2020 Spec Faith Fall Writing Challenge

As we have done in the past, Spec Faith will offer a prize for the winner of the 2020 Fall Writing Challenge.
on Sep 21, 2020 · 23 comments

Technically Fall begins September 22, so I guess we’re starting this biannual contest a day early. But at long last, and in place of our Summer Challenge, Spec Faith brings you our traditional Writing Challenge!

Certainly 2020 has been the strangest year I’ve lived through. Nothing has seemed normal—from the impeachment (yes, that was this year, though it almost seems like a lifetime ago), the pandemic, church online, race riots, fires, hurricanes, on and on.

Perhaps there’s something within all these strange events that sparks a story idea. But that’s for writers—published or unpublshed, hobbyists or professionals—who wish to enter the challenge to decide.

As we have done in the past, Spec Faith will offer a prize for the winner of the 2020 Fall
Writing Challenge. Of course there’s also feedback from other Spec Faith visitors, which all entrants may enjoy, but there’s a $25 gift card from either Amazon or B&N for the winner. For readers, there are stories or story beginnings to enjoy. It’s all very win-win for all our visitors!

As a refresher, here’s how the 2020 Fall Writing Challenge works:

  1. I’ll give a first line, and those who wish to accept the challenge will write what comes next—in 100 to 300 words, putting your entry into the comments section of this post.

“What comes next” may be the opening of a novel, a short story, or a completed piece of flash fiction—your choice.

In keeping with Spec Faith’s primary focus on the intersection of speculative fiction and the Christian faith, writers may wish to incorporate Christian elements or to write intentionally from a Christian worldview, but neither is required (largely because many entries will be the beginnings of stories, and may not yet reveal the direction they could go). Likewise, I’d expect speculative elements, or the suggestion of such, but entries will not be disqualified because of their omission.

  1. Readers will give a thumbs up (NO THUMBS DOWN, PLEASE!) to the ones they like the most (unlimited number of thumbs up), and, if they wish, they may give a comment (please do!) to the various entries, identifying what elements particularly grabbed their attention or in what ways they can strengthen their writing.

I encourage such responses—it’s always helpful for entrants to know what they did right, what readers liked, and what they could have done to improve.

  1. After the designated time, I’ll re-post the top three (based on the number of thumbs up they receive) and visitors will have a chance to vote in a poll for the one which they believe to be the best 2020 fall entry (one vote only).

  2. The entry which receives the most votes will earn a $25 gift card (from either Amazon or Barnes and Noble). In the event of a tie, a drawing will be held between the top vote getters to determine the winner.

And now, the first line:

Stuffing the last item of clothing into her travel bag, Octavia glanced out the window once more to be sure that no one was on the road in front of her house.

Finally, those silly little details we all need to know:

  • You must include the given first line without changing it. Changes to the prompt will disqualify an entry (things like verb tense or gender or POV).
  • Your word count does not include this first line.
  • You will have between now and 8:00 AM (Pacific time) this coming Monday, September 28, 2020, to post your challenge entries in the comments section.
  • You may reply to entries and give thumbs up, this week and next. To have your thumbs up counted to determine the top three entries, mark your favorite entries before Monday, October 5, at 8:00 AM (Pacific time).
  • Voting begins Monday, October 5, after the poll is posted.

Feel free to invite your friends to participate, either as writers or readers. The more entries and the more feedback, the better the challenge.

However, please note, the challenge is not a popularity contest. We want to give writers a chance to find out what readers actually think of their writing. Consequently, please do not ask your social media followers to give your selection a vote unless they read the other entries as well. Thanks for making this little exercise a valuable help to all who enter.

Let’s Talk About Race and Racism. Part 5: Scientific Racism

Scientific theories of the Enlightenment, increasingly discriminatory through Darwinism, created racism as we know it.
on Sep 17, 2020 · 21 comments

This post was supposed to be about white supremacy, but there’s something that we need to discuss first. Scientific racism.


First, let’s orient ourselves to the subject a bit–as this series has already shown, the belief in races as we know them simply didn’t exist in the ancient world–which doesn’t mean that ancient writers didn’t show their preference for themselves over others or engage in stereotypes about various ethnicities. But it means they had no concept of European, African, Asian or other sweeping generalizations about all of humanity that we call “races.”

I’ve already mentioned in a previous post the late Middle Ages had begun to think of Shem, Ham, and Japheth as being the fathers of Asians, Africans, and Europeans (though the Bible doesn’t show them so neatly divided by place), so that was the proto-racial concept Europeans started out with, one not entirely well developed or thought about all that much, at the beginning of the scientific revolution that began a bit before the Enlightenment.

Racism in Science

Hey, the ugly truth is that early science–some might want to dismiss it as “pseudo-science,” which is only somewhat fair–is what created racism.

But wait, didn’t I say in a previous post that slavery created racism? In fact, I was a bit inconsistent in my terminology. Yes, slavery created a racial bias against the people held in slavery, just as the reality of fighting Native Americans created a concept of the person being fought, the “Indian.” These realities created biases, but biases themselves were not enough to create the idea there exist races of humans that span the globe.

My previous posts have had the purpose of showing the order of actual events, which is different from what many modern people presume. Racist Europeans did not set out to enslave Africans because they believed they were inferior. The order of events was actually that the first indentured servants from Africa were in Colonial America in 1619. Slavery didn’t beome legal until 1661. The first Enlightenment treatise to use the word “race” came out in 1684. But scientific explanations of race didn’t begin to be systematically dismissive of non-European races until 1799.

First came economic exploitation, then legal discrimination, then came the scientific system of what I called “early racism” in my previous post, then came de-humanizing “scientific” systems of racism.

Over time, such scientific (or pseudoscientific) systems would increasingly argue in favor of justifying slavery and colonialism. But at first, they were more intrested in simply explaining where humans of differing types came from.

Note that as they created their theories, these philosophers and scientists wrote during an era of European de facto dominance over all sides of the Atlantic (and increasing power elsewhere). But the theories were produced in the name of science–of advancing knowledge and understanding. And in fact, without the urge to classify and categorize on a global scale, we would not have racism at all. Racism is a product of the science of the past.

Just to be clear, I am not anti-science. Science can be a very good thing. But it is subject to abuse, as is any human-weilded power. The urge to classify in a scientific way was key to creating a sense that “races” are real and really matter. Which was key to seeing some races as inferior to others. But that science didn’t happen in a vacuum.

Note in addition to the influence of slavery and colonialism I already mentioned, the discovery of non-European lands fed into science in ways it’s hard for a modern person to appreciate. New lands, new animals, new plants, new products of unfamiliar civilizations, and yes, unfamiliar human beings, all spurred on an already-developing urge to classify and analyze. The very notion that there are “races” that span the globe and define all human beings was invented during the Enlightenment and was perpetuated in the name of science–and is still justified by science to a small degree up to the present.

Monogenism Versus Polygenism

Let’s define an important pair of terms in the context of human origins. A “monogenist” holds that all human beings come from a common source. A “polygenist” says human beings sprung up from separate, unrelated sources.

Generally, monogenism is less favorable to seeing races as completely different than polygenism. Yes, the monogenist has to answer the question of where other so-called races come from, if all races started as one. Sometimes the explanations of how other races came to be are pretty insulting to non-Europeans–oh and let’s be clear here: Just as Europeans should get the credit for creating modern science (sure, based on antecedents derived in part from other cultures, including Islamic and Chinese culture), they should also get the blame for creating racism.

Polygenism was the position of people who had the harshest condemnation of other races–because they claimed the non-European races were not as human. Though in fact, some polygenists saw non-European races in relatively benign terms. The details get complex.

The Bible is staunchly monogenist about human origins. Modern science is monogenist, too, though that wasn’t always the case. Note a minority of modern scientists still defend polygenism.

Some Key Racial Thinkers During the Enlightenment

Francois Bernier gave us the first essay that first divided human beings into races in 1684. He counted all Europeans, West Asians, North Africans, and Native Americans as one race, Sub-Saharan Africans as another, East Asians as another, and the Sami/Lapplander people of Scandinavia as a 4th. His system roughly followed the Japheth, Ham, Shem division of three races, with some weirdly savage attacks on Sami people as half-animal added on, talking about them as being worse than any other race…a strange opinion that no other racial theorist continued after Bernier.

Robert Boyle (1627-1691), better known as an early chemist, argued common descent from Adam and Eve and unity of the human race.

Richard Bradley in 1721 wrote the Philosophical Account of the Works of Nature in which he argued for 5 races. White Europeans with beards; white men in America without beards (meaning native Americans; men with copper color skin, small eyes and strait black hair (Asians); blacks with strait black hair, and blacks with curly hair. He did not set a specific heirarchy among the races.

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788) was a monogenist. He held to a degeneration theory. That is, all races where once white, but a variety of environmental factors changed them to other colors. In particular, he believed the harsh sunlight in Africa turned black people dark. He actually believed that given the right environmental conditions, people of other races would revert to being white…which is a sentiment that definitely put Europeans on the top of an order of races, assuming Europeans are the default for “human” and everyone else is abberant. But his system did not assume inferiority of other races.

In his 1734 book Sketches on the History of Man, Scottish lawyer Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696–1782) was the first major figure to argue as a polygenist. He believed God had created different races on Earth in separate regions. That there were co-Adams that God created that simply are not mentioned in the Bible (note that this isn’t too different from how I imagine God could have created aliens…).

The book is mostly about a belief in developing human progress over time, human cultural evolution. Kames assumed humans are continually getting better, improving, that there is a natural movement, a “progress” of the human race that starts at hunter-gatherer, moves up to herdsman, then develops agriculture. In his system, Native Americans of the North America were at the bottom of the development chain, Africans were at the herder stage, and Europeans and Asians were at the advanced stages.

The idea that whatever is coming in the future is good and progress is inevitable probably was more influential that Kames’s ideas on race–certainly modern Progressives tend to see society as getting better and better, which it doesn’t really do if you ask me.

I’d like to quote Kames extensively–even though I disagree with much of what he said, I find it interesting. But space doesn’t allow me to. He spends a great deal of time explaining why after all, Scottish people Are The Best Ever, echoing ancient world ethnocentrism even as he hammered out new racial theory. He did consider black people to be inferior, we should note, but his polygenism was relatively benign compared to what would come later.

Carl Linnaeus in 1767 came out with Systema Naturae, the base document of modern biological science, the one that laid out the system of order, genus, and species all science uses today. He divided humans into four races (four varieties), influenced by ancient world theories of four humors. He said there were 4 races dominated by 4 humors. Americanus—choleric, Europeanus—sanguine, Asiaticus—melancholic, Africanus—phlegmatic. His system is kind of discriminatory because of a preference for being sanguine, but treated all humans as human.

