/ Features E. Stephen Burnett

The Bible’s Most Boring Chapter?

All Scripture is God-breathed, yet Numbers 7 is still one of the most aesthetically dull parts of the Bible.
| Feb 13, 2019 | No comments |

Leviticus gets a bad rap as Scripture’s most boring book, especially when the Bible’s most boring chapter of all time arrives just one book later.

You see, Leviticus, for all its seeming aesthetic faults, is at least delightfully weird (on first reading). It has blood, guts, bloody guts, and lots of sacrificing and sex. Leviticus also offers pleasant variety and organization at the same time. It follows a symmetrical pattern about rituals, sacrifices, and priests, with Day of Atonement details in the center (chapters 16 through 17).1 If you tire of priestly ordainment policy, just wait for the next chapter for plenty of intriguing sex laws.

After Leviticus comes Numbers. Somehow I had recalled that Numbers is like a lower-budget sequel to Exodus. It offers a few more miracles, social tensions, and rebellions. It even has an outbreak of blankety-blank snakes on a blankety-blank desert plain.

Well, Numbers has those things. First you must get through a lot of seemingly random legal and historical addenda. This includes Numbers chapter 7. Which offers a fastidious account of who gave what for the first Tabernacle.

This was the template for seven the chapter of Numbers:

On the [ordinal number] day [X] the son of [Y], the chief of the people of [Z]: his offering was one silver plate whose weight was 130 shekels, one silver basin of 70 shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, both of them full of fine flour mixed with oil for a grain offering; one golden dish of 10 shekels, full of incense; one bull from the herd, one ram, one male lamb a year old, for a burnt offering; one male goat for a sin offering; and for the sacrifice of peace offerings, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, and five male lambs a year old. This was the offering of [X] the son of [Y].

Repeat 12x. Really.

And people claim that modern praise-and-worship choruses are repetitive.

Seriously, I understand why Scripture offers these details—even repeated, over and over, in an age when scribe time and resources were strictly limited. God is still establishing his chosen people, Israel, as a nation. All these minutiae, no matter how trifling, will matter to their descendants. Especially when it comes to facts like which tribe gave what for the Tabernacle. Best I can tell here, every tribe gave the exact same resources. Which, on first reading, indicates two very important truths:

  • Every detail about the formation of the Tabernacle, God’s dwelling place on Earth, matters a great deal.
  • No tribe descendant of the future could claim some special spirituality; every tribe gave the same stuff.

The ESV Study Bible notes:

The exact repetition of the donations of each tribe underlines that all the tribes were equally committed to supporting the tabernacle. It is also noteworthy that, as in chs. 1–4, the tribe of Judah takes the lead (see notes on 1:26–27; 2:1–34).

Still, even in the book of Leviticus, I’ve not yet found an aesthetically duller portion of Scripture. Maybe next time, I shan’t try to read it aloud.

  1. My wife and I are following The Bible Project app and reading plan through the whole Bible in a year. Their animated intros to biblical books and themes are top-notch. We found the Leviticus intro video very helpful to getting you almost psyched for the book.

Christian Movies Will Get Better When Audiences Seriously Demand Them

Today’s audiences are fine with cheesy Christian movies. That will change.
| Feb 12, 2019 | 5 comments |

Last month I asked, Do Christian Creators Know When Their Movies Are Bad? Author and screenwriter Sean Paul Murphy answered. In short, his answer seems to be, “Usually.”

But Murphy raised a lot more questions and answers, for which my original article didn’t have space.1

You should read Murphy’s insider’s view. Read it especially if you’ve been one of those snarky Christians. You know who you are—the kind of person who thinks or speaks as if all those cheesy Christian movie-makers are doing it on purpose. Or the kind of person who thinks or speaks as if things will get better if cheesy Christian movie-makers just start making better movies.

I say ‘amen’ to Murphy’s insider view.

Murphy touches on several truths that I can get behind without qualification. Among the myths he busts (my paraphrasing):

‘Non-Christian movies are so much better than Christian-made movies’?

Nonsense. You only hear more about great non-Christian-made movies because there are so many of them. That yields more chances for the good ones to get really good and/or popular.

Numerically, terrible movies by non-Christians outpace Christian-made movies by factors of hundreds.

‘Christians mean to make subpar movies and don’t care about growing’?

