How Do Recent Horror Films Explore the ‘Evil Child’ Trope?

Stories about evil children fascinate and repel us. They reflect the truth that youthfulness doesn’t equate to innocence.
on Nov 4, 2020 · 4 comments

Nature vs. nurture is the underpinning motivation of the many of the horror and thriller flicks of evil child protagonists.1 These movies chill us at the heart because we, in the modern world, especially in the West, have certain expectations about children:

  1. Children are inherently innocent, pure, and good.
  2. Childhood should be guarded and protected from the evils of the world
  3. Children are separate from being an adult.

These ideas about children and childhood are relatively new. Before the late 19th century, adults viewed children as “little adults.” They had responsibilities on the same plane as adults as well as expectations.

Using a biblical example, The Lord called Samuel at seven years old to be a prophet: he was to pass judgement on Eli the priest and let him that that thus saith the Lord, you about to get it. Did the Lord consider Samuel too young to fulfill this task?

In the following the movies I am going to comment on, I am going to expand on how the perception of children/childhood differs from the reality of what a child is.  A child is a free-willed individual who chooses to do right or wrong. This does not mean children do not need guidance, help, and a structure. On the contrary, the Bible says to train up a child in the way he should go so that when he is old, he will not depart from it.

The Bad Seed (1956): born evil

Rhoda Penmark looks like a normal girl of the 1950s: blonde hair, blue eyes, and an effervescent attitude. But, as her mother begins to realize, her normality is only a façade. She’s really a sociopath, psychopath, and, cherry on top, a serial killer. She’s manipulative and cunning. I would almost say she’s a savant although that’s not explored in the movie. When her mother, Christine, finds out she was adopted and that her mother is a serial killer, she believes she passed on “the bad seed,” genetically speaking, to her daughter.

After all, Rhoda has a good life. No evidence of mistreatment from her parents or anyone else. The only thing is that kids sensed something was wrong with her and kept their distance. Rhoda can fool the adults of town because most have the view about children as I stated before. Only a couple can see past the mask to the real person. When Rhoda finds out they know the real her, she gets rid of them.

As far as the children in town who are not fooled by Rhoda, this is a classic understanding of children – that children can sense evil because they have not been corrupted by the world. Alas! If only that were true!

The character of Rhoda Penmark is fictional but there have been children who exhibit a sociopathic behavior. They are born without conscious or empathy. A real-life example would be the BTK serial killer. He was not abused, hurt, or mistreated as a child. Life and film seem to suggest that there’s nothing you can do about children like this: born inherently evil, stained, and bad. The opposite of my first set of expectations.

In the book that the movie is based on, Christine attempts to murder Rhoda and then she kills herself. This was changed in the 1956 movie due to the Hays Code which did not allow for ‘crime to pay’. In the 1985 remake and other adaptations, the ending remains true to book’s original form.

The Omen (1976): evil destiny

All you have to say is, ‘Damien’ and most people will think of this movie. It explores the idea that a man, who’s own son died without his wife knowing about, switches babies at the hospital and they raise the boy as his own. Everything is fine…until one day…

The boy possesses many peculiar abilities. Animals are afraid of him (except Rottweilers), people are killed in unexplainable ways, and people will give their lives for him. The puzzle of this child is soon revealed when it is discovered he is the Antichrist, destined (in the movie anyway) to prevent the Second Coming of Christ.

This movie spawned a franchise and a remake and endless pop culture references. Like Rhoda Penmark, Damien Thorn ushered in horror in a different kind of way with children as the evil protagonist – the one sent to fulfill their destiny. Unlike Rhoda, who was born evil, Damien is born to fulfill evil. As a child, from baby to five years old (or seven) he’s fine but then, his true nature comes to fruition. Awakened because that is his purpose.

Immediately, I thought of Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed Christ. Most people aren’t going around named their kids Judas, even though back in the day, it was a nice name. There’s not a lot known of his childhood but sadder words have never been spoken for Christ to say, “It would have been better if he’d never been born.”

Evil destiny tends to have a deterministic view. You can’t be anything other than you are because this is your purpose. This evil thing is what you were meant for. Instead of being guarding and protected from the evils of the world, you bring the evil.

Brightburn (2019): Evil conqueror

Although I will limit my comments to the constraints of this post, I have to say that this movie had so much potential that was unrealized. Maybe in a future post, I will go into it.

Suffice it to say, Brandon Breyer ain’t from around here. A wonderful twist on the superhero trope, we have a supervillain. Laden with powers and a need to conquer the world. “Take the World” he screams at one point in the movie. The thing with Brandon is that he is sent to conquer. To infiltrate, to scout out, and (hopefully in the sequel) report back to whoever about Earth and its occupant.

Brandon represents ‘supposedly’ the blank canvas of children. He crashed to earth, has power (whether from the earth’s atmosphere or not, we don’t know) and walks among us. Then, when he turns twelve, his true purpose, to conquer is activated. Because the makers of the movie decided to go along a horror trend as opposed to an action or thriller take, the later part of the movie is taken up with horror gore and the like.

There are times in the movie where he seems to fight against his nature. After all, his adoptive parents love him, and he knows they do. But, are they simple going to be collateral damage or will he turn away from his purpose?

After all this talk of bad children, you may be thinking, “Geez, Parker!” My point in mentioning the Bad Seed is that they are interesting characters to see portrayed on TV. It shows us that children are NOT a blank canvas but that they come with impressions. Impressions that are molded inherently, through, biology, destiny, or function.

Does that mean that the “bad seed” cannot be redeemed?

Of course not! God is more powerful than all the evil in the world. In Matthew 17, the bring a young boy to him who they aptly call a ‘lunatick’ and Jesus scolds them. Not because the boy’s a lunatick, but because they had little faith. And then He does want only He can do and rebuked the evil spirit in the boy. But he does say, in verse 21 “Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.” Meaning, it’s gonna be a fight on your hands. 

In the young and in the old no one is ever to far from God’s love that He cannot reach them. However, the Bad Seed makes for fascinating storytelling for our horror fans out there.

And for parents who say, “Glad that ain’t my kid!”

Or is it?

What are some things I may have missed? What are some movies with evil kid protagonists? In each movie, could each child have been saved? Share your thoughts.

  1. Editor’s note: Please welcome Parker J. Cole, our new regular SpecFaith writer! We’ll feature her articles every other Wednesday.

The Silent Majority Or The Minority Underground

For years, Conservation voters, including many Christians, were known as the “silent majority.” But certainly Christians didn’t start out in a world in which they were the majority.
on Nov 2, 2020 · 2 comments

Tomorrow is the US federal election day, or as many commentators have began to refer to it, the last day to vote in the “season of voting.” I’m of the mindset that the fixed election day provides the most fair manner for the election of our leaders, but as it happens, the Constitution, while setting the day for the Electoral College to begin its voting procedure, leaves the actual administration of elections up to the states.

Consequently, we see a wide variety of mail-in voting and early voting and absentee voting and the like. Here in California we basically have three means of voting. All registered voters received a ballot which we can then fill in and mail, fill in and drop off at one of the voting boxes in places such as libraries, or vote in person on “Election Day” using an electronic voting machine. This latter option is different from the past in-person voting. Instead of local precincts which were always in the community—places such as elementary schools or a neighbor’s garage or a high school or church—now we can vote in any place in the county. There are voting centers all over and one of the pieces of voting information we received was a booklet with the location of all those voting centers.

Nothing is simple any more, when it comes to voting.

All that aside, when the results are finally tabulated and the Electoral College votes assigned, we will have a winner—either a new President or a President entering his second term in office. Which means, all those who voted for the winner will rejoice and all those who voted for the loser will bemoan the direction in which the country will go in the next four year.

For years, Conservation voters, including many Christians, were known as the “silent majority.” But certainly Christians didn’t start out in a world in which they were the majority.

Rather, that first fearful band of followers huddled in an upper room, having recently seen the resurrected Christ, changed from perhaps several dozen, perhaps as many as 150, into a group of 3000 who responded to Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost. They were known as the followers of The Way. Their number soon swelled, and as the Bible informs us, spread from Jerusalem as persecution set in. As the Apostle Paul and others took the truth about Jesus to the Gentiles—Romans, Greeks, people living in Asia Minor—the numbers grew much faster. But a majority? Not close.

Of course there’s serious doubt that Christians have ever been a majority, even in the Roman Empire when conquered people were required to join the church—as if by decree and obedience to a law someone could become part of God’s family. No, many, many throughout history have been “in name only” Christians.

So, too, in the US. But of course Christians aren’t the only citizens who believe in law and order and the rule of the Constitution and the rights preserved and protected in that document. Perhaps the majority of Americans still believe in those fundamental principles that have made the US, the US. We have a unique democratic Republic, and for most of our 200 plus years of existence, it has served us well.

All this to say, the way the government is set up with checks and balances and three distinct branches and the people being the ultimate responsible agent, we have not experienced insurrection. Unrest, yes, and some fear that if President Trump wins the election, the far left will expand their riots and protests to become a type of movement against the existent governmental structure.

