In my recent book Christian Horror: On the Compatibility of a Biblical Worldview and the Horror Genre, I note that the epic poem Beowulf is often considered one of the earliest horror stories ever written. Coincidentally, the story is also filled with religious content, making Beowulf, perhaps, one of the earliest examples of the fusion between Christianity and the horror genre.

In his seminal essay, Supernatural in Horror Literature, H.P. Lovecraft traced horror stories back to “the earliest folklore of all races.”

As may naturally be expected of a form so closely connected with primal emotion, the horror-tale is as old as human thought and speech themselves.

Cosmic terror appears as an ingredient of the earliest folklore of all races, and is crystallised in the most archaic ballads, chronicles, and sacred writings.

Cover designed by David Laufer, 1978.

Cover designed by David Laufer, 1978.

As part of these “archaic ballads, chronicles, and sacred writings,” Lovecraft included Beowulf. Possibly the oldest surviving long poem in Old English, Beowulf is often cited as one of the most important works of Old English literature. Though the story is in essence a pagan myth, most believe it was originally written down by a Christian monk who incorporated Christian elements into the tale. Thus, Beowulf is often seen as a mash-up of Christian and pagan elements. In his essay Christianity in Beowulf  Rich Lawson explains,

Overall, Beowulf contains many pagan themes and concepts, but yet it also contains many references to Christianity. This is very similar to the England of this time period, because even though it was Christianized, it still had many pagan tendencies. Although the concepts of paganism as compared to Christianity may seem very dissimilar, these two aspects of Anglo-Saxon life came together to create a form of Christianity that was different than that of mainland Europe. This combination between pagan concepts and Christianity is demonstrated in Beowulf. It was a Christian author that wrote Beowulf for a Christian audience.

As such, there are many Christian themes and biblical references in the ancient story. One project sponsored by Pace University for the ongoing research of the story notes,

There are several Biblical references in Beowulf that are quite interesting. Grendel is referred to as a descendant of Cain: “the hostile-hearted creature, Gods enemy, guilty of murder” (2.4). In addition, there is a reference to the Great Flood that took place in Genesis: “the origin of ancient strife, when the flood, rushing water, slew the race of giants they suffered terribly: that was a people alien to the Everlasting Lord. The Ruler made them a last payment through waters welling” (3.2). In this reference to the biblical flood, the author of Beowulf is suggesting that the sword’s creators were descendants of those that caused God to bring on the flood perhaps even suggesting that they were descendants of Cain. However, earlier in the passage these same giants are referred to with reverence: “There came into the possession of the prince of the Danes, after the fall of devils, the work of wonder-smiths” (2.2). Once again there is a contrast between the pagan and Christian cultures, as the same “giants” are referred to with honor and contempt in succeeding paragraphs.

There are other Christian references and allusions in the epic poem. At the end of the story, Beowulf gives up his own life to save others, possibly symbolizing the sacrificial death of Christ. Some have suggested that the three monsters Beowulf faces resemble the devil. Also, when Beowulf is getting ready to battle Grendel, he says, “May the Divine Lord in His wisdom grant the glory of victory to whichever side he sees fit.” And when he has cut off Grendel’s arm he proclaims, “If God had not helped me, the outcome would have been quick and fatal.” Later, when faced with the dragon and believing that he will probably be killed, he says, “Because of my right ways, the Ruler of mankind need never blame me when the breath leaves my body.” In the end, though Beowulf’s funeral is pagan in origin, it celebrates the life of “a gracious and fair minded King.”

Against this religious backdrop are three monsters (some include the sea monsters as a fourth) — Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon. Much has been made of the possible roles and artistic intentions of such characters.  In his classic article “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” J. R. R. Tolkien argued that these monsters are actually the center of the poem. It is the confrontation between the “gracious and fair minded King” and these archetypal horrors that propels the tale. In his essay Human-like Beasts or Bestial Humans? The Slippery Monsters of Beowulf, Michael Slusser notes the culmination of Beowulf’s battles and its possible significance to our understanding of the story.