Nonsense again. As Murphy repeats, creators like Alex Kendrick and Dallas Jenkins both humbly concede earlier “cheesy” moments. They are very transparent about their earlier not-so-great work. And they directly state they aim to get better.

‘Christian movies would be better if they had higher budgets’?

This is more of an implication I find in some other Christians’ snarky reviews of evangelical-marketed movies. In other words, maybe we just need to allocate several million dollars to use solely for making Christian movies. But as Murphy says:

One thing that always infuriates me is when filmmakers say their movies aren’t good because they didn’t have a big enough budget. Hey, if you chose to tell a story that you didn’t have the money to adequately tell, it’s not a budget problem. It is an error in judgement by the producer. Period! I didn’t hear the directors of The Blair Witch Project crying about their budget. I didn’t hear Kevin Smith crying about the budget of Clerks. Or Jim Jarmusch about Stranger Than Paradise. Or Whit Stillman about Metropolitan. Or Robert Rodriguez about El Mariachi. One of my favorite sci-fi films is Primer. Shooting budget: $7,000. Those filmmakers made up for their lack of budget with talent and imagination. I don’t think it’s too much to ask Christian filmmakers to do the same.2

Does quality matter in Christian films?

Murphy suggests I ignored this question in my original article. That’s true of this particular article. However, I have explored the quality question in other articles:

Click for the complete series.

That last series is so far my “magnum opus” on this topic. But I wrote it to challenge not just Christian movie critics but their fans, all at once. That’s because, apparently like Murphy, I don’t primarily blame the filmmakers or producers for making cheesy movies.

We must be more charitable than that, while also recognizing pure capitalistic fact.

Producers and directors wouldn’t make the cheesy movies if Christian audiences did not really want them.

Read Murphy’s insider view. I’d venture he shares the frustrations of many Christian creatives who are restricted by plain market forces:

The main reason why there are so many bad Christian films is because the core audience doesn’t demand quality filmmaking. Only a reassuring message. If we want good movies, we have to stop supporting the bad ones, regardless of how well-meaning they are. It’s that simple. Really. The future of Christian films is in your hands, dear viewer!3

Problem: Christians who hate-watch Christian movies aren’t helping much.

Unfortunately, some Christians who are most likely to demand better movies are giving up too early.

Many of these potential viewers are younger Christians. They are more savvy with popular culture. Some write off the whole concept of “Christians making movies with overt Christian themes.” Within this group, some critics seem to assume a notion similar to evangelical cheesy-movie defenders: that the chief purpose of Christian-made movies is to “minister” to people. They only disagree on how the movies ought to do this, or what kind of people the movies ought to reach. They neglect one plain reality: that the Church does need its own “subcultures,” including movies.4

Honestly, some other Christian movie critics take the same stereotypical attitude of an older Christian. This is the kind of person who would forbid his children from seeing secular PG-13 movies “because actors say too many bad words.” Christian movie critics apply this same “sin counting” approach to Christian movies. In effect they claim, “No, you can’t support those, because they have too many cheesy moments.”

Once upon a time, most of the big movies were made by Big Hollywood. Evangelicals would see them sometimes, but usually condemn everything wrong with Big Hollywood.

And the evangelicals would not actually try to make any of the big movies themselves.

Today, some of the (relatively) big movies are made by Christians. Other Christians see them sometimes, but usually condemn everything wrong with the Christian movie-makers.

And most Christian movie critics do not actually try to make the big movies themselves.

So—are critics incidentally turning into little but a complaining counter-culture? Are they vulnerable to the charge of, “I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it”?5

Solution: instead, teach other Christian movie viewers to demand more.

Well, from what I read here, I like Sean Paul Murphy’s way of doing it.

I like some of directors Alex Kendrick’s and Dallas Jenkins’s way of doing it. And I suspect that I’ll like their way even better in the future.

Until that time, I’ll keep giving these directors second (third, fourth, fifth …) chances.

I’ll keep supporting “Christian movies” as a concept.

And I’ll try to avoid being so silly as to suggest anything like this: that Christian movie-makers ought to make their own jobs even harder, by making movies that the majority of their evangelical audiences simply don’t want. At least, don’t want yet.

Instead, my solution: get out there, and winsomely show my Christian friends why they should modify their Christian-movie wish list.

Then the market will slowly shift. Then emboldened creatives will step up their game. Producers will support them. Audiences will reward them. That will encourage other creatives, directors, producers—and the cycle will just keep going.