For years, the political party of the losing candidate for President has dug in to make sure they don’t lose the next time. Incumbent legislators have historically been harder to remove from office, but Presidents are limited to two terms, so every four years, there’s the chance to replace a President who has not served the people well. And every eight years, there’s a guarantee a new person will be in that office.

In dystopian stories and many fantasy novels, the government can only be changed by violent overthrow. I mean, what person or group wants to give up power? So we have many stories about a group working underground, much like the French resistance did during World War II, in order to bring about change.

My belief is that Christians are not, and have never been, the silent majority, nor are we to be a minority underground.

We may some day have to go underground. The Cancel Culture mandate could one day apply to Christianity. As it is, to say that something society accepts, such as homosexuality, is a sin, marks the believer as “hateful.” Never mind that we believe God gave us laws to obey which are good for us. So it’s actually better for humanity not to murder, and as Jesus explained, not to hate. It’s actually better for us not to commit adultery, or as Jesus explained, not to lust after someone else. These are laws God gave to us because He loves us and knows our lives will be more fulfilled, happier, successful, more glorifying to Him if we obey them.

But a society that rejects God, says we can, and in some cases, should, ignore His laws. And those who want to follow them are hateful. It’s pretty convoluted thinking, but that’s the world we live in.

All that to say, there may be a day when Christians in America do become a minority underground. But unlike those in so many dystopian novels, the goal is not to establish an earthly kingdom. Jesus didn’t come to take over as an earthly King, and we His followers don’t exist to create an earthly government that follows God’s law either.

Yes, a free government that allows Christians to speak freely about our faith and to worship openly, is “easier.” But I don’t think the goal of the Christian life is “easy.”

To bring this to some kind of conclusion, Christians can rest assured that whether our country protects our rights as we know them, or not, we can know that God is still on the throne. He will not be caught off guard by the election results. Somebody will—either the media reporting Mr. Biden’s lead in the polls or the pundits predicting a “red wave”—but God will not be one of them. He will do what’s right, and we His people can be assured about that.

Lorehaven’s New Fall 2020 Issue Has Released!

This web edition features fifteen new reviews of great Christian-made fantastical novels, such as our cover feature about the award–winning fantasy Seventh City.
on Oct 30, 2020 · 1 comment

We’ve just released Lorehaven’s fall 2020 issue!

This web edition features fifteen new reviews of great Christian-made fantastical novels, such as our cover feature about the award-winning fantasy Seventh City.

Read every article and review free. Subscribe free to Lorehaven to make sure you don’t miss any updates.

Captain’s Log

E. Stephen Burnett: Fiction helps us survive our struggles and groan for redemption.

Book Reviews

Lorehaven’s review team explores the books they like best.

  • Bane of Ashkarith, Ariel Paiement
  • The Book of Rodney, Angelia Asher
  • Crystal Witness, Kathy Tyers
  • Daughter of Lightning, Anna Kate Logan
  • Dust, Kara Swanson
  • Fire Dancer, Catherine Jones Payne
  • Labyrinth of Shadows, Kyla Stone
  • Mists of Paracosmia, Emily Golus
  • Skate the Thief, Jeff Ayers
  • Strayborn, E. E. Rawls
  • Swift, R. J. Anderson
  • Swimmer, Avily Jerome

Seventh City, Emily Hayse

Cover story: ‘Maybe the World Wasn’t Made to Be Carried by You’

Sponsored Review: A King’s Return, J. J. Johnson

A King’s Return sweeps the reader into a world of complex, sympathetic characters.

Sponsored Review: Still Small Voice, Allen Brokken

This simple frontier story gives its child heroes complex dilemmas.

Magic and the Rise of Wicca

Marian Jacobs: To love Pagans, we must biblically discern their motives and needs.

Meanwhile at Lorehaven

Speaking of monsters, don’t miss our new Fantastical Truth episode exploring Dracula‘s castle:

Finally, from my captain’s log article:

During this un-holiday season, your exact monsters may vary in size and species.

Family health scares abound. Travel is limited even in states that have opened. Small businesses have collapsed, and even larger businesses are struggling. For Lorehaven, all live conferences were cancelled, so we had to go web-only. (This may bring more upgrades to Lorehaven going into 2021. Watch this space for news.)

We’ll announce those upgrades by Christmas.

Godspeed!

E. Stephen Burnett, signature

Let’s Talk About Race and Racism: The End Game for Racism

How can racism ever end? Do other countries show us a better way than the United States? How can speculative fiction help?
on Oct 29, 2020 · 13 comments

I haven’t had a clear idea how I would end this series. I considered spending more time talking about “the rise of White Supremacy,” that is, detailing the time “scientific racism” (explained in a previous post) was at its height (late 1800s through early 1900s), when many people believed it was credible to imagine different races had separate origins (were in effect separate species or varieties), which had major effects on many aspects of society of the time and which had lasting consequences. I also considered talking about the shifting attitudes towards Hispanics, the majority of whom were documented as “white” in first Census records of Texas and Puerto Rico and other places–that the very term “Hispanic” is a product of the 1970s. Another potential topic worth addressing before coming to the conclusion would be shifting attitudes towards Native Americans/American Indians–attitudes which were always complex and still are. Yet another topic would be to talk about how policing in the USA shows a complex relationship with African Americans that only in small part stems from racism. Among other potential topics–but instead I’ve decided to come to a sooner rather than later end to this series. To end with talking about how racism can end. And how speculative fiction can help.

A Look at Less Racist Societies

While there’s a lot of racism to be found throughout the world, it should be a no-brainer than the United States has more problems with racism than many other countries. I say “should be” because I have heard occasional defenses of the USA as less racist than most other places. Ironically, such statements come from both very patriotic right-wingers and also from certain Progressives who believe by calling out “white supremacy” we have actually made progress in the United States which other countries haven’t made.

But some other countries don’t ever have race riots or protests or show such sharp divisions that frequently fall along racial lines.  Some other countries don’t have our history of slavery or segregation, either.

I will mention three examples of such countries. Note that my observations of these countries in each case has a personal element. I’ve spent at least a little time in each of the countries I’m naming and the observations I’m making on each are my own.

Kenya

Kenya of course was a former British colony, one that in several waves encouraged white European settlement in the colony. Though the vast majority of Kenyans always were black.

The white minority in Kenya consists largely of very successful farmers who do not involve themselves much in Kenyan national politics ever since Kenya’s independence from the UK in 1962. Unlike continuing tensions between white farmers and black Africans in South Africa, Kenya’s white and black communities live in peace. Though that’s no doubt in part because white Kenyans never inflicted an Apartheid-like regime on black Africans.

Kenya also did not decide to systematically take land from white settlers or otherwise deny their rights after the black majority gained power, as happened in Zimbabwe, former Rhodesia. Perhaps that’s because they saw the benefits of what the white minority could bring in economic output outweighted the benefits of seizing land. Though as a point of fact, Kenya has maintained good relations with the United Kingdom and followed British legal traditions as a matter of principle, which wouldn’t allow seizing the lands of people simply because they happen to be wealthier than average.

Traveling through Nairobi, I decided to take some pictures to remember my stop in the country one late evening in 2012. I took a photo of a building I thought looked interesting. A security guard saw me and called the police. The building was the Kenyan National Archives Building.  The police questioned me and I spent an hour explaining that I was a US military officer (I had a military ID) travelling with a United States official passport, who just happened to be curious and who took a picture. It dawned on me during the conversation that as a white person, I looked basically the same to the Kenyans as someone who might be a Jihadist terrorist, an Arab or Central Asian.

It might seem strange to list my experience getting racially profiled in Kenya as an example of how the Kenyans are not racist. But notice that being white or from the United States conveyed no automatic priviledges on me. I was not released or treated with extra respect because I’m white, not that I could determine. Nor was it assumed that I must be doing something wrong because of my race, even though I fit a profile of someone who might be a problem. My race triggered the attention of the authorties, but then they proceeded with the merits of my case. Did my story make sense? Did my credentials check out? Always treating me with respect and dignity, the Kenyans checked my story–and then let me go.

To say there is no significant white-black (or other) racial tension in Kenya is not the same as saying the society is completely united. There are various ethnic groups and languages in Kenya. There’s also a split between the Christian majority and the Muslim minority. Most significantly, Muslims who are also ethnic Somalis who’ve fled into Kenya to escape the violence in Somalia are a continual cause of problems for Kenya and Kenyans. The Somalis are often involved in crimes–and terrorism–and inhabit large refugee camps. Yet they are black Africans and so the problems Kenya has with Somalis can’t be considered a racial issue.

Though even with Somalis, the Kenyan commitment to rule of law and their ability to look at individual situations based on individual merit shows their nation to be ahead of many others.

Mexico

Based on the fact significant racial tensions exist within the United States between Hispanics and blacks in some places, you might think black people are generally hated in Mexico. Black people do get profiled as “not Mexican” but so do Asians and light-skinned people like me…but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There is a bit of status that comes with being from the United States and to a lesser degree East Asia–a presumption that you are wealthier than the average Mexican.

My experience with Mexican people–and I’m referring to the year I spent living in Mexico and what I know from my wife (who is a Mexican citizen, with a green card to live in the USA) and other people I’ve known in Mexico, is that they don’t hesitate to use racial or national terms, as opposed to a reluctance to use racial terms that sometimes happens in the United States. So the neighbors down the street are “Koreanos” (or “Asiaticos”) and I got called a “Gringo” plenty of times and black people are usually “Morenos” (roughly “darkies”). But from what I observed, such terms are usually employed without hostility.