The last third or so of the Beowulf narrative describes a much older Beowulf, now a chieftan in his own right, fighting against a dragon that is ravaging the lands of his people. Beowulf is eventually killed by the dragon, though not before giving it a mortal blow which allows his subordinate, Wulfstan, to finish the beast off. As might be imagined, a good deal of critical effort is spent arguing whether or not the dragon is simply another monster in a pagan tale or the embodiment of evil in a Christian allegory. If the other monsters have been the descendents of Cain, then the tale is in some ways building to this confrontation with the symbol of ultimate sin, the serpent. An interesting side discussion is carried on regarding the nature of the dragon as possibly human: Peter Braeger and others argue that the language leaves open the possibility that the dragon may once have been human, transformed to a monstrous shape (327). Throughout the poem, Beowulf has been wrestling—both literally and figuratively—with evil, and here he faces it in its purest form. The simultaneous deaths of both he and his foe are cited by many as evidence of the poet’s linking of evil with the very act of being human. The “problem of evil” cannot be overcome, because it is a problem rooted in our nature, and it is possible that this interplay between the humanness and monstrosity of Beowulf’s opponents continues to elucidate this dilemma without offering much in the way of resolving it.

Was Beowulf’s last enemy “simply another monster in a pagan tale or the embodiment of evil in a Christian allegory”? Are the poem’s religious underpinnings just some archaic vestige of its origins or the philosophical paradigm through which a larger, existential horror — the “problem of evil” — is conceptualized?

Whatever the answer is, Beowulf serves as an important reminder of the intrinsic connection between Christianity and classic horror archetypes.

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Glowing hands

The lead character for The Ghost Box, Reagan Moon, experiences a bizarre phenomenon throughout the story which he struggles to comprehend, much less control — he bleeds protons from his fingertips. It’s not real magic, nor is it straight science. In fact, the source is rather vague. Is this a gifting from a higher source? Or is this purely a quantum reality released by 100 million volts of raw electricity to the sternum? Either way, the only real question left to the protag is… how to use this power.

That intent alone may determine its nature.

A while back I received this letter from a pastor:

I had just read your article “Why Christians Can’t Agree About Christian Fiction” and I thought that it was a great insight into the debate. I am a brand spanking new pastor, and I am already engaged in a divisive discussion with one of my congregants about fiction, particularly the use of “supernaturalism” in fiction. For example, this person believes that when Aslan uses “magic” or does things “supernaturally” like breathing on Mr. Tumnus, and does NOT give glory and honor and credit to Jesus Christ IN THE STORY, that it is occultism, since his power is derived from elsewhere than from the one true God. I think this is a bit, shall I say, crazy. I was just wondering if you have encountered such thought elsewhere, or am I the only one so uniquely blessed!!! And what would you say about the claim that any “powers” that occur in a fictional novel, especially Christian novels, are subtly promoting occultism. Thanks for your work.

This pastor may find solace in the fact that not only is he NOT alone in this debate, but that the position assumed by this congregant is, sadly, all too common among Christian readers.

As much as I’d like to offer a definitive answer to this question — How can we know when “‘powers’ that occur in a fictional novel… are subtly promoting occultism”?I don’t think there is one. In fact, the more we demand a definitive answer, the more we narrow our fiction, dumb down our readers, and drift into a superstitious, and rather unchristian, worldview.

Nevertheless, this pastor’s question, and the challenge posed by his congregant, are so common among readers of religious fiction as to be ubiquitous. So how does an author defend writing characters who bleed protons, wield spells, or teleport? Is it possible that such fictional depictions open doors to the Dark Side?

First, let me ask a question:

Does attributing a supernatural incident to God or the devil actually change its power source?

Or to use the example above, if Aslan had stopped and given glory to God, would that have turned his magic from “bad” to “good”? If so, what made the supernaturalism bad in the first place?

To follow this line of reasoning, the real “occultism” resides not in the supernatural event (Aslan breathing upon Mr. Tumnus and bringing the faun back to life), but in the author’s defining of it. Thus, to the puritan reader, the greatest potential “evil” for a Christian writer is to depict ambiguous magic, i.e., supernatural power not directly attributed to God.

Which makes fiction a sort of “magic” all its own.

However, this creates huge problems for authors, the least of which is feeling bound to clarify the source of every character’s supernatural action. Spells, miracles, alchemy, enchantment, and blue electric hands are only tolerable in our fiction as long as we’re clear where the power’s coming from. However, this type of approach not only potentially strips our stories of mystery and nuance, we treat our readers like auditors who’ll be combing our novels for pesky theological gnats.

