St.Death3DGiving away three autographed copies of “Saint Death” at Goodreads. Enter HERE.

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Reagan Moon didn’t plan on being an earth guardian.

He was your average paranormal reporter…until 1,000 volts of raw electricity fused an ancient relic into his sternum. It left him with Powers and lets him do things most humans can’t. There’s others like him, seven of them to be exact. They call themselves the Imperia and are charged with keeping earth from going down the toilet. This usually involves fighting monsters, tweaking the laws of physics, and keeping lots of booze and bandages on hand.

But when Saint Death comes knocking, no amount of holy water and hand grenades can slow her roll.

She’s the queenpin of the Santa Muerte pantheon. The folk religion’s central deity often appeared as a Virgin or a bride. Some called her the Grim Reapress. But mostly she was known as Saint Death. Now she’s got a companion. With the help of the Summu Nura, a Neuro priestess has rediscovered the Grimoire of Azrael, the Archangel of Death. And the Tenth Plague is about to be unleashed upon Los Angeles. Apparently, only Moon and his weathered compatriots can prevent the angel’s arrival. Yet earth guardians aren’t indestructible…as Saint Death is about to prove.

Myth and history collide in the second installment of what Publishers Weekly called “one of the best indie novels of 2015.

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Petes-dragonA while back, I posited that traditional archetypes should be fair game for religious authors to tinker with, subvert, and even transform. Like vampires. In my article, The Good Vampire, one commenter expressed the misgivings of the evangelical community in general when she wrote:

“My biggest nit with reclaiming vampires is that traditionally, they have stood with witches, black dwarves, orcs, dragons, etc. Vampires as sympathetic figures is a 21st century twist. Its presence in children’s lit (and it’s BIG) means setting common morality on its head–screws knight vs. dragon for knight and dragon BFF. This leaves huge marks on kids’ ever-evolving moral education. Subtly and by implication only, they’re taught that ‘bad’ and ‘good’ have permanent quotation marks.”

If you know anything about evangelical readers, this opinion should not surprise you. Certain tropes must remain symbols for evil. Vampires are obviously one of them.

As are dragons.

According to the writer above, if we suddenly go making dragons “good,” then we go about “setting common morality on its head,” which in turn “leaves huge marks on kids’ ever-evolving moral education.”

This is one reason why the early praise for Pete’s Dragon among Christian reviewers has been… surprising. Christianity Today calls the film “an uplifting tearjerker, [which is] deserving of your box-office dollars.” Focus on the Family’s Plugged In gives it 4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars. Apparently, they did not get the memo that creating “good dragons” turns “common morality on its head.” Either that, or the views expressed by the commenter above are indeed waning.

So does that mean evangelical readers are now ready for good vampires, good Klingon, good goblin, or good ghost?

Part of discerning good from evil is separating stereotypes from actual actions or intent. Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, which flipped a common stereotype on its noodle. You see, to the people whom Jesus spoke, “Samaritan” meant one thing — bad guy. So obviously, part of His point was to challenge stereotypes and strip them of their inherent evil-ness. It’s worth asking, as I have elsewhere, whether or not the truth of the Good Samaritan can be retained while swapping out the stereotype. In this sense, the Good Samaritan might as well be a vehicle for flipping all kinds of images and models. Including, in a sense, dragons. After all, if the “good” part of the Good Samaritan is in his actions, rather than his reputation, then the most important part of “moral education” is not in simply rattling off a list of evil archetypes, but in discerning actions and intent. In other words, bad guys don’t always wear black hats and good guys don’t always wear white hats. Teaching children (or anyone) to look for “black hats” rather than “black hearts” is to ignore the nature of good and evil.

Which is why we need discernment rather than archetypal placeholders.

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Santa-Muerte-1I received a nice review of Saint Death over at the Black Gate (HERE). The reviewer mentioned something that I thought worth addressing — my depiction of Santa Muerte in the novel.

Some might find Mike Duran’s handling of the Santa Muerte folk religion troubling. Since in his book it’s used as a front for summoning the archangel of death, he tends to play up the darker aspects, such as its association with drug dealers and criminals. This is not at all an even-handed approach, or an attempt to treat the religion fairly. But focusing on the darker aspects of religion has long been a useful tool for horror writers.