Benjamin Rush (1745–1813), was a signer of the US Declaration of Independence and a monogenist. He believed being black was caused by an inherited skin disease that could be cured over time. He was against treating black people badly, but was also against spreading the disease via interracial marriage. We’d say that was racist and it literally was racist–but it was not the sort of racism that justified slavery or considered black people sub-human.

Samuel Stanhope Smith (1751–1819) was an American Presbyterian minister. His essay on the Causes of Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species in 1787 argued in effect black skin is a sort of giant freckle and no indication of significant racial differences. Which by explaining black people as defective somehow certainly is racist in a way–but it is literally true that a natural darker spot on a white person, a freckle, is a place with more melanin, and having more melanin defines darker-skinned people. So Smith was actually correct in identifying what makes some people darker than others.

Post Enlightenment Racial Thought (Increasingly Hardcore Racist)

Charles White (1728–1813), 1799 Account of the Regular Gradation of Man, produced the first of what I would consider a genuine racist theory. He was a polygenist. He gave the first clear and unambiguous argument that whites and Negroes were separate species and Negroes were inferior by nature. He actually argued, long before Darwin came around, that Africans descended from gorillas–as opposed to white people, who did not. Yeah, that horrible, horrible idea. It came from this guy.

Christoph Meiners, polygenist, held to a multitude of races in which Slavs were not considered fully European and Celts were the noblest race. Weirdly Meiners was German and not Celt, so he defied the rule of standard ethnocentrism. He made lots of sweeping racial generalizations about black people, Indians, Middle Easterners, ranking them in order. His most important book was the 1815 Outline of the History of Mankind.

Rev. Richard Furman in 1822 published his Exposition of the Views of the Baptists Relative to the Coloured Population of the United States. He used the Bible to defend slavery and was in fact a monogenist who conflated the curse on Canaan into a curse on Ham. And since Africans are decendants of Ham in his view, they were worthy of slavery. His work was a hugely popular in the pre-Civil War South. Note that he personally was anti-slavery as an impoverished young man, but then became wealthy and a slave owner, then flipped to becoming an apologist for slavery after it was making him money personally. I’m not making that up.

Georges Cuvier (1769–1832), the French naturalist and zoologist, influenced scientific polygenism and scientific racism. Cuvier believed there were three distinct races: the Caucasian (white), Mongolian (yellow) and the Ethiopian (black). He did believe they were distinct species, but didn’t rank them in order as far as I know. Still, the idea that humans represent separate species is damaging all by itself.

In Crania Americana (1839) Samuel Morton contributed to the new science of “Craniometry” and argued for racial superiority based on brain capacity. He argued white brains are the biggest, Negroes are smallest, and Native Americans are in the middle. His results have been shown faulty in modern times–besides, among humans the exact size of your brain is not directly linked to intelligence, baring diseases in which a significant portion of the brain is missing.

Measuring skulls…Image source: Socialistworker.co.uk

Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race by Samuel Cartwright (1851), argued slaves only ran away because of “Drapetomania”—that healthy black people enjoyed being slaves and they had to therefore be mentally ill if they wanted to escape. Like Furman, his work was hugely popular in the antebellum South.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), better known as a philosopher on other matters, argued the “white races” were superior because they had to work hard to survive rigorous Northern climates. Though he admired the ancient Hindus and Egyptians.

An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1855) French aristocrat and writer Arthur de Gobineau (1816–1882), argued for complete white supremacy. Proposed 3 races, white, black, and yellow, and said if any black or yellow man had intelligence, it was because of interbreeding with white people. Believed interracial marriage would mostly dilute white superiority and destroy civilization. He directly argued that white people needed to suppress other races.

Note that Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species came out in 1859. And while I do blame Darwinism for a number of ills in modern society, Darwin himself did not specifically address the issue of human races in his signature book and when he did talk about it in later writings, he was not himself a hardcore racist. But Darwinism added fuel to the racial theorists fires. Because prior to this time, polygenism was broadly attacked by the Bible-believing public as not consistent with the Bible–and polygenism was the idea most supportive of racism. Though of course there were racist monogenists like Furman.

After Darwinism, the racial theorists felt increasingly unencumbered to really pour out more and more racist ideas.

Post-Darwinist Racism

Clémence Royer who could perhaps be seen as a feminist icon, also was a racist. In translating the Origin of the Species into French in 1862, she wrote a preface that the races are “not distinct species” but “quite unequal varieties.” She claimed that natural selection made it clear that “superior races are destined to supplant inferior ones.” In effect, she applied Social Darwinism to racial theory. Because species survive based on being more competitive, clearly Europeans are superior to other types of human beings, because these particular human beings were demonstrating superiority by conquering other peoples around the world. (Note that in his book The Descent of Man in 1871, Darwin would combat how his theory was taken to justify racism by arguing for monogenism.)

Carl Vogt (1817–1895) in his 1864 book Lectures of Man he claimed the differences between white people and “Negroes” are greater than those between two species of ape. That supposedly proves that Negroes are a separate species from whites.

Georges Vacher de Lapouge (1854–1936), a theoretician of eugenics, who published in 1899 L’Aryen et son rôle social (1899 – “The Aryan and his social role”). In this book, he classified humanity into various, hierarchized races, spanning from the “Aryan white race, dolichocephalic,” to the “brachycephalic,” “mediocre and inert race, best represented by Southern European, Catholic peasants.” Between these, Vacher de Lapouge identified the “Homo europaeus” (Teutonic, Protestant, etc.), the “Homo alpinus” (Auvergnat, Turkish, etc.), and finally the “Homo mediterraneus” (Neapolitan, Andalus, etc.) Jews were brachycephalic like the Aryans, according to Lapouge; but exactly for this reason he considered them to be dangerous; they were the only group, he thought, threatening to displace the Aryan aristocracy. Vacher de Lapouge became one of the leading inspirators of Nazi antisemitism and Nazi racist ideology. (Note how the category of “white” is getting smaller in 1899 that it had been before–contrary to what Critical Race Theorists say.)

Madison Grant (1865–1937) adopted the three-race European populace model, but transliterated la race nordique into “The Nordic race” based upon his racial classification theory, popular in the 1910s and 1920s. Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race (1916) as “the most influential tract of American scientific racism” according to Stephen Jay Gould.

Lothrop Stoddard published many books against what he saw as the peril of immigration, his most famous being The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy in 1920. In this book he presented a racist view focusing concern about the coming population explosion among the “colored” peoples of the world and the way in which “white world-supremacy” was being lessened in the wake of World War I and the collapse of colonialism. Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean were European sub-groups he used, with Nordic being the highest.

Why Worse and Worse?

Note there are a lot of post-Darwin racists I didn’t mention. So many–many of who favored eugenics, getting rid of bad genes. For them, the genes of other races…but still, even with what I included, it’s not hard to see that scientific and pseudo-scientific racist theories became harsher and harsher over time and as a general rule, created more categories, though of course there were exceptions to the rule.


I think I already said why in my last post. As the concept of universal human rights became more popular and more accepted, how could a person justify their position at the top of a pyramid of power? Racial theorists justified it by inventing systems in which a world-wide system of races exist and upon which their particular group sat at the very top of the order. The order was supposedly meritorious. “Nordic” white people are the most dominant because they are racially superior. Anyone else is inferior, by degrees that cut across Europeans to all peoples in the world, putting Africans at the very bottom.

But note Europeans had the power first–then they justified it. And even as some Europeans were justifying their power with racial theories, other Europeans firmly held to the monogenist idea that all humans have a common origin. That “all men are created equal.” Even while at the same time racial theories became increasingly hateful and exclusionary.

What Stopped This?

The Nazis were the result of the radical racial theories of their time–theories that were not necessarily German. They carried out what the extreme racists believed…and most people, all around the world, reacted in horror to the results radical racism produced. Thank God.

So the excesses of the Nazis convinced most people they were wrong, that all racism was wrong. Not that racism is dead, but it has changed and I doubt will ever be the same. Again, thank God.


So were you aware of the arc of “scientific” racism? That it generally got worse and worse? That Darwinism added fuel to the fire? That it was not in fact common to say some people of European descent are not actually white until after 1850s or so?

What are your thoughts on this subject?

An Acquittal

One of the curious facts about art is that even the worst ideas are, very occasionally, right.
on Sep 16, 2020 · 1 comment

Dostoevsky’s Devils is a 700-page epic of spiritual lawlessness, conniving, and singularly poor decisions. For most of the novel, this plays out in long conversations, awkward domestic scenes, and some very unfortunate social events. At the climax, everything joins in a conflagration of murders and suicides, with two or three natural deaths for variation in tragedy. Such is Dostoevsky’s genius that it scrapes above melodrama to meaning.

To end a story in a general slaughter of the principals is an established tradition. It is dignified, though not justified, by a notable presence in classic literature. As a rule, I don’t care for it. Such endings usually feel rushed, as though the author killed off the characters as the quickest expedient to ending the story. They may even be read as lazy. You could craft an unexpected, yet logical and satisfying, resolution of the characters’ internal and external struggles. Or you could just kill everyone.

The worst aspect of the “everyone dies” resolution is that it is so purposelessly bleak. The point goes beyond any objection that the story is dark, or depressing. It is the meaninglessness of it that is insupportable. If all the story’s conflict and energy simply terminates in a general slaughter, what was the point of it? The characters may as well have not bothered.

Dostoevsky’s Devils entirely acquits itself of any charge of being rushed or lazy, and not because it is 700 pages long. The forces in the story, at work from the beginning, slowly but inevitably plunge it down into violence. You knew that this, more or less, was how it would end. Devils does not escape the meaninglessness so crushing in similarly violent resolutions. It makes no effort to escape. Every death is senseless. There is no heroism, nothing achieved or saved. The villains win thoroughly, and even they gain nothing. With grim irony, Dostoevsky allows his villains to succeed in their schemes while failing in their objects. Most stories work in dichotomy: someone has to win and someone else has to lose. In Devils the villains fail, and still everyone else loses.

What redeems all this is the force of Dostoevsky’s ideas. The novel is sometimes labeled a critique of atheism, and that is true enough. Its full scope, however, is broader and subtler. The crucial dynamic of the novel is the strange, half-contemptuous affinity between the young radicals and the rich, respectable people in power. These, together, are Dostoevsky’s devils. The revolutionaries were active in mischief, and the people in authority complaisant to it. The radicals were declared atheists. The people in authority went to church, or at least made profession of some vague God. But they had no spiritual or intellectual anchor. They simply drifted – ever attracted by new ideas but incapable of serious examination, impressed by boldness but unable to hold conviction of their own. Indifference is as fatal to the soul as disbelief. The devils were not all atheists, but they were all godless.