It’s already happened with the superhero genres.

But the changes don’t start with the story creators. These changes must start with the fans.

  1. I would describe my view on Christian movies as pessimistically optimistic. This is reflected in my other recent article, Christian Movies Started Terrible, But Can Improve Like Any Other Genre.
  2. Sean Paul Murphy, “Do Christian Creators Know When Their Movies Are Bad?” (same title as my article), SeanPaulMurphyVille.Blogspot.com, Feb. 1, 2019.
  3. Ibid.
  4. I summarize this point in Seven More Challenges For Christian Movie Critics and Fans (Speculative Faith, Sept. 10, 2015). It’s actually somewhat naive to presume that independent creative Christians can simply skip over our thriving Christian/church subcultures and “make a difference” in secular creative fields. This goes double if the creative seems to believe the chief purpose of story-making is “evangelism,” rather than “glorify God in all that you do.”
  5. Seven Final Challenges For Christian Movie Critics and Fans, Speculative Faith, Sept. 17, 2015.

In Which A Snack Cakes Twitter Feed Shames the Folly of Fandom War

@LittleDebbie wisdom: “People act as if they have to hate one thing in order to remain loyal to the other.”
| Feb 11, 2019 | No comments |

Somebody tried to start another fandom war on Twitter. And, no joke, the account for @LittleDebbie responded with the wisdom of a sage.

This question comes from DC writer Gail Simone, who asked:

Apparently Simone did this with several brand-name accounts, such as the famous @Wendys account.

But as the account of a must-not-be-named restaurant chain later suggested, “You might be little, Debbie, but you’re wise beyond your years.”

(I’d award double points solely for the classy use of the semicolon.)

Marvel vs. DC, Star Wars vs. Star Trek—sure, it’s fun to fake “pit” these story franchises in fictional fights.

But as (believe it or not) the seller of starchy snacks further added:

C. S. Lewis on the Religion of Star Wars

C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity describes “only a blind force, with no morals and no mind . . .”
| Feb 8, 2019 | No comments |

C. S. Lewis’s full (verified!) quote comes from Mere Christianity:

When you are feeling fit and the sun is shining and you do not want to believe that the whole universe is a mere mechanical dance of atoms, it is nice to be able to think of this great mysterious Force rolling on through the centuries and carrying you on its crest. If, on the other hand, you want to do something rather shabby, the Life-Force, being only a blind force, with no morals and no mind, will never interfere with you like that troublesome God we learned about when we were children. The Life-Force is a sort of tame God. You can switch it on when you want, but it will not bother you. All the thrills of religion and none of the cost. Is the Life-Force the greatest achievement of wishful thinking the world has yet seen?

"When you are feeling fit and the sun is shining and you do not want to believe that the whole universe is a mere mechanical dance of atoms, it is nice to be able to think of this great mysterious Force rolling on through the centuries ..."

Let’s Start a Club for Writers!

Question: “How can we sell more excellent and popular Christian fiction?”
| Feb 7, 2019 | No comments |

Not really. I am only joshing.1

  1. For my part, I’d prefer starting a club that’s the best of both worlds. But so far, time does not permit.

Christian Creators Can’t Easily Bypass ‘Christian Markets’ for Secular Markets

If “Christian markets” are too steep a hill to scale, imagine trying to leap over the secular market mountains.
| Feb 6, 2019 | 5 comments |

In my Monday story, “Amelie Wen Zhao’s Critics Enforce New Fantasy Legalism,” I left an opening when I mentioned this about Christian markets:

Ever heard or believed the notion that we ought not have “Christian fiction,” but just Christians writing fiction?

I actually disagree with this statement. In this SpecFaith article, I share a few reasons why. But here’s another reason: Progressivist zealots will just keep waging their moral, godless-religious crusade against fantasy books. So Christians will need our own stories, now more than ever.

Well, technically I did cover the opening. I included that link to a previous article.

But some readers still thought I was saying something like this: Well, because secular fiction is so wicked and dangerous, we ought to retreat. Let’s go back to the simpler (and less “social justice”-prone) Christian fiction bubble. (And all that that implies.)

Oh, I definitely don’t agree with that either. At least, not without this qualification.

Point 1: Christian fiction and secular fiction both restrict content.