The point here is to highlight how our approach to fiction can often be as problematic as the stories themselves. The congregant above who worried over Aslan’s apparent lack of Divine attribution is emblematic of a breed of religious reader who approaches fiction with a rather rigid doctrinal lens. Am I suggesting that we should put down our “theological” guard when we read and be less discerning? Absolutely not. But we need to see fiction as doing something different than simply illustrating and reinforcing Bible doctrine.

About his then-recent viewing of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, C.S. Lewis wrote:

“…[the play] is merely the scaffolding whereby Shakespeare (probably unconsciously) is able to give us an image of the whole idea of resurrection, [and] I was simply overwhelmed. You will say that I am here doing to Shakespeare just what I did to Macdonald… Perhaps I am. I must confess that more and more the value of plays and novels becomes for me dependent on the moments when, by whatever artifice, they succeed in expressing the great myths.”

— C.S. Lewis from a letter dated September 5, 1931 (emphasis mine)

Notice that Lewis describes the actual play as simply “scaffolding” for a bigger idea. In fact, it is this big idea (here, the great myths), expressed “by whatever artifice,” that characterize the great tales. Alas, when we become preoccupied with a story’s “scaffolding” and niggle over literary “artifices,” we will inevitably miss the bigger story. But that’s exactly what the congregant above, and the opponents of fictional “magic,” do.

When it comes to our fiction, the easiest (and worst) thing we can do is to embrace a checklist mentality. Rather than cultivating discernment and rendering creative license, we become “scaffold inspectors,” making sure every plank and cross-beam meets standard.

  • No wands. Check!
  • No spells. Check!
  • No ghosts. Check!
  • No vampires. Check!
  • No crystal balls. Check!  
  • No broomsticks. Check!
  • No proton bleeding hands. Check!

And plenty of explanation. As if this ensures we will never mistakenly promote occultism.

However, in their attempt to maintain theological integrity, many have embraced superstition, a “touch not, taste not” mentality (Col. 2:21) that purports a magic all its own. In other words, we believe there is magic in biblical (?) formulas. As if God was bound by incantations, recipes, rituals, and our personal holiness program.

How is this any different from sorcery?

Yes, Scripture is clear that there can be false prophets and false miracles. The world of occultism, we are warned, is not a plaything. Nevertheless, the Bible is not always clear in defining the source of real magic or the trappings for conjuring it.

Take the case of Moses’ encounter with the Pharaoh’s magicians (Ex. 7). Both sides produced, more or less, the same “magic,” turning staffs into snakes. Question: Is it wrong to turn staffs into snakes? Answer: It can’t be because Moses did it! So the problem wasn’t necessarily with the “magic” (i.e., staff charming), but with the intent, motivations, and allegiances of those who wielded it.

The similar distinction is made in the apostles’ encounter with Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8:9-25). Simon “had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria” (vs. 9) with his magic, so much so that he was called “the Great Power of God” (vs. 10). But after Simon “believed and was baptized” (vs. 13), he coveted the power of the Holy Spirit and asked to pay for it (vs. 19). Notice carefully Peter’s response:

Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.” (Acts 8:20-23 NIV)

Interestingly enough, throughout this record Simon’s power is never attributed to Satan. However, he is upbraided “because [his] heart is not right before God.” So what was Simon’s sin? Apparently sorcery wasn’t the big one; his magic was less at issue than his sinful heart.

(A sidenote: The popular Chinese author Watchman Nee, in The Latent Power of the Soul, speculated that certain psychic powers were original to humans, but were lost or tainted during the Fall. Some saw Nee as veering into foolish speculation, even potential occultism, which such suggestions. Nevertheless, it poses an interesting perspective on the possible nature of powers typically viewed as occult.)

A case could be made, I think, that supernatural powers (and their fictional depictions) aren’t bad in themselves (see staff charming). It is the hearts and motives of the handlers that is evil.

Not all staff charmers are wicked (see: Moses). Which means staff charming is up for debate.

The concerned congregant above and his kin, the “anti-magic” crowd, go astray when they focus on forms of magic (levitation, incantations, objects, staff charming, breathing upon petrified fauns, etc.), more than the purveyors of the “magic.” It is far easier to make an external checklist — You know your character’s supernatural powers are NOT occult when you _________ (fill in the blank with preferred magic you avoid or attribution you render) — than to allow potential ambiguity.

Either way, the story is only the scaffolding. Magic could be just a shadow of the myth.

So how can we know when ‘powers’ that occur in a fictional novel are subtly promoting occultism? Just look at who’s using them and why. Meaning that it’s totally possible to bleed protons for the glory of God. Fictionally speaking, of course.

