Thoughts on the Conventions of Genre and Faith

 

” Those French have a different word for everything.”

– Steve Martin as huffy ‘Merican tourist

 

***

I’ve come to accept the fact – but not really comprehend – there are people who don’t read. Like, at all. It’s an exertion, painful on the same level as a marathon or a colonoscopy. And of those who do read as a past-time, there are some who don’t read fiction, especially speculative fiction. My brother for example sees no value in the Lord of the Rings, which to him is a bunch of short people and pretend creatures running around a make-believe land after a stupid piece of jewelry.

So… yeah.

(we are related – I checked.)

Sure you’ve got those dark suit, bowl-cut, body odor, Bible-quoters who hold any entertainment to be vain, carnal, and worldly.  “It’s all going to burn, brother.”  (real-life quote example, that)  Like the poor, they will always be with you, so leave them alone to mutter and scowl in the corner. In general though, I think fiction like poetry has lots of folk who don’t ‘get it’. Lack of or poor prior experience, too intellectually lazy, or some other reason. Other folks simply aren’t wired that way. They’re eminently practical. Fiction is just not their thing, and I’m OK with that too.

Not so for me. I remember walking into the Big Hall at GenCon 2000 and realizing I was part of a huge, weird, cool secret society. The Cult of Geek. It was as much a relief as revelation. Since then, transitioning from genre reader to genre writer, I’ve come to understand even more that Sci Fi, Fantasy, Horror… Spec-Fiction Genres are languages. They are distinctly different vocabularies from Normal; the jargon of real, day-to-day, life. In fact, I’ll go further and say Genres are separate countries, entire worlds even. Speak at length with a Hard Core Star Wars or Warhammer 40K Nerd and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Genres have evolution, histories, archetypes, symbols,  idioms, nuance…it’s incredible, and implicit to good genre-writing is a deft handling of those dynamics in manners that satisfy, even stretch and exceed the audience’s expectations. It’s hard to pull off, to be fluent, and not everyone will understand, but those that do, appreciate it. That is the mystery and magic of allegory, of parables. I think my first point here is that Discrimination – in the sense of a select audience – is perfectly OK.  Not everyone is going to enjoy, understand, or accept my work. It’s high time to stop being surprised.

The next hurdle I see is the challenge of approaching creative endeavor with an ideology, in my case a theological one. Don’t kid yourself: all art makes a statement  – overt or otherwise, religious or not –  because it springs from the mulch of the artist’s life. Having a defined worldview makes the challenge that much stranger because it either forms a strong foundation or  reduces it to propaganda. So not only does the fiction writer have to hone craft but they have to avoid capture. Sort of sculpting smoke while waltzing through a minefield. The wisps of imagination have to form an entertaining, yet credible make-believe world (a ‘lie that tells the truth’) without  shrinking or spoiling the medium.

I get that some people will scorn or be hostile to my faith. Getting your worldview shat on is part of the package. (part of Life, actually) The last thing I want though is my stories to be Terrariums for Pet Rocks: painfully, obviously contrived, tiny, artificial environments for my cherished doctrines.

So as I hammer away at my next novel, consider October’s Viable Paradise workshop, and view the recent Hugo dust-up in light of my own faith and artistic struggles, I’ve still of a mind to sink my roots deeper while growing wings. For me, it’s not an ‘Either/Or’ dilemma – it’s translation problem. God help me to learn the language and be an effective communicator.  An oracle, even.

 

 

 

Merry Christmas


I post this poem every year because I believe it captures the essence of the incarnation and redemption offered in Jesus Christ. Christmas is about God’s gift of Himself to us, not just for religious spit-and-polish or pious moralizing mixed with creeds and rituals, but God coming to us at the very place of our need. In Jesus Christ is forgiveness of sins, transformation of heart, redemption at the very core of who and what we are. It’s a relationship with God forever. It’s eternal life.

Genuinely accepting God’s love means change – sometimes confusing, uncomfortable, inconvenient change – but most what is most remarkable is that it’s real And free. Jesus is alive and He loves you. Really.

Here’s the poem.

Let the Stable Still Astonish

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 all
the heavens and earth
be born here, 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 here – in this place.

May you come to trust in Jesus Christ as Redeemer. I pray God bless you all and keeps in health and peace in the new year. May God be real to you and in you, and express His Courage, Compassion, and Grace through you.