In fact, I argue that both present-day Christian fiction1 and secular fiction have religious-based content restrictions. These include:

  • “You can’t say bad words.” In most modern Christian fiction, this bans swear words. (Not even if bad guys say them.) In most secular fiction, this bans racist words/ideas. (Not even if bad guys say them.)
  • “You can’t explore particular themes.” In most modern Christian fiction, this bans mentions of certain doctrinal disputes, or even the existence of denominations. In most secular fiction, this bans negative views of abortion or fornication.
  • “You cannot question our fashionable religion.” In most modern Christian fiction, this bans characters who show complex doubts. (Even if the story ultimately helps resolve them.) In most secular fiction, this bans even subtle questioning of Progressivism or God’s presumed nonexistence.2

Point 2: It’s simpler to try transforming ‘Christian markets.’

Ultimately, I find the idea of truly challenging, excellent Christian fiction more attainable than the notion that most Christians can just “be really, really good at making stories” and therefore flourish in secular markets.

It does seem strange to pretend secular fiction markets will be less restrictive than Christian fiction markets. In either one, humans are going to human. Either will be religious and/or restrictive. Either will offer certain freedoms and limits.

It also seems strange to imagine that secular editors, who are not simply “neutral,” will help Christian authors flourish. In any case, the author will likely need to choose, not whether to compromise, but how to compromise. Which can you give up: bad words, or other beliefs?

But in the end, I do wonder about one last market difference. Many godly Christians work in secular media and publishing. Aside from them, which of these is simpler: 1) efforts to cure the spiritual sickness of legalism and anti-excellence notions in Christian publishing, or 2) help resurrect spiritually dead hearts of non- or anti-Christians in secular publishing?3

Christian authors can strive to do both, in whatever sphere God has called them to serve.

Point 3: It’s naive to claim ‘Christian markets are too hard, so let’s try secular markets instead.’

To be sure, our supernatural God supernaturally turns stone hearts into flesh hearts.4 He can and does accomplish either goal.

Yet in a human sense, I find it simpler to challenge Christians into better and more biblical readers.

Sure, that’s still a steep hill to climb.

But some Christians (including some aspiring Christian storytellers) presume, “Christians are too stubborn in their bad story preferences. So let’s give up. Let’s instead head for the hills of secular storytelling. Those ought to be easier to scale!”

I’m afraid such folks are in for a shock when they arrive at those secular hills.

They’ll likely find that these are actually mountains of piled-up treasure (great movies, classic songs, skillful artistry) that are mixed with equal or greater parts garbage (blasphemy, fornication, and strict legalism very similar to culturally fundamentalist Christianity).

If you’re a Christian creator, you would face all of the same human problems, like business over creativity, marketability over excellence, and plain nastiness and back-stabbing.

But you would be left with even less faith foundation to challenge any of this because you (very likely) don’t share faith with this world.

Perhaps that whole problem of “oversheltering” applies just as much to the Christian who, from a safe distance, thought that secular mountain looked small enough.

Point 4: Some Christians creators must start with the ‘Christian markets’ hill.

I’m not saying it’s impossible. But I am saying it’s naive for the Christian reader or creator to expect to leap over this mountain in a single bound—and without even having tried to train by climbing the (comparatively smaller) Christian-market hill. After all, that’s partly why we praise and support professing Christian athletes and actors for their accomplishments. Deep down, we know God has given them great gifts to accomplished much with talent and excellence, especially if they’ve resisted corruption and become more like Jesus instead.

Some Christian creators have been called to cross over into that world.

But other Christian creators, who wince at the Christian market’s steep slopes, ought not stare across the valley to that “smaller” secular market mountain in the distance. I’m probably one of those people. So as Christian creators, let’s scale the smaller hills first, and then see if God leads us to tackle the taller mountains.

Either hill you decide to climb—Godspeed to you! And please let me know how I can pray for and support you.

Ten more articles on Christian fiction vs. secular fiction:

  1. Who Wants to Kill Christian Fiction?
  2. A Call for Deeply Real Christian Fiction
  3. How to Be a Silly Christian Fiction Critic
  4. Stop Hating on Christian Popular Culture
  5. Eight Actions to Resurrect Christian Fiction
  6. How To Fix Christian Fiction: More Christianity
  7. Is Secular Fiction Better Than Christian Fiction?
  8. Why Does Christian Romance Outsell Christian Fantasy?
  9. 95 Theses for Christian Fiction Reformation (four-part series)
  10. ‘Christian Fiction’ Vs. ‘Christians Writing Fiction’? We Need Both
  1. As always, I prefer using the term “Christian fiction” to describe any fiction (creative work) created by a Christian (person, not thing). Most people, however, understand “Christian fiction” to describe things, and in a mass market. So here I’m using the term that way.
  2. This is a condensed version of the points in my Speculative Faith article “Is Secular Fiction Better Than Christian Fiction?
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ezekiel 36:26.