This, then, is the true theme of Devils: what happens when people are left to themselves, without God. All the senseless sorrow of Devils, the oppressive futility, the blundering crimes that are at once cruel and stupid – this is what happens when God is left out of life. There is no point to the miserable episodes unleashed in the chaos of disbelief, but that is Dostoevsky’s point. “God is necessary and so must exist,” one atheist confesses. “But I know that He doesn’t and can’t.” I have no doubt that Dostoevsky believed in God. But Devils is not, at heart, a statement that God is real. It is a statement that God is necessary.

Devils is a little too heavy, a little too dark. But I understand it, and I can appreciate even those aspects I don’t enjoy. I still believe that a general slaughter of principal characters is a poor resolution to most stories. But one of the curious facts about art is that even the worst ideas are, very occasionally, done right.

Two ‘Adventures in Odyssey’ Stories Secretly Inspired My Book ‘The Pop Culture Parent’

Two cassette stories, “You Gotta Be Wise” and “Isaac the Pure,” helped start my lifelong quest about parenting and popular culture.
on Sep 15, 2020 · 1 comment

It all started when Santa returned for Christmas 1992, and gave me a copy of the twelfth (at the time) cassette album of Adventures in Odyssey episodes. Focus on the Family had just polished up its audio drama series with a new theme version, and likely some other production changes.1

I’d grown to love the series. These twelve standalone episodes, each themed after a specific biblical virtue, were no exception.

The album’s first episode was called simply “You Gotta Be Wise.” I’ll describe its importance in just a moment. Because it was just this past week I realized, to my shock, that without this story—and the one on the cassette’s other side—I might not have written my first book.

Of course, I’ve already written how this fantastical Christian-made audio drama has influenced my views of faith and fantasy. Back then, I wasn’t thinking of specific episodes. Mainly I recalled the overall series’s delightful blend of imagination and truth, thanks to flawed yet true heroes who’ve adventured in the fictional town of Odyssey for more than thirty years. But more recently, I was preparing two podcast episodes about my new book The Pop Culture Parent. And I happened to mention this specific Odyssey influence.

Here’s the original “It All Started When…” cassette album, first released in 1992! (At first this was album 12, which made little sense because the next album, “At Home and Abroad,” included stories that aired before the stories in this album. Later the Odyssey team reordered the albums.)

Episode 179: ‘You Gotta Be Wise’

“You Gotta Be Wise,” written by Paul McCusker, likely isn’t remembered by fans as a groundbreaking story. It wasn’t like the one where Mr. Whittaker tested an afterlife program on the Imagination Station. Or the eleven-episode arc in which Dr. Blackgaard tried to take Whit’s End.

Instead, in this simple tale, newspaper editor and dad Dale Jacobs learns that his daughter, Robyn, has a new music fandom.

Robyn has just bought a new cassette of her own, “As Crusty As They Wanna Be.” This new album was just released by Odyssey gang-turned-rock-band The Bones of Wrath. Dale finds her listened to this antique(?) media in her bedroom. We hear its distant, squalling racket.

“It’s good stuff,” she says simply, and hands her dad the headphones.

“Yow!” Dale yelps, and yanks them off. “It sounds like a cross between a jackhammer and—several cats being scorched with a flamethrower.”

I can quote those lines from memory. This is despite the fact that, as I recall, the original cassette suffered damage. As all you internet meme–affirmed Nineties Kids can attest, back then you had to ensure the tape ribbon itself didn’t break, or else leak out from the cassette casing (forcing you to roll it back in with ink pen that had the exact dimension of pen cap). Said damage may have added to a low-level Burnett mystique about “You Gotta Be Wise.” But it also dealt directly with this mysterious thing called “rock and roll music.”

By the story’s end, Robyn Jacobs of course must learn to practice wiser media discernment. But … even listeners aged eight through twelve also join Dale as he deals with this popular cultural work, and more importantly, how it affects his relationship with his daughter.

Not just rock-and-roll rules, but relationship

Dale even confronts a group of outraged parents who in their zealotry arrange a bonfire. “You want to burn the tapes?” he exclaims. It’s no joke. Back then, real churches and some fringe ministries actually held such combustion-oriented events. Possibly they thought they were following the biblical example of the Ephesians in Acts 19:19. “You Gotta Be Wise” is kind to these reactionary parents, yet holds them up for examination. The story also portrays Rodney Rathbone (and his scheming dad-manager, Bart) for gentle ridicule.

Dale isn’t on the tape-burners’ side. Instead, he wants to navigate free-speech issues while teaching his daughter. But first he learns that she’s chased Rodney’s autograph and has bought their flames-and-skeleton poster. Dale raises his voice, makes demands, and tells her to go to her room.

“You Gotta Be Wise” isn’t about rock music or even just media discernment. It’s about this simple parent/child relationship.

Near the end, Dale and Robyn finally unite in Dale’s office. (He’s entered her world; now she enters his.) They reconcile.

Because he’s older, Dale goes first: “I’m sorry for overreacting about the tape and the poster. I was wrong.”

“And I was wrong for buying the tape and the poster in the first place,” Robyn replied. “I wasn’t being very—wise.”

“But you were right about something,” Dale continues. “I should have listened to this tape before offering an opinion about it. I should have listened to it with you, so we could talk about it together and decide whether it’s good or not.”

This careful, simple story surely helped build my own curiosity about parenting and popular culture, and in such a biblical way.

“It All Started When…”, Adventures in Odyssey album 13, revised version.

Episode 180: ‘Isaac the Pure’

Yesterday I re-listened to that episode. In fact, I listened to the full album. That’s how I found my second surprise: the cassette’s other side had another Odyssey episode that also sparked early biblical development on discernment issues.

In “Isaac the Pure,” another McCusker story, nice-kid Isaac Morton is disturbed by dirty jokes. (We only hear about these.) When he mentions this at Whit’s End, Mr. Whittaker starts to tell Isaac about biblical purity, then is distracted. This leaves Isaac to his own mechanistic devices. He’s already the first kid to give all the correct answers in Sunday school, and is prone to overthinking moral principles. So Isaac determines the quickest way to build his own purity culture is: get rid of impure things. He starts with his family’s magazines, and prompts his exasperated dad to wonder why his moralistic son is throwing away his entire collection of National Geographic copies.

Isaac sincerely asks, “Have you seen those pictures from Africa, Dad?”

From there, Isaac is left to purge his own room: toys, books, magazines, and Disney Read-Along Records (up to and including a version of Bambi). “Who knows how this stuff might influence me in weak moments?” Isaac wonders aloud to his friend Sam.

Of course, before long Isaac pursues things to their logical end and determines: (1) Isaac is not made impure just by impure things, but by impure people; (2) so he must also avoid Sam; (3) Isaac is made impure by an impure world; (4) so he must stay in his room all day, with the lone exception of school and only then because his parents make him go.

Of course, Isaac must learn a very specific teaching—and object lesson by way of a restored clock—thanks to Mr. Whittaker.

The Pop Culture Parent: Helping Kids Engage Their World for Christ

Now available from New Growth Press. Perfect for your family, Sunday school, or parenting class.

And I learned an important lesson, too. Purity doesn’t start on the outside, because we follow rules, purge “impure” items, or refuse to associate with particular friends or places. Only a Pharisee (or a well-meaning, Pharisaical child) would think that way. Instead, Jesus said purity is a matter of the heart. As Mr. Whittaker says, Jesus changes us from the inside-out, and not the outside-in.

Thanks, Odyssey team, for inspiring The Pop Culture Parent

I’m not the only author of The Pop Culture Parent. Instead, I’m blessed to share credit with my friends Ted Turnau and Jared Moore.  Of course, it’s actually multiple teachers who contribute to any book. and in this instance, I can happily credit writer Paul McCusker, Phil Lollar (writer/director and voice of Dale Jacobs), and the entire Adventures in Odyssey production team as my long-distance teachers. God bless ’em. They helped start me on this quest to understand popular culture and parenting.

To be sure, my own parents, plus hosts of pastors and biblical phrases also helped. But sometimes it takes more than a nonfiction sermon, textbook, or even Bible verse to help us learn virtues. Sometimes it takes simple, non-epic stories, about a parent and child wrestling with a rock album, or about an overzealous boy with his own purity culture, to make these gospel truths come alive in our imaginations.

Photo credit: E. Stephen Burnett. This building is basically Whit’s End, and it’s located in Georgetown, Texas, and thou shalt not miss with my headcanon.

  1. By then the animated videos had begun releasing and the Odyssey team was adjusting to the extra attention.

From The Writers’ Toolbox: Flawed Characters Can Be Too Flawed

The point is simple: to be believable, characters need flaws, but if their flaws overshadow their higher nature, readers may not care enough to continue on the reading journey with them.
on Sep 14, 2020 · 1 comment
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I wanted to chuck the book, but it belonged to my friend. I wanted to quit reading, at least, but my friend promised me the story would get better. And he was right. Had he not convinced me, I would have missed out on one of my favorite series—Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever. In truth, the main character acted heinously, and I didn’t want to read about him.

First, the protagonist, Thomas Covenant, was a sick, sad man. He had leprosy, a disease that few understood and fewer tolerated. He was isolated from society, and to a degree, isolated from himself because his illness destroyed his nerve endings, robbing him of the ability to feel. But one day, he fell into a parallel world where he was no longer sick. Believing that what he was experiencing was not real, he did a horrible thing. He raped a girl who had befriended him.

See why I wanted to chuck the book? Thomas Covenant was not someone I liked, and I really didn’t care about what happened to him. I know of people who, in fact, did stop reading that book and never picked it up again.

The point is simple: to be believable, characters need flaws, but if their flaws overshadow their higher nature, readers may not care enough to continue on the reading journey with them.

As Angela Ackerman put it in an article for Writer’s Digest, “When Flaws Go Too Far: Avoiding Unlikable Characters,”

There is a tipping point for flaws, however. A bit too much snark or insensitive internal narrative and the character slips into unlikable territory. Too much surliness, negativity, secretiveness or an overblown reaction and the reader will disconnect, frustrated by character’s narrow range.

I’ve had occasion more than once to read a novel written in first person—which is fine, except I didn’t care for the protagonist. The character was either too whiny or too morose or complained too much or thought ill of his colleagues all the time or was focused on her own cares to a point of distraction. Especially in a novel in which the reader must live in the character’s head for upwards of three hundred pages, an unlikable protagonist is a problem.