Thought for today


“Somehow or other, and with the best intentions, we have shown the world the typical Christian in the likeness of a crashing and rather ill-natured bore—and this in the name of the one who assuredly never bored a soul in those thirty-three years during which he passed through the world like a flame. Let us, in heaven’s name, drag out the divine drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction. If the pious are the first to be shocked, so much worse for the pious—others will pass into the kingdom of heaven before them. If all men are offended because of Christ, let them be offended; but where is the sense of their being offended at something that is not Christ and is nothing like him? We do him singularly little honor by watering down his personality till it could not offend a fly. Surely it is not the business of the Church to adapt Christ to men, but to adapt men to Christ.”

― Dorothy L. Sayers, Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine

Praise Serendipity?

“That’s just serendipity,” he scoffed, when I mentioned an answered prayer. “The universe has a way of giving good things to good people.” (to soften the blow, I guess)

So you’ll attribute subtle, benign intent to an anonymous universe but not God? Affirm this karmic dynamic, yet insist on random, meaningless chance? Intelligent Design and Meta-narrative need not apply.

And you mock my faith?

So how come ‘serendipity’ happens more frequently and specifically the more I pray – to God?

Just asking.

The old has passed away…

Counterweight to the previous post. A friend of mine.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
2. Cor. 5:17

Amen.

You’re supposed to pour it out.

The adoration of men, that is.

16So the three mighty men broke through the camp of the Philistines, and drew water from the well of Bethlehem which was by the gate, and took it and brought it to David. Nevertheless he would not drink it, but poured it out to the LORD; 17and he said, “Be it far from me, O LORD, that I should do this. Shall I drink the blood of the men who went in jeopardy of their lives?” Therefore he would not drink it. 2 Samuel 23:16,17a

Reports of the latest evangelical train-wreck/another minister falling victim to his success evokes several painful thoughts. The first is a wince of recognition. I watched the church I was a part of for 22 years morph into a smaller but no less sordid creature. The second is the sad, all-too-common snare of conceit and ministerial success. Without humility and perspective, it breeds arrogance – an ugly parody of godly authority. “Don’t believe your own press” an older man told me when I took a full-time ministry position. Genuine success has more to do with God honoring His Word, the Death and Resurrection of His Son, and His response to peoples’ needs and faith than any human ability, cunning, or position. Easy to remember when you start – easy to forget after a measure of accomplishment.

I’m not diminishing the reward and recognition of faithful service, nor am I undermining the concept of ministerial authority. My problem isn’t authority – it’s with bad authority. And ministers seem to be doing a fine job of ruining their credibility without me. Even allowing a measure of exaggeration and plain old peevishness in the report, this kind of rampant hubris, duplicity, and gullibility is a kick in the stomach to the testimony of Christ and the public credibility of his people.

Yes, Jesus remains true and faithful above the squalor and squabble. He is the same, yesterday, today and tomorrow. He’s the Savior. But I wonder if He gets tired of all the squandered opportunities.

Jesus saves. He’s the only one you can trust all the way to eternity.

Further reading for those considering full-time ministry. (I’d make it mandatory, if I could.)

Eric Metaxas

Battling a head cold for the second day, probably why yesterday’s post rambled. (It’s the medicine talking)

I’ve been shying away from I am Second as they seem bent lately on merchandising redemption, but I found this.

There’s a well-known passage in Ephesians, chapter 2 about salvation by grace through faith rather than works, but in verse 10, Paul wrote “… we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

I take odd comfort in the fact the Greek word translated as ‘handiwork’ is poiēma, or the root for our English word ‘poem’; i.e. a thing that is crafted with nuance and rhythm and layered meaning. Not a ‘To Do” list, an itinerary, an invoice, a legal brief… A poem.

So here’s to being a good one, and not just ‘there once was a man from Nantucket’.

Have a great day.

The root of the problem

Faith-based post for Sunday. Big idea I’ll try to keep brief.

***

There are over two hundred types of cancer, says the Cancer Society. Of these dozens upon dozens of ways your own cells rebel in your systems and organs, it’s the same basic problem manifesting itself in different ways. These different cancers require different approaches, treatment regimens, but all have the same desired goal: to stop the cancer, the internal treachery, before it spreads and kills.

There’s a lot of talk in religion over Sin: what is sin? is this or that behavior a sin? is Sin A worse that Sin B? etc, etc, ad nauseum. Now it certainly needs to be addressed; sin doesn’t make you bad – it makes you dead. But the discussion of a problem should never be at the expense of its remedy. Christian faith is the good news about the Remedy, specifically that God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is the effective, authentic solution to our deepest problem.

and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. “You are witnesses of these things.…” Luke 24:46-48

It seems to me three core theological foundations get lost in the furor of these ‘Sin’ debates.

