/ Features E. Stephen Burnett

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.

Aquaman Respects Women, and So Should His Defenders

A female critic disliked “Aquaman,” and got hate from sexist males who ignored their own hero’s standards.
| Jan 30, 2019 | No comments |

Last weekend, Aquaman became the top-earning DC hero film.1

Fans are happy. But some nastier fans aren’t happy enough to actually follow their fictional hero’s positive example.

Here’s a sobering headline from film reviewer named Mara Reinstein. Her article at HuffPost actually seems to downplay the nastiness of the headline: “I Got Death Threats For Writing A Bad Review Of ‘Aquaman.’” She didn’t like the movie, not even as “big dumb fun,” and wrote a review saying so.

In response, apparently male commentators flooded her with hateful abuse. They made it all about her sex.

I scrolled through messages with my heart beating out of my chest. I had rarely seen such filth in print, let alone directed at me.  . . .

They found me on Facebook and Twitter, too. One man suggested “Kill yourself you stupid feminazi” and noted “btw your last name sounds Jewish so no surprise you are such an ignorant person hope another Holocaust happens.” Nearly 2,000 people “liked” a post in which some guy made a collage of my face and a few negative reviews. One comment: “Look at that smile that’s someone who’s been single for more than a year.”

And that’s the tamer stuff.

Reinstein plays it calm, and makes some observations about female critics.

My take is a bit different. I want to ask sexist haters of this female Aquaman critic:

Did you actually see Aquaman? Or did you fall asleep during most of it?

Unlike these persons, Aquaman‘s writers and director intentionally made Arthur Curry a total bro who does not treat women like this. On land, the story doesn’t care to show how “badass” he is by having him fornicate about town. When he meets Mera, he doesn’t even think to objectify her (unlike, occasionally, the screen).

Director James Wan, with help from (likely former) DC films director Zack Snyder, wanted Arthur this way. As opposed to the hero’s most cringe-worthy and sexist moment, played for flippant laughs, in Justice League. From ScreenRant:

[Actor Neil] Daly was responsible for running the test screenings of both Justice League and Aquaman. Daly revealed that Whedon was behind much of Justice League‘s “teenage boy sexual humor.” This includes gags like Aquaman hitting on Wonder Woman while under the influence of the Lasso of Truth. Wan didn’t want this approach in Aquaman. Daly explained:

We could have gotten a whole movie about Aquaman basically fawning over Mera the whole time and making all kinds of dirty jokes and things like that and they really had to get away from that, which is all what Whedon had done, so Snyder had a little bit of an influence on Aquaman. James Wan was showing Zack Snyder – against the studio’s wishes – cuts of the movie and early test screenings and storyboards to make sure that they’re on the same page with what he originally wanted and Snyder gave his blessing of approval, bringing it back to what he wanted all along.

There’s some common grace, right there. Any time directors and filmmakers respect women like this, even in little ways, we should rejoice.

But even if these sexist superhero movie fans(?) haven’t heard about this exact example, why don’t they notice any difference between their sexist sin and Aquaman’s respect for women?

Sometimes I wonder if God as righteous judge could use our favorite stories as evidence against us. For instance, Christians often defend God’s justice by citing Romans 1:20. This says that people may claim, pre-judgement, that they never knew about God or the gospel. But the Apostle Paul says men are “without excuse” because God’s “invisible attributes” are “clearly perceived … in the things that have been made.”2

Reading this, we automatically think of the beauty of a sea creature or the fierceness of a hurricane. But could God also judge people by, in part, showing how they failed to live up to the (far-lesser) examples of their fictional heroes—much less his own holy standard?

  1. Jamie Lovett, “‘Aquaman’ Passes ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ to Become the Biggest DC Movie Ever at Box Office,” ComicBook.com, Jan. 27, 2019.
  2. Full verse: “For (God’s) invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20, ESV)

Should Missionaries ‘Turn Off the Television’ and Video Games?

“Turn off the television. Shut down your video games”? But serious missionaries must engage their neighbors’ culture.
| Jan 29, 2019 | No comments |

Missionaries must not waste their time on superficial things, John Piper warns in this Jan. 14 message on world missions.