The reviewer is correct in that I used the religion “as a front,” fictionally speaking. But did I not offer “an even-handed approach” or “attempt to treat the religion fairly”?

Here’s my intro to Santa Muerte in the first chapter, spoken through the POV of Reagan Moon:

I’d seen them before, shrines like this. Usually they were accompanied by murder and mayhem. The Santa Muerte religion had been migrating from Mexico into the southland for the last half century bringing with it a toxic mix of old world esoterica, spiritualism, and crime. Its central deity was sometimes displayed as a Virgin, a bride, or a queen. Some called her the Grim Reapress, others the Bony Lady.

But mostly she was known as Saint Death.

Over time, she’d become the patron saint of drug lords and hit men; the Mexican cartel had adopted her as their own, splaying untold victims upon her altars. Saint Death’s protection and blessings were routinely sought, as was her vengeance. Whether one was seeking to guarantee safe passage of a drug shipment, smite a foe with the necrotizing fasciitis, or be protected from such curses, Saint Death was all ears.

Is this a fair summary? I think so. You see, the “darker aspects” of Santa Muerte are some of its primary attractions. For example, this Time photo essay is subtitled Mexico’s Cult of Holy Death. The folk religion is viewed as a “cult” for several reasons. As this National Geographic article notes, before its more recent mainstream appeal, Santa Muerte was “initially popular among people living in the underworld or on the fringes of society.” The religion’s connection to “underworld” elements, namely drug cartels, fueled Santa Muerte’s popularity. Finally, there was a “saint” for the marginalized, one that could both take vengeance and protect against vengeance-seekers. This Huffington Post article notes that “the very origins of the cult are tied to crime.” An article entitled Folk Saint Santa Muerte is Alive and Well in L.A. — Death, Devotion, and the DEA cites the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit in describing Santa Muerte as a “new age Grim Reaper-type goddess, a bad-girl counterpart to the Virgin of Guadalupe.” Though the religion’s devotees are particularly growing among disenfranchised and/or disillusioned Catholics, it is narcocultura that fuels its spread.

Still, the strongest contributing factor to the stigma against the folk saint is her constant association with drug traffickers and the dark spirituality of narcocultura, or drug culture. With the high stakes of the drug trade, the offerings by cartel members to Santa Muerte can surpass the normal tokens of food and drink, and dip into the realm of human sacrifice.

Santa-Muerte-4It was this reality that sparked my interest in the religion. For one thing, this was happening next door to me! Stories about Santa Muerte related crimes began showing up. Like the discovery of human remains inside a residential altar in Pasadena, which immediately solicited question about Santa Muerte. Or in Oxnard where authorities discovered a human skull and jawbone, along with a discarded Santa Muerte altar. Then there were incidents of actual human sacrifice to the Saint of Death. It was reported that more L.A. prison inmates were sporting Santa Muerte tattoos and that Santa Muerte was gaining a following among major criminal organizations. It’s even led to L.A.’s DEA division creating a number of continuing education classes which focus upon the religion.

“Here in L.A. you become very much aware of it as soon as you start working in investigations,” says Sarah Pullen, Public Information Officer for the Los Angeles DEA division. “Investigators know about it, and it’s covered in a number of continuing education classes.”

Despite the growth and popularity of the folk religion, the Catholic Church has officially not recognized Santa Muerte with legitimacy. On May 8, a high-ranking Vatican official made what amounts to the Catholic Church’s first public statement regarding the cult.

“It’s not religion just because it’s dressed up like religion; it’s a blasphemy against religion,” said Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture.

It isn’t the Vatican’s habit to give its opinion on every passing cult that flashes across the horizon, but the Santa Muerte is special.Santa-Muerte-5

Of course, there are many who embrace the religion with less nefarious intent. Which is why the Catholic Church has tread lightly on harsh denunciations. Nevertheless, it is the darker side which remains the draw for many. This blending of religious devotion and malignant intent is what drew my attention to the religion. It also led me to visit the Holy Death Temple in Los Angeles, and several botanicas which cater to devotees. (The pictures in this post are mine, and were taken from our visit in early 2016.) It was a fascinating, if not chilling, immersion into a bizarre culture where spells and candles could be purchased and set at the feet of the Bony Lady. Creepy.