There is a recognition though that most Mexicans look a certain way–what is properly called “Mestizo,” someone of mixed racial ancestry. While Mexico has colorism in that lighter-skinned Mexians are often assumed to be more elite and plenty of women dye their hair in lighter shades, it’s not a given that ligher skin always equals higher positions of power or that a darker-skinned person cannot advance. There’s a general middle in terms of racial identity that almost everyone belongs to and everyone in that middle is evaluated based on things that indicate social class, like clothing and dress and manner of speaking. Yes, being lighter-skinned also helps create an impression of wealth, but there are plenty of darker Mexicans who are also wealthy. (The big exception to this is how indigenous people are treated in Mexico–mostly not well at all.)

What’s extraordinary about this from the point of view of the United States is we may not realize that some 200,000 Africans are beleived to have been taken to New Spain (what Mexico was called prior to its independence). While most of them obtained freedom before the official end of slavery in Mexico (proclaimed in 1810, not enforced until 1829), at one time there was a significant population of Africans in Mexico. Generally it’s considered that the majority of these Africans intermarried with other Mexicans to the degree that only a small percentage of modern Mexicans have any visible African ancestry, though on average Mexican people have about 5% African DNA. There’s around 1.2% who consider themselves Afro-Mexicans, as per the linked article, but note that number is not an official government statistic. Since 1829, when Vincente Guerrero was president of Mexico, himself an enforcer of the earlier commitment to liberate slaves and also having African ancestors (like Abraham Lincoln and Barrack Obama rolled up into one person), it’s been illegal in Mexico to identify Mexicans by race, other than marking who are “Indios” (speakers of indigenous languages).

Notice how intermarriage over hundreds of years created a situation in which most Mexicans consider themselves members of a single racial group (though class differences are real). They in fact tend to see their nationality as a race, so that having a certain mixed-race look marks a person as Mexican in the popular imagination.

France

Note I was an exchange student to France during the summer of 1985 and worked with French troops in Togo, Africa in March of 2010 and in Djibouti, Africa during 2012-13. It’s not fair to say France has no racial tension–less that us, but it does, though the strongest prejudice I ever encounted in French society was directed towards the many immigrants in France from former French colonies in North Africa, people who are Arab and who are considred “white” in modern racial classification systems (though on average darker than most French people). North Africans are also usually Muslim, something officially secular France has trouble grappling with. French society permits freedom of relgion…but expects that religous freedom will not affect people in their ordinary lives. Such as whether girls from Muslim families will cover their heads in school with a hijab, which French officials have overall opposed.

France also historically did not hesitate to engage in imperialism and to this day remains one of the most active countries in the world in its former colonies. Let’s not forget, as well, that France ran a sugar plantation hellhole in Haiti that greatly contributed to the mess that Haiti remains until this day.

Still, the French attitude towards interracial marriage has always been permissive–even approving. French culture can rightly be said to admire the exotic and while there have been plenty of white French women admired for their beauty, the French never hesitated to admire women of other races as well (I’m saying “women” rather than “people” because I’m relating the situation as I see it–the French love of the exotic relates more to women than men). But the French love for the exotic isn’t limited to feminine beauty.

After World War I, France collectively fell in love with American music, especially Jazz, and proved to be much more accepting of Jazz musicians like Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong than the United States was. Eventually, French nationals would imitate the style. Black Americans and musicians are still very much welcome in France.

Note that France didn’t ever segregate its society so that troops from Africa couldn’t serve in French military units or have separate bathrooms or anything like that. While it’s true that no French president has been black, it’s not unthinkable that one would be. Many other French political leaders have been.

Note also that in France, ever since the French Revolution of 1789, it’s been illegal to categorize people according to race or to consider race a factor in any official government policy–which contrasts with the policies of the United States, which didn’t make an offical constitutional law against racism until the 13th Amendment in 1865 (not fully enforced until a century later) and which continues to count racial groups in the US Census to this day. In France, unlike the USA, it is not even possible to say for certain how many black people live there (estimates are between 3 and 5 million). The government does not count along racial lines.

We can’t say a refusal to count races is the only reason France is less racist than the USA–it’s not even close to the only reason–but it points to something I think is true. Official government policies that downplay the importance of race seem to decrease actual racism over time.

Principles of Less Racist Societies

I see in Kenya a commitment to rule of law and a commitment to examine individual cases individually, in spite of a recognition of patterns that can fall along racial lines. I see in Mexico a willingness to notice racial differences, but also a willingness to consider those differences unimportant and to oblitterate those differences over time through intermarriage. I see in France a genuine interest in and passion for minority cultures, coupled with a willingness to intermarry and an insistance that even minority groups have to conform to certain norms for the whole society (for France, no hijabs in schools).

Both Mexico and France have laws forbidding counting people by race. I personally don’t think that measure would be a good idea in the United States. In a land in which racial tensions are already high, not counting race could well have the effect of covering up abuses that fall along racial lines. We need to be aware of race, for sure.

On the other hand, de-emphasizing separate racial identities seems like a good idea. A non-racist government would not put race as the single most important identifier of who a person is. And the USA tends to do that. For example, I worked for the Census Bureau during this year’s recently-ended 2020 US Census. Ennumerators like me were instructed to find out was how many people lived in a house, then their genders, ages, and races (“Hispanic” was asked about as an “ethnic origin” but not a race). The only income-related question was if they owned or rented their house (or otherwise stayed without paying). We asked no questions about religion or beliefs. Race, age, and gender wound up being the most significant data we gathered. As if race really does define a person more than almost anything else.

The USA would be well-served to find ways to de-emphasize how important race is–not becasue we want people to have their head in the sand about racial realities, but because we want to create expectations that what is real now doesn’t have to define our future. If Kenya, Mexico, and France (and numerous other nations) can have less racial tension than we have, our current situtation doesn’t have to be our eternal destiny.

The End Game For Racism

The end game of racism is one in which people see themselves as human first and then look at other factors like religion in what defines them far more than race. Part of this will come when interracial marriage and appreciation of past interracial marriage is so common that the majority of people don’t consider themselves coming from purely one race in the first place.

The end of racism would not only be hastened by a blending of human colors, Mexican-style, it would not be hurt by celebration of ethnic culture, French-style. These two principles would seem to be in contradiction, but they aren’t. We can love Italian food and celebrate great Italians without creating some kind of separation in which Italians don’t freely intermarry with everyone else or are looked at with suspicion. In fact, the celebration of and acceptance of Italians represents a change that already happened in the USA, because back in the late 1800s and early 1900s (but not before that), Italians were often regarded as not fully American or not fully white. Yet that’s not an issue now.

Also, in the end game of racism, society will also have gone out of its way to demonstrate that no particular racial groups are denied opportunity at the expense of everyone else.

Note that the end game of racism as I’m describing it is not a utopian plan. I don’t think it’s possible to eliminate all tensions or produce a society that’s 100 percent happy about everything. But a better society would involve people being looked at based on individual merit–that you’d have to get to know someone before deciding to dislike him or her. As opposed to hatred at first glance. 🙂

The Road to the End

How do we get from where we are to the end?

  1. Promote the idea we are all individuals. Refuse to accept a person’s race or class or any other group feature is the most important thing about him or her. In addition, emphasize that race in particular is a lousy means of knowing something meaningful about a person. 
  2. Insist on working to solve economic problems that often fall along racial lines, but non-racially: Should we as a society work to fix the cycle of poverty that especially afflicts Native Americans and African Americans? Yes–because some of the causes of these problems relate to how hard it is to get out of poverty and how easy it is to fall victim to substance abuse and then criminality under certain circumstances. In other words, our economic system is not fully fair and it should be fair as much as is humanly possible. The system was made even worse by racism of the past–but the official racist laws are gone. Some ghosts of these laws still remain, but the main problem is the need to fix economic inequality. Fairer access to opportunity will help people of all races. Addressing economic opportunity needs to follow the needs, not look at races. (Note that fairer access to opportunity would include school reform of various kinds, most especially including access to better schooling for anyone who seeks it and shows academic merit.)
  3. Make any reparations address opportunity: Of course there are calls for reparations for slavery. Who would get reparations gets to be an extremely sticky subject because there probably are millions of white Americans who are at least partially descended from Africans brought to the Americas as slaves. Still, in spite of that issue, I can agree there’s some fairness to the idea of reparations because many white Americans benefited from free or very cheap land as from the various Homestead Acts, an opportunity to succeed either partially or wholly closed off to black Americans (note these acts were to the direct detriment of Native Americans). Would it be fair for the government to likewise give extra opportunity, perhaps literally as land to farm or property to develop, to modern African Americans (and Native Americans)? I see a fair way to justify something like that–because land or property isn’t guaranteed money. It’s something you have to work on to develop–and that element of “work in order to benefit yourself” is the real boon white Americans received that enslaved people were denied. Note though, I am not wholly endorsing reparations–they might be part of a solution if done right, but are not required in my opinion.
  4. Investigate imbalances in law enforcement along racial lines and promote successful policies: One of the biggest killers to the idea that we are all individuals is when law enforcement outcomes are dramatically different. I don’t believe this problem is exactly the same throughout all places in the USA–our balance of races isn’t even the same throughout the country. But the Federal government should place special emphasis on investigating and correcting racial bias in law enforcement by use of federal charges when appropriate. This could require changing some laws but it a good idea because different regions and states are so different and could benefit from some uniformity on this one issue.
  5. Don’t settle for mediocre law enforcement in high-crime areas: Possibly the most racist policy in American law enforcement is we in effect let certain areas have high crime, with no expectation things will get better in such places.
  6. Set expectations for improvement: Put in people’s minds that what’s happening now or what’s happened in the past isn’t destiny. The system of races invented by Europeans to justify colonialism was a product of an historical time and place. That system was not the origin of all prejudice or hatred, but it certainly made things worse for a long time. The system of racism can end–race doesn’t really matter. Someday human beings will see one another without the old categories of race mattering all that much.

