Let the Stable still Astonish

manger

 

Let the stable still astonish:
Straw-dirt floor, dull eyes,
Dusty flanks of donkeys, oxen;
Crumbling, crooked walls;
No bed to carry that pain,
And then, the child–
Rag-wrapped, laid to cry
In a trough.
Who would have chosen this?
Who would have said,
“Yes, let the God of Heaven and Earth
Be born in this place”?
Who but the same God
Who stands in the darker, fouler rooms
Of our hearts
And says,
“Yes, let the God of Heaven and Earth
Be born in this place.”

–  Leslie Leyland Fields
***
I post this every Christmas for lots of reasons, my faith being the main one. Yes, I believe Jesus’ birth was critically important and that despite the dysfunction of organized religion, His  life and words are worth serious consideration.
I also appreciate this little poem because it takes the manger away from being a seasonal Disney-fied religious scene and brings it back to earth. It presents Jesus not as some magical, special ingredient to make my life life better – like flavored coffee creamer – but as a real solution to my deepest needs. It speaks of a God who knows and loves me despite myself. Of transcendent mystery intervening in the sordid particulars of the sad, strange mess of human history. It speaks of intention, of hope, of grace.
And for that, I am truly grateful.
Merry Christmas to you and yours. May 2017 be filled with happiness, health, courage, and compassion.
I have come that they may have life, and have it in all its fullness.
 – Jesus of Nazareth Jn. 10:10b

Looking into “Black Mirror”

blackmirrortitlecard

Netflix just announced Season 3 of the BBC show “Black Mirror“.

Billed as a ‘Twilight Zone for the social media generation’, if you missed seasons 1 and 2, you should queue them up asap. But be warned: it’s as brutal as it is brilliant. Black Mirror is a very appropriate title. There’s no “…who’s the fairest of them all?” here – you’re just as likely to be horrified as you are fascinated when you look.

A ‘fifteen minutes in the future’ kind of Sci Fi, the show’s writers have an eerie knack for standing right in the intersection of technology, cultural trends, and our primal human appetites. Whether it’s the sordid voyeurism for political scandals, clones of deceased loved ones downloaded with personality algorithms based on social media profiles, to reality shows, pornography, virtual reality, the impact of mnemonic cyber implants on relationships, what makes the show remarkable isn’t merely its excellent script, stories, or acting, but the terrible plausibility of it all.

Again, this won’t be everyone’s cuppa, but I suspect it will engage futurists, fans of William Gibson, and SF junkies out there. As a Christian, I’m both struck and dismayed by how astonishingly well it captures humanity’s capacity for creativity and innovation, as well as reflecting the deep-rooted flaws in our souls that only God, not technology, can remedy.

And as a SF writer, I confess I’m a little jealous.

Trailer for Season 3 below. Now go queue it up.

Have a good day.

 

Casting Stones and Stumbling Blocks

“A prophet gone wrong is almost always more interesting than your grandmother…”

  • Flannery O’Connor

 

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Been on the perimeter of yet another round of Believers Brick-Tag, i.e. the “Spec-fiction is a stumbling block/supernatural and,or worldly elements are a grievous offense” discussion, and I feel the need to stake out what seems incredibly obvious yet damnably elusive.

First off, let’s reiterate the distinction between theology and speculative fiction. One is the systematic study of God and religious belief, the other is – by definition  – made up stories.

Now I know atheists would say this is true of the Bible itself, but that’s a different discussion. To repeat my mantra: a novel is not a sermon. It’s one of those ‘apples and orangutans’ things, people. Similar raw material (words and ideas) but different modes, different purposes, different content.

You don’t get into an elevator for the music. You shouldn’t look for theology in a dystopian YA novel or an urban fantasy series. I know they make truth-claims and worldview statements either overtly or obliquely. EVERYTHING DOES. You must have heard the phrase ‘spit out the bones’. It’s time to exercise discernment – the same level one employs when selecting kitchen utensils to say, scramble eggs. “Put away the corkscrew and tenderizing mallet.”