The first is that we sin because we are sinners. The Spiritual Cancer is in all of us – it just manifests differently. Or to put it another way, our problem with God isn’t so much our Crimes as our Criminal Tendencies.

This is Christianity 101: we are not simply sick or broken; there’s a nasty rebellious streak in all of us. God’s holiness doesn’t demand judgment on merely sick people. That’s tyranny, and God is not the Big Sky Bully. The problem is a willful, selfish aspect to our being that knowingly denies and defies God. The whole ‘Original Sin, Fruit of the Tree, Garden of Eden’ story wasn’t about Satanic deception and arbitrary disobedience; it’s about human beings rejecting God as the final authority on Good and Evil, insisting we know better and are accountable to no one, except perhaps ourselves and only if we want to be.

This brings us to the second issue, the big R-word: Repentance. There’s no Redemption without it because the first step is acknowledging the problem. Repenting or “metanoia” is more that compliance to morality or conformity to dogma; it’s changing your mind about who you are and who God is. It’s allowing God to be God once again. It’s admitting you and I aren’t the center of the universe, we don’t know everything, and that God as Lord, Creator and Savior has the final say over our lives, over what’s Right and Wrong.

The third foundation is people are saved by Who they know, not What they know. I’m all for sound doctrine, apologetics, credible and consistent theology. But directions to the doctor aren’t the same as the doctor. The guardrails and signposts on the narrow road to life are only there to help prevent wrecks and getting lost. Morality stems from what God likes/dislikes, Doctrine from what he said, but Salvation is a Gift from a Person. It’s an ongoing spiritual relationship with a living, resurrected Savior.

These two recent posts http://mycropht.wordpress.com/2013/10/02/judgecooking/
http://mikeduran.com/2013/10/interview-w-stephanie-drury-of-stuff-christian-culture-likes/
brought this statement to my attention:

MIKE: Loaded question: Do you think it’s possible to believe homosexuality is a sin and still be a “good Christian”?

STEPHANIE: It depends on how you define a “good Christian.” If by it you mean someone who falls in line with what their pastor or denomination says, then yes. If by it you mean someone who engages the teachings of Jesus fully and thoughtfully, then no.

I’m not going to try and understand the logic behind that assertion. It strikes me as a sad and silly statement on many levels. I agree emphatically with Katherine Coble that Christian faith doesn’t rest on my response to another person’s sexual behavior – It’s based on my response to Jesus of Nazareth. The Bible is no more ‘anti-gay’ than it is ‘anti-liar’, ‘anti-adulterer’, ‘anti-greed’, or ‘anti-thief’. Sexual immorality – of which homosexuality is one type – is clearly stated, numerous times, as symptomatic of Mankind’s isolated, broken and defiant nature.

I’m aware it’s not currently popular to say that, but see the ‘Repentance’ part above. I don’t get to say what’s right and wrong. But I also reject the fear and hate mongering against people who deal with that particular sin. God loves people and offers forgiveness, redemption and transformation to anyone who comes to Him.

I’ll end with this remarkable testimony. Have a good week.

surrogates, saints, and sinners…

FYI, this is a faith-based post.

***
Watched the Brice Willis flick Surrogates the other night and got one of those deja-vu vibes. The movie’s plot builds on a near-future where everyone stays at home in a dark room, plugged into a VR couch while their android surrogates – smarter, sexier, stronger versions of themselves – go out into the world and live smart, sexy, strong lives for them. The movie was fair if predictable. Worth a rental, IMO.

The deja-vu was the realization I feel this way at church lately. The absence of genuine conversation offset by bucket loads of conversational chaff like ‘Praise God, brother!’ and “This is the day the Lord has made, amen?” has me feeling like I’m encountering spiritual surrogates, these showroom shiny, model Christians fashioned after some Divinely-Approved Evangelical template. It leaves me feeling hollow.

In fact, the phrase ‘I only feel alone around other people’ comes to mind.

Now I’m not demanding every conversation be laced with gut-wrenching honesty. I get public personas, levels of relationship, restraint and maintaining a testimony. Who likes awkward, TMI moments? I don’t recommend vulnerability to total strangers. As Annie Leibowitz said – “Spilling your guts is about as attractive as it sounds.”

I just have this sense there’s a lot of pretending going on. Spiritual smokescreen hiding real people. I mean, if it’s my soul God is really after, (or my ‘heart’ i.e. the seat of my being) then my faith is inherently to be more than skin deep. I guess I’m thirsting for authenticity rather than acting.