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When I first joined the writing group that Rachel Marks is a part of, she was just finishing chemotherapy. That was 5-6 years ago. Rachel has since survived cancer, grown her hair back (and turned it florescent pink), and went on to have her YA urban fantasy series contracted by Amazon Skyscape. The first novel in the trilogy, Darkness Brutal, reached number 1 in several categories and has become a surprise Amazon bestseller. Knowing that Rachel’s faith is a HUGE part of her life and writing, I invited her to talk a little bit about being a Christian author in the general market, some of the nuances and potential pitfalls, as well as offer advice for other writers of faith.

* * *

MIKE: Thanks for visiting, Rachel! Your “Dark Cycle” trilogy was aimed at general market readers. Obviously, this is a question faced by many Christian authors: Should they write for the religious / inspirational market, or the mainstream market. So tell us, how do you navigate being a Christian while writing fiction for a general market audience?

RACHEL: As a writer I think my main goal has always been to write a good story, more than an important message. I want my work to mean something but not at the expense of a readership. I write what’s in my heart, in my imagination, and pray that if it can speak to someone, it will. Not just centered around “salvation” but in a broader sense, Hope, Love, and how it feels to be human in a harsh world. God is in everything I write because of my worldview, but not because I put Him there. He is the one who guides my vision, so I have faith His will will be done in the process as well as the product of my work.

MIKE: So do you consider your writing career a “spiritual calling” or “ministry”?

RACHEL: I do, in a sense, but more as a window into the lives of young people. As a YA writer, I write to my younger teen self, and know there’s plenty of hunger out there, and that God will use my work to allow me to one day speak into their lives, maybe even personally. I’ve already had the opportunity to speak at schools and work one on one as a mentor to young people. This, I think, is where God’s hand becomes obvious, because these are young people I never would have had the chance to reach out to before now.

MIKE: A common complaint from many Christian writers is that their story is “too worldly” for the Christian market and “too Christian” for the general market. What advice would you give to an author who feels stuck in such a place?

Darkness-BrutalRACHEL: I would suggest that they reevaluate their goals as well as their story. I was in that place for a time, and discovered I needed to make a choice in my work. Which path did I feel led to? The greater market, or was I meant to speak to The Church? I figured out quickly that I had no desire to preach to the Church, so instead I chose the market that would allow me to reach the unreached. That meant being coy, and not allowing my Christian Pride to make me feel I needed to put certain things in my work to make them “authentically” Christian.

God led me to the scripture (Matt. 10:16) “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

And in that I felt I needed to write a story, rather than a sermon. Jesus was a storyteller and he never made his point directly in those stories. He was attempting to create an avenue of thought, and open hearts and minds, rather than hitting people over the head with his Truth (though, when the time came, he never shied away from speaking it to the Religious leaders of the day).

I spend a lot of time praying and asking for wisdom. I know that some (perhaps many) things in my stories will likely offend the average Evangelical. But I’m not concerned with them. I’m concerned with that lost soul out there needing Hope, and I pray for him or her and pray my words reach them with God’s Grace and hit that nerve, to open their heart for the next seed that God wants to plant in their spirit.

MIKE: What advice would you give to a Christian novelist who is seeking to change from writing for the Christian market to the general market?

RACHEL: I would advise them to read widely and learn their audience, not assuming that writing for one market just means taking God out in any obvious way. The caliber and styles of writing is vast, as well as the genres. Know that world and be in it. Don’t be afraid to mingle with those who you would normally vehemently disagree with. And don’t allow yourself to be combative, if you want to take part in their world. You must rise above, in both kindness and openness, so that you don’t allow room for the Enemy to dig his claws in and stop you from your mission (if that’s what it truly is). You’re like spies in the Land already claimed. If you wish to find ground for Christ, you need to keep your pride and your need to have truth be heard, out of it. Both politically and religiously. “Even a foolish man appears wise when he is silent.” (Proverbs 17:28)

Know scripture and keep your relationship with God grounded and strong. But know that’s it’s not you, but The Spirit who is important. He will lead readers to Truth. IT’S NOT YOUR JOB TO SAVE ANYONE. It’s your job to be available and to be a vessel. That means you must leave all pride and expectation behind. Live in The Spirit and allow yourself to be flexible, as Paul was able to see beyond The Law and reach those who wished for that Love he offered through Christ. You’re not being seeker-friendly, you’re being a realist. You’re realizing that the world is lost and it won’t be you hitting them over the head with Truth that saves them. If anything that will cast them away, because truly, it’s only your religious pride that is making you feel the need to be so vehement.