There is no way forward in world missions without martyrs. We didn’t urge you to come to this conference to make your life easier. But to make your life count.

Don’t waste it on superficial things. Grow deep. Get ready to die well. Give yourself unreservedly to what really matters. Take hold of life, which is life indeed. Turn off the television. Shut down your video games. Why should mere man choreograph your emotions?1

Piper recommends aspiring missionaries spend more time with God’s word and with “radical Christians.”

Few Christians would disagree with that recommendation. To be sure, many Christians do waste time on television and video games.

But I think I would (carefully!) disagree with Piper here. Time permits a brief exploration why.2

1. ‘TV’ is an outdated label, and games aren’t always superficial

Piper’s own message is available in video form. So are many other Desiring God resources. These are not “superficial” TV.

Neither are many other “television” stories that a Christian can engage critically.

“Watch later”?

Anyway, “television” is already an almost antiquated word. It’s being supplanted by the internet. Which includes social media, YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, and beyond.

Meanwhile, it’s almost a cliche among Christians to say “popular pastor condemns video games.” In response, bemused Christians often state that many games are no longer “superficial” by any rational standard.

Even if they were, can’t even missionaries enjoy Sabbath-style rest?

2. Popular culture isn’t just from ‘mere man’; God gave us culture-making gifts.

For this, I can e-cycle my remarks from an earlier article:

What if the Christian speaker then only says things like, “You need to love Jesus more than your entertainment”? That may challenge the rank popular culture idolater. But it does nothing to challenge the person who already truly wants to love Jesus first, and secondly enjoys, say, gaming or anime in time-consuming, fandom-forming ways.

For either group, Christians who only warn against popular culture (when they speak of it at all) simply show they don’t take the topic seriously enough.

In fact, in some ways they are treating the topic of popular culture just as carelessly as the unthinking Christian who’s a TV or video-game junkie. . . .

Why not discuss popular culture—human stories and songs—in terms of human creativity being a gift from God? The way some pastors talk, popular culture is some alien (even if “harmless”) thing unrelated to God. But if God gives this gift (of popular culture-creation), then He, not us, defines the terms of how the gift is best used—to glorify Him, to guard against idolatry, and to make sure we get the most joy out of using the gift in the ways He has prescribed.3

3. Serious Christian missionaries must engage people’s cultures.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Piper had in mind a cliched picture: A young Christian, listless and mission-less, sits alone in a darkened room. His only light is the almighty, flickering screen.

This does not reflect many Christians I know. They take their missionary calling seriously. They understand this includes their calling to engage the culture of people they serve.

I know one missionary in the Czech Republic, in a university setting. He connects with secularized students by exploring TV shows and films together. Another missionary serves in Japan. To learn his way around this media-rich nation, he’ll be aware of the nation’s TV and movies.

Every Christian is a missionary wherever we live, work, and raise our families.

Even Christian parents are called to be missionaries to their own children. I dare any parent to try their daunting task without also engaging with their children’s popular culture. Even if they shelter their children, they’re either permitting uniquely evangelical popular culture, or else letting children create their own shared culture.

If you love Christ, and love your children, you’ll meet them where they live—in their popular cultures.

And if you love Christ, and love your world, including other nations, you’ll meet your neighbors where they live—in their popular culture.

4. Finally, Jesus and the apostles engaged people’s cultures.

Sound familiar? It should. Jesus himself met people where they lived.

As an incarnate man, Jesus could not have shared parables unless he knew about the culture of parable-sharing.

Similarly, the apostle Paul could not have affirmed and subverted the Athenians’ heathen religions unless he knew their culture. That included his awareness of their “unknown god,” their idols, and their mixed-up poetry (Acts 17).

Desiring God and its godly leaders know this truth. They’ve also internalized it. That’s why we find these resources linked in popular social media, see these sermons in video, and hear these truths in languages we can understand. Thank God for this kind of engagement!

From there, it’s very simple to connect these truths to a better view of Christians and popular culture. That doesn’t mean just “superficial” TV and video games. It also includes social media, YouTube channels, Christian radio, and beyond.