Tosca Lee’s Novel ‘The Line Between’ Is Already Great and You Should Read It

Unlike dystopians with teen heroes, “The Line Between” starts before a crisis and follows a young adult.
| Feb 5, 2019 | 2 comments |

For the next issue of Lorehaven Magazine, I’m greatly enjoying Tosca Lee‘s newest novel, The Line Between.

This novel is a thriller but also a pre-apocalyptic story. Within, Lee shares just enough medical future-dread to qualify as very near-sci-fi.

Some readers prefer mid– or post-apocalyptic (or dystopian) stories, that is, if apocalypses (or dystopias) must commence at all. Me, I tend to prefer pre-apocalyptic stories. That’s because it’s a lot more interesting to follow how this world could potentially fall apart.

(For example, I have little inclination to re-read The Hunger Games dystopian books or or re-view the films. But I already can’t wait to re-watch the newer pre–and mid-apocalyptic Planet of the Apes trilogy.)

Post-apocalyptic stories often seem duller to me because they pick up a long time later. They start long after The Cataclysm or The Incident or The Dark Times or The Capitalized Horror, leaving the interim nastiness to your imagination.

(Such a cheat also seems politically easier, so that readers can’t yell at you for blaming Communism or global warming for The Great Peril.)

Lee, however, serves up an unlikely heroine in 22-year-old Wynter Roth. She’s not a teenage castaway, archer, hacker, or apex of an excruciating love triangle. She’s a cult escapee. From one of the nastiest, most realistic-sounding cults made up for a thriller novel.

Mind you, I haven’t been part of a cult, thank God. But I’ve seen cult-like devotees up close.

It’s a scary subject and one that, I think, more Christian-made stories should explore—for real cults, or made-up ones like in this book.

Anyway, I’m not yet done with The Line Between. But now that I have a daily blog, I can share what I’m reading any time.

You can catch our full review of The Line Between in the spring 2019 issue of Lorehaven Magazine, which releases next month. We’ll also feature my cover story based on my interview with Lee, who’s not only crafting stories like crazy, but getting TV producers’ attention.

Enclave, Thomas LockeNext week: win a free book!

Meanwhile, you can preview our debut issue (spring 2018) without even a free subscription. Get more details at SpecFaith. And, starting next week, you can enter our contest to win a free copy of Thomas Locke’s post-apocalyptic novel Enclave.1

 

  1. Enclave is one of the few post-apocalyptic stories I have enjoyed. This is mostly because Locke explains how that world got to there from here.

Amelie Wen Zhao’s Critics Enforce New Fantasy Legalism

Progressivists who target Amelie Wen Zhao outdo the legalism of the old Christian fundamentalists.
| Feb 4, 2019 | 5 comments |

My heart goes out to aspiring author Amelie Wen Zhao.

I’ve never met her, or said hello on Twitter. No doubt our beliefs and life experiences are very different.

But we share mutual creation in the image of God. We also share an interest in fantastic stories. In Zhao’s case, she had even attained a huge publishing contract for her fantasy series. Its first novel, Blood Heir, would have released this June.

Yes, would have, because internet bullies forced Zhao into cancelling her own dream’s publication.

What happened: religious progressivists accused an Asian-American author of ‘racism.’

Last January, Amélie Wen Zhao posted an ecstatic message on her website: Her debut young adult fantasy novel, “Blood Heir,” had sold to a major children’s publishing house in a three-book deal after a heated auction, and was scheduled to be released in summer 2019.

“I AM GOING TO BE A PUBLISHED AUTHOR!!!!!!” she wrote.

But a year later, her nascent career has stalled, after some critics, who read early review copies of the novel, denounced the book as blatantly racist.1

Columnist and The Benedict Option author Rod Dreher summarized the nonsense:

The book, which had positive buzz (Barnes & Noble called it one of the most anticipate YA releases of the year), has been the subject of a massive Social Justice Warrior pile-on on social media, as Jesse Singal discussed in a tweetstorm. Very few people have even read the novel, but the mob attacked it as racist for a variety of reasons, one of them being that Zhao created a fantasy world where “oppression is blind to skin color” (this, from the press release). It’s a fantasy world, and people haven’t even read the book, but the mob was certain that Blood Heir is racist, and that its author — a young woman raised in Beijing, but now living in New York City — ought to be shut down.

