across.

In Biblical Studies, on a regular basis science is giving support to traditional views of Bible chronology and authenticity. No, it isn’t true that the linguists and archeologists can prove their points absolutely, and it isn’t true they are all in complete agreement. But the other side, the ones who make claims that exclude Biblical authenticity, which make the whole Bible later-than-we-think, which show a clear evolution of religious ideas in a way that doesn’t match the written order of Bible books, they’re the ones using analogy and looking into style–that is, engaging in highly speculative stuff, but treating their speculations as if they were reality. It was called the Documentary Hyptothesis for a reason–it was a hypothesis, though for nearly a century it was treated as a fact in the most elevated academic circles.

Romans 3:4 says, “Let God be true and every man a liar.” But not all humans are liars–some are going to follow what the evidence shows…and the archeology and linguistics indicate something quite different from what liberal theologians and Divinity students say.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Are there any bits of archaelogy you find especially interesting that you’d like to share? Any counter-points to make? Please comment below.

 

 

 

 

On Canceling the ‘Baby-Eating’ Baby Yoda

What happens when fandom and cancel culture collide with a misplaced sense of morality?
on Nov 18, 2020 · 23 comments

I have a confession to make. I’m not a Star Wars fan.

I can hear the gasp of millions as I make this confession, their shocked eyes and drooping mouths staring at me in horror for this admission.  The administrative team at Speculative Faith has probably called an emergency meeting of all members as they discuss this scandal that can threaten the fabric of the faith-based speculative fiction lovers community.

With a scarlet “H” on my chest 1 I stand firm against the opposition. I must admit it at the cost of all else. Therefore, I must say it again.

I am not a Star Wars fan.

Don’t cry for me, Star Wars fans. The truth is, I prefer Star Trek.

All joking aside, being a non-fan of Star Wars doesn’t preclude my becoming aware of the “controversy” and the “canceling” of Baby Yoda.

To say this is ridiculous would be too kind a word.

Thank God (and I really mean that) the cancel culture of the 21st century didn’t exist in the 20th century. In the bygone days of the 1980’s, poor ALF would have never made it past season one with his desire to eat cats, particularly when he tried to microwave the cat for a fast meal. 2

ALF was a loveable puppet that made its stamp on the pop culture of the 1980s. Now, in the 21st century, we have Baby Yoda making its stamp on the pop culture but in a new way.

After all, this is “Baby Yoda.” I’ve no idea if it’s a reincarnation of Yoda from the original movies. In all non-fan fairness, I wasn’t all that interested in finding out so there won’t be any commentary in this post about the origins of Yoda, the Force, Luke boy, Vader, and all that.

In  The Mandalorian, from what I’ve seen of posts, Baby Yoda is eating the eggs of some frog alien lady. Apparently, this frog alien lady or whatever, is the last of her kind and her babies are the future and he’s chomping on them. Due to the “controversy” the producers clarified that the eggs are “not fertilized” so there’s no actual “baby” he’s chomping on. They compared it to us eating chicken eggs. This apparently backfired because now, some of the fans were really disgusted now.

It was meant as a comic relief. Just like ALF trying to eat Lucky the cat. Who was really lucky after all.

Yet, the uproar is up. Now, cute Baby Yoda is now cannibal Baby Yoda and the scourge of the universe.

You gotta be kidding me.

This is the latest example of a culture who has lost its soul and is replaced with a veneer of morality. For goodness’ sake! Baby Yoda ain’t real. The frog alien lady ain’t real. The eggs, the puppet or CG Baby Yoda is eating ain’t real. To throw all this shade on a puppet is ridiculous.

I assure you, Baby Yoda ain’t feeling the hate.

Now, in defense of fandom 3 (after all, I am a Trekkie) fandom is a member’s only club. Not just for those who are mere observers of our fanaticism, but those who immerse themselves in the obsession.  We connect to the source of our fandom on many levels, but the one that makes us all fans is imagination. I don’t mind getting into rigorous discussion of why Captain James T. Kirk is the best captain of all time. I’ll go toe to toe with you defending the position that Vulcan should never have been destroyed in the reboot of the franchise. I’ll sign the change dot org petition to produce an episode showing a battle between the Voth and Species 8472.

Underneath the obsession is that fact that I know its fictional. I enjoy it because it gets me out of the real world for  a while.