  1. John Piper, “Make Your Life Count: The Greatest Missions Letter Ever Written,” Desiring God, Jan. 14, 2019.
  2. I may discuss this further in a longer followup article.
  3. E. Stephen Burnett, “Christians, Please Stop Warning Against Human Popular Culture Until You Know What It’s For,” Speculative Faith, Nov. 9, 2017.

Bill Maher is Still Wrong about ‘Same Thing’ Superhero Movies

TV host Bill Maher’s resumed rant against fantastical stories only reveals his own immaturity.
| Jan 28, 2019 | 1 comment |

Two months ago, liberal pundit Bill Maher reveled in his ignorance about superhero fantasy. Recently he offered more of the same.

ComicBook.com translated the comedian’s latest rant.

Apparently, Maher’s “sequel” doesn’t do much to improve on the original:

Can we stop pretending that the writing in comic books is so good? Oh, please. Every superhero movie is the same thing — a person who doesn’t have powers, gets them, has to figure out how they work, and then has to find a glory thing. Justice League, glowy thing. Iron Man, glowy thing. Spider-Man, glowy thing. Captain America, glowy thing.1

As I explored back in November, Maher insists on blasting a popular art form he clearly knows little about. Nothing in his shallow screeds shows any familiarity with classic “comic book” superhero fantasy. That’s to say nothing of the contemporary on-screen adaptations. Lately, virtually all of the Marvel and DC superhero stories have moved beyond mere origin stories and “glowy things.”

Do superhero movies fight the evil Dr. Formula?

  • Iron Man creates a suit, has crisis of conscience, and fights abuse of his own technology. Humbles himself. Learns to be a team player. Struggles with PTSD. Tries to create hero android, fails, tries again, succeeds. He repents of his own lone-hero complex and overcorrects, insisting the nation’s governments put his team “in check.” Fights longtime ally. Then, at the end of Infinity War, he faces his worst nightmare—total defeat by Thanos.
  • Spider-Man spent his entire last (rebooted) solo live-action film learning to survive his powers, while living up to his high-school responsibilities. Its creators skipped the origin story. They skipped any “glowy things.” More recently, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse won near-unanimous acclaim from fans and from critics who actually paid attention.
  • Captain America: has single-handedly revolutionized superhero “expectations.” Sure, his first film had a literal “glowy thing.” His second film did not. Instead it offered a pop-level political and spy thriller that asked/answered very modern questions about government surveillance. Third film—very similar. That’s to say nothing of Cap’s other challenges in the Avengers team-up films.

Maher is slightly closer to the truth regarding the lackluster Justice League film. But he’s way off, if you consider the DC comics, graphic novels, and animated series and films. I dare anyone to claim The Dark Knight trilogy repeats the same “origin story/glowy thing” tropes. Even critics who (unfairly) despised the Zack Snyder DC films (Man of Steel and Batman v Superman) could not accurately call them “formulaic.” Instead, most critics claimed these films did not follow the superhero movie “rules.”

So when Maher feigns to criticize the “same old formula” of superhero movies, he’s just plain wrong.

These stories don’t follow a boring formula.

He does.

Origin of a new villain: ‘Grown-Up’ Man

Maher’s formula gets even duller when it includes “everyone who disagrees with me is IMMATURE AND UNREALISTIC” complaints.

Bragging that you’re all about the Marvel Universe is like boasting your mother still pins your mittens to your sleeves. You can, if you want, like the exact same things you liked when you were ten but if you do, you need to grow up.2

When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

— C. S. Lewis3

From my original article at SpecFaith:

Maher also seems ignorant of the best purpose of fantasy. These stories are not meant to show “reality” as we see it. Instead, they show reality as it is—our eternal reality that is epic and miraculous, and not limited to our daily chores and “grown-up” cliques and squabbling and dullness.

Here we’re again compelled to quote the childlike-yet-mature C. S. Lewis:

Critics who treat “adult” as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.4

If only Maher would stop acting so childish. This is true of others who thoughtlessly repeat the same tired “superhero movies are all the same” line. If they were truly mature, they’d join the real world. Here, these stories have long since improved on the “formula.” Or at least Maher and other ranters could actually listen to real fans in the real world. Any of them can easily explain why we enjoy these stories so much.