But a story is about character development—how a person changes. Does the young boy learn responsibility, does the woman allow herself to love again, will the hero find the strength within to over come? These are storylines which demand a character grows or at least admits failure.

The point is, the story begins with a young boy who is irresponsible, a woman who is cold and stand-offish, a weak person thrust into a situation requiring strength. In short, the story starts with a character in need because of his flaw.

How, then, is a writer to portray this flaw without making it fatal for the book? How can a broken, warped, imperfect character still be someone who engages readers?

First, the character’s flaw must have an understandable reason for existence. Who hurt the character or failed him or bullied him? Who used her or betrayed her or demanded more than she could handle? If readers understand why a character acts badly, often they will be inclined to tolerate more. (Which, by the way, Stephen Donaldson did in the Thomas Covenant books).

Furthermore, if the character’s flaw is a result of his own suffering, readers may be willing to forgive him and hope for change.

Showing the character’s backstory provides his motive, including the motive for his flawed actions or angsty attitudes. The key to using what happened in the past in this way is to treat it like any other bit of backstory. It must not be delivered up front or in lengthy paragraphs or presented in a speech. It must serve the plot. It must only be delivered when readers are ready and want to know what happened before. (For more information about backstory see posts here: Backstory).

Besides giving reasons for a character’s flaws, another way an author can keep those from overshadowing a character is by counterbalancing them with winsome traits.

Ackerman explains:

no matter how impatient, uptight, angsty or spoiled your character is, hint to the reader that there’s more beneath the surface. A small action or internal observation can show the character in a positive light and should happen in the first scene (frequently referred to as a Save The Cat moment.) It can be a positive quality, like a great sense of humor, or a simple act that shows something redeeming about the character.

A Cast of Stones, Patrick W. CarrIn the fantasy trilogy by Patrick Carr, The Staff & The Sword fantasy, the story opens in book one, A Cast of Stones, with a character, Errol Stone, who is drunk. He, in fact, is the main character, and he isn’t just drunk on that one day. He happens to be the town drunk. How is a character with such an obvious and dominating flaw someone readers care about?

First Carr showed other characters—ones who were in respected positions in the story—who sympathized with Errol Stone. They even did all they could to help him. Some provided him with work, some allowed him a place to sleep off his drunk.

They also acknowledged his value and identified an area in which he excelled beyond anyone else in the village. In other words, readers see through their eyes that Errol has value.

Further, Errol Stone suffers beatings at the hand of the local pater, ostensibly to cure him of his public drunkenness. Very soon it’s clear that Errol is suffering unfair ill treatment.

Fourth, Errol faces a life-and-death surprise attack and shows by his wit and agility that he has skills a reader can admire. The reader learns there’s more to him than his addiction.

This latter hints at one of the points Ackerman mentions: if a character faces hardship, readers are more willing to be patient with his bad behavior. However, his reaction to hardship must give some reason to believe he can conquer what he’s up against.

If the hero has a rough road ahead, the reader makes allowances for his behavior, as long as he doesn’t wallow in gloom and doom. It isn’t hardship that creates empathy, it’s how a character behaves despite that hardship, giving us a window into who he really is.

Errol Stone not only survived an attack, but the next day his quick thinking and decisive action saved the lives of two other men. Clearly he was more than the town drunk, and I for one was cheering for him to overcome on many levels. Patrick Carr had made sure that his flawed protagonist didn’t fail by being too flawed.

Let’s Talk About Race and Racism. Part 4: Racism and White Identity at the Founding of the U.S.A.

At the founding of the United States, how was race defined? What did it mean to be “white?”
on Sep 10, 2020 · 35 comments

There’s a United Nations proclamation on race and racial prejudice that also has plenty to say about ethnic discrimination, discrimination based on national origin, and religious prejudice–as if they all were in essence the same thing. These certainly are related topics, but I think it’s important to point out that they are different things. Tribalism is not in fact the same thing as racism. This post will look at the history of racism itself and “white identity” as seen in the documents and institutions at the very beginning of the United States of America. (I’d originally planned to cover a broader topic, the Rise of White Supremacy, but it proved to be too long for one post.)

To illustrate the difference between tribalism and racism, let me refer to the 1990s war in former Yugoslavia, in which (among other things) ethnic Serbs and Croats killed one another and both sides killed Bosnians. “Ethnic cleansing” was common, in which one side eliminated groups different from the majority in a certain area. Note that not only are all these people of the same race, as in European (“White”), they are all Slavic and all speak the same language. But the Serbs write their language in Cyrillic alphabet due to Orthodox Church influence, the Catholic Croats use a Latin-based alphabet, and the Bosnians studied Arabic at least on occasion, because the majority of them were Muslims. These relatively minor differences during the lifespan of an officially secular Yugoslavia, differences which had absolutely nothing to do with race, proved to be enough motive to slaughter one another when the central authority of Yugoslavia dissolved.

Human tribalism of this sort has always been around, which I already mentioned as “ethnocentrism”–people able to hate and loathe one another based on their perception of the others being different. And note that while religion was an important element in identifying the different tribes in ex-Yugoslavia, the war wasn’t really about religion. The war wasn’t about forced conversions–it instead featured murders, rapes, and driving people out of their homes. Horrible tribalism–but that isn’t the same as racism. The war in former Yugoslavia had nothing to do with racism.

So the observation that racism is new, an observation played out out in these posts, is not meant to downplay the human capacity to be tribal and decide to slaughter or otherwise abuse other people. That’s always been around. But racism is something else.

Racism in the US Constitution

Unless you’ve read it recently, you may be surprised to hear only one race is directly mentioned in the US Constitution. Let me quote the pertinent bit, under Section 2, talking about the US House of Representatives:

Beginning of the U.S. Constitution

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

By the way, the 14th Amendment repealed the “three fifths of all other Persons” section. However, the “Indians not taxed” part was not repealed. American Indians in the United States were not considered US citizens until 1924.

That’s right–the one race directly mentioned (and let’s be clear that most Americans at the time of the ratification of the Constitution thought of it as a race) is “Indians.” “Indians not taxed” were not to be included in the count of “the whole Number” of persons, whether free or not, because legally speaking the government of the United States regarded “Indians” as members of other nations. Nations with which the United States could conduct trade and upon whom the United States could declare war. Which doesn’t perhaps sound directly racist–after all, Native American tribes also regarded themselves as separate nations. However, the Declaration of Independence describes Indians as “merciless” and “savages,” so there should be no doubt that American Indians were definitely defined as “not people like us” by the Founding Fathers of the United States. Not just another race, but a race that most of the people of the United States believed it was only natural that “we” (“we” as in “we the people” of the United States) should be at war with.

Note that when the Bureau of Indian Affairs was established in 1824, it was part of the US War Department (which would later be renamed “the Department of Defense”). Not until 1849 would the bureau be placed in the newly-created Department of the Interior. I’m mentioning this to back up the idea that the early US government generally did think of American Indians as people–but “people we are at war with.”

Three Fifths Human?

I recall a conversation with an Army fellow soldier years ago, who was black, in which he was explaining to me the justification the Constitution had for saying black people are only to be counted as three fifths of white people. He said, “It’s because they didn’t believe black people had souls. That’s the missing two fifths.”

Let’s look at this as it actually was, neither over excusing nor over accusing. The reality was the 3/5 number came from a political compromise. Slavery had not been legal in any of the first colonies as they began, not directly anyway, but Southern colonies after a number of decades of African indentured servitude passed law codes recognizing and codifying slavery. However, Northern colonies also adopted law codes that recognized and permitted slavery, in part because some merchants based in Northern colonies were involved in the sale of enslaved people to plantations in the South.

But roughly around the time of the American Revolution, Northern attitudes about slavery being legal changed (though in fact some Northerners were always anti-slavery). Slavery was taken off the books and made illegal in various ways. These events were inspired in part by Christians who objected to the practice of holding black people permanently in slavery.

So at the Constitutional Convention, many Northern representatives were arguing for the abolition of slavery everywhere, North and South. Southerners representatives argued for it. To make a long story short, the two sides struck a series of compromises that included counting people who were not free as 3/5ths of a free person.

It wasn’t a deliberate statement about black people. It just kinda happened. Which doesn’t mean it wasn’t damaging in effect. Or wasn’t reprehensible. But it did not reflect a widespread belief that black people are soulless. Such a belief was not in fact common at the time…or else Southerners would not have supported Christian evangelism among those held in slavery, which they in general did very much support. Though it is true that racists considered black people inferior, as I will mention in a bit.

Legally White

Note the careful, careful language of the section of US Constitution I quoted above. It identifies “free Persons” and directly states “Indians” but when talking about slavery it says “all other Persons.” The word “slavery” itself does not appear. This ginger treatment stems from the political compromise reqired to get people ardently against slavery to sign the document.

But the law codes of various states make it clear what we’re talking about here. State codes, which I won’t directly quote, mention “Negroes” and make it plain they can either be free or slaves, but were the only race who could be enslaved in a way the law would support. That is, kidnapping or forcing a person to work was a crime, written in the law codes of various states as a crime–but excepting slavery, excepting “Negroes.” A black person did not have the same status before the law as the default position the law took in defending the general public.

So by inversion of those specifically mentioned as eligible for slavery, we get what the legal definition of a white person was. A white person was anyone who was not an Indian who could not be legally enslaved. Note this definition of a white person isn’t mentioned in the US Constitution at all, it’s derived from a comparision of documents.

How Rights Made White

Another important element needs to be emphasized here. It’s based on one of the ways ancient world slavery was different from modern world slavery.

As I mentioned in my previous post, anyone could be a slave in the ancient world. Slavery wasn’t linked to any specific race, not permanently.

Part of why it wasn’t relates to the idea of having rights. If you traveled back in time and told an ancient Roman that all people have “inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of hapiness,” he or she would look at you as if you dropped in from outer space, even if you were wearing a Roman toga and speaking Latin…(though granted they’d be even more astounded if you showed up in modern clothing, speaking English 🙂 )

Why? Because “inalienable rights,” as in “rights that nobody can take away from you,” is something Romans didn’t believe in. They believed it was perfectly fine to take away another person’s rights. Though they also beleived in rule of law, in a sense they believed “might makes right.” That is, by right of conquest, it’s legal to make you or anyone else a slave.

But the United States formed at time when “rights of man” had gained prominence in Western thought. The inspiration for such ideas came from philosophers writing in French like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and and Montesquieu. These ideas were not at all unpopular in the United Kingdom, but the Continental Congress and the early United States argued that the British had denied the rights of what would become the United States, rights to taxation only with representation (which stems from Rousseau’s Social Contract theory of government). Many Americans also argued that having any king at all was a sign the United Kingdom was a den of oppressive despots.