Some Contrasts Versus Critical Race Theory and “All-American Patriotism”

Both modern Critical Race Theory and what I might call a highly patriotic interpretation of American history will disagree with me. I’m noting some of these disagreements.

What I understand of CRT is that it would say that racism was always central to the United States. Not that it became central and is starting to fade from importance. Racism is always central, CRT would say, and the only improvement we are going to see is if we have a sort of national day of reckoning, in which all white Americans recognize their guilt in benefitting from a system that white Americans in the past created. Then, after properly recognizing the depth of the problem, then the society can be re-structured so that via direct payments or investments, the differences in racial outcomes can be erased.

This is a response that shows a failure to recognize dramatically different outcomes that affects the majority culture as well as racial minorities. It also calls for radical change, when radical change in terms of economic system usually brings more harm than good. Certainly giving people direct payments hasn’t been a great success when it’s been tried before (for example, payments to Native Americans have not been a rousing success). Real improvement includes a generally good economy–which means a capitalist base. Just one with what I would call “chutes and ladders”–ways to lose wealth for those engaged in white collar crime and ways laid out to help people improve who work hard and want to do better who are at the bottom.

The “All-American Patriot” view of course is that racism was wrong, but we have dealt with the unfair laws that caused harship and suffering for racial minorities. We aren’t perfect, but we are improving.  Just give us more time and we’ll keep improving! We are not a racist country now and never were all the way racist. And the CRT people are just secretly over-emphasizing racism for purposes other than dealing with racial problems!

Well, it’s true improvements will take time, that’s for sure. We have removed blatantly racial laws, but have to keep an eye out for subtly racist laws and policies, like in effect fencing off high-crime areas. Improvement is by no means guaranteed–in fact things can stagnate or get worse. We can’t afford not to deal with racism, even though not all of America was ever wholly racist. And it’s also true that Critical Race Theory carries with it the idea that society needs to be restructured in a major way, which effects aspects of society other than racism. Which tends to support Socialst utopian aggendas. So? That doesn’t mean everything CRT enthusiasts say is wrong. Again, we can’t afford to ignore racism as a society, including the more subtle effects of racism.

Though at the same time by painting in broad brush strokes with racial generalities, CRT de facto creates an impression that all black people are in one common situation and all white people are in another common situation (and so on with other races). Which isn’t at all true–individual results vary widely. Which doesn’t mean race doesn’t matter at all. It does. But we can over-emphasize it and wind up sending the message that race really is some super-important thing! No, CRT supporters don’t claim race is so important because of real racial differences that the scientific racists used to believe in, but because of the legacy of past and current racism. Still, they make race extremely important–“Central,” as Derrick Bell put it. An importance it does not merit.

How Speculative Fiction Can Help

There’s a Progressive wing assumption that promoting the works of people other than white writers–specifically works other than white male heterosexual writers (let’s throw “cisgender” in there too), is very important in creating a better future society. It certainly isn’t a bad thing to give a writer from a background other than your own a chance. It certainly can be a good thing to learn new perspectives.

While not entirely disagreeing with the general idea that promoting diverse backgrounds is good, I however object to the idea that gender, race, and sexuality are the most important markers of what makes up diversity. Especially by promoting sexual/gender diversity, the Progressives are losing the empathy of anyone with the idea that Biblical standards on sexuality are actually good. Which may cause religious conservatives to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” and think that all diversity is a waste of time.

Let’s show interest in African American writers, writers of other non-white races, writers from different countries and cultures, and writers of both genders. That doesn’t have to be part of a Far Left aggenda. Learning more and seeing new perspectives is good in general.

Potraying a Better Future

But there’s something else specultive fiction can do, something much more important, in particular in science fiction set in the future. Like Star Trek, it can demonstrate a future in which the issues that plague today have been put aside. In particular, I think it’s important to show that if humans ever come in contact with aliens (or fantasy demihumans, in an urban fantasy setting), what we call “racial” differences now will become laughable.

This type of setup can be sliced in various ways–all bipeds could find common ground when faced with winged or legless aliens. Or all biological species could put aside their differences when faced with technological enemies. As a reminder that what we consider different is a variable term, not absolute. And the future world–or altogether different worlds of fantasy–will have different issues from what we have or have had. Portraying human races as vitally important in other worlds is not a good thing in my view.

Speculative fiction in many ways can show the end of racism. Can make that end imaginable and seem real. Or conversely, can portray dystopian hellholes of racism, warning us what could happen if we aren’t careful about the future.

Star Trek DS9 undermined racism by showing its disappearance in the future. Image copyright: Paramount.

Note I think Star Trek Deep Space 9 did a very good job of handling racism. It promoted diversity without making diversity itself a big deal. Mostly, human racism was an element of the past in the story world that was not important enough to talk about–except when time travelling either in reality on the holodeck. The program showed the end of racism, without pretending it never existed. It created the expectation that racism would end someday, mostly by not focusing on it.

Note also that a writer of a “diverse” background who portrays human racism as inevitable and who is not deconstructing racism via dystopia is probably someone we shouldn’t support. Because we want racism to end and want to portray it as something that can end. So a diverse background does not in fact outweigh what a writer actually says.

Conclusion

Even though we will not obtain utopia in this world, this particular issue doesn’t need to be around. Racism can end. Let’s help it die.

Let’s start by doing what we can to get rid of the effects of past racism. And let’s put emphasis on the importance of individualism–and not judge anyone by who they are in terms of race and background. Even as we remain curious and interested in people with backgrounds different from our own.

Let’s read and write stories that prod society in the right direction–the direction of alternate worlds in which the problem of racism as we know it has come to an end.

Dear readers, I’ve said quite a lot in this series–a series I’ve decided to end here, with what I believe is a roadmap to the end of racism. What do you think about my notions? Please share your ideas in the comments below:

Voting And The Right To Vote

Because the United States is a representative democracy, it seems a little surprising that so few (any?) stories by American authors appropriate this form of government for their story world.
on Oct 26, 2020 · 2 comments

I don’t remember reading many speculative stories set in a democracy in which the characters had a government by the people and for the people. Some have dictators, others have kings, and a few have oligarchies, either religious or secular.

A number don’t include the political aspect of their world, but I tend to think diving into government and the politics that surround it, deepens the sense that this fantasy world or this science fiction world is a real place.

But why not democracies? Some, like the Hunger Games books or the Safe Lands series or Divergent and the books that follow, are predicated on the existence of evil or unfair dictatorships.

Others, like the Harry Potter books, adopt an existing government, modified to fit the circumstances of the fantasy world. So in Hogwarts, the school established to teach young witches and wizards, the students were under the rule of the headmaster, who was under the Ministry of Magic, all operating in the shadows within the larger government of England,

Clearly the students didn’t have a say in the rules they were to obey in the school. And the faculty and staff didn’t have a say when they were given a hostile headmistress who burdened the school with inappropriate rules. The Ministry of Magic was only good as long as it was free from the influence of Voldemort and his followers.

Then there are those stories like Karen Hancock’s Return of the Guardian King series that hing on the fight for control of the kingship of a country, and the political intrigue between nations that play a part in the struggle.

This latter category is often built on a Middle Ages model, years before democracy surfaced in the real world. Consequently, a democracy would perhaps seem like an anomaly or even an anachronism in such novels.

Some stories that are supernatural suspense or Biblical fantasy, build on the warfare between good and evil, or Satan and God. The plot is less concerned about the governmental structure of the physical world of the story, and much more concerned with the organization of the spiritual “sides”: Satan and his minions, and God and His angels and human servants. Clearly, no democracy in those types of novels.

Because the United States is a representative democracy, it seems a little surprising that so few (any?) stories by American authors appropriate this form of government for their story world. I mean, clearly there are many ways to produce conflict in a democracy. An individual could struggle to influence those closest to him to choose a different person or persons to vote for. Perhaps the story could deal with corruption from one of the sides. There seems to be a wide array of storylines available for someone choosing to put democracy in the center of their worldbuilding.

Of course, we do have the classic satirical novel from George Orwell: Animal Farm. The animals overthrew their farmer so that they could rule themselves. But the pigs became the actual leaders (an oligarchy), and they ended up dictating to the rest of the animals.