  1. Adam Barnhardt, “Bill Maher Lashes Out After Stan Lee Comments, Insults Superhero Fans and Kevin Smith,” ComicBook.com, Jan. 25, 2019.
  2. Ibid.
  3. C. S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” 1952.
  4. Ibid.

Two Extreme Christian Views about Social Justice

Some Christians show zeal for social justice. Others call this “liberal.” Is either belief more biblical?
| Jan 25, 2019 | No comments |

I want to consider the stories Christians teach one another about social justice. Yet it turns out, my first attempt at this comes from nine years ago.

It’s surprising, first, how much I actually agree with 2010 Stephen, and second, how little things have changed.

I find this just when I was beginning to imagine, “Wow, things really are worse now than before, aren’t they?”

Imagine fuzzy, crackling black-and-white fast-motion 1920s comedy film footage over the following process:

  1. Hosts of professing Christians get comfortable with their easy lives. They’re satisfied with their blessings. They appreciate any benefits obtained from a stable country, and lifestyle, based on some Biblical truth.
  2. The next generation of professing Christians comes along. Of course, they’re likely the children of the above generation. But they get sick of apparent easy-living Christianity, and its lack of emphasis on caring for the poor and destitute. They cry, Christ came to bring Social Justice! and they talk a lot about this.
  3. In reaction to them, more Christians get sick of that. They dismiss Social Justice as just a bunch of liberal talk.
  4. All sides get together on the internet. Sometimes they even connect in person. They commence to yell at each other.
  5. People from either sides switch to either more “liberal” or “conservative” views. Each “side” has children, or other protégés, to teach their views.
  6. (Repeat as many times as desired.)

On which of the two “sides”—or an overlapping viewpoint—do you fall?

Scripture doesn’t let Christians get away with either extreme view. Neither does pastor and author Kevin DeYoung. In 2010, he wrote a short blog series to encourage Christians not to fall off into one ditch or the other. DeYoung cautions: Don’t base your view on what the Other Side is or isn’t saying or doing. Instead, we must have biblical balance:

#1: Don’t Undersell What the Bible Says About the Poor and Social Justice

In recent years there’s been so much talk about the poor and social justice that some conservative Christians, especially if that conservatism is political as well as theological, are tempted to tune out any time a well-intentioned evangelical chastises the church for neglecting “the least of these.”

. . . But there actually is a lot in the Bible about the poor, even more if you expand the category to include wealth, money, possessions, and justice.

. . . Because we have been given grace in Christ, we ought to extend grace to others in his name. Tim Keller is right: ministering to the poor is a crucial sign that we actually believe the gospel.1

But now, for those closer to the the-church-hasn’t-done-enough-for-the-poor side of things:

#2: Don’t Oversell What the Bible Says About the Poor and Social Justice

Just as some Christians are in danger of over-reacting against social justice, other Christians, in an effort be prophetic, run the risk of making the Bible say more about the poor and social justice than it actually does.

. . . Some Christians talk . . . as if the story from Genesis to Revelation is largely the story of God taking the side of the poor in an effort to raise the minimum wage and provide universal health care. As we tried to show earlier, the biblical narrative is chiefly concerned with how a holy God can dwell with an unholy people.2

Moreover, when the Bible references the “poor,” it’s sometimes talking about those righteous people, God’s people, who are humble and waiting on him, and may or may not be economically poor. Scripture encourages Church members to take care of their own poor first, DeYoung notes. After that comes seeking justice in the world—though knowing that only Jesus brings justice.

Seven Scriptures often used to support social justice

DeYoung also went through seven common Scripture passages that are often used to support notions of “social justice” in secular society. He shows how such texts can’t be taken out of the context of God’s redemptive history and used for mere social improvement. He also addresses many truths about what Scripture actually does say.

My contention is that these passages say more and less than we think, more about God’s heart for justice than some realize, and less about contemporary “social justice” than many imagine.3

I wish DeYoung would adapt this series into a book. We actually need this now more than we did in 2010.