My issue I take with canceling Baby Yoda  is this: If there’s uproar over this fictional thing—why does it stop at the real-life destruction of millions of children who are aborted every year? Where’s the cancel culture on Planned Parenthood, funded by government? Remember when undercover pro-life people showed videos depicting the truth behind Planned Parenthood and those videos were thrown out, dismissed, and summarily suppressed by the media — where was the cancel culture then?

No, this post is not going to expound on pro-life issues. There are better people than I who can go deep on that. I’m using the example of abortion, in real-life, to simply make a point.

Giant businesses and organizations get behind abortion all the time, donating millions. What about legislations that lets a mother abort her child at birth? Where’s the cancel culture for that?

See, the “babies” that the cancel culture says that Baby Yoda is eating on aren’t real.  One fan said, “He’s killing this mother’s children.” Another made a remark that Baby Yoda eating the babies could be offensive and harmful for women who are infertile. Not surprisingly, a woman who was infertile thought it was funny.

I guess there’s no accounting for taste.

The point is this: the eggs in the womb of a woman are very real. As Hank Hanegraaf once said. “You did not come from a zygote. You were a zygote.”

Does anyone else see this glaring problem? That a cancel culture would have more compassion for a frog alien lady on TV than for a child in a womb? What does it say about our culture at large? Have you ever canceled a favored fandom? Or, am I just being too flippant? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

  1. H is for heretic
  2. It is true that when a child did try to microwave their own cat, the producers of the show edited that scene out. But most people back in the 20th century knew and acknowledged, wholeheartedly, that kids sometimes do stupid things.
  3. According to Wikipedia: “A fandom is a subculture composed of fans characterized by a feeling of empathy and camaraderie with others who share a common interest.

Giving Thanks, Despite . . .

Are there stories in the speculative genres that show thanksgiving as a desired end?
on Nov 16, 2020 · 3 comments

A lot of people (I may have been one of them) have bemoaned the fact that 2020 has been a horrible year. A pandemic that has taken thousands of lives, civil unrest, violence in the streets, political discord and contention (worse than usual, it would seem). There’s not much that has said, Let’s give thanks for THAT.

Interestingly, the Bible doesn’t seem to qualify the idea of thanks or thanksgiving to “only things that are beneficial.” Instead, while the apostle Paul sat in prison, he wrote,

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:4-7—emphases are mine)

Centuries before, the prophet Jonah, on the third day of his ordeal in the stomach of a great fish, prayed

But I will sacrifice to You
With the voice of thanksgiving.
That which I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation is from the LORD.” (Jon. 2:9)

There are many other such passages, none clearer that 1 Thess. 5:18: “in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

All this has me thinking about thanksgiving in stories. Is thanksgiving a common theme? Are there stories in the speculative genres that show thanksgiving as a desired end? I mean, I can think of stories about sacrifice and enduring hardship and staying true and standing firm and other such significant topics. But I’m not aware of one which shows primarily the importance of a heart of gratitude.

A quick search uncovers a number of children’s stories about gratitude, but in the realm of fantasy, it would seem that there’s an inclination against thanksgiving, at least when a fairy or fae is involved. That’s the “standard” understanding of fairy etiquette, it would seem. For an excellent discussion of the subject see “Gratitude, Thanks, and Fairy Etiquette” posted at Writing in Margins, May 25,2020.

Where are the adult stories? Do we think that gratitude is a “minor” virtue, not something worthy of the full force of a story? Do we understand thankfulness as something kids need to learn, that adults have mastered? Do we see gratefulness as a trivial part of etiquette?

I suspect that as society downplays thanksgiving, so do writers. I mean, a Christian radio station in our area has made available a channel on their app for Christmas music. So far I have heard no word about Thanksgiving Day or anything special to celebrate it. My church has announced the plans to replace our usual Christmas celebration events, but no word about Thanksgiving Day.

If Christians are overlooking Thanksgiving, no wonder the secular society here in the US refers to it as “Turkey Day,” a day for family, food, and football.

So why should writers create stories that value thanksgiving when society apparently has deemed it something for children, a polite nicety, but not a necessity? I suggest Christian writers would be wise to value what God values and to write “against the culture” as necessary.

Against culture? Yes! Culture doesn’t need an echo chamber. Culture needs stories that challenge our assumptions. I can see speculative literature in particular standing against the norm, if for no other reason than an author can invent a world that either values gratitude more than we do, or, as in the accepted view of the fae, holds it in disregard.