The allegory was a satire on socialism which developed from the idea of equality of all the animals. The short book is perhaps a good read, maybe even a necessary read, for this present day.

All kinds of people and organizations (such as the NBA, Major League Baseball, and the NFL) are running promotions telling people to vote. I hear it on Christian radio and I see it on the TV networks. The point seems to be to increase the number of Americans, who all have the right to vote, actually exercising their right.

No one says how the person is to vote—just that the ultimate goal is to go to the polls or mail in their official ballot, preferably early.

The problem I have with all this push for election participation is the fact that there is no emphasis on becoming informed about the issues or candidates. We shouldn’t just say “Vote.” The message should be, Be informed, and Vote.

Too many people are willing to, essentially, give their vote to another. They follow mindlessly what their Union says or vote because this or that candidate is a member of a certain political party. Worse might be, the vote for someone because of a celebrity endorsement. Sure, she’s a famous person in the music industry, so she MUST know what’s best for the country. Yeah, and if you believe that, you might be interested in some really prime lake-front property in Death Valley.

In all these rambling thoughts, it seems clear that a democratic government is a breeding ground for all kinds of fictional conflict. So why do we not see more speculative stories set in a world with at least one country holding to democracy? Or are there a number that I’m unaware of?

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Photo credits: Photo by cottonbro from Pexels;
featured image by Element5 Digital from Pexels

The Price Of Otherness

Speculative fiction is based on otherness—the difference between the world of reality and the world of a story.
on Oct 23, 2020 · 3 comments

Operation Grendel is a standalone military science fiction novel told from the perspective of an embedded reporter. The story deals with propaganda and psychological warfare in an era of embedded artificial intelligence. What will it be like when every thought, feeling and impulse is subject to the oversight of a quantum overlord?

This is the idea that prompted my fictional exploration of warfare between civilizations fighting over the importance of human autonomy. What fascinates me is potential for reality to become the stuff of nightmares.

Speculative fiction is based on otherness—the difference between the world of reality and the world of a story.

In science fiction this usually means some change in technology, or society creates a world different than our own: aliens invade earth or techies invent faster-than-light travel or some pudding-headed scientist brings back dinosaurs in a theme park.

In fantasy the otherness of Narnia or Middle Earth contains a supernatural element. Magic is real, or monsters wreak vengeance against an arrogant culture, or talking animals struggle against some great evil.

Naturally any point of otherness will produce a ripple effect of consequences. The existence of Count Dracula means there are other vampires, as well as vampire hunters. Still, the cause of those ripples—that Dracula exists—is a single cast stone.

Whatever that single point of otherness is, it has to be meaningful to us in our world. Which means the otherness has to come at a price.

The reason is simple: the technological and human advancements of the past have always cost more than we expected, so we expect such changes to be expensive.

Photo by Burak K from Pexels

When Edison invented the light bulb, people started clamoring for electrical service, and wiring appeared everywhere. It took a while for legislation to catch up with all the wiring, and even when it did, laws couldn’t fix the main price of power. If you want electrical service, you have to have wires, and the wires are dangerous and ugly. You can either put the wires on poles up high out of reach, in which case everybody has to look at them, or you can bury them out of sight, and every year people will be electrocuted when they dig in places they shouldn’t. That’s the price of electricity. Not to mention the fact that the workday got longer because it was easier to work at night.

You might say the price of cars is exhaust, and paved roads, and accidents, and increased taxes, and disconnection from nature. The list could go on.

The point isn’t that technology is bad, but that the positive aspects of technology are always accompanied by something negative. Unintended consequences are part of reality.

The same thing is true in fantasy. Supernatural laws and beings and events must also come at a price. In fact, it’s probably even more important in a fantasy novel.

Why? Because readers typically don’t encounter the supernatural in the real world the same way we encounter things like technology. We take electricity for granted. We don’t take miracles for granted. We don’t expect angelic visitations in the same way we expect the radio to work when we switch it on.

So when you write a novel in which angelic visitations happen, your reader has to work harder to suspend her disbelief. Most readers can’t relate to the miraculous being possible, much less normal. So the fantasy writer has to purchase the reader’s participation. And he does it by making the magic or the miraculous expensive.

Because I run a novel writing contest for young writers, I read a lot of stories by teens, and one kind of story that shows up frequently is shape-shifter stories in which the hero can transform himself into a bear, a lion, a wolf or whatever. This is a legitimate story device in fantasy, but traditionally these books have been about how bad it is to be a shape-shifter, not how good it is to be a shape-shifter.

It’s relatively recently that western fantasy writers have embraced heroes who shape-shift. In my opinion this is because our culture is moving away from a Christian understanding of the supernatural. We used to think that supernatural powers which didn’t reinforce virtues were destructive. They were bad. So werewolves and vampires were symbolic of man’s corrupt nature. The message used to be a warning: you have to be careful or the vampire of your corrupt humanity will take over. Or, don’t let your wolfish nature control your destiny.

But more important from a writing standpoint is the weakness of this story device. If you’re going to have a good hero who can shape-shift into, for instance, a grizzly bear, then you inescapably create for yourself a huge problem. Whatever difficulty your hero runs into, he can always get out of it by changing himself into a bear. And your reader is going to say under her breath, “Well, yeah, of course he can out of that situation. All he has to do is change into a grizzly and all his problems go away.”

When it’s attached to an evil character, a supernatural power moves the story forward. It creates an internal struggle between the character’s desire to do good and his desire to do evil, with the evil side being really strong.

But when it’s attached to a good character, that power the hero has—to turn himself into a bear, or to fly, or to shoot fireballs from his fingertips—removes the potential for real danger (for conflict). And that makes the story uninteresting. It doesn’t matter what the power is. The same thing will be true for spell-casting wizards, or heroic vampires, or pretty much any hero with a powerful supernatural gift.

The solution to this problem is to make the gift come at a price. The bigger the power, the bigger the price should be. In fact, the price should always be higher than the value of the power. It should always seem a little too high. That is, it should be high enough that the reader wonders if it’s worth it.

This is important. If the reader doesn’t wonder to herself, “Wow, if it were me, would I pay that price to change into a grizzly, or would I let myself be mauled by the wolf pack?” If she isn’t asking that question on some level, then the price your hero has to pay for his power isn’t big enough.

In Lord of the Rings, Frodo has the power to make himself invisible just by slipping on the One Ring. And yet, the price he pays is extraordinary, because although the ring makes him invisible to everyone else, it makes him visible to Sauron and the ring wraiths. So whenever he starts to put it on, no matter how bad the situation is, we in the audience feel like shouting, “Don’t do it!”

That’s the price of magic.

When you make it cost so much that the reader doesn’t want you to use it, you have the essence of speculative fiction.

The essence of Operation Grendel is that we’ve only begun to imagine the benefits of quantum artificial intelligence. I suspect it will come with the promise of making every human longing possible.

But in the end, the price will be higher than we imagine.

– – – – –

AUTHOR BIO

Daniel Schwabauer is an award-winning author and teacher. He is the creator of The One Year Adventure Novel, Cover Story, Byline and the young adult novels in The Legends of Tira-Nor series.

His professional work includes stage plays, radio scripts, short stories, newspaper columns, comic books and scripting for the PBS animated series Auto-B-Good. His young adult novels, Runt the Brave and Runt the Hunted, have received numerous awards, including the 2005 Ben Franklin Award and the 2008 Eric Hoffer Award.

He graduated with honors from Kansas University’s Masters program in Creative Writing in 1995 under the guidance of science fiction writer James Gunn. You may learn more about Dan and his work at his website.

Featured photo by Jonas Ferlin from Pexels

Let’s Talk About Race and Racism: Structual Inequalities

In spite of disagreement with Critical Race Theory, this post does see some “structural inequality” in the USA. Which relates to worldbuilding…
on Oct 22, 2020 · 14 comments

Reader of this series, if you’ve been following from the beginning I hope you are able to perceive the tensions that make this topic difficult. On the one hand, a certain set of critics have accused me of “whitewashing” events to deny actual racism. On the other hand, I’ve had other critics rip into me in the comments section of social media sites where this has been posted for “falsely” characterizing the US Constitution as having an almost-hidden racial element (in part four of this series) and have been accused of pandering to liberals and have been called “antinomian.” The path to truth does not include pandering to either the die-hard defenders of America or those who believe the term “structural white supremacy” is essentially fair and not exaggerated in any way. The task of explaining what I believe are the lingering effects of past legalized racism requires building the case carefully, step by step. Today is the moment to talk about what I’m calling “structural inequality.”

The use of the term is in fact my take on something Critical Race Theory says, but those of you who are socially conservative, please don’t roll your eyes and turn away from this article because I am admitting I examined the claims of CRT and while I find I disagree in many essential points, yet I do not find all things Critical Race Theorists say totally incorrect. Again, please don’t walk away because I said that. I am not a “libtard” and am not in general an apologist for the Left. Nor am I turning Left that I can see. Hear out the case I’m making here, please.

By the way, this post is on a site dedicated to speculative fiction and someone may rightly ask how I can justify being so off-topic for the site. To which I would say this topic can be thought of as an exercise in world-building. Perhaps, after reading about structual inequality, authors may be inspired to create fictional societies in which this type of inquality is highlighted. Or non-existent. Or presented with a unique twist based on aliens or fantasy races (more on this at the end).