  • Isaiah 1: Can we take God’s condemnation of Judah then and apply it to our society now?4
  • Isaiah 58: Does Scripture support the belief that we ought to resolve wealth inequities as “social justice”?5
  • Jeremiah 22: Whom did God critique—Judah’s rulers, or all Judah’s people? If so, what for?6
  • Matthew 25: 31–46: When Jesus describes caring for “the least of these,” who does he mean?7 (If you read any of these articles, read this one. It’s the first place I heard it clarified, with Biblical balance yet careful exegesis, that “the least of these” has a more-specific meaning.)
  • Amos 5: Back in the Old Testament—who defines real “justice,” God or modern-day activists?8
  • Micah 6:8: Does Scripture here vaguely endorse improving society, or outline specific injustices?9
  • Luke 4: 16–21: Did Jesus claim he came to Earth to focus on “the materially destitute and the downtrodden . . . to bring the year of jubilee to the oppressed . . . to transform social structures and bring God’s creation back to shalom” (as opposed to that whole dying-on-the-Cross business)? Or did he mean something else here: not helping the downtrodden achieve justice in this world, but sinners to awake from their spiritual death and delight in himself?10
  1. Kevin DeYoung, “A Brief Wrap Up on The Poor and Social Justice,” The Gospel Coalition, Aug. 5, 2010.
  2. Ibid.
  3. DeYoung, “Seven Passages on Social Justice (1),” The Gospel Coalition, Feb. 25, 2010.
  4. Ibid.
  5. DeYoung, “Seven Passages on Social Justice (2),” The Gospel Coalition, March 3, 2010.
  6. DeYoung, “Seven Passages on Social Justice (3),” The Gospel Coalition, March 11, 2010.
  7. DeYoung, “Seven Passages on Social Justice (4),” The Gospel Coalition, April 13, 2010.
  8. DeYoung, “Seven Passages on Social Justice (5),” The Gospel Coalition, April 29, 2010.
  9. DeYoung, “Seven Passages on Social Justice (6),” The Gospel Coalition, May 27, 2010.
  10. DeYoung, “Seven Passages on Social Justice (7),” The Gospel Coalition, July 20, 2010.

Joy in Books Goes Beyond an Immediate ‘Spark’

Yes, books exist for our joy, so let’s reject shallower “duty and Art”–style reasons for reading them.
| Jan 24, 2019 | No comments |

During the last week or so, fans of joy in books have risen up in great annoyance.

This happened in response to something Marie Kondo said. She is latest in a long line of organization gurus, most recently appearing on (where else?) Netflix. Kondo suggests limits on book-collecting, supposedly based on whether a book in your hand “sparks joy” inside you.

I’ve read a lot more comments objecting to this “sparks joy” comment than defending it.

However, I haven’t been able to find a primary source for this comment. That means there’s a chance Kondo has been misconstrued.

Still—it’s been interesting to see the justifications people make for keeping their books. I’m not sure if biblical Christians can necessarily agree with some stories people tell themselves about why books matter.

For instance, Anakana Schofield at The Guardian rebuts the Kondo “sparks joy” concept this way:

The definition of joy . . . is: “A feeling of great pleasure and happiness, a thing that causes joy, success or satisfaction.” This is a ludicrous suggestion for books. Literature does not exist only to provoke feelings of happiness or to placate us with its pleasure; art should also challenge and perturb us.1

Time doesn’t permit a full explanation here, but I have a few comments.

First, Schofield’s definition of “joy” is starkly limited to feelings of “pleasure and happiness.” She seems to go along with Kondo’s (reported) emphasis on holding a book, clothing item, or such, and waiting for a feeling of immediate joy. This simply isn’t how joy works. Imagine trying this method with snack food, or an item of exercise equipment. Or your budget software. Or (speaking to Christians, here) the Bible.

A book or anything else can bring you joy even if you don’t immediately feel it.2

Second, joy is not limited to our three dimensions plus a fourth dimension of personal emotion only. If I don’t feel like working out, if I don’t get that “spark” of joy, what if I go ahead and work out anyway? Then I just might experience a feeling of joy some time later. Maybe days or weeks later, but I will. The same is true of reading the Bible. Or reading any other book. The fourth dimension of joy is not immediate emotional response, but time.