Today we recognize that as American Revolutionary War rhetoric, since the UK was one of the freest nations of the 18th Century, though there’s no doubt many Americans believed having a king, any king, was a bad thing. Which is something worth considering here. If no one has the right to be king, if everyone has supposedly equal rights, how could anyone justify holding a particular race in slavery?

The sinister answer the culture cooked up was this one–the reason black people don’t deserve the same rights is because there is something wrong with them. They are not like us. They are defective somehow.

But note that without a concept of “universal rights of man” (as the French Revolution would put it in 1789), a concept we can without reservation consider praiseworthy, it wouldn’t have been necessary to in effect declare some people are not entirely human. Of course the motive for not seeing black people as entirely human was profit, as mentioned in the last post. But the justification would not have been necessary–they could have kept slaves like Romans did for “might makes right” reasons–except for the general idea that all people have inalienable rights.

If all people have inalienable rights, how can these people not have them? The racist would say, “Well, those people are not really people like you and me.” That idea, of “people like you and me,” people entitled to inalienable rights, that was the first definition of “white,” if you follow the impact of what it meant to be white in United States laws and customs.

The Changing Definition of “White”

I’ve heard Critical Race Theorists mention the definition of “white” changed over time (hey, I think even frequent Progressive commentator Notleia said this). But that’s actually mostly false. Yeah, the definition of white would eventually become a bit narrower in one way, excluding Hispanics, who were at first considered white, as in not Black, not Indian, i.e. subject to full protection of the law and counted as a full citizen. (It would become a bit broader eventually as well, to include West Asians and North Africans, i.e. Arabs and Persians and related groups, but not until the 20th Century.)

But the CRT crowd generally says the definition of “white” became more inclusive. That people who were discriminated against at various times in American history, such as Irish people, Germans, Italians, Jewish people, etc, were not at that time considered fully white. So in the name of white supremacy, supposedly, these peoples were oppressed.

The actual truth is more complex–and throws a wrench in the gearworks of the CRT system. In fact, racial prejudice was never the only kind of prejudice in the USA. White people were perfectly fine with discriminating against other people they recognized as white for reasons other than race.

The 1790 Naturalization Act stated that “free white persons” of “good character” could be admitted as citizens. This would be the law of the land until the 1870 Naturalization Act, which focused on birth in the USA (with the exception of “Indians”) allowing black people to be considered citizens for the first time. Between 1790 and 1870, US courts struggled with the question if Arabs like Syrians were “white” and could be citizens (the Supreme Court said both “yes” and “no” on this question) and wondered if people of non-Christian religion could be considered “white,” denying citizenship to a Sikh on this basis, but US courts never, not once, denied citizenship to Irish people or Italians or Slavs or even Jews based on the idea they were not white. During a time of plenty of prejudice against all of these ethnic groups.

It’s the modern Critical Race Theorists who are changing the definition of race and racism by making all forms of ethnic tension being about white supremacy (in their view). When in fact, an American Protestant of English decent in the 18th Century might despise an Irish Catholic, especially if a recent immigrant, yet would never suggest for one second the Irishman wasn’t white. “White” being whatever was not specifically Indian or Black in terms of legal protection; “white” being “European” in early race theory.

Please refer to my comments on the wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia and human tribalism to show what I mean about racism not being required for humans to be cruel to each other. You don’t have to deny someone else is human to hate them or think ill of them.

Though in the heyday of racism in the 1800s, it is true some racial theorists would specifically narrow the definition of white even more than what I mentioned, to talk about Aryan nations and related nonsense. Some of them would do that–but most did not. Most would simply talk about some whites being superior to others genetically. But I shall endevour to cover that in the next post, the Rise of White Supremacy.


So what are your thoughts on the legal theory of what it meant to be “white” in early America? Do you agree that the concept of universal human rights fed into the impulse to dehumanize those held in slavery? Were you suprised that “Indian” is the only race mentioned in the Constitution? What other thoughts come to mind?


How Fantastical Stories Explore Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Beyond

Read “deleted scenes” from an early manuscript for The Pop Culture Parent, which had more to say about specifically fantasy fiction!
on Sep 8, 2020 · No comments

New Growth Press has released The Pop Culture Parent: Helping Kids Engage Their World for Christ.

I got to co-write this nonfiction resource. It’s my first book to be published.1 (Order from Amazon, New Growth Press, or 10ofThose.) Ted Turnau and Jared Moore are my coauthors. Blessed art they, especially given their work on this project for several years!

We went through several outlines and manuscripts, before arriving at a final release that best balances reader appeal and thematic depth.

The Pop Culture Parent back cover:

Knowing how to deal with popular culture as a parent can be overwhelming. How can you entered into your children’s lives and connect with their interests but still point them toward Jesus? Many parents fear the influence of popular culture or ignore it altogether. This guide equips parents to raise grace-oriented disciples and cultural missionaries in a post-Christian world.

At the Fantastical Truth podcast, we explored two key ideas from the book:

One chapter from an early manuscript version actually had the title Fantastical Stories: Exploring the Wonders of Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Beyond.2 We didn’t include this chapter in our final manuscript, so it wasn’t edited or anything. (I’ve only edited it here to update some links and style.) Still, I’m presenting it here as encouragement for parents—and anyone granted the mission of helping kids—to see fantastical fiction as a unique genre full of Christ-worshiping, gospel-sharing gifts.

(Original chapter draft) Fantastical Stories: Exploring the Wonders of Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Beyond

When Stephen turned ten, he received a birthday gift that made him terrified.

Stephen’s story: ‘But that book has a witch on it!’

The gift was a seven-book set I had scarcely heard about: The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Not only the strange covers but the first book’s title caused me great spiritual concern: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Um, that title has the word “witch,” and witches come out at Halloween, which isn’t a good thing, so why did you give me this book?

It turns out my parents may have checked with someone they trusted. Either way, I read Lewis’s first Narnia chronicle multiple times and have long since realized the titular witch was not the story’s heroine. Moreover, I grew to love the seemingly simple story.3

Then some years later I dared to pick up another “magical” book in a store, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Christians are famous for their concerns over this series. So what would I find by randomly opening this book? I flipped to a chapter in which two boys, Harry and Ron, are trying to manage an enchanted flying car—a scene that was more like Mary Poppins or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory than Deuteronomy 18–style divination.

I started borrowing the Harry Potter books from the library. Instead of being tempted to witchcraft, I found joy in author J.K. Rowling’s story of where young heroes pursue magical learning while fighting a dark wizard. Now I look back on that time as one of thanksgiving to God for Rowling’s story that reflects many beauties and truths, including the Gospel.

How did I get off easy? Had I been compromised without knowing it? Was I allowing subtle evil influences in my mind and heart that? What about other fantastical stories with magic? What about Deut. 18? Or the New Age movement? Or maybe fantastical stories are okay, but only under certain conditions—such as if the story is an allegory, or if the author was a trusted Christian, or if there’s a clear Christ-figure who provides the power (as in Narnia)?

Fantastical stories have long dominated popular culture and their power is growing. Fantastical novels consistently crest bestseller lists,4 television franchises boast high ratings and numerous fans,5 and nearly all the top-earning 60 films have some form of fantasy.6 That wave has swept more children and grown-ups into waters filled with magic, spaceships, paranormal critters, and superheroes. But it’s left many Christian parents sputtering, unable to swim or unsure they should even test these waters.

Fantasy stories do present unique challenges for parents. To many of us, they are strange and weird and all-absorbing. And worse, if the stories truly include magic that the Bible directly bans, can we as a popular-culture shepherds even get near this field without stepping in thorns? If your children develop a taste for fantastical stories about even “made up” magic, won’t they be vulnerable to New Age cults, Wicca, or other pagan religions? And even if fantasy stories are not technically evil, what is the real point of all these absurd and imaginary worlds? Aren’t Christians called to gospel mission in the real world?

Exploring the God-exalting purpose of fantastical stories

So how can parents begin to guide their children into stories set in strange new worlds?

These fantastical fields of popular culture do warrant special considerations, especially when parents are less familiar with fantastical stories or their purposes. So let’s discover why fantastical stories are not simply “neutral” but are 1) glorious reflections of our epic God shown in Scripture, 2) a long tradition of Christ-exalting fantastical storytelling, 3) and thoroughly human joys and wonders that nonfiction and even other fiction cannot equal.

1. Fantastical stories have roots in Scripture.

Our faith is based on God’s epic real-life fantastical Story. In earlier chapters, we recalled that the story’s Hero is also the Author. Its plot is the gospel in which Jesus Christ fights to slay the dragon of sin and usher in the perfect Kingdom. Its redeemed characters are God’s people: the Church. Its world is our world. The Bible spans multiple genres that describe this cosmic true story in fantastical terms. Scripture often includes accounts of true miracles. But sometimes Scripture includes straight-up fantasy tales or references:

  1. Genesis is a historical record. But it’s written with a fantastical and poetic edge, a “true myth” that still inspires epic fantasy writers who also enjoy creating “worlds.”
  2. Exodus is also historical record. Yet the narrative breathlessly recounts the  wonder and strangeness of God’s miraculous plagues and God’s epic rescue of his people.7
  3. Judges 9 includes the Bible’s first recording of a straight-up fairy-tale-like fable with obviously fantastical images such as a talking tree. This is another small reminder that in order to understand some of Scripture we must be familiar with fantasy.
  4. Scripture alludes to at least one fantastical book that lies outside most Protestant Christians’ accepted canon, the book of Enoch (Jude 1:9 and possibly 1 Peter 3:19).
  5. No matter how you interpret Revelation, all Christians agree the book is full of fantastical imagery. Some Christians believe Revelation describes literal future events such as earthquakes, a storm of blood-rain and hail, meteor strikes, demon locusts and horsemen, and drastic plagues of global cooling and warming. But even Christians who believe the book uses fantasy images to describe heavenly realities or earthly history must contend with Revelation’s apocalyptic symbols and themes.

Therefore, parents can happily dismiss any notion that fantastical stories are something foreign to Scripture. Clearly God believed that making the true gospel a fantastical story—and even including fictitious fantasy tales on the way—was best for his self-revelation.