“Structural Racism” Versus “Structural Inequality”

Critical Race Theory talks about “structural racism” or more recently “structural white supremacy” as a means to describe society is supposedly structured in a way to promote the success of white people. Derrick Bell, one of the founders of CRT, especially believed the legal system is structured in favor of white people. This is a point where I generally disagree, because to pick out just one example, while I can agree that black jurors have historically been treated with less respect that white jurors, which has been a genuine problem stemming from racism, that does not mean that the system of trial by jury itself is designed either deliberately or accidentally for the purpose of favoring white people.

While I disagree with the broad characterization that the entire American justice system is intertwined with racism, I do agree certain particular laws have had elements that wound up having an unequal racial element, whether deliberate or not. For example, cocaine started being sold in a new crystalized form in the 1980s known as “crack,” a form of consuming cocaine that was especially popular in poor areas in inner cities, often in black neighborhoods. Lawmakers passed hard laws reacting to the wave of rising crack addition and wound up punishing crack possession much more harshly than regular cocaine often favored by wealthy, mostly white addicts. But if we could get in a time machine and ask people passing such laws why they did so in that time period, they probably would say they were trying to protect black communities rather than trying to hypocritcally imprison blacks while giving white cocaine addicts the proverbial slap on the wrist.

But the intent doesn’t matter as much as the effect–the same substance, cocaine, was treated inequally in a manner with a racial element. In this particular case, the law was in fact unequal. However, I would say the vast majority of US laws are not unequal in ways that impact people according to race, as per the claims of “structural racism.”

Generally people seeking to prove the widespread existence of structural racism pull out statistics that show differing outcomes according to race. That the loosely-used term “persons of color” (or POCs) are more likely to live in povery, drop out of school, receive stiff penalties for crimes, be in federal lockup, etc.

It’s important that I say “loosely-used” term POC because there’s some “no true Scotsman” logic applied to who is considered a POC. Asians are the wealthiest ethnic group in America per person, significantly wealthier than white Americans on average, South Asians in particular. So when talking poverty, Asians are not included in the category of POC. However, when talking historic racism, they are included. Sometimes they are also included in the discussion of income inequality, which is the focus of a CNN article I’m linking here. But in short, the Critical Race Theorists are not honestly answering the question of why it is Asians can succeed so well if the United States is a nation with a structural bias in favor of white people and white people alone.

However, let’s not let the general success of Asian Americans get our eyes off my point here. Does the United States have what I am calling “structural inequality”? That is, are there laws and practices of our nation that we all can plainly observe which have the effect of making it difficult for people in poverty to get out of poverty? Yes, there are some.

“Structural Inequality”–Examples of Laws or Practices That Impact the Poor Differently than the Rich

Fines:

A general example of a law with unequal impact is any fine in a fixed dollar amount. For example, a fine of five hundred dollars for burning leaves without a permit (a fine I’ve received) can be devastating if you are poor. You might have to take out a loan to pay it–though if you are unwilling to take out a loan, you might try skipping your date in court and hope the system forgets about you. In fact, the legal system does have other priorities and you will be ignored for your fine–unless you are stopped by the police for something else, in which case your failure to show up in court will have been converted to a warrant for your arrest. You may be given an opportunity to pay your fine then, but if you can’t, you will be jailed until your fine is considered paid off.

Note I have not ever been jailed for deciding not to pay a fine. I was jailed for a ticket for expired license plates that I had actually paid off but a mistake in the system did not record my payment…

But I have received fines I had a hard time paying and I am aware of other people without much money who decided to take their chances. We realize right off that no wealthy person or even middle class person would ever be put in jail for not paying a fine (unless they were insane). Only poor people wind up going to jail for fines that for middle class people are a nuisance and for wealthy people are laughable.

Loans and the Credit System:

In my previous example, I mentioned getting a fine of $500. A person living in poverty in the United States is likely to live paycheck to paycheck. That is, when the needs or wants a person has exceeds the amount of money he or she makes, the tendency is strong to spend all you have the moment you get it. True, many poor people spend irresponsibly, a point I will talk about again in a bit. But that isn’t always the case. Let’s think in particular of someone who once had a higher-paying job and lost it. Who now is saddled with bills he or she once could pay, but now can’t. Even responsibly paying bills (as opposed to frivolous spending) can easily result in a person spending his or her entire paycheck, with nothing left over.

When you have an unexpected need for cash and don’t have it, what do you do? Wealthy people will have the money or property to sell–or if we are talking about the need for capital that wealthy people may have, they can even launch a corporation and sell stocks if they can persuade people to buy (getting money for business ventures is why the stock market was invented). Middle class people probably have some money in savings, but if they don’t, they have a credit card they can use or get a bank loan, making use of their good credit rating (which most will have).

But what if you don’t have good credit? Which is a situation that will describe most but not all people below the poverty line. Is there any way to get a loan with bad credit?

Why yes there is–pay day lenders, who will give a loan to cover you based on your regular paychecks. Or car title lenders, who will take the title of your car for a loan. Or other lenders along these lines, some of whom promise to help you improve your credit, will indeed loan money to people with bad credit. With a catch…a catch of as much as 300 percent interest.

Of course, taking out a shoddy loan is a great way to improve your credit…er, actually, not really. Chances are, you will struggle to make all your payments and your credit will either get worse or not change much at all.

By the way, are the people lending money to people with low credit scores turning a profit? Why yes they are–people familiar with the 2008 housing crisis may know that during a time of a booming economy a huge number of loans were given out on houses at high interest rates to people with low credit scores…and with a bit of economic downturn, people couldn’t make payments and the entire system collapsed. The lenders lost money. The US Federal government bailed out the banks…the wealthy executives who lent so much money in a risky way may have lost their jobs (though most did not), but were never fined or punished in any way that affected their personal wealth. As opposed to poor people trying to get a home via a high-interest “subprime” loan, who got nothing. And as opposed to middle class people, who suffered during the economic downturn.

But the subprime lenders never went away. Sure, they aren’t doing home loans anymore, but they do all kinds of other loans, all the time. An article from 2018 says subprime lenders lent out 345 billion dollars in 2017. The article’s focus is on how big banks are lending to the lenders making money off these loans, with the idea this might not be a smart move for the big banks, because if the economy crashes, they may lose their money. But don’t let that distract you from the truth that as of 2018, 345 billion dollars were loaned at high interest to people paying back the loans often enough to justify continuing to lend the money.

“But wait, the credit system is good, it encourages good behavior,” a reader may reply. I’m not saying it doesn’t, but why do so many places in the USA allow loans at such mind-bogglingly high interest rates? (Foreign readers: US states have the main control over lending laws.) Poor people will turn to the lenders in times of crisis, we know that, and pay enough to keep the high interest loan system going, we know that. But the entire system will extract more money from them than they can afford and will tend to keep them poor. I’m calling that “systemic inequality,” because laws could make subprime lending illegal, but do not.

Food:

How could food have “systemic inequality?” Well, in the past of farming, what people could eat was always limited by what the soil and climate would produce where they lived. And by what transportation could realistically bring from nearby areas. Most people ate locally because it was their only choice, not out of some early sense of environmentalism.

But there’s been a centuries-long change starting with the importation of spices, then sugar, then practically everything. Food has become an international market driven by profit. Profit isn’t bad per se, but the market produces most what people demand most. Demand for sugar has been high for centuries…meaning more sugar is produced…making sugar cheaper.

A number of historical developments made the high-sugar, high-fat snacks in your local grocery store (in most of the USA) cost far less than the same weight of healthy food. It’s not a conspiracy. However, who is more likely to buy high calorie, cheap food? A person with less money, right? Also a person with less money to spend on entertainment–and a chocolatey snack cake can be like a little party in your mouth…

But that cheap food, fine in moderation for most people, winds up costing in the long term, in health costs. In diabetes and other weight-related conditions. Which disproportionately impact those who are relatively poor in the United States.

Could laws do something about this, by maybe taxing junk food in the way cigarettes are taxed? Yes, this is possible, but not how things are now.

GMOs:

Let me bring up a separate food issue that some people will see as more important than I see it (but it’s worth mentioning anyway)–did you know that patent law favors farmers producing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) over people farming natural foods? To simplify a bit, that’s because if a GMO is found in the crops of someone who didn’t pay for it, the law assumes the person who didn’t pay stole it…yet the genes of a GMO can propagate themselves naturally, as can the genes of other living things. So having GMO DNA in a farmer’s crops can totally happen by accident. But US law will generally rule in favor of the copyright holder of the GMO.

This has the effect of promoting GMOs and making them cheaper (note European laws and the laws of some other countries are different in this regard). But if food derived from GMOs is cheaper, who is going to eat more of it? Poor people or wealthy people? Poor people, of course.

Note I don’t think all GMOs are bad, unlike some people. But there’s certainly a risk involved in genetic experimentation. And is there some inequality as to on whom the risks of GMOs fall? Do poor people eat more GMOs than wealthy people? Yes.