Simply by making gratitude an issue, a story can influence and affect readers.

But maybe I’m wrong. Are there stories for adults, particularly in the last twenty years or so, that elevate gratitude, that make this quality a central piece?

Featured photo by Johannes Plenio from Pexels

Prospect: Why I Like Nobledark or Grimbright Better than Cheerful and Corrupt

Prospect is a movie I’d recommend over Rim of the World. I both review Prospect and say why I like its type of tale better.
on Nov 12, 2020 · 9 comments

Today’s post started as a simple movie review. Last week I reviewed Rim of the World, which if you missed last week’s post, I felt contained some highly innapropriate innuendo and more importantly served as a bellweather for cultural trends I don’t care for. So I thought I’d review a movie I liked this week as a counter-balance–so I wouldn’t seem like the guy who always disagrees and never likes anything. Thus, this week I set out to do a simple review of the movie Prospect, which like last week’s review, was a film I saw on my wife’s Netflix account. However, I found myself turning introspective as I thought about the review. Why do I like Prospect better? It turns out that a story that could be called nobledark or grimbright is much more in line with what I think is a good story than one intended to draw laughs but which honestly reports a culture with serious problems.

What is Nobledark? Or Grimbright?

The term “nobledark” surged to my mind as I was thinking of a way to descrbe the film Prospect. But then I looked up some definitions and found not everyone agrees what “nobledark” is. It turns out “grimdark” has a clear definition–grimdark is the a type of speculative ficiton story in which there really is no such thing as good and the story is filled with despair. There’s a struggle for survival going on and everyone involved inhabits various shades of corrupt. The saying, “Might is right” matches grimdark very well–and in fact, grimdark has dominated much of fantasy fiction since the 1990s. Think George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice as an example. (Though lots of other stories can be said to have grimdark elements–The Walking Dead has never been completely grimdark, but often isn’t far off.)

So after grimdark became a trend and someone created a label to define it (note, a grimdark mood took over much of fantasy before anyone coined the term “grimdark” to describe it), someone wanted to define its opposite. From my own, doubltless imperfect Internet research, it turns out some people latched on to the term “noblebright” as the opposite of “grimdark.” (Whereas others like the term “hopepunk.”)

Creating the term “noblebright” to define a basically optimistic world with heroic figures led to some people offering two other terms for moods in-between noblebright and grimdark. “nobledark” and “grimbright.”

“Nobledark” would be a story in which there are genuine heroes, but the story world is full of terrors and gritty. An epic struggle for good and evil is ongoing, but the heroes are holding their own. Barely. And “grimbright” would be a world in which there aren’t really any clear heroes and no epic struggle, within a story situation that’s a total wreck, but ordinary people are managing to hold on to some form of hope and make the world a slightly better place. Modern Batman movies probably would count as nobledark and the beginning of The Force Awakens, the part that depicts Rey as a scavenger  on the planet Jakku, who is just getting by but manages to maintain hope in her heart–that would be grimbright. (By the way, Star Trek at its most opimistic would be nobelbright or hopepunk–a basically optimistic view of the story world, filled with mostly-good and heroic characters.)

Except, based on some time I spent chasing a Reddit rabbit trail of arguments before writing this article, not everone agrees with those definitions. Some people think both terms are completely unneeded, because pretty much every story that features an unpleasant setting, pretty much every dystopia and post-apocalypic world, would either be “grim” or “dark.” And those stories have been around longer than the terms “nobledark” and “grimbright.” Why not just call them “dystopian” or “post-apocalyptic” or “dark” or “gritty” or whatever? Do we really need to call anything “nobledark” or “grimbright”?

Ok, “they” who say that may have a point. Still, I’m going to borrow these possibly-unneeded-terms for the purpose of this post. Because I like stories that can be called nobledark and/or grimbright and the definitions I found for these terms are handy for my purposes here. I like these kinds of tales way more than grimdark (which I can actually find interesting in small doses, but which gets depressing fast), but also even more than noblebright or hopepunk.

Let’s Talk About Prospect

Ok, with some terminology defined, let’s return to talking about Prospect. I will not give away the entire plot, but a few spoilers follow. Of course.