If you want Christian theology, read the Bible, church history, and apologetics. Don’t get it from a Wachowski movie or a K-pop hit or a Marvel comic book or a “Left Behind” novel. That’s akin to making life-choices based on fortune cookies. Which would be bad. That some people do in fact cobble belief systems from Star Trek and Pink Floyd, then Quick-Pick their Happy Panda Lucky Numbers constitutes a severe failure in their judgment. (I suspect LSD and alcohol is a factor in such cases)

Second, let’s remember the distinctions between the artist, their art, and their audience. Souls are saved, art is not. Art is a product of a remarkable, mysterious synergy, but it is a construct nonetheless. Painting a night sky means you’ll have to break out a tube of black paint. It doesn’t mean you’re a ‘dark’ individual. Just don’t expect to sell it to folks who are partial to sunrises.

While the call to genuine character, sound thinking, and the fundamentals of Christian doctrine apply to every believer, the vocation of an artist – in this case, writer – is not that of the preacher or theologian. One employs drama, metaphor, allegory, and myth, while the other expounds on biblical spiritual truth and (hopefully) delivers an inspired rhema for a particular time, place, and congregation.

Both engage with the transcendent. Each borrows from the others toolbox. I’m not elevating one over the other- I’m simply noting they approach it from vastly different angles. See the C.S Lewis quote on Reason and Imagination. (Incidentally, doctrine is how we engage with the transcendent – not beat it into submission; directions to the doctor are not the doctor. Dreams about the doctor aren’t either.)

I happen to be a Christian who writes spec-fiction for a non-Christian audience. Part of my obligation before God is to recognize the conventions of the genre and the expectations of my readers. I have to be faithful to those dynamics too, then do the work to the best of my ability. And to echo Dorothy Sayers, work must be good work before it can be God’s work because pious trash is still trash.

Last, let’s distinguish between Realistic and Gratuitous, between being Sensitive and Pandering.

Let’s face it: “Christian gritty” is pretty tame. Many Christian fiction writers try to genuinely honor the conventions of their genres as well as strive for credibility, consistency, and realism, but we don’t come close to reality. Not really.

Not that our gold standard is Triple X Snuff Porn with a dash of Corporate Avarice and Ethnic Cleansing, but it’s worth remembering ‘worldly’ content is taken from the real world – a real world that is definitely not PG-13, that God still loves, hasn’t abandoned, and meets precisely at its shameful, broken, ugly point of need. That’s what the Cross was and Salvation is.

When writing fiction, I’m certainly not for inserting cruel, coarse, or lascivious content for shock or titillation. But realistic themes where and when they’re organic to the characters and story line? Absolutely. It’s mandatory, in fact. Anything less cheapens the work, and strikes me as inherently duplicitous and dishonoring to God.

Now that kind of content may well make some readers uncomfortable. Shock them even, to the point where the alarmist ‘stumbling block’ phrase gets volleyed about loudly and frequently.

Look, I’m all for being sensitive to someone’s weakness or struggles. I’ll refrain if I know someone has a problem. That’s basic human compassion and consideration. But I’m all done pandering to the ‘professional weaker brother’, those tedious brethren who make a habit, a career, a ministry of taking offense, then running around telling everyone. It’s deliberate immaturity, demanding everyone bend down because they refuse to grow up. We’re walking on eggshells while they stomp all over personal convictions, choices, and liberty. I’m going to make a lot of mistakes, but I’m not going to second guess myself into paralysis, mediocrity, and anemia.

Over thirty years as a believer, a majority of them in full or part time ministry of some kind, it’s my experience too many in the church prefer tidy affirmations to hard-edged hope. Christians in any walk of life or vocation have to reject the notion  that the call to be ‘in the world but not of it’ translates into a license to be ignorant or insular. The root meaning of “holiness” is not sterile separation but the notion of being set apart for a particular use. We cannot hide from ugly realities or contradictory philosophies (or worse, ridicule, reduce and sanitize them) then think we can be effective in addressing them with any meaningful offer of God’s redemption.

I’ll end with this thought from Harry Dreyfuss, actor Richard Dreyfuss’ son. (Good find, K.C.)

“If you can’t stand to listen to an idea, it does not prove that you oppose it. Refusing to show interest in a different perspective should not serve as a badge of pride in your own ideas. It actually serves the exact opposite function. It proves that you don’t even understand your own opinion. If you can’t understand the argument you disagree with, then you don’t have the right to disagree with it with any authority, nor do you really have a grasp on what your own idea means in its context.” – Harry Dreyfuss

Have a good day, and in the words of Chuck Wendig, “Go forth and art hard.”