2. Fantastical stories have deep roots in Church history.

Occasionally we encounter Christians who do recognize Scripture’s fantastical elements. But they often wonder if it’s really wise for Christians to endorse, enjoy, or even create fantastical stories that are not themselves part of Scripture. In response we hearken back to a long and glorious tradition of fantastical stories in the history of the Church:

  1. Christians spread legends about martyrs and saints such as the bishop Nicholas, who remains a “magical” figure even in his modern iconography of Santa Claus.
  2. Monks wrote medieval tales such as the Old English epic poem Beowulf in the late first millennium, whose story blended biblical and pagan images and themes.
  3. The Italian poet Dante’s 14th century Inferno gave fantastical explorations of hell—ideas that linger in popular-culture phrases, stories and video games. If you’ve heard the expression “circles of hell” or the famous warning supposedly written over hell’s gate “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” you have been influenced by Dante.
  4. John Milton (1608–1674) wrote the epic poem Paradise Lost that offers a fantastical retelling of Adam’s and Eve’s rebellion, and John Bunyan (1628–1688) wrote the fantastical Christian-life allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress.
  5. The English preacher Charles Spurgeon is rightly credited with fierce dedication to expositional preaching of the Bible. Yet he often offered extra-biblical speculations about biblical narrative truths in light of common sense about human nature.8
  6. The “patron saints” of fantastical fiction, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, saw no conflict between their loves for ancient languages, mythologies, medieval and Renaissance literature, and their passion for Jesus Christ and biblical faith. Both wrote fantastical novels and stories. They also wrote nonfiction defenses of fairy tales, fantasy stories, and so-called “escapism” as effective ways to engage real-world spiritual realities.
  7. Many authors of modern evangelical fiction also honor the Church’s long history of exploring faith in fantastical stories. These include the spiritual-warfare thrillers of Frank Peretti (such as This Present Darkness, 1986), the end-times novels of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins (the Left Behind series, 1995–2007),9 and many other fantastical tales by Christians that draw from fantastical story traditions. “Secular” creators also draw heavily from this fantasy tradition inspired by the biblical plot. Screenwriter Joseph Campbell used the term “monomyth” to describe this “hero’s journey,”10 and many storytellers follow his formula almost religiously. This is why many fantasy or superhero stories, from Harry Potter to The Avengers series, show a new hero being “born,” fighting enemies, “dying,” and rising to win the victory.

We can be assured that fantastical stories are not something that secular popular-culture creators made up within the last few decades. Christian storytellers and story-listeners have been exploring fantastical tales for centuries. What has more often afflicted the church is not the fantastical imagination in fiction, but the sinful abuse of fantastical imagination in teaching, such as authors or leaders who spread false doctrines as if they are nonfiction.11

3. Fantastical stories explore real-world joys and wonders

What about the notions that “fantasy is not realistic” or that “fantasy is just for children”?

Alas, we often hear these assumptions among Christians who love the term “gospel-centered” and who prioritize nonfiction doctrine, expositional preaching, and systematic theology. They also encourage Christians to explore books such as history, biography, and current events. For example, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Dr. Albert Mohler gives annual book recommendations on his blog that usually include all genres except fiction.12 Other gospel-centered ministries review nonfiction titles (or evangelical titles purporting to be nonfiction), but their ministries do not usually cover fiction, much less fantastical fiction. Ultimately this could give Christian parents the impression that “gospel-centered” living should lead us to read only grown-up, serious, nonfiction genres such as biography and history. Oh, occasionally we might dip our toes into fiction, such as classic literature or novels by Lewis and Tolkien. But we consider these exceptions to the rule of “normal” reading, or at best harmless diversion that don’t actually relate to real life.

We can certainly learn and enjoy systematic theology, biography, and history to glorify God. But dismiss fantasy as “unrealistic” or assume it’s only for children, we’re actually the ones who are practicing immature “escapism” that is based on at least two games of pretend.

Our first pretend-game is that God’s world today, even a world that groans for redemption (Rom. 8), is not wondrous and strange and amazing. But this view itself is not realistic. The biblical Psalmists model postures of poetic delight in the world God has made, a delight that children and grown-ups must imitate! Only then are we further moved to worship God, the Creator of this true-life “realistic” but fantastical universe. N.D. Wilson notes:

We’re [living] on a ball of rock flying at Mach 86 through outer space around a ball of fire in the sky. What kind of story are we telling? We’re immediately in the sci-fi/fantasy section of the bookstore, embarrassed, hoping our real academic friends won’t see us. That’s this world. … [Christians mustn’t react to author C.S. Lewis like,] “Well, we like him ‘cause he said good things in nonfiction, and [fantasy is] good for children.” These are good for us because the world is wonderful. It is fantasy. It’s not realism as we would call it. And we need to get our eyes open and be more childlike, the way Lewis was and the way all the saints in heaven are, at least now.13

As Christian grown-ups, we shouldn’t show children with our “realistic” behavior that it’s wrong to delight in God’s creation or to feel anticipation for New Earth. Nor should we try to train such “childish” desires out of ourselves! Instead let us act out our growing spiritual maturity by remembering this: Much of our “grown-up” business, many of our church and family politics, and even some of our doctrine battles are only temporary necessities that won’t be part of eternity. Let us learn and teach our children instead that God has promised to redeem this groaning creation and renew creation into a fantastical world for eternity.

Parents often feel at a loss with popular culture and how it fits in with their families. They want to love their children well, but it can be overwhelming to navigate the murky waters of television, movies, games, and more that their kids are exposed to every day.

Popular culture doesn’t have to be a burden. The Pop Culture Parent equips mothers, fathers, and guardians to build relationships with their children by entering into their popular culture–informed worlds, understanding them biblically, and passing on wisdom.

This resource by authors Jared Moore, E. Stephen Burnett, and Ted Turnau provides Scripture-based, practical help for parents to enjoy the messy gift of popular culture with their kids.

Order The Pop Culture Parent from:

  1. This preparation, along with a crucial foster-care transition and moving to a completely different house, have restricted my Tuesday articles of late!
  2. It’s fascinating to see here some verbiage that helped sharpen the Lorehaven mission just a few years later.
  3. Without God’s work through the life, stories, and nonfiction books of C.S. Lewis, I (would likely not care today for biblical doctrine, a Christian view of popular culture or storytelling, or Jesus Christ himself.
  4. See The Guardian, “The top 100 bestselling books of all time: how does Fifty Shades of Grey compare?”, Aug. 9, 2012. Harry Potter titles top the 2012 list, joined by Dan Brown’s conspiracy thrillers such as The Da Vinci Code and E.L. James’ pornographic tales such as Fifty Shades of Grey.
  5. See Rotten Tomatoes, “Top TV.”
  6. See Internet Movie Database, “IMDb ‘Top 250’ (Sorted by US Box Office Descending).” Even the non-fantastical exceptions in the first sixty films on the list usually include fantastical elements. For example, Forrest Gump explores a fantastical revisionist history.
  7. See N. D. Wilson, “The Lie of Realism,” talk at Desiring God conference. “Harry Potter versus Voldemort is in a grand and very lengthy tradition, and it all goes back to when an old dude walked into the court of an emperor in Egypt a long time ago, leaning on a stick. Oh my goodness—a magic stick. That’s the first one.”
  8. See Charles Spurgeon (ed. Robert Hall), Spiritual Warfare in a Believer’s Life, page 91 (Lynnwood, WA: Emerald Books, 1993). Spurgeon explores the biblical accounts of Satan’s temptations of Jesus and speculates that Jesus at the Temple pinnacle was actually afraid of falling, making Satan’s temptation even greater for Jesus to cast himself down. “It is consistent with the well-known laws of consciousness that we are often tempted to do the very thing that we are afraid of doing and to do it to escape from it,” Spurgeon observes.
  9. Some readers confuse these novels with reality, presuming that demons are actually named after specific sins in Peretti fashion or that end-times events will be like those described in the Left Behind series. But these confusions should lead us to insist on greater comprehension of fiction that touches on biblical themes, rather than leading us to conclude that readers who misunderstand fiction should limit Christian storytellers.
  10. Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, third edition (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008).
  11. Arguably Christians are more often deceived by fantastical tales that have been written and marketed as “true stories,” such as books that purport to describe true near-death experiences or journeys to heaven.
  12. One of us (Stephen) was able to hear Dr. Mohler explain his reasons during a Feb. 10, 2014 question-and-answer session at the University of Texas at Austin. Mohler said he avoids giving fiction recommendations partly because readers respond to fiction far more personally than they do nonfiction. Mohler said he believes readers would react negatively if he recommended a novel that included portrayals of sin or false beliefs.
  13. N. D. Wilson, “The Lie of Realism,” talk at Desiring God conference.

    Second, if we act as if fantasy is unrealistic or only for children, we pretend that we should not anticipate God’s promised world of tomorrow: the real-life fantastic world awaiting all the captives Jesus has set free. Tolkien called this a better definition of the term “escapism”:

    Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.[14. J.R.R. Tolkien. The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Random House, 1984).

Let’s Talk About Race and Racism. Part 3: How Slavery Created Early Racism

Indentured servanthood of Africans yielded to slavery, slavery was protected by various laws. Laws were justified by racism–that’s the core of the argument of this post.
on Sep 3, 2020 · 11 comments

This article is going to cite a lot of history on slavery and racism that really should be backed with copious references. I mostly won’t do that–I don’t have the time to cite all sources (I will cite some though) and this isn’t a scholarly paper anyway. But all is based on reading history over a period of decades…a reading of history that shows that the transatlantic slave trade that arose after the discovery of the Americas by Europeans–a slave trade that proved to be so profitable that it provided the justification for what I’m calling “early racism.” (Racism did not fully develop until the 19th Century. As opposed to some modern ideas that presume Europeans were engaged in white supremacy from day one.)

Note also this is a bit long for Speculative Faith–and doesn’t directly relate to Speculative Fiction, though I make a brief mention of world building. It does relate to Christianity though. And we will talk about Speculative Fiction in later posts. But please bear with this article–it lays out something very important to any discussion of race and racism.

But first, how these things developed:

Why Ancient Slavery Wasn’t Racist

In the ancient world of Greece and Rome–or throughout most of ancient Africa or Mesopotamia or East Asia or Northern Europe or even in the Americas–slavery existed. Slavery sometimes acted like a form of bankruptcy in which a person who could not pay debts would auction off self (or at times, family members) to pay debts. Also, Slavery often took place in the aftermath of battles and conquests–so those still alive among those who lost a war probably were forced into slavery.

But in the ancient world the stigma of being a slave wasn’t what it would become after the transatlantic slave trade began–so much so that I’m not bothering to use the modern phrasing of “enlsaved person,” designed to emphasize the humanity of a person held in slavery. Ancient slavery never denied that slaves were human.