The verse that keeps ringing in my head is 1 Jn. 1:7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. Seems to me God isn’t after perfection as honesty. It’s transparency with Him, ourselves and each other that brings genuine relationship, forgiveness, and transformation. It’s foundational to redemption. In fact, repentance being the first step to salvation, I don’t think redemption is possible without it.

This I am Second video testimony is an extreme example of what I’m talking about. It’s a tough watch, but worth your time, IMO.

http://www.iamsecond.com/seconds/nate-larkin/

End of the day, I’m encouraged to know God doesn’t expect perfection but honesty. That grace is given to the humble, and the promise of genuine relationship is given not on my ability to act spiritual, but by granting God’s Spirit access to my inmost being. Like the Publican in the Temple in Luke 18:9-14, God honors and responds to genuineness.

Thank God.

Euthanizing God?


EUTHANIZING GOD?

Now that I figured out I’m not Flannery O’Connor, I’ve been mulling over my experience with representations of Christian faith in popular science fiction. Note, this isn’t a researched thesis, so take it with salt.

Asimov’s classic “Caves of Steel” was one of the first sci-fi novels I ever read. Turns out the antagonist/murderer is a fundamentalist Christian, or ‘Medievalist’, that the android character tells to ‘Go and sin no more.” Irony abounds. Flash forward four decades to John’s Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War”, (great book, btw) which whips out a ‘stupid Christian’ stereotype in one of the early scenes. We got a space elevator, baby. Who needs the Sermon on the Mount?

Perhaps my impression derives from a peculiar selection of sci fi novels. Maybe I’m being peevish. However, it seems to me most of the fictional future wants traditional religion gone. Buried. Forgotten.

Cause of death varies, but there’s no need for God in fictional tomorrow. I ran into yet another example in a (very good) self-pubbed cyberpunk novel the other night. Oddly enough, it wasn’t the typical ‘Christian as villain/idiot’ trope. It was past contempt to outright dismissal.

In this particular projection, some tectonic event/discovery finally allows Mankind to dispatch God like a cantankerous, embarrassing relation. After all, He clung to life long past any reasonable expiration only by preying on the impoverished and uneducated. About time, eh? Future man gets to excise religion like a useless appendage, a sort of appendix on the human condition. Offering a meager, questionable inheritance, Mankind jettisons religion for a bright and shiny rocket ship/microchip.

If that isn’t a prelude to dystopia, I’m not sure what is. (See Communist Russia for recent historical example)

Yes, I actually paid attention in Western Civ classes. Yes, I understand stereotypes exist for a reason. Yes, I keep up with the world news. No, I’m not a Luddite. It’s the unreality of that prediction, the sheer disconnect with history, psychology and humanity I find so inconceivable.

We can bandy statistics, quote surveys, play Copy & Paste with internet articles forever. I’m happy to talk about it, but I’ll refer you to CHRISTIANS ARE HATE-FILLED HYPOCRITES and HOW CHRISTIANITY CHANGED THE WORLD to ground the discussion first.

Before you think I’m whinging or lobbing hand-grenades over the cloister walls at marauding secularists, I am painfully aware of abysmally stupid extremes. As un-Christian as it is, I loathe and mock those folks too. (I remain convinced sarcasm is a divine attribute. God is helping me.) Fact is however, people have been wrapping their lusts in good causes forever; religion doesn’t get a pass. And it certainly doesn’t mean God is cruel or faith is inherently tragic, debilitating, or divisive.

My net-friend, fellow blogger and writer Katherine Coble recently posted an interesting article: Christian vs Christ-Following. It is yet another comment on the unenviable but inevitable reality of Christian reproach. When I use the term ‘Christian’, I refer to those who have identified with the person of Jesus, hold to the veracity of Scripture, and trust in the grace of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection as the remedy to their sin and death.

Credibility demands I grapple with extremists and blunderers, but realism acknowledges for every high profile failure, reprobate, and lunatic, there are scores of people striving for devout, authentic lives. Yes, those people are flawed, conflicted. Who isn’t?

My concern here is the plausible depiction of believers in spec-fiction, and the challenge to not trade the mystery of God, (what C.S. Lewis called the Numinous) for the convenient high-ground of Morality or a cast of contrived Baptisney-land caricatures. Both the Numinous and the Moral are essential if I’m honest to my faith, but I think mystery is what ultimately captivates, just as it’s the person of Jesus who ultimately saves.

My question to Christian authors is if we don’t wrestle with portraits of real believers, a real God, and real faith, who will?