Merry Christmas 2015

Let the Stable Still Astonish

manger
Let the stable still astonish:
Straw-dirt floor, dull eyes,
Dusty flanks of donkeys, oxen;
Crumbling, crooked walls;
No bed to carry that pain,
And then, the child–
Rag-wrapped, laid to cry
In a trough.
Who would have chosen this?
Who would have said,
“Yes, let the God of Heaven and Earth
Be born in this place”?
Who but the same God
Who stands in the darker, fouler rooms
Of our hearts
And says,
“Yes, let the God of Heaven and Earth
Be born in this place.”
–  Leslie Leyland Fields
***
I post this every Christmas for lots of reasons, my faith being the main one. Yes, I believe Jesus’ birth was critically important and that despite the dysfunction of religion, his  life and words are worth serious consideration.
I also appreciate this little poem in that it takes the manger away from being a seasonal Disney-fied religious scene and brings it back to earth. That it presents Jesus not as some special ingredient to make my life life better – like flavored coffee creamer – but as a real solution to my deepest needs. It speaks of a God who knows and loves me despite myself. Of transcendent mystery intervening with a plan in the sordid particulars of the sad, strange mess of human history. Of hope.
And for that, I am truly grateful.
Merry Christmas to you and yours. May 2016 be filled with God’s peace, courage, compassion, and creative power.
I have come that they may have life, and have it in all its fullness.
 – Jesus of Nazareth Jn. 10:10b

Mind the Gap

Some thoughts on the quandary of ‘crossover ‘ Christian Fiction.

The ‘too Christian for secular and too secular for Christian’ phrase has been popping up like the proverbial bad penny in recent online discussions. Seems the ‘professional’ consensus is an aspiring Christian writer must fall firmly on one side or the other is they want to go pro, be taken seriously, make a living at their craft.

Couple things:
I’m as willing as any aggravated non-believer to toss ham-fisted didactics in the critics’s den. Good riddance, I say. Dramatized sermonizing tends to be as painfully tedious as it is blatantly contrived. I think it was Dorothy Sayers who noted ‘pious trash is still trash’. Amen, sister. Throw it out.

Now I’m still learning how to both be a better Christian and better writer, so I’m not claiming mastery here, but as someone who does not see all art as a sermon platform and who strives for excellence in my work, I’m wondering at the wisdom of the ‘either/or ‘ stance as a professional mandate.

Learning curve aside for the moment, I’m unconvinced including explicit Christian content where it’s organic to the plot and characters makes one less professional, a wanna-be hobby or ‘weekend writer’. I’ve read enough thinly disguised ‘allegories’ from Christian authors that dripped with ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink. See what I did there? Biblical worldview! Aren’t I clever?” to not want to read any more. Those are just as much an insult to readers’ intelligence as any evangelical trope – even more so, as the Christian coyness seems inherently dishonest.

The key phrase here is ‘where organic to the plot and characters’. Discerning the where and when on that is not so much a question of ‘courage v compromise’, but the cultivation of mature technique, developing the skills of writing fiction. Echoing Dorothy Sayers again: ‘For work to be considered God’s work it must first be good work’. Nothing ruins a good idea faster than a poor execution, but a poor execution doesn’t automatically mean it’s not a good idea. The correct response to a good thing done wrong is to do it right, not to dump it altogether

Next is the idea of embracing what makes you different as a person and artist. You want to jump on the latest vampire/zombie/whatever trend, go ahead. Not my cuppa, thanks anyway. Seems to me, if there’s going to be any ring of authenticity to a person’s art, an artist/writer of any stripe has to embrace, wrestle, and reflect their deepest dreams, fears, and beliefs. If that is Marxism, Humanism, Nihilism, so be it. I may not agree, but I respect passion and conviction where I see it. For me, that triumvirate includes my faith in Jesus as the Risen Savior. There it is.

Because faith in Jesus is at the wellspring of my character and creations, it’s going to come out, overt or otherwise. Integrity demands it. And when it does, someone, somewhere, some when is going curl their lip, lift their nose, and start pontificating on my “blatant proselytizing “. (Pontificating…see what I did there? nudge, nudge, wink, wink) There is an element of reproach to the Gospel, an opposition and hostility. That old ‘world, flesh and the devil’ thing. So unless your Christians are lobotomized dupes or vile hypocrites, expect some flak. And it’s worth noting flak usually means you’re over the right target.

