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remaining_xlgBack in 2008, I asked the question “Is Christian Horror Becoming a Trend?” The “horror” label has always posed problems for Christian writers, publishers, and filmmakers. Terms like “thriller” or “supernatural suspense” are far more manageable when dealing with anything potentially “faith-based.” Part of the perceived incongruity of those two words — “Christian” and “horror” — is that within pop-cultural circles, Christian films and fiction have come to mean “inspirational,”  “hopeful,” and “family-friendly.” Which is why portraying evil and horror have become problematic for the Christian artist.

Nevertheless, the genre of “Christian horror” appears to continue its trending.

The most recent evidence is Casey La Scala’s The Remaining, releasing this week in theaters. La Scala’s credits include the cult classic “Donnie Darko,” the horror remake “Amityville: The Awakening,” and one of the most influential, groundbreaking faith films ever made, “A Walk to Remember.”

Diabolique Magazine, in their interview with La Scala, sets up his story like this:

At this point in time, despite there being a rich history of films within the horror genre that rely on Christian ideology as a starting point, few horror films have purported to be “faith-based.” Faith is often a place of departure, used either to justify the existence of the supernatural, or as a point of contention. The films that have been released with the expressed intention of carrying a Christian doctrine—films like The Lock In and Left Behind—have failed to find crossover appeal. However, in the past year, there appears to be a growing movement in Hollywood to present “faith-based” stories. Of these films, Casey La Scala’s The Remaining emerges as one of the more unique titles. A self-professed balance between the faith-based world and the secular mainstream world, La Scala’s horror-thriller has already been generating a strong response in the faith-based community.

La Scala is not the first Christian filmmaker to affirm the intersection of the “Christian” and “horror” genres, Scott Derrickson, director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Deliver Us from Evil, currently being one of the most prominent. Interestingly, while La Scala is clearly seeking crossover appeal, he set about aiming first at the faith community, pitching the film to Sony Affirm films, producers of faith-friendly projects like “Fireproof” and distributor for movies like “Soul Surfer” and “Mom’s Night Out.” Unsurprisingly, the studio hedged.

In his article Faith Film to Scare the “Hell” Out of Audiences WND editor Drew Zahn writes,

“‘The Remaining’ has a lot of Christian themes; would this be embraced by faith-based community?” La Scala recalled. “They didn’t know. I argued [faith consumers] would be interested in something like this, because when you look at ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ it’s technically a horror movie. It’s a faith-based horror movie. That’s what it is.”

The Remaining chronicles the day of the Rapture — an event many Christians believe will transpire shortly before the Great Tribulation in which all true believers are taken to heaven — and the ensuing apocalypse.

Picking up in the Bible’s Revelation, Chapters 8 and 9, “The Remaining” depicts the angels’ trumpets of judgment: hail and fire falling from the sky, and even more terrifying, the release of demonic “locusts,” with thundering wings and teeth like lions and stings like scorpions.

Indeed, some of the most visceral horrific images found in Scripture are found in the back of the book. (As a side note:  I was raised to believe, and still do, that the events described in the Book of the Revelations are mostly literal. So I was surprised to learn that many Christians eschew such a position, many holding to a preterist view of eschatology, that the events of Revelation have already occurred in some form. La Scala then is clearly aiming at the more traditional evangelical wing of the church that interprets Revelations literally.)

But perhaps the trickiest part of this feat is what the Diaboloque author described as “balance between the faith-based world and the secular mainstream world.” Says La Scala:

“…the process was trying to turn that script into something that could stand up to the evangelical debate. I started inputting the rules, and trying to tell the story a way that really followed everything Biblical.”

To me, this is one of the most fascinating angles on such endeavors, trying to write something that will “stand up to the evangelical debate.” Really, what stands between the “Christian” and “horror” genres is not a lack of biblical precedence for horror, the macabre, the monstrous, and the depraved.

“The Bible is full of horror tales,” La Scala’s co-writer on the project, Chris Dowling, told WND. “If you want to read something scary, read Revelation. It’s not a far cry to read Revelation and go, ‘Wow, this sounds straight out of a horror film.’ That’s why it made sense [to make this movie].”

In fact, what stands between “Christian horror” and mainstream audiences is “the evangelical debate.” That “debate” is the same one Darren Aronofsky’s Noah faced about how true to Scripture the story stays. There’s no question but that “The Bible is full of horror tales.” The only real issue is whether or not Christian audiences want only what is “inspirational”  and “family-friendly.”