The Netflix ad for Prospect featured a girl around thirteen years old walking around in a spacesuit with an adult man, somewhere with moss-covered conifers, probably in the temperate rain forest of the North American Pacific Northwest, which does in fact look a little alien. And my immediate thought was, “Ah, another low-budget sci-fi show. Probably is going to be cheesy.” But for some reason, I decided to give it a chance. I’m glad I did.

Prospect Partial Plot Summary (Some Spoilers Included, but Not Everything)

Prospect movie poster, copyright Gunpowder and Sky (an indie film company)

In Prospect, a young teen girl (played by Sophie Thatcher) and her father start the tale in their personal lander, attached to a space station orbiting “the Green Moon” (which in turn orbits a gas giant). Well, in fact the girl is supposed to be in the lander, but is off elsewhere, listening to music. Her father scolds her a bit as she returns and asks her to do some chores.

This sets the expectations that this character, the teenage girl–her name is “Cee”–is more or less the same as other teens, no matter what the story setting is. Though the viewer discovers as the story progresses that she isn’t at all ordinary.

Her father reveals a scheme to find “the queen’s lair”–a particularly rich source for a type of gemstone that will set them for life. It turns out some mercenaries have found the lair and have asked her dad to harvest the gems. The gems are extracted from an alien living organism, rather like pearls, but have to be handled in a specific way, or else they will be destoyed. Which is why the mercenaries need his help. With the catch they only have limited time, because the space station is preparing to leave the Green Moon forever.

The pair, the girl and her father, set out to land their pod near the lair, but the pod malfunctions on landing, so they aren’t one the site. The two set off on foot to meet up with the mercenaries. Wearing spacesuits because of a mold in the air that kills human beings, rather like story “Parasite Planet” in the Worlds of Weinbaum anthology I published.

On the way, the pair run into robbers and take a stand against them. I don’t want to give away too much of this part of the story, but let’s say the girl holds her own, both fighting and retreating when it makes sense to do so. The boss of the robbers, Ezra, winds up replacing Cee’s father on the quest to find the alien gems. (Note that Ezra is portrayed by the Chilean-American actor Pedro Pascal, who you may know as the man under the armor in The Mandalorian series.)

By the way, I really enjoyed the way the character Ezra speaks. He’s got that long-sentence 19th Century eloquent but menacing thing going. Really good writing and acting.

Continuing on the way to find the gems, the pair run into a small band of religous cultists, who offer to purchase the girl. She escapes them and attempts to leave the Green Moon, but can’t. She again joins Ezra on the quest for gems and the two of them find the camp of mercenaries and the Queen’s Lair of gems.

Something goes terribly wrong with their plan, but they manage to fight their way to an escape, not only immediate death, but the Green Moon itself, soon enough not to be trapped on the Green Moon forever. During the fighting, and even before the fighting, without giving too much away, Cee proves to be courageous and risks her life to save Ezra–a man she has no particular reason to save.

Before the final scene the story shows Cee interested in a fantastic novel she read once, still caught up in her music when she gets a chance. Still recognizably a young teen–but actually a noble and heroic one, when the situation called for it.

The Gruesome Storyworld of Prospect

In Prospect, everyone is greedy for something. Well, except Cee. Also, it’s one of those gritty story worlds in which people will not hesitate to kill you to take what they want.

Even the gemstone the characters extract in the story requires slicing into an alien lifeform, pulling out a body part, and chopping into an alien piece of meat. It’s clearly a brutal form of prospecting, with no interest in whether the (apparently unintelligent) aliens survive or not.

The Green Moon is beautiful, but deadly. You can’t ever expose yourself to the air, always trapped in a spacesuit or a cleared shelter because of the molds.

Cee is clearly in greater danger as a teen girl than the men are–not only because she is smaller and less experienced, but because of the menace of rape and sexual exploitation. Which doesn’t prevent her from acting with courage when needed.

In spite of her courage, Cee doesn’t quite rise to the level of being a hero, because the stakes are mostly personal. And the villains are not epic. So, on the grid of stories we discussed already, Prospect should be defined as “Grimbright.”

Why I Recommend Prospect and not Rim of the World

Overall, I really like the movie Prospect and recommend it. Note though that the special effects are not as good as the acting and dialog, but are not actually silly at any point in the story. Also, sometimes minor characters seem surreal, especially some of the mercenaries. I would not say the story is perfect, but most of its elements hang together very well. I’d give it an 8 out of 10.