Literally anyone could become as slave. When the Roman emperor Valerian was captured in the aftermath of the Battle of Eddessa in AD 260, Romans were shocked to hear of the defeat and that the Sassanid (Persian) emperor made him a slave. But their shock came from the defeat and loss–it wasn’t shocking that Romans, even the emperor, could be made slaves. How that ended for Valerian is something neither ancient nor modern historians agree on–but the Romans understood very well how he got be be a slave. He lost a battle.

Slaves could enter the ancient world from any continent–the word “race” with the definition we have of it didn’t even exist in ancient times, as I showed in my last post of this topic. But yes, slaves could be of any race. They could be from Europe, from Africa, from Asia. Plus, slavery wasn’t necessarily a permanent condition. Freed slaves could have respected positions–though in fact some slaves were respected scholars while enslaved–in particular Greek slaves in Roman households.

The Bible Reflects Ancient Slavery, but Undermined it

The Bible of course comes to us from the ancient world–the ancient world of Egypt and Mesopotamia (with a hint of Minoan in the Philistines) leading into the ancient world of Persia, Greece, and Rome. The law of the Old Testament reflected this type of ancient world slavery in which anyone could be a slave. It put restrictions on slavery that made a distinction between Hebrew slaves and non-Hebrew in Exodus 21. Hebrews could not be kept as slaves longer than seven years (Ex. 21:2), though there were some exceptions to that rule.

Foreign slaves could be held as slaves indefinitely, though were to be set free if permanently injured by a master (Exodus 21:26-27), but this does not mean the Old Testament law encourages such slavery or that it was an ordinary part of ancient Israelite life. The act of kidnapping a free person and enslaving him or her was a crime worthy of the death penalty in the Old Testament (Exodus 21:16). Which means that slaves either would have to have sold themselves or be captured in a battle to be legitimate slaves according to Old Testament law.

The New Testament on the issue of slavery repeatedly encouraged thinking of enslaved Christians as spiritually equal to other Christians (Philemon 1:15-17 and elsewhere)–but at the same time told those held in slavery to serve their masters well (Ephesians 6:5 and elsewhere). The Bible was not directly revolutionary on the subject of slavery…but rather was subversive with the commands to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Yes, ancient society saw people as having different roles and one of those role might be as a slave–but if you would not want to be held as a slave yourself, why would you permit that to happen to your neighbor? Or even your enemy (Matthew 5:44)?

And lets not forget that one of the most important Bible narratives is how God came to the rescue of the Israelites and delivered them from slavery at the hands of the Egyptians. Yes, the Bible permitted slavery–but the overall tenor of the Bible very much undermined it.

How Slavery Came to the New World, Step by Step–Islamic Influence

There’s a part of this story I’m skipping over quickly in interest of keeping this article from growing too large–but let’s mention the fact that by the late Medieval period, slavery had become illegal in most of Europe. The Catholic church deserves credit for propting secular authorities to enact laws that discouraged slavery. To that point that slavery was virtually unknown in most of Europe circa AD 1400 (though of course Europe had serfdom instead, not by any means totally different from slavery, but a step up).

But even if the Europeans had mostly put aside slavery, they were in contact with a civilization in which slavery like that of the ancient world remained common. The slavery of Islamic civilization.

Islamic slavery is another topic worthy of longer treatment than it’s getting here, but let’s be sure to mention that Arab caravans crossing the Sahara brought Islam to West Africa–but took back with them, among other things, African slaves. Timbuktu in West Africa was a center of slave trade–and Muslim merchants bought slaves from Africa in the East from Zanzibar, of the coast of what today is Tanzania.

So when the Portuguese started sailing around Africa in order to find a route to the spices of the far East (this was necessary because the Ottoman Empire cut of the ancient land routes to Asia), they knew from day one that slave trade was a way to make money off the voyage. They knew this because their neighbor, the Emirate of Granada in southern Spain, actively engaged in slave trade, as all Islamic civilization did both before that time.

The year 1492 was not just the year Columbus sailed, it was the year the Spanish finally defeated Granada, marking Spain as a civilization eager to fight for its version of Christianity–but willing to employ some of the methods it learned from its Muslim neighbors.

How Slavery Came to the New World, Step by Step–Spanish Slavery

Portuguese slavery is also important but let’s focus on Spanish slavery. The Spanish brought slaves to perform various kinds of work in the colonies they founded in the New World, before the English first landed in Virginia. But note that this early form of Spanish African slave trade was much like ancient world slavery at first. Sure, the Spanish weren’t getting enslaved, but the point was to exploit labor and did not come from any idea specficially based on race. The Spanish at first mostly bought slaves from the Portuguese and for the Portuguese, Africa was literally along the way to their goal of trade with east Asia. Africa was simply convenient for them–not that they saw Africans as specifically inferior and worthy of slavery.

Though at first when the Spanish conquistadores arrived in the New World, especially in the wake of their successful conquests of the largest Native American empires of their time, the Aztecs and the Inca, they mostly enslaved Native Americans. The lesser nobles and mercenaries from Spain seeking riches found lands where their dreams of power and wealth could come true–on the backs of the native people who lived there. Both the Aztecs and Incas had amassed a large amount of gold in their royal palaces. But somebody had to melt that gold down and send it back to Spain–plus there was more gold in the hills to be sure…though silver in abundance is what the Spanish actually found, in both Mexico and Peru.

Someone would have to work those silver mines–and raise crops and such–and the conquistadors never intended it to be themselves doing that kind of backbreaking work. They saw the natives of the lands they conquered as the primary source for that labor.

Bartolome de Las Casas

This began to change with the writings of Bartolome de Las Casas. At the risk of over-summarizing, De Las Casas was sent as a Dominican Priest responsible for the conversion and religious education of Native Americans. He encountered Spaniards justifying the enslavement of “Indios” by claiming the natives of the New World were inherently inferior to Europeans.

He vigorously argued that Native Americans are not by nature inferior–he argued they have souls and should be treated with respect and dignity. He made his case up the chain of command of the Catholic Church and to the Spanish crown. And in short, his argument was accepted. Well, partially. Outright slavery of Native Americans became illegal in Spanish colonies (and eventually Portuguese colonies). Unfortunately, they were instead forced into a kind of serfdom–still, they could not be bought or sold at market and De Las Casas’s argument that natives are as human as Europeans was accepted. In theory anyway–not to say Indios did not face discrimination (of course they did), but the Spanish colonies recognized them as persons before the law.

But almost as a side note to his main point, De Las Casas suggested that if the Spanish really needed labor, they should simply rely more on African slaves. This he wrote for the purpose of helping Native Americans. He later would recant having said this and argue that Africans are also unworthy of slavery, just as Native Americans are, because Africans are likewise fully human. But this latter argument didn’t gain much ground with the Catholic heirachy, for reasons I don’t fully understand…but which may have had to do with the fact the Spanish rulers still were not inclined to do hard labor themselves…

Slaves–or now let’s say “enlaved persons”–were imported into Spanish colonies the entire time they were under Spanish control, from the 1500s to the 1800s. In Mexico and Peru, enslaved laborers mostly worked in the silver mines.

Forced Labor Begins in the English Colonies

The first Virginia colony came with a lot of lesser nobles hoping that they could also exploit the gold of the New World, just as the Spanish had done. Though Virginia doesn’t actually have any significant amount of gold and never did, they didn’t know that.

The attitude of European nobilty from the Middle Ages was that it was their job was to fight in war–manual labor was for peasants. This attitude at first was seen in Virginia just a much as it was in the Spanish colonies. John Smith, early leader of the Jamestown colony, not only distinguished himself with his complex relations with Native Americans (he allied with them and also attacked them) but also in that he forced the colonists to get out and work, to plant food crops and provide for themselves.

The colony and other early English colonies in fact mostly relied on European labor labor at first. Native Americans could be forced to work, but had a tendency to die off from European diseases. (The arguments of De Las Casas didn’t matter much to the Protestant English, though some Protestants would later defend the same ideas, such as Roger Williams.) Besides, Native Americans could always escape back to their tribes. Note the British crown would eventually develop the idea that Native American tribes were their own sovereign nations–nations with whom the British could make treaties and with whom some principles of international diplomacy applied. Which in a sense granted Native Americans the status of people–albeit enemy people.

Some Englishmen perceived the New World as a land of opportunity quite early on, even if they didn’t have the means to pay for a voyage across the Atlantic. Beginning in the decade following the settlement of Jamestown, some English willingly came to the Americas to work for those who had established themselves as leaders in the English colonies. They worked for no pay for seven years as “indentured servants” but in the seventh year were released with certain minimal items to allow themselves to survive. And an opportunity to own their own land. (A custom clearly borrowed from the text of the Bible.)


The 1619 Project, which I will not make much effort to explain (you can Google it), argues that a Portuguese ship arriving in Virginia offering Africans for sale was the real beginning of America, because America has been so profoundly shapred by slavery and racism since then. But hold the phone on this thought–the Africans who came don’t leave a complete mark in the historic record, but it seems they were treated as indentured servants, not slaves. That is, they were put to work for seven years, then released. This is actually a subject of some controversy–but there is no clear indication they were held as slaves for life or treated differently than European indentured servants. They certainly did not have a different legal status from other colonists. That may be surprising, but it’s true.

Virginia didn’t pass a law code legalizing slavery until 1661. And though the specific details of what happened to the first Africans who came to America wasn’t captured by history as far as I’ve seen, it is in fact reasonable to assume they were treated like everyone else as far as not being held as slaves for life.

Irish Forced Indentured Servantood

While many indentured servants were Englishmen seeking a better life, Ireland had been conquered by the English and the Irish made trouble for the English in various ways. One way the English responded to this was to force Irish people to the early English colonies as indentured servants, especially during the time of Oliver Cromwell (1640s and 50s).

While seven years of forced labor followed by freedom and an opportunity to get some land for oneself may not sound so bad to some readers of this article, in fact many identured servants didn’t survive seven years. The southern portion of the Atlantic coast was full of mosquitoes and various tropical diseases, including malaria. While Native Americans infamously suffered from communicable diseases Europeans carried like smallpox, Europeans suffered from tropical diseases in the southern English colonies and had an astoundingly high mortality rate.

Still, if an Irishman (or sometimes woman) were forced into “slavery” in the New World and managed to live seven years, he would be set free from his labor after seven years. Why were Africans treated differently?

Why African Forced Indentured Servanthood Became Slavery

The answer to the question I just posed is they were not treated differently. Not at first. This portion of my article draws mainly from one book, one of the two I referenced earlier as greatly shaping my views on race and racism. The book is Black Majority by Peter H. Wood. Dr. Wood told the story of how slavery begain in the Carolina colony and explained how what happened in the Carolinas shaped slavery in the rest of the colonies. (Disclaimer, Peter Wood is white and has offered one specific criticism of Critical Race Theory that I know of–that it does not allow for criticism.)