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When Tony Jones (“theologian-in-residence” at Solomon’s Porch)  challenged his readers “to write one post about God,” the response was… bizarre.

Why was such a challenge for progressives even necessary? Jones explained:

…progressives have a God-talk problem. That is, progressives write lots of books and blog posts about social issues, the church, culture, and society. But we don’t write that much about God. That is, we don’t say substantive things about who God is, what God does, etc.

Apparently, the inclusion of the word “substantive” was necessary. But it didn’t help because Jones was forced to issue two follow-up clarifications. The first was entitled Progressive Talk about God: Lots of Throat Clearing (the second is HERE) in which Jones attempts to steer the conversation back toward something… substantive. He concludes:

Lots of progressives have responded to my challenge with lots of throat-clearing. By that I mean, they’ve loaded their posts with prolegomena about how we really can’t speak confidently about the character of God, about how we don’t want to be arrogant like the conservatives, and about how our God-talk needs to exude epistemic humility.

I get it. I wrote a dissertation. I know a lot about prolegomena. But here I’m going to shout again:

GET OVER IT!

It didn’t help. Jones conveniently aggregated the influx of “substantive” posts about God at A Progressive God at Storify. Here’s a brief snippet of the accumulated “wisdom.”

  • If someone were to ask me what I believe about who God is, the first thing I would do is correct the question. The question is, what is God? God is not a “who”.
  • As we seek, God’s character shows up in the realness, beauty, passion, frustration, intelligence, anger, complexity, sorrow, generosity and compassion we see in other human beings. God appears in the gifts and challenges we give and receive between one another. God becomes interconnected relationship. God becomes love.
  • God is “genderful.” God Approves of Sexual Expression.
  • ..the concept of God/Cosmic Consciousness has a primordial nature which is the ultimate plan for all of creation.
  • …there are substantial changes between the God of the Old Testament and the New. In the Old, God is a mean, vindictive jerk. In the New, God is a loving parent that wants his children to come and rest. If God doesn’t change, which one is the real one?
  • I like the dynamic nature of God, that God changes. And if God changes, then we too will need to change how we relate to God and how we think about God.
  • God is not interested in the kind of apocalyptic glory that comes from violent domination of other people and their viewpoints.

Reading Jonathan Merritt’s interview with Matthew Paul Turner, author of the new book, Our Great Big American God, very much reminded me of the progressive’s “God problem.” While Turner’s essential thesis appears right on, that Americans have infused their own brand of culture and beliefs into their conception of God, Turner’s point of view also looks to be colored by his own perspective of God, one that is quite progressive.

Merritt’s conversation with Turner in “Have Christians Made God in Their Image?” at RNS took an interesting, but illuminating turn, when Merritt began exploring the subject of sexuality with the author:

RNS: Do you think American evangelicals have done a poor job articulating their position [on sexuality] in the past?

MPT: No, not at all. Evangelicals have articulated quite well exactly what they think about homosexuality. We’ve preached it, put it on billboards, theologized it. Evangelicalism’s rage against homosexuality is probably one of their more successful campaigns. I doubt you could find too many Americans who couldn’t recite word for word the slogans that Christians have boasted toward the LGBTQ communities. For fifty or more years, much of America’s Church has gone to great lengths to push an entire group of people out of the church, out of God’s story. We’ve communicated little more than “You do not belong.”

RNS: Do you think American Christians are homophobic or hateful?

MPT: Not as a rule, no. None of us are born homophobic, though many have likely met a few people who make us question that. But I don’t believe that it should be assumed that Christians are homophobic or hateful, not until those things are experienced. That said, there is seemingly something about the homosexual topic that makes many Jesus-loving people turn into angry, mean, insensitive people incapable of treating those with whom they disagree with respect and kindness.

Apart from the predictable characterization of evangelicals as “angry, mean, insensitive people incapable of treating those with whom they disagree with respect and kindness” but who “rage against homosexuality,” Turner’s position on the “American church’s” views on homosexuality says a lot about his own views on God.

And this is what I find ironic. Religious progressives do the exact same thing they accuse American evangelicals of doing: they make God in “their” image. The position expressed above by Matthew Paul Turner flows from his own conception of God and his own reading of Scripture. Which seems unusually “progressive.”