Rotten Tomatoes gives Prospect an 88 percent, but the IMDb rating is 6.2–which is barely better than the 5.2 rating for Rim of the World. Which of course raises the subject of why I like this movie much, much more than Rim of the World. (Because I do.)

A critic might ask of me, is it better to portray a teen girl in danger of sexual slavery than some “harmless” innuendo? Is it better to show a world in which most people are greedy and dangerous than a basically silly world with oblique pornographic references in which many people seem to have good motives? Or in short, how could I possibly object to the morals of the Rim of the World and not to the arguably less-moral world of Prospect? Is this just a Christian fixation on prohibiting sex coupled with a tolerance of violence (as Christians are often accused of doing)?

A Cleaner R Rating for Prospect than the TV14 for Rim of the World

First, a rating as in a story containing negative triggers as commonly defined is not the main reason to like or dislike a story in my opinion. But if we are going to do that kind of compare/contrast, it turns out Prospect is cleaner than Rim of the World in terms of rating. Which might be surprising, because Prospect is rated R. Significantly, it’s not marketed to the young teen market, even though it has a young teen character.

Prospect’s most graphic scenes in terms of violence actually revolve around extracting the alien gemstone, which shows a lump of meat being cut, and a case of a medical amputation, in which little is directly shown. Otherwise, people get shot or stabbed, but the spacesuit covers details. It is by no means a splatterfest. Rim of the World shows plenty of people getting killed as well. Not realistically, but still.

In terms of profanity, Rim of the World walked up to the line of its rating on multiple occasions and used what words it could. Prospect has only one moment of cussing that I recall–not a moment everyone will like, probably, but there in the story for specific reason. And just one moment.

In terms of innuendo, Rim of the World has plenty more than just the three cases I pointed out in my article last week. Prospect contains no innuendos–well, there’s an oblique suggestion the mercenaries might sexually assault Cee if she goes to them alone, but as an innuendo goes, it’s one without appeal.

In terms of sex, Rim of the World features one particular moment of ogling that stands out above everything else, but no actual nudity…but Prospect has no examples of ogling characters or images. Not even when the cultists offer to buy Cee. Just some sexual menace–but that’s clearly shown to be a bad thing, something undesirable.

Not Rating, but Expectations Mark Prospect as More Moral than Rim of the World

In fact, that’s really the key thing. Prospect portrays an awful world and awful people, but never gave me the sense that it was trying to portray that world as normal. We can cheer for Cee because even though she is in danger and given bad examples, she desires to do what is right and in fact partially succeeds. She saves herself–and a stranger whom she has no particular need to save. She is not a perfect person, but her character points to an idea of good and evil–evil exists in the story, even if it is so common that nobody is surprised when it shows up–but the central character is not a part of that evil And in fact opposes evil in multiple ways.

Evil in Rim of the World is the aliens trying to kill everybody, which of course is a no duh bad thing. But nothing about what the main characters do that I find objectionable, whether ogling or making innuendoes or crying because they are going to die a virgin, etc, none of those things are portrayed to be bad. Just ordinary stuff.

We could say Rim of the World normalizes these behaviors and of course it does, but my main reason to object to the movie was because of one of the things one of my critics thought invalidated my point. The critic stated the movie simply reflected the way kids are, awkwardly claiming more sexual knowledge than they actually have. Yeah, but “the way kids are” is main element of what I complained about. I think “the way kids are” in our culture is oversexualized.

Imagine traveling back one hundred and fifty years into the past in a time machine and noting how many thirteen-year-olds would be smoking. A lot would be. While some people of the period would agree with you that’s a bad thing, many would shrug their shoulders and say, “Hey, that’s just what kids do.” You’d immediately reply, “But is that what they should do?”

Likewise, of course there’s an age in which boys especially but also girls are going to have a lot of sexual interest. But they aren’t necessarily going to announce that they’ve already had a threesome with two women as one of the young characters in Rim of the World does. They aren’t necessarily going to think pretending to be sexual experienced is cool and admitting to being a virgin (at 13) is shameful. Yeah, it may be this kind of behavor is in fact normal right now in our culture, but it should not be normal. Or course sexual interest will be normal—but a culture of expectation concerning sex, that having it as soon as possible is good–that doesn’t have to be normal. And having it in ways common to porn–that also doesn’t have to be normal, either.