Among ourselves (as Christians) we should always be ready to go back and forth and dig deep into the truth. But in the world, we must realize, we battle a very cunning enemy. And waving flags and singing anthems is a very good strategy for failure.

* * *

This interview is part of a series of interviews I’ve conducted with Christian authors about writing for the general market. It’s part of my preparation for the workshop, The Crossover Christian Novelist, which I will be leading at this year’s Realm Makers conference. Thanks, Rachel, for the great advice. Godspeed to you and all your writing endeavors.

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Last week, literary agent Chip MacGregor caused a bit of commotion in Christian fictionland by frankly commiserating the state of the industry. MacGregor wrote:

“CBA [Christian Booksellers Association] fiction is in a world of hurt. When I started my literary agency nine years ago, Christian fiction was the fastest-growing segment in all of CBA-LogoMDpublishing, and continued to be a growth category for a couple more years. But, as I’ve said so often, publishing is a ‘tidal’ business — the tide comes in, the tide goes out. Seven, eight, nine years ago, it was in. Then the tide started to recede, and now it’s out. Way, way out.

Several CBA publishing houses that used to do fiction don’t do it any more. (Today [July 8, 2015], Abingdon announced they’re killing their fiction program, for example.) Several others have cut back their lists. There are fewer slots for authors, and shopping for inspirational fiction has become harder. Barnes & Noble sort of sticks all religious fiction off into one corner, so if you don’t walk in specifically hoping to find that section, you’re not going to stumble onto it. Books-a-Million does a better job, but they’re not a huge chain. The potential demise of Family Christian Stores is a looming disaster — it leaves Lifeway Stores as the biggest chain, and the fiction decisions at Lifeway have been a huge disappointment to many of us in the industry (meaning the company only wants VERY safe Christian romances where nothing truly bad happens, sex doesn’t exist, everyone talks like they’re living in Andy Griffith Land, and in the end the characters will fall to their knees and accept Christ so that All Life Problems Will Be Resolved). Sales numbers have fallen, so that the novelist who used to routinely sell 18,000 copies is now selling 9000, or sometimes 4000. With that decline has come a drop in advance and royalties, so that far fewer CBA novelists are earning a living than just a few years ago.”

As an author, someone who has written for and has friends in the CBA, it is refreshing to hear industry insiders speak honestly about the state of business. Especially important, in my opinion, was MacGregor’s admission that with Lifeway remaining “the biggest chain” of brick and mortar distributors, and the store’s commitment to “VERY safe Christian romances,” CBA fiction is guaranteed to continue to struggle.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the post prompted a swift response from CBA defenders. In her post, What’s Really Going On With Christian Fiction: A Response to the Chatter, Lifeway book buyer Rachel McCrae doubles down on the “Lifeway brand.”

As the book buyer, I have the responsibility to make sure the titles we carry at LifeWay fit within our beliefs as Christians as well as within our company’s parameters of what we do and do not carry. LifeWay is owned by the Southern Baptist Convention and because of that, there will be times that we choose not to carry an author or a particular book. For instance, with nonfiction books, there are authors who have different theological views than we do at LifeWay so we choose not to carry their titles. If we decide to not stock a fiction title, it has historically been because of vulgar language, using the Lord’s name in vain, or explicit descriptions of sex, abuse, or violence. [emphasis mine]

So on one hand you have a literary agent lamenting the types of books that Christian booksellers sell (and even connecting the preponderance of such fiction as stunting long-term growth), while you have an influential bookseller defending their choices to carry such books.

This, my friends, is the growing divide between Christian fiction’s Old Guard and the New Guard.

It may also show where the power really lies. Most notably, see MacGregor’s update to his original post:

UPDATE: I’ve had several people take me to task for being hard on Lifeway. Just so I’m clear, my criticism is of the larger Lifeway chain and its decisions, not of one particular buyer. I’ve found the chain has been very reluctant to take in much realistic fiction — but several have told me it would be unfair to blame the buyer. I’m sorry if I hurt feelings.

Obviously, MacGregor’s in a tough spot, needing to both represent authors who need Lifeway, while representing authors who are, basically, hurt by Lifeway’s “[reluctance] to take in much realistic fiction.”