First, in South Carolina (at first just “Carolina”) as in other English colonies, there was the option of trying to use Native American labor. Which didn’t work out. They kept dying off from European diseases. And escaping back to the wilderness.

The next option was to use indentured servants. There were plenty of them available…and here’s a surprising point: After the first Africans were brought to the English colonies in 1619, more were forced to come–but we know for certain the first ones in the Carolinas were treated as indentured servants. Peter Wood bore down into the original documents and the historical evidence that shows that Africans forced into indentured servanthood were treated no differently than Irish identured servants of the same period. Both were disliked by the English upper crust…but both were released after seven years work.

But eventually that changed, so that “Negroes” (a word derived from the Spanish word for “black” by the way) had a different legal status from “white” people. Including the Irish.

Note this issue is subject to debate and is not answered by all historians in the same way. But Peter Wood laid out an argument I find convincing and it boils down to this–Africans were more profitable.

Though, in addition, there were not any negative consequences for the English for holding Africans brought over as laborers in forced servanthood. That is, it wasn’t as if African nations had the military power to stop the slave trade…so being able to get away with it reinforced doing what was highly profitable.

Why Were Africans More Profitable Than the Irish?

Caribbean Irish–As you can imagine, the practice of using Irish and African indentured servants together caused some intermarriage. These Montserrat islanders celebrate their Irish heritage. Image source: Irish times.

Dr. Wood shows documents that indicate all the reasons I’m about to state. 1. Africans survived longer, due in part to partial immunity to malaria as a result of the sickle cell gene many West Africans carried. 2. Africans had useful skills that Europeans didn’t have. They knew how to plant rice and had more experience with cattle herds than most Europeans.

Plus it’s worth mentioning, though not a point Peter Wood made, that the English actually hoped to pacify the Irish and so eventually ended the policy of forcing Irishmen to go to the New World–not popular there, as you can imagine. The English had no such self-interested reasons to stop sending Africans to their colonies.

How Carolina Laws Show Racism Developing

One of the things Black Majority documents is how the laws of South Carolina changed over time. At first, slavery was not a legal institution. There was only indentured servanthood. Then, as African servanthood became very lucrative, African permanent slavery was enacted by law. As enslaved African Americans reacted to their condition with various slave revolts and attempts to escape, Carolina laws progressively became more oppressive. Black people, under the term of the time “Negro,” took on a different position before the law than “white” people had…though the term “white” was rarely used then. There were just certain laws that defined “Negro” people as different from everyone else…as having inferior social status. As not being allowed the same rights and privileges as everyone else.

At first the restrictive laws came down hard against enslaved persons. But over time even free “negroes” would be subject to many of the same laws.

Early Race Theory

The interesting thing about what I called “Early Racism” here is that it didn’t come with much in the way of philosophical justification. The heyday of philosophical justifications for both slavery and racism come from the 1800s, not before.

Don’t get me wrong–Colonial America had racism…progressively worse racism over time that would reach its height with grand racial theories that came about hand in hand with Social Darwinism after the 1850s. But racial theories were not prominent in the beginning.

However, there were some justifications early on. The medieval categories of Shem, Ham, and Japheth corresponding to Asia, Africa, and Europe became a system of three races in European thought during the Age of Exploration. East Asians were generally considered one race, sub-Saharan Aficans another, and Europeans yet another (Europeans could not agree if Native Americans were yet another race or not). Some Europeans defended the idea relatively early on that the sin of Ham and Noah’s subsequent curse (on Canaan) meant the descendants of Ham were “worthy” of slavery.

Remember that European voyages of discovery corresponded with a time of expansion of scientific knowledge. Eager to classify things in new species, European thinkers also created the intellectual category of races that lines up more or less with the way we see races today (as opposed to people in ancient times, who thought differently).

The system of races itself isn’t natural to human beings, not in the modern sense of the word “race.” It’s an artifact of a specific time, the European voyages of discovery. To have racism, you must have a concept of races first. A system the Europeans did develop…but that by itself isn’t racism.

Racial Practice Caused Racism–Follow the Money

Racism requires not only a belief in races, it requires a person to hold that one race is better than another race or races. Note that what history we have of the period this got rolling indicates something that may surprise people. That is, African slavery became a “thing” because one aspect of indentured servanthood became more profitable than others. Legal separation of races became a “thing” because it protected the institution of slavery (keeping the money flowing). Racism, as in, some races are inferior to others, became a “thing” as a means to justify the laws laid down to treat people differently.

I’m not saying money is the root of all evil here–just the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, an important distiction, one that matches what the Bible says in I Timothy 6:10. In other words, making a living, making money or profit, is not a sin. But excessive desire for money–greed–opens the door to all kinds of other sins. Including slavery. And then racism.

It wasn’t enough to make more money off Africans as indentured servants–the prospect of making even more money if they were never set free raised its head. The profits led to the transatlantic slave trade–the slave trade justified laws discriminating against black people. The laws were justified by racist attitudes, leading into full-blown white supremacy in the 1800s.

A Hopeful Note

The hopeful note comes not in any suggestion that slavery in America wasn’t an evil thing–it was. I would never want to be taken as saying otherwise. Or in any hint that racism isn’t an evil thing–it was and is.

The hopeful note arises from the fact the 1619 Project isn’t actually correct about America. Racism isn’t the axis around which all the rest of the history of the United States pivots. The historical evidence actually shows racism was just beginning in 1619 and that it would become much more powerful as time went on.

Which means there’s a first tradition in American money-making, before slavery. Making it for yourself, for your own benefit, as a free person. As opposed to forcing others to work for you–which is, let’s tell the truth, a second American tradition, a sinister one, one not entirely dead up to this day.

The first tradition came from the soldier John Smith telling the dandies of the Jamestown colony if they weren’t willing to work, they wouldn’t be alowed to eat (a statement based on a Bible quote, dealing with those Christians who were abusing the charity of the Early Church, I Timothy 5:8, II Thessalonians 3:10). There is nothing wrong with that. It’s dignified to work for yourself.

Slavery and racism corrupted that original foundation of the English colonies–doing away with both returns us to our truer and nobler roots. As opposed to creating an entirely different tradtion.

And how about Bartolome De Las Casas? He showed us a person arguing from the basis of truth can make a difference in the world–arguing from Scriptures no less. No, De Las Casas didn’t see all the changes in society he hoped for. But his efforts weren’t in vain, either. Later, others would take up the same impassioned arguments–and end all legalized slavery, all around the world.

We can likewise end racism. Yes, hatred among humans has always existed and I see no cure for that in this life. But racism as we know isn’t the same. It hasn’t always existed and doesn’t have to exist. It won’t be easy to irradicate, but we can. And should.


Next time we’ll look at racism as it became the full-blown thing, full white supremacy.

But for now, what are your thoughts on my central thesis here–that slavery caused racism, rather than the other way around? Other comments on this subject are welcome as well.

And again, while this post isn’t speculative, for those of you who write speculative fiction, the history of racism might be important in any world you might imagine. Though perhaps, you could imagine worlds without any racism as we know it, as a means of showing people that what exists now isn’t necessarily how things have to be…

Speculative Fiction And Contemporary Culture, Part 2

How can writers speak into today’s troubled culture, whether dealing with the political divide, racial unrest, dealing with a pandemic, economic concerns, or what have you?
on Aug 31, 2020 · 7 comments

When I wrote the post last Monday about Speculative Fiction And Contemporary Culture, I had no intention of making a multi-part article. Until I read a line from The Emotional Craft of Fiction, by Donald Maass.

Well, “line” is not the right term. One section of the book is entitled “Stirring Higher Emotions.” In it, Maass does say, “Why not create characters that inspire us to a high degree?” (p 42) Meaning, why not create characters that we would greatly admire if they were real people—characters that are willing to risk their reputation or their position of power or their wealth for a selfless purpose.

I think, for example of Bobby Green Jr., Lei Yuille, Titus Murphy, and Terri Barnett, the four residents of South Central Los Angeles, who came to the aid of Reginald Denny, a truck driver who was pulled out of his rig during the Rodney King riot, and severely beaten. Those four men risked everything, including their very lives, to rescue Denny—a stranger, a man of a different race—and get him to a hospital. They were contemporary “Good Samaritans.”

Are admirable characters like that in our stories?

Or how about eighteen-year-old Brandt Jean, who forgave the very person who had shot and killed his older brother in his own apartment?

Donald Maass draws on something Thomas Jefferson wrote back in 1771 in a recommendation to a friend to include works of fiction in his library:

He said this because “everything is useful which contributes to fix us in the principles and practice of virtue. When any . . . act of charity or of gratitude, for instance, is presented either to our sight or imagination, we are deep impressed with its beauty and feel a strong desire in ourselves of doing charitable and grateful acts also.” In other words, virtuous acts by fictional characters inspire us to be virtuous, too. (p 43)

Perhaps we don’t include characters of high virtue in our fiction because we suspect we can’t make them believable. After all, our culture has been shaped by the revenge mentality of “Go ahead, make my day” from the 1983 Clint Eastwood movie, Sudden Impact. There was a hero who wasn’t about forgiving or rescuing a perceived enemy.

Following on it’s heels, the 1984 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, The Terminator famously used the line “I’ll be back,” before a scene of violence and carnage. Nothing about repentance or forgiveness. Just a might-makes-right, hate-them-they-are-your-enemies type of movie.

And this is the hero we see over and over.

In our divided culture, with cancel culture nipping at the heals of free speech, are virtuous heroes believable?

They can be, if we write them with proper motivation. So perhaps the question is, do we want to write virtuous characters? Because, in truth, virtue may not be admired by everyone. Not all the comments, for example, to the video of Brandt Jean are positive. Some are outright critical.

So, undoubtedly, the sacrifice or forgiveness of a character might actually bring some negative reaction. But if we want to have an impact on culture through our speculative fiction, I think standing for virtue rather than simply playing along with “heroes” who are ordinary and not extraordinary, will have a greater impact.

From Maass again: More recently, Dr. Jonathan Haidt and others have scientifically demonstrated that fiction can have an effect called moral elevation, which affirms that reading about good people causes us to be better ourselves. We make better choices when character inspire us to do so.

So how can writers speak into today’s troubled culture, whether dealing with the political divide, racial unrest, dealing with a pandemic, economic concerns, or what have you? One way has nothing to do with re-creating a similar problem in our fictitious world, but rather, creating a virtuous hero who makes hard, selfless choices that can inspire readers to go and do likewise.