Conclusion

In fact, I think being a Christian puts me at war with the world in a way. Not a war in which I burn things down and shoot people, but a war in which I oppose the standards of the world and offer other standards, ones I believe God has inspired. Note not all Christian people think that way. Not all fans of speculative fiction are on board with me to be sure.

I like the nobledark and grimbright type of stories because they reflect what I see is reality. The world is not good–it cannot be trusted. But that doesn’t mean it’s nothing but bad. There still is good to be found. But you have to look for it, fight for it even. And we need both heroes and ordinary people to stand against what’s wrong, in both big ways and small.

When I put it that way, it seems like nobledark and grimbright or dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and otherwise dark and gritty stories should be what Christians authors of speculative fiction mainly write. Of course, that’s not how things are and isn’t even true of all the stories I like best. But it’s true of some of them.

So what are your thoughts on this topic? Have you seen Prospect and if so, what did you think? What do you think about the categories of grimdark, noblebright, nobledark, and grimbright? Please leave a comment below.

Reading For The Soul

Some books go beyond the element of feeding our mind or feeding our pleasure center.
on Nov 9, 2020 · 2 comments

I know that most of the time people read fiction for entertainment. Others say that we also read it to have our biases confirmed. So we choose to read stories that reinforce a “good wins out” motif, or a “love conquers all” theme or whatever we agree with.

Some people do enjoy the challenge of learning about new and different people and places. One of the more eye-opening books I ever read was Emile Zola’s Germinal, a novel set in France in the 1860s about a coalminers’ strike. It’s evocative and thought-provoking and reveals struggles of people in places and in cultural conditions that are not like my own.

More recently I’ve enjoyed Kay Marshall Strom’s novels such as The Call of Zulina, set in Africa, or The Faith of Ashish, set in India, both in an earlier century. Or there are novels such as Jill Stengl’s Shadows of Yesterday (Until That Distant Day Book 1), a novel set in France during the early days of the republic.

I suppose most historical novels would fall into the category of ones that introduce the reader to new places and peoples and cultures. James A. Michener’s numerous (and lengthy) historical novels such as Hawaii and Mexico and Alaska and Texas and Poland and many others, certainly introduce readers to people who lived in different times and cultures, in a way that feels a bit like exploring.

However, I think there is another reason to read—one which I’m calling “for the soul.” Some books go beyond the element of feeding our mind or feeding our pleasure center. They resonate with us because they say something true that is deeper and greater and longer lasting about life, about our relationship with God.

When I was a kid, I grew up with that kind of fiction. One of our favorite books, which we read aloud as a family was Aurie’s Wooden Leg by Lionel A. Hunt. All three of us children enjoyed that book, to the point that my brother went on a search a few years ago to find copies of the now out-of-print book. He succeeded and bought us each a copy. When I re-read it, I was amazed at the quality of the story.

But apart from that, there is no pretense to hide the spiritual elements. This is a book about a sister’s heart for her twin brother who doesn’t “understand how to get to heaven yet.” It’s got some surprises and suspense and tragedy and danger. But it doesn’t leave the primary purpose—that this little girl cares about her brother’s eternal destiny.

Other books that my brother owned but were also included in our family reading were ones by Paul Hutchens. The Sugar Creek Gang books “follow the legendary escapades of Bill Collins, Dragonfly, and the rest of the gang as they struggle with the application of their Christian faith to the adventure of life.”

Bill, as I recall, was the narrator of the stories, and he was always so honest about his own struggles to do the right things, and his admiration for their leader, Jim, and their young Bible-quoting member, Little Jim. I found Bill’s honesty refreshing, even as the truth and values of Scripture were reinforced. Of course, I didn’t think in those terms as a kid. I just liked those books.

As I look back now, I can see how those stories did nurture my soul. Same with the books by Kay Marshall Strom, and many others by Christians as Christian fiction began to grow and become well-written stories that portrayed life realistically.

Sure, there are stories that make the effort but are poorly written or preachy or contrived. But the books that tell a good story and yet uncover some truth about God that I need to be reminded of or haven’t thought about in that same way exactly, feed my soul.

Narnia did that, and does that when I re-read those books. Lewis had a way of showing God in a way that makes Him seem so winsome and desirable, so joyful, and yet so majestic—well, they simply feed my soul.

How about you? What books have you read, as a child or as an adult, that feed your soul?