It’s also why the Progressive God looks like, well, progressives.

  • The Progressive God doesn’t believe in hell.
  • The Progressive God is Egalitarian.
  • The Progressive God didn’t make a literal Adam.
  • The Progressive God is pro gay marriage.
  • The Progressive God changed between the Old and New Testaments.
  • The Progressive God doesn’t get angry (except at religious conservatives).

See what I mean?

Making God in ones’ image is not a uniquely American problem. It’s a human problem. As much as Matthew Paul Turner wants to appear objective in his critique of the American Church, he imports his own beliefs about God, Scripture, human sexuality, and religion into the mix. Leaving me to ask, Who’s making God in their image?

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Art-of-Money-Getting-pngI was once asked how I knew I was called to write. I answered, “Because when I write, I feel God’s pleasure.” It was a reference to that famous line in Chariots of Fire when missionary Eric Liddel was asked why he ran. It was also a hilariously pompous thing for me to say.

I started my writing career in Christian circles — a Christian critique group, Christian writing conferences, Christian writer friends, all seeking to be agented and published in the Christian book industry. Back then, getting published was viewed by many as an act of Providence. The “experts” taught us how to hone our craft, write our novel, submit it to the appropriate publishers, and trust God with the outcome. I’ve heard many “testimonials” about authors who believed God would guide their manuscript through the maze of agents and editors, into the perfect hands. That their story would be published at the perfect time, by the perfect place. After publication, the Christian author often looks back on these twists and turns and appreciates the hand of Fate steering them toward an appointed end.

Unlike publishing, marketing feels a lot less spiritual.

I’m in that phase of my writing career where the “spiritual” sheen has long faded. I’m not saying I don’t see my talents as God-given and want to do my best with them. Nor am I suggesting that I no longer trust God to guide my writing career. I’m simply in that phase where marketing matters. And what I am learning is that it’s a lot easier to spiritualize the publishing process than it is the marketing process. It is a lot easier to trust God to find a home for my book, than to trust Him to get my book into homes.

Maybe it’s because marketing is so pragmatic, so logical, so mechanized, so distasteful to us normal folks, so… UNspiritual. Just Google “marketing your novel” and you’re greeted with a gaggle of do’s and don’ts. Successful marketing, so they say, involves some combination (if not all) of the following:  maintaining a blog and/or website (SEO optimized), a Facebook presence, active Twitter account, promotional videos, author endorsements, author interviews, guest blogging, newsletter, bookmarks, book signings, business cards, giveaways, and the list goes on. So instead of sitting back and trusting God to maneuver my story into the proper hands (as I did when I was seeking publication), now I must “play god” and return the favor.

In this way, marketing seems to contradict Providence. As if God only cares about me writing the story. Hawking it is not His bag.

It leaves me feeling pretty conflicted. I mean, does God sell my book, or do I?  I trusted Him to guide my talents, inspire ideas, and strengthen me to tell the tales. So should I now trust demographics, network tools, ad campaigns, and market savvy?  Now that I’m published, does Platform suddenly trump Providence?

Does prayer actually affect a book’s sales?

When I preach, I often approach sermon planning like that of building an altar. You put the sticks in place and assemble the sacrifice… and then you step back and pray like heck for fire. Sometimes fire comes, and sometimes it doesn’t. But either way, I do my part and trust God to do His. In a way, marketing is a lot like building an altar: Your role is to build it, His role is to light the flame.

Other than that, “spiritual marketing” seems like a complete oxymoron.

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The answer to that question, it appears, depends on what side of the aisle you fall — author or reader.

So I was following an author for a spell, keeping an eye on the release of their first novel. Within a week they were pushing 20 reviews. All five-star. And all, notoriously, brief. This hinted at the possibility that these reviews were actually paid for, part of the marketing strategy to boost early sales of the book. I surmised this because

  1. The bulk of the reviews were one paragraph and very generic. A punchy caption followed by stuff like, “This book was a page-turner!” “Couldn’t put it down!” and “Can’t wait for the next!” With minimal specifics about the actual story.
  2. The reviewers had very few, if any, others reviews. The idea being, they didn’t do book reviews very often. This was a short-term gig.

After concluding that the author was paying for reviews, it turned me off. I never purchased the book as a result.