Today, they got their wish.2

Zhao said, “It was never my intention to bring harm to any reader of this valued community . . .”3

Whereupon columnist Dreher basically Hulks out:

They shamed this woman into surrendering her dream! This immigrant from communist China has submitted to the verdict of an online struggle session, straight out of Mao’s Cultural Revolution! . . .

These monsters have to be stopped. We cannot let them win. I am so sorry that Amelie Wen Zhao surrendered to them, and their cruelty. . . .

Amelie Wen Zhao has learned to love Big Brother.

The rest of us had better learn to hate him, and fight him at every turn. Now.4

Why it happened: religious progressivists hate or hijack fantasy like old Christian fundamentalists have done.

I agree with Dreher. Yet how can we “hate” this sin, while loving the sinners? How can we hate bullying, while loving the bullies?

Still, we can’t simply reply with slogans like, “we must stop this,” and “fight! fight!” We need to understand our enemy. And as a famed boy warrior once said—incidentally(?) expanding upon Christ’s command—we even need to love them.

“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.”5

To understand this enemy, I must start with this one similarity: Today’s moral police act worse than yesteryear’s Christian-ish cultural fundamentalists.

Obvious legalism is not the only legalism.

Lately I’ve seen several articles and comments sharing this truth.

A friend of mine remarked on Facebook:

I have no doubt that “YA Twitter” considers itself enlightened, informed, and most of all, “woke,” but this is ignorance, plain and simple. It’s no different than those knee-jerk reactions from religious and conservative types concerning books, movies, etc., that they’ve never read or watched, and yet are absolutely convinced that said works are “evil” and must be protested, condemned, etc., sight unseen.

From another friend, Ian Barrs:

I am continually bitterly amused by how the how closely the reactions and “logic” of fundamentalists of the cultural Left resemble the “religious fundamentalists” they see as their exact opposites. The shallow understanding of the purpose and nature of fiction that leads to someone condemning an author because they portray racist characters being racist, for instance, is exactly the same error as the lady I saw on a Christian website once condemning the Harry Potter novels and specifically because the Voldemort resurrection scene at the end of book 4 is “frightening and occultic Black Magic”… You mean the evil ritual by which the entire series’ antagonist, an *evil wizard* regains his power is “frightening Black magic”?? You don’t say…

(The only better one was the person complaining that Tolkien’s Sauron was inappropriate because he’s “demonic”… For those of you unfamiliar with Tolkien’s fictional history and cosmology, Sauron is, literally, a demon…)

And finally, from Crossway Books associate acquisitions editor Samuel James, writing at Crossway (though not about the Zhao takedown):

The idea that we ought to make the culture we consume conform to a moral standard seems a novel one to the social-justice generation. It was a given in my childhood. My fundamentalist upbringing gave me (though of course imperfectly) a grasp of non-neutrality, the inevitable moral character of the things we say, watch, and experience.

The rising generation of students is coming to this same realization but without the help of religion’s spiritual insight. The modern campus culture is a religious culture, but it’s a religion without God, and consequently it is a religion without grace. Many students would probably hear my story about growing up in conservative Evangelicalism and conclude that I have been violently oppressed. What if, though, we have more in common than they think? What if SJWism and religious fundamentalism are both expressions of a dissatisfaction with the decadence of modernity: its mindless consumerism, its divorce of virtue from culture, and its kowtowing to profit and power? . . .

Evangelical Christians have an understanding that secular, culture-policing social-justice activists can only mimic — an understanding that the world is a guilty place and that truth, goodness, and beauty must be striven for instead of assumed. The gospel of Christianity offers new life through repentance and spiritual rebirth. There is no such gospel in the worldviews of secular students; the best that can be strived for in them is tribal purity.6

Ever heard or believed the notion that we ought not have “Christian fiction,” but just Christians writing fiction?

I actually disagree with this statement. In this SpecFaith article, I share a few reasons why. But here’s another reason: Progressivist zealots will just keep waging their moral, godless-religious crusade against fantasy books. So Christians will need our own stories, now more than ever.