So while the reviewer is correct that I used the religion “as a front,” a springboard, it is the realworld weirdness that brought this to life. Which is why in my synop I describe the tale as a collision of “myth and history.” But ultimately, it the words of my antagonist in the story, Etherea, that summarize much of my thinking about religion in general.

“It’s just a conduit, you know. Santa Muerte. Just about any religion will do. Only this one has already blazed a trail into the dark. Human sacrifices. Canticles of vengeance. Yeah, they ain’t fooling around, are they? Not perfect, but it’ll do. Most religions are like that—flimsy vessels for something much more pure. And primal. Besides, I have a thing for skulls and glitter.”

So, yeah, maybe it’s not an “even-handed approach, or an attempt to treat the religion fairly.” It’s sensationalized. It’s squeezed. It’s fiction. But in the case of Santa Muerte, you have to wonder if the truth isn’t stranger than fiction.

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So much great conversation has ensued following Realm Makers 2016. One person I’ve really enjoyed chatting with about RM, the Christian speculative community, and related publishing trends, is author and founder of Uncommon Universes Press, Janeen Ippolito. Janeen had some interesting (and I think, important) observations about the conference and where the Christian spec community could be headed.  So I invited her to share some of her thoughts…

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RM-logoI’m honored that Mike opted to share his platform so I could do a little brainstorming on a topic close to my heart: growth. I’m all about the growth, whether it be in faith, in education, in understanding, or in profit (dare to dream). As an entrepreneur married to an entrepreneur, growth is a buzzword in our conversations about new ventures.

  • Is this project growing?
  • Has that endeavor increased in reach and marketability?
  • What about this venture? Is it moving forward or stagnating?

I’m not here to talk deep theology. While I have a degree from a Christian college, my specialty was informational writing, anthropology, communication, and education. Basically, learning about people/cultures and how to communicate with and educate them. Needless to say, as I’ve dived into studying business/marketing over the years, I’ve found quite a few overlaps and connections.

Crossover appeal is what I’m here to talk about. Specifically, the future of a unique conference like Realm Makers when sandwiched between two major markets: CBA and ABA.

First off, major applause to the organizers and supporters of Realm Makers who have given their all to see this tiny but mighty conference grow over the years. They have the guts and drive to do the impossible, and that deserves a ton of respect and commendation. Every year, the conference improves, and every year, the masterminds behind the conference express their willingness and openness to see this niche market of Christian speculative fiction grow and expand.

Bravo for all the hard work!

Now for the less fun part: how is this thing, this peculiar bunch of faith-based speculative fiction fans (or junkies, as Mike says) going to grow? The conference is a flourishing plant, breaking through some hard soil, but it’s about to hit two big rocks:

  • The larger Christian market, which will still require a lot of education to understand the place of speculative fiction in their worldview
  • The general market, which is hit or miss at best for indies and already has plenty of their own conferences and conventions to attend anyway

post-1There are people who declare that the up and coming geeky generation of Christians will push the tide of Christian fiction towards the speculative. That each year, the market is growing, regardless of what the CBA says. This could be true. Certainly the general trend towards speculative fiction in culture hasn’t died off the way people said it would. But with this understanding, Realm Makers will continue to serve an exclusively Christian speculative fiction market, perhaps creating its own prosperous bubble right next to ACFW. Speculative fiction by Christians and for Christians.

Is this the endgame? To became the newest, strongest flavor of fiction on the Christian shelf of the bookstore or in the Christian category online?

Another view promotes ‘crossover writing’ with Christians writing for the general market. This is where things get complicated. First of all, my personal opinion is that many Christians aren’t comfortable enough to write for the general market, where story trumps theological ‘rightness.’ There are underlying tropes, concepts, and ideas within that subculture that people from a Christian subculture won’t necessarily get or even understand how to include.