Closing this, you know I have to trot out the patron saint of Christian spec-fiction as well as apologetics, C.S. Lewis. His call for ‘Christians who write’ over ‘Christian writers’ still stands. Would to God I have the savvy to pen something like “The Screwtape Letters”, let alone multiple trips to Narnia. Point is for me, St. Clive managed both overt and covert expressions of faith in his fiction. He applied as needed. My prayer then is to imitate in principle, then develop the skills to write my stories and be both a solid Christian and solid storyteller to an audience in this generation.

Back to work now. Thanks and have an excellent day.

The Grim Fall notes

WHO CAN YOU TRUST WHEN THE GODS BETRAY YOU?

Tagline for my next novel right there.

Eshu International and Clar1ty Wars are going to stew on the back burner for a while. The Grim Fall is the project that’s banging inside me demanding to be let out.

So the initial outline is complete and I’m 15K into the first draft. To explain, The Grim Fall is a post-apocalyptic quest story set in a desolate, shattered fantasy world. The Gods managed to murder each other in their final cosmic battle before they could destroy all creation, allowing for a post to this particular Apocalypse.

My goal is Lord of the Rings meets The Road. To chain High Fantasy to a cement truck and drag it through Chernobyl for a while. I’m busting with ideas on what that looks like, and what fantasy world survivors would morph into to survive in such a place.

Worldview-wise, it’s my examination into/dramatization of people’s reactions to religion’s disappointments, failures, even treacheries. (Kinda the ultimate betrayal if the ultimate thing you trust throws you under the bus.) Like the tag line asks, who can you trust when your own gods let you down? Do you trust anyone or anything ever again? Can you find authentic faith in the ruins of a scorned, broken world?

On a practical note, while letting my imagination run, I’ve had to constantly rein in The Grim Fall because the story wants to escape into the bad lands and mutate in magical irradiated solitude into something rabid and monstrous. Methinks this is gonna be one huge novel, or maybe even a three-parter. I’ll know more as I write more, so that’s a decision for later. In the meantime, I’ll keep plugging away. I plan on contacting my cover artist soon. I need some visuals to prop up the increasing page count. I’ll post excerpts as I can.

Thanks for stopping by and have a great apocalypse-free day.

Some Thoughts about Ireland’s Same Sex Marriage Referendum

As a ‘conservative’ Christian, I found Ireland’s recent Same-Sex Marriage Referendum very interesting.

Off the top of my head, then.

1. Agree or disagree with Same Sex Marriage, people have the right in Free Societies to choose, to vote, to engage in the social and political process. Disagreeing doesn’t invalidate the right. Not even God violates people’s free will. This is happening. Deal with it – intelligently.

2. NPR reported that rather than take an adversarial, combative stance, many Homosexuals and Same Sex Marriage supporters personally went to friends, family, co-workers, neighbors and said “This is who I am. This is important to me. Can you help?” One human being to another. There’s a thought, eh?

3. No one is opening a Big Box of Darkness in the world like Pandora. Darkness is the absence of light. Ground is lost by default. Now I agree that sexual immorality – homosexuality included – is dangerous both spiritually and physically; that is is indicative of broken, lost and defiant nature in need of redemption. But it’s time to stop pointing fingers and handing out Citations like God’s Traffic Cop. Fact is, we’re all in trouble and in desperate need of a Savior. What are we supposed to be doing again?

4. Time to reacquire a sense of proportion. There are LOTS of ugly, terrible things going on in the world. Compared to war, poverty, corruption, slavery, child-porn, and sex-trafficking (and half a dozen other things), this is way down on the list. Really.

To echo that Irish bishop, ‘It’s time for a Reality Check”. Yes, there will always be hostile contradiction, a reproach to genuine faith. I get that. But the simple Gospel is compelling, compassionate, and profound. However imperfect, it’s on us believers to reflect that accurately. As Christians, we’re Responsible TO people, not FOR them. Their response to Jesus is between them and Him. Don’t like what’s going on? I understand. The call then is to repent and return to being Salt and Light. To be God’s ambassadors, ministers of reconciliation. Jesus’ hands an feet.

Or to swipe from Gandhi, “Be the change in the world you wish to see.”