Meanwhile, let’s love our enemies—by understanding them, empathizing with them, loving them, and also opposing their nonsense.

  1. Alexandra Alter, “Y. A. Author Pulls Her Debut After Pre-Publication Accusations of Racism,” The New York Times, Jan. 31, 2019.
  2. Rod Dreher, “Amelie Zhao Learns To Love Big Brother,” The American Conservative, Jan. 30, 2019.
  3. Amelie Wen Zhao @ameliewenzhao, Jan. 30, 2019 tweet.
  4. Dreher, “Amelie Zhao Learns To Love Big Brother.”
  5. Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game.
  6. Samuel James, “We’re All Fundamentalists Now,” National Review, Feb. 1, 2019.

My New Year’s Resolution: Reject Story Cynicism

Last year I found myself getting more cynical about stories and even reality—then I found the culprit.
| Feb 1, 2019 | 2 comments |

One month into my New Year’s resolution, I didn’t even know I’d made it.

To explain this resolution requires a slight background.

Throughout last year, I noticed myself growing more cynical. That’s strange to me, because I thought I was a naturally optimistic person. What caused this? I can attribute some job anxiety, lots of life changes, difficult work schedule, the usual. At the same time, I noticed I was growing more cynical in a certain area—specifically, the field of fantastical stories.

Mind you, it’s not like I “turned against” stories I love. But I was becoming more naturally cynical, even unease, related to stories.

Even stories I otherwise really like.

Example: superhero movies. I like plenty of them. This is partly because of previous fandom of these universes (though I’m more familiar with DC through its animated series). But it’s partly because, quite simply, the superhero-related genres are the leading fantastical field in “genre movies” today. If we were, instead, getting lots of great sci-fi or fantasy adaptations, I’d likely be all over those too.

But inexplicably, I kept having these skeptical thoughts intrude. Such as:

Hey, maybe all those “superhero movie fatigue” people are onto something. Why don’t you just (switching franchises) join this dark side?

I didn’t want to. This kind of skeptical thought made no sense to me. From where, then, was it coming?

Then I isolated the culprit.

My problem: a form of the old (evangelical) phrase ‘Garbage in, garbage out’

For some time, I realized I’d fallen into a rather frivolous habit.

I’d gotten into the practice of watching YouTube videos whose entire purpose was to scoff and ridicule popular movies.

I don’t want to criticize particular channel operators. But occasionally I would see a video from the “CinemaSins” channel, or Nostalgia Critic.1

Part of my goal was, originally, sort of educational. But let’s be real: I had also drifted into following pointless and shallow entertainment.

And it had begun to affect me. Slowly and ever so subtly, I had begun to see not only fantastical stories, but life itself, with a nasty and grungy haze of Everything is Awful.

This is a common idea, but does it match Scripture’s portrayal of sin’s real source in the human heart?

Remember the annoying little Sunday-school catchphrase “garbage in, garbage out”? It’s a phrase I’ve previously opposed. That’s because its plain reading clashes with Jesus’s words in Mark 7.2

I’d still oppose that phrase. Without clarification, it reinforces the false notion of “your heart is pure until something else corrupts it.”

So in my case, the skeptical and cynical videos were not really implanting nastiness in my heart. Instead, I feel they were drawing out those impulses, already infesting me like a cancer, and feeding them.

My cure: I quit watching scoffing, skeptical ‘critic’ videos

Thus, at some “point” I barely remember within the last few months, I chose to stop watching them.

Two-or-so months later: Wow, such a relief. I did not even know I had been so strongly affected by that stuff.

My whole worldview has already begun to improve. It’s not just that I’m happier. I’m more willing to read Scripture daily, even going into (gasp!) Leviticus. To my surprise, I have (shock, again) more time to read other books. My creative drive has improved. I feel I’m friendlier around people at church and in my job, and I’m even more tolerant to my silly dog.

Oh—and that original problem, my weird suspicion of negativity about fantastical stories? It’s all but gone.

Again, how strange to find that my problem relating to something “frivolous,” like popular culture, could point me toward a problem in real life.

Cynicism sells, but there were some who resisted

Now I begin to wonder how many other people are being “poisoned” by similar material. And I also wonder, how much of our plain nastiness toward other people could be at least relieved by intentionally throwing away those “pills” and pursuing better nutrition.

For instance, I happened across a random and positive tweet that actually reflected, for the first time, my problem and cure.