Realm Makers included sessions on the Crossover Novelist, which brings up whether the conference is considering this market as well. Are attendees from other faith or lack-of-faith backgrounds considered part of the target market? Should they be? Or is Realm Makers trying to be a sort of training ground for Christians seeking to reach a general market audience? Should the purpose of this conference be two-fold? Can it be?

A Realm Makers crossover market appeal could follow a couple of schemes:

  • Making a Christian conference so good everyone will want a taste. The thing is, people in the general market come from a lot of backgrounds and are rather sensitive to being preached at, and it seems that many people treasure the strong faith aspect of Realm Makers. Could a ‘taste and see’ method work? Possibly. I’m never going to say never. But it would require a lot of focus in terms of building relationships as well as continuing to pursue excellence and quality in conference presentation.
  • Creating Realm Makers as a more theologically neutral safe space with buzzwords like ‘clean.’ Again, I’m not sure how viable this is. A lot of people know ‘clean’ is a buzzword for ‘a certain kind of morality’ which is fair since worldview will come through in writing no matter what. In trying to go ‘clean’ Realm Makers might just end up in a lukewarm place with zero audience.
  • Making Realm Makers an educational powerhouse where people are taught how to do excellent writing. Period. There would be the faith aspect, but there would also be a high level of faculty and content so that people might come, even a la carte, just to get solid instruction. This goal is harder than people think, because it has nothing to do with hitting every major point of whatever favorite theology someone holds to and nothing to do with long discussions about whether we really need magic. Instead, this type of track would have everything to do with teaching writers of all levels how to nail down an excellent speculative story. Not a “clean version of this author/genre” book that puts cleanliness up there with good editing, but a well-written story with great plotting, characterization, themes, and editing that is tight and genre-appropriate and reaches the target audience in a fresh and memorable way.Janeen

Do I have any answers for the Realm Makers conundrum? Not particularly. Ultimately, all of these decisions rely in the hands of the fearless, driven entrepreneurs who dared to ask ‘what if’ and then went ahead and did. And kept doing, sacrificing time, money, and sleep (ohhhh, sleep) in pursuit of making this Realm Makers thing happen. I applaud their efforts. And as someone whose eyes are always on the growth and who wants to see awesome endeavors leveled up, I’m hoping and praying the fearless leaders make wise decisions regarding the future of this quite particular little conference that could.

What about you? Any brainstorms about the place of Realm Makers?

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Janeen Ippolito is an idea-charged teacher, reader, author, and the Fearless Leader of Uncommon Universes Press. She writes nonfiction reference, including World-Building From the Inside Out and speculative fiction laced with everyday humor, horror, and cultural tensions. Her co-written illustrated novella, Thicker Than Water, releases on October 29th. Find her online at JaneenIppolito.com.

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One of the points I’d hoped to develop in my Realm Makers 2016 class, “A Theology of Speculative Fiction,” was the difference between biblical worldview stories and contemporary CBA Christian Fiction. Like much of that study, I didn’t have the time I hoped (my fault, not the organizers’) to address some important concepts. This was one of them.

biblical-worldview-chart-1Many Christians conflate biblical worldview stories with Christian fiction. In fact, I had a discussion with an industry professional at the conference who said just that: “Biblical worldview fiction is the same as Christian fiction.” I countered with one simple question: “So can biblical worldview stories contain profanity?” to which they replied, “Absolutely not!” Nevertheless, profanity and the people who use it exist within a biblical worldview. A monotheistic universe of Absolute Morals does not require the absence of profanity to exist. Just because someone cusses does NOT prevent a worldview from being biblical! But such is the murky theological roots of contemporary CBA fic.

In the chart on the left, biblical worldview stories are pictured as existing inside the blue pyramid. That pyramid could be divided into two halves, top to bottom, containing General and Special Revelation. General Revelation is “common grace,” described in Romans 1-3 as an intuitive awareness of God, His attributes, and the Moral structure of the universe. This “awareness” makes Man “without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). Special Revelation, however, is a more specific, refined, understanding of God and the Universe. It involves the revelation of Scripture, an awareness of our own guilt before God, a basic understanding of His plan of salvation, repentance, faith, etc. The idea being that Special Revelation builds upon General Revelation.