Let’s be clear: What’s at issue here is a specific view of “Christian art” — a belief that our “Christian” obligation is to create and support the proliferation of “safe,” sanitized fiction; stories that are free from “vulgar language, using the Lord’s name in vain, or explicit descriptions of sex, abuse, or violence,” as opposed to stories written by believers that are “realistic fiction.”

This is the dividing line between the Old Guard and the New Guard.

I attended a workshop at the 2012 Dallas ACFW [American Christian Fiction Writers] with Allen Arnold, former fiction acquisitions editor for Thomas Nelson. Really, it was just one long Q&A session, so the conversation went everywhere. I’d estimate maybe fifty-plus attendees. Being it was an open forum and Mr. Arnold has commented on this blog, I took the opportunity to ask about the ever thorny language guidelines and what I perceived as a need for more realism in Christian fiction. It led to a much longer discussion with other attendees chiming in, mostly in agreement. Until one gentleman, visibly shaken, made an impassioned plea that we should not be apologizing for clean, inspirational Christian fiction. We are writing some of the best books on the planet, he said, and we have the message the world needs to hear. It was a clear counter to the point I’d raised and, unlike my question, received a polite round of applause. It was a stark reminder of the very real polarization among Christians regarding what Christian fiction should be.

I have long maintained that the most overlooked demographic of Christian readers are those who don’t like contemporary Christian fiction. Sadly, with responses like the ones above, I’m pretty sure those readers will continue to be overlooked.

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Kim’s Faith

by Mike Duran · 8 comments

KimFaith is not a delicate thing like a porcelain figurine or a dandelion. Though it starts small and gestates unseen, it often does so in harsh, inhospitable conditions, where the terrain forces it to take root in something deep and hidden. Faith does not own a summer dress and rarely lets its hair down. Its wardrobe consists of aprons, gardening gloves, and overalls; earth and grime collect under its nails. You could say that faith is blue collar. It has scabs and skinned knuckles. Faith is often missing a digit or two. But the remaining stubs are in nowise useless. Faith can be agile, when necessary. Though sometime it plods. Yet for the most part its contortions are not for show, but simply evidences of survival. Faith is forged in the furnace and on the anvil, rarely in the classroom or the pew.

“It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ,” said Dostoyevski. “My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.”

I feel like this sometimes. “My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.” Doubt in myself. Doubt in my senses and my objectivity. Doubt in those who claim to know the way. Doubt, sometimes, in my understanding of God’s Word. Yet, like the Russian novelist, I still praise.

Hosanna!

Which is why I cringe when faith is portrayed as blind, or as soft and simple-minded.

Kim’s faith was not like that. Not at all.

I baptized her privately, in a Doughboy pool in someone’s back yard, one smoggy Southern California summer. Kim hated to be the center of attention, which is why she opted out of our annual all-church pot-lock and baptism in favor of less hooplah. Besides, her mother would not approve of her being baptized by a Protestant minister.

Kim’s twin sister, Karen had attended the small church I pastored and extended an invitation. Kim came by herself at first, as she was in the process of separating from a physically abusive husband. Eventually, she brought her boyfriend. They were somewhat standoffish, but friendly. It was obvious that they were not “church people.” Unlike many of our church members, Christian culture was new and awkward for them. Still, Kim listened intently during my sermons, and by all counts was on board with this Jesus stuff. Nevertheless, she smiled and remained at arms length. So it was with equal degrees of surprise and celebration that, when she asked to be baptized, I concurred.

Later on, ovarian cancer would bring Kim the kind of attention she hated. Chemotherapy was immediately begun, as the disease was already breaching other systems.

What is the appropriate response to someone who is diagnosed with such cancer? Do you shake your head, confirm how tragic and scary this must be? Do you hug them, promise to pray, and then go home and try to forget about what chemotherapy and cancer does to the human body? Do you offer medical or dietary advice? Do you recall stories about the friend of a friend who was given six months to live and defied all odds?

I may have over-stepped my bounds when I heard the news about Kim. My wife and I visited their home and after some chit-chat, I managed to speak to Kim alone in the kitchen. I was not known for pulling punches, and didn’t then. “Kim,” I said, “if the Lord chooses to take your life with this cancer, are you confident about where you will go?”

Some may see this as cruel. Perhaps judgmental and presumptive. Who was I to barge into her suffering with these rude, thorny questions?

Kim hesitated, and finally admitted no, she wasn’t sure.