Was I being unreasonable?

There is significant debate among indie authors about the possible benefits and/or ethics behind purchasing reviews. On the “pro” side are those who argue that indie authors are already at a disadvantage against trade-pubbed authors who have trade pubbed books reviewed by trade media via ad dollars. Besides, many businesses, not just authors but restaurants, travel agencies, etc., already purchase positive reviews as a matter of course. On the “con” side are those who argue that impartial reviews are ethically sound, that authors should not stoop to the level of crass business, and that a good book should be able to sell itself apart from artificial hype.

In an increasingly competitive market, I can understand why an author would pay for bulk reviews. No. This isn’t something I’m planning on doing any time soon. Nevertheless, from my vantage point, “fake” reviews don’t seem to hurt many book’s sales… unless it’s to fellow authors like myself.

I could be wrong, but basic readers — as opposed to writers who are paying attention to books in their genre, publishing practices, and market specifics — don’t seem to pay too much attention to other reviews. At least, they don’t seem to be asking, “Is this review fake?” If the average reader is looking at reviews at all, it is generically – “How many five-star reviews does this book have?” Meaning that paid-for reviews could be the perfect advertising tool. Why should the author wait for a glowing, detailed, five-star review to arrive — IF it arrives at all — when she can pay for a dozen splashy five-star snippets on release day?

Either way, I never bought the aforementioned book. Apparently, that hasn’t hurt its sales. Or stopped the brief, generic, five-star reviews from rolling in. Which brings me back to my initial question: Do paid-for reviews hurt authors? Unless you’re one of those nit-picky, attempting-to-be-ethical, non-businessy, novelists like me, the answer seems to be “no.”

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One of the most influential books I’ve ever read remains John Wimber’s Power Evangelism. Wimber’s thesis was pretty simple: Signs and Power-Evangelismwonders, spiritual phenomenon, miracles, and “power encounters” are essential to the Church’s health and the expansion of the kingdom of God. Sure, Wimber went off the deep end once in a while (see: the Laughing Revival). Nevertheless, in my opinion, that perspective remains as lucid a paradigm for understanding and critiquing the Western Church as anything.

After defining Materialism, Wimber writes:

Christians cannot hold a philosophy of materialism and retain a Christian worldview. Materialism warps our thinking, softening convictions about the supernatural world of angels and demons, heaven and hell, Christ and Antichrist. We often live as though the material world is more real than the spiritual, as though material cause and effect explains all of what happens to us. (bold mine)

The Western church, asserts Wimber, is deeply influenced by a philosophy of materialism and rationalism. Unlike the Eastern Christians of the first century who believed in demons, angels, miracles, prophecies and the like, the Western church, other than her Charismatic and Pentecostal brethren, have all but explained away such supernatural phenomenon.

  • Exorcisms are now seen as barbaric.
  • Mental illness is now seen as entirely chemical, emotional, and/or biological.
  • Tongues and prophecies are explained away as part of a fading dispensation.
  • Bodily resurrections never happen, nor are they expected to.
  • Biblical miracles are now classified as myths or simply framed as figments of the ancient author’s imagination.

Wimber goes on to use the Western church’s drift into rationalism and materialism as evidence of a coming decline. We are drifting further from the real world, the supernatural world, and significant impact therein. The result is a rather powerless religion, one that relies on rhetoric and intellectual persuasion but lacks experiential dynamic. But this also explained, said Wimber, the startling growth of third world churches. Many of those cultures are steeped in an animistic worldview or one that already embraces the concept of spirits, visions, dreams, and miracles. They can embrace the non-materialistic, eastern worldview of Scripture with relative ease. Which led to the prediction among many missiologists at the time that Third World countries would be the most fertile breeding grounds for revival, not the Western Church with its intractable rationalism.

The-Reason-for-GodPower Evangelism was written in 1986 — almost 30 years ago. It has been fascinating watching those predictions come to pass. In his recent book, The Reason for God, Pastor Tim Keller talks about the explosive growth of Christianity in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. For instance, in 1900, Christians comprised just 9% of the African population and were outnumbered by Muslims four to one. Today, Christians comprise 44% of the population, passing the number of Muslims as far back as the 1960′s. Keller asks the obvious:

Why has Christianity grown so explosively in these places? African scholar Lamin Sanneh gives a most intriguing answer. Africans, he said, had a long tradition of belief in a supernatural world of good and evil spirits. When Africans began to read the Bible in their own languages many began to see in Christ the final solution to their own historic longings and aspirations as Africans.