From my perspective, Christian writers should write across the spectrum. We should be appealing to General Revelation, sowing seeds into ground that the Holy Spirit is tilling, and providing glimpses of Special Revelation. Readers without an explicitly “Christian” worldview should be able to engage our stories and catch glimpses of the biblical scaffolding.

Whole bunches of things can exist inside biblical worldview stories — violence, sex, injustice, death, depravity, and, yes, cussing — just as they actually exist within our world (the reality Christians see as framed in Scripture). Many non-Christians hold to a biblical worldview. Whether it is from an upbringing under Judeo-Christian influence or just intuition, they believe in a God, an Afterlife, and an Absolute Morality by which they will be judged. However, holding to a biblical worldview does NOT prevent one from being immoral and ungodly. Heck, the devil adheres to a biblical worldview… and remains the devil! He believes in God and trembles. In this sense, a biblical worldview story can contain profanity because the real world, the biblical world, contains profanity, evil, and all manner of things we disapprove of. Cussing, killing, and adultery does not make a worldview any less “biblical.”

Christian Fiction, on the other hand, is framed by specific boundaries. While it exists within a biblical worldview, it only represents a cubicle within that world. Strictures such as no profanity, no graphic sex, no zombies, or explicit redemptive themes, are unique to the genre. They do not, however, necessarily frame a biblical worldview. CBA guidelines are far more evidence of a specific theology than they are necessarily representative of the larger biblical worldview. Much like a religious denomination emphasizes certain doctrinal distinctives (baptism, communion, eschatology, spiritual gifts, etc.) while sharing biblical “essentials” (see: Nicene Creed, Apostles Creed, etc.) with the larger Church, CBA fiction is more like a denomination within the larger Body of fiction writers / readers. It shares their worldview, but chooses to emphasize specific distinctives. So while all Christian Fiction should contain a biblical worldview, not all Biblical Worldview Fiction will be recognized as CBA-style Christian Fiction.

So that’s my going theory. I’d love your suggestions and input. Am I missing something here? Do you think Biblical worldview fiction is the same as Christian fiction? Or should we be careful not to conflate the two? Thanks for reading!

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Christian Speculative Fiction v. 2.0

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I spent this weekend in Villanova, PA, at Realm Makers 2016, and had a total blast! So much to process. And as I arrived home less than 24 hours (and multiple time zones) ago, I doubt that my thoughts here will have the needed distance to be able to accurately address the subject I’m about […]

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Writer’s Conference 101 — Don’t Over-Prepare!

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This is a repost of something I wrote last year before attending Realm Makers. And as I’m swamped with preparations for this year’s conference in Philadelphia (as I know some of my writer friends are), I thought this would be an important reminder. Enjoy! *** This week I’m flying to Saint Louis for the Realm Makers Writer’s Conference. […]

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Saint Death is Live!

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The second installment of my Reagan Moon novels is now available in print and digital. Saint Death follows our intrepid paranormal reporter into the bowels of the City of Angels — literally — where an ancient altar has been unearthed, the final component necessary for the conjuring of the Tenth Plague and the summoning of […]

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The Problem with Spiritual Rating Systems

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The inherent danger in spiritual rating systems is that they impose a set of expectations and theological specificity upon our stories which reduces discernment to the level of a doctrinal checklist.

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Are Superheroes Proof That Jesus was a Myth?

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The forthcoming documentary Batman & Jesus suggests as much — that Jesus Christ was little more than Superman or Captain America cloaked in historical garb. Blurb: Batman & Jesus seeks to introduce the evidence both for and against a historical Jesus of Nazareth to wider audience using contemporary examples in pop culture to draw comparisons   […]

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The Myth of Writer’s Block

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On a podcast recently, I was asked how I deal with writer’s block. I felt a bit sniffy admitting I never have it. I felt even worse suggesting that for most writers, it’s a bit of a myth. Of course, there’s lot of angles one could take on the topic. But, for me, it seems […]

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Newsletter Signup & Free Download

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Right now, if you sign up for my newsletter you can also get a link for a free digital download of my novella “Winterland.” The novella is one of my personal faves, following the surreal journey of a woman into the soul of her dying mother. Here’s the synop: Summoned into her dying mother’s coma, […]

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