It led to a great series of discussions between us about saving faith. We talked about the reliability of Scripture, about how we can trust the transmission of the documents and the witness of its writers; we talked about evidences for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; we talked about salvation by grace, rather than works. And we talked about Kim’s profession of faith, which I had witnessed. Along with heaven.

Kim’s battle with cancer lasted a few years. Her faith did not bring healing or counteract the savage effects of the chemo. She lost her hair and wore a wig to church. I caught her in the foyer one day, hurrying out because she was crying. The cancer went into a short period of remission before returning again. She declined further treatment.

One day, after church, my wife and I went to Kim’s house. I brought my guitar and sat in their living room and we sang praise songs. Just like we had at church in those early days of her faith. Afterwards, I took Kim in my arms and started bawling. Uncontrollably. Huge, snotty sobs. It was quite awkward.

I was crying as much for me as I was her.

I think my faith lost a digit right there. At least, it’s left a scar.

They made a place for Kim downstairs where she basically withered away. She stopped eating, became skeletal, and was often incoherent. During times of lucidity she would admit that she was at peace. She’d found her way home. Even if it took cancer to help her arrive.

In a way, Kim’s death was a relief. She had fought the good fight. She was no longer suffering. I officiated her funeral, managing not to bawl again. I talked about the day I baptized Kim, about how Love is stronger than death and how Jesus rose to prove it, how Kim expressed faith in that Christ and his promises. And how she died holding fast to heaven.

Faith is enigmatic that way. It dies waiting, looking, hoping. Unfulfilled. It dies on the anvil. It dies in its boots.

Kim is one of the many pilgrims I’ve encountered along the way. All looking for a way home. They were walking paradoxes who’ve believed bigger than their experiences, professed what they never could attain, clung resolutely to promises yet unfulfilled. Saints and sinners. Living and dying. People who’ve hoped beyond hope.

Kim’s faith was the faith of the furnace. No amount of doubts and darkness could silence her hosanna.

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Writing for the “Country Club”

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I’m currently reading a book by a popular NY Times best-selling author and am not surprised to find numerous violations of “the writing rules” — head-hopping, passives, and lots of telling rather than showing. This doesn’t distract me like it used to. My first few years as a writer were spent being “indoctrinated” about the […]

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On Baptizing Space Aliens

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When asking Which Religions Would Have the Hardest Time Accepting Alien Life, it’s always Evangelicals who hedge at ETs. Of course, Catholics have their share of extraterrestrial problems too. Believing that a Mind and Morals are behind the cosmos, rather than little green men (or tall silver anemones), will inevitably ruffle some secular feathers. This […]

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Is “Playing it Safe” Killing Christian Fiction?

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This morning, I read with interest an article entitled Who killed the contemporary Christian music industry? over at The Week. I’m usually pretty skeptical of such pieces. The Christian music biz is an easy target for haters of the evangelical brand. Which often guarantees that articles like the one above will be little more than hit pieces. […]

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The Crossover Christian Novelist Q & A

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This Summer, I’ll be teaching a workshop at Realm Makers entitled The Crossover Christian Novelist (you can find their Session Descriptions HERE). As part of my preparation, I asked a number of “crossover” Christian novelists several questions about writing for a general audience rather than a Christian audience. I’ll be sharing many of their responses […]

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“Showing” vs. “Telling” — Should Christian Novelists Not SHOW Evil?

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I’ve encountered many Christians who argue that certain depictions of evil, violence, sex, or the occult should not be fleshed out in fiction. So while writers are commonly taught to “SHOW not TELL,” Christian writers are sometimes taught to “TELL not SHOW.” This advice is based on a uniquely Fundamentalist view of culture, one that […]

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If You’re Not Offending Someone, You’re Not Preaching the Gospel

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It’s been said, “The problem with Christians nowadays is that nobody wants to stone them anymore.” There’s much truth to that. I engaged in an online discussion this weekend about the Church’s treatment of outsiders, namely those in the LGBT community. There’s an assumption in such conversations that if the Gospel was REALLY preached and […]

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Why the Closing of The Museum of Biblical Art Should Concern Christian Artists

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The Museum of Biblical Art recently announced that it would be closing. MoBA’s mission was to examine Western art through the lens of the Bible and its influence in Christian and Jewish tradition. Many have noted the cultural significance of the museum’s closing, as well as what it may signal for Christianity and the arts […]

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