Third, Schofield seems to miss other positive emotions that result from joy. Legitimate joy, even “pleasure,” results in many emotional responses, some immediate, some delayed. But pleasure/joy does not bring us only gleeful smiles or warm fuzzies. We also experience joy in being challenged or even perturbed. Elsewhere, real joy can manifest in hard work, sweat, sometimes even pain. Again, that fourth dimension of time applies here. In this case, if you read a challenging book, you may not feel immediate joy, or even joy the day after. But much time later, perhaps even years, you may experience the joy of having read that book and benefited from it.

Fourth, Schofield goes on to oppose wrongfully pragmatic expectations for books. In other words, you may not immediately know a thing’s “purpose, outcome or a destination.” But that doesn’t make the thing invalid, or useless. I’m with her there. At the same time, she can’t help repeating a variation on the “art for art’s sake” meme:

But art doesn’t care a noodle about your Apple watch, your fitness goals, active lifestyle, right swipes, career and surrender on black pudding. Art will be around far longer than Kondo’s books remain in print. Art exists on its own terms and untidy timeline.3

Yes, I’ll be that guy who points out that this is, technically, nonsense, even a reification fallacy. “Art” doesn’t care about anything. It does not have “its own terms,” much less a timeline. Art has no mind and no will. It exists only because humans, who do have minds and wills, make the art.

Of course, Schofield is speaking poetically here. But poems don’t fit with the logical argument she’s trying to make about the value of Art and All That. Instead of crediting Art and All That, as if Art has some will and purpose, give credit where it’s due: to the humans who make art. Art has value because humans have value. And, as the biblical Christians hastily adds, humans have value because they reflect the image of God, the imago Dei. God, as the supremely most valuable “thing” ever, has granted humans this value and the gift of imitating his creativity.

That’s why books have value. God has created humans, granting us his image to bear, and giving us the ability to make culture. This includes books. And books can include good books or bad books. Some books give us immediate emotion feedback of joy. Other books are all dry and dusty and challenging, leading to the potential joy of having finished and benefited from the tome.

Either way, the book’s purpose is still joy. God created his people for joy.4 In this time of sin and a cursed, groaning universe,5 joy seems more limited. But in eternity, on the New Heavens and New Earth, we’ll rejoice forever and ever for the glory of God.

So, if I’m tidying up the closet of justifications for books, or Art and All That, I’m not keeping any “books for duty’s sake” or “art for art’s sake” arguments. In the eternal timescape, they’re hopelessly outdated. So let’s throw them out. Books exist for joy—not joy from them, but joy through them, brought to us by the Creator who gave humans his spark of creativity to make them. Even if the author doesn’t know him. And if we, as book readers, haven’t experienced reconciliation with this Author of the universe, we’ll be left chasing lesser arguments or feelings in an ultimately vain effort to enjoy these gifts to us.

  1. Anakana Schofield, “What we gain from keeping books – and why it doesn’t need to be ‘joy,’” Jan. 7, 2019.
  2. Unlike some Christians, I don’t make an artificial divide between the English words “joy,” meaning some kind of holiness/blessing/spiritual satisfaction, versus “happiness,” meaning a temporal emotion that is likely spiritually suspect. This distinction is a spiritual platitude that has appeared in some evangelical writings and is even repeated by gospel-grounded leaders and teachers. The divide is a false one, however, and the terms joy and happiness are absolutely inseparable in the Bible’s original languages plus many English translations. As author and pastor John Piper notes, “If you have nice little categories for ‘joy is what Christians have’ and ‘happiness is what the world has,’ you can scrap those when you go to the Bible, because the Bible is indiscriminate in its uses of the language of happiness and joy and contentment and satisfaction” (John Piper, “Let Your Passion Be Single,” Desiring God, Nov. 12, 1999). See also Randy Alcorn, “Is There a Difference Between Happiness and Joy?“, Nov. 11, 2015.
  3. Schofield, “What we gain from keeping books – and why it doesn’t need to be ‘joy’.”
  4. I think it’s fitting for Christians to call themselves “Christian hedonists,” though certainly with some caution about how others hear that last word. See John Piper, “Christian Hedonism: Forgive the Label, But Don’t Miss the Truth,” Desiring God, 1995.
  5. Romans 8.