Again, this isn’t a conspiracy. But it is a part of our system in the United States and could be changed if we choose to change it. And it has unequal effects, impacting those who are relatively poor worse than those who are wealthier.

Parenting:

So some of the things I’m talking about amount to decisions people make. Just because you are poor doesn’t mean you have to eat GMOs, or you will run the risk of not getting caught on a fine you couldn’t pay, or you’ll take out a high-interest loan. But don’t people generally make good decisions when taught to make good decisions? And who is going to model moderation for a kid growing up in America? Who is going to say you can’t make a meal from the snack aisle, or you should be careful about GMOs? Or you better save some money for a “rainy day,” even if you’re broke? Or you’d better be super-careful not to break any laws if you can’t pay the fines?

Parents, right? That’s what parents do. In particular, fathers.

I don’t want to make any ardent supporters of mothers or single mothers angry here. Note my parents divorced when I was nine and my mom was a single mother for the second half of my growing up years. I love my mother–but she had difficulties raising us alone. Difficulties that impacted me growing up. And my two sisters.

Statistics show that what we can fairly call a “traditional marriage” is good for children. That coming from a two parent home is a big predictor of a child’s success in life (here’s one site that makes this case). That childen, even those born in relative poverty, do better in the future with a mother and father than just a mother…or father (though father-led households do better on average than mother-led ones according to stats).

But here’s the thing–people who grew up in families who modeled a good marriage are more likely to get married themselves and stay married. Or in mirror image, sons who grow up with a single mother don’t usually get married and if they do, they usually wind up divorced. That is, the cycle of single parenthood is self-perpetuating. One generation tends to produce the same results in the next. Not in all cases, but generally. Making poverty tend to be generational.

Felons:

Not only is poverty generational, criminality tends to be generational. If dad was a felon, the son is much more likely to be a felon, not because of genetics, but because of social contacts and upbringing. Liked is an Atlantic article from 2018 that makes this case–that specifically shows how breaking social contacts with friends and relatives who are felons can help felons.

And how does our society, the United States, help a person who has committed a felony to break the cycle of crime and get a regular job? Is it easy to find regular employment in the USA if you’ve been convicted of a felony? Does the law move a person into a new place and make getting a fresh start easy? In general, no.

Generational Wealth:

In contrast, how common is it for someone to gain advantage in life from someone in your family helping you? Pretty common. For Donald Trump, in his own telling of his personal story, that was a “small” 1 million dollar loan from his father. For me, it was my dad buying me an airplane ticket for me once. For some, it might be no more than 5 dollars.

Still, if your family could leave you something, an heirloom of some sort–a house or property–for many people, that’s the start of them building their own personal wealth. If you have something to pass on, then you can help the next generation do better than they otherwise would. But if you have nothing to pass on…then it’s more likely the next generation won’t have anything to pass on, either.

Why Does Generational Poverty Afflict Some People of Color More?

Space does not allow me to list all the things that tend to impact poor people more than middle class or wealthy people. Most of those things have nothing to do with race, but they do mean there’s a general tendency for poor people to have a hard time getting out of poverty. If you are raised in a family where all has gone wrong, it’s hard to get out.

I don’t think I need to dive deep into the pages of history, though I could in detail, to show how past racism affected black people and Native Americans in particular. When your ancestors came here in chains or had their entire way of life taken away at gunpoint, it’s a no-brainer that all your people started out in poverty. That the Europeans who immigrated to America usually had at least some property before they came. That their situation started out differently.

In contrast to other POCs, many Asians have come to the United States specifically for the purpose of working in businesses and universities. They may not have come with much in terms of wealth, but many came because of a high degree of talent and earned high levels of education and have wound up with great deal of wealth. Their success shows that the American system is not one of unremitting white supremacy–because we know for certain Asians have been impacted by historic and current racism. But that racism has not been enough to prevent them from finding success.

However, for people who entered the U.S. economic system mired in poverty from the beginning, a number of “structures” we can call them–yes, I’m borrowing the idea of “structures” from CRT, because they happen to have noticed something correctly–tend to keep people poor.

Dear readers, I submit to you that past racism that caused poverty among all members of some groups of “persons of color,” coupled with “structures” that tend to keep poor people poor, is the primary reason the outcomes for races are different from one another in the United States of America. Current racism is not the primary cause.

Not that current racism doesn’t rear its head in various ways–not that current racism doesn’t need to be dealt with–but it isn’t modern racism that has made such a split in outcomes in America. It’s past racism, historic racism–with overt discrimination–plus current structural inequality that tends to keep poor people poor. That’s the reason we see poverty rates higher in black America and among Native Americans than we do in white America and among Asian Americans. (Latinos are often lumped in with African Americans but in fact there are whole groups of both wealthy and poor Latinos–it depends in part on what country they came from, which is an interesting topic but too much for this post.)

Worldbuilding

So I’ve said a lot on this topic now, in a forum really dedicated to something else, to speculative fiction, especially fantasy and science fiction. For fans of speculative fiction, note how stories can reflect assumptions about how laws and rules can reinforce inequality.

But for creators of stories, you have the opportunity in worlds to you build to show the rules of a society, even if meant to be equal, can have an unequal impact. To use an obvious example, let’s say there was a tax on height–over a certain size the law may consider someone more likely to break a doorway or ceiling. But the law clearly would impact giants and tall humans more than dwarves or hobbits.

Or more subtly, let’s say a story involved loans with detailed warnings on high interest written out–in elvish, which naturally for the most part only elves can read. Or in binary code, which only the robots could easily read. Or other examples along these lines.

Hand drawing red dividing line separating groups of people. Credit: Getty Images/Ikon Images

Conclusion

There are many particular issues this post did not address. But I think structural inequality that is not specifically racial is much more significant than supposed systemic racism–which in fact may exist in some cases, but it does not dominate our whole society. Adopting such an understanding helps us see why Asians are the wealthiest ethnic group, even though discriminated against. And why, once mired in poverty and the criminal justice system, it isn’t easy for whole populations to suddenly leap to be statistically the same as the majority.

Note this post only hinted at ways I think laws could be different to help even out structural inequalities. That doesn’t mean Socialism–in fact, I am not in favor of Socialism. But wise laws should make it easier to get out of poverty, not harder. Which is not a Libertarian position to be sure, but again, not Socialism. A later post may talk more about how I think U.S. laws could do better to help people born into poverty find a way to earn a better living.

But what are your thoughts on this topic? Please make your thoughts known in the comments below.

‘Weaker Brothers’ Shouldn’t Boss Christians About Music or Fantasy

Biblical teaching and strong believes’ examples, rather than people vulnerable to temptation, should guide Christians’ enjoyment of good gifts.
on Oct 20, 2020 · 25 comments

When I was a child, Christian weaker brothers1 had authority to boss you about all kinds of things.

By weaker brothers, I mean Christians who, by their own admission, were vulnerable to certain temptations.2

In one case, Christian leaders held up one specific weaker brother boss: a (possibly apocryphal) witch doctor, and/or former African tribal worshiper, who had converted to Christianity. One version of this anecdote was printed in a booklet from a (nastily legalistic) outfit called the “Institute in Basic Life Principles” (IBLP). The booklet’s title: “Ten Scriptural Reasons Why the ‘Rock Beat’ Is Evil in Any Form” (underline in original).

In April 1990, a Christian from Zimbabwe, Africa, arrived for his first visit to the United States. He is a native missionary under the Awana Youth Association. When he turned on a Christian radio station and listened to the music, he was shocked. Here is his report:

“I am very sensitive to the beat in music, because when I was a boy, I played the drums in our village worship rituals. The beat that I played on the drum was to get the demon spirits into the people.

“When I became a Christian, I rejected this kind of beat because I realized how damaging it was.

“When I turned on a Christian radio station in the United States, I was shocked. The same beat that I used to play to call up the evil spirits is in the music I heard on the Christian station.”

Stephen Maphosah, Zimbabwe, Africa34

It wasn’t long before I realized the absurdity of this story:

Hey. Who put the witch doctor in charge of Christian moral practice?

This goes double if you heard, as I did, that the (apocryphal?) witch doctor was actually a new convert to Christianity:

With all due respect, why should new converts be the boss of Christian moral practice?

Scripture, in fact, specifically warns against letting a new convert become a church overseer. Paul says that if we do that, “he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.”5

But what if the witch doctor wasn’t a new convert? What if the account is true?

Then it still makes little sense for Christians to let him become a music boss:

  • By all versions of the account I heard, the witch doctor wasn’t even trying to boss. He only made the observation about the music similarity. And/or a concern that it sounded like rhythms he and his witch-doctor friends used to try to summon spirits. It was someone else who later “weaponized” his words, as if they marked universal concern for all Christians.
  • By the account’s own terms, the witch doctor had his own personal history with similar music. In his past, he had used certain sounds or rhythms alongside sinful behavior. In the present, he couldn’t help making the association. His story doesn’t apply to everyone else.
  • Even if his story did apply to others, this does not overrule the path that God can redeem pagan practices and things—starting with us.
  • The person’s opinions are not the same as revealed Scripture.

Listen to our new Fantastical Truth podcast episode: Should Christians Enjoy Fantasy with Fictional Magic? Part 2

But Christians keep letting weaker brothers boss them about things.