And back in 2017, I remember reading a takedown of these “snarky critics and reviewers” from none other than Jordan Vogt-Roberts, director of a Kong: Skull Island (2017), a movie I haven’t even seen (yet).

Vogt-Roberts had launched a gracious yet fierce Twitter tirade versus the “CinemaSins” style of nitpicking in particular:

The director’s following tweets encapsulate the problem with CinemaSins videos: “They’re often just wrong or think they’re smarter than you.” . . . As Vogt-Roberts pointed out later in the thread, there’s nothing wrong with film criticism making compelling arguments, even if it’s criticizing a film of his. The problem is less the target of criticism and more the manner and execution of that criticism.3

Of course, that’s a plain secular solution. It would only be of limited help apart from Christ’s saving grace.

Yet I’m grateful for what seems to be the Holy Spirit’s leading to help me recover from this creeping nastiness.

After all, I spent enough time being exposed to the evangelical equivalent of counting “sins” in stories. Why should I put up with the same nonsense from cynical “critics” who don’t even share my view of stories’ ultimate purpose?

  1. Along with these “critics’ ” frequent flippancy and negativity, their flagrant use of profanity had also begun creeping into my brain and heart. I was developing temper and bad-language problem. News flash: hearing bad words can sometimes result in a form of moral “time travel.” Being exposed to their effect can lead to your sinful cause.
  2. From Mark 7:15, 18b–23, Jesus says: “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him. … Do you not see that whatever goes into person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled? . . . What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
  3. Josh Spiegel, “‘Kong: Skull Island’ Director Pinpoints the Problem With CinemaSins,” The Hollywood Reporter, Aug. 15, 2017.

Stories That Celebrate Life: ‘The Measure of a Man’

Captain Jean-Luc Picard: “Your honor, Starfleet was founded to seek out new life. Well, there it sits!”
| Jan 31, 2019 | No comments | Series:

While factions and nations seek out new ways to destroy life, stories that celebrate life ought to convict us.

This miniseries, Stories That Celebrate Life, will explore a few such fictional works.

I’ll start with perhaps the best season 2 story of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). In fact, it’s one of the best episodes of the series.1

In “The Measure of a Man,” written by Melinda M. Snodgrass:

[Federation starship Enterprise Captain Jean-Luc] Picard must prove [android Lt.] Data is legally a sentient being with rights and freedoms under Federation law when transfer orders demand Data’s reassignment for study and disassembly.2

Picard (Patric Stewart) legally defends Data (Brent Spiner) after another scientist, Commander Maddox (Brian Brophy), wants to deactivate and analyze the android.

Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) from "Star Trek: The Next Generation," 1989 episode "The Measure of a Man"The captain’s impassioned argument concludes with this speech, well-known to all TNG fans:

Your honor, the courtroom is a crucible. In it, we burn away irrelevancies until we are left with a purer product: the truth, for all time.

Now sooner or later, this man—or others like him—will succeed in replicating Commander Data.

The decision you reach here today will determine how we will regard this creation of our genius. It will reveal the kind of people we are; what he is destined to be. It will reach far beyond this courtroom and this one android. It could significantly redefine the boundaries of personal liberty and freedom: expanding them for some, savagely curtailing them for others.

Are you prepared to condemn him—and all who will come after him—to servitude and slavery?

Your honor, Starfleet was founded to seek out new life. Well, there it sits! Waiting.

Later, this prompts the judge to ponder aloud the value of presuming life and freedom.

Is Data a machine? Yes. Is he the property of Starfleet? No. We’ve all been dancing around the basic issue: does Data have a soul? I don’t know that he has. I don’t know that I have! But I have got to give him the freedom to explore that question himself.

This is a classical humanist philosophy. It proves that such humanism’s ethics are not so far from Christianity (and yet, Christianity came first). It also proves that Christianity is not alone in defending the value of confirmed human life, and the presumed value of life that just might be human.

Beside Biblical Christians stand honest sci-fi stories throughout ages, stalwart and sure. Even if by accident, they defend the sacred worth of the imago Dei, God’s image in human beings. Life is sacred. It is precious. We must not destroy it.

  1. Some of this content is adapted and expanded from my article “Honest Sci-Fi Honors Life,” Speculative Faith, Jan. 23, 2014.
  2. From “The Measure of a Man” episode summary at Star Trek fan site Memory-Alpha.org.