…Sanneh argues that secularism with its anti-supernaturalism and individualism is much more destructive of local cultures and “African-ness” than Christianity is. In the Bible, Africans read of Jesus’s power over supernatural and spiritual evil and of his triumph over it on the cross. When Africans become Christians, their African-ness is converted, completed, and resolved, not replaced with European-ness or something else. Through Christianity, Africans get distance enough to critique their traditions yet still inhabit them.

Keller is speaking to Christianity’s adaptive power. Yet he touches upon a similar theme as Wimber’s, that “secularism with its anti-supernaturalism” are hostile to a biblical worldview. Christianity more easily adapts in Third World cultures, in part, because of those cultures’ “long tradition of belief in a supernatural world of good and evil spirits.” The biblical worldview consisting of angels, demons, visions, signs, and wonders, resonates with the world so many non-Westerners inhabit.

Not long ago, I had an online exchange with a popular progressive pastor and author who flat-out denied specific miracles recorded in the Bible, like Jonah and the whale, Jesus walking on water, and such. From my experience, one of the predominant characteristics of the postmodern church and religious progressives is their emphasis upon rationalism and materialism, their rejection of supernaturalism in favor of medicine or science. While such a view may bolster kudos from academics and rationalists, it also requires a rather serious break from the world according to Scripture.

As C.S. Lewis put it in The Screwtape Letters,

“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”

I am not on the Bash the Church bandwagon and not impressed by many who gleefully proclaim the American Church’s demise. Nevertheless, if there is any truth to the waning of the Western Church, I think it lies partly here, in our embrace of materialism and rationalism, our slow abandonment of a supernatural worldview. We have succumbed to one of Lewis’ proposed errors by scoffing at “devils” while hailing the “materialist.”

 

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Is a Husband Responsible for His Wife’s Spirituality?

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An interesting discussion arose on Facebook a couple weekends back surrounding the following status update posted by Patrick Watts. In context, Watts was blurbing comments made at a Lifeway event by another speaker. After some criticism, he went on to expound: This was in the middle of talking about loving your wife as Christ loved […]

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Does Jesus Trump Scripture?

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Apparently, that’s the going argument among many professing Christians. They say, “The Bible is not the full revelation of God. Jesus is!” Sounds good, right? This approach could be described as a “Christ-centered hermeneutic,” meaning that we should read Scripture through the lens of Christ. To which I wholly agree. But then there’s the Red-Letter […]

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Blog Hop Tour

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So there’s a “Blog Hop” tour going around among some writer friends in which we all answer the same four questions about our latest release and other writing related stuff. Thanks to novelist Kerry Neitz for thinking to include me. Kerry is a computer nerd who writes unique speculative fiction tales like A Star Curiously […]

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“Booked”: A Spiritual Memoir for Book Lovers

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I’ve never really wanted to read Jane Eyre. Until now. Jane Eyre is just one of several pieces of classic literature that Karen Swallow Prior, Professor of English at Liberty University, uses to chronicle her own journey of self-discovery — a journey of self-discovery through literature. In Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, Madame […]

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When Bad People Make Good Art

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“We’re all like the moon,” quipped Twain. “We each have a dark side.” Despite our luminescence, even the most acclaimed among us has a barren backside. Perhaps this is why public moonings have replaced public floggings as our chastisement of choice. The recent revelation of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s history of child abuse  left many reeling. […]

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Why Do Evangelical Fiction Readers Tolerate Violence But Not Profanity?

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A grisly death occurs near the end of my first novel The Resurrection which leaves a bad guy a bubbling heap of intestinal lard. During the final edits, feeling relatively self-conscious about this over-the-top retribution, I suggested to my editor that I tone that scene down, make it less gruesome. She replied, “I’d leave it […]

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How Much “Failure” Can We Tolerate in a Pastor?

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I’m an ex-pastor. Ugh. I hate that term. No, I didn’t have an affair with the church secretary or get caught pilfering funds from the ice cream social. I was a young, untrained, inexperienced Christian who was launched, probably prematurely, into the ministry. As a five year-old Christian, father of four, with zero trade skills, […]

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