Plenty of Christians keep going along with this weird tendency. They keep entrusting “weaker brothers” with unique authority over particular practices. Those relate to music, as we’ve seen. But they also related to things like food and popular culture:

What sorts of foods can we eat or avoid?

Let’s all listen to a person who has terrible food allergies, and/or terrible stories about what happened to her when she consumed a certain thing.

What kinds of fantasy stories can we enjoy or avoid?

Let’s all listen to a person who has a terrible backstory about being drawn into the occult and Satanism.

Are certain types of Christian music acceptable or too worldly?

Let’s all listen to a person who has a terrible backstory about being drawn into the occult and Satanism.

That last one is a particularly bizarre trend. Some Christians, historically, keep deciding to let Satan-worshipers be the best authority on the Devil’s powers and dangers. Sometimes it doesn’t even matter whether the Satan-worshiper has since received the gospel. I have heard Christians cite (apocryphal, anecdotal, or actual) current New Age or pagan teachers as authorities about spiritual warfare.

Shouldn’t we follow strong Christians instead?

The apostle Paul doesn’t venerate weaker brothers the way some Christians have.

He doesn’t say they’re strong. He says they’re weak. Weak means not strong. It means, “These are the people you should help.” It does not mean, “These are the people who have the inside view, so you should follow whatever standard they must follow.”

In fact, the very truth that Paul speaks openly about weaker brothers means he wants all the church, strong and weak alike, to adopt these categories.

Paul does not want stronger people to meet together and whisper about how legalistic the weaker brothers are. He doesn’t want weaker brothers to gather secretly and whisper about how the others keep compromising with the world. Instead, Paul wants the issues openly discussed. After reading his letters (probably publicly!) to the Roman or Corinthian church, everybody could meet together. They could figure out their strengths and weaknesses.

“Ah yes. I grew up in this particular Athenian cult. I can’t go near market so-and-so without feeling a compulsion to rejoin my old people.”

“Fascinating! I never have that issue. So I suppose if you need anything in that market, I could head out there for you.”

Stronger brothers and sisters have rarely if ever been tempted to sin by particular foods, holidays, popular culture, or more. Or they were once tempted to these sins, but through Scripture study, prayer, and hard holiness work, have achieved victory over those sinful temptations.

Weaker brothers, precisely because they’re weaker, don’t (yet?) have such victory. So they require special care.

By default, Christians should put the stronger believers in positions of authority. Because they’re, you know, stronger.

By default, Christians should not put the weaker brothers in positions of authority. Because they are weaker.6

  1. And sisters. As my study Bible is fond of pointing out, the Greek term adelphoi, translated brothers, is a catch-all term that refers to men and women.
  2. The phrase comes from Romans 14. Here, the apostle Paul urges Christians to be welcoming and sensitive to concerns of “the one who is weak in faith” (verse 1). See also 1 Corinthians 8–10. Here, Paul refers to “the weak” (1 Corinthians 8:9). Weaker brothers are not following a higher standard of holiness. They are weak precisely because they cannot help associating some behavior with sin—possibly because of their own background.
  3. I’ve copied the wording from this website. However, it credits only “guest article.” It does not give a date and does not mention the original source: the IBLP booklet “Ten Scriptural Reasons Why the ‘Rock Beat’ Is Evil in Any Form.”
  4. One commentator provides another version of the “witch doctor” story on the Recovering Grace website: “Bill (that is, disgraced IBLP legalistic seminar leader Bill Gothard) repeated (sic) stated in his seminars that the origin of rock music was from African voodoo type of music. He usually gave the story of an African witch doctor that was visiting and heard ‘rock music’ and stated that this was the kind of music that the former witch doctor used in his practice of witchcraft and voodoo. He (Gothard) had serial variations of this story that he used in the seminars.” Source: Comment dated June 8, 2015, from “rob war,” in response to “The Phony Consequences of Rock Music,” RecoveringGrace.org, Nov. 14, 2011.
  5. 1 Timothy 3:6.
  6. This article has been edited from its original version. In my original series, I continued to explore the one area where some “weaker brothers” are gaining power: social justice issues. Of course, this takes us further beyond the fantasy issues. If you want that series, here are the original links:

    Series: Weaker Brothers Shouldn’t Boss Christians

    1. Weaker Brothers Shouldn’t Boss Christians about Music, Food, or Fantasy
    2. How Weaker Brothers May Begin to Boss Christians about Social Justice Issues
    3. Weaker Brothers Shouldn’t Boss Christians about Social Justice Work .

Four Replies to ‘Scary’ Questions that Led Searchers to Speculative Faith

“What does God think of scary stories”? “Christian spells”? “Ted Dekker controversy”? “Consequences of Deuteronomy 18:10–12”?
on Oct 14, 2020 · 8 comments

We’re in between Wednesday writers at SpecFaith. Earlier this year, Mark Carver quietly stepped out to soft-reboot, in part because of pandemic. Earlier this month, Shannon McDermott also stepped back, at least for now, and likely for similar reasons.

So for today, you’ve got me. I thought I’d make a “filler episode” by responding to search-engine questions that led readers here.

Here are my micro-answers—at least, replying to the web queries I understood.

‘What does God think of scary stories?’

It depends on the story.

Does the story draw you closer to Christ, the embodiment and origin of all truth, beauty, and goodness?

Or does that story help push you away from Christ, perhaps into a quiet suspicion that darkness always wins and there is no hope?

Scary stories are found even in Scripture. The Fall itself (Genesis 3) is terrifying when you think of it. Before you even finish Genesis, you’ve also seen a global cataclysmic Flood, a man’s wife transmogrified into a salt pillar, and incestuous drunk-rape. Generations later, Judges 19 is a self-contained horror tale. All these true accounts can scare us, rightly, about the terrible consequences of rejecting our Creator.

‘Christian spells?’

These are not a great plan.

As we explore in this week’s podcast episode, God warns his people (then as now) against occultism. We must not try to act like “gods” in God’s world, pridefully worshiping idols and using “magical” means to control our own destinies.

That includes anti-Christian, occult practices: the usual stuff we imagine, like tarot cards, charms, crystals, and New Age whatnot.

Yet it also includes “Christian white magic“—the sorts of spiritual zone-defense Christians attempt, even as means to ward off paganism.

The 49th Mystic, Ted DekkerTed Dekker controversy?’

Hmm. This could mean many things.

Dekker is a fascinating figure, and I’ve enjoyed much of his fiction. My favorite of his novels is actually Blink. His Thr3e likely ranks second.

We positively reviewed his novel The 49th Mystic at Lorehaven. Yet we did include more details in the Discern section:

Soft-gnostic themes and even heterodox preaching, not just shown subtly in the story but blatantly told in an introductory author’s note and concluding detailed Scripture interpretation; plus frequent attacks on portrayals of organized religion, and a Holy Spirit–like figure prefers feminine pronouns . . .

Perhaps this is the “controversy” the web-searcher was seeking: Dekker’s growing appreciation of “mysticism,” not just as some optional path for some monks somewhere, but as an essential choice to get some kind of higher, more-enlightened spiritual life.

Mike Duran also wrote more about Dekker in 2017’s “The Dangers of Christian Mysticism.”

Apart from the mysticism concerns, Dekker seems to struggle with The Church Back Home. (That’s my catch-all term for “that religious group, faction, denomination, or local gathering that gave you a lot of trouble in your childhood or career or professional ministry.”) I understand these struggles. But when someone tries to turn them into a leadership platform, and urge people to forsake the local church—and to challenge biblical gospel teaching—that goes too far. Young Christians who struggle with the pain of legalism need to hear more.

This doesn’t mean, “Don’t read Ted Dekker’s books.” Our reviews’ Discern section is about notification, not warning! Yet always, always compare any fantastical Christian-made fiction with the greater and truer narrative of the Bible.

‘Consequences of Deut. 18:10-12?’

Here’s another perfect setup for this week’s podcast episode, Should Christians Enjoy Fantasy with Fictional Magic? Part 1.

From the Scripture text, Deuteronomy 18:10–12:

There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD. And because of these abominations the LORD your God is driving them out before you.

From the show notes:

Scripture warns against real occult practices that result from idolatry.

  • For them: All these are false and blasphemous ways to seek God’s future.
  • Divination: attempting to foretell the future. Fortune-telling: the same.
  • Interpreting omens, sorcery, charming, summoning the dead: the same.
  • If you want to know futures, you want to control reality on your own terms.
  • The chief sin here seems to be a single sin: divination, fortune-telling, control.
  • This is idolatry: you’re trying to be like God, stealing his authority from him.
  • Even if we don’t do that stuff, we struggle with idolatry. (Cf. last session.)
  • Especially in hard times, we want to know the future. We want to have power.

Notice what God doesn’t say in these passages (but do Christians say this?)

  • God does not address the issue of anything else labeled “magic.”
  • He does not answer if these pagan strategies actually work.
  • He does not talk about whether whether they summon Satan or demons.
  • Here, at least, God is not interested in these topics.
  • He only gives one motive for people: their holiness in worship for his sake.

Return next week, when I just might share three-or-so more of these, with some quick responses and resources.

How would